Friday, August 17, 2018

Standing Up

"I just want to teach."

Those words have been repeated by so many teachers, so many times. This time it was a friend of mine who appears to be on the verge of having a contract. The school district has been wrestling with the contract for two years, with board members offering useful observations like "We have the money, but we don't want to give it to them." Last spring, the board offered its "final" proposal and refused to get back to the bargaining table. The union met and voted to strike in the fall. The community has been largely supportive of the teachers, who have mustered a huge presence at every board meeting. Finally, the board replaced their negotiating team, and a tentative agreement is now before both parties. Next week will tell whether the board will actually sign, of if the strike is still on.

It has been an ugly, depressing, contentious mess, and it was in reflecting on that mess that my friend said, "I just want to teach."

Without even thinking about it, I immediately replied, "That's just not an option any more." And I thought about it and realized that even in districts where contracts are settled, it's still true.

It's been true for a while. When I started, you could still hope to close the door to your room and just teach. Not that there weren't challenges; in those days, I usually compared teaching to a form of guerrilla warfare, where you had to be clever and alert enough to do parts of your job under the radar, because sometimes your administrators or your parents or your students would try to thwart your attempts to educate the young humans in your room. Sometimes they were resistant, sometimes oblivious, sometimes just not very supportive-- you had to keep your eyes on the work and press forward, but you could get most everything done if, instead of trying to fight anyone, you just closed the door to your room and forged ahead. You might have had opponents, but most of them didn't care enough to try to actually catch you doing your job.

The rise of the ed reform movement changed that. State departments that had previously practiced benign neglect started to practice active interference. When I started out, state presentations involved feeble attempts to get teacher buy-in to bad ideas; at the turn of the century, I realized they had become more coldly aggressive. From "We really hope to sell you on the value of this policy," we shifted to "This is going to happen, and you can get with the program or we are going to roll right over you."

Teachers have always fielded suggestions that they try dumb practices; under No Child Left Behind, we began to shift to demands, mandates, orders to employ educational malpractice.

Many teachers took quite a while to catch on. A building principal would announce a new bad idea, like test-centered schooling and senseless teacher evaluation systems, and teachers would roll their eyes and prepare to give the administrator a bad time, not understanding that his orders came from far up the food chain. Many teachers assumed they were suffering under local idiocy; it took a while to understand that this was state-and-national level foolishness.

At the same time, teachers felt the growing sense that they were being treated as the enemy. And if they didn't get it through deep reading of the situation, political leaders started to spell it out for them. (I remember a board member recounting in shocked tones being at the state capital and hearing the head of the government's education committee spit out angrily that they had already given "you people"-- meaning schools-- too much.) Then came policies that could easily have been entitled The Just Shut Up And Get These Kids Ready For The Big Standardized Test Act. To teachers' collective plea for assistance and support came replied like Teach for America and charter schools which said, essentially- "Help you?! We intend to replace you!" And it has come consistently from both parties.

After twenty years of ed reform, teachers have arrived at a point where they cannot shut the door and teach. Every teacher has to be an advocate for her profession, her school, and the institution of public education. Every policy and directive that descends from above has to be examined for its various effects, both on education and the profession, because teachers can no longer trust the People In Charge. The people who should be helping to smooth the road are building speed bumps and brick walls instead. To shut your door and teach is to the door to your room in a burning building; you may not feel the heat yet, but if you do nothing, you will surely feel it soon.

When we talk about reasons that so many fewer people pursue or stay with a teaching career, I'm not sure we discuss this point enough. You may want to Just Teach, but that will not be an option. You will have to fight constantly just to get to do your job. It's a huge disincentive-- "I would really like to do that job, but it looks like I won't really get to do the job I want to do."

Yes, every job has its crappy parts. But the problems of education and education reform and privatization of education and the general meddling of amateurs are smothering the work so that only the strong, the ones willing to fight, can see their way clear to get in there. And really, I can't imagine how tall that mountain looks when you are young, just starting out, and untenured.

Having said all that, I would argue that there are some positive side effects to the current condition of teaching. For one thing, it demands that you commit and become intentional about your work. When you say you "just want to teach," what do you mean, exactly? What are the important parts? What does the work mean to you? What is it that you are going to fight for? These are good questions to know the answers to. Focus. Keep your eyes on the real destination as long as you can.

Because teaching is still hugely important work, and the students are hugely important people, and both deserve to have warriors to defend them. Yes, it shouldn't be this hard, and yes, we are losing a whole generation of teacher might-have-beens because the education landscape has been turned into a dangerous, scary-looking place.

But none of that changes the mission-- to help students become their best selves, to help them understand what it means to be human in the world, to grow in all the best and most exciting ways. If I could say anything to people teetering on the brink of teaching or not, it would be that it will be a fight, and sometimes it will be a hard fight, and sometimes even a losing fight, and you can't give more than you have (and that matters-- you can't do what you can't do)--  but it will always be worth it. Yes, it's easier to stand up in a quiet room than in pounding surf, but we don't get to choose the times we live in or the fights that come to us. The work is worth it. The students are worth it.

Get Ready To Go

It is one of my great pet peeves.

Folks often observe that littles are excited to go to school. As that first day gets closer and closer, they just can't wait. But then they get older and the enthusiasm wanes. Why, folks wonder.

It's a complicated matter that involves many factors and problems, but I know one factor tat everyone could work on right away.

Stop telling kids they should hate school.

I know that hardly anyone ever says, in so many words, "You should hate school." But we tell them in many other ways, especially at this time of year. "Are you ready to go back to school," someone will ask in exactly the same tone they would use for "Are you ready to get hit in the face with a sack of poop?" Maybe we give them the old, "I'll bet you're really sad that vacation is over." We find many ways to signal to students that they should be sad about school, dread school, hate school. Granted, there are students who have good reasons to dread school, but the signaling by adults does not help.

