Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Education vs. Poverty

Ben Spielberg, at 34justice, has put together a short stark piece that juxtaposes five simple pieces of data. There is nothing new here, but putting these five points side by side is compelling.

1) There are achievement gaps already present by the time children enter kindergarten, and they are related to family income.

2) School quality is a minor factor in explaining the testing (aka "achievement") gap.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school.

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict.

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes.

None of these are news, though #5 in particular is often overlooked. We've been improving achievement among students for decades; according to the theory of action among some reformsters, we should be seeing an increase in student success as they go out into the world. According to the theory, if Chris got better test scores than Chris's parents did, then Chris ought to have a better job and higher income. That hasn't been happening, just as students who spent their whole academic careers soaked in Common Core have not suddenly been tearing up college campuses.

Speilberg's conclusion is pretty simple, and not a huge stretch given the evidence he's laid out-- if we want to boost opportunities for poor students, education is an important thing, but it is not the most important thing.

Yet here is Arne Duncan, former head of the US Department of Education Reform, taking to the pages of the Atlantic to wax poetic on how awesome charters are, and how they are changing the world by raising the achievement levels of non-wealthy, non-white students.

Yet I absolutely reject the idea that poverty is destiny in the classroom and the self-defeating belief that schools don't matter much in the face of poverty. Despite challenges at home, despite neighborhood violence, and despite poverty, I know that every child can learn and thrive. 

Ignoring for the moment that nobody is saying that "poverty is destiny in the classroom," Duncan is somehow confusing getting poor children to score higher in a narrow standardized test and getting poor children access to better, more prosperous and successful lives.

Duncan says that he is focused on the idea "that high-performing charter schools have convincingly demonstrated that low-income children can and do achieve at high levels—and can do so at scale." There's plenty of evidence that neither of those things are true, but even if they were true, so what? The continued assumption that a high score on the PARCC is somehow a gateway to a brighter tomorrow is bizarre and dangerous-- bizarre because it has no foundation in reality and dangerous because it give policy makers like Duncan an excuse to walk away from the children of poverty.

Duncan says he's a "huge fan" of out-of-school anti-poverty programs, but he cites some medical assistance programs and moves on to this:

High-performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

The data says that Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are just plain wrong. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Charter Fans Put Bounty on John Oliver's Head

How much did John Oliver's piece on charter schools upset charter cheerleaders?

About $100,000.

Yesterday the Center for Education Reform, Jeanne Allen's pro-charter advocacy group, announced the "Hey John Oliver, Back Off My Charter School" video contest, in which your charter school can win $100,000 for creating a video that will show John Oliver "why making fun of charter schools is no laughing matter..."

The press release from CER, as always, quoting Allen:

$100K if your school can be funnier than this professional comedian
"The program was meant to be funny and provocative entertainment," said CER Founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeanne Allen, "but Oliver went way out of bounds and far beyond simple entertainment when he used examples of a few poorly run schools to paint all charters, and the whole concept of charter schools, as failures."

Or as the contest website puts it

Here is a brief summary of Mr. Oliver’s presentation: “Some charter schools have been mismanaged. Ergo, ipso facto, presto change-o, all charter schools are bad, bad, bad.” 

That's a sloppy misreading of Oliver's piece, which actually bent over backwards to include the opposing views of charters. What Oliver pointed out is that the charter school business is an unregulated playground for folks who are far more interested in making money than educating students. But to refute that would be hard; better to fashion a John Oliver-shaped straw man that can be easily defeated. "He said that all charter schools are bad. Here's one that isn't. Boom!"

There are some rules for this. Here's the basic idea of what your charter school is supposed to create:

Let viewers know why students chose your school over all the others. Help them understand the opportunities charters offer (and which wouldn’t exist without charters).

I, too, would be interested to see what opportunities charters offer that wouldn't exist without charters. Perhaps some videos will highlight charter-only perks like "getting away from Those Children" or "enjoying a constantly churning staff of underpaid unretained teachers" or "the delightful mystery of what exactly is being done with our tax dollars" or "the warm glow of knowing that we've helped some investors make a buck or ten" or even "the suspense of never knowing when my school might suddenly close." Please, somebody, make that video.

The video must be "home made" on a phone or tablet-- slick production values are not allowed because that would just point to the idea that charters are high-profit businesses rather than schools. It can't look like it cost $100,000 to make, because that would draw attention to the fact that charter folks have that kind of money to drop on PR stunts.

Kind of like just pulling $100K out of pocket for a PR generating contest shows that the charter industry and its BFFs can play fast and loose with big chunks of money (most of which comes from the taxpayers). 

The "Our School Is Great" video is a common genre. Public schools all across the country make them-- for free-- all the time. But it's completely in keeping with the charter school industry that, having failed to raise a groundswell of grass roots anger over the Oliver piece (which is now over a week old and yet the righteous indignation over it seems largely confined to people who make their living shilling for charters), the charter cheerleading squad must now pay somebody to stand up for them and help them fight back against this PR disaster. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

English Teacher Side Hustle

Forbes may be the magazine of the business world, but they aren't above the occasional listcicle. Today my feed coughed up the insta-classic "15 Easy Side Hustles You Can Start This Weekend."

Ryan Robinson is the writer, and his intro slide sets it all up:

Not ready to leave your job, but also not ready to start up? Here are some ideas that can help you earn some extra money on the side.

Number one? Remote English Teacher-- you can make upwards of $25 an hour by skyping in to tutor folks in places like Hong Kong.

Number eight. Standardized test tutoring-- folks will pay big money for that.

Number nine. Teaching online courses, particularly if you have marketing or design skills.

What sort of other great hustles are listed with these items? Well, you could become an instagram marketeer, or brew your own beer, or be an online dating consultant, or even start podcasting. These are the sorts of things that rank with the education-related side hustles.

Oh, and number fifteen-- write college essays for students and their families.

Please note-- nobody suggests just pulling some legal advising out of your butt or doing medical care as a side hustle.

Add this to your list of the ten thousand little ways that our culture reminds us that teaching is not a valued profession, but some kind of hustle that anyone can do to scam a little cash now and then.

Mr. Gates Chats with Mr. Bowling

A week back, Bill Gates took to his blog to report on a sit-down with Nate Bowling. He calls it "A Powerful Conversation about Schools, Poverty and Race," and that may be overstating the case a bit, but it's worth a quick look.

Nate Bowling has won an assortment of teaching awards, most recently Washington State Teacher of the Year. He blogs at A Teacher's Evolving Mind, and his self-intro there captures his point of view pretty succinctly:

Effective teachers of color face a dilemma: we know--more than anyone, the urgent need for change--we get that the status-quo screws our kids. But at the same time we also see a reform movement that "has all the answers" and doesn't want or value our experiences and insights from working with marginalized communities.

If we want to be heard, on our terms, then when must create our own spaces.

I proudly ride with #Educolor

Bowling is on my short list of writers in the edu-sphere with whom I do not always agree, but who I believe are following a path for understanding without any pre-determined conclusion in mind. You can read about my last encounter with his ideas back here.

At the beginning of 2016, Bowling wrote a widely-circulated piece entitled "The Conversation I'm Tired of Not Having" in which he comes down hard on the idea of setting aside questions of education policy until we can honestly grapple with the issues of race and poverty, charging that the powers that be and the folks in the 'burbs are actually pretty happy with The Way Things Are.

