Saturday, June 30, 2018

Emails and Vampires [Updated]

There's a scene in many vampire movies. Someone (usually not the hero) is holding a vampire at bay with a cross. The vampire locks eyes with him. "You don't need to do that. You are perfectly safe from me, and I know that cross is just starting to feel heavy. Heavier and heavier. Why don't you just put it down." And the camera closes in on our intrepid human-- will he put the cross down?

The Supreme Court decision in favor of the corporate sponsors of the Janus case came as a surprise to absolutely nobody. The implications of that decision have yet to be worked out. Of course, in the 28 right to work states, the implications are almost non-existent. In the other 22, wellll…… I'm not inclined to view this as a catastrophic death knell for unions. It sure doesn't help, and it's certainly part of a larger campaign to get rid of unions, but it could well be surprisingly good for some unions that had made themselves vulnerable to this sort of thing by letting leadership become entrenched and detached from members.

"Vouldn't you rather exercise your First Amendment rights?"
Supporters of the lawsuit call it a win for freedom of speech. But as with many freedoms, exercising freedom of speech is not free. If you're a billionaire, you get to exercise your speech via advocacy groups that you finance and research reports that you pay for and news stories that you plant or create and sectors that you commandeer via "philanthropy" and just the fact that powerful people will take your phone calls. If you're working stiff, you get to exercise your freedom of speech by writing letters that may or may not be read or making phone calls that may or may not be answered or, hey, you could always start a blog. Or you could join together with three million other working stiffs and collective enjoy the same kind of money and clout that one of the one percenters enjoy. It is, admittedly, a tough trade off, because three million people (or even a hundred local people) put together won't always (or even ever) agree on a message, and sometimes the leadership doesn't help very much, but on the other hand, trying to negotiate a contract for yourself, by yourself-- well, it's a tough choice, but I know what lots of folks on the other side of the table want you to pick.

Hence the e-mails that started flying roughly 6.3 seconds after the Janus decision was issued.

The U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that all government workers – teachers, state workers, local public employees, police, firefighters and more – now have a real choice when it comes to their unions. The case is Janus vs. AFSCME and, put simply, the court determined that no public employee can be fired for not paying money to a union.

Whether it’s disagreements about politics, concerns about a lack of local representation, problems with union spending, or something else – you now have the right to stop paying for activities you don’t support. 

This followed by a link to your state's version of the MyPayMySay website, which gives you a chance to fill out a form which yields a pdf you can hand to your union to drop out. They will also store your information "in order to help public employees exercise their rights when it comes to union dues, fees and representation. It may be used to contact or follow up with you."

Some teachers received this email, with the smiling face of teacher Susie Stockphoto in her room, 10-nowhere.

Regardless of your state, you got a paragraph or two of someone's personal "why I don't want to support the union" strory.

These emails are coming from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a group from Michigan that has been heavily involved in rolling back teacher rights, with ties to ALEC, the Koch Brothers and, of course, the DeVos family.

They are landing all over the country, mostly by way of teachers' professional emails. This is particularly ironic in states like Michigan, where Mackinac-backed legislation makes it against the rules for teachers to use school emails to discuss union business. In most states the professional email addresses are public information, so a simple FOIA request would have yielded them, though in many cases a bot or an unpaid intern could have scraped them from school websites where they are all publicly listed. On the other hand, such a request might be illegal under privacy laws in some states. One does wonder why some spam filters are not catching them.

This, of course, will not be the last of it. The Freedom Foundation (Koch Brothers, etc) has announced a plan to spend the summer going teacher door to teacher door to get people to leave the union.

And, wow-- it sure is inspiring to see the one percenters so deeply concerned about teacher freedom of speech. I mean, to devote all this time and money just because they want to make sure that every teacher has a chance to exercise her rights. It's inspiring. Just like all those other times they were out there in the schools making sure that teachers were free to express their opinions and stand up for students and advocate for better education without fear of losing their jobs and-- oh, no, wait. They DeVos's and Koch's were the ones agitating for the end of job protections so that teachers could be fired at any time, including for speaking up and exercising their First Amendment rights. In fact, the number of times that groups like Mackinac have been out there standing up for teachers' rights, First Amendment and otherwise, would be, by my rough count, zero. None.

It's almost as if this whole thing isn't about teachers' First Amendment right at all.

It's almost as if this was just a ploy to bust up the unions and make sure that teachers had even less voice in the world of education. It's almost as if this was a way to drain funds from the Democratic Party.

Which takes us back the vampire. He isn't gently crooning things like "That cross must be so heavy. Don't you want to just put it down?" because he's so concerned with the man's weary arms. In most of the versions of this scene, what happens next is this-- the man puts the cross down, giving up his last bit of protection. The vampire leaps forward, rips open the mans throat, drinks his blood, and leaves the victim dead and the vampire refreshed.

The cross may be ugly, prickly, imperfect, even a distressing mess. But at that moment, it's all the guy has got. Teachers, no matter what mess your local union is in, this is not the time to listen to the vampire's gentle plea.

[Updates: First, I can confirm that the emails are hitting Pennsylvania, too, as confirmed by one in my wife's school email spam box that arrived yesterday.

Second, My Pay My Say has its very own Facebook page, so if you wanted to share some thoughts with them about their campaign, that would be a place to do it.]

