Thursday, March 22, 2018

Teacher Evaluation: Plus or Minus?

Matthew Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University, and it says something about where we are today that there is even such a job. I look forward to universities hiring someone as a Professor of Microbiology and Sociology, or a Professor of Astrophysics and Cheeseburgers. The notion that economists are automatically qualified to talk about education continues to be one of the minor plagues us these days.

But I digress.

Kraft is in Education Next making some big, sweeping statements about his research:

When I present my research on teacher evaluation reforms, I’m often asked whether, at the end of the day, these reforms were a good or bad thing. This is a fair question—and one that is especially important to grapple with given that state policymakers are currently deciding on whether to refine or reject these systems under ESSA. For all the nuanced research and mixed findings that concern teacher evaluation reforms and how teachers’ unions have shaped these reforms on the ground, what is the end result of the considerable time, money, and effort we have invested?

I think I could skip right ahead to a conclusion here, but Kraft has created a nice little pro and con list that both helps us address the question and gives a quick and dirty picture of what reformsters think they have done in the teacher evaluation world. So let's see what he's got.

The Pro List

So here's what Kraft thinks are the "positive consequences" of ew evaluation systems.

Growing national recognition of the importance of teacher quality.

Is that a consequence of new evaluation systems? Were that many people wandering about before saying, "You know, I don't think it matters at all whether school teachers are awesome or if they suck."  Granted, we did have one group dedicated to the notion that we should have a system in which it doesn't matter which teacher you get, that every class should be "teacher-proofed," and that if we do all that well enough, we can park any warm body in a classroom. But those were the reformsters, and I'm not sure they've gotten any wiser on this point.

A slight shift toward the belief that some teachers are better or worse than others.

Again, I'm not sure this is news to ordinary civilians, but lord knows that reformsters have been complaining loudly and constantly that schools are loaded with Terrible Teachers who must be weeded out. How is this a positive, exactly?

The widespread adoption of rigorous observational rubrics for evaluating instructional practice that provide clear standards and a common language for discussing high-quality instruction.

Nope. This is not a positive. Reducing the evaluation of teacher quality to a "rigorous rubric" is not a positive. Academians and economists like it because it lets them pretend that they are evaluating teachers via cold, hard numbers, but you can no more reduce teaching to a "rigorous rubric" than you can come up with a rubric for marital success or parental effectiveness.

For that matter, not only is this not a positive, but there's not much evidence that it has actually happened in any meaningful new way. We've seen lots of teacher eval rubrics (aka checklists) before (get out your Madeline Hunter worksheet, boys and girls) but they never last, because they turn out to be bunk. But at the moment, rubrics and checklists still take a back seat in most districts to Big Standardized Test scores soaked in some kind of VAM sauce. So this item from the pro list is wrong twice.

New administrative data from student information systems that, linked to teacher human resource systems, allow administrators and researchers to answer a range of important questions about teacher effectiveness.

Holy jargonized bovine fecal matter! This is also not a positive. But it's a sign of where this list is headed.

More and better (albeit still imperfect) teacher performance metrics to inform important human capital decisions made by administrators.

See? By the time you're talking about "human capital decisions," you've lost the right to be taken seriously by people who actually work in education. Plus, this is just purple prose dressing up the old reformster idea that we should be using teacher evaluation data to decide who to hire and fire, which is old sauce and not a positive because Kraft has mistyped "albeit still imperfect" when what he surely means is "still completely invalid and unsupported."

Increased attention to the inequitable access to highly effective teachers across racial and socio-economic lines.

First, the "data" on relative awesomeness of teacher at poor schools is almost impossible to take seriously because A) it's based on crappy BS Testing data and B) comparing teachers at wealthy and poor schools is like comparing the speeds of people running down a mountain to the speeds of people running up one.

Second, we don't need a lot of hard data to know that non-wealthy, non-white schools get less support or that state and district funding systems inevitably short change those schools. If you can only believe that because you see numbers on a spread sheet-- I mean, I guess it's swell that you've finally figured it out, but damn, what is wrong with you?

Increased turnover among less effective teachers.

You have no idea whether that is happening or not, because you have no way of knowing which teachers are doing well and which ones are doing poorly. The mere fact that you assume awesomeness or non-awesomeness is a permanent state for every teacher shows that you don't understand the issues involved here.

That's the pro list. And it's pretty much all bunk.The Con List

What downside has there been to the evaluation revolution?

The loss of principal's time to a formal evaluation process and paperwork that (often) have little value.

That is correct. New evaluation systems have created a host of hoops for administrators to jump through, most of which serve no local purpose, but are simply there to satisfy a state bureaucracy's need to see numbers on forms.

The erosion of trust between teachers and administrators. That trust would be useful for real ongoing professional development.

That is correct. Because so many modern reformster evaluation systems were designed with the idea of weeding out all the Terrible Teachers, and because those evaluation systems are often based on random data that the teacher's job performance doesn't actually affect (looking at you, BS Test scores), teachers view the whole process with distrust. One of the most powerful things an administrator can say to a teacher is, "How I can I help you do the kind of job you want to do?" These evaluation systems stand directly in the path of any such interaction.

An increased focus on individual performance at the potential cost of collective efforts.

I'm giving Kraft a bonus point for this one, because too many reformsters refuse to acknowledge that their evaluation systems set up a kind of teacher thunderdome, a system in which I can't collaborate with a colleague because I might just collaborate myself out of a raise or a job. Because a school doesn't make a profit, all teacher merit pay systems must be zero sum, which means in order for you to win, I must lose. This does not build collegiality in a building.

Decreased interest among would-be teachers for entering the profession.

There are certainly many factors at play here, but Kraft is right-- knowing that your job performance will be decided by a capricious, random and fundamentally unfair system certainly doesn't make the profession more attractive.

The costs associated with teacher turnover, particularly in a hard-to-staff schools.

This is correct. Once teachers have been driven out or fired, schools cannot just go grab new teachers of the Awesome Teacher Tree in the back yard. Costs associated with turnover include a lack of stability and continuity at the school, which is not helpful for the students who attend.

I'd add that Kraft has missed a few, but most notably, the waste of time, money, and psychological energy on a system that doesn't provide useful or accurate information, but which presents teachers with, at a minimum, an attack on their own sense of themselves as professionals and, at a maximum, an attack on their actual earning power, or even career. When it comes to teacher evaluation, we are spending a lot of money on junk.

Looking at the balance sheer.

From my perspective, teacher evaluation reforms net a modest positive effect nationally. While my judgment is informed by a growing body of scholarship, it is also subjective, imprecise, and colored by my hope that the negative consequences can be addressed productively going forward.

As I often tell one of my uber-conservative friends, "We see different things here." Since I find none of the positives convincing or compelling, but all of the negatives strike me as accurate, if understated, I see the balance as overwhelmingly negative.

Kraft does ask some good questions in his concluding section. For instance, would schools, teachers and students be better off if states had not "implemented evaluation reforms at all"? It's a useful question because it reminds us that the current sucky system replaced previous sucky systems. But the critical difference is this:

Previous sucky evaluation systems may not have provided useful information about teachers (or depended on being used by good principals to generate good data). But at least those previous systems did not incentivize bad behavior. Modern reform evaluation systems add powerful motivation for schools to center themselves not on teachers or students or even standards, but on test results. And test-centered schools run upside down-- instead of meeting the students' needs, the test-centered school sees the students as adversaries who must be cajoled, coached, trained and even forced to cough up the scores that the school needs. The Madeline Hunter checklist may have been bunk, but at least it didn't encourage me to conduct regular malpractice in my classroom.

