Monday, August 31, 2020

ME: Pandemic Excuses More Uncertified Teacher Replacements

On August 26, Governor Mills of Maine issued an executive order that any warm body with any kind of college degree (or maybe even without) may be certified as a teacher.

The executive order actually has three parts. One gives instructions on how to count attendance if you want your state subsidy. One gives some loose instruction on facility disinfection. And one expands the eligibility for emergency teacher certification. Because of the "emergency shortages in essential school staff," 

DOE may issue an Emergency Teacher Certificate to an individual how holds a 4-year postsecondary degree or the equivalent in work and/or academic experience as determined by DOE.

Certification may also be issued to any college student enrolled in a teacher prep program. Also, they'll accept teacher certification from any other state. 

These emergency certificates will last only for this school year--at least, that's the deal for the moment. They have to be mentored, and the state isn't waiving criminal background checks. 

Maine has been doing okay-ish on the Covid front, though they just experienced a new outbreak cluster, thanks to a church and a rural wedding that largely ignored state guidelines. But they've still got a shortage of teachers willing to work under current conditions. That situation is not new--only the coronavirus part is. Maine's solution is understandable, but between the race to implement teach ing software and to grab any warm body to stick in a classroom, the pandemic is not exactly a boom for the teaching profession. At least Maine's warm body order has an expiration date.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

ICYMI: This Month Can't End Too Soon Edition (8/30)

Sometimes you're just really ready to get to te next chapter, or just the next page. Not an uncommon feeling these days, even though it's not clear that the next chapter will be any less troublesome than this one. We'll see soon enough. In the meantime, here are some readings from the week.

From Sarah Schwartz at EdWeek. And no, she's not talking about those evil teachers who are worried that distance learning will lay bare their terrible indoctrination plans.

Remember the teachers who were shot with non-lethal but really painful and scary bullets during an active shooter drill? They've decided to take it to court.

This op-ed from the York Daily Record looks at how PA cyber schools are hoovering up all the aid, because profiting from a crisis is fun, even if it screws over public schools.

From The Lily. These girls called their school on the whole "we can't require students to wear masks but female skin will be outlawed with the full force of school rules" baloney.

Another editorial about DeVos's recent court losses, which aren't news at this point, but this piece from the Los Angeles Times editorial board is still worth a read.

From the New York Times, a look at yet another system that keeps NYC schools among the most segregated in the country.

At Dad Gone Wild, another example of how some professional education disruptors manage to cash in creatively.

Andre Perry at EdWeek with the dismaying facts and figures of just how much we underfund Black schools and education. 

From McSweeneys, a gentle spin on two favorite characters on a new adventure.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Brookings Makes A Bad Pro-Charter Argument

Mona Vakilifathi graduated from the4 University of California, San Diego, with a BS in political science and government back in 2009, and she's been working policy jobs ever since. Over at Brookings, she has some thoughts about Democrats, charter schools, and ed policy, and while she seems to mean well, she has missed a few spots here and there. I've read it so you don't have to.

Let me get the answers from you!
She opens by repeating the reformster narrative that charters divide Democrats along racial lines, citing the "research" from DFER showing that Black voters want charter schools. The poll (from May of 2019) is another one of DFER's attempts to push the narrative in a pro-charter direction. That poll was particularly riddled with questionable technique and spin. And most of the Black Democrats want charters "data" has come from people trying to push charters. So her premise is problematic.

She also offers a quick history of recent "evolving politics"by citing Trump and DeVos as charter supporters, however, DeVos and Trump have left charter schools behind, throwing their weight behind voucher programs like the DeVosian Education Freedom voucher program. This may be because DeVos has always preferred the idea of tax dollars going to private (religious) schools, and Trump's use of vouchers as a way to draw Catholic support.

And she brings up the old "Albert Shanker liked charters" line, skipping the "and then he realized they were turning out to be awful" part. But her definition of charter schools simply identifies them as schools with "greater policy discretion." There's a great deal of complexity, including the reformster belief that charters can unleash the magical power of market forces, that she skips, other than offering this line from the Vast Understatement Hall of Fame: "As the charter school movement evolved over time, charter school advocates prioritized charter school growth with little attention to how charter schools might benefit traditional public schools..." That's a feature, not a bug, in the market forces conception of charters. Vikilifathi is talking Shanker when she should be talking Friedman.

She notes that charters don't seem to do much better than public schools when it comes to student achievement, by which she means scores on a narrow ill-designed two-subject Big Standardized Test. I'll just go ahead and fix that for her from here on in.

She specifically identifies Democratic opposition to the Charter Schools Program, but a desire to rein in that program is not necessarily about opposition to charters, given that the CSP has thrown at least a billion dollars of taxpayer money into a pit of waste and fraud. Vakilifathi has some ideas about how the CSP can be put to better use.

She pulls this nugget from the body of research-- that charter schools manage higher test scores  than public schools in urban communities. She sails past some of the obvious explanations-- creaming, pushing out low-scoring students, self-selecting for involved families, intensive test prep, longer school hours, and whittling down cohorts without backfilling empty seats (for examples of all these in action, see Robert Pondiscio's How the Other Half Learns  about Success Academy).

Vakilifathi seems to believe that charter schools might know some magical secret to learning, and her policy suggestions are built around that assumption. She proposes that the CSP be amended to do the following.

1) Prioritize federal funding to charter schools that will innovate, experiment, and identify best practices. In other words, she wants the Obama/Duncan notion of charters as laboratories of learning. She wants charters to commit fiddling with ways to improve test scores for low-income, racial/ethnic minority, or special education students (it might help to first require charters to accept special education students). The charter also has to submit to "rigorous, empirical evaluation of the policy intervention for broader dissemination." In other words, they must break down their secret formula to share.

2) The USED must publicly disseminate the results. Show how they made the secret sauce, and share it with all other schools. Include what they did, how they did it, and the improved test scores that they got out of it.

3) USED must give low-scoring public schools to help them implement the special sauce. The public school announces it wants to try East Egg Charter's special sauce, files out an application, gets a grant. They, too, go under the sciencey microscope to see how well that policy idea raised test scores at the school.

In short:

I argue that charter schools provide a unique opportunity to identify evidence-based best practices to improve low-performing traditional public schools because of charter schools’ rich variation in state regulatory exemptions, charter school practices, charter school accountability policies, and student enrollment. Democrats should consider amending CSP to incentivize charter schools to revert closer to its original intent as laboratories of traditional public schools to improve low-performing traditional public schools and student performance.

So, there are several reasons to be less than excited about this idea.

1) Charters are unlikely to be excited about it. Since the movement is largely premised on the notion of unleashing free market forces--well, in that context, this proposal makes as much sense as telling MacDonald's that they have to show Wendy's how to make fries.

2) Vakilifathi's use of BS Test scores as a measure of achievement disqualifies the whole business right there. The tests are a lousy measure of student achievement and school effectiveness-- which are two entirely different things that Vakilifathi just sort of lumps together. Either way, the Big Standardized Test is not the measure to use, unless you want to re-organize schools around standardized test results instead of education.

