Tuesday, May 31, 2016

FL: Dept of Ed Says, "Don't Blame Us!" (w/Update)

A few Florida districts managed to earn themselves a heaping helping of angry publicity recently by declaring that a Third grader's ability to read was not nearly as important as the Third grader's willingness to knuckle under and compliantly take the state's Big Standardized Test. Students who had opted out of the test were going to be flunked for the grade, regardless of their report cards, teacher recommendations or other clear signs that they could read just fine, thank you very much.

Manatee County in particular signaled that it was going to A) hold the line hard and B) blame the state department of education.

Now comes word courtesy of the Gradebook at the Tampa Bay Times, talking to the Florida Department of Education--

"Our primary guidance to the districts is to follow the law," spokeswoman Meghan Collins said Tuesday. "Obviously, the law says participation on the FSA (Florida Standards Assessment) is mandatory. But we never said you must retain a student who doesn't have an FSA score."

Collins also elaborated that there was no requirement to take the test before an alternative assessment could be used.

Collins also told Jeffrey Solochek at the Times that the department would not be sending out a letter of clarification. "We've already made ourselves plenty damn clear enough for supposedly educated people who can read and speak English," she did not actually say, but I thought I'd paraphrase. "Local decisions are to be made locally, particularly if they are so glaringly dumb that the fallout will be terrible," she only sort of approximately continued. This is, honestly, better than I expected, given that Florida is the state that once insisted a dying child take the Big Standardized Test.

So, Superintendents Diane Greene and Lori White-- the ball's in your court. In fact, you're kind of in your court all alone now. The state has sent a clear message of "Don't lay this foolishness on us!"  My suggestion? make a reasonable, humane, decent decision here-- the kind of decision that one would expect from a professional educator who actually cares about the welfare of children. Take the opening the state has given you, and pass those children.


After spending the afternoon taking a good hard look at the undercarriage of the bus, Superintendent Greene has announced that "good cause" promotions, including portfolios, will be totally okee dokee for advancing to fourth grade in Manatee Schools. Furthermore...

“The School District of Manatee County’s stance on third-grade retention was not a decision or a conclusion developed in a vacuum,” Greene wrote in a lengthy statement released Tuesday evening. 

 Does that seem a little subtle? Try this one:

To say that I am angry, frustrated and disappointed in the FLDOE’s lack of leadership on this extremely important issue is a massive understatement. To pass this difficult decision off to 67 different school districts is a gross abdication of responsibility.

Also, "I ended up looking like an ass by compromising my principles about assessing and advancing students over your stupid test, which is looking more bogus than ever, and now I'm looking like a big dope both personally and professionally. See if I carry water for those jerks in Tallahassee ever again." I'm paraphrasing on this one.

Read more here: http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/article80950647.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/article80950647.html#storylink=cpy

Is There a Civil War in Education

I've been following tweets from the big Third Way confabulation in Massachusetts today, and apparently one of the recurring themes is a certain amount pearl clutching over the Civil War between charter and public school advocates. And I had some thoughts...

First, kudos to whatever PR flack came up with that rhetoric, because it's kind of genius. 

Once upon a time, charter operators portrayed themselves as scrappy trendsetters, rebels who were going to Fight The Power and disrupt the hell out of that stodgy old education sector. They were going to fight the status quo.

Well, there comes a time in the life of every rugged scrappy entrepreneur when you put on a suit and instead of settling for scraps, grab yourself a seat at the gown-up table and start enjoying the perks of being rather status quo-y yourself. (This is also a handy perch from which to keep your eye on any other scrappy trendsetters who show up to queer your pitch, because once you are the status quo, protecting the status quo starts to make so much more sense.)

The "Civil War" construct is elegant because it assumes all sorts of things that charter folks would like to assume without actually having to discuss. A Civil War occurs between equals, brothers who have been torn apart by a foolish disagreement and who should really be learning to live in harmony, as equals, with equal claim to all the bounty the status quo provides.

If you can't quite see what I'm getting at, imagine how it would change the conversation is, say, we characterized public education as a beautiful home that had become infested with charter termites. Or public education as a big expansive oak tree, with some branches withering from charter school blight. Or public education a robust, vigorous group of athletic young men and women, some of whom had to be benched because they were combating a charter school tapeworm. Or public education was a great construction company, building a wonderful new skyscraper and charter school operators were a bunch of five-year-olds who wandered onto the construction site and kept stealing tools and getting in the way.

But no-- our charter operators would like to declare themselves peers of the trained, experienced professionals of the public education system, based on the fact that charter schools exist, and have acquired political clout, and a few sort of know what they're doing. The Civil War construct is a glorious false equivalency, the charter insistence that they are just as legitimate as public education-- and we get to just skip right over the discussion of whether or not that's even true. It let's us skip some of the central question of charters like 1) is there a good reason for them to exist and 2) if so, is there a good reason they should be owned and operated by hedge fund managers and other folks with no actual educational training or background. The Civil War construct lets us skip the fact that the modern charter debate is just the Teach for America debate writ large-- why should we create an entire parallel education system operated by untrained amateurs?

The one big rhetorical flaw in the Civil War rhetoric

Watch charteristas be very careful in talking about a civil war, because THE civil war was not a battle between equivalent sides. In THE civil war, one side was fighting to preserve to own other human beings. One side was fighting to preserve and maintain one of the most odious practices in human history. It is absolutely true that the North was not without sin, that the Union was not standing up clearly for the side of virtue. But if you look at the American Civil War and say, "Well, you know, both sides really had a point," you need to go back to history class, because they did not. One side was dead wrong. Period. Full stop.

They had resources and political clout and access to money that meant they couldn't be ignored, that they had to be dealt with-- but the Confederacy was wrong, and what they were fighting for was wrong. Do any of the people shaking their heads and clucking over the public school vs. charters civil war want to talk about which side would be the Confederacy in this scenario? I didn't think so.

Suing for what sort of piece peace, exactly?

I've always maintained that despite the occasional (not very successful) attempts, charter operators don't really want to take over entire districts (I have a blog about this somewhere, but damned if I can find it- I have got to get me an administrative assistant just as soon as that next giant grant comes in). Running an entire district would be cumbersome and potentially could leave the charter operator trapped. Most importantly, the most popular modern charter business model has a critical dependency on having a place to dump problem/costly students, and that dumping ground of choice remains the public school system.

So no, by and large I don't think charters ever wanted to wipe out public school systems.

So what do they want? Well, I think the months ahead will continue to give us a clearer picture, and perhaps the reportage from today's confab will shed some light as well. But there are a few things we can reasonably guess.

We've seen similar initiatives, back when we had a call for new, more reasonable conversations. That sort of tone policing generally boiled down to, "Damn, I thought we were just going to walk in and y'all would roll over without a fight, but you just keep talking and hammering at us and sometimes just make it impossible to follow our action plan. What can we do to get you to shut up long enough for us to just think for five minutes?"

This is more of the same. Remember, Empower Schools, the Third Way people, are trying to spread their brand through Massachusetts, a state where reformsters have captured most of the educations leadership roles in the state, and yet the teachers and the students and the parents just won't shut up and let them be. They are trying to make a business plan work, and they would prefer not to have to deal with teachers and the public and the need to sink more money in PR and advertising.

In short, "Can't we just work this out reasonably?" often boils down to "Will you stop getting in my way? Will you stop trying to gab my arm when I go for your wallet? When I punch you in the face, would you please have the decency not to punch me in my face?"

Are some of these people sincere?

The answer is, "Probably." Though whether that sincerity has to do with a sincere desire to make peace or a sincere desire to make money is another question.

However, basic sincerity is easy to gauge when talking to reformsters. All you have to ask is, how much responsibility do they take for the tenor of the conversation. Here's the basic scale:

Puzzled sadness. If their position is, "Gee, I don't understand how all this conflict started. just a mystery, you know, how things got all cantankerous," this is not a serious person, and certainly not a sincere one.

