Wednesday, June 30, 2021

One More Lens

I often talk about education as the work of acquiring more tools, but there's value (particularly right now) in framing education as a collection of lenses.

There's a scene in the counter-reality romp National Treasure in which our heroes have to use some fancy glasses to see secret messages on important documents. And that's a good simplified model--looking through different lenses allows you to see different things.

Studying literature is about finding different lenses through which to see a work.

Sometimes it's a chore--if you use the right set of lenses and squint, then you can convince yourself that the ending of Huckleberry Finn fits with the rest of the novel. Is it ironic? Is it a final twist on a search for identity? Is it a discouraging take on American oppression? Or is it just an author getting stuck and finally just writing his way out any way he could think of?

Sometimes it's exciting. One of my college professors would always talk about the ambiguity than enriches, and I think of works like Hamlet--every time you look with different lens, you see a different work, but each work is awesome. Is the play about death? Is it about depression? Is it about power? Is it about generational conflict? 

As society grows and changes and scholars push boundaries, new lenses are developed. 100 years reading through a lens of critiquing patriarchal power structures or theories about racist systems was not a thing. The rise and fall of certain authors in the canon often runs parallel to the rise and fall of certain lenses; the rosy glow of a Romantic lens is out of favor, and so some Romantic authors are no longer in favor.

The use of lenses is, of course, not just a literary thing. We bring our lenses to reading history, consuming pop culture, even reading the actions and character of the humans around us. 

But the important part--and I cannot say this hard enough--is to use more than one lens.

Literature, history, media, humans--all very complex, and the more lenses we use to filter our perception, the more details we can tease out and understand. The more lenses we use, the better we understand how our old views were incomplete, sometimes dramatically and dangerously so. A single lens always has blind spots.

Many of our issues are problems with one-lens people.

It's a reliable "there are two kinds of people" dichotomy. In any English department in any school, there are two types of teachers--those who believe there's just one way to read Literary Work X, and those that believe there are multiple ways to read. Right now you are probably remembering one of each. David Coleman and his Common Core reading ideas touched a nerve with so many of us because he is clearly a one-lens guy. His direction to read only within the four corners of the text is a call to throw out every other lens you use to view readings. Autocrats like Donald Trump sell the idea that their followers don't need other lenses (maybe even no lenses at all) except the lens of "Dear Leader always tells the truth." 

Where do one-lens people come from? 

Some folks just go through a stage. Like new converts to any previously unknown viewpoint, some folks just get excited. I am ashamed to admit there was a nine month period during which I Bechdel tested the hell out of everything in sight as if it was the only way to watch anything. You get excited about your new lens, and you kind of forget to consider anything else. 

But I think the big source on one-lenser is people who want the world to be clear and simple. The idea that you can use multiple lenses, the multiple things can be true at the same time. If there are conflicting of a person or an event, then either the problematic view must cancel out the good, or the good view must cancel out any negatives. 

And because these folks have just one lens, they must view attempts to promote any other lenses as an attempt not to supplement, but to supplant. Pushing a new lens troubles them, alarms them, and they can't give an inch. An attempt to examine ways in which racism has affected US history and institutions will, for some folks, mean that we're going to throw out anything good the country has ever done. They get stuck in endless loops of this conversation:

Pat: I'm just saying there's another way to look at this.

Sam: So you're saying I'm wrong. But you're wrong.

And when one-lensers clash, when someone really is trying to completely replace one lens with another, then we have a conflict that cannot be resolved by anything other than a patch of scorched earth. 

If you have just one lens with which to view the world, that's part of who you are, and anything that challenges that lens challenges your identity. And there is almost nothing that people will fight harder to defend.

The tension between single and multiple lenses has always been part of our country, and it has certainly always been part of how we talk about and do education. For some folks, education is about giving students experience using that One True Lens and keeping it polished. You can see it in the people who have been complaining for the past several years that they don't students taught all that bias and stuff--just the facts. As if there's a set of objectively true historical facts that look exactly the same no matter what, because the only lens is the "facts" lens. Having just one lens means never having to say you're biased.

