Sunday, October 31, 2021

ICYMI: Spooky Edition (10/31)

The Board of Directors will be out scrounging for candy dressed as a member of Koo Koo Kangaroo and a Construction Guy. I will be on the front steps of the Institute handing out candy to costumed wanderers of all ages. Hope you are having a fun evening wherever you are.

Where Facts Were No Match For Fear

Not actually about education, but certainly provides some insights into the kind of stuff we're seeing these days. The New York Times looks at an attempt to raise tourism in Montana.

Why we are suing Pennsylvania over school funding

Yes, that's happening in PA, and will probably provide a lesson of one sort or another for activists in other states. On The Morning Call.

This is the problem with ranking schools

I never get tired of watching people chastise US News and their crappy ranking lists. This time it's Ethan Hutt in the Washington Post.

Methods for comparing school site spending (and correctly making charter school comparisons)

Bruce Baker at School Finance 101. I know, it doesn't sound very sexy, but it's awfully useful for making comparisons that are actually valid.

Anya Kamenetz at NPR giving a good overview of all these various outfits stirring the pot these days. 

Inc. has some unsurprising news--grit might not be the great be-all that Angela Duckworth and friends suggested it was.

Nancy Flanagan looks at the staffing problems faced in districts across the country. Gee, what could the problem be?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board has a few thoughts about the poorly-written Texas gag law that led to a call for both-sidesing the Holocaust 

A Gay Music Teacher Got Married. The Brooklyn Diocese Fired Him.

This story from the New York Times explains how a religious school can get away with this, and will continue to.

Jennifer Berkshire in The Nation offers more perspective on the current dust-up across the country that has drawn a target on school districts.

Schools facing critical race theory battles are diversifying rapidly, analysis finds

This NBC piece from back in September is worth revisiting because it offers an answer to the question, "What do all these up-in-arms districts have in common." The answer may be that white folks have become less of a majority there.

Matt Krause’s campaign for attorney general comes with a reading list

Texas state rep Matt Krause has a list of 850 questionable books that he wants schools to reconsider. He's also running for state attorney general. Great opening line in this Texas Tribune piece-- "Book bans don't really work, except in politics."

From Friend of the Institute Barth Keck at CT News Junkie, a great reminder of how we got here. They said what they were going to do, they said they were doing it, they bragged about how successful they were at doing it, they said they'd done it. 

Alexandra Petri is a national treasure. Sharp satire at the Washington Post.

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Sentences Computers Can't Understand

 Alternate title: Reason #451,632 that computer software, no matter how many times its vendors call it AI, should be allowed to assess student writing. Though you can also file this under "reasons that content knowledge is the foundation of literacy."

Our ability to use language is astonishing and magical. Now that the Board of Directors are 4.5 years old, I've again lived through the absolutely amazing spectacle of human language development. There are so many things we do without thinking--or rather, we do them with thinking that is barely conscious. And this is where software is still trying to catch up.

Meet the Winograd Schema. It's a collection of sentences that humans have little trouble understanding, but which confuse computers.

Frank felt crushed when his longtime rival Bill revealed that he was the winner of the competition. Who was the winner?

The drain is clogged with hair. It has to be cleaned. What has to be cleaned?

It's true that if a student wrote these in an essay, we might suggest they go back and punch the sentence up to reduce ambiguity. But for English language users who understand rivals and winners and competition and hair and drains and clogging, it's not hard to understand what these sentences mean. 

Well, not hard for humans. For computers, on the other hand. 

It's always important to remember that computers don't "understand" anything (as my professor told us in 1978, computers are as dumb as rocks). What computer can do is suss out patterns. Software that imitates language use does so basically (warning: gross oversimplification ahead) by just looking at giant heaps of examples and working out the pattern. When you read that GPT-3 is better than GPT-2, mostly what that means is that they've figured out a way to feed it even more examples to break down. When engineers say that the software is "learning," what they mean is that the software has broken down a few thousand more examples of how and when the word "hair" is used, not that the software has learned what hair is and how it works. 

This type of learning is how AI often wanders far astray, learning racist language or failing to recognize Black faces--the algorithm (really, a better name for these things than AI) can only "learn" from the samples it encounters.

So AI cannot read. It can only look at a string of symbols and check to see if the use of those symbols fits generally within the patterns established by however many examples it has "seen." And it cannot tell whether or not your student has written a coherent, clever, or even accurate essay--it can only tell if your student has used symbols in ways that fall within the parameters of the ways those symbols have been used in the examples it has broken down.

Essay assessment software has no business assessing student essays. 

As a bonus, here's a good little video on the topic from Tom Scott, whose usual thing is unusual places, but who also dips into language stuff.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

How I Taught Controversial Texts

So the critical race theory panic has, in many cases, boiled down to a good old-fashioned desire to ban books, most notably in Virginia where, somehow, Toni Morrison's Beloved is being debated (and, I should add, spoiled for those who haven't read it). I am not going to make my argument against banning here, because that's a book in itself. But I am going to talk about what the teaching of these scary texts can actually look like in a classroom.

One of the things that inevitably happens when the book banning talk starts is a reductiveness, a highlighting of little pieces, ripped from context in the same way that a seventh grader might start showing his buddies "just the dirty parts" of some book. 

But context is everything--both the context within the book and the book's context within the classroom. Despite David Coleman's attempt to separate reading from context, context is, if not everything, pretty damn close to it.

For many decades. I taught mostly 11th grade English, including the Honors (pre-AP) class (a class that I originated at our school). As is typical for the junior year in US high schools, the course focused on United States literature, and so there were plenty of controversial texts, including a Toni Morrison novel. And while I pushed the envelope some times, I never in my career got In Trouble for a reading assignment or class philosophical content. I can't say that I know the secret for every teacher, but I can tell you what I did.

Academic neutrality and trust.

I started the year by being up front. "We will be reading and talking about issues of religion, gender, and race," I told the students. "We'll be talking and reading about the many different ways people in this country have viewed the world and how we're still affected by those ideas today. My job is not convince you that any one view is right or wrong, but to get you to understand how they saw things. You can accept or reject their views as you wish."

I repeated that basic formula repeatedly through the year when it was needed. And I lived by it. And I graded by it. Teachers often say that students are welcome to their own opinions in the classroom, but students will wait to see if you mean it, or if this is a class where you get points for agreeing with the teacher. So you have to show them.

This does not mean you pretend not to have an opinion. I couldn't anyway, because my opinion was on the op-ed page of the local paper once a week, but also because I couldn't. What I could do was model rational, fair argument with them and--most importantly--grade their work and writing based on how well they did the job of making their point and not on how well they agreed with me. Once students believe that they really don't have to agree with you, all sorts of good stuff can happen.

Explain the controversy.

Tell them why Huck Finn has been variously banned for being too racist and not racist enough. Explain how radical Kate Chopin was back in the day. Depending on the class, you may find yourself re-enacting it in class (hardly a year went by that some students did not find Edna Pontellier to be a crazy slut). Offer perspectives, but let them wrangle. Let them have the argument in their own voices.

Know what you're doing.

A teacher should always, always be able to answer the question "Why are we studying this stuff." You have to know. My students learned early in the year that if they asked the question I would answer it, and sometimes I would answer it even if they didn't ask, and mostly they just stopped asking because the point of the question was to throw me off. But it goes back to the trust thing--time is a valuable thing, even when you are 16, and nobody should be knowingly wasting it.

