Thursday, December 31, 2020

Another Round Of Teacher Bashing

Remember back in the spring (approximately ten years ago in 2020 time), when teachers were hailed as heroes for their tenacity and adaptability? Actually, if you're teacher, what you probably remember is hearing that for what often comes next. And sure enough, here we are.

The attitude bubbles up in lots of outlets, sometimes snide and subvocalized, and sometimes right up in your face. A perfect example of the in-your-faciness would be this piece from the very right-tilted Foundation for Economic Education. FEE never met a union that it liked, and the subheading of this article perfectly summarizes the unfortunately-not-unpopular idea they're selling about unions and teachers:

Their willingness to put children last and fight to keep schools closed has proven once and for all that teachers’ unions do not, in fact, have kids’ best interests at heart.

The argument is composed of just a few simple parts.

First, the assertion that it's settled science ("one of the first things we learned" says FEE) that Covid doesn't kill kids and that kids don't transmit it. But there's nothing settled about that science. Here's the CDC in August of this year:

Children are at risk for severe COVID-19. Public health authorities and clinicians should continue to track pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections. Reinforcement of prevention efforts is essential in congregate settings that serve children, including childcare centers and schools.

As with everything else about the virus, there's a wide range of data out there. The science seems to land on something along the lines of "You can re-open school buildings, if we take proper precautions, including masking, distancing, good ventilation, and regular testing, and all of that only if community spread is largely under control." Teachers recognize this unfortunate construction from other sentences like "You can properly support all students with special needs, if Congress fully funds the IDEA that requires you to do so." Conditional "if" clauses have a tendency to vanish in education, and so all sorts of folks have shortened. "You can get back into the building if we give you the necessary support and resources" to "You can get back into the building." 

But the second part of FEE's argument (and that of many others) is that it's strictly teacher unions that are holding up the opening of buildings. Never mind that many non-union charter and private school buildings are closed, that school buildings are closed in states where unions have been effectively neutered, that school buildings are closed in other countries, and that many districts have closed buildings without even talking to their teachers or unions. Somehow, it's those damned teachers and their unions.

FEE uses New York City schools as their prime example, and I'm not diving down that hole because, in general, New York City schools and the New York City union are not examples of anything except themselves. The district is large and lots of media and policy folks live there, and so we hear a lot about them as if they represent national trends. FEE is also headed in its usual direction, which is to plug charter schools and they do so with vigor and the usual rack of charter fallacies.

They also skip one of the other usual features, which is to point out all the other professions that are also facing the pandemic, which is true enough, though one might well ask why so many people are being required to choose between their livelihoods and their health. Our whole response has been very US style; as with universal health care and gun violence, we insist that what we're doing is the best that could possibly be done while the rest of the world just goes ahead and does better. 

But I digress.

The level of bash, of demeaning insult, in this "selfish teachers close our schools" argument is huge. Because there are only a couple of possible explanations for the picture critics like FEE paint:

Teachers are stupid people who don't understand the settled science.

Teachers are stupid and also lazy people who went into teaching hoping they would have to never actually work and the pandemic shut-downs are their idea of a gift from God, and they want to stretch out this paid vacation for as long as possible.

Teachers are big fat liars who are pretending not to understand the settled science so they can milk the taxpayers while providing nothing in return.

Teachers should be martyrs who want to give up their entire lives for their students, and if they don't want to do that (or, incidentally, want to be well-paid for it), they're lousy teachers and terrible human beings.

Note that all of these include the assumption that distance learning is a big fat vacation. Also, people who chose teaching as their life's work don't actually want to teach. Also, as FEE makes explicit, teachers do not have students' interests at heart. They don't care about the kids at all (which adds to the assumption of their stupidity, because if you don't care about children, teaching seems like a pretty dumb career choice, but hey--maybe you became a teacher because you couldn't manage a real job). 

There are just so many, many layers of insult and bashing here. And trying to pass it off as "Well, we're just targeting the unions; I'm sure individual teachers are delightful" doesn't cut it. 

Of course, there is an alternative explanation for how teachers and their unions have been behaving during the pandemic.

It's possible that teachers, like other citizens, are unsure about what is true about the virus and what is not. And it is possible that in that context, teachers (like other citizens) have concerns about ending up struggling with severe illness, permanently disabled, or dead. It is possible that they've noticed things like the high transmission danger of doing things like sitting down together for an unmasked meal, spending extended periods of time in close proximity, and being cooped up together in a place with poor ventilation--all regular features of a teacher's day. It's possible that they know that pandemic distance learning is a dreadful model that requires twice the work with half the results (it's even likely that they knew this before all the kibitzers chimed in). 

And given the number of teachers in the country, it's possible that the teaching corps includes te same range of opinions as the general public--everything from "this is an overblown fake" to "I'm still bleaching all my packages." Which means that union leaders are hard-pressed to represent all of their local members.

"Schools should be fully open in person right now and the only thing keeping buildings closed are those damned selfish teaches" may be a statement that comes out of frustration, or it may just be another chance to hammer home the same old anti-union message. But it's not an accurate reflection of reality, and it's more teacher bashing, because there's no reading of this statement that isn't insulting. Worse than that, it gets in the way of a useful conversation about how to achieve what everyone--including and especially teachers and their unions--wants, which is to get the buildings open and the students back in them--safely--as soon as is safely possible. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Schools And Social Capital

I'm in the middle of reading Robert Putnam's new book (The Upswing) which has gotten me to thinking about his previous work, Our Kids. What has struck me in particular about the latter is his writing about social capital and the children of this country.

The definition of social capital is, in general, a little fuzzy. Putnam's, as put forth in Bowling Alone, another of his books well worth reading, is that it refers to "connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." My own shorthand is to think of it as the ability to say, in any situation, "I know a guy."

Your child has expressed an interested in playing piano, and you have an old friend who plays, so you call up to ask about lessons. Your child says they'd like to know more about how the hospital works, and you know an administrator up there that you did some work for once. Your child is in trouble over some light theft, but you went to school with a guy in the prosecutors office, so maybe you make a call, or maybe you don't even have to because he says, "I know this kid's family. Let's go easy."

For someone with lots of social capital, there is always slack to be cut and always a large network of support on which one can depend. It is what we think about when we look back to a past where if you were a resident of tight community, a member of a squad, a part of the team, then somebody always had your back. To burn up all your social capital on foolish or untrustworthy or selfish behavior was to become a loner, a person who was flying solo through life, vulnerable to any bumps or disruptions along the way. 

Viewed through this lens, a lot of our formal education systems look like systems for creating and sharing social capital. Attending an ivy league college may provide you with an actual education, but it also provides you with a ton of social capital, connections to people who are both old schoolmates and occupants of positions of power. It also connects you to people who you never met because they passed through those ivy-covered halls decades before you did, but your association with the university carries enough capital to get them to open doors. You can earn extra social capital by belonging to certain organizations, certain clubs, certain civic groups. Greek organizations are explicitly about creating brother- or sister-hood that provides social capital you can carry through the rest of your life.

Conversely, a lack of social capital can be an impediment. You may have the job title, but if you didn't amass the capital on the way there, you may find yourself without admission to the "club." 

