Saturday, April 30, 2016

Affordable College Going, Going...

The University of Pennsylvania, working with Vanderbilt and the Higher Education Policy Center, has just released the 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis for the US, and the doctor thinks we'd all better sit down before she gives us the news.

Losing Ground

Joni E. Finney, Practice Professor at Penn, says the picture is just not pretty. Here are some bullet points to shoot straight through your heart.

* College is less affordable than it was in 2008, even in the best-performing states.

* Most full-time students cannot work their way through college any more.

* Low- and middle-income families face significant obstacles to attending college, including the need to climb the highest peaks of Mount Debt.

If we look at states that have a "high concentration" of families making less than $30K, the picture is just ugly. In Louisiana, a public two-year school would take 46.9% of a family's annual income (that is after they have received state and federal financial aid). If we look at a public four-year non-doctoral school, the worst state is South Carolina, where school for an under $30K family will cost a whopping 73.3% of their annual income. Alabama and Mississippi follow close behind with above-70% numbers. And that is, again, after aid has been factored in.

We can crunch numbers other ways to get different, and yet still ugly, pictures. For instance, instead of looking at states arranged by low income, let's look at states with high college attendance. If we rank states that have at least 40% of students enrolled in public two-year schools, we find the bottom of the barrel is Minnesota, where the bottom income quartile will spend 61.5% of their annual income to pay for school. For families making between $75K and $110K, the percentage ranges from 17% down to 8.7%. In other words, for wealthy families, two year school is barely a blip in the family finances, while for poor families, school costs eat everything.

Public four year schools? Same thing. Among states with at least 25% four year college enrollment, New Jersey is the worst, with 76.3% of annual income required of the folks at the bottom. The best of the lot is Alaska, with a still-significant 38%.

Is there more? Is it bad? Yes, and yes. We've so far talked only about public schools. If we shift the attention to private schools, it's-- Wait! What? Damn!

If we're talking private four-year non-doctoral school, we have seven states in which school costs for the under $30K families amounts to over 100% of their annual income.

And the Rest of Their Lives...?

The researchers also looked at other expenses in peoples' lives. So, for instance, we can say that for the under $30K crowd, housing uses about 59% of annual income. And for those of you who want to be all scoldy, we can also note that those folks spend 1% of income on alcohol.

Bottom Line

If college is supposed to be the gateway to social mobility, well, it's at the very least pretty rusty and at the very worst, rusted solid and padlocked as well. The report makes it clear that for middle and lower income folks, college for the kids will mean borrowing money out the wazoo. Getting a job and working your way through college is not a reasonable plan any more.

You may or may not be a fan of the Bernie Sanders Free Community* College For All plan, but somehow, we have to address the inaccessibility of college to a large chunk of the population. It's doubly necessary because our whole plan for Lifting Them Out Of Poverty is that we'll get them all college and career ready through K-12 and then they'll go to college and get really good jobs and-- voila!-- no more poverty. There are many problems with that plan, but this is the most obvious. Our plan right now is to get every kid a nice pair of running shoes so that they can run in a race that has a thousand dollar entrance fee-- but they've only got fifty bucks to their name. This is a dumb plan, a thoughtless plan, a plan that is self-evidently doomed to failure.

Time for a new plan.

*I originally understated Sanders' ambition here.

MA: How To Gut Schools, Boston Edition

QUEST is an organization that has dogged Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and his reformy friends for quite a while, and they have recently shaken loose, after long attempts via FOIA, the McKinsey BPS Operational Review Steering Committee Working Draft (turns out that when the government buys something with taxpayer dollars, even stamping "Private and Confidential" on it doesn't necessarily keep it under wraps). While a version of this plan was released in December of 2015, the original document is considerably more detailed.

So now, over a full year later, we can see what McKinsey thought the Bostonian Powers That Be should be doing with their school district. McKinsey is one of the biggest management consulting firms in the world, and long intertwined with the education reform movement; Sir Michael Barber was a partner there before he went to run Pearson, and David Coleman worked as a consultant at McKinsey before he spearheaded the Common Core. McKinsey has also plucked some employees from the world of Eli Broad-- a McKinsey manager was in the first class of the Broad Academy. McKinsey actually pre-dated Broad in the practice of embedding their own people in the Los Angeles school district.

Boston itself has been solidly in reformster cross-hairs, with everyone from MA Secretary of Education Jim Peyser to the Center for Reinventing Public Education floating a plan for "remaking" the Boston schools in a new, charterier image.

So what did the super-secret consulting plan have to say?

The plan notes that it is a draft, not a final, exact product. The items are not necessarily for factual true. This is just for starting discussions. My friends and colleagues in Boston will remember all the open, transparent conversations that Mayor Walsh has held about the future of BPS. The plan is over 200 pages long, and I have no intention of dragging us through the whole thing. But just by glancing at the executive summary, I think we can get the gist of their drift.

The overview lists some of the "opportunities" that exist in BPS. They include

Right Sizing the BPS Footprint

If there is ever a doubt that these guys are corporate money guys and not educators, their language choices make it clear. The plan suggests that BPS can right-size by "consolidating" 30-50 schools.

It is so worth noting that this report is dated March of 2015, which would roughly nine months before Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was whining about all the dirty liars accusing him of wanting to close 36 Boston schools-- exactly what the McKinsey plan calls for.

Yay, Inclusion!!

Special education is really expensive (they figure about 11-18% of total BPS budget, depending on how we figure). Also, though they don't quite say it directly, McKinsey appears to believe that there are too many students with special needs and that probably a whole bunch of them aren't special at all. McKinsey sees an opportunity to just stop doing special ed. Inclusion for everybody. Phase in inclusion, mainstream all those students with special needs, outsource some paraprofessional supports, and just generally get rid of the whole expensive business.

Make the Little Buggers Walk

Whenever I encounter a McKinsey report, I'm always impressed at the thoroughness. McKinsey sees an "opportunity" to raise bus stop distances from 0.16 miles to 0.25 miles. They predict a savings of $6 to $19 million per year. Also, students with stronger legs and a hike in regional shoe sales.

Let Them Eat Something Else

"Target meal participation to improve revenues" is the opportunity here. So, more lunch advertising? Force students into the lunch line? Publicly shame brown baggers?

Also, centralize food preparation, which in my experience means cook all the food in one place and then send it out by van to various schools, so that each student has the chance to eat a sort of warmish meal. I'm not sure how this helps you target meal participation.


Subcontract maintenance and night work to an outsourcey company.


This encompasses several "opportunities," and as always, "reorganize" actually means "whack away with a machete." McKinsey sees a chance to cut central office staff, and of course closing all those school buildings will also allow lots of reorganizing.

Trivia and Other Departments

As I said, we're not diving into all 200-and-some pages today, though there are interesting pieces of trivia (21% of BPS teachers have no evaluation on file??!!) as well as data that likely to prove to be counterfactual, like the continued assertion of 93,000 available seats in Boston. The report is certainly worth digesting, but I'm drawn to something at the very beginning.

An Important Gutting Principle

Ultimately, improved student outcomes is the goal of any effort to reduce cost and inefficiency and reallocate those funds where they can do more for students.

Were I inclined to see shifty plans behind these sorts of maneuvers and business plans, I might see this as a pretty clear statement of the ju-jitsu behind a public school system takeover, particularly in a place like Massachusetts where some folks are agitating so very hard for increased charter school numbers.

