Thursday, March 31, 2022

PA: Activist Takes Out A School Board (Update)

Make of this story what you will. An angry Libertarian activist just managed to remove five members from a school board.

Beth Ann Rosica is the head of her own consulting business; she's also an active Libertarian and advocate in the Greater Philly corner of Pennsylvania. She writes regularly for Broad and Liberty ("Thought-provoking and shareable ideas for free thinkers in Greater Philadelphia and beyond"), is tied to Independent Women's Voice (a right-tilted Club for Growth and Leonard Leo funded advocacy group) and has been a vocal opponent of vaccine and masking mandates. And she's the executive director of Back to School PA, a PAC funded by venture capitalist Paul Martino, teamed up with Clarice Shillinger, a former GOP staffer who's been busy launching lawsuits and school board takeover bids around the state (you can read more about the group here).

Anti-maskers in PA got a big boost last December when the PA Supreme Court threw out a state mandate for school masking based on the argument that the state department of health had no authority to impose such a mandate. Most districts took that as a cue that they could not impose mandates of their own. 

Not West Chester Area School District, or other districts in Chester County. There the board members voted to keep masking rules in place. Anti-maskers weren't having it, and Beth Ann Rosica took the board to court, filing a petition to have the five board members removed, claiming “permanent and irreparable harm due to their fabricating, feigning or intentionally exaggerating or including a medical symptom or disease which results in a potentially harmful medical evaluation or treatment to the child and as such, the (school directors) are to be held accountable.”

This week the court granted her wish. The board members are removed from office, with the court directing Rosica and the Board to each propose some replacement members, and the school district and the board members to share the costs of the proceedings.

It's not clear exactly why the judge reached this conclusion; Judge William Mahon reportedly wrote that his decision came after there was no response to the petition from the school district or its counsel. Attorneys have filed a motion to reconsider arguing that April 4 was the actual deadline for responding to the petition. 

This is only the first of several such court challenges; four other Chester County districts have been challenged, using the same template that Rosica used. That was created by Shannon Grady, CEO of GOAthletics and author of The Lactate Revolution (her LinkedIn profile says she's "the global leader in application of lactate dynamics for human performance optimization, a nationally recognized expert in the field of applied Physiology and Exercise Science, with over fifteen years as an industry leader in sports performance management"). Says Grady, "I’m not trying to ruin school board members’ lives or sue them for money. It’s just, know your place.” Also,  “We do not co-parent with our school district, the CCHD, or the state,”

It's hard to tell exactly where this is headed next, but for the moment, the usual folks are delighted. One observer cheered that now students will not have to wear their masks of slavery. And on Twitter...

They've got a list of people to cancel, and they're coming for them. Stay tuned.

Update: The judge got the district's attorney to admit that he messed up by miscounting days, and then rescinded the order. So the district gas a school board again-- for the moment. The petition to remove the board members will move forward. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Housing Benefits For Teachers?

Years ago, a friend of mine began her teaching career in a small town out West, located a stone's throw from the Canadian border and not near much of anything else. The job came with a rent-free house to live in, a necessary feature of a job in a place where there was little real estate to come by.

Nowadays, there are versions of that problem cropping up all over the country, particularly in places where the gap between housing costs and teacher salaries are so great that teachers, particularly new ones, must either commute huge distances or just pass the district by. 

It's a serious problem for districts, who can have real trouble recruiting teachers. And even if they do hire teachers who end up making long commutes, they lose the benefits of having those teachers as active members of the community in which they teach. As for teachers, housing troubles just add one more item to the list of pinches they feel from low pay. 

One national study found that 35% of teachers are "rent burdened." In other words, if you remember the old rule that 30% of your income should go to housing costs, 35% of teachers are above that line. And that's just looking at rent. 

There are various patche4s out there, like grant programs for new teachers who are first time home buyers. Homes for Heroes is another such program that says it's out to give back to teachers and other community workers.

Many districts take on the job of building and renting housing for district employees. California has several such programs that allow teachers to rent new homes at below-market costs. A study looked at the various locations in the state where such a program could be or is being operated (every county in the state has some LEA-owned property that could be so developed). Several districts in North Carolina offer subsidized housing for teachers. Currently the state of Hawaii, another location with many districts in which teachers can't afford to live, is working on developing state-owned below-market-priced housing for teachers. Heck, even Florida just set aside $100 million to help teachers, law enforcement officers, nurses, and firefighters buy homes. 

The benefits of having teachers live in the community where they teach are huge, as are the benefits of having teachers who don't spend their days worrying about how to keep a roof over their heads, or wondering if they'll ever be able to settle down and start a family. When you start out as a teacher, you don't expect to be rich, but you also don't expect to be homeless or to be spending many hours of your day driving back and forth to work. The housing crunch gives an unexpected hiring advantage to districts like those in my area, where a teacher's salary can buy you an affordable but nice home.

The most obvious solution is to pay teachers more, though in out of control markets like Silicon Valley, I'm not sure there's enough "more" to ever solve the problem. Subsidizing housing for teachers is a cheaper solution for districts and states, though there can be a lot of devils in those details, with the least desirable option being a creepy company town. On the other hand, having a brace of fellow beginning teachers living nearby to commiserate and brainstorm would be a nice benefit. 

I almost didn't write this post. It seems outside the realm of policy debates and instructional ideas, but that's kind of the point. We've got whole groups of beginning teachers who should have their brain free to think about how to teach and how to prepare lessons and maybe even how to push for important policy ideas, but instead a whole lot of them are all tied up worrying about things like what they can afford to eat and which bills to pay and which second job to land and how they are going to find a livable place to come home to and just how they're going to stitch together a life with their paycheck. How many teachers are we losing because of that moment when they look at their paycheck and look at housing market and just think, "Shit. I can't do this" and dreams of starting out an independent life as a young twenty-something just kind of shrivel up and die. 

If we aren't going to pay teachers well, the very least we could do is find ways to help them stretch that tiny paycheck a little further. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

PA: New Voucher Bill Moves Forward

Today Pennsylvania's House Education Committee approved HB 2169, a bill to offer "Lifeline Scholarships," which is the newest fun name for a neo-voucher education savings account program. 

This is not new in Pennsylvania, where pushing for an ESA voucher program is an annual activity (here's 2017 and 2018, for examples). ESAs (aka vouchers on steroids) are the current preferred approach of public ed privatizers. 

The Commonwealth Foundation, a right wing dark money advocacy group tied to ALEC and the State Policy Network, was right on this story later the same day, deploying the current assortment of arguments. The quality of a child's education should not be determined by their  zip code (but that certainly doesn't mean that we should make sure that every zip code has the funding and support necessary to achieve excellence). Americans love school choice (but not when we call them "vouchers," which are clearly a public subsidy for private school, so you won't catch us using the V word). And this year, the hot new talking point is "Boy, those pandemic test scores are low!" Which fits with the standard choicer technique of arguing strenuously that that problem right there is really bad, without ever making a case for why their preferred solution would actually fix anything. 

