Monday, November 30, 2020

The 2020 Edubook Christmas List

Time to go hunting for books for the people on your Christmas list, and I have some recommendations for you if there are people on your list who care about public education (and really, everybody should). 

Before we start shopping, let me also direct your attention to, an online vendor set up to benefit local independent booksellers instead of, say, giving Jeff Mezos his next gazillion dollars. You can also use it to locate a local bookstore and then shop even more directly. 

Now, here's my handful or recommendations for this year.

Black Lives Matter In School

This book does not actually ship for another week, but based on the fact that it's edited by Jesse Hagopian and Denisha Jones, my copy is already on order. 

Know Your Price  

Andre Perry brings a really unique collection of hats to this work, from Brookings scholar to education journalist, and this work is an impressive distillation of it all. At some points, it's a powerful personal reflection on his own experience, and at others, a scholarly look at how Blacks in the US have had value systematically stripped from them in ways that have lasting financial and social consequences. This book is huge help in understanding the how of racism in not just abstract or social ways, but in concrete, practical financial ways. 

Schoolhouse Burning & The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door

Schoolhouse Burning by Derek Black and A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider are two entirely separate books, but they make a perfect pairing. It enhances both to read them back to back.

Black is a legal scholar whose book traces the importance of education in this country as reflected in the laws and constitutions of the states. This book is a perfect response to those who claim that public education is not in the US Constitution and is not foundational to democracy and anyway we are a republic. A good, clear explanation of how we arrived at the present moment, and why an assault on public education is an assault on democracy.

Schneider, an education scholar, and Berkshire, an education journalist, together host the popular Have You Heard podcast. They have crafted a critical explanation of how the once-right-fringe idea of privatizing public education has become an accepted mainstream policy idea, and lay out the tools being used to further that cause. 

I've just reviewed both of these over at you can read those reviews here and here.

Slaying Goliath  

And if you want to make it a trilogy, here's the perfect follow up. Way back at the dawn of this year, Diane Ravitch published her latest book. Slaying Goliath focuses on the fight against education disruptors and the many signature battles of the last few decades. Highlighting the many aspects of the grassroots fight to preserve public ed and the forces arrayed against it in Ravitch's trademark scholarly firebrand style, this shows how the fight to preserve the bedrock of democracy can be won and argues passionately that it must. Ravitch's blog has long stood as the town square, the hub of the universe of public education supporters, and it gives her an unmatched view of the movement in all its forms.

Why They Can't Write

John Warner's book is admittedly of greatest use to those who actually teach writing in the classroom, but that's a subject near and dear to my heart, and this book says so many of the things I believe need to be said about teaching writing, and why it has become an endangered art, and how we could better approach it. 

A Practical Guide to Digital Research  

If you're buying a gift for someone who has been studying up on the basics of the education debates and who wants to be able to get in their and dig out information on their own, particularly to research local ed issues, this book is the berries. Schneider shares all the tricks of the researcher's trade for making connections between groups, following the money, and getting at the truth that is so often being concealed. 

And if we cheat a little and dip into last year:

Winners Take All  

Anand Giridharadas's book is now just over a year old, but if you haven't read it yet, you should. Everybody should. Beyond the red versus blue politics of our era, this book looks at how the elites trained in places like McKinsey have come to make such a mess out of this country. Really--everybody you know should read this book. And now that you've waited, you can get it in paperback.

How the Other Half Learns   

Robert Pondiscio's book about Success Academy shows that this charter juggernaut is both better and worse than you imagined. If you want a solid, serious look at how the grand dame of charterdom really does her thing, this book gives you a hard look, even with Pondiscio's preference for choice.

After the Education Wars   

From earlier in 2019, Andrea Gabor's book is still one of the best looks at the best and worst of education reform; the early pioneers, the big successes, and the big failures. Here's how to improve a public school system without breaking it down for parts and selling off the scrap. 

The Testing Charade

I'm reaching all the way back to 2017, but as arguments about standardized testing heat up again, this book still offers the definitive explanation of what is wrong with our test-centric approach, what is wrong with tests themselves, and why the testocrats' preferred path to drag us all down is the wrong one. Required reading for anyone who expects to be in an argument about the Big Standardized Test.

I could go on all day, and there is so much to choose form out there that I have no doubt missed some worthy choices, but you've now got enough of a list to get some shopping done, whether it's cyber-shopping today or in the weeks ahead. 

Donors Choose Monday: Expanding the Library

This week's project is exactly the sort of thing that shouldn't be on donors choose. 

Mrs. Gibson is an elementary teacher in South Carolina, and she's looking to expand her classroom library.

My students are living in a low income area where literacy is our focus in order to meet the needs they may not be receiving at home.

My focus is to bring in books that we help them connect with other cultures within the world and the school setting to help them become culturally competent and aware.

A classroom teacher should not have to go begging for books, and yet, here we are. I've made this comparison before--tips should not be a necessary part of a food server's income, but if I refuse to tip as a protest against the system, I'm just being a jerk and the people who get hurt are not the people perpetuating the system. 

So my dream is a world in which South Carolina funds public education properly and Mrs. Gibson and all the teachers like her have the classroom libraries they need. But in the meantime I can either complain about the problem or take a simple step to improve even one small corner of the universe. So I'm giving a tiny little donation to this project, and I encourage you to do the same.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

ICYMI: Long Weekend Edition (11/29)

Thanksgiving was not so bad at our house; the board of directors had a lovely time and I was able to talk to both grown children. So we'll call it a win. In the meantime, people keep writing stuff and I have some of it here for you to read.

How a Bad Bill Becomes a Bad Law   

Sharon Murchie is an English teacher in Michigan, and she decided to go find out how, exactly, the sausage that is one of Michigan's cyber school laws was made. Her patience and thoroughness are inspirational; how the sausage was actually made is not. 

Ten Things I Used To Think   

Nancy Flanagan looks at some things that, after the past few years, well, not so much. A thought-provoking list.

Bad Education  

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider wrote a review of Doug Harris's New Orleans reform book for Commonweal Magazine, and here it is. Smart and on point and informed by actual first-hand knowledge of NOLA as well as her expertise as a data-cruncher. 

How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism   

A New Yorker piece that wouldn't have anything to do with education if it weren't for all the venture capitalists who are mucking about in the ed biz. Here's why those folks should be sent packing.

The Biden Cabinet

Grumpy Old Teacher blogs about the job requirements for a new secretary of education. Also, balm in Gilead.

Selling Ed Tech as Philanthropy

Thomas Ultican peels back some layers of this philanthro-marketing onion

Minnesota school custodian gets gift of from a teacher

A legitimately heart-warming story about a third-grade teacher's sacrifice for one of her co-workers.

US public school enrollment drops as pandemic persists

Axios with some news (cribbed from the New York Times and others) that will surprise absolutely nobody.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

No, There Really Doesn't Need To Be A Big Spring Test In 2021

Many folks fear that schools will not trot out the Big Standardized Tests this spring, that neither the pony nor the dog will be called on to perform. Among those people, you can count Chester E. Finn, Jr., Big Boss Emeritus of the Fordham Institution and former player in the U.S. ed department; nowadays he serves the Hoover Institution (ever a source of reliable and not-at-all misleading info) as a senior fellow. 

