Sunday, July 31, 2016

Common Core Defenders Still Flailing Away

I think of Common Core defenders as a little like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster-- folks kind of believe they're out there, but only a handful of folks will admit to having seen them.

After all, neither major party will admit to loving the Core any more, and lots of policy folks have adopted the more generic and less civilian-alarming "college and career ready" for describing any kind of standardy stuff we're trying to push. Charter purveyors have learned they don't have to back the Core to succeed, and most everyone else has determined that the mere use of the term raises so much squawking that it's just better to keep quiet. The Gates Foundation slowed spending on the Core way down, with just one grant awarded in 2016.

And yet, every once in a while, like dust bunnies before a vacuum cleaner on a hardwood floor, the CC supporters come running out.

This time, the vacuum cleaner was a New York Times op-ed by Diane Ravitch. The piece really had nothing all that new or novel to say-- the Common Core cost taxpayers a buttload of money, and it hasn't helped students a bit. But, perhaps predictably, some folks popped right up to defend the still-useless set of standards.

The Collaborative for Student Success went with a listsicle of nine times they thought Ravitch was wrong in the NYT piece.

These included old standards like "they aren't really national" and "they aren't really curriculum," not acknowledging that both of those ideas are out in the world because back in the day, Core supporters put them there. It is true that, as of today, the Core are not quite national standards-- but they were always supposed to be. The whole notion was that CCSS would "fix" education by ensuring that students in Iowa and Alabama would be on the same page when it came to math and reading instruction. Students, we were told, would be able to move across state lines without losing an educational step. In fact, Collabroative for Student Success's website starts its page about the Common Core like this--

Recognizing the value and need for consistent learning goals across states...

And a paragraph later follows up with this:

The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.

That language, very common with CCSS supporters, promises a national curriculum. It always has.

CSS repeats other standard talking points. "CCSS and the tests that come with them are necessary to find and fix achievement gaps." Nope. Not needed for either. We have always known where the low-achieving, underfunded, undersupported schools are. In many cases, the Big Standardized Tests have confirmed that information, but, more importantly, in almost no cases, that knowledge has not been followed by a state or city saying, "Now that we've found our problem spots, we will focus resources, money, teachers and support to help those schools better serve their students."

Instead, the response has most often been, "Look! A failing school! We must hand it to turnaround experts or close it and replace it or surround it with charters." The focus is not on treating the school as a project to be improved, but rather transforming it into an opportunity for someone to make money.

As Ravitch says, and as CSS fails to refute, the Core simply hasn't worked. After seven years, there is not a school anywhere in the country where reformsters can point and say, "Look! The Core has transformed this from a problem school into an exemplar of Core-ified excellence."

Not that they don't occasionally try. But we'll get back to that.

There are reasons that the one-two punch of Common Core Standards and BS Testing have failed to improve US education. There are many reasons, in fact, but let's just focus on a couple of the big ones.

First, the BS Tests are crap. And that matters because in a sense, CSS is correct-- the Core is not a curriculum. It's the tests that are the curriculum. And it's a lousy curriculum. The tests do not accurately measure what they claim to measure. The tests are like a guy who promises to tell you everything you need to know about your potential neighbor or hiree or mate by weighing that person. "Chris weighs about 160 pounds," say the BS Test guy, "so Chris will probably not make a good spouse."

Second, because school districts quickly learned that the test is the curriculum, and the one thing for which they will be held accountable, here, now, in 2016, "Common Core Standards" is a meaningless phrase. Or, more precisely, it means so many things that it means nothing. It means anything. That means I can give the Core the blame or the credit for anything.

Today's NYT letter column flushed out some more Common Core Dust Bunnies, including the governor of Delaware who wants to sell the long-debunked claim that teachers helped write the Common Core standards. Well, we are all entitled to our fulfilling fantasies. Please nobody tell him about Santa Claus.

But the letters also predictably flushed out someone like Chris Hayes, an experienced classroom teacher in Reno, NV, who is also a Core Advocate with the core advocacy group, Student Achievement Partners (which means she's written this kind of letter a few times before).

Hayes offers the kind of letter (albeit, at a brisk NTY-friendly length) a thousand times before (and before)-- awesome things are happening in my classroom, like discussions and reading, because of the Core. Also, we don't do test prep.

I don't think so.

With all due respect to Hayes (and after twenty-one years in a real classroom, I believe she is due some respect), I have been asking the same two questions since Common Core cheerleading first cropped up. Here are my two questions for anyone touting the joys of Common Core:

1) What were you not doing before that you were suddenly able to do because of Common Core?

2) If Common Core were erased from your state today, what would you have to stop doing in class tomorrow?

After several years, I still don't have an answer to either question. And while it's not her fault that her letter is so short, Hayes does not offer anything remotely like an answer. Her letter could be used to defend a public school that refuses Common Core. It could be used to defend the practice of feeding students cake for breakfast.

Erika Sanzi, who can sometimes occupy the frothing reformster wing of the ed debate (I myself prefer the blustery asshole for public ed wing), picked up the Hayes letter and threw it at Ravitch, taking her to task for leaving out "the opinions of countless teachers who spend their days teaching precisely what she uses misinformation to condemn." But that leads us straight to the other huge reason that I believe the Common Core debates are essentially over.

I will bet you dollars to donuts that there are exactly zero teacher teaching "precisely" what the Common Core requires.


What "countless teachers" are doing is what their professional judgment tells them is best. And what those same teachers have learned is that aligning your instruction to the standards is just paperwork.

I can take any unit I have ever taught in the last thirty-five years and make it Common Core ready without doing a single thing except saying, "Okay, this unit hits the following standards." Hell, there are now handy software packages out there that just let me hit a drop down menu, click on some standards, and voila! My teaching is now aligned to the Core.

CSS trots out a couple of examples of great teacher projects (a banana calculator and a hip-hop literature class), but as always, there's absolutely no reason to believe that Common Core has anything to do with those pieces of instruction. CSS wants to link those to an emphasis on critical thinking, but Common Core not only didn't invent critical thinking, but it doesn't call for it.

Maybe I teach from the book, and the book may even have a big fat "Common Core Ready" or "Common Core Aligned" or "Common Core Super-Duper Compliantly Swellified," but we already know that almost all every textbook out there fails to a lesser or huger degree to actually be aligned to the Core. Because here's the thing-- anybody can say they are doing something that is Common Core aligned. Anybody.

States have created their own modified versions of the standards, and they've done it for largely political reasons, so the modifications range from changing the numbering system to adding Really Important Things like a requirement to learn longhand.

Meanwhile, teachers who are even sort of trying to implement the standards have been busy filling in the gaps. The ELA standards are empty vessels, with complete disregard for content, so teachers have mostly decided to fill in the giant gaping void in the center of the reading and writing standards. Meanwhile, other well-meaning teachers have done a year or two of following the text or the standards and have-- as actual professional teachers always do-- modified what they do from year to year.