False equivalency. If their position is, "Well, yeah, first I punched you in the face, and then you punched me, so I guess we're both to blame, huh?" this is also someone who is neither serious nor sincere. There is no equivalency in the charter-public school debate. You can tell, because classic traditional charters did not, and do not, stir up any such conflict. But the modern charter movement moved in, led by amateurs who questioned our motives, called us names, denigrated our profession, attacked our livelihoods and tried to savage the health of the schools to which we had devoted our professional lives. Public school advocates did not suddenly become cranky about charter schools for no good reason. We were attacked. We fought back.

Deflection. "Well, maybe we were a bit out of line, and we're really sorry that you are such thin-skinned jerks that you had to react so badly to it." Pass. Next.

Honesty. If they can admit their role in the "civil war," then we have a basis to move forward. It's a possible thing. That doesn't mean they need to display abject sorrow. But prominent reformsters like Rick Hess have managed to say some version of, "If we call people names and accuse them of being stupid and evil, we deserve the opposition we get, because we are wrong." Likewise, if they can actually hear what we're saying and not try to twist it into the straw homme du jour, that's a good thing. I can talk to anybody who will actually read, listen, think and talk honestly. I might not agree with them, but I can talk to them, and we'll probably both be better for it.

So, hey-- there was a question back at the top...?

Is charter vs. public school some sort of civil war? And can it be solved? I'm not so sure about the first. The second is actually easy-- we could stop half of our charter troubles by simply creating an honest funding system. If the politicians of North New Frampsylvania (or whatever state you live in) want to have multiple school systems, be honest and fully fund them all. Don't, as some states do, take the current funding which is already not enough to fund the public system you already have, and try to use that inadequate funding to fund multiple school systems.

The Great Lie of the charter movement is that you can run multiple school systems for the cost of a single system. You can't. And so charters and public schools are left to fight over a pie that is already too small for one diner, let alone a dozen. Of course the result will be conflict, and lots of it. Though somehow I doubt that it would be peaches, cream, and fluffy bunnies if politicians went to the public and said, "In order to have more charter schools, we are raising your taxes."

But a Civil War? Not so much. In much (but not all) of the modern (but not traditional classic) charter movement, we have rich, powerful men using political clout to barge in and privatize pieces of the education system so that rich, powerful folks can get more rich. In the process they may rescue ten out of every hundred children of poverty, which is a noble and worthy goal, but in the process, they abandon the other ninety to a struggling less-than-awesome public school that now has even fewer resources to help. And all of this is done by education amateurs who believe that they have the authority to mess with the education system because, well, they just do, and yet, even after this many years, have few real successes to point to.

What we call it doesn't really matter. I agree that it would help everyone to help it settle a bit, and I actually can envision what okay-with-me charters would look like. But public school voices have been largely shut out of the conversation for at least a decade now, and there are no signs that's going to change. Unilaterally "negotiated" peaces rarely last.

I know what I'd like to see. Great schools in every single zip code, answerable first and foremost to the taxpayers of that zip code. Teaching as a profession supported and elevated, so that every school includes a cadre of top trained professionals who lead the charge. No more leadership (or teachership) by untrained (or faux trained) amateurs. Financial responsibility and transparency, with no tax dollars going to private corporate accounts without local approval. A return to a complete education that allows each and every child to focus on becoming fully human, fully him- or her-self, whatever that turns out to mean. All of which means no more false, narrow, cramped faux measures of school quality.

The Poison Premise

I can see how to get there with or without charters. So if you want to sit at a peace table with me, I guess the first thing you'll have to do is ditch the premise, "Well, of course, whatever we come up with will have to include charter schools." If you're more concerned about a guaranteed future for the charter industry than a guaranteed excellent education for every child, then peace between us is probably still over the horizon.

If it were necessary to include charters to get to my perfect educational future, I could live with that. But here's my question for charter fans-- if it were possible to give every child that excellent education, and the best way to do it was without charters, would you be okay with that?

Or is your premise, o charter fan, that whatever the future of education is going to be, it must have charters in it. Is it more important to educate every child in schools with local control and financial responsibility, or is it more important that the charter industry remain economically viable because that's where you've placed your bets? The answer will tell us what your real priorities and values are, and that answer will tell me how well we can hope to work together.

Associated Press Runs the Charter Industry's Narrative

Sigh. Another day, another undersourced news piece presenting only the charter point of view.

This time it's Christine Armario, writing for the Associated Press. The piece is widely titled "As Charters Grow, Public Schools See Sharp Enrollment Drop," but we can't give Armario credit for that thoughtful distinction, because here she is twitter, responding to former Duncan sidekick Michael Dannenberg's assertion that charter schools are public schools..

Well, no, they're not. When they answer to a publicly elected board. When they give a full, transparent accounting of how they spend tax dollars. When they commit to staying business forever, and not just as long as it makes business sense to stay open. When they take whatever students show up at their door. When they follow all of those rules that public schools follow. When all that is true, we can talk about calling them public schools, but until that day comes, they are private schools being financed with public tax dollars.

I will repeat, as always, that these distinctions do not automatically make charters evil and nefarious-- but they do automatically make them Not Public Schools.

Armario focuses on the draining of students and money from public schools in major systems like LA and Detroit. But her view is not exactly nuanced, and her research is not exactly deep.

For instance, in considering California's charter growth, she might have looked to charter laws that put charters in the driver's seat. A good example would be Mt. Diablo, where the state has imposed a Rocketship Charter on the community despite the charter fraud and local opposition. California charter clout can also be seen in the serious charter pushback against the same report that Armario opens with, in broad simple strokes.

But broad simple strokes are the hallmark of this piece; it looks like Armario's editor called for a quick under-a-thousand-word take (it clocks in at 921 words). So here's Armario's history of charter schools:

Charter schools arrived in the 1990s and began attracting parents searching for an alternative to big-city districts that had strained for years to raise performance among minority and low-income students and those who are learning English.

And here's her analysis of the effects of charter on public schools.

In districts with growing student populations, such as Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida, that growth helps ease potential overcrowding.

But in cities like Los Angeles, where the school-age population has been shrinking, the continued flight from traditional public schools has become a mounting concern. In most states, schools receive funding on a per-pupil basis, and the majority of those dollars follow students when they leave for a charter.

Her summary of the debate? Charter fans say that "it's only fair" that the money follows the students. Public school advocates point out that many public school costs don't change with the loss of students.

And she quotes charter spokeswoman Nina Rees who says that this sort of thing happens since public schools don't meet student needs. But Armario doesn't connect the dots between the draining of public ed resources and public ed's ability to be "competitive." Though she does note that A) that's how charter fans think it should work and B) the research doesn't actually back them up.

Armario also ticks off some of the districts that have experienced big drops in enrollment-- Detroit, Philly, Chicago, Losa Angeles-- without asking the question of how politicians have starved those public districts, thereby making well-supported charters more attractive.

In fact. rather than dig deeper into any of this, Armario gives a rehash of the charter industry's favorite narrative-- public schools are failing, so charters are taking off. 

As for voices she includes in her story-- there's Rees (National Alliance of Public Charter Schools), Ron Zimmer (who has published research sponsored by the charter loving Rand, Gates, and Joyce foundations), and a parent who was happy to get her child out of bad public schools and into a charter. On the other side, Steve Zimmer (LAUSD board president) and Susan Zoller, "a consultant hired by the district's union." There's also a strong showing by "others say." 

Is it glaringly tilted toward the charter side of things? No, but it does present the charter narrative without any critical consideration and the public education side without an explanation. Steve Zimmer's observation that charter proliferation leads to collateral damage is reported, but not explained. Nor does she consider a myriad of other issues, such as charters that move in and cash out, leaving students high and dry, or the question of exactly which students charters prefer to pull from public schools. And she lets the focus rest on the spread and growth of charters, and not the large number of students left in resource-strapped public schools.

