Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Jobs' XQ Institute Plugs Competency Based Education

Laurene Powell Jobs is one of the major players in the reformster world. Steve Jobs's widow is the fourth richest woman in the world, and she has been a player in the world of education  venture philanthropy for a while, logging time with NewSchools Venture Fund (We raise contributions from donors and use it to find, fund and support teams of educators and education entrepreneurs who are reimagining public education). She founded the Emerson Collective, a Palo Alto-based do-gooding group (one of their major charitable actions was to give Arne Duncan a job after he left the USED). Emerson also bought controlling interest in The Atlantic. And it turns out that Emerson was also a mystery backer of Education Post, the war room rapid response PR operation for ed reform.

This woman deserves the same attention we give Gates, Broad, Walton, et al
Emerson also launched the XQ Institute, which launched the Super school project, complete with an all-network star-studded variety show PR blitz. But we're going to let that sit for the moment while we contemplate another XQ product.

The "report," "Show What You Know: A Landscape Analysis of Competency-Based Education" is one more sign that A) Reformsters are betting on CBE as the Next Big Thing and B) they don't really know what they're talking about and C) they are crafting some careful PR to push this business. It was commissioned by XQ and produced by Getting Smart, a website/organization under CEO Tom Vander Ark, a guy who has been pushing ed tech and privatization since even before his days at the Gates Foundation.

Who else is here? Russlynn Ali, a co-founder and CEO of XQ, manager of education fund at Emerson, former assistant secretary for civil rights at USED under Duncan, chief of staff to president of LAUSD board, vice-president of Education Trust, and assistant director of policy and research at Broad Foundation.

All told, there's a lot of privatizing reformster love in this room.

So what do we find in the report?

Ali's Foreword

Ali is going to lay out the foundation for the arguments to follow, and she ticks off all the usual items. Education has been doing things one way for 125 years (marked up, I guess, from the usual 100). Seat time is the old way, and the rules that go with it are getting in the way of awesome new reform things. Let's have "learning-based milestones," and let's call it "competency based education." Oh, but the rules, and the course divisions, and the grade-levels-- they all just bum reformers out. So we asked Getting Smart, a group really dedicate to promoting CBE and ed tech, to give us an objective view of the lay of the land. No prescriptions here, no sir. Just trying to provoke some thoughts and spark some discussion.

What did Getting Smart do to reap this harvest of information? They talked to fifty educators and read forty publications. Check the appendix and you will find that the people and publications were all folks who are heavily invested in reform ideas and ed tech promotion. So it will be no shock to discover that what Getting Smart "found" is that enthusiasm is high for CBE among people and corporations that are positioning themselves to profit from CBE. The "shift to competency-based education is occurring rapidly, right now" and there are still opportunities to "help make it happen faster, better, and more equitably." Hurry-- you can still get in on the ground floor of this investment opportunity.

Are there any reasons for caution? Sure. Increasing capacity might put a big burden on teachers. The detailed feedback will be a real burden. Hmmmm… if only there were tools that could help. Also, CBE has to be specifically focused on equity because the current system fails in that area, and yes, we've seen the research showing that non-wealthy noon-white students are actually doing worse in CBE-type models.

Getting Smart thinks the old system is "stuck" on things like conventional definitions ("ninth grader") and compartmentalizing "how and when teachers interact with students" and we want you to know right up front that we are not considering the possibility that any of the system is "stuck" because certain aspects are time-tested and known to work. We will start with the assumption that the old system needs to be scrapped. Here we go.

Just Some Things To Clear Up

Right off the bat, though the report hews to the current Unspoken Law of CBE (Don't portray it as a algorithm-run computer-delivered education product), the report has to admit that the "leading advocate for CBE is the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Their definition is "an advancement on demonstrated mastery with well-defined competencies that empower students."

The report argues that everything-- the basic architecture of school-- will have to be changed (see how we just skipped the whole argument about why CBE would be better)  and that instead of taking a generation to do it, we can speed things up by setting a goal of near-full adoption within ten years, focusing on college- and Career-ready outcomes, accelerating the achievement of previously underserved learners--

Yeah, I'm going to jump in here to note that the report is filled with all sorts of off-hand tossed-in jaw droppers. So mark that-- to get CBE running sooner, just get all the slower learners to learn faster. Easy peasy.

-- and aligning with "quality learning goals." XQ just happens to have some.

The report throws in some definitions of various terms, noting that CBE, Proficiency-bsed Learning and Mastery-based learning are used as synonyms. They also get into definitions of personalized learning, blended learning, deeper learning, and student-centered learning. All of them are pretty close in meaning, and not a single definition mentions technology or computers. Way to stick to the script, team!

Chapter 1: The Rationale

Here comes the evidence for making the transition.

The corporate training world has shifted to this model to "improve job readiness." Note: we will not discuss whether or not the goal of education should be job readiness. Also, Sal Khan, the video-ed king, says all students should master 100% of skills at a high level before moving on. Note: we do not discuss what high level, the value of talking about skills rather than knowledge, or what the system should do with students who fail to meet that high level or that high percent.

Learning science knows things. Here are some quotes and links. They lead us to Insights."It is no longer enough to simply develop skills and obtain knowledge; to achieve full potential, students will need to apply learning and transfer it to new contexts, which no doubt requires deeper learning and tapping into problem-solving, critical thinking, and self-management skills ." Seriously-- does the report think this is a new idea?

Equity is important. This is evidence for making that transition?

Agency is really important. We know this because there was a conference and people, like Michelle Weise of the reform Christen Institute, said so. Somehow, knowing exactly what they have been told they're capable of increases agency.

XQ learning (that's what we're going to call this now?) should be deep and rigorous because it will aim for students to be holders of foundational knowledge, masters of all fundamental literacies, original thinkers for an uncertain world, generous collaborators for tough problems, and learners for life. Not for the last time I am reading this report wondering what exactly these people think is going on in schools, because an awful lot of this is about reinventing the wheel, but, you know, a really shiny, sparkly wheel-- and look, we've invented spokes and tire treads!

The report then doubles back to underline that CBE fits the way the work world now works. Never mind that fancy shmancy liberal arts education. You need to be able to list the useful specific skills that somebody would want to pay for.

Chapter 2: Issues and Priorities

The chapter starts with the unsubstantiated header that CBE is more complex than our current time-based system. Is that so? Just take their word for it. Only smart people can see how complex and deep the emperors\'s new education system really is.

Actual useful question posed next: should we require students to demonstrate competence via "consistently applied external validations of narrow measures of knowledge and skill" (aka standardized quizzes) or use authentic assessments with teacher judgment? The report chooses both.

"CBE provides a great opportunity for gap-closing equity." Somehow. They do admit that it could open up new equity chasms based on students who move much more slowly through the material. But they have nine design principles straight from iNACOL and Competency Works that ought to fix the whole problem. They keep coming back to their mantra-- if CBE is designed with equity in mind, then everything will be okay.

The report defines six obstacles to creating CBE; let me list them and add what they've overlooked.