And those are just the teachers who tried to make a good-faith effort to follow the standards. That's not counting other animals in the educational bestiary, like the superintendents who had their own ideas about what the standards meant, or the consultants called in to help "unpack" the standards who did it in their own particular way. Or the cranky old teachers who looked at the standards and said, "Well, screw this. This is junk" and have actively worked against them ever since-- and that's before they figured out that they could just use paperwork to align their materials.

Even the most compliant, best-intentioned CCSS teachers have "interpreted" or "unpacked" or "surely this is what they meant" their way to their own personal version of the standards.

And why not? Who exactly is there to check anyone's work, to maintain and oversee the integrity or consistency of the Core? The guys who created it finished the work and then bolted immediately for jobs in the private sector. If you want to call the central Common Core office to report a problem or ask permission for a change, there is nobody to call. There is nobody out there, anywhere, looking over state or school district shoulders to say, with real authority, "Yes, that's exactly it" or "No, you're off track." And because the Core were issued with instructions that they must not be changed or altered in any way, even an honest, well-intentioned "fix" represents an unauthorized change, an attack on the CCSS purity.

Bottom line. The Common Core standards are meaningless, and there isn't a teacher in the nation who is actually following them in a true and absolute fashion. Yes, there are still states and districts that are using something they call Common Core as a combination straightjacket and club with which to hamstring teachers. And there are undoubtedly districts and teachers who have put together a good educational program, convinced themselves it has something to do with Common Core, and done some good work.

But Common Core is, at this point, a useless term. Unfortunately, to get to this point, we had to waste billions of dollars and inflict a program of toxic testing on children in this country. CSS went with the old "well, we have to wait" argument, echoing Bill Gates comment that it might take a decade to see if this stuff works. Nope. The Core were rushed together by a bunch of educational amateurs, who were sure we couldn't wait another second to implement them because they would improve education immediately. They didn't, and there's no reason to believe that there will ever be actual improvement to come from the standards-- only the illusion of improvement if teachers continue to come up with newer, better techniques and give the Core credit for them.

The dust bunnies can keep popping out to defend it, but like dust bunnies, the Core has less and less substance and definition, and is ultimately best destined for the dust bin of history.

ICYMI: All of July Edition

It's been a few weeks since I had a reading list for you, and this is certainly not the complete list of what I could recommend, but there are still only so many hours in a Sunday.

Tea Party Charter Leader Admits Becoming a Cyber School Was Simply a Way To Get a Charter

From Eclectablog, which should be on your must-read list, one more example of how the charter sector (particularly in Ohio) is a playground for charlatans and bunko artists. This at least qualifies as a slightly new manner of fraud...

Read Like Detective

Another excellent article from the "Why Common Core Sucks" genre. You know most of these pieces, but Johnathan Chase finds a good way to put them together and connect the dots.

Trump: Tribune of Poor White People

This interview with J.D.Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, is not just an excellent explanation of why Trump keeps winning, but is also a sharp look at the culture of poor, white poverty in this country.

Inequality Is for Winners

Jennifer Berkshire's interview with Tom Frank, author of Listen, Liberal, is a good companion piece to the previous article on the list.

Is Plagiarism Really a Big Deal?

This is a double-win, because it's Nancy Flanagan, and she references a piece by Paul Thomas. While the hook is recent issues with the P word, she connects this to the kind of ethical issues we deal with in any classroom where students can steal ideas or writing (aka "most of them")

Understanding KIPP Model Charter

Jim Horn here shares the entire second chapter from his book Work Hard, Be Hard, a look at the world of No Excuses teaching. It's sobering and scary and helps answer the question, "How bad can it be, really?"

Students Broken Moral Compasses

Teacher Paul Barnwell looks at what the test-driven education revolution has cost us in student moral education.

School Funding and Presidential Hypocrisy

So once again, politicians and their children are saying, "Poor kids should have the same choices rich kids do," which sounds pretty, but as Jersey Jazzman shows, it's empty noise unless we talk about what that would actually cost. Over at EdWeek, Andrew Ujifusa takes a look at the same issue-- so you can get a good hard, two-headed look at what it would really cost to actually do this.

Have Obama's Education Policies Weakened the Democratic Party

A pretty blunt look at Obama ed policies and how they damaged the traditional Democratic Party relationship with education.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Bianca Tanis gives the most complete look at the new NY test result numbers-- and how big a mess the whole thing is.

Pence and ALEC

Yes, if you read here, you undoubtedly read Diane Ravitch. But don't let this quick piece get lost in the shuffle, reminding us that ALEC has some big dogs in play in this election.

Love Letter to My Dead Student

A guest writer at Edushyster delivers this heart-thumping piece.  

Saturday, July 30, 2016

$tand For Children: The Astroturfing of Advocacy

Stand For Children's pedigree is impeccable. It's twenty year history begins with a huge June rally in DC, where 250,000 people did, indeed, stand up for children. Geoffrey Canada and Rosa Freaking Parks spoke. Time Magazine did a follow-up interview with child advocate and activist Marion Wright Edelman. Edelman was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar, and in 1973 she founded the Children's Defense Fund.

Edelman's son Jonah* (his father worked for Robert Kennedy) teamed up with Eliza Leighton to work on that rally, and immediately after, they launched Stand For Children. This was Edelman's first big project; he had received his B.A. in History with a concentration on African-American studies from Yale University in 1992, then landed a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, earning his Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Politics in 1994 and 1995.

The organization kicked off with rallies all over the country, and launched as a chain of local, grass roots chapters.In a press release for the 1999 Stand For Children Day, we can see the organization spread over "1,500 volunteer-led events" calling for things like greater funding for pre-school. The priorities of SFC in those days were pretty simple:
  • Health coverage for uninsured children
  • Monitoring the impact of welfare reform
  • More money for affordable, high-quality child care
  • Safe and productive after-school activities
  • Schools that have small classes, well-trained teachers, high standards, and involved parents.
But by the late 00s, something was happening to Stand For Children.

One thing that was happening was huge truckloads of money from the Gates and Walton foundations. Stand For Children was making a whole lot of interesting new friends, and their old friends, including parents like Susan Barrett, were noticing:

I think about the visits from the Policy Director of the New Teacher Project, and the former aide to New York City charter operator, Eva Moskowitz, who said she was moving to Portland and trying to set up a chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, the pro-charter, hedge-fund driven organization.  I think about their push for Oregon to submit a Race to the Top application, (which the state did initially, but it failed); and how the organization acted as the “social justice partner “of Waiting for Superman. and urged parents to attend the film. Only recently did I come to realize that the SFC Portland Director, Tyler Whitmire, is the daughter of Richard Whitmire, author of The Bee Eater, a book lavishing praise on Michelle Rhee.