Armario's coverage of charters in the past has also been light-touched. Here's a 2012 piece about how charters enroll fewer students with disabilities, with not a single mention of charges that charters enroll fewer SWD on purpose. ("Gosh," says Nina Rees in that piece, "it must just be that those parents don't choose charters.")

I expect more from an AP reporter whose beat includes education and charters. There's a worthwhile conversation to be had about charter schools in this country, but we can't have it if people are not getting the full, accurate view of what is actually happening. This was 921 words that did not help advance that conversation.

Monday, May 30, 2016

TheThird Way (To Make a Bundle in Education)

What is the Third Way? Well, whatever it is, it launches tomorrow (May 31) in Boston with featured guest appearances by Secretary of Education John King and Massachusetts Secretary of Education James Peyser (formerly honcho of New Schools Venture Fund). So maybe we'd better dig a little and see if we can figure out exactly what we're talking about.

The event is touted as The Emerging Third Way: Blazing an Optimistic Path Ahead in K-12 Education, and the blurb on the registration site starts with this little history lesson:

Since 1635, Massachusetts has been known for its district public schools- the “first way”. Since 1993, Massachusetts’ charter schools have led the nation in pioneering a “second way”. It is time to recognize a Third Way – an emerging set of strategies that combine school-level autonomies and energetic innovation with a commitment to universal service and local voice. The Third Way does not obviate the need and demand for either of the other ways but it does hold out a promising path for cooperative change that could raise student success, especially among disadvantaged students, on a large scale.

I'm just going to skip over the first part of the history lesson because arguing about whether or not Massachusett's charter schools have been nation-leading pioneers since 1993 is like getting in argument about whether or not a trio of alopeciac yeti infiltrated the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes during the eighties. It makes a damn good story, but not a very good evidence-based paper. So there goes our Common Core based writing score.

But can we close read a path to understanding the Third Way? Well, "emerging set of strategies" means roughly "we're still working on punching up the rough draft." Next, "autonomies and energetic innovation" are supposed to be the virtues of charter schools, while "universal service and local voice" are concerns of the public ed supporting crowd. So, can we keep the freedom from oversight and regulation for charters but still make sure that all students are still served and some sort of local control continues (I skipped over "innovation" because charter school innovation is tucked away in the dressing room of one of those yetis).

Furthermore, the Third Way doesn't throw out either public schools or charters, but it does-- and this is important-- connect back to student achievement for poor kids on a large scale. That part of the pitch is straight out of the Charter School Messaging Notebook, an honest-to-god real marketing guide ordered up by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools to help charter operators choose the right language for marketing. The advice is very specific. talk about partnerships. Talk about student achievement, particularly for poor kids.

I will confess that talk of charter "partnership" always rubs me the wrong way. Imagine you're a surgeon with all the training and experience that goes with that. In the middle of an important operation, a guy walks into the operating theater, elbows you to one side, grabs some scalpels, and inserts himself directly in your light. "Excuse me," you say (or something similar). "What the hell are you doing here? Are you a visiting surgeon? Are you supposed to be in here?"

"Well," he replies. "I'm actually not a surgeon at all. I'm a banker. But I have a lot of important friends, and I care very much about health and surgery. Also, I'm getting half your fee for this operation. What are you getting so angry about. I really think you and I ought to co-operate."

But maybe I'm excessively and unnecessarily touchy here. Let's dig a little more and maybe I'll see I'm all worked up about nothing.

Turns out that The Third Way is the brainchild of one outfit-- Empower Schools.

We've run across these guys before in Massachusetts, where they commandeered  three school districts, with both mixed efforts and mixed results. Other reformy outfits think they're just awesome. Jennifer Berkshire (Edushyster) has visited, and found a district that was eschewing some techniques from the charter reformster playbook, but instead followed public ed rules (like, say, backfilling)-- while still leaning hard into old favorites like test-centered schools. Berkshire also found a district hemorrhaging teachers and leaders-- specifically the local, home-grown type, opening ES to the criticism of being one more group of educational carpetbaggers. As she quoted one departing teacher, "When you’re emotionally invested in the future of a place, you have a different measure of what success means."

ES lists as its three missions, inform leaders, advance policy, and catalyze change. So, lobbying and advocacy?

But looking at the list of players at Empower Schools gives you a pretty good sense of what type of group we're dealing with. Let's take a look:

Chris Gabrieli (CEO & Co-founder) Started out as head of medical software company, now partner emeritus of Bessemer Venture Partners. Chairman of Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

Brett Alessi (Co-founder and Managing Partner) Previously with Massachusetts 2020, a reformy group focused on after-school programming (they call it "expanded learning time). Also worked with Educational Pioneers, a sort of Broad Academy approach to developing school leaders. It appears that he actually taught at some point, at "public and private" schools.

Sarah Toce (Director of Policy) Worked for Wisconsin Charter Schools Association where "she helped develop a strategy for new charter school legislation, provided technical assistance and managed advocacy and communications for WI’s 200+ public charter schools." So, PR and lobbying for charters.

Matt Matera (Program Director) An Education Pioneers alum. He was Teach for America material, and he taught at a charter school where he now serves on the board. And he was also "the Director of Human Capital Investments at New Schools for New Orleans and the Director of Innovation and Talent for Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts." B.A. in English and J.D. from Yale.

Kate Anderson (Director of Empowerment Zones) First of all, awesome title. She was previously at the New Profit Inc venture philanthropy firm. Before that, teacher and curriculum developer in a charter school. B.A. in biology and Asian studies from Williams.

Rae Williams (Strategy and Operations Manager) She was a performance management associate consultant for Mendelsohn, Gittleman & Associates, LLC (MGA)

Sarah Robb (Program manager) She comes from TNTP, infamous purveyors of "The Widget Effect" and straight out of the reformster stable. She taught biology in Chicago, at a charter school, as a TFA product.

Empower Schools also partners with other organizations, including Teach for America, TNTP, Relay/GSE and some charter management outfits. They have gotten Gates Foundation money; here's a 2014 grant of over $600K  "to support a set of pilot activities designed to increase the number of high-quality school seats in Massachusetts by leveraging flexibilities with Common Core instruction." And they also get money from the Boston Foundation, a group that never tires of pushing charter schools

And Empower Schools is part of Boston:Forward, an astro-turfy coalition of charter schools, charter chains, and charter advocates whose motto is "The Fast Track to Great Schools for Boston."

So I'm wondering-- as all these thought leaders and policy advocates and high-powered groups sat around the table developing this vision of how public and charter schools could come together for a Third Way, exactly who was representing the needs, the concerns, or the point of view of public schools? Is it just me, or do public school voices seem as hard to locate in this crowd as alopeciac dancing yeti?

Because this certainly looks like a gathering of wolves deciding how best the sheep can co-operate with them. This certainly looks like a convocation of foxes deciding on the best security system for the hen house. "Does anyone object if we just leave this opening without a guard, an alarm, or a door? Nobody? Good. Then I think we've found a co-operative solution to our issues."

Yes, they're inviting alleged officials of the public school sector to their party, but given John King's record in New York and Jim Peyser's previous work writing (literally) the book on how to gut public schools, I'm not comforted. This is an old charter trick, borrowed from generations of salesmen-- assume the sale. Start the discussion with the assumption that, of course, charters are important, never going away, and have equal standing with the public schools, so obviously we must learn to work together, as long as by "together" you mean "according to the terms dictated by charter advocates."

As always, I will observe that I am not opposed to charters in principle, and can in fact imagine conditions under which I welcome and applaud them.