Teachers can be just as bad. We complain about the end of summer vacation, complain about having to go back and face the students. We signal to folks that our job sucks, and while there are sucky parts of the job, teaching the actual students is not one of them (if it is for you, you are in the wrong line of work and you should search for employment elsewhere). Sometimes we get trapped in "polite" conversations with people who want to make small talk and land on some version of "Boy, I bet you're dreading going back" or "So, are you counting down to summer vacation already?" It feel impolite to say, "No, I love my job and the work is important and exciting," but anything else feeds the idea that school is a terrible hell where nothing good happens and nobody-- not students, not teachers-- actually wants to be there.

We talk a lot these days about standing up for the profession, and this is one of the most fundamental ways to stand up-- to stop feeding the idea that the job is an endless suckfest and that everyone in a school building wants, or should want, to be anywhere else on earth.

Don't talk about how awful it is to be going back. Don't tell students they should dread it. Don't idolize Fridays (because then we don't have to be here).

That doesn't mean we have to pretend that school is all unicorns and puppies and ice cream. But it's an important place, where important work is done, and where tiny humans become young humans who become practically-adult humans. It's kind of amazing. Teaching is important work, and it is a privilege to do that work. Likewise, the public school system provides an unparalleled opportunity for students to learn and grow and become more fully themselves as they learn how to be human in the world. This is the first fall in my life that I won't be going back, and while I'm comfortably certain that I'm right where I should be, I will still miss it. Your time in school doesn't last forever; you should embrace it while you can.

This is great work, important work, work that occurs with a ticking clock hovering in the background. Great work on a tight deadline. It is challenging and often difficult, and the difficulties are frustrating because so many of them are unnecessary-- artificial speed bumps created by the very people who are supposed to smooth the road. But the work is still great and important. Students and teachers should all be reminded of that, especially at this time of year.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Happy 5th Curmudgubirthday

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my first post on this blog. I'm going to be self-indulgent for a few minutes.

It has been an interesting adventure. If you go back and look at the early posts (and really, you should not), you'll see that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. At the time, I was just starting to unravel what was going on in the ed reform world. Like most teachers, I had suffered through the side effects of NCLB and was curious about what this Common Core stuff was about, and as I peeled back the layers, I became more astonished and outraged and incredulous and angry. And the more I learned the more I thought about it, and the more I thought about it the more I felt compelled to express what I was thinking. The pace of the blog picked up considerably, but it always felt like journaling. It did not occur to me that there was an audience for what I was writing.

I evolved. God bless the people who told me that my spiffy design of white text on a black background was not optimal for people who actually wanted to read it. I learned how to better incorporate links, and how to add images, and how to redesign and reconstruct my header.

Most of all, I re-learned what two decades of newspaper columning had taught me before-- the more you write, the easier it comes. That and they can't all be gems; better to let them fly than to belabor them at great length.

I found an audience. More precisely, other people found an audience for me. I'm not comfortable self-promoting. I look at the kind of work that some edu-celebrities do just to repeatedly say "Hey, look at me" and it just makes me kind of cringey inside. But the BATs and Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody and Valerie Strauss and a host of other people helped an audience find me. I've always argued that the growth of the audience here is not a testament to anything exceptional about me, but is a testament to how concerned and informed and interested and engaged people are on the subject of public education and what is being done to it. As of this week, there are 2977 posts on this blog, and the blog has been viewed a little over 6,500,000 times.

There have been so many influences on what I do. Mercedes Schneider writes as much as I do, and her stuff is actually researched and fact-filled. Nancy Flanagan and Jennifer Berkshire and Jan Resseger and Mark Webber and Jose Luis Vilson and Wendy Lecker and Paul Thomas and another host of folks (look in the right column) have influenced and informed me.

I've learned. As with all controversial issues, it's easy to reduce the ed debates to simple black and white, but I am suspicious of simple answers, regardless of what side they come from. It is a challenge to balance the importance of nuance and understanding with a strong sense of what is right and wrong. The forces arrayed against public ed are not monolithic, which means they are not uniformly anything, which means we have to pay attention all the time. You have to keep learning. In education we talk about that all the time, but I'm not sure we always grasp what it really means.

The debates have shifted. The ed reform folks have shifted the terms of the debates many times, like a mouse probing and pushing to find a way through the wall. They will always shift, because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Put another way, there will never come a day when we can just sit down and say, "Whew-- all the threats to public education have been dealt with and we don't have to worry about it ever again."

I am fortunate to have had opportunities outside the mother ship here-- for a while at Ed Week and Huffington Post, occasionally at BAM Radio, and now at the Progressive and Forbes. Widening the audience is important-- those of us who spend so much time working on these issues can forget just how little the average citizen knows about public education and ed reform. I feel privileged to have a chance to help spread the word.

Thanks to readers and supporters and especially those who share and pass along the posts that speak to them. It is a writer's biggest job to give other folks the words and language they need to explain what they are thinking, feeling, and caring about. A writer's other big job is to connect people who share ideas, and to help them see a little more and grow in the process. If I'm managing to do even a little bit, that's a good thing.

Public education matters. It's a fundamental part of this country; as Benjamin Barber said, it's not just to serve the public, but to create the public. It's important, and it deserves to be defended vigorously, even as we look to solve those systemic problems that plague it from the inside.

Thanks, finally, to my wife, who tolerates my need to run off and make tappy-tappy noises on the computer and otherwise manage my internet empire. She is far better than I deserve.

