Saturday, August 31, 2019

Jay Greene: The Failed Premise of Reform

You may not read a lot of what is written by folks on the reformster side of modern corporate reform these days, but you probably should. First, it's important to understand what they're thinking these days. Second, there's a heck of a lot of nuance out there, because what we think of as reformsterism is actually several different groups working for several different motivations. Third, there is some pretty pointed criticism of reformsterism that comes from inside their own tent.

One such voice is Jay Greene (not related to me, as far as I know). Greene is a professor of 21st Century Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and he supports a lot of things that I think are bunk and aims for a lot of goals that I think should not be achieved. But over the years he has often been wiling to say "That's not going to work" and then transition straight into "That did not work."

He just posted a brief column that is a kind of inventorial "I told you so" for reform, muses about what all the various failed reforms have in common, and finds not that he's so much smarter than other folks, but that they are operating from a flawed premise, mainly "that there are policy interventions that could improve outcomes for large numbers of students if only we could discover them and get policymakers and practitioners to adopt them at scale." And then he writes this paragraph:

I begin with a different theory. I suspect that there are relatively few educational practices that would produce uniformly positive results. Instead, I’m inclined to think of education as similar to parenting, in which the correct approaches are highly context-specific. Even within the same family, we may choose to parent different children facing similar issues in very different ways. There may be some uniformly desirable parenting practices, but most of them are already known and widely disseminated. So, if we wanted to improve parenting, the best we could do would be to empower parents to be in a better position to judge their context and make their own decisions about how to raise their children. Similarly, the best we could do to improve education is to empower families and communities to make decisions within their own context. There is relatively little we could tell all schools or educators to do to improve outcomes.

I'm right with him, up until the moment when he veers off to set up support for school choice. But the idea that ed reform suffers from an uncontrollable impulse to impose top down solutions on everyone-- that's absolutely on the mark.

The other problem I'd say exists with all reforms is suggested by his, but not explicitly-- that Reformsters absolutely refuse to listen to actual practitioners in the field, and in fact have gone so far as to create their entire network and pipeline for alternative experts, people who don't really know anything about teaching or schools, but have come through a pipeline that is all about modern corporate ed reform and not actual education. Just as Greene managed to call a long list of ed failures well before they happened, there hasn't been an ed reform failure that teachers didn't predict, and, for that matter, not a single ed reform "success" that teachers didn't already know ("Oh! A school gets more teaching done if it hand picks its students, has a longer day, and spends more money on resources?? Do tell!").

It remains one of the oddities of ed reform, reminiscent of the crystals-and-jewelry crowd or the anti-vax crowd who believe they can fix the medical system by ignoring everyone who is actually a trained doctor and just setting up and listening to their own network of non-doctor non-scientific folks.

Greene calls out his fellow reformsters for refusing to learn from their failures. I say "Amen," and besides learning that their basic premises are flawed, they could also learn that there are professional educators out there who could tell them ahead of time before they waste a buttload of money.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Burn And Churn McModel Is Failing

To launch the fast food industry, owners and operators refined and adapted an industrial model, with every kitchen an assembly and every employee an easily-replaced meat widget, performing unskilled labor on a job that was employee proof. In the last couple of decades, some education reformsters have tried to adapt that McModel to education, creating teacher-proof content delivery systems that would allow schools to be staffed by easily and swiftly replaced low-cost meat widgets (if you want to talk about the industrial model in education, that's where it really is).

But we've had the McModel of churning turnover in place for it decades, and it turns out there are problems with it.

The headline of this piece hollers that Panera has worker turnover of 100%. But read the article and you discover that 100% employee turnover is actually pretty good in the industry. The industry standard is 130%, and some places run much higher. (That's mathematically possible if you lose workers and their replacements within one year). And--

“It’s definitely been going up,” said Rosemary Batt, chair of HR Studies and International  Comparative Labor at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations.

The turnover-proof model, considered essentially cost-free, has been in place for years, but now burn-and-churn is showing signs of trouble. Batt says that some chains are starting to figure out the costs of turnover.

The actual costs. Batt says the rule of thumb is the time it takes a manager to hire, the time it takes to train, and the time it takes to become good at the job-- during that time, half the pay is considered a wash. And that's before we start talking about the disruption to the team and the organization. According to one authority, Burger King figures it costs about $600 per employees. Batt's survey suggests more like $1,600. The National Restaurant Association says about $2,000. The industry research firm TDn2K says $2,100 to $2,800.

You've probably already seen one of the industry responses-- automation, from the kiosks at McDonalds to the do-it-yourself pads on the table at fast casual spots. Meat widgets can be replaced by software that never quits and doesn't need to be paid.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Beyond robots, what other views of the problem and its solutions are there?

Well, some experts observe that fast food work has become a job that nobody wants, and some think no improvement of pay, benefits, training or culture will fix that. And Abraham Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida has a statement that would look good on a Teach for America t-shirt-- "No one who thinks of a job as temporary is motivated." But yeah-- when a job becomes hugely unattractive, finding people who will work it is hard.

Jordan Boesch actually started a company, 7Shifts, to help restaurants manage and plug holes in their work schedules. He has a couple of interesting observations:

“I don’t think training can be a game-changer,” Boesch of 7Shifts said. “The bigger determining factor for someone to stay with you is if they see a future there.”

Boesch said the big food chains are overly confident: They think they are better at training than they actually are, and as a result, they recruit and hire the wrong people. Citing Jim Sullivan, a well-known restaurant consultant, Boesch said hiring is 90% of the equation and training only 10%. “There is no way to develop the wrong person.”

In other words, the model is fundamentally wrong-- you can't just plug any meat widget into the job. You need someone who has the skills and tools to do it well, and then you need to provide them with an environment that helps them thrive. For employees who deal with customers, a toxic culture that doesn't care about people will be a huge turnoff, regardless of money. All the training in the world will not make them happy in a toxic work environment. So the whole "We just need to give teachers better training" plan might have a flaw.

Some experts have doubts about the all-robot fast food joint-- that human beings still want even the most basic contact with human beings when buying food. Nobody in the article mentioned the other elephant in the room-- computer-driven tools fail a fair amount of the time. Both points are worth noting when contemplating personalized [sic] algorithm driven computerized learning.

One other interesting point-- some experts suggest that a rise in minimum wage will motivate employers to hire better and train better to better protect their meat widget investment.

At any rate, the McModel that some Reformsters have been pursuing has turned out to be unsustainable. We already knew that it was incompatible with quality, but it turns out to cost a lot more than promised. As far as the bar has been lowered for restaurant work skills requirements, there are still plenty of people who can't clear it. There aren't enough people to create an endless supply of meat widgets, and that supply is further reduced because in attempting to degrade the job as much as possible-- thereby making it all the less attractive. Which in turn requires hiring people who aren't really qualified, which further degrades the workplace culture, because who really wants to work side by side with a bunch of folks who can't really do the work, and so on. And that's before we even start to talk about the impossibility of reducing the work of teaching to the point that any unskilled, barely trained meat widget can do it.

