Friday, November 30, 2018

Common Core Testing And The Fracturing Of Literature

The Common Core Standards do not require reading complete long works of literature. Even by the time we arrive at the 11th and 12th grade set of standards for reading literature, the standards only refer to "stories, dramas, and poems."
There are, throughout the standards, references to Shakespeare and "foundational works" or literature. But the standards do not suggest that students should, at some point in their academic career, read an entire book. Appendix A provides highly technical explanations of how to consider text complexity and quality, but somehow avoids discussing the value of reading an entire novel. Appendix B provides "exemplars," of reading selections, but the exemplars from novels are all short passages.
This interest in passages and excerpts dovetails nicely with the standardized testing now associated with the Common Core Standards (or whatever name your state has given to them). The PARCC, the SBA, and other big standardized tests cannot, by their nature, ask students to read and reflect on entire complex works of literature. Instead, we find short poems, short articles, and passages excerpted from longer works.
Both the standards and the tests are focused on "skills," with the idea that the business of reading a play or a story or any piece of text is not for the value of that text, but for the reading skills that one acquires and practices in the reading. The standards suggest that students should have some knowledge about some texts, but that's not the focus (and it won't be on the test).
All of this has had an effect on how teachers teach literature. One of the more subtle effects of test-centered teaching is the rise of the excerpt. We don't need to read all of Hamlet or Grapes of Wrath or Huckleberry Finn; we just need to read some select excerpts from them. Just tear a couple of pages out of the text and throw the rest of the book away. There are, in fact, businesses like the website CommonLit, a website that offers an entire library of short stories, poems, and excerpts from novels, along with lessons, testing materials that tie to plenty of pretty data charts and analytics. If you have any doubts about what motivates teachers to use a service like this (and many, many do), consider one satisfied customer's statement about the need that CommonLit met:
We’ve been asked to combine short fiction and nonfiction texts with our curriculum and align them to questions that match our state test for years.
This is test prep. And one thing that test prep doesn't need is long chunks of reading. Test passages will tend to be about one page long, and so the year's work in reading becomes focused on reacting to short passages (primarily through responding to multiple choice questions). Excerpts are consumed cut free from their context in the larger work, and they are read and consumed quickly; there can be no time to read the whole work, reflect on it, even discuss it with other interested readers. Read the few paragraphs, answer the questions, move on to the next passage.

It is increasingly possible for students to graduate from high school without ever having read an entire novel, an entire play. Their knowledge of the body of literature is Cliff's Notes deep, and they may never develop the mental muscles to work their way through a long, meaty piece of literature. Their experience of literature has been fractured and shrunk into pieces small enough to fit on a screen. Their experience of what "reading" is has been shrunk as well, leaving them with the idea that reading is about ploughing through a short, disjointed piece of a piece of writing in order to correctly guess the answers about it that someone else believes are correct (based on the assumption that there is only one correct reading of each passage).
After years and years of this, there is no evidence that any of this creates better readers. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it does add to the number of students who learn to hate reading in school. Have there always been teachers who made literature into a painful chore? Sure. But the modern education reforms have only made the problems worse.
There are plenty of schools that resist this trend and that continue to teach entire works of literature in a deep and reflective way. Not all teachers are given that choice by their administrators. The broader solution to this issue (as it is the solution to many current issues in education) is to do away with test-driven schooling. Make the tests no-stakes tests, or simply do away with them, and stop using them to drive curricular changes that are poor educational practices.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Don't Call Me A Reformer

Robin Lake doesn't want to be called an "education reformer" any more, and in a piece at The 74 she tries to make her case in a piece that's a mix of valid points and weak disingenuity. After making her plea, she gets down to the why:

This might seem odd coming from someone who leads an organization that for 25 years has studied the need for systemic reform of American public education. But I’m done talking about reformers. I want to engage with real ideas and real people, not labels and groupthink.

Don't call her a reformer
Well, yes. It seems super-odd coming who has been working for and running the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), an organization that has served as a research wing of the reform movement. And let's not just skip over the fact that members of the ed reform movement picked that name for themselves. They're the ones who worked tirelessly to brand their movement "education reform," a term that paints them as the white hats coming to save the day, and not, say, people trying to figure out how to neutralize the teachers unions, or people trying to bust open the $600 billion piggy bank of public ed, or people trying to impose their own unelected will on an important American institution. Lord knows, those of us who have opposed them have been trying to find things to call them other than reformers--privatizers, colonizers, rephormers, reformsters, reformists. We've tried hard not to cede the framing of the education debates as saviory reformifiers versus the awful rest of us.

However, buried in here, Lake has a couple of valid points.

Here’s why. I have no idea what the term means anymore. Who is not a reformer?

True that. One of the implicitly insulting parts of the "reformer" narrative has been that only they are really interested in making schools better, and the people who have actually dedicated their entire careers to working in schools somehow have no desire to make things better. So Lake asks a good question, just before she nods to the same old false dichotomy:

Are nonreformers people who believe that we can get dramatically different results by standing pat, doing things largely the same way, without any structural or policy changes in public education? If so, I have little to discuss with them.

Yes, one other part of the "reformer" narrative has always been that education is in crisis and that something radical must be done right away. They've been claiming this since at least 1983 (A Nation At Risk), to the point that they hardly bother to substantiate it any more. Are there problems that need to be addressed? Absolutely. But just as she says that she doesn't know what reformer means, in the next breath she suggests that it means, in part, someone who wants to blow up the system in order to create dramatic change.

But to imply that they are some monolithic group of reformers is ridiculous and plays into the desired stand-patter narrative that the demand for structural changes is driven by some elite, out-of-touch, anti-teacher group.

Well, she's right when she says that reformsters aren't a monolithic group, and then she immediately ruins it by suggesting that reform resisters are, in fact, a monolithic group.

It took me a couple of years to start seeing the many different threads bound together in the ed reform movement, all of whom fall across a broad range, from venal to well-meaning, from those motivated by social justice concerns to those who see reform as a way to pursue racist ed policies, from those who are sincerely interested in student education to those who are cynical liars, from those who can be taken seriously to those who can't be taken seriously at all, from those who reasonably well-informed to those who are pridefully ignorant. And as she goes on to note, different folks within the movement have different priorities.