So happy birthday, blog. Now it's time to get back work.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

PA: Wonderland Charter Gives Up Gaming the System

State College is the home of Penn State University, and up until last spring, it was the home of Wonderland Charter School. The school was authorized over the resistance of the State College School Board years ago, and has, according to some local sources, something of a 'hoity toity" following. But last spring, word got out that SCASD had the ammunition to shut Wonderland down, and so they voluntarily folded their tents in June.

Some history:

Wonderland was co-founded by Marilyn L. Ohnmeis as a kindergarten and preschool in the 1990s. She and her husband, Hal Ohnmeis, tried to make it a charter school in 1998 when PA passed charter laws. SCASD rejected their request but that was overturned by the state on appeal. The most common voice and front-man for the school is Hal Ohnmeis, a former army ranger with no educational background or experience. The school grew up to K-5 and promised a personalized education approach, touted the DISTAR model of direct instruction, and promised teaching to mastery for every student. As of last year the school had 79 students and 12 teachers.

But the public school system which handed over tax dollars to the school believed that things were not so rosy in Wonderland. In a statement issued last spring, solicitor Scott Etter said:

These failures, in the area of special education in particular, are systemic, institutionalized, and long-standing, and were put in place and are enforced by Wonderland leadership, to include its founder, former CEO, and current business administrator; its education director; its current CEO; and its other lead teacher. We believe that these failures are so severe and significant that it is appropriate to initiate the non-renewal/revocation proceeding provided for in the (charter school law) and the Basic Education Circular on Charter Schools.

While Wonderland has its defenders, who showed up at SCASD board meetings to make their case, the charter was also slammed by its own board members, teachers, and parents. An initial three-month review of the school revealed some significant issues:

Student performance on tests was lower than the sending district. The education director lacks an administrative certificate. Wonderland teachers were the lowest paid in the state. The school CEO allegedly refused to let the SCASD see the IEPs for Wonderland students. The "very scripted" curriculum resembles the curriculum used by most districts for at-risk learners.

Ohmneis said that SCASD didn't factor in teacher end-of-year bonuses, and misrepresented how they used special ed money. He also claimed that IEPs couldn't be shared with the district.

That was back in June. Now Etter has released his updated report on Wonderland and the school ends up looking like yet another example of charter school scamming in action. Here are some of the findings of the report, based on interviews with board members, teachers, and parents:

Wonderland systematically and deliberately gamed the special ed system of Pennsylvania to avoid enrolling or creating IEPs for all but the most profitable students with special needs. Etter argues they did this by, first, having a model of constant teacher turnover, which not only kept salaries low but created a regular "influx of young and inexperienced teachers, who are not in a position to know any better, say anything, or be there longer enough to really grasp what is transpiring." A board member who questioned the turnover was told it was the "Wonderland model."

Ohnmeis discussed the cost and "potential catastrophic financial implications" of IEPs at board meetings. Meanwhile, parents were discouraged from enrolling students with special needs. One parent was told that Wonderland would not administer their child's medication (they don't believe in medicating children) and that Wonderland doesn't like to have IEPs because "they restrain us in what we like to do to help the child."

Wonderland did, however, identify a ton of students in the speech and language category. This is Charter Scamming 101-- students so identified entitle you to the whole extra-large chunk of money from the state, but they cost very little to serve. Wonderland may have over-identified students in this category by as much as 1,000%. Ka-ching.

Keeping the scam under wraps. Teachers were forbidden from being friends with or socializing with parents; numerous teachers believe that is so they won't tell parents what the school was really like. In fact, teachers were forbidden to speak with parents at drop-off or pick-up.  Teachers were personally threatened with termination for violating this policy. And if all that isn't nuts enough, teachers at the school were not allowed to use or have e-mail.

Prior to parent-teacher conferences, Ohnmeis instructed teachers to tell parents who asked about IEPs for their children to tell them that the child was making progress, needed more confidence, needed more practice. Teachers were also dissuaded from including anything negative in write-ups of education plans for students; if anything negative was included, administrators removed it. Parents report being given a rosy picture of what was going on at school, only to be surprised later by the truth.

There are numerous stories of parents, teachers, and even visiting SCASD administrators that numerous students appeared, or were reported, to need special help. They were not getting it, and administrators of the school denied any such assistance. Later investigation showed that Wonderland was out of compliance with several regulations. Ohnmeis (who you will recall has no educational training or experience) often represented the school in IEP meetings.

Real estate scamming. Wonderland entered into a one year lease with a for profit corporation owned by Ohnmeis and his wife (did I mention she was a founder/chief academic officer, director). Work on the building does not appear to have been bid out. The school apparently also licenses its trademark from for profit corporation owned by, you guessed it, Mr. and Mrs. Ohnmeis. The couple has also served as board members while also employed by the school. That's probably illegal.

When announcing their decision to close, the school sent out an email that said, in part,

The Wonderland board of directors was faced with a very difficult decision Monday night. Over the last several months, State College Area School District has continued to inundate Wonderland with increasingly numerous costly and time consuming requests, as well as intrusive, harassing, and redundant inspections. All the while, refusing to present specific charges allowing the legal renewal proceedings to continue.

So not even an "Ooopsies! We made a few paperwork mistakes but we'll totally do better." Just a flat denial and closed doors. Meanwhile, the school's website has gone dark, though you can still visit them on Facebook. The good news here is that the public school system was able to shut down a financial drain on its ability to operate and offer programs to its students. The bad news is that things had to get seriously and demonstrably bad before they could do it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Oh, Arne. Hush.

Arne Duncan has been pretty relentless in stumping for his new book How Schools Work   (a book which Amazon currently lists as the #1 best-seller in the category "charter schools").