The bill is HB 2169, and it follows the usual pattern for such bills. 

Standard foot-in-the-door style for choicey legislation is to set it up strictly to rescue those poor children at "failing" schools. Students are eligible for this bill if they attend a "low-achieving school," which is a special dodge because PA defines "low-achieving school" as "a public school that ranked in the lowest 15%" of elementary or secondary schools on the annual Big Standardized Test. So even if every school in the state did awesomely this year, 15% would still be "low-achieving" schools. Fun fact: "this term does not include a charter school, cyber charter school, or area career and technical school." In other words, by state definition, a charter school cannot be low-achieving.

The money is handed to a third party program manager, who takes their cut and hands the money off to parents (because that way the state isn't actually directly funding things like, say, religious schools). The parent gets access to an account (perhaps via debit card) and the money can be spent for the usual approved items-- tuition and fees for a private school, textbooks, uniforms, fees for an SAT-ish test, instructional materials, hardware, software, special services, and the ever-popular "other valid educational expenses." Parents get the chunk of money and go shopping for education products.

Parents may not get a kickback from the vendor. They can't put their own money in the account, but they can use as much of their own (or someone else's) money as they wish.

There are safeguards for the vendors themselves. The voucher can't be considered financial assistance for the vendor, nor does participation in the program make the vendor a government actor. And a whole subsection underlines that "participating entity autonomy" can not be infringed on in any way. In other words, when you use the voucher to send your child to a private Christian school, they can accept your child knowing that the government won't make them follow any rules or change any part of how they operate. Also, when they reject your child for whatever reason they like, they government still won't bother them. 

Along with that, there are minimal-to-none standards for oversight and accountability. The auditor general is required to conduct audits of the accounts annually checking for cases of "fraudulent misuse"; there is no requirement for minimum number of audits to conduct. Vendors have to comply with some non-discrimination rules and provide parents with receipts for how the money is spent; if they're going to collect a lot of money, they might have to meet some financial standards. 

There are no requirements that the vendors actually do a decent job. Despite the fact that the stated purpose is to rescue students from public schools that aren't giving them an education, there is nothing in the bill to provide assurance or checks that the vendors that parents have paid (with taxpayer dollars) have provided the student with a decent education. Under "academic accountability standards," we get a requirement that parents must let the state know when the child has graduated, a requirement that FERPA is followed, and that parents fill out a "satisfaction survey" each year. 

That's it. If taxpayers want some assurance that this rerouting of tax dollars has resulted in better education for the students that Commonwealth Foundation is so concerned about--well, no such assurances will be forthcoming. 

All of the above is par for the course, such as we've seen in other states. The funding of the vouchers includes a curious feature. Typically an ESA gifts the family with whatever monies the state was going to send to that student's local school district. But this bill throws in an extra wrinkle-- the amount in the ESA will be determined with this formula:

All the money the state sends to all the school districts minus all the money the state sends that is for transportation divided by all the students in all the school districts. (For students with special needs, throw in a multiplying factor.) So basically the average per pupil state payment.

Which means that some districts will lose less than their actual per pupil state funding, and some will lose more. Commonwealth Foundation estimates that will make about a $6,700 voucher for students; they also claim that $19,200 is the total spending per student-- I have no idea where that figure comes from, as per pupil spending varies wildly from district to district in PA, giving us one of the most inequitable funding systems in the country. We just had a whole lawsuit over this. It would cost a ton of money to fix it.

I suspect the $19,200 number is mostly to say, "Look-- losing $6,700 wouldn't hurt districts all that much, but there are districts where the per pupil spending dips down close to $11K. The state only contributes an average of around 33% of district spending, with the rest made up by local sources, which is why rich districts can be rich and poor districts can't. 

In other words, the poorer the district, the more they depend on state funds. And guess which districts tend to fall in that lowest 15%, so that the districts that are most likely to be hit by these vouchers would be the ones that can least afford it. Meanwhile, $6,700 is not going to fund a whole lot of private schooling.

And as always, it cannot go without mentioning that a student can only use a voucher to attend the private school or vendor of their choice if that vendor accepts them. This is school's choice, not school choice.

Like all voucher/ESA plans, this defunds public schools while giving parents little choice and taxpayers no accountability. Parents get no back-up; just a small chunk of money and a wisg for good luck from the state as it washes its hands of them.

The bill came out of the House Education Committee today (all R but one voted for it), had its first reading in the house, and was tabled, which means it can be removed from the table by direct action or will automatically pop back up in fifteen days. If you're in Pennsylvania, now would be a great time to get ahold of your representative and ask them to kill this bad idea of a bill.  

"Don't Say Gay" Reactions: Masks Off

Now that Don't Say gay is the law in Florida (at least until someone takes it to court), the anti-gay folks are out in force. I get PR releases from folks who want to get themselves quoted in The Media, and they are about what you'd expect.

For instance, FreedomWorks, the Libertarian advocacy group that was part of the Koch Brothers push for the Tea Party movement, wants to hoot a little. From their Press Release:

Despite the many lies and relentless attacks on parental rights by the national media, woke corporations, and Democratic leaders, this bill’s passage means that Florida parents will now enjoy greater control and transparency over their children’s education. It is the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the education and upbringing of their children. HB 1557 reinforces that right and protects Florida families.

The "lies" that they refer to aren't terribly accurate--except for one. That's the one that says the law doesn't single out gay folks, which is technically correct and deeply disingenuous, because everyone understands exactly what the bill is supposed to prevent; DeSantis can say that the bill doesn't single out gays even as his press secretary says only "groomers" oppose it. In case you're not sure, here's a Tweet from Mothers For Liberty, who like many others, have a pretty clear idea of what the law is about.

The "grooming teacher" theory, the idea that all teaching about LGBTQ persons is just a way for predatory teachers to "recruit" is offensive on so many levels, but for people insist that LGNTQ persons are made and not born, it's a natural fit. If LGBTQ identity doesn't occur naturally--if people aren't born that way--well, then, either it's the result of some sort of mental illness, or LGBTQ is perpetuated by constant recruiting, by LGBTQ adults tricking children into changing teams. This perpetuates the age-old evil conflation of LGBTQ and pedophiles. It's also a dumb theory, and a nasty one that is best held by someone who has never met an LGBTQ teen or listened to a student crying and desperately wishing they could be "normal." 