The McJob model isn't even really working for the people who McCreated it. One more reason among many for education reformsters to stop pursuing it as an ideal.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Is It Really That Simple?

Some days I look at the landscape of educational issues, and I think that all our educational problems boil down to one, simple, two-part problem.

1) We don't spend enough money on education because

2) We don't want to.

We could erase the pockets of educational underserving, by spending the money necessary to fix the buildings, provide the resources, support the students, create a safe and effective learning environment. We could coax people back into teaching by raising the pay and providing supports to make the job more attractive (imagine a school with, for example, a secretary for every department). We could provide a better array of support staff-- nurses, counselors specifically for personal issues, post-high school planning, in-school issues. Hell, we could do simple things like provide school-issued pencils and backpacks and paper for each student, and if we thought uniforms were important, we could provide those, too.

But we don't. We propose solutions that aren't solutions, like school choice, which proposes that we take the same money that isn't enough to support a single system and spread it around among several systems, which is like Daylight Savings Time to create more sunlight or pushing your lima beans around to make it look like you actually ate them.

No, we stay stuck tight to a system of districting and funding that is welded to housing, which all but guarantees that schools will reflect the same segregation of students and resources that we find in our housing system. And we back that up with an attitude of "I've got mine, Jack," and a side of "I'm not going to pay my tax dollars to build a school for Those Peoples' Children. And some folks further shut down the conversation by declaring, "Well, we can't just throw money at education and after all, we threw a bunch of money at it and look where we are. Harumph."

Yes, yes, yes, I'm a taxpayer, too, and I'd rather hang onto a couple of bucks and not be treated like the government's personal ATM. I get that. And I know that the obvious model for unhesitant spending-- the US military-- is really not a good model, as it shovels tons of money into private machinery that somehow takes better care of corporate honchos than actual US soldiers in the field.

Still, if being devoted to the care and education of children were suddenly an international crime, would there be enough evidence to convict the US?

Yes, I'm feeling a little cranky today, but dammit, why do so many education policy discussions end up really being about questions like "How can we do the barest minimum for the tiniest cost" or "How can we change this system so that somebody can actually make some money off it" or "How can we change this system so that the right people are threatened and punished" or "How can we make a buck off some of the byproducts of the system?"

Yes, there are plenty of people working in education or education policy or education policy kibitzing who have basically accepted this limitation and so move forward asking "How can we squeeze more blood out of this turnip, because nobody is going to give us anything but this single turnip to work with." And the teaching profession is composed primarily of people who make do as best they can with whatever they have, no matter how too-little that is (right up until the quit or change professions, that is).

And, no, I don't imagine that there's a magical money tree growing somewhere in this land of the free and home of the trillion dollar deficit. I don't imagine that our politicians are going to wrestle with this, and we could blame them, but the fact is that if we were all demanding they wrestle with it, they would, whether they cared or not. If there's anything politicians can be counted on, it's their willingness to fake care about whatever they think the electorate wants them to care about.

That's what really gets me some days-- we have an education system that systematically, purposefully underfunds all schools except those located in wealthy communities, and we're really pretty much mostly okay with that. Oh, there are people who care, but mostly what we get are solutions that aren't solutions-- Common Core, vouchers, charters, data hooping, high stakes testing and teacher bashing ("Let's root out all the bad ones and then just replace them with great ones from the Great Teacher Tree") are all ways of trying to make things look better without actually addressing any of the underlying structural issues.

The real problem is intractable, so we fuss around with proxy problems and we argue about shit that is just shit.

What would it look like, I wonder on grumpy days like this, if there was an actual attempt to envision a school system without worrying about the how to pay for it part. How many things would we figure out that we could go ahead and do anyway.

Rant over. I'll eat some ice cream, go to rehearsal, have a good night's sleep, and come back in a cheerier place tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

PA: Poorer Districts Worst Hit By Cyber Schools

A study released in February shows that poorer school districts are bearing the brunt of funding Pennsylvania's cyber schools. The study was published in the American Journal of Education, and you can tell it's serious because its title is painfully dull: Cyber Charter Schools and Growing Resource Inequality among Public Districts: Geospatial Patterns and Consequences of a Statewide Choice Policy in Pennsylvania, 2002–2014.

Bryan Mann (University of Alabama) is a professor of education policy and foundations, and co-author David Baker (Penn State) is a professor of sociology, education and demographics. As the title suggests, they looked at the changes in cyber enrollment and the patterns and financial costs of that enrollment from 2002 to 2014. And because it's behind an academic paywall, we'll have to depend on second-hand reporting of the results, as well as their own writing about it..

The abstract of the study, translated from heavy academese, boils down to this:

When cyberschools started, everyone said, "Cool! Computers! I bet that'll make kids damned smart!" But then it turned out that cyber schools don't actually school well at all, and as word got out in the media, upscale communities ditched it, while enrollment in poorer areas kept up. So now districts with low tax bases are losing "significant revenue" to the cybers, despite the "dubious academic benefits."

From the anecdotal perspective of someone who taught in a less-wealthy rural-ish district, that sounds about right.

There are several other takeaways from the study, all worth noting.

The study confirmed many of the usual criticisms of the cybers. Because Pennsylvania's payment system for cybers is an unholy mess that only a cybercharter lobbyist could love, the cybners are crazy profitable. And Mann and Baker note that

a steady stream of recent, scientifically sound, national evaluations reveals that cyber charter students tend to score lower on year-end tests and also have lower growth in learning over time than regular public school students. The same is true in Pennsylvania, where there is even evidence of knowledge loss (negative growth scores) from 4th to 8th grade in reading and math, literature, algebra, and biology among many cyber charter students.

They note, as I have in the past, that for a certain group of students with particular disabilities, cybers "can be a godsend."

The drop in enrollment in well-off communities while enrollment in less wealthy, less educated communities is documented in the paper.The number of students lost is virtually never enough to reduce any operating costs for the district, so the bullet has to be bitten in other ways. The average payout for a district is $800K, which in smaller districts is a serious amount of money, which districts deal with mostly by cutting staff and programs, or the more radical move of closing buildings. We've seen all three approaches in my region, and while it's impossible to draw a straight line from cybercharter payments to, say, not replacing an English teacher when he retired, and districts face other pressures (we'll talk about PA's pension mess another day), losing a pile of money to cybercharters certainly doesn't help.

This article comes with an interactive map that shows you, district by district, what the dollar costs and budget percentages are for each district. It's worth a look.

If you are outside of PA, there are two other things to know-- PA has a cap on how much school districts can raise taxes, and cybercharters are approved by the state, so local districts have no control at all.

Baker and Mann say that after an initial boost for cybers (they started appearing here in 2000 and were put into law in 2002), 2005 marked the first downturn in enrollment, coinciding with the first published studies that showed lousy academic results.

So why do some school districts still end up having so many cyberstudents? The Notebook asked around in 2016, and heard answers like "safety" or the child was having trouble keeping up or escaping Big Standardized Test emphasis or getting away from other "problem students" in public school.

