Monday, June 18, 2018

The Inexcusable

Yes, everybody is talking about the detention of immigrant children by US authorities. I'm going to talk about it, too, because this is federally-mandated child abuse, and it's not okay. If you're a little fuzzy on exactly what happened to create these new abuses (child detention) in a long-standing situation (immigration with varying degrees of legality) this short excerpt from Slate's explainer handles it pretty well:

First is the new policy that any migrant family entering the U.S. without a border inspection will be prosecuted for this minor misdemeanor. The parents get incarcerated and that leaves children to be warehoused. The parents then typically plead guilty to the misdemeanor and are given a sentence of the few days they served waiting for trial. But then when the parents try to reunite with their children, they are given the runaround—and possibly even deported, alone. The children are left in HHS custody, often without family.

Second is a new and apparently unwritten policy that even when the family presents themselves at a border-entry location, seeking asylum—that is, even when the family is complying in all respects with immigration law—the government is snatching the children away from their parents. Here, the government’s excuse seems to be that they want to keep the parents in jaillike immigration detention for a long time, while their asylum cases are adjudicated. The long-standing civil rights case known as Flores dictates that they aren’t allowed to keep kids in that kind of detention, so the Trump administration says they have to break up the families. They do not have to break up families—it is the government’s new choice to jail people with credible asylum claims who haven’t violated any laws that is leading to the heartbreaking separations you’ve been reading about. 

Here are some other articles about the how and why of immigration policy involved:

From an ACLU attorney. From the Bipartisan Policy Center. From Vox (so, plain English).

If you want to share with friends and neighbors and strangers on line some specific pictures of just how bad it is, here are a couple of articles for that:

From the Associated Press, a tour of one detention center.

Coverage from Texas that shows just how crazy the whole thing is (the "legal" path to crossing is actually locked).

From The Hill. And here's a piece about how some get to enjoy a mural of Beloved Leader.

Here are things I don't want to argue about:

How this is typically American and we have done terrible unjust things to people before. This is true. It is all the more reason not to let it go on now. This is happening now. We can do something now.

The parents caused this by bringing their children here. No. Just no. This is the same bullshit as an abuser who punches their victim and then says, "Look what you made me do." This is on us, our government, the party in power.

Their parents broke the law. So what. First of all, as noted above, mostly we're talking misdemeanors which means this is not the same as what happens to someone who was convicted of murder-- it's like taking the kids away from someone who was caught jay-walking.

The bullshit claims that the feds had to do this because evildoers were pouring across the border, because every brownskinned person is a member of an evil gang and a rapist and murder and we must get rid of them all. This is just racist bullshit with no foundation in reality (just like all racist bullshit).

The Bible. A complete non-starter, and the fact that it has even come up is a sign of how far removed from any serious religious or spiritual thought this administration is. Do we really have to point out that the Bible justified the Inquisition, slavery and a lot of other bad stuff. But if you want a religious take on it, here's what the United Methodist Church (the one that Jeff Sessions nominally belongs to) has to say in condemnation. And here's a Twitter thread listing the many religious condemnations of this.

This shameful policy is part of a larger initiative-- to cut back the number of brown people coming to this country by making this country so unwelcoming, so cruel, so much worse than what they're trying to escape that coming to America will be unattractive. That's now our policy, our new unofficial motto-- "If you aren't white, it sucks to be here and you might as well not come." That's as stark a betrayal of our national ideals as we've ever seen in our long history of not living up to those ideals. And every gutless member of Congress who can't find the spine to say so needs to face trouble at the polls come the fall. And really, when this is done, all of us who are worked up about it need to ask if there aren't perhaps other equally huge but less visceral injustices being perpetrated that we should be throwing our energies against.

But that's the big picture.

Right now, the US is sticking children in detention. I don't care for the emphasis on "in cages," which suggests this would somehow be better if cages weren't involved. It wouldn't be. This is not okay and it needs to stop now. Call your representative in DC.

The Slate article has a great list of groups who are doing the work and who can use support. Help them.

This is not okay. This. Is. Not. Okay.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Teacher Brain

"Well, your retirement doesn't really start until September- you're just on summer vacation now."

I've heard this one often since my retirement officially began fourteen days ago, and to some extent I agree that retirement does not hit now with the same force that it will when the school buses are running and I'm not walking the school doors at 7 AM.

But still.

Every summer in my career, I had a big fat To Do List. Usually it involved re-reading works of literature from my course curriculum. The list also included designing and developing unit ideas, or tweaking and re-configuring materials I already had. I've never taught exactly the same stuff the same way in any two years, and a big part of keeping fresh and refreshed and on top of my game was that summer prep. To be certain, these past several years a lot of the planning has centered on how to do more with less, which corners to cut to accommodate the most recent cuts in the year and the day. But there was always a stack of things I had to do for the fall; like most teachers, I had summer vacations that were not entirely vacations at all.

So yes, my retirement has started as witnessed by the fact that a week or so ago, I was finishing up Lego Batman II story mode and not rereading Light in August. A god working teacher's summer vacation is not entirely vacation.

But even I have been surprised to notice that it's even more than that. I hadn't really appreciated how much of my summer has always been taken up with teacher brain.

Teacher brain is the part of a teacher's brain that never turns off, and it is relentless. It's the part of your brain that is always alert to learning aspects of your students' world. Maybe I'll sample this podcast that my students were talking about all year. I think I'll try to use my snapchat account for a week so that I get my students' references to that app. I have watched The Hill and read Twilight because at the time, my students talked about these things incessantly, and I couldn't put them in context without knowing what they were.

It is also the part of your brain that looks at every single experience from a classroom point of view. In summers when I work a part time job, I didn't just work the job-- I made mental notes of what the job was like and what the work involved and consider that as part of the bigger questions of what I should be teaching these days, or even being able to convincingly and accurately complete the sentence, "You know, when some of you guys get a job, you may well find...." Watching a movie? I'd be thinking about how it might be connected to some of the themes and works I usually teach. Read a book? Every book is not just read, but considered as a possible a recommendation to students. I scanned constantly for real-live examples of various writing and usage issues that come up in the year.

Every fall I would go back with my box full of tools, and all year, but especially in the summer while I had the time, I considered every bit of the world I encountered as a possible tool. My Uncle Frank, a history teacher for 50 years in Connecticut, traveled all over creating in his "vacation" time-- and he brought back photographs he took of all the places he went to use in his classroom (and for several years to line the halls of his school). Even when teachers vacation, they don't really vacation. The teacher brain is hard to get to rest. (Are there teachers who don't experience teacher brain? Sure-- the lack of teacher brain is a distinguishing characteristic of most bad and many mediocre teachers.)

I knew I did this, but I didn't appreciate just how much I did it. I bring it up not to convince civilians that honest teachers really do work hard in the summer, because honestly, people either believe teachers spend the summer eating bon-bons while they play the slots in Vegas, or they understand that teachers still work, and I'm not sure minds can be changed.

No, I send this observation out to teachers themselves. Note to you-- you work way harder in the summer than you even realize. More than that, you don't stop viewing the world like a teacher rather than a civilian. Your teacher brain is always running, and your so used to it permeating your entire life that you don't even realize it's happening. Yes, teacher summer vacation is far cushier than what many other folks get, but at the same time, there are so many jobs that do not permeate someone's life 24/7/365. Give yourself credit for that, and maybe figure out how to turn it off now and then before you retire.