By 2010, Oregon SFC staff was pushing for support of a bill to increase charters and cyber-schooling. Oh, and SFC was now advocating a decrease in the capital gains tax. Former actual parent SFC member Tom Olson explained the last straw came with new SFC staff:

We were appalled that [Sue Levin] had virtually no experience leading grassroots organizations. Instead, we were told that she had a truly impressive background as an “entrepreneur” (a phrase we began to hear [CEO Edelman] use quite frequently during [his] transformation during 2009–10). Levin had been the founder and CEO of a women’s apparel company, Lucy Inc. Prior to that, she had been a women’s sports apparel VP at Nike Inc. Grassroots leadership experience? Absolutely none. Connections with millionaires? A whole bunch.

SFC became a big promotional partner for Waiting for Superman. They stood up to defend the Common Core across numerous states. And they advocated hard for charters and for anti-tenure, anti-union policies. SFC was out in ten states, so there are many stories.

Kenn Libby and Adam Sanchez put together a history of Stand For Children that ran in the Fall 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools. At that point, one of SFC's most recent "accomplishments" was its work in Illinois, where they were brought in to help bust the union. At Aspen in 2011, Edelman suffers an extraordinary attack of Damn I Forgot That The Internet Is a Thing and lays out in a panel discussion caught on video just how they did it, and it's an interesting explanation of how well-moneyed advocates could separate Democrats from usual constituents. Edelman is pretty blunt-- he explains at one point how officials were simply political tools to achieve the goal of "tilting" Speaker Madigan. He's also pretty blunt about how he managed the teachers:

After the election, Advance Illinois and Stand had drafted a very bold proposal we called Performance Counts. It tied tenure and layoffs to performance. It let principals hire who they choose. It streamlined dismissal of ineffective tenured teachers substantially—from two-plus years and $200,000 in legal fees, on average, to three to four months, with very little likelihood of legal recourse.

And, most importantly, we called for the reform of collective bargaining throughout the state—essentially, proposing that school boards would be able to decide any disputed issue at impasse...

We hired 11 lobbyists, including the four best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them. We enlisted a statewide public affairs firm. . . . We raised $3 million for our political action committee between the election and the end of the year. That’s more money than either of the unions have in their political action committees.

And so essentially, what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power. I can tell you there was a palpable sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers’ unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance, and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats, the same way the pension reform had been jammed down their throats six months earlier.

Throat-jamming has been a favored technique of SFC. In Massachusetts, SFC mounted a huge media campaign to push the idea of erasing tenure and seniority protections and won concessions from the teachers union by the old-fashioned technique of blackmail-- you can give us some concessions now, or we will throw our weight behind a ballot initiative that will be even worse. As a further sign of their astro-turfy nature, they promptly vanished once their work was done.

By the time the current decade had rolled around, all traces of the original group and its original priorities had vanished. In 2011, Texas faced serious budget problems and the prospect of serious education budget cuts. The old SFC would have advocated for protecting schools and children from those cuts; the new SFC was busy throwing its weight behind new teacher evaluation programs.

The current SFC Board of Directors is, well, unsurprising:

* Anne Marie Burgoyne, Chair. Holds an MBA from Stanford and is currently manages the social innovation initiative for the Emerson Collective, the reformy group headed by Steve Jobs widow (Laurene Jobs was on the SFC board back in 2006) and which hired Arne Duncan to do something-or-other.

* Emma Bloomberg. Michael Bloomberg's oldest daughter, and chief of staff at the Robin Hood Foundation (founded by Paul Tudor Jones, a hedge fund manager who dabbles in ed reform).
[Update: Bloomberg is no longer on the Robin Hood board, and has not been for almost two years. SFC's website has not been updated to reflect that. I have no idea what else they may have wrong.]

* Phil Handy, Treasurer. CEO of Winter Park Capital. Six years as Chairman of Florida State Board of Education under Jeb Bush.

* Eliza Leighton. Co-founder and now independent consultant. Left SFC in 2001 to get a law degree.

* David Nierenberg. An investment guy, now running his own firm after years of managing money for other people's firms.

* Lisette Nieves. Partner at Lingo Ventures, her own consulting firm. She's "an experienced social entrepreneur and public sector leader." Some government work, too, including Bloomberg appointee on NYC Board of Education.

* Don Washburn, Secretary. A private equity investor who has held executive positions at Northwest Airlines, Marriott Corp, and Quaker Oats.

In other words, not a single person with education credentials in the bunch. But they know a lot about investing money. Does it get any better if we look at the heads of their local affiliates?

Arizona's director's previous experience is help Jan Brewer push her education reform program. Colorado? Fifteen years as a "successful contract lobbyist." Illinois-- lawyers who worked for ed division of Tribune publishing. Indiana's head has background in communications and marketing, having helped shill for reformy Bart Peterson. Louisiana's director first joined SFC as Marketing and Communications Director. Massachusetts gets a Teach for America guy. Oklahoma's director was a journalist who moved into political communications work. Oregon's is former TFA, former KIPP, former Alliance for Excellence in Education, and a former aid to Senator Hillary Clinton. Tennessee doesn't have a state chief; the Nashville head is a former Obama administration liason for Department of Energy, and the Memphis head is a political activist and consultant. Texas and Washington don't have full staff presence.

In 2012, national leadership of SFC, "to ensure that we are maximizing our collective impact, ...decided to develop a shared viewpoint on how to accomplish our mission and to prioritize strategies that have proven effective in closing the achievement gap." In other words, "let's get everyone on the same page." The six-page manifesto is relatively harmless, even as it uses plenty of reformster dog whistles.

But words are cheap, and Stand For Children may be many things these days, but cheap they are not. I spent my Saturday morning reading up on them because they have surfaced twice this week, in both cases busy trying to buy themselves some democracy.

In Washington State, SFC is trying to buy itself a judge. See, the current judge, the one they'd like to buy a replacement for, had the temerity to rule Washington's charter law, the charter law that charter supporters paid lots of good money to get passed, unconstitutional (Mercedes Schneider has the painful details). Sigh. This is the sort of thing that should bother you even if you don't even care a little about education-- for these folks, laws and democracy are just obstacles to getting their way. Want a particular law passed? Just buy the law you want, and if that isn't enough, buy the judge that will interpret the law the way you'd like it. So Stand For Children is funneling three quarters of a million dollars of reformster money into the judge's race (meanwhile, that judge who is not being backed by funders from across the nation, has about $30K to defend herself with-- if you would like to help her with that, here's the link).

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, spent (or passed through) another $700K to buy itself some Nashville school board members. At Dad Gone Wild, you can read just how far off the rails that effort has gone (it appears that SFC is a little muddied on PAC and campaign law).

