Friday, September 29, 2017

Why Higher Ed Is Not K-12

There is so much about public education that Betsy DeVos appears not to understand. But judging from her speech at Harvard last night, she is getting more comfortable with her ignorance. Here's one moment I want to focus on.

And doesn’t every school aim to serve the public good? A school that prepares its students to lead successful lives is a benefit to all of us. The definition of public education should be to educate the public. That’s why we should fight less about the word that comes before “school.”
I suspect all of you here at Harvard, a private school, will take your education and contribute to the public good.
When you chose to attend Harvard, did anyone suggest you were against public universities? No, you and your family sat down and figured out which education environment would be the best fit for you. You compared options, and made an informed decision.
No one seems to criticize that choice. No one thinks choice in higher education is wrong. So why is it wrong in elementary, middle, or high school?

I haven't edited anything here-- this exceptional piece of rhetorical whiplash is as it appears in the published version of her prepared remarks.

To summarize-- education should be for the public good, which is why families should be able to choose schools based on their own private interests.

But comparing public K-12 education to higher education is actually a good way to highlight how school choice can be a lousy idea.

Harvard Is Not about Choice

Students do not choose Harvard. Harvard chooses its students.And like almost all colleges and universities, Harvard requires students to maintain a certain level of achievement so that they can stay. "Your family sat down and figured out which education environment would be the best fit-- and then you hoped and waited to see if they would let you in."

Of course, the unspoken subtext here is that if you want to go to Harvard, you have to prove you deserve it, either through your academic achievement, your family connections, or your father's big fat bank account. If you don't deserve to go to Harvard, you'll just have to settle for whatever place you DO deserve. And your deservingness will be determined by admissions offices and the thousand other little cultural hurdles you have to jump.

That's the subtext of DeVos's "best fit" rhetoric-- it's the same subtext as the admissions officer or guidance counselor or apartment complex administrator saying, "Well, wouldn't just be happier in a place where you fit in a little better? You know-- with people more like yourself, with a similar background (and race)."

Higher Education Is Not a Leveller

Public education is still touted as the opportunity to level or escape class boundaries. That's arguable, but higher education makes no such claim. Harvard has no grand interest in erasing class divides in the US, and in fact colleges do a much better job of solidifying those divides than erasing them. Rich, well-connected folks get Harvard; poor folks get Podunk Community College.

Higher Education Doesn't Care About Leftovers

My beef with a privatized business-oriented approach to education remains the same-- business not only allows, but requires, leftovers and rejected customers. Our higher education does not provide a higher education for everyone, nor does it even pretend it wants to. Millions of students do not go to college. A K-12 education system that excluded or ignored millions of students would be a catastrophe.

And yet no cheerleader for choice, least of all Betsy DeVos, has an answer for who will take responsibility for the students who do not make it into a charter-choice system. At best, the suggestion that those leftover students, the ones that no charter wants, will be left behind in the public system (you know-- the one that's not allowed to reject students for no good reason) that is increasingly underfunded and underresourced because the money is all being diverted to charters.

Higher education doesn't have to care about the leftovers because we still accept that not everyone will want to go to college. That marks a substantive different between higher education and the K-12 system. DeVos is correct in saying that public education should educate the public-- all the public, not just the select portions of it.


Higher education is also instructive about how quality fares in a choice system. Because on the one hand, you have Harvard. And on the other hand, you have schools that are sports programs with a few classes attached. And on the other other hand, you have schools that award diplomas that aren't worth the paper they're printed on. The lack of serious accountability has created a system with wildly varying levels of quality, and DeVos, who has repeatedly stood up against accountability measures, is okay with that. American taxpayers should not be-- not when it comes to K-12 education.

Whose Interests Are at Stake?

In the higher education system, it is primarily the interests of students that are at stake. In K-12, all of society has a stake in the system. Public schools do not exist to serve only parents. The interests of the students, their future employers, their future neighbors and co-workers, their future fellow voters, the community as a whole-- all of these interests are represented. That's why all taxpayers chip in (unlike the higher ed system). That means that all stakeholders get a say, and all public schools should be subjected to a considerably higher level of oversight and accountability than a school ike Harvard.

Why is choice wrong for K-12? Believe it or not, I don't think it has to be wrong. But as currently proposed and practiced, it's wrong because

* There must be accountability for where and how public tax dollars are spent (that includes both issues of quality and issues of violating separation of church and state)

* The system must be fully funded. You cannot run three schools for the money previously spent on one. Don't make it a zero-sum game-- fully fund it.

* Do not leave leftover students behind. Do not push students out because they don't fit your model. If you want choice, make it parents' choice, not the school's choice.

* Students before profits. No for-profits choices. And stringent rules on not-for-profits, most of whom are currently just for-profits with good money-laundering systems.

* Total transparency and complete local control.

None of these are features of the system that brought those students to Harvard. That's why choice in higher education, while not always very successful, is less objectionable than choice for K-12.

Why Schools Are Not Food Trucks

Betsy DeVos's continued search for an analogy by which to illustrate her view of schools regularly reveals how uch she doesn't understand about public education.

Last night at Harvard, DeVos unleashed this one:

Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what — food trucks started lining the streets to provide options. Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet customer’s needs.

Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?

No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time

Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice.Being for equal access and opportunity – being for choice – is not being against anything.

As always, DeVos chooses an analogy that paints education as a commercial transaction in which the customer buys some goods. That's fatally flawed, but let's move on for now. DeVos likes to focus on the customer's point of view, while ignoring all the other factors that will, in fact, affect both the "customer" and the vendor.

The food trucks on the mall in DC are involved in a zero sum game. There is only so much space on the streets where food trucks deploy, and it is all occupied, which means that if anybody wants to park a new food truck there, an old one will have to be removed. Space on those streets is a finite resource. To give it to one truck is to take it away from another.

DeVos likes to characterize these sorts of balancing acts as emotionally charged moments-- here she points out that food truck patrons don't "hate" restaurants. Hatred is beside the point. This, too, is a zero sum game; if I spend money at a food truck, that is money I cannot spend elsewhere.If everyone eats at food trucks, restaurants will go out of business. DeVos does not have to hate public schools in order to choke off their resources and let them be run into the ground (in fact, I get the impression that her feelings are somewhere between disdain and indifference).

Note that DeVos continues to drift further and further away from any interest in accountability for quality-- in this analogy we pick the choice that tastes good, and if it happens to be unhealthy or toxic or laced with fried dog meat, none of that matters. Taste is not a bad guide for matters of food, but with schools, what "tastes good" today is not necessarily what will best serve the student, the family, the community and the nation over the coming decades. "Tastes good this moment" and "provides a solid education for a lifetime" are two entirely different metrics

Like every other commercial enterprise, the food trucks of DC are not geared to handle all customers. There are many reasons that comparing schools to businesses is a huge fail, but this is one of the hugest-- there is no business sector in this country built on the idea of serving every single person in the country. Each food truck operates on the idea that some people will eat there and other people won't, and as long as enough people eat there, the food truck is good. But if there are people who don't eat at any of the food trucks, some people who don't eat at all-- well, that is not the food truck operators problem.

And as a customer, you can't get whatever you want-- you can only get what the trucks are serving.

The modern charter industry is a business model, and just like any other business model, it is built on serving some customers. Making sure that every student in America gets a good education is not the goal, the purpose or even the concern of the charter industry. But it has to be the concern of a public school system.

Schools are not businesses. Students are not customers. And education is not a side of fries.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trumpifying High School Sports

So this just popped up on my twitter feed:

The letter is from the principal of Parkway High School in Louisiana (Home of the Panthers) and it says in fairly clear terms that all school athletes will stand for the national anthem or face disciplinary action, and if they still fail to comply, then the school will kick those sons of bitches off the team.

It is hard to know how far and how fast this will spread, but I suspect that somewhere at an ACLU office, someone cut lunch short to start drafting the lawsuit that this school is going to lose.

After all-- we've already got the 1943 Supreme Court decision that makes it clear that a school may not require students to stand for the pledge of allegiance.

