Friday, February 28, 2020

What Ever Happened To AltSchool?

You remember AltSchool, the miraculous Silicon Valley technoschool that was going to Change the Game. We've checked in on them from time to time, and it's time to see what has happened since the Altschool ship ran aground on the shores of reality a while ago.

After two years of tinkering and tweaking, AltSchool burst on the scene with a flurry of PR in 2015. Founded by Max Ventilla, formerly of Google, and Bharat Mediratta, also a Googlite, it was going to bring technology and personalization to new heights. Like a wired-up free school, it would let students and teachers just sort of amble through the forest of education. Teachers would capture moments of demonstrated learning on video, students would do work on modules on computer, and it would all be crunched in a back room full of IT whizzes who would churn out personalized learning stuff for the students. The school set up some branch schools, lab schools, hither and yon. All the big names wanted to invest-- Zuckerberg, Powell Jobs, etc.

But by 2017, it began to look as if Ventilla was not so much educating children as using them as lab rats for market research. Rather than expand the chain of schools, Ventilla proposed to scale them back and to focus energies elsewhere. Here was how Bloomberg reported it:

In Silicon Valley fashion, Ventilla broke the news to parents with a touch of misplaced enthusiasm. He wrote an email to families in Palo Alto, California, saying the school there would close at the end of the year due to business “challenges and opportunities,” according to a copy of the message reviewed by Bloomberg. Ventilla said AltSchool will only run classrooms near the main offices in San Francisco and New York. “We know this is tough news that will have a big impact on your family,” Ventilla said. But the moves are needed, he wrote, given AltSchool’s “strategy, path to growth and finances.”

In other words, AltSchool was not so much a school, as a business venture. Did I mention that Ventilla has no actual background in education?

By 2019, things were looking bleak even for the business. In place of those glowing profiles from 2015, AltSchool now appeared in profiles like the July 2019 Fortune article, "How an Education Startup Wasted Almost $200 Million."

But even as things were circling the drain for Altschool, it was adapting and changing and becoming Altitude Learning. Because nobody in the ed tech universe ever just gives up and goes home.

The announcement noted that the "lab schools" would continue, though at this point "lab school" strikes me as a rather on-the-nose name for a school set up to beta test software. Then there's this--

As R&D focus ends, tech co-founders pass torch to education industry veterans: Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka

First, I'm sure the parents who paid a big pile of money to send their kids to Altschool may have thoughts about having their children's education called "R&D focus." Second, if my notable achievements included burning through a couple hundred million dollars, I'd be careful about using torch metaphors.

The lab schools were handed over to Higher Ground Education, a company dedicated to "mainstreaming and modernizing Montessori education." It seems like standard technohubris to look at Maria Montessori's work and think, "Yeah, I can improve this." This outfit was founded in 2016. They've brought on Michael Strong, "educational entrepreneur" to handle high school development-- The Academy of Thought And Industry. Really. Their leadership team involves a lot of jobs that make my head hurt, like Director of Compliance, Director of School Success, Talent Specialist, Director of Community-- a "diverse team of educators and entrepreneurs." The "educator" portion of that is not awesome, and of course TFA is represented (and speaking of ouchy job titles, a former Head of Real Estate for KIPP LA), but at least at the coaching and project managing level you find people with actual Montessori training. From their website, it's not clear how that takeover of the lab schools stands.

But we do know a little about the Altitude Learning portion of the new venture.

About the two guys who ended up in charge. Devin Vodicka was the Chief Impact Officer for Altschool--well, sort of. He held that job from May of 2017 till the end, so only after the wheels were starting to come off, so maybe he was brought on to run this spin off business from the start. He was an administrator in Carlsbad Unified School District for ten years; his linkedIn account shows no hint of what he was doing before gaining a principalship in March of 2002. His BA is in History, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1992. In 2012 he moved on to Superintendent of Vista USD, won awards, visited the White House. Rick Hess talked to him in February of 2019, and he said the five-year-out vision was "to be in hundreds of schools."

Ben Kornell is the President/CEO, and he's one more TFA education expert. He graduated from Harvard in 2002 with an AB in History and Literature, taught for one year in the Bahamas, then joined TFA. He did put in two years in the classroom after his two year TFA commitment was up. Then a couple of years managing dialysis centers in Denver, then four years with Envision Learning Partners, a reformy consulting charter-managing group, where his job was to help them expand their market; then to Altschool in 2017 as VP of Growth, where he "launched Altschool's partner program to spread our platform and practices."

Altitude uses the term "learner-centered" a lot, breaking it down into items like "foster learner agency" and "personalize learner pathways." In this Education Dive "sponsored content" that Facebook insists on showing me daily, Vodicka gives a clearer picture of what they're up to. I have two major takeaways. First, there's this quote:

As the world continues to evolve and change, our education system must adapt and improve as well. I believe that measuring learning is a key lever for systemic change and that we are long overdue to make meaningful shifts in this critical area of need.

There's more like this, both in the article and on the website. These guys speak fluent corporate baloney, the kind of argle bargle that is meant to obscure meaning rather than clarifying it. Maybe they know how to speak plain, useful English to classroom teachers, but I have found no evidence that they're inclined to. This is the language of c-suiters looking to make a sale to other c-suiters.