So yes-- everyone would be better off if the last round of evaluation "reforms" had never happened.

Kraft also asks if "the rushed and contentious rollout of teacher evaluation reforms poison the well for getting evaluation right."

Hmmm. First, I'll challenge his assumption that rushed rollout is the problem. This is the old "Program X would have been great if it had been implemented properly," but it's almost never the implementation, stupid. There's no good way to implement a bad program. Bad is bad, whether it's rushed or not.

Second, that particular well has never been a source of sparkling pure water, but yes, the current system made things worse. The problems could be reversed. The solution here is the same as the solution to many reform-created education problems-- scrap test-centered schooling. Scrap the BS Test. Scrap the use of a BS Test to evaluate schools or teachers or students. Strip the BS Test of all significant consequences; make it a no-stakes test. That would remove a huge source of poison from the education well.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

To Facebook Or Not

In light of the most recent revelations about Facebook, folks are once again re-evaluating their relationship with the social media 800-pound gorilla. Should I be on there? Should I promote my social group, my blog, my hobbies on there?

I'm an early adopter. I hopped on when my daughter was a student at Penn State, back in the days when Facebook was only used by certain colleges and universities, and membership was open only to students and family members. It was glorious-- a tool that allowed us to stay in touch, show each other Cool Stuff we had seen. It was far more immediate and authentic writing letters. 

Over time it became increasingly complicated and complex, with the gates periodically opened to new groups of users, new utilities added, new ways to waste time on Facebook developed. I watched Facebook aggressively suck all manner of media and activity into its orbit and, like all the other online giants, trying to create an inclusive ecosystem so that users would never have to leave. In many ways, Facebook was a leader in a race to become, as one wag put it, the new AOL. 

My interest in the online world was already well-formed by the time I walked into Facebookland. It may have been in part a coincidence of history that the online world was ramping up just as I was figuring out how to get through weekends when my children were with their mother and I was in the house alone. I spent time on the old prodigy bbs system, made friends on ICQ, read the adventures of early online adopters like one celebrity who wrote a terrible letter that would not die or go away. 

It seemed fairly obvious in those days that human beings and their ability to create content of any sort, even if it was just filling up a message board or a chat channel (yeah, remember when we called things on line "channels"?), were a desired commodity. It seemed obvious that the online "community" deal was that you traded pieces of yourself for new connective capabilities. It seemed obvious that all of us who used these services were products.

How so many people lost sight of that, or failed to figure it out, is another discussion. But lose sight of it they did. People of my generation impart magical powers and knowledge to digital natives, but the fact is, the vast majority of digital natives are dopes about online life, imagining that they are entitled to secrecy and privacy on line. It is a measure of the seductiveness of online life that the promise to secrecy and privacy has almost never been explicitly made, and yet so many people implicitly believe in it.

The internet is not private. It never has been. That's the first thing you have to understand about going there. The second thing to understand is that everything on line is essentially forever. I've told my students this over and over-- the secret to a happy internet life is to understand that everything you do is public and permanent. I guess the third thing to understand is that people are becoming increasingly creative about how to mine your online self for data. 

Now, I'm not saying that if your privacy has been violated by Facebook or any other app it is your own fault. It's reasonable to assume that all of these companies will take steps to protect user privacy and data. But it's practical to assume that one way or another, they will fail. There's nothing wrong with telling a friend, "I'm going to leave this stack of money next to you while I run to the store. Will you keep an eye on it?" But it's a little silly to be shocked and surprised if some of the money is gone when you get back.

Every online activity is really a transaction. This blog's platform is owned by Google, and by running it and drawing in umpteen thousand views, I am making Google money (which is why my son-in-law says I really should be running ads here). But in exchange, I have had an opportunity to spread some words, raise some awareness, and create a tiny piece of noise for a cause I deeply believe in, and make important connections with other people similarly concerned. I'm satisfied with the balance on that transaction.

Likewise, promoting this blog via Facebook has helped me find more audience for my cause. I also use Facebook to maintain connections with old friends, students, and family. My older children live far away, and I have cousins that I've been lucky to see in person once or twice a decade. I get to see my grandchildren grow up. Thanks to Facebook, those connections are all stronger. I know I'm making money for Zuckerberg, but on balance, I'm satisfied with the value I'm getting out of the transaction.

Mind you, I'm thoughtful about what I post, and I keep an eye on my security settings. I don't generally take silly quizzes (which exist mostly to get you to give up access to your data in exchange for finding out which vegetable you most resemble). I'm aware that my digital pocket is being picked every day.

In fact, that sort of visibility is one of the reasons that I will keep maintaining an active facebook page for this blog-- I want the data miners to know that there are people who care about public education and resisting the ed reform movement. I'm not delusional-- I know that this blog has a smaller footprint than, say, people who are concerned about what Justin Bieber is wearing today. But if I'm not here, my cause becomes slightly less visible, marginally easier to ignore. Am I using a tool that is morally compromised? Yes, certainly. I am not aware of a single piece of modern computer technology that isn't. I wish compromise and transaction weren't necessary to function in the modern world, but as near as I can see, they are. So I will continue to weigh the benefits against the cost, try to make my choices mindfully, and for the time being, use Facebook with full awareness that it is also using me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

AEI: Voiding the Choice Warrantee

The American Enterprise Institute has a new report  that calls into question one of the foundational fallacies of the entire reform movement. Think of it as the latest entry in the Reformster Apostasy movement.

Do Impacts on Test Scores Even Matter? Lessons from Long-Run Outcomes in School Choice Research asks some important questions. We know they are important questions because some of us have been asking and answering them for twenty years.

Here are the key points as AEI lists them:

For the past 20 years, almost every major education reform has rested on a common assumption: Standardized test scores are an accurate and appropriate measure of success and failure.

This study is a meta-analysis on the effect that school choice has on educational attainment and shows that, at least for school choice programs, there is a weak relationship between impacts on test scores and later attainment outcomes.

Policymakers need to be much more humble in what they believe that test scores tell them about the performance of schools of choice: Test scores should not automatically occupy a privileged place over parental demand and satisfaction as short-term measures of school choice success or failure.

Yup. That's just about it. The entire reformster movement is based on the premise that Big Standardized Test results are a reliable proxy for educational achievement. They are not. They never have been, and some of us have been saying so all along. Read Daniel Koretz's book The Testing Charade: Pretending To Make Schools Better for a detailed look at how this has all gone wrong, but the short answer is that when you use narrow unvalidated badly designed tests to measure things they were never meant to measure, you end up with junk.

AEI is not the first reform outfit to question the BS Tests' value. Jay Greene was beating this drum a year and a half ago:

But what if changing test scores does not regularly correspond with changing life outcomes?  What if schools can do things to change scores without actually changing lives?  What evidence do we actually have to support the assumption that changing test scores is a reliable indicator of changing later life outcomes?

Greene concluded that tests had no real connection to student later-in-life outcomes and were therefor not a useful tool for policy direction. Again, he was saying what teachers and other education professionals had been saying since the invention of dirt, but to no avail.

