Wednesday, June 23, 2021

SCOTUS Backs F-bomb Cheerleader

 Today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the high school cheerleader who had been suspended for out-of-school speech.

Brandy Levy had made a Snapchat post after failing to make the varsity squad. So Saturday, from a convenience store, she posted a picture of herself flipping the bird captioned," Fuck school, fuck softball, fuck cheer, fuck everything." She was 14 and in a mood. And it was Snapchat, from which the post would disappear before school even opened on Monday. But somebody took a screenshot, and a cheerleading coach saw it, and Levy was suspended from the squad. 

The wheels of justice have ground slowly on this one; Levy is now a college freshman. And the lower court upheld her suspension. But SCOTUS says, 8-1, that she was unjustly suspended from the squad.

What does this mean for teachers dealing with actual students in the fall?

It's not entirely clear. The court did not endorse a lower court decisions saying that the First Amendment guarantees free speech for students without consequences off campus. So, a narrow ruling on this case.

So schools remain adrift. The courts have long said that students don't lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, but they have also recognized that schools' need to maintain a safe environment means that students can't have carte blanch. 

My feelings are mixed. On the one hand, school administrators can sometimes get awfully caught up in a desire to hyper-regulate student speech (does your principal require the right to pre-approve everything in the school paper? then shame on them). At the same time, social media is a huge source of in-school trouble these days. It's where fights get started that spill over into the building. And cyber bullying can be way worse than the old fashioned kind of bullying.

Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, saying her post might have been offensive, but it didn't disrupt the school. "It might be tempting to dismiss B. L.’s words as unworthy of the robust 1st Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary." The lone dissent came from Justice Thomas, who argued that some students, by virtue of visible leadership positions, can be held to higher standards. 

So after watching this case carefully, we can conclude that schools don't know much more about the issue than they ever did before. Levy was represented by the ACLU. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

AI Wants To Take Your Order (Among Other Things)

Back in 2019, McDonald's acquired an AI company called Apprente, a company launched in Silicon Valley in 2017 with the singular goal of automating drive-through. That was the third tech company McD's got its floppy clown fingers on that year. The others were an app vendor and a personalization outfit.

All of this fits into McDonald's apparent trend toward becoming a company of giant food vending machines. They are apparently looking at automating the kitchen, but right now, in Chicago, they're putting Apprente's work to the test in ten restaurant, with AI-powered drive-throughs.

So how is it? How well does a computer-generated voice deal with the rather narrow path involved in taking an order.

Well, Chris Matyszczyk examined it and wrote an article for ZDNet entitled, "I just watched McDonald's new AI drive-thru and I've lost my appetite." He had looked at a tik-tok post recording a portion of this AI in action.

I wanted it to be clever.

I wanted it to be surprising, enticing, well, at least a little bit human.

After all, AI companies are always telling us how much better than the human equivalent their creations truly are.

So when McDonald's revealed it was testing the idea of replacing humans at the drive-thru with robots, I was filled with cautious optimism.

Would customers be greeted with a surprisingly chirpy voice, redolent of a young person who really enjoys high school?

None of that. You can watch the clip here. The AI sounds like nothing so much as HAL 3000's sister; it is not a voice you would ever, ever mistake for a human. 

But does it work? Well, McDonald's CEO noted that the AI system would require staff to be retrained not to do their jobs, because they were interrupting Discount Siri to try to help. But the humans can't all be fired yet, because the system, even working from a limited menu, is only about 85% accurate.

It also, apparently, gets the company sued. One customer has sued the company for a violation of Illinois's Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). Passed way back in 2008, BIPA says you can't record information like voiceprints, facial features, or fingerprints without getting permission first. The AI ordering system records the customer voice in order be sure it gets the order right. 

Well, not just to get the order right. The voice recording, according to the lawsuit, is collected "to be able to correctly interpret customer orders and identify repeat customers to provide a tailored experience." Which fits, because that personalization company that McD's bought is about making AI menu boards "that can change the offerings based on your personal ordering history, the weather, and trending menu offerings."

Just imagine this model applied to a classroom, complete with less-than-100% accuracy and a massive violation of privacy, not to mention collecting all that data that can be so valuable to a company. One more batch of reasons that classroom AI is a terrible idea.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Is There Common Ground on Race and Education in Plain Sight

Back in May, Mike Petrilli, head honcho at the right-tilted Fordham Institute, proposed that when it comes to the current culture wars surrounding "critical race theory, “anti-racist” education, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom," a common ground exists. As Petrilli's sub-head puts it, "five promising practices most of us can get behind, regardless of politics."

Is it possible? So many of the conservative participants in this war are not making good-faith arguments, but are exercising some political opportunism (looking at you, Governor's Abbot and DeSantis). Some are either uninformed or willfully ignorant. At the same time, while Benjamin Wallace-Wells at the New Yorker did a great job laying out how one conservative activist stoked this fire, the article is clear that Christopher Rufo did not manufacture examples of bad diversity training out of thin air. Plenty of the objections to what's being lumped inaccurately under the heading of Critical Race Theory involves some serious nutpicking, but if the nut being picked happens to come from your school, some alarm is predictable.

Even when you find a discussion of the issues being conducted by two people in good faith, the gulf seems somewhat unbridgeable. In this piece, Conor Friedersdorf and Anastasia Higginbotham seem hopeless separated both by ideas and by language (What is "whiteness"? How far should we bend to keep white children from feeling bad?)

Petrilli says he's hopeful for common ground, if not between the "hard-liners on either side, then at least among parents and educators out there in the real world of kids." Here are the five practices he thinks can be broadly supported.

Adoption and implementation of "culturally-affirming" instructional materials.

Back in 2010, Arizona's legislators and Governor Jan Brewer passed a law banning ethnic studies in schools; in 2017, it was thrown out for being unconstitutional (and, said the judge, racist). That highlights a sticking point here; the folks who believe that one can't affirm non-white culture without somehow diminishing white culture. In education the stakes are raised because there are only so many hours in the year; you really can't just keep adding to the reading list without taking something away. You need look no further than the ongoing battles over #DisruptTexts, which looks to expand the canon, but is often characterized as an attack on the canon

Culturally affirming materials ought to be in classrooms; at a bare minimum, culturally destructive materials should be removed. We can probably all agree on that idea; I have my doubts about whether we can agree on what that actually looks like.

The effort to diversify the education profession.

We agree. I'd call the need to recruit and retain teachers of color one of the major issues facing education right now. Are conservative lawmakers ready to hear that their attempts to ban the teaching of controversial issues of race are probably not going to help?

Helping teachers maintain high expectations for all students, regardless.

I'll admit that this point touches a nerve, going back to the days when Arne Duncan et al would insist that expectations solve all educational issues, and that we deal with all barriers to student achievement by just expecting them to do better, which is not only dumb, but cruel. At the same time, every teacher knows that expectations are key, and too often, for various reasons, teachers lower expectations for some students, and that's not helpful. 

Teaching students to empathize with and understand others, especially those whose lives are more difficult than their own.

Years ago, a friend of mine who was teaching a gifted class, decided o doing a unit about world religions--just what they are, where they are, basic beliefs. One student and her family said no. When asked why, the response was "I don't need to understand them, because they are all wrong." Petrilli rightly connects this type of learning to social and emotional learning and character education. 

