Sunday, January 31, 2021

ICYMI: Worse Week Than I Thought Edition (1/31)

You know, I thought last week was pretty okay until I looked at the pieces I had collected. So maybe you don't want to read every single item on the list this week. But do stick around for the palate cleanser at the end.

Jeff Bezos wants to go to the moon. Then, public education.

From Dominik Dresel at EdSurge, a piece that will not warm your heart or lift your spirits. 

2nd Grader expelled for telling another girl she had a crush on her

While we're not lifting your spirits--from CNN. Just in case you need one more example of how that nice Christian private school doesn't have to take--or keep--any kid they don't want to.

Unions just got a rare bit of good news.

If you thought the Janus case, which illegalized fair share payments and allowed teachers to be free riders on their unions work--well, if you thought that was the end of it, you underestimated how much some people hate unions. The next wave of suits is asking the court to make unions pay back all the fair share money they ever collected. SCOTUS announced this week that it will not hear at least the first block of such cases. Fully explained at Vox.

LA Virtual School's Whopper Course Sizes, with a Side of Edgenuity

Let's start a quick tour of some states by starting down south with the indispensable Mercedes Schneider, who reports on how virtual school is working out in Louisiana.

Norfolk remains deeply segregated

The Virginian-Pilot begins its long look at the city that was the site of the first federally funded public housing, the first to be released from federally mandated bussing. They have some issues, and this series, produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program, looks to be a long haul.

ASD Light

Against all sense, somebody in Tennessee thinks that maybe a do-over on the failed Achievement School District concept might work. Andy Spears has the story at Tennessee Ed Report.

All the World's A Stage

TC Weber has a variety of news items from TN, including an item that suggests TNTP is getting ready to teach everyone literacy stuff.

Ohio: Funding Doesn't Matter

The state auditor has decided that funding schools doesn't really do anything. Jan Resseger begs to differ, and brings some receipts.

Will North Carolina continue to whitewash history for its students?

North Carolina was on a path toward acknowledging some systemic problems. Then they elected a new state superintendent.

Will SB48 make educating your child more difficult than finding a covid vaccine?

Florida is set to take one more giant bite out of its public education system. I wrote about this bill, but Accountabaloney is one the scene and has a clear picture of what's going on. And everyone needs to pay attention, because Florida is using the same playbook that other states crib from.

The school choice movement reckons with its conservative ties

The splintering of choice's right and left wings has been a story for a while, but when the Philly PBS station notices, you know something's going on. Avl Wolfman-Arent reports for WHYY.

Teacher Comments on Being Tech Skeptics

Larry Cuban has collected some real comments from real teachers about the value of ed tech.

Is there really a science of reading?

At the Answer Sheet, David Reinking, Victoria J. Risko, and George G. Hruby stop by to explain in calm, measured tones why the whole "science of reading" thing is not the cure-all it's promoted to be.

More states seek federal waivers

Also the Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss reports that more and more states are asking for what is so obviously the right thing to do-- scrap the 2021 Big Standardized Test.

Marketplace mentality toward schools hurts society

The Baptist Standard, of all places, has an interview with Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire about Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door (do you have your copy yet? get it today!) and how the market approach to education is bad for everyone.

Trump conspiracists in the classroom

Buzzfeed, of all places, takes a look at the problem of teachers who have fallen down the Trump/Qanon hole. Politics in the classroom are one thing; lies and debunked conspiracies are another order of trouble.

Meet the Vermont Teacher behind Bernie's Mittens

Just in case you haven't met her already. I've got to leave you with something encouraging.




Saturday, January 30, 2021

Nationwide Initiative Underway To Dismantle Public Education

 

Well, happy School Choice Week. What better way to celebrate than getting a bunch of states to ram through bills to gut (or in some cases further gut) public education. 

The preferred method seems to be ESA-style vouchers (ESA used to stand for "education  savings account," but sometimes "education scholarship account"). In an ESA/Tax Credit Scholarship program, rich benefactors give money to a "scholarship" organization, which in turn hands the money over to criterion-meeting parents who then hand it over to a private edu-vendor. Meanwhile, the state reimburses the benefactor in the form of tax credits. Ed disruptors generally prefer that you not call these "vouchers," and they have half a point, since school vouchers have generally been used strictly as tuition to a private school. ESAs, on the other hand, are meant to be more versatile, allowing parents to buy any sort of educational service from a variety of vendors. Usually these programs are capped, because remember--the amount of money that goes into tax credit scholarship programs is the same amount of money that is cut from state budget revenues.

The right likes this for a couple of reasons. Rich folks escape taxes. Public schools get cut back--in fact, the whole idea of "school" gets undercut, which is nice for vendors because now if you want to score some of those sweet taxpayer dollars, you don't have to set up an entire school--just tutoring or maybe just a math class or who knows (because what most of these laws have in common is that nobody is really providing much oversight on how the money is spent). ESAs open up a nice clear path for state funding of private religious schools (even as Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue also clears the road for more taxpayer-funded Jesus). And if gutting public schools also weakens those nasty teachers unions, that would be a bonus, too.

The dream is a free market bazaar, where parents go searching for the bits and pieces of the program they want to put together for their children. Of course, they'll be given no guarantees that the vendors have to accept their children, and they will have to wade through marketing noise to find those bits and pieces, but the state will be able to say "We gave you a voucher. It's your problem, now." Also, schools that wanted to provide religious indoctrination or teach that the world is flat or that slaves were really quite happy would not have to deal with silly gummint busybodies telling them they can't have public tax dollars to do that. The wealthy and elite will still get what they want for their children, but they won't have to worry about so many of their tax dollars being spent on Those People's Children.

So lets check in across the nation.

Florida

We've already  looked at Florida just a week or two ago, where the end game is in sight, courtesy of a bill that would combine all their voucher programs, reduce the practically nonexistent oversight already exerted on voucher schools, and turn them into tax scholarship-fed ESAs. Florida. as always, is the dream for privatizers and anti-public school forces.

Arizona

SB 1041 would quadruple the cap on tax credit scholarships over the next three years (from $5 mill to $20 mill), meaning that much more money would be cut from the state budget as the wealthy make their contributions to the neo-voucher program. The bilkl also includes provisions for regular increases in the cap after that.

Georgia

HB 60 would create ESAs. It follows the usual pattern of using students with special needs or from low-income families as the foot in the door, but adds a cool new wrinkle--anybody who's school building isn't open for 100% in person instruction can also have one of these vouchers. The bill starts out with a modest 8.432 student cap, then just keeps adding another 8,000 or students every year thereafter, eventually approaching almost half a billion dollars diverted from public schools to private ones. 

Georgia already has voucher programs, and it has been rife with fraud and financial shenanigans, along with minimal-to-nonexistent oversight of the schools involved.

Indiana

HB 1005 establishes ESA accounts, as well as expanding the program. This is the standard approach--open a choice program by creating something to "rescue" poor and/or disabled students, then once you've created the program, expand all the limits on it. Indiana is right on track. For instance, Republicans would like to raise the income limits on eligibility so that a family of four with a six-figure income will still be eligible to send their children to private schools at public expense. In Indiana, that means a religious school; about 97% of Indiana voucher schools are Christian religious schools.

We should also note that Indiana wants to increase tax support for virtual schools so that they get the same money per student as bricks and mortar schools--even though virtual schools have neither bricks nor mortars to maintain. As a resident of Pennsylvania, where cyber-schools get that full payment (and generally perform super-poorly), I can tell you that the financial impact on public schools is brutal. This is a dumb idea, Indiana.

