Thursday, January 31, 2019

How American Should American Schools Be?

Part of the impetus behind modern education reform is the idea that more of the education system should be operated by businesses. Many merits and drawbacks of that approach continue to be debated, but one aspect is rarely discussed. Modern business is multinational, so we need to ask--how much control of our educational system do we want to send outside of U.S. borders?
Charter schools have been one path by which foreign nationals can become involved in the U.S. education system. The most notable example is the schools of the so-called Gulen charter chain. The Sunni imam Fethullah Gülen (who is almost always awarded the adjective "reclusive") moved to the U.S. in 1999 for medical treatment. Within a decade, he had created a wide-ranging group of charter schools. The chain has been used to issue H-1B visas to large numbers of Turkish nationals to come to teach; numerous reports claim that they are also expected to kick back part of their salary. The schools are also accused of funneling money to groups such as Gulen-linked construction companies. While some conservative critics worryabout Gulen schools as indoctrination centers, many others are concerned that the Gulen schools are using U.S. taxpayer dollars to fund a government in exile. At the very least, Gulen schools put U.S. students in the middle of a foreign power struggle; the Erdogan government has actively worked to undermine the chain, and the 2016 Turkish coup attempt was blamed on Gulen.

That's just one charter chain, but it's one of the largest chains in the country, with as many as 150 schools (not all schools are eager to advertise their Gulen connection, so counts vary). But in most states, charter schools are run as businesses, allowing for investors and operators from across the globe.
The explosion of education technology has opened other pathways for foreign influence in U.S. public education and raised some important questions. In April, writing for EdSurge, Jenny Abamu asked the question "What Happens To Student Data Privacy When Chinese Firms Acquire U.S. EdTech Companies," and the question is not rhetorical. This year the Chinese company Netdragon acquired Edmodo, an education learning platform, for a hefty $137.5 million. Speculation is that the acquisition has far less to do with Edmodo's revenues (which have been described as"struggling") and more to do with the 90 million users and the data they have generated. If data is the new oil, then many ed tech companies are sitting on rapidly filling tanks that will attract attention from businesses all around the globe.
Chinese firms are working hard to get a piece of the ed tech pie (one analyst predicts that the analytics sector of ed alone will be a $7 billion business by 2023). Squirrel AI Learning, one of the biggest ed-tech companies in China, has hired experts from Knewton (previously an AI partner of Pearson) and just announced that it was bringing on Tom Mitchell, Dean of Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, as their Chief AI Officer.
Squirrel AI Learning provides a good example of the potential problems on the horizon. Their AI+ model, already in wide use in China, leaves only about 30% of classes to be taught by live human teachers. The other 70% are taught by AI software, meaning that the educational decisions are being made by the programmers who create and manage that software. We still need to have a conversation about whether educational decisions should be made by educators or ed tech programmers, but it adds a whole new level of concern when those technicians are not actually in this country.
There is nothing inherently wrong with foreign involvement in U.S. businesses, though Americans have experienced some shock as iconic American products from beer to jeans have become the business of foreign interests. But these days it is in the very nature of business to be multi-national.
We've talked about the problems of privatizing public education, cutting it loose from the traditional democratic processes of an elected school board and handing decision-making power to a business-style operation. But what would it mean to American education to send those decision-making powers to another country entirely? If we're going to turn American public education into a business, there's no reason to assume that it would be an American business. Are we prepared to deal with that possibility when it comes to the education of our children? Perhaps a multinational education system would be great. Perhaps turning over what is essentially an arm of our government to other countries would be disastrous. Perhaps the wealthy would send their children to private American-run schools, while education for the lower classes would be outsourced. Perhaps a multinational school system could treat our multi-ethnic student population better than we do ourselves. Perhaps selling off our school system to companies in other countries would be our final mark of shame and failure. The only thing that is certain is that we are failing to discuss any of these potential implications.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

MA: Turnover Starts To Give Charters A Clue

Teacher churn in Massachusetts charter schools is high (about 30%). And apparently at least some charters have decided to do something about that. But as this article by Carrie Jung at WBUR indicates, there is some sort of mystery involved.

Maybe there are clues in there.
I do give the charters involved credit for at least thinking about the issue-- in many modern charters, teacher churn is a feature, not a bug. If teachers don't stay long, they don't need raises, they don't get pensions, and they don't start getting all uppity and questioning the vision of the school's operators. Still, charter operators may be starting to come around

"Leaders are recognizing that high rates of turnover have become somewhat unsustainable," said Nathan Barrett, the senior director of research and evaluation with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "And they’re looking at creating a teacher workforce that’s going to be there longer."

"Become somewhat sustainable"? No-- they were always unsustainable. But at least some people can see issues:

"[Students] have so much fear about the teachers leaving," said Kimberly Luck, a history teacher at the City on a Hill Circuit Street charter school. "Sometimes when teachers are out sick two days in a row they think that the teachers have quit."

Luck is a four-year veteran, making her one of the senior teachers on staff. Which blows my mind-- I had been in the classroom for about 35 years before I was the certified Oldest Fart In The Building, and the building always had a dep bench of experienced teachers. How do schools where virtually everyone is a rookie even function. When teachers have questions about instruction, who do they talk to? How does the school develop any traditions? How does the school avoid having to reinvent the wheel constantly because nobody is around to say, "Oh, we usually take care of that this way."

And how do students feel secure or at home in a school where the adult faces always change? How do students build a helpful relationship with people who up and leave all the time?

At any rate, the hunt is on for an explanation for charter churn and with it, a solution. The article tries to "both sides" its way to avoiding any sorts of conclusions, and yet it includes the following:

"The reasons for that could be differences in environments between charter schools and public schools," said Marcus Winters, an associate professor of education policy at Boston University's Wheelock College of Education and Human Development.

Well, yeah.

It could also be the types of teachers that move into charter schools. They tend to be younger and have different backgrounds." He explains that historically charter schools have relied heavily on teachers working with programs like Teach For America or City Year that recruit "non-traditional" candidates who did not study education in college before entering the classroom.

You mean, when you hire teachers who aren't really teachers, they don't stay teachers.

Traditional public schools often pay better and have shorter hours, among other things.

Winters adds that while collective bargaining agreements are common at public schools in Massachusetts, they remain pretty rare among charter schools.

Well, yes, that's the charter model. Work them to death and pay them squat and keep the union out so that you can work them to death and pay them squat. Again-- this was always supposed to be a feature, not a bug. The visionary charter CEO was supposed to be free to hire and fire at will, and to use that leverage to demand 80 hour work weeks.

Another school, MATCH Charter Public School in Allston, also launched a professional development program known as Rising Leaders. Emily Stainer, the school’s chief academic officer, said that was also inspired by teacher feedback.

