Wednesday, September 30, 2020

DeVos and the Problem of the "Right Fit"

Betsy DeVos has been talking about the “right fit” for a while now.

In 2017: “It shouldn’t matter what type of school a student attends, so long as the school is the right fit for that student.”

During Charter Schools Week this year: “... to celebrate the millions of students who have found the right fit for their education...”

In her recent letter to parents: “...we believe families need more options than ever to find the right fit.”

In the rhetoric of school choice, “right fit” has become a replacement for the “rescue from failing schools” and “trapped by their zip code.” 

The “right fit” rhetoric has some advantages for school choice proponents. In particular, it lets them target a much broader “market,” pitching school choice to students whose school is well-rated and generally successful. “It’s a great school,” the pitch goes, “but it still might not be the right fit for your child.” Voila—instant expanded choice customer landscape.

But there are reasons to be extremely wary of this language.

First of all, while DeVos likes to suggest that parents know what the “right fit” for their child will be, it is the private and charter schools that will ultimately decide whether or not the child is the “right fit” for their school. Charter schools have a history of pushing out students who are too difficult (Success Academy charters of NYC famously was caught with a “got to go” list). Charters can also avoid costly students with expensive-to-meet special needs by simply not offering supports for those needs.

Private schools can go even further in determining what students they will or will not accept as the “right fit.” In July, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary DeVos visited Thales Academy in North Carolina, a private school that benefits from North Carolina’s voucher program. Thales does not provide its students with transportation to school or lunch during the day; it also will not supply Individualized Education Programs (IEP) or 504 plan support for students with disabilities. And like every other private school, you may believe that the school will be the right fit for your child, but you will fill out an application and the school will tell you whether or not the child is the right fit for it.

“Right fit” has too often been the language of polite discrimination. “Of course you’re legally allowed to buy a house here, but are you sure this neighborhood is the right fit for your family?” Career and technical education has a troubled history in some areas because it was used as a dumping ground for Those Students. And how many bright young women have been told that they should sign up for home economics instead of organic chemistry because hard science wouldn’t be the “right fit.”

There’s no question that education should be delivered to students where they are. One of the many deep flaws of the Common Core is its insistence on one-size-fits-all standards. Actual personalized education (the kind involving persons rather than software) is hugely valuable (and usually available in public schools, without having to change schools every time you change direction).

But we can observe two different philosophies of public education. One is uplift; public education is there to help every student rise and advance. The other is about sorting. The sorting view is rooted in the idea that society does and should have different levels, and that people are happiest when they accept their proper place in the world. Some people are meant to be worker bees, say sorters, and some are meant to be the queen, and if you try to move them out of their proper place, they’ll just be unhappy. This is why some turn up their nose at social activism—it’s just stirring up a bunch of people to be unhappy with their proper place in life. For sorters, the purpose of education is to help prepare people for that proper place, that place in life that is the right fit.

I’m not suggesting that every single person who talks about the right fit for a student’s education is out to discriminate against some families. But “right fit” easily provides cover for bias and discrimination. In education, the words should always make us just a little bit suspicious, particularly when someone is trying to sell something.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Dear Joe Biden:

If someone has a pipeline to the campaign, please feel to send this along.

Dear VP Biden:

I know that this evening, you have your hands full with the Great Orange Loon in Cleveland. But you've got an education flavored fundraiser tomorrow night, and we really need to talk.

Here's the event:

It might have been of interest to educators, except, of course, the price of admission is, well-- a "champion" ponies up $5,600, and on the bottom end, an "attendee" pays $100. I mean, I was sorely tempted, but as a retired teacher with two toddlers at home, I don't have $100 to spend on something that will probably horrify me anyway.

Because here's the thing.

I really cannot state strongly enough how much actual working classroom teachers don't really like or trust Arne Duncan. Truthfully, they mostly don't know John King all that well--unless they're from New York, in which case they still have a bitter taste in their mouths from his disastrous tenure there.

I'm sure your campaign has a lovely working relationship with union leaders. But the rank and file, the teachers in the trenches, the people who represent millions of actual votes-- they are not so sure.

Your previous boss broke our heart. We thought he was going to reverse the disaster that was No Child Left Behind--instead, he doubled down on the worst parts, like high-stakes testing. And Duncan was a disaster--one more guy who had never taught and who championed the pushed-from-the-top-down fiasco that was Common Core. Duncan's whole premise seemed to be that teachers were slackers who didn't know their jobs and/or lacked the drive to really do their jobs. He was insulting, demeaning, and the champion of too many bad policies, and to this day he has failed to take responsibility for any of it.

He was not a champion for public education or the people who work there. I cannot type those words hard enough.

It is not enough to pledge to put a teacher in the job education secretary's job. Public education has been a political orphan for far too long, spurned by both Democrats and the GOP; from the classroom vantage point, there has been no serious change in the disastrous direction of the department in decades, regardless of administration.

So we really, really want to see something that shows you are actually listening to the people in public education, that you recognize mistakes of the past, that you are prepared to chart a new course. This event signals the exact opposite. This sort of thing will not inspire public school teachers to support you.

Suggestions? Have a town hall with actual public school teachers (and not just ones who have been carefully vetted to be agreeable). Talk to them. Listen to them. Say some version of the words, "This is what we got wrong in the Obama years, and here's the course correction I propose." And leave Arne Duncan to continue pulling down big salaries at various thinky tanks. Because you can talk about kicking Betsy DeVos to the curb, but as long as you embrace the second-worst secretary of education that teachers can remember, the DeVos tough talk isn't going to stir up much enthusiasm.

Feel free to give me a call. Like many other teachers, active and retired, I would love to see you succeed--but I would also love to see public education finally get real, useful support from the federal government, and not just more of the baloney we've had shoveled at us since the Reagan administration commissioned A Nation at Risk to attack American schools. Give us a reason to support you with a slogan more robust than this one:

Peter Greene

I'll let you know if I hear anything.

Monday, September 28, 2020

AI: Still Not Ready for Prime Time

You may recall that Betsy DeVos sued to say, often, that education should be like hailing a Uber (by which she presumably didn't intend to say "available to only a small portion of the population at large). You may also recall that when the awesomeness of Artificial Intelligence is brought up, sometimes in conjunction with how great an AI computer would be at educating children.

Yes, this much salt
Well, here comes reminder #4,756,339 that this kind of talk should be taken with an acre of salt. This time it's an article in The Information by Amir Efrati, and it starts out like this:

After five years and an investment of around $2.5 billion, Uber’s effort to build a self-driving car has produced this: a car that can’t drive more than half a mile without encountering a problem.

We're talking $2.5 billion-with-a-B dollars spent with nothing usable to show for it. Unfortunate for something that has been deemed for Uber as "key to its path to profitability." Meanwhile, corporations gotta corporate-- a "self-driving" Uber killed a pedestrian in Temp, Arizona back in 2018, and the court has just ruled that while Uber itself is off the hook, the "safety driver" will be charged with negligent homicide. She mad the not-very-bright assumption that the car could do what its backers said it could do.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has absorbed partnered with OpenAI, the folks whose GPT-3 language emulator program is giving everyone except actual English speakers chills of excitement. Not everyone is delighted, but Microsoft seems to think this exclusive license will provide an "incredible opportunity" to expand their Azure platform that will "democratizes AI technology" and pump up their AI At Scale initiative. There's a huge amount of hubris here; not only do they assert that the whole grand vision will start--start--by teaching computers human language, but they apparently believe they know how humans learn language-- it's "by understanding semantic meanings of words and how these words relate to other words to form sentences." 