Finn popped up in the Washington Post this week to make his case that we just really so much need the BS Tests this year. I remain unconvinced. In all fairness, as regular readers know, I'm not convinced that we need them ever, but especially not this year. But let's hear Finn out.

He notes that this will be one of the first calls the Biden administration will have to make (though hours after Finn's argument went live, Betsy DeVos called to postpone the NAEP aka "the nation's report card" for a year). Finn also admits that cancelling last year's BS Tests made sense, but only because students weren't in school so they couldn't take the tests. 

But don’t think for a moment that such diversions of the student data stream are without cost. The results from those state assessments are the main source of information about school performance and about pupil learning in the core subjects of the K-12 curriculum. The results also indicate whether America’s appalling — and persistent — achievement gaps are getting any narrower.

First, we need to fill in some blanks here. "The main source of information about school performance and about pupil learning" is doing a lot of work--what information, who is the information for, and what is it for? We skip over this constantly, or more commonly lump a bunch of end users and purposes together, but a test needs to have a very specific purpose and creates data for a very specific use. One of the reasons the BS Tests mostly stink is because they are trying to do a dozen different things at once. Are they to help teachers refocus or help administrators reconfigure curriculum or help bureaucrats apportion support or help think tanks analyze stuff? Because despite testocrats' belief in magical testing properties, a test can't do all that at once. 

Second, if the purpose is, in fact, to unlock the secrets of the "achievement gap" (aka "test score gap"), there's bad news. We already have tons of data, and absolutely no concensus about what it means. The researchers who do nothing but examine the gappage cannot agree on whether it is growing or shrinking or just sitting quietly doing needlepoint. 

Finn says the test results are "the foundation of a school-performance measurement structure" that the US has been "painstakingly constructing" since A Nation at Risk in 1983. So many problems here. First, as laid out by Anya Kamanetz and others, ANAR was not an honest attempt to assess the state of public ed, but an attempt to build a case that public ed is broken and needs a big Reaganesque makeover. It was the opening shot in the conservative initiative toi unmake public education, and so the school performance structure that Finn lionizes was built to do the same--show that schools are failing and teachers stink etc etc etc for 35 years. 

Now, remember what I said about how a test can't be built and used for many different purposes? Here comes Finn:

The information from the tests is used at every level of the system. It enables parents to see how their children are faring on an “external” metric, beyond the grades conferred by their teachers, and it helps principals assess how their schools are doing. The results also equip superintendents to gauge what must be done to boost district-wide achievement, and they furnish state officials with the information needed to guide their assistance and interventions.

None of this is true. Parents get minor slivers of information about how their students did on a single math and reading test. Principals, like teachers, get fatally limited information too late to be particularly useful. Superintendents can gauge where test score improvements need to occur. And I will gladly hear stories about state officials who said, "Look at these test scores--we'd better pass some bills and move some resources so we can prop up that school right now." At best, test results lead to nothing in particular. At worst, they are used like hailing signals for vultures, bright neon blinking "Hey, this school is struggling, so we're about to strip it of resources. All you charter and private schools, come on down--it's mealtime."

Finn asserts that schools were unprepared to serve students in the fall without that critical data, but here's the thing--the BS Test data is commonly not available in the fall of a normal year. Nor is it useful for anything that happens in September. The most normal--maybe the only normal--part of this fall has been teachers saying, "Okay, time to use my battery of formal and informal assessments to figure out where these individual students are." 

He's right in suggesting that this school year is going to be messy and sucky and students are going to make anywhere from slightly less to a whole lot less progress than they would have in a country without Covid (or with a decent governmental response to it).  

How will parents and teachers know which students need the most catch-up in which subjects? Who has the greatest need for summer school or tutoring? And how will district and state leaders know which schools coped better and worse?

Several problems here. First, "catching up" implies that there is some objectively determined line that students should be meeting. Catching up to what? Behind what? Every single thing that describes "where students should be" is a construct, a made-up measurement that encourages some students to think of themselves as damaged or deficient. 

Second, here we meet once again the great paradox of modern ed reform. We should have choice, because parents know best what their children need, but we should have tests, because without them, parents have no idea how their children are doing. 

Third, district leaders will know the same way they've always known. And state leaders? Well, what exactly do state leaders need to know, and why? I am a big believer in accountability of some sort; as a taxpayer, I want to know that my money is being well spent. But do BS Tests supply state leaders with actionable data? And if so, what sorts of action do they take? Because history tells us that state leaders mostly don't do much that helps.

Just look at the current pandemic mess. State (and federal) leaders could have rushed a small mountain of money to help open schools more safely. Or they could have mobilized resources over the summer to help schools prepare to more effectively handle distance learning. Mostly, they didn't do either. Nor is the decades-long history of test-centered schooling marked by states rushing to the aid of schools that ended up on the low side of the scoring continuum. Mostly low test results have marked schools with a scarlet P, for privatization, because the BS Tests have not been used as tools for help so much as instruments of punitive policy--get your scores up or lose resources. Low test scores have not been treated as a cry for help, but as an excuse for punishment. Nor have the Great Turnaround Experts turned out to be particularly good at turning schools around.

So when you tell me that state leaders need to see those test results, I'm going to ask why? What do they want to know? What do they plan to do? Do Michigan's leaders really need to see test results to know that Detroit schools are having problems? And if state leaders really have a desire to improve schools, is a one-time, narrowly-focused, poorly-designed standardized test really the best way to find out what they need to know? (Spoiler alert: no). 

Finn is sure that there's a disaster brewing, and there's no question that schools are having a rough year of it and consequently students are not getting the kind of educational year that would better serve everyone. Testocrats like Finn are certain that we can't possibly address this without testing measurements. "America," Finn says, "won't know how bad the damage is or what needs fixing." Well, "America" is a pretty broad, unclear term. It's teachers and parents who are actually doing the work, and they've mostly been left on their own to do it. 

And in a year when time is going to be a precious commodity, every single element of the school year has to be questioned--does this help my students move forward? BS Testing does not meet that measure. There are better, more important things for teachers to be doing than getting students prepped for the test and then administering it. And if "America" wants to know how things are going, I suggest that they ask the people who are doing the work. In fact, I suggest that state and federal leaders  (and thinky tank gurus as well) get out of their offices and go ask teachers and parents, "What do you need? What can I do to help?" I am betting that nobody is going to answer, "Please, oh please, can you make sure that we give the Big Standardized Test this spring."

Friday, November 27, 2020

School Marketing Is A Thing-- But Not A Good One

When school choice advocates tout their vision for the future, it has tended to be a picture of parents soberly examining hard data about possible schools in order to select the "best" or "most fitting." But if folks are going to great education like a commodity, then it's going to be sold like toasters or breakfast cereal or panty hose. And that means--


There is no sector of the free market where folks just make their product and let it speak for itself. The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. But while schools are staffed with lots of people who know education, school marketing is mostly not their thing. And so school choice ignites a burgeoning industry--the school marketing companies.