The other education approach is to, in effect, try to give students fluidity with the greatest possible number of lenses, as well as some skill in figuring out which ones work best when. This, for one lensers, is what indoctrination is all about--teaching students that there's more than one way to read the world. 

Multi-lens teaching isn't hard. I did it for most of my career without really thinking of it in those terms. I taught American literature, which meant that religion, race, gender, politics, wildly different views of the world were all on the table. My approach, whether it was Puritanism or 19th century critical realism, was to say, "I'm going to try to show you how these people viewed the world. I'm not here to say that they're right or wrong, and what you decide to think about them is up to you, but I want you to understand what they believed about how to be in the world." I never wanted them to answer the question "Who's right," but just "What would this group think about X?" If I could  teach just one thing in a year, I was hoping for, "People can see things differently for reasons other than stupidity or evil." 

I can't claim I always kept my own viewpoint out of my classroom, but I always labeled it as such, and I hope I ran a classroom where it was safe to disagree with me. 

The multilens view is, of course, its own kind of lens. But I've been using it to help unravel the current scramble over "divisive issues" in the classroom, and to think about what teaching really is, or should be. Some folks have been arguing that this massive argument is a sign that we need school choice, that public schools suck at uniting. I'm not sure that the ideas themselves are the real root of divisiveness as much as the single lens approach. Yes, it's a problem if some folks are racist, but it's an insoluble problem if they are incapable of imagining that real people could be any other way.

I hope that my children and grandchildren move through the world with as many lenses as they can carry. I hope our schools bring together people who use many different lenses and teach them about many more. I wear bifocals and have a pair of reading glasses for playing music. With two different eyes, that's a total of six different lenses; to really see the world I have to use some different combination of them all at various times. If I ever need more, that'll be fine, too.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Importance of School Administrators

School administration jobs suck. Principals and superintendents have are responsible for everything and accountable to everybody while having little actual power. It's an aspect of the charter revolution is understandable--let's give the school CEO all the power and make him accountable to nobody--even if it is wrong.

But as little power as administrators seem to have, they still serve a critical function. Witness Jay Mathews' look (at the Washington Post) into Karin Chenoweth's new book Districts That Succeed. 

When she asked the teachers how long it would take for a bad principal to tear the school apart, she expected them to say they wouldn’t let that happen.

Instead, they frowned in despair and said about 20 minutes.

That sounds about right. It takes you one staff meeting to know that you've got a boss who's going to break things. 

Bad administrators implement their badness in a variety of ways, but they are all bad for the same fundamental reason--they have forgotten the actual purpose of their jobs. (Here's a Bad Administrator Field Guide)

If a school's job is to educate students, and that actual work is done by teachers, then an administrator's job is to make it possible for each teacher to do her best possible job of educating students.

All administrative duties are best understood through this lens. All that state and federal paperwork and reporting? Administrators handle that so that teachers can focus on teaching. Should an administrator be a visible and respected member of the community in which the school is located? Absolutely--so that the administrator is better positioned to advocate for the teachers and the school. Why does an administrator handle disciplinary issues? So that teachers can teach. Why do administrators make sure the school has a smoothly running schedule and program? So that teachers can teach. Why do administrators do observations of teachers? To help them do a better job of teaching.

Administration offices are often besieged. It is easy for busy, overworked administrators to start imagining that what goes on in their office suite is the "real" work of the district. But as soon as they start to think that way, the wheels start to come off. 

As Chenoweth's interviewees suggest, it is easy for district administration to kill a program, to poison a school culture. There's another step on the road to hell, when administrators move past the "we're doing the real work here and all this stuff is just getting in our way" and move on to the idea that the key to doing their job is not to empower teachers, but to strip power from them. 

This never ends well, ever (and that's why the charter visionary autocratic CEO model is a huge mistake). The country is littered with faux committees, convened to come up with the administrator's pre-selected idea. Uncountable PLC programs have been started and killed by administrators who were unwilling to let teachers have even a little power. Thousands of teachers do their best work in spite of their boss rather than because of him. 