But not all reasons are so education-related. Two superintendents testified in August noted other reasons. Some can be very local, like students who have moved into an area to be near a parent in the nearby prison, and who don't want to have to talk about it. Some are more universal. Daniel Webb of Everett Area School District said some enroll to avoid accountability, e.g. the family who pulled all their kids because one child was disciplined for smoking.

The teacher bag of anecdotes contains many similar tales. The family who put a student in cyberschool because they were about to draw fines for chronic tardiness and skipping. The family who put a student in cyberschool to avoid repeated disciplinary issues. The family who put a student in cyberschool because he's failing, and he's heard that it's easy to pass cyberschools (which, given the lack of controls of who actually does the assignments, is probably true). Some students just like the idea of being able to get up when they want, go "to school" when they want, go hang out when they want. There is a repeated pattern of students leaving public school because they lack the self-discipline to cope with the institutional demands (we can discuss how much of the fault lies with the institution another day) without realizing that they are stepping into a setting where the demands on their self-discipline is even greater.

In fact, one of the areas that I have yet to see studied, is the number of cybercharter boomerang students-- students who leave the public school, cyberschool for a year, and then come back. I had those students in my classroom more than a few times; they always returned further behind than when they'd left (of course, if they hadn't stayed behind, then they probably wouldn't have returned). I'd ask these students what they did in cyberschool; often the answer was "Nothing."

But I digress. Part of the answer to the question posed by this study is that the bad news about cybercharters many failings was most likely to drive away students and families that were most concerned about academics, leaving behind families that enroll in cybercharters for other purposes, and for whatever reason, those families are in the less-wealthy rural-ish districts, which end up footing the bill.

There are remedies. Rep. Curt Sonney is no BFF of public education, but he has made numerous efforts to rein in the cybercharters, including a hugely sensible bill that would require parents to pay their own tuition to a cybercharter if the local public school offers an online option (many do, in a effort to woo back some families). Heck, someone could just shut down the ten-out-of-fifteenm cybercharters that are operating without a current charter agreement! But the cybers spend a huge amount of lobbying money in Harrisburg.

The standard argument is that cybercharters help make school choice more available, particularly in areas without bricks and mortar charters. What this study shows is that, by draining poorer districts of funding and forcing them to cut staff and programs, cybercharters are actually making fewer choices available for poorer PA districts. It really is long past time to shut them down.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

"Tired Of Being Treated Like Dirt" Teacher Morale In The 2019 PDK Poll

The title of the 2019 Phi Delta Kappa Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools of "Frustration in the Schools," and the focus in much of the coverage has been on the results about teacher morale.
75% of teachers say schools in their community are underfunded.
50% of teachers have considered leaving the profession.
48% of teachers feel less valued by the community. (10% say they are valued "a great deal.")
55% of teachers would not want their child to follow them into the profession.
The breakdown of the teachers who have seriously considered getting out cite reasons that are all inter-related.
Inadequate pay is the marquee reason, and notably regional. Public school teachers are far less likely to feel fairly paid in the South and Midwest. That reason is followed closely by stress and pressure, which is followed by a lack of respect. Lack of support. Teaching no longer enjoyable. Testing requirements. Workload.
These are tied together with the single thread of distrust and disrespect for teachers. This has been evident on the national stage with issues like installing a Secretary of Education who had previously dismissed public education as a "dead end" or a Secretary of Education who asserts that student failure is because of low teacher expectations. Education has also carried the modern burden of the thesis that poor education is the cause of poverty, or even our "greatest national security threat," and so the entire fate of the nation rests on teachers' backs. And yet, teachers are not trusted to handle any of this; instead, we've had decades of federal and state programs meant to force teachers to do a better job. In the classroom, much of these "reforms" have sounded like "You can't do a good job unless you are threatened, micromanaged, and stripped of your autonomy." There is a special kind of stress that comes from working for someone who says, in effect, "You have a big important job to do, and we do not trust you to do it."
Teachers do not experience disrespect only on a national level. Talk to individual teachers about their own work circumstances and you will often hear about district and building administrators who treat teachers like children. When I was entering teaching forty years ago, one of the appealing features of the profession was autonomy, the freedom to pursue excellence in your classroom. There are some excellent school leaders out there who empower their teachers, but there are too many teachers out there who find themselves figuratively bound hand and foot, required to justify every action, treated like they are a source of trouble instead of valuable front-line professionals getting the work done. It is discouraging to work for a boss who does not trust you to behave like a responsible adult and do your job. Are there teachers who have proven not to deserve that trust? Of course--it's a huge profession. But if I had approached my classrooms with an attitude of "I'm going to assume you're all stupid behavior problems," I would have had a rough time. In a classroom, you get respect with respect.
Certainly pay matters. One cannot buy their family food with respect. But for many teachers, the low pay feels like one more act of disrespect, a very literal declaration that "you're just not worth it."
Let's not overstate the problem. According to the PDK poll, 52% of teachers feel respected by their community, and 40% feel they are fairly paid. There are teachers out there who still love what they do, and who are happy to keep doing it. And an excellent principal or superintendent can help support and lift up the staff.
But the effects of the issues covered by the poll have been felt for several years now. We hear regularly about a "teacher shortage," and districts across the country are having real trouble filling positions with qualified people. However, calling the situation a teacher shortage is incorrect. If you can't buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn't mean there's an automobile shortage. It means that you haven't made an attractive enough offer to the people with Porsches to sell. You need to make a better offer.
The PDK survey is a snapshot of how much less attractive the teaching profession has become. PDK gave a random sampling of those who considered leaving the profession a chance to explain why. Certain repeated phrases jump out. "Lack of respect," "No respect," "too little pay and respect," "we are treated like trash," and "tired of being treated like dirt."
There is no teacher shortage. The U.S. education system needs to make a better offer.

Monday, August 26, 2019

CA: The Homeschool Charter Business Behind The Latest Scandal

If you aren't in California, you may have missed this special little variation on the charter school business model-- homeschooling charters. It's a curious note in the recent big money charter scam in California, which we'll get back to in a moment.

This is what you get if vouchers and charters had a baby and it was raised by homeschooling wolves. Homeschoolers "enroll" their students in a "school," and that "school" gives the family a yearly "allowance" that the family directs the "school" to spend on their behalf. It's totally "legal" and not a profitable scam for circumventing California's tissue-like charter "laws" at all. Some folks love it; others, not so much.

Let me just get this out of your way.
Homeschoolers love it. Here's a homeschooling blog plugging the whole set-up as a way to "customize" their child's education to reflect "that reflects our family’s interests, priorities, learning styles, and values." They get $2600 to have spent on their behalf, and they've used that for music lessons, basketball clinics, gymnastics lessons, field trips, sailing lessons, and curriculum (Amazon and Rainbow Resources are two examples of vendors in that biz). There is no state-0mandated curriculum, so families can select whatever they want. This particular blogger notes that he prefers "to use our funds on experiences and activities." Students do have to take the Big Standardized Test, but for these families, it is a no stakes test. This blogger notes that some families don't even open then envelope when the results arrive.