Schools frequently get confused about whether their role is to force compliance or to recognize that students are live human citizens of the United States of America. First Amendment freedoms still apply even if you are under 18, and no, our soldiers did not fight and die so that all Americans could be forced to salute a flag or stand for an anthem whether they wanted to or not. No, the hallmark of freedom is not allowing people only to have the freedom to do what you think they ought to do. Forcing everyone to stand for the flag and the anthem is the hallmark of totalitarianism. It's not okay.

Being rich and/or powerful doesn't mean you get to "fire" everyone you disagree with. And that goes double for students.

Here's hoping that Parkway, and any schools that choose the same path, go down to a quick and definitive defeat.

Puerto Rican Crystal Ball

Imagine that we could collect up all the non-white, non-wealthy citizens of this country. Would it give us a better opportunity to make sure those folks were better served? Could we focus our attention social institutions like schools and health care? Would we concentrate on creating a strong and robust infrastructure? Would we provide ample opportunity for local voices to be heard and be important players in democratic self-rule?

Or would we treat those folks like second-class citizens? Would we treat the infrastructure and institutions of that community as important only as chances for investors to make a buck? And would we then demand that the investors' voices be the loudest ones, that local self-rule must take a back seat to making sure that investors have the final say (so that they can make their money, no matter what that means to members of the community)? Would we demand that they make their own needs secondary to the needs of investors and hedge fundies?

Well, if we look at Puerto Rico, we have to conclude that the second paragraph is the accurate one.

Puerto Rico is an instructive example because it is, as President Trump has wisely noted, an island in the ocean. We can't quite perform such perfect examples of non-democratic vulture capitalism to our mainland communities of non-wealthy non-white citizens because they aren't on an island. We can't quite-- but Puerto Rico is a sign that we'd like to.

We'd like to take the black communities of Chicago and cities like Detroit and the poor parts of LA and strip locals of democratic control, impose investor rule, and start strip-mining them for financial benefit, and in many such communities, the rich and the powerful have taken steps to do so. Schools-- public education-- are often a first target because they operate with the most democratic process to be swept away and the greatest pile of money to be swept up.

Put another way, Puerto Rico is an answer to the question, "What would privatizers and profiteers do if we collected the non-white non-wealthy in a single place, stripped them of political power, and removed all obstacles to doing as we wished." The answer is not a good or encouraging one, and it is put into starker relief in the current crisis, which presents us with a follow up question-- "What would we do if the place had been mostly hollowed out of its valuables, and then something Really Bad happened?"

Just a few days ago, Tyler Cowen wrote "Puerto Rico's American Dream Is Dead" for Bloomberg View:

The underlying reality is that the political and economic model for the island just isn’t working any more, and the dream of Puerto Rican economic convergence has been laid to rest once and for all. That in turn says something bad about the rest of this country, namely how quickly we will give up on the possibility of transformational change.

That's the depressing lesson here. Puerto Rico has been our little aspirational laboratory for how non-wealthy non-white folks are supposed to Make It Work in this country, but in fact, it has become a demonstration of how we stack the deck against them, and then stack that stacked deck on top of them to hold them down.

Watch carefully over the next year. We are going to learn something about ourselves as a country, as a people, by how we treat Puerto Rico, now that the island has been crushed by natural disaster. Early indicators are not good. We are slow to respond, reluctant to lift the Jones Act on shipping restrictions for any length of time (because it protects corporate interests), and have offered to give them more debt to pile on top of the already crushing debt.

Puerto Rico makes plain the expectations for non-white non-wealthy citizens-- not only do we expect them to rise by being smart, hard-working, and independent, but we expect them rise by doing all these things while larger powers work to hold them down. It's a stark reality in Puerto Rico, but once you see what it looks like there, it is mighty hard not to see it in the predatory exploitive treatment of non-white non-wealthy citizens on the mainland. We can see the future of many communities and their schools, and it is not a pretty one.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

AZ: Teachers Abandon Ship

We revisit Arizona from time to time because it has been quietly throwing its hat into the ring with Florida and North Carolina to compete for the title "Worst State for Education in the US." To quote from previous pieces:

Arizona has been at this for a while. Bill McCallum, co-author of the Common Core math standards, was a professor at the University of Arizona. When the Core turned out to be conservative kryptonite, Diane Douglass ran as a Core destroyer and then, once she won, promptly slapped a thin layer of lipstick on that pig.

Meanwhile, Arizona has wrestled with a teacher shortage, but not to the point of, say, fixing their basement level pay. Wrestling has been more about things like recruiting teachers from the Philipines. Oh, and Arizona also sits at the back of the pack for per-pupil spending. Meanwhile, Arizona is the home of the legislator who said that teachers are probably working two jobs because they want a fancy boat.  And that's before we get to such atmosphere boosters like considering a teacher gag law and a ban on Mexican-American studies in school. Fun fact: Arizona spends less per student on education than pretty much anyone-- including, reportedly, Puerto Rico.

It should come as no surprise that Arizona has something like 1,300 teacher spots to fill.

Lord knows, they've tried many things. I mean, not raising teacher pay or improving teaching conditions or providing more resources for public schools-- that would be crazy talk. Besides, spending more money on public education would mean less money to be gobbled up by the many profiteers cashing in on the charter business. Fun fact: Arizona's legislature has cut $1 billion from K-12 education since 2009.

Arizona has somewhere around 49,000 teaching spots in all. Just under 2,500 of those are filled with Gov. Ducey's super-duper "Anyone Can Teach" program because of course the problem must be that becoming a teacher is too hard.

Arizona is the perfect example of the Fake Teacher Shortage that we all keep talking about. In fact, reports put the number of certified teachers in the state at around 95,000-- far more than the number of spots the state needs to fill. In other words, there was never a need for an alternative teacher certification path or to recruit in the Phillipines. Arizona does not have a teacher shortage-- what Arizona has is a shortage of people willing to work as teachers for low pay, with no support, in schools without sufficient resources. Fun fact: a Costco worker will make $12,000 more in a year than the average Arizona teacher.

To underline this, here comes reports from early in this school year that over 500 teachers had quit by the fourth week of school. AZ Central quotes one of the departees:

"I'm a hard worker with a successful track record of 30+ years of engineering, manufacturing and science research.  I've had stressful assignments at remote locations, deadlines, stopped manufacturing lines, teams to lead that I never before met.  I knew and was prepared to work hard at my newly-chosen profession.  But before TUSD, I never had a job that made me break down in tears."

Arizona has studied its problem more than once. The most recent report came out in April, and it has some fun facts of its own:

* 42% of the teachers hired in 2013 left within three years.
* 74% of AZ superintendents report shortages of teachers
* When you adjust for cost of living, AZ elementary teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. High school teachers come in 48th.

The main reasons teachers are leaving? Retirement, disillusionment, low pay, and feeling a lack of support.

Governor Ducey has now launched a tuition-waiver plan-- teach for four years in an Arizona public school and get your college education paid for. The "teacher academy" program will be piloted with 236 students. 

It's not a terrible idea, but it also doesn't address any of Arizona's real problems-- all of which are self-inflicted. If you are having trouble filling up your water bucket, you might want to look at all the holes you've punched in the bottom of the bucket before you start concentrating on new ways to pour water into it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


If you've been busy with the start of the new school year, you may have missed the Symposium on the Currency of Micro-Credentials earlier this month. Just one more sign of the cool new way to privatize education coming down the pike.

The micro-party was thrown by Digital Promise, and co-hosted by CCSSO and Learning Forward. Digital Promise is an organization that is heavily invested in providing little micro-trainings for fun and profit, serving as a platform for both their own trainings and the offerings of other edu-businesses like the Relay Graduate [sic] School [sic] of Education [sic]. You probably recognize the initials for the Council of Chief State School Officers, since they are one of the fine organizations that gave us the Common Core. Learning Forward is another edubiz conglomerate whose Board of Trustees includes the Senior School Support Strategist from the XQ Institute (Laurene Jobs' pet project).

Micro-credentials, for those of you just becoming acquainted, is the idea of earning a credit or badge or virtual gold star for achieving some sort of mini-competency. Log on and take a one hour webinar on the use of wait time as a classroom strategy, take the quiz at the end, and now you have a micro-credential in wait time. In the wettest dream of micro-credentialists, badges can be earned pretty much anywhere from anybody (here's a particularly full and frightening vision). These digital badges follow you around from cradle to grave, so that employers can come up with a micro-description of the qualifications for their next gig and micro-hire the person with the exact collection of micro-badges they're looking for. At least, that's the idea.