But those conditions do not include a bunch of people with no actual experience or expertise in public education pushing into a market and claiming a piece of it based on nothing more than political connections, chutzpah, and a desire to make a buck. Jennifer Berkshire will be in attendance, and I look forward to her report (as should we all), but until I hear otherwise, I'm strongly suspecting that the Third Way is just one more layer of PR massaging to better ease the transfer of a whole bunch of public tax dollars to private pockets. And despite what you may have heard, you can put a really nice dress on a hairless yeti, but it won't make her a Rockette.

How To Defeat Trump

People keep trying to crack the code for defeating GOP Presidential candidate and world's worst human, Donald Trump, and they keep failing.

You cannot swing a cat on the internet without reading a "Looook at how much Trump lies and contradicts himself!" posts-- and yet nobody cares.

I think what best captures Trump's imperviousness on matters of truth, consistency, and decency is the slogan on a poster just down my street--

Trump-- Finally, someone with balls.

How do you qualify as someone who has giant brass balls? By showing no regard for the kind of social conventions involved in matters of truth, consistency, and decency. Every time Trump gets "caught" lying or changing his position, his supporters do not react with shock or disappointment-- they give each other high fives because their boy just flashed his giant brass balls again.

That line of attack is never going to work.

But then I was on the interwebs today, minding my own business, and I saw multiple reports of this.

Pundit-for-God-knows-why Bill Kristol let loose the mysterious claim that there will be an impressive independent candidate "with a strong team and a real chance." And then in less than two hours, Trump flipped out with another one of his reactive tantrums, calling Kristol names and squawking about the proper rules to play by.

Now, mind you, Kristol, who has almost never been right about anything, is undoubtedly completely full of it when he makes this claim. But that doesn't matter. Look at Trump-- reacting rather than acting and squawking like the tantrum-throwing toddler he is, not even looking like a grown-up, let alone an actual candidate for President. His followers probably won't care, but it cuts into his usual rhetoric, and it makes him look bad to everyone else. So I'm thinking, here's the campaign strategy for opposing him.

Lie. Lie about him. Lie at him. Throw lies in his general direction like Buddy-the-Elf-powered snowballs.

Kristol isn't intentionally lying--he's just always wrong-- but why not start with the lies? Have the GOP issue a press release that candidates whose last name starts with T will not be allowed at the convention. Pretend to be a repo man and repossess his car on the way to an event. Hire an ugly woman to announce that she gave birth to Trump's ugly child. Heck, hire three hundred of them. Announce that Cleveland will be closed for repairs all summer and fall because global warming has caused the lake to rise all the way to Superior. Announce that Trumps planes will not be allowed to fly because the Air Force has determined that alien spacecraft are attracted by his hair. Photoshop him into pictures showing him naked in a hot tub with Stalin. Hire a Trump impersonator to start issuing press releases as John Miller announcing that Trump's wife is leaving him because he's old and boring and has been impotent for years.

I'm not saying any of this would be ethical or right. But one of the abilities that Trump lacks is the ability to just let stuff slide off his ample back. And as all of his opponents have discovered, it is hard to maintain dignity while trying to defend yourself from stupid lies. To defeat Trump, Republicans, Democrats, and Americans who don't want to be led by President Asshat just need to find someone who will go after Trump with the same disregard for truth, consistency and decency. Not an alternative candidate-- ust a political operative who can squash Trump and then fade back into the shadows while our normal politicians resume their usual normal not-so-Trump-sized disregard for truth, consistency and decency.

Cross your fingers and let the lying begin.

HYH: Student Voices and Lawrence, Mass

The fourth episode of the podcast Have You Heard has been out for a while, and as usual I am way behind because I can read or type under almost any circumstances, but listening is a Whole Other Thing. So here we go, theoretically better late than never.

The episode features Jennifer Berkshire and Aaron French on their first road trip, for which they head to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Berkshire notes that while the ed debates are "all about the kids," it's rare that the kids' voices are actually heard. And Lawrence makes an interesting destination because the state took over the schools about five years ago.

We find our intrepid podcasters in the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, surrounded by students who are writing responses to the question, "What is education?"

But what they're really talking about is finding a voice, and expressing that voice through writing. "I was angry about a lot of things," says one student, in particular noting "decisions that were made for me" without ever involving her in the process. This is a student-run workshop, even though there are some adults present.

"You don't get many opportunities to experience something bigger than yourself," says one writer in reference to an open-mic night at a local spot, and that really hits me as I listen, because school really ought to provide many of the Bigger Than Yourself opportunities. This is one of the less-often-mentioned aspects of test-driven standards-centered ed reform-- the whole education process has been shrunk down from the business of finding things in the world that are bigger than yourself to a tiny, cramped activity that isn't bigger than anybody.

I'm also struck by how specific this is. Students are largely Dominican immigrants who find themselves in the poorest city in Massachusetts, but they are surprisingly focused on fixing the city, rather than escaping or destroying it. The program addresses turning writers into advocates and activists, and one student talks about pushing back against a system that is set to turn them into robots.

And as an English teacher, I can get really excited about students who see authentic connections between their voice and their writing and their way of being in the world. Even in a classroom that is not dominated by test-centered instruction, it can be hard to get students to see writing as a means of authentic expression and not just some dumb thing the teacher makes you do.

These students surveyed over 600 students in Lawrence about education (imagine that-- surveying students about education) and created results that include a short film (a podcast listener has added a link). But even the description of that film is compelling. You can find it at the bottom of this post-- and it speaks to all of us who work in a classroom, not just reformsters.

This is a great episode, and it's exciting to hear students speak with such strength about finding and using their own voices. I'll make it easy for you to listen-- it's about ten minutes of your time well spent.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

HAL Wants To Pick Your Teacher

Are you responsible for hiring teachers in your district? Do you hate all the mess and bother of actually interviewing other carbon based life forms?

Well, meet TeacherMatch.

If  you are a teacher, TeacherMatch will help you find work, and if you are a hiring department, TeacherMatch can perform flat out magic through the power of Predictive Analytics. From the TeacherMatch blog...

Previously, school districts sorted through a stack of resumes and asked scripted questions during the teacher recruitment process. Today, human resource (HR) departments use predictive analytics to improve the quality of hire, because it allows districts to predict which teachers will positively impact student achievement before they enter the classroom.

Sigh. First, any districts that use "scripted" questions during recruitment and hiring deserve to get the worst hires available. If you are responsible for hiring and you're using scripted questions to do it, you are in the wrong job. Go do something else.

Second, any district that is looking for teachers who "will positively impact student achievement" aka "raise test scores" has lost track of their actual function.

Third, anybody who believes that a consulting service can predict how good a teacher will be before that teacher enters a classroom should go buy a bridge that leads directly to a swamp in Florida.

But wait! There's more! TeacherMatch points out that the power of predictive analytics can be used on students so that teachers and school leaders can "make informed decisions."

One thing TeacherMatch is not is shy. Their "about us" page notes that they were founded by four super-duper people who "worked in the K-12 education system" and who developed a system so awesome that "the U.S. Department of Education used it to shape their multi-billion-dollar school improvement program." It's a bold claim, considering the USED School Improvement Grants program turned out to be a seven billion dollar bust.

So who are the great educational minds behind TeacherMatch?

Well, there's Ron Huberman, co-founder and executive chair. Huberman was Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's Chief of Staff. Later, when Arne Duncan went to DC, Daley moved Huberman into the top spot of Chicago schools. His most recent job before that one? Running Chicago's transit authority. His previous experience of any sort in education? None. Never.

Huberman was hired because of his management experience, and he talked like a manager. He brought in a group of upper managers, all completely devoid of education experience, and he tried to kick his teachers into high gear with a power point presentation described as "Orwellian."

"Be sure to get granular about your metrics before you deep dive into those outcomes and be sure you don't avoid those brutal facts' qualitiatives... Got that?"