ICYMI: Fruit Salad Edition (6/17)

It's the time of year when there's just nothing as good as a good fruit salad. So fill a bowl while you read and share these goodies from the week.

What Predicts College Completion

Here's one more piece of research showing that high school GPA is a better predictor of future success than the SAT. Let's just keep saying this.

Rebirth of the Teaching Machine

Another great look at the history of teaching machines leading up to personalized (sic) learning.

Slaves, Dinosaurs and White Jesus

A look at the scientifically illiteracy being taught through some religion-based texts, Your tax dollars at work.

Why iReady Is Dangerous

For those of us who are more about words than numbers, a clear explanation of why algorithm-driven computer-based math instruction is a Really Bad Idea.

Marco Polo History

How history's stories are told. With orgies.  



Friday, June 15, 2018

MI: When Legislators Don't Understand Testing

Michigan, having gutted its public school system and repeatedly mistreated its teachers, is reaping the consequences in the form of a teacher shortage, which is of course not an actual teacher shortage, but rather a failure of the system to make the job attractive enough to draw people to it.

One legislator had a bright idea about how to fix this-- get rid of one particular requirement:

The bill, approved unanimously by the House Education Reform Committee, eliminates the requirement that new teachers pass a basic skills examination - currently the SAT - before earning a teaching certificate.

There a couple of things to unpack here. One is the notion that the SAT can somehow be used as a "basic skills examination." How does the SAT in any way shape or form resemble such a thing? It's moments like this when I wish the College Board was run by people who were so ethical that they said things like, "No, you can't use the SAT for an exit exam or a basic skills examination because it was never designed for such things. Therefor, we won't give you permission to do it." Instead, we've got the College Board of this world which says things more along the lines of, "Super! Just make the check out to 'College Board' and you can use the SAT to test first grade reading comprehension if you want to!"

But what also jumps out of the coverage of the bill is one particular piece of language:

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, who sponsored the legislation, said requiring prospective teachers to pass the SAT is a burdensome requirement. 

Pass the SAT? What does that even mean? The SAT gives you a score, which as I told my students every year, is neither "good" nor "bad" until the college you're applying to says so. I talk to someone on line with ties to the testing and data biz and she absolutely hates it when people talk about passing or failing test. And yet, here we are, demonstrating once again that civilians (even elected ones) don't understand that tests are produced for very specific purposes and can't just be swapped to whatever purpose you like as if all tests are fundamentally the same. And instead of seeing some rich source of nuanced data that can be carefully decoded for a wealth of information, these citizens just see a thing that you either pass or fail. No more nuance or richness than a light switch.

And these are the people who legislate how tests must be used and what rewards and punishments will be doled out because of them. Yes, one of the biggest problems with modern ed reform is that it's amateur hour in education. Knowing what the heck you're talking about-- that's the test that people in power keep failing.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

NY: Tireless Charter Servant

In 1986, John Flanagan was a 25-year-old second year law student when his father died of a heart attack and NY GOP leaders recruited him to take over the family business. Then in 2015, Senate Leader Dean Skelos was nabbed for Naughty Behavior, and Flanagan was moving up in the world again.

Not great news for education in New York.

Flanagan is a legislator who has bobbed and weaved on the Common Core.  

This damn guy
To make parents more comfortable with what is happening in their children’s classrooms and by extension their kids as well, Senate Republicans will pass legislation to improve the provisions that were enacted in the state budget to ensure that tests are age-appropriate for children and the curriculum is consistent with higher learning standards, among other things,

In other words, he promised to try to do things with the stuff and spray lots of smoke and mirrors at the Core. But nothing that means anything. I'm sure they didn't use that kind of vague non-promise in rehab.        

He was a vocal supporter of Betsy DeVos as candidate for secretary of education.

Her support for an all-of-the-above approach to K-12 education – from charter schools, to public, private and online education – defines the school choice movement that has helped countless children across many of our states. By advancing these innovative solutions from the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos will put children first and empower not only states to lead the way in making critical education decisions, but also empower parents to choose what type of education is best for their children.

It will comes as no surprise that Flanagan has been a great charter booster. He's been vocal in criticism of NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio for not being nice enough to charters. He's been involved in Albany rallies for charter schools.

But now he's created some new leverage.

He has proposed a bill to address New York's broken (and kind of stupid) teacher evaluation system. And he'll finally back some relief for teachers-- if he can have a higher cap for charters. Fixing the teacher evaluation system is really important-- if he can have more charters.

In some ways, Flanagan's proposal is oddly honest. It tacitly admits that Flanagan is a dealmaker, that he has no interest in any of the ideas or principles-- just what he can trade for. No need to talk to Flanagan about the merits of any of this-- just tell him what points he can make on any given deal. Flanagan's play also tacitly admits that charter and teacher interests are innately opposed to each other, that charter schools are bad for teachers and it's reasonable to expect teachers to oppose them..

Is there any reason to tie better teacher evaluations to charter caps? No more than tying teacher evals to dog registration costs or global warming studies or the cost of seats for a Yankees game? No, none at all. If Flanagan wanted to propose a fix for teacher evaluations, he could just propose it. But Flanagan doesn't want to fix teacher evaluations-- he just wants to make a deal so that more charters can bloom  in New York. This is no way to run a state.




Monday, June 11, 2018

In Praise of Vagueness

This video (passed along by an administrator to staff) has some valid points, but on the whole, it represents a point of view that I think is hugely over-valued by some folks in education these day-- the view of education as a hyper-engineered all-on-the-same-page objective-dominated process. The speaker is Mike Mattos (who I sometimes find inspirational and sometimes-- well, sometimes he invokes Marzano's name like he's someone we should pay attention to) and the topic is getting "insanely specific about learning outcomes and learning objectives." I'm not a fan.


You probably know some of the hallmarks of this general approach--
  * every teacher in the department or grade level must agree on exactly the same outcomes and objectives and maybe even use the same assessments
  * post the objectives on the wall and drill the students in them
  * translate the objectives into clear, precise language so everyone is working toward exactly the same goal
  * decide what essential parts of the course every single student must master
  * set an agreed-upon measure of what proficient looks like

Before I launch into my counter-point, let me acknowledge two things:

I am opposed to national or state standards. I recognize that in this I am a bit out there, and I recognize that reasonable people can believe that state and federal standards would be a good idea. I just don't agree.

However, I am not an advocate of completely unstructured wandering classrooms. You should know why you're teaching what you're teaching; you should have goals and objectives in teaching that material. So, no-- I'm not lobbying for the Classroom of Do As You Please.

Also, feel free to insert "in my opinion" in front of all the following.

That said...

The kind of laser-sharp focus advocated by some educational folks gives me the creeps.

Sitting a department down to say, "We're going to figure out how we can all teach exactly the same things for exactly the same purposes aimed at exactly the same outcomes," diminishes the professionalism of the people in the room and does not serve the education of their students.