1) Defining Competencies

The Common Core are swell, but we still don't have aligned assessments for most of them. Nor will you ever, because the standards are so vague that it can't seriously be done. Here's one plucked mostly at random:

Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama 

Exactly how would you definitively determine that a student has mastered that standard? Does it matter if the story is Green Eggs and Ham or Grapes of Wrath? Does it matter whether the analysis is insightful or superficial or regurgitated boilerplate?

This is the "lack of well-defined competencies" that is a huge problem. The report notes a lack of definition of work-ready skills and, well, no kidding. Years of talking about college- and career-ready skills and we still don't have anything remotely resembling an authoritative list of what skills are required to be ready for any and all careers and/or colleges. We don't have it, and we'll never have it because the very idea of such a list is ridiculous. Therefor CBE will never have a legitimate definitive list of well-defined competencies.

Also, lack of equity has to be addressed. How do you set up a list of competencies that addresses "previously underserved students."

2) Transition challenges

This means the transition from the old system to the new one. This subsection, like most of the chapter, would benefit from insights and observations about CBE's recent crash-and-burn in Maine, but the writers lacked either the time or the guts to go there. Too bad. Looking at a place where the transition failed would probably give you some clues about what has to be handled. But instead the report offers these possible pressure points for a transition.

From grades to rubrics is a problem, both for people who are assessing and for parents, who want an answer to "How's my kid doing?"

"Moving from a culture of success vs. failure to a culture of revision." Nope. Here's another thing that CBE advocates consistently try to skim past-- CBE is a pass/fail system. You get multiple attempts to pass, but at the end of the day, it's a pass/fail system, and that's the culture change you have to deal with. A culture that says "This is the minimum you have to do to move on. Doing more won't help you in any way, but you have to do this minimum sooner or later." They do acknowledge part of the issue as "pressure to retain privilege," as in, high-achieving students and their parents get upset when they realize this system doesn't care if you are a high achiever. You get the exact same payoff as someone who just barely squeaked by.

On the other end of the scale, we find what they call a problem of "limited supports." For low achievers, the fact that they must clear each competency bar can be demoralizing and leave them stuck in place for a whole lot of time. Imagine you are ten and you have been working on the same module for a month. You will need a buttload of support for that kid.

This is the problem with CBE that is not addressed in the previous point-- if you set the bar too low, the system is boring, but if you set the bar too high, a large number of students will never clear it. That's why the mantra of CBE, all the way back to the days it was called Outcome Based Education, is "all can learn all." Because if we admit there are some competencies that some students can never meet, then we have a huge bug in the system.

Also, we need to have teacher preparation, because when implementation of flawed models go poorly, it's always the teachers' fault.

3) Tools and Resources

What's the problem with CBE tools and resources? We don't have them. We don't have learning management systems that can handle it, and we don't have the curriculum materials to implement it, either.

4) Technical Challenges

We don't have any kind of common record-keeping model for this system. We don't really know how it will work, so we don't know how to record the results. In our heart, we really see this as a system in which competencies are acquired from a variety of programs and educational opportunities (students can learn anywhere), but we don't know how that turns into a shared and interoperable record.  And we don't have a way to combine formative assessments but could possibly use data tagging and-- holy schneikies! I actually called this one back in 2014-- Common Core can perhaps best be understood as a set of data tags to use in digitizing all students school data.

Bottom line, CBE generates a ton of data which in turn creates a need for a system that can handle it all. And although they said they'd consider both standardized assessments and authentic assessments scored by teachers, note that the teacher one makes this whole data managing thing way harder. The most obvious (if not necessarily best) solution to technical challenges will always be to make everyone take the same standardized assessments.

5) Reporting

"What the hell is this? Where is my kid's report card? How am I supposed to know how she's doing? And how am I supposed to put this gobbledeegook with her college application?"

Also, the NCAA likes things the old way, too.

6) Accountability

The fed regulations support grade-level grouping and seat time. Also, nobody has done CBE well enough to provide a useful example of how it could work, yet. Again, this would have been a good time to talk about Maine.

Design Choices

So what do these obstacles mean in terms of choices to make in designing a CBE system?

Short answer: They don't know how to do it, but, boy howdy, it will be hard.

Getting the standards and goals right is necessary, and hard. Assessing and tracking "sub-skills" is hard and requires designers to deal with the fact that, as the report admits via quote, fragmenting skills into mini skills gets you parts that are way less than the whole. Rich standards become a checklist. Maybe subskills in clusters of micro-- oh, good lord. They have no idea. Also, the quote Michael Fullan saying that the work should be irresistibly engaging" and "elegantly efficient."

There's a skill map here, and the assertion that the next generation of schools will promote deeper understanding in a context of broader aims. Well, that sounds mighty fine. Once again the report seems to elevate these future schools by depicting education as droning lecture. Also, my car is a great car if you compare it to a donkey-drawn wagon.

A chart shows that learning processes should be more multiple dimensions-- an interesting challenge when we're breaking everything down into mini-competencies. And again with the mythical traditional school. "Traditional schools rely on finals, or end-of-course exams." Really? Says who? Reformsters saddled public schools with a single Big Standardized Test at the end of the year, but I literally have never encountered in all these years as teacher or student a single teacher anywhere who relies on a final at the end of the year.

And here's a moment when they almost admit this is an algorithm-controlled computer-centered system-- Traditional schools depend on teacher judgment nut next-generation models "combine automated formative assessments with teacher observations."

Then there's a whole sidebar on standards-based grading, another part of CBE that is unpopular and hard to pull off (hint-- we're back to the pass-fail problem again).

Chapter 3: What's Out There Now

Model schools, learning tools, student supports, teacher development, and policy are the five areas in which they've seen things happening.

The model schools are all barely-begun babies. Skip. The learning tools don't fully exist yet, and school experience with other digital tools has not exactly made them excited about one more computer program coming at them. Tools they list include Summit and AltSchool, two charter groups that shifted to a software-dispersing business model. They also include Power School, a program I'm familiar with from years of taking roll on it, and if that's their idea of a next-generation tool, they're in more trouble than I thought.

They ask some good questions in this chapter (What is the actual work students do? What is the quality of the curriculum?) but they don't really have answers for them (Instructional materials ought to be aligned, as soon as someone creates them. We really need some good curriculum.) Khan academy. NWEA. There are a lot of deeply mediocre resources name-checked in this chapter.

The policy part boils down to "We need to get the rules changed to fit our way of doing things even though our way isn't really agreed-upon, established, or proven to actually work."

Maine doesn't come up in this chapter.

Chapter 4: Technical Development and Opportunities

Leads off with an ed tech classic-- the list of things that computers are totally going to do in the near future. This is the song of ed tech, the recurring sweet promise by which teachers have been seduced again and again and again and again and again-- something awesome is right around the corner and any day now we will be able to do the most wonderful stuff. Better tests that measure critical thinking have been almost here for over a decade. Software that can assess writing is always just on the verge of being released.

This is no different. Adaptive learning will soon be "nearly as good as one-on-one tutoring." There will be automated feedback, citing the writing feedback systems that are already use (it does not mention that these systems, without exception, are lousy).

