Thursday, June 30, 2016

NJ: A Research Answer to Christie's Terrible Funding Proposal

Imagine that a state decides to stop offering any sort of food stamp program. The governor declares, "Everybody in our state deserves to eat, so from now on, instead of any sort of means-tested system, we will just give five bucks per week to every citizen of the state to buy food with. "

Or a governor from a state like Colorado announces that he's tired of paying so much more for snow removal on mountain roads than he is for small residential streets. Therefor, in the future, he will set aside $100 bucks for each road in the state and that's all each roadway, whether it's a twenty mile road through a mountain pass or a two block street in the suburbs.

Or a parent decides that to be absolutely fair, she will spend exactly the same amount of money on each child, including the youngest one-year-old child, the middle child who has physical issues that confine her to a wheelchair, and the oldest child who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Each one gets ten dollars a week spent on them, and that's it. Because, fairness.

Regular readers know I am all about the illustrative comparison, but the fact is that I am stumped for examples that really convey just how criminally dumb and destructive Chris Christie's proposal to spend exactly and only the same amount on each student in New Jersey. The proposal will be a windfall for wealthy districts and leave poor district further impoverished.

In addition to being brutally crippling, it also reveals a warped attitude about school funding. Christie is clearly approaching education funding as if it's a reward that students earn, and not the instrument by which the state meets its obligation to its children. Christie's approach is like going to the bank and saying, "Well, I guess I will give you as much of this mortgage payment as I think you deserve." Nope. The state has an obligation to its children, and the question the governor should be asking is, "How can we best meet that obligation for all children."

Nobody likes this proposal. Tom Moran, ever a Christie booster, doesn't like it. Erik Hanushek, who has produced plenty of research-like product supporting the unimportance of school funding, doesn't like it.

But if you would like a scholarly, research-based, rational non-invective-laced explanation of exactly how awful this plan is,  Mark Weber and Ajay Srikanth have you covered. Weber has set aside his Jersey Jazzman snark hat and put on his Legitimate Scholarly Researcher hat to produce a report to answer the question, how fair is the fairness formula?

I recommend you read the whole thing, and then, if you live in New Jersey, I suggest you pick up the phone and call some elected official. This proposal deserves to die, but you know that Chris Cjristie does not play well with others.

In the meantime, here's the executive summary of the report to whet your apetite:

Executive Summary

This brief provides a first look at the “Fairness Formula,” Chris Christie’s school tax reform plan. In this analysis, we show:
  • The “Fairness Formula” will greatly reward the most-affluent districts, which are already paying the lowest school tax rates as measured by percentage of income.
  • The “Fairness Formula” will force the least-affluent districts to slash their school budgets, severely increase local property taxes, or both.
  • The premise of the “Fairness Formula” – that the schools enrolling New Jersey’s at-risk students have “failed” during the period of substantial school reform – is contradicted by a large body of evidence.
The “Fairness Formula,” then, would transform New Jersey’s school funding system from a national model of equity[1] into one of the least equitable in the country, both in terms of education and taxation. This proposal is so radical and so contradicted by both the evidence and economic theory that even the harshest critics of school funding reform cannot support it.

Why Investors Love Charter Schools

When you see the announcement that the Waltons want to pump another $250 million into charter schools, you just have to wonder why.

I know the Waltons (of Wal-Mart fame) are big fans of charter schools, but they didn't become gazillionaires by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on things they just find shiny. And if they really wanted to push charters, they have an army of employees that could be incentivized to push charters. Heck, the Waltons are in a position to offer employees some sort of bonus or support to send their own children to charter schools. So maybe the quarter billion bucks is just heartfelt charity. But I have my doubts.

Part of the clue is in exactly what the Waltons want to spend that $250 million on. They're not really pumping money into the charter school industry-- they're pumping money into the charter school building industry. They make the periodically made point that the charter industry suffers from not having Uncle Sugar to buy buildings for them. I'm not sure that's a real problem.

There's a good case to be made for the charter industry being a large real estate scam, and Leslie T. Fenwick made it pretty forcefully a few weeks ago in Valerie Strauss's column at the Washington Post.

In the most recent cases of Washington D.C. and Chicago, black parents and other community members point to school closings as verification of their distrust of school “reform” efforts. Indeed, mayoral control has been linked to an emerging pattern of closing and disinvesting in schools that serve black poor students and reopening them as charters operated by education management organizations and backed by venture capitalists. While mayoral control proposes to expand educational opportunities for black and poor students, more-often-than-not new schools are placed in upper-income, gentrifying white areas of town, while more schools are closed and fewer new schools are opened in lower-income, black areas thus increasing the level of educational inequity. Black inner-city residents are suspicious of school reform (particularly when it is attached to neighborhood revitalization) which they view as an imposition from external white elites who are exclusively committed to using schools to recalculate urban land values at the expense of black children, parents and communities.

But there's more to it than that-- and there has been for sixteen years. We've been reminded repeatedly, but I'm going to remind us again.

Included in the Clinton era Community Tax Relief Act of 2000, and renewed repeatedly since then (it was just upped for another five years in the 2016 spending bill) is the New Markets Tax Credit. Here's the simple explanation from Investopedia:

The NMTC has two components: a 39% tax credit on charter schools contributions over a seven-year period plus the ability to collect interest on the money they contribute. A hedge fund could double its investment in seven years, and the tax credit can be combined with other tax breaks without limit. It is not surprising that hedge funds have flocked to this deal handed out by the federal government. 

Double your investment in seven years.

Double. Your. Investment. In. Seven. Years.

Not only do you double your investment in seven years, but this is not like investing in the latest tech start-up vaporware producer. Risk is tiny. Return on investment is huge. Is it any wonder that hedge funds love charter schools, or that companies like NewSchools Venture Fund, a firm that exists just to put investor money together with charter school projects, are an actual thing. I mean, for all our talk about the Importance of Classroom Teachers, is there anybody running a big company just to recruit and place the very best teachers in schools? No-- just outfits like TFA which, whatever its original best intentions, is now a wing of this moneymaking industry ("You can double your money on the building and, since we've got to put something in the building in order to call it a school, we can hook you up with these low cost, low trouble, quick turnover sort-of-teachers .")

Plus, you look like a real mensch for investing schools. It's like investing in puppies-- everyone just assumes that you are up to something admirable and fine. After all, it's a school. It's For The Children. Who would cast a gimlet eye at such a noble enterprise?

Well, more of us should. "Follow the money" remains good advice when people who have not otherwise shown the slightest interest in a sector of our society suddenly want to plunk down their money and get in the game. The last two decades have been marked by a huge influx of amateurs with thick wallets pushing their way into the education biz; I don't think it's an incredible coincidence that they're able to get rich doing it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Relatively Pregnant

I totally owe this post to Pondiscio's tweet.

First, I share his pet peeve (even though I'm not prepared to bet anything valuable that I've never violated it). You are unique or you're not. You are pregnant or you're not. There is no relatively unique, relatively pregnant.

Put another way, when you go to the doctor to see if you're pregnant or not, the doctor does not say, "Well, let me draw some blood. As soon as I've collected samples from a few hundred other women, I'll be able to decide whether you're relatively pregnant or not."  No, there is no "relatively pregnant."

You take the test. You find out whether or not you're pregnant. You are just as pregnant when you take the test alone as you are when you take it at the same time as thousand so of other women.

Yes, this is yet another way to look at the difference between standards-referenced and norm-referenced testing.

If the Big Standardized Test (PARCC, SBA, PSSA, MOUSE, ETC) were truly a standards-referenced test, a student could take the test and know if she were proficient or not. And that is the implied promise of the BS Tests-- that they will measure proficiency against a standard.

But if that were true, we would not need thousands of students to take the test. One student, alone, could take the test and be told whether she was proficient or basic or whatever. No test manufacturer, no state would have to say, "Okay, as soon as we have the test results from thousands of other students, we'll be able to tell you if you're proficient."