Lake breaks reform down into standards and charter movements, and breaks those down further, and I agree with her analysis. But she is answering her own question. Why do people view the whole range of reformists as a unified whole? Because they formed a coalition in order to present themselves as a unified whole. In doing so, they linked their brand to some problematic actors, and when some of the most problematic rose to power two years ago, it blew holes in the coalition.

Lake is often on the verge of useful insights, but then she returns to whinging about that monolithic resistance:

There has never been a group of reformers with one agenda. But it helps the stand-patters to make people believe there is so they don’t seem like the minority, which I believe they are. It’s always easier to fight against change than for it, but who can look at the data, the inequities in the current education system and what’s been tried in the past, and honestly say stronger accountability, more flexibility for educators, and more options for families are not needed?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. Who created the myth of a group of reformers with one agenda? The reformers did. They stood shoulder to shoulder and said, "Look at this coalition. With this many different types of folks all on the same page, you know we are fighting in a righteous cause." The coalition's illusory unanimity gave them political strength and provided protective cover for the money-makers and opportunists. No "stand-patters" did that. You reform folks did that to yourselves.

And it should come as no surprise that resistance to reformy policies has come from a variety of sources, and not some imaginary standy-patty group. The Core resistance came from people who agree on absolutely nothing else.

And the last part of her mistaken trifecta is the same old reformy dodge. You do not justify your choice of solution by emphasizing the problem. Do we need stronger accountability? For what, to whom. I'd like to see stronger accountability for the politicians who fail to properly fund education. More flexibility for educators? Sure. More options for families? Why? How about we provide each family with an excellent free education in their own community, because I like that solution to the problem of race-driven economic-fueled inequity in this country. I'd like to see a solution to policy leaders and politicians who think public education can be half-assed on the cheap. My point (and I do have one) is that we can debate problems all day, and at the end of the day, we will have done nothing about solutions. Reformers have gotten the diagnosis wrong a lot, but when they do get ir right, they don't do the work of connecting to a solution. (It's almost as if they started with their preferred solution and worked backwards to find a problem to justify it.) Quick example: there are schools that are really struggling to serve non-wealthy non-white students. I absolutely believe that. I don't believe charters, choice, testing, or test-based teacher evaluation help solve that problem at all.

Sigh. But here we go. Lake segues into a call for the reformy flavor of the month-- Personalized [sic] Competency Proficient Mass Customized Algorithm Driven Learning Education. She does a better job than many of describing it in glowing glossy terms. Oh, and as always, change must happen right now. Staying still is not an option, just as it wasn't an option for Common Core or teacher test-based accountability or turnaround/takeovers or charters etc etc etc.&

It occurs to me that Lake could avoid the reform monolith perception by not using the same old used-car-salesman pitches. In fact, as I look around at all the reformy folks who are suddenly fans of Personalized [sic] Competency Blah Blah Blah Learning Tech Product, I'm thinking another way to avoid the perception that "reformers" operate in one unified block would be to NOT all come out in favor of the exact same Next Big Thing at the same time.

Effective change makers are both principled and pragmatic. They cross traditional boundaries and constituencies, recognize that policy ideas have to shift based on evidence, and know that communities, families, and educators need to drive lasting change.

Absolutely. Teachers already knew this; it's how they've made effective change for decades.

That is why I want nothing to do with debates that characterize reform as a set group of people with a set agenda, rather than a continually evolving set of diverse people and groups who come together around shared views of specific ideas and actions that will produce much better results.

I still can't decide how I feel about reform's tendency to "evolve."  I'm glad they move on when things fail-- on the other hand, teachers in classroom end up dealing with the detritus (eg, we're all still stuck with zombie remnants of the damned Common Core). The fact that "is this working" is too often defined in financial or political terms instead of educational ones is not great, either. Nor do I see signs that the evolution includes learning. Makes me wonder-- is this evolution away from the term "reformer" a pragmatic choice because the brand has been damaged by too many losses?

Lake's desire to seek out new types of discussion is fine, but-- Did I mention that this is published at The 74, a website established by reform supporter and teacher union hater Campbell Brown. Ms. Lake, let me invite you to cross some boundaries and publish elsewhere. Drop me a line and we can work something out here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Trump, Apple, but No Teacher

Ivanka Trump, Czarina of Shiny Things, traveled to an Idaho school and took Tm Cook, Big Boss Apple, along with her, to contemplate the glossy beauty of post-teacher education.

The Idaho Statesman covered her visit in severe detail (including coverage of an omelet she ate before leaving). The visit was intended to be quick and quiet, with only the Statesman and an ABC crew allowed to witness. And only to witness-- no questions allowed. Some word got out and an assortment of supporters and protesters were waiting outside the school.

One more rich self-appointed ed expert
Inside, students awaited with... well, what the Statesman described were not exactly technomarvels. They spelled out "welcome" on some ipads, and were "making a movie" of the visitors. The tour lasted an hour, featuring the various uses of the ipads that Apple gave the school three years ago.

Trump dropped the usual line about some states and schools being "laboratories of innovation." No, wait-- that was the usual line for the Obama administration. Huh. But the real kicker was Cook's observation about one of the classrooms:

Cook gestured around the classroom: “You notice in this classroom there is no teacher, there is a mentor. It makes the learning process for students very different because in a classroom where there is a mentor, people can move at different rates. This is life. We all learn things at different rates.”

Instead of a teacher standing before the entire class and lecturing, the students at Wilder hold the classroom in their hands and complete the work at their own pace.

It's an ed reformster techno-twofer-- pushing the Personalized [sic] Mass Customized Learning model, while actually only talking about personalized pacing, a model as old as the SRA box of reading samples. It's an idea that has been around for 100 years, but now-- with computers!!

And, of course, no teacher actually needed. Students teach themselves. With computers! This, I remind you, from the head of the Apple corporation, which has completely gotten over any Trumpian misgivings they had to become enthusiastic collaborators, apparently, while the Connected program that began under Obama is apparently not going to be booted by Trump simply for being a program started by That Other Guy.

