Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Play Unlocks The World

I will beat this drum until my knuckles crack and collapse-- small children do not need academic acceleration, they do not need test prep, they do not need soul-sucking worksheets. They need to play. The folks at Defending the Early Years have another excellent video that drives the point home.

Kisha Reid speaks for just a couple of minutes here, but there are a couple of lines that really jump out for me:

When children don't play, they don't understand their own capabilities.

Repeated experience with materials, repeated experience with other people, are not only teaching them about the world around them but teaching them about themselves.

Yes. If education is about helping students become more fully themselves, figuring out how to be fully human in the world (and I'm pretty certain it is) then play is the single most important thing. The Board of Directors here at the Institute are now 21 months, and though I've been down this road before, I am amazed all over again at all the things they have to figure out, all the things they have to learn, and all the times they'll spend, given the chance, to figure these things out. I might argue that the single biggest thing that education policy arguments forget is that babies come into the world knowing nothing. Yes, that seems obvious-- but every argument that pre-school should become the new third grade and kindergarten should become the new freshman year of college assumes that there's a whole bunch of learning we can skip over because tiny humans just know all that stuff automatically. They do not. They need play. Parents these days are being scared into worrying that their child won't be ready for first grade or third grade or college or life unless she is hunched over a bunch of worksheets at age 3. That's backwards. Play, as Reid points out, is the best way to be ready for all that lies ahead. I hope the Board of Directors gets a teacher who understands these things as well as Reid does.

Watch this.

Monday, March 18, 2019

DeVos Voucher Tour Hits Iowa

Secretary of Education Betsy "The Federal Government Shouldn't Meddle In State Education Affairs But I Have This Policy I Really Really-- Oh What The Heck I Can Make Peace With Federal Overreach When It's In The Service Of Something I Want" DeVos has decided to get out there and stump for her Education Freedom Scholarships.

For those of you late to this party-- EFS are one more shade of lipstick to be slathered onto the undead pig that is school vouchers. They exist in several states and, in fact, are sometimes quite profitable for the fauxlanthropists who donate to the funds-- plus, what they're "donating" is actually some of the tax dollars they owe to Uncle Sam. It's a clever dodge on several levels, but at root, it accomplishes what all voucher programs do-- it uses public tax dollars to help finance a private school education for a few select students. The private school in question is usually a religious one.

Most folks seem to think that this measure, like much of the Trumpian budget, has little chance of becoming real. But DeVos actually ventured out into the world to try to pump it up anyway, and last week that meant trekking out to Iowa.

She went to meet with Governor Kim Reynolds, who just a month or so ago was cheerfully proclaiming a Happy School Choice Week to Iowans. State Senator Bard Zaun (formerly a mayor and hardware store owner), stood with DeVos after the meeting; Zaun is a gun-toting, planned parenthood defunding, education privatizing Republican, and he has taken some heat for many of his proposed bills, with some critics seeing a connection between Zaun and ALEC. Sourcewatch finds that ALEC is pretty busy in Iowa, and reports that ALKEC members have contributed almost $20 million to Zaun since he first successfully ran for the Senate in 2004; those friends include the Kochs, Wal-mart, and the NRA.

Zaun and DeVos sort of answered a couple of questions afterwards. The point that keeps getting made is that this voucher program will not take money from public schools, though when DeVos and her friends are making that point, they never say where the money will come from. We're talking about a total of $5 billion dollars in taxes that folks won't have to pay, $5 billion dollars that the federal government will never collect. That has to come from somewhere. And that's before we get to what ever companion law the involved states come up with to let people skip out on state taxes.

I wish I could report more details on how exactly DeVos made her pitch, but, well...

DeVos met with Reynolds, state legislators, education leaders, and lobbyists for faith-based and taxpayer organizations for a roundtable discussion not open to the public or media.

And also...

Rep. RasTafari Smith, the top Democrat on the Iowa House Education Committee says he's disappointed public education supporters were not invited to the closed-door invitation only discussion arranged by DeVos' office.

The plucky folks at Progress Iowa planted themselves outside the meeting and recorded video of the attendees and turned that into a list of the privileged ticket holders:

Drew Klein, Americans for Prosperity Iowa (That would be the Koch lobbying group)
Eric Goranson, Iowa Association of Christian Schools
Tom Chapman, Iowa Catholic Conference
Ryan Wise, Director, Iowa Department of Education
Georgia Van Gundy, Executive Director, Iowa Business Council
Amy Sinclair, Republican State Senator
Brad Zaun, Republican State Senator
Dan Ryan, President, Dowling Catholic High School

So only the cool kids got to be involved, because this is not about democracy or inclusiveness or functioning transparently as a high-level employee of the American people-- this is about using power and clout and connections to make sure that only the voices that you value carry the day. DeVos is nothing if not consistent-- she doesn't want to see or hear from supporters of public education, she doesn't want to explain herself to anyone not already on her side, and she really, really wants to give public tax dollars to private schools.

At the moment, Reynolds and other Iowans have more serious problems to deal with. In the meantime, we'll have to see if DeVos has any more stops planned on her Federal Overreach To Privatize Education tour.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Huge Problem With Personalized Learning In One Sentence

You know there's going to be trouble when you see the headline of the article on eSchoolNews-- "Taking personalized learning to scale." But then, this is a business that regularly uses the oxymoron "mass customization" without irony.