The charter companies love it. You might ask-- what do they actually do? Well, they have to track and spend the money, while providing "oversight" of that spending as well as lining up vendors for the homeschooling families to choose from (although, of course, vendors fight for that privilege). And an actual certified teacher has to visit the families about once a month. The charter still collects the full state per pupil payment, so the schools are lucrative; the CEO of Inspire (more about them in a moment) makes a whopping $380,000 a year. That's a lot of love.

Who doesn't love this model?

Well, there's plenty to not love. Before anybody started paying attention, charter homeschool money was being spent on some interesting "educational" activities. Here a parent in the Valiant Prep system (the other big name in the business) talks about how she spent some of her money

This year, we have used our funds for a few fun field trips. We visited Disney California Adventure, purchased a Chicago City Pass which allowed us to visit the Science Center, Museum and more, and attended a Harlem Globetrotter’s Game. We also have trips planned to Medieval Times which were purchased with Valiant Prep homeschool funds.

Those "homeschool funds" are, of course, taxpayer dollars. The state has clamped down on amusement park spending, but the homeschool charters have also gotten cagier-- Valiant used to have a publicly accessible directory of its approved vendors, but that page has apparently been taken down.

And then there's the authorizing of this business. Dehesa School District has been the authorizer of Inspire and Valiant, and if that rings any bells that's because the district and its superintendent are part of the May 2019 indictment of eleven folks who are charged with defrauding California of $50 million via A3 Charter Schools through fraudulent practices involving several charter schools-- including Valiant. And Dehesa's superintendent Nancy Hauer was also charged with over-billing the charters for the "oversight" provided by the district. Also backing up the scheme was Steve Van Zant, a superintendent and "key figure in San Diego area charter expansion" who has been in trouble before for charter-related shenanigans and so had to hide his involvement this time.

Dehesa's involvement is itself a sign of how this kind of money drives "misbehavior." They're a tiny rural district. They need money. and authorizing charter schools is a way to get it. Meanwhile, a whole lot of students are suddenly without a school at all, and since California lets school districts authorize charters that are grabbing students from other districts, Dehesa doesn't even have to pick up after the mess that it helped make. That's on the public schools serving the areas where the students actually live.

While Valiant has been at least partially shut down, Inspire is still going strong, and attracting attention. It expects to "enroll" 12,000 students this year, despite a growing reputation for financial "irregularities" and really lousy performance on that test its parents don't have to care about. Inspire expects to pull in $285 million in taxpayer dollars this year. 12,000 students at $2,600 per student will cost Inspire $31.2 million of that $285 million. That's a pretty hefty cut of the taxpayer's money.

And Inspire is a fresh face in this business. Nick Nichols started it in 2013 and acquired authorization from Dehesa in 2015. That was the year he left his job as Coordinator, Instructional Expert and Instructional Coach with the Los Angeles Unified School District. He'd been with LAUSD since 2001; the background he brought to that job was a BA in Social Studies from the Master's University. So, another education "expert."

Inspire has drawn plenty of criticism not just from advocates of public education, but from others in the charter biz. Because, I guess, "parental choice" is only an important guiding principle when nobody is using it to entice your customers to leave you.

Jeff Rice, founder and director of APlus+, the Association of Personalized Learning Schools and Services, had invited Inspire to join his chartery club, but told NBC7 that he changed his mind and removed them:

"As our relationship with Inspire evolved over time, we found that there were numerous reports of questionable practices,” Rice said. “Primarily it had to do with the use of public funds as well as recruiting practices.”

Inspire has annoyed other charters with its recruiting practices. Terri Schiavone, the head of the Golden Valley Charter School in Ventura said, "They target a school and then try to get as many of their teachers and students as possible." Schiavone also criticized the lack of oversight and the way customers are "enticed" by various incentives like the whole "buy tickets to Disneyland" thing. She's also one more person accusing Inspire of allowing religious curriculum, though the Inspire folks swear up and down that they don't allow that particular law to be broken. Inspire says the other charter schools are just jealous. I expected to find other charter operators saying, "Well, this is just the free market at work with competition that just pushes us to be better," but so far, no.

Of course, Inspire isn't marketing itself as better, because given its test scores, it can't. Instead it has to market itself as a chance to get a government subsidy for homeschooling while still teaching your children whatever you do, or don't, want to teach them, with no particular oversight, but with some extra dollars to make the experience more fun. Meanwhile, the model leaves so much extra unsupervised money floating around that it has attracted all sorts of bad actors and corruption.

As California tightens up its charter school laws, let's hope they take a look at the homeschool "charter" model and shut it down.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

FL: Courts Thwart Charter Theft

Last fall, the Palm Beach County schools taxpayers voted to increase their taxes so that they could bring their public schools up to speed, specifically in terms of building security and teacher pay.

And they specifically earmarked the money from this four-year tax for public schools.

Some charter schools in Palm Beach County were upset, believing that the law entitles them to a cut of any tax dollars collected for education purposes. This is, after all, Florida, where the state government is working hard to gut the public system and replace it with a profitable privatized system.

So they sued. In January two (later three) charters took the PBC system to court, declaring that they were absolutely entitled to some of that money, regardless of what the voters said. (Because if there's one thing many charteristas agree on, it's that democracy is stupid.) Newspapers like the Palm Beach Post helped out by calling the money in question a "tax windfall", as if this was money that the public system just stumbled over in a brown paper sack stuffed in a principal's attic, and not "the money that voters  specifically voted to spend on public schools."

A judge issued a ruling this week, and it made the charters sad. As reported by Andrew Marra in the Palm Beach Post:

A judge has rejected an attempt by three charter schools to claim a piece of a new $200 million-a-year property tax that voters approved last year for Palm Beach County’s public schools.

Marra nicely incorporates some of the charter slight-of-language:

The ruling is a stinging defeat for the county’s 52 privately operated charter schools, which have long complained that the school board discriminates against their students by denying them money from special voter-approved taxes.

Well, no, sad Florida charters.  The school board doesn't do anything-- the voters vote for what the voters want to vote for. And then there's this bit of whinging:

“We’re disappointed but disagree with the judge’s ruling,” said Marie Turchiaro, executive director of Palm Beach Maritime Academy. “Charter school people have overcome many obstacles throughout the years and flourished in spite of them.”

Obstacles? Being backed by billionaires? Having most of the state political positions of education oversight in the hands of charter fans? I cannot imagine what obstacles Turchiaro is talking about, but if they are obstacles like this one-- the obstacle of taxpayers being able to  tax themselves while naming the purpose for which that tax is collected-- then, well, yes, we generally favor obstacles to thievery.

ICYMI: SAHD Back To Work Edition (8/25)

Here we go. Time for me to watch my household partner get back to her gig. But while I'm adjusting to a new routine, there's still reading to do. Remember-- sharing makes the word go round.

Why Teachers Are Walking Out 

I'm not so sure about some of the gender discussion in this post on the Known cast, but the basic idea is on point and the discussion is interesting.

Vandalism at Ed Department

If you missed this crazy tale-- this week a Black person's office was vandalized-- in the US Department of Education.

