Monday, July 30, 2018

7 Requirements To Launch Personalized Learning Program

So you've decided that you want to get in on the Next Big Thing in education and launch a computer-based personalized learning program. Now you just need to line up the following items.

1. A huge library of materials.

You need teaching materials to suit every single student who logs on, every day, based on the individual student's strengths and weaknesses. After all, you're replacing the old system where some mass produced materials were intended to roughly hit the area mostly occupied by the majority of students. One size mostly fit most. If your instructional program is going to be custom tailored to each student, you will need a massive library of materials that can cover every possible occurrence. And that library will also have to reflect a deep, wide, and rich understanding of the content material (not just the understanding of a programming guy).

2. Really smart Artificial Intelligence software.

We've gotten pretty sloppy with the term "artificial intelligence," slapping it on every algorithm created, no matter how simple that algorithm is. But to run your personalized learning program, you will need the real thing. It will need to be able to analyze student strengths and weaknesses across a broad spectrum of domains and standards, and then it will need to be able to dip into that massive library of materials to select the next activity for that student. Perhaps, if you have a super-duper AI, you can have it actually generate new custom materials so that you don't need the library referenced in #1. But if you have an AI that is really that smart, there are probably places you can be making way more money than in education.

3. An honest-to-God text assessment system.

Companies keep claiming to have software that can grade essays. They have not been correct yet. Measuring the educational progress of the student cannot be accurately accomplished only through objective assessments such as multiple choice questions. There must be open-ended questions that require sentences and paragraphs to answer. That, in turn, requires assessment software that can not just analyze structure, but can tell whether or not the content is accurate and sensible.

4. A good interface.

Students who deal with computer-centered personalized programs invariably talk about the problems of dealing with the interface. Design that is ugly. Windows for typing long answers that don't let you see all of what you've typed. Questions that allow only for certain narrow views of the problem presented. And all this is outside the challenge of expecting six-year-olds to be proficient in the use of a mouse and a screen (heck, today you can find plenty of tech-savvy teens who have never worked with a mouse). You must ensure that your students are learning the content, and not just learning your software.

5. A data collection system.

The simple version of this is to simply use each assignment as a data source to figure out the next assignment. But in boutique personalized education schools like Silicon Valley's AltSchool, you find a whole staff of teachers, techs, and other personnel who are busily capturing and processing data daily. To really personalize education, you need to collect, enter and process a ton of data. It's going to be time-consuming and costly.

6. A data security system.

Once we've collected all that data, we are a rich target for hackers who would like to steal it and for entrepreneurs who would like to rent it. Collecting and storing this much data about children poses some practical concerns, some legal concerns, and certainly some ethical concerns. But once we get past the question of whether we should even have it in the first place, we have to deal with the question of how we will keep it secure.

7. Nerves of steel (and special corner-cutting scissors).

From Rocketship to Summit to the above-mentioned AltSchool, providers of personalized learning have discovered that really doing it is hard and expensive (and therefore marketable to a narrow group of people). They instead switched to a business model in which a scaled-down version of their program can be purchased by any school district. It reminds me of the Project Runway episodes where the designers are supposed to create a fabulous runway look, and then also create a cheaper, simpler knockoff for the ready-to-wear market.

When the costs of your personalized learning program get too great (and your investors get antsy), where will you cut corners? Which of the necessities that you either can't afford or which don't actually exist, will you scale down? And will you have the nerve to market the idealized complete personalized package while you are actually selling something less spectacular? Will you have the guts to sell your vaporware as if it's as solid and real as the leather seats in your Lexus?

Originally posted at Forbes. Check it out: I'm now a regular there on Mondays and Thursdays.     

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Dammit, Arne: Duncan Has Learned Nothing

Never mind a Secretary of Education who has ever taught anything; I'm beginning to think it would be a step forward if we had a Secretary of Education who has ever learned anything.

Arne Duncan was interviewed for the pages of US News, and the resulting piece reminds us, first, that there's not nearly as much difference between Duncan and DeVos as some Democrats would like to believe, and second, that Duncan remain unrepentant and unenlightened about anything that happened under his watch. So join me in yelling fruitlessly at the computer screen as we walk through this trip down Delusion Lane.

Chicken Little's History of School

Count Duncan as a member of the Century Club-- that special group of reformsters that is certain schools haven't changed in 100 years. Arne would also like to beat the expired equine about how "other nations out-educating, out-investing, out-innovating us." Because, you know, we're competing with India and China and Singapore for jobs. That's certainly true, but at no point is it going to occur to Duncan that those countries compete by offering little or no regulation and workers who will do the job for pennies. In all the times I've heard the "we must change education to compete with China" refrain, not once have I heard an explanation of how education will help American workers better compete with people working under conditions we wouldn't accept for wages we couldn't live on. Arne wants us to now that our kids-- his kids-- are going to grow up in that world. And if you think Arne's kids, raised in privilege and comfort, are going to be competing with some Chinese smartphone assembler for work, well-- I have a bridge over a swamp to sell you.

