Monday, April 30, 2018

Happy Frickin' Birthday, Nation At Risk

Lots of folks are offering up word salad to commemorate the 35th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk," the high profile educational chicken-littling that laid the foundation for all the disaster capitalistic attacks on education ever since.

On this occasion, here's the article you must not miss.

None of the information in Anya Kamenetz's piece is new; some is from interviews she conducted years ago for her 2015 book The Test. There are critical points to remember here.

Results Decided First

But what I learned in talking to two of the original authors of “A Nation At Risk” was that they never set out to undertake an objective inquiry into the state of the nation’s schools.

The most common interpretation of the report is something along the lines of "back in 1983, a bunch of folks decided to do a big old study of public education and see how it was doing, and golly bob howdy-- didn't they discover that US education was a giant suckfest!"

That interpretation, Kamenetz's interviews make clear, is incorrect. Actual story? Some folks in the Reagan administration had already decided that there was some sort of crisis in education, so they went looking for proof of the conclusion they had already reached. This indicates, if nothing else, that Crisis #1 was that these people had never learned the Scientific Method when they were in school.

It also indicates that the report cherry-picked data to match the conclusion it wanted to draw.

Cherry Picking the Data

The report skimmed over the highest-ever graduation numbers. And it focused on the decline of average SAT scores over the previous twenty years. And while that data point was not exactly a lie, it was also not the truth.

Kamenetz brings back the follow-up report, done by the Department of Energy in 1990-- a report that found "To our surprise, on nearly every measure, we found steady or slightly improving trends." For instance, average SAT scores were dropping-- because more and more students were taking the test. Each subgroup was actually improving, but adding more of the lower-scoring subgroups to the mix dropped the average.

ANAR Repeatedly Debunked

If you want more articles poking holes in the 1983 report, they're out there. Kamenetz highlights a 2004 scholarly article by James Guthrie who concludes simply "The idea that American schools were worse just wasn't true."

But If You Really Want To Evaluate ANAR, Just Check the Sky

The report concluded, among other things "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people."

In 1983, they told us that the sky is falling. It's falling any day now. If we don't act right away, America is doomed! Any day now. And yet, since 1983, two things have not happened.

First, nobody from DC has ever announced, "Yeah, you can relax. We totally fixed it." No, instead, our leader types still routinely announce that, as our Secretary of Education announced at the Reagan Institute's anniversary party, "Our nation is still at risk." And yet--

Second, in thirty-five years, the sky has not fallen. The nation has not collapsed. The supposed decline in education has not led to a disastrous disintegration of the Republic.

Critics of public education have had 35 years to back up these pre-fabricated cries of a concocted crisis, and yet 35 years later, there's no evidence that the authors of the report were correct.

So Why Do We Still Wave This Bloody Shirt?

The answer is also in Kamenetz's article, because although I do love her work, she is one more member of the education press who has apparently signed a pledge to never run an article that doesn't include a quote from Michael Petrelli. I'm not sure why right-tilted thinky tanks are always represented in ed pieces but working educators and public ed supporters are not (lord knows there are plenty of us out here willing to talk), but on this occasion, Petrilli's quote is pretty illuminating. [Correction: Kamenetz has correctly pointed out that this is her first Petrilli quote in an article.]

Although there has been some progress, “the reason that we continue to mark the anniversary is that [the worry] still rings true,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He calls the report “a touchstone”; it’s in the mission statement of the Institute, which promotes school choice, testing and accountability.

There you have it. First, we keep bringing it up because it "rings true," which is not at all the same as "is supported by actual data and facts." It just, you know, feels truthy. And it a "touchstone" for reformsters, a key brick in the foundation of all education reform that says public schools are in terrible trouble and we must fix/disrupt/change/replace them right away.

A Nation At Risk remains what it has always been-- someone who wants to tear down a school and replace it with a business, so he pulls the school fire alarm to get everyone to run out of the building. But after 35 years, there's still no fire, still little smoke, and ironically the smoke at this point all comes from the various fires that reformsters have built to help clear the place out. 

Despite the lack of solid evidence to back it up, "A Nation at Risk" will continue to live on because it is useful for the people who want to dismantle and privatize public education. It was created as a tool for that purpose in the first place, and as long as it can still serve that purpose, we'll continue to throw it birthday parties and trot it out whenever we want to get the sirens wailing again. Those are the moments when the rest of us will need to step up and remind people what the report really is, how it was really written, how much the sky hasn't fallen yet, and why it's not nice to yell "fire" in a crowded school. In other words, after you read the Kamenetz article, you probably need to bookmark it. 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Making Trouble (or "Other Lessons of West Virginia, Arizona, et. al.")

"Can you just handle this but leave my name out of it?"

I'll bet most union local presidents have heard some version of that phrase at least once. Teachers tend to be non-confrontational authority-respecters, so when the People In Charge do us wrong, we want the problem to go away without us having to make any trouble.

The thing is, at that point, the trouble is already made. The only question is how we are going to handle the trouble.

Some of the worst administrators in the country are enabled by their staffs. I don't that they're enabled by toadying co-conspirators, like the hyenas in the Lion King-- though those types certainly exist. No, I mean the teachers who simply do nothing, record nothing, report nothing. I mean the teachers who call their union leaders and say, "My principal said this highly unprofessional thing to me and too this abusive action against me, and I want to make him stop, but I don't want my name attached to it and don't mention the specifics or he'll know it was me." Which means the union leader is left going to the district with a complaint of, "Somebody did something wrong to somebody sometime in one of the buildings." Not surprisingly, this gets few results.

It's not my intent to blame victims here. There are states and districts and schools where the power balance is way out of wack and teachers can't voice the slightest complaint without risking their job (this is, of course, true at almost all charter schools). I don't envy anyone who has to make a choice between calling out unethical behavior and putting food on their family table. 

But there are also situations in which the teacher in question wants to keep things quiet because "he'll be mean to me" or "he'll yell at me." There are schools where teachers volunteer hundreds or thousands of hours of work for free, complain bitterly about it to each other-- but then keep doing it, hoping somehow that administration will see that this makes the teachers sad, and so will be moved to stop making such requests.

Here's a rule you can absolutely count on-- if you say nothing and do nothing, nothing will change.

Every time Principal Asshat is abusive to staff and nobody says or does anything, he gets the message that he is free to be just as abusive as he wants to be. If you think silence, appeasement and avoidance will lead to a morning when he wakes up and says, "You know, I think I should stop being an abusive asshat today," I have aa bridge over some swampland to sell you.

The teachers or West Virginia, Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky waited for a long time for their legislatures to stop being abusive asshats. It didn't work. Walking out and calling them out seems to be producing better results than suffering (or quitting). 

I know, I know. You don't want to get all political. You just want to close the door to your room and teach. You don't want to provoke Principal Asshat into new paroxysms of asshattery. But there are two things to remember--

1) You've already got a cancer in your building, and it will not improve on its own. You didn'r ask for it,; you didn't create it-- but it's there. You have only two choices-- you can either make things better or make things worse. Doing nothing just lets the cancer grow. Things will get worse.

2) Never underestimate your ability to be a counter-friction to the machine. The old playground rules about standing up to bullies still apply.

True story: In one district, a principal decided to flex her boss muscles over her two buildings, so she started calling nuisance staff meetings at the end of the day, so that between student dismissal and teacher dismissal, teachers couldn't get work done. At School A, the teachers showed up for the every-other-day meetings, sat politely but sadly, complained to each other afterwards, and a couple asked the union to "do something but leave my name out of it." At School B, the teachers showed up for the meetings with their stacks of papers from the day, and as Principal Asshat rambled on about nothing, the teachers all had their heads down grading papers. Guess where the principal decided to stop having meetings first? Yes, School B.

I'm sure there are other stories (feel free to share them in the comments) all the way up to teachers who have had to stand up to their bosses in court. Other teachers look at these sorts of things and say, "I just don't want that kind of trouble. I don't want to stir things up."

But sometimes trouble finds you. It may well be that your preferred choice would be for there to be no trouble, but sometimes that choice isn't available. You can only chose from among the options that you have, and it is sadly true that administrators and politicians can remove all the desirable options in a situation. 

If you're still reluctant to stand up, this is the time to remember that your working conditions are students' learning conditions. One of the things students learn at school is how grownups function in the workplace. And everything else they learn is colored by the atmosphere of that workplace. What do you want your students to learn? And what kind of atmosphere do you want them to do their learning in? 

Look-- I'm not saying to get yourself fired over a policy about how many copies you're allowed. And I'm not saying you should raise a giant stink every time you don 't get your favorite parking space or the cafeteria runs out of your favorite flavor of ice cream. That really is making trouble. You have to be smart about how you pick your battles and how you fight them. 