In fact, if you are of a Certain Age, you may well remember the authentic assessment movement, which declared that the only way to measure any student knowledge and skill was by having the student demonstrate something as close to the actual skill in question. IOW, if you want to see if the student can write an essay, have her write an essay. Authentic assessment frowned on multiple choice testing, because it involves a task that is not anything like any real skill we're trying to teach. But ed reform and the cult of testing swept the authentic assessment movement away.

Really, AEI's third paragraph of findings is weak sauce. "Policymakers should be much more humble" about test scores? No, they should be apologetic and remorseful that they ever foisted this tool on education and demanded it be attached to stern consequences, because in doing so the wrought a great deal of damage on US education. "Test scores should not automatically occupy a privileged place..."? No, test scores should automatically occupy a highly unprivileged place. They should be treated as junk unless and until someone can convincingly argue otherwise.

But I am reading into this report a wholesale rejection of the BS Test as a measure of student, teacher, or school success, and that's not really what AEI is here to do. This paper is focused on school choice programs, and it sets out to void the warrantee on school choice as a policy.

Choice fans, up to and including education secretary Betsy DeVos, have pitched choice in terms of its positive effects on educational achievement. As DeVos claimed, the presence of choice will not even create choice schools that outperform public schools, but the public schools themselves will have their performance elevated. The reality, of course, is that it simply doesn't happen.The research continues to mount that vouchers, choice, charters-- none of them significantly move the needle on school achievement. And "educational achievement" and "school achievement" all really only mean one thing-- test scores.

Choice was going to guarantee higher test scores. They have had years and years to raise test scores. They have failed. If charters and choice were going to usher in an era of test score awesomeness, we'd be there by now. We aren't.

So what's a reformster to do?

Simple. Announce that test scores don't really matter. That's this report.

There are several ways to read this report, depending on your level of cynicism. Take your pick.

Hardly cynical at all. Reformsters have finally realized what education professionals have known all along-- that the BS Tests are a lousy measure of educational achievement. They, like others before them,  may be late to enlightenment, but at least they got there, so let's welcome them and their newly-illuminated light epiphanic light bulbs.

Kind of Cynical. Reformsters are realizing that the BS Tests are hurting the efforts to market choice, and so they are trying to shed the test as a measure of choice success because it clearly isn't working and they need reduce the damage to the choice brand being done.

Supremely Cynical. Reformsters always knew that the BS Test was a sham and a fraud, but it was useful for a while, just as Common Core was in its day. But just as Common Core was jettisoned as a strategic argument when it was no longer useful, the BS Test will now be tossed aside like a used-up Handi Wipe. The goal of free market corporate reformsters has always been to crack open the vast funding egg of public education and make it accessible to free marketeers with their education-flavored business models. Reformsters would have said that choice clears up your complexion and gives you a free pony if they thought it would sell the market based business model of schooling, and they'll continue to say-- or stop saying-- anything as long as it helps break up public ed and makes the pieces available for corporate use.

Bottom line. Having failed to raise BS Test scores, some reformsters would now like to promote the entirely correct idea that BS Tests are terrible measures of school success, and so, hey, let's judge choice programs some other way. I would add, hey, let's judge ALL schools some other way, because BS Testing is the single most toxic legacy of modern ed reform.

Monday, March 19, 2018

OH: Computers Are Grading Essays

No sooner had I vigorously mocked the idea of using computers to grade essays, then this came across my desk:

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Computers are grading your child's state tests.

No, not just all those fill-in-the bubble multiple choice questions. The longer answers and essays too.

According to State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and state testing official Brian Roget (because "state testing official" is now  job-- that's where we are now), about 75% of Ohio's BS Tests are being fully graded by computers.

This is a dumb idea.

"The motivation is to be as effective and efficient and accurate in grading all these things," DeMaria told the board. He said that advances in AI are making this new process more consistent and fair - along with saving time and, in the long run, money.

If you think writing can be graded effectively and efficiently and accurately by a computer, then you don't know much about assessing writing. The saving money part is the only honest part of this.

But all the kids are doing it, Mom. American Institutes for Research (AIR-- which is not a research institute at all, but a test manufacturer) is doing it in Ohio, but Pearson and McGraw-Hill and ETS are all doing it, too, so you know it's cool.

DeMaria said that the research is really "compelling," which is another word for "not actually proving anything," and he also claims that even college professors are using Artificial Intelligence to grade papers. He does not share which colleges, exactly, are harboring these titans of educational malpractice. Would be interesting to know. Meanwhile, Les Perelman at MIT has made a whole second career out of repeatedly demonstrating that these essay grading computers are incompetent boobs.

The shift from human scorers is usually a little controversial, which may be why Ohio just didn't tell anyone it was happening. It came to light only after, the article notes wryly, "irregularities" were noticed in grades. Oddly enough, that constitutes a decent blind test of the software-- folks could tell it was doing something wrong even when they didn't know that software was doing the grading.

Some Ohio board members think the shift is just fine, though one picked an unfortunate choice of example:

"As a society, we're on the cusp of self-driving vehicles and we're arguing about whether or not AI can grade a third grade test?" asked recently-appointed board member James Shephard. "I think there just needs to be some perspective here."

I feel certain that as Shephard spoke, he was unaware that a self-driving vehicle just killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

The actual hiccup that called attention to the shift from meat widget grading was a large number of third grade reading tests that came back with a score of zero. That was apparently because they quoted too much of the passage they were responding to, though they are supposed to cite specific evidence from the text. It's the kind of thing that a live human could probably figure out, but since computer software does not actually understand what it is "reading," -- well, zeros. On a test that will determine whether or not the student can advance to fourth grade (because Ohio has that stupid rule, too).
I don't understand a word you just said, but you fail!

The state has offered some direction (30% is the tipping point for how much must be "original") so that now we have the opening shot in what is sure to be a long volley of rules entitled "How to write essays that don't displease the computer." Surely an admirable pedagogical goal for any writing program.

The state reported that of the thousand tests submitted for checking, only one was rescored. This fits with a standard defense of computer grading-- "When we have humans score the essays, the scores are pretty much the same as the computer's." This defense does not move me, because the humans have their hands and brains tied, strapped to the same algorithm that the computer uses. Of course a human gets the same score, if you force that human to approach the essay just as stupidly as the computer does. And computers are stupid-- they will do exactly as they're told, never understanding a single word of their instructions.

The humans-do-it-too defense of computer grading ignores another problem of this system-- audience. Perhaps on the first go round you'll get authentic writing that's an actual measure of something real. But what we already know from stupid human scoring of BS Tests is that teachers and students will adapt their writing to fit the algorithm. Blathering on and on redundantly and repetitiously may be bad writing any other time, but when it comes to tests, filling up the page pleases the algorithm. The algorithm also likes big words, so use those (it does not matter if you use them correctly or not). These may seem like dumb examples, but my own school has had success gaming the system with these rules and rules like them.

And this is worse. I've heard legitimate arguments from teachers who say the computer's ability to sift through superficial details can be on part of a larger, meat-widget based evaluation system, and I can almost buy that, but that's not what Ohio is doing-- they are handing the whole evaluation over to the software.

What do you suppose will happen when students realize that the computer will not care if they illustrate a point by referring to John F. Kennedy's noble actions to save the Kaiser during the Civil War? What do you suppose will happen when students realize that they are literally writing for no human audience at all? How will they write for an algorithm that can only analyze the most superficial aspects of their writing, with no concern or even ability to understand what they are actually saying?

