Friday, March 31, 2017

FL: Burning Down the Schoolhouse

Florida (Motto: If you can't make a buck from it, what's the point?) is taking steps to bring its public school system into the final stages of Death by Charter. It's time to spread some more gasoline and light yet another match.

Because this is a purely political move, it has to have a ridiculously cynical name. So the Florida legislature is working on a bill to move students to "Schools of Hope." Actually, the bill used to call them "Schools of Success," but somebody probably figured that was promising waaaaaay too much, so "Schools of Hope" it is.

The bill, which just passed out of the House Education Committee, commits $200 million to opening charter schools in the same neighborhoods as schools with low grades on Florida's A-F scale.

Here's the idea. Say your school cafeteria is having trouble. Many of the students it serves are malnourished and come to school hungry. The facility is underfunded and in disrepair, and the budget doesn't allow you to get the very best of food (in fact, you have reason to believe that some the funding for your cafeteria that serves mostly black students has been shifted cross town to a mostly-white cafeteria). Students often can't afford to buy full meals in your cafeteria. The state judges your effectiveness on how much the students weigh. You beg for help, but instead the legislature adds an ever-increasing number of hurdles to getting your work done and berates you for thinking that they can just throw money at the problem.

And then, one day, they decide that the solution is to offer a multi-million-dollar grant to any McDonald's that will build a restaurant across the street from the school.

Or maybe you live in a house that's been in your family for decades, and the state comes and sets fire to it, and then refuses to send a fire department. But they do offer multi-million dollar grants to any hotels that want to build a place across the street.

That's the proposal. Let's see if we can put the final touch on killing these public schools and moving all the students into charters. 

Of course, the legislators are totally doing it For The Children.

Here's House Speaker Richard Corcoran, one of the leaders of this initiative. "No longer will we rob children of dignity and hope. Now every single child will be afforded an opportunity of a world class education." Because nothing is more dignified and hopeful than being used as a profit-generating pawn.

"We have tried everything else," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. "It is our moral responsibility to make this move and provide an option for our kids." Well, almost everything. Not actually investing in and providing resources for public schools. But that would be crazy. And Diaz must know what he's talking about, because helps run Doral College, a fake college that lets students at some charter schools pretend they're taking college courses.

And the legislature wasn't flying blind-- they did talk to some experts to help craft the bill, according to Gary Fineout, an AP reporter who has covered many Florida crazy-pants education stories:

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said legislators met with charter school operators and asked what it would take for them to set up schools in the neighborhoods now served by traditional public schools. He said one answer was that they needed help paying for new buildings to house the school.

Cathy Boehme of the Florida Education Association pointed out the obvious:

You are saying funding matters. You're saying good strategies matter. And then you turn around and keep those strategies from schools that you could save from these turnaround options.

But wait-- there's more!

This new bill is on top of a bill that has been kicking around for a few years. This bill would require public schools to share property tax revenue with charter schools-- and it would limit districts' ability to spend on construction. The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Diaz and Rep. Erik Fresen, and Fresen should know about these things because he works as a $150,000-a-year consultant for Civica, an architectural firm that specializes in charter school buildings. Oh-- and Academica, the 800-poung gorillas of Florida charter management, employs his sister and brother-in-law as executives. And Academica is also the group that sends its students to Diaz's fake college! So it's all one big happy family down there.

But if you want to see end-stage Death by Charter, travel up to the panhandle of Florida and little Jefferson County, the only Florida county that touches both Georgia and the Gulf of Mexico. The county has fewer than 15,000 residents and 700 school students. And come this fall, they might be the first district in the state to become all-charter.

The district has had problems with test scores, growth scores, and teacher retention. It has consolidated its schools under one K-12 roof to save money. But Grand High Education Poohbah Pam Stewart delivered an ultimatum back in January-- the district had to close its doors or hand the keys to somebody else. The district could not get an outside operator to come run the district, and other turnaround plans were rejected by the state. So the board has now voted to convert to charter, to basically shut down the district and let a charter take over.

“I know change needs to occur for our children and I’m all for that. But here we go again rushing into something and we’re not even sure if we can get a charter company to take our school. And I can’t wait until July for them to tell me I have a job or I don’t have a job," says Jefferson teacher Terri Clark. She says the district has never followed through on what it approves. And she’s not confident it will happen now.

There are many interesting new problems that come with such a decision (stay in the retirement system? keep the old staff?) but the first big challenge is to get a charter operator to come in. Because here's the thing-- charters schools are not public schools and they don't have to serve anyone they don't want to serve. Jefferson is staring straight into the face of the biggest issue with states like Florida that are determined to set their public schools on fire so that people will abandon them and become charter customers--

What do you do if you burn down your public schools, chase all the students out, and then no charter wants them? The worst possible outcome of Death by Charter is not an all charter system. It's not even a bad all-charter system. The worst possible outcome is a whole community with no schools at all.

Jefferson is facing the Big Lie of school choice. The students and their families don't get to choose schools-- the schools get to choose them. Florida's self-serving legislators can make mouth-noises all day about how students deserve super-duper awesome school systems and they can keep chopping their public system off at the knees (and hips and shoulders and neck), but it's up to them to make sure that all their students have what they need-- not just the ones that live in profitable market shares. Florida has spent over a decade setting itself up as the vanguard of choice and charters and all things reformy, and they are well on track to show us how horribly wrong it can all go, how a state could end up with a pile of ashes. And it won't be good For The Children.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Only True Charters

Pity the charter school movement. They have been splintering all over the place for about a year now as they have faced first, the tension between Free Marketeers, Choice Crusaders, and Social Justice Advocates. Then Trump reared up and let the voucher crowd back into the room, as well as creating terrible cognitive (or at least PR) dissonance among people who claimed to be Democrats but who had spent years supporting the very policies that Trump now championed.

Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, popped up in EdWeek today as the latest charterizer trying to settle the whole swirly mess. He recaps that story right up through the point that Steve Zimmerman (Coalition of Community Charter Schools, NY) cried, "God save us from our friends," and Jeanne Allen (Center for Education Reform) began to nearly pee herself with joy.

Richmond wants to clear things up by articulating exactly what it is that charters stand for.

Choice, autonomy, and accountability.

Previously, we've heard autonomy and accountability. Richmond is expanding that so that he can clearly delineate between True Charter Advocates and everyone else.

As with most attempts to sort this out, Richmond's version requires a rewrite of history. Richmond, like other critic-fans, tries to use accountability as the wedge between True Charter Advocates and Those Other Guys, but of course a lack of accountability has been a selling point in charterdom for the last couple of decades. States like Florida and Betsy DeVos's MIchigan have fought hard to keep accountability rules far away from charter operators. The truest of true blue Free Marketeers have argued, as DeVos did Wednesday at Brookings, that the Free Market will provide all the accountability necessary. Charters have been pitched as a great way to create schools that don't have to play by the rules that public schools do-- that's kind of the entire point.

Richmond tries to thread the needle and say, "Well, of course, we don't want charters to operate under all the exact same rules as charters," but the fact remains-- if he wants to say that being anti-accountability makes someone Not a True Charter Advocate, he has to disregard half of the charter operators in half of charter history. It's like claiming that a true car is a convertible and all those other faux cars are just out of step with true carness.

For charter schools to succeed, educationally and politically, we must be faithful to all of the principles upon which the charter idea was built, not some at the expense of others. Charter schools without autonomy have no ability to innovate and excel. Charter schools without accountability will simply become a parallel system of failing schools.

Charter schools have innovated and excelled by aiming at select groups of students, abandoning the whole goal and purpose of public education. Where accountability has been lacking (aka almost everywhere) they have in fact delivered nothing new or effective.

