Monday, June 29, 2020

To Everyone Who Was Never A Classroom Teacher, Re Pandemic School Openings

To everyone who was never a classroom teacher but who has some ideas about how school should be re-opened in the fall:


Just hush.

There are some special categories of life experiences. Divorce. Parenthood. Deafness. Living as a Black person in the US. Classroom teacher. They are very different experiences, but they all have on thing in common.

You can read about these things. But if you haven't lived it, you don't know. You can study up, read up, talk to people. And in some rare cases that brings you close enough to knowing that your insights might actually be useful.

But mostly, you are a Dunning-Krueger case study just waiting to be written up.

The last thirty-seven-ish years of education have been marked by one major feature-- a whole lot of people who just don't know, throwing their weight around and trying to set the conditions under which the people who actually do the work will have to try to actually do the work. Policy wonks, privateers, Teach for America pass-throughs, guys who wanted to run for President, folks walking by on the street who happen to be filthy rich, amateurs who believe their ignorance is a qualification-- everyone has stuck their oar in to try to reshape US education. And in ordinary times, as much as I argue against these folks, I would not wave my magic wand to silence them, because 1) educators are just as susceptible as anyone to becoming too insular and entrenched and convinced of their own eternal rightness and 2) it is a teacher's job to serve all those amateurs, so it behooves the education world to listen, even if what they hear is 98% bosh.

But that's in ordinary times, and these are not ordinary times.

There's a whole lot of discussion about the issues involved in starting up school this fall. The discussion is made difficult by the fact that all options stink. It is further complicated by the loud voices of people who literally do not know what they are talking about. Here's a handy flow chart to help you work it out.

Media can help with this. There is no reason for anyone to interview Arne Duncan or Jeb Bush about how to re-open schools in the fall. Knock it off with that sort of thing, please. And now it turns out that Bill Gates has given the Chiefs for Change, a group of reformy amateurs who keep failing upwards, $1.6 million "to provide a co-branded (CCSSO and CFC) set of comprehensive COVID-19 state education reopening plans that address health and safety guidance at both the SEA and LEA levels." That's no help, either.

Look. Actual teachers have already thought of at least a dozen different issues that haven't even occurred to the usual gang of edu-amateurs. Solutions to the fall will be local and specific, and it's the people on the ground who will come up with them (they have to, because state and federal authorities vary somewhere between silently useless and just plain useless). The goal here is not  something that can be "scaled up." The goal is to come up with a way for your local school to survive and do its job. I'll say this again-- if you have not lived a significant portion of your professional life inside a school, you just don't know. You are just a person at an accident scene who thinks he should get to direct life-saving efforts because you watch a lot of medical shows on tv, or you're very rich and important, or you smell a profitable opportunity, or you just want to.

Yes, there are some scholars who mostly get it, and a lot of stakeholder voices that must be paid attention to (starting with parents, parents and more parents). But for the rest of you who think that just because an idea about education passes through your head, it ought to be shared and maybe even shared widely and given the force of policy-- You may mean well, or you may not. I can't read your heart. Nevertheless, we're in an unprecedented situation with lives at stake. So, please.

Hush. Just hush.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

ICYMI: Yes, It's Still Happening Edition (6/28)

I haven't reminded you for a while-- if you read something here that speaks to you, go to the original posting site and share that puppy. You have the power to amplify voices. Everything that ever went viral was shared one person at a time. So do your part and spread the word.

An Experiment in the Socially-Distanced Classroom   

From the blog "Counting From Zero," some teachers head to the classroom and take a look at the practical issues of social distancing for the classroom. The good, the bad, the ugly. I told you it was going to be up to teachers to work this stuff out.

Cleveland/University Heights City Schools On Board for Ohio's Ed Choice Lawsuit

I student taught in Cleveland Heights (Wiley Middle School). They may join many other Ohio districts fighting back against Ed Choice, Ohio's attempt to follow Florida in siphoning off unlimited money to choice schools. I hope they get it stopped.

The often ugly reality Black students face

Allan Blodget guest-writes at The Answer Sheet about what he found when he discovered an Instagram community of Black students writing about their school experiences.

Ed Department Killed Website That Made Applying for Loan Forgiveness Too Easy  

Lauren Camera at US News has this important story. The coda is that, thanks to coverage, the department decided to go ahead and put the website back up. But if you want further confirmation of what USED prioritizes these days (spoiler: not students), here's a story.

Lamar Alexander Said What?  

What he said, reported by CNBC, is that the feds have to provide extra funding to schools if it wants them to reopen this fall. Yes, really.

Michigan Republicans Try To Head Their Governor Off At The Back-To-School Pass

Nancy Flanagan has the story of Michigan's GOP trying to push some crappy policies quick-like before the governor can actually do something useful. Because if we're not learning anything else, and we hadn't already learned it from school shootings, the pandemic can teach us that to some folks, absolutely nothing matters more than politics.

What an actual school reopening plan looks like    

Jersey Jazzman runs down the characteristics necessary for a decent school reopening plan

Jamaal Bowman Scores Victory  

Call it an upset. Call it the Progressive wing of the Dems taking the old guard to school once again. Call it one more example of an outstanding educator moving into the political world. But whatever you call it, cheer.

The Standardized Testing Horror Show Is Not Over

There are plenty of reasons to think that the support for the Big Standardized Test is flagging, but as Nancy Bailey points out, there are zero reasons to relax vigilance. That fight is nowhere close to over.

For some California teens, school closures led to work in the fields

From Elizabeth Aguilera at CalMatters, a story about how huge a failure distance crisis learning was for some teens, and what school closure means for students who are also migrant workers.

Trying to make sense of fluid fall  

From Inside Higher Ed, a couple of simulations suggest that colleges are going to have some real problems in the fall.

You want a confederate monument? My body is a confederate monument.

From the New York Times, a powerful piece of essay writing from poet Caroline Randall Williams.

Teachers in Fairfax revolt against fall plans  

Meanwhile, what may be the first open revolt by a staff against the district's plans for next fall. From the Washington Post.