So what cool stuff micro-happened at the symposium?

The gathering had less to do with micro-crede4ntialing students and more with micro-certifying teachers, asking questions like how to do credentialling through collections of micro-credentials. One more ominous session looked at

the mechanisms through which microcredentials can provide educators with access to and progression through new career pathways. Participants will explore what changes or new systems might be required to build meaningful career pathways through micro-credentials and incorporate them into state or district human capital policies.

Teachers will need these new career paths, because micro-credentials do away with any real need for actual teachers. Folks can micro-earn their badges from anyone anywhere at any time. Because that's how we build better human capital (aka meat widgets). And yet, the panel discussion "Insights from the Field" included Ann Coffman, the Senior Program Analyst from NEA.

The gathering was micro-attended by over 100 people (here's the list) including folks from RTI International; the Departments of Education in Delaware, Colorado, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Arkansas; McGraw-Hill, several school systems; Relay GSE, KQED, AIR, ASCD, the NEA, and Apple, as well as the hosting organizations. It tells you something about the intent of the gathering that the spreadsheet heads the column about affiliations "company."

Micro-credentials may seem like a long shot, but in many ways they are a more likely way to privatize education. If you want to get in the ed biz and score some of those sweet public tax dollars, you don't have to develop an entire school-- just position yourself to teach one or two small things. And since folks can gather any credentials in any place at any time, school buildings can be converted to condos, and teachers are completely unnecessary (in fact, some models suggest that once you have earned a credential, you are "qualified" to "teach" it to someone else, like a xerox of a xerox of a xerox, on into blurry infinity).

Your new resume

 And for folks whose ideal is Management By Screen, this is a beautiful vision. You don't even have to talk to your human capital, because every meat widget has a digital file that includes everything from the social skills displayed at age 5 to every micro-credential they've ever earned. You can hire and fire without ever having a conversation ever again.

Of course, such a system requires all knowledge and skills to be broken down into small, simple, easily measurable performance tasks that can be easily standardized. And it requires a huge tolerance on the part of meat widgets everywhere for a gigantic digital Big Brother file to follow them about. And it requires our Data Overlords to get way way WAY better at collecting, correcting, and protecting our data. To prove that they've achieved those three goals, the Data Overlords are going to have to show me something more convincing than their data management micro-credentials.

But the micro-participants were not worried about any of this:

The evening ended with an inspiring conversation on teacher engagement between Hashim Pipkin of Digital Promise and Aneka Stewart, literacy specialist at KIPP DC. Stewart discussed her experience earning the Executive Function micro-credential from the Friday Institute at NC State University. She was able to immediately apply what she learned with her students and appreciated both the research that backed up the micro-credential and the ability to work at her own pace. “I would love to have a micro-credential series on executive function so I can keep the issue up front and put [what I learn] into practice,” she said.

There was also gushing over "rich artifacts" backed by "rigorous research" plus "multi-pronged approaches" and the need for a "common language" while "providing value." Also, since assessment is time intensive, what are the proper "correct incentives to support assessment, such as financial compensation or conference attendance." Yes, please-- when I do work, I want to be compensated in conference attendance.

This is high grade digital micro-baloney, but symposiums like this underline how excited corporate types are about the whole business of micro-credentials. Mind you, nothing I read about the symposium indicated that anyone was worrying about the quality of the actual education provided by this micro-delivery system. But the marketing possibilities for vendors is exciting; these folks are line up and ready to cash in-- and not in a micro-way.

The Other Unfunded Mandates

Talk to teachers-- or former teachers-- across the country, and you hear similar complaints. An increase of job responsibilities, without the necessary time or resources to complete them. When we talk about unfunded mandates, we usually mean some program for which the government has said, "You must do this, but we will not give you any money to pay for it." But it is another kind of unfunded mandate when a school says to a teacher, "You are being given new tasks to complete, but we expect you to donate the time to do them on your own."

In addition to your regular teaching duties, and preparing to teach, and grading papers, and recording the grades, we would like you to also administer some pre-testing tests and then crunch the data. We'd like you to create your lesson plans in a new piece of software, and use that software to build scope and sequence for your courses. Create some emotional and social development programs for the students. Call every parent. Keep everything up to date and entered on your school website (using the new software that we expect you to teach yourself).

Before you squawk back, here are two things I know about this.

One is that teachers are not alone. I have nurses in my family, and I have watched how the health care providers solve budget issues by the not-very-clever method of simply reducing the number of staff, which can be done by declaring, "You still-employed people will now do your old job and also somebody else's old job." Many companies also use the technique of cutting employee hours, but not employee responsibilities. "Do what you've always done-- just do it in half the time." So, yeah-- I now that teaching is not the only place suffering from these unfunded mandates.

Another thing I know is that teachers are professionals and not hourly wage workers. When I signed up for an English teacher job, I knew that those essays wouldn't grade themselves, and I wouldn't have six unassigned hours during the school day in which to grade them. Any teacher who thinks she can do the job within the hours of the school day and no more is kidding herself. The out-of-school hours are part of the gig.

But teachers are good team players, and therefor terrific institutional enablers. Administrators add hours to the teaching day like drunks add gin to their glass, and some teachers just keep saying, "Well, that's okay. I'll make sure the kids have a normal Christmas and take the phone calls from your mother."

Teachers suck it up and squeeze in the new duties instead of telling their administrator, "I can do this, but I'll need direction from you on which duties you wold like me to stop performing." They donate the extra hours to the district, and then complain that administrators aren't fixing the problem, but here's the thing-- from the administrator's perspective, there is no problem. The fact that Mrs. Bagshot is sad about all the hours she spent at work is not an administrative problem. It's not an administrative problem until the job doesn't get done and Mrs. Bagshot is telling her boss, "No, I didn't get it done. I ran out of time."

Of course, if Mrs. Bagshot works in a charter school or a state that has "freed" its teachers from the "inflexible" union rules, Mrs. Bagshot will donate the extra hours or else suffer unemployment.

But for the rest of us can draw lines.

That raises the question of where, exactly, to draw those lines. Because in some cases, failure to donate free time to the district creates more problems for us or the students than we really want to see. It's decision that everyone has to make on their own; you're the one who has to live with your choice. For me, it boils down to this-- my job, the job I signed up for, is to use my expertise and knowledge to help students learn how to be better at reading, writing, speaking and listening. On the bigger scale, my work is to help them discover and grow toward the best version of themselves, to help them better envision what it means to be fully human, how to be in the world. So anything that helps me do my job is worth my time. And anything that doesn't, isn't.

I can't tell anyone else where to draw their lines. But if we want to be respected as professionals, we need to be careful about giving away our time for free. After all, how can we expect someone else  to value our time if we don't seem to?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Shock Treatment


This story is from back in May, but it's still alarming right now. Philip Perry at Big Think reports that DARPA is financing research on ways to "educate" you by jamming some electricity into your brain.

DARPA announced this new initiative back in March of 2016. Targeted Neoplasticity Training (TNT) would involve delivering some "mild electric shocks" to a specific nerve "in order to facilitate learning." The idea is to hook up to the peripheral nerves ( the same network used to promote healing and operate robot prosthetics) and use electric impulses to stimulate the growth of neuronal connections inside the brain, releasing the neurochemicals "responsible for reorganizing the brain in response to new experiences."

DARPA is handing out $50 million to eight teams that will be working on this.

Yes, there's some research that sort of kinda backs this up, like this paper about Vagus nerve stimulation helping verbal memory and fighting off Alzheimers and battling depression and treating epilepsy.

Of course, we've also learned that plain old exercise helps grow brain cells, too. But that's not as cool as Matrix-style plug-and-play humans who can learn martial arts by jamming a wire into the port in the back of their neck.

Back in April, Xiaoqin Wang, a biomedical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins announced that he expected to start zapping some live humans within a few months, so this stuff may already be going on. There are many questions left to be answered-- is it better to zap before or after the learning takes place? How big a zap? And does this work any better than coffee or sleep?

