Saturday, February 4, 2023

Bellwether's Big Book O'Data Worth A Look

Bellwether  (formerly Bellwether Education Partners) is an education consulting firm, generally located petty solidly along the American Enterprise Institute-Thomas Fordham Institute axis of education reform. Their huge list of "partners" include those two thinky tanks, the CANs, Teach for America, the Broad Foundation, then 74, the Walton Foundation, American Federation for Children, and a host of other choicey reformster outfits. They have some Bain alumni, including co-founder Mary K. Wells, though co-founder Andrew Rotherham, external relations guy and voice of Eduwonk, is the person you more likely run across on line.

While there is no mistaking their particular bent, this outfit is less about lathered-up advocacy and more about actual facts than some of the brethren (looking at you, current version of Manhattan Institute). Rotherham is on my short list of People I'll Probably Disagree With But I Will Still Make It A Point To Read Them. 

All of which is to lead up to my point, which is that Bellwether has put out a publication that is really worth reading.

Common Ground: How Public K-12 Schools Are Navigating Pandemic Disruptions and Political Trends, by Rotherham, Kelly Robson Foster, and Michael D. Corral is a one-hundred-and-page collection of information from a wide variety of sources. The stated goal is "to help the field separate signal from noise and provide context around various issues and trends affecting the sector." And the report delivers lots of information from diverse sources, a little bit of contextualizing, and no real attempt to dictate what should come next.

Our goal is to provide a clear fact base for discussion about complicated issues. It is not to suggest “right” answers on contested questions. We present a great deal of public opinion data not because we believe the majority position is axiomatically the correct one but rather because understanding the landscape is essential. Reasonable people can and will disagree about the best remedies or policies for much of what we describe here. Instead, we seek to establish a common fact base on the premise that understanding the landscape is the first step toward successfully navigating it.

I'm going to skim the sections so you get a sense of what is in here, but this is not one of those times where I can read it so you don't have to. This is a work that is best dug through yourself (especially if, like me, you're a fan of charts and graphs).

The report starts with an executive summary which is a pretty good wrap up of what's to come. Then we're into it.

School Enrollment

A good timeline of pandemic events, then some breakdowns of enrollment changes. The bulk of lost enrollment was in pre-K and K, but I'm surprised to see that from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 grades 8, 10, 11, and 12 actually gained. The longer schools were closed, the more students they lost, which goes along with larger losses in Blue areas than in Red. Charter enrollment grew as public declined, but (another surprise) Catholic schools have still not made it back to pre-pandemic levels.

And reminder that when looking at polling info, always have your filters on. The report cites an Education Next survey that shows growing support for various school choice options, and I remain unconvinced.

Student Achievement

Some breakdowns here of how open building vs. remote learning played out, and lots of sifting through various testing data, which, as regular readers of this space know, I am unimpressed by. But if you care about that sort of thing, they've got a bunch, and it is handy to see things like the NWEA results separate from NWEA sales pitches.

Student Discipline

This section is gold. The writers take an even-handed look at an issue on which almost nobody is taking an even-handed look. There's a chart looking at reported discipline problems 2009-19 vs. 2019-20 that shows teachers aren't just imagining things. The section places student discipline as a major reason for teacher attrition. It reminds us that student misbehavior echoes a rise in grown-up misbehavior. It looks at how exclusionary discipline techniques and restorative justice techniques are playing out, underlining that this is complex stuff. Many voices are heard here.

Guns and School Safety

This section also does a good job of sticking to the basics while navigating a hot button issue. It tells the story of how people feel about it, the facts of what is actually happening (guns are now the leading cause of death for ages 1-19, but how many mass school shootings there are depends on your definitions), and why nothing gets done. 

Race and Racism

The authors offer a simple summation of events of the past few years. George Floyd's murder leads to more DEI initiatives leads to more tension over those issues leads to the CRT "political catchall" leads to Trump's DEI ban leads to our current mess. 

This section probably includes the most "analysis," and everyone is going to be pissed off about some part of it. On the one hand, as DEI programs spread, "A toxic blend of political opportunism, ideology, and sloppy implementation of DEI work fueled a conservative backlash." On the other hand, they also say, "CRT became a catchall phrase in part through intentional efforts of some conservative activists." And just in case you wonder what they mean, Rufo's infamous tweet is right there on the page.

Polling data shows that CRT panic was unaccompanied by CRT knowledge. One particular telling poll shows that people support CRT as long as you don't call it CRT. And the writers are clear about the problems caused by anti-CRT laws that are vague and difficult to enforce (though on this they do miss the role of giving the public the right to sue any school they think is being naughty). 

They also offer some data to suggest that the disagreement is not as wide or deep as most people think it is, and that other issues are of greater concern.

LGBT Rights

The US has become more accepting of LGBR rights, but there are big disagreements about how that should play out in schools. The report does a good job of breaking down the underlying issues, and if you've been looking for a clear simple source on which states have landed on which policies, there are good resources here. And they end the section with a sobering chart that shows some brutal realities of life for LGBT youth. 


Would you like even more charts and graphs and stuff? Here you go.

Bottom line

I'm still unlikely to agree with Bellwether or their many friends about a multitude of public education policy issues. But I like this report. I like its focus on data and information without bashing me over the head with their policy objectives. I like having these various sources gathered in one place.

Mosty of all, I read this report thinking that this is what it looks like when someone on the choicer side decides not to use culture war issues as a marketing tool for choice policies, but actually looks at the real, serious issues that are being turned into culture war talking points. Children should not be shot. Discipline is hard to manage in a society that values violence and confrontation. Race remains a core issue for our culture. LGBTQ students go through a lot of awful crap. 

In short, the issues that directly affect students and the adults who work with them are real issues that affect real live human beings and it is deeply tiring to watch these human beings' actual problems ignored by political opportunists looking for a win for their squad. 