Polite society has walled itself off and policymakers are largely indifferent. Better funding for schools is and will remain elusive, because middle class and wealthy people have been conditioned over the last 35 years to think of themselves as taxpayers, rather than citizens. They consistently oppose higher taxes--especially tax expenditures for programs for “the other.”

And he announced that he was done arguing about issues like charter schools and common core. In fact, he would take only one clear focus, in bold letters:

If you ain't talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain't listening.

Now I would say that on the one hand, issues like charter schools and common core are important precisely because of their effects on the teacher in the classroom, and that many reformy issues are problematic precisely because they change which teachers get to the classroom, which teachers stay in the classroom, and what those teachers are empowered to do in the classroom.

On the other hand, if we kept talking about those issues in terms of the teacher in the classroom and not policy wonkitudary, it would be a more useful conversation.

Bill Gates also read that piece, and he brought it up in his conversation with Bowling, particularly spinning off of this paragraph from Bowling's essay.

Through white flight and suburbanization, wealthy and middle class families have completely insulated themselves from educational inequality. They send their kids to homogeneous schools and they do what it takes, politically at the local level, to ensure they’re well-funded, well-staffed, with opportunities for enrichment and exploration. Poor families lack competent and engaged administration (see Chicago, Detroit, etc), the levy money (locally, see Highline), capital budgets (see rural Central, WA), and the political capital wealthier families enjoy.

Ask yourself, would suburban schools ever be allowed to decay like what we saw in Detroit? Nope. What's happening in Detroit could never happen in Auburn Hills; what’s happening in Chicago could never happen in Evanston; what’s happening in South Seattle could never happen in Issaquah or Bellevue. Middle class America would never allow the conditions that have become normalized in poor and brown America to stand for their kids. 

Gates hears part of that, and allows that he gets the point. Sort of.

I certainly agree that those of us who live in the suburbs by and large don’t see what’s going on in inner-city schools. It’s like two different worlds. This is one reason why Melinda and I get out and visit different schools around the country as part of our foundation’s education work, which is all about supporting the New Majority.

First of all, Gates does not live in the suburbs. I don't know if he's being self-deprecating, or he's just that out of touch. But this is not suburban living.

The Gates suburban home

Second, Bowling's insight should ring a bell. Back in May of 2015, Gates was sitting about five feet away from Warren Buffet on a CNBC panel chat when Buffet said this:

If the only choice we had was public schools, we'd have better public schools.

In other words, if the wealthy and super-wealthy had skin in the game, public schools would get the support they need. As long as a handful view public education as a work of charitable outreach to help the children of Those People (and the rest stolidly oppose spending their tax dollars on Those People), we'll keep getting what we've got. An occasional drive-by is not quite the same.

In fact, the charter concept that Gates so loves is the exact opposite of what's being called for. First, it "helps" only a small percentage of students at all. Second, with its rhetoric about how the money belongs to the child who should be able to take it wherever, it moves completely away from the notion that we are collectively responsible for making a great education for all children. The charter sale pitch is that rich families get to say, "I've got mine, Jack," and abandon everyone else-- why shouldn't less wealthy students get to say, "I've got mine, Jack," too?

Imagine if Gates had thrown his money and weight behind, say, a call for Washington State to institute a modest income tax with the funds to go to public schools. Imagine a Gates-backed PR campaign as thorough and expensive as his campaigns to sell charter schools, but instead one to sell the idea that the public has a responsibility for ALL public schools-- not just the one in their neighborhood.

Gates refers to improved integration and more equitable funding as "important goals," which is kind of like saying that keeping babies well-fed is a "pretty good thing." And he really just bruishes by these on his way to talking about the importance of teachers. And now he just let's Bowling talk.

Bowling's plea for teacher focus is on point.

“Schools are the building blocks of our democracy,” he [Bowling] told me [Gates]. “If we’re going to create a better society, it has to happen through schools. And if we’re going to build a better society through our schools, it has to happen through better teaching.”

Gates reports that Bowling called for teacher autonomy, incentives to keep good teachers in the classroom, and recognition that the demands of teaching in high-poverty schools are different. That all gets compressed into one paragraph. Gates takes two paragraphs to report Bowling's call for better professional development, based on the belief that all teachers can become better.

All in all, it's an odd conversation to read about and watch (there's a short video clip, too). I am not sure how much of Bowling's message Gates really hears. Oddly enough, though he says that Bowling's "difficult subjects' are ones that "we need to be discussing," we don't really hear him respond to any of what Bowling has to say. The only time we hear Gates' voice is when he notes how he's affected by Bowling's self-designation as a "nerd farmer."

So I'm glad that Bowling's mouth and Gates' ears were in the same room. I'm not sure how much of an impression Bowling made; while it's nice that Gates let a nerd farmer in to see him, maybe what we need is a nerd whisperer.

MI: Boatloads of Money

“People should get a fair return on their investment,” said former state schools Superintendent Tom Watkins, a longtime charter advocate who has argued for higher standards for all schools. “But it has to come after the bottom line of meeting the educational needs of the children. And in a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”

That's from a stunning profile of the charter industry in Michigan that ran last week in the Detroit Free Press. In that must-read piece, Jennifer Dixon gives detailed and sprawling picture of just how bad things are in Michigan.

These days it seems as if there's a wide consensus that for-profit charters are a bad idea (even as folks pretend not to notice that not-for-profits can be just as bad). But in Michigan, for profit charters are still the law of the land, favored and widespread, making Michigan Exhibit A in the story of Why For Profit Charters Have No Business existing.

In Michigan, the authorizers of charters are primarily universities, and I suppose some folks would think that putting institutions of higher learning in charge of the gateways and oversight of charter schools would help keep things honest. But that's not how it's working out.

Consider for instance the case of University YES Academy. Allie Gross at the Detroit Metro Times (the newspaper with the most ill-considered website heading ever-- really, folks? "NEWSHITS"??) has been covering this story and you can catch the full details here and here. The management company running the school was such a mess that the teachers voted to form a union, so the operator of the school dissolved the management company, negating all previous contracts-- and then the same person created a new management company with a new name. The NLRB got involved, and the management company folded their hand and sold the school to another management company, which appears to have bought the school only so that they could close it at the last minute before the beginning of the school year and force the students to go to the company's other school-- thirteen miles away.

This is just one example of charter awesomeness in Michigan-- and some of the players here are supposed to be among the top exemplars.

Yes, that's Bay Mills CC right up there

At the point that the NLRB got involved, the school's authorizer sent a letter saying the school might lose its authorization. But if the authorizer doesn't seem quite up on what the Detroit-based charter is up to, that might be because that authorizer is almost 350 miles away from the school.

That authorizer is Bay Mills Community College, a two-year tribal college with about 430 part-time and full-time students. It offers Associate Degrees in Education and Early Childhood Education; it offers seven education courses, two of which are on-line courses, and one of which is a study skills course for first year college students. But BMCC is the authorizer for a whopping forty-one charter schools in Michigan, a large number of which are in the Detroit area and none of which are near the college because, well, nothing is near the college. However, charter money at this point must be a hefty chuck of BMCC income. Given the size of BMCC's student body and the size of its charter portfolio, I'm wondering if BMCC is an actual college that does some authorizer work on the side, of a charter authorizer that teaches some classes on the side.