Laser-sharp focus on a single objective is a bad idea, a stultifying limiting idea. I say this not just as an education viewpoint, but a life viewpoint. People who focus on one single objective are the people who throw away gold because they were focused, laser-like, on digging up diamonds. Yes, some of them find diamond mines, but mostly they barrel through a lot of other human beings and riches of another kind because of their laser-like focus.

Laser-like focus also encourages you to view every deviation from the path as a crisis, a sign of impending disaster, instead of an opportunity. Laser-like focus fosters high-strung panic instead of sparkling improvisation.

To take that kind of focus into a classroom means to define a set single acceptable path to a single acceptable success, which means that some students in your classroom will inevitably be seen as disruptive non-compliant path-jumpers. If you are going to post the approved outcomes on your wall, you might as well also put up a poster of all the things that won't be valued or pursued in your classroom, and let your problem students know where they stand from day one.

It's no exaggeration to say that my life has not turned out anything like what I imagined at various points in my past, but it is also no exaggeration to say that, on the whole, if I had been free to design my life with laser-like precision, I would not have done as well as I have. The same is true for my life in the classroom. Students have surprised me; students will always surprise you. What you have to decide is whether you will treat those surprises as beautiful fire that illuminates and delights, or whether you will treat those surprises as disastrous fire that must be stomped out and extinguished.

I'm not an advocate for anarchy. To play a good jazz solo, it helps to have set known chords underneath. To teach a good unit, you need to know the territory well enough to know where the best views are for most people.

But for me, the prospect of a journey in which every step, every stop, every move is predetermined with laser-like precision is a boring, dull, soul-sucking prospect. Yes, I will set out with a direction and a purpose, but those are always subject to revision and they are always kind of, well, vague. More pudding-shaped than laser-like. And if during my career, you had dragged me into a meeting in which we were directed to develop a unified, all-on-the-same page laser-like focused set of outcomes and objectives, I would have been a pain in the ass every step of the way, and when it was done, I would have put up the poster on the inside of the cupboard door and the very first time something interesting came up in class that was not on the outcomes list, I would never have said, "Sorry, but it's Tuesday and we have to focus on reviewing the objectives for tomorrows common formative assessment."

Yes, different teachers may teach different things. So what? Different students will learn different things, care about different things, grow up to become different types of people in different types of jobs. I'm not saying dump reading lessons for macramé projects. I'm just saying that vagueness is not so bad. In fact, if you study the shapes of chaos and chaos theory, you find that vagueness is kind of beautiful.

A laser works taking all the different paths of light and forcing them into one, single, one-colored directed beam. But of course that's not how light usually works. Usually it bends and bounces and spreads and warps and filters in a million different ways and directions, giving us colors, shading, and everything pleasing to the eye. Sure, the laser has some useful functions in the world. But it is not how the world works. You keep your laser-like focus. I will continue to stay vague.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Success Academy: Much Ado About Almost Nothing

Richard Whitmire, a reliable booster for all things charter, is over at The 74, reliable reformy news-ish outlet, to celebrate news from Success Academy:

America’s most controversial — and possibly most successful — charter network leader, Eva Moskowitz, notched a major win Thursday, overseeing her first high school graduation ceremony at Success Academy, the class of 2022.

Class of 2022 is a coy way of referring to the year that these sixteen students will presumably graduate from college.

Yes, I said sixteen.

Anyway, Whitmire addresses the question suggested by that 2022. Will they actually make it to the finish line?

Impossible to say with certainty, of course, but based on my research of low-income, minority students going off to college, the odds of these 16 graduating seniors earning degrees are very high.

Sure. His argument is they've gotten into very selective schools with high graduation rates. He could be right.

But he also wants us to know that this is a huge deal, a big giant triumph for this poor little rich girl struggling against her critics:

Moskowitz is rarely one to resist settling scores with her many critics, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once famously vowed to staunch her access to unused school buildings, or the union leaders who have thrown every weapon imaginable at her over the past dozen years. She appears to be achieving what they hold is impossible: successfully educating low-income minority children without first solving the ills of poverty. And she’s doing it at scale, not just with these 16 graduates. Her 46 schools enroll 15,500 students.

And that is as close as Whitmire comes to the facts that make this not quite so triumphant. Because Moskowitz isn't doing this at anything remotely resembling scale.

It's swell that her schools enroll 15,500 students. Twelve years ago, she was enrolling just 157 students in two grades. By 2016, those 157 students had become 52 tenth and eleventh graders. And now they have become 16 graduates (Gary Rubinstein breaks down the stunning attrition numbers more exactly here).

Success Academy has two secrets, and neither of them are important new developments in the field of education. Also, neither of them can be scaled up.

First, as indicated above, is the secret power of attrition. Get students to leave-- you might even make a got-to-go list of students that you want to push out. Never fill any empty seats after the first couple of years, so that over time you can whittle student body down to just a few who are able to work the way you want them to.

Second, be well-connected so that movers and shakers in NYC help get you what you need (including lots of contributions at fund-raisers). Use your customers as free muscle in the state capital to help get more political leverage.

Without these secrets of her success, Moskowitz is nothing special. Enroll 15,500 students? Super-- when all 15,500 graduate from your schools, then you'll have done something remarkable. And if you can do it without extra favors and extra money-- just with the same resources that any public school would have-- then you'll have done something extraordinary.

I would not for a second want to diminish what this accomplishment means to those sixteen students. This was a great thing for them, and I hope that the years ahead bring them nothing but continued success.

But do not pretend this accomplishment is magical or scalable or offers any lessons other schools could learn from. Any school with a mountain of extra money, friends in high places, and the ability to teach only the students that suit it-- any school could do the same under those conditions. If government were willing to mobilize these kind of resources for every school and every school, it would be a great thing. But in the meantime, don't tell me that Moskowitz has accomplished something great and special here. It's a great day for those sixteen students, but as a lesson in how to operate a school system, it's a big fat nothingburger.

ICYMI: First Retired Weekend Edition (6/10)

Yes, retirement is slowly sinking in. But in the meantime, here are some pieces from the week worthy of your attention. Remember, if you think it's important, tweet it, share it, even go old school an e-mail it. That's how people's voices get out into the world.

The Fallout of School Takeover Laws

What does the takeover of public schools have to do with taking a knee? Wendy Lecker looks at a new book by Domingo Morel that answers that question.

Everything You Know Is Wrong


Paul Thomas looks at some of those things that everybody knows and discovers that everybody might be wrong.

A Why Have Republicans Declared War on Public Education

Lawrence Feinberg is talking about Pennsylvania, but the anti-public ed story is familiar to many other states.

All the State Chiefs of Education in a Nutshell

Nancy Bailey performs a public service and lists every state-level ed honcho, with links to their bios and notes about what educational experience they have-- if any.

We Need an Education Commission to Take a Critical Look at Private Schools

It's becoming increasingly clear that some voucher money is being directed to private schools that are not exactly academically rigorous-- or even scientifically correct. Andre Perry lays out what needs to be done.

Social Impact Bonds Readings

A good list of resources about these critical but not widely understood financial instruments that lurk behind many reformy ideas.

Teaching Machines  

Have You Heard's new episode brings together Jennifer Berkshire, Jack Schneider, and Audrey Watters to talk about the history of teaching machines. Check it out.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

How Can Proficiency Vary Between States?