One student, alone, could take the test and be given the results. We would not need the state government, the federal government, and the testocrats to say, "We can't have opt out because every child must take the test because if every child doesn't take the test, we won't get meaningful results."

We have been promised a test that tells us whether or not a student is proficient in reading and math. We were promised a test that would tell us whether or not a student is, in absolute terms, proficient, giving us, as Arne Duncan put it, the power to look an eight year old in the face and tell her whether or not she's on track for college.

What we have instead is a test that tells us if a student is relatively proficient. Which makes no more sense than a test to determine if a woman is relatively pregnant.

Happy Birthday to Another Reformster Miss

Today is the one year birthday of yet another failed reformster PR experiment.

A year ago, somebody mysterious launched Head in the Sand Blog dot org, and its mission was pretty simple.

We are the reasonable middle whose voices are rarely heard in education debates around school reform, the common-sense parents and educators who live and work outside of big urban areas. We want the truth about our kids and schools. We want our own children to succeed, but we also care deeply about making schools better for all children. We are not satisfied with the status quo. We know our schools can improve.

Well, that sounds swell. We don't actually need to read any of the articles to get a sense of where these guys are headed. Just skim through the titles:

Is your Common Core opposition driven by selfishness or cluelessness? 

Why do suburban Mass teachers want to block school choice for the state’s poorest children? 

Our complacent American high schools: The achilles heel of school reform 

Suburban schools are not ready for big-city challenges 

American Delusion: The Kids Are Alright 

It’s PARCC day at school, and we’re not sweating the test 

Opt Outs driven by more than just union propaganda—blame suburban status quo too 

A mom paves a path to math understanding through Common Core 

College remediation: Not just a problem for those ‘other’ kids 

‘Counterfeit’ Diplomas: We’re Killing Our Kids With Kindness 

‘Not-As-Good-As-You-Think’ Schools: Overcoming NJ Suburban Resistance to Reality 

We Are Still A Nation At Risk

Get real: Most grads aren’t college ready

While the site finds time for standard reformy ideas like "Common Core is swell" and "achievement gaps," mostly the theme is that public schools, particularly suburban public schools, suck like an over-amped shop-vac on steroids and those of you who believe your school is okay and refuse to get on a panicked crisis footing-- you people just have your heads in the sand.

As I said, the source of this site is a bit mysterious. There's no "who we are," no links back the organization behind this. However, there are some clues. First, note the attempt in the header to position themselves as the reasonable middle. Now, note the list of featured authors:

Tracy Dell'Angela. Laura Waters. Erika Sanzi. Mike Vaughn. Andrew Wilk. Marisaa Grimes-Galibor. While some of these folks turn up in a variety of outlets, there's just one place where you can find all of them as writers, advisors or even staff members--  Education Post, the rapid response war-room style pro-reform activist group run by former Arne Duncan staffer Peter Cunningham. It's widely known that Cunningham got a $12 million pile of money to run the operation, but it takes the tireless research of Mercedes Schneider to find out where all that money came from-- it wasn't just Eli Broad and it is an exercise is just how incestuous and connected the reformster world is.

Head in the Sand often cross-posts with Education Post, and while they don't seem to have their own twitter account, their posts are often (and mostly only) tweeted by the above featured authors, Peter Cunningham, and Education Post. They have a facebook page with under 300 likes and no conversation.

So it certainly appears that Head in the Sand Blog is one more attempt by the Education Post folks (who are nominally liberal-ish)  to shape the conversation, to create a groundswell of support for the reformster point of view. It also appears to be getting very little traction or attention, but it is still chugging away at the rate of a post or two a week. The groundswell of highly reasonable suburban parents who have suddenly realized that their public schools totally suck because they are overridden with terribly slacker lying teachers unions and really, it would be better for everyone if lots of super-duper charters were brought in-- well, that groundswell doesn't seem to have been manufactured materialized yet. But I'm sure as long as the folks at Head in the Sand Blog have money to keep trying to build that groundswell, they'll keep trying, though I think it's fair to ask at this point exactly whose head is in the sand. happy birthday, you guys.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Caveat Civis

We know the phrase "caveat emptor," rendered loosely as "Let the buyer beware."

If you are buying an authentic Rollex from a guy on a streetcorner, it's on you to make sure that it's an actual functioning watch. If you have bought a used car that turns out to be a four-wheel abomination, while there may be some lemon laws that give you a shot at recovering your losses, it's still on you.

It's annoying for emptors to have to caveat. If you're buying a house and the seller says to your face when asked directly, "No, we never have problems with rainwater pouring down the driveway and into the garage," it's annoying that later, as you're shop-vacking the pond in your garage, you have to kick yourself for actually trusting a fellow human being. It's annoying to realize that you've been suckered by an advertisement that lies, and that the law says that the puffery was so obvious that it was on you to nkow that you were being lied to. It's time-consuming to have to examine every single thing you buy before you put down your money, and there's a certain slow-building corrosiveness to operating under the assumption that you can't trust your fellow humans.

I am always mystified by crooks, by people who make a living doing things like calling little old ladies and conning them into handing over their bank account information. There's something extra discouraging about having to explain to an older relative that she must stop trusting people, but should just assume that anyone who calls her on the phone is probably a liar and a cheat unless proven otherwise.

But we accept all of these things as the price of doing business in a messy, imperfect, human-inhabited world. Caveat emptor.

But we mostly don't expect to have to live by the phrase "Caveat civis"-- let the citizen beware.

Our elected officials, and particularly the people the hire to do the day to day work, who keep the wheels of government and cities and towns turning-- we're supposed to be able to trust those people. Yeah, we know the big shots may very well be crooked, and bureaucracy can be dull and thick-- but the rest of the government is supposed to keep things running smoothly.

We assume, for instance, that when we go to drive across a bridge, it won't collapse. We assume that large objects like cars have been checked by someone to make sure they won't kill us under ordinary circumstances. And we figure mostly when we turn on a water tap, the water will be fit to drink.

As much as we bitch about our government, we still trust it in the small-but-important ways. We expect the lights to be on. We expect the roads to be passable. We expect our currency to be worth something. And when things have been certified by The Authorties to be safe for our use, we assume they are so.

Betrayals like the discovery, first in Flint and now all over, that the water flowing from the tap is poisoned are doubly troubling because we trusted these guys. When we come home after a long, hard day of working and emptoring, we expect to come home to a place that by and large won't kill us. Nobody wants to live that vigilantly all of the time.

Of course, for people of color and people of poverty, it has been caveat civis for a long time. Their list of government officials, departments, and agencies that cannot be trusted is considerably longer than the list for the rest of us. I think a small portion of white resistance to seeing problems in our country with police is a gut-level resistance to seeing, to admitting that we are living more and more in a caveat civis world. But for some people, it's just caveat all day, every day. When we live with caveat emptor, that means vigilance and research, doing your homework and due diligence. Living with caveat civis is worse-- living on edge, on high alert all the time in a hostile environment.

This is one of the betrayals of the modern charter school movement. Schools should be a civis thing, a thing that is supposed to be done right for everybody, and parents and community folks are supposed to be able to trust when they send their kids to school. The school is not a commercial transaction, it's not a business-- there should be no caveat emptor written on the schoolhouse wall.

Charters cling to the "public school" label because it is a marketing dream. It co-opts the very nature of civis, and to the parent and community, it guarantees-- without ever saying so-- that it will be an institution that one can trust. For folks in poor, ill-served public schools, charters do not say, "We'll sell you a better product than you're getting from the government." No, charters say, "We will restore the proper role of the public school. You will be able to trust us in the way you always should have been able to trust the public school-- but couldn't." Public education opened the door to the modern charter revolution by our failures to keep our civis promise-- sometimes because we weren't given the resources, and sometimes because we just dropped the ball. Charters have promised to restore the promise of public education; instead, many have replaced that promise with a business transaction.