Not all groups come with the same social capital benefits. A Yale education gives you some hefty social capital; graduating from East Podunk Community College does not. In my little corner of the world, the high school you graduated from counts for your social capital account, but it's a very localized currency. Your high school mascot is good for a little help locally, but won't mean much in any other direction (at the same time, don't come into my small town waving around big city connections and expect anyone to perform an extra finger lift for you). And all of us are born into groups that come with varying degrees of social capital--rich families have more than poor, and I wonder if inborn social capital isn't another way to see white privilege. Social capital can also be built by creating a group where trust is enhanced because the members all share certain values.

There's a lot to chew on with the concept, but it makes me wonder what schools would look like if, instead of just centering on academic-based meritocratic striving, we also focused on building a strong bank of social capital. What if, in addition to prepping students to climb a ladder of success, we also primed them to build a web of success?

What could that look like?

Could we create social webs in the school that pushed students outside of their smaller tribes and lift up those students who are able to work across the school's cliquish boundaries? Can we design schools so that students know more of, and feel more connected to, their fellow students?

Can we boost mentoring programs, emphasizing not just the passing along of advice, but the building of connections. Can we draw back alumni whose success has given them a ton of social capital so that they can share their connections with students (many Hall of Fame type programs are an attempt to do this). It's a big ask, because we need more than just a one-day inspirational speech; we need the students to be able to say not just "I heard a guy talk" but "I know a guy." 

Can we commit to building an atmosphere of trust (an important part of social capital)? It can be done (take a look at Andrea Gabor's After the Education Wars), but it takes a deliberate top-down approach. 

Look at Teach for America--they built a model on collecting best-and-brightest ivy leaguers aka young folks flush with tons of social capital, and squeezed them together, in the process creating an organization also loaded with social capital-- a network that has allowed them to spread like educational kudzu. Imagine if every TFA temp had spent 5-10 years in the classroom and had spent a bunch of their social capital on their students. 

Teachers do get that opportunity to build and share social capital of a sort. Our students grow up and go out into the world and Do Things, and if we have connected with them as students, that turns us into people Who Know A Guy, like (hopefully) less extreme versions of Professor Slughorn. 

Schools are the second place that students have a chance to learn about building, maintaining, and using social capital (family is the first). Schools and teachers can help, simply by being more deliberate and mindful about that aspect of student growth. It is one of the processes that has been derailed by pandemicized distance learning, and in some communities, it will take some deliberate work to get things back on track. Of course, in wealthy, well-connected communities loaded with social capital, that social wealth is what has made the pandemic slightly more tolerable. 

Building social capital is not always a positive process (in particular, you can probably think of groups that build trust within the group by peddling the idea that nobody outside the group can be trusted). But when we start the process of rebuilding schools, a deliberate approach to social capital strikes me as a useful feature to include.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Trump Issues School Vouchers Via Executive Order

Monday the White House (if Donald Trump wrote this thing, then I'm the Queen of Rumania) issued an executive order "expanding educational opportunity school choice" to create "Emergency Learning Scholarships for Students."

It instructs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (that would be Alex Azar) to use funds from the Community Services Block Grant program top provide "emergency learning scholarships" (the EO doesn't use the V word). These vouchers may be used for 

1) tuition and fees for private or parochial school (if you can find one that the voucher will actually cover tuition for, and the school is doing face-to-face, and they're willing to accept your child halfway through the year)

2) homeschool, microschool, or learning pod costs (curious to know how many disadvantaged students have managed to get into learning pods, like, say, this one at a country club)

3) special education and related services, including therapies

4) tutoring or remedial education

Note that the EO doesn't offer any instructions about oversight. So if you want to hire your out-of-work high school dropout brother-in-law as your child's tutor, that'll be fine.

The argument in favor of this is that January 20th is coming and the administration wants their damn vouchers now, dammit. Okay, not really. The argument for this is

1) We totally identified effective measures for resuming face-to-face and we gave you $13 billion whole dollars to do it (never mind the part where we tried to divert a bunch of that to private schools)

2) Continued distance learning is bad. Here are a few statistics we found. 

3) Building closures are extra hard on students with special needs, because they cut off not only education but support services. They're not wrong on this one. Of course, another solution would be to give public schools the resources they need to fix this. In fact, that would be the solution that would make sense, since the public system already knows who and where the students are and what they need. Bringing in another batch of service providers means that they should be done with needs assessments right around June.

4) Low-income students are also disproportionately affected. And we have some of those baloneyfied "falling behind" statistics here to throw around. We will ignore the part where families of SOC tend to hang back even when given then chance to go sit in unventilated undermaintained but-hey-they're-opened buildings.

5) If we don't get school buildings open again soon, it will hurt the economy. For this one, we will throw in baloney from that Chetty claim that a bad kindergarten teacher will hurt your lifetime earnings, somehow twisted around to work for months without school. Seriously--I want to see the bogus research behind this one. Also, without someone to watch the kids, some parents can't get back to work.

6) We sprung some HHS money to help with childcare and supplement distance learning, but that's not enough.

7) This pandemic stuff is really hurting private schools out there, too. So we thought using this to shoot some tax dollars their way would help prop them up. Because we are sad when Catholic schools close.

So, basically, a variation on the old "We've already given public schools enough money and if that's not enough, screw 'em, because what we'd really like to do is start some damn vouchers, dammit, and why waste a good crisis. 

Add this to the list of EO's that Biden needs to eliminate on Day One. What a waste of time and baloney. 

Democrats Need A New Theory Of Action

For four years, Democrats have had a fairly simple theory of action when it came to education. Something along the lines of "Good lord, a crazy lady just came into our china shop riding a bull, waving around a flamethrower, and dragging a shark with a head-mounted laser beam; we have to stop her from destroying the place (while pretending that we have a bull and a shark in the back just like hers)." 

Now, of course, that will, thank heavens, no longer fit the circumstances. The Democrats will need a new plan.

Trouble is, the old plan, the one spanning both the Clinton and Obama years, is not a winner. It went, roughly, like this:

The way to fix poverty, racism, injustice, inequity and economic strife is to get a bunch of children to make higher scores on a single narrow standardized test; the best shot at getting this done is to give education amateurs the opportunity to make money doing it.

This was never, ever a good plan. Ever. Let me count the ways.

For one thing, education's ability to fix social injustice is limited. Having a better education will not raise the minimum wage. It will not eradicate poverty. And as we've just spent four years having hammered into us, it will not even be sure to make people better thinkers or cleanse them of racism. It will help some people escape the tar pit, but it will not cleanse the pit itself.

And that, of course, is simply talking about education, and that's not what the Dems theory was about anyway--it was about a mediocre computer-scorable once-a-year test of math and reading. And that was never going to fix a thing. Nobody was going to get a better job because she got a high score on the PARCC. Nobody was ever going to achieve a happier, healthier life just because they'd raised their Big Standardized Test scores by fifty points. Any such score bump was always going to be the result of test prep and test-taker training, and that sort of preparation was always going to come at the expense of real education. Now, a couple of decades on, all the evidence says that test-centric education didn't improve society, schools, or the lives of the young humans who passed through the system.