That's just one example that happened to come across my desk this week. The Free Press piece has many more, illustrating the degree to which Michigan taxpayers have been fleeced. One billion-with-a-B dollars of taxpayer money has poured into charter coffers-- per year!-- with little or nothing to show for it. Just the subheadings alone in the article tell the story--

Often no consequences for poor performance
State law sets no qualifications for charter applicants
No guidelines for when a charter should be revoked
Taxpayer money can be hidden from public view
Mixed results academically, less spending in the classroom
Loopholes in Michigan law allow insider deals and nepotism
Authorizers, management companies work closely-- too closely?

Alongside many, many tales of charter shenanigans in the story are some hard words from charter supporters.

“The theory of charters was if you remove elected school boards, a centralized bureaucracy and powerful unions, that you would get better student achievement. The evidence so far, in Michigan and around the country, is ... some charters work and some don’t,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a think tank that financially supports nine schools in Detroit, including eight charter schools

“On average, if there are gains, they’re marginal at best.”

Or this from a representative from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, who, after saying that authorizers should never approve schools with boards chosen by the management company, has this to say about the old "So what if they hoover up taxpayer money, as long as they do a good job" argument.

Richmond, whose organization is pro charter, said even if a charter school does deliver academic excellence, that’s no excuse if taxpayers are gouged.

“I can’t think of any other area of public or private enterprise that would agree to be ripped off by someone as long as they were providing a nice product.”

There's no question that Detroit, where democracy has been suspended for the non-wealthy and non-white citizens, gets the worst of it. But Michigan seems to be in the grip of some sort of Anything For A Buck disease that threatens both education and other public services. The purpose of charter schools in Michigan is to give investors a good return on their money; educating students is a minor consideration, far behind making boatloads of money in importance. Here's hoping that more people start asking the big question-- what good is it to have a boatload of money if your ship is sinking?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Cherry-Picking Problem

In US News, we find Anne Osborne and David Osborne playing "So's your old man" with US public schools on the subject of cherry picking. Why complain about charter schools cherry picking, they say, when public schools do it, too? "The Charter School Pot and Kettle" lays out some public school examples, and also tried to make the case that charters don't really cream or skim or cherry pick, which leaves their argument something along the lines of "We don't do that, and anyway, you do it, too."

But as the article has surfaced in the twitterverse and the whole cherry-picking argument has been stirred up again, it's fair to revisit the issue. When you're in the habit of opposing something, it can be easy to kind of forget exactly what it is you were opposed to in the first place, and it's a good exercise to take your premises out and re-examine them from time to time. So let's play that game.

What's wrong with cherry-picking students?

A Creamy Clarification

Osborne and Osborne claim that there's no reason to think that charters push students out. Their support is a 2013 working paper by Ron Zimmer (Vanderbilt) and Cassandra Guarino (Indiana University) about charter pushouts. That paper looks at data from 2001-2006, which was pretty much an entirely different universe when it comes to charter schools. Stacked up against the anecdotal evidence and occasional news stories like Success Academy's Got To Go list, the fifteen year old data is not very convincing. Even the charter-friendly American Enterprise Institute just published a paper concluding that while push-outs and creaming couldn't be decisively proven, there was more than enough smoke to suggest a high probability of fire.

So let's just go ahead and assume that cherry-picking, creaming, skimming, push-outing, homogenizing, and whatever else we want to call the general pattern of controlling the composition of your student population are all part of the same thing, which we're going to call cherry-picking for the moment because we've got to call the whole business something and I am one lazy typist.

Back to the question at hand. What are the arguments against charter cherry-picking? And do they involve anything that a public school system, complete with magnets, is not also guilty of?

Democracy and Public Schools

For some folks, it's fundamental to their understanding of institutions that serve the public that those institutions can't pick and choose who is served. Your local hospital is not supposed to turn you away because you're dressed funny. Your city's public parks are not supposed to be barred to certain parts of the population. And your public school is supposed to take everyone who shows up at its doors.

Yes, there are lots of situations in which the member of the public gets to make some choices. In charterland, the student is supposed to be getting choice. In public school land, families choose where to live and that includes a choice about schools.

It's true in both cases that there are other barriers set up to keep students from particular schools. In the public school world, poor families can't buy homes in rich kid school neighborhoods. Magnet schools deliberately filter out certain students from attending, and while an arts school discriminates based on talent and not race or class, the rich kid who took dance lessons from age two has an advantage.

There are charters out there that are similar to magnet schools in that they are supposed to be organized around a particular focus. But at the end of the day, the public system must accept every student who is entitled by residence to attend (barring some expulsion-worthy level of extreme or illegal misbehavior). Charters not only get to pick and choose, but because they have limited capacity, they will not accept all comers. That is not what we expect from public schools.

The Left Behind

Because virtually all charter school states depend on a fundamentally dishonest funding system for charters, every child left behind in public school is left in a financially weakened institution.  

Cherry-picking charter enrollment is picking winners and losers. Under our current system, every "Congratulations, kid. You get to go to this shiny new charter school," is accompanied with ten "Sorry, kids, but we're cutting this program because we can't afford it, and by the way, you're stuck in this public school."

All right-- that's not entirely true. Charter cherry picking is like picking winners and losers only if we're in a situation where the charter is better than the public school. But since that is rarely the case, what cherry picking really gets us is losers and losers, with a whole bunch of money that could have made the public school better spent on vapor.

Those Children

Speaking of picking winners and losers. Charters are often both sold and selected not because of academics, but because of location or peer group. As was rather graphically displayed recently in Pennsylvania, sometimes the pitch for a charter is simply, "Insure your child won't go to school with any of Those Children."

This makes cherry-picking exceptionally ugly-- it means that the charter operators are officially certifying that your child is not one of Those Children. It reinforces a world view in which some people are just better than other people. And the charter application process si somehow linked to deciding which students "deserve" to be "saved."

And because charters are businesses, "better than" generally means "more profitable." Cherry picking reinforces the idea that students with special needs, students from poor families, students from unsupportive home environments, students who are carrying heavy baggage-- those students are all Those Students, the lessers, the students who aren't as good, as worthy.

Do public school systems commit similar misbehavior? Yes, yes, they do. They label a school "the bad school" or shuttle more challenging cases into special programs housed in special buildings. Sometimes we're seeing a real, even successful, program to address a certain set of student needs. Sometimes we're seeing an attempt to just warehouse the problems. That is not okay.

The Charter Cake: For Having and Eating

One person's cherry picking is another person's careful and appropriate sorting. There are many instances in which cherry picking would be okay. But if Osborne and Osborne want to know why charges of cherry picking are so often lobbed against charter schools, this would be it--

You can't cherry-pick your student body AND claim to have an educational solution for all students.

You can't carefully select the top students from an urban setting and then declare that you know how to raise achievement levels for all poor kids. Well, you can-- but you'd be a liar.

You can't carefully pick Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky for your swim team and then claim their success proves you know how to make every child a great swimmer.

You can't carefully select your student body and then announce that you have miraculous out-performed all the public schools who are serving the full range of students in your area.

I have some respect for the charter fans who are up front about this stuff, people like Mike Petrilli who are direct about saying that the charter mission is to get the better students, the strivers, away from the crappy low-achievers. But if that's what you're doing in your charter, do not turn around and tell me that you've discovered the secret of elevating low-achieving students. Do not tell me that you are an example of how to handle the kind of students that you don't even let in the door of your school.

If your charter is cherry picking, then we can add cherry picking to the list (with more money, smaller classes, and more instruction time) of pedagogical ideas that charters have discovered in much the same way that Columbus discovered America.