But then, we don't need charters to have choice, autonomy and accountability. Good public schools offer choice, and all under one roof so that a child who wants to switch her goal from scientist to jazz musician can do so with out having to withdraw entirely. Good public schools also offer the parental choice of calling up your elected board member or administrators and telling them what you want to see. And why would public schools need to have less autonomy than charters? They don't. And we already know we can slap them with accountability measures until the cows come home, dragging their test scores behind them.

As always, I'm wondering why we need charter schools at all. What can they do that public schools can't? I mean, out of these three principles-- I know they can find ways to bar problematic or expensive students, grind teachers down into McEduworkers, craft a school around the principle of making money, and allow amateurs free reign in fields they know nothing about. Sometimes they also educate-- in pretty much the same way that public schools do. But of choice, autonomy and accountability, what is there that a charter can do that a public school cannot?

Not that it matters. Twitter snark from other charteristas has already been directed at Richmond and I don't think his column will go down in history as The Moment That Charter Advocates All United Under the Same Set of Principles. But it may build some odd bridges of understanding.

Which, oddly enough, is what most of us in public education thought when we met Common Core and Big Standardized Tests and a raft of other reforms that were supposed to make us lousy lazy public school teachers stop holding back the secrets of success and finally get to work. So maybe charter fans will still have trouble talking to each other, but some of the rest of us may have something to chat about.

DeVos: Mom With An Axe

This week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stopped by Brookings to help them help her plug choice. The main purpose of the event was to roll out a new report (The 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index), but the main outcome of the event was that DeVos said some truly extraordinary stuff. First, she delivered some prepared remarks, but then she sat down for some Q & A with Russ Whitehurst (Brookings) and that's when some kind of amazing stuff just kind of fell out of her mouth.

You can watch all of it here, though I'm not sure I recommend it. While Arne Duncan specialized in a goofy grin, like a ten-year-old boy who had snuck into a strip club and new he was doing something that might be considered either naughty or awesome, and yet he himself didn't quite get it, DeVos leans more towards a church lady smirk, like it amuses her to imagine that all those Lessers are just having fits that she is this amazing. It is the look for which "supercilious" was coined, and it's not a good look on anyone, let alone a starched white heiress. Her Trump-approved minder should really help her with that.

Prepared Remarks

These include some standard DeVosisms, leading right in by noting that she is passionate about "increasing education options for parents and students" which she characterizes as a "fundamental right."

Her views about this were shaped "early on" in her time as a mother. The USED transcript omits the next part, but if we go to the tape, we see that here she tells the story of her relationship with the Potters House, a private Christian school recently profiled by Rebecca Klein. She and her husband sent a son there, volunteer there, and throw a lot of money at the place. Her experience, she says, led her to three conclusions.

First, parents know what's best for their kids. That will, further down the page, lead to a problem for the DeVosian view-- what are we to make of all the parents who choose, prefer, and support public schools?

Second, good teachers know what's best for their students. DeVos likes "good teachers," but I am beginning to wonder if she means "morally upright teachers" instead of "professionally accomplished teachers." She also hints here at something I've caught a whiff of before-- that choice provides teachers with super-awesome places to work where they can be part of an upright school that allows them to work long hours for less pay. Hooray.

Third, state and local leaders should be in charge, not the feds. I don't disagree with this, but my love of local control is tempered by the knowledge that in some places, "local control" means "racist and unequal." Consider the "failure factories" created in Pinellas County, Florida, or the segregation academies still running. So, local control might not be the absolute answer.

Tear down that wall. And that one, too.

DeVos underlines her commitment to choice, but she also underlines her commitment to children and families, not in buildings or institutions. It's a central theme of hers, and I wonder if it's a side-effect of life-long wealth-- if you always have the clout and money to stand up for yourself, does it seem inconceivable that some people without power and money need to have institutions to stand up for them? Or is this a religion thing, a desire to see all institutions torn down except the church? Whatever the case, DeVos once again lets her anti-institution (and by extension, anti-government) flag fly. Institutions also provide places for people to congregate and rebel and disagree with the Powers That Be and otherwise misbehave. Let's chop them all down.

She doesn't favor any one choice mechanism, but she does want to hit the old note about putting children's needs above adult political concerns, which is a handy way of dismissing virtually any opposing voices. Teachers don't express opinions about education because they are invested in teaching children-- they're just playing politics.

DeVos considers some specific cities that came up in the report, and her point seems to be that you need a good array of choices, and you need to make them accessible, and that includes a good application system. At no point does she suggest that oversight is needed to make sure that all the choices are actually any good.

Then she trots out Marilyn Rhames again. Rhames is one of Rick Hess's cage-busting teachers. And she acknowledges a quote from the report-- “There is no question that alternatives to the traditional school district model are destructive of the traditional school district model.”She disagrees. She believes that alternatives are constructive to education, students, parents, and teachers. And she absolutely refuses to distinguish between them, lumping all choices together, including virtual charters that have been universally shown to fail hard. But then, she's not a numbers person.

An exceptionally bad analogy

DeVos now trots out taxis vs. Uber/Lyft as her example. It's a tortured analogy-- private transportation options are not a public good, a community school is not a hired driver, and Uber in particular has actually been pretty destructive of many things. And Uber picks its own customers! DeVos offers this example "from a different part of our daily lives," as if the vast majority of folks in this country can't afford either a taxi or a lyft, but instead depend on public transport like buses or metro systems, which is still easier than rural areas where none of those options are available at all. She also tosses Airbnb into the mix, which is kind of hilarious because I'm willing to bet that she's never stayed at one in her life, and I will double that bet that she has never offered her own home as an Airbnb option. But she will use these poor analogies to propose that since we love choice in these areas, we should offer choice in schools.

She acknowledges that critics ask "often politely," why not fix the schools we have? That's true. We do ask that. Then she continues, "If only schools received more funding, they say, the schools could provide a better learning environment for those being left behind." That's not true. There are plenty of calls to fund schools completely or fairly. There are discussions about how money can best be spent. There are plenty of calls to turn the governance of local schools over to local communities. There are many many MANY discussions about programs and curriculum and ending those God-forsaken Big Standardized Tests. But I know few-if-any public school advocates whose position is, "Just give us more money."

But Betsy has set up her preferred straw man, and now she will have at him. "But of course we've already tried that, and it's proven not to work." And she will prove it with those damn School Improvement Grants. This-- this-- is the Obama/Duncan legacy-- a bad policy that, by its failure, has provided the perfect ammunition to discredit the whole idea of funding schools. Thanks, Obama.

DeVos wales away on SIG and asks, "At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn't the solution," as if anybody, anywhere, had suggested that throwing money at schools is the solution, although one does have to wonder why, then, she and her husband have thrown so many millions of dollars at the Potters House.

She'd like to change the culture around education-- no more "us versus them" thinking, which is an interesting point of view for someone who has spent the last thirty years up to and including this one declaring war on public schools. But she doesn't want to talk about statistics or systems-- she wants to tell anecdotes about specific children who fit her preferred outcome. So we will get heartwarming stories about students "saved" by choice or "ruined" by public schools. I predict that the years ahead will provide many of these anecdotes. I also predict that the years ahead will not include anecdotes of charter fraud, voucher scams, students who were left abandoned when their choice school closed suddenly mid-year, or students who emerged from choice schools with no actual education. Her story today is about Michael, and she declares that even one more Michael is unacceptable, but I have a feeling we're not going to hear about the Michael's who are let down by choice schools.


So I urge us to come together to embrace policies that actually empower parents and give kids an equal shot at the quality education they deserve. It is the right and just thing to do. 

As always, I wonder why we only want to give kids a "shot" at a quality education. Why not resolve to give them the actual quality education? But then, this closing line is really the first time we've brought up quality in the whole speech. Then DeVos brings it home with the True Believer invocation of what is "just and right."

And now it gets interesting.