I confess to some mystification. How did a guy with such a child-centered, activist background become such a tool of corporate interests? How did a group that started with Rosa Parks saying, "If I can sit down for justice, you can stand up for children" end up being a group that doesn't stand for much of anything except stacks of money wielded like political clubs? How do these folks decide that law and democracy are simple obstacles to be leveraged and used, cast aside or buried under stacks of cash? Watch Edelman in that video-- children aren't even on the radar.

Reformsters like to say that you can't fix schools by throwing money at them, but they sure do like to throw money at politics and politicians. I suppose it is somehow comforting to believe that everyone can be bought when you yourself have long since sold out.

*I initially posted the wrong brother's name (Josh) instead of Jonah.

Friday, July 29, 2016

NY: 2016 Opt Out Remained Huge

The report on 2016 testing is out, and the bottom line is this:

Despite various state attempts to pressure, brow-beat, threaten, cajole, and distribute a huge case of the PR-spin whirlies, the opt out numbers in NY actually went up.

The increase is marginal-- in 2015, 20% did not test, and in 2016, 22% did not test.

But then, in 2015 the state was caught somewhat flatfooted by the opt out movement and could barely get its response together. In 2016 they were prepared from the moment 2015's numbers came out. By November, state education boss, the ostensibly kinder, gentler MaryEllen Elia, the woman who was going to be less off-putting and parent-enraging than John King, had distributed testing propaganda kits to superintendents. There were legal threats. There was even a fake task force assigned to make all the moms and dads settle down.

Boy, with a whole year to lean on parents, things were going to go better.

And heck, from out here in the cheap seats, it looked like even the opt outers were unsure. There was very little crowing and predicting another defeat for NY testing forces.

Nevertheless, defeat arrived.

The report trumpets some increases in proficiency across the state, but what does that even mean? It was a different test, with a cut score set according to the usual mysterious voodoo formula.

And more than one in five New York students did not take it.

One in five.

The test results are meaningless. And the Big Standardized Test of New York is, for the second year, pointless.

Free Marketing Schools

Free market fans envision a story something like this:

Finding themselves in a world where the power of the free market is unleashed, charters, private, and public schools all become transparent, competing with each other to be able to publish the finest student outcomes. Empowered consumers/parents study up on the student outcomes published by each school so that they can weigh the merits of each school and make the best selection for their children.

If this fairy tale ever came to pass, education would be the first sector of the free market to ever function in this fashion. Go turn on your television right now and wait for an advertisement that is a factual, data-based account of the effectiveness of the product. Wait for an advertisement that does not try to imbue the product with a personality or identity, even if products corn flakes and cleaning fluids do not naturally display any personality traits. Okay-- you shouldn't actually wait for any of that, because you will get old and die before you actually succeed.

Let me repeat what is perhaps my most-repeated observation on this blog.

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.

Now we have an academic study from the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Perceptions of Prestige: A Comparative Analysis of School Online Media Marketing," by Sarah Butler Jessen (Bowdoin College) and Catherine DiMartino (Hofstra University) is a working paper that looks at how marketing plays out in a couple of education markets.

The paper is about setting up a framework for comparing branding and marketing practices, comparing the practices of different types of schools in "choice settings."

Jessen and DiMartino draw on lots of literature studying the use and practices of branding and marketing in the world at large (because, as everyone with eyeballs has noticed, that's what actual free markets are loaded with) as well as education-specific material. Since choice systems have required schools to distinguish themselves in order to win customers, some researchers have already started looking at how that is done. Branding communities, for instance, build a whole culture around a school mascot and school logo.

Researchers have found that shared personal values and life experiences–usually gleaned from personal interactions and word-of-mouth recommendations—attract parents to particular schools rather than the actual academic performance of the school.

In other words, families are inclined to send their children to schools serving families much like their own-- one more reason that choice is likely to make segregation worse rather than better. Jessen and DiMartino also note that "proximity to home and after-school opportunities" are big draws for choosing schools.

Jessen and DiMartino note that research (going all the way back to 2002) shows that choice systems combined with test-driven accountability lead to schools that market precisely toward "better" students who will improve the school's numbers (and market to discourage those who would lower the school's performance profile). The push for slick, glossy marketing also drains resources, or leaves public schools unable to compete in the marketing arms race. The call for marketing also changes the role of the school administration, which now needs to be concerned not just with the usual in-house issues of running a school, but must also worry about marketing and "image management."

But what would that marketing actually look like? Jessen and DiMartino shift here to the world of business.

Research from that world suggests that for "experience" goods (those for which the quality has to be experienced to be believed) advertising and marketing are about finding ways to signal quality. A common and effective way to signal quality is pretty simple-- spend a lot of money on the ads. Make sure they are slick, shiny, and polished. Then make sure that the customer encounters them often. Examples of this principle in action are everywhere. How do consumers "know" that Coke and Pepsi are classier and higher-quality than, say, RC or Faygo? After all, we're talking about carbonated, artificially flavored water-- quality is not really an issue. Yet we see Coke and Pepsi ads constantly, and always featuring high-gloss slick production values, and so somehow we "know" that Coke and Pepsi are the highest-quality carbonated artificially-flavored water out there.

Those kinds of signifiers of quality are definitely "suboptimal information," but even more likely to come into play with education because not only is an experienced good, but the people who actually experience it may not be ready to evaluate it for years afterwards (most teachers have a story about a returning student who says, "Yeah, years and years ago when I had you in class, I hated it. But now I'd just like to thank you, because I finally see the benefit of what you did"). On top of that, the person doing the selection-- the parent-- isn't even the person who is going to experience the good.

All of which means that the parents are susceptible to marketing and branding.

So, now the part where the actual studying was done.

Jessen and DiMartino looked at New York and Boston. They selected urban and suburban schools, divided into CMO (chain) charters, Non-CMO (individual stand-alone mom and pop) charters, public (non-charter) schools of choice, public schools, and private schools. Finding communities that included all five types turned out to be a challenge-- CMO charters were mostly not in the suburbs, and urban areas were short on public schools, and that's worth a bunch of consideration all by itself, but let's move on.

Jessen and DiMartino considered the school web site, the school's YouTube presence, and any activity on social media (Facebook and Twitter). And they threw in some analysis of published mission statements for good measure.

There was big data to be wrung from the school websites. Here's a handy chart from the paper (used with permission):

 The "autonomous web site" 0% for CMO charters comes from the CMO habit of embedding all individual schools in the chain in the mother ship's website. If you're going to maintain the integrity of the brand, can't run the risk of individual schools going off-message.

As a Firefox user, I'm not sure that flash graphics qualify as a Good Thing; nevertheless, you can see the overall pattern. Charter chains do a great deal of well-managed marketing of their brand, much of which has absolutely nothing to do with how good a job they do at providing an actual education to students.

