Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Public School Threat Assessment

It's been a while since we looked over the general landscape to see what threats to public education, so let's do that. Of all the various forces arrayed against public education in this country, which pose the greatest threats? Which are more noise and distraction? Which should we most worry about in the coming year? If we could wave a magic wand and get rid of just one, which one could do the most good by disappearing?

We'll take these in no particular order, and rate each with up to five bombs (the more bombs, the bigger the threat). 

Book Bans and Gag Laws and Culture Wars Etc Etc Etc 💣💣💣

Historian Adam Laats has been working with this stuff for a while, and I appreciate his insights that A) this has been going on for a century and B) the reactionary forces lose every time. The last election cycle is a reminder that the US electorate actually has a limited tolerance for this American Taliban baloney. While there are some serious state and local outbreaks of this kind of repressive right wingnuttery, large chunks of the country have remained quietly untouched. and where people have stood up to these bullies, the bullies have been restrained. It's bad, and it needs to be shut down, but I also think it's doomed to burn out. Also, the whole focus on books-and-never-mind-the-interwebs is just dumb. 

The banning and gagging and culture warring, however, are useful for another larger threat.

The Don't Trust Schools Movement 💣💣💣💣💣

Chris Rufo and Jay Greene and some other folks had an idea--what if we just took every possible opportunity to convince that this building is a louse-ridden, evil-soaked den of iniquity. What if we just kept yelling "Fire!' or "Flood!" or "Satan attack!!" in every room of the building? We could do two things--we could get people to leave the building, and we could get them to put us in charge of the building. It would be awesome. 

This is MAGA writ school-sized, and like the MAGA "Trust nobody but me" principle, it is being deployed with zero attention or concern about what sort of damage is being done to critical institutions or society as a whole. "I'm sure there's gold in this house somewhere," says this nihilistic opportunism. "Let's burn the place down and then we can sift through the ashes for the gold nuggets." 

It's the large-scale version of "Let's just keep saying that schools are failing until people just start repeating it as an 'everybody knows' thing despite all the evidence to the contrary." It may or may not yield short term profits and power for all the privatizers and culture warriors, but it will weaken public education in the long run, and once you smash enough of the foundation of the house, it's really hard to rebuild. 

When Rufo says, "To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a place of universal school distrust" he's talking about sewing distrust as a means to an end. But whether he gets his goal or not (I'm betting not), the "universal school distrust" part will still be out there, just like anti-vax driven disease and anti-election lawsuits. It will not make education, or our country, any better.

Charter schools 💣💣

Before the pandemic hit, charter schools seem to have about maxed out. But the pandemic sent many parents into the arms of cyber charters, and the courts have been slowly eroding the First Amendment so that churches are more and more able to operate charter schools. So we may see a shift coming.

Charter's biggest problem has always been that they cannot deliver on the promises made in their name. They can't magically lift students up extra levels of accomplishment, they can't save taxpayer dollars, and they don't know anything about education that public schools don't already know. What they can do successfully they can't do at scale, nor are they inclined to try. And the magic of the free market doesn't do squat for education. On top of that, the charter industry in most states is so woefully underregulated that the industry is a large attractor of frauds, charlatans, and just plain in-over-their-heads incompetents.

The end result is that charter schools repeatedly disappoint their customers, and that remains a limiting factor on charter growth. And since they insist on pretending to be public schools, they have a vested interest in keeping the public system from being completely dismantled.

Charters don't have to suck. They could be regulated and required to operate with transparency and accountability. They could be made to function as a useful addition to the public system instead of a leech on it. But until that day comes, they will keep leeching away--not quite an existential threat to public education, but definitely a drag on it.

Vouchers 💣💣💣💣

A chunk of the pro-choice sector was inspired by the pandemic to drop the foot-in-the-door tactic of charter school support and just go whole hog for vouchers. Specifically, education savings accounts, which give folks a bundle of taxpayer dollars to go spend on whatever.

Vouchers are really only good for two things--getting public funds into private hands (most specifically, religious private hands), and getting government out of education. To call voucher supporters privatizers doesn't really capture the whole picture, because these folks don't just want to privatize then providing of education, but they also want to privatize the responsibility for educating children. Vouchers are a means of turning education into a commodity that parents must shop for on their own, a commodity that the government neither provides nor oversees. When these folks call public education "government schools," that's very much on point because they would like schools not to be connected to the government at all. Well, except for some of the paying. 

The voucher movement is very much a movement to end public education as we know it. It remains an existential threat, and as the courts find ways to erase the wall between church and state and legislatures find ways to implement voucher programs without needing voter approval, the movement is a credible threat. I fully expect that at some point we'll see backlash as taxpayers say versions of, "You spent my tax dollars on what??!!" But that is as likely to fuel defunding campaigns as it is to spark reform.  Mostly we'll have to depend on things like the Kentucky Supreme Court figuring out that tax credit scholarships are illegal.

Data Mining 💣

Just because it's gotten quiet doesn't mean it's going away. California is still resolutely building a cradle to career data pipeline. And that's before we get to all the software companies, large and small, that are finding ways to turn every school-used program into a data harvesting monster. And school surveillance that's just for everyone's own good. It's no way to run a free society.

Common Core and the Standards Movement 💣

I include this partly out of nostalgia. Like many folks, Common Core anger was what brought me into this blogging and bitching space to begin with. And truth to tell, in most states the Core is still right there, like a witness protection program client living under an assumed name and sporting unfamiliar facial hair. But as I pointed out for years, the standards are ultimately rewritten by classroom teachers who quickly learned that it was primarily a paperwork exercise--teach the way you know you should and just stick those standards labels on lesson plans. 