And now DeVos sits down with Whitehurst, pours him a glass of water he doesn't really want as if we're in her house, not his, and things become extraordinary, partly, it must be said, because Whitehurst asks her some really well-aimed questions.

What's your metric?

Whitehurst asks how DeVos/Trump would like to be measured in the future?  What would "we did a good job" look like?

She re-iterates her idea of replacing institutions with a student-centric culture. Whitehurst pushes back-- what exactly does that look like. How would we hold you accountable for that? Different funding mechanisms? Every parent gets to choose? Achievement is going to rise? At the end "I want some numbers" that tell me you got where you wanted to get.

Her measure is more choices. She believes the demand is there and it should be allowed to be cultivated. This is the part where DeVos says "I'm not a numbers person, not in the same way you are." Just empower parents. As long as we've got that policy, she's happy.

But what if it sucks.

Whitehurst wants to gently suggest that  a whole lot of choice could result in crappy education for a lot of students. Could she see, conceptually, "that a choice environment, implemented poorly. could have negative impacts on families." And he almost has an interesting idea going, but then he restates it-- could you struggle publicly with us over the dilemma of having choice, but academic outcomes are getting worse. And that's what she jumps on, with this extraordinary statement:

Well, I'm not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today.

Ah, there she is. Betsy "Public Schools Are a Dead End" DeVos. And she cites the continuing deterioration of PISA scores and NAEP scores and now Russ Whitehurst has to correct the Secretary of Education by pointing out that NAEP scores have risen dreamatically over the last twenty years. "It's actually interesting that the Bush administration focused on reading," not math, and the math got better and all DeVos takes away from any of that is that the federal top-down approach isn't so great, chuckle chuckle.

So the Secretary of Education cannot imagine how public education can get any worse in this country (though she's not a numbers person). Which means we have some huge disconnects operating here, because parents always know best, and lots of parents think public schools are actually pretty good, and yet they couldn't get any worse. Yikes.

The players in the system

I have to tell you-- I'm liking Whitehurst more and more. Now he winds up with the notion that ESSA, Trump and DeVos all seem lined up behind the devolution of power to the states and localities and his question-- "Isn't that the traditional status quo model?" Which-- yes. Part of ed reform has been installing top-down power, so re-localizing it is in fact a return to the status quo. Okay, I like him less now that he includes the idea that school boards are elected by teachers unions.

Her response is predictable given her history. "We've seen" plenty of governors be really innovative, and she should have seen that because she's certainly thrown enough money at getting people elected who see things her way. "Empowering states" to be "laboratories" of choice is where we'll see headway made. IOW, now that we have better control of state governments, it should be okay to give them power again.

Federal role to play? "Highlighting" success and also something about states sitting back being satisfied with mediocre results. Wait-- what?? Did she just suggest that the feds are going to push accountability on the states after all? No, the federal role will be informative rather than mandating. So, you know, fliers and reports and emails and stuff. But Whitehurst is going to follow up.

What about the happy states?

If the state is happy with how things are going, then parents are stuck. What then? Just the bully pulpit, or...?

State plan submission for ESSA will be a very "good and instructive process" and they kind of bob heads at each other like maybe they can tease out a string of words that really means something. But in that process, the department will have a chance to "comment to" what the state plans. So, the power of comments. So, nothing. This has always been the challenge I imagine she faces-- she wants to keep the feds out of the process, but she knows just what she wants to see, and as the Trump administration fully grasps, if there are no consequences for breaking a rue, it's not really a rule.

Does DeVos see turning down any state plans? She doesn't know-- it's too early to say, and now she has her confident voice back. She knows this answer! But it's at least possible to refuse a state that's "complacent," and this gets a nod. But when he asks if there will be "revise and resubmit" orders, she just says there will be opportunity for discussion.

Will the feds break choice?

Whitehurst, in his Jimmy Stewart stammering way, allows as how he's just sort of compelled to ask about the budget. Which features huge education cuts, which will be covered by cutting programs, but also there's the shifting of money to choice. He then references the USA Today op-ed by charter operators saying "Don't slash the budget." And remember that time that Obama maybe killed Common Core by top-downing it (note: not a thing that actually happened). Oh-- it looks like a question is appearing over the horizon. If the feds throw their weight and tax dollars behind choice all top downy, will they hurt the charter/choice movement?

DeVos reminds us that the budget doesn't actually exist yet, so there's more sturm and drang to come before money actually appears. So, not going to answer the actual question. And Whitehurst lets her off by reminiscing about how Presidential budgets are aspirational.

Audience participation time

First up, Richard from the Century Foundation. He's going to tak about segregation and opens by noting that it can get worse with choice, but "if properly engineered" it could "produce" a lot more diversity. He asks DeVos if she supports or opposes policies aimed at promoting diversity.

DeVos warms up slowly, starting with basically "diversity is good." And then she references a report that shows that enough choices increases diversity. I'm not going to call the Secretary and alternative factifier, but this seems... unlikely? Then she works around to the Oaks school that she visited, which makes diversity a policy even though, somehow, that results in a school less diverse than the city it lives in.Now the sound is dropping out of the video, but DeVos manages to finally connect with this softball-- yes, diversity is good and we would be in favor of it.

Our next question opens with the observation that the government has a roll in protecting citizens from defective products (like exploding cars). So how does the fed balance the desire to favor parent and child choice with a need to protect consumers from metaphorically exploding schools?

"That's a really good question," DeVos says, as her metaphorical hourglass icon spins. First measure of accountability? If parents choose it. "I would love to see evidence of schools attracting students solely on the promise of a raffle ticket or something." Yes, as she has suggested before, DeVos believes that the market is never wrong, and if parents choose a school, it must be good. Parents (with information, though she doesn't say what the information would be) is the "first, best" form of accountability. Having information about the school's results transparent and available is the accountability we need. So, does she believe that choice school operators will never lie, or use very creative marketing?

This is another DeVosian mystery-- the implication that public schools are operated by a bunch of lying liars, but charter and private school operators are somehow more virtuous? Or is the belief here that the Free Market somehow forces people to be honest or else they'll be deselected. Does she believe that people won't choose you if you're a big fat liar, because I'm pretty sure DeVos is serving at the pleasure of the living embodiment, the walking proof that lying can actually be a great way to succeed in the Free Market.

That's it!

Whitehurst tells the audience to stay seated until DeVos gets out "for security reasons." She's out, and Whitehurst is back to talking about his report.

DeVos's priorities and assumptions are certainly becoming ever-clearer. She's a Mom, and she's got a big Axe, and she is going to chop the crap out of the failed terrible public school system and make kindling for a warm choice fire. Her actual knowledge is shallow and severely by her assumptions-- unsurprising from someone who said at her hearing that she had not learned anything from her years of involvement in Michigan ed reform.

Sequel: Read here to see where Whitehurst himself thinks DeVos got it wrong-- particularly with that terrible Uber comparison.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

FL: Recess Is For Babies

The state of Florida (Motto: All You Kids Get Off My Lawns) continues in its quest to turn public schools into soul-crushing child-hostile teacher-stomping institutions. Florida has implemented more dumb ideas than MTV's program development department. Their testing history is filled with drama and disaster. They've decided that passing the standardized test is literally more important than getting good grades on report cards. They have provided yet more evidence that merit pay does not work (especially if you do it really really badly). They have embraced the third grade pass BS Test or fail the grade policy.  And never forget-- these are the folks who demanded that a dying child with profound deficits be required to take the Big Standardized Test. They allow a wide range of charter and reform scams (here's a fun one involving an elected official), but they also allow spectacular abuses of local control.

"I got your recess right here," says Florida legislator.

There are many good teachers in Florida, and many good schools as well, but it's no thanks to state leadership, which since the days of Governor Jeb "Is It My Turn Yet" Bush, the very model of the well-connected education amateur, has tried its best to make public education such a lousy option that the charter industry will start to look good.