But there’s a case to be made that, given America’s growing diversity and inequalities, it’s more important than ever for children to appreciate that some kids have it much harder than they do. And in particular, that many Black Americans face particular challenges because of racism that their fellow Americans need to better acknowledge and understand.

I'm pretty sure that's exactly the kind of learning that many folks in the anti-CRT crowd are agitating (and legislating) against. Petrilli is veering perilously close to the idea of systemic racism, and that's a loaded term for folks who are pretty sure that A) racism is just the product of a few bad apples here and there and B) since around 1960 we have lived in a country where any person of any color or background can achieve as much as they want to work for (and if they haven't achieved much, well, you do the math). 

Presenting the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and other painful chapters in an honest, unflinching way.

I think there is actual broad support for this, but "honest" is doing a lot of work here. In particular, teaching about the connections between past events and the present (you know--the most basic hook for getting students engaged with material) would potentially raise some hackles. It would be useful to look at those events critically, perhaps using a theory that involves the lens of race. If only such a tool weren't currently illegal in several states. Petrilli calls for education that is both critical and patriotic.

Petrilli wants to avoid mandates and bans, and on this I agree. And I'm on board with the basic ideas of each of the five, even as I understand that each one is loaded with a boatload of devilish details.

But I do have my doubts about how common groundy these are, especially for the local parents and community members. And for that, I have to blame the folks on Petrilli's side of the isle.

Take this story from Gardiner, Maine. The AP English class was given a summer reading list (a not-uncommon practice for advanced English classes) from which they had to select just one book. But the community is up in arms because the 33 choices are all non-fiction books about various personal and historical aspects of the Black experience in America. Protest is being ramped up by local radio guy Jon James, a school alum who says these books are all "based in and around Critical Race Theory" despite the fact that he has not actually read any of them. The course itself is focused on rhetoric. Curriculum coordinator Angela Hardy offered this:

“In developmentally appropriate ways, our students will engage in learning experiences where contentious topics may be raised,” Hardy said. “In these instances, the educator’s role is to ensure students will examine the varied perspectives, have skills to discuss the topic with others using evidence, learn to listen to opposing views and develop their own opinions.

“A common goal of our educators is to equip the students with the skills and tools to move through that process effectively while facilitating respectful dialogue,” she added.

In other words, exactly the sort of all sides examination that many "critical race theory" opponents have said they want. But a chunk of the public has risen up, and the board has now said students may choose any non-fiction book at all. No word yet if that will satisfy the protestors who don't actually have students in the school. The comments section includes plenty of supportive comments, but also one from a person who asserts that the First Amendment means the school can't tell students what to read, and another who reminds us that the point of a liberal education is to make students become liberals. These folks, including James, have no idea what critical race theory says or what these books say, but they've heard what Tucker Carlson has to say and what Fox is reporting from Florida and other outposts of Liberty and this list sure looks like a bunch of by-God Black people stuff, and they aren't having it.

I'm not nutpicking. I'm pointing out that some of the policy wonks of the right may be underestimating just how stirred up the folks on the ground are. My sense is that by and large these are the same people who wouldn't listen to Jeb Bush about Common Core, only now after a few years of Trumpism, we have more politicians willing to wind them up and let them go. And, in all fairness, that agitation has seriously reduced the willingness of people on the Left to listen to any conservative sentence that includes the word "race" in it.

So, honestly, I wish the five things listed by Petrilli did represent some real common ground. They should. But if they did, places like Gardiner, cities like Philadelphia, regions like Washoe County, and states like Florida would not be all worked up and throwing conservative weight around. 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Things My Father Taught Me

My father is in his mid-eighties and still plenty peppy. Still the smartest person I know.

He and my mother celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary last week. They got married the summer before she started a teaching job and before he started his senior year of college. One of his graduation pictures includes infant me. Who let those children get married?

By the time he graduated, he had a solid job lined up engineering for an underground mining equipment company. He'd earned that kind of gig by being a hard working, serious student, and that was probably only because my grandparents (a general contractor and a stay at home mom who would soon have a side career in politics) sent him to Phillips Exeter Academy. He was a townie and never soaked up any of the rarified ivy league prepitude of the place, attending the University of New Hampshire. 

He worked at the same company his whole life, eventually becoming one of the top managers. He had a reputation for memos marked by "dry, pithy witticisms," and he always played things straight. He was conventional and by-the-book, but still human; at lunchtime on the last day before a holiday break, he would go out and announce loudly to his secretary that he had work to do at one of the other plants and he would not be back the rest of the day (translation: if anyone leaves early, I won't ever know). When the company began to cycle through a series of hedge fundy type owners, he became a bit of a stealth rebel, which took a psychic toll on him, but an endless line of folks have told me that it helped keep the company alive.

He doesn't drink. For most of his life he wore white socks for everything. He has a huge library of big band music and is a Glenn Miller authority (he's not old enough for the OG Big Band Era, but he got swept up in the late-fifties revival). He has rebuilt a few antique autos over the years; when we were growing up, he used to drive the neighborhood kids around in a 1914 Federal Fire Truck ("Federal" is a brand, not a political designation). 

Now that he's retired, he and my mother run an antique music museum, filled with various types of mechanical pianos and band organs. We offspring joke that he left a job working 40 hours a week for pay so that he could work 60 hours a week for free. 

I learned a lot of things from my father. Some of it involves mechanical stuff; I had to go to college to discover that being the least car-handy person in my family still made me the most car-handy person lots of other places. I learned that when shopping, if it's a good deal, it's still a good deal even if you later discover a better deal, which seems like a lesson in commerce but turns out to be a lesson in not allowing circumstances to steal your satisfaction with life's moments. 

Once I had played an elementary band concert, and I was aching to get out of there, but my dad stayed and helped put away chairs. I asked why we couldn't just get out of there and he said that if something needs to be done and you're able to help do it, then you should. That stuck with me. And you do the best you can, even if it's a pain. And you finish what you start. And, though he never said so, he has always made it clear that you put your energy into doing the work, not in trying to promote how yourself for doing the work. And get it right. Also, show gratitude. Don't waste sweat and money on stuff that doesn't matter. And take care of the people around you. My father had a very successful career, and he and my mother have always lived modestly, and quietly spent a bunch of money on people and causes--nobody knows how much, including we kids.

But in some ways, the big lesson I learned from my father is that you never stop growing. Did something grab your interest? Go learn about it. Do new stuff. Embrace new people. Keep growing up as a person. After all these years, I have still never known my parents to hunker down and say, "Enough, already. We're just going to sit over here and let the world move on ahead." 

Also--and people who know my father may be surprised by this--but I also look to my father as an example of grace. I have provided ample opportunity for my parents to tell me that I've let them down. I say this may surprise people simply because my father has never made a big production out of forgiveness or working through feelings of whatever. He has just always been there. I suspect it's sort of a New England male kind of thing; you don't need to talk about it--just be there and keep doing the work. 

Fathers Day is nice as a celebration of fathers and all that. But it's also a good time to stop and think about how are fathers are reflected in who we are, a good way to remember that we didn't make ourselves, that we are carrying forward from previous generations and should be mindful about what we pass on to the next. And if that's not a good reflection for teachers, I don't know what is. 

ICYMI: Father's Day Edition (6/20)

My father is in his mid-80s, not quite as spry as he once was, but still the smartest human I know. I have a lot more to say, but I just erased a humongous paragraph because I realized it just needs to be a separate post. So let's get on to the reading for this week.