Embrace both where they are and rising and advancing.

There's a great Ron Swanson line that we quote repeatedly here at the Institute-- "I have the toes I have." Meaning, we are where we are, and you can't live the life you wish you had--only the one you have. Students are where they are. Despite all the panic over teacher indoctrination, the fact is that you will rarely budge the needle on the beliefs that they bring from home.

But I also believe that everything that rises must converge. If they can develop the habit of inquiry, discussion, debate, exploration, questioning, then I believe that they'll increase in understanding. Maybe not till way later, but still. This is what I object to most in the CRT panic movement--the idea that children's curiosity and growth should be clamped down so that they never have a thought or idea that their parents don't approve of. That's not healthy (and most of those parents will eventually find it blows up in their faces). 

None of this means you can't challenge student beliefs. But I deliberately let go of the notion that I was going to fix them, or condemn them for believing things they may someday grow out of. Doesn't mean you have to approve of the worst stuff (and I've encountered some awful stuff). Hate the sin, love the sinner, or whatever version of that you prefer.

Avoid surprises.

One of the advantages of a smallish school is that nobody ever walked into my classroom with no clue about what was going to happen. And my classroom routine always included lots of ploughing the road for coming attractions, so that nobody was ever caught flatfooted. The reading list was in their hands at the end of the previous year, so families had lots of time to consider what was coming (and sometimes dropped for a class without all those texts).

This idea also applies to your administration. If you can help it, never let your administration b e surprised by a phone call from an angry parent. My bosses always already knew what was on the reading list and what potential issues came with those works. If you're worried that telling your admins what you're about to do might result in them telling you not to do it--well, better finding out now than when some angry parent wants your hide, because they surely won't back you up then.

Timing matters.

All of the above happened before we ever got to Morrison's Song of Solomon. So by the time we got there I could say, "This book is a solid R rating, with language and images that are suitable for grown-ups, and I trust you to be able to handle it like grown-ups." Don't get out the scary stuff before you've built an environment of trust, respect, and safety.

Offer alternatives.

I always offered the option for alternative selections. I was only ever taken up on it twice. Both times, the students relented (in one case, taking a sharpie to black out all the naughty words). But I still offered an alternative every year because I knew aspects of the novel might be outside some students' comfort zones. But they always rose to the challenge.

I could pull quotes from Song of Solomon that might shock and alarm some folks, particularly if I presented them in such a way that you imagined me just putting that quote up on the board without context on the first day of school; that would be a great technique if your goal was just to get me to ban the book. And sure, there are some things out there that no amount of context could redeem (because there are over three million teachers in this country and on any given day, one of them, somewhere, is making a dumb choice). But in the hands of responsible professional educators, a controversial text can illuminate and educate and challenge and foster growth (even if not exactly a direction one might have predicted). 

You may still want to join the crowd electing a governor so he can ban a book because reasons, but this is yet another time in the world of education where it would be more useful to talk about what is actually happening in schools instead of trying to sow, water and fertilize seeds of panic.

What Can Schools Learn From Learning Pods

This is not hard. Really. Not hard at all.

But Lisa Chu somehow dances around it. She's writing for the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), an advocacy group for charter-flavored ed reform. Founded by Paul Hill and now headed by Robin Lake, who was heavily invested in the push for Washington state charters and who at one point rejected the mantle of reformer even as she continued to embrace reformster policies.

In other news, sun expected to rise in East tomorrow
Anyway, it may just be the CRPE way of things to scoot past an obvious lesson about public schools here.

Lu is not wrong about the power of the useful things she sees in pandemic pods, those groups of parents, students and educators who came together in small groups to get some pandemic learning done. CRPE surveyed 253 pod parents and educators (I know--that sounds awful). Over half of the teachers had previously taught in some kind of classroom (and the rest were classified as teachers because...?)

In interviews, parents and teachers said the combination of small group sizes and flexibility to shape the learning experience enabled educators to form strong relationships with their students and ensure students felt seen, known, and heard, which, in turn, helped them support students’ learning and well-being.

Learning was more based on student interests. The teacher-student relationships were stronger; trust was greater. Deeper connections led to social and emotional development. Better communication skills. 

Here's the list of lessons Chu offers:

Parents and community organizations know the students' needs best.

Students form strong relationships outside of core classes, like in band or sports. Schools ought to figure out how to do that in core classes. 

Measure students feelings about safety and belonging to tell how you're doing.

Overall--shape the learning environment around student needs rather than "assumptions about how the school day should look."

Now, these are mostly correct (some day we'll talk about how to make English class like band). And at a couple of points, Chu acknowledges what makes these easier in pods, but somehow never adds this simple conclusion to her list:

Smaller class sizes are better. All these magical things, like students building relationships instead of getting lost in a crowd, depend on small class sizes. All of them. The key to every lesson here is to reduce class size so that all of these things can more easily happen. Teachers have more time to address and be guided by the interests and needs of students. Relationships and trust are built. 

There is another lesson here--something about parents who can afford to hire a teacher and provide necessary supplies. But the big lesson from learning pods? Smaller is better. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Betsy DeVos Plays The Hits (NAEP Edition)

Before Betsy DeVos was Secretary of Education, she was a relentless, wealthy privatization advocate, and there was never any chance that she would walk away from her old job once she was done with the new one. It's just that now she can put that "former secretary" in front of her name.

So it should come as zero surprise that she turned up last week sharing an op-ed on Fox News, joining in that popular Edu-genre, the "Oh Nos! The NAEP Scores!!" essay. Which shows some bravery on her part, because actually the cries of anguish have been relatively subdued this year, even though the NAEP (The Nation's Report Card) produced some nearly-newsworthy results this year.

DeVos gets her licks in at "learning losses during the pandemic caused by the unnecessary, union-driven school lockdowns" (pretty sure somebody missed a comma--I don't think she meant to blame the actual pandemic on teachers unions), but that's not what she's here for. She here for the that shows some NAEP score drops before the pandemic pause actually hit.

Math scores, says DeVos, for the lowest 10% of thirteen year olds dropped by 13 points. Reading scores for the lowest 10%  of nine year olds dropped by 7 points. She's a little fuzzy on the "since when" part of this, but since she brings up 2012, the last year with figures for the Long Term Trend assessment has figures for. Her reporting does not exactly match NAEP's own reporting; they show smaller drops over that period. But everyone agrees that it's the first time the scores have ever dipped. Mostly NAEP scores of the various shapes, sizes and periods, have stayed stagnant.

But DeVos is alarmed. These results are "abysmal."

However, she wants you to know that this is not because of a lack of spending, which is what "the education establishment would have you believe." No, the US spends so much money on education. It has nearly tripled since the 1960s (when Betsy and I were in elementary school). She says we spend 35% more per pupil than every other major developed nation, which is not what her link to the NCES says-- they say that the US spends 37% more than the average of OECD countries, which is just sloppy. 

And by the way, DeVos wants you to know that the Department of Education was established as "a pay-off from then-President Jimmy Carter to the teachers union bosses who funded his campaign." And since they were founded, the US has spent $1 trillion trying to "close the gap." I'm assuming she's talking Title I money, which was not spent to close a gap but to help lift up those at the bottom. Not the same thing. Closing the gap would be trying to get hungry folks the same food that rich people are eating; lifting them up would mean they don't go hungry. "Closing the gap" is an admirable goal, but almost impossible to attain unless you make rich folks sit on their hands. But I digress. $1 trillion.