But I digress. This report is free and online and worth your time. Everything is sourced (no mystery data here) and while you not agree with everything in these pages, there's still plenty that's useful and informative. 

Friday, February 3, 2023

AZ: How Do You Make School Grading Systems Worse

One of the more useless ideas to come out of education reform was the school grade--giving each school an A, B, C, D, or F. It's a way to fake a gloss on simply saying that a school is great or average or lousy, and it has the same problem of being hugely reductive. What does an A rating even mean?

Spoiler alert: it mostly has meant that the school gets high scores on the Big Standardized Test. But parents look for so much more-- arts education, sports programs, how "good" the teachers are, which is itself nearly impossible to quantify. 

It's an inherently clumsy metric, like a stick that will only tell if something is five feet, three feet, or one foot long (we'll just round off all other answers) while simultaneously providing no information at all about how deep or wide the object is. It is a low-information metric, but depending no who you ask, the school grades were good for:

Finding a simple way to prove that public schools were failing

Finding a simple way to target certain schools for takeover or conversion to charter

Finding a simple way to targeting some students for a state's School Choice Starter Kit

Finding a simple way for parents to shop for a school

School grades are not really good for any of those because of that whole low information thing. Complex operations require complex measures. Try grading your spouse each day on an A-F scale and see how that works out for you.

And the more dimensions you try to measure, the more reductive your letter grade system, and the more information starved and meaningless your grade becomes.

How could we make it worse? 

This guy
Tom Horne has an idea. Arizona maintains its hostility to public education by putting an anti-public ed guy in the office of state superintendent, and Tom Horne has been exemplary. We'll save his many accomplishments for another day, but let's note this is the guy who helped lead the charge to get Mexican-American studies out of schools. Also, his first act as superintendent was to get rid of the education department's Office of Diversity.

Horne's idea is to have the school letter grades include a rating for how much Critical Race Theory they're teaching

“I stand for the philosophy that individuals are primary and race is irrelevant,” said Horne, a Republican. He expects school conversations on race and identity to follow this format, he said.

Horne said his team is still developing a plan for how to best collect information on what schools are teaching and how to include that in the letter grade formula, he said.

Well, yes. If you can't really explain what it is, it will be mighty hard to collect data on how much of it is being taught in each school. Horne believes that social and emotional learning, restorative justice or diversity, equity and inclusion frameworks are all “Trojan horses” for critical race theory, and he swears he's heard first hand accounts of CRT being taught in classrooms. So who knows how much he'll find, or how that will affect a school's grade. One letter grade for each mention of white privilege? 

By no means not the worst thing happening to public education in Arizona, but one more indicator of how far off the rails they have gone.

Michelle Rhee Is Back

Michelle Rhee, the Kim Kardashian of education, the poster child for a decade of reformsterism, is back in action in the education entrepreneur space, and the White House has apparently welcomed her. 

There's no way this could end badly

First, a refresher course

If you're old enough to have memories of Rhee's salad days, you can skip this section. But in 2023, it's entirely possible that some folks will say, "Who?" So here's who.

The very fact that I don't really need to review her story makes part of my point. Rhee was the previous decade's best-known public face of education reform, culminating in that infamous Time cover of her holding a broom. Rhee was the quintessential reformster, a Teach for America product who had put in her time (including the apparently-hilarious incident in which she duct-taped student mouths shut). After her TFA stint, she started The New Teacher Project, a group that brought the TFA philosophy to older folks who had already had a job or two; TNTP morphed into another reformy thinky tank kibbitzing on topics from teacher evaluation to professional development. They made up something called the opportunity myth, but their big hit has been a position argument called "The Widget Effect" which argued that teachers should be paid, promoted, and fired based on student test scores.

This, somehow, led to a job in 2007 as the Chancellor of DC Public Schools, Rhee's big breakout role win which she beat the crap out of teachers and administrators alike. Her triumphs were celebrated, her improvements touted as proof of concept for hard-hitting accountability and firing your way to excellence. Except that it turned out that most of her DC miracle was not so much miracle as good old-fashioned fudging and cheating.

And it came with big costs. George Parker, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said no other superintendent had wrecked morale more than Rhee. Interviewed by Marc Fisher in 2009 for the Washington Post, Parker pointed to some other issues as well:

Parker spells out what many older, black teachers told me right after demanding that I not publish their names: "I suppose it's not simply racial -- it could be culture. The chancellor said to me, 'Why do people feel they need [tenure] protection if they're doing their jobs?' And I said, 'A lot of our veteran teachers know better.' As African American teachers, they learned coming up that it didn't matter how good you were: Because you were black, you weren't treated fairly. That is the African American experience. And there could be a lack of understanding of the culture of the workforce."

Mayor Adrian Fenty tied his own political future to Rhee's school leadership, and in the 2010 election, the voters said "No, thank you." Rhee was out of a job, but in a true edu-celebrity move, took to Oprah to announce her next move: the launching of StudentsFirst. And not just a launch, but an audacious goal-- 1 million members would raise $1 billion dollars.

That was 2010, the dawn of the decade.

Rhee entered the decade as the quintessential reformster. She possessed no actual qualifications for the jobs she took on, had never even run a school, let alone a major urban district., She championed every reformy idea beloved at the time, from charters to test-based accountability to gutting teacher job protections and, as was the common back then, the notion that the real problem with schools was all the shitty teachers protected by their shitty unions.

Like many of the big names in education disruption in the oughts, Rhee skated on sheer chutzpah. There was no good reason for her to believe that she knew what the heck she was doing, but she was by-God certain that her outsider "expertise" was right and that all she needed to create success was the unbridled freedom to exert her will.

And in 2010, it was working. The media loved her and, more significantly, treated her like a go-to authority on all educational issues. They fell all over themselves to grab the privilege of printing the next glowing description of the empress's newest clothes. She was more than once packaged as the pro-reform counterpart of Diane Ravitch (though one thing that Rhee carefully and consistently avoided was any sort of head to head debate with actual education experts).