Certainly this would be a game-changer for schools, and even the advent of computer-based personalized learning would be altered as hardware designers would have to figure out how best to wire up the students. USB ports? And would teachers get control of the system? "Pat, you just can't seem to grasp adverb clauses, so I'm going to up your voltage."  A brave new world, indeed.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

McKinsey Non-Research PISA Thing

From the first sentence, I could tell how much I was going to hate this:

By applying advanced analytics and machine learning, we have identified factors that play a critical role in student achievement. 

This is a new mini "report" from McKinsey, one of the world's top management consulting companies, a group that has occasionally dipped its claws into the education biz.

The report-- "How To Improve Student Educational Outcomes: New Insight from Data Analytics"-- is one more example of using data to get the desired results from carbon-based life forms. The corporation has been applying analytics internationally across five different geo-political groupings, and they crunched numbers from the PISA (both the test and the survey that goes with it). They offer findings in two areas:


Well, look. Vindication for Ben Carson:

Our conclusion: after controlling for all other factors, student mindsets are twice as predictive of students’ PISA scores than even their home environment and demographics.

Yup. According to McKinsey, grit and growth mindset are all you need to overcome difficult circumstances at home. The report does not explain how researchers assessed a students' "calibrated motivational mindset," but they are sure it's super-important. Sure, they admit, being rich and not poor can be helpful. And they also note that research on the mindset-outcomes link is "both nascent and predominantly US-based."

But the lesson is clear-- poor kids need to stop whining and start calibrating their motivation.


The report casually notes that there are two "dominant" types of teaching-- teacher directed and inquiry driven (so I guess, thankfully, we're going to skip over "student stuck in front of a computer).

The data suggests that the sage on the stage gets better test scores than the guide on the side, until you "dig deeper" and then see there is a "sweet spot" of combining the two. As with the first finding, the writers offer absolutely no details on how they were able to figure this out from PISA test and survey results.

This combo holds more true in top-scoring systems. On the developing end of the scale, inquiry-based isn't much help. The authors conclude that students must have to gain enough knowledge via teacher-directed instruction in order for inquiry-based to work.

Even a survey as large and rigorous as the PISA assessment provides only some of the answers. Nevertheless, we believe that our findings provide useful insights to guide policy makers as they make their way to their ultimate destination—improving the education and thus the lives of students all over the world.

And that's our generic conclusion.

Honestly, some of these results might be interesting, and some of them might be bunk. The report refers to a "series of reports" so maybe somewhere out in the world there is a more thorough piece of work. But this is like nothing at all. "We look at some data and we decided some stuff 'cause of that. 'kay?" We are left to imagine how any of these conclusions were reached.

Our guides on this non-journey? Emma Dorn (practice manager in McKinsey's Silicon Valley office), Marc Krawitz (an associate partner in the New Jersey office),  and Mona Mourshed (senior partner in the Washington, DC, office). Dorn is a Harvard Business School grad. Krawitz has a PhD in math from U of Michigan. Mourshed has a PhD in economic development from MIT and did some McKinsey work on Education to Employment. Which means that none of these folks have any education background, but are highly educated and surely know how to show their work in a research paper.

Maybe the other reports, wherever they are, contain more legit explanation of how these various conclusions were teased out. But as it stands, this is a big nothingburger.

ESSA: No Answers in Washington

Betsy DeVos went to talk to all the rich, white Republicans at the Mackinac Island leadership conference last week. “The time of ‘Washington knows best’ is over,”she said, and for non-fans of DeVos, it would be easy to retort, "Yeah, now that you and your boss are there, we're pretty sure Washington doesn't know a damned thing. Har!"

We're pretty sure Betsy doesn't know best, but then neither did John King, and the number of things Arne Duncan didn't know were also legendary. So let's not pretend that there was some golden age when the US Department of Education provided wise and informed leadership to America's schools. Looking for great education leadership for the Secretary of Education is like looking for true love on The Bachelor-- it's not impossible, but as the years and iterations pile up, it looks less and less probable.

This is the background that got us ESSA, the current mish-mosh of laws and regulations governing US education. Congress set out to create a law that deliberately pushed USED out of the room, and the John King's USED set out to interpret the law through regulations that let USED climb back in through the window, and then the whole thing was handed over to an administration whose only clear policy goal seems to be "Make things look as if Barack Obama was never actually President at all."

In the meantime, the law's birth was attended by the usual pack of profiteers, making sure that there was language in there somewhere to give their favorite fat piggies access to the public trough. So personalized [sic] computerized learning and social impact bonds and data-mining young humans and de-professionalizing the teaching profession and charter giveaways all have an open door in there somewhere. And of course ESSA continues the devotion to test-centered schools.

As I wrote in 2015, ESSA solves nothing. But it does change the venue of the debate, and that's not a bad thing. I would much rather deal with my state legislature than try to get a member of Congress to listen to me. I would much rather have bad choices affect one state instead of fifty. I would much rather have the corporate stooges scrambling back and forth between fifty states than let them do one stop shopping for lawmakers in DC.

DeVos has encouraged states to stretch the rules to the breaking point and see if the feds (ie her department) will stop them. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Heaven only knows what this will mean, or which states will have the cojones to try.

But it underlines that there are now at least fifty education debates, and they each have their own issues. Some states are under siege by personalized learning advocates. Some are being pressed hard by charter fans. Some are hard at work dismantling teaching. And almost everyone is staging a different version of Common Core Kabuki Theater.

I was someone post of being discouraged, that they thought a few years ago that we might win this. I don't want to be a bummer, but no-- this fight will never be won. It's a marathon, a race against people who have a lot of money and want to get a lot more. I don't envision a day when they say, "You know what? We just give up."

I hate warfare metaphors, but I'm reduced to one here. We will win battles. We will lose battles. There will always be more battles. I like ESSA because it decreases the chances that one battle will be critical to everything. Eggs and baskets and all that. There will be no answers in Washington.

The shape of the resistance is changing, and it will continue to change. Local concerns will loom larger than national ones, and that in turn will loosen the ties that have bound liberals and conservatives together. We can potentially waste a great deal of time and energy arguing about who is really on which team and who gets to wear which team jersey (and if it makes you feel any better, the reformsters have been caught up in similar debates).

We are still going to need each other, for support, resources, information. But relationships all across the world of the ed debates are changing, and they're going to change more.

I've never much cared for calls for "unity." It always seems to mean "Shut up and agree with me." But I think we each have to remember what we value, work toward that in the ways we do best, and support people where our values coincide (while recognizing that there will rarely be 100% agreement). There is a comfort in Big Movements, because they usually come with Big Leaders, and lots of folks are comfortable finding someone they can just follow all the time. But my sense is that we are moving toward a time of many smaller movements, with many normal human sized leaders, linked together, but fighting more local fights.

Know who you trust. Know what you believe. Pay attention. Stay rested and ready. Every win matters.

ICYMI: Hurricane Season Edition (9/24)

Here's some reading for the week. Don't forget to share!

College Board Set to Frack Philadelphia Students

Wrench in the Gears with a reminder that the SATs (and other tests) are all about getting students to give up a ton of personal data for free.

School Segregation Makes a Comeback

Yet another look at how many communities are rolling the clock back to pre-integration days

The Nation's Report Card Says It Assesses Critical THinking but the NAEP Actually Gets an F on That Score

Even a little bit of, well, critical thinking would lead to the conclusion that a standardized test can never measure critical thinking. Valerie Strauss passes on some actual concrete study data to back that up.

What David Osborne Should Learn about Philadelphia

Osborne is kind of a jerk, but right now he's out there pushing hard for replacing public schools with charters. In fact, he's pushing so hard that he's busy making stuff up.

Skipping Classes I Don't Need

Jose Vilson with some thoughts about standardization, among other things.

Audacious Hack

This story has been making the rounds. It's a reminder to be specific with your instructions. Well played, indeed.

Should Fifth Graders Be Studying the KKK?

Nancy Flanagan with a thoughtful response to the South Carolina KKK flap.

I Taught at the XQ Super School

Laurene Jobs' infomercialtainmentganda special sank without a ripple, so I'd be happy to move on, except for this cool piece. Gary Rubinstein has been a prolific debunker of miracle schools, but this time it turns out he actually worked there.