EdSurge this week asked the magical question with Jenny Abamu's, "How Can a Student Be 'Proficient' in One State But Not Another? Here Are the Graphs."

Spoiler Alert: Abamu doesn't give the real answer.

When No Child Left Behind passed back in 2002, Congress enthusiastically proclaimed that 100 percent of American students would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. What they didn’t expect was that some states would significantly lower the bar for proficiency to avoid being marked as failing or losing special funding from the federal government.

Not really. First of all, since "proficiency" was going to be measured with normed tests, Congress declared that 100% of students would be above average. The ones that understood that this goal was mathematically impossible figured that when Congress revisited ESEA in 2007, their rewrite would modify that unattainable goal. In other words, pass something that sounds impressive and let someone else fix it later before the chickens come home to roost. But Congress couldn't get its act together in 2007, or 2008, or any other year until it was the teens and the Obama administration found the fact that every single state was violating the law-- well, that just gave the Obama administration leverage for pushing their own programs. In the meantime, anyone with half a brain new that states would game the system, because by 2014 there were only two kinds of school districts-- those that were failing and those that were cheating.

Abamu shares some other history, including the not-often-noted fact that Bill Clinton tried to establish a National Education Standards and Improvement Council that would have federal oversight of all state standards.

She hints that different levels of proficient are because states all wimped out and lowered the bar. And part of her point seems to be that thanks to PARCC and SBA and the Common Core and NAEP, we're closer to having state-to-state aligned standards than ever before. And she runs the old PARCC/SBA comparison to NAEP routine, showing how different state standards map onto the NAEP standards.

But she doesn't really answer the question.

How can students be "proficient" in one state but not another? Because "proficient" doesn't mean anything, and whatever meaning it does have is arbitrarily assigned by a wide variety of people.

The NAEP sets "proficient" as the grade equivalent of an A, but a study of NAEP results found that about 50% of students judged "Basic" attended and graduated from college. And at least nine studies have shown there is no connection between better test scores and outcomes later in life.

In real life, we might judge someone's proficiency in a particular area (say, jazz trombone playing) by first deciding what skills and knowledge we would expect someone who was "proficient" to have (know certain songs, can play in certain keys, knows who Jack Teagarden is and can imitate him). In fact, in the real world, we never talk about being proficient without talking about being proficient AT something. But here is Abamu's article we have yet another testocrat (NCES Associate Commissioner Peggy Carr) talking about a "proficient student." What does that even mean? We never talk about proficient humans, because proficiency is always applied in reference to a certain skill set.

But in the testing world, everything is backward.

First, instead of saying "This is what proficiency will look like" before we design our tasks or set our cut-off scores, we give the students the Big Standardized Test, score the Big Standardized Test, and only then decide where the cut score will be set.

Second, we don't talk much about what the student is proficient AT because we're really only checking one thing-- is the student proficient at taking a single BS Test focused on math and reading. It would give away the whole game to say, "These students have been found to be proficient standardized test takers," because when people think of the very best students, "great at taking standardized tests" is not one of the major criteria.

We've never, ever had a national conversation in the math or reading teaching community on the subject of "a really good reading student would be able to do the following things..." and then design a test that could actually measure those things. The test manufacturers hijacked that entire conversation.

At the end of the piece, Carr asks states to consider "Are your definitions of what is proficient reasonable?" The answer is, no, they aren't, because the state definition of "proficient" is "scored higher than the cut score we set on the BS Test," which is not a definition of proficiency  at all. A definition of proficiency would be "Can solve complex math problems using the quadratic equation" or "Can read a major novel and produce a theme paper about it that is thoughtful and insightful" or "Can play Honeysuckle Rose including the bridge in eight different key." As long as testocrats are setting the definition of proficient, it will never matter which state the student is in.




Friday, June 8, 2018

Is The Pipeline Poisoned?

In his book The Testing Charade, Daniel Koretz talks at one point about the discovery that many young teachers are emerging from their training believing that test prep and good teaching are essentially synonymous.

I've seen it, and so have other veteran teachers. Certainly it's not all young teachers, but it's too many of them who have grown up soaked in the reformy doctrine. What do I teach? Well, whatever lines up with the standards that are on the test. Which literature do I teach? It doesn't matter-- just find some stuff that comes with practice tests that are like the Big Standardized Test.

And "just find" is another symptom of the test-and-punish era of the BS Tests. The testing approach, rooted in multiple choice bubble test style, drives home the notion that for every question that is asked, the answer is already out there. You don't construct or invent an answer or an array of answers-- there's just one answer, somebody already knows it, and you just have to find it. Apply that approach to the question "What should I teach and how should I teach it?" and you get a classroom teacher working with Teaching Assistant Dr. Google.

That's bad news. If you are teaching something because it's on the test or because you found some material that looked fine, you are going to teach it poorly. If you're giving a test not because you designed an instrument that measures the goals you had in mind when you designed the unit and the points that emerged as you taught it, but because it's a good-looking test you found on the internet, your test will not make sense to your students (and if it's at all subjective, you won't know how to grade it).

You could be easily replaced by a computer program, and you deserve to be. But your students deserve much better.

When these sorts of young teachers land in a school run by an administrator who is focused only on data and test scores, that school is swimming in a toxic stew.

We know that the teacher pipeline is drying up. That's bad enough. What we don't know is how much of the remaining pipeline is poisoned, how much of the remaining teacher pipeline is turning out people who think that a good teacher is one who delivers effective test prep. For a decade, I've half-joked that nobody goes into teaching dreaming of helping a student do well on a standardized test-- I am no longer confident that this is true.

This is, after all, the generation that has grown up in a world where schools and teachers are measured by BS Test scores. There's no doubt in my mind that the resistance is everywhere, both in K-12 and on some college campuses. But nowadays it's not enough just to be a source of cool, clear water. Steps need to be taken to clean up the poison.

That means pushing back on programs like this one that claims it's awesome because its graduates raise test scores in their classrooms. That means having hard conversations with new teachers. I've been there with a former mentee. "How should I score this?" she asked. "Well, what was the objective-- the point-- of your unit?" I responded. She didn't know-- and she was not happy that I asked, just as she couldn't understand why getting all of her classroom materials by googling wasn't a great idea (not until her students started cheating like crazy by googling the same tests).

If we're not careful, the very meaning of the verb "to teach" will be completely shifted until it no longer refers to guiding, coaching, helping ignite a flame, sharing mastery of material, passing on and adding to the collective understanding, helping understand how the world works, encouraging students to find their best selves, grasping what it means to be fully human in the world. None of that-- it will just mean "get students ready for the test."

Speak up. Mind the pipeline. Guard the future.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Tragic Sadness of Reformsters

So last week Alexander Russo posted his annual "Worst Education Journalism" awards. Matt Barnum and Valerie Strauss received a pair of undeserved anti-kudos from Russo, and a lot of people popped up on the interwebs to stick up for them, so it may have ended up as a net positive. But then Peter Cook had to pile on.