This also fits well with a particular political lens, a lens that views all complaints and pleas by certain subgroups as simply some kind of political dodge, a ploy that doesn't come from actual lived human experience, but from an artificially crafted play to angle for political power. Members of groups don't talk about oppression or bias because those are real things, but because that's a way to craft an argument to Get Stuff. It's all just a trick to get special treatment. One wonders how much of this believe about need to recruit members and politically trickery to gain power is all projection.

The "the law doesn't actually say gay" argument does open an interesting line of thought, though, since it forbids instruction about gender identities and sexual orientation, since "male" and "female" are gender identities, and heterosexuality is a sexual orientation. So it's entirely possible that Florida just made it illegal to have school restrooms segregated on the basis of gender identity.

The FreedomWorks release also repeats another recurring pattern-- "Florida's parents will enjoy greater control" really means "Florida's straight cisgender parents of straight cisgender children" will enjoy greater control. 

Deb Geller, "former UCLA Dean and expert at," also sent along her two cents, and it's much more sensible:

My concern is about how teachers will interpret the law. Too many schools already act as if all families include a mother and a father; students are expected to make Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards or craft projects for what may be non-existent parents. Whether a child is being raised by a single, divorced or widowed parent, by grandparents or other family members, by same-sex parents, or in foster care, this is problematic.

Fear of retaliation for what they believe to be a violation of this law may lead to more of this type of subtle discrimination by teachers against students and their non-traditional families. All of our children -and their families- deserve to be treated with equity and respect. Diversity should be celebrated, not censored. Curriculum decisions should be driven by educators with students’ best interests in mind, and not by politicians with their own interests in mind.

Well, yes. The chilling effect is a major feature of the law, amplified by the enforcement of the law by parents. Florida has now given every parent the ability to interpret the law as they see fit (including whatever mom created that Tweet above). It doesn't matter if some bring nonsense suits that lose in court--school districts have neither the time nor the money to defend themselves from nonsense suits, and district administrators will continue putting the kibbosh on anything that might trigger their district's most anti-LGBTQ parents.

Ugly days ahead in Florida. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

ICYMI: Tax Edition (3/27)

Because ours are done. Fortunately, the finances of the Institute are uncomplicated (as zeros often are). Also, enjoy the annual hilarity of the $250 limit on teacher's professional expenses. But here's some reading for the week.

Cleveland charter schools uses public dollars to fight union drive

Tanisha Pruitt in the Ohio Capital Journal, detailing how one charter is using its covid relief funds to try to squelch a union drive by teachers. 

It's pride week in Austin schools. The Texas AG says that's illegal.

Washington Post coverage of a bald-faced campaign ploy to strike out--again--at LGBTQ students.

Schools nationwide are quietly removing books from their libraries

A Washington Post story about the entirely-predictable trend of gutless administrators unilaterally getting rid of any books that might "cause trouble." 

Texas superintendent tells librarians to pull books on sexuality, transgender people

Here's exactly the kind of gutless administrator we're talking about, quietly trying to cover his butt and avoid cranky phone calls.

My Little Town

Nancy Flanagan reflects on the racism, small town style. 

After losing book banning drive, some Moms for Liberty are aiming at Tennessee's school board

Jo Napolitano at The 74 has the story of how one high-profile Moms for Liberty group mostly failed with the book banning drive, and is now setting its sights on more high power targets.

How the Minneapolis Foundation bankrolls the destruction of public schools

At Racket, Rob Levine has the history and methodology of one of Minnesota's well-heeled corporate privatization groups, and just how much damage they've done. 

Inside the chaotic charter schools run by a for-profit company

Jeff Bryant has a look inside the schools run by Accel Schools. The chain doesn't know much about education, but it knows an awful lot about how vulture capitalism works by stripping "value" out of an "asset" and handing off the remains to the next extractor.

As legislators push so-called ‘anti-CRT’ bills citing discomfort, Black students ask whose feelings matter

WFPL reporters do a deep dive into this story about race and curriculum, asking whose voices are being heard.

It never stops. In Michigan, DeVos and her buddies are attempting an end run around the governor by creating a ballot initiative to create tax credit scholarship tyle vouchers. But some public school supporters are organizing a response.

An actual fan of school choice says that the DeVos plan for Michigan is bad news for kids.

This week Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire landed in the New York Times, explaining how Democrats are failing to get any ground on education. 

Craig Harris takes a look at how charter schools snagged some small business covid loans (because whether a charter is a public school or a private business depends on which answer gets money). The original piece was a USA Today story, but this link will take you to the no-paywall Yahoo News version.

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider makes sense of the convoluted story of Florida corruption and self-dealing (a story ironically that only came to light because two scams got in each others' way).

Anna Noble at Telegraf shows how big tech is getting its big greasy hands into SEL. Surprise, not.

Thomas Ultican with another of his well-researched deep dives, this time into the shenanigans around the establishment of another amateur-run charter school.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Feds Propose Change In Charter School Grant Regulations

 This is exactly the kind of boring policy wonk stuff that can make ordinary humans nod off. But it;'s worth paying attention to. It's even worth giving the feds your two cents. I'll tell you how at the end of this. First let me explain what's happening.

The Charter Schools Program (CSP) is a federal grant program that gives charter schools money both for start-ups and expansions. It's a big, beautiful federal tax dollar gravy train, and it's been running for many years through many administrations. The first batch of granty largesse was disbursed in 1995; since then something like $4 Billion has been thrown at charters, with decidedly mixed results. A report from the Network for Public Education found that about 1 out of every 4 dollars ($1 billion) had been spent on fraud and waste, including schools that closed within a year as well as schools that never opened at all (spoiler alert: no, the taxpayers don't get their money back when that happens). Despite all that, the gravy train is still running, this year to the tune of about $440 million.

But if we're going to do this, couldn't we at least institute a few rules for getting the grant money? That's what the Biden administration is proposing right now, and we are all invited to offer our thoughts before the proposed rules are adapted and/or adopted.

The language of the proposal is about priorities--in other words, if you meet these certain guidelines, you score more points in the Give Me Some Grant Money contest-- and application requirements. So let's take a look at the proposed language and see what we've got, because some of this is good and some of it could be better. First, there are two proposed priorities.

Proposed Priority 1—Promoting High-Quality Educator- and Community-Centered Charter Schools to Support Underserved Students.

The proposal notes that although charters were envisioned as laboratories of education, where teachers could develop cool new ideas and, in collaboration with public schools, send those ideas out to do good for students everywhere, the reality is that in some communities, "teachers, parents, and community leaders have expressed concerns about not being included as active participants in charter school decision-making." Modern charters have ended up, in many cases, being not so much educator or community centered as owners-of-the-business centered. 

So to score grant-winning points in this priority, charters would have to do some of the following.