This guy. This frickin' guy.

Oh, and we are not in the top 10 internationally. Which-- first, what does that even mean? Top 10 ranked by what? Because if, as I would guess, he means test scores, let me repeat for the gazzillionth time that we have never, ever been in the Top 10 for international test scores. Nor has Duncan ever offered a shred of evidence that being in the Top 10 of test scores translates into any sort of national achievement like higher GDP or higher standard of living or happier citizens or military might or best frozen desserts!

Duncan's Diagnosis and That Damned Status Quo

Having failed to effectively define the problem, Duncan now goes on to offer his idea about the cause.

This is not a cure for cancer, this is not rocket science. It's total lack of political will. And I think the politics of the left and the right stand in the way of what's best for kids.

Well, actually, it is too rocket science. Duncan's thesis is that fixing schools is actually quite easy; we're just not willing to do it, because after all this time, he still doesn't realize how complex and complicated it is to run an entire educational system. And Duncan doesn't seem to know what he's trying to change because he also notes "There's a small number of  political leaders willing to challenge the status quo."

Dammit, Arne.

First, the status quo in education right now is the status quo you help make. Common Core, in its various bastardized forms and under its various assumed names, is the status freakin' quo, and an ugly obnoxious one it is, too. Schools and teachers being evaluated based on bad uses of bad data generated by bad tests-- that's status quo, too. As is the draining of resources from public schools by private charterized schools. These are all problems, these are all status quo, and these are all a legacy in part of your administration.

Second, the idea that you need political leaders to change the educational system shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the education system (and, for that matter, the political system) works. You need teachers and education leaders and actual trained professional educators to change an educational system, yet another fact we can put on the list of Things You Don't Understand. All these years, and you still treat teachers like the hired help, certain that your amateur insights are more important than anything they might have to say.

Duncan also thinks we need Republicans to challenge their base, and I'm not sure where he's coming from here, because other than a deadly aversion to the words "common core," the GOP base is in tune with most of the Duncan program. Duncan offers Obama's championing of merit pay as a profil;e in courage because "that's very hard to do" and well, yes, it's hard to do because we have lots of evidence that merit pay doesn't work. There's nothing courageous about standing up for a bad idea.

Advice for Future Administrations

This is a generous question to ask, and an honest answer would be, "It doesn't matter, because my name is mud in DC. I mean, did you see ESSA pass? I personally created a consensus that me, my department, and my successors should have little or no say in all future education policy."

But Duncan still takes the pass and drives for the basket. And he has some goals that he thinks transcend party politics.

First, more "high quality" pre-K, which unfortunately is usually code for imposing the mistakes of K-12 policy on very small children. Because what the US needs is more four-year-olds sitting in seats to complete worksheets so they're ready for their standardized tests.

Second, let's get the graduation rate up. Duncan is proud of the 84% his administration hit, and I guess that pride precludes any discussion of how much fraud went into that figure, including the fraud right in DC itself. But that has always been a hallmark of the Duncan approach-- go for good numbers, but never ask what the numbers actually mean.

Third, 100% of graduates should be college ready. Gahh! [Takes moment to wipe spittle off screen]. "College ready" is a meaningless phrase-- ready for what college? what field of study? in the hopes of what job? And in the meantime, who is going to weld stuff? (Note that US News also has a great article about "25 Jobs That Don't Require a College Degree").

Fourth, we should lead world in college completion. See above rant.

Those are goals that keep high-wage, high-skill jobs in our country. Those are jobs that grow the middle class, those are jobs that keep our civic democracy healthy.

That's not how it works. These are goals that give businesses the luxury of having a deeper pool to choose from (and consequently pay less for), but business does not say, "Look, there are a hundred graduates in Computer Wafflery! We'd better come up with 100 jobs for them! And pay them super-well." I have no idea what he thinks these have to do with a healthy civic democracy.

Duncan argues for vigorous discussion and lots of different local solutions, because no one has a monopoly on good ideas. True. Hell, some people don't even have a piece of good idea market at all.

What About The Feds?

What role should the feds play? Duncan ducks this question so hard I think his chin scraped some carpet off the floor. He mentions the i3 fund, a couple hundred million to "scale what works" in innovation (defining what works of course as what makes test score numbers go up). The feds are supposed to be backing innovation, he says.