I've been getting peppered on Facebook by ads from Schola Inbound Marketing. The company is run by Ralph Cochran, a "leading national Christian school growth marketing authority." He went to college at Grove City College, a private Christian-ish school just up the road from me, then worked at AT&T in sales, then moved to sales in health equipment company Syncromode, then sales for American Real Estate Investors. He ran Dominion Ventures, a manufactured home company. He's now a co-founder of Turley Talks ("a new conservative age is rising") and since 2012 he's been president of Schola. So, zero experience in education, but over two decades in the marketing game.

His company promises that he'll show your school how to "Stand Out, Build Trust and Boost Enrollment" and "supercharge your school's website." Plus how to enroll more "mission-driven parents and students." This particular outfit is aimed at "Christian Schools Looking To Grow Online." Yes, one of the secrets is lots of capital letters.

Schola is just the tip of the invisible hand's little finger. If I google "school marketing company," I immediately see four companies that have bought google ad space. 

Now, some of these, like Doublepositive Marketing, are aimed primarily at the post-secondary world, and colleges and universities have been playing this game for a long time. The language is, well--something. Doublepositive promises that they "grow institutions through award-winning channel management expertise, extensive industry experience, thought leadership, proprietary front-end technology, agile reporting, and obsessive focus on data-driven student acquisition."

Others, like Single Grain are focused on "growing your online education business." They promise "HIGH-ROI Online Marketing Campaigns," and their satisfied customers include Treehouse ande Khan Academy. 

Here's Truth Tree Consulting--offering "edge-defining excellence for preschools, private schools, summer camps, and more." They want you to remind you that mom and dad may know who you are, but do you want to leave that to chance?

Sonority Group does both education marketing and business growth consulting. They want you to know "Schools that are leveraging technology, processes, and content are connecting with their prospective students in authentic ways. In today's education landscape, hard-sell marketing and admissions strategies are a thing of the past." 

Kreative Webworks has been "assisting Charter schools and Private schools meet their enrollment goals since 2011." Straight North notes that "with voucher school programs popping up in districts across the country," the field is becoming "increasingly competitive." And eduMedia claims to be the largest school marketing agency in the US.

The Clutch website offers a ranked list of education advertising and marketing agencies and there are 1,181 firms on that list!

Agencies seem to focus primarily on getting enrollment up. They offer to optimize web presence and talk a lot about "telling your story" and reinforcing your brand. None that I saw described a program built around a straight reporting of test scores or academic excellence.

Looking through all this, a couple of things strike me. One is that the industry is so big--big enough to represent another constituency for school choice, because if the country just focused on improving and supporting the public school system, most of these folks would be looking for a new gig. 

In their new book A Wolf At The Schoolhouse Door (a book you should buy right now), Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider devote a whole chapter to school marketing, and it underlines what my simple online poking suggests, which is that 1) it is pervasive and 2) there is a mountain of money disappearing down this golden toilet. We are not even getting into the charter school companies that do all of this stuff in house (because they are, in fact, businesses, and what good business doesn't have a marketing division?)

But so much money. So much money that isn't being spent on educating students. So much money that, in many cases, came from taxpayers who thought they were paying taxes to educate young humans and not to put up snazzy billboards and shoot slick webmercials. 

There's more to consider. In the private sector, sales and marketing can become a tail that wags the dog, with the sales department dictating what products should be created and what features should be included not because that's what would be best, but because it's what the marketing department believes it can sell. If your widget company defines its mission not as designing widgets or building widgets, but instead as selling widgets, you start to get all sorts of things backwards. 

In the end, I have to believe that a big, busy school marketing industry is a bad sign for the health of education--public and private--in this country. When the invisible hand is more pre-occupied with enrolling children than educating them, everyone suffers. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

FL: Big Brother Is Watching Your Child

Eyebrows shot up around the country this week as the Tampa Bay Times reported on how the Pasco County Sheriff's Office keeps a secret list of "at-risk" kids who could “fall into a life of crime." Creating the list involves the office collecting and factoring a whole bunch of different you-probably-thought-they-were-confidential records, including records from the school district and from the state's Department of Children and Families. 

"We have an agreement with the Sheriff's Office," the superintendent said in an interview with the Times. "The agreement requires them to use (the data) for official law enforcement purposes. I have to assume that's exactly what they are using it for."

Low grades? Absenteeism? Violence in the home? You may well be flagged as a possible future criminal. The Sheriff's Office has a whole manual. And a list, with 420 names on it. And none of the families connected to the names knows a thing about it. This is not a targeted search, where someone is concerned about Pat McStudent; this is a blanket sweep of the entire list of records from the various institutions.

Mark Lieberman at EdWeek did some checking to see if this practice is illegal (if you're old enough, you may remember when FERPA protected students from this kind of thing). The answer seems to be "Maybe, but that's sure not what the writers of relevant federal law had in mind." 

The Pasco County list should not have come as a surprise. In fact, the only surprise would be if no other Florida counties are engaged in similar activity. Here's why.

Back in 2018, Florida passed the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. After that horrific school shooting, one of the pieces of conventional wisdom is that somebody should have spotted and intercepted shooter Nikolas Cruz before he became a mass murderer. If we had a single integrated data system that collected and collated data from schools, state agencies, and social media, and then ran it all through some super-duper computer algorithm, we could stop the next Cruz before he happened.

So Florida opened up the Office of Safe Schools and put in place the tools for both increased school security and increased student surveillance. I'm not sure that anyone knows exactly how far the data hoovering has gotten, because it was all meant to be super-top-secret, but the full concept makes the Pasco Sheriff look like a slacker. 

Mind you, there's not a shred of evidence that such a Future Crimes Bureau actually works. There's plenty of evidence that a program like this would disproportionately affect the same students who are disproportionately hit by school discipline and law enforcement, i.e. the non-wealthy, Black, and brown students. 

The bad effects of such a program, beyond the plain old violation of privacy, are many, from turning student-school relationships adversarial to having students haunted through their entire lives by incidents from their childhood. This type of program puts a whole new ugly weight behind, "Careful, or this will go on your permanent record."

So it's good that the Times did this story, and it's good that people are freaking out about it, but my advice to friends in Florida would be to keep digging, because if the state did what they promised to do a few years ago, this Pasco business is just the tip of the iceberg. In the meantime, read the full Times report to see just how ugly, unjust, and intrusive that iceberg is.

Donors Choose Belated Monday: Orff and Robots

Okay, so I got caught up in the business of holiday stuff and pandemic surge, and I forgot to post Monday. But I am continuing with making a modest weekly contribution to some classroom somewhere in this country. As I've said before, Donors Chose shouldn't be a thing because schools should be fully funded, but in the meantime, individual teachers in individual classrooms can use a hand. This is doubly true in pandemic times, when pretty much no districts are investing the extra money needed to really pull this off.