Iowa

Iowa just fast-tracked Senate Study Bill 1065, courtesy of Governor Kim Reynolds, to create the "Students First Scholarship Program." I could sum it up, but let's hear what the editorial board at the Des Moines Register has to say:

Enter more proposals for “school choice.”

That phrase, as everyone knows by now, is an attempt to put lipstick on the pig of siphoning taxpayer money from public schools to funnel to private schools. And, largely, to Christian schools. Also, largely, to help families that already have the resources to send their kids to private schools.

The Iowa State Auditor said that "parents should be alarmed" that the program comes with no requirements for any audit whatsoever, and therefor no oversight. That's a feature, not a bug, of course; the idea is not just to give private schools public dollars, but to make sure they are free to use them as they choose.

One should note, however, that Iowa has also generated noteworthy push-back, in the form of spirited defense of the bill by the Iowa Satanic School:

The Iowa Satanic School recognizes the considerable efforts of the Iowa GOP to move forward with School Choice for our state. This will give Iowa families the choice to seek educational opportunities outside of public schools, using their taxpayer-funded student first scholarship to make Iowa’s FIRST Satanic School a reality.

Kansas

Speaking of taxpayer-funded discrimination, Kansas this week was scheduled to hold hearings on two bills set to expand the tax credit scholarship program in the state. The Kansas School Boards Association came out in opposition to HB 2068 and SB 61, which are apparently aimed at expanding Kansas vouchers to include private schools without any corresponding accountability or oversight. So private schools could go ahead and discriminate based on religion, gender, or sexual orientation and still get taxpayer funding (just like Florida--the dream). 

Kansas is also looking at HB 2119, which will create the "student empowerment act" aka ESAs for students who are academically at risk. Which, when you think about it, is a novel way to frame them. "Son, Mommy and Daddy would like to get a voucher to send you to Aryan Academy High School, but to do it, we're going to need you to start doing really crappy school work right now."

Kentucky

HB 149 would create an Education Opportunity Account, ESA tax credit program that would allow people to contribute to scholarships (that can be spent on a wide variety of education-flavored items and services) while creating a like-sized hole in state budget revenue, eventually draining billions of dollars from the state coffers. The pass-through organization managing the money might be audited if the department determines there have been shenanigans, but how one spots the shenanigans without an audit is not clear. Is this all starting to sound repetitious? 

Minnesota 

SF 260 (and HF 308) would set up a tax credit scholarship program. This one's called the Equity and Opportunity in Education." They're going with the low-income (twice the free and reduced lunch cutoff seems to be the standard) and disability foot-in-the-door approach. 

Missouri

SB 55 is a whole bundle of anti-public ed joy. This one started out as a simple bill about allowing homeschooled students to play school sports. But it has attracted a number of education barnacles. Among the bills that are now part of SB 55 is one that allows charters to open in any city or county with a population over 30,000 (that's another 61 school districts), and a school board recall rule-- if 25% of the voters who voted in the election sign a petition,. there can be a recall election which--wait! what? So any election that a school board member doesn't win with at least 75% of the vote, there could be a recall election. That's nuts. 

Oh, and also--surprise--a provision to create the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, a program that would allow tax credit scholarships to fund an ESA program. 

New Hampshire

HB 20 would establish the Richard "Dick" Hinch education freedom account programs. Richard Hinch was the staunchly conservative speaker of the house who died of covid on January 1, 2021.

And, yes, here we go again. This time they're called Education Freedom Accounts. Tax credit scholarships. Used for any number of education-flavored stuff. There is a legislative oversight committee, but that appears to be about doing checks on how well the program is working and not on how the money is actually being spent.

This one is unusual in that it does not specify which students are eligible nor offer any caps on how much the tax credit program can take (that's important, remember, because the size of the tax credit cap is the size of the hole it's going to blow in your state budget). 

And that's all the state I'm aware of at the moment, all busily and rapidly ramming through creation or expansion of ESA-style neo-voucher programs that are pretty much the state-level version of the Education Freedom Scholarships that Betsy DeVos was pitching throughout her tenure in DC. Plenty of states are working on the issue and in various stages of chipping away at public education, but this honor roll notes those states that have made it a priority for the start of 2021. 










Thursday, January 28, 2021

Selling Roboscoring: How's That Going, Anyway?

The quest continues--how to best market the notion of having student essays scored by software instead of actual humans. It's a big, bold dream, a dream of world in which test manufacturers don't have to hire pesky, expensive meat widgets and the fuzzy unscientific world of writing can be reduced to hard numbers--numbers that we know are objective and true because, hey, they came form a computer. The problem, as I have noted many times elsewhere, is that after all these years, the software doesn't actually work. 

But the dream doesn't die. Here's a paper from Mark D. Shermis (University of Houston--Clear Lake) and Susan Lottridge (AIR) presented at a National Council of Measurement in Education in Toronto, courtesy of AIR Assessment (one more company that deals in robo-scoring). The paper is two years old, but it's worth a look because it shows the reasoning (or lack thereof) used by the folks who just can't let go of the robograding dream. 

"Communicating to the Public About Machine Scoring: What Works, What Doesn't" is all about managing the PR when you implement roboscoring. Let's take a look.

Warming Up

First, let's lay out the objections that people raise, categorized by a 2003 paper as humanistic, defensive and construct.

The humanistic objection stipulates that writing is a unique human skill and cannot be evaluated by machine scoring algorithms. Defensive objections deal with concerns about “bad faith” or off-topic essays and scoring algorithm vulnerabilities to them. The construct argument suggests that what the human rater is evaluating is substantially different than what machine scoring algorithms used to predict scores for the text.

Well, sort of. The defensive objection is mis-stated; it's not just that robograding is "vulnerable" to bad-faith or off-topic essays, but that those vulnerabilities show that the software is bad at its job. 

The paper looks at six case studies, three in which the implementation went well and three in which the implementation "was blocked or substantially hindered." Which is a neat rhetorical trick-- note that the three failed cases are not "cases where implementers screwed it up" but cases where those nasty obstructionists got in our way. Long-time ed reform watchers will recognize this--it's always the implementation or the opponents or "entrenched bureaucracies" but never, ever, "we did a lousy job."

Let's look at our six (or so) cases.

West Virginia

West Virginia has been at this a while, having first implemented roboscoring in 2005. They took a brief break from 2015-2017, then signed up with AIR. Their success is attributed to continuing professional development and connecting "formative writing assignments to summative writing assignments" via a program called Writing Roadmap that combined an electronic portfolio and the same robograder used for the Big Test.

In other words, they developed a test prep system linked directly to the Big Test, and they trained teachers to be part of the teach-to-the-test system. This arrangement allows for a nice, circular piece of pedagogical tautology. Research shows that students who go through the test prep system get better scores on the test. It looks like something is happening, but imagine that the final test score was based on how dependably students put the adjective "angry" in front of the noun "badger." You could spend years teaching them to always write "angry badger" and then watch their "angry badger" test scores go up, then crow about how effective your prep program is and how well students are now doing-- but what have you actually accomplished, and what have they actually learned. You can make your test more complicated than the angry badger test, but it will always be something on that order because--and I cannot stress this enough--computer software cannot "read" in any meaningful sense of the word, so it must always look for patterns and superficial elements of the writing.