When the weather gets really rough, the badly administered schools careen into the weeds. The most critical factor needed to get schools through the pandemic break was trust--trust between staff and administrators, school and parents--and many districts failed. 

Now we have new storm clouds whipping up around "critical race theory." Multiple states have passed vague, unclear laws even as real and faux parent groups come loudly demanding that the school stop doing, well, something. One of the big dangers of this uproar is that the lack of clarity in the laws is going to prompt a bunch of administrators to freak out and try to shut down anything that might possiblyattract trouble. "I can't sort all this out. I'm not sure what the law says and I don't want a mob of parents in my office, so as of this school year, just don't teach anything about race in your classroom, ever." Or nuisance rules like "Every single lesson you have mentioning race must be reviewed by my office before you teach it." 

When the education weather gets rough, it's an administrator's job to be a strong shelter, to make sure that teachers stay warm and dry so they can do their jobs. We're in the middle of a storm; here's hoping that your administrators understand what they're supposed to do.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

ICYMI: Warming Way The Hell Up Edition (6/27)

The Institute is located right on the banks of the Allegheny River, which means while I'm sitting here baking I can at least look at water, but dang, it is unpleasant today. Not as unpleasant as it is out West. But I'm sure this is all just a momentary blip and nothing to be concerned about. In the meantime, here's a batch of reading from the week.

I oppose indoctrination, which is why I want schools to prove they are thinking acceptable things

Ordinarily I put the yuks at the end, but Alexandra Petri is a national treasure, and her take on Ron DeSantis new anti-wrongthink measure is exactly on point.

This critical race theory panic is a chip off the old block

Not sure how I missed this last week, but Gillian Frank and Friend of the Institute Adam Laats wrote a great piece for Slate showing the many times we have been here before.

Employers, don't blame the "skills gap" on workers

Or, for that matter, schools. Andre Perry and Anthony Barr write about a Philliy apprenticeship program that shows how it can be done.

PA should consolidate racetracks, not universities

Susan Spicka is the executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania. Here she takes a look at a plan to consolidate state universities and cut costs, even as legislators look to shore up horse racing. Because, for some reason, they think only one of those things has significant economic impact.

Platinum Equity Inks $4.5B Deal To Buy McGraw Hill

Your regular reminder that publishing is largely in the hands of people whose major interest is not publishing. 

Why Americans are so divided over teaching critical race theory

Better than average summation/overview of the current mess, from NPR. You can listen or read.

How mob attacks on social media are silencing UK teachers

It's not just here, if that's any consolation. The Guardian reports on how British Trumpism is making life miserable for teachers.

If Pittsburgh council really wants to help city schools, there's an obvious solution

Different cities have different local issues. In Pittsburgh, one issue is that the city has actually been taking a slice of the tax dollars that are supposed to go to schools. Steven Snyder explains. 

Take this job and shove it. Or change it.

Nancy Flanagan looks at the great post-pandemic employment reshuffle and considers what it means to teachers.

Supreme Court rules that Arkansas teachers pension were suckers to trust Goldman Sachs

Among SCOTUS decisions this round was one declaring that the Arkansas teacher pension system had no reason to trust the integrity of Goldman Sachs. Seriously. Fred Klonsky blogs about the story.

A new look at cyber charter balances

Public Citizens for Children and Youth just released a report about data showing that Pennsylvania's cyber charters are sitting in $74 million in reserves. Just some extra money they're banking for, well, because they can.

Religious freedom in America is protected for some more than others

As SCOTUS considers the right of religious folks to express their religion through state-funded discrimination, this op-ed from the LA Times points out some inconsistencies in how religious freedom tends to play out.

Why GPA tells us so much

In Psychology Today, an argument for why GPA is so much more valid a predictor of college success than SAT or ACT.

America's school teachers aren't the Marxist cabal Foix News keeps depicting

Anne Lutz Fernandez writes an op-ed for NBC THINK explaining just how radical US teachers really are.