So here's a simple way to help. I'll share with you my classroom of the week, and you can help with that one, or pick another one (last time somebody followed me onto the site and funded the entire project, which was cool). 

I'm doing two this week.

The first is from the school just right up the road where many of my friends teach. In this rural-ish area, robotics have really caught fire, but a lot of the emerging programs are operating on shoestring budgets. This particular elementary group needs some cases for transporting robots and equipment to competitions. I don't know this particular teacher, but I do know that these robot events are a huge amount of fun and have really allowed some students to find a niche that they might not otherwise have found. 

Meanwhile, out in Kansas, a teacher would like a set of Orff instruments for his K-5 elementary school. These are a great introduction to music for young students and a way for music learning to enrich their days even if they aren't destined to become future professionals.

It's a small thing, but I'm a big believer in doing small things to make the world slightly less sucky, so as always you are invited to join me in making a small contribution in a classroom somewhere.

Internet Data Caps Are Coming

If you are a Comcast customer in the Northeast US, changes are coming. 

2021 will bring caps for home internet customers in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia, and DC, as well as selected slices of North Carolina and Ohio.

There are reasons not to freak out. 

First, the cap is at 1.2 TB, which is a huge amount of data. Comcast says it's good for 21,600 hours of streaming music, 500 hours of streaming HD shows, 34,000 hours of online gaming, or 3,500 hours of video chatting. 

Second, for other parts of the country, this is not new. Comcast started capping accounts in other parts of the US way back in 2016

So, we're probably not looking at any sort of major issue right now.

However, as we contemplate the probable increased interest in internet-based schooling, it's a good time to remember that internet access is currently not free, not infinite, and not universal. 

If the Biden administration wants a goof internet policy project to tackle, let's look at pandemic schooling as a clear sign--again--that internet access should be a public utility, like water and electricity. It's way past time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The False God Data Fails Again

The dream of the Cult of Data is that for any issue, we simply design an instrument for collecting the data, analyze the Data, and select a solution suggested by the Data. Phrases like "data driven" or "data informed" are used to express the assumption that decisions backed by Data are inherently smarter, better, stronger, and wiser than Those Other Kinds of decisions. 

But what if they aren't? What if Data doesn't actually solve anythung?

I've made this point before while writing about the NAEP, the gold standard, America's report card, the test that is supposed to give us data that is clear and clean and objective and allows us to make wise decisions. Except that it doesn't. The Data come out, the arguments follow, and the hard data from the NAEP test settles exactly nothing.

Now here we go again. 

Matt Barnum, my personal favorite Chalkbeat reporter, took a look at a recent gathering of education experts who wanted to look at a simple question- are the gaps in test scores between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy closing? Seems straightforward, and yet...

No one could answer the question. Or, more precisely, no one could agree on the answer. One researcher claimed the gap was growing, another said it was shrinking, and a third argued that it hadn’t changed much in decades.

It depends. It depends on which Data you look at, which data you trust, which data represents what you think it represents. And as Barnum points out, this is a particularly remarkable question to be stumped by, because the test score gap (aka "the achievement gap") has been on research radar for decades. Guys like Eric Hanushek and Tom Kane (both part of this confab) have made a career out of playing with this question. By this point, they ought to be pretty good at capturing, collecting, and crunching these particular Data.

And yet, they aren't. There is still no agreement about what the data shows about the test score gap. Nor do we have any data showing that closing the test score gap would have real life-improving effects for those on the bottom side of the gap.

Let me repeat-- we have a whole lot of Data, especially testing Data, and yet we still don't know the answer to that question. Data has not solved the problem, or even clarified exactly what the problem looks like. 

Mind you, the term "data" as used by members of the Data Clan has a specific meaning--numerical standard items collected through "objective" means. So even though a classroom teacher collects tens of thousands of data points every day, those don't count because they aren't Data. It is only magical Data that can save us, can provide clarity and certainty about what is happening. Except that it's not working. Just as it didn't work for things like data-driven staffing decisions, where we would just use VAM-soaked data to distinguish the good teachers from the bad. 

There's much to discuss here, but I want to keep my point short and clear--

Keep in mind how the False God Data keeps failing the next time somebody insists that we must test students this year, maybe even right now, because testing will get us the Data we need to know how students are doing, what learning they've "lost," and where the new gaps are. It's not going to work. It's going to waste time and money and time, and in the end all we'll have are some experts staring at strings of numbers and shrugging their shouders.

Monday, November 23, 2020

What Is The Actual Purpose of Social and Emotional Learning

I'm increasingly convinced that one of the reasons social and emotional learning (SEL) is such a matter of contention in education (and it has been, every time it has been it has been brought up under one guise or another) is that it requires us to look at the places where education bumps up against the really big questions-- what is the purpose of education? why are we here? what is our purpose? what is the meaning of life? That stuff.

SEL advocates generally back away from that, and it leads to discussions of SEL that are ridiculous. 

Here's CASEL, the big mac daddy of the SEL biz, listing the benefits of SEL, in order: academic outcomes and improved behaviors, long-term improvement in academics and conduct problems, 11;1 return on investment, reduce poverty (as in the poverty of individuals as in you'll make more money), improves life outcomes (eg not being on waiting list for public housing).

Lots of folks like to cite a research finding that SEL "improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points, which is an odd thing to tout; since percentiles are rankings, if everybody received this benefit, nobody would receive this benefit. 

Even when research is more well-balanced, many folks writing about that research tend to focus on things like how SEL will "have long-term academic benefits on students' reading and vocabulary" and that it might "assist in closing achievement gaps." 

You may be asking what the heck I'm rattling on about. Aren't these all good things? And sure, they are. But there seems to be a huge disconnect here. 

Imagine, for instance, that we are discussing health. In fact, discussing the spread of Covid-19 through the population. Now imagine someone saying, "It's important that students remain healthy because good health raises test scores. Also, they can get a better job if they're healthy." I mean, that's not wrong, but are those really the reasons that we would prefer our children to be physically healthy? 

The implication, all too often, is that the point of having socially and emotionally healthy students is so that test scores will go up and they will be better employees, and I have to believe that human beings have a higher purpose than generating test scores and being a useful meat widget for some corporate enterprise. Too much of the SEL pitch ends up sounding like folks who are trying to make a utilitarian case for being happy and healthy, as if being happy and healthy couldn't possibly serve a purpose--or BE a purpose--on their own. No, I'm not going to argue that making yourself happy is your highest calling exactly, but that leads us into a rather long, deep discussion which we don't have room for here, but my point is that we're not even trying to have that discussion. Instead, we keep discussing SEL as a product that dovetails nicely with other products. That being a happy, healthy person of good character are only valuable because they make that person more useful to the folks in charge.

Here's a research project in Education Next, touting SEL and presenting a bit of a mix. It's a study of a collection of self-surveys of ninth graders in Chicago, and like any veteran high school teacher, my eyebrows went up at the ninth grader part, because when it comes to self-reporting social and emotional learning--well, they chose it because it's a transitional year of schooling and the point at which students are "most vulnerable to becoming off-track for high school graduation "due to too few credits.