The Ed Tech Imaginary

I can't imagine why you would not be subscribing the Audrey Watters' newsletter, but just in case, here's the text of a recent address, looking at the stories we tell ourselves about ed tech. Well worth your while.

A message from your university's vice-president for magical thinking  
Speaking of school reopening plans, here's McSweeney's with a piece that is, I guess, darkly humorous.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Florida Tightens The Public Education Noose

I have run out of words for Florida. It's been a little more than a year since I dubbed them "the worst," and there really isn't anything to add to that, except of course there is. The leadership positions under Governor Ron DeSantis have been handed over to profiteers and people whose whole life story is anti-education, plus a very active astro-turfy group of folks determined to cheer the legislature on. Charter and voucher programs are largely unregulated, and Florida taxpayers get to foot the bill for schools that openly discriminate against LGBTQ students (or anyone else they feel like discriminating against).

Per a 2018 report from the DeVosian group American Federation for Children, Florida is where over a third of the voucher dollars in the US are spent-- and in 2019 they launched yet another voucher program. This year AFC gives 3 out of Florida's 5 voucher programs the top ranking in their category.

This frickin' guy.
But none of that is enough for DeSantis, who is intent on just tightening the noose around public education's neck (and gaslighting taxpayers while he's at it by continuing to claim that charter schools are public schools).

"But wait--" I hear you say. "Didn't the governor just raise the base salary for teachers in Florida?" Isn't that a good thing? Certainly better than the Best and the Brightest program that gave bonuses based on teachers' high school SAT scores?

Well, sort of.

The new $47,500 base starting salary is called "aspirational." So don't count on it just yet. As laid out in HB 641, each district will get a pile of money, and they have to somehow apportion that to raise their base salary, while at the same time, nobody anywhere else on the salary schedule can make less than the base salary. So this may attract young new teachers, but it isn't going to do near as much for teachers who are already there (and it does nothing at all for substitutes). It's cool to start out at $47,500; it's less cool to be making $47,550 after ten years on the job.

One wonders what effect this will have on contract negotiations in districts down the line. But I suspect that the important language in the bill is right here:

Each school district shall provide each charter school within its district its proportionate share calculated pursuant to s. 1002.33(17)(b)

Yep. The $47,500 is an aspiration for charters as well. With this bill, the state helps charter schools compete for teaching staff, helping them play financial catch-up with public schools. Pretty on brand for a state that decreed that taxpayers who raised taxes for improvements in their public schools must give some of that revenue to charter schools.

Meanwhile, DeSantis also just signed HB 7067, which takes us back to last year's new voucher program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program. It's pretty much a recap of a voucher bill that Jeb Bush tried to enact back in his day, but which was kiboshed by the courts (that whole tax dollars spent on private religious institutions thing). DeSantis, rather than tweaking the program, tweaked the court instead and expected them to back him up. Even so, FES arrived with some limitations-- only families with up to 300% of the poverty level qualified (that's about $75 K for a family of four, and once in the program, you can never be booted out, and siblings are auto-matically in) and the scholarships were capped at 18,000. The program is an education scholarship tax credit program, so it's also a tax shelter for the wealthy.

HB 7067 is a rewrite of FES, joyously welcomed by choice fans as "the largest expansive private school choice bill ever passed in US history." Now the program has no real cap, but will add 28,000 more scholarships every year. And after any year in which more than 5% of the scholarships go unclaimed, the state can just raise the income requirement. In other words, it's not about saving the poor(-ish) kids so much as its getting the maximum number of vouchers in play. Because if they up the number of vouchers each year by 28,800, that income requirement is going to become meaningless pretty quickly. The only will limit will be the amount of money that rich people and wealthy corporations want to pour into it. Meanwhile every pile of money they put into the program will be a pile of money that the state doesn't collect, a hole that they will have to fill somehow.

Florida remains a reminder that no matter how bad something is, there's always a way to make it worse. With this action, Florida moves closer to a privatized system with privatized funding, leaving the public system to pick up whatever scraps they're left to struggle with. That will matter a great deal to the students who are denied any sort of choice, because the other thing you get with a faux choice system like this is a whole lot of Other Peoples' Children who are denied access to the well-funded schools and left to languish in struggling public schools.

I can imagine ways that Florida could make this worse, but I don't want to write them down and give anyone ideas. But for the rest of, it's important to remember that for folks like Betsy DeVos and Job Bush, this dismantling and privatizing of public education is the ideal, the model that all states should aspire to.

Friday, June 26, 2020

TN: When Charters Abandon The Community

So here we go again.

Another angry piece written about the abrupt closing of a charter school-- two, actually. This time it's a pair of KIPP schools in Memphis.

The closings were announced in April, the reasoning a little fuzzy.

KIPP Memphis Preparatory Elementary and KIPP Memphis Preparatory Middle were par of Tennessee's failed experiment, the Achievement School District, a collection of schools taken over by the state and, generally, turned over to charter groups to run. In April, the board of the two KIPPs voted to shut them down. It was the Covid, they said. The Covid "prevented opportunities for the schools to receive long-term funding from historic philanthropic resources," which maybe-- I mean, reports were that the pandemic hasn't been hard on the rich folks. And aren't charters supposed to be able to operate on the same per-pupil dollars that public schools get? I mean, how many public schools are depending on their philanthropic backers to help them do well? The rest of the explanations don't get any better.

James Boyd, chairman of the KIPP Memphis board of directors said in a statement, “We strongly believe this decision is in the best interest of our KIPP Memphis community and is a step in the right direction to improve our organization’s ability to build a stronger network of schools.” This sounds at least a bit more honest-- "We did what was best for the company as a whole."

David Pettiette, a volunteer at one of the schools (so presumably not funded by philanthropists), lays out what happened after the announcement:

In an effort to limit bad press, KIPP offered a Q&A conference call to address the school closures so that the community’s voices could be heard. However, this session, which did not provide any A’s or responses from KIPP, was yet another unthoughtful decision made by the organization and proved to be an unsuitable forum.

Many families had trouble accessing the call due to technical difficulties generated from the third-party conferencing system used. The call itself went just about as you’d expect. It opened with two pre-recorded statements from KIPP’s board of directors and regional team, which were both vague and painfully insincere.

