Saturday, October 31, 2020

The National Review Vs. Evil Teachers Unions

Upon first reading "Teachers Unions and the Myth of 'Public' Schools" at National Review, my immediate impulse was to just mutter "fatuous bullshit" and move on. But this piece is a fine distillation of a current genre of writing--the piece that blames current school closures on the self-serving teachers' unions, who see distance learning as a great way to pursue their dream of being paid for doing nothing. And as such, it needs to be responded to, even if only by a lowly blogger. Also, the National Review is not some completely stupid rag, and it should do better than this.

The writer is Cameron Hilditch, a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute. He's originally from Belfast, went to Oxford, and has been playing in the big leagues. When you see his picture, you're going to think he looks like he's about twelve, but it's not fair to hold that against him; in my picture at the top of this blog, I look like I still have hair. 

Hilditch comes out of the gate mighty aggressive:

American taxpayers have been hoodwinked by the whole idea of “public schools.” No other institutions get away with such bad behavior on the part of some employees who staff them.

He cites the last batch of NAEP scores as his proof, making the usual mistake, deliberate or not, of mistaking NAEP "proficiency" for "adequacy" instead of "top quality." He calls these numbers "appalling," based on the fact that he wants something more to blame on public teachers unions that "continue to behave like the nation's most lucrative and powerful racketeering ring." 

All of this allows him to sidle up to his point, which is about the use of a "public" and "private" as political language; "these terms," he claims, "stop us from thinking clearly."

"Private," he argues, is at a disadvantage in a democratic society because it's "a word used by individuals to make claims on their own behalf against the claims of others." But with "public," he says, "at a time when loneliness and social isolation are rampant (a premise that cries out for some actual support), it conjures up associations with community, solidarity, and collective effort."

Those associations with "public" he argues, allow the people who work in such institutions to cloak themselves in nobility when they're "just as nakedly self-interested as everybody else." Now back to his main point of attack:

The saddest and most salient example of “public” institutions that are nothing of the sort in the United States is our “public” education system. These schools are advertised to taxpayers as institutions that serve every child in the nation. In reality, they serve the interests of no one other than the small group of Americans who work in these schools as teachers and administrators.

This is the classic anti-union vision of public education-- the whole education system is set up as a scam to fool taxpayers into providing gobs of money to sinecure-filling teachers and undeserved political power to union leaders. And Hilditch lays on the purple prose with a trowel:

Since the teachers unions can shield their own avarice with claims of “public service” to children, they can manipulate the actual public into thinking that more money, job security, or political power for themselves is in everyone’s interest instead of their own. They can claim that the hopes and dreams of America’s children are somehow mystically present in their paychecks and their extended holidays as if the funds in each of their bank accounts amount to some sort of progressive eucharist of which the entire nation partakes.

But while Hilditch can badmouth teachers like a pro, he does not actually provide a counter-argument. Is his claim that public schools don't actually serve all students? Then some sort of evidence would be helpful here; he just name checks graduation rates, test scores, and graduate employability without details, as if those constitute proof. 

The object of all this high dudgeon is teachers unions that are resisting re-opening of schools during the pandemic. This is a not-unpopular narrative among some folks, despite the fact that it doesn't have much basis in reality. There are plenty of parents out there who are not in any hurry to send their kids back, and plenty of private, charter, and non-union schools (which in some states include public schools) that are also keeping their doors closed. Hilditch is going with the "there's no real danger here" argument, specifically, there haven't been any surges in K-12 schools so far. Just a few deaths here and there. That leads him to arguing 

In typical fashion, the teachers unions are arguing that their actions are meant to protect the health of both teachers and students.

"In typical fashion" does the heavy lifting here, suggesting that teachers don't really care about anyone's health, and that such uncaring selfishness is standard fare for Those People. It also proves that they either "don't know or don't care" about the long-term effects of distance learning, then he goes on to link childhood brain damage directly to teacher union policy (not with evidence--he just links it by saying it's so). 

He also takes a swipe at Becky Pringle, lifting a quote from a Politico profile of the new NEA president. She's talking about what the union will do in the face of second DeVos term:

She said that “we will lift up all of the things that they are doing to destroy public education, to dismantle it, to hurt our educators’ rights to organize and have a voice to advocate at work for our students and for their community.” Notice the sentence structure. It isn’t “our students and … their community” whose “rights” are being “hurt.” It’s “our educators,” who stand in as middlemen between taxpaying parents and their children in order “to advocate at work for our students and for their community.” They claim the mantle of “public educators” when they should be called “taxpayer-funded educators.”

This is just... well, that parsing of the sentence structure is a reach. The NEA represents teachers, not the public. But he's pointing at a distinction without a difference. Teachers do, in fact, stand up as advocates for students, families, and taxpayers. They do it all the time. And his zinger at the end is kind of zing-free. Yes, teachers are taxpayer-funded educators. This point lands about like sneering, "And you know, those public school teachers all teach in public schools." Well, yeah. So? 

In fact, this is the closest Hilditch comes to hitting the major point that this whole piece dances around--the word's "public" and "private," when applied to schools, have actual meanings, not just shades of political rhetoric. A public school is funded by the public, owned by the public, operated by elected representatives of the public, and accountable to the public. They cannot turn away any students without extraordinary processes. A private school is privately owned, privately operated, and accountable only to its owners. They can turn anyway anyone they want to turn away. We're living through a long-term attempt to get these private schools the use of public funds, but even in those cases, private schools remain privately owned and operated. Words have actual meanings. This is not something that a traditional conservative should need to have pointed out to him.

But Hilditch's argument, such as it is, rests on sloppy conflations. In his conclusion, he says:

The assumption that government-run schools operate in the “public interest” has prevented us from noticing the many ways in which teachers unions operate in their own self-interest.

Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. The only way this sentence even makes sense is if one assumes, as Hilditch seems to, that public schools, public school teachers, and the teachers unions are all a single entity. They aren't. He seems really, really pissed that the pandemic hasn't shown everybody that public schools are just venal and selfish. Again, I can't believe that it's necessary to explain to a traditional conservative that things are complicated, especially worldwide pandemics in which hard data is scare and actual leadership on the state and federal level is even scarcer. Even simple complicating factor like, you know, teachers mostly don't want to die or have a hand in the deaths of students or students families, but nobody can show exactly how much risk is involved in opening doors, or we could note that teachers would prefer, mostly, not to teach from home, because it's mostly an awful imitation of the work they really love to do, or that the equations of home v. school learning are different for Black and brown families. (And as always when confronting the Hilditches of the world, teachers want to know--if we've got such a stranglehold on the schools and the taxpayers, why are we still not rich?)

Maybe Hilditch is just upset that people are too nice to teachers. His final line is "But as long as they have the language of the 'public'-'private' divide to draw upon, they’ll probably succeed in convincing themselves and a good deal of voters that they are the selfless ones." It is symptomatic of the piece that the antecedent of "they" is unclear. Public schools? Teachers? Teacher unions? It's not clear. But whoever it is, Hilditch apparently just plain wants people to stop liking them. 

The comments mostly sing with the same stringent vitriol, but there is one on-point reply from an actual teacher:

Is there a way that don't have to look at everything in absolutist terms? Everyone is an enemy sent to destroy us? I am a teacher and I care about my kids. I appreciate my union and it's efforts to create a better working environment. I appreciate that they give us a voice and the admin listens to that voice. They advocate for us and for the kids. Can't we all do more than one thing at a time? Public schools do try to help kids. So do the teachers. This article is dripping in poison as are a lot of the comments. I think the slim possibility must be considered that teachers and public schools are trying to the right thing.

Hilditch appears to be quite certain that nobody in the public school sector is trying to do the right thing at all, ever. I started reading his piece getting angry, started laughing somewhere in the middle, but by the end just wanted to ask, "Who hurt you, buddy? Would you like a hug?"

