Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Viral Overconfidence

Well, this is an interesting piece of research.

A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that overconfidence can be transmitted socially, that being around overconfident people rubs off on other folks.

As with most psycho-social research, the experimental designs leave room for considerable debate, and there are plenty of needles to thread. I find it interesting that the transmission only appears to occur within people in your own tribe.

The research reminds me of a not-uncommon phenomenon in the world of student performance-- the group founded and led by somebody who's not very qualified, but who is absolutely confident in their awesomeness, and the group itself is filled with students who are vocal in their belief that Beloved Leader is awesome and the group itself is also awesome. These kinds of groups are aided and abetted by an entire industry of "competitions" that let them earn medals and awards.

The power of overconfidence is under-discussed in education, probably because the problems of confidence gaps loom so much larger in classrooms. But the effects are similar. A student who lacks confidence will not try, because not trying is the only tactic they believe they have for avoiding failure. The overconfident students will also not try--because they don't think they need to.

Both are also brittle and destructive. Someone lacking confidence collapses at the first sign of impending failure. Overconfidence lacks any tools to deal with failure, and has to retreat to blaming ("They must have cheated!!") or trying to overwrite reality ("No, that's actually what was supposed to happen").

A teacher who fills the classroom with viral overconfidence is just setting those students up for a crash (and setting a colleague up for a "You don't do things right like Mrs. Awesomesauce" headache). But a teacher who destroys student confidence sets those students up for a school career of misery.

Could this kind of viral overconfidence be used as a factor in group work? I don't think I've ever seen that phenomenon in action. But confidence is a huge factor in the entire student social scene, as powerful in its own way as tribal behavior. This is the kind of thing I read about and it makes we want to get back in the classroom and try tweaking some things. Could I nudge some growth by putting over and under confident students together? Probably not, because levels of confidence are used by teens to sort and recognize fellow tribe members.

Here's what I do know-- when we talk about confidence, we have to talk about confidence in what. We often jump to the idea that one is confident in their ability to get the job done, to successfully complete the task, that their confidence rests in their own competence and ability.

But there is another kind of confidence, which is confidence in one's own ability to cope with the outcome no matter what that outcome may be.

This is one of the things I learned years ago in divorce school. I fully expected to never recover, to never be able to uncurl and stand up and get back to doing stuff. But as it turned out, I was considerably more resilient than I thought, and I carried that (at least on my good days) forward. I re-acquainted myself withe the power of the question "What's the worst thing that could happen?" and learn to add "And if that happens, is there any reason to think I can't handle it?"

In the classroom, we can be reluctant to just say to a student, "No, that's wrong." But I think the key is to send a message of "No, that's wrong, but you will still be fine." It's the same message that more recently has morphed into the reminder to students and parents that students are more than a test score. Your failures may be real, but they don't have to define you as a human being. I think that's far more useful than trying to convince yourself that they aren't failures at all.

It's all a critical part of learning how to be your best self, to be fully human in the world--you have to strive to see reality as clearly as you can, including your own strengths and weaknesses, without letting them define your ability.

It is the opposite of standardization, which feeds the kind of viral overconfidence the paper talks about. In this approach, you set an artificial bar (especially one that your tribe is well-poised to clear) and then you treat that artificial bar as if it is proof that you are wise, smart, and destined to be successful in life. And then whenever anything doesn't go your way, you blame that failure on someone or something else. Or you just tell yourself that everything is fine. Just fine.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Catholic Church Looks To Cash In On Espinoza

Well, this is not exactly a surprise.

Now that SCOTUS has poked another huge hole in the wall between church and state, and now that the Catholic Church and the Trump administration have been forging closer ties over support for school choice (aka getting tax dollars to Catholic schools), and now that Betsy DeVos is insisting that financial aid intended for public schools should go to private schools-- now that all that is going on, it should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church is now arguing publicly to be given more taxpayer dollars.

It surfaced here in the National Catholic Register last Thursday. The op-ed is penned by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Seán O’Malley and Archbishop José H. Gómez, from New York, Boston and Los Angeles, and it leads with the Espinoza decision, saying it "corrected an historic injustice." Also, the Covid-19 pandemic is sad and affecting everyone. And then they move quickly from there to demanding their cut of taxpayer funding. Their talking points include the following:

* Catholic schools have been around for two centuries. They would like you to focus on the part of the Catholic system that serves the upwardly mobile poor, and not the part that serves exclusive wealthy folks.

* Catholic schools educate lots of non-Catholic students, like them Protestants, Jewish folk, and Muslims. Well, as long as they aren't, you know, gay, or have too costly an IEP.

* Catholic schools are facing a financial crisis and many "will close." Parents might have to pull kids out because of their own financial hardships. We're going to come back to this point in a moment.

* Catholic schools are worth saving because they help poor kids and make society better.

* Catholic schools are better and cheaper than public schools. They provide "healthy competition," which is a bogus notion. And then there's this bit of baloney: "Year after year, 99% of our students graduate from high school..." First of all, that's just sloppily inaccurate, since a goodly percentage of their students are not in 12th grade. Second, as always, watch the cohort. In other words, don't tell me how many of your seniors graduate from your high school, but tell me how many of, say, your freshmen are still there after four years and then graduate. Third, I notice this sloppy sentence just says that their students graduate from high school, so I guess if someone leaves Catholic school after eighth grade and then graduates from a public school, they still count. Which is still not impressive since Catholic schools automatically select for families with committed and involved parents.

* Catholic school closures would cost taxpayers big bucks because Catholic schools spend so much less per pupil. And in this pandemic time, they're keeping schools from overcrowding.

The Catholic leaders have a solution!

To enable families to provide the best education for their children and stabilize enrollment in Catholic and other non-government schools, Congress should also adopt a federal scholarship tax credit modeled after successful state-level credits.

By a remarkable coincidence, this is exactly what Betsy DeVos has been pushing with her Education Freedom tax credit program, aka super-vouchers. The writers argue that this is just the kind of program that Espinoza upheld, which, yes, sort of. In fact, the unfortunate truth is that the argument in favor of Espinoza was always going to lead here, because the argument is basically "if the government funds something, they can't exclude somebody from sucking up some of those delicious tax dollars just because they are a religious organization."

So I'm not going to bet that the Catholic church won't eventually win this argument nationally (they've already won it in a couple of states).

But it's still baloney. Take this:

This is not a choice between tax-payer-funded public schools and tuition-based independent schools. Public schools and independent schools equally deserve and urgently need our government’s assistance.

Well, no, unless you're planning to tap some infinite pool of money, it is a zero-sum choice game. Nor do independent schools "equally deserve" taxpayer dollars. Let's say your town has a community pool that's open to everyone, but a local group decides that they want their own private pool for just the people they want to let swim there. When there's a need for maintenance and upkeep, are both pools deserving of taxpayer support? Of course not.

