Thursday, April 30, 2020

How Will The Free Market Save The Most Challenging Students

Yesterday, Debbie Meyer put up a post at Project Forever Free that, unfortunately, does not strain the limits of credulity. It's about her journey as a parent and advocate, about the struggle to get her child the educational services that he's entitled to, and her subsequent work in helping other parents learn how to do the same.

Struggles between parents of students with special needs and the public school system are all too common. And yes, sometimes the parents want things that are simply not realistic and yes, the published versions of these battles are often missing critical information because the school cannot defend its position by opening up confidential student records. Even so, there can be no doubt that sometimes it takes a good-sized legal firestorm to get public school administrators off their butts and busy getting those students the educational services to which they are absolutely entitled.

I am not going to argue for a single second about the rightness of Meyer's story or suggest that there's something wrong in the advocacy work she does.

But it brings up a question that nags at me about charters, vouchers, ESAs and the whole spectrum of free market choice-centered ed reform ideas. Aside from my philosophical objections to such systems, I want to ask-- what happens to a child like this in a free market education system?

Early on in the article, Meyer says this:

I successfully advocated for my illiterate, suicidal fourth-grader to get a free and appropriate education at a school specializing in proper instruction for dyslexic kids and struggling readers.

"Free and appropriate education" is only a thing in public schools. If you tell me that parents like Meyer shouldn't have to hire lawyers and make phone calls and call for meeting after meeting and all manner of exertions to get their child that FAPE, I will absolutely agree with you. The level of advocacy that she talks about shouldn't be necessary, but here's the thing-- it's possible for parents dealing with public schools. A charter or private school--if they even accepted the student in the first place-- can offer a much simpler response to a parent like Meyer. "There's the door."

I understand how charter-choice fans envision certain parts of a free market education system would work. I think they're wrong, but I grasp their vision. But I've never seen an explanation of what is supposed to happen to a child like this.

A pubic school system cannot wash their hands of a child. Even if they say, "We can't/don't want to educate that child in our building," they must then foot the bill for a specialized school that can do the job. There is no corresponding responsibility in a choice system.

How is it supposed to work. Of the charters that will spring up, one will be interested in offering a costly program that will only serve a few students? In a voucher system, the voucher or ESA will provide enough money to cover tuition at a specialized private school for such students? Will charter and other private schools fall all over themselves competing for students who are difficult--and expensive--to educate? None of those things seems likely, at all. In a public school system, parents like Meyer ultimately have the law on their side (even though it shouldn't have to come to that). Who is on their side in a free market system? It can't be enough to have a politician say, "Here's a check. Good luck to you searching the marketplace for someone who both can and will educate your child."

Yes, this is the result of a philosophical issue, a fundamental shift from "The government is responsible for providing your child with a free and appropriate education" to "You now have the freedom to search the marketplace in hopes that it happens to make available what you need. See ya."

It's a philosophical issue, but these stories always remind me of parents I had known, and it is painful and distressing to watch them have to devote their time and energy to forcing a school to honor its legal obligation, but then I imagine them calling and sifting through a marketplace school by school and after they've rejected or been rejected by every available choice realizing that there is literally nothing else they can do, nobody they can call, nowhere to turn.

If you're a free marketeer, I invite you, sincerely, to tell me what I'm missing. In his book about Success Academy, Robert Pondiscio has an insightful line: "A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.” The answer, of course, has most often been that the public schools will shoulder that responsibility. But a mostly free market system where a small parallel public system is maintained as a catch-basket for students with special needs seems unlikely to make anyone happy.

Another possibility--one I've never seen discussed--is to make charter and choice schools bear the same weight of law as public schools, but I don't know how you would even begin to enforce such a thing--"Because Pat applied here, you have to accept Pat and you have to institute a program to meet Pat's special needs." How many ways would that school find to convince Pat's family to withdraw?

The public system may not much like the Debbie Meyers of the world some days, but they have to deal with them anyway. The free market education world does not, and I have to believe that's bad news for a lot of children.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

This Is Not What School Will Look Like

Good lord-- the advice/guidance/clever thoughts about how to re-open schools, particularly if any state decides to follow Trump's latest unfiltered brain fart, seem to have been generated, once again, by people who have not been inside a school since they became adults. In some cases, the advice appears to come from people who have never met tiny humans at all.

The CDC joins many folks advising that school desks should be six feet apart. This raises several issues.

First, many classrooms have zero desks. Primary grades often have few or minimal desks. High school labs or shops have benches, not desks.

Second, let's do some math. Imagining that each properly buffered student is in the center of a 6' x 6' square. That's 36 square feet of space, meaning that a class of twenty students would need 720 square feet of classroom-- so 20 feet by 36 feet, just for students. Increase the space if you want furniture like a teacher's desk or bookshelves or cupboards. The 36 square feet is not a new idea; apparently 35 square feet has been a long-standing standard for child center designs, though this article argues that 54 square feet is a better figure for the littles. For the older students, guidelines seem to fall around 30 square feet--but that decreases as the number of "stations" increases.

There are apparently "classic works" about the size of school rooms, and without putting further research into school construction, I can say that classrooms mostly probably have enough room to kind of pull this six feet distancing thing off-- if all classes are fifteen students or fewer. So all schools have to do is expand their teaching staff enough to bring class sizes down to the fifteen-or-fewer level. And find enough classrooms for all those additional classes they have to create.

So that problem is solved, provided we can simply teleport students into their seats. The problem, of course, is that students move around.

Authorities are suggesting, "Well, just stagger the movement between classes." On the elementary level, that's sort of doable. Though a teacher who is taking her class of fifteen to the library now has to monitor a string of students 84 feet long, which may be a bit of a challenge. On the high school level, the challenge is much larger. Since students do not move from class to class in one solid group, staggering class dismissals means that some students will "pile up" in front of classrooms where the students have been dismissed yet. This in turn creates more travelling bottlenecks in the hall. Routing students between classes so that no collections occur in the hall will be a major challenge for administrators. Teachers are also going to have to look at arrival time as a seating chart factor-- if Pat is the last to class and has to walk through other students' bubbles to get seated, then that's a problem.

The CDC says, "Eat lunch in the classroom" and that seems fine-- someone will have to deliver the lunches (can't have the students go through the line without sacrificing lunch lady social distancing), and every classroom will have to have a fridge for brown baggers. Doable. Though if your contract includes a duty-free lunch period for teachers, that will have to be revisited.

Entrance into the building in the morning? That could be kind of slow, particularly for schools that already have security sweeps and metal detectors. But if 100 students are waiting in line to enter, and they are standing 6 feet apart-- well, that's going to create its own kind of obstacle in the neighborhood.