"I think we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to both hire and retain talent," said Stainer. She added there's more to turnover cost than just the money and effort it takes to constantly train new staff. "I think a lot of us have learned the lesson that the longer a teacher is with us, the better the student results are."

I am smacking my head so hard right now. After decades of reformster baloney like "We have to get rid of tenure so that we can fire old teachers because young ones are full of vim and ideas and no, this has nothing to do with young teachers being cheaper," it is finally dawning that experience matters.

"I see people leaving because they want competitive pay, wanting consistency, wanting to have voice," said Luck, of City on a Hill Circuit Street. 

Oh, charter people. Luck, incidentally, teaches at one of the charters that joined the union.

The leaders at Boston Collegiate and MATCH said unionization efforts at City on a Hill did not influence their decisions to launch teacher-focused programs. They said they wanted to be responsive to their teachers, because without them they would not have a school.

"No, we totally want to listen to our teachers. The unionization wasn't at all a wake-up call about how badly we were managing the place."

The only mystery continues to be the mystery of how so many charter operators believe that the secret to running a good school is to give teachers no voice, little pay, lousy work conditions, and long hours. Okay, only sort of a mystery-- the theory of action has always been that teachers are overrated and not that important if your school is run on a really good system. Too many charter operators are sure that teacher flavored meat widgets are sufficient, and easily replaceable, if you just have a Visionary CEO steering the ship.

Pay teachers well. Treat them well. Empower them. Listen to them. It's not that hard. I'm glad to see at least a few charter operators getting a clue. We can only hope that it might spread.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

There Is No Teacher Shortage

I've made this point a dozen times in other contexts, but let me take a day to address it directly.

There is no teacher shortage.

Oh, across the nation there are districts that are having trouble filling openings with fully-qualified certified teachers. But there is no teacher shortage.

"Shortage" implies a supply problem. Like maybe people are born teachers and for some reasons, the gene pool has just stopped coughing out people with the special teacher genetic code. Or maybe the colleges and universities just aren't recruiting and educating enough proto-teachers. Or teachinmg is a "calling" and apparently there just aren't that many people being called. Or maybe all the teachers are falling through a black hole into that dimension where all the lost socks go.

"Shortage" also gives folks permission to plug the gap with "alternatives." If there "aren't enough teachers" to go around, then we'll just have to hire Ivy League Teach for America temps with five weeks of training, or loosen requirements so that anybody with a degree (or even with just a diploma) can be put in a classroom. Or we can bring in one of those artificial intelligence computer programs to do the work of teaching. Of course, none of these sound optimal, but we don't have much choice because there's a teacher shortage, donchaknow.

The idea of a teacher shortage feeds into the notion that teachers can only be found in classrooms-- in other words, teachers aren't human beings qualified to teach who may or may not choose to put those qualifications to work in a classroom.

Teachers are people with a choice. Hmmm....

I believe in a different explanation of why so many school systems are having trouble finding qualified people to fill teaching positions. And free market fans should be there ahead of me.

After all, we've heard the argument about why there is no need for unions, no need even for a minimum wage. If you offer too little pay or benefits for a job, the argument goes, people will just walk away from your job until you make a decent offer. Right? I've said it a dozen times: if I can't buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn't mean there's an automobile shortage.

If you think that workers should handle bad working conditions by walking away, you cannot be mystified when a whole lot of workers start walking away from a particular job.

For almost twenty years (at least) the profession has been insulted and downgraded. Reformy idea after reformy idea has been based on the notion that teachers can't be trusted, that teachers can't do their job, that teachers won't do their jobs unless threatened. Teachers have been straining to lift the huge weight of education, and instead of showing up to help, wave after wave of policy maker, politician and wealthy dilettante have shown up to holler, "What's wrong with you, slacker! Let me tell you how it's supposed to be done." And in the meantime, teachers have seen their job defined down to Get These Kids Ready For A Bad Standardized Test.

And pay has stagnated or, in some states, been inching backwards. And not just pay, but financial support for schools themselves so that teachers must not only make do with low pay, but they must also make do with bare bones support for their workplace.

And because we've been doing this for two decades, every single person who could be a potential new teacher has grown up thinking that this constant disrespect, this job of glorified clerk and test prep guide, is the normal status quo for a teacher.

Teachers have been systematically distrusted, unsupported, and disempowered. Not in every school district in America-- but in far too many.

There is no teacher shortage.

There's a slow motion walkout, an open-ended strike that's hard to see because teachers are walking off the job one at a time.

There are plenty of people who are qualified to fill the positions, plenty of people who could enter a teacher prep program and join the profession if they were so inclined. I'm surprised to see that there's no good count of all the teacher licenses sitting unused, but simple math tells us that it is the number of people who have left, plus the number of people who gave up before they got a job, plus the people who graduated with a certificate but took another job and never came back, plus all the people who just decided not to even start down that path. Undoubtedly some of those people were ill-suited for the classroom and we are better off without them. But that can't be every person whose teacher papers sit gathering dust.

People have a choice. Sometimes we talk about Teaching, The Calling, as if teachers have no choice but to become teachers. This is just the less insulting version of "Those who can't, teach." It's comforting to the People In Charge because it imagines a negotiation where they have teachers over a barrel, where teachers can't walk away because they must teach. But people have a choice. They can choose to be a teacher, or they can choose-- even if they choose reluctantly and painfully-- to not be a teacher.

If entry-level pay were $100,000, with top-drawer medical coverage and a kick-ass pension, we would never have to talk about teacher "shortages" ever again. But instead, states and districts play a game where they see just how little they can put into making the job appealing without feeling the pinch-- and then when they start to feel the pinch, they pretend not to know what the problem is. In some states, they set up commissions to "research" the problem and make recommendations, which require about as much wisdom and insight as telling a hungry person that you recommend that they eat.

It doesn't help that lots of folks keep hollering, "More money??!! Are you nuts? We already spend a whole bunch of money on schools! Teachers already make way more than clerks at the 7-11!" And this just adds to the aura of disrespect hovering around teaching, even as it involves a bunch of free market conservatives pretending they don't know how the market works. (Review: Will the dealer not sell you a Porsche for $1.98? Then you need to offer a better deal.)

There is no teacher shortage.

There's a shortage of willingness to invest the profession with respect and support. There's a shortage of willingness to make the jobs appealing enough to attract and retain all the people schools want to attract and retain. There's a shortage of will to make the job appealing enough to hold onto the people who start out. There's a shortage, not just of money, but of respect and support and empowerment.

There is no mystery to what is happening, but to deal with effectively, to actually face it, the People In Charge need to stop calling it what it is not.

There is no teacher shortage.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Truth About Davos, AI, and Firing All the Humans

This article ran last week, and it made my ICYMI list Sunday, but you really, really need to see this.

Kevin Roos went to Davos for the New York Times to see what the masters of the universe are up to, and his most striking discoveries was "The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite."