I don't intend to read the book because I don't intend to enrich Duncan's already-blossoming bank balance with my own money. If you'd like a review of the whole thing, I recommend this review by Aaron Pallas for Hechinger or Valerie Strauss's take or even Rick Hess's reaction at Forbes. Duncan has written something, but it isn't really a memoir and it certainly isn't an explanation of How Schools Work, a subject on which Duncan remains spectacularly obtuse.

I've read much of Duncan's various attempts to pedal his tale, and now I've also listened to him speak about it on NPR, so that you don't have to. Spoiler alert: it will once again reveal Duncan's signature inability to reflect usefully on any of his experience. It is a common thread in most reviews of the book-- Arne Duncan never seems to learn a thing.

The interview starts out by noting that Duncan is the Secretary of Education who led us through the horror and tragedy of Sandy Hook, and then tosses out a softball question about his professional basketball career; for the record, he played pro ball in Australia which was "a lot of fun." Also, he met his wife there. Suddenly I realize that calls for LeBron James to become Secretary of Education are not as far-fetched as I was thinking.

Since Arne's opening line is "Education runs on lies" (which, as Strauss points out, is a lousy sentence), he's asked to lay out what the biggest lie is in education. He settles on three:

First, the lie that we value education. There's a valid point to be made here, but Duncan isn't going to make it. Instead he's going to say that if we were really supporting education, all politicians would come together in a bi-partisan, non-partisan agreement. Thing that Duncan has not learned: that his own preferred policies and ideas are not non-partisan. He will also tie this to another favorite point-- that folks don't vote based on education issues. He has a point here, but he may not have it for much longer. We'll see.

Second, the lie that we value teachers. We don't pay them enough, we don't support them as professionals, we don't give them adequate training, and we don't give them meaningful career ladders. Which would be a more meaningful list if it didn't come from someone who led the way in devaluing the teaching profession. He was a champion of Teach for America, the ultimate expression of the Anyone Can Do This ethos (and is an exemplar of inadequate training). He ignored what teachers had to say about any of his reform ideas, and he championed an evaluation system rooted in the assumption that teachers could do a better job but they're just too lazy and unwilling to get to work. And he called us liars plenty of times, too.

Third, the lie that we value our children. As a culture, that's unfortunately true. He's going to specifically point at gun violence. And only gun violence. Because if he were to acknowledge that we also fail to value our children when we allow systemic racism and systemic poverty, then he would have to confront his own notion that such socio-economic problems are just "excuses" for teachers to do a crappy job. Duncan's solution to poverty, racism, and even the challenges facing students with special needs was always "expectations." So all he's going to talk about is gun violence, because teachers and schools are supposed to be fixing everything else.

The interviewer asks about the whole "adults making decisions to benefit of other adults" line, and he doesn't really respond. The first part of his answer is that The Netherlands are cool. The second part is about the governor of Mississippi being disappointed that he couldn't get the money to fund a program. Because "we didn't have enough dollars," a construction that Duncan repeats before hinting that stingy old Congress is at fault. Oh, and those poor Mississippi kids ranking down at the bottom in everything. Except that Duncan/Obama created that whole game where the top states got a bunch of money and the bottom states got thoughts and prayers and encouragement to compete harder. It was the Duncan/Obama administration that rejected the idea of giving money where it was most needed and making states scramble for a limited pile of cash instead. What was kid-oriented about that approach, exactly?

The interviewer asks why Duncan is now pushing residency programs, when he had nothing to say about them when he was in office. "Oh, I totes did," fibs Duncan before bemoaning how teachers are unprepared. Actually, he says that teachers say they are unprepared. And knowing some teacher prep programs I can believe that's true, but having been an actual teacher, I cannot imagine anything that could make a 21-year-old newbie think, "Yes, I am totally prepared to face a room full of children tomorrow for the first time." Unless of course that 21-year-old newbie was a dope who didn't understand the situation. Just saying.

We move on to testing and Arne still doesn't have a clue why his test-centric evaluation system was so toxic or how it exactly played out. He tells a story about how in Chicago students were taking both the local system tests and the Iowa Tests (a test of basic skill developed at University of Iowa and widely used for decades) which he totally axed because, and he actually chuckles here, you know, why are Chicago students taking an Iowa test. I submit that's just about as dumb as anything Betsy DeVos has said.

Oh, and he wants higher standards so that college freshmen won't have to take remedial classes. And the standards shouldn't be set by the feds. "Common Core? Moi? That wasn't my fault!"

What about Betsy DeVos? Duncan is going to pretend there's some vast difference between them. A call-in listener asks a DeVos question, noting that privatization and charters seem to widen the gulf between haves and have-nots and what does Arne think about that. Which is a great question, because in these areas DeVos isn't pushing anything that Duncan didn't push for all his years in the office, but he side-dribbles over to a point about "nation-building goals" we should have, like universal Pre-K, higher grad rate, and leading the world in college completion. Will he explain how these build a stronger nation? He will not.

Can he come up with something positive to say about DeVos? "Hard to be positive about that" he says. I wish I could find a quote from his tenure in which he speaks out about what the DeVos's are doing in Michigan, but I want to finish this post before my children graduate from college. Here's the thing about Duncan's anti-DeVos rhetoric: it's not like she has just entered the ed reform arena, and it's not like she hasn't had her own state-sized sandbox to play in and push her policies, and it's not like Duncan wasn't Secretary of Education while that was going on. He had plenty of chances to complain about her ideas before, but somehow, back then, they seemed fine. In fact, while Michigan was not a Race to the Trough winner, they placed a respectable 23rd. Show me, please, a moment when Secretary of Education Duncan said, "Boy, that DeVos family is really doing things wrong in Michigan. Shame on them."