Here are some things he doesn't say:

That his administration had the School Improvement Grants that turned out to be a complete bust. That part of the problem was most likely that rather than saying "Go forth and innovate," the administration said "Here's a list of the handful of acceptable ways to spend this money." As with Race to the Top and the waiver program, the Duncan approach was always to prescribe what schools should do to Fix Things. All this talk about innovation and local flexibility is swell, but Duncan never, ever backed that up on a policy level. Instead, it was always, "We know what you need to do, and we will give you funds only if you do things our way." And that approach failed. Failed, failed, failed.

Bad Teachers

Gabrielle Levy asks a loaded question that presumes we're awash in bad teachers and nobody is doing anything about it.  Duncan runs his old one-two of "We should respect teaching but currently most teachers start out sucking." We should train them like professionals and compensate them like professionals, he says in one breath, before qualifying it with "great teachers," as if professional doctors and lawyers live on merit pay. Fine. Whatever. He likes the residency model, and I won't beef with that, but then he's back to the Century Club, as if education only just changed recently and teachers haven't caught on yet.

Can You Explain the Big Teacher Walkouts in Oklahoma and West Virginia and Arizona?

Short answer: Not really. Long answer: those damned Republicans are starving education in their states, cutting funding over and over, which doesn't serve anyone. And that's not wrong, but I have to point out that the guy saying it is the same guy that presided over programs where only the "best" states got money and those lagging just had to try harder. This is the same guy who believes that marketplace competition will spur schools to greatness. So these red state austerity programs are just the logical extension of his policies-- the less you give people, the more they will strive for excellence to win the zero-sum game. This is how it works. First, some people lose. Eventually everybody loses.

Also, this: "Jobs will go where knowledge workers are." No. Jobs will go where workers are good enough and costs are lower than elsewhere.

Why Doesn't It Seem As If Education Is A Priority In This Country?

"The challenge is that no one votes based upon education." So nobody values it because nobody values it? South Korea, he says, kicks our education butt because people care so much. Here in the US, politicians can do lip service and photo ops, but nothing else.


Hey, Duncan did learn something. Like many of us, he learned the Sandy Hook lesson, which is that if we can let twenty white babies and five teachers be killed, there really isn't anything that will create enough outrage for us to do anything about guns. We care about guns more than children, and that's who we are.

So In The End...

Duncan is of course out promoting his book, which means we'll likely be subjected to more of this.

I'll go ahead and accept the oft-painted picture of Duncan as a nice guy. But man-- I cannot think of a single moment in the last decade when he has said anything remotely like, "You know, I've look at the actual results and listened to some of my critics and examined some data and talked to actual teachers, and I've concluded that I made a mistake with this policy or that statement." He is like a guy who douses the porch in kerosene, throws a match, and then stands in the street and says, "Well, this house is on fire! That's a real problem-- somebody needs to do something about that." Then later he starts telling the fire department how best to fight the fire. And while Disney's brain is rumored to frozen in a chest somewhere, Duncan's brain is frozen but still wired up in his head, its views and ideas unchanged and unalterable, every experience or detail that might cause cognitive dissonance bouncing off the solid surface.

I won't read the book; I can't support selling one more copy of the damned thing. Duncan is not only an educational amateur, but one who has had experiences from which he could have learned-- but he didn't. He may be a nice guy, but the sooner he just gets the hell away from education, the better it will be for all of us.

ICYMI: Almost August Already Edition (7/29)

Summer is slipping away, but there's still plenty to read about education. Here are a few things from this week that you might want to catch up with. And remember-- amplifying important voices is how those voices become important.

End of Public Schools in Milwaukee

Thomas Ultican explains what's going wrong there.

Charter Schools Have Done More Harm Than Good in Michigan

Mitchell Robinson with a guest op-ed that lays out the sad, destructive history of charter schools in Betsy DeVos's home state

What Does TFA Tell the New Recruits about the Janus Decision?

Gary Rubinstein with another interesting perspective on the Janus decision

The Problem with Fear Based Reform

Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider on the Have You Heard podcast talking to Andrea Gabor about her new book and how education has learned lessons from the business world-- just all the wrong ones.

No, Private Schools Aren't Better At Educating Kids  

I'd like this better if we weren't depending on tests as a measure, but it's still worth a quick look.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Calvin, Hobbes, and the Limts of Time

One gift that I finally got to crack open this summer was my copy of the Complete Calvin and Hobbes. And I just finished it.

It's done. I've looked at every panel, every sequence, every extra piece of artwork. That's all there is. There is no more.

You know the feeling. You love the book, or the book series, and you turn the last page, and you're done. That's it. There is no more.

