Monday, February 28, 2022

Study: Test Data Does Not Help Students Raise Test Scores

Today in "Things Teachers Have Been Saying For Twenty Years But Are Now Being Verified By Research," we present Heather Hill, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Hill has recently publicized some of her recent study which somehow combines the obvious with dubious conclusions. Here she was at EdWeek back in 2020:

Question: What activity is done by most teachers in the United States, but has almost no evidence of effectiveness in raising student test scores?

Answer: Analyzing student assessment data.

This practice arose from a simple logic: To improve student outcomes, teachers should study students’ prior test performance, learn what students struggle with, and then adjust the curriculum or offer students remediation where necessary. By addressing the weaknesses revealed by the test results, overall student achievement would improve.

Oh, look--the sun is rising in the East

Well, the "simple logic" was never simple nor logical. Or rather, this is what teachers already do with their own testing. What was actually proposed was that students take a poorly designed test, followed by providing teachers with very little data, much of it bad, in order to raise test scores. Teachers knew pretty much immediately that A) this was not going to work and B) wasn't even that great of a goal.

Hill has some thoughts about why using test data hasn't improved anything. They are not great thoughts, and we get the hint in the very next sentence.

Yet understanding students’ weaknesses is only useful if it changes practice.

Hill is not the only researcher to note the "problem" and mis-diagnose the "solution." Hechinger recently talked to Hill and two other researchers who "explained" that "while data is helpful in pinpointing students’ weaknesses, mistakes and gaps, it doesn’t tell teachers what to do about them."

So here are the issues that these researchers have missed.

1) Raising test scores is a lousy educational goal. There is no research to suggest that raising a student's score will improve their life outcomes. Nor is there any research to suggest that the tests are actual measures of educational quality or actual student achievement. This is a good time to recommend, yet again, Daniel Koretz's The Testing Charade. Testing data continues to be exemplified by that story of the drunk searching for his lost car keys not where they were lost, but under a streetlamp because the light is better there. 

2) The tests yield little useful data. Testocrats love to talk about these tests as if they yield all sorts of rich data. They don't. Their validity--aka their ability to measure what they claim they can measure--is unproven. And multiple choice questions are great for machine correction, but not great for measuring any level of deep understanding.

More importantly from the classroom teacher standpoint, the tests are a black box. Teachers are forbidden to see the questions or the answers, and so the data is just a score. In my own classroom, with my own tests, I would operate much as Hill describes-- give the test, then break down the wrong answers to see exactly what kinds of mistakes students are making. None of that is possible with the Big Standardized Test--from those I would get things like a single score on "Reading Nonfiction." Test manufacturers have whipped all sorts of pretty graphs and colored charts, but the data is still meager and thin.

3) I can't just walk by one of the assumptions of this whole approach is that teachers either can't or won't do their jobs, and so some system of carrots and sticks must be devised to get them to do the work that they signed up for. Hill suggests a picture of teachers who just keep doing the same thing over and over, as if teachers are not motivated or capable of searching out other techniques and approaches. 

Hill is correct in noting that the infamous Data Meetings imposed on teachers by all sorts of data-loving administrators aren't helping. Again, not news. But when you've got bad, thin data that you're supposed to apply toward a pointless goal, what can you expect.

Data-loving testocrats have all along insisted that those darn teachers just don't want to use data properly. But teachers collect, crunch and act on data on a daily basis (though they don't always turn it into numbers and charts). What testocrats seem unwilling to admit, accept, or even see, is that the BS Tests offer little useful data for the process. 

Likewise, the whole "someone should show teachers the better way to teach these things they aren't teaching" always seems to break down when it's time for edu-amateurs to show teachers how to do their jobs better. Hill says that "teachers need to change their approach to address student misunderstandings," as if all teachers use one approach, though she names neither the approach they use or the one she thinks they should use. 

Nevertheless, it appears this earthbound equine will continue to be reflogged. Hill's appearance in Hechinger was prompted by a presentation at the "newly formed" Research Partnership for Professional Learning, yet another group dedicated to fixing teachers. Members include Teaching Lab and TNTP, and sponsors include The Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So expect what we've had for decades--attempts to explain the failure of beloved high-stakes standardized testing data-driven eduication, blaming everything except the fundamental flaws in the approach.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

IN: Barring Teachers From School Boards

On the national level, it really has become death by a thousand tiny cuts for the teaching profession. This proposed amendment in Indiana is by no means the most egregious, but it is just an unnecessary swipe at teachers and school employees.

HB 1130 is mostly about making sure that school boards get a full hammering from the public-- each public member in attendance must be given at least three minutes to speak, while adding restrictions for non-physical meetings--but Senator Jeff Raatz has decided to add another wrinkle.

A section of Indiana law says that an employee of a school district cannot serve on the school board for that district, which is a sensible and common rule. Raatz proposes to add just a few words to that

Where the law now ends with "may not be a member of the governing board of the school corporation," Raatz proposes to add the words "or any other school corporation."

So no teacher (or any other school employee) could serve on any school board anywhere in the state. The reasoning behind this is... well, I don't know. School district employees might know too much about how school districts work? The voters can't be trusted to make the right choice? Teacher board members will be too sympathetic to teachers and their damned unions? Or just one more legislative opportunity to give public schools and the people who work there a big slap in the face.

ICYMI: Goodbye, Rose Edition (2/26)

 My wife's grandmother passed away last week, a ripe and well-aged 90 years old. She was a feisty old broad in the best sense of the word. Salty, sassy and a constant reminder to live your damn life. Her memory will be a blessing.

And now for this week's reading.

Jargon may have turned parents against social and emotional learning

Javeria Salman at Hechinger with a theory about why there's such a disconnect between what people want and the SEL that delivers it.

Who is writing the model bills against CRT?

Jan Resseger traces the roots of the many, many nearly identical gag bills being floated coast to coast

Choosing to end Public Education

Thomas Ultican takes a look inside the new anthology of essays about public education

I Got a Voucher Only to Find No Private School Wanted My Son

If you have not yet checked out the website Public Voices for Public Schools, here's a good post to start with, reminding us that school choice is too often school's choice.

When your body is telling you you're carrying too much stress, listen. From Eduhonesty.

Nancy Flanagan looks at how poor "freedom" has been put through the mill.

I was a little late coming across this gem, but here's a tale from the front lines of the current book banning debates.

The Alabama version of this stuff, advertised as a "compromise"

We've looked at this before, but it deserves to be revisited regularly. Matt Barnum, the Chalkbeat reporter we most appreciate here at the Institute, takes a look at what's at stake and what some of the outcomes could be. 

Megan Megansky reporting in Harrsiburg, PA, covers one of the less-covered aspects of the pandemess--teachers who are also parents. Several great quotes, but I'll give you this one

“We really have to get to a point where people in charge stop telling us to take care of ourselves and instead take some of this off of our plates," middle school band director Shanna Danielson said.