The White House e-newsletter quotes the line about "Instead of a teacher standing before the entire class and lecturing..." (because that's the only alternative to letting students sit there with computers in their hands, apparently) and it also repeats this quote from the Czarina:

This is what is so exciting, the harnessing of technology in conjunction with incredible educators to create this type of really personalized learning experience ... [to] prepare students for a world where digital literacy is absolutely critical but at the same time enable them to move at their own speed.

Spoken like one more wealthy well-connected amateur. First, as Cook pointed out rather directly, "incredible educators" are neither involved nor required for this "personalized learning experience." Just mentors. Second, Trump blithely slips past one of the central tensions of all education-- students have to master a certain amount of material, and they should do it at their own speed, except they also have to do it by a certain deadline. Teachers since the dawn of time have struggled to balance the amount of content and the available time for it, but the solution is to just hold a computer and just, you know, do both at once. But then, the Czarina is not there actually in a education-related capacity; this visit is part of her tour in connection with the National Council for the American Worker.

There's a lovely picture of a first grader showing his ipad prowess. There is no discussion about the wisdom, safety or educational efficacy of having a six year old spend his day with a screen.

Wilder, the district Trump visited, is one of the poorest districts in the state (100% free and reduced lkunch). Their continuing ed numbers are grim. The district has gone full one-to-one all the way down to kindergarten. There is much to debate about whether computer-driven education can possibly help the district out. But at least they can draw a nice photo op visit from roaming education amateurs.

Blow It All Up

They have been there since the beginning of the education debates, sometimes allied with reformsters and sometimes with the resistance. They don't necessarily share the long term goals of either group.

When Common Core showed its ugly face, reactions came in basically two flavors:

1) The Core is a foreign body attacking the basic nature of public education in this country; we need to drive it out of the system so public education can pursue its true nature again.

2) The Core is public education taking its mask off and revealing its true nature. It cannot be redeemed; it must all go.

OK GOP ed reform in actn
Among "conservative" Reformsters, there has always been a contingent that doesn't just want to turn education over to business, but wants to completely starve the beast. I've had folks tell me that schools should never have been run by the government, but should be a part of society run by The Church. Others would be happy with a voucher system in place of a public education system. For these folks, the whole mission of educating Other People's Children s wrong. If Those People want an education for their children, they can damn well provide it themselves.

I use scare quotes for "conservative," because this is not a form of conservatism I really recognize-- to me, it's not very conservative to try to dismantle one of the oldest institutions in the country. But if you doubt that such Blow It All Up people exist, come with me to Oklahoma.

One county's Republican party is calling for an end to public education, though they recognize that there will need to be a transition before "letting the public assume their rightful responsibility of self-education and not allowing it to be a part of government’s role." Your kids' education is your own damn problem, and I certainly don't want to have to help pay or it.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is high-grade dopiness. You do not live on an island (especially not in Oklahoma) and the uneducated children of today are your neighbors and fellow citizens tomorrow. The country that you live in is not enhanced by an influx of uneducated people. This attitude makes as much sense as saying, "I'm not going to pay to run the sewers to the people who live uphill from me. They can just do their business in their yards. That are uphill from me." And if you want me to expand on that analogy, then, yes, I'm saying that ignorance is a form of toxic waste. In fact, instead of our usual model of imagining that education is about putting knowledge and skills into people, maybe we should think of it as draining ignorance out. Maybe that would make it clearer that only a flipping shortsighted fool would want to deny education to fellow citizens.

It's possible that the Oklahoma GOP in question isn't that stupid; it may be they want to send a message and telegraph a tough negotiating stance to those uppity teachers who went and got themselves elected. But I don't think so. After all, Betsy DeVos appears to be a member of the Blow It All Up Club.

The Blow It All Up Club itself has different factions. Some really are afraid that the government is going to make them do things and learn things that the don't want to learn and do. Some are more concerned that they government is going to take their money and spend it on nice things for people who shouldn't get nice things, and certainly not nice things that I have to pay for.

This little OK county may be an outlier, but I think we can expect to see more emboldened legislators saying, "Let's just blow the whole thing up." Keep your eyes peeled.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

When Is Personalized Learning Not Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning is a hot new brand in education, the Great New Thing that is going to revitalize education and elevate students to new levels of awesome. And yet, what is being pitched in many school districts is not personalized learning at all.
When we hear the words "personalized learning," we imagine an educational plan crafted to the individual student. Pat really loves dinosaurs, so the teacher creates a reading unit based on books about dinosaurs combined with a writing unit involving research about dinosaurs. If Pat is weak on particular styles of charts and graphs, Pat may get an extra unit that works on organizing information about dinosaurs visually. Meanwhile, Chris needs remedial work on reading, so Chris gets some lower-reading level high-interest materials about rodeos and horses, because that's what Chris loves. On the other side of the hall, Sam wants to be a concert pianist, so Sam's educational program approaches history from the perspective of the history of music, and Sam actually spends less time daily on science so that there's more time for music-related studies.
That, or something like it, would be personalized learning.
But what many school districts are actually talking about is personalized pacing. Chris, Pat and Sam all complete exactly the same reading materials, they study the exact same units in math, and they study history out of exactly the same textbook. The only difference is the speed with which they move through the materials. Chris is weak in reading, so Chris takes three tries to successfully complete the Unit 2 test, while Pat and Sam continue to Unit 3. Pat has trouble with volume problems in math class, so while Chris and Sam move ahead, Pat gets some supplemental materials (aka extra practice) with volume problems. There is nothing personal about their learning program except the speed with which they move through it.
This is not a new idea in education. If you're of a Certain Age, you may remember the SRA reading program-- a box of colored cards, each with a short reading selection and some questions to answer. Finish one card, move on to the next. That was personalized pacing. What's new today is (what else) having a computer do the job of deciding what Chris, Pat and Sam are supposed to do next. This does not require any advanced Artificial Intelligence. A series of relatively simple algorithms can handle it ("If the student gets all ten questions on Worksheet 23/b2 correct, move the student on to Worksheet 24/b1, but if the student misses questions 2, 4 and 7, move the student to Worksheet 23/b5.") The computer can move every student smoothly through the large, highly standardized flow chart.
It is, in many ways, the opposite of standardization. Its promise is that one size really can fit all if you just build enough flexibility into it.
Personalized pacing has value, but adapting it for the classroom brings up the age-old tension in education-- we have a certain amount of work to do, and only a certain amount of time in which to do it. What happens if Chris is six units behind Pat at the end of the semester, or the year, or the twelve years of public education? It's the oldest problem in education, and personalized pacing does not help solve it.
Personalized pacing also runs the risk of reducing education to a checklist of items to complete, leading some students to focus on gaming the system so that they can power through the checklist as quickly as possible.