Who is Peter Cook? Cook likes to bill himself as a former teacher. Can you guess what his teaching experience is? Yes, in 2002, right after he graduated from Washington and Lee University with a BA in European History, he put in two years with Teach for America. A few years later he put in a year teaching math at a KIPP charter. The rest of his career has been as a consultanty expert with groups like The New Teacher Project. Most recently he has worked as the "Engagement Manager" with Mass Insight Education, and he's been particularly active in New Orleans where he serves on the DFER Lousianna board. So yes-- he's an other one of the instant experts in education working hard to get those public tax dollars into private pockets. Currently he runs a website that pushes hard on reform topics, and it's on that website that he decided to take shots at Valerie Strauss.

Full disclosure: While I have never met Strauss, we have emailed back and forth a few times and she periodically chooses to run some of my stuff.

Russo's criticism of Strauss (again, because he's made the complaint before) is that she's an aggregator who steals other peoples' bylines. I'm not sure that's valid-- Strauss's column on the Washington Post website is often a spot for straight reportage, but it's also the only place in the mainstream media world that you'll find pro-public education voices amplified. But that was beside the point, because Cook decided he wanted come at her with an old favorite narrative- The Story of the Sad, Unheard Reformsters. Russo touched on the issue of balance, and that's where Cook wants to go:

That last point is really the crux of the problem with Strauss’ output at the Washington Post: it is completely one-sided. Instead of presenting readers with views from both sides of the education debate, Strauss turns to the same anti-charter/testing/accountability folks again and again to share their views.

Strauss runs stories by Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, and the National Education Policy Center, and Fairtest. Where can someone turn to hear the voices of the folks in the ed reform camp?

We've heard this before. Eli Broad and his crew needed to unload millions of dollars to finance EducationPost because how else would they get their story out there? The 74 was going to be Campbell Brown's avenue for telling what she thought were the important stories of education (spoiler alert: the ones where public school teachers are awful). There are advocacy groups like Jeb Bush's FEE that spend a ton of money promoting their views, even launching faux-authentic social media campaigns. I'm not sure it's humanly possible to track all the different ways that Bill Gates spent money trying to flood the world with "positive news" about Common Core and his various other pet education projects. And that's before we get to pro-reform thinky tanks like American Enterprise Institute and the Fordham Institute where there are guys employed to do nothing at all except promote the reform point of view (Mike Petrilli alone has been quoted in roughly eighty gazillion education pieces).

Meanwhile, the pro-public ed forces are mostly unpaid volunteers, blogging during lunch breaks or later at night after they're done grading papers.

There may well be a David and Goliath scenario in the education debates, but the Goliath here is not the pro public ed folks.

"But but but-- teachers unions," is the usual reply, and sometimes I'm amazed at the incredible magical powers that NEA and AFT have. But then I remember that NEA and AFT are among the groups that took Gates money and promoted the Common Core, as well as pushing the mostly-reform Hillary Clinton as a candidate. As a force standing against the ed reform movement, the big unions have often been underwhelming.

No, the people who complain that ed reform voices aren't sufficiently heard belong to the same species as folks who think whites are the most oppressed ethnic group and the Christmas is under attack. As long as they still have millions to spend, ed reform folks are in no danger of having their voices silenced.

Two other things need to be said. First, that some ed reformers are perfectly okay with the pro public ed voices that are heard and are willing to engage in discussions that involve spirited debate rather than an attempt to silence opponents under a pile of money.

Second, is that the criticism of Strauss that I just spent a bunch of space opposing-- well, it doesn't really hold much water to begin with. Cook says that Strauss has run a piece from Carol Burris twenty whole times in the last seventeen months. But Strauss generally posts several times a day, so we're talking (as a conservative estimate, because I'm not going to go count) about twenty posts out of a thousand. If you look at Strauss's column, mostly what she publishes in news. She reports what the Ed Department says and does. She reports on school systems around the country. Cook is upset that she gives too much time to anti-reform "propaganda," and he wants equal time for pro-reform propaganda, but really, that area is already covered (including the Washington Post's own editorial board, which has happily pushed the reformster line on many occasions). Nor does she silence the voices of reform-- she just doesn't follow the practice of running their press releases uncritically.

Cook has his own website (which, who knows, he may just finance out of his own pocket) where he rails against Strauss regularly. It is certainly his right to put that out there, just as it's the right of the Flat Earth Society to rail against the oppressiveness of those over-amplified roundies. But Cook's a smart guy; surely he can think of a better way to spend his time.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Chaos Birthday Twins

The twins are one year old today.

That's not unexpected. I have two older children; I remember vividly that they age on a fairly regular schedule. But twins have provided other unexpected excitement.

The twins are IVF babies. It's a process that involves many needles and many very unsexy activities. Here's a picture of them when they were just an embryo. One single embryo. The process has advanced over the years, and our doctors felt that it was only necessary to introduce a single embryo to my wife's Baby Nurturing Environment. Somewhere at the six-to-eight week mark, we had our appointment to see if the implantation was successful (absolutely nothing about the IVF procedure sounds romantic). The technician looked at the image of my wife's innards and said, "Well we don't see that very often."

That's when we knew we were having twins.

I bring this up to make a point. The twins are identical-- absolutely, biologically, right down to their origins as a single fertilized egg identical.

And yet, here they are. Baby B was a bit larger in utero, and he is still a bit larger today. Baby A was knocked into a hospital stay by RSV, but Baby B seemed to withstand it a bit better. Baby B likes ice cream more than Baby A does, but Baby A has some vegetable preferences that Baby B does not share. They have hit their developmental marks, but almost never at the same time. Baby B was first to crawl; Baby A was first to climb stairs.

In other words, what we have here is two human beings who ought to be completely alike. Nowhere on earth should there be two humans more alike.

And yet, they are not absolutely alike.

What does that say about standardization?

This Is Not Newton's World

In 1961, Edward Lorenz decided that he wanted to examine a section of printouts from his computer-run weather simulation, but rather than print it out from the very beginning, he figured he could just plug in the values from a midpoint and "cheat" his way to a quicker printout. But the "short" printout did not match the original longer sequence. And just like that, Lorenz became one of the modern pioneers of chaos theory.

Most of us are still raised in the comforting vision of a Newtonian universe-- the world is giant, solid machine. Every time you press lever A, you get the same motion from gear B. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. Given the right collection of data and the correct formulae, everything in the universe is predictable.

It turns out that all of that is, if not exactly wrong, not entirely correct.

One of the books that changed my life is Chaos by Peter Gleick. From there I wandered into information theory and quantum mechanics (I recommend anything by Brian Greene) and no one of it is easy, because much of it wanders into very mathy swamps. But the world, it turns out, does not look like Newton thought it did. Even the widely known Butterfly Effect (a butterfly flaps its wings in China, and a tornado erupts in Kansas) is often re-interpreted in Newtonian terms-- it just means we need more data and a better formula. No-- what all of these things tell us is that you can have all the data and the best formula and you will never, ever be able to accurately predict the exact behavior of a complex system. At best you can have strange attractors, vague shapes around which your results will cluster. But now we're talking about probabilities, and quantum stuff tells us that probability can be bizarre-- and that how some parts of some systems work is heavily affected by whether we watch or not.