Friday, June 29, 2018

What They Remember

Of all the retirement gifts I've received, by far the most moving has been a book put together by my daughter, my niece, and my wife. Through the magic of the interwebs, they were able to collect a whole bunch of personal messages from former students into a book. I won't lie-- it's pretty awesome, and mighty humbling.

It has also turned out to be one more opportunity to reflect on one of the big questions of teaching-- what is it that we do, exactly, that makes a difference for our students. What is it that they remember? We all wonder about it-- I just happen to have some answers right at my fingertips.

Some of it really is content-related on a fairly micro scale.

One day in Honors English, Mr. Greene said people only use hyphens when they don't know what to do. Now, every time I use a hyphen, I beat my chest and scream "I DON'T KNOW WHAT ELSE TO DO!" Then I get shushed by the Starbucks girl.

I'd like to thank Mr. Greene for all he's done; however, he is the reason I put semi-colons in text messages now...and I take a lot of shit for that.

Sometimes it is larger scale content material.

One time PAG pulled me aside and said in my writing I was like a chef at a burger joint-- bored and putting things no one had ordered, like sparklers, on their burgers for my own entertainment. "Just give me the burger," he said, "no sparklers." I later wrote tweets for a living.

Sometimes it falls into the larger life lesson category.

From a list of "Things I learned in PAG's class"

Don't make excuses or apologize for your work; own what you've done, and if you're embarrassed by it then do it better.

You can't protest The Man by asking his permission to do so.

Much of it is extremely personal. Most years I gave personal gifts to each graduating senior on yearbook staff; one year it was beanie baby spirit animals, and one woman told me the story of how she carried that spirit animal through the next decade as a reminder of the kind of strength she has inside her. There are several stories like that in the book.

And I don't have to tell you (but I will) that not a single former student wrote to thank me with fond memories of those life-changing Big Standardized Tests, or how moved they were by how we dealt with Common Core standard 11.2-d/15b. I have notes from writers who thank me for helping them get started and teachers who thank me for being an example, even some who thank me for helping them figure out how to be a better human being, but none from someone explaining how taking the PSSAs really altered their life trajectory. Because none of that baloney makes anyone's "Top Ten Things About My Education That Really Mattered."

What is striking is how specific it all is. Some students remember broad themes and ideas of my class, but even then, they remember them attached to a very specific memory. They can quote me to me. They can remember not just specific works we read, but specific assignments or questions we dealt with regarding those works.

What's also striking is how many of those specifics remembered by my students are not remembered by me. That sparkler hamburger story? I remember how that young woman used to write, and the hamburger sparkler thing certainly sounds like me-- but I don't remember saying it. A student I taught about thirty years ago remembers being struck by my statement that every person is worth knowing. Again, I agree with that-- it sounds like something I would say. But I don't remember saying it.

It all confirms what I've always believed to be true-- that very specific moments in our classrooms often have powerful effects on our students, but we will never know ahead of time which moments will be the important ones. We may think that this particular moment that we plan and prepare and set up and lay a foundation for and think, "Boy, this is just going to be powerful" and instead, ten or twenty years later, it turns out that some unplanned moment that we just tossed off the hip stuck with students long after our carefully sculpted teaching moment is long forgotten.

What's a teacher to do? I don't know THE answer, but I know MY answer--

Build a strong foundation. Not in your class-- in yourself. Know why you're there. Know what you believe. Know what truths are important to you about your content, about your material, about the lives of the young humans you're dealing with. Carry all of that into the classroom with you every day. Make it the foundation of every carefully planned teaching moment you try to create, but if you have a clear strong foundation, know that when you are flailing into those unplanned moments, those off-the-cuff comments, or those moments when a student comes to you for help and you don't have time to plan anything out-- in all of those moments, your core belief and understanding comes through.

This is one other reason I don't believe in scripting-- because a teacher reading a script has no foundation in anything, and that will show through in every single unscripted moment. Worse, if the teacher's foundation is something like "these kids are dopes who can barely learn a simple thing" that will bleed through as well.

You won't mean for it to happen, but it will happen. In some specific, unplanned, unprepared moment, what you believe as your foundation will come through in a really clear, really specific way, and at least one student will see it-- really, really see it-- and that specific moment will stay with them for years, even decades.

So if you want a piece of advice from the back end of a career, here's one piece. Know why you're in the classroom, and be there for good reasons. Know what matters. Know your purpose, and the purpose of your materials. Know your materials. Know your content. And as quickly as you can make it happen, know your students.

No amount of superficial technique, no amount of technique focused tech, no amount of pre-planned material-- none of that can compensate for a hollow person standing in front of a classroom.

Yes, when you're young and you're starting out, you don't know all of these things. That's okay. No amount of teacher training could have fixed that. Your job for the first few years is to figure it out. (This is, incidentally, one more reason that someone who is only there for two years and fully plans to leave at the end of the two years-- that person is no more a teacher than someone who put on a parachute but never jumped out of the plane is a skydiver).

That is one of the beauties of teaching-- a staggering long progression of tiny, specific moments built on a foundation giant, broad ideas. It's like traveling across the Badlands of South Dakota on foot, or hiking through the Grand Canyon-- don't watch just your steps or just the awesome view, because both matter. Every step is critical and needs your attention, but if you never look up and around, you'll get lost and you'll miss the whole point. And you may never know which particular step each of your fellow travelers will remember-- so you make every step count.