But all that money hasn't "moved the needle when it comes to results," and like many good classic reformsters, DeVos will just skip over the part where we establish why we should use a standardized test of math and reading as a needle, and what exactly the consequences of not moving that needle might be. 

But she knows how to move that needle. 

The one and only thing that has continually demonstrated an ability to improve student achievement is school choice. A recent University of Arkansas analysis of data from the Nation’s Report Card found that students in states with the greatest level of education freedom recorded higher achievement levels. 

The research that she links to is a bit of a hash, and her whole argument confuses causation and correlation, and she really fuzzes up the difference between a real gain and a percentage gain-- generally speaking, DeVos cannot be trusted when she starts throwing numbers around. But she smells public school blood, so she's determined to hit every point on the greatest hits list.

You might think another sobering Nation’s Report Card might force the education establishment and the union bosses to implement ideas to improve literacy and numeracy. But, of course, they’re not.

Instead, they’re spending their time defending critical race theory-infused teaching and calling the FBI on parents who voice opposition to their children being indoctrinated.

I do wonder who the "education establishment" might be, but you know-- evil indoctrinators, etc etc. And just to round things out, here comes the same old quote from A Nation at Risk, a work that warned we were on the brink of a national collapse because of education, and we've now been waiting for that collapse, any day now, for forty years. 

Look, anybody can play correlation and causation games with the NAEP numbers. What has happened since 2012 that might account for a drop? Well, we've filled schools with the first generation to grow up under Common Core and test-centered education. The test that gave us these "abysmal" numbers was taken on DeVos's watch at education.

A serious person in the reform biz would look at those numbers and say (or at least think), "Gee, we've been implementing lots of our policies and they don't seem to have helped." But Betsy DeVos has never been a serious person, and her absolute certainty that public education must be swept away and replaced by a free market system in which people can rise or fall as they deserve limits the scope of her vision. As little respect as I have for standardized testing as a measure of educational effectiveness, it may well be that there is something to find in these NAEP results, but DeVos is certainly not the person to go looking.

Monday, October 25, 2021

What The WSJ Anti-Public Ed Op-Ed Gets Wrong

Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal (Fox News' upscale sibling) published an op-ed from Philip Hamburger, a Columbia law professor and head of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a Koch-funded pro bono firm that takes cases primarily to defend against the "administrative state." It's a hit job on public education with some pretty bold arguments, some of which are pretty insulting. But he sure says a lot of the quiet part out loud, and that makes this worth a look. Let me walk you through this. (Warning--it's a little rambly, and you can skip to the last section if you want to get the basic layout)

Hamburger signals where he's headed with the very first paragraph:

The public school system weighs on parents. It burdens them not simply with poor teaching and discipline, but with political bias, hostility toward religion, and now even sexual and racial indoctrination. Schools often seek openly to shape the very identity of children. What can parents do about it?

Hamburger offers no particular evidence for any of this catalog of arguable points. Various surveys repeatedly show that the majority of parents approve of their child's public school. The rest is a litany of conservative complaints with no particular evidence, but Hamburger needs the premise to power the rest of his argument.

So here comes Hamburger's bold assertion:

Education is mostly speech, and parents have a constitutional right to choose the speech with which their children will be educated. They therefore cannot constitutionally be compelled, or even pressured, to make their children a captive audience for government indoctrination

Conservative talking points about public education routinely assert and assume that public education is a service provided to parents, rather than to the students or society at large. It's case I've never seen them successfully make. At the same time, society's stake in educated members is clear and the entire rationale behind having non-parent taxpayers help pay the cost of public education. In any other instance where the taxpayers subsidize a private individual's purchase of goods or service (e.g. food stamps, housing), some conservatives say the social safety net is a Bad Thing, so it's uncharacteristic for them to champion public education as, basically, a welfare program for parents when they want to dramatically reduce all other such programs to bathtub-drowning size (spoiler alert: they'd like to do that with public education, too). 

But Hamburger has taken another step here, arguing that speech to children somehow belongs to their parents. It's a bold notion--do parents somehow have a First Amendment right to control every sound that enters their children's ears? Where are the children's rights in this? Or does Hamburger's argument (as some angry Twitter respondents claim) reduce children to chattel?

Hamburger follows his assertion with some arguments that don't help. He argues that public education has always attempted to "homogenize and mold the identity of children," which is a huge claim and, like much of his argument, assumes that schools somehow have the power to overwrite or erase everything that parents have inculcated at home. But then, for the whole argument currently raging, it's necessary to paint public schools as huge threat in order to justify taking dramatic major action against them. 

The great Protestant scam

Hamburger also notes that public education has "been valued for corralling most of the poor and middle class into institutions where their religious and ethnic differences could be ironed out" which would be a more powerful point if most of the poor hadn't generally avoided public education entirely. But he's going to go further by claiming that "well into the 20th century, much of the political support for public schooling was driven by fear of Catholicism and an ambition to Protestantize Catholic children." There's no doubt that some of this was going on, but the primary goal of public education? 

The court case he leans on first is Pierce v Society of Sister, a 1925 Oregon case that established a parental right to substitute private religious school for public schooling. Hamburger argues that the underlying idea of the case is that Freedom of Speech = educational liberty, which gets him back to his central idea:  education is speech and therefor public education impinges on parents' First Amendment rights.

Further, Hamburger imagines an America in which some sort of pressure is exerted on people (mostly Catholics) to accept public education mind control, thereby violating--well, here's the shortest form of the argument he offers.

When government makes education compulsory and offers it free of charge, it crowds out parental freedom in educational speech. The poorer the parents, the more profound the pressure—and that is by design. Nativists intended to pressure poor and middle-class parents into substituting government educational speech for their own, and their unconstitutional project largely succeeded.

Most parents can’t afford to turn down public schooling. They therefore can’t adopt speech expressive of their own views in educating their children, whether by paying for a private school or dropping out of work to home school. So they are constrained to adopt government educational speech in place of their own, in violation of the First Amendment.

Hamburger doesn't offer any kind of smoking gun to underline or expose the "nativists" dire intent. Nor does he explain why the public school system in some locales had to be forced to accept some students (I assume that he does not intend to argue that Southern schools blocked Black students out of deep respect for their parents' First Amendment rights). 

Public education squashes parents, apparently.

Hamburger returns to a funhouse mirror of public education. Rather than an attempt to improve society as a whole and extend equal opportunity to all children, his view is that public education exists strictly to indoctrinate, to overrule parents, and is so lacking in any desirable virtue that government must conspire to force families to submit.

His language posits a bizarre world. Parents somehow "can't adopt speech expressive of their own views" and must adopt government "educational speech in place of their own." All of this as if once parents send their children to school, they must never again express their own values or ideas in their own home. He hits this "in place of their own" idea a lot, as if the beginning of public education is the end of any sort of childrearing at home. 

He next does a neat ju-jitsu trick where he observes that if fears of coercion and indoctrination are enough to keep religious elements out of public school, they should be enough to keep Other Secular Stuff out of school.

Next, he works his way around to the objection I raised earlier--society's "compelling interest in public education." He would like to dismantle this claim. I'm unconvinced. 

The U.S. was founded in an era when almost all schooling was private and religious, and that already suggests that any government interest in public education is neither necessary nor compelling.