Nor do Catholic schools just "close." The language used in the op-ed is carefully chosen, but if you've been in a community that went through the process (we've watched this unfold locally over the past couple of years), you know that Catholic schools don't just close like the tide going out or wildflowers blooming. Catholic schools close because the Catholic church chooses to close them. The Catholic church swoops into town and says "You aren't pulling in enough students" or "we don't want to spend more money on this building" and, to the accompanying sound of parent protests, the Catholic church itself shuts down the school.

And it should be noted that in many cases what's needed is not an infusion of dollars, but an infusion of students. If we're going to praise the virtues of "healthy competition," well, this is what that looks like in some communities--Catholic schools have lost the competition for a big slice of the market. 

Arguments like the one in this op-ed talk about Catholic schools as if they are orphan private schools, with no possible source of income except tuition and aid, when in fact they are attached to one of the wealthiest organizations/businesses in the country. And I think we can say "businesses" because the US Catholic church pulled in billions of dollars from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Even if you convince me of every talking point above, I'm going to ask why that isn't an argument that the Catholic church should provide greater financial support for their own private school system. Why should the US taxpayer be footing the bill for a private, exclusive organization run by one of the richest companies in the country?

Don't Waste Time

This is personal. You may want to move on. But I need to write this out because one of the people I would ordinarily talk it out with is not here.

Merrill and I taught together for just under thirty years. We were the same age, but she had gotten a late start on her career, having first worked in the world of newspaper advertising, just one of the many parts of her biography that hinted at the toughness that backed up her magnolia-sweet proper belle exterior.

A love story (that is not mine to tell, but which has inspired me at many points in my own life) brought her here, far from South Carolina, with a young daughter from an earlier marriage. We were looking for someone to fill a new gap. Merrill came with impeccable credentials, an impressive background of knowledge, and a recommendation from a local giant in teaching English.

Over the years, we settled into regular spots-- I taught the juniors, and she taught the seniors, and so we often worked as a team. In a district that didn't always provide a lot of curricular direction, we had to make sure we were hitting the right bases with our students.

And she knew all of the bases. Her knowledge and love of literature was huge, and it just kept getting huger over the years she taught. The great headline-making showpiece of her classroom was the annual end-of-year unit for the 12th grade honors (later AP, after Merrill made the extra effort to get the official upgrade for the course) for which she first taught Paradise Lost, and then had the class split into two groups to put John Milton on trial for either whether or not he successfully made the ways of God clear to man. The trial was a huge piece of theater, with students portraying Adam, Eve, and various other characters; the jury was composed of lawyers and judges from the community. It was the project that people talked about year after year.

But there was so much more going on in her classroom. She taught those seniors--the ones who know they're supposed to go to college for some reason, but they aren't sure why to what they want to do when they get there-- she taught them to think like college students, to develop the disciplines of reading and writing and interpreting. She taught those seniors who were headed straight into the "real world" how to communicate effectively, to deal with nuts and bolts like resumes, to be responsible, that there were plenty of aspects of literature that were fully accessible to them even if they weren't "college bound."

And like all the great teachers, she cared, enormously. Students knew they could talk to her about anything, at any time of the day. She was a mother hen in the best sense of the word, and her students--even the ones with whom she butted heads--knew she cared about them, not as projects or work-related responsibilities, but as human beings. Every Friday, she told her seniors to keep it "safe and legal" over the weekend.

She took the work seriously. She was up well before the crack of dawn, in her classroom hours before students arrived, and she took truckloads of papers home every evening. She was department chair for forever because nobody else wanted to try to match her level of organization. And nobody in the entire district was better at shaking down publisher's reps, who waltzed in, heard the sweet southern accent, and figured they had another easy mark.

Merrill was fiercely loyal, and she never half-assed a commitment. Once she had committed to an activity, a committee, an organization, she stuck it out, even in the face of disappointment or just plain being taken advantage of.

We were a team for many parts of school life. I advised the yearbook; she was the business manager. I directed the school's variety show; she worked the box office. We had very different styles in the classroom, and over the years we had the occasional disagreement. But those disputes never lasted. Every year her students held a debate about Lady Macbeth; Merrill always sent one team to me because I believe Lady M is redeemable, and Merrill did not. She helped me land my first writing gig. She was my work sister.

I admired her depth and breadth of knowledge, her ability to be a positive force for so much of the staff, her love for her students. She battled illness. She knew how to balance being a good team player with maintaining her high standards, a skill I never exactly mastered. I also admired her courage; Merrill really didn't like situations where she had little control over what was happening, and yet time after time, she waded into exactly those situations, from moving to a strange small town to all the control one gives up to be an effective classroom teacher. I have little doubt that part of her longed for the safe, simple thing. She had the background to retreat into the role of the cutesy blond former cheerleader belle, baking tarts and sitting quietly on some civic committee. But she didn't, because she was so much more than that. She pushed herself, often in roles that were never going to provide much glory or recognition. She suffered through years on the bizarrely contentious humane society board, and everyone who ever got married in the Episcopal church owed Merrill for the smoothly-running ceremony. She ran a writing competition held in honor of the woman who first pushed Merrill toward our district. She never wasted a moment.

When I retired, she stuck around. She didn't have as many years in, and I don't think she wanted the department to lose both of us in one year. But last spring, she decided to take the retirement plunge. Then everything went to hell, and she didn't get a victory lap, a goodbye session with her last students, or a send-off from the staff that loved her. There was a retirement party scheduled for this month, but as you have by now sensed, it won't be happening.

Friday night, Merrill experienced what they call a major cardiac event in the middle of the night, and she passed away.

It hardly seems real. She was too young; this is much too soon.

As humans, we learn this same lesson over and over and over again. Do not waste time, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that we have no idea how much we have, or how much the people around us have. And I think as teachers we have a greater requirement to remember it, because it is easy to start imagining that the present--the time of classrooms and studies and youth and childhood--are some sort of swift empty present to be run past on the way to some "real life" that starts on some unknown future day. But real life is going on right now, right this instant, and it is not a rehearsal or a trial run or an empty placeholder. Yes, we can say that youth has the advantage that some choices can be unmade or remade, but it is still real life. And it is still not to be wasted.

If you want it in fancier words, this quote from Nick Cave crossed my desk just this morning:

This feeling… of alertness to the inner-spirit of things — this humming — comes from a hard-earned understanding of the impermanence of things and, indeed, our own impermanence. This lesson ultimately animates and illuminates our lives. We become witnesses to the thrilling emergency of the present — a series of exquisite and burning moments, each extinguished as the next arises. These magical moments are the bright jewels of loss to which we cling.

After retirement, you become sort of a ghost at your old school, but the magic of texting and social media blunts much of that effect. Most recently, Merrill had asked me about writing "the letter," and at the beginning of the summer, I sent her a letter on the occasion of her retirement, and she responded via text. Thank to technology, I can keep those conversations for years. They can serve as reminders; they will not substitute for all the retiree lunches we were going to enjoy once the pandemic subsided. We were going to make a swell pair of old retired friends. I have the picture above as well. Merrill and I for years and years led the seniors into the graduation ceremony, and when I retired, I made sure that taking that walk would be my last professional act. So that picture is of our last walk together.