And sometimes, if you're lucky, at the end of the journey, they give you a book.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Education Deserts

Two weeks ago, a hearing by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce tipped its hand with its title-- "The Power of Charter Schools: Promoting Opportunity for America's Students." It featured a parade of charter school advocates, with one exception. Somehow, Jonathon Phillip Clark made it into the room.

PS 138 used to be right over there
Clark is a father of seven, assistant director of a Detroit nonprofit that provides mentoring and tutoring and a board member of 482Forward, a group that advocates for high-quality education for all Detroit children. Clark's testimony highlights many of the  problems of charter schools in Michigan and elsewhere—broken promises, unstable leadership, unelected governing bodies hundreds of miles away from the people they serve. He underlined the practical problems as well, like driving back and forth across the city to get children to and from their separate schools.
Clark later in his testimony calls this an education desert, a predictable result of a free-market approach to schools.
We already know about food deserts, described by the CDC as "areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet." Food deserts tend to be areas where it does not make business sense to serve the local (usually poor) population.
The free market is not evil, but it is practical. No matter what sector we're talking about, there are always some customers who are unprofitable to serve. You may want new Chipotle or Lexus dealership in your town, but if nobody can build a business case for the operation, then your town will remain a Chipotle and Lexus desert.
This is why the government provides some goods and services. If the markets were responsible for roads, only some people would get roads. If the markets were responsible for providing military protection, only some people would be protected.
We have an area where the private sector competes with the government—mail delivery. Private mail and parcel services compete with the U.S. Postal Servicebut only up to a point. When it's time to deliver a package to some place out in the boonies, where delivery costs too much to be truly profitable, the private delivery companies hand the packages off to the USPS which then finishes the job for them

In many urban areas, we have inched toward that model. Some charter schools work with the students who can be profitably taken on as customers, while others work at the fringes, going out of business as they discover they didn't have a business model that worked. Meanwhile, some students who will never be attractive customers to private operators (too many special needs, special problems, special burdens) are left in the public school.
But when legislators are backing charters, it makes business sense to keep public schools underfunded and undersupported so that they can't be serious competition. And when that formula is miscalculated (just enough, but no more than that), then the public schools also collapse, and suddenly we have an education desertan area where there are no easily available education options for residents.
The free market is not evil, but no business has ever made it its mission to provide services to every single potential customer in the country. We can't allow the free market to run education without changing our national mission, because no private charter chain will ever appear with a mission to educate every single student in the country. If we let a thousand charter schools bloom, we must be prepared for education deserts to bloom as well.

Originally published at   

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Impatient Reformsters

Over at Red State, a site that leans just a bit to the right with articles like "Milennials Get Classes on Basic Adult Skills, Still Act Like Children," (but not "So Get Off My Lawn),  Joe Cunningham is impatient. "It's Past Time We Tackled Education Reform" he insists.

He notes that despite early controversies, Betsy DeVos's education department really hasn't done much and "aside from her rolling back Title IX memoranda for colleges going after sexual assault, there has been little to celebrate." Because the only thing worse than sexual assault is universities trying to do something about sexual assault. Sigh.

But like many DeVos backers, Cunningham is sad. "Frankly, it appears as though the faith we had in DeVos to be a driving force behind education reform was for naught." Dude, I wouldn't say it was so much ":for naught" as it was "based on naught." What gave you that faith? Her complete lack of experience in running any sort of large organization? Or the way that she kept indicating that she thought the department should be doing pretty much nothing?

He notes that Congress hasn't done much about education, either, which is also unsurprising because A) Congress doesn't do much about anything and B) Congress mostly ever discusses education in vague platitudes, and the last twenty years have made even that route a risky one. Better to just not talk about it at all. It is, he notes, "is the topic of conversation that always gets left for when there seems to be nothing else to talk about," which is a pretty good line. Cunningham says he wants to have that conversation; I don't know that he really does.

We should be having the conversations. We should be working to improve the education system, public and private, so that we provide our children with the best possible education we can offer them.

That means we have to talk about private school vouchers, school choice, public school funding, free pre-Kindergarten and college, and every other issue in between.

See, he kind of skipped over the whole conversation about what improving the education system would actually look like. And his "have to" list? We really don't have to talk about vouchers, but we really have to talk about things a little more specific. DeVos supporters thought we would talk more about choice, and as evidence of the alleged popularity of choice, he cites some "research" by American Federation for Children, a dark money group founded by DeVos. Is it some kind of political tautology when a politician creates an advocacy group to push that politician in the direction they already want to go?

Course, he says, it doesn't have to be school choice. It could be any old thing. "What kinds of reform can we push that really only require local and state input or are teacher-centric?" Stem, maybe? That we do somehow?

I can help him out a little on this. He might want to look into a reform program that I like to call "Shut Up, Sit Down, and Let Teachers Do Their Jobs." It's local, it's cheap. and it's very teacher-centric.

But Cunningham is just sort of flailing now. People should care about this stuff. After all, they care about child separation, because children. Well, education, too!

Cunningham identifies himself as a conservative, parent and educator-- I have no idea how true any of those are. But plenty of conservatives saw DeVos as an antidote to a department that was too "proactive," a quality Cunningham says he hopes for. He's also hopeful about the proposed Laborducation merger, even though some conservatives aren't at all. And despite her pledge to be inactive in DC, DeVos has started to show some signs of the same meddling that conservatives hated in Arne Duncan.