Your Bar Graphs Don't Impress (or Inspire) Me

Bill Ferriter with a great little reminder about the proper place of data in examining our work.

Call for Stories

Finally, believe it or not, there's a person out there working on a musical about teaching in high-stakes testing environments, and she wants some real-life stories about it. Vamboozled has more information.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Food Affects Testing

I don't have a lot of value to add to this item, but I don't want you to miss it.

Turns out that schools that serve high-poverty populations that want to improve their test scores may want to pay closer attention to when SNAP benefits arrive. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is what we used to call "food stamps," and researchers a have determined that SNAP is just as important to your test scores as a few rounds of test prep.

Chad D. Cotti (University of Wisconsin), John Gordanier (University of South Carolina), and Orgul D. Ozturk (University of South Carolina) looked at standardized test scores plotted against the SNAP benefits cycle and discovered, lo and behold, that students who tested during the final weeks of the benefit cycle (when families have typically used up the benefits and are making do with less food)-- those students get lower scores. There's also an effect when the benefits arrive within the four days before testing, and that score-lowering effect primarily hits African-American males. The researchers suggest it's a weekend thing.

The data was from testing in South Carolina from 2000-2012. It involves some equations that I don't understand and a great deal of economist jargon. If a student's family receives benefits 26 days before testing, the researchers find the "student performs between 14 and 4.5 hundredths of a standard deviation" worse than they would have on a better day.

So if you'd like a paper that shows that 1) SNAP has positive benefits and 2) Big Standardized Tests measure factors that have nothing to do with educational achievement, here you go. Because that's where we are now-- needing actual proof that students do better when they are well fed. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

CRPE: Public Schools Should Assist Their Own Execution

The Center for Reinventing Public Education is an advocacy group intent on pushing corporate reformy agenda. They've taken shots at holding schools and teachers acountable, and they've fought for charter schools in their home state of Washington. And like many of these corporately-funded reformily-networked pseudo thinky tanks, they like to publish the occasional "report." Their newest one offers some bold and ballsy solutions to the problems of shrinking public schools.

Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment is a masterpiece of concern-trolling self-serving For The Children with a side-order of PR spin advice for charters. And I have read it so that you don't have to.


Robin Lake, the director at CRPE, sets a tone with the very first introductory adverb clause--

When districts go into a major period of “declining enrollment,”

So it's only so-called "declining enrollment," meaning that something else is really going on?

Whatever it is, it's happening to many districts, like Detroit. Lots of folks want to call charter schools a factor in this phenomenon, but Lake is not so sure. So she got together with the Economics Lab at Georgetown and Afton Partners, a DC consulting firm that specializes in school finances, along with some un-named various edu-leaders gathered in Houston.

Lake is not going to make us read the whole thing to get to her point:

The bottom line: public charter schools are not to blame for districts’ financial struggles, but it is in their best interest to be part of a solution moving forward.

That's the pre-concluded conclusion of this paper-- all that's left is the how's and why's. Nothing, Lake says, will change the inevitable marching onslaught of charters, and school districts are just going to have to figure out how to be more nimble and learn how to compete. And CRPE wants to "help lead that work." Because of their deep concern for public education and also, for the children.


A quote from an unnamed "District superintendent" says that there are always transition costs and the charter movement "forgot that in the transition from the monopoly district system to individual schools" transition costs would rear their pricey heads. Man-- which district superintendent referred to traditional public schools as a "monopoly district system"? But let's move on.

Declining public school enrollment has led to the "perception" that charter expansion is coming at the cost of public schools, and that perception "even if unfounded" has led to "tensions" between charter and public schools. Yes, and the declining number of hairs on my head has led to the perception that I'm balder than I used to be.

There's a message here for charteristas from CRPE-- you can pooh-pooh these "perceptions," but you just got your ass handed to you over Question 2 in Massachusetts. But CRPE doesn't want readers to think they're simply discussing a tweakage of charter marketing-- the defeats of charter initiatives could hurt the children who are trapped in public schools that "decline in quality." So charters have got to up their PR game. For the children.

Also, the writers are concerned-- really concerned-- that public schools are not holding up well under the pressures created by declining enrollment, because that would be bad For The Children, and so CRPE would like to offer some suggestions, just to help. Because they're so concerned. About the children.

What We Know (And Don't Know) About District Transformation

Lots of districts had declining enrollment before charters showed up. But it sure does look like more recently, charters have certainly contributed to public enrollment decline. In Detroit and DC, public school enrollment dropped. In fact, in DC charter enrollment grew more than public enrollment dropped  over 18 years "implying that a significant minority (11,000) of charter students had come from private schools or outside the district." There are some interesting numbers being thrown around, though I'm kind of wondering if CRPE knows that new students can also be, you know, born.

CRPE notes that public schools are designed to grow rather than shrink, and I'm not sure I believe that, but they do manage to describe, with a handy graphic, a district financial death spiral-- cuts in money leads to cuts in service leads to drops in enrollment leads to cuts in funding etc etc etc.

But CRPE has some thoughts about what public schools need to do to better respond flexibly to the various cuts they suffer from. Let's see what they have in mind to "help" public schools.

Oh, This List Again

Eight items. All familiar.

1) Close schools and make some money selling real estate.

2) Redistricting and tweaking enrollment set ups.

3) End FILO so that you can fire the more expensive senior teachers. In discussing this CRPE barely pretends there are issues of quality here (the old "save our great young teachers and can those washed up burnouts"). No, if you fire old staff, you can keep more warm bodies.

4) Advocate for reform of long-term, fixed-cost obligations. AKA, ask your legislators to get you released from your pension commitments.

5) Ending unsustainable/unfunded salary commitments, such as automatic step-and-lane raises. You can save so much money if you don't have to pay those damn teachers jack. Also, though CRPE doesn't mention this, if public schools weren't paying teachers so much money, charters wouldn't be under pressure to keep their own salary offers competitive.

6) Create a uniform funding system that would blah blah blah "pay charters more" is where I think we're headed here.

7) Commit to long-term decision-making to help manage decline. In other words, you may just think that public schools are sick and need some treatment to get better, but we think it's time to check them into a hospice. Stop trying to save them, and start working on death with dignity.

8) Keep looking for "operational efficiencies, in part by making more costs, such as transportaion and special education, variable." Which I think is business-speak for "find ways to squeeze and screw your suppliers and subcontractors."

Notice that none of these suggestions include mitigating the outside pressures on public schools. For instance "Cap charter growth" or "Fully fund schools" did not make it onto this list.

CRPE notes that the issue can be complex. They even note that the financial crunch is often felt worst by the students who need support most. A one-size-fits-all strategy won't work, but, CRPE, "it is also important to transcend  finger-pointing." No single party is to blame and no parties are blameless. There's trouble created on many sides. On many sides. (And don't forget, charters-- though none of this may be your fault, you've still got to have a plan for managing the optics and politics of it.)

Anyway, here are some specific issues/thoughts/stuff that they came up with in their Houston meeting with all those anonymous folks.

The charter-district dynamic can no longer be thought of as a zero-sum game.

Um, no. That's exactly wrong. Under current charter laws, it is exactly a zero-sum game. Every student who attends a charter is a student who doesn't attend a public school. Every dollar sent to a charter school is a dollar that public schools no longer have. It is the very definition of a zero-sum game.

But the folks at CRPE's meeting were really talking about something else.

Participants agreed that the issue must be framed around creating better opportunities for all students, meeting their widely varying needs and learning styles, regardless of what kind of school they’re in.

In other words, if charters want to handle their PR more effectively, they've got to stop saying out loud, "Those kids still in public school aren't our problem. Screw 'em." Charters must at least pretend to care that all students are "buffered" from the effects of "disruptive change." CRPE doesn't really know what that looks like. But I am going to give them credit for at least talking about how charters affect all students in a community-- not just the ones at the charter.

Districts have a responsibility to act in the best interests of students-- existing and future

This is a cool new spin on For The Children. Basically, we have to cut costs and keep staffing cheap so that we will be viable, and when we have to cut even more, it won't hurt the children.

