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.


  1. Back when email chains were a thing, there was one that went around a lot about a woman going to McDonald's with her family and encountering two homeless men in line ahead of them. The email absolutely drips about how close these men obviously were, the one man was obviously disabled and the other was taking care of him and obviously they'd been together through thick and thin, blah, blah, blah. Well, the heroine of the email comes up to them men when they get to the counter and, instead of the mere coffee they were going to order, she buys them a full breakfast with the works and helps them take the food to the table. More gushing, and then she ends with something like, "What I gave those men was far more than just a breakfast. I could tell by the looks on their faces that I had given them HOPE." I replied to everyone foolish enough to forward me that email, "No, lady, you didn't give them hope, you gave them a $5 heart attack on a plastic tray. That look on their faces was gas."

    Ms. Kanaan's talk of "hope" gives me pretty much the same reaction, only worse, because "hope" is what these children are getting instead of an education. They might be better off with a $5 McDonald's breakfast.

  2. Meanwhile, when you pull back the curtain on Bill Zima's "cultivate hope in all learners" baloney, you find that once again the State of Maine DOE is attempting to push back Proficiency-based Diploma target dates to 2022 through 2026. The original plan was for the class of 2017 but what's the hurry when you can come up with more baloney, especially with no viable curricular model to make it happen, ever.

  3. "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?"

    I am finding it hard that by now you still don't get it. They are setting up metrics for "social emotional training" for SEL social impact bonds Peter. That is what they are doing.

    When you write about topics like this in a funny but dismissive way without placing within the context of global financialization of children and their data, you aren't doing anything to build the resistance. If anything you lead people to write it off on the presumption that these people don't know exactly what they are doing. The DO know. And even though it sounds implausible, they are moving forward setting up SEL standards and metrics. In some parts of Maine behavior grades are almost half the report card.

    1. Though I remain a big believer that mockery is still one of the best ways to point out that the emperor is naked, you may have a point as well. My question is, where is the local resistance?

      When outcome-based-education was crushed in the 90s, that was not just because of political resistance on the state level, but because a whole lot of local school boards found themselves facing angry parents and administrators found themselves on the phone with more angry parents.

      In districts where behavior grades are half a report card, where are the angry parents? Is everyone okay with this, or are they just resigned to it?

    2. Some of us are out there pushing back against the ClassDojo's of the classroom - the whole gamification of Being Good is part of this - but yeah, more parents need to be aware.

  4. This reminds me of the standards for English I had to use when writing lesson plans last year. Instead of saying "read" it would be "decode meaning of words using knowledge and origin of prefixes, suffixes, and etymology of words". You couldn't question the standards, either. Apparently they were distributed on Mount Sinai.

    1. Dammit, I want a Like button for the Mount Sinai comment! :-)