Cunningham wants the department to be "more proactive in seeking and implementing good reforms that benefit our students, not just one type of school over another." First, that flies in the face of most charter school programs, which privilege charter schools over public schools. Second, he sounds like some "let's get help from DC" Democrat. Third-- and this is really important-- what exactly does he think could be done from Washington? Because he has one other correct point in his piece-- going back twenty years, we have repeatedly implemented bad, even destructive, education policies because a bunch of amateurs were in DC jumping up and down and yelling, "We have to do something RIGHT NOW!"

We don't need any more impatient reformsters-- not political ones, not business-oriented ones, not philanthro-capitalist ones. The educational system includes millions-- literally millions-- of trained, experienced professionals who have committed their entire lives to making US education better. Betsy DeVos is not one of those people. So sit down, drink some lemonade, and catch your breath. If you let the professionals work, we'll even promise to get off your lawn.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


A slide popped up on my twitter feed that attempts to explain that mysterious quality-- rigor-- using terminology I've seen before.

Rigor is not more work or harder books or AP course. On the defining rigor side, the slide offered that rigor is "scaffolding thinking" and "planning for thinking" and a few other bullet points all highlighting the word "thinking."

I agree in principle. What teachers hope for from students is some serious, deep, heavy-duty thinking. And if all teachers had psychic powers or at least some useful teach like a teenager tuned cerebro, we'd be all set and ready to go.

Yeah, let's not talk about the phallic symbolism right now

But of course the bigger problem is not getting students to think (though lord knows that is a challenge on its own) but to somehow determine whether or not such thinking is going on.

This is one of the challenges of a classroom teacher-- how to build a mountain that only a person who had done some serious thinking could get over.

We know lots of things that don't work. If you have ever dealt with Study Island or its ilk, you know that students who can solve the problems can still be frustrated because they don't express the solution the way the canned computer program wants them to. Their thinking is steered away from asking "What's the solution to this problem" and instead toward "What does the program want me to say."

Some folks talk about test prep like it is memorizing a bunch of facts and figures, but these days, test prep is really about learning to think like the test manufacturers. Here are the kind of distractors they like to use for fake answers. When they use this word, it means they want this kind of response. This is also not teaching the students rigorous thinking; instead it teaches a form of intellectual compliance.

Most objective tests reinforce recall or recognition (re-cognition is kind of an interesting word that captures the notion of rehashing knowledge you already have). It's not impossible-- I had a tenth grade biology class for which the tests were take-home multiple choice questions, and they were an absolute beast. I still remember things from that class because of the tests.

If we throw in the reformster love for large scale comparison, things get murkier. Exactly how do I compare the "thinking" of a few million students? What does that even mean?

My bias after decades as an English teacher is to assess thinking through writing. I admit that's it theoretically possible that someone could have really thought something through, but they can't put words together on the page to explain it. But my bias is that I think that's hugely unlikely. Most writing problems are really thinking problems; if you've done the thinking, then the writing is so much easier.

But even there we can wander off course. You're going to find teachers who say, "I totally support my students in rigorous thinking, and I can tell they've been thinking rigorously if they reach Conclusion X, because nobody who was really reading and thinking well could reach any other conclusion." There are two problems with this-- first, this teachers is just wrong. Second, and more practically, once word gets out from year to year that you are a teacher who is looking for the One Correct Answer, students will stop thinking and start giving you what they think you want to hear, either by detective work or by just asking last year's class. Now you're back to teaching intellectual compliance, which is pretty much the opposite of rigorous thinking.

There is some advice I can offer. Don't assign essays based on questions for which you are certain you know the answer. Seriously. One year I assigned a paper in which students compared and contrasted Pip from Great Expectations and Huck Finn. I had no idea how that one would turn out, but the students figured it out. Change assignments from year to year. Give assignments that require them to "translate" a work (you haven't lived till you've seen Light in August as sock puppet theater).

Don't get comfortable. If you aren't putting rigorous thinking into the assignment, the kids probably aren't, either.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Fox Nails The Problem: These Aren't Our Kids

On Friday, Fox and Friends host Brian Kilmeade was talking about the immigration clusterfahrfegnugen when he hit upon an important insight:

These aren't our kids.

These aren't our kids.

Of course, in this case, we're drawing a circle around all US children and saying only those within the circle matter.

But understanding this aspect of tribalism explains a huge number of our problems in education.

We are happy to spend money on our kids. But those other ones, the children of Those People-- these aren't our kids, and we don't want to spend money on them.

It's not a new problem. Segregated schools were all about white folks saying, "I don't want to spend my tax dollars on schools for these black kids, because these are not our kids." They don't belong to our group, our tribe, our family. If they want money for decent schools, then let them get that money from their own people.

These aren't our kids. We have to take care of our own. I've got mine, Jack.

Some supporters of vouchers and charters and choice see these as a way to extricate their own children from schools that are filled with Other People's Children.