For the first part of the decade, it kept working. Students First became a powerhouse lobbying group, pushing hard for the end of teacher job protections. She was in 2011's reform agitprop film Waiting for Superman. LinkedIN dubbed her an expert influencer. She spoke out in favor of Common Core and related testing. A breathless and loving bio was published about her in 2011; in 2013 she published a book of her own. She had successfully parleyed her DC job into a national platform, and done it all as the prototypical pro-reform Democrat.

I wrote a retrospective of her career (from which the above is cribbed), which suddenly evaporated around 2014, when her brand of Visionary CEO leadership began to falter (mostly because it had failed to produce any positive results). She was on the board of Miracle-Gro. She settled down in with husband and former NBA star Kevin Johnson in Sacramento (Johnson had troubles of his own). 

And that seemed to be that.

But Michelle Rhee was not done.

Late in 2021, Rhee founded BuildWithin. According to LinkedIN, her co-founder Ximena Hartstock came on board in January of 2022.

Hartstock worked for Rhee as Deputy Chief of Teaching and Learning in DC, moved on briefly to the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, and then became National Director of StudentsFirst. After two years she left to found Phone2Action, "a comprehensive digital engagement and communications platform for grassroots advocacy, public affairs, and government relations" aka an astroturf astrofertilizing tool (it has since been acquired). And so here she is, teamed up with Rhee.

The pair apparently spent the better part of 2022 ploughing the road. In November of 2022, the announcement went out that BuildWithin was launching with $2.4 million in "pre-seed" funding primarily from Dundee Venture Capital, a firm seeding technology entrepreneurs, along with Black Capital, a fund "focused on investing in underrepresented founders." They also picked up a $7.9 million grant from the Department of Labor via the Apprentices Building America program, one of the top grants in a program that moved a lot of money to many grantees.

What is BuildWithin?

Yahoo finance tried to explain.

The company’s software brings together end-to-end workplace monitoring, learning, task management, and real-time feedback to make apprenticeships scalable. These capabilities help businesses grow their workforce, stay in compliance, optimize salary spend and ensure workers are getting amazing on-the-job experiences.

"At my prior tech company, we had trouble filling our tech roles, so we started an apprenticeship program. We realized that there were a lot of capable people out there who could be quickly and effectively trained to fill technology roles. Many of the team members who went through our program are now working at some of the top tech companies in the country like Google, Uber and Amazon, and others," said Ximena Hartsock, co-founder, BuildWithin. "It was this experience that inspired us to start BuildWithin and create an accelerated path to well-paid technology careers for individuals of any background, geography, demographic group or age. The beautiful thing is that our platform both solves a major talent problem for employers and creates access to new opportunities for job-seekers."

The website puts their motto in huge letters-- "Potential Over Credential"

While not everyone has a degree, everyone has skills and potential. If given the right opportunities and training, anyone can achieve great things.

This sounds very much like the Tear The Paper Ceiling movement, very much focused on getting people into jobs without all the muss and fuss of credentials and degrees and that kind of thing. 

That $7.9 million from the feds is for the company to "recruit a minimum of 10,000 apprentice candidates (through sourcing and outreach partnerships with 150 organizations)." From the grant proposal:

At BuildWithin we have built out significant technologies that allow employers to recruit, select, train, and manage tech apprentices at scale. Through this grant opportunity, we will build upon and expand partnerships and relationships with employers, community-based organizations, institutions of higher education, trade associations and government agencies and create five (5) Tech Apprenticeship Innovation Districts: 1) Sacramento/Bay area, 2) Los Angeles/Nevada 3) District of Columbia/Maryland 4) Northern Virginia and 5) Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas

BuildWithin look to be located in Tennessee, Nevada, California, Virginia, and Kentucky, where the five apprentice innovation districts will be. There's not a great deal of info on their site about the team or personnel or partners. Their LInkedIn page lists forty employees, and though some are "LinkedIn user" others appear to have some tech background, which is good because BuildWithin touts a vaguely described "significant technologies" product, "a software platform that employers can use to accelerate team member productivity utilizing apprenticeships, onboarding & training and upskilling."

The Business Journal boosts the company as a Startup To Watch 2023, and they've been busy. They are in Tennessee because Tennessee just launched the Apprentice Innovation District, and Rhee was there for that. 

All of which explains how we arrived at the point that this popped up on my Twitter feed today:

Is this all for real?

Lordy, who knows. With her roots in Teach for America, Rhee is well versed in the ethic of putting people jobs with minimal, even sub-optimal training. There's no reason to believe that she has the expertise to develop "significant technologies," but maybe some of those employees are able to fill that gap.

On the other hand, Rhee's entire history in the ed biz is of someone who vastly overestimates her own expertise and overpromises what she never delivers (and who never suffers consequences for her failures). 

Maybe this will all work out just great and Lucy will not pull the football away this time. Or maybe the feds are getting conned by one of the great education grifters on her comeback tour. 

Thursday, February 2, 2023

GOP Proposes Federal School Voucher (Again)

Here we go again. It's a voucher bill-- the tax credit scholarship variety-- proposed in the House of Representatives.

H.R. 531 was introduced on January 26 by Rep. Adrian Smith (NE-3). Smith's story includes an episode where he was a child running a snow cone stand "and he realized at a young age what overly restrictive government policies can do to American businesses." He's a graduate of Liberty University, a member of the Tea Party Caucus, and an election denier

I won't lie--getting tired going up and down these steps

The bill has 26 co-sponsors, including Elise Stefanik, Jim Jordan, Virginia Foxx, and my representative, Mike Kelly. 

We don't have a text for the bill yet, but we do have a title

To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow a credit against tax for charitable donations to nonprofit organizations providing education scholarships to qualified elementary and secondary students.

And we have lots of pretty language to sell it, even if some of it is non-sequitorial.