This study looked at various schools and developed SEL "value-added" scores, which is an abomination because "I want my child to be happy and have a good character because it will make them more valuable" is not something any teacher or parent should say ever. Also, the researchers took the time to figure out that their made up SEL score was a better "predictor" of "behaviors that promote future success" than good old test based value-added baloney scores. So while there is much about this report that raises my hackles, I will give them this--they make a case for a way to expand the notion of a "good school" beyond "one with good test scores and high bogus VAM numbers." 

Their choice of "impacts" to look for include the usual bad cluster. On the one hand, I can almost see "impact on social well-being" as a worthy thing to look for. Chicago apparently muddies all this water by loading talking about both a social well-being index and a work habits index, with the latter focused exclusively on "useful meat widget" items like grit and academic effort.

The study finds that their SEL VAM work as well as test-based VAM in predicting test scores. They apply the word "intriguingly" here; I'm more inclined to note that this finding screams that both VAMs are the result of some other factor entirely.

There's a big fat chart entitles "High Schools That Promote Social-Emotional Development Also Improve Student Achievement" which of course just means that these schools have higher test scores. They also tie SEL to "long-term outcomes" by which they mean high school graduation and enrolling in college, as if socially and emotionally healthy people will, of course, go to college. 

Look, I am a big believer in the importance of SEL, just as I'm a big believer that every teacher ever has included SEL in their classroom intentionally or not because it can't be avoided (unless you, say, replace the teacher with a computer algorithm, but again, that's another conversation). I think it's hugely important. I think 95% of the "this teacher changed my life" stories in the world are primarily about SEL rather than actual content. 

But all that said, I hugely leery of attempts to quantify and formalize SEL in schools, especially when so much of what is being done is framed by the notion that SEL is important because it will raise test scores and get you a better job, as if becoming a healthy, happy, decent human being was not a worthwhile goal all by itself. 

Let me just append a poem here, from that great American SEL guy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on being asked what the point of a flower might be:

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

ICYMI: Here Comes Thanksgiving Edition

 Well, the holiday certainly feels heavily weighted this year, doesn't it. Will people get together? Will people die because they couldn't bear not to see Grampa cut the turkey? And how hard will it be for some folks to think of something to be thankful for? Yes, this is going to be a fun week.

In the meantime, here are some things to read. 

Public Schools. Public.

Nancy Flanagan makes a great plea for the value and preservation of public education. One more example of why I want to be her when I grow up.

Business Terms Used To Privatize Schools

Nancy Bailey with a very useful glossary of some business-speak that has been used to shape the conversation about public schools.

Digital Shock Doctrine   

Alex Gutentag at The Bellows looks at the pandemic digital boom in Californian and what it shows about the face of digital austerity. (Spoiler alert--it's not pretty).

Ed Tech Spending Rampaging in North Carolina   

Thomas Ultican takes a look at all the digital cashing in going on in NC. (Spoiler alert--it's not pretty).

Betsy DeVos Legacy (Civil Rights)

We're kind of drowning in these pieces, but as I've argued before, Betsy isn't going away, and it's a good idea to understand just who she is and what she wants. Rebecca Klein's entry into the genre is at HuffPost, and it's a good one.

How will DeVos be remembered?

Okay, one more of these. This time it's Cory Turner at NPR with a not-bad take on the DeVos legacy.

After four years of DeVos, what a Biden presidency will mean  

I try to stay away from most of these murky crystal ball pieces, but this is Joy Resmovits returning to the ed beat in the Seattle Times, so it's worth a look.

Cheating detection companies made millions during pandemic. Now students are fighting back.

At the Washington Pst, Drew Harwell takes a look at the new battles between surveillance companies and the students they're spying on (badly).

Why applications are plummeting at Florida universities

Akil Bello joins the gang at education with a story about how Florida is testing its own hjigher ed system into oblivion.

Study Challenges Use Of Test Scores To Gauge Teacher Effectiveness   

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brings us yet one more study showing that VAM is junk. SWhat a surprise! Still, a nice addition to the file.

Canceling Student Loan Debt; Just Do It   

John Warner at Inside Higher Ed makes the case for canceling college debt.

Are Test Score Gaps Growing?   

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat looks at the inability of researchers to agree on an answer to the question. You know that my answer is "Why should we care?" But it's still striking that we really don't know.

Stuck In It Until I Die   

Hechinger Reports has a sobering report about another side of college debt--Parent Plus loans are crushing folks who thought that sending their kids to college was the right thing to do. Wish someone had shown me this article a couple decades ago.

White female teacher bias shown in research   

Turns out that a lot of white lady teachers have some race-based bias problems. Hechinger Reports again. Some discouraging research results.

100 online shops to try instead of Amazon    

From the Sunshine Guerrilla blog, a look at alternatives to stuffing Jeff Bezos' pockets even more full of money.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Another Rich Guy Wants To Fix Education

 Joel Greenblatt is a hedge fund guy from NYC who, like many hedge fund guys, has it All Figured Out and occasionally writes books to share his insights with rest of us.

Of course, that includes education. It was Greenblatt and fellow Rich Guy John Petry who recruited Eva Moskowitz to take their little charter school, Harlem Success Academy, and turn it into the Success Academy juggernaut. They even came up with some creative means of paying her huge compensation.

Greenblatt's new book of wisdominess resulted in an interview with Michael Cannivet, a "markets" contributor at in which he explains the various topics he writes about ("I thought I could bring a fresh perspective to certain issues I care about"), and one, of course, is education.

In discussing his book of "common sense," Greenblatt includes some standard bromides, like "The biggest factor that unleashes upward mobility is education" which is a good example of conventional wisdom that isn't actually rooted in facts (I'm no Raj Chetty fan, but he has tackled the issue of mobility pretty effectively). Also, college grads earn more than high school diploma folks "so we've got to do better," and while the interview doesn't get into details, I'm guessing he doesn't mean "we need to unrig the system so that people on the bottom are better paid." 

But when it comes to education, there are lots of things that Greenblatt doesn't know. His idea is workaround solutions. He illustrates this with a riddle-- How do you beat Tiger Woods? Don't play him at golf.-- which is a pretty clever idea unless your whole point is to become a better golfer. I mean, this is a glib answer to the question "why is educational reform difficult," but I'm not entirely sure what it's supposed to mean. Education is hard, so do something other than educate students? 

But his idea is to do a "roundabout" when encountering certain roadblocks.

For instance, we know certain things do improve educational standards, like some of the best charter schools. I was one of the co-founders of Success Academy run by Eva Moskowitz. The results for the 20,000 kids in that program are phenomenal. As a group, their test scores exceed even the wealthiest districts. That’s a really good sign, because it says that with the right kind of supports, these kids can compete at the highest levels.

