Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Charters Moving Against the Tide?

Is charter school growth in the US slowing? Ariana Prothero at EdWeek says yes. She says that in the twenty-five years since the first charter law was passed, it has been full speed ahead, but--

But since 2013, that growth rate has dropped sharply and some of the possible culprits are familiar: high real estate costs, teacher shortages, and politics.

She reports that researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) took a close-up look at the San Franciso Bay area, which is experiencing a negative charter growth rate for the first time (more closed than opened) to see what exactly the issues might be. CRPE is a think tank funded by all the usual reformy suspects, and the report itself was funded by Silicon Schools Fund, another charter advocacy group (EdWeek, sadly, failed to mention any of this.). So the report is a study with a definite agenda-- identifying obstacles and overcoming them (the final section of the report is headed "Solutions"), so nothing in the report is going to challenge the premise that charters are awesome and we should all have more of them. But it is an interesting study in what the charter advocates think their obstacles are.

After some brief charter history, some data substantiating the slowdown, and some details about the Bay Area charter scene, CRPE gets to the Big Obstacles. This list is the result of interviews with charter leaders, so again, we're looking at the perceptions of charter fans.

1) Real Estate Problems

Unsurprising in the Bay Area, because everyone who is not a newly minted tech is having a Bay Area real estate problem. Facilities are a "hard cap" on charter growth, which underlines what we've seen all along-- the charter school movement has been as much a real estate movement as an educational one.

Look across the country and you find guys like Carl Paladino of Buffalo, who got involved in charter schools because they were a great way to make a killing in the real estate business. You also find areas (eg NYC) where the charter movement has been about finding creative ways to steal public-owned buildings (or portions of them) and gift them to private charter school operators. Or as the report says:

For charter leaders, the ideal scenario would be to secure long-term facilities in unused district properties or to colocate in underutilized district buildings.

Well, yes. And if I were opening a new McDonalds in town, it would be ideal for local government to just give me a building to put my business in. There is an irony in the modern charter movement-- we want to apply business models and methods to schools, but not the part where the business has to invest a bunch of capital to get up and running. We would like to skip that part and just be given Free Stuff from the public.

2) Escalating Political Street Fights

Districts facing financial strains often see charters as responsible for their challenges (whether this perception is accurate or not). [Spoiler alert-- it is]  As a result, charter growth becomes an enemy of district financial security in the minds of some school boards

So, not so much street fighting as public education fighting back against the long-running and debilitating attacks of the charter sector. The leaders interviewed said that political resistance to charters is growing, in part because of "the perceived financial impact on districts," a perception that exists because of reality.

The modern charter movement has always depended on one huge central lie-- that multiple schools can be operated for the same cost as a single school. They can't. The solution here is simple. Get a politician to stand up and say, "We believe that having choice and charter schools is so important that we want to raise your taxes so that we can fully fund them." Oddly enough, that has not yet happened.

Meanwhile, the charter "brand" collapses under the weight of its own under-performing reality. Every time a charter closes mid-year, pushes out students, hires unqualified "teachers," turns out to be mediocre or worse,  reminds the taxpayers that they have no say in how the school is run, or gets caught in some sort of shenanigans, more members of the public realize that charters do NOT come with the same commitments and promises as actual public schools. Every time one more teacher leaves a charter school and tells tales of what a shit show it was, it gets just a little harder for charters to find staff.

Charters promise too much and deliver too little, all at too great a cost, and so time is not their friend. The longer the movement goes, and the more people confront the reality of it, the stiffer the resistance becomes;.

3) Start-up Funding Is Hard To Get for Less-Connected Leaders

Don't have friends in rich places? You may not be able to get an investment to start your charter school. And charter investors are not interested in breaking into new areas. Why, it's almost as if a business model deliberately choose NOT to serve all potential "customers," leaving some to just languish. Go figure.

4) Lack of coordination and "survival of the fittest " thinking are self-inflicted wounds that constrain supply.

A consistent theme we heard from Oakland operators in particular was the view that the high concentration of charters in the city causes any new school to spend more time and energy competing with other charter schools for students, teachers, and facilities.

But wait-- that can't be right. I thought competition bred excellence and spurred everyone on to heights of awesomeosity! But no-- the leaders suggest that market competition wastes resources that could be used to educate students, and that fighting for resources leaves deserving schools working without everything they need. Say it ain't so!

5) Mature CMOs are slowing their expansion plans to attend to instruction, talent development, and other internal issues.

Well, sort of. Some are trying to tweak their work because they are discovering that their amateur-hour plans to raise test scores aren't actually working.

And because charters are a business, some charter businesses are deciding to get into another line of work. This is not unusual in an evolving and mature business-- since your main commitment is to making money, and not to whatever method of making money you started out with, evolution is natural and normal. (For example, when was the last time MTV showed music videos?)

And so we have both AltSchool actually getting out of the charter school business, while Summit also shifts more of its energy into its sales arm. Summit and AltSchool both started out as school-running businesses (Summit does charters, while AltSchool was a boutique tech private outfit). Both have decided that they don't want to be just in the school business any more-- they want to be in the school-in-a-box software vending business. More income, less overhead. AltSchool has actually closed several of its schools. It's a natural business evolution, and one more reminder that modern charter schools are businesses first, and schools second (or third or twelfth or, eventually, not at all).

6) Parent demand is generally strong

The report insists that parent demand is strong, and then goes on to make a curious observation:

Gentrification is a more widely reported issue for schools. Charter schools are concerned that the students they seek to serve—usually low-income students, students of color, and English language learners—are being pushed out of the communities that charter schools tend to serve.

Well, yes. Because one of the tools of gentrification is, in fact, charter schools. They are natural partners-- to make a neighborhood "better," you replace the neighbors, and to make a school "better," you replace the students. Can these charter leaders really not know that they are instrumental in the gentrification they bemoan?

7) Talent is an ongoing challenge, sort of

"Teachers are becoming more scarce" is a thing people keep saying. I prefer "school systems are failing to make teaching attractive enough to entice people to pursue it." Charters are feeling the pinch as well, though they are not worried because they are using fun techniques like "grow your own" or "allow charters to hire any warm body" Charters also report having less trouble finding school "leaders" which could be because those jobs have few professional requirements but pay really, really well. "You qualify because you have a pulse, and we'll pay you a buttload of money," turns out to be a good recruiting slogan.

8) Authorizers remain unpredictable.

That damn democracy. California has few restrictions on chartering, but they do make charter operators go through (mostly) local boards, which means if you can't go all LA and just pack the board with charter fans, you might suffer from political pushback. And if you pack a board and then the electorate gets angry about the results, your fortunes could change pretty quickly.

Charter operators like to say that they want authorizers to decide based on what's best for kids, which is a lot easier than making the case that charters would be best for kids.

9) The challenges are regional and specific.

Here, I don't disagree. The rules vary by state and community and the particular charter operator. But some factors-- the failure of charters to deliver, the negative impact on public school finances, the lack of sufficient funding, the theft of public property, the charters' ultimate value of business considerations over educational ones-- these remain pretty constant from place to place.


CRPE wraps up the report with some proposed solutions to the problems listed above. These are.... well, these are solutions only if you decide that the interests of charter operators are the only interests that need to be served.

Facility shortage? Make public districts hand over more publicly owned property to charter schools, change zoning laws, and get the legislature to underwrite the funding charters need to grab real estate. And create a commission to "coordinate" the handover of public facilities to private charter operators.

Bad competition? Create some central planning authority to coordinate the expansion strategies of charters. How that translates into anything other than telling charters where they're allowed to expand, and how THAT translates into anything other than charter operators saying, "No, I don't want to" is not clear. CRPE acknowledges that no charters are saying, "Please give us less autonomy."

Staff? Do some recruiting. From wherever.

Limited choices? Increase a diverse supply of operators. Man. Why is it that people whose whole argument is "Free market! Free Market!" do not understand how the free market works. The free market does not give you what you wish for-- it gives you what it thinks it can make money giving you. It may be cool to think, "Wow! With 500 cable channels, we could have an arts channel and a stand-up comedy channel and a channel with nothing but music videos," but the free market does not care what you think would be cool.  Well, says CRPE, we could invest heavily in the more diverse models. Who would do that, and why?