Friday, October 30, 2020

Psychic AI and Plagiarism Detection

 Artificial Intelligence is used to sell a lot of baloney. It would be bad enough it were used only to teach badly and provide poor assessments of student work, but AI is also being hawked as a means of rooting out plagiarism. For an example of this phenomenon at its worst, let's check in on a little webcast from Mark Boothe at Canvas Learning Management System. He's talking to Shouvik Paul at Copyleaks, a plagiarism checking company and partner of Canvas. I'm going to watch this so you don't have to--and you shouldn't. But you should remember the names just in case somebody at your place of work suggests actually using these products.

We start with a quick intro emphasizing Copyleaks' awesomeness. And then Boothe hands it over to Paul, the Chief Revenue Officer at Copyleaks, because when you want to talk about a product, you definitely want to talk to the revenue people at the company. Incidentally, sales and marketing has been Paul's entire career--no computer or education background anywhere in sight. But this is going to be a sales pitch for thirty-some minutes. Great.

First, Paul offers general background on Copyleaks. An AI company, building "very cool" stuff. That includes a product that does grading of essays on standardized tests. It takes humans hours, but their Ai can grade those papers "within seconds" within 1% accuracy of a human grader. Spoiler alert: no, it can't. They have offices around the world. 

So they were working on ed tech, and "as we all know" everyone from universities through k-12 is using some kind of plagiarism detection (oh my lord-- does that mean there are first grade teachers out there running student paragraphs through turnitin?). Paul says they found that some of the technology out there was outdated, meaning that when you're out there in education dealing with students, "it's such a cat and mouse game--they're always looking for new ways to beat the system." So we're going to adopt a cynical premise about those awful students as a starting point. Great. 

"Let's face it. What's the first thing a student's going to do? They're going to youtube, and they're going to type in something like 'how to cheat plagiarism check' Right?" And he is showing us on screen many many many videos on how to beat the plagiarism detection software out there. The most common recommendation is to paraphrase.

So they asked themselves why plagiarism detectors weren't detecting paraphrasing and the answer they came up with is "paraphrasing is really complicated" which I guess is more esteem-affirming than "software is really stupid and doesn't actually understand words." That admission would also have implications for a software product that claims it can grade an essay in a second.

But take "I'm going to Utah." Paul points out there are only a few ways to say that, which is just wrong, unless you're not very bright or don't have a very big vocabulary. I toyed briefly with listing all the many ways one could write that sentence, but none of us have the time for that. Paul points out that millions of people might write it the same way, but that doesn't mean they're plagiarizing--there's just only "that many" ways to say it. It occurs to me that an important factor here is the reasons that someone would want to write the sentence in the first place, but I don't believe we're thinking that hard about the problem.

All of that is beside the point of paraphrasing, so he heads back to that, suggesting that they figured (he keeps saying "we" and how much do you want to bet that the revenue and sales teams were not actually a part of any of these product development discussions) that AI could be used to detect paraphrasing (because AI is like magic fairy dust sprinkled by unicorns pooping rainbows). 

And boy does he believe in magic, because he says the goal was to spot paraphrasing done with the intent of beating the system, and if there were software that could somehow read the writer's intent, that would be beyond amazing, since even humans have trouble sometimes detecting author's intent in a piece of writing.

But they have many customers, including big time legit colleges and universities. It's becoming clear that their marketing niche is all about the paraphrasing thing. They're uncovering more of that, Paul says. 

Other sales points he'd like to hit on. They're doing this in over 100 languages. They can also check code for computer science departments "being computer programmers ourselves." (Paul has never been a computer programmer.) Paul also claims they've figured out how to make the software self-improving so that it will stay caught up with the hot new plagiarism techniques. These are very "top level" things they are doing.

Now some info about how exactly they work, right after he sings the praises of Canvas, with whom they are deeply integrated. An unbelievable number of people are calling them to ask  if they can help with Canvas. And they can! It's turnkey! The controls are easy! They accept many files! They will catch paraphrasing! Here are many screenshots of the software controls. I am afraid that Mark Boothe may have left, or fallen asleep, or something.

Oh, hey-- that's interesting/alarming. I can compare a paper to a paper from a couple years ago. Who was storing that, and why? They get papers from all these schools and "add them to our internal database." And colleges and universities can add their own stored documents to the database, and they can check those for exact matches and--ta-dah--paraphrases.

Here are some screen examples of what the results would look like. It's pretty typical-- highlighted naughty parts with listing of where the match was found. Color-coded, so you can see exact matches or--yahoo--paraphrases. 

Now he's talking about intent again. Since there are only a few ways to write a sentence, we'd get too many false positives from people just landing close, somehow. But here comes the AI. "It's essentially understanding the logic." No, it's not. Okay, he's really stumbling through this explanation, so let me try to piece it together. See, if the page was blank, someone might have just written that sentence to write that sentence. But the AI is going to look at the context. And it's going to look for any other indications that "there is intent to cheat, deceive or to plagiarize." He's not going to tell us what those would be, though he looks at the sample paper and says the intent is pretty obvious, by which he apparently means that the paper is already loaded with cut-and-paste theft. Which is an interesting argument, since one might also argue that a student who depends on that much cut-and-paste is showing that he lacks the ambition to paraphrase anything. 

He's still stammering, the point being that instead of millions and millions of hits, the AI is narrowing it to just "the most likely" ones intended to beat the system. Again, if these guys have developed software that can divine author's intent, they can be doing so much more in the world than catching student paraphrasers. Imagine if, for instance, all political and diplomatic documents could be run past software that detects and explains the author's intent. 

Coding examples now. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.......

He has now entered that mode of the person making the sales pitch who has run out of pitch, but not out of time. Post-Covid era, universities want to save money. We take customer support really really seriously. Very hands on. Opening the floor for questions.

Hay! Mark is still here and awake. He asks if they specialize more in college or K-12, and golly bob howdy but if they don't do really well in both. Historically it's been more higher ed, but "post Covid" (he has now referenced being "post Covid" a couple of times as if it's "now" which is an odd thing to say if you're anyone other than a person on the Trump re-election team, because we certainly still seem to be in a "during Covid" place) a whole lot of K-12 want this for remote learning stuff to go with their new Canvas learning platform. But there really is no difference in the way the product works, the methodology, what they search, for one market or the other. Second grade paragraph about flowers, college thesis about quantum physics-- they both apparently get the same treatment.

They are actually working on a "paper" about plagiarism trends pre and post Covid. They are finding a huge jump in cheating-- a "very unusual spike." They're watching the trends.

Audience question-- what databases does this tool check against? Answer: a whole bunch. Many. 15,000 academic journals. A whole gamut. Follow-up question about moving from Blackboard to Canvas. Do they lose previously submitted papers? Answer: that's on you, basically. You do the exporting, if you can, good luck.

Mark calls for any last pitch from Shouvik, and he's going with, boy, people just keep hiring us, we are using AI, we are moving forward with machine learning, and that's why folks love us, including people outside education world. Okay--this is interesting; the BBC uses them to hunt down people who are stealing BBC content and monetizing it on other sites. They promise better results. Call them for more details or a demo. Here's my email.

Boothe takes the wrapup. 

And institutions buy this. And students have to jump through this hoop, and have their work discredited if they miss a hoop because some software psychically read their intent. There are days when think the term "artificial intelligence" should be banned.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

DeVos New NAEP Baloney Sandwich

Betsy DeVos would like you to know--again, some more--that public schools are failing. 

Her exhibit this time is the newly-released NAEP results for 12th graders in 2019. And as usual at NAEP time, her brief exhortation is riddled with baloney. 