3) Vakilifathi makes the unfounded assumption that the methods used "successfully" at East Egg Charter can be transferred whole cloth to West Egg Public High School and work just as well, as if the specific situation of the school is not a major factor is student achievement. Hell, as any classroom teacher can tell you, I can't even transfer the methods I used five years ago into today's classes. Hell, lots of times I couldn't even transfer the methods I used third period into sixth period.

4) There is zero reason to think that the charter world, populated primarily by education amateurs, knows anything that public school systems don't already know. Charter success rests primarily on creaming student population (and the families thereof), pushing out students who won't comply or are too hard to educate, extending school hours, drilling tests like crazy, having teachers work 80 hour weeks, and generally finding ways to keep out students with special needs that they don't want to deal with. None of these ideas represent new approaches that folks in public education haven't thought of.

5) If charters were pioneering super-effective new strategies, we would already know. There is a well-developed grapevine in the public education world. If there were a charter that was accomplishing edu-miracles, teachers all over would be talking about it. Teachers who left that charter would take the secret sauce recipe with them, and pretty soon it would be being shared across the country. After decades of existence, charters do not have a reputation in the education world for being awesome--and there's a reason for that. Puff pieces and PR pushes may work on the general public and provide fine marketing, but that's not what sells other teachers.

Short answer-- if charters knew something really awesome and impressive, public school teachers would already know and already be copying it.

6) Rigorous empirical evaluation only measures certain sorts of data friendly things, and we are talking about a wide variety of human beings in a web of complex relationships. You can only get so far trying to, say, do a rigorous empirical evaluation of why two people are best friends. But it will only scratch the surface (and it will not tell you the secret to making two other people become best friends).

7) We've sort of tried all of this (see Obama/Duncan administration). There's even a whole federal website of "What Works" that supposedly provides evidence about a random assortment of programs and materials. You probably haven't heard about it because not that many folks find it useful.

Vikilifathi's idea seems sensible enough on paper, but it just doesn't translate to the actual world of charter schools these days. We're going to need better ideas than this; however, that's a discussion that may best wait until after November.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Zero Sum Game

I'm feeling a little dumb at the moment, because a light bulb just went on that should have gone on a while ago.

I was having the same conversation I've had many times. "Charters and vouchers and public schools could absolutely coexist. There's no reason it has to be a zero sum game," said someone.

And I agree, sort of. There are some things that can't help being zero sum, like having enough students to run certain programs. But financially, it's absolutely true that we don't have to make it a zero sum game. We don't have to be forced into the ridiculous attempt to finance multiple school systems with the money that isn't sufficient to fully fund just one. That's a choice that politicians make.

There are a couple of reasons we get stuck with a zero sum financial game. One is simple-- there is no politician with the cojones to stand up and say, "We want to set up multiple school systems and we want to raise your taxes to pay for it." The old claim of "my money should follow my child" line is a lie (it's your money--and your neighbors' money, too), but it sounds good and kind of fair. I even think there are people who honestly believe that you should just be able to move some money around and run multiple school systems with little muss and fuss. They're wrong, but I believe they believe in their story.

But there's one more reason to support the zero sum game, and that's that you know it's a zero sum game and you're hoping public education loses.

Again, this is not all the disruptors. This is the far right crowd, the :"government schools are bad" crowd. Talk to your evangelical friends and listen to how they talk about the need to "take back" some institutions, including schools. That's the DeVosian crowd, the let's get Kingdom Gain by putting schools (at least the schools for people who count) back in the hands of the church.

So things like the Education Freedom program are a clever way to end both paying taxes and public schools. Get rid of public schools, and you can also get rid of teacher unions and regulations that tell you that you have to tolerate LGBTQ students and BIPoC students who don't know their place, plus shutting off one of the government avenues for programs that serve poor people.

Again, not all reformsters. But still. I feel a little like I did a decade ago when I thought, "These damned tests-- it's almost as if they want us to fail and--oh, hell! That's it! They do want us to fail."

There will always be an assortment of reasons for disruption advocates to favor the zero sum game for school funding. But one of those reasons is that they do really want to bleed public schools to death. If I've learned anything in the last decade, it's that you cannot underestimate how very much some people hate hate hate the public education system.

Information Sources: Don't Quit Your Day Job

The New York Times just announced another "project" to be embedded within the paper and funded by philanthropic types. It's not a new model; the Gates Foundation has been funding journalism "projects" for a while. This piece by Tim Schwab at the Columbia Journalism Review lays out in depressing detail just how large the Bill Gates Underwritten Journalism Industry actually is (freakin' huge). This kind of funding model reflects how hard times for "journalism" has affected the tilt of what you and I get to read.

Blame the internet, at least in part, because of its prodigious grasping hunger for content. If you want to keep your site in the game, you've got to be rolling out new content several times daily. And that content has to come from somewhere, and there has to be a lot of it, and it has to be cheap.

The old Huffington Post model was a prime example of what can happen next. You may recall that I used to write for HuffPost. So did a lot of other people. It paid exactly $0.00; more accurately, it paid in eyeballs. Sometimes it paid handsomely; this piece may be the most-viewed thing I've ever written.

What we've got is an information ecosystem in which people can't afford to be writers. Nobody who does journalism for a living is making a particularly great living

And what that means, in turn, is that we have an information ecosystem in which many of the producers aren't actually working for the organization under whose masthead they appear. They are either working for someone else, or they're working out of dedication to a cause.

I'm not just talking about the cardboard faux fronts put up by the wealthy, eg Education Post, originally created by Eli Broad, Laurene Powell Jobs, and others of that crowd to imitate an education information website while really devoted to pushing their PR (EdPost has recently morphed into something a little more interesting, but that's a conversation for another day).

I'm talking, for instance, about thinky tank employees who are readily available as a source for any education article, because that's part of their job, and who regularly produce content for other outlets not because they are working for those outlets, but because they are using those outlets to do their real job, which is to push a particular narrative.

Those of us who blog are used to accusations that we're tools of the teachers union, and I think that's partly because that's the model that many folks in the reformy biz are familiar with--you get paid by these folks over here so that you can go write stuff for those guys over there. What has marked much of the resistance to privatization and disruption of education has been a whole lot of folks willing to do the work for no pay but eyeballs, and that has been a powerful force, but at the same time, it has meant that the movement relies on a loose network of people who have lives and day jobs and have to somehow do the work in the margins, while the ed disruption movement has a small army of employees for whom getting the word out and selling the narrative is their day job. And behind them, guys like Gates who are funding a whole lot of writing in other organizations' publications, and making it easer to insure that their narrative is the one that's most readily accessible to readers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Education Law Center: States Are Using Fed Grants To Cut Education Spending

According to the folks at the Education Law Center, states are repeating the sins of a decade ago. Let me explain.

Pity Tom Corbett. He became one of the few Pennsylvania one term governors, and he lost in no small part because he was accused of cutting education spending by a billion dollars. And he sort of did, but he was also sort of set up by the previous governor, Ed Rendell, who collected some Great Recession relief and used it to replace state tax money rather than adding to it. When that short term federal grant ended, there was suddenly a big hole in PA education spending (which Corbett tried to hide by deciding to start counting pension costs as "educational spending"). Here's the graph:

You may recall that as the Great Recession ended, many states found themselves spending less for education than they had pre-2008. There were many reason for that, but using federal funds to replace state funds and then doing nothing as the federal money ended was in many cases a contributing factor.