More data? CRPE thinks more data about the charter market is needed. Who would collect that, and why?

Toxic local politics? Maybe charter operators could negotiate some sort of deal whereby they didn't completely suck the financial life blood out of public schools (and the schools would hand over real estate just to, you know, be cool).. Maybe they could keep trying to pack local school boards. Maybe they could convince district leaders to "think of their jobs as overseeing a broad portfolio of options with various governance models" except of course some of the items in the portfolio they "oversee" would be completely outside of their control and would be hostile and damaging to the parts of their portfolio that they are actually, legally responsible. Honestly, most of these solutions boil down to "let's wish real hard that public school people will just like us more because it's inconvenient for us when they don't."

Bottom line

I'm happy to see the modern charter tide ebbing. And I'm not sad to see that folks like CRPE and the interviewees don't really have a handle on why it's happening. I agree that it doesn't have to be this way, but it will be this way as long as modern charter boosters fail to acknowledge their major systemic issues, insist on inadequate funding in a zero-sum system, disenfranchise the public, underperform in educating students, and behave as businesses rather than schools. As I said above, time is not on their side, and neither is their inability to grasp the problems they create for public education in this country.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Testing Cloak

Count this among the many bad side effects of test-centered schools. Test results can be a lovely curtain used to cloak a multitude of ills.

A school with decent test scores, either by themselves or translated into whatever sort of rating shenanigans used by your state, can deploy those scores as a shiny curtain. "Don't look behind this at whatever else we're doing to your child's education! Just look at these bee-yoo-tee-ful scores! Proof that we are a great school!"

Cut the arts? Downsize every department? Eat up a third of the year with test prep tests and plain old test prep? Beat down staff morale? Close the library? Fire support staff?

Just wave that beautiful cloak!

Test-centered schools are education reduced to one simple job-- get students to score well on a single narrow Big Standardized Test. And reducing education to that one simple job absolves schools and districts (and states-- looking at you, Florida) from having to do half-decent work on any of the other jobs that we used to associate with education.

For schools run by data-driven administrators, or administrators who are not committed to the full picture, or even administrators who are facing severe financial pressures, the testing cloak is a godsend, a piece of helpful protective cover. "We may be gutting the system, but hey-- look at our test scores!"

That's why the reaction to any school's tale of its lovely test scores has to be the same--

"Very nice scores-- but what did it cost you to get them? "

If the answer is, "Why nothing! We just aligned the curriculum and voila-- test scores!"-- well, this answer is a lie.Keep asking what the lovely cloak cost, because it certainly wasn't free, and it probably wasn't cheap. Make sure you get to see what's behind the curtain.

Monday, January 29, 2018

IN: Of God and Big Bucks

This two-part tale was too important to tuck in with the rest of my regular "In Case You Missed It" post yesterday.

Over the course of two stunning editions of the Washington Post's Answer Sheet column, Carol Burris has laid out the history of privatization in Indiana, a state that has been close on Florida's heels as a leader is dismantling public education. Burris, the president of the Network for Public Education, connects the dots quickly and clearly (and with sources all the way).

Part One takes us all the way back to 1996, when Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence led a private discussion about how to remake public education in a new, more profitable image. Daniels, an executive at Eli Lily, would become governor and lay the groundwork for the destruction of public ed in Indiana. He grabbed control of school funding for the state, while simultaneously crippling local districts' ability to fund, making schools dependent on legislative policy for survival-- and the GOP legislature has no real interest in such survival, particularly when it came to non-wealthy, non-white districts.

It's striking to see how many of the players way back when are names we know so much better today. A future business partner of Mrs. Donald Trump. Tony Bennett, whose shenanigans with the school grading system would cut short his next job with Jeb Bush. And pumping money into the reform agenda, the DeVos family. EdChoice, an organization devoted to keeping the Milton Friedman flame alive, is an Indiana group as well.

Once Daniels stepped aside, Mike Pence moved into the governor's mansion, and the dismantling continued. (The Pence years take us into Part Two.)

What's striking about Pence's tenure is how he radically expanded the work Daniels had done. While Daniels seemed focused primarily on expanding the free market and letting entrepreneurs jockey for education dollars via charters, Pence seems far more interested in making it easy for those dollars to find their way to private religious schools. It's under Pence that charters give way to vouchers, and vouchers allow the unregulated flow of tax dollars to all manner of private religious schools, with deliberate disregard for whom or what those schools are willing to teach.

The story of Indiana is one of how various pretenses ("We need to rescue poor students from a few failing public schools") are simply a foot in the door, a pickax in the foundation, and reformsters just keep chipping away so that there is less and less left of a true public education system. Indiana is also a story of how free market acolytes and hard-right Christians can work as natural allies for the destruction of true public schools.

It's a valuable read, with Part Three yet to come. Check this out. It's a good demonstration of how school reform really works in places like Indiana, as well as a reminder that, no matter what they say, some of the major players have been working toward very clear goals for decades.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Breaking News: It's Easy To Cheat On Line

iReady is one of many test prep businesses that have popped up since No Child Left Behind reared its misbegotten head. They say they're in the "curriculum associates" business, but for you civilians in the audience, here's how these things work:

Shocked! I am shocked!

See, one of the challenges of the Big Standardized Test is that it's only given once a year, so schools have to approach this potentially school-whacking test (in Florida, it results in the school getting a letter grade) armed with no information other than last year's scores. For many schools, that's not enough. "What I need," administrators say, "is a way to spot the students who are going to screw us by getting low scores. And if you could target exactly what we should drill them on, that would be cool. And if you could sell us the drills, that would be most awesome of all."

So many of these tests sprang up, tests that were sold as diagnostic, but which were diagnosing only one thing-- how would this student fare on the BS Test.

There have been plenty of these, and what's most remarkable about them is what a terrible job they do of actually predicting BS Test scores. But they are also excellent at wasting money and time, as well as driving home the notion that school is mostly about  taking lots of tests in order to get ready for other tests. This, incidentally, is why states that make noise about shortening the BS Test aren't really helping anything-- test prep testing remains as obtrusive as ever.

That's the situation in Florida, where iReady has been deployed for several years. As the i suggests, iReady combines test prepping with on-line personalized [sic] algorithm selected mass custom drill. The beauty of the online approach is, of course, that students can be hounded by their cyber-taskmaster at home. That's been a point of contention and non-clarity for a while,

But Boca News Now reports there's another issue.

Parents throughout South Palm Beach County are using iReady on behalf of their children, possibly skewing scores — and usefulness — of the $6-Million diagnostic computer system.

Yup. It turns out that when you give students computer work to do outside of school, well-- sometimes parents cheat. I know! Next someone will be claiming that some projects at the elementary science fair were not completed by students working all on their own.

You may have looked at various work-at-home cyber education models and thought, "Surely they must know it's an issue, so surely they must have sophisticated safeguards in place." Well, not so much. iReady's crack team looks for sudden jumps in score. Apparently iReady's crack team doesn't know much about cheating:

However, has learned this is apparently not fool proof as parents log in and complete coursework with just enough errors to make the results seem plausible.

Well, yeah. 

iReady also provides little of the information that could be useful to teachers (e.g. showing that third grader Chris logged on at 11 PM last night).

But don't worry. BocaNewsNow reports that the district is looking at yet another test prep service-- this one called TenMarks, from the fine people at That should be just awesome, in a totally non-cheaty way.

ICYMI: Goodbye, January Edition (1/28)

As we bid January goodbye, here are some readings for the day. Remember-- you can promote the voices you value by sharing their work. Not everyone has time to write, but if you have time to read, you have time to hit a share button. Amplify the voices that matter.

Does Social and Emotional Learning Belong in the Classroom?

I don't generally put my own stuff on this list, but this particular post has been spreading and stirring up conversation, and I actually put extra thought into it, because I think this is emerging as a critical issue in education. So if you didn't get around to it, now's the time. 

The Tuscon Jacakalope

The story of how a district's rumored blacklist was finally dragged into the light.