Involve "meaningful and ongoing engagement" with current and former educators in founding, governance, school-level decisions about curriculum and instruction, and day-to-day operations. This would be a markedly different model than that used by profiteering charters that are built on models for "extracting value" rather than educating students.

Use a community-centered approach that involves starting with a community needs assessment and continues with regular engagement with the community. Different from those charters operated at a distance by boards hundreds of miles away.

For modern charters, this may be an issue. While some charters are very much engaged with their communities and educators, many are simply business operations.

Proposed Priority 2—Charter School and Traditional Public School or District Collaborations That Benefit Students and Families

This again harkens back to the original concept of charters as partners and collaborators in a public ed system, a vision that has all but vanished in favor of a model that says charters will "help" public schools by spurring them on with market-based competition. That competitive model forbids collaboration; many charter organizations keep their materials as proprietary trade secrets, even requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements to protect their "trade secrets." This is completely contrary to a notion of charters as laboratories of education.

So under the proposal, a charter that wanted to score grant-winning points would have to do some version of teamwork, as in

Propose a collaboration with at least one traditional public school or traditional school district. That collaboration could include curricular or instructional resources, professional development, or other practices that could benefit students. In other words, team up with a public school in ways that would make both schools better. 

Does that sound like a hard thing to object to? Just watch-- charter school fans are already clearing their throats, warming up for songs of how public schools are mean to them and also, they should be allowed to guard the trade secrets that make them successful. The whole modern charter universe has competition hard-wired into its dna; there is no logical reason for this to be so (unless you think the real point of charters is to allow entrepreneurs to launch successful education flavored businesses), but just watch and see.

Proposed application requirements

The proposal addresses the issue of "non-profit" charter schools that operate as fronts for for-profit operations.

We reiterate that a charter school is, by definition, “a public school that . . . is operated under public supervision and direction,” and for-profit entities are ineligible to receive funding as a CSP project grantee or subgrantee. It is also a violation of CSP requirements for a grantee or subgrantee to relinquish full or substantial control of the charter school (and, thereby, the CSP project) to a for-profit management organization or other for-profit entity because, among other things, a grantee or subgrantee receiving CSP funds must establish and maintain proper internal controls and directly administer or supervise the administration of the project.

And just in case that's not clear enough:

Some examples of impermissible delegations of administrative control include situations in which the EMO controls all or a substantial portion of grant or subgrant funds and expenditures, including making programmatic decisions (also referred to as “sweeps contracts”); the EMO employs the school principal and a large proportion of the teachers; or the EMO makes decisions about curricula and instructional practices.

This is really important. Politicians have long slunk around the issue of charter schools by saying, "Well, of course, for profit charters shouldn't be allowed" while ignoring charters that are non-profit in name only (looking at you, Clinton 2016). The industry has become quite adept at using non-profit charter schools to generate profits, and all of these arrangements have the same problem as a straight-up for profit charter--the interests of the people making a profit are in direct opposition to the interests of the students. IOW, the less money I spend on those students, the more money I get to pocket. This absolutely needs to be stopped.

Another proposed requirement is that folks who want the grant money to help launch a new charter school must provide a community impact report that shows there's demand for the school and that the school would "serve the interests and meet the needs" of students, families, and the community from which the students will be drawn. That includes showing a plan for making the charter school demographics comparable to those of the community being served. In other words, no segregation academies. And "robust" community engagement plan for creating and maintaining strong partnerships. Charter schools that want this grant money cannot keep producing charters that are done to the community rather than with it.

There are also considerable reporting requirements for any for-profit entity that the charter intends to hire. 

For the CSP grants that are given to states (who in turn dole money out within their own boundaries) these same requirements are in place. The states must also provide detailed information about how they will award the grants, including how expenditures will be monitored and judged.

Other things

The proposal talks a lot about diversity that aims at racial and socio-economic diversity, for instance, in requiring charters to match the make-up of their community. But there's not much about students with special needs or English language learners; these are both categories that many charters deliberately under-serve compared to the public schools in the same communities. 

There's still no auditing mechanism for applications--in other words, nobody is checking to see if the grant application matches reality.

It also seems reasonable to ask for specific caps on grants to schools that haven't been launched yet. One of the big wastes in previous granting has been giving money to schools that never actually opened. 

Speak Up!

Offering your two cents is the easiest thing in the world (Well, not the easiest--but pretty damn easy). On the government website that I'm linking right here, you can find a copy of the full proposal. Up and to the right is a blue button that says "comment," which you just click on and there you go. There's a guide in case you want some "how to" tips. You can comment as an individual or as a group representative. You can even comment anonymously. 

Do not be intimidated. One of the comments currently up at the sites say, in total, "Hi hello I believe this is an important topic to discuss!"

And here's the thing. The charter industry does not want this, and they are already mustering troops to flood these comments with tales of how this will hurt the children and cripple their good work and be a terrible awful no good very bad thing, even though these rules boil down to a simple message--

Maybe charter schools should partner with communities and other people interested in education instead of partnering with people whose main interest is making money. 

So tell the feds that. Make your voice heard. Help the government make one tiny step toward the kind of charter function and accountability that we always should have had. 

Abbott Elementary and the Problem of TV Teachers

Abbott Elementary is the surprise hit of the year, particularly for teachers. The teachers are human beings, the stories are relatable while being recognizable for teachers. It adapts school life well to the mockumenbtary workplace comedy format, even if it hews too close to the formula in some places (the show blares its intention to run a long-simmering plotline in which the main character will eventually dump her bad boyfriend, Jim-and-Pamming her way to the fellow teacher who has a crush on her). 

If you haven't seen it, you should. Scrambling for supplies, finding the resources you need, navigating the tension between your idealism and reality, working as a veteran teacher in the brave new world of education in the 2020s-- those are all here, as well as the painful learning of lessons by all parties. Also, students who look and act like actual students. It is that extremely rare show about teaching created by people who appear to actually get it.

It's so smart and on point and just right about teaching (as right as it can be in 22 minutes a shot) that it makes you wonder why television so often gets teaching wrong in shows. 

Part of the challenge is, of course, that teaching is largely mundane and packed with things that are only exciting if you are a teacher. There's also the challenge of story-- because teachers are, in many ways, not the center of their own stories, but supporting characters in the stories of their students. And of course, television limits the size of a cast; it would be hard to work all of a high school English teachers 175 students into a single series--and then recast them every year.

Perhaps those limitations are why they are so many classroom misfires in the history of tv. 

Teaching as a profession is sometimes used to provide some backstory for a character. Ted Mosby, Ross Geller, and Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel on New Girl) are all nominally teachers, and yet other than generating the occasional plot device, teaching doesn't really get much attention and certainly doesn't factor in realistic details like grading papers or scraping by on small pay. This idea of teaching as a sort of character background detail goes all the way back to Our Miss Brooks, a 1950s hit from Desilu Studies starring Eve Arden as a teacher who has some co-workers, a boss and generally just one student (played by in-hi-slate-twenties Richard Crenna). Clara Oswold is a teacher, but somehow she never has to do lesson plans on the TARDIS.