And now ELC says some states are doing it again.

ELC cites New York, Texas and Michigan as three states that are following "a playbook from the 2009 Great Recession by cutting over $1 billion in states aid."New York calls this a "pandemic adjustment."

That 209 playbook looks like this:

In the Great Recession, states responded to revenue declines by making significant, recurring cuts in state school aid. Then they offset those cuts with non-recurring federal stimulus relief. This caused deep structural deficits in state support for K-12 education that continued long after the Recession ended.

So, for instance, Michigan cut aid by $175 per pupil, or $256 million total. The state then plugged that hole with an additional $350 per pupil from the Coronavirus Relief Fund along with another $351 million from the CARES act, all of which is going to look like a short term win. But the day that all the federal coronavirus money runs out, the state will suddenly suffer a huge spending "cut."

The effects are particularly brutal for districts in low-income communities, aka districts that have less ability to make up a state shortfall with local tax increases. This model creates a ticking time bomb for the poorest districts.

And it's not just bad news in the long term. This approach also means blunts the effect of federal relief. This is Extra Bad News during a pandemic because schools are suddenly facing new, large expenses (PPE, substitutes, distance learning supplies, etc etc etc). It's like this-- you tell your folks that you're going to have to pay extra for school lunch this month and your usual allowance won't cut it. "Will ten dollars a week extra be enough," they ask, and you answer that you can probably make that work. "Great," they reply. "Also, we're cutting your weekly allowance by seven dollars.:"

In other words, we're in danger of the same mess we had with education spending during and after the Great Recession, only worse. It's the kind of thing that requires keeping a careful watchdoggy number-crunchy policy-wonky eye on your legislature, but it has to be done because otherwise it's far too easy for state politicians to kick the can down the road and leave it for some other poor slob to clean up.

Monday, August 24, 2020

How Bad Is This Gates-Funded Essay Cyber-Scorer? This Bad.

Software that can grade an essay is the great white whale of automating education. If software could actually score an essay effectively, data-mining personalized [sic] algorithm-delivered edu-product could work with more than just multiple choice and true or false questions. I've written a plenty about why this great white whale is not going to be landed any time soon. But let me give you a specific example of how bad one product really is, even though it's getting funding from the Gates Foundation.

Ecree was founded in 2014 and promises to use "artificial intelligence to replicate teacher-quality feedback on written assignments." It was founded by Jamey Holt and Robin Donaldson. Holt used to do a little college teaching, then became COO of Phronesis Health, Inc, a healthcare data mulching outfit. Donaldson is the computer guy.

The Gates Foundation is a big fan of this kind of software-driven edu-product, and have given  something like $3 million to companies working on the problem, including ETS, Vantage Learning, Measurement Incorporated, and the University of Michigan. Plus our new friends at Ecree. All five grants are "to validate the efficacy of Automated Essay Scoring software in improving the student outcomes in argumentative writing for students who are Black, Latino, and/or experiencing poverty."

First, I'm looking askance at the word "validate," which is a lot like "prove that this works" when it should be "see if this works or not" (spoiler alert-- not).

Second, it's silly to talk about validating the efficacy of these products for Black, Latino or poor students, because these products have no efficacy for any students at all (which is why I'm going to skip over the ethical and educational issues of having someone/something sit beside you and help you write a paper).

But don't take my word for it. Let's see just how well Ecree works.

Ecree offers a free trial, which I used, with help from BABEL, the nonsense essay generator created by the long-time scourge of automated essay scoring baloney, Les Perelman. Ecree asks you what your prompt was and then lets you either write the essay on their site, or simply upload it.

My prompt was "What was the role of isolationism in World War I?" BABEL builds an essay out of three words-- I gave it "isolationism," "Europe" and "war," and this is the essay it kicked out.

Warfare has not, and no doubt never will be expedited. Human society will always oust isolationism; some of appetites and others for an exposition. a lack of war lies in the field of literature but also the field of philosophy. War is the most inappropriately eventual trope of mankind.

Gluttony, especially for howl, authorizes an advancement on positively but magnificently blustering speculations by Europe. If allocations inquire or intensify admiration, consistency that is mournfully contemporary but is puissant, gregarious, and manifest with warfare can be more naturally reprimanded. Additionally, europe, often at an adjuration, can be the scrutinization. In my experience, all of the ligations to our personal precinct of the arrangement we attenuate concede the inquisitions in question. Even so, armed with the knowledge that the contrived anesthetic expedites pulchritude, most of the comments for my utterance relent. Our personal convulsion to the proclamation we lament sermonizes. Europe which precludes all of the performances might dubiously be an allegation on our personal authorization with the thermostat we assimilate as well. The assembly of celebrations may be decency but is incensed yet somehow inappropriate, not paganism that undertakes admixture and circumscribes concurrences. In my theory of knowledge class, none of the axioms at our personal sanction by the apprentice we inspect advocate and allocate amplifications which compensate the altruist. The more a probe that collapses should be disruption, the less contretemps can gratuitously be a Gaussian multitude.

As I have learned in my semiotics class, isolationism is the most fundamental casuistry of humankind. Though interference for obloquy inverts, information processes brains. The same pendulum may process two different orbitals to process an orbital. The plasma is not the only thing the brain reacts; it also receives neutrinoes for irascibility with war. Due to interceding, petulantly but extraneously petulant expositions protrude also on Europe. a contemptuous isolationism changes the injunction at warfare.

The organism, frequently to a respondent, diagnoses war. The sooner the people involved yield, the sooner admiration dislocates drones. Furthermore, as I have learned in my literature class, society will always belie isolationism. Our personal intercession of the assumption we accede will be appreciation with circumspections and may diligently be rectitude. The amanuensis might, still yet, be coruscating in the way we incline or belittle the indispensably and posthumously philanthropic recount but preach appetites. In my semantics class, almost all of the affronts at my agreement bluster or inaugurate the exposure. a quantity of isolationism is consummate for our personal orator on the response we propagate as well. The inspection delineates excess, not a scrutinization. In my experience, many of the interlopers by our personal civilization at the prison we feign complete agriculturalists. The less profession that whines is prelapsarian in the extent to which we excommunicate most of the ateliers for the realm of reality and confide or should completely be a conveyance, the more ligations authorize the conveyance of augmentation.

Warfare with concessions will always be an experience of human society. In any case, armed with the knowledge that presumption may confrontationally be whiner, most of the accumulations at my proclamation scrutinize tropes but commence and allure assassinations which provision an assembly. If joyous reprobates speculate and assassinate demarcations to the aborigine, war which corroborates authorizations can be more squalidly unsubstantiated. War has not, and undoubtedly never will be countercultural but not vied. Europe is countlessly but precariously contentious as a result of its those in question.

You'll notice that, in addition to being gibberish, the BABEL essay never actually mentions World War I at all. 

On upload, the program, for no apparent reason, plugged my paragraphs into the every other graph spot. You'll notice that it has decided on its own where the topic sentences are in these topic-free paragraphs. Each of the little comments on the right margin offers more detail when you hover. In Body Paragraph 2, Ecree says that the "topic sentence for this paragraph clearly connects to your thesis." Also, "you do a good job of explaining how the information in your paragraph supports your point." 