Huberman's big accomplishment at the Chicago Transit Authority was to "fix" the budget and the pension problem, and it was that bean-counting skill that was called for at CPS. His clever trick for dealing with the huge debt the system owed teacher pension funding-- get permission to just not pay it. Then he went on to work in the field that he truly loved-- private equity.

Co-founder Don Fraynd taught at a prep school, became a principal, and eventually ran the CPS turnaround office. Co-founder Sanjeev Arora is an investor-entrepreneur who once worked for McKinsey. The rest of the management team includes data science specialists and PR folks-- but not one person who's ever taught in a public school. TeacherMatch has also research partnered with the University of Chicago and NWEA.

Their product is a battery of on-line tests for candidates and teachers to take, everything from QUEST (for recruiting) to EPI, the predictive analytics tool that will identify the four core factors in teacher success. Those four factors are qualifications, cognitive ability, attitudinal factors, and teaching skills, and TeacherMatch can totally tell if you've Got the Right Stuff by using their super-duper proprietary questionnaire.

How shady is this? This shady.

You know when you're on shaky ground? When the National Council on Teacher Quality has questions about your methodology.

Yes, NCTQ, the group that evaluates teacher preparation programs that don't exist, and that evaluates the rigor of a program based on commencement programs-- those guys. Kate Walsh, head of the least serious "research" group in education, said that it's hard to know if TeacherMatch is bunk or not.

“We don’t know whether their predictive analytics are accurate,” she said. “It might be snake oil or it might be great.”

I'm prepared to make the great-or-snake-oil call, but let's see what Huberman has to say about the origins of this magical tool:

Huberman said the company enlisted the help of researchers who analyzed reams of data on student performance, looking for teachers whose students consistently made large gains on standardized tests and teachers whose students consistently did not make those gains.

Then the company surveyed both kinds of teachers, looking for patterns in the way they answered questions about how they might respond to classroom misbehavior, for example, or how they might teach a certain academic standard. That work became the backbone of the inventory now used in dozens of districts.

So what TeacherMatch has done is reverse-engineer a Value Added Measure system-- only sloppier, lazier and with even less basis in solid data and research. Huberman and his buddies actually found a way to make VAM worse! Though when it came time to pitch this, they whipped up a video that is both full of jargoneque vaguosity, and yet somehow promises more than Huberman's quick explanation. Get out your business bullshit bingo card, and play along:

Note that "teachers matter most" as we repeat the old misrepresented data about teachers being the single largest in school factor. And look--here are some logos of "renowned universities" (and the Gates Foundation). I like the part where they call themselves "a team of dedicated educators," which may be one of the more loose definitions of "educators" I've encountered in a while. And look-- they flipped through decades of research to "extract actionable conclusions" which sounds so much cooler than "to write some multiple choice questions" (any experts on test design in your group, there?) But at least they used "advanced scientific techniques that provide multilevel analyses of nested groups, test causal relationships of abstract variables and measure comparative outcomes" and how in the name of God does this NOT set off everybody's bullshit detectors? I can't even imagine writing this with a straight face.

The EPI is reportedly just a 100 item multiple choice question test. And Huberman does say that you should have other parts of your hiring process. But that's not the question-- the question is, why would you use this at all ever? Although you know who might use this? Other people with no first-hand knowledge of teaching, like charter school operators and Broad-trained superintendents. So maybe there is a market.

The Bad News

There must be a market, because another company just bought TeacherMatch. Here's the lead from the May 24 press release:

PeopleAdmin, the leader in talent management software for education, announced today that it has acquired TeacherMatch, joining forces to offer the industry’s most comprehensive talent management platform and analytical solution for identifying, hiring, and developing educators most effective at driving student achievement.

If you want to learn more about PeopleAdmin, you could attend their big June convention in Austin, a "can't miss industry event for Higher Ed and Government customers, thought leaders, and PeopleAdmin employees."

In the meantime, we are left to conclude that TeacherMatch actually is actually making money, which is sad. It's the kind of thing that really shakes my faith in capitalism and the free market, because this is clearly a company that deserves to die.

ICYMI: Goodbye, May!

It's that time of year, so I'm going to start with a non-education recommendation. If it's useful to you or someone you love, pass it on. If not, skip ahead to the education readings for the week.

My daughter has extensively researched and researched, looking for resources that are both eco-friendly and are made in the USA, and she recently gathered all her research about wedding-related stuff in one post. If you want to be a more responsible consumer, but can't find the time to look everything up, her blog is loaded with resources and links to help you. 

Charter-Choice-- A Closer Look

God bless Roxana Marachi, who has used scoopit to collect a ton of reading about charters and choice. I probably should have put this last, because it's a whole day's worth of reading all by itself.

Another Brick in the Data Wall

If you are not a regular Nancy Flanagan reader, you should fix that. Teacher in a Strange Land is a reliable source of sensible writing about education (don't be put off by the Education Week address).I love the opening of this one:

"To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail." (Abraham Maslow)
And to the man who has a computer, everything he encounters begins to look like data.

Alice in PARCCland: Does validity study really prove the Common Core is valid? 

Education Next trotted out a "validity study" from last fall, and William Mathis at the National Education Policy Center did a fine take down. I refer you to Valerie Strauss's coverage instead of the original NEPC post, because Strauss also has the response from the researchers.

Does School Choice Help Close the Graduation Gap"

Sabrina Joy Stevens addresses one of the big claims of choice fans. Yet another good piece of work from the Progressive Education Fellows (full disclosure-- I'm one of them, but it's an otherwise very reputable group).

Response to Chait

Perhaps you saw Jonathan Chait's piece this week in which he tried to argue that She Who Will Not Be Named, former education queen on DC, was actually a rousing success. Here the Daily Howler shows how full of it Chait is (with data, too).

Confronting the Parasite Economy

This piece is long, but it's the best thing I've read for explaining why an economy resting on minimum wage working poor people is no good for anyone-- and it does it without resorting to anything except cold, hard, self-interested economics.

3M Dance Party

Yesterday, views on this blog passed the three million mark.

It's kind of amazing and definitely humbling. But mostly what it tells me is that the issues I vent about here are important to a lot of people. As I said a million hits ago, those hits don't mean I'm an important guy-- they mean I'm writing about important stuff.

The fact that I have an audience is a testament to the connectedness of those of us who care about public education. The BATS and Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and a legion of other people who saw something in what I wrote and passed it along-- that's why there's an audience here. That's why yours truly and the many excellent bloggers over there in the right-hand column have audiences and other websites with budgets of millions of dollars still struggle for traction.

The question I'm most frequently asked is about the output-- how do I put up at least a post a day, every single day? I'm never sure how to answer that, because I don't really have a choice. The news is filled with Stuff Happening every day, and I read a lot, and public education is on my mind all the time. I never sit down and start by thinking, "Hmm, what could I write about today?" It's always, "I've got fifteen things on my mind right now-- how many do I have time to clear off my plate?" I'm not sure this proves anything except that I need a hobby.

My other secret is low standards. Seriously. If I set out to make every post a masterpiece, I'd never get anything done. I have huge respect for people who do create mini-masterpieces with care and craft. I'm just a banger. And people who do the work of actual journalism and research? Worth their weight in gold.

If I knew then what I know now... well, I might have made different platform choices (cough*wordpress*cough). And I still have trouble managing my comments. Lord, I still remember how excited I was to get my first spam. Now I could sculpt a spam army.

Anyway, my thanks to you, loyal readers and casual drive-bys. I am grateful that my writing has ended up being more than just venting into the void. May the day come when I have nothing interesting to write about.

In the meantime, let me share some music with you. We'll call it a dance party.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

FL: District Officials Lose Their Damned Minds

School district officials in Sarasota and Manatee counties have completely lost any sense of what they're supposed to be doing.

There are areas of policy and practice in the education debates where reasonable people can reach different conclusions about what might be best. This is not one of those times. Some Florida school districts have simply and completely lost the thread.

