Thursday, August 31, 2017

Who's College Ready?

Gail Mellow (LaGuardia Community College) turned up in the New York Times this week to challenge the classic picture of a college student.

For many of us, "college student" conjures up images of a fresh-faced nineteen year old, enjoying the chance to live independently, study hard, and maybe indulge in the sowing of some untamed oats. The modern reformy "college and career ready" picture is similar-- 18-year-olds walk across the stage, grab their diplomas, and walk straight into a college dorm. But Mellow's gathered data create a different picture. Here are some stats:

40% of US college students attend a community college.

0.4% of US college students attend "one of the ivies."

Over half of all undergrads live at home, mostly to make things more affordable.

40% of college students work thirty or more hours per week.

25% work full time while also attending college full time.

25% of all undergrads are older than twenty-five.

25% of undergrads are single parents.

Between 2011 and 2015, 20% of two-year college students lived in food-insecure households.

Now, Mellow has a dog in this fight, and he works his way around to the notion that government should give more funds to community colleges (like, you know, his).  But the broad idea of his point remains--

We don't really know what a "typical" college student looks like.

And if we don't know what a college student looks like, then how can we know when somebody is ready to be one?

Does "college ready" include "on good terms with your parents so you'll have a place to live"? Doe it mean "not pregnant"? Is some version of a gap year so normal now that a college ready student is one with a gap year plan? And should we be making all future college students sit down and take a course about how to negotiate a loan? (The answer is "yes.")

There's definitely nothing here to suggest that what students need to be more college ready is a greater ability to take a Big Standardized Test, nor do any of these issues seem to line up with the Common Core [Insert Your New Name Here] Standards. It continues to be impossible to make students "college ready" when we still have no idea what that term actually means.

Back To School Bloviating

Flipping through twitter this morning, and lo and behold, my governor Tom Wolf has offered some advice for the start of school:

In case you can't see it, the advice is:

1) Get plenty of sleep.

2) Eat a good breakfast.

3) Be nice.

And he encourages Pennsylvania to have a good school year.

It's easy to just slide by this little slice of conventional, almost cliche advice, but this is where I am-- I have come to really appreciate a politician who sticks to what he knows. As a father and practicing human being, Wolf hits on three good pieces of advice that we have reason to believe he actually knows something about.

Compare this to some of the other back-to-school gubernatorial messages of the past. Like Pat McCrory of North Carolina spouting his support for teachers and his pledge to give them a raise (both, as it turns out, rather counter-factual).

Here's Gov. Steve Bullock exhorting students to "make Montana proud," and telling them to pay attention and do their homework because "it pays off." So remember kids-- there's no intrinsic rewards to education and it's not about you, anyway. Louisiana teachers got a cheery greeting from First Lady Donna Edwards that said she knows they're working hard and spending their own money, and thank you, and we've totally got your back. Five years ago Scott Walker and the Missus talked about their support for teachers and students, and how it was great that teachers were helping "get the skills they need for a career or to move on to college," because lots of these messages are just one more chance to plug the same old policy ideas.

Some messages are personal and heartfelt. Michigan's Lt. Governor Brian Calley, father of a child with autism, last year offered an encouragement to students to make friends and reach out to those who are sometimes left out.

But mostly the back-to-school format is employed as it was used by former Delaware Governor Jack Markell in 2015. It's just an opening clause. "As we welcome students back to school, I am optimistic about the year ahead... blah blah blah launch again into plugging my school reform ideas."

In fact, given the number of reformy officials who vow that they are implementing their ideas For The Children, it's remarkable how hard it is to find instances of those same officials actually addressing children, encouraging children or generally using children as anything other than a hook on which to hang their policy talking points. That is perhaps a step better than Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump, neither of whom had anything of substance to offer about the start of the school year. President's Obama and Bush I addressed school children directly during their terms (both offered remarks loosely connected to the idea of personal responsibility, and both took grief from the opposing party because, of course, politicians couldn't just say, "Gee, Mr. President, thanks for taking a direct interest in our nation's youths!")

Despite all the noise about For The Children and the please to stop politicizing education, it is remarkable how few politicians are able to put those two simple principles to work at an obvious time like back-to-school season. Talk is cheap, actions are louder, and yes, this is not That Big a Deal, but I add it to the list of actions and inactions that tell me that for all their talk, few elected officials really give a rat's posterior about education as anything other than a political game piece, a source of money for hungry corporate interests, and a nice touch for their brand.

So it's not a huge deal, but Tom Wolf's "Eat and sleep well, and be nice" struck me as a fresh, pleasant message for the children of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Free Market Segregation

The free market will never provide solutions for segregation.

Segregation is part of a functioning free market. Not (necessarily) racial segregation, but business requires sorting out the customers.

Businesses compete for customers, but they don't compete for all customers. First of all, they can't, and second of all, not all customers are created equal. Most importantly, this is part of how they stay efficient-- by not wasting marketing dollars on the wrong customers. So Lexus doesn't spend any time worrying about how their marketing plays with minimum wage workers, and McDonald's doesn't worry about how well-regarded they are by gourmands.

Businesses can most efficiently compete for customers by identifying some single features that appeal to a broad group of customers. Call it the cable effect-- after the early explosion of cable channels, what we saw was a rapid rush to the middle. Where there were once highly differentiated channels, we now have a small group of channels mostly doing versions of the same thing. It's hard to make money working a niche market.

It's also hard to be aspirational. You don't make money by giving the people what they ought to want-- you make money by giving them what they actually want. Bravo and A&E were founded on the notion that people ought to want classy highbrow culture. They've long since abandoned that notion, just as MTV had the cold, hard sense to dump its entire original reason for existing in favor of what would help them win a huge swath of audience.

The free market does not run on equal opportunity for all. Its fans get confused on this point, thinking that if a Lexus is available to anyone who can afford it, that's the same as being available to everyone. The free market does not run on principle. There are occasionally folks who declare that even though something is bad for business, they will do it because it's the right thing to do. Mostly, the free market either eats those people or converts them. Remember Google's "don't be evil" motto? Somehow when they went from plucky upstart to corporate giant, that whole thing was shelved. The free market has neither a conscience or a moral compass.

Mind you, I'm not a hard-core anti-marketer. The free market is very good for accomplishing certain sorts of things, and a couple centuries' worth of free market has, I must acknowledge,  helped build me a cushy foundation of privilege.

But the free market has no more moral quality than  hammer or a waffle iron, and when we try to reinterpret our entire culture and society in terms of the free market, when we replace th commons with the marketplace, when we turn all interactions into transactions, then we lose a moral core to our actions and become a hollow people. Government, churches, schools, community-- none of these things is made better by being recast as a business, as a market-based enterprise. You can only have on top priority; if that priority is turning a profit, then that priority is not anything else.

And the market cannot solve our great moral problems. Like segregation and inequity. As long as there are racists in our society, there will be a lucrative market for segregated schools. To expect that the free market can provide solutions to problems of social justice and equity is like expecting the free market to provide very single citizen with a Lexus-- that's simple not what the market is for. It's like trying to perform brain surgery with a chain saw. The chain saw tends more toward ripping up than careful incisions, and the free market tends toward providing any brand of injustice and inequity that can be made profitable. When the free market is made the guiding power behind education, it will favor the rich over the poor, and it will sort children into worthwhile and discards, and it will leave many, many children behind, grossly underserved or not served at all, and the degree to which public schools already do these things is the precisely the degree to which government and public education have already been infected with the free market ethos.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Why DC's Vouchers Are Failing

The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has been one of the flagship programs in the world of voucherizing education, the only one funded by the federal government-- and its vital signs are not looking good.

