Friday, July 21, 2017

How To Recruit Teachers

There isn't a teacher shortage. Not really. But there is a shortage of districts and states that are successfully attracting people to teach careers. If I can't get a dealer to sell me a Lexus for $1.98, that does not mean there is an automobile shortage. The "teacher shortage" is really a shortage of $1.98 teachers.

Something is wrong. Not only do we have a drastic drop in the number of proto-teachers in the pipeline, but the profile of the teacher pool is off. The teacher pool is overwhelmingly female and white. Males and minorities are not represented in the teaching force in numbers that remotely resemble the demographics of our student population.

So how do we get and keep the teachers that we need?

After all, it ought to be easy. No other profession gets to pitch itself to every single young person who could possibly pursue it. So what are we missing?

To understand how to recruit teachers, we just have to remember how the teachers we have found their way to the classroom. And the most important thing to remember is how they start.

It's not a deep, complicated thing. Almost every teacher in a classroom started out as a student in a classroom, and that student had two simple thoughts--

1) I kind of like it here in school.

2) I can see myself doing that teaching thing.

That's it. If we get a student to harbor those two thoughts in his teenaged cranium, we have successfully created the seed from which a future teacher could grow. But looking at those two thoughts can also tell us where our edugardening has gone awry.

Kind of like it here.

No excuses. Speak when you're spoken to. School to prison pipeline. Assumption that black and brown students are a problem. Crumbling buildings. Lack of even basic supplies like books and paper. Curriculum that is centered on test prep. 

None of these are going to make a student feel as if school is just like a second home. And schools that carry the greatest weight of discrimination and mistreatment are the greatest anti-recruitment. If you have made a student feel unwanted, unwelcome and unsupported in school at age fifteen, why would that same student consider returning to school at age twenty-two?

I can see myself doing this.

The most fundamental part of this is the modeling of staff. It's hard (not impossible, but damn hard) to imagine myself doing a job if I can't see anybody like myself doing the job.

Beyond that, students will be influenced by what they think the job is, the job that they see teachers doing. Are male teachers of color responsible for breaking up all the fights in the building? Do coaches get to follow a different set of rules than other staff? Do lady teachers have to keep their heads down and never talk back to a male boss? Do some teachers spend half their time doing drill and drill and worksheet band dull, boring drill? Any such unwritten rules are noted by students, and factor into how appealing the job might be.

Do students see that teachers struggle financially, holding down extra jobs to make ends meet? Do students see their teachers treated with respect? Do students see teachers supported with resources and materials, or do they have to buy supplies out of their own pockets? Do they see the job turned into a low pay, low autonomy, de-professionalized drudge? These factors also affect whether students can see themselves living the teaching life.

The Path

Of course, there's more care required for these early seeds reach full flower. College teacher programs may support the fledgling teacher or throw more obstacles in the path (I often wonder how many male teachers of color we lose to repeated "Well, what the hell are you doing here?") Then we get to the luck of the draw with the match-up for student teaching, and finally, the problem of individual district hiring practices.

The Circle

And then we arrive back in the classroom, where the person who was once a student may have to withstand one more assault on their desire to teach. And we don't have time to get into all of that yet again.

Retention is a huge problem, easily as big as recruitment, but here's the irony-- the recruitment problem and the retention problem are the same problem, because the best way to recruit the teachers of tomorrow is by giving support and respect to the teachers of today. You cannot dump all over today's teachers and expect students to say, "Oh, yeah, I'd love to jump into that pool of pooh."  You cannot reduce teaching to mindless meat widget drudgery and expect students to say, "yes! Someday I want to be a soul-sucked functionary, too."

Of course, there are folks out there for whom the death of the teaching profession is a goal, not a problem. But for the rest of us, the path is relatively simple and clear. Elevate and support the teaching profession, and the people who look at it in action every day will want to join in. If you want good seeds, you have to tend to the plants that are already growing.

Dear E: Mind the Old Farts

Dear E:

You have landed your first teaching gig straight out of college. That's a great thing. Back in 1979, I landed my first job on the sixteenth try-- and then was laid off at the end of my first year, after which I came back here, where it took me several more years to move from covering sabbaticals to getting a job of my own. And as you know, it took my wife several years to finally land a gig of her own. Despite everything you've heard about a teacher shortage, it can still be tough to land a job straight out of school, so kudos to you.

You're getting packed and ready (congrats on the new apartment) because you leave in about a week, so I won't get to see you long enough to ramble on like an old teaching fart. Instead, I'm just going to write you letters which I'll stash here where they're easy to find. You are both a former student and family-- it's the least I can do. Ha.

You're headed for Kansas, which means you are probably going to encounter that a species that exists in almost every school-- the cranky old farts.

Cranky old farts are not always actually old; I've known teachers who were cranky old farts in their twenties. But when I say "mind the old farts" I mean it in the same way as "mind the first step" or "mind the poison ivy by the door."

Cranky old farts will not only tell you why you're making a mistake to work in their district, but why you should avoid teaching altogether. Kansas in particular has had it pretty rough for several years now, and I expect that many of your future co-workers are feeling pretty beaten down. They are going to tell you how the pay sucks and how the work conditions suck and how the gummint is totally screwing up the teaching profession these days.

Ignore them.

It's true that education is a complicated minefield these days, and it's true that in your career, you won't be able to close the door and safely ignore everything that's going on outside.

But this is the work you have been preparing for for four years now. You are excited about this, and you should be, because this is exciting and important work. You are going influence the course of peoples' lives. You are going to run your own classroom. You are going to be a real by-God teacher, and that should feel pretty damn awesome.

You do not have to apologize to anyone for your excitement and enthusiasm or the time and effort you put into doing the work. When people ty to bait you into denigrating the job ("Boy, you must have been desperate to take a position here"), you are absolutely entitled to fix them with your big, youthful smile and say, "I'm happy to have a job here. Who wouldn't be?"

Don't get bogged down in the side crap. There will be time in you career to worry about all the other stuff, but for right now just go ahead and put all your time and energy into doing the work the best you can. This is going to be one of the most intense, amazing, exciting years of your life-- savor that and don't let anybody take away from that.

Love, PAG

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Petrilli's Retro Stool Sample

At the Thomas Fordham, Mike "Ed Reporters Call Me First" Petrilli is engaged in a little summary, prognostication, and cheerleading for philanthropists, but mostly, a retelling of many favorite  reformster tales from yesteryear. "Education philanthropy and the unfinished business of policy reform" opens with what may well be a True Thought--

The era of hyperactive education policymaking is about to come to an end.

The states will take back power through ESSA plans. The DeVosian voucher dream will die in Congress. The USED will lapse into sleepy inaction. In short, Petrilli envisions the center of action to be shifting away from lawmakers (oh, please, let him be right this time), and so his eyes turn to the philanthropists.

Petrilli and I probably disagree about what constitutes philanthropy these days. Modern Phauxlanthropists aren't really giving gifts to Good Works, and their work is no more philanthropy than when I hand a tailor a "gift" of money in hopes that he will "gift" me with a pair of pants. If you expect some Quo for your Quid Pro, it's not philanthropy-- it's a transaction.

Petrilli uses some Very Special Language to cover that-- my personal favorite is when he starts to sum up Our Story So Far and says

Yet over the course of the past two decades, generous philanthropists helped to build a robust policy infrastructure that rests on high expectations for students.

Emphasis mine. That is a great, great euphemism, and sounds so much more generous than, say,

Over the past two decades, some rich guys have spent a lot of money creating pathways for circumventing the democratic process in this country.

