Wednesday, November 30, 2022

How Much Does Knowledge Matter For Teaching

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an editorial that was picked up and run in my region, raising a question about the "most important component of teaching."

The actual issue was the substitute shortage (which I can report, via the experiences of the Board of Directors is severe--they have never had a sub when their kindergarten teacher is absent, but are just shunted into the other K teachers). Ohio has shifted to their own version of a warm body substitute law; in Ohio, if you have a college degree, you can apply for a subject-specific substitute license. IOW, if you have a BA in English, you can be an English class substitute in Ohio. 

Pennsylvania has loosened up the rules as well, including letting near-graduated teacher program students sub and allowing retirees to sub without having to give up pension payments (though no retiree I know, including me, has gotten a call from a district to step in). This measure would loosen things up more. But what raised the question is part of the Post-Gazette's rationale:

Knowledge of the subject matter is the most important component of teaching.

Is it? And if not, what is?

I am a huge believer in the importance of subject matter knowledge. When you are standing in a classroom, there is no substitute for knowing what the hell you're talking about. It helps enormously with classroom management and earning the respect of your students (yes, you have to earn that). It helps you stay fast on your feet and adapt to whatever kind of teachable moment presents itself. 

I'm not saying you have to be the world's foremost expert, nor is your job to strut your stuff as the smartest person in the room. But a teacher who plans to get by by just following the textbook makes me cringe. It's the difference between being a guide who knows the paved path to the destination, but is stumped if anyone takes one step off the asphalt, and a guide who knows every part of the territory, on the path and off, and can guide you to any spot from any other spot. I want a classroom with the latter.

But teaching also involves being able to convey that knowledge you have. Everyone knows (and some have experienced) the cliche of the person who's really smart but can't actually explain what they know to anyone else. You can't be a good guide if you arrived at the destination with no idea how you got there and the only advice you can offer others is to keep hollering, "Well, just go to the place!" You have to be able to break the trip into comprehensible pieces.

And that means you have to understand your audience and read the room. You have to be able to communicate with the young humans that you are supposed to be teaching. For the younger students in particular this means some exceptional communication and empathic skills are required of teachers. If you can't read the room, every teachable moment will fly right past you and every opportunity will be lost. 

And you have to be in charge, but not a tyrant. You have to maintain the safe learning space, which means all those people skills have to be harnessed in service of balancing all the needs in front of you.

Yes, there are plenty of pieces of conventional wisdom that dance around this issue.

"I want them to love learning." And that's absolutely the important goal, and you can only achieve it if you know something to teach them and are able to do so. 

"We teach students, not subjects." Sure. What do you teach them. I get the point of this one, that we should not get so caught up in our material that we get things backward and think that the students are there to serve the content instead of vice versa. But we still have to teach the students something.

"Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage." Honestly, I don't know a teacher who still sticks closely to the sage model and just stands up there bloviating away the days, but it would be a lousy model to follow. But it's a serious mistake to over-correct into the 

"We're all just here to learn together and I'm just one more learner and they teach me as much as I teach them." If you don't know more about what you're teaching than your students do, just go home. You are the grown up adult specialist. That is the gig. If you don't know more than the students, if you are not the expert guide on the learning journey, then what exactly are the taxpayers paying you for? Your heart can be as big as all outdoors, but your brain needs to be full, too. 

(Also, if you're going to tell me that nobody needs to know anything because Google exists, just go far away.)

None of this means you have to be an all-knowing teacherbot who is the supreme authority on all matters, just standing in the classroom spewing forth your infallible wisdom. 

All of this is a lot of work, and constant work because teaching is about balancing a whole bunch of things and the eight is always shifting so you can never ever get into a stance and think, "Well, I can just lock this down exactly here." 

Which means on top of all the rest, you have to want to do the job. You have to want to succeed, to do everything that's called for. You have to want to teach, not just grab a paycheck or add a line on your resume. You have to give a shit. You have to care.

So I'm torn, because in my mind, almost everything on the list rests on knowing your content. Except the desire to do the job. But of the two, content knowledge is the element that can be learned. I don't know how to teach you to give a shit about teaching, but I know lots of ways for you to learn the content so that you can do the job. 

So I think I have to put knowledge of subject matter at #2, right behind "Want to do the job." Which is why I suspect the Ohio idea won't help much, just like most of these bar-lowering warm-body-recruiting ideas aren't helping all that much. It's easy to find people with college degrees and warm bodies, but the people who want to teach and really care about the work are already there. If you are a policy maker (or newspaper publisher) who imagines that there are millions of folks just dying to teach and the only thing holding them back is some paperwork, then you have some subject matter knowledge problems of your own. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Heritage Wish List for the 118th Congress

The right wing Heritage Foundation has an education wish list for the next session of Congress.

And who can blame them? Their last wish list was a list of right wing judges they hoped to have installed, and Trump was their big ole Santa Claus.

But this is a list we should pay attention to, because it's what the next Congress is going to get lobbied hard for. So let's see what these folks want to find under their tree next year.

Early childhood education and care

I actually don't entirely disagree with their very first item, which is a safe harbor for household employee child care. Currently, if you are spending more than $2,400 for a sitter/nanny in your home, you are required to do all those employer things like withholding taxes and submitting quarterly payments to the IRS and I know rich folks who have inhouse nannies could just suck it up, but I know a few not-rich people for whom this stuff is a real issue. Of course, there's also the supreme hassle of being a gig worker with a stack of 1099s at tax time. There has to be a better way, but it needs to be one that protects the rights and livelihood of the workers on this low end of the scale.

Next, Heritage wants to burn down Head Start, and "although the federal government should not be involved in the provision of early childhood education and care in the first place," Heritage would settle for folding Head Start money into the Child Care Development Fund, which is a childcare voucher program for the littles that hands over some money and lets parents pick the provider.

Remember the 529 savings programs that let parents "invest" money for college funds. Back in 2017, Congress expanded the program so that it can now be used to pay for K-12 expenses like private school tuition. Heritage would like to keep right on expanding and letting folks use the 529s for preschool and child care. Folks on the right like 529 plans because they set up all the structure needed for a voucher program.  

Elementary and Secondary Education

Two goals focus on the DC school system. Heritage would like Congress to expand eligibility for the DC voucher program. They would also like DC schools to become a "model for the rest of the nation" by instituting a gag law, "rejecting the application of 'critical race theory' and 'queer theory' to school lessons and activities." They're using the argument that things like requiring an appropriate pronoun would constitute "compelled speech." That argument also extends to having educators "acting in a way that violates objective biological facts and, potentially, their personal beliefs and values." So, compelled speech is bad, but compelled silence is appropriate.

Heritage would like a national "Parent's Bill of Rights," though not one that expands the federal government's "footprint in state and local education policy." Just something nice a vague that "concisely confirms that a parent is a child’s primary caregiver." Well, that and "provisions about parents’ right to direct the upbringing, education, and religious and moral instruction for their children."

And in the continuing attempt to get voucher feet in the door, Heritage would like Congress to make IDEA and Title I funds "portable," as vouchers for things like micro-education savings accounts. While we're at it, says Heritage, lets also institute federal vouchers (education savings account style) for military families and students on tribal lands. 

Higher Education

Put a stop to all that student loan forgiveness stuff, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which is a bad program because it "prioritizes government work over private-sector employment." 

Also, Congress should get busy phasing out federal student loan programs entirely "to make space for a restoration of the private lending market."

Also, let's put a stop to the current accreditation system for higher ed and replace it with accreditation by whoever the state feels like offering sponsorship to. There's already a bill for this--the 2019 Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act , sponsored by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Heritage quotes him:

Imagine having access to credit and student aid and for a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in music accredited by the New York Philharmonic; college-level history classes on-site at Mount Vernon or Gettysburg; medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic; taking massive, open, online courses offered by the best teachers in the world from your living room or the public library.

Yes, that would be paradise for privateers. For ordinary students, not so much.