My father is a bit of a Glenn Miller scholar, and he has amassed over the years pretty much every recording, including many that exist only as reel-to-reel copies of transcripts, and he can chart them all against the complete list made by other scholars of every gig Miller ever played. And maybe a few more will turn up, but basically, that's all there is. There is no more.

It's the same for Beatles fans and Tolkein enthusiasts. It's why J. K. Rowling will never have a moment's peace even as fans shell out money for recreations of Harry Potter's ear wax, and why there will always be a cottage industry in writing "new" Sherlock Holmes and James Bond stories. We don't want to get to the end.

We humans love to mask the finite nature of earthly life. We talk about things that "always" happen as if they don't have a limit. But there are limits. I can't talk about what I always did on the first day of school because in the end, as a teacher, I only had thirty-nine first days of school. Thirty-nine. Not that many really, but that's all there is now.

Schools exist in an oddly exaggerated time bubble. I often joked about the lifespan of a new policy idea, whether it was a grading scale or a special carpet for prom:

1st year: It's a radical new idea.
2nd year: It's that new thing we did last year.
3rd year: Oh, we always do this.
4th year: It's an inviolable tradition!

By February, our students talk about our classes like they've been going on forever. We were strange and new in the fall; now we're as familiar as the coffee stain on Grandma's couch.

But teachers grapple with the finite all the time. There are 180 student days in the school year. In Pennsylvania, that may actually mean 178 days; if you are a high school teacher, that's less than an hour with each class on each of those days. That's it. Every thing that gets added costs part of that time. And every hour lost is gone forever; this is not like a private sector office job where you can end a meeting with, "Well, we'll get back that tomorrow." In school, fairly quickly, you reach the moment where there is no tomorrow. That's all there is. There is no more.

This is undoubtedly part of why schools tend to be conservative institutions. Every new thing, every added thing, costs us part of our finite resources. It is the question that staff asks (or wants to ask but is afraid to) every time a new initiative is proposed-- "This is great, Sir. What do you want me to stop teaching to make room for it?"

There's a moment in the fourth Indiana Jones movie where a character says to Jones, "We've reached the point where life stops giving us things and starts taking things away from us." (It's striking for me because Jones in that film is supposed to be fifty-eight-- three years younger than I am. Oh, so old!) Teaching can get to feel like that. Well, not the teaching itself. For most of my career I worked hard at finding ways to do more and more with the resources I had; for the last decade it felt more like I was trying to keep doing as much as I used to with fewer and fewer resources. Every test, every practice test, every new initiative add-on just meant my teaching year had gotten shorter.

It's good for us to bump up against the finite limits of existence. It reminds us to make good use of every class period, every day. From my current vantage point, I can say this to younger teachers-- it may feel like you'll do this forever, but you won't. You'll have only so many first days, last days, 133rd days, only so many years, only so many different students. A teacher's body of work is finite, just like any other artist's.

Don't wait. Don't save it for later. Don't imagine you have forever to work things out. Don't panic-- but don't postpone, either.

The end of Calvin and Hobbes is a lovely gracious note, particularly for a feature in which a child has remained six years old for ten years, suggesting that the story, filled with possibilities, will continue long after we've stopped reading about it. That's a gentle way to let us down, but the fact is, that time is over. Even if the story continues elsewhere, in it, Calvin will age and live through every year of his life only once and then, yes, eventually he will grow old and die.

Things end. That's normal and it says something about us a earthly creatures that the statement generally prompts a bit of a pang. It needn't. In the classroom, in our professional lives, in our personal lives, we should feed the impulse to say yes, to grow, most of all to help others and not, as Simon Stimson bitterly observes in Our Town, "to spend and waste time as though you had a million years." In each other we find a million different living stories, any one of which could turn a final page tomorrow. We can do better. We should do better.

In life, we never know how much time is left. In school, generally, we know exactly how much is left-- and it's never enough. If teachers seem touchy about giving up some of it, it's because they can see the calendar and hear the clocking ticking down the minutes until we have to say that's all there is. There isn't any more.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Castro Calls On DeVos To Support Public Schools

It's a short news brief, but worth catching.

According to Politico this morning, DeVos had a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic caucus (not on her public schedule) which yielded this comment from Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas):

“The Secretary’s primary focus is school choice,” Castro said. “However, her statements did not encourage us that the Department of Education has a strategy — or much desire — to earnestly improve the existing public school system. We are not interested in siphoning money from public schools to prop up a shadow system that includes private, for-profit schools.” 

Castro chaired the meeting and said he appreciated the visit but said they still have a "fundamental disagreements on how to best prepare kids for success in life, and the critical role of the Department in making our public schools stronger."