Petrilli is here to talk about the "three-legged stool" of standards-based reform, and what a stool it is. The three legs are standards, tests, and accountability. You know, I think I've seen this stool before. Let's take a look at those three legs of the stool that Petrilli declares "finally sturdy"


Petrilli notes that the Common Core are still out and about in some form, and if by "in some form" you mean "shambling decayed zombie version of their former selves" then, yes, they're still about, under new names and with far more alterations than the 15% additions that were originally allowed. They look different everywhere, but I think the most important thing to remember about the Core is that after several years, classroom teachers have performed their own adaptations to the original standards, throwing some things out and putting some things back that the standards originally called for. Everyone who says they think the standards are awesome is lying about following them.

Because, and I can't believe we have to have this conversation again, the Common Core standards are junk. No, they will not turn our children into communist lesbians, but they're junk. They were created without any teacher input, and it shows. They were created without any reference to standards in other countries, and it shows. And they were created without any conversation ever about whether or not having a bunch of standards really improves the quality of education.


Petrilli says that half of the Common Core states still use the PARCC and SBA, which is a clever way of saying that hardly any states use these tests, which turned out to be expensive and, again, junk. After all these years, there isn't a lick of evidence to suggest that doing well on the Big Standardized Test is indicative of anything except doing well on the test.

These are by far the most toxic byproduct of reform, as test-centered accountability has pushed every school in the country to teach to the test-- and even if the test was awesome (it's not) and measured really solid standards (it doesn't), teaching to the test is still educational malpractice.


Yeah, we don't have that, either. In fact, after years of throwing the word around, we still don't have any idea what we're talking about. Accountability to whom? Parents? Students? Taxpayers? Government bureaucrats? Politicians? Thinky tank guys? Philanthropists who want to see a return on their investment? And accountability for what? Growth? Ready for life? Meeting needs of students? Job preparation? Helping America? Helping the students? Helping the community? Teacher quality? School quality?

We don't really know what we mean by "accountability" and not surprisingly, we don't have any kind of measuring instrument that works. VAM is a ridiculous botch, and we don't really have anything else! Test scores. That's it-- the desired outcome of the great American institution of education is supposed to be a good score on a bad test.

So, Next?

Petrilli hears that Phauxlanthropists are looking for their next big investment opportunity, and his thought is that they should turn from "policy to practice." It's not enough to have Gates and Walton and Broad telling me what the underlying policies of my work should be-- they should now hunker down and tell me exactly how to do that work.

Mind you, Petrilli thinks they should keep their eyes on the stool because those legs are " under relentless attack from traditional education groups and libertarians alike" (so welcome, libertarians, to the resistance, I guess) and again, I can't say this enough-- those things are under attack because they are largely junk, and while a decade ago they were speculative junk, they are now tested-and-failed junk.

Now that we’ve got a set of stable, rigorous standards; challenging, honest assessments; and fair, transparent school ratings, the action is in helping schools help kids make progress. Funders are wise, then, to focus on new initiatives around curriculum development and adoption, student assignments and grading, next-generation professional development, and efforts to integrate technology and personalized learning into the classroom.

No, Mike. Just, no-- we don't now have any of those things. And no, I do not need some amateur hour philanthropist writing my curriculum for me or telling me what assignments to give or how to grade them. What in the name of God's green earth makes you think that Bill Gates or Eli Broad or any other deep-pocketed money-tosser knows anything at all about how to do these things?

But Petrilli is sure that teachers are handing out high grades "willy-nilly" and principals are just shuttling students through and Kids These Days are graduating all stupid and stuff. So as we fix education, we must be sure not to involve any actual professional educators, because they are screwing everything up (wow, it's like it's 2012 all over again).

Petrilli does identify computer-centered Personalized Learning as something fraught with all sorts of problems.

So what's the solution to all of this chicken littling?

And the only answer that stands up to scrutiny, I fear, is standards that are actually enforced. We need external assessments of whether students have demonstrated their competence and are genuinely ready for their next step. That inevitably means more testing—and real consequences linked to student performance.

But here's the thing-- we do not know which standards must be met in order for a student to proceed to her next step. We don't. And "real consequences" for failing the test can only mean one thing-- held back a grade and/or denied a diploma. Do we have any proof that such things help? Or is this just one more manifestation of that old Grumpy Old Fart impulse-- "Dammit-- these kids are going to do as I say, or else." Because any real teacher can tell you what a mistake it is to go down that road.

Notice, too, where we need more responsibility to land-- not on efforts to minimize the impact of poverty and racism, but on kids who need to suck it up. As with classic reformspiel, there is no acknowledgement that factors outside school matter. We just need to rustle up some standards and consequences and those kids won't be distracted by their poverty or hunger or the fact that their school is collapsing because the Powers That Be don't want to waste a bunch of money fixing up a school for Those Peoples' Children. Nope-- we just have to push the kids harder.

And what retro party would be complete without this classic:

That’s the sort of policy that other advanced countries take for granted, and that help to explain their superior student performance

Yes, once again we are reminded how a nation's students scores correlate directly to that nation's international success. That's why Estonia is a world leader-- because test scores.

I realize you can't raise money by announcing that a crisis is over, but this is just old rewarmed hash, a pile of "We need bicycles because a vest has no sleeves" and "If I keep saying something is true, that makes it true." Petrilli's stool is barely a frisbee, and it's long past time to toss that discus into the bay so we can go looking for a different stool.

Back the Hell Up

And there it was, the question cutting through the various nuanced and complicated discussions of the various threads of ed policy, privatization, and the Newest Big Thing for making a buck in education changing the face of education.

What do you want?

If you don't like X or Y or Z, what is it you want?

Here it is. My short, simple answer for what I want to see in a perfect world.

I want bureaucrats and politicians and business people and profiteers and other interested amateurs to just back the hell up and let the professionals work.

When the call goes out for an expert in education, I want the call to go a real live experienced classroom teacher. This morning Jose Luis Vilson has a great piece about the need for teachers to view-- and treat-- ourselves as experts. I want that.

There's more I'd like. I'd like the US to really commit to great education for every student, instead of quietly being okay if Those Kids don't get it because that would be expensive. We're unwilling to admit that we're okay with lousy schools for Some People's Children as long as it's not too expensive, and so instead of making a spare-no-expense commitment to education for every child, we get politicians and bureaucrats and profiteers trying to figure out a way to support public education on the cheap and at a profit, while wrapping it in a bunch of rhetorical bullshit so that it can pretend to be more than it is (personalized-ish learning, common core, even charters, et al). We are having way too many conversations in education where one's side position is, "I don't really have any expertise in this field, but I believe X would be a great way to look like we're doing better without too much money or effort or allowing teachers too much autonomy, plus somebody could make money selling this." This is all bullshit. I'd like a real conversation about how to really get great education, really, to every single child. Because the conversations we're having are too often (not always, thank God) fundamentally dishonest, and dishonesty is just tiring.

Just give us the tools we need. Hell, treat us like the military and give us tools we only sort of think we might maybe need. Let us get the training we need (and let us decide what that is).

And then back the hell up and let us work.

Accountability? Hell, yeah. Come sit in my classroom. Come ask me what I'm doing and why. Ask my students about the class. If you don't like what you see or hear, come talk to me about it. But don't try to micromanage me and give me a million items to tick off on a list and write my lessons and curriculum for me because you're sure that if you could just remote control me, I'd do a better job.

Back the hell up and let me do my job.

Let me study up and become an expert in my subject area, and let me practice up to become an expert in the actual work of teaching. Let me figure out how best to meet each student where she is and help her move further on the road to her own best self. And yes-- trust me to exercise my professional judgment.