Now is the time to think about new and better models of assessment. Competency-based learning is the foundation of a learner-centered approach to assessment.

Yup. Once you cut past the smoke, what you find is another pitch for competency-based learning.

Well, I've been down that road a few times, and like its close sibling Personalized [sic] Learning, it's mostly a way of approaching education that just happens to also be an approach that can be simply and profitably computerized. Like Personalized [sic] Learning, it doesn't have to be awful-- but the folks who are intent on monetizing it and selling it at scale are, once again, educational amateurs with an eye on the bottom line, and so what they keep coming up with is awful. Here's a tip-- if someone approaches your school with one of these programs, ask this question-- "Can we implement your program without a single computer in the building?"

Even without a computer, CBE has pitfalls. It's easy in a CBE system to reduce learning to training and rich curriculum to a checklist of rote tasks. But when you take those issues and add the notion that an algorithm will design the checklist on the fly and measure student competency on the screen, it just gets worse.

So that's what has happened to Altschool. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and reformy reformsters gotta pitch their new entrepreneurial education product. And Ventilla, the self-described "serial entrepreneur and product manager with deep experience in finance"? According to his LinkedIn account, he is "enjoying the time between AltSchool and my next project." Mediratta moved on to a job as Chief Technology Officer at Dropbox.

Ventilla says something else about AltSchool on his LinkedIn page. Under AltSchool, the top bullet point is "conceived of a new model of how to open and operate 21st century schools delivering highly personalized education without resorting to screen learning." Nothing there about the process of reducing that lofty goal to a simple "set up a software and consulting firm" or "execute one of the great demonstrations of technohubris in the education space." Who knows what the next chapter will bring.

How Do High Expectations Change A Classroom

Teachers know that expectations matter. They know that having high expectations in a classroom can both support (“I know you can do this”) and spur (“I’m not going to accept your bare minimum effort”) students. The power of teacher expectations is part of every college’s Teacher 101.
But modern education reform has weaponized the term. “The soft bigotry of low expectations,” coined by Michael Gerson for use by Bush II, was a powerful phrase that combined a couple of ugly ideas. It suggested that it wasn’t poverty or underfunded crumbling school buildings or a lack of resources that was the major factor in the struggles of some students; it was their teachers’ failure to believe in them (and that was probably because those teachers were at least a little racist). Then under Obama’s ed secretary Arne Duncan, teachers found themselves subject to the hard tyranny of ridiculous expectations. Duncan believed that expectations were magical, going so far as to suggest that all students with special needs really required was to have teachers who expected them to achieve, and their special challenges just wouldn’t matter. 
This has led to some spectacularly bad policy. In a 2014 conference call, Duncan and then-ed head of Tennessee Kevin Huffman explained that all students with special needs required was more expectations and more tests. Two years later Duncan found himself being roasted in a budget hearing because he could not answer a question about what the department was doing to support students with dyslexia (and he knew that “expect harder and test more” was not a good answer). We’ve seen a rash of states with third grade retention rules—third graders who don’t pass a standardized reading test are forced to repeat third grade, on the theory that setting this high expectation will force eight-year-olds and their teachers to stop slacking off. 
Add to that mix the repeated assertion by Duncan and others that schools are systematically lying to students and parents in order to hide their lazy use of lower standards and rigorless expectations. 
For much of the last twenty years, “expectations” have been a cudgel for clobbering teachers, one more reason to let all the rest of society off the hook because it’s the teachers who are failing the students. 
So when the Fordham Institute rolls out a piece of research looking at the E word in the classroom, teachers are not inclined to greet it with joy. Particularly when the write-up begins with the notion that teacher evaluation of students can’t be trusted:
Unfortunately, “grade inflation” is pervasive in U.S. high schools, as evidenced by rising GPAs even as SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have held stable or fallen. The result is that a “good” grade is no longer a clear marker of knowledge and skills.
The study by Seth Gershenson, associate professor at the School of Public Affairs at American University, makes a pretty basic assertion as its main conclusion—teachers who grade harder end up with students who learn more. There are some other findings as well, including the suggestion that teachers raise standards as they gain years in the classroom.
These are not particularly shocking findings, though the study itself raises some questions. The study was of 8th and 9th grade algebra classes, and it made the too-common use of standardized test scores as proxies for learning. It also gives a great deal of credence to the notion that students are highly motivated by grades. As blogger and retired teacher Nancy Flanagan puts it:
Extrapolating that into a declaration that tougher grading would lead to higher achievement is giving way too much credence to a cranky-pants theory, the one where a kick in the pants is what kids these days really need.
In his writing and in Twitter conversations, Gershenson has expressed awareness of some of the nuances and questions involved in connecting grading to motivation to greater learning. In particular, the dynamic he writes about raises a chicken-and-egg problem—do students get better grades because more has been expected of them, or do teachers have higher expectations of students who demonstrate greater achievement? 
The ed reform view of expectations has always been overly simplistic (and limited—Arne Duncan said we should expect more of students to get them ready for college, but he never said that colleges can make all under-prepared students successful just by expecting more from them). The reform idea is that expectations are like the volume knob on your sound system; just crank the knob higher, and you get more volume/achievement.
Teachers know that classroom expectations are a much trickier balancing act. Expect too little, and you don’t unlock the student’s full potential. Expect too much, and the student simply gives up and becomes even harder to teach. On top of that, choosing how to communicate those expectations also requires careful judgment; sometimes the student needs hand held, and sometimes the students needs a tough-love push. Ed reforms, like those tied to high stakes testing, have always focused on threats and pants-kicking.
Expectations don’t exist in a vacuum. “I expect you to build a beautiful house, and here are all the very best tools and materials you’ll need” is much different from, “I expect you to build a beautiful house, but all we’ve got here is a hammer, a stick and a ball of string.” Blaming teachers for “soft bigotry of low expectations” doesn’t really let society and politicians off the hook for not properly supporting students and the public schools most of them attend.
Meanwhile, teachers practice the fine art of calibrating expectations with some apparent success. For all the concern about grade inflation, research continues to show that the best predictor of college success is not a big standardized test, but high school GPA.
Originally posted at  