Judge Nixes Charter School Tax Theft 

Every once in a while somebody in Florida gets it right. A judge has said no to a charter demand to get a cut of tax dollars raised explicitly for public schools. Coverage in the Palm Beach Post-- expect a sequel to this one.

Fighting Back Against The War On Childhood

Rae Pica writing one of those pieces that really shouldn't have to be written, but here we are.

11 Problems Facing Students As They Return To School 

Nancy Bailey takes a look at the special new modern obstacles set up for students.

Flawed Algorithms Grading Essays

This time it's Vice reporting the story that must, apparently, be reported over and over again-- computer programs are still not capable of grading essays. But a frightening number of states are using them anyway. This is a thorough piece of reporting (they even used BABEL), and thre's something new-- the algorithms are not only bad, but they're racially biased, too.
Former KIPP CEO Soliciting for Fake Organization? 

It takes the indispensable Mercedes Schneider to unravel this tangle of money and connections.

Money Matters

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat reminds us, once again, that spending money on education makes a difference, citing four (count 'em, four) studies.

Guards Get Shoddy Training

The South Florida Sun-Sentinal reports that-- surprise!-- the armed guards in some Florida schools are not receiving great, mediocre, or even adequate training!

The Merit Pay Fairy Dies In Newark

Jersey Jazzman looks at the long, sad history of NJ's love of merit pay, and where it has all ended up. After you're read this one, move on to the sequel, Clapping Harder for the Merit Pay Fairy

Not Funding Schools or Paying Teachers? That’s a ‘You Problem’, Right?

Nancy Flanagan and the question of school funding.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Artificial Intelligence and Magical Thinking (HAL Knows How You Feel)

From the moment you read the title, you know this article from Inside Higher Ed by Ray Schroeder is going to be a corker-- Affective Artificial Intelligence: Better Understanding and Responding to Students.

Schroeder opens with "As a longtime professor of communication, I am fascinated with the cognitive characteristics of artificial intelligence as they relate to human communication," and that's  a touch misleading. While he was an associate professor of communication back in the early 80s and a professor in a television  production unit at the  University of Illinois up until the late 90s, I think it might be a little disingenuous of him of him  to skip over his work since then. He ran the University's center for online learning until 2013, when he became the associate  vice chancellor for on learning. 2013 was also the year he became a founding director of the National Council of Online Education, a group that is "dedicated to advancing quality online learning at the institutional level." They are "powered by UPCEA, the association for professional, continuing, and online education."

"Dave, are you sad, or just gassy?"
In short, Schroeder is writing not as a professor with some academic curiosity about AI, but as a guy whose professional life for the past two decades has been centered on promoting and advocating for computer-driven instruction. That would have been appropriate to mention here, but IHE didn't even give Schroeder a bio blurb at the end of his piece.

So here's the set-up:

One of the challenges in person-to-person communication is recognizing and responding to subtle verbal and nonverbal expressions of emotion. Too often, we fail to pick up on the importance of inflections, word choices, word emphases and body language that reveal emotions, depth of feelings and less obvious intent. I have known many of my colleagues who were insensitive to the cues; they often missed nonverbal cues that were obvious to other more perceptive people.

There's even a link to back up the notion that nonverbal communication is complicated. So now we're ready for the pitch:

And that brings me to just how artificial intelligence may soon enhance communication between and among students and instructors. AI in many fields now applies affective communication algorithms that help to respond to humans. Customer service chat bots can sense when a client is angry or upset, advertising research can use AI to measure emotional responses of viewers and a mental health app can measure nuances of voice to identify anxiety and mood changes over the phone.

Sigh. This continues to be a big dream, most often associated with the quest for computerized SEL instruction. Various companies have claimed they can tell how we're feeling, using everything from face-reading software to measuring how long students take to click on an answer. And yes-- Amazon has been training Alexa to read the stress in your voice. None of these has worked particularly well. And maybe I'm on the phone with the wrong service chatbots, but despite Schroeder's claim, they can't understand anything that falls outside a certain range of response, let alone read my emotional state.

Schroeder assures us that computers can analyze lots of data, including vocal inflections and micro-expessions, and so far we're still within the realm of standard tecbno-over-promising. But then stuff gets weird.

Too often we fail to put ourselves in the position of others in order to understand motivations, concerns and responses. Mikko Alasaarela posits that humans are bad at our current emotional intelligence reasonings: “We don’t try to understand their reasoning if it goes against our worldview. We don’t want to challenge our biases or prejudices. Online, the situation is much worse. We draw hasty and often mistaken conclusions from comments by people we don’t know at all and lash [out] at them if we believe their point goes against our biases.”

Well, sure. If, for instance, we're heavily invested in computer tech, we might be inclined to ignore evidence that we've put our faith in some magical thinking. However, some of us are way worse at this than others of us. But for his next leap, Schroeder needs to establish that all humans are bad at understanding other humans. He is, of course, particularly interested in one application of this AI mindreading-- online classes:

Too often, I fear, we miss the true intent, the real motivation, the true meaning of posts in discussion boards and synchronous voice and video discussions. The ability of AI algorithms to tease out these motivations and meanings could provide a much greater depth of understanding (and misunderstanding) in the communication of learners.

All those misunderstandings on Twitter or message boards and even video will be swept away, because AI will be there to say, "Well, her mood when she posted that was angry and anxious, and what she really meant bto say was..." Schroeder quotes Sophie Kleber quoting Annette Zimmerman saying, "By 2022, your personal device will know more about your emotional state than your own family." He cites the recent Ohio State study that showed computers beating humans at certain types of emotion recognition under lab conditions and using photos instead of live people (he does nod at the nightmare application of this tech--more effective marketing). This is some magical baloney here, but we can still raise the baloney bar. Go back to that last paragraph:

Too often, I fear, we miss the true intent, the real motivation, the true meaning of posts in discussion boards and synchronous voice and video discussions.

So AI can see past everything, straight to the truth. Schroeder may be missing the more important applications of his still-imaginary AI. It could be used to read Hamlet or Ulyses or that confusing note my one ex-girlfriend left me, and it will be able to tell us all The Truth! When I think of how many students have struggled through "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" and now we can just have the AI tell us what the true intent, the real motivation, the true meaning of the texts would be.

No, no, no, you say. The AI has to read the face of the source human, and those writers are all dead (well, except for my ex-girlfriend, but she wasn't looked at the webcam when she wrote the note). Okay, fine. We just get authors to compose all future works in front of a computer-linked camera, and there will never be any mystery again. We'll know the true meaning of it all, the true motivation behind the writing. I suppose with singer-songwriters, it would be good enough to let the AI watch a performance. Call up Don McClean and Carly Simon-- we can finally uncover the truth of "American Pie" and "You're So Vain."

Even if we stick to academics, it's hard to know where this could lead. Should a professor write an article or essay in front of a computer cam, and should the article then be accompanied by the AI explication-- or should the AI response to the work be published instead of the article? If the scholar just thinks about  what he wants to write, will the AI write the full article for him? Can we just fire the professor  and replace him just by asking the AI, which knows him so well, "What would Dr. Superfluous say in this situation?"