The issue is simple. In Florida, some third graders opted out of the Florida Standards Assessment (Florida's version of the Big Standardized Test). They also opted out of the alternative BS Test, the SAT-10 (a version of the Stanford Achievement Test, and not one more piece of money grubbery from the College Board).

But Florida insists that its students take the BS Test, regardless. And Florida also has one of those sense-defying laws that says third graders who can't pass the reading test must be retained. It's a dumb policy for many reasons, not the least of which is that there isn't a lick of evidence that holding third graders back helps. And cooler heads seem to have prevailed last year when the Florida legislature, in a brief moment of lucidity, decided to suspend the rule and just let the actual local school where education professionals worked with the actual children-- just let those guys make the call.

But not this year. This year a third grader can have great grades, the recommendation of her teacher and principal, and the admiration of her peers-- but if she didn't take the BS Test, she will fail third grade. 

Let me say that again. An eight year old child who had a great year in class, demonstrated the full range of skills, and has a super report card-- that child will be required to repeat third grade because she didn't take the BS Test.

This is what happens when the central values of your education system are A) compliance and B) standardized testing. This is what happens when you completely lose track of the purpose of school.

What possible purpose can be served by this? Are administrators worried that the child might not be able to read? No-- because that is easily investigated by looking at all the child's work from the year.

What possible benefit could there be to the child? Mind you, it's impossible to come up with a benefit in retention for the child who has actually failed the test-- but what possible benefit can there be in flunking a child who can read, her teacher knows she can read, her parents know she can read, she knows she can read-- seriously, what possible benefit can there be for her in retention. How do you even begin to convince yourself that you are thinking of the child's well-being at all when you decide to do this?

This is punishment, not so pure, but painfully simple. Punishment for non-compliance, for failing to knuckle under to the state's testing regime. And in taking this step, the districts show where their priorities lie-- the education of the children is less important than beating compliance into them and their parents, less important than taking the damned BS Test.

Officials in these counties scratch their heads? What can we do? The law is the law. Well, in the immortal words of Mr. Bumble, "the law is an ass." And furthermore, just look across county lines at some other Florida counties that are NOT doing this to their third graders. Go ahead. Peek at their answer. Copy it.

Hell, Superintendent Lori White of the Sarasota schools is retiring in February of 2017-- is this really how she wants to finish up her time there?

[ Update: Meanwhile, in Manatee County, Superintendent Diana Greene has dug in her heels and declared that the state's directive is clear, and maybe those other counties are the ones that need to shape up and stop passing kids willy nilly. Manatee students may use an alternative assessment like a portfolio-- IF they take the BS Test.

Greene may well have read the state correctly. In the same report from the Bradenton Herald, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Cynthia Saunders is quoted as saying, “We cannot promote a child based solely on the teacher’s report card in third grade."

In other words, the state does not require proof that the child can read. The state requires proof that the child took the Big Standardized Test.]

There are times when the tension between test-driven schooling and education centered on the best needs of the children can be fuzzy, blurry, hard for some folks to see the dividing line. This is not one of those times. When you are planning to hold a child back a grade for absolutely no reason except that she didn't take your mandated BS Test, and when you have ample evidence and data about how well she learned and grew this year-- when you have reached that point, you have absolutely lost track of what you're supposed to be doing. You have lost your damned mind.

There is no excuse for holding back a student with good grades. No excuse at all, certainly not that the child wouldn't take your precious test, your crappy test that wouldn't tell you a thing that you can't already better find out from sources you already have. This is deeply and terribly wrong, and I hope the administrations and school boards of the offending counties find themselves buried in a mountain of angry letters, emails and phone calls, as well as a shit storm of deservedly negative publicity. Then I hope they go sit in the corner and think about what they've done and consider whether or not they have a future in education.

  Seriously-- this is what we're talking about. I'm including this visual because it's hard to believe. 

The state has issued a statement, sort of, on the matter. Update is here--

ESSA: Regulatory Baloney

Legislators write and pass laws. But the laws they create are sometimes vague and sometimes contradictory, a weird quilt of intentions and tissue. So it falls to other parts of the government to turn laws into regulations. And that's where we are now with the Every Student Succeeds Act (the latest version of the Big Bunch O'Federal Education Laws, the sequel to No Child Left Behind).

Many eyes (not all eyes, unfortunately-- it would be great if all eyes were paying attention, but eyes have been diverted by the dumpster fires that are our primary season, among other things) have been watching John King and the Department of Education, because it's at this stage of the game that King gets to "interpret" ESSA to suit his own ideas of what it ought to say.

This is what Arne Duncan was talking about last December when he told Politico that the USED lawyers were smarter than the members of Congress, and this is what Lamar Alexander has been talking about in his scorching calls to war against John King's USED. Alexander has been crystal clear-- if King tries to turn himself into America's School Superintendent, Alexander is going to come after the secretary with every garden tool in the Congressional woodshed.

The USED is trumpeting its move away from the narrow definition of school achievement based on a single Big Standardized Test, with a new "holistic" approach that allows for four factors:

the proposed regulations build on the statutory language by ensuring the use of multiple measures of school success based on academic outcomes, student progress, and school quality, reinforcing that all students deserve a well-rounded education that prepares them to succeed in college and careers. 

 So it's in that context that USED released the draft version of the accountability rules under ESSA. And King is proving to be just as politically adept and  responsive to outside voices as he was a Education Chieftain in New York, which is to say "Not At All." There are, as we always knew there would be, many things not to like about the regulations. Here are some of the bad ideas that are enshrined in the proposed regulations.

Stack Ranking of Schools

Schools must be given a "summative rating," which is such a made-up baloney term; I just googled it and got only 209 returns, most of which had to do with financial services, and Google Ngram returns zero instances of the term. 

The meaning is clear enough from the context. "Summative rating" means "grade." Every school has to be given a grade, and that grade has to be used to stack rank schools, because states must show the feds that they have a plan for dealing with the bottom-ranking schools. The regulations once again target the magical "bottom 5%," an arbitrary number that has never, ever been explained, but is just the go-to number for targeting the bottom of the stack. And of course, since we're stack ranking, there will always be a bottom 5%. If every school in the state is cranking out magna cum laude college graduates and 100% of the state's students are getting straight A's while acing the SAT and, in short, every single school is awesome, there will still be a bottom 5%.

Stack ranking guarantees that there will be losers, no matter what.

The 95% Rule and Opt Out 

Congress sent a severely mixed message in ESSA by forcefully recognizing parents' right to opt their children out of taking the Big Standardized Test and by forcefully demanding that states have 95% participation in BS Testing.

King and the USED have resolved that conflict by simply ignoring the parental right portion.

The regulations say that "robust actions" must be taken against schools that don't get 95% participation. "Robust actions" is itself a little slice of meaningless word salad (should the superintendent stand outside the offending school, rip off his shirt, flex his muscles, and grunt strenuously?) but USED turns it into a multiple choice question, saying that the government-approved robust actions include lowering the school's grade, giving them the lowest score for academic strength, moving the school straight onto the naughty (needs improvement) list, or anything state-approved that would punish the school good and make its rate go up.

No word on whether or not this would include low participation because the test manufacturer completely botched their job.

This set of regulations and punishments are a tell about King's priorities. Look at that second option-- if your school's BS Test participation is too low, you could be given the lowest score for academic achievement. But if academic achievement is being measured with instruments other than the BS Test, you would still have that data. If academic achievement is going to be one more massaging of the BS Test scores, well,  A) that's stupid and B) you have no idea what the rating should be, so why default to lowest possible?

In other words, we either know perfectly well what the academic achievement is, or we have no idea at all. But USED doesn't care. Or at least knowing the actual academic achievement is not as important to them as punishing non-compliance with test-taking.

At the end of the day, King's USED is more interested in making students take the test than in actually knowing how the students are doing.