First, start with a premise that many of us have asserted over and over again in the face of people who argue that we can offer charters and choice for, basically, no extra cost:

Premise: You cannot effectively run two, three, four, or more schools for the same money you spent on one.

Step One: Open a bunch of charter schools.

Step Two: Watch as many schools collapse and fail because they lack sufficient resources to do the job.

Step Three: Declare loudly, "Why, this is terribly inefficient, and some of these schools are doing a lousy job. Let's reduce cost and inefficiency, and let's reallocate those funds to where they will do the most good."

Step Four: Close the "bad" schools. You may have to sacrifice a few charters, but mostly the public schools will be the failing ones. Close them in the name of educational efficiency. (Note: you can build some charter cushion here by rounding up investors and contributors for your charters to tide them over until their public competition is shut down and they can have the market to themselves).

I'm not saying that this plan is for factual true. But we can certainly use it for discussion purposes. Good luck, Boston.

Friday, April 29, 2016

NC: More Charter Shenanigans

North Carolina's Attorney General Roy Cooper has decide to try to recover money lost to a failed and possibly fraudulent charter school.

The lawsuit has been filed against the managers of the long-troubled Kinston Charter Academy. In August of 2013, Kinston collected $666,000 from the state. That sum was based on a projected enrollment of 366 students, and was supposed to keep the school flush through October. The school only had 189 students (K-8). And it closed its doors for good at the beginning of September, leaving the state out two-thirds of a million dollars AND having to fund the education for those students-- again.

The failure was spectacular enough that it was the subject of a state audit in 2015. That audit turned up a variety of problems, though many had been long known. The charter opened up in 2004 and was immediately in financial trouble, almost closing up shop in 2007. CEO and principal Ozie Hall and his wife/dean of students/chairman of the board of directors Demyra McDonald-Hall were also found to be hiring unqualified relatives for various posts.

By the spring of 2013, the school had stopped paying some of its staff's benefits and retirement, but Hall told the state that the school would soon be refinancing its mortgage and that would make it flush again. Apparently, not so much. Some payroll obligations weren't met in the fall upon opening, and on Friday, September 6, the school closed its doors for good, leaving many parents stuck.

While that may have surprised the parents, it was not such a surprise to the state. Kinston had been on the "citations for financial deficiencies" list every year starting in 2008. If the state knew that the school was a financial mess, why did it keep giving Kinston money? WFAE education reporter Lisa Miller had the short answer for that:

The bottom line is they didn’t have a choice.  As long as the school is open, the state has to give them that money. 

Hall attempted to fight back, and you can find a series of videos on Youtube in which he alleges that the Self Help Credit Union is part of a criminal conspiracy to take the school building, and the state held up money that the charter was entitled to. He has many theories, though none seem to explain how he came to claim twice as many students (and therefor twice as much money) as he actually had. He has also responded to the lawsuit:

“The allegations in the complaint filed by the Attorney General and Gubernatorial candidate Cooper are frivolous, motivated by political ambition, and made in retaliation for my civil rights work in making complaints of discrimination against the state,” Hall wrote. “The lawsuit will be defended vigorously.”

Hall has been a busy man. This link finds him as Reverend Ozie/Ozzie Hall, Jr., President of the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children. His facebook page shows him graduating from De La Warr High School in 1976, and traveling to Japan as a member of the U.S. Delegation for the U.S.-Japan Police Community. He marks his graduation from Central Michigan University in 2003, and the getting his graduate degree from CMU in education in 2010, then started at Mount Olive College for Business Administration in 2011.

But Kinston is not Hall's first venture. Back in 1987, the New York Times was profiling Hall as a founder of the Juvenile Awareness Education Program, a program aimed at getting young people off the path to jail. Hall landed a $480,000 grant from the Department of Labor and Health, in part inspired by his own story-- first arrested at age 13, he went to prison in 1977 for armed robbery. In prison he studied, became "something of a jailhouse lawyer," and upon release in 1980, joined a community action agency in Wilmington, Delaware, leading to his founding of the JAEP in 1982. That program was given some modest credit for helping keep the streets of Wilmington a little less violent. In 2010, he was a commencement speaker for a NC Department of Corrections Commencement ceremony.

Nor has the fate of Kinston slowed him down-- Hall was almost immediately connected to another charter operation.

All along the way, Hall has been vocal in his criticism of racism, and was considered, at least by folks on the other side of the table, an advocate for reparations.

So what the heck is going on here. Is Hall a con artist who thought a charter school scam would be a good way to score some money? Is he a black activist whose attempt to do good work was ultimately brought down by a racist government that could pull some strings just to kill his school and take the building? Or is he a guy who meant well but was such a financial and educational amateur that he simply was in too far over his head to ever succeed?

His reported nepotism and bad math certainly suggest an answer to those questions, but given what I can find on line, I don't really know, and neither do you, and most especially neither does the state of North Carolina, whose charter oversight is so sloppy, loose and largely useless that they can't really tell the difference between a crooked charlatan, an unqualified incompetent, and a helpless victim of other peoples' malfeasance.

The only positive outcome of this mess is that a democrat and a republican in North Carolina were able to agree that their charter oversight rules are crappy and useless and therefor a menace to taxpayer dollars. When your regulations can't tell you anything except that something is wrong (and has been wrong for five years) and that you have no power to either stop it or explain it, then your regulations are beyond bad. A charter system this sloppy and just plain bad serves nobody-- not even the people who like charters.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Teacher Pay Decay

WRAL in North Carolina has created a documentary looking at the state of pay in the state of North Carolina. It's not great. Once you correct for inflation, North Carolina teacher pay since 1999 has dropped 13%. But even if you aren't that interested in North Carolina, stick around-- there's news here for everyone.

Not a huge surprise. North Carolina, since its great conversion from a progressive state to a aggressively regressive GOP stronghold, has worked hard to make teaching unsustainable as a career, as well as chopping the daylights out of teacher pay, to the point that even when they're trying to look like they're increasing pay, they're still shafting a whole lot of teachers (in particular, the life-long career folks). As WRAL reports, back in 2001-2002, NC ranked 19th in nation; today, they rank 47th.

And if you like anecdotes with your data-- two weeks back I was in Raleigh for the NPE convention. While there, I was contacted by a former student who now lives there. My wife and I joined my former student, her husband, and two other couples at supper. Of six grown young adult professionals, three were former North Carolina teachers. They all seemed like nice folks-- but they had had enough.

The WRAL story is of interest to everyone because in the process of whipping up an interactive graphic based on National Center for Education Statistics, they came up with a map that shows how every state has fared over the past decade-and-a-half.

I recommend that you look for yourself, but here are some highlights.

Teacher pay nationally has, adjusted for inflation, dropped 1.8%

Nine states have seen teacher pay drop from 6.5% to as much as 13.7%.

That "top" 13.7% drop belongs to Indiana. Congratulations, hoosiers.

The biggest growth was 21% in Wyoming.

A total of twenty-four states have seen average teacher salary drop since 1999.

Every "dropping" state is touching at least one other-- except Texas. It's proudly isolated in its teacher pay cutting. Maryland and Kentucky are growth states completely surrounded by drop states. Connecticut would be completely isolated as the only drop state in New England except for that tiny little spot where it kind of touches Delaware.

Granted, these are state average figures which allow a huge amount of variation from place to place. But still, in general, teachers in almost half of the nation would be better off partying like it's 1999.