This elicited my first "Oh, come on." When the US was founded, some students went to private school. Some did not. Most enslaved children were specifically forbidden to. When the US was founded, the body of knowledge one needed to grasp to make one's way through the world was considerably smaller, and there were fewer citizens in the whole US than there are right now in New York City. So, no.

Also, he argues again that public schools caught on basically as a plot by anti-Catholic nativists. This is a bold argument, made all the bolder because many, many paragraphs in, he has not offered even a cherry-picked out-of-context quote to back this up. But he is going to try to reinterpret a quote with a wild stretch:

In their vision, public schools were essential for inculcating American principles so that children could become independent-minded citizens and thinking voters. The education reformer and politician Horace Mann said that without public schools, American politics would bend toward “those whom ignorance and imbecility have prepared to become slaves.” 

That sounds wholesome in the abstract. In practice, it meant that Catholics were mentally enslaved to their priests, and public education was necessary to get to the next generation, imbuing them with Protestant-style ideas so that when they reached adulthood, they would vote more like Protestant.

Has any giant conspiracy ever failed so spectacularly? Horace Mann and his ilk were out to wipe out Catholicism and make everyone think Protestanty ideas and get everyone to vote the right way, and yet, none of that actually happened. And again, Hamburger talks about education as if it has no value or purpose beyond indoctrinating children. 

Is this one more plan to replace white folks with Democrat voters?

This goal of shaping future voters gave urgency to the government's interest in public education. As today, the hope was to liberate children from their parents’ supposedly benighted views and thereby create a different sort of polity. Now as then, this sort of project reeks of prejudice and indoctrination. There is no lawful government interest in displacing the educational speech of parents who don’t hold government-approved views, let alone in altering their children’s identity or creating a government-approved electorate

So, again, Hamburger reduces public education to a vast conspiracy to shout down parents and not, say, a means of creating educated citizens who are empowered to understand themselves and the world well enough to forge a productive and rewarding place in it. 

Hamburger wraps up by again harkening back to those great days of the 18th century:

The shared civic culture of 18th-century America was highly civilized, and it developed entirely in private schools. The schools, like the parents who supported them, were diverse in curriculum and their religious outlook, including every shade of Protestantism, plus Judaism, Catholicism, deism and religious indifference. 

In their freedom, the 18th-century schools established a common culture. In contrast, public-school coercion has always stimulated division.

I have some serious doubts about the diversity he lists, but I will note that it does not include a diversity of wealth and race. Or, for that matter, gender. Divisions is always less of a problem when Some People know their place and avoid interrupting their betters with complaints. But he needs this to be true because he's headed back around to the assertion that public schools are "coercive" and "the focal point for all that is tearing the nation apart." His solution, favored by Libertarians these days, is to get public schools to stop tearing people apart by letting people tear themselves apart and silo with other folks of the same ideological stripe, because that has always worked out well.

So what is actually new here? Or is this the same old anti-public ed stuff? What is he actually saying? Let me boil this down.

Hamburger's argument breaks down into a few simple parts.

One is that the country (aka "government") has no legitimate stake in public education. Just let everyone get their own education for their own kids; it worked great back in the 1700s. This is a silly argument. 

Also, the government has no legitimate stake in public education  because it's all just a nativist plot to grind down Catholics and other dissenters. This part of the argument is important because it sets up the notion that only parents should have a say in education, which is an old favorite assertion of the anti-public ed crowd. If you don't know why we all benefit from being surrounded by well-educated people, I don't know how to explain it to you.

Education is speech. This part of the argument is important because it allows him to rope in the First Amendment so that he can declare public education unconstitutional. But it feels like a stretch--does he mean formal education? Is it still speech if it's not in a classroom? Is reading a book speech if you learn from it? Does this mean teachers have more First Amendment rights than previously rules, or fewer?  If it's on a computer? Is anything a person learns from speech? 

But "education is speech" is not the really bold part of his argument. That really bold part is where he goes on to say "therefor, parents should have total control over it." I have so many questions. Should parents have total control over all speech directed at or in the vicinity of their children, including books, and so would I be violating a parent's First Amendment rights if I gave their child an book for Christmas? And where are the child's rights in this? Would this mean that a parent is allowed to lock their child in the basement in order to protect that parent's First Amendment right to control what the child is exposed to? 

Hamburger's argument has implications that he doesn't get into in his rush to get to "do away with them and give everyone vouchers." The biggest perhaps is that he has made an argument that non-parent taxpayers should not have to subsidize an education system. I'm betting he's not unaware of that. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

ICYMI: No Staff Shortage Here Edition (10/24)

The advantage of having the Curmudgucation Institute operated with a staff of one, unpaid, is evident at times like these. I would give me a raise, but the Institute can't afford to stretch our budget of $0.00. I mention this because we all need to be periodically reminded that all one needs to be a policy spokesperson, think tank, or important activist group, is one person, a point of view, and access to the interwebz.

Speaking of which, here are the reads from the week. Warning--we have several Washington Post items this week, so if you're burning free views there, you may want to peruse the list and make your choices first.

Teacher Self Care Hinges Upon a Single Word

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider with some short-but-sweet advice. When i think of all the times I tried to coach my colleagues to use this word...

Why so many teachers are thinking of quitting

Leslie Gray Streeter of the Washington Post took the radical step of talking to actual teachers (or former teachers). 

Kentucky judge finds new school voucher program unconstitutional

Jan Resseger with some good news from Kentucky. 

Best school lists are meaningless

Lots of folks had mean things to say about US News and their crazy decision to rank elementary and middle schools, but Jack Schneider had the best dismantling of the whole foolish business for WBUR.

Of all the conservative bands on teaching about racism, the one in Texas is the worst

Michael Gerson for the Washington Post, offering some insight on one of Texas's moves to try to overtake Florida in the crazypants bad education ideas department.

How newspaper closures open the door to corporate crime

In this education-adjacent story, Harvard Business School has the research that shows one bad side effect of closing newspapers.

ACLU: Oklahoma ban violates free speech rights

The first big anti-crt-ban lawsuit is on its way. Stay tuned.

Teachers are barely hanging on. Here's what they need.

The "teachers at the end of their rope" genre has been blowing up lately, but this Cult of Pedagogy podcast (with transcript) is probably the most thorough of the breed.

Nobody Hates The Gifted

While everyone else is worried about bans and disease, NYC has descended into a huge flap over gifted education. Nancy Flanagan has some thoughts about gifted education.

Parents claim they have the right to shape their kids' school curriculum. They don't.

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire at the Washington Post look at just how much control parents should have over school's programs.

What is Taught in Public Schools? Volunteer as a Substitute Teacher and See for Yourself!

Steven Singer offers some excellent advice for all those lawmakers so deeply concerned about what schools are up to.

Texas school district bans long hair. Lawsuit ensues.

Oh, Texas. Believe it or not, we're back to making rules about how long a young man can grow his hair. 

4th circuit will review skirts-only dress code for charter

What is it--the fifties again? This suit actually has larger ramifications, because the charters' defense is that it's not a public school. 

How protesters came after this Florida board member

The Washington Post has a first-person account from one of the board members being harassed in Florida.

America's Standardized Test Giants Are Losing Money Fast

The Chronicle of Higher Education has this sad, sad tale. Okay, it's not a sad tale. Come enjoy the schadenfreude.