Yes, I know I'm fantasizing here, that there are a plethora of obstacles to implementing my vision and stakeholders to read in and just general reality. But you asked what I want, and bottom line, this is what I want--

Back the hell up and let me work.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The "Real" Reformsters

The Center for Education Reform is a pro-privatization group that has, at least, the virtue of not pretending that it has any interest in building bridges or honoring any single part of public education. Where other reformsters may be thoughtful or interested in dialogue or evolving over time or staking out a rhetorical middle ground, CER is the Yosemite Sam of the reformster universe, leaping in with guns blazing and mouth flapping. Give them this much-- you don't have to wonder what they're really

Take this classic piece from 2014-- "How To Spot a Real Education Reformer"-- in which some unnamed CER functionary combines a codification of privatizer creed with a straw man assault on the rest of us. It's an instructive piece because it does list the hard-core reformster talking points.

These days, everyone is “for” education reform. But when everyone claims to favor “reform,” how can you tell the real reformers (“the doers” who are focused on real results for students) from the rest (“the talkers” who are more concerned about maintaining the status quo)? 

Got that? Nobody actually opposes any reformster ideas-- those folks with reasoned arguments against this stuff just don't exist. But Nameless Functionary will now walk us through the tenets of reformsterdon, topic by topic.

Education in General

Real reformsters don't admit poverty as any sort of excuse. RR believe that the only accountability is accountability based on test scores. Parents should have control of who gets the money attached to their child. And innovation should happen because the US education sky is falling.

 Big fakes talk accountability without explaining it, "banter on" about how poverty actually affects students, and try to claim pre-school as a growth for old, faily public ed instead of letting privatizers stake out that market unchallenged.

You'll note that the tune for the accountability polka has changed a bit since 2014-- choice fans are less attached to the idea of test-based accountability now that it hasn't worked out so well for choicey programs. In fact, CER just cranked out a whole book on the theme of "Maybe we shouldn't get so picky about accountability and test scores." Weaponizing test results was only attractive when the weapons didn't bite reformsters in the butt.

Teachers Unions

Real reformsters know that unions suck and stand in the path of every good and true reformy idea. Contracts and job security somehow make people not want to be teachers. RR understand that the public school system is just a scam for the unions to suck up tax dollars for their political purposes

Faux reformers-- well, I'm just going to cut and paste this, because if I paraphrase the hatred here you'll think I'm just exaggerating for effect:
  • Issues gobs of praise for the teaching profession, for teachers in general, and begins to make excuses that the job is really much harder than most realize and never fully addresses what stands in their way.
  • Discusses, proposes, or advocates having an honest conversation with the union leadership, who (s)he sincerely believes wants what’s best for children.
These fake reformsters might even brag about having developed a policy by collaborating with teachers. Such people are traitors to the reformy agenda and must be purged. Teachers suck and have no interest in educating children, nor do they care about children or communities or anything.

School Choice

Real reformsters support parent choice, and the focus on creating an "environment" where lots of education flavored businesses can thrive. Because really, it's all about using education tax dollars to provide private businesses with entrepreneurial opportunities.

Fake reformsters bring up "misleading claims" that vouchers don't actually work. Oh, Jeanne Allen of 2014-- if only you could have known then how great 2017 would be for people who want to deny research and science and facts.

FR also make comments about how choiice schools cream and don't have to take all students as public schools do. Nameless Functionary doesn't even try to offer a theory of how those folks are wrong, though NF does allude to the old market-competition-improvemenyt baloney.

Charter Schools

Real reformsters want to see charters authorized by independent groups (aka unelected folks who don't have to answer to the taxpayers whose money they spend on charters). RR also-- and this is kind of astonishing-- believe there is no magic formula for judging what a “good” charter school looks like during the application phase. So those independent authorizers should exercise no oversight at all. Anyone who wants to start a charter should get the tax dollars to do it.

FR make excuses about why their market might not be good for charters. They speak against for-profit charters which, Functionary tells us, do not actually exist! Oh, and watch out for those who "support" charters by advocating to lift caps. There should be no caps. Charters should get all of everything they want, always.

Performance Pay

Real reformsters understand that we "honor" teachers by making them compete for piddling pay, because nobody really wants consistent, reliable pay.

The fakers only want some of teacher pay to be based on performance, or to let local district define excellence in various different ways. This is bad, apparently-- just pay teachers based on students scores.

Federal Education Policy

Oh, 2014. What fun times those were. Real reformsters wanted to tweak NCLB, but believed that the feds should only gather data and conduct nonpartisan research to support policymaking. Fake reformsters thought RTTT actually accomplished something, and thought the waivers were swell.

Of course, now that we have Trump-DeVos in DC, let's just forget about that part where the USED only does research and collects data. Let's go ahead and grab the reins and just slam vouchers into place from coast to coast, with federal money. Turns out that powerful activist federal departments are just fine when they favor your policies.

Digital Learning

Which always makes me think of counting on my fingers, but never mind that. Real reformsters love online learning because-- and again, I'll cut and paste-- reformsters recognize

the role businesses, which have transformed the nation’s infrastructure, can play in the creation and delivery of online learning.

The fakers think online learning should be developed and managed by school districts (who are they to hog all that money). Also, beware of people who think you've innovated if you just stick a computer in each kids' hands. Okay, they're right on that one.

Curriculum and Standards

Another ghost from 2014. Real reformsters know that standards aren't enough by themselves, and that the Common Core must be backed up with other stuff. Beware people who hate the Core or who think it's anti-American. And especially beware people who say "doozies" like this one that could be "uttered by phony" reformsters.

“We believe learning should be child-centered.”

Where have we heard that? Oh yeah-- it's a central pillar of DeVosian education philosophy. She says it a lot, even more often than she has nodded to her many supporters who believe that Common Core is un-American and must be scrapped. So I'm betting that CER has shifted its policy position on this particular point.

Jeanne Allen (CER's head honcho, face and voice) has lobbied hard for DeVos, and why not. DeVos shares her hatred of union, her disrespect for teachers, and her desire to get those sweet, sweet tax public tax dollars into private corporate pockets. If she has to sacrifice one or two of her previously-held sort-of beliefs to get a seat at that banquet table, well, never let it be said that CER is above realpolitik.

In the meantime, bookmark this so that the next time you're wishing that a reformster would just come right out and say what she's after, you can read a piece from one who did, untroubled by nuance, reflection, or scruples. This is not the whole reformster movement, and CER is not the arbiter of what "real" reformers believe, but it is the reformster movement's most bald, bare, avaricious, backwood-looking corner, and while other reformers have moved on to more nuanced, reflective stances, it's important to remember-- and keep an eye on-- the folks who haven't.

Did SAT Unmask Grade Inflation?

The story was carried by USA Today and rapidly picked up by much of the Kids These Days press-- the good people at the College Board have discovered rampant grade inflation as illuminated by the SAT, as witnessed by variations on this lede:

Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.

Like many education stories, this puts some thins together that have nothing to do with each other. Let's pull apart the pieces, shall we?

SAT Score Dip

The span discussed is 1998 to 2016. During that span, the average SAT score (on the 1600 scale and without the worthless writing portion) dropped from 1,026 down to 1,002. So, just a few questions we need to answer to know how exciting this is.

First, is a 24 point dip significant? That's hard to track down. This source from the College Board suggest it would mean about 3 percentile points. But folks at Fairtest (who don't work for the College Board) peg the margin of error at 60-- so the "drop" would fall well within the margin of error.

Second, are the populations who took the test comparable? That's a no. Since 1998 the folks pushed to take the test have grown, especially in states like Illinois where every student must now take the test. So over the span we've added way more students who would not have taken the test in 1998, which would tend to lower the average.

Third, did both populations take the same test? Again, no. The College Board under new boss, Common Core creator David Coleman, has worked hard to revamp its signature product over the past decade, so we are comparing scores on two entirely different tests.

Conclusion? This reported "fall" of SAT scores is a big fat nothing burger with a side of self-serving PR sauce.

Reminder about The College Board

Despite its high-sounding name, the College Board is a business, and one of the products it sells is the SAT test. Sales of that test depend on students buying the chance to take it and college buying into the notion they need it to help make a decision.