It was kind of a jolt to see these figures. Teacher pay has not been the kind of broad issue in education it was back when I started teaching; generally it's brought up by fans of merit pay, performance pay, and other plans focused on paying a few teachers more and most all other teachers less, or by teachers who work (or used to work) in the bottom tier of teacher pay states. Clearly, in some states, inflation has hidden the steady march backwards. But go look at the map-- while we've been talking about Common Core and testing, teacher pay has been eroding in many states. Add that to your list of why teacher program enrollments are down in colleges across the country.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

TN: Test Failure Complete

For the Big Standardized Test in Tennessee, once a reformster's paradise, it has been a rough year. And it just got worse.

The TNReady was supposed to be an on-line computerized test. That failed. So the test was going to be shifted to paper and pencil old school BS Test. That also failed-- Measurement, Inc. delivered incomplete tests, missing materials and just plain failed. Would there be a delay? A moratorium? A hold harmless?

All that, and a big fat firing as well.]

Word came today that the state has fired Meassurement, Inc.

“Measurement Inc.’s performance is deeply disappointing," Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. "We will not ask districts to continue waiting on a vendor that has repeatedly failed us.”

The test is now optional. Take it, or decide that you've already wasted too much of your school year on this foolishness.

Gov Haslam tossed in a "Yeah, this sucks, but at least we still have super-awesome standards."

But at least, finally, accountability for one of the test manufacturers trying to get rich from education reform. Meanwhile, so sorry, teachers and students of Tennessee, for all the time and effort wasted this year. And good luck to Tennessee's education bosses on selling testing next year. Now let's see what the feds have to say about a state that flat-out fails to make its 95% testing quota.

TN: Discrimination Just Getting More Bizarre

So Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee today signed a law that allows mental health counselors to refuse patients based on the therapist's religion or personal beliefs.

That means that a Christian counselor could refuse to see a Muslim, or an atheist, or a pastafarian. That means a Southern Baptist could refuse to see a Catholic. That means an anti-abortion person could refuse to treat a woman who's had an abortion. A staunch conservative could refuse to treat someone struggling with infidelity in their marriage. A racist can refuse to see anyone who's not white. That means a counselor could turn away a woman who's wearing too short a skirt, or holds down a job outside the home, or who uses birth control. That means a republican therapist could refuse to treat a democrat, or vice versa-- and both could refuse to treat a socialist. And of course, anybody can refuse to see an LGBT patient.

I am imagining someone who's hit a rough patch trying to find a counselor, looking through the yellow pages for a Jewish vegan feminist republican counselor who believes in attachment parenting. Presumably some folks, like the Green Party gay pro-gun Wiccan, would just have to drive to some other state.

Granted, when you're going in for counseling, you don't really want a counselor who's unsympathetic to your point of view. But shouldn't that be your choice?

One wonders how far Tennessee is willing to go. Will doctors someday get to treat only the sick and injured people they approve of? Will teachers be able to turn students away from their classroom for their faith, heritage or well, anything? Will it some day be legal to refuse any kind of service to someone just because he's the governor of a backwards state like Tennessee?

Where Reading Improvement Comes From

Recently on multiple platforms, Robert Pondiscio talked about reading on his way to standing up for Secretary of Education John King. We disagree about his praise of King for making all the correct word noises, but he's made a point worth repeating about the improvement of reading.

Every teacher of low-income children and English language learners has had this moment: You’re sitting with a student, working line by line through a text, grappling with what should be fairly simple comprehension questions.

“Did you read it?” you ask. “I read it,” the child replies. “But I didn’t get it.”

This is what reading failure often looks like in a struggling school. A child can read the words on a page in front of him, but he can’t always make sense of them.

I would tweak this a bit-- you don't have to teach low-income and ELL students to have this moment. But the rest is absolutely familiar, and I think the insight he applies is also valid.

Pondiscio argues that the traditional response-- more reading instruction, harder-- is not useful. And under the Big Fat Standards movement, we have pushed in exactly the wrong direction. Common Core and its mutant siblings all emphasize reading as a set of discrete skills, somehow existing in a vacuum separate from any content. This is rubbish. Reading never happens in a vacuum, and the reader's relationship with the material, which in turn is based on reader interest and reader knowledge, is always critical. Or as Pondiscio puts it

Children’s ability to understand what they read is intimately intertwined with their background knowledge and vocabulary. If a child is not broadly educated, he won’t be fully literate.

When a student doesn't know the words or the context or the background of what she's reading, reading is hard. If you give someone who has never heard of Harry Potter ten pages from the end of the last book to read, all the reading skill drills in the world will not help that person make sense of what's on the page.

Pondiscio is a member of the E. D. Hirsch fan club, and I half agree with him-- in order to read well, you have to Know Stuff. Hirsch just happens to have a particular view of what stuff everyone needs to know, and that Master List of Stuff is highly debatable, regardless of whose list we're looking at.
When we talk about standardized tests being biased, this is what we're talking about-- what stuff the test-taker already needs to know in order for the test to make sense.

Here's a classic example from the Archive of Terrible SAT Analogies:

A) envoy: embassy
B) martyr: massacre
C) oarsman: regatta
D) referee: tournament
E) horse: stable

Embed this batch of vocabulary in a reading selection; we don't have a reading problem, or even a vocabulary problem. We have a "what's your community culture of origin" problem, aka a "what have you actually experienced in life" problem.

Particularly at my level (high school), the solution to supposed reading comprehension problems is rarely context clue skills or decoding skills or the fabled "passage reading skills." The most useful skill at my level is discussion. We read a selection last week that led to a question about collective bargaining, and my students were largely stumped, and it was nothing as complicated as some set of reading skills or attack strategies. They has just never heard of collective bargaining before and had no idea what it was, and so I picked the approach of discussion, probing to see what experience and background knowledge they had that I could connect to the idea of collective bargaining (because the best way to explain something unknown is to connect it to something known) and they could ask clarifying questions of their own and, in this case, even argue a little bit about the issues related to the concept. None of that was reading instruction as we currently understand it, but nothing else would get me better results on the "reading comprehension" questions dealing with "collective bargaining."

The new round of calls for a more rounded education are correct for so many reason (even if some, like King, are undercutting their own words even as they speak), but at a bare minimum, even with the modern reform narrowed view of reading and math as the be-all and end-all, a well-rounded education matters because the more you know, the better you read. Common Core has been denying that for years. As Pondiscio puts it:

There’s a surface plausibility to the idea that nothing matters more than reading, but we’ve followed this well-intentioned idea off a cliff.

If we could stop perpetuating the failed concept of reading as a content-free skills, it would be a huge service to all our students.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


It has been a Very Medical couple of weeks. My father-in-law experienced a pair of strokes, and my father is currently doing the hospital shuffle as a quick-and-simple pacemaker lead replacement turns into a bit more complex. Oh, and somewhere in there my wife's aged grandmother doing a swan dive on a nature hike and lacerating her head and smooshing some vertebrae and walking herself out of the wilderness to go find help from some poor ranger who must have thought he was meeting some cast of the Walking Dead. She's in the hospital, too. And my colleague next door is trying to get his missing-day ducks in a row in anticipation of the arrival of his second child next week. Lot of medical.

What I keep noticing through all of these family adventures is the degree to which work rules our world. Yes, if there's a family emergency you should definitely get there to help. You should rush to your family's side.

Just make sure you have your employer's permission first.

We celebrate the human connections, push all the feels buttons to sell everything from mouthwash to Presidents, but still, always remember-- before you act on any of your human feelings, make sure you have your employer's permission first.