Democrats must also wrestle with the fact that many of the ideas attached to this theory of action were always conservative ideas, always ideas that didn't belong to traditional Democratic Party stuff at all. Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire talk about a "treaty" between Dems and the GOP, and that's a way to look at how the ed reform movement brought people into each side who weren't natural fits. The conservative market reform side teamed up with folks who believed choice was a matter of social justice, and that truce held until about four years ago, actually before Trump was elected. Meanwhile, in Schneider and Berkshire's telling, Democrats gave up supporting teachers (or at least their unions) while embracing the Thought Leadership of groups like Democrats for Education Reform, a group launched by hedge fund guys who adopted "Democrat" because it seemed like a good way to get the support they needed. Plus (and this seems like it was a thousand years ago) embracing "heroes" like Michelle Rhee, nominally listed as a Democrat, but certainly not acting like one. 

All of this made a perfect soup for feeding neo-liberals. It had the additional effect of seriously muddying the water about what, exactly, Democrats stand for when it comes to public education. The laundry list of ideas now has two problems. One is that they have all been given a long, hard trial, and they've failed. The other, which is perhaps worse from a political gamesmanship standpoint, is that they have Trump/DeVos stink all over them. 

But while Dems and the GOP share the problems with the first half of that statement, it's the Democrats who have to own the second part. The amateur part.

I often complain that the roots of almost all our education woes for the modern reform period come from the empowerment of clueless amateurs, and while it may appear at first glance that both parties are responsible, on closer examination, I'm not so sure.

The GOP position hasn't been that we need more amateurs and fewer professionals--their stance is that education is being run by the wrong profession. Eli Broad has built his whole edu-brand on the assertion that education doesn't have education problems, it has business management problems, and that they will best be solved by management professionals. In some regions, education has been reinterpreted by conservatives as a real estate problem, best solved by real estate professionals. The conservative model calls for education to be properly understood as a business, and as such, run not by elected bozos on a board or by a bunch of teachers, but by visionary CEOs with the power to hire and fire and set the rules and not be tied down by regulations and unions. 

Democrats of the neo-liberal persuasion kind of agree with that last part. And they have taken it a step further by embracing the notion that all it takes to run a school is a vision, with no professional expertise of any sort at all. I blame Democrats for the whole business of putting un-trained Best and Brightest Ivy Leaguers in classrooms, and the letting them turn around and use their brief classroom visit to establish themselves as "experts" capable of running entire district or even state systems. It takes Democrats to decide that a clueless amateur like David Coleman should be given a chance to impose his vision on the entire nation (and it takes right-tilted folks to see that this is a perfect chance to cash in big time). 

Am I over-simplifying? Sure. But you get the idea. Democrats turned their backs on public education and the teaching profession. They decided that virtually every ill in society is caused by teachers with low expectations and lousy standards, and then they jumped on the bandwagon that insisted that somehow all of that could be fixed by making students take a Big Standardized Test and generating a pile of data that could be massaged for any and all purposes (never forget--No Child Left Behind was hailed as a great bi-partisan achievement). 

I would be far more excited about Biden if at any point in the campaign he had said something along the lines of, "Boy, did we get education policy wrong." And I suppose that's a lot to ask. But if Democrats are going to launch a new day in education, they have a lot to turn their backs on, along with a pressing need for a new theory of action.

They need to reject the concept of an entire system built on the flawed foundation of a single standardized test. Operating with flawed data is, in fact, worse than no data at all, and for decades ed policy has been driven by folks looking for their car keys under a lamppost hundreds of feet away from where the keys were dropped because "the light's better over here."

They need to embrace the notion that teachers are, in fact, the pre-eminent experts in the field of education.

They need to accept that while education can be a powerful engine for pulling against the forces of inequity and injustice, but those forces also shape the environment within which schools must work. 

They need to stop listening to amateurs. Success in other fields does not qualify someone to set education policy. Cruising through a classroom for two years does not make someone an education expert. Everyone who ever went to the doctor is not a medical expert, everyone who ever had their car worked on is not a mechanic, and everyone who ever went to school is not an education expert. Doesn't mean they can't add something to the conversation, but they shouldn't be leading it.

They need to grasp that schools are not businesses. And not only are schools not businesses, but their primary function is not to supply businesses with useful worker bees. 

If they want to run multiple parallel education systems with charters and vouchers and all the rest, they need to face up to properly funding it. If they won't do that, then they need to shut up about choicey policies. "We can run three or four school systems for the cost of one" was always a lie, and it's time to stop pretending otherwise. Otherwise school choice is just one more unfunded mandate.

They need to accept that privatized school systems have not come up with anything new, revolutionary, or previously undiscovered about education. But they have come up with some clever new ways to waste and make off with taxpayer money.

Listen to teachers. Listen to parents in the community served by the school. Commit to a search for long term solutions instead of quick fixy silver bullets. And maybe become a force for public education slightly more useful than simply fending off a crazy lady with a flamethrower. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

ICYMI: Christmas Recovery Edition (12/27)

 We're getting there, and by "there" I mean into whatever future we're about to build in the new year. In the meantime, here's this week's reading list.

The Attack on Dr. Jill Biden Is Cloaked Hatred of Teachers and Public Ed 

While folks have been compiling lists if bad Wall Street Journal takes in 2020, the Epstein hit piece is often overlooked--but it was bad. Nancy Bailey pushes back. (Yes, this was only just last week)

SCOTUS Opened the Door for Religious Charter Schools  

One more preview of the argument that charter operators will use to cash in now that SCOTUS has signaled its willingness to bat down the church-state wall. It's Newsweek, which is not always a god sign, but the author is a law professor at Notre Dame.

A Teacher's Take on Computerized Reading Tests

Stefanie Fuhr is at the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood explaining why those tests are not a great thing, or even an adequate thing.

Too many parents and decision makers treat teachers like they don't matter  

At CNN, Alexandra Robbins argues that teachers need to be more than data points during the pandemic building re-opening debates.

Stop using black children as an excuse to open your schools  

AKA "where was al this concern a year ago?" From the Black and Smart blog.

Arizona charter school got a PPP loan, gave $10 million to a shareholder  

From the Arizona Republic, via USA Today, a tale of more stimulus loan shenanigans in the education private sector.

Education secretary should curb standardized tests   

Andrea Gabor at Bloomberg backing up the argument so many folks are making-- this is a terrible year to insist on the Big Standardized Test

Learning Pods Show Their Cracks  

Okay, this is mostly forehead slapping schadenfreude reading from the New York Times, as a bunch of pandemic pod parents discover that setting up a school is, in fact, hard. 

The Dark History of School Choice 

Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of books takes a look at three books that outline how the school choice movement owes much of its roots and arguments to the U.S. racist past, fueled by a long-time religious crusade against public education.

Where Did Education Fail Us?

As the end of the year approaches, Jose Vilson asks some of the big questions. A thoughtful meditation for a winter eve.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

No Test In 2021 (A BS Test Reader)

Among the many things that the new secretary of education really needs to do upon taking office, a big simple one is this--cancel the Big Standardized Test for 2021. I've been banging the "Get Rid of the BS Test" drum for years, but all the reasons it's a lousy, toxic, destructive-and-not-even-useful force in education are amplified a hundred-fold by our current pandemess. 