The comments from parents and staff were anxious, frustrated and morose –a wide variety of emotions. While listening to the call, I couldn’t help but think that the occasion warranted a more personal approach.

Pettiette is angry that the decision was made based on what was best for the company, that it was based on financial issues, that KIPP gave up after only a few years, that they cited "failure to fulfill academic promise."

Yet none of this is, or should be, a surprise. Charter schools, with very few exceptions, and most especially when we're talking about the big chains like KIPP, are businesses. They make decisions based on business considerations, not educational ones, and not community ones. They cloak themselves in the language of "public school," but that's a marketing consideration. It gets people to make assumptions without the charters having to make promises they don't intend to keep.

That includes, especially, not making any promise to stay open when it doesn't make business sense to do so. This map only takes you through 2013, and it shows 2,500 charter schools closing. Or look at the NPE report showing the billions of dollars spent on charters that closed quickly or never even opened.

Look, as I've said repeatedly, I don't think there's anything inherently evil or wrong about businesses or a business mentality-- but they are a bad match for education. If you enroll your chid in a charter, that's not a school, it's a business, and probably a fresh start-up at that. There is no promise of permanence, no promise to put your child's needs ahead of their bottom line. There are literally thousands of stories like this one in Memphis.

Meanwhile, that leaves just four schools in the Achievement School District, charters all.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

CA: San Diego Charter Versus The Evil Union

This week you may have run across a piece entitled "How the Union Stopped Innovation at My School." The piece, which has turned up in numerous California outlets, was written by Jessica Chapman, a teacher at Gompers Preparatory Academy. Chapman's story has been steadily promoted by For Kids and Country, the organization run by Rebecca Friedrichs, a former teacher who loves Jesus and America and hates unions.

Chapman leans on an oft-repeated story about Gompers. The school was formerly a middle school in San Diego, and it was universally considered a miserable mess. The school became Gompers Preparatory Academy in 2005, a charter school that focused on college prep, including a partnership with UC San Diego. Chapman paints an inspiring picture of what "innovation" fueled. Soaring test scores, college acceptance, more rigor, and, that classic charter marketing point, 100% graduation rate. This, Chapman says, is what you get when you "remove the constraints of politics."

By that, she appears to mostly mean "getting rid of unions." Unions are why all schools aren't as wonderful as Gompers. Unions are a special interest, set up to grab all the money and deliver crappy educations to students they don't care about. The unions are out to get charters and have advanced a "deceptive" message creating "a campaign of divisiveness between traditional public schools and charter schools." And now they're "scheming to unionize charters" because....? This is where the reasoning of this anti-union screed always runs aground for me--if unions are money-grubbers, would they not want more charters in order to seed more money-grubbing local chapters?

At any rate, Chapman is upset. "The union invaded our Gompers in 2018 under the false premise that the school was not serving teachers well."

That invasion came in 2018. Teachers at the charter cited the issues of unequal pay, an 11-month school year, required work over holidays, and a lack of teacher voice in decision-making. They asked for a "clear and transparent" pay scale. Teachers also complained that teacher evaluations were infrequent and not useful, and they also alleged that administration shot down the organization of clubs such as Gay-Straight Alliance and a Black Student Union. Shockingly, these conditions reportedly led to high turnover and burnout among staff.

In January of 2019, the teachers had acquired signatures from 80% of the staff, and the San Diego Education Association had one more charter school local association. But some folks, like Mrs. Chapman, were unhappy, declaring that the union had gotten those signatures through lies and trickery. "We never even given the respect of a vote," she declared. Negotiations began, with the union declaring that it wanted to make attraction and retention of great teachers their number one priority, both because they wanted to work on a strong staff, and because they thought the issue would allow them to collaborate with administration, build trust, and avoid an adversarial relationship.

Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.

Chapman and others, like the California Policy Center, a right-leaning anti-union thinky tank member of the State Policy Network, decried the death of innovation, but Gompers "innovations" seem to be the same old thing. The "tools that propelled Gompers' success" were "merit pay and the director's authority to hire and fire teachers based on performance" aka "any reason he feels like." Many of the anti-union voices talk about the threat to how Gompers is a family, a "home," which is a cheap way to avoid treating staff like professionals, to shame them for even bringing the subject up-- "Come on. Work a few more weeks for free, because you love the family." Meanwhile, the head of the family, heading this single charter school, made almost $150K-- as much as the highest-paid principal in the San Diego public school system.

As is often the case, miraculous achievements deserve closer scrutiny. A 2017 investigative report found that Gompers actually posted the lowest test scores in the county (I know-- who cares-- but if that's the game you're going to play, play it honestly), and teachers claimed that grades are inflated at head honcho Vincent Riveroll's direction.

“He knows he’s not allowed to say, ‘Change their grades or else,’” said former Gompers chemistry teacher Ben Davey.

“But he can say, ‘You’re killing these kids, are you sure you want to leave it as an F?’”

Grade inflation is one of the few issues that school officials have actually tried to respond to. 100% graduation? The oldest trick in the charter book-- "counsel out" students who are having trouble. One year's snapshot shows 136 students in 9th grade, 103 in 11th, and 91 in the senior class. And a director reminding teachers that they'd be killing a kid to give them a grade that would stop them from graduating. Unfortunately, reports are that those same students hit college unprepared and floundering.

Giving teachers a stronger, more collaborative, more professional status at the school might help. But Gompers is not done trying to fight the union.

Gompers is yet another charter business that decided to grab some of that Paycheck Protection Money from the feds, pulling in $2.25 million from PPP and another $408K from CARES. But it has turned around and laid off 29 teachers from staff. That's about a third of the staff. And while the board (which did not meet between January and June, because "innovation"?) says it laid teachers off strictly based on seniority, that seems an odd claim coming from folks who believe that it's important that the director hire and fire based on merit. The union's theory seems more plausible-- that the furloughed teachers represent a big chunk of the union activists at Gompers. Departments like math (which was already patched together with subs) and English are being cut to the bone, while phys ed will be wiped out entirely. Meanwhile, Chapman and other anti-unionists have petitioned to have the union de-certified.