Heritage has a beef with research funding, arguing "that taxpayers end up cross-subsidizing the research agendas of woke billionaire philanthropists, but universities use this indirect cost windfall to fund growth in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) staff, country club–like campuses, and administrative systems of questionable value." That's an odd argument, as at least one university I'm familiar with does that kind of over-expansion because some corporation or regular unwoke millionaire wants their name on a new building. 

And Heritage would like higher ed to have "skin in the game" by carrying some of the cost of unpaid student loans. 

So there you have it.

When Congress gets back to work, look for these choice ideas to crop up, as Heritage continues its tradition at whittling away at any kind of taxpayer-funded services for other people in hopes that someday there will be nothing left but a sliver that rich folks can use to pick at their own teeth. Here's hoping Santa decides they've been very naughty.

It's The Poverty, Stupid

As the discussion of Learning Loss drags on, with a big side of Blame It On The School Buildings Closures (itself with a big side of And It's All The Teachers' Fault), guess what we're not discussing.

Poverty and its relationship to student achievement.

If you're a regular, you know that I think most of what is being said about Learning Loss is bunk, an attempt to focus entirely too much attention on Big Standardized Test scores.

But if you're really concerned about this stuff, by any measure (and there's no question that the usual level of education didn't happen in the depths of the pandemess), then you have to pay attention to one particular factor. 

The New York Times threw its hat into the Let's Explain This ring, and while they buy that remote learning may take some of the blame, it's not the major factor. 

So remote learning does not explain the whole story. What else does? In a sophisticated analysis of thousands of public school districts in 29 states, researchers at Harvard and Stanford Universities found that poverty played an even bigger role in academic declines during the pandemic.

“The poverty rate is very predictive of how much you lost,” Sean Reardon, an education professor at Stanford who helped lead the analysis, told me.

This comes as a surprise to absolutely nobody who has been paying attention, because poverty level has always been predictive of scores on the BS Test (and to be clear, when we talk about "how much you lost," we're just talking about how much your BS Test score dropped). Always. 

And after decades, we still don't know a sure-fire way to get poor kids scores up other than subject them to intense test prep at the expense of the rest of the full education that rich kids get--a deeply misguided and unfortunate effect of making the BS Test scores the be-all and end-all of schooling. And under political leaders of all persuasion, we have repeatedly doubled down on that on the theory that raising test scores would lift people out of poverty, even bring an end to poverty itself, an idea that belongs on the shelf somewhere between trickle-down economics and unicorn farming.

We actually know a good means of reducing child poverty in the US. We just reduced child poverty to record low levels in 2021 by way of expanding the child tax credit plus some other poverty mitigation measures during COVID, but we had to knock that stuff off, because our urge to make the lives of children better invariably takes a back seat to our other societal urges, like the one that says the poors should have to suffer the results of whatever bad choices or moral failings made them deserve to be poor in the first place. 

So we're going to freak out loudly over the Learning Loss stuff, because there is money to be made in combatting the dreaded BS Test score drop. But to address the major underlying issue of poverty, we'll probably do nothing much. I can predict this based on the fact that poverty levels have been an issue in education for forever, and yet we get these kinds of solutions.

No Child Left Behind: You lazy teachers are just using child poverty as an excuse for not doing your jobs.

Charter school choice: We will "save" a tiny percentage of the poors, but only the ones we want, and maybe it will turn out that we don't actually know how to save them.

Testocrats: If they get high scores on the Big Standardized Test, they will stop being poor.

Teach for America: The poors just need some super-smart future ivy league grads to come teach them for a couple of years.

Race to the Top: See "No Child Left Behind"

Vouchers: This system in which they get a few thousand to spend as they wish won't make them less poor, and they still won't be able to get into great private schools, but at least their struggles will be their own problem instead of society's.

Never mind discussing solutions such as a living minimum wage so that working poor can be less poor. Universal health care. Or directing more necessary resources to schools serving poor families. And definitely not going to talk about ending the US standing as the only major nation in the world with no parental leave at all, because families are important and babies need nurturing, but not at any cost to employers. 

Yes, as we sift through the pandemic data and focus all our attention on the debate about keeping buildings open or not, it will become increasingly clear that A) poverty creates a major hurdle for educational attainment and B) policy makers and thought leaders would much rather talk about something else. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

ICYMI: Venison On The Hoof Edition (11/27)

Where you are, this is probably just more of Thanksgiving Weekend aka Get Out There And Spend Money time, but here in NW PA it is time to go shoot some deer. (which is why schools are closed tomorrow). And while I am usually Switzerland on the whole deer vs. hunters issue, this fall I have seen so many deer try to throw themselves into the path of my car that I am rooting heavily for the hunters. You may think of deer as beautiful slices of nature, but if you lived cheek by fluffy jowl with them, you would understand that they are just large, dumb, graceful rats.

Here's some reading for while you're at home resting up. 

Florida’s 2023 Legislative Session: What’s Scheduled and What to Expect

Accountabaloney has a rundown of schedule and proud announcements about intentions. It isn't going to be pretty.

Star-Spangled Bans: No place for Pride in some schools after anti-LGBTQ laws spread

From K-12 Dive, a pretty thorough summation, including some historical perspective. A good reader on the mess that has been created.

SC: Moms for Liberty School Board Fires Superintendent, Opens Itself to Litigation

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider is wondering if that South Carolina school board that came out guns a'blazin' hasn't set itself up for some legal problems.

The War On Teachers Part One: It's the money, Stupid - Salary Edition

Jeff Waid takes a look at the ways in which teachers are being hammered via their pay.

Human Capital Roundtable member privately blasted NC teacher merit pay plan as “undercooked goulash”

Justin Parmenter continues to follow the ins and outs of an attempt to degrade the pay and profession of teachers in North Carolina.

The Southern Strategy (Part II)

On his substack, Steve Nuzum continues to draw parallels between the CRT panic and the Southern Strategy of the Nixon era as ways to harvest white resentment. Plus he gets in a fight with a legislator on Twitter.

School segregation persists in the new New Orleans, study says

A new study finds one more thing that charterization didn't fix in New Orleans. From

Nobody connects the personal, the professional, and the politics like Nancy Flanagan. She reflects here on visits to Germany and Clint Smith's great piece about remembering ugly pasts.

At Gregory Sampson's school, someone dared to ask why they were giving so many redundant tests. The an administrator went and told the truth.

Trying to Convince Your Legislators Not to Expand Vouchers? Here Are Some Facts You Need

Jan Resseger collects some of the information on voucher programs and why your state shouldn't hop on that kind of bandwagon. Great for sharing.

What Do the Midterms Mean for Education?

Rick Hess at Ed Week in conversation with Andy Rotherham. Two guys you probably disagree with a lot, but an interesting and thoughtful conversation just the same.

The network behind the books pulled from Beaufort Co. schools, and the one fighting back

A close up look at one on the ground battle over books and the groups lined up on either side. From The Island Packet.

Texas Monthly takes a look at Texas's emergence as the #1 book banning state in the country.

Rick Doehring takes a satirical swipe at book banning by taking aim at Goodnight, Moon.

And you can still find me over at Substack--same content, but different digital pathway.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Do Education and Urgency Mix?

Is urgency a critical element of education?

Rachel Skerrit, writing for Education Next about the experience of leading Boston Latin School, thinks so. She puts "culture of urgency" top of the list of critical elements. What does she mean?

What I mean by “culture of urgency” is to unite all constituents around a mission and to be clear about where we currently fall short. Urgency does not mean to place so much pressure on teachers and staff that their longevity in the profession is unlikely.

She argues that urgency in urban education "is created from an incident." Something happens, and leaders respond to an urgent need the incident revealed. 

Her piece sparked a response from Martin West (Harvard Graduate School of Education), and as I would expect, the guy who suggests that students should get "caught up" by spending more time in school, he agrees that urgency is key. There's a whole side argument about whether or not urgency is racist, as some report they have been told, and I'm inclined to agree that it's not, with the usual caveat that as an old white guy, I may be missing something.