Some supporters of choice (and magnet) schools think they aren't involved in such tribalism because they believe in a mechanism for lifting Worthy Strivers out of those more lowly circumstances, but all they're really saying is that it's possible that some of our children got mixed in with Those People's children. Given the chance, some can prove they belong in our tribe. But this approach hasn't really changed anything-- it still ascribes to the belief that some children are inside the circle and some are outside the circle, and the one's outside the circle aren't our problem. These aren't our kids. Nor is there anything admirable about schools where the approach is "These are not our kids, but we'll try to make them almost as good as our kids, in some ways."

What some people find stunningly wrong about the Kilmeade quote is the notion that some children don't matter, because some people draw their circle around the whole human race. We've been light on rabid nationalism for quite a while, so it's jarring to hear the administration's policy of "We're America, Bitch" and the idea that other people are just worth less because they weren't born here. (This is one more reason that the embrace of Trumpism by some people of faith reveals a terrible hollowness in their religion).

Watch out for tribalists. Tribalism is a heady drug, and once you're comfortable saying that Americans matter more than people in other nations, it's easy to say "My state matters more than the rest of the states" and then "My city is more important that my any city in other parts of the state" and then "My neighborhood is more important than other neighborhoods."

We get into the occasional argument about whether or not education is a common good, but to a tribalist, there is no such thing as a common good, because that would involve people outside your own circle. A common good would be shared with the children of Those People, but these are not our kids.

There is only one question that need be asked of a school board member who has decided to direct shabby funding and minimal resources toward a particular neighborhood's schools, or a charter school operator who instructs children to stay in line and quietly comply, or policy-launching politicians or rich self-appointed overseers of education, and that question is this--

Would you put your own child in this school? Would you subject your own child to this policy?

When politicians force Common Core and related testing into schools but send their own children to schools that have neither; when charter operators don't send their own children to their own schools; when local politicians strip resources from schools their own children will never, ever attend; when they strip local control from the families of the students who will attend these schools; when they let fly-by-night scam artists run rampant and put children's futures at stake in edu-flavored businesses that their own children will never suffer through-- they are not simply revealing hypocrisy. They are revealing that the affected children and families are outside the circle they have drawn. They are looking at the policies they propose and the children these policies will affect and they are saying to each other--

It's okay to do this.

Because these aren't our kids.

I don't know how you fix this. As Kayla Chadwick wrote a full year ago, I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. The fundamental affliction here is a small, cramped definition of your own tribe, your own people. Yes, we don't have access to infinite resources to address every problem. But if you don't have enough food to give each one of your children a full meal, the best, most moral solution is not to pick a couple of children to disown and allow to starve.

Certainly we've gotten tons of religious direction on this. The New Testament is loaded with instructions to treat everyone as if they were part of your tribe. And yet, here we are.

It seems like a small, obvious thing to ask that policy makers (both elected and unelected), bureaucrats and politicians simply approach every decision, every idea from a standpoint of, "Would I want this for my own child?"

But time after time we have failed that test, and we always fail it the same way- but using some sort of tribal assertion, some sort of metal gymnastics, that allow us to say, "Well, I wouldn't want this for my kids--

"But these aren't our kids."

ICYMI: It's Actually Summer Edition (6/24)

All right-- summer is actually technically here, and most everyone has finally finished their school year. That means it's time to start reading up on the issues. Remember to share what you see here that speaks to you.

DC Public Schools Go From Success Story To Cautionary Tale

Remember when DC schools were supposed to be a proof of concept for so many reform ideas? Almost everyone has finally with the man behind the curtain who isn't wearing any clothes behind the smoke and mirrors. This is a good summary of how this particular baloney was made.

If This Is The End of Average

Daniel Willingham with a brief but clear explanation of why personalized learning can't deliver on what it promises.

Charter Schools Are Whiter Than Nearby Districts

From Hechinger Report, some more data showing how charters are creating more segregation in the USA.

Pennsylvania Cyber Charters Consistently Receive Poor Academic Scores

Yet again, evidence that cyber in Pennsylvania simply aren't delivering what they promised.

How The Texas Testing Bubble Popped 

This is the first in a series of stories that actually ran in 2014, but it's a well-reported series that both shows why standardized testing deserved its bad rap, and how some folks stood up to it.

The Gates Sort Of Admits That Its Teacher Evaluation Dreams Were Baloney

Yes, I paraphrased that title a bit, but you get the idea. Once again, the Gates learns everything about its past failures except its own mistakes.

Childhood Captured

A look at one of the scary things happening in the Pre-K space. More profits for companies; less worthwhile education for children.

Boston Schools Chief Resigns After Lawsuit Says District Shared Student Data With ICE

Need one more example of how badly things can go south in the era of school district data mining? Here you go.  

It's Just Not Funny Anymore

Bruce Baker reflects on our continued unwillingness to do what we know works.

Finally, I wrote this week about why the proposed labor-education merger strikes me as a terrible idea. Nancy Bailey is also not a fan, and she explains why. Jan Ressenger also explains why it's a lousy idea. And Neal McClusky of the libertarian Cato Institute is not a fan, either. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Scott Walker, Education Governor?!

Scott Walker has signaled his intention to run for re-election as governor of Wisconsin by running on his record as an "education governor," because up is down and ignorance is strength and we have always been at war with Oceana.

This branding choice may seem counter-intuitive, but Walker has decided to run in the slipstream of Donald Trump, where reality dances to the beat of a distant drunken dj. It was Walker this last week, virtually alone among prominent Republicans (unless you count Maine's LePage, who is like Trump with none of the polish or charm) in standing by Trump's Kidnap Kids for a Wall program.