With that in mind, note this quote from Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, the lead researcher on this little project:

He said one of the goals of the research is to "make sure that college admissions professionals are equipped to make the best decisions possible.”

Hurwitz also calls the grade inflation piece of the findings "really stunning." We'll get there in a moment, but here's what you need to remember. The number one rival of the SAT is not the ACT-- it's student GPAs. Studies show that high school GPAs are a far better predictor of college success than SAT scores, so who even needs SAT scores at all?

It is absolutely in the College Board's financial interest to try to erode trust in high school GPAs, just a surely as it makes sense for Ford to suggest that Chevy's aren't reliable. Hurwitz is not an impartial observer without a stake in the outcome of this research. This is the tobacco institute doing research on healthy lifetsyles (You know, jogging can be very harmful for you).

Grade Inflation

Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.

In 1998, it was 38.9%. By last year, it had grown to 47%.

That's USA Today again, and boy would I like to see the specific research behind both of those numbers, because I sure don't personally know any school where half the graduating class has an A average. So I have some huge questions about where those numbers come from.

Am I going to swear up and down that grade inflation doesn't happen? No, I'm not. But it's hard to believe there could be that much (I am sure someone will correct me in the comments). But do parents push for better grades? Do students put themselves in lower-than-challenging levels (particularly in senior year)? Do some special ed supervisors declare that students with special needs must get a passing grade? Yes (but not usually an A!)

It also occurs to me that in the age of differentiation, we make much more effort to match the course requirements to the student's ability, which might lead to better grades all around. 

But I'm not going to defend grade inflation-- it's not a good thing where it happens. I'm just highly doubtful that it happens this much. And when it's being reported by someone who has a stake in discrediting grades (see above), I'm extra doubtful. I guess I'll have to wait for the book.

And as the story rips around the conservative media world, that's just how it's playing. Participation trophies for all the little snowflakes-- that's why we need leadership that will kick ass and take names and give really low grades (just not to my kid). It's the damn teachers union.

So I wish USA Today had reported this story a little more thoughtfully. Reporter Greg Toppo does report that Hurwitz is with the College Board, but doesn't really examine what that means in this research. That's a disappointment. Just remember to fill in those blanks for all the people who are about to confront you with this story and say, "So, what are all you lazy cheaters up to, anyway?"

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

FL: Third Grade Readers Lose

And another sad chapter in the Floridian assault on education comes to a sad close.

We've been following this story for a while. Florida has a third grade reading test requirement-- Florida's third graders must show they can score high enough on the state Big Standardized Test, no matter what else they've done. Florida's "Just Read, Florida" (because the way to get students to read is to just insist they do it) is like many versions of this bad idea, and last May, a handful of families put it to the test (with the stubborn assistance of their county school systems-- not all Florida counties chose to be part of this exercise in idiocy).

Some children opted out of the Big Standardized Test, so their school district declared that despite the fact that some of those children had exemplary report cards, they would be denied advancement to fourth grade. By the end of the summer, the whole sorry mess as in court. That case was gobsmacking in its wrongheadedness, including the moment in which the state argued that teacher-issued grades were meaningless.

But by the end of the summer, sense and decency had prevailed and the state's rule was not only set aside, but subject to some scolding. The parent goals were commendable:

The goal is to have the statute, which allows third grade retention, found unconstitutional and unenforceable. The implications of a positive outcome from this case are significant and far-reaching.

It didn't matter. In September some of the school districts chose to ignore the court ruling, and took it all to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals ruled in favor of stupid, in fact opening the door to some novel legal; actions by declaring

The purpose of the state test is to “assess whether the student has a reading deficiency and needs additional reading instruction before [and after] being promoted to fourth grade".

The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.

So, I guess, eight year olds in Florida can be arrested for not trying hard enough on the BS Test. Also, good to know that the court of appeals has such expertise in reading education that they know the difference between a laudable policy and a stupid one.

The group of parents fighting this case decided to take their last shot by appealing to the state supreme court. That attempt is now done, and the results are not good. The state supreme court has chosen not to hear the case. The ruling seems to be based on the notion that the suit was filed in the wrong court. So that sucks.

What sucks more is that the final outcome maintains Florida's power to flunk any third grader who refuses to take the test, regardless of any other academic indicators. In fact, the whole mess of a ruling would seem to suggest that Florida intends to ignore the part of ESSA that explicitly recognizes parental rights to opt out.

The parents stuck their necks out for this-- the process of appealing has cost about $80K in legal fees and their gofundme is short of halfway there. If you'd like to thank them for making the effort, you can still go chip in to cover some of these costs. There's not a lot to take comfort from here-- the state of Florida grows bad education policy like it grows oranges, and this one has survived the legal challenge. The best thing we can say about the whole business is that the state had to explicitly declare that it doesn't believe in the grades on report cards and that it values test-taking compliance above all else AND that it fully intends to ignore the opt-out portion of ESSA. So the face of education policy continues to be ugly, but at least they were required to show it without any mask or make-up.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What Is Test Prep?

Yesterday I fell into a discussion of test prep on Twitter where a participant tossed forward the notion that test prep actually decreases test results. Others asserted that test prep doesn't really help. I'm pretty sure that both of those assertions are dead wrong, but I also suspect part of the problem is that "test prep" is an Extremely Fuzzy Term that means a variety of things.

The research itself is not exactly stunning. A study that turns up from time to time is a study from Chicago from 2008 that looks at test prep and ACT results (in Illinois, everyone takes the ACT, so congrats to whatever salesperson/lobbyist from ACT's parent company that landed that contract-- ka-ching! We'll skip over all the reasons that's a bad idea for now). A quick look at the summary shows that this study didn't exactly prove that test prep is a bust:

CPS students are highly motivated to do well on the ACT, and they are spending extraordinary amounts of time preparing for it. However, the predominant ways in which students are preparing for the ACT are unlikely to help them do well on the test or to be ready for college-level work. Students are training for the ACT in a last-minute sprint focused on test practice, when the ACT requires years of hard work developing college-level skills.

That's a nice piece of sleight of hand there. Test prep wasn't failing-- just one particular type was. There are, of course, many other test prep alternatives, but the study ignores those, shrugs, and says, "I guess our only alternative is to believe the ACT PR about how the test measures 'years of hard work' on college level skills."

Meanwhile, the College Board has been touting how their special brand of test prep totally works on the SAT. I'm going to summarize the test prep research by saying that there isn't much, what exists is kind of sketchy, and clear patterns fail to emerge. So let me get back to my main question.

First of all-- which test? For our purposes, when we talk about test prep, we're talking about the Big Standardized Test that the Common Core reform wave inflicted on every state. On the subject of test prep, those are the tests that matter most because that brand of test-centered high-stakes data-generation is the thing that has twisted our schools into test prep factories.

Lots of folks have tried to define test prep very narrowly as simply drilling or rote-working the specific information that is going to be on the test. That definition serves members of the testing cult because by that definition, not much test prep goes on. But I suspect virtually no actual classroom teachers would define test prep that way.

How would I define it?

Test prep is anything that is given time in my classroom for the sole purpose of having a positive impact on test scores.

Right up front, I'll note there is some grey area. There are some test prep things that I can turn into useful learning experiences, and there are some actual education things that may have a positive impact on test scores.

But if I'm only doing it because it will help with test scores, I say it's test prep, and I say to hell with it.

This covers a broad range of activities. It is necessary, particularly in the younger grades, to teach them how to deal with a multiple choice test, doubly necessary if the test is going to be taken on computer.