There's a simple explanation-- most of DeVos's policies match Duncan's policies. She's just more blunt, and she works for Donald Trump.

Duncan offers the observation that it's not in Trump's interests to have well-educated citizens, and I don't want to fall down this rabbit hole, but Trump's victory is not about uneducated working class voters. It's way more troubling than that. Nominally well-educated citizens elected him. That said, I see no reason for Trump to think that education is important.

Another call-in listener tries to hold Duncan's feet to the teacher-evaluation-linked-to-student-test-score fire. Duncan calls it a really fair question, and then fails to answer it. "What we tried to do..." he begins, and I would be fascinated to know what interfered with their intentions and why I should assume that they ever intended anything other than what they did, which was link teacher evaluation to student test scores (including the scores of students that the evaluated teacher never taught). It was a dumb idea, and it would be the simplest thing, the most elementary sign of reflection and insight for Duncan to say, "Yeah, we flubbed that one," but instead he has to pretend that some mysterious unseen force twisted their original intentions into the mess we got. Now Duncan says that testing should be only one piece, and that he likes peer review, and that finding a balance is complex and hard. Duncan is the kid in your class who throws a spitball at you, and you watch him throw a spitball at you, and you call him out for throwing the spitball at you, and rather than 'fess up like a grownup, he shrugs and says, "I have no idea how that spitball ended up flying at you."

The interview wraps up with discussion of gun violence in school, and I can't fault him here. Sandy Hook should have been a turning point; instead it became a sign that nothing could turn us around. Duncan is optimistic about the current youth-led movement. He is not optimistic about the DeVos school safety commission that has promised to ignore guns as a factor. This, Duncan says, is "intellectually dishonest," and he's not wrong. but there's something hugely ironic about that criticism coming from a man who couldn't be honest about what he was doing while in office and is now devoting more energy to maintaining his lies than on taking an honest look at what he screwed up, and how, and why.

I'm sure there will be more of this book-whoring junket, but this is the last I can write about it. We can only hope that, until he has a new thought in his well-paid, thinky tank, board-sitting head, he will just shush.

Monday, August 13, 2018

FL: Advancving the Surveillance State

One of the increasing trends in education is the growth in K-12 of the surveillance state. Of course, it's done with nothing but good intentions--if we collect a whole bunch of data about these children, we should be able to accomplish all sorts of great things.

Back in March, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The marquee portion of the act was new checks on the purchase of guns along with the notion of arming some people in schools, and those drew most of the attention at the time.
But as Benjamin Herold at Education Week points out, there were some other notable features of the 105-page law.

The law creates an Office of Safe Schools for the Florida Department of Education, and directs that office to "coordinate with the Department of Law Enforcement to provide a centralized integrated data repository and data analytics resource to improve access to timely, complete and accurate information." 

The intent is to merge data from various state agencies and K-12 schools as well--plus data from social media. Advocates point to shooter Nikolas Cruz, whose behavior should have raised alarms--but nobody ever put it all together in time. Mental health agencies, law-enforcement agencies and anyone who read Cruz's social media posts about becoming a "professional school shooter" would have seen trouble brewing, the argument goes. If we had a single integrated data system that collected and collated all of that individually tagged information, maybe we could stop the next Cruz.

If this sounds suspiciously like pre-crime and a twisty world where people are picked up for crimes they haven't actually committed yet--well, that may not be the scariest part.
After all, much of this may have already come to a school near you. Social Sentinel "provides a structured process to mitigate risks pro-actively" and Geo-Listening pitches the "powerful benefits" of a service that "help you better meet the social and emotional needs of your students" that they'll know about because they will "monitor, analyze and report" student social network postings.

The mountain of data that will be amassed about students, covering academics, in-school behavior, social media activity and anything else that can be datafied is unimaginable. And while Florida officials are framing all of this as "Nobody wants to allow another school shooting to happen," the system will collect all the data for all the students, not just the few who might be next year's active shooter. Regardless of the purity of everyone's intentions, that mountain of data is also a mountain of gold, and everyone from unscrupulous hackers to shady operators to companies that just had a brilliant idea about how that data could be made more useful will want to get their hands on it.






Will anybody be safeguarding it? Has Florida written laws about how it can be managed? Is anyone making sure that all of this accumulated data is accurate and free from bias? When someone calls the police on an 8-year-old black girl selling water, will that mark her as a potential threat for the rest of her life?

RealNetworks is offering facial recognition software to schools for free, which means that a child's permanent data record could also include things she did in the hall and record of her movements through the day. Meanwhile, Amazon's Rekognition software mistook 28 Congressmen for wanted criminals (with the bulk of those misidentified being African-American or Latino).

Do we really want to make a permanent data record of every dumb thing a student ever does? Is it good for us as a country to raise an entire generation that is accustomed to living under surveillance at all times? News from TSA this week suggests that government surveillance of citizens who haven't actually done anything wrong is increasingly normal. We should probably start talking about whether we really think that's a good thing.


Sunday, August 12, 2018

ICYMI: Return To Running Edition (8/12)

Last night my wife finally returned to running after a couple of years without a race (something about growing a pair of tiny humans) so that was exciting. But here, as on every Sunday, I've got a list of things from the week that deserve your attention. Remember to pass along those that speak to you.

Your Back To School Messages Are Hurting Teachers

Shanna Peeples with a great piece about "inspiring" teachers.

Betsy DeVos McMansion Hell

The brains behind the website McMansion Hell takes a look at the DeVos estate and finds it lacking. This has little to do with education, but it's fun and it also shows how the perception of DeVos has grown in non-education corners.