Urgency has also been brought up in various discussions of "catching up" after the pandemic pause, and in all this discussion, there are some shades of meaning that matter. 

Some folks seem to be using urgency to mean "treat this like it is an important thing," which is just another way to set things as priorities, and that's fine. Where I start casting side eye is when urgency is used to mean "You have to do something RIGHT NOW!"

This is salesman urgency, the whole pitch of "you'd better lay your money down right now for this fabulous deal because if you hesitate it will be gone." This is the urgency that's applied to make sure we skip any kind of meaningful thought, discussion, or reflection.

Martin quotes writer Tema Okun: When a sense of urgency “makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive [and] encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making,” it can be oppressive. When a sense of urgency produces “unrealistic expectations about how much can get done in any period of time,” it can become self-defeating.

You may remember back to the days when Common Core was being rammed down everyone's throats, and the argument to many objections was that we can't possibly roll this out slowly or carefully because the schools are burning and we have to fix it all RIGHT NOW! Likewise, school choice advocates have argued that their policies must be implemented RIGHT NOW because students can't wait another minute. While some folks making the urgency argument may have been sincere, there were certainly many who were simply trying to force the sale and get things moving before anyone could think much about it. 

It is a match with the Silicon Valey ethic of move fast and break things. And unfortunately it can trickle down to the classroom as well.

The Big Standardized Test (and many other tests as well) harness RIGHT NOW urgency, insisting that students not take time to reflect or consider answers, but crank them out RIGHT NOW before the buzzer sounds. It's a particularly odious approach to writing on tests; I wonder how many scholars who created their masterworks over a period of years would flunk a test requiring them to crank out insights in essay form in the next thirty minutes.

And it's easy to let urgency work an unhealthy path into the classroom. Lord, but I know this one. I always felt that 180-day limit breathing down my neck as I contemplated everything I wanted to get done. It was a regular part of my professional self-care to stop, take a deep breath, and just take my foot off the gas pedal before I drove my class right into a wall. RIGHT NOW urgency is the enemy of careful, thoughtful reflection, and I had to regularly remind myself that that kind of meaningful depth was more important that getting to everything on my list. 

RIGHT NOW urgency is the enemy of quality. Let me tell a professional development story. The session leader had us divide ourselves into groups based on decision-making style--whether we had to think it through first, or move quickly and ask questions later, or some other combinations. One relatively small group that resulted was the move fast and break things group; when asked what the advantage of their approach was, one participant said proudly, "We get shit done." In my group, the approach deliberately crowd, someone muttered in response, "Exactly. Shit. You get shit done." 

Currently folks want to apply RIGHT NOW urgency to Learning Loss. Specifically, they want to apply it to the matter of getting BS Test scores back up there, and in fact that is where West is going with his article--parents don't understand just how behind their kids are and we've got to convince them so they can panic properly and help us implement and pay for all these programs that will get student achievement test scores back up! Beware papers like this one, trying to make an academic case that we need to accelerate learning (somehow) and increase hours and push push push students to hammer every little iota of education out of every precious second, as if those seconds could not be used for other precious pursuits.

It may be a shortcoming that I am not a Get Shit Done kind of guy, but when the salesman starts trying to make me feel an urgent need to give him my money RIGHT NOW, what I actually feel is a certainty that it is time to walk away. Urgency is to often the enemy of sober thought about choosing the best path forward; in fact, it's often an attempt to short-circuit any meaningful discussion about what the path forward should be. 

Set priorities? Excellent idea. Treat important things as if they are important? A critical idea. Letting somebody stampede you by hollering RIGHT NOW before you've finished deciding right now what? A terrible idea. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Wilson: Segregation and Religion and Race

Erika Wilson, scholar, law professor (and dabbler in that scary CRT stuff), has a new piece in the Yale Law Review. I've read Racialized Religious School Segregation so that you don't have to, but you ought to. Granted, it reads like the sort of thing you'd expect to find in the Yale Law Review, but that's what you get when you get a plate instead of a bowl of twinkies. There's a lot to chew on here, and I want to pull out some of the highlights.

Wilson is looking at school choice in the wake of Carson v. Makin, the case in which SCOTUS cemented the notion that states must include religious schools in any sort of voucher-ish program, even if those schools are discriminating in ways that no public school would never accept. Here's her main point.

The central claim of this Essay is that racial integration of public schools—though much maligned—is indispensable to moving America’s democracy away from its exclusionary origins and into a well-functioning, racially inclusive democracy. Choice in the private market exacerbates inherent and unresolvable tensions between school choice and racial integration. School choice generally operates against a backdrop of racial pluralism, racial subordination, and racial power imbalance that puts choice in tension with principles of equality, tolerance, and universal citizenship. Expanding school-choice options to include private religious schools is likely to exacerbate these tensions in ways that threaten the possibility of moving into a functioning multiracial democracy.

It occurs to me that in this context, the agitation against critical race theory makes another kind of sense (beyond eroding trust in public education) as a pre-emption against any arguments about choice-driven segregation ("That's just more of that CRT stuff").

The first section of the essay looks at the history of school segregation and the importance to democracy of integration efforts. It's the section that's going to make some people tetchy.

School integration undoubtedly requires Black and brown students to bear heavy costs. But given the realities of white supremacy, the costs of not pursuing integrated schools are even greater. Pursuing integration sets a path toward disrupting the racial subordination that is inherent to segregation in America. Because of America’s history of white supremacy, segregation in America makes material and social equality impossible.

Section II looks at how school choice has not helped, and digs down into the ways that school choice works counter to democracy itself. The market does not bend that way.

School choice is supposed to reform public education by creating a marketplace of schools and allowing families to shop for a school. But in doing so, it situates students as consumers rather than as citizens. It shifts the purpose of public education away from cultivating citizens for American democracy toward furnishing a marketplace through which individual consumers can gain economic, social, and political advantage. To the extent the school-choice model engages with democracy, it defines democracy through the lens of freedom, reasoning that democracy should afford citizens the freedom to choose schools free from state regulation. School choice furthers values like liberty, autonomy, privacy, and competition. In contrast, school integration furthers values like equality, tolerance, and citizenship training.

Emphasis mine. Wilson looks at three ways that the tension between these models causes issues. Let me pull those three points out.

First, under the school-choice model, parents are not required to consider how their choices impact the broader community. Parents instead select schools that fit their preferences, even if that preference is for a school that teaches discrimination, intolerance, or myopic American history.

Second, parents of different racial and socioeconomic groups use school choice differently. Parents select schools that reflect either their ability to exercise social privilege and power or the limits of the institutional context in which their choices are being made.

Finally, racialized power dynamics place true choice out of reach for marginalized Black and brown students.

Put another way, the fewer resources parents have, the fewer choices a school choice system offers them, and the more they make choices based on circumventing the barriers built into the system. 

Section III looks at the intersection between choice, religion and segregation. This, again, gets rather academic in language, but the idea is solid enough--that in the US, many religions "are not organized solely around a collection of spiritual beliefs; many are also organized around social and political viewpoints." 

We've seen a ton of this over the past decade. Obama isn't really an American, isn't really a Christian. Trump, somehow despite all evidence to the contrary, is an instrument of God/Jesus. What are the odds that this effect spills over into schools that select only "real Christians" for their student body?

Wilson discusses the old objections--public schools have a terrible track record on segregation, so what's wrong a choice school that also segregates Brown and Black students if it gives them a good education (answer: it probably doesn't).

Section IV (yes, this essay is not short) considers the struggle between racialized religious segregation and American democracy.

American democracy is under attack. Though the attacks are multifaceted, one of the largest threats is the rise of racial and religious balkanization. The Court’s decision in Carson may significantly exacerbate the balkanization. As Justice Breyer noted, allowing religion into the public-school system increases the risk of social strife and division. Proliferation of school choice that creates racialized religious segregation will result in students being siloed, unexposed to the diverse array of persons that inhabit America. The net result will be a decrease in social solidarity and cohesion, elevating risks of internal upheaval and violence. Violence resulting from the insurrection at the Capitol, attempts to prohibit teaching about the history of race and discrimination in America, and the protests over extrajudicial killings of Black people by the police epitomize the dangers of existing balkanization. The insurrection at the Capitol wherein the participants made explicit calls to Christian nationalism presages how adding religion to the layers of balkanization could endanger America’s democracy.