Busing? Run the busses at 1/6 capacity and make six runs in the morning and afternoon? In an area like mine, where a bus run is sometimes 30-45 minutes, that would be a challenge, but maybe that's where you give different grades different start and finish times during the day. Going to be a challenge for multi-child families.

No recess? Or recess in distance bubbles? Phys ed class? I don't want to think about what elementary school kids will be like without any physical activity. Other classes are going to suffer as well; what exactly will a band or orchestra look like with members sitting six feet apart? Chorus?

And how does it work when a teacher has to keep saying, "Yes, I can help you with that problem, but only from over here." Teachers will have to master a whole new level of diligence for even the simplest things, like several students needing to sharpen pencils at the same time, or handing out workbooks or papers.

All of this, as expensive and annoying and ridiculous as some of it may seem, is probably doable at most schools (some specific locations will even have advantages, like schools where the rooms open on the outside and not on a hall). But none of these challenges is the largest one.


How do you convince students to comply with all of this?

What elementary students will comply with not running over to hug their best friends? What kind of play or social development occurs when children are required to play by themselves? When someone is sad and crying (an event that, I am told, occurs roughly every 22 minutes in the primary grades), which teacher is going to say, "I'm not going to hug you, and nobody else in here is allowed to, either."

On the high school level, where students take a certain delight in bucking the system, what is going to happen when all you have to do to be a rebel is get close enough to someone to touch them? And just how far will some schools go to put their foot down and discipline their way to compliance ("I'm sorry, Mrs. Wiggleworth, but Pat is suspended for repeatedly standing four feet away from other students").

And what kind of dreadful school culture grows in an environment where you are never supposed to get close enough people to look them in the eye or touch them?

I could go on and on; I'll bet those of you who are teachers have already thought of a million issues. The main point is this-- when folks like the CDC say, "Well, just space classroom desks six feet apart and have them eat lunch in the classrooms," they don't seem to understand that they have addressed roughly 6% of the issues that will come up in coronavirus school. It's going to take a huge amount of thinking through, and it would be useful (once again) if the Big Cheeses In Charge actually consulted the people who will be the boots on the ground for any such venture.

P.S. I have skipped over the part where a team of forty-seven maintenance people wipes down the entire school with bleach every half hour. Extra staff, extra people to distance around, and oh, the fumes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Khan Academy:This Is Better

We are just going to keep seeing these kinds of headlines until this mess is behind us: Khan Academy founder: Balance between in-person, online learning could be ‘silver lining’ of crisis.

Is it? Is it a silver lining that some ed tech folks are going to grab some market share over this? Khan Academy has seen a steady uptick in the use of their product, which, for those of you who somehow missed it, is a huge library of instructional videos (some of them especially aimed at test prep for SATs).

I confess to being highly skeptical about video instruction. If I stand in a classroom and deliver direct instruction, take no questions, and if prompted will only re-deliver the exact same instruction over and over again, then I am a lousy teacher. But somehow if I do all that on a video on line, I'm now a visionary genius. It's not that I see no place for instructional videos--I've watched plenty of great ones. But that's not teaching. It's particularly not teachig with younger vstudents.

“Even when we didn’t have school closures, their value was if I’m a teacher in a class with 30 students, how do I cater to their individual needs? ... So I’m hoping that as we come out of this the silver lining will be we will understand how to leverage both in the best possible ways,” Khan continued. “How to blend them, if you will.”

I think they can be blended in the same way that a sprig of decorative parsley is blended with a lobster dinner. It can be a nice extra touch, but A) everything will be just fine without it and B) if your lobster dinner is equal parts lobster and parsley, send it back.

Also, "Go watch this video" is not very awesome individualized instruction.

Khan offers other advice, too.

“What we’ve been doing is trying to provide extra support,” Khan said. “We’ve published schedules for parents and teachers so they can understand how to structure the day. We’ve just published some learning plans so students can understand not just how to keep learning through the end of the school year, but how to leverage summers so that the learning doesn’t stop.”

Schedules?! Yikes. And exactly what expertise does KA have in structuring the day? Go ahead-- scan their staff for folks with classroom teaching expertise, or whatever kind of formal training background that would qualify you to tell parents how to structure a day.

This is the hubris and opportunism of Silicon Valley ed tech-- I've come up with one useful little tool, so I'm now an expert on how the entire construction project.

Look, I know this is hard, and everybody wants to find a way to help, but too many ed tech outfits seem to think the pandemic pause is their moment, their chance to rise to greater prominence, to build their brand, to drive the bus. It's not helpful.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Rethinking Accountability For Education, Post-Pandemic.

It made sense for states to cancel the big end-of-year standardized reading and math test even before it became obvious that many students will never be back to school this spring to take the tests. In this extraordinary year, the tests were never going to supply valid data that could be compared to other years. 

Now that this year looks to be a “short” year for students, the same argument should be made for next year’s test as well. If (please, God) students go back to school next fall, most will be starting out with less preparation than any class in recent memory. Not only will they have been shorted academic content, but primary students who haven’t been in a classroom in over half a year will not easily slip back into a school routine in just a day or two. In other words, next year will also be a short year. The Big Standardized Tests would once again be a waste of time, time that could be better spent on instruction.
But for the past 20 years, the Big Standardized Test has been the center of accountability for school districts, individual schools, and classroom teachers. With the test on hold, this is the perfect time to revisit accountability tools for education.

Some folks have tried to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic underlines the importance of testing and therefor underlines the importance of our old high stakes testing system. In fact, it does the opposite. COVID-19 testing is a simple binary; do you have the virus or not? But it is absurd to suggest that a single standardized math and reading test can somehow answer a binary question like, “Is this child well-educated or not?” Even ed reform fans have known for a while that the big standardized test does not deliver useful information. The pandemic reminds us that when it comes to testing, you need something that provides a clear answer to a clear question.

It’s time to scrap the big standardized high-stakes tests entirely, and replace them with a system that would provide real accountability. Any such system will need to start by answering a few simple questions.

The defining question for any accountability system is this:

Accountable to whom, for what?

The “to whom” part is the hard part of educational accountability, because classroom teachers serve a thousand different masters.

Teachers need to be accountable to their administration, to their school board, to their students, to the parents of their students, to the taxpayers who fund the school and pay their salaries, to the state, to the students’ future employers, and to their own colleagues. School administrators also need to be accountable to those various stakeholders, but in different ways. Each set of stakeholders also has a wide variety of concerns; some parents are primarily concerned with academic issues, while others give priority to their child’s emotional health and happiness. 

Parents may want to know if their children are on track for future success, or how their children’s progress compares to others. Those are two different measures, just as “How tall is my child” and “Is my child the tallest in class” are two different questions, each of which can be answered without answering the other.