I will warn you up front that there's a lot of critical race theory stuff on the list this week, and you might want to skim and just pick out one or two to read, because lordy this controversy is depressing. There's other stuff here, too. I promise.


This New Yorker piece is a great explainer of how Christofer Rufo built an erupting right-wing mountain out of this long-simmering academic theory.


At Vice, a reporter digs up a connection between an anti-CRT group in NYC and notorious dirty tricks guy Rick Berman (if you need a refresher about this guy, here's one)


This is turning out to be a whole sub-genre of CRT coverage, in which dipstick legislators are asked to explain what exactly they're opposed to. Low hanging fruit, but instructive. And in this piece, Kyle Whitmire goes the extra mile by moving on from asking a middle aged white man to asking a middle aged Black man.


Alex Thomas at the Daily Dot takes the same story idea and takes it to scale by asking a whole bunch of Senators.


Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider in the Nation looks at the question of just what bad ideas Biden is carrying over from his previous time in DC.


James Murphy in Slate with a look at what really gives folks a leg up get into a fancy college. Not affirmative action, not even legacies--it's private schools. I found some of these numbers surprising.


Three reporters for NBC discover that conservatives are parachuting in to disrupt school boards again--this time with CRT as the hook.


Perhaps because laws keep getting passed and penalties threatened. Aris Foley at The Hill.


I'm always leery of big city journalists coming to rural stories, but this New York Times story feels true to me. In West Virginia, they're trying to boost local fortunes with better schooling--but what do young people do when they've got a good education, but no local prospects?


It's the end of the school year, and Nancy Flanagan is not feeling happy about the current state of education.


Gary Rubinstein went to an online seminar about the great ideas about school takeovers in Tennessee. He came equipped with facts about the massive failures of that policy in the state, and though he had resolved to hold his tongue, well... 


In an NBC op-ed, Brian Franklin looks at the problem of states that have forbidden teachers to teach the full truth of a new federal holiday, focusing on Texas.


The Onion is on the job again. 







Friday, June 18, 2021

Former DeVos Aid Tries To Rally Reform Troops

 James Blew has made a career out of ed reformsterism. He was director of Student Success California, part of the 50CAN reformy network, the Alliance for School Choice, and he served a stint as president of StudentsFirst, the national reform advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee, former DC chancellor and ed reform's Kim Kardashian. He was the director of the Walton family Foundation's K-12 "reform investments" for a decade. His background is, of course, not education, but business, politics and "communications."

In July of 2018, he rounded that career in dismantling public ed by going to work for Betsy DeVos as Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, where he continued that work. As of January of this year, his LinkedIn profile lists him as a Policy Consultant for "various organizations (NGOs, institutes, businesses)--Full-time"

That work includes cranking out pieces for reliably reformy Education Next, and his latest is an attempt to provide an overview of the state of education reform. It's an interesting picture of the view from the planet where he resides, with some fairly stunning jaw droppers along the way. But buckle up--this is worth digging into to better understand where some of these folks are coming from.

The Intro

Blew characterizes his USED job under DeVos as "translating her reform vision into concrete legislative proposals, budgets, and grant competitions" and says it was a "stimulating, enjoyable job--despite the constant turmoil created by the unconventional president." He'd known "and admired" DeVos for decades, so "none of her positions surprised or disappointed me," which he characterizes as a "risky" statement because "partisans on both sides have distorted her views." There's an awful lot to unpack there (Trump was "unconventional" and Josef Stalin was notoriously "cranky"), but we have far to go.

Blew was "astounded" by opposition to DeVos within the reformster community, and his thesis is that she "unmasked tensions and disagreements" within that world. Sure, healthy in some ways, but he doesn't like how this gave advantage to "defenders of the status quo" (which is of course bunk because at this point, most of the preferred reformsters policies are the status quo). 

He doesn't want to stake out a reform "orthodoxy" or to "defend every aspect" of the DeVosian record. He just wants to lay out the fractures within reformsterland so they can avoid being "divided and conquered." 

Defining Education Reformers

What common denominators define Blew's conception of reformsters? Well, they think the current ed system needs to be "reformed, transformed, or whatever nomenclature you choose," which is not exactly a precise piece of work. Likewise "We believe the system is failing to educate sufficiently a substantial portion of children," is--well, "sufficiently" and "substantial portion" are doing a lot of work here. But a "large number" of children do not "reach their potential as adults,"

Blew counts himself among the people committed to "equal opportunity" in this country "regardless of class, race, gender, or belief" and that civil rights have been defended "vigorously" over nearly sixty years, which I guess is why DeVos decided to hamstring USED's Office for Civil Rights. Then there's this observation.

Some say that our education system is a manifestation of systemic racism. Others, like me, see evidence that our system reinforces racism and might even be a source of it.

First, I'm pretty sure that "our system reinforces racism" is pretty much the same as "our system is a manifestation of systemic racism." Blew, like many folks, doesn't like the idea of systemic racism because that requires everybody to do something about it, as opposed to asserting that racism is the result of individual choices made by some guys over there (wave hand vaguely). But in fact, our education system does manifest systemic racism in many ways--for instance, by using a funding system that is tied to the housing system that is, in many places, a systemic remnant of the systemically racist housing practices of the last century (for more, I recommend Andre Perry's excellent Know Your Price). 

Suggesting that "schools are a source of racism" is, on the other hand, nuts. 

Blew says that all reformsters believe the system is irretrievably broken, and he trots out the old "one size fits all from the industrial era" characterization that often makes me think that some reformsters have not actually been in a school since they graduated in 1962. He believes that instruction is aimed at the "average student," which will comes as a huge surprise to teachers actually working in the classroom, including those who spend their weekends designing differentiated lessons. 

Blew here notes a fracture in reformsterdom. Some, like DeVos, simply want to blow everything up and replace it with other stuff. Some, like the folks running some urban charter schools, think the industrial model can work. Blew claims they have demonstrated "dramatically" improved outcomes by "raising expectations, attracting top teaching talent, personalizing instruction" and a bunch of other stuff. This is bunk. Few charters have shown dramatic improvement, and their main tool has been a combination of creaming, teaching to the test, and an assortment of things public school teachers already knew, such as more instructional time. 

Blew says these folks would be "welcome" in the reformy big tent because they "also despise" the status quo, which is a good phrase to remember when asking why reformsters often elicit such hostility from public school educators. 

Then there's this next part--and I'm going to pull the whole paragraph, because this a fairly solid attempt to articulate the lie that these guys really love public education.

If you’re a visible education reformer, you have undoubtedly been accused of wanting to destroy or defund public education. It’s worth saying: the opposite is true. Reformers believe in public education—especially the core commitment that society (taxpayers) should foot the bill for it. (Public money is, after all, what makes it public.) Education is both a private and a public good that benefits our democracy and our economy. Out of our mutual interest, we should all share in the cost of educating all children, so they can secure good jobs and become productive citizens. We can debate who delivers that education (from a government monopoly to a laissez-faire marketplace), how much money should be spent on individual children, and whether the funds should come from local, state, or federal taxpayers. But reformers believe in public education as much as our opponents. That’s why we spend our time, treasure, and talents trying to improve it.