What nobody says-- and what everybody should say-- when approaching a modern charter school is "Caveat emptor." To the charter, you are no longer civis-- you are emptor, and it is up to you to do your due diligence. Charter fans scoot past this by emphasizing that parents should have lots of market information and data about the school so that they can do their appropriate caveating like good little emptors. And in the meantime, charters buy tons of marketing and advertisement, to do their best to obscure the hard data.

Instead of restoring the promise of public education, an institution where the civis isn't supposed to have to caveat, charter proliferation creates a chaotic marketplace (on display in places like New Orleans and Detroit) where emptors have to caveat constantly because they no longer have civis standing.

And parents never realize they've been snookered over into a caveat emptor situation (and it is further obscured by the fact that they don't personally pay for the product-- charters are happy to say that it's all free, just like a public school).

But caveat emptor it is.

Did your charter school close unexpectedly in the middle of the year? Caveat emptor. Did the school turn out not to have the programs that your child needs? Caveat emptor. Did the school push your child out with onerous disciplinary actions? Did the school force your child to wet herself in class? Did the school turn out to not even have the qualified staff necessary to teach the classes they promised you?

Oh, well. caveat emptor.

This has been the slickest slight of hand that the charter industry has pulled off-- they have taken the responsibility for monitoring, maintaining, and overseeing schools from elected officials and their hired professionals and put that responsibility on the backs of parents themselves. In shifting schools from a shared civic good to a commercial product, they have snookered parents into the land of caveat emptor without ever saying so.

It is true that elected officials and their hired professionals did not always do an exemplary job. But the public knew how to find them, knew how to yell at them, knew how to light a fire under their collective butts. And what they were looking for was a school they could trust, a school where they didn't have to caveat a damn thing because people were doing their danm jobs. Now, if your charter school isn't living up to your expectations...? Oh, well. caveat emptor. You're welcome to vote with your feet.

There have been calls from some charter fans to ramp up the government oversight a bit. This is partly because charter fans are not all monsters, and also because they understand that too many spectacularly bad charters will destroy the most important marketing tool they have-- the belief of parents that they are still in a civis situation and not a caveat emptor situation. The charter industry already shows the signs of a non-functional free market in the cyber-sector, where schools are universally failing, but are still turning a profit because of favorable lobbyist driven rules and a steady supply of parents who still think, "Well, it's a public school, so surely someone is making sure it's legit." If the invisible hand worked, cyber charters would be almost entirely gone. They are still thriving.

In a well-run, just and decent society, there should be large sectors where caveat emptor is never heard. Caveat civis should never, ever be heard. This is not just a matter of justice or fairness. It's a practical conern for leaders, because if caveat emptor gives way to too much caveat civis, the next thing you're liable to hear is caveat rex-- let the rulers beware.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tom Vander Ark and the End of the Big Test

It's good to step away from present arguments from time to time and look at what folks said about particular issues back when they were laying groundwork. And when it comes to competency based education, it is always instructive to set the Wayback Machine and travel back through the writings of Tom Vander Ark.

Vander Ark has been a prolific and active advocate for reformsterism. He graduated from the Colorado School of Mines (on a football scholarship) with a BA in Mineral Engineering (1981), then moved on to University of Denver for an MBA in energy finances (1984). Then from 1986 to 1993 he was Vice President of PACE membership warehouse, which was supposed to be K-mart's answer to Sam's Club.  From there, Vander Ark went on to a short stint at Capgemini, a multinational consulting group.

And then, somehow, Tom Vander Ark became the superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools in Washington state. It's entirely possible that somewhere in his prodigious volume of writing, Vander Ark has explained how a guy with zero education background gets hired as a school district superintendent, but I haven't found it anywhere-- the vast ocean of glowing press always recaps his career as if it began as a school superintendent. And he was hired in 1994, before every little piece of news was dutifully transcribed for the internet.

In some respects, that job really was the beginning of Vander Ark's career, because he leapt into tech in a big way, starting an internet academy, backing a high speed network (which in the late nineties was no small feat), and threw his weight into raising test scores. After five years as superintendent, he was hired by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as executive director of their education initiatives. In those days, that meant being a cheerleader for small schools, the initiative that Gates was sure would change education until he decided it wouldn't, after all, and just dropped it.

After that, the sky was the limit a nd all sorts of folks wanted to work with him. Among the more notable were Edmodo, the Technology Alliance, and iNACOL, the big time boosters of on-line learning (Vander Ark was a director for six years). He has also worked with investment groups like Learning Capital, tech companies like Bloomboard, and is currently still a director with eduInnovation, a group that "aims to spread innovations through thought leadership campaigns" because there is just nothing like a really good thought leader. (He also works with Charter Board Partners, an organization that helps charter schools rustle up some board members-- presumably nice, cooperative ones).

Bottom line-- Tom Vander Ark is a reform hipster, a reformster before reformsters were cool. He has been talking down public schools for decades, and he has been pushing technology as a path to privatization for decades as well. While folks in the ed debates have been wrestling with flashy edutourists like She Who Will Not Be Named and Arne Duncan, Vabder Ark has been steadily laying out what The Next Move would be, and for the last few years, his eye has been firmly focused on competency based education.

You can find his thoughts laid out with a regularity that puts even certain bloggers to shame on the blog for the organization that is his personal brand, Getting Smart, and I could spend the rest of the week sitting here sifting through it all. But let's look at this particular post, "The End of the Big Test: Moving to Competency Based Policy." (I should note that this is from a little more than a year ago)

Here's the rationale for competency based education.

After noting that just about everyone is sick of the Big Standardized Test, Vander Ark leaps right in by quoting Clayton Christensen, the king of disruptive innovation., who reminds us that we should stay focused on the heart of adding value (because, I guess, students are toasters that we are just adding value to) which is the job to be done. In the case of testing, Vander Ark sees four jobs to be done:
  1. Inform learning: continuous data feed that informs students, teachers, and parents about the learning process.
  2. Manage matriculation: certify that students have learned enough to move on and ultimately graduate.
  3. Evaluate educators: data to inform the practice and development of educators.
  4. Check quality: dashboard of information about school quality particularly what students know and can do and how fast they are progressing
#1 is pretty vague, and might cover helping teachers tweak their instruction (a popular reformster test justification). But nowhere do we see anything about helping the student learn. The best assessments are part of the learning process, but the corporate view that Vander Ark typifies doesn't see this. It is true that on an assembly line, the process of measuring throughput and inspecting the product and counting the number of toasters come through-- all of that is separate from the actual process of making the toaster. This is not true in education-- done properly, the measurement of learning is part of the process of learning, in fact helps with the important meta-learning necessary for students to become self-regulating life long learners. This doesn't fit the corporate manufacturing model because, among other things, toasters do not inspect themselves. But like most corporate reformsters, Vander Ark is working with the wrong model, and so he comes up with incorrect ideas, like a man learning to operate on a human by practicing on a squid.

Vander Ark notes that advances from psychometricians and lawyers (!) have led BS Tests to get longer and longer in an attempt to meet all four requirements. But he notes that six things have happened since The Old Days.

* Student internet access
* Performance assessment tools make it easier to manage a bunch of assessment stuff
* Assessment stuff can be embedded in digital materials
* Formative assessment systems (he means the digital ones) have been improved
* Adaptive assessment is widely used (see MAPS from NWEA)
* We're looking for measures of non-cognitives that don't fit on BS Tests

In short, we have computers that can do all sorts of cool things. We can put together a giant library of assessment tasks. We can embed that stuff in every digital assignment. We can track it all digitally. We can do adaptive assessments with computers, and computers can measure character traits.

The first problem with this is that we don't really know that computers can do these things. I've talked about how the sheer task of compiling and indexing the kind of library of tasks needed for adaptive learning seems... daunting. Computer ability to "score" assessments is severely limited (no, they still can't actually assess writing).