The opposite of the CATO Institue argument, which is that public school is a hotbed and argument and the only way to bring peace to the country is to let everyone retreat to their own educational silos where they don't have to get in fights with people who are different. Something that, as Wilson points out, we've been trying on an ad hoc basis and which is not working out particularly well.

Choice, she warns, also creates the growth of tiers of education,

Allowing school choice to be contoured by religion and race opens up the possibility for the dominant racialized religion to be used as a sorting metric that enhances the relative value of some students’ education while devaluing the education of others. Put another way, certain kinds of religious education could become sought-after status markers that are unavailable to those who are not part of the dominant race or religion.

There's a lot more to this piece, and you may not buy all of it, but it's still a thought-provoking work, worth a read. You can find the whole piece here. 

Thursday, November 24, 2022


 Every year on this day, in my regular column in our local newspaper, I take a whack at the complicated feelings around Thanksgiving. This is from last year, and it's about as close as I've come to saying what I want to say. Happy Thanksgiving.

I have steadfastly avoided arguments about the historical basis of today’s holiday. No version of the first Thanksgiving is made better by the human impulse to flatten complicated human beings into two dimensional good guys and bad guys.

The Pilgrims appear to have been absolutely sincere in their faith, but with that comes an absolute certainty that they were right and everyone else was wrong. “Let’s establish a colony where everyone is free to worship as they wish,” said no Puritan ever. And the native tribes and bands that they encountered may have seemed more primitive than the European immigrants, but they had their own web of complicated and occasionally nasty political wranglings in which the Pilgrims represented a whole new factor.

Our colonial history is a complicated, messy tangle, worthy of careful inspection and thought. Kind of like all the rest of our history. But history is an endless conversation, not a single story set in stone, which means that history-based holidays are always going to be problematic.

But Thanksgiving isn’t just about history. It’s about gratitude, which absolutely deserves at least one holiday, because gratitude is everything.

We Americans aren’t very good at being grateful. We’re like the idea of being self-made, of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, of doing the work to be deserving of rewards. This often leads us into a strange sort of pseudo-gratitude—“Thank you, God, for giving me the things that I have earned and so richly deserved.”

That’s not really thankfulness. The Puritans themselves had a counter-argument—in their view of God and humanity, the only thing that human beings actually deserve is to burn in Hell forever, so anything else was a gift from God, something that you did not deserve but which God gave as a gift. In the Puritan view of the world, you could never, ever stand before God and say any version of “I earned this. I deserve this. So you must give it to me.”

We play the cards we are dealt in life, and we alone are responsible for what we do with them, how we play them, how we make the best use of them. But we don’t pick them ourselves. We do not make ourselves. And we don’t do anything alone.

It can be discouraging to take a hard look at our favorite self-made success stories, because they are all fables. Our favorite billionaires got started with family money or government money or important connections that gave them a leg up. I can’t think of a single success story, big or small, that doesn’t depend on the assistance of others. At the very very minimum, modern success stories depend on a basis in a stable nation with stable currency and a functioning infrastructure.

There’s nothing wrong with getting assistance from people, circumstances, luck, grace. We are still responsible for what we do with all of that. Nobody is a success based on only their own personal effort and work, but nobody is a success without putting effort and work into it.

But to deny the importance of the assistance we get, the crises we didn’t have to navigate, the breaks that were handed to us—well, that’s when we forget to be thankful. And gratitude is everything.

Without gratitude, we become hardened and unkind. From believing that we did it all ourselves, it’s an easy step to thinking that anyone who doesn’t have what we have—well, that person must be lazier or dumber or just generally less deserving than we are. Thankfulness naturally leads to a desire to pay it forward; the lack of gratitude leads to saying, “Not my problem. They need to take care of themselves.”

When we think all our success is self-created, we start to take it as proof that we are better than those who don’t have what we have. Thankfulness leads to empathy, to the ability to say (and mean) “There but for the grace of God go I.” Lack of gratitude leads to thinking, “I would never, ever be in that position. I’m just too smart and good. Those people must deserve their misfortune because they are lazy or bad.” Ingratitude concludes that you have been paid what the world owes you. Gratitude realizes what you owe the world.

So the challenge today is to think about what you’re truly thankful for. What do you have that is a gift of other people, God, fate, the universe? What in your life is more than you deserve? What do you have to be truly thankful for?

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Keeping Teachers Safe

I had two moments in my first year of teaching.

One was the moment when two students stood up and squared off to fight, and before the smarter part of my brain could intervene, I stepped between them. They were both a head taller and fifty pounds heavier than I, and they were damn sight more used to using fists to hammer out conflict.

The other was the moment when a student from another class period entered my room and stood chest to chest with me, describing in considerable detail how he was going to beat the shit out of me. Then he left, and I made it through the rest of the period before sitting down, shaking, at my desk. It ended okay; at the end of the day, he came back and sat down and talked to me at length about what was bothering him. But I kept the door to my classroom closed and locked for decades, and, weirdly, I have never, ever forgotten the date.

That was the 1979-80 school year. Things have not improved for teachers. 

Every teacher has some stories about dealing with violence in school. Sometimes it's student-to-student. Sometimes it's an act directed toward a teacher, even as simple as throwing an object. Sometimes it's just the threat, a student who spits out some language accompanied by a look that tells you that given the wrong circumstances, that student would be coming at you.

There's a nightmare that I suspect pretty much all teachers have, where somehow you have lost control in the classroom and things are spinning out of control as you desperately, fruitlessly try to get a handle on it. There's the knowledge that you have to work past when starting out, the realization that if your classroom of students decided to ignore you and collectively shut down the class, there's nothing you could do to stop it. You learn to wield authority, but you're aware that it's a construct, an illusion that exists as long as you and the students find it mutually agreeable to maintain it. 

And more than that. I say all of the above as a 6'1" male. I can't quite imagine how a classroom feels for a diminutive female. A teacher in a classroom is uniquely vulnerable, and yet you cannot let fear grab ahold of you because it renders you useless, even dangerous, as a teacher. It's one of those things that they don't teach you in teacher school (but you with any luck learn from your student teaching co-op)-- how to be calm and confident and large and in charge all at the same time.

These days, you can't be a teacher without being aware of the threat of violence. On top of the same old personal experiences, you hear (with shock) how young the attacker was, you see the news stories where the violence escalates and is rebroadcast on the net, you see the worst of the stories that escalate to actual murder. 

So it's not just the mass shootings. Those events get all the talk and generate the most shot, but teachers understand that these shootings are not disconnected balloons floating far above the earth, but the peaks of mountains of escalating violence.

Back in 2014, an American Psychology Association Violence Directed Against Teachers Task Force survey found that 44% of teachers reported an incident directed against them personally. A more recent iteration of that survey found numbers almost as high--and that was during the pandemic. Websites that usually focus on the wacky, fun side of teaching have published hard-edged articles about the issue. 
"Too Many Teachers Are Getting Hit, Kicked, and Punched by Students," writes the WeAreTeachers staff. "Student Violence Against Teachers Has Become the Norm and That’s NOT Okay" hollers the post at Bored Teachers. 

The issue exists at the intersection of many others, making it hard to implement. Like every single major issue in education, it requires balance between the many points of tension.

Fordham Institute, working from its own study, declares that "Lax discipline is bad for teachers," and they are not wrong. Teachers cannot do their best work in the midst of chaos. It is deeply demoralizing to work in a school setting where both you and your students know that no matter what they do, there will be no consequences. When folks argue that some level of discipline is needed to keep a school functional, they are not wrong. 

And it's not just to make teachers' lives easier; what is most annoying about that disruptive student is not the personal affront to teacher dignity, but the effect it has one the learning environment of every other child in that classroom.