Note that it does not mean to go lobby hard for legislators to fully fund all schools.

Legacy Costs

More of the same. This may seem kind of hard to read about, but whenever you see "legacy costs" just think "financial promises made in the past that we find it inconvenient to live up to in the present."

The charter sector needs to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to district

Well, that is a challenge, because the public has eyes and ears and, for the most part, brains, and over the past decade or two they've been able to plainly see how charters do, in fact, harm public school districts. Not only that, but charters leave the vast majority of students in those public schools that are being harmed-- and they do so after deciding which students they feel like "saving."

The old answers don't work. "Charters are cooking up awesome game-changing innovations" has turned out to be false. "Just pay attention to the ones we're saving," is less and less effective. And nobody has ever really addressed the biggest charter lie of all, which is the notion that we can run three or six or ten parallel schools for the same money we spent to run one. If you really want to have four different school systems serving the same community, you need to fund four school systems. For some reason, nobody wants to be the one telling taxpayers, "We are going to raise your taxes to pay for schools to duplicate the work of the school's you are already paying for."

CRPE knows this, because one of their pieces of advice is "close school buildings" because operating fewer buildings is cheaper. So what do you suppose it does to overall costs in a community if we close one district school building and open four charter buildings?

Charter schools and districts alone don't own all the problems.

And by "problems," we mean "pensions." And laws about teacher tenure, and how schools are financed. Legislators need to fix some of this. Not, mind you, by using caps to manage charter growth, or by expanding financing to cover several school systems.

First Steps Toward Solutions

So how do we fix all of these things? CRPE has some thoughts.

Districts need to close schools and negotiate contracts that don't spend so much money. The closing school solution seems to run up against the "don't take on long-term debts and costs" solution, as schools frequently manage consolidation of schools by taking on construction projects.

They would like to see more partnership, but their example is "if charters find a way to give cheap retirement plans might encourage public systems to adopt similar systems." So, yeah, charters that want to pay teachers less could, I suppose, try to convince public schools not to outbid them. That's cooperation, sort of.

And there would need to be city-level strategy sessions. Which should be a hoot as long as nobody ever addresses the underlying zero-sum game that is charter vs. public schools. But that's not going to happen, since one proposed solution is that districts "publicly identify" their legacy costs in exchange for a charter funding formula that more closely resembles public per-pupil costs:

For example, charter schools might receive less per-pupil funding under such an agreement but would be able to tell the public, with confidence, that charter and district students received the same classroom funding and that charter schools weren’t contributing to a district’s impending insolvency.

Yeah, that doesn't even make sense. "Getting same classroom funding" doesn't equal "not sucking public school dry." So maybe the suggestion here is that charter's get their funding and public schools admit that they're insolvent because their buildings and pensions and teacher pay are all just way expensive. In other words, charters agree to get paid public tax dollars, and public schools agree to publicly say it's their own damn fault they're having financial problems. Why would public schools want to enter into this deal, exactly? And would the funding formula include all the "philanthropic" contributions to charters?

CRPE also suggests that public schools be given some limited extra funding to be used only as a means of down-sizing. Or if districts can prove they're shrinking as fast as possible, charters would agree to a voluntary growth slow down. Or some other grand bargain that basically involves charters conducting business as usual while public schools agree to work harder at dying, already.

CRPE also has a list of Things To Discuss and Research Further. Gather more data about how much financial vampirage charters are really committing, and how much is just, you know, other reasons for districts to lose money. More data about "fixed costs" and just generally how teachers are draining money by wanting to be paid. Figure out the greatest number of students the charters could handle, because that's the ideal, apparently--  as many students taken out of public school as possible. More power for superintendents. They don't say which power, exactly, but context suggests that old favorite-- hire, fire and set salaries without stupid rules and unions. Learning from other sectors like energy and healthcare, because they're just like schools.

Bottom Line

CRPE is correct in one thing-- we do have to look at how charters affect the whole local educational eco-system. But their belief in the inevitable supremacy of charters gets in the way of a useful conversation.

The report seems to boil down basically to "Charters and public schools should work together to make employment conditions worse for teachers. Also, they should team up to help charters thrive and to help public schools die more efficiently and without making charters look bad. For The Children."

Maybe this is supposed to be an innovative approach to the Socratic method, and public schools are just supposed to take a hemlock bath because it would make life easier for charters. But I don't imagine many takers will line up to take CRPE's offer. Not even for the children.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Computer Limitations

I had my first encounter with computer programming in a college math class in 1978. Turing machines, if-then switches. Fun times. A year or so later, I took an actual programming course; we wrote programs in BASIC on punch cards. Really fun times.

Software and hardware have changed, but not so some of the most basic lessons I learned at the time, and one of the most important lessons about computers is this.

Computers are stupid.

They are tireless, and they are insanely fast. But they are stupid. And as we contemplate the increasing wave of edtech products that claim to have artificial intelligence baked in (though in virtually all cases what's actually baked in is a complex algorithm), we must remember one simple truth about these stupid, stupid machines.

A computer cannot do anything that a human does not know how to do.

Take for instance the many programs that now claim they can read a student's character and personality by monitoring facial expressions and answering patterns. The first question we have to ask is, are there any human beings who know how to do that?

Is there any person who can look at still pictures or video shots of a single human face and definitively analyze that person's character?

Because if there's no human who can do it, then there's no human who can program a computer to do it because (say it with me) computers are stupid.

There may well be actions that a human could not complete, because it would take a gazillion person-hours to do it, like compute Pi out to a zillion places-- but a human still knows how to do it, and so a human can tell a computer how to do it.

Can a human predict exactly what the stock market will do next? Does a human know how to predict who will win the 2020 Presidential election? Does a human know how to read personality via facial expressions (and remember-- we already debunked phrenology)? Can a human look at ten multiple choice questions and know definitively how well a student understands algebra? Can a human use only sentence length and vocabulary choice to determine whether an essay is any good or not? Does a human know how to look at one test and predict exactly how a specific student will fare on an entirely different test?

The answer to all of these is "no." And that means that a computer program can't do any of these things, either.

When someone presents you with a computer program that allegedly does something magical, the question to ask is, "How can it do that, exactly?" If no human knows the algorithm for achieving that goal, then no computer programmer knows how to tell software to achieve that goal.

Computers are not magical. They're just fast, tireless, persistent, and stupid.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That Teacher Absenteeism Report

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a Washington DC based advocacy group that works the reformy side of the street. They worked hard to sell the Common Core, and they operate charter schools in Ohio while pushing hard to sell pro-charter policy across the country. They are well-connected; I can only assume that there is some federal law that requires all journalists writing a piece about education to get a quote from Fordham head Mike Petrilli.

I've crossed words with Petrilli many times (in fact, he was the first blog subject to clap back at me). He seems smart and sharp, and most reminds me of that kid in class who likes to debate and really doesn't care what side he's on. I think Fordham has some scruples; I don't think they'd try to promote bludgeoning baby seals no matter how much they were paid. They don't come across as idelogues. But at the end of the day, they strike me as a PR/lobbying firm dressed up as a thinky tank and ready to do the job they were hired to do.

All of which is the baggage I carry with me as I read about their newest research-ish hatchet job on public school teachers.

Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools comes with a headline that writes itself (and has been doing so all day)-- public school teachers miss way more school than charter school teachers. Or as Fox News put it in, " Another reason to love charters: Their teachers actually show up for work."

The whole report really boils down to this chart:

State by state, the numbers are clear and appear damning, and Fordham is too slick and smart to hammer the point home, as in moments like this from the intro:

But compared to their counterparts in other industries and other countries, U.S. teachers seem to have poor attendance. On average, they miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave (in addition to the breaks they get for school vacations and national holidays); meanwhile, the average US worker takes about three-and-a-half sick days a year.  

Can a research paper press release be passive-aggressive?

My first response this morning upon seeing this covered in EdWeek was to call it cynical bullshit, and I'll stand by that initial reaction. Not because of the data. It is what it is, with the public school figures drawn from the Office of Civil Rights, which supposedly corrects for things like maternity leave and professional days.