ICYMI: End of August Edition

Apparently this week it's mostly (though not all) about charters and the corrupting power of money. As always, I'll remind you that if you like any of these pieces, share them, post them, and pass them along. That's how people learn what's happening.

School Takeovers Leave Parents without a Voice in Education

A Michigan news station takes a look at how ed reform systematically strips parents (and community members) of voice in schools and communities.

Who Profits from a Broken School Narrative?

From SF Public School Mom comes a quick, clear look at who has reason to keep insisting that schools are in big trouble.

Stop Close Reading 

This is actually an old post, but it is a sharp pushback against the close reading craze.

The Sick Consequences of Competition in Education

What happens when charter schools are actually real estate scams, and why we need to stop treating charter scandals as outliers.

How the Charter School Lobby Is Changing the Democratic Party

From Harold Meyerson at the LA Times-- how big charter money is messing with the Democratic Party

StudentsMatter Is Millions in Debt from the Vergara Lawsuit Yet It Keeps on Suing

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider digs into the records and comes up with the money trail for the astroturf group behind the Vergara lawsuit (and a few others as well).

Bill Gates Has Spent $440 Million To Push Charter Schools

From a year ago, but somehow appropriate in this week's list. Mostly just a list of all the places Gates has spent money to push charter schools.

Personalized Learning, Surveillance and Counterinsurgency within the State-Finance Matrix

As the title might suggest, this is not necessarily a sexy or entertaining read, nor is it always easy going. But it's a pretty thorough look at how the Competency Based Education and computerized personalized learning may fit into the context of the surveillance state.

Why Black Men Quit Teaching

From today's NYT, an op-ed from Christopher Emdin about how not to get more black men in the classroom.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Repackaging Reformsterism for States

If you've never heard of the National Conference of State Legislatures before, don't worry. Now that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has thrown some as-yet-unspecified amount of edu-policy power back to the states, I'm sure we'll be getting to know lots of swell state-level groups.

NCLS decided a couple of years back to take a look-see at education, and that has come to fruition in a new report, "No Time To Lose: How To Build a World Class Education System State By State." After eighteen months of meeting and chewing, this report is what has popped out. Let's take a look, shall we?

Off To a Bad Start

The names on the marquee are not necessarily the same old reformsters, but from the very first sentence used to announce the report, the rhetoric is recognizably reformy.

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

You know, I'm the last person to claim that our education system is without blemish or sin, but as soon as someone starts trying to paint state education systems as a dangerous international crisis, I suspect shenanigans (though I do like the turn of phrase in "overwhelmingly underprepared"). The intro then goes on to say that the US education system was "the best educated in the world" a half century ago, and now I know that this report is a baloneyfest.

Damn you, Estonia, our eternal international rival.

When it comes to this sort of thing, you're doing one of two things-- you're either honestly trying to find some answers, or you are dishonestly spinning the information to support the answers you've already chosen. Within the first two sentences, NCSL has signaled that this report is not going to be entirely honest. First, they've tried to scare me, and whenever someone tries to scare you, it means they're trying to herd you in a particular direction. Not the mark of an honest argument. Next, if you're going to try to convince me that our Big Standardized Results have dropped to the pits from an earlier pinnacle, you'd better bring some data to back that up, because everything I've ever seen shows that the US has lagged behind other nations on international tests for as long as those tests have existed (and that the characterization of the lag is not entirely accurate, either).

But the entire genesis of this "study" was a general freakout over PISA results in 2014. The idea was to do some research and talk to all these countries that are so much more awesomer than the US. 

In this intro, NCSL shows that it has just learned tons from the failed reformism of the past decade-plus. No, just kidding. They dispose of the entire history in one sentence, chalking all that failure up to "silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches."

So the buildup is not encouraging.  But the report is only 28 pages. Let's go ahead and take a look. Maybe it performs better on a granular level.

Hey, Who Concocted This Thing, Anyway

A bipartisan group of 28 veteran legislators and legislative staff, along with several partners from the private sector

Yikes. And not to belabor the obvious, but here's one more confabulation about education without an educator at the table (though in fairness, some education experts were "consulted" who almost fit the description of an education expert). Honestly, is there any other policy area-- any at all-- in which experienced professional practitioners in the field are routinely ignored?

Ditto Intro

Here's the executive summary again, same as it was in the promo. The sentence designed to Create a Sense of High Urgency is now a big-fonted pullout quote. BE AFRAID!!

Actual Data ?

Oh, did you think the report was going to provide some data to back up its panic-stricken insistence that the US is in an education death-spiral? You were incorrect. NCSL is just rolling right on with the chicken littling of this alleged crisis with nothing more than scary quotes and vague threats. Did I mention that they worked on this damn thing for eighteen months? The report says that "we can not ignore the fact" that the US is falling behind [insert the rest from above sentence]. But "we cannot ignore the fact" is an ocean away from actually establishing that what you're calling a fact, is, in fact, a fact.

At one point the writers throw in an "according to recent reports" to assert that the US workforce is not as educated as others. Which reports? They don't say. I mean, I suppose they looked at the reports eighteen months ago when they first started and they just kind of forgot what actual report they're talking about.

The report is going to throw some numbers at us in a few pages. But for right now, just breathe in the scent of fear and failure.

What Can States Do Now

But let's just leap ahead, pretending that we actually know we have a crisis on our hands. NCSL offers up a list of handy things that states can do right now.

First, the state can "build an inclusive team" of all sorts of stakeholders-- hey, look! Teachers make the list this time. And here comes some really practical advice about building consensus in this large and diverse group-- just don't bother. Getting an actual 100% consensus is hard, so instead, settle for like 70%. So build an inclusive group, but don't try to include everybody in what the group actually concludes. They think this advice is so good that they include it as another big-fonted pullquote.

Next, study and learn from top performers. Take trips. Steal ideas. As always, "top performers" means "people with high test scores." The report advises

Reconsider much of what you think you know; abandon many ideas to which you have long been committed; and embrace new ideas...

None of this applies to questioning things like judging education performance based on scores from a narrow standardized test, nor does it include questioning whether or not there's any link between getting those test scores and being successful as a country. Not even the asserting that the US is "falling behind" the world. None of those things that we think we know should ever be reconsidered or questioned, ever.

Create a shared statewide vision. Well, presumably the vision only has to be shared by 70% of the people involved.

Benchmark progress. You know that international benchmarking that the Common Core supposed did, but didn't, for any number or reasons including that it's not really possible because hardly anybody in the world thinks that's how you improve an education system.

Get started on one piece. Pick some part of your big vision and implement it, and when you do that successfully, tell everyone how awesome that was and build momentum for doing another piece. Did we skip the part where your vision should be made out of parts that can function independently? Does "do what you can and do it quickly" sound suspiciously like the famous last words of Common Core promoters?

Work through messiness. It will be messy. Just keep plugging. I actually don't disagree with this as a general approach to life.

Invest the time. Not, apparently, the money. Just the time. This will just happen in a lot of different ways in different states, so time.

Oh, Now We've Got Facts

Did we mention the PISA? Look here's a charter that pretty much shows we've been doing poorly on this since it started in 2000. We must do better, because if too many nations surpass us in all-important standardized test taking, we will have no hope of being the best standardized test takers in the world. Are there any other benefits to doing well on the PISA?