But at the same time, these are students, children, and "school discipline" should not be some sort of pedagogical police state. "Break this child's will and bend it to my own," is not a viable strategy, not just because it's morally and ethically wrong, but also because a too-large part of the time, it simply won't work. 

People want to be heard. If they don't think you're hearing them, they will keep raising their voice till you hear them. When someone is yelling at you, that's a message for you. Every piece of student misbehavior is information about that student. 

However, it's also true that many schools have botched the rollout of programs like restorative justice. In the wrong hands, these are programs that reinforce an old bad lesson for students--just say the words the adults want you to say and you can go on about your business unhampered. 

And really, if there are SEL lessons to be learned at school, one of them has to be that struggling with your own load is not a free license to piss all over everyone else, and being in the classroom of someone who is not doing a great job is not a good reason to physically attack them. 

The issue is difficult because so many things can be true at once. A child can be a trauma victim who needs appropriate services. A teacher can be lousy at managing a classroom. A student can cause problems because he knows there will be no consequences for his bad behavior. A school can have a bad learning environment because students run roughshod over teachers, and a school can have a bad learning environment because the adults impose a tyrannical culture of compliance. 

And all of this happens against the background of a culture in which it's okay to denigrate and disrespect teachers, to accuse them of being groomers, teaching "filth," hating children and their country. And that is happening in a country in which it's increasingly acceptable to deal with people you disagree with by trying to obliterate them, either figuratively or literally, violently. Schools exist downhill from society and the culture at large; everything happening in society eventually ends up in schools. 

What can help? The biggest line of defense preventing violence against teachers is administration. Take teacher concerns seriously (and if you have a teacher who is demanding your happen too often, take that seriously). Be clear, proportionate, and consistent with student consequences, and keep those separate from labeling and pigeonholing children as "bad." Watch your teachers' backs. Prioritize making your school a safe space for everyone. Embrace solutions that work, not just those that feel good (throwing the book and just having a talk can both feel good). If you are over thirty, recognize these are not the times you grew up in. 

Parents can help, and some do, and some won't. Teachers can help, often, but not always. 

And policy makers can help mostly by not reducing the issue to simple solutions, which starts by admitting that the issue exists and that it needs to be worked on and not simply exploited as another way to kick the public education football around. 

Another Data Mining Cautionary Tale

 Over at The Verge, a story copublished with The Markup reveals that Facebook was looking over millions of our shoulders as we prepared our taxes.

Major tax filing services such as H&R Block, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer have been quietly transmitting sensitive financial information to Facebook when Americans file their taxes online, The Markup has learned.

The data, sent through widely used code called the Meta Pixel, includes not only information like names and email addresses but often even more detailed information, including data on users’ income, filing status, refund amounts, and dependents’ college scholarship amounts.

So, yikes.

Even when some of the information was obscured, there was enough included that Facebook could match up the tax info to the Facebook profile, giving Meta a collection of particular sensitive and personal data.

Remember this story the next time your school district is talking about whatever cool new computer program they are plugging all of the students into, and what sort of data is being collected. Not even the various parties involved seem to have fully grasped what information was being passed around by the pixel that is largely about collecting a record of where you've been and what you've done and passing it on.

This stuff gets complicated. Read Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin's Chokepoint Capitalism to get just a taste of how intertwined ad software has become. One new one on me-- an online advertiser can contract to advertise to customers by setting ads to target "people who regularly visit" and thereby avoid paying's advertising prices. 

Schools are data goldmines, and every piece of software that gets inside the schoolhouse door is looking for nuggets, and sometimes nobody really knows how much is being mined and where it will end up. If your district is not prioritizing data security, you have a problem.

Boston Globe Offers More Testocrat Cries of Anguish

Lost months of learning! Lost future income!! 

What the heck does that even mean.

The NAEP numbers have been used to manufacture all sorts of panic, and the privatization-loving Boston Globe has piled on, using a few of the more dubious arguments, starting right in by chicken littling the headline:

Don't click on it. You'll only hit a paywall, anyway. The research referenced is the work of Tom Kane, economics professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is interviewed for the piece and takes the opportunity to ring the urgency bell about "helping students catch up."

But let's review two of the most misleading pieces of "research" cited by the 3D crowd (disrupt, defund, dismantle).

Measuring learning in months/days/years is bunk

The analyses show that on average, Massachusetts students lost 75 percent of a school year's worth of math learning and 41 percent of a year of reading.

Any time someone measures learning in days, months, years, seconds, eyeblinks, etc, your bullshit detector should go off like smoke alarm at a forest fire. Let's think about this for a minute.

73 percent of a school year is roughly 131 days. Which 131 days are we talking about? Because days in September are not quite as learning-filled as days in, say, February. The days coming up between Thanksgiving and Christmas are not exactly well-known in education circles for being learning rich. Likewise, Fridays and Mondays probably aren't as learningful as a Wednesday. So which 131 days of learning are students short?

Of course, the answer is that days of learning (and months, and years) aren't really a thing. They're a made up way of talking about test scores. Turns out we're back to the gang at CREDO.

The Learning Policy Institute offers an explanation for days of learning. The short form is that a typical growth on a standardized test score, divided by 180, equals one day of learning. If you want a fancier explanation, LPI looks via CREDO to a 2012 paper by Erik Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann:

To create this benchmark, CREDO adopted the assumption put forth by Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessman (2012) that “[o]n most measures of student performance, student growth is typically about 1 full standard deviation on standardized tests between 4th and 8th grade, or about 25 percent of a standard deviation from one grade to the next.” Therefore, assuming an average school year includes 180 days of schooling, each day of schooling represents approximately 0.0013 standard deviations of student growth.

So in the ends, we're really talking about test scores. Saying that students "lost" thirty days of learning is another, more compelling, way to say, "Test scores are down this many standard deviations from what we expected them to be." 

It's smoke, mirrors and misdirection, because "Your child's bucket of learning is empty" is scarier than "Your kid's score on this one reading and math test went down, boogah boogah." Lost instruction time is a thing. Lost days of learning is not. It's just a drop in test scores.

Of course, if your reaction to dropping test scores is "So what," there's another piece of questionable research to answer that.

Test Scores and Future Earnings

Economist Raj Chetty (it's always an economist) made a big splash with research that tried really, really hard to link test scores to future earnings. The sexy headline version you may recall was that a child who has a great kindergarten teacher will make more money as an adult. There's a full explainer of Chetty here, but whenever you see someone trying to link test scores to future earnings, you're usually looking at the work of with Chetty or Erik Hanushek or Tom Kane.

And that's what the Globe used for the "state level analysis performed by the Globe"--a paper by Tom Kane. The paper is not long, but it's thick with layers of nearly impenetrable economist argle bargle. But here, to the best of my ability to slog through the language, is how Kane et al figure that a drop in test score means less money as an adult.

They used "the mean [NAEP] score of 8th graders in a state as an estimate of the mean achievement of those born in the state 13 years before," then added scores for missing years by "estimating" then did some mathy things to adjust for race/ethnicity and parental education. Then they used census data by state to compute life outcomes (income, teen birth, arrest for violent crimes). Then they looked at changes in each. Then they pretended that there was some sort of connection between them. 

In other words, they said that from 1996 to 2019, Pennsylvania's math NAEP score went up 16 points. From 2001 to 2019, Pennsylvanian's mean income rose $1,600. Therefor, point on the math part of the NAEP equals $100 in future income.

That's an over-simplification, but not by much, and I'm not sure what you could do to that approach that would make it a non-ridiculous mess of assuming correlation equals causation. Kane and his co-authors add a bunch of math stuff that's supposed to correct for various factors, but it still looks like fried baloney to me. 

“We use these state-level differences in achievement gains on the NAEP along with outcomes by year and state of birth in the American Community Survey to estimate the association between past achievement increases and later-life outcomes.” Rather than NAEP scores, one could just as easily look at average height, or common hair colors, or shoe size. This seems like a good time to link to one of my favorite sites, Spurious Correlations.