This is like preparing a school band to perform and then having them play for an empty auditorium. It's like having an artist do her best painting and then hanging it in a closet. Even worse, actually-- this is like having those endeavors judged on how shiny they are, still unseen and unheard by human eyes and ears.

Ohio was offered a choice between doing something cheap and doing something right, and they went with cheap. This is not okay. Shame on you, Ohio.

What's the Teacher Role in a Tech Classroom

This story is a few months old, but still worth a look.

Back in January, Hechinger ran a report about a panel discussion at the NY Edtech Week global innovation festival back a month earlier. It's a reminder once again of how divorced ed tech can be from actual education in actual schools. But writer Tara Garcia Mathewson is still pretty excited:

Computers, laptops and other digital devices have become commonplace in most schools nationwide, changing the way students get instruction and complete assignments. Computers have also digitized student records and taken a whole host of school processes to the cloud. This has created new risks and led to the founding of new departments focused on the safety and security of all this data. It has also created new efficiencies for schools.

Well, that observation about keeping all this data safe is certainly timely, but the argument about efficiencies seems as timeless as a Shakespeare play.

Phil Dunn, the IT guy for Greenwich Public Schools says, basically, that newer IT makes his job as the IT guy easier. That is... unsurprising?

Mathewson also deploys a construction that I scold my students for frequently:

New technologies are coming out all the time. Some make life better and easier for the people who use them. Some make life different, but not necessarily better. And there are definitely the technologies — designed for the classroom and elsewhere — that make life, or learning, worse.

So some tech makes things better, some makes it worse, and some makes it different? That just about covers all the possibilities, right?

But it takes a guy whose job is pushing ed tech to really really demonstrate just how clueless some edtech people are about the ed part. Chris Rush is a co-founder and chief program officer of New Classrooms, one more "non-profit" group that is pushing product like crazy. They are all in on "personalized learning" ("Teach To One" math is their product) and adaptive software and you'll be unsusprised to discover they are supported to the tune of over-a-million-dollars each by Bezos, Gates, Dell, Chan-Zuckerberg and something called New Profit, Inc, a "national nonprofit venture philanthropy fund (and fans of Pay For Success, aka Social Impact Bonds)." Here in part is what New Classrooms has to say about their approach:

Our performance-based tasks don’t fit neatly into any single pedagogical practice. Because students work for an extended period of time on real-world challenges, there are some shades of project-based learning.

A key difference is that they are closely connected to specific skills and exit slips that are part of each student’s personalized curriculum, making it less open-ended than traditional project-based learning. In either case, the goal is the same: for students to acquire deeper knowledge.

The teacher’s role in this kind of learning experience is multifaceted, using a combination of techniques: planning, direct instruction, facilitating, challenging, and cheerleading.

So, teaching, only with computer-aligned educational jargon attached. Does New Classrooms know what it's doing? Well, back at the panel discussion, Rush had a few things to say:

Teachers spend a significant amount of time scoring papers rather than spending time with students

Wait! What? Does Rush imagine that in a traditional classroom, teachers say, "Okay, you students just do some stuff, but I'm going to be sitting at my desk grading things." Seriously? Because my wife, the fourth grade teacher who most daysdoesn't even have enough non-student-interaction time to allow her to pee, would disagree.

Let me be clear. Teachers do not spend time scoring papers instead of spending time with students. They spend time scoring papers instead of eating or peeing or interacting with their own children at home or instead of sleeping.

Also, leaving notes, explanations, thoughts, responses, and reactions written out on a piece of student work is, in fact, a form of interacting with students.

Automating not only multiple-choice test scoring but the grading of essays and project work would give teachers more time to focus on the student interaction that they’re uniquely capable of.

Automating multiple-choice test scoring is fine but A) good teachers know that multiple-choice tests are the lowest form of assessment and B) they take very little time to score anyway, which is why some teachers use them even when we know better.

Also, and I wan to make sure I'm really clear about this--

Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing. Computers are not capable of assessing writing.

I refer you to the work of Les Perelman for more specifics (here and here and here for starters). But to sum up my point-- computers are not capable of assessing writing.

Up next...

Jonathan Supovitz, director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, talked about school improvement. Using a sports analogy, he said coaches don’t just look at the game summaries to consider how their players did. They look at videos of each play. Data systems in schools, though, skip straight to the summaries, Supovitz said. The play-by-play is missing.

Supovitz calls that missing data the "next frontier." I call it "what teachers already do."

But when the issue of what teachers will do comes up, the panel has more bosh to shovel. Rather than sidelining teachers, some panel members say that "teacher skills will just need to change." This is, indeed, the oldest ed tech pitch in the book.

Ed tech: We have invented a great new glass hammer for you to buy and use to build birdbaths.

Teacher: We are building great, solid houses for humans with power screwdrivers and wood screws.

Ed tech: Well, once you change your whole methodology, purpose and program, this hammer will be really useful.

What needs to change this time? Supovitz says "there will be a demand for teachers who are more sophisticated about looking at and responding to student performance data."

No problem, because that's what teachers do all day, every day. Except that by "more sophisticated" what he means is "Our system is not designed to give you the data you want and need, but to give you the data we decided to give you, so you're going to have to learn how to dig the data you actually need out of our reports." Gosh, thanks for all your help. I'm sure the company will also sell the professional development needed to "support this additional responsibility."

Put another way, ed tech sees a role for teacher, and that role is not so much "instructional leader" as "meat widget responsible for bridging the gap between the company has figured out how to do and what the students actually need." Ed Tech companies will provide all the glass hammers, and teachers can figure out how to use glass hammers and wood screws to build a solid house.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

ICYMI: St.Patrick's Day After Edition (3/18)

Here's a few choice tidbits for the week. Read and share!

School Choice Is a Lie That Harms Us All

From HuffPost. Zero punches pulled here.

Many Democrats Would Agree with Ideas in DeVos Clip

While everyone was hammering the awful 60 Minutes clips, Slate pointed out that many DeVos policy ideas have Dem Party faves for years.

Betsy DeVos Visited an Underperforming School.

This is a great catch. When DeVos said she never intentionally visited an underperforming school, she wasn't being obtuse-- just precise. She did visit a failing school-- but not on purpose. It was supposed to be an example of charter excellence.

Worst Government Possible on Purpose

In which even the mainstream Rolling Stones can see the DeVos is a disaster

What DeVos Needs To Hear

A venture capitalist traveled to 200 schools to learn something. What he learned is that much reformster rhetoric is baloney.

The Truth about Charter Schools

A former charter teacher talks about how awful it was.

When the Charter Lobby Wants Your Turf

From Chicago-- what it looks like when charter boosters want a piece of your action.

Facts About New Jersey Charters, Part II

Mark Weber continues to excerpt his report with Julia Sass Rubin, looking this time at just how many students with special needs NJ charters really teach

Lessons from the West Virginia Teachers Strike

The Have You Heard podcast landed a mountain of WV teacher interviews. You will not find a better picture of what happened.

Why Public Schools?

Jeff Bryant looks at why public schools seem to be the origin of so much rebellion these days.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Harvest Time in Dataland

If you have not already caught the story breaking today, you may want to take a moment and read about how Cambridge Analytica harvested a giant mountain of data from Facebook in order to help Trump win the election. And by giant mountain I mean, apparently, something like 50 million people.