The second problem is that Vander Ark, like many corporate reformsters, seems to ignore that this system has to work with live human students. It's a common reformster error-- they just kind of assume that since all of their stuff is real important to them, when they plunk it down in front of a bunch of thirteen-year-olds, those students will also take it all super-seriously. All reformsters need to sit in a room and watch students get through a computer practice module by just hitting buttons quickly in order to make the program be done as soon as possible.

The third problem is that he assumes that being able to do these things is the same as being able to do them well or effectively. But that's in part because

Fourth problem-- he is looking at all of this from a systems technocrat viewpoint. The question at the core of all of this is not how can we best help students learn, but how can we best meet the needs and requirements of this cool technosystem.

So what's the plan?

First, says Vander Ark, the states must be convinced to throw out Carnegie units and replace them with "competencies aligned to state standards." When you can do X, you are ready to move on. He notes that several New England states are moving toward proficiency based diplomas. And he lists the five items that iNACOL says must be in place for CBE to happen. See if any of these sound familiar in your neighborhood:

*     Students advance upon mastery.

  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual needs.
  • Outcomes include application of knowledge and development of important skills and dispositions.

  • Well, at least, it involves these five things to the extent that they can be managed by a computer program. Competencies include objectives that are measurable by a computer. Assessment is a really meaningful computer file. Students receive differentiated support to the extent that the computer software can differentiate. Outcomes include displays of hoop-jumping that can be measured by the computer.

    End of course options include either an old school test, a college test like the ACT, a "body of evidence" portfolio approach, or a "compilation" of all the many mini-assessments from throughout the course. "The test based options tend to be more reliable while the student work product approaches are more valid and authentic."

    Call me crazy, but options three and four sound like exactly what classroom teachers do right now-- look at the full body of our students' work and wrap it all up into a final overall assessment. So why are we even having this conversation. It seems that we have arrived at a good argument for just letting teachers continue to do their jobs.

    Could it be that my option is not desirable because it does not provide any sort of business opportunity for venture fund capitalists? Because we don't have to buy anything or hire any consulting firms or otherwise unleash an extra boatload of money to do it?

    I am inclined to think yes. Vander Ark's plan is a business plan, not an education plan, a business plan that assumes that we must replace teachers with software because otherwise how are we going to creatively disrupt all those beautiful, beautiful dollars loose? Vander Ark's plan says we want to displace teachers with technology because we can, because we must, because my conclusion is actually my premise. We have entirely skipped the part where we discuss whether or not these technosolutions actually work in general, and in particular whether or not they work better than the system we have now.

    I know Vander Ark's answer-- currently public schools are terrible and must be burnt to the ground with fire. All right, I may be overstating his case, but that's the basic idea. We will say that public schools are failing, though we can't offer evidence, and we will say that CBE and technobased approaches to school will be better, though we have  no evidence of that, either. Mostly it just looks as if we're saying, "Man, if we could convert the entire education system to a computer-centered magical instruction system, that would be the most amazing business and investment opportunity ever."

    Vander Ark has seen for a while the end of the big test, and he sees the end of the big test as the beginning of the big bucks.

    Teaching in a Post-Fact World

    Stephen Colbert warned us when he coined the term "truthiness" for those things that feel satisfyingly true, but have no actual basis in fact.

    And now we are swimming in it. From a Washington Post piece about brexit:

    All of this has come about thanks to a world that is increasingly suspicious of experts. Please, can we choose another category of people to be suspicious of other than experts, which is just another word for “people who have spent their entire lives trying to learn more about complex subjects than the average person, so that they can give us informed advice”? How about “non-experts”? How about “people who know less than we do but assure us that things will probably be fine”?

    In our own Presidential race, we have a candidate who lies repeatedly, without reservation, without restraint-- and without consequence. "I support Trump because he singlehandedly fought off the Antarctican Army when it attacked the Fortress of Solitude," someone will say, and even after you point out that virtually nothing in that sentence is actually true, they will simply not care. "Whatever. Trump really tells it like it is."  No, no he doesn't. But his lies don't matter because facts don't matter.

    I'm not going to try to explain how or why we're here, living in a world where people believe they are, in fact, entitled to both their own opinions and their own facts. But as a teacher, I think about this a lot.

    Never mind adapting teaching to new technology or new standards or stupid tests-- how do we teach in a world where facts don't matter?

    Mind you, the US has always been fertile ground for bunk. I am just finishing up a book about the moon hoax. No, not the theory that we never landed on the moon in 1969. This moon hoax was in 1835, and involved a huge slice of the nation believing that the moon was inhabited by man-bats and bipedal beavers.* It was thick-sliced baloney, and was based on made up accounts supposedly from a noted astronomer-- simply contacting him would easily have debunked the story. But people ate it up.

    But we seem to be in a deeper hole right now, a place where facts are absolutely irrelevant, or can simply be pulled up on the internet to suit whatever your inclination already is. Politics and media have helped get us here, with decades of a steady diet of fact-free panic-button pushing, so that much of the American public is primed for groundless distress. Trumpism is not a new thing-- it's just an out-of-control blown-up version of the old thing.

    But, as I said--I don't want to talk about how we got here. I want to talk about what we, as teachers, do next.

    The Challenge of Bias and Our Teacher Voice

    As a student, I hated hated HATED when a teacher would use his bully pulpit to push his own point of view. The guy who taught "The Bible as Literature," a course you could only get an A in if you recognized the Bible as the infallible word of God. The guy who insisted that smart people must be conservatives. The woman who insisted that decent people must be liberals.

    It was on my list of Things I Will Never Do In My Own Classroom-- I would never use my position to push a point of view. First, there's a power differential in every classroom, no matter how student-centered it is, and that means as the person with the power, I have a responsibility not to use it. Second, it's death to a writing classroom to establish an atmosphere where some expressions are more okay than others.

    I have taught American literature for most of my career, so I've handled most of the hot-button topics, and I'm pretty good at "This is what the Puritans believed. Whether you agree with them or not is up to you-- I'm just here to make their point of view as clear and vivid as I can." For persuasive essays, I actively avoid any topic that I don't think I can set aside my own point of view for. Because there's no trap like the tap of thinking, "Well, any smart and clearthinking person could only come to this one conclusion." We've all had them-- the teacher who claims that there's no right answer and they just want to see evidence that you've constructed, supported, and presented your idea in a solid way, but when push comes to shove, there's really only One Right Conclusion that a top student should reach.

    It's an unending balancing act, between support and conclusions, evidence and interpretation, freedom of expression and boundaries of decency. A balance between using my power for good and allowing my students to travel their own paths, no matter how twisty and messy they may be, all while trying to set a standard for intellectual rigor.

    Tell the Truth

    I believe that one of the answers to teaching in a Post-Fact World is harder than it first appears. Tell the truth seems obvious, but it breaks down into a couple of different questions.

    The less-obvious question is "What are you really saying?" We have fallen into the habit of making "factual" statements that are really shorthand, and as shorthand, they are lies. For instance, the "every fifteen minutes" construction, as in "Every fifteen minutes another person punches a badger." This is a common way to break a statistic down into something more vivid and effective, but it's also a lie. Are people around the country getting up in the middle of the night, thinking "Well, 3:15 AM-- time for me to go punch a badger." No-- it means that when we divide the number of badger punchers into the number of hours in the year, it turns out there's a ratio of four punchers to every hour.

    We do this all the time. We use verbal flourishes and figures of speech and statistical tricks to make sure that our voice raises up above the constant screaming background tumult of our culture. We use rhetorical tricks to sell everything from toasters to policy ideas. And all of this is part of a delightful soup that is one part Richness of Human Expression and one part Lies.

    So it is useful to step back and ask what reality, what fact, lies behind the expression.