And then we turn the page and-- oh joy! Blockchain! The same marvel that brings us bitcoins will make it possible for students to amass credentials any where at any time from anyone, and yet keep those credentials all in their blockchain purse. It will store new kinds of credentials, the kinds of credentials that let entrepreneurs go straight to market without having to be approved by some silly authority.

Chapter 5: Recommendations

First, though CBE models will require time and resources "new school development or high school redesign (directly or through partners) provides a high return and relatively low-risk investment strategy ." There's money to be made here, folks.

Second, a whole lot of curriculum and assessment toolage is required. How about some open source stuff? You know-- where teachers just give away their work for free!

Third, "a coherent approach to exponential technology." This seems to mean that private start-ups are too risky, so a public-private team would be better. You know, where the public part shoulders risk and expense, and the private part makes money. Sweet deal, eh?

Fourth, new approaches to technical and design challenges. Because what we've got isn't cutting it. They suggest design competitions, and it's true that competitions for grants ands prizes are great because you get to have a whole bunch of people work for you, but you only have to pay one of them.

Fifth, keep working on it. Keep advocating and supporting lobbying groups and publishing slick reports.

Call To Action

Big finish. We need to ask three questions-- what do we want students to know, how will we know what they know and are able to do, and what experiences and supports will get them there. CBE answers those questions differently, without grade levels, time tables, and discrete subject areas. Also, don't forget equity. And outcomes, networks, evidence and transcripts.

Basically, we have a sort of a vision of what we'd kind of like to do, but we haven't worked out any of the specifics yet. It's almost as if we are a bunch of educational amateurs who are trying to design schools from scratch without any fundamental knowledge about teaching and learning and schools.

Are You Still Here?

Good for you. You can look at the appendix that shows you all the people they talked to, like Blockchain Research Institute and the College Board and Florida Virtual School and NWEA and IDEA Public [sic] Schools and Microsoft and Relay Graduate School of Education and Udacity and NewsSchool Venture Fund and seriously, there is not a single legitimate non-reform source on the list.

But as you can see, all the various reform constituencies are lined up behind CBE, even though there isn't a single, solitary aspect of CBE that they can point to and say, "We have absolutely worked this part out now." They are still thoroughly enthusiastic about coming to your school and offering your students the chance to be beta testers for a system that doesn't actually exist yet. How can anything possibly go wrong.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Skills vs. Content (Pt. 687,231)

You should know who Jack Ma Yun is. He's the Chinese combination of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (without the rich parents) who has been behind some of the most profitable internet start-ups in China (China Pages, Alibaba).

And like every other sentient being on the planet, he occasionally has some thoughts to share about education:

As you can see here, Jack comes down in the "Students don't need to know anything because they can just Google it camp." We should teach students soft skills, art and sports skills, skills skills skills that computers don't have. I haven't actually disagreed with a millionaire yet this week, so let me go ahead and explain why I think Jack is just plain wrong.

"A teacher should learn all the time." Okay, he's on solid ground there. That's about the last moment.

Ma doubles the usual "school hasn't changed in a century" and says we've been doing the same thing for 200 years-- knowledge based. But "we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines" because the machines are smarter. By which I think he means that machines have more information stored. But he wants to teach things on which computers cannot catch up.

Ma is asked what those skills are that we need to teach. "Values, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others-- " these are the things knowledge doesn't teach you. So Ma says teach our kids sports, music, art-- everything we teach should be different from machines.

There's certainly some appeal in what he's saying. But. But but but but. How can you develop and apply values if you don't have any knowledge about the area that you are applying your values to? How do you even develop a value without any knowledge? How, for instance, do you arrive at a personal value about how humans should govern themselves if you don't know anything about the history of human government? How do you believe in things if you don't have knowledge? Yes, faith is a swell thing, but it doesn't develop in a vacuum. If you lack knowledge, you might be inclined to, say, believe anything a narcissistic demagogue tells you without ever realizing that he's lying through his teeth. How do you care for others if you don't know anything about them, their culture, the context in which they operate, how human beings have behaved throughout history? And what does your care mean if you response to "I have a disease that needs immediate treatment" is "I really care about you, so maybe we can google your disease" as if WebMD is as good as an actual doctor. How do you work with a team if you don't know anything? What exactly will you contribute to the team if you have no knowledge base or area of expertise-- will you just volunteer to be the one who types questions into the Google search bar? And finally (I saved this for last because it's the worst) how can you possibly be an independent thinker if you don't personally possess knowledge that you can think about? How can you sort through the sea of knowledge that the computers have and separate the good stuff from the baloney if you don't personally possess the knowledge base with which to evaluate what you find?

Smart people make this mistake all the time-- they have literally forgotten learning things and so assume that a certain baseline amount of knowledge just springs into the human mind fully formed, that it's just "common sense." Hell, a complaint I have heard from elementary teachers is that some Common Core math materials say you're supposed to focus on process and not do things like memorize the times tables-- but then give lessons to understand process that assume that, of course, the students know the times tables.

It's hard to accomplish much of anything, to develop or use any skills, if you don't know stuff. And if Ma's argument is that people need to know stuff, but schools don't need to teach it-- just tell the kids to go look it up-- well, that's been an option since the invention of printing, and yet, somehow, students have still needed live humans to help them through the process of knowing stuff.

This is one of those things that I feel as if I've said a million times, but which I will keep saying as long as it needs to be said--

Skills, even soft skills, do not exist in a vacuum. You cannot have skills without knowledge any more than you can build a house without lumber, any more than you can have waves without some medium through which the waves move, any more than you can learn to sculpt with no material except air. American slaveowners did not keep blacks enslaved by restricting skills-- they restricted knowledge. Life is harder for people who don't Know Things, and the fact that we can now know a lot more things with a lot less looking up effort hasn't changed that. I would say at this point we've collected evidence that people who don't know things have their ignorance actually worsened by technology.

Jack Ma Yun may be crazy rich, but on this point he's simply wrong.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Real Digital Divide

You remember the digital divide. The rich kids were going to have all the tech, all the screens, all the widgets, and be plugged into the bestest, fastest internet. Poor kids would be straggling, cut off from the wonders of modern tech and trying to catch up. OMGZ, etc.

The assumption underlying this is one that we've allowed to permeate education-- more tech is always better.

But that assumption has been challenged, and according to a piece by Nellie Bowles in the NYT -- wait (looks again) yeah, okay-- style section, the digital divide is not quite what we were expecting.

It wasn’t long ago that the worry was that rich students would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Schools ask students to do homework online, while only about two-thirds of people in the U.S. have broadband internet service. But now, as Silicon Valley’s parents increasingly panic over the impact screens have on their children and move toward screen-free lifestyles, worries over a new digital divide are rising. It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction. 

Bowles is overstating her own case here-- what the article says is that wealthy children use the screen less than the non-wealthy (five hours and forty-two minutes compared to eight hours and seven minutes, per day), almost-six screen hours a day is not exactly rolling back to the stone age.

Her broader observation is worth underlining (hence this post), particularly in education, where the rise of competency-based education (or proficiency-based learning or personalized learning-- I wish we'd agree on name for this whole trend) is definitely aimed at 1) more tech for 2) less wealthy schools. We've long worried about the creation of a two-tier education system; it looks increasingly as if one tier difference will be tech. The wealthy will be taught by humans; the less wealthy will be taught by screens.