There will be a bunch of noise about the "helped Trump win the election" part of this, but for the education angle, I'd like to focus on just a couple of things.

First, the how. The company got a bunch of people to take a personality test and have their personal data collected. Cambridge Analytica went ahead and used that "in" to hover up data from all their friends. This is a violation of Facebook rules, but fat lot of good that does anybody after the fact. Strands of data are interconnected all over the place-- someone picks up one strand and just starts pulling and heaven only knows where it ends. But it's worth noting that this was not a hack, exactly-- just a willingness to ignore the rules in pursuit of profit.

Also, every time you take one of those "Which condiment are you" or "We can guess your IQ by how you answer these questions about fish" quizzes, the main point is not the quiz-- it's the permissions you give to the quiz app creators without even noticing it.

Second, the who. Facebook is a giant pile of data, and that means that people will attack it for the same reason Willie Sutton supposedly robbed banks ("That's where the money is.") Facebook should have the biggest, baddest data vault in the world. They don't. And this is all important because Facebook is the point of origin for Summit schools, a data-grabbing charter system that now aims to scale up by putting their software in schools all across the country. Can parents expect a bundle of education software to have greater data protection than Facebook? Or will students who get involved in such edu-programs become vulnerable to anyone who wants to chase their data through legit or illegit means? I'm betting the second one.

And note-- Facebook knew the violations were happening, and they kept their corporate mouth shut and did nothing. Not exactly a data watchdog.

Third, the what. Cambridge Analytica didn't just use data for straight-up analysis on the order of "Do most people like lox on their bagels?" They crunched that data in order to generate behavioral profiles that would allow them to nudge and manipulate the behavior of millions of people. They used that data to try to throw the election for the President of the United States. The lesson is clear-- a whole bunch of data is worth a lot of power and money, and therefor provides ample motivation for bad actors to do bad things. Do you think the massive pile of students data gathered by educational software will work any differently?

Fourth, my ex-wife's junk mail. I can't say this hard enough-- on top of all the Big Brothery things we worry about Big Brother doing, we should also worry about Big Data's tendency to get things wrong. It takes not one, but a whole series of mistakes, to send my ex-wife's mail to my current address (particularly under her subsequent married names)-- but it still happens. And there isn't a thing anybody can do about it, because once a mistake (or twelve) makes it into the Great Data Swamp, there's nobody with the power to fish it out or fix it.

We have not even begun to wrestle with the practical, legal and ethical issues of Big Data running loose in society. We sure as hell aren't ready to deal with Big Data in the schoolhouse (which, I suspect, is precisely why Big Data is in a hurry to get there before we can really think about it). Every one of these data adventures is one more reminder of how not-ready-for-big-data-in-schools we really are, and how careful we should be before we let the Big Data harvester mow down fields of students.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Blowing (Up) Your Mind Trust

When I first wrote about Indianapolis's Mind Trust, it was because they were looking for New School Leaders on Twitter. When I started digging, what I discovered was not very heartening.

Mind Trust was launched in 2006 by David Harris, who voluntarily left the mayor's office to start it, and Bart Peterson, who would involuntarily leave the office of mayor the very next year.

Indiana had already started the charter school gravy train in 2001 by handing the reins of the Indianapolis school system to the mayor (that was Peterson) who promptly created an office for developing and launching charter schools (that was Harris). The Mind Trust was a next step, a way to work on what Harris called "stimulating supply." This meant connecting big money backers with charter entrepreneurs, pushing what the called "Opportunity Schools." Indianapolis became a reformster oasis, with generous donations to groups like Teacher for America, backed by folks like Education Reform Now (an arm of DFER) and Stand for Children.

The playbook by now is familiar-- declare public schools a terrible failure, take a bunch of money away from them, use it to plant baskets full of charter schools. Harris was a source of ridiculous commenst like "when you go to schools that have excellent test scores, they're not teaching to the test" and "when people say we're trying to privatize education, I really don't understand that." And then they proceeded to privatize the hell out of Indiana's school system.

Now Indiana has "Innovation Schools" which are schools operated on the Visionary CEO model, where one awesome guy gets to run a school unh9indered by all those dumb rules and things. Or as Mind Trust's Number 2 (soon to be Number 1) Brandon Brown:

We believe it’s critically important to have real, school level autonomy. We think it’s critical that you have an exceptional school leader in charge of that school

In other words, some Great Man of Vision who can hire and fire and pull policy out of his butt at will. The whole business is a hit with other reformsters:

“David Harris is one of the most thoughtful and pragmatic education leaders in the nation,” Neerav Kingsland, who leads K-12 education work for the Arnold Foundation, wrote in an email. “The partnership between Indianapolis Public Schools and The Mind Trust serves as a model of how school districts and non-profits can work together to get more kids into great schools.”

Kingsland is not just an Arnold Foundation guy-- he's also one of the architects of the post-Katrina mess in New Orleans. The mind of partnership is the kind you get when charter fans get control of a public school system so that stop resisting and actively cooperate with the charter attempt to gut them. The result-- almost half of Indianapolis students are in a charter school, and the public system is in trouble.

“I honestly think that if The Mind Trust … hadn’t been in Indianapolis over the past 10 or 11 years, that IPS would not be decimated and flailing like it is now,” said Chrissy Smith, a parent and member of the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that is critical of the current administration. “We would not see innovation schools coming in. We would not see the proliferation of charter schools.”

All of this matters because the Mind Trust is aiming to pursue the dream of all reform programs-- to scale up. Harris has been widely announced to be "stepping down," but that's not really accurate. As reformsters will, he is stepping up, ready to take the Mind Trust model national.

What will that actually mean? The Mind Trust model depends on

* piles of cash from the usual backers to help launch things
* new, friendly regulations
* and inside man or two who will get the public school system to roll over and let charter developers do as they wish
* visionary CEO style school leaders (with, obviously, no real education background)

That means the Mind Trust model will translate to some region better than others, plus there will be the added issue of established reformsters reacting to a new guy muscling in on their territory. Hard to say how this will fall out, but if you see David Harris headed for your neighborhood public school, it's time to be extra alert, because he is not there to help.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

10 Reasons To Support Public School

You may have missed the fact that this is National Public Schools Week, or you may have noticed it on Monday, but now it's Thursday and who can really remember these things for the entire week? And, of course, public schools do not have giant slick PR departments to create polished promotional materials for such a week. You might think that the United States Department of Education might make some noise-- any noise-- in support of public education, but over the past couple of decades, the department has moved from uninterested in public education over to openly hostile toward it.

Public education has become a political orphan in this country. So it's important to take the time to remember why US public education is actually a great thing. Here are some reasons.

1) Public schools are student-centered.

In many countries, public education is simply a system for telling children what they get to be when they grow up. Does Pat want to be a doctor, a lawyer or a civil engineer? Too bad-- the school system has determined that Pat should be an elevator repair person, and so that's what Pat gets to do.

But in our system, Pat gets to chart a course and the public school system is obliged to help Pat steer in that direction. Our system is not created to whip up a batch of employees for businesses, and it's not set up to tell Pat what the future is supposed to hold. It is set up to allow, aid and support Pat in making Pat's own choices.

2) Public schools are publically owned and operated.

The local taxpayers fund schools and elect the people who will run them. The taxpayers own the buildings and pay the salaries of the people who work in them. That means that public schools, unlike any other private business, cannot be gutted and squeezed for profit at the expense of a long, sustainable life (like, say, Toys R Us). That also means that the taxpayers get to ask any questions they like and know anything they want to know about how their money is being spent.

