Saturday, July 31, 2021

USA Today Offers Ed Tech Baloney

This morning USA Today dropped this thing from freelance writer Matt Alderton, serving on this occasion apparently as a PR flack for tech companies. I'm responding to the piece here so that you can have a handy reply for your aunt when she sends you the article which, unfortunately, will get wide distribution through the platform. 

Alderton starts by citing data about teachers considering leaving the profession, says that Covid is certainly partly to blame, and then pivots to this:

“Part of the problem is that teachers spend a lot of time doing things that ... in their view are not the best and highest use of their time,” says former teacher Jake Bryant, now a partner at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., where he serves the company’s education practice. “Nobody becomes a third-grade teacher because they love collecting permission slips and filling out attendance sheets. What motivates you to get into the profession is interacting and engaging with students, and helping them learn.”

Okay. First, Jake Bryant is a former teacher like I am a former athlete. I pitched for the playground softball team when I was 16. Bryant taught at a KIPP charter for one year after graduating from Harvard with a degree in social studies and teaching Yokohama. Then he went into the consultant biz; I don't find any proof that he was a Teach for America product, but his career follows the same trajectory of TFA insta-experts in education. Bryant moved on to the Gates Foundation, then landed in McKinsey and Company where he leads "research focused on improving educational outcomes." Aka raise test scores.

Bryant's not wrong when he notes that teaching can involve some annoying clerical work, but this piece will go south rapidly. He cites some McKinsey research claiming that teachers spend 40% of their time on "activities that could be automated," a "report" from January of 2020 (aka The Time Before This Damn Pandemic) that features the usual McKinsey angle which is that we really ought to be able to cut teaching positions and replace them with lower-skilled humans and computers. The areas that technology can "reallocate" teacher time in the areas of preparation, evaluation and feedback, administration, student instruction, and --bizarrely--professional development. The whole "research report" is aimed at promoting personalized [sic] learning, aka computer-directed education. The report actually says "20 to 40" percent of teacher hours could be automated, but Bryant (who co-wrote the report he's referring to) chooses now to go with the 40% figure, which makes sense, because the pandemic has simply accelerated the goals that McKinsey had back When We Were All Maskless.

As always, when dealing with technology "research," it's important to understand that these are not scientific attempts to predict the future; they're marketing attempts to shape it. So when Alderton drops in phrases such as "experts like Bryant," he's just helping power the smoke machine.

So how does think robots and software are going to "help" teachers.

Streamlining administrative tasks

We turn now to Eric Wang, a senior director at Turnitin. He's here to beat the drum for Gradescope, yet another AI product that claims it can provide assessment and feedback for student papers. No, no, and also, no. We've been over the problems with this many times in the past, but for the moment I'll offer just this objection--what does it do to student engagement to be told, "I'm not actually going to look at this--just run it past the gradebot." Does anybody imagine that wealthy and well-connected parents will not demand that teachers had damned well better actually look at their child's work. 

Say it with me: computer software cannot assess student writing. See here, here, here, and here.

Also, the article brings up Ashok Goel's creation of virtual teaching assistant Jill Watson to handle "basic" questions (like the kind that you could have answered if you logged on and read a website, but okay."

The Power of Personalization

McKinsey's favorite product--computer-directed education. The big win is supposed to be that the computer can "personalize" the "instruction" by using "adaptive learning." He offers Thinkster and Knewton; Knewton once predicted that it would be able to tell you what to eat for breakfast to get a good math score and would "solve the global education crisis," but instead was broken up and sold for parts two years ago, having not actually solved the global education crisis. This piece of Knewton is owned by Wiley, repped here by Matthew Leavy, who used to work for Pearson. Thinkster Math founder/CEO Raj Valli offers "We've married man with machine." Here's his metaphor:

If you tell me to jump in the pool and swim back and forth, I’m never going to be a good swimmer. But if you jump in the pool with me and point out that I’m not kicking my right leg or using my left arm, then you can make me better. That’s the kind of observations our tutors are able to make using our technology.

These are not the only two possible coaching approaches for swimmer, and coaches do not use the second one, and none of this is what he's actually proposing, which is to throw the computer in the pool with the swimmer and have it report back to the coach who is sitting in the office somewhere. 

You do not make education more personal by taking the persons out of it.

Finally, we get Microsoft's new "tool" for assessing reading fluency. Just have the student read into the camera, and the bot will tell the teacher how well the student reads. Anthony Salcito, the Microsoft VP pitching this, is correct in pointing out that doing this kind of assessment can suck up huge amounts of teacher time. That is an excellent argument for smaller classes; it is not an argument for getting young readers to perform for a computer.

Education evolution

In the future, says Alderton, AI "might optimize not only individual curriculums [sic], but also entgire classrooms." And Goel offers this scary picture of the future: "AI could be used for “matchmaking” — pairing students with the teachers and schools that are best suited to them based on their learning style." Whatever learning style means, exactly. 

And from McGraw-Hill, Sean Ryan makes a plug for student grouping based on mastery learning, along with McGraw-Hill's own adaptive personalized [sic} learning software to "create personalized [sic] learning paths for students in kindergarten through college." In one of the great understatements in ed tech marketing, Ryan notes that "That can be hard to embrace because of social components." But with "more education taking place in hybrid and online environments"--in other words, in systems that have already stripped education of social components--why not put an eighth grader in pre-calc if they're ready, says Ryan, as if no schools already do that.

Writes Alderton, "It’s the beginning of a new era wherein learning is a journey instead of a destination. That makes teachers navigators — which is precisely what most of them want to be." Are there teachers who don't know about the whole journey thing (how many years have we been talking about life-long learners?). 

And we end with this:

“Teachers become teachers to help children maximize their potential,” Ryan concludes. “By allowing them to focus more on the social components of learning, technology helps them have the kind of impact they got into the profession to have.”

This seems to play off an assumption embedded in the McKinsey report cited back at the top--that teachers are only really working when they are in front of students. The teachers I know are at least as interested in the academic impact as the "social components," though I can't be 100% certain I know what Alderton means by that. I also know that doing the assessments, the feedback, the breakdown of actual student performance--and not getting a second-hand report on those things--is part of how a teacher gets to better know and serve students.

Alderton could have better served his audience by talking to actual teachers or any of the many critics of all of these education-flavored money-gathering programs instead of serving as an amplifier for the ed tech biz. Or perhaps he could have consulted the folks who would explain how all of these time-consuming elements are just part of why teachers and parents want to see smaller class size and less time-wasting junk like the Big Standardized Test or endless reportage to prove they're doing the job or wasted time trying to log small humans into inadequate websites.

This is a nice puff piece for promoting all the faux-AI computer-centered false-promising historically-failing ideas lurking in the edu-biz world, but for actual education, not so much.





Friday, July 30, 2021

Toxic Toughness

There is something to be said for toughness, for sucking it up and getting the job done, for stepping outside of your comfort zone and braving unknown (or known) challenges. We expect it from certain professions where, like fire fighters, the job is to run toward what everyone else is running away from.

It helps to be tough. Human beings are often driven by fear, and the best way to deal with that is not to deny the fear or live your life by rules that you believe will keep scary things out of your life or to try to convince yourself that you knew the secret of winning every battle. The most useful thing is to be able to look at the scary something and say, "I can handle this. Whatever comes out of this, I'll still be standing." In all those decades of teaching, I often found that part of the gig was to convince students that they were tough enough to handle whatever was in front of them. 