These are scary, difficult times, not just because of the pandemic, but because of how some people choose to handle it-- less kind, more selfish, or just withdrawing and waiting for it all to end. We could do better. We could not waste the time we have, even if it seems like a meager, cramped time. We can be brave enough to step on into the times, to embrace and support the people around us, even in the face of heartbreak and fear. We can be smart enough and committed enough to focus on the big stuff and not the little piddly crap. Merrill was passionate and strong about what mattered, but she was never unkind or thoughtless. She was always goodhearted and classy.

These are not lessons from Merrill's death; there are no lessons to be learned there, other than sometimes people you love die and it really sucks. But since there will be no chance to learn new lessons from her, I can put a pin in the lessons from her life. I don't know what to do with all the conversations I'm going to want to have with her in the years ahead. I miss her. Remember-- don't waste time. Take care of the people around you, and for heaven's sake, be kind, babies.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

ICYMI: August Already Edition (8/2)

So, here are some things to read.

Is the push to reopen schools really a plot to dismantle them?

Accountabaloney listens to some bonus content from Have You Heard that lays out how DeVos has set up a pandemic win-win for herself.

Worst Year Ever  

Nancy Flanagan reflects on the year and wonders if it couldn't actually mark a good change for education?

How the child care crisis will distort the economy for a generation.

Politico takes a look at the ripples that are going to spread from the pandemic crisis in child care (which is just a more severe version of the child care crisis we were already having) 

Trump paints teachers as villains; how that hurts students.

I saw this piece when Anna Lutz Fernandez posted this on her own, but then NBC picked it up, and here it is. Well worth the read.

Note from the principal: This fall your classroom will be equipped with a lion.

From Mary, a blog that specializes in satire. A reminder that satire doesn't always make you laugh.

Infamous John Deasy Resigns, Again 

Thomas Ultican with a well-researched look at how reformsters manage to fail upward, with a case study of one of the great serial failures of ed reform.

The Post-Espinoza End Game  

Bruce Baker and Preston Green take a look at what comes next, now that SCOTUS has busted another hole in the wall between church and state.

How To Stop Magical Thinking in School Reopening Plans 

Share this with an administrator. Jersey Jazzman lays out how to do a reality check on a district's plan for the fall.

Biden Opens Door for Vouchers

Not on purpose, mind you. But here's Max Eden to explain the opportunity that reformsters think Biden just handed them.

Does Covid-19 spell the end for public schooling?

Finally, this scary read from USA Today, conjecturing about just how bad this could be for education in the long run.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Report: PA Charters Game The Special Education System.

In a new report, Education Voters of Pennsylvania looks at “how an outdated law wastes public money, encourages gaming the system, and limits school choice.” Fixing the Flaws looks at how Pennsylvania’s two separate funding systems have made students with special needs a tool for charter gaming of the system, even as some of them are shut out of the system entirely.
The two-headed system looks like this. Public schools receive special education funding based on the actual costs of services, while charter schools are funded with a one-size-fits-all system that pays the same amount for all students with special needs, no matter what those special needs might be. 
Pennsylvania’s Special Education Funding Formula recognizes three levels of cost. Tier 1 is minimal interventions (eg a student who needs one speech therapy session per week). Tier 2 students need larger interventions, such as a separate classroom or physical therapy. Tier 3 students may require interventions such as a full-time nurse or even out-placement at a special school (for which the sending district is still financially liable).
Public schools receive state funding based on student tiers; charters get the same funding whether the student needs an hour of speech therapy a week or a separate classroom, teacher and aide.
This creates an obvious financial incentive for charter schools to cherry pick students who are considered special needs, but who need no costly adaptations or staffing to meet those needs, while at the same time incentivizing charters to avoid the more costly high needs students. Denial of those students does not require outright rejection of the students; charters can simply say, “You are welcome to enroll, but we do not provide any of the specialized programs that you want for your child.” Parents will simply walk away.
Examples of this technique are not hard to find in the state. Before they closed down in 2018, the Wonderland Charter School in State Collegel was caught over-identifying students with speech and language impairment, a low-cost Tier 1 need, by 1,000%.
The actual dollar amounts vary by sending districts, making some districts more attractive to charters than others. Chester Uplands has been so hard hit by charter operators that at one point its payment to charter schools was greater than its funding from the state. The district’s state-appointed receiver identified students with special needs as a major issue. He found that the public system had an enrollment for costly autism students of 8.4%, while the three charters had enrollments of 2.1%, 0% and 0%. Results are similar for other high-cost needs. However, when he looked at speech and language impaired students, he found the public school with 2.4% enrollment, while the three charters enrolled 27.4%, 20.3%, and 29.8%. It costs pennies to meet those special needs, but in Chester Uplands, each student with special needs, regardless of what those needs might be, brought $40,000 into charter bank accounts, far more than the reimbursement for a student with no special needs at all.
This matches the pattern that the report found. In Philadelphia, twenty-four charter schools enroll no Tier 2 or 3 students. In Pittsburgh, while some charters such as Environmental Charter and City High Charter enroll numbers from each tier that match the city, twenty-two charters enroll no Tier 2 or 3 students. In nine Pennsylvania counties, not a single one of the charter schools enrolls Tier 2 or 3 students. 
Across the state, the report finds roughly 10% of public school enrollment is students with special needs; for charters, the percentage across the state is about half that.
The result is that taxpayers, through their local districts, are overpaying charters for the services provided. If a student with a language impairment moves to a charter, the funding doesn’t just follow her—it increases by thousands of dollars. A student who cost the taxpayers $15,000 to educate in a public school now costs taxpayers $27,000, though no more money is being actually spent on that student’s education.
The other result pointed out by the report is that high-needs students do not have access to the same school choices that others have. Realistically, some students need highly specialized services available from limited providers. But parents of other Tier 2 and 3 students were promised all sorts of options when school choice laws were passed, and that turns out to be false. 
Charter schools are businesses, and a basic decision in any business is which customers are too much trouble or expense to serve, and which are more profitable. And so charters make a basic business calculation. Meanwhile, the public school system is still required to make good on the promise of a free and appropriate education for every single student.
The Pennsylvania legislature could fix the problem pretty simply; just apply the same funding system to both public and charter schools. The report shows that this would save taxpayers roughly $100 million. We’ll see if charter schools are willing to let that kind of income go quietly.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Pence, DeVos, And More Private School Choice Baloney

My thanks to Bill Ferriter, who raised some of this on Twitter, thereby allowing me to boost my blood pressure before I even got all the way home from vacation.

Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos and a few other notables took a trip yesterday to North Carolina, to plug an assortment of their favorites issues while visiting a private school that, unsurprisingly, underlined everything wrong with their favorite issues.

The school was Thales Academy; Pence visited with faculty and with a Fourth Grade class (where he and the teacher wore masks, DeVos did not, and Pence took his off to do his talky talky). He tweeted that "To Open Up America Again is to open up schools again."