When AIR came to town in 2018, they did some teacher PD (1.5 whole days!) which was apparently aimed at increasing teacher confidence in the roboscorers by doing the old "match the computer score to human scores" show, a popular roboscore sales trick that rests on a couple of bits. One is training humans to score with the same algorithm the computer uses (instead of vice versa, which is impossible). The other is just the statistical oddity of holistic scoring. If an essay is going to get a score form 1-5, the chances that a second score will be equal or adjacent are huge, particularly since essays that are sucky (1) or awesome (5) will be rarer outliers. 

Even so, in the 1.5 day training, most teachers didn't meet the 70% exact agreement rate for scores, "suggesting that the training did not result in industry-standard performance." Industry, indeed.

Louisiana

The LEAP implemented robo-scoring as a second reader for the on-line version of the test. The advantages of this are listed include "flagging and recalibrating readers" in case their training didn't quite stick. Also, it can help with rater drift and rater bias, and I have my doubts about its usefulness here, but I will agree that these are real things when you are ploughing through a large pile of essays.

Since 2016 that has been handled by DRC, with their own proprietary robo-scorer now the primary scorer, with some humans "monitoring reads" for a portion of the essays. For a while yet another "engine" was scoring open-ended items on the tests because "increasing student use of the program translated into significant hand-scoring costs." The paper doesn't really get into why Louisiana's program was "successful" or how communication, if any, with any part of the public was accomplished.

Utah

Utah has been robo-scoring since 2008, both "summative and formative," a phrase to watch for, since it usually indicates an embedded test prep program--robo-scoiring works better if you train students to comply with the software's algorithm. Utah went robotic for the usual three reasons-- save money, consistent scores, faster return of scores. 

Utah's transition had its bumps. In particular, the paper notes that students began gaming the system and writing bad-faith essays (one student submitted an entire page of "b"s and got a good score). Students also learned that they could write one good paragraph, then write it four or five times. The solution was to keep "teaching" the program to spot issues, and to implement a confidence rating which allowed the software to say, "You might want to have a human look at this one." There were also huge flaps over robo-scorers finding (or not) large chunks of copied text, which led to changes in filters and more PD for teachers.

Utah has had a history of difficulty with test manufacturers for the Big Standardized Test--since this paper was issued, yet another company crashed and burned and ended up getting fired over their inability to get the job done, resulting in a lawsuit.

Ohio

The authors call Ohio an "interesting" case, and I suppose it is if you are the kind of person who goes to the race track to watch car crashes. Ohio had a "modestly successful" pilot, but didn't brief the State School Board on much of anything before the first year of robo-scoring flunked a way-huger-than-previous number of students--including third graders, which is a problem since Ohio has one of those stupid third grade reading retention rules. Turns out the robo-scorer rejected the time-honored tradition of starting the essay response with a restatement of the prompt. Oopsies. It's almost as if the robo-scoring folks didn't even try to consult with or talk to actual teachers. Ohio has been trying to PR its way out of this

Alberta

Yes, the Canadian province. They started out in 2014 with LightSide, the only "non-commercial product" in the crowded field, though its "main drawback is that it employs a variety of empirical predictors that do not necessarily parallel traditional writing traits." That tasty little phrase leads to this observation:

This makes it difficult to explain to lay individuals how writing models work and what exactly differentiates one model from another. Most commercial vendors employ NLP routines to tease out characteristics that lay audiences can relate to (e.g., grammar errors), though this information does not necessarily correspond to significantly better prediction models (Shermis, 2018).

So, it doesn't use qualities related to actual writing traits? And these robo-scorers are tweaked to kick out things like grammar errors, not because they're using them to score, but because it's something the civilians can relate to? That... does not make me feel better about robo-scoring.

However, the Alberta Teacher's Federation called on Dr. Les Perelman, my personal hero and a friend of the institute, who came on up and made some pointed observations (They also insist on spelling his name incorrectly). The authors do not like those observations. They say his comments "reflect a lack of understanding of how large-scale empirical research is conducted," which musty have made his years as a professor at MIT pretty tough. They also claim that he fell into the classic correlation-causation fallacy when he pointed out the correlation between essay length and score. The authors reply "The correlation is not with word count...but rather the underlying trait of fluency" and right here I'm going to call bullshit, because no it isn't. They launch into an explanation of how important fluency is, which is a nice piece of misdirection because, yes, fluency is important in writing but no, there's no way for a hunk of software to measure it effectively. 

The authors also take issue with Perelman's point that the system can be gamed. Their response is basically, yeah, but. "Gaming is something that could theoretically happen in the same way that your car could theoretically blow up." As always, robo-score fans miss the point. If the lock on my front door is easy to pick, yeah, I might go months at a time, maybe years, and never have my house broken into. But if the lock is easy to pick, it's a bad lock. Furthermore, the game-ability is a symptom of the fact that robo-scoring fundamentally changes the task, from writing as a means of communicating an idea to other human beings into, instead, performing for an automated audience that will neither comprehend nor understand what you are doing. (Also, the car analogy is dumb, because it's theoretically almost impossible that my car will blow up.)

Robo-scoring is bad faith reading; why should students feel any moral or ethical need to make a good faith effort at writing? Why? Because a bunch of adults want them to perform so they can be judged? 

At any rate, Alberta has decided maybe not on the robo-grading front.

Australia

Oh, Australia. "Early work on machine scoring was successful in Australia, but the testing agency was outmaneuvered by a Teacher’s Federation with an agenda to oppose machine scoring." Specifically, the teachers called in the dastardly Dr. Perelman, whose conclusions were pretty rough including "It would be extremely foolish and possibly damaging to student learning to institute machine grading of the NAPLAN essay, including dual grading by a machine and a human marker." Perelman also noted that even without the robo-scoring out of the NAPLAN writing assessment, "It's by far the most absurd and the least valid of any test that I've seen." 

The teachers named Perelman a Champion of Public Education. The writers of this paper have, I suspect, entirely different names for him. But in railing against him, they reveal how much they simply don't get.

For example, he suggested that because the essays were scored by machine algorithms students would not have a legitimate audience for which to write, as if students couldn’t imagine a particular audience in a persuasive essay task. There was no empirical evidence that this was a problem. 

[Sound of my hand slapping my forehead.] Is an imaginary audience supposed to be a legitimate one? Is the point here that we just have to get the little buggers to write so we can go ahead and score it? Perhaps, because...

 He rightly suggested that computers could not assess creativity, poetry, or irony, or the artistic use of writing. But again, if he had actually looked at the writing tasks given students on the ACARA prompts (or any standardized writing prompt), they do not ask for these aspects of writing—most are simply communication tasks.

Great jumping horny toads! Mother of God! Has any testocrat ever explained so plainly that what the Test wants is just bad-to-mediocre writing? Yeah, all that artsy fartsy figurative language and voice and, you know, "artistic" stuff--who cares? Just slap down some basic facts to "communicate," because lord knows communication is just simple artless fact-spewing. These are people who should not be allowed within a hundred feet of any writing assessment, robo-scored or otherwise.

And in attempting to once again defend against the "bad faith" critique, the paper cites actual research which, again, misses the point.

Shermis, Burstein, Elliot, Miel, & Foltz (2015) examined the literature on so-called “bad faith” essays and concluded that it is possible for a good writer to create a bad essay that gets a good score, but a bad writer cannot produce such an artifact. That is, an MIT technical writing professor can write a bad essay that gets a good score, but a typical 9th grader does not. The extensiveness of bad faith essays is like voter fraud—there are some people that are convinced it exists in great numbers, but there is little evidence to show for it.