Thursday, February 27, 2020

6 Things To Know About The Trump-DeVos Education Freedom Plan

As expected, Trump used a chunk of his State of the Union Address to plug a voucher-style program that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been pushing for months under the name “Education Freedom.” The Houston Chronicle reports that Ted Cruz pitched the plan to Trump; Cruz has taken the lead on trying to turn DeVos’s dream into actual legislation. In fact, the Trump budget proposal favors this approach over charter schools.
Say what now?
If you haven’t been following DeVos’s school choice initiative, or if you could use a quick explainer for a friend, here are a few basic takeaways to help follow what the fuss is about.
How Does It Work?
It’s a tax credit scholarship plan, and many states already have one.(Pennsylvania is one of those states. An unsuccessful attempt to expand the program was referenced by Trump in his speech.) Here’s how they work. Corporations or individuals can contribute to the plan instead of paying their taxes. They hand their money to a scholarship organization, which in turn issues scholarships to students. The money can be used to pay for transportation, remedial programs, homeschooling materials, or, most commonly, private school tuition. 
Isn’t This Another Kind Of Voucher? 
Yes, but “voucher” hasn’t worked out well politically for anyone, so Secretary DeVos would be happy if we all called it something else. But this is a voucher; just one that’s managed by a private organization instead of the government.
Who Really Pays For It?
Advocates for the program are fond of saying that it doesn’t spend any taxpayer dollars. This is technically correct; since the donors hand their money to a scholarship organization instead of the government, it never becomes “government money.” 
However, since it is money that’s paid instead of taxes, it leaves a hole in the government’s revenue. DeVos wants a $5 billion program, which means that the government would collect up to $5 billion less in taxes. That means that taxpayers will either get less service from their government, or their taxes will be raised to cover the shortfall (conceivably, at the federal level, the government could just add it to the deficit). 
So while the program doesn’t spend any taxpayer money, it does come with a cost to taxpayers.
Who Benefits From This? 
People who want to direct their tax dollars to support private schools, and the private schools themselves. And in states that have voucher programs, those private schools turn out overwhelmingly to be religious private schools. Tax credit scholarships are a particularly good way to get around that whole “don’t give public tax dollars to private religious schools” issue (though the Supreme Court ruling on Espinoza v. Montana could wipe that issue away). As for education quality, the results of voucher program studies are at best mixed for academics. A just-released study from Harvard adds to the body of research suggesting that school choice programs make the already-bad problem of school segregation even worse. In short, it’s not clear that students themselves would get a big benefit from this, despite DeVosian protestations to the contrary.
Who Is Empowered By It? 
The program is touted as a big chance to offer the same choices to poor families that rich families get, a chance to escape terrible schools. DeVos is fond of saying that it would empower families. But current situations in Florida and Ohio show that it’s not that simple. 
Ohio has a slightly different sort of program called EdChoice. A recent investigation discovered that two thirds of the voucher students from several major cities had never attended public school in the first place; in other words, they were not using vouchers to “escape” anything. They just provide a little financial boost to families that were already sending their kids to private school.
Under this kind of program, private schools remain private, retaining all of their prerogatives. In Florida, investigation has shown that some of the schools receiving voucher money discriminate against and will not admit LGBTQ students. Just because your family has access to a scholarship does not mean that the school has to accept you. No voucher empowers a family to overrule a private school’s admissions office, which is generally free to accept or reject students for reasons of its own. 
Furthermore, the discrimination is being threatened not by parents, legislators, or taxpayers, but by donors. If power rests with the pursestrings, then the power in a tax credit scholarship program rests with the patrons of the system; taxpayers, elected officials, and the families are taken out of the loop.
What About The Red Tape?
DeVos likes to argue that this will not be another government program, and that no new administrative red tape will be required.
But scholarship granting organizations have to be vetted and approved, and providers of other voucher-eligible services must be certified as allowed (or not). Someone has to process and oversee those applications and maintain those lists, as well. It is possible that the scholarship organizations could be given the task of auditing family spending, or that oversight could fall to the government, but it seems necessary; in 2018, Arizona found that parents had spent $700,000 of voucher money on banned items and services, including clothing and cosmetics.
The alternative to red tape to manage the program would be a $5 billion program with no accountability, inviting all manner of fraud and mismanagement. 
Meanwhile, neither the House nor Senate included a cent for the program in the 2020 budget, suggesting that legislator support for the DeVos plan is limited. Whether or not a Trumpian cheer and budget proposal for it will change that in 2021 remains to be seen.