Hard to say what comes next. I'm sure Chapman will keep us updated, though I feel like this is a mashup of several movies I've seen before. If Gompers were smart, they would embrace the union and let it help them make the school stronger and better; if not, they can just keep fighting to keep the staff compliant and cheap while papering over the results with marketing claims. But when you hate unions more than you love your students, I guess this is what you get.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

CA: Charter Decides To Grab A Small Business Loan

Palisades Charter High School has a lot of history. When launched in 1961, it was the most expensive high school in the LA City School system. The state grabbed the farm property through eminent domain; previous residents included the daughter if Francis X. Bushman, and Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Members of the Class of '65 were the basis for What Really Happened to the Class of '65?. By 1989, 20/20 aired an episode about the school, characterizing the school as both high academic performance and high drug and alcohol abuse.

By 1992, enrollment had dropped so far that the district was thinking about shutting them down entirely; instead, staff and parents argued for becoming a charter school, so in 1993, the high school and three of its feeders became the first charter school "cluster" in California. Enrollment bounced back; today there are about 3,000 students at PCHS. The campus, which is big and beautiful, has been used in movies and tv shows, and alumni include J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

PCHS is a charter school, and like many other such outfits, they have heard the siren song of the Paycheck Protection Program, the loan program designed to help small businesses stay afloat during the current pandemic mess (the second one, meant to clean up after the first one that ran out of money almost instantly). They are not alone--many charter schools are deciding that, for purposes of grabbing some money, they will go ahead and admit they are small private businesses and not public schools. Two thirds of the charter school businesses in New Orleans have put in for the loans.

What makes Palisades special is that we have video of their board discussing the issues of accepting the loan. (A hat tip to Carl Peterson, who has been watching these folks for a while.)

The discussion of the loan starts in the video about six minutes into the May 12 meeting. Chief Business Officer Greg Wood brings the news to the board that they've found a bank (in Utah) and landed approval for a $4.6 million loan.

If you're wondering if they agonized over issues like tying up four and a half million dollars that might otherwise have been used by an actual small bus9iness that is currently struggling to stay afloat, the answer is, not so much. Wood acknowledges that there could be some rough press with such a move; nobody much cares. A member also mentions that he has friends with small businesses who were not able to be approved. The group gets a little confused about whether or not they're eligible for the loan, and one member says "Well, the answer is, let's get it anyway." Wood says that they could be seen as "double dipping."

They are eligible, and Wood has already applied and been approved pending board approval. Wood doesn't know if the loan will be forgivable. In particular he dances around the idea that in order for the loan to be forgivable, they might lose the freedom to fire staff as they wish.

Payback is steep-- they get two years, with six months before repayment has to start and a big balloon payment at the end. This does not seem to bother the board because they are mostly considering to grab this money in the off chance that they might need it, and if they don't need it, they can just give it back in two years-- basically a line of credit just in case, which I'm sure would be a big comfort to a business that goes under because there is no money for them in the PPP. But this meeting is marked by phrases like "get the money while the getting's good" and "get the loan first...worry about that part later." No payback plan was raised.

A bitter coda to all this. There is just one public comment submitted to the meeting, from a woman who is a Pali High grad and who taught there for thirty years and who is retiring. She's speaking up because the rest of the staff is afraid of retribution. The teachers worked 2019-2020 without a contract, and while the praise and attaboy's they've gotten for making the pandemic-pushed jump to distance crisis schooling are swell, the board could put their money where their mouths are by offering the teachers a decent raise-- particularly since it looks like PCHS is finishing the year with a $2 million surplus. Her comments are read into the record, and then the board just moves on to authorizing the bank that will manage the loan.

Peterson has tried to raise this as an issue for the LAUSD election, with little effect.

You can argue that the PCHS board is supposed to watch out for PCHS and not the rest of the country. That, of course, is what many businesses do, and a charter school is first and always a business. But even a business is capable of exercising some civic responsibility.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Trump Back DeVos On Soaking Scammed Students

Trump has mostly ignored DeVos and the education department (insert joke about Trump and education here), but he's now decided to jump in, with both feet, right onto the backs of people scammed by for-profit colleges.

This story has been dragging on for-freakin-ever. In 2017, 18 states and DC sued DeVos over her stated intention of ignoring/rewriting the Borrower Defense to Repayment rule from 2016, which was supposed to help out those students who were being crushed by debt they'd incurred so they could attend fraudulent for-profit colleges. While that dragged on, the department "accidentally" kept collecting debt, in some cases attaching paychecks of students. The "accident" was egregious enough that the court found DeVos and the department in contempt and fined them bigly for ignoring the injunction to stop the collecting.

Judge Sallie Kim was pretty cranky when she offered the October ruling (“I’m not sending anyone to jail yet, but it’s good to know I have that ability.” So she was not any happier in December when it turned out that the department had been collecting-- against the injunction-- from not just 16,000 students, but from over 45,000. So, a more-than-double oopsy.

DeVos has been plenty clear in her feelings about debt relief, siding whole-heartedly the corporate interests. She has thoroughly choked off the public service loan forgiveness program as a prelude to proposing to kill it entirely. Called in before the House Education Committee to explain why she was still dragging her feet on loan forgiveness for the scammed students, she offered a very DeVosian quote:

I understand that some of you here just want to have blanket forgiveness for anyone who raises their hand and files a claim, but that simply is not right.

The very idea of people borrowing money and then being excused from paying it back really, really rubs her the wrong way. She hates it. So she wrote new rules, under which hardly anyone would get loan forgiveness.

And Congress finally said, "Enough."

The House and Senate used the Congressional Review Act to overturn the DeVos rule. The rule was opposed by 85 groups, including nine veterans' groups (veterans, with their tasty GI benefits, are popular targets of predatory for-profits), and so DeVos managed to spark actual bipartisan support for undoing her handiwork.

