Friday, May 31, 2019

Jeb Bush: Frying Reform Baloney for Michigan

The Detroit News just ran a Jeb Bush fluff piece chock full of reformy baloney (reformaloney?) and an embarrassing lack of those fact thingies.

It's helpful to know that the writer is Ingrid Jacques, deputy editorial page editor, and a graduate of Hillsdale College, the noted far-right Libertarian college with close ties to the DeVos family and the Trump administration (you may remember them as the school that Senator Pat Toomey tried to give a big fat tax exemption gift).

There he is, going big with the passion.
The piece was written on the occasion of Bush coming to Michigan to talk at the Detroit Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, one more group of business whizzes who fancy themselves rightful managers of public education while hanging out with politicians who are really interested in their deep pockets ideas, and the piece opens by evoking the dynamic Jeb we all know and love for whom nobody voted in the last Presidential cycle. What does it take to improve schools?

“The attitude should be big and bold or go home and let someone else try,” says the former Florida governor. “If it ruffles a few feathers or gets people uncomfortable, so be it. There should be a little more passion behind more provocative change. You can argue about how bad things are or you can say things have to get better.  That's where convergence could really be."

Big and bold or go home. Passion. Because that's the Jeb we all met during the GOP primaries. But beyond the disconnect of Jeb! being big, bold and passionate, this is reformaloney. It's not nearly as important to be big and bold as it is to be right, and when it comes to education, Bush has rarely been either. There is nothing big and bold about draining public education funds to feed private business operations, nor is there anything passionate about letting those private edu-businesses suck up taxpayer dollars with little oversight. Big and bold would have been, for instance, saying to Florida voters, "I want to run several parallel school systems, and since that will obviously take more money to do right, I'm going to raise your taxes to fund it."

I don't know what he wants to see converge, but Jacques thinks his message is one the business and politics guys need to hear, because Michigan's education situation is critical. Bush is going to discuss change, which is an odd topic really, because Michigan has been pummeled by educational change thanks to influencers like the DeVos family, and the results have been terrible. But the policies that Bush loves--charters, choice and cutting public schools (and the teachers who work there) off at the knees--have been tried, and they failed.

Jacques presents Bush as an expert on education reform because Florida and FEE (now known as ExcelinEd). But FEE is simply one more astroturf advocacy group financed by the usual reformsters. They have been wrong so often, and they have tried a variety of shadow groups and initiatives, like the time they set up four teachers to tweet happy things about the Common Core. Chiefs for Change, Learn More Go Further. Bush has ties to so many groups that never quite produced the excitement and passion he was looking for. Meanwhile, he made a wretched mess out of Florida, with a charter sector that produces more waste and fraud than education , and more bad policies than I can list here.

Never mind all that. Jacques unpacks her English degree to offer this example of passive voice:

And now Florida is seen as an example of reforms done right, from accountability to school choice.

Is it? By whom is it seen that way? What data would lead us to that conclusion? Never mind. Jacques says that Florida has top performers in reading "and other subjects." That's a big bold claim, without context (top of what? compared  to whom? measuring performance how?) and not entirely reflected in at least some test results.

Bush offered some typical reformaloney-- "You need an attitude that every child can learn" which to be clear is not wrong, but is also not news to anyone who works in education. Bush is like a guy who bursts in to an operating room in a hospital and yells out--"Stop everything! Do you realie you need to use the pointy end of the scalpel?!!"  But Bush did lay out some specifics in his interview with Jacques.

Early literacy efforts.

Bush always stays current on  reformy talking points, so he leads with "teachers aren't taught how to teach reading properly." Then he moves to the wonders of third grade do-or-die retention testing, making the amazing claim that it works. No, it doesn't. And this is not news. It is particularly damaging as practiced in Florida, where it has led to the retention of students who passed other reading assessments, but didn't take the honored test. (Florida is also the state that hounded a dying child to take the test.) Third grader retention is effective in just one way; it helps raise fourth grade scores by keeping struggling low-testing students out of fourth grade.

Accountability and School choice.

Well, they've got one of those, anyway. It's possible that Jeb's a little fuzzy on accountability:

“Align the system to the results you want, and by and large you’ll get better results,” Bush says. “It’s not easy to craft a system where you can measure learning adequately but it’s well worth the effort.”

Align a system around test results and you get a system focused on test results. Perhaps Jeb! is familiar with Goodhart's Law or Campbell's Law and how they explain that measures like a standardized test tend to distort and pervert the processes they are intended to measure. As for the second half of his statement, he's correct that it's not easy to craft an adequate measuring system for learning; that's probably why nobody has accomplished it yet.

Jeb! thinks the A-F school grading system actually accomplishes something other than rewarding wealthy schools and punishing poor ones, and he completely ignores other accountability issues, like keeping charter schools from scamming taxpayers or from hiring unqualified staff or from closing in the middle of the year and just wasting taxpayer money.


Bush remembers fondly when he stripped Florida voters of the power to elect the state board of education, and suggests that Michigan also go to a governor-appointed board that will properly wield a rubber stamp. I've met Michigan's elected board of education, and Michigan is damned lucky to have them. As always when contemplating GOP-branded reformaloney, I wonder when Republicans decided they were against democracy and local control.

Jacques tells the business community to take note. I would suggest that it's long past time to stop paying attention to what this private citizen with no actual education background has to say about education. Florida is a mess for everyone except privatizers and profiteers and people in school districts that are still fighting off the state, but mostly it's scammage and thievery and driving teachers out and educational malpractice, and Bush takes a huge chunk of blame.

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