Schools And Other Shared Public Spaces

One of my first jobs in education was minding the cassette player.

The actual job was assistant marching band director, and my duties included chaperoning the freshman/sophomore bus to away games. It was the mid-80s, and the "good" schoolbuses in our district had built-in cassette players, and the students brought their favorite music, vying for control of the stereo that everyone had to listen to. My job was to arbitrate those arguments (I quickly learned that the big hammer of such conflict was, "If you guys can't work this out, I've got a cassette here in my pocket that I brought from home..."). It was actually cool to watch them negotiate and settle these arguments.

Of course, the really rich kids had Walkmans, and by the end of my tenure, the cassette debates were over, and the bus looked more like they look today-- several dozen students each wired into a personal musical universe. It was peaceful,  but it was also without any of the interaction and cooperative decision-making displays of the earlier era. The students had found the technological means to carve a public space into several dozen private places.

That process has, of course, been paralleled throughout many of what were our previous shared spaces. I grew up in a small town, with one radio station that everyone listened to because that was the choice; only folks in big cities had choices between different formats. Top 40 was a mix of many styles, all jammed together on one list.

You know the litany. Everyone used to choose from among the same three tv networks. Three! They read the same magazines, watched the same movies. Most of our culture occurred in shared spaces. 100 years ago we even went out of our way to create shared spaces, like fraternal and civic organizations.

In fact, let me tell you the story of Monarch Park.

Monarch Park was a local phenomenon, a destination park created, like many others (e.g. Cedar Point) by a train or trolley company to give people a reason to travel. Monarch Park opened just at the end of the 19th century and flourished as the new century began. It had flower gardens, games, an electric tower, a roller coaster, a dance hall, a restaurant, an outdoor concert venue that later showed movies, a playground, and even a bowling alley. At its peak, it was the shared public space for the entire county; on holidays like July 4, the cities were empty, everyone was at Monarch Park, there wit their entire family.

Today, there is barely a trace of the park to be found. It died in the mid-twenties, killed off by automobiles, which gave people the power to choose their own personal destination, one that they didn't have to share with everyone else-- not even everyone else in their own family.

There has been a steady strong push against shared in our history. Shared space has its own problems and challenges. For one thing, they've rarely been shared with everybody. Shared public spaces have often come with barriers to keep Certain People out. For another, sharing te space means putting up with things you don't like. In the mid-seventies, our local morning dj took a strong liking to "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and he played it every morning, usually just before it was time to head to the bus stop. If you had offered me, right then, a device that would let me only ever hear music that I wanted to hear and never have to listen to that damn recording ever again, I wouldn't have had to think five seconds about it.

Shared public spaces always--always--include things we don't like. And every time a new technology--automobiles, Walkmen, cable tv, the internet--makes it possible for us to carve up another public space, we do it. (If you want to get an even broader and deeper look at this, read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone).

Shared spaces require us to figure out how to get along with those who share it. In a carved-up world, we get to focus on how to make things we don't like go away. My iPod and Spotify playlists don't include "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," and they never will. And I'm okay with that. I cut the cable cord over a decade ago, so I never watch anything I don't want to watch, and though that means I can't have conversations about current hot tv shows and I don't even know many of the celebrities that exist in the world, I'm okay with that, too.

But the carving of public places has had some unhealthy effects. The internet has an unparalleled ability to carve things up, granting people the power to never be confronted with opinions, or even facts, that they don't care for. And when they are confronted with such things, many on social media are not moved by an urge to understand, but by an impulse to drive the Other away, to carve the interlopers out of their crafted and curated space. That carving has extended to our political life; we no longer share our elected representatives-- every Representative, Senator, and President is either our guy or their guy, and with Trump we arrive at a President who doesn't even pretend to be there to represent and serve all Americans.

The carving of shared public space doesn't work the same for everybody. The rich have always been able to buy their own expensive private slice, while the less wealthy have to settle for what they can get. But that's one of the effects of technological advance--it puts carving tools within reach of the less affluent. And the aspiration to be rich merges with the aspiration to control your own private slice of the shared public space.

There are lots of ways to try to understand the privatization of public education, but I can see it in this context as driven by the push to carve up public spaces. I stream only the music I want. I watch only the television that I want. I craft and curate most of my environment; why should school be any different? What are helicopter parents except folks who want to control every other aspect of their child's life just as they do at home? Church attendance is plummeting. The politics of division is overwhelming the politics of unification. Public schools may be the last remaining shared public space; it seems predictable that public education would attract the impulse to carve them into small private slices. And, it should be said, the threat to public schools is not all from the outside-- when folks try to use segregation, boundary redrawing, in-house oppression to carve off a private slice of the public place, that's more of the same impulse. And yes-- sometimes what happens is that by finally opening the shared space to people who have previously been barred or ignored, we get other folks saying, "Well, if Those People are coming in, then I want out."