America is the greatest country on the face of the earth, and we should deliver our rising generation the greatest educational opportunities possible. Sadly, today’s results confirm America’s schools continue to fall far short, and continue to fail too many kids, especially the most disadvantaged.

Wave that flag. But recognize that the NAEP 12th grade scores did not break out students by low-income levels, so DeVos has no idea which students, exactly, are holding the fuzzy end of the test score lollipop. Also, let's not lose sight of the fact that the NAEP is administered to public and private schools, so the same schools that she wants a voucher-paved path to for students--those beloved private schools are in this mix, too.

It’s particularly troubling to see the results for our lowest performing and most disadvantaged students getting worse. Education funding flows most heavily to these students’ schools, but these data make clear money to schools alone will not fix the problem. It’s a problem of approach

Again, she has no idea whether the funding "flows most freely" to the schools of the low-scoring students. Nor am I sure which funding she's talking about. Title I? IDEA? I'm asking for millions of teachers who are dying to know which schools, exactly, are the beneficiaries of these freely-flowing funds. But DeVos brings up funding only so she can argue that more money won't help. Of course, 2019's seniors are another of the generations that have grown up knowing nothing except the reformy NCLB test-centered data-driven programs that ed reformers like DeVos have been pushing at us, but she's not going to talk about that. 

Of course you know where she's headed-- this report card should "light a fire" under education leaders to try something new "to avert another lost generation." Another? Is she worried about a repeat of the 1920s and Hemingway and Stein and Fitzgerald, or is there some other lost generation she has in mind, and if so, when did we lose them, and how were standardized test scores related to their loss? She wants education leaders to start working with governors and the White House and get busy empowering parents (aka vouchers). Again--private schools are part of these numbers. But here comes the finish:

We must start to act like our national security hinges on fixing this, because it does. We must start to act like our economic growth hinges on fixing this, because it does. We must start to act like our very future hinges on solving this now, because it unquestionably does.

But the "this" she wants to fix is scores that have stagnated for decades. Has our economic growth and national security been suffering? And is education really the only way to fix these things, because I heard that her boss had already fixed them bigly. Look--education disruptors have been chicken littling about the imminent education-fueled collapse of the country since A Nation at Risk 35 years ago, and yet here we sit. And while we have a few issues, I'm not sure that persistent racism, failed trickle-down economic theories, and a problematic health care system can be blamed on low standardized test scores--or more importantly, fixed by raising those scores. 

I made my statement about NAEP a year ago, and what I said still goes. NAEP is super-duper clear that it's a huge mistake to try to blame NAEP scores on any single factor. Other folks are super-duper clear that NAEP's PR boast of being a "gold standard" is perhaps not well-earned. And every year, NAEP scores debunk the notion that if we just had hard data, we could accomplish edu-miracles. Folks will keep using the NAEP scores to back up what they already wanted to say, packing the data into a sad baloney sandwich. This is a fine time to remind you that elections matter. 

Another Skills of Tomorrow Pitch

Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat has made a small hobby out of tracking one of the pervasive made-up statistics of education-- "65% (or 80% or what-have-you) of the jobs that this years kindergartners will fill don't exist yet." Well, the folks at the World Economic Forum have another variation on this kind of crystal ball data theme-- "50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025."

Fortunately, I guess, WEF's Future of Jobs Report knows exactly which ten skills will be needed. And they are floridly optimistic:

"We have the tools at our disposal. The bounty of technological innovation which defines our current era can be leveraged to unleash human potential," says the Forum's Founder and Executive Chairman, Professor Klaus Schwab.

So what does the bounty of technological innovation tell us? Let's look at this list of the Top Ten Skills of 2025, not because it's a good list, but because this is the kind of list business folks start throwing at education in an attempt to fix it, and forewarned is forearmed.

Analytical thinking and innovation
Active learning and learning strategies
Complex problem-solving
Critical thinking and analysis
Creativity, originality and innovation
Leadership and social influence
Technology use, monitored and controlled
Technology design and programming
Resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility
Reason, problem-solving and ideation

Also, in 2025, the Oxford comma will not be a necessary skill. 

That's a lot more than ten, and I'm not sure that any of them are "skills." But here we see the same problem manifest that we found in Common Core-- the notion that there are a bunch of intellectual free-floating skills that can be somehow mastered separate from any sort of content. That someone can be good at complex problem-solving and so, once they have somehow been trained in that skill in some content-free vacuum, they can solve complex problems whether they're in a vegan restaurant kitchen, a neurosurgery theater, or a nuclear physics lab. 

Nor am I sure why these "skills" are rising to prominence now, as if they weren't equally critical right now, or last year, or last decade. 

But if you're concerned about any of this, WEF looked to on-line education purveyor Coursera to provide some estimates of how long it would take to whip up these skills. You'll be happy to know that skills related to People and Culture, Content Writing, Sale and Marketing--just one or two months for those babies. Who knew that content writing could be polished off so quickly? Do you have to know anything about the actual content? Product Development and Data and AI skills, only two or three months, and on the high end, Cloud Computing and Engineering skills can be yours in four or five months. All this, mind you, via computer, using technology to unleash human potential. Woohoo.

The World Economic Forum is all about advancing public private partnerships. I just want to remind educators that when you hear business people offer half-baked shallow ideas about education, you're not crazy to think that their amateur-hour advice is not helpful. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Is It Time For The Internet To Be A School-Managed Public Utility?

School has opened across the country, but in many districts that means class via internet—if those students are among those fortunate enough to have access to fast, large-capacity internet connections.

How many aren’t connected? The answer is that nobody’s exactly sure. One study says that 33 million citizens live without the net. The FCC says that 19 million Americans lack access to broadband at threshold speeds; they also say that 99.99% of the US population has access to some kind of internet. None of the surveys really capture the picture on the ground. Here’s a house that has a good internet connect—except when it rains. Here’s a home where the connection is good—unless five people have to connect their devices at the same time.

So as schools shift to online education, we have more tales of students sitting in parking lots to grab the wi-fi. Schools (and other sponsors) invest in hot spots, even deploying hot spot school buses. But a hot spot device only works in places where there’s a signal available. In my mostly-rural county, there are many places where neither the internet nor wireless phone signals reliably reach.

We are well past the point of pretending that some sort of market solution will bring the US close to 100% real connectivity. There are some corners of the country where it simply does not pay to build and maintain the infrastructure or provide the internet service itself. Getting service to all Americans is a huge challenge, but we’ve met similar challenges before when it came to telephone and electric service. If we can agree that an internet connection is as much a necessity of modern life as electricity and telecommunications, why not declare the internet a public utility, and why not make use of the government entity that already reaches to every corner of the country—US public school districts.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the internet was an official public utility. The FCC declared it one in 2015, but that was part of the fight over net neutrality, and nobody was paying attention to any implications for universal service. And as an action of the Obama administration, it was promptly undone after Trump took office.

So what would we have to do to get every US student a decent internet connection.

One issue would be service and support. Even if your school district has put a device in every student’s hands, chances are that it is not top-of-the-line and is therefor slightly less reliable than the average computer. Most tech-heavy schools have two avenues of support: the official (”Take this non-booting unit to the tech office”) and the unofficial (”I think Ms. McTechface in room 203 knows how to get this function to work”). When students (and teachers) are working from home, they are cut off from both.

There are commercial solutions to this issue. Some are regional, but on the national level, there are companies like CompuCom, owned by Office Depot and in the business for 34 years. Providing support for distributed users and technology is the challenge, but president Mick Slattery says, “We do it for the corporate world. Why not education?” Slattery says CompuCom is structured to work with school districts, making this sort of service an attractive method for districts to be responsive to student and teacher needs without hopelessly stretching district staff.