So what now?


You'd think this would be a no-brainer. Moms were agitating for free-play recess-- a full 100 minutes per week-- and legislators jumped on that puppy. That kind of recess time would be a step up for some schools, like the kindergarten class that took recess only one day a week. Or Pinellas County, where it's reportedly no surprise if students get only two days of recess a week. The research supports it, as does the heart of any feeling human being who spends any time at all around children. So a bill was crafted and has been sailing through the legislature with busloads of sponsors.

But a Florida House of Representatives subcommittee yesterday decided that twenty minutes a day is just too generous (the Senate apparently left the original bill alone, so kudos to them, because we've arrived at the point where agreeing that children should have research is a laudable political position and not simple human sense).

Which subcommittee? Why, the Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee, of course. Because what's more innovative than opposing recess.

The amended version of the bill cuts the requirement for recess back to only those days without phys ed, and limits it to grades K-3 only, because once you get to be nine years old, it's time to get down to business, you little slackers! It's also bad news for phys ed teachers, because it allows schools to count recess as part of their phys ed time-- in other words, Florida thinks you phys ed teachers are just glorified recess monitors.

What's the reasoning behind this amending? Here's Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia:

“We’re making sure we have a bill that we know will travel successfully through the House,” he told reporters. “There are certain points during this process where in order to get bills heard and moving through committee, we need to make sure that the bill is put into a position where it can get from committee to committee.”

Read more here:

They're afraid of bucking the powerful anti-recess lobby? They're concerned that the Grinch Caucus will filibuster the bill? They are worried about opposition when 56 out of the 120 House members are co-sponsors of the bill??!!

Plasencia would not say who asked for the changes, and the changes were adopted without any discussion or debate. And it was done on the last day of the session so that there was no time left for negotiation-- the moms pushing the bill, along with Plasnecia himself (he's been a staunch ally of the movement) could accept next to nothing, or nothing.

So hooray for the bold, brave House members of Florida, willing to stand up against the scourge of small children taking a few minutes away from their desks to just run and play. Good thing you boys got on top of that-- who knows what would have happened if you had let it get out of hand.

Florida government-- what the hell is wrong with you?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

NV: Their Money and Their Mouths

So let's say you're home to the fifth largest school district in the country. Let's say your teacher shortages are legendary. Let's say they're so bad that you hire recruiters and mount a national ad campaign. Let's say your state has implemented the loosest voucheriest funding system in the country so that your funding is, you'll pardon the expression, a crapshoot. Let's say your legislators are in a legal battle with your school board because your legislators want to slap your schools with a "reorganization" plan that might me mighty pricey. Let's say that your school funding is kind of a nightmare that shells out less than $6K per student and depends on revenue that's tied to tourist business via a hotel room tax. Let's say that you have managed to out-Mississippi Mississippi so that you now command the bottom ranking spot for education in the USA.

Let's say all that. What do you do?

Did you say, "Why, build the world's most expensive sports stadium?"

If you did, you're a winner-- probably the only one in this sad tale.

Las Vegas made what is being called "the worst stadium deal" ever to lure the Oakland Raiders to Sin City. The stadium is reportedly projected to cost $1.9 billion. Billion. With a B.

While come of that money is coming from rich people who have presumably run out of ways to waste money and the Bank of America, who have-- well, I can't figure out what's in it for them. But the city itself is kicking in $750 million. $750 million. Some or most of that will come from an increased hotel tax applied to a new influx of almost half a million new tourists who will presumably be flocking to Las Vegas to see the Oakland Raiders, a team that people won't walk across Oakland to watch now. Fans of the deal insist that the combination of the Raiders and Las Vegas will be unstoppable ("Pittsburgh isn't Las Vegas," says one article, and thank God they're correct).

And if the imaginary tourists don't swell the tax coffers, who else is dipping out of that pool of money? Who else might get squeezed aside? Who, did you say? Yes-- the schools.

Opportunity cost is a way to look at an expenditure. You see a scarf and it looks so cool and it's only ten bucks, so it's a great deal. But the opportunity cost angle is to ask, "Well, what else could I do with the ten bucks if I didn't spend it on a scarf?" If the answers are things like "Food for my children" or "Outstanding parking fines," you should probably pass on the scarf. At the very least, buying the scarf will make a statement about what you really value.

So, if we look around Las Vegas, what's our opportunity cost. Is there something else that we could do with $750 million? Anything? Anything at all?

Perhaps the stadium will benefit some other teams. But the actual research on stadiums done by actual economists (working, for a change, in their actual area of expertise) is that stadiums are not investments:

Academic studies consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facility construction and local economic development, income growth, or job creation.

Las Vegas has decided to put both its money and its mouth somewhere other than its schools. Mississippi has a chance to stay out of the very lowest part of the US education basement only because Nevada is intent on going down to the basement and digging a hole.

Is Testing Accountability Dead Yet?

Today Education Next features a three-headed take on the question, "Is test-based accountability dead?" Three prominent reformy thinkers address the question. Do they come up with any useful answers? Let's see.


Why Accountability Matters, and Why It Must Evolve

Morgan Polikoff (USC Rossier) leads us off. Polikoff is a long-time Big Standardized Test supporter and logged some time with the Gates effective teaching project. And he is making a very creative case for the BS Test here.

What positively affects student outcomes, has "overwhelming" support of parents and voters, supports various policies and research, and has been used widely for a decade? "School accountability" is his broad and inclusive answer. But when it comes to test-based accountability specifically, I think he's only batting .500 here.

Does BS Testing work? It's a tricky question only because so much of the research is so bad, boiling down mostly to "ever since we started giving the BS Test for high stakes, students have scored higher on the BS Test." That may be true, but so what? That tautological progression holds whether the BS Test is a good test, a bad test, or a test of how well students can recite the Preamble to the Constitution. Update: Matt Barnum suggests that I'm conflating accountability tests with the NAEP, which has been used in some studies to "measure" effectiveness of other reformy ideas. This steers us back towards places like the Honesty gap, which is a side trip we don't have time for, but my point-- that taking lots of standardized tests makes students better at taking standardized tests-- remains the same.

Polikoff does pull off a masterful piece of data-juggling. You may recall a CREDO study suggesting that students in urban charters lost ground compared to their NCLB public school counterparts. Polikoff flips that around and tells us that NCLB caused public school students gains "equivalent to the gain from spending three or four years in an average urban charter." That is some fancy baloney slicing there, showing once again that anything can be made to look good if you compare it to the right Brand X. Update: Okay, Barnum kindly referred me to the study that Polikoff was referring to, and it does say something more like what he argued in his piece. This time, my snark is misplaced.

Polikoff cites Education Next's poll that that folks agree that schools should be accountable for providing a good education. Sure. This conveniently skips past the question that really matters-- are the BS Tests a good measure of whether or not a school is providing a good education.

So, 0 for 2 so far. His final two points are valid, but irrelevant. He asserts that high stakes testing puts weight behind certain policies and generates data for certain studies. Again, no word on whether any of these policies or studies are actually valid. And we've been doing this test-centered education thing for a while. No argument there. Are we tired of winning yet?

What you might find fun about Polikoff's essay is he's not arguing with those of us in the non-reformy camp.

Despite this track record of modest success, many parties seem poised to throw the policy overboard and use the guise of “parental choice” or “local control” to return us to a time when we had little idea which schools were educating children well and which were not.

What fun times we live in, when reformers scold other reformers. Polikoff also alludes to the idea that people who hate the Common Core only because they associate it with President Obama. And then he addresses some real concerns.