But two paragraphs in, Dr. Monica Burns, curriculum and educational technology consultant and founder of ClassTechTips.com,, is quoted from a webinar:

When it comes to student engagement, Burns said, “We want to make sure that we are capturing student attention by having students’ eyes where we want them to be or their hands where we want them to explore.”


Dr. Burns does has some respectable credentials, including six years teaching in South Harlem and actual degrees in education. But she loves a lot of tech programs; she's also an Apple Distinguished Educator.  Maybe the quote isn't an accurate representation of her ideas-- but it's the quote eSchoolNow chose to use, even as they position her ideas as similar to iNACOL, the big Personalized [sic] Learning pushers. The article itself is filled with lots of edu-babble, such as:

Enjoy our new personalized seating.
Through curriculum mapping, school-wide goals, and thematic exploration, school districts can establish norms and clear standards connections for personalized student experiences. Resources should be curated and differentiated and ready for individual students

There is a lot of technocratic baloney going on here, along with this tell about how we really want to scale up:

Resources can be distributed to individual students using digital tools so that students experience content that is relevant to their goals and interests.

So there's the picture. Personalized [sic] education delivered by computer, padded in bureaucratic blather, and-- well, somehow the individual student will follow her own educational muse through instruction geared to here by the computer algorithm, so that she can enjoy a personalized learning experience as long as she has her eyes and her hands exactly where we want them.

If you find personalized [sic] learning kind of creep and unappealing, this may be what you're reacting to-- the notion that we deliver instruction geared to an individual student not because that will allow that student to grow and learn and develop into her own best self in her own best way, but because by delivering a "personalized" lesson, we can better get the student to do exactly what we want her to. The Personalized [sic] Learning that we're being pitched isn't about reconfiguring the whole educational experience to be centered around the individual student, but another tool to get students to behave like good little widgets in a technocratic edu-system. This is not personalization aimed at better serving the student; it's personalization as a tool to get the student to better serve the system. "If we customize the seats and the restraints, then maybe the monkeys won't fight back so much when we strap them into the capsule and send them into orbit."

An Open Letter To TFA Re: Strikes

We appear to be between teacher strikes at the moment, so this might be a good time to draw attention to Seth Kahn's open letter to Teach for America.

When the Oakland teachers walked out, there was some question about what TFAers should or should not do. A previous open letter from TFA alumni suggested that guidance from TFA leadership was that honoring a strike would cost the TFA members. TFA was quick to say, "No, they should totally follow their conscience, and that the striking penalty is part of Americorps policy. It's worth noting that as quoted by the Associated Press, the TFA leadership did not say, "There will absolutely not be a penalty for striking." It's pretty clear that TFAers would lose a chunk money.

TFA members are stuck in a spot when strikes occur.

Kahn is a professor at West Chester University of PA. He has written an open letter to the TFA CEO, asking that the organization both help to supplement the financial losses of any TFA members that strike, as well as work with Americorps to change the rules.

As Kahn notes, it might be easier to sympathize with TFA if it did not have such a long history of supplanting career teachers while undermining unions and disrupting the profession, not to mention promoting a narrative of inadequate and failing public school teachers as a menace from which TFA must rescue students. But while many TFAers are transient edutourists on a resume-building gap year, there are also many who mean well, and even a few who go on to become dedicated and committed teachers.

I walked into a strike in my very first year on my very first job-- it's a rough way to get started.

So go take a look at Kahn's letter and consider adding your name. TFA still has a chance to pursue some policy changes before the next batch of teachers walks out. Here's his conclusion:

As long as striking is legal, and as long as TFA members can join unions, it is unethical for TFA to discourage participation in strikes, and more so while pretending not to be doing it. Furthermore, although many supporters of teacher unions and public education are troubled by TFA in principle, your organization could earn kudos by doing the right thing here.

ICYMI: Ignoring St. Patrick's Day Edition

The Irish contribution to civilization is huge and their history in America is instructive, but don't get me started on the wearing of the green. At any rate, I have your weekly reading list handy. Remember to share!

Southwest Key Schools, Charters and Immigrants

How to make money from the misery of children, and how charters tie to the detention of immigrants. A charter operation makes millions, but students eat in the gym.

Portfolio Model Explainer

Matt Barnum puts together a pretty decent explainer of the whole portfolio system. I'd correct a few points, but if you're trying yo figure out what it's all about, this is a good primer.

Education Reformers Keep Pushing the Same Stuff

Nancy Flanagan pulls apart a Mike Petrilli piece and finds the same old same old hiding inside.

The Chicago Charter CEO Gets A Raise-- But Not A Big One 

One more example of charters operating like a business-- a bad one. This charter is just struggling to meet minimum standards. Must be time to give the CEO a raise.

Remember All Those Anti-Tenure Lawsuits? One Just Died In Minnesota

Sarah Lahm follows another of those Campbell Brown-spawned lawsuits designed to strip teachers of job security. It hasn't gone well for reformsters.

State Leaders Rip Takeover Law 

Ohio legislators are waking up to how big a mess their state takeover law (proposed and passed in just one day) is making, just as it is poised to gut some of the state's major districts.

Who Pays for the Education Writers Association

Laura Chapman takes a look at who exactly foots the bill for the EWA. It's not a list to inspire confidence (and I'm not just bitter because bloggers can't join).