This is not all just wildly theoretical bizarreness used to gird up an incomprehensible sf film. Some of this, for instance, undergirds the creation of believable CGI water and fire and smoke (parts of nature which do not embody Newton's classic shapes, but which absolutely embody chaos).

My basic point is this-- when someone proposes an education policy or classroom practice or curriculum design based on the notion that if we do X to students, we will get students who know Y and behave like Z, I am beyond skeptical because the world literally does not work like that. You might as well say, "We will teach students algebra by feeding them floating cake on the ceiling."

The world does not work that way.

In This World

In this world, one embryo, every once in a while, becomes two children. And those two children, despite starting from exactly the same place, growing in exactly the same woman, being born at almost exactly the same time, living in exactly the same home, eating exactly the same food and living with exactly the same parents, and on and on and on-- do not turn out exactly the same.

Complex systems (eg any system involving live human beings) are not subject to exact predictions and therefor cannot be precisely controlled. I don't mean "it's really hard." I mean it is literally impossible.

If you think that you can implement a curriculum in a classroom and it will predictably lead to the exact student outcomes you're looking for, you are kidding yourself.

If you think you can plunk a bunch of students down in front of a computer program that will get the exact desired student outcomes out of each student, you're an ill-informed, under-read fool.

The world literally does not work that way.

Imposing Views

One of things I'd forgotten in the thirty years since my first fathering go-round is how much people want to impose traits on children. And with twins it is exponentially worse, because people want to define them in terms of each other. Is he the funny one? Is he the more outgoing of the two? Even their interactions are open to interpretation. As they crawl over each other, are the fighting, competing, hugging, or just too unaware of each other's personal space?

But we really, really, really want to tell the tiny humans who they are. I don't think it's nefarious or ill-intentioned. We want to feel like we really know them, just as we really aspire for them to grow in all the ways we find admirable and desirable. And so we, with hope in our hearts, project onto the tiny humans like crazy.

And because, with a multiple, there is always someone similar handy to compare to, the tendency is amplified.

Many times a day, I correct myself. I stop to watch and listen and find them where they are (I'm talking metaphorically-- the times the crawl under an end table when we're not looking are an entirely different adventure). I have to make myself do it; it's challenging enough that I often wonder how badly I botched it with their older siblings.

The best news about this desire to impose a projection on a tiny human is that it can't really be done. See all of the above-- we can hit a sort of strange attractor and land in the neighborhood of a quality we want to foster in the child, but we can't hit an exact target, and every once in a while we'll have an outlier who lands far away from the mark ("I tried to raise my kid to be a concert pianist, but she grew up to be a pirate instead").

So What Actually Matters?

So is the world so squooshy and chaotic that nothing matters?

Well, no. First of all, even in chaotic systems, we can make certain outcomes more probable-- just not certain. And that means a classroom (a chaotic system if there ever was one) can tend or push nor lean more in one direction than another.

But it cannot function as a standardized factory, a place where each child can be predictably accurately molded into exactly the widget we want it to be.

And one size never fits all, because even the most identical humans in the world are not actually identical. And most humans are far less identical than a pair of twins. So one size does not fit all-- not even when you try to pretend that your one-size-fits-all program is actually "personalized."

Human beings are uniquely qualified to navigate chaotic systems, to read the room, to connect to other humans, to separate the important from the unimportant. Hell, look at how much trouble non-humans are having just navigating a road. Humans trained to navigate a specific chaotic system are the best bet. Humans who are dedicated to trying to stamp out all chaotic elements in a system are doomed to failure-- and to damage the system in the attempt.

I suspect one of the things that matters most is intent, because intent defines the general direction, the strange attractor toward which we drive. Or as my first superintendent said at the end of a story he told many times, "First, you have to love the horse."

So you see and hear your kids. You learn who they are. And you find a way to love them. And then you begin the work, understanding that the precise outcome is not under your control.

And every so often, you have a birthday and celebrate what has happened so far.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Privacy Violation by App

The Berkley Laboratory for Usable and Experimental Security (BLUES) took a look at Android apps and how well, if at all, they comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The findings were not encouraging.

COPPA is federal law, in effect since 2000. It lays out what policies a website operator must have in place when dealing with under-13 users, including how much data it can collect, how long it can keep it, and when a parent has to give permission. COPPA was spruced up a bit in 2012 and now, for instance, operators cannot extort child info as a precondition of continuing to use the site, and operators can only retain personal info for as long as necessary to fulfill the purpose for which it was collected (which seems -- well, that 's not really much restraint if the info was collected for naughty purposes, is it). The FTC is responsible for enforcing COPPA.

Any app marketed to children, or one whose operators know that lots of children use the app, must follow COPPA.

BLUES looked at Android apps that were directly aimed at children (listed in the Designed For Families" category in Google Play's store, a designation that developers choose for themselves. They can't choose that category until they indicate that they have privacy protections in place and that no "behavioral advertising" is aimed at children. In other words, no app owner can pretend that they had no idea what they were getting into or what the rules were. BLUES explains this process at even greater length here, an important point since several app companies responded to the findings by claiming they weren't subject to COPPA.

BLUES found that many were in violation because of their use of third-party software development kits (SDK). The research found that 19% of children's apps collected identifiers or other personally identifiable information. Many of these apps share children's information with advertisers, and though Google has tried to arrange things so that the information is not "persistent" (it just keeps changing so it can't be tracked to a particular child) 66% of the apps also transmitted other identifiers that were persistent, rendering Google's fix not a fix at all.

Much of the report is pretty technical, but the bottom line is clear enough-- despite federal law and federal law enforcement, a giant heaping ton of children are not having their privacy protected.

And this is in the world of phone apps. What sort of protection do you suppose is being given to the privacy of the students who use software in school.


Religious Vouchers

One of the problems that has already been documented with school voucher programs is that they tend to shuttle public tax dollars to private religious schools.

Now, not everyone considers that a problem, exactly. As far as I know, she's never said so out loud, exactly, but given what we know about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, it seems likely that she considers this a feature, not a bug. And Cato, the libertarian thinky tank, has taken to arguing on line that having taxpayers pay to send students to the private religious school is the only way to have religious equality and freedom in this country, a piece of pretzel logic that make my head hurt a little.

Why should we care about using public tax dollars to fund private religious schools?

Well, separation of church and state seems like a good idea. Historically, we have never seen a country run by religious authorities that has worked out well (at least not for anyone not actually in power). Spanish Inquisition. Salem Witch Trials. When a religious group has the opportunity to use the power of the civil government to enforce their religious orthodoxy, it tends to end poorly, with a lot of oppression and mistreatment and even torture and death. It is bad for civil government to be taken over by a church. The separation of church and state is also good for the church; when you mix religion and politics, you get politics, and suddenly the church is far less interested in God than in power plays and money and pleasing Important Humans rather than the Great I Am.

Once schools start becoming seats of state-sponsored religion, we have opened the door to letting the state decide which religions to authorize. Once vouchers can be used for church-run schools, you know it's only a matter of time before the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the local Satanist group is petitioning the state for a cut of the funds. Eventually only one of two things can happen-- either the state will refuse to step in, signaling that anybody can open any fake church and try to score some of that sweet tax cash, leading to a cynical debasing of religion; or, the state can start ruling that certain religious schools may not get tax dollars and voila! we have a state agency ruling on the legitimacy of certain religions. And if you think that this will only affect bizarre religions, let me remind you that some protestants once gave the Catholic Church the cute nickname, "the Whore of Babylon."