Who knew? Thinking, ideas, organization, even paragraphs and whole books-- juat a waste of time. All the time I wasted as a teacher, when that's all there is to it. And hey-- Microsoft claims to have already come up with AI that reads a document (well, a Wikipedia article) and answers questions as well as a human-- did it two years ago, in fact. 

And yet, here in the real world, AI still doesn't have any ability with language beyond the superficial areas, because computers--even the "AI" ones-- don't understand anything. They simply respond top surface patterns, which is why there are a dozen on this blog about how badly computers fail at simple read-and-assess tasks for human writing (here's the most recent, which, oddly enough, involves software semi-funded by Bill Gates-- and it sucks).

Ai At Scale repeats a time-honored bit of computer puffery when talking about a shiny future, saying "that future is a lot closer than you might think." That's a lot of wiggly weasel-wording in a short phrase, which remains the AI world's mantrariffic euphemism for "we don't have this figured out yet, but noy, just any day now, or maybe shortly after that, it will be awesome." 

AI is still just a bunch of algorithms backed up with an immense capacity and infinite patience for cracking patterns, and whether it's city traffic or a simple paragraph, it's still not enough. Remember-- friends don't let friends fall for ed tech AI marketing nonsense. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

ICYMI: Hanging In There Edition (9/27)

Well, that was another week. Just keep trying to avoid being crushed by what feels like a physical increase in the air pressure over the entire country. Here's the list. And I'll remind you-- share the stuff that speaks to you. Everyone is an amplifier.

Give Teachers Status and Stacks of Money 

Lee Childs, the author of the Jack Reacher books, has some thoughts about how teachers ought to be treated. They are nice thoughts.

No Teachers, But Making Millions 

A look at Prenda schools, yet another attempt to get rid of those dumb, salary-wanting teachers and cash in big time on providing an education-flavored product.

3rd Grade Reading Laws Are Harmful 

Stefanie Fuhr takes a guest turn at Nancy Bailey's blog to remind us of something that should be repeated daily-- those laws that retain 3rd graders who don't pass the reading test are bad laws, and they are doing bad things.

DeVos Investigated for Hatch Act Violation

Politico has the details on how DeVos got herself in trouble this time.

Jeff Bezos wants to start a school for kids whose families are underpaid by people like Jeff Bezos

Anand Giridharadas says this is a crash course in why generosity is no substitute for justice.

EdWeek looks at all the relief that still isn't coming, and the growing frustration with same.

You mat recall that Chalkbeat ran a story showing how GreatSchools ratings have racism and classism baked in. Now Chalkbeat reports on their attempt to fix that problem. Score one for Matt Barnum.

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider says that signs show Gates still hasn't let this drop. C'mon Bill.

Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan are talking about Canada here, but you'll recognize all the issues they bring up.

An editorial from the Hechinger Report calls on the feds to get off their butts. Good luck with that.

Can critical thinking be taught? Daniel Willingham has some ideas, and they're thought-provoking on their own.

Arthur Camins at the Daily Koss with a call to focus on what really matters.

Steven Singer shows just how bad the on-line platform really is (spoiler alert: pretty damn bad)

An article at the Regulatory Review takes a look at a paper tracing the way business management techniques have bled into education with less-than-optimal results.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

CT: Another Edu-phauxlanthropist Fails Hard

It was just last fall that we were all talking about Ray and Barbara Dalio and their big plans for helping education in Connecticut. Now, less than a year later, the dream is dying an ugly public death.

In many ways, the Dalios didn't look like the usual phauxlanthropic edu-dabblers.

He is a successful hedge fund manager and the richest guy in Connecticut. She immigrated from Spain fifty-ish years ago and worked at the Whitney before settling into the mom-and-kids track. He has announced that capitalism is not working, and that income gap is a huge national crisis. When she decided she was interested in working on education, she started visiting actual schools. After a start working with charters and Teach for America, she pulled away and started supporting public schools instead through her philanthropies and organizations like Connecticut RISE. Teachers, even union presidents, describe her as humble, a good listener, "truly a partner."

In the spring of 2019, the Dalios offered up $100 million to the public ed system, to be matched by the state and, maybe, other Rich Folks. It was supposeed to be aimed at students in under-resourced communities. Even the state teacher union president said that public-private partnerships usually stink, but this one smells rosy.

But that rosy aroma faded fast. Dalio, for all his noise about the failures of capitalism, still thinks the solution is a visionary CEO at the top making the rest of the monkeys dance. The New Haven Independent argued, Dalio, whose company Bridgewater Associates has been the recipient of state largesse, was simply returning public money to the public.

And that pile of money came with all sorts of strings attached. The panel overseeing the pile of money was to be exempt from ethics and disclosure rules at Dalio's insistence. The GOP Deputy House minority leader's reaction was pretty on point:

"These corporate board-holders are going to go up to the balcony and sprinkle down dollars on, I guess, the peasants of Connecticut, and we’re supposed to be happy about that?” said Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.

Dalio has oft claimed that "radical transparency" was the secret of his success, but the Partnership for Connecticut wasn't going to be playing that game. The group met behind closed doors, locking out the public, the press, and five legislators who would have been bound by the Freedom of Information Act. Ray Dalio was not directly involved, but Barbara sat on the partnership board.

In March, the partnership hired Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey as president and CEO. She came with plenty of edu-reformy credentials, including work as senior director on the Goals 2000 project at USED and a decade at New American Schools, followed by 12 years at Say Yes To Education, Inc. Soon after, the partnership hired her for a hefty $247,500 salary. 

Back in May, there was a flap between Barbara Dalio and the brand new CEO of the partnership to resign after six weeks. Well, "flap" might be too small a word. Schmitt-Carey complained of having been "ambushed" in a phone call that raised a bunch of allegations about her and threatened to go public if she didn't resign. She was placed on paid administrative leave. 

Shortly afterwards, the Dalios pulled out of the partnership, "citing frustrations with partisan politics, news leaks and 'sensationalistic stories.'" As of June 5, the partnership was defunct. But their troubles were not over.

“A good reputation takes decades to build. I owe it to myself, my daughter,and other women to stand up and hold people accountable for their actions, even when there are billionaires involved,” said Schmitt-Carey last week as she filed a $2.5 million defamation lawsuit against Dalio's philanthropic group as well as her old Say Yes organization, plus two individuals who allegedly badmouthed her by spreading old Say Yes stories to her new employers.

The lawsuit alleges that she was not hired to actually decide anything. According to the suit,  “she had been hired to rubberstamp the silver-bullet programs chosen unilaterally by Dalio Philanthropies figureheads Ray and Barbara Dalio — despite those policies' dubious efficacy."

Furthermore, says the suit,  "Mr. Dalio went on to instruct Ms. Schmitt-Carey that her job was not to draw on the experience and knowledge she had accumulated during her long career but to take direction from Ms. Dalio regarding which programs should be implemented. As stated above, Mr. Dalio informed Ms. Schmitt-Carey, 'If my wife wants to distribute 10,000 coats, your job is to figure out how to do that.'" And it goes on to pointy as a "longstanding pattern of devaluing women" at Bridgewater.