The Cost of Ignoring Developmentally Appropriate Practice    

It can't be said too much-- pushing the littles in the hopes that they can somehow be made smarter faster sooner is not just dumb, but is actually destructive.

And for a non-education policy moment of beauty, check out the=is Van Gogh painting rendered into a 1.2 acre field of plants and landscaping.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

OK: The Four Day Week

Oklahoma has been a great demonstration of what happens when state leaders decide that they just don't want to spend money on education. Oklahoma has led the nation in education spending cuts, and schools and teachers have paid the price.

But Oklahoma performed an interesting little experiment, one that is apparently about to end. The path was cleared by a rule that measures the school year in hours rather than days. And so, Oklahoma became the home of the four day school week.

The reasoning was that a four-day week would save school district's money, particularly in very rural districts where hundreds of expensive miles have to be traveled by school bus each day. Maybe, the reasoning went, this will save money.

It mostly didn't. But something else happened instead-- it helped with one of Oklahoma's other self-inflicted problems. 91 of the over-500 districts went to the four day week and discovered they were suddenly attracting teachers to fill openings. And older, more seasoned veterans at that. In a state that has lost 30,000 teachers in the last six years, these districts were getting to pick and choose from among dozens of applicants.

Why? Some cited the three day weekends for family time. That may be, though it only skims the surface. The four days are longer, leaving less time for family and errands, but that wouldn't matter. Teachers generally work six or seven days a week, more than eight hours a day, but those long hours come in two groups-- Group A hours are at school, professionally dressed, and with your location and duties assigned down to the minute. Group B hours are in the place of your own choosing, organized as you think best (e.g. grading term papers at the kitchen table with a pot of coffee, a stack of donuts,  dressed in your bathrobe. B hours usually have to be scheduled around A hours and Living a Life With Your Actual Family hours (and, in Oklahoma, Working Your Second Job hours). To be able to gather a pile of B hours in one day would be a pleasant luxury. I would bet you dollars to donuts that this was part of the appeal.

It turned out that, contrary to expectations, plenty of students and families liked it, too. But it also turns out that there's a group that doesn't like the four day week-- Republican legislators. Their five-day week bill just passed the Senate.

So what do they have against the four day week?

Yet four-day school weeks reportedly hinder business recruitment. When announcing that five-day weeks would be a Senate Republican priority this year, Majority Floor Leader Kim David of Porter said, “The four-day school weeks, as we all know, have hurt Oklahoma on a national stage.”

“We've had difficulty bringing in businesses,” she said. “It's hurt our workforce.”

Maybe. But there were already reports of trouble bringing in businesses because apparently people don't get excited about moving their families to the state that leads the nation in cuts to education! But the Oklahoma legislature has been consistent in its belief that no matter how badly they slashed education spending (including teacher pay), they could just count on teachers and schools to somehow keep things at least looking okay. This, I'll wager, is the big sin of the four day week-- it makes Oklahoma's disinvestment in public education obvious and visible. It marks Oklahoma as the state where education is so poorly funded that they have four day weeks. It's just an extra bitter irony that the four day week doesn't even really help, but turns out to be attractive for other reasons. Never mind any of that-- it just makes the state look bad.

And so, the legislature is poised to kill the four day week (with special exceptions if your district is really saving money and your test scores are up). It may not be a popular move, but at least it's way cheaper than actually fully funding education in the state.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Micro-Credentials 101: Do We Need Badges?