Another major issue is infrastructure. There has been concern about that network infrastructure before Covid-19 ever hit; now the need to expand and strengthen it is even more critical and concerning. Some solutions are as mundane as laying out more fiber optic cable. Meanwhile, in the UK they are experimenting with
balloon-kite aerial platforms for temporary 5G coverage.

Evan Marwell is the founder of EducationSuperHighway, an organization that helped get an internet connection to almost every school in the country. He sees a need for a federal subsidy for extending fiber networks into every community, and points to the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund set up this year with $20 billion to get that job done. His cautions that the feds need to collect good data first. $20 million would be needed to do the mapping, but, Marwell says, “If you don’t have data, you’ll waste time building what people don’t need.”

Marwell considers the biggest problem to be affordability, but willingness to adopt is also an issue. A Pew survey found that many of those who are not on the internet can’t afford it, or feel that it’s not worth the cost for the little use it provides. Some non-adopters are unlikely to ever budge; my old high school has been a one-to-one school (one school-provided computer for every student) since 2010, and there have always been a non-zero number of families who have refused to have the device in their home. But those who can’t afford it, or are simply making a cost-effectiveness judgment against connectivity, could benefit from a subsidy.

In both cases—mapping the infrastructure gaps and finding those households that need subsidies—school districts are positioned to be hubs for both finding the information and making sure the subsidies get where they’re needed. Like operating food programs for low-income students, it represents one more thing placed on the schools’ backs; but as we are currently seeing, internet connectivity can quickly become a critical issue for school’s primary mission.

There are other possible tools available. Cities can step in where commercials providers won’t step up. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city-owned agency operates an internet service offering 1000 megabits per second for $70/month (for $58, you can get a still-blazing 100 meg service). But in 20 states, laws have been passed with phone company backing that forbid cities from competing with broadband operators.

Meanwhile, just this week, 30 Senators proposed that the FCC take money from the E-Rate program to provide connections in student homes to deal with pandemic on-line learning.

What we’ve learned since last March is that the marketplace solution for internet coverage does not provide the kind of coverage necessary if all (or even most) students in the country are going to go to school online. As with electricity, phone service, and mail delivery, some sort of government involvement is needed, because as you are now hearing from thousands of teachers and students, the current patchwork that we have is not sufficient to serve the needs of all of America’s students.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Segregation, Privatization, and Taxation

The New York Times ran a piece yesterday about a school board voting mess in Sumter County, Georgia (that's the county of Plains, home of Jimmy Carter's peanut farm). The story itself is an instructional look at how yet another white minority is trying to keep their hands on the levers of power, resulting in a district that is 70% Black run by a board that is 70% white. But Nicholas Casey has down a great job with that story, and you should go read it. 

At one point in the story, Casey talks about the creation of Southland Academy in 1966, yet another segregation academy opened in response to integration requirements:

Among Southland’s biggest boosters were the county school board and city officials, who transferred a public school building to the private upstart, then sold buses and furniture to it at a discount, according to Bobby L. Fuse, a local community leader. Officials lowered rates on taxes — which were used to fund the public schools — so white residents could more easily pay for private tuition, he said.

We often forget that segregation academies and their ilk were not just about separating white children from Black children; they were also about separating white money from Black schools. Set up a separate private school system, leave Those People's Children in the public school, and then chop the taxes that are going to the public system. 

As Steve Suitts points out in his book Overturning Brown, while the modern school choice movement may not be driven by racists, they still use some of the old racist tricks. 

Let's consider, in particular, Betsy DeVos's beloved tax credit scholarships-- the Education Freedom plan. It's not just that this is a voucher plan that avoids using the unpopular never-been-chosen-by-voters V word. It has other features.

Because every contribution to a private school "scholarship" counts against tax liability-- put $50K into the scholarship, pay $50K less in taxes-- it simultaneously funds private schools and blows a giant hole in tax revenues for the state or federal government that's allowing the program. For folks in the DeVosian corner of the ed disruption biz, it's a tasty trifecta-- more money to private schools, tax breaks for rich folks, and defunding the public school system.

In this respect, it suits their purposes far better than charter schools, which have their funding tied to public school funding (which may be why many keep calling for higher funding levels). 

Only a handful of states use the tax credit scholarship approach. In fact, in one state, the tax credit scholarship contributions could actually turn a profit for rich folks. That state would be Georgia. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Ed Department Produces Advertisement For Computer-Based Education

Even as Betsy DeVos has been demanding that public schools get their doors opened and their teachers back in the bricks and mortar classrooms, the department has announced its release of a slick "guide" to computer-based edu-flavored products. It's a nice package of marketing materials for the folks working the digitized street corner of the education privatization neighborhood.

From the Office of Educational Technology, we get the Parent and Family Digital Learning Guide. The 23-page promo opens with an introduction that suggests that this is to help those families that find themselves thrust into the world of digital learning (that's the department's preferred phrase, though I keep thinking of doing math by counting on your fingers). The intro also includes the usual disclaimer that "of course" technology is only a tool. This guide "focuses on empowering you with information and resources." 

So let's leap in. It's only 23 pages, but I've read it so that you don't have to.

Part One: Benefits of Digital Learning

Yes, we drop the pretense of "empowerment" pretty quickly, and move directly on to the sales pitch. Let's look at all the ways that digital learning is better.

See, "most American classrooms have taken a 'one size fits al' approach to instruction, a claim that will come as news to all the teachers who bust their humps designing differentiated instruction. But learning, the writers say, should be flexible and adapt, and just in case you might forget that this is Betsy DeVos's department, a reminder that "you know your child best." 

So computer-centered ed is better because you can do Personalized [sic] Learning! There are factors that influence your child's learning, like relevance, interest, culture, language, background knowledge, and "differences in how they process information." The writers are trying like crazy to hint that Personalized [sic] Learning will build itself around these factors, but they are careful enough not to actual say so, because that would be bunk. Computer-based algorithm-driven education is only as flexible as the software allows it to be, and what we've seen so far says that "not very Flexible" is the norm. 

The writers will list how digital tools can help "accommodate" you child's needs and preferences. "Here are four ways that technology can be used to customize learning."

1) Choose your environment. You can be synchronous or asynchronous. Small groups, or large, or individual.

2) Uncover new learning opportunities. You can find stuff on line, like museums with virtual tools. Or software. Digital books. Games. Interactive content! 

3) Support creative expression. Oh, we are reaching so hard. Tools can be used for organizing, researching, writing and publishing. Multi-media! Digital tools can help your child think creatively! Your student can blog! Do I have to point out the vast sea of material online that demonstrates conclusively that one can use digital tools to be super-not-creative.

4) Provide fast feedback. Tech can do real time assessment, provided of course that your child is answering multiple choice questions or questions that have a one-size-fits-all answer. 

5) Provide multiple means of interacting with content.

Yes, that's five, not four. On the one hand, I can't quibble because I am the king of the typo. On the other hand, my budget here at the institute is a whopping $0.00.

More to the point, this description of Personalized [sic] Learning doesn't offer anything not found in an actual meatworld classroom. There's a bank of questions to ask yourself, your child, the teacher, the school leaders; they are ostensibly about personalized learning, but they're mostly just about education, period. And then there's a list of some handy websites. 

But wait--there's more. Digital learning is also better because Competency-Based Learning!

The writer notes that CBL travels under numerous other pseudonyms, and reduces the approach to basically personalized pacing, with the student not proceeding until "mastery" of a particular goal is demonstrated. Some of the info is on point, and some is baloney  ("assessment is a positive experience for your child," well, unless they get stuck on one mastery goal and feel as if they're beating their head against a brick wall), but the most important point for our purposes is that absolutely none of this requires digital learning tools. 