Well, no. Greenblatt surely must have read Robert Pondiscio's book about SA, but he may need to read it again, because it shows pretty clearly that one of SA's biggest secrets is creaming for families that are highly motivated and willing to comply with the charter's demands. Also, it's not clear which test scores he's referring to, because the Academy's students do well on the test they're prepped for, but tend to bomb all other exams. The few students who finally emerge from the heavy-attrition program actually haven't competed very well at the highest levels at all. Success Academy has accomplished some things with some students, but it's not the simple picture that Greenblatt draws here.

But Greenblatt is going on to note that charter schools serve a limited number of students, and the public schools have so much money, "it creates a maze of entrenched interests." That old argument. So Greenblatt wants to "an end-around the current system" and his idea is alternative certification.

He seems to mean some combo of competency based education and microcredentials, where you get little badges indicating you've proven you possess Skill X, having picked Skill X from a list of things that corporations want in hirees. The goal, as with many such systems, is to replace the public education system with a system for manufacturing worker bees and meat widgets made to corporate specs:

The best way to kickstart alternative certification would be getting top companies onboard. Major firms like JPMorgan, Amazon, and Google could help create more opportunities for high paying jobs by simply making public new hiring criteria they will use in lieu of a college degree to screen candidates for high paying jobs. They can come up with whatever certificates, courses or tests make the most sense for them and the positions they aim to fill.

And if you think I'm excessively snarky with my "manufacture meat widgets to specs" description, here's how Greenblatt responds to the question of how much this would cost government:

It wouldn’t cost the Federal government anything, because once a “buyer” is established for the people taking the certification tests or for those passing certain courses or receiving specified certificates, a natural ecosystem would begin to grow. Things like tutoring services and online resources would emerge and the network effects would snowball.

The free market would make it work. Of course, just like Success Academy, it would leave behind everybody who wasn't a good fit for this meat widget marketplace. But he's sure it would work, just like in that book by Clay Christensen, the disruptive innovation guy. 

There's more about other topics in a similar hedge fundie vein (social security should be replaced with individual accounts). There may be more subtlety and nuance to his education ideas, but he doesn't need my money and I don't want his book. There needs to be some sort of special name for Rich Guy Dunning-Kruger, where someone doesn't know what he doesn't know, doesn't feel the need to learn, and still gets to throw money around and write books like he's an expert. Greenblatt's a special case because his connection to Success Academy has given him the chance to learn a lot of useful things about education and apparently he just hasn't. That's unfortunate, particularly if he decides to launch another project. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Teaching Bad Test Prep Writing For Fun And Profit

This is the sort of thing that the Big Standardized Test has brought us--Top Score Writing.

TSW is the brain child and property of Lisa Collum, who bills herself as mompreneur. Collum graduated from Florida Atlantic University about 16 years ago and went to work in 2004 as a writing teacher in a Palm Beach County School District Title I school and the Florida Virtual School . She became concerned that the school didn't have a writing curriculum for her to implement, and she had trouble finding one, so she created lessons. So far that makes her exactly like the vast majority of teachers.

But then she turned it into a business. She turned that business into some other businesses, too-she bought a private school (Coastal Middle and High School). By 2012, she had left the classroom and was running her million-dollar business full time. She wants other women to know that they can have it all.

It's a heck of a story, for sure, and I'm glad that it stars someone who actually trained for and worked in a classroom. Her inspirational video says that you don't have to have business knowledge--just an idea you're passionate about. 

So what idea has made Collum successful? The aim of Top Score Writing is right there in the name. This is a program with a single, focused aim--to get students a high score on the writing portions of the Big Standardized Test.

To its credit, it doesn't really pretend to be about anything else. It doesn't promise that students will actually be better writers, but trumpets repeatedly and loudly that it will raise test scores. It is "certified" to increase test scores! It claims to be in five states and hundreds of schools. It is "trusted by" several Florida school districts, the Charter Schools of Excellence, PC Academy. It's Lexile Certified. It is "backed by data and research," by which they seem to mean a white paper written by Interactive Educational Systems Design (IESD), a company that "specializes in research to support product development and marketing," which means, I presume, that you can hire them to back up whatever claims you've made for your edu-product.

You can look at samples of their stuff, so I pulled up some high school materials. Top Score appears to teach a template that students learn to use, built by plugging in selected terms from the prompt or reading selection. Pick out key words, pick out some supporting details, crank out a five paragraph essay. It's formulaic and dull, not at all like actually teaching students to write. Just filling in a more complex fill-in-the-blank exercise. The sure sign that a writing program is terrible for actual writing is if it's designed in such a way that every student should end up with essentially the same essay; this does that. Scholastic mad libs, no actual thought about the subject required, and certainly no injecting of the writer's own thoughts or ideas. 

Which is the depressing part of this. I don't think Collum is selling snake oil; I believe that her product does exactly what it says it will do. Raise test scores. 

Because mompreneur Collum is doing what all good preneurs do--she's meeting a need. This particular need has been created by the manufacture and promotion of the Big Standardized Test, and she has sailed over the first hurdle which is where so many teachers stumble--trying to somehow act as if teaching writing for real and teaching writing for the BS Test are the same thing. Collum's focus is on what the market wants--higher test scores. God bless her for her clarity of vision.

Many districts have one version or another of the same thing. In my old district, one of my colleagues taught three simple rules for the writing portion of the state test--

1) Use some big words, even if you aren't sure you're using them correctly.

2) Fill up the page, even if you have to repeat yourself.

3) Turn the prompt into your first paragraph. 

It raised writing scores dramatically. And then we went back to teaching them how to actually write.

Top Score Writing shouldn't exist. The fact that it exists is a sign of how badly the BS Test has hurt education in this country. As I said, I'm not mad at Collum--the testocrats created a market for bad writing instruction, and somebody was going to make money meeting it. Why not an elementary school teacher in Palm Beach? But the education world would be a better place if outfits like Top Score Writing never existed because there was no market for them. Dreadful testing of writing leads to dreadful instruction of dreadful writing. The sooner it stops, the better. Federal, state, local, classroom authorities--I don't care who stops it, but it needs to stop.

Things like Top Score Writing are the epitome of everything wrong with test-centric education. This is the great ouroboros of instruction--teaching students a very particular skill that they will never use for any purpose except to take the test for which they have learned this very particular skill. It has no use except to feed itself and generate numbers that have no meaning except to indicate how well the great worm has digested its own tail. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

FL: Bullying, Vouchers, And More Baloney

When it comes to school choice, Florida (state motto: "We'll abolish public education any day now") is the place to be. With an array of anti-public education public officials, a non-functioning Democratic party, and the a long history of legislative baloney, it's no wonder that this is Betsy DeVos's idea of how a state is supposed to get things done.

But even for Florida, the anti-bullying Hope Scholarship is an impressive feat. Max Eden at the Manhattan Institute (a generally reform-friendly thinky tank) has just written up a report on how the Hope Scholarship is going. The answer is, "Meh, not so great yet."

