Tuesday, September 28, 2021

PA: Cyber School 101

As is often the case in education, some people are just now noticing something that's been going on for a while. In this case, it's the financially destructive and educationally suspect nature of cyber schooling. So I'm going to try to collect the basics here in one post, suitable for sharing with anyone who's just arrived at the party.

Before we start, let me add the usual caveat--cyber schools (or "virtual schools" as they're sometimes called) are a great option for a non-zero number of students. Anecdotally, you can always find a kid for whom cyber education worked. But we're going to look at the larger picture, and there are issues. Sooo many issues.

The basics. A cyber school is a privately operated charter school that exists as an online connection. Students typically are given a "free" computer, and do their school work by logging in and completing lessons online. An online teacher, out there somewhere, checks the student work and may provide some instructional support. In Pennsylvania, a parent can place their child in cyber school at any time for any reason. Reasons range from a program that fits the student needs to a parent who's tired of being threatened with a truancy fine. Many districts also use cyber schools for "credit recovery" aka make-up classes to get enough credits to graduate. Students typically average only two years in cyber school, with many either returning to their home district or just never graduating at all.

Cyber schools are paid with public tax dollars, typically "billing" the student's home district. The costs are huge--Pennsylvania reimburses cybers based on the student's home district's per-pupil costs, and not what it actually costs to educate students via online school. In most districts, a "regular" student might land in the $10-15K range; Tom Wolf's proposal, from reality-based numbers, would give cybers a flat fee of $5,950.  (The numbers are even worse when you look at special needs students, but that's a rabbit hole for another day).

Taxpayers are massively overpaying for bad cyber schooling in PA. The profit margins are huge; cyber charters are rolling in money, while districts get clobbered and research suggesting that poorer districts get clobbered most of all. The cost in tax dollars is huge; in 2016-2017, $463 million in taxpayer dollars went to Pennsylvania cyber charters.

Cyber charters are largely founded and operated by businessmen, not educators. K12 (now Stride), one of the cyber giants, was founded by a Goldman-Sachs investment banker and funded by junk bond king and convicted felon Michael Milken. (K12, like several players in the field, has been caught misbehaving multiple times.) Another major cyber chain is a sub-business of Pearson, the textbook publishing company. 

Results? The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University generally favors charters and choice, but their research results about cyber schools is pretty harsh. Cybers were found not just to be weaker than the home school in academics, leaving students half a year behind in English and a full year behind in math*-- in effect, a student would be just as far ahead to stay home and play video games for a year. In Pennsylvania, no cyber charter has ever met the state PSSA or Keystone testing benchmarks for academic performance

The picture is so bad that in 2016, the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers--people whose whole business is to promote charters--issued a report saying that virtual charters were in big trouble.

Back then, there were 135 cybers operating with 180,000, with the majority in the big three states for cybers-- California, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. One quarter of the cybers enrolled 80% of all cyber students, meaning that most cyber students were in "schools" of over 1,000 students. Student-teacher ratios in cyber schools can get pretty high, though cybers tend to be pretty coy about the actual numbers.

There are operational issues. Student attendance is just a matter of logging in each day. More can be done--Minnesota actually implemented an aggressive and effective cyber-truancy program. But in PA, we're not doing it.

Oversight of charters is minimal. When Nicholas Trombetta used Pennsylvania Cyber School to funnel $8 million tax dollars to himself, it was federal authorities and not the state that finally caught him. Two years ago the Philadelphia Inquirer discovered that of Pennsylvania's 15 cyber charters, 10 were operating with expired charters. Cybers are not even subjected to audits. Multiple attempts have been made by members of both parties to tighten the rules so that cyber charters would be subject to, at least, the same rules as everyone else. But cyber charters lobby hard, and spend plenty of money in Harrisburg (a national pattern). Some states are pushing back against bad cybers, but in PA, there's still no progress.

The pandemic has, of course, given a big boost to cyber enrollment, and they are not above using anti-mask panic to help lift their numbers. Pennsylvania districts do have an option to try to stem the cost-- they can set up their own in-house cyber school, which has the dual benefit of keeping the money in the district and keeping students from falling too far behind academically. 

It's a mess, and it's draining small rural districts like the ones in my area. I often share this factoid--almost ten years ago, my old district closed an elementary school in hopes of saving about $800K. Their cyber school costs that year? About $800K. And to add insult to injury, as school boards try to deal with this large (and unpredictable) loss of revenue by cutting programs, the public slams them for doing a bad job of managing taxpayer money. This primer is for those folks. 



*Measuring education in years and months is extreme oversimplification, but I'm trying to keep things simple here. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Teaching Lessons from Community Theater

I've been directing school and community theater productions for a long time, and I've learned a lot, much of which directly parallels the work of a teacher in the classroom (there are plenty of ways to frame teaching, but for me it has always largely been performance). Here are a few.

Don't Waste Time Pining for the Cast You Don't Have

In professional theater, you can afford to be picky. In community/school theater, not so much. You get what you get, and that's what you have to build a show out of. You can't try to lead the cast as if they were other people with other skill sets; you have to take them where they are and build from there.

Sometimes this leads to great things you hadn't really planned for. Every community theater director has a tale of gender-switching a role, pretty much always turning a male character female (because way too many roles are written for men, and men are not what you have an excess of in community/school theater). And it turns out that some changes strike cool little notes--for instance, when Belle in Beauty and the Beast has a wacky inventor mother rather than a wacky inventor father, it strikes some interesting deep notes. 

But you absolutely work with the cast you have, not the one you wish you had. And you don't view the cast you have as "less than"-- just different from the one you imagined. Ditto for your class. It's a toxic waste of time to be frustrated with your students because they aren't other students (e.g the awful "Last year's kids didn't do this")

You Don't Do It Alone

I've never worked a show in which I did not desperately depend on the work of costumers, tech folks, set designers and builders, and all the people working hard but invisibly as the show runs. Teaching often looks, and feels, like a solitary profession, but in the classroom you are leaning on the work of other members of your department, your students' previous teachers, the school's support staff, the special ed department, the building administrative assistants, and, if you are fortunate, your administration. 

On stage and in school, you have to learn who you can trust and depend on, and for what, and how much. Building a support network is hugely useful.

Big Ideas Need Practical Support

In community/school theater, it's not just about the actor's performance. You have to answer questions about how we'll build that piece, how we'll light that moment, how we'll store those set pieces off stage (fun fact--the awesome community theater I work in has little wing space and only enough fly space to "hide" something that's no more than seven feet tall). Failing to figure out the nuts and bolts has sunk many a production, and many a lesson. "That will just happen, somehow," is never a plan. Even if you think you've bypassed the problem by staging Our Town or some minimalist production design, you'll find you never really have.

Leave Room for Things To Happen

I've seen directors micromanage shows, telling every actor and every production staff member exactly what to do, detail by detail. It's a rough way to go--it robs everyone else of their agency, and it means the quality of the production rests entirely on the auteur being right about everything, all the time, every time. It also requires the director to exert, even waste, a great deal of energy and power bending everyone else to his will. It creates a toxic environment, an environment that people will walk away from. This kind of thing persists only because of the persistent myth of the awesome genius whose brilliant vision redeems his toxic behavior. 

We have the Visionary CEO model of school management, the goal of "teacher-proof" classes that script a teachers every word and move, and the classroom of the "genius" teacher who demands total compliance from every student. 