"Parents – not government – should always have the final say in what kind of education their child receives, no matter where they live or their socioeconomic status," says Rep. Smith, who does not go on to say that this is why public education should be fully funded, nor does he go on to call for an end to exclusionary rules for admission to private and charter schools.

"We must give parents and children every opportunity to pursue the education that is best for them and that puts them on the best path forward from day one," says Rep. Kelly, who also does not call for more funding for public ed and less discrimination in private ed.

“Parents deserve the right to make the best educational decision for their child, regardless of income,” says Dr/Sen Bill Cassidy.

"In America, a child’s race, income, or zip code should never determine the quality of their education," said Rep. Owens. "School choice works because it puts students over systems and empowers parents to choose the academic options that best fit their child's unique needs."

And on and on. Children should have quality education, no matter where they are or how wealthy their family, which is absolutely correct but, I would argue, does not lead naturally to the conclusion "therefor we should give a few of them a chance to choose other schools, provided those schools will accept them." Nor is anyone on this bill going to acknowledge the research that says plainly that vouchers do not deliver quality education to the few students they serve. 

The bill appears to be a re-offering of last year's bill by the same name, offered then by Rep. Jackie Walorsky, an Indiana representative who was tragically killed in a car accident last August. 

The bill offers $10 million in tax credits; in other words, contribute to a "scholarship (aka voucher) organization" and get out of paying taxes to the IRS. It's an echo of Betsy DeVos's failed Education Freedom pitch. The appeal is supposed to be that this isn't government spending, because the government never gets its hands on the money, but the tax credits still leave a $10 million hole in the budget. It's the same sort of arrangement that the courts in Kentucky threw out last year.

As Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center told me last year, “Why not take the $10 billion per year tax expenditure that this bill's authors want to put into these neovouchers and put the money toward educational interventions that have actually been shown to help children, like high-quality preschool, class-size reduction, community schools, and intensive reading and math interventions and tutoring?”

In addition to a bunch of voucher money, the bill supporters promise that it will follow the new trend in allowing private schools and other education vendors who hope to benefit from this money to discriminate and conduct business as they wish. Says the press release:

Uses a limited government approach with respect to federalism, thus avoiding mandates on states, localities, and school districts.

That is undoubtedly good news to some of the bill's endorsers, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Home School Legal Defense Association, Agudath Israel, and Association of Christian Schools International, as well as the usual folks like Betsy DeVos's American Federation for Children, Jeb Bush's Excel in Education, and Heritage Action. Plus the ironically named Invest in Education Coalition, which, like the rest of these groups, is supporting doing the opposite of investing in education by pushing a program that proposes not to spend money bringing quality and opportunity to education, but to tap tax dollars to support private schools and so spend less on public schools.

This will be the third time in recent memory that this idea has failed on the federal level. But hey-- at least it made some press for School Choice Week. The bill is currently hanging out with the Ways and Means committee, as well as Education and the Workforce. May it never emerge to see the light of day again.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

PA: Cyberschools Stockpile Money, State Averts Its Gaze

Part of this story is not news. Last summer, Children First PA reported that cyber charters in PA are banking a mountain of surplus money. Like, huge mountains. How huge?

The fourteen cybers were, at the end of last school year, sitting on $164 million in unassigned fund balances, aka extra money sitting in the bank. Those 2020-21 fund balances were double what they had in 2019-20, and seven times the amounts from 2018-19.

That growth represented ten times the growth of public schools. So, no--it wasn't raining money on everyone.

Nor can it be explained by the influx of students into cybers during the pandemic. The money spiked at ten times the rate by which enrollment increased. 

If you'd like to see that in chart form, here are the charts produced for that report.

Pennsylvania actually has laws about how much unassigned fund balance a school district can carry, on the not-unreasonable assumption that district fund balances are composed mostly of taxpayer dollars, and if taxpayer dollars are going to be just sitting there, they ought to be just sitting there in taxpayer bank accounts, not district ones. Public schools can carry up to 8% of their budget as surplus.

However, there are no such caps for cyber charters. If cybers were held to the same standard as public schools , eleven of the fourteen would have been over the 8% line. The remaining three were over 50% of their expenditures.

The system is not perfect, and public school districts will sometimes game it by parking some of their surplus in "designated accounts" ("No, honest, we are setting $10 million aside for our cafeteria plastic spoon fund"). At the same time, districts have to save up money over time to fund big projects like building repairs and facility updates (because the state will provide bupkus for help). But here's another thing that public schools have to face that cyber charters do not-- actual audits.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Tim DeFoor just unleashed some audit information aimed at twelve districts that, in his opinion, have been a bit greedy with their tax increases and their resulting surpluses. Pennsylvania has rules that cap tax increases in any single year, but some districts game that system, too. So DeFoor wanted to scold these districts.

School districts respond that between special ed costs, pension costs (the state is still fixing its pension investment screw-up from fifteen years ago), and the unpredictable costs of charter schools. 

At DeFoor's presser, a reporter brought up the question of cyber charter surpluses. "Er, um, err--isn't that Elvis?" replied DeFoor.

Okay, not quite. The actual quote was, “We have heard concerns from residents and the General Assembly about charter schools. It’s something we have discussed." There was no explanation of why the cybers didn't get an audit this time, and nobody bothered to bring up the longstanding issue with cybers not being audited much of ever. Tom Wolf had tried to deal with this, but he was unsuccessful.

Imagine. You go to the grocery store, buy a jar of pickles, and you're charged $10. The next time you're in, the store owner says, "By the way, that jar of pickles actually only cost $5." Great, you reply, and you ask if you're getting a refund. "No," the owner says. "Just going to keep it in my unassigned fund balance."