Such a pretty, lousy place

First, you have to appreciate how the Hope Scholarship works, because it is the most clever school choice dodge I've seen. A student alleges bullying, abuse or violence. The principal investigates and provides a written report. The parents then have a range of options, including moving their child to another school in the district, a public school out of the district, a charter school, or get Hope Scholarship funds to attend a private school. Eagle-eyed readers might think I just skipped a step, but I didn't. Let Eden explain:

Notably, the parent need not be dissatisfied with the remedy proposed by the school district for the incident to qualify. Indeed, the school district need not even conclude that the alleged incident occurred. An allegation is sufficient to render a student eligible for a Hope Scholarship.

The standard line on Hope Scholarships is that they are available to "students who have been subjected to bullying" but in fact, they are available to any student who alleges they have been bullied. It is the lowest bar ever for getting a voucher--just say the words, "I've ben bullied."

The financing is also creative. Hope Scholarships were meant to be another version of tax credit scholarships-- contribute to the program, get a tax credit. But Florida is already loaded with such programs, so for this one, anyone buying or registering a car in Florida gets a chance at a $105 sales tax credit by contributing to the program (which is described again as one that provides a chance for a student who was "subjected to an incidence of violence or bullying" to get into a private school).

Eden's account of the genesis of this program is refreshingly straightforward:

The Hope Scholarship program was not enacted in response to grassroots pressure or lobbyists. It was driven primarily by a handful of committed Republican state legislators, especially former House Speaker (and current state commissioner of education) Richard Corcoran, Representative Byron Donalds, and State Senator Manny Diaz. According to Jared Ochs, a former legislative aide to Corcoran who now serves as director of legislative affairs for the Florida Department of Education, there was never much suspense about whether this bill would pass. Corcoran “had a strong group of members” who “believe in his vision,” Ochs notes. “Traditionally, the Florida House of Representatives has been controlled by Republicans who have been absolute warriors for parental choice.”

William Mattox of the James Madison Institute's J. Stanley Marshall Center for Education Options, tells legislators in other states that this kind of program can serve as a great "beachhead" for for getting a school choice foot in the door.

Ochs tells a story about the Speaker of the House (Corcoran, at the time) getting lots of e-mails from parents about bullying (because when you're concerned about your child being bullied in school, you naturally call your legislature's speaker of the house). In that story, Corcoran and staff go looking for a solution to bullying, and landed on school choice. Although this next part of the story rings a bit more true:

According to Mattox, Representative Donalds had hoped to leave his mark in the legislature by pioneering a new school choice program. Together, Donalds, Corcoran, and their staffs outlined a proposal and announced it at a press conference on October 11, 2017.

Byron Donalds, you may recall, is the husband of Erika Donalds, who used to be a New York investment banker, then rode the Tea Party train to a position as an education insider and anti-public ed advocate in Florida. So maybe this is one of those "when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" moments, or maybe it was always about making a "mark" as a school choice guy, and bullying seemed like a handy excuse/cover story. 

Eden provides an account of the arguments raised for and against the program. Against included the notion that creating an escape hatch for bullied kids doesn't really do anything about bullying in the school, a problem that the Southern Poverty Law Center rep pointed out we know how to address. Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO pointed out that the program sets up a framework for universal vouchers and further dismantling of public ed, which of course it does. Patrick Gibbons of Step Up For Students, the outfit that administers these vouchers in Florida, noted that since they were first come, first served, the "scholarships" could run out from use by students with "very light cause," leaving students with larger issues stranded. An amendment was actually introduced to require school district verification of the student complaint, but Donalds, Corcoran and Diaz were not having that. The bill became law in March of 2018.

Corcoran's office had figured about 100,000 Florida students were being bullied. The state expected about 7,300 students to sign up for Hope Scholarships in the fall of 2018. Instead, initial enrollment was 60 students. By February of 2020, the number was up to 371.

Eden considers three possible reasons that Hope Scholarships have landed with such a thud.

One theory is that school districts are keeping Hope Scholarships a secret. Eden finds that the majority of parents in the program were duly informed and experienced no challenges in the application process.

Another theory is that the threshhold at which a student will actually change schools is higher than the policy-makers guessed. 

Finally, there are so many choice programs in Florida, it's entirely possible that bullied students have already used another program as an avenue of escape. This strikes me as likely--Florida has served up so many school choice programs that at this point they are competing with each other. 

It is also possible that much of the PR for Hope Scholarships has focused on what it claims to be--a scholarship program for students who have been bullied--instead of what it actually is--a scholarship program for anybody at all as long as they are willing to allege that they've been bullied. Will business pick up once the word gets out?

Who knows, because in Florida there is always one more possibility, which is that the "market" for school choice programs may well be saturated, and everyone who wants to get into a privately own-and-operated school is mostly already there.

Nor does Eden address the other side of this issue--a voucher for a private school only helps if the private school is willing to accept you. But if, as is too often the case, the student is being bullied because they're an LGBTQ student, there are plenty of vouchers schools in Florida that will not accept that student, voucher or not

Given the testimonials Eden includes, there's no doubt that some non-zero number of students have been able to get into safer environments via this program. That does not offset the problem that a program like this does absolutely nothing to stem bullying in schools; in fact, it is hard not to imagine bullies becoming emboldened by the discovery that they can in fact drive a student right out of their school. 

Bullying in schools is a complicated and difficult problem that deserves attention and care. Hope Scholarships are not an honest attempt to solve that problem, but just one more way for Florida's politicians to further undermine public education in the state. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

College Debt Sucks

I passed a milestone a couple of months back--I paid off the last of my children's college loans.

I went to college back in the 70s. My entire undergrad education cost about $16K. I could have paid for some of it with the proceeds of my summer job, but my parents covered the costs and that allowed me to save for grad school and to start out on my feet. Lots of my friends from high school worked their way through college and started out life largely debt free; it wasn't that hard a trick to pull off in those long-ago days.

But by the time my older children had graduated from high school in the 00s, the world had changed. Paying for college with summer job proceeds was not remotely feasible. Meanwhile, college costs had gone berserk. My children worked summers and, some years, during the school year. Our deal was that I would pay college costs, and they would cover their own living expenses (their mother kicked in as well). 

Simply procuring and managing the loans was trouble enough. Sometimes it was like when you apply for your first home loan, and the bank treats you like you're a twelve-year old delinquent borrowing money to buy cases of beer. Bad beer. Other times it was simply confusing, as when the loans were sold from one handler to another resulting in a complete change of account numbers and payment amounts. And the phone calls from loan consolidators! Like many college-adjacent industries, these folks try so hard to suggest they are official government entities trying to do you a favor or help you comply with rules you didn't know existed. I can't begin to imagine how many young college students are hoodwinked by this stuff. 

I had advantages as an adult. For instance, I knew better than to pay just the minimum if I could manage more. I had a real job and real income. For over a decade, most of my income went to paying off those loans. That was fine, and I never regretted it for a minute, but I would keep wondering--how do people in their early twenties possibly do this? 

I know the answer-- I've heard the answer from plenty of former students. They don't, really. I can't count the number of stories I've heard of folks who shovel income into debt payments, only to see the principal slowly balloon and grow. Meanwhile, what about buying a house, or starting a family. What about starting in your chosen career if the entry level is actually taking an unpaid internship in an expensive-to-live-in big city? 