The final benefit is supposed to be that digital tools provide "new opportunities for your family to develop a strong partnership with your school or education  provider." That phrase "education provider" is just one more annoying sign of the mindset that education is a commodity that can be provided, like tofu or pork bellies. But otherwise the pitch here is that you can have video conferences or "virtual playdates" or video chats with family members or (and I'm not making this up) "practice writing by sending letters and e-mails to friends and relatives." 

Aside from the general tone of someone's grandmother discovering the interwebs because she hears all the young people are using the tweeters these days, this "guide" is notable for avoiding any discussion of any of the complicated and tricky issues surrounding all of these "benefits." I give them points for doing a fun reverse move here-- usually reformers pitch the CBL or the Personalized [sic] Learning up front and sneak the computerization in the back door. But people have unspooled miles of sentences explaining all the potential problems and issues of both computer-operated education and the "benefits" offered here. A real guide for parents would address the problems parents might confront rather than simply pitching this stuff as a shiny set of solutions.

Part Two: Enabling Digital Learning

This portion is addressing sort of the hardware side of the biz, kind of. It is hard to pinpoint the audience here; the section seems aimed at people who have absolutely no idea about how to connect their child to the interwebs, but it also fails to give them any specific information that would help them address the issues.

This section, considerably briefer than the first, hits three basic points.

First, your child will need a "personal learning device." You may have "multiple options" to "access a personal learning device." And then we get to the specifics:

There are multiple makes, models, and configurations of laptops, tablets, cameras, and software that can support digital learning.

'Kay. It's mostly in that vein. Your school may have certain technical requirements. The school might provide the device, or you might get it elsewhere, somehow. Find out what your school is doing. Also, you'll need some technical support. Also, there might be learning opportunities for students without a personal learning device. There are no more details than that. I'm truly stumped on which audience would find any of this helpful.

Second, your child will need internet access. Again, the details here are that doing stuff online requires a good online connection. See if you have one. See if somebody in the community has one you can use. Again, not even the basic help of saying what sort of specs you'd be looking for to sort this out or different types of hookups you might encounter. Just, "connections-- you'll need 'em."

Third, ensuring your child's safety, privacy and responsible technology use. This one is marginally better because it at least comes with a link to a more detailed article. And some actual advice, like keep track of passwords. But then, it also devotes a three-sentence paragraph to "digital citizenship." Also, FERPA exists, but we're not going to talk about the gaping holes in it.

And there's a page on how to report a discrimination complaint to the department. So there's that.

And an endnotes page for the 12 notes within the work, citing folks like the Aurora Institute, which is the new name of iNacol, the on-line learning advocacy group, and like the Be A Learning Hero website, another reformy collaborative. is cited twice; they specialize in ed ideas for students who perceive differently, and they partnmer with folks like Relay/GSE, TNTP, and New Visions for Public Schools.

So who created this thing?

The team thanks a Technical Working Group that includes representative from CAST, GreatSchools, TNTP, Understood, Chiefs for Change, MIT, the International Society for Technology in Education, and Pine Springs Preparatory Academy (a charter school). They acknowledge contributions from Digital Promise and Learning Heroes. They acknowledge USED staffers that provided leadership and guidance, including Jim Blew

The report appears to be the product of the Office Of Educational Technology, but there are no names of actual human beings attached to the report as authors. The website lists seven staff in the office. Director Adam Safir and Senior Policy Advisor Bernadette Adams are named in the "under the leadership and guidance" portion of the acknowledgements. Thanks also go to Jake Steel, who was a deputy director in the department up until August of this year (he's a Teach for America product who's working on his PhD at Harvard's GSE now).

There's Sharon Leu, the senior policy advisor for higher education innovation, which seems like the wrong fit. Kevin Johnston, education program specialist, focuses on national education technology policy; he graduated from Brigham Young in 2015 with a philosophy degree and then put in his two years with Teach For America, then went back to BYU for a masters in educational/instructional technology, worked at BYU for a bit, then joined USED in October of 2019. Sara Trettin is a senior policy advisor for broadband and open education, plus libraries and librarians. She started in the department as a fellow in 2014. She has an actual education degree (Clemson), worked a couple of years at a charter school, and put in a year as Teacher in Residence in the Library of Congress, which has to be the coolest residency ever. The current department fellow is Jessica Tellez, where she "assists",,,somebody?... in developing "effective blockchain technology" for education.

That leaves Elizabeth Schultz, Deputy Director who's listed as an "education and public policy expert", which seems generous given her career contracts management (the site says 25 years, but if so, she's left a bunch off her LinkedIn profile). What she does have is a stint as an outspoken conservative voice on the Fairfax County School Board, a role she has not abandoned even after being voted off the board last year. As near as I can tell, she is a really, really recent addition to the office.

So of the possible writers of this report, there really isn't anyone in the department with the chops to do an insightful, balanced, well-researched job. That includes making sure you don't just take at face value the marketing blurbs you're handed by "advisors" with a vested interest. 

And I'll take just a moment to marvel once again how, when you drill all the way down to these sorts of things, there is not a single actual public school teacher in sight. 

So these are more tax dollars at work. A "guide" that is really a marketing brochure without enough depth or breadth to help much of anyone except the folks who are still hoping to cash in on computer-centered algorithm-driven software-based education-flavored products. Not the kind of leadership we need.

ICYMI: Fake Spring Edition (10/25)

 It was beautiful here most of the week, which served in part as a reminder that pandemic winter is going to suck so very much. Here are a few pieces to check out from the week.

The Perfect Trap  

Paul Thomas with some good insights about teaching writing and the power of redrafting.

Neoliberal Education Reformers Have Found A New Way To Scapegoat Teachers   

At Jacobin, Josh Mound talks about that awful MacGillis piece (don't worry if you haven't actually seen it or heard about it) and the ways that pandemic schooling has been used to point the finger at those damned lazy teachers yet again.

A Fourth Grader Walked To School To Use Its Wi-Fi   

At CNN Business, yet another variation on the story that teachers nationwide are hearing again and again and again (this time it's New Mexico).

The Cautionary Tale of Adam Neumann and WeWork   

Somebody actually wrote a book about this billion-dollar fiasco, which included yet one more rich visionary's idea about how to fix school. It's a cautionary tale about how somebody so absolutely full of baloney drew so much glowing press and piles of investor money. This is the New York Times review of the book--it's not strictly about education, but the visionary entrepreneurship on display is certainly familiar.

"The global pool of capital on which free-market societies float like inflatable rubber ducks is a virtually bottomless reservoir of folly, vanity, mania and caprice."

Valerie Strauss at the Answer Sheet reports on a court decision that comes with big judicial warnings about the future of democracy in the US

Here's your "if you read one thing" item for this week's list. Jennifer Berkshire, Jack Schneider, Derek Black and Diane Ravitch team up for a clear call about the election, just in case there was any doubt in your mind. At the Philly Inquirer.

John Thompson at the Progressive looks at how the pandemic made a terrible idea even worse, and Oklahoma wasted a whole ton of money.

Not about education, but Umair Haque's look behind the curtain at modern retail reveals the same sort of economist-driven baloney that threatens public education. Management by screen and coaching via earpiece are not just bad education ideas.

The courts are still trying to make Betsy behave, and she still won't.

Nancy Flanagan offers a solid explanation of why right now is the perfect time to kick the test addiction.

For those of you who are also spending plenty of time reading to the littles, here's a handy collection of titles to consider. Because who doesn't need more books?

Friday, October 23, 2020

Did Covid-19 Destroy The Case Against School Choice?

Betsy DeVos repeatedly insists that the current pandemic A) shouldn't in any way interfere with the normal operation of public schools and B) makes it "more clear than ever" that school choice must be a thing, toot de suite. The two prongs of her argument belong to two entirely different pitchforks, but many folks with more coherent debate tools have picked up that second point. 