Castro has a mixed record on education issues, with strong support for the public system, but also strong support for the whole standards-and-testing mess. And the Castro brothers (a rising Texas brand) have been pretty friendly to the charter sector in the past. He's a successful Democratic politician in Texas, so that's an achievement in itself, but I also note that his quote opposes "for profit" schools, and as we've noted before, a non-profit charter is just a for-profit charter with a good money laundering system.

DeVos's office followed up on the meeting by saying "Glad for the meeting blah blah blah choice students." I may be paraphrasing a bit.

The Parenting Gap

Another reformster has come out against the use of Big Standardized Test results as a measure of school success, not just once, but twice in the last eight days. Corey DeAngelis (Cato) took the stand both at the ever-reformy The 74 and at a website called Townhall, a website so conservative it includes as piece about the coming Trump landslide.

There's nothing mysterious about DeAngelis's apostasy-- the use of BS Test scores as success measures has made voucher programs look pretty bad, and DeAngelis likes vouchers. What, you don't think people can support good ideas for bad reasons? And lots of reformsters are not dopes-- Jay Greene was a lonely voice in the reformy world that tests are lousy proxies for what we actually care about. He's finally getting some company. Yet again, reformsters are "discovering" what teachers have been trying to tell them all along. That's okay. Everyone comes to the truth in their own way in their own time. Glad to have more folks at the party.

The DeAngelis Townhall piece looks at a study out of Barbados and pulls some detail out on the way to this conclusion:

This new study adds to the mounting scientific evidence suggesting that standardized test scores are not strong proxies for the long-term outcomes that society actually cares about. In other words, education regulators ought to realize that the tools that they have to attempt to control the quality of schools are far from perfect. And they ought to realize that families already know what’s best for their own kids.

The first two sentences are spot on. And the third-- well, the third walks us up to an uncomfortable conversation that we've avoided having, because it involves issues that are not easily delineated, and because it requires teachers to confront their natural allies-- parents.

The choice fans relentlessly return to the idea of parental choice. Parents know best. Parents can choose.

There's a problem with that.

Some parents suck.

Every teacher can tell you the stories. Even teachers who teach in small rural areas like mine. There are the spectacularly bad parents that lead to

The student who was always tired because her trailer home had no heat because her father spent the utility money on beer...

The student whose only non-deserting parent was in jail for trying to run over that student with s car, on purpose, when the child was eight...

The student who was thrown out of the house because he got in a fist fight with his father, because his father wouldn't share his drugs (that student was later convicted of a double homicide)…

In some ways, these are not the most heartbreaking stories. Those are stories where you are sitting in an IEP (individualized education program) meeting with a parent who is being clear that they hope you can shape up their child who is worthless, lazy and stupid. Or the student who is sad and distracted because their father announced over the weekend that he was moving with his new wife and child to another state to start a new life, and his previous children, your student, was not welcome to visit, ever.

And that's before we get to more widely understood examples, like the parent who throws a child out for being gay. Or the simple unextraordinary stuff like "I stopped getting Pat up for school because it was just so hard" or "I didn't need no book learning to get through life and I don't see why Junior needs any either."

None of this is a factor of socio-economics. At least one of the parents above is a college-educated successful and comfortably wealthy physician.

This is not a simple issue to navigate. I don't support any kind of Parent Police, and I think removing a child from parental custody is a nuclear option to be used only in the most extreme of situations. And it should be noted that "extreme situations" do not include "lives a culture or lifestyle different from the one you prefer."

But the fact remains that a not-insignificant number of parents are not capable or concerned advocates for their children. An open market voucher system will leave those children without an effective advocate at all, or an advocate who is not so much shopping for a great school as they will be looking for a babysitter who won't bother them (and I am not even going to start today on how marketing will further cloud the issues).

Now I suspect that some voucher fans, like Betsy DeVos, are okay with that, that they will view a choice system as one more chance for the deserving few to rise to the top and the Lessers to sink down to their rightful place at the bottom. Did your parents choose a terrible school for you? Well, I guess it was nothing more than you and your kind deserve. And this, truly, is not far removed from the reformster idea of charters as a haven for strivers, so that they can get away from Those Peoples' Children. The idea of a two-tiered system is baked into some reform ideas, the educational equivalent of the idea that trying to use welfare and food stamps to elevate poor folks just upsets the balance of nature, and we need to stop trying to artificially raise people up above their station.

But for people who believe otherwise (and I think there are plenty on all sides), the problem remains. If you're going to propose a voucher/choice system, you must include some sort of safety net for students whose parents suck. Somewhere in your system there must be a means providing support for those students who won't get it at home.