Dramatic shows that include teaching have to really ramp up the drama. A peak example would be Boston Public, from, David E. Kelly; it did show the crowded underfunded nightmare of an urban school, but spent almost no time on actual teaching. Instead some stereotypical characters blasted through plots heavy on sex and violence. (No, I'm not going to count Walter White.)

TV teachers who have become supporting characters on their own shows (sometimes to the frustration of the actors playing them) would include examples like Howard Hesseman (Head of the Class) and Gabe Kotter, both of whom took a back seat to the breakout stars in their classrooms. They were also examples of that TV phenomenon--the teacher who only teaches one small class. As the meme says, the most unbelievable thing about the Magic Schoolbus is not the magic, but the idea that Miss Frizzle only has eight kids in her class. The peak of the phenomenon would be Mr. Feeney, who only taught one group of students, and was so committed to being their supporting cast that he followed them through elementary school, high school, and college. 

Television teachers are either noble or hilariously incompetent. They either never take work home, or simply cease to exist outside of school. The entertainment industry has a terrible time envisioning the world of teaching and the people who serve there. TV teachers are the equivalent of movie musicians--you know, the ones who are just told a song title and suddenly they're playing a full-fledged arrangement of it. TV teachers never prepare or do outside work; they just somehow stand up and start teaching stuff. It is almost like a child's version of teaching-- children never see teachers doing anything except hanging out in the classroom, so that must be the whole gig, right?

There is one old series that made a real attempt to portray teaching and schools well. Room 222 was the first series created by then-rising tv writer James L. Brooks, before he created the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Room 222 premiered in 1969 and featured Lloyd Haines as a high school history teacher, Denise Nicholas as a guidance counselor, Karen Valentine as a student teacher, and Michael Constantine as the principal. The show quickly dropped its laugh track and became a dramedy (before MASH even premiered). Room 222 dealt with lots of real issues, from contemporary concerns like the war to social issues and just growing up issues. It tried to be realistic (in the first sixty seconds of the first episode, you hear a teacher asking after still-missing supplies). The students are mostly student age, and Brooks tries to be contemporary--students really "dig" Haines' character, and in another episode, they say want to "rap about our scene." In another episode, the very bubbly and optimistic student teacher (who reminds me more than a little of Janine Teagues of Abbott) struggles (in a single-episode way) with classroom management. The show won some awards in its first year, didn't draw much of an audience, then was shipped off to the Friday night death spot right after Brady Bunch and Partridge Family, with which it didn't really belong. 

In other words, the last attempt to put a realistic take on teaching on tv didn't end all that well, so kudos to Abbott Elementary for pulling it off. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

NH: Lessons From Croydon's 50% School Budget Cut

Well, you can't pretend that the Free Staters of New Hampshire are at all secretive about what they have in mind. Here's the story of how they just went ahead and axed a school district budget. But first, let me fill in the background.

The Free Staters are a bunch of folks who believe they can move into the Granite State, take over the levers of government, and then install their Libertarian dream state, which is to say a government-free land of do as you please. The book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear is a fair and sometimes hilarious look at how it's going, but we have more progress to report in the education department. 

Free Staters have gotten pretty open about the dream. In a Libertarian Institute podcast, one Free State Project Board member, Jeremy Kaufman, explained that school choice and vouchers are just "a stepping stone towards reducing or eliminating state involvement in schools." Rachel Goldsmith, head of a NH Moms for Liberty chapter (the one that put a bounty o0n teachers' heads) is a previous executive director of the Free State Project.

But some Free Staters prefer to be even less subtle. Meet Ian and Jody Underwood. They moved to New Hampshire in 2007 as part of the Free State Project. Before moving, Jody had worked for the Educational Testing Service, and before that a researcher for NASA and Carnegie Mellon University. Ian was a "planetary scientist and artificial intelligence researchers for NASA," a certified hypnotist, a "fourth generation wing chun sifu,"as well as director of the Ask Dr. Math program. These days Ian is a writer (find him at Granite Grok); he also ran an unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature (motto--I kid you not-- "the way forward is back"). Jody served for years as secretary of the board of directors of the Free State Project; she's also still working on games and learning simulations for Intelligent Automation, Inc. And you can read here her thoughts about why vouchers don't go nearly far enough.

The Underwoods, who have no children, are active in their community in other ways. They've settled in Croydon, NH (a small town just up the road from where I spent my childhood), where Ian is a selectman, and Jody is on the school board.

They are connected. In 2017, the Valley News raised a small flap over the discovery that Jody reached out to her friend Frank Edelblut (former legislator turned education commissioner, at whose confirmation hearing the Underwoods testified) about getting some consulting work for Ian. It's kind of a nothingburger, but the story illustrates how chummy Edelblut and the Underwoods are.\

The Underwoods have lots of ideas about cutting government spending. In 2020, Croydon made the news after the selectmen, including Underwood, decided to fire Croydon's only police officer. After twenty years of service, Richard Lee was told to turn in his uniform and equipment after the surprise motion; so he stripped down to briefs, boots and hat and walked home. He was not replaced; instead Underwood and the other two selectmen abolished the department. 

Croydon still has old fashioned town meetings. At the most recent one, during the school portion, Ian Underwood offered a surprise motion from the floor to the school board where his wife sat as chair-- cut the school's $1.7 million budget to $800,000. The motion passed with a vote of 20-14, which represents about 3% of the town's eligible voters.

Croydon only serves about 80 students. 24 K-4 students attend in the one school building. Students in grades 5-12 have tuition paid at the family's choice of schools, private or public--most at nearby Newport School District, but also Sunapee and Claremont (where I started out life). Ian Underwood, who had written a blog post equating the school budget with ransom, said he based his figure on spending $10,000 per student.

That $10K does not come close to covering the tuition for the upper grade students. Newport's tuition rate is about to rise to $17,880. Private tuition costs are, with only two exceptions, also higher than the $10K. And of course the costs of special ed, transportation, and administration. So in the end, each student will not simply get a $10K pseudo-voucher from the school.

The Underwoods say it's all good. "This gives us an opportunity," said Jody. "This is going to force us to step back and figure out a good way to do this [based] on what we know about how people learn, so that we can keep costs down." Another board member cautioned against a "failure of imagination." Options like a virtual school or learning pods with new New Hampshire BFF Prenda were also tossed out.

People are pissed. The school board meeting two days later drew a crowd of 100 mostly-angry people, destined to be even more frustrated to learn that the budget passage was legal and binding and can't simply be reversed.  And that's where things stand at the moment.