He touches on the issue of test-centered education narrowing and shallowing and hollowing out the curriculum, but that is totes going to get better when PARCC and SBA unveil their new! improved! tests. This has been the promise for years, and it has always been an empty one-- standardized tests, particularly if they are to be administered on a grand scale, will always be severely limited. Polikoff also responds to the notion that BS Tests do not predict "life outcomes," but unfortunately his response is to bring up Raj Chetty again, and Chetty has no real answer to this criticism, no matter how many times testocrats trot him out.

Polikoff acknowledges that the "accountability coalition" has frayed, and he restates his belief that choice must travel hand-in-hand with accountability or we are wasting tax dollars. He sees hope in ESSA's call for broader measures of school quality. And he swears we're really making progress and we can't give up now.

Polikoff's problem remains-- the BS Tests are junk that provide junk data and damage schools in the process. Accountability is a good idea, but the standards-based high-stakes tests that we've been subjected to for the past more-than-ten years are junk, and they do not provide a useful, reliable, or valid measure of school quality-- not even sort of. Nor have they helped-- not even incrementally. They have hurt, and hurt badly, a system that is now geared toward test prep and a narrow, stunted version of what education even means. Accountability matters, but Polikoff is asking all the wrong questions, ultimately getting the way of true accountability rather than supporting it.

Futile Accountability Systems Should Be Abandoned

Jay Greene (no relation) speaks up next. And as usual, he is not entering the conversation gently:

Is test-based accountability “on the wane”? The question is based on a fallacy. For something to be on the wane, it has to exist, and test-based accountability has never truly existed in the United States. Holding people accountable requires that they face significant consequences as a result of their actions.

So, the current system fails because it doesn't punish people hard enough. Greene also notes that it "has distorted the operation of schools to the detriment of educational quality." It is a Soviet-style central planning system that cannot possibly "capture the diverse spectrum of local priorities in our nation." It focuses on math and reading and ignores learning to be good citizens. It has crappy metrics. And schools are figuring out that the punishment for "failing" isn't so great (Greene juxtaposes this with stalled NAEP scores, as if a lack of fear among school personnel has caused growth to stop). Greene also, as he has before, notes that there's no proven or apparent connection between scoring well on the BS Test and doing well at life.

Greene also argues that test-based accountability is politically weak:

Rather, accountability that centers on testing is doomed because it has many political adversaries but no enduring political constituency. Parents have never rallied to demand that their children be tested more, that tests be used to retain students or prevent them from graduating, or that tests be used to determine teacher pay or employment. Educators revile test-based accountability even more. Test-based accountability was initiated by policy elites frustrated over rising education costs and subpar results. But elites cannot sustain such a policy in the face of opposition from educators and families. American politics is shaped by the activity of organized interests, not poll results.

Common Core is the canary in the coal mine, the demonstration of how centralized planning with no political backing is doomed to collapse.

All of this leads Greene to conclude that real accountability can only come from families exercising local control and local choice. Interestingly, though, his argument actually undercuts the typical choice-voucher argument. Choice fans argue that rich and middle class parents get to choose a school they like, but Greene talks about the power of those families "to exercise control over how and what their children are taught." In other words, maybe those families don't so much choose their school as the force their school to shape itself to their preferences. That's an idea I'd like to come back to on another day.

If Parents Push for It, Accountability Can Work

Says Kevin Huffman, a guy who has never made it work anywhere despite having control of an entire state's education system (Tennesee). But he will also lead with the idea that reformsters never had a big enough stick. "Shockingly few public school educators" lost salary or jobs or raises or promotions because of BS Test results. That, I would argue, is because most people on the local level recognized that tying those things to student results on bad standardized tests was A) unfair and B) unlikely to accomplish anything useful.

Huffman will go ahead and claim that BS Test results did predict life outcomes, by which he means early tests predict results on later tests. This is unsurprising, since all test results (and much of later life results as well) correlate most closely with socio-economic background. But Huffman wants to tell us a sad tale about an eighth grader facing a "lifetime of truncated opportunities dictated by weak performance at an incredibly young age." Because the nation is filled with people who are now poor because they did badly on the BS Test back in eighth grade.

Huffman is a long-standing member of the Everything Is The Teacher's Fault club. He joined in with Arne Duncan in claiming that students with special needs could be "fixed' by having teachers with high expectations ("Go on, Chris-- your dyslexia won't be a problem if you just listen to the sound of my expectations and try harder.")

Huffman is also going to chime in on the testing ouroborus-- students who take tests get better at taking tests, and therefor test-based accountability works. And as a leading test cultist, he is going to boldy assert as "fact" that higher scores on a narrowly-focused badly-designed standardized math and reading test prove that students are getting a better education. He's upset that the response to "improved results" in Tennessee and DC has been "a deafening silence," but it doesn't occur to him that the results are an unimpressive mirage. He might ask Chris Barbic, the head of Tennessee's Achievement School District who left the post early because he discovered he couldn't get results.

Huffman poses a question:

If test-based accountability works to improve student results but is unpopular with people who make their living in schools, can we reasonably expect it to find a foothold?

This is the wrong question. Let me suggest a rewrite:

If test-based accountability shows no independently verifiable improvement for students and is largely criticized by the trained professionals and experts in the education field, is there any reason to hold onto it?

 But Huffman is an education amateur who holds tight to what he doesn't know.

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some schools, districts, and states are doing better work than their peers. Some are getting better results, and some are driving faster improvements. How do we know this? Because of tests.

Man, I disagree with some of what Greene says and most of what Polikoff says, but this is just dumb. Does Huffman really, truly believe that nobody can tell the difference between a good school and a bad school except by looking at BS Test scores? Oh, and we can use test results to improve schools, somehow, except that of course we've been claiming to do that for over a decade.I guess we didn't threaten and punish teachers enough.

 Huffman is Arne Duncan lite, right down to insisting that test opponents are those rich, white suburbanites. Well, Duncan had seven years to make his pitch, and he failed to demonstrate any significant successes ever. Huffman is banging a drum that stopped making any semblance of music ages ago.  

So, Is It Dead ?

Oh, if only. But BS Testing is still enshrined in ESSA and in many state systems. It will continue to be a toxic drag on the school system, providing no useful information and warping the very idea of education.

So it won't go away, and it can't do anything useful or nurturing, and in fact can be destructive and damaging at times. Let's call test-centered accountability one more zombie loose in the education world.

Do I have some ideas about how to do better? I do, but this has dragged on enough for today.

In Praise of One To One

Back in 2010-2011, my school went to one-to-one computing. We put a netbook in the hands of every 9-12 grader.

It is rather unusual for my school district to be out in front of things. We're small, largely rural, and not terribly wealthy. But a combination of factors came together to launch us into one-to-one computing. And I'm here to tell you that I don't regret it a bit. And yet, I don't disagree with writers like Thomas Ultican when he says that one-to-one is Bad News.

Let me tell you what I think we did right, because I recommend that should your district make noises about such a program, you agitate to follow our somewhat aimless lead.

I say "aimless" because one of the very first things our administration did was fail to give us any specific instructions about how we were to use our students' newfound technotools. I am not kidding. That lack of direction was genius, and it was exactly right. Different teachers incorporated different aspects of the technology in different ways. Some classes were converted to digital textbooks (that's a big part of how the expense was sold to our board). Some teachers used a variety of tools. Some found some cool things they could use in their class. Some teachers didn't do a damned thing. We were initially given a tool for monitoring what the students were doing on their screens; it faded quickly, as most of us discovered we could monitor students using a tried and true teacher management technique you may already know as "Looking at them." Also, we had anticipated problems with things like keeping the netbooks charged. It turned out to be no problem.

I'm sure administration became a little frustrated with how slowly some teachers adopted the tech, and many teachers were frustrated that our infrastructure had some hiccups. Actually, it's still hiccuping.

But the minimum planning was genius because, first of all, the little planning that was done all turned out to be Not On Point. And second of all, it let teachers advance comfortably at a speed they could work with.