Additionally, by computerizing the chore of organizing this personalized pacing system, we add the problem of pleasing the program. A teacher has dozens of ways to determine of a student understands the material or grasps the skill; a computer program generally has just one. Every teacher working with these sorts of programs recognizes the student complaint-- "I know the answer, but I can't figure out how the computer wants me to say it."
Despite its pitfalls, personalized pacing can have great value, and teachers have employed it since the first school room was set up. It is not new, and it is not personalized learning. Watch out for people who want to reinvent the wheel and then tell you that if you buy their newly reinvented wheels, your car will fly.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Factory, The Computer, and the Marketing Problem

Nancy Flanagan notes her frustration this week with the continued complaints about public schools, about how they are an outmoded factory model producing students on an assembly line. And she correctly notes where that comes from, and where it's headed.

Public school has been under the most modern wave of attack since 1983's A Nation at Risk, with each new wave of reformsterism accompanied by renewed attacks on one of America's oldest institutions. And the criticism has always served a purpose for Reformsters. So when we hear a new shift in that same-old song, we need to pay attention-- something is coming.

"Teachers are the most important factor is student learning" and "Many teachers are terrible" paved the way for test-centered accountability that was supposed to let us root out all the Terrible Teachers and fire the lot of them.

"Fifty states are higgledy piggledy in what and when they teach" and "We need to be able to compare students from Idaho and Florida" paved the path for Common Core State [sic] Standards.

"Students are trapped in failing zip codes" and "rich people get to choose schools" and even "Freeeeeedom!" were to pave the way for unfettered charter schools and vouchers.

It's basic marketing. You need your product to fill a need, and if the need is slight, you expand it. If there is no need obviously begging to be filled, you create it. And whatever the need is, you frame it in a way that suggests your solution is the best one for the job.

So what's the current pitch? Well, we've been subjected to the observation that schools haven't changed in 100, 125, or 200 years (including pronouncements from the Department of Education). We see the traditional model referred to as a factory or assembly line. We even see criticism of the previously-beloved Big Standardized Test. For the last two decades, we've heard about how the BS Tests were our defense against everything bad in education, but now, within the last year, we see widespread agreement that they have added to the factory-esque student-smothering atmosphere of schools.

Meanwhile, out in the investment world, we have bulletins like this one:

Classroom Management Systems Market research report 2017 delivers a holistic vision of the global market also analyze the current industry state, demands, and the business strategies implemented by market players.

“About Classroom Management Systems,The classroom management systems market is significantly fragmented due to the presence of several international and regional players. Players in this classroom monitoring software market offer focus on differentiating their products mainly in terms of deployment and features. The increasing need for offering personalized learning experiences and the rising awareness will offer significant growth opportunities for players in this marketspace. The classroom management systems can be segmented into on-premise deployment and cloud-based deployment. Cloud-based classroom management systems market segment will account for the major share of the classroom monitoring software market by the end of the forecast period. Cloud-based deployment model enables students, teachers, and administrators to access the data anytime and from anywhere.”

The CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) is reported at a breathless 24.71%. Computer software used to run a classroom is being touted as a tremendous and wonderful investment.

Meanwhile, competency based education teamed up with personalized [sic] learning is the Next Big Thing. My google alerts send me a handful of items touting the awesomeness of personalized [sic] learning every day. Along with the occasional article mentioning how cool it would be to do away with grade levels.

Free your child from the tyranny of the 100-year-old factory school assembly line!

Why do this? Because the folks pushing Total Immersion Ed Tech Mass Customized Algorithm Driven Personalized [sic] Competency Proficiency Based Learning Stuff (incidentally, I don't think it's a mistake that this stuff doesn't have a clearly stated brand name-- one lesson of Common Core was that if you give a program a clear brand name, you make it easier for critics to attack it) have a problem. Several, actually.

First, they aren't pushing anything new. Mastery Learning is rooted in the 1920s, pushed in the 1960s, resurrected as Outcome Based Education in the 1990s. Education that is responsive to and aimed at the individual child is built into the dna of public ed; every teacher in the country already does it to some extent. They haven't even reinvented the wheel; they've just pulled old wheels, some broken and not actually round, out of the warehouse and repackaged them.

Second, some of their ideas have a bad track record. It's not like there haven't many attempts to have a software-directed personalized [sic] learning school. Rocketship Academies were going to change education-- by putting every student in a cubicle with a computer. It didn't go all that well. Summit, the Zuckerberg-backed competency based algorithm-based ed program has seen some pushback, generally from parents and students who object to sitting at a screen while not actually being taught. Therefor...

Third, they can't lean into the major feature of their idea. Promoters of personalized [sic] learning have learned to emphasize the warm fuzzy individualized part of their pitch and gloss over the technology as much as possible- and to call it "technology". The only phrase with less education marketing power than "We're going to teach your child the Common Core" is "Your child is going to be taught the Common Core by a computer."

So the rhetoric of reform has moved past "we need better teachers" or "we need a choice of schools" into "we need to blow up the schools and replace them with individualized mass customized programs." And a key part of that pitch is to keep conjuring up visions of students crammed into rows of desks in sterile classrooms, faceless children strapped onto an assembly line. Because children trapped on an assembly line are so much worse than children trapped in front of a cold computer screen.