Taxpayers want to know if they’re getting their money’s worth. State and federal politicians may want to see if benchmarks they have imposed on schools are being met. Teachers want to know how well their students are learning the various content the teachers have been delivering. Administrators may want to identify their “best” and “worst” teachers. School boards may want to know if their new hires are on track.

Answers to every single one of these questions require different measures collected with different tools. Some questions can’t be answered at all (there is no reliable way to rank teachers best-to-worst). One of the biggest fallacies of the ed reform movement has been the notion that a single multiple-choice math and reading test can somehow measure everything.

The reform dream was to be able to reduce school quality to a simple data point, a score or letter grade that tells us whether a school is any good or not. This is foolish. Ask any number of people to describe their idea of an “A” school; no two descriptions will match. A single grade system must by definition be reductive and useless for anything except as a crude tool for punishing some schools and marketing others.

Teachers and their unions are not opposed to accountability; they are opposed to accountability measures that are random and invalid. Meanwhile, accountability discussions never seem to include measures that would hold politicians accountable for getting schools the support and resources that they need. A good example would be the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law that Congress passed to hold schools accountable for properly educating students with specials needs, and also a law that Congress has never come close to fully funding

K-12 school accountability is possible and desirable. Robust and useful methods are out there (check out Jack Schneider’s Beyond Test Scores for a good example). But any system that could offer true accountability in education requires long, complicated conversations (involving more than policy wonks, lobbyists and politicians) about what exactly we want to measure, how it can be measured, and how we want to use the data. The high-stakes testing model was slammed into place without any such conversation. 

The argument has often been that such conversations would take too much time. Well, we’ve got plenty of time right now, and a situation that can help clear our thinking about what we really, really want from schools. Let the conversations begin.
Originally posted at

Sunday, April 26, 2020

ICYMI: How Many Weeks Has It Been Now Edition (4/26)

Well, on it goes. Here's some reading from the week. Remember, your choices about which voices to amplify make a difference.

COVID Stimulus Funds for Private School Vouchers 

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider takes a look at Jeb Bush's old crew at ExcelInEd (formerly FEE) and their idea that stimulus funds should be repurposed to boost school vouchers.

Parents Worried about Special Ed Vouchers   

Rebecca Klein at HuffPost looks at the issues and concerns surrounding the question of whether or not to allow IDEA waivers for school districts struggling wit getting crisis education to students with special needs. Also, there's a picture of Betsy DeVos that makes it look like she has a halo, so that's something.

9 Ways Schools Will Look Different   

Anya Kamenetz at NPR looks at some predictions about how Corona-school might look when it starts up. Important to note that Corona-school looks kind of expensive.

Compassion and Grace  

Accountabaloney looks at a remarkable piece of guidance from, of all things, Georgia's state school superintendent. Worth the read.

Why Don't We Have Internet for All?  

The Have You Heard podcast looks at the origins of the digital divide.

Every Chid Left Behind  

Nancy Flanagan on how a little flexibility and care might avert some of the "crises" we're facing.

6 Reasons Students Aren't Logging On  

At EdWeek, Peter DeWitt looks at some of the reasons that online crisis education isn't getting traction with everyone.

Tacoma Teachers Struggle To Connect With Students

from the News Tribune, a look at the specific issues faced by teachers in tracking down their missing students. (See? It's not just you.)

A Trombonist Wonders When An Audience Will Gather 

Okay, not actually education related, except that this is one of my former students.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Defending the Future of the Big Standardized Test

What has happened to our beloved Big Standardized Test? Why do people keep picking on it? And can we lift it back up to its hallowed heights of the past? I have a report sitting in one of my tabs here that wants to answer those questions, yet somehow falls short. It's FutureEd's report The Big Test, and it is yet another attempt to repackage reformster alternate earth history. It's not super long, but I've read it so that you don't have to. Thank goodness I took my blood pressure meds today. Buckle up and let's go.

Who Are These People?

FutureEd is a project of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. It was founded by Thomas Toch, whose previous work included some edu-flavored thinky tanks and executive director of Independent Education, a private school network in DC, and an editor at US News. He is one more self-declared education policy expert who has apparently never taught in a K-12 classroom.

FutureEd launched a few years back, with declarations of independence and lack of bias; one more entry in the "new conversation" pageant. But its independence was all that one can expect from a group funded by the City Fund, the Waltons, and Bill and Melinda Gates. Their senior fellows are drawn from 50CAN, Bridge International Academies, Education Trust, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Alliance for Excellent Education, and NewSchools Venture Fund. It's a whole blooming field of Reformsters without any traditional public education advocates anywhere in sight.

Their stated mission these days-- " committed to bringing fresh energy to the causes of excellence, equity, and efficiency in K-12 and higher education." This report is part of a series of initiatives on the future of standardized testing being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

So that's where this report is coming from. Let's dive in.

Setting the Stage

It's a solid dramatic opening, starting with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp  announcing plans to cut testing because, he said, "Georgia simply tests too much." How did we get here? This opening section is going to introduce a set of familiar themes that the full report plans to hammer home.

Pressure to reduce testing has come from many, often confounding sources: teachers’ unions and their progressive allies opposed to test-based consequences for schools and teachers; conservatives opposed to what they consider an inappropriate federal role in testing; suburban parents who have rallied against tests they believe overly stress their children and narrow instruction; and educators who support testing but don’t believe current regimes are sufficiently helpful given how much teaching time they consume.

Not sure what's "confounding" here other than some of the familiar inaccuracies in this list. There's the old "teachers and their unions don't want to be held accountable" trope. Conservatives upset by "what they consider" as overreach (but, you know, that's just their opinion). A nod to Arne Duncan's "white suburban moms" who don't want to find out their kids aren't so smart. Note that these parents "believe" that tests cause stress and narrow instruction-- it's just a thing they believe, for some reason.

Every critical opposition to the test is either inaccurately characterized, or carefully marked as what Those People believe. What's missing from the list is what's missing from the entire report-- there's not a shred of blame given to the tests themselves.

Testing, the report assures us, was going to be awesome. It would make sure we were getting a "return on a national investment in public education that reached $680 billion last year." It would "spur school improvement." It would ensure that needs of underserved students were being met. It would highlight achievement gaps and allow for "objective" comparison of "achievement" across all lines. It would identify needed adjustments to instructional programs. And here just four paragraphs I, is the report's first clue about the BS Test's fundamental problem-- you need different tests for different purposes, not an unfounded belief that a single test can somehow meet a dozen different goals.

What has fueled test resistance? "Union communications and lobbying campaigns, right wing media personalities, and misconceptions about the extent of state testing." Yup, the tests get a bad rap because of PR campaigns based on counterfactual stuff. And this, repeatedly, will be the guiding principle of this report-- when your beloved program is running into trouble, look everywhere for causes except at the program itself. In a classroom, when a teacher says, "My lesson is perfect but those little SOBs messed it all up," this is what we call bad teaching.