As Bowles notes, this is already evident in some disturbing places, like the push for on-line pre-K that already is up and running in Utah (UPSTART), soon to expand to other states, even though we know full well that's exactly the wrong direction to go with the littles. In none of those states can we expect wealthy parents to pull their children from the Montessori Pre-K in order to enroll them ins Stare-At-A-Screen Preschool. Meanwhile, Google has worked mighty hard to make itself an indispensable part of school's infrastructure.

I taught at a Google school. Some of their tools have a level of utility that makes them, if not attractive, at least functional. They're the Radio Shack of app suites-- not anyone's first choice for any of their functions, but workable if you don't have better options. Google Docs is fine enough as long as you don't want to do anything else with it except type it and look at it on a screen (printing can be a nightmare). And Google has a frustrating lack of cross-platform shared capabilities; this blog and Classroom are both Google properties, but there are a million things I can do on this blog that Classroom was incapable of doing. And schools rarely read any of the fine print-- the part that says "It's Free!" is generally all many need to see. Parents are correct to be concerned about privacy and to ask the school pointed questions.

This, beyond the slight difference in screen hours, may be the other important digital divide-- the mindful and informed use of the tech.

I've made this point till I'm blue in the ears (way past my face)-- people of a Certain Age who think that Kids These Days know all about that tech stuff are nuts. The average teen knows as much about ed tech as the average driver knows about how a car works. My students, for the most part, knew how to operate their favorite apps-- and that was about it. Most couldn't run a search to save their lives, nor were their navigational skills any better than those of my mom.

All of my students used screens, and all of my students knew how to operate them to some extent. Only some of my students understood how any of it worked. Only some of my students have parents who talked to them about how the tech worked and how best to use it, or not. Only some of my students understand that they are using products created by businesses, and not magical gifts donated just to brighten their days. That last one is probably the most important one. Hence this quote from the article:

“These companies lied to the schools, and they’re lying to the parents,” said Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Kansas City. “We’re all getting duped.”

“Our kids, my kids included, we are subjecting them to one of the biggest social experiments we have seen in a long time,” she said. 

We've been encouraged to think of tech, including ed tech, as free, under our control, gifted to us with no strings attached. We've been encouraged to not only ignore the man behind the curtain, but to not even notice the curtain is there. We've been encouraged to not so much as pause for a second to contemplate the effects of screen time, of socializing via tech, of staring into a blinking screen instead of another human's eyes.

Is there a danger of over-reacting? Sure. When written language appeared, elders complained about how Kids These Days were losing their memory skills and wasting time staring at those little dots. But I'll worry about over-reacting when there are more signs that people are reacting at all. This is why we hear so much about tech people limiting their own children's screen time-- they live behind the curtain and understand better what's back there. It's not that tech is inherently evil or destructive, but a hammer can be converted from useful tool to a dangerous object if you just start flinging it around without any thought to its proper nature.

You can have my tech when you pry it from my cold, cramped hands, and I have no doubt that the twins and my grandchildren will become screened sooner or later, but not without plenty of discussion about what it is, what it does, and how best to use it (or not). And that will put them on one side of the real digital divide. It's not a matter of who has the tech; it's about who has actually seen the wizard.

ICYMI: Scary Time of Year Edition (10/28)

Just a few things to catch up on. Remember, sharing is caring.

Documenting Maine's Failure To Implement Proficiency Based Education

Maine tried to turn the whole state into proof of concept for PBL/CBE. Things didn't work out. Here are some of the details.

Maine Went All in on Proficiency Based Learning The Rolled It Back

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat also took a look at Maine's failure. Just in case you want to see the same disaster from a different angle

Putting Public Back Into Public Accountability

An answer to the question, "Well, if we don't grade schools on test scores, how will we know if they're any good?"

Kentucky Pension Crisis

How those wacky hedge fund guys took a state's pension program to the cleaners.

Puerto Rico Recovery

More disaster capitalism on parade.

Georgetown Law Students Objects To Exam Software

So what if your school said that in order to take exams, you had to load some of their software on your own computer.

Hack Education Weekly News

Audrey Watters does a weekly roundup of education news, just in case you don't get enough to do from me.  

A Buttload of YouTube Education Money

YouTube has decided to sink a ton of money into educational videos. Please, may some go to the Honest Trailers people.

PA Keystone Exam: The Monster We Refuse To Let Die

Steven Singer looks at the latest development in Big Standardized Test. 

Here's Hoping That The Myth of the Bad Teacher Is Finally Laid To Rest

Could we have finally reached the end of the search for the fabled Bad Teacher? It's pretty to think so.

How High Schools Shaped American Cities 

Amy Lueck has an interesting look at how schools are tied to community, and how school choice threatens both.

Will the Save Our Schools Movement Propel a Change Election

Ruth Coniff at The Progressive takes a look at what's going on in the resistance and how it might affect the election

DeBlasio School Renewal

In what should come as a surprise to nobody, NYC's Renewal School turnaround plan flopped-- and some students were left to experience the flopping first hand.

Snake Oil, Charter Schools, and Disingenuous Debates  

A local op-ed in the Johnson City Press is a blunt response to charter supporters.

The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected  

Nellie Bowles in the NYT says that one group will be taught by humans, and one by screens. Take a wild guess at which is which.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

A Teacher's Opinion and the Classroom Door

Twice this week the issue of teachers and their opinions cropped up, first in David Berliner's thoughtful piece at The Answer Sheet and again in Robert Pondiscio's reaction to a math teacher's tweet about the Kavanaugh hearings. Berliner was not wrong in answering student questions about how he would use his vote, and Pondiscio is not wrong to point out that a teacher's First Amendment rights are surprisingly limited inside a classroom.

I've thought about this issue a great deal in my career, my thinking propelled by three factors:

1) I had teachers in high school who spent time trying to tell us what to think, and I hated it.

2) For most of my career, I have taught American literature, and you can't teach about the literature without talking about the culture it's rooted in, and you can't talk about American culture without talking about religion, race and gender.

3) My teaching of writing has always been rooted in getting students to express themselves, and that's hard to do with a classroom policy of "Only some ideas are okay to express."

So as a way of working through all this one more time, let me walk through what that meant in a classroom, and how it was challenged in my last years of teaching.

My students over the decades heard some version of the following many, many times:

Okay. Before we start on these notes and discussion, I'll remind you that I'm not advocating this and I'm not attacking it. My job is not to tell you to agree with these people or to disagree with these people-- but my job is to convey to you as clearly as I can what they believed about how the world works. 

And that was a prelude to laying out Puritan beliefs and Romanticism and Realism. In answer to questions ("How could the Puritans belief that material things didn't matter but that material things were a sign of God's favor?") my answers were prefaced with "I think they would give this as an answer..." And I committed to representing each set of beliefs as true-to-the-originals as I could, making sure I neither highlighted the problems inherent in them nor ignored them. It is not an easy balancing act, and it requires a sincere effort to understand how the world looked from that person's point of view.