We know what shared public spaces cost us-- we have to put up with, cooperate with, and generally get along with people we don't agree with or even like. We are still figuring out what the Great Carving, the slow drift into privatized safe spaces, is costing us. I would argue that Jefferson saw a lesson of history--that folks, especially the rich and powerful, and more located in a shared public space than they think they are, that no safe bubble insulates you from needing the consent of the governed.

You can't build a strong community without shared public space. The first rule of a relationship is that you have to show up, and the great carving provides people with a means of not showing up, ever. "I don't want to talk to those people. I just want to get what I want." And when community collapses, we are left with survival of the fittest, the triumph of wealth, might makes right, and a world in which injustice is unchecked and unchallenged.

I don't have an answer for all of this. Once carving technology appears, you can't really roll the clock back. I could have forbidden the use of any personal audio devices on the bus but that wouldn't have given us back the old thing; it would have just created a new thing.

But the privatization of education has not been spurred by any new technological advance. That is a stumper for the "But other things have been changed by technology so shouldn't education be the same crowd." The desire to carve a private slice is only one of the impulses fueling the privatization movement, but carving a private slice of a public place always creates the chance for someone to make a buck, and so profiteers are always right there when the carving advocates come out. The movement to privatize and disrupt public education is a complicated storm of many different impulses, some of them sincere and heartfelt and personal, and some of the venal and grasping and greedy.

I remain a fan of public education in no small part because it is one of the last shared public places left, even as it is being whittled away. It is a space that reflects the big unruly mess that is a democratic-ish country, and yes that means conflicts and negotiations and an unending clash of conflicting values and goals. But the proposed alternative--these people want something different so they'll just go over there by themselves--requires a continued breaking of relationships, a repeated running away from conflict in place of resolutions. In fact, a worsening of conflict, because once separated into private slices, everyone can just create cartoon strawman versions of Those People Over There to revile and deride.

I've been reading about the ideal for years--if you want to send your kid to a private school for left-handed druids who don't believe in evolution but do believe in global warming, and who want to play in a marching band, well, then, you should be able to make that choice. Everyone should have their own choice of a hundred separate different school systems. But we already know how well "separate but equal" works out. And by demanding that such a ecosystem of parallel schools be organized by free market forces, we guarantee failure, because the free market is great for picking winners and losers, terrible for creating equity among disparate groups.

At the end of all this, O Readers who are still with me, my point is simple.

Breaking up shared public spaces is not healthy for us as a society, but sometimes it can't be avoided. In the case of public schools, there are no compelling reasons to break up the shared space. It would not be healthy for us to do that. Let's not do that.

If anything, what's needed is to do a better job of sharing that space, so that it is fully welcoming and supportive of all children. That's what we should be doing, not telling students who have been underserved, "Well, rather than fix that and get you your full portion of the shared space, we've just set up this little other space over to the side here." We should embrace the shared space, expand the shared space, open doors and remove barriers to the shared space, because no matter how much we try to create the illusion that we are traveling separately, each in our own little bubbles, we are better when we understand that we are all traveling together.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Call for Federal Charter Transparency Law

We've been here before. For instance, in 2015 while Congress was wrestling with what would eventually become ESSA, Sherrod Brown introduced the Charter School Accountability Act, which had some modest goals-- require greater charter transparency, mandate some reporting from charter authorizers, and compel charter operators to talk to the community before opening up. The bill was promptly sent to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, to never be heard from again.

But Congress has yet an other chance to get it right.

Representative Rashina Tlaib (D-Michigan) is introducing the Charter Oversight, Accountability, and Transparency (COAT) Act (how many person-hours do you suppose are used up trying to give bills names that spell something cute?).

This bill is pretty simple, and is asking for, well, transparency about what happens to public taxpayer dollars once they disappear into the charter school system. To keep their ESSA money, states would have to insure that every contract between a charter school and a charter management organization (the businesses that charter schools hire to actually run the schools) would have to require the following:

* How much of the money is being used to actually operate the school (by amount and percent)

* How much of the money is being used to run the CMO (by amount and percent)

* Salaries for CMO executives

* Public CMO meetings

* Whether the CMO is for-profit or non-profit

* The list of LLC's doing business with the CMO

It's a pretty pedestrian list; there's nothing here that is not also required of public school systems. Some civilians would be surprised to discover that this information is not available already. In particular, this is a good way to pull back the curtain on faux non-profits, where the East Egg Academy is a non-profit charter school, operated by East Egg Charter Management, which is a for-profit business that is pocketing $60K of that money.

It is hard to see how any reputable charter operation could object to this bill, but I guess we'll see. In the meantime, the bill has to somehow navigate the House before it can go to languish on Grim Reaper McConnell's giant mountain of Senate do-nothingness.

But in the meantime, you should send out the word of support to your Representative and suggest they might want to co-sponsor the bill. That includes those reps who are conservative or GOP, because despite its origin, this is not a bill calling for some sort of bleeding heart liberal twinkie handout-- this is a bill that simply demands that the taxpayers get to know what the hell the government did with our hard-earned money. It is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing that conservative lawmakers in another time and place would have introduced themselves.