ESSA comes loaded with lots of data reporting. Transparency! We are totally about transparency, and that's why the complete text including all questions and answers from the BS Tests will be released every year to students and parents. Ha! Just kidding. That stuff will still stay under lock and key. Transparency is okay for schools, but not valuable corporate interests (even though both are being paid with tax dollars).

Anyway, the USED has all sorts of things that must be reported now that "Ensures that families and stakeholders have clear, robust, and consistent information needed to engage meaningfully in their education systems."

School report cards must be made public before the end of each calendar year (also known as "roughly half way through the school year," so I'm not sure what help this is providing). The report card has to include financial recording, too, as well as post-secondary enrollment numbers. That sounds relatively innocuous, but I'm imagining a nineteen year old who gets a call or email from his old high school saying, "We want you to tell us what you're up to now" and who thinks-- correctly-- you are no longer the boss of me, and I don't have to tell you jack. Or who just writes down "clown school."

Is Anyone Excited

The Obama Administration has approached education oversight as a civil rights issue, and so they have depended on civil rights groups to give them backing and cover. Those groups are lukewarm in their response; roughly, "This stuff could be okay, probably, if anyone can figure out how to enforce it.

Congress is not excited. Alexander observed that Congress discussed some items for the law, decided not to include those items, and now the department has just gone ahead and put them back in. John Kline of the House Education and the Workforce Committee was equally unimpressed:

“I am deeply concerned that the department is trying to take us back to the days when Washington dictated national policy,” he said. “If this proposal results in a rule that does not reflect the letter and intent of the law, then we will use every available tool to ensure this bipartisan law is implemented as Congress intended.”

For the rest of us, ESSA continues to look pretty much like it has always looked-- probably marginally better than NCLB and RTTT-Waiverpallooza, but that's not saying a lot, is it? Probably better to be stabbed with a clean, sharp knife that a rusty shovel, but could we please see some other options? The school grades are maybe better than NCLB's pass-fail for schools. Multiple measures will be better than just BS Test scores, but the test scores are still in the mix, and they are still crap. There's a whole bunch of noise about shuffling subgroups about; I'm sure that's going to be awesome.

The Unexpected Benefit of ESSA

There is one interesting new feature of ESSA-- an open, contentious split between the department and Congress. Under Race to the Top/Waiverpalooza, Congress just kind of sat on its hands doing nothing because it couldn't get its act together and was not, for a while, sure how it collectively felt about the whole mess. When the Obama administration wadded up NCLB and wiped their nose with it, there wasn't much to say-- they could only get away with that because Congress hadn't done its job and the alternative was to deal with the mess of every single state in the nation standing in violation of what was technically still the law.

But things are different now.

Congress did their job. Maybe not great, but they did it, and they did it with a level of bi-partisanship that we haven't seen in quite a while. That, and they actually took power away from a federal department-- another unprecedented feat.

They were pretty proud of their work. Lamar Alexander is no choir boy or education hero, but he's made it quite clear that he'll be damned if he's going to stand by when the administration tries to wad up ESSA and blow their noses on it. All the signs point to a protracted battle about what the law is actually going to say and what kind of maneuvers might be used to interfere with it.

In other words, Mom and Dad are having a big fight over curfew and room cleaning and which chores we do or don't have to do. And as every kid knows, when Mom and Dad are wrapped up in fights about house rules, there's no telling what golden opportunities you'll have to do what you want. For those of us who can find some brave and tough champions for education on the state level, these could be interesting times.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Bad Child?

I don't remember the first person to ask me, but I remember how I felt when I heard the question, asked of my then fresh-out-the-package daughter.

Is she a good baby?

I was stumped. She's a baby. I'm pretty sure that her moral and ethical sense are somewhat limited at the moment, that she doesn't really know much about the world or her proper relationship with it. Good? Bad? She's a baby.

Of course, what the question meant (and still means, because now I hear it asked about my grandson) is does she go to sleep easily? Does she cry much? Does she stick to a regular schedule? Does she let you sleep at night?

In other words (literally), "is she good" meant roughly "does she behave in a way that is convenient for you?"

This is crazy talk. The child is hungry when she's hungry-- are we suggesting that she should have the decency to just suck it up until a decent hour of the morning? Do we think she should stop crying, stop using the only expression she has for "I feel really bad," out of consideration for our adult feelings? 

I was sensitive to the idea because in those early days of my career I was teaching in middle school and I was wrestling with the uncomfortable realization that what some of my colleagues meant by "Good student" was not "a student who displays curiosity, insight, creativity, hard work, and interest in learning." What they meant was, "A student who behaves in the ways that are most convenient for us." In those days, we were institutionally fuzzy about the difference between "excellence" and "compliance."

This is how we label a child and set that child on track for failure, conflict and all the worst things that we can throw at them. We label that child "bad" and what we mean is "that child is non-compliant and won't behave in ways that are most convenient for those of us who have the power." And that word "bad" just keeps meaning that through elementary school, high school, and on after, when we declare that the neighborhood that the now-grown child lives is a bad neighborhood, a neighborhood where too many people are non-compliant, too many people behave in ways that are inconvenient and undesirable for the folks in power.

This is the worst conceivable definition of "bad"-- "inconvenient for me and the exercise of my power over this person."

There was a time when teachers received plenty of sensitivity training, where we were told to respond to bad children by asking what it was, exactly, that made them so bad.

I would suggest, instead, that we ask ourselves why we are trotting out the B word.

A rational human being does not respond to a crying infant with, "How dare you do this to me! You shape up right now or else!" Instead, you ask, "Why is this child crying? What is she trying to tell me?"

I am not sure there is ever a reason to stop asking that question.

Now, I'm not saying that some of the actions don't need to be dealt with. If a student picks up a desk and tries to throw it at other students, that action is destructive and injurious and needs to be stopped.

But after the danger and damage have been dealt with, there is still time to ask the question why. What is the person trying to communicate? What's the message that's being lost in translation? What is it we're not hearing?

"Bad" gets in the way of that process. "Bad" is the conversation-ender. There's no explanation, nothing to understand, because the person is just bad.

And there are certainly times when "bad" is the right word, where we are dealing with a person whose choices, actions, inclinations, values are violations of moral and ethical standards. But before we deploy the B word, we should be certain that it really applies. When we use the B word, do we mean that this is a person who is actually and demonstrably evil, or do we just mean that this person insists on behaving in ways that are inconvenient and annoying to those of us with power.

One lesson of Teacher 101 is "It's not personal." Though a student's action may feel like a bold statement of, "I hate you, teacher, and you suck," it probably isn't (even if the student actually says, "I hate you, teacher, and you suck). What I'm proposing is just an extension of that.

A student's action might be non-compliant. It might be inconvenient for us as the power in the room. But unless we're prepared to argue that compliance to authority is a higher moral virtue, we had better think for a second or twelve before we call that student "bad." If our message is that Good People are the ones who always kneel to the dominant power or culture, we need a new set of definitions, and perhaps a new approach to the "good" and "bad" people in our classrooms.

Ed Debate Political Fault Lines

Even a casual stroll through the Garden of Reformy Delights reveals some flora and fauna that do not ordinarily grow together. Here are some small government types clamoring for education standards imposed on the federal level. There are some nominal liberals complaining about the evils of teacher unions. Support for charter schools runs across the entire political range.

And it's no different in the Greenhouse of Reform Resistance. The push against Common Core united Bible-thumping conservatives with godless heathen liberals. The lawmakers in Oklahoma who just rejected test-and-wonky-math-driven evaluation for teachers were not Democrats standing up for teachers' unions, but Republicans standing up for local control.

The Ed Reform Debates have been marked by wholesale traffic in Strange Bedfellows, and that tends to create some stress and strain within some alliances.