Call it resilience, guts, fortitude--you can even call it grit as long as you don't start citing research about it. But don't pretend that it's some sort of innate quality that can be measured in early childhood, and not, say, some result of background and circumstance.

And always remember that, like virtually every other human quality, it comes with an ugly, toxic twin.

Discussion of toxic toughness has been elicited by the reaction among certain far right comments about Simone Biles. Charles Sykes, over at Politico, collected the worst and tied them up in a big rough bow:

But if the attacks lack a coherent idea, they share an increasingly familiar posture. Despite all the rhetoric about individual freedom, the real fetish on the right is toughness.

Men who show emotion, especially those who cry, are weak. Young women who fail to perform are “quitters.” All that matters is strength, winning and a weird obsession with machismo. Just look at Trump’s rebuke on Wednesday of the “RINOs” he accused of helping Democrats get the infrastructure deal passed: “It is a loser for the USA, a terrible deal, and makes the Republicans look weak, foolish, and dumb.” Not responsive to constituents or committed to bipartisanship but weak.

And Sykes recognizes the sentiment.

“What is good?” asked Friedrich Nietzsche. “Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.”

What is evil? “Whatever springs from weakness.”

This kind of might worshipping is toxic, tainting both the lives of individuals and the soul of a culture. Nancy Flanagan writes about one example of a teenager pushed by a coach/director to "tough it out" with what turned out to be a badly broken wrist. It's a story familiar to everyone who has been around athletics, where young players are too often asked to sacrifice their own health for winning and some toxic ideal of toughness that pushes through every adversity, no matter the cost. 

Sure, this is one more pendulum that can be swung the wrong way (school athletics do not exist merely to propel one child's dreams of stardom), but students should not be incurring injuries that will pursue them for the rest of their lives in order to chase performance glory that will not. 

But the toxic toughness that Sykes writes about has larger, worse effects, because it lends itself so nicely to a fascist mindset. 

There's an old saw that your freedom to swing your fist ends at the point it meets my face. But in the land of toxic toughness, nothing, not even my face, can be allowed to interfere with your fist's freedom. If there's a problem, it's that my face and I weren't tough enough to withstand your fist. 

In the land of toxic toughness, it's perfectly okay to bulldoze over, smash through, beat down, and otherwise trample other people because whether or not they can withstand it depends on them and whether or not they are tough enough to deal with it (this also applies to psychological assault, gaslighting, stress, etc). Weakness is the most unforgivable personal failing. Not only will I not empathize with the weak, but I dare not, because to do so would mean harboring feelings of weakness myself, even second hand, and that is the uber-failing that I can never allow. Likewise fear--the admission that I might be weaker than a challenge before me--is a contempt-worthy emotion.

Toxic toughness is not healthy for society, and it's certainly not healthy in schools. We do not foster healthy strength by knocking students down and then daring them to get up again, or by sacrificing their health by demanding they display a willingness to push beyond healthy limits. 

What we think of as mental toughness looks a lot like social and emotional intelligence and mindfulness, an awareness of who you are, how you feel, what's going on in the people around you, and what your own true limits are. I vote for more of that and fewer demands that young people burn themselves out because adults are entertained by the flame.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Contactless Education

The push for contactless life continues. I can order food from a restaurant or a grocery store and have it delivered quietly to my porch, as if it descended magically from the sky. I can go sit and a sit-down restaurant and barely have to interact with my server at all, and of course my local fast food places have all completed their redesigns to look like large boxy food vending machines, where I can get my food without having to come close to touching a human. I can check myself into my flight, my hotel room, my rental whatever. And of course I can shop at a big box store and not deal with a single carbon-based life form

All of this trend is familiar to folks in the education world, where educational entrepreneurs have been pushing contactless education for years. Sign up for a cyber school, or a school with computer-delivered education courtesy of Summit or Rocketship or Edgenuity or any of the folks boasting that their software can deliver super-duper education and all you need in the room with you is a "guide" or "mentor" or "coach."

All of this is a bad idea. And Bonnie Kristian at the week laid it out in a piece perfectly titled "Most contactless service is awful. You can tell because the rich don't do it." Contactless service, she notes, is everywhere.

And that sucks. Most contactless service is awful, and industry blathering about convenience and customer preference shouldn't convince you otherwise. It's bad, you know it's bad, and if you need outside verification, here it is: Rich people won't go contactless.

Good, human service is the hallmark of a luxury experience. All the other stuff also matters, but when you pay a lot of money for a meal or hotel stay or shopping trip, the service is a central feature, and it cannot be replaced by a chatbot or a vending machine. Imagine you are a multi-millionaire, vacationing in extravagance. Maybe you're staying in one of those overwater bungalows in the Maldives or at the Hôtel Ritz Paris or in the presidential suite of some palatial old pile where the nightly price isn't listed on the website because if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

You will not do your own check-in on an iPad in the lobby, standing there with your greasy plane hair and your bags splayed out around you, punching a smudgy touch screen like a rube. You will not "speak" with a chatbot. You will not order your lobster thermidor from a vending machine eight doors down the hall. In fact, in the best hotels, you'll get more human service, not less. The fanciest suites come with a dedicated concierge, a human one, with human knowledge of the surrounding area and its amenities that a bot with access to Google Maps will never, ever replicate.

Bill Gates, she notes, is not messing with a QR code menu. He's also not sending his kids to a school where they stare at computer screens all day while a single human "guide" floats somewhere in the back of the room. The rich want human contact--and a lot of it. We can have the class size debate all day, but in the meantime, the McGotbux family is not sending young Pat to sit in a classroom with 35 other students (a Harkness table seats only twelve).

Contactless education, like contactless everything else, is for the Lessers, not the Betters. When it shows up in your neighborhood, resist it with all your might.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Can We Close The Billionaire Learning Gap?

Imagine you had a student in your class, for some reason, for ten, fifteen, even twenty years. Imagine that you gave that student multiple opportunities to learn some central concepts for your course. And yet, somehow, these students remained absolutely impervious to the learning. What would you do?

It's only a slightly hypothetical situation.

Let's talk about the billionaire learning gap. Let's talk about certain really rich people who have an apparently uncontrollable urge to fiddle with education and yet remain rank amateurs who still haven't learned things about education that the average third-year teacher already knows.

We have to talk about this because here they come again. The Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Walton Family Foundation have announced that they are ponying up $200 million for yet another education initiative

The initiative is called Advanced Education Research and Development Fund (AERDF--and can we talk for just a second about how there is already an AERDF and are you kidding me that nobody bothered to google the name before they picked it). Motto: "Tackling intractable teaching and learning challenges that disproportionately affect Black, Latino, and students of all races experiencing poverty." Their mission, in part:

AERDF staff works with teachers, students, education leaders, researchers, and developers to identify problems and opportunities that can be tackled through Inclusive R&D programs. This exploration will help identify Program Directors who can build on existing evidence and learning science to design multi-year Inclusive R&D programs to translate fundamental insights into more useful practices, approaches and tools.