And their misconceptions are up to date. They note that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has waived the BS Test requirements for this school year. "The move, and the consequent loss of a year’s worth of longitudinal data, could further reduce the standing of state tests." Sigh. If you don't understand that the year's worth or longitudinal data was already gone, washed away in a pandemic tide of school closings and trauma, or if you imagined that somehow we could just pull the students back in to at least take the test so we'd have some data, as if that data wouldn't be junk, then you really don't understand the situation.

They do correctly note that ESSA is a "bulwark" against the rising call to do away with BS Tests entirely. And here's where they're headed with all this:

But a close analysis of the political landscape of standardized testing makes clear that unless a new generation of tests can play a more meaningful role in classroom instruction, and unless testing proponents can reconvince policymakers and the public that state testing is an important ingredient of school improvement and integral to advancing educational equity, annual state tests and the safeguards they provide are clearly at risk.

Yes. Yes, they are. Thank heavens.

History Lesson: The Rise Of Testing

Back in the 1960s, there was "scant information" about how well students were doing. Well, unless you count report cards and stuff. I'm not sure if the implication is that prior to the 1960s things were great, or if we just don't care that far back, or if we're avoiding the consideration of all the great things that were accomplished by people who came through that terrible system (how did we ever get to the moon?) But for bureaucratic purposes, something else was needed, particularly to see if the War on Poverty was working. So we got the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), about which we've had serious questions ever since.

So then we got accountability movements and standards movements and local school districts still kept worrying more about their local concerns than in producing satisfying data for federal bureaucrats. So every state had to set standards, and then every state had to test those standards, and those movements got us unironically stated ideas like "The increased requirements reflected a belief that for every child in America to achieve high standards, schools needed to track the learning of every student every year against those standards and be held accountable for the results" because weighing the pig helps it grow. The report does include this accurate sentence:

National leaders simply didn’t trust local educators to do the right thing for low-income students and students of color, so they tried to force them to act, in part, by imposing far more transparency and accountability via testing. 

The sentence is accurate even if you stop twelve words in. And in fairness to the feds, plenty of regions have proven themselves to be extraordinarily untrustworthy when it comes to looking out for non-wealthy non-white students. What has never been clear is how the BS Test would help. We know that test results mostly reflect socio-economic background. Nor has an underperforming school that was otherwise a secret been "uncovered" by BS Test results. One has to wonder why this accountability never extended to obvious things like states and districts that spent far less on non-white non-wealthy students than others, or legislators who refused to address either the symptoms or causes of poverty and systemic racism.

The report suggests that No Child Left Behind was "designed to shed a bright light on education inequities" but then notes that states responded by narrowing instruction to fit test subjects, by piling on "practice" or "progress" tests to check students' BS Test prospects, and by using tests that could be scored quickly and cheaply. Thing is, all of these responses were totally predictable, and were, deliberately or not, exactly what NCLB was designed to do. And all of these lessons were ignored when the feds shifted us to Common Core related PARCC/SBA/Whatever tests.

Building Backlash

So, there we were in the 90s with states holding an "indifferent commitment" to higher standards-- a moment that could have prompted the feds to ask "are these standards really higher" or "does it work to try to impose this stuff top down" or even, "why is our initiative failing"? They didn't ask those questions, but instead doubled down and resolved to fail harder.

The report marks the founding of Achieve, a group of politicians and businessmen (but not educators--never actual educators) that helped lay the groundwork for Common Core and continued to advocate for standards, testing and other reform disruptors. Funny story about Achieve-- they've just decided to close up shop.

There follows here a fun new version of the CCSS origin story-- in this one CCSSO and NGA were just finishing up their draft of the Common Core coincidentally at the same time that the Obama administration was launching Race To The Top, and so governors asked if they could be allowed to use federal funds to help implement Common Core and some aligned tests. This leaves out many parts, some of which are included in depth in this great piece by Lyndsey Layton (if you've never read it, do so now-- seriously, I'll wait) and also seems to miss the part where the RTTT and the waivers that followed sort-of kinda required states to adopt CCSS. The report says that states were "spurred in part by the prospect of federal largesse," which skips the part where states were facing the 2014 NCLB deadline requiring them to have 100% above-average standards testing results for their students or be penalized UNLESS they agreed to the Obama administration plans. So, spurred by largesse and also kind of extortiony stuff, too.

Enter the Tea Party, which didn't like the federal overreach (and which fed a crazy huge number of bizarre claims about the Core). Also, it's worth noting that not every conservative who objected to the policies was a Tea Party radical. And enter also the teachers union; the report again levels the critique that the teachers didn't like the tests of "the new accountability they represented" and a rank and file who didn't like their livelihood dependent on test results. The report seems to want to blame the opt-out movement on teachers, which is a real slap in the face to the many parent activists who actually made the movement happen. The report focuses on the lobbying and PR resistance launched by these groups; it does not consider the possibility that teachers didn't like having their evaluation linked to test scores soaked in VAM sauce because of the giant pile of evidence that the evaluation system was invalid and unreliable. The report, bizarrely, cites three books about the issue-- The Test, by Anya Kamenetz; The Testing Charade, by Daniel Koretz; and Beyond Test Scores, by Jack Schneider. It mentions these books adding fuel to the fire, but the report does not crack those books open to consider any of their criticism of the test. That would have been a wise move; Koretz does a particularly good job of laying out why the BS Tests have failed, and failed to gain fans.

Obama Retreats

Remember when Arne Duncan and the Obama administration retreated on the whole testing thing? Yeah, me neither. Duncan made some noises about how maybe testing was going too far, and how it was a Bad Thing that schools were narrowing curriculum to boost test scores, without ever considering his own policy role in those occurrences. The report mentions the cap idea-- that states make sure only 2% of class time be spent on testing-- which simply missed the point. It's the test prep that sucks up a ton of time, the narrowing of curriculum that damaged education for many students. From out here in the cheap seats, all I ever saw was Duncan/Obama trying to have it both ways, to look and sound sympathetic without ever providing any useful relief to the problem and especially to never, ever take any ownership of it.

Eventually ESSA happened, which sort of provided some relief, but still worshipped at the altar of the testing cult and added some crazy-pants ideas, like using the SAT and the ACT as the official Big Standardized Test for the school, a purpose for which they were neither designed nor suited.

What Legislators Did

One piece of actual research in this report is a look at what states introduced and enacted in the way of test-relief bills. Lots introduced, sixty-some enacted. Reducing the number of tests was most popular, with shortening the test and capping testing time right behind.

This pushback, the report confirms, has been mostly bipartisan-- sort of. While occasionally anti-testing bills have bipartisan origins, it's also true that in some areas, one party or the other is leading the charge. And they cite a bunch of lobbying, mostly by teachers unions.