One of those is Rick Hess, who over at EdWeek argues that "Covid-19 Has Capsized the Case Against School Choice." To make his point, he calls back to a point he made back in the spring (you know--100 years ago):

The most effective argument made by opponents of school choice has long been the simple assertion that we can't trust choice to yield decent options for every child. And since every child has a right to be schooled, it's important to protect traditional public school systems in order to assure an acceptable default education for every child.

Hess's assertion is that "this line of argument is no longer operative." Covid has revealed that the public system "guarantees a lot less than we imagined." 

Hess points to a small list of public school pandemic failures-- missing students, dodgy methods of taking attendance, dumping home schooling requirements on harried parents, insisting that re-opening will require more money. These are all true things, and several are hard to excuse (except the "needs more money" part--the addition of PPE and the additional staff needed to handle daily school stuff in a socially distanced environment cost money). 

Hess, as is usual for him, is measured and careful in his criticism:

This isn't about the good intentions of district officials or teachers. And it isn't about bombastic claims that public schools are "failing" or that public systems should be blown up. The issue, rather, is that universalist "public" systems aren't delivering what was promised. This makes it harder for those who would denounce school choice's tapestry of options as an inadequate or immoral alternative to make their case.

It's a carefully calibrated point, and I appreciate the precision, but I still disagree. The thing is, for all the failings of pandemic public schooling, the fundamental criticism of charters hasn't changed. Public schools still have a mission to provide education for every single student; charters don't. 

I don't have any basis other than my best guess, but my best guess is that charters generally have managed better during the pandemic. A school like Success Academy (which did also close its doors for a few months) has already developed a well-connected monoculture that involves making sure its families stay on the same page as the school (if you haven't read Robert Pondiscio's How the Other Half Learns yet, do so). The broad and varied culture within a single public school is not necessarily so easily mustered.

Doing well with a creamed and curated collection of families is a fine thing, but it doesn't mean that choice schools are suddenly ready or willing to open their doors to everyone. Many charters still don't backfill, and plenty of private voucherized schools still insist on their right to reject students for whatever reasons they see fit. 

The only thing that has really changed about the choice landscape under pandemonium is that many families recognize that all available choices suck, and they would like others such as a school located in a magical land where there is no illness and students all go sit in desks in classrooms like they used to, with no extra procedures or general fear. School choice is no more prepared to offer that option than are public schools. 

The shortest form of my argument against school choice as it is currently conceived is that yes, there are some tremendous issues that the public school needs to handle better, but school choice doesn't solve any of them. While the pandemic has added to the list of issues for public schools, the outline of my argument hasn't changed a bit.

VA: Teacher Ejected From Board Meeting For Live Covid Demo

Henrico County Public School District is a Virginia school district that sits right beside Richmond. For the first part of the school year, they have been using distance learning, and finding it just as unsatisfactory as pretty much everyone else.

So the board has proposed a phased in return to a four-day week (with Wednesday off for cleaning). Students will have the option of remaining full virtual if they prefer. Like many districts Henrico has done some surveying of its stakeholders, and as in many districts, it hasn't clarified much. 50% of families want to stay on line. About 70% of the staff is willing to return to the classroom. 

The proposed phase in will start after Thanksgiving for elementary students, and secondary will be back in February. The "after Thanksgiving" part, given family holiday travel and gatherings, has some folks a bit nervous

One HCPS teacher decided to give the board a taste of that concern with the board by way of dramatic demonstration. Teacher Brent Halstead approached the board, stood about six feet away, took off his mask and opened up a bag of chips and some drink. This, he explained to the board, is what they are asking teachers to do with twenty kids in a classroom. 

The board, all masked, were not fans. They were reportedly "visibly uncomfortable," and then asked him to put on his mask before having security escort him out. You can watch the video here of Halstead being removed accompanied by applause from the crowd.

There is some evidence that Henrico's plan is not out of line with what we know, provided they're really prepared to support the undertaking and not just throw open the doors, and if it has support in the larger community (because if the community is loaded with maskless folks, the school is more vulnerable) and if your local luck holds out, maybe. And if you don't worry too much about teachers.  But what we know is not much, or even probably enough, and the whole incident is a reminder that in the absence of clear information and actual leadership from federal and state authorities, people are scared. But in Henrico, as in many districts across the country, school boards demanding that teachers face situations that they won't tolerate themselves--well, it's not a good look. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Trump’s Patriot History Lessons Or Critical Thinking: You Can’t Have Both

Donald Trump wants to sweep away the “web of lies in our schools and classrooms” and replace them with the “magnificent truth” about the US, “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” This country, he asserts, is the “most fair, equal, and prosperous nation in human history.”

To further that goal, he signed an executive order to create a “1776 Commission,” to promote “patriotic education” in US schools. “The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools,” Trump said,
announcing a grant to support development of a “pro-American curriculum.”

Reactions to Trump’s proposed patriotic curriculum have been mixed, with some calling it an “overdue effort” and others indicating that with this notion, Trump “joins dictators and demagogues.” The whole issue is further complicated by Trump’s declared intent to punish schools that teach the New York Times 1619 Project, which some conservatives see as illegal. Meanwhile, Trump’s idea of soliciting a $5 billion “contribution” from the Tik-Tok/Oracle/Walmart deal raises the possibility of “patriotic American education” being funded in part by the Chinese.

Trump seems upset by the 1619 Project in particular and the handling of racism in US history in general. In raising these issues, he wades into a long-standing set of complaints from conservatives about how US history is taught. Critics have long argued, particularly in times of strife and discontent, that schools should do more to inculcate patriotism. But how to make this goal fit with other educational aims.

One of the long-standing holy grails of education is critical thinking. There are plenty of fancy definitions of critical thinking (”Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”). But it generally involves a couple of features—clear, rational thinking, applied to analysis and evaluation to arrive at a judgment of the issue at hand.

In the classroom, it’s pretty easy to tell when you aren’t teaching critical thinking. If you are trying to herd your students toward a single acceptable answer to the question at hand, that is not critical thinking.

There are times when the single answer is appropriate (”How many branches are there in the U.S. government”). But history is a subject that includes broad vistas of materials that doesn’t yield one single correct answer (”What caused World War I”). As Leslie Harris and Karen Wulf put it in their excellent Politico essay, “History is always in the process of revision through new information and new perspectives.” Americans, when we think about history at all, like to think of it as settled and fixed, but that’s just not so.

Think about a couple that meets, marries, has children, and divorces within a decade. Imagine getting their story from them, their friends, their families immediately after the divorce, and then again every five years or so over the next six decades. The stories will vary based on relationships, new information, and understanding that changes with time. And yet all of the many stories will be at least a little true.

You could sit the children down and tell them, in effect, “This is the only true story about what happened with your parents, the only version of events and judgments about them that you are allowed to believe.” You might even successfully get that single story to stick, for a while. But it will be brittle, and as soon as those children find out that even one detail of it is not entirely true, the rest of the story will be shattered. They will not trust any of it.

History, whether the history of a nation or a family, requires critical thinking. It requires divergent views, re-evaluation of information, new perspectives, growing understanding. And most of all, it requires room for a multitude of judgments to be reached, not just by multiple viewers, but by the same viewer over years and years of their own growth.

If you sit students down and tell them, “This is the only true story of our country, and this is the only judgment you are allowed to reach about it,” you are demanding that they avoid critical thinking in favor of a cramped and meager understanding of their own history. It’s a disservice to the students.

If you are serious about raising students to be independent, critical thinkers, you can’t hit them with curriculum that herds them toward one single conclusion about 400 years of history. A nation’s history, a human life—they are more rich and complex and varied than can be captured by any single perspective. If you are studying history from just one source and just one point of view, you aren’t really studying history at all.