All of these are problematic for the reasons given above, but there's one more issue to consider. As a director, I find that when I leave room for actors and crew to create, imagine, extend and just generally fill in the spaces, wonderful things happen. It's a tricky balance-- you can't just say, "Everyone go out on stage and move around the way you feel like moving," but you have to leave some space for what they want to bring to the moment. 

The more one insists on total control in a classroom, the less opportunity there is for real things to happen, for students to bring a direction and energy to the classroom that allows learning to erupt. Doesn't mean the teacher just sits back and does nothing--as with all things in a classroom (and life), balance is needed. Total control does not offer healthy or robust balance.

Success Doesn't Always Look The Way You Thought It Would

If you are adamantly welded to one vision of a scene, you will miss other opportunities that present themselves as you work through the process. I believe this is pretty much a major rule for life, so on stage and in a classroom, it make sense to me that it would also be true. This doesn't mean you can't hold fast to things that you value, but every vision can be tempered with time, experience, and circumstances that you didn't foresee.

In community theater, it's great to have big ideas and to push the envelope of what your space can handle. But it's practical to have a Plan B (and possible Plans C through Z) because maybe that cool set piece won't work properly or something won't get built because the set guy had to spend the week on a family emergency (because everyone in community theater has a job and a life outside of the theater) or your lead won't be able to learn to juggle after all. So you move on to your next plan. And that's okay. 

If You Focus On Your Objective, You Are Hard To Derail

So this weekend, we used fog for our production of the Wizard of Oz, and it worked successfully all week--and then on opening night, it set off the fire alarm. Blaring honks, flashing lights, and the actors just kept doing their thing, and so the audience, with almost no hubbub, sat there. If you know what you're doing, and you keep focused on doing it, you are hard to move off track. True in the classroom as well. I never could quite understand teachers who were flummoxed by, say, an administrator popping in. Keep your eye on that destination and keep pushing toward it.

Everyone ought to do a little theater, on stage or behind it. It provides some useful perspective and some helpful lessons.


Sunday, September 26, 2021

ICYMI: Curtain Up Edition (9/26)

 The challenge of mounting and opening a full sized show in the age of covid is--well, in a couple of weeks I'm going to lie down and take a huge nap. And maybe I'm a little behind on my reading. But here's some stuff for this week.

School hasn't changed in 100 years. So saith TFA.

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider on the Teach for Awhile version of the popular unchanged education idea...

Whatever happened to the classroom of Tomorrow?

Those of us of a Certain Age recall Apple's big education idea. Larry Cuban looks at where that actually went.

Is the big test headed for the big crash?

Dad Gone Wild with a look at the Big Standardized Test on the ropes.

To achieve educational justice, we need more black teachers

I suspect that there are many areas in which Sharif El-Mekki and I disagree, but I see no flaws in his continued argument that we need more Black teachers in our classrooms. Here he is making it again, this time in EdSurge

Questioning Valor Charters

Cult-style SEL and a big bucks charter chain. Nancy Bailey blogs about what is going on with this set of aggressively marketed charters.

The myth that better schools will reduce inequalities in wealth

Somehow, Larry Cuban makes not one but two rare appearances on this list today. This piece is a thoughtful look at one of the major tensions in education, between public good and private advantage.

Teachers are not okay

Steven Singer talks about wear and tear and stress in the education trenches.




Friday, September 24, 2021

Almost unlocking a mystery of SAT scores

So close. Sooooo close!!

Covering the release of SAT scores this year, WTOP news noted two results and put them right in the headline: 

Va., Md. SAT scores rise, but number of test-takers plunges

It's the "but" that tells us that somehow, they didn't manage connect the dots, which is a shame, given there were only two.


Of course, they mean average test scores rose, and understanding averages is important here. It has always been important when reading the latest stories about SAT scores.

Any high school teacher can tell you-- "Let me pick who gets to take the SAT, and I can give you dramatically higher test scores in just a single year!" Because averages.

This year we measured only 5th and 6th graders for height, instead of K-6, and we find the average height of children in our school has increased. We did a survey of car prices; last year we surveyed all dealers, but this year we surveyed only Lexus dealers, and we find that the average price of a car has gone up. 

We've spent years marketing the SAT's flagship product to all students (in some states, we've snookered the government into requiring it), so as we add students who might not have been inclined to take the test to go ahead and take it, the average score is affected. That's how the results for every sub group can go up even as the overall average goes down. 

Now throw in a pandemic year in which students who are having a rough time just don't take the test, leaving it only to those who are well-buffered from the pandemic (and whose buffering is the same sort of socio-economic background that is an advantage on the test) and voila!! Instant increase in average score.

What we have here is just one more example of why test scores from the pandemic are not worth a thing. They can't be compared to any year, they can't really be normed accurately, and they just kind of mean nothing. But we're still going to be subjected to stories that can't manage to draw a line between two data points.

Critical Race Theory Panic Continues To Widen Its Aim

Moms for Liberty is one of the frontline groups fighting against "critical race theory" and a whole lot of other things. Launched initially as anti-maskers and anti-school closers, they quickly moved on to anti-race stuff. They are another of the groups that has hired some pros and generally displayed available resources that are impressive--even unbelievable-- for just a group of moms.

They're also an excellent example of how "Critical Race Theory" has become an umbrella term, a socially acceptable way to say, "I want all that Black race stuff out of my school."

MFL franchises itself through local activists, like the Tennessee chapter run by Robin Steenman, whose child attends private school but who is nonetheless "fed up with the way the public schools of Franklin, Tennessee are teaching kids about race."

Tennessee is a soft target for these attacks on public education because it has a law against "critical race theory," except of course that hardly anyone throwing the term around has any idea what it means or how one would prove that a public school teacher was teaching it, despite Governor Bill Lee saying that it's un-American.

Steenman sent a letter to the state Department of Education in June accusing Willamson County Schools of violating the state's gag law, but the specific charges are chilling. The Daily Beast reports on an 11-page appendix to the letter, a spreadsheet of all the objections submitted by parents, and they are--well, covering a very broad spectrum

Accompanying that letter is an 11-page spreadsheet with complaints about books on the district’s curriculum, ranging from popular books on civil rights heroes to books about poisonous animals (“text speaks of horned lizard squirting blood out of its eyes”), Johnny Appleseed (“story is sad and dark”), and Greek and Roman mythology (“illustration of the goddess Venus naked coming out of the ocean...story of Tantalus and how he cooks up, serves, and eats his son.”) A book about hurricanes is no good (“1st grade is too young to hear about possible devastating effects of hurricanes”) and a book about owls is designated as a downer. (“It’s a sad book, but turns out ok. Not a book I would want to read for fun,” an adult wrote of the owl book in the spreadsheet.)

There's way more in the list of 31 objectionable books. Spanish and Creole words might be "confusing for children." A fictional Civil War book is naughty in part because it depicts "out of marriage families between white men and black women." Someone objects to a book about Galileo because there is no "HERO of the church" to contrast with their mistakes in persecuting the astronomer. Also, there's too much sexy picture of sea horse mating in a sea horse book. 

This is right on par with the York, PA district that "froze" the use of some books (not a ban, nosirree) including books like I Am Rosa Parks by Brad Metzler, a really well-done children's book about her work (he's got a million kid biographies--you can see his work on the PBS Xavier Riddle series). I've read this book to the Board of Directors at least a zillion times, and there seems little to be upset about unless you find it objectionable that a couple of white people are depicted as being mean to her. After student protests (and lots of bad press), York's all-white board reversed the ban

But this appears to be where we're headed. Anything that parents or random citizens don't like, anything at all, can now be protested or reported to the authorities. Just say the magic words ("critical race theory"). We're talking broad, wide, stormtrooper-caliber aim, and it would be funny if these wild shots weren't hitting real targets, actual live students and teachers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

If You Have Missed Michelle Rhee...