Other highlights

Other research is cited, including a finding that spending more time in remote learning meant less math learning (aka test score) except when it didn't. Thanks. Very helpful.

Kane tries to make a case for saying that "underlying these tests scores are concrete skills" which matters because "you just can't skip calculus if you want to be an engineer" and "you just can't skip writing if you want to have almost any professional job" and good lord. The connection between test scores and concrete skills is a leap. The assumption that everyone should be tested as if they want to be an engineer is odd. The assumption that the NAEP (or any other standardized test) is a legitimate measure of writing skill is counter-reality.

There's a quote from Stephen Zrike, a school turnaround "expert" and current superintendent who may have the least silly comment in the whole piece:

We have a moral imperative and responsibility to support young people, not just in their academics. That's critical, but [so is] their ability to engage and enjoy their childhoods.

Which actually gets at the central problem with this kind of fear-mongering. It all boils down to an argument that, out of all the things that children experienced (and experience) during the pandemic, nothing is more important than the drop in standardized test scores, and the bulk of our meager resources must be focused on raising those test scores. 

All of this panic-button hammering is just the anguished screams of testocrats who, for a variety of reasons, would like us all to join them in thinking that nothing schools do is more important than getting students to score higher and higher on the Big Standardized Test (and its corollary-- believing that schools are failing because the score are low).

Late in the piece, the Globe returns to this theme

The analysis sheds light on the progress Massachusetts students had made on the NAEP over the 27 years prior to the pandemic--around two grade levels' worth of gains in math, or $65 billion in future earnings.

This is utter, fabricated nonsense. It's an attempt to stampede the crowd toward the exit marked "Testing" by hollering "Fire." It's not to be taken seriously. 

Monday, November 21, 2022

Pompeo: Randi and Teachers Public Enemy Number 1

Oh, look! We're already starting the new election cycle by further vilifying teachers.

This frickin' guy
David Weigel (former Washington Post) and Shelby Talcott (former Daily Caller) are new hires as political reporters at Semafor, and they stirred up the clickbait today by getting Mike Pompeo, in his role of coy candidate, to slam U.S. teachers. You're going to see this quote lots of places, but let's commemorate it here as well.

I tell the story often — I get asked “Who’s the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?” The most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten. It’s not a close call. If you ask, “Who’s the most likely to take this republic down?” It would be the teacher’s unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids, and the fact that they don’t know math and reading or writing.

There it is, fully distilled. Teachers teach filth (the anti-CRT+ movement) and they don't know math or reading or writing (science of reading, high stakes test scores). When you think about it, it's quite an accomplishment-- teachers don't know enough about reading, math, or writing to actually teach it, but they can indoctrinate students with all this commie filth. That's America's teachers--supremely incompetent, and yet the greatest brainwashing conspiracy in the world. Can't teach students to read; can teach students to hate the United States of America. What a pile of baloney. 

There's a follow-up, in which Weigel, not unreasonably, asks that, given Pompeo's dismissal of silly conservatives trying to own the libs:

Criticizing Randi Weingarten, pointing to something crazy in a textbook or classroom — if I’m talking to a Democrat they’d say “that’s just owning the libs.”

I'd disagree. It's not so much owning libs as it is slandering several million hard working Americans who have spent far more of their adult lives working to educate young people than Mike Pompeo ever dreamed about. But he has an answer:

If there’s something in the textbook that shouldn’t be there, it’s okay to identify that and call it out. But that’s just openers. That’s identification of a risk. Then the question is, so tell me how it is the case that you’re gonna go convince the people of Cedric County, Kansas, that they need to identify school board members who are going to push through a curriculum that actually returns to the ideas that made America unique and special.

If our kids don’t grow up understanding America is an exceptional nation, we’re done. If they think it’s an oppressor class and an oppressed class, if they think the 1619 Project, and we were founded on a racist idea — if those are the things people entered the seventh grade deeply embedded in their understanding of America, it’s difficult to understand how Xi Jinping’s claim that America is in decline won’t prove true.

Well, "something in a textbook that shouldn't be there" is doing a lot of work here--who exactly makes that call--but he's crystal clear on his belief in American exceptionalism and the idea that every child should be indoctrinated in that belief. I'm not going to relitigate the entire CRT/1619 Project debate here. Just going to note that American exceptionalism is a scary bad idea, and ahistorical to boot. The "American exceptionalism" crowd often reminds me of an angry fifteen year old snarling "If you say anything at all bad about my girlfriend, I will cut you." Mature love--love of a person, love of a country--sees and understands the flaws and problems. Insisting that they don't exist and we must never ever talk about them is not healthy. Likewise, serious grownups recognize that history is a conversation, not a declaration

There's one other moment to catch. Pushed to admit maybe he's sort of critical and breaking with Trump, Pompeo offers this:

Well, when you work for the president of the United States, you work for the president of the United States. There’s no, “coming out against the president.” It would be deeply anti-constitutional. It’s immoral, it’s not right. And I never did it, and would never.

Anti-constitutional to criticize the President?! Immoral??!! But then, I thought that the folks in the administration were supposed to be working for the country, not the President.

There's more. He talks about the Deep State without using those words, and he cheers for traditional conservatism, which is apparently another term he doesn't understand.

I'll link to the piece here, because I think it's important to cite your sources so people can check your work, but for the love of God, don't click on it because then they'll just do more of this baloney.

In the meantime, congrats to Randi and America's hardworking teachers on being a football yet again for an aspiring rightwing hater who wants to claim to be conservative while simultaneously vilifying the backbone of one of America's oldest and most important institutions, even as the numbers suggest that beating up teachers has not been a successful strategy. May he disappear into the dustbin of history exceptionally soon.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

ICYMI: Finally Winter Edition (11/20)

I still remember the year my family was driving back from New Hampshire via the New York Turnpike and after driving down one land snow canyons, we were finally forced off the road at Syracuse, where the turnpike had been closed. As a kid, I found it a great adventure. As an adult, I'm suspecting my parents did not. God bless everyone in the downwind-of-the-lake portion of New York. 

Meanwhile, here are some readings from the week. 

Police Officer Accidentally Shoots Child While Teaching High School Students How To Be Good Police Officers

Whoopsies! Everyone's okay in this Indiana high school, and they've certainly learned about the importance of gun safety and why it's a super-good idea to bring guns into schools.

Not just ‘Maus’: A Missouri school district removed several Holocaust history books, too

That Holocaust is such a bummer, so in Missouri, some folks think maybe we should just disappear it so nobody gets uncomfortable. From the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

What you don’t know about the UW System’s new charter schools should worry you

In Wisconsin, a sudden explosion in charter schools, and there are many reasons to be concerned. By Ruth Coniff for the Wisconsin Examiner.

‘Too hyperbolic’? School board parental rights push falters

Collin Brinkley for the AP. Another election post-mortem looking at the ways in which the parental rights moral panic didn't quite score as well as hoped.

Democrats poised to increase their majority on state board of education

Some good things happened in the last election in Michigan, including the election of Mitchell Robinson, friend of the Institute, to the Starte Board of Education.

One Educator’s Grateful Remembrance: A Teacher

Paul Bonner guest blogs at Nancy Bailey's blog, talking about a teacher who made a difference in his life. Spoiler alert: he doesn't remember her for her excellent test prep.

At Blue Cereal Education, Dallas Koehn offers a personal reflection on the place of mess in his life and teaching.

A call for rejecting the newest reading wars

At Hechinger, fifty-eight educators sign a letter in reaction to Emily Hanford's latest podcast/hit piece for the reading wars (my wife, a certified reading specialist and second grade teacher is listening and is not impressed). 

Gary Rubinstein has been hearing from parents who have dealt with Success Academy, New York's bit time charter business. Here's another rough story.

The Promise, Power, and Practice of Student Agency

At ASCD, Tanji Reed Marshall has a paper looking at the whys and hows of building student agency. You may not agree with all of this, but it's still thought-provoking.