No, I'm going to stick with "cynical bullshit" because what the report, and the pitching of it, lacks is anything that looks like a sincere attempt to figure out what's going on here. Instead, the whole process smacks much more of someone setting out a rack of clubs next to a bunch of baby seals. "We're not saying you have to club the baby seals, but if you're so inclined, there are the seals and here are some clubs. Just sayin'"

So the bullet points from this report are immediately recognizable as ammunition for some old arguments:

* Public school teachers miss more school than charter school teachers.

* Unionized teachers miss more school than noon-unionized teachers.

* Some states sure do give teachers a lot of sick days.

* Schools with a better culture have fewer teacher absences.

And just for some context, donchaknow

* When a teacher misses more than ten days, students in her class test lower

* People in other jobs don't get so many sick days, or summers off, either.

Just sayin'

Look. Facts are facts. And just so you know where I am personally on the whole business of using sick days, I'm the guy who, after almost forty years of teaching, has accumulated enough sick days that I could be sick for two entire years. Not only that, but by the terms of our contract, when I retire, the district will reward me for all those unused sick days with a bonus of $0.00. I don't take sick days unless I absolutely have to, and I'm not a fan of teachers who stay home every time they sniffle.

But this report raises a ton of questions, and it isn't interested in any of them as long as it can point out that those lazy union public school teachers sure take a lot of time off, you know? I'm just sayin'.

Pieces of this are bogus. The old research that finds a correlation between lower test scores and teacher days missed finds just that-- a correlation. Which means that it could be proof that teachers who have low-functioning classes that do poorly on tests are more likely to want a break.

And just in case you wonder whether Fordham is using the data to build a springboard for jumping to conclusions, here's one piece of the executive summary-- emphasis is mine:

Though we cannot prove it, it’s impossible not to sense that the high chronic absenteeism rates for traditional public school teachers are linked to the generous leave policies and myriad job protections that are enshrined in state law and local collective bargaining agreements. Because they can’t easily be fired, district teachers can use all their sick and personal days (and get paid for it) without worrying about what their principal or department head will think.

Yeah, it's actually entirely possible not to sense that if you didn't arrive with a bagful of anti-union, anti-public ed bias. This leads to some "policy-makers should really keep this in mind when negotiating contracts and writing laws" but the real point here is, "Union protection makes teachers cocky and forget their place. Somebody should straighten them out. I'm just sayin'."

And while I find the gap between public and charter teachers interesting, I can think of plenty of variables I'd love to see explored. Age, for instance-- charter teachers are almost always younger, so I'm wondering what the correlation between taking sick days and age might be. And I'm wondering about state to state comparisons-- Arkansas's charter teachers take fewer sick days than their public school teacher counterparts in Arkansas, but more sick days that public school teachers in over half of all other states. What's wrong with Arkansas?  Were cyber-charters factored in? Because how do we measure teacher attendance for those? And while the report acknowledges that crappy working conditions may exacerbate absenteeism, they don't really address the well-known high-pressure 80-hour-week nature of many charters and how that fits in this big picture.

And how do employment patterns factor into this. Is charter absenteeism affected by the number of charter teachers who are regularly invited to be absent forever? And how is it we are avoiding the obvious conclusion here, which is that when you tell people they can't have sick days or they're fired, they tend to take fewer sick days. Perhaps we're avoiding that line of thought because then we'd be talking about the crappy working conditions of charter schools instead of lazy-ass public school teachers.

What about the policy discussions about sick days for teachers-- do communities have a vested interest in saying, "Sick teachers, please stay home and don't infect my kids."

And the other important policy discussion that we never have when discussing how cushy a teaching job is-- why do we think that teachers should have it as badly as others instead of arguing that others should have it as good as teachers? Yes, teachers get 12 days of sick leave on average-- why doesn't everyone else get the same?

Of course, nobody is asking these questions. EdWeek at least got quotes from Lily ("using corrupted assertions to draw misguided conclusions") and Randi ("The reality is that charter schools need better leave policies, not worse ones". But EdWeek also gave a ton oof space to Kate Freakin' Walsh of NCTQ, and while for all I know Walsh is a lovely person who's nice to her mother, NCTQ is the shoddiest generator of headline-ready faux research in the biz; NCTQ's presence in an article is a clear sign that the article is not taking a serious look at the issues. 

Meanwhile, various charter organizations and Fox news are jumping on the headline because lazy-ass union teachers, amiright? We could dig a little deeper, make sure we're really understanding what's really happening, but you know, the clubs are here and the baby seals are here. Just sayin'. I'm not going to defend excessive teacher absence, but if we're going to talk about it, let's really talk about it and not just mine the issue for a handy tool for bashing unionized public school teachers.

Automotive Century

For far too many kids, this year's first ride in the family car looks and feels a lot like last year's first ride, and the year before that, and the generation before that. And the generation before that!

Pretty much what you see on the highway today

The automobile of today has changed very little from the automobile of a century ago. Driver in the front left seat. Passenger to his right. A parallel seat behind them. A steering wheel, always circular. Wheels-- always circular, and always four of them. A roof overhead. Pedal controls located on the floor-- accelerator to the right, brakes to the left.

None of this has changed since a century ago. Whether you were driving the Jeffrey Sedan by Nash, or the Hudson Super Six, or even the good old Ford Model T, you were driving essentially the same design, the same structure that folks drive today.

You might point to a variety of features that have changed, like electric ignition, radios, air conditioning, power steering, inflatable tires, changing body styles and designs, engine efficiency, speed, gas mileage, suspension and complete redesign of the power and drive trains. Piffle, I say. Minor cosmetic differences.

Why four wheels? Why not five? Or eight? And why round-- could we not achieve greater efficiencies with oval tires? Why keep the century-old steering wheel design? Why not a computer screen that displays the road ahead and allows the driver to select a path with a mouse or touchscreen interface? And if we have the screen, why would the driver need to face forward-- why not a inward-facing circle of seats, for better conversation among the passengers?

You may say that the current design is still with us precisely because a century of testing and experience tells us that, for instance, round wheels work best. I say, unleash the power of innovation and we will sweep all of that baloney aside. Did I say oval wheels? What about-- square wheels!!

For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!   - Betsy DeVos

The State of the Core

Maybe you thought we were done talking about Common Core, or maybe you just hoped we were. But here comes Maria Danilova of the Associated Press checking to see how our old buddy is doing (and talking to the Usual Suspects while she does so). But Danilova gives us a pundit's eye view of the Core's current status, and while that has value, the real story of how the Core is doing can only be seen at ground level, where teachers work. You remember teachers. Those education professionals that nobody ever talks to when it's time to write a think piece about what's going on in education.

So let's take a look.

First, it's important to remember what the lofty goals of the Core were. Every state was going to adopt them, and nobody was going to mess with them except-- maybe-- to add no more than 15% to the standards. Every school in the country would be on the same page; a student would be able to move from Iowa to Florida mid-year and never miss a step. Every student in America would take one of two standards-anchored tests, meaning that every student, school, and teacher in the country could be compared directly, thereby identifying all the outposts of genius and pockets of fail, and pieces of genius would be used to fill the gaps in failureland. Within a few years, the entire US education system would be homogenized, standardized, and uplifted.

That was the goal, though Core fans will now pretend they never heard any such thing.

That goal hasn't been achieved, and it's not going to be achieved,

Every assessment of the Core has to include that simple fact-- the Core architects failed to achieve their major goals. Any discussion of the State of the Core is really a discussion of whether or not they won some consolation prizes.

So how is the battered and unloved Core doing these days? Danilova says it's actually alive and kicking, and offers a new entry in the genre of "Quick and Simplified Histories of the Common Core"

Launched in 2010 by a bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs, Common Core sought to bring scholastic standards to the same high level nationwide. The standards quickly became controversial when the Obama administration offered states federal dollars to nudge them to adopt it. States’ rights activists cried foul, saying the effort undermined local control. Meanwhile, some teachers criticized the standards as confusing and out of synch with students’ needs, while others feared that non-fiction would crowd out the works of Shakespeare.

That's more accurate than some, though it overlooks the Bill Gates bankrolling of the Core and the fact that the standards were written by a handful of education amateurs. I do like "nudge," though, as a replacement for the old "voluntary adoption by states" baloney.