This frickin' guy
Walker's signature achievement in the realm of education is Act 10. Walker likes to call the 2011 proposal of this bill "dropping the bomb," and that's a fair characterization. The bill shifted pension and health insurance costs to teachers. It took a shot at undermining Wisconsin's flagship university. And most notably, it stripped public employees of the right to collectively bargain, while also doing away with any sort of job protections-- teachers would only be contracted one year at a time. Then in 2012 he took a machete to school funding, only so that five years later he could offer some money back to school districts-- but only if they could prove that they had used Act 10 to cut teacher pay. It was a clever way to force the hand of districts that were still trying to do the right thing, what we might call "a dick move." Meanwhile, his legislature has been working hard to stop throwing money at public schools and start throwing it at vouchers and charters.

Act 10 was supposed to make the Wisconsin economy boom. It didn't-- Wisconsin's growth was low for the region. It was supposed to beat down the union. It did do that a bit. It was supposed to turn teaching into a buyer's market, where no job was secure and the cost of labor was kept low. It did that, too. And it was meant to transform the teacher "workforce" into a group of young temps who would not stick around long enough to rock the boat or threaten the piggy bank. That seems to be working. And while this may not have been an intended result, Wisconsin is also facing "historic teacher shortages." The pipeline is drying up. It's almost as if something has made teaching a far less appealing profession than it used to be.

Act 10 was also supposed to lay a foundation for Walker's national aspirations. But you may very well have already forgotten that he was one of the clown car full of Republicans routed by Donalt Trump-- he even said mean things about Trump as he slunk back home.

And somehow all that led us to this point:

“I’m affirming the fact that I’m a pro-education governor,” Walker said in an interview Monday. “I’m going to continue to be a pro-education governor and build off of that.”

Does that seem nuts? Well, remember that Walker easily survived a recall election in 2012, when unions and Democrats were determined to make him pay for Act 10. His support runs deep in the state, as witnessed by pieces like this fawning editorial in the Journal Sentinel by Christian Schneider.

Schneider claims that Walker has redefined the word "education," first by setting up the straw man that Democrats define "education" as spending a bunch of money on public schools. But using spending increases to "prop up lavish health and pension benefits for public school teachers" doesn't help educate. No, Walker allowed districts "more flexibility in hiring younger, more dynamic teachers" (who could be paid less and replaced with even younger teachers in just a few years). Also, Schneider reminds us, vouchers allow "low-income parents the option to choose how their children are best served." That's a lie, of course-- Wisconsin vouchers, like most voucher programs, allow public tax dollars to be funneled to private religious schools. Non-public options are awesome, Schneider asserts, because if they weren't, parents would leave them.

Schneider also telegraphs the Walker argument on funding, and this will be a test of voters' memories and math skills. Walker has spent record amounts on education! Which is possible because earlier in his term, Walker cut more money from education than any governor (and spends more on prisons than on higher education, some analysts point out). Now. just in time for election season, he pushed ed spending back up. Here are the caveats-- much of that spending is headed to charter schools and vouchers, and corrected for inflation, it's still less than a decade ago. In fact, Walker is spinning this partial restoration of funding schools used to have as a "reform dividend"-- Act 10 just saved so much money that now he can put some back in education, which is like cutting the family food budget by taking away your kids meat and potatoes, feeding them bread and water for a week and then announcing on Sunday, "We've saved so much money with our food reforms that you'll now get a huge increase of food-- today everyone gets a spoonful of ice cream with lunch!"

This pastiche of half-truths, non-truths, and cynical spin looks like a preview of the Walker re-election campaign. Are people going to buy this baloney? Go read that boot-licking editorial again. Remember that Walker didn't even break a sweat surviving recall. And note that there are ten (count 'em, ten) Democrats jostling for position. It would be nice to see Walker go down in flames-- calling himself an education governor is like calling a nuclear bomb a construction facilitator. If Walker is an education governor, then I am a fitness leader or a hairline advancer. But if Walker is going to go down in flames, it's going to take a lot of hard work and a big bunch of torches. Good luck to the teachers left in Wisconsin.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Most Pro-Privatization States

The Network for Public Education, a grass roots organization that advocates for public education in this country (and of which-- full disclosure-- I am a member) has just released a report that is both useful and painful. It's a state by state look at privatization, completed in partnership with the Schott Foundation, and the results are illuminating. I'm just going to hit the highlights here-- you can read the whole report yourself without feeling as if you've enrolled in grad school (it's all under thirty pages and it's in plain English).

The report worked up a score for each state based on its resistance to the trends in privatization of public education. The five categories that the researchers looked at:

Types and extent of privatization- Just how far has the disease progressed?

Civil rights protection- Because privatization tends to go hand in hand with attacks on civil rights of students, families and communities

Accountability, regulations and oversights- Is anyone actually keeping an eye on the results of privatization, or is your state the land of Do As You Please?

Transparency- Does privatization and the private schools it empower all operate within a dark box inside which nobody is allowed to peek?

Other factors (charter schools)- Some states have come up with their own special wrinkles in charter law as a tool for privatizing education.

After analyzing the information and crunching the numbers, researchers assigned a numerical score, then converted that to a letter grade.