While we're clearing that hurdle, we can also wrestle with religious schools that feel their faith requires them to reject Those People or even the children of Those People. Again, does the government step in to extend its reach and rules into private religious institutions, or does it allow public tax dollars to be spent on what would otherwise be illegal discrimination? Either solution is going to be unacceptable to someone.

There is one other issue raised here, and it really cuts to the heart of balancing freedom against responsible citizenship.

The League of Women Voters took a look at where vouchers were going in North Carolina, a state that has been vouchering it up for four years. The answer was "mostly to fundamentalist Christian schools." But then the League's researcher looked at what the schools were doing with that money, and the answer turns out to be "teaching a lot of bunk." For instance, many use the A Beka textbook series:

Students reading A Beka's textbooks learn that God created the world in six days 6,000 years ago, Noah’s Ark is a true story that happened during the Great Flood around 2500 B.C., and the flood’s runoff formed the Grand Canyon. The textbooks are also laced with critical comments from a deeply conservative perspective.

The researcher asked her husband, a former chair of the UNC Asian Studies department, to look at the Asian history portion. He found it riddled with errors and said it was "nonsense." 

This is not a new issue. Texas has long loved some terribly inaccurate and biased textbooks. And the long troubled history of creationism in the classroom is a huge problem, as it often comes with an approach to science that simply doesn't prepare students for any actual science. 

So what do we do with policy initiatives that use public funding to teach students things that are just not so? I know some of my readers lean conservative, but if you want to use my tax dollars to teach children that the earth is flat, that the earth is only a few thousand years old, the evolution is wrong, that black people are an inferior race, that homosexuality can be cured, or any of the various distortions of Us history-- well, I'm not sure how we have that conversation because I can't see any reason to doubt that you are flat out dead wrong. And it's not just a matter of "It's my kid so I'll teach her what I want to" personal freedom, because every student who gets this kind of education is one more misinformed uneducated person released into society, and that damages and diminishes us as a country. When uninformed miseducated hold jobs, or raise children of their own, or vote, bad things happen that cause problems for everybody.

Every opinion about how the world works is not equally valid, and opinions do not become facts just because someone believes them real hard. And as a society, if we fund bad education, that becomes a problem.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/ned-barnett/article212352824.html#storylink=cpy



Monday, June 4, 2018

EdNext and the Beanstalk

In the Fall 2018 issue of Education Next, Daniel Hamlin and Paul Peterson ask the question "Have States Maintained High Expectations for Student Performance?" The correct answer, it turns out, is "Ask a different question."

Magic? Or just tasty?
Hamlin and Peterson note that ESSA gave states license to dump the Common Core, either in its actual form or under whatever assumed name they hid it behind. For accountability hawks, this raises the concern  that we'll have a Race to the Bottom, as states make it easier for schools to clear the performance bar (yes, for the six millionth time, this blurs the barely-existing line between the standards and the tests used to account for them). Will the political expediency of being able to say, "All our kids are Proficient (as we currently define it)!" be too much for politicians to resist?

So, has the starting gun been fired on a race to the bottom? Have the bars for reaching academic proficiency fallen as many states have loosened their commitment to Common Core? And, is there any evidence that the states that have raised their proficiency bars since 2009 have seen greater growth in student learning?

In a nutshell, the answers to these three questions are no, no, and, so far, none.

So nobody has loosened up requirements to-- hey, wait a minute. Did they just say that raising proficiency bars hasn't actually increased student learning?

Even though states have raised their standards, they have not found a way to translate these new benchmarks into higher levels of student test performance. We find no correlation at all between a lift in state standards and a rise in student performance, which is the central objective of higher proficiency bars.

Yup. Higher standards have not moved the bar. I see three issues with what they've written here.

1) "Greater growth in learning" is yet one more reformy phrase that suggests that student learning or student achievement is subject to quantitative measurement. Measuring learning is like checking to see how full a glass of water is. The assumption is necessary because it makes learning easy to measure-- just hold a ruler up to it and you know how much of the learning the child has packed into their head.

But does that really work. Has a student who has learned to play bassoon achieved "more" than a student who has learned how to identify different types of rock, or a student who has learned the major causes of The Great European War, or a student who has learned how to cook a soufflé? Reformers have gotten us talking about quantity of learning when most of the differences that matter are qualitative rather than quantitative. From that foundational error, many of the problems of reform follow.

2) Student test performance still is unproven as a measure of anything except a student's ability to take a test, or their socio-economic background. Student test scores are only slightly more useful than collecting student show sizes. It's bad data, and it does not measure the things that reformsters say they want to measure.

3) Raising student test scores should not be the "central objective" of any piece of education policy ever. I give them points here for honesty. The line used to be that by making students smarter, test scores would go up. Here Hamlin and Peterson drop even the pretense that test scores are proxies for anything else. This is exactly what any student of Campbell's Law would have predicted-- we have gone from trying to move the thing that is supposed to be measured to simply trying to move the measurement itself (read Daniel Koretz's The Testing Charade for an in-depth examination of this point).

We are now only one third of the way through the article, and yet the next sentence is not "Therefor, there really is no purpose in continuing to fret about how high state standards are, because they have nothing to do with student achievement." But instead, the next sentence is "While higher proficiency standards may still serve to boost academic performance, our evidence suggests that day has not yet arrived." And sure, I understand the reluctance to abandon a favorite theory, but at some point you have to stop saying, "Well, we've now planted 267 magic beans in the yard and nothing has happened-- yet. But tomorrow could be the day; keep that beanstalk ladder ready."

Hamlin and Peterson next recap the post-2002 history of state standards and the raising thereof (or not). They also refer to Common Core as "content standards," which -- well, I would call at least the ELA portion of the Core anti-content standards, but we can save that discussion for another day.

They also spend some time talking about how states have been closing a gap in "proficiency" measurement between the Big Standardized Test and NAEP. We should apparently be excited that more states have results that align with their NAEP results (they give states letter grades based on their gap), but they don't explain why we should care. And given the results covered earlier, it would seem that we shouldn't care at all.

That's underlined by a graph that turns up further down the page.



















So despite all the fun number crunching, they come up with this conclusion:

Even so, the primary driving force behind raising the bar for academic proficiency is to increase academic achievement, and it appears that education leaders have not figured out how to translate high expectations into greater student learning.

Sigh. This is like one more iteration of the "It's the implementation that's screwing everything up" talking point. The high standards movement has always suffered from one other seriously flawed premise-- the notion that teachers and students could do better, but are just holding out on policy leaders, and they need to be prodded so that educational greatness can be achieved. This is both insulting and untrue. It is long past time for reformsters to look-- really look-- at their own data and finally conclude that their magic beans are never going to yield giant beanstalks.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Progressives and the DeVosian Embrace

In yesterday's New York Times, Conor P. Williams tackles one of the thorny problems of current reformsterism-- how do you hold onto some of your favorite charter school narratives now that the odious Trump and troublesome Betsy DeVos have planted their flag in your territory.

