Sunday, March 18, 2018

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

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

School Choice Is a Lie That Harms Us All

From HuffPost. Zero punches pulled here.

Many Democrats Would Agree with Ideas in DeVos Clip

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

Betsy DeVos Visited an Underperforming School.

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

Worst Government Possible on Purpose

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

What DeVos Needs To Hear

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

The Truth about Charter Schools

A former charter teacher talks about how awful it was.

When the Charter Lobby Wants Your Turf

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

Facts About New Jersey Charters, Part II

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

Lessons from the West Virginia Teachers Strike

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

Why Public Schools?

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

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Harvest Time in Dataland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

Blowing (Up) Your Mind Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018

10 Reasons To Support Public School

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

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

1) Public schools are student-centered.

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

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

2) Public schools are publically owned and operated.

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

3) Public schools are enduring community institutions.

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

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

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

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

5) Public schools are the last great salad.

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

6) Public schools are a glorious mess.

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

7) Public schools are remarkably efficient.

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

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

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

9) Public schools help create citizens

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

10) The promise of public education

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

DeVos: Made Up of Individuals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why say something like that over and over?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CA: DFER "All-Star" Running for Governor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

DeVos In This World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 11, 2018

ICYMI: Lost Hour Edition (3/11)

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

Things Economists Should Start Saying

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

Who Are the Data Unicorn Tech Giants

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

When Big Data Goes To School

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

Teachers In Your State Are Underpaid

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

10 Things We Shouldn't Expect Public Schools To Do

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

Teach Kids When They're Ready

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

Cost Benefits Show Failure of Voucher Plan

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

Minneapolis Public School Hosts Teach for America Recruiting Event

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

New Oklahoma Teacher Vows

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

AEI: Localism and Education

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

My town, in a somewhat earlier time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Some time passes)

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

Actual educators: No shit, Sherlock.

Hess and Smarick almost acknowledge this when they write:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 9, 2018

NPE: Parent's Guide To Online Learning

The Network for Public Education has released a new guide, "Online Learning: What Every Parent Should Know." At twenty pages, it's not exactly a quick skim, but for folks who are trying to sort through the basic issues of the online delivery of education-flavored product, this is a good place to start.

After an introductory overview from NPE head Carol Burris, the guidebook looks quickly at how we arrived here (spoiler alert: both Obama and Trump administrations like online education just fine). Then we break down some other issues.

The Different Flavors

Online learning is now part of several different products being sold to the public, so NPE breaks it down:

Virtual schools aka cyber-schools refer to a set-up in which the student logs on full-time for "school." Course content is delivered on line, often with the student at home. Blended/hybrid learning is when students are in a bricks-and-mortar school, but get a significant amount of their instruction via computer. You'll also hear "competency based" and "personalized" in reference to online schools, emphasizing the mastery of specific skills and adaptive software that supposedly adjusts what it delivers to the student next based on the work that the student just did.

I Can Haz Money

NPE notes that for-profit educational management organizations (EMO) make a squatload of money. Note my own state, where the cyber-schools are paid based on the cost-per-pupil of the sending district and not based on the actual cost of providing virtual school. And it could get even more profitable outfits like blended learning schools are allowed to ignore any and all class size rules.

How Many On Line Students Are There?

We don't know. Next?

How Do Online Students Perform Compared To Their Meat Widget Peers?

Short answer: poorly.

Long answer: Here are a bunch of different studies, each of which has its own special problems (including, and this is me talking, that many of them use test scores as a proxy for student achievement despite the fact that test scores have not been proven to be a useful or accurate proxy).

But the report does break down studies and results as they relate to the different types of online learning listed above.

The results from full-time on line learning are lousy. Nobody thinks cyber-schools actually work, except, apparently, the various legislators who have enjoyed that sweet, sweet lobbying support.

A study of blended personalized [sic] learning seems to show some positive results there, but that study has enough holes in it to swallow a fleet of semis. But NPE looks at that RAND study in some detail.

So Let's Look At Some Specific Blended Learning Models in Action

NPE takes a look at particular businesses. Like our old friend Rocketship Charter Schools, a blended learning model that was going to revolutionize education, except that it pretty much hasn't. Not even a little.