But once we've introduced that, we never let it go. Fifteen years ago, the amount of time I would have spent in my English class on activities in which students read a short passage and then answered a few multiple choice questions-- that time would have been pretty close to zero. Short excerpts and context-free passages are a crappy way to build reading skills or interest in reading, and multiple choice questions are just about the worst way to assess anything, ever. But now, like English departments across the country,  we have bought stacks of workbooks chock full of short passages coupled with sets of multiple choice questions. We don't buy them because we think they represent a great pedagogical approach; we buy them because they are good practice for the sort of thing the students will deal with on the BS Test. They are test prep, pure and simple, and if I were deciding strictly on educational merit, I wouldn't include them in my class at all. Not only are they a lousy way to teach reading, but they reinforce the mistaken notion that for every piece of reading, there's only one correct way to read it and that the whole purpose of reading is to be able to answer questions that somebody else asks you with the answers that somebody else wants.

Writing is even easier to do test prep for, and my department is the proof. We teach students some quick and simple writing strategies:
   1) Rewrite the prompt as your first sentence.
   2) Write neatly.
   3) Fill up as much paper as you can. Do not worry about redundancy or wandering.
   4) Use big words. It doesn't matter if you use them correctly (I always teach my students "plethora")
   5) Indent paragraphs clearly. If that's a challenge, skip a line between paragraphs.

With those simple techniques, we were able to ride consistent mid-ninety-percent of our students writing proficiently.

In addition, because the state wants the BS Test to drive curriculum, they make sure to let us know about the anchor standards (the standards that will actually be on the test) so we can be sure to include them, which to be effective, has to be done by using the state's understanding of the standards. Our professional judgment is not only irrelevant, but potentially gets in the way. This can cover everything from broader standards to specific terms likely to appear.

And, of course, we need to familiarize the students with the state's style of questioning. For instance, PA likes to test context clue use by giving students a familiarish word used an uncommon meaning for the word to make sure that the students decipher the word using only the sentence context and not actually knowledge already in their brains.

None of this is rote memorization of details for the test. All of it is test prep, and all of it is effective up to a point. Particularly students who are neither good nor enthusiastic test-takers, this can make the difference between terrible and mediocre results. And every year it leaves an ugly bad taste in my mouth, and every year all of us struggle with maintaining a balance between that educational malpractice and doing the teaching jobs that we signed up for when we started our careers.

Test prep does, in a sense, carry beyond the classroom. The article that kicked off yesterday's conversation was a piece by Matt Barnum about the shuffling of weaker teachers to younger grades. That is absolutely a thing-- I suspect every single teacher in the country can tell a story about administration moving teachers to where they won't "hurt us on the test results." Teachers who can do good test prep are moved to the testing windows; those who can't are moved out of the BS Test Blast Zone. There are far better ways to assign staff, but many administrations, eyes on their test scores, are afraid not to make test scores Job One.

In fact, there are districts where the structure of the schools is changed in response to testing. Eighth graders do notoriously badly on BS Tests, so it's smart to put sixth graders in your middle school with the eighth graders to mitigate the testing hit.

And there is the test prep that goes beyond instruction, because teachers understand the biggest obstacle to student performance on the BS Test-- the students have to care enough to bother to try. In a state like PA, where my students take a test that will effect my rating and my school's rating, but which has absolutely no stakes for them, that's an issue. The BS Tests are long and boring and, in some cases, hard. Youtube is filled with peppy videos and songs and cheers from the pep rallies and other endless attempts to make students actually care enough to try. This kind of test prep is not so much toxic to actual instruction as it attacks the foundation of trust in the school itself. Elementary teachers may feel it's helping, but by high school the students have figured out that it was all, as one student told me, "a big line of bullshit. You just want us to make you look good."

The most authentic assessment is the assessment that asks students to do what they've practiced doing. The reverse is also true-- the most effective preparation for an assessment task is to repeatedly do versions of that exact task. And so all across the country, students slog through various versions of practice tests. If you want students to get good at writing essays, you have them write essays. If you want them to get good at reading short stories, you read short stories. And if you want them to get good at taking bad multiple choice standardized tests, you take a steady diet of bad multiple choice standardized tests.

That's test prep, and it's effective. It won't make every student score above average for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the tests are meant to create a bell curve and not everybody can be above average.

But if you think the solution to getting ready for the BS Tests is to just teach students really, really well and the scores will just appear, like magic, then I would like to sell you a bridge in Florida that crosss the candy cane swamp to end in a land of unicorns that poop rainbows.

Building a Better Charter Authorizer

There has been a bit of a kerfluffle going on in reformsterland over charter accountability. Kicked off by the Center for Education Reform's book about how there should be less accountability, followed by Chester Finn  (Fordham Emeritus) calling their ideas names. That conversation eventually led to this piece by Rick Hess, considering the different levels of regulation by charter authorizers, which itself leads to this question:

I think the more relevant question for charter authorizing is how authorizers can deliver meaningful oversight without descending into kludgeocracy.

Okay-- so what would a better charter authorizer look like. Acknowledging that I am, in fact, a modern charter skeptic at best, let me go ahead and see if I can describe what we'd need in order to build a better charter authorizer.

The Beer Goggles Problem

Pat's had too much to drink and it's last call, so Pat takes home a person who, in  the cold morning light, turns out to be ugly and unpleasant. The problem is not the alcohol or the late hour. The problem is not even that the pickup was ugly and unpleasant. The real problem is that Pat felt it necessary to take someone whom, no matter what.

The charter industry has a beer goggles problem. Particularly in states like Florida and Ohio, folks are so committed to getting lots and lots of charters up and running, they aren't very careful about what gets authorized. "We're going to get something authorized," they declare, with the determination of someone who's damned if they'll go home alone tonight.

So step one in charter authorization? Place the burden of proof on the charter proposer. Assume that the charter is unnecessary until proven otherwise. This may not seem helpful to charter fans, but it actually helps focus the authorization process on the real reasons the charter should exist instead of a bunch of bogus paper games to justify a choice you've already made.

Geographic proximity

The authorizer should be in the same community as the charter being authorized. I would have thought this obvious, but consider Bay Mills Community College, located in the uppermost wilderness of Michigan, and yet authorizing charters all the way down in Detroit, hundreds of miles away. There's no conceivable way that an authorizer far, far away can possibly exercise meaningful oversight of the charters they authorize.

Also, authorizers far, far away lack the stakes of taxpayers in the community who will bear the burden of paying for the charter. That's a basic accountability fail.

Democratically responsive

Charter authorizers are responsible for deciding which organizations will get a cut of public tax dollars, therefor they need to be set up to be responsive to the taxpayers. I'm partial to the idea of an elected board, but I'm open to other forms. I know that many charter fans don't care for this, but I'd argue that having actual elected individuals to exercise judgment would end the need for hundreds of pages of paperwork and regulations.

No financial stakes

Authorizers must have absolutely no stake in the charters under consideration. Anything else is an obvious and (even in Trumpian times) an unacceptable invitation to self-serving conflict of interest, fraud and misuse of public funds. Charter entrepreneurs may not be charter authorizers. Charter authorizers may collect no fees or regular payments from the charters they approve.

Require educational and financial competence

New York authorized a charter for a 22-year-old education amateur with no background in any of the skills required to run a school. Florida gave a charter to a former male model with no educational o financial qualifications.  Whatever screening process authorizers use, they have got to take off their charter beer goggles and consider whether there's the slightest chance that the charter entrepreneur has a clue about what they're doing.

The only industry that comes close to such slackness restaurantery, where people routinely decide they can run a restaurant because they ate at one once. Massage therapists have to b certified. People who want to be doctors cannot just call the state and say, "Hey, could you clear me to go ahead and perform surgery? I'm really really interested in and concerned about surgery, so maybe I should be cleared to open a hospital."

Any proposal to run a charter school must clear a requirement to posses the business and educational expertise required.

Eyeballs beat paperwork

Here's a point on which reformsters and I agree-- the belief that paperwork magically represents and controls reality is more naïve than believing in Santa. The ability to create a really good stack of paperwork doesn't show anything except the ability to fill out paperwork. Authorizers must visit and inspect the charters they authorize on a regular basis. Personally.