So a few weeks ago, during the magical hope-nobody's-looking hour of Friday afternoon, Trump unleashed his very first Presidential veto, once again suggesting that he is perhaps not exactly a great friend to US veterans. The House and Senate need a 2/3rds vote to override, and while that is a safe bet in the House, but far less certain in the Senate. Meanwhile, a group of US citizens and veterans who thought they were taking steps to build a better future find themselves in the midst of a pandemic, saddled with debt and a future made more uncertain by His Royal Hairness. Call your Congressperson.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

ICYMI: Fathers Day Edition (6/21

I've had my hands full elsewhere, and have been spending refreshingly little time on line, but I still have a few goodies to pass along. Remember, sharing is caring,

What Teachers Want

American Education Research Journal has some research about what it takes to attract and retain teachers. A fun conversation starter.

Looking for the Missing  

NBC News has the story of Detroit teachers who went looking for students who went missing when schools shut down.

Charter Schools Tap Coronarelief

Erica Green at the NYT with a story of how some charter schools are wearing their "business" hats when money is involved.

Netflix billionaire building secret luxury teacher retreat

Reed "Who needs elected school boards" Hastings has another fun eduproject. Rich amateurs messing in education-- what could possibly go wrong?

What Anti-racist teachers do differently

The Atlantic with a cool story about How It's Done

The Beginning of the End for Testing?

Valeria Strauss with some analysis about where we are right now with the whole Big Standardized Test love affair.

Standardized Tests Increase School Segregation  

Steven Singer explains how standardized testing adds to our segregation problems.

Arrested Development: How Police Ended Up In Schools

Have You Heard (the only podcast we actually follow here at the Curmudgucation Institute) takes a look at how we ended up with the halls of school being policed like the streets of a city.

On Comparing Education Spending Across Time   

Nobody explains and clarifies the esoteric issues of school funding better than Mark "Jersey Jazzman" Weber. Here's a guide to the meaning and use of some of those figures folks like to throw around.

Ask Dads How To Reimagine Public Schools   

Nancy Bailey offers a Fathers Day look at what fathers would like to see in the world of reimagined public education.

Strummin' On The Ol Banjo  

Nancy Flanagan takes a look at issues that music teachers face, and how they are really some of the same issues all teachers face.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

No, Software Still Can't Grade Student Essays

One of the great white whales of computer-managed education and testing is the dream of robo-scoring, software that can grade a piece of writing as easily and efficiently as software can score multiple choice questions. Robo-grading would be swift, cheap, and consistent. The only problem after all these years is that it still can’t be done.
Still, ed tech companies keep making claims that they have finally cracked the code. One of the people at the forefront of debunking these claims is Les Perelman. Perelman was, among other things, the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at MIT before he retired in 2012. He has long been a critic of standardized writing testing; he has demonstrated his ability to predict the score for an essay by looking at the essay from across the room (spoiler alert: it’s all about the length of the essay). In 2007, he gamed the SAT essay portion with an essay about how “American president Franklin Delenor Roosevelt advocated for civil unity despite the communist threat of success.”
He’s been a particularly staunch critic of robo-grading, debunking studies and defending the very nature of writing itself. In 2017, at the invitation of the nation’s teachers union, Perelman highlighted the problems with a plan to robo-grade Australia’s already-faulty national writing exam. This has annoyed some proponents of robo-grading (said one writer whose study Perelman debunked, “I’ll never read anything Les Perelman ever writes”). But perhaps nothing that Perelman has done has more thoroughly embarrassed robo-graders than his creation of BABEL.
All robo-grading software starts out with one fundamental limitation—computers cannot read or understand meaning in the sense that human beings do. So software is reduced to counting and weighing proxies for the more complex behaviors involved in writing. In other words, the computer cannot tell if your sentence effectively communicates a complex idea, but it can tell if the sentence is long and includes big, unusual words.
To highlight this feature of robo-graders, Perelman, along with Louis Sobel, Damien Jiang and Milo Beckman, created BABEL (Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator), a program that can generate a full-blown essay of glorious nonsense. Given the key word “privacy,” the program generated an essay made of sentences like this:
Privateness has not been and undoubtedly never will be lauded, precarious, and decent. Humankind will always subjugate privateness.
The whole essay was good for a 5.4 out of 6 from one robo-grading product. 
BABEL was created in 2014, and it has been embarrassing robo-graders ever since. Meanwhile, vendors keep claiming to have cracked the code; four years ago, the College Board, Khan Academy and Turnitin teamed up to offerautomatic scoring of your practice essay for the SAT.
Mostly these software companies have learned little. Some keep pointing to research that claims that humans and robo-scorers get similar results when scoring essays—which is true, when one uses scorers trained to follow the same algorithm as the software rather than expert readers. And then there’sthis curious piece of research from the Educational Testing Service and CUNY. The opening line of the abstract notes that “it is important for developers of automated scoring systems to ensure that their systems are as fair and valid as possible.” The phrase “as possible” is carrying a lot of weight, but the intent seems good. But that’s not what the research turns out to be about. Instead, the researchers set out to see if they could catch BABEL-generated essays. In other words, rather than try to do our jobs better, let’s try to catch the people highlighting our failure. The researchers reported that they could, in fact, catch the BABEL essays with software; of course, one could also catch the nonsense essays with expert human readers.
Partially in response, the current issue of The Journal of Writing Assessment presents more of Perelman’s work with BABEL, focusing specifically on e-rater, the robo-scoring software used by ETS. BABEL was originally set up to generate 500-word essays. This time, because e-rater likes length as an important quality of writing, longer essays were created by taking two short essays generated by the same prompt words and just shuffling the sentences together. The findings were similar to earlier BABEL research.
The software did not care about argument or meaning. It did not notice some egregious grammatical mistakes. Length of essays matters, along with length and number of paragraphs (which ETS calls “discourse elements” for some reason). It favored the liberal use of long and infrequently used words. All of this leans directly again the tradition of lean and focused writing. It favors bad writing. And it still gives high scores to BABEL’s nonsense. 
The ultimate argument about Perelman’s work with BABEL is that his submission are “bad faith writing.” That may be, but the use of robo-scoring is bad faith assessment. What does it even mean to tell a student, “You must make a good faith attempt to communicate ideas and arguments to a piece of software that will not understand any of them.” 
ETS claims that the primary emphasis is on “your critical thinking and analytical writing skills,” yet e-rater, which does not in any way measure either, provides half the final score; how can this be called good faith assessment? 
Robo-scorers are still beloved by the testing industry because they are cheap and quick and allow the test manufacturers to market their product as one that measures more high level skills than simply picking a multiple choice answer. But the great white whale, the software that can actually do the job, still eludes them, leaving students to deal with scraps of pressed whitefish.