So what are the lessons here?

First, notice that this has absolutely nothing to do with school choice. Croydon had school choice; in fact, one of the angry citizens is Angi Beaulieu, a former school board member who worked hard to create a choice system for Croydon. But this budget cut will trash the choice system they had, with 5-12 grade families having neither the choice of a local school nor the choice of continuing with the public or private school. So this action by the Free State Libertarian crowd actual reduced the school choice options for the parents of their town. 

It's almost as if, for some of these folks, choice is actually unimportant and the real goal is to get government out of education and leave parents to fend for themselves without any taxpayer support. There's no talk about improved quality through competition, or parent's right to choose the best fit for their kids--just "cut my taxes and get the government public education system shut down."

Second, 34 eligible voters out of just over 500 showed up. I don't know-- meetings are boring, politics are boring, nothing important was going to happen. (Update: I have since been informed that there was a snowstorm at the time). But if seven more people who wanted to save their public education system had shown up, this would not be a story. If all of the people who screamed bloody murder about the results after the meeting had shown up for the meeting.

Finally, having money follow the children is not a great way to create a sustainable school system. Funding children and not systems just gets you no system in which to place the child (which, as we're seeing, is the point for some folks). Well--or as Croydon previously found, if you really give people choice, it's expensive.

I have no idea how much of Croydon is Free Staters; the Underwoods have been there for a while and have never made a secret of how they stand, so there's been ample previous opportunity to vote them out, and people haven't. So maybe the only lesson here is that if you have children to raise, New Hampshire may not be a good bet. Or maybe Croydon will follow the rest of the state in re-installing public education supporters. We'll see what the next chapter holds. 

PA: New Charter Regs Are A Start

 Monday Pennsylvania's Independent Regulatory Review Commission gave a 3-2 victory to Governor Wolf's latest move in his ongoing attempts to update the state's decades-old charter regulations. 

These new regulations do not address some of the persistent issues (particularly PA's messed up funding system for charters), but it does provide a few pieces of much-needed transparency and accountability. Charter schools are fond of insisting they are public schools; these regulations require them to act a little more as if that were true. 

The new regulations address six areas of charter operation.

The application requirements are now more rigorous and will require a form developed by the state department of education. The form will include detailed data about who the students will be, how the school will be run, and what the curriculum will look like.

The charters must publish detailed enrollment data as well as enrollment policies. This matters because it will force schools to reveal at least some of the hurdles they've put in the way of students with special needs or other challenges.

Charter school trustees must follow Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, including revealing in financial interests and avoid conflicts of interest. No self-dealing.

Charter schools have to follow the generally accepted standards for fiscal accounting and management. They will have to be audited.

They have to provide health care benefits to employees. And there's also a reconfiguration of timelines and due dates for getting charters their money.

Does any of that sound radical or out of line? No, it doesn't, but charters have fought every step of the way. It will be hard. It will cost money. Well, sure. Accountability is hard, but PA taxpayers will fork over around $3 billion to charters; they deserve to know how the money was spent. Ed Voters of Pennsylvania was more blunt: "Don't cheat, don't steal, don't discriminate against students." It's not that hard.

Some GOP legislators have objected to the governor's use of the regulatory process to do an end run around the legislature, and they have a point-- this is no way to manage this stuff, if for no other reason than what Wolf does can be undone by the next governor. But then, this is the same GOP that is trying to do an end run around the governor's veto power by proposing new laws as constitutional amendments. It's one more version of our traditional mess--our legislature is intransigent, and Governor Wolf tends to govern like a former CEO rather than a coalition-building politician. What the heck--at least we've been able to pass a budget for the past few years. But I digress.

The charter changes are not exactly sweeping; mostly they fall into the "Wait--you mean they didn't already have to do that?!" category, which is why it's important that they rules now exist. Taxpayers deserve basic accountability from everyone who is hoovering up some of their dollars. There are far bigger issues that need to be addressed when it comes to charter school regulation in the commonwealth, especially when it comes to funding, but these are a positive step.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Public Education's PR Problem

Last week a New York Times opinion piece by Jessica Grose presented a conclusion that was not exactly news to those of us in the education world-- despite the loud yawling from the vicinity of the parents rights area, parents in this country are mostly happy with their children's schools.

In fact, despite the pandemic-related chaos, according to Gallup, more parents were satisfied with the quality of education being received by their children than were satisfied in 2013 or 2006. And that leads us to this not-shocking revelation:

Digging deeper into the Gallup numbers revealed that the people who seem to be driving the negative feelings toward American schools do not have children attending them: Overall, only 46 percent of Americans are satisfied with schools. Democrats, “women, older adults and lower-income Americans are more likely than their counterparts to say they are satisfied with K-12 education,” Gallup found.

That plays out across and within states, and in other polls. It has been this way for years--people mostly trust and like their local schools.

Scratch the local wave of critics and attackers, and you mostly find people who don't actually have children in the school district (or, sometimes, in any school at all). That points to a productive tactic for those who want to dismantle public education, but it also points to a problem that public schools need to address.

Public schools are terrible at any kind of basic PR.

I was hit by this when I retired. When you're in the public school bubble, you're deeply aware, all the time, of what's going on in the school, right down to the day by day flow. When I retired, I expected that outside the bubble, I expected to be less aware, but even I was surprised at how little information makes it outside that bubble. 

School districts are mostly terrible at--well, let's not even call it PRT. Let's just call it the basic business of letting people know what is going on inside the schools. 

Web pages are the worst kind of barely functional Web 1.0 online brochures. Critics of a district can seem to dominate social media because the local district isn't there at all. Public schools may rarely appear in local media except when something dreadful happens. And a school district's outreach may depend on the luck of the draw--does their just happen to be someone on staff who likes doing that stuff?

There are a few potential causes.

One is that folks inside the public school bubble simply don't realize how little information makes it outside that bubble. They are soaking in it every day, and they just don't see that they're swimming in a tiny fenced off pool and not the ocean.

Another is the institutional version of "just close the door and do my job," which was a perfectly fine approach a few decades ago, but is not enough for the 21st century. "I'm just going to do my job and y'all are going to have to trust me," was never a great stance, but it's absolutely unsustainable now. You may not want to talk about your work, but a whole lot of other people do, and they're going to hold that conversation whether you bother to show up or not. 

It's understandable. For decades, school boards couldn't get the public to show up if they were handing out fifty dollar bills. Teachers considered it a miracle if more than three parents showed up for open house. But times have changed. Waiting for the public to come to you isn't enough.