Many folks were doubtful, and students in the first few years pronounced the experiment a waste of time. This had more to do with expectations than anything else-- because we didn't have the computers out every day for some new round of whizbangery, folks thought they were underused. I disagree-- we don't use textbooks every single day, or paper, or pencils. You use the tools when there's a need. Some complained that the netbooks needed careful handling and treatment. Well, so does paper, but everyone just gets used to it early on and we don't think about it.

But the most critical part of a one-to-one program is not the technology. The computers are just a conduit, a straw through which students can either suck up tasty healthful fruit juice or harsh grain alcohol or battery acid.

Therein lies the problem. One-to-one computing is obviously a great avenue for implementing Competency Based Education, various forms of "personalized" learning and a host of software driven education programs. It's the infrastructure through which these clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk can enter schools. And that requires due diligence. A door is just a door, and anything can enter through it. Heck, a book can lay out the wonders of history, or it can tell students that African slaves were just "immigrants."

There are unavoidable issues. You may have noticed that I talked about how we used netbooks, a type of computer that has now not been made for years. In any one-to-one setting not supported by incredibly wealthy donors, your tech will become obsolete quickly. That's an expensive curve to stay ahead of.

We have been shifting to chromebooks, which makes sense because Google is ahead of the pack in school-friendly apps and software, but that means dealing with the issue of hooking children up to the data-gobbling maw of Google or some other privacy-rending corporation. It's scary, but then, cars and sex also come with some huge pitfalls, and we decided (mostly) years ago that the solution is to teach students rather than try to hide them in bubble wrap. The internet is not a highway-- it's a giant leech. We need to talk about that and find personal responses to that sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, every day in my classroom is computer lab day. I don't have to plan exactly when and how long, and I'm always able to say, "Good question-- look up the answer right now." My students who have little tech in their lives will not be quite so backward when they hit the workplace. My unofficial research says that students will write more on a computer than with pencil and paper (though paper and pencil still predominate in my classroom). Instead of old school journaling, my students keep blogs.

We could talk about the details all day, but the bottom line, the essence is this--  I use the computers for purposes I choose in ways I determine. That makes them another tool in my arsenal, and I am happy to have all the tools I can get my hands on, as long as I'm using them and they're not using me. Sure, the technical glitches and regular malfunctions are an annoying pain in the butt-- so are broken pencils and students who don't bring their books to class.

One to one computing can be your friend-- if you can stay in the drivers seat and if you can keep them from being an entry point for Bad Programs. As with most other tools, it can build or destroy. Stay vigilant.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Broken Promises of Tech

So, here's how I've been spending my evening.

I had a whole batch of photos that I wanted to upload, but after investing a chunk of time this morning and this evening, that whole project crashed into a bunch of disconnected bits floating off into the cyber-ether.

I took the somewhat passive-aggressive step of tweeting my displeasure with my provider (Verizon DSL-- don't tell me to switch to someone better because first, there's nobody all that better and second, even if there is, there is nobody better in my rather rural area). As usual (this is not my first disgruntled cyber-rodeo) that grumpy tweet flushed out a corporate bot who wrangled me up the line until I was chatting with what appeared to be a live human.

My problem, according to me-- speed tests on my end show upload speeds that graph like badly battered comb, and upload speeds are so low that the test just times out. Hence my inability to upload my pictures.

My problem, according to the tech-- I'm trying to use my wireless internet connection wirelessly. Other devices or objects or neighbors or bursts of cosmic rays could cause the wifi to weaken as it drags its way the ten feet across the room. Verizon can really only guarantee the wireless speeds that I purchase for devices that are actually wired to the router.

Of course, like most folks, I have the wifi so that multiple magical technobricks can operate in my home. But tonight my wife is at chorus rehearsal and there are currently two devices trying to eat internet. I could wire up some things like my main desktop, but the home office would become some sort of frightening Faraday Cage. It's not the solution I want. It's not the solution I pay for. It's not the solution I was promised.

But this is often how tech promises go. "This will do awesome things," the tech engineers declare, "At least, it does awesome things in our lab with brand new tech and controlled conditions and a support group of twelve highly trained computer whizzes."

I am no Luddite. In fact, the post I was going to write tonight was in defense of one-to-one computing. But I also believe that the only reliable thing about tech is that it will reliably promise more than it can actually deliver in the real world.

That effect is magnified in school settings-- I'm pretty sure that all those dollar signs dancing in their heads make it hard for tech bosses to see how things will actually play out in the real world, where users are piled on top of each other like cordwood, spread around buildings that are built like bunkers (if you ever need me for an emergency, do not try to call or text me by cell while I'm working-- I'm pretty sure no radiation of any sort can penetrate my school).

I recognize that these complaints are 50% whining, the noises that children make because the miracle is not happening fast enough, miraculously enough. I recognize that I'm complaining that I can't perform my magic trick with as little effort as I had hoped.

But I also know we live in an age in which many tech types are promising even greater magic for schools, that we will soon (soon!!!) be able to plunk children in front of screens and those screens will spit out educational programs perfectly tailored to those children, while magically educating each child perfectly and personally, while miraculously collecting tons of data about those children, while also miraculously keeping that data totes secure and safe. Whether these promises should be kept is one discussion worth having, but whether they can be kept is perhaps a better one, because tech makes promises it can't keep, and we end up with things like wireless internet that really works better if you don't use it wirelessly.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

ICYMI: Babymoon Edition (3/26)

My wife and I are in DC, contemplating the cherry blossoms and coming creative disruption of our lives by two currently-fetal offspring. But I've still collected some reading for you, set to auto-post at the usual Sunday AM time. Read, enjoy and share.

In the Name of Love

A little push back from a Christian about "Christian" legislators

In the America First Budget, Schools Come Last

Andre Perry with an on-point critique of the Trump budget

Are You a Big Fat Idiot

I am happy to welcome back one of my favorite blog titles-- "I Love You But You're Going To Hell," a blog that focuses on interpreting conservative Christian thought for those not of that tribe (and which treats both sides with fairness). It's not always education-related, but this time it has something to say about the teaching of science.

Words That Hurt Our Public Schools, And Ones That Help

We're doubling up on Jeff Bryant this week. First up, a look at how rhetoric shapes the education debates.

Hillbilly Elitist

Nancy Flanagan takes a look a Vance's widely-touted book, and she's not entirely impressed.

What the Dickens Is Going On

John Merrow takes us inside the mess that is the current ed department, and finds a silver lining stuffed inside a neglected closet.

The Big Lie Behind Trump's Education Budget

Jeff Bryant with another well-sourced breakdown of where exactly the problems lie in Trumps edu-budget.

Are School Leaders Becoming Too Enabled?

Peter DeWitt takes an insightful look at school leadership and using the right drivers to empower, not enable.

Privatizing Recess: Micromanaging Children's Play for Profit

Nancy Bailey looks at one of those scourges that will not die-- the professional recess managers

"We Teach English" Revisited

Paul Thomas looks at Lou LaBrant and the parts of teaching English that never change.

If You Teach and Noone Learns, Do You Really Teach

Jose Luis Vilson Reflects on parent-teacher conferences and the lenses through which we view our classrooms

Friday, March 24, 2017

How Not To Teach Writing

Imagine how crazy it would be.

An English teacher stands in front of a class and explains, "For every thought you have about the prompt, there is only one correct sentence that can use to express that thought. I'll be grading your essays based on how many of the correct sentences you use."

Nobody teaches writing that way. Nobody says, "Okay, if you have an insight about Jake's injury in The Sun Also Rises, there is on correct sentence for expressing that thought" or "On today's essay about parenting, I'll be looking for seven particular correct sentences that should be used to express these thoughts."