2016-2017 applications to the program were up, but the number of students actually using the vouchers is down. In fact, one third of the students who received vouchers didn't use them, more than half of voucher-winners didn't use them for private school, and the total number of voucher students has dropped from 1,638 to 1,154 over the last four years.

What happened to the system that Mike Pence called "a case study in school choice success"? The folks at Future-Ed (a thinky tank at Georgetown U) looked into it and released a study of that very question.

The short answer is that everything that can be, that is likely to be, or is unavoidably bound to be wrong with a voucher program is wrong with the Opportunity Scholarship Program. It is, in fact, a test-case demonstration of why vouchers are a bad idea. Let's dive into the details.

The Politics

For DC, the problem is that the program's purse strings are held by Congress, so it is blown to and fro on the political winds. It started in 2003 under the GOP, was allowed to sputter quietly in 2009 under the Democrats, then resuscitated by the GOP again in 2011.

We don't talk about this enough with school choice, but one of the effects of choice systems is to gut local control of finances. Choice puts the purse strings in state capitals, where legislators can make decisions based on political wheeling and dealing and, unlike locally school boards, don't have to look their victims in the face when they decide that, for instance, voucher price tags will just stay static for ten years.

Enrollment (Whose Choice Was It, Again?)

The report notes that voucher use has been declining in DC for ages, and there have always been people who receive vouchers and don't use them:

This isn’t a new problem. Between 2004 and 2009, for instance, 22 percent of D.C. students receiving vouchers never used them. The most common reason cited was that students couldn’t get a spot at a preferred private school, according to a survey conducted by researchers for the U.S. Education Department. Other parents cited a lack of resources at private schools for students with special learning needs or admission to a preferred charter school. Some students simply didn’t want to leave their friends.

Emphasis mine. Once again, the basic promise of school choice-- that parents will get to choose the school they want fro their children-- turns out to be inaccurate. In a choice system, it's the schools that choose which students they will admit.

Nor did voucher students pile into the "high-performing" schools-- only 51 vouchers were used in the top schools. And while vouchers provide $8,653 for elementary students and $12,981 for high schoolers, some of DC's top schools charge in the neighborhood of $40K for tuition.

Transparency (Not)

One recurring note struck in the study is that parents did not have access to information about the quality of the schools involved in the voucher system. That was also a problem for the writers of this report-- the voucher system (Serving Our Children) wouldn't provide information about how many students attended which of the private schools in the study citing "student privacy."

Schools involved in the program are not required to tell anybody anything. The school choice notion that parents will pore through data rich reports to find the high-quality school of their dreams is itself a dream. DC public schools must publish detailed test result data:

By contrast, little information is available for parents about private school performance under D.C.’s voucher program. While Serving Our Children offers a handbook describing each of the schools involved, it does not provide information on performance. By law, private schools in the program must prove only that they are accredited and meet health and building codes, not that they are successfully educating students. The District’s elite private schools, worried about devaluing their brands, made it a requirement of their participation that they would not have to disclose test score information on voucher students—despite the use of taxpayer funding to support the vouchers.

Not only is data not available to the "customers," but voucher schools have made that a requirement. But larger studies have repeatedly shown that voucher-using students don't do better, and often do worse. Meanwhile, the report notes new voucher students opening in store fronts and shopping malls, "some relying on voucher students for more than half of their population." In other words, the K-12 equivalent of predatory for-profit colleges-- but with no information available about their actual success at schooling.

Tax Subsidies for the Not-So-Needy

There is a bit of a complication in that voucher awarding doesn't quite synch up with private school admissions. But look at how one school suggests that be handled:

One admissions officer from an elite private school told us he counsels interested students to apply in the fall and gamble that they will receive a voucher in the spring lottery. If the school really wants the student, it will offer a scholarship—then deduct the amount of the voucher from the scholarship. In such instances, the voucher program is merely subsidizing the financial aid offices of elite schools.

Church and State

As we have seen in many voucher programs, DC's vouchers are primarily a means of funneling public tax dollars to private religious schools. 47% of the vouchers went to Catholic schools; another 21% went to religious schools of other denominations.

Satisfactory Segregation

The report finds that voucher schools do better on graduation rates (it would be surprising if they didn't) and that voucher parents are more satisfied with "safety," which I suspect may translate easily into satisfaction that their children don't have to go to school with Those People's Children any more.


The study is pretty brutal in the end:

Congress has justified its multi-million dollar investment in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program by claiming it gives parents the choice of a high-quality educational experience for their children. But the data on the 13-year-old program suggests there is neither robust demand for the private school choices on offer nor firm evidence of educational improvement for the students receiving vouchers. 

Far from serving as a case study for expanded federal investment in private school choice, D.C.’s experience points to the shortcomings of voucher systems with complicated admissions processes, scant information on school quality, and little access to the best schools.

There it is. Far from being a Proof of Concept system, DC's voucher program is a stark display of everything that can be, and I would argue is likely to be, wrong with a school choice system.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Night Before

T'was the night before students, and all through my noggin
My thoughts were all stirring, like a drunken toboggan.
My artwork was hung on the corkboard with care
In hopes that my students would soon ‘nough be there.
The textbooks are nestled all snug on the shelves
It took me six hours—what? You think I have elves?
Yeah, my wife in her classroom and I in my cap
Just hoped by October we’ll get just one nap,
But up in my brainpan there rose such a clatter
I tossed and I turned thinking “What's still the matter?"
In my head I kept wondering what might ail my plans--
Did I skip a main point? Did I use comic sans?
My brain , so wrapped up in the things I can’t know
Gives a lustre of panic to my gut far below.

Would some jolly old man come, my classroom to save?
No, my admin’s a ma’m who expects I’ll behave.
So we’ll skip the poem section with deux ex Santa,
And go straight to the—crap! What the hell rhymes with Santa?
I’ve had this day many times—over three dozen
And still, night before, you’ll find me sucking lozen--
ges made to help fight nervous heartburn
As I wonder—will I see this year’s student crop learn?
Will I get them to scale the great education wall?
Or will they dash away, dash away, dash away all
Will they spark to the classics? Will my team hear me whistle?
Or will I chow down on failure tough as dried thistle?
Oh, I know it’s just jitters, those pre-curtain nerves.
When the curtain goes up, I’ll feel power and lerves.
But until then I’ll lie here with mares of the night.
Happy first day tomorrow! There’s no sleep tonight.

Tomorrow is the first day back for students, which means it's one night I'm guaranteed the Teacher Nightmare. Ordinary people have night mares about showing up in church without pants. Teachers have night mares about showing up for class without plans and the students are out of control or you can't even find your own classroom. Basically a complete professional collapse.

Tonight, despite all the preparation, despite all the experience, there's a million things we can't know until we meet the students, see what they know, see how they tick, see who will come running to meet us and who will stay back throwing rocks in our general direction. We've rehearsed many times (for some of us many, many, many times) and yet that rehearsal was only to be ready for the unexpected, not to lock everything into immutable place.

Our success will depend on our preparation, our knowledge of the material, and-- scariest of all-- our willingness to be present, to be really there with our students. Which of course means we have to be vulnerable. And so, when the fear and uncertainty hit, the most natural impulse in the world is to protect ourselves, to cover up. And yet to do that is to wall ourselves off from our students, to deny a teacher-student relationship with them, to be rigid, guarded, even defensive. All of which only gets in the way of the work.

And newbies-- here's one of the secrets they never tell you-- you will never be absolutely certain, never believe that you have everything under control, never reach a point where you are certain you have nothing left to learn or perfect or grow. (This is why I'm certain that some charter operators and school leaders like Eva Moskowitz don't know what they're talking about-- because they're 100% certain they know what they're talking about, and if you're 100% certain, then you don't understand the situation).