In Paragraph 4, where Ecree says that the analysis is weak, the explanation is that the analysis gets off to a good start, but I don't spend enough time explaining why the information helps make my point. 

Throughout the text, Ecree also offers style guidance, like to emphasize ideas, use clear nouns rather than verbs. Also, "describing actions takes focus away from a sentence's key ideas." Both of those turned up a lot. It also checked some spelling and punctuation. I moved some paragraphs around to get rid of the "blank" paragraphs; it did not notice when I had the same paragraph in the essay twice.

Ecree also grades the final product. My BABEL essay received a B, 83%. It does, in smaller print note "The grade given by your teacher may be different than the grade provided by Ecree." 

The great and terrible weakness of automated essay grading is that software always measures superficials. Big words? Sentence structure? Length of sentences and paragraphs? Scan for a couple of key words? That's it. There is about as much artificial intelligence involved as there is in my wireless mouse.

The complaint when a software is BABEL-tested is that the BABEL essay is not a good faith attempt to complete the assignment, that it's just trying to bullshit the scoring software. But if you think students writing essays never try to bullshit the teacher, I have a bridge over a swamp to sell you. More importantly, handing the essay over to software is not a good faith attempt to assess the writing, so what do you expect?

The feedback is instantaneous, much like the instantaneous feedback from a magic eight ball. And the pricing is modest-- $5.00 a paper, or a yearlong subscription for $200--okay, not really that modest for something that doesn't actually work. But this is the kind of thing Gates is spending money on. What a waste. 

Trump's Education Agenda

Trump has released his agenda for his second term, and it's special. Cut taxes. Add jobs. Eradicate Covid-19. End reliance on China. Cover pre-existing conditions. Congressional term limits. Bring violent extremist groups like ANTIFA to justice. Dismantle human trafficking. Build the world's greatest infrastructure system (so, more infrastructure week!) Stop endless wars.

It's all familiar hooey, in bullet point list form (so not a word about how or why, but education gets its own subheading, under which we find these two bullet points.

Provide School Choice To Every Child In America

Teach American Exceptionalism

That's it. That's the whole thing. Get some of that good old ahistorical jingoism back in the classroom, and dismantle the public education system and replace it with a privatized one. It's a fun pairing because if you're going to have a school choice system, how are you going to force every school to teach exceptionalism? For that matter, how will you force a free and open market to serve every single student (spoiler alert--you can't).

So not just crap, but sloppy, poorly thought out crap. Trump's listicle agenda is less an actual agen da and more a collection of catch-phrases that he's figuring will appeal to his base. Also, in the case of sc hool choice, it also lets him reassure folks like the Catholic Church that deal he made (voucher-delivered taxpayer dollars in return for votes) is still in place.

Note also that there is no GOP platform this time. The GOP has decided to skip having a platform and instead has simply declared that the press is mean, that whatever the Dems are for, the GOP is against it, and finally, that they pledge their loyalty to Dear Leader. So this bullet point list is all we get this time around.

Lots of public school teachers voted for Trump first time around. There may have been some question about how things would go that time, but this time out there can be no doubt-- a vote for Trump is a vote against public education.

Addendum: For those sputtering "But but but what about Biden," here's the post I already ran about Biden's "unity" platform.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

More Pandemic Privatization

"This New Nonprofit Is Training Better Online Teachers This Fall" gushes the EdSurge article that is barely disguised PR for yet another reformy initiative.

This summer a group of education leaders, many from the world of charter schools and education reform, sought to change that by launching the nonprofit National Summer School Initiative, or NSSI for short. Its solution was both a crash course in effective online teaching—and figuring out what good online teaching looked like—and a summer enrichment program for students across the country.

"Many" from charter/reform world is not really correct-- "entirely" would be more accurate. Crash course is right--the training "institute" lasted a whole week. And the company, which has already rebranded itself as Cadence Learning, is selling one more screen-delivered education program. This rebranding is a bit of an unforced rookie error, as Cadence Education is already a company in the early childhood ed biz, and the Cadence Learning Company is a Canadian pharmaceuticals firm. Boys and girls, first rule of 21st century business--before you choose a name, google it.

Poster boy for endlessly failing upwards
You can get a good sense of where this business is coming from just by looking at the priors of the folks running it. The spokesguy that EdSurge talked to was Chris Cerf, a lawyer who became part of the Joel Klein edu-team in NYC, then became Chris Christie's education chief for New Jersey. He left that job to work with Klein at the fiasco that was Amplify (it was totally going to change the face of education). Oh, and Edison Schools, too. After that, he became Cami Anderson's replacement as head of Newark schools. Now he's part of the leadership team at Cadence.

Also on the team are Kevin Anderle, from Achievement First and Teach for America; Savita Bharadwa, former chief of staff at Newark schools, as well as a consultant. Her degrees in electrical engineering, but she got a fake degree from the Broad Academy. so there's that. Then there's Rochelle Dalton, senior fellow at Bellwether, also formerly KIPP Foundation, and Teach for America. Aquan Grant, PrepNet--but she has a real education degree and spent two whole years in the classroom before her career as a charter school principal. Monnikue Marie McCall founded a business solutions service. Doug McCurry is co-CEO of Achievement First. Katie Rouse is from Bellwether, and has a fake degree from Broad. Ian Rowe is CEO of Public Prep, and previously at the Gates Foundation and before that, MTV. Betsey Schmidt, Mesh Ed Collective CEO, after doing R&D for Whittle Schools and Studios, and a stint at Ascend Learning. Saya Taniguchi is an "independent education consultant" who started out in TFA. Mary K. Wells, Bellwether, formerly Bain. Steven Wilson, CRPE, Ascend Learning, special assistant under Mass Gov William Weld. Lakisha Young, cofounder of Oakland REACH, a parent advocacy group.

There are also an "award-winning" team of mentor teachers. There are 21 of them. 7 are "enrichment" teachers. Of the remaining 17, at least 8 are TFA products; the rest are charter school teachers.

So, in this big ole company, this company that is designed all around the idea of helping deliver classroom teaching, there is nobody in sight with any meaningful experience in classroom teaching (or, for that matter, distance learning--unless you want to count Cerf's time wit the disastrous failure of Amplify, and why would you).

The model is simple enough. The "mentor" teacher starts the virtual class, along with a couple of "showcase" students, and then kicks it over to the "partner" teacher. Let me point out that odds are good that the "mentor" teacher will actually have far less teaching experience than the "partner" teacher. Cadence also offers lesson plans and a daily schedule, just in case your student needs to spend (checks chart) almost six hours in front of a screen.

Right now the program is free to smaller schools, fueled with big time grants. Cerf says the point here is to put a focus on quality cyber-schooling, but it's not clear what this slick well-funded band of edu-amateurs has to bring to the table. But it is one more handy way to A) get public schools to hand over the driver's seat to a private company and B) prop up charter schools that are struggling. It's one more variation on the Rocketship/Summit model, wit the twist of a live synchronous body involved in sort of teaching the class, kind of.