The short version is simple. In public, they are going to talk about how much Artificial Intelligence will improve the workplace. In private, they talk about how AI will let them slash the human workforce to the bone. From the article:

All over the world, executives are spending billions of dollars to transform their businesses into lean, digitized, highly automated operations. They crave the fat profit margins automation can deliver, and they see A.I. as a golden ticket to savings, perhaps by letting them whittle departments with thousands of workers down to just a few dozen.

“People are looking to achieve very big numbers,” said Mohit Joshi, the president of Infosys, a technology and consulting firm that helps other businesses automate their operations. “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”

Is there any reason to think the advent of AI in education is different? Of course not-- education is a field where the single greatest expense is personnel. If your goal is to bust free some of that sweet sweet public education money, getting rid of live, trained teachers and replace them with a couple of cheap mentors.

Look at it this way. Since the beginning of the modern ed reform era, the dream has been to cut staff costs.

We were going to "teacher proof" classrooms with instruction in a box, complete with scripts, so that anybody could do it. We were going to staff schools with Teach for America temps who would never stay long enough to make more than starting salary or earn a pension. We were going to identify the super-teachers and give them classes of hundreds of students (after we fired everyone else). We were going to implement merit pay, meaning we'd lower the base pay into the base ment and give "bonuses" whenever we felt like it. We were going to get rid of tenure and FILO so that we could fire people who were too expensive. We were going to redefine success as high test scores keyed to a list of simplified standards so that no special expertise was needed to achieve success. We would break the teacher unions and strip them of negotiating power.

We tried all of these things to a greater or lesser success, and in theory and practice, they all have one thing in common-- they allow management to spend less money on trained professional teachers (which means that money can go elsewhere). They have tried to do to trained educators what McDonalds did to trained chefs.

Of course, notes Roos, corporate titans know that rubbing their hands and chortling about all the meat widgets they're going to fire is bad form. So, he says, they've come up with some less scary language. Raise your hand if you've heard this one:

Workers aren’t being replaced by machines, they’re being “released” from onerous, repetitive tasks.

Yup. Classroom AI will liberate teachers, freeing them fro boring clerical tasks so that they work on creative things. Like, say, freshening up their resumes.

Roos says to pay attention to Asia, where the executives pursuing this track are not shy about saying what they are really doing. True enough-- Squirrel Learning brags proudly about how its AI has taken over 70% of the teaching!

Is there any kind of conscience, humanity, or concern for fellow citizens holding back this tide?

“That’s the great dichotomy,” said Ben Pring, the director of the Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant, a technology services firm. “On one hand,” he said, profit-minded executives “absolutely want to automate as much as they can.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “they’re facing a backlash in civic society.”

So that's a no. Corporations pay attention to the optics and the backlash, but those are practical considerations, not moral or ethical ones. The corporate folks talk about how they have no choice, that they can't lose this race, that their stockholders demand profits right now, and firing humans gets those results. Nobody appears to be looking down the road at the human or societal cost, even as are starting to muse that the end of the middle class and stagnant wages for the lower class seems to be bad for business.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure that enough people understand which way this wind is blowing. Certainly some politicians find it useful to blame employment and economic issues on immigrants rather than software, but I'm not sure the techno-illiterate great-grampaws in DC understand what is happening either. And when I ran a post about the Oklahoman bozo who wants to fire and decertify every teacher who ever protests, I got plenty of response saying, "I hope all the teacher walk and they fire all of them. Then what will they do?" Well, one thing they might do is call Summit Learning, hire a bunch of uncertified mentors to sit in classrooms with the students and computers, and then call it a day.

There is ultimately a weakness to this approach-- at least when it comes to education, the AI can't deliver on much of anything that it promises. It's like hiring your sister's not-very-bright child Pat to rewire your house electrical system-- you'll save a ton of money, but the job won't get done. Of course, if the AI is in schools for Those People's Children, and the children of the wealthy and powerful are safely enrolled in a good, or at least exclusive, private school, it may take a while to do anything about getting rid of bad AI education-flavored products.

It's not a pretty picture, which is why we need to pay attention. No AI company is going to come into your school district and announce "We'd like to fire a bunch of you staff and just sit all these kids in front of computers." They aren't worried about what's right, but they are worried about "backlash." If you pay attention, you can provide some, even if you aren't the kind of person who takes fancy trips to Switzerland.

TN: Legislator Says Bring On Fashion Police

Tennessee state representative Antonio Parkinson (D) considered all the issues facing education and decided that the one he wants to address is-- parent dress codes.

Schools may be figuring out-- slowly-- that body-shaming students and chasing them down for ripped knees might be counterproductive. But this Memphis lawmaker wants to crack down on the parents:

"People wearing next to nothing. People wearing shirts or tattoos with expletives. People coming onto a school campus and cursing the principal or the teacher out. These things happen regularly," Parkinson told TODAY Style.

“A principal I talked to told me a lady came into the office with her sleepwear on with some of her body parts hanging out. You got children coming down the hall in a line and they can possibly see this,” he said.

Parkinson does know how to dress
The bill does not lay out specifics, but lets each district set its own standards. Parkinson is apparently still "working on" the bill, so the details are not yet available.

I'm hoping that the bill allows for actual honest-to-God fashion police. Chris's mama shows up to drop off her child in nothing but pajama's-- have the school's fashion officer arrest her or fine her or throw a giant burlap sack over her. Will it matter if she stays in the car? How much of his naughty tattoo must dad cover up. Seriously-- how does anyone enforce a law like this. Any teacher who has to enforce a dress code knows all the stupid problems that come with it-- do I whip out my ruler and measure those shoulder straps? do male teachers admit they've been examining student cleavage to make sure there's not too much boobage showing? and there is nothing like a fingertip length rule to make you aware of how widely relative arm lengths vary from teen to teen. So who is going to deal with all this baloney when dress coding grown-ups? And why do I suspect that this will be mostly about policing women?

Yes, it would be nice if folks dressed appropriately and respectfully when they came to school, but that doesn't mean we need to pass a law. I hate it when people use quotation marks incorrectly, but I don't want offenders arrested by actual grammar and punctuation police.

Given Tennessee's educational system, it seems as if there are better things to spend time on.

MD: Failing Five Year Olds

Maryland joins the ranks of those states that have kindergarten exactly backwards. News overage of this Alarming Crisis starts with this sentence:

Less than half of Maryland’s children have the behavior and academic skills they need to be successful in kindergarten, according to a new state report.

Only 47% tested as "ready" (that's up 2% from last year). And I want to smack my head so hard that Maryland education policy makers all get a headache.

Look. If I go into business making pants, and it turns out that my pants don't fit the proportions of most living humans, the headlines do not read, "American men are built all wrong."

If I open a restaurant that serves food that most human beings can't digest, the headlines don't read, "American digestion systems are dysfunctional."