This year comes with extra nervousness at our house. For the first time in twelve weeks, for a few hours, we will be parting company with these guys:

I did this thirty-ish years ago, and it was hard then. To take two tiny humans that you have cared for and in whom you've invested your whole heart, and turn them over to somebody else while you go off to work. I can't tell you how many times I got all weepy over leaving my first two, and I don't expect it's going to be any better this time.

But it's a reminder-- every student who sits in my classroom was somebody's baby. I teach high school students, so they're not very babylike now, and yeah, I know not all parents are fully invested in their kids. But still. These were somebody's babies, and those somebodies mostly trust us with that precious cargo. They deserve the best I can give them, and they deserve someone who shows up 100%, and they deserve someone who watches out for them and helps them discover what it means for them to be fully human, fully themselves in the world. And when I'm in my room and they're walking it, it will hit me like a bathtub full of warm water and the nerves and the worry will just slough off.

But for right now I am going to finish up and probably not sleep, because I think I need to rewrite a couple of questions on the quiz tomorrow, and I didn't get papers set out for third period and I think I need to re-arrange the desks a little. And I never got around to picking out a shirt today. And to all a good night.

Read This Book: P. L. Thomas and Trumplandia

One of the first bloggers I stumbled across when I fell down the internet edublogs rabbit hole was P. L. Thomas. I found his writing engaging and interesting, but challenging. Thomas can write about big ideas and keep them anchored to the nuts and bolts at the same time. I've always said I like to read hist stuff because it always makes me feel smarter. We also traded some messages about classic seventies comic books, and I admire (without attempting to imitate) his biking prowess.

So it was a real pleasure to have a book by Thomas on my reading pile this summer. Trumplandia: Unmasking Post-Truth America is another hard-hitting book from the folks at Garn Press, a publishing start-up focusing on social justice.

Thomas is good at making connections, and while many of us are getting caught down in the sheer volume of post-truth muck in Trump's America, Thomas has a real gift for staying above personal arguments and focusing on ideas. Democracy, race, class, education, poetry, and the very bending of Truth itself as we've watched it be hammered on for the past few years. Thomas is ridiculously well-read, but he is also a winner of the NCTE George Orwell Award for Distinguished Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, so he never leaves you feeling like you've been buried in a hail of erudition, lost in a scholarly fog. He's clear and smart, but he writes with a transparency that opens doors for the reader rather than leaving them stranded in the foyer, thinking they don't know enough to enter. Like I said-- reading his work makes me feel smarter.

Thomas does the best of what any of us can hope for in these times-- see clearly the Kafkaesque mess that is engulfing our country (some of it new, and some of it not so new) while still seeing the virtues, the better qualities that can guide us through this mess, if we'll just embrace our natures. That makes this book a great back-to-school read. Click right now and buy a copy.

Hiring Big Brother

Data mining? Constant surveillance? That's just unacceptable for our students. Hell, rich parents would never stand for it!

Well, about that...

From the What Crazy Crap People Will Sign Up For file (cross indexed with the Overton Window on Civil Liberties) comes this article by Kim Brooks at NY Magazine.

It's about a company named Cognition Builders, a company founded in 2006 and dedicated to helping your family deal with problem children.  How do they help? By providing complete surveillance of your family, 24/7. They place video cameras throughout your home. They send employees-- family architects-- to stay with the family. Both the employees and the cameras provide real time coaching, telling you (and correcting you) how to properly interact with your children.

"Well, that's just nuts," you say. "Who would sign up for that?"

The answer is, plenty of folks.

"Well, these must be really good counselor types, with years of training and important new techniques."

Nope. Those family architects are generally fresh-out-of-college twenty-somethings. The actual techniques pushed by the company looks like a slightly tweaked Applied Behavior Analysis, a technique used with autistic children. It's the newer name for "behavior modification," a name that was generally dropped when people started to catch on to how creepy it was. Stressing strictness and consistency, their approach smells a lot like Nanny 911.

The company was founded by Ilana Kukoff, who has a Ph.D. in Behavioral Psychology, bills herself as an "educational entrepreneur" and who has started some other businesses, including Rethink Autism. Cognition Builders bills itself as an education service. Less prominently featured in her bios are her stint as Behavioral Psychologist and Powerful New Lifestyle Consultant for Kaman Music (a major distributor of instruments) and Golden Bridge Yoga. (Note: I did not make up that job title).

"So, it's really affordable? The marketing sells it?"

This is a program for rich folks. Really rich folks. Many clients report bills in the six-figure zone. And the company doesn't advertise. Just word of mouth and recommendations from counselors who specialize in Diseases of the Rich (h/t Tom Lehrer). People are really signing up for this. Read the article.

The moral of this story is, I guess, that some folks-- even very privileged folks-- are not only willing to put up with Big Brother, but will pay to hire him, even under the flimsiest of pretenses. A good thing to remember for those of us believe this kind of thing is self-evidently Very Bad.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Minority Schools More Likely To Be Closed

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has released a study on school closure with a look to how school closure affects the students who are then displaced.

"Lights Out: Practice and Impact of Closing Low-Performing Schools" reveals several findings, most of which are not terribly surprising. Closing schools doesn't really help the students who are displaced; if they are moved to a better school, they might do better, but otherwise, probably worse. Almost like being displaced and sent to a whole new school is distressing or something.

So no big surprises there, other than the fact that this is pro-reform CREDO talking. But amidst their other findings, we get this:

Closures of low-performing schools were not blind to socioeconomic status or race/ethnicity of the students who were enrolled. In both the charter and TPS sectors, and particularly in the lowest ventile of achievement, low-performing schools with a larger share of black and Hispanic students were more likely to be closed than similarly performing schools with a smaller share of disadvantaged minority students. Moreover, the closure rates for higher-poverty low-performing TPS in the bottom two ventiles surpassed the rates for lower-poverty TPS of similarly low performance. These observed inequivalent tendencies raise the issue of equity in decision-making about school closures. 

To repeat-- all performance markers being equal, schools with more brown, black or poor are more likely to be closed down. And just in case that didn't see clear enough, they added in their implications section:

...our evidence suggests that closures of low-performing schools were biased by non-academic factors. In particular, closures were tilted toward the most disadvantaged schools such as the ones with higher concentrations of students in poverty and higher shares of black and Hispanic students, which raises the issue of equity in the practice of closures. 

They continued that districts and administrators were "exposed" in this regard and might want to look at their procedures. In other words, shape up before someone kicks your ass in court.

Matt Barnum looked at the study and noted that it didn't answer four questions, including the question of why the inequity in school closures. What could it be?

One explanation is simple: racism and lack of political power.  

Well, yeah. The head of the national association of charter authorizers admits that could be a problem:

“We are especially troubled by the report’s observation of different school closure patterns based on race, ethnicity, and poverty,” president Greg Richmond said in a statement. “These differences were present among both charter schools and traditional public schools and serve as a wake-up call to examine our practices to ensure all schools and students are being treated equitably.”

Barnum offers one other theory-- the opening of many charters near these schools puts more financial pressure on them by stripping resources and enrollment. But here we have a chicken-egg thing. And it replaces our old question with a new one-- why do charters focus on brown, black and poor communities.

But the staggering bottom line here remains-- we are closing schools that serve black, brown and poor students because they serve black, brown and poor students. How is that even remotely okay?


Flexibility, School Discipline, and Choice

Robert Pondiscio and I have been having a conversation (a statemennt which is true on almost any given day) that started in the comments section of this post, and then continued in this post. You can go back and read the full thing, or you can settle for my somewhat glib abbreviated version:

Me: School disciplinary codes are codified versions of someone's values system.

Pondiscio: Exactly! That's why we need school choice.