Micro-credentials are one of the hot rising ideas in the education space. To understand the basics, go look at your child's Xbox or PlayStation.
For most of the major games, there is an accompanying set of achievements, or badges. Every time a player achieves a particular task (kill 50 zombies without reloading, drive over every tree in the enchanted forest, smash every Lego fire hydrant, etc.) they get a small digital badge on their big page of achievements.
Micro-credentials take a similar approach to education. The root of the idea is simple--you demonstrate a very specific skill, and a badge certifying that micro-credential becomes part of your personal digital file. Some of the earliest micro-credentialing involved computer programming skills, but it has grown far beyond that. To see just how many types of micro-credentials are out there, take a look at Digital Promise.
Digital Promise was authorized by Congress in 2008 as the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies. It offers micro-credentials of its own, but it also provides a platform for other entities to offer their own sets of micro-credentials. Right now over thirty-five other organizations offer micro-credentials through Digital Promise, including Arizona State University, Teaching Matters, and National Geographic. In 2017, Digital Promise hosted a Symposium on the Currency of Micro-credentials that attracted over 100 people, representing school systems, state departments of education, and the Institute for Personalized Learning. Funders for the organization include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Google, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and Laurene Jobs' XQ Institute. 
Digital Promise is a big player, but certainly not the only one. Bloomboard is another example of a platform offering a variety of micro-credentials. Like many such badge programs, Bloomboard is aimed primarily at teacher training. The dream was that micro-credentials would change the face of professional development for teachers; instead of boring sit-and-listen sessions, teachers would log on to their provider and sign up for a micro-credential that they cared about via a sort of on-line mini-course.
Of course, this method of content delivery can be just as deadly dull as any lecture. Anyone who has had to get an on-line certification for handling blood in the workplace or proper proctoring of exams knows the process--do some work at your desk while the slides play out on your screen, then take a short multiple choice quiz using common sense (and multiple attempts) to get your certification. One of the problems of micro-credentials is coming up with a valid and reliable measure of the competency that someone has supposedly acquired.
Another part of the challenge of micro-credentials is just how micro to make them. At one point, Relay Graduate School of Education offered a micro-credential in "Checking for Understanding Using Gestures," which was literally the competency of teaching students how to raise their hands to signal understanding in class. Relay seems to have backed away from the micro-credentialing business, and now a teacher might pursue a micro-competency in "Planning for Success: Helping Your Students Set Their Goals."
Of course, teacher PD is not the end game for micro-credentials; instead, the dream is for micro-credentials to become an element of the computerized personalized learning K-12 classroom that dovetails with competency based education. Digital Learning has started working on its ideas for a micro-credential classroom, as have many others in this field. There is an additional challenge here--how do you break the many competencies involved in a K-12 class into a series of micro-competencies. And there's the challenge that teachers already face--how do you turn the objective of knowing something into the demonstrated skill of doing something?
The money to be made is not just tied up in the competencies themselves--there must also be a place to store the badges. This brings us to companies like Learning Machine, who promise to anchor the business of digital identities (where else) on blockchain. At this stage, we start to encounter some companies blowing some serious smoke. Here, for instance, is PTB Ventures. What do they do?
PTB Ventures is a thesis driven venture capital firm investing in early-stage companies in the digital identity ecosystem. 
That is some high grade baloney.
Once we get to blockchain, we start talking about the big dreams. Just as bitcoins don't need any central authority to issue and support them, your blockchain-anchored digital identity does not need a special authority to update or oversee it. You could earn new badges anywhere--in particular, from the work you're doing, so that instead of taking courses to earn micro-credentials, you can earn them while making money. As one group's slogan puts it, "Learning is earning."  Schools and colleges? No longer necessary. Resumes or CV? Stored digitally; your digital identity is now a collection of badges, and someone who wants to hire can simply plug in a list of the badges they want and pull out a list of worker bees whose badge list matches.
This, it should be noted, would also include social and emotional traits, as SEL is another hot new item in digitized education. The digital unit about dealing well with conflict that you flubbed when you were eight will follow you for the rest of your life.
The ways in which this brave new future can go wrong are too numerous to count. Educational goals set and measured by computer programmers. The problem of innovation--a system like this can only certify skills that are already known. The flattening and simplification of learning to training in easily-measured job skills. Micro-credentials that may or may not actually be valid and reliable measures of what they claim to measure. The privacy nightmare of having your life reduced to a digital file that is beyond your reach and control. What would an untrustworthy government do with this kind of data? And what, one wonders, happens if the company responsible for storing your digital identity goes out of business?
But every element of this system already exists. We may want to pay attention in the next few years.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Maybe We Should Talk About College Readiness Again

College and career ready. College and career ready. College and career ready.

How long have we been reading and listening to that magical phrase, quietly at first and now omnipresent as the euphemism of choice for people who no longer dare say "Common Core."

It is a hollow phrase, completely empty of meaning. It never, ever, comes with a list, description, or quantification of what "college ready" actually looks like. No mystery there-- we don't know.

But then, few education policy mavens have ever tried to figure out, really, what college ready means,. and mostly they weren't even tryin. Instead, the phrase has been employed to give weight to the Big Standardized Test. "Students didn't score as well on the BS Test as we wanted them to," is not terribly compelling-- but run around hollering, "OMGZ! 63% of our students are not ready for college!!" and you can draw a crowd and get some money moving around in support of whatever test-driven idea you're selling this week.

But "scored higher than the cut score on the PARCC" is not the same as "college ready." How could any single measure tell us that? What single measure would tell us that one student is ready to attend as pre-law at Yale and another student is ready to attend Julliard to study music and another student is ready to attend East South Dakota Community College to get a history teaching certificate and another student is working on her welding certifications. What one instrument could possibly measure the readiness of students for an infinite variety of Next Steps?

But reformsters keep telling us that test scores measure college readiness, even as we all know that test scores closely correlate to family socio-economic background, that tests mostly measure how much money--


Oh, okay.

Perhaps I've been too hard on the BS Test. Perhaps it is giving us the best measure of one quality that does indicate college readiness-- your parents' bank account.

It took about five minutes for people to recognize that the great Aunt Becky college bribery scandal was not so much a wild outlier as simply an extreme version of what already happens. SAT and ACT scores padded by hugely expensive test coaches. Legacy entries.  Generous donations to the university. George W. Bush. Jared Kushner.

Look, we have very little idea what makes a student ready for college. We know the larger outlines. A decent command of a body knowledge in her chosen field. Enough maturity to self-regulate (as I told my students for years, most of my former students who flunked out did so not because of academic issues, but because the freedom to drink till 2 AM, sleep till 2 PM, skip half the classes and half the assignments was too much for them-- though we all know privileged folks who did all that in college and still grabbed a diploma). Some half-decent writing skills. Actual interest in learning more stuff. Enough money to be able to get through. All of that, more or less, matters. And enough money and privilege can substitute for any or all of those qualities. And the Big Standardized Test measures none of them.