If I open an amusement park and all the ride have a "you must be this tall to ride" signs with "the tall" being set at 7 feet, 6 inches, headlines do not read, "Experts declare that the majority of Americans are too short."

And if I declare that five year olds must weigh at least 100 pounds to be considered ready for kindergarten, the headline doesn't say, "State's five year olds have alarming developmental lag."

Maryland has seen red flags about their test already; school districts "rebelled" because the test took too long to give. Now districts are allowed to do a "sampling." This is Bad Management 101-- make your people spend more time reporting on the work than actually doing the work. The final paragraph of the story hints at an actual use for a test like this--

A majority of kindergarten teachers indicated that the test, given in the beginning of the school year, helps them identify their students’ strengths and weaknesses, according to survey results released by the state.

-- but of course that can only work in districts that give the test to all students.

In the meantime, Maryland continues to push for earlier and earlier "education" rather than considering that this data might show them that their kindergarten is out of whack.

Yes, there's no question that some sort of intervention in earlier years can help close some of the gaps in later educational achievement. But it is not a five year old's job to be ready for kindergarten-- it is kindergarten's job to be ready for the five year olds. If a test shows that the majority of littles are not "ready" for your kindergarten program, then the littles are not the problem-- your kindergarten, or maybe your readiness test, is the problem. The solution is not to declare, "We had better lean on these  little slackers a little harder and get them away from their families a little sooner." Instead, try asking how your kindergarten program could be shifted to meet the needs that your students actually have. And if you still think that children raised in poor families have "too many" needs, then maybe start asking how you can ameliorate the problems of poverty that are getting in the way.

This is one of the legacies of No Child Left Behind-- the upside down school, where students exist to meet the needs of the school, specifically the need for good test results. This backward approach continues to be most obviously out of whack with the littles, where all of the best goals of early childhood education have been systematically replaced with the goal of "get these kids ready to take the tests."

This is backwards. The school exists to meet the needs of the children; test results like this don't show a failure of children, but a failure of the school system.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

ICYMI: Here Comes Another Arctic Blast Edition (1/27)

So it's going to get cold again. But in the meantime there are useful things to read about education. Here's the list for this week-- remember to share what you think needs to be shared.

Denver's Portfolio Model School District is a Failure

Thomas Ultican breaks down some of the details in the long-running reform experiment in Denver schools.

Automation at Davos

This is pretty stark stuff. The difference between what the movers and shakers say about AI publicly (It will be great for workers) and what they say privately (We'll be able to fire 99% of our human workforce).

Success Academy: The High School

One would expect Eva's attempt to expand her brand into high school to be ugly and messy, but this podcast with transcript shows just how ugly and messy (spoiler alert: really). Just brace yourself for the whiplash conclusion.

Floridians Choose Public Schools

Breaking down some survey data to see what Floridians would really like.

Under-discussed Stories of 2018

Have You Heard podcast looks at five six stories that didn't quite get the attention they deserved. (There's a transcript if you aren't a podcast person).

Houses for People

Teacher Tom provides his littles a lesson in activism.

MLK's Work Precedes Us And, With Resilience, Lives After

Jose Luis Vilson and a wake up call for what MLK's legacy is about beyond pretty memes.

How Do Charter Schools Affect Students With Special Needs?

From the LAUSD strike comes this set of word delivered to the board about some of the charter claims that just don't hold up.

The Battle For New Orleans Public Schools  

If you'd like one more article for the "NOLA Is Not A Huge Success" file.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Is Competency The Hot New Thing?

Tom Vander Ark thinks that competency is the up-and-coming next big thing in education. He just said so a few weeks ago at Forbes, but he's been saying so for several years now.  Vander Ark has been at the education reform biz longer than most, but his career also includes the launch of K-Mart's competitor to Sam's Club, point man for the Gates small schools initiative, and an attempt to launch some charter schools in NYC that left a bad taste in many mouths. He's not always right. How about this time?

When we talk about competency (as in competency-based education), we need to keep a couple of things in mind.
Everyone's probably at home working on badges
First of all, it's not remotely new. For most of its history, it has been called "mastery" or "learning for mastery," and it crops up as far back as almost a century ago, when programs like the Winnetka Plan started playing with the idea that instead of focusing on the hours spent in a program, we could focus on whether or not the students had mastered a particular piece of skill or content. Mastery Learning began to catch fire again in the sixties. Most of us who went to teacher school in the seventies learned about it and were encouraged to make it a factor in our work, though nobody had yet solved one of the central problems with mastery learning. The premise was that every student could learn the material as long as she was given enough time--but there were still only 180 days in the school year.

In the classroom, mastery learning often took the form of giving students multiple, even unlimited, attempts to show mastery of the material. On the ground, this looked like, "Students, you can keep taking the unit test until you pass it." Students sometimes took advantage of the reduced sense of urgency, and parents were not always supportive--as one parent asked me, "Why should my kid try when he gets a dozen shots and everybody passes?" While mastery learning became central in very few classrooms, by the eighties, many teachers had incorporated elements of mastery learning into their practice.

In the nineties, mastery learning made a comeback with the rise of Outcome Based Education. In OBE, each lesson would culminate in a student demonstration of some particular outcome--new terminology for showing mastery (immortalized in a million million lesson plans as "The Student Will Be Able To", aka "TSWBAT"). We would have authentic assessments, where the students would demonstrate mastery in some "real" way; multiple choice tests and their ilk would be banished. Each student would have a portfolio that would show the complex web of her mastered skills, not just some simple letter grade. And finally, the motto, drilled into teachers at countless professional development sessions, was that "all can learn all."

But OBE died a quick death. Part of the opposition came from conservative parents who resisted the "values" outcomes that required students to demonstrate mastery of the skill of being a good person. The other fatal attack on OBE came from the rising tide of accountability hawks, spurred to action by A Nation At Risk and demanding the kind of cold, hard numbers and measures that led us to No Child Left Behind, Common Core and accountability based on multiple-choice standardized tests.
Competency is a new branding of a century-long thread in education. Now mastery can be marked with digital badges, the progression of skills maintained, measured and recorded by computers, the badges earned and issued in and out of school.

If it's going to finally become the big thing in education, it will have to solve some of its old central problems. How long do you give students who progress to mastery slowly? How do you sequence competencies in a way that's fair and sensible? How do you break complex skills and knowledge into competencies that are measured in authentic and valid methods? If you let anyone, anywhere issue a "badge" for a competency that's been mastered, how do we keep accountability hawks happy? And a new problem--what happens when you let all of these educational decisions be made by tech companies?