    The other question is more obvious, though only recently have journalists actually been trying it out on Trump. That question is "What evidence do you have?"

    We need to ask this question all the time. All. The. Time. And it leads us to other questions, questions about where that evidence came from, exactly, and how it was acquired and who put it together and how well they can be trusted to get it right.

    And here's the hard part-- we have to do this even for evidence that proves things we believe are correct. "What evidence do you have?" cannot become code for, "Prove yourself, because I'm pretty sure you're full of it."

    Question Assumptions

    Every structure built of evidence and interpretations and arguments is built on a foundation of assumptions, and especially in a post-fact world, we need to question those assumptions constantly, if for no other reason than in questioning them we have to acknowledge what they are.

    Recognize Facts As A Bias

    Speaking of assumptions. Doesn't everybody base their decisions and understanding on facts? Well, no. And this is not a new thing. Even within the history of the Christian church in the US, we find a schism between folks who believe that understanding comes from revelation and folks who believe that it comes form study and reading.

    I'm not saying that we as teachers need to abandon our believe in the importance of facts (at least, not those of us who actually have that belief), but we need to recognize that valuing facts is a bias (personally, I think it's an excellent bias, but still...) and that by emphasizing facts and evidence and reason in a classroom, we are operating against the values that some of our students' families hold.

    To me, that means not approaching these issues with an attitude of, "Well, if you don't see the value of these facts, you're a dope." It means advocating for fact-based existence with respect for the audience (which is what we should be doing all the time anyway.)

    The Critical Model

    As I said above, this is an issue I struggle with, because my sense is that it his gotten worse in the last five years. I encounter, I believe, more students with extreme positions on issues-- and not only more extreme, nut more intransigent-- "I know that X is true because it is, and anything that says it isn't true is obviously false." And that seems to go hand in hand with an attitude that any person who believes differently must be either stupid or evil or both.

    In other words, the same aggressively anti attitude that has infected us as a nation is there in my classroom, too. Surprise.

    So while I still wrestle with the nuts and bolts of this, I know what is needed in the broad strokes-- if I want to live in a world where divergent opinions are argued with respect for the people who hold them and discussion moves forward between functional humans rather than simply trying to shout down and pummel into silence opponents who are, after all, simply stupid and ill-intentioned-- if that's the world I want to live in, that's the world I have to model, no matter what fact-impaired ugliness my students bring into my classroom.

    And that is also my opinion and my bias, but I am comfortable standing up for it and trying to navigate by it.

    * The book is The Sun and The Moon by Matthew Goodman and the story includes P. T. Barnum, Edgar Allan Poe, the rise of New York City, and the development of newspaper journalism.

    Sunday, June 26, 2016

    More News about Crooked Corinthian College

    You probably thought the Corinthian story was done. Well, no such luck.

    Corinthian, you may recall, was a chain of for-profit schools that was doing a pretty good job of the profiting part, but the college part-- not so much.

    Corinthian was an exemplar of the for-profit school model in which students are not so much the customers as just conduits used to carry grant and loan money from the government straight to the for-profits bank account. But because the whole business model is based on signing up customers (and getting them to sink themselves deep in debt) and not so much on actually delivering an education, all the aggressive marketing in the world may not be enough to paper over the many (expensive) failings.

    So in March of 2014, the Obama administration announced that it was going to get tough and start shutting down these predatory dens of high-debt failure. Corinthian rose quickly to the top of that list, and so by June of 2014, the feds had announced that they were shutting Corinthian down before it could do any more damage. Ha! No, just kidding. The feds announced that they would give the cash-strapped for-profit conglomerate a bunch of money so it could stay open. The argument was that this was so the students could finish the year, but that's a nonsense argument. It would be like the feds busting into a fly-by-night snake-oil cancer clinic and saying, "The treatment you're getting is a sham and a danger to your future, so we are going to make sure that these fake doctors complete your full course of treatment."

    It's possible that the feds were also concerned about the interests of investors, a list which included Wells Fargo, BlackRock, Royce, New York Mellon, and Morgan-Chase. It's also worth noting that the Ed Department undersecretary who appeared to be handling all this was Ted Mitchell, whose previous experience includes working with NewSchools Ventures, a group whose business is helping Wall Street types make money in the privatized education business.

    And while Corinthian couldn't always afford to pay its employees, documents eventually revealed that the company was making hefty payments to well-connected lobbying firms, as well a hiring lobbyists (both declared and undeclared). Oh, and ties to ALEC. All paid for with tax dollars.

    By fall of 2014, the feds were helping to broker a deal in which Corinthian was to be bought up by a company. Specifically, a debt collection company. That company created a subsidiary company to run the ex-Corinthian campuses, and had finally wrapped up that maneuver by February of 2015. The feds were pretty proud of themselves for having made sure that investments were secured and nobody had to actually suffer for their mismanagement of the for-profit business.

    But by April of 2015, Corinthian was done, kaput, outies, kaput. They filed bankruptcy in May. Also by spring of 2015, many students had figured out that they had been had, bilked, cheated, and lied to. It may seem like they were a little slow, but remember-- for well over a year the feds had been saying two things:

    1) If we find any lying cheating predatory schools, we will totally shut them down.
    2) We think it's worth going the extra mile or ten to keep Corinthian schools open.

    Operating under the premise that the federal government was reasonably trustworthy, would those two items not lead you to believe that you would be okay staying at Corinthian and continuing to borrow money to do so?

    But no-- a whole bunch of students were left holding the bag, and by "bag" I mean "giant crapload of crushing debt for which they actually received nothing of value."  Corinthian students had, in toto, acquired half a billion dollars worth of debt. So a whole bunch of those students decided that they would simply refuse to pay the debt.

    The Department of Justice asked the Department of Education to just erase the portion of debt they had control of. They didn't. They did fine Corinthian a little for some of of the lying. And the students refusing to pay their debt wound up, inevitably, in court, trying to get their federal loans forgiven.

    This has led to even more revelations about how rotten Corinthian was. Most notably, unsealed court records revealed that Corinthian recruiters were paid a per-customer bounty. These "flash reports," a regular report of who was hitting their numbers for students signed up, were unsealed from the records of a different suit against Corinthian, because there have been so many cases against and investigations of this shady nest of vipers (according to the NYT, over twenty state attorney generals and other officials). Just to be clear-- basing the pay of college recruiters on how many recruits they score is not in any fuzzy gray area-- it's just plain illegal.

    The degree to which this nest of vipers has been allowed to hide its culpability is kind of astonishing. For instance, this amazing factoid comes at the end of the NYT story-- as part of the bankruptcy settlement ( in Delaware, natch) Corinthian was allowed to run all of its records through the shredder. The revelation about the illegal recruiter pay is from testimony in a case from 2007! How was Corinthian able to keep so much information about its own illegal activities under wraps? It simply claimed that all the info about its business practices included trade secrets.

    Theoretically, the revelation should help the students who are trying to win release from their loans. One condition under which the department will allow it is if the school is proven to have been involved in wrongdoing. Yet the process still involves a paperwork circus (and not, say, the ed department declaring that all loans involving this crooked scam are hereby forgiven).

    There are still 800 pages of sealed records out there, and given the whole shredding thing, they may be the last real records we have of what crooked baloney Corinthian was up to. A few lawyers would argue that since Corinthian is no longer in the trade, it no longer has standing to claim trade secret protection. We will have to wait and see, but for the moment, it seems that somehow even in death, Corinthian has more power than the students that it bilked and tricked into a ton of debt.

    The Truth Behind Grit

    In 1955, researchers Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith approached every family on Kauai, HI, who had a child that year. 698 families said yes, beginning one of the longest studies of childhood development and childhood adversity ever conducted.

    The study is featured in a fascinating article at Mosaic Science by Lucy Maddox. The piece never uses the word "grit," but it looks at the question of resilience and why some children have it, and some do not. The implications for education are profound and deep. The article is long and thorough, and I recommend you read it. But let me draw out some of the major implications of this work.