What About Teachers And Their Unions

"Teachers' take on testing is complex," says the report, saying that teachers favor testing when its useful, but not when it isn't, which doesn't really seem that complex unless you are actively resisting the insight that the BS Tests have not been useful. The report's take on the unions is complex in the sense that it's, well--

Teacher union leaders are forthright about not wanting their teachers held accountable for their students’ achievement on standardized tests, and about their opposition to high-stakes school accountability more generally.

There's no footnote for this assertion, but I have yet to ever hear or read a union leader saying any version of "we don't want teachers to be held accountable..." I've heard lots of people say that the BS Tests and VAM goop (the report never gets into VAM) are a lousy way to measure teacher effectiveness, but the repeated implication that teachers are anti-accountability, which in turn implies that they are lousy slackers trying to hide their slackness-- I've heard that plenty, and I'm hearing its echo here. They do offer some Randi Weingarten quotes including the correct observation that "there was a fixation on the teachers and the consequences for the teachers rather than a fixation on what children needed."

They cite a survey from the Center on Education Research indicating that teachers like standardized tests, plus a survey from Educators for Excellence, a teacher union-alternative reform group says so, too. Education Next, another pro-reform publication found that public likes the tests, and NWEA-- a test manufacturing company-- said their research also shows all the standardized test love. No, says the report, it's just those damn unions throwing their weight around.

Time On Testing  

This point was popular with Duncan. People object to the BS Tests because they are confusing it with all those other tests.

For instance, schools use a lot of interim tests and practice tests and let's-find-out-which-kids-need-extra-prep tests, none of which are actually mandated by the feds. Which is true, but fails to understand how high stakes testing works. Imagine you lead a school band, and you know you have a major performance coming up, a performance that has high stakes for you and your musicians. If your boss says, "No big deal-- don't rehearse or prepare or anything, just hand out the music and sight read it the day of the concert," would you listen to that advice? Of course not.

A central issue of BS Testing is that proponents imagine that the test is frictionless and simple, that if a student has the skills, they can be quickly and seamlessly used anywhere else. But authentic assessment means that the assessment task closely resembles the practiced skill, and nothing resembles taking a poorly designed multiple choice test on a computer more than, well, doing that same thing. The BS Tests, just as in the days of NCLB, have been designed to be cheaply and quickly administered-- NOT to measure the things that we say we want to measure. So schools spend plenty of time practicing doing the exact things that the BS Test wants to measure.

Solutions For The Future?

Well, the report hints at liking the competency-based all-testing, all-the-time model, where we just keep hitting students with little standardized tests all through the year. Also, the ESSA allows states to putz around, so there's that. But the report is showing the same old problems. At one point they quote an expert who says

States, with the cooperation and collaboration of local districts, need to develop systems of assessment that balance the state [accountability] program with assessments that actually help kids learn.

And then later quotes another expert who says they need testing "that requires actually getting
the school-improvement side of state accountability systems right.” Plus testing has to address parents, they say, who are more interested in their child's performance than school system performance. Those are not the same thing, and they would require different tests used in different ways. As long as the dream is a single test that can serve a dozen different purposes, the BS Test will be a waste of time and money.

Hurry! Hurry!!

The report imagines a race against time, citing the "pincer movement" between the union and the Tea Party that almost hurt testing in 2015 while ESSA was coming into being. But, they say, "the support of education organizations like the Education Trust and the Council of Great City Schools won the day on Capitol Hill." Well, maybe. But it's not really a great thing when those kind of corporate reform edu-amateurs carry the day. Dismissing Diane Ravitch as a polemicist instead of listening to what she has to say is also not useful.

But the report is concerned that with reauthorization of ESSA looming in the--well, it will probably happen sooner or later-- and the tide running against testing, maybe the next version of an education bill won't have the BS Test's back. And the last paragraph of the whole thing shows a breath of honesty and then, well--

That leaves school reformers in a race against the clock to create testing systems that are more valuable to educators and parents and that offer meaningful windows into school and student performance without overwhelming teach- ers and principals. That is, they’re in a race to change the national narrative on standardized testing.

No! Not the same thing. "Come up with tests that are useful and not-sucky' is not the same as "craft some better PR to control the narrative."

So What's Missing Here? 

When you build a hammer out of jello and builders reject it as a useless tool, you do not have a PR problem or a narrative problem. You aren't the victim of lobbying by the carpenters' union or some radical Wood House Society. Your problem is that you have created a hammer that doesn't do the job it was intended to do.

The BS Test has always had a jello hammer problem, on top of claims that not only could it be used to hammer nails, but it could also drive screws and strip paint and smooth concrete and patch drywall.

The BS Test was created with a promise that it would be usable for multiple purposes, and yet it was actually created for none of them, but to be easy to administer and score. It measures what test makers think is easy to measure, not what anybody actually wants it to measure. The report is worried that losing the tests will also lose "the safeguards they provide," but all these years in, and nobody has really made a case for the safeguards. Where are the compelling stories of schools that were struggling, but then BS Test results turned them around? Because we have far more stories of how some states (looking at you, Florida) have used this accountability system to target schools for privatization, or to signal vultures that this neighborhood would be a good place to move in an edu-business (still looking at you, Florida).

If the BS Tests had generated usable, accurate data-- if they had actually been useful-- then they might have been widely embraced, despite their top-down imposition. But they were wielded as a threat ("This is how we'll catch all those terrible teachers who are ruining schools") and their data was tied to punishments, not improvements. And their data has been shown, again and again and again, to be flawed and unreliable. They have taken the broad, expansive vision of US education, to provide a strong foundation for young people to nourish their interests and abilities and build the future they dream of, and reduced it to a meagre, cramped goal-- get a good score on a math and reading standardized test. High stakes testing has forced a small, uninspiring, dim view of what schools should be.

If the folks at FutureEd are really concerned about the future of the Big Standardized Test, I suggest they stop looking everywhere but at the test itself. I suggest they listen to the critics and consider what truth those critics have to offer. If they don't like listening to teachers and parents, I can recommend fellow thinky tankers like Jay Greene, from the very reform Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, who has pointed out at great length that raising test scores shows zero connection to improving student life outcomes. I suggest they consider, really honestly, what might be wrong with high stakes testing policy itself; stop treating it as a PR problem and look at it as a product problem.

The authors are sad that this year's test has been scrapped. I have more bad news-- next year's test may very well also be a waste of everyone's time, to be either canceled or to generate data from a situation so unique as to bear no comparison to any other data. At this rate, we might get used to living without the BS Test, and I haven't seen anything to make me think that would be a bad thing.

As Schools Tackle Coronavirus Pause, Don’t Forget Career And Technical Education Students.