Schmitt-Carey accuses Dalio et al of "wrongful acts involve abuses of wealth and power, misuse of a not-for-profit public-private partnership for private purposes, a chronic lack of transparency, a disregard for the reputations of others, and clear breaches of contractual duties."

So, this is going to be ugly. Ruth McCambridge at Non-Profit Quarterly leads her story about the mess with 

NPQ would love to stop writing about failed partnerships between public schools and billionaires, but they keep getting started and running aground as fast as their benefactors pillage the economy.

The whole meltdown comes from letting rich guys "give" money without actually letting go of control of it. McCambridge called this back in April 2019 when she quoted Anand Giridharadas pointing out that "Dalio's personal preferences should have zero influence on how the money is spent" pointing out that "it puts some rich guy and the State of Connecticut on an equal footing to negotiate a plan to enhance the general welfare." McCambridge expanded on that idea:

Placing a rich hedge fund manager in a co-equal position with public governance is anti-democratic and, where the public schools are concerned, doomed to be counter-productive in terms of lived-out notions of equity.

Dalio, like many other modern phauxlanthropists, was not trying to give money away--he was trying to buy something with it, and he expected to be not a co-equal partner with the state, but the leading partner, the boss. Some rich guys buy their wives a car or tennis lessons; Dalio went a little further and bought his wife part of the state's official government function. It's not philanthropy--it's just hire and salary, with the expectation that the hired help will do as they're told. This is not how to fund or improve a state's education system. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

GA: State Super Wood Outmaneuvers DeVos

Richard Woods was elected state superintendent for Georgia in 2014. He's a Republican, but what makes him special among stat education bosses is that prior to his election, he spent twenty-some years as an actual honest-to-God educator. Not some Teach for America insta-expert, but an actual fourteen years in the (rural) classroom (HS social studies) then another decade as an administrator educator. He's even married to a thirty-year veteran teacher. Yes, there's still plenty of charter school foolishness loose in Georgia, and Kemp is still their governor, but when I read what Woods has to say in interviews, I get the impression that he actually remembers what he learned as a teacher. Things like how teachers are the only professionals who have to outfit their own workspace, and what it will take to recruit and retain them.

And testing.

Woods ran, twice, on the idea of radically reducing Georgia's massive testing requirements. He ran literally on "students are more than a score." And he made some real progress. So when the world turned to viral crap last spring, Georgia was first in line to suspend the test, and right there asking the feds for a waiver to excuse them from the Big Standardized Test requirement.

They were already angling for one this year, because it's fairly obvious that 1) this year's results won't mean bupkus and 2) the time spent on test prep could be better spent on life prep. 

But Betsy DeVos has signaled that she's n ot doing that waiver thing again, right after Georgia became the first state to ask for one for 2020-2021. Woods said he was disappointed. Well, actually, he said, "It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education." 

But, he said, nobody needs to worry. He had a workaround.

He announced his plan and it appears on the agenda for the next state board meeting. While Georgia usually counts the Big Standardized Test for 20% of the student grade, Woods proposal is that this year they count for 0.01% of student grades (lawmakers won't allow him to throw it out entirely). From AP coverage:

“Georgia will abide by federal law, but we are not going to layer additional stress and burden onto our students and teachers during this time,” Woods said in a statement Thursday. “In this environment, these tests are not valid or reliable measures of academic progress or achievement, and we are taking all possible steps at the state level to reduce their high-stakes impact.”

It's an elegant solution to a problem that shouldn't exist. The Georgia Education Association applauds  the move favoring "compassion over compliance," and hopes that the Governor likewise suspends teacher evaluations (teacher evaluations based on a test that has zero student consequences are baloney). GeorgiaCAN, the state's arm of the ed reform octopus sticks to the talking point that these tests are creally necessary for finding out where students stand and what they've lost because a once-a-year narrow standardized test is so much better for that than the professional tools and judgment of actual classroom teachers. 

It's a great solution, and one can only hope that it spreads to other states this year, and perhaps in gthe years to come. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Arne Duncan's New Corporate Edu-biz Job

If there's one thing we know about folks in the education disruption biz, it's that they are remarkably adept at finding work no matter how much failure they pack into their CV.

Yes, it's freakin' hilarious.
And so it is with little surprise that we note that Arne Duncan has picked up a new job as the chairman of the board for FullBloom. This comes on top of his job as a partner of the Emerson Collective, Laurene Powell Jobs's--well, we need a new name for something that "uses philanthropy, impact investing, and promoting policy solutions to reimagine some of society's most calcified systems and create new possibilities for individuals, families, and communities."

Here's what CEO Jeffrey Cohen has to say about the momentous acquisition:

“Having a thought leader like Arne help guide our decisions through this time of unprecedented educational disruption is vital as we work to ensure both the safety and engagement of our students,” said CEO Jeffrey Cohen. “We are delighted to welcome Arne to the board. This appointment makes us better as an organization because we know he will hold us to the highest standards when it comes to producing results for the children and clients we serve.”

Yes, Duncan is apparently a thought leader now. Who'd have guessed.

So what is FullBloom? It's a sort of edu-biz conglomerate, a company that has grown through acquisition and merger and well. Okay. Back in 1976, Stephen Freeman founded READS as an "educational service business" for private and religious schools. Then READS was acquired by Sylvan Learning Systems, which then became Sylvan Education Solutions, the parent company of both the learning centers and some other edu-businesses as well, Then Sylvan sold off their K-12 businesses to Apollo Management, which then set up Educate Inc. Then in 2004, Educate Inc renamed the Sylvan Educations Solutions part of the business as Catapult Learning. Catapult was sold to private investors in 2008, and a couple years later started buying up other companies in the ed biz (Literacy First, Nonpublic Education Services, Inc, Newton Alliance, etc) and then in 2015 merged with Specialized Education Services, Inc. 

That merger made the resulting company "the nation's largest provider of contracted instructional services." They brought Jeffrey Cohen in to run it. At some point, that conglomerate acquired Little Leaves Behavioral Services. That business, plus SESI and Catapult, appear to now be the businesses operating under the relatively new FullBloom name, which appears to have been launched in March of 2020.

FullBloom is corporate edu-business at its corporatiest. Here's their vision statement:

Our vision: To innovate, scale, and bring together a continuum of evidence-based, early-intervention academic, behavioral, social and emotional services that positively impact outcomes for children while driving down lifecycle education and healthcare costs.

And they have partnerships, too, like the Institute for Scaling Evidence-Based Education, a "public-private partnership" between Catapult and University of Oregon's Center on Teaching and Learning, which appears to be aimed at marketing a product (Enhanced Core Reading Instruction) that the university created. And they've got a big fat contract with the US Department of Defense Education Activity folks. 

Jeffrey Cohen is still the CEO. He previously ran Sylvan for a while, and before that he worked at Sterling Partners, a private equity firm. He was SVP of Operations at Prometric, a testing company. And before that he served in the Clinton administration, including work at the labor department and as a staff attorney at the Office of the Counsel to the President. He got his BA in Economics at Tufts and his lawyering shingle at the University of Maryland. 

Other leadership is cut from similar cloth. The Human Resources Officer has been working HR in the behavioral health industry. The CFO is probably the coolest guy here-- he was the CEO of the School of Rock. Otherwise, working the private equity circuit. The current head of Catapult was COO of Ashford University, an on-line for-profit college, and prior to that, worked in the test prep biz. The head of SESI used to be their CFO, and has a background in corporate accounting. The head of Little Leaves used to run British Schools of America. 