There's also a blended learning model strictly for math called Schools of One (from way back in 2009 in NYC) that, while backed by the usual gang of pseudo-edu-philanthropists, never generated any real positive results except for some good positive PR. It eventually changed its name but, unsurprisingly, rebranding did not result in new awesomeness.

And there's the Summit platform, the Facebook-backed platform that is currently hot and has spread widely. Summit is notable for waving a huge number of red flags regarding the privacy and ownership of student data.

If This Stuff Doesn't Work All That Well, Why Hasn't It Gone Away

Short answer: because money.

Long answer: Many for-profit companies have a big stake in this business, and the money they spend lobbying for favorable rules is a mountainous thing, indeed. They are also well-connected by groups like ALEC, which like the idea of chipping away at public schools. NPE offers a couple of instructive examples, like the way that lobbying and what we used to call bribery opened up Maine and turned it into a playground for the personalized education biz.

What Else Do We Have To Watch Out For?

NPE talks about some other players in the cyber-sandbox of education flavored businesses.

There's I-Ready and the ever-lovin' MAP exams, examples of online tests that are used to shape and direct instruction in public schools. There's credit recovery, which in this context refers to products that let a student log on, do some work (or have somebody do some work) and get credit for courses they failed.

And, in some ways the most creepy, behavior management apps like Class Dojo, which both allow teachers to track student behavior data and also store that data to be shared with heaven-only-knows-who.

Man of these products are piloted and financed by people who are from the world of venture capital and business, and not education. It's also worth remembering that when programs like these are free, that's a red flag. Remember the old on-line adage-- if you aren't paying for the program, then you are the product.

Yeah, What About Privacy Protections, Anyway?

NPE gets into a lot of specifics and detail here, which is useful because parents should understand just how minimal the privacy protections. are. Really minimal.

Also (and I'm not quite sure why NPE slips this point in here), parents should also be aware that just because these are computer programs, that doesn't mean they aren't loaded with bias. Every "personalized" program involves predictive software, and the research suggests that those predictive algorithms are just loaded with bias and prejudice.

How Can A Parent Tell Whether a Particular Program Is Bunk?

NPE spends a page and a half on this, and while the rest of the report suggests elements for parents to consider, they crystalize some of that advice here.

First, cyber-schools are bunk. Don't put your child in one.

Consider class size and teacher-student ration. Consider how much time your child will interact with a real, live human teacher. How much time will you have to spend as a parent monitoring and supporting your child. What is the program's track record-- how many students are passed or retained. How freaking boring is it (you van collect this info from your child). How much screen time will be involved (because more screen time is not a good thing). What is the program's purpose, and can the vendors provide any evidence that it actually works (studies that the company performed themselves don't really count here). Can you talk to schools that already use the product.

There's more, but you get the idea.

And That Brings Us To The End of the Report

If you are reading this blog, you probably know much of what is included in the report, but if you know a parent who's trying to sort this all out, this report can be an excellent resource to pass along. It's well-sourced with plenty of links and references, and it lays things out pretty clearly, with both a big-picture look at the issues and some very specific ideas for parents who are starting to navigate this world.

Parents need to understand that slick glossy ad copy coupled with high-powered hype does not equal quality educational material. This report is a good primer for cutting past the shiny fog.

Save the link and pass it along to someone who needs to see just what the problems with online learning are.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The DeVosian Dilemma

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has a problem.

Okay, she has several problems, but one problem exists at the intersection of all her larger problems in the office.

Earlier this week, DeVos wagged her federal finger at the Council of Chief State School Officers. She wanted to deliver some "tough love" to the states, scolding them for producing new ambition-free  education plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that were "more focused on compliance than innovation."

Just because a plan complies with the law doesn’t mean it does what’s best for students. Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. Sure, they may pass muster around conference tables in Washington, but the bare minimum won’t pass muster around kitchen tables.

Yes, I'm holding a big box of nothing, right here
There's more of this in her speech (after searching for her official voice at the start of her tenure, DeVos seems to be settling into a sort of folksy Midwestern-ness that masks her ignorance of public education and her billionaire pedigree with homespun grandma style). She wants the states to stop just doing the bare minimum and start showing the initiative to "innovate and improve."