We love our national holidays, and in particular share traditional warm images of families gathered around dinner tables, sharing special gathering time. And yet, family holidays have become a mark of socio-economic class, because if you are still stuck in the minimum-wage economy, you probably don't have the whole day off for Memorial Day or Thanksgiving or Christmas. Your employer needs you, so that beats any of the rest of it.

I am not a fuzzy-headed anarchist. I believe in hard work, a good job, the value of exchanging your sweat, blood, skill and work for the money you need to make a life. I'm just old enough to remember the folks who said we should drop out and stick it to the man were often in no danger of actually running out of food, clothing or shelter. I totally get that an employer deserves to get what they pay for, and that it makes no sense nor serves any sense of justice for me to receive a full paycheck if I'm running home every other day to make sure my kitten's pillow is properly fluffed. I'm not saying that I should get a full day's wage even if I had to go home because I was feeling a little verklempt.

But it does say something about us as a culture and country that of the following statements, only one is automatically considered an excuse, an obligation that can only be broken with someone else's permission (unless you are highly enough placed to be a permission-giver).

       1) My family needs me right now.
       2) My aging mother just called.
       3) I have to go be with my spouse today.
       4) I have work.

And we're just talking crises and semi-crises here. I couldn't even seriously include "it's my birthday" or "it's our wedding anniversary" on the list. "I have a family thing" is open to negotiation, or a sign that you're Not Serious about your work. "I have work" is the stopper, the conversation-ender, the immovable non-negotiable reason for the choices you make.

We've let this Work Uber Alles philosophy infect school. School is these children's job, and so is homework, and any whining about how you couldn't get your homework done because of family stuff is just a sign that you are Not Serious about your education.

That's nothing new. What's new is the installation of College and Career Ready as the be-all and end-all of education. We have transferred the work imperative to school, replacing all other reasons for getting an education (good citizen, better human being, more fulfilled individual, fully realized self, etc) with just the one-- you need to do this so that you can work. You need to get ready to work. You need to have useful skills that make you an asset to work.

I know that I'm making an old point, an oft-made point. I also know that I'm not exactly the prime person to make it, because I've been a borderline workaholic my whole life. And I know this borders on cliche-- but when you're watching part of a family scramble around trying to take care of the rest of family-- well. You know. Is work important? Sure. Is it everything? No.

Have we constructed a society in which the rights of people who pay other people to do work have been given primacy over the rights of those workers to have an actual human life? I suspect we have. And I also suspect that the college-and-career-ready crowd is trying to extend that primacy, to say that the right of the people who might some day hire those students to do work-- those future bosses' rights have been given primacy over the rights of our children to have a full and rich education that serves their own needs. "It's on the test" is a bad enough reason to cover certain material in school, but it's even worse when that is just a smokescreen to hide "one of your future employers might want you to be able to do this."

Talking about the work-life balance has many implications. It implies that your work and your life should carry equal weight, that your work is at least as important as the rest of who you are and what you do. It implies that you should not get so wrapped up in having a life that you forget work. And most of all, it implies that life and work are two different things.

Work is eternal. It will always go on, and when you finally step away from the wheel, someone will step in to take your place. Your family is just for right now. Take care of each other. Just sayin'.

Monday, April 25, 2016

John King Is Concerned

If you're on the USED mailing list, this weekend you received a "Friend" e-mail from John King, the latest in a series best entitled Let's Keep Throwing PR Spaghetti At The Wall Until Something Sticks.

The theme, as with his Vegas speech a few weeks ago, is that gosh, we just have to get the focus back on a well-rounded education because somehow, some way, we've just gotten all twisted up with this testing stuff.

The most powerful thing about John King is his story, so he pulls that out again and seriously, there is nothing that anyone can mock about King's story. His mother died, and he was raised for a few years by a very sick father who then also died, and King was an orphan at age 12. He credits his teachers in general and one, Mr. Osterweil, in particular, for saving his life. And in this letter's retelling of the story, he also credits how involvement in and exposure to the arts also made a huge difference. That's a new feature; the moral of King's story is usually that great teachers and an orderly school can turn a student's life around. Now they also need exposure to the arts to open up the world.

The most intriguing thing about King's story has always been that he fails to draw any of the obvious lessons from it, like that fact that Alan Osterweil saved King's life without the benefit of Common Core Standards or a Big Standardized Test. King has never publicly considered whether the reforms he has championed would have helped or hindered Osterweil, or if Osterweil would have approved of the aggressive, excessive suspension policy at King's Roxbury charter.

But King plows on, with more thin-sliced baloney:

I hear frequently and passionately from educators and families who believe that the elements of a great well-rounded education are being neglected because of a too tight focus on reading and math.Well, yes. I'm sure you do. But do you have any idea how such a thing happened?

Sometimes, that's because of constraints on resources, time, and money. Often, teachers and administrators describe how No Child Left Behind and its intense focus on English and math performance left other subjects under-attended to or even ignored.
The mystery here is whether King is incredibly dense, or he thinks the rest of us are. First, the constraints of resources, time and money would not necessarily affect the arts except the federal government mandated that reading and math must be the focus of all education. And that didn't just happen under NCLB-- it continued and was intensified under the Obama-Duncan administration and Race to the Top along with Waiverpallooza, which required states to tie math and reading scores to teacher and school evaluations.

And King has to know that. Arne Duncan can claim ignorance from being safely esconced in the beltway bubble, but King was out there trying to sell this mess to the people of New York in meetings so contentious that King canceled them and had to be forced back out there to meet with people.

The narrowing of the America's curriculum did not just mysteriously happen. It was the direct and completely predictable result of the policies pursued by the last two administrations.

I’ve been clear, as has the President and my predecessor, Arne Duncan, that in many places in the country, testing has become excessive, redundant, and overemphasized.

We're committed at the Department of Education to changing that reality, but we need your help. We need to work together to make well-rounded education a priority for the benefit of our students.
Great. I look forward to the department calling for the end of Big Standardized Tests. I look forward to the department demanding that teacher and school evaluations no longer be linked in any way to such tests, so that no system of perverse incentives continues to twist education out of shape. If all that happens, I will even be willing to move forward and stop waiting for the day when USED wailing and moaning about too much testing and narrowing of curriculum is accompanied by a secretary saying, "We did that. We did that. It was our policies. Our ideas. This is totally our fault."

But none of that is going to happen.

Done well and thoughtfully, assessments provide vital information to educators and families, but this shouldn’t come at the cost of those subjects that spark passion and inspire the joy of learning.Y'all keep testing. Just, you know, do it more thoughtfully.

King goes on to say that a well-rounded education is now the thing, and that many non-wealthy non-white students are missing out on this swell stuff, and that's a huge bummer. Then we reach the money sentence (I know because it is in bold, underlined text).

We’ve got to see this as an urgent social justice challenge for the country. Help me share the message far and wide: we must work together to give every child the well-rounded education they deserve.

"Help me share" turns out to mean "click on this link and post a cool meme on Facebook."

That's what a well-rounded education is all about: that inextricable intersection between what our kids learn and who they become.

I think the inextricable intersection here is between denying responsibility for past policy screw-ups and attempting to co-opt movements that are already going on. I mean, does King think that the rest of us do not already know that a well-rounded education is important, or that such roundedness has been a casualty of the last fifteen years  worth of reformsterdom.