TN librarians speak out again board member's attempt to ban books

Tennessee is the home of one more aggressive attempt to ban books. Here's some good response to that in the Tennessean.

Trump’s Lawyer Sues Wellesley for Charles Koch’s Phony “Parent” Group

If you've heard about this lawsuit, you need to read this piece from dark money expert Maurice Cunningham explaining just where the action is coming from.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Another Faux Diverse Viewpoint Ed Site

I have reached the point where I really appreciate a website that says "We are here to promote the right wing education agenda," rather than one like Chalkboard Review* that leads with lines like "Everyone is a stakeholder in education" and "Educator perspectives are diverse and necessary." This is, to put it gently, not actually true about this site, which is clearly fully tilted to the right.

First hint. The top of the home page menu is a link to their Critical Race Theory Toolkit, which includes sections like "How to advocate against CRT" and "Evidence of CRT in Schools." That evidence includes items like the National Teachers Association's guide for culturally responsive lesson plans. 

Second hint. Their very first post back in January of 2019 is entitled "School Choice Also Gives Teachers Like Me More Choice." It's by Daniel Buck, a teacher in Wisconsin who writes for the Foundation for Economic Education and The Federalist. Of The Closing of the American Mind he says, "The Bible taught me how to live but that book taught me how to think." He started his teaching career in 2016 in Green Bay public schools before switching to the Holy Spirit Catholic School. He's not a union guy.

Third hint. They run a podcast. The latest episode features Corey DeAngelis, one of the more pugnacious choicers out there.

Fourth hint. Well, let's look at the "about us" tab. 

Turns out that Daniel Buck is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of this operation. He co-founded it with Tony Kinnett, who is, since July 2020, the District Science Coordinator & Instructional Coach at Indianapolis Public Schools. Before that he was Head of Biology at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis for the 2019-2020 school year. Before that he taught two years at Knightstown Intermediate School. He did his student teaching in the first part of 2017, culminating his undergrad education at Maranatha Baptist University. 

Where geography may have separated these two guys, ideology seems to have connected them. They both write for the Federalist, the Foundation for Economic Education, the conservative Washington Examiner, and the Lone Conservative, a platform for conservative college students.

Director of Operations Adam Burnett is another Lone Conservative guy, who studied journalism at Illinois State and enjoys, in his free time, exercise and working on cars; favorite authors include Ted Cruz and Ben Shapiro. His Twitter account lists him as the press secretary for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Director of Social Media Quinn Weimer has logged some writing with CNSNews ("The right news. Right now.") Their podcast producer is Alison Heape, who just last summer became a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, and started this fall as music teacher at Anthem Classical Academy; her music teacher undergrad work was done at Bob Jones University. Managing editor Lou Scataglia also wrote for the Lone Conservative, including an unironic piece entitled "President Trump's Top Ten Tweets" The site writing staff includes Paul Rossi, the teacher who was canned by a private NYC school for accusing the school of indoctrination.

Their Content Producer for K12 Public Education is Stephanie Edmonds, who's an interesting choice. Edmonds has quite the track record, most recently scoring lots of press for her anti-vax martyr stance that she says is deeply rooted in her Jewish faith (did she also refuse her other vaccination requirement for teachers). Before that she was heavily open the schools (because a vaccine is available). She has a big brand online, complete with an occasional Bronx accent, with folks occasionally called on her stuff and pointing out that she's from Connecticut's Gold Coast. She started teaching in 2016, so she fits the age group here. When she lost her job over her anti-vax stance, Chalkboard Review set up a Go Fund Me for her, after which they apparently decided to give her a job. 

Fifth hint. Following the founders podcast appearances, we find items like Tony Kinnett appearing on a podcast to tout the new site. It's not so much "let's have a diverse conversation" as touting a "new website that will counter the lies spewed by teachers union-dominated educational media."

Let me be clear--there is absolutely nothing wrong with some right-wing twenty-somethings getting together to get on the interwebz and advocate for their views about a cause. They mostly seem sincere enough, if not exactly well-informed on the subject. What they clearly are not is balanced or diverse in their perspective--which again is absolutely their right, but I just wish they went ahead and owned their rightward tilt as clearly as they do over at their various other projects. 

Pretending to be a source for balanced and diverse viewpoints on education has been a popular strategy since these folks were on a grade school playground. They clearly know what they're here to do (basically pick up the mantle of the original Education Post) and they might as well own it. When you lie about what you intend to talk about, you call into question everything you decide to say. 

*As always, I include links so you can check my work if you don't believe me, but I don't endorse sending this site more traffic.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Dear Substitute-Desperate Districts. What Are You Doing About It?

There's a great deal of hollering about the lack of substitute teachers. Like the challenge of filling regular teaching positions, this is not a new problem, but the pandemic has exacerbated it considerably. Everywhere you turn, you can find administrators bemoaning their lack of subs.

But if you are one of these administrators, what are you actually doing about it?

Are you raising sub pay? Sub pay is notoriously lousy, particularly if you're hiring them via some substitute or temp service. I started out substitute teaching in 1980; sub pay in local districts has risen about $25 since then. When you factor in the lack of benefits, it's impossible to make a living substitute teaching and the pool from Way Back In The Day (Moms of school-age kids who wanted a little grocery money) is gone. 

Are you tapping the available talent pool? Michigan just sent out a letter to retired teachers, which seems sensible. I'm a recent retiree, but I have yet to get a single request to consider heading back into the classroom. It's not that I'm in any hurry to go back, but if one were looking for subs, wouldn't it make sense to see if you could guilt some retired educators into helping out. They'd have the added feature of already knowing the drill.

Are you making sure your schools are safe? Let's say you're someone who subs in addition to another job to make ends meet (my wife started out substitute teaching and waitressing). You do a day of subbing, then find that one of the 150 students you were around has tested positive for covid--now, depending on your locale and integrity, you lose two weeks of work at both jobs, a pay cut you can't really afford. Too many districts have taken the position that they can just half-ass safety precautions (unenforced masking, no ventilation improvements, crowded classes, etc) and teachers will come to work anyway. But subs, because they don't (aka can't) count on the work to make a living, are volunteers, and if it doesn't seem safe to be in your building, they can choose to not.

Have you lowered the bar? Are you still requiring all sorts of hoop jumping to be a substitute? Plenty of states have been lowering the bar for teaching, and Oregon just dropped the bar on the ground for substitutes. Which is one way to increase the sub pool, but you had better have some supports in place for these amateurs, or you're going to create more problems than you solve.

Have you invited the big wigs? Friend of the Institute Steven Singer has proposed that all those lawmakers so Deeply Concerned about What Is Being Taught In The Classroom can get a first-hand look even as they help solve the subbing problem. I fully endorse this idea.

Have you gotten out there yourself? At this stage of the game, I am kind of amazed to hear from districts where administrators still haven't stepped up to take over classrooms. This is not a small thing. When a classroom stands open because there's no sub, administrators are making a statement, a choice. Sure, they have work to do, but when they cover a missing sub by dragging teachers away from clerical work periods or other assignments, or just cancel the subless class, they are telling the staff "What I do in my office is actually more important than what you teachers do in your classrooms. Administrators who do sub duty are making an important statement, as well as showing that they're willing to get in there shoulder to shoulder with their staff. 