These are difficult times, and the last thing schools need is more amateur hour shenanigans from people who come from the world of "if it's really important, you should be able to make a buck at it." If you see your district considering these guys, speak up loudly.

ICYMI: My Wife's Summer Vacation Ends Edition (8/23)

Teachers get back to it this week, with students returning in a week. We're holding our breaths here-- my county has a 2020 total of 69 cases and 1 death (yes, that's for the whole year so far), so local folks have not been feeling the whole pandemic as much as they've been feeling the various shutdowns. So we'll see what happens. In the meantime, here's some stuff to read from the week.

Biden, Harris, and Dr. Biden Will Send DeVos Yachting!

Come for Nancy bailey's headline, and stay for the comprehensive list of DeVosian misbehavior.

Pod Save Us: How Learning Pods are Going to Destroy Public Education. Or Not.

Nancy Flanagan takes a look at pods without hyperventilating. A good look at this current phenom.

Charles Koch Buys Into National Parents Union

Maurice Cunningham has been tracking the NPU since they first tossed their heavily astroturfed hat into the education ring. Here's the latest fun new development.

The Problems with "Show Me the Research" in Teaching Reading

Paul Thomas has been a strong, thoughtful voice in the reading wars. Here's another clear explanation of why you don't need to feel steamrolled by the Science of Reading crowd.

NC Awards Grant to Charter Schools to Increase Access

For some reason, the state has decided it needs to bribe charter schools in order to get them to do the job that public education is supposed to do by accepting all students.

Cami Anderson: ‘Police-Free Schools’ Vs. ‘Chaos’ Is a False Choice. Here’s What Districts Must Do to Implement Real Discipline Reform

Reformy Cami Anderson in the reformy the74 actually has some thoughtful ideas here about how to get police out of school and, better yet, how to reframe the debate. I'm not agreeing with all of it, and yes, she's here to plug her newest edu-business, but this is still a good conversation starter.

How white progressives undermine school integration

Eliza Shapiro at the New York Times looks at some research and hosts a panel discussion about why places like New York City can talk the talk, but adamantly refuse to walk the walk.

British Grading Debacle Shows Pitfalls of Automating Government

Also in the NYT. Britain tried some computerized grading of students. It hasn't gone well.

The Woeful Inadequacy of School Reopening Plans

Amy Davidson Sorkin says we've pretty much wasted the summer. A not-very-uplifting read from the New Yorker.

What if the NBA ran the Department of Education?

McSweeney's, but not entirely a joke.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Grammar Police, Go Home

Grammar and usage are two different things, and understanding the difference can be a huge help in untying some linguistic knots and navigating some linguistic swamps of the English kind. Because the "grammar police" are almost never policing grammar; they're enforcing something else entirely. And yes-- if you stick around for this, you'll get some of the same stuff my students did for years.


Grammar is the mechanics of language. Or at least, the best model we can come up with. Because here's the thing-- we don't really know how the brain does language. We know that there's a readiness factor (that would be why you learn your first language when you can't even dress yourself, but trying to learn a second language in your teens is twelve kinds of torture). Language is a big black box in the brain, and we don't know what's going on inside it.

But we can reverse engineer it. If you played Pacman, you learned a bunch of rules to the game--which way to turn, when to turn, where to pause, etc. You did not learn those by printing out and studying the program for the game. You learn by carefully observing what works and what doesn't. There are plenty of other examples-- we don't actually know how/why gravity works, but we can accurately describe how it will behave.

So to for grammar. Grammar rules are descriptive, like Newton's Laws of Motion. When we say that every sentence must contain a subject and a verb, that's not because somebody decided it would be a good idea, but because we can observe that when a sentence lacks either a subject or a verb, it doesn't work. Traditional grammar, like Newtonian physics, mostly describes things pretty well, but has some real holes in it. There are other grammars out there, but none have ever really caught on.

Grammar is all about the mechanics of how language works, what it parts are, how they function. Traditional grammar is pretty mechanical and not too pre-occupied with meaning (which is a problem that kind of seeps into language instruction in general from there, but let's save that topic for another day).

Mostly, when you break grammar rules, people look at you funny because you don't make sense. Sometimes, they look surprised because you make sense in new and interesting ways (lookin' at you, Will Shakespeare).

But the people you meet online who are called "grammar police"? They aren't really grammar police at all.


They're usage police.

Usage is about the "right" way to say something. It's what word is the "proper" word to use. It's what people judge you for, what they want to correct, what let's the words "right" and "wrong" into the conversation. All its rules are prescriptive, like a school dress code.

Usage is fashion for language. And like fashion, it doesn't always make sense (at this point, I would always point out to my students that we could all tell I was the most dressed up person in the room, because in the morning I took a special piece of fabric and tied it around my neck in a special way, and why is that even a thing, and by the way, think about the phrase "dressed up"). And like fashion, it is set in ways that are a little bit beyond human control.

For instance. Lots of languages have plural forms of "you." English did, too, once upon a time, but then we just sort of dropped it, but because it was useful, we eventually kind of put it back-- y'all, you guys, or, in my neck of the woods, y'uns.

For instance. Look at the enormous amount of effort it's taking to sell the replacement of "he" or "she" with "they." "They" offers a real solution to a real problem--the old rule that "he" was always the default when you had a singular person of unknown identity--but it's really hard to get language to change just because you want it to.

Usage is also the part of language where we start talking about meaning, both text and subtext.

That difference 

So grammar is the attempt to describe what's happening in a part of our brains we cannot see or control. Usage is a social behavior, a linguistic fashion that responds to a variety of factors.

Classic example-- "ain't." "Ain't" is perfectly grammatical. Native speakers understand it, and they can recognize when it's used in a way that makes sense (That ain't it) and when it's not (Do you like my ain't hat). But ain't runs afoul of usage rules; it's not widely accepted as "proper" English, by which we mean--and here's an important part--the English used by people who have social status.

Another big difference is that usage changes, and grammar mostly doesn't. A sentence has required a subject and a verb for centuries. But like fashion, usage shifts. Sometimes we shift to something less formal (just like all the politicians who now campaign without a tie), and we are constantly experiencing usage "fads," where words or phrases erupt, spread, subside.

That shifting matters extra to English.

The trouble with English 

Our language suffers from history. Specifically, the history of Britain, specifically their unfortunate tendency to be invaded a lot.

It's fair, because the language starts with an invasion. Those Anglo-Saxons attack and take over the island nation, and at this point, we tag the start of Old English (Angle-ish), a language that a modern English speaker can't understand. Then along come the Danes, and the big language-buster, the Norman Conquest. After the conquest, most of England's upper class speak French-ish, and Anglo-Saxon is spoken mostly by the vulgar lower classes. It's a social fashion that affects us to this day (or did you think there was some good reason that "shit" is a naughty word but "defecate" is all sciency and smart). And then of course the language gets spread to the US, where we are just melting people into the pot right and left. End result is that while some languages tend to be kind of stiff and set in their ways, English is flexy and bendy.

When usage started to be codified, folks mostly just codified the same social status and fashion that had always been at the heart of it. Who says this "correctly"? Must be the rich upper-crust folks of London, and not those poor hicks from the hinterlands.