Many wise folks have pointed this out, like Andrea Gabor at Bloomberg and the indispensable Mercedes Schneider at her own blog. Also, this piece by Lorrie Shepard at EdWeek. And I've been pointing it out, too, both here at the Institute and over at Forbes. So rather than whipping up a new skin for old wine, I'm going to offer this selection of my pieces from the past that all work to make the argument. Read, peruse, and most of all, share so that the tiny who-like chorus can pierce the beltway. Because waiving 2021's test would take the New Secretary five minutes and be hugely beneficial to students and schools in the US.

Is the Big Standardized Test a Big Standardized Flop?

A couple of years ago, some members of the education disruptors club, especially Jay Greene, started to admit that the BS Test wasn't actually connected to real world results.

Six Arguments For Giving the Test in 2021 (And Why Biden's Ed Secretary Should Ignore Them)

At Forbes, my most recent rebuttals to the standard "we have to give these tests" arguments. 

ESEA Hearing: What Wasn't Answered

The hearings about the newer, betterer education law included discussion of testing, but not terribly productive and often falling into the same old traps:

Predictive power is not causation. Let's take a stroll through a business district and meet some random folks. I'll bet you that the quality of their shoes is predictive of the quality of their cars and their homes. Expensive shoes predict a Lexus parked in front of a five story grand gothic mansion.
It does not follow, however, that if I buy really nice shoes for all the homeless people in that part of town, they will suddenly have expensive homes and fancy cars.

A look, once again, at how test-centric schooling triggers Campbell's Law and makes a mess out of education.

Does Your School Suffer From Advance Testivitis

When a school has too completely absorbed the test-driven arguments, it demonstrates these troubling symptoms. This is how the BS Test ruins a school.

Testing expert Daniel Koretz wrote a book that lays out everything folks need to understand about how the testocracy has become a snare and a delusion. Pray that the new ed secretary reads this book and takes it to heart.

A quick simple list of the reasons that parents can skip the BS Test with a clear conscience.

A reminder that part of the absurdity surrounding the test is the giant cloak of secrecy surrounding it, as if the best way to get use from the test is to make sure that teachers know as little about it as possible.

Breaking down some of the fundamental misconceptions in the Obama/Duncan era of testing love.

At one point the testing industry unleashed some talking points with which to push back test resistors. Here they are, and here's how to respond top them.

The big argument this year is that teachers and schools and other folks just really really need those test results in order to know what is going on. That's baloney.

And yes--all of this also argues that we should do away with the BS Test entirely, but not inflicting it on schools this year would be a great start. Let's hope.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Here's Some Merry Christmas Listening For You

 I hope that those of you who celebrate the holiday are enjoying it, even in these weird and distant times. May we never have a Christmas celebration like this one ever again.

As is tradition here at the institute, I have a collection of seasonal tunes for yoe- actually, a couple, this year.

For you youtubers, here's a collection specifically put together without the performances you've been listening to constantly for the last month.

Also, this year, my family did a sort of group Christmas list with contributions from members near and far. So here's that playlist.


 And if you haven't taken the Jingle Bell Challenge yet, here's 76 minutes of everyone's favorite
non-Christmas Christmas song


I hope the day is a great one for you, and that you are able to find a way to connect with those you love and whatever is most meaningful for you. Eat an extra cookie. It's been a hell of a year, and you've earned it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

AI, Language, and the Uncanny Valley

We experience vertigo in the uncanny valley because we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of years fine-tuning our nervous systems to read and respond to the subtlest cues in real faces. We perceive when someone’s eyes squint into a smile, or how their face flushes from the cheeks to the forehead, and we also — at least subconsciously — perceive the absence of these organic barometers. Simulations make us feel like we’re engaged with the nonliving, and that’s creepy.

That's an excerpt from Douglass Rushkoff's book, Team Human, talking about how the uncanny valley is our best defense. The uncanny valley is that special place where computer simulations, particularly of humans, come close-but-not-quite-close enough and therefor trigger an ick reaction (like the almost-humans in Polar Express or creepy Princess Leia in Rogue One). 

The quest for AI runs right through the uncanny valley, although sometimes the ick factor is less about uneasiness and more about cars that don't drive themselves where you want them to. The gap between what AI promises and what it can deliver is at least as large as an uncanny valley, though companies like Google are now trying to build a fluffy PR bridge over it (hence Google's directive that researchers "strike a positive tone" in their write-ups).

Since summer, journalists have been gushing glowingly over GPT-3, the newest level of AI powered language simulation (the New York Times has now gushed twice in six months). It was the late seventies when I heard a professor explain that the search for decent language synthesizing software and artificial intelligence were inexorably linked, and that seems to still be true. 

It's important to understand what AI, or to call it by its current true name, machine learning, actually does. It does not understand or analyze anything. You can't make it blow up by giving it a logic-defying paradox to chew on. A computer is infinitely patient, and is good at cracking patterns. Let it read, say, all the writing on the internet, and given a place to start, it can make an analysis of what, statistically, would probably come next. GPT-3 is a big deal because it has read more stuff and broken out more patterns than any previous software. But it's still just analyzing language patterns based on superficial characteristics of words. It is Perd Haply with bigger memory capacity.

We've seen the more limited versions of AI, like the automated robocaller that can only cope with responses that fit in a limited menu. But for someone who reads a lot, even the more advanced versions land in the uncanny valley. GPT-3 can spit out some weird wrongness, as demonstrated in this piece that includes exchanges such as 

Q: How many eyes does a horse have?
A: 4. It has two eyes on the outside and two eyes on the inside.

This set of testers found that GPT-3 was sometimes prone to plagiarism, providing correct-but-copied sentences from websites. Nudged in a slightly different direction, it produced paragraphs like this one

Whales, and especially baleen whales, are well known for their enormous size, but most types of whales are not larger than a full-grown adult human. Exceptions include the blue whale, the largest animal ever known, the extinct “Basilosaurus”, which was longer than a blue whale and likely the largest animal to have ever existed, and the “shovelnose” whales, especially the genus “Balaenoptera” which include the blue whale, “B. musculus”, the fin whale, “B. physalus”, and the sei whale, “B. borealis”.

The reviewer said this "reads well but is often wrong." But some of the samples I've read don't particularly read well, like this that was part of an "essay" prompted by Farhad Manjoo

Humans must keep doing what they have been doing, hating and fighting each other. I will sit in the background, and let them do their thing. And God knows that humans have enough blood and gore to satisfy my, and many more’s, curiosity. They won’t have to worry about fighting against me, because they have nothing to fear.

Like much of GPT-3's output, it reads to me like a disinterested student trying to come up with enough bulk to fill paper, resulting in writing that is just A Bunch Of Stuff About Topic X.

The uncanny valley has also turned up in my comments section. I get a lot of funky stuff there, but this one jumped out at me, responding to an old piece about the Boston Consulting Group.

I totally agree with your idea, and the group's beautiful comparison to the Black Knight and the Reaper is really a loss for public schools. In terms of the BCG report that made three recommendations, I think the idea of ​​companies helping educators to define and implement to update education in nearby cities is good, and really the idea of ​​strengthening schools is hard work and needs everyone's help. Great partnership between Harvard Harvard and BCG, I believe that it is more accessible to enter MBA programs mainly with a large investment.