Mismatched Assumptions

Julian Vasquez-Heilig on how some assumptions about grit and high stakes testing don't really fit together.

Paul Vallas Wants to Be Mayor of Chicago, Maybe

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider looks at the news about Paul Vallas running for mayor of Chicago (maybe) and reminds us why that's not good news.

Why We Chose Public School

Jan Ressenger talks about how her family made the decision to choose public schools

Meanwhile, In Puerto Rico

EdWeek reports on the latest plans for the education system on the beleagured island. Spoiler alert: it's not good.

The Amazing Power of Plain Old Arts Education

Nancy Flanagan with a reminder of the power of arts and music for students.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

For Some Reason

I've tried to develop a new habit in the morning. Before I get busy with the important work of using the internet to point out everyone and everything that's wrong, I post a video clip on Facebook, some piece of music. It's a way to make myself breathe before Internet Derangement Syndrome takes hold. I recommend it.

My musical tastes run pretty broad and deep, but the other morning I just wanted a song I half-remembered from Three Dog Night. (For you youngsters, Three Dog Night was an inescapably popular band in the early 70s. Their thing was three lead singers who didn't just harmonize, but riffed off each other like the horn line in a small jazz band. They had a monstrous hit with "Joy to the World," a terrible song that your grandmother probably called "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" because it was the only line she could remember.) Anyway, the song I was thinking of was this one:

As soon as it started playing, I had that sinking feeling, that realization that, like Sean Connery's Rapey James Bond, this was one of those hallmarks of my youth that I would no longer be able to enjoy.

The message here is one that was prevalent in early 70s (heck, it was still around when genius Paul McCartney and genius Stevie Wonder teamed up to give us the not-so-genius piece of goop, "Ebony and Ivory.") It's a message about racial harmony, peace, love and understanding, and it goes like this:

For some reason, black and white folks have trouble getting along. For some reason, there is tension and strife. Let's all just agree to get over it and get along.

This sounded nice to me when I was young. It sounded nice to lots of young white kids. But let me propose an analogy.

You are a student at a school. You are bullied daily by a gang of bigger, stronger kids. Every day they subject you to one form of indignity or another. Some days you just take it and get beat up. Some days you try to fight back. But after 100 straight days of bullying and abuse, you and your tormentor are called into the principal's office. The principal says, "It seems that you two just can't get along for some reason," as if you are somehow both equally to blame. Your first thought is probably not, "Oh, yeah. I'm going to get justice here." And your mood probably does not improve if your tormentor says, "Yes, I'm not sure why we've had all this conflict, but I'm certainly willing to leave the past behind."

The problem, of course, is that we do not have racial strife in this country "for some reason."

I blame, in part, our national ignorance about history. Too many people think the basic narrative is, "Yes, well, the South held blacks as slaves and then the Civil War freed them and that was pretty much the end of it. Maybe there was some Jim Crow sort of thing?" The weight of history that whites don't feel is staggering. Forced segregated housing in major cities like Chicago. Systematic obstacles to the vote. A justice system that refused to punish whites for assaulting or killing blacks. Even simple indignities like Robert Moses building overpasses low enough to bar buses from carrying poor blacks out to the nice beaches. A web of systemic and institutionalized racism stretching over decades.

As teachers, we're supposed to know better. If we stormed into the office and said, "This kid keeps acting out in my class for some reason, so put them in detention," any decent principal would tell us to get back out there and find out what the reason is. "For some reason," is not a reason-- it's a decision to avoid learning what the actual reason is.

And yes, I know it's complicated. Complicated to sort out the lines between the races and complicated to track down culpability through generations and complicated to figure out what our own individual responsibilities and actions should be. But that's part of my point. "For some reason" is about the facile erasure of all complications. It's like going out to eat and one person orders six lobsters and the other gets a baloney sandwich and at bill time, lobster person says, "Well, I guess the only thing to do is split the check evenly." Pretending that racial tension and conflict exist in this country "for some reason" is a terrible example of false equivalence, and we should have gotten smarter over the last forty years.

Meanwhile, here's a better sample of the band's work. No, I will not post the bullfrog song.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

More Reformer Heresy

A prominent reform voice now says that reform is off track.

There have always been members of the reformster movement who have been willing to call out their colleagues. Jay Greene (no relation) has questioned testing orthodoxy, and Rick Hess has often shown a willingness to put intellectual honesty ahead of hewing the party line. We even get the occasional display of full-on apostasy, like the Alt-School rebel from a few weeks ago, or Diane Ravitch herself, who famously defected from the NCLB camp.

Kate Walsh (NCTQ) recently leveled a hard critique at reformsters which echoed a criticism from two years ago by Robert Pondiscio. In response, Pondiscio has written a piece for the Fordham blog that is probably going to earn him some cranky e-mails from his reformy colleagues. You may not be a regular Pondiscio reader, but you should read this.

"Education reform is off track. Here's how to fix it," is not a full-on dismissal of the faith, but it includes some hard words indeed.

After recapping Walsh's complaints, Pondiscio points out that the reality is even worse:

If shares in the education reform movement could be purchased in the stock market, neutral analysts would grade them “underperform” and probably “sell.” We’ve seen gains in student outcomes particularly among disadvantaged subgroups. But those gains have been mostly in math and almost entirely in the younger grades. The “historic” rate of high school graduation is frothy at best, fraudulent at worst. It is not possible to look at the big indicators of K–12 performance over the last few decades—NAEP, PISA, SAT, and ACT scores—and claim that ed reform at large has been a success. The payoff is simply not there.

I'm going to disagree about what the Big Indicators of K-12 performance are, but reformers staked their success on moving those needles and Pondiscio is correct-- those needles have not been moved.

He gives reform credit for the moral goal of making it Not Okay to hold students-- particularly non-white or non-wealthy ones-- to lower standards. But he says the glory days, the high water mark, of reform came twenty years ago, and the few gains achieved are all a decade in the past. "Ed reform peaked early and failed to live up to the hype." I could quibble about the peak, but the failure to live up to the hype is dead on. And he's not done.

Since then we have mostly overplayed our hand, overstated our expertise, and outspent our moral authority by a considerable margin as we morphed from idealism to policymaking. Education reform’s policy prerogatives have transformed schooling in ways that parents don’t much like—test-based accountability, in particular, focused on just two subjects—and without clear and lasting benefits to justify them.

Indeed, many reformster ideas have turned out to be hugely unpopular, in part precisely because they offer no benefits to students and their families. And I'm going to bold this next quote:

If you want the public’s permission to fundamentally alter the relationship between Americans and their schools, there has to be a clear, compelling, and demonstrable upside in time for people to see it. If the reform policy playbook was going to drive transformational, system-wide gains in American education, we’d have seen it by now.


This is almost all of the harshest of his criticism, and much of it I could have (and occasionally have) said myself. But it's worth noting what Pondiscio, one of the few reformsters to have actually worked in a classroom, sees as the fix for reform.

A conceptual failure lies at the heart of ed reform’s underperformance: the mistaken assumption that education policy, not classroom practice, is the most important lever to pull to drive enduring improvement. But educational failure is not a tale of unaccountable and union-protected layabouts refusing to do right by children. More often than not, it’s well-intended people trying hard and failing—and not despite their training, but because of it. In short, we have a product and practice failure more than a policy and process failure.

We're going to have long, contentious conversations about that "not despite their training, but because of it" part, but his basic critique is solid-- reform has focused on policies passed by state and federal level amateurs that have reshaped a bunch of government baloney, but which have deliberately and sometimes aggressively ignored the people who actually teach in classrooms. But there, in the classroom, is where education happens, and all attempts to affect education must be measured by what happens in the classroom. Ed reform has been cavalier in its dismissal of the classroom and of classroom teachers, often setting an explicit goal of making reform teacher-proof, or reducing the job to something that can't be affected by the person performing it. That goal is unattainable, but a great amount of damage has been done (and continues to be done) in trying to attain it (see also: Big Standardized Tests).