This process has never stopped, and it has never, ever been divorced from class and status. Have we grown a bunch of different languages? Probably not-- there's plenty of academic argument about this sort of thing, but the short layperson answer is that if someone is talking to you and you understand them, then the two of you speak the same language. But we're loaded with dialects and accents and versions of English, and there is absolutely no objective method for determining which is "better," just like there's no objective method for determining which pair of pants is "best."

"Correct" usage is always a social construct, and context always matters.

Deliberate language change is hard 

Is correct English a white thing? Sure. Also a classist thing. And knowing that is important. But changing it is tough. When you see a demanding statement like this NCTE group demanding linguistic justice, it's hard to imagine how to make it work.

For one thing, they question if white students are asked to code-switch and drop their native usage patterns, and as someone who taught many low-income white kids, the answer is yes. Shaking the language you grow up with is hard; your tribe tends to push out other usage patterns. A country boy from my region may be looked down on if he walks into a swanky country club in the Hamptons, but if those folks walk into an auto parts store in my town, they may well get the same treatment.

For another thing, making deliberate usage rule changes is as hard as making a particular fashion trend happen on purpose, or getting a video to go viral. Hell, it's so difficult that some of us made entire careers that were at least partly about trying to coach those transformations.

You can wear a floofy purple hat in public every day to try to make floofy purple hats happen, but at some point, you may decide that it will help you achieve some of your goals to leave the hat at home. The argument about non-standard English has raged forever--on one side is "It's insulting and oppressive to tell my child she speaks incorrectly" and on the other side "I expect you to give my child the tools she needs to have mobility and achieve her goals."

It is possible to do both. And what we can most definitely do is understand that usage rules are not sent down from the Mount on stone tablets. They are not inviolate and they are not a solid means to judging someone's intellect, value or ability. And for gatekeepers like teachers and professors, there is always a need to look in the mirror and ask, "Am I just putting a lot of weight on mechanics and usage because grading content and expression is wiggly and hard?" Because you can definitely stop that.

In the meantime, it's fair to respond to grammar police with statements like "On whose authority do you believe that's correct." If they actually call themselves grammar police, you ask them to explain what they think grammar is and where it comes from. And you can always just say, "I ain't got time for that shit." Which is totally grammatically correct.

Friday, August 21, 2020

"Essential" My Aunt Fanny

At this point, the adjective "Orwellian" has been absolutely beaten to death (with "Kafkaesque" right behind it). But this latest Orwellian bullshit just pokes my last nerve with a sharp stick.

You would think that an "essential" worker would be the one that you want to take the greatest steps to protect and preserve. That person guarding the door while a fire-laced sharknado rages outside? They're absolutely essential, and we'd better make sure they gets whatever they need.

But under pandemic pretzel logic, that "essential" person is the first one who gets thrown out the door.

During the pandemess, "essential" has two important meanings. First, it means that those workers can't refuse to work just because they are, you know, worried about their lives or health. Second, it means that nobody in charge can be held accountable for anything bad that happens to them while they're on the front lines.

When Trump declared meat packers "essential," that wasn't a recognition and reward for their important contribution to society. It was a declaration that Grampa wants his steak and he doesn't want to hear damned excuses, whether you're a worker (I'd rather not get sick and/or die) or a boss (I'd rather not get sued for forcing people into unsafe conditions). There was no "We're going to invest in the resources necessary to protect you while you're out there." Just "get back to work."

In fact, a quick scan of "essential" workers reveals a list of the same folks who are regularly told they should happily work under lousy conditions for low pay.

It has been a stark, ugly look at how our society devalues humans. The steak is valuable and important; the guy who butchers it, not so much. Amazon is essential, but not the workers who make it actually function. Meat widgets are a dime a dozen, but the consumer class does not want to spend another dime on another twelve-pack.

So of course it makes perfect sense that Trump would today declare that teachers are officially "essential."

It sounds like a compliment. It's not, and the tell is that none of these "essential" folks have ever been nor will ever be called essential in any other context. This is not "essential" as in "This work is so important we'd better look at how to offer greater compensation" or "These folks are so essential that we'd better muster all the resources we can beg, borrow or steal to make sure they're as protected as possible" or even "These people are so essential that we'd better ask them what they need and give them whatever they ask for."

Pence wants you to know that his wife is going to back to teach at the tiny exclusive private school where she works. The White House press secretary wants you to know that there's some money and magical guidelines and teachers are just like meat packers. And yes, everyone--well, almost everyone--is wrestling with lots of hard stuff, and many people are working under crappy, scary conditions. Lots of folks are paying some hard dues.

The administration desperately needs to get the economy back to normal, but nobody is going to admit that child care and K-12 education is an essential part of the economy's infrastructure, as surely as roads and telecommunications, because then we'd have to craft policy that reflected that reality.

Are teachers essential? Absolutely. That's why people making school re-opening plans should be listening to them. That's why they should be well paid, and supported, and given the kinds of protections that make sense in light of whatever the local picture might be. And on top of all that, one other thing--


"Pandemic essential" seems to be the opposite of that. Not "Mad props for the important work you do" as much as "Shut up and get back in there, because it's inconvenient for me to have you not on the job." Place your bets now on whether the powers that will be are going to let the "essential" designation quietly lapse, or if someone will stand up some post-pandemic day to announce to meat cutters, nurses and teachers that they are not "essential" any more. What a bittersweet day that will be.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

MI: Teacher Fired Over Political Tweet. If Only There Was A Way Protect Against Such Injustice.

Be careful what you wish for.

Conservative media made a small summer meal out of the story of Justin Kucera, a 28-year-old social studies teacher/coach at Walled Lake Western High School.

The known facts of the story appear to be this:

On July 6, Kucera retweeted the Trump classic, "SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL."  He followed that with “I’m done being silent. @realDonaldTrump is our president … Don’t @ me” Further down the thread, he responded to someone with a "liberals suck, man." That tweet, which Kucera later characterized as a sort of light sarcasm, was later deleted, but the damage, apparently, was done.

The district superintendent offered a bit of a subtweet on July 7, including "We believe in the importance of discourse, but we will not stand for speech or actions from those that represent our District that seek to divide or demean our staff, students, citizens."

Kucera was pulled into a virtual meeting with his administrators, the HR department and his union reps on July 10. They asked him why he tweeted those particular messages, and ultimately gave him the choice of resigning or being fired in a July 15 meeting. He chose not to resign, and the district fired him.

The district has maintained that they did not fire Kucera for boosting Trump, but Kucera has presented his story to many outlets as "I was fired for supporting Trump." Many folks have poked around the tweeterverse to unearth other Walled Lake teachers who have been critical of Trump without repercussions. His termination letter cited "a lack of professional judgment."

The superintendent reached out to Kucera, and on July 22 they met. The personnel file obtained by the Detroit News says the superintendent was looking for ways "we may be able to save this relatively new teacher's career" and administer something less than termination. The file also notes that Kucera had a previous instance of "poor judgment." That incident apparently involved Kucera not showing up for class and not telling anyone back in October of 2019. The superintendent offered Kucera a path back to the classroom, but the next day, Kucera said no thanks, saying that the issue would follow him into the classroom. The file also included this piece of info from the superintendent:

When I asked him whether or not he knew that it was the Liberals Suck tweet and not the Trump is President tweet that was the issue, he admitted that he did.