Long story short--nobody in the leadership team is an educator.

Their business is still based on what Stephen Freeman envisioned in 1976-- all those private and religious schools that need to outsource their actual education, instructional and, now, behavioral work can hire this company. They also work with public school systems that want to "increase the reach of their intervention and remediation services."They're based in Camden, NJ, but they are all over the country.

It seems like a fine job for a former secretary of education who didn't have a lot of faith in public school, though I do wonder if he'll suggest that their intervention and special needs programs be expanded to include his belief that all special needs can be addressed by just expecting harder.

It's one more cushy job for a guy who never really understood public education and never really grasped what he was getting wrong when he held the post. But apparently one of the side benefits of his disastrous tenure in office is that he gets cushy job offers for the rest of his life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

DeVos Has No Plan

It's a brief three and a half minute interview on Fox's "The Daily Briefing," but in just a few quick questions, Dana Perino pushes Betsy DeVos to show that during this pandemic, families with concerns about school are on their own.

The spot opens with a quick clip from an Alabama infectious disease expert explaining that you kids "pose an even bigger risk than college students." Dr. Michael Saag warns  of a "silent epidemic" within K-12 arena. Saag says we knew what was going on in colleges because we are testing and quarantining, "but in K through 12 we're not doing that."

Now here comes DeVos.

Perino asks: Do you have concerns as well about the younger kids that are going back to school?

I'm going to transcribe DeVos's non-answer in its entirety so that you don't think I cherry-picked my way around her actual answer to the question. Spoiler alert: if you've heard DeVos say anything in the past four months, this will all seem familiar, because "sticking to message": is one of her special skills:

Well, Dana, we know that parents across the country want their kids to be back in school and continuing to learn, and we know more than ever parents want and need to have choices and options for how that works and how that looks depending on their children. We know there is no perfect option, but there are lots of good options, and I've had the chance to visit a number of schools and districts where they've been, uh, leaning into this and really addressing the problems and the issues and providing choices and options for families.

Perino, who mostly maintains an old-school journalist deadpan throughout, responds: "So your level of concern right now is low."

DeVos drops her standard semi-smirk with a quick expression of "Oh, shit, that wasn't the message I wanted to get across," and leaps back in. But of course that is exactly what she's saying, and has been saying--there's no reason for parents to worry. I wish there had been time to ask her what she thought those "good" options might be, or what exactly she thinks people are "leaning in to" or what she thinks the "problems and issues" are, if not the threat of a deadly and debilitating disease possibly jumping through entire student populations. But she's moving on.

...[stammer]...It obviously depends on the geography, but in most places across the country, it is, uh, it is an imperative that kids be able to contin-- get back to school and learn. {Now she's back on her game, smile in place]. That for many kids in person is the right answer. But we also know that some families may be concerned about it.

Eyes down, Perino isn't really listening to this additional non-answer, but is cuing up her next question, which she actually interrupts DeVos to deliver. DeVos tried to get oput another "more than anything parents need choices" but Perino pushes ahead.

Perino brings up the issue of attendance, citing a New York Times report that attendance for online options is abysmal, and that online school fails to engage students. "Do you think that that gets better," she asks, "or is the only way to solve that is to get kids back in school?" Which is handing DeVos a softball on a silver platter, but DeVos can't quite get her bat around to it.

Well, again, I think having-- giving parents and families different choices and options to do what's best for their particular children is the answer now, and we're seeing lots of families creating their own solutions, but we know that there are lots through learning pods, through homeschooling, through microschools, through of a multitude of creative solutions, but we know that there are a lot of families that don't have resources to access those kinds of options, so now more than ever we do need to allow for and provide for parents to have those resources to make the best choice for each of their kids--

You'll notice that she isn't saying anything that she couldn't say and hasn't said in a world with no coronavirus. It is really unclear whether she thinks the "problem" is that there's a lethal disease loose in the country, or that there's just been a disruption of normal school activity by various regulators. It's not clear whether she thinks schools have been closed by the virus, or by state and local officials. But her resort to choice suggests she thinks it's the latter, that parents just need the choice to send students to one of those schools that isn't doing anything about the virus. Or maybe she just thinks better private options are free from all diseases. However you parse it, it's clear she's focused firmly on promoting choice and not addressing any disease-related issues directly.

Now she did admit that not everyone has the resources to do some of these cool option thingies, so Perino moves to the next obvious question:

"What is the department doing to help them?"

You already know the real answer, but here's how DeVos fills the time.

To help the kids--we are-- we are continuing to provide support and uh, uh, as much flexibility around the funds that the federal government has appropriated, and there's still lots of CARES act funds that have gone unspent that could be used for technology upgrades [and training, chimes in Perino]for new technologies, for, um, you know, for testing and and uh for uh cleaning supplies-- Whatever the need is-- for teacher professional development, whatever the need is, there are resources there to be drawn from. But again, it's just an imperative that kids--all kids have the opportunity to be learning full time in an environment that works them.

And we're done.

There are so many things that DeVos could have said in an interview like this, like "We know that the disease is very scary, and as we learn more about it we are taking aggressive steps to protect students and staff so that parents can feel more secure" or "We are mobilizing all sorts of resources so that if schools decide to do distance learning, we'll back them up with technology and training, and if schools decide to open, we'll back them up with the latest guidance and with PPE and supplies to help them out" or even anything that starts with "I have a plan, and here's how it goes..."

But that's not what's happening here. There's no plan, beyond "let the parents sort it all out." Maybe we're just seeing the limits of the Federal Hands Off philosophy. Or what we're seeing is what lies at the heart of the voucher philosophy-- we want to give you some money and after that, you're on your own. After we shoot you some funds, we wash our hands of you. We want to make sure you have choices, but we will not take any steps to make sure that those choices are any good. That's your problem.

But as far as schooling during the time of coronavirus, DeVos has made it clear yet again-- parents, students and teachers are on their own.

(You can watch the video here. It's almost worth it just for DeVos's library of facial expressions and Perino's eye snaps)

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

DC: Lessons About Charter Schools

DC schools have a history of being messy. There's the entire checkered history of Michelle Rhee, followed by the entire checkered history of the people either trying to build on or clean up after Michelle Rhee. I'm reminding you of this as context for the revelations that are about to be unintentionally provided about the DC charter sector.

You can get a taste of the mess in the public schools from two pieces of testimonial from Richard Phelps, who came on as Director of Assessment just as Rhee was edging toward the door in 2010.Part One looks at how Phelps worked hard to poll over 500 staff members to come up with concrete improvements for the testing system, which boiled down to a ton of work that was summarily rejected by four central office staff, including Rhee. He was supposed to get the staff to buy in to the crappy existing system, not make it better. The Ed Reform Club. he concluded, was there to exploit DC for its own benefit. Part Two looks at the cheating scandals, most specifically the scandal that never became a story--DCPS's technique of using the test blueprint to teach to the test. In the end, he concludes, despite their rhetoric, school leaders Rhee, Henderson and McGoldrick had no interest in making their system more transparent or acountable.

So in a way, I guess it's not surprising that the charter sector that has blossomed in DC is also filled with the same Ed Reform Club problems. And this comes from looking at a piece, not by a DC charter critic, but by one of their big cheerleaders, who can't help saying some of the quiet parts out loud.