She Who Must Not Be Named is back, a little.

One of the early examples of how one can parlay two years in Teach for America into a career as an educational "expert," she took over DC schools, launched some advocacy groups, established herself as a major brand (the Kim Kardashian of education reform), and then--poof. Her career turned out to be brief after all

Dogged by controversy and revelations about her non-miraculous miracles, she retired to Sacramento with hubby and NBA star Kevin Johnson (who has had problems of his own). She was on the board of Miracle-Gro and a Sacramento charter school run by Johnson (apparently no longer). 

But you can still, apparently, hire Rhee to come speak from around $30,000 to $50,000--less if you want her to speak virtually. 

Somebody has taken her up on that.

Sacramento State has an annual Student Academic Success Day. This year's is coming up on September 27. Entitled "I Fly: Resilient, Relentless and Resourceful," the day is meant "to inform and inspire students and the community to lay out a blueprint of success that fosters lifelong dreams and achievements." It will be an all-virtual event, and will include some awards (Principals and Leaders, A Woman Who Takes Flight, Optimism). There are workshops and sessions and speakers. Three of them. 

The opening session speaker is Kevin Bracy, known as Coach Greatness and a busy motivational speaker. At noon, "leading educational expert, author, and one of the premier motivational speakers in the education arena," Jeremy Anderson.

And, as you have already guessed, the leaders and principals summit keynote speaker is Rhee

Her bio for the event is creative. For instance, in writing about her appearance on the public stage as DC school chief, we're told "Under Michelle’s leadership, the worst performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both their state reading and state math scores in seventh, eighth and tenth grades over three years." Except that her work in DC, besides being divisive, turned out to be smoke, mirrors, and cheating. She saw "bureaucratic barriers as a key problem in improving the school system," which is a fair representation of the mindset of the wave of reforminess that Rhee represents, the wave of hubris-infused amateurs who believed that no rules or regulations or other human beings should stand in the way of implementing their genius ideas. 

I suppose that Rhee is a fine choice for a gathering entitled "resilient, relentless, and resourceful," because she has certainly managed to just keep on swinging, even in the face of a single notable success in the field she elbowed her way into. I'm just going to hope that this is a gig of convenience and not an attempt to get back into the ed biz. If you're curious, you can register to zoom in on her address

Sunday, September 19, 2021

ICYMI: Tech Sunday Edition (9/19)

Yes, I'm directing a community theater production again, and in the time of covid it's quite the adventure. This time it's the Wizard of Oz, and today we enter the final run-up to performance, so if I don't seem to be logging as many hours at the Institute, that's why. But we have reading for today.

Ida's Wild Ride

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider keeps us updated on her Ida-related adventures, and how education in her classroom will prevail.

Separate and Unequal

Bruce Baker and Mark Weber have done some important research about funding and education in New Jersey.

Steve Bannon hopes homeschooling moms will be his new shock troops

The Daily Beast has been watching this political storm brewing. Take with a grain of salt, but pay attention.

Big money in selling charter schools

Carol Burris over at the Washington Post lays out a crazy pants story of how one charter group is all about making big real estate dollars.

How republicans turned school choice into a losing issue

A Jennifer Berkshire piece at The Nation takes us to the Pompeo/DeVos choice pep rally in New Hampshire. I told you this was coming, but she actually went. 

Black educators silenced from teaching America's racist past

Melinda Anderson takes a look at some effects of the CRT panic

School boards and other political targets

Nancy Flanagan takes a look at the current wave of attacks on school boards.

Our Faculty Success Initiative Redefines Everything You Thought You Knew about "Faculty" and "Success"

McSweeney's scores with yet another darkly comic look at education baloney.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

School Choice Isn't Uber. It's LulaRoe.

I didn't mean to watch; I really didn't. But my wife started in on the LulaRoe documentary and I was sucked in. Mostly because the founding couple, DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham are such truly awful people, but they were awful in a way that immediately rang a bell. 

There are some superficial similarities. In particular, the multi-level marketing pyramid scheme aspects of LulaRoe, where the focus is not on the actual product, but on recruiting more people for the organization--that rang a bell (kind of like treating people as if each one was carrying a backpack full of cash). 

But what really resonated was the attitude of the founders. 

DeAnne and Mark talk a lot about freedom and choice. They talk about liberating their members, giving them choices and opportunities in their lives. But when your LulaRoe business doesn't work out, Mark wants you to know that it's your own damn fault, that you didn't work hard enough or have the moral fiber or the hustle and you're making excuses. 

We've seen these people before. They believe the marketplace is God's own way of sorting out the deserving from the undeserving. Their own wealth and success are a result of their superior awesomeness, not the luck of timing and circumstance. And if you are poor, that is a reflection of your unworthiness, your moral failings, your character flaws, and trying to boost you out of that is to go against the laws of nature. The implication underlying all this?

Not everyone can succeed, and not everyone should.

This is not an idea that translates well to public education, but it is a foundational belief about how the world works, and their ideas about the freedom to rise or fall on your merits echo those of fellow multi-level millionaires, Dick and Betsy DeVos (in fairness, Betsy's money also comes from the manufacture of auto parts). 

It's the Betsy DeVos Education Freedom universe, parents get their vouchers and are cut loose in the marketplace. And if they later come back complaining that they were bilked by bad actors or snookered by a snake oil salesman or left stranded  by a suddenly-closed non-public school or were in a community that the "market" chose to pass by or they simply couldn't make the combo of their voucher and their own money stretch far enough for an effective education--well, as Mark Stidham would tell them, we gave you the freedom and the opportunity and if you didn't make it work out, well, that's on you. You didn't have the virtue or the character or the grit or the hustle to make it work. Stop making excuses. 

Betsy DeVos liked to compare school choice to Ubers, or food trucks. But her worldview is on display in the LulaRoe saga, along with all the broken people and dreams that it leaves behind. 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

FL: The Big Standardized Test is dead. Long live the Big Standardized Test!

 As widely noted, Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis has had a testing epiphany. "More learning and less test prep," he says, and his right hand education man Richard Corcoran says, gee, testing really is a waste of as lot of time (he only just noticed this during the pandemic BS Test suspension period). Man, that Big Standardized Test is bad news, says the top guys in the state that wrote the book on the cult of testing.

If you follow me over at Forbes, you know I've already written about this. However, at Forbes my job is to be reasonably calm, considered and factual. I come here to the Institute to vent my spleen, and my spleen says that this all smells like a lot of fertilizer. 

Or as a friend of mine put it, Florida is replacing CCSS with B.E.S.T. and the governor now wants to replace FSA with F.A.S.T., and it all will produce C.R.A.P.

The governor's proposal is to replace the Big Standardized Test with progress monitoring. In other words, instead of one big high-stakes standardized test at the end of each year, an unending string of high-stakes standardized tests throughout the entire year. The BS Test would be gone, but all of the high stakes, from the stupid school letter grade rating system to test-based teacher evaluations--that stuff stays. The ability to run down the public education system as a means of marketing Florida's fifty-seven varieties of school choice--that stays. 

So while DeSantis has now disavowed two key pillars of Jeb Bush's reformy policy, the heart and soul--crush public education and sell off the parts--is still firmly in place.