The pandemic showed remote proctoring to be worse than useless

Cory Doctorow breaks down the abuses and more abuses of remote proctoring.

Never let a good crisis go to waste: Michigan Ed Reform edition

At Eclectablog, Mitchell Robinson looks at the same old problem of reformsters who may fail, but who never go away.

Illinois legislature begins to repair the damage of Chicago school reform.

Jan Ressefer has been tracking this stuff for a long time. Here's a capsule history of ed reform in Chicago, and what might happen to fix at least some of the damage.

The End of Friedmanomics

If only. But this piece in the New Republic made several conservatives sad, and it captures just how much damage Friedman has done, and why his ideas about education are toxic.

Literally, Seriously, and Institutional Integrity

I think Andy Smarick is wrong on a lot of education policy, but I also find him to be thoughtful and often a classic conservative, as opposed to whatever it is that conservatism has been replaced with. This piece is not short, but it's an attempt to explicate a whole world of truthfulness in rhetoric. 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

CRT Warriors Are Coming For Individual Teachers

Anti-Critical Race Theory warriors are coming for schools, and for the teachers in them.

In New York City, the group Free To Learn is spending millions of dollars on ad buys to target NYC schools (including some private ones) who are accused of indoctrinating children. The group says it supports the basic principle that students should be free to ask questions, develop individual thoughts and opinions, and think critically--but not about that race stuff, apparently. It's not obvious whose deep pockets are involved in funding this group, but it's led by Alleigh Marre, who's been in politics for a while, working on campaigns for Scott Walker and Scott Brown, as well as serving on Donald Trump's transition team.

But Free To Learn is just targeting schools. Others are targeting individual teachers. I do believe there are people with reasonable, reasoned concerns about CRT and its influence on education, but they're a small group, and their voices have been pretty much drowned out by the mob (and the GOP politicians trying hard to draw power from it).

Amy Donofrio found herself re-assigned and then held up as a target by Florida's education commissioner. Misty Cromptom found she was being used as a campaign talking point in New Hampshire. On Twitter, a teacher reported to me that in her area, the No Left Turn group had taken screen shots of posts by teachers and administrators and used them in a presentation of evidence of indoctrination, with names highlighted and schools listed.

No Left Turn is another one of these culture warrior groups, this one spearheaded by Dr. Elana Yaron Fishbein, who pulled her children from school in Gladwyne PA because of a Cultural Proficiency Committee formed in the wake of the murder (she says "death") of George Floyd. They set up lessons that were unlike "the wholesome teaching of MLK, Jr. The group wants to "revive" education's fundamental discipline of "critical and active thinking which is based on facts, investigation, logic and sound reasoning," but they also include on their list of objectives, "Restore American patriotism in the classroom, including presenting our nations as consistently forward-thinking in its elevation of individual liberty and democratizing traditional Liberalism." 

The Central Virginia chapter, the one that went Twitter hunting, has a Facebook page headed by an MLK Jr. quote. Facebook is apparently a nexus for many of these groups, and while this may seem like it's coming together quickly, many of the connections were already in place. The woman leading the Virginia No Left Turn crusade against CRT was, just a short while ago, leading the charge against masking and school closures

Fox stories about these Courageous Moms often highlight a baseless fear of personal risk for standing up, but it's teachers who are being targeted. The Daily Wire just ran a piece about the Zinn Project pledge to Teach the Truth, now up to 4600 signers. Someone at Daily Wire took the time to sort through all the signatures and sort them by state and city, so that culture warriors can look up and hunt down any local teachers that are an indoctrination threat (I will not link to the DW piece, but here's the Zinn pledge). And yes, those signatures are public, but making it easy to target your local indoctrinatin' teacher just goes a scary extra mile.

And of course no movement to stamp out Plus Double Bad Wrongthink would be complete without a chance to turn in some naughty teacher or school. Free To Learn offers such an opportunity. Likewise Parents Defending Education (who run an Indoctrination Map), and even the Lt. Governor of Idaho (with her Education Indoctrination Task Force).