All right, I'll calm down. But Schroeder's crazy-pants predictions aren't done yet.

With AI mediating our communication, we can look to a future of deeper communication that acknowledges human feelings and emotions. This will be able to enhance our communication in online classes even beyond the quality of face-to-face communication in campus-based classes. Algorithms that enable better “reading” of emotions behind written, auditory and visual communication are already at work in other industries. 

Yes,  with software assistance, our human communication will finally include feelings and emotions! Dang. Maybe Schroeder hangs around with too many geeky flat-affect computer programmers, but as someone who worked with teenagers for thirty-nine years and someone who has a widespread and varied family and someone who is, you know, a human being living on Planet Earth, I would have to say that feelings and emotions are widely involved and acknowledged.

As to the assertion that online classes will actually have better quality communication than real live classes-- well, if I made my living pushing the online stuff, I might want to believe that, too. But I don't. Sure, higher education is a slightly different animal than K-12, but in the classroom, human relationships matter. Otherwise we would just ship each student a crate of books and say, "Go learn this stuff."

The working world has always included people who are bad at the interacting with and understanding of other carbon based life forms. But the kind of crutches and tools developed to help seem, because of the very problem, hard for them to use well. Like the guy who went to a training where they told him that when he was talking to someone he should insert their name in the sentence to connect better-- he just ends up seeming like a creepy bot. The idea that a professor could communicate better with students if he had software to explain the students to him--even if the software could actually do it--seems equally fraught.

Schroeder does end the piece with a sentence that acknowledges the huge privacy concerns of such a system. He doesn't acknowledge the oddness of his central thesis-- that we need computers to  explain humans to other humans. Here's hoping the readers of IHE ignored him.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

EnrichED, the National Charter Substitute (Sort Of) Service

You've had to miss a day of school, so you cross your fingers and put in for a sub. You prepare a whole lesson, run off materials, tag everything, put them in neat piles and arrange them on your desk. The day after your absence, you walk through your door and get a sinking feeling--the stacks of planned materials have been pushed to one side on your desk, but are otherwise untouched. "Oh, yeah," says a student in your first period class. "He said he didn't really get what you wanted us to do, so he just spent the period talking about his samurai sword replica collection instead."

Now. Imagine that someone built an entire business using that as a model. Not a but, not even a feature, but the feature.

Meet EnrichED.  

Founded in 2012 as one teacher’s day dream, Enriched has grown to become a national movement of educators, creatives and community leaders united on a mission to reimagine substitute teaching.

We believe that every day matters for kids and our communities are full of amazing people with skills and talents to share.

We’re on a mission to enrich lives, one classroom at a time.

She seems nice. I'll bet she dances well.
The founder is Andre Feigler, who began the company as a start-up in New Orleans, sharing office space with Uber and mSchool, teaming up with the 4.0 Schools group. The company puts its "guest teachers" through a "multi-step vetting process" (more about that in a bit) then gives them some "personalized classroom management lessons and workshops." The basic idea of the company was laid out in this 2014 profile:

EnrichED gathers diverse professionals – from public health workers to poets – and invites them to serve as guest teachers on substitute days. Students then spend the day learning about music, improv comedy or entrepreneurship from a first-hand source.

The business was scaled up to cities around the country, earning Feigler a spot on Forbes' 2015 30 under 30 for education.

Feigler had also launched Youth Run NOLA (YRNOLA) when she was fresh out of Barnard College, Columbia University, where she graduated with a double major in English and French and minored in Dance. Though she talks about having been a teacher (as well as "dancer, entrepreneur, yoga doer"), you will be unsurprised to learn that Feigler is a Teach for America alum, with two whole years in the classroom (spending the summer between them in France).

Their team of "doers, musicians, and advocates" reveals a bit of a pattern. EnrichED's "talent intake coordinator" Lynda Surajbali used to work in communications at CBS. The director of finance and operations has a marketing degree. The "head of community" is a Fishman Prize winner (that's a TNTP thing) and used to be band director at one of the Noble charters in Chicago. DC regional manager has a degree in criminal justice and worked with AmeriCorps. The "community care specialist" says she "hopes to revolutionize the education system." She has a degree in anthropology and used to work in Montessori school as a transitional teacher and administrative assistant for two years. And so on-- you get the idea. The whole leadership team includes a couple of people with an actual teaching background, a whole lot of TFA alums, and a bunch of sparky young folks with no education background at all. Each has a perky photo and a profile that is cute and breezy (the leadership team page also includes a profile for the office dog (who is empirically cute) Their mission--

Our mission is to maximize student success by connecting great people to great schools when they need it most.

They are in thirteen cities, and the list is recognizable as a list of reformster-friendly, charter-rich locations (DC, Indianapolis, Memphis, Nashville...) They count 1200 guest educators "mobilizxed" and 700,000 hours "enriched." They reportedly pay about $17 an hour for their guests. They have 160 partners, and while the Enriched website doesn't say so, everyone who writes about Enriched characterizes them as a sub provider for charter schools.

They also have a new owners-- in July of this year, they were bought up by Education Solutions Services LLC (ESS) "leaders in the education staffing space since 2000." Feigler says the deal will "enable Enriched to streamline its operations and innovate," which sounds like bad news for some of the team. I hope they keep the dog.

What they apparently can't afford to streamline is their vetting process. The story that brought Enriched to my attention in the first place comes from a Nashville charter school, where a pair of fourteen year old twins found themselves in a classroom with a substitute teacher who is also the woman who shot and killed their older brother a month ago. While selling him weed in a parking lot. The substitute was placed in the charter school by Enriched. The CEO (sigh) of the charter, along with several teachers, had sent Enriched clippings about the fatal shooting, because the sub had worked in this school previously, and this just seemed like a bit of a red flag moment. But somebody at EnrichED messed up.

Look. The EnrichED idea is not the worst one ever, and given the choice between a sub who's going to give everyone a study hall while he takes a nap and a sub who's going to try to teach my students about dance or music, I would have picked the latter. But what I really wanted was someone who would just use the lesson plans that I left. 

I even believe these guys mean well, but it's more of the same stuff we've suffered from for two decades now. In 2014, Feigler told the interviewer that she hoped to redefine the role of teachers. "Many people care about students and should teach them. Bankers, entrepreneurs and artists alike can all lend their wisdom to the next generation, because any number of situations can spark a student’s imagination." This is the worst kind of amateur-hour baloney, the debasing of teaching to a job that just requires you to care a bunch and then just follow your bliss, and those poor Lesser children will just be elevated. It is Teach for America's educational expertise based on unicorn breath and fairy poop supplying yet another piece of the parallel school system where nobody really needs to know what they're doing as long as the have noble feelings and a desire to share their own awesomeness with Those Poor Kids. When the English teacher for a bunch of poor kids has to miss a day, why shouldn't those students still get a day of English class? We can do better than this same old "anybody can be a teacher if they just feel teachery," an argument we wouldn't accept from our doctor, nurse, lawyer, or plumber. Are we having trouble recruiting qualified subs? Sure. But the best answer is not, ever, to simply redefine the job.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Thirteen Presenters Who Will Ruin Your First Day Back

It's been a great summer. You've had a chance to recharge and reflect. You've developed some new ideas, units, and materials, and most importantly, away from the dailiness of the job, you have gotten back in touch with all the reasons you love the work. You cannot wait to get back to it., take a couple of in service days to get fully up to speed, and then-- bring on the students!