In some ways, F.A.S.T. is worse, because testing and punishing assessing throughout the year means that the high stakes never let up. And assuming that this unending barrage of tests is delivered by computer, Florida would be generating a mountain of student data. That's a lot of money, and it's also an opportunity to start deep and damaging files for each of those students. 

Computer-delivered low-cost high-data-yield competency-based education-flavored products have been a dream of some folks for years now. Now one looks to be taking a shot.

The state government and department of education are already treating this as a done deal (presumably the legislature will do as it's told) and bragging that they are the first state in the nation to go this route. We'll see if the feds think this is an acceptable way to meet the requirements of ESSA. It's going to make some testing company a load of cash, set new standards for data mining, and show new heights in test-centered schooling (every week is test prep week). And it will presumably provide DeSantis a better way to garner some national political 2024 attention (because going pro-covid isn't looking like a winner right now). Of course, Jeb Bush thought he was going to ride education to the White House as well...

But if you aren't paying attention to this story, you should, because when it comes to destructively bad ideas in education, all roads lead us back to Florida. Guaranteed that GOP strategists around the country are watching this and thinking, "Hmmm.... maybe we should try this..."

DeSantis is making a play for it; all the more interesting because he's burned the single BS Test bridge behind him. There's not really any "Oh, I guess the Big Standardized Test is awesome after all" way back. He's committed. Here's hoping nobody else gets encouraged by it.


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

How To Undermine The Teaching Of Reading

No, this is not yet another salvo in the reading wars, because I don't  care where you fall on the pure phonics -- just take your holistic guess continuum, you have to believe in the power of content knowledge. 

There's plenty of evidence of the importance of content knowledge, though I'm partial to the old baseball experiment, in which it turned out that students have a higher reading comprehension level if you ask them to read about topics where their content knowledge is strong. 

This doesn't seem particularly mysterious. Sounding out words isn't all that helpful if the sounds add up to a word I've never heard before. And my ability to form an educated guess is limited to things I actually know something about. 

Unfortunately, the high stakes testing area has asked us to think of reading as a collection of "skills" that are sort of free-floating and unattached to actual content, as if "find the main idea" is a task that can be completed by a third grader as easily in a paragraph about baseball as in a paragraph about the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. 

And yet the stars are aligned to once again give the short end of the stick to content knowledge rich areas. Worried about getting those test scores back up (because that's how Learning Loss is going to be measured in their neighborhood), administrators are bearing down on reading classes. I have not yet heard of anyone repeating the worst excesses of one former principal in my old district; he took students with low pre/practice test scores and putted them in two math and two reading classes per day and pulled them out of math and science entirely. But plenty of administrators are hurting the cause in other ways. For instance, elementary principals like to stick history and science in lousy time slots-- last fifteen minutes before lunch, last twelve minutes before lining up for buses, only once a week. 

Deciphering words without a connection to content knowledge is not only harder, but it's an unfinished process, like opening a door to nowhere. And not just a door to nowhere, but a door without hinges or a frame. Trying to teach reading without content knowledge is like teaching a student how to open a door with just a door, by itself, lying in the middle of a field. You can teach them the parts of the door and how a doorknob works, but it's really hard to operate the door that way, and not very fun or interesting.  Love of reading, the most desirable outcome, requires an ability to understand and operate the door (decipher the words), but it also requires the door to open up on a world, not a blank nothing. 

Look, tortured metaphors aside, this is an area in which I agree with people I often disagree with in other areas-- when the Board of Directors is ready to learn to read, I want the foundation to be built on tons of content knowledge and vocabulary. I don't give a rat's hairy tushy about their DIBELS scores, and I already know they can pretend to read (If you want someone to provide a dramatic recitation of "Mighty, Mighty Construction Site," I've got your guys right here). When they sound out a word, I want them to recognize it. When they struggle through a text, I want them to have enough understanding of what's going on to use a context to help them. I want them to grasp that the marks on the page correspond to actual Things in the World, and I want their teachers to help them fill their brains up with all the knowledge of all the things.

And not because content knowledge will help them raise their test scores but because the whole point of the written word is to transmit understanding and knowledge and ideas and feelings and insights across space and time, human to human. Content knowledge, rich and deep and broad, is an aid to reading because it is the whole point and purpose of reading. "Reading," whether by decoding or by best-guessing, without any connection to the world, is just a performative school trick that misses the point and purpose of language. Don't shortchange content knowledge so that you can teach reading. Teach children content so that you can teach them to read.

Monday, September 13, 2021

What's Too Controversial for the Classroom

John Wallis was a fresh new teacher, hired to teach drama, world mythology, and speech and debate at Neosho Junior High in southwestern Missouri. He hung a gay pride flag and a sign saying "In This Classroom, EVERYONE Is Welcome." He was told a parent complained, so he took the items down. Students asked why. He explained, said the flag did not represent what he would teach in his class, and went a bit further:

“But I followed it up by saying, ‘If you have a problem with the flag representing me, or students who identify as LGBTQ+, then you can probably find a different class,’” said Wallis. He said that prompted more complaints from parents.

He was then asked to sign a letter saying he would keep his "personal agenda on sexuality" out of the classroom, including no displays of any references to gender or sexuality. 


Not the first or last teacher to be out of a job over personal beliefs in the classroom, but we're definitely into an era in which it's getting harder to see where the line is. (And we should note that the line's presentation via the press is also muddied up because we can never be certain that we're getting all of sides and all of the details visible at ground zero.)

There are certainly limits to a teacher's speech, both legal and ethical. Legally, teachers are government employees and that means they don't enjoy the full freedom of speech in a classroom as a private citizen on the street. That is exactly why a classroom teacher cannot legally lead her students in prayer--because that would constitute a government endorsement of a particular religious faith. And yes, there's a deep irony in the fact that the same people who want to erode that particular barrier want to erect an iron-clad one around teachers who bring "controversial issues" into the room.

The "How To" for handling controversial issues in an academic way is not all that tricky. I taught American Literature, which means I taught religion, race, gender, etc etc etc, and my basic template was, "I'm not here to tell you whether the osquolots were right or wrong, but I want you to understand how they saw the world and how that affected how they wrote about it." And then I'd make the osquolot case as clearly as I could. 

That seems pretty straightforward, and yet it does not guarantee smooth sailing. For some parents, it will be too controversial to talk about the osquolots at all, as if they had some sort of valid viewpoint. These parents often end up home or private schooling, so that their child never has to encounter an idea that those parents disapprove of. Mostly this story ends with parents learn that it's nearly impossible to raise a child who believes only what you believe.

But that's the academic area. It gets trickier when, like Wallis, and like too many students, you are dealing with topics that are not merely academic. For some non-zero number of parents, a teacher who simply walks into the classroom delivers an unspoken message of "I'm gay and I'm free to walk around and be a teacher in a school" and that message is controversial enough. A non-zero number of parents will find it too controversial is a Black teacher lives their Black life in the classroom in front of students. 

This is the problem with "don't be controversial" directives, pleas to "just teach facts" and "don't push your opinions"--they too often mean "just be in the classroom in the same way you would if you were a heterosexual white person." 

All good teachers know that connecting with students, building a relationship, is critical, which means you have to bring part of your story into the classroom. It's a tricky balancing act. You don't want to be that teacher who overshares, whose students know you were on a date last night and how it went, but you also don't want to be an impersonal robot who apparently gets clicked off and leaned in the closet at night. "Students have to know you care about them" is time-tested advice, but it requires that them to know that you can care about anything. Plus, in some cases you are one of the few adults in their orbit, so you're a bit of a role model; how to have an opinion about something without being an ass is a good skill to model.