From Katrina to Maria: Disaster Capitalism's Playbook for School Reform

A good overview of how disaster capitalism approaches school reform. It's not pretty.

A Teacher Novel for the Modern Era

Well, this looks like fun. Gary Rubinstein looks at a novel set in the education world.

Paradoxes in the Pursuit of Efficiency

Can a string quartet play a piece more efficiently today than they could 300 years ago? Larry Cuban on how the pursuit of efficiency can become extremely inefficient.

The Myth of School Choice in North Carolina

A look at how school choice really plays out in a state that has doubled down on hostility to public education.

All Of a Sudden I'm So Good At Math  

Jose Luis Vilson with an in class example of how to pass the mic and let the students glow

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Please Don't Warm My Heart

August seems to be prime time for Heartwarming Education Stories. At this point, some are actually annual events, like the all-day It's a Wonderful Life marathons. There will be innumerable stories about nice people who buy a bunch of room supplies for teachers, or that video of the lady who says that parents should be doing back-to-school shopping for teachers.

This year we've had coverage of LeBron James' contribution to public education via single-handedly propping up a public school, a story that has culminated in widespread coverage of a petition to have James replace Betsy DeVos (which...no. I love James, and there is a certain ironic hilarity in replacing one of the whitest women in America with a famous black millionaire, but just once I'd like to see a non-amateur in education fill that post). And in the most recent viral sensation, the CEO of a hair care products company bought a car for a local teacher. All very heartwarming.

I don't want my heart to be warmed any more.

It's not that I don't appreciate the value of these stories, particularly to the people involved. It's great that poor woman finally has a car. It's awesome that an NBA giant has decided to help out a struggling public school. And if someone decided to foot the bill for my wife's classroom supplies, we would be grateful for the windfall for the family.

But these are what I think of as Undercover Boss stories. You remember Undercover Boss. It was a heartwarming show on which the head of a company went out and mixed with their underlings, discovering in the process that the company had systemic problems with working conditions and paying a living wage, and the Big Boss would respond to the discovery of these problems by fixing them for one person. Every once in a while a CEO would see the bigger picture, but mostly the message on these episodes was along the lines of, "Well, apparently I don't pay anyone in my company a living wage and my working conditions are terrible, so I think I'll fix that problem for one or two people and everyone will just have to suck it up."

Acts of charity belong in response to an unavoidable natural catastrophe, not the entirely predictable results of human-created policy. Lovable Mrs. McTeachalot shouldn't be receiving help from strangers to buy her teaching supplies because her school should be providing them in the first place. Doctors and nurses do not have to go shopping for bandaids and blood pressure cuffs to stock up their own offices. No business executive or government functionary buys office furniture out of his own pocket. Why do we accept that any teacher who wants a fully supplied classroom will, of course, be responsible for filling the gaps herself.

Why should we have to wait for a wealthy celebrity to pick up the slack for a public school that has not been properly funded? When was the last time you saw an ad from an army company saying, "We're still looking for a helpful philanthropist to buy us the supplies and equipment we need to do our jobs well." And when did you last see a Go Fund Me for a physician saying, "Please help me afford a car so I can get to work."

No. Every one of these heartwarming stories is the story of some group of politicians and policy makers who failed to properly fund the educational system.

Yes, throwing that one starfish back makes a difference to that starfish. But if your beach is covered with stranded sea creatures, you need to start looking at larger issues and not just tossing back the odd starfish.

The only heartwarming story I want to read is the heartwarming story of a state legislature that declares that it will make sure every single public school is fully funded. Or the heartwarming story of a school district that declares it's going to raise teacher pay a huge amount, because teachers deserve it. Or the heartwarming story of many levels of government coming together to make sure that a pile of money is devoted to each classroom, and the schools in the poorest neighborhoods will be buried under the kind of cash usually reserved for professional sports stars.

But, please-- no more stories of the "Well, after we decided to cut off the water line into the pasture, so that a couple hundred head of cattle were going without any fluid, one nice man climbed the fence and gave one single cow a glass of water." That's not a heartwarming story-- it's the story of the mistreatment of the livestock.

No school should ever need a celebrity's help. No nice people with cash should ever encounter a teacher shopping for classroom supplies. And it should never occur to anyone that a teacher might need a decent car. Thank you, nice people, for helping out teachers or schools in need. Now can we focus some energy on fixing the system so that schools and teachers never need to depend on the kindness of strangers ever again.

Friday, August 10, 2018

About Your Child's Data...

We probably don't talk about it enough, but ever since we started in with the modern era of ed reform, we've been watching data collection push its way into more and more of the education system. Oh, it's just for the good of the children-- by collecting All The Data, we can learn exactly where the child's strengths and weaknesses lie and maybe even personalize an educational program for that child! Heck, Knewton (a division of Pearson) once bragged that it would be able to tell you what Pat should have for breakfast on the day of a big math test.

By an odd coincidence, the standards movement plays right into this. We don't tag Item # on the test with Standard CC.12.X.b just because that shows we're aligned to the standards-- those standards also make handy data tags so that we can record and organize and crunch all that sweet data. And folks would like to do the same for social and emotional qualities, so that we're collecting data not just on how well Pat does math, but how emotionally stable, hard-working, and good Pat is.

That is a ton of data, data that could be used for a wide variety of purposes. Children get a permanent record that follows them straight into hiring offices ("I see here that in elementary school you had a real problem with defiance to authority"). The Great Sorting can be kicked into overdrive, with children's data "scores" used to properly place them  in society (see China). Social Impact Bonds actually provide a financial instrument that allows folks to monetize student achievement and data. And the whole Cambridge Analytica flap shows us how data can be used to nudge an entire country in one direction or another.