When things are really wrong, doing nothing doesn't help. And we have an obligation to our students to speak out and stand up. 

ICYMI: April Showers Edition (4/29)

My new desktop is in the shop, again, so we're struggling here, but I still have some good reads for you from this week.

Bill Gates Is the Latest Billionaire Funders of Cunningham's EdPost

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider is just as prolific as I am, and she does valuable research, as in this piece that peels back the financial covers on Education Post, the operation into which reformsters are pouring millions of dollars.

The Soul Crushing Student Essay

Yep. This is still a thing.

Personalized Learning and Why Not To

One more look at the problems with this emerging trend

Dispelling Three Teacher Myths

From Arizona, three responses to some of the baloney leveled against teachers.

The GOP Must Hate Public Schools.

A blistering op-ed about the GOP assault on public ed

Teaching Machines, or How the Automation of Education Became Personalized Learning.

Nobody draws lines between history and the present like Audrey Watters. Here's some critical background on the emergence of personalized [sic] learning

Friday, April 27, 2018

AZ: It's More Than Money

I've been through two teacher strikes in my career, one as a rank and file member and one as a local union president. If you are not a teacher, here' a thing you need to understand about teacher strikes-- it's really hard to get teachers to walk off the job.

That's why I'm struck by the following data points from Arizona.

Number of teachers who walked out Thursday and filled up the streets of the capital: 50,000 to 75,000.

Number of public school teachers in Arizona: about 50,000.

That is astonishing. Remember that teachers are a large and varied group with a lot of disagreement about politics (remember, 1/3 of NEA members voted for Donald Trump). How do you get such massive support for a walkout-- particularly in a right-to-work state where a work stoppage is illegal and the consequences are potentially grim?

Easy. You make the consequences of doing nothing even grimmer.

Arizona has been quietly but resolutely competing for the crown of Worst State for Education in the US, and they have made some real headway. In fact, the teacher walkout has already been going on for several years-- just one at a time. Teachers have been walking out all along; it's just that Thursday saw the trickle become a torrent. Arizona has a huge teacher shortage and while it periodically studies the problem, it refuses to learn anything useful from those studies. Meanwhile, they keep turning up sobering statistics like those from a study released in April of 2017:

* 42% of the teachers hired in 2013 left within three years.
* 74% of AZ superintendents report shortages of teachers
* When you adjust for cost of living, AZ elementary teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. High school teachers come in 48th.

But it's not just the pay (though the stories of teachers taking multiple jobs just to make ends meet are legion and troubling all on their own-- but there's more to it.

Arizona has followed the Florida model for privatization-- if you don't have enough demand for charter schools, then help create the demand by gutting public schools. It's disaster capitalism with a man-made disaster. And in this case, the leading men in disaster creating are the Koch bothers. As Derek Black notes:

At a policy conference in California in January, they announced plans to support a statewide referendum that could shovel even more taxpayer money into private schools. When they offered Gov. Ducey the podium, he was all in. "I didn't run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea," he said. Next door, Nevada's state supreme court recently declared just this type of voucher idea unconstitutional because it put finding priorities for private education ahead of public education.

Arizona is determined to divert money away from public school and into charter business pockets, and that means making sure that charter operators are free to do as they please. Tracking the money tells a story of wild west style abuse, fraud and graft- but that's the Arizona way. Here's a whole website to browse the many charter abuses.

So Arizona's walkout (like the walkouts in Colorado and Kentucky and West Virginia) is not some old school "I'd like to make more money and get better benefits" strike. These are teachers who have finally realized that their pay and working conditions are not just being diminished, but are being diminished as part of a plan whose endgame is the complete dismantling of public education. And while this may be a red state phenomenon now, there's no reason to think blue states are immune-- after all, these walkouts also signal that teachers are awakening to the realization that there are few politicians (and no party) on the side of public education.

Meanwhile, the legislature includes guys like this asshat who thinks that teachers are just working multiple jobs for the perks like an extra car. And today (Friday) the legislature reportedly scooted out early because those darn teachers came back!

What gets 75,000 Arizonans walking out for public education? The understanding that if they don't, nobody will, and if nobody will, the future for public education just gets bleaker and bleaker.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Fordham Reports On Ripe Charter Markets

Today the Fordham Institute released what it calls a report on "charter deserts." I think it could be more accurately called an aid for targeting ripe and ready charter school markets, but it comes equipped with some interesting a potentially useful data tools, and so may still be worth a look.

"Charter desert" is the term Fordham uses for "areas of relatively high poverty where there are no charter schools." In other words, places that are ripe for charter picking.

We could put a new charter right next to that cactus
Fordham offers this as a solution to the "problem" of slowing charter growth. Charters have achieved "market share" of over 20% in more than three dozen cities, so maybe it's time to look for "new frontiers." Sure, the report acknowledges, "one option is to start more charters in affluent communities," but, well, let's change the subject and rather than discuss the many reasons that affluent communities have no real interest in charter schools, let's change the subject to market opportunities we may have missed.

Are we overlooking neighborhoods in America that are already home to plenty of poor kids, and contain the population density necessary to make school choice work, but lack charter school options? Especially communities in the inner-ring suburbs of flourishing cities, which increasingly are becoming magnets for poor and working-class families priced out of gentrifying areas?

To that end, a research team at Miami University of Ohio has assembled an interactive map, and that map is pretty cool. It shows broad blocks of poverty and gives the location (with info) of every charter and every public elementary school. You can zoom in and out and generally swoop around, and while you may not learn anything new, you get a real sense of charter school distribution. Clustered around certain cities in certain states, right where the poverty is. If you ever needed a visual confirmation that charter schools are largely a method of using the urban poor as a mans of extracting money from the government, here it is.

The report duly notes that some of those blocks of poverty are too sparsely populated to offer real charter marketing opportunities. But the rest as just waiting. The two "key takeaways" mentioned are that charters need to move beyond city boundaries, and that states need to be convinced to open up markets to charters.

The whole framing of the document is what you get when your priority is "expanding charter schools reach" and not "improve education for students in poor regions." The map could just as easily be called a map to places where states should be investing extra resources to help combat the endemic poverty of the region. But the goal here is "to provide more charter options" and not "to make the best use of tax dollars" or "to insure that every US student gets a great education." This is a document aimed at people who are advising investors, not at people who are serious about improving US education.

Instead, we ought to go back to the part about wealthy neighborhoods not being great charter markets (or being labeled charter deserts, either) and consider what it tells us-- that when public schools are properly funded and resourced, few people are interested in having choices. If someone is providing you with all the food and water you need, it's less worrisome to be in the middle of a desert.

The College Readiness Problem

At Ed Reform Now, Chad Aldeman (Bellwether) has revisited a chart from three years ago which shows a shift in our country's education level. Here's the chart:

The data actually are about two questions-- how many people over twenty-five have "less than a high school diploma" and how many people over twenty-five have attained "some college,. no degree." That means the chart has a double lag-- it was completed with 2013 data, and that data from over-twenty-fives would cover choices that people made 5-10(ish) years prior to that. That may make some of the specifics open to debate, but the lag doesn't really change the obvious long term trend. 

Assuming that this trend has continued for the last five years, we now have more college dropouts than high school dropouts. Interesting factoid-- but what does it mean?

Aldeman offers three ideas about the implications.

1) The low hanging fruit for high school graduation have all been picked. The higher graduation rate for high schools may represent some gaps in terms of students actually learning, and we may have run out of students that can be pushed through the system.

That's certainly a possibility. If the infamous bell curve is to be believed, there will always be a certain percentage of students who will be on the lagging end. That does raise a question though-- the above graph is based on raw numbers rather than percentages. Now I'm wondering what the chart looks like if we run percentages rather than raw numbers.

2) The ed reform crowd has mostly ignored higher education. Aldeman wants to see more "external pressure" brought to bear on colleges and universities rather than letting higher education be driven by its own internal concerns.

This raises a question as well-- what external pressures should reformsters consider, given their less-than-stellar success from bringing external pressures against K-12. Furthermore, the central thesis of K-12 reformsterism has been finding ways to unleash market forces in public education, and when it comes to higher ed, market forces have already been running loose since the invention of dirt. Aldeman, like many reformsters, complains that colleges face "almost no accountability" for student outcomes, but colleges and universities face exactly the kind of market-based accountability that reformsters have sworn would fix K-12 public ed if given the chance. The ed reform crowd will have to make up its mind on this one.

I'll get to Aldeman's third point in a moment, but let me offer some other observations of my own first.

The chart can be read to mean that we have delayed the moment when a person gets off the education train. In other words, folks who used to drop out of high school now hang in until they're partway through college. That's not a terrible thing.