Accountability via paperwork is the weakest kind of accountability of all, subject to inaccuracy, mistakes, confusion, and just plain lies. And it almost always measures the wrong thing.

Academic sufficiency

I'm not expecting authorizers to hold charters to some super-duper level of academic awesomeness. But authorizers should be making sure that students are taking core courses and not majoring in basket weaving.

Require representative school population

It's not that hard to figure out or track-- charter population must mirror the demographic breakdown of the community being served. No segregation academies. No charters that somehow avoid any students with special needs. If y9ou want to set up a special focus charter that's fine-- but if your Super Science Academy is 80% white males in a community with 50% black students, there's a problem. It's up the authorizer to enforce this requirement.


Perhaps implied by the rest, but I want to be clear-- authorizers should be making sure that the charter's operation and finances are an open book, easily visible to the taxpayers who foot the bill.

Hands on the Plug

Authorizers must have the power to pull the plug, and to do it right now. Many states have stacked the deck so that it's harder to close a charter than to fire a big city teacher. If authorizers can't shut down a badly failing charter school, what's the point?

Cyber charters

Nobody should be authorizing any more of these. While cybers have some value for a narrow slice of the student population, they have largely failed and we should not be talking about opening more-- we should be closing down the ones we have.

Odds and Ends

There are other issues that are probably better addressed as matters of state regulation. For instance, every classroom should be staffed with an actual trained professional teacher. But that kind of "any warm body will do" foolishness needs to be stopped in state legislatures, not at the authorizer level.

Real Accountability Is the Solution

The overall solution to charter's mountain of paperwork is more direct and regular oversight by authorizers. Despite lots of talk about the charter deal being a trade of autonomy for accountability, in practice charter operators have worked hard to have as little accountability as they can get away with, which has led to settling for the illusion of accountability, and nothing creates the illusion of accountability like miles and miles of forms and paperwork and reports and official bureaucratic baloney.

Here's what I've told my students many times: What I would like to do is assign this reading and then have some great discussions about it in class, and that will not only fun and interesting, but it will give me a good idea of how well you read. But if I toss out questions and you just stare at me, it will be a whole bunch of pop quizzes and in-class essays and other assignments I have to come up with to tell what you did or didn't do. We can do this the easy way (which is also the better way), or we can do it the hard way.

This is the same issue. The best way for charters to cut out the mountains of faux accountability paperwork is to open themselves up to authentic accountability measures (no, carefully crafted PR initiatives don't count). And yes-- I recognize there are implications in what I'm saying for public schools as well. Charters can be liberated from paperwork mountain if they are willing to come live out in the open. If they really want to escape the grip of odious authorizers, they can do it by embracing actual accountability.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

ICYMI: Half a Summer Gone

So what have we found to read this week?

David Brooks and the Language of Privilege

Robert Pondiscio on how language reinforces privilege. Lots to think about here.

Massachusetts Parents United-- New Wine in Old Bottles

One thing about astro-turf, it never actually dies. And no fields grow astro-turf as lush and green as the lawns of Massachusetts. Here's the newest batch.

Betsy DeVos, Queen of Obfuscation, Talks Nonsense

Jennifer Berkshire is over at AlterNet, with a good clear look at Betsy DeVos's latest non-interview.

Field Guide To Jobs That Don't Exist Yet

That annoying stat about how 65% of the jobs our students will have do not exist yet-- it turns out to be pretty much made up. Here is a beautifully researched explanation of where that little slice of baloney came from.

Four Things Betsy DeVos Doesn't Want You To Know About EDucation Tax Credits

Dora Taylor with some important information about how those ETC really, truly work.

An Educational Scam from the 1980s Returns

We've connected the dots between personalized learning and its many antecedents, but Steven Singer reminds of it connection to that old classic, the correspondence course.

The Real Reason Your Child Is Being Psychologically Profiled at School

Emily Talmage points out one more type of data mining that may be going on at your school.

You Don't Know What You've Got

Jan Ressenger takes a look at the march of austerity and privatization.

School Reform's Hot Air Balloon

Journalist John Merrow takes a look at the unending PR push to keep DC schools looking like a success.

Digital Classrooms as Data Factories

Wrench in the Gears offers part of a series looking at the connection between social impact investing, future ready classrooms, and good old data mining.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Why Is Kiddie PISA a Thing

Every so often the OECD throws a big fat standardized test (the PISA) at fifteen-year-olds from a bunch of nations that have different cultures and speak different languages and then use the results to stack rank those nations, leading to a paroxysm of pearl clutching and teeth gnashing over the results. And it's always good for some trauma because as long as the test has existed, the United States has ranked, to be generous, in the mediocre middle.

What could possibly make the whole PISA business even better?

How about giving a computer-based PISA to five year olds!

That'll be quite enough of that, you little slacker.

Over in the UK they're about to attempt a 300-student pilot of this extraordinarily hare-brained idea. And the US is supposedly also in on this, though Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium (among others) have said they will not be participating. Other reports are that the OECD is looking for three to six countries to play along.

The pilot will involve around 300 children, and uses games and stories on tablet computers to map pupils’ early capabilities – which will then be linked to educational performance at 15 through the international PISA tests given to teenagers across the globe every four years.

Is there some good reason to do this? Officials have tried to make a case for it.

Researchers say the study will give countries an in-depth insight into children’s learning at a critical age enabling them to share best practice.

The Early Learning and Child Well-being Study will be run on 3,000 students internationally in something like 200 settings per country. And when it's all done, OECD will have collected some data on how well some five year olds can perform some activities on tablets (or at least how well they did on that particular day given how they were feeling at that particular moment, though presumably OECD isn't going to be exact about the five year old thing, because you know it's a long way from five years to, say, five years nine months).

And if this doesn't seem creepy and ill-advised yet, the tablet-based standardized test will also attempt to measure "social behavior, empathy, memory and self-regulation." I am dying to know how a computer tablet-based activity can measure social behavior. The child shows interest in social behavior by refusing to finish the test and going to play with her friends instead?

It all seems like a terrible idea-- do we really need to subject kindergartners to more rigorous stressy standardized test baloney? Or even any? Do we need one more way to drive home from Day One that school is all about testing? And when officials start making a case for it, things only sound worse:

Minister for Children and Families, Robert Goodwill said: “We already know that a child who attends any pre-school can increase their GCSE attainment by as much as seven grades, so now we want to sharpen our understanding of how it can have the most impact. This study will build on the evidence available, driving our work tackling low social mobility and helping to spread opportunities for all children.”

Wow. All that from having five year olds take some computerized assessments.

The tests are supposed to be more like games and only take a few hours, though of course teachers would want to devote a chunk of the year to familiarizing their littles with the nature of the game, interacting with a tablet, and practicing the kinds of behavior that the test will allegedly measure. Because wherever standardized tests go, test prep must follow. 

So, a questionable idea with a questionable effect on education in order to garner questionable benefits. I truly lousy idea all around. One Brit encapsuled the whole thing pretty well-- Jan Dubiel, the national director of Early Excellence, the main provider of the baseline assessments for young children

Dubiel warned that while the introduction of tablet-based testing of five-year olds “may appear attractive and innovative”, the IELC study would “fail to identify the rich variety of characteristics that indicate a child’s knowledge, skills and point of development”.

“Computers can’t replace the human interaction and understanding that an early years’ teacher develops of their pupils, with an average teacher having thousands of interactions with their children every day.

“Rather than using five-year-olds as guinea pigs, the government should continue to listen to the thousands of schools, headteachers and teachers that support a non-test based approach . . . that takes into account all the critical learning behaviours that a child requires to have the best start in life.”