My recommendation to teachers and schools across the US-- start publicizing, through whatever media avenues (social and otherwise) available to you, images of your classrooms, so that the public absorbs the images of the vibrant, differentiated, warm and very human classrooms across this country and stops imagining that schools are some sort of dim Dickensian hell holes. And if your classroom is a Dickensian hell hole, I suggest you make it clear that no amount of computer technology or mass customized software will make up for mold and drafty windows and crumbling walls, and that the taxpayers should think about what they really want to spend money on.

Killing the Five Paragraph Essay: A Book About Writing

I'm happy to have sitting on my desk a fresh new copy of John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities officially out next week. For anyone who teaches writing, or who just wants to understand how we entered this golden age of bad writing instruction, and who also wants to know how to escape it.

Warner is a regular blogger for Inside Higher Education, and he turns up in a variety of other settings as well as having spent a couple of decades teaching writing on the college level. He knows the territory.

He's also heard the complaints about Kids These Days and how they can't write, and with the first few pages, he dispenses with the usual suspects (bunch of snowflakes with too many cell phones). So what's the answer?

The short answer is they write badly because we taught them to. The long answer takes up the first ten chapters of Warner's invaluable book.

We need to acknowledge first that we have always been complaining that students could not write, while also acknowledging that writing, unlike speaking, is a completely unnatural process that humans have to learn. Warner lays some important groundwork in talking about the writer's practice.

But the particularly valuable chapters are those that lay out the different influences that have created a perfect storm of bad writing instruction. Over those seven chapters, Warner helps clarify how these disparate yet interlocking forces brought us to this place. This sad, lumpy place.

Warner runs through seven problems. There's the problem of atmosphere, the way in which schools and a culture of pressure and competition can suck the fun out of learning. There is the problem of surveillance, the ways in which we monitor students closely, often choosing bad proxies in place of more authentic indicators (e.g. attention). The problem of assessment and standardization, the belief in the One Right Answer, which is the very opposite of good writing. The problem of education fads, like grit (here Warner includes a great breakdown of The Hype Cycle). The problem of technology hype-- no, the good writing assessment software that is always "almost here" still has not arrived. The problem of folklore, the received wisdom that is passed along with no evidence but age. And the problem of precarity, which speaks to the lack of stability in a teachers' life, including precarious pay and increasingly senseless and unpredictable means of evaluating the teachers' work.

You may not have thought of all of these as factors in the teaching of writing, but Warner makes a clear case for each. Then he talks about a better framework (my favorite chapter title here: "Making Writing Meaningful by Making Meaningful Writing") and wraps the book up with unanswered questions, those challenges that must be addressed.

This is a great book, clear and concise and accessible. It looks at the big picture of how we got to this place and how to get out of it, which is critical. Writing texts that focus simply on specific techniques and exercises invariably end up tinkering around the edges, because too many teachers are starting from a fundamentally flawed foundation. Not their fault-- it is a foundation that has been built and enforced by outside, non-teachery forces-- but before we can build a better structure, the foundation has to be addressed.

That is not to say that there aren't specific items from the "things you can use in your classroom next week" category, but the book is important for anyone who is interested in growing a world full of better writers, including people who aren't in the classroom. For more specific activities and exercises, I recommend Warner's The Writer's Practice, due in February of 2019.

This is a book we've needed for a while, and now that it's here I recommend you grab a copy.

ICYMI: Triptophan Hangover Edition (11/25)

Ready to just sit and spend some quiet time? Here's some worthwhile reading from the week. If it speaks to you, remember to share it, tweet it, or otherwise help push it out into the world. That's how voices get amplified.

Reading Too Soon

Need one more article explaining the science behind not teaching reading to littles? Here you go.

It's Time To End The Testing Culture In America's Schools

Robert Pondiscio ran this piece in the 74, so you might have missed it, but it's a pretty clear argument for chopping the Big Standardized Tests off at the knees.

DeVos Will Face House Dems on Five Ed Fronts

Politico tries to figure out which parts of the Democratic House will be making which kinds of attacks on which of the DeVosian policies.

Communications in a Modern World

Dad Gone Wild takes a look at how modern media have changed the rules for discussion, disagreement and debate.

The Teacher Life: Grading Papers Over Holiday Break   

Mercedes Schneider on one of those benefits that those damn only-work-part-of-a-year teachers enjoy.

Dear Lawmakers: Please Hire Real Teachers As Education Aides, Not TFA Alum  

Part of the purpose of Teach For America was always to create Reformsters who could claim teaching cred as a way to grease their passage into the halls of power (where they could advocate for reformster policies). It's working too well.

Rescuing Schools From Corporate Goliaths  

John Thompson reflects on some of the lessons of the last Network for Public Education conference.

Personalized Online Learning Fails  

Okay, I shortened the headline, but Nancy Bailey's piece ticks off the list of ways in which online learning does not serve students well and what they lose when they lose traditional classroom work.

Batch Processing Students On An Assembly Line  

Nancy Flanagan is wondering why we're back to complaining about factory model schooling again...

Charter Choice Closer Look  

A huge compendium of charter-choice related articles and items. Just in case this list didn't give you enough reading to do.

Navigating the Trivial in Writing Instruction  

Some big thoughts about the little things in writing instruction, from P. L. Thomas.

Toxic Philanthropy Part II  

Wrench in the Gears connects some more of the dots in the big-money fauxlanthropy game.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Seven Most Powerful Words In Education

What can I do to help you?

These words are hugely powerful and tragically underused at every level of the education world.
In the classroom, teachers have been taught since the dawn of time that they should be clear about their expectations. This is excellent practice; let the student know exactly what you want from her. If she has trouble meeting that expectation, be certain that you are explaining the expectation clearly. And then ask the student, "What can I do to help you?"

It may well be that the student won't be able to tell you. That's okay. Just asking the question signals a shift in your classroom dynamic; instead of a setting in which the teacher demands performance from a student, who is on her own to produce the required signs of learning, the Seven Words reframe the classroom as a place where the teacher and student are teamed up to conquer learning obstacles together. Students benefit from knowing they aren't alone in the struggle, and teachers are reminded that students are their partners, not their obstacles (a view promoted from teacher accountability systems that say, "You have to get good scores out of your kids, or else.") It's worth noting that computerized personalized [sic] learning systems cannot ask this question in any meaningful way.