A generation of carefully indoctrinated “patriots” or actual thinkers—you can’t have both. That’s the bad news for the 1776 Commission. The good news is that if you show students the full, rich, varied, complex, sometimes appalling history of their country, and help foster the tools to reflect and think about it, they might reach a mature, deep, realistic affection for the place.

The Big Engines That Wouldn't

 The Board of Directors has reacquainted me with a host of kid lit classics, including the 1930 classic, The Little Engine That Could, written by Watty Piper, which was a pseudonym for Arnold Munk, cofounder of the publishing company. There are also some newer abridged versions (Piper can be a little verbose and repetitive--always a problem when you're your own editor/publisher) which we like here at the Institute

You know the story, and you probably focus on the can-do attitude of the little engine that I-think-I-cans her way over the mountain. Hurray for grit. 

But there's another aspect of the story that is constant. Three other engines have the opportunity to help the train (loaded with toys and good food for the good children on the other side of the mountain) on its way after its original engine conks out. One is a powerful shiny new engine, the next is a big strong engine, and the third is a tired old engine (they are all presented as male). 

These three engines make their appearance to further the plot, underlining the helpless plight of the powerless train. But after reading this story a few hundred times. I get disappointed that the big engines that wouldn't are not part of the lesson. Taking food and toys to children is women's work, and nobody seems to question the refusal of the big engines to help out. There's no comeuppance, no moment when they look on in shame at what they've done, or refused to do. 

Maybe I have just seen too much inspiration porn. Look at this school's parents running a spectacular fundraiser (to provide services that should have ben provided in the first place). Look at the six zillionth touching Go Fund Me for necessary medical treatment (because we won't provide health care for the less-than-wealthy). Hooray for the computer company that, prompted to be part of a morning network tv stunt, donated equipment to a school (that shouldn't have had to beg in the first place). 

Yes, if you've got a problem right now, you solve it with the resources you have at hand right now. It's a waste of time to bitch about how you shouldn't be dealing with the problem in the first place. But at a minimum there should be a lesson learned about systemic issues that need to be addressed before the next crisis rolls around. How many patients didn't raise enough Go Fund Me money? How many schools still lack sufficient technology? How many other trains never got over the mountain at all? And how much did it cost the little engine that could to do the damn job all by herself?

Where's the part of the story where the station master tells the big engines, "Dammit boys--if you can't help out around here, then maybe we'll just have to redirect some of your supplies." Or "That job is just as important as any other, so we're making some assignment changes right now, and I'd better see some attitude changes to go with them."

We should celebrate the strength and determination of all the folks that marshal their resources and pull through in the clutch (and that includes most teachers on most days), but we should also be talking about the big engines that stand back and claim that their privilege is a shiled against any obligation to help pull the weight of making society work. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Betsy DeVos Goes Full Trump: Kuyper, Arrows and the Unholy Mob

Generally, when education secretary Betsy DeVos makes a public appearance, you get a rehash of the same old talking points. But put her in front of a friendly, like-minded audience, and she may just let her hair down and let 'er rip, giving us all a clearer picture of what she's really got going on upstairs. 

That just happened this week as DeVos made an appearance at Hillsdale College. Hillsdale College, a super-conservative, uber-Christianish, Euro-centric college in Michigan, known for its strong resistance to federal anything and special treatment for any non-white non-traditional folks. They love Jesus and the free market with notable zeal. They have ties to both the Macinac Center and the Heartland Institute. They have a Charter School Initiative with a whole raft of charter schools (mostly "classical"), and a teacher prep program. In short, these are Betsy DeVos's people. 

DeVos's prepared remarks open with nods to Hillsdale's history of awesomeness, with special attention to how smart they've been to avoid getting help from the feds. And that lets her pivot to her current fave point--that the Covid crisis has "laid bare" all the Bad Stuff of US public education. 

"Sadly," she continues, "too many politicians heed the shrill voices of the education lobby and ignore the voices of children, parents, teachers and health experts who are begging to get our students back to learning."  Not Betsy-- she's a fighter, fighting for students and parents and against anyone who wants the government to be "parents to everyone."

Now she pivots to world history, and a chapter that is actually new--and revealing.

DeVos wants to talk about a guy long associated with her beliefs, named Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was a 19th century Dutch theologian/politician who also founded his own newspaper. He was a staunch opponent of modernism in theology, aka the idea that the interpretation of scripture should take modern science, knowledge and ideas into account. He's the granddaddy of Dutch Reformed Church. In the Netherlands, he put together a Christian political party, and pushed the idea of "common grace," the idea that Christian faith should permeate every aspect of daily life. The State, he asserted, must take into account the Bible. Christ should be the Lord over nations, not just the church. And the government should not discriminate between funding secular institutions and religious ones. I am seriously short-handing the work of a guy who was an extraordinarily prodigious writer, but you see why DeVos is a fan. 

DeVos, like others, sees Kuyper as a guy who stood up to those modern ideas that came out of the French Revolution (sometimes we call them the Enlightenment). There's some debate about whether or not we can lump Kuyper in with the Dominionists, the folks who think Christians are supposed to take charge of society's institutions until Christ returns, but here's what DeVos says to the Hillsdale crowd:

Kuyper asserted that the way forward was to separate education from partisan politics. He said that “the family, the business, science, art, and so forth are all social spheres which do not owe their existence to the state and which do not derive the law of their life from the state.” And so, Kuyper argued, “the state cannot intrude [into these spheres] and has nothing to command in their domain.”

The family, says DeVos, should be embraced as the "sovereign sphere,"  the font of all institutions, government, art. athletics, business, science, education, music, and generally all culture. This strikes me as an argument that's much more appealing if your family is a bunch of billionaires. For DeVos, the Founders said "we the people" govern because "we know what's best for ourselves, and for our children." What are we to make of the fact that the Founders thought "we the people" meant white land-owning makes? DeVos isn't going there. Instead

Our schools exist because we pay for them. So, we should be empowered to spend our education dollars our way on our kids.

There are a couple of points to address here, but I want to underline something important here. Arguing the various aspects of school choice with folks in the DeVosian camp can be frustrating, like trying to nail jello to the wall, because their arguments shift and change. There's a fundamental inconsistency to many of their points (like, say, a woman who admires a 19th century guy who opposed "modern ideas," but who criticizes schools for using a 100-year-old model). That's because there's really only one reason they believe school choice is right--because they believe it is. Whether or not choice schools would be better at educating or provide more equity or higher test scores--all of that is beside the point. I suspect that DeVos and her crew feel like the folks who say, "I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people," only for them it's "I don't know how to explain to you that tax dollars should fund religious schools as directed by families, and if you are one of those secular humanist government types, I don't really want to." 

In DeVos's statement, those personal pronouns are doing a lot of work-- especially the "our education dollars" part. Because the tax dollars that have been collected from citizens do not belong to the parents of school age children. Calling those tax dollars parent dollars slides us past one of the inherent problems of school choice. Imagine if, instead of having the government do it for them, parents had to knock on the doors of their neighbors to collect "their" education dollars. Here's Betsy DeVos knocking on the door of that nice gay married couple up the street: "Pardon me, but I'd like you to contribute several hundred dollars so that I can send my child to a school to learn that you and your spouse are going to burn in hell for eternity." 

Next she brings a little joy to Jeanne Allen's world by stealing Allen's favorite image. "I like to picture kids with their backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn." 

Now she's jumping to cost, citing $739 billion for US taxpayers. That's $15K per student, and she inserts this whopper:

Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: “I could educate my child for 15 thousand dollars per year!”

Nope. Certainly not if you're a parent of a child with special needs. Not if you intend to send them to an upscale private school. And we're not just talking about school tuition--consider all the add-ons like uniforms, transportation, in some cases lunch, plus any other extra treats. 