Sarah Darer Littman with the story of how to fight an attack on board members.

TC Weber has a good look at the various shenanigans involved in Tennessee Governor Lee's plan to change up how schools are funded (or not).

One more story (this time from Erica Meltzer at Chalkbeat) to remind us that the big secret for charter success remains carefully curating your student body. 

Every once in a while I write something and feel as if I've nailed an important point, and then nobody much looks at it. That happened this week, when I pointed out the evidence that some choicers really aren't choicers at all, and they're saying the quiet part pretty loudly these days. Here's the piece.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Tax Credit Scholarships and Education Savings Accounts: A Primer

Tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts often travel together and end up as two sides of the same policy. It's easy to get them kind of confused (here at the Institute we might have suffered from that confusion ourselves on occasion). But here's a quick, simple explainer to help you figure out what particular policy is being pushed in your state.

Education Savings Accounts

ESAs are school vouchers on steroids; call them super-vouchers or neo-vouchers. Where a school voucher is basically a ticket good for admission (or partial admission) to the school of your choice (if they'll accept you), an ESA can be spent on a wide variety of educational services. 

Each state with ESAs has a list of Things You Can Spend The Money On, usually including tuition, hardware and software, books, tests, even transportation. Rather than a ticket to a school, an ESA is a debit card loaded with money that can be spent on educational services. The ESA is typically managed by some third party company responsible for accepting parent applications and dispersing the money.

That third-party company is an important feature, because it means the government is not directly handing parents money to spend on things like, say, private religious schooling. It's a piece of financial juggling familiar to every underage teen who gave an older sibling money to buy them some beer.

The money that funds the ESA most typically comes from the state, which hands over the money that they would have given to the student's home public school. 

But an ESA can also be funded through other sources.

Tax Credit Scholarships

If ESAs are about giving parents choices, TCSs are about giving wealthy taxpayers a chance to duck taxes and fund their favorite private school. TCS typically have a cap, because every dollar given into this program is a tax dollar (or part of a tax dollar, depending on how much credit is given) that the state doesn't get to collect. Corporations or wealthy fund the program instead of paying taxes, so the state will put a limit on just how much tax liability they will allow contributors to duck.

The tax credit money is given to a third party company, which once again gives the state deniability--they didn't funnel the tax dollars to private religious schools because they never actually had the tax dollars in their own government hands. 

Those Third Party Groups

You can see where ESAs and TCSs could meet--right there in the middle. Set up your TSC program to fund your ESA program, and the whole thing can take wings. 

But that's not what often happens. For ESAs, states seem to prefer just one or two large groups managing all the program money. But with TSCs, you may see a plethora of scholarship groups (Pennsylvania has over 200), many of which are attached to one particular school, or one particular "brand" (say, Catholic schools). With a TSC, contributors can often be pretty specific in offering "scholarships" to specific schools or types of schools. 

Cost to taxpayers

Both types of program take from the state's use of taxpayer money to support public education. An ESA typically redirects tax dollars intended for public schools into private hands. Fans of TCS like to argue that it doesn't take any state money, but it blows a hole in state revenue by letting corporations or wealthy individuals pay into the program instead of the state treasury. If the TSC program has a $50 million cap, that represents $50 million in tax dollars that the state will not get, and that has to be made up somehow, either through tax increases or service cuts.


Accountability remains an issue for both programs. Some ESA programs don't even require annual audits. Arizona notably found that $700,000 in ESA money had been spent on beauty supplies and clothing. Some have mechanisms for investigating fraud--but only if somebody reports it. Meanwhile, TSC programs like Pennsylvania's EITC program may have no accountability or oversight at all. Where did the money go? What was it spent on? Were the education flavored businesses required to follow any particular rules? You may never know the answers to any of these questions (okay, the answer to the third one is probably "no").

That's the basic basics. Both programs can come under a variety of different names, often trying to work in "freedom" and "scholarship," because "voucher" and "tax dodge" are not very popular with the general public. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

PA: District Settles BLM Lawsuit For 45K

Here's a story from Pennsylvania showing that you don't even need to have a state gag law to cause expense and headaches for a school district. It also has plenty to say about what is motivating some of the protestors.

Maureen and Christopher Brophy filed a lawsuit in June of 2021 on behalf of their son and daughter, two students in the East Penn School District (Emmaus, Lehigh Valley). This lawsuit is epic-- they sued the district and five district employees (admins and teachers) in both individual and official capacities. The lawsuit charged "severe and pervasive harassment" along with violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, violations of Constitutional rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments, plus violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The reasoning for the Title VI violation was that federal courts have said that it covers religious discrimination when the harassment is based on "shared ancestry or ethnic characteristic" rather than religious practices. You'll want to remember that one. 

The "statement of facts" portion of the complaint takes up almost 100 paragraphs, but we'll try to catch the highlights.

The trouble started in September of 2020 when the plaintiffs (the son and daughter) were introduced to the book White Fragility in courses they were taking. Mrs. Brophy emailed the principal of an elementary school (it's not clear why, because the son and daughter were 15 and 16 at the time) and the Humanities Supervisor to explain her "non-acceptance" of the book, as well as the discussion of white privilege and Black Lives Matter. She also wanted to complain about Facebook posts from a teacher at the elementary school that she viewed as "anti-Christian, anti-Conservative, and therefore, offensive, derogatory and discriminating against Plaintiff's religious beliefs."

The Humanities Director responded in four days, saying the objected-to items were not part of the school's core curriculum. She didn't address the Facebook posts. Mrs. Brophy fired back more complaints about the teacher's posts, with attachments. The superintendent replied that teachers have First Amendment rights and she wasn't going to do anything about the posts. 

Mrs. Brophy gave that issue one more try, then moved on to complaints about a video of police brutality and the Breonna Taylor case shown in an art class. Also, more complaints about systemic racism, white privilege, Black Lives Matter, and other unacceptable topics. And now they offered an explanation:

Plaintiff Parents explained that these topics are anti-Christian and therefore, discriminate directly against their religion.

How, you may ask, are white privilege and Black Lives Matter anti-Christian? The complaint goes on to explain:

Christians and Catholics are a majority white religion, self-identifying white Catholics comprising 60% of the followers. This religion is heavily tied to Italy, whose population is 80% Catholic and home to the Vatican.

So white privilege and Black Lives Matter and all the rest are anti-Christian, because Christians are white.

And if you're think "That can't be right," well, it isn't. According to PEW, roughly 50% of the world's Christian population is located in South America and Africa. They're right about the 6 in 10 Catholics being white--if they talk about the US. Globally, not so much. Maybe the Brophy's are just that uninformedly racist as to imagine that Christianity is a white religion. Or maybe their lawyers told them that this argument would let them throw a Title IV violation in there. 