AEI And The Commodification Of Education

The American Enterprise Institute comes from that part of the ed reform spectrum devoted to free market approaches. But a new report from AEI really pushes the boundaries of treating education as a commodity like a house or a piece of jewelry. Really.

The report is entitled "An Appraisal Market for K-12 Education" and it's authored by Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, who also pops up at The Heartland Institute,  and is part of the "team" at EdChoice (what used to be the Friedman Foundation), and Education Next, and Fox Business, and even ALEC, where we find her pushing education savings accounts (aka super-vouchers). She earned a BA in political science from Hollins University (2005) and a Master of Teaching from the University of Virginia in 2008, at which point she went to work for the Heritage Foundation. So you've good a pretty good idea where she's coming from.

The "paper" (honestly, it has just one "source" in the "endnotes," and dressed up with a snappy stock photo, it would easily pass for a "blog post") is part of a series the Frederick Hess is putting together  for "sketching a new conservative education agenda." Let me just cast a vote to say that Burke's notion should not be part of anybody's new education agenda.

Burke starts out with a problematic analogy-- "Think about the last time you bought or sold a pricey item. Chances are you had the item appraised by an independent appraisal firm to provide peace of mind to both buyer and seller." Her specific examples-- houses and jewelry and antiques and cars and boats.

Basically, any costly expense with a high potential for information asymmetry has an associated appraisal market.

You can see where she's headed. Education is expensive. "Families," she argues, "should be able to easily acquire real-time, external audits of their child's learning."

This has always been a missing piece of the free-market education crowd-- parents should be able to go shopping in an education "marketplace," their selection aided by clear data about the relative quality of their choices. Burke is offering a variation on that theme-- let parents have money to hire an appraiser in the as-yet-non-existent marketplace of education quality appraisers.

There are several problems here.

Education is not a commodity, not a thing that that can be weighed and measured for value like a truckload of pork shoulders or sheets of plywood. Education is a process, a relationship, a human quality that takes on different values in different contexts. It mostly exists inside the heads of the students, and as such is largely immeasurable. Appraising an education is like appraising a human being--only barely doable in a narrow context like a specific job. In fact, because an education becomes part of who a person is, it's very much like appraising a human being, which means very subjective and ethically suspect.

Education is not a car or a house. Often its value or effectiveness is net revealed until years after the fact. The closest analogy she hits is antiques--if you were talking about an appraiser who could look at a brand new object and predict what its value will be in 100 years.

Information asymmetry is, of course, a feature of a free market, on purpose. Almost nobody who is in the selling biz takes the position of, "We have far more information about what we are selling than you do, so we're going to make it all transparent for you." If you're selling, you are doing your best to hide information behind a shiny curtain of marketing. (Hence my saying that the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.)

The shape of "learning" is huge and multidimensional and we can't even agree on which parts are most important. We have suffered through two decades of a bad solution to the problem, the policies that have said "We have no idea how to fully measure an education, so we'll just measure something and pretend that it tells us everything." Policy makers couldn't wrap their heads around the size and depth and dimension of an entire continental ecosystem, so they collected elephant toe clippings and weighed them, pretending that this produced useful data.

Burke wants to separate the appraisal of education from the providers of education, but education has already suffered from entirely too many amateurs tromping around. This is not a problem unique to education; the people who understand a sector best are often the people who work in it.

But Burke argues that appraisers are necessary for parents to hold providers accountable, which in the free market argument means "to vote with their feet." This notion that foot-based voting will have any effect on anything is simply not supported by reality. The notion that free-market choiciness is more effective than actual democratic processes or the ability to call officials on the phone is hard to make an argument for. Virtually every free-market business hopes for, plans for, structures for getting some people to vote with their feet. Every business plan separates the population into groups-- people they hope to serve and people they hope not to serve. Read Robert Pondiscio's How The Other Half Learns to see Eva Moskowitz aggressively encourage some families to vote with their feet; many families decide that Success Academy is not for them, and not one of them causes Moskowitz to worry, "Maybe I'd better look at how I'd operating my schools."

The shift to free-market education that Burke and other free-marketeers argue for would require a whole discussion about changing the mission of public education to no longer involve a promise (however imperfectly kept) to educate every single child in the country.

Burke faults the Big Standardized Test for working accountability vertically, up to the state and federal bureaucrats. I'm more concerned that the BS Test substitutes a stunted, meagre view of what a good education should, and then doesn't even measure that well. But Burke's examples of companies that soft of kind of get at the job includes those that use their own cramped measures (Kaplan) or those that use the same BS Test results she faults (Great Schools).

There's much to disagree with in Burke's spare two pages, most notably the idea that education is a commodity. But her biggest, most glaring gap is that while she wishes that parents could purchase an independent appraisal of how well a school is doing, she offers no real ideas about what such an instrument could possibly look like. That's always been the missing link in education reform of all stripes. Sure, we can spot most of the schools at the extreme top and bottom--in fact, we can do it without the use of any fancy appraisal instruments. But the vast majority of schools are somewhere in the more complicated middle, serving a wide variety of stakeholders who all have a different set of expectations about what a great school would look like.

In fact, research suggests that parental choice is not even driven by how much students are learning, but by factors like location and extracurricular activities. But this is one of the disconnections in free  market education theory-- fans insist that parents should be trusted with making the choice of schools, but also insist that parents need the help of third-parties-for-hire to make that choice.