Otherwise, for all your calls that every student should enjoy the privilege of school choice, you're really arguing for a system that creams the students who come from solid families and abandons those who don't. Such a system doesn't serve the interests of the children, the community or the taxpayers; it simply further cements the inequities that are already there. The biggest advantage that  children can have in life is parents who care about them, who love them, who watch out for them, who advocate for them. A choice system that does not look out for students who don't have such parents is just a system that widens the gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Public School Registration

It's that time. The local newspaper is loaded with notifications from all local school districts that it is now time for registering your student for school.

That means mostly kindergarten registrants, though it could be any grade. But here are some things that will not happen during this period:

* No parents will be handed complicated paperwork as part of the beginning of a long application process.

* No parents will be told there are no more seats available.

* No parents will be told they must enter their child in as lottery.

* No parents will be told that the school cannot (and will not) offer programs to deal with that child's special needs, so so sad, too bad, seeya.

* In fact, weeks or even months from now, no parents will be told that they missed the registration period so they are locked out of the district until next fall.

This registration period goes straight to the heart of a difference between public schools and charter schools. Charter advocates like to talk about students "trapped" in certain zip codes, but the beauty of the US public school system is the guarantee-- the guarantee that whatever your zip code, there is a school that will take your child in (or at a minimum, help make the arrangements necessary to get your child an education-- and pay for them).

If, due to some bizarre set of circumstances, 150 kindergarten students show up to register in your tiny district, the school doesn't get to say "We don't have that capacity-- go away!" They have to find or make the capacity.

Are there public schools that try to weasel around this requirement? Sadly, there are. But parents can take these schools to court. It's an unnecessary barrier that parents should never have to surmount, but compare it to charters, where if the school refuses to offer the special services a child needs, the parents' recourse is... well, nothing. Vote with your feet.

And yes, some of you will point out that some urban systems (looking at you, NYC) have hoops and paperwork and applications that rival anything a charter system ever thought of, and I'll point out that A) that's a bug, not a feature, and it ought to be changed, B) not all of the US is urban, and C) this is one of the way that some public school systems have made themselves vulnerable to charter challenges-- by losing sight of their real mission.

That's the promise of US public education-- wherever you are, wherever you live, wherever you have chosen to raise (or move) your family, right now, there's a school district where you can walk in and say, "I want to register my child for school," and they have to say, "Okay." And that is true all year. When charter schools can match that, then we can start talking about their claims to being public schools.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

OK: More Money For Charters

Early-stage charter development in a state often features the Bargain argument-- we keep pouring money into public schools and getting nothing, but charters can do awesome things for less money, so let's get chartering!

But that's just Phase One, and in Oklahoma, it's time for Phase Two.

The Oklahoman editorial board thinks that Oklahoma is going to shift from austerity budgeting to doing some spending, and it sees several likely areas. Some sort of prison reform. Spending of school bond issues. Rep Chad Caldwell wants to study the correlation between spending and "educational outcomes," which presumably means test scores in a bogus study that ignore eleventy zillion factors in order to focus on just one. And this one:

Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, will lead a study on equitable funding of charter schools. Some of Oklahoma's best-performing schools are charter schools, yet they are denied property tax funding other schools receive. As a result, some of the state's best schools are in some of the most dilapidated buildings. It's time to reassess a funding system that (perhaps inadvertently) financially penalizes excellence in education.

So in Phase Two we shift from "we can do the job more cheaply" to "Hey, why aren't we getting as much money as everyone else."

Stanislawski has attempted a bill like this before, arguing that it's costly to come up with a building to house a charter. And he's also behind the laws making cyber-charters in Oklahoma, a type of charter school that has not performed well, to the point that even charter supporters have been critical of them.

Stanislawski himself has been a voice resistant to making charters accountable for their use of taxpayer dollars, using an argument that the "charters are public schools" crowd might not support.

He equated it to the private sector. He said when the government pays a private company to do a job, they don’t ask how much everyone is getting paid, or how much the materials for the job are going to cost.

I'm not sure that really holds up, but thanks, Senator, for being one more voice that agrees that charters are private businesses and not public schools.

Stanislawski seems to sidestep one of the issues of using bonds to get physical facilities for charters, which is simply-- who owns the building? Is he proposing that the public issue bonds that are used to buy private property for an individual or business? When the government issues a bond for a public school, the process ends with facilities that are owned by the public. What we've seen in some states is government bonds being used to buy someone some private property.

That's before we even get to the damage done by diverting funds from the public school sector to private charter schools. It all seems kind of reasonable up front-- we just want these charters to have the same financial chance that public schools do. But McDonalds doesn't come to town and say, "Hey, we'd like to set up shop, but a building is really expensive, so could you issue a bond to build the facilities and then just give them to us as a gift?" And McDonalds is at least going to generate their own income once they get started-- a charter school will be living off of public tax dollars.