Who told the states they could get away with doing just the bare minimum going-through-the-motions compliance? Well, that's part of her problem-- Betsy DeVos told them that.

On numerous occasions, DeVos has made it clear that she thinks that DC should keep their nose out of this. It's not her job as United States Secretary of Education to tell states how best to obey the laws that are enforced by the United States Department of Education.

This is extra problematic because the law is, at many points, exceptionally unclear. Lawmakers peppered it with words like "ambitious" and "challenging" and left the Department to figure out what they actually mean. Only DeVos is of the opinion that the Department has no business telling anybody what anything means. And at the same time, Betsy DeVos has a pretty good idea what those words should mean.

We've seen her use this approach in other places. Going all the way back to her confirmation hearing, we can see that, on the one hand, she thinks certain sorts of discrimination shouldn't happen, but on the other hand, she can't imagine a situation where she would use the power of the Department to tell a school to stop practicing any of those sorts of discrimination.

This oversight issue has been the issue that folks, particularly conservative folks, have been watching all along. Once DeVos got her hands on the wheels of power, would she use them? The answer seems to be no, she won't. She'll just make a frowny face if she doesn't like what's happening.

This dilemma plays into several of her key weaknesses as an education secretary.

First, as a lifelong Very Rich Person, one who has never held a job outside of the family business, DeVos has little knowledge of how things get done outside her rich person bubble. Inside the bubble, a frowny face is probably more than enough to get the wheels turning and people hopping. She's never had to play the game by anything but DeVos rules.  But outside the bubble, there are plenty of people who don't care if she's frowning because they didn't go her idea of an extra mile.

Second, she lacks both the experience and the heft to wield the bully pulpit. Yes, she has worked as an activist and lobbyist-- but always with a checkbook and political connections in hand. When a legislator in Michigan wouldn't choose to do the right thing, the DeVos way was to threaten him with a primary challenge that would end his career. She has no such leverage against the governors. If she wants to speak on matters of public education policy, she speaks with no more expertise than any random person pulled off the street. Imagine someone who has worked for decades in education saying, "Well, if DeVos thinks that's a good idea, maybe there's something to it."

The bully pulpit does not automatically bestow attention, wisdom, and heft on whoever steps up to it. If you want people to pay heed, you have to bring something with you, and DeVos does not.

Third, she has no reserve of trust to build on. Her experience with public education is in trying to dismantle it, and that doesn't exactly inspire trust. One of her few clear policy directions is favor the interests of businesses (like loan companies and for-profit colleges) over the interests of students. She has a long history of calling public education names (like dead end). And she would really like to see public money financing private schools. None of that inspires trust.

Fourth, DeVos is lousy at articulating her vision for schools. She just made a trip to Parkland and the school that was the scene of the terrible murder of seventeen students and teachers; afterwards, she held a press conference at which she sort-of-answered-ish five questions, and then zipped off without even saying goodbye. Or look at her recent stock photo tweet in which she tried to make the point that public schools haven't changed in 100 years, but instead made the point that she doesn't know what the inside of a modern classroom looks like. If she has a strong vision of what she wants US education to look like, she either can't or won't articulate it either in broad strokes or sharp details.

At times it looks as if DeVos really wants to be a leader, but after a lifetime of being followed and obeyed, she doesn't seem to know how to lead in a situation where her wealth and connections don't do her any good. She's been given the actual power attached to the USED-- but she doesn't believe in using it. She won't use the levers she has, and she doesn't have access to the levers she has preferred to use in the past.

Just as her boss has destroyed US "soft power," the power to persuade and cajole without resorting to threats and sabre rattling and big martial parades, DeVos has acquired no "soft power" to operate in her office. She's got formal power that she doesn't want to use, and a bully pulpit that she's incapable of using. She's stuck between the power she doesn't want, and the power she doesn't have.

What could DeVos do to move forward?

Well, she could go ahead and flex her federal muscles and make states bring her ESSA plans that she actually likes. She could find ways to leverage the power of her office to get states to do what she wants them to do. But she doesn't seem to want that, and honestly, I don't want her to do it-- other than to protect the rights of people who don't have protection of their rights and interests on any other level.