Jessen and DiMartino also break down the language of mission statements, which yields it own interesting data set. CMOs overwhelmingly favor academic language, followed by a bit of character, while the other four school categories include academics, but also used a great deal of language related to character and community (for CMOs, "community" doesn't make the cut at all). Only public schools brought up citizenship.

When it comes to YouTube, CMOs are also smoking everyone else. 91% of CMOs had their own YouTube channel (82% with carefully branded colors), and 73% had channels with professionally created videos. Even private schools were far behind this (50% with channels, 13% with pro videos). Public (non-choice) schools are just sad-- only 11% had a YouTube channel, and nobody had pro videos (presumably nothing but videos from band concerts and football games taken by somebody's mom).

Curiously, while CMOs lead the pack when it comes to Twitter, almost every type of school is catching on Facebook (CMOs, 100% and public non-choice schools, 77%). This perhaps confirms independent research from my classroom, where a very loosely researched study resulted in the finding "Dayum, Mr. Greene. Nobody uses Facebook any more. Facebook is for your mom." It should also be noted that while almost everyone is on Twitter, not everyone knows what to do there, with CMOs way ahead of the pack in followers and in the use of hashtags to mobilize their people.

So what conclusions can we draw?

Jessen and DiMartino note that some high-powered public schools in wealthy communities may not market much because their reputation is plenty effective. And I would add that there's still a non-zero portion of the public school sector that is leery of all forms of social media because of student privacy issues.

Nevertheless, many of the charters, particularly the charter chains, are marketing, and marketing hard. The writers note that Success Academy's YouTube channel has at least 131 videos, most professionally produced. That's not cheap. But then, by looking through old tax forms, the writers also found that Success Academy spent $700,000 on PR firms in just one year, as well as $418,718 to Mission Control Inc., a direct mailing firm that has also worked for NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the House Majority PAC. Plus printing fliers, buying mailing lists, etc etc etc. And you can bet that none of this is being done by some principal's secretary in the gap between submitting the daily attendance report and checking lunch money lists. What's the takeaway here?

Schools with more money invested in their Web sites, their promotional videos, and their social media outlets stand to be perceived as being of higher quality by parents, students, and investors alike. CMO-run charter schools present a much more professional face in these online media outlets than other schools in the public sector. CMO Web sites are matched for sophistication and polish only by elite private schools, but with very different messaging. Such investment in marketing raises anew fundamental questions about the perception and reality of public education.

Let me add to that. First of all, when Jessen and DiMartino say "more professional face," that doesn't mean the face of a professional educator. It's the face of a professional marketer, an advertising professional.

Second, that's a whole pile of financial resources being spent on marketing instead of being spent on educating students. And while some of those charters may well benefit from the largesse of investors, mostly we're talking about advertising paid for with taxpayer education dollars. The state said, "Hand over some of your money so that we can educate the citizens of tomorrow" and then then charters turned around and spent that money on a professional photographer to take pictures to go in the glossy brochure packed in envelopes and mailed out by a professional direct-mailing firm-- all of it paid for with tax dollars that were earmarked for education.

Third, let's go back to the free market argument for charters. Charters would lead to competition, and while the implication has always been that the competition would be about who could run the best school, develop the best programs, hire the best teachers, and just generally do the best job educating students. Instead, the competition is to see which school can do the best job of marketing, spend the most money on professional advertising services, create the best branded image of their product.

That is certainly competition, but it is certainly not competition that will get us better schools.

Other Suns and the Illusion of History

It was impossible to drive across the country without thinking of Isabel Wilkerson's masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns, a stunning telling of the story of the Great Migration.

Wilkerson weaves numerous threads together (including those of her own life) and shifts effortlessly between close focus and the larger picture, but the book revolves around the stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Starling, and Pershing Foster, as each of them makes their own personal journeys. The Great Migration was an unprecedented shift of population in this country and, as Wilkerson says, "it was the first big step the nation's servant class ever took without asking."

I won't try to capture the entire book, but I will share some of what hit me when reading it.

Some were simple factoids. The first Jim Crow law? Passed in Massachusetts.

Some of it echoes our present. Foster's parents were educators, and the picture of black schooling in the South is brutal. For instance, on the matter of financing schools:

"The money allocated to the colored children is spent on the education of the white children," a local school superintendent in Louisiana said bluntly. "We have twice as many colored children of school age as we have white, and we use their money. Colored children are mighty profitable to us."

And perhaps most striking and effective because of Wilkerson's thoroughness, is the ordinary everydayness of the racism these people lived through.

Travel always makes me think of the book because of Foster's story. At one point, this educated physician sets out to drive cross country, heading out West to create a new life, and the simple business of trying to find a place to eat or a hotel in which to stay is an insurmountable challenge. It's such a simple thing for a man to drive up to a hotel or motel and get a vacant room, but it's a simple comfort that is denied him. When my wife and I traveled, one of the things we could take for granted was the ability to get a room or some food wherever they presented themselves. I think of Dr. Foster, turned away from room after room, and I am angry that such crap happens, ever happened at all.

Foster's story also quietly rebukes the notion of meritocracy. Foster does everything that is supposed to get ahead. He gets an education, he does good work, and he is still defined and limited by both individuals and the system because he is black.

The book pierces one of the great illusions of history. Often we look back and it seems that, well, that thing happened Way Back Then, but this is now, and somewhere in between there was a break, a jump, a change, and now we live in Other Times, cut free and disconnected from those earlier days.

But to really study history, we see this is not true at all. The Great Migration did not end until 1970, and the lives of these people did not end until decades after that, and yet the roots of their stories are in the slave days of America. Ida Mae Gladney came to Chicago eighty years ago, and yet was forced to settle in the same neighborhoods where black Americans are still held down today.

Perhaps my generation is more prone to say, "Well, you know, this country once had terrible racial problems, but now we're pretty much past all that." But Wilkerson patiently takes us essentially year by year from slave days to the present, checking each year, noting "Well, that break didn't happen this year. How about this year? No? Well, let's check the next one." Until the conclusion becomes inescapable. The break never happened, and racism and racial injustice stretch through US history in a long, unbroken line.

There is no big break in the road that leads us to the world where a major television commentator explains that the slaves who built the White House were really quite happy and fortunate. Or a world in which an entire schooling philosophy is built on, "What poor children of color need is an environment of strict discipline in which they learn to be obedient and compliant. That's the only thing that will work for Those Children." It's an illusion to imagine that there is some sort of gulf, some sort of tectonic plate shift that separates our present reality from our not-so-distant past, and a mistake to believe that the past can be ignored or dismissed, that it does not contain clues to the nature of our present and a better path toward our future.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Looking for Mr. or Ms. Change Agent

Over at the Fordham, Mike Petrilli has been slowly unspooling a series of posts looking at how reform goals might be pursued through means other than policy and politics. In his latest, he considers the leadership development approach to school reform.