3) Public schools are enduring community institutions.

While some charters and private schools may just close down on a moment's notice, public schools are an enduring part of their community, remaining even if it's not profitable for them to stay open. In many communities, public schools are one of the most stable institutions.

And people believe in them. Yes, people grouse and complain, and yes people want their school taxes to be roughly $1.50. But when it's time to do something to help children. to improve their lives, to make them better able to cope with one problem or another, who do we always turn to? Public schools. Even when public schools fail an entire community, we don't hear demands like "Well, just release our children from any requirement to go to school at all." No-- people demand that they get the public schools they are supposed to have.

4) Public schools are responsible for all students, no matter what.

A public school system cannot pick and choose its students. It has a responsibility, both moral and legal, to provide an education to every student, even the ones who are difficult or expensive to teach.  It's easier to educate just some students, to pick and choose the ones you'd like to work with, the ones that barely need you at all. But to educate every single child is a far bolder and broader mission-- and it's the one we've given to public schools.

5) Public schools are the last great salad.

So much of current society is sorted and gated, with people making sure they associate only with the people they want to associate. There is certainly plenty of sorting of neighborhoods and communities that is manifested in community schools-- but public schools still feature the kind of mixing and interaction that we no longer see anywhere else in our country.

6) Public schools are a glorious mess.

Because public schools represent and respond to the interests of so many different people, those schools are messy. Many varied programs, teachers, activities, and classes all exist under one roof. It can seem unfocused and scatter-shot, but that's the beauty of it; the alternative is a regimented, orderly approach that squelches variety and outliers, and that approach benefits nobody.

7) Public schools are remarkably efficient.

Strapped for resources, public school systems must make every dollar count. There are no $500 toilet seats in public school restrooms, no $250 pencils in classrooms, and few districts that run twelve different buildings where one will do.

8) Public schools are staffed by trained professionals who devote their lives to the work.

It sucks that teachers aren't paid like rock stars, but we can say this-- nobody is in teaching just for the money, glory and fame. Nobody is hating the classroom but thinking, "Well, I still need to make enough money for a second Lexus." Public school teachers are neither martyrs nor saints, but they are in the classroom because they want to be there.

9) Public schools help create citizens

That's no small thing. s noted above, many educational systems simply aspire to create functional employees-- and that's it. A little vocational training, and out the door you go. But for democracy (or a republic style version thereof) to survive and flourish, you need a nation of educated people.

10) The promise of public education

By now, you have already talked back to this piece, telling your screen about all the exceptions you can think of, all the ways that public schools failed at the eight traits I listed above. And you're right-- public schools have failed in many ways over the decades, from the failure of institutional racism to the failure to fully embrace every single child. In our large and varied history, we have fallen short many times.

But here's the thin. You can only fall short of a goal if you have a goal. US public schools aspire to do great things, which means every day of every year, we are trying to rise and advance, to improve and grow. In this, we are truly American-- this country started by setting high standards and goals for itself, and it has spent centuries trying to live up to them. But if our goals were simply "I want to make myself rich" or "I want to have power over Those People" then we would have no hope of improving. If public schools set goals like "Just try to turn a profit this quarter" or "Get high scores on that one test" then we would have no hope, no prospect for greatness ever.

Our dream is to provide every single child with the support and knowledge and skills and education that will allow each to pursue the life they dream of, to become more fully themselves, to understand what it means to be human in the world. We do not always live up to that dream, but US public schools have lifted up millions upon millions of students, elevated communities, raised up a country.

So take a moment this week to honor and acknowledge National Pubic Schools Week. And if you have two moments, use one to send a message to your elected representatives, asking them to acknowledge this week as well. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

DeVos: Made Up of Individuals

I didn't want to cover that damnable 60 Minutes speech any further, but I need to make this point because all the folks who are just pointing and saying "Har har! DeVos is so dumb!" are really missing a crucial point.

I'm talking about this specific quote from the interview:

I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.

And we can set this one, in response to the question about disparate and racist responses to student misbehavior, right next to it:

Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids. And--
 --it does come down to individual kids. And--often comes down to-- I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.

Regular DeVos watchers recognize the ideas expressed here. These statements are clumsy and awkward, but they are not stupid-- they are an attempt to frame her policy choices in language that is consistent with what she has in mind.

DeVos has consistently said that she favors individuals over institutions, and she has tried to frame all her discussion of education in terms of individual students. Take this construction:

Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in school-- school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.

Why say something like that over and over?

Because it plays better than saying, "We should defund public schools."

Why keep making these ridiculous responses about individual students instead of looking at the system?

For the same reason that government officials are forbidden to say "global warming." For the same reason that the use (or non-use) of the phrase "radical Islam" became a hot-button issue.

DeVos hesitates to talk about all schools in general because she if she did, she would have to acknowledge that they exist, and she doesn't want to-- she wants to frame education as something that has to do with individual students and not with taxpayers and not with education professionals and certainly not with the public schools that she would like to get rid of. She is saying very plainly that families and students are going to be on their own, and if that means, for instance, that black kids get unfairly hammered by whatever rules are in place, oh well, that's too bad.

She would like to rhetorically erase the idea of funding public schools and a public school system because she would like to actually erase the practice itself.

Yes, her attempts to reframe the issues of education are clumsy, partly because, stripped of her checkbook powers, she is a terrible, terrible persuader. And mostly because her idea is a really dumb idea, and rhetorical tricks will only get you so far when you're trying to sell a really dumb idea.

But it's not a set-up for a joke.

On the one hand, I'm glad that the mainstream has finally noticed some of these issues (seriously-- I'm glad folks were struck by the whole "taking money away from struggling schools is kind of dumb" thing, but some of us have been saying it for twenty years). But on the other hand I feel like I'm watching people who are being told by an assailant, "I am going to punch your children in the face" and people are reacting like this is a hilarious joke, but not, really, that assailant is really getting ready to punch your children in the face, and he just told you he's going to do it, and maybe you should do something other than make jokes about it.

CA: DFER "All-Star" Running for Governor

Whitney Tilson is the hedge fund guy behind Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a reform-backing group that is only sort of technically Democratic. Tilson sends out a regular newsletter, and in the most recent edition, he beats the drum for California gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

This guy.
Villaraigosa is a former Los Angeles mayor. In Tilson's letter, DFER calls Villaraigosa "a bonafide DFER all-star" and touts his impeccable "ed reform credentials."

As Mayor, he sought mayoral control over Los Angeles' schools, and used his platform to take responsibility over a large subset of the City’s failing schools including those in South Los Angeles, Watts and East Los Angeles.

So he's helped out reformsters with some real estate grabs. And then there's this:

Importantly, given that Mayor Villaraigosa served for years as an organizer for the local teachers' unions, he continues to be one of the only leaders in the country who can speak against inequities in education with the credibility of being a pro-union Democrat who once represented members of the unions he is now holding accountable.

While it's true that Villaraigosa used his union work to launch his political career, he may have singed that bridge a bit when he called the LA teachers union "the largest obstacle to creating quality schools." Villaraigosa has picked fights with any number of unions in LA; I'm not so sure the "pro-union" hat fits pretty well, but Villaraigosa is a fine example of what Slate was talking about when it wrote the headline "Betsy DeVos Didn’t Say Anything in Her Viral Clip That Democrats Haven’t Supported for Years."