Scott Pearson became the executive director of the Public Charter School Board (DC's authorizer of charters) shortly after Richard Phelps hit town. Previously he'd been in the Obama Ed Department as Deputy of the Office of Innovation and Improvement. He was a charter high school co-founder (Leadership Public Schools in the SF bay area). And before that, of courser, he has zero education background. Acquisitions and strategic planning at AOL, and before that, consultant work at Bain and Company. He's occasionally been involved some regulatory debate, and he did get his picture taken with a student one time. Pearson recently stepped down from that position, and so has written one of those "what we learned" articles.

After the usual self-congratulatory lines about how competition and innovation have raised all boats and the charter sector has obvious benefits, Pearson offers five "key takeaways" from his years in the trench.

1. Remove valid reasons some people hate charter schools.

Pearson says he saw that "scandals, underperformance, and behavior inconsistent with being a public school" had been corrosive to public support. The "behavior inconsistent" thing is a puzzler, since that is supposed to be one of the Good Things about charters. But the important part to note here is that these issues are not education problems--they're PR and marketing problems. His concern is not that these charters have been shafting students and families, but that they've been eroding public support for his market sector.

The fixes he claims are to close one in three charters for underperformance. The worst charters in DC used to be terrible, but now they are "average." He says the NAEP shows the DC charter sector improving faster than any other state or district, which is not that hard if you start out in the basement. They cracked down on charter admissions so that charters actually took all comers, and they closed two schools that were "enriching their founders."

But they didn't go any further "out of a respect for school autonomy and our belief in the power of competition." So no requirement to backfill (which helps charters game their stats) and no ban on suspensions or expulsions (which means their crackdown on admissions didn't mean squat, because charters could still get rid of students they didn't want) and no ban on opening charters, say, right across the street from a public school.

It does not seem to occur to him that competition isn't all that powerful if they had to step in to close one out of three charters for underperforming. Nor does he reflect at any point on how these moves affected students. Instead, his summative question is "Did our efforts quiet all the naysayers?" This was about improving marketing, not providing better education for students.

2. Remove the existential angst.

Mostly this means he reassured folks that his goal was not killing the public system and replacing it with charters. He wrote an op-ed. Through various measures, "we kept our market share below 50%." Because the best way to discuss families and students is to call them market share. Besides, he notes, DCPS under Rhee and Henderson "was turning around, embracing core ed reform principles." Members of the Ed Reform Club don't get in the way of fellow members' market share.

Again, his measure of the effectiveness here is that while it may not have won everyone over, it placated the mayor and kept limiting charter growth off the political radar.

3. The ecosystem is important.

Charter schools have the advantages of "nimbleness, flexibility and freedom from bureaucracy" but have the disadvantage of small scale. In other words, charters are more flexible because they aren't doing all the things a public school is required to do. Pearson likes the DC ecosystem of philanthropists and lots of other services and expertise that a charter can tap into. If you aren't going to stock your own pantry, it's handy to live next door to a bunch of supermarkets and managers who are happy to let you mooch off of them.

4. Context matters.

He starts this section with a whopper-- "Charter schools--open to all--are, in many ways, more 'public' than a system that segregates kids, either through geographic boundaries or exam requirements." Nope-- not if the system doesn't require charters to backfill and lets them expel anyone they feel like expelling.

School segregation in DC is complicated and ever-present, just as it is in the city as a whole. And every large urban system has its own special contexts. What Pearson wants to point out is how chummy everyone is--public schools, charter schools, local government--and his explanation is unintentionally scary:

Perhaps one of the keys to the success of modern education reform in D.C. is that reformers aren’t just charter leaders. They start at the office of the mayor and extend to DCPS and charter leadership. I remember being in a room at one point with the deputy mayor for education, the state superintendent for education, and the chancellor of DCPS. All were Teach for America alumni except me. Many charter leaders used to be DCPS leaders, and many DCPS leaders used to be charter leaders. (Emphasis mine)
An ever-revolving door of education amateurs, all claiming to be education experts and all with no real experience or background. Damn TFA. We were so busy focusing on the baloney of training a teacher in five weeks when more of us should have been paying attention to the part where they created education experts based on two years in the classroom (two years spent by someone who had no intention of staying and so was counting down the days instead of counting up the lessons). So the Ed Reform Club has filled every position of power in DC, thereby encapsulating themselves in a perfect little reformistan bubble of agreement. Spoiler alert: At no point does Pearson conclude that a lesson of DC should be that dissenting voices should be allowed inside the bubble. Just Ed Reform Club members.

5. Crossing the chasm isn't enough.

Pearson shares a theory he's heard from a "prominent national charter school supporter." When charters start out, they're so small they don't attract bad attention, but they become vulnerable when they're too small "to have political clout" but big enough to "have awoken the ire of the education establishment that seeks to kill it." Charters have to get across this chasm so that they are too big to mess with, thanks to the "political bulwark" of "supportive families."

There's a lot to unpack here. First of all, if your exclusive club has captured all of the positions of power in your city, you don't get to talk about other people being the "education establishment." Second of all, if you got outside of your bubble once in a while, you might have a clue or two about why some folks are not fans of your work, and you might even spot some opportunities to improve some things (and not just for a PR boost). Finally, what an image of families-- not as partners, or the people you're there to serve, or even as customers, but as the bricks out of which you build a wall that is supposed to protect you by absorbing attacks against you. Holy shit, dude.

Pearson is wondering why DC charters' market share of 47% isn't better protecting them. Sure, nobody's trying to shut them down, and they're well funded. But "the rise of white progressive politics in the city" plus a re-energized union movement is handing them some fights that they are losing.

Now look at what counts as losing.

"We lost last year when the City Council regulated suspensions and expulsions." So, not being able to discard students at will is a "loss."

"We lost this year when the City Council mandated open charter-school governing -board meetings." It's a "loss" that they can't meet in secret away from any public scrutiny by either taxpayers or parents.

And there are more potential losses "waiting in the wings." Like "limits to growth, teacher representatives on charter boards, efforts to control our spending and our curricula."

Why can't we just hoover up those piles of taxpayer dollars without having to share any power or be accountable to anyone?

Pearson has a theory about why the 47% hasn't protected them. Mainly, it's that on issues that "chip away at our autonomies, our parent bodies aren't with us." They can get parents to protest school closing or funding cuts. But when it comes to things like "restricting suspensions, or mandating minutes of physical education, or specifying the organic content of school breakfast," not so much. Why, it's almost parents are more concerned with services rendered to their children than preserving the precious autonomy of charter school operators. Also, it's almost as if the charter operators make no effort to listen to what parents want.

In fact, Pearson says that the failure to build parent bodies and teaching staff into a political force is because of reasons such as leaders who "are wary of the unintended consequences of having an organized parent or student body." Why, those people might want to be heard. They might want a voice in how the school is run, might want some power and control! Gasp.Pearson does acknowledge that "more than a few have alienated their community" by taking a "my way or the highway" attitude. But somehow he just can't quite connect the dots between that thought and everything else he's said. Again, the problem isn't that such an attitude is a bad way to run a school--it's bad PR, bad marketing. And here he tosses in what I find a fascinating tidbit:

Indeed, it is notable that among our most active charter opponents are 20-somethings who graduated from a D.C. charter in the past decade.

Pearson says "our opponents are getting savvier," which again suggests that opponents of charters are acting out of clever strategies rather than reacting to actual real problems with charter schools. And here he tosses out really crazy idea--

D.C. charters have to get savvier too. That means finding ways to build parent support, even if it ultimately means ceding more voice, and even some control, to members of their community.