Thales of Miletus. Nobody asked him if he wanted
a school chain named after him.
Thales is one of many schools founded by Robert L. Luddy, who made his bundle turning a sheet metal shop into a manufacturer of kitchen ventilation systems. He launched his first charter school in 1998, followed by a private Catholic Prep school, and the Thales chain. You may remember one of his schools being in the news for its policy forbidding the mention of anything related to LGBTQ--well, anything. His libertarian-ish bona fides are many, and he was not initially in the Trump camp in 2016, bnt he's since joined the team. And when it comes to pandemic response, Luddy is right there in Trumplandia; take this March 2020 piece he write entitled "Back To Work: America Has No Choice If It Is To Avoid Total Disaster."

That's a big part of what brought Pence and DeVos to Thales. As Pence noted in his remarks:

We were — we had a great discussion, and I could sense the spirit in the room — the enthusiasm the children feel for being back in school, which is where we want all of America’s children to be. We think we can safely reopen our schools. And I’m here to listen and learn from your experience here at the forefront of reopening a school here in America to understand how Thales Academy is doing it and how North Carolina is making it happen.

DeVos took the opportunity to restate some of her current policy positions:

“There’s not a national superintendent, nor should there be, therefore there’s not a national plan for reopening,” DeVos said.

Too many schools in North Carolina are giving families “no choice but to fall back on virtual learning,” she said. DeVos advocated for school choice, including private school vouchers.

North Carolina has a school voucher program that DeVos's American  Federation for Children ranks as 5th in the country, and both that and the 100% tax-deductible Luddy Schools Scholarship Fund offer financial support to Thales students. Nevertheless, Thales is an example of how choice ends up not being choice at all.

Thales is a uniform school, and families are responsible for buying the correct clothes, including phys ed uniforms.

Thales also won't be providing transportation; "parents are responsible for transportation to and from the school each day." Thales schools run a fairly typical school day, so that parents not only need to do their own transport, but need to be able to get students to school before 8 and around 3:00. After school care is offered, for an additional price.

Thales won't be providing lunch, either. Parents can order through My Hot Lunchbox, a business that is free to the school (and actually provides a little kickback fund raising to the school, though the school expressly eschews fundraising, because Self Sufficient)--just charge the extra costs to your Visa, MasterCard, or Discover card.

Thales also won't be providing IEP or 504 plan supports. You just let the school know what your child's plan calls for, and they'll let you know whether or not they accept your child.

Thales focuses on a classical education, aka Ancient White Guy and Eurocentric Stuff, plus Traditional American Values (Thales of Miletus was one of the Seven Sages of Greece).. They like Direct Instruction for K-5, Latin logic and rhetoric, and will get that important character education focusing on "virtues such as self-discipline, perseverance, respect, responsibility, and humility."

So if Thales represents choices available to students, it's worth noting that the choice is not available to students who need transportation, or subsidized school lunch and breakfast, or who have special needs, or who don't think white Latin-ish culture is the only culture they need to be steeped in.

In her defense, DeVos would probably not argue the point, saying instead that a school like Thales exists just to serve the students for whom it is a good fit. You know--the right kind of students. Other students should find another school with a better fit for their station in life. A subtext of DeVos's approach to choice has always been that people would all be much happier if they just accepted their proper place and role in society. In the meantime, let's have the taxpayers foot the bill for private schools who serve the right sort of students, and do it by stripping resources from public schools which are for, you know, those Other People's children.

Diary of a Socialist Indoctrinator

This ran over a year ago at Forbes.com in response to a comment by Trump Jr. and for some reason I never shared it over here. Correcting that now, since teachers are once again teaching students to hate America.


We started the week here at Karl Marx Middle School with the usual reminders about monitoring the hall between classes and limiting bathroom passes during class periods. Principal McBossface handed out the school nurse schedule for the week (remember not to send sick students when she's not in the building) and the lunch monitor schedule for staff. He reminded us that state tests are coming up, so we'll be giving pre-test practice tests soon. The grapevine says that there have been flareups among the eighth grade girls on Snapchat this weekend, so keep an eye out for any possible fights here at school coming from that. Also the new Healthy Students for Health, No-Bully Zone, Make New Friends At Lunch, Drug Free Students, Anti-Depression Army, and Honor Our Veteran programs launch this week, so be sure to talk to your students about those, and remember to hand out and collect the registration forms for the Read Your Way To Mars program. Finally, we were reminded to make our Socialist Indoctrination targets by the end of the month.

Principal McBossface held me over a minute after the meeting to let me know that he's aware I'm running behind on my Socialist Indoctrination and to remind me that it's super-critical that I get up to speed. I'm really feeling the pressure.


None of the students in fifth period algebra had completed their homework from last night. They said they didn't understand yesterday's lesson about quadratic equations, and could I go over it again. I've been working on this quadratic equation unit for three weeks now, but if they're struggling, they're struggling, so I scrapped my original lesson plan and spent the day reteaching the concepts we had covered before. When the bell rang in the middle of answering some really good questions, I realized I hadn't done any socialist indoctrinating at all.


Today, fifth period walked in talking about the Read Your Way To Mars program. Actually, what happened was Chris hollered, "Hey, you gonna read your way to Mars?" and Pat answered back, "No, I'm going to read all the way to Uranus," and then the whole class laughed for five minutes because they are eighth graders. It took a while to restore order because when they want to, they block me out so thoroughly you'd think they'd been told to ignore me by some prominent public figure.

Then in the middle of class we had a big argument about whether or not Puerto Rico is part of the United States. I said it was, looked it up on line for them, showed them several pieces of documented proof, but it didn't matter. They were pretty sure it wasn't, and they weren't about to take my word for it, or any other authority's. Convincing an eighth grader who doesn't want to be convinced is like trying to part the ocean with a rake.

Then, while I was walking around the room helping them with the quadratic equation work one to one, I discovered that Pat was just crying, so I talked to Pat for a bit. Mom is sick and it has made for a tough time at home. I told the rest of the class to keep working quietly while I gave Pat a chance to talk it out (it's a Wednesday, so there's no nurse or guidance counselor on duty to handle this kind of issue). At the same time, Sam needed extra extra help on the assigned work, so I kept Sam after and then missed doing my socialist indoctrination with both fifth and sixth period.


We were informed in the morning that today would be the pre-test practice test, so my classes were canceled while I proctored.

At lunch, I asked some of my department members how they kept up with her socialist indoctrination work. One just laughed and said that she lies when she fills in the report forms.


This was a really exciting day. After I tried some new explanations of the quadratic equation material, something clicked and most of the class was starting to get it. I was excited. They were excited. They demanded turns at the board to show what they could do. When the bell rang at the end of the period, they were still at the board solving equations and hollering, "Come look at this! Check this!" I know the odds are that many of them will forget it over the weekend, because middle school brains are made of Teflon. And, of course, I was so busy teaching that I never got around to my socialist indoctrination.