Barring that, DeVos could attempt to build soft power. She could make an honest effort to get out into public schools-- lots of public schools-- and get a look at what is actually going on. And she could pair that "eyes and ears" tour with a moratorium on saying stupid things that broadcast how little she knows about public education in 2018. She could hire some top people to help her run the department instead of hiring corporate reformsters whose main interest is to loot and grab. She could articulate-- no, honestly, I don't know how she fixes this, unless it turns out she's not after the policies she has indicated she's after. Her goals, as nearly as they can be deduced, are complete anathema to a robust public education system. She really has no business being Secretary of Education-- and I say that not because I think she's a terrible awful person, but because when you're in charge of an enterprise which has goals and values diametrically opposed to your own, it's not good for anybody. Certainly not education, the country, the taxpayers, and probably not even DeVos herself.

There she sits in DC, unable (and unwilling) to use the department to effectively pursue her own policy goals, and unwilling (and unable) to use the department to support public education in this country. The DeVosian dilemma is that everybody loses, and public education in America loses extra hard. Of course, since this comes on the heels of the King Katastrophe, the Duncan Disaster and a string running all the way back to the Paige Pee-down-his-Pants-leg, we may need to take a hard look at the Department of Education. But that's a conversation for another day. In the meantime, we'll just have to watch DeVos struggle between the lever and the pulpit, like a fish flopping sadly on the dry beach of a frozen Great Lake.

Bad Administrators in Toxic Times

A good manager in any enterprise is one who makes it possible for her people to do their best possible work. Her job is to make sure they have the resources, the encouragement, the support and the space to do their best work.

But in toxic times like ours, administrators take on another responsibility-- to run interference and keep the institution focused.

For today's analogy, let's say that teachers are surgeons in a hospital, and principals and superintendents are the chiefs of surgery.

So what happens if the Powers That Be send down an edict-- surgery must now be performed with rusty shovels instead of clean scalpels?

Appendectomy, pleasde
A good manager will fight back. She might advocate, loud and strong, for the proper use of the proper tools in surgery. She might stand up for her people And if her advocacy is unsuccessful, she may move on to guerrilla warfare. In the operating room, she might instruct the surgeons to keep on using the tools and techniques that they know work best, while she grabs a shovel and prances around in front of them so that the Powers That Be will think their directive is being followed.

Bad managers come in many types.

There are the Kool-Aid drinkers, the ones who proclaim loudly, "This shovel-based surgery will be the best ever. It works great! It saves patients! Anyone who says otherwise is not a team player, and we need to weed those people out."

There are the rose-colored hopers. "We'll go ahead and use the shovels for surgery, and if we just do our best, things will probably work out, somehow."

But perhaps the most reprehensible bad leadership comes from those who recognize what's wrong, but shrug and refuse to stand up against it.

Doctor: You know that if we operate with rusty shovels, that will be bad for the patient. right? You know this is bad and wrong, don't you?

Boss: Yes, but it's what the Powers That Be say we have to do.

Doctor: The scalpels are still sitting right there. I know how to use them. Just let me use them.

Boss: The Powers That Be have been really clear about what they expect.

Doctor: But we're being set up to fail. We'll use the rusty shovels and patients will get sick and die and the Powers That Be will use it as an excuse to shut us down, or to open more charter surgical centers across the street.

Boss: Yes, I think you're right.

Doctor: We know that what they want us to do is wrong. We know how to do the right thing, and we even have the tools to do the right thing. So let's just do the right thing before we do more irreparable damage to our patients. Shovel surgery is bad for them. Bad! We have to stop.

Boss: Oh, I know, I know. But the Powers That Be have laid out the rules, so we're just going to have to follow them.

This is a terrible form of leadership. It replaces the values and purpose of the institution with a subservience and compliance that is damaging to the institution and to the people the institution is meant to serve. And it sends a clear message to staff-- when times get tough, and you're worried about choosing between your professional ethics and your professional future, we will not help you make the right choice, and if you do make the right choice, we will not have your back.