First, I'm not sure how that research finding, even if accurate, absolves robo-grading of its badness (I find the finding hard to believe, actually, but I'm not looking at the actual paper, so I can't judge the research done). The idea that the good scores only go to bad essays by good writers is more than a little weird, as if bad writers can't possibly learn how to game the system (pretty sure it wouldn't take a good writer to write the page of "b"s in the earlier example). Is the argument here that false positives only go to students who deserved positives anyway? 

And again, the notion that it doesn't happen often so it doesn't matter is just dumb. First of all, how do you know it happens rarely? Second, it makes bad faith writing the backbone of the system, and beating it the backbone of bad writing instruction. The point of the writing becomes satisfying the algorithm, rather than expressing a thought. We figured out how to beat PA's system years ago-- write neatly, write a lot (even if it's redundant drivel), throw in some big words (I always like "plethora"). Being able to satisfy an algorithm is not not not NOT the same thing as writing well. 

In the end, the writers dismiss Perelman's critique as a "hack job" that slowed down the advance of bad assessment in the land down under.

Florida 

Florida was using humans and software, but the humans had greater weight. If they disagree, another human would adjudicate. One might ask what the point of having the robo-scorer at all, but this is Florida and one assumes that the goal is to phase the human out. 

Recommendations

The paper ends with some recommendations about how to implement a robo-scoring plan (it does not, nor does the rest of the paper, offer any arguments about why it's a good idea to do so). In general they suggest starting with humans and phasing in computers. Teacher perception also matters. They offer some phases.

Phase 1. Start with a research study endorsed by a technical advisory committee. So, some practice work, showing how the robo-scorer does with validity (training) papers, as well as seeing how it does with responses that repeat text, copy the pledge, copy themselves, gibberish, off-topic essays, etc. The state "could involve teachers as appropriate" and that phrase should be the end of it all, because if you are developing an assessment program to assess writing and teacher aren't involved from Day One and every day thereafter as a major voice in the program development, then your program should not see the light of day. Robo-scoring underlines how badly much ed tech completely silences teachers and replaces them with software designers and tech folks. If an IT guy from your local tech shop stopped in and said, "I would like to take over the teaching of writing in your class," you wouldn't seriously consider the offer for even a second. And yet, that is exactly what these robo-score companies propose.

Phase 2. Design initial scoring plan. Use the research to plan stuff. Because it wouldn't be ed tech if we weren't designing the program based on what the tech can do, and not on what actually needs to be done. Nowhere in the robo-scorer PR world will you find an actual discussion of what constitutes good writing--a really tough topic that professional English teacher humans have a tough time with, but which robo-scorers seem to assume is settled, and settled in ways that can be measured by a computer, even though software doesn't--and I still can't stress this enough-- actually read in any meaningful sense of the word. 

Phase 3. Design a communication plan. And only now, in phase three, will we develop a plan for convincing administrators and teachers that this is all a great idea. Use "rationale" and "evidence." There are six steps to this, some of which involve non-existent items like "a description of how essay scoring maps to achievement," but at number six, in the last item on the last list in the third phase, we arrive at "An opportunity and method for teachers to ask questions." Nothing here about what to do if the questions are on the order of, "Would you like to bite me?"

Phase 4. Propose a pilot. Get some school or district to be a guinea pig.

Phase 5. Implementation. If it works in that pilot, deploy it on the state level. With communication, and lots of PD, centered on how to use the scoring algorithm and "improve learning" aka "raise test scores." 

Phase 6. Review and revise. Debrief and get feedback. 

Blerg

Robo-scoring has all the bad qualities of ed tech combined with all the qualities of bad writing instruction, courtesy of the usual problem of turning edu-amateurs loose to--well, I was going to say "solve a problem" but robo-scoring is really a solution in search of a problem. Or maybe the problem is that some folks can't get comfortable with how squishy writing instruction is by nature. Creating robo-scoring software is as hopeless an endeavor as creating a program to rank all the great writers, or using a computer to set the canon for English literature. The best you can hope for is software that quickly and efficiently applies the biases of the programmer who wrote it, filtered through the tiny little lens of what a computer can actually do. 

And while two years ago they were working on the general PR problem of robo-graders, now ed techies are salivating at the golden opportunities they see in pandemic-fueled distance learning, meaning that these things are running around loose more than ever. And it is everywhere, unfortunately, useful for basic proofreading and word counting and basically any kind of writing check that doesn't involve actual reading. Here's hoping this weed isn't in your own garden of education.



Wednesday, January 27, 2021

New Horizons in Workplace Surveillance

Work-from-home has triggered an explosion in Surveil-from-the-office features and products. There has certainly been a boom in programs specifically for surveillance of employees who are at home. These are creepy, with a reported 81% of the top programs logging keystrokes-- so that the boss can see exactly what you've been typing.

But there's something even more insidious about regular old productivity software being tweaked so that it can do the surveilling as well.

As you might expect, Microsoft has been all over this trend, with fun things like a "productivity score" built into Microsoft 365. And they have friends, like Shield, a product that promises, proudly and without any hint of irony or shame, 

We are proud to announce the launch of our integration with Microsoft Teams. The Shield platform is one of the first compliance platforms to provide full surveillance as well as record and search of Microsoft Teams interactions, providing the ability to extract, review and analyze specific conversations to assist with any investigation process.

A Reddit thread from six months ago asked "Could my boss be using teams for surveillance?" and the answer is, "of course." This month a ZDNet article looked at some of the "features" available now for Teams. 

From what I could see, Teams hoovers up all your chats, voicemails, shared meetings, files, transcriptions, your profile details including your email address and phone number...

Reports include detailed data by "user" (aka "the human being using the software") including how many of what kind of messages they respond to or send, meetings joined, time spent on various activities (including audio, video and screen sharing). All smoothly integrated into the software that employees have to use anyway. Chris Matyszczyk at ZDNet imagined how this might work:

I imagined an individual -- or even a whole team -- being summoned by their boss and told: "You didn't respond to 47 Teams messages last month."

What do you say to that? "Well, I suspect those 47 messages were sent by brown-nosing halfwits who send as many Teams messages as possible, so their innate industry shows up on your Teams analytics reports."

There are so many issues here, from the complete erasure of employee privacy to the open invitation for Campbell's Law to kick in so that employees spend all their time gaming their report numbers and ignoring their actual work. But some folks are certain that the cure for all ills is to collect more and more and more and more data. 

And do not underestimate the power of reports. It's one thing is management has the ability to dig down and find all this data. It's another thing if the software deposits a nice clean report on his desktop each morning. And yet another thing if the report also handles interpretation, and instead of reporting "Pat O'Lackey made 32 reports this week" instead reports that pat is rated "unproductive slacker" for the last week.

Two other scary things here. One is that this will probably never go away. For management by screen types, this will be a godsend--why actually walk down the hall when you can just pull up reports at your desk. 

The other has already occurred to those of you who teach in the 21st century--while this is now mostly a product discussion in the working world, it's only a matter of time (measured, perhaps, in minutes) before somebody decides to expand the revenue stream by pushing this stuff in schools-- or, I should say, more of this stuff, since many schools already use plenty of student surveillance software. Always introduced for benign reasons, like the GoGuardian software that monitors all student online activity to make sure they're not contemplating suicide.

Is it bad at your school? The technology already exists to make it even worse. And since education is where industry turns to once the business revenue streams start to reach saturation or just plain dry up, you know this is coming. 