When Eli Broad tried to launch a plan to privatize half of the LA Unified School District, Villaraigosa was there to offer his vocal support.  And while Tilson may want to label Voillaraigosa pro-union, the candidate himself makes it a point to paint the teachers union as his enemy. Because, I guess, being anti-teacher is one way to earn political and financial capital in these races. Oh-- he would like tenure to be harder to get as well.

Bottom line: California, like DFER, New York, Connecticut and a few other locales, is a place where many Democrats are largely indistinguishable from Republicans when it comes to public education. For the moment, California Democrats have some choices for governor. We'll have to wait and see if anyone emerges who wants to actually stand up for public education, or if California will be one more place where public education becomes a political orphan.

Monday, March 12, 2018

DeVos In This World

By this time, everyone in the education world, or even the world next door, has heard about Betsy DeVos's appearance on 60 Minutes being grilled by Lesley Stahl. Unfortunately, most of this morning's coverage seems to focus on roasting her for being an uneducated twit. I recommend folks look a little more closely at what she's saying. Ready for just one more take on this?

In the widely reposted exchange from the interview, DeVos is pressed on the results of her meddling in Michigan, where she got pretty much everything she wanted, and schools statewide have suffered because of it. DeVos tried to hold up Florida as an example of success.

Neither state is an example of success by any conventional education measures. Michigan, which has had the most DeVosuian influence, is an educational disaster area. Florida just earned a low ranking in US K-12 education. 

People look at this disconnect and think, "Well, only a dope could think that these policies actually helped these states. Betsy DeVos must be a dope."

I think the conclusion that she's a dope is a mistake.

Here's another theory. Let's assume that getting a good education to every child is not a goal. Let's assume instead that the goal is to have education functioning on the free market, free of public institutions and government meddling. Let's assume that seeing some businesses prosper and profit is further proof that the market is working properly. Let's assume that directing public money to religious schools at the expense of government programs is a desirable and commendable outcome. In fact, let's assume that in such a system, having some schools and students sink to the bottom is a desirable outcome, because the free market is supposed to reward the deserving and allow the undeserving to sink to the low level where they belong. And if gutting public education has the effect of gutting unions and taking power away from those damn Godless Democrats, well, that's only right, too.

If we assume those things, then Michigan and Florida are unqualified successes.

So you can assume that DeVos calls these states a success because she's a dope, or you can listen to what she's telling you about her goals, which is that those states have come close to achieving them.

The interview includes a clip of someone calling out her wealth, and there's the usual speaking against the idea of federal overreach (by which she seems to mean "reach") including the now-characteristic insistence that certain bad things shouldn't happen in school, but it's not the government's place to do anything about it. Nor is she ever going to really acknowledge systemic racism. The most charitable read for that last one is that she just doesn't get it; the least charitable read is that DeVos is simply racist herself (those black kids wouldn't get in so much trouble if they didn't deserve to, because you know how they are).

And throughout the interview, there's that voice and that smile. That same rictus of a smirk. What is up with that?

I have a thought.

Any analysis of DeVos that doesn't factor in her religious views, her brand of Midwestern fundamentalism, is a mistake.

Looking at that smile, I was reminded of an old Christian admonition- "Be in this world, but not of this world."

It's a view that people of faith, people who have been elevated by a relationship with a personal Lord and Savior, do not actually belong in this dirty, debased world. The rules of this world cannot be their rules. To achieve Godly goals, they may have to use worldy tools, even pretend to go along with worldly rules, but this is stooping to achieve a higher purpose. God will even give His chosen tools (like earthly wealth and political power), but they must avoid being seduced by worldly things, including a desire for worldly acclaim and recognition. That means, among other things, that the Chosen don't owe these earthly, debased, going-to-hell persons an explanation. You can be in the world with these people, and maybe feel sorry for them, but there is no need to connect with them-- you are almost like two separate species, passing each other for a brief moment as you travel to two separate destinations, you to eternal glory in Heaven, and they to endless damnation in Hell.

So you smile. You smile hard, because it shows that you're still better than they are, and that you haven't stooped to their level. You smile even as they say mean things about you, because if the people of this world mount powerful forces against you, it's just further proof that you are right (and they are wrong). In fact, you are so right, and so sure of it, that real conversations with them aren't necessary because what could you learn from people who are so low and earthly and wrong? But you go through the motions to show that you're the bigger person, and because sometimes worldly tools must be used to achieve divine goals. You smile.

Betsy DeVos's smile is the smile of Dolores Umbrage or the Church Lady. It's an angry, flinty smile, a smile that says, "I am in this world, but I am not of it, and some day I will rise above it and leave you behind."

I know, I know. I am engaging in more armchair psychiatrist than people who just skip straight to, "She's a dope." But when I look at her, I see a face that I saw dozens of times on the United Methodist Youth Fellowship circuit. I always wondered how those folks would grow up, and in most cases life beat them into a humbler, kinder shape. Betsy DeVos looks to me like how they would have grown up if they had been bubbled inside enough  wealth and privilege to convince them that they were right all along. There's no humility there, and no kindness, though I would bet that DeVos thinks she has kind thoughts about the rest of us, and I suppose she does, in the same way that some folks have kind thoughts about scraggly stray cats. But not only is she not of this world, but she hasn't been in it all that often.

I don't believe for a minute that DeVos is a dope. I think she's worked very hard at packaging her core beliefs, knowing that in this world you can't just say "Close all public schools, hand education over to religious schools, give everyone a voucher." You can't just say "There should be no collectives except the Church, and it should admit only those who deserve to be there." You can't just say, "Some people are supposed to be poor and miserable, because if you don't properly follow God's word, you're supposed to be poor and miserable." You can't just say, "My wealth is a sign from God that I have been anointed to do His work." You can't just say, "Your opposition to me just proves that Satan is mobilizing against me in this world." Your silence on all these matters is just a price of being in this world. But since you are not of this world, you won't have to pay that price forever.

If DeVos sometimes seems confused by questions asked by worldly interviewers and worldly Congressmen, it is in part because they are following a worldly script that she rejected back in her youth. If she seems confused, it may not be because she doesn't get it, but because she still can't quite understand why the rest of us don't get it.

Betsy DeVos is not a dope. I wish more people would see what she keeps putting right in front of our collective face. She has a vision of what education and government should look like, and if it seems that her vision is dangerous and damaging to the world, that does not matter to her, because this world is not her home.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

ICYMI: Lost Hour Edition (3/11)

It's another lovely Sunday, and here is some reading for the week. Remember-- only yu can amplify the voices that you believe should be heard.

Things Economists Should Start Saying

Jersey Jazzman takes a look at the kinds of "expert" analysis offered by economists about education.

Who Are the Data Unicorn Tech Giants

There's a lot to wade through here, but it's a good look at some of the connections within the race to monetize student data without getting bogged down by student consent.

When Big Data Goes To School

Alfie Kohn doesn't blog often, but when he does, it's always worth a read.

Teachers In Your State Are Underpaid

This Vox piece comes with a clickbaity title, but it's a pretty interesting batch of data about teacher salaries in every state.

10 Things We Shouldn't Expect Public Schools To Do

Nancy Flanagan passes on some observations from a friend about the expected roles of public schools. It's kind of stunning when you just lay it out in a list like this.