NCSL also trots out the PIACC, a test from the PISA people given to adults to test adult competencies. Seriously? How does anybody pay the slightest attention to this. How can such a test measure anything except whether or not the adult population is so compliant that they will actually bother to try on a Big Standardized Test even though they are fully grown adult humans. Honestly, sometimes I think these people have never met actual humans. Anyway, that test says that millennials are terrible.

And what attack of test-based chicken littling would be complete without the NAEP results. I'm not going to bother with these yet again. You can type "NAEP" into that little box at the top left and find what I have to say.

Also, the report asserts, international comparisons are valid. Because....? Um. Because they say so, I guess. Other countries also have poor people and immigrants. Therefore all comparisons between nations are valid.

What Reform Did Wrong

NCSL says we should face facts about what reformsters have done so far in their quest for a "silver bullet." That would be the "piecemeal" thing from before, where states did silly things like "increasing teacher pay without demanding better preparation" and-- insert sound of needle being dragged across surface of vinyl record (yes, that's a thing, you impudent whippersnapper) because exactly where did that happen, again? Which state is famous for having jacked up teacher pay and then getting hit with terrible teachers because of it? In what corner of the country are either parts of that proposition true?

They throw in a couple of true things (e.g. increased early childhood support with doing anything for K-12), but they are so far in the weeds that they also toss this out as an example of Reform Problems That Have Happened:

Using test scores in teacher evaluations without ensuring that all teachers are receiving job-embedded, high-quality, on-going learning 

Not quite. Let me fix that for you:

Using test scores in teacher evaluations without ensuring that tests were valid or reliable or that the instruments for using test scores to score teachers were themselves reliable or valid

Also missing from this section-- an explanation of how "piecemeal" was bad, but the recommended "implement one thing by itself quickly" is a good idea.

What Top Performers Get Right

Now for the portion where we find out what characteristics of these great countries we should emulate.

#1 Students arrive at school ready to learn, and extra support is provided for struggling students. 

Not bad, though I would argue that schools should be student-ready, not the other way around.

#2 World-class teaching profession in world-class instructional, where every student has access to highly effective teacher.

Man, I hate that "access" thing. For instance, at work I don't want a chance to get good pay-- I want good pay. NCSL says we get better teachers by selective recruitment, rigorous training and licensure, thorough induction, a career ladder, professional work environment, good leadership, and high pay. And some of that is worth having (I'm not going to travel all the way down this side track right now), but it's like saying our country would be better with less racism and corruption. Yes, it would. But saying so isn't really a plan, is it.

#3 A good vocational education system

Yes, absolutely. We have had this in my county for almost fifty years. I am always shocked to discover places that don't have it, though of course we're still passing through a period of insisting that everyone should want to go to a four year college.

#4 Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system. 

Ah, yes. A centrally planned system. Maybe we can revisit it every five years. Central planning has always worked out well in the countries that tried it before. Should be a slam dunk this time, too.


Next, we take a look at three of the ten countries that were studied. You might be able to predict the list of ten, but just in case you're new to this game, they are Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Poland, Singapore, Taiwan, Ontario, and Alberta (CA). The three that get special attention are Finland, Singapore and Ontario.

I am not even going to bother reading this part. Because, as it turns out, the United States is not Finland, Singapore or Ontario. For that matter, Montana is not New Hampshire and Iowa is not Alabama. And to pretend that you can adopt parts of another culture piecemeal is the kind of thing that these folks have talked about for so long that they've stopped noticing it's bananas.

Heck, several of those countries do not use alphabetic languages, but logographic instead. Maybe the key to creating world class education is to lose the alphabet. Maybe our learners would do better in a country with single-payer health care. Maybe our learners would do better in a cooler climate.

Don't get me wrong-- there are always things we can learn from other people and places, no matter how different. The notion that the current state of a nation's education system (or any other aspect of that nation's culture) somehow exists in an independent current state that is not deeply tied to the history and past of the country and culture is a puzzling piece of historical illiteracy. The idea that we can just lift an aspect of the culture into our own with no regard for either that country's background nor our own is just bizarre, like thinking we can transplant an oak branch onto a grapevine by just picking a branch off the oak tree and placing in the vine.

Much of these sorts of papers and their suggestions, whether looking at the large picture of educational systems of specifics like uplifting the teaching profession, consist of saying, "Well, we'll just make our culture work differently when it comes to this." Which is no more helpful than telling a person whose only tool is a screwdriver, "Well, just drive those nails in with a hammer."

And About Those Systems, Anyway

This whole paper is soaked in one other long-standing bad reform feature. It focuses entirely on educational systems, and looks at those systems as they serve the state.

That's a two-pronged fail. Systems thinking inevitably ends up valuing the system over the humans operating within it. Students, teachers and parents have to brought into line so that they don't interfere with the smooth operation of the system. Systems and human beings clash (as phone and cable companies, the DMV, and phone menus constantly remind us), and in the education system, we must always come down on the side of the tiny humans in that system. They system must regularly lose, and systems don't take that well.

As that implies, the system certainly can't be primarily there to serve the state by turning out good little meat widgets that improve employment statistics and international standings. The system has to serve the students, first and foremost. And yet in twenty-eight pages, there's nothing that really addresses making sure that a school system meets the needs of students or their families or the communities in which all of those reside.

And by making the education system a servant of the state, the report also slides past the question of what the state's responsibility to the schools should be. How does all this play out in a state like New Jersey, where the legislature does not even give the financial support to schools called for by its own laws?

And (we're almost done, I swear) the whole entire unappealing structure is built on the same old foundation of sand, the notion that there is some meaningful link between the BS Tests and the strength and success of a nation, a link that is often presumed and never proven.

This report is slick and empty (and you may want to flip to the end to see if your favorite legislator was in on it), but after being out for several weeks, it doesn't seem to have made much of a splash, which is just as well. Better if it just sinks away quietly, even if it is eventually followed by more of the same.


FL: Children and Opt Out Win

When last we cast our gaze at the sunshine state, its deep love of testing had gotten it dragged into court. Florida's indefensible third-grade retention rule says that a student can't move on to fourth grade without passing that test, and while some districts saw an alternate path in portfolios and other alternative assessments, other districts collided with opt out families.

If the child has not taken the Big Standardized Test, they declared, that child must sit in third grade until the test has been taken-- even if that child has a straight A report card

The suit has brought some Very Special Moments to the spotlight. For instance, we've had a chance to be reminded of Florida's minimum participation rule, which says that to meet the letter of the law, the child must "participate" in the test by breaking the seal and sign their name.

We've also seen the Florida Department of Education display their general gutlessness by initially throwing the districts under the bus, saying, gosh, Tallahassee had no idea why the local districts were being so mean (leading at least one superintendent to say some barely diplomatic things about the state's lack of useful leadership).

But once the state got involved, they decided to go all in by asserting that report cards are meaningless and do not reflect the students' learning. Lord knows I've written a ton about how the state of Florida manages to make life miserable for students, parents, and teachers, but I am still looking forward to seeing exactly how the state's new Report Cards Are Meaningless Junk policy plays out this year.

That's our story so far. Now for the update, which is good news.

Judge Karen Gievers is a friend of education this week

Judge Karen Gievers upheld the Participation Rule and delivered a public spanking to the districts, saying that the children had, by signing their names, participated in the test and must be given the opportunity to complete portfolios or be promoted based on their grades.

But Gievers did more than offer relief to the students in the suit.

She said students who are reading at a sufficient level, despite not answering questions on the test, were harmed by being forced to repeat third grade and the districts should have considered the portfolio option.