Oklahoma voters are encouraged to keep their eyes on their tax dollars, because once charters are established, they have really only two ways to increase their bank balance-- either cut the costs of operation, or by getting the legislature to send more money their way. Welcome to Phase Two.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Another Merit Pay Failure

Merit pay for teachers remains a golden dream for many Reformsters. Of course, there's a problem with that-- it doesn't actually work. It has not worked in a variety of settings and under a variety of conditions. Of course, "worked" is usually measured as "raised standardized test scores," which is a lousy measure of teacher quality, anyway.

The effectiveness of merit pay in the business world is questionable, but merit pay for teachers doesn't even make sense. After all, your bonus is supposed to come out of all the extra money that the business made this year; that is not how schools work. In education, you only have two options:

1) Set aside a pile of merit pay money at the beginning of the year and let the teachers fight over it.

2) If your teachers all have a really good year, raise taxes to pay for their bonuses.

Guess which model is more popular.

Your merit pay is out there, somewhere.
Merit pay for teachers is also premised on the notion that teachers could try harder-- they just aren't going to until they're bribed. But if that's really the case, then offering a tiny base pay with the prospect of tiny bonuses doesn't seem like the way to harness greed as a tool to overcome slothfulness.

But it turns out there's another way to screw up merit pay.

Arizona implemented merit pay on the state level via sales tax (after carefully looking at all the evidence that it wouldn't work) and, of course, made it available to charter schools as well. One charter thought it had found a clever way to use merit pay to plug holes in its own budget.

Heritage Elementary School is a K-8 charter school with campuses in Williams and Glendale, plus others under the La Paloma brand.  They focus on "superior academics and family values with a character-based curriculum." On their "careers" page they note that they have a "family environment, a great staff, supportive administration, and our teachers are treated with respect." One would hope the "respect" thing was a given, but since we're talking about Arizona, maybe it needs to be said.

I'm not sure everyone would agree, however. News broke last week that twenty teachers (all women) had been denied the second half of their merit pay because they had resigned from Heritage Glendale. First-- twenty teachers have resigned effective the end of this year?! Yikes. The school had about 920 students last year. The family seems to have some issues. The second half of the merit pay would be about $1,500 to $1,800 (the first installment was paid during the school year). Teachers can use that; the average pay at the school is $38,734 according to, but Arizona Republic reports the average as $32,899. The school's principal, Justin Dye, was not very helpful:

I understand their viewpoint. The reality is the school board can decide how to use it (301 money). There are schools that hold the money…They could decide one teacher gets all the money. It's been done before.

So, tough luck. (I'll note here that Dye, because this is Arizona, runs some side businesses that are contracted by the school, like the preschool program and the transportation service.) It does raise the question-- exactly how motivational is merit pay when it may be awarded and then withdrawn on an administrative whim?

The action by the school's unelected four-person board was taken in June. Teachers appealed the decision, and were told that only those returning to Heritage would get their merit bonus. Then they threatened legal action. The Arizona Republic published stories about the stiffing of the teachers on Monday and Tuesday and, miraculously, the board decided to have a quick call-in meeting and decided in about ten minutes to fork over the promised pay that the teachers had already earned. 

Charter Superintendent Jackie Trujillo said the news coverage had nothing to do with the decision, but that Principal Dye had pushed the board to pay up. Trujillo also showed the Republic budget documents indicating that Heritage teachers would be getting a 17% raise-- which will mean that Heritage teachers' average pay will be only $14,000 less than the projected average for public school teachers.

(And don't forget-- this is Arizona, where charter schools get paid more per pupil than the public schools do.)

So one more Arizona charter establishes itself as a highly ethical and trustworthy place where teachers can expect to be treated like family, with respect, because character-based education is what they're all about. Also, merit pay. And if you're a teacher looking for work-- well, now you know about one more place that belongs on your Last Resort list.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

What Ever Happened To Common Core

You remember Common Core. First it was going to save the educational universe (and help lift a couple of political careers). Then it was going to turn all our children into gay communists. Then, most everyone stopped using the words. These days, it's considered more appropriate to talk about "college and career ready." Meanwhile, while many states still have the Common Core Standards in place, many other states have made a show of throwing them out, then re-installing them under some new name.

But most of the heat and light surrounding the Core erupted on the policy level. A decade after they slid into view, what effects have the Core had on actual classroom teachers?