What audience is he imagining here? Who on the USED mailing list is smacking themselves in the forehead, saying, "Why, damn! That's right! A well-rounded education IS important! How have I not seen this??!!" We all already knew this. We've been trying to tell the USED this for years!

No, this is the fine political process of figuring out where the crowd is headed and trying to run out ahead of them so you can pretend you're the leader. And it's a weak attempt. King would get so much further by saying, "We've made a lot of mistakes. We meant well, but we screwed things up, and now we would like to sit down and listen to you. We know you've been trying to tell us for years what public education needs, and now we are ready to hear what you have to say." But of course, listening has never been King's strong suit.

The Lessons of Puerto RIco

If you are one of those folks who last watched John Oliver when he took on standardized testing and haven't really checked back since because his other topics didn't grab you, it's time to check in again. (Note: if you are the reader who is also my mom, I should warn you that some of the language is rather uncouth.)

The Puerto Rican debt crisis has been brewing for a while, and it may not matter that much to you (though it should, because these are fellow Americans who are getting cut off at the knees). But if most of your focus is on the education debates, here's what you need to know about the debt crisis in Puerto Rico.

1) A huge amount of the debt is now owned by hedge funds.

2) Hedge funders are putting their own bottom line ahead of everything, including education and health care.

Imagine. Your neighbor borrows some money from you, and after making some payments on it, says, "I've hit a rough patch, and if I pay you off, I won't be able to pay the rent or buy food for my family this month. Plus, a tree limb fell on my roof last week and if we can't work something out, my whole roof is going to cave in, which is going to be bad for me and for the whole neighborhood. Can we work out a new deal somehow?"

Do you say, "Don't care. Just pay me now." Well, if you're a hedge fund, you do.

You may try to hide that message behind some baloney-filled PR. You may try to spin it as a "way forward," as did the hedge funders who proposed a "Better Way" for Puerto Rico that included recommendations like raising property taxes, firing teachers, and cutting Medicaid. As long as they get their money.

It's vulture capitalism, the same hedge fund money-grabbing that drives much of the charter and school policy arguments raging here on the mainland. When these folks start talking about how to "fix" education, it's important to remember Puerto Rico, where they are showing clearly what they value most.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Stand With Troy

Chicago principal Troy LaRaviere has been relieved of his job as principal of Blaine Elementary because he won't shut up and stay in place.

I'm not writing about this because I think it's news; at this point, the news has spread far and wide. Lots of folks are writing about it, and I'm writing about it because everybody should be writing about it.

It's alarming because it is wrong in the specific, narrow focus. LaRaviere has repeatedly won the mayor's award for excellence and achievement. He has been a strong, articulate role model for his students and a leader for his community and school. His removal is a political power play, and it is not only an attack on the man's professional career, but an attack on the students and community that he has served.

This is a man who has repeatedly been shown to be at the top of his profession, and he has been sidelined for literally no good reason. CPS has refused to tell LaRaviere exactly what he's done wrong; they should do so now, today.

But beyond the specific injustice of LaRiviere's removal, there is the larger demonstration of one reason that the CEO model of school leadership is fatally flawed.

Reformsters love the CEO model, the idea that putting one high-powered visionary in charge of a system will Fix Everything. Across the country we've seen pushes for a CEO-driven system like the Achievement School District of Tennessee. Reformsters have expressed their love for mayoral control, so that just one person is in charge. Just what Chicago has and, some reformsters would say, just what Chicago needs. None of that messy board of elected directors stuff. In a perfect world, just put a hard-driving visionary in charge, give him some tools, remove obstructions like regulations and union contracts, and let him do his thing.

Except that this model does not pursue excellence in education. As LaRaviere's booting demonstrates, the hero CEO model most values loyalty and compliance.

All workers in the district, all teachers and administrators, lunch ladies and bus drivers-- every last one must be unswervingly loyal to the CEO and his vision.

And so LaRaviere, who has proven his excellence even on the mayor's own terms, must go because he won't be properly obedient and loyal to the CEO (and worse yet, might be acquiring the political heft to challenge Emanuel).

When you put a hero CEO in charge of a school system, you make politics and power-- not educational excellence-- the central focus of management. In fact, anyone who tries to stand up for educational excellence becomes a problem, a liability, a guy who has to be removed from his job because he won't properly kiss the boss's ring.

LaRaviere's benching is not merely an injustice and a wrong that should be righted immediately (if there is any justice and backbone in Chicago, he'll be elected head of the principals association anyway). It is a vivid and clear demonstration of why the Hero CEO model of school management should be rejected. The removal or elevation of employees based on loyalty rather than educational excellence is bad for the system, bad for schools, bad for students, and bad for the community (it's also proof, once again, of why tenure is necessary).

Speaking out about corruption in a system should be welcomed as an important part of keeping the system on track, whole and aimed at its best goals. Leaders within the system should not be slammed with mysterious charges, condemned for daring to challenge the Boss. This is no way to treat a great principal, and it's no way to run a school district.

Why Our Betters Like Charter Schools

You must read this post from Mercedes Schneider, if you have not already, showing the many connections between Education Post, the administration, and the usual gang of reformsters.

This is not news, exactly. We've seen it before. The Center for American Progress was founded by John Podesta after he left the Clinton White House and before he left CAP to run the current Clinton campaign (catch him in Connecticut, trying to distance the Clinton campaign form the same policies that CAP pushed). Go back and watch Food, Inc for just one layout of the revolving door between companies like Monsanto and the government agencies that set food policy. Go all the way back to Eisenhower and the military-industrial complex.

Oddly enough, this type of government, this way of running a group of organizations, is readily recognizable to anyone who lives in a small town. It's not about "How can we find the best person to handle this?" It's about "I know a guy."

Boy, I wish we could find somebody to get this policy pushed through. "Hey, I know a guy."

Man, if only we could get some groups started to build some support for this policy. "Hey, I know a guy."

We need somebody with the expertise and connections to run this operation. "Hey, I know a guy."

We really need to get somebody in that office who shares our vision. "Hey, I know a guy who's be perfect."

This is not meritocracy. This is betterocracy. This is operating a whole system of organizations through your personal connections with The Right Kind of People, and it doesn't matter whether the organization is a business or an advocacy group or a lobbying outfit or an agency of the US government. What matters is getting the Right Kind of People in there, people we know, people we already have connections to and who know how to get the right things done in the way that we agree with.

This is where the GOP and Democrats agree-- they may disagree about what exact policies should be followed, but they both agree that the way you get things done is by getting the Right People in the Right Positions. Letting people vote? Well, sometimes that's a tool you have to spend money to harness, but it's also great if you can work around it. Democracy has no value in and of itself. In fact, it can be downright dangerous because sometimes those crazy voters will go rogue and refuse to put the Right People in office.

And what is the charter school movement except an attempt to extend this same operating system to the education business. Isn't it simply our bettercrats looking at public education and saying, "Well, this is stupid. have to get elected? Have to get special qualifications? Have to negotiate with the help? Have to be plugged into the whole system that is NOT run by the Right People just so I can open a school? That's no good. When I want to open a school, I should just be able to call a guy I know. And if I'm looking to get some schools opened in my area, I should be able to just make some calls. And all of this should be under the management of the Right Kind of People."

The networking is the tip off. In sectors of a small town, there are only so many qualified and interested people, so everything in certain sectors is run by the same group of people. They move around between jobs (Right now, Chris, you can help most by running this non-profit, and we'll move Pat into the City Hall job. Maybe next year y'all will trade back), but it's always basically the same group of folks. In a small town nobody may kick because nobody else cares how things are run. Or someone may kick and you get a spectacular power struggle.