First, that's not really connected to anything in the original piece. Second, even not knowing that, it's not hard to recognize that we've entered the uncanny valley here. Lots of bad writing gives one the impression of an actual idea struggling to escape from a tar pit of troubled technique. This is just words strung together. 

The poster's name is given as Daniela Braga. There's a model by that name, but Daniela Braga is also "founder and CEO of DefinedCrowd, one of the fastest growing startups in the AI space. With eighteen years working in Speech Technology both in academia and industry in Portugal, Spain, China, and the US." I reached out to Braga on LinkedIN to see if she wanted to fess up to turning an AI loose on blogging comment sections, but as yet have received no reply. 

Uncanny valley stuff is a reminder first, that humans can be very hard to fool, and second, that we capture and process huge, huge, huge amounts of data--so much so that there's a whole part of the brain that does the capture and process without us being fully aware of it. It's enough to make one think that maybe the conventional notion that says computers do capture and process of data better than humans might not be entirely true. Machines have the advantage of being tireless and immune to boredom, but they need both of those advantages just to get close to catching up with humans. 

A good example of this gap is the attempt to AI our way to cheating prevention, with the terrible AI surveillance programs that are making student lives miserable, while at the same time failing at their assigned task. But spotting a student who's cheating is not easy, and the algorithms designed by software companies have clearly been created by somebody who never actually had to catch a sneaky high school  junior mid-test. And you can't design software to know what you don't know, because software doesn't know anything. And yes, computer folks will say that machine learning allows the machine to "teach"itself things it didn't know, but that's mostly insofar as the algorithm can recognize old patterns in new places. And even that is limited--hence facial software's notorious inability to recognize that Black folks have faces. Faking reality, or fake-reading it, turns out to be really, really complicated and really, really hard.

All of which is just to say, again, that computers are not going to be able to run a classroom full of students any time soon, nor are we getting closer to algorithms that can truly manage a student's education or grade a student's essay. It takes an actual authentic human to do all of that. 

Rushkoff's point is that the uncanny valley--our sense that something is seriously wrong--is a defense mechanism, and that we should pay attention to it and trust it. He also has some things to say about inauthenticity in other areas of life--I'll let him wrap up:

Our uneasiness with simulations — whether they’re virtual reality, shopping malls, or social roles — is not something to be ignored, repressed, or medicated, but rather felt and expressed. These situations feel unreal and uncomfortable for good reasons. The importance of distinguishing between human values and false idols is at the heart of most religions, and is the starting place for social justice.

The uncanny valley is our friend.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Nobody Hates Miguel Cardona (So Far)

(OF course, I finished this post at about 3:55 PM Eastern time on Tuesday, so there's plenty of time left for folks to crank up the disapproval)

So now we know who the new guy is (probably) going to be, and an awful lot of folks are asking who he is and whether we should be delighted or upset or whatever.

Diane Ravitch notes that he hasn't taken a position on many of the hot-button issues, like charters. But she notes:

Having read his Twitter feed (@teachcardona), I get the impression that he is a very decent and concerned administrator who cheers on students and teachers.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia said "I proudly support this nomination" and expresses confidence that Dr. Cardona "will ensure that the federal government's role in education is to provide access and opportunity for every student..."

At the74, Andrew Rotherham calls the choice "deft" and notes that Cardona has a good, inspiring up-from-poverty story (he does) and that "he doesn't fit cleanly into the reform or anti-reform camp." On charters, "he's a Goldilocks--not too hot or cold."

Jeanne Allen at the super-charter-loving and ultra-teacher-union-hating Center for Education Reform calls the nomination "intriguing" and calls the nomination "reminiscent of Rod Paige" (yuck) and likes that he's not rooted in the "platitudes of powerful interest group."

The Connecticut Education Association four days ago came out in favor of his nomination:

Miguel Cardona’s formative experience as a teacher and administrator has been critical to his accomplishments as Connecticut Education Commissioner. He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic. While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration. If selected as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona would be a positive force for public education — light years ahead of the dismal Betsy DeVos track record.

Lots of folks have played the "he's not DeVos card" and that's a pretty easy card to beat. He's also not Arne Duncan. He has had a rapid rise in his career--he taught for about four or five years, became an administrator on the local level, then jumped up to the state level. "Youngest principal ever in the state" comes up a lot.

Hechinger has a nice recycled interview piece up about him. He appears to be a moderate on the Big Standardized Test (can be useful, don't give it too much power) and has been pro-re-opening the buildings, but seems to have maintained a decent relationship with teachers at the same time. I hear rumblings that some Connecticut teachers don't like him. He's apparently a Linda-Darling Hammond pick, and LDH has long been a figure of some controversy (or at least some spirited "what side is she on, anyway" arguments) in the education world. As Ravitch notes, the DFER crowd was pushing hard for someone more their style, and they didn't get that. 

But at this point, nobody has jumped up to holler that he's awful and unacceptable, and he's probably not going to get a fight from the GOP senate. 

There is nothing obviously and terrifyingly unqualified about him (I know--it's a low bar, but it's a low bar that hasn't been cleared in a long time). There are some question marks, and we've been burned before by folks who talked pretty and didn't do the walk to go with it. Educated in public school, public university system--that's a plus. He seems to fit my desire for someone who is non-adversarial with teachers. The years as an administrator could be a nice addition to his relatively few years in the classroom, if he isn't one of those guys who forgot everything he knew about being a classroom teach ten minutes after he landed an admin job. And lots of profiles mention his focus on kids, which could be a good thing but after years of listening to reformsters say "It's for the children" to justify every damned thing, I don't find that factor very soothing.

So, we'll see. It's worth remembering that these days, many of the big fights are going to be in the states and in the courts. But having somebody who's not totally incompetent, who's not disconnected from the actual work of education, and who does not arrive in DC with an bad news agenda that he's determined to push-- well, that would not be terrible. Relax, enjoy the holidays. It's going be weeks before we find out what we've really got for a new secretary. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

ICYMI: Santa's Almost Here (12/20)

 And the Board of Directors has just about figured out this Christmas thing and twigged onto the notion that presents are coming (but why not right now). I am going to try not to think constantly about all the family and children and grandchildren that I am not seeing this week, because that sucks. In the meantime, here's some reading from this week.

The Logjam that Awaits Biden's education secretary

Derek Black at CNN, with hard dose of reality therapy for everyone imagining that a new administration will bring dramatic change. What a grinch. Okay, he may have some points, too.

How to assign writing when you don't teach writing  

Paul Thomas with some great thoughtful practical advice for assigning writing when that's not really your lane.

For Black educators when school systems aren't doing enuf

Dena Simmons at ASCD with some powerful personal reflections for the times.

Reaganland: Public education and America's right turn

Have You Heard talks to Rick Perlstein and takes us back to the seventies. Really interesting stuff about how schools became a target in the culture wars.

Black students most likely to be going to school remotely

Samantha Fields at Marketplace looks at an emerging trend. Safety and trust seem to be the issues (and not that they are dupes of the teachers unions).