Unfortunately, your administration thinks that your very first day(s) back should be spent sitting in some professional development sessions. In some lucky few school districts, these sessions will actually be useful and even  inspiring. But if you are really unfortunate, you'll spend those sessions with one of these soul-crushing people:

The Defense Specialist

"I'm here to remind you that at any moment this year, someone might burst into your room and kill you and your students. I'm going to talk about how you should react when someone is about to shoot you, presenting a variety of scenarios and details of previous shootings that will all be so vivid that for the rest of this week you won't be able to concentrate on teaching material because you're too busy looking for hiding places in the room, peering into your own soul to consider whether or not you are the kind of person who would die for your students, and just generally staring into the abyss of human mortality and brutality."

The Social Issues Specialist

"I'd like to talk to you about some issue that affects your students-- something like hunger or poverty or gang violence or homelessness or whatever drug is currently out of control. I will remind you that many of your students are being slowly crushed by forces outside of your control and you will need to be sensitive to that, which is the classroom equivalent of sending thoughts and prayers. I represent a group that is trying to address the issue, but we are desperately short of both time and money, and you will end up being depressed that the two things we need are the two things that you don't have enough of to contribute anything helpful."

The Data Dumper

"Here's a bunch of test score data. Some of it's on this website with lots of cool color-coded graphics. Here are some spreadsheets. Here's some disaggregated data on students that you won't actually meet for a few days. Of course, you can't see the test or the questions, and you'll just have to take our word for it that these numbers mean what we say they mean. None of this will actually be useful in planning your courses, but it will serve as a gut-kicking reminder that no matter how  awesome you  are in the classroom this year, all your bosses really care about is the results of this damned useless invalid test. Those of you who don't even teach English or Math can go ahead and get extra depressed and angry about this."

The Education Entrepreneur

"I was plodding along in a classroom just like yours until I had the bright idea of taking something that's a widely known teaching technique and giving it a small superficial tweak and a snappy piece of branding. I copyrighted that puppy and now-- ka-ching! You will spend the next hour looking at my nice clothes, thinking about my cool car, and questioning your life choices."

The Ballsy Tourist

"Every one of you has more training, experience and knowledge about teaching than I do. Sit back and get comfortable while I tell you how to do your job. I thank God that teachers are too professional and polite to charge the lectern, no matter how much rage I generate."

The Sacrificial Lamb

"I'm a teacher in this district. You all know me. The fact that administration voluntold me out here to present this program/policy/initiative tells you everything you need to know. It sucks, and they don't want to have to look you in the eyes or take your questions when you realize just how much it sucks. They're hoping that I have enough social capital earned with the rest of the staff that there will at least not be immediate open revolt."

The Lawyer

"I'm going to scare the crap out of you with a list of all the possible ways that things you do innocently every single day could destroy your career and ruin your life. Have a great year."

The Edu-Celebrity

"I'm chirpy and internet famous, which makes sense because I mostly talk in Tweets. I'm going to say obvious platitudes like 'attitude is important' and 'we teach students, not subjects.' The biggest damage I will do is the permanent loss of respect you're about to feel for your colleagues who think I'm a freakin' genius."

The Flavor of the Month

"Let me tell you about the Hot New Idea in education that your administration got excited about at some conference, or maybe they read an article.  Whatever. Yeah, you might recognize me from last year when I was making the rounds to talk about grit. Never mind.  That's over. You're probably thinking that you can ignore me and keep your head down until this trendy new storm passes, and you're probably right. That's okay. I'm still getting paid."

The Angel Of Slow Death

"What am I talking about? You have no idea, because I am the most boring speaker in the history of the world. Watch as all the oxygen in the room spontaneously self-deports."

The Bringer of Bad News

"I am a person in a position of authority, so you can't just openly howl in anguish as I detail a piece of educational malpractice that you will be required to perpetrate this year. 'This is not why I became a teacher' will play over and over in your head as I outline the kinds of actions that ought to be denounced by any ethical professional. Ten years ago I used to try to get you to buy in on this stuff, but now my message is do this or else.  What the hell do you know? You're just a freakin' teacher."

The Unfortunate Administrator

"Hey, there! Remember me? Chances are you kind of put me out of your mind over the summer, but I wanted to grab some of this in service day for myself so that I could remind you of all the ways I'm a giant pain to work for. Here's some cool new paperwork and procedures I've concocted; we'll go over those in a few minutes, because I would rather force you to look at and listen to me than just handle this with a simple e-mail, but first, let me say some things I don't really mean, like 'this is a team' and 'you guys do the most important work in the district' and 'my office door is always open.' Now I'll tell a bad joke laced with a crippling lack of self-awareness. Watch who laughs! Dance, puppets!"

The Camp Counselor

"Let's start with a fun ice breaker! Then we'll pair and share over some question you'll ignore while you pair and share about how much you wish you were getting work done in your room. If you're good, I might even let you play some games that you would never use with your own students, but some of you will play along anyway because I have some fast food gift certificates to give away as prizes."

Monday, August 19, 2019

KY: Starting the New Year With Threats Against Teachers

Sadly, it's not unusual for teachers to start their new school year by being threatened, but even the worst administrators understand that it's useful to at least pretend that they think of teachers are respectable grown-up professionals. But in some districts, bosses go straight to thinly veiled warnings. And then there's those special rare occasions when teachers start the school year by being threatened by their state's governor.

Welcome to Kentucky.

All discussions of teacher upset in Kentucky have to start with one important reminder-- teachers in Kentucky will get absolutely nothing from Social Security when they retire (surprised? There are fourteen other states where that is true).

So when you mess with teacher pensions in Kentucky, you are threatening teachers' entire future.

The recurring strikes in the newly right-to-work state of Kentucky have been about issues related to the teacher pension, an always-tender subject, as it is possibly one of the worst-funded pensions in the country. So, in  2018 it was about a sneaky attempt to kneecap the pension fund. And in 2019, it was about an attempt to strip the Kentucky Education Association of its power on the pension board. This is a logical next step in a right-to-work state that is just flexing its muscles and trying to  disempower the teachers union. Some media dutifully note that KEA "only" represents 43,000 active and retired teachers, without providing the context that there are just under 43,000 teachers are working in Kentucky.

The state wants to give more power to the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, one of those non-union unions. They say they aren't anti-union, but they also proudly list the many things they don't do, and just leave the "like those other guys" part silent. They've been at this for quite a while, providing teachers with, basically, liability insurance and propaganda to counter that nasty union propaganda, while making it a point not to take a position on any legislation (aka supporting the party in power, aka GOP). Many legislators (GOP) belong to the group, which heads its website with the motto "KAPE Stands for Truth." It might be nice if they also stood for teachers.