Pondiscio notes again the growing schism between the free market and lefty wings of reform, says that charters will never be more than "boutique" schools, and offers this blistering critique of school choice just in time for School Choice Week:

The inconvenient truth is that, even within the ed reform movement, school choice is regarded with suspicion. Choice generally means charter schools, not true educational pluralism, and our support is limited to schools that are willing to subject themselves to the oversight of an increasingly technocratic movement that lacks the record of accomplishment required to impose its prerogatives. Our movement may claim to care about low-income parents and people of color, but we don’t quite trust them to choose unless we strictly limit and monitor their choices. This is ed reform’s own moral failure: Our soft bigotry of low expectations hasn’t gone away. We just apply it to parents now.

In the How To Fix It portion, there is still much for the pro-traditional public school fan to disagree with. Pondiscio calls no excuse schools ( "which once meant there’s no excuse for adults to fail children") an unambiguous victory, and nods to the idea of sending poor black kids to college as the main point of the whole business. He says many nice things about Doug Lenov, and he name checks a variety of education practitioners each of whom is a debate-starter in their own right.

But his bottom line is solid-- if schools are going to be lifted up in this country, it will be because of focus on teaching practices, not government education policy. Of course that policy can either help or hinder what teachers do (well, I'd say mostly it can only help by getting out of the way and keeping other things out of the way as well, or maybe by helping with a fair, full, and equitable dispersal of resources).

Watch for response pieces from other reformsters, ranging from anger to politely veiled anger. If I had to predict the counter arguments, I would put my money on these:

"We just haven't done it right, yet". Common Core watchers will remember "it's the implementation," aka the Core are awesome, it's just that everybody is doing it wrong. This is the argument that the idea is sound, we just need to tweak how we do it.

"We were thwarted by those evil ____________" Insert your favorite villain, such as "teacher unions" or "sycophants of the status quo."

"What do you mean!! We had totally awesome success with _________" Insert your favorite bogus statistic or fake proof of concept result. The powers of denial are great, particularly when you are well paid to exercise them.

There will be more, along with some backchannel namecalling, I'll bet. This does not fit much of the reform orthodoxy. But, to recap, there are points here that I agree with:

If reform ideas were going to change the face of education for the better, we would be there by now, and we're not.

If you want to change the entire premise and function of public education, you'd better be able to offer compelling proof that it will pay off in useful ways. They haven't.

If you want to make education work better, you need to talk with people who work in schools, not people who work in politics.

If we're talking about improving education, we have to talk about practices. That, admittedly, is a huge, huge complicated and contentious conversation, with few easy answers. But it's the conversation we should be having. Conversations about policy matter to the degree to which they affect practice.

Yes, there's not much here that some of us haven't been saying for years, but it matters that it's being said this time in the Fordham blog. And lord knows this would still leave a Grand Canyon's worth of space to argue about what better practice would look like. Read the whole piece. I may have been a bit harsh with Alt-School guy last week, but I must admit, it's always nice to see one more person get it and be honest about it. Yes, I suppose it's possible that this is another reform pivot, but the ideas Pondiscio expresses are consistent with what he's talked about for years. This time he just seems less... patient. Time will tell. In the meantime, grab some popcorn and enjoy those juicy pull quotes.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Does Social and Emotional Learning Belong in School?

"Experts Agree Social-Emotional Learning Matters, and Are Plotting Roadmap of How To Do It.." 

That's the headline at EdWeek, and only half of it is non-scary and unobjectionable.

Because there's no question that social-emotional learning (SEL) is an important part of the growth of any human being. I am not being simply snarky when I say that we can look around right now and see the damaging effects of adults whose SEL was either stunted, twisted, or non-existent. We know that employers want hat we used to call "soft skills," and we know that finding your way toward being fully human in the world has a whole lot to do with emotional maturity and the ability to deal with other human beings in a healthy manner.

So I'm not going to argue for a moment that SEL is not important. It is. Hugely.

But it does not automatically follow that SEL belongs in the classroom as a formal, codified piece of the program. Here are the reasons to come to a full, thoughtful stop before implementing any such program or policy.

Doing it for the right reason

Referring to the work of The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development,  the EdWeek article notes "social-emotional learning strategies center on research that has linked the development of skills like building healthy peer relationships and responsible decisionmaking to success inside and outside the classroom."

Nope. If you are doing SEL because you think it's going to get students better grades and better jobs, then you are doing it wrong. While SEL may well pay off in those areas, the very essence of learning to be a better human being is about things above and beyond getting a reward. Otherwise we're talking about being kind to others because it might help you get your way, or being polite and attentive to the person you're dating because it might get them to put out. Your goal influences what you're really doing, and what you're really doing is mimicking human social and emotional behavior in order to gain a benefit, which at best makes you a phony and at worst makes you a sociopath.

Students need to learn the SEL stuff because it will make them better human beings, better spouses, better neighbors, and better citizens. The world is better with more good people in it; it is not better with more jerks and sociopaths.

Defining the Qualities

Back at the beginning of my career, I worked with a team with whom I clashed, mostly because their idea of a Good Student was one who was compliant and obedient, whereas I preferred those who were feisty and independent. I can't imagine what would happen if we had to work together to write social and emotional learning goals.

So who will decide what a good SEL quality is? Who will decide things like what a "positive sense of community" looks like, or what a proper approach to relationships with others might be. Every time the subject of SEL comes up, folks go straight for the low-hanging fruit like "Students should not bully each other." But that barely scratches the surface. Who is going to decide what the proper way to be part of community is, or how to properly manage friendships, or how (and when) to question authority, or to what degree a person should subsume their own concerns to the Good of the Many?  As human beings, we have devoted centuries to battles between different moral, ethical and political systems trying to address what the "correct" social and emotional rules should be. Who exactly thinks they are prepared to codify all of that for K-12 students?

What yardstick will we possibly use?

Of course, if SEL is to become part of the accountability landscape, we'll need assessments.

We've already got folks who think they can measure "grit," and the whiz kids at NWEA scored an actual grant to continue their study which posits they can "read" social-emotional skills in students based on how fast those students answer multiple-choice questions on the MAP test. The notion that standardized bubble testing methods can be used to measure the character of a child is one of those So Ridiculous I Can't Believe Anyone Is Discussing It With a Straight Face things, but it's happening. Schools are doing it. I'm getting reports from parts of the country that SEL measures are being used as a significant part of student' grades-- and yet there is not one shred of evidence that anyone has developed an assessment of SEL stuff that I any more accurate than boiling eyes of newt under a full moon.

And THAT eye or newt baloney is over and above the problem (see previous point) that those test manufacturers have decided what qualities of character the students are supposed to have.

Possibly even worse-- in many cases the SEL units will come folded into the whole computer-driven personalized [sic] software, meaning that we will be treated to the spectacle of computers teaching young humans how to be better humans.

Massive school overreach

From the EdWeek piece, here's Dr. James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University Child Study Center (and part of the above commission):

“When I started, I remember being told that the parents will raise them and we will teach them,” Comer said. “We’ve come a long way now in understanding that child rearing begins at home, but that it has to be complemented every step of the way and that all of the institutions along the development pathway have to be involved... I think we are making that progress, but it’s terribly complicated and we have to learn and grow and be flexible along the way.”

So, does "complemented" mean that your school's SEL program is going to reflect the values you put forth at home?

Because this is how Outcome-Based Education shot itself in the face back in the nineties. Schools sais, "As part of the new OBE, we will be teaching your children to reflect the proper values," and parents across the country replied, "The hell you will."

How do SEL advocates anticipate handling the first parent-teacher conference in which Mrs. Teamommy wants to know why her child got a low grade because the test showed the child didn't have the proper respect for authority, or displayed insufficient grit, or failed the self-esteem quiz. Will "respect and honor gay marriage" be on the final? And if a dominant culture sets the rules for what SE qualities are "desirable," what happens to students of the non-dominant culture?

And not just school overreach-- what about that data?

The assessment of SEL, particularly as it is tied into personalized [sic} computer-managed mass-customized learning, would be a huge gold mine of data. I'm not sure we can overstate just how huge it would be. Profiles of student academic skills, both on the individual and macro level are attractive and valuable, but collecting what amounts to complex psych profiles of millions of students is hugely valuable to corporations, and even governments. This is the kind of marketing and PR shaping information that companies spend billions of dollars for now, and this would be rawer, deeper, richer, and track an entire generation from childhood.