This is one of the long-term side effects of modern reform. Test-centered education, soaked in Vam sauce and steeped in Common Core, is education's rusty shovel; it has created a toxic environment in which teachers find their ethics tested and their morale eroded. Modern reform has changed the requirements for being a good school administrator, and many are not fully prepared to meet the challenge.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

CBE vs. Traditional Straw Man School

The folks at KnowledgeWorks are committed personalizing education in a competency-based kind of way, and by "personalizing" I mean "getting rid of teachers so students can be instructed by highly lucrative software programs." A while back they created a lovely graphic that really captures how much better their imaginary version of Competency-Based Learning (aka Competency-Based Education, aka Personalized Learning, aka Outcome-Based Education) than an imaginary version of public education.

This is the sales pitch that these folks are using to stump for the destruction of traditional schools. Let's break it down.

School Culture

In traditional education, they say, learning happens inside a classroom with "little or no accommodation of student interests or learning styles." I don't know-- maybe the comparison is meant to show that CBL in the present would be better than taking a time machine back to a public school classroom in 1935. Because I went to teacher school in the late seventies, and by then the idea of trying to accommodate each individual student in your classroom was already conventional wisdom.

But in CBL students have "a wide range of learning experiences at school, online or in the community." This triumvirate is important, because it allows just about anyone to get in on the education tax dollar money grab, and it renders traditional schools irrelevant. Just go learn from your neighbor, or a software bundle, or a charter school, or a mini-charter (that only teaches one subject) or a church school, or just home school. "Diverse partners" are the key, allowing students to get education from anywhere-- you don't need any special qualifications to edumacate the children.

Learning Continuum

At a public school, "students are expected to master grade level college and career ready standards." But CBL wants them to "master competencies" connected to the standards with "clear, transferable learning objectives." So that's... it's.... I don't know. Students are expected to do something rather than know something. I'll confess-- when you add the checklist education minimalism of CBE to the amateur-hour bad standards of Common Core--er, college and career readiness, you get a kind of nothing soup.

Learning Pace

"Students advance at educator's pace regardless of mastery or needing additional time." Yup. When I set a pace in my classroom, I set it strictly based on my own preferences, and not based on professional expertise and experience from decades of working at my craft. But CBL students "advance upon mastery of learning targets" and not because of some time requirement. Plus they get customized support both in school and out of school "to ensure they stay on track."

Wait a minute. If they meet the learning targets at their own pace in their own way, then what is this "track" we are ensuring they stay on. I thought the whole point was that there is no track? Either some professional educator is setting a pace and set of targets, or the student is just going as she will. Or, I suppose, the targets and pace could be set by amateurs based on whatever they feel like.


In public schools, "every classroom has one teacher who designs and delivers instructional program with very little differentiation." But in CBL, "educators" work "collaboratively with community partners and students to develop flexible learning environments, grouping strategies, and extended opportunities to support a unique learning plan for every student."

This is the heart of the CBL pitch-- traditional public schools are run by those professional educators with their fancy "training" and "experience" and they're just so uptight and think they know it all, but if we put some amateur education entrepreneurs together with these students' future employers and just did whatever we thought was cool, school would be awesome. Also, we will replace the "wheel" with a fancy round disc that turns on an axle and helps wagons roll.

The notion that teachers don't differentiate is laughable, and the offhand dismissal of the idea that instructional programs should be designed and delivered by trained professionals is silly. As is the idea that flexible learning environments, grouping, and extra support are cool new ideas that these folks just thought up.

But part of the underlying philosophy is that schools are not turning out properly trained worker bees, and if we would just cooperate with the future employers of these drones, we could come up with a system more carefully focused on vocational training (of course, children of the upper classes will never, ever be subjected to CBE-style education).

Assessment System

Public schools offer assessments "at set times to evaluate and classify students." Well, yes. "One opportunity to take the summative assessment at the end of the year." Well, no. Sort of, in some states.

But CBL offers a "comprehensive assessment system" in which "formative assessments guide daily instruction" and whenever the students wants to, they can take a summative assessment as many times as they want, to show mastery. So, all testing, all the time.