Cybers are sitting on a pile of money that should either be funding education for students or going back to the taxpayers. But as I wrote a year ago, cybers are not subject to the same kind of oversight and accountability that public schools are, and there is no way to characterize this non-regulation as beneficial to students – it is, in fact, the exact opposite.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

PA: Penncrest Reading Restrictions May Face Legal Issues

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

They've been in the news because their board has seen fit to try to protect students from Objectionable Books (which seems to mean especially any that mention LGBTQ persons at all). You can get the full back story here, but we'll need to move ahead, because Things have been Happening.

Short version. After expressing social media outrage over a display of LGBTQ books in the school library, a board member proposed a new restrictive policy on books in the library--twice. Folks on all sides spoke up, but the board went ahead with the restrictions. If you've watched any of these dramas unfold elsewhere, you'll recognize some of the features. "But the policy doesn't actually mention gay folks," say people whose other comments make it clear that when they say "sexually explicit" that includes "mentioning LGBTQ persons ever." There's also the usual blurring of lines by which everything that includes a hint of anything folks don't like is labeled pornography, as if all things that mention sex at all ever are always total pornography. 

The high school newspaper caught the district in a moment of self-contradiction. The Facebook posts in which board member David Valesky called homosexuality "totally evil" and suggested it's wrong to suggest it's "okay" became the subject of a lawsuit. Part of the district's defense in that lawsuit was, "Hey, school boards don't have the power to ban books, so there's no threat implied by Valesky's post." That was, of course, before the board decided they totally have the ability to ban books after all.

You could ask the district's lawyer about his argument in that case, but he's quit.

Attorney George Joseph, of the Quinn Law Firm, told the board that their new policy, plus their anti-trans in sports policy, could open them up to some legal trouble. At a meeting, two board members called the solicitor's opinion "a joke," "worthless," and "not even legal." 

Recent actions by the board have highlighted a fundamental disagreement by a majority of the Board with the legal analysis and opinions of our office and, in our analysis, significantly compromised our ability to provide legal ongoing services to the District and to the existing School Board.

He goes on to explain the specific advice that he gave which was ignored and to explain that this is not personal. It's his job to give advice; he knows they don't have to take it, as has been the case in "several such instances."

Nevertheless, I must take exception to the manner in which some individual Board members expressed their disagreement with the most recent legal opinion I rendered.

That expression was "unconscionable" to him. So the board now needs a new solicitor.

They're working on it, sort of. We know that because at this point, they've attracted enough attention that USA Today's legal department is filing Right To Know law requests (because, see, you can do that with a public school), and that turned up emails from board president Luigi DeFrancesco to the Independence Law Center, the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a right wing religious advocacy group. 

It would make sense to turn to this group, because Penncrest's new policy appears to be based on a controversial policy in the Central Bucks County School District, and it appears that policy was co-written by an attorney from the Independence Law Center. The lawyer that DeFrancesco reached out to, Jeremy Samek, is the same lawyer who apparently had his hand in the Central Bucks policy.

The Pennsylvania Family Institute website says, under the heading of culture

We believe a flourishing, prosperous culture requires limited government, focused on its chief role to restrain evil and promote the good. This is best described as “ordered liberty,” reflected in Pennsylvania’s motto, “Virtue, Liberty and Independence.”

It's an interesting interpretation of "freedom" and "limited government" and reminds me of Wilhoit's Law, which says

Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

While their original law firm has said they'll continue to provide some services for the district until they find a new lawyer or lawyers, the district has put out some requests for proposals from firms. Though at least Valesky made clear his feelings about the legal issues on the same night the new policies were passed.

"If we go to court over it, so be it,” he said, “because at the end of the day we’re standing up for what’s right and for what God has said is right and true.”

I'm sure the story will continue to unfold. Stay tuned. 

McKinsey's Ridiculous Projection Of Learning Loss Damage

From the first mad March moment of 2019 2020, when states decided to shut down schools for a couple of weeks while this whole COVID thing blew over, McKinsey, the 800 pound gorilla of the consulting world, has been all over pandemic's golden opportunity with a variety of ideas about A) sending up alarms about Learning Loss and B) pitching solutions to the disaster they were working so hard to amplify.
Now, in pursuit of Goal A, they've issued a report that is just bonkers wrong. Beyond the usual Just Making Stuff Up part, there is, as Chalkbeat reporter and perennial bad data debunker Matt Barnum pointed out on Twitter, "a total conceptual misunderstanding." 

The general theme of the report is "OMG! The learning losses are only terrible awful but it will take forever and a day to recover from them!!" It is absolutely in keeping with the idea that test scores are like stock market prices and not, say, the collected scores of a group of live humans that changes each year.

The subheading signals the dopiness here: "While two decades of math and reading progress have been erased, US states can play an important role in helping students to catch up."

The New York Times used the same damn dumb idea in their headline about NAEP scores, and it still makes no sense. What exactly has been erased, and from where was it erased? And here comes a chart that I'm nominating as The Dumbest Chart Ever Produced By People Who Make More Money Before Lunch Than I Ever Made In A Year.

Let's talk about this for a second. There is an obvious issue, which is that the rates of improvement are made up baloney. "Reflect historic trends"? Do you mean, the kind of improvement we saw after the last time U.S. schools were disrupted by a major pandemic? You can download the full article and still not find an explanation of where these numbers came from, but you can find the old numbers to confirm that no graph of NAEP scores ever looked like this slow steady climb. 

But not only are these numbers just made up, but they make no sense.

The chart says that 8th graders won't catch up to pre-pandemic scores for twenty-eight years, which means that students who haven't even been born and so presumably have not been affected by the pandemic will still get low scores because of the pandemic !!??!! How does that even work?

The only possible way this chart could be close to conceptually defensible is if your theory is that the pandemic wiped out everything teachers have learned about how to teach in the last twenty years, and it will somehow take them until 2050 to reacquire that knowledge--though we would of course be talking about teachers who haven't even been born yet!! (Sorry about all the punctuation, but it's all I can do not type this post in italics and caps).

This is not how this works. This is not how any of this works. 