Vander Ark's evidence that competency is going to finally bust through this time is essentially a list of tech companies that are working on various parts of the problem. Some companies are working out how to issue a digital badge for a variety of mastered skills that will be assessed... somehow. Financiers like XQ and New Schools Venture Fund are throwing money at groups that want to work on these problems. But even if all these groups successfully solve the problems of mastery learning, advocates like Vander Ark will still have one more question to answer-- can you get parents to sign up for a mastery learning system on a large scale for the first time in 100 years?
Originally posted at Forbes

OK Legislator To Teachers: Shut The Hell Up

Oklahoma has worked hard to get itself in the front of the pack of States Most Hostile To Public Education. Maybe not number one (relax, Florida), but right up there. Ultra-low teacher pay. Slack charter rules. The kind of state where the idea for improving education is to gear it more toward providing meat widgets for employers. The kind of state where a serious idea about improving teacher pay is to fire half the teachers and give their money to the remaining teachers, who will all teach twice as many students.

So it wasn't a huge surprise last year when teachers in the state walked out. While they didn't get everything they wanted, they were still confident that they has sent a message to the legislature.

Apparently some legislators misunderstood the message.

Oklahoma's political leaders could have looked at the walkout and said, "Damn , we need to spend more on education" or "Damn, if we don't get our act together, we'll never recruit enough teachers to help with our ongoing teacher shortage" or even, "Damn, we have got to find a way to suck less."

Nope. The conclusion some legislators reached was, "Damn, we let teachers talk too much."

This frickin' guy. 
Meet Rep. Todd Russ. He's a hard work and Godly values guy. He has two degrees in banking and a Doctor of Ministry from Berean School of the Bible, and online university. And his wife is a public school teacher. He's been a banker most of his life, but has apparently since founded Commercial Growers Incorporated, and I can't find anything about that organization. In 2004, he founded the Burns Flat- Dill City Education Foundation, which seems to be scholarship related. And he occasionally attracts cranky attention.

And he's the guy pushing HB 2214. It doesn't have a name, so let's just call it the Shut Oklahoma Teachers The Hell Up Act. SOTTHUA is an amendment to the previous act that was supposed to already have shut teachers up by making it illegal to strike. But it's only a strike if a teachers union takes action against its local school board; when all the teachers walk out because of the state legislature, that's just a walk out and it was previously completely legal. So Russ (did I mention that his wife is a public school teacher??) has plugged the holes with this language:

It shall be illegal for the board of education or school district employees, including all those defined in Section 1-116 of this title, to strike or threaten to strike or otherwise close schools or interfere with school operations as a means of resolving differences with the board of education, the State Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Legislature or any other public official or public body. Any person engaging in a strike, shutdown or related activities shall be denied the full amount of his or her wages during the period of such violation, and if the person holds a certificate issued by the State Board of Education, such certificate shall be permanently revoked. 

Stage a walkout against the local board or the state legislature or, well, anybody, and lose your teacher certificate. If you can't be a quiet, submissive teacher, well, then, you can't be a teacher at all.

Note, also, that this applies to boards of education, because some of those sonsabitches supported the teacher walkout of 2018 both vocally and by closing schools. So they can also shut the hell up.

I haven't found any quote from Russ discussing how he thinks this will affect Oklahoma's teacher shortage. Nor does this staunch defender of the Second Amendment said anything about how he feels this law fits in with the First Amendment. I'm no Constitutional scholar, but this seems a bit iffy to me. Heck, the courts say a politician can't block critics on Twitter, so Russ would be powerless an Oklahoma tweetstorm.

At this point, it's hard to tell if any legislators are willing to support Russ's baloney bill. And it's not the only stupid unconstitutional bill being proposed; Senator Mark Allen wants to make any group over 100 that wants to protest on the capitol grounds post a $50K bond. Both parties have already indicated that bill won't fly; let's hope similar sense prevails regarding Russ's boneheaded bill.  At any rate, here are two more things I do know about Todd Russ.

First, this is apparently not his only education-related bill. Check out HB 2208. This bill would require every school district to have a secret ballot vote at least every five years to determine whether or not the union can keep representing teachers there or not.

Second, Todd Russ won his 2018 re-election bid over Dennis Dugger by about 500 votes-- 5,698 to 5,106. It seems as if Rep. Russ might be a tad vulnerable come next election cycle. That seems worth remembering.

P.S. He's one of three legislators to vote against an equal pay act for women in the state.

Friday, January 25, 2019

WV: Legislative Extortion

Last spring, West Virginia's teachers stood up and stood up loud, shutting down every single school in the state. They were out with five demands-- better wages, health insurance, defeating an expansion of charter schools, keeping seniority, and killing a "paycheck protection" bill. They won, the governor signed a pay raise, and teachers won the right to shout at the end, "Who made history? We made history!"

They should have forced the legislature to swear "No take backs."

Republicans in the West Virginia Senate have introduced a bill that aims to undo some of the results of the 2018 strike.

"This is a vision that’s been worked on with input from many,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. She forgot to say many what, as the bill, wit versions clocking in at well over 100 pages (one draft version is online here), was put together with zero input from the teachers union.

That makes sense, since the goal here is to shaft West Virginia's teachers yet again.

A picturesque WV cliff off which the WV GOP would like to throw public ed
Teachers struck for a 5% wage hike; the bill has a 5% average wage hike. Teachers struck for improved health insurance. The bill sort of does that. The bill also adds incentive pay for math teachers. It even adds a teacher expense credit (a whopping $250) for teachers. But it doesn't end there.

Since the strike, teachers in West Virginia have been playing whack-a-mole with various reformster proposals, and each one of them has been shot down. Now they are all back, wrapped into this humongous bill the includes teacher wage increases and health care. The GOP message is clear-- give us what we want, or you can't have your raise.

What do they want? It includes a "paycheck protection" clause, requiring unions to get permission annually to deduct dues from teacher paychecks. It docks teacher pay during walkouts.

It gives West Virginia, for the first time, charter school law the establishes both brick and virtual charters. The charter law takes up 32 pages of the whole bill, and covers all the bases from a state charter commission stocked with political appointees all the way to rules allowing charter takeover of public facilities in whole or in part. It institutes open enrollment.

And it creates the super-voucher education savings account system. The system would give parents 75% of the state adjusted per pupil expense. The proposed voucher may be used for private school tuition, online learning programs, tutoring, extra services like activity fees, textbooks or any other instructional materials, computer hardware or software, school uniforms, testing fees, summer school tuition, CTE tuition, services and therapies like PT, transportation to/from school, and anything else the state treasurer approves. The ESA does not require the student to be enrolled in a private school-- in other words, you can use your voucher to home school.

The parent fills out an application and promises to get the student an education in "at least" reading, language, math, science and social studies (which is certainly a "least" education). The ESA program will itself be privatized by hiring someone to manage it. A parent review committee of seven ESA parents picked by the treasurer will determine if any expenses are questionable; they'll meet when the treasurer calls them, and he'll call them when...? Are we supposed to believe he'll be monitoring all those ESAs? Because that is a lot of work, but if you don't do it, Florida history tells us that a lot of the money wanders off.