Well, no. First, public money is not what makes it a public school. If that were true, we would have a public army and Blew would have worked in a public office and Betsy DeVos would have been defended by public secret service agents. Public ownership and accountability make a public school system. But Blew here is tipping his hand to his focus--public money. I wish he had explained what he means by education being a private good. And "we" is doing huge work here. Up till now, "we" has mostly meant "we reformsters," but I can't think of anyone in the modern reformster community who thinks actually public schools (called "government schools" by people who want to destroy them)  are the best system to deliver education (see above explanations of what unites reformsters, including the "despise" part). 

Blew has swiftly slid over another view that unites modern reformsters--a belief that schools should be owned and operated privately. 

He takes a paragraph to characterize public ed supporters (that's never what he calls them--he prefers "reform opponents" or "status quo"). They believe that the "centuries-old" system is proven and sound and that it would serve the country well "if only Americans would fund it substantially more generously" and my wordsmithing hat off to that choice of "more generously" instead of, say, "adequately" or, in some states, "as much as their own laws say they're supposed to." He also claims that pro-public folks think public schools "should not be held accountable for reversing the impact of children growing up in poverty or imperfect homes," which on the one hand is offensive bull shit--of course teachers are struggling to counteract those influences--and on the other hand, if he means the neoliberal notion that education alone is supposed to erase the impact of poverty on the country, then yes, let's not do that.

One useful insight from Blew to finish the section. Neither group is monolithic, and the "public-facing position is usually the hardline position." Or, as the president of my school board once observed while I was the head of the local striking union, "We can't always pick our friends."

Culture Wars

This section gets off to a better start.

Debates over K–12 education often have little or nothing to do with educating our students or preparing them for good jobs. Public schools end up being battlegrounds for America’s culture wars.

Then we lose the thread. Blew says that schools are the backdrop for policy issues like "immigration, gun control, police misconduct, gender equity, transgender rights and religious liberty;" the problem here is that those aren't really a backdrop because each issue has a direct impact on schools. But he says this kind of debate is distressing for parents who wish schools "would focus on teaching how to read, write, do math, and think." 

Culture wars are,  for Blew, a "frustrating distraction," and we should be able to disagree on culture war issues while still agreeing that "something must be done to fix our education system." But gosh, somehow it's impossible to get away from them. He credits DeVos with staying out of such issues, except, of course, when she didn't. 

Blew here addresses the great right-left reformster schism, the end of the bargain that kept social justice and free marketeers together. In his telling, the social justice folks bailed because they couldn't stomach Trump or DeVos, and believed that DeVos was on the free market side. Well, they were absolutely correct about DeVos, but for the rest, Blew might consider an alternative theory in which the free marketeers say, "Oh, we don't need the nominal Democrats for cover any more." 

Blew also blames the nomination process and the "personal vilification campaign that accompanied it," and I'm not going to go through my armchair analysis of DeVos again, but she really needed very little help to make an impression. Blew posits that "reformers have a thin path to maintain credibility against the status quo" which is a novel idea; I'd suggest the path would be wider if they had sources of credibility instead of being wealthy, well-connected amateurs with little real education expertise. And he drops this juicy tidbit:

When the DeVos team asked charter-school advocates how we might be helpful, their explicit entreaty was that we mention charter schools as little as possible.

Substantive Divisions

Beyond the DeVos toxicity problem, Blew allows as how there were some major real policy differences. This paragraph is an intriguing picture of the reformster mind:

Reformers tend to be mavericks, and each of us seems to have an individual “theory of change” for the system—that is, a working hypothesis of which policy or operational changes today will eventually lead to educating all students fully. These hypotheses—I think it’s problematic to call them “theories”—are refined over years, informed by personal experience, and, too often, owned psychically. Validation of them is personally satisfying, and refutation of them is personally threatening.

This, again, strikes me as one of the things you get when people are invested in ideas that they just like, as opposed to ideas rooted in actual knowledge about the field.

Blew divides reformsters into two camps: school-choice and standards-and-accountability (kinda just threw out the two camps he described in the last section). One believes in the power of competition and the other in the power of standards tied to carrots and sticks (mostly sticks). Both have had thirty years  to test their made-up theories, and both have failed. But Blew is going to blame that failure on the "status quo" crowd in the "government monopoly." He's still a true believer in the power of competition and pooh poohs the notion that you can't finance multiple systems with the money that was insufficient for one. And teachers and schools hate accountability because the bad ones will be caught and punished. Blew does mot even nod in the general direction of the notion that the standards and accountability measures that have been dreamed up were lousy, inaccurate, invalid, and unreliable. And some reformsters, like Rick Hess, figured out years ago that you don't get effective reform by treating teachers like the enemy.

But gosh, says Blew, can't we just have both? And he cites the patron saint of reform, Jeb! Bush, as an example of someone worked to completely demolish public education, and throws in the bi-partisan parade of reformsters. AFT and NEA only called DeVos unqualified because she wouldn't work with them, not, say, because she had no education background, had never set foot in  the public schools that she had publicly derided, had no experience in running a large organization, and didn't appear to have done any homework about the rules and regulations and ideas that she was going to deal with. 

Reformer Reactions to DeVos

DeVos focused on school choice and education freedom [sic] says Blew, which should have put her at odds with the standards-and-accountability crew, but ESSA gave power back to the states and that was just fine with DeVos. But she stirred up a hornets nest in the choice world because she didn't really care about charters and wanted to go straight to vouchers (particularly if they could be used to support Christian schools). 

Blew observes that in addition to that division, there was also debate about how accountable to hold schools of choice, and states are still having that argument. But it's the charter vs. voucher (Blew doesn't use the V word) that was the real contest. Blew notes that teacher-union leaders never refer to charter schools as public schools. Neither do I, because they aren't. They are privately owned and operated, with unelected leadership accountable to nobody but the owners (voting with your feet is not an accountability measure). 

But that leads him to Reed Hastings, the City Fund, and the rest of the folks who make the "good point" that democracy is a pain and we should just stop letting the peons vote for things like school boards. Autocracy is so much more stable. (I'm paraphrasing a bit.) He cites New Orleans, DC and Detroit as examples of charter ascendency really making the case for a portfolio model, which, well, no. Not at all.

He goes on to lay out other objections of charter operators to voucher programs, and they are all fancy versions of "vouchers will drain resources from us" but if they said that exactly, they would sound exactly like the public schools that they have fastened themselves to, so we have fancy arguments instead. Blew is sad that some charter operators "parroted" the "talking points" against DeVos, and I'll offer the theory that perhaps they ended up saying things because they were visibly true. As just a small sign of Blew's disconnection from this planet, he cites three folks- Eva Moskowitz, Jeanne Allen, and Nina Rees-- as people who tried to balance the negativity and I guess he means negativity about DeVos because Moskowitz and Allen certainly manage to be negative about plenty of other things, like public schools and the teachers who work there.

Reformers and Federal Power

Blew wants to explain that, first, you have to understand that teachers unions are "merely greedy for more money from federal taxpayers." Blew comes pretty close to the ultra-right-wing narrative unions push for more money so that they can use it to elect Democrats so the unions can get more power. Like much of what he says, I don't have the time and space to lay out the full absurdity of this, but let me just say, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama exemplify that, if this is an actual strategy, it's going poorly.