Side note: All of this is easier if you live in the district where you teach and students see you out in the community (is there anything as exciting for a young student as discovering that your teacher buys groceries and wears jeans). It's just one more reason that you really ought to live in the district where you teach. End of side note.

LGBTQ students, students of color, students with any number of challenges-- they all benefit from seeing teachers like them in front of a classroom. So do all the other students. And that means seeing what those teachers care about, living their lives. I kept pictures of my family on my desk all the years I taught; why shouldn't a married LGBTQ colleague be able to do the same?

We are stuck in an age of agitated groups, most of them currently on the right. Is there anything we can't raise a fuss about. I was watching an episode of Daniel Tiger yesterday with the Board of Directors, and it was all about sharing when you play with someone, and I realized sadly that this would be controversial content because some folks don't cotton to sharing which sounds a little socialist and in this world you fight for what's yours and you hold onto it. And folks who cry controversy over things like actual facts, rendering science ands history classes an uphill struggle. And folks who think children shouldn't learn anything that their parents don't know or believe. And folks who don't believe in vaccines.

The missing factor in all of these "teacher leaves the classroom" stories is an administration with a backbone. Because it certainly seems as if the answer to "What is too controversial for the classroom" is "pretty much everything." I've worked under controversy-averse administrations, and "don't do anything that will get me a phone call" is a terrible administration policy, especially in times when some folks are intent on whipping up controversy for their own political gains. Drawing that fuzzy, ever-shifting line is part of an administration's job, but they have to have the nerve not to fold to every single parent phone call.

I have no idea whether John Wallis was destined to be a great teacher or not. But I do know that as districts have more and more trouble filing positions, "Go in that classroom, but don't be gay or Black or any of this other stuff on our list in front of the students" is not a great recruiting tool. Nobody's career dream is to be an empty suit. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

ICYMI: 9/12 Edition (9/12)

 9/11 was one thing; what started to happen in this country on the twelfth is something else entirely, but we don't have national days of remembrance about that. Meanwhile, there's plenty to read about in the world of education.

NH "education freedom" accounts cost soaring

NH implemented vouchers; now it's turning out to be way more expensive than advocates promised.

Proctorio's awful reviews disappear

Cory Doctorow takes a look at what's been happening with that horrible monitoring scam software.

How we abolished child labor

Betsy Wood is at The Conversation to remind us that the end of child labor didn't exactly happen because we were feeling all noble. More like the Depression and fears of white slavery.

I Can't Believe I'm Looking at Test Scores

Nancy Flanagan says enough already with the big standardized test scores.

CRT turning school boards into GOP proving grounds

One more piece, this from Politico, about how the right is using critical race theory to bring chaos and recruitment to local school boards.

Having just one Black teacher can change a life

Still an issue (despite how you may feel about Citizen Education) is the low number of Black teachers in schools.

Real children in real time

Eduhonesty looks at the assumption that students are just waiting for the chance to do some school and chomping at the bit to get educated.

Lack of trusted authority is why COVID is kicking our butts

Steven Singer takes a look at how we got here.

Charter schools scary future

Jennifer Berkshire writes in The New Republic about the rightward lurch of the charter world.

When one window closes, another opens

Grumpy Old Teacher on the love of testing and Florida's mistakes.

River Runner

Okay, this is just a cool thing. Put a drop of water anywhere on this map of the US and it will tell you and map the path that drop will take to the ocean



Friday, September 10, 2021

Arne Duncan and Pedagogical Badger Hats

Arne Duncan was at it again, popping up on Fareed Zakaria's CNN show to talk about post-covid education (looking kind of Herman Munster-ish on his Zoom screen). 

Much of his shtick was predictable. Students are months behind (which actually means, of course, scores on the Big Standardized Test are down, we think). We have to meet their social emotional needs, as we accelerate learning (just, you know, teach faster, because teachers have been holding back all these years). 

Zakaria says/asks, the "digital economy" did awesome in most sectors, but in education learning-through-a-screen didn't really deliver. Howcum?

Whatever else his failings, Arne could often say the right thing, and he does that here. Students are social beings, and being unable to have a personal connection with friends and teachers was rough on them. He's also worried about the "missing" 2.5 million students, which he suggests could be a lost generation, and that strikes me as a bit over the top, but reflective of a government bureaucrat attitude that if we don't have official paperwork on a person, they don't exist. But his idea of mobilizing teachers, social workers, etc to go out and find these children and make sure they're okay--that's not a terrible impulse. High touch, not high tech, says Arne of the solution.

Zakaria says that it sounds like there's no room for hybrid or virtually school in Duncan's vision, so now Arne will pivot and pretty much take back what he just said. And this is the part you may have seen quoted.

Duncan suggests, as an example, that we've got all these algebra teachers across the country, teaching just 100-125 kids. 

I think if we figured out who the best, who the Albert Einstein algebra teachers were in our country and rather than teaching 100 students each day, think about if they were teaching 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000, and then we could use that class time the in person time, for tutorials and small group instruction. So there are some lessons that we can take and run with.

This is a dumb idea. It's not a new idea--reformsters have dreamed of this world where we pay fewer teachers to teach more students. But this precisely the sort of thing that sounds good to somebody who doesn't really understand teaching at all. I mean, what person imagines that teaching 15 kids in person and teaching 100,000 online are basically the same thing, that any teacher who's good at one will also be good at the other. It's the Duncan crowds same old idea-- teaching is a human engineering problem and once you figure out what buttons to press on the student module, that (plus expectations) will just cause the student modules to learn. 

Duncan says we'll have to make access to equipment and wifi as ubiquitous as electricity and running water (oops--I have some places for him to visit). He nods at "anytime anywhere" learning, but then he pivots back and says that being in a physical school is the way to go. 

Fareed asks what the hope is, and Duncan says we can't go back to normal because normal didn't serve tens of millions of students and I'm now yelling at the screen to remind Duncan that he and his cronies created that normal and this is one of my least favorite Duncan moves--decrying policies that he pretends he didn't have a hand in creating. Gah. Also, he wants to accelerate learning somehow--maybe do away with three months of summer vacation (he's going to blame it on the agrarian economy which is incorrect), or maybe some children get 9 months a year and other children get 11, and longer days and I can't even start on how many ways this is dumb-- NCLB and RttT already gave us the treat of students with low test scores being punished by losing arts and science and recess, but sure, let's take their family time and after school play and summer vacations, too. Great idea, Arne.

After a stop at food, Duncan is on the old "Let's flip this on its head" and make time the variable and learning the constant. "Let's give every child exactly what they need to be successful," says Arne, and "successful" is doing a lot of work there, but not as much as "what they need" because mostly we don't really know--unless we pick a meagre, cramped definition of "successful" like, say, "gets a certain score on the Big Standardized Test."

He's going to bear down on the time thing, saying that "basically" you pass algebra by sitting in a desk five days a week for nine months, and I can personally guarantee you that is NOT how you pass algebra. Arne just wants you to sit there till you "learn algebra" which might be three, four, nine or fifteen months and while I get the mastery learning arguments and agree with many, Arne is unintentionally highlighting some of the structural and tactical issues in trying to make his outcome based/competency based/proficiency centered school actually work. But Duncan wants to take these ideas "to scale" because they could really accelerate progress (except, presumably, for the student who's spending 15 months in algebra class). 