DeVos cites a survey from RealClear Opinion; she neglects to mention that the survey was sponsored by her pro-choice charity, American Federation for Children, and nothing I could find indicates how the respondents were selected. But DeVos waves these results as proof of choice's inevitability. And DeVos says she's just getting started. She's spent half her life on this: "More than 30 years of time and treasure devoted to giving all kids the same opportunities my own kids had."

Well, again, no. There's very little she could do to provide other children the opportunities available to the children of billionaire heirs and heiresses, though of course paying taxes (rather than sheltering assets) wouldn't hurt. Or demanding that her local school district boundaries be redrawn to better mix wealthy and not-so-wealthy families. But none of that is what she means by "opportunities." She means something more along the lines of the opportunity to be shielded from the government and instead attend a properly Godly school. 

And here's the other thing. Private schools, homeschooling--that's always been available. Parents are free to choose--what we're really talking about is having other taxpayers pay for it, like saying "I think I should have private security for my home, and I think the Army should provide it."

She says she's been working to "reform" education since soon after President Carter "bent to the demands of big union bosses" and created the Department of Education.  A department she will now proceed to disparage.

If you haven't been inside, you "haven't missed much." She's seen what the department focuses on, and "let me tell you, it's not on students." Rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting the system. And I'm not one to exalt the wonders of bureaucratic systems, but this is a point that DeVos seems incapable of understanding--not every family is led by caring billionaires who can protect their children from anything and everything. And no, the free market won't look out for all those children, either. But even now, as we face an unprecedented threat of disease, DeVos insists that providing leadership, guidance or even data to meet that challenge is not her problem. It's a reminder that another way to say, "Families, you are free to choose whatever" is "Families, we wash our hand of you. You are on your own."

And now, having rejected and slammed the system, DeVos will cite evidence from the system--the NAEP test results, results that she has misrepresented before and so she now simply says that two third's of US students "can't read like they should," which means nothing. 

She throws in an unsourced unsubstantiated but touching story about an illiterate child, notes that prisons are full of illiterate folks, and then she does something that is, actually, unusual for Betsy DeVos-- she mixes in some usual baloney with some flat-out lies.

She says that she's been trying to put herself out of a job from Day One (probably true). So they "restored state, local and family control of education by faithfully implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act" (okay, it's highly debatable that ESSA does that), by ending Common Core (nope, that's just a lie--there's not even some twisted means by which she could honestly believe that's true), and by "urging" Congress to combine K-12  programs into one grant ("urging" is not doing). They expanded vouchers in DC. They "supported" the creation of more charter schools (by using the same faulty grant program that has been used for years). They "joined" the pro-choice folks backing Espinoza v. Montana (thoughts and prayers). And she is still trying to find a way to shoot some pandemic relief money to private schools. 

She'll plug Tim Scott's School Choice Now shtick, the slightly mutated version of her Education Freedom scholarship tax credit scheme that has failed to fly for four years. She ties it to Scott, though it's co-sponsored by Lamar Alexander, but Scott's rags to riches story provides better optics than Alexander's riches-to-more-riches story. More freedom, choices and funds, says Betsy

The “Washington knows best” crowd really loses their minds over that. They seem to think that the people’s money doesn’t belong to the people. That it instead belongs to “the public,” or rather, what they really mean—government.

Two issues here. One is that it's not Washington, but your local elected-from-among-the-taxpayers school board that gets cut off at the knees by choice programs. The other is, again, the issue of whose money. Because it does in fact belong to "the public." It was collected from them for the express purpose of providing an education for everyone--a task that no choice system attempts to undertake. She is upset at the immorality of a government that says, "all yours is mine," but she does not propose an actual alternative. In the DeVosian universe, parents who want to send their kids to exclusive private religious schools still get to tell their neighbors, "I'm having the government collect money from you so that Junior can go to Straight White Academy." 

This is in addition to the same old never-addressed choice problem which is the disenfranchisement of childless taxpayers. Don't have a kid in school? Then you get no voice at all in how public tax dollars for education are spent. 

But let's move on, because DeVos would now like to attack Kids These Days.

Too many today—especially among our rising generation—don’t seem to understand the dangers of such a view. They somehow have come to believe that socialism is the cure, not the deadly disease it really is.

Tragically, it’s because no one has taught them differently. And worse, some have been indoctrinated to believe not in themselves, but in government.

Yup, it's entirely the teachers and schools, and not, say, the visible, palpable and painful ways that market based ideology has failed an entire generation. History shows us the best way to beat back socialism within this country--a robust demonstration, shared by all citizens, of the power and rewards of market capitalism. But no-- definitely socialist indoctrinators in the classroom (because teachers have so much time for that). 

And that's not all that schools can be blamed for: "America’s cities ablaze today witness a failure to teach the things that make the American experiment work."

And now, DeVos is going to go Full Trump-- They're coming for you!!

So, the unholy mob thinks our economies need redistributing. It thinks our Constitution needs rewriting. It thinks our families need restructuring. One prominent group was explicit about its desire to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.”

That’s taken right from the old Marxist playbook. It admits the goal is to “[do] away with private property and [educate] children on a communal basis, and in this way [remove] the two bases of traditional marriage.”

Even Marxists know the family is it. The family is at the center of our economy, of education, of culture—and it’s under attack today.

Damn that unholy mob. She also invokes the evil attacks on Amy Coney Barrett's "big" family. Because family family family family. Which, you know, would mean more perhaps if the US weren't among the worst countries in the world for family leave to take care of newborns and this administration weren't trying hard to shred the safety net for struggling families. But the attempt to invoke the sanctity of the family loses much of its power when it is not attached to any attempts to actually help families through any means other than insuring that they have the "freedom" to sink or swim and their needs are always subordinate to the needs of business and corporations (why have they lost their faith in the free market, again?)

But DeVos-channeling-Trump is still on a tear. Conservatives are under attack everywhere in the social medias places thingies. Cancel culture! Censorship! Those who talk "tolerance" are so intolerant! And "this environment makes it harder to protect principle."

But protect them we must! Kuyper said "arrows do not exist simply to be kept in the quiver" and DeVos says not to shrink from that metaphor. "Moms know what I mean. We know what to do with an arrow when our family is under attack." Which I guess is the DeVosian 19th century version of a Trumpian call to go mess up our opponents. 

[Update: Adam Laats points out there's another layer here. 
It's WAY worse than [that]. It is about using women as "quivers" to birth new champions for Christ.
Put together with the support of Barrett's family, yeah, this is something. You may have heard the term "quiverfull" before; you can read a bunch more here.]

So, says DeVos, let's challenge the culture--with education. "Because we don't believe in retreat. We believe in redemption." Boy, I would love to sit down with her and try to unpack that. Before we can redeem people, we have to kick their asses? This mix of violent get-out-the-arrows confrontation with redemption language is--well, I was raised Methodist, and I don't recognize this language. And then:

Let’s begin by reasserting this fundamental truth: the family is the “first school.” If we recognize that, then we must also reorder everything about education around what the family wants and what the family needs.

Let's please not stop with education. Let's reorganize health care and health insurance around what families need and want. Let's reorganize business and the economy around what they need and want. Let's rewrite some of the rules so that families can share in the nation's prosperity instead of hanging on for dear life on the bottom end of the biggest income/wealth gap in the history of civilization. And, by the way, let's talk about "families" instead of "the family," thereby recognizing the many rich and varied forms that family takes in this country.

Don't check out yet. If you needed one more clear statement about what DeVos wants, she's using it for her wrap up:

We are families. Education is our sovereign sphere and we are taking it back!

"Sovereign sphere" is Kuyper, and it refers to the idea that some spheres of society should be free of government involvement. The refrain is also familiar in conservative Christian circles with the idea that schools need to be "taken back" from the government. Everything else DeVos says about education is window dressing and attempts to win the argument; at heart, that's the simple goal.