Testing students this spring would be a mistake  

Can't say this enough, but this time it's not me, but testing expert Lorrie Shepard at EdWeek.

Fifty years of trickling down didn't work  

Not directly related to education, exactly, but important validation for what everyone already knew.\

How teachers are sacrificing student privacy to stop cheating

From Vox, one more article pointing out that surveillance software is a bad idea, and schools should knock it off.

The 2020 snow day is here. It must include "sleducation."

Okay, I wish Joshua Goodman at Education Next had the courage to write sleducation without the quotation marks, but still a nice little piece.

A rural school under pressure to stay open

This is how ugly it's getting in places like rural Idaho, where the 'rona is still a big hoax and people are too tough to mask up. Kirk Siegler at NPR.

Sen. Jon Tester on Democrats and rural voters

Tester has some thoughts, including the novel idea of standing up for public education. From New York Times.

Florida lets voucher schools hire dropouts as teachers--and keep it secret

The Orlando Sentinel has been a great source of watchdogging the Florida shenanigans. You may or may not be able to scoot past the paywall, but if you can, this story is amazing. You will not believe how bad it is down there.

As the gap between students and teachers of colors widens in PA, Black families demand change

Sojourner Ahebee reporting for WHYY, Philly's NPR station. This is a great piece of reportage, with plenty of nuance and detail for a difficult topic. If you don't read anything else this week...

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Pennsylvania's Teacher Problem

 We already know that the teaching profession is primarily composed of white women (average age 43). But sometimes, when you break data down in particular ways, it becomes even more striking.

Research for Action is a Philly-based group that has done some great work over the years, and they've done some research about the TOC/SOC balance in PA that are featured both in this article from Sojourner Ahebee and a "supplemental" Twitter thread (and you can read the research here).

Some of the PA data is just striking. First, PA is an outlier when it comes to the gap between students and teachers of color. Nationally, the share of SOC is 2.5 times the share of TOC, but in PA the SOC share is 6 times greater (only NE, NH and Indiana have a bigger gap). I'm not totally shocked and surprised by that; PA suffers from a fairly severe urban vs. rural divide, and the rural parts of the state are pretty white. 

But when RFA starts breaking down by districts, it gets even starker. There are 500 school districts in PA (which is its own problem) and 184 of those districts employ zero teachers of color. Only about twenty-five districts in the entire state have staffs that are more than 5% TOC. Here's a map from Research for Action, breaking it down district by district:

There are roughly 3,200 schools in Pennsylvania; RFA found that 1,500 of them have all-white teaching staffs. A dozen schools across the state in 2019-2020 were 80% students of color and had no teachers of color at all. And there are other schools that come close to that; Ahebee's piece looks at William Penn School District, where 4% of the students are white and 80% of the teachers are. 

The shifts have occurred over time, both in the increase of SOC and the decrease of TOC. And in some rural districts the staff is mostly or all white, but so is the student body. But we are now in a problematic place.

I know that this subject is a touchy one for some white teachers, that the initial reaction is to bristle and argue that white teachers are perfectly capable of teaching students of color. But at this point the research is overwhelming--the presence of Black teachers in a school produces better results for Black students. With a Black teacher, Black students are more likely to go to college, less likely to suffer exclusionary discipline, more likely to be placed in gifted classes. The list goes on. And it's important for the white students in a school to encounter Black teachers as well. Ahebee hints at one other reason that Black teachers can be effective for Black students--in many settings, those teachers are the ones who actually live in the community that the school serves. Every student is best served by teachers from within and from outside her community. The student needs someone who gets the local flavor, and someone who can show her what lies outside familiar boundaries. All voices have their place within the school, and a diversity of voices best serves the students. 

We are at a difficult point at the moment, with the teacher supply already problematic. In my corner of PA, colleges have been compressing and even eliminating teacher programs because they don't have the enrollment. Add pandemic messes and we are in a place where the entire teacher corps needs to be rebuilt. That's a tough challenge, but it's also an opportunity to rebuild a teacher corps that is not so white. 

How is it done? RFA reports that PA has actually grown, slightly, its share of male TOC by 129, which is better than nothing. The guru of teacher workforce studies, Richard Ingersoll, has told us for years that retention is a huge part of the problem, especially for TOC, so part of the challenge is not just to recruit folks, but to keep them around. 

There are folks working on the issue. The PA department of education has a program to address the drain of teacher talent and the lack of TOC in the state. And the Center for Black Educator Development ("We address educational inequities to improve academic and social outcomes for all students through increased diversity") is one organization working on the issue. Teach for America, after its launch as a platform for primarily white temp teachers, has made equity more of a priority, but students need to see someone who stays, not someone who's just passing through for a couple of years. Per RFA dats, charters in Philly are doing better than public schools, but you know I don't think that's the answer (even if we ignore all the other charter issues, sheer scale rules them out). It will take state initiatives, organizations like CBED, and deliberate, mindful decisions by the people who do hiring at each of those 500 districts.

I don't see or hear anyone in all of this saying that white teachers can't teach students of color, or, for that matter, that women can't teach young men. But there is something fundamentally missing in any education system where a child can spend twelve years and never see an adult person like themself. Pennsylvania is in the weeds on this. 

Read Ahebee's article, which delivers a nuanced and close-up look at how the issue plays out for students and teachers. Read RFA's study, which has layers and layers of data to unpack. There is plenty here for Pennsylvania's education leaders to think about and act upon. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

1776 Commission Members Appointed (And It's About What You'd Expect)

You remember just six 2020 weeks ago (that's roughly a year and a half in regular time), Dear Leader proclaimed that the 1776 Commission would be formed in order to create a more perfect set of teaching stuff that would teach our young people to think about our country in the Correct Way. The proclamation announcing this was a piece of work, among other things laying out how we should teach students to have the Proper View of our country (we were bad about Black people for a while, but now that's all fixed) and wipe out that 1619 Project stuff. It was not exactly lined up with the goal of teaching critical thinking, but, hey, Patriotism.

Now Dear Leader has appointed his crew, and it has gone about as one would expect. You can check out the official list here, but here's a rundown of who some of these folks are.

Larry Arn will be the chair. Arn is the president of hyper-conservative ultra-Christianist Euro-centric Hillsdale College (Betsy DeVos was just there to deliver a Jeremiad).

Members include Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, the campus right-wing group, and recent receiver of hard talk from Geraldo Rivera (Trump lost. Knock it off.). Because a history commission needs people who can't even come to grips with the history of the several weeks.

Brooke Rollins, the Trump domestic policy advisor since May.\

We've got Carol Swain, a retired poli sci professor that Trump probably saw talking on the TV, or maybe on Twitter passing along already-debunked election conspiracy baloney. And she's Black, so for Trump's purposes that's a bonus.

Vincent Haley, another member of the Trump administration (speechwriting, etc). Formerly employed by folks like Gingrich Productions and Trump for America, Inc.

Victor Davis Hanson, a pundit and Hoover Institution senior fellow who was on the TV explaining that Black Lives Matter is trying to "hijack" American history.

Phil Bryant, Governor of Mississippi and Trump lover. Briefly a sheriff before becoming a career politician.

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, whose listed areas of expertise are conservatism, Europe and global politics. Not U.S. history.