In the big time, the network idea still works, but now admission to the network is tougher because you have to have the right connections, prove you have the right stuff, be able to flash the right stack of money and show of power. And of course you can still run into spectacular problems, like when some demented narcissist or cranky old guy get in the way of the people whose turn it was to get the Big Job.

But the point doesn't change. The charter school movement is about the takeover of public education by the network of Betters, the people who would like to be able to operate schools without having to deal with government and elections and rules and unions. What are operations like the Broad Academy and Teach for America except a way to formalize the injection of Right People with the Right Connections into the system? When Detroit needed a superintendent, somebody said "I know a guy" and called Eli Broad who said "I know a guy" and made a call and--whoosh!-- John Covington left one job to take another.

Sure, there are people who get into the charter biz to make money. But I'm increasingly convinced that the movement as a whole is mainly by extending the system of Government by the Right People by Way of Their Connections with Other Right People to our education system. They would like to operate schools with the same system they use to operate Ed Post and CAP and the Broad Academy. I know a guy. I'll make some calls. We need to get the Right Person working on that. Charter schools are just the logical extension of that system into the world of education. For those of us who don't know the Right People-- well, that's just proof we aren't the Right People ourselves.

ICYMI: Edu-reads from the week

Here's your assortment of reading goodies for the week:

Race and the Standardized Testing Wars

Kate Taylor's piece from yesterday's New York Times is a worthwhile read about tough issues. Additionally, she quotes Jennifer Berkshire's Have You Heard podcast and Jose Luis Vilson (an actual teacher). Nice to see a major mainstream article about education that doesn't just go straight to the usual reformy mouthpieces (though those voices are certainly represented here).

Sam Brownback Declares War on Kansas

Kansas has become a real showplace for the efforts to starve government to death and beat democracy into dust. Here's a good look at how Brownback did it.

Charlotte Danielson on Rethinking Teacher Evaluation

I know I already wrote a whole blog piece about this, but if you haven't gotten around to reading Danielson's thoughts, now's your next chance. Worth a look.

My ESSA Accountability Plan

Russ Walsh offers his own basic layout for an accountability plan under the new federal education regulations. This is how it could be done well.

The New Emergency Manager: Woman who got over $100K for school she never opened now imposing CEOs on struggling schools

From Eclectablog, a tale of more "you can't make this stuff up" shenanigans from Governor Snyder.

Off the Deep End: Swim Test vs. Standardized Test

Jesse Hagopian, Progressive Education Fellows, nationally renowned ed activist, and editor of More Than A Score, takes a moment to respond to writer's attempt to dismiss the opt out movement.

He Is More Than a Test Score

One writer's personal response to the results of the testing movement.

Who Will Lead the Edu-Revolution

Jose Luis Vilson's blog hosts the North Carolina teacher of the year, who offers some challenging thoughts for teachers of non-white, noon-wealthy students. It's the piece that includes this line: "teachers cannot simply advocate for student’s educational rights and stay silent on their civil and human ones."

More About MI Super

Nancy Flanagan, a top blogger who was one of my earliest inspirations in this bloggy biz, left a comment on my earlier post about Michigan's call for more testing, more often, of more students. It adds some important insights that I lacked, and I think it's important enough to get moved up here where people who don't read the comments will still see it.

Hmm. I actually live in Michigan. And while you didn't say anything that was technically not true--there's more to the story.

Michigan, as you mention, has a really creepy governor (more automaton than Captain Evil) and a batshit crazy, Tea Party-ish Republican legislature. The Superintendent is not--unlike most states--selected by the governor. S/he is chosen by an elected State Board of Education.

Earlier this week, a team of some 30 Republicans crafted a resolution to dismiss the (duly and democratically elected) State Board and the Superintendent--and replace all of them with a CEO, chosen by the Governor. Of course, this would require a change in the constitution, so they're putting that on their to-do list, but they made a really big deal about it. It's their goal. Soon.

The Superintendent was a kind of compromise choice, made by the (mostly Democratic) State Board. There were other (better) candidates, but Brian Whiston was chosen, largely because the Legislature loathes the State Board--and he had built relationships with legislators, when he was a lobbyist. That's right, they picked him *because* he was a lobbyist, and an actual public school superintendent, in a majority-Muslim district.

He actually does know some things about running a school district. The piece you were referring to (start testing earlier!--test more often!) drew lots and lots of scorn, but it was mostly about dumping the MI version of the SBAC/CCSS test, and replacing it with MAP testing in the fall, to address something teachers have been asking for: early feedback on kids.

Personally, I think it's a crappy idea, but I think it's the Supe's way of trying to make nice with the legislature, let them know he's not going to let go of accountability, even though he's recommending dumping the high-stakes test we most recently had.

Furthermore--he's not really in control. The legislature doesn't want a Superintendent or Board. They want to completely trash MI ed funding and firewalls between public and private. They want to "unbundle" the public system. The Superintendent was hoping to give them an idea that would fly, and keep channels of communication open between the Board and the Statehouse.

Brian Whiston is not the worst Superintendent we've ever had, by a long chalk. In fact, he hasn't been in place terribly long, and had a personal tragedy early in his term, so we haven't heard much from him. I would rather have him than someone appointed by Governor Endless Stare.

Sad thing--MI used to be a flagship union state, with excellent public schools and universities.

So maybe Whiston is trying to navigate through a tough place and getting stuck with some crappy choices. We'll see what happens next. 

One System To Rule them All

Every once in a while something turns up in the comments that is just too good not to pass on. This is from reader J. Chaffee (If I had a good elvish font, I'd use it).


Data Systems for the administrators under the sky,
Systems for the teacher drones in their halls of stone,
Systems for Mortal students doomed to die,
One system for the Corporate Head on his dark throne
In the Land of Cyber where the Shadows lie.
One System to rule them all, One System to find them,
One System to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Cyber where the Shadows lie.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

No More Lone Genius

Earlier this month at the Harvard Business Review, Greg Satell wrote "It's Time To Bury the Idea of the Lone Genius Innovator."

He opens his argument with the story of Alexander Fleming. You know the standard bit-- Fleming finds his experiment with bacteria has been ruined by fungus which is killing every piece of bacteria it touches. So he has a flash of insight, redirects his attention to the fungus, and voila! Penicillin!

Except that, as Satell points out, is not it. Fleming makes his discovery in 1928. It doesn't become widely used until 1943. In between someone had to stumble across Fleming's research, figure out why it was important, figure out how to make the new wonder drug, and finally how to make it to scale. And Satell doesn't even address other steps such as publicizing the new drug widely enough that physicians would catch on to and promote its use.

Satell's point is that we need to drop the lone genius story. Simply having an idea isn't enough, and that such ideas don't happen in a vacuum to begin with-- you're always standing on somebody's shoulders.

He reminds me of this old video clip about First Followers. Favorite line: "A first follower turns a lone nut into a leader."

I'm mindful in both cases of how much our educational models can lean toward the lone genius. We put huge emphasis on Doing It Yourself, and that seems to make sense because if you can't do it by yourself, how do we know if you can do it at all?

But both Satell and Dancing Guy both remind us that the guy who comes up with an idea is not much more important than the guy who can recognize that the idea is worth pursuing and developing.