Also, in case you're wondering, East Penn's student body is about 80% white

By mid-October, the Brophys had opted their children out of all these topics that they found "anti-Christian and anti-Conservative." At this point, they allege that the school started discriminating against the two students, "withholding crucial educational benefits on account of their disabilities." Both children had IEPs, with the son having health issues including hypersomnolence (excessive daytime sleepiness), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome. His IEP included an exemption from masking.

Now, that fall East Penn was distance learning, but the son needed reduced screen time because of his vision impairment, so the school was supposed to print out some of his work to do. Plaintiff Parents allege the school did not do so, nor did they provide a "reasonable alternative," and the Brophys claim it was because of "religious discrimination." This is one of several points where I feel we're missing some information. We know the Brophys had email--did they not have a printer? 

The IEP also called for home tutoring, but there was no tutor available for AP Physics. And the AP teacher, also named in the lawsuit, would not do instruction with an unmasked student. Parents sent a letter to the school saying it's in his IEP, and if she "is not comfortable with that, then she should not be teaching any students in person whatsoever."

So by the end of October, Mrs. Brophy is filing an Educator Misconduct complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights. Let me recap--because the teacher in the fall of 2020 would not work one on one with an unmasked student, Mom turned that teacher in to the state. 

Reading the complaint, one gets the impression that these parents are not trying very hard to build a partnership with the school. 

The school offered some alternatives for the AP Physics--take it next year or take a college-level course. Mrs. Brophy rejected those. The school offered a zoom class with the AP Physics teacher and another non-physics teacher in the room with the son. Also not okay. Mrs. Brophy told the district to stick the teacher in a big room with some filtration and an N95 mask. 

By January of 2021, the whole mess had moved to Facilitated Resolution Between the Parties. First meeting set for February 3. After receiving a document from the district that they didn't agree with, the parents chose not to attend. After the son was absent five days, the school sent a letter, noting that such a series of unexcused absences is a summary offense. "Harassment," say the parents.

In February, the school district (which has not always covered itself with glory in this tale) finally denied the Brophy's request for exemption from all race stuff. At the same time, the district told the Brophy's that they were banned from communicating with their children's teachers. The Brophy's replied to reiterate that they "are simply seeking religious exemption from the topics that are anti-Christian and anti-Conservative." Is Conservatism a religion?

Well, you get the gist. I go through all this detail so that we can get a feel for how this whole business just kept dragging on, and there is still more, but I'll skim. Son misses homework assignments and it's hurting his grades. More discrimination, and if you'd just let us talk to his teachers, we'd be on top of this, say the parents. It's all just retaliation for expressing the religious and disability discrimination. More attendance issues as the son "would choose to attend school from home on certain days he was scheduled to be in person." New IEP meeting scheduled in April but parents don't like that so many people at the IEP and "they would be more comfortable" if just the special ed director attended (as experienced IEP parents, surely they know that PA IEP meetings require, by law, a full team). 

There are plenty of unknowns here--for instance, there doesn't seem enough here to explain a ban on communicating with school staff, and one suspects that perhaps the Brophys haven't reported the full extent of their communications with the school. And as always, the public school district cannot breach confidentiality to defend itself. Also, for what it's worth, there's a perfectly fine Lehigh Valley Catholic high school nearby in Allentown.

The suit was taken on by Derek Smith Law Group, a big legal firm that specializes in discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits; their lawyer is Catherine W. Smith, who used to be a sex crimes prosecutor in Philly. The Brophys demanded a jury trial. The district's lawyer doubted the success of the suit, saying “Anybody can file a lawsuit by paying the filing fee. Being successful is something completely different.”.

Well, I guess that depends on how one defines success. The Brophys sued for unspecified damages. What they got, earlier this month, was a settlement of $45,000. The district was represented by its insurance company, and this statement was read at the board meeting:

There was no admission of liability on the part of the school district or its employees and there was no finding of liability on the part of the school district or its employees. The insurance carrier agreed to make the payment to avoid any additional expenses and the uncertainty of litigation.

So it turns out that actual gag laws aren't needed to harass a school district--just some white fragility, religious paranoia, and a good law firm. We live in interesting times.

Classroom Proposals (Don't Be Gay)

Just last week there was another one. You know--one of those heartwarming stories about somebody proposing marriage to a teacher in her classroom. This time it was in Dover, New York. A third grade teacher's boyfriend not only proposed in the classroom, but enlisted the students to help out by holding the proposal signage. 

These crop up regularly; sometimes there's touching video and the whole school is in on it. And then there are really good ones where both halves of the couple are teachers (this one made it all the way to US magazine and ABC News). And here's one that involved a video, a kindergarten class, and a whole school assembly:

I have always had thoughts about these things. For one, a public proposal is only for people who are already 100% certain of the answer. For another, as someone on Marriage #2, I wonder about the weird factor for young students who remember being part of the proposal for a marriage that later crashed and burned. 

But mostly I think this can be part of the general category of Living Your Teacher Life In Public. I think it's generally useful for students to see adults-other-than-their-parents navigating life stuff. As with everything in education, there's the matter of balance; if every Monday class period starts with an account of the weekend's dating, or your every rough day at home turns into a rough day for your students, that's too much. But family photos on the desk, brief mentions of Cool Things That Happened (like the baby walked yesterday)--things that are the classroom equivalent of having students discover that you actually buy groceries at the store--these not only help you relate to students human to human, but also help them see more examples of how normal adult humans cope with life. Put another way, the first step of a relationship is to show up, and you can't show up if your own life is a deep secret. I didn't propose in front of my students, but I told them I was engaged, because if you have any kind of real human relationship with other humans, even a professional relationship, then you share major events that require them to shift their picture of normal you.

(There is a whole other chapter that goes with teaching in a small town, where people will already Know Things and fill in the blanks, so it's in your own best interests to provide accurate information yourself. That also saves you moments like the time I noted a tv actress was attractive and a student said, "Ha ha--what would Mrs. Greene say about that" and another student said, "He's divorced, you dummy.")

These are all the thoughts I used to have when I came across one of these stories. Now I have other thoughts.

Thoughts like, if this we a same-gender couple, in some states the teacher would lose their job and be subject to being sued by parents. If bills like the one proposed in Tennessee were passed, a same-gender couple that was legally married and legally had a child could not even put a family picture on their desk for fear of violating the ban of any materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender issues or lifestyles." 

Don't Say Gay laws like those being supported in Kansas and Florida and Tennessee and South Carolina and heaven knows where else since the last time I looked-- these are, for teachers, Don't Be Gay laws. To simply be in the room while being both LGBTQ and normal would qualify as "normalizing" and therefore illegal behavior.

It's important to remember that these kinds of laws are not about having some sort of vague philosophical impact-- they are about requiring LGBTQ teachers and students to keep their lives in a sealed box, requiring them to keep part of themselves hidden and to keep unexpressed parts of the lives that we straights get to blurt out anytime we feel like it. Simple stuff like referring to a partner by a pronoun would have the potential to disrupt your entire career. 