The CEO is Stacey Childress, who's last-and-concurrent gig was CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, where venture capitalism meets opportunities in education-flavored products. Before that, Deputy Director at the Gates Foundation, and before that led the Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard Business School for a decade. Before that, worked for ADT as a corporate sales exec. Right after she got her Baylor degree in English Language and Literature she spent a year as a long-term substitute teacher, but otherwise no actual education experience.

You can see some of what she absorbed from the gates.

On Linkedin, explaining AERDF: "Investing in moonshot education R&D programs to push our understanding of what's possible for learning and opportunity."

Speaking to Chalkbeat" The ideas will have "moonshot ambitions."

Nobody believes in those magic moonshots, those shining silver bullets, like the Billionaire Amateur's Club. After years and years of big-spending initiatives, from small schools to improving teachers to the Common Core--not one of which actually worked--in March of 2020 Gates and the then-Missus were talking about "swinging for the fences" and coming up with that big hit that would change the whole game. In all those years, Gates never learned a thing from his failures; the closest he ever came to "I made a mistake" was various versions of "I didn't understand how much the little people would get in my way and thwart my genius ideas." 

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg blew a cool $100 million in Newark, then went on to set up the Chan Zuckerberg initiative which continues to push various forms of cyber-school or education-in-a-box and personalized [sic] learning, while co-opting very Silicon Valley edu-flavored boutique businesses (and Elmo). He reportedly really wants to be Bill Gates when he grows up, and he's on track with his investment in Things That Don't Work

I suppose you can argue that the Waltons are successful in that they have been able to back plenty of schools based on the Walmart model. So, a win for them, a win for charter profiteers, but not a win for US public education. 

All have had ample opportunity to learn about education and how it actually works. All have failed. Exhibit A is the Moonshot Mentality, the notion that there is some silver bullet, some clever trick that has been missed, somehow, by the millions of trained experts working in the field but which these amateurs, with their great stacks of money, will somehow spot. Because if you know how to bull and wrangle your way into billions in business, clearly you are the person to unlock the secret of teaching fourteen year olds about the quadratic equation. Also, if you have lived surrounded by shiny white wealth your whole life (and I do mean your whole life because none of these people grew up remotely poor), you are clearly the person who can best understand what is needed to help poor Black and Latino children. And of course the solution is never, ever, to make sure that you are paying a hefty fair share of the taxes needed to funnel resources to the agencies already working on all of these challenges.

And yes, you can argue that at least they aren't spending millions on cocaine and hookers and giant penis rockets, but the fact is that these amateur-hour grandstanding adventures have problematic effects. First, they use up resources that could have been better used elsewhere, and I don't just mean the rich amateurs' money, but other peoples' money and time and human resources all devoted to trying to achieve liftoff for these vanity projects. Second, they have derailed important, useful conversations. Exhibit A: In the late 90s, we were talking a lot about authentic assessment and how to assess students in ways that would really mean something. But then accountability amateurs took over, and by the time Gates was helping force-feed Common Core to the masses, amateurs had shifted us over to "It doesn't matter if it actually measures anything--what matters is that it generates numbers that can be compared across the country."

As an educator, I have to ask-- why can't Billy and Mark learn? Are their personal circumstances interfering? Is it family of origin issues? Do they have special needs that aren't being met? 

And more importantly, how can they possibly work on a system for helping other people learn when they cannot even learn themselves? We need to figure out how to bridge this billionaire learning gap, and soon, before they launch another project.

The Loneliness of Tiny Gods

The Week featured an essay earlier this summer by Damon Linker, "The politics of loneliness is totalitarian." It's an intriguing take that reaches back to the work of Hannah Arendt, a great writer to turn to when contemplating the mid-20th-century turn to totalitarianism in Europe. Here's Linker summarizing Arendt:

In her view, totalitarianism is a novel form of government for which the men and women of modern Europe were prepared by "the fact that loneliness … ha[d] become an everyday experience" for so many. The all-pervasive system of the totalitarian regime promised and, for a time, provided an all-encompassing orientation, meaning, and purpose for the masses that they otherwise lacked and craved in their lives.

Many observers of life in these United States have noted a fragmenting of society, with notable works like Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. We're losing shared public spaces and fragmenting in ways that make social capital harder to come by

Now comes this summer's Survey Center on American Life showing that the rate of friendlessness has grown from 3% to 15% in thirty years. There has been a corresponding drop on the top end, with the percentage of men and women claiming many friends plummeting. 

Arendt makes the case that the friendless look to totalitarianism as a source of greater meaning and purpose. I wonder if we aren't also seeing a growing trend fueled by technology--you have the power to be a small god in your own self-contained world, and so the usual trade-offs of relationships loom larger. 

Every relationship (friendship, romance, what have you) involves a trade-off. You give up a little freedom, a little control over your personal universe, your ability to have things just the way you want them.

We used to get plenty of training for that sacrifice, because we lived in a series of shared spaces. One tv in the house with only a few channels to choose from. Few radio stations within reach that had to be listened to in shared airspace. And, of course, school, where we shared all the space with a succession of people and under the control of various adults. Being a high school senior allowed a brief sense of being the center of the universe, to be swiftly wiped away by entry into the world.

Now, one can grab a laptop and a smartphone and disappear into a personally curated bubble, never needing to give up an ounce of godhood and able to develop relationships of a sort with other like-minded gods.

In this context, I find school choice and public school segregation via gerrymandered districts disturbing trends. There's a reason, I suspect, that school choice has gathered such steam in the last few decades, and part of it I fear is the growing desire to extend our tiny godhood over our children's world so that we can grow children who don't disturb our universe (see also the anti-CRT aka the anti-letting-my-child-learn-things-I-don't-know movement). 

Putnam's most recent work, The Upswing, argues that we've been here before and the pendulum between "me" and "we" is about to swing back, but I can't say that I see many signs of a reverse. Instead, looking through this lens, I see a thousand examples and symptoms of how we are building our own loneliness traps while clutching at power over our steadily shrinking personal universe. It is not healthy for education and schools to be caught up in this trend, but whenever the winds of society blow west, schools always move toward the sunset.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

ICYMI: Back From Vacation Edition (7/25)

The Institute staff has returned from the wilds of Maine (well, slightly wilds) and while I'm still getting back in the swing, I've got a handful of things for the reading list this week.

Let schools decide how to spend pandemic windfall

Andrea Gabor at Bloomberg offers an argument for letting decisions about pandemic dollars be made at the local school level and not by bureaucrats in front offices.

The culture war over critical race theory looks like the one waged 50 years ago over sex education

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire put in an appearance at The Answer Sheet (Washington Post)  with a history lesson in how to use school based culture wars for political gain.

Students need to learn about the haters and the helpers of our history

Michele l. Morris with a powerful Washington Post piece about the need to push back against Moms for Liberty and their attempts to make history pretty.

House appropriations prohibits fed funds for...electric shock to students

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider has dug through the House Appropriations Committee budget proposal and finds an odd item--then she discovers, sadly, why it's necessary

The moral panic over critical race theory is coming for a North Carolina teacher of the year

Rodney Pierce is a social studies teacher and NC teacher of the year, and he has emerged as a vocal critic of the attempts to stifle teaching of US history. Good article in Mother Jones.

Who's really driving critical race theory legislation/ An investigation.

Sarah Schwartz at Ed Week breaks down the genesis of all these remarkably-similar bills.