The Curmudgureading List

I was recently reminded that it has been a while since I've done one of these. The edublogging universe has, I think, shrunk a bit in the last year or two, which is not to say that there aren't still hundreds out there. But lots of folks come and go, and I drop blogs from the list on the side when they've gone dormant for more than a few months. There has also been a shift to newsletters and substacks and podcasting, as well as, I think, a loss of more conservative voices in support of public ed.  I'm going to stick to good old fashioned web-based education policy text here, mostly, with blogs, magazine style sites, and a few key organizations. A web presence is not an easy thing to maintain, but here's what's out there right now that's worth reading--or at least, that I know about. 

Recommendations always gratefully accepted. Let me know what I missed.

Accountabaloney

Florida-centric blog is one of the best-looking blogs around. This duo stays on top of Florida's education shenanigans, which is no small feat.

Affective Living

Chase Mielke writes this blog that focuses on teacher burnout. Practical and frequently helpful.

Alfie Kohn

Infrequent blogger, but always interesting with plenty of resources, particularly if you're interested in getting away from grading and testing.

Bellowings

Akil Bello is a testing expert and a good follow on Twitter. While he blogs infrequently, it's always worthwhile, and this is one of those blogs that's worth a stroll through the archives, particularly if you're reading up on big standardized tests.

Big Education Ape

After all these years, still king of the edu-blog aggregators. He'll give you a taste and a link  and do not discount the value of the art that he adds. 

Bust-ED Pencils  

One of the few (okay, two podcasts on the list. Passionate and progressive, hosted by Dr. Timothy Slekar. All of the big guns have stopped by at one time or another.

Blue Cereal Education  

Formerly based in OK, he's now hunkered down in Indiana. Lots of issues covered, but he's also working his way through Supreme Court cases dealing with church and state separation.

Bright Lights, Small City

Sarah Lahm keeps an eye on Minneapolis schools, policy and politics. It's yet another regional stage where reformster ideas go for their out of town trial runs.

Caffeinated Rage

North Carolina is the home base for this prolific look at education policy, politics, and public education.

Citizen Teacher

Lisa Eddy taught ELA for 25 years, collected a variety of awards, and just generally worked her buns off. Now she cranks out frequent posts focusing on education and politics.

Class Size Matters 

A site devoted to exactly that issue. Loads of good materials here to support the obvious.

Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo

One of the few remaining blogs at Education Week, Ferlazzo talks about pedagogical practicalities and also policy and politics and ethics in the classroom.

Cloaking Inequity

The blog of Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig. Lots of smart, researched info, much of it organized by topic. 

Dad Gone Wild

TC Weber covers Tennessee thoroughly and with sharp wit and pithy quotes. "Nobody reads it. Everybody quotes it."

DCulberhouse

"Engaging in conversations around education and leadership," and sometimes getting into some heavy but interesting stuff about systems and complexity. 

Defending the Early Years

Research and advocacy for the littles. I'm a big fan of this organization.

Deutsch29

I call her the indispensable Mercedes Schneider. A research monster and prolific writer, even as she does the classroom work. When you're looking for facts and the background connections, all roads lead here.

Diane Ravitch

If you read me, you probably read Ravitch, whose blog is like the town square for all the advocates for public education. The sheer volume of posts can be daunting, but because she is so very generous with her platform and audience, there is no better place to "meet" all the people writing about public education .

Eclectablog

The source for Michigan news from a progressive perspective. That includes education in the DeVos stomping grounds. Mitchell Robinson writes for these folks.

Ed in the Apple

All about the intersection of education and politics in New York.

Ed Politics

A web magazine covering te political angles. Good place to find Jeff Bryant, a major independent pro-public ed journalist.

Educolor

"EduColor has been at the forefront of anti-racist, culturally competent, justice-centered conversations since its inception in 2014." 


The organization advocating to keep testing fair and open and, well, less. 

Finding Common Ground

Another EdWeek blog, this by Peter DeWitt, who takes a tempered and thoughtful approach to the issues of the day.

Fourth Generation Teacher

I don't go back to this blog often enough, but when I do, I always find thoughtful, insightful pieces about the teaching life.

Fred Klonsky

Politics, unions, and education with a Chicago flavor.

Gadfly on the Wall

Nobody gets more fired up than my fellow Pennsylvanian Steven Singer. Unabashedly progressive, pro-union, pro-teacher and pretty fiery about all of it. 

Gary Rubinstein's Blog

Rubinstein is a math teacher, proof that sometimes Teach for America products grow up to be real teachers. He's been at the blogging work for a long time. He writes about the craft and occasionally digs into the data to debunk popular reformster ideas.

G F Brandenburg's Blog

A retired math teacher who collects plenty of good reads from around the web along with his own excellent insights. Another blogger who's been at this for a while.

Grumpy Old Teacher

National education perspectives with the kind of attitude you know I appreciate.

Hack Education

If you have even a passing interest in education technology, Audrey Watters is required reading. Nobody is more knowledgable, more insightful, more adept at connecting the dots, or more willing to call bullshit. Required reading.

Have You Heard

The other podcast on the list (though they always post a transcript as well for us reader types). Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire are great interviewers, and this podcast brings some great people to the mic, along with some excellent insights from the hosts.

In the Public Interest

A site and organization with a wide-ranging public interest, and that includes keeping an eye on the privatization of public education.

Jan Resseger

Thoughtful, insightful, and always well-sourced look at education policy in the US.

Jersey Jazzman  

Nobody does a better job rendering data (especially financial stuff) in ways that make sense to ordinary mortals.

Just Visiting

Inside Higher Education hosts a variety of bloggers, but John Warner is my only regular read. Warner is particular sharp on the topic of writing.

Keystone State Education Coalition

Excellent and thorough roundup of ed policy issues and articles in Pennsylvania.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Well, blog titles don't come any more accurately descriptive than that.

Larry Lee on Education

Lee is based in Alabama, a state that provides ample opportunity to consider problems in education policy.

Living Dialogue

Anthony Cody's site has evolved into a far-ranging education magazine covering a wide variety of topics and writers.

Momma Bears

One of the many parent blogs that maintains feisty, skeptical eyes on corporate education reform.

Mr. Fitz

There ought to be more education reality centered comic strips, but at least we have Mr. Fitz.

Nancy Bailey's Education Website

Activist and pro-public school, looking at topics on the national scale. I never miss a post.

National Education Policy Center

Scholarly responses to reformy articles and "papers" and a blog-post-of-the-day. NEPC is just the place to look for solid responses to what you know is wrong.

Network for Public Education

NPE has established itself as a strong advocacy and research group in support of public education. Check out the research papers, or look at the page #AnotherDayAnotherCharterScandal for a catalogue of charter misbehavior.

Notes from the Chalkboard

Justin Parmenter is based in North Carolina, where he periodically ruffles feathers and raises some dust. 

Notes from the Educational Trenches  

"I feel like I'm living in the old fable, 'The Emperor's New Clothes.'" Perspective from a classroom teacher.

NYC Educator

He's been at it a really long time. Sly, snarky and well-versed in the nuts and bolts of education in the city that doesn't sleep often or well.

Othmar's Trombone

I couldn't resist the name. Based in the UK, just so you know some of these issues transcend borders.

Plunderbund

Covering the politics of Ohio, including their crazy-pants ed scene, magazine style.

Politics K-12

EdWeek's tag team of current ed policy news and the politics attached to it. Always on top of the breaking news.

Public School Shakedown at The Progressive

Remember when every magazine and news organization had an education tab? The Progressive still keeps a stable of quality (education writers (and me)  on tap to write about education.

Radical eyes for equity

Paul Thomas always makes me feel smarter for reading him, but he also knows whart's what when it comes to comics. 