These are dumb, dehumanizing laws that would threaten the lives of students and teachers, and while it's not the worst thing about them, they would also throw a serious obstacle in the way of teachers being able to do their jobs. 

The next time you see a touching story about a teacher classroom marriage proposal, or even just notice a nice family picture on a teacher's desk, ask yourself if you think that should be illegal for certain people. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Charters Can't Escape Gag Laws

One of the big selling points of charter schools is supposed to be that they can escape and avoid all sorts of bureaucratic meddling and red tape that plague public schools. But it turns out that some conservatives are perfectly happy to extend red tape to charter schools if it's their preferred red tape.

Essence Preparatory was all set to launch in San Antonio, a school with a mission for high quality and culturally sensitive teaching. The school's founder, Akeem Brown, has been a busy guy in local government and community organizations. He mentions starting out as a teacher, though he has no education degree. But further down the line, he became a BES fellow, a group that has a twenty-year history of trying to grow charter school leaders (BES stands for Building Excellent Schools). So Brown's charter pedigree is flawless, and yet, when he was just about to open the doors of Essence Prep (did I mention this is in Texas) he hit a snag. See if you can spot the potential problem. In an interview, Brown explained some of the thinking behind Essence:

Essence Prep competencies and teaching practices will be culturally responsive. Our pedagogy and tailored curriculum is purposely multicultural, and not white-centered.

Our school will connect students to the culture of literacy, which we believe is their birthright and civil right. We will engage students in critical reflection on their lives and racial identities in relation to power and justice. Research has consistently shown that positive racial identity matters for both Black boys and Black girls to be able to achieve academically and have the best shot at success in life.

This wasn't just noise. One parent who spoke to Brown said, "He spoke about empowering people through knowing their race and their lineage." In his application, Brown noted "The opposite of racist isn't 'not racist.' It is antiracist."

The Texas Education Agency approved the charter 11-3. But the next a chief of staff for Rep. Steve Toth reached out to TEA commissioner Mike Morath. Toth spearheaded the Texas gag law (HB 3979) forbidding critical race theory and dictating how racial issues would be taught in Texas, and he wrote an op-ed about Essence Prep. It was never published, but Chalkbeat got their hands on a copy which said in part

Unlike other charter schools who focus solely on academics, Essence Prep’s goal is to promote critical race theory and community activism. Promoting ‘antiracism’ in the classroom would mean teaching that the system of government in Texas, designed to protect economic freedom, is racist. Instead of stopping critical race theory, the Texas Education Agency furthered it.

Well, if you want to teach creationism or religion or bad, racist history in a charter school, that's one thing. But if you're going to bring up the dreaded CRT--well, then. Essence was informed that before they could open, certain "statements, authors, or written works in violation of HB 3979" would have to be scrubbed. The school's mission would also require "additional clarification of the plan for teaching students to be advocates for public policy change" to be clear that it wasn't going to violate the law." And the list continues to cover all the ways that they must clarify how they wouldn't break the gag law.

Brown told Chalkbeat that getting into compliance required three months of work taking away from "prepping and setting the stage" for the new school. That included removing specific references to Ibram X. Kendi and quotes from How To Be An Antiracist. 

So this particular tale shows how the gag laws can be used to ban a particular book or author. They also show that conservative dedication to school choice takes a back seat to enforcing gag laws intended to squelch unapproved discussions of race, and that when push comes to shove, some people's belief in free market dynamic doesn't go quite so far as they like to claim it does. You can have choice--just not that choice. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

John Oliver on Critical Race Theory

 I could not have done this any better myself. I don't really have anjything to add, but I don't want you to miss this.

FL: How To Make "Don't Say Gay" Bill Worse

Florida's HB 1557 is a truly terrible bill that clamps down on any mention or discussion of LGBTQ topics though Kansas actually has a worse bill which would forbid any mention of LGBTQ topics of any sort at all. Perhaps that is what inspired the sponsor of the Florida bill to make matters worse.

Last week the bill picked up 15 proposed amendments, most of which were attempts to mitigate the damage that the Don't Say Gay act would inflict. But Joe Harding, a co-sponsor of the original bill wanted to go in a different direction.

The bill originally tempered its requirement that the school must inform parents of anything going on with the student's mental health or well-being by including the note that the bill wouldn't 

prohibit the school district from adopting procedures to withhold such information from a parent if a reasonably prudent person would believe the disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment or neglect as those terms are defined in s. 39.01

Harding's amendment would add to that--

abuse, abandonment or neglect, as defined in s. 39.01, based solely on child-specific information personally known to the school personnel and as documented and approved by the school principal or his or her designees. The school principal or his or her designees shall develop a plan, using all available government resources, to disclose such information within 6 weeks after the decision to withhold such information from the parent. The plan must facilitate disclosure between the student and parent through an open dialogue in a safe, supportive, and judgment-free environment that respects the parent-child relationship and protects the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of the student.

So. The reasonably prudent person's judgment isn't good enough--there must be documentation specific to this particular child, and the administration has to go on record essentially declaring the parents abuse risks.

Then-- even if they've done all that--the school still has to out the child to their parents within six weeks. But there will be counseling--well, counseling that prioritizes the parents' right. 

In other words, Florida LGBTQ students with difficult family situations would understand that school would also not be a safe place for them to speak up.

This is a truly horrifying awful idea. As others have pointed out, if this becomes a law, LGBTQ children will die because of it. If you're in Florida, for heavens sake, call your elected representative.

Privatization Costs

 We've talked before about Donald Cohen and Alen Mikaelian's book The Privatization of Everything, but it's worth returning to in order to underline yet another point.

One of the arguments often pushed to promote the idea of privatizing, of having government farm out a function to private operators, is that it will be a money saver. But time after time, that turns out not to be true.

The challenge with public services is that there aren't that many ways to get money out of them. Privatizers like the word "efficiency," but that too often translates into either pay less or get less. Schools are a fine example; if you want to make money running a school, there are only so many ways to do it. Pay people less. Reduce the number of people you pay. Reduce the services you offer. 

We see those idea reflected in plenty of school "reform" ideas. We can replace teachers with "coaches" or "mentors," which would cut personnel costs. We can reduce staff by having really super-duper teachers teach thousands of students. We can replace teachers with software. We could get rid of all materials, practices and services that don't contribute to some narrow-but-numerical measure of "success." We can set up schools that don't offer services to (or accept for admission) high cost students. 

Not one of these ideas is about providing a better education for students; they are all about finding "efficiencies," about finding ways to cut the cost of providing the service so that a company can get more money out of it.

I'll say, as I always do, that there is nothing wrong with a business trying to make money. That's part of its basic function. But that basic function makes business incompatible with the running of public services.