The child tax credit, not charter schools, was the reform we needed to help kids succeed

Andre Perry at Hechinger Report about the traps that poor children really need to be released from.

Tucker Carlson goes to school. Your school.

Nancy Flanagan talks about the right-wing push to gin up some fear.

The New Broad Center at Yale

Eli Broad managed to get his fake school leadership school a sheen of legitimacy by having Yale take it on. Thomas Ultican checks in to see how that's going.

Eyeing federal infrastructure windfall, private equity courts public utilities

Another trend in the world of privatizing public stuff. Lee Harris at The American Prospect.

Nobody wants to be a serf anymore.

McSweeney's looks at that mysterious labor shortage problem.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

History and the Unreliable Narrator

Most English teachers have somewhere in their pocket that lesson about Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart." The story is narrated by a guy who's clearly in the grip of madness, and so we have to filter what he tells us through our understanding that what he's reporting is not what another observer might see. He's an unreliable narrator, a literary trick that Poe perfected, which is why for all Poe's reputation as a teller of scary tales, there's nothing in Poe that is undeniably supernatural. Mostly it's just subjective madness, filtered through the unreliable narrator's twisted lens. 

Narrators can be unreliable for a variety of reasons; they may be deliberately misleading or simply unaware of their own blind spots and biases. 

Poe is obviously not the only author to present us with unreliable narrators. And even authors who are not always associated with the technique present us with versions of it. Ernest Hemmingway is often cited as an example of an author who presents unvarnished, cold, hard views of the events in his novel, but even his narrators require us to sort out what is really happening. Take this snip from The Sun Also Rises:

One of them saw Georgette and said: "I do declare. There is an actual harlot. I'm going to dance with her, Lett. You watch me." 

The tall dark one, called Lett, said: "Don't you be rash."

The wavy blond one answered: "Don't you worry, dear." And with them was Brett. 

I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure. Instead, I walked down the street and had a beer at the bar at the next Bal. The beer was not good and I had a worse cognac to take the taste out of my mouth.

It's the first time we see Brett, and Jake, our narrator, tells us everything except how he feels about her reappearance. It's left for us to sort out his reaction to her and what it tells us about him. 

Nor are unreliable narrators confined to fiction. 

All history has to be treated as the work of unreliable narrators, because every writer has to make choices. If I write a biography of Abraham Lincoln that carefully and exactingly reports every detail of his life, you will need as much time to read about his life as he took to live it. So choices must be made.

Writing about history rests on a thesis and a judgment. If I'm writing about, say, the Civil War, I need a thesis, a main idea, a central point, a lens, an idea of what my book is going to be about. That guiding idea becomes my measure for the mountain of details I face, helping me decide what to keep and what to throw away. If I'm unscrupulous, or excessively committed to one viewpoint, I might throw out a bunch of contradictory detail, but even if I'm a scrupulous historian, everything gets passed through that lens I've created out of my own view of the world and the lens I've crafted based on my own ideas and studies. This is how there can be a gazillion Lincoln biographies with more still coming--because each passes his life through a unique and different filter. 

And so even the writer of a history is unreliable, and the work will tell me much about that writer as well as the subject matter. Biographies may be the most prone to this effect, simply because it's hard for a biographer to spend that much time with a person and not develop feelings about their subject. 

I suspect that the belief in a reliable narrator is a function of our video age. Movies and television rarely give us am obviously unreliable narrator, and the use of a camera creates the illusion that we are just looking at the clear unvarnished unbiased truth. But, of course, someone has made decisions about where to point the camera, how to frame the shot, how to edit the bits of film. In fact, visual storytelling is solidly based on unreliable narration, telling us, for instance, that Vin Diesel just plucked  a woman out of the air after she was flung from the back of a speeding tank when in fact no such thing happened at all. 

We are surrounded by a glut of evidence that the world is filled with unreliable narration. In fact the work of Einstein and the physicists (quantum and otherwise) who came after him tells us that things we think of as immutable and objectively dependable--time, space, gravity--aren't that way at all. Time and space are what we subjectively perceive them to be. Heck, we still don't even know how gravity even works.

And yet.

Yet somehow, we have folks who demand that history be taught as "just the facts" or "objectively" or "without any kind of bias." 

It cannot be done.

Everyone is an unreliable narrator. That's one reason that relationships matter--because if we know and understand someone reasonably well, we can factor in the filter through which they pass their version of reality, to better understand how it would look from the unique and subjective place where we ourselves stand. 

This is also why words matter and why, in my universe, it's immoral and unethical to use them to obscure and distort rather than to clarify and reveal. I'm not arguing that all ideas and viewpoints are equally valid and that everything is true and nothing matters--just the opposite. Really look, really listen, and really think about what you've taken in, and then express that honestly. Don't lie, and don't bullshit people--but also don't ever sit back and think that you never need to be open to reconsidering an idea ever again. 

To insist that you don't need to take in any new ideas or observations or information about anything is to be willfully ignorant and to damage your own understanding of the world and your place in it. To insist that there is an objective and unbiased view of events is really to insist that everyone accept and agree to your own personal view and that people who have a different view just shut up, already. Which is the current stance of the anti-anti-racism crowd.

So this has gotten kind of heavy (or at least thick) so I want to leave you with a children's book which is an excellent example of how unreliable narrating can work. If I were still teaching, I'd be making all my students read this. But you get a special edition read by David Harbour.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Why choice won't solve the CRT panic

 A curious new pro-choice argument has surfaced in these days of sturm and drang, exemplified by the Cato Institute Battle Map, on which the Libertarian thinky tank tracks the public schools in the midst of some sort of battle over policy issues.

The argument here, pushed daily on Twitter by Cato's Neal McClusky, is that "public schools leave people no choice but to be at each others' throats" and that the system leaves no choice but to either ban or impose policies and ideas. Therefor, the argument goes, school choice offers a chance to make all the conflict go away. Folks over here can choose a school that actively pursues diversity and anti-racists policies, while folks over here can choose a school that actively blocks such policies. Allowing diverse school approaches will, the argument goes, somehow reduce the conflicts currently tearing at the social fabric of our country. 

I have several problems with this idea.

This kind of choice has serious limits.

So first we get a school that separates from the original public district so that it can keep out all sorts of diversity and anti-racist programs. But then that school splits over a conflict about whether or not to teach creationism. Then the creationism school splits over an argument about which books to ban from the school library, and then that school splits over policies regarding LGBTQ+ students. The continued spinning off of entities based on new policy disputes will be familiar to anyone who knows the Protestant church. Meanwhile, many parents will factor in location and student body demographics for their decisions, and of the many schools spun off to "settle" the various disputes, half will fold because they don't make enough money. 

In the end, "Well, if they don't like that policy, they'll be able to choose a school with which they agree," will turn out to be a false promise.

Some choices are not healthy.

We have seen the use of school choice to avoid conflict before. After Brown v. Board of Education, lots of folks decided they had a problem sending their white children to school with Black students, and they "solved" that conflict by creating schools that let them choose segregation. When it comes to the current CRT panic, there may well be some schools that have gone a step too far with their anti-racist work (though--plot twist--those schools keep turning out to be not public ones). But an awful lot of the panic is fueled by folks opportunistically whipping up some good old-fashioned white outrage over encroaching Blackness, and we've been here before.