The Seven Words are also powerful for building administration. Sadly, may teachers have never, ever had a building principal ask the question. Instead they hear "Make your test numbers" or "Follow the proper procedures" or "Here's one more program I expect you to use in your class." There are plenty of expectations, but far too few building principals consider their job to include helping teachers meet those expectations. Some administrators pride themselves on an Open Door Policy ("Any teacher can come talk to me any time she wants") and some principals roam the building, popping into classrooms to see what's going on. But I'll bet there are few teachers in this country who have ever had a principal walk into their classroom, sit down, and say, "I just wanted to ask what I can do to help you with your work." Without something that explicit, some teachers will never believe it's okay for them to ask their boss for help with anything, ever.

The Seven Words would help at the policy level, too. We've been subjected to decades of school "reform," ongoing attempts to make schools better. And yet, as policy makers discuss various fixes and programs and policies, they rarely take the step of going to actual classroom teachers and asking, "What can we do to help you?" When teachers are allowed in the room at all, they are usually carefully handpicked teachers who will be friendly and agreeable.

Of course, the Seven Words are rarely used with teachers at the policy level because so many players at that level are there to sell something. They have decided on their own that No Child Left Behind or Common Core or Race to the Top or Competency Based Education or Any Amount of Ed Tech Whizbangery will fix things before they so much as look at an actual classroom teacher. But even after such policies are adopted, policy makers could say, "Okay, we've decided you're going to do this thing. What can we do to help you implement our idea successfully?" But even that escapes them. "Just expect real hard and throw some professional development at them. That should fix it." Even when things fail, few reformsters say, "Yeah, we really should have talked to teachers first." The diagnosis is invariably Bad Implementation or Insufficient PR or Not Enough Teacher Training.

The Seven Words have been all-too-often overlooked when imposing solutions on struggling schools. Charter operators and other school fix-em-up experts don't ask the question-- instead, they swoop in and announce, "We have decided what you folks need. Without talking to you. Because we're just that good, and you can't really be trusted to Know Things."

The failure of the Obama-Duncan School Improvement Grants and turnaround programs like New York's Renewal Schools all follow this same pattern. Top-down government officials declare, "This is what you're going to do to fix things." But nobody goes to the schools, sits down with teachers, and asks, "What can we do to help you?"

W. Edward Demmings believed that the answers to an organizations problems could be found closest to the place where the actual work was being done. The folks who have taken the reins of leadership in the education world would do well to remember his insight. But "What can I do to help you" doesn't just yield the most useful advice for helping schools; it breaks down the sense of isolation. Teachers are used to working in a solitary setting, and they're used to being ignored by people who make decisions that affect the classrooms where they do their actual work. Teachers are used to being over-extended jugglers who only see the bosses long enough for them to toss in one more ball (or cement block or running chain saw) and then run away.

We could improve the working conditions in schools and the morale of the teaching force, even as we uncovered some of the solutions to school improvement. It wouldn't be easy (for instance, some people would have to give up pet ideas that aren't actually helping anybody), but starting the process would be simple. We could do it with just seven words.

Originally posted at Forbes.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Grateful Heart

It would be easy for me think that I Know Something.

My life is pretty good. And while there have been some rough patches, nothing bad has ever come into my life without my invitation. The bad patches in my life are my own damn fault, my own bad choices biting me in the rump.

So I could take credit for that. My professional success? My blinding teacher skills and professional acumen. My successful second marriage? I now know all the secrets of a good relationship. My lack of health problems? A well-lived healthy life style. Not being arrested, detained or physically abused by the authorities? I always behave according to the rules and do as I'm suppose to.

Americans (particularly white ones) are prone to a lack of gratitude which in turn hardens the heart and muffles empathy. Everything I have, the reasoning goes, I have because I earned it. I got what I deserve." From there it's not even half a step to looking at people who are having a hard time with the assumption that they, too, have gotten what they deserve. This is the world view at the steely heart of some conservatism-- some people are bad people who make bad decisions, and bleeding heart liberals are trying to thwart the natural order of things by protecting these people from the natural consequences of their poor choices. Welfare programs are about undoing the poverty that some lowlifes have earned, and if they don't suffer for their bad choices, how will they ever learn to do better. Birth control and abortion are about slutty women avoiding the consequences of their nasty sex-loving ways. If immigrants were meant to be American, they would have been born here-- why try to undo what nature has done? The business world grows out of the natural moral code of the universe, based on the fundamental truth that people should get what they deserve-- and no more.

This is especially a trap for teachers, whose job come grading time can feel a lot like deciding what students deserve. It's crazy making, and it tricks us into sitting in judgment of students as human beings, which is no place to be. My deal with myself was always that I would not try to judge what they deserved, but only assess what they had actually done. It was not my job to sit as judge and jury, making sure they got what they deserved.

Well, nobody gets what they deserve. Use every man after his desert, says Hamlet, and who would escape whipping? I don't deserve a tenth of what I have gotten, and continue to get out of life. And one really doesn't have to look hard in today's world to see that there is no apparent correlation between moral uprightness and the acquisition of money and power. But many of us keep assuming that if someone is rich, they must also be wise and good and deserving (and when they offer to fix education, we should listen to them).

And yes, there are people who don't get what they deserve-- to be treated with respect, to be free from abuse, to live without being beaten down for no reason. Do they still receive some measure of grace? It's not for me to judge that, but it is for to ask if I should be helping by delivering some of that grace myself.

Thanksgiving weirdly reminds us of this problem. We've come to understand that the old story, filled with moral clarity and historical ignorance, doesn't hold up. But what instead? The Pilgrims and Puritans were no saints, but neither were the native Americans, and the whole ugly mess of European colonial history in North America is a reminder that looking for clear-cut heroes in history is a fool's game. We all, to greater and lesser degrees, suck, and we have always sucked, and getting into arguments about who sucked the worst can be terribly time wasting. On Thanksgiving, I prefer to recommit myself to a simple set of propositions:

1) I have received, and continue to receive, far more than I deserve...
2) Therefor, I must owe someone-- the world, God, fellow humans, somebody-- a great deal
3) Therefor, I had better get to work paying off my debt.