I was depressed by the time I got home. I can tell my wife is losing patience. "Look," she said. "I teach kindergartners and we work on it every day between recess and art. How hard can it be? Just read off some Fabianist theory and then get out the construction paper."

I didn't bother to explain that I'm too busy teaching and doing all the extra stuff and, anyway, who can get kids interested in complex socio-political theory. It makes sense in my head, but then I realize that, like every other teacher, I didn't go into this because I wanted to help young people grow and learn and better understand the world and themselves-- no, like every other teacher, I entered the education field so I could be a Socialist Indoctrinator, but now all I ever do is teach. I feel like such a loser.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Archives: Personalization and Outliers

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

Personalization and the Outliers 

Henry Ford was an early proponent of personalization. "Any customer can have a car pained any color that he wants," said Ford in 1909, "so long as it is black."

There have always been limits to personalization. I like to wear hats, but my head is some sort of extra-large melon, so while hat manufacturers may offer choices to fit the personal size preferences of many customers, I'm an outlier. Many times I'm just SOL on a particular hat.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Archives: Myth of the Hero Teacher

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

Oh, that damn hero teacher. She does it for the kids, and not because she likes to eat and have a place of shelter. And now we need her to answer the call again. I've bitched about this myth a few times, but here's an early take on this damaging trope:

The Myth of the Hero Teacher

Oh, that hero teacher.

Larger than life. Leaping tall filing cabinets with a single bound. Taking a few moments out of every day to personally reach out to every single student and making that child feel special, while at the same time inspiring greater levels of smartitude just by sheer force of teacherly awesomeness. The Hero Teacher shoots expectation rays at students, making them all instant geniuses.

Archives: What Does The Free Market Really Foster?

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

If I ever get a "theory" named after me, let it be this one--

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.

And here are some of the many times I've talked about it.

What Choice Won't Do

Netflix and the Myth of Personalization 

Do Charters Create Pressure for Excellence? 

Coke Provides a Marketing Lesson

Choice and Cable 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Archives: Test Prep

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

As we argue about whether or not the Big Standardized Test should be given this year (spoiler alert-- no, it shouldn't), let's take a look at some of the reasons it sucks up so much time during the year. And no, test prep is not about memorizing a list of facts. It's even worse than that.

What Is Test Prep?

Yesterday I fell into a discussion of test prep on Twitter where a participant tossed forward the notion that test prep actually decreases test results. Others asserted that test prep doesn't really help. I'm pretty sure that both of those assertions are dead wrong, but I also suspect part of the problem is that "test prep" is an Extremely Fuzzy Term that means a variety of things.

Archives: Nobody Really Wants Choice

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

Despite the constant focus on school choice, I remain unconvinced that choice is what people really want.

Nobody Really Wants Choice

Families need a choice. Parents want a choice. Poor students deserve a choice. We hear the rhetoric over and over again, but I remain convinced that it's baloney.

People do not want choice.

When I sit down in a restaurant and order my favorite meal, the one I've been craving all day, I don't sit there eating it thinking, "Oh, if only there were more choices. If only, in addition to the meal I'm eating, there was a wider variety of other meals for me to not eat."

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Archives: Whitney Tilson and DFER

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

This profile of Whitney Tilson, a gabillionaire hedge funder and a founding father of DFER and a guy who got in on the ground floor of reformsterism, looks at many of the talking points that are still driving the discussions about education. You can team this piece up with this other piece about how Tilson decided it should be DFER and not RFER in the first place.

Whitney Tilson Is Better Than You 

When we're talking about the kind of hedge-fund managing, faux-Democrat, rich fat cat, anti-public ed reformsters who are driving much of the modern ed reform agenda, we're talking about guys like Whitney Tilson.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Archive: Support Public Schools

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

As various privatizers and profiteers try to use the coronavirus as a mean to Katrina public ed into oblivion, here's a listicle of reasons to support one of the US's oldest institutions.

10 Reasons To Support Public Schools  

Public education has become a political orphan in this country. So it's important to take the time to remember why US public education is actually a great thing. Here are some reasons.

Archives: Slow Schools

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

That time that Daniel Katz argued in favor of the educational equivalent of a slow foods movement, and I chimed in with a "Yeah, what he said, because this..."

Slow Schools

In a recent blog post, Daniel Katz made a plea for a slow schools movement (like the slow foods movement). It's a great piece and well worth your time.

Katz is the director of Secondary Education and Secondary Special Education Teacher Preparation at Seton Hall University, and he begins the post with observations about what he's hearing from his alumni when they return. They are hurried.

This is not a new problem. Teaching has always involved doing an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time. People who want to say, "Yeah, just like every other profession" just don't get it. Teachers are up against finite time in a way that no other professions experience. And boy does this resonate.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Archive: Forever Schools

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

From 2014, and spun from a Buzzfeed article that incorrectly predicted the beginning of the end for charters. But I still like the idea, take from those cute puppy posters about adopting a pet "forever."

Forever Schools 

Public schools are forever schools, not until schools.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Archive: TNTP and The Opportunity Myth

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

TNTP first crammed the discussion of education with the Widget Effect, one of those faux white papers that thinky tanks pop out. Their new attempt to "inform" everyone's conversation is Th Opportunity Myth which, sadly, I see quoted far too often. Here's what I hd to say about it when it first reared its head.

The Opportunity Myth Myth

Who are these folks? TNTP used to stand for The New Teacher Project; She Who Will Not Be Named created it as a spin-off of TFA, designed to put older career-changers into the classroom. At some point it changed into an advocacy group pushing a redesign of teaching (current slogan: reimagine teaching). TNTP is led by Daniel Weisberg, who started out as a lawyer and then served as a labor specialist under Joel Klein in NYC. The board is packed with entrepreneurs, PR specialists, and reform CEOs. You can hunt through the whole list of TNTP leaders and find that this organization devoted to teaching has no teachers in leadership positions (just a few TFA temps and other alternative paths to one or two resume-building years in the classroom).

So this report comes straight from the heart of reformdom.

Archives: Teacher Time

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

Teacher Time 

Every profession measures time differently. Doctors and lawyers measure time in hours or vague lumps. Teachers measure time in minutes, even seconds.

If a doctor (or his office) tell you that something is going to happen "at nine o'clock," that means sometime between 9:30 and Noon. Lawyers, at least in my neck of the woods, can rarely be nailed down to an actual time. Anything that's not a scheduled appointment is "sometime this afternoon." Even a summons to jury duty will list a particular time which just represents the approximate time at which things will start to prepare to begin happening. Further up the Relaxed Time Scale, we find the delivery and installation guys for whom "Between 8 AM and 3 PM Tuesday," means "Not at all on Tuesday."

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Archives: Not Loving Personalized [sic] Learning

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

Of course it's being pitched heavily, again, as a solution to Covid woes. But...

8 Reasons Not To Love Personalized [sic] Learning

As we roll into 2019, it becomes increasingly clear that much of the education debate is going to center on Personalized [sic] Learning. I've poked at various parts of PsL at length, but I'm going to respond to someone who just wanted me to lay out the problems in a simple list. Challenge accepted.