There is another related problem, most visible in education-- the amateurism problem. Companies look at a sector like education, and because they don't know the sector well at all (except that, of course, everyone went to school, so everyone is an expert) so they look at it and go "Surely there are inefficiencies we can squeeze to get profit." They assume that there must be a lot of change under the couch cushions, but they've never been in the living room and they don't even know if there IS a couch. I have no doubt that many folks singing this refrain really believe it--but they simply don't know what they're talking about.

The results are chronicled in several privatizing stories in the book. There's the tale of Indiana toll road. Private companies said, "We can totally make a profit with those," and instead they tanked. Then-Governor Mike Pence decided, because reasons, that rather than take the road back, he'd resell it someone else who decided that rather than eat the costs that had given the previous company terminal indigestion, they would raise rates and pass the costs on to the traffic (creating a "shunpike"-- a road that people avoid-- we're trying a similar project in Pennsylvania).

That trick of passing on costs is a common feature of privatization. The book was my first encounter with the forces working to keep taxpayer-funded weather information away from the public. Instead of a weather service app for free, with have a variety of weather "services," all using the weather service data, but "giving" it to us via a commercial enterprise. The added value for users is zero, but the companies have to generate some income somehow. It's a model similar to the rules forbidding the IRS from letting us file income tax without working through some pricey "service" like TurboTax.

Privatization is never cheaper. Municipalities that have sold off their parking systems have screwed the public. Chicago sold off its parking for a $1.7 billion contract for 75 years; the buyers realized a $500 million profit in just 11 years. Imagine just how much cheaper parking could have been in Chicago. 

"Business can do the job cheaper," simply turns out to be wrong, time after time. Business either reduces the idea of what the job is supposed to be (in a privatized education world, the job is no longer to educate all children) or they simply throw out the "cheaper" part (note the shift in the school choice world from "we can do it cheaper" to "we need to be paid more"). 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

ICYMI: Van Gogh Edition (2/20)

Yesterday, as our Valentine's Day outing, the CMO (Chief Marital Officer) and I went to see the Van Gogh immersive art thingy, Pittsburgh edition. Much of what I know about Impressionism I learned by reading my daughter's college papers, because she is the art whiz in the family. It was an unusual and beautiful experience. Very cool.

The reading list is a little short this week, but still worthwhile. Remember to share the pieces that speak to you.

Actually, this piece from Mother Jones calls Sonny Perdue a "know-nothing MAGA stalwart." A reminder that even though some politicsy stuff is boring, it matters a whole lot.

The 74 takes a look at the spreading book banning going on across the nation.

Author Bill Konigsberg has been the subject of several book bannings; here he writes a response to one particular attack on his work. This is well done.

To Fight Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” Look to Black History

The Nation takes a trip through history to show how Black educators have dealt with this kind of stuff in the past.

Steven Singer has a birthday wish, a wish to change just one thing that would lead to a host of positive changes in education (and I agree with his choice).

From Jeff Bryant and Velislava Hillman for The Progressive, a look at how some education programs are being co-opted by businesses to make more meat widgets.

Schools Matter took a look at a Hillsdale Form 990, and boy does that raise some questions about the support for this uber-conservative school, soon to be a major player in Tennessee charter schools.

Reuters put three reporters on this story which gives a broad and deep look at the kind of crap that school board members have to put up with these days. It's not pretty.

This 16-year-old wanted to get the COVID vaccine. He had to hide it from his parents

In the midst of all this noise about parental rights, it's important to remember stories like this one from NPR.

A researcher from Vanderbilt writes about a different way to view competencies in the littles. Posted by the good folks at Defending the Early Years. 

Hey, it's an encouraging story about a school managing to hold true to its actual mission.

Nancy Flanagan looks around and sees stuff and then turns it into words; she has a real gift. She and her husband were positive for Covid last week, and she has some thoughts about that.

Finally, I'm going to plug two columns I wrote for Forbes, mostly because they took a chunk of time. But if you want to look at a state-by-state rundown of where teacher gag laws have been enacted and where they are currently pending (with links), I have that for you, as well as a look at what separates the bad from the worse.

Friday, February 18, 2022

MySpace and What Corporations Really Want

 This is an old story, but a revealing one. I missed it at the time, but it's worth revisiting.

Back in 2016, Time Inc acquired Viant, an ad tech company--and that was mostly exciting because back in 2011, Viant had purchased MySpace. 

If you are of a Certain Age, you remember MySpace as a visually alarming website created for fledgling bands to share their stuff, but which morphed into a -proto-Facebook social media space. It triggered all sorts of relationship drama, as users could select friends to put in their top eight spaces. Facebook soon obliterated it, but it has never really died and has changed hands a few times. These days, it's a music and culture site. 

But in 2016, Time's CEO got some chuckles by admitting that he had never even looked at the website before he bought it. But here's the quote that really matters:

The whole point of MySpace is it gave you permission to reach 1.2 billion people. You combine that with the permissions Time Inc. has from its audiences: We reach 250 million adults in the US. We basically reach 80% of the adults anyone is trying to reach with the permissions that we have to reach them and track them and follow them, so MySpace has really been all about permissions.

Permissions and data--that's the commodity being bought and sold.

And that's why corporate interest in accessing the K-12 market remains high-- schools represent a highly desirable demographic that is hard to get to. Data about them, and permission to push messages out to them--those are highly desirable commodities, and school systems remain really dumb about managing access to them. When you think about it, it's kind of amazing that schools pay companies for the chance to let them come in and collect the stuff; it's like an oil company charging you money so that they can drill and pipe oil out of your property. And that's before we get to the need to protect the privacy of minors.

While some edu-tech companies may well get into the business with best, most noble intentions, most of them are going to be bought, and among the most valuable assets they will have are permissions and data. If schools want to get their heads in the 21st century, thinking about protecting digital access to their students would be a great place to start. 

Thursday, February 17, 2022

TN: Another Bad Library Law

Tennessee is working on another example of performative nothingburger legislation.

SB 2407 is entitled the "Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022." This two and a half page gem is Governor Lee and the legislature GOP's attempt to get some traction over the rising panic over books.

The substance of the bill is as simple as it is thin. Each school must have a list of materials in the school library, and the list must be posted on line. The school must also have a process for accepting complaints about materials, and a process for regularly reviewing the materials in the library to make certain that the materials are appropriate for the "age and maturity levels" of the students as well as "suitable for, and consistent with, the educational mission of the school."

Yes, right now, all over Tennessee, school librarians and teachers are slapping their foreheads and exclaiming. "Age appropriate!!?? Golly whonkers, but I'd never thought of that!" Not to mention the librarians saying, "Yeah, a list of the stuff in the library. Never thought of that."

The bill offers no guidance or direction on how to define "age appropriate," leaving that definition entirely up to the local district.