This is another version of a conversation I've had with well-intentioned people within the reformster world (yes, I believe there are such folks." Basically, we agree on problems, but disagree on solutions. Pondiscio writes:

When we seek to establish, valorize, or impose one set of beliefs about student discipline as the “right” one, we are functionally communicating that all others are “wrong.” Greene’s recognition of the values-laden nature of discipline systems all but begs for choice: Parents should be able to weigh, as one factor among many, schools whose philosophy about behavior management, classroom culture, and approach to student discipline most closely mirror their own beliefs and practices.

I'm with him for one sentence-- then we part ways. As with many features and problems of schools, I think public schools are better positioned to respond to the problem. Here's why:

First, the "one factor among many" issue means that parents will not be perfectly happy with a choice school, because "traditional disciplinary method with strong science program and a good band with friendly teachers and a good location and..." gets to be a tough order to fill. So compromises will be made.

But two-- a private/charter/choice school generally offers less flexibility and less opportunity to negotiate. If you like certain aspects of Catholic school education, but you don't want your children exposed to all the Catholic Jesus stuff, there's no board member to call, no administrator to talk to, no accommodations to be called for, no hope in hell that you'll get what you want. Likewise, many charter schools can afford to be completely unresponsive-- they have no government mandate to serve all students and as I've outlined elsewhere, their bus8iness model means they are largely insulated from the "market pressures" that are supposed to force them to change. They don't have to make everyone happy-- they just need to fill a certain number of seats.

So if, for instance, you are a parent who wants to put your child in a charter that has been sold as a high-achieving, send-your-child-to-college academic powerhouse, but once you get there, you discover a no excuses atmosphere that is soul-killing for your child, you can try to contact a board member, or talk to an administrator-- but they aren't going to change a thing for you or your child. Don't like it? There's the door.

Reform fans talk about parent choice. But parents only ever get to choose from the offerings made available to them. It's the people who set up charters and private schools that get to exercise their choices. 

Are there public schools where the values are rigid and inflexible? Sure, and that's often inexcusable, but just as citizens of Phoenix could mobilize to oust a racist, lawbreaking sheriff, voters can replace their school board members with those who represent a different philosophy. Public schools always have available avenues for change and growth and reconciling multiple viewpoints. Charter and choice schools mostly do not.

There are always going to be values that are nearly impossible to have coexist-- most notably it's hard to reconcile the value of a pluralistic community that allows for different views and the value that says "there is one right path and everyone must follow it." And if we did charters right (which currently we absolutely don't, but that's a hundred other posts) this is one area in which they would be useful. Maybe. I have misgivings still.

I have misgivings because a rigid winner-take-all approach just mirrors the similar hardening of political lines in our society, and I don't notice that really making the country a better place. But in the end, while I think I understand Pondiscio's point, I believe that public schools ultimately offer more choice under their sloppy, messy, many-faceted roof than charter/choice schools which are brittle and inflexible.

ICYMI: New Year Edition (8/27)

This coming Tuesday, the kids are back in our local schools. In the meantime, here's some Sunday reading for you. Remember pass along what speaks to you. Everyone can amplify voices.

Dear Teachers Who Teach My Black Child

More good practical advice for the white teacher of black children

Can We Talk about How Many White Women There Are in School

Yes, here I am linking to Education Post. But this is a thought-provoking article, even if you disagree.

Who Is the Ideal Teaching Candidate

You really should be reading Nancy Flanagan every week. But just in case you missed this week, here's a dead-on look at selecting teachers.

Educational Malpractice

John Warner checks out one more canned writing program. It's not good.

The Worst Argument for Charter Schools

Jersey Jazzman with another look at bad ways to cheer for charters

Why Aren't We Talking about This

Emily Talmadge started her teaching career in the New York charter scene, and she reminds us just how bad that is/

Back to School Once More

Mary Holden has some thoughts about how to hold on to teachers.

What Happened To All the Teachers

Jeff Bryant notes that this mystery has been cropping up again lately-- and it's really not a mystery at all.

Be Glad for Our Failure To Catch China in Education

From Psychology Today, a look at China's disastrous education system, and why we should be glad we've failed to imitate it.

The Biggest Difference Between Private, Charter and Public Schools Is Not Test Scores-- It's Marketing

Jack Schneider has a new book out about measuring school quality, and here's an excerpt.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Lessons in Local History

Warning: This is not so much one of my rants about education policy as it is a look at an actual piece of teaching that I use in my own classroom. It's an example of how to use the unique and specific materials at hand to create what I believe is a valuable piece of learning.

For a couple of decades now, I have assigned my 11th grade Honors English class a major paper focused on local history (lovingly named by generations of students "the research project from hell"). Originally they drew a set of years out of a hat. Nowadays I have them select their own topic.Their goal-- to create a written work of local history, based on primary research.

It was the primary source part I was initially after. I had tired of traditional shake and bake research projects in which we basically asked students to plagiarize while being sure to make it look as if they hadn't. And research from published books and articles skips one of the most important parts of research writing-- sifting through a large pile of details to decide what is important and what is not. In a traditional research project, students get their facts pre-selected and pre-attached to a pre-written thesis. I wanted to get past that.

To do that, I needed a topic for which primary sources, or at least unsifted source material, was readily available. My first thought was local history. We have a fairly rich local history, much of it linked to the beginnings of the oil industry. And I was already familiar with the resources available, because I had been wading through them for many years myself. I belong to a local traditional town band with the concerts in the park and the whole nine yards, and I worked on their history for decades, poring through old newspapers, interviews, documents, scraps, anything I could find, tracking the lives of hundreds of members as well as the community, other arts groups, and whatever seemed to me to fit. If the idea of reading several hundred pages of me talking about small town history and the history of town bands appeals to you, just follow this link. Bottom line-- I knew the territory I was sending them out to explore,and I had the contacts and connections to get them into the places they needed to go to explore it.

The process is long and involved. They pick partners in December, begin the work, and hand in a final product in May. There are orientation sessions at the room in the library where materials are stored, and I often take a few Saturdays to go down and open the room up for them. There are check-in dates along the way, because I learned very early that procrastinators could dig themselves into a hole too deep to escape. And lots of discussion along the way of how to do such a thing.

The results have not always been stellar, but I believe there are some real benefits.

* You don't find the answer-- you make it. This is a revelation and a struggle for many of them, who assume that for any question a teacher asks, there is one correct answer and their job is to retrieve it. No, I tell them, you are deciding what the answer, the main idea, is here. You are in control of the outcome of this project-- and only you.

* No borders. In the typical shake and bake project, the teacher tells students where they may not look and what they may not use (to avoid cheating or cutting corners or making things to easy). For this project, there are no restrictions. If you can think of a place or person to consult, do it.

* For follows function. How you organize your materials depends on what you want to say, and that's up to you, so the organization is yours to set, too. But make it make sense. Follow the ideas and stop looking for an answer key.

* Create something. If you have done this really well, I tell them, there will be a piece of knowledge in the world on paper that did not exist before. You will have created something new.

*Learn about your community. "This place is dumb and boring," is where we usually start, and it's true that nothing ever blew up real good here, but they can learn to understand real history on a human scale. At least a little. And anything that connects people to their own communities is a win.

And we have almost always published. I used to run off copies, punch holes, bind the whole mess together. Each student gets a copy, and there are copies in the school and city library. More recently, I've been using Amazon's Createspace (the link is at the bottom of every amazon page) which both creates a decent print copy, but lists it on amazon (so Mom and Grampa and the rest can order copies too). I buy copies for the students and libraries, and as the "author," I get them for under $5 each.