Archives: The Hard Part

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

The most-read thing I've ever published, with close to a million hits on HuffPost. As noted, I would have been a little more careful if I'd known this was going to be so widely read.

The Hard Part

They never tell you in teacher school, and it's rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate.

Valerie Strauss in yesterday's Washington Post put together a series of quotes to answer the question "How hard is teaching?" and asked for more in the comments section. My rant didn't entirely fit there, so I'm putting it here, because it is on the list of Top Ten Things They Never Tell You in Teacher School.

The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Archives: Teacher Merit Pay

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

Again from seven years ago, and again, still completely applicable today.

Why Teacher Merit Pay Is Stupid 

Sometimes we forget the obvious, so let me spell it out. Here's why teacher merit pay will never make sense.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Archives: Defending Music Education

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

An important idea to bring up, now that districts are looking for things to cut.

Stop "Defending" Music  

Today I ran across one more xeroxed handout touting the test-taking benefits of music education, defending music as a great tool for raising test scores and making students smarter. It was just one more example among many of the "keep music because it helps with other things" pieces out there.

I really wish people would stop "defending" music education like this.

Archive: Schools Don't Serve Businesses

While the Institute is away at a corporate retreat, far, mostly, from the interwebz, I've arranged for some dips into the archives.

Hard to believe it's been seven years since the Gates Foundation mouthpiece set me off. But this still applies (and he wasn't the last to suggest this.

The Wrongest Sentence Ever In The CCSS Debate

At Impatient Optimists, a Gates Foundation website, Allan Golston recently wrote a notable piece entitled "America's Businesses Need the Common Core." It's a notable column, not because it has anything new to add to the discussion (it's a rehash of the usual pro-CCSS fluffernuttery), but because it contains this sentence:

Sunday, July 19, 2020

ICYMI: Vacation Edition (7/19)

The Institute staff and board of directors are headed for a corporate retreat in a place where the internet doesn't really reach, so things will be quiet here for a bit. But before I go, here's some reading for you to do. Sorry for all the paywalls today.

There have been several recurriing themes in this week's coverage. For instance, lots of folks have noticed that Betsy DeVos's current stance on getting schools open, and using federal muscle to force it, appears to be a complete reversal of her long-held beliefs.

Here's Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat with a pretty good take. Erica Green at the New York Times also offered some DeVosian historical context.

But other folks focused more closely on just how bad DeVos is at her job. Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post wanted to know who the heck thought it would be a good idea to send DeVos out onto the Sunday shows. Jessica Calarco is at the New York Times wondering what the heck DeVos is thinking. And Charles Pierce at Esquire observed, among other things, that "the only thing DeVos knows about education is how to turn a buck on it."

Local dispatches have thrown the pandemic school issues into sharper relief. A Missouri school district wants parents to sign a waiver of liability for any illness of death that happens to occur. Ohio provides yet more examples of public schools getting funding cuts while charters hoover up some of that sweet small business loan cash. In Orange County, a "bold" idea to reopen school as if nothing unusual was going on turns out to come mostly from charter school fans. And from Wyoming comes this top-notch piece of reporting about a school board meeting that shows some of the attitudes and ideas roll out in unreal time.

Nancy Bailey blogs about some ideas for facing the new school year, and people continue to point out that it really will take some money to do this right, but the headline of the week award may go to The Nation, with their piece entitled "There are literally no good options for educating our kids this fall." Actually, for the "We've got the money; tough noogies for everyone else" crowd, there is one option-- hire teachers to come homeschool your kids.

In other news. Education Next has a brief of research that suggests that No Excuses schools have some problems (quel surprise!) just as KIPP decides that it's time for a motto change and Schools Matter has some thoughts.

I'll be back in ten days or so. In the meantime, check out the blogroll that I keep here, wear a mask, and be kind to each other.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Everything's Made Up (And Nobody Is Behind)

This is the opportunity we're missing, but to grab it would require us to look at things that some of us would rather not look at.

We can start with the notion that students are currently "falling behind." Well, now-- behind what, exactly? Is there some line scribed by the Hand of God in the intellectual sand that tells us, yes, a child who has been on earth 193 months should have crossed this absolute line on the One True Path of intellectual growth?

No box. Also, no spoon.
No, because it's all made up. The line that says "This is where they should be" is made up. In fact, the notion that there is a single path along which progress should be measured is also made up. Hell, this should not be news, because it wasn't that long ago that we moved all the lines, accompanied by declarations about rigor and challenge and other baloney that posited that making kindergarten the new first grade was somehow a good idea because it would push students "ahead" of that made up line on that made up path. none of this "ahead/behind" baloney is based on anything scientific or objective or rooted in anything except that some people with power decided "This is the rule we'd like to make up."

People are really struggling. There are so many nuts and bolts questions that are coming up in the face of whatever-the-hell is going to happen in a few weeks, like "If a teacher is sent to quarantine for fourteen days, does she have to use her sick days" and the thing about most of these questions is that they involve made up rules that were made up without any inkling that we would find ourselves here some day. The rules about how many sick days a teacher can have are made up. The rules about what they can be used for are made up. And the most important implication of this is that to deal with brand new situations, people will have to make up some new rules (which will also be made up).

My colleague Nancy Flanagan has observed repeatedly that nobody is coming up with solutions that are remotely outside the box, and I think she's right, and I think a big reason for that is a desire (which in times of uncertainty and general messiness inflames into a burning gut-level need) to hold onto the fiction that the box is a Real Thing, and objective Box of Truth that emerged fully-formed from a burning bush.

It's not. The box is made up.

Now, I'm not suggesting that "made up" means fake or false or stupid. We make up rules all the time, often for very good reasons. "Drive on the right-hand side of the road" is an arbitrary made up rule, but it's a very useful made up rule. Some rules are rooted in experience, the collectively learning of things that work and things that don't. Some rules are rules because they have always been rules, but those reasons are long lost to memory. Some rules are the result of expert judgment exercised by trained experts who have expertly studied the issue, and some are the result of that youtube video you saw last night.

We US citizens have an uneasy relationship with the made-up nature of rules. Our religious ancestors  believed they were following rules literally handed down by God. Some of our founding fathers, following the Enlightenment ideas of the time, believed they were using reason and intellect to uncover the rules hard-wired into the universe. We were going to be better than those European royal mopes who just made rules up to suit their moods and self-interest (even if many founding fathers had trouble actually applying the rules they discerned to their own actual lives).

Making shit up is what humans do. I have what I call the 5% rule-- 95% of everything is just stuff that humans make up, and then, having made it up, examine it with great weight and import as if it had just fallen out of the sky and not out of a human head. We do things like decide a "week" will have seven days, and then ponder the deep significance of having seven days in a week. 5% of everything is actually important, actually matters, actually has weight and significance. The trick here is that none of us can agree on what the 5% is. Plus, if your 5% includes things like loving and supporting the people around you, well, then, that means going along with some of their 5%. It gets tricky.