There is overlap between the Cult of the Test and Credentialists. Credentialists believe in the Piece of Paper. You go to college to get your Big Boy Credentials, so it stands to reason that you show readiness by getting a High School Credential, and they didn't think a high school held up for that job, so let's invent a new high school credential. The problem of Credentialism is, of course, that you come to value the Piece of Paper (or, in their dreams, the digital micro-credential) that you stop thinking about what the Piece of Paper is supposed to represent. It stops being a symbol for the thing, and becomes thing itself. And if the point is to get a credential, a Piece of Paper-- well, there are lots of ways to do that, including having Mom and Dad buy one for you.

After all, a framed diploma hangs just as well on the wall of someone who actually learned something as it does on the wall of an uneducated credentialed dope. You can always pretend that your credentials mean whatever you want them to mean.

We need to stop pretending. We need to stop pretending that all colleges operate as full-time meritocracies. We need to stop pretending that college disrupts our socio-economic class structure, when mostly it just reinforces it (and while we're at it, we can stop pretending that Affirmative Action is somehow disrupting the imaginary meritocracy). We need to stop pretending that we know what "college ready" means, and we REALLY need to stop pretending that we know how to measure it.

We need to stop using the phrase "college and career ready" as if we're talking anything except the score on a single multiple-choice narrow-focus standardized test.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

OH: Beating Back School Takeovers

If there is any benefit at all to the complete hash of the takeover of Lorain  City Schools, it's that it has brought renewed attention to Ohio's terrible takeover law and renewed energy to attempts to bust that law.

There are actually two proposals floating around currently, both bipartisan. State Reps. Kent Smith, D-Euclid, and Steve Hambley, R-Brunswick, announced House Bill 127 this week. The bill calls for a moratorium on all school takeovers. The bill would not roll back the three takeovers already under way (Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland). Hambly told the Chonicle:

At this point, untangling that knot’s a little bit more complicated, but I think the one thing I can say about our proposal is it doesn’t create any more victims.

Hambly says at this point the bill has disrupted not just schools, but the entire city, providing "three case studies on how not to help a community."

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Miller, D-Amherst, and Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport,  say they will be proposing a bill that will dissolve the Academic Distress Commissions that run the takeovers. Once again, the Chronicle is all over this story.

“We realize that when you move decision-making farther and farther away from students, the more likely you’re not going to be able to meet their needs,” Miller said Friday in a phone interview. “And there are a lot of things that go into that classroom than just children trying to score a certain test score.”

“Academic Distress Commissions have not only taken away school and community pride, but have proven to be unsuccessful in their mission,” Jones said.

The duo say that schools need more local control, not less.

One other factor that may help with this bipartisan push-- there are ten more school districts that will soon fall under the HB 70 ax, and one of them is Columbus. We'll see if legislators feel differently when the district under the gun is right up the street from their offices.

HB 70 passed under the shadiest of circumstances-- it was proposed as an amendment to another bill in the morning and passed by the Ohio Senate and House later that same day, and swiftly signed by Governor Kasich. The Ohio Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the bill's constitutionality this year.

If you live in Ohio, now is an excellent time to contact your elected representative

NY: Rochester, Mayoral Control, Vultures, and the Problems of Democracy.

It has been almost a decade since a mayoral school coup was a hot topic in Rochester. Mayor Robert Duffy wanted to implement NYC style mayoral control. There seemed to be support for the move; the superintendent even had a nifty portfolio plan whipped up and ready to go. But Andrew Cuomo tagged Duffy as his running mate for governor, and Duffy was out of Rochester politics about a year after he'd proposed the takeover. The Senate was moving on it, opponents were ready o file lawsuits, but the whole business just sort of languished.

Well, there's your problem.
Fast forward to last year. In August, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Alia sent a consultant to Rochester to talk to folks, assess the situation, and make recommendations. Jaime Aquino, Distinguished Educator (seriously, that's his title), had held leadership positions in NY, Denver, and Los Angeles before he arrived in Rochester to talk to many people and wsw`determine that-- well, the full report, issued in November 2018, was a brutal sixty pages. It's not pretty:

“That lack of stability in leadership really has an impact on the work that happens in school," Dr. Aquino said of the district having five superintendents in the past decade. "There is also, in the district, lack of a laser-like focus on student achievement. There’s not a lot of attention being paid to teaching and learning, and a lack of accountability in the system in terms of monitoring what goes on in the school and in the progress the kids are doing.”

The picture that emerges from the report is of fully-dysfunctional top-down leadership, starting with a dysfunctional board that is both splintered and prone to micro-management, and on to a central office with no vision, bouncing from "flavor of the month" to the "crisis du jour." The frequent turnover extends down through most leadership positions. The report also notes problems rooted in a "deep history of institutional racism" and that district is "crippled by a culture of fear and intimidation." Their only positives-- a good pre-K program and stakeholders who were brutally honest but had not given up hope. Aquino's report included a plan to move forward, and many school and community leaders had responses; notably, none of these argued that Aquino got it wrong.

Some folks had already been prepared to jump the gun; Governor Cuomo voiced support for mayoral control weeks before the report was even issued. In Rochester, it took about a couple of weeks after the report for the question of mayoral control to reappear, introduced, apparently, by a local tv station. At that point, Mayor Lovely Warren said, "Eh, we'll see."