Now, it's important to acknowledge that there may be more to the story. When people call out school districts in public, there are all sorts of confidentiality rules that keep districts from fully responding; it is entirely possible that there are other problems behind this firing.

But on the surface, this tale has been enough to throw conservatives across the country and GOP-ers in Michigan into a state of high dudgeon. Michigan GOP leader Laura Cox called it "incredibly disturbing" if true. There are even fundraising efforts (though not very successful ones). They've reacted to the surface version of this story, and that's where the lesson lies.

Because the Michigan GOP totally asked for this.

A decade ago, they were busily hacking away at public education through ever manner of attack they could devise. That included a package of laws that then-governor and never-a-friend-of-education Rick Snyder that cut teacher tenure off at the knees. For instance, the old job security laws (what we call "tenure" really isn't, but it's the term everyone's used to) required that a district had to show "reasonable and just cause" to fire a teacher with tenure; the new law just requires proof that the firing was not "arbitrary and capricious."

The new batch of laws also made tenure harder to get, and that's where Kucera's troubles seem to lie. A teacher is "on probation" for the first five years of their career, meaning they can be fired for pretty much any reason at all, including Pissing Off The Wrong People or Looking Like A Potential Source of Headaches for Administration.

When tenure battles were all the rage, teachers and their supporters said repeatedly that teachers need job protections so that they don't have to constantly looking over their shoulders and worrying about a hundred little things like political affiliation. "You big wimps are just afraid of accountability," was the reply.

Well, here we are. In too many states, teachers are vulnerable to firing just for artlessly expressing a political opinion--even if they happen to be opinions by the folks who argued that teachers wouldn't be fired just for expressing political opinions. And while conservative outlets large and small whinged about the unfairness of Kucera's firing, somehow not one that I read managed to connect the dots between this unjust firing and the gutting of laws to protect the due process of teachers and the kneecapping of their unions. I'm sorry for what happened to Justin Kucera--here's hoping that he realizes that it was not sucky liberals who are responsible.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

For Teachers, This Is All Unfortunately Familiar

It didn’t have to be this way.

I’m not the first person to make that observation, and I won’t be the last. But it bears repeating. Because, for many regular citizens this school reopening-during-a-pandemic business may seem like a brand new adventure, but for educators, this is a new arrangement of a song they’ve heard many times before.

In some alternate universe, political leaders—top folks, like governors and even the President—sit down last winter, or even last spring, and have a long hard talk about schools in the midst of a pandemic.

“Schools are critical,” someone declares. “The workers who keep the economy going need to be freed up to get back on the job. Beyond that, we cannot tolerate on our watch a generation of young people getting a small slice of the education to which they’re entitled.” A resolution is reached. “We will do,” the elected leaders declare,” whatever it takes, come through with whatever resources are needed. We will assemble a blue ribbon panel of scientists and teachers and they will figure out what is needed to get public education safely running again, and we will take their recommendations and make them real.”

In this alternate universe, the secretary of education is pushing and cajoling and shaming and bully pulpiting Congress to authorize the necessary resources. “Not only that,” says the secretary (and some other leaders), “but if we are going to ask public school teachers to be the front line troops in this critical battle, we are going to make damned sure they are taken care of.” Or perhaps in that universe leaders are declaring, “It can’t be done safely. We’d better repurpose billions of dollars for the training, technology and infrastructure needed to pivot US education to distance learning. It’ll be expensive and difficult, but at least it will keep people save and students educated.”

But that’s an alternate universe.

In this universe, it’s the same old same old. Some lofty rhetoric about how critical education is, how heroic teachers are. And that’s it. Thoughts and prayers and grousing about how we already spend way too much on public education. We’ve been here before.

We pass a national mandate requiring schools to provide a free and appropriate education for every student, no matter what obstacles that student may face—but Congress never actually funds the mandate.

We repeatedly “discover” that non-wealthy non-white communities are poorly served by schools that lack adequate resources, but somehow nobody ever musters the will to get those schools the resources they need.

We regular declare a “crisis” in the US’s “failing” schools, and every time teachers cringe because they know whose fault it’s going to turn out to be—teachers. Teachers should be smarter. Teachers should have higher expectations. Teachers are being protected by their evil unions.

School shootings increasingly alarm the public, who once again declare their admiration for heroic teachers. The federal government even puts together a task force, headed up by the secretary of education, to look at what can be done. Her recommendation for protecting students and teachers? Arm teachers.

When Congress does try to direct some relief funding for schools dealing with the pandemic, that same secretary of education does not fight for more support for schools, but instead looks for ways to use those funds to back her preferred non-public school causes. Meanwhile, the administration spent more to “rescue” a single airline than to prop up the entire child care sector.

Meanwhile, the administration’s official position seems to be that there is no problem, and if there is, somehow the local schools will handle it, somehow.

It is true that there are no good solutions for the reopening of schools in the fall. It is also true that there are no cheap, safe solutions for the reopening of schools this fall. But that is a little bit true every fall, and every year teachers are encouraged to get in there and do the best they can anyway.

This is the song every teachers knows. “You do great, important work—but we already spend way too much on you, so don’t expect any more help to appear.” (Of course, it’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it, but that’s another conversation we aren’t having.) And then the next chorus is, “You are such great heroes, and we sure admire your love for the kids—and if you really love them, you won’t demand any more from us.” To listen to the rhetoric, one would conclude that there is nothing more important to this country than educating our children; to watch the actions of politicians and bureaucrats, one would conclude that education is a small after thought and political football.

Reopening schools during a pandemic is new only in the degree of severity. For a teacher, it’s all too familiar. You’re changing the flat tire on a bus loaded with kids, in the rain, and they’re hungry. A big shiny Lexus pulls up next to you, and some politician or bureaucrat lowers the window and hollers, “Boy, that looks tough. I admire your hard work and dedication.” You ask if he could make a phone call for help, or get out and lend a hand, but he doesn’t seem to hear. “Well, hey, good luck to you,” he says, rolling up the window. “I’m sure you’ll make it all work out.”

It didn’t have to be this way. It still doesn’t. Educators would love to hear something other than that old familiar song. But they can’t wait; the flat tire won’t change itself.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Silicon Valley and the Surveillance State

Peter Schwartz is an American futurist, innovator, author, and co-founder of the Global Business Network, a corporate strategy firm. He's done sexy things like consult for futury movies, including WarGames (ew), Minority Report, and Sneakers (an under-appreciated gem). He's written an assortment of books; he also wrote the 2004 climate change report that predicted that England would be a frozen wasteland by, well, right now. (This Peter Schwartz should not be confused with this Peter Schwartz, Ayn Rand-loving writer. )

Schwartz was the subject of an interview in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, reminding us that there's an entire sector of future-looking tech-loving folks who think the advent of the surveillance state is pretty swell.

Schwartz is not in Silicon Valley-- he's a Beverly Hills guy. And not everything he says is alarming. For instance:

Every single time, with no exceptions, that I’ve gotten the future wrong, it’s because there was an inadequate diversity of people in the room. It was not that it couldn’t be seen; it was that we were just talking to ourselves.