We are all diners enjoying a meal we can't afford at an expensive restaurant. We should be committed to washing a ton of dishes.

Our motto should be "there but for the grace of God go I." We should be grateful for what we have, and that thankful heart should be filled with the impulse to help others, to watch out for the people around us, to take care of our fellow travelers as best we can before we finally run out of time. I don't deserve what I've been given, but I can't send it back-- all I can do is pass it on. I can harden myself into a bitter person who worries each day if I got what I wanted, and what was keeping me from it, or I can ask each day if I did enough, gave enough, to pay today's installment on my debt. My privileges come with an obligation to do for other people. Life's challenge, of course, is to figure out what that means in practical, day to day terms. That is where love comes in, but this is enough heavy lifting for a food-based holiday.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Give Books

I was just going to add this to the ICYMI list, but it's too cool not give extra attention.

Adam Gish, an English teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle, took a hundred students on a different sort of field trip. He loaded them up on two big yellow school buses and took them to a book store. Each student had a $50 gift card. They got a tour of the store and time to spend the money on whatever books they chose.

Students had to write an essay to qualify for the trip, a program that has been growing bit by bit since the days that Gish discovered some students had never been in a book store before.

This might be one of the most awesome things ever.

I still remember the Scholastic book fairs in elementary school, and the sheer power and excitement of holding an actual real book in my hands, buying it with my own money and taking it home to sit in a corner and read. I remember how those books smelled, how the new pages had that special resistance to being opened until the binding was gently eased loose by the reader working his way through. I bought some of the books aimed at students my age, but I loved getting the "real" books-- I still have my copies of the H G Wells novels I bought from Scholastic.

When I taught middle school, I tried using the book club fliers, but the hassle of being a middle man for thirteen year old customers was daunting, and it wasn't quite the same (though when I opened those boxes of books that came, and that old smell wafted out, I was excited all over again). And when the twins were born, we enrolled them in Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, one of the most awesome pieces of real philanthropy that a celebrity ever undertook (the library sends a book a month to every small child who's enrolled-- you can read about it here).

Sure, I buy tons of otherwise unavailable books on line. But there is nothing like actually being in a bookstore, seeing them all lined up or laid out and looking through them, peeking to see what cool stuff awaits.

It has been years and years since we had a new bookstore in my area; we now have a used bookstore that gets some new stuff, and that's better than nothing. It's about 75 minutes to the nearest Barnes and Noble.

But to be able to put some students on a bus and hand them a gift card for buying books-- that would be awesome. My first thought was that I'd love to chip in, but Gish has an apparently generous anonymous donor, and this has to be a more common thing. For instance, if teachers in LA aren't taking students to the Last Bookstore, that's a crime. Book store field trips should be a thing everywhere. I would love to hear about similar programs in your area, and if you don't know of one, then I think you should get together with some other folks and start one. We all should. If you're looking for a good community project to round out the holiday season-- not just the gift of books (though the Icelandic tradition of Christmas Eve book gifts is also way cool)-- but the gift of getting to shop for and pick out a book of one's own. That seems like an excellent idea.

Turning Down the Clock

Adjusting to retirement is a process, as is helping a pair of tiny humans grow up. I've been at it for 170 days now, and while I reported to you about an early phase, I feel like I'm navigating another piece of teacher brain that I wish I'd known about back when I was still working.

There are minor adjustments, of course. I actually use naughty words far more than I did while I was working, or than I will when the twins start imitating. And I need more jeans. A pair and a half were plenty back when I was working. Now they are taking a beating daily.

But the big one lately has been turning down the clock.

When I was teaching, the clock loomed large in my life. I may not have measured out my life in coffee spoons, but I did measure it out in two and three minute increments, with a loud ticking in the background at all times. If I hurry, I can get this done in the next two minutes, but there's no time to pause because exactly at the end of those two minutes there's another Have To Do waiting to pounce on me.

My life coaches
Mind you, I always knew this was going on to some extent. In the beginning of my career, I actually had to learn to hear the clock, always ticking. My student teaching co-op at Wiley Junior High, Joe McCormick, drilled into me to be "punchy quick" both as a way to cover ground and help manage a class (they can't disrupt you if they're too breathless from trying to keep up with you). And as it sank in just how much less time I had than I needed, I learned every year to squeeze a few more bits of work out of a few more bits of minutes.

I'm sure I eased up when my first children were born, but mostly by cutting the number of demands on my time and not by changing my relationship with that clock. For a few years, until my older kids were school age, I simply dropped out of all extra stuff, but I still lived by the clock.

As I spent more years in the classroom and learned how to squeak some education out of every spare second and myself, not unlike the business of seeing how tightly you can pull a banjo string before it snaps. I knew it was a thing I had to watch as a teacher, knew it by those moments in which I lost track of my real mission because some student wanted to ask a deeper question or probe for better understanding or just share something they thought was important while I knew that tick tock there was another part of the lesson we were scheduled to tick tock move on to and yet this student was creating a teachable moment and I was trying to calculate on the fly just tick tock how we could most quickly move past this because tick tock and oh my God this kid is still talking and doesn't she hear the clock DON'T YOU HEAR THE CLOCK!

And you know in that moment, when you see the students getting in the way and forget that they are the way that you need to take a breath and rebalance.

I thought I was working with a balance, but I was still trying to keep the string pulled tight. I was still listening to the clock.

I thought the transition to retirement would take care of the clock, particularly with the twins. Toddlers aren't really impressed by your schedule, and they don't hear the clock at all (joke at our house: "Sorry, we would have been on time but we had to walk from the house to the car.")

But we would walk to the library, and after a bit of playtime with the library toys, I would start getting antsy. We've picked out the books. You built a pile. Time to get going. We have to get loaded up and move on to the next thing, right now, because... well, I had no idea. I just still heard the clock. And I finally realized one of the reasons I'm so bad at small talk-- I hear the clock ticking and that voice inside saying, "Shouldn't we really be getting something done?" Tick tock.

I thought, for all those years, that I had a monkey on my back. A cute little monkey. I had no idea that I was carrying around King Freaking Kong all the time.