I'm critical of the many bizarre non-teaching positions that have appeared in the world of education, but your district needs somebody to serve as some sort of public information point person. Someone who walks through the school, takes a picture, and puts up at least one "Here's what's happening in the school today" post. Someone who maintains the web site so that it's actually useful. Someone who peppers your local media with releases about school stuff. Someone who can come up with creative ways to get information outside the bubble to the taxpayers who don't currently have tied to people within the bubble. 

There are other factors that I recognize are open to debate. I'm a small town guy and a big proponent of living in the community where you teach, or at least adjacent (we were a two-district couple when we married). I know there are teachers who want to do their jobs then go home and never encounter students or families outside of school; I'm not sure that's a useful stance in this day and age. And after a string of faceless commuting admins in my own district, I am more adamant than ever that school administrators must be well-known public faces in their district. The best counter to "Those people are indoctrinatin' our kids with evil ideas" remains "I know that guy, and he doesn't strike me as someone who would do such evil things."

It's not just transparency--though school districts need that too. But as schools too well know, transparency, like an open window, only accomplishes something if people look. Let's call what we need active transparency-- not just making what happens in school visible to those who look, but pushing the visibility out there.

Will this end the current onslaught? Of course not. Some of the leaders of these waves of attacks are acting in bad faith, some are political opportunists, and some are the same old folks looking for any excuse to dismantle public education. But there are also plenty of people in your community who mean well and want schools to be good but whose only information has come from public school opponents. 

It's right there in the data above--people who are familiar with the local school mostly approve of it. Doesn't mean the schools are perfect. Doesn't mean that the majority don't have a legit beef. But those who know and approve of the school didn't have to be fed some kind of sophisticated marketing blather--they just had to see what the school is doing. Extend that sight outside the bubble. Not only is it good for the health and support of the school, but taxpayers deserve to know that the dysfunction-centered hollering they hear is not the whole story.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Read This Series About Hillsdale College and the Dismantling of Public Education

Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it's our weapon.

That's Larry Arrn, the president of Hillsdale College, the very right-wing Christianist college that has become a major force in the desire of folks who want to take education back from the government (perhaps best exemplified by Betsy DeVos). For these folks, it's not about competition or improving the nation's education base or bringing greater equity to education. It's about tearing down public education and replacing it with taxpayer-funded, private Christian schools.

This three-part series from Kathryn Joyce at Salon is excellent at providing both macro and micro pictures of what this crusade looks like, and how it is unfolding across the country. I strongly recommend that you read it.

PART I: In the full-scale assault on public education, Hillsdale College is leading the charge.

Joyce takes us to Orange County in California, where a "classical academy" led by a charismatic anti-vax physician who's married to the head of the school board. The story of this couple is linked to the rise of Hillsdale, which has gone from a tiny little-known school to a bastion of MAGA anti-public education. I knew that Hillsdale was directly involved in Trump's 1776 Commission. I didn't know they'd once hired Ginni Thomas as a lobbyist.

PART II: Stealth religion and a Trumped-up version of American history

Joyce looks at the curriculum that Hillsdale backs and promotes through their very first charter initiative which, at the time, was touted as an effort "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." These folks are not messing around when it comes to the culture wars--accent on the wars part.

PART III: The far right's national plan for schools.

Plant charters, defund public education. Back to Orange County to see how the strategy looks on the ground, as well as looking at what these folks say they really want ("If your child isn't in school, they won't have the money, the unions won't get funded, and those schools will close down.")  Also, a trip to see how this is playing out in other states, including Florida and Tennessee, and some actual encouraging words at the end.

Throughout the series, it's remarkable the degree to which, these days, these anti-public ed folks are just saying it all out loud. Joyce has done a ton of research and leg work and the series lays out just how intent these folks are on dismantling public education as we know it and returning to some sort of imaginary golden age that never existed (and never should have). 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

ICYMI: Springtime Edition (3/20)

 Pretty sure it's practically spring, more or less. Not that that means a lot around here, but still, it's nice to mark the seasons. Here's your reading for the week. Lot of paywalls this time--my apologies.

Who's unhappy with schools? The answer surprised me.

The answer probably won't surprise you. But there are some good data here in this New York Times story about how the failing schools narrative is being driven largely by people who don't have actual contact with schools.

Why the school wars still rage

Jill Lepore in the New Yorker provides historical perspective on the parents rights crt freakout that has been erupting every so often for a century.

A school created a homeless shelter in the gym

Hechinger tells a story of an unusual success. Something to make you fell better, for a change.

A "diverse" community needs to hear the truth

Nancy Flanagan with a jaw-dropping story from a not-very-diverse community. Have you subscribed to her blog yet? Because you should.

Michigan Public School Advocates Push Back

Betsy DeVos and friends have one more plan to attack public education in Michigan, and a group has formed to push back.

Schools have cash they're struggling to spend

Schools got a bunch of relief money, but they're having trouble spending it. Matt Barnum at Chalkbeat explains why.

What you should learn in the classroom about expressing your opinion

Paul Thomas has a great piece about opinions in the classroom, and why finding ways to share them is important.

The incredible shrinking TFA

Gary Rubinstein takes a look at Teach for America's diminishing fortunes and explains why it's happening.

College Board warns against censoring its AP courses

Ileano Najarro at EdWeek takes a look at the clash between the College Board and CRT panic states.

Who is the Theranos of education?

EdSurge asks a question with a million answers but settles on just a couple, but they're very deserving. Two high tech edu-scams that have deservedly declined.

A charter school family gravy train finally halted

This story from North Carolina of Torchlight Academy shows how the charter biz can be a great way to make the family a lot of money, for a long time, before someone at the state level finally decides to care.

How progressives won the school culture war--in New Hampshire

Jennifer Berkshire looks at the how and who of the massive defeat of privatizers running for school board seats in the Granite State. 

Being a Good Teacher

Steve Nelson responds to a piece in EdWeek about not having to love your students.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Call Them By Their Name

I was teaching 8th grade at the time, and there were three Sheila's in my class, so I had settled on some combination of last initials, but one of the Sheila's approached me and said, "Could you just call me Andrea?' And I kept a straight face even though she pronounced it "Ahn-DRAY-ah." Because it was clearly a name she had always wanted to be called, and so that was what I called her.

It's not that hard.

I would start the year by reading off the attendance list the office computer spit out, telling students that if I butchered the pronunciation to correct me, and always reading it first name first, not last name first (because take a look at my name and just guess what elementary and middle school years were like for me), and also telling them "If you're given name is Alphonse but you prefer to go by Puddles just tell me." And every year I had several of those, either because of family nick name or personal preference. "Francis" wants to be "Butch." Or "Philomena" wants to be "Bebe." "Elizabeth" won the name lottery and gets her choice of forty-seven different nick names. My own niece and nephew both go by their middle name instead of their first. Whatever it is they want to be called, you ask, find out, and then call them that.