It's a good question, one that alleged Progressives have had to wrestle with ever since the last election stripped them of the cover of a nominally progressive President. But Williams' answer is lacking.

This guy. Yes, he has kind of a Kirk Cameron thing going on.


That's not surprising. Williams is a youthful PhD serving as senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. New America is a thinky tank with ties to Google, and they like school choice. Wiliams' PhD is in government from Georgetown, he writes for folks like the 74 and the Daily Beast. His bio usually touts his years teaching first grade in Brooklyn; you will be unsurprised to learn that he put in two years with Teach for America at Achievement First's charter school in Brooklyn. He has a specific interest in dual language learners, which is probably part of what led him to Hiawatha Leadership Academy, the school that he features in his NYT piece.

Williams shows his bias right off the bat, saying that Hiawatha runs "some of Minnesota's best public schools for serving such students." The link takes you to a six-year-old article, and as usual, "best" doesn't mean anything except "high score on the Big Standardized Test." And Hiawatha does not operate public schools-- it runs a charter school chain, and charter schools are not public schools. Calling charters "public" schools continues to be a way to obscure the problems of a privatized education system while giving charters the gloss of public school values which they do not possess. If "financed by public tax dollars" is the definition of "public," then Erik Prince operated a public security company and most defense contractors are public corporations. Charter schools are not public schools; their leadership is not publicly elected, their finances are not publicly transparent, and they do not take every child that shows up on their doorstep (which is one way they are able to achieve outstanding test results).

Williams point is that lefties should love Hiawatha because it's helping low-income children of color succeed. But there's the whole charter thing:

Progressives have long been open to research suggesting that well-regulated charter schools can extend educational opportunities to historically underserved children. But many also worry that charters foster segregation, siphon funding from traditional public schools and cater to policymakers’ obsession with standardized tests.

Williams' phrasing signals that he knows the research is pretty weak sauce. And he is correct to note one of the problems with the charter savior narrative-- what is the cost? Doers "saving" mean that we sacrifice a full education so that poor kids can be hammered with test prep every day? And do we "save" ten children by stripping necessary resources from 100 others?

And the new big problem, notes Williams, is that the embrace of Betsy DeVos, who loves choice and charters (although I'd argue that she loves charters only insofar as they help prepare the ground for vouchers) makes it hard to support charters and be a progressive.

Now let me take a side trip here. I'm not very concerned about political labels. I loathe the proicess by which we say, "Your position on cheese doodles shows that you're a mugwump, therefor you must be against water polo, because that is the mugwump position." Believe what you believe, support what you support, and ignore the labels-- that's what I'd prefer. But the story of school reform in general and charters in particular is the story of a conservative policy trying to masquerade as a bipartisan movement. Folks love to connect charters to Albert Shanker, the teacher labor leader, because it gives charters a lefty shine-- but Shanker's idea of charters was something else entirely, and when he saw what was happening, he turned his back on the whole thing. Charters couldn't really get going until neoliberals pretending to be progressives showed up, providing cover for privatization of public education by wrapping it in lefty language (and yes, some people did and do believe what they were saying, I know). As Wiliams puts it, "during the Obama administration, tensions over charter schools among progressives were manageable." The advent of Trump and DeVos just screwed up that whole game.

Williams tries to recast this as a personality thing-- Trump and DeVos are so "disliked" that some liberals "automatically reject" their ideas. What he doesn't is address is any of the substance of the arguments against (or for) charter schools and the privatization of American education.

Williams makes a case for Hiawatha, and captures the problems within the school in the Trump era (what does one tell a mostly no-white class of fourth graders when they ask "what does Make America Great Again mean?"). But what he doesn't address is the question of what the real nature of Hiawatha's "success" is, and what it costs (hard to do since they haven't graduated a class yet). Is there anything to learn from Hiawatha, or is the lesson here the same old one-- that with a more selective group of students and a bunch of extra money, you can accomplish more in a school?

Williams also tries to draw some sympathy for charter school teachers.

This puts the country’s many thousands of charter-school teachers in an odd place. Most come to this work to provide underserved children with a better shot at educational success, but now they’re increasingly branded as corporate stooges selling out public education by critics who challenge charter schools’ right to exist. These teachers shouldn’t have to answer for Ms. DeVos’s incompetence or wonder if there’s room for them in the future of progressive education politics.

This strikes me as a bit disingenuous. First, I don't know anybody who calls charter teachers "corporate stooges." In many cases, they are underpaid corporate victims, working without any job protections under lousy conditions for people who treat them like disposable widgets that must follow orders and stay in their place, or else. Second, many charter school teachers are not exactly teachers. Like Williams, they may be TFA temps who already know they're not sticking around for anything close like the five-to-seven years it takes a teacher to get really good. Or they are non-teachers in charters that are allowed to hire under special rules that allow them to put any warm body in the classroom. In other words, many thousands of charter-school teachers are already in an odd place.

And here's a pro tip-- if your plan is to "liberate" students by oppressing the people who work with them, you probably don't qualify as progressive.

Williams wants to argue that just because DeVos now wants to embrace charters, charter fans who came for the progressive argument shouldn't run away. But I'm not sure how many charter supporters were actually progressives, or whether progressives should have run away anyway (and conservatives, too, for that matter). Why isn't he exhorting progressives to throw their weight behind stronger support for public education? Should we be worrying about how well charters actually work instead of how they can best be lined up with one political agenda or another? Or should we start a discussion about the toxic effect of politics on education, with a eye toward getting politicians, amateurs, bureaucrats, dilettantes, and over-funded thinky tanks out of education entirely and hand it back to actual professional educators. There are a lot of questions worth asking hinted at in Williams' piece, but I'm not sure he really gets to any of them.






ICYMI: Graduation Day Edition (6/3)

Today our seniors graduate. Our ceremony, when the weather permits, in the park in the middle of town. I've been stage managing the business for over twenty years, and this was how I wanted to go out-- getting one last set of graduates through. In the meantime, here are some worthwhile things for you to read and share. Don't forget to share. What gives these folks a voice is when you share.

North Carolina's New Charter Bill Is a Warning

Jeff Bryant reports on the North Carolina charter bill, which opens the door to deliberate segregation.

Minneapolis Public Schools Ghosted

Sara Lahm shows what it looks like when a major city decides to phase out its public education system

What and Who Is Fueling the Movement to Privatize Public School

A good primer on what is driving much of school reformy stuff

The Racism of the New Orleans Miracle    

An interview with Ashana Bigard, a N.O. mom, on how things are going.

How Mexican Teachers Unions Are Pushing Candidates to the Left

Imagine a country where the teachers union has a major effect on politics. Well, there is one-- right next door.

Vouchers Still Don't Work    

Yet another study shows voucher students falling behind.

Success Academy Finally Takes the Algebra II Regents-- and Bombs  

The best school in the whole wide world runs into trouble, again.

Asking the Right Question about Personalization  

Rick Hess passes on some more critique of the edu-flavor of the year

Pythagoras on the Purpose of Life and the Meaning of Wisdom

From Brain Pickings. A brief but excellent post to end the week.