But Blew lays into it, suggesting that the unions want to extend "down through early childhood and up through college" so that they can benefit from the "government monopoly." But Noble Betsy DeVos worked to hold the line, and steadfastly refused to use federal leverage until she didn't (eg threatening schools that didn't open their buildings during the pandemic). 

Title I? A big scam that sends all sorts of money to some schools where some of the students aren't poor at all! And Joe Biden is just going to make that worse! And his money doesn't even come with reopen-your-building strings attached! Also, California gets a bunch of money, and yet some of their students score low on the NAEP. 

No word from Blew on that part where DeVos couldn't think of a single discriminatory act that would prompt her to flex federal muscle. Because federal power is bad, because  it gets commandeered by the commoners. Let power stay where it belongs-- in the hands of rich people.

Conclusion

Blew said at the top that he wasn't here to relitigate the DeVosian secretariat, but perhaps that wasn't entirely true. But now he's back on point--the chaos of DeVos's years in office do no "need to be the undoing of the education-reform movement." Reformsters still have more to unite them than divide them.

"Education reformers are trying to address the inequities baked into the system" (though there is no such thing as systemic racism) somehow. They are a social-change movement, even though the free marketeers have pretty much abandoned the social justice side of this (including and especially those currently working hard for the "No discussion of racism should be allowed in school" crowd). 

The education-reform movement should be defined by the cause and the enemy that unites it.

So I guess we could call it the anti-teachers-union movement, instead of education reform? No, "our enemy is the status quo system that harms children because it fails to deliver." Except that after decades of fiddling around, all of ed reforms best ideas have failed to deliver. Some have failed hard.

He says that reform is a diverse lot, and in that he is correct. Ed reform comes in many, many flavors, including people smart enough to recognize that working for Donald Trump was a terrible idea. Blew thinks the "bash-Betsy route" is about building credibility, but the thing is, while DeVos has been unjustly pilloried and mocked for many things, she was awful at the job. The best thing about her was how ineffective she was, but that just means that she was objectively awful at the job from the reformster point of view as well. It was not just PR or bad press or people being mean--she was bad at every single aspect of the job, from dealing with press to dealing with Congress to knowing what the hell she was talking about to making a case for any of her policy ideas. 

DeVos did not have a comms problem. She had a competency problem. And even as Blew is calling for everyone to rally back around a cause that he describes in terms ripped from the headlines of 2010, the troops are off wrestling with all this critical race theory baloney and ramming voucher bills down state's throats, so I'm not sure there will be a big reformster rally any time soon. I'm not remotely an ed reform guy, and even I know that there are better, smarter people than DeVos with better, smarter ideas than what Blew is pushing. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Using Critical Race Theory To Target... Everything

The strategy was explicit way back in March. Christopher Rufo, who's been out in front of the charge, told us what they intended to do.


And that is, in fact, what's happening. The vast majority of people talking about and talking against critical race theory have no clear idea of what it is, and so it is being used as a bludgeon against everything unpopular or controversial. Florida Citizens Alliance, one of the many anti-CRT groups popping up around the country talks about "the many tentacles" of CRT; those tentacles include "'equity', 'diversity', BLM, 1619 project, social emotional learning, etc." They consider it a CRT red flag if a textbook claims to use culturally sensitive teaching. Parents Defending Education, one of the leading astro-turf groups in the fight is against "indoctrination" and wants a return to "non-political" education, and they want you to know that Americans (at least the real ones) hate "woke" policies. Nevada Family Alliance is opposed to the "victim/oppressor worldview" pushed by schools that are indoctrinating students to "lead the effort to accomplish 'social justice'".

CRT is everything, everywhere. 

It's fitting that some of these folks have linked CRT to Common Core, because the playbook is much the same. Define the term broadly, apply it to anything you don't like, dig up some wacky examples, raise some hell. (And don't forget to throw in some accusations of Marxism.)

There are several emerging trends.

One is the call to stamp out CRT in textbooks both on the local and state level. And since CRT is everywhere, it is certainly in any textbook you'd like to object to.

Silencing the materials is, of course, the necessary companion to the moves to silence teachers, seen in the many various versions of gag laws being passed and considered around the country, from a $5,000 fine in Kentucky for bringing CRT into your classroom, somehow, some way, to the chilling effects in a state like Florida where teachers were stripped of any job protections years ago.

All of the above exacerbated by growing encouragement and mechanisms for anonymous reporting of any district, school, or teacher who is doing Naughty Things. Fun for teachers to know that at any moment, someone could be turning them in for doing something that someone thinks is CRT-ish.

It is being used to energize a new wave of right-wing attempts to parachute into local school board elections and commandeer those groups (not that they haven't already done so in some places). This becomes part of a larger energizing of the base. "Joe Biden is a crazy socialist" didn't quite stick, so we're back to "They're coming to get you, and they're going to brainwash your children first!" 

Underneath all of this, is a simple call to, as one Twitter wag put it, "nuke the whole thing." CRT frenzy is proof positive for some folks that public schools are a threat to society and a boondoggle for the evil teachers unions and the whole thing should be done away with. For certain folks, the CRT panic is a win-win; they get to remake the public schools in their preferred image and/or they get to put more push behind choice programs to accelerate the profitable privatization of education. 

They told us what they're going to do, and they have already begun. There's a conversation worth having, somewhere in the midst of all this, about teaching about race and history, but this is surely not going to help us have that conversation.


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Another Version Of Choice

One of the slickest rhetorical tricks of the modern choice movement is to weld the idea of "choice" to the idea of privatization. 

We've been sold the notion that providing students with a school choice must involved privately owned and operated providers, as if the only conceivable way to provide school choice is by opening the "market" to private operators. I have a hard time escaping the feeling that we did not get here by asking, "How can we best provide educational options for students" but rather got her by asking "How can we best use these issues to promote the free market policies that we want to implement."

If we start with the first of those questions, there are so many more options available.

In fact, some are not new. Maine and Vermont have both had choice for decades; if your town doesn't have a school, then you can pick one somewhere else. My own small town high school offered plenty of choices, from CTE to college prep programs that sent students everywhere from community-ish college to ivy league schools. 

It would be efficient to operate choice under the school district or state banner. Certain specials could be shared by the different schools. Most of all, students could change their minds without having to upend their entire lives, and families would have the security of knowing that whatever they choose, it would still be accountable for the rules and regulations governing all public schools. In Andrea Gabor's After the Education Wars, you can read about an early school-within-a-school approach that successfully made use of this approach.

Choice under a district and state umbrella could also be modified to provide the kind of choice that many advocates say they want--the chance for students from poor neighborhoods to attend the same kinds of schools that rich neighborhoods have. The system could allow students to cross district lines to exercise their choice. (Do I think that would be enough to fix our segregation problem? No, I don't. But current choice systems don't, either. Both public and choice systems are too responsive to the desires of folks who want to get their children away from Those Peoples' Children. We'll need to force the erasure of gerrymandered school district boundaries and perhaps bring back bussing.)

There would be challenges with such a system. Any choice system--including the ones we've got right now--carries a greater total cost, because choice requires excess capacity. If you have 100 students and 100 total seats, those students have a very limited choice. For maximum choice, every school that could be a choice needs 100 seats. Reality will land somewhere in between, but the answer should always be more than 100 total seats.

That costs more, but with current choice systems that excess cost is hidden by the funding methods, with charters and private schools supplementing their revenue with contributions, and public schools making up lost revenue with either increased taxes or reduced services. In a public school choice system, all the extra cost would be transparently passed on to the taxpayer, instead of hidden. 