That was last November. Just last month, the issue heated up again. Assemblyman David Gannt proposed two bills-- one to give the superintendent more power, and one for mayoral control. The teachers union president and the school board president argued against the idea. Mayor Warren hedged her bets, but said something has to happen. That was about a month ago.

On March 4, Warren said of the school woes, "Today it stops." She pointed out the obvious-- if the pre-K is turning out great results, what happens to them? Nobody knows. Warren doesn't think mayoral control is the way to go, and the civic leaders seem to agree with the commissioner that the district's plan lacks vision-- but nobody else seems to be articulating a vision, either. In the last week, the commissioner has signaled that she is unimpressed with Rochester schools' plan. An Action network petition went up opposing a takeover-- it has 91 signatures.

There is so much bad written about Rochester schools. It's not just the Aquino report. Or rather, the report is backed up by horrible statistics. Extreme segregation. Extreme poverty. Dysfunctional leadership. Terrible graduation rates (just barely over 50%). Over a dozen schools failing by the state measure.

The city has sifted through many possible governance solutions, though it seems that any solution that includes the white suburbs or directly addressing segregation is off the table. Forced closings of some schools didn't accomplish anything. The Democrat & Chronicle declared the schools the worst in America, and launched their own school rescue program called Time To Educate (motto: Something. Must. Change.)

And there's another player on the field. Meet ROC the Future.

ROC the Future is a "collaborative community-wide initiative" that wants "to promote alignment and focus community resources to improve the academic achievement of children in the City of Rochester." It's a collection of local leaders and organizations that are out to set the district straight. Their lack of faith is evident; RTF has recently reached out to the NY Commissioner, going over the school district's head. "Engage us in your decisions," say the Mayor and RTF.

If this model of local movers and shakers stepping in to put themselves in charge of local education seems familiar (see also "Mind Trust"), that's because RTF isn't an entirely local operation. RTF is part of the StriveTogether network. StriveTogether is all about the cradle to career pipeline, data driven decisions, and a host of highly prescriptive education ideas. It is yet another organization headed up by folks who have no education background; StriveTogether CEO Jennifer Blatz was an admissions officer before she went to work at KnowledgeWorks-- and yes, StriveTogether is part of the KnowledgeWorks universe. KnowledgeWorks has been around for two decades, riding the Gates ed reform gravy train to wherever it was running; currently KnowledgeWorks is all about personalized learning (a preferred path to privatization these days).

This is not particularly surprising. Where you find a school system in trouble and vulnerable, you find reformsters hoping to cash in.

And make no mistake-- Rochester's schools are definitely struggling. The question here is not if there is a problem, but what the solution might be.

Rochester likes to speculate about mayoral control, but when proponents of mayoral control want to make their case, their arguments invariably focus on what is wrong with the district, and not what mayoral control could do to fix it. The school board is too mired in politics? How does subordinating them to another political office fix that?

Rochester, at least from out here in the cheap seats, seems to encompass almost all the issues of education. An institution with long baked-in systemic racism. A lack of functional leadership that pumps toxicity into the system, leading to more leadership problems (like the inability to hang onto a superintendent for more than a year or two). A host of backseat drivers trying to grab the wheel on this careening bus. And I am not even going to start into the stresses on the system by charter schools in Rochester.

And, it has to be acknowledged, a system that stands as a rebuke to those of us who champion local democratic control, because (again, from the cheap seats) it certainly seems that local democratic control is not working. It is a reminder (as if we needed any more reminder than the orange-skinned grifter in the White House) that democracy is not magical.

What could help? Well, not mayoral control, which remains a really lousy idea. There isn't a reason in the world to believe that the mayor of the city knows enough about education to run a school system, and nothing in the history of mayoral takeovers to suggest that it's an idea that can work well. State takeovers are predicated on the notion that somebody in the state capital knows more about how to run a school well than professional educators. And both of these solutions require a whole community to be stripped of their voting rights, which ought to be cause for alarm-- particularly when the people being stripped of their vote are brown and black and poor. Building up the charter sector under current law just strips the public school of the resources they need to shape up. And while all this rages on, the vultures circle, smelling an opportunity to profit by a community's crisis.

The root problem is the same problem that plagues business and politics-- how do you fix an institution when people hold key positions who are not fit, by reason of either temperament, ability, or morality, to hold those positions? It would be nice to be able to appeal some higher authority, but everywhere we look, all we see are other human beings. The real solution is for the board to stop being horrible, or for the electorate to stop electing horrible board members. The solution is for a non-horrible board to hire a qualified superintendent and back her up, empower her, and let her do her job- and for the concerned movers and shakers of the city to do the same. Or, if the state decides they want to solve the issue with charter schools, then the solution is for the state to pump in the kind of extra money needed to effectively operate multiple school systems, and not make them fight over the money that isn't even enough to operate one system well. The state could also help by releasing schools from the tyranny of high stakes testing, so that Rochester can focus on the educational issues that matter instead of wasting too much time and effort chasing test scores.

It's easy when a system is this far in the weeds to amble up, point at the bus parked on its side amongst the corn stalks and observe, "Well, see. There's your problem. Your bus should be on its wheels, over on the pavement." But the painful specifics of getting there are difficult and challenging and not always obvious in their solutions. When it comes to education, amateurs always think they know the answer, and the worse the problems, the more plentiful and certain the amateurs become. But educational amateurs and politicians and reformster groups with binders full of prescriptive programs are not going to save Rochester City Schools.