Petrilli expresses mixed feelings about the argument. On the one hand, he recognizes that great leaders have value. On the other hand, he's not sure that leaders can make a difference in the vast dry dead desert of public schools, and wouldn't we all be better off just putting our energy into helping leaders grow in the lush gardens that are charter schools?

As always, Petrilli has part of a point. Superintendents and principals are fighting an uphill battle these days, though it's certainly worth noting that many of the obstacles were created by reformsters like Petrilli, hamstringing schools with the crappy Common Core State [sic] Standards and bad-test-based accountability. The last decade-plus of ed reform have sidled school leaders with truckloads of crap and foisted on them priorities like "get student test scores up or get fired." So yes-- there are "government" policies in place that subject principals to "the dysfunction of the larger system within which they must work, and the Gordian knot that’s been tied by decades of contradictory, often compromising, laws and regulation"-- and that big mess has been largely grown and built with the assistance of guys like Petrilli, criss-crossing the country to advocate for those same government regulations.

Petrilli also throws shade at "unruly elected school boards," and I wonder once again why reformsters love the rugged chaos of parents choosing their own schools, but hate the rugged chaos of voters choosing their own school board. Choice is good except when it's terrible.

Petrilli nods to Rick Hess's cage-busting while rightly acknowledging that the cages are real and need some work of their own. But he also likes the various faux programs like the Broad Academy, programs premised on the idea that a rich guy knows how best to create educational visionaries (or at least entrepreneurs who can figure out how to score some money in the ed biz).

And there's no question that being a public school administrator has become such a thankless job that attracting people for it has become difficult (Sign up today! None of the power and all of the responsibility!!)

But mostly Petrilli's working his way up to claims about the natural superiority of charters.

I just haven’t seen the kind of drive for continuous improvement in traditional districts that I’ve witnessed in charter networks like KIPP and Achievement First, where the very organizational DNA is obsessed with excellence and continuous improvement, always looking for more effective approaches to teaching and learning. I’ve got to believe that it’s something about the structure of the charter sector—its governance by mission-driven boards instead of local politicians; its ability to recruit and retain educators that share a vision rather than a collective bargaining agreement (and conventional preparation and certification); its sense of urgency driven by accountability to authorizers and funders—that makes the difference. If I were a philanthropist, I’d support leadership development efforts, but mostly for charter schools rather than district ones.

And now we've slipped all the way from consideration of a real systemic issue in education into plain old advertising puffery and bullshit.

Charter schools have the quest for excellence in their very DNA?? Would that be a reference the widespread charter focus on recruiting and retaining only the best, cheapest-to-educate students? Or charters like the Success Academies with their Got To Go lists? Or the chains where teachers must follow the CMO's required playbook or else?

And you've just never, ever seen a public school system that is devoted to excellence and improvement? Because this is the kind of implication that can set off even the most tired BS detector. I will say many uncomplimentary things about charters, but I'd not suggest that every single charter stinks and displays the evils of some charters (like, say, the charters that are managed simply to maximize profit for their operator, or charters that are simply frauds, or even charters that appear to be managed to support a foreign national's political ambitions).

Nor do I buy Petrilli's claim that business management is somehow better than democratic election, that suits in a boardroom are better than local control, than elections, than democracy. Boardroom rule is superior in one respect- it frees the people in the boardroom from having to listen to any voices but their own, from having to consider any needs or concerns except their own.

And while I have no doubt that there are people who really, sincerely believe that an oligarchy is better than democracy, I don't believe anyone with eyes and a brain could believe that charters have a great ability to recruit and retain teachers. Heck, the widespread charter love of Teach For America bodies is witness that much of the charter sector doesn't even want to retain its teaching staff.

That plus the parenthetical denigration of professional educators (you know-- the people who actually chose teaching as a career and spent their college years preparing to do it through those dastardly conventional means) makes this paragraph qualify as one of the most insulting ones Petrilli has ever written. Yes, somehow, the professional concerns of people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to education-- these folks are somehow less compelled to do a good job than functionaries with businessmen looking over their shoulders.

It is that old ugly business bias peeking through once again. You know. Teachers don't understand how the world works, but businessmen do. Teachers don't understand how to get good work out of people, but businessmen know how to wield those carrots and sticks. Teachers don't understand that to get a reward, you should have to impress some corporate overlord; businessmen get it. Teachers are stupid; businessmen are smart.

There's no doubt that a venture capitalist with a school to staff can make school leaders an attractive offer-- I'm thinking here of Carl Icahn and his recruitment of Jeff Litt to run his tax shelter charter school. But the belief in a Beloved Genius Leader as a solution to school problems is just a ramped-up version of the Hero Teacher, and just as destructive.

The best school management, the healthiest, most productive, most student-friendly school management is mostly about getting out of the way. Set the course. Help your staff see the goal. And then do everything you can to get your staff the space to do their thing. A good manager is like a good roof or a good offensive line, making sure that teachers have everything they need to be their best selves in the classroom so that students get the best teaching possible. Ironically, a manager's greatest power is the power to mess things up. There are a million ways that a bad manager can get in the way of her people and keep them from delivering great work. And the history of the last decade-plus of ed reform is the history of policies that demand that administrators get in the way, requiring them to impose false artificial one-size-fits-all, counter-education goals on their staff.

The best public school management balances a hundred hundred factors-- the particular students, their families, the staff, the board, the community, and on top of that, whatever state and federal requirements have been piled on.

It's possible that charters do have an advantage for a simple reason-- cut off from accountability to the community, fewer parents, fewer students (and far fewer challenging students), and under no obligation to keep the students that come to them, charter school administrators generally have far more people they can disregard.

In a public school setting, everyone and everything is supposed to be important (sadly, some public schools still manage to disregard a portion of their mission). But in a charter school setting, the mission, the student body, and the teaching staff can all be narrowed so that only a few people and a few things matter. That's certainly easier to manage, but it's not a public school in a democratic nation. It is easier to create a charter school leader than a public school leader for the same reason it's easier to build a cabinet than it is to build a Victorian mansion.

The trick of coming up with administrative change agents is not mysterious. More resources. More freedom to get the job done. Fewer constraints on exactly what you're supposed to do. Better pay. And way more trust. Like most charter "innovations," it's something we could easily do in public schools if policy makers just got out of the way and provided the necessary resources.

NV: Vouchers Go To Court

Last year, Nevada passed a voucher law that was a big wet kiss to reformsters and everyone else who wants to dismantle public education.

It's about the simplest voucher law we've ever seen. The state of Nevada will pay you $5,100 to take your kid out of public school. You can spend your $5,100 on a charter school, a private school, a religious school, or on supplies to home school (does a new roof for my home school building count, I wonder). Unlike other voucher laws which are specifically aimed at poor students or students with disabilities, this law has no limits-- it's for everybody.