Education is not a slab of cheese for sale at the deli. It's not easily measured or weighed, and if the goal is to create accountability, instead of trying to make an accountability bank shot off of parents, why not come up with a system that helps the school identify and improve its problem areas, or if we wanted to be really crazy, a system that holds politicians and bureaucrats accountable for providing schools with full support.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Rebecca Friedrichs Still Hates The Teachers Unions

In 2014, Rebecca Friedrichs, after twenty-some years in the classroom, decided to go ahead and be the face of a lawsuit that would be derailed when Justice Scalia died. The court would eventually get to take their shot at unions with the Janus case. But while Friedrichs may have lost a lawsuit, she did manage to launch a career as a far-right Christianist spokesperson. She has done plenty of work for other folks, while pushing her own group, For Kids and Country.

If you want to catch a full catalog of the many people she objects to, you can catch her latest op-ed in the Washington Times, the right-wing outlet.

Yeah, this lady.
She's casting a wide net here, and she's come up with more old boots than actual fish. She starts by going after the 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter. She does the standard nod to black lives while still All Lives Mattering it ("Again, don’t get me wrong. Black lives do matter! Indeed, every human life is sacred.") At the same time, she wants you to know that Black Lives Matter are Very Naughty:

But the organization named Black Lives Matter is not what it claims to be. Like the unions, it’s a Trojan horse of anti-American, anti-family beliefs masquerading as defenders of good.

Friedrichs needs to bring up the union because they are part of this whole anti-American plot. She notes that some historians disputed the project, but not the NEA.

Instead, the NEA coordinated directly with The New York Times, the Pulitzer Center, Southern Poverty Law Center and Black Lives Matter to put 1619 into the hands of educators and activists. Their goal? To assert a false but preferred narrative to advance a political agenda.

Then she connects this to other "pseudo-realities" being pushed onto "our culture." Fluid genders. Hysterical weak environmental claims. Families aren't the center of society, and and children don't respect authority. History is reframed to assault "our Judeo-Christian culture." Friedrichs gets increasingly wound up, calling the project rubbish. "How dare they!"

But her own grasp of history is weak.

The pilgrims sacrificed every earthly possession and their very lives to secure God-ordained liberties for every race, status and creed, guiding our Founders to their “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” They inspired a free constitutional republic based on biblical principles that’s a beacon of hope in a very dark world.

Well, no. There are things to admire about the Pilgrims, but their desire to establish freedom for every race, status and creed is strictly imaginary. Exhibit A: the tendency of the Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay Colony to execute Quakers who came to proselytize. Nor was the republic based on Biblical principals.

But darkness always seeks to destroy light, so now our kids are forced to learn revisionist tales promoting atheism, racial division and ignorance of truth.

The union is part of a coalition aiming to destroy America. Really.

The NEA, The New York Times, their coalition and those they’ve indoctrinated have fallen for the devil’s oldest trick — pride. Fancying themselves “progressives” they’re stuck in the dark ages. Their false history actually subverts the progress we’ve made — creating hatred and divisions where there’s been healing, and ripping open old wounds and ignorance most Americans have overcome. They’re retraumatizing and legitimizing a victimhood mentality, forcing a chip onto the shoulders of black Americans and heaping mountains of undeserved guilt on those of white Americans. It’s dangerous; it’s destructive; and it’s dishonest. It’s also ripping our country apart.

Whoa. So either you can see what's wrong with all that, or I can't hope to explain it to you. B ut "forcing a chip onto the shoulder of black Americans" is a pretty astonishing reframing of US history. Yup-- Black folks would have been perfectly happy with how things were going if te left hadn'g somehow forced them to get all cranky.

But I brought this piece up to make one point. Back in 2014, it might have been possible to think, "Well, you know, people who oppose fair share might kind of have a point, and maybe she's just a lady who has a legitimate objection to having to give money to a union she disagrees with, and not some sort of rabid union-hater looking for any excuse to bust unions and their political power." Years later, she's clearly that second, union-hating one. It's nice to give people the benefit of the doubt, but they don't always deserve it. Friedrichs has turned out to be what she always appeared to be-- a shill for the folks who want to get rid of the union because A) unions lead to the help getting uppity and B)  because they tend to support the Democratic party, they are an obstacle to permanent GOP rule.

Monday, June 15, 2020

To Those Of You Worried About The Covid Slide

Dear concerned policy makers, bureaucrats, and edu-wonks:

Ever since NWEA, the testing manufacturer that promised it can read minds by measuring how long it takes students to pick a multiple choice answer, issued their report on the Covid-19 Slide, you have been freaking out a little because they hear you say that distance learning has been disastrous and if we do it again in the fall, we'll produce a generation of students too dumb to come in out of the rain.  Everyone from the Wall Street Journal to members of Congress has been experiencing bovine birth events in response to the report. I just want to make two quick points for you.

First, you don't need to freak out over the study. Because it's not so much a "study" as a rough best guess about how students might do on a single not-great standardized test of math and reading. On the other hand, you can freak out a little bit, because while the report is ludicrous, if you actually talk to teachers and students and families, you'll hear that distance disaster school is not great. But you really don't need to base any of your argument on NWEA's totally made up numbers.

Second. Let's pretend that the numbers aren't made up. Let's pretend that it's true that, due to the slide, students will lose 30% of a year's worth of math and 50% of as year's worth of reading. That would be super double-plus ungood.

Let me remind you of the 2015 study by CREDO, an organization that is pro-charter school, discovering that the average cyber-school student fell behind 180 days in math and 72 days in reading-- in other words, a loss of 100% of a year's worth of math and 40% in reading.

Some of you folks, like this pair of Congressional representatives, think that the numbers from the NWEA study are alarming enough that schools must absolutely get back into their traditional brick and mortar classrooms. I'm just asking-- if the numbers from NWEA are bad enough to require a shutdown of the whole distance crisis learning model, shouldn't the numbers for cyber-schools merit shutting those down as well? If you're concerned that the house is bursting into flames, why share some concern for the garage and barn that have been burning for over a decade?

Sunday, June 14, 2020

ICYMI: Summer Vacation Edition (6/14)

Whatever summer vacation means this year, it has finally arrived at my house. Which mostly just means that my wife has shifted from working on things for this year to working on things for next year. Here are some things to read.

Predecessors Try To Fill Void Left By DeVos  

This is a strange little thing. First, that Duncan and Spelling see themselves as somehow way different from DeVos. Also, there's apparently an Old Secretary's Club, and DeVos is very not interested.