On the individual level, it's scary. BlobCorp's HR department says, "We need to hire fifty people who are good with math, fair readers, don't question authority, and just generally function well as drones. Pull up the spreadsheet and find me those fifty people." (If we're not careful, they'll be able to add "and who are not likely to develop health problems.")

On the macro level, it's scary. BlobCorp can consult the data to craft its messaging, to find the marketing that would most help them sell widgets. And of course it would be awesome for politicians as well, who could use the data to both get elected and to keep the drones in line. For a government with even the slightest totalitarian tendencies, this kind of data mine would be more valuable than an army of jackbooted thugs. And once the population is measured, next those people in power can decide where they want to nudge the people next.

We know how this goes. The people to whom this kind of data is so valuable will not hesitate to help fund it and push it, while at the same time doing their best to shape it so that the SEL programs suit their needs, and not the needs of students.

But but but but but but....

Don't we already teach SE skills? In fact, aren't most of the "This Teacher Changed My Life" stories in the universe really centered on how a teacher helped the storyteller gain SE insights and growth? Don't some cranks (like the writer of this blog) belittle and decry standards-based education precisely because it has overlooked SEL? In short, isn't this not only part of what we do, but one of the most important parts of what we do?

Yes, we do this, and yes, it's important. But there is a huge difference between bringing SEL into the classroom in an organic, human manner, and instituting it as required (and assessed curriculum).

First, I'd argue that bringing SEL in formally is just about the least effective way to handle it.

Second, requiring students to comply with the curriculum leads to another host of issues (including some listed above). The traditional organic method comes with its own buffers. Students can gravitate toward teachers who best reflect their own beliefs, their own location on the journey, and simply ignore the rest. If you think your algebra teacher is a selfish prick, you can navigate that as you wish (itself an SEL skill) without worrying about your grade resting on it. In fact, traditionally we'd consider it hugely unprofessional to make a student's grade rest on the teacher's opinion of the student as a human being. IOW, I may think a student in my class is a jerk, and I may even try to nudge her away from being a jerk, but at the end of the day, it would be unprofessional of me to drop her grade because of her jerkiness.

Making SEL a mandatory, assessed part of the program simply coerces compliance. It runs the risk of creating a backwards effect by teaching students that social-emotional skills are just empty actions that one imitates to earn a reward, and not an authentic part of being human.

At its best

SEL is essential. It is important. It has always been with us under flowery descriptors like "learning how to be fully human in the world" or "becoming your best self" or more mundane labels like "learning to get along with others" or even just "growing up." Teachers, because they are the non-parental adults who spend the most time with children, have always been instrumental in this process. And it has always been bad for the society and the culture as a whole when some folks fail to grow up into healthy, functioning human beings.

The body of literature is huge, encompassing humanity's greatest philosophers, the great religions, even the half-decent self-help gurus. There is even some scientific literature to throw into the mix (take a quick look at what's out there about Emotional Intelligence).

And education reform, under the guidance of technocrats and data worshippers, has pushed us steadily away from the social and emotional dimensions that are a critical part of the growth and development of every young human.

And yet, though all that is true, none of it makes formally incorporating SEL into the classroom a good idea.

At its worst

Extending the bad ideas of technocratic data-driven education to SEL is exactly backwards. It's insanely backwards, like someone who decides "I am going to marry that beautiful stranger over there, and here is my ten step plan to make it happen." SEL happens within an authentic human relationship; as with all other education, pretending you can design a system that will deliver the learning without developing the relationship is just a snare and a delusion.

In fact, it's worse than a snare and a delusion.

In 1984, Big Brother wasn't just watching and gathering and collecting all the information. Big Brother was also crafting and controlling, using all manner of techniques to instill the proper values in His citizens, teaching them to interact socially and emotionally in the correct way.

SEL at its worst is about emotionally engineering humans. It's about imposing someone else's values on a vulnerable human being, essentially stripping that human of their autonomy and will. And worse, from re-education camps to certain cults, we know that it can be done. Because the power and wealth attached to such a massive endeavor are so great, the entire business is guaranteed to be warped and twisted by those who stand to profit. At its worst, we are talking about crafting human beings to order and harvesting both them and their data in the service of those with power. We are talking about pushing them to be the people that someone else thinks they should be. This is not just bad policy, inappropriate pedagogy, or culturally toxic-- this is evil.


It would nice to be able to say something clear and definitive-- "SEL is always a sign that Something Evil is afoot," or "Don't let paranoia carry you away on this stuff." But once again the answer is that we have to pay close attention and speak out when we need to. Big Brother always watches; so must we.

Common Core Still Alive in DC

Remember when Betsy DeVos said that Common Core was awful "And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead." (It was just last week on January 14).

Turns out that even as she said those words, the Secretary or Education had already given the Core a little kiss of life. As reported at EdWeek, the Department of Education, in a letter dated on January 11, told Maryland that the PARCC test would be super-duper in meeting their federal requirements.

Imagine I tell you that our home has banned canned food. And then I tell you that the official approved Food Access Device will be a can opener. Or my state has banned cars that use leaded gas, and that all authorized gas stations will sell only leaded gas. Or I announce that the dress code for my school forbids jeans and t-shirts, and then I put up a picture of an officially approved outfit, and it's t-shirt and jeans.

That's the kind of mixed message we have here.

The PARCC test was created for one purpose, and one purpose only-- to see how well a state's schools had implemented the Common Core State [sic] Standards. That's it. That's what it is designed to do.

This is good news for the remaining PARCC users (Colorado, the District of Columbia, Illinois, New Jersey, and New Mexico) and that in turn is good news for PARCC, a test that has been dumped by sixteen states. Or as the head of the company that manages the testing product put it:

"This is really great news," said Arthur VanderVeen, the CEO of New Meridian, the company that manages the PARCC consortium. "We think this confirms that the states that administer the PARCC test, or [use] its test content, are administering the highest quality assessment that's available."

At least, that will make good PR copy. Meanwhile, let the record note that on January 14, when Betsy DeVos said that Common Core was dead at the department, the department had already given its seal of approval to a critical part of the Common Core program.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

IXL: Caveat Emptor & Personalized Misery

As the computerized version of personalized [sic] learning continues to gather steam, we can anticipate increasingly aggressive marketing. Remember-- you don't win in a free market by having the best product, but by having the most effective marketing.

Marketing for these algorithm-driven software packages of mass-produced custom education belongs to a special class of marketing-- marketing that is designed to sell a product to people other than the actual end users. If your not sure why that matters, imagine if you didn't buy the car you drive, but it was purchased for you by parents. Or if the grocery shopping for your house was done by your children. How would that affect the way those products are marketed? Education has always suffered from this problem-- teachers get stuck using products that are purchased by district administrators who will never have to actually work with them.

So we get products with ridiculous levels of puffery, like this software that claims to be in 70% of all US districts. And we get a variety of other claims that are either beside the point (like software that will make the administrator's job easier, but will add more fruitless labor for teachers).

Edubiz marketeers can smell the sweet green chum of tax dollars in the water. I'm not arguing that all sharks should starve to death, but more than ever, part of an admistration's job to separate the predators from the pedagogy, to distinguish between baloney and steak. And that means paying attention, doing de diligence, and taking care of their homework.

Here's a good example.

IXL has been in the algorithm-selected digitized worksheet biz for many years, all the way back to 1998 when they were selling Quia Web, a sort of web learning platform. Nowadays, their pitch is perfectly suited to the computer-centered personalized [sic] learning crowd:

IXL helps students excel! With thousands of topics in math, language arts, science, social studies, and Spanish, there's always something new to explore. IXL sets a new standard for online learning, offering unlimited algorithmically generated questions, real-time analytical reports, and dynamic scoring to encourage mastery. Released in 2007, it has since become the world's most popular subscription-based learning site for pre-K to high school. With more than 7,000 unique and challenging skills to master, IXL offers a dynamic and enjoyable environment suitable for any learning style. Students who use IXL are succeeding like never before.