Charters that are operating responsibly have nothing to fear, and the taxpayers deserve basic information. You can use the action network to send your message, or you can go old school, look up your rep and then send your own peresonal message.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Montana and the Wall Between Church and State

Sarah Vowell is a fave of mine, with a fabulous grasp of US history and that special gift of being able to illuminate big ideas with the perfect specific detail, plus she has the gift of balance, of being able to recognize the god and the not-so-good, and most of, the gift of recognizing the humanity of the people she writes about. Her writing about colonial US history is excellent-- if you need a place to start, I'd go with The Wordy Shipmates, a look at the Puritans in America. For an extra treat, get her audiobooks-- she does her own reading and it's great. I would be quite happy if I grew up to be Sarah Vowell.

Sarah Vowell
I bring Vowell up because she was born in Oklahoma, but grew up and attended college in Montana. Last week, she wrote a piece for the New York Times about the Espinoza case, the case that will allow the Supreme Court to legitimize the use of public tax dollars for private religious schools (or not-- the Supremes could totally surprise me and go the other way).

If you are able to get past the paywall, you should go read the piece, because there's a whole  chunk of background that virtually every commenter on the case has simply missed.

Do Mr. Roberts and his eight co-workers fully appreciate the public-spirited grandeur of the winter of 1971-72, when 100 Montanans, including housewives, ministers, a veterinarian and a beekeeper, gathered at the state capital, Helena, for the constitutional convention, affectionately nicknamed the “Con Con”?

That was the occasion for the writing of the Montana constitution, the document that includes the idea that public money should not pay for private sectarian schooling. That's the law the Espinoza suit aims to gut, and voucher fans have characterized as "antiquated" and "Jim Crow for Christians." The lawsuit has been described as standing up to Blaine amendments, laws adopted by states that are pretty clearly anti-immigrant by way of being anti-Catholic. But that's not what was going on in Montana at Con Con, says Vowell.

The representatives arranged themselves not by party, but sat alphabetically, whioch strikes me as an awesome way to reorganize Congress or any other legislature. And they were not particularly God-averse-- many of the major players were clergy. Witness the very first sentence in the document:

We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.

What Con Con was particularly focused on was the public versus the private. You've heard of company towns, but Montana was viewed as a company state that wore the "copper collar" and controlled by the Anaconda Company. The Con Con delegates were committed to the public interest, and so public funds were to be spent only on public agencies.

Vowell points out that the dynamics of public education are different out West:

Article X, Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to “develop the full educational potential of each person.” That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland. Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system.

Kendra Espinoza
In Montana, the poorest schools have the smallest class size. Rural schools have single-digit class sizes-- not like single digit English class, but single digit sophomore class. Vowell recalls a friend who, as a first grader, rode her horse to a school where she and her brother were, one year, half the student body.

Espinoza, who wants to send her children to a private religious school that charges more for tuition than the University of Montana, says that public schools "have plenty of money." But Vowell points out that a surge in vouchers will not just move money from public schools to private schools, but from the rural areas to the cities.

The public schools the framers conjured ask the taxpayers to splurge on fairness, not privilege, to pull together, not away. That beekeeper, those clergymen and moms chartered a state in a republic where a first grader on horseback is supposed to be as big and important as the mountains.

If the result of Espinoza is a wave of voucher money, the result will be a Montana where your available choices for school will very much depend on your zip code.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

ICYMI: So Long, February Edition (2/22)

A reminder that you can help amplify the voices that you think need to be heard. Go to the original post and share with your network. Do your part to make sure folks are heard whose message speaks to you. Now for this week's list.

Borrowing a Literacy Strategy from Band 

An interesting notion from Edutopia. After all, reading music is readin. "Reading in band has an additional hitch: Students have to read their parts while hearing several other parts at the same time, which requires them to be strong, independent readers—"

The Death of the Crossing Guard

Mr Bob was 88 years old when he saved two children's lives at the crosswaklk. From Washington Post.

How Play Is Making a Comeback in Kindergarten

Actually from a couple of weeks ago in Hechinger, this is an encouraging addition to the "Yes, play is important" file.

High Stakes Tests Aren't Better- And They Never Will Be

Lelac Almagor (an English teacher at a charter school) writes for the Boston Review, explaining how testing damages education, particularly for the non-wealthy.

Will Software Start Helping Students Cheat On Papers?

No, no it won't. At least not well.  But here's one more consideration of the computer role in cheating.

Betsy DeVos's Voucher Boondoggle

Business writer Andrea Gabor takes a look at the voucher con job behind the DeVos budget proposal. In Bloomberg.

Ending High Stakes Testing and Improve Education

A Florida teacher writes about how removing the Big Standardized Test as a graduation requirement would improve the system.

New Mexico Sues Google

The state has decided to go after the tech giant for collecting student data through the ubiquitous Chromebooks. The Verge has the story.

Don't Mess With Texas Schools

Have You Heard travels to Texas, where GOP candidates are trying had to look like they support public education even as a long series of fora have been held bringing Rs and Ds together to talk ab out education. How's that working out (transcript available for those of us who never have time to listen to podcasts).

People Are Not Cattle

G F Brandenburg offers a quick refresher about William Sanders and the origin of value-added measurement in the world of farming.