Almost everything is made up, and that's not an indictment of it. The question is not, "Is this made up or not" because it probably is. The question is, "Is it made well, based on evidence and wisdom and good intent."

But I digress.

Pretty much everything about school is made up, an artificial construct created by parents and politicians and teachers and tradition--oh, so much tradition-- as well as a few decades of predatory profiteer activity. But in normal times, much of that stuff, from "students sit in a desk in a room" to "everyone eats lunch together in a big room" to "all students come at the same time and leave at the same time" works just fine. Some of it, from "this Big Standardized Test measures the intellectual growth and capabilities of students" to "anyone with a pulse can run a classroom," has been destructive. "Everyone needs to get back in the box, right now, and act as if nothing unusual is going on," seems like potentially a really bad idea.

We are clutching hard to our made up rules these days. I don't think it's just the pandemic. Nobody has personified the view that all these rules are just made up shit more than Donald Trump. We have held tight to our conventions about government and elected officials for what seems like ages, but Trump's whole life is about ignoring all rules and conventions. "It's not actually a rule," he says, "unless someone can actually do something to me for breaking it." For people who want to believe we live by laws and rules and not just a bunch of made up shit that exists only as long as we all agree to ac t like it exists, these have been really scary times.

And you know who make great rules followers? Who believe you just don't break the rules because you just don't? Teachers. It is one of their greatest weaknesses.

Back when I was a yearbook advisor, the first thing I told each new crop of student leaders was that when planning the new book, they were to ignore the old books. Imagine designing a book from scratch. What would you do? How would you do it? Even if you reach a conclusion identical to last year's book, at least you'll know you're doing it for a better reason than "That's what they did last year."

We could be doing that with schools right now, saying "If we were designing schools from scratch right now with zero rules in place, what would we do." Instead, the discussion (led mostly by non-teachers) is about how to keep as many of our made up rules as possible intact.

You would think reformsters would be all over this opportunity to get outside the box, but they've always been mostly about preserving the made up rules--just tweaking them to add a few that let privateers make a buck. It has always been a useful for tactic for them to act as if public schools are locked in a solid titanium box brought down by the gods and unalterable by human hands; that way, clearly, the only solution to supplant the public system with something else.And now even Betsy DeVos has dropped her noise about letting a thousand virtual flowers bloom and instead argues that school this fall should look just like every other fall.

If we started from scratch, one would hope that we decided that trained professionals in a setting that maximized student safety and provided education for every single child in the country would still be on the program. For me, that's the 5% of public education, and all the rest is less important, or only important insofar as it helps us reach those goals. (Charter and voucher fans are welcome to tell me how their favorite ideas would help, and I will go ahead an explain, once again, why they're wrong.)

But step one is to recognize that all of this stuff is made up, created by humans with a range iof intents and wisdom, and as humans we are perfectly capable of unmakimg it up and remaking something new up in its place. We can stop the stupid noise about where students are relatively to some made up standard and stop worrying about how a real pandemic response might require us to rewrite some made up rules.

We like the rules. We like the feeling of a solid earth under our feet. We like feeling that stuff came from some higher source than Made Up By Regular Humans. Just watch as July and August unfold-- I predict that the majority of school district administrators will wait to see what other districts do, and then adopt that plan, as if those other administrators have some pipeline to wisdom that local leaders do not. Shame on them. All the plans that come will be made up stuff. Have the nerve to make something up that best fits your local district. There is no box, and nobody is coming to save you with a Higher Truth. You're going to have to make something up.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

FL: The Broad Outlines of the PPP Cash-in

So it turns out that all you have to do to get some charter and voucher schools to admit they're businesses is just wave some sweet, sweet business-purposed money at them. We've heard the individual stories from here and there about this, but a friend of the Curmudgucation Institute sent along an astonishing piece of data crunching.

I don't have a handy way to attach a spreadsheet to this post, but you can do the work yourself if you want to head to the Small Business Administration site then start looking up other info for your state. I'm going to give you the big sweeping picture here. Just how many schools edu-flavored businesses had their hands out in Florida?


There are around 658 charter schools operating in Florida. At least 102 signed up for a PPP small business loan. Loans are okayed for a range of monies; the highest top amount a charter was okayed for is $5 million. River City Academy, Doral Academy, Youth Co-op Inc, Discovery Education Services, and Odyssey Charter School Inc were at the top for these biggest loans (minimum is $2 million).


Almost 400 private schools declared themselves small businesses. Of those, about 140 were just private schools, with the rest actually private religious schools (if they didn't call themselves religious, but had religious language all over their websites, they were counted as religious).

Of the non-religious private schools, about half (75) are also voucher schools. So not only grabbing taxpayer dollars via PPP, but also living on taxpayer dollars via one of Florida's many voucher programs. But of the 250+ private religious schools, only about 35 schools aren't taking vouchers. Everybody else on the list is double-dipping for Jesus. That makes roughly 300 voucher school signed up for PPP loans. In all fairness, I should note that Florida has something like 2000 voucher-accepting schools, so plenty are apparently happy to single dip at this time.


There are some other edu-flavored outfits lined up for money as well, including some consulting firms.

Special Award

Special recognition goers to the Academica chain, a massive money-grabbing machine of edu-business, with schools in several of these categories. But it looks like at least ten of these beneficiaries are Academica properties.

Some grand totals

If every charter school on the list got only their minimum amount, that would add up to $47,850,000. If every private religious school got bottom dollar, that would be $96,450,000. So, a lot like real money. And you should remember that while PPP loans are loans, not grants, they all contain an option for forgiveness under certain conditions. So that's almost at least $1.5 billion in taxpayer dollars (or it may be more accurate to say taxpayer's grandchildren's dollars) to help keep some education entrepreneurs afloat in Florida.

I think I would admit to being a business for that kind of money, too. In the meantime, as soon as the institute's COO teaches me more about excel, I'll get back to this pile of info.

Report: Zuckerberg’s Favorite Digital Ed Program Is All Sizzle, No Steak

Last month, the National Education Policy Center released a new report: Big Claims, Little Evidence, Lots of Money: The Reality Behind the Summit Learning Program and the Push to Adopt Digital Personalized Learning Programs. It looks at one of the most prominent digital learning platforms, and how money and power are able to push such programs despite any real evidence that they work.

Summit Schools started out in 2003 with a low-tech focus on personalized education; in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg discovered the school and decided to gift it not just with money, but with technology. Zuckerberg was fresh off a high-profile edu-failure in Newark, and he had gleaned one particular lesson from that:

The most important lesson we've learned is to focus on problems we have some unique ability to help solve.

When the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative took form, its educational focus was on digital personalized learning. And Summit seemed like the perfect vehicle for that push. Summit Schools created the Summit Learning Platform, an algorithm-driven software system that delivers lessons to students via computer. Human “mentors” are on duty nearby to help out, but the program is the teacher.