Top Ten States

The highest ranking states for resisting privatization were:

North Dakota
West Virginia
South Dakota

It's not an entirely encouraging list-- the last few states only received a C+.

Bottom Ten States

The worst states in the US for privatization?

New Hampshire
North Carolina

The spread is pretty wide. Nebraska secured its first place finish with a score of 99.5, while Arizona is worst in the nation with a 31.25.

Some Other Alarming Findings

* 28 states do not require charter schools to hire teachers with the same certification required for public schools.

* 38 states and DC have no required transparency provisions for charter school use of funds.

* 22 states do not require failed or closing charters to return their assets to the taxpayers who paid for them (It's the Producers all over again-- you could turn a profit by opening a failing charter school)

* Only one state (Iowa) requires that English Language Learners must receive language instruction until they're fluent.

* 23 states do not specifically protect students against religious discrimination.

* 18 states do not mandate services for students with special needs.

* Only four states allow for-profit charter schools, but virtually all allow non-profit charters to be run by for-profit management companies.

* 27 states don't require charters to provide transportation for students.

* 12 states and DC allow students to receive vouchers even if they have never attended public school, the most extreme example of money leaving the public district even though expenses have been lowered $0.00.

There's a great amount of detail and specifics in this report, but taken together, it forms a larger picture of the major problem with privatizing education-- the system bends toward directing money away from students and towards the profiteers. Instead, the emphasis is on allowing privatizers ways to cut costs and maximize profit. And while this happens, the states build (or re-build) a two-tiered system, with quality education for those who can afford it and 'just barely good enough" education for everyone else.

The report offers some recommendations at the end, including a moratorium on charter expansion. But in about the only point on which reformsters might take heart, they do not call for closure of charters or cold-turkey cut off of voucher programs because that would create disruption and instability for students currently using those programs. Instead, phase vouchers out carefully, and rather than close charters, let them be absorbed into the public system.

Read the report. See how your state scored, and look at some of the specific policy choices that NPE/Schott have targeted. Then contact your elected representatives and show them this report. Tell them about the specific policies that are creating trouble for education in your state. And keep doing it.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Government Reorganization and The Narrowing of Education

After a few days of hot rumors, today the Trump administration re-organization plan dropped. It's not a short thing, including as it does plenty of history and rationalization for this attempt to reduce the footprint of government.

In the education world, the buzz has been about the mash-up of the Education and Labor departments.

There's nothing to be surprised about-- the GOP has wanted to cut the education department off at the knees since the very day it was born. But I don't think this is necessarily about killed the ed department or even shuffling Betsy DeVos out of DC; I think the goal here is something worse.

Among the different tribes of reformsters, one clan has always been clear about how they think education is supposed to work. For instance, back in 2013 I pilloried this sentence written by Allan Golston for the Gates Foundation website:

Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so it’s a natural alliance.

Or there's this gem from Rex Tillerson, back when he was an oleaginous Exxon executive and not a failed Trump administration stooge:

I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? American schools have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.

For many of the business crowd, this has always been the point of education reform-- for schools to crank out workers who can be more useful meat widgets for the captains of industry. Data mining appeals to them because it would be great if Human Resources could just access a data base to order up meat widgets to spec ("I'd like ten that are strong math, are fair in written communication, show no family history of expensive illness, and have a history of being compliant with authority figures"). Competency-Based Education appeals to them because meat widgets can be trained quickly and specifically in just those competencies that employers care about. And a narrower education keeps the meat widgets from being exposed to anything that might give them ideas or make them, you know, all uppity about what they expect from an employer in wages and working conditions.

For this brand of reformster (which, I should be clear, is not all reformsters) education is really just vocational training for the Lessers. Liberal education, with broader purpose and scope-- it's fine if that's offered at private schools for people who can afford it. But public education should be focused on the basics-- math, reading, work skills, compliance. It's an added bonus that cutting back to the basics also makes public education cheaper.

For these folks, the merger of Education and Labor makes perfect sense-- the public schools of today are where the laborers of tomorrow go to be made useful for their future bosses.

Fig. 1
This is also signaled in the new name of the merged department-- the Department of Education and the Workforce. Gone is "labor" with all its history as a term for a sector of the economy deserving respect and support and protection. Gone is that word that so often used to appear side by side with the hated word "union." Gone, I suspect, will be the notion that this department should in any way champion the rights of labor in this country.

We'll see if anyone in the GOP wants to call out the significance of a department set up to handle students and workers, because this merger is perfectly in keeping with the vision of a cradle-to-career pipeline that goes back at least to Mark Tucker's infamous letter to Hillary Clinton, laying out how through data mining, careful education management, and a whole bunch of what we could call surveillance, we could start with new-born infants and build them to order, made to emerge from school ready to take (and accept) their proper meat widget assignment in the world.

The merger of the two departments is only #1 on a list of 32 different proposed improvements, including folding the FDA into the USDA; fixing USAID so it helps make other countries more self-sufficient instead of, I guess, helping them; reorganizing the census bureau; making the postal service more profitable (suck it, Bezos) or just privatizing it; some argle bargle that looks suspiciously like pushing social impact bonds; and making the federal government paperless by 2022. Plus monkeying around with student loans.

Betsy DeVos has released a statement saying that she thinks this is super plusgood.