Some choices are not good for the country. We do not benefit from having a bunch of white kids taught that slavery wasn't so bad and the Civil War was just about state's rights. We do not benefit from having students taught that science isn't real. We do not benefit from having students taught that Trump is really still President and 1/6 was just some unruly tourists. And we so very much don't benefit as a society from schools that segregate both students and content based on race. Not all possible choices should be available. 

Bubbles do not banish conflict.

I agree with the part of the premise that says, more or less, "Holy crap, but we are spending a lot of time arguing bitterly and separating ourselves into chasm-separated camps!" What I don't get, at all, is how separating the children of these warring factions into their own separate education bubbles is going to help. How will having been immersed in nothing but the particular view of their parents' camp prepare them to be workers, neighbors, and citizens in a society where other people with other views exist. 

Upon graduation, will they proceed to a college or trade school that is also designed to strictly fit with their parents' beliefs? And then will they search, diploma in hand. for employers who also embrace only the world view that these well-bubbled citizens have been taught is the One True View? 

How does growing up in a bubble prepare you for life outside it--particularly if your bubble teaches things that are neither nuanced or accurate views. 

Sometimes conflict exists. For any number of reasons, most related to how humans function and that this country has many such humans around. When conflict exists, the only way out is through. Our current problem is not that we have conflicts--that's normal. Our problem is the large number of people who believe (and are encouraged to believe) that conflict is "managed" by obliterating the people who disagree with you. But we need improved conflict management skills (which is a whole other post), not conflict avoidance techniques. Take it from a guy with one failed marriage in his rearview mirror-- when conflict exists, it can never be avoided, but only postponed, and while it's waiting, it sits in escrow and gathers interest. 

It won't actually work.

See above. A young adult who has been brought up to believe that slavery was not so bad and all racial problems were fixed around 1960 and Civil War generals are great American heroes--this is not a person who is poised to live harmoniously with POC in the 21st century. 

Yes, this is all really hard.

Yes, it's a challenge when many people have different visions of what education is supposed to be and do. Yes, sorting out conflicts in a pluralistic democratic-ish society is messy. Yes, it can become tiring that "solutions" are really just a process of balancing between various forces in tension and so is never, ever done and settled. Yes, it can be alarming that the forces in tension sometimes include a pull in a direction that seems clearly wrong and dangerous. And yes, it's a pain when the times call for you to stand up and "fight" for what you think is right. But there we are--welcome to life on this planet as a human being, where the "solutions" to these conundrums always turn out to be destructive and wrong and not-actually-worky.

As I have said periodically, there are legitimate arguments for school choice. But this is not one of them. 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Charter Advocates Chicken Littling Spending Item

The House Appropriations Committee has caused a stir with one tiny paragraph in its 198-page health, labor and education spending bill.

SEC. 314. None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be awarded to a charter school that contracts with a for-profit entity to operate, oversee or manage the activities of the school.

Charter advocates are flipping their collective lids because this would mean real trouble. It's almost as if the modern charter movement would collapse if it didn't include a chance for someone to hoover up a bundle of sweet sweet taxpayer dollars. 

The problem for the charter sector is the large number of charter schools that are fronting for profiteering enterprises. I've often made the point that many for-profit charters hide behind non-profit fig leaves. Bruce Baker made the valid point on Twitter that it's not really about for- or non-profit so much as it's about "specific practices, financial arrangements, related party transactions and disclosures." It's possible that the House's blunt instrument could be effectively replaced by actual regulations governing how charters operate.

But right now, charter advocates are up in arms and calling on the troops, leaning heavily on a couple of arguments. One is old and worn, and the other is an attempt to use an inaccurate argument to muddy the water.

The old favorite is "for the kids." If charters are defunded, the argument goes, it will hurt the poor and brown and Black and special needs students, and so shame on Congress for threatening them. This is well-worn territory, and I'm not going to rehash it at the moment (what about all the poor and brown and Black and special need students that charters deliberately choose not to help). 

Instead, I want to point out some problems with this argument. First, it's a silly extension of the non- and for-profit distinction. "We charter school operators are in it for the kids, but we have to hire profit-based outfits to help make it happen," is a variation on the attempt to distance charter schools from the profit motive, as if charter schools and charter management organizations are completely different and separate beasts. Honestly, I'm coming around to wishing that for-profits hadn't been outlawed in most states so that we didn't have this attempt to hide all the profiteering behind masks and smoke and mirrors. Charters never fought hard against outlawing for-profits because they knew it was a bad look and incompatible with "for the kids" marketing and political posturing. Charter schools and CMOs are two ends of the same animal, and trying to point at your butt and say, "It's not me--the poop comes out of that end" is disingenuous at best. 

Besides, if you really are all about serving the students, you could just stop making profits. If your East Egg Charter hires East Egg CMO to run the operation, just hire the top people from East Egg CMO to work at your school. Hire the East Egg CMO as your curriculum director or chief administrator. You could save money because you would just hire people without having to also finance the profits for East Egg CMO. There is no earthly reason that charter schools have to involve somebody making a profit (Exhibit A: All the public schools in America). This is one of the slickest pieces of PR that modern reformsters have pulled off--to get everyone to accept the unchallenged assumption that school choice must include the chance for private operators to turn a profit.

The just-plain-not-so argument is here in this email from Nina Rees, head honcho of the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools, sent out to her supporters.

We are under attack in a new education funding bill proposed by Congress to cut off ALL federal funding for charter schools. That includes cutting funding for students from low-income communities and students with disabilities who attend our schools.

The reason? Congress wants to punish charter schools for contracting with businesses to help run their schools. Even though those very same businesses contract with nearby district and magnet schools.

If this passes, charter school leaders would be forced to choose between accessing the federal funds their students are entitled to or working with businesses to provide the supplies and services their students need.

Emphasis mine. Rees would like to suggest that the House bill targets things like hiring bus companies or cafeteria operators. It doesn't. Rees is invited to give examples of public schools that, for instance, enter "sweeps" contracts to companies that run all of the daily teaching operations of the school in return for 95% of the school's revenue. 

Nor does the bill propose to cut all federal funding for charter schools. Any charters that are actual non-profits, both directly and indirectly--and they do exist--will be just fine. The only people who are threatened by the bill are those who use charter schools to turn a profit. Heck, even charters that pay administrators obscene salaries but don't turn a profit for some private organization--even those folks would be just fine. But Rees doesn't frame this as a threat to private companies' bottom line because making sure that East Egg CMO makes a bundle this year isn't very For The Kids. 

You're going to hear plenty of charter advocate panic over this part of the spending bill--just remember that all this chicken littling is about protecting the bottom line of companies making money from the charter school biz. It is the very opposite of For The Kids, because every cent spent on The Kids is a cent that doesn't go into profiteer pockets. Don't be fooled. The sky is not falling; just the roofing on some very comfortable private villas.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Education and the Self-Service Thunderdome

While the Institute Staff was on vacation, circumstances required me to visit one of the Walton Family's Money Collection Sites. It was... something.

The Walmart was nearly empty of employees. I felt weirdly on my own, unable to ask for help in locating the product I was looking for, unable to determine of the sparse offerings on the shelves were in fact all the store had to offer. Had there been product choices available, I certainly wasn't going to find anyone who could help me navigate those choices. And of course at the end, I could check myself out or wait for the aid of the single cashier on duty. 