Technocrats desperately need to hear that, but the prevailing ethos is the idea of a single visionary CEO without other voices to hold him back. As in Zuckerberg's unwillingness to let go of control of his company or his money, or Reed Hastings' belief that school boards should be scrapped because they just get in the Visionary Leader's way.

But then the interviewer asks how our feelings about surveillance are "evolving," and, well, Schwartz doesn't dig very deep.

There will be times when it’s abused, when data is stolen, when people are harmed by it. But for 99% of the people, 99% of the time, it will mean that you didn’t have to show your ticket to get on BART; it means you didn’t have to check out at the supermarket; it means that when somebody stole your kid’s bike, it will have been seen. Oh, and that unhealthy people will be detected before I get on the airplane.

There's no question that folks hav e shown that they are more than willing to fork over huge amounts of personal data for a smidgen of convenience. Hell, people still insist on giving away tons of data just so they can take a "Which kind of exotic cheese are you" quiz on Facebook. But look at how quickly he skips past the down side, and characterizes it as the occasional bad actor, and not a dystopic system of surveillance and control. But here we arrive at an article of misplaced faith.

We’re now in a global village where the truth is everything can be known about everybody.

The truth is that we can collect a great deal of data and factoids about anyone, but that's not everything. This is like believing that if you know your spouse's height, weight, shoe size, favorite color, previous addresses, well, you know everything you can (or need to) know. This is exactly like believing that if you have collected a bunch of standardized test scores from a student, you know that student.

If we could just collect all the observable, quantifiable data, we would know everything about everything. So let us collect it all. Because it's going to happen anyway.

That's the Silicon Valley ethic, and it's wrong on several levels.

First, collecting all the data doesn't make one all-knowing. I'm not just talking about the whole "difference between knowledge and wisdom" thing, or pointing at romantic odes to human complexity and depth (though those things are true, too). Read up on Information Theory and Chaos science-- complex systems define specific, linear predictability. It doesn't matter how many facts you collect--you still can't predict exactly what comes next.

Second, get your paws off our data. Better yet, if you want it, pay for it. If we're imagining our favorite futures, I'd like to imagine one in which customers don't pay for the privilege of being data mined. It's not just that data mining is invasive and obnoxious--the current practitioners are still really bad at it. Feeding that bad data into systems yields bad results.

Third, it's not inevitable. Tech folks--especially ed tech folks--invariably present sales pitches in the guise of future predictions. They are wrong, a lot, in part because they are the techno version of the used car salesman saying, "I can just see you driving this baby out of here." No. You hope to see that, but right now, it's just a sales pitch.

The surveillance state won't be a happy utopia occasionally interrupted by the blip of isolated bad actors. The big use of data is to help mold and direct the behavior of the masses, and the two big motivators for that kind of nudging are 1) the desire to make money and 2) te desire to acquire political power, and we've already seen both in action.

The surveillance state will continue to come after schools, because how else do you gather All The Data except by starting early? Schools are easily seduced partners because too often some folks in charge (and some, sadly, in the classroom) are attracted to the idea that they could get so much more done if they had more data, more control (this is true for public, charter, and private schools). One of the decisions that educational institutions must make, late as it is in the game, is whether they want to help the data miners or become protectors of student data.

They should be protectors. When buying a program, they should require that everything collected will stay within the district's system, to be easily scrubbed when the students leave or graduate. When subscribing to an online service, they should demand ironclad assurances that student data will not be shared (not even with "trusted partners") or kept after the student graduates. Schools are where the foundation of the surveillance state will be laid; schools should be actively and deliberately making sure that foundation doesn't get built.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Country Club Pod School

So you run a string of private tony country clubs, offering "unique access to sports, fitness, luxury hospitality and family-friendly amenities across multiple clubs," and the pandemic has not been very helpful for your business. But you've got all this space. What can you do to get the money stream flowing again?

Open a school, of course.

Let me introduce you to the Bay Club, an organization offering 24 clubs across 9 campuses, including Portland, Marin, San Francisco, East Bay, Santa Clara, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Peninsula campus. They all sound pretty swanky, but as a sample, here's the Peninsula Campus description:

The Peninsula Campus is designed as an ultimate escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. With two premier properties and endless amenities and services, the Peninsula Campus offers a state-of-the-art tennis facility, as well as year-round fitness, aquatics, and family programming. With over thirteen acres between two Bay Club locations, there are plenty of ways for you and your family to play.

On that particular campus, you can join the Redwood Shores club at various levels of swankitude, from individual dues as low as $280/month up to $950/month (on the low end, there is also a $1,000 "initiation fee") with assorted benefits for each level. Fees vary a little bit by location and club, but you get the idea.

So what do you do with, say, 180,000 square feet of empty gym space? You open it up to the hot new world of pod learning.

So the Bay Club now offers the Distance Learning POD Program.

Our on-site Distance Learning PODS feature monitored online learning, extracurricular programs and world-class sports and fitness activities for grades K-12. A turnkey solution for parents and school districts!

The Bay Club has "teamed up with" aka "contracted" KinderCare Education, an outfit that specializes in pre-K care and after-school programming. Also, some "top West Coast universities" are in the mix.

The KinderCare piece is tied to the offerings that cover age 0 through grade 5. The K-5 piece promises to focus on "developing the whole child" through a "rich, nurturing curriculum." The students will get support with remote learning as well as enrichment. For grades 6-12, the promises are more modest-- in addition to "monitoring online learning," they'll get some "athletic and sports clinics led by our fitness professionals." Plus socializing with other students.

For the littles, the cost is $375 /week for non-members, $337.50 for members, and $300 if you have a family membership. The middle and high school programs run $275, $247.50, and $220 a week.

The New York Times just ran a piece about how many folks are being priced out of the learning pod phenomenon; this seems like a fine example of that. And not just priced--I'm sure that the well-manicured luxurious grounds of the Bay Club make it clear who exactly is welcome and who is not (plus transportation, meals, etc)-- this is just not available to all parents. Not everybody is in a position to send their child to private POD school in a literal country club.

And while one might imagine that the idea of Betsy DeVos and others to give public school money to parents to fund pandemic ed (another voucher angle), I remind you that for Bay Club students, there's still a public school somewhere providing the actual distance education. Should they have their funding cut while still doing their job?

Under current pandemic mess rules, we're getting a peek of what education looks like without a robust fully functional public ed system operating, and it looks a lot like a world in which the well-to-do get what they want for their kids, and everyone else just has to scramble for scraps. Experts and historians note (you should really check out this podcast on the subject) that pods threaten to become a new sort of opportunity hoarding, a return to the kind of inequitable education that we created public education to get rid of.

The Bay Club is actually owned by KKR & Co, a massive global investment company. This is a teensy weensy sliver of their business; let's hope that nobody up the corporate ladder notices this and decides to move on.

Oh, and if it seems as if I'm over-reacting to call the Bay Club program a school when they don't even make that claim themselves, let me point out that the model of this kind of pod set-up-- students workin away at coursework delivered via screen while some adult is handy to coach and refocus them-- is exactly the same model as a variety of charter and private schools (looking at you, Summit).