    The study began with the parents and then followed the children. The researchers split the children into two groups-- roughly two thirds of them were considered to have little risk of problems, while one third were considered high-risk children, living with poverty, "family discord," or illness. The researchers started with the assumption that the low risk children would mostly do just fine, and the high risk children would not. And that was mostly true. Mostly.

    But one third of the high risk children actually did just fine. As Maddox puts it, "They developed into competent, confident and caring individuals, without significant problems in adult life." The question of why became one of the focuses of the study, and it brings up the central question of Maddox's article-- why do some children do well despite adversity?

    The study is still ongoing today; the current principal researcher Lali McDCubbon is actually the daughter of someone who worked with the original pair. Because of her own family history, she is particularly interested in the question of how intergenerational risk factors or trauma can become intergenerational resilience. There are certainly limits to a study like this-- these subjects literally grew up in another era, and in an exceptionally non-urban environment, and most uniquely, Hawaii was not even a US state when the subjects were born. But I still believe that the results are powerful and worth our attention (and as Maddox notes, not out of line with other research).

    The answers from the research are complex, but some clear patterns emerge:

    Overall, the third of “high-risk” children who showed resilience tended to have grown up in families of four children or fewer, with two years or more between them and their siblings, few prolonged separations from their primary caregiver, and a close bond with at least one caregiver. They tended to be described positively as infants, with adjectives such as “active”, “cuddly” or “alert”, and they had friends at school and emotional support outside of their families. Those who did better also tended to have more extracurricular activities and, if female, to avoid pregnancy until after their teenage years.

    One interesting aspect (certainly of interest to teachers) is that different factors were linked to doing well at different years. At ages 10 and 18, positive relationships (though not necessarily with parents) are linked to doing well, while in the thirties, it could be marriage or military.

    But frequently the researchers saw that people could turn things around, that someone who was having trouble at age 20 could be doing great at age 30.

    And whether it was a high-risk child who showed resilience from the beginning, or one who turned their life around later, the critical element was basically the same.

    A relationship.

    Maybe with a larger group, maybe with just one important person. But McCubbin says that "one person can make a big difference."

    Personal story. Back when I was going through divorce, I worried about my children, and I tried to see what the difference was between my students who were carrying bad baggage from their parents' divorce and those that had bounced back and carried on. What I decided, in my unscientific way, was that the most damaging thing for children in divorce was the discovery that a parent valued something -- money, freedom, revenge, a new partner, etc-- more than they valued their own child. When a parent conveyed, "This is hard, but you, my child, are still one of the most important things in my life," the child seems to manage. But to find out that you really aren't all that important to your parent compared to Other Stuff-- that seems hard to bounce back from.

    Maddox digs into other research of resilience. In particular she looks at the Romanian orphans of 1990, the many sad and desperate conditions in which they were found with the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu's government. Michael Rutter of King's College was asked to go study what happened next, and he was surprised by some of the results, including how quickly some of the orphans who were quickly adopted bounced back. His observations about resilience are important:

    Rutter sees this resilience in the face of adversity as a dynamic process: “Resilience initially was talked about as if it were a trait, and it’s become clear that’s quite the wrong way of looking at it,” he says. “It’s a process, it’s not a thing.

    “You can be resilient to some things and not others,” he explains. “And you can be resilient in some circumstances and not others.” He acknowledges that “children, or for that matter adults, who are resilient to some sorts of things are more likely to be resilient to others,” but he stresses that resilience is not a fixed trait.

    And as Maddox says later in the piece, "The idea of resilience as an adaptive process rather than an individual trait opens up the potential for other people to be involved in that process."

    There's much more in the article, including a look at some of the brain science. But what leaps out most for me is the emphasis on relationship and process. Fans of grit encourage us to think of it as a quality that children have or don't, like blond hair or big hands, which in turn means that when a child falls victim to their circumstances or environment or whatever else has put them at risk, all we can do is stand around and shake our heads and say sadly, "If only she had had more grit." It fits nicely with the idea that people who are deserving, better people, will rise to the top and people who don't, won't.

    But what we see over and over again is that it is relationships, connections. Robert Putnam in Our Kids talks about social capital, which is really a fancy word for relationships, connections to other human beings. When we complain about the rich and the powerful and how they look out for each other and avoid bad consequences of mistakes and bad behavior because they are so well-connected-- we're just talking about relationships again, and how those relationships create and sustain success.

    It is the same lesson over and over and over again-- we rise or fall not simply because we are in some permanent state of deserving to do so which is magically rewarded by the universe, but because of our relationships, which are dynamic changing moving processes. Which means we are not meant to be bystanders, simply watching the universe magically dole out rough justice. We are, each of us, half of a relationship, part of a dynamic process that may be waiting to be born. We can reach out, or not. We can help, or not. But someone else's failure is really our failure, because we are each someone else's grit, waiting to come to life. That's the truth behind grit.

    Time To Speak Up on ESSA Regulations

    While the new education law is on the books, it still remains to follow ESSA:The Law with its even-more-important sequel ESSA: The Regulations. It's the body of regulations that determines exactly what the law means, how exactly the law will influence day to day life in Educationland.

    So the writing of ESSA regulations is Really Important, and it's an especially big deal this time because Secretary of Education John King has signaled that he would really like to use the regulations to basically re-write the law. This has been a considerable source of conflict between King and members of Congress like Lamar Alexander and John Kline. Congress wrote ESSA with a specific bi-partisan intent to de-power the USED; the USED is doing its damndest to write itself back into power with the regulatory structure.

    For instance, although ESSA absolutely acknowledges the right of parents to opt their children out of the Big Standardized Test, the proposed regulations demand that states label any school with more than 5% opt outs a failure, and to punish that "failing" school strictly and severely.

    And while ESSA leaves it up to states to develop a rating system for schools, the proposed regulations demand that the rating system be a single grade system, just like Florida's crappy letter grade set up. Both ideas are lousy ones, but the feds are proposing an exceptionally lousy and simplistic system that has already been tried and found useless in several states.

    Plus-- and this is a particularly weaselly example-- the law says that schools can be judged on four factors, and that one of those four factors doesn't have to be based on test scores or graduation rates. The proposed regulations say that the state must show research linking the fourth factor to student achievement (aka test score) or graduation rate, basically re-writing the clear intent of the law.

     "I might listen to you this much"

    As with any proposed regulations, there is a period for open comments. You can comment on the proposed regulations themselves, and of course, as always, you can send word to your elected reprsentatives. We should all make use of it. Yes, I know-- John King has a history of steadfastly and absolutely ignoring input from parents and teachers, and is right now signalling that he also intends to ignore the input of the elected members of Congress, so he's probably not going to look at the comments section on the regulations, slap his forehead and exclaim, "Now I see it! This changes everything! How could I have been so foolish!!"  But I'm going to comment anyway. Here's why.

    First, Congress is armed and ready to fight, and if one of them says, "Hey, show me what your comment section looks like," I want to be sure that Congressperson is greeted and subsequently armed with a stack of spirited opposition.

    Second, I don't want King to able to say, "Well, nobody complained, so I guess everyone loves it." The truth doesn't always change the course of events, but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be out there, front and center and fully visible, maybe for now, maybe for later, but out there.

    So here are some things you can do, because the Network for Public Education wants to make this as simple as possible.

    You can use this handy Action Network page to send a letter to your own elected representative. You can compose letter(s) of your own if you wish, but if you get word-tied and uncertain, this handy form will do most of the work for you. Remember, Congresspersons often simplify this stuff to the number of letters for and against, so don't worry that your arguments aren't original or clever enough. Just speak up. And do this soon-- King is scheduled to go in front of the Senate on Wednesday.