I won't pretend for a second that every project in every year has been a triumph, or that every project has been a work of eleventh-grade genius. But I think the project is valuable, and has mostly worked. It is certainly one of the things my students remember for years and years after they've left me.

Should every teacher run out and pilot this same project? No, no no no, nope. But the larger point I want to make is that when we focus on some worthwhile goals and pull out the skills and knowledge that we personally have, tap into our own expertise, we can come up with useful and unique learning projects. We can design things that we are passionate about, and that passion will infect (some of) our students.

Standards? Pshaw. I handle that like all good teachers do. I designed the project using my best professional judgment and a constant feedback loop that helps me tweak it each year. The standards alignment is just paperwork that can be filled out after the fact.

So as you approach this year, look for your own projects from hell, your own ideas that your expertise and passion can bring to life while taking your students out of the more ordinary assignments. Anyone can do it. My 12th grade AP teaching colleague finishes her year with Paradise Lost, a work she loves, culminating in a trial in which two sides argue in front of local attorneys whether or not Milton successfully justified the ways of God to man. I wouldn't touch that project with a ten-foot pole (can't get excited about Milton, don't have lawyerly expertise to tap), but it is not only highly anticipated by each year's class, but it draws a huge audience. Really. Milton.

The lesson for us is, actually, the same lesson I try to deliver to my students. The answers are not outside us, waiting for us to dig them up. They are inside us, waiting to be brought to life, to be created by us. Do something really cool this year (understanding that you may well make some terrible mistakes first time out, but that itself is a learning opportunity and next year it'll be better) and make your classroom a unique window on the world.

Friday, August 25, 2017

XQ's Full Media Blitz

Brace yourselves. It's time for a star-studded ed erformstravaganza.

Another wave of PR dropped yesterday, touting a four-network, celebrity-packed, media event, proudly trumpeted everywhere from Variety to  USA Today. On September 8, a huge line-up (including Tom Hanks, Yo-Yo Ma, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Hudson and (sorry) Common) will present "an hour-long live television special about reinventing American high schools."

EIF Presents: XQ Super School Live will be highlighting the efforts of the XQ Institute, simulcast on all four major broadcast networks. So who are these people, and how do they have this kind of firepower.

The XQ Institute is an offspring of the Emerson Collective, a Palo Alto-based do-gooding group founded by Laurene Powell Jobs. The organization is dedicated to removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential in order to develop and execute innovative solutions that will spur change and promote equality. They were one of the first groups to hire Arne Duncan after his Ed Secretary stint (do not miss his hardcore street pic here). Oh, and they just bought controlling interest in the Atlantic which, for reasons we'll get to, is kind of a bummer.

Jobs was always a philanthropic power player, and she's logged time in the ed reform biz with NewSchools Venture Fund (We raise contributions from donors and use it to find, fund and support teams of educators and education entrepreneurs who are reimagining public education), but as the widow of Apple Empresario Steve Jobs, she has a huge mountain of money to work with. She is, in fact, the fourth richest woman in the world. And she has decided she would like to fix education.

Jobs has said, “We want to make high schools back into the great equalizers they were meant to be."

To do that, she launched XQ Institute, which launched a big competition--  XQ: The Super School Project

The Super School Project is an open call to reimagine and design the next American high school. In towns and cities far and wide, teams will unite and take on this important work of our time: rethinking and building schools that deeply prepare our students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs, and life.

When I wrote about the XQ competition two years ago, I noted that it combined the language of business (manage human capital) and the language of gee-whiz education amateurs who haven't ever consulted someone who actually works in the field (What if we knocked down the walls?). That fits, because there aren't many educators in sight. I was going to pore through leadership list for the XQ project, but there isn't even a job title that involves education. Jobs' co-chief, the other person to occasionally appear in the press materials, is Russlyn Ali, a lawyer who worked for the Education Trust and then became Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the US Departmet of Education under President Obama. Jobs will occasionally cite her "two decades in the education field" but that's just counting back to her 1997 launching of her first non-profit education project, College Track. Oh, and Amplify is a partner in this, too.

Jobs doesn't use many of the dog whistles or talking points of reformsters, except for one that she really loves:

Jobs told the NYT, "The system was created for the work force we needed 100 years ago. Things are not working the way we want it to be working."

In USA Today: The XQ Institute aims to "rethink" American public high schools, which, it maintains, have remained virtually unchanged for a century while the world has transformed dramatically.

"Schools haven't changed in 100 years"  is the dead horse Jobs rides in on, a criticism that only makes sense if you don't know what schools were actually like in 1917, and if you haven't actually visited one in the last century.

Last year at this time, XQ announced the ten winners of a Boatload of Money (roughly $10 million per school). It included some public schools, but here the reforminess becomes more apparent. One winner is the Vista Challenge High School in San Diego. They are supported by Personalized Learning company Digital Promise, and VCHS will use the money to spread rigorous personalized learning and “authentic examination.” Betsy DeVos's beloved Grand Rapids public schools will turn a museum into a high school. A RISE charter (Revolutionary Individualized Student Experience) will launch in Los Angeles. In Louisiana, New Harmony High School is going to launch its "school on a barge" concept. Arne "Katrina Was the Best Thing Ever" Duncan got announce that one and said, "I've never been to school on a barge." And another $10 mill went Summit, the Oakland CA charter system that may be lousy at education, but is great at fund raising-- they've also attracted money from Gates and Zuckerberg with their brand of "all you need is a computer" schooling.

EIF stands for  Entertainment Industry Foundation, a charity organization that gets an A- from Charity Watch and does lots of good works and has been around since 1942. They've gotten involved in education before, with an initiative in 2015 called "Think It Up"  that basically crossed education with DonorsChoose.

I also note that in all the publicity for the event that I've now read, there is no mention of other sponsors, so while I don't have proof, I'm pushed to conclude that Laurene Powell Jobs just busted out her checkbook and bought  a full hour of Friday night primetime television on four networks.

What can we expect. Well, music and comedy and documentaries are billed. And we're talking about a SuperSchool live, so presumably we won't bother with any coverage of those dopey Clark Kent schlubby schools where the rest of us slog away. This special will just focus on Jobs' own created reality.

XQ is actually a perfect name for the whole business, because it turns out that this is just some shit at the Jobs people made up. From their site:

Sure, IQ (Intelligence Quotient) is important. It measures how we process information. But it isn’t everything.

In fact, the latest science shows that intelligence is not fixed and that there’s a lot more to a person’s capability than what can be measured in an IQ test.

What also matters is a person’s EQ (Emotional Quotient)—the ability to relate to others, understand emotional cues and collaborate.

But today, neither IQ nor EQ is enough. There’s a certain something, something we call XQ, that’s essential for success in the new era we’re entering.

What does XQ stand for? It stands for "I'm a rich person in Palo Alto, and I don't need to learn from experienced experts in a field when I can just make stuff up myself." On Friday evening, September 8th, I'll probably be playing with babies. But I'll take a moment to be glad that we don't actually have cable, so I can't watch this thing. Because I can't imagine how long it takes to get over having Common and Tom Hanks tell us that we just aren't good enough.

A Public School's Shame

I am, as any reader of this blog knows, a huge supporter of public schools and public education. And that's why it's important that I make note of when a public school fails, and fails hard. Because as much as I love public education, if we let love blind us, we end up trying to defend the indefensible just because it came from our tribe.

I take no pleasure in noting this story. It's not far away. and it's appalling. The AP reports that five guardians of black students have filed a lawsuit against Woodland Hills High School over systemic and intentional discrimination against black students. In particular, the lawsuit cites five incidents:

In April, the Allegheny County district attorney said he was reviewing allegations that Steve Shaulis, a resource officer at the school, punched and knocked out the tooth of a 14-year-old freshman accused of stealing another’s student cellphone. Pictures of the freshman’s bruised face appeared online.