First, duh. Second, the fact that this seems like a radical "even if" idea shows you where your problem lies. Third, what the hell is wrong with you that this is something so far removed from what you're inclined to do anyway?

The answer, of course, is that this is the business approach to education, and not even a good business approach that recognizes a need to be responsive and open to the "customers" but instead views business as a marketing challenge and instead of customers, seeks to address a "market" or even, God help us, a "bulwark." This is not the thinking of people who are trying to educate young humans (notice that students and their education barely comes up at all in Pearson's piece), but the thinking of people who are trying to run a successful business. And this is the thinking of people who have Dunning-Kruegered themselves so far from the point of running a school that they don't even know they are saying ridiculous things. 

Add this to my file of evidence that the single biggest problem in education right now is far too many amateurs in charge, and not just amateurs, but amateurs who think their expertise in other areas makes them fit to run a school system. Lord, have mercy.

FL: How To Punish A School Board

Miami Dade County Public Schools have been having some issues lately, and the public has them on the ropes.

They decided to hand their virtual schooling over to K12, the cyber school giant founded by Ron Packard with William Bennett as a public face and funding by junk bond king Michael Milken. It's an odd choice, given that a quick Google reveals the many, many problems with the business, from faking enrollment in California to faking teachers in, well, Florida. They've had a long run of disasters. At one point the NCAA said they wouldn't accept a K12 diploma. They are hugely profitable, and built some exuberance under the Trump regime, which helps them throw a big ton of money into lobbying.

In fact, throwing money into things may be the explanation for how they got the Miami-Dade job in the first place. Turns out that they appear to have made a $1.57 million dollar contribution to the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, a nonprofit to help fund programs for the district, and chaired by Alberto Carvalho, the district superintendent.

So K12 got the job, and failed hard. Hard enough that Wired magazine wrote about their "epic series of tech errors."

The rapid pivot to, and even faster pivot away from, K12 amounts to a case study in how not to deploy a massive new software project. It also illustrates how, in a few intense weeks of summer decisionmaking, a charter-school curriculum written by a for-profit company was chosen and installed, with little scrutiny, across one of the largest districts in the country.

It was every kind of disaster, and so the board voted to scrap it-- at 2 AM after a 13 hour meeting.

Why 13 hours? Because there's a funny rule in Florida--a school board has to allow the public to comment, and they can't take an action until the comments have been heard. 

So as the board wrestles with what comes next, they did what any school board in their position would do-- they announced a special meeting with very little notice and hoped that would help the public shut up a little.

No such luck. The board met to vote last night on a plan for re-opening schools. But first they have to listen to all the public comments left on the district's voicemail. And those should be done playing sometime this morning, because the public left over 18 hours of comments there. There were also 200 or so written comments, but those can just be placed in the record. 

Did the board stay up all night and listen? I'm guessing not. But I'll admit--I find the whole story pretty awesome. In Pennsylvania, boards have all sorts of tools for boxing public comments out, as do many other states. Imagine if your local board couldn't take action until they were done listening to the taxpayers. Heck, imagine if state or federal lawmakers couldn't vote on a bill until they had listened to every public comment. 

The notion of taxpayers being able to hold a school board hostage like this is kind of amazing and beautiful, but probably neither terribly efficient or effective, and I have no trouble imagining how this power could be used for evil. Still, it's nice to see the balance of power flipped, giving taxpayers an immediate and direct way to punish board members for bad decisions. Leave it to Florida to come up with something this spectacular.

Update: That meeting took 29 hours. God bless them. 

Lies Matter (Or, When People Show You Who They Are...)

From Merrick Garland to the seat of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there is plenty to rage at, and much cyber-ink has been distance-spilled raging about it. But I was particularly struck by this piece at Slate by Lili Loofbourow.

She talks about some larger issues here, and I think there's a lesson for folks in the education world. She talks here about the effects of McConnell's cavalier dismissal of his own made-up rule from 2016:

He made quick work of the optimists on Twitter suggesting that he surely wouldn’t be so hellbent on total power that he’d risk destroying the country by breaking the precedent he himself had articulated. Wrong. He would. And anyone who took him at his word when he rejected Merrick Garland’s nomination was made a fool when he reversed himself on the question of whether (to quote the man himself) “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice.”

I want to pause here to note, humbly, that it is wounding to watch a public servant reduce those who take him at his word to fools. I mention that not because it “matters” in any sense McConnell would recognize but because it is simply true that this nation’s decline accelerates when the conventional wisdom becomes that believing what the Senate Majority Leader says is self-evidently foolish. The chestnut that politicians always lie is overstated—a society depends on some degree of mutual trust. One party has embraced nihilism, pilloried trust, and turned good faith into a sucker’s failing in a sucker’s game.

Naked power grabs are ugly, and infuriating when you're sitting powerlessly on the losing side of the grabbing. But lying is toxic. Take it from someone who poisoned chunks of his own life with lies years ago. Lying is destructive--it ruins trust, trashes relationships, makes it hard to move forward in any useful way. And trust is the foundation of everything, every bit of communication, right down to the foundational trust that when people use words they are making a good faith attempt to convey meaning and not conceal it. If words don't mean anything, we're just grunting hairless apes waving sticks.

Some folks like to get their lawyer on when discussing lies. It's not technically lying because I just spun it a little, because I just left a few details out, because the other party didn't ask the right question. The only reason anyone embarks on such explanations is because they know that "not technically lying" is, in fact, actually lying. If you are manipulating the facts in order to get somebody else to do what you want them to, that's lying. And it's always toxic.

Right now, a whole bunch of elected folks and vapid media farts are showing us who they are. They are showing us that there is no principle more important than grabbing what they want, and that includes principles like "words mean things" or "my word is my bond."

This needs to be noted and remembered for those days when these unprincipled liars start making mouth noises about what principles they think should be involved in decisions about public education. In the world of people who want to dismantle and replace public education, there are people who will say what they mean, and even as I think they are wrong, I can at least respect that they are acting out of principle. But these political mannequins who put principles on and off as easily as changing shirts--they are never, ever to be trusted or taken seriously. Their opponents--and, for that matter, their allies of the moment--forget that at their own peril. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Will China Help Pay For Trump's History Project

This, believe it or not, is about the deal involving social media sensation, Tik Tok.
At first, the whole Tik Tok business looked like a basic old-fashioned shakedown. "That's a nice little tech biz you have there," said Trump. "Be a shame if anything happened to it." Okay, not really that subtle-- it was more along the lines of "I'm going to ban your business unless you give my buddies a cut."

Tik Tok is not an angelic app without issues; security experts have been saying for a while now that the app is just Chinese spyware with a video feature, collecting data for China. Trump said he would shut down the app unless a piece was sold to a US company. So Oracle, run by Trump buddy Larry Ellison, and Walmart, under CEO and Trump supporter Doug McMillon, have set up a deal to get a piece of Tik Tok action. ByteDance, the company behind the app, would transfer control to a new entity in which ByteDance still held 80%, and Walmart and Oracle had their piece of the action.

Trump gave his blessing, but threw in a surprise announcement--the new company is going to hand over $5 billion to help fund his super-duper patriotic American history project. This was news to some of the partners, but you know what they say--shaken down for a penny, shaken down for a pound.