Certainly nobody approaches the use of words in real life in this way. Nobody says, "No, you can't be serious about this job because you didn't even try to say the right sentence," or "No, if you really loved me, you would have said the correct sentence for expressing it."

No, the entire history of human expression, human literature, human song-- it's about finding new and interesting and surprising ways to say what we have to say. It's about finding ways to express a thought that are perfectly suited to that particular person and time and place and circumstances. We are moved, touched, excited, and enlightened by those who can string words together in completely different and yet completely appropriate ways.

Certainly some of these verbal inventions are better than others. Shakespeare's plays are echoes and imitations of other versions of the same stories, and yet four centuries later his Hamlet and his Romero and Juliet endure because, although he was saying what many other playwrights were saying, he said it better. We admire (at least we should) Shakespeare not just for what he did with the language, but for his rip-roaring robust rearrangement of the language, his willingness to take his tools and hammer them into new shapes that served his needs perfectly. Shakespeare did not get to be Shakespeare by imitating everyone else. He found his own way, and found things that were so much better.

But there is a huge difference between "better" and "the one right way." Shrimp salad with a light dressing is better-- healthier-- than a thick steak with french fries. But it does not follow that I should eat shrimp salad for every single meal. We should not all be wearing exactly the same clothes, driving in exactly the same car, and living in houses with exactly the same floor plans while we listen to bands that sound the same play identical recordings of just a few songs.

This is all obvious-- as obvious as not teaching students to write by demanding they spit out the One Correct Sentence for whatever thought they're having.

And yet  much of writing instruction and assessment assumes a One Correct Sentence model. Error-centered instruction, where we focus instruction on all the mistakes we're supposed to root out and avoid, seems to assume that if we slice away all the Bad Things, we'll be left with the perfect sentence for our thought, and not just some sad, filleted dishrag of a sentence.

And standardized testing at times comes so very close to sending exactly the wrong message-- there's one correct answer and there's one correct sentence for expressing that answer. Just select it.

This is why, frankly, so many teachers either avoid teaching writing or just do it badly-- it cannot be reduced to a formula and it does not involve a single correct answer for each problem, so it's hard to teach and hard to assess. Even the giants of literature cannot agree on what would be a good way to express a particular thought. Mark Twain loathed James Fenimore Cooper's classic American novels, Faulkner thought Twain a hack, and some of the greatest literary insults have been delivered author-on-author:

On Jack Kerouac: “His rhythms are erratic, his sense of character is nil, and he is as pretentious as a rich whore, sentimental as a lollypop.” — Norman Mailer

On Mark Twain: “[A] hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven ‘sure fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” — William Faulkner

On Hemmingway: “I read him for the first time in the early Forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.” — Vladimir Nabokov

On Jane Austen: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer … is marriageableness.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

More than necessary to make my point, but as a genre, author-on-author insults are kind of fun.

The giants of the writing field cannot agree on with any narrow clarity what constitutes good writing. The closer we get to nailing that elusive beast down in one single, specific spot, the more likely we are to kill it dead. Pinning down writing to one specific answer is like deciding that dogs look best in one pose, so you have yours stuffed and mounted in just like that. What you have is not a loving, living animal, but a dead thing trapped in a sad, inadequate simulation of life.

There is no one right pose for your dog. There is no one right way to write.

What we have are choices. In seeing choices, we are often victims of success, because a well-written sentence or essay or story or even just a phrase leaves the reader feeling, "Well, of course. I can't imagine any other way to say it." But there were and are other ways to say it, and some of them, in other circumstances or in the hands of another writer or even just in place of what we see-- those could have been great choices too.

There are always choices.What we need to teach our students is how to see the choices, and then how to decide which choice best serves her purposes, which choice best fits her own voice, what choice best achieves her goals. Instead of looking for the One Right Answer, she needs to look for Her Right Answer, and we need to help her learn to be comfortable with the fact that there are many Perfectly Good Answers available (and she may need to stop stressing about trying to find the One). She needs to find her own voice, her own path, her own way. And there's just no way to standardized that, nor any value in trying.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

MS: Paving Way for Vouchers

Mississippi has long been considered America's Armpit of Education.

Educational lists? You name it, they've consistently ranked near the bottom. It qualified as news when Nevada beat them for dead last in EdWeek's Quality Counts list in 2016, because that was their first step up in years(and it can be argued that they didn't so much improve as Nevada just became even worse.)

Sharing another excellent investment opportunity

They've tried any number of dumb ideas, from jumping on the bandwagon for failing third graders who don't pass the Big Standardized Test in reading, to fining schools for not observing the Pledge of Allegiance. Plus the occasional attempt to force teachers to be silent on any education related issues at all.

What they haven't tried is actually funding their school system. Mississippi ranks close to the bottom there as well, with a per pupil outlay in the $7K area. Back in 1997, the legislature attempted to address this by passing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (because when you're working on education, "adequate" is plenty good enough). MAEP laid out a funding formula that the state then promptly ignored. The legislature has only voted four times to fund schools as the MAEP says they should-- and two of those times they took it back mid-year. Last year some folks tried to add some actual teeth to the law, and the legislature promptly buried the referendum in a flurry of bloviating baloney.

But Mississippi's educational finances were not going to be ignored. Instead, the GOP called upon EdBuild and their CEO, our old friend Rebecca Sibilia.

You may remember her as the woman who gleefully observed that bankrupcy is a great way to blow up a district, which is no problem for kids, but a great opportunity for charter operators. Arielle Dreher, who has been doing a bang-up job covering all this for the Jackson Free Press, does a nice job of recapping the EdBuild story--

EdBuild is in its infancy as a company (it started in 2014), and Sibilia came from an education-policy background, first working in the Washington, D.C., education department and then moving to the nonprofit Students First, run by Michelle Rhee. The former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, Rhee was a controversial figure, after firing over 200 teachers in D.C., mainly due to poor performance, she said then.

EdBuild's board of directors includes Derrell Bradford (NYCAN), Angelia Dickens(general counsel for StudentsFirst), Michael Hassi (Exponent Partners), Josh McGee (Manhattan Institute, Arnold Foundation), Henry Moseley (CFO, Washington Convention Center), Hari Sevugan (270 Strategies, former DNC press secretary, and just helped a "national, non-profit education reform group get off the ground), and Stephanie Khunrana (Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation). EdBuild's website hammers away at the notion that "current funding systems are outdated, arbitrary and segregating."

Sibilia's background is soaked in reformy swellness. If that doesn't give you a hint where EdBuild's "study" for educational financing in Mississippi is headed, note also that the quarter-million dollar study was half paid for by the legislature, and the other half with "private funding from unnamed EdBuild donors." Those donors? The Broad, Draper Richards Kaplan, Bill and Melinda Gates, CityBridge, Walton Family, and the Center for American Progress.

Mississippi reached out for help from these giants of education investment because Mississippi is, on the whole, in financial trouble. The GOP and Governor Phil Bryant last year pushed through a huge tax cut, and now state revenues are way down. Go figure.

Against that backdrop, EdBuild and GOP legislators met behind closed doors to rewrite the state's funding formula while pretty much everyone else complained about being left out of the whole process. EdBuild has produced a nifty report  full of fun recommendations, and while we could plow through the whole eighty pages, there are basically only eleven recommendations, and those recommendations boil down to one Big Idea:

Student-centered funding.

Don't fund schools. Base your formula on cost-per-student.Because that makes it way easier to implement a full-on voucher system (and in the long run, I'll predict, it makes it easier to deny budget increases).

There are other details in the recommendations. Recommendation 1 is about giving an extra bump for students who qualify as poor. And while you're doing that, redefine what "poor" means; in Georgia, these kind of shenanigans resulted in many, many people being redefined right out of poverty, even though they had no more money than ever. Recommendation 2 calls for extra support for ELL students, and #3 adds a per-pupil bump for students with special needs, depending on how special their needs are. #4-- same for gifted. #5-- extra money to schools for college-and-career-ready programs, and #6 looks after rural and "sparse" schools.