The sardine superteacher, dispensing smartitude over a class of thousands (who can clock out once they pass a check test) is an old favorite. Fans have been pointing to many students who did just fine under the cobbled-together patchwork kluge of virtual learning that schools used last year, and certainly some did (just as a few students do well in cyberschool). But in education we have to be careful about the "some students do well" argument. Really careful.

Some students will always do well. Regardless (or even in spite of) what teachers do, these students will learn. I could tell every student in the classroom to wear a badger on their head, and some students would do just fine. They're bright, and they're motivated. That's why many teachers love to have them in class. It's why colleges and universities are such a fertile source of terrible teaching--because students are there on purpose and mostly motivated to learn (or at least get grades) whatever Dr. Dimbulb is doing up there at the front of the 500-person classroomitorium. 

Duncan is right when he says that human connection is critical to education, in this and in any other fall. But his idea about putting some "Einstein" on a 100,000 student internet hookup is deeply, deeply dumb. But man--the man can still make me yell at a screen. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Backpacks Full Of Cash

Jeanne Allen's magical phrase, turned into a rhetorical weapon against her and other free market choicers, never seems to quite go away, perhaps because all sides find it an apt description of free-market choice. Right now they're getting ready to load up more backpacks out in LA. Allen was sure that this was a great portrayal of the awesomeness of choice, but I'm not sure we ever thought it through.

After all, in this vision of school, students are couriers. Their job is to carry backpacks full of cash to various vendors and business operators like little pack animals. The backpacks full of cash image unintentionally focuses on what many fans of the free market model are very interested in--easily moved, largely unguarded cash. We could as easily describe students as little foxes or minks, important mostly for the valuable pelts that they carry with them (and from which they will eventually be separated). 

One of the great tricks of free market choicers has been to hide their primary focus in plain sight, and the focus is not education or even choice, but in free marketizing public education. 

And yet, for years, few people stop to ask, "Hey, wait a minute. Why does school choice have to involve market forces? Why do we have to strap money to the backs of children?"

After all, we could offer school choice within a public system. We could offer a variety of different schools in one system. We could (and I'd argue already do) offer a variety of school options under one roof. If legislators believe that public schools are choking in too much red tape and regulation, well, then--get rid of them. Every educational goal that choice fans espouse could be met within the public system we already have. The goals the public system can't meet are the structural ones, the ones that are all about freeing businessmen to pocket some part of the vast stack of money we spend on education. 

Why does a requirement of school choice have to be that private operators must make money from it? 

I get that some folks have a sincere belief that market forces drive competition which drives excellence and innovation. I don't see a lot of evidence in the real world. Success in the market comes through many means other than excellence in products (eg Coke, Walmart, Microsoft), and once market dominance is achieved, market command is used to squash competition and buy up innovation before it can become a threat (eg see above). The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing. They compete over the fat middle and leave the outliers to fend for themselves (eg cable tv). Then multinational winners in the marketplace create their own sets of laws, regulations and bureaucracy that any nation's government would envy. 

So I see no benefits to letting free market forces loose in a vital public service. On top of the fact that they don't deliver any of the benefits ascribed to them, they foster this view of students as pack animals tasked with delivering backpacks full of cash. 

There are valid arguments to be made in favor of some version of choice. But none of them require the inclusion of privately owned-and-operated marketeers.

Of course, to offer choice within the public system would require more money. Choice as we're currently doing it requires more money, but various shell games are being used to hide that fact. But here we are in the same old place--we can think of cool things that might make education better, but those things would cost more money, and when it comes right down to it, we don't want to pay that much for the education system (our own kids, sure--but not for Those Peoples' Children). 

So for some folks, the solution is to strap cash to the backs of children and turn them loose so that various business operators can compete at the work of coaxing the cash couriers into one business's doorway. Instead the object of education, the center around which school revolves, free marketeering transforms them into conduits of cash, one more cog in the machinery instead of young humans that the machine should serve. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Who Is The Protagonist

Friend of the Institutue and religious historian Adam Laats has what I think is the very best take on the "CRT" panic. I've seen him say this a couple of times--here's a quote from a Guardian article:

“The heart and soul of the anti-CRT outburst is this anxiety of the changing protagonists in the story of American history,” said Laats.

That, for me, absolutely hits the nail on the head. It's not just an argument about what the story of America is, or even controversial topics or trying to make white kids feel guilty. On a really gut level, this freak-out is about people who don't want to hear the story as if it were somebody else's story and they were just a bit player.

You can understand the 1619 project that way--as an answer to the question, "What if we told this story not as the story of the United States government or the story of white settlers coming to a new world, but as the story of Black folks." If you've never really grabbed the notion of "centering" someone in a "narrative," these terms work fine as well--telling the story as if X is the main character.

We've seen that narrative exercise. There are a couple of great versions of the Three Little Pigs with the wolf as the protagonist. Gregory Maguire has made an entire career (and inspired a hit musical) out of making different characters the protagonists of stories you already know.

It's more challenging when you make it personal. Every one of us is the bad guy in someone else's story,. and some people never make peace with that in their entire lives. But the history of this country has always had as its protagonists a bunch of white folks. They have gotten better over the years at sharing that stage--but it has mostly always still been their stage. 

As a lifelong English teacher and lit guy, this is a framing that really clicks for me. This is a short post, but I want to put this idea down where I can find it. I expect I'll be using "protagonist" again.

IN: Parents And Their Rights

 Indiana is one of several states that has some version of a Parents Bill of Rights, in their case "released" back in June by the state Attorney General Todd Rokita, a GOP politician who hoped to follow in Mike Pence's footsteps, but couldn't quite make it. AG was kind of his political comeback. Democrats called the Bill of Rights a continuation of his 2024 gubernatorial campaign.

Rokita says, “Education policy and curriculum should reflect the values of Indiana families while meeting the mandatory requirements set forth in law." And in fact this particular batch of rights is mostly about being able to overrule your child's school:

*To question and address your child’s school officials and school board members at publicly designated meetings with proper notice of the meetings provided
*To question and review the curriculum taught in your child’s school by questioning local school boards and school administrators
*To expect that the academic curriculum taught in your child’s school aligns with Indiana and federal law
*To participate in the selection and approval of academic standards for the State of Indiana
*To obtain educational materials and curriculum taught to your child in the classroom
*To run as a candidate for your local school board

Rokita has heard first hand from parents around the state (because these kinds of laws/rules/edicts are always handed down because "some people told me they really want this" and never" because it suits my personal ideology" or "because I think this will be good for getting votes) and they are concerned about "the ideologies being imposed in their child's school curriculum."

It's an interesting stance to come across during Labor Day weekend, a weekend marked by articles reminding us that child labor laws ended the notion that children were the property of anyone--not employers, not parents, not anyone. It's also part of the general picture of education in Indiana, where voucher schools include a variety of schools teaching that evolution never happened, that Black Lives Matter causes racial strife, and that "black immigration" is how all those Black folks got here. Also, even though slavery was bad, "much was done in the name of abolition that was as evil as the institution of slavery itself."

So we end up with this weirdly tilted system where a parent can complain that their child is being exposed to "critical race theory" stuff, even as tax dollars go to private schools that teach the very biased view of history that CRT aims to point out. 

Meanwhile, of course, if you're not a parent, but just a citizen, taxpayer or employer who has thoughts about what students need to learn in order to take a spot as a responsible member of society, you get no say at all. It is parents who get the tools to craft a version of reality that suits them, everyone else be damned. 