Choice advocates like to complain that public schools are one size fits all, yet within every public school building and district, there are folks with different ideas and philosophies, liberated in some districts and waiting to be liberated in others. And if legislatures can see the value of releasing charters and private schools from some rules and regulations, can't the same be done for public schools?

Charters were going to be great laboratories of educational experimentation, but after thirty years of experiments, charter schools have not produced a single new technique, a single new piece of educational insight. Mostly they have demonstrated that putting unsupervised amateurs in charge of schools is not a great idea (and if your educational bona fides are that you spent two years in a classroom on the back of five weeks of training, you're an amateur). And there are people who realy believe that an open market would foster quality and efficiency and, again, after thirty years, there's no evidence that this is true.

The idea of choice should, by its very nature, offer us a world of options, but in modern practice, it has only offered one--let privately owned and operated providers have a chance to get their hands on public tax dollars (and, in the process, breach the church-state wall so that taxpayers can fund religious education). There's no reason that this should be the only choice in choice.

The Vast Education Conspiracy

There are choice and reform advocates that I talk to, online style, fairly regularly. I do so because they are rational, fairly reasonable people and 1) I'll talk to almost anybody and 2) there's a lot of understanding to be gained by listening to people who disagree with you. I think these folks are wrong about a lot of education stuff, but they're still rational, fairly intelligent human beings.

There's a down side to talking to these folks--it sometimes leads me to forget about the other folks.

You can find those other folks fairly easily on Twitter, and sometimes they will find you (and if they do, they will generally bring a few dozen of their friends along). And they did not come for conversation.

What they bring with them is a constellation of beliefs, some of which are further out there than others.

Vast conspiracies can happen. This idea is fundamental, and can only be held by anyone who never tried to organize a work group of more than six people. Those six people couldn't coordinate, focus, stay on task, schedule a meeting, or keep any of the process quiet, but somehow hundreds of thousands of people have been enlisted, coordinated, weaponized, and kept quiet for all this time. (See also: deep state.)

Public education is bad. They would like to kill it with fire, abolish it, end it. It is horribly racist, unless it's involved in pushing indoctrination into Marxist woke evil race stuff. It is a conspiracy between the unions and Democrat politicians, set up to funnel money through the union into Democratic campaign coffers, with teachers being paid off to facilitate this by being given a sinecure that pays a bunch of money for doing nothing. Everyone who says a word in defense of public schools is simply trying to preserve this conspiracy.

Teachers hate children and don't want to teach. They went into teaching for the money and the summers off and they hate any attempt at accountability because then they'll get caught doing a terrible job and the jig will be up. Sometimes this even involves the sleeper cell theory of conspiracy, which is a feature I find astonishing. In this one, somebody fakes entering a field and doing well because they knew, somehow, that one day they would have a chance to turn around and attack (see, for instance, the theory that Dr. Fauci has been faking it for fifty years so that he could position himself to sow chaos in a fake coronavirus pandemic). 

Many folks have noticed that the revolt against "critical race theory" is reminiscent of the right-wing revolt against common core. First, define the term so broadly and loosely that it means "anything that upsets me." Then go hunting for extreme examples to use as a proxy for the whole thing. Then demonize away. I'm not and never have been a fan of the core, but not because I think it's a commie plot to turn our children into Marxist lesbians. And an ongoing conversation about race and history in this country is absolutely necessary; the fact that the prospect makes some folks angry-sad is just further prof of how necessary it is. 

But conversation with these folks is difficult (on Twitter, impossible). These folks are scared and angry about crt, about sex ed, about LGBTQ+ people, about schools not doing what they wanted them to during the pandemic, about "elites" taking away their control of their children, about white folks not being the center of the universe, about their children learning more in school than they did. In many (if not most) cases they've had five years to get all MAGAed up. They are mostly not stupid and mostly not evil, but they are loud and determined and destructive, and they are not in the mood for a conversation. 

Some days, I'm not sure how we get preserve and improve public education while they are intent on burning it down. Other days, I figure we just have to move forward without them. But they are the school policy version of our larger MAGA-style problem; how do you build a country with people who inhabit an alternative reality? I don't have an answer; I just have to remember that the question doesn't go away just because I can't always hear them in my bubble.


Sunday, June 13, 2021

ICYMI: Summer Break Begins Edition (6/13)

This weekend marks the beginning of summer break for all the staff here at the Institute (I, of course, am either always or never on break, depending on how you look at it). We have not quite hit our stride yet, but I'm sure it's coming. In the meantime, here are a few things for you to read from the week.

Is the Charter Schools Program funding white-flight academies?

Carol Burris makes a guest appearance at Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog to lay out some research showing that North Carolina charters are the modern version of segregation academies.

A magic school bus brings science class to schools in need

Hechinger Report looks at a program providing mobile labs for rural and low-income communities.

35 Baltimore-area schools dismiss early--no air conditioning

A reminder that infrastructure issues plague schools and create real, daily problems that trump arguments about policy and philosophy.

Struggling schools don’t get a boost from state takeovers, study shows

Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat looks at a recent study that shows that the sun rises in the East. No, seriously, there's now some science-flavored evidence for what we already knew was true-- the school takeover model doesn't work.

Justice Department says it can defend religious schools’ exemption from anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws

The Washington Post has this story looking at the nuances, legal maneuvering, and political disappointment behind the DOJ's announced willingness to back religious anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.


A new bill will lower the bar for what's required to shut down a charter school in Louisiana. For one legislator, that's just the start.


David Blight at the New Yorker takes a deep, thoughtful look at the history of how we argue about history. Old feuds, new battles, and the usual difficulty in understanding that history is not cemented in place.


John Warner notes that "bad things happen when children are used as units of global competition." In China, a generation is dropping out. Can the US learn anything?


Jenny Anderson at Kappan Online has some thoughts about how the world of ed reporting could be revamped and revitalized. I'm not sure I agree with everything she has to say, but it's a thought-provoking piece.


Vermont's voucher system has some unique features that made it a likely choice for one of the lawsuits trying to dismantle the wall between church and state, and those bricks have indeed fallen. This coverage is from the 74, but it's a good wrap-up of what happened.


The Pittsburgh Trib has this piece about a survey showing that, despite all the noise from the anti-public ed crowd, parents are mostly happy with how their schools performed during the pandemess.

Democracy Prep Founder and Thief, Seth Andrew: Spinner of Chaos.

Seth Andrew has already been arrested for stealing from the charter school chain he founded, but as the indispensable Mercedes Schneider lays out here, that's not the only mess he's been making.


McSweeney's with some more useful advice for faculty.











Saturday, June 12, 2021

Nevada Family Alliance: That Body Cams for Teachers Group

Nevada is yet another state where folks are whipped into a frenzy about "Critical Race Theory," which they can't entirely identify and therefor consider to include , apparently, anything about equity, diversity, racism and US history. But the headline item is one particular proposal-- attaching body cameras to all teachers to make sure they aren't indoctrinating children. 

Who's behind this really terrible idea?

“You guys have a serious problem with activist teachers pushing politics in the classroom, and there’s no place for it, especially for our fifth graders,” Karen England, Nevada Family Alliance executive director, told Washoe County School District trustees Tuesday.

So who is the Nevada Family Alliance?