Not everyone has loved it. Parents have occasionally revolted. The program has been accused of racism. But the program, offered free of charge, has spread to about 400 schools, making it one of the most successful digital platforms out there. Then, in 2018, Summit spun the digital program off into a non-profit entity whose initial four-person board included Diane Tavenner, Summit founder; Priscilla Chan; and Peggy Alford, the CFO for CZI.

Given that Summit is now widely used, seen as a model for personalized digital learning, and operating under the wing of a top US tech billionaire, it seems worthwhile to look under the hood. The NEPC, a non-profit education policy research center located in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has done just that.

Here are some of the major findings from the report.

The first is how “reluctant, and in many instances, unwilling to provide basic information about its educational program and platform” Summit turned out to be. The 2018 non-profit (T.L.P. Education) now operates as a kind of cloak of secrecy over many aspects of the operation. The experience of the researchers echoes the experience of parents, who often find Summit unresponsive. NEPC found the staff “unfailingly polite, but nonresponsive.” Requests were ignored, side-stepped, or greeted with some version of “we don’t have any information about that.”

Summit has constructed an image as a successful program. It repeatedly claims to be “evidence-based” and “grounded in science,” but it has never allowed an independent evaluation of any aspect of its product. Summit’s own self-promotion depends largely on anecdotes and testimonials. And some of its claims stretch credulity; it has said that 100% of its students are “eligible for a four-year college,” but no Summit charter school has ever graduated 100% of its senior class. Summit also claims that its students graduate college at twice the national average, but told NEPC that it has no records related to these claims.

Summit rejects the notion that standardized tests can measure the cognitive skills that they claim to prize, and they are absolutely correct to do so. But as NEPC notes, Summit’s own Cognitive Skills Rubric seems not to have been checked for either validity or reliability.

Many of Summit’s claims seem more like the puffery of marketing than the rigor of science, with the public record providing no support and Summit either unwilling or unable to provide evidence. But marketing, NEPC finds, is a big part of Summit’s success. It has attracted money and support from many major players, including the Gates Foundation, Silicon Schools Fund, and XQ Institute (the ed reform project of Laurene Powell Jobs). In 2015, Summit made a deal with Facebook to enhance software and develop a nationwide marketing strategy. This has included a 2017 publication, The Science of Summit, ”which purports to show that SPS’s pedagogical approach is research-based.” NEPC finds the report offers no actual research evidence.

Summit’s marketing also leans heavily on the non-digital aspect of the program. “Your child’s education will be delivered via computer screen,” is not a winning sales pitch, and so Summit emphasizes other aspects. The “free” part is a big hit, particularly when linked to the success of the original Summit charter schools. This is a marketing approach unique to tech-based charters—”You can’t send your child to Super Tech Charter High, but now we can offer you practically almost kind of the same sort of experience in a software package.” This ignores the importance of local school culture, a factor that as yet cannot be loaded into software.

NEPC finds one other major concern with Summit’s digital program. Anything managed digitally can be collected digitally. Summit promises to collect and analyze a great deal of data in order to “personalize” the student’s experience, but that means that the program collects a great deal of personal data, and CZI has access to that data in perpetuity. As NEPC observes, “It is important to note that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is not a charity or a philanthropic organization; it is a business.” It’s probably also worth noting that old internet wisdom, “If you aren’t paying for it, you’re the product being sold.”

Computer software often carries the illusion of objectivity, but as NEPC correctly points out, software is written by humans, and any algorithms carry the stamp, the biases, the ideology of the people writing them. Exposing a student to a program like Summit’s is like sending them to a school where they never meet the teachers and families are never allowed to know who designed the education program or the principles that guided them.

NEPC’s conclusion is direct:

Our analysis suggests that, rhetoric notwithstanding, the Summit Learning Program does not deliver on its promise to provide a higher quality education, with superior student outcomes, in the schools that adopt it. Moreover, aside from any valid education purpose, the Summit Learning Platform approach to assessment, coupled with enabling contract language, opens the door to the transfer of large amounts of student data to third parties without oversight or accountability.

A well-marketed nothingburger. All hat, no cowboy. All sizzle, no steak. Choose your favorite metaphor; this NEPC report suggests you should not support Summit’s digital education program.

Shortly after the report came out, Summit (which had previously been just somehow unable to really respond to NEPC) put up a blog post as rebuttal to the report. NEPC replied to that reply, and without getting into the nuts and bolts (you can find it all here if you wish), they rightly pointed out that Summit's reply was simply more of the same-- not transparent, and leaning on assertions rather than actual evidence. 

Originally mostly posted at Forbes.com

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

A Rebecca Friedrichs Reader

Friedrichs has been in the news yet again, this time appearing on Fox to accuse America's Evil Teacher Unions of being sexual predators. It's an accusation that will have traction in some circles; if you spend any time in conspiratorial comment sections of the interwebz, you're probably aware of the grand conspiracy theory that says that the entire Democratic Party is a smokescreen for pedophiles trafficking in children.

If the Friedrichs name seems familiar, that's because she first burst into the news as the chirpy face of a lawsuit to legitimize freeloading in teachers unions and not coincidentally try to gut the unions financially. That suit ran into an unexpected death on the Supreme Court and the issue was eventually decided by Janus, but while the lawsuit failed, it launched a whole new career for Friedrichs.

So that's who that woman is. Rather than rehash previous pieces I've written about her, let me just provide you with the listings and you can decide on your own how much of this you can stomach.

Friedrichs At It Again (1/29/17) 

All about the time she made one of those wacky Prager University videos, to educate Americans about the truth of evil unions.

What Ever Happened To Rebecca Friedrichs? (10/18/19)

Here's the basic outline of the lawsuit, the aftermath, and her post-lawsuit path into the land of Foxian anti-union noisemakers. If you're only going to read one of these, this is the one.

Social and Emotional Learning Is Drawing Fire (2/22/20)

If you were around in the 90's, you saw this one coming. Any school program that wants to teach values is going to draw fire from a certain brand of conservative. In the 90's, it was Outcome Based Education vs. Phyllis Schafly, among others. Right now, it's SEL vs. Rebecca Friedrichs and another batch of teachers she wants to boost.

Rebecca Friedrichs Still Hates The Teachers Union (6/18/20)

Just this summer she was going after Black Lives Matter by attaching it to the union plot to use Leftiness to Destroy America. This is the one where she claims that liberals are guilty of "forcing a chip onto the shoulders of black Americans." Also, the 1619 project is evil, too.

San Diego Vs. The Evil Union  (6/25/20)

The group Friedrichs formed also pushes the story of other teachers who have tragically suffered from Evil Union activities. In June, a piece about how "unions killed creativity" at a charter school in San Diego was suddenly all over the web. It might not have told the whole story.

There was a time when one could make a case that Friedrichs was just a teacher who had a sincere difference of opinion with the union about fair share (it's not unheard of). But that ship has long since sailed, as she has revealed herself to be the kind of virulent political anti-unionist who would feel perfectly at home on Laura Ingraham's show.