And the big question is why folks are dropping out of college. As Aldeman told me on Twitter, there are many reasons (academics, soft skills, bureaucracy, finances, etc) and no single silver bullet to fix them all. But if we think people should be sticking around in college until graduation, we'll need to narrow down the issues and address them.

Aldeman's third point adds a new possibility to the list. Well, it's new for an ed reform guy to mention it-- some of us have been pointing this out for years.

For example, we’ve enacted a number of reforms over the last 10 years in the name of “college- and career-readiness,” but we failed to make the link to higher education and we forgot that colleges determine which students are college ready. Colleges and universities never signed on to the Common Core movement in any meaningful way...

Yup-- since the day Common Core was introduced through the day when the term was deemed toxic and replaced with the coded phrase "college and career ready," standards champions have insisted that these standards would make all students ready for any major at any college or any career. That's a ridiculous claim (see also Arne Duncan's promise that we would be able to tell an 8-year-old if she was on track for college), and it always has been, rendered even more so by the fact that standards champions have never ever offered a shred of credible evidence that their standards would, in fact, prepare students for college. And now look-- further evidence that they don't.

"College ready" is a complicated and complex condition that exists at the twisty intersection of specific student goals, the specific college, the specific field of study, the specific cultural and family background, the specific financial issues involved, and a dozen other specific factors. Saying someone is "college ready" is like saying that somebody who's currently single is "marriage ready"-- while we can identify ready and not-ready at the extreme ends of the spectrum, most of the scale is taken up by a big, fat, grey middle. One-size-fits-all solutions are actually one-size-fits-nobody solutions.

Aldeman calls the issue here "myopia," and I think that's generous. A key component of ed reform has been the insistence that we can see and predict things that we can neither see nor predict, to insist that we have a system by which we can know things that cannot, in fact, be known. If we want to help more people get through college, step one is to stop trying to dress them in the emperor's new clothes.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

When China Buys Our Data

We have worried about what ed tech companies would do with all the data that they could (and do) collect from students. We have worried about the creation of a permanent digital that provides a detailed (but not necessarily accurate) profile of students that could be viewed by future employers. We have worried about ed tech companies and their ability to keep this vast treasure trove of data safe from hackers and data thieves. We have worried about sensitive and specific data about students being stolen and used for God-knows-what.

We have worried about all these things. Now a new piece at EdSurge suggests we have not worried enough.

The title of Jenny Abamu's piece is direct and stark: What Happens to Student Data Privacy When Chinese Firms Acquire U.S. Edtech Companies?

As you might well guess, this is not a rhetorical question. For instance, NetDragon, a Chinese gaming company looking to build an education division (with the "largest learning community globally"), bought Edmodo. Price tag-- $137.5 million. NetDragon just last year snapped up JumpStart, the educational game software company, but Edmodo, which is more of a platform company, has its hands on a huge amount of student data, leaving some to wonder whether NetDragon bought the company for, well, the company, or just its Giant Vault O'Data.

Is this a big deal? Well...

William Carter, the deputy director and fellow of the Technology Policy Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says US government officials are taking note of these Chinese acquisitions in the tech startup space.

“There is a concern that data is now a strategic resource, and that acquiring companies for their large data sets could be a means by which China could undermine the strategic influence of the United States,” says Carter.

The concern is not merely that China can acquire a ton of data about US citizens (citizens who are young now, but won't always be) but also that companies like Edmodo can become one more way for foreign powers to influence, nudge and control the political and cultural dialogue in the US-- and start wielding that influence early on.

As a responsible journalist, Abamu has asked NetDragon if they are intending to do any of these naughty things, to which the Chinese company replied, "Not us! We're just trying to make some profit here."

Pep So, NetDragon’s Director of Corporate Development, offers one interesting observation about the US education market. Not only is it "mature," but it is unique in that "we have seen patterns like teachers willingly paying annually $500 from their pockets to buy content on their own. Whereas in China we don't see that." Huh. Do tell.

NetDragon hopes to turn Edmodo into a TeachersPayTeachers type business. And when asked about data safety, so replies

Of course we want to protect our users’ data, and we also want to be targeting our users [with products], so that’s always a difficult balance to strike. We don’t have a straight answer about what we can and cannot do and to be honest I don’t think Facebook has one as well.

Which is a ballsy answer, but more diplomatic than, "Hell, you guys don't know what the rules are anyway."

Can the US keep an eye on US data that is now owned by a foreign power? Especially when, as Carter notes, the "lack of transparency" about the what and how of data collection in various online platforms makes it hard for anyone to even begin to know what is going on.

But we do know a few things about the Chinese and data. We know that the Chinese were hugely successful at waving enough money at Google to make them forget the whole "don't be evil" thing and instead help provide more tools for a repressive surveillance state. And we know that China's rulers have long been interested in the idea of giving citizens "social credit" scores based on basically everything they ever do, as monitored by surveillance software, and then using those scores to allow-- or not allow-- certain activities.. These are not good signs in terms of Chinese treatment of US student data.

As I said, we're probably not worried enough.

Monday, April 23, 2018

One More Bad Personalized Learning Puff Piece

Yet another example of a writer who just took the PR packet he was handed and ran with it.

Adam Thomson has covered a variety of topics for the Financial Times, including real estate in Law Vegas, a review of John Mayer's handling of Grateful Dead music, and an update on the weed industry. I guess that made him just the guy to report on that new Personalized Learning thing that all the kids are talking about these days.

No, journalists-- that is not your job.

Mind you, there is no special rule that one must be part of a special elite corps in order to report on education. But there are a couple of rules that apply for journalism of any sort that are frequently flouted by folks reporting on education, and Thomson's article is a prime example. Following just two rules would have saved this piece:

1) Do your homework.

2) Check your subject's claims.

Thomson gets off to a bad start, claiming that "if you are already an adult" you have probably never seen a mathematics class like the one he's profiling. Then he describes a class where students check in, work at stations, and complete an "exit ticket." In other words, a classroom that runs exactly as millions of classrooms have been running for years.

Thomson is visiting Joel Rose, the guy behind Teach To One, a super-duper tech-based math platform. Rose is a Teach for America alumnus who served three years, then (having beefed up his application) went to law school, then went to work with Edison Education before working on the School of One for NYC schools-- then he launched New Classrooms which now sells Teach To One. Oddly enough, Rose's corporate bio mentions that he started out as a teacher without noting his TFA background.

Anyway, Rose wants us to know that "teacher-led instruction for all kids for all kids at all times" can't be the best way for each child to learn. Then it's time to drop a definition:

Welcome to personalised learning (PL), the fast-emerging face of education that is changing traditional approaches to how we educate young minds by tailoring the content and intensity of study to an individual students' needs, abilities and goals

One might observe that this sort of tailoring is what all good teachers do on a daily basis since forever. But Thomson isn't going to go there. He will talk to Linda Shaw (University of Arizona), a specialist in disabilities and counseling.  Her observation is that

PL has been around for a long time but did not catch on until recently because teachers lacked the tools to tailor material in a highly personalised way.

Yup. Nobody ever did this before, ever. Oh, no, wait-- PL has a long history. I know this from a variety of sources, including the Teach To One website! Now, her point may be that super-duper personalization was never possible until we had-- ta-dah!!-- technology. Thomson goes to the VP of Education at Microsoft for a quote, and Anthony Salcito comes through with "the journey towards personalization has been a goal for education all over the world for the last two decades." Hey, did you know Minecraft can be educational?

Now Thomson will go ahead and note that there has been criticism of PL. Screen-time. Breaking learning into tiny unintegrated bites. Data mining. Hacking and theft of data. These are all problems people apparently talk about, but Thomson will not further examine any of them. He will, via a Rand Corporation analyst, finally acknowledge that PL remains largely undefined, but it's definitely about watching out for students who are behind or ahead. Thomson is not going to follow up on any of this, either, not even to note that tracking has been a thing for decades. But having sort of acknowledged some dissenting views, kind of, Thomson will now return to his infomercial:

Mr Rose of Teach to One remembers his time as a fifth-grade mathematics teacher in Texas, teaching 10-11-year-old students: "I had a classroom full of kids with second-grade math skills and eighth-grade math skills,"  he says. "Then I was given a stack of fifth-grade books and told, 'good luck'."

Yes, when you've only had five weeks of training and you don't stick around a school long enough to figure out how to do your job, this is the sort of thing that's a problem. And because he hasn't uncritically repeated enough baloney yet, Thomson drops the old idea that Rose's students have made "a year-and-a-half's-worth of gains in one school year." Is Thomson going to ask what that even means? Don't be silly.