There's more in the report that we could pick apart, like the use of the whole "weeks of learning loss" foolishness, a half-assed attempt to correlate learning loss with school closure, and a bunch about how much relief money is still in play, because it wouldn't be a McKinsey report if they weren't trying to market something, and the ultimate conclusion is that districts should really try to fic this Terrible Thing by spending that relief money on The Right Products.

But there's no point in digging deep on the rest because that first chart announces so clearly that the writers of this paper have wandered off down the wrong path. How does this happen? There are four authors, three of whom are supposed to be McKinsey education experts. Of the three, one taught for one whole year for KIPP (then became an education consultant and then went to the Gates Foundation), one put in three years in a DC school (it doesn't say Teach for America, but he did his three went straight to McKinsey), and one has no actual education experience at all). 

It will be really unfortunate if any policy makers or leaders actually take this report to heart. This is why folks who actually work in education mistrust "expert consultants," and unfortunately why some teachers distrust their own judgment because surely an internationally respected major consulting firm couldn't be so wrong, could they? 

Well, yes, they could. Don't be intimidated. 

Koch's Yes Every Kids: Still Selling Privatization

Back in the start of 2019, Charles Koch declared that, all of a sudden, he wanted to work with teachers. Then we got another hint at the end of June when EdWeek noted that the Kochs were going to team up with the Waltons to throw a pile of money-- a great big honking pile of money-- at incubating schools, programs and what-have-them across the country. In that same article, EdWeek noted the creation of Yes Every Kid, "a group that intends to find common ground between groups that typically have disagreed vehemently over issues such as labor protections and school funding."

Yes. Every Kid. (I am going to skip the irritating extra punctuation for the remainder of this piece) was launched at the end of June, including a big piece from AP reporter Sally Ho, touting "hundreds of donors contributing at least $100,000 annually." The goal was to push school choice.

I wrote about it at the time, though at that point they hadn't done much. Charles Koch was a year away from announcing that, gosh, he had just been too partisan and divisive for the country, oopsies, my bad, and turning the Charles Koch Institute into Stand Together Trust, but Yes Every Kid was like a prequel to that rebranding effort. Its website at the time included an uplifting affirmation:

It's that simple. Instead of saying no. We say yes. We're done with negativity. Education reform has been saying "no" for decades. Saying no to educators, parents, and real solutions. Instead, we say "yes." Yes, every kid can learn. Yes, your ideas matter. Yes, together we can make change. We know that if we wait for change to come down from above, it won't be change in the right direction.

Yes, don't wait for things to come down from above, says this website that has come down from a billionaire who wants to drive the education bus despite his complete lack of educational expertise. But this astroturfery is insistent. "Real change has to start from the ground up. We're here as your resource to facilitate conversation." That might be really moving if the very next sentence weren't "We're here to foster a culture of disruptive innovation," which suggests that these facilitaty listeners already have some answers in mind. Also missing-- an acknowledgement of where all that negativity came from. Here is yet another reformy outfit talking about negatives from the past as if they simply fell from space, instead of saying, "Yeah, that was us. Sorry." And here comes the tell:

We want to hear new ideas, new solutions, and new voices. And it can only happen when we listen to the real stakeholders in education: you.

But who is this "we" and why should stakeholders feel any need or obligation to talk to "we" in the first place? This is the same old rich fauxlanthropist baloney-- we're not only going to vote ourselves a seat at the table, but we're also going to go ahead and give ourselves the seat at the head because, yeah, this is our table now. It's so big and generous of you to agree to listen to us, Sir, but I still haven't heard a reason that we should be talking to you.

When we call Yes Every Kid astroturf, that's not based on the usual tricky business of tracking forms and chasing money or junior detective shenanigans. Yes Every Kid has always been up front about being a Koch operation, from the current billing as "part of the Stand Together community" to its first big boss, chairman of YEK Meredith Olson. That appears to be this Meredith Olson, whose LinkedIn page lists her as Vice President, Public Affairs at Koch Companies Public Sector, LLC. She's located in Wichita and has been with Koch since 2005, first as Director, Business Development, then Managing Director, Operations, and now five years in the VP spot. Before that she worked for Shell Oil. Her degrees are mechanical engineering and an MBA.

So how are they doing these days?

Well, in 2019, for some weird reason, they tracked to an address in Michigan occupied by a hair salon. Today they have a proper address in a big office complex at 1320 N Courthouse Rd (Suite 400), Arlington, VA. The building is occupied by a variety of businesses; it's also occupied by the Stand Together Trust (Suite 500), and Americans for Prosperity (Suite 700), the Koch brothers operation that helped create the Tea Party movement. 

The Team is, again, clearly under the Koch umbrella. 

President Andrew Clark is listed as "a veteran of the Stand Together community," which turns out to mean he spent two and a half years at American for Prosperity. Before that, two years with Generation Opportunity, a Koch "sister organization" of AFP that helped fight the Affordable Care Act. Seems to have gotten his political start working as a grassroots consultant for Quayle for Congress. He's a "skilled lobbyist and tactician."

Craig Hulse, executive director, has been a busy guy. He's been back and forth through the revolving public-private door. Staff assistant for Congress, legislative liaison for Nevada governor, state policy advisor in Nevada, Nevada state director of StudentsFirst, director of government relations for Las Vegas Sands, public policy/public affairs manager for Uber, the Ready Colorado choicer advocacy group, state government affairs for JUUL, policy and government affairs for Tesla--most of them for a little over a year. His job is to oversee "the lobbying team with efforts across the United States to direct education and influence campaigns to shape education policy that is open to the free flow of ideas and innovation."

Erica Jedynak is the chief operating officer. Her last job was with Stand Together, and before that Americans for Prosperity, Deputy Chief of Staff in New Jersey legislature, and before than "campaign operative" for a whole lot of campaigns in the greater NYC area. 