    And also go to the comments page for the regulations, where you can leave your comments and thoughts about the proposed regulations. Not sure what to say, or don't have time to craft something? Once again, NPE has your back. At the bottom of this post I will include NPE's cut-and-paste objections. Simply copy and paste them onto the form, or copy and paste some of them, or copy-paste-and-rewrite what they've got here.

    So even if you only have a few minutes today, you have plenty of time to speak up. These are the rules that we are going to have to live by for the foreseeable future (at least until President Trump unleashes the apocalypse), and now is the time to say something. Grumbling in the teachers lounge a year from now won't help, but speaking up today can. Do it.

    (for the response website-- cut and paste the text below here, or revise as you wish)

    I oppose the following proposed regulations as contrary to the language and spirit of ESSA and because they will impose damaging and overly prescriptive mandates on our public schools.

    In each case, the US Department of Education is foisting its own preferences while tying the hands of states, districts, parents, and educators to devise their own accountability systems, as ESSA was supposed to encourage. Specifically:

    1. Draft regulation 200.15: This would force states to intervene aggressively and/or fail schools in which more than 5% of students chose not to take the state tests. This violates the provision in ESSA recognizing “a State or local law regarding the decision of a parent to not have the parent’s child participate in the academic assessments”

    Recommendation: This regulation should be deleted. States should be able to exercise their right to determine what measures should be taken if students opt out, free of federal intrusion.

    2. Draft regulation 200.13
    The law requires states to create a growth score as an indicator for elementary and middle schools. Secretary King has inserted “based on the reading/language arts and mathematics assessments” into the regulation. This would prevent states from creating their own measures of student learning across the curriculum, based on factors other than standardized test scores.

    Recommendation: The language “based on the reading/language arts and mathematics assessments” should be deleted from the regulation so that states have the freedom to devise their own measures of student growth.

    3. Draft regulation 200.14

    The law requires that there be four accountability indicators. The fourth is a school quality indicator that is not based on test scores or graduation rates. States have the freedom to include school climate data, parent engagement, or other factors related to school quality. The proposed regulation insists that such measures prove by research how they are linked to achievement or graduation rates, therefore restricting what states can include.

    Recommendation: This regulation should be amended by allowing states to encourage improvements in school climate, safety, engagement, or other factors that may or may not be directly linked to academic achievement, but are important in their own right.

    4. Draft regulation 200.17

    Proposed 200.17 would require that the test scores and graduation rates of any subgroup (such as students with an IEP or disadvantaged students) of at least 30 students be measured for accountability purposes. Both NCLB and the ESSA leave the decision of minimum subgroup size for the states to decide. The regulations argue that group size of 30 is sufficient to provide a fair and reliable rating, but this claim has no basis in research. It should be noted that with a group size of 30, even 2 absent students will push the school below the 95% participation requirement.

    Recommendation: The minimum group size should be decided by states, as the law requires, after consultation with researchers, given the high-stakes consequences for schools.

    5. Draft regulation 200.18
    This would require that each school receive a single “summative” grade or rating, derived from combining at least three of the four indicators used to assess its performance.  Yet imposing a single grade on schools has been shown in states and districts across the nation to be overly simplistic, unreliable and unfair, and is nowhere mentioned in the law. This is why it has been severely criticized in Florida, for example, and why NYC has moved away from such a system. The proposed regulations go further and forbid states from boosting a school’s rating if it has made substantial improvement on the 4th or non-academic category.

    By doing so, the US Department of Education is again undermining the right of each state to determine its own rating system, and whether it chooses to provide a full or narrow picture of school performance.

     Recommendation: DoE should allow states to retain the authority given to them by ESSA to create their own rating systems, and to determine their own weighting of various factors. The federal government should be prevented from requiring that schools be labelled with a single grade, just because that happens to be its own policy preference.

    ICYMI: Some Must-Reads for June

    And not a word here about Brexit. 

    The Importance of Parent Voice

    Talking about the co-opting of language and  parent voice in Nashville and elsewhere.

    The Reading Rules We Would Never Follow As Adults

    Those rules we impose on student readers that, as adults, we would never stand for, and what that tells us about the authenticity of reading instruction.

    School Reform Is Really about Land Development

    Somehow this sat and stewed for about a month before it got traction. It is an absolute must-read. If you only read two pieces on this list, this should be one of them.

    What's Wrong with Christie's Wrongheaded School Aid Plan?

    The spectacle of Tom Moran actually calling Christie really wrong.


    You can't go wrong with Alfie Kohn, who may not blog often, but every time it's well thought out and deeply important.

    CBE and ALEC Preparing Students for the Gig Economy

    Competency based education is perfect grooming for the gig economy, where nobody ever has a steady job.

    America's Not-So-Broken Education System

    This would be the other must-read post from the week. Jack Schneider puts the whole picture in perspective and goes back to the fundamental flawed premise of reform.

    North Carolina: The Ongoing Destruction of Public Education

    Every so often, it's worth taking a moment to just step back and take in the full breadth of North Carolina's continuing attack on public schools and the teachers who work in them

    When You Dial 911 and Wall Street Answers

    Not directly about education, this looks at how Wall Street is taking over basic services like health care, and the miserable side effects for people who depend on those services. It will all seem distressingly familiar.

    No Words Can Charm a Computer

    A student writes a letter to the editor that beautifully outlines why computer-based scoring is a stupid idea.

    Politicians Say They Care About Education: Now Public School Advocates Are Putting Them To the Test

    The education planks that should be in every party's platform

    Vivian Connell: Her Last Post

    Of all the voices that Diane Ravitch has amplified, none has been more moving and heart-wrenching than Vivian Connell, the teacher blogging about her long fight with ALS. This week she made her final post.

    Saturday, June 25, 2016

    CBE: Personalized Education & The Indexing Problem

    There are plenty of reasons not to like Competency Based Education, which can be found these days shambling about under the nom de guerre "personalized education." It's an appealing name, as it evokes images of a student with her own personal tutor and guide, her own educational concierge. Instead, it's actually a student strapped to a personal computer screen watching a parade of adaptive software unspooling before her. As I said, there are lots of reasons not to like this, but we can skip past the philosophical issues for a moment and consider some of the technical challenges of a truly adaptive, personalized piece of educational software.

    Let's talk about the indexing problem.

    For over a year, my daughter worked for a start-up company that was creating a huge searchable database of art. Her job, along with several other art history degreed folks, was to index and tag all the artwork in the world. The concept would be that one could search from artist to artist, finding the creators and creations that connected in some meaningful way to the stuff you already knew and liked.

    Lots of websites have tried to crack the recommendation code. Amazon tells you that if you bought this, you might like to buy that. Netflix will try to tell you what you might like to watch. Pandora will tell you if you want to listen to this artist, you probably also want to hear that artist. And iTunes genius will take one song and build you a whole playlist of songs that you'll want to hear with it.

    All of these recommendation systems depend on a massive system of indexing and tags. If the software thinks that you probably like "Good Vibrations" because you like sixties pop music, it may rustle up some Monkees, but if it believes you like the song because of its acid rock qualities, you may be recommended some Iron Butterfly. If it thinks the salient quality is vocal harmonies, you may get a Mitch Miller record next, but if it thinks the theremin is the key, you may find yourself listening to Bernard Herrman's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. How the software indexes and tags things (and how it weights those tags) makes a huge difference in what it thinks you want next.

    If you've worked with any of these programs, you know they all share one quality-- they don't work super-well. Some are trainable-- if you have a few spare hours or days, you can sit and rate everything you've ever bought from Amazon to give the software a better idea where your preferences lie. But even software that tries to learn about you can be problematic. I regularly research charter schools for this blog, and so my browsers are convinced that I really want to see charter school ads, because it doesn't know the difference between positive and negative attention. I once spent a day trying to hunt down Peter Fox's Schuttel Deinen Speck including lyrics (don't ask) and for a week Google was certain I wanted all my search results to include German language entries.