Sigh. It's not that I don't get it--at least sort of. You raise your babies and you send them out into the world and you give control of a part of their lives over to people who are not you, and that is scary. But if your world view is so fragile that exposure to any single contradictory viewpoint jeopardizes it, maybe you need to reconsider. 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

ICYMI: Labor Day 2021 Edition (9/5)

 Labor Day again already. Time sure flies when you're under stress and constant existential dread! But we have things to read, because these are busy times.

Jennifer Cohn: The GOP wants to take over all public school boards

I don't usually do this, but this Twitter thread is packed with informative  links and info, so here you go--an unrolled thread.

No Excuses Schools: Bad Theory Created By Amateurs

Thomas Ultican looks at Scripting the Moves, a book about No Excuses schools and the story about how a bunch of education amateurs founded a successful business built on bad school practices.

The Right-Wing Political Machine Is Out To Take Over School Boards

Peter Montgomery at Right Wing Watch with the story on yet another one of these obnoxious groups.

Community Schools see revival in time of heightened need

Lauren Camera at US News on the renewed interest in and support for the community school model

In Minnesota’s ‘most diverse city,’ schools are addressing the community’s deep trauma

Sarah Lahm takes a look at how community schools are helping in Minnesota

65,000 fake students applied for aid

This is a crazy-cakes story of a California community college scam. The LA Times is on it.

Report provides deeply flawed picture of special ed funding for charter schools

The School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas issued a report about how sadly underpaid charters are. Bruce Baker is at NEPC to debunk the seriously flawed work.

The engineered student

Have you read Audrey Watters' new book yet? Well, do that. And if you haven't, here's a chapter about Mr. Teaching Machine B. F. Skinner to whet your appetite.

Teachers Didn't Sign Up For This

The Educator's Room has the list of current education shenanigans that teachers did not sign up for.

3 Vancouver schools placed on lockdown after Proud Boys try to enter during masks protest

One more sign of just how stupid things are getting out there.\


Jose Luis Vilson has some words of warning and encouragement.


The state of Tennessee is going to court to defend itself against charges of underfunding education. Stay tuned. Andy Spears has the basics.

What does research say about Charter – District School Spending Differences?

Bruce Baker again, this time with a quick primer on what research actually says about whether or not charters are sadly underfunded (remember when they used to brag that they would do more with less--those were the days).

How States Are Privatizing Public Schools to Tech Companies During the Delta Variant Uptick

Nancy Bailey has a state by state breakdown of how tech companies are making their moves to acquire public schools.


Grumpy Old Teacher takes a look at the school district that decided not to spoil its students, and what we've come to expect from schools.


Mercedes Schneider was in the path of Ida, and she's been providing reports of how things are going down in her hunk of Louisiana. Here's the first installment, and waiting.


Akil Bello, testing expert and college prep guru, takes a look, with help from his sons, at that very special genre of college admission essay.


From Jeremiah Budin at McSweeney's, an antidote to that old baloney about how kids teach us more than we teach them.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

We've Been Having This Fight For Decades. It Won't End Soon.

This next is from a report of parents speaking before a school board. Don't peek at the link just yet.

Ultimately, she said she didn’t want to see schools teaching students any values, arguing that it should be the parents’ sole responsibility.

“It’s our job as partners to [teach our kids] values — it’s not your job,” she said. “Respect us, respect [us as] parents. In the end, this comes down to me doing my job, and you doing your job.”

This could be from a board meeting from any time in the last fifty years. Because this is a central conflict in public education, and it's not one we'll resolve any time soon.

If you are of a Certain Age, you will remember Values Clarification. Personally, I encountered it at my church youth group (liberal-ish churches dug it), but it cropped up in some schools, sometimes in a watered-down form, across the country in the late sixties and seventies . The idea was for students to get a handle on what their own underlying values were, and to use the idea of values (what do people care about? what matters most to them?) as a lens for looking at society. It involved considering hypotheticals (If you were a mugwump, how would you design a government) and trying to see things from other value sets (How do you think someone who valued widgets would design a government). 

Some folks were not fans. These were folks who had trouble understanding the hypotheticals (What do you mean, telling my kids that mugwumps should design government!) as well as allowing that some points of view could be considered legitimate. And believe me when I tell you that some people stayed pissed off about it for a long time, because what they heard was "truth is just a matter of opinion, which means right and wrong are just matters of opinion."

Values Clarification handed off much of its shtick to Character Education. Then came Outcome Based Education, which also had a values and character component, and actually upped the ante by requiring these components to be measurable and graded. An army of conservatives (led mostly by Peg Luksik) trounced OBE soundly. 

The conflict has never gone away. Teaching Tolerance, Social and Emotional Learning, diversity training, etc-- all embrace the value of multiple viewpoints and tolerance for viewpoints different from your own. And that is not a value some folks share.

To be fair, virtually everyone draws a line somewhere. Everybody has a list of viewpoints and values that they don't believe deserves consideration. But some folks draw more lines, harder lines, and much sooner lines than others. When the various anti-"crt" laws and resolutions list the things that Must Not Be Taught, they generally lump things like the 1619 project in with Holocaust Denial on the theory that these are things that should not be given equal time. Most people agree with the stated principle of exposing students to all sides, except for X--and it's the definition of X that raises conflict.

We always seem to be fighting about the topic--feminism, racism, LGBTQ+, anti-racism. But the roots of the conflict are deeper than whatever issue is currently manifesting. 

Underlying that conflict is also differing ideas about what "promoting" an idea or value might mean. I tell the story of a colleague years ago who taught a gifted class, and one of his ideas was to do a unit on comparing the major world religions. One conservative Christian student said she would not be participating; there was, she said, no point to studying those other religions because they are all wrong. Sift through the many complaints sent in to the various groups collecting "reports" of "indoctrination" and you keep finding people who consider it indoctrination to even bring up certain things. A lesbian teacher mentions that she has a wife at home. A teacher lists the reasons that some people disagree with Christian beliefs. 

For some people, it's "indoctrination" just indicate by word or deed that certain things are in the world and that's okay. In the flap over the firing of a Black principal in Texas, various accounts quote students who say he always presented all sides and left students to sort things out, while other students claim that he was "pushing an agenda." I believe both sets of students are probably telling what they see as the truth, because for some people on one side of this issue, to simply present a point of view as existing and normal is "pushing it." 

We've got a fundamental disagreement about foundational truth and whether truth involves a broad a varied set of perspectives and ideas and facets or whether there is One Immutable Truth. And those divisions don't always line up exactly the way you think they do--liberals are also capable of hewing to One Immutable Truth in some areas. But it's that fundamental value of either truth or Truth that is the bigger part of the iceberg, the underlying issue that keeps us from working out the surface issues. Challenge someone's One Immutable Truth or, worse, treat it like it's just dumb to even believe in such a thing, and someone is going to fight back, hard. 

Further complicating this debate is that we are talking about beliefs and feelings which are both hard to change and harder to measure. The trouble with all of these programs has always been that savvy students quickly read the intent of the program as "The teacher wants me to act as if I believe X." Whether values clarification or SEL programming, a student who is an actual sociopath will be excellent at just sailing through the assessments. It's really hard to assess what someone thinks; it's even harder to assess what they feel.