Trump's grand history project, in which US students will, well, something:

We will stop the radical indoctrination of our students and restore patriotic education to our schools,” he said at the rally. “Patriotic education,” he repeated, describing it as teaching children “to love our country, honor our history and always respect our great American flag.”

The program has zero specifics, and the one concrete example of what the administration has in mind is pretty awful. So it may be that this is nothing more than empty campaign noise for the base; look for Trumpian history to premiere during Infrastructure Week.

But if it really happens, and this deal completes, and the partners fork over the $5 billion, that means that Trump's shiny new patriotic curriculum will be financed in part by China. Given that the Chinese have considerable experience in educating and re-educating citizens to properly appreciate the golden beauty of their history and the gift of their Beloved Leader, there seems like a sort of twisted poetry to that. And Trump's patriotic history could be just one more Trumpian campaign item that was made in China. 

ICYMI: One More Damned Thing After Another (9/20)

 Well, that week sucked. And there's a lot to read, too.

Let's start with something positive. Drum prodigy Nandi Bushell has been youtubing covers for a while, but a few weeks ago she challenged Dave Groh to a drum battle; it went two rounds, and then Groh finally upped the ante by writing her a song. So there's that in the world. Now on to the rest.

On Campus Testing for Distance Learners  
Oh, Florida. They agreed that parents should be able to keep their at-risk kindergartners at home. But test-lovers that they are, they may require those same littles to come in to take the kinder-readiness test. Because Florida... Accountabaloney has the story.

Proceed at Your Own Peril  
Dad Gone Wild checks in to see how things are virtually going, and reflects on how we keep asking everything from teachers.

When the Lights Go Out  
Grumpy Old Teacher provides a vivid picture of what it's like in the pandemic classroom. A nice piece of writing here.

No Way To Treat a Scholar  
Gary Rubinstein looks at one more way that Success Academy games the data and juices up their PR-- welcome to the 5th year high school program.

Selling the Future of Ed Tech  
Damn, but Audrey Watters is the best. Here's a look at some of the wacky ed tech treats that have been predicted for the future over the years. Fun, but deeply thought provoking.

How centrist Democrats paved the way for Betsy DeVos  
Have you heard talks to David Menefee-Libey about this sad bit of history, framing it intriguingly as a treaty between the left and right over charter schools. As always, you can listen to the podcast or read the transcript. Either way, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire deliver a tasty slice of information in an entertaining sandwich.

Framing a new website forced us to consider public education's core principles  
Jan Resseger kind of gives away the game with her title. Friends of education in northern Ohio revamped their website, and it leads to a good reflection on what public education's really all about.

The Mighty Storm
I'm glad that Russ Walsh is back to blogging. Here he starts with the Galveston hurricane disaster of 1900 and works his way over to building reading comprehension.

Take It Easy on the Teachers, OK 
Nancy Flanagan takes through the taxonomy of pandemic school posts, including the ones that blame teachers, and she has some thoughts about those.

The difference between freedom and captivity  
Teacher Tom asks what adult sacred memories of childhood all have in common

Face-mask recognition is here  
Well, National Geographic wants your email to read this unhappy-making piece about facial recognition in general and the fact that your mask will no longer thwart it in particular.

DeVos Versus the IRS  
This is a bit wonky, but important-- it turns out that a revamp of SALT rules gets directly in the path of tax credit scholarship programs by limiting how much money rich folks can launder through this type of voucher program.

NC Judge backs $427 million to improve schools. Will anyone fund it.  
North Carolina has been working hard to bust public education. Here's one more battle on that front. From the News & Observer.

The pandemic and school building issues  
Pandemic responses are highlighting just what a rundown mess many US school buildings are. From Mat Barnum at Chalkbeat.

Betsy DeVos and the separation of church and state  
Nancy Bailey takes a look at the DeVosian view of the separation between church and state when it comes to education in the time of pandemic (Wall? What wall?)

The long history of politicizing history class  
Olivia Waxman at Time puts some historical perspective on Trump's demand that history be taught with a golden patriotic glow. We've been here before.

Ed Department has denied 94% of loan forgiveness applications  
Betsy DeVos can keep this up forever. Despite being scolded by Congress and spanked by the courts, she continues to avoid actually implementing the federal loan forgiveness program for students defrauded by predatory for profits.

I am only one person
Anya Kamanetz (NPR) said on Twitter that she has never had so many interview subjects cry during the interview. A look at how teachers (who are also parents) are coping with pandemic education.

When poorly veiled bigotry masquerades as choice  
Andre Perry at Hechinger Reports looks at how racists have always loved the word "choice"

An open letter to a parent afraid of anti-racist education  
Christina Torres is at EdWeek with a response to a woman upset and cranky about Black Lives Matter at school. I watched this twitter discussion unfold in real time before it was erased by the woman in question, and she was pretty nasty about the whole thing. Torres offers a more measured response.

Taxes on DeVos yacht could pay for school nurses
Katelyn Kivel at The Gander takes a look at just how much tax the family avoids by registering their yachts elsewhere. It's a lot.

The ends do not justify the means
Nobody has explained the problems with the science of reading movement better than Paul Thomas, who takes another swing here.

The epic screw-up of distance learning in Miami  
Wired has a great look at how Miami-Dade schools got themselves into such a mess by picking K12 as their distance education provider of choice. It's a tale of hubris and dumb. All it's missing is one little tidbit that you can find here--K12's large contribution to the superintendent's personal organization.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The 1776 Unites Curriculum Isn't So Great

During Dear Leader's call for more patrio-centric re-education, he referenced and Betsy DeVos praised the 1776 Unites project as an example of the kind of thing he wants to see in schools. So I went to look at it, and, well, it has some problems.

What Is It, And Where Did It Come From?

The "curriculum" has been launched just last week as an "inspirational alternative" to the New York Times 1619 project. The 1776 Unites initiative was launched back in February with somewhat stronger language about the 1619 project. It came from the Woodson Center, the organization founded by Black conservative activist Bob Woodson, who said upon launching that it was intended to counter the "lethal" narrative of 1619.

"This garbage that is coming down from the scholars and writers from 1619 is most hypocritical because they don’t live in communities [that are] suffering," he continued. "They are advocating something they don’t have to pay the penalty for."

So, not a fan. He pulled together an assortment of other Black conservatives, and in February the website was launched:

1776 Unites is a movement to liberate tens of millions of Americans by helping them become agents of their own uplift and transformation, by embracing the true founding values of our country.

The website includes a library of essays, with titles like "The Cult of Victimhood," "Living by the grace of God and the power of applying oneself," "Embrace black patriotism over victimization," "Slavery does not define the black American experience," and "The 1619 Project perpetuates the soft bigotry of low expectations." 

There's an awful lot of bootstrapping rhetoric on the site, the good old-fashioned "if you're poor it's your own damn fault" kind. But I'm in no position to evaluate the group's standing as Black activists or intellectuals; I am, however, comfortable evaluating the usefulness of their educational tools.

What's Offered In The Curriculum? 

Well, not a lot, actually. You need to sign up your name and info to get access to the download page--in fact, you need to submit that info every single time you want to go to the download page--where you will find three lessons. Two are about Black history, focusing on Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. The third is about "building character" and the Woodson Principles. The page hints at an intent to grow this effort that is "essential to building a resilient, patriotic population." 

But for right now, you've got just the three lessons.