Granted, I'm looking at a draft, of which there were apparently several, but this is a bad implementation of a bad idea.

So that, in broad strokes, is the deal. If the legislature wants teachers to get the raises they were promised, they have to let the GOP blow up public education. Senate President Mitch Carmichael projects just the right weasely passive-aggressive tone:

I'm certain that there are some teachers and some union leaders that would rather just have an enormous pay raise — which is a component of this bill — and not reform the system in any manner. But I am confident that really great teachers want to have the opportunity to do their job in the best possible manner. 

The actual bill was, possibly, going to show its face today. The lesson here is not a pleasant one-- any history that is made can be unmade, and the West Virginia GOP is apparently committed to undoing as much of last spring's strike as they can.

The really unfortunate thing here is the the GOP missed the point-- the strike was not simply about money and healthcare, but about dignity and respect and building a better future for West Virginia's public schools and the students they serve. The GOP is calculating that they have made WV teachers so poor that they'll jump at the money and let all the rest go. They are calculating that the teachers can be bought. That's too bad, because while this bill can-- and should be defeated-- the disrespect for teachers that it shows cannot be taken back.

Here's hoping this bill goes down in flames and the legislature goes back to provide the teachers what they were  promised and what public education in West Virginia desperately needs.

DeVos Has A Hammer

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been busy lately, making actual somewhat-public appearances and talking about all her favorites subjects. Thursday it was the 87th annual United States Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting, and her remarks included many of her favorite points. But she's not just beating a drum; she's working with a big, heavy hammer. Bang bang bang. Here are some highlights:

Droll understatement: "I was active in local politics and policy" sounds so much humbler than "I used to run the GOP in Michigan" and so much cleaner than flat-out admitting that you're buying influence. Bang.

The 100 year complaint: Everything has changed in the last hundred years but "approaches to education have largely remained the same." Bang.

Meat widgets: There are millions of unfilled jobs in this country. Somehow, she fails to see any connection between this unfilled need and the push to stop immigration. Bang.

Fake statistics: Well, at least she didn't use an actual number. But she still claimed that "majority of the jobs that today's students will do just ten short years from now haven't been invented." This oft-cited factoid is bogus. Bang.

Odd transitions: In discussing the fact that employers say they can't find trained people (could it be that they are trying to fill jobs that didn't exist ten years ago?), DeVos unleashes this transitional gem: "There is a disconnect between education and the economy, just as there is often a disconnect between a child and the school they’re assigned to." Bang.

Is it a disconnect, or just hypocrisy: DeVos says that too many students are "treated like commodities." This is shortly after she suggests that the job of education is to make students useful to employers. Bang.

More neat widgets: DeVos wants to plug Perkins V, just signed into law last summer. We need to have a conversation about this new version of the bill some time, but what she's excited about at the moment is the way it breaks the "giant silos" between educators and employers. Or, as one commenter put it a month ago, "provides some new opportunities for tighter alignment of programs of study to data-driven workforce needs." Or, as I put it now, made it clear that education exists to serve business interests. And it spreads some money around, and the mayors will want to keep their eyes peeled for that. Bang.

Something new: DeVos is anti-silo. Education has too many silos. Not like the rest of the world, which is silo-free. Which I suppose seems true if you're a really rich, well-connected person who has always been able to swoop into any place she wants, including an entire public sector in which you have no experience or expertise. I suppose to that person it must seem like the world has no boundaries. Bang.

Rethinking: DeVos wants everyone to question everything so that nothing limits students from being prepared. She has a list of questions, which are all cagily aimed at one answer-- privatized, computerized, teacherless learning.  Her list of questions does not include, for instance, why should one family get to hold onto more wealth than they can possibly need while poor students have to worry about having enough to eat. Also, she's decided that CTE is good stuff (at least, you know, for certain people) and that there should be partnerships which involve turning schools into training facilities for particular employers. Bang bang.

Quotable nonsense: DeVos always delivers at least one pull-quote-worthy line. For the mayors, I's pick this:

Well, education is the least disrupted “industry” in America. And, let’s not kid ourselves, it is an industry.

Education is not a public good or a trust or a promise to our children or a valuable institution. It's an industry, like manufacturing toasters. Yet another quote that gives a clear insight into why DeVosian policies are so hostile to public education.

One size fits all: It's one of DeVos's go-to criticisms of public education. It's useful to her not because it's true, but because it sets up choice systems as the opposite of public ed. Of course, no school is one size fits all at all, as public schools are not only inclined by nature but required by law to accommodate all kinds of students. Certainly the Common Core movement was a concerted effort to force one-size-fits-all into public ed; the degree to which it failed is a measure of how much public ed is not inclined to be one size fits all. Meanwhile, charter schools only offer one size. They don't claim their one size will fit all-- they just refuse to accommodate those students that it doesn't fit. Not clear to me how that's better. Bang.

Swell anecdote: No DeVosian talk is complete without the story of a student that she recently met (despite her schedule, she is apparently always meeting students) who benefited from exactly the policies that DeVos would like to promote. Pretty sure DeVos needs to get out more. Maybe to actual public schools. Thump.

The governor's speech was vintage DeVos, and this week she also got her hammer out for a talk at the Heritage Foundation. She was there largely talking about the DC Opportunity Scholarship, one of the programs often held up as a proof of concept for choice.

For the Heritage crowd, DeVos threw in the big two-part idea that (part one) the majority of people want choice. Her basis for that claim is a poll run by-- surprise-- the American Federation for Children, the pro-choice advocacy group funded by the DeVos family. The poll was a phone survey of 1,200 likely 2020 voters; how those voters were selected isn't covered. John Schilling, the president of AFT, calls for "policymakers to listen to these voters," which-- well, the policymakers will have to implement these voucher policies because no voters have ever actually voted for a voucher law (vouchers just died-- again-- in Texas). The only way vouchers become law is when lawmakers create and pass the laws, voters be damned.

But DeVos has her own explanation for why school choice isn't more successful-- the damned teachers union is "the only thing" standing in the way because they have a "personal vested financial interest." I don't think DeVos is stupid, so I'll attribute this line to working her highly conservative audience, because the opposition to choice has come in many forms in many places-- including conservatives who don't want to see choice turn into another government power grab. School boards, superintendents, the NAACP, a whole host of other organizations, and actual voters, when it comes time to put a choice law up to a vote, have also stood in the way of school choice many times.

Even if the "survey" were accurate, even if people did say they want choice, that does not mean they want DeVos's idea of choice. "I want my child to be able to choose a good school" is not the same as "I want to see the public school stripped and destabilized and ultimately replaced by a privatized network of education-flavored businesses that may not even accept my child if she applies to attend them."