Grading Policies

According to KnowledgeWorks, in traditional public schools, "grades are norm-referenced, reflect course standards, are typically based on weighted quarters and final exam." I don't know whether KnowledgeWorks is ignorant of what happens in a public school, or if they are just making shit up in order to make public schools look bad. I do know that it's incorrect to say that public schools use norm-referenced grades (which would mean that we're all grading on the curve, a practice that went out of educational fashion around 1978). Nor is the use of a final exam universal by any stretch of the imagination.

In CBL "scores reflect the level of mastery within a learning target," which is extraordinarily unlikely. That's because CBL mastery style learning requires students to check off "mastery" of a skill on the big list, and mastery is mastery. One of the problems with a CBE system is that it's basically binary-- you either "passed" the mastery assessment or you didn't, and if the student has done well enough to meet the minimum mastery requirement, there's no real reason for that student to press on to achieve a higher level of mastery. It's pass-fail. Once you've passed, what reason is there to try to pass harder? (That lack of differentiation of achievement is in fact one of the complaints about the CBL system being rolled out in Maine.)

"Course credit is earned when students master identified learning targets." The goal, in other words, is not to see just how excellent you can become, but how quickly you can score a Good Enough To Get By on the assessment. In Maine, students are "graded" on a scale of 1-4. This does not exactly lend itself to a nuanced picture of student achievement.

This is the CBL/CBE/PBL pitch. It depends on a studied vagueness about how it works (because "students sit a computers and take standardized tests and testlets and quizzes every day" doesn't really sing) as well as a careful misrepresentation of what happens in public school. This is not how we make education better.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

We don't have to do this, you know

Whether it's policy makers crafting the latest education policy to govern, regulate or otherwise keep teachers in line, or whether it's a school board negotiating a contract, or even a charter operator unilaterally setting the terms of employment for their teaching staff, you sometimes get the feeling that those folks believe that teachers must be teachers.

It's like they think they're a video game boss, standing on a narrow digital bridge over a lake of digital lava, and teachers are the hero game player who have no choice but to cross that bridge to get to the final goal. They park themselves on that bridge, secure in the knowledge that we absolutely must go through them, that some teacher gene decreed at birth that we would have to enroll in a college education program, that we would have to pursue a teaching job, that we would have to stay in that job until retirement, or maybe death, no matter what obstacles they put in our way.

This is confused thinking.

We do not have to do this, you know.

Students attending college can choose from a wide variety of majors, including very many that are not related to teaching.

Grown adults with college degrees can pursue a wide variety of jobs, including jobs that are not teaching.

Not every profession suffers from this problem. Lawyers, business executives, CEOs, athletes-- all benefit from a system in which the People in Charge routinely say, "We'd better make sure he's happy, or else he'll just walk away. Quick-- let's throw piles of money and benefits at him so he'll stay."

But teachers (and nurses and some other choice professions) suffer from the managerial assumption that they will never walk away, that they don't have any other options to consider, that we can squeeze them and squeeze them and squeeze them and it just won't matter.

This is foolish thinking.

We do not have to do this.

I once joined a former student while she was dining out with friends in North Carolina. There were eight people at the table, and I believe five of them were people who had started out as teachers and left the profession. People leave teaching all the time. Young people choose professions other than teaching all the time.

We do not have a teacher shortage. We have a shortage of states and districts willing to make the job attractive enough to recruit and retain teachers.

Teachers do not always help their own case. When we talk about teaching being a "calling" or "all we ever wanted to do" or "what we were born to do," we may be telling the truth, but we are also like the person walking onto a used car lot and introducing ourselves by saying, "Hi there! I'm shopping for a car and I'm going to pay fifty grand for it."

Of course, there are some people in power who kind of understand that people have other choices, that teachers don't have to teach. There are people in power who know all that, and they just don't care. Their disrespect for the work is so great that they believe teachers are as easily replaced as fast food fry cooks, and like fast food fry cooks, teachers don't really have other options. And, of course, teachers are mostly women, anyway, so it's not like they deserve to be paid a professional family-supporting wage.

But no. We do not have to do this. We could be doing something else.