I know over the course of the year I challenged and confused some students, who found, for instance, both Romanticism and Critical Realism compelling while I was explaining them. That's okay. For many (if not most) of my eleventh graders, it was a revelation just to grasp that there are different ways of understanding the world and figuring out how to be fully human in it.

The same principles applied in some writing instruction. I assigned essays that dealt with controversial topics, and we kicked them off by arguing about them in class, and to make sure the discussion kept going, I always argued all sides. "What do you think," students would invariably ask, partly because they were curious and mostly because they wanted to know what correct answer they should write about. "You don't need to know," I said.

Pro tip. I never assigned an essay about a topic on which I had a fixed opinion that only one side was defensible and that the other was just plain wrong.

For discussions of literature, it always came down to evidence. I was in college when I realized there are two types of English teachers-- the ones who think that there's only one way to read each work and their job is to convey that right answer, and the ones who think that the act of reading and building a relationship with the work could lead to many shades of meaning which were all okay as long as you could back it up. And that this didn't mean anything was fair game; you can claim that Hamlet is suffering from PTSD due to alien abduction in a previous life, but you can't make a very good case for it. Every year some smartass would argue that "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" (a poem that serves as a great example of how much difference one word choice can make) is about Santa Claus, and every year I would say, "Make your case," and they would give it a shot, and the rest of the class would pick them apart.

Discussions about non-content issues are thornier. What to do with the student who wants to argue that women should be silent and do as they're told, or that religious people are mentally ill?

I've always believe that truth (not Truth-- I'm not a huge believer in Truth) rises, and that if you pursue it honestly, with openness to where the trail leads, it will finally rise above the rest of the flotsam and jetsam to reveal itself. Not that we can't all push and contrive and argue as a way of helping lift it, but one of the advantages of teaching in the same small place for almost forty years as that you see an awful lot of people who Figure It Out eventually. It helps if you can let go of the notion that you need to get them to figure it out Right This Minute.

And Ponticello (the guy whose tweet started much of the discussion) is correct when he says we need to teach civics, but we are always teaching the soft stuff whether we intend to or not, and so it's important to hold onto our intentionality.

Here's a story. Years ago I was a class advisor, and as a sort of goof, a couple of less-than-stellar students ran for class officers. And as sort of a goof, the students elected them. I had a moment when I was counting votes. My mentor, the person who was supposed to be my extra set of eyes, said, "Look, it's fairly close. This will be disaster. Just fix the results." Turns out that advisors sometimes do that. I was tempted. I didn't do it. Then, to make things worse, the student who was elected president moved out of town and the vice-president less-than-serious student was suddenly in charge of the senior year. "Fix this," the other students said. "Let me out of this," he pleaded. But I made them live with their choices, and nobody died, and somewhere out there are a couple hundred adults who learned years ago that A) voting matters and B) you can rise to an occasion when you have to.

My point (I'm sure I had one) is that in the classroom we often want to sacrifice long term results for short-term comfort. And that includes the desire to straighten out students who believe terrible stupid things. People get where they're going in their own way, in their own time. We can't force them to do otherwise.

Now, there has always been a hole in my approach that has bugged me from time to time, but just flared up something awful over the past two or three years. That would be students who won't engage and insist on holding on to facts that aren't facts.

This is the challenge of the Trump era. A student says that Obama is a Muslim from Kenya. What do you do? How do you respond in a way that respects the student's autonomy as a human being while still dealing with the absolute incorrectness of what they're saying.

"Two plus two is five" was easy, and "No, Hamlet's mother's name is not Ethel" also. I could work my way past "I think the verb in this sentence is 'balcony'," But we now live in an era in which facts have been politicized, and to challenge even the simplest statement about a sentence recorded in a video is to make a political statement. It is hard to find a way forward in conversations like "Someone sent me a bomb. Here it is," and the response, "No they didn't. No it isn't."

If a science teacher teaches evolution, it's a political statement. Hell, the Flat Earth Society is growing, so round earth teaching is political. As many have noted, what do we even do with value judgments like "Bullying is bad."

I still think a teacher should not be foisting their opinions on their students. It's not our job to tell them what to think or what to value. But it is our job to tell our truth-- hell, that's all we do. We cannot keep our opinions out of the classroom-- it's not humanly possible, and even the decision to keep our opinions out of the classroom is a way of injecting our opinions about opinions into the classroom. And we live in a time when other people are thrusting their opinions into our classrooms. The President suggests that immigrants are rapists and criminals, that all immigrants should be run out of the country-- that's an opinion that lands right in our classrooms. When the President suggests that some of the people who want to see some of our students, literally, dead are "very fine people," that is an opinion that lands right in our classrooms. When people decide that it's okay to start flying Confederate flags everywhere, that opinion lands right in our classroom. And this is not about tolerance or coming together to compromise-- there is no "compromise" with people who say, "I think people like you should be thrown out of the country, or just killed." Those opinions all land in our classrooms, along with the ones that say women owe men sex or black folks are stupid and lazy or that white men are the most oppressed group in the country. We can't pretend they aren't there, and we can't pretend that we don't know they're wrong. To stay silent is to become an accomplice to gaslighting.

As open as I was, I had rules. Everyone in the room treats everyone else with respect. No exceptions. No disrespectful actions, no disrespectful language. I had values that I held onto, and I was explicit about almost everything.

And looking back, I guess what I did was model all of that. This is what I believe. This is why I believe it. And when all is said and done, this is my classroom and we're going to live by these beliefs in here. For me, a basic element of respect is that you don't try to force someone to think or feel a particular way, and that is doubly true when you are in a position of power, acting as an agent of the state. You have a job, and your job is to help those young humans become more fully themselves, learning what they think it means to be human in the world. That means you have to show them a complete human, and that means you have to balance between leaving them free to figure things out and telling them what you passionately and deeply believe to be true. If this doesn't seem like a very clear and straightforward set of rules, that's because it's not a very clear-cut uncomplicated feat to pull off. That's why they pay teachers the big bucks.

Friday, October 26, 2018

AZ: Why Conservatives Should Oppose ESAs

Education Savings Accounts are the uber-vouchers, the last stop on the reformster railroad before we get to the place where schools simply disappear.

ESAs come in a variety of flavors, but here is the basic idea.

With charter schools, you can send your child to any school in the system, and tax dollars are sent to that school to cover the cost of educating your child.

With a voucher system, tax dollars are given to you and you can use them at any school you wish to send your child to.

With ESAs, you get some money, typically via a debit card, and you spend it on educational whatever. Charter school, home school supplies, tutors, books. In most cases, if you spend very little of it, you can hold onto it for college expenses.

We can talk about all the reasons that left-tilted folks don't love this idea, but not today. Because today we're talking about Arizona. Arizona has had an ESA program in place for students with special needs, but the legislature recently moved to expand that to all students, and now a bunch of scrappy activists have managed to get the expanded ESA rule put on a ballot. Arizona voters have a chance to vote ESAs down, right there in heart of Koch Country, in a state where left-tilted folks are fairly rare.

So let's ask, instead, why a conservative, a right-leaning free market voter should defy the state's governor and the Koch interests to vote down ESAs. They may not consider the issue of draining money from public schools a big deal, and they may, in fact, be in favor of school choice. But from the conservative view, there is a critical issue with ESAs.