This is a long con we don't talk about often enough, and it's embedded in every DeVos speech-- the notion that educational choice can only happen via privatization, that the public school system can only be improved by dismantling its democratic systems and replacing them with private ownership. But "privatization" is a hard sell, while "choice" sounds just divine.

DeVos has a hammer, a big expensive hammer built to smash public education into small pieces (but not so small they can't be sold for parts). Every speech, she gets out that same hammer, maybe puts some new tape on the handle, shines up the head, but it's always that one hammer, beating away, over and over. Bang bang bang.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Classroom Practice Ideas For Reformsters

So while I was working on my last post, I came across this post by Robert Pondiscio that makes a good companion piece.

It's a post you might well miss; if you're a regular reader here, you may not check the Fordham Think-Tank Reform Advocacy Blog often. But Pondiscio and I really disagree about some things and really agree about some others, so I pay attention. I give Pondisc io credit for kicking off the 2018 year of reformy navel gazing with the observation that reformers had “overplayed our hand, overstated our expertise, and outspent our moral authority by a considerable margin.'

In this post, he's also responding to Mike Petrilli's new interest in evidence-based practices, and offered five suggestions designed to keep the "golden age of educational practice" from "blowing up on the launch pad." Let's look at the five pieces of advice:

1. Ask the right questions.

“What works?” is the wrong question. “The right question is ‘Under what conditions does this work?’” observes Dylan Wiliam.

That's an excellent start. My own suggestion is instead of politicians and thinks tank guys asking each other, "How can we make these damn teachers do the right stuff," turn to teachers and ask, "How can we help you do your jobs?"

2. Understand and accept trade-offs.

Quality research, says Pondiscio via Dan Willingham, "tells you what’s likely to happen if you pull a lever. It’s silent on whether it’s a good idea, or if the trade-offs are worth it."

Reformsters were surprised and baffled by the consequences of test-based accountability. Arne Duncan kept bemoaning the way test prep dominated many schools without ever understanding that his policies helped create the problem. One of the most critical question that people (especially journalist people) don't ask when some school announces miraculous test scores is "What did you sacrifice to get them." And don't get classroom teachers started on the endless directives to add One More Thing to their day, as if they have some vast bank of unused time they can tap into.

Teachers are operating at capacity; in some cases, beyond capacity. You cannot add anything without losing something. Yet more than once I've seen a principal get angry because, after receiving a new directive, a teacher asked, "So what do you want me to stop doing," as if that were some sort of impertinent sass and not a legitimate concern. And you don't have to get into deep or complex practices to see this issue in action. How many teachers have been told, "Between classes, be outside your door, monitoring the hall. Also, between classes, make sure you are monitoring your classroom."

This issue is a great example of something thinky tank guys and politicians easily ignore because they aren't in a classroom. But every single choice in a classroom comes with an opportunity cost, something that won't be happening because the teacher is doing Thing X instead. Any discussion of classroom practices must include a discussion of the costs-- all the costs.

3. Kill education myths.

This advice is rather broad. Pondiscio brings up learning styles and other pseudo-science. But myths are hard to stifle. Take "charter schools do a better job than public schools" or "vouchers and cyber schools will work"-- very hard to stifle. But I support stamping out edu-baloney, even though we might disagree about which myths qualify, exactly.

4. Learn the lessons cognitive science.

Here we hit an area where Pondiscio and I agree-- the "skills" movement labeled many things (e.g, critical thinking) as skills that can be taught, leaned and honed in a vacuum. That's just not so. From reading to creativity, content knowledge is what makes it possible. You can't think critically about something if you're ignorant of that something. Your reading skill rests on your content knowledge; you can't decode your way to understanding a word you've never heard of in a context you don't understand. Even creativity-- you can't discover creative new ways to look at something if you don't know anything about that something. You can phrase this in fancy language and say that cognitive skills are domain specific, but the idea stays the same.

5. Stop demanding bad practice through policy.

Really, stop demanding any practice through policy, because I don't care what it is-- for some teacher with some student on some day, the policy will be bad.

This was my raging frustration through the second half of my career-- the constant demands coming from state and federal government that I commit educational malpractice. The number of times that I had to look at a particular hill and decide whether I should fight on it, die on it, sneak around it, or just live to fight another day-- there was nothing more tiring about the work than those kinds of decisions, made on a daily basis, and all the worse because these decisions were forced on me by politicians and thinky tank hot shots and rich guys who wanted to dabble in education, but not by actual educators who had a clue about my work.

Common Core, test-centered accountability, test prep-- and at the high school level the damage being done isn't as severe as what's happening on the elementary level. I could not have been angrier if I had been a surgeon told by my bosses, "Stop using scalpels and operate with this rusty shovel instead."

Guys like Bill Gates, thinky tanks like Fordham, dabblers like David Coleman, politicians like--well, all of them-- if your ideas for good classroom practices are, in fact, good, then put them out there in the field. Let the marketplace of ideas get a look at them. If teachers like them, if they work, they will spread on their own. But mandating them is a bad idea because--

First, no practice is a good practice 100% of the time and

Second, as the last twenty years show, you guys mostly don't know what the hell you're talking about.  What possessed you to appoint yourselves the Grand High Poohbahs of education, I do not know, but just stop it. Stop operating on the assumption that you Know Things that actual teachers in the field do not, and so you must go ahead and force every teacher to do things your way. We haven't even begun to unpack all the damage you've already done, so just stop. You've been consistently wrong, and yet, like some energizer bunny that thinks it's a cordon bleu chef, you won't stop making a mess in the kitchen. Stop. If you want your say, sure, go ahead, this is America. Work with teachers. Try to be helpful. But stop trying to turn your every idea into a law, rule or regulation.

Let me just catch my breath here. 

I give four of Pondiscio's ideas a gold star for being useful going forward. And if reformy leaders want to shift gears from trying to break schools to trying to help teachers do the work-- well, I'm suspicious, but I'm always willing to listen. I appreciate what Pondiscio has written here; I just hope his colleagues listen to him.

The Trouble With Evidence

So now some voices are calling for an emphasis on evidence-based practices in classrooms, and I don't disagree. Evidence-based is certainly better than intuition-based or wild-guess-based or some-guy-from-the-textbook-company-told-us-to-do-this based. But before we get all excited about jumping on this bus, I think we need to think about our evidence bricks before we start trying to build an entire house on top of them.

There are three things to remember. The mot important is this:

Not all evidence is created equal.

Your Uncle Floyd is sure that global warming is a hoax, and his evidence is that it's currently five degrees outside. The Flat Earth Society has tons of evidence that the world is not round at all. Youtube is crammed with videos showing the evidence that 9/11 was faked, that the moon landing was staged, and that the Illuminati are running a huge world-altering conspiracy via the recording industry. Every one of those folks is certain that their idea is evidence-based, and yet their evidence is  junk.