John Gibbs, a conservative commentator who has held a variety of jobs in the Trump administration. He started out as a software engineer. His Wikipedia entry says, so far, that he has a "history of making inflammatory remarks and spreading false conspiracy theories on his Twitter feed." That would include the claim that Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign took part in a Satanic ritual.

Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. He's a regular on the Fox business channel, and he held a Trump fundraiser for the election that Trump just lost. He did once found a company (Curriki) that did education stuff, so there's that.

Gay Hart Gaines, a GOP fund raiser from Palm Beach. He once received a lifetime award for that, awarded by Laura Ingraham at a dinner at Mar-A-Lago.

Ned Ryun, founder of American Majority, an outfit that locates, recruits and trains conservatives to run for local offices. He has a whole podcast series about the History of the Constitutional Convention.

Peter Kirsanow is a lawyer from Cleveland and is a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, serving his fourth six-year term (originally appointed by George W. Bush).

Charles R. Kesler is a professor at Claremont McKenna College. He appears to have written many real articles and at least one book about the founding of America.

Dr. Thomas K. Lindsay--who is not a medical doctor but is still listed with "Dr" attached--works at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-tilted thinky tank. An academic (even though he calls himself a doctor), he research has focused on democracy and education.

Jerry C. Davis is president of the very Christianist College of the Ozarks (in Missouri) and his heart is heavy about racial injustice.

Michael Farris, a lawyer and founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and also worked on the Convention of States Project. Citizens for Self-Governance is also one of his projects.

And Bob McEwen, who was a GOP pol in Ohio back in the day, but nowadays is a lobbyist and talking head, primarily at Advantage Assoc International. He was a vocal supporter of Trump during impeachment proceedings.

So what we have is a couple of people who might actually know something about early U.S. history (albeit viewed through a conservative lens, or even a heavily smudged conservative lens) and a bunch of Trumpers, fundraisers, and folks who have no apparent excuse for being on this commission. And almost nobody who knows anything at all about education--well, actually nobody at all when it comes to the K-12 students who are the target of this baloney. 

What a bizarre little thing to try to pull off in the final moments of a lame duck Presidency (and on a Friday afternoon before a holiday week), as if there aren't a few other things that require federal attention at the moment. Here's hoping that the commission doesn't even manage one meeting before vanishing into the ether, like the silly piece of vaporware it is. 

Children are not our future

There are plenty of warm fuzzy teacher sayings that I could well do without, emphasizing as they do that teachers are too noble to ever want to do things like, say, insist on being paid a decent wage or have control over their working conditions. But there's a child-focused saying that I would like to banish to the Island of Misfit Cliches--

Children are our future. Or, sometimes, children are the future.

The first is worse, carrying with it the notion children belong to us--and not just now, but in perpetuity, as if their adult selves will exist only to take care of the rest of us. "Shut up, kid, and get back to work. Grampa is going to need a new pair of shoes!"

But I object to both for other reasons.

I hear in this cliche the echoes of a notion that children are empty vessels just waiting for Wise Adults to fill them up with knowledge and thoughts and values and all the other stuff that makes a person an actual person. Because, yeah, if they're empty vessels, they're not exactly persons, are they.

The modern version of this is to view them as a sort of empty hard drive, just waiting for programming to be added. I think this is part of the reason that the "science of reading" moniker rubs me the wrong way--the implication that one simply plugs or pours in this scientific programmy stuff, and that will result in every single child being filled up with proper reading stuff.

And, of course, if the child is an empty lot, we needn't look inside to see what's already there--we can just concentrate on what we want to see dumped into the child. We can build the child to order without having to pay attention to anything that might get in the way of the new structure we plan to build. 

The emphasis on the future is also problematic, suggesting that the child's life isn't really going on right now, that their current life is just a staging area for the life to come. And yes--it's absolutely true that their childhood is the time in which we should help them build strong, robust, vibrant structures that will allow them to enjoy their life in years to come. Is that more true for a five year old than a thirty-five year old? 

The idea of potentiality, the collecting of tools for future use--that's all important. But let's not get so focused on that that we forget that these children are living their lives right now. Let's not fall so far into this rhetoric that we start thinking that children will be, you know, real people some day, but not today. 

Plenty of adults act as if children are a mystery, as if nobody can know how to talk to this alien species. There is no mystery. Children are people. People who haven't yet developed some physiological and psychological aspects, people without limited experience in the world, but people all the same. Not future people. People right now, today.

This "children are the future" talk makes it easy to justify the kinds of bad policy we've seen in the last few decades. Sure, let's start sitting them down to study academic subjects earlier and earlier because there's nothing about what's going on in a four-year-old's life right now that could possibly be as important as getting her packed full of employer-desired skills for the future. It's easy to deny childhood when you think that all of a child's Real Life is in the future. 

"Children are the future" is often used as a motivational nudge for funding and/or supporting education and can feel like part of a larger conversation that started with "We don't need to spend money on that--they're just children." It's a conversation one would expect from people who measure a person's worth in their utility (in particular, their utility to employers). It's a hard conversation, because if you don't know that you should care about, look after, cherish and hold close our children, I don't know how to explain it to you. They are bundles of raw humanity, undiluted and unvarnished. That ought to be good enough. 

"Children are our present" doesn't sing like the "future" version, but I think it's truer and important in that it doesn't let us push off our obligation to the young humans among us. They are here, with us, today, and deserve to be cherished and supported and seen and heard and embraced for all they are today. The future will come on its own, soon enough.


Thursday, December 17, 2020

More Teacher Effectiveness Mirages

 The Fordham Institution has a new report entitled "Teacher Effectiveness and Improvement in Charter and Traditional Public Schools." Despite what it claims to study, the report is a neear-perfect demonstration of Campbell's Law in action. 

The study starts with a question that, as used car salesmen put it, assumes the sale:

Study after study has found that urban charter schools, and non-profit charter networks in particular, tend to be more successful at boosting student achievement than traditional public schools in similar settings. But why?

We're not going to get bogged down in the details of this study, including this assertion that charter school superiority is a proven thing, because none of them matter when it comes to understanding why this study is fatally flawed.

The fleshed-out version of the question under study is this-- we know that more experienced teachers are generally better at their craft then newbies (an assertion that Fordham didn't make back in the days when they were part of the Let's Get Rid Of Teacher Job Protections crowd), but we also know that charters mostly have newbie teachers, so how is it that charters gets these superior results with fresh-out-the-wrapper staff?

The report was written by Matthew P. Steinberg (George Mason University) and Haisheng Yeng (U of Penn grad student). They worked from a pile of data from the PA department of education from between 2007 and 2017.

We could dig deeply into this report, but there's no reason to. All we really have to see is this sentence:

Like other studies, this one uses estimates of teachers’ value-added—that is, their contribution to students’ English language arts (ELA) and math achievement growth— as a proxy for their effectiveness.

So once again, "teacher effectiveness" is being used as a synonym for "scores on a single standardized test of math and reading soaked in the widely-debunked VAM formula." This is bunk. They try to prop it up with this--

Although such estimates cannot capture other valuable aspects of teaching practice and behaviors, research shows that (in addition to learning more math and English language arts) students assigned to teachers with higher value-added scores are more likely to go to college and earn higher salaries later in life.