IXL's algorithm can "generate" worksheets and kick out "analytical" reports on the road to "mastering" skills, and if you start to browse, you see that IXL meets the usual standard of measuring only those things that can be measured with computer-scored questions. We'll get back to the dynamic scoring in a bit, but "succeeding like never before" is a bold piece of puffery, lacking any indication whether that's a good thing or a bad thing (Trump is a President like never before, but I'm not sure that's great news).

The content is unimpressive. Skills are pushed way down into lower levels. The 11th grade language set focuses on mechanical items that can be drilled with computerized bubble questions, but because its focus is on Things That Can Be Computerized, the material about reading and writing is largely inadequate. But this will always be the problem for any computer-centered education delivery system-- if you are delivering your "product" through a garden hose, you will severely limit what "product" can be delivered, and software is a hugely limiting delivery system.

IXL has a whole page of "inspiration" on its site, and as is usually the case, this is not so much aimed at telling teachers "this is how this will help" as it is aimed at telling superintendents "this is how much your people will like it" or "this is how much easier your job will be" or even "at last you can slap this in teachers' hands and stop worrying about whether anything's being taught or not." It stresses being "data driven" because that brings tears of joy to every administrator who dreams of sitting in their office and managing their district by scanning screenloads of data. There are videos, including a couple of teachers who make the usual self-incriminating endorsements ("Before this product, I didn't know what the hell was going on in my classroom, but now I look at these cool data screens and I'm totally on top of things.") And we are reassured that for students this is just like a computer game, and they just can't wait to play; this sort of claim always reminds me of my own students, who generally are super-excited and obsessed with a new phone app for about two weeks, after which they lose all interest. Gamification is a fool's game.

IXL has a page devoted to its privacy policies which include the usual sort-of-reassuring language (we will not disclose any of your personal identifiable information except when we have your permission or, you know, other stuff) mixed in with not-at-all-reassuring language (if someone buys us, along with all your data, we'll tell you it's happening, but otherwise all bets will be off).

But overall, when one peruses IXL, there's nothing much to alarm the average human. The materials are neither more nor less crappy than the collections of publisher-created worksheets that we used to get with a textbook series.

But there are other places to look for information about IXL.

Meet Common Sense Media.  This is a website based in San Francisco that is "dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in the 21st century." They're big on tech and tech-related reviews, and they are sponsored by many of the usual suspects-- Bezos Family Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates, the Hewlett Foundation, the Broad Foundations, and many more of the same.

The review section of Common Sense takes an amazon-style look at many products and services, and the folks there have a few things to say about IXL. The reviews stretch from 2013 until 2017. There are 108 parent reviews, and 314 kid reviews. Here's a sample of some of the kid review headlines:

Do not try it! Will make your kid(s) cry!

Don't use it.

IXL is evil.

If you hate your kids...


Haha People think this helps kids? Ahaha.

If you think you're going to achieve something, something else will smack you back down.

Who thought this was a good idea?

Well, maybe these are just the complaints of frustrated children and teens who just couldn't quite cut the mustard, who are just bitter because this website dashed their delusions of awesomeness. Maybe more rational adult voices will give us a better picture...

Poor learning website

Worst website ever

Don't waste your money


Won't LEARN math; instead How to take Tests

Yeah, the adults all hate it, too.

There seem to be a couple of recurring complaints.

One is that the program is expensive, and like any good monetized piece of internet software, it makes its money with a steady drip, drip, drip of charges. So there's that.

But what draws the most loathing and anger is the non-teaching high-penalty dynamic scoring system. A student is supposed to earn her way to a score of 100 to qualify as a confident master of the particular skill. But as the student gets closer to that 100-point threshold, the penalties become fiercer. People repeatedly tell of being in the 90s, missing one comma or decimal point and being booted down to the 80s or 70s. And as one parent notes, "it doesn't teach you what you did wrong like a human would."  Parents and students also note that the program is very repetitive, and therefor very boring. But the frustration seems to be the most-reported emotion.

What most comments point toward, but don't really address, is the focus on gathering points. Almost none of the reviewers talked about actually learning skills or concepts, but discussed working through the program as a matter of generating the right answer in order to earn more points. Learning? Who cares-- personalized [sic] algorithm-selected mass-custom worksheet drill is about repeating the steps, jumping through the hoops, pressing the lever to get a piece of cheese. If you think a rat that has been living in a Skinner Box for months is no a well-educated rat, then using a program like this will make sense to you.

Of course, none of this appears in the happy, shiny world if IXL marketing, and if the person making the purchase decision makes no attempt to find out how the program actually works, or how people who have actually used it (that weren't selected by IXL's marketing department) feel about it, then it's more bad news for the people who actually have to use it.

This is how bad personalized [sic] learning via algorithm-selected mass-custom worksheets gets. It's a terrible way to educate actual live human beings.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Selling Choice

Selling charter and choice policy has always been a challenge.

Some challenges have been in place from the beginning. Charters are education-flavored businesses, but that's not an easy sale, so charter-choice fans have been adamant that charters are public schools. They aren't, but it's far more marketable for charters to push themselves as an extension to the public school system than a replacement for it. And by calling themselves "public schools," they can imply that they offer certain qualities and guarantees (open to all students, committed to stay open, staffed by qualified teachers, following established professional practices, etc) without having to explicitly commit to those qualities.

This has not been a haphazard process. These are businesses, and they use the same sort of market research any business would use. Back in 2013, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools hired the Glover Park Group, DC PR consultants, to help them with messaging. The result was a helpful handbook that is filled with useful advice like don't say "consumers," say "families." They also suggested stressing that charters get better results for less money, but that pig will no longer fly.

Charter marketing has been a bit of a moving target; like Common Core nd other reformy greatest hits, familiarity has not bred support. Giving public tax dollars to charter-based fraudsters and scam artists who are unable to deliver on promises of educational awesomeness has been hard on the brand.

Vouchers have also been a tough sell. While charter laws have flourished, attempts to pass voucher laws have almost always failed. 

But Betsy DeVos is in the Big Seat, and she loves vouchers, so it seems time for voucher fans to move again. And that includes hiring yet another conaulting firm-- this time, Beck Research-- to help them figure out a message.

The research was commissioned by American Federation For Children, the old DeVos choice advocacy group, and the memo was issued just last week. What did they find?

Much would seem to be supportive  Most folks like the general concept of school choice. People also like the idea of giving all students access to good private schools, and they're particularly supportive of providing such voucher opportunities to poor students and students with special needs. Many respondents also agreed that "we need to make major changes to the ways that public schools are run." But there are two problems here for voucher fans.

First, what people support in voucher policy is not what voucher fans are prepared to offer. Voucher programs don't offer nearly enough money for families to send their children to top private schools-- assuming those schools are even interested in accepting their child in the first place. Private schools are not flinging wide their doors to enroll students that offer any sort of expensive challenge (or they may discriminate for other reasons), and while voucher advocates can brand themselves champions of choice till the cows come home, the fact remains that it is the schools that get to choose-- not the parents. And while folks from many subgroups (minorities, millennials, rural folks) say yes to major changes in public schools, the only major change to come from vouchers would be public schools that are more strapped for resources. Meanwhile, the voucher schools are accountable to nobody-- if you think they need changes, you are welcome to just walk out the door. Shut your mouth and vote with your feet.

Second, Beck discovered that all of this support is tied to Things Not Called Vouchers. Support fro "school vouchers" was about 50-50-- the weakest support of any of the school choice proposals. And this is all with relatively favorable phrasing-- when the AFT asked how folks felt about "shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers" support was weak.

So let the re-branding begin. Education Savings Accounts, Scholarship Tax Credits, even Virtual Learning draw more support. Public tax dollars are used to send some students to private schools. They are vouchers by other names, but those other names make all the difference.