That turns out to be a little unclear. 

According to their Facebook page, they've been around since at least 2016. They joined Twitter in 2017. They have about 2,600 Facebook fans and 147 Twitter followers. They're generally referred to as a non-profit, but there doesn't appear to be a Form 990 on file with the IRS for them. The site offers no actual physical address.

Their website listed as nevadafamilyalliance.org, but that takes you straight to reclaimingourschools.com. The "what we do" for the site includes Monitor & Research, Educate, and Act (although act is a little fuzzy--"We mobilize our network to impact the culture in real-time." Their issues are education, anti-LGBTQ+, and the whole constellation of Christianiat culture war stuff.

NFA has no particular clear understanding of what CRT actually includes. Rather, it's just a signifier of the large progressive plot, a chance to, as NFA puts it, take the "racial justice" ball and run with it:

Why? Because progressive activists in education can’t pass up a golden opportunity to indoctrinate our nation’s impressionable children with the victim/oppressor worldview.

 It’s as if they relish any chance to undermine parents’ efforts to rear children who are psychologically healthy, skilled in thinking critically, morally wise, and self-controlled.

And here they are, lumping it all together in just one paragraph:

Simply put, instruction in Critical Race Theory as presented in Black Lives Matter curriculum and The 1619 Project pushes American students down the road of hate. These poisonous classroom lessons immediately hook youth who are looking for meaning. The CRT revisionist telling of America’s history churns out angry activists who are eager to lead the effort to accomplish “social justice.” The twisting of true history causes students to feel unequal and undervalued, and then points them to the “oppressor” as a target.

NFA is particularly focused on Benchmark Advance textbooks being considered  by Washoe County schools. Says NFA's site, "Board President Dr. Angela Taylor has vehemently denied the Benchmark Advance curriculum contains ANY aspects of Critical Race Theory. Clearly, Dr. Taylor has not viewed the curriculum, or she does not know what Critical Race Theory is."

NFA offers links to these CRT lesson plans, though no explanation of how, exactly, these links prove NFA's point. The kindergarten units include "social justice guiding questions" which might be the trigger here, but the questions are scorchers like "How can the messages in stories make us feel safe and proud of who we are" and "What are small and large ways that people can help if someone is in danger?" in support of topics such as "Families are not all the same." I am not remotely well-schooled in CRT, but I do have to agree that somebody here  does not know what Critical Race Theory is, and it's probably not Dr. Taylor.

So who is this group, really?

Often when we dig into these groups, we find the usual web of professional advocates and money from, say, the Kochtopus (looking at you, Parents Defending Education). That doesn't seem to be the case here.

NFA's Twitter following is mostly folks; Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal group pushing to get public money for religious groups, hopped on late in the game. No other connections are readily noticeable.

In fact, there only seems to be one name associated with the group, and that's Karen England. But England has been a busy lady, and this is not her first rodeo. And yes, I noticed that her name is actually Karen. 

England (who doesn't have a LinkedIn account) has also served as head of California's Capitol Resource Institute, a non-profit that advocates for "religious freedom, life, the family, and parental rights" (she's right there on their home page). Their Form 990 history is spotty. Back in 2012, England was the Executive Director  drawing a salary of $27,600, about half what she was paid four years earlier. The chairman at the time was Tim LeFever. In the most recent 990 (2017) he and treasurer Richard Treakle are the only listed officers. In most years they ran through a couple hundred thousand dollars--average revenue $131K, with tens of thousands in assets (except for 2017, when they ended up $4K in the red). Most of their money was spent on publications and PR. In 2011, CRI tried to get a gay textbook law overturned. In 2015, they co-signed a letter from Mike Huckabee warning of the evils of a gay marriage ruling by SCOTUS. 

In addition to serving as member of the Board of Directors for Pacific Justice Institute, yet another religious anti-LGBTQ+ outfit, Tim Lefever is a politican, attorney, and co-owner of a real estate company, as well as member of the Board of Directors for Pacific Justice Institute, yet another religious anti-LGBTQ+ outfit; CRI for a while had offices in the same building as the real estate company. But that's just the company Karen England keeps. Before we get sucked too far down this rabbit hole, back to her.

England has worked against many issues, including sex ed, drag queen story hours, Clark County school district trans regulations (women will be assaulted in rest rooms), and student privacy (irony alert). "We need to take back the land that was given to us," she once said, referring to children. In 2012, she was National Coalitions Director for Rick Santorum's Presidential run. 

She was active for a while with the California Republican Assembly, a group for California's social conservatives, and boy, did she piss some folks off. And I mean other right wing Republicans, one of whom, Aaron F. Park, runs a blog that is mostly about right-leaning issues, but which also includes some scathing indictments of England (and LeFever) for fraud and bullying and failed initiatives and botched coup attempts, and calling her "either incompetent or completely corrupt." A blistering post entitled "Dear Nevada, Welcome to California's Night mare Known as Karen England" says, in part

Fraud is Fraud. No true conservative does the things Karen England does. I am of the opinion that Karen England is a charlatan and I will relate a body of evidence I have assembled from dealing with her up close. I have the battle damage to prove it, including a legal threat letter from her lawyer. (I note that her lawyer certifies in the letter that “Ms. England is NOT Mentally Ill”.)

England is also accused of sucking up to Tea Party members to build a power base, and of trading bribes for political endorsements by CRI. The rage just jumps off the screen; here's one last example:

Those of us that still care about the California GOP will be ten years cleaning up the trail of destruction she has left behind. If you are a liberal democrat, don’t pat yourself on the back. Nevada is a different state. It will see-saw between parties. Unless a dedicated group of good people from both sides of the aisle put down the issues and focus on the demonstrated pattern of personal and professional corruption – like a leech and a cancer, Ms. England will metastasize and you will all be in the cross-hairs yourselves.

That was in 2015. Park later reports with no small glee that England is not doing so well in Nevada.

Bottom line?

It seems entirely possible that Nevada Family Alliance is actually just Karen England and nobody else. It is entirely possible that hollering about indoctrination may be a sincere concern or it may be that she, like many others, smells an opportunity to gin up some attention and work her way into the big leagues. 

Here at the Curmudgucation Institute, where a broad range of members from across the broad range of places, believe, based on our many supporters and broad sampling of fronds from among the grass roots, that the idea of putting body cams on teachers is stupid, offensive, and a gross violation of student privacy, an issue that Ms. England claims to care about. Here at the Institute, located at a secret address that we aren't going to share, we also believe that Nevada Family Alliance is quite possibly a scam, and that Ms. England is, herself, full of it. 


Friday, June 11, 2021

Utopia Thinking (Education Is A Journey, Not A Destination)

One of the signs that Common Core was fatally flawed was not just that it was one size fits all, but that it was one size fits all in four dimensions, that it would fit not just every student today, but every student in the future for years and years and years to come. There was no review process, no mechanism in place to revisit and adjust parts of it, not even an organization to provide oversight and reflection. And the guys who wrote it just released it and then walked away, moving on their next gigs. 

"Set it and forget it," is terrible education policy. Education exists at the intersection of innumerable strands of tension. Tension between the student's potential and what they are actually doing, between the curricular demands on the teacher and the realities in the classroom, between the expectations of the hundred different stakeholders, between following the program and being swept by the issues of the day, between autonomy and accountability (for everyone), between the demands of society and the desires of the student, between the weight of history and the press of the present, between the hundreds of pieces of content all clamoring for a piece of the limited time pie, and on and on and on and on and on. 