Folks are remarkably certain that this kind of data collection doesn't matter. I think often of a teacher at the silicon valley wunderschool, AltSchool. The school collected a prodigious amount of data about each child, but when an interviewer asked a teacher about the problems of that data, how long it would be kept, how carefully it would be protected, she replied "I don't know. I just have trust."

Trust is a big order. For one thing, hackers like big school-sized data vaults as a target for the same reason that Willie Sutton liked banks-- it's where the money is. We've already seen a group make a business out of cracking into school district data vaults and holding data hostage.

And now for those you who just have to trust, more news.

This week the news broke that Facebook would like to talk to your bank. Specifically, Facebook would like to look at your personal bank account, a move that Washington Post calls joining "a growing race among big technology companies seeking private information once regarded as off-limits: users' checking-account balances, recent credit card transactions and other facts of their personal finances and everyday lives."

Facebook of course swears that it won't sell the information to third parties or use it for advertising, and that may even be true for the first week or so. But information is money, and the free market loves money like an addict loves cocaine. Most of the companies that we think of as being in the social media business or the search engine business or the on-line apps business or even the on-line sales business are all, really, in the data business.

This is not a new thing. I worked one summer for a call center that took orders from catalog customers. One of that company's major sources of revenue was selling the contact information of its customers to other catalog customers. As the operator of this little blog, I get regular offers to sell me lists of contact information for people interested in everything from deep-sea fishing to a sports team.

Do not for a minute imagine that we can turn companies loose in the education sector, give them the power to collect mountains of data about the students in that system, and then be certain that everyone will just lock that data up in a sacred hands-off vault. When companies talk about cracking open the $600 billion education sector, they're not just talking about money selling books and tests and school improvement programs and charter schools and other education-flavored businesses-- they are talking about access to a huge ocean twenty-first century oil-- data!

Those of us who are grown adults get to make fewer and fewer decisions every day about how much we want to share with the many-tentacled beast that is our version of Big Brother. Do we have the will and wisdom to make sure today's children get to make their own decisions about their data, or will that freedom be stripped before they even have a chance to think about it?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Before We Evaluate Teachers

Policy hounds have been searching for a tool to accurately and fairly evaluate K-12 teachers for years, and to date, they have been largely unsuccessful. That has left us stalled in versions of the following conversations:

Policy leaders: We are going to evaluate teachers by flipping this magical coin.

Teachers: I really don't want to be evaluated by the flip of a coin, magical or otherwise.

Policy leaders: You teachers! You're all opposed to evaluation and accountability.

This is not a useful conversation.



The root problem with the current state of teacher evaluation is that we never had the necessary conversations about what we think it is for. The old system basically said, "We'll hire someone to be the teachers' boss. If that person is happy with the individual teachers, that'll be just fine." If the boss is okay, that system works okay. But if the boss is not so great, that system works out poorly for someone-- taxpayers, teachers, students, someone.
Contrary to what some claim, teachers are fine with accountability. Teachers aren't very happy about teaching next door to Mrs. McAwful. Yes, teachers' unions defend bad teachers for the same reason defense lawyers defend bad criminals-- because the alternative is a system in which powerful people can hurt others at will. A spirited defense of the accused is how we keep people in power accountable. Nevertheless, teachers are perfectly happy to be held accountable by a system that is fair and accurate and that makes sense. Accountability by student standardized test score is not that system.
Before we can design that system, we have to answer some basic questions.

What is it for? Do we want a system that can weed out the dead wood, or do we want a system that helps us find the truly excellent? Do we want it to target teacher weak spots as part of a plan to help them improve? Are we trying to locate teacher-created gaps in the curriculum and instruction? Are we trying to stack rank our entire staff? To make explicit and clear to teachers what exactly we expect from them? This matters because the top and the bottom require different measures. Stack-ranking is hard, corrosive and not always helpful. How do you compare the high school shop teacher to the first grade teacher? How do you get staff to work together when everyone understands that when your colleague wins, you lose? And "taller than everyone else in the room on Tuesday" does not tell you how tall someone actually is.

Who is it for? Are trying to show local taxpayers that they're getting their money's worth? Are we trying to satisfy state and federal bureaucrats? Is the data to be used in house by the teachers and administration themselves? Will this information be for private use or for public vivisection?

What are we going to measure, exactly? Any job evaluation is a matter of saying "This is what we're paying you to do." I don't think any taxpaying parent in the country would say, "We are paying teachers to get Junior to bubble in more correct answers on a standardized test," and yet here we are. This is where the "who" part becomes sticky, because bureaucrats aren't big on "Makes students feel positive about themselves" because that's hard to boil down to a data set of deliverables. But if your own child came home from school, crying because the teacher made her feel like a small, useless person, you would not think "No biggie-- that's not what I pay that teacher for, anyway." So what do we want to measure? Imparts content knowledge? Develops skills? Helps student become a better person? Creates a healthy environment? Helps individual student grow as best that student can? Or helps that student grow as measured against some outside metric? We've gone with standardized test scores because they're easy data to crunch-- but that doesn't mean they're useful.

Creating a teacher evaluation system is hard-- really hard. Jason Kamras thought he really cracked the code with IMPACT in the DC schools, but given time and reflection, it seems to have established a culture in which rampant cheating and misbehavior were encouraged. Kamras has been hired as a superintendent for Richmond Public Schools and he has already said that he will not take IMPACT with him. IMPACT is a dud.