Finally, are you actually doing something? Because sitting in your office and wishing that subs would suddenly appear is not actually doing something. Complaining that nobody is signing up to sub is not doing something. Some districts are terrible at communication (pro tip: just because everyone in your building knows X does not mean that everyone in your community also knows X); this is carrying over into the sub problem.

Remember--it is not a substitute shortage. There are literally thousands of people in your community who could be substitute teachers, if only you gave them convincing reasons to choose to do so. Your problem is the same as many employers bemoaning staffing problems right now; it's no use complaining that people ought to work, but instead, you need to answer the question "Why should somebody want to do this job for you?"

(Also--radical thought-- if you just hired full time substitutes with full pay and benefits, you'd have handy subs every single day. Of course, that would cost money...)

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Nevada Family Alliance Still Pro-Cameras, Anti-Irony

Remember Nevada Family Alliance, the activist group that may or may not just be one person with some software and a wifi connection, and that one person, a lady named Karen England, may or many not be a big ole scam artist.

I'm still on NFA's mailing list, and my last check-in from my friend Karen, whose latest email is just loaded with stuff. Well, three stuffs. Let's take them one at a time, because she certainly captures some features of the current anti-stuff panic.

First, she wants you to know that she has a map of all the places where teachers have signed the Zinn pledge to Teach Bad Things No Matter What. That includes a link to the list to the names of Nevada teachers on the naughty list, which is actually a link to the website Cameras in the Classroom. It's a dumb idea, but it's been the one way that England has broken through to some larger coverage. It's her thing. And she assures us that this is supported by Russ Vought. Vought was director of the office of management and budget 2020-2021 under Trump. He used to work for the Heritage Foundation, but these days he runs Citizens for Renewing America, one more Trumpy critical race theory panic group. Also signing on are Mark Levin (who has featured NFA on his radio show), Becky Norton Dunlop (Heritage Foundation), Charles Cooper (founder of a "leading litigation boutique") and Brandon Zehm (tech bro). More coming soon, the website assures us.

The website further warns us about cultural Marxism, the attempt to start a race war, and offers this irony-free quote from England, this time in her capacity as executive director of the Capitol Resource Institute, another of England's anti-Progressive groups. Anyway, here's why we need cameras in the classroom-

Every day we are told of another incident where a teacher is violating the privacy of a student or contradicting the lessons taught by parents at home.

You know what would really violate the privacy of a student? Having a video record of everything they did in school. Imagine some parent deciding that your kid is causing problems for their kid in school, and demanding to see what your kid has been doing in class. Yikes.

Anyway, we came to this site so we could look up exactly which teachers, by name, are Indoctrinating Our Children. However, to see the map/database, the site requires you to give up your name, email, and zip code. Almost as if this is a data gathering exercise rather than an attempt to liberate our children.

So, second item in the email. An item about the 17 state attorneys general who wrote to Joe Biden and Merrick Garland to protest the targeting of parents at school board meetings. 

"Your recent action seeks to chill lawful dissent by parents voiced during local school board meetings by characterizing them as unlawful and threatening," the attorneys general wrote in the letter.

While I have some misgivings about the AG's action, but at least it's not as if they made a website where you could look up the individual names of misbehaving school board members with an exhortation to "double down" and let them know they can't get away with what they're doing. 

Irony is so dead, and I'm pretty sure I don't want to hear complaints about "cancel culture" from any of these groups ever again.

Part three? That is, of course, the plea for money. "Please Join with NFA," she says, because they "relies solely on the generous giving from people like you and from the many churches and organizations that support us." That link takes you right to their Square site.

The address for NFA is the same as that of Capitol Resource Institute; an office building in Sacramento, CA. Nevada Family Alliance's website URL is actually There's a whole England trail that leads back to her failed attempt to commandeer GOP politics in California. 

It's such an unprincipled mess. Don't try to chill expression on our side while we try to put your side in a deep freeze. Privacy for me, but not for thee (and not for me, either, if I thought this through for even fifteen seconds). 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

PA: Another CRT Panic Tale

 So here's a story from my corner of the state that tells you how far the "critical race theory" panic has seeped into the ordinary operations of school districts.

Penncrest School District  is located in the NW corner of the state, located mostly in Crawford County. It's a mid-sized (around 3500 students K-12) district that was stitched together out of several very small rural districts

The district pops up in the news occasionally, most recently in May of this year when two board members got in a Facebook flap over a collection of LGBTQ+ books displayed at the Maplewood High School Library. Board member David Valesky posted:

Besides the point of being totally evil, this is not what we need to be teaching kids. They aren't at school to be brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is okay. Its [sic] actually being promoted to the point where it's even 'cool'.

Board member Jeff Brooks responded 

There have always been gay students in our hallways. And unfortunately there have always been hateful voices looking to discriminate against them. Let's just be a little better today and not make kids [sic] lives worse by being hateful, bigoted and prejudiced.

Valesky later told the local newspaper that "he was against the school 'pushing' such topics onto the students," and that schools shouldn't have anything to do with "kids determining their sex or who they should be interested in." Brooks expressed his opposition to censoring books at school and that schools "need to be a safe place."

So their board is used to some argument over issues. 

Fast forward to this month. High school English teacher Stacey Hetrick has gotten a spot as a presenter at the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts conference. It's a great privilege, and the conference itself is a great professional builder. The conference is on Friday and Saturday in Harrisburg; Hetrick wanted the board to approve a day off to attend on Friday. She was paying her own registration for the conference; her presentation was entitled "Using audio analysis to maximize independent reading time."

But David Valesky had dug through the schedule for the conference and didn't like what he saw. Like any such conference, the gathering included multiple session offerings in time slots throughout the two days. These concurrent sessions include a wide variety of selections, from "How do I foster a growth mindset" to "Teaching with poetry." But one of the five threads in the conference deals with "social justice movements in literacy education," and that included some sessions that alarmed Valesky, like "Building an anti-racist lens in your classroom" and "Elevating diversity starting with the traditional curriculum."

The Penncrest Board is currently considering a policy to ban what it imagines to be critical race theory from the district. So Valesky was primed to spot tell-tale signs.

“Obviously, the entire thing is laced with aspects of critical race theory,” he said. “That’s not what English is for.”

Valesky's old pal Brooks noted that having a teacher learn about anti-racism "might be worth our time."

The board denied her request 5-4.

Note--this is not a CRT anti-racism conference. It's just a conference at which many, many topics will be discussed, anti-racism and diversity among them. But five members of the board couldn't bear to even have Hetrick in the same building as these dreaded ideas. 

They could have congratulated her on being selected to present and told her to make the district proud. They could have, I suppose, tried to forbid her to attend any of the naughty presentations. They could even have weaseled around the issue by simply saying (as many districts would) that it's too hard to get subs on Fridays and therefor they couldn't give her release time. But instead they did this.

Members on the losing side were angry. Robert Gulick was one of the four:

“I have never been more disappointed in this school board in my entire career, four years of being on this school board, and I have never been more disappointed about the overreaction, about the craziness, the insanity,” he said.

Hetrick had no comment for the paper, and did not indicate whether or not she would attend the conference, but she's no longer listed on the schedule.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Let Me Propose A New Teacher Pay System

One feature of modern ed reform over the last couple of decades has been the attempt to "disrupt" teacher pay. I have an idea, or at least a thought experiment.