That means that Governor Lee and the legislature can look like they're getting really tough on Naughty Books, without actually having any of the tough calls that land you in the news. 

And while I respect the fact that, for once, they've actually built in some respect for local control, they ultimately could have achieved the same effect by just not passing any law at all. Just a little "We know local districts are able to manage this" or maybe a nudge letter from the state ed department saying "If you don't have a policy for book challenges, you need to get one." But that wouldn't let the folks in Tallahassee look like they were being all tough on naughtiness. 

Will this create the kind of annoying busywork that so many of these transparency bills involve? I don't know how things are in Tennessee, but I know plenty of schools where the only step needed would be to add an interface with the school's card catalog program to the school website, and everything else is already in place. No, I think this bill is just some pointless puffery, a way to say to Moms for Liberty et al "Hey, we did something about this!"

Things Milton Friedman Got Wrong

I've been reading some Friedman lately, trying to refamiliarize myself with the intellectual granddaddy of education privatization. I'm fascinated by Libertarian thought, because I think they get some things really right, but it's canceled out by the things they get terribly wrong, and it was the wrongness that jumped out at me from some of Friedman's words. And yes, he's a major figure in economics and I'm a retired English teacher, but if economists can pretend to be education experts, well, then...

The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.

The great stumbling block of Libertarianism is dealing with racism. As demonstrated in a gazillion different ways from lunch counters to real estate, the market may not care what color people are, but racists operating in the free market care a great deal. Our history is filled with racists being compelled to stop behaving badly by force, and I've never heard a Libertarian offer a convincing explanation of how an unregulated free market would have solved issues like slavery and segregation, nor of how to create a school choice system that does not empower racists and segregationists.

Just as importantly, while the free market may not care what color people are, it cares very much how rich or poor they are. The free market is very good at picking winners and losers--not just among operators, but among customers as well. It is hard to make a lot of money providing goods and services to poor people, and with very few exceptions, the free market prefers to offer poor folks either low quality options or no options at all. The free market is not a good tool for providing poor folks with health care, mail delivery or education. 

Government has three primary functions. It should provide for military defense of the nation. It should enforce contracts between individuals. It should protect citizens from crimes against themselves or their property.

This raises more questions than it answers. What, for instance, do we do with contracts between individuals and corporations? And then there's that word "crimes." Crimes are defined by the folks in power; Jim Crow laws were actual laws. Libertarians seem to have a working definition of real crimes (Friedman, like many Libs, didn't think smoking weed was a real crime), but they're awfully fuzzy. A crime against a person covers what, exactly? Physical injury? Emotional injury? Limiting one's freedom? That one sounds good, except that if I'm poor, that limits my freedom considerably. However, being poor comes in the category that many Libs would call "your own damn fault" and therefore not a real crime. But if being poor is your own fault, then all the injuries to your freedom that come from being poor are also your own fault. Also, if you have no property, then that type of crime has nothing to do with you. The more one looks, the more it appears that government's function is on a sliding scale--the less wealthy you are, the less government is supposed to help you.

The problem with a sliding scale of government service is that it doesn't help much with education and schools; in fact, it pretty much mimics how the free market deals with schools-- good stuff for those who can pay, and subsistence junk for those who can't, with the lower end of the scale always looking for one more corner to cut in order to squeeze out a bit more ROI. 

There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.

This is a good summary of why a critical public service like health care or education should not be handled by business. Imagine a school where the leaders' philosophy is "Job One is making money for Educorp. Never let trying to educate these kids get in the way of that." Imagine sorting students (including admitting and expelling them) based on how they affect Educorp's bottom line. 

Our minds tell us, and history confirms, that the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power. Government is necessary to preserve our freedom, it is an instrument through which we can exercise our freedom; yet by concentrating power in political hands, it is also a threat to freedom. Even though the men who wield this power initially be of good will and even though they be not corrupted by the power they exercise, the power will both attract and form men of a different stamp.

This belongs to that family of quotes where it seems like he's on the verge of getting it. Because concentration of power is a threat to freedom--but government is not the only place that such a concentration can occur. Business and corporations can also gather enough power to be a threat to freedom as well, and wealth will always attract and form men of a different stamp. And when wealth and power become great enough to capture the power of the government, we have another set of issues, and arguing that the wealthy free marketed their way to this kind of power fair and square doesn't negate their threat to freedom.

The key insight of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is misleadingly simple: if an exchange between two parties is voluntary, it will not take place unless both believe they will benefit from it.

Yes, but-- one way to game this system is to drive one party down down down until they can "benefit" from a crumb. "Voluntary" is a fuzzy idea here. If you have engineered a person's choices to the point that they're choosing between crumbs and starvation, then you get a bargain and their "voluntary" choice is not very voluntary at all. 

Education spending will be most effective if it relies on parental choice & private initiative -- the building blocks of success throughout our society.

"Effective" is doing a lot of work here, but since Friedman believes that taxes should be cut often, for any reason, it seems his effective school would be a cheap one. But he's forgetting a third building block of success--coming from a family that has wealth. That building block is, unfortunately, already well wired into public education, but since the free market values it a great deal, it's unlikely that free market schooling would do anything about it. 

We need a system in which the government says to every parent: "Here is a piece of paper you can use for the educational purposes of your child. It will cover the full cost per student at a government school. It is worth X dollars towards the cost of educational services that you purchase from parochial schools, private for-profit schools, private nonprofit schools, or other purveyors of educational services. You may add from your own funds to the voucher if you wish to and can afford to.

Almost seventy years later, privatization fans like the Mackinac Center argue that Friedman's idea would be the antidote to things like collapsing schools in which students can hardly be expected to learn. This makes no sense. We'll still have the same public schools we have now--only they'll have even less money to maintain the facilities. Wealthy people will have a taxpayer-subsidized chance to attend the private school of their choice, and those of you who can't "add from your own fund" will settle for what you get. And, of course, these private schools hoovering up public tax dollars would be free to segregate and discriminate as they wish, giving some students even fewer choices. 

There will always be parts of Libertarianism that make sense to me; I am, for instance, a great respecter of government's ability to really screw things up. I also like freedom a lot. But the free market and freedom are not synonymous or even, in some cases, compatible, and the free market certainly doesn't provide high quality for all, nor does it provide any sort of restraint on certain brands of human misbehavior. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Hillsdale Is Coming To Tennessee. Who Are They?

Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee has announced his intention to bring Hillsdale College in to add to the state's charter school program. If you've been watching the religious right, you already know this name. But if you hadn't previously noticed Hillsdale, here's your explainer.

Hillsdale's history starts in 1844, initially as Michigan Central College. In 1853, they moved to Hillsdale, Michigan and reopened under the new name in 1855. The school was founded by Free Will Baptists. It admitted Black students as soon as it opened and it was the second college in the US to let women earn a four-year degree. 