It's getting ugly, and it's getting ugly quickly, and schools and teachers may be wary that we're very close to the pitchforks and torches stage. The fact that many of these groups are ill-informed and spectacularly hypocritical ("They want to make this like Communist China," say the activists trying to implement a Cultural Revolution style purge of people with Bad Thoughts) is not going to matter a whit. Nor is "we don't teach CRT" a defense, because just about anything, from "equity" to "social emotional learning" is a sign you're Up To Something. It remains to be seen how many schools are going to be razed over this. Maybe , just maybe, these mobs are going to turn out to be reasonable people who just want to talk and who understand that serious, responsible people can have many views of CRT, and who understand that teachers want what's best for their students. I really don't like to be an alarmist. But right now it's not looking good.

NY: Buffalo's New (Probably) Mayor Knows About Charter Pushout

Buffalo, NY, primary voters tossed out a four-year incumbent in favor of India Walton, a nurse and self-identified socialist (as oppose to someone targeted with the S-word by cranky conservatives). 

Buffalo is a busy city for charter schools. It is where Carl Paladino put on a master class in how to use charter schools to make a profitable real estate empire. At one point he got himself elected to the school board where he was a vocal advocate for charters. He was never particularly shy about making a mint from the charter biz. ""If I didn't, I'd be a friggin' idiot," is a thing he actually said out loud to the Buffalo City News. The board often tried to shut him up (he was not just a charter fan, but racist, sexist and loud about it), but it was eventually the state that removed him from the board during his second term. In 2017, Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia removed him for disclosing sensitive information from a closed-door board session.

But you did notice that was his second term. Because Buffalo voters re-elected him. Buffalo has around 20 charter schools operating, and there is concern that Walton would be an anti-charter mayor.

The Buffalo News broached the subject with her back at the beginning of June. I'll include the audio, which is brief, but here are the highlights.

Walton has a charter push-out story of her own. Her son requires an IEP. The charter in which she enrolled him set the condition that he could not be enrolled unless she waived that IEP. After a few months, she was brought in by the school, which told her he wasn't performing well enough and she could either pull him out or they would expel him (which, they apparently suggested, would go on his "permanent record"). 

Asked by the newspaper if she had heard that this was a widespread issue or just her own personal experience (a fair question) she noted that as a school nurse, every October and November she would have to process a large number of students returning to public schools from the charter schools. That's not an uncommon experience; in many states, charter enrollment is counted in the fall, and afterwards, even if the student leaves, the charter keeps the money that "followed" the student there, so there is no penalty for the charter pushing out students that are too difficult or costly to educate.

So Walton may not be actually anti-charter, but she is familiar with one brand of charter shenanigans. She still has to defeat whatever sacrificial lamb the GOP puts up for the general election, and defeated incumbent Byron Brown is hinting at a write-in campaign, but India Walton could be sign of interesting times ahead in Buffalo.

You can listen to the audio here.

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Thursday, June 24, 2021

FL: More Education Bigly Bad News (There Is No Bottom)

Florida continues to demonstrate that there is no bottom, absolutely no depth at which the legislature and their governor will say, "No way--that's just going too far." Having created a gag rule for shutting teachers up about All That Race Stuff, Current Governor and Future Heir To the Trump Presidential Crown Ron DeSantis just signed three more bills to clamp down on education and any nefarious indoctrinators lurking therein. And including a few features that haven't made the headlines.

SB 1108 has been getting attention mostly for its increased requirements for civics education and civics education testing. Students now must take a civics literacy course in high school. But that's not all that's in there. 

The bill also gives the state education department the authority "to hold patents, copyrights, trademarks and service marks" and use or sell them for "monetary gain or other consideration."

And the bill creates an Innovative Blended Learning and Real Time Student Assessment Pilot Program. The purpose of the program is "to develop and measure innovative blended learning and real-time weekly student assessment educational models," or what is sometimes called hybrid, with teachers and some students in a classroom, while other students are remote in the same class at the same time. But it also, in this bill, means "students learn in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace and in part at a traditional supervised classroom location away from home. So both synchronous and asynchronous instruction of both live and cyber students. But the "distance learning" must always be at the parents choosing with no coercion. And it's supposed to close the achievement gap. And the student can choose to switch modalities on any given day without notice. 