It's impossible to know how much of my experience was the result of the current labor holdout situation and how much was the result of management policy. But it was weird to be basically on my own in a store.

Of course, we know that my experience is what Walmart has in mind for the future. A store in Fayetteville is going cashier-less, with just a few self-checkout "hosts" to help customers chip in on the process of reducing the Walmart human labor force. I've had friends and family report cashier-free experiences in the House that Sam Walton Built, but this seems to be the first official floating of this ominous boat.

Of course, Walmart says this is going to be wonderful. "Speed up the checkout process." "Serve customers more effectively." "More choices." This PR from the company tries to spin it as a new kind of checkout, with all cashiers becoming hosts who now offer face to face help--a "relationship." Raise your hand if you believe that in a well-entrenched self-service Walmart world, the number of humans employed as hosts will be comparable to the number currently employed as cashiers. 

There are other less obvious side-effects of the move to self-service. In particular, Walmart has been working on heavy-duty surveillance systems to deal with theft, like an AI system that "uses cameras to read the movements of customers, and determine if an item was bagged but not scanned at the self-checkout kiosk."

I'm not opposed to self-service on principle. I do not, for instance, miss gas station attendants at all (you youngsters can go ask your parents or grandparents what they were). Rather than explain to someone what I want and then wait for them to do it, it's far simpler to just get out of the car and do it myself. But what value is added by having me do my own swiping across a bar code reader?

In fact, as we're having the chance to view across many businesses these days, "self-service" is a pretty euphemism for "reduced service." 

It's the dawn of retail thunderdome, in which the retailer provides customers with virtually no service at all except for a building, a marketplace in which to hunt, as best your able, for what you are able to find. Need help? Holler fruitlessly at the surveillance cameras. Can't find what you want? Not their problem--you're welcome to choose from whatever they decide to put on the shelves. Customer, you are on your own.

If this model seems vaguely familiar, that's because it's the same model at the heart of modern school choice. It is self-service education, an "ecosystem" in which customers are on their own, without aid or assistance or even anyone to make sure that the available options are safe. Nobody around to watch out for their interests but themselves. Caveat your own emptor, buddy. Here's a tiny voucher to help you feel as if the community hasn't abandoned you entirely, but once we hand you that voucher, we wash our hands of you.

The Waltons like the newest iteration of their money gathering operation because employing humans is expensive and annoying, even if you do manage to keep union talk squashed. Choice is appealing for the same reason (in fact, literally to the same people) because dealing with humans is expensive and troublesome and especially when it involves paying taxes.

There are people who like self-service checkout, because it works for them and, so far, they still have their old options if they need it. And Walmart is a private business, not a public and community trust, so that's different from education. 

But one principle remains the same--when someone gives you less and tries to convince you that they're doing you a favor, that is not only baloney, but baloney you have to assemble yourself.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Hiatus

The staff of the Curmudgucation Institute home office are on the road for a corporate retreat in Maine. Internet access is spotty there. Also, I am told that sometimes people actually vacation by stepping away from social media. Most years I pre-create some content (usually some greatest hits compilations) but this year I just didn't pull it off.

So tonight we're in a motel in Bennington, Vermont, and tomorrow, we'll finish the trip to a camp that my grandfather, a general contractor, first built way back in the day. I'll be back in ten days or so, unless something happens and I just can't bite my tongue. Pass the time with the very smart people listed  on the right. See you soon.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

The Single Biggest Scourge of Education Reform

Privatization? Profiteering? Vouchers? Charters? Teacher-proof classrooms? High-stakes testing? 

No, these issues, in their worst forms, all have their roots in the same soil, the same fertile ground from which all rotten education fruit grows.

Amateurs.

The current flap flying under the banner of critical race theory panic is just the freshest example of people who really, truly don't understand how schools actually work. Take this really ignorant tweet from CRT-panicker-in-chief Christopher Rufo

Every statement there reveals a huge lack of understanding about how schools work (though I particular like the idea that voters via state legislators set curriculum). That is not how this works. That is not how any of this works.

The problem of amateurs futzing around in education is not new. Everybody went to school, so everybody thinks they're an expert. That leads to a common edu-amateur phenomenon-- setting out to fix something that was true in schools 20-40 years ago, the reform equivalent of announcing that you've worked out a patch to help Windows 98 work better. 

And we have school boards, a system by which local amateurs are put in charge of local school districts. While this can often cause teachers some frustration, it's still a good system. It provides accountability to the taxpayers and requires educators to remember that they have to communicate with civilians. And the board hires actual educators (usually) to run things for them; when a board tries to micromanage a district, it never ends well.

The modern education reform movement has been powered primarily by people whose biggest problem is that when it comes to school, they don't know what they're talking about. Bill Gates is arguably a pretty smart guy and certainly a savvy, cutthroat businessman, but he has demonstrated at great length how little he understands about how actual schools work. Many of these edu-amateurs, like David "Common Core" Coleman, wear their lack of expertise like a badge of honor, particularly back in the early days of modern ed reform when part of the theory of action was that teachers have failed and therefor their expertise is invalid and should be ignored.

Teach for America pushed not just the idea that any person (from the right college) could become a teacher, but that any such person could become an education expert. They've sent thousands of amateurs out in the world to lead school districts, consulting forms, entrepreneurial endeavors, even state departments of education--all based on two years in the classroom (two years that they knew would come to an end, thereby freeing them form the need to really come to grips with their rookie teacher issues). 

We also see lots of people whose expertise is the ins and outs of bureaucratic policy discussions who think that their experience gives them understanding of how a classroom actually functions. It doesn't.

There are people in the education reform world who have actual knowledge of schools and classrooms. You can spot them because while you may disagree with them on matters of policy or philosophy, they don't insist on saying ignorant things (like the legislature controls curriculum). Also, it's possible to understand how schools and classrooms work if you make the effort to learn and talk to people who know.

Some modern ed reform isn't really about education anyway. Voucher advocates, for example, mostly advocate for freedom (either the freedom for parents to choose or the freedom for private operators to profit from public tax dollars, depending on where you stand). 

But if you think competition in the free marketplace, either between schools (for funding) or teachers (for merit pay) is going to improve education, you don't understand how schools work. Hint: there are no teachers out there saying, "I know how to do better, but I'm going to hold onto that secret till someone offers me a bonus."

If you think high stakes testing is a good measure of education, you've never looked at an actual test, and you've never spent time in a classroom with students taking that test. If you think those tests are necessary in order for teachers to know how students are doing, you don't understand how a classroom works or how testing works.

If you think the individual issues of teachers can be "fixed" by giving teachers a script or a strict set of standards-based teacher-proof materials, you don't understand how a classroom works. 

If you're deeply opposed to unions (and by extension the teachers in them) because you imagine they have these awesome powers and are up to all manner of deep, nefarious schemes, you don't understand who teachers are, what unions do, and how widely varied the teaching force is.

And if you think teachers can indoctrinate young minds to believe whatever you either do or don't want them to believe, then you don't understand how a classroom works. 