There are any number of problems with this approach. We can talk about the philosophical issues with abandoning the whole idea of public education and switching to a system in which we just give parents a tax-funded check to spend on whatever. We can talk about the practical issues of such a system in Nevada, where Clark County (Las Vegas) has one of the biggest school systems in the country, while Esmerelda County has a total population of 783. We can talk about the challenge of extensive state oversight of how these tax dollars are spent (or the irresponsibility of having no such oversight). We can talk about the legal issues (already visited in other voucher cases) of funneling public tax dollars into private religious schools.

The economics are weak as well. Poor kids get a full $5,700 for their vouchers, which is enough money to get into pretty much none of the private schools available (and of course those schools don't have to accept them even if they can make up the difference). Why is it that voucher  and faux voucher choicey programs, the ones that say "All students deserve the same school choices as rich kids" never propose that taxes be raised so that students can receive the kind of money that really goes with those choices?

Instead, we get the usual weak bromides, like the law's sponsor, Senator Scott Hammond, telling the Washington Post, "Nothing works better than competition." This despite the utter lack of proof that competition in any way improves education.

The Nevada voucher law will now have its day with the state Supreme Court. Well, sort of. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports, "A ruling isn’t expected in either case. Both sides, however, acknowledge that when the Supreme Court holds oral arguments in two lawsuits Friday it’s likely to have a ripple effect throughout the country."

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is on the scene to file amicus briefs, along with the usual cast of characters on both sides. But voucher supporters have extra help-- the state's attorney general is being aided by former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, who is on a half-million dollar retainer. The two cases (one brought by the ACLU, and one by a parent) kicked off yesterday.

So now we wait to see if Nevada can, in fact, pay parents with tax dollars to abandon public education. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Gardener and the Carpenter

Earlier this month, Dr. Alison Gopnick appeared in the Wall Street Journal plugging some thoughts from her soon-to-be-published book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.

Gopnick's point is about parenting, but it has direct implications for the teaching world as well. Gopnick argues that modern parents have accepted a goal-oriented view of parenting, that parenting is working toward a particular outcome, in this case, creating a particular human being with a certain set of characteristics and skills. This is parenting as carpentry:

Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books or your bottom line. In the “parenting” picture, a parent is a kind of carpenter; the goal, however, is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person.

Gopnick says that this leads to the idea that certain techniques, certain developed expertise, will allow parents to create that particular human being. That gives u the corollary that some parents are better more expert, or, as we like to say in the ed biz, more "effective" than others, and that this effectiveness can be judged by the outcome. Did you manufacture the good, well-behaved, accomplished tiny human that was your goal? Congratulations-- you're an excellent carpenter parent.

Gopnick has bad news for folks who pursue this model.

The scientific study of development provides very little support for this picture.

It's not that childhood experiences don't have an effect on human development. And it's not that parenting choices don't matter. They just don't matter, says Gopnick, they way you think they do.

Her argument is an evolutionary one, that the need to be nomadic came with a need to be adaptable, which fit well with a longer-than-usual-in-the-animal-kingdom immaturity for humans. It made it possible for humans to raise a varied and flexible group of young'uns, which in turn meant that whatever happened, whatever turned up, there was someone in each generation that was capable of dealing with it. But, she says, "you can't simultaneously learn about a new environment and act on it effectively."

The evolutionary solution to that trade-off is to give each new human being protectors—people who make sure that children have a chance to thrive, learn and imagine before they have to fend for themselves. Those protectors also pass on the knowledge that previous generations have accumulated.

This reminds me of some of the thinking that comes from chaos and information theory-- that there is an order-creating pattern in the world in which first a wide variety of paths emerge, and then a few emerge as successful, and then they blossom into a thousand paths, and then a few emerge, rinse and repeat ad infinitum. There is a human impulse to believe that we can choose the paths that will emerge ahead of time and then not waste time on all those paths that don't thrive. This may seem sensible, but it's not-- it's like saying, "Well, it turned out that only two innings of that ball game really made a difference in the final score, so next time, let's only play those two innings." The universe doesn't work like that (and humans aren't yet pre-cognitives).

So if we aren't to raise children like carpenters, what does Gopnick suggest?

Well, here comes that R word yet again-- relationship. In fact, she even throws in the L word.

Talking about love, especially the love of parents for their children, may sound sentimental and mushy and simple and obvious. But like all human relationships, our love for our children is at once a part of the everyday texture of our lives and enormously complicated, variable and even paradoxical. 

We can work to love better without thinking of love as a kind of work. We might say that we try hard to be a good wife or husband, or that it’s important to us to be a good friend or a better child. 

But I wouldn’t evaluate the success of my marriage by measuring whether my husband’s character had improved in the years since we wed. I wouldn’t evaluate the quality of an old friendship by whether my friend was happier or more successful than when we first met. This, however, is the implicit standard of “parenting”—that your qualities as a parent can be, and even should be, judged by the child you create.

That, of course, is exactly where we have arrived in education reform. Now, teaching is not parenting. But the parallels are obvious.

What does Gopnick suggest as an alternative? Well, the title rather gave that away. It's gardening.

As all gardeners know, nothing works out the way we planned. The greatest pleasures and triumphs, as well as disasters, are unexpected. There is a deeper reason behind this. 

A good garden, like any good ecosystem, is dynamic, variable and resilient...

Unlike a good chair, a good garden is constantly changing, as it adapts to the changing circumstances of the weather and the seasons. And in the long run, that kind of varied, flexible, complex, dynamic system will be more robust and adaptable than the most carefully tended hothouse bloom.

Now Gopnick is clearly in teaching territory. And this next paragraph is not even her finish, but it underlines all that has come before:

As individual parents and as a community, our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it is to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to make a particular kind of child but to provide a protected space of love, safety and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.

It's not perfect-- by creating a space for children to become dynamic, variable and resilient, we are shaping children's minds. But I get her point-- we're not supposed to be creating children with a set of specific one-size-fits-all made-to-order characteristics. This is perhaps more of a balancing act than Gopnick aknowledges-- do I really want to become the parent of a empathy-impaired sociopath (even if he can run for President)? But it's an interesting argument to consider from someone whose gig is child development and not education specifically. Children are not widgets or coffee tables, and modern ed reform seems to have completely lost sight of that fact. The full book may be worth a look.

This Non-Standardized Country

Two weeks, 5800 miles, and about 16 states (it's a stretch to count Colorado). Plus several days with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. I don't usually do photo essays here, but I want to show you just some of what I saw.

 This is home. This is what we're used to seeing.

Here's downtown Cleveland, where a railroad era central building makes a backdrop for a modern monument. Off to our right is the hall where the GOP gathered for their convention.

A herd of buffalo in a beautifully preserved national park that is perversely named after a egomaniacal military bonehead

Prairies and plains that stretched out into infinity, some far flatter than this, some dried out and brown with nothing on them but occasional grazing cattle, others lush and full of growing crops.