In May, video surfaced of Shaulis body-slamming a 15-year-old student in 2015 and shocking him with a stun gun.

A video from 2009 shows Shaulis shoving a student into a locker without apparent physical provocation, then shocking the student with a stun gun and arresting him.

One in 2010 shows a behavioral specialist lifting a student up against a locker and slamming him into the ground, breaking the student’s wrist. The student was charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct, the lawsuit said, but charges were withdrawn after a district attorney reviewed the video.

The fifth incident involved school principal Kevin Murray, who was caught on a recording last year threatening to punch a 14-year-old special education student in the face and “knock your ... teeth down your throat.” Murray resigned last week.

The school has suffered a long string of problems and unfortunate revelations. Their lawyer has suggested that this is just an ambulance-chasing lawyer who has tied together several widely separate instances, and while it may be true that the lawyer for the plaintiffs is not acting out of altruism and a burning desire for social justice, it doesn't really matter-- any one of these instances should have resulted in two reactions:

1) The rolling of a head or two

2) Some soul-searching by the school

In a school setting of any type, you don't get to say, "Well, maybe there is an issue here with racially-biased excessive violence. Let's see if  any more black kids get roughed up for no good reason." You don't even get to say, "He was mouthy and disrespectful, so I beat the crap out of him" because this is a school and we are the grownups and they, regardless of how big they are, are the kids.

Charters did not rise up in urban areas for no reason at all, and public schools don't get to say, "Who, us? We never do any bad stuff like that."

The argument about whether public or charter schools have a greater history or tendency of racism was kind of ridiculous-- bot have plenty of systemic racism in their backgrounds, and both are fully capable of harboring and nurturing racism right now, today. It's not okay. What happened at Woodland Hills is not okay. And at a public school, where we are charged to care for every single student, without exception, it is an even greater shame.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

OH: Grifters Keep on Grfiting

Haters gotta hate. Players gotta play. And ECOT gotta keep finding ways to latch itself onto public tax dollars for fun and profit.

You may recall that ECOT has been working hard to win the Worst Cyber School In The World medal, which is no small achievement in a very crowded field. The Columbus Dispatch has been following these guys for over a decade (you can find the bulk of their coverage collected here). If we go back to 2006, we find folks questioning the then-fledgling school's reporting of its enrollment and the quality of its program. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow was, according the Newark superintendent, “failing to meet even minimum standards of operation.”

Caption courtesy of Plunderbund. I see no reason to disgaree

The continued lodging of those complaints was not a small story-- ECOT became the tenth largest school district in the state. And ECOT's owner, William Lager was ready to deliver a master class on how to use charter schools to line your own pockets. ECOT, owned by William Lager, bought its curriculum from IQ Innovations, a company owned by William Lager. The day-to-day management of ECOT was farmed out to Altair Learning Management, a company owned by William Lager.

Not that Lager was keeping all that money for himself. In the years 2011-2015 (the only ones made available to researchers), Lager wrote 121 checks totaling $984,302 to various friendly Ohio politicians. Plunderbund tracked Lager's giving back to 2000 (ECOT's origin) and discovered a staggering total over $2 million! Lager is also a member of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Digital Learning Now, another reformy advocacy group that quietly folded its tents in 2015

That may help explain the continued survival of a school the New York Times called out for having the highest dropout rate in the nation. ECOT has been nothing if not feisty in its responses; in 2016, when the state demanded the chance to audit actual attendance at the cyber school, ECOT counter-sued, arguing that its 2003 deal with the state only required them to offer 920 hours of education-- not make sure that anyone was actually attending the 920 hours.

Its protests were in vain. The state determined that in 2015-2016, the school billed the state for 15,000 students, pocketing $106 million. The state of Ohio determined that only 6,300 students were active participants in the on line "school." ECOT owed the state $60 million.

Lager fought back hard. He has appealed the rulings all the way to Ohio's Supreme Court; they were not helpful. . He made sad noises about how he'd have to lay people off, and that paying back the money he stole from the state would threaten the viability of his fake business (I'm paraphrasing). Critics pointed out that Lager's huge profit margins could take it, and the Plain Dealer found the school had $17 million in cash reserves against the $21 million annual payment to Lager's companies. In perhaps the ballsiest move of all, ECOT bought tv time for an ad to raise public support for non-repayment. That's right-- Lager spent taxpayer money to try to avoid giving back taxpayer money.The Oho State Auditor told him to knock it off.

With no friends in the legal system, it might seem that Lager and ECOT were finally doomed.

But no.

According to yesterday's Dispatch, Lager has a new plan:

ECOT, the online charter giant one study found produced more dropouts than any other school in the nation, is moving into a new line of business — “dropout recovery.”

 Dropout recovery schools face looser reporting standards. Changing status might get ECOT some space from the heavy hand of state inquiry, and not for nothing, it will also open up a whole new market for the embattled cyber school. Certainly it puts the school in the company of other schools with an execrable graduation rate. In 2014, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that Ohio's dropout recovery schools were doing such a bad job that they gave Ohio the only worsening dropout rate in the country. If that is still the case, ECOT may have finally found a field in which it will not stand out as being the absolute worst.

Last year, State Auditor Dave Yost found attendance rates at the state’s dropout-recovery charters were horrible: only a third of students showed up, according to a surprise headcount. Auditors also found between 0 to 50 percent of students had showed up for class at the 14 dropout-recovery schools visited, for an average of 34 percent. 

ECOT has been running about 36%. So, winning?

Most importantly, of course, this will allow Lager to keep the gravy train running by scamming the taxpayers of Ohio. Tell me that one again about how the invisible hand of the free market will clear away the bad charter schools?

A Good Bad Writing Resource

I have a fun-- and free-- recommendation for everyone interested in the teaching of writing.

Published by the Digital Publishing Institute at WVU Libraries and in part by Inside Higher Ed, and absolutely free for the download, Bad Ideas About Writing is a compendium of essays by a wide assortment of teachers and scholars about the many terrible myths of writing instruction. Growing out of a project about the sciences (These Ideas Must Die), this book is aimed at a broad audience, as explained by editors Cheryl Ball and Drew Loewe:

This project is necessary because while scholars in writing studies (just as in any academic field) argue to and against one another in scholarly journals, books, and conference talks, those forms
of knowledge-making don’t consistently find their way into the public’s understanding of writing. Yet “the public” in all its manifestations—teachers, students, parents, administrators, lawmakers, news media—are important to how writing is conceptualized and taught. These publics deserve clearly articulated and well-researched arguments about what is not working, what must die, and what is blocking progress in current understandings of writing.

The book is organized around several broad topic headings:

Bad Ideas about What Good Writing Is
Bad Ideas about Who Good Writers Are
Bad Ideas about Style, Usage and Grammar
Bad Ideas about Writing Techniques
Bad Ideas about Genres
Bad Ideas about Assessing Writing
Bad Ideas about Writing and Digital Technology
Bad Ideas about Writing Teachers

Packed under those headings are sixty-two separate articles, each under the heading of a beloved Bad Idea. Here are just some of the Bad Ideas addressed:

America is facing a literacy crisis
Writing knowledge transfers easily
Writers are mythical, magical, and damaged
Some people are just born good writers
Writers block just happens to people
Good writers always follow my rules
Teaching grammar improves writing
Excellent academic writing must be serious
Creative writing is a unique category
The five-paragraph essay is rhetorically sound
The five-paragraph theme teaches "beyond the test"
Research starts with a thesis statement
Grading has always made writing better
When responding to student writing, more is better
SAT scores are useful for placing students in writing courses
Gamification makes writing fun
Digital natives and digital immigrants
You're going to need this for college
Anyone can teach writing

The pieces cover a wide spectrum from "I don't believe anyone still thinks this" to "Hey! That's how I teach writing." Each is a discussion of positive steps-- of fixes and ideas-- rather than  just taking pot shots at a particular Bad Idea. There are lots of "instead of that, try this--" elements here. And yes, some chapters kind of contradict each other-- that's okay, too.