This kind of first follower, first developer skill is especially on point in an age in which the whole skill set of 'research" has changed. Back in my day (sonny), research meant combing the stacks of the library hoping to find one or two sources. But kids these days can find a mountain of sources-- the trick is to figure out what is worth paying attention to.

Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong were jazz geniuses who created solos that were profoundly awesome. But they were influenced by musicians that came before, they were creating those solos while playing with other musicians, based on songs composed by other writers, and they continued to draw influence from a myriad of sources-- some that no authority could ever have predicted (fun fact-- one of Armstrong's favorite bands, which he would often go listen to when they played the same town, was the sweetly unjazzlike Guy Lombardo). No musical genius was ever a lone genius.

We often default to a classroom model in which each student is supposed to be a Brilliant Idea Generator-- a lone genius. A gifted soloist. But perhaps it's a better idea to work with a model that fosters not simply collaboration, but an interlocking set of roles and an ability to separate wheat from chaff, Coke from New Coke, potatoes from potato chips. We still favor an approach that tells every student to keep her eyes on her own paper, but perhaps we should be telling her to look at everybody's paper-- and figure out which one is worth supporting, following and developing.

Satell is ultimately arguing in favor of more public-private-government partnerships. That's fine, I guess, sometimes. But I'm more interested in the human level. It's very American to think that one is either a mighty, heroic leader, or a schlubby drone. But collaboration, innovation, progress, success and culture come out of a much more complex web of relationships, skills and mutual support. This is one more reason that every student should be in band or choir or play on a team. And I'd like to see the rest of us find better ways to bring this reality into the classroom as well.

What Can You Do?

It has become an oft-repeated progression in the world of the public education debates. People become curious, then interested, then informed, then alarmed. Then they ask the question--

What can I do?

In some places, it's obvious. Some cities and communities are on the front lines of these battles and they need people to stand up and make noise right now, today. Parents need ton turn up at meetings. Teachers need to speak up at school. Letter writers. Sign carriers. People to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are standing up.

But what if your district is not on the front lines (yet). What can you do to stand up for public education? Here are some thoughts.

Educate yourself

Read up on the issues. Dip into the blog list that appears on the right column of this page-- these are just some of the voices out there, but they're a pretty good assortment. If the politics or focus or tone of a particular blog doesn't grab you, keep sampling others. We are a large, literally motley crew. We are large; we contain multitudes.

Read books, too. There are several excellent out there that are great for the general reader.

There are plenty more, more added to the list every day.

Communicate and Share

Spread and share the word. Tell people what you know.

The biggest weapon the resistance to ed reform has is information. The more people learned about Common Core, the less they liked it and the harder they resisted. And while not everyone may feel comfortable trying to explain what's going on, everyone has access to other writers' explanations.

Share on twitter. Retweet. Post it on facebook. Pin it. I am always surprised at the number of people who ask if it's okay to share a blog post-- certainly you can share it. That's pretty much what all of us have in mind when we write the things. If you like it and if it speaks to you, pass it on. Share, share, share.

And don 't hesitate to communicate with the writers and commenters you see. If you hear a politician say something that you know is wrong, write or call or email them and try to help them understand how they've missed the mark (pro tip: "You idiotic lying sack of beetle dung" is not a very effective way to approach this sort of communication). Reach out. Open a dialogue. You cannot expect people to know what nobody has ever told them.

Join up

There may well be local activist and advocacy groups that you can join and support. The opt out movement has grown many branches, and other regions have the groups that ben formed to face local concerns (for instance, Nebraska has been charter free for years, but now that charter fans have drawn a target on the cornhusker state, a group has been created by supporters of public schools).

Nationally, the movement has taken many forms.  Educolor can be found on line in many communities, doing the work of elevating the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice. Facebook is peppered with pro-public ed groups; if you prefer large and feisty, there's the Badass Teachers Association.

And the Network for Public Education is doing huge work these days, creating a voice that is anchored in grass roots origins, but which doesn't suffer from looking home made and amateur hour (like, say, certain blogs that individuals maintain on their lunch hour). You can become a member of NPE, and you can offer them some financial support to keep up the important advocacy for public ed. And if you want to step up that support, join and support NPEAction, the political action arm of NPE.

These may seem like small things, but they are actions that anyone can take. Reformsters are spreading their ideas through a massive money-fueled carpet bombing, co-opting of politicians, and a wide array of astroturf group. But folks on the side of the resistance have had some amazing successes fueled by nothing but determination and information. You don't have to be out on the sidewalk, holding a sign, to make a difference. Spread the word.

Stand Up. Stand Together: Reflections on Raleigh

I had a lot of reasons to stay away from this year's Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh, and up until the last minute I thought I wasn't going. Finances, family stuff, social anxiety, time off, general work stress, concerns about the venue-- all that and a few other things made me balk.

I'm certainly not unique. Lots of folks have lots of reasons not to attend a conference, some of them damn good reasons. But in the end, I went. And I'm glad I did.

Here are some of the reasons why.

* Ten hours in the car with my wife, both ways. My wife is my best friend, and we travel well together. It's always a treat, and last weekend it made a nice break for us to sit down in the same place for a while.

* Bonus student reunion. Because we are facebook friends, one of my former students received a facebook alert that I was in her town. I got to see her for the first time in seventeen years, meet her husband and some of her friends. Of the six, three were former North Carolina teachers, so I got offer condolences to some of the people that NC has driven out of the profession.

* Hearing Reverend Barber. The man has a voice, and he has something to say. He put the struggles of education and race and building a better, more just society in context, and with clarity.

* Listening to Tammie Vinson, Margo Murray, and Patricia Boughton from Chicago make a bit more clear how, on the ground, black teachers are being pushed from the profession. Also, learned a terrible thing I did not know-- that CPS had a history of extending tenure only to white teachers.

* Watching Jennifer Berkshire and Peter Cunningham do their thing.

But mostly it was the people. Seeing people that I'd first met last year, and meeting more people that I hadn't had the chance to talk or meet to before. The conference is remarkably plain and simple, and leaders Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody and Carol Burris set a tone that is warm and open. Ravitch is a hugely important figure to the movement, nationally known, respected and recognized, and yet she spent the weekend looking like she was just hanging out, casual and approachable and so constantly surrounded by people who want to talk to her. One of the lessons that both conferences have underlined for me is that you don't have to posture and put on a big show when you are talking about what you truly at your core believe.

The value of a conference like this is that it reminds you that you're not alone, that you are not the only person who sees what's happening. That mutual support, that building of a national network of people who share a concern and passion for public education. Their interests may not align perfectly, but that for me is one of the beauties of the pro-public ed movement-- I am automatically suspicious of any movement that demands we all be on the same exact page.

Ed reform is barely covered in the press, and coverage is often simply reprinting press releases or presenting unquestioned comments from the reformster side. We could lean just on the blogs and articles that we read and continue to pass them along, but to see the actuals live and in person, to hear their voices, to ask the questions and hear the response is all so valuable (almost in the same way that a live teacher is more effective than education by computer screen).

And while it would be a mistake to just keep preaching to the choir, it's good to spend some time with the choir, to know that we're sharing the same music, to be reminded of just how the song goes before we go back out into a world where other clangorous tones fill the air. My thanks to the leaders, organizers and funders of the conference. For me it has meant renewed focus and energy, and I'm grateful.

Getting Better

Some days I think the problems behind ed reform boil down to a basic misunderstanding of human nature.