Charter schools face some degree of accountability, both financially and academically. In theory, at least, there is an authorizing group that is responsible for making sure the charter school is reasonably decent. Even a voucher system allows for some oversight of the schools that are receiving the tax dollars.

But Arizona's ESAs, like most existing and proposed ESAs, give the family a card (Bank of America, in Arizona's case) with a balance on it that they may spend for "educational products and services." So private school tuition, or a tutor, or coaching software, or books, or whatever. Arizona parents have to agree not to spend the money on consumables like paper and pencils, nor is the money to be used for transportation. Advocates complain when I say that ESAs could be used to buy a PlayStation and some educational games-- but what in the law says they couldn't (maybe the "technological devices" provision, but that's awfully broad and vague)? And what in the law provides any sort of oversight to catch any such abuses? Can you imagine the kind of manpower that would be needed to check up on every family with an ESA to make sure they are spending tax dollars responsibly-- it would be expensive and time-consuming and intrusive and it's not going to happen.

The state of Arizona is essentially offering students a cash incentive to drop out of school. Take the few thousand dollars, tell us you're doing something educationy with it, and no questions asked.

Yes, accountability-ish steps have been taken along the way. For instance, according to a report from EdChoice:

For example, in 2013, legislators gave the department the authority to create a 1-800 number for fraud reporting and a website where parents or vendors could report fraud. 

But if the ESA money is spent and used within the home, who is going to see anything? And which citizens will be well-versed enough to know fraud when they see it? Advocates also call for "surprise" audits of families and making sure that only certain vendors and products are "unlocked" for the card, similar to what some states now do with food stamps. Can those locks be circumvented? And where is this staff that is going to audit family ESA spending for thousands of families more than once a year-- the law is capped at 30,000 students, but there are 1.1 million students in the state,
and ESA backers would like to include them all.

In fact, the ESA program already in place has been an accountability mess. The credits can be converted to cash by buying books, then returning them. Some took the ESA-- then returned to public school. Some crafty families parked the money in 529 college savings account so that the state could not get it back. There is even reason to suspect that ESA money was used to get an abortion. 

The kind of abuses possible with this sort of system stagger the imagination, and the money drained out of the larger education ecosystem would be a loss to public, private and charter schools alike. Plus, the end result will be students whose education was inadequate and who cannot contribute to society.

If you're a conservative, you may well like the idea that nobody should get welfare unless they can prove they're working or incapable of working. You don't want to see your tax dollars wasted (and there has already been some pretty spectacular fraud in Arizona). If you are giving somebody money to get an education, would you not also want to see some proof that they are actually getting one? Arizona's legislature is tough on welfare recipients-- but not on ESA recipients, even though an ESA is basically education-flavored welfare.

Proposition 305 will be up for a vote in November. Here's hoping that Arizona voters from across the political spectrum do the right thing and roll back ESAs in Arizona.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Outsourcing the Classroom To Ed Tech

This presentation was part of the Network for Public Ed convention last weekend. The panelists are Leonie Haimson, the super-activist from NY who beat Gates and InBloom; Audrey Watters, the expert on the subject of ed tech history and keen critic of its current manifestations; and me, trying not to be all fanboy about my co-panelists.

You can find a copy of Leonie's slides here, and Audrey's prepared remarks here. My part doesn't have any useful meatworld analog.

The panel looks at where the trends in privatizing-via-computerization are headed, as well as the concerns about data safety and just how good we can expect this stuff to be, anyway. Plus some things to keep in mind if it looks like this technocluster is headed toward you (and it probably is).

Leonie's slides are great, and Audrey says a naughty word while explaining just why the claims of AI-directed education are bunk.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

What To Read (2018 Edition)

At the NPE gathering, I received many requests to repost (and update) my list of people worth reading, so here we go. This is in no way all-inclusive; I'm going to miss somebody and every day I find new writers I didn't even know about, which means tomorrow I'll find out about someone I don't know about today. There are also bloggers who are worth reading, but if they've been silent for many months, I may leave them off this list. Caveats offered; here we go.

A Dog With a Bone   
Audrey Hill is a 30+ year English teacher. Sometimes the posts are brief and poetic, while some dig deep into a particular item.

A Teacher's Life For Me    
Michael Soskil was a PA teacher of the year. He has a good eye for the places where Big Ideas and Actual Classrooms intersect.

I'm a sucker for a good name, but this Florida blogging duo includes a graphic designer, so it looks good, too. The good fight in Florida is a barometer for reformy messes elsewhere, and these folks have a good eye for malarkey.

Alfie Kohn 
Kohn doesn't post often, but when he does, you don't want to miss it. This is what actual education reform ideas look like.

Annie Tan, An Angry Teacher
This fiery teacher has a big activist streak, and she'll tell you all about what is making her angry at the moment.  

Andrea Gabor
Gabor is a journalist and author (The Capitalist Philosophers, Einstein's Wife and After the Education Wars) who is frequently doing exceptional work looking at charter schools.

Answer Sheet 
Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post is the only big media journalist doing regular, daily coverage of education. Get national news, a public ed perspective, and answers from the kind of people who will ignore bloggers like me, but answer the phone when it says "Someone from the Washington Post is calling."

Automated Teaching Machine
Adam Bessie is a cartoonist who works the education beat. For those of you who like visuals.

Badass Teachers Association 
The activist group, best known through their facebook page, also has a blog featuring an assortment of voices.

The Becoming Radical
Paul Thomas is a college professor comfortable blending references to ed research, race issues, poetry and comic books. A good pair of eyes for seeing beneath the surface of many issues in the ed realm.

Big Education Ape 
One of the best aggregators of edublogging out there. If you only have time to make a couple of stops, BEA will get you up to speed. And as a bonus, you get some fairly hilarious paste-up illustrations.

Blue Cereal Education
Snappy, funny and pointed writing about issues in education. Recently transplanted from Oklahoma to Indiana. "Everything I say is so wise even I can hardly believe it. Feel free to concur."

BustED Pencils
BustED Pencils is a webcast (I've been a guest and it was fun), and it is also the host to regular blogging from Morna McDermott, Peggy Robertson, and others, as well as regular features like What Would Matt Damon's Mom Say. It is unabashedly progressive and activist.

Bob Braun's Ledger 
Long-time New Jersey reporter who has covered politics and education for decades. Regional and national stories with a hard-eyed reporter's view.

Bright Lights Small City
Sarah Lahm covers Minneapolis schools, policy and politics. As with many of the regional bloggers, her writing gives a good look at how the bigger issues play out on a smaller, specific stage.

Charter School Watchdog 
Longstanding clearing house for news of charter school shenanigans.

Children Are More Than Test Scores 
Jesse "the Walking Man" Turner's blog. Personal, heartfelt education activism.

Chicago Public Fools
Julie Vassilatos blogs in and about Chicago, but watches national stories as well.

Cloaking Inequality
Julian Vasquez Heilig has been a visible and vocal part of the pro-public ed movement, covering a wide range of national topics.