    The problem can be complicated by library size. Pandora does not have an infinite supply of music, and some of the music they do have is more expensive than other parts of their library. So my wife's Sara Bareilles "channel" also includes old Louis Armstrong recordings (the 20s jazz Armstrong, not the 50s easy listening Armstrong). When your iTunes has to try to come up with a good playlist based on just the music in your iPod, the challenge becomes even huger.

    And this is before we run all of this past the weirdly specific tastes and interests of individuals. Speaking of Louis Armstrong, he was perhaps the top jazz cat of his generation, and yet, one of his favorite bands to go hear was the exceptionally square Guy Lombardo, who in fact could sell out Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. The connections that bind together an individual's tastes and preferences are often mysterious and elusive.

    Companies have spent millions of dollars trying to solve the problem-- Netflix famously offered a prize to anyone who could improve their recommendation engine.

    So what does this mean for personalized adaptive education?

    First, to come up with the right personalized recommendation for the student, the bigger the library of possible assignments and modules, the better. After all, if we're saying, "Well, Pat, you've finished Module A, so let's check the software's recommendation and see if you should do Module B or Module C" isn't very personalized. True personalization calls for a near-infinite number of possible paths. If we've just got ten or twelve possible paths, that's not personalization-- it's just tracking.

    But once we have hundreds of modules containing hundreds of cyber-worksheets or adapted learning activities or whatever we're going to call them, we need an absolute kick-ass indexing system, and we need an analytical engine that can figure out what the indexing system is telling us. What are the important qualities in Module A that tell us which module Pat should do next? Every indexing tag is another variable-- how will we determine which variables are the important ones? In the reading module, was it the vocabulary and if so, which words) or was it the topic-- and if it was the topic, what about the topic? Was the reading about race cars effective or ineffective because Pat likes cars, or because Pat likes things that go fast, or because Pat has an uncle who both races cars and hunts elk? Because knowing would be the difference between a next module about fast jets or classic Studebakers or hunting elk. Did Pat respond to the sentence structure or the paragraph length. For that matter, given that Knewton seriously promised us we would know what to eat for breakfast the day of a math test, do we have to cross-index Module A against what Pat ate and who Pat played with? Have we even talked about the effect of typography on Pat's reading interest and comprehension (I'm not joking)? Did Pat respond to the voice of the writer, and would most respond to another piece by that same writer regardless of any other factors-- and how exactly will we index the different qualities of a writer's voice?

    I'm just warming up, but you see my point. To really truly index each module and each assignment within each module would, done well, take a gazillion person-hours and be complicated beyond belief-- then to come up with an artificially intelligent engine that can sort through all of those index tags and cross-reference them against the gazillion other pieces of content in its vast library.

    Of course, you know who's really good at analyzing a human beings tastes and preferences and sorting the important details from the less important ones? That's right-- another human being.

    You can hire my daughter and some other experts to spend over a year to catalog and index and just generally feed stuff into a big computer program-- or you could sit down with her and she could ask you some questions and personally come up with some recommendations for you. You can let genius put together playlists for you, or you can let someone who knows music and knows your tastes make you a playlist (which lacks the romance of a mix tape, but hey-- technology marches on).

    You could try to create an enormous library of instructional modules with a gigantic and complex web of indexing and analytics. Or you could create a semi-large-ish library of units and a pretty small, superficial indexing system  and just kind of half-ass the whole thing, then try to cover it with a whiz-bang sales pitch.

    Or you could just hire a competent, well-trained, knowledgeable professional human to be the classroom teacher.

    I recommend that option, personally.

    PA: Cybers Are Delusional

    It's been little more than a week since the bricks and mortar portion of the charter school industry took a big, hard swipe at their cyber-siblings. As you may recall, three major charter school groups released a "report" that was basically a blueprint for how to slap the cyber-schools with enough regulation to make them finally behave. The report was rough, noting all of the worst findings about cybers-- how they achieve no learning and actually destabilize many students.

    The cyber-school industry was not amused. K12, one of the biggest chains in the largely for-profit sector, fired back with its own press release that managed to be feisty without really addressing any of the criticisms.

    But in Pennsylvania, one of the Big Three of free range cyber-school activity (Ohio and California are the other two), cybers are trying a different approach.

    In what the Philly Inquirer calls an "unprecedented" move, nine of the thirteen PA cyber chains sent a letter to PA Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera saying, "Hey, can we talk?"

    The letter does not exactly acknowledge the cyber school record of abject failure in PA.

    "What we are proposing is an open and honest discussion on what virtual education can and cannot do, dig deeper into the data and recommendations relative to Pennsylvania, and change whatever needs to be changed to make Pennsylvania the national model for high-quality and cost-effective virtual education," Joanne Barnett, CEO of the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School. "It's time to stop the combative nature of discourse relative to public education and work together for the benefit of the students, parents, and taxpayers." 

    In other words, now that we are losing this fight, we would like to call a truce.

    The nine cyber chains represent about 35,000 or the around 36,000 cyber students in PA. Of course, exact numbers are always difficult, as one of the classic cyber games is to play hot potato with students, keeping them long enough count for getting paid by the state, but not so long that they hurt the test numbers (or cost more money). My guidance counselor friends tell me that there are days in the year where guidance counselors and cyber-school officials literally sit at their computers and furiously pass students back and forth, like a sort of reverse ebay.

    Not that it helps much. In Pennsylvania, not a single cyber school met the benchmarks for academic performance.

    Despite the huge influence of charter lobbyists in Pennsylvania, cyber school operators have been sweating. At the astroturf site,, you can read the frantic concern that cyber money might be cut by the state. And pressure the rein in the cybers is coming form local districts across the state, where cash-strapped school systems are forking over huge truckloads of cash to the cybers under one of the most generous-to-charters financial set-ups in the nation. Local schools are seeing teachers laid off, schools closed, and programs shut down, and local taxpayers are finally seeing the direct links between what they're losing and the huge payments to the cyber schools which do not even deliver and are, in fact, failing so thoroughly that even their fellow charters are deserting them.

    But while cybers are signalling that they're willing to sit down and talk over some stuff, they are not signalling that they actually believe or accept any of their reported failures. At its site, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public [sic] Charter Schools indicates that "none of the data in the report is new," and Dr. Reese Flurie, CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy says that the national data is too general to make state policy decisions. Well, maybe, though since the Big Three have half the cyber students in the nation, I'm not sure data about national cyber-charters is all that general compared to Pennsylvania.

    And in that same piece, we find the line "Cyber charters are doing a good job of serving a student population that would otherwise fall through the cracks in the traditional system," which is a pretty thought for which there is not a shred of evidence. I will, as always, note that there are specific students for whom cybers can be a blessing. But after a decade of aggressively courting every other sort of student, those students who can benefit from cybers are a teeny tiny fraction of the business model.

    "There is always room for improvement" says the PCPCS, as if that's just one of those facts of life and not an insight into their own huge and numerous failures. Pennsylvania cybers do not have "room for improvement"-- they are costly and spectacular failures that do not educate students, strip local school districts of resources, and are far more concerned about turning a profit than actually doing the job they are set up to do. They don't need to discuss tweaking. They need to explain why their continued existence should be allowed.

    They'd like to cut a deal, but they'd like to avoid admitting anything in the process, keeping their money, their market share, and their illusions. Perhaps they're hoping that a willingness to talk will get them out of being forcibly reformed by the state, but if their opening position is, "Yeah, we're doing a great job. We just have to tweak a few things. Please keep writing those big checks" then they are not just trying some business maneuvering-- they are delusional. They are standing in the town square, the entire citizenry pointing and laughing at their flabby nakedness, as they try to deal with the situation by hollering, "Look, every outfit needs a little work, and we'll be happy to sit down with a tailor and discuss tweaking the outfit, but we still insist that our new clothes are splendid."