So watch this week as School Choice Week celebrates the many ways that operators of private education-flavored businesses can get their hands on public tax dollars without having to account for them, without having to account for the quality or type of education they provide, and without having to account for which students they refuse to serve. It's a sales job, and like any other sales job, it's pushed with carefully chosen language recommended by well-paid messaging specialists.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

AZ: How Privatizing Damages Schools

It can be hard to connect the dots between charter/voucher movement and damage to public education, but here's a video that does a pretty good job in under two and a half minutes. The speaker is the head of the Arizona School Board Association. She's also a retired Air Force Colonel, and she's seen how this business of outsourcing critical support to businesses works out in that setting. Take a look.

Linda Lyon from S4E Media on Vimeo.

We start with some fundamental problems, like the poverty-based inequity already in place by the time students get to school. Private companies promise to fix that, but they can't-- instead they siphon resources from public schools and turn the charge "public schools can't handle the problem" into a self-fulfilling prophecy, in turn creating the widespread morale issue that are chewing away at the teacher supply line. And what is true for Arizona is true for every other state.

I particularly like this line-- as Lyon encourages her audience to get involved in local politics (even-- gasp-- running for school board) she says this:

When we blame government for its problems, we're really blaming ourselves.

Maybe it's because I just got home from the Women's March in Pittsburgh, but that line resonates for me. It is necessary to act.

We're all going to see lots of noise and PR in the next seven days for National School Choice Week, much of it slickly polished PR 9and most of it paid for with tax dollars that were meant to educate children). As all that self-congratulatory puffery comes rolling out, it's good to remember Lyon's final point-- businesses, whether defense contractors, charter management groups, or ed tech enterprises are not responsible to the children or the troops; ultimately, they are responsible only to their shareholders.

That doesn't make them evil, but it does make them lousy people to entrust with the care, safety and education of valuable human beings.

ICYMI: Women's March Weekend Edition (1/21)

We're headed to Pittsburgh today, but here's some reading for you from this week.

Economists Still Think Economics Is the Best

This is an old article, and it's not about education, but I find it helpful in understanding the mindset of all those economists who think they're education experts.

The College Board Monster and Why It's Time To Slay the Dragon

From Long Island, a great op-ed calling for the end of the SAT-shilling monster

An Insider's Take on Assessment

The Chronicle of Higher Ed is talking about college assessments here, but K-12 folks will recognize all the huge problems laid  out here.

Florida's Education Reforms: A Warning, Not a Model

One more look at how Florida is not the land of reformy awesomeness its fans claim.

Stop Dismantling of NH Public Schools

New Hampshire legislator's plea to fellow legislators to stop plans for privatizing Granite State schools

Public School Administrator Runs a Side School Choice Consulting Business

Sarah Lahm illuminates a fairly stunning example of choice-related corruption

Elephant in the Room: It's the Tech Takeover, not the Common Core

Nancy Bailey makes the case that it's past time to switch our thinking about what the big threat really is

The GOPs Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded

Ohio's ECOT was one of the first big cyber charters and just plain charters to hit the market/ Mother Jones has a fascinating and thoroughly researched look at how this massive scam bilked the taxpayers for so long. Your must-read of the week.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

NCTQ Worries About the Movement

Kate Walsh (National Council on Teacher Quality) has created a small stir over the past couple of days for daring to question the reformster movement's new level of self-correction.

In "Has the Education Movement Lost Its Way" Walsh says that the aftermath of fall conference season left a bad taste in her mouth.

I'm struggling with the seismic shift in tone at these conferences, where education advocates traditionally assembled to give each other a pep talk. In a few short years, we've gone from thinking we were right about everything—granted, that was kind of obnoxious—to adopting a rather pathetic and unattractive lament, professing just how wrong we've been about everything. I guess I prefer smug to self-flagellation. 

I wanted a laser, and if I'm going to have a laser, let's put it on a shark

Boy, I wish I were privy to a bit more of that self-flagellation. Because, no, the self-important always-right certainty wasn't kind of obnoxious. It was extremely obnoxious. In fact, it included a lot of teacher flagellation and school flagellation and in many cases, flagellation that ended careers and cut schools off at the knees.

And maybe it is unattractive to lament just how wrong you've been about things, but damn-- you were wrong about a lot of things. Not only wrong, but wrong in the face of a whole of experts in the education field who repeatedly tried to tell you that you were wrong.

You were wrong about using a single narrow poorly-written Big Standardized Test to gather reliable data about student learning, teacher effectiveness and school quality. You were wrong about the whole idea of identifying "bad" schools and turning them around. You were wrong to treat teachers as the enemies instead of partners and frontline troops in the work to make deliver quality education.

Many advocates appear to be abandoning our once shared convictions about what it takes to lift children out of poverty, the very wellspring of the movement's power and mass appeal. For years, we had stuck hard and fast to a sensible, winnable, and research-based strategy: Improve student learning. Teach children to read. That is how we tackle society's inequities.

Oh, wait. Now I think I know what she's talking about, at least in part. Robert Pondiscio got himself in all sorts of reformy hot water almost two years ago for suggesting that the social justice and equity side of the reformster movement was pushing out the free market conservative wing. This kicked off all sorts of debate in the reformy world. Walsh makes reference, obliquely, to the notion that more reformy panels included black folks coming to yell at the white folks for not taking a broader, social justice view.

She has a problem, of course, in that reform has had a while to have things its own way, and it hasn't demonstrated any ability to teach more children to read or improve student learning. At best it has shown a skill for separating better student learners from their less able neighbors. But improving learning? Not so much. And because we have such a lousy measure of student achievement in place, what reformsters are left arguing is that if a student gets good scores on the preferred BS Test of her state, that student will be more happy and successful in life. That is a hard premise to sell. It's silly on its face, and there's no evidence to back it up.

Walsh does not agree with me on this.

It's a sure way to lose an audience these days to remind them that tests have merit, not just for accountability purposes, not just because they measure numeracy and literacy, but because they are highly predictive of the quality of a child's future. (Thank you Raj Chetty and other academic purists.) A few short years ago, reminding an audience of this connection was a rallying cry. Now our eyes avert, we squirm in our seats, and feel the sudden need for another cup of hotel coffee. 

Well, tests don't have merit. They aren't good for accountability, and they don't measure numeracy and literacy, and they are not predictive of a child's future. Also, Raj Chetty has been repeatedly debunked, his methods iffy and his ultimate results one more example of confusing correlation with causation. But Walsh is feeling frustrated:

By many measures, children's academic outcomes have improved—particularly in the charters which this movement created—but the consensus is that progress has either not been fast enough or it's not even legit. If we agree to expand our role to also tackle the social, economic, racial, and political contexts of students' lives, we'll surely be more successful...right?

There is nothing wrong with any of these goals. They're all good—but their collective impact leaves me limp and rudderless, rather than inspired. This job was hard enough. 

But there's very little charter success that isn't explained by techniques we could use in public schools (longer day, more resources, smaller classes) or by techniques that turn their back on the mission of public education (charters that only take the few students who are a "good fit"). Meanwhile, too many charters are demonstrating just how badly the charter system can be abused by con artists, frauds, and self-dealing money-grubbers (eg ECOT, today).

As for expanding the educational mission to include a hundred other issues...? On the one hand, I understand her reaction to the large set of goals. On the other hand, I understand it because that's what every public school teacher is asked to do every day of every year for as long as I've been working at this. And while some of these issues are handed to us in a formal way by one program or another ("Hey, here's a thing that we need to get out to every child, so let's have teachers do it") we also end up handling them because you cannot teach part of a child. You cannot pluck the "learning to read" part of the child out and away from everything else and just address it in isolation. Tiny humans do not work that way. Certainly there are attempts to do so-- what is a No Excuses school except a school that demands that young humans leave all the rest of their lives and selves outside the schoolhouse door. But mostly that trick doesn't work.

Achieving a complex, ambitious goal—like providing all children in this nation with a strong education—requires laser focus, determination, abundant resources, an ability to measure progress, exceptional expertise, and a strong research basis. The movement had each of these elements and still does (for the most part). 