Lesson One: Biddy Mason

There are several elements here, starting with a Power Point presentation of 18 slides. The images are a curious mix. On the slide about Biddy's early life, one photo is an actual photo of young Biddy, a copyrighted photo that belongs to the UCLA, Library Special Collections folks, but it's used without any acknowledgement or caption (I had to reverse Google it), while the other photo is of a mother with what looks like a newborn baby. That can't possibly be Biddy; a reverse search suggests its a stock photo from Getty Images taken by W. Eugene Smith; it's also uncaptioned and uncredited. This is an issue through the slides--some photos are credited, some are captioned, and several more are not. 

The actual content is thin and context-free. Her 1,700 mile trek to Utah, which ended up in California, is given a couple of sentences. In California, she sued for her freedom and won in 1856. The slide asks if you know what year the rest of the slaves in America were emancipated, and the answers 1863 which--well, no. The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Southern states free, but did no such favors for the slaves in the border states. And since the proclamation was issued at the beginning of 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, it didn't actually do a thing--it couldn't kick in until the North had actually beaten the Southern states in question. 

The rest of Biddy's story, which the slides continue to tell in very broad strokes, focuses on the economics. She worked for wages and invested her money. Her purchase of property in Los Angeles, leading to considerable wealth, is attributed to her wisdom and not to any fortunate timing. The slides tout that she became one of LA's "first prominent citizens and most important landowners...during the 1850s and 1860s," which seems like a kind of loose reading if she only became freed in 1856, and even looser when you learn she bought her first property in 1866 (you don't learn that from this lesson). Her philanthropic work and large fortune ("about $8 million today") are emphasized. Students are asked what causes they would give money to, and what kinds of people "you would like to help in your life?"

Activities and Assignments   

Look up some famous philanthropists (Carnegie, Gates) and find out how they made their money and what they fund. Do some real estate research in your own town and figure out what you'd invest in. Which parts of the country are growing or shrinking, and which would make a good investment right now? If you had a million dollars, how would you invest it? Without using the words, the writer suggests a pair and share. At the end of your life, if there were a memorial to you, what would you want it to say? 

Are you noticing anything about what a$pect of Biddy'$ life is being focu$ed on here? Will it help if I show you the targeted 

Vocabulary List

Profit, Assets, Appreciate/Depreciate, Philanthropy, Investment, Interest/compound interest, Down payment

Critical Thinking and Discussion Questions  

What are some advantages she faced? What are some disadvantages? How about you? "How hard is it to maintain a positive mindset in the face of adversity?" Why do you think Biddy was generous to others, even after her life was filled with hardship? How would her life have been different if she had become discouraged? Note: there are no questions along the lines of "What if her owner had beaten her to death before she got to court" or "What if she had arrived in LAS too late to get in on the growth boom?" or "What if she had ended up in some place that was busting rather than booming?" There's also no attempt to encourage students to dig deeper past the paper thin outline of her life.

Like so many things that try to pass them off as critical thinking exercises, these aren't even close. Here's an important pro tip about critical thinking questions-- if you are trying to direct students toward a specific conclusion or realization, you aren't doing critical thinking. This is why Dear Leader's vision of a curriculum that tells one certain shiny story of America will always be anti-critical thinking.

Lesson Plan 

This isn't a lesson plan. There's a paragraph that manages to sum up the entirety of the actual content of the lesson  in a few sentences. There are some suggestions about when the lesson might be appropriate. Oh, and you can use it for Social and Emotional Learning, too, because it "highlights resilience, grit, determination, self-reliance and other positive inner resources and character traits." 

There's a "lesson prompt"-- "Have you ever wondered what happened to people who were born in slavery but were later freed?" And suggestions that you could use the power point, or watch some videos, and basically you could use the stuff in this packet. This is a lesson plan as conceived by someone who has never written an actual lesson plan ever. What exactly will the teacher do, in which order, following what time frame? Who knows.


Links to four youtube videos about Biddy Mason. All four, including the one that's only four and a half minutes long, provide far more depth and information than this lesson does. One is just a panel discussion, but all are informative. 

MC Questions

A bank of multiple choice questions to use. They are terrible. How did she win her freedom? Was she born free, moved to a free state, escaped and moved to the North, sued and won her freedom in court, or died as a slave. Some of the answers are ridiculous and could only be used to test if the students were conscious during the power point, and in this particular case, two answers are correct (she could only sue for freedom because she was in a free state). The other four questions are similar, though one is the only one to offer "All of the above," which is, of course, correct. 

Standards and Learning Objectives  

Four and a half pages of standards cribbed from a variety of sources, including CASEL, ASCA, NCSS, Common Core, and AP US History. They have stretched like crazy here. Just a few of the standards this lesson claims to meet--

From AP: 5.3.11.B The women's right movement was both emboldened and divided over the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution.

From NCSS: 8 Science, Technology and Society

From ASCA: A:C1.6 Understand how school success and academic achievement enhance future career and vocational opportunities

CASEL: Stress management

CCSS: A whole lot of speaking and listening, for some reason.

The Learning Objectives list includes the student being able to: explain the difference between a slave state and a free state, define the vocabulary (not use it?), identify at least one financial investment opportunity, explain/interpret a quotation using their own words.

Lesson Two: Elijah McCoy

Worried I'm going to drag you through all that again? Don't worry-- the only thing done for McCoy is his 15 power point slides. Those include one that asks students if they've ever had a job, one that asks "what kinds of things need to be invented right now," and two oddly redundant slides that credit him as the basis for the saying "the real McCoy," a claim that a quick Wikipedia check would tell you is shaky, at best

Honestly, I've assigned slide-style presentations about important people over the course of my career; this looks suspiciously like the one done by the student who scanned one source, copied some random photos, and then did his best to squeeze out a few more slides for padding,

The Woodson Principles   

Okay, I was going to take a quick look at this, but the list of ten principles is mis-formatted on the power point slide and another slide asks if students know what a GED is. Woodson's ten principles look like any good unobjectionable corporate training list, but is this a good way to teach them? I think not. Moving on.

So Many Issues   

Fact-checking. Editing. Chopping the heck out of a couple of actually quite exceptional stories. McCoy and Mason really are impressive individuals with extraordinary stories. But these stripped down versions don't begin to do them justice. It's hard to know why--Mason's story is filled with people who stepped up to help her at critical moments, from helping her get her day in court to giving her a place to live when she was freed--have they all been excised to highlight "self-reliance"? 

It's extraordinarily unclear what the target audience is here. The tone and language feels like maybe fourth or fifth grade, but the standards lists high school standards. You are never going to capture high school attention with material this bland and thin. The exercise reminds me of beginning student teachers I would work with who knew they had some stuff they wanted to cover, but had no idea how they should exercise their own leadership and planning to make the lesson happen. "I'll go over some of this and then there will be a discussion, and the students will, you know, learn about all this other stuff that will just come up, somehow." Or maybe it's just the work of another bunch of people who don't have any real idea what teaching involves. Or maybe they were focused on what they wanted to say about the material that they treated the "curriculum" itself as an afterthought. And you can argue about the scholarship behind the 1619 Project, but there's no scholarship going on here at all.

In short, teachers should absolutely be teaching about Biddy Mason and Elijah McCoy. Under no circumstances should they use these materials to do it. And if Dear Leader is counting on 1776 Unites to create his super-patriotic curriculum or beat back the evil lefty forces of the 1619 Project--well, this sample indicates that it's just not going to happen.