If people designing education policy and negotiating contracts could just absorb that idea. Imagine what policy would look like, what teaching contracts would look like, if our policy movers and shakers were sitting in their office thinking, "We need to really make an effort to make these jobs attractive, because these folks we want to become teachers could choose to do something else, and then we'd lose them, and that would suck. So let's concentrate on keeping recruiting and retaining them."

But no. In places like West Virginia and Oklahoma and too many other places we get, "Well, I'm sure we'll get this whole pay thing fixed in a few years or so. In the meanwhile, we're sure you're not going anywhere, and if we never do pay you a living wage, well, that won't affect your career choices, right?" Well, not just that. We also get this kind of crap:

Because teachers really shouldn't be paid at all. They should just do their jobs just because.

No. We don't have to do this.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Some Tech Reformsters Don't Even Try

You know that a pop music trend is played out when the material starts to sound like a parody of itself. For example, when Eve 6 filled "Inside Out" with lines like "Want to put my tender heart in a blender, watch it spin around to a beautiful oblivion," it became clear that a certain brand of uber-sensitive thrashy pop had played itself out.

I felt the same way reading the New York Times profile of one more tech executive who thinks she knows how to create a new education revolution.

"Why This Tech Executive Says Her Plan to Disrupt Education Is Different," is a well-framed title, as if even the reform-friendly times knows this woman is blowing some serious recycled smoke.

Yes, all the feelings.
Susan Wu, the NYT notes, has been called "one of the most influential women in technology." The NYT does not note that Wu earned that title in 2010 for launching Ohai, a social MMO gaming biz that Wu said would be making money selling "virtual goods" (aka "things that only exist on line and not in the real world"). Wu, a former professional Quake 2 gamer, actually launched the company in 2008. In 2009 Ohai was "the next big thing." By 2011, they were "also-rans," Wu was no longer the CEO, and the company was up for sale. Since then, she's been entrepreneuring about Silicon Valley on things like Stripe, the tech company that lets folks accept payment over the internet.

All of which clearly qualifies her to disrupt education.

She's picked Australia as her launch point, perhaps because one would have to travel to another continent to make any of her rhetoric about the venture sound fresh.

Ms. Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of — rather than mere participants in — a future world.

If you are playing Ed Reform Bingo, you'll want to dig out your card, because Wu has mastered every single reform cliché out there.

At the school ("Lumineer"), "there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades," but there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.” The school is  "furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs" and of course, this "revolutionary" is needed because "Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago." The school's classrooms have been "rebranded" “studios.” Instead of desks there are "couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working." They have STEM. They work on emotional intelligence. They are founded on "first principles" a concept borrowed from physics "in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies, or biases." Because that's a thing you can do in education when dealing with tiny humans. And teachers will be lured to Lumineer "with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums."

And if you visit the school site, the hits just keep coming. Lifelong learners. Growth mindset. Critical thought. Holistic synthesis. Authentic.

I'll give NYT writer Adam Baidawi bonus points for this simile:

Critics, however, see Lumineer Academy as another in a series of attempts by Silicon Valley to apply the same techniques used to churn out successful apps to instead turn out successful children.

Baidawi also notes that, well, tech entrepreneurs starting revolutionary private schools is not exactly a new thing (though having one of these projects turn out to be a big success would be). He particularly notes the failure to meet expectations of AltSchool, the Zuckerberg backed Silicon Valley wunderskool (though I think we might characterize that as a pivot to a more lucrative business model). But Wu says she's different, because of her model and location and team.

Wu does have some partners with education background. Sophie Fenton is an Australian-- well, she taught at some point, but a lot of her career seems tied up in the bureaucratic side of things. Amanda Tawhai has worked as a teacher at the Australia Department for Education.

But mostly this just seems like the same old, same old. Baidawi gets bonus points for getting a quote from Audrey Watters (Hack Education), who nicely sums up perhaps the only unique feature of Luminaria:

I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy. In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.

The Australian system is a bit different from ours, so I suppose we'll see how Wu's project manages to fit in and/or disrupt things. But despite the repeated insistence that they're shaking things up with bold new revolutionary ideas, it's getting harder not to think that these tech entrepreneurs are all reading from the same dog-eared handbook for revolutionary education amateurs. I look forward to the announcement about the next Tender Heart in a Blender Academy.