Rick Hess Straight Up

Another Ed Week blog, this by the education guy from the American Enterprise Institute, so free market ed reform guy, but generally an intellectually honest one. 

School Finance 101

The ins and outs of school finance, with Bruce Baker cutting through the noise. This is where I first learned about how charterization can involve the taxpayers buying the same building multiple times.

School Matters

Longtime observer of the public education scene in Indiana, another hotbed of reformster shenanigans.

Schools Matter

The team of writers here take no prisoners, ever, but they've been at this for a while and they do their digging. No sympathy for corporate interests here.

Teacher in a Strange Land

Retired music teacher Nancy Flanagan blogged for years at EdWeek, but a while back decided to strike out on her own so she could write with more freedom. Often personal, always insightful.

Teacher Tom

A pre-school teacher in Seattle offers meditations on education, children, and life. Great look at connections between learning and life's important lessons.

Tennessee Education Report

Andy Spears knows what's going on in Tennessee, which is one of the states where ed reformy ideas are road tested. Solid reporting.

The 21st Century Principal

John Robinson has done it all, starting with years as an ELA teacher, so his blog brings together edu-threads from literature to politics to the philosophical underpinnings of the work.

The Answer Sheet

Valerie Strauss's column at the Washington Post is always on point, and features plenty of good guest stars (Carol Burris often appears). And people answer her emails and phone calls, which means she gets the stuff that most lowly bloggers do not. Plus she's a pleasantly pro-public school voice at a newspaper that's not always helpful.

The Jose Vilson

Former NYC math teacher, now grad student, and a heck of a writer. Founding leader of Educolor. What a voice.

The Merrow Report

John Merrow was a leading national education reporter for decades. He's retired now, but clearly there's still an itch there.

The Tempered Radical

Bill Ferriter is a teacher and a top-notch PD guy, too. Collaborative teams are his thing, but sometims he just has to speak up about policy and politics.

Tultican

Thomas Ultican sits down and digs deep. In his blog you find many definitive takes that gather everything out there about a particular reformster shenanigans.

When Schools Reopen

This panel of writers is focused on the big issue of the day. When the buildings finally reoppen for good and for real, what could be better?

Wrench in the Gears

Not everybody's cup of tea, this blog travels way down the global digital data plot, but the research is solid and she often pulls out info you won't find anywhere else.

VAMboozled

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley is a leading researcher and scholar in the bananas field of VAM. Another blog that rewards deep reading inm the archives.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Teachers and the Toll of Disinterest

The closest I ever came to leaving public education was almost twenty years ago, when I was the president of our local union, and we were on strike.

It was a challenging time. The contract negotiations started with stripping (a technique where the district proposes to gut the contract so that they can pretend to make concessions later by agreeing to only partly gut the contract, which of course involves them giving up nothing). The lead negotiator said publicly, "We have the money. We just don't want to give it to them." And my phone never stopped ringing.

This is a small town, and while I'm not exactly a public figure, I'm pretty easy to find. And so people called to offer their thoughts on the contract negotiations and the strike.

The worst were not the raging teacher-haters. It was the other folks, some of whom I knew personally, who wanted to explain calmly and rationally why teachers had no right to expect things like good pay and decent benefits, how they should simply accept what the board offered and be happy they were so much better paid than fry cooks and convenience store clerks. 

I had to stare into the abyss of--well, I can't even call it disrespect, Disinterest. It's always a little background buzz that you learn to ignore, that buzz of all the people who really don't much care about public education and think that teachers are a glorified over-paid bunch of women who should just hush up and do as they're told. As I said, usually a background dark hum, and certainly not what everyone is thinking. But for a few months, I had to look straight at it, including all the people who "really respect the work that teachers do, but..." By the time the contract was settled and things were mostly back to kind of normal, I was looking at alternative paths for someone who wanted to teach.

I can hear that buzz gain now, in the increasingly hostile noise about re-opening schools and those damned teachers' unions and dammit teachers, just get the hell back to work. 

You can't find a better example of the increasingly common genre than yesterday's Washington Post, in which Matt Bai observed that teachers are servants and they should start acting like it. Yeah, he said "public servants," but do you think that really makes it any better. "You guys are servants, but, you know, the noble kind."

Bai continues to point out, "Hey, all our other servants are back to work, so what's your problem." Also, I hear that the 'rona doesn't really bother schools. And those poor black kids need you-- doesn't that trigger your noble serving impulses?

Somehow, things like the decidedly non-union charter schools that are also operating at distance doesn't come up (though those schools are often described as "operating at remote" or some such terminology, while public schools are described as "closed," as if nothing is going on. And the business of well-to-do white folks using Black children as leverage has been addressed well elsewhere, but please note that when schools open, lots of folks stay home--it's almost as if some parts of the populations don't trust assurances that everything is safe and under control. And where private schools are open, you might want to look at the money being spent and care being taken to insure they open safely.

Nor should they. I'm in a small town/rural corner of the world, and this is how things are going. Two local districts are 100% open buildings right now. This has less to do with any improvement with local pandemic figures and more with a desire to start a new nine weeks face to face. For ventilation, well, one district suggests that windows on buses and in classrooms be cracked open. At another local school, a student who gets tested for Covid might trigger anything from a stay-home-till-we-see order for classmates to nothing at all--not even a notification to the teacher that her class may have a case. A local superintendent was in today's paper touting "improved morale," though some of his actual teachers report that a peppy speech did not really alter their mood. Meanwhile, vaccinations are few, far between, and random in their dispersal. 

We have known now for a year that it would take an extraordinary investment to re-open school buildings safely. We didn't do it, and it's hard to attribute that to anything other than indifference and disinterest and the oldest education motto in the world ("We could do the right thing, but it would hard"). 

So as was the case after Sandy Hook and Parkland, teachers have to contemplate that part of the population (including, it should be said, some of their professional peers) that says, "Yeah, some of you may have to die, and we'd rather you stopped whining about it and just got back to work." It's not just the possibility of death or illness that takes its toll; it's the realization that this is how some people see you--a servant who just doesn't deserve all thart much concern. 

Look, these are hard times with a surfeit of really noisy data and no attractive choices. But if teachers appear to be a bit shell-shocked by some expressions of disinterest in their lives and work, know that a snappy pep talk is not going to fix it. 



Sunday, January 24, 2021

ICYMI: Bernie Meme Week Edition (1/24)

I'm not a huge fan of pomp, but I do love a good meme explosion, and I'm fond of getting government out of the hands of people who actively, purposefully try to make it fail, so all in all, not a bad week.

Before the list, let me give you your semi-regular reminder that sharing stuff is powerful. It makes bloggers think, "Hey, I'm actually reaching people" and it makes news organizations think, "Hey, we should do more coverage like this." So if something here speaks to you, pass it on!

How education embedded inequity 

In IAI News, Cristina Groeger looks at the much-beloved notion that more education will fix our equity and poverty problems and determines that, no, actually it does the opposite. \

Betsy DeVos and the Politics of Fear

One of the best DeVos post-mortem out there. At Salon, from friend-of-the-institute and historian Adam Laats.

Biden Ed Department Looks To Ditch College Accreditor

Yeah, the one with the big rubber stamp that accredited, among other scams, a "university" with no faculty or students. We could probably go ahead and shut those guys down.

To Sleep, Perchance to Sue...

Blue Cereal Education takes us back to the not-so-long-ago court case that tested the notion that a religious school can hire and fire teachers at will, even for reasons that would be illegal for any other organization. 

William Franz Public School--A Must-Read for Those Who Think They Know New Orleans  

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider looks at a book that chronicles an important chapter of New Orleans education (and it might look familiar to a few other locales as well).