Each essay is grounded in research and comes with "for further reading" suggestions at the end. The writing is accessible enough that I am already considering a couple of these for handouts to my own students. The essays are short and to the point, and while you may not agree with all of them, they still provide a starting point for some reflection on practice.

I have not finished poring through this book, but I'm kind of excited about it, and I recommend it to all my writing teacher friends. Thanks to my own former student Dr. John Raucci (Associate Professor of English at Frostburg State in Maryland) for bringing the book to my attention.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Bribing for PARCC

Since the days that No Child Left Untested Behind first mandated the Big Standardized Test, teachers and administrators who work in actual schools have recognized the problems inherent in trying to get useful data out of a test that students don't care about.

When they're still in elementary school, students can still be nudged along by school pride and a desire to make their teacher proud. A few pep rallies, maybe a super-cool video on youtube, and they'll plunge bravely ahead just because their school wants them to.

But by middle school, aka the years in which tweens discover that everything in life sucks, students have figured it out. The BS Test is boring and stupid and doesn't actually matter and  neither does stupid old Mrs. Ipswitch who is so absolutely not the boss of me. In other words, I think there's a reason that many schools report a dip in eighth grade BS Test scores, and I don't think it has anything to do with the actual quality of education.

Schools, however, depending on the state, need students to produce those scores. This is one of the huge problems of test-centered "accountability"-- it flips a school upside down, and instead of the school existing to provide students with an education, the students now exist to provide the school with good scores.

And what better way to formalize this new relationship then to really double down on treating the students like employees-- and pay them for their work.

Here's Mesa Alta Junior High School in New Mexico doing just that-- students who scored high on the PARCC for MAJ were paid $100 for their efforts on behalf of the school.

The local paper reported on this as if it was a heartwarming tale of general swellness, and not, say, a fairly blatant admission that the tests do not actually have any intrinsic value for students. And if you want to tell me that obviously these students are not being treated like school employees, well, then, there's only one other thing to call the $100 payment.

A bribe.

I don't offer you $100 to kiss your loved ones or feed your children or wash your hair in the morning or eat food. I don't do it because these things have intrinsic value; they matter on their own, and come with their own rewards packed inside. Bribes are for when we need to nudge someone to perform a task that has otherwise has no value to them.

Worse, if you bribe me to kiss my spouse, I may wonder why I'm not being paid to kiss my kids. If my focus is on external rewards, I may never even see the intrinsic rewards that crop up in my path daily.

This is where we are with the BS Tests. We've thrown up our hands and admitted there's no reason to try to do well on them unless someone offers you cold, hard cash. We've tried (and continue trying) to game the system with all sorts of test prep, so why not fall back on the oldest system gaming technique of all-- bribery. Other than, of course, having to face the Kafkaesque slow death of the soul that comes with realizing that we are perpetuating and feeding a system that serves nobody. Well, except for some middle school kids who get some extra spending money.

Monday, August 21, 2017

AZ: Choice's Lie

Arizona has always been on the forefront of school privatization. Right now, things are heating up as they follow the path of promoting vouchers through any means necessary. In their case this has involved starting small with who-could-object students (special needs, native Americans) used to pilot a program that legislators now want to expand. At the moment, voucher opponents may have won a chance to stop vouchers via ballot initiative, but it won't be easy. Arizona is an ALEC-friendly state, and the Goldwater Institute has stage-managed the growth of charters and the rise of vouchers from right within the state.

Arizona is worth paying attention to because it has served as a little policy laboratory for conservative politicians and corporate interests. Harper's Magazine just ran a profile of the state's assault on public education, and you can recognize some of the techniques in play. Here's Sydney Hay, from Betsy DeVos's American Federation for Children:

When Hay started working on school choice reform, “It was a free-market argument, which of course pits Republicans versus Democrats,” she told me. She and her cohort have since found success by approaching vouchers as a social justice concern, she said. “In the beginning, it was, ‘Oh no, these are going to be the death of public school education.’ That opposition is pretty much over.

Sound familiar? Arizona has been a booming state for charters and wants to blossom its charter crop as well. And pay extra attention, because they did it without one of the favorite reformster talking points.

Arizona has public school open enrollment.

That means that no child in Arizona is "trapped" in failing schools just because of her zip code. And yet they have still sold choice as a rescue operation. True, schools are allowed to cap their open enrollment at capacity, but still, in the midst of everything else out there, it's an impressive feat to sell charters as an escape to folks who aren't even trapped in the first place.

Tweaking Charter Marketing

The recent poll showing a jump-off-a-cliff drop in public support for charter schools, which comes on top of wrestling with the splits in the community, has prompted a bit of soul-searching in the charter/choice community. Unfortunately, some of that soul-searching has focused on the question of how to better market their product.

Nobody reframes a sales pitch like Peter Cunningham. Cunningham has a BA in Philosophy from Duke and Masters of Journalism from Columbia. He worked in and around Chicago, including a stint as Mayor Richard M. Daley's head speechwriter. His Chicago connections took him to Arne Duncan's Department of Education, where as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, he was "responsible for communications strategy and message development for the U.S. Department of Education." He's a PR guy, and he's good at what he does, so when Eli Broad and some other Very Wealthy Friends (including, behind that curtain over there, Laurene Jobs) were looking for someone to run a war-room style messaging operation for education reform, they tapped Cunningham to run Education Post (and perhaps another side project or two).

I've had many online conversations with Cunningham and met him face to face when he attended the Network for Public Education conference last year. Like most reformsters, he has neither horns nor a pointy red tail. Seems like a nice enough guy. But he's well-paid to do a particular job, and he works hard to do it well. And that's what he seems to be doing in his latest spin-heavy piece at Education Post (I don't often link to EdPost, but if I'm going to write about the piece, it's only fair that there be a link to check my work. [Correction: Cunningham's piece is at the74, the Campbell Brown pro-reform website. Absolutely my error there]

The news that support for public charter schools has
dropped from 51 percent to 39 percent is a wake-up call for the school choice movement. We can continue to play defense and lose, or we can reframe the conversation around the issues that matter most: the rights of parents and the best interests of children.

There are choices beyond the two that Cunningham offers, like, for instance "ask ourselves what aspects of charters are unappealing to the public" or even "question whether or not we're backing the right horse." But Cunningham sticks with A) play defense and lose or B) improve our marketing focus.

School choice is a response to a bureaucratic and ineffective education system that is not evolving to meet the needs of America’s racially and economically diverse student population.

Even some of Cunningham's fellow reformsters don't agree with him. For DeVosian choicers, school choice is a response to a government monopoly of the education marketplace. Meeting the needs of racially and economically diverse populations is not really their intent, and the fact that they're becoming more open about it is precisely the split that is stressing the reformster world. 

Cunningham's framing here is also very adept because it sidesteps everyone else's responsibility for public school failures. He does not, for instance, talk about responding to government's unwillingness to properly fund education. He knows that's an issue, but the solution to that issue is not school choice-- the solution is to properly fund those schools.

Next it's time for the traditional Litany of Kids These Days Failures:

Troublingly, 1 in 6 students don’t graduate from high school. Only about 1 in 3 who do graduate are ready for college. Few of the remaining students have marketable work skills upon graduation, while employers are hungry for workers who can think, communicate, analyze, and show up on time.