Yale Goes Test-Optional

Blame the corona pirates (that's what the Board of Directors calls the current pandemic), but this is the fifth ivy to dump the test for the next class. Susan Adams at Forbes has the story.

If Black Lives Matter, Then Let's Prove It By Fixing Our Schools  

An editorial from the Detroit Free Press points out the obvious-- you don't help launch lives that matter in underfunded, poorly maintained schools.

Teen Girls Organized Nashville's Largest Protest  

Speaking of students undertaking large projects. A great story of teens stepping up. At The Lily.

Teach for America 2020 Trainees To Enter Classroom With Only Tutoring Experience    

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider looks at how TFA is managing to lower the bar even further.

Where's All These Woke White People Come From?   

Michael Harriot at The Root is one of the best writers out there, and this piece is Exhibit A. Thoughtful and nuanced and just a great piece of writing.

Millions of Taxpayer Dollars Are Going To Schools That Push Conversion Therapy  

Rebecca Klein at Huffington Post has an enraging story about some of the private schools that are scooping up taxpayer money. She'd previously shown how some of these schools discriminate against LGBTQ students; now it turns out that's not the worst of it.

University students aren't cogs in a market.   

This story is from Australia, but you'll recognize the issues in the discussion of why students deserve to get more education than simply being loaded wit skills that employers want them to have.  

How Betsy DeVos Is Using the Pandemic To Get What She Wants  

The story has been told in bits and pieces, but Jeff Bryant at Alternet steps back for the full picture of how DeVos is using this crisis to push her own agenda in education.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

AL: Why The State Pulled The Plug On A Charter For The First Time

Last week, the Alabama Public [sic] Charter School Commission took an unprecedented action and revoked a charter school's charter before it even managed to open. It's a tangly story, with connections to several charter school issues.

Woodland Prep was supposed to be a hot new charter school, but it came with so much baggage that there is an entire blog following the entire mess. Believe me-- I'm going to give you the broad strokes, but if you want to go down this rabbit hole, it runs deep.

At the center of all of this is Soner Tarim. Tarim has a degree from Texas A&M, is a trained biologist, and if you look at any of his bios, he sounds like a heck of a well-trained guy. He's a certified trainer via Texas Education Agency, and ran Harmony Public [sic] Schools, a Texas chain that likes to make claims like a 100% college acceptance rate. He's even connected to the Pahara Institute, a virtual education outfit connected to the Aspen Institute. Pahara-Aspen is connected to all sorts of cyberschool nonsense, and even has ties to our old friend David Hardy, the TFA-grown superintendent who crashed and burned in Lorain, Ohio. Oh, and he also is studying at Eli Broad's fake school for training superintendents.

On top of all these reform credentials, Tarim has one other important connection, and that's to the Gulen Charter empire. The Gulen chain is infamous and huge--centered around a Turkish political leader-in-exile now located in eastern PA. The chain is charged by, well, many many people of being a device for sucking up US tax dollars and using them to finance Fetulleh Gulen's. Again, there are entire websites devoted to following the many abuses and scandals.

In addition to the huge Harmony chain, Tarim also owns Unity School Services, a company that makes money operating other charters, like the Lead Academy chain, with which Unity had a nasty break-up.

But controversy of one kind of another has followed Tarim. In 2011 the New York Times wrote a story detailing Harmony's tangled connection to the Cosmos Foundation which was in turn connected to Gulen. Tarim denied the bulk of the story, but the Times outlined the usual pattern of the Gulen schools-- hiring Turkish nationals for all jobs, using plenty of H-1B visas (along with allegations that those employees are expected to bounce part of that pay back to the imam). One simple example: a $50 million construction contract for a company that had only been in business for one month. The Gulen network, which is huge, has taken advantage of states where charter oversight is lax, and hoovered up great mountains of US taxpayer dollars.

Still, Tarim keeps swinging. The US has considered Gulen Our Guy (though in the last couple of years that has changed a bit-- politics, you know), and so his chain remains untroubled by any federal concerns.

So Tarim left the Harmony network, though he kept trying in Texas. In June of 2019 he asked their state board top approve eight new charters, and met blistering resistance from board member Georgina Perez, who came to the hearing with six pages of questions. "He attempted to create his personal set of alternative facts," she told Larry Lee, a journalist who has made himself a leading expert in Tarim's machinations (Here's a great piece about how, with Tarim, it's always the other guy's fault).

In the meantime, Tarim had moved from Texas into some other states, including Alabama, where he tried to get a LEAD Academy approved but hit a roadblock when the Alabama Education Association took Tarim to court over an illegal approval process involving made-up rules and charter applicants who had zero experience running schools.

Then, for whatever reason, Tarim set his sights on a small rural area of Alabama. And that was where he wanted to build Woodland Prep.

Nobody wanted Woodland Prep--not the local leaders, not the local citizens. They were worried that a charter would drain resources from their already-struggling school. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers took a look at the application and said that it should be denied; it was full of inaccuracies and what Lee kindly calls "misrepresentations." But the Alabama Public [sic] Charter School Commission operates independently and answers to nobody, least of all the voters and taxpayers of Alabama. So in 2018, Woodland got its charter. But by this spring, it was still educational vaporware, a school that existed only as a Tarim sales pitch, and so it received a long-overdue pulling of the plug.

How many articles have I written about this? At least 50. And to be honest, I got to the point where I began to doubt that I would ever have the chance to write a headline like the one above.

In the end, it was as much a story about a very rural community that simply refused to quit fighting and standing up for what it believed in strongly. It was about a community that takes pride in its public schools and refused to be bulldozed by a group of education “experts” from out-of-state who were far more intent on making money than helping children.

Lee, incidentally, is a tremendous education journalist, covering Alabama in particular. He's been at it for a while, and he knows his stuff.

Soner Tarim has more irons in more fires than I can count at the moment, so keep your eyes peeled for that name. There are two lessons in the Woodland Prep story. First, nobody is so tiny that they can safely say, "It'll never happen here." Second, that nobody is so tiny that they can't still win.