There are some details to dig through in the Judge's order, in part because each county was in a slightly different situation. For instance, Orange County apparently decided to single out one child for non-test-taking retention while allowing other non-testers to take the portfolio option, a choice that is not only transparently unfair, but just plain stupid to carry all the way to court. Meanwhile, Hernando County doesn't allow the portfolio option at all, which Gievers notes is "illegal." Several of the Hernando have already removed themselves from that district, rendering any kind of injunction "moot." The Hernando district is "ORDERED" (I love court document punctuation and capitalization rules) to knock it off already with the illegal failure to provide other options for third graders who fail the Big Standardized Test.

The Sarasota case is passed over because Sarasota schools folded their hand and promoted the child as soon as they found themselves in court. Broward and Seminole found themselves in trouble because they, like a couple of the other districts, never told parents the children were "deficient" until around the last day of school. Which is illegal. One of these children is a honors kid, ranking ahead of her classmates, but not till the last day did the district inform the folks that the child would be retained for "non-compliance" with the BS Test. 

The State Department was also in court, and it gets its own paragraphs in the judge's order. 

First, the judge found that the state told Hernando County schools that it was perfectly okay to pursue their illegal plan for offering no portfolio option to students. The state has also "improperly ignored" the law's requirement to provide options for students who fail the test, and it has improperly ignored the required notices of deficiency and remediation. In other words, the state has let districts get away with the baloney wherein a school tells a nine-year-old child on the last day of school, "Oh, by the way, you are not going on to fourth grade. Too bad for you." Turns out that is illegal. 

Most notably, Judge Gievers clarifies the previously fuzzy rule that the department has been unwilling to observe-- by breaking the seal and being present, a student participates in the BS Test to the full extent required by law.

In other words, this ruling anchors Florida Opt Out procedure solidly in the law.

The Judge goes on to say it is ORDERED that the state stop "disseminating misinformation" about the portfolio option, and the state is ORDERED to require districts to follow the lawful deficiency and remediation procedures.

There's more legally background stuff, but this is a huge win for the Florida Opt Out movement. It doesn't just say that what the districts and state did was wrong and unconscionable-- it clarifies that it was flat out illegal. And it establishes that promoting a child based on a report card is an acceptable-- and it tells us something about where we are with education reform that it takes a judge's ruling to establish such a thing.

Of course, we're not done with this yet. The state will appeal, because God forbid they let this little nine-year-old scofflaws slip through their fingers. But if they have a leg to stand on, I can't see where it is. Not that they won't try. This is Pam Stewart and the Florida Department of Education-- if they can pursue a ten year old boy on his death bed, the optics of yanking a bunch of fourth graders out of class to throw them back in a third grade classroom won't deter them. But on a planet with even a remote simulation of justice, the state will continue to lose this fight. 

Meanwhile, the school boards and superintendents will go home and, with any luck, have to explain to the public how they could pursue policies so stupid, hurtful, damaging and transparently illegal. The fight's not over, but Friday was a good day for students, parents and teachers in Florida.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Guest Post: Is Integration Too Much Bother?

It's my pleasure to feature a guest post from Rita Rathbone, a teacher and blogger in NC. She writes regularly at Patiently Impatient.

The debate over charter schools has slowly spread into wider and wider circles of public discourse. In response to data supported concerns that charter schools are contributing to the resegregation of our schools, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have expressed concerns. Some charter school advocates have taking an interesting stance in response. They propose that perhaps desegregating our schools is just too hard, too expensive, and too time consuming and simply shouldn’t be a goal or focus of education policy. A good example of this is a recent piece by Peter Cunningham. He leaves the reader with this question:

“So here's the question: Should America spend hundreds of billions more to reduce poverty and should we risk more bitter battles to reduce segregation, or should we just double down on our efforts to improve schools? The liberal in me says we should do both. The pragmatist in me wonders if we can."

The sheer absurdity of the question begs for a piece of satire along the lines of “A Modest Proposal.” This perplexing stance on desegregation, which seems to be held by a number of influential people in the world of education reform, isn’t really all that perplexing—it is the policy corner they have backed themselves into. This is exactly where the rabbit hole of uncritical support for school choice, accountability, and faith in “market forces” leads.


Lets start by addressing two important logical fallacies in this line of thinking. If desegregation is too complex and difficult of a problem for public schools to address, then so is the similarly vexing problem of poverty. If schools have no business solving segregation, then they have no business solving poverty. However, those who advocate education reform often espouse that very idea—that education is the solution to poverty. So it is our job as educators to end poverty, but when it comes to segregation, we must throw our hands up in despair because there is nothing to be done. Or just focus on instruction as if poverty and segregation have no impact on student learning. Reformers chide those who cite the numerous significant obstacles that child poverty presents schools as just “making excuses.” In that case, then it would appear that education reformers are just “making excuses” in regards to the issue of segregation.

Many within the education reform movement also see traditional public schools as rife with systemic racism. Therefore, the only way to ensure positive outcomes for students of color is by “disrupting” the system, introducing competition, and providing charter schools outside of the system. However, when faced with the data showing that charter schools are resegregating our schools (specifically in the case of white parents using charter schools to avoid diverse school environments), suddenly the issue is not systemic but simply the choices of racist parents. If you believe that systemic racism exists in traditional systems and elected boards, then you must also accept that is exists in other systems, such as charter schools and their non-elected boards. If you believe that racism is only the result of the actions of individual bad actors, then the public school system cannot be at fault (unless of course you believe the whole staff was hired from a Klan rally). Systemic racism must be addressed in all systems, including charter schools.

The Narrative

Education reform policies must shoulder some blame for the current state of resegregated schools, not just for blindly pushing a charter school agenda, but also for the proliferation of a narrative of failing schools. The goal of “reforming” public schools necessitated a narrative proving that they are in need of reform. Instead of a narrative of needed soul-searching, reorganization, renewed focus, community engagement, funding structures, teacher training, cultural responsiveness, addressing oppressive practices, or any of the other dozen legitimate issues of school and district improvement, it was quicker and easier to label public schools as failing.

Of course most education reform advocates profess motives as pure as the freshly driven snow. Even when true, this narrative aligned itself with the narrative of failing public schools pushed by those whose agenda is privatization of our public resources and profiteering. This narrative also conveniently fit the within the coded language of white parents who (consciously or not) found undesirable the prospect of sending students to truly diverse schools, or schools where white students are a minority. Instead of repudiating the use of such a narrative in dog whistle fashion, most in the education reform movement has remained silent. It is a disturbingly Trumpian move (you know, he can’t help if Neo-Nazis and the KKK choose to endorse him, right?). Unfair and unreasonable moving targets of accountability further fueled the narrative of failing schools; accountability mandates that were also provided without the necessary resources and support needed to meet them.

In my experience, the root of the struggle of public schools today is the damage brought by this narrative; seeds that were sowed far and wide in the fertile fields of white privilege. The public has lost faith in even the potentials of our public schools. Not because they should, not because it is justified, but because education reformers told them to. The reform movement relied so heavily on the narrative of failing schools the damaged just snowballed. Now traditional public schools simply can't do anything right in face of evidence to the contrary. In yet another irony, education reformers have done exactly what the accuse teachers of doing but setting low expectations for disadvantaged students. Public schools are just like a disadvantaged student. We have been branded a failure; branded hopeless. Since we cannot reach the unreasonable expectations some have set for us, we are now given only the lowest expectations. We are the victims of the low expectations set by those who control the narrative.