At this juncture, nearly all schools in this country have been shut down, forcing teachers, families, and students to grapple with some form of crisis schooling. The need for teachers to teach and students to learn at a distance has sparked discussion of many issues. How do schools keep contact with students who have little or no access to the internet? How do teachers construct useful materials while holding in place inside their own homes? How do parents adapt to this involuntary version of home schooling?
Some of the biggest discussions, from the local level all the way up to the federal department of education, have centered on the challenge of providing crisis schooling for students with special needs. But there is one other group of students who face unique concerns, and there has been far less discussion about how the coronaviral hiatus will affect them—career and technical education students.
You can't practice this on line
My former district is part of consortium that has run a very good CTE school for many decades, training students in fields including welding, building construction, auto body repair, home health services, and operating heavy equipment. For most of my career, these students passed through my classroom, and I cannot overstate how much they have benefited from these excellent programs.
There is an obvious problem. One cannot practice welding, frame a house, or take a patient’s blood pressure over the internet. While CTE students do a great deal of book work (more, perhaps, than many folks assume), there is a hands-on element that is critical to their education. 
The director of the school told me that the state has made the software education package Edgenuity available to them to cover some of the academic areas. Edgenuity has been around awhile, particularly in the area of credit recovery (making up missed credits), and it is not without controversy stemming from questions about how easily it can be gamed (including access to online answer banks like this and this). The director is also looking for other sources for materials that may help, working with sending schools and the state to “offer a plan that is as rigorous as we can.” But as with many aspects of crisis schooling, the local district is largely left on its own to solve the problems of crisis schooling.
The federal government is offering some long term help. On Tuesday, Education Secretary DeVos offered new deadline flexibility for districts that are hoping to tap into some of the resources promised by the proposed budget increase for CTE. Originally, state CTE plans for 2020-2023 were due by April 15. Under current conditions, that’s a daunting deadline. The states, in turn, are allowed to extend the deadline for local applications by three months
That’s helpful for preparing for the coming years, but the roughly 12 million CTE students in the US (particularly seniors) have more immediate concerns about completing their actual training. The state has also canceled the major CTE tests, the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) and the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) tests. While these are tests that students could not prepare for under current conditions, they are also tests that provide industry credentials.
On all levels, officials and educators are looking for creative solutions to the problems posed by the great coronavirus pause of 2020. Here’s hoping that some of that creative thinking is directed at CTE programs, whose students stand to lose an important chunk of their education.
Originally posted at

Still Trying To Stump For Common Core

Education Next's spring issue is featuring a little Common Core debate, asking if the Core worked. There are three responses in the actual debate, plus a sort of bonus response in a separate article. I'm sorry to report that many of the same delusions that brought us the Core disruption of education are still firmly in place. Let's take each of these one at a time. Warning-- every one of these guys is going to talk about scores on the Big Standardized Test as if that's a valid measurement of student growth and achievement. It's not, but it's what they're going to use.

Tom Loveless: Common Core Has Not Worked 

Loveless notes that failed education standards "do not flop spectacularly," by which he means there's no good footage of something blowing up. But he's looked at the research, and he has the receipts. And he has one damning item that doesn't usually come up-- effective textbooks are being rejected to make room for texts that are more perfectly aligned with the Core standards. Here's his finish:

In short, the evidence suggests student achievement is, at best, about where it would have been if Common Core had never been adopted, if the billions of dollars spent on implementation had never been spent, if the countless hours of professional development inducing teachers to retool their lessons had never been imposed. When will time be up on the Common Core experiment? How many more years must pass, how much more should Americans spend, and how many more effective curricula must be pushed aside before leaders conclude that Common Core has failed?

Morgan Polikoff: Common Standards Aren't Enough

Polikoff likewise looks at the research and finds the results unimpressive. However, Polikoff has suspects to blame.

For one, it's our old friend implementation, and the classic reformster complaint that people are having trouble with the Core because they aren't doing it right. For instance, studies find that teachers keep using their own professional judgment instead of the Core's, an entirely predictable place for teachers to be a decade later. Teachers will try anything they're directed to try once or twice; they won't keep using things that don't work. Polikoff blames the structures in the system.

But he finds the new reformster push for "quality curriculum" promising, likes the dream of teacher improvement "at scale," and credits the Core for preparing the path for a national curriculum market (which is as it was designed to do). Polikoff looks into the future and sees schools that are awful and in disarray, and he would like to "clean the policy clutter." He advocates for states requiring that schools choose from a short list of approved texts, making me wonder if a state like, say, Texas, where the state approves just one text, get superior results. He asks if the country really needs 10,000 school districts? He's not advocating a federal takeover, mind you, but the states really ought to look into the issue.

Local control is important? Students are different? Polikoof pooh-poohs both ideas, and he points to Success Academy and KIPP, where teachers are expected to comply with the school-approved program. But that's a lousy example-- Success Academy is quite brutal in blocking and pushing out students and families that don't comply with their model. They pick their one size, and instead of insisting that it fits all, they only teach the students that it does fit.

Ultimately Polikoff concludes that standards have done all they can do (which, you may recall, is hardly anything) and it's time to change the system to one that, as I understand his point, is even more standardized, compliance-centered, and one-size-fits-ally than the Core tried to make it. There are so many reasons this is a lousy idea, but one of the biggest problems with a soul-crushing compliance-centered, professional-silencing system is that it has to be run by people who know what the One True Answer Is, and who are always right. I'm betting zero dollars on that.

Mike Petrilli: Stay the Course on National Standards

No surprises here. Petrilli agrees that "there's little evidence such progress has happened at scale" but he adds one word-- yet. Because if we just stay the course...

Petrilli offers what I'd call a slightly altered and therefor incorrect explanation of the Core, calling it "essentially lists of what students should know and be able to do" as they move through school, except I'd argue there is no "what they should know" in the Core-- just "skills" they are to demonstrate. The content hollowness of the Core has always been one of its major flaws. He also attaches the whole "college and career readiness" thing-- "The Common Core itself was explicit that young people who met its expectations would indeed be ready for what comes after high school." It did like to make that promise, but what was always missing was a shred of evidence that the standards "would indeed be ready." And one of the things that hasn't happened in the last decade is that colleges have not been sending up flares saying, "Wow! These incoming freshpersons are so very ready!!" As for the "career" part? That was always a late addition, recognizing that it was bad optics to leave those folks out-- but the Core has never pretended to be connected to career and work world stuff at all.

In Petrilli's alternate universe history, the Core "led to higher-quality and more rigorous asessments." But it didn't, and even reformsters have come to recognize that the Core-aligned Big Standardized Tests were junk. The reformster argument is that the combo of standards and testing forced schools to raise their standards. Nope-- it caused schools to focus a whole lot of time and effort on test prep, st first chasing the notion that meeting the standards would cause test scores to go up, and when that didn't happen, shifting to straight-on test practice and test prep.