No, it doesn't.  It has never had laser focus because it has always been a loose alliance of people with very different goals (free market education, justice and equity, chance for my company to make a buck, application of techno-enineering to a social problem, hey we could gather all the data with this stuff, etc). Determination-- yeah, I'll give you that one. Abundant resources? Well, you've had wealthy backers, but you've had real trouble getting and keeping solid human resources, and for all your talk about the money wasted in public schools, you keep discovering that running a school with all the programs you'd really like to have is hella expensive. Ability to measure progress? This is the one I find tiring, but I'll say it as many times as I have to-- you don't have that. You don't. You just don't. The BS Tests do not measure what you think they measure. They don't measure math and science achievement. They don't measure teacher effectiveness. They don't measure how well a school works. And they certainly don't measure the full breadth and depth of a students education beyond those two subjects, nor do they predict the child's future success. Exceptional expertise? Mostly, no. Mostly reformsters are a collection of people who may be experts in their own field but who are education amateurs. And two years as a TFAer don't change that. For most of the reform movement, they have worn their amateur status proudly (David Coleman bragged about it openly) and resolutely refused to listen to those of us who have devoted our lives to the work. They've also resolutely avoided listening to the people in the communities they were going to fix (which is part of the reason that some folks started showing up to yell at you on various panels).

There are people within the reformster world who have some real expertise. And there are many who are beginning to recognize that listening wold be useful, and that maybe not all their opponents are evil dopes. That's a good thing. But reformsters have mostly been unwilling to examine any of their premises (The tests are great. Competition works. Etc) and so they keep building shaky structures on the same bad foundations. 

While not shying away from our many imperfections, while recognizing that schools do not function in isolation, we can not and should not turn our back on what gave rise to this movement.

By all means-- don't turn your back on it. Take a good hard look at it. And then ask yourself if perhaps some of it was mistaken, or if some of your allies are correct to criticize. Consider if some of your allies had, in fact, vastly different aims from your own. You were all together when the tip of the spear penetrated the soft underbelly of American education, but some of you expected reform to lead to the invisible hand steering education and some of you expected it to lead to broad social programs for the poor and some of you expected it to lead to openings for profitable entrepreneurship. Some of you expected it to revitalize public education, and some of you expected it to destroy public education entirely. Some of you sincerely wanted social justice to be part of the movement, and some of you just wanted to use that part of the movement as protective cover for a Democratic administration-- cover that you no longer need.

In other words, you can't reunite the reform movement behind your laser-like goals, because you never had laser-like goals in the first place.

Friday, January 19, 2018

ME: Hope, Grit and Corporate Baloney

KnowledgeWorks is an uber-reformy Ohio outfit that is ready and waiting to jump on the competency-based education wagon train. Maine's RSU2 is a consolidated school district that has partnered up with the Nelie Mae Foundation, a super-reformy pusher of personalized [sic] learning, to set itself up as an exemplar reformster district.

"You have got to be kidding me..."

When these two cross paths, something special happens. I could talk about the various programs that RSU2 is implementing, and about the many unhealthy inroads that algorithm-centered mass-produced custom learning is making in Maine, but for the moment I'll just refer you to Save Maine Schools. Because what I really want to talk about is this explosion of corporate-style whole-beef-baloney verbage that has exploded at the intersection of RSU2 and KnowledgeWorks.

I used to work summers in the private sector, reading and fielding promotional materials for various corporate leadership development consultant seminars. And I have to tell you, this is prime stuff.

"Sustaining the Vision in a Personalized, Competency-Based System" is by Robin Kanaan, Director of Teaching and Learning for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. She's been with the foundation for a decade, and she has really mastered the language is short, and almost no part of it is in plain English.

The first sentence is not so bad:

Fifty miles north of Portland, Maine, superintendent of RSU2 Bill Zima is working with his admin team during their weekly meeting.

But then things start to go downhill

 “Remember our purpose is to cultivate hope in all learners,” Bill says. “All of our efforts are towards that vision, and if they are not, then we are not in alignment.”

Uh-oh. Learners? Cultivate hope? Okay, cultivating hope might be good, but "not in alignment" with what, exactly?

Citing the work of author Shane Lopez in his 2013 book, Making Hope Happen, RSU2 has brought hope to the forefront of their district vision. They have defined hope as the belief that the future will be better than the present, and that we have the power to make it so. Their vision also recognizes that there are many paths to the future and none of those paths are free of obstacles.

In the corporate-speak world of language, there's a special division for the use of purple prose to elevate obvious, even banal, observations. This is primo work.

But then we get into the weird attempt to turn "hope" into a bit of personalized CBE  tomfoolery:

They also determined the core competencies of hope:
  • goals
  • agency
  • pathways
They are hard at work developing strategies in their schools and their learning community to cultivate hope in all learners.  According to Zima, “when we reach our goals by overcoming the obstacles on our chosen pathways, our perceived ability to shape our lives, our agency, increases. Hope is a strategy and it can be measured.”

So hope turns out to be built out of grit, and if you find obstacles that are too big for you, that's because you don't have what it takes to be a first class hoper. But it's that last line that really grabs me-- hope is a strategy, not a feeling or emotional state, and certainly not a thing with feathers that perches on the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. Damn Emily Dickenson lived down in Massachusetts anyway. What did she know.

And it can be measured! Measured!! "Pat, eat a good breakfast this morning so you're all ready for your hope assessments today!" "Mrs. Gillwitty, your learner Chris has been doing great work in math and science, but we are a little concerned about Chris's hope index scores."

Kanaan is not going to tell us how that magical unicorn of a measurement is going to be made, because she is about to unleash a paragraph of corporate baloney-speak poetry. Set your translation software to "stun," boys and girls...

Having a district vision is one thing, but how it is operationalized is what really leads to success. With federal and state mandates, local context and five separate communities making up the school district, keeping the arrows aligned in RSU2 is a constant focus for the district. The team is transparent in their continuous improvement efforts around alignment: workshop models for literacy and mathematics instruction; applied learning; a guaranteed and viable curriculum with learning progressions anchored by learning targets; scoring guides and a taxonomy; learner-centered practices; and a relentless commitment to meeting the needs of each learner are all drivers of hope in the district.

Yes, I'm sure we've all had long conversations about operationalizing our vision, and keeping those arrows aligned. And if you're worried that those words don't seem to mean much of anything, then you're undoubtedly comforted to know that the "team is transparent in their continuous improvement efforts around alignment." Workshop models! Applied learning (as opposed to, I don't know, unapplied learning?). Guaranteed and viable curriculum! Really? Guaranteed to what? And what do I get if it doesn't deliver-- do I get my learner's childhood back? Scoring guides and a taxonomy! You're going to classify my learner by biological classification (my spouse and I are pretty sure our learner is classified as homo sapien)? Or you're going to set up your own classification system based on....? Relentless commitment to meeting the needs or each learner? Well, that sounds good, because my learner needs a bath and a bedtime story tonight and I have to work a late shift-- can you come over by seven o'clock? Or will your commitment be relenting earlier in the day?

And these are all "drivers of hope." Drive how, exactly? Can you operationalize a taxonomy of relentless drivers so that I can guaranteed some viable continuous improvement of my learner's hope index with all arrows aligned with the drivers, relentlessly?

Well, after that resounding crescendo of Schoenbergian word salad, all that's needed is a punchy finish--

While the challenges are many, the rewards abound when learners and teachers channel passions, interests and talents into the work.

Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. What does that sentence have to do with the rest of this article? Nothing, really, but people always like it when you throw in references to passion and learners and talents. What are the challenges? Who knows. What will the rewards be? Not clear on that, either, but they will be abounding all over the place.

I don't get it. Do people who write this kind of stuff just kind of giggle to themselves the whole time, knowing that it's nearly self-satirical argle bargle? Or are they so sunk into this stylistic cesspool that they actually think they are writing clear, communicative prose? Or have they fallen into that saddest of writing dead ends-- the belief that good writing should puff up and obscure, rather than trim and illuminate? Who do they imagine their audience might be? This is par for the course for the corporate reformsters of KnowledgeWorks, but it's sad, bad news when people who are supposed to be professional educators start talking like this, because this language can only indicate brutal cynicism or faulty thinking. Neither is a good sign for the schools of Maine.

In the meantime, let me leave you with this:

Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.