Thomson finishes with our Rand guy again, who says the research on PL is mixed, and that "widely varying technology products often did not integrate with existing data systems, teachers' efforts to develop personalised lessons were very time consuming, and personalised learning plans were sometimes at odds with what was needed to pass standardised tests." More research is needed.

The final line is another quote from Mr. Pane at Rand-- "It's a nuanced story."

That may be, but there's no nuance in Thomson's story. And there certainly could be. Along with the missed opportunities noted above, I found that Googling Teach To One quickly turned up this story: "Trainwreck: The Teach to One Math Experiment in Mountain View, CA Is a Cautionary Tale About the Perils of Digital Math Education." The post at Open Cultures links back to local coverage in the Mountain View Voice (Mountain View is right in the heart of Silicon Valley), and it includes some "nuance" like this:

Since the program's launch, however, parents at both schools have voiced major concerns that the curriculum is a haphazard mess, jumping between remedial math and overly challenging course content, and that the primary role of the math teacher has been relegated to managing the program rather than to providing direct instruction. Worse yet, some parents say their sixth-grade children have become frustrated and unhappy with math under Teach to One, and are turned off to the subject entirely because of the pilot program.

I found that in roughly thirty seconds, during my lunch half-hour. The same Googling turned up the Bill Gates connection to Teach To One, and it would take little effort to uncover Gates' controversial relationship with ed reform. Presumably Thomson also has access to Google and could have found some nuance on his own.

It's the same experience again and again-- some ed tech reform guru or other announces "We have software that can create luxurious clothes that are visible only to the Very Best People," and entirely too many journalists reply, "You have?!! That's incredible! Tell me more, and I will print whatever you say!!" Journalists are supposed to tell us that the emperor is naked, not provide uncritical listing of the non-existent clothing's detail work. I have no reason to doubt that Thomson is a fine person who is just doing his best to make a living, but dammit guys-- you have got to do a better job than this.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

My Next Career

So, I'm retiring shortly-- June 3 will be my last day working for my school district-- and like many retirees, I'm wondering about my next career.

For the immediate future, my primary job will be Stay At Home Dad; the pay is terrible but the benefits are immense. And I'll continue writing here, where the pay is also terrible.

It's odd how this works. If I had only taught for two or three years, I would be qualified to run an entire charter school, or even serve as the education chief for an entire state. But as I understand it, having worked an entire teaching career instead of just a couple of years disqualifies me for that kind of work.

Meeting with my new Board of Directors
I could set myself up as a consulting firm. That seems to be a pretty sweet deal. Take Antwan Wilson. Wilson spent just a couple of years in a classroom, but upped his skills by attending the Broad Fake Superintendent School and then worked several school administration jobs, then got himself hired for the Big Show in DC Public Schools-- and then got himself booted for skirting the rules of the system. But that's okay, because Denver schools, where he previously worked, hired him to be a consultant with a contract that pays $60,000 for 24 days of work (two days a week for twelve weeks)-- plus per diem and daily lodging expenses. The fee is based on a $150/hour rate. And for those of us considering the consulting biz, here's the kicker-- the Denver COO justified the huge no-bid contract by noting that other consulting companies would have been way more expensive. From which we can deduce that $150/hour is the low end of the money that a well-connected consultant could make (meanwhile, substitute teachers in my district make $100/day). That would certainly help put my board of directors through college.

I like traveling and speaking; maybe I can con people into hiring me to travel to where they are and to talk at them. It could be fun to work at a thinky tank and crank out position papers in my robe at home while my board of directors plays on the floor, but most of the thinky tank money is going to tanks that support ed reform. Hardly anybody is operating a pro-public education thinky tank. Whether you're left-tilted (Center for American Progress, the Century Foundation) or right-tilted (Fordham, American Enterprise Institute), you have to be a fan of charters and choice and privatization and busting Those Damned Teachers Unions. NEPC hires actual scholars, and NPE, while they support the values I care about, does not have the kind of money involved in hiring a bunch of tanky thinkers.

Politics? I suppose, but it's a tough path-- look at how few retired teachers are in office anywhere. And of course there's always Wal-Mart greeter.

Like many teachers, I have managed large groups of not-easily-managed individuals, handled logistics and budgeting for every kind of enterprise from elaborate dances to theatrical productions to sales of merchandise that nobody really wants to buy. I have developed a unique constellation of skills (though I don't have the micro-credential badges to show for them). And all of this qualifies me to do.... what?

It has always been a mystery to me-- in the private sector, employers poach people all the time, including people who don't even work in their particular industry. Government hires private sector people constantly. Where is the teacher poaching? We think lots of folks can enter the classroom after a career in other areas-- why doesn't the door swing both ways?

Why do newly-elected governors never say, "I need a new education chief-- get me a list of the top ten teachers in the state!" Why don't government education agencies issue lists of positions that Must Be Filed by trained and experienced teachers? Why do corporations never say, "We need someone who can herd cats and stretch tiny resources to accomplish great things-- get me a teacher." I mean, it's not like a local school district is hard to outbid-- government or the private sector could easily less money than is typical for such jobs, and still be offering a teacher more money than she's ever made in her life.

But not even teaching businesses go looking for teachers. Colleges and universities can rarely be found stalking local high schools, looking for their next hires. And I'll confess-- at one point I thought charters might be good for teachers because a sensible charter business model would be, "Go out and find the most well-known, best-beloved, most successful teachers in the local public schools and offer them top dollar to come work at our charter school." But that never happened; instead, charters have largely built their business model on being cheap bastards when it comes to staffing.

Teachers are widely respected, trained to be trustworthy, experienced at multi-tasking, well-and-continuously-educated. We can learn new things quickly. Most of us have developed a whole set of "extra" skills, on top of skills like the ability to grab and hold a not-entirely-interested audience. Need someone who can sell something? I sold Julius Caesar to fifteen-year-olds. And nobody-- nobody-- knows more about navigating bureaucracies and foolish red tape than teachers do. But still, about the only folks who regularly look to hire teachers are vendors who want someone to sell their stuff to teachers.

Why doesn't every government and business office include at least one person who says, "Yes, I had a good career as a teacher going, but the opportunity and money that they offered me here were just too good to pass up." People certainly leave the teaching profession (in fairly large numbers these days), but their Next Career is a matter of their own necessity, not of corporate or government raids on teaching staffs.

Could it be that career teachers are really committed to their profession? Could it be that teachers are seen as too ethical to really fit in some corporate or government settings? Could it be that our cultural disinterest in children extends to people who work with children? Could it be that most teachers are women? Could it be that in the government and corporate world we just don't trust people who come out of the collegiate box not focused on grabbing money and power?

It's a benefit to schools that they don't have to worry about poaching-- a relatively stable teaching staff makes a school stronger and more effective. And most teachers are not even looking for their next career-- at least not until they've hit retirement. It's a win for education that folks don't try to poach teachers, but I can't help feeling that it's a lose for everyone else.

ICYMI: Plain Old Edition Edition (4/22)

Plenty to take in this week. Remember to pass along the pieces that you think are important. Spread the word, amplify voices, and get out the words.

Activists and Parents Demand Smaller Class Sizes

A new lawsuit in NY could force authorities to finally implement one reform that we know actually works- reduced class sizes.

Let Me Explain What Happened

Michigan's Senator Kollenberg is shocked and surprised that there's a teacher shortage. How could such a thing happen??!! Political analyst Jack Lessenberry spells it out for him.

Teacher Strikes Shake Up Red States

Rachel Cohen takes a look at how the teacher strikes could means some political shifting in states. Thanks, Trump!

I Lied To My Students Today

With that title, you know it's going to be about the Big Standardized Test.

Why Textbooks Are a Symbol of Teacher Frustration

A look at one of the most potent symbols in the Oklahoma teacher strike

Minnesota Attempts To Thwart Standardized Testing Opt Outs

How far will some states go to stop the opt-out movement. As Sarah Lahm shows, way too far.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

In which Audrey Watters goes to ASU+GSV and hears a lot of ill-informed baloney repeated.

82 Reasons

Nancy Bailey's growing list of things that schools and parents could actually do to improve reading in this country.

The Movie Most Likely To Succeed Is a Paid Infomercial for Project Based Learning

Well, that pretty much says it, but this post at Seattle Education gets into the details.

They've Got Trouble Up There in North Dakota

Speaking of Dintersmith and Competency Based Personalized Learning Education-- remember how reformsters picked Maine as a relatively low-powered state to turn into a reform laboratory. Looks like North Dakota is in line for similar treatment. This piece comes with some spectacularly researched diagrams for showing the links between the players in this new money grab growth opportunity.

Bias in the Education World

Nancy Flanagan looks at bias in the education world and the many forms it takes.

Recipes for Teachers: A Cookbook for the Exhausted Educator

Finally, this gem from Othmar's Trombone. Includes the ever-popular Fridge-Aged Salad.