If there's anything the littles of the world don't need, it's one more formal standardized computer-based assessment. With the limited coverage of this pilot (set for fall of 2017) it's unclear whether the US is absolutely committed to this foolish experiment. Let's hope not.

Rural Schools and Phauxlanthropy

Over at Philanthropy Roundtable, Andy Smarick has contributed a piece entitled "Don't Forget Rural Schools." which immediately attracted my attention because forgetting rural schools is something that pretty much everybody does, except for those of us who live and work in those areas. While I disagree with some of what Smarick has to say, he also raises some important points that folks on all sides of the education debates often overlook.

Given the source of this article, there is an emphasis on philanthropic giving , but let's set that aside for the moment.

The old high school in Venango, Nebraska
Smarick opens by pointing out that rural areas are feeling the pinch of poverty, in some cases more than urban areas, and yet they don't attract much special giving (I have an explanation for that last part, but it can wait). But he lays out some of the issues that we face in rural settings.

Rural poverty can be particularly crippling. Even poor kids in cities have access to great libraries, beautiful parks, lots of nearby examples of success. Rural poverty can be much more isolating.

This may be an overstatement on the urban side. Some cities do a pretty good job of keeping their poor citizens cut off from some of those great things. Chicago has managed to keep its poor people cut off from some of its richest resources. New York has those special bridges that Robert Moses designed to keep poor people away. In Los Angeles, nobody is particularly close to anything. But it is true that rural poverty is especially isolating. A relief worker explained to me years ago that in rural areas like mine, carelessness is a bigger deal than homelessness. We have lots of space, but it's mostly far away from things like jobs and doctors and groceries, and rural public transit ranges from Very Limited to Non-existent.  You might find a place to live, but you will depend on the kindness of others to get anywhere you need to get-- or even to set eyes on other humans.

Smarick offers some unsourced factoids-- rural kids are more prone to alcohol, meth and babies, to which I think maybe, probably, and I'd have to see the numbers-- but the conclusion he reaches is solid:

These factors can cause rural kids to internalize a sense of limited expectations, if not hopelessness.

Oh, yeah. Even though my school has sent graduates to big fancy Ivy League schools,  my students are quick to assume that great things do not come from here. Smarick also reports that rural schools have lower college attendance numbers, and while, again, I'd like to see the numbers to be sure, I can believe this. Students aspire to what they see in the adult world, and as the economy scales back and already thin economies hollow out, rural students don't see much in the way of professional options.

And then Smarick really rings the bell:

In many ways, rural schools are fundamentally a mystery to a large segment of K-12 experts. With their jobs downtown and their homes in the city or its suburbs, much of our managerial class has little interaction with rural America.

Lordy, yes.  From people who sit in big cities and promote policies that could only work in big cities to the folks who drop in to lecture us on how to our jobs even though they have no concept of what our jobs look like in this setting, it just never ends. Just because a mover an shaker knows how to operate in LA, we wouldn't assume he could transfer seamlessly to Chicago or St. Louis. We accept that every urban setting is unique, but seem to assume that all small town and rural settings are the same-- and the urban techniques can be easily transferred there ("Just do it, you know-- smaller"). This goes extra double for choice programs like charters and vouchers.

As Smarick's research discovered, there's a huge disconnect between what the "experts" think we need and what we think we need.

The “experts” believed rural schools struggled most with recruiting and retaining teachers and acquiring technology. But the practitioners identified too little funding for special-education mandates, too much compliance-related paperwork, and too many strings attached to school dollars. And so much for the idea that teachers are unattainable: rural teachers express higher rates of job satisfaction than teachers in other areas.

Yup. Recruiting is challenging but not impossible because for some folks, this way of life is appealing, and while nobody is getting rich in education here, cost of living is also not insane. But one of the banes of our existence is unfunded mandates-- based on policies designed for urban districts. So instead of having the flexibility to use funding as we see best, we have to do as we're told by guys who have never set foot in our community but who still feel free to dictate how we should do our work. And we have to hire extra personnel just to handle all the government paperwork.

Smarick also points out that experts assume we are limited and inefficient in our programming, when there's plenty of reason to assume the opposite. Yes, I could have told you that, and on some other occasion, I'll explain why it's true (we are accountability giants). And small population can equal small hiring pool. We have problems in the same areas as everyone else (math, ELL, special ed).

But Smarick identifies one of the critical questions we always wrestle with:

So school systems can be faced with a dispiriting choice: produce students with minimal skills to fill the local jobs available, or produce more highly skilled students who will be forced to leave their communities for good in order to find suitable careers.

We have limited resources in every sense, and we have to make the best use of them, which means we have to be clear on our goals, and that question--  how to help some students escape and help build the community by helping others stay-- that's a toughy.

While I absolutely value someone dragging these issues out where some "experts" can see them, I cannot stress this enough-- the "experts" would already have known all of this had they ever bothered to actually talk to those of us who work in small town and rural communities. They have consistently failed to do so-- and by "they" I don't just mean bureaucrats and policy wonks and political operatives and reformsters, but union leaders  and state-level elected officials.

Why are we so ignored? Certainly part of it is the urban-centric thinking of urban people, who often imagine that if everyone doesn't actually live in the city, at the very least, they all want to.

But it  also has to do with markets. Poor people + thin population = not very much money to be made. I don't mean to suggest that charter operators are rapacious bloodsuckers that must find enough victims to slake their prodigious bloodlust (though some do fit that description). But business people gotta business, and there are lots of businesses that don't operate in rural areas because there isn't enough market to support them (more every day). Charters have largely avoided rural areas for the same reason Tiffany and Lexus dealers do-- the market just isn't there. And it's a harder market to crack because our local public schools are part of our community and personal identity.

Rural areas have been hit by cyber-charters, and I do mean hit, because everywhere they land they do serious damage to the local public system (particularly here in PA). Vouchers require choices, but those are actually eroding as populations decrease and cyber-charters suck the blood from local budgets.

All of this matters when considering Smarick's call for philanthropic interest in rural areas.

First, the lack of major reform inroads in rural areas means that there's not a lot for a reform-minded deep-pocketed money-tosser to toss money toward. I mean, they could do crazy stuff like assume that local public schools know what they're doing and just, I don't know, offer to help fund that. But that would be crazy talk. Particularly for today's philanthropists.

I was surprised to see Betsy DeVos referenced in a recent Chalkbeat story as a "billionaire philanthropist" which is a curious title since DeVos herself has been famously clear that she expects a return on her money. But philanthropy is different these days, whether we're talking about venture philanthropy or the plain old phauxlanthropy of Gates and Walton, or the cool new version of Zuckerberg and Chan which really isn't a philanthropy at all-- in all cases we're talking about ways to use money to exercise power and influence without having to bother with things like elections. It's commerce, not philanthropy.

Smarick's examples of groups working the rural ed scene is not terribly encouraging. For instance, Teach for America now has a "Rural School Leadership Academy"? Lord help us all. This is one more attempt to create a parallel education system based on nothing but money and intentions to rewrite the system. No, thank you. Smarick also cites the Kahn Academy library of videos as an example of personalized learning, but I think the term "algorithmically-mediated lessons" better. And he also cites some high-concept charters, which would move students and money out of rural public schools. None of these "opportunities" exactly excites me as a small-town/rural education guy. There is a nice program for helping connect rural students to colleges, and that one seems pretty helpful.