All of them shift on a daily basis, and every shift moves the target. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

You can pick your favorite metaphor. When I was blowing up my first marriage, I was trying to drive the bus by tying the wheel in place and setting a brick on the gas pedal, and every time I hit a tree, I deduced that I had tied the wheel in the wrong place and retied it. Not until it was too late did I realize that I had to actually drive the bus. Education is like that, too. The conditions change every day, and you have to steer to accommodate them.

So many attempts to "fix" education, both within the modern ed reform world and outside of it, involve a search for that perfect place, where we can just plunk everyone down and declare "Nobody move a muscle. If we just stay right here, things will be perfect." 

It takes many forms. No excuses schools try to block out as many factors as they can--teacher individuality, student circumstances, the random eruptions of human behavior--so they can stay locked in an education Utopia. Curriculum in a box, scripted teaching programs, teaching material "with fidelity," going "all in" on a particular education philosophy--all attempts to place a school in the middle of an educational Utopia and lock it in place. 

But that's not how education works. In fact, that's not how any human relationship works. There is no locking in on a perfect place because the definition of "perfection" changes every day, shifting with all the many tensions that we balance while we live in the world. We change. The students change. Circumstances change. Needs change. Strengths and weaknesses ebb and flow. We keep moving.

I understand the desire to find that perfect place and lock down in it. It's human to want to know that we have things set up so that tomorrow and tomorrow and a hundred thousands tomorrows yet to come will all be okay, that things are going to work the way they're Supposed To. Uncertainty and unpredictability are inefficient, and scary, plus if we could get things locked down ahead of time, we wouldn't have to deal with it in the moment all over again every single day. 

The often-unspoken part of Utopia thinking is "We'll get these things locked down in the perfect place--and then they will never change forever." Utopia is not only locked in place, but in time. And that's simply not how human existence works. We grow, we expand, we change, we learn. 

And so every idea to fix education that involves locating the solution, imposing the solution, and then locking it in place is doomed, doomed, doomed, just as surely as a wish that your ice cream cone stay just like this forever. Education is a journey, not a location, and it always has to keep moving. 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dear Teacher At The End Of The 2020-2021 School Year


Congratulations.

You have made it to the end of the year which I'm pretty sure is burned into your brain as the worst in your career. But I am hugely impressed.

You did a lot of above-and-beyond things this year. All that retooling of lessons and materials for zoomification. All the driving of paper packets out to BFE so that the kids living in a shack without indoor plumbing or wifi could still do the work (which they mostly didn't, but you still made that possible for them anyway). The time you spent going in to school so that you could hand out lunches which meant not only that the kids could eat but that they could get the food from a friendly teacher face. The many phone calls you made just to try to find all the students and their families. 

Then the district opened the building after half-developing some policies which they then sort of followed, but you went in there and did the work and did your best to watch out for the kids, including the ones who were "challenging," in ways that I'm pretty sure would have been far more manageable in an ordinary year. The pandemic demanded both more instructional invention and emotional support for students and teachers alike. You stepped up.

You said that the end-of-year gifts from students were a little different this year. More heartfelt. I wonder if the zooming didn't make them more personally close to you, or if they simply appreciated how hard you worked at it this year. 

That would make sense, because you were a beast this year. You worked so damn hard, even when you didn't know what was going to happen next, even when you didn't know if the students were even seeing or hearing what you were doing, even when the country and the state provided no leadership or guidance (like, for some reason, this is one time they don't want to micro-manage you). 

It was a physically and emotionally taxing year, and you looked out for your colleagues, and you still took care of your family and managed something like a life beyond school. 

I know that what looms large for you is all the times you fell short, the lessons you didn't get to teach, the students you didn't connect with, the things you always look at and say, "If I were a better teacher, this would have gone better." You got an email of appreciation from the parents of one of your challenge students, and instead of fist-pumping the air and yelling, "Yay me," you cried because you don't think you did enough  for that child.

But I'm telling you that you were a damn hero this year (well, every year, but especially this year) and that you managed to make an omelet in the middle of a tornado and assemble an origami giraffe while on the back of a bucking bronco. You took care of your kids--and taught them--in the midst of chaos, with far less help than you deserved. Rest up. You've earned it. 


It's possible that I have one particular teacher in mind here, but I figured I'd post this for all the other teachers to whom it applies.

Educating the Unreadable Heart

The ongoing debate about teaching about race and history is a reminder of one of the fundamental challenges of education in a free society-- we may want to reach hearts and minds, but we can't read them.

The twins just turned four, and we are at one of the magical stages of childhood-- the Lie Your Tiny Ass Off stage. It's not that they are morally or ethically impaired, exactly. It's just that they've learned that there are "correct" answers to certain questions. If I ask, "Did you wash your hands," they know that I'm looking for a "yes." So why not give me what I want? They just haven't quite grasped yet the value of making their words correspond to reality.

Most humans catch on soon enough, but that basic skill never leaves them. 

Most, if not all, teachers want to influence young hearts and minds, not just program some correct answers into young humans. But you can never be absolutely sure you've accomplished it. That's why when people start throwing up their hands and wailing about how teachers are indoctrinating children, teachers are thinking, "I just spent a month trying to convince students that Ralph Waldo Emerson isn't stupid, and I'm not sure it went all that well. I'm not sure I'm the one to convince them to reject all the values they've picked up at home." 

In a classroom where one particular idea or value is clearly preferred, the learning most likely to occur is learning to give the "correct" answer in response to any prompt. The more clear you are on what answer is "correct," the less certain you can be that students actually believe what they are saying or writing. 

My old school, like many, had a Prom Promise program in which students signed a pledge not to drink on Prom night; a signed pledge got them trinkets like free pens and an entry into a prize drawing. One of my students observed that it was mostly about making adults feel good because they'd received those promises, and students meanwhile felt no compunction about going back on the pledge they'd made in exchange for a cheap bribe.

It's not nefarious dishonesty; it's just giving grown-ups what they want. But if we're not careful, we unintentionally teach some lessons not about race or history, but about how the game is played. 

All we have as a tool for assessing what is in hearts in minds are various forms of outward behavior, from picking a correct answer from four options on up to constructing a complex essay. This is one of the central tensions in a classroom-- a teacher trying to design a set of hoops to jump through that will separate those who have really learned from those who really haven't, and students trying to find the easiest way to navigate those hoops. 

This is why openness matters in a classroom. If students learn in September that they will get slapped down quickly for saying the wrong thing, they'll stop trying to understand or absorb or grapple in any honest way with the material, and they will focus instead on the central problem of "what does the teacher want me to say." If a student can't say X in your classroom, you will never have a productive conversation about X.

This is also, I think, why teachers sense that engagement is important. The "what does the teacher want" question is skin deep; it keeps the whole subject at arms' length; real thinking actually gets in the way. Student engagement means more involvement of the hearts and minds that we're trying to reach, and that means it's just a bit easier to read the unreadable.

Insisting on one single simplified view of a topic in a classroom isn't just a barrier to critical thinking; it's also a guarantee that whatever effect you hope to have on those hearts and minds, you are getting in your own way. If you believe those smiling faces all telling you exactly what to hear, well, I know a couple of four year olds who would love to tell you about how they washed their hands.