Gov. Bill Lee to Sacrifice Third Graders to Help Him in 2024  

Tennessee is excited about joining the states that use third graders as fodder for firing up test numbers to create the illusion of success. Schools Matter looks at the story, and you can find more from Andy Spears at Tennessee Education Report.

Yes, some charter schools do cherry pick their students. It's not a myth.

At The Answer Sheet, Kevin Welner pops in to lay out what the research shows about cherry-picking of students by charters. Spoiler alert: they do.

Joe Biden has a golden opportunity to strengthen public education.

Jeff Bryant at Alternet with an optimistic take on what the Biden administration could do next.

America's education story in a pandemic anecdote 

John Warner at Inside Higher Ed, pointing out some parallels between the handling of the pandemic and the treatment of public ed.

Schools Are Not Props for a Hollywood Production  

Francine Matthews-Flores is a mother of a son in the LAUSD system, and she has seen some ugly stuff pulled to promote charter schools. Waring--if you are a Kristen Bell fan, this story will make you sad.

GPT-3 is the world's most powerful bigotry generator 

Oh, look. The AI program that does such magical work with fake language use also turns out to generate a lot of bigotry. 

Should charter school board members follow state ethics rules?

Kate Royals writes in Mississippi Today on a question that you might have thought had obvious answers. But no-- in Mississippi, there are charter operators and advocates arguing that ethics rules shouldn't apply to charter boards. Because reasons.



Saturday, January 23, 2021

High Stakes Testing Town Hall--Sign Up

Is there a debate about this spring's Big Standardized Test, exactly? On one side, you have pretty much everyone who has actual direct knowledge of education and teaching pointing out the many reasons that going ahead with 2021's spring edition of the BS Test is a waste of time and money (I've been offering my two cents on the subject here and here and here and here and here, for example). On the other side, you have various newspaper editorial boards, leaning heavily on "research" by testing companies that stand to lose money if the test boom finally collapses.

But with the new administration, everyone seems to sense a window of opportunity, with secretary-designate Miguel Cardona being seen as someone who does not have strong inclinations one way or the other. So now is a good time to make some noise and spread the word-- this year is not the year to trot out the BS Test again.

Next Tuesday, the folks Bob Schaeffer and the folks at Fair Test are holding a national on-line town hall. The National Town Hall on Suspending High-Stakes Testing in Spring 2021will be 
held January 26 at 6:00 EST, and it features a powerhouse line-up of education speakers:

U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman, New York -- House Education Committee
Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean, University of Kentucky College of Education
Dr. Lorrie Sheppard, Distinguished Professor of Education, University of Colorado
Dr. Jack Schneider, Asst. Professor, Leadership in Education, University of Massachusetts
Dr. Lisa Escarcega, Colorado State Board of Education
Roberto Jiménez, School Committee Member, Chelsea, Massachusetts

MCs will be Bob Schaeffer, Executive director of FairTest, and Ilana Spiegel, University of Colorado Board of Regents.

There are so many reasons not to give the tests this spring, but probably the biggest is that there is no good reason TO give the tests, and with districts already strapped for time and/or money, so many more important, more useful, and more educational things that teachers could be doing. 

You can register for the town hall here. Doesn't cost a cent, and if you miss it, the meeting will be recorded and put up on Facebook. Make some noise. Of all the actions that the new Department of Education could take, nothing would be simpler to implement or more far-reaching in its positive effect. Let's get this right.

Friday, January 22, 2021

FL: Voucher and Privatization Endgame in Sight

Florida's legislature is at it again, joining in a national trend of using the pandemic crisis to fuel school voucher initiatives. 

Manny Diaz, Jr., (R-Hialeah) has spent his career chip chip chipping away at public education in Florida, and yesterday he returned with another bold idea. 

Florida has allowed choice programs to grow like an unweeded garden, but Diaz's new bill proposes to collapse five "scholarship" (aka "voucher") programs into just two Education Savings Account (ESA) programs. So Family Empowerment, Hope, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship--all under one roof now, along with the newly condensed Gardinier-McKay programs for students with special needs.

We'll look at the bill more closely in a minute, but let's pause first to admire the cynicism behind this proposal to further gut Florida's public school system. Here's Diaz making his pitch for why he heard the call to propose this bill:

During the past year, our scholarship families let us know that they wanted programs that were easier to understand and simpler to navigate. They also told us that they wanted more flexibility so they could give their children access to high quality education while continuing to keep them safe during the pandemic. This bill represents our effort to respond to those concerns and improve all our school choice programs by making them more family friendly. I am very proud to have my name attached to this bill

Senate President Wilton Simpson also noted that the state's system of programs is "pretty confusing," and you might think this has to do with the way that Florida GOPpies have rolled them out piecemeal, using various student groups, like the poor or those with special needs, has contributed to the patchwork nature. You might look at the Hope Scholarship, a program that was nominally set up to rescue bullied students but turns out to be more about Rep. Byron Donalds' desire to "leave his mark" than actually help bullied kids, which it turns out it isn't actually doing particularly well

But no--Simpson has another theory about why the system of vouchers that has been implemented by the legislature is a slapdash mess: “This patchwork system is largely the result of years of legal challenges from school choice opponents who have attempted to thwart every effort to actually give parents a say in how their children are educated.” Really? Because mostly lawsuits about Florida's voucher systems have run into a buzzsaw of voucher-backing money and well-financed opposition, as well as unfriendly courts. Now, if Simpson wanted to sat that the patchwork system is the result of Florida carefully dipping its toe in the school voucher water a little bit at a time so as to avoid getting called out on violating the state constitution, I'd say that was a more accurate take, but of course it wouldn't allow Simpson to blame somebody else.

So here comes SB 48, designed to expand the eligibility for programs, combine them, and put them under ESAs and folding in Tax Credit Scholarships. There are a few other wrinkles as well.

It also reduces oversight by the state--previously the outfits overseeing the tax credit scholarships had to be audited annually, to make sure they were spending public tax dollars appropriately; now they would be audited only every three years. That's important, because an ESA is like a debit card given to parents, and history tells us that without some oversight, the tax dollars carried by that debit card can end up spent on....well, in Arizona they discovered about $700,000 in ESA money on beauty supplies, clothing, and even attempts to just grab the cash.

Publicity touts "adding flexible spending options" as well. The vouchers can be used for the following: instructional materials (including digital devices); curriculum; tuition for full or part-time for everything from postsecondary courses to a "home education program" to private school to virtual school; fees for tests (SAT, AP, industry certification); Florida's prepaid college savings programs; contracted services, including classes from public school; part-time tutoring services (from someone who has certification or has just ":demonstrated mastery of subject area knowledge"); summer school or after-school ed fees; transportation (under $750). So, a whole lot of things other than just a voucher to go to school somewhere.

This fits with another piece of the proposal (which is really an amending of existing law); the consistent strike-through of "eligible nonprofit scholarship funding organizations" and replacing it with "K-12 education funding." This gets us back to tax credit scholarships, a type of voucher most recently pushed by Betsy DeVos. In the classic TCS, a wealthy donor gives some money to fund vouchers. That money is counted against their tax bill (in Florida's case, 100%), so give $10K to the voucher program, pay $10K less in taxes (and the state gets $10K less in revenue). So far, tax credit programs have involved a middleman to complete the process of laundering the money. Pat McGotbux gives $10K to, in Florida's case, Step Up for Students, who in turn award the voucher to parents (or, in some cases, to a school on behalf of parents). That extra laundering step has protected states from any charges of violating the separation of church and state, of giving tax dollars to a church-run school. But thanks to Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue and a host of "religious freedom"-friendly judges installed by That Last Guy, states are no longer quite so worried about that whole church state wall thing. However, the proposed law still allows for a robust, profitable business in the scholarship funds management biz (there's a whole section on how to qualify).