Play is crucial for middle schoolers, too

Christina Samuels at Hechinger with something that's not exactly news to anyone who spends time with middle schoolers, but it's still nice to see it in print.

This week at Forbes, I looked at research about Arizona's new massive voucher system that serves wealthy students who were never in public school in the first place, and some of the stories coming out of places where right-wingers took over the school board.

And, of course, you can sign up for the substack version of this blog. Same stuff, right in your inbox.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

A Moonshot For The Big Standardized Test

In the Washington Post, a new call for an education moon shot as a way to recover from the after-effects of the pandemic learning interruption.

The authors list gives us a hint at where this headed, and it's not the moon. There's Dan Goldhaber, vice-president of AIR (a test manufacturing outfit) and director of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), from which vantage he has pitched research supporting the idea that it would be great to jam a bunch of students in a room with one teacher (and back in the day, he used to argue for VAM, too). There's Thomas Kane, the economist who is somehow a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has carried water for Bill Gates, pushed high stakes testing, and helped Eric Hanushek promote the idea that your Kindergarten experience at age 5 determines your wealth at age 55. Round this out with Andrew McEachin and Emily Morton of NWEA, the test manufacturing company that has been pushing Learning Loss and themselves as the antidote to same. 

Just for the record, this is not the first call for a moonshot. The Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress previously announced a "Moonshot for Kids," an "open competition meant to elicit and highlight breakthrough ideas that could best leverage a major public or private research and development investment of $1 billion or more to improve outcomes for school-age kids" (albeit with an image of a launching spoace shuttle, a vehicle that does not go to the moon). However, that announcement came on March 17, 2019, just days before the coronavirus upended everything. Nevertheless, I fell that the four writers of the WaPo piece at the very least owe Mike Petrelli some sort of royalty payment for the whole "moonshot" thing.

Goldhaber et al open with the Big Pitch:

American students have experienced a historic decline in academic achievement. The only possible response — the only rational response — is a historic collective investment in children and young adults.

Yeah, the reason that sort of investment would be historic is the same reason that unicorns pooping rainbows in the middle of Wall Street would be historic. And then there's this:

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal plummeting test scores nationwide, setting students back to where they were two decades ago.

This is a classic in a genre that likes to reduce students to an amorphous blob of data-generating abstractions, because here's the thing--if we set the actual live human students who took these tests back "to where they were two decades ago," they would all be unformed, unborn, not yet even twinkles in their parents' eyes. 

Goldhaber et al correctly note that the pandemic exacerbated the gap in test scores between haves and have-nots, and that ought to be a call to action except that, of course, the basic inequity should have been a call to action in the first place, but we've been taking the Big Standardized Tests for a couple of decades thereby attaching a numbered score to the inequity that people already knew was there, and somehow it has never led to states giving those schools more resources or support. "There's a big bear in the neighbors' house," has never prompted the authorities to send help (other than offers like "Well, we could arrange for one member of the family to move to a nice charter house across the street" or "Okay, let's demolish the house with the bear and the people in it"). So I'm not sure why "Okay, there's a bear in the neighbors' house and it's even bigger than we thought" would change anything.

These losses won’t be fixed by few hours of tutoring or a helpful computer program.

Well, they got that right, anyway. And they also score with the observation that the first step is "to more clearly define the task in front of educators and families." And then it goes south.

States need to help everyone see the loss in terms of what it’s going to take to get students back on track. Telling educators that proficiency rates have declined isn’t enough. Explaining that students lost several months or a year of math instruction provides a more solid basis for planning an ambitious recovery agenda.

This is the opposite of clearly defining the task. Because "proficiency rates" is just a snappy term for "test scores." And if your takeaway from all this disruption of school is that our most pressing need is to get test scores back up, then you have lost the plot (or spent too much time in the testing industrial complex). And the reference to months or a year of lost instruction is just to set up the use, again, of one of the more egregious falsehoods pushed by testocrats.

Research suggests that districts might be able to get a year’s worth of additional growth by providing students with three hours of tutoring, with three or fewer students per teacher — each week.

There is no such thing as learning measured in years, months, days or minutes. The time units of learning is a made-up sexy way to talk about--again--drops in test scores. It's a conversion made up to turn slices of standard deviation into units of time. It's a way to distract from the suggestion that of all the things you could worry about when it comes to the education, the thing you should worry most about is their score on the Big Standardized Test. Any time someone starts talking about days, weeks, months of learning, your bullshit detector should start clanging like a Don't Fear The Reaper cowbell.

But Goldhaber et al are going to suggest that a summer school session might yield an academic quarters worth of learning. Or maybe give students an extra period of algebra. Which are exactly the kind of solutions you come up with if you start with the premise that nothing is more important than raising those test scores. And not, say, deciding that your band and chorus need extra periods to help build the ensemble skills that have suffered from the long break. 

The writers also discuss the issues of staffing; in short, the school is probably going to have to staff all this stuff by mobilizing "local undergraduate students, parents, and other community members to provide tutoring." And be up front about the sacrifices necessary

Schools and education leaders should also be frank about what this effort requires from families. Expanding learning opportunities, such as after-school programs or Saturday academies, will require students and families to sacrifice time they might ordinarily spend on extracurriculars, family responsibilities, or even vacations. Year-round school will require broader adjustments to family routines — though it might be a benefit for parents scrambling for summer child care.

To get consensus (aka buy in) from parents, the school will have to be "crystal clear about where individual children stand." And I would love to sit in on the meeting in which Principal McData explains to Mr. and Mrs. Parentsalot that little Sam and Pat should have summer vacation taken away from them until they get that score on the annual test back up, because policy leaders are unhappy with the data. 

The writers also try to sell the idea that parents are largely deluded in thinking that their children are up to speed, which does not "line up with what we know about where students are academically today." But that's just another cover for "test score." (Reformsters really need to decide whether parents are the ones who know their children best or parents don't have a damn clue.) 

Look. This piece touts the value of transparency, but it also uses a trick known as the used car lot world as "assume the sale." That's when the salesman starts talking as if your decision to buy the car is already a done deal, and you're just haggling over details.

In this case, testocrats start the conversation on the premise that, hey, we all agree that nothing is more important than getting those annual test scores on a single badly-designed math and reading test. We skip right over the long long list of educational items that suffered during the pandemic and just quietly move test scores to the top of the list without any discussion about what priorities should be. For that matter, we also skip over the discussion that had already been raging for a few decades before COVID, the discussion about whether tests tests are valid, whether they're a good proxy for educational achievement at all, whther test scores tell teachers anything they don't already know, whether they are serving as a massive example of Campbell's Law as they warp education all out of shape, whether education would not be better off if we scrapped the whole BS Test business.

Testocrats are nervous. During the pandemic, testing was suspended, and parents and teachers did not collapse, wailing, "How shall I ever know how these children are doing??" Not a teacher in the country said, "Man, I wish test prep and administration was sucking up more of my time." 

I won't pretend to know how many testocrats have been swimming too long in their own koolaid and how many are just cynically opportunistic. Either way, they need a moonshot not to rescue children, but to rescue their own industry. In the meantime, schools and parents should be having a conversation about what students need without jumping to the assumption that nothing could be more important than getting those test scores back up.

Friday, November 18, 2022

CT: Darien Gets It

 It's a small local story, but I want to highlight it because it shows that some school districts can figure it out.

Darien Public Schools are located in Darien, Connecticut. According to Niche, they're a top-rated district with A and A+ rating for everything except diversity (C-). The district serves a little under 5,000 students, and was singled out by the state for excellence in managing its way through the pandemic. Darien is a costal town on Long Island Sound with a median household income of $232,523, a preponderance of Republicans, and low taxes. Median home price is $2.2 million. Both film versions of the Stepford Wives filmed in Darien.

But in 2021, more than 70 teachers left the district (double their pre-pandemic rate). Only five of those were retirees. The board and the teachers union agreed--some sort of action had to be taken. What to do?