To begin with, the entire set of standards never really gained traction. The standards that really mattered were the ones that appeared on the Big Standardized Test. Whether it was the PARCC or the SBA or a special state-specific test, the end-of-year testfest dictated which standards really matter. For instance, the Core includes some standards about speaking and listening, but nobody in an actual classroom worries about those, because they are not on the high stakes BS Test.

Whether they were called anchor standards or key standards or special focus or else standards, some standards turned out to be far more important than others. In this way, the standards were re-written almost immediately.
The Core also had the effect of what Thomas Newkirk calls the "mystification" of education-- "taking a practice that was once viewed as within the normal competence of a teacher and making it seem so technical and advanced that a new commercial product (or form of consultation) is necessary." The Common Core turned teaching into a task that couldn't be entrusted to mere teachers (or parents).

The Core also narrowed instruction. There's been a great deal of discussion about how courses other than reading and math were squeezed out, with some schools even eliminating recess so that more time could be spent on the test-weighted subjects. But the Core narrowed instruction in other, less obvious ways, as well.

The Common Core Standards can be understood as data tags, a way to label tasks and achievements of students. But consider a set of data tags such as the mood tags on Facebook. Back in the old days, we made do with a simple like, but now Facebook users can also express amusement, love, or anger. But to keep such a system (and the data it generates) manageable, a certain narrowness of categories is necessary. So I can show Facebook that the video about pandas makes me laugh, but I can't tell them that it also elicits a wistful sadness from remembering my old dog, or that it also makes me a little angry to consider the conditions under which the pandas are kept. Emotions are complicated, but Facebook's tag system isn't, and so lots of information is thrown out.

The same is true of the Core. Writing is complicated, but the Core writing standards are not. Reading literature and non-fiction is complicated, but the Core simplifies the matter by being unconcerned about content. With the exception of a side note and a reference to certain American historical texts, the Core's reading standards could be taught by using the morning newspaper. If your expectation is that a "good" reading program would include certain classic texts, well, the Common Core doesn't really share your concern.

Now, at this very second, someone is hitting their keyboard to say that their school's standards-based reading program absolutely contains classic content. This highlights one other feature of the Common Core-- after all these years, individual districts, schools and teachers have rewritten it like crazy. Teachers, working in the laboratories of their classrooms, have kept what worked, thrown out what didn't, and have put back things that were missing. Many teachers have discovered an empowering truth about the Common Core-- one may teach anything in their classroom and claim that it is standards-based. There is nobody in a position of authority to contradict them.

Some observers of the education biz may have one other question about the Core-- won't the pushback on the BS Tests and the rise of personalized learning wipe the Core standards off the board?

The answer is no. If the Core can be understood as data tags, then carrying them over into a computer-based algorithm-driven system like the current model of personalized learning will be simplicity. In fact, it will make setting up an algorithm-driven software-centered program even easier, because it is a ready-made cataloging system already available and, in most cases, already in place.

So the Common Core Standards may have changed their name and be re-written in a dozen different ways, but they are still alive and bubbling beneath the surface of public education. Nothing the federal government has done or talked about doing has changed that in the slightest, and the new wave of education reform ideas will actually reinforce the Core. We may not be talking about them anymore, but in one form or another, we are still living with the Common Core Standards every day.

Originally published at Forbes. You can check me out over there these days.   

ICYMI: Back from Vacation Edition (7/22)

We're back from Seattle and I've managed to collect a few things for you to read. Remember-- the internet gives you the power to amplify the voices of others. Use it!

The Great Academy Schools Scandal  

Great Britain has been trying its own version of charter schools. It hasn't gone well.

College Board AP World History and Colonialism

David Coleman's College Board has decided, for some reason, that AP history needs to be scaled way back, reducing the scope of world history to just the white parts.

A Teacher Explains Why the Janus Ruling Is Bad for Students

Just in case it's not obvious already.

Mr Rogers and Talking To Kids

This is a great and insightful piece about how Fred Rogers crafted his message very precisely for children.

PARCC, Phil Murphy and Common Sense

Jersey Jazzman takes a look at some New Jersey issues that concern everyone.

Summit Learning Under Fire

Charter-in-a-box provider Summit is taking some heat in Idaho.

What Elon Musk Could Learn from Thailand

The NYT looks at the lessons Musk could learn from his attempt to save some boys in a well, and the lessons that the tech masters could all stand to learn about intervening in areas about which they know little.

How Can Schools Make Their Teachers Feel Valued and Supported

It's just about as easy as you think it is.

Do Not Follow New Orleans' Lead

Mercedes Schneider reminds us that NOLA is not exactly a shining success.

What Works Can Hurt

Yong Zhao with a reminder that the side-effects of education ideas can matter a great deal.