Teach Kids When They're Ready

Is there anything more consistently ignored in education then the fact that littles develop at the same pace they always have, no matter how hard we try to rush schooling?

Cost Benefits Show Failure of Voucher Plan

The Journal Gazette offers a direct and simple debunking of the Indiana voucher plan by using facts. Go figure. Once again, voucher systems turn out to be a way to channel public tax dollars to private religious schools.

Minneapolis Public School Hosts Teach for America Recruiting Event

In Minneapolis, another reminder of how TFA is the ground troops for spreading charter schools, and how some public systems have become complicit in their own destruction.

New Oklahoma Teacher Vows

A look at the super-secret vows that new Oklahoma teachers must, apparently, take when they go to work.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

AEI: Localism and Education

The American Enterprise Institute, a right-tilted, free market loving thinky tank, has put out a collection of essays organized around the topic of localism in America, and within that book is a brief-ish essay by Frederick Hess and Andy Smarick entitled "Localism and Education: Pluralism, Choice, and Democratic Control."

My town, in a somewhat earlier time

Hess and Smarick set out by connecting localism and pluralism, but also connect localism to the freedom "to forge lives and ties among those who share their beliefs and values" which is kind of.... not pluralism. They place public schools in that tradition of community endeavors launched by "responsible, civic-minded" citizens.

Indeed, given the role schools have historically played in binding together the fates of neighborhoods, fostering understanding and interdependency among neighbors, it is no great feat to understand why in so many communities school choice is seen as a threat rather than a boon. In short, two time-tested notions of localism are in tension: one rooted in liberty and free association and the other in the bonds of community.

And the "challenge for education reformers" is that their measure of the merits of different approaches has "become remarkably detached from that of many families, voters and communities."

I agree with this, mostly, except the word "become." In much of the modern ed reform movement, policies and initiatives have ben detached by design. Common Core was designed specifically to override local decisions and bring uniformity from community to community, state to state. Charter schools have been mostly run as private businesses with no actual local governance; who can forget Reed Hastings arguing that local school boards should be eliminated. The detachment from local concerns has always been baked right into reform. As it will turn out, Hess and Smarick don't really disagree with me.

Hess and Smarick admit there are mixed feelings, noting that localism is both "revered and reviled." Then they cite its "long and tangled history" as resulting in a hyper-local control that was "pragmatic, not just philosophical." Some of the conditions of localism, in Hess and Smarick's narrative, began to change:

--namely, explicit efforts to prize assimilation over diversity, the reduced role of churches in schooling, and the increased capacity of state and municipal government--

And this, they argue, led schools to become less local.

Brown v Board, they suggest, kick off a period of government control, based on the moral claim that some locales could not be trusted "to do right by all their students," and history certainly backs that up. And that set of moral reasons, many reformers over the past half-century have wanted to see les localism. Hess and Smarick identify three "camps" of anti-localism reformers.

Business and "Accountability" Republicans. These are the guys pushing standards-based reform and test-based accountability, because you can't trust the locals to get it right-- particularly when that damn teachers union gets involved and starts pushing back.

School Choice Advocates. These are the folks that see local schools as "bureaucratic monopolies" where students must be rescued from their zip code.

Democratic Reformers. Are there Progressives who "have come to see localism as little more than a problem to be solved"? Probably true, as long as there are Progressives who believe those rubes in the hinterlands will screw up standards, segregate like crazy, and try to screw over the poor neighborhoods.

I'm not sure I buy this taxonomy entirely, but their actual point is that despite a wide variety of reformsters who are out to kill localism, almost none have actually managed to end it.

Why, Hess and Smarick wonder, is it so hard to kill?

One, they note, is a sentimental attachment to local control and a belief that it offers "a bulwark against grand plans and far-off agendas." Hess and Smarick aren't going to dismiss this as a legit concern, "given the number and goofiness" of such plans that have been imposed on schools over the year.

But they also want us to consider one other pro-local force, and here they disappoint me, because we have arrived the long way around at the old argument that it's those damned champions of the status quo, those unions and administrators who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It's a shallow argument, and it overlooks two critical points. First, if teachers and administrators are motivated by their vested interest in the system, well, so are all the reformsters who stand to make a living from "disrupting" education or who stand to make a fortune by opening an education-flavored business. Second, and more importantly, it overlooks another explanation for the pro-traditional stance of the "blob"-- people who are trained and experienced professionals in a field might just have a better idea of what works and what doesn't. In fact, we've been at this long enough now to start having versions of one particular conversation over and over and over again:

Reformster: I have discovered widgetomification, and it will revolutionize the education field.

Actual educators: That's a new version of an old idea. It won't work. You should not try to inflict it on schools. You should not waste our limited resources on it.

Reformster: You dreadful status quo-ians. You need to be swept aside.

(Some time passes)

Reformster: I have had another genius insight. I have come to announce that widgetomification does not work!

Actual educators: No shit, Sherlock.

Hess and Smarick almost acknowledge this when they write:

...perhaps Americans have decided to continue situating schools’ authority at the level of small, local democratic units not merely because it is convention but because there is wisdom and value in that convention.

They note that even where charters have captured large market shares and "empowered" (my scare quotes) parents, there is still a move to return power to local boards.

All this works us around to the question of what localism in K-12 actually means.

Reformers have tried to sell choice as "the ultimate expression of localism," allowing families to choose their communities and generally embodying "an understanding of localism based on voluntary associations, nongovernment bodies, and individual empowerment." They have some theories about why this pitch doesn't fly. I think they've missed a couple of major points, but I'll let them go first.

To many communities, they note, a school is not just a school, but a source of local pride. This is correct. Where you find small town school districts contemplating merger, there will be more discussion of school mascots and community identity than of ways to reconcile pedagogical techniques. And when my own district discussed closing some outlying elementary schools, there was the same level of concern you would expect from closing a post office o a community center.

Hess and Smarick are correct to note that, expanding choice "would seem to lead to atomization... in a manner likely to enervate communities and undermine social capital." And they are also correct to note that one some of the issues raised, there is not much room for compromise. " Either public schools are governed by elected officials or they are not." Either families can choose to send their children to private schools and have taxpayers foot the bill, or they can't.

Hess and Smarick have overlooked some other factors here. At one point they characterize choice as pushing authority down "from hulking, bureaucratic district offices." But in small town and rural districts, the central office is not hulking, and it is staffed (like every other small town institution) with readily recognizable friends and neighbors.

More notably, choice systems clash with localism because choice system disenfranchise large chunks of the community. A good solid Baptist community member may not approve of the Catholic school, or an African-American community member may not like the idea of a segregation academy in town, but if those community members don't have children, they have no say in what happens to their choice-directed tax dollars. In my region, where cyber-schools are the only real choice options functioning, community members are angry that a handful of families can make a decision that threatens the future of a school that is valued by the entire community because of laws passed by folks far off in the state capital. Hess and Smarick talk about the visible results of charters and choice, but in my neck of the woods, the visible effect of choice is that taxpayers are paying their taxes and suddenly it's not enough to maintain long-time valued community assets and traditions. A handful of families may get to exercise some choice, but the vast majority of taxpayers get no say at all in choices that are visibly damaging their beloved community schools.

Hess and Smarick end with a battery of questions about the bands of localism and how they both clash with and support the reformy desire for school choice (which is really the only type of reform being discussed here). But think tank ruminations aside, school choice and localism go together like chocolate and gasoline.