Smarick's focus on philanthropy is, of course, appropriate for the article source. He and I disagree on some of the solutions offered here, but we do agree on some of the problems diagnosed. The easiest issue to solve is the communication one-- for people who want to know more about what's happening in small town and rural schools, just come visit, ask, talk to us. There's a hotel and a couple of nice bed and breakfasts in town, and I have a phone and internet connection. I and people like me are even capable of traveling off to the big city. Feel free to get ahold of any of us.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Librarians Take Reading Level Stand

One of the weird little sideshows of modern ed reform has been an unhealthy preoccupation with reading levels. What lots of folks heard Common Core say was that we had to lock students in to their lexile reading score level (whether the Core said exactly that or not is another debate, That in turn has triggered a resurgence in programs like Renaissance Learning's dreadful Accelerated Reader incentive program. Read more books! Answer more quizzes! Learn more points! And always-- always-- pick books based on the reading level and not based on, say, whether or not you find it interesting.

Yes, please

There's a lot to argue about when it comes to reading levels. These generally based on mechanics, in keeping with the whole philosophy of reading and writing as a set of context-free "skills"-- it assumes that how well you read something has nothing at all to do with the content of what you're reading. Lexile scores, the type of analysis favored by the Core fans, works basically from vocabulary and sentence length. That has the advantage of being analysis that a machine can do. It has the disadvantage of providing ridiculous results. Ernest Hemmingway's novel The Sun Also Rises is at about the same lexile score as the classic Curious George Gets a Medal-- third gtrade-ish. Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V may have PG-13 language and situations, but it also has a fourth grade-ish lexile score. And none of those works rank as high as Mr. Popper's Penguins.

So there's a great deal to dislike about the whole business of assessing reading levels, but the American Association of School Librarians (a subgroup of the American Library Association) has noted other undesirable trends related to leveling, and they have issued a statement about them.

Here's some bad news they note:

One of the realities some school librarians face in their jobs is pressure by administrators and classroom teachers to label and arrange library collections according to reading levels.

Yikes. As the AASL notes, this feeds into the practice of students scanning for slim books at the "correct" reading level so they can snatch up more of those reading program points. If you don't recognize how troubling that is, AASL would like to remind everyone what the point of the library is supposed to be:

School library collections are not merely extensions of classroom book collections or classroom teaching methods, but rather places where children can explore interests safely and without restrictions. A minor’s right to access resources freely and without restriction has long been and continues to be the position of the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians.

AASL also notes that spine-marking reading levels means that every child's reading level is on display to everyone else the moment she picks up a book. Arranging books this way also means that students are not learning how to locate materials in a "real" library out in the world, adding one more obstacle to their progress as college students and adults.

And AASL quietly (as librarians will) calls these sorts of leveled reading programs out for what they are-- not an attempt to build reading skills or open up the world for students, but actually to restrict their reading options. And that's not what America's librarians signed up for:

It is the responsibility of school librarians to promote free access for students and not to aid in restricting their library materials. School librarians should resist labeling and advocate for development of district policies regarding leveled reading programs that rely on library staff compliance with library book labeling and non-standard shelving requirements. These policies should address the concerns of privacy, student First Amendment Rights, behavior modification in both browsing and motivational reading attitudes, and related issues.

Nobody, least of all a librarian, should be saying, "Yes, Pat, I know you love dinosaurs, and this looks like a great book about dinosaurs, but it has a blue sticker and you're only allowed to get out red sticker books, so here, read this nice book about doilies."

Kudos to the librarians for remembering what their mission is supposed to be and not allowing themselves to be sidetracked by a bad idea.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

NY: Warm Bodies for Charters

Travel with me to a board meeting at Giant Imaginary Hospital.

Board Member #1: We are still unable to fill several openings in the surgical department. What shall we do?

Board Member #2: We'll just have to offer a more competitive package, with better pay and better perks. I mean, that's how the free market works, right?  

Board Member #3: I have a better idea. Let's just promote Sven.

Board Member #2: Sven Svenberger? From the kitchen at the GIH cafeteria?

Board Member #3: Sure. He uses knives. Surgeon use knives.

Board Member #2: But we're talking about surgery on actual humans. He's a cook, Jim. Not a doctor.

Board Member #3: Fine. We'll give him a week of training.

Many starts have been having versions of this conversation as they pass their own version of warm body legislation, legislation that puts pretty much any warm body in the classroom.

But New York is considering a particularly special warm body rule that's especially for charter schools. The State University of New York (SUNY) is one of the main authorizers of charters in New York, and they've proposed that their charter schools be allowed to hire unqualified warm bodies for their schools. These warm bodies might have just thirty hours of classroom experience and training. That's almost a week.

Why do this? Because charters are too damn cheap to pay teachers a decent wage or offer them attractive working conditions. Or as Times-Union coverage of the story puts it:

Charter school advocates say the proposal would help schools that are struggling to find quality teachers who are certified in New York.

Okay, I could go up to $10.95

Sigh. Why do we have to keep explaining to free market fans how the free market works. If I can't buy a Lexus for $1.95, that doesn't suggest either an automobile shortage or that I "struggling to find quality automobiles." It suggests that I am offering an inadequate "bid" for the goods and services that I want.

Is that impossible to accomplish? Well, Success Academy (one of SUNY's chains) reportedly employed 1,000 staffers in 2014, and their boss, Eva Moscowitz makes almost $5 million  a year, which means taking a cut of $1 million would yield a $1K without having to cut anything but Moscowitz's personal fortune. SA has about 2700 seats, yet Moscowitz makes about twice the salary of NYC school chancellor Carmen Farina, who is responsible for many, many more students. In other words, charters could up the ante if they really wanted to.

But as writers and former charter teachers like Rann Miller suggest, charter staff turnover is significantly higher for a reason. Charter operators actually prefer to burn and churn their teachers, keeping their personnel costs low and their actual personnel more compliant and agreeable.

In other words, this warm body rule is being pursued as a solution to problems that charters created for themselves. On purpose.

Beyond the fact that there's no good reason for this charter warm body rule, it's a bad idea.

As Daniel Katz points out, these warm bodies will arrive in classrooms with significantly less training than real New York teachers. This is doubly problematic because 1) it's hugely insulting to professional teachers who actually get actual professional training and 2) it sets these warm bodies up for failure.

But Jersey Jazzman points out even more troubling implications. This sort of training is not so much about helping people switch careers as it is giving charters carte blanch to do their own training in house. In fact, the proposal seems to suggest that these warm body certificates will only be good in SUNY charters, making these warm body jobs the very definition of dead-end employment. There will be no getting a warm body charter teacher certificate and then moving on to other schools. And since these warm bodies will not have widely marketable skills, they will have even less bargaining power with their bosses. And if everything we've heard so far doesn't make us worry about the quality of these warm bodies, let's ask the other question-- what kind of dope would sign up for this in the first place?

As is often the case, we are looking at the kind of 'reform" that rich families will never tolerate. Proponents may say, "Look, some of the most prestigious private schools use teachers who aren't properly certified." I'm going to reply, "Yes, and those people at the top of their field are recruited by schools that offer great packages to make the job attractive, so that they always have their pick of top people. That is different from paying bottom dollar for a lousy job in order to recruit disposable warm bodies."

But then, these places aren't looking for top talent, because many of these charters don't believe in great teaching so much as they believe in content delivery units who follow the script and work through the approved materials in the charter-approved manner. That's one more reason this will look like a good idea to these charter operators-- instead of trained professional teachers whose heads are filled with ideas about good pedagogy and a variety of instructional techniques, you get to work with people who don't know anything about teaching except what they've been taught. Tired of hiring teachers who have been filled with nonsense about the importance of student voices in the classroom? Just hire people who have never heard about that, and don't tell them about it. You can talk about folded hands and speak when spoken to and eye contact and subservient obedience and instead of having staff make doubting faces or actually questioning you, in this happy magic world of warm body meat widgets, they'll just smile and nod and accept that what you say must be the truth about education.

You can see why many people have pushed back on this, and if you want to push, too, the Network for Public Education has a letter you can send, saying that the least that all students in New York deserve is an actual trained professional teacher in their classroom. Warm body rules do not serve students, and New York would do well not to had down this road.