KAPE has about 3,000 members, but the legislature would like to see them on equal-or-better footing  with KEA on the pension board, thereby playing into a long-standing tension between the two groups.   Legislators say they don't like the idea of one group having so much say over the pension, which is a little bizarre when you recall that the pension being discussed belongs to KEA members. Kentucky teachers found it  more than just bizarre, so they walked out again.

Which brings us up to the threatening part.

Kentucky's Labor  Cabinet announced that they believed that the teacher walkout was illegal, and that they had the authority to hit every teacher who walked out with a $1,000 fine. Governor Bevin, a DeVos BFF who has made it more than clear that he's no fan of teachers or public education, decided not to actually levy the fine, but his Labor Secretary made it clear that next time, books would be thrown

“Let it be clearly understood that the grace extended in this instance will not be extended for future such proven violations,” he warned.

Kentucky House Democrats at least seem to have a grasp of the situation:

House Democratic leaders responded with a joint statement, saying, “This administration has tried every trick in the book to undermine our teachers and their supporters. Its Labor Cabinet threatens them with fines for exercising their right to be heard on legislation directly affecting them; its Finance and Administration Cabinet all but locks the doors to the Capitol to shut down any form of dissent; and the governor calls them thugs and tries to take away their retirement. Our teachers — and all of Kentucky — deserve better than this.”

You generally don't want to start the school year with a message that says, "We have more plans for you guys, and whatever we decide to do, you had better just sit there and take it quietly--  or else." But the Kentucky governor and his GOP allies have been consistently unpleasant to teachers for a while now, and Kentucky teachers remain largely unbowed. Stay tuned for what comes next.

Raising Your Public School Profile

Modern corporate education reform has, in its own way, helped reveal many things that public education does badly. Teach for America, for instance, probably wouldn't have been quite so widely embraced if it weren't that some college teacher prep programs are inexcusably awful.

And then there's the unleashing of free market forces.

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. Some choice advocates imagine a world in which families just check out the test scores for schools, but if marketing was about quality, we'd all have spent decades drinking New Coke while we watched movies on our Betamax machines. No, charter marketing has been more like the PA cybers that advertised that their schools would make students happier and leave them more time to become sports stars.

But the explosion of marketing in education has revealed another public education weakness-- many public schools really stink at letting the public know what they do.

When I retired, I was surprised at how quickly my former school district became invisible. I knew that being in it every day made me acutely aware of what was going on there, but I was still unprepared for how much the school does not communicate with the community at large.

A cursory check of schools in the region revealed more of the same. Websites that are strictly Web 1.0 (the equivalent of hanging a folder of brochures on a stick at the end of the school driveway). No social media presence (except on snow days). Not even a reliable place to go look up school events.

The problems that ensue are worse than simple invisibility, because nature abhors an information vacuum. I had bosses years ago whose first impulse was always to cover up, and it was always a mistake, not just because of the honesty and integrity thing, but because if you don't put your story out there, someone else will put some other story out there in its place.

Every town has always had cranks and complainers and a rumor mill; now cranks and complainers and gossipers have Facebook. Local media may be supportive, or they may not be supportive, or they may not even actually exist as local media any more.

Meanwhile, choice advocates are marketing hard. Not just the billboards and the advertising buys and the Facebook ads and the pamphlets, but face-to-face meetings. In my little corner of the world, a conservative group sent someone out to speak to the local Tea Party group about how to get out of paying taxes and fund private schools at the same time (aka Scholarship Tax Credits).

It is easy, when you're on the inside of a school district, particularly if it's not a large urban district, to feel as if everyone in the community knows who you are and what you're about. They don't. And that is on you as a school system.

I'm not suggesting that your district establish a big marketing budget; it's pretty damned hard to justify that use of tax dollars collected to finance education, and charter schools should be shamed for it. But you do need to redirect some of your human work hours to making your presence known in your community.

Note: this is doubly true if your administrators don't live in the community your district serves. If your community does not know your school leaders by sight, that will be a problem. Sorry, but they are the people who will attract the most complaints and issues, and there impact on your school's public face can be the difference between "She did what?! Figures-- all I ever hear about her is what she's done wrong now" and "No, I can't believe that. She sits next pew over in church. I see her shopping groceries all the time. Our kids play t-ball together. I don't buy a word of it."

Your school needs to have a presence outside the building. Your performing groups should be out there playing for non-school events. You should be actively looking for events and activities that involve taking the school to someone else's turf, not making them come to yours. And you should raise your profile and visibility beyond that.

Do you have a sharp, focused, pithy slogan? Get one. Hard to raise your profile with a default slogan like "East Egg School District: We have, like, you know, schools and stuff." Is your mascot image a blotchy mess that's a forty-seventh generation Xerox of artwork originally done in the fifties? Update that. Do you have your slogan, name and mascot slapped on every conceivable item that humans can buy, wear, drink from, or otherwise use? That's cheap and easy these days-- get it done.

So what can you do? Someone, or someones, on staff can take some of the following suggestions and run with them:

Maintain a school website with new content put right up front daily, especially big bold announcements of the next event and big beautiful pictures from the last one. Include links to all of your various social media accounts.

Maintain a Facebook account. Post several times a day. These do not need to be announcements; they can be pictures of students or classes, quick blurbs about class projects. Even neutrally professional articles about education stuff.

Maintain a Twitter account. Tweet multiple times a day with upcoming events, lunch menu, class projects. Make up awards (Best Socks Tuesday, Sweetest Cookies at Lunch, Best Interpretive Dance Version of the Periodic Table) and post about the winners (daily is not too often).

Maintain an Instagram account. Take pictures. Post them. My old school used to have a student Instagram club, and it was awesome.

Set up a YouTube channel. Post clips of your performing groups and sports teams (observing pertinent copyright laws). Share them.

Give somebody the job of managing news releases. It should not be an outside hire, but someone who is already in your system, preferably a teacher. Something should go out to local media at least once a week (if you have any).

All of these should be managed by somebody inside the system. First, because they already know what's going on, who's doing what, etc. Second, because the inside knowledge and relationships will mean they can do this without having to pester staff and make more work for everybody else in the building.

Yes, you'll have to manage the legalities of using student images. And no, none of this will gain traction overnight. And yes, maintaining social media accounts on a daily basis can sometimes feel a great deal like drudgery. And depending on your locale and audience, what works will be somewhat hit and miss.

But if you do nothing--well, the inevitable negative stories will blow up and the small positives will languish in obscurity. Meanwhile, your competition is pick pick picking, not just at the families with school age kids, but at the taxpayers who can either support or oppose legislation that will enrich the privatizers (thanks to cyber schools, in some states this is also true in rural customer-sparse areas in which other charters are uninterested). You do not want to wait for the day when yet another ax falls and when you go to the public for help, the childless taxpayers of your district shoot a puzzled expression and ask, "Do I know you?"

The days are gone when a public school system can just sit back and assume that everyone knows what they're doing, what they're about, and what kind of job they're doing. That's not a bad thing--some schools have gotten lazy about it. But they can't afford to stay lazy any longer.