The 1 in 6 figure comes from I'm-not-sure-where, but is in line with what many authorities say--though that figure usually is based on students entering ninth grade and graduating four years later, and if we're basing graduation rates on what percentage of a ninth grade cohort graduates from the school four years later, then charters look terrible by comparison to public schools.

The 1 in 3 figure is oft-repeated baloney. It means that 1 in 3 students hit a cut score on a single Big Standardized Test. Is there anything to suggest that the cut score and the test correspond to college readiness? Of course not, because "college readiness" is an undefined (and probably undefinable) term. The worker "shortage" is a discussion too large for this space, but if there really is a concern about people willing and able to do certain jobs, there are two clear responses. You can respond as some states have to teachers shortages by lowering standards, or you could follow the wisdom of the free market and offer better work conditions and pay. If nobody will sell you a Porsche for $1.98, that does not mean there's an automobile shortage. I won't argue that employers don't want workers with all those qualities, but I will question how school choice would create more people who have them.

And it's worse for poor kids:

Less than 1 in 10 low-income kids earn a four-year college degree. About 30 percent don’t even finish high school, and those who do have few career choices. It’s no wonder low-income parents are desperate for better options. 

A bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. What do the problems of poverty have to do with school choice? Why would we not instead conclude that schools in these communities need more money, support, and attention, instead of the opposite-- to drain money and resources away from these schools in the hopes that a charter might have the ability to save just a few of them.

The choice movement has grown steadily over the past 25 years by offering new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Really? Name two. What the few "successful" charters have offered is a carefully selected student body, strong financial support, and plenty of resources. None of these are new or innovative.

Cunningham follows this with unsupported praise of charters, with more college students, increased teacher diversity, eliminating achievement gaps, and "using technology in new and better ways to personalize learning and empower teachers to meet students where they are and enable them to learn at their own pace." Yes, let's pitch "personalized" computer-based in there, too. Let's just say that there's a lot of room for debate about all of these claims and move on to the problems of the embattled choicers. Oh, and the choice system "is significantly better than the system it is replacing." So I guess we're done talking about blending the systems together-- close up public education and replace it with the privatized version.

Not surprisingly, the system has struck back by shifting the conversation away from student outcomes and parent rights. Instead, officials focus on money, governance, selectivity, testing, segregation, discipline, management, jobs, and any other topic they can use to change the subject.

 Has it? Because there's been plenty of discussion of student achievement among choice critics with voucher studies showing definite weakness. And the rest of the list-- is Cunningham suggesting these topics are irrelevant and immaterial, that choice as a tool of segregation, for instance, is unimportant? Or is he simply arguing that these points are marketing losers, and folks trying to sell choice should move on to better marketing tactics? Because I don't see anything on his list that doesn't have a strong and influential impact on students and their learning.

The poll results suggest that more and more people are starting to question the motives and merits of school choice. And, in truth, the choice movement has allowed enough bad actors into the space to validate their concerns.

Well, yes. I appreciate his willingness to admit it. Over the past decade, nobody has made choice look worse than charter operators themselves. And the bad news for choicers is that Empress DeVos (her brother wants to be a Viceroy of War, so why can't she be the Empress of Education) has made it clear that she sees no need for any oversight beyond parental choice, so the Bad Actors problem is not going to get better any time soon. Cunningham says cleaning house is a regular, daily chore, but DeVos has already sold her dustpan and broom because, hey, the parents that pass through will probably keep everything clean on their own. In other words, this hasn't been working so far, but let's do it more.

Cunningham says voucher opposition is softening. Urban parents are jealous of those cool Catholic schools. And there's more:

Black and Hispanic parents see high teacher turnover in their public schools and wonder why so few teachers are people of color.

Well, yes. But what does that have to do with charter schools, which also skew white in their staffing and often have considerable staff churn and burn, by design. Not to mention the many charters that just close completely, sometimes in the middle of the year. So, yes-- real problem. But what reason is there to think that charters and choice are a solution?

They see increasingly militant teachers unions threatening strikes and anti-tax politicians unwilling to fund schools adequately, and they want to remove these uncertainties from their lives.  

Increasingly militant? I'd like to see a basis for that assessment. Over the past few decades, states have taken many steps to make teacher strikes untenable. It's true that in Chicago, the teachers union kicks ass and takes names-- but more than in the past? And compared to unions across the country? And yes-- buried in here is the admission that underfunding schools is a political problem, but how will choice help that? Will anti-tax politicians suddenly be willing to raise taxes if the money is going to charters? 

But here comes his Big Point.

No one can dispute the right of parents to choose their child’s school. Every day, privileged parents are making that choice by moving into a community with good schools, by choosing private schools, or by jockeying within the existing system to find the best fit for their kid. Poor parents deserve the same opportunity to choose.

Okay. First, choice is not as important as quality. I've made this argument before-- poor parents don't want choices. What they want is their child in a good school. And we could do that. But it would cost money, and while nobody in this country would dispute a parents' right to have a good education for their child, what folks are disputing-- as with health care and food and decent housing-- is having taxpayers pay for it. There is only one thing standing between building a school in a poor neighborhood that is every bit as good as the school in a wealthy neighborhood, and that is money. People want great educations for their own kids. Those Other People? Don't care so much. And if I have to listen to one more "Why should I pay school taxes when I don't have kids" argument, I raise my blood pressure so high that I'll blow the remaining hair off the top of my head. 

So we want good education, but we don't want to pay for it. We particularly don't want to pay for it for Other Peoples' Children. This is a real problem-- one of the root problems of the entire education system. AND CHARTERS AND CHOICE DO NOT SOLVE THIS PROBLEM. What do you think the "but I don't have kids" taxpayer crowd will have to say about paying taxes because families are now "entitled" to send their kids to private school at public expense. PLUS charters and choice, by virtue of duplicate services and excess capacity, must be an even more expensive system.

Now the marketing advice:

Parents should be the face of the school choice movement. We spend a lot of time glorifying the innovative educators creating charter schools, but we should spend more time honoring the parents with the courage to buck the system.

Fundamentally, school choice is about freedom — one of America’s core values. No one should be trapped in a system that isn’t working for their kids.

Fundamentally, school choice is about opening markets to vendors so they can get their hands on that sweet, sweet tax money. As with any other market, the customers will have the "freedom" to choose whatever options the corporations offer to them. And with government pushed aside, those parents will have nobody to advocate for them and their rights. And taxpayers will have no voice at all.

With a new school year upon us, and a political climate that rewards bluster and blame over truth and common understanding, we need to bring the education conversation back to core principles. It begins with parent rights and it ends with student outcomes, and most of the other topics are secondary or irrelevant. 

 Education does not begin with parent rights, nor are they a core principle of education. It serves the narrative of privatizers to talk about education as if it were a commodity sold to parents, like diapers or Aeropestale hoodies, but it is not, and it never has been. Education is a public trust, a system that serves, yes, parents but also future employers, neighbors, fellow voters, and most of all, the students themselves. A school system serves many interests and a broad web of stakeholders, which makes it really hard to get into the market. But if we could cut all of those other stakeholders out of the equation, and let ed-flavored businesses pitch just to parents (just like we pitch Diet Coke and new cars), the market would be so much more permeable.

Making the parents central to the whole edu-business makes it easier for companies to sell tehir product. It's a useful step in privatization, not so useful for getting underserved populations the kind of education they deserve. "Parent choice" is a red herring, a distraction. Unrestricted, companies will offer poor parents lousy choices-- but hey, you got a choice, so it's awesome, right?

As is the case with many reformsters, I actually agree with Cunningham when it comes to many of the problems facing education. I just don't see choice, vouchers, or charters providing real solutions to any of them.