Many education disruptors have noted that it seems unfair to pay "good" teachers and "bad" teachers the same amount. To be honest, that thought has occurred to one or two teachers as well. Meanwhile, not a day goes by that some civilian doesn't argue that teachers only work nine months out of the year, so they should get lousy pay.

A variety of alternatives have been proposed and tried. Attempts to link pay to quality flounder because there is no reliable objective way to measure teacher quality so we end up with systems that link teacher pay to test score, resulting in an unfair, complicated, demoralizing mess. Merit pay bonuses are great except that 1) they're invariably tied to a really low base pay and 2) they never work. Also, see above problems with measuring merit. And the problem behind all of these stabs at teacher pay systems is that the goal is to reduce total personnel costs for a school. 

That personnel cost level drives some people from the business world crazy. My district had a board member years ago who ran a concrete business, and the high percentage of district expense that went to personnel drove him crazy, because in private industry, that's just not how it works. 

But if our goal was to come up with a better way to pay teachers, and not just cut costs, I think I've got one. And I stole it from the legal profession.

Billable hours.

Teaching in a classroom? Billable time. Grading papers at home? Billable time. Research and development of lesson plans? Billable time.

Teachers would have to get over the loss of being salaried employees, but school districts would have to start thinking about what they're actually paying for instead of operating on the assumption that if teachers aren't in front of students, they aren't Doing Any Work. 

It would require administrators to be more thoughtful about how they waste teacher time. Want to have forty-seven after school meetings, or drag teachers into pointless PD sessions? Fine--but you have to pay for it. Need teachers to show up before actual report time in order take care of morning clerical stuff? Pay for it. Want a teacher to watch a study hall or patrol the parking lot? Sure--but you'll pay for it. Maybe you'd rather hire some lower-cost personnel to cover non-teaching duties.

Paying a higher hourly rate for experienced teachers makes sense, because experience leads to greater efficiency-- an experienced teacher gets more done in an hour than they did when starting out.

For teachers, this would give some control over their own personal and professional lives, because they get to decide about the trade-off. Now we have a system where teachers are told to feel an obligation to give their infinite all in exchange for a flat rate. Under a billable hours system, you can still decide to give up your weekend to read about the influence of Poe on modern gothic literature, but you make the choice knowing you will get paid for it instead of simply doing it to try to fight off a heavy blanket of guilt. 

Could a system like this be gamed? Sure--but from a district point of view, this is a plus. To game the current system, a teacher just does less (like my not-very-respected previous colleague who never, ever took a piece of paper home). To game a billable hours system, a teacher would have to do more work--a win for the district.

Would districts be incentivized to screw over older, more expensive teachers? Probably--but we're living in that world already. Would some teachers hate the idea of having to punch a clock? Probably. Personally, I'd still have liked knowing that I wasn't donating hour after hour for free.

There would be critical nuts and bolts to work out, like a reasonable hourly rate--that part would be huge, because this system must not end up requiring teachers to bill 100 hours a week just to make a living wage. How to pay coaches and extracurricular advisors, who currently make anywhere from $100 to $0.02 an hour. Monitoring the hours in a way that provides accountability without treating teachers like children (always a challenge for the education system). And maybe a way to index the hours to other factors, like, say, number of students in a class. Teacher contracts would have to be changed to a model that contracts for a certain base number of hours.

The big drawback for districts would be giving up what they quietly love about traditional teacher pay grids-- being able to know fairly precisely what next year's personnel costs will be. Billable hours would make that figure a little harder to predict. And, if cutting personnel costs is your goal, well, it would not reduce personnel costs at all.

But for teachers? More control of your life. Bosses forced to respect your time (if not you). 

I'm not expecting anyone to try this any time soon, and it's in no way a perfect set up, but it's fun to think about. If someone in your neighborhood has done more than think about it, please let me know.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

ICYMI: Days Of Rage Edition (10/17)

The anti-crt movement is rapidly changing form into the anti-public education movement. Well, maybe not so much changing as revealing. Things are heating up across the country, and this week was a big week for reads in the Big People Media. 

Enrollment jumps in charter schools--with biggest gains in the worst sector

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post hosts Carol Burris. Charter schools were earlier this year boasting about their huge pandemic gains. Turns out that those gains were overwhelmingly in the cyber-school sector, the well-documented mostly-failing part of the charter world.

This virtual classroom company made millions during the pandemic while students languished

Buzzfeed, of all places, has a blunt takedown of Edgenuity, the 800 pound gorilla of online education, and how badly they fail to provide what they promise.

Moms for Liberty and "parents rights"

A Washington Post piece about one of the momming groups that really captures how critical race theory is now in the rear-view mirror as they start agitating for conservative control of public education.

When parents scream at school board meetings, how can I teach their children?

NY teacher of the year Jennifer Wolfe looks at the fallout from raging parents

With equity resolution, Birmingham schools push back against state critical race theory ban.

A few districts are displaying some spine and resolution. It remains to be seen how this plays out, but it looks as if Birmingham schools have elected to be on the front lines. From

The Great Resignation Is Accelerating

Derek Thompson for the Atlantic, looking at how millions in the country are just dropping out and walking away. 

The 'Great Resignation' is finally getting companies to take burnout seriously. Is it enough?

Jamie Ducharme at Time magazine takes a look at how business is adjusting (or not) to the great walkaway.

Williamston parents upset about plan to give kids library cards

Well, there's a headline that doesn't bode well. This particular story is from Michigan. Keep them books away from them kids!

The early history of edtech

If you still haven't gotten a copy of Audrey Watters's Teaching Machines, you need to get that done. But in the meantime, here's an excerpt from the book at Edutopia.

Texas school district reinstates book by Black author amid critical race theory claims

More Texas mess. On the one hand, the story has a happy-ish ending. On the other hand, why was this ever even a thing in the first place?

Ohio state education board repeals anti-racism resolution

Jan Resseger has some bad news from Ohio, where the state board has decided not to be against racism after all.

"The Truth About Reading" is missing truths and backstory

Nancy Bailey takes a look at an upcoming documentary about reading--and what it doesn't include.

The Book We Need Now

Nancy Flanagan has read Clint Smith's book, and she's here to explain why you should, too

Saturday, October 16, 2021

NC: Further Suppressing Education

North Carolina has not been a great state for education for many years, and as the fight over all the things lumped under the banner of "critical race theory" has heated up, they've been doing their part to fan the flames.

Lt. Governor Mark Robinson set up a website to collect reports of naughty indoctrinatin' going on, then issued a report that seemed more interested in buttressing a pre-selected agenda than taking a look at what they had actually collected. Bad stuff, the task force alleged, was rampant out there.

So the Johnston County Board of Commissioners decided to take action. That matters because in North Carolina, thanks to a Depression-era law, the state pays for operating the schools, and the county pays for the buildings and other facilities. School districts cannot levy taxes or raise their own money. Which means that state and county government have considerable say in how schools are run.

In June, Johnston County's Board of Commissioners decided they had thoughts about the teaching of indoctrinaty stuff in the county schools. The board decided they would withhold $7.9 million in funding until the school district banned critical race theory. 

They tried. In July the revised the code of ethics to say “instructional staff and other school system employees will not utilize methods or materials that would create division or promote animosity amongst students, staff and the community." Johnston County school board meetings were hit with protests, including a "visit" from Rep. Madison Cawthorne urging them "to stand up to [Governor] Roy Cooper" and reverse their mask mandate. Cooper has been blocking legislative attempts at gag laws for schools.