The result is that many in our communities are no longer deeply invested in the success of public schools because they have been lead to believe we are beyond repair. All the efforts to reform public schools based on market models has change the perception of public schools from a collaborative effort to make our society a better place but factories of individual student achievement. Students and families are now customers, not collaborators. The result is a selfish competitiveness that has destroyed the soul of public education. To add insult to injury, those of us who dare speak out on behalf of the power and promise of our public schools are branded “defenders of the status quo,” a fact that could not be farther from the truth.

Do not underestimate the power of this narrative. Traditional public schools have successfully been branded uncool, undesirable along with other “public” entities. Part of the larger push for privatization is the careful crafting of a dog whistle narrative of public things as inferior, as only used by the poor and undesirable (to most whites unconsciously synonymous with black and brown people). To call the popularity of charters as being driven by “market forces” is hardly fair when the playing field has been rigged by a marketing machine that traditional districts cannot match. Public policy is often about encouraging people to make better choices. We have succeeded in changing public narratives on things like healthy life styles. Now fruits and vegetables are cool and smoking is not (I sure wish that was true during my formative years). If a public narrative can move McDonalds to a healthier menu, anything is possible. Think of where we could be today if the education reform narrative had not been, “our schools are failing” but “our schools need help, lets invest our time, energy, and money on improving them.” Truly integrated, diverse public schools are the best thing for the health of our democracy—that is the narrative that we must craft.

Integration the Right Way

When discussing the issue of school segregation, it is important to remember that most parts of the country never achieved integration in the first place. Many strategies were used to ensure the creation of white public school enclaves while skirting segregationist practices that would draw the attention of the courts. Some communities made halfhearted attempts at integration that failed. In many parts of the South, however, steely determination from a variety of parties, a multitude of strategies, and federal action equaled success. In the years following the Brown decision, my home of North Carolina was the most integrated state level educational system in the country. Those gains have been slowly walked back through the actions of conservative judicial appointments and policy decisions of state and local lawmakers, including the impact of voucher programs and lax charter policy. It is not accurate to say the school integration efforts have failed; powerful individuals and small groups have intentionally and systemically worked to undermine them, often against the collective will of communities. When desegregation was successful, it involved the control and crafting of a narrative that supported it as well as both small and large policy steps. Good public policy simply makes positive choices slightly easier than negative ones. There is nothing impossible about it.

Past integration efforts also illustrate some of the many possible pitfalls. Historically, integration has been done on white terms. Integration cannot come with the assumption of the inferiority of non-white educational environments.

After the fall of Jim Crow, it was the black schools that were shuttered and the black teachers and principals that were laid off. The assumption of superiority of white schools my have been true in the case of facilities and resources, but not necessarily in terms of instruction. Excellence can and does exist in all black or all brown spaces. Black and brown spaces also provide affirmation to students of their dignity and culture.

Ironically, it is often these very schools that have been labeled as “failures” by school accountability measures and shuttered. In the name of “improved” education, we often send students of color into spaces that are not culturally responsive and not affirming to their dignity and culture. In that case, it is easy to see while communities of color embrace a responsive charter school, even with uncertified teachers and fewer resources. We should not accept that this is the best we can do for underserved communities of color. They deserve the same culturally responsive, community controlled, fully funded, integrated public schools that more privileged communities receive.

Integration must be paired with cultural responsiveness.

We must also be mindful of who benefits from school integration. Those outside of the dominant culture (white, middle-class) often learn to negotiate diverse environments out of necessity. White people, however, can easily access enclaves of whiteness where little interaction with diverse individuals is required. The idea is that integrated environments are good for students because it gives them a competitive edge in the diverse workplaces. However, when that benefit is bestowed inequitably on white students or when the assumption is that student of color must adapt and conform to superior, white middle-class norms, then there is a problem.

Integration cannot be paired with the assumed superiority of whiteness.

The Urgent and the Important

The world of education leadership has long held dear a concept that is credited to President Eisenhower—we must never let the urgent get in the way of the important. It is an easy trap to fall into. A constant state of crisis in our public schools keeps us so busy that the things that are of the most importance go untended. While appreciating and addressing the urgency of improving educational outcomes for all students, we cannot loose sight what is truly of lasting importance in our public schools. The solutions proposed by the education reform movement have always been a Band-Aid at best. The misguided “pragmatism” that has some questioning the value of a focus on integration does exactly that—it sacrifices the important in the name of the urgent to the detriment of both current and future students.

Rita Rathbone is a lifelong resident of North Carolina. She is a teacher, magnet coordinator, and curriculum specialist in the Durham Public Schools in Durham, NC. Rita is obsessed with all things Lego and is, in her words, a damn fine cook. Follow her on Twitter at @patimpteach

Should We Close Schools for Low Performance?

Over at Rick Hess's EdWeek blog, guest blogger Deven Carlson (Poli Sci, Oklahoma U) considers the question of whether or not schools that show low performance. In the process, he illuminates some of the deeply flawed premises under which reformsters operate.

He opens by noting that school closure has been a popular policy approach since the days of No Child Left Behind.

The logic of closing low-performing schools is clear: Shutting down bad schools will remove students from these contexts and facilitate their transition to a better school. Improved academic outcomes will follow. In addition, the resources that had been devoted to the closed schools can be reallocated to those that remain open, which may contribute to their improvement.

The path of that logic is clear. But clarity doesn't equal correctness. I can take nice clear pictures of a KKK rally; they're still wrongheaded dopes.

Skipping past, for a moment, the fact that we are currently using unreliable methods and bad data to identify bad schools, moving students to "a better school" is neither easy nor simple, nor does it necessarily follow that the student will do better in a new school. Carlson is also skipping over the issue of capacity-- if we close a 500-student school, where are the 500 new seats? What Carlson is not noting here is that eliminating low-performing schools has not been nearly as popular as replacing them-- but that usually means replacing the students as well.

What Carlson does clearly get is that while this conversation is easy for policy-makers to have in the abstract, it's a whole other thing to implement it on "specific districts and schools, affecting actual teachers, students, families, and neighborhoods." In fact, when the rubber meets the road, very few schools have actually been closed down under the modern era of school reform, and when the issue is raised, local pushback is strong. Well, yes. This is why reformsters need disasters to thrive-- you can't convince people to give up their schools unless something "great" like a hurricane comes and flattens them.

Carlson suggests there is some support for closures, citing some research (including his own) that suggests students from bad schools do better when their school is closed and they are relocated-- though he skips over the finding of one of those studies, which also says that students at the receiving school do worse (which makes me wonder how much the study depends on averages, but I'm not going to pay $36 to see). Carlson's own "research" is some data crunching for the Fordham Foundation showing that closing schools in Ohio and sending those students to charters makes everything better (did I mention that Fordham runs some charter schools in Ohio). This whole brand of research leans doubly on narrow standardized test results soaked in VAM sauce-- there's no real reason to believe that any of it means anything (unless you think the whole purpose of education is for students to do well on a narrow standardized test).

However, Carlson offers three reasons that school closures are not such a great idea after all, and he's not wrong here:

First, identifying bad schools may not be as straightforward as it initially seems, particularly if we think of school quality as extending beyond contributions to student reading and math scores (as I think most of us do). Even if we only talk in terms of test scores, many states' approaches to measuring school performance leave something to be desired and basing closure decisions on these metrics could lead to shutting down some schools that are actually effective. And if we go beyond test scores to consider schools' effectiveness in subjects other than reading and math, as well as in extracurricular activities, then identifying low-quality schools becomes even more complex.