Friday, April 20, 2018

DeVos Becomes an Actual Punchline

From the moment she became late night sketch fodder, Betsy DeVos has become something new in the world of education secretaries.

I doubt that the average citizen could name five education secretaries-- maybe not even three. But they know who Betsy DeVos is. She's been Kate McKinnoned multiple times on Saturday Night Live.  She's been a punchline repeatedly on late night tv She's used as an ancillary punchline-- in other words, not as the main part of a joke meant to skewer her, but as a useful barb to skewer someone else.

And the DeVos jokes just keep spreading. If you like to waste time sample the culture on YouTube, you may be familiar with the "Everything Wrong With..." series of videos that snarkily pick part various movies. Yesterday they released their clip picking apart The Shape of Water, and smack in the middle of it is a DeVos joke. If you want to see it for yourself, skip to about the 7:13 mark.

The joke is pretty simple. They run a quote from the movie in which the Evil Russians say, "We don't need to learn, we need Americans not to learn."

Then the voiceover artist simply says "Betsy DeVos."

DeVos is literally a punchline, one considered so reliable that there's not even an explanation attached. It's just one line in one video, but still....

I've written before about how I think it's a disservice to the cause to dismiss DeVFos as a dope-- she's no dope. But there's definitely something curious going on when 1) regular citizens know who the secretary of education is and 2) that secretary is widely understood to be anti-education-- even by people whose understanding of the issues is, shall we say, a bit shallow.

But this is where we are. The United States Secretary of Education is a punchline. Good luck to us all.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ivanka, Vocational Education, and the Death of Irony

The crunch you just heard may be irony collapsing under the weight of a recent Ivanka Trump op-ed for Fox News about skill-based education.

This woman did not go to welding school
I've watched the growing enthusiasm for what we now call Career and Technical Education (CTE) with some amusement. My own district helped launch a county-wide Vocational-Technical School  almost fifty years ago, and the benefits have always been obvious. Students take core classes at their "home" school for a half day, then travel to what is now called the Venango County Technology Center to learn skills from operating heavy machinery to providing home health care. If I needed to have body or mechanical work done on my car, I could take it there and have students fix it up. Other students in the building course work every year; that house, once completed, is sold and moved to its new location. Welding, coding, protective services, and dental assisting are also in the wide range of offerings there.

I've watched the benefits of the school throughout my career. The CTE students are more focused, more goal-oriented, and best of all, have a clear understanding of the relationship between making an effort and getting a result. Studies like the one recently covered by Matt Barnum for Chalkbeat provide zero surprises for those of us for whom CTE is old hat-- the students are more likely to graduate, do better in school generally. They can strain the disciplinary boundaries some times, which is understandable-- it has to be jarring when one minute you are outdoors, operating a piece of heavy equipment and an hour later you're sitting in a desk, required to ask permission to get up and sharpen a pencil.

The benefits are so obvious that it hadn't really occurred to me that many school districts had no such facility.

But hey-- what could give CTE a bigger boost than an endorsement from Ivanka Trump.

Skill-based education is crucial to putting more Americans on a path to promising careers – and filling the jobs of the future, as well as those that are vacant today. Yet for too long, we have failed to recognize the importance of practical, skill-based learning.

On the one hand, sure. On the other hand, this headline....

Skill-based education is crucial to putting more Americans on a path to promising careers.

Because, yeah, Ivanka spent a lot of hours in school learning useful skills so that she could find a decent job. Just like her father.

This is the part where irony is just crushed to death; a woman whose profession is "Heiress" or possibly "Assistant Grifter" wants to extoll the virtues of good, honest, useful skills. She is not wrong about the value of these skills; I'm just not convinced she's the one to deliver the message.

Ms. Trump cites the large number of unfilled jobs as support for her point, and here she is also not wrong-- but like many folks who throw the stat around, she's gliding past an important part of the problem, a part that is captured in he subheading for this CNN/Money article last fall noting the record number of job openings:

American employers are trying to hire, but they can't find the right workers for the right price.

The number was 6.2 million job openings, with 1.2 million in healthcare and education. But let's look at that last prepositional phrase-- "for the right price." Right price for whom? Are we talking about the employers want to pay, or the amount that it will take to make the job attractive enough?

Once again, folks are choosing to remember how the free market works only when it suits them. The true value/price of a commodity is what it takes to get that commodity. Or as I've often said, just because you can't buy a Porsche for $1.95, that doesn't mean there's a car shortage. If you can't buy labor for $8.00 and hour, the invisible hand demands that you offer $9.00 or $12.00 or $20.00 or whatever it takes to get someone to sell you the labor that you want to buy.

In other words, "the right price" is not what you want to pay-- it's what the market dictates that you have to pay.

As when we discuss getting US works to compete with workers in China or India, I'm left with the impression that we're not really talking about job skills-- we're talking about the "skill" of being willing to work for below-market wages. This is not a "skill" that can, or should, be taught in a CTE program. My students work damned hard to master their crafts, and if employers want the benefit of those skills, they should be willing to fork over a damned good wage to those students. If you want to promote American workers with American skills, then offer to pay them instead of having your merchandise made for cheap in China; offering well-paying jobs would be far more powerful than offering weak op-ed essays.

Talking about training and skills and job preparation and career readiness is all meaningless if the actual problem is that corporate leaders really want to be able to get adequate skills for sub-adequate pay. Corporations could solve all of their workforce problems by offering jobs that paid really well. If calling for more CTE and career training is really just code for "we want our labor force to be happy being underpaid," then they (and the President's daughter) are just wasting everyone's time.

Who Will Take the D out of DFER?

DFER stands for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that has the distinction of possessing a name in which none of the words are accurate.

The Democrat part is a fun piece of trivia. One of the key founders of DFER is Whitney Tilson, a big time hedge fund manager (you can read more about him here). Leonie Haimson has a great quote from the film version of Tilson's magnum opus about ed reform, "A Right Denied," and it's a dream of mine that every time somebody searches for DFER on line, this quote comes up.

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

That's the beauty of a label like "Democrat"-- anybody who wants to use it can use it. Now, there's little doubt that the corporate wing of the Democratic Party has long known that when it comes to education, they were largely indistinguishable from the GOP. At this stage, we can talk about the Bush-Obama education reform program as the one seamless thing it always was, and for some folks, it's a useful way to frame ed reform to look as if the DeVos agenda is radically different (spoiler alert-- it's not).

But recently something unusual happened. Last weekend, the Colorado Democratic state assembly overwhelmingly rejected DFER's agenda and told them to take the D out of their name. Here's the platform amendment they pushed through:

We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.

The battle, as Erica Meltzer wrote for Chalkbeat "revealed a growing divide among party activists and establishment politicians on education policy." Colorado's DFER chapter is loaded with establishment Dems, while the roomful of actual Democrats was not. Speakers against DFER included people like Vanessa Quintana, whose own high school education had been creatively disrupted by ed reform in the state:

“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”

Only two people spoke up in favor of DFER, but some DFER supporters are not too concerned. You have to read all the way to the end of the Chalkbeat article, but once you get there, you see the strategy that DFER and reformsters like them have always focused on:

Van Schoales, a DFER board member and CEO of A Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, called it a “symbolic attack,” but he believes support for policies like school choice and charter schools remains strong among Democratic elected officials.

In other words, as long as they keep a hold on the politicians, it doesn't matter what actual Democratic Party members want. This is a symptom remaining from when, as Jennifer Berkshire puts it, "education reform ate the Democratic Party" and somehow Democrats became one more anti-union, teacher-bashing group of public school privatizers. Will the party figure out where it should stand on education policy? The time is ripe for them to get a clue, and with any luck, Colorado is a harbinger of things to come.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Can the Reading Pendulum Be Swinging?

Two articles and some twitter chatter do not a trend make, but a guy can hope.

One of the worst trends to come out of modern reform has been the repackaging of reading as a content- and context-free series of skills, a series of tasks to be completed in a vacuum. This has always struck me as twelve kinds of wrong. Like preparing an athlete by having them practice movements in a padded room without a team, ball or field. Like having a band musician practice alone with just a mouthpiece. Like trying to tune the audio characteristics of a set of speakers inside an airless chamber. I could go on all day with the different kinds of crazy this is.

And I must be clear-- not all reformsters have been on this bus, ever. Robert Pondiscio hollered for years about "57 most important words" in the Common Core. Here they are:

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades. Students also acquire the habits of reading independently and closely, which are essential to their future success.

These words appear in a "note on range and content of student reading." They don't carry a great deal of weight compared to, say, the 43-page appendix that spends so much time on "text complexity,"  a term tied to the mechanical content-free conception of reading, suggesting that reading levels are just a matter of how tricky the decoding puzzle is (but unrelated to the actual content itself).