And. (Yes, there are hundreds of "ands" and "buts" in this discussion). And the energy of these debates are further jacked up because they tap a deep parental fear-- the fear that you could do your best to bring your child up to believe in what is true, and somehow they are seduced into rejecting it all. Listen to this mother responding to the North Carolina witch hunt survey:

My daughter was raised with sound Biblical values, but just three short years [in]) public school has turned her into a full-blown socialist...even to this day, I cannot have a rational discussion with her regarding anything significant.

The woman's daughter graduated fifteen years ago. And we aren't hearing the daughter's "I grew up and my mother wouldn't and now we can't talk to each other at all." This kind of hurt leaves scars.

The point of all of this is that the current battle over what values should be--well, not even taught, but simply acknowledged and recognized in schools has been raging for fifty-plus years. If anything, it has been intensified by the iPod world in which we can more easily avoid ever dealing with people who don't share our values or beliefs. Now that has simply bled into education-- I can listen to only the people I agree with, only hear the music I like, only watch the shows that sit well with me, so why shouldn't I be able to send my child to a school where no adult in the building ever contradicts what I say at home?

The answer is of course around us--we're getting a good look at what a country looks like when a big chunk of the population believes it should be able to just make those Other People who believe those Bad Things--well, we should be able to make them go away or at the very least strip them of any power. It's not a good look, if for other reason than it makes the country not work very well, and it really, really keeps the country from responding effectively to crises like a massive global pandemic. 

We've been working on this for a long time. Louis Raths was working on Values Clarification in the mid-fifties, and he was building his work on what John Dewey had to say about the importance of values in education. I don't know a clear, inspiring easy way forward. This kind of conflict erodes humanity and kindness, and both are needed to deal, and yet neither can keep us from stopping people who are intent on just watching everything burn. But none of this is new, and what the history tells us is that we probably aren't going to socially and emotionally learn our way out of it.

 

Friday, September 3, 2021

The Troubles With The Learning Loss Debate

Like many education debates, the Learning Loss conversation has developed so many, many ways for people to be wrong, most of which can be avoided if one starts with the assumption that the problems facing us are complicated, defy a simple solution, and look different depending on where you're standing.

Some of what's coming out of union leadership offices makes me cringe. "There is no such thing as learning loss," say some union chiefs. "Oh, please stop," I think. It's not helpful to assert that it doesn't really matter what teachers do in a year or how they do it or under what conditions they and students do school. 

I get, sort of, where they're coming from. 

For one thing, there's an urge to counterbalance the kind of apocalyptic chicken littling that comes out in pieces like the New York Times editorial characterizing learning setbacks as "grave" to "catastrophic." 

Also--and I think this matters a lot--while the policy discussions can handle these extreme declarations of alarm, classroom teachers know that the best way to carry students forward and onward and upward this fall is not to greet students with some version of, "You are all disastrously behind and ignorant and we've got to hammer you with academics or you will all end up as pathetic failures." This is the tightrope that teachers always have to practice walking--you do not snow students by blowing happy talk smoke up their butts, but you don't make them feel big and powerful by telling them they're small failures. (Note: telling them this fall that it's not their fault they're currently small failures does not help.) 

So when I read things like "Our kids didn't lose anything," I cringes, even though I also understands that our path forward (as always) is for classroom teachers to pump children up, not to beat them down. Meanwhile, while there is no question that most students in this country got shortchanged last year, it's unlikely that a whole generation will now live in a van by the river eating cat food off hot plates because they can't read the food labels in the grocery store. But I really wish union leaders would stop making mouth noises that sound like, "Hey, there's no problems at all."

There are so many voices in this discussion that aren't helping. It doesn't help to say that students didn't lose a single step during the pandemic pause. It doesn't help to keep insisting that the gap occurred because a nation of slacking teachers treated the pandemic as a vacation and never tried to do anything. 

I'm also unexcited about the emergence of NWEA and McKinsey as prominent voices in "diagnosing" what has happened. Personally, I distinguish between learning loss (or the gap or the behindness or whatever term you want to use to indicate that students get as much learning in the last two years as they ordinarily would have) and Learning Loss, the latter the equivalent of halitosis, an attempt to make a problem look huge and the solutions you have for sale look scientific. NWEA and McKinsey are businesses, not impartial scientific observers. McKinsey is a global business consulting firm aimed at helping clients spot opportunities to profit, which is just what they've been doing during the pandemic. NWEA is a testing company. I've used their product (the omnipresent MAP test) and though our school, like many, used it as a predictor of Big Standardized Test performance, it was lousy at it, and in general did not provide me with information I didn't already have. Getting their input on the state of Learning Loss is like asking the Tobacco Institute to weigh in on the health benefits of smoking. 

None of which is meant to say that we do not need--desperately--data about Where The Children Are Right Now. But we are in danger of being led astray by the long-time love affair with high stakes testing. 

Here are the things we need to remember about the Big Standardized Test (and its various knock-offs, like MAP).

1) It only assesses reading and math.

2) It doesn't do it all that well.

3) Success depends a great deal on preparing students for taking that specific sort of test, a thing that many teachers didn't have (or take) time to do last year, or the year before that.

4) When you give students a standardized test during a pandemic mess and tell them it has absolutely no stakes for them, but policymakers really need accurate data, students do not necessarily give it their all. 

Even if the test were perfect, and even if the students gave it their best shot, we would still have gigantic, gaping, critical gaps in our knowledge of Where Students Are Right Now. For one, all of the tests were jiggered during the Common Core boom to assess "skills" rather than content. So they will tell us nothing about content gaps. For areas such as history and literature, that's a big question. Were I still in a classroom this fall, I'd be thinking, "I know which works are on the curriculum for last year, but I'll need to find out which ones they actually got to." Different areas will experience different sorts of gaps; musicians will miss out on the kind of development that comes from playing in an ensemble, while art and CTE areas will be missing the hands-on practice that develops skills in a normal year. I know policy makers really, really want an instrument that will tell them where students are compared to where they would have been in a "normal" year. No such instrument exists. Sorry. It just doesn't.

As the school year starts, classroom teachers are doing what they always do-- figuring out where their new batch of students are right now. Some of what they're discovering is not pretty (2nd graders who can't yet write their last names, high school seniors who have read half the usual stack of literature, the list goes on). On the other hand, the pandemic did not make students dumber, and most of the factors that could help them move forward are still in place (even if, in some cases, they're covered with layers of trauma and struggle from pandemic hardship).

But as has been the case since COVID first starting kicking sand in our faces, the challenges are specific and local. We can try to collect data, pass it up through levels of bureaucracy, let them try to craft one-size-fits-all solutions for distributing relief funds, or we can push that money down to the levels of decision-making closest to the situation and say "Use this as you think is best." I favor the second choice, but even that is complicated because we know that some local decision-making goes really poorly. So oversight is required, even as local decision-making is preferred.

The irony of the various new issues raised by the pandemic is that they are all versions of issues we've been debating for decades, just magnified by a medical--and cultural--mess. But magnifying them also makes clearer that it's all complicated and the complications look different depending on where you're standing and anyone who's plugging a simple, clear answer is both A) full of it and B) selling something. 

Educating our way out of the pandemic gap (and the pre-existing gaps exacerbated by the pandemic) is going to require hard, steady, thoughtful, day-by-day work. But that has always been true of education. Folks have been touting the pandemic as a reset, a sea change in how the system works, and I've said all along that I think they're dreaming--the human (and American) impulse is to get back to the normal and familiar as quickly as possible (or even more quickly). But if I could have my wish, I'd wish that the pandemic ended the Age of Easy Answer.