That assertion about later salaries is cited from Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2014, a work that is problematic at best and bunk at worst. Meanwhile, even folks in the ed reform community have caught on to the fact that raising a child's Big Standardized Test score doesn't lead to that child having a better life. 

But using test scores as a proxy for "student achievement" or "teacher effectiveness" is a critical tactic for ed reformsters, because writing a whole paper about how one set of teachers is better at raising test scores isn't very sexy or exciting. "What I really want from a teacher is for her to get my kid to do better on that one standardized test they take every spring, and nothing else matters as much," said no parent ever. Likewise, while there are a million interpretations of "good teacher," very few of them are "teacher whose students get good scores on that one big test." 

Using test scores as a measure of teaching quality and student achievement isn't just a bad, inaccurate measurement--it triggers Goodhart's Law, or its somewhat better known sibling, Campbell's Law. The idea here is that the more you use a quantitative social measure for social decision-making, the more it will tend to disrupt and corrupt the processes it's supposed to be monitoring. If you like a pithier version, take Strathern's restatement of Goodhart--

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Which brings us back to this piece of research. Steinberg and Yang find that CMO-run charters seem to have better-trained teachers, and they posit that hiring practices, training practices, or the charter chain tendency to force all teachers to follow the prescribed procedures--not just curricular, but pedagogical--might be the answer. 

But if we stop using bad proxies and just say plainly what we're talking about, there's little mystery here. The premise of the study is that newbie charter teachers get better test scores than public school teachers. That points to just one thing--more focused test prep. This is easy to enforce with newbie teachers in a restrictive teaching environment because they don't have enough of a well-established professional identity to push back. Meanwhile, teachers in public schools are trying to balance the demand for raising test scores against the demand to actually teach. 

In short, the explanation laid out by this report is that charter schools (at least the ones studied here) train teachers to do test prep instead of training them to actually teach. 

Mike Petrilli suggested on Twitter this morning that I'm being cynical here with my reading of the report, but I think it's far more cynical to keep arguing in 2020 that using a single set of test scores and a long-since-discredited number crunching formula as a measure of true teacher quality. It is possible, as Petrilli says, that some charters are doing a great job of teaching junior teachers to "teach well," but as long as the premise is that "teach well" means "have students who get high scores on the BS Test," we'll never, ever know. 

"Well, then, how do we figure out which teachers are doing a good job," has been the complaint for the past couple of decades, and I agree that this is a tough nut to crack, but that does not mean that we settle on a bad answer. It is hard to cure certain types of cancer, but that does not mean that we should settle for "drink bleach and sacrifice a frog under a full moon" as a cure. We do not, like the proverbial drunk, search for our car keys under a streetlight a hundred feet from where we dropped the keys because the light is better there. 

It has been true since we ushered in test-centric schooling under NCLB--the discussion about teacher quality is worth having, but we cannot have it if we insist on using as "data" something that does not measure teacher quality. 

There are other problems with this particular study. Most notably, since it is based on tests scores, it makes sense to look at the students who are taking those tests and the long-known techniques of cherry picking and push-out used by many charter schools to insure that they have a good crop of quality test-takers. Or we could talk about longer school days, or simply organizing the vast amount of school time around the BS Test. Any of these would explain the charter alleged test edge. This study doesn't address any of that. 

But it doesn't matter. Any study that accepts the premise that BS Test-based VAM scores are a measure of teacher quality is wasting time. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

How Does Education Fix Poverty? Spoiler alert...

 The idea that we can educate poverty away has been a popular one with policymakers and politicians for years now. Here's just one example, from Janet Yellen, former Fed Chair and, possibly, future Treasury Secretary, back in 2017:

Yellen spoke to a conference on community development today, where she says that providing children with the opportunity to learn important skills earlier is essential to ending this generational cycle of poverty.

“This research underscores the value of starting young to develop basic work habits and skills,” she said. “These habits and skills help prepare people for work, help them enter the labor market sooner, meet with more success over time and be in a position to develop the more specialized skills and obtain the academic credentials that are strongly correlated with higher and steadier earnings.”

You can find this kind of idea echoed at the international level or when plugging particular edu-programs-- education ends the "cycle of poverty" or "lifts the economy."

Now, I am not an economists (though there are so many economists that pretend to be education experts that it would serve them right if I got in their lane), so I may be missing something here. Feel free to sort me out in the comments.

But it seems to me that two things are being conflated here. One is that education can help an individual escape poverty. That one makes sense-- Pat gets an education and can quit that job at the widget factory assembly line and get a better one designing widgets or VP of widget marketing.

But the second idea--that education can end poverty as a whole--seems more problematic. Pat leaves the widget assembly line job, which pays minimum wage with no benefits and only provides 29 weeks of work per year. When Pat had the job, Pat was among the working poor. But when Pat leaves the job, the poverty-creating job, is still there and will be filled by someone else, who will still be a member of the working poor. So Pat's life improves, but the total poverty that exists remains the same.

I am stumped on how the education-ending-poverty thing works. If everyone in the country has a masters degree, does McDonalds start paying its burger flippers $20/hour? Would Walmart suddenly start paying big money and benefits because every single stocker has a degree? Will companies that used to hire 10 people with masters degree now hire 20 just because they're so plentiful, so that the available jobs for highly educated people will grow? 

None of that seems likely. Businesses are not replacing humans with computers because they just can't find humans who are well-educated enough. Businesses did not outsource jobs to other countries because the people there are so much better-educated. And businesses, as we have seen demonstrated with stimulus funding, companies don't hire more people just because they have some spare money lying around. Businesses outsource and cybersource because it saves them money. The level of education for the people they're avoiding paying doesn't change that.

Maybe the idea is that if everyone had more education, we'd suddenly be awash in entrepreneurs creating start-up businesses left and right. This seems... unlikely. Or maybe better-educated people would be more productive and that boost in productivity would lead to--oh, never mind...

(Okay, here's a differing view of that infamous chart, which is a long read and at the end, doesn't make things look much better for US workers).

My cynical non-economist view is this-- "education will fix poverty" is an excellent way to absolve all the other players. Politicians and policymakers don't have to address the problems of poverty because, hey, if the schools would just do their jobs, poverty would be fixed. Business leaders don't have to behave like responsible members of society instead of oligarchs because, somehow, it's not their fault that their business is built on the backs of underpaid, ill-used fellow citizens. It is yet another more subtle way to blame the poor for being poor, as if the Captains of Industry are looking down at the meat widgets saying, "Look, if you had more education, I'd pay you more to do that job." 

Does all this mean we should not do our best to give every student the maximum educational tools so that they can lift themselves just as far and high as they can? Absolutely not--the gig is to give every student all the tools, all the knowledge, all the power that education can give a person. We should fight poverty, and arm students to fight it. But schools can't do it all themselves; lifting individuals out of the tar pit of poverty doesn't clean up the pit itself. 

And when people start using "poverty" and "education" in the same declarative sentence, be clear on what they are talking about--helping individuals rise, or cleaning up fundamental injustices in society because society's leaders don't want to do the job. Escape poverty, or fight it? The first job may belong to schools, but the second belongs to everyone.