Will such a consolidation have an actual effect on classroom teachers?

It's hard to predict what's going to emerge as actual policy from the department (or who will actually be in charge of it). The past two decades have already been marked by a federal emphasis on education as vocational training (for the Lessers, of course-- their Betters still send their children to private schools with rich, broad educational programs, because nobody is sending their kid to Philips Exeter Academy just to make them a more employable cog in a corporate wheel). The repeated mantra of "college and career ready" standards (where college is just a source of higher-level vocational training) has already pushed schools away from liberal arts programs and towards strictly vocational, nose-to-the-grindstone education. This is probably just another step on the road we've been traveling for a while.

So I don't think, should Congress approve this, the day after merger classroom teachers will suddenly have new programs and policies to implement.

Instead, I think we'll continue to suffer from the slow and steady narrowing of our educational goals and purpose, our very definition of what getting an education means. School should be, has been (and for the wealthy, will continue to be) about building an understanding of how the world works, building an understanding of our best selves, of how we can best be fully human in the world while we pursue our goals and aspirations. School should be about finding a place in the world, and while it serves students, it also serves the entire community as well-- friends, neighbors, family members, fellow citizens, fellow voters-- and not just future employers.* The push for twenty years has been to redefine school as a place where you get ready to pass a test that proves you have certain skills so that you can get a job by proving to someone with more power and money than you that you can serve as a useful tool for them. Yes, we'll occasionally let someone prove they can jump up to the Betters education, but allowing for the occasional transfer between tiers in a two-tier system is not the same as providing a top-notch universal education system for all. Meanwhile, teaching becomes less like lighting a fire and lifting up students and more like dronesick drudgery.

Or, to put it more simply, the classic view of the US public education system was a system meant to serve the needs of students. What we're pushing now is a system where students are meant to understand that their place in the world is to serve the needs of others. This is not a new dichotomy-- in the past, where we have failed to meet the ideal of the classic view, it has been because of people pushing hard for the idea that only certain students deserved to be served, and all others must learn to serve.

It's a sad, narrow, meagre vision of education we've been building, and a merger of departments simply puts one more nail into one more sad two-by-four. I don't think a merger represents a sudden sharp turn toward disaster (though it could unleash all manner of chaos and destruction-- never underestimate this administration), but it surely isn't good news, either. We'll see if anyone in Congress wants to stand up and oppose it (see Fig. 1)

*A sentence to this effect was somehow lost from the original draft, and I just put it back. Apologies to the first few hundred people who read the incomplete version.

Testing Blind

Imagine you are the head coach for a football team. You work with the team, prepare the team, and then game day arrives. For game day, you are not allowed to scout the other team. In fact, you are not allowed to watch the game, listen to play-by-play, read about it, talk to the players about it, or ever learn anything at all about the game except the final score.
This is the current state of testing in U.S. schools.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, every public school in the U.S. has been required to give a Big Standardized Test at the end of the year. Your state may give the PARCC, the SBA, or state-selected test like Pennsylvania's Keystone exams. The test is supposed to help pinpoint problem areas and, among other things, "inform instruction."
But for the classroom teacher, the Big Standardized Test is a black box.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the official "Ethical Standards of Test Administration" note that teachers should never "copy or otherwise reproduce any part" of the test. Teachers take a pre-test training (some Powerpoint slides followed by a quiz) that indicates that teachers should avoid even looking at the test, and if they do see the test, they must never discuss what they've seen.
Several states require students to sign a non-disclosure agreement pledging that they will never discuss the contents of the test with anyone, ever.
In 2016, a college professor leaked some PARCC questions, and the copyright infringement team at PARCC went after not just people who reprinted the questions or even general descriptions of the questions, but even those who published links to the material.
All of this means that the classroom teacher never sees anything except a student's final score. What exactly did the student do wrong? Where exactly are her weaknesses? What sorts of questions or content tend to throw her off? Teachers, who are supposed to modify their instruction to fix the problems, are never allowed to know exactly what the problems are.
Why test blindly? The explanation depends on your level of cynicism.
Maybe it really is test security. If the questions get out before the next wave takes them, the test results are compromised.
Maybe it's to avoid further embarrassment to testing manufacturers, like the infamous talking pineapple fiasco of 2012 or this article by a poet who discovered she couldn't answer test questions about her own work. Since nobody sees the questions (except students), nobody can criticize them.
Maybe it's simple cost savings. Once the test items are known, they are "used up" and creating new test items is costly. The less often the manufacturer has to create new items, the cheaper it is to produce the test.
What all these explanations have in common is that they consider the needs of the multibillion-dollar testing industry ahead of the needs of classroom teachers. This is not the best way to use a Big Standardized Test to let teachers know how the students are doing, because without seeing the test, teachers don't even know what the students are doing.
And there's one more wrinkle. Since the tests are given in the spring and the results come back even later, teachers will see the scores for students they no longer teach, or they will see the scores for students they have not yet taught and do not know. In other words, if we go back to your coaching job, after you find out the score from the last game, you now start coaching for the next game with an entirely different team.
We've been doing this testing regimen for almost two decades, and it has produced no remarkable improvements in public schools. There are many explanations for that lack of improvement, and many steps we could take to make things better. But a good first step would be to let teachers take off their blindfolds.
Originally posted at, where you can now find me writing about education issues for a slightly different audience.