Getting Rid of Gym Class

Do you not yet subscribe to Nancy Flanagan's blog? Because you should. Here is some history and thought about what should be included in the required core of classes.

I Love Teaching, Even When It Doesn't Love Me Back   

The most-read of the week is a piece by Jose Luis Vilson. "Teaching from l;ove isn't perfec t, but neither are we."

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Social and Emotional Learning Is Drawing Fire

I told you so.

If you are of a Certain Age, you remember Outcome Based Education, the Next Big Education Thing of the 1990s. Its basic idea was to reduce education to observable behaviors-- all those lesson plans with "The Student Will Be Able To...," are artifacts of OBE. The architects were intent on reducing all learning to something cold, hard and observable instead of fuzzy objectives like "After we've covered this unit, the students will kn ow stuff."

This was not necessarily a terrible thing. But the architects made one crucial mistake. They decided that they would include non-cognitive objectives-- having self-esteem, making sound decisions, tolerance, all that good soft skill squishy stuff.

Social conservatives freaked out. Phyllis Schafly, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and a host of others sounded the alarm about government indoctrination, and ultimately, OBE was stomped into the dirt.

This stuff-- what we now call social and emotional learning-- is a really hard needle to thread in education policy. Almost like someone took a third rail and bent it into an eye-of-a-needle shape.

On the one hand, it's absolutely necessary stuff. Young humans have to learn how to interact with other humans, and many of them, for reasons ranging from family of origin to simple biology, aren't very good at it. This becomes a problem in life that overwhelms other issues (I once had a student who couldn't hold a job, regularly quitting with the complaint "that guy thinks he can just boss me around," and "that guy" was always his actual boss).

It seems like learning things like "be responsible" and "work with others" and "don't be an asshat" would be unobjectionable, and as I've pointed out before, 95% of the "This Teacher Changed My Life" stories focus not on content, but on SEL stuff.

But as soon as you start trying to turn it into curriculum, you get into trouble, and I have for years now been expressing my disbelief and how blithely folks like the personalized [sic] learning crowd have been pushing SEL programs.

And here comes the backlash. Meet Jennifer McWilliams.

So let's tug on this thread and see what we find. Jennifer stood up against the indoctrination of a SEL program and was fired "on the spot" (and yes, that means that either there are some pieces missing from this story, or Jennifer's union is terrible even by Indiana standards).

Jennifer is wearing her Purple for Parents t-shirt. That's a group that started in Arizona in response to Red for Ed. While they say they're pro-teacher, they are not such fans of the NEA, and they have some thoughts about what Red for Ed is "really" about:

This sinister agenda is really about turning America into a socialist-dependent nation, by turning our children into social justice warriors who will vote to change the Constitution and our founding American principles.

So many of the old issues are here-- the evil union with its leftist agenda, creeping communism, and of course the Common Core. And the usual opposition to federal involvement in education; one such group may have provided the text that got McWilliams in trouble.

McWilliams has been giving some interviews to like-minded groups, like "Freedom Project Media," which explain further what the issue is:

Also deeply troubling to the Indiana teacher was the use of an “SEL” program known as Leader in Me, which she said has “taken over the school.” “It is on all of the bulletin boards, in the language of EVERYTHING, determines praise and awards, literally everything,” she continued, adding that the school does not have the right to teach children controversial values.

One of her big concerns was that the SEL programs trains children to “compromise” on “everything.”

And Rebecca Friedrichs, the anti-union teacher turned lawsuit face turned activist, has picked up the story and passed it along on the interwebz. And McWilliams has a Go Fund Me, because nothing fights creeping socialism like collective action, I guess.

The objections to "government schools," the claims of Christian persecution, the charges of indoctrination-- none of this is new, but Social and Emotional Learning has become the "and now" in many of these stories, the final proof that public school is Very Naughty. And the SEL blowback is showing up in more soberly way right wing publications like the Federalist. Tennessee and Georgia have both backed away from the CASEL initiative.

It's a somewhat discouraging issue because there's nobody to cheer for here. The far-right fear that everything is a conspiracy between evil unions and evil communists to destroy this great nation from the inside so that the Illuminati can install godless papists to drain our precious bodily fluids is tiresome and unhelpful because we need to talk about conditions on this planet. Meanwhile, SEL is hugely important in education and probably almost impossible to implement in any kind of formal manner that tries to extract the human element from teaching young people how to be better humans. Does it belong in schools? Of course-- you can't have humans together and not have some sort of SEL occurring. Should it be formalized with a curriculum and tests and data collection? Are you nuts? You can't and you shouldn't try to set up a program based on your idea of a standardized decent human being.

And education policy folks keep making the same damn mistake, from OBE to Common Core to, now, SEL, and it keeps getting worse, because every time the far-out-in-right-field crowd sees it as one more piece of proof of a wider and more complex conspiracy against them and gets triggered all over again.

In the meantime, we can follow this story and enjoy the irony of someone who feels she lost her job unjustly, but who opposes the existence of a union that could have offered her protection from unjust firing if she weren't living in a right to work state.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Common Core Is Dead. Long LIve Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are dead. Done. Finished. Authorities have told us so.