At the Fordham blog, Robert Pondiscio is concerned that schisms within the reform camp are creating problems for conservatives. Specifically, he sees the "liberal" wing of reform, the social justice warriors, pushing out the conservatives, the fans of unleashing free market forces, a conflict that Pondiscio says he's been seeing unfold at various reformy gatherings.

One veteran conservative education reformer describes himself as “furious and frustrated” by the increasing dominance of social justice warriors in education reform and the marginalization of dissenting views. “It's an existential threat,” he notes. “Any group that only associates with likeminded people is susceptible to becoming extreme, inflexible, self-righteous, and losing its ability to see its own weaknesses.” This opinion was echoed in a series of interviews with other prominent reformers—most right of center, though not all—in the past week. One sign of the dominance of the new orthodoxy: Almost none were willing to be quoted on the record. “I'm involved in too many fights,” says one. “I can't pick another.”

Pondiscio is worried that the collapse of an alliance between social justice liberals and free market conservatives will keep both from achieving their goals, and of course, I'm okay with that. But if I'm honest-- well, it's not like the Pro Public Education side of things is devoid of any disagreement or infighting. There are some pretty fundamental splits over here, such as disagreement about whether Common Core was an aberrant attack on US public education or a symptomatic expression of everything already wrong with US public ed.

But as someone who doesn't parse politics for a living, I want to suggest that there is both more and less to these sorts of divisions than meets the eye. In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that I'm a registered Democrat (because PA independents don't get to vote in primaries) with virtually no political heroes (except my grandmother, a lifelong NH legislator) and who comes from a family background of Republicanism.

So what are some of the fault lines running through the education debates?

Tribal Alliances

We're living through the very worst of political tribalism, as both GOP and Democrats jettison every pretense of principle just in hopes of being able to say, "Somebody nominally labeled a member of my party won the Presidency!" With both Trump and Clinton, we are treated to a display of party leaders declaring, "There is no belief that I would not toss in the trash in return for the chance to stand next to a winner."

In many states, education alliances have been built on similar principles. If a Democratic governor comes out for ed reform, GOP legislators must oppose him, because reasons. Ditto GOP backers of reformster policies. Once just one person takes a stand, everyone else has to line up based on their party allegiances and not any particular principles about education.

Follow the Money

The reformster movement draws much of its power from the basic observation, "Hey, that is one huge pile of money over there in public education. We want a piece." The hedge fund industry was not suddenly struck with concern about education; they saw a plum ripe for the plucking, and they got out their hedge fund trimmers. Free market fans say, "Sure, and that pursuit of money is what will fuel a competition for educational excellence," and I think they are full of what my grandmother used to call manookie.

But money is politics-blind. It is amoral. When The Gates spends a gazillion dollars on ed reform advocacy, it doesn't care about the political or philosophical stripes of the recipients-- Gates would have given a pile of money to the Church of the Flying Spagetti Monster if he thought that church could help promote Common Core. Whitney Tilson's decision to found Democrats for Education Reform instead of Republicans for Education Reform was, in his own telling, a tactical choice and not connected to any particular political convictions. Only Nixon can go to China, and only a Democrat could argue that the teachers unions should be banished to Outer Slobovia.

So in many cases, we're not talking about convictions or philosophies or deep-held ideas. Just money.

Rhetorical Tool Bags

Civil rights and social justice. Escaping zip codes. Let the students have control of their own school money. Provide all parents with a choice. Freedom. Escape government schools. Stifled by teachers unions. Achievement. Achievement gap.

The list is long. Advocating for a political policy point is about finding the language to frame the issue and control the narrative. You don't get there by asking "What do I actually believe" but by asking "What language will best push people to our side? What will help us sell the policy?"

This is politics as usual. Hire a group to do market studies, and create a manual, as the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools did when they hired the Glover Group to create the Charter School Messaging Notebook. Set up your talking points, hire some guys to help deploy them, rinse and repeat.

What muddies the water is that with every talking point, you will have some combination of people who actually believe the talking point and some who are just cynical operators. The civil rights issue that is at the heart of what troubles Pondiscio is one such tool-- there are plenty of folks who are really and sincerely committed to the civil rights and equity side of the education debates, and there are others who have latched onto the argument as a way to win their true goals. The ultimate effect is people who are saying the same thing, but who have completely different intentions and values behind their words. Which brings us to...


Some participants in the ed debates simply aren't honest about what their goals and values are, mostly because they understand that if they were honest, they would lose. You can't just say, "We really want to make a lot of money by taking over part of the public education system" or "We really want to increase our political clout by making alliances with people that our members find odious" and definitely not "I'm going to push this idea mainly because I've been paid well to do so."

So you find ways to dress it up and thereby establish that one of the Rules of Engagement will be that folks can go ahead and sling bullshit as much as they want, which has the extra consequence of having everyone enter the debates with their bullshit defectors set on "High."

There's a huge level of intellectual dishonesty among many reformsters, who select whatever argument they believe will help them make the sale, though there are certainly conservative reform fans who display a willingness to follow their principles where they lead, rather than trying to create an argument for the outcome they've pre-selected. I read guys like Pondiscio, Andy Smarick, and Rick Hess not because I agree with them, but because they are generally honest and consistent about what they say and how they follow a line of thought.

And about those political labels

This morning I saw someone responding to the article by calling Pondiscio a liberal, which is seriously off the mark. Well, I think it's off the mark. Because labels are hard to sort out these days. We have Democrat and GOP governors who are standing up for exactly the same thing. I would be hard-pressed to find the difference between the "left-leaning" Center for American Progress and the "right-leaning" Fordham Institute when it comes to education policy. What's the difference between a neo-liberal and a free market conservative, again?

I'm far more interested in the principles that guide a person than what label we can slap on that person. As soon as we start labeling, we lose a ton of nuance and we start to group things (and people) together in ways that don't necessarily hold up or make sense. Pondiscio is worried about the liberals throwing the conservatives out of the reform movement, but I have some doubts about how many of those "liberals" and "conservatives" are really, actually either.

Those kinds of alliances make sense for specific goals ("Let's get all the fences painted red") but have a hard time holding together for broader, vaguer objectives ("Let's insure policy is more influenced by neo-syllogistic free market equity concepts").

False Equivalency Disclaimer

While it's possible for all sides (there are definitely more than two) of the education debates to be riven by these fault lines, you will be unsurprised to learn that I think reformsters are far more susceptible.

For one thing, there is far more money in play in pro-reform circles. Carol Burris, head of the Network for Public Education, is literally the only person I can think of who is even sort of making a living as an advocate for public education. Meanwhile, Gates and Walton and the rest have thrown enough money at reformsters to support a small country, and that money is being thrown because even more money is at stake as winnings in the ed policy debate. That kind of money draws a large number of flies, including flies that may or may not care about anything except the money.

Meanwhile, there's no good reason to be an advocate or activist for public education except that you care about the issues involved. I know some reformsters find this hard to believe, hence the occasional claims that somebody is being paid Big Bucks by the unions. But no-- we're just here sticking up for what we believe, in a fairly uncoordinated, disorganized manner. There's no question that the Resistance is not one tight, completely-in-agreement coalition, but there aren't as many of us, and we don't have a lot of power or money riding on the outcome. I'm not in a Movement, and so I don't have to make sure that I'm saying the currently-approved statements or throwing support to people I disagree with just because we are paid by the same backers. If you're an opportunist looking to score power and money, the reform resistance movement is a bad investment.

The reform movement has always stapled together folks who are not naturally allies. Throw in all the rest of these fractures and issues and you're sure to see pieces and parts come flying off the machine from time to time. Heck-- the Common Core Cheerleaders Club has gotten mighty small and lonely and now has to sit in the back instead of taking reformy point. If I were a reformster, I might worry less about the mix of liberals and conservatives and more about the mix of people who are sincerely concerned and people who are just opportunists.