We should all watch to see what happens next.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Gigging, Progress, and the Unmaking of American Work

This is not really about education, and it is totally about education.

Over at The Nation, Malcolm Harris has written a review of Sarah Kessler's Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work. It's a thoughtful and worthwhile read, even if you decide not to tackle the entire book.

Harris opens with the cautionary tale of failed start-up Webvan, and notes the lessons that the founder Peter Relan gleaned from their collapse:

The first problem, he wrote, was customer targeting. Webvan’s strategy was to offer “the quality and selection of Whole Foods, the pricing of Safeway, and the convenience of home delivery,” a combination that attracted working- and middle-class shoppers. What it should have been doing instead, Relan concluded, was “providing a luxury” to a smaller, richer customer base. Second, he wrote, the company shouldn’t have invested in all that infrastructure. Webvan built cutting-edge distribution systems from scratch: giant networks of new algorithms, miles of conveyor belts, fleets of custom trucks with PalmPilot-wielding delivery drivers. At its peak, Webvan had a billion-dollar contract with the construction firm Bechtel for new distribution facilities around the country. Relan named Instacart and Postmates as lean start-ups that were learning from Webvan’s failure.

Look at my flexible income!
Webvan is a signpost from another era (twenty whole years ago) when the idea was that techno-companies would make life better for everyone, workers included. Now, says Harris, Americans have given up on the idea that "progress should improve everyone's life." Every step forward benefits only a few and costs someone, somewhere.

Progress is especially costly for workers, and Kessler tells the stories from the workers point of view. This, via Harris, offers some troubling insights. For instance, all that creative innovative thought that's supposed be a critical skill in the 21st century? Turns out that's important because companies find it efficient and inexpensive to leave their gigployees to solve their own problems. That saves money, because it shifts both the problems of management and the costs of running the business to the gigployees. Imagine if Uber had to maintain its own fleet of cars and had to provide every driver with a communications device-- but, no-- if you want to drive for Uber, coming up with the basic equipment is your problem, not theirs. And if it seems hard to make enough money at the proffered rates, it's up to the gigployee to figure out how to streamline.

And this:

But instead of using technology to reduce the role of labor in production through automation and cybernetics, they perform what is essentially arbitrage with human life. If Person A’s time is worth $50 an hour on the market, and Person B’s time is only worth $10, Person A should have a strong incentive to hire Person B to perform life’s unpleasant tasks. This kind of shallow thinking is what current Silicon Valley fortunes are made of....

In a perfectly efficient world, people would be served by others to the exact degree that the market values their time more—and in the 21st century, the market doesn’t value most people’s time that highly.

In other words, some people really are worth less than others (and Kessler doesn't fail to notice that many of those less worthy people are women), and they should be serving the more valuable folks. Ride share companies, says Harris, didn't reinvent the bus-- they reinvented the servant.

Flexibility? Gig economy fans say that workers seek out gigs because they love the flexibility. This, says Kessler, is baloney:

...the truth is that they seek it out because it’s all that’s left for them. “I haven’t really met many people in general who don’t value stability and safety,” Kessler writes. The “flexibility” is imposed, and workers do the best they can to adjust.

This has echoes of the complaint that workers need to be freed from unionized rules and restraints because they crave flexibility, a criticism almost exclusively expressed by the people in charge and never by those who actually do the work.

There's another implication here. Some industries have been slow to innovate because they can still get away with treating employees so poorly.

It's depressing picture. As Americans, we're used to the notion that progress should be a rising tide that lifts all boats, but according to Kessler, that's not where we are at all. Progress makes life better for some, and for the rest of us, not so much.

I said at the outset that this is not about education, exactly, except of course that much of this is recognizable. Teaching as part of the gig economy is still a dream for some, with classes taught on a hired temp basis, paid for with education savings account vouchers, and the real money in education being siphoned off by the people who stand between the user and the vendor. What we are repeatedly sold as "progress" for education is bad for teachers, but such criticism is dismissed as carping by people who put adult concerns ahead of students. Except that what's sold as "progress" is also bad for students as well. But it's good for people who want to make money, and good for people who don't want to pay money into the education system. Now if only we could bust those unions so that teachers weren't restricted by all those rules standing in the way of flexibility.

One last education note here-- don't forget that Betsy DeVos thinks that education ought to be like Uber. The model broken down by this book is the model that many of our education reformsters want to follow.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Bug-In-Ear Coaching: Why Is This Still A Thing?

You're a young teacher, working hard to get the hang of running a classroom, sequencing instruction, monitoring a roomful of students, tracking the clock, and otherwise managing your role as educational Boss Of The Room. It reminds you of when you first started driving, and it was taxing just to carefully monitor everything that needed to be monitored. Your hands are full and your brain is just this far from overloading.

Clearly what you need more than anything else is a voice in your ear offering back seat driving while you are trying to do your job.

Excellent. Do your anticipatory set, then dance for me.
Somehow bug-in-ear coaching continues to be a thing. EdWeek wrote this puffy promotional piece for the practice just last month. But the practice has been around for a while. Here's an extensive piece of happy talk about it back in 2011-- and it cites sources going back to 1994. The writers at least have the sense to acknowledge that "the virtual coach's role can quickly deteriorate into a Big Brother or a nagging mother." Well, yes. They also advise to keep things short, maybe just using key words.