But is the Core alive and kicking? Well......

National Standards

Danilova points out that pretty much everyone who installed the standards still has them. This is true. Many states staged some elaborate theater so that they could lie to their conservative voters about getting rid of the Core, but despite some name changes, what states still have is an edited version of the Common Core standards.

This works because many of the people who complained about the Core had objections not entirely based on reality. In other words, if you were afraid that Common Core was going to turn your child into a lesbian communist vegan, well, look-- that transformation hasn't happened, so they must have gotten rid of Common Core. Hardly anyone else has been fooled.

This raises the important question, "So what?" One of the many unproven foundations of the Core is the idea that state or national standards have any effect on anything.


Danilova uses the understatement "Measuring the direct impact of Common Core is difficult." One might even say, impossible. She cites the Brookings study that suggested an initial burst of educational achievement which then tapered off, but there's a problem with virtually all studies of CCSS impact-- they depend on results of the Big Standardized Common Core Tests. That means all you're ever really proving is "We adopted a set of standards designed to teach to this test, and once we started teaching to that test, students got better results on that test."

This is the testing worm Ouroborus eating its own tail. Do better test results prove anything at all, other than the test prep is working? Does the test prep improve anything other than preparation for the test? There are still no serious answers to either of those questions, which leads me to believe that the answer to both is "No" or even "Hell, no."


Mike Petrilli, who by law must be quoted in every article about education policy, says that the core  is "a much better recipe for student achievement, but the cake is still being baked, so we don’t yet know if it’s going to taste as good as we hope." While I appreciate the opportunity to call the Common Core "half-baked," in fact, the Core is fully baked, crisped, put a fork in it, it's done.

But Danilova says the Core is used widely. This is right-but-not-right. Here's why the Core is already in its mature form, and that form is a sort of shambling zombie.

Start by gutting half

The very first thing that happened to the Common Core was the Common Core tests. The standards said, "Here are all the things that matter." The tests said, "Half of those things don't matter. Just toss them out."

Schools, teachers and students were not to be judged by how well they followed the standards, but by how well they do on the BS Tests, and the BS Tests do not even pretend to assess things like cooperation, speaking and listening. The BS Tests do pretend to assess things like writing, research and critical thinking, but the pretense is transparent and obvious and nobody can seriously believe that the test assesses these things. So we're left prepping students to answer multiple choice questions on the "anchors" aka "the only standards that actually count."

Alignment is paperwork

School districts have gone through the exercise of aligning their curriculum to the standards, and what that means is completing a bunch of paperwork. You take your scope and sequence for the things you were going to teach anyway, and you search through the list of standards to find the ones that you can pin to your pre-existing plans. Voila! Alignment!!

Alignment is creative

Here's the thing about the standards-- nobody is minding the store. As soon as they finished writing the standards up, David Coleman, Jason Zimba and the rest were out the door, off to lucrative consulting gigs and running ed-flavored corporations. Incidentally, this is, for me, one of the major indictments of the Core-- the guys who wrote it weren't even interested in sticking around to make sure it was carried through properly.

So now, anybody can call anything Common Core. Book publishers slap "Common Core" on any old text. Any classroom teacher can say, "Yes, this unit is totally Common Core aligned," and there's nobody in a position of authority to say, "Hey, wait a minute." I've lost track of the number of Core cheerleaders who have declared that the Core is awesome because now they can do a unit about singing waffles on Mars and their singing waffle unit doesn't have a damn thing to do with the Core. Core apologists routinely praise the Core for elements it does not possess, sometimes because they are just deluded and sometimes because they have correctly reasoned that if the Core doesn't imply/require X, then the Core is stupid. And yet, dig through the Core, and X rarely marks any spot on the list of standards.

That includes "rigor," an ill-defined term that is not a feature of the Common Core State [sic] Standards. In fact, the best way to prepare my students for the reading test is not rigorous at all, but to simply practice reading random short excerpts of various readings followed by some BS Test style bubble test questions. No deep, critical or creative thinking needed. No tie for reflection or development of more complex ideas allowed. The Core's rigor is a mirage, and artifact of wishful thinking and pixie dust. We could ramp up "rigor" in schools more easily if the amateur-hour standards and the narrow bubble tests were not in our way.

I have asked all along for any Core-loving teacher to tell me about one unit, one teaching idea, that they couldn't do before the Core, or that they would have to stop doing if the Core were outlawed. Nobody has ever had an answer for that. The Core can be anything you want it to be, as long as you don't pay too much attention to what it actually says. The article itself presents a prime example, as a teacher argues that reading more non-fiction instead of fairy tales is better because it's more real. That is both A) baloney and B) not supported by the standards.

The Core had been assimilated

The basic proposition that the Core offered to every classroom teacher was this-- substitute these standards for your own professional judgment. That's why the Core had to be pushed out with the Big Lie that they had come from education professionals (even as Coleman was bragging that they were the result of amateurs and that's why they were awesome).

And teachers are good soldiers. So when our bosses said "Do this," we said, "Okay, we'll give it a shot." We like to do what we're Supposed To, and we generally trust that these things come down from people who at least sort of know what they're doing.

But teachers also work in our own little research lab. We try out an approach, regardless of the source, and we get immediate feedback. So when elementary teachers got new Common Core textbooks that said, "Don't teach math facts (e.g. times table)." Teachers scratched their heads, tried it, determined it didn't work, and started doing what good teachers always do-- adapting materials to fit the situation in the classroom. Those instructional shifts we were all going to be doing? Not so much.

Zombies can bite

Comon Core is an undead zombie at this point, but like a zombie, it can do real damage.  Common Core fans with other pushers of test-centered schooling can take the blame for the destruction of Kindergarten and the unjustifiable insistence on making five year olds sit at a desk for long periods of time to learn academic subjects. This damage to the littles is one of the lasting effects of the Core movement, and every person who helped push for it should be ashamed.

It is that test-centered schooling that is the most egregious, unsupportable, destructive legacy of Common Core. There is no rigor and no standards-- just desperate attempts to game the numbers.

In schools where administrators don't have the guts to value actual education over the pursuit of test scores, the poison has spread wide. Test-centered schooling doesn't just narrow the education being delivered (If it's not on the test, just give it a rest) but has also narrowed the actual delivery of education. Across the country, school administrators are using "diagnostic tests" to target students who are close enough to the line to be dragged over it. Top kids can be left alone. Bottom kids can be abandoned. Close-to-the-line kids get an extra battery of test prep in hopes that the school's numbers can be improved-- and they give up other parts of their education to make room.

Core advocates will argue that this is a problem with the test, but saying you want the Common Core standards without the Common Core testing is like asking to have the front end of the puppy but not the end that poops.The Core and the BS Tests were always welded together, and it's really not a surprise-- without an "accountability" element, the architects of this mess would have had to trust schools to actually implement the standards, and the whole point of the standards was that they didn't trust us in the first place. Put another way, without the linked testing (and related penalties), the Common Core would have had to sink or swim on its own merits which would have been much like trying to help a tyrannosaurus swim the Pacific Ocean by taping a tired pool noodle to its toe. Mind you, the linked testing isn't very well linked or very good testing, but here we are.


In the end, almost nobody is winning. The folks who dreamed of an entire nation united in a single school district-- they didn't win. The schools and teachers who dreamed of retaining their autonomy and the freedom to exercise their professional judgment-- they didn't win. The technocrats who hoped for neatly organized stacks on stacks on stacks of data-- they didn't win. The winners would be all the people who hoped to profit from the shift, the folks who wanted test-centered schooling to make charters and vouchers look more appealing, and the folks who wanted to de-professionalize teaching so that anybody with a pulse could be handed a program and a classroom. Those folks are winning.

So, yes, Common Core is still shambling about, not alive enough to accomplish its original goals, but not dead enough to keep from doing damage wherever its broken legs carry it. It's a bad walking rorschach test that can be read as anything you like, just before it bites your face. Is "Common Core used widely"? I guess that depends on what you mean by "Common Core" or "used." Is there still continuing debate? Sure. The noise had better keep going on. The standards are dangerous bunk, and you know what happens to the person in a zombie movie who says, "I guess the coast is clear now. Let's go out."