Darien didn't lower the bar by deciding to hire any warm body that could stand up in a classroom. They didn't shrug and say, "Well, just jam more kids into the classrooms we still have teachers for." No, they did something radical:

This week, the school board approved a three-year contract with Darien educators that will cost the district a total of $6 million but gives teachers the biggest increase in salaries in more than a decade and the highest starting salary among districts of comparable size and affluence.

That's right. They got competitive. They recognized that the high cost of housing in the district means it's an expensive place to teach, even if the expense is measured in many hours of commuting. They extended maternity leave, to twelve weeks plus five days.  

Not every district has the kinds of resources that Darien has, but every district has the ability to compete with comparable districts. Every district has the ability to look at the down side of teaching in their schools and ask themselves, "What would make our district more attractive." Every district can work to use its strengths to offset its drawbacks.

Or they could just shrug and say, "Well, there's a teacher shortage. Nothing we can do about it." Darien's approach seems more useful.

Welcome Back, Honesty Gap

We have heard about the Honesty Gap before, way back in the spring of 2015. was one of the first to make some noise about it (Achieve, you may recall, was instrumental in launching Common Core), but in short order everyone was going on about it, from Jeb Bush's FEE to the Center for American Progress, Educators for Excellence, Students First--all the reformster biggies. The Honesty Gap even got its own website, which is still running today (it's owned by the Collaborative for Student Success, a CCSS promotion group that is tied directly to The Hunt Institute, which is in turn "an affiliate center" of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lists the usual suspects as collaborators-- Gates Foundation, Achieve, NEA, The Broad Foundation, et al.)

That's one dishonest looking thermometer
So what is The Honesty Gap? It's pretty simple--it's the observation that in many states, the proficiency rate on the NAEP doesn't match the proficiency rate on the state's Big Standardized Test. It dovetailed nicely with a theory espoused by everyone from Arne Duncan to Betsy DeVos, which was that public schools were lying about how well their students were doing, presumably to hide their own wretched failiness. 

In 2015, when the Honesty Gap was having a moment, Rianna Saslow was a high school freshman at The Galloway School, a private school in Atlanta, founded in 1969. (Current tuition for grades 9-12 is $31,150.) Saslow went on to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and graduated with a BA in Political Science and a second one in Educational Equity just about six months ago. Then she went to work as a policy analyst at Education Reform Now, the 501(c)(3) arm of Democrats [sic] For Education Reform, a reformy outfit started by hedge funder Whitney Tilson to get Democrats on board with the reformster biz. To get a sense of how ERN plays, they just hosted their 12th annual Take 'Em To School Poker Tournament, where you could grab a single seat for $2,500 or a whole table for $100,000 (cocktail ticket for $250).

It's Ms. Saslow who is going to reintroduce us to the Honesty Gap, and I bring her story up for a couple of reasons.

1) A reminder that for some people, these reformy ideas really did first appear a lifetime ago. I may remember a time when the dismantling of public education was not a major narrative; folks like Ms. Saslow do not.

2) A reminder that none of this stuff dies, no matter how much it deserves to. It just keeps coming back. Therefor so must the refutations.

Saslow's piece appears at The 74, which is always a mixed bag. Some of their education journalism is top notch; their opinion section is reliably tilted in the direction of the education disruptors, defunders, and dismantlers. The piece provides a bit of an echo of The 74's earlier coverage of the Virginia report that brought up the Honesty Gap for the usual purpose--to discredit public schools. 

Like too many models of the 3D crowd, this is not an honest attempt to understand a problem in education in order to find a solution. But let's take a look at Saslow's piece and see what issues are hidden there.

Saslow starts by holding up the NAEP as a "highly respected and objective set of assessments that consistently holds students to a high level of rigor and acts as a neutral referee in comparing students to one another." Wellllll.....folks have taken issue with the NAEP for as long as it has existed. One NCES study found that about half of the students rated Basic actually went on to complete a Bachelor's Degree or higher; in other words, despite what the test said, they were college ready. 

Saslow suggests that it's a shortcoming that NAEP offers no individual school ratings, but that's not what it's designed for. This is a recurring problem with Big Standardized Tests, this notion that if a yardstick is good for measuring the length of a shoe, it can also measure the length of an interstate highway, or the relative humidity, or atomic weight, or how ugly that pig is. Instruments are only good at measuring what they're designed to measure.

Saslow moves on to the complaint that is the heart of the Honesty Gap. States give their own BS Tests:

But, by and large, states set a bar for academic proficiency that is lower than that for the NAEP.

Yes, states and the NAEP folks define "proficiency" differently. This has been an endless source of honest and deliberate confusion, as folks keep making up their own definition of NAEP proficiency, rather than using the NAEP's own explanation. Proficient does not mean "on grade level," or even "sort of above average," but instead is roughly equivalent to a classroom A. States do not necessarily define proficiency in the same way. This is not a complicated issue. If I define "tall" as "over six feet" and you define it as "over 5 and a half feet," we will get different numbers when we analyze a group for the number of tall people. It's kind of a silly problem to have; even sillier since the NAEP folks could have solved it long ago by giving up their singular definitions of the terms involved.

Saslow rolls out some examples of how state levels of proficiency are usually higher than NAEP levels, and then she is going to drag classroom teachers into this as well by noting that classroom grades run higher, which she supports with data from ACT, a company whose whole sales pitch rests on the notion that only the scores from their product can be trusted to give a true assessment of student skills and knowledge. This is like depending on the auto industry to give you figures on the health benefits of riding a bicycle, but she's not going to mention that built in conflict.

There's a really fundamental problem--okay, two--in the whole Honesty Gap model. 

Let's say I want to know what the temperature is in my living room. I use three different devices to get the temperature. If they give me different answers, the most obvious explanation is that one or more of those instruments is faulty. Learning is even more subjective and difficult to measure than temperature--when all these measures fail to match perfectly, the most obvious and likely explanation is that the measures are themselves defective. 

And I certainly wouldn't accuse my mismatching temperature devices of being liars. By labeling the mismatch between instruments as an "honesty gap," we introduce the idea that the mismatch is being deliberately created by folks who are lying. The implications is that somewhere in all this there are some naughty liars (and they probably work for the public school system).

Those two factors lead me to suspect that people who talk about an Honesty Gap are not making a serious effort to solve any problems.

There are other bumps in Saslow's road. She repeats that same mistake of equating "proficient" with "on grade level." It isn't, but she uses that mistaken use in a mistaken survey to raise the old picture of families that have been misled about their children's knowledge (in 3D land, parents know their children best except when they don't have any idea what their children really know).

If families are provided with overly optimistic data, how can leaders expect their support when looking to implement robust policies and practices to improve public education?

By suggesting policies that might actually help. For instance, we could stop the practice of using low tests scores to target public schools for charterization or closure instead of actual increased support.

Closing the honesty gap requires commitment at all levels of leadership. State policymakers must ensure that their assessments are academically rigorous, and they must set benchmarks that reflect true grade-level proficiency.

Except that, in terms of NAEP scores, "grade-level proficiency" is a self-contradictory term, because "proficiency" means "well above grade level." I know, I know. I'm repeating myself. I'll stop when they do.

On the district level, administrators must ensure that instructors have access to standards-aligned, high-quality instructional materials. And within the classroom, teachers must provide consistent and reliable grades that allow students, families and school leaders to monitor progress before higher-stakes exams take place.

In other words, organize the entire school around the Big Standardized Test. Schools have already done too much of that. It is backwards and upside down and not the way to do education well (and, I'll bet, not how they do things at the Galloway School, where they don't take the Georgia state assessment). 

Saslow also points out that the private sector offers some "helpful tools for accurately gauging student achievement and post-pandemic unfinished learning." I have my doubts about the "accurately" part, just as I have doubts about the process of having a problem assessed by people who want to sell you solutions to the problem.

The Honesty Gap remains a tool for marketing and pushing the old narrative that public schools are in Big Trouble, but it is itself a dishonest and sloppy argument that provides little real assistance in dealing with the actual challenges facing public education these days.