When I say college debt sucks, I don't just mean it's a lousy thing--I mean it sucks the resources, the choices, out of your life like a thirsty vampire accountant. 

"Well, then, don't take out debt you can't afford," say the folks situated in comfortable homes enjoying lifestyles made possible by a parental safety net. And there's some sense to that, except for a couple of issues. One is the trick of predicting what debt you'll be able to afford, particularly if you are 19 years old and have no debt experience and no real income experience and no real living on your own experience (spoiler alert: the loan issuers won't be much help here).

The other issue is, of course, that we bombard students with the message that if they don't get a college degree they will end up eating cat food off a hot plate while living in a van down by the river. We do this even as some folks are trying to dumb down the idea of college from a full, rounded education to just higher level vocational training. We do this even as the field is clogged with predatory for profits that simply want to use students as a means of collecting federal grants and loans, students' futures be damned.

We promise that college will pay for itself, that the path to economic survival lies through college.

This is the big argument in favor of cancelling college debt--we've scammed millions of students who are now collapsing under debt. If you want to be more practical, then go for the argument that cancelling college debt would instantly redirect a mountain of money into the economy instead of into loan companies. 

But can we please please please end the never-dying pieces of advice (in evidence yet again on Twitter yesterday) that if student debtors would just stop eating out and splurging on avocado toast, they could totally get out from under their debt next week. "Just do it like me," suggest of comfortably upper middle class folks well-supported by their parents. "You lazy kids these days," scold a bunch of oldsters who went to college when a year of education cost $1,000. "Just give up your dreams, use your magic crystal ball to predict which professions will pay well in ten years, and go to school for one of those," say folks who never gave up a thing in their lives. One of the most infuriating things about the whole issue is the number of people who literally have no idea what they are talking about. 

I'm a child of privilege, and I did my best to pass that privilege on to my own children, and as people in their early thirties in 2020 they still face a challenge or two. I can't really imagine what my kids would have done if they hadn't had parental backing, though I've heard enough tales from former students to have a pretty good idea. The system is messed up and if we imagine that higher ed is about a ladder up for young people--well, for too many it has turned out to be exactly the opposite. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Music and the Death of Shared Spaces

I play in a town band (or at least, I do in years without pandemics) that has been around since 1856. I've dug into the history (actually wrote a book about it) which has just extended my lifelong interest in popular music and culture, and if you trace all of that history, I think you can see how we ended up where we are, both politically and in the education world.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, music was almost exclusively a rare, shared experience. You could only listen to music that was live. If you had a piano and someone who could play it, maybe you could listen at home (a hit song was one that sold lots of sheet music), but for anything more complex, you had to wait for a band or orchestra performance. As an audience member you had zero control of what you listened to, nor could you pick the where or when. 

Pre-1920, the majority of Americans lived in small towns, so entertainment resources were limited. The period of 1880-1920 was the peak for town bands--if you wanted live music, you got some folks together and sis it yourself. There were parallels. In our area, for instance, there was a single amusement park, a destination park owned and run by the trolley company. On major holidays, everyone was there--all the towns, all the members of the family. Opportunities were few, and technology didn't favor personally choosing, so everyone shared the few chances over which they had little control or choice.

In the 1920s, things change. Our local amusement park died, killed by the automobile, a piece of technology that let people decide when and where they wanted to go. Meanwhile, recorded music finally become commercially viable. Suddenly, you can buy a pressed recording of a song that you like and listen to it any time you want in the comfort of your own home. 

The next few decades gave us improved record technology and better automobiles, which expanded personal control and choice. They also saw the rise of radio, which pulled in the opposite direction--you could only listen to what was being broadcast and only when it was being broadcast. Likewise, going to the movies meant moving into shared spaces on a schedule out of your own control.

The trend for the century has been overwhelmingly toward personal choice and control and away from shared spaces. I think, for instance, of the band bus--the transportation for high school bands traveling to away games. When I was just starting out as a student, music on the bus was simply whatever the driver could pick up on the radio--you got what you got. Then some buses had cassette players, and students could have what they could collectively agree upon (and chaperones would allow). By the time I had been an assistant band director for a few years, students had Walkmans, and instead of a boisterous shared space, students separated into smaller, self-contained spaces. Ipods accelerated the change--now you aren't even bound by the sequence of songs on the tape, but can instantly shift to whatever you want to hear at this particular moment. 

That trend has been mirrored across the culture. You can watch what you want when and where you want to watch it. You can go online and build a personal bubble, and even though some companies have tried to create large shared spaces, some folks are now threatening to leave for spaces like Parler, where they only have to share space with like-minded people. 

100 years ago, most folks in this country spent most of their time in shared spaces. When we talk about how schools of those earlier times taught people to be citizens, we're talking about helping young people learn to occupy shared spaces with other people. Private, unshared space was a luxury, a sign that you had entered a higher class--a private office, a private school, a home designed to preserve your privacy. 

Now here we are today, able to control, curate, schedule, design so much of our environment. We listen to what we want when we want to. We watch what we want when we want to. If we have enough money, we move to a neighborhood that's populated with the kind of people we want to live with.

We treat everything as a consumer transaction. Health care. Education. Heck, churches in some cases. We expect to have control and choice, to extend that personal control over our lives. 

Increasingly, as a sort of subliminal hum, comes the message that shared spaces are for poor people, people who can't do better. And because we are all consumers, and every time we spend money it's a transaction in which we expect to control what we get, there's an awful lot of tension about paying taxes to maintain shared spaces that are used primarily by Those People (And Not Us). 

So "let me choose a carefully curated school that will teach my child exactly what I want them to learn and nothing else" becomes a driving force in education reform. Education is a consumer good--you "buy" it in order to get yourself more advantages in curating the rest of your personal, private space life (including your job and your income). And everything about schools that seems like a shared space needs to be excised, cut away. "You aren't giving me the exact services I want, and my child is having to spend time with Those Peoples' Children, so just give me my money back and let me go shop on my own." The education of society's children in a shared space that prepares them for living in a world of shared spaces--that's no longer a desirable thing for some folks.

The pandemic has really ramped up the issues of the death of shared space. Who is an essential worker? A person who makes it possible for you to curate your life in your private space. And because we're not used to living in shared spaces, well, I want to pick and choose my personal response to the virus, based on what works for me. And other people can just choose what works best for them. That's fair, right? Just don't start telling me that the choices I make affect other peoples' choices. Liberty, man!

In iPod world, we pay for every piece of our carefully curated private space. Shared spaces are carved up into pieces for the customers, and people who can't afford to curate a vast private space just have to make do with the leftover (steadily shrinking) public spaces. When it comes to school, some folks are trying to market this process as choice for everyone. 

It's every person for him- or her-self, and just over the horizon, a vision of a society that is not so much a society as a country of people living their private personal lives, sharing nothing and celebrating the "liberty" that allows them to never think about anyone else. When Thoreau wrote about everyone marching to the beat of their own drum, I don't think this is exactly what he had in mind.