Podiscio and I long disagreed about the importance of those 57 words. The argument of many rich-content supporters of CCSS has always seemed to me to boil down to, "This must be crucial, because without this, the Core is bunk." My argument is that the 57 words are a minor cosmetic adjustment, a feeble attempt to patch a gaping hole, and the Core is, in fact, bunk. The most telling detail-- "rich content knowledge" appears nowhere on the CCSS-related Big Standardized Tests. As I've pointed out a million times, I can prepare my students to get good scores on the BS Test by spending the whole year reading excerpts from the newspaper and practicing BS Test-style multiple choice questions (and never learning anything about writing, but that's a gripe for another day).

Not only do the BS Tests not respect rich content knowledge-- they bend over backwards to negate it, deliberately choosing test items whose content  is highly unlikely to intersect with student prior knowledge (elementary test excerpt about Turkish village economics, anyone). BS Tests are designed to be the higher-complexity version of the dreaded DIBELS test, a test for young readers that tests their reading skills by asking them to read words that aren't actually words (because that way they can't "cheat" by already knowing the word and recognizing it).

But while Pondiscio and I and others have long disagreed about the Core (and charters and a bunch of other stuff), we agree about the importance of content when it comes to reading. Knowledge matters. Content matters. To state what seems obvious to me, it's hard to read or learn to read if you don't know much. It's easier to read or learn to read if you have a wealth of background knowledge. New learning is most easily acquired when it can be connected to old knowledge. So if you want to teach children to read, building up their storehouse of prior knowledge is a critical-- maybe the most critical-- thing you can do to build a foundation.

This point of view has never gone away, but it seems to be gaining traction lately.

Note, for instance, this piece from Louisiana's education chief and committed reformster John White. White's point is that the NAEP is a faulty test because it doesn't measure "what students know."

The trouble is that by not requiring knowledge of any specific book or facts, reading tests have contributed to the false impression that reading is mainly about having skills such as being able to summarize, and not about background knowledge. Walk into many English classrooms today and you will see students capably identifying an article’s main idea. But you’re less likely to find students learning the historical context for a novel or discussing the novel’s broader meaning. By not requiring knowledge, tests create no incentive for particular knowledge to be taught.

This is not fair to adolescents, who need knowledge to become effective adult readers. It’s particularly not fair to students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, whose summer breaks rarely involve trips abroad or afternoons at museums, and who are thus at a disadvantage on any test that, whether it’s acknowledged or not, measures background knowledge. And it’s not good policy for a nation struggling with the influence of falsified news reports over its citizenry.

Meanwhile, Natalie Wexler took to the pages of the Atlantic to watch a panel ask (and answer) the question, "Why American students haven't gotten better at reading in twenty years." The answer again addresses the very basis of reading instruction:

On a daily basis, teachers have their students practice skills and strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences.” And teachers select books that match the given skill rather than because of the text’s content. Rarely do the topics connect: Students might read a book about bridges one day, zebras the next, and clouds the day after that.

Cognitive scientists have known for decades that simply mastering comprehension skills doesn’t ensure a young student will be able to apply them to whatever texts they’re confronted with on standardized tests and in their studies later in life.

Wexler is only partly right-- students are more likely to be reading short excerpts of those books, rarely reading any entire works at all. But yes-- we've known for a while that this approach is backward. If you want to check out a golden oldie, take a look at the Recht and Leslie baseball study, in which it turns out that low reading skills plus high knowledge beats high reading skills and low knowledge. Here's the chart:

The panel included Dan Willingham, another writer I don't always agree with, but who gets it when it comes to the importance of content.

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.

As Wexler puts it:

The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next: for example, Native Americans and Columbus in kindergarten; the colonial era and the American Revolution in first grade; the War of 1812 and the Civil War in second grade, and so on. That approach enables children to make sense of what they’re learning, and the repetition of concepts and vocabulary in different contexts makes it more likely they’ll retain information. Not to mention that learning content like this can be a lot more engaging for both students and teachers than the endless practice of illusory skills.

Yes, that, please.

Why might the pendulum finally swing back from reading "skills"? The answer is hinted at in the two articles [update: and you can add this one to the list]-- White wrote to get out in front of bad test results, and Wexler wrote to explain them. We've been doing reading "skills" for almost two decades, and it simply hasn't worked. Not only that, but it's been shown to not work by tests designed by the principles valued by reading skills fans. In other words, the set up the game according to their preferred rules, and they are still losing.

And finally some folks are asking, "What else could we be trying?" And lots of folks on all sides of the education debates already know the answer.

Content-based reading instruction will never be clean or easily implemented. For one thing, as soon as we start trying to come up with lists of content that "should be" taught, huge fiery debates will break out, and they will never, ever be settled. But we would at least be moving in the right direction (if we really want to get crazy, we could let students choose the content-based direction, thereby harnessing both the power of prior knowledge and the power of interest). Core knowledge cannot be tapped without unleashing and addressing political issues.

But we should not let disagreements about content scare us away from asserting clearly and effectively that content matters, and that it is properly the foundation of reading. Maybe if we keep insisting, the pendulum will finally swing.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Debates and Tribes

I'm not a huge fan of meta-posting on the subject of navigating the education debates, but it's unavoidable because the ed debates involve such a mish-mosh of tribes.

I agree with what X says about Y, but I'm worried he's just trying to create support for Z-- particularly because he belongs to Organization Q.

I've seen some variation on this a gazillion times-- from more than one side of the debates.

It's understandable because all sides have always consisted of alliances. It's people who can only really agree for half a sentence. For instance, common core opposition included a bunch of people who could start a sentence, "Common Core is a terrible idea, and therefor..." but then would finish the sentence with " should be abolished so that public schools can return to their proper mission" and "'s the final proof that the government can't be trusted to run schools at all."

Sometimes the alliances are barely alliances at all. Lots of folks see the Big Standardized Test as a huge blight on public education, but while some folks want to see those tests abolished, or at least reduced in importance, others see the opposition to the BS Test as a good motivation for jumping into Personalized Competency-Based Learning Education, which is just another heaping pile of corporate reform.

Many people cope with this kind of confusion and tension by simply sticking to their tribe, or focusing on which tribe they oppose. If it comes from our team, it must be good, and if it comes from that other team, it must be bad.

But there are several problems with this.

First of all, tribalism leads to focusing not on the issues or the message, but on the classification of the source. Instead of listening to what Pat says and deciding whether it's bunk or not, I spend my time trying to suss out which team Pat belongs to.

Second, and perhaps worse, it leads to people agreeing with really dumb things just to stay on the right "side." This is the current problem of many so-called conservatives-- they've defined conservatism or "the right position" as anything that makes liberals upset, which has led to sudden bizarre changes in direction like "Russia is swell" and "cheating on your third wife with a prostitute is totally okay."

Ultimately we end up with people hugely overthinking things to their own detriment. We are sitting in the living room of a house that is on fire, and we can see through the front door a swimming pool and an ambulance, and somebody is arguing, "How do we know they didn't set the fire on purpose so that we would go jump into the swimming pool which is actually filed with sharks we just can't see from here? Let's just stay here in the burning house. That will show them." Or even worse, "It was one of their people who yelled that this house is on fire, so I'm not convinced these flames are rea." This is crazy talk. If the house is on fire, get out. Once you're out, check the swimming pool out carefully and make your next choice accordingly.

Pay attention. Watch, listen, and think. Use every available piece of information to get a picture of the road ahead, but don't just make shit up, and don't just take somebody's word for it.

Most of all, keep your eyes on the big picture and the important issues. Don't put tribe ahead of that.

[Update: It seems worth adding that the impulse of many people in the comments section was to try to assign me to a particular tribe and then reject or accept what I said based on that assignment. That tribe assignment included the assumption that if I said something mean about conservatives, then I must belong to the anti-conservative tribe. None of that discussion really considers whether what I said was actually true or not, or if it could be negated by saying something similar about the other tribe.  Though, for the record, anyone who reads regularly would find plenty of criticism of the Democratic brand of misbehavior and the faux progressivism that masquerades as "liberal" school reform. I just happened to pick up the most recent phenomenon of conservatives selling their principles for a ride on the Trump train.

At the end of the day, that's another side effect of tribalism-- in addition to actual conservatives and liberals, we have a lot of people whose only real interest is self-interest, and they'll happily pretend to be a member of whatever tribe they think will further their cause.]

Sunday, April 15, 2018

ICYMI: Finally Spring Edition (4/15)

Your reading for the week. Remember to pass along what you value. And don't forget to peruse the blogroll in the righthand column.