Betsy DeVos delivered a brief eulogy at the American Enterprise Institute back in January. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead,” she declared.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis just announced that the work of “rooting out all vestiges of Common Core” done, and new standards would now replace the old, unloved ones.

So is that it? Can we get out our forks and prepare to stick them in the Common Core? Or have the reports of their death been greatly exaggerated? Sad to say, it’s probably that second one. The Common Core may very well be shambling along, zombie-like, at a school district near you. Here are the factors that may be keeping it up and shambling.

Yeti Repellant

When Betsy DeVos says the federal government isn’t supporting the Core any more, she’s being disingenuous. The Department of Education never officially endorsed or required the standards. It used winks and nudges and the extortion-style leverage that came from No Child Left Behind requirement that all states get all students to achieve above-average scores by 2014. But to “root out” Common Core at the federal level, all the current administration had to do was... nothing.

Likewise, many opponents of the Core developed a picture of it that was not closely related to reality (”Common Core will turn your children into anti-Christian commies”). This has provided politicians with a ready-made straw man that they can “vanquish” without actually touching the Common Core at all. A good example would be former Florida Governor Rick Scott, who “replaced” the Common Core Standards with Florida standards that were almost identical.

So we end up with people selling yeti repellant. You can tell it “works” because when you look out in the front yard, you don’t see any yeti. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t big bears hiding in your back yard.

The Ghost In The Machine

If your state or district adopted some nifty teaching software in the last decade, then Common Core is embedded in your schools.

Retired teacher and blogger Nancy Bailey points out that a huge number of Florida schools use the iReady program for math and reading, and as the program’s own website boasts, “iReady was built for the Common Core.” A long-time education observer, she’s unconvinced that Florida has killed anything.

For the past decade, “aligned with the Common Core” has been a regular marketing point for most ed tech products. Those products are organized around assessing, testing, and teaching the Common Core standards. The state can change the standards, but until the software manufacturers change the standards, students will still be sitting down for screen time with the Common Core.

Test Test Test

High stakes testing has been with us longer than the Common Core, but part of the concept of Common Core was to get all fifty states testing the same thing. The PARCC and SBA tests were built to test how well schools were teaching Common Core Standards, and while many states dumped them, they replaced them with tests that were similarly aligned. Those test results were in turn used to evaluate districts, schools and teachers, and because the stakes were high, it’s those tests, more than any other single factor, that gave the Common Core power over what happens in the classroom. Even the SAT and ACT have become more Common Core friendly (the head of the College Board, producers of the SAT, is David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core).

As long as a state uses high-stakes testing as the foundation of its education evaluation program, whatever the test is aligned to will drive the school bus— and right now, all of those tests are aligned to the Common Core Standards.

Your Principal’s Principles

One of the great irony of the Common Core Standards is that there is no standardized way to align to them. When they rolled out, teaching staffs across the nation were piled into professional development sessions to learn how to “unpack” the standards and translate them into classroom pedagogy. Meanwhile, the folks who wrote the standards dispersed almost immediately releasing the Core into the wild; if you want to call an authority who can answer your questions about the standards, there is no such number, no central office working to insure that the standards are properly understood and applied.

This meant that local districts were on their own pretty much from Day One, which has meant that implementation has ranged from directives like “We will follow these standards to the letter” all the way to “Just get the standards blanks on lesson plans filled in.” Some administrators have held a strong line in defending their staff’s right to use their own best professional judgment, while others have aggressively championed the standards. It’s also worth noting that for a bad administrator, who lacks the knowledge or comfort level to deal with the messy and complex business of teaching, the standards were an easy out, a handy list to carry around.

High stakes testing has driven much of the standards adoption. For example, the ELA standards include some talking and listening standards, but those are never on the test, so many schools simply ignore them. How embedded the Core is in your school also depends on how concerned your administrators are about the test. In the early days, teachers heard a lot of, “Just teach the standards well, and the test scores will take care of themselves.” That turned out to be exceptionally untrue. So your administration may have implemented all sorts of programs to boost passing rates. All of these programs are tied to the Core.

In short, your district administration may have tried to limit the intrusion of Common Core, or they may have ground it into the district’s DNA. Both what they’re enforcing and how hard they’re enforcing it vary with location.

The Actual Classroom

There’s no way to collect hard data, but I’d wager that roughly 99% of the teachers in U.S. public schools have personally modified the standards, and that includes the ones who say they really like Common Core and enjoy using it.

A decade ago, the number would have been lower, because most teachers are good team players who will try what they’re commanded to try. But teachers are also likely to change what observably fails in the classroom. If whatever Common Core authority they’re following (and there are many) tells them to do X, they may try it a few times, but if it fails and fails and fails, they’ll change their practice. They may do it with administrative support or not. If administration enforces the Core with an iron hand, it may be hard to fight against being required to commit educational malpractice (and for the effects of that, I refer you to our teacher “shortage”), but all alignment to the Core really requires is some paperwork. And as a classroom teacher, you can claim just about anything is aligned to the Core.

The above factors will define the size of the cage that a teacher has been confined to, but for the final word on how much Common Core your child is really getting, a frank conversation with the classroom teacher is necessary.

Despite reports to the contrary, the Common Core is only mostly dead, more dead in some schools than in others.
Originally posted at