What we have in most corners of the country is a system that attempts to do all of these things at once, resting on a standardized test that wasn't designed to help do any of them. And notice-- I have only talked about teacher evaluation. In most states, the same many-dys-functional hydra is also supposed to evaluate the entire school as well. That adds more multiple layers of complexity (for a thoughtful look at one response, pick up Beyond Test Scores by Jack Schneider.)

When you start to contemplate how huge the task is, it is really astonishing how little discussion there has been about how to do it well. And while this debate is raging, there are folks who argue for the CEO model of charter or public school where the Visionary Leader can just hire or fire at will as he sees fit. Which is just like the old evaluation system we wanted to get rid of-- only worse.

Accountability is important, but if we get it wrong, we end up with a system that does more harm than good, which is in fact where we are. To get to a better place will require a lot of conversation between a full range of stakeholders, and ESSA still keeps districts' hands tied more than is healthy. But somehow we have to move beyond the flip of a magical coin.




Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Impact for Education Finances Reform

One of the challenging and mysterious things about ed reform can be the question of "How do these guys get their hands on money?" If I'm a gazillionaire who wants to invest some money in some ed reform scheme like a charter school or some other program, who am I gonna call?

Here's one answer. Meet the organization "Impact for Education." The slogan on their front page, in bold white-on-blue type: "Impact for Education engages forward-thinking philanthropists to catalyze systemic change in public education." And other than a list of the "team" and a form for getting on the mailing list, the site offers little else. Like a classy store on Rodeo Drive, it shows off how much space it can use for nothing, because if you're their kind of clientele, you don't need to be sold.

Philanthropy is, of course, not what it used to be. Modern philanthropy looks a lot like investment, and while all the cool corporations are doing it, they are looking for enough of a return (often in terms of shaping the world more to their liking) that we can talk about philanthrocapitalism. Meanwhile, the rising tool of "social impact bonds" literally turns philanthropy into investment banking. It's a fertile field.

So who are the people who run an operation like Impact for Education? There are nine members of the team:

-- Mallory Hutchison, Associate. Previously worked under Governor Janet Napolitano, senior director at Leadership for Educational Equity, a group "dedicated to empowering Teach for America corps members and alumni to grow as leaders in their communities." She moved on to Chief of Staf for Vice Mayor of Phoenix, and "led strategic and corporate partnerships for the StartupsAz Foundation (empowering the next generation of Arizona entrepreneurs).

-- Devansh Pasumarty, Senior Analyst. Worked in consulting developing business strategies for Fortune 100 companies and asset and wealth managers. I give him a bonus point because even though his Columbia BA is in economics, he has a special concentration in Jazz Studies.

-- Deneice McClary, Associate. Previously nine years as operations leader at JP Morgan Chase, then became district program manager of Virtual Learning and Credit Recovery programs for Chicago schools.

-- Erin C. Watts, Associate. Worked for Story Pirates, then moved on to CCS Fundraising where she helped figure out how nonprofits could raise money and develop "operational structures to drive mission impact."

-- Matt Arciniega, Senior Analyst. Founded a charter management organization (Caliber Schools) and did research and strategy work for DFER, 50CAN, KIPP Foundation, and New Sector Alliance.

-- Lauren Givner, Senior Associate. Did a lot of work in NYC mayor's office, including eight years under Bloomberg and with NYC Service. Chief of Staff at America Achieves and Education Prospects.

-- Mike Wang, Partner. Former senior vice-president of Teach for America, as well as Mid-Atlantic region exec director for TFA. Education policy advisor to governor of Louisiana. Worked on expanding charters in Philly. And he founded Leverage Impact, "a mission-driven consulting practice working with philanthropists to deepen their impact."

-- Danielle M. Allen, Managing Partner. Worked in Office of School Innovation for DCPS "supporting the district's portfolio of turnaround schools." An Education Pioneers Fellow at NewSchools Venture Fund, then on to Mass Insight Education, an outfit that will come in and totally fix your school.

And finally, President and Founder of Impact for Education, Alex Johnston. Johnston launched this organization after seven years as CEO of ConnCAN (The CAN's are long-time advocates for reform in general and charters in particular-- here he is in that role back in 2009). He's also worked as a school board member in New Haven and as an advisory board member for the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

In short, a business composed entirely of people who have worked the money-making entrepreneurial side of the education biz, with nary an actual educator among them (nope, I'm not counting their brief stint as TFA temps).

Founded in 2012, the business is located in New Haven and claims revenues of under $50K. Johnston's LinkedIn page also suggests that Impact is broadening its mission. In addition to the line offered on their website:

We help our clients to hone their theories of change and effectively execute their chosen strategies. We also design personalized learning experiences and create collaborative opportunities designed to amplify the impact of our clients' giving.

That's a lot to offer, but I suppose when you hear that "personalized learning" is a hot new buzzword you feel comfortable leaping all the way from financial advice to designing curriculum. Johnston has remained an advocate for charter systems. In 2016, contemplating the collapse of the left-right alliance in education reform, Johnston still came down hard for school choice and charters.

It's not yet clear that a passion-filled social movement for transforming education in America actually will arise, but perhaps one of the best chances for this will be around one of the issues that arguably has the greatest potential to unite communities of color and conservatives — school choice. 

Groups like Impact exist as matchmakers between gazillionaires and the Reformsters who would like to spend their money. Having government throw money at public schools is Bad, but having philanthropists throw their money at private education businesses is Awesome! You can see that Impact's actual direct knowledge and expertise when it comes to education is somewhere in the zero-to-none range, but part of the reform movement has been the assertion, implicit or explicit, that business folks, policy wonks, and professional bureaucrats know the Really Important stuff about education; the people actually working in classrooms are just meat widgets whose expertise can be safely ignored. It's too bad-- imagine what a group whose mission was to match up philanthropists with public schools could do.