In Ed Week a few weeks back, Marc Tucker wrote about getting great teachers in every classroom (I would rather talk about helping the teacher in every classroom to do more great teaching, but okay) and in the midst of that discussion, he drops this

There are, of course, teachers who do work really hard, year after year, to get better and better at the work, but they are the ones driven by an inner demon, not ordinary mortals like you and me.  So, while it is probably true that most of our teachers could be really good, really expert, there are not nearly enough of them, because they have no incentive to do so. 

I'm really stumped here. Is Tucker seriously suggesting that ordinary mortals don't want to get better at what they do?

The observation comes in the context of reporting that it takes ten years to achieve expertise, spurred by the rewards of climbing a career ladder. And here he goes

It says that happens only if the individual keeps working hard, year after year, to become better and better at the work.  But teachers have no incentive to do that.

This is just bonkers. The world is filled with people who work to get better and better at what they do, because that's how people are wired. Every single one of my students cannot help trying to get better and better at things that they value. The confusion, I think, occurs because we force so many people in our society to do things, improve at things, get better at things they don't give a rat's rear about.

Yes, if you want someone to get better at processing G-34/A forms that mean nothing to anyone, you will have to incentivize that work. But where you find people doing something they love, you find people trying to get better for the same reason you find them breathing and eating-- because that is what human beings are wired to do. We are learning and growing machines. But some people have always tried to "harness" that power by breaking people and trying to make them grow in approved directions, like a demented gardener who just keeps chopping and pruning and building obstacles to force trees to grow sideways.

Growing and improving is normal. Every person I know who plays music, in any capacity, is always trying to do better, spurred on by exactly zero external reward-based incentive. Every person I know who does a job they enjoy is always trying to do better. Every kid who ever tried to make a mud pie kept trying to improve the design and construction process. I cannot believe this is a thing we need to explain.

Reformsters keep embedding this faulty notion into their understanding of teaching over and over and over again-- that teachers will only do a non-crappy job of navigating the education maze if policy makers can find a better piece of cheese to offer. Teachers will only improve through training and development if we tie it to the correct complex of carrots and sticks.

This is nuts. First of all, teaching is one field where it is absolutely clear, up front, that you need to be intrinsically motivated to enter. "I went into teaching so I could make big money, power and prestige," said no teacher ever. The appeal used to be that you could do important work and be largely left alone to pursue excellence in your own way. Now the work is forcefully downgraded (help young folks grow has been replaced with help young folks do test prep) and the freedom to pursue excellence is increasingly stripped from the job.

Second, teaching has the best, most immediate feedback loop of almost any profession or research field. Every classroom is a laboratory, and every lesson is an experiment. "Think I'll try teaching adverbs by using fluffy stuffed zebras," you think, and after about ten minutes you know whether you have a genius idea on your hands or something for your Never Again file. And it's not just about measuring data-- a teacher who implements a bad lesson plan gets to suffer the consequences in real time. Make a bad step in the classroom and your students will make you pay for it for the next thirty minutes. No spread sheets or number crunching necessary; the consequences of your choices are felt immediately. This is one more reason that teachers are hugely motivated to get better.

There's no question that mentoring from other teachers is hugely, enormously, infinitely helpful, and that many school systems have grossly inadequate systems in place to support such mentoring. But again-- when a helpful experienced teacher shows up at your door when you're trying to figure out how to approach a tricky lesson, it's not necessary for them to say, "I'll give you thirty bucks to take my advice."

Everything in my personal experience says that people want to get better at the things they value. There's a whole world of argument and discussion to be unpacked form the words "better" and "value," not to mention the whole "how to" question-- but everything I know says the basic motivation is in there if it hasn't been too badly damaged or broken. My entire teaching career is about finding it and tapping into it. And teaching, as a career, is uniquely configured to tap into it. Reformers need to stop trying to build a bridge across a beautiful valley that we can just walk through.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Morality of Artificial Intelligence

The rising tide of support for computer-centered competency based education is a computer with artificial intelligence (AI), a computer smart enough to be to follow, understand and respond to the behavior and choices of the human students linked up to the system. But this presents problems.

Some are pretty obvious. Just a month ago, Microsoft hooked an AI-powered chatbot up to Twitter and watched in horror as it proceeded to tweet horrible racist comments. That was not the plan, but any AI development has to wrangle with the problem of installing human values into a machine.

How can an AI-driven system "teach" children if it can't be instilled with human values?

There's an interesting discussion of these issues in an article posted at Slate today. It has nothing at all to say about CBE or other computer-driven education systems-- at least not directly-- but much to ponder about the business of creating a computer program that could handle the job.

There are scientists working on it; there have been since the days that Isaac Asimov designed the Three Laws of Robotics, meant to give robots something like a moral center. The article says that these folks want to achieve AI "provably aligned with  human values." Which is a hugely reductive statement of the problem, because the first question we have to answer is, "Which human values?"

You may think that there are surely some clear, central core values shared by all humans, but the Slate article reaches back to work by Joseph Henrich that I've discussed here before which suggests that most of what we think of as "normal" is really just the product of our own culture. This extends not just to silly, obvious examples like how to shake hands but, as Henrich shows, actual perception-- what is an optical illusion in some cultures is not one in others.

AI has depended on knowledge based and outward behaviors, but it is hugely limited. As writer Adam Elkus says in the article's opening, "Computers are powerful but frustratingly dumb in their inability to grasp ambiguity and context."

That means that AI often falls back not so much on creating intelligence, but on creating a complex of behaviors that simulate intelligence, but are still just the computer responding stupidly to a series of complicated instructions.

This obviously matters to more than just people in the way of educational AI. One of the challenges of programmers trying to perfect computer-driven cars is the big question-- in an accident involving many people, which people should the AI car most try not to kill?  In such an accident, the decision of whose life to try to save will not be made by the car-- it will be made by the programmer who wrote the software that tells the car which individual to "value" most.

An AI teacherbot will implement a complex algorithm, a super-rubric, and those directions will come from programmers who will include their own values, their own beliefs about how that educational moment/issue/response/thingamabob ought to be handled. "Well," you may say, "So will a human teacher. A human teacher will bring biases and views to the classroom as well."

And that's true. But the programmed-in bias of computers is an issues because A) it will most likely be put there by people who are NOT trained, experienced classroom professionals and B) because, like a standardized test, the computer centered CBE program will come wrapped in a mantle of objectivity, a crown of bias-free just-the-facts-ma'm, all of which will merely be an illusion. Furthermore, it will be an illusion that cannot be challenged or modified. As a live human, I can be challenged by my students on a point; they can even convince me to change my mind as we all wrestle with context and ambiguity.

Teaching is a moral act, an act that comes with a heavy moral and ethical context. AI does not currently have that capacity, and may very well never have it. Putting an educational program under the control and guidance of an AI-flavored computer program is putting a classroom in the hands of a sociopath who literally does not know right from wrong but only, at best, a list of rules given to them by someone, rules that it now follows slavishly.

Well, what if we have those rules written by someone who we agree is a highly moral person? Would that satisfy you, you cranky old fart?

My answer is no. Moral and ethical behavior by its very nature must deal with ambiguity and context, and it must be able to change and grow in understanding. It requires wisdom, not just intelligence. When folks push AI computers as a solution to the classroom, they are pretending to have solutions to problems that the leading minds in the computer world have not solved, and even if those solutions existed, we would still have to argue about whether or not they made a teacherbot fit for the classroom.