Its first century was marked by growth. The school was no longer affiliated with a specific church, but still declared a strong Christian bent. By the mid-twentieth century, the school had begun to resist federal regulations, including affirmative action, and in 1962 adopted its own Declaration of Independence from  the feds, refusing to take any federal money. 

On 1971, George Roche III became president of the college. He raised lots of money and brought in plenty of conservative speakers, including Ronald Reagan. Under Roche, the college cut itself entirely loose from federal influence. They stopped reporting student body breakdown by demographics and determined to follow their own non-discrimination policy. After they fought that in court, they stopped allowing students to accept federal student loans, providing private assistance instead. 

Roche resigned in 1999 after a truly horrific and heartbreaking episode--he had been conducting a 19-year affair with his daughter-in-law, who killed herself in despair when he remarried.

This was a terrific blow to the college's reputation and fundraising. The college hired as a replacement, Larry Arnn, who still has the job.

Arnn's conservative credentials are impeccable. He's one of the founders of the Claremont Institute, a conservative thinky tank (mission-- "to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life") founded by students of Harry Jaffa (Jaffa was the Goldwater speechwriter who penned the "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice..." line); Hillsdale has a library in named after him. The Institute was quiet for years, but has emerged as a big time Trump booster funded by folks like the DeVos tribe and the Bradleys, and pumping out ideas for selling the Big Lie and the Insurrection.  Arnn is also a trustee at the Heritage Foundation, which at one point offered him its presidency

Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. Or as Politico Magazine put it in 2018

Trump University never died. It’s located in the middle of bucolic southern Michigan, halfway between Lansing and Fort Wayne, 100 miles and a world away from Detroit.

The college uses Trump mailing lists to raise money. They used to sponsor Rush Limbaugh's show. They get grads placed on the staff of legislators such as Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy. In 2017, for some reason, Senator Pat Toomey created a little piece of tax reform that would have carved out a tax treat for Hillsdale alone. Arnn was on the shortlist for Secretary of Education for Trump, when Trump whipped his super-duper 1776 Commission to create some nationalistic education stuff for the country. They don't have a great history with LGBTQ students. Erik Prince (Betsy DeVos's brother) is a Hillsdale graduate.

Hillsdale has a free-to-download 1776 curriculum. Arnn introduces it with "America is an exceptionally good country." And from there... well. Unit I Lesson 1 for K-2 (Se;f-Government or Tyranny) includes memorizing "Paul Revere's Ride" and "No taxation without representation." The lesson comes with a list of "Questions for the American Mind" such as "What is tax? What is it used for?" The story starts after the French and Indian War, and so kind of skips the whole issue of why Britain had accrued a bunch of debt that they wanted the colonies to help with. But that's just one part of 150 years of history that we're going to skip in our determination to assert that US history didn't start in 1619. Another oddity in the unit is that it leans hard on the notion that the colonies declared independence because the British government compelled them to. Throughout all 13 grades, here are only two US history units--one is the Revolution and the other is the Civil War.

By high school, there are many units about politics and civics. A bit of a slant appears here and there-- for instance, the lesson about Reconstruction makes sure to point out that the people trying to give Blacks rights were the Republicans and that the Democrats were the opposition. Their picture of Reconstruction is that it went remarkably well, even though Johnson and Confederate states "resisted" and also "encouraged " bad policy.

If we skip ahead to FDR and LBJ, we get further concerns about how FDR's new ideas contradict the Founders, and how LBJ "attempted to expand once more the purpose of government." In this unit, teachers should "clarify for the students the chief consequence of the New Deal was the expansion and formalization of the administrative state" (and not, say, keeping a bunch of Americans from starving to death). 

The slant of the lessons is one thing. There's also a kind of historical flattening, as in talking about the Founders as if they were a unified whole and not a squabbling bunch of men who strongly disagreed over just about every principle and practice that we now view as Holy American Writ. But there's another pattern that emerges in the materials, noticeable in questions like these:

What is the purpose of government?

What are the principles on which America was founded, and what qualities must American citizens and society exhibit in order to sustain such principles of civic life?

Across all three branches of the federal government, what are the most important designs that the Constitution puts in place to ensure the very best governance, i.e., governance that will be effective at protecting natural rights, representing the majority, and avoiding tyranny?

The through line for most of the materials, for all the noise about critical thinking, is that for every aspect of US history, there's really only one right way to view things. Generations of philosophers may have burned up piles of words trying to define the purpose of government, but Hillsdale knows the answer. This whole package is the very essence of good old "learn the preferred answer by rote and spit it out on command" learning. 

I taught this stuff for decades, and the typical approach is to talk about viewpoints, e.g. "What did Thomas Jefferson's writing in the Declaration suggest he believed about natural law?" But time after time, Hillsdale's lessons fail to distinguish between an individual's views and The Truth. Directions are loaded with "the student will understand" followed by a singular interpretation of history--only it's not presented as one particular interpretation, but the only correct conclusion that the student is supposed to grasp. Hillsdale's curriculum is not loaded with stunning groaners, but it has big fat ahistorical blinders on, and it approaches the topics not with a variety of views or understandings, not with a desire to prompt discussion and an appreciation for varied viewpoints. Instead it approaches historical and civic topics as if the goal is--dare I say it--indoctrination.

If you want to see Hillsdale really letting its freak flag fly, scan through its newsletter Imprimis, with articles like "The Disaster at Our Southern Border" (VP Harris's report is "bunk"), "The January 6 Insurrection Hoax" (Donald Trump was awesome and robbed and Jan 6 has been overhyped as part of a vast conspiracy), and an explanation of inflation that rests on Milton Friedman's awesomeness. All of these, it should be noted, are versions of lectures delivered at the college. 

It should come as no surprise that Hillsdale is home to a lot of privatizing thought about education, like a 2018 piece by Professor Gary Wolfram explaining why schools should be run via the free market. And then-secretary Betsy DeVos made Hillsdale the site of one of her most explicit speeches arguing that schools should be taken back from the government and run by free-market Christianity.

They've had a couple of charter initiatives. There was the Barney Charter School Initiative, started in 2010 to help 20 charter schools based on classical curriculum. The Barney mission statement used to include the goal "to recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.” They also turn out to use a religious curriculum. Hillsdale also offers materials that can be used to supplement education plus a whole raft or resources for home schoolers. 

So this is the organization that has a "number of initiatives that align with our priorities in Tennessee," according to Lee spokesperson Casey Black. Lee has talked about the importance of teaching "true American history, unbiased and nonpolitical," but Hillsdale promises neither, with a Libertarian, nationalist approach that hews to one narrow interpretation of history. Lee also claims that "Hillsdale's charter schools in our state will be public secular classical education schools," and while Hillsdale has learned to keep its Christian bent less obvious in its charter schools, there's no question that religion is part of its brand. Per its website:

In the words of its modern mission statement, the College “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.”