So some sort of freakish Frankenstein's monster of cyber-schooling. Charters or public schools may choose to get a piece of this action.

HB 5 is the bill focusing on K-12 civics education, with the intent to make it more nationalistic. Civics ed must now include a "comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States." 

This mandated indoctrination into the love of freedom must also include "patriotic programs" that will inculcate in students "an understanding of their shared rights and responsibilities, and of the founding principles" of the country. Also, a "sense of civic pride and desire to participate regularly with" local, state and federal government. Can't wait to see how they assess that one on the test. 

But wait--there's more students are supposed to get. Also, an understanding of effective advocating before government. Also, an understanding of  civic-minded expectations of "an upright and desirable citizenry that recognizes and accepts responsibility for preserving and defending the blessings of liberty inherited from prior generations" and secured by the Constitution. And the program should also "curate" oral histories of "portraits in patriotism" including "first-person accounts of victims of other nations' governing philosophies who can compare those philosophies with" ours here in the US. So students are to learn that other countries are awful and we are awesome. 

HB 233 is the one grabbing all the headlines, because it is represents a striking new low in crazy-pants authoritarian dystopic state law. 

Extra crazy points for this part--the bill says that institutions of higher learning must not "limit students', faculty members', or staff members' access to, or observation of, ideas and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive." This is coming from the same state that just banned Critical Race Theory and anything else that might cause "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other psychological distress" to white students. This bills limits on shutting down anything unwelcome or offensive means that basically anything is fair game on a Florida campus. 

But the headline crazy is the requirement for an annual  assessment of the "intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity" of every institution of higher ed. Annual. There's no indication that survey responses have to be anonymous, so there's a concern about being targeted by the state. And DeSantis has indicated that he'd just as soon cut funds for any schools that turn out to be overly liberal. Reporters pressed DeSantis for some examples of this terrible scourge of intellectual repression of conservatives; he had nothing, but said he knows "a lot of parents" who worry about their children being indoctrinated on campus (presumably he meant "indoctrinated the wrong way"). 

The bill has been sailing along for a while, and this piece from the Miami Herald back in April gives a full picture of the intent here--particularly in a section of conversation with lobbyist Barney Bishop, who pushed hard for this bill:

Bishop won’t name his clients other than to say he is lobbying the bill on behalf of Citizens for Responsible Spending, a “grassroots organization committed to ethics, the budget and good jobs.” He is the only lobbyist representing non-education groups that is pushing for the bill.

When asked why, he painted a dark, repressive picture.

“I think that those of us who have diverse thinking and look at both sides of the issue, see that the way the cards are stacked in the education system, is toward the left and toward the liberal ideology and also secularism — and those were not the values that our country was founded on,” Bishop said. “And those are the values that we need to get our country back to.”

Bishop said he “certainly hope[s]” the effort will go further — into the K-12 system.

So, we need to be looking at both sides, but really only the correct side, the Jesus side. Because indoctrination is totally okay when you're doing it for God.

There is no bottom.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

SCOTUS Backs F-bomb Cheerleader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

AI Wants To Take Your Order (Among Other Things)

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

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

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

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

I wanted it to be clever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 21, 2021

Is There Common Ground on Race and Education in Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The effort to diversify the education profession.

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

Helping teachers maintain high expectations for all students, regardless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Things My Father Taught Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Onion is on the job again. 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Former DeVos Aid Tries To Rally Reform Troops

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

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

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

The Intro

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

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

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

Defining Education Reformers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture Wars

This section gets off to a better start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Substantive Divisions

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

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

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

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

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

Reformer Reactions to DeVos

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

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

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

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

Reformers and Federal Power

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Using Critical Race Theory To Target... Everything

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

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

But for some folks, CRT is everything, everywhere. 

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

There are several emerging trends.

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

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

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

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

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

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