Recommendation #7 is novel-- fund schools based on enrollment rather than attendance, which strikes me as an idea that would really help charters in general and cyberschools in particular. #8 is to eliminate the 27% rule, a rule that essentially says that the state must shoulder 73% of the funding burden. #9 is about financial transparency.

#10 says, Let's look at all the rules, regulations and accreditation standards that cost money and see if they are "critical to student success"-- presumably so we can get rid of them. Oh, and create a system of "earned autonomy," where schools with good test scores earn a Get Out Of Following the Rules card.

#11 says to phase all this in, and Sibilia agrees, noting that some schools will get more money and some less, so go easy.

One other bizarre feature of this big financial plan is that it includes no dollar amounts or projections at all.

Sibilia said the dollar amount is up to lawmakers, and told the Jackson Free Press that figures used in the 80-page report are "examples only," not base figures for legislators to use.

Will this save the state money? The legislature has kept the grand total for MEAP level, but they've also fully funded the system twice in twenty years. Can you reform a system you've never actually used in the first place? Should you evaluate a new system based on the assumption that it won't be correctly funded when implemented? We have no answers. Would it help you to hear from one more reliable reformy spokesperson?

As a concept, weighted student funding aims for equity, focusing on funding the highest student needs. Dr. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University, analyzes the economics of educational issues. Weighted student funding, Hanushek says is a sensible idea, especially since the goal in most cases is to put money towards school districts that have disadvantaged kids or those that need special education. Weights, however, are the political part of the process, he says.

If we aren't adding any money to the pot, but just shifting the old money around with a new formula, how does that save money or improve education? Well, maybe that's another political question, but I suspect the answer is, "It opens the door to increased and easier voucher/charter/choice programs." Just slap a backpack full of cash on each student and let the mad scramble begin. There's not an ounce of evidence that it will serve the students well, but plenty of evidence that it will help privateers and profiteers open the otherwise closed education market and really expand their own share.

And why target Mississippi for such a program? Well, the one thing that really helps boost a voucher/charter/choice program is a public school system that has been broken down, starved, and beaten into a highly unattractive condition-- Mississippi's public schools are already halfway there. EdBuild is just there to take advantage of that failure, because the collapse of public schools is a great investment opportunity for investors and privatizers, much like the collapse of the weakest antelopes at the watering hole is a great opportunity for lions and hyenas.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Which Choice Would You Choose?

If you were (or are) a parent, which one of the following options would you prefer?


Your neighborhood is served by a single public school.

That school is well-staffed with a range of young and experienced professional educators, well-trained and committed to the needs of their students, and they are well-managed and well-paid so that they stay on as the foundation of a stable school community. The school is a well-maintained facility, clean and safe. It offers a wide variety of quality programs under one roof, with the flexibility for students to explore different educational paths and even change their minds (because young folks sometimes do that), as well as allowing them to enrich one path with samplings from others (in other words, your future biologist won't have to give up band). The school is fully funded and has a full range of up-to-date quality resources.

The school is transparently managed and controlled by an elected board of local community members who meet in public and are available to be contacted by any resident or taxpayer in the district. The management of the school is nimble, flexible, and open to input from all stakeholders.


In this option, your neighborhood is served by many schools, and you have plenty of choices that you may be able to access by using your voucher or some other sort of choice mechanism.

Choice #1: Never mind. This elite private school is out of your price range, even with your state-issued modest voucher.

Choice #2: This Christ-centered private school will gladly accept your child, as long as that child behaves properly, which includes a properly worshipful attitude in daily devotions and Bible readings. And don't worry-- we won't be teaching your child any of that foolish evolution-filled "science" stuff.

Choice #3: Our experts have determined that this is the kind of school People Like You need for their children. Strict, no excuses, speak only when spoken to regimentation. It certainly wouldn't fly over in East Egg, but it's just what the children of You People need to take your proper place in the world.

Choice #3A: If you're in the South, there's also this school, but you can only send your kid here if you're white. Because Those People need to be kept on their own side of town.

Choice #4: We will provide a program much like a regular public school, except we don't have any adaptations for students with special needs or English language learners. You're certainly welcome to send your child with special needs, or who is five years behind in English language acquisition, but understand that we aren't going to do anything special for them.

Choice #5: We decided to launch a special math-centered school. We make room in the budget for super-math stuff by cutting music, art, sports and history. All students attend the same English class which meets every other day in the auditorium. But our math program is definitely more than adequate.

Choice #6: This school was started by some Very Nice People who thought, "How hard can it be to run a school?" It looks like a nice enough place, but none of the teachers have been paid for a month and it will probably close before Easter.

Choice #7: Big National Chain Charter School. The program is already packaged and all our brand-new staff members need to do (it's always brand new because no staff stays here for more than a year or two, which is okay because we don't need to hire actual certified teachers anyway, so they're easy to replace) is open the binder and follow the program. If you would like to talk about changes to the program, feel free to contact our corporate headquarters, which are not actually in your state.

Choice #8: What do you want? Look at our glossy advertisements! We will promise you all sorts of stuff. We will never deliver any of it, but by the time you figure that out it will be too late-- we'll have your money and you'll have to decide how badly you want to disrupt your child's school year in the middle.

Choice #9: Your public school. It still exists, but the other eight schools have drained so much money from it that it is now a sad, limping, underfunded shadow of a real school.

With the exception of Choice #9, none of these schools are managed or operated publicly. You can't attend the meetings, you can't see the books, and you can't contact the board members easily, if at all. You don't get a voice-- the only stakeholders who matter are the people who own and operate the school, and they'll give you the choice they feel like giving you.


Voucher advocates-- particularly the ones who advocate for "parental choice" or "parent rights"-- seem to insist that Option 2 is the better one. Their argument is that Option 1 is a choice that only wealthier families get to exercise by virtue of their ability to buy a house in that school's neighborhood. And they aren't wrong-- linking school funding to the power of the real estate market means that schools in richer neighborhoods get better funding. That is a problem worth addressing.

And yet, Option 2 does not address it. The school in Option 1 is still not available to less wealthy parents. They are presented with only the choices that other choosers choose for them, and in the process, they lose even a limited ability to influence what those choices are going to be. So they lose a shot at improving their public school, and get little-to-nothing in return.

Parent choice advocates might argue that Option 2 is still a better option because choice is such a great value, in and of itself, that providing choice to parents is more important than anything else-- including making sure that the available choices are actually any good.

But I keep coming back to the same idea-- if we want all students to be able to choose the school in Option A, why not do what it takes to transform every public school into Option A? Option A actually offers more choice, more flexibility, but most of all, more of the things that families actually want. Once upon a time reformsters made noises about charters developing great ideas to create great schools, but we already have a plethora of model public schools-- why not use them as a template? Why not muster the sort of "War on Poverty" or "Get To The Moon" or "Endless Battles in Other Countries" willpower we've mustered before and direct it toward making all schools great schools?

If I were a cynic, I might conclude that it's because no private operators can make a bundle under that plan.

Choicers will argue that I've stacked the deck, that these aren't the real options. Real World Option A, they'll say, is one lousy school, and while that may be true in some communities, how is multiple lousy choices better than one lousy choice-- and if you only had so much money, would you rather try to fix up one house or a whole bunch of houses with that money? Real World Option B, they'll say, has more awesomely wonderful choices than I represent here, and you know, there was a time I believed that might be theoretically possible, but reality seems to be stubborn in this regard. It's almost as if running a school is hard, and doubly hard if you're trying to make a business out of it.

But seriously-- what parent would choose Option B over Option A? It's really no choice at all.