Some evidence is junk because it has been stripped of context and sense. Some is junk because it has been unmoored from any contradictory evidence that might give it nuance and accuracy. Some is junk because it has been mislabeled and misrepresented.

One of the huge problems in education evidence-based anything is that when we follow the trail, we find that the evidence is just the same old set of test scores from a single bad standardized test. Test scores have been used as evidence of student learning, of teacher quality, of school achievement. Test scores have been used as evidence of the efficacy of one particular practice, an influence somehow separated from all others, as if we were arguing that the beans Chris ate at lunch three Tuesdays ago are the cause for Chris's growth spurt. And don't even get me started on the absurd notion that a teacher's college training can be evaluated by looking at student test scores.

Certainly test scores are evidence of something, but not much that's useful. Don't tell me that Practice A improves student learning if all you really mean is that Practice A appears to make test scores go up. The purpose of education is not to get students to do well on a standardized test.

Educational evidence has one other quality problem-- experimental design doesn't allow for real control groups. For the most part, educational researchers cannot say, "We know your child is supposed to be getting an education right now, but we'd like to use her as a lab rat instead." Arguably there are huge exceptions (looking at you, Bill Gates and Common Core), but mostly educational research has to go on during the mess of regular life, with a gazillion variables in play at every moment. Yes, medical research has similar problems, but in medical research, the outcomes are more clear and easily measurable (you either have cancer, or you don't).

Bottom line: much of the evidence in evidence-based educational stuff is weak. At one point everyone was sure the evidence for "learning styles" was pretty strong. Turns out it wasn't, according to some folks. Yet teachers largely use it still, as if they see evidence it works. Apparently the evidence is not strong enough to settle the battle.

And all of this is before we even get to the whole mountain of "evidence" that is produced by companies that have a product to sell, so they go shopping for evidence that will help sell it.

This helps explain why teachers are mostly likely to trust evidence that they collect themselves,  the evidence of their own eyes and ears, invoking a million data points gathered on a daily basis. This evidence is not foolproof either, but they know where it came from and how it was collected.

After we work our way through all that data collection, we still have to interpret it.

We just came out of a harrowing weekend of national weekend over an incident in DC involving some Catholic school teens, some indigenous peoples, and the Black Israelites. We've all had the same opportunity to watch and examine the exact same evidence, and we have arrived at wildly different conclusions about what the evidence actually shows. Not only do we reach different conclusions, but we are mostly really, really certain of our conclusions. And that's just the people making good-faith efforts to interpret the data; once we throw in the people trying to push a particular agenda, matters get even worse.

My point is this-- anyone who thinks that we'll be able to just say "Well, here's the evidence..." and that just settles everything is dreaming. All evidence is not created equal, and not all interpretations of evidence are created equal.

Newton is no longer king.

I get the desire, I really do. You want to be able to say, "Push down this lever, and X happens. Pull on this rope and the force is exerted through a pulley and the object on the end of the rope moves this much in this direction ." But levers and pulleys are simple machines in a Newtonian universe. Education is not a simple machine, and we don't live in Newton's universe any more.

We left Newton behind about a century ago, but the memos haven't gotten around to everyone yet. Blame that Einstein guy. Things that we thought of as absolutes like, ay, time and space-- well, it turns out how they kind of depend on where you are and how you're moving and even that can only be measured relative to something else. And then we get to chaos theory and information theory (one of the most influential reads of my life was Peter Gleick's Chaos) and the science that tells us how complex systems work, and the short version is that complex systems do not work like simple machines. Push down the "lever" in a complex system and you will probably get a different result every time, depending on any number of tiny uncontrollable variables. Not wildly variable, but not straight line predictable, either (we'll talk about strange attractors some time).

Students and teachers in a classroom are a complex machine indeed. Every teacher already gets this-- nothing will work for every student, and what was a great lesson with last year's class may bomb this year.

But there are people who desperately long for teaching to be a simple machine in Newton's world. I've been following reading debates for weeks and there are people in that space who are just so thoroughly sure that since Science tells us how the brain works re: reading, all we have to do is put the same Science-based method of teaching reading in the hands of every teacher, then every student will learn to read. It's so simple! Why can't we do that? Hell, Mike Petrilli floated for five minutes the notion of suing teacher prep schools that didn't.

The standard response to this is that teaching isn't a science. But I'll go one better-- it is science that tells us that such a simple Newtonian machine approach will not work. The dream some evidence-based folks have that we'll just use science to determine the best practices via evidence, and then just implement that stuff-- they are misunderstanding both teaching and science.

The federal definition of evidence-based is dumb.

The ESSA includes support for evidence-based practices, and it offers definitions of different levels of evidence-basededness that are.... well, not encouraging.

Strong Evidence means there's a least one good research paper that suggests the intervention will improve student outcomes (which, of course, actually means "raise test scores") or a related outcome (which means whatever you want it to). There should be no legit research that contradicts the findings, it should have a large sample, and the sample should overlap the populations and settings involved. In other words, research about rural third graders in Estonia does not count if you're looking for an intervention to use with American urban teens.

Moderate Evidence is one good "quasi-experimental study" and then all the other stuff applies. Not really clear what a quasi-experimental study is, but the department still considers moderate evidence good enough.

Promising Evidence requires a correlation study because (and this really explains a lot) even the federal government doesn't know the difference between correlation and causation. I just smacked my forehead so hard my glasses flew off.

Demonstrates a Rationale, like Promising Evidence, somehow doesn't appear on the No This Doesn't Count list. All this means is you can make an argument for the practice.

All four of these are enshrined in ESSA  as "evidence-based," even though a layperson might conclude that at least two of them are sort of the opposite of evidence-based.

So do we throw out the whole evidence based thing?

Nope. Having evidence for a practice is smart, and it's mostly what teachers do. I don't think I've ever met a teacher who said, "Well, this didn't work for anybody last year, so I'm going to do it again this year." No, teachers watch to see how something works, and then, like any scientist, accept, reject or modify their hypothesis/practice. This, I'd argue, is how so many classroom teachers ended up modifying the baloney that was handed to them under Common Core.

Teachers are perfectly happy to borrow practices that they have reason to trust. The most powerful message implicit in a site like "Teachers Pay Teachers" is "I use this and it works for me." Government agencies and policy wonks who want to help disseminate best evidence-based practices can be useful, provided they're clear about what their evidence really is.

But evidence-based should not be elevated to the status of Next Silver Bullet That Will Fix Everything, and government definitely absolutely positively should not get involved in picking winners and losers and then mandating which will be used. In the dead-on words of Dylan Wiliam, "Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere."

Nor should we get trapped in the evidentiary Russian doll set, where we need evidence of the evidence really being evidence by collecting more evidence about the evidence ad infinitum. At some point, someone has to make a call about whether to use the practice or not, and that someone should be the classroom teacher. At that point, that teacher can begin collecting the evidence that really matters.