So they tried again. And came up with one of the more repressive, China-re-education-camp-style policies in the country. Here's how it comes across in the News Observer

The new Johnston policy tells teachers not to undermine foundational documents, which include the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. 

“All people deserve full credit and recognition for their struggles and accomplishments throughout United States history,” the policy says. “The United States foundational documents shall not be undermined. 

“No employee of Johnston County Schools will make any attempt to discredit the efforts made by all people using foundational documents for reform.”

There's more.

The policy also tackles the sensitive topic about how to teach about historical figures. “All people who contributed to American Society will be recognized and presented as reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture,” according to the policy.

Every historical figure is a hero??!! Andrew Jackson? Great guy. Aaron Burr? Heck of a fella. Presumably all of the founders were very heroic in how they held slaves. What possible educational benefit can there be to requiring schools to teach two-dimensional versions of our very human forebears? 


The policy says “teachers will instruct and educate students about legal policies and avenues of actions.” The policy also says its goal “is to foster positive relationships between our students and the local government entities who provide services to their community.”

“Any group who encourages students to act outside of the law, places this relationship in peril, and is not productive to the goal of Social Responsibility,” the policy says.

Two thoughts. First, I am repeatedly amazed at the magical powers that some folks believe teachers have. Second, what requirements will be placed on local government entities to help foster these relationships.

It's worth noting that not all of the commissioners were on board with this extortion-based curriculum development plan. Said Commissioner Tony Braswell, "We were outside what I think our lane is." Yes, that's correct. And it's worth noting that this sort of propaganda, this Only Good Stuff version of history that the commissioners dragged out of the district in the name of promoting patriotism, and which Commissioner Ted Godwin called "as basic as Mom, the flag, and apple pie," is the kind of thing we would expect from China or North Korea. It's bad education, bad history and bad patriotism. It's terrible policy, and a terrible way to get policy implemented. Here's hoping that teachers in the district ignore it.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Bad Laws in Texas: The Opposite Side of the Holocaust

Look, this is what you get when you hastily pass a sloppy law. Particularly if it has to do with schools.

I feel sorry for Gina Peddy, the Carroll Independent executive director who was caught on a recording telling teachers that, if they have a book about the Holocaust, they should make sure to have one "that has an opposing, that has other perspectives."

Speaking of both sides

Carroll Independent School District, located in a "mostly white suburb 30 northwest of Dallas," has a reputation for being a great school district. But this is not the first time they've been in the news. Back in 2018, partying students from the district posted a video of white high schoolers shouting the N word, and one Black parent decided she had had enough. Families stepped forward to share the many tales of racist insults against Black students. It took them two years to address their racism issues (and in the meantime more offenses occurred), and that involved a plan to require diversity and inclusion training as part of the curriculum. It took aggrieved white parents a couple of days to put together a political action group and to start packing board meetings to shout the now-familiar claims of Marxism and leftist indoctrination. 

Carroll's official motto? "Protect the tradition."

And it has only been a week since CISD was in the news for reprimanding a teacher for having a copy of This Book Is Anti-Racist in her class library (a mom said the book violated her family's "morals and faith." Teachers in the district were supposedly told to sort through their classroom libraries and root out anything that some parent might find offensive. District leaders were trying to avoid any possible trouble; instead, they found themselves in NBC News coverage.

So Gina Peddy is not exactly the first person in the district to step in it. 

This is what you get when you add a vague and ill-considered bill to a community that already has racism problems. Texas jumped on the teacher gag law bandwagon back in June with a bill that lists a bunch of specific does and don'ts for teachers, with some attempts to balance the slate as they dictate curriculum from the state house, including items like a requirement to teach "the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong." 

But the law also includes the usual litany of anti-crt items-- no teaching that meritocracy is racist, no suggestion that slavery was integral to America's founding, and certainly no use of the 1619 project.  But you can't have a school policy of forbidding students to bring these things up. But a teacher may not be "compelled" to discuss "a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs." And that leads to this part:

A teacher who "chooses to discuss" any of the verbotten topics, events, or issues shall, "to the best of the teacher's ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective."

That's the part of the law you can drive a truck through. Other states that have copy-and-pasted their way to similar laws have included disclaimers, a list of some topics that don't have to be "balanced" that could include the Holocaust, but Texas hasn't done that. If it's controversial in any way, teachers are required to provide all sides and forbidden to favor any side.

If you've worked in schools, you know that a certain not-uncommon breed of administrator is driven by a prime directive--don't get in trouble. Don't get dragged into court. Don't get a bunch of phone calls. 

I've said this all along-- what these bills will do is drive some administrators to tell staff, "Look, just don't do anything at all ever that could possibly get parents stirred up. Just stop doing all of it." You can stiffen their spines a bit if they can be certain that the law is on their side, but this law is an open invitation to rain grief down on the district. 

So CISD has a "rubric" for deciding if a book should be anywhere near a school. It sucks. Nothing inappropriate (ie explicit, because we don't want people complaining about sexy seahorses here). The author should not have a visible bias (aka point of view or voice)--this rule guarantees really boring texts. And multiple points of view must be represented and not "a single dominant narrative" which is really nuts, because every well written work of fiction does just that. This rule alone rules out a book from "Green Eggs and Ham" (the anti-eggs side is presented, but ultimately the do-eat point of view dominates the narrative) to "Hamlet" (the murdery side of the narrative dominates). The rubric also contains the guiding question "How would the use of this book be perceived by all stakeholders." meaning that if even one person is upset, then that book needs to go.

NBC News quotes the GOP senator who wrote the bill objecting to this mess:

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, an East Texas Republican who wrote Senate Bill 3, denied that the law requires teachers to provide opposing views on what he called matters of “good and evil” or to get rid of books that offer only one perspective on the Holocaust.

“That’s not what the bill says,” Hughes said in an interview Wednesday when asked about the Carroll book guidelines. “I’m glad we can have this discussion to help elucidate what the bill says, because that’s not what the bill says.”

Except it kind of is. And waving the vagueness away with a reference to matters of "good and evil," as if that's a clear distinction that we can all agree on is lazy, and sloppy, much like the law itself. 

When you draw a line that is vague and broad and hard to see, some district leaders are going to just try to stay as far away from it as possible so nobody gets In Trouble. If you listen to the recording, Peddy doesn't sound like some sort of calculating evil book-burning Nazi; she sounds like a floundering bureaucrat, whose superiors have tasked her with passing down the rules that are unclear and contradictory. I can just imagine the leaders of the district sputtering "Oh my God--we're in NBC News! Somebody fix this damned mess!"

It doesn't matter whether Texas legislators thought they were drawing a clear line in a defense against Badness (because everyone surely agrees on that) or whether they were deliberately trying to create a vague law that would better intimidate teachers; the result is the same. Bad legislation plus bad district leadership results in really, really bad directives for teachers. And, yes, this is all on top of all the problems we already have with racist and inaccurate textbooks, many aimed at the Texas market. But that's for another day. Today, let's just grow enough of a spine to teach just one side of the Holocaust--the truthful one.

Update: And the superintendent of CISD has issued a statement saying, in part, "We recognize that there are not two sides of the Holocaust," a sentence I would not have imagined any school superintendent would ever have to issue. But here we are. If you think we've seen the last of this type of fiasco, I have a bridge to sell you.