Petrilli also sees the road forward as pushing top-down approved curriculum materials, with coaching for teachers, and then maybe we'll see the NAEP scores go up-- whatever that would mean.Kepp on the Common Core initiaitve, but add some curricular steering as well. Remember ten years ago when disruptors kept saying, "No! No! The Core is not dictating curriculum! You can still do that part-- these are just standards and guidelines to help you with that." Well, they take it back.

Bonus Round: Michael W. Kirst: In California, Common Core Has Not Failed

Tom Loveless made Kirst, a former California State Board of Education member, sad. He's in another parallel universe, and from there he wants to dispatch three rebuttals to the mean things Loveless wrote.

First, the NAEP is a lousy measure of student progress, but the SBA is awesome. He is half right. His description of the SBA is, well, optimistic.

California uses the Smarter Balanced computer adaptive assessment that includes extended responses where students must defend their answers and complete an hour-long performance exam that requires evaluating evidence and solving a problem.

Well, it uses some standardized test format stuff to pretend to do those things. It's true that some writing items are scored locally, but we're still talking a narrow test with limited range, highly coachable and unlikely to tell us anything about critical thinking or any subject matter that isn't math or ELA. Arguing that it's better than NAEP is like debating whether you'd rather be mugged with a knife or a club.

Second, Kirst wants you to know that some SBA scores went up. In third and fourth grade. Which is swell, but if those gains are lost in later grades, what exactly are we getting excited about?

Third, Kirst wants you to know that California didn't really have ten years because it took them a while to get up to speed, what with new standards and the great recession of 2008, etc. And he has surveys that say that teachers are getting in the Core swing of things. And more better aligned materials.


The problem in all four instances is the definition of "works," which is "gets better scores on that one Big Standardized Test we give every year." Does getting a higher score mean they'll do better at college or in a job? Nobody knows, but there's no evidence that it might. Do students who get a thorough Core soaking go on to lead healthier, happier, more productive lives? Does it make them smarter? Are they better citizens who would, for instance, not drink bleach just because a powerful adult tells them to?

Common Core failed for a variety of reasons. Top-down implementation--especially when the people who designed the damn thing don't even stick around to help with or oversee the implementation-- is doomed to failure. The Core was assembled and promoted by amateurs, and has no research base-- including any research on whether or not universal standards improve education. The Core has been rewritten "in the field" a gazillion times, to the point that nobody who talks about the Core is talking about the same thing as anyone else. The Core wanted to be a one size fits all answer to a question it couldn't even answer--

The Core was used as a way to avoid the big question instead of answering it. What are schools supposed to do? Instead of talking about that, Core promoters just skipped right over it to say, "Well, school is supposed to teach these standards so that they can be measured by these tests." The Core boxed out 80% of the school curriculum and did a lousy job with the math and English is tried to address, and it set the stage for a bunch of bad actors to try some other forms of disruption on the school system, like "score " public schools so they could be labeled failing, and milk students for data that would ostensibly measure their worth as future meat widgets.

The Common Core was a failure by every measure, and those places where folks are saying, "Look, we're doing it and it's great" are simply animating the Core's dead skin with their own locally produced ideas. At this point nobody is doing exactly what David Coleman and Bill Gates wanted them to, which is great. But it would be even greater if we could stop pretending that it was ever anything except a waste of money and time.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Remotely Teaching Humanity

It is one of the more arresting headlines I've seen in a while. Atop a new blog at Inside Higher Ed, we find this question:

Can remote teaching make us more human?

Well, now.

Short answer.


Slightly less short answer.

I suppose that anything can make us more human if we use the experience to reflect on our humanity.

Long answer.

The authors, Caroline Levander and Peter Decherney, are a pair of humanities professors "turned online learning leaders," so at least this isn't just a pair of ed tech company execs pushing their wares. But I'm not sure they make their case here. And their opening paragraph doesn't build my confidence:

Is online teaching a wasteland of impersonal interaction, dehumanizing rote learning and impoverished communication? Or is it education’s holy grail, equalizing opportunity and access, opening up classrooms to the masses, and now ensuring that the world can continue to be educated while a pandemic closes public spaces, including schools and universities?

The answer, of course, is neither. It's not a wasteland, but with the digital divide yawning widely and wildly, it is certainly not "equalizing opportunity and access."

After noting the obvious exodus to online education, they offer some historical perspective, mentioning correspondence courses, radio course and television courses. I'm not entirely sure why, unless the point is that we've tried this kind of stuff before, and it has never really caught hold and lasted. But I don't think that's where they're going.

They wrap up the survey with early online universities, MOOCs, and "celebrity professors teaching blockbuster courses to throngs of passive learners." Their point here is that while this "broadcast-style teaching" has been going on, research and technology has been creating "a mature field of online learning that fosters interactive, engaged pedagogy." Presumably this field is going to be the subject of this ongoing blog; I look forward to reading because I'm going to need convincing. But moving on...

They note that universities have been moving to offer all their courses remotely in short time, with everyone curious about the technical aids available. And now we arrive at their central point:

The biggest revelations, however, have been about the human not the technical dimension of teaching. While teaching is physically remote, we are learning that it can be much more personal than on-campus teaching. Remote teaching requires us to become more aware of the human condition of our students.

I'm cringing a little now. Levander and Decherney acknowledge that the business of coming to college allows students to leave their home situations behind, but still-- are you telling me that ordinarily college professors are truly that oblivious to the "human conditions of their students"? Because if they are, they're doing it wrong.

The authors also suggest that faculty reveal their humanity by fumbling for the mute button or asking for technical help or having the pets, children and wallpaper of their homes appear on camera. And then the finish:

The 21st-century version of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home that we have created this spring appears to be less institutionalized, less curated and less controlled than what came before. It also appears to be more human and more accommodating -- more tailored to the primal rhythms of student and faculty life, to who we really are when push comes to shove. For many, this is a great loss, and for others it is eye-opening. But one thing is clear: we aren’t going back to business as usual any time soon, and education may become more human as a result.

There's a lot to unpack here. First, I'm not sure how accurate this is-- less curated and controlled seems unlikely when you are personally controlling the device through which everything gets into your course. Every video or image or digitized anything will be selected and, well, curated by you, the professor. Nor am I sure what they mean by "more accommodating." Asynchronous instruction online is more accommodating (students can watch at their convenience), but then we're back to the broadcast-based that the authors said this was a contrast to. If we're doing synchronous instruction, then it's no more accommodating than any other class that is scheduled for a specific hour. I suppose you could be accommodating by saying, "I'm going to be in my zoom classroom all day-- just stop by when it works for you," but that seems not very accommodating for professors.