There isn't a single failed initiative of the ed reform movement whose failure was not met by thousands of teachers rolling their eyes and thinking (or saying), "This is not a surprise." Sometimes reformsters will announce that they've figured something out (like Chris Barbic, discovering that Tennessee's Achievement School District plan was not going to work), and every teacher who already knew that thing will just bite their tongue (well, most will bite their tongue--some of us blog because our tongues are already tired). So much could fail could have been avoided if someone had just asked teachers, or even just asked the person pushing the idea, "How do you know this will work?"

I'm not saying that teachers are the be-all and end-all of educational information, or that there is nothing that teachers can learn from civilians. That would be problematic; we don't need to live in a world in which only teachers can determine or speak about education. But right now we are a million parsecs away from that world, the pendulum having swung too far into a place in which wealthy, well-connected amateurs hold forth on the theory that their ignorance is as valuable and valid as teacher expertise. 

Sure, if you're a cynic, you'll argue that this is beside the point, that many reformsters don't care about the question of expertise because their true concern$ are el$ewhere. But it remains true that behind all the bad policy ideas, bad practices, bad standards, bad mandates, bad culture war arguments is that one unifying thread--people whose understanding of how schools actually work is hugely, vastly, epically divorced from how real schools in the real world actually really work. 




Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Is Teaching About Control?

I knew I was going to hate this piece as soon as I read the first sentence.

In their training, teachers are taught to control the classroom.

This piece appeared on NBCThink, a kind generally guest op-ed page the website runs. It was written by Peshe Kuriloff,  who is a retired professor of education who is now a self-employed consultant. She's got a BA and an M.Ed from Harvard and a PhD from Bryn Mawr. And somebody at NBC (probably) gave this crazy-pants piece the title "A Covid school lesson: Teachers don't have the power they think they do."

I was educated a billion years ago, and I've had numerous student teachers in my classroom throughout my career, and I have no idea what the heck she's talking about. I have never encountered an education professor who asserted that total control of the classroom (which is an odd turn of phrase because, after all, controlling a room is easy enough but then there are all these students in it) is the goal or, as she says, the measure of teacher success. Who teaches that? Did she teach that to her future teachers? (Survey says no)

In reality, however, the idea that teachers hold power over students and can bend them to their will is a misunderstanding of the nature of power in schools, as well as teaching and learning.

Who has that idea? Yes, the anti-indoctrination crowd thinks teachers can bend minds to their will, but that's just one more sign that they don't know what the heck they're talking about. 

There were certainly total control teachers aplenty back many decades ago. But now is not then. I've written about schools that throw weight into asserting their authority, but that pretty much never works. Sure, there are pre-teachers who vastly over-estimate their power as a teacher. If they're at all smart, it takes them about a week to figure out that's not happening. And there are certainly control freaks who make it into the classroom, but they burn out rapidly.

There are some good points in Kuriloff's piece:

The testimony of teachers who have been asked about pandemic learning demonstrates that surviving remote education required unprecedented collaboration, solid relationships between teachers and learners and students stepping up as problem-solvers. Teachers primed to seek those outcomes felt much more successful than those who relied on traditional assumptions about power and control.

Certainly. That's true in every non-pandemic year as well.

But virtually every student teacher I ever had had to learn how to exercise authority. For so many teachers, the first years are marked by a painful awareness that you are just playing teacher in front of young humans who could realize at any moment that you don't have any power over them except for the power they grant you. Classroom imposter syndrome is the worst. My first teaching job involved students who were one year younger than I, and I was never not aware that if they all decided to stand up and walk out, there wasn't a thing I could do about it. Raise your hand if you have that teacher nightmare where your class is spinning out of control and you can't stop it.

You exercise authority in a classroom through a couple of factors.

1) Know what you are doing and what you are talking about. I don't mean that you never commit or admit errors, but you need to mostly have command of the content and an actual plan. 

2) Show respect. There's a classic question about whether you'd rather be loved or feared in a classroom--pick respect. And you get it by knowing what you're doing and showing respect to your students. This, incidentally, covers all of the methods course and theory stuff about making learning student centered and sharing authority and all the rest of that stuff that sounds so complex but really boils down to "treat students like they are intelligent human beings whose time is valuable."

3) Always be moving toward something. It's not about making them stop talking so you can move on. It's about moving on.

I'm traditional. The whole "I learn as much from them as they do from me" makes me cringe, because if you aren't more knowledgeable than your students, what are we paying you for? And students need a safe space, and that includes a space in which there's a competent adult who knows what's going on. 

But traditional doesn't mean autocratic power tripping, and it hasn't for sixty or seventy years, so I'm not sure what the perceived audience for this piece was. Most of her lessons are not new lessons. Yes, pandemic distance learning underscored the value of relationship (and the degree to which it depends on physicality). But otherwise, nothing to see here.


A Systemic Tale

They hated tall people.

They were the ruling class in this country, and they were all 5 feet tall or shorter. There were tall people among them, mostly as servants or laborers, because the short ruling class hated them and barred them from the same kind of freedoms that the short rulers enjoyed.

This was reflected in many aspects of their society, including the architecture. In those long-ago days, the ruling class built a fabulous capitol building, a seat of power and government, in which every doorway was no taller than five and a half feet. The law of the land required those short doors. In some private homes there might be a tall entrance ion the back, for the help, but most major public buildings--hospitals, schools, stores-- were built with short doorways, both for entry and through the inside.

But as time passed, and some critical historic events occurred, and society just got smarter, and many of the laws were struck down and attitudes shifted. It was rare that you'd hear someone openly say how they hated the tall folks.

But the buildings were still there, unchanged. The old capitol building, the schools, the hospitals, all still had short doors. And though building codes had changed, some people still built their houses with short doors. "We like," they would explain, "the classic traditional look." 

Nobody who worked in the capitol hated tall people, but tall people still had to scrunch and stoop themselves to get in there.

Tall folks would launch movements to have the doors enlarged to accommodate tall folks. 

"Why do you have to make it all about height?" complained some short folk.

"We just want to be able to walk through those doors," said some tall folks.

"Well, everybody wants to walk through those doors. Why are we just talking about what you want?" said some short folks.

"We want to change the way doors are made in this country," said some tall people.

"Why are you trying to erase our history?" said some short people.

Some tall people became so frustrated that they brought tools and tried to break down the tops of the doorways. "You'll never get people to listen to you if you go around behaving like that," said some short folks.

"Can we at least talk about the history of how these doorways were designed, and what effect prejudice and bias led our buildings to be built the way they are?" asked some tall people.

"Why are you trying to make me feel guilty and uncomfortable," replied some short people. "I didn't build these doorways. The people who did have been dead for years. It's not my fault I can walk through these doors without hunching over." 

"But why not fix the doors?"

"Look," said some short folks. "I don't know what you want from me. I contribute to a group that buys head protection for you people. If you work hard and adopt the proper posture, you can pass through these doors just as easily as the rest of us." 

"But the system--"

"There is no system. There's just a bunch of doors built by my dead ancestors in every public building. This is so damn frustrating. If you don't like the doors, do something about it--but not that violent thing where you try to bust them."

So the tall folks knelt next to the doorways.

"No, not like that," said some short folk.

The tall folk had prayer meetings around the doors.

"That's too noisy," said some short people.

The tall folks built some buildings of their own with doorways seven feet high. "Why do you have to be so divisive," said some short people, who felt really uncomfortable walking through the tall doorways. And other short people, who loved tall people just as well as they loved anyone, tried hard to understand why there was so much chaos and argument and wondered why everyone couldn't just get along. But even after the builders of a prejudiced, biased building are all gone, the building remains.