 Many small but lively towns. This one is the town that houses the Spam Museum, but we also saw places like Laramie, WY, which you may think of as a frontier town but is growing rapidly, with sections of town that look shiny and new, like the wrapper just came off last week.

Miles of farmland in the shadow of miles of mountains. Montana and Wyoming have fewer people in the state than live in most major American cities, and we drove for miles without seeing a human being. Just fields spotted with cows and the occasionally lonely structure.

In Indiana, there are miles of sand dunes and beaches, well within sight of what's left of the industrial footprint of Gary.

In Ohio, we visited my old neighborhood. That's the house where I had my first teacher apartment on the left. Now the other homes on the street are boarded up. To take this picture, I stood where the front steps of my first school once were. Now it's a vacant lot.

We visited the town of Venango, Nebraska, a tiny town where the population is now under 150 people. On what's left of the main street, many buildings are now empty. The town is almost 150 years old; it no longer has a school, a grocery store, or a gas station.

We drove down the lake shore of Chicago, through the section where high rise buildings have a beautiful view of the lake, and through the section where the road itself cuts off poor neighborhoods from beaches and parks, as well as the section where it passes along empty lots with bare brick remnants of long-gone factories.

The badlands of South Dakota. Like the Grand Canyon, a reminder that we humans are just a blip on the planet's surface.
 An island in the Northwest, where residents must commute by plane, boat or ferry, but which still has a hefty-sized mountain and massive forests.

This unfinished masterpiece, a reminder that ours is not the first nation to stand on this land.

A public park with a pool for children to play and wade in the water. It's a small corner of a big city, but to see the many families gather and enjoy it reminds me how easy it can be to make families' lives just a little bit richer.

Glacier National Park once again reminds us how small we are in the scale of things, as well as providing evidence of the days, eons ago, when giants big enough to carve away chunks of mountain moved across the earth.

Then in Utah, echo canyon, where the earth has been worn away by other forces, creating the canyon where men once fortified themselves to make a stand against the US Army.

What possesses anyone to think, "Yes, I can come up with a Standardized Thing that will work in every single corner of this country!" Why would anyone think that a school could provide every single student in the country with the same experience when all other aspects of their lives, their environment, their life experiences are completely different?

Consider the roads. Yes, they run from one side of the country to the other, and yes, they are made to some basic standards. But wherever roads are built, they bow to the features of the land they run across. Yes, at times humans shape the land to ease the road's passage, but mostly it is the land that shapes the road. Nobody can sit in DC and say exactly what the road must look like as it runs through some far-off county, sight unseen.

This is so fundamental to my opposition to much of ed reform--any time someone tells me that they've got a One Size Fits All solution to anything human, I must believe they are nuts. A standardized test that will work for everyone? A set of educational standards that every school can and should follow? A curriculum outline that can be applied in every school? Are you nuts? Have you gone out into the world and driven around and opened your eyes? This is not a standardized country, and there is no standardized one-size-fits-all approach that will actually work. And your desire to stomp out human variations so that a standardized solution will work-- that is anti-American, anti-human, anti-reality.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Vocabulary and the Assessment Problem

The teaching of vocabulary is a good microcosm of some of the biggest problems of education.

We know how to teach vocabulary badly. It's a process that has been refined and perfected over decades, and even if you don't use it as a teacher, you probably knew it as a student. The basic outline looks something like this:

1) Get list of vocabulary words
2) Go through the motions of some sort of practice activity
3) Cram words* into your brain
4) Take test
5) Forget words completely

* If teacher is prone to matching or multiple choice tests based on the teacher's one and only acceptable version of the word definition, you need only cram enough to recognize the definition when you see it, which requires minimal brain space. Recognition is not full fluency, as witnessed by everyone who still retains enough high school French to understand what they hear, but can no longer speak it.

Nobody on God's green earth believes that this process produces students with larger, more effective vocabularies.

But teachers still do it (and for years I was one of them) because it's quick and efficient and simple and, best of all, it's a system that students can quickly learn to game, which means that we can point to all our test result data and declare, "Look at how successful I am!" Meanwhile, students get good papers to put up on the fridge. It's the oldest bad deal in the annals of education. You help me look like I'm teaching something, and I will help you look like you're learning something.

The heart of the problem lies with the definition of "success."

The definition of successfully teaching vocabulary is that students use the new words correctly in the proper context without any prompting. If I want to teach my students the word "plethora," I'll truly know I've succeeded when students use "plethora" correctly because they've just run across the perfect moment to do so. That's true success.

But of course, that success is hard to measure. I can't follow all of my students around all the time, monitoring every spoken and written conversation they have.

I have a pretty good idea of what success would be, but it's almost impossible to measure, and even harder to measure within a proscribed time frame.

So I start limiting the parameters of success.

Maybe I say that the student has to use the word correctly during my class period, before I have to turn in grades for the grading period. A little more measurable, but these days this is what I more or less do, and it is an absolute bitch in terms of record keeping. And I've changed the task-- now I'm asking them to actively try to come up with a time to use "plethora." And if you believe in standardization, this method is full of holes. Each student will use the word in a completely different context. Some will have the advantage of having heard other student compete the task. Every single student is going through a different assessment.

So to standardize things, I can take several steps. I can create a written assessment that they will all take at the same time, meaning that the time frame and the task are now more tightly constrained. Maybe I do a fill in the blank. Maybe I have matchy matchy words and definitions.

But now I have radically altered the definition of success-- the goal now is for students to make the right response to the word in highly controlled situation. Can you recognize the official definition for "plethora" when you see it? Can you put plethora in the right blank (when you know that one of these blanks must use "plethora")?

I have turned a comprehension and synthesizing goal into a simple recall task and changed a worthy objective (know how to use "plethora" effectively in writing and speaking for the rest of your life) into a dull, simple competency (know how to put "plethora" into the proper blank in a sentence created by someone else, one time, this Friday). And as virtually every sentient being on the planet already knows, being able to do the simple competency has absolutely nothing to do with actually using an increased vocabulary.

By setting out to create an assessment that is standardized, that is constrained by time, and which requires the student to be reactive rather than active, I have completely changed the goal, the point, the purpose, the objective of the teaching. I have turned a valuable educational goal (increase your active, functional vocabulary) into a stupid one (be able to take standardized vocabulary tests).

That problem-- how to assess accurately without changing the whole purpose and point of the teaching-- is one that ed reformsters over the past decade have absolutely and completely failed to acknowledge, let alone solve. No, I take that back-- Common Core is an attempt to redefine education as mastery of a bunch of simple tasks that are already so thoughtless and dull-witted that the standardized test will not have to redefine them. And Competency Based Education is more of exactly the same thing. Reformsters have come up with a plethora of approaches to assessment, and they all stink.