The section about its K-12 program also notes that they provide an education "both classical and American in its orientation" and which "offers a firm grounding in civic virtue and cultivates moral character."

For Hillsdale, the Tennessee partnership is a great deal because, if Lee gets his education savings accounts (neo-vouchers) up and running, Hillsdale can expect to hoover up truckloads of taxpayer dollars. Will the taxpayers get their money's worth?

Sunday, February 13, 2022

ICYMI: Important Upcoming Holiday Edition (2/13)

 By which I mean the much-beloved annual Half Price Candy Day, celebrated on February 15th every year. Spend it with someone you love. Meanwhile, here's the reading for the week.

What's behind the right-wing book-ban frenzy? Big money, and a long-term plan

Jon Skolnik at Salon takes a look at the ongoing book ban panics across the country.

A Chalkbeat first person essay from a student in one Chicago's allegedly-bad schools. She offers a different perspective.

The rhetoric is a little overheated, and the contents are mostly familiar, but the source is one of those interesting moments when the education debate penetrates outside the usual boundaries. This is from Baptist News Global.

Jan Resseger breaks down some of the details on how we arrived at this CRT-panic induced wave of teacher gag laws.

Jose Luis Vilson offers some words about the crt panic, and especially about the work we should be doing in response to it.

Melody Schreiber at the New Republic went looking for the evidence about the detrimental effects of masking kids. She didn't find any.

If you've been watching the show, here's the teacher who inspired the show's creator

Bob Shepard looks at the coming education shenanigans in Tennessee and the plan to recruit a Christian conservative college to come run charter schools.

The Murky World of i-Ready, Grading, and Online Data

Nancy Bailey takes a look at the issues surrounding i-Ready. If this program has been cropping up in your neighborhood and you're wondering about it, this is a handy explainer.

For the "education should be like Uber" crowd, here's a Cory Doctorow explanation of just how big a scam Uber actually is.

The Onion is on fire this week, so they get two spots on this week's list. 

Also, this week in "Things I Wrote Other Places," a Forbes piece about why lowering the bar to fill classroom spots is only going to make things worse, and a reminder at Progressive that test-based teacher evaluations were a bust

Friday, February 11, 2022

Everyone On The Train

The issue of loving the work had come up a few times already this week when this article turned up on my screen.

You may remember the story from 2017. A white supremacist threatens two girls on the Portland rail; three men intervene, and he attacks them with a knife. The youngest of the three, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, was stabbed fatally. As he lay dying in another passenger's arms, he said, "Tell everyone on this train I love them." The article writer picks up there:

These beautiful words stopped me in my tracks when I first heard them. They gave me a directive, a way of being. At my best moments, this stranger’s last words guided where I looked, how I acted, and what I chose to do with my time.

Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche’s mother describes her son’s last words as “the most important thing in the whole process”. Taliesin’s father says that when he heard what his son said, “It was literally a saving grace for me.” They were a saving grace for me, too: they changed my life.

Loving everyone on the train meant I could love people I didn’t yet know. What Taliesin said felt instinctually correct to me yet was simultaneously baffling. It often seems there are impossibly huge chasms between me and others, so how could I love them?

Early in my career, I had a superintendent who liked to tell a story at the beginning of every year. It was a story about a rancher talking to some new horse trainers, and quizzing them about what the very first step in training a horse. They took turns answering and this part of the story changed every year because it didn't really matter--all their guesses about bridles and first skills to train were all wrong. "First," the rancher said, "first, you have to love the horse."

It's not a perfect story (students aren't untrained horses), but the point was clear enough and while we joked about it, we also got it. Caring about the students is the foundation of everything else. 

Not that you need to be all mooshy or syrupy--love and care take a lot of forms, and some of them are rather dry and direct. But the foundation of teaching is care. You teach students to read because you care whether they can read or not. You can teach them a particular skill or piece of knowledge because it's what you're paid to do, or because your boss ordered you to, I suppose, but there's little chance of hiding from the students that you are simply acting out of obligation or coercion rather than genuine care, and it will make you less effective. 

It is certainly one of the hard parts of the gig, because some students can make it awfully hard to care about them. Or maybe it's more honest and fair to say that you and certain students come together in ways that aren't very conducive to a caring relationship. Nor do I mean that you need to be every student's friend, or even that you need to be close--it's hugely important to respect students' boundaries instead. Like everything that matters in education, balance matters. And it's hard to transfer the skill--I am a master of analogizing things, but there is no relationship analogous to the relationship between a teacher and a student.

But here's a big thing I believe about love--it's not so much a feeling as an action and a choice, a commitment (I learned this sort of thing by going through the meltdown of my previous marriage, but smarter people than I have figured it out with less wear and tear). You can choose to love people, and you can do it based on who you are instead of waiting to be inspired by who they are. 

You can choose to love all the people on the train.

This is important these days, because twenty years of modern reform and especially two years of pandemess and CRT panic have worked to drive love and trust out of schools. Since (at least) A Nation at Risk, critics have deliberately ignored and abused the notion that teachers might choose to teach out of love and care, but must instead be threatened with Consequences. From No Child Left Behind through various gag laws, the whispered accusation has been that teachers just don't care about kids, don't care if they learn, don't care if they fail. Some have sold us a model of children as not-yet-people, empty vessels that need to be filled and conditioned and engineered into usefulness, not loved into full humanity. 

All across the political spectrum, we've been sold a grim and loveless picture of schools. Schools are twisted tangles of social issues, of Problems and Deficiencies. Schools are hopeless failures where most fail to learn and teachers only care about using students as indoctrinated tools. Schools stink. Schools are failing. Nothing good or decent or bright or kind or happy is there, and in fact, according to some, that is furthest from the purpose of Whipping Them Into Shape, or training them to be useful meat widgets, to take their rightful place upon the treadmill in pursuit of wages. 

Look, I am the last person to suggest that a big hug and a nice chorus of Kum-Bay-Yah are all we need to make the world right again. Love without works is empty. Caring about people without trying to lift them up is just virtue signaling into your own mirror. And telling someone to practice self-care is pretty much an open admission that they had better care about themselves because you don't; toxic positivity sucks, and I don't want to go there, either.

But caring about the work, loving the horse--that's the foundation of everything else. That means not only does it keep the building straight and upright, but it provides strength and support when the storm is raging. And it is certainly okay to go back to that caring at the heart of the work and revisit it, let it warm you, and remind yourself that it's real, regardless of what the world seems to be telling you. 

The love at the heart of the work doesn't mean you have to use yourself up (I hate that damn candle meme thingy). But it is at the heart of the work. Don't lose your heart, and let it remind you what is bright and beautiful about the work, even when the storm rages. So much of the rhetoric surrounding education (and I'm at fault sometimes myself) encourages us to see it as small and petty and meagre, crabbed figures in a cramped ledger; it's love that helps us remember that the work is bigger than all of us, bigger than everyone on the train.