There's more of the same. The coterie of National Policy Directors include a guy who touts his experience as a former teacher and, you guessed it, by "teacher" he means two years as a Teach for America temp, before moving on to help run a charter school and then go work for Excel in Ed, Jeb Bush's choice advocacy group. Former politician/pastor with libertarian think tank experience. Various coms professionals and experienced political operatives.

There is nowhere in sight anyone with real experience or expertise in education, but education is not really what YEK is about. It's about moving policies that defund and dismantle public education, a longtime goal of the Koch operation. As former Goldwater Institute operative Charles Siler explained:

Their ideal is a world with as minimal public infrastructure and investment as possible. They want the weakest and leanest government possible in order to protect the interests of a few wealthy individuals and families who want to protect their extraction of wealth from the rest of us. They see private wealth accumulation as a virtue signal because a person can only become wealthy by creating something of exceptional value for the public. In their world view, the more money someone has, the more moral life they've lived, and any attempt to take that money through taxation or other means is a moral issue.

YEK lists its four "policy pillars" as Fund Every Kid, Learn Everywhere, Education Your Way, and No More Lines, all policies about making education the responsibility of parents, not the government. The Koch machine frames this as freedom, but it's the same old voucher goal of defunding and dismantling the public education system and thereby getting rid of another part of government (and its attendant requirement to pay taxes to fund schools for Those Peoples' Children). 

Their press page involves a lot of applauding-- Iowa, Utah, Governor Sarah Sanders, Ryan Walters. It's a privatizer's all star list. They've also whipped up some balonified "research" to suggest that everyone loves them some vouchers. 

But mostly what they've done is perfect the warm fuzzy message that this is all For The Kids and Great Education (though there are no actual educators involved). But if you want the full unfiltered version of the Koch vision, there's nothing like David Koch's run as Presidential candidate for the Koch-funded Libertarian party. They wanted to get rid of a laundry list of federal agencies. They wanted to abolish Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They wanted to get rid of federally mandated speed limits, anti-trust laws, all controls on wages and rents. 

And in true Libertarian fashion, the platform urged the privatization of all schools (with an end to compulsory education laws). 

That's the dream--government completely out of the education biz, with families left to find what they can in a wide-open unregulated market. The dream itself hasn't changed; they just keep trying to put a more appealing face on it. Yes Every Kid is just the latest attempt to find a good sheep suit for that ugly wolf.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Some Parental Rights Folks Are Going To Have Big Regrets

Robert Pondiscio is fond of pointing out that teachers are not free agents, able to push whatever they wish in the classroom. It is one of the points on which he and I agree; as a teacher, you are hired by the taxpayers, via the school board, to do a job.

It is, like every single thing in education, a tricky balancing act. You are hired specifically to employ your professional expertise and judgment, and because teaching is such a human activity, it takes some regular reflection and self-attention to make sure that your personal stuff doesn't slop over into your professional stuff. 

But no--as a teacher, you are not hired by the community to conduct your own personal crusade. Which is not to say that your classroom practice will not be enhanced by an infusion of your personal passions and interests, while at the same time, students are not there to learn about you and supporting the causes that you support, which is not to say--well, look. It's complicated. For me, the defining line was somewhere right around "Are students' grades or treatment in the classroom being affected by how well they agree with what I believe?" 

I get the impulse to try to get your students to see Important True Things about life and this country. I believe that if you stick to what is true and you give your students space, they will rise and advance in the direction of true things. But in their time, not yours. And when you try to push and make it happen right now--I understand the impulse, but I can't defend it. 

For most of my career, I was paid what was good money for this area, collected from the local taxpayers for the purpose of helping students get better at reading, writing, speaking and listening, which I considered in the context of helping them figure out how to be their best selves while learning what it means to be fully human in the world. 

Teaching is a complicated job because on top of everything else, you answer to a hundred different constituencies. Local employers, your board, your administration, the parents, the students themselves, the taxpayers, the bureaucrats and politicians in various capitols who set various policies--you answer to all of the groups, and those groups are themselves filled with a wide variety of ideas and objectives (even if some Very Shouty Members of the group try to hide the diversity with loudness).

It is that large and complex web of constituents that makes public education such a complicated operation, but that web is also what gives public education its strength.

To understand that is to understand how many parental rights activists are being played. 

For folks who want to disrupt, defund and dismantle public education, that vast web of constituencies means that implementation of the Three Ds has to happen on many fronts, and so the message has all along been focused on pretending that most of those constituencies don't exist. 

Parental Rights groups have been great for this, promoting the fiction that public education exists just to serve parents. 

Take, for instance, the manufactured outrage over one Iowa school board members' comments. Some parents lifted some dudgeon up high because board member Rachel Wall posted this:

The purpose of a public ed is to not teach kids what the parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client is not the parent, but the community.

Wall is exactly correct. I might have edited it to say "not just the parent," but the community includes the parents, so she's covered there. But Moms For Liberty and other Very Shouty Folks, aided by Fox and other parts of the Very Shouty mediasphere, were all over this. Because education is By God a service provided to parents and parents alone. 

If your goal is to dismantle public education, this is great stuff because now, instead of dealing with entire communities, you're just dealing with parents (who, via choicey ideas you can split into singletons). With choice, you cut the whole rest of the community out of the conversation, and that will eventually come back to bite some folks in the butt.

Look. Nobody in education is on a little island. Not teachers, not parents, not students, not anybody. To try to cut them off from the rest of the community education ecosystem is to weaken every part of that system. "I am the Sole Ruler of my classroom," is a stance that ultimately weakens the teacher's role and effectiveness.

And "Parents are the only constituents of education" will do some serious damage down the road. When people try to say, "Everyone has a stake in educating young people" and are shouted down by, "No, only parents have a stake in education," those parents are backing into a buzzsaw.

Because the next logical response is going to be, from taxpayers, "Well, if I am not a stakeholder, then why the hell am I paying taxes?"