No, I don't have an ending for this story, and yes, I know the metaphor is an imperfect one. You can take me to task in the comments. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

ICYMI: Fourth of July Edition (7/4)

Here's hoping that you are busy with some combination of friends and family today that leaves no time for the weekly collection of readables. But just in case, here's the list.


Tired of reading CRT pieces? Me, too. But people keep writing good ones. Here's an op-ed in Washington Post by Karen Attiah, writing about one school district leader many other folks will wish they worked for.


If your question is, how did white evangelicals end up cranky about CRT, this is a good procedural explainer, from Religious Dispatches.


Yes, I'm putting up something from school choice advocate Robert Pondiscio, and yes, I think it's worth reading, because in it he calls out a lot of tactical reformster nonsense. Edit--"nonsense " on reflection is a bit stronger than I intended. But this piece is an honest assessment.


Many observers, including moi, have pointed out some similarities between the right-wing attack on common core and the right wing attack on CRT. Andrew Ujifusa at EdWeek does a really good job of looking at the parallels and differences between those two battles.


An interview of author Clint Smith by Anand Giridharadas about Smith's new book. It's encouraging and interesting.


If you're curious about how CRT blew up exactly, this explainer from the Guardian has some good explainy parts.


Diane Ravitch discusses the topic du jour in the NY Daily News


Nancy Flanagan reflects on the dystopian novel and the world we are living in. As always, worth the read.


I had not really been paying much attention to the green school movement at all, so this explainer from Nancy Bailey was very useful.


Steven Singer looks at the troubling rise in teacher gag laws in response to--well, you know.


Accountabaloney with yet another bright idea in Florida--using SATs to grade schools.


Saturday, July 3, 2021

Moms For Liberty And The Unified Theory of Far Right Grievance

Anti-maskers. Anti-school closings. Anti-vaxxers. Anti-something-vaguely-lumped-under-critical-race-theory. 

If it seems as if these folks are all actually the same people coming back with new signage every could of months, join me as we take a look at Moms For Liberty.

MFL was launched at the beginning of 2021 by two Florida women, both with school board experience.

Tina Descovitch  ran for Brevard County School Board in 2016, with a signature issue of her opposition to Common Core. Descovitch ran on two decades in business and a degree in Communications, as well as serving on the executive staff of a US Army Commanding General. She won that election overwhelmingly, taking 48% of the vote in a primary election field of four. Then she lost in 2020. She stayed active in local school politics; after a big dustup over LGBTQ+ policy in Brevard County, she was mailed an envelope full of poop.

The co-founder is Tiffany Justice, who won a school board seat in Indian River County in 2016.  In 2018, the Indian River chapter of the NAACP asked the board to rein her in; she was accused of dominating African American Achievement Cor Committee Meetings and in those meetings violating board policy and open meetings laws. She was a reported victim of cyber-bullying by a district employee. As a board member she was agitating by October of 2020 for a mask-optional policy for students in the district, which earned her some attention from Parental Rights Florida, the wing of yet another of these groups, and I'm not going down that rabbit hole other than to note that the Parental Rights national board president is James Mason from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association and the board includes Grover Norquist and John Rosemond. Justice is no longer a member of the Indian River board.

Justice also stayed active in her district, post-board. Justice in particular has some big feelings about mask wearing, demanding some exceptions be made by the school for her son and her. Justice also wanted to be allowed to stop into her son's classroom without the 24 hour notice required by district policy.

The two launched their new group in January of this year in their home counties, agitating about mask wearing and getting school buildings re-opened. At some point, they decided to go national. Their big pitch has been parental grievance. From a profile in February:

“The balance of power in education has dramatically shifted away from parents and communities to unions and bureaucrats,” said Descovich.

“Moms for Liberty is fighting to restore the role of primary decision maker for children back to parents by helping them organize and amplify their voices.”

They've expanded their reach and their mission "to stoke the fires of liberty." You can find them and their many local branches on Facebook. Some of those local groups aren't exactly bursting at the seams, but a couple boast huge numbers and a great deal of posting.

But their portfolio of grievances has expanded as well--now they are on the front lines of organizing against public school "indoctrination" as well as monitoring school boards and making sure that the correct American history is taught. They offer a plan for educating your friends and neighbors about the Constitution. They say they have a plan "to turn this ship around."

The local chapter model has let them unleash some formidable ground troops. In Tennessee they have landed hard against the Wit and Wisdom book series for a huge list of offenses for everything from "social justice" (which they know is just a sneaky way to get CRT in there) to reading selections they just think are too bloody for children. And they want you to know that "we have a bullying problem, not a racism problem."




Their national voice is expanding as well. Quisha King (some outlets call her "Keisha") runs a consulting firm, has a degree in business marketing, and was a regional engagement coordinator for Black Voices for Trump, but she's often billed as just a concerned Florida mom. She's a member of MFL, sometimes referred to as a board member, though their board membership is not listed anywhere I could find. Ron DeSantis has quoted her, and national news outlets like her. And she just picked up national press for calling Rep. Ilhan Omar a liar on the subject of CRT.

Occasionally MFL calls itself nonpartisan, but these are clearly conservative culture warriors. And if you have suspected that all of these culture war complaints are tied together, this group has clearly gathered them all in one basket, a unified field theory of far-right grievance. 

Watch this MFL chapter chair from Seminole Florida talk to her board and quickly tie it all in a bow. 

I heard someone say a great awakening is usually preceded by a rude awakening. 10 words that could surely be the mantra over our country the last 16 months. 18 months ago the majority of parents naively believed school boards were set in place by their vote for the sole purpose of protecting their rights and values inside public schools. March 2020 changed that. Suddenly facing lockdowns and mandates parents found themselves in a massive rude awakening. As devastating as the consequences have been, I actually thank God for this rude awakening, because without it we would not have a great awakening. Ironically you and school boards across the country, while masking our children, found your hidden motives and operational methods being unmasked....Today it's about masks. Tomorrow it's about isolating and segregating the unvaccinated. Then it's CRT being disguised as equity training to skirt new state legislation. The list of offenses has become the proverbial elephant in the room.

Well, no. Also, I can think of a few other purposes for school boards, like, say, education stuff.  But then she goes on to threaten the board because their day is passing and the newly awakened-but-not-woke parents will rise up and get rid of them. The sense of grievance, of victimized by the Grand Conspiracy comes through the MFL website's call for joining as well:

Are you tired of feeling like you are alone in your concerns for the future of your children? Do you try to speak to community leaders about your concerns and your voice goes unheard? There is power in numbers and the purpose of our organization is to fight for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents.

Are there deep pockets backing this outfit/ There's no evidence I've found, and while they have been picked up by the Trumpist hard right ecosystem quickly, that could be backing or it could be that they're just the perfect group to promote that narrative. And this is no group of June Cleavers--these are smart, professional women. MLF has been picked up as part of the professionally astro-turfed Parents Defending Education, but MLF appears to have arrived a few months earlier.

Time will tell. Mothers for Liberty is worth watching because when it comes to white disenfranchised disenchantment, the raging culture wars, and the belief that the public school system is a dark conspiracy between unions and elites, these folks are the total package.