Dad Gone Wild
A father in Tennessee who has educated himself in the issues and done some activist work as well. Another regional blogger with national lessons for all of us to learn.

Generally Really Big Picture thoughts about transformation, leadership, and how it relates to organizations like schools.

I don't call her the indispensable Mercedes Schneider for nothing. Schneider blogs almost daily, generally on topics for which she has done research and digging-- she comes up with the facts about the reformsters and their organizations that nobody else had discovered.

Diane Ravitch's Blog
The chances that you read me and don't know about Ravitch are zero-to-none. But this list would look odd without her on it. This blog is like the pro-public education town square where everyone passes through at some point.

Disappointed Idealist
A British blog focusing on education and politics.

The primo source for progressive coverage of all things Michigan. And they've now got Mitchell Robinson blogging about education for them. Essential regional read if you want to understand the state that spawned DeVos.\

Ed in the Apple
A teacher in NYC focusing on "the intersection of education and politics."

Education in the Age of Globalization
The website of Yong Zhao, an international writer and thinker about education. The best man to put China's educational "achievements" in perspective.

Education Opportunity Network
One of the places to find the work of education writer Jeff Bryant. Always well-sourced and thorough, a grown-up voice for public education.

Educolor is a movement, a network, a hashtag, and a voice for equity in education. This is a place where you can start to get activated.

Filling the Pail
The website of Greg Ashman, a teacher in Australia.

Finding Common Ground

One of the family of EdWeek blogs. Peter DeWitt is a former principal and a bridge-builder who is almost always entirely reasonable and thoughtful when discussing issues of policy or managing a school.

Fourth Generation Teacher
Claudia Swisher is yet another Oklahoma blogger and advocate who provides a good look at what advocacy looks like on the ground out west.

Fred Klonsky
Progressive union-loving activist with a clear direct tell-it-like-it-is style, writing in Chicago.

Gadfly on the Wall
Steven Singer blogs about national issues from a fiery progressive perspective. You won't find anyone more passionate about the issues.

Gary Rubinstein
Former TFA-er who keeps the pressure on that organization as well as other reformsters in New York and across the country. A prodigious debunker of miracle schools.

Gene Glass
A senior researcher at the National Education Policy Center and co-author of 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America's Public Schools. Smart man with a wide grasp of the actual research behind policy debates.

Grumpy Old Teacher   
"Generations of public investment in a quality public education system should not be thrown away."

Hack Education
Nobody knows and understands the past and present of ed tech better than Audrey Watters. She's a really smart lady and a very snappy writer.  

Have You Heard
The website for the podcast by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider. Berkshire is one of the best interviewers around, and Schneider is a great education history scholar. Together they talk to some of the most interesting and compelling folks in the education debates.

I Love You But You're Going To Hell
Not only my favorite blog title, but a great blog for unpacking religious conservatives for everyone else, respectfully yet clearly. Also, school stuff.

Jan Resseger
She's a strong and insightful voice in the push for a progressive public education system.

Jersey Jazzman
There's no better place for plain-language explanations of the wonky data behind policy debates. I've learned a ton reading this blog.

The Jose Vilson
A consistently decent, human, humane, and personal perspective on teaching and race. Pretty sure this is one of the major teaching voices of a generation.

Keystone State Education Coalition 
A great roundup of links to news and commentary regarding Pennsylvania education.

Living in Dialogue
Anthony Cody, a co-founder of the Network for Public Education, has long been one of the steady progressive blogging voices in education. This site continues his own blogging work along with contributions from other strong voices for public education.

The Merrow Report
John Merrow was a top reporter for decades. He's retired, but he hasn't stopped finding and commenting on some of the important stories in education.

Mitchell Robinson
Heads music education for Michigan State University, as well as being a long-time policy wonk. Great lively writing about national issues. You'll also find him at Eclectablog.

Momma Bears
If you're going to talk about public education activism in Tennessee, you have to talk about the Momma Bears, digging deep and laying bare the tools of the reformsters.

Mother Crusader
New Jersey mom who became a powerhouse public education advocate.

Mr. Anderson Reads and Writes
Reading, writing and policy, digging deep for details, from a classroom teacher.

My Two Cents
Mary J. Holden was an English who left the classroom and became an education activist-- then she went back to the classroom. Located in Nashville, she's busy in one of the flagship states of reforminess, so there's lots for us to learn from her.

Nancy Bailey's Education Website
Former special ed teacher with a Ph.D. in educational leadership, Bailey tackles national issues with both fists. Smart as hell.

NYC Public School Parents 
Leonie Haimson and Class Size Matters are among the heroes in the defense of public education. They thwarted a big data incursion into NY, and they continue to have a sharp eye on what threatens public education in this country. 

Othmar's Trombone
Politics, reform and English teaching in the UK.

Politics K-12
Alyson Klein and Andrew Ujifusa cover the political side of education at EdWeek and are a reliable source of what's happening in the halls of power.

The Progressive-- Public School Shakedown
The Progressive magazine is about the only news magazine with an actual commitment to public education, and that is shown through this ongoing project featuring eleven outstanding national writers (plus me).

Russ on Reading
Russ Walsh focuses on reading instruction, but sees the connections to larger education issues. Incidentally, Walsh has published the definitive layperson's guide to what's going on in ed reform.

Emily Talmage is based in Maine, but she has been one of the voices out front in spotting and opposing the personalized competency based computerized learning trend.

School Finance 101
Bruce Baker manages to make sense out of the twisted labyrinth that is school financing. More interesting and important than you may imagine. Sometimes he shouts.

Schooling in the Ownership Society
A blog focusing on the moves to privatize public education with corporate reform.

Schools Matter
A roster of writers that includes Doug Martin, who wrote the book on Indiana Ed Corruption, and Jim Horn, who takes no prisoners and makes no compromises, but he knows his stuff. An aggressively anti-reform site.

Seattle Education
Another regional blog with a national take on ed reform, filtered through the unique perspective that comes from living in the shadow of Bill Gates' money.

Susan Ohanian
Ohanian had started to figure out what the hell was going wrong long before some of us had even started to wake up. Do not be put off by the design of her site, which can be... well, challenging. Trust me that it's worth it to dig in.

Teacher in a Strange Land
Nancy Flanagan has moved out of the EdWeek gated community, so there's no longer any excuse for missing any of her great posts. She's not as obviously combative, sparkly or full of fireworks as some blogs on this list, but she is smart and funny and honest and always worth the read.

Teacher TomTom teaches at a pre-school co-op in Seattle, and his perspective (and that of his students) is always a welcome breath of cool air.

Truth in American Education
An anti-common core, conservatively angled website with a variety of contributors.

Thomas Tultican keeps an eye on national stories and the bloggers who cover them.

What Is Common Core
These ladies in Utah are from the conservative wing of The Resistance; they pay close attention and do their homework, and they've been doing it for over four years, making them oldsters in this game.

Wrench in the Gears
A blog focused on the multinational machine driving the data mining of society. You may at times feel as if you fell down the rabbit hole, but this woman has done her homework.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley is one of the top experts on Value Added Measures and their general use and abuse. An excellent source for your VAM-related concerns.