Dear Betsy DeVos

Marie Corfield responds to Betsy DeVos's comments about striking Oklahoma teachers. This is what it means to serve the public.

Mute the Messenger

From the Texas Observer-- here's what happened when a Texas professor spoke out against standardized testing. Pearson came after him.

What Teacher Strikes May Teach Democrats about Education Politics

The Democratic Party abandoned public education and the teachers who work there a while ago-- will the current wave of teacher strikes make them rethink their strategy?

Now Watch Republicans Blame Obama for Failed Education Reform

Ed reform isn't quite as beloved as it once was, and one sign of that is the GOP folks trying to pin it on Obama. Jeff Bryan as always brings the research and the insight.

Put Out To Pasture

Nancy Bailey walks us through all the Secretaries of Education, the policies they pursued, and where they are now. It's a useful, but not encouraging, history lesson.

Time To Ditch the SAT

From US News, another compelling argument against the old SAT warhorse.

Why the School Spending Graph Betsy DeVos Is Sharing Doesn't Mean What She Says It Means

Betsy DeVos has been using an exhibit from the Museum of Bad Graphs to make her point. Matt Barnum explains why it is misleading.

Why American Students Haven't Gotten Better At Reading in 20 Years

A compelling piece from the Atlantic making the not-new point that reading can't be taught as a set of discrete skills free of content or context.

Remembering the Holocaust

If there was ever an education story, this is it. A new study suggests that a whole bunch of Americans simply don't know about the Holocaust. Not deny it-- just don't know about it.

Billionaire Offers To Buy High School

If you missed this story, Valerie Strauss has the details. A Pennsylvania billionaire offered his alma mater $25 million-- if they'd put his name on the school, let him set some curriculum, and keep it all secret. It's a truly bizarre tale.

Wakanda Schools

Jose Luis Vilson finally saw Black Panther, and it gave him some thoughts about education and shared prosperity.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Testing Charade: Buy This Book

This is probably going to be a long post, so let me get the most important parts out of the way first. The books is The Testing Charade: Pretending To Make Schools Better.

Daniel Koretz has published a book that gathers between two covers all the things wrong with the test-centered accountability under which we all currently suffer. His explanations are clear, and his illustrations are vivid. If you want to clarify your thinking about testing-- if you know something is wrong, but it's hard to wrap your head around-- you need this book. If a loved one or a colleague or an administrator asks you, "So what's the big deal, anyway? Why get upset over some simple standardized testing and accountability?" you need to hand them a copy of this book.

Buy this book.

Other things you should know up front. Koretz is the real deal. He is a widely recognized testing expert and scholar based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is not some guy I found who presents my point of view; long time readers know that I am a standardized test radical (kill them all with fire) and Koretz is not-- he sees valuable uses for the big tests done right, and he pushes some ideas I don't agree with. Nevertheless, I'm telling you to buy this book.


There are fourteen chapters in this book. I'm going to talk about all of them, with quotes, because Koretz says a bunch of important stuff. If any of this lights a fire in your brain, my advice is simple. Buy this book.

1: Beyond All Reason

Pressure to raise scores on achievement tests dominates American education today.

That's the first sentence of the first chapter, which looks at where we have arrived in the bizarre and extreme pursuit of school improvement via test scores. Koretz provides multiple examples of how this accountability approach has gone off the tracks, including tales of excellent schools given "failing" grades. The evidence of the failure of this system has, Koretz says, "been accumulating for more than a quarter century. Yet it is routinely ignored-- in the design of education programs, in public reporting of educational 'progress,' and in decisions about the fates of schools, students, and educators."

Don't make the mistake of thinking that these problems will disappear now that NCLB has finally been replaced. Test-based accountability was well established in this country before NCLB, and it will continue now that ESSA has replaced it. It is true that NCLB was a very poorly crafted set of policies-- a train wreck waiting to happen, some of us said when it was enacted-- and it did substantial harm....ESSA continues the basic model of test-based accountability, while returning to states just a fraction of the discretion they had in implementing this model before NCLB was enacted.

 Koretz notes that he believes that standardized tests-- properly used-- can be valuable. And while he is going to damn the current accountability system, he is not arguing against all accountability.

2: What Is a Test ?

Everyone knows a test when they see it. However, understanding tests is very different from recognizing them, and unfortunately, many of the people with their hands on the levers in education don't understand what tests are and what they can and can't do.

Koretz offers the useful analogy that a test is like a poll-- a small sampling of a much larger domains, and only useful if the small sample is properly related to the larger area. "The items on a test matter only to the extent that they allow us to predict mastery of the larger subject area from which they were sampled." Standardized tests are not good tools for measuring full mastery, and Koretz lays out the reasons.

First, standardized testing has inherent limitations. Things like complex analytical thinking and problem solving aren't best assessed with a standardized test. Second, test authors must make large numbers of decisions about what is and is not included in test items. These decisions, some deliberate and some not, narrow what the test actually tests. This point, for Koretz, is huge. The sampling decisions introduce error (as in "margin of" and not "oopsies"), The samples will be incomplete measures. And perhaps most importantly, the sampling creates perverse incentives.

High stakes testing creates strong incentives to focus on the tested sample rather than the domain it is intended to represent. If you teach a domain better-- say, geometry-- scores on a good test of that area will go up. However, if you directly teach the small sample measured by a particular test-- for example, memorization of the fact that vertical angles are equal-- scores will increase, often dramatically, but mastery of geometry as a whole will not improve much, if at all.

This is as good an explanation as I've seen of why teaching to the test is a bad idea.

3: The Evolution of Test-Based "Reform"

You know we're going back to 1983 and A Nation at Risk,  as Koretz tries to lay out how we arrived at the place where tests are the most central part of any school's everyday life. He notes that nations used as examples of test-based education are actually trying to back away from it, and that even the highest high-stakes testing countries don't do what we do, don't test so often, don't use test scores to evaluate teachers and schools.

He offers the term "measurement-driven instruction" which is shorthand for a world in which "improving performance on the specific test was to be the explicit goal, and higher-quality instruction would be the consequence. This was the tail wagging the dog."

This approach did not start with NCLB, but NCLB gave it national scale. And folks who thought Obama would provide relief "were quickly and sorely disappointed." Arne Duncan's big contribution was to get states to tie individual teacher evaluation to test scores, leading to "some of the most ludicrous uses of test scores." ESSA isn't going to help, other that in allowing some states to add broader measures to the mix.

Koretz gives test-based reformsters credit for good motives, but "Whatever their motives. the proponents were wrong. The reforms caused more harm than good."

Although he'll spend the rest of the book exploring the details, he gives the broad strokes here to explain why test-based reform has failed so badly. First, it "rewards far too narrow a slice of educational practice and outcomes." Second, it is too high pressure. And third is that it left almost no room for human judgment.

...teaching is far too complex a job to evaluate without any judgment, and many of the things we value most in schools aren't captured by tests.

4: Campbell's Law

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processe it is intended to monitor.

Well, you knew Campbell's Law would come up. But what you might not know (well, anyway, I didn't) is that Campbell actually predicted how the law would play out in educational testing:

But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

For folks who don't quite get how Campbell's Law works, or why it applies, Koretz has some great examples of the law in action (my favorite: the old Soviet shoe factory story). And he tempers the observations about the Law in action in education by arguing that we have an obligation to consider the balance; some approaches will be more heavily hurt by Campbell's Law than others, and Koretz wants us to make sure that there isn't more damage than benefit.

5: Score Inflation

This was a helpful concept for me. For Koretz, "grade inflation" doesn't mean blowing up scores or moving the cut score goal posts-- it means raising test scores by techniques that do not actually raise the level that the tests purport to measure.

Koretz talks at length about the problems of trying to study test score inflation-- turns out that people who are politically invested in "good" results on the Big Standardized Tests are not interested in letting scholars study how inaccurate those good scores are.

Koretz addresses inflation throughout the book, and his view is nuanced-- on one end of the scale is flat-out cheating, where on the other end we have coaching. At one point, my bosses expected me to put up a poster of the "anchor standards" that would be tested. Would that count as an inflation factor? I'd say yes, because it was aimed at preparing for the test and not aimed at improving reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.

Koretz says that all you need to get inflated scores is a test that is predictable. If, for instance, you are poring through banks of old test questions in order to narrow down what kinds of questions your students need to be prepared for, that's causing score inflation. And if your administrators are requiring you to do that...well, they are part of the reason that this test-driven system is a failure. High stakes matter as a motivation to do test prep, but even in lower-stakes settings, Koretz found a culture of "applied anxiety" about test scores.

Beyond corrupting the scores of individual students through things like test prep, Koretz points out you can corrupt the group results as well. One way is to focus on bubble kids-- the ones who can be dragged across the cut score line. Another is to game the system by rigging which students are tested. And of course there's plain old cheating.