This also dovetails nicely with the "flexibility" touted above; the dream for ESAs for many ed privatizers and profiteers is the "unbundling" of education. Why go to the trouble and expense to put a whole "school" on the market when you can target more tightly--get in the math class biz, or the art class biz, or the ELA biz. Instead of sending a child to school, parents can assemble a variety of educational "resources" and just put it all on the ESA card. Where the law used to say "A parent who applies for a Family Empowerment Scholarship is exercising his or her parental option to place his or her child in a private school," it now says "...exercising his or her parental option to determine the appropriate placement or the services that best meets [sic] the needs of his or her child." (l. 2316-2321)

So it makes a dark sense that the bill wants to swap out "give the money to some specific entity created to manage these funds" to "just give the money to something we'll vaguely call K-12 education." 

This also makes another significant swap-out. For "we promise to provide a free and appropriate education for your child" it substitutes "we promise to give you a credit card with some funds on it and thereby wash our hands of you--good luck in that free market, parents." The law includes a requirement that the state department of education "shall develop guidelines for a parent guide to successful student achievement which describes what parents need to know about their child’s educational progress and how they can help their child to succeed in school." So, here's an ESA credit card and a handy guide pamphlet--good luck, parents. Meanwhile, the market floods with fraudsters, profiteers, well-meaning incompetents, and high-gloss edu-businesses that you can't afford with the funds on your ESA. 

There are other bits and pieces--lawyers will have a dig through this if it becomes a law. But some other tidbits. Students who receive free or reduced price lunches can get funding to attend a school other than the one they're assigned to by residence. More follow-up on reported bullying incidents. Operators of scholarship-funding organizations have to pass background checks. At one point it talks about some rules that apply "if the scholarship-funding organization provided the majority of the scholarship funding to the school," anticipating, I guess, some close, chummy relationships between those two parts of the edu-biz-ecosystem. And just in case you thought I was exaggerating, there's a paragraph about how the scholarship funding organization may distribute the funding, including debit cards and electronic payment cards. You can only contribute to tax credit scholarships up to 50% of your total tax bill.

All of the usual folks like this bill. Americans for Prosperity (the Koch-funded group that helped turbo-charge the Tea Party) says that "the public health crisis reminds us that a crisis should never be wasted when it can help provide cover for our policy goals." Ha, no! Just kidding. Skylar Zander of AFP said that the health crisis reminds us that one-size-fits-all system does not meet the needs of every child, which I guarantee you will not be what he says when the subject of forcing every child to take Florida's odious Big Standardized Test, or their foolish third grade retention law, comes up. And, of course, Jeb Bush, the mac daddy of Floridian public school disruption, tweeted about how much he likes it. 

Somehow the Democratic vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee only heard about this via an aid on Tuesday, two days before the bill debuted. 

"This is a huge, huge problem that they’re about to do this in a COVID year, with all the budget constraints,” Jones, who is vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said during Tuesday’s Democratic caucus meeting. “We’re going to have to fight like hell on this one." I am not sure what it looks like when a Floridian Democrat fights like hell. Florida's teachers did a little better:

“What the world has learned during this pandemic is the importance of public schools to a functioning society, but one of the first bills out the gate this year in Florida undercuts public education. Parents want lawmakers to invest in and support public schools. This bill does the opposite, and would drain away more resources from the schools that educate the great majority of our state’s children,” FEA president Andrew Spar said in a prepared statement.

But, in an editorial choice emblematic of Florida, the FEA quote is the last paragraph in the news service release about the bill, and was cut off of many repeats of the story.

This, for many choice fans, is getting close to the end game. The dream-- rich people pay fewer taxes and only support the schools they want to support. Wealthy people still have access to all the choices they want, while everyone else gets to pick through a free market morass in search of do-it-yourself education for their children. Education becomes mostly privatized edu-business, and the public schools remains in some markets to do their underfunded best with the "customers" that nobody wants. But hey. Lower taxes. Less paying for the education of Those People. Put Jesus back in charge of more education, even if that means the education is not very good, aggressively exclusionary, or even abusive.

We'll see what happens. Pay attention. Because Florida remains on the cutting edge of disrupting public education into oblivion, the model which other states that hope to be the very worst still aspire to follow.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Meet Your Dead Teacher

 Well, this was going to happen sooner or later


I used to tell my students that I would teach until I died, and then have my body stuffed and mounted with animatronics while old tapes of my teaching played. Turns out that I didn't do that, but it was still a thing someone could do.

If you think teaching is the act of pouring Knowledge Stuff from one container into another, I guess this makes sense. And I can imagine the administration salivating over the prospect of a "teacher" who requires no pay, no benefits, and no lengthy hiring process to acquire.

The weirdness that the poster talks about is, I think, a residue of the natural inclination we have to think of ourselves as in a relationship with our teachers. Hell, forty-some years later I still have a warm spot in my heart for Julius Sumner Miller and his videos of physics demonstrations which, though we were clearly watching a recording, seemed live and real and for us in 1974. So finding out that a person you think has been, in some way, sort of, really talking to you--well, they're actually dead. That's a little disconcerting, like taking a step backward and having your foot meet air rather than floor.

Practically speaking, why not. Is Khan Academy going to take down videos of "teachers" who die? Of course not.

But it's a reminder of what's wrong with this kind of "education," a kind of teaching that involves no relationship, like a performer stepping out on stage in front of nobody. No connection. No seeing who the students are, how they're reacting, what they feel, how well the lesson is landing.

There are reformsters who seem to believe, or at least want others to believe, that this kind of one-way lecture-only type of education is typical. It isn't, and hasn't been for decades. Because education runs on relationships. Except that that's expensive, so why not cram a few hundred students in a hall or have some mook deliver a canned lesson or just have them watch some videos, even videos recorded by someone who's now dead.

The weirdness of how this feels tells us a lot about education. After all, we watch movies and listen to music from dead people all the time. Some of us become obsessed involved fans, trying to dredge up every piece of information we can to feel closer or more connected to the dead performer. Others of us just watch or listen, relating only to the art and not the human behind it. Or we identify with the audience that was there for the work (hence the pervasive love of live audience recordings).

But in education we expect more than that. As students, we expect to be seen, and we build some sort of relationship with the teacher in front of us, a unique semi-professional one (yet personal enough that as students it can still rock the foundations of the universe when we discover a teacher wearing jeans or shopping for groceries).

As far as I know, nobody is trying to capture dead K-12 teachers yet, but much of the curriculum that teachers are required to write and align and record in painstaking detail in digital formats really is, literally, about reassuring staff-strapped administrators that if Mrs. McTeachalot dropped dead tonight, somebody could come in and do her job just like her tomorrow. And of course a great deal of robo-grading and robo-teaching is based on the notion that we can swap out live tissue for dead circuitry (and so far, it mostly sucks).

I've known teachers, now passed, who taught brilliant lessons, but I don't know how they could ever have been captured. The lessons, year to year, were tweaked in the planning to match the students of that year, and tweaked in the moment to match the immediate reaction. Captured in digital amber, they simply wouldn't be the same. 

And so it becomes radical to assert that teaching is a job best left to the living. 21st Century education, indeed.