The Other Side
That link will take you to a post I wrote about reading Reformsters, which I think is generally a good exercise.

Also, while I'm tossing up links, if you're interested in living green and mom stuff, let me recommend Sunshine Guerrilla, my daughter's blog. She's got a great big heart and writes awfully well.

Are Expectations Free?

It was a tweet by Jose Luis Vilson that drew my attention to the quote:

“It doesn’t cost one penny more to have higher expectations for kids, to actually believe that kids–low-income kids, kids of color, English-language learners–can succeed,” he says. 

The speaker is TNTP CEO Dan Weisberg, speaking about TNTP's latest "report." I've addressed that report elsewhere, but this particular idea is worth a closer look because it has been so persistent. Arne Duncan was a big believer in the magic of expectations, and Reformsters have often touted its powers-- perhaps precisely because it is a "reform" they can have for free.

But are expectations free?

I suppose expectations themselves are free, just as wishes and dreams are free. But creating the conditions and providing the tools that allow those expectations to be met-- that's not so free. And without support, some expectations are just cruel.

I mean, I can expect someone who is confined to a wheelchair to live a full and active life-- but somebody needs to provide that person with the actual wheelchair as well as appropriate physical therapy. Stephen Hawking's super-cool chair, computer interface, and voice synthesizer were not free.

And when we talk about education, there's a problem with free if by "expectation" we mean that a teacher should expect a child who is hungry, who lives with poverty every day, who lacks support for education at home, who lives with fear and instability in her world-- well, if we're just supposed to "expect" that child to handle school as if she lived a comfortable, stable, well-fed existence, that's just wrong.

It is also wrong to "expect" that students who go to school where there are not enough books, not enough desks, not enough supplies, but plenty of mold and decaying corners of the building-- to expect those students to approach school as if it were well-supported, well-funded, shiny and clean. Too often this business about the soft bigotry of low expectations is another way to say, "No, we're not going to fully fund this school, nor are we going to address the systemic racism and poverty that surrounds it-- just get in there an expect harder."

There is, of course, a solid core of truth to this talk about expectations. Every decent teacher understands that expectations are important in a classroom, that if you approach students with an attitude of "Well, these are just the dumb kids, so let's not expect much, try much, or do much" you are failing those students.

But. But but but.

A good teacher masters the art of calibrating expectations. Expect too little, and the student coasts and learns too little. But expect too much, and expect it too inflexibly, and you will break the student, push the student past the point of frustration so that she simply gives up, dejected and demoralized. This careful calibration has to be teamed up with a teacher's sense for what support will look like-- what ratio of hand-holding to ass-kicking does each student need. And of course both of these factors need to be recalculated every day. (This is also the kind of learning personalization that I don't imagine a computer program ever providing, ever.)

But isn't all that free? Can't a teacher throw in the whole calibration of expectations and support at no extra charge?

Yes, and no. Because what we're talking about is a teacher's relationship with her students, and that is directly affected by the number of students in that classroom, which means, ultimately, that it's a budget item. If you want a culture of high expectations in your school, you will need to spend enough money to have small class size.

It's hard to believe that guys like Weisberg and Duncan don't know they're spouting baloney. First off, they never add the corollary "If colleges and universities would just raise their expectations, it wouldn't matter how well-prepared students were coming out of high school."

Second, anyone who looks at a wealthy, well-funded, well-supported, shiny school full of high achievers will find a district clearly motivated by the idea, "We expect lots of great things from our kids, and therefor we are going to spare no expense to give them every possible tool to help them accomplish those things." Nobody ever won a school board election in those well-heeled districts by saying, "Let's just cut all our taxes, cut back on buildings, slash all the extra programs, and just tell teachers to expect harder."

No, expectations always travel hand in hand with the tools and conditions needed to make those expectations manifest in the actual world. High expectations don't mean a teacher who tosses a math book to her students on Day One and says, "There's your book. I expect you to learn what's in it. See you in 180 days." High expectations mean a teacher who says, "I expect great things from you, and I am going to help you achieve those things with every tool at my disposal."

Expectations are just a form of faith, and even the Bible tells us that faith without works is dead. Expectations matter, but expectations are only a foundation and no, you can't build the house for free. "Teachers should just expect harder," is just an excuse for politicians and policy wonks to avoid the issue of giving underserved, underfunded schools the resources they need, the kind of resources and funding that politicians and policy wonks would give them if those guys really, truly believed in the success of those students.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Another Sub Service Fails

Professional Education Services Group may be "the leader in Educational Staffing driven by a constant focus on the success of our Educational Partners through innovative, hand-crafted solutions that meet the needs of your local educational community" in almost 5000 schools across the country. But in Michigan, they failed hard.

PESG sent out a letter last night letting about 100 schools know that the company was closing down immediately and would not be getting them subs for today. They are shuttering all Michigan operations.

Is there some sort of explanation? The head of the company had sent out a note to employees, indicating that the company had been seeking capital as well as negotiating with "a competitor" to be bought out. But it was not to be, because reasons:

"The urgency of the shutdown was exacerbated, however, when those negotiations broke down over the weekend due to unforeseen developments outside of our control," he said. "Without operating funds to stay open, therefore, the company is now forced to close immediately. Under the circumstances, we believed our only serious option was to notify you as soon as possible."

Most of the affected districts, including the large Dearborn district, were scrambling to make plans. PESG said 1,500 to 2,000 substitute teachers were affected. Some of these districts still have contracts with PESG, so we may see some court action before the smoke clears.

This, of course, is what you get when you let a business have a piece of the education pie. Does this kind of sudden shut down make sense? Was the company down to its last $150 last week but they figured it would all work out anyway, or is this "immediate" shutdown necessary to protect the business's remaining assets. Who knows. All I know is that a school district would do-- well, exactly what the districts are doing, which is to put their heads together, rig something up, and generally move heaven and earth to make sure the needs of students are met.

Public schools put students first. Businesses put business concerns first. That doesn't make them evil-- just bad partners for schools.

Substitute services have a spotty record. Philadelphia tried privatizing its substitute pool, and the results were ugly. Districts find sub outsourcing attractive, but for substitutes it's a pain-- one more layer of bureaucracy to deal with, and another hand out to cut into your check before it gets to you. Some services can even be insulting-- a local district just handed its sub pool over to a company (rhymes with "smell") and now subs who have already been working for years are told they need to take some special smelly training. I have no figures on how many subs walk out when a new subcontractor walks in, but the number can't be inconsequential. To recruit more people, you need to make the job more attractive-- adding a subcontractor to the sub teacher biz hardly ever makes the job more attractive.

All districts know at least one solution, and some larger districts actually embrace it. You hire full time subs. You put Mrs. McSubteach on full salary, have her report to work every day, and plug her in wherever, and you never have to worry about her being poached for the day by some other district. But that costs money, and districts want a cheap solution.

Privatizing is not that solution. 500 subs cost less than 500 subs plus a corporate payroll for the company that took the work over. You don't make an operation cheaper by adding more mouths to feed.

The substitute recruitment problem cannot be solved by making the job less attractive, and privatizing is not a solution, either, as many schools in Michigan are finding out today.