I'm telling you this as a way of encouraging those of you who are still doing the work to be sure to check yourself. The clock did not make me a bad teacher, and I think I did a good job of being present, of hearing my students, of letting their needs and their moments set the pace. That last decade, when new programs and testing and data-cult bosses ate away at my teaching time, I wrapped the clock in flannel and stuffed it in a desk drawer and started to slice content from my course rather than fighting to cram 180 45-minute days into 15- 40 minute days. My students got less content, but at least they didn't get it being thrown at them like baseballs from a rapid-fire pitching machine.

All I'm saying is, friends and colleagues, check your relationship with the clock. It's one of those compromised balances in teaching that must be constantly worked on, but if you're like me, you may not realize how tightly wound you are.

Every profession comes with its own built-in issues. I have medical folks and engineers in my family, and it's easy to see how those professions have accented parts of their personalities. Teaching has its own set of issues (including the effects of spending too little time with other grownups and uncontrollable urges to make unruly mobs of people line up properly), but the tyranny of the clock is one that can really sneak up on us if we're not careful. I don't know yet to what extent I'll shake it (let me tell you sometime about my seven part time jobs), but now that I'm done being surprised by it, perhaps I can unclench just a bit and enjoy some actual quiet uninterrupted by tick or tock.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Next Up: Zombie PARCC

If you aren't a regular reader of Campbell Brown's The 74 website, that's probably just as well. But this week there are two pieces there worth seeing.

One is this piece by Robert Pondiscio, one of the best yet in the genre of "we will now go ahead and agree with what public school defenders have been saying all along" writings that have become all the rage. It is an excellent argument against the Big Standardized Test, and it comes from reform-ville. Go ahead and read it.

But even as Pondiscio is joining the chorus of test deniers, the 74 is also running a piece by Brendan Lowe entitled "Primed for Amazon-Style Question Shopping, New Meridian Opens Fresh Chapter for Maligned Common Core Test."


First the good news. PARCC is just about down to two members. But if you thought it was just going to quietly take a deserved spot on the trash heap of history, well, meet Arthur VanderVeen. VanderVeen has been around. In the late nineties he founded a company to develop digital curriculum, but it failed. He was an executive director of College Board and sold the SAT as a way to meet federal high school assessment requirements under NCLB. He worked in NYC schools, starting under Joel Klein overseeing assessment, then bumped up to Chief of Innovation, where he founded the NYC iZone program focused on ed tech and personalized [sic] learning. Then he was the vice-president of business strategy and development for Compass Learning (which was eaten up by Edgenuity a few months after he left). He's exactly the kind of guy whose LinkedIn profile sounds like this:

Highly effective leader who integrates strategy, talent management, and disciplined execution to create successful, sustainable, and profitable enterprises. 20 years of leadership experience in business development, strategic partnerships, and product management in K-12 education. Expert in assessment management and personalized learning technologies. Has focused his career on fostering strategic public-private partnerships that deliver innovative products and services to K-12 schools.

After leaving Compass, VanderVeen became president and CEO at New Meridian, a company that hypes its ability to "to produce highly flexible assessments that accurately measure the skills that matter most." They look to collaborate with districts or states, or help states and districts that want to collaborate with each other. Their executive team includes three former Pearson execs and two College Board vets. The Gates and Hewlett foundations are among the financial backers.

That sounds like a lot of test items. If only there were a way to find a whole mountain of items that was lying around unused because the parent company that created it was tanking.

VanderVeen is the founding CEO of New Meridian, a nonprofit he created with other assessment industry veterans to make a run at acquiring the rights to PARCC’s question bank. VanderVeen’s team prevailed in April 2017, and now New Meridian is moving to adapt PARCC to an environment where multi-state consortia are going the way of the dinosaurs.

VanderVeen's vision is an Amazon of testing items, a giant catalog through which zombie-PARCC can be chopped up and sold off-- repeatedly-- for parts. This strikes me as a challenging for a couple of reasons. One is that PARCC's test bank has never exactly won rave reviews; there's a reason that many states dropped the thing and it's not just because it was expensive and Common Core became a toxic brand. The other is that creating a test isn't just a matter of writing the items-- the mix of items is also critical. In zombie terms, you can't build an effective zombie out of six heads and no legs.

Still, some states that have gone it alone have been a mess. Tennessee's attempt was a technical nightmare. And Florida (state motto: there's nothing about education we can't screw up) had its own series of do-it-yourself disasters. Why will this be better? Because VanderVeen is a more gifted salesman. As he explains it:

They never had to operate in the discipline of being customer-centric and really deliver value and ask questions. Is a 14-hour test too long? Might states balk at that? Is the cost too high? Are the constraints of working with a single vendor just not going to be acceptable to states? They didn’t have to think about that until they did. In an open market, states, or customers, have choices, and states made choices, and they walked away.

In other words, they spent too much time thinking about the educational implications of the test instead of managing a product for the marketplace.

Will this be a hard sell? Apparently not, because so far eight states, DC, and two other "entities" have signed up for this ( IL, MD, NJ, NM, MA, RI, LA, CO).

But wait, you say. The PARCC was launched with a big pile of taxpayer money. If it folds, don't taxpayers deserve a refund? Read carefully and you'll see that New Meridian won the right to be "the exclusive agent authorized to license test content owned by CCSSO and jointly developed by the former PARCC states." So PARCC is a true zombie-- not actually dead, but with its corpse animated by some force other than its own life.

Of course, the zombie solution may be great for people looking for an easy escape from PARCC, but it will require an elevated level of attentiveness from PARCC opponents. As Lowe reports, Phil Murphy won the New Jersey governor's seat in part by promising to get rid of PARCC, but as his Department of Education looked to replace PARCC, they hired-- you guessed it-- New Meridian to do the job. So New Jersey will replace PARCC with zombie PARCC.

So there it is. Even as folks on the reformy team speak out against the BS Tests, the fact remains that they are just too much of an asset to go away quietly. If you leave a pile of millions of dollars lying around, even if it is soaked in pig urine, somebody will be unable to resist the urge to pick it up.