Well, yes. I have nothing to add. That's diplomatic, but the bottom line is sound-- we don't have anything remotely resembling a decent measure of school quality in place.

Second, closing a school is a huge disruption in the lives of students, teachers, and parents. That disruption comes with any number of costs, both educational and human. And now Carlson does bring in the negative effects shown in that Michigan study. And, he notes, all of this is extra problematic if you don't even have a demonstrably better school to send them to.

Third, in many places, the school is an important backbone of the community and removing it has both concrete, measurable effects on things like property value and crime, as well as more abstract effects on things like community identity.

Carlson concludes that closing schools for low performance is a tough call. Looking at what he's said, it seems like a tough call kind of like deciding whether or not to hammer a building with a battery of high-pressure high-volume water hoses is a tough call. It's not-- if the building isn't on fire, put the hoses away.

Now, if I were a cynic, I might conclude that this shift in the reformsterverse is occurring because the schools considered for closure are different. For a long time, we talked about the necessity of closing bad public schools, but now we can also be talking about forcing the closure of bad charter schools. So if I were cynical I might conclude that's what's driving this new argument. But it's also possible that Carlson is an economist mostly on the side of reason. It could happen.

However, Carlson completely ignores another possibility here.

"Let's close the school" is a popular option, particularly among vulture capitalists salivating at the opportunity to shut down a public school-- close a school and open a market!

But that's a little like saying, "Well, my gas tank is empty and there are McDonald's wrappers all over the seat-- guess it's time to buy a new car."

The discussion of  "bad" schools is often vague and mysterious, as if a bad school is somehow sitting in a miasmic pool of awfulness, and the badosity has just seeped into the stones, the building, sourceless and locationless and therefor unfixable. When we do get specific, we blame all the badness on the teachers. What we rarely seem to do is discuss what needs to be done to fix the school, or any sort of corrective measures are dismissed as "throwing money" at the school.

We could do better. We could identify the specific issues and address them. If a school is crumbling because the roof needs to be repaired, that's a fixable problem. If the school doesn't have enough money to make a serious bid for top teachers, that's a fixable problem. If the school doesn't have enough "current" textbooks, that's a fixable problem. If the school has a leadership deficit, that's a fixable problem.

Am I going to say that no public schools should be closed, ever? Not on your life. But public school closings are an act of last resort, and there are a long list of things to try first. If your friend came to you and said, "Things aren't working with my spouse," and then you asked, "Well, what have you don? Have you talked about it? Gone to counseling?" and your friend said, "Well, no, I'm just going to file for divorce," you would be justifiably upset. You don't bail on a relationship without trying everything you can think of first.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Alan Watts: Life Is Not a Journey

I've encountered this quoted material from Alan Watts, specifically his lecture Out of Your MInd, multiple times in the last few days in a video featuring the audio from the lecture and cobbled-together clips from Tree of Life. I don't really want to repeat the "borrowing" of the film clips, though Watts's delivery is pretty special. 

You can quibble with his use of "journey," since a journey can conceivably have no point or destination, but this still a beautiful passage, and though it may make me a lazy blogger, it's a passage I want to be able to come back to, so I'm putting it here where I can always find it. I hope you enjoy it as well.


The existence, the physical universe is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at.

But that it is best understood by the analogy with music. Because music, as an art form is essentially playful. We say, “You play the piano” You don’t work the piano.

Why? Music differs from say, travel. When you travel you are trying to get somewhere. In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition. The point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who only wrote finales. People would go to a concert just to hear one crackling chord… Because that’s the end!

Same way with dancing. You don’t aim at a particular spot in the room because that’s where you will arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.

But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our conduct. We have a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded and what we do is put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of, “Come on kitty, kitty.” And you go onto kindergarten and that’s a great thing because when you finish that you get into first grade. Then, “Come on” first grade leads to second grade and so on. And then you get out of grade school and you got high school. It’s revving up, the thing is coming, then you’re going to go to college… Then you’ve got graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school you go out to join the world.

Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make, and you’re gonna make that. And all the time that thing is coming – It’s coming, it’s coming, that great thing. The success you’re working for.

Then you wake up one day about 40 years old and you say, “My God, I’ve arrived. I’m there.” And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt.

Look at the people who live to retire; to put those savings away. And then when they’re 65 they don’t have any energy left. They’re more or less impotent. And they go and rot in some, old peoples, senior citizens community. Because we simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line.

If we thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at that end, and the thing was to get to that thing at that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along.

It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.

PA: Open Letter To My Legislators

To Senator Scott Hutchinson and Rep. R. Lee James

Dear Scott and R. Lee:

It is long past time to regulate the cyber charter school industry in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps you saw the news yesterday that Nicholas Trombetta finally pled guilty to federal tax conspiracy charges. Trombetta was the founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in Beaver County, a business that he used to steal at least $8 million dollars of Pennsylvania taxpayer money and spend it on things like a condo and an airplane as well as finance various real estate deals.

This was done with money that came from taxpayers, but money that was intended for schools. As you both know from your own home districts, many school districts have been hard hit by cyber charter tuition payments, prompting lost programs and closed buildings to help deal with financial struggles. It is adding insult to injury to see that some of those dollars did not go to educate students in another school, but to finance some charter operator's condo.

You may well ask, "Well, isn't it worth some risk if the cyber charters do a good job?" But at this point, we know they don't. A study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO), a research group that is generally in favor of education reform, found that cyber charters have an "overwhelmingly negative impact" on student achievement, finding that a year in a cyber charter left math students 180 days-- a full year-- behind their peers.

You may hear from charter advocates and lobbyists (of which there are apparently many in Harrisburg) that any oversight of cyber charters will stifle creativity or business flexibility. But even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has released a report calling for tighter controls and more accountability for cyber charters. 

The time has long passed for cyber charter accountability. Governor Wolf's recent call for charter accountability is nothing more than a requirement that taxpayer dollars that flow to charters be given the same oversight than the taxpayer dollars that flow to public schools. As a taxpayer, I can walk into my local school district office and demand a look at the budget. What a public school district does with taxpayer dollars is public information. Why should cyber charters not have to similarly account for the use of tax dollars? Tax dollars used by a public school enter a transparent fishbowl, while tax dollars used by cyber charters enter a black box. Why?

The cyber industry has actively fought any kind of accountability. In Ohio, cyber charter operator ECOT is suing the state to keep from having its attendance audited. In Pennsylvania, cyber charters complained when their revenue stream was threatened, but have made no offers for greater transparency or accountability.

The cyber charter industry of Pennsylvania is a financial drag on public schools, and provides no value or accountability for the tax dollars it collects. Oversight is so lax that the industry is ripe for exactly the sort of corruption that we saw acknowledged yesterday-- and that was in a federal, not a state, court.

It is time for Pennsylvania to hold cyber charters at least as accountable as they hold traditional public schools-- and not as part of some bill that gives cyber charters more freedom to grow in exchange for the appearance of accountability. It is time for taxpayers to be able to see what cyber charters do with the money that is taken from local school districts. It is time.


Peter Greene

Note to any of my PA readers-- you can contact your legislator through this website. If you can't think of what to say, feel free to cut and paste from here.