Coaches advocating for this approach insist that teachers love it, which is not exactly a shocker. It's younger teachers or struggling teachers who are mostly likely to have the bug-ear thrust upon them and who are also least likely to say, "Are you kidding me?" But if you want to read an account of someone who went through it and hated it, here's a piece from Ann Berard, a former charter teacher who decided that she did not want to be "just like Tom Brady."

The students were also perplexed by my new earpiece accessory. "Um, Miss, what’s that in your ear?" they asked. I looked over to the three adults in the far back corner of the room for my scripted answer. "Tell them you are like Tom Brady. Tom Brady wears an earpiece to be coached remotely and so do you," was the response. I never would have said that, and mumbled instead: "But I’m not Tom Brady. No, I’m not Tom Brady." The students, who could hear me, but not what I was hearing through my earpiece, were more confused than ever. At which point I explained to them that I was being trained by the people in the corner who were telling me what to say via their walkie talkie. I’m all for transparency and simple answers to simple questions.

Berard's experience contains some commonly noted features of this type of coaching, most notably the comparison to pro football coaching. However, the new model now calls for the coach not to be in the back of the room, but somewhere else entirely, watching via video camera. Because nothing gives you a real sense of the classroom better than a little monitor cam mounted like some sort of security camera in the corner.

This stuff has also apparently caught on in the UK, where "just like Tom Brady" must not seem quite as compelling, but where officials insist that, unlike in the US, the system is under the control of the teacher and not used as a means of instructing teachers "how to behave in the classroom."

The Big Kahunas of voice-in-your-head coaching is a company called CT3 (The Center for Transformative Teacher Training). CT3 has two co-founders. Co-founder Kristyn Klei Borrero is also CEO. Borrero did at least start out with an education degree from Miami (1995). Borrero was a principal at age 27 and running turnaround charter schools in Oakland and Palo Alto, California. She was also a honcho at Aspire charters in California, the charter chain set up by Don Shalvey (Gates Foundation) and Reed "Elected School Boards Suck" Hastings (Netflix). Aspire is also in the Build Your Own Teachers business.

The other co-founder's name is familiar to most teachers Of A Certain Age. Lee Canter made a name for himself on the professional development circuit with Assertive Discipline, an approach based on taking control of your classroom. But for CT3 Cantor has also developed the No-Nonsense Nurturer program and the Real-Time Coaching model. Both NNN and RTC are registered trademarks, because there's no point in repackaging well-worn materials with a little twist unless you can call it proprietary information.

CT3 was focused on micromanaging teachers to implement CT3's ideas about how a teacher is supposed to teach (here's an account from a coach learning the coaching biz). That gets us to the heart of why bug-eared coaching is a bad idea. When I have "coached" student teachers, I've always been crystal clear about one thing, and they all get this same speech-- "I'm not here to get you to teach like me. You have to figure out how to teach like you."  Teaching is highly personal, and if you pursue it as a career, you will be immersed in it your whole life. That makes it far too exhausting to teach as anyone other than your own authentic self.  Teaching is also a job of relationship, and the first rule of relationships is that you have to show up, which means the authentic you and not some part your trying to act out to placate the voices in your head.

Are there aspects of teaching that are universal, or rough corners of your authentic self that need to be knocked off before you take over a classroom? Sure. And bug-eared coaching fans say that the instant real-time correction is good because it keeps proto-teachers from practicing something the wrong way. I get their point, but I disagree. Nothing drives home a lesson about "Do not do that" better than a bad student reaction. There's no use in steering a newby away from a baddish idea so that she can later wonder, "Ah, how bad could that have been."

Of course, much of this micro-managing is not about avoiding bad classroom outcomes as much as it's about forcing teachers to conform to the proscribed model of the charter or public school administrator involved. (Mostly, it's charters. Time after time, the happy talk article about "Coaching is so great because it helps us get teachers to do exactly what we want them to" is from a charter school.)  Here's my two cents of advice for any young teacher who finds herself in a school with bosses who want to tell her exactly, precisely how to do her job-- get out. Get out now. 

Does it work? Well, we don't really have a definition of "works," do we. The EdWeek piece says a "growing body of evidence" says yes-- but then it links to the 2011 article which is heavy on "this is what we do" and tenuously light on "here's the evidence." I'm not going to say that I can't ever imagine any situation or teachers for whom it could work, used in certain ways. But I will say that it seems like a terrible idea, that it is often found in conjunction with truly terrible ideas about how to teach (No Nonsense Nurturing deserves its own extended rant), that it is dehumanizing and demeaning and that there are far better ways to help someone perfect their craft. Sit in their classroom, like a real person. Watch them, like a real person. And after the lesson is over, have a conversation with them, like a real person. Because of course when the voice is chirping in your ear, there is no opportunity for conversation or discussion, no chance for the teacher to say "But here was my thinking..." or "But I really wanted to..." Ear-bug coaching is dictation, boss to plebe, not a conversation of equal human professionals. Proponents are going to say, "And that's why we recommend a follow-up conference between teacher and coach afterwards," and I'm going to say, "Just have that conference and skip the remote control ear bossing part." 

There are many bad ideas that won't die stomping around the education space. This is not one of the baddest or biggest, but it's definitely due to be done.