Koretz explains a less-obvious problem of inflation-- it varies from school to school and classroom to classroom, which means "we are identifying the wrong teachers, schools and systems as successes and failures." And it's also worth noting that low-income schools have a higher incentive to inflate, which in turn means that the students who arguably most need an "improved" education are instead getting the education most corrupted by the testing process. IOW, they most need a "real" education, and they are most likely to get a battery of test prep instead.

6: Cheating

By the end of NCLB, as many of us noted, there were only two types of schools-- schools that were failing and schools that were cheating. Measurement-driven instruction has created enormous incentive to cheat, and created some thorny ethical dilemmas. After all, which is worse-- cheating on the student score for a single BS Test, or allowing bad educational policy to take that child's school away from her?

Koretz has a whole batch of cheating tales here, and they are depressing, but necessary if we're going to understand what high-stakes testing pushes people toward.

7: Test Prep

There is no doubt that test-based accountability has resulted in a huge commitment of time and effort to test preparation, I can't be more precise, in part because people don't agree on the dividing line between test prep and regular instruction.

In fact, the blurring of that line is one of the sobering parts of this chapter,

Koretz lists three types of bad test prep-- reallocating time between subjects, reallocating time within subjects, and coaching.  Schools shift time, both between classes and within classes, to things that count on the test. No band for you, Pat-- you need to spend a period in ELA test remediation. Today, class, we're going to skip over chapter five, because that stuff is not on the test. Coaching is teaching tricks that have no use except for taking the test. For example, process of elimination, which seems harmless enough, but allows a student to get a correct answer when the student would never have been able to come up with the correct answer on her own. Life is not multiple choice; process of elimination is a skill that is only useful for taking the test.

The most alarming part of the chapter addresses the idea that test prep is corrupting the idea of good teaching. Koretz has a disturbing bank of anecdotes about teachers who are told their is not to teach their subject, but to raise test scores in it. And like anyone else who has encountered new teachers in the last decade, he's met young teachers who were taught in college that test scores are their main purpose.

They were telling me that I was missing the boat by seeing test prep as something that competes for time with good instruction. In their experience, raising scores had become the end goal, the mark of a "good" teacher. To an alarming degree, they had been taught that test prep and good instruction are the same thing.

There are so many reasons this is bad, bad news, but here's one that Koretz spots

For the present, it indicates that one of the few checks against inappropriate test prep-- teachers' own understanding of the differences between test prep and good instruction-- has been eroded.

8: Making up Unrealistic Targets

Yikes. This is a depressing chapter. Koretz notes that the "trust most people have in performance standards is essential, because the entire system now revolves around them." And yet that trust is wildly misplaced.

Koretz outlines several methods of setting performance standards, but the important thing to remember is this:

There is another, perhaps even more important, reason why performance standards can't be trusted: there are many different methods one can use, and there is rarely a really persuasive reason to select one over the other.

And yet those different methods can produce vastly different results.

There are other problems.

A primary motivation for setting a Proficient standard is to prod schools to improve, but information about quickly teachers actually can improve student learning doesn't play much, if any, of a role in setting performance standards. When panels set standards, they are not given information about practical rates of improvement, and for the most part they are not asked to consider them.

In other words, they are set up to be the educational equivalent of an agricultural board that declares, "What we need is wheat that we can harvest six hours after it's planted. Do that!"

Also, standards are set mainly on the assumption that all kids are the same, with a goal of radically reducing the variability of achievement. I'm just going to sum up on this part: that's a dumb assumption.

9: Evaluating Teachers

Koretz is pretty brutal about the VAM-sauced test-based teacher evaluation systems. He allows that the old system had a problem in that everyone ended up looking great, but the new system surprised him because it solved problems with solutions so dumb it had never occurred to him that anyone would actually use them (e.g. evaluating teachers based on the scores of students they have never met).

This chapter includes Koretz's account of his visit to the Department of Education in Duncan's early days. You'll want to read that yourself.

How have we screwed up test-based accountability for teachers. Let Koretz count the ways:

* Taking test scores out of context (a "deliberate goal" of reformers, but "one of the main reasons the reforms have failed)
* Trying to use tests to explain, not just describe
* Using "Value-Added Modeling to evaluate teachers (here's as good an explanation as you'll find for why VAM can't possibly work)
* Rating teachers with the wrong test
* Teachers ratings are inconsistent across tests
* Teacher test scores are unstable over time (there are charts and specifics here that drive home how bad this effect is).

10: Will the Common Core fix this?

In a word, no.

Want a longer explanation?

It's not just the Common Core that has been dropped into schools wholesale before we gathered any evidence about impact; this has been true of almost the entire edifice of test-based reform, time and time again. I'll argue later that putting a stop to this disdain for evidence-- this arrogant assumption that we know so much that we don't have to bother evaluating our ideas before imposing them on teachers and students-- is one of the most important changes we have to make.

Koretz also argues that CCSS tests have actually been created in a way that makes them more predictable, and therefor more susceptible to all the Campbell's Lawian Test Preppery he just spent several chapters eviscerating. Koretz dismisses the one size fits allness of the Core, noting that one official once told him that the Core eliminated the distinction between career readiness and college readiness. "Rhetorically, perhaps, but not in actuality" responds Koretz.

It is a new flavor of the same old failed approach, gives one size fits all a "grandiose rhetorical wrapper." Underneath all the noise

the basic failed model of educational improvement remains unchanged: set arbitrary performance targets on standardized tests; apply them uniformly, without regard to circumstances; and reward and punish. Whatever its other virtues and vices, the Common Core hasn't changed this. This approach hasn't worked before, and it won't work with the Common Core.

11: Did Kids Learn More?

We know less about this most fundamental of questions than we probably should.

Why not? Partly because the test data is so subject to inflation that it can't be trusted. But also-- and I know I just ran a similar quote, but this point is important

There is a second reason for the dearth of information, the blame for which lies squarely on the shoulders of many of the reformers. Time after time they declared that they had figured out what would work, and they imposed it on students and teachers on a mass scale without taking the time to evaluate their programs first. It's analogous to a drug company saying that they have figured out, based just on their own beliefs and logic, which drugs will be effective and safe, so they can skip the time-consuming and expensive burden of actually gathering some evidence before selling it to you.

Koretz spends some time crunching some numbers, asking if students learned more, if they learned it because of test-centered accountability, and if what they learned justifies the "huge" costs of these policies (including costs like the corruption of instruction on a broad scale).

The answer is pretty clearly, "No."

12: Nine Principles for Doing Better

Here they are--

Pay attention to other important stuff.

Monitor more than student achievement.

Set reasonable targets.

Stop just kicking the dog harder.

Don't expect school to do it all.

Pay attention to context.

Accept the need for human judgment.

Create counterbalancing incentives.

Monitor, evaluate and revise.

13: Doing Better

Here Koretz works out his nine principles into a more specific action plan. He considers at length some of the usual models-in-other-countries. And he lays out some ideas.

Measure what matters. Okay, no bonus points for originality here, but then one of the subtexts of this book is that apparently you have to point out the obvious to people in education  reform because some of them rush straight into doing things that are obviously stupid. Here also he and I disagree on a role for well-used well-made standardized tests. That's okay; I know I'm out in left field on this. But I do like this:

This is the first and one of the most difficult tradeoffs we face: to measure learning well and to give teachers better incentives, we will have to use measures that have serious drawbacks-- in particular, potential inconsistency from classroom to classroom and school to school.

Yes. The more perfectly something is universally standardized, the useful it is to an individual teacher.

We need to measure "soft skills" well. This will be hard, and there will be disagreement. Yup-- that's already happening. And he has a useful insight-- part of the reason we got standardized testing "was the notion that educators can't be trusted to evaluate schooling or other educators." But the soft skills measures will have to "give a substantial role to the judgment of professionals." Not standardized SEL tests.

We need a sensible accountability system. Most interesting detail here-- we need various measures that are NOT too closely aligned with each other. If everything's aligned together, everything canm be wrong together.

Use tests sensibly. One test cannot do everything.

Provide support to teachers. Monitor and make midcourse corrections (you know-- the way Common Core was specifically designed not to do).

Still here? Good for you.

Chapter 14 is a wrap-up and I'll skip that, just as I've skipped over many specifics and explanations. Really, if I had time to be a better reviewer, I would have given you a much more compact look at what Koretz has created here, which is nothing less than a scholarly, thoughtful, accessible explanation of how test-based reform has taken education into the weeds. You should read this book, and you should pass it on to other folks who care about education and want to both understand the problems and envision some solutions. This is a valuable work, and I'll be coming back to it again and again, and you should, too.