And at the end, I'm still not sure where the "more human" comes from. Because you can see one small piece of the student's home? Because you can see their faces, sort of? This whole post just keeps driving me back to the same question-- just how inhuman and institutionalized does your regular classroom have to be that this seems better? Because an awful lot of the remote teaching experience I'm hearing about from K-12s is more like this post ("Remote teaching isn't even remotely teaching"). Do you never look at your students, check to see their body language, their facial expressions? Do you never have them write anything that involves any of their own personal experience or background? Do you never talk to them? And how hard is it to maintain a steely professorial wall so that none of your own humanity shows?

Maybe it's the difference between K-12 and college educators. K-12 study teaching, and college profs mostly don't. College students are more grown and better at not letting their raw young selves hang out all over the place. Universities are okay with putting a few hundred students in one giant classroom.

Or maybe when Levander and Decherney will, in the weeks ahead, unveil some specifics that help me better get what they're saying. But mostly at this point I'm thinking that all of this human stuff was completely doable when you were in your classroom, and in fact should be more doable for a college professor who is not tied to a classroom for seven straight hours five days a week. It will still be doable when your online courses have gone the way of instruction via radio broadcast.

MI: Court Says Students Have Right To Actual Education

Periodically the courts get involved in the question of what states are actually supposed to provide. Back in 2017 a case went all the way to the Supremes that was designed (no case gets before SCOTUS without being carefully prepared and selected and curated by a bunch of Major Players) to get at the question of how hard a district had to work on that whole IEP thing-- how much education is "enough"? SCOTUS rejected a low bar for students with disabilities, a decision that shored up IDEA (and which may be weighing on some minds as schools try to solve the problems of crisis education at a distance).

But Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District was about IEPs in Colorado. Other cases have been less encouraging.

Way back in 2014, the court of appeals in Michigan ruled that the state's obligation to educate students didn't mean that the state had to, you know, actually educate anybody. As long as they spent some number of dollars on something called education, that was good enough. That suit involved the Highland Park school district, a part of greater Detroit's school system, and in 2012 it was handed over to the Leona Group to operate as a charter. The charter operator's promptly ran up a deficit and were taken to court to answer for doing a lousy job of educating students. It was at that point that the court said, "Nah, as long as they are running a building called a 'school' and offering 'classes' in it, it doesn't matter if they suck." So much for charter school accountability in Michigan. The state supreme court refused to hear the case.

In 2016, some Detroit students tried again, and that started out poorly, with the state (under Governor Rick "Public Ed Should Just Die" Snyder) arguing that Detroit students have no right to basic literacy, and therefor the state has no obligation to provide any such education. The federal district judge bought that argument. That was back in 2016; now the case finally has found its was to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which delivered a narrow win, but a win nonetheless.

From the majority opinion written by Judge Eric Clay:

After employing the reasoning of these Supreme Court cases and applying the Court’s substantive due process framework, we recognize that the Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education. In short, without the literacy provided by a basic minimum education, it is impossible to participate in our democracy.

Clay is a Clinton appointee. Eric Murphy, the Trump appointee to the court and a member of the Federalist Society, argued that the Constitution doesn't give anybody any right to any education. Murphy clerked for Justice Kennedy, and served as the Ohio state solicitor, where he opposed marriage equality and defended a major voter purge. Just in case you're still wondering whether elections matter or not.

Just to be clear-- the decision is saying that the students have standing to pursue the lawsuit. Where the lawsuit itself ultimately lands is yet to be seen. The state itself is still fighting back on the grounds that Detroit schools are no longer state-run, so it's a local problem. So this story isn't over yet. However, to have a federal court state that students actually have a right to an education, however minimal and basic, is certainly better news than we've seen in a while. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Internet Accessibility, Arne Duncan, and Dreaming Big

Arne Duncan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post this week; the piece is notable because it is not baloney, but addresses one of the issues that the great pandemic pause has brought to the fore-- internet accessibility.

Duncan notes that currently if you don't have internet, you don't have school. And he notes that while internet providers stepped forward with heartwarming offers of free internet for poor families, that turned out to come with a little asterisk about debt and financial suitability. He doesn't it, but this is probably related to the fact that in many cases the "free" internet  was actually a sort of free introductory offer-- 60 or 90 days free if you've sign up for their internet service, and if you forget to cancel in time--voila, you're now a paying-full-price customer. In short, many ISPs have treated this issue like a marketing opportunity and not a chance for do-goodery. Duncan notes that some public pressure in some areas has helped fix this.

But that's only the tip of the internet iceberg. He talks about getting internet to all of Chicago, which is not a simple thing, but is probably easier than the kinds of problems we face in rural areas like mine, where some families will never have internet access of any sort-- wi-fi or phone-- until some major infrastructure is built.

Internet connectivity in my neck of the woods, and other necks like it, has always been wonky. My old high school's most effective barrier against student smartphone use is that signal reception in the school is terrible (the other side of that is that students are constantly looking to charge during the day because signal-seeking phones use up charges quickly). One of the elementary schools in my old district depends on a satellite dish for their internet connection. When my wife had a zoom staff meeting with her school about managing their distance learning program, the principal's connection to the meeting kept failing. Back in the pre-pandemic days, smart teachers knew that on days they've planned an internet-based lesson, they must have a Plan B in case of a not-improbable failure.

It's not just the isolated and less-than-wealthy districts. I am told by a couple of former students who now teach in the area that Fairfax County Schools in Virginia are the fancy-pants rich district that everyone else aspires to be, but the Fairfax head of IT just resigned because their attempt to shift to online learning failed spectacularly not once, but twice.

Duncan brings up the FCC's Keep America Connected Pledge that was signed by 700 companies. Duncan suggests that some FCC funds should be given flexibility so that schools can buy hot spots, extend infrastructure, and generally get more students connected.

That's not a terrible idea, but we can dream bigger. The current situation underlines what many have argued in the past-- internet access should be a public utility. Here's a piece looking at the question that takes us to the question of whether the internet is a right or a privilege, but as that infrastructure starts to crumble under current demands, I'd argue that it's something the country needs to function. Like roads or running water, it's a service to individual humans, but it also keeps the wheels of society turning well enough to make life easier for everyone.

A look at the water in places like Flint, Michigan tells us that public utilities come with issues of their own (though they also tell us about the problems in letting private companies run public utilities). But if we want--if we need--the entire country to be connected, private companies will never do it. It's the same old problem-- there's too little money to be made running fiber optic cable back up into the holler.

One of the oldest and continuing problems with web-ed-tech is that in large chunks of the country, it just doesn't work reliably. And now that most schools really need it to work reliably everywhere, the fact that it doesn't is just becoming more obvious.