The standards people are still around, still believing that if we could just make everyone teach the same way, we could have universal educational awesomeness. You can see everything you need to know about them by watching the first Lego movie; they're just looking for their educational Kragle. How much damage they inflict depends on your local administration.

Post Pandemic Learning Loss 💣

While there is little doubt that the pandemic set many students back, the whole Learning Loss thing is a bunch of hooey. Specifically, marketing hooey deployed almost exclusively by people who want to sell something. People are shocked--shocked!!--to discover that non-wealthy and non-white students were often ill-served during the pandemic's height, and they would like to discuss any number of solutions as long as those solutions do not include "fully fund and support all schools." Pro tip: anyone who tells you that the pandemic Learning Loss can be measured in days, weeks, months, or years is absolutely full of malarky. If they start talking about how today's students are going to lose mountains of lifetime earnings, it's double malarky. As yet, nobody has come up with a technique better than "meet student where they are and help them move forward."

Science of Reading 💣

Here's my prediction. Teachers will sit through whatever training they're made to sit through, go back to their classrooms, and do whatever, in their professional judgment, works. They will not worry about what it's called exactly; that kind of stuff is for policy wonks and amateurs with platforms and salespeople.

Deprofessionalization of Teaching 💣💣

As I've said many times, it's not a teacher shortage--it's a failure to attract and retain people in the profession. Unfortunately, many states and districts are taking the opportunity to attract and retain the best people, but to change the definition of "teacher" to "any warm body that will accept my terms of employment." While I appreciate the crisis caused by unfilled teaching positions in a school, the Any Warm Body approach is the opposite of a solution. It is noticing that your living room is on fire and addressing the problem by closing the door to the room and drawing the blinds so that people won't see (and eventually the whole building burns down).

If you already have trouble recruiting and retaining staff because of low pay and lousy working conditions, adding "And you get to work side by side with people who don't know what they're doing (but who still get paid much as you do)" to the mix will not help.

Regional Issues 💣💣

Many of the threats discussed above are more acute in some states than others. There are other issues in education that fit this description. Right now, for instance, North Carolina is the only state trying to implement a half-baked teacher merit pay system. These kinds of issues require local response and organization, even as they demand national attention because North Carolina is the only state trying this right now, a couple of other states are poised to follow.

But this splintering of attention on issues and threats means that public education is being hammered by very many directions at once, and that in itself makes responding trickier.

High Stakes Testing 💣💣💣💣💣

Yes, five bombs.

It saps enormous amounts of time and piles of money. It warps the whole shape and focus of education. It allows folks to cite numbers and pretend they are talking about "student achievement." High stakes testing has fueled more educational bullshit in the past couple of decades than anything. 

There's an old saying--the devil has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all. Well, in education, the Big Standardized Test scores are the lie, and they have been used as the handle of a hundred tools used to hack away at public education. Poorly designed, invalid, used for a dozen different purposes for which they were never made, and universally deployed, a toxic dump straight into the veins of every public school--they are worse than nothing.

Think of how much better education would be if the tests were eradicated tomorrow. Or even just stripped of all stakes. Think of a school with no pre-tests, no practice tests, no test prep, no weeks and weeks or dedication strictly to getting those scores. Think of a school in which "But is it on the BS Test" is never used to assess the usefulness of an educational or policy choice.

The BS Test remains the biggest, most useless, most damaging piece of policy inflicted on public education in this country. Eliminate them today. 

Because I gave each of these a number, you know it's totally scientific. I may have missed a couple. You can tell me all about it in the comments.


  1. This is an entertaining and extremely insightful post about a very depressing subject. Read it, laugh, and take it very seriously.

  2. High stakes testing has been around for many decades but with the prevalence of computers and software any fool can stuff data in and come up with numbers. It is the interpretation of those numbers that is troublesome. Corporations are making billions off of these test and make claims that are preposterous. The schools that look good will support this BS and those that look bad are condemned with no recourse but to spend more money and time to attempt to improve these worthless "scores".

    Another possibly a 6 bomber is what is happening in a few States most notably Florida. That is the politicization of school boards and departments of Education. Some politicians have used schools to rile their voters into thinking schools are doing "evil" things to their children and only they can save the children.

  3. The perfect storm still haunting public schools:
    Really bad (CC) standards
    Really bad (CC) standardized tests
    Really bad testing policies (NCLB. RTTT. NCLBW. ESSA.)

    Please give them 5 BOMBS each.

    One serious threat to public schools is the FEAR that forms BOE policies which allow students to remain unaccountable for their attendance, their efforts, and their behaviors.

  4. Our district is literally telling teachers that we no longer plan lessons, but “we prepare them” because they are forcing us to use poorly designed boxed curriculum. If I hear “high quality instructional materials” one more time, I’ll puke. A local superintendent told the state university’s education college that they needed to stop teaching interns how to lesson plan because that will be done for them. I’m nineteen years in, and I have less control and autonomy than ever. It’s breaking my heart, but I’m in a right-to-work state, and everyone is too afraid and too exhausted to fight it.

  5. Yes, the district lessons plans being given to us are basically a rewrite of the publishers lessons plans by a district person and the lessons are horrible and over students heads. We are told we must follow them and aren’t supposed to use any other curriculum but what the district has provided. This has only come about in the last 2 years. Our students are suffering and as a 28 yr veteran teacher it is awful to try to teach the plans knowing it isn’t serving students best interests.