It's not that hard.

I was a yearbook advisor for umpty-odd years (there is no spelling of any name given to a human being that can surprise me any more). Seniors were responsible for selecting and submitting their photo. They would pick the photo they wanted, and attach the name they wanted to go with it. Barring anything obscene or inappropriate (no Nazi t-shirts, please), we would run the picture and the name they submitted.

It's not that hard.

Even my rural-ish conservative-area high school triple checked with seniors to confirm what name they wanted announced as they walked across the stage to collect their diploma. Then, at graduation, we announced that name.

It's not that hard.

I am baffled by teachers who get in a giant tizzy over a refusal to call the student by their preferred name. We already do it all the time. I have yet to come across a teacher who adamantly declared, "Your given name is 'Aloysius' so that's exactly what I'm going to call you" or "Sorry, your full name is William, so I refuse to call you Bill." 

One of the basic building blocks of a functional and effective classroom is respect, and there is huge disrespect-- massive, planet-sized, deserves-its-own-zip-code disrespect-- in telling a student, "No, I will tell you who you are, and you get no say in it." 

Lord knows, all those years ago, I had thoughts about Sheila's desire to be Andrea, but the most important thought I had was that it was none of my business and if she wanted to be called Sir Hiram Patronomicus III then I'd do so. It's not that hard.

And if your response to all this is that it's different, somehow, when a student who was one gender wants to be identified by a name that suggests a different gender, you're going to have to explain it to me slowly, because I'll be damned if I can see how. 

They tell you what their name is. You call them by that name.

It's not that hard.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

"Don't Say Gay," shame, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

It appears as a parenthetical comment in a CNN opinion piece by Jill Filipovic and then amplified in an Amanda Marcotte piece at Salon. It's one more reason that the Don't Say Gay bill in Florida is doomed. Look at the heart of the language again:

Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.

As Filipovic points out, heterosexuality is a sexual orientation, and male and female are gender identities.

This law is so vague and badly written, that it outlaws any classroom materials that refer to boys and girls, or that talks about traditional hetero romance. So, every fairy tale would be ruled out. Every reference to boys and girls would be verbotten. And we'd have to do something about those gendered bathrooms. As Marcotte puts it:

In other words, if we read the law literally, it would create the kind of gender-less dystopia that conservatives are always claiming liberals want, where any acknowledgment of maleness or femaleness is erased entirely.

Because gender and sexual identity are baked into most of the experiences we subject littles to. As a well-circulated meme says, folks may be freaking out over LGBTQ for littles, but they'll still ask your toddler son if he has a girlfriend and buy your toddler daughter a "Heartbreaker" onesie. 

The answer from proponents of LGBTQ suppression would, I'm betting, be something along the lines of "Tradition roles and identities are normal, and therefor discussing them with littles is age-appropriate," which dovetails with the old notion that LGBTQ persons are not born, but made--or, for the most paranoid, recruited. 

At least part of the impetus here is anger that LGBTQ persons won't demonstrate any shame over their orientation. "Don't Say Gay" echoes that old nomenclature "The love that dare not speak its name." 

The desire to shame and silence has begun to crop up in ways that would be merely silly if they weren't so damaging. The Mississippi assistant principal fired because he read second graders I Need a New Butt may be the result of localized foolishness, but as Alyssa Rosenberg shows in her Washington Post column, it opens a window on how adults forget to appreciate the value of "gross, rude, and absurd" in children's books and lives. Children have a great deal of exploring to do when it comes to themselves. I have often repeated my belief that education should be the business of helping young humans to become more fully their best selves, to grasp what it means to be fully human in the world.

Delivering to children a message that they should feel shame for having butts would not be a useful tool in helping them grow.

But when you unleash shame in a sort of omni-directional vagueness, there's no predicting where it will land. You come up with bad laws that say "Don't talk about X" when you really mean "Don't talk about X in the wrong, abnormal way." It's one more way of saying "We're not actually against indoctrinatin' kids as long as it's done the right way." This law is like a flipped version of all those times conservatives called for freedom of religion and then got upset with Muslims, Pastafarians, and followers of the Church of Satan exercised it.

And there you are, punching yourself in the face. Here's hoping that when DeSantis signs this bill, as he almost certainly will, it goes straight to the courts, where it is struck down as it so richly deserves to be. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Do Students Know When They're Learning?

 A pair of experiments at Harvard suggest that students may not be the best judges of how well they're learning. 

A pair of professors split up their introductory physics classes. One half got lectures, and one half got active learning. Then they switched. The professors have a 12 item quiz to measure learning, and also asked students to assess the two types of learning they experienced. The students get better  results after they had done the active learning. But-- they lecture students more strongly agreed with statements like "I feel like I learned a great deal from this lecture" and "I wish all my physics courses were taught this way."

The two professors repeated the experiment the following semester, and found the same results.

There are plenty of caveats here. Harvard freshmen are not exactly a random, representative sampling of students, and a 12 item quiz is not exactly a deep measure of learning. Nor is physics a sample of all kinds of learning content. 

But it reminded me of a story from my teaching day. I taught downstream from one of my colleagues, getting most of my students from her every year. Invariably, when I asked them about their previous English class, they would disparage it (and her) by saying the class was just a lot of fun and games and they never actually learned anything. But then, at the start of every new unit, I'd do formal or informal assessment to see what they already knew. The answer was usually quite a bit.

"Where do you suppose you learned all that," I would ask them, and the light bulb would slowly go on. It took them literally 6-12 months to understand what they had actually learned. 

This phenomenon has several implications for teachers. I think one of the biggest centers on the issue of confidence. 

Part of what a teacher is doing in a classroom is building student confidence, helping them believe that they have the skills and knowledge to handle what comes at them. But it is easy to build confidence that is not rooted in reality, so one of the skills teachers have to foster is the ability to realistically self-assess. 

This kind of self-assessment looks different in different disciplines. A music student has to learn to really listen to both herself and the rest of the ensemble. An artist has to learn to really look at what they're rendering. A writer has to learn to really see what she's written. This is what teacher feedback is about--not just telling the student how she's doing, but giving her the chance to check her own perceptions against those of someone who, ideally, is more expert. 

I've seen plenty of folks in leadership roles pump students up in artificial ways that lead further down the road to crashing and burning. I've seen students blossom early and stall out because they were pumped up with praise. "You are great for an 8th grader," is no help when you're a tenth grader. 

This is one of the big challenges of teaching--to render yourself obsolete for a student who has learned to measure their own growth and skill. And it is a tricky part, to find the line between discouraging truths and overly-positive praise. If you're going to be a life long learner, you have to be able to gauge your own learning accurately. You don't have to look hard to find adults who never learned this lesson. Add it to the list of things they never told you about the job in teacher school.