Where voucher policies really take root, we can predict the next step. Back after Brown v. Board, segregation academies were the next step, but the next step after that was for all those folks whose kids were either safely segregated in the academies and taxpayers whose didn't have children in school to get together and say, "Why are we still paying taxes for public schools?" We just saw it in Croydon, NH, where some Libertarians looked at a fully-functioning choice system and said, "Why are we paying so much for this."

Vouchers will be rebranded as entitlements. Policy folks will start saying, "This seems like a lot, and I know these folks could get a nice micro-school or software package for way less." Taxpayers will be encouraged to get Very Loud about, "Why are we paying all this money for a system that only benefits us." Heck, some folks will probably trot out all the research about how badly the vouchers work that voucher opponents have already collected. 

And parents who had been Very Loudly declaring, "The rest of you shut up! We're the only true stakeholders!" will suddenly discover that they have no allies, and what has always been true of voucher programs will become even more true--you only get as much "choice" as you can afford yourself (if some vendor is willing take on your child). If they're lucky, they will still have a public system limping along in their community. 

I understand the urge to want things your very own way (if I hadn't already, living with a pair of five year olds would clue me in). But we are all of us like horses on a merry-go-round--the same things that seem to hold us back are also the things that are propelling us forward. But it makes sense to pay attention to the bigger picture before listening to someone who says, "Would you like to just be cut loose from this spinny thing?"

I have lived through that special fear that comes from handing your child over to other people for the whole day. I get that it's real. But the folks exploiting it to simply blast away at the ties between schools and their communities are doing real damage, and I'm hoping that some folks figure it out before it's too late. 

Sunday, January 29, 2023

ICYMI: Groundhog Day Edition (1/29)

Yes, it's coming soon. And it already feels like we're living the same day over and over.

For those of you new to our work here at the Curmudgucation Institute, this is the weekly digest of things worth reading from the previous week (just, you know, in case you missed them). These days it is harder than ever to get the word out and to get that word to spread, and part of the work we do has to be amplifying the voices of people with messages worth hearing. If you read it and you feel it, then share it. It's important. 

A decade of scandal at Epic Charter Schools

We're opening with some throwback stories this wek. Turns out that one of the worst thefts-by-charter-school in history was even worse than everyone thought. Beth Wallis at NPR/StateImpact Oklahoma has the story.

Gary Rubinstein was an early Teach for America recruit, and he has kept a watchful eye on them ever since. So when they announced layoffs after one of their thinnest years yet, he had some thoughts.

Pa.’s landmark school funding lawsuit has been going on for 8 years. Here’s where it stands.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette brings us up to date on a lawsuit that might finally actually get somewhere this year. Maybe. If it does, Pennsylvania school funding is in for some upheaval.


In Lapham's Quarterly, Georgia English teacher Ian Altman writes a really thoughtful and insightful look at some of the real challenges of teaching literature, particularly when it comes to The Standards. This piece is not short, but it is excellent.

A Private Equity Firm, The Makers of the MAP Test, and an Ed Tech Publisher Join Forces

Steven Singer peels back some of the layers of the NWEA-HMH deal that unites a test manufacturer and a edupublisher under the umbrella of a big investment firm. Yuck.

The school choice movement has a voter problem

Christopher Lubienski in The Tennessean points out the many ways that the school choice movement has tried to deal with the fact that the voters don't really want it. Democracy is such a pain.

Missouri lawmakers are slandering teachers while grossly underpaying them

Editors at St. Louis Today call out legislators for keeping teachers under paid and over abused.

Supposed centrist Dems are being funded by Jeffrey Yass, a guy who made his billions playing poker (no kidding) and who is Pennsylvania's staunchest, most well-heeled opponent of public education. What could go wrong?

Nancy Flanagan looks past the imaginary picture of life painted by parental rights crusaders.

The basic rights teachers don’t have

At the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss shares a piece by Joshua Weishart that looks at the slow stripping of rights from teachers, leaving them with barely the right to just do their jobs.

Once-subversive plot to dismantle traditional public schools in Florida now central policy

Columnist Frank Cerabino at the Palm Beach Post calls out the Florida leadership's love of school choice, and he minces no words. Vouchers are a sham.

What Does It Mean for Our Children and Our Society that State Legislators Don’t Know What Teachers Do?

Jan Resseger looks into the issues that arise when laws about education are written by folks who have no idea what actually goes on in schools.

Florida teachers told to remove books from classroom libraries or risk felony prosecution

Okay, there's a whole lot on the list this week about various attacks on reading rights. Let's start with Judd Legum at Popular Information, who reports on what's happening in Manatee County, just one of the districts clamping down on books. (For even more on-the-ground stories, follow Legum on Twitter)

Sorry, Twitter, but Florida's war on books is no joke. Ron DeSantis wants to keep kids from reading

Speaking of the tweeter machine, Amanda Marcotte at Salon is one of many who were "corrected" by Elon Musk's totally not-biased correction department. Marcotte has been following right wing education shenanigans with a sharp eye and a really sharp metaphorical pen, and this is no exception.

Grumpy Old Teacher had a couple of good takes on Florida';s anti-reading initiative, but I picked this one because it cuts right to what makes this new shift different and important. Now in Florida, all books are guilty until proven innocent. Also, the pic with the post is on point.

Hoover schools cancel Black History Month author visit after parent complaint

It's not just books, and it's not just Florida. This story from Alabama shows how one parent was enough to scare a school into canceling an award-winning author's visit. Expect much more of this, as the CRT panic crowd is sure that Black History Month is a CRT thing.

Book Banning Is Getting Worse

Anne Lutz Fernandez opens with "I’ve been very worried about the current wave of book bans. I haven’t been worried enough." From there, she goes on to explain why all the reasons we've been hearing not to get too worked up are not valid. Guilty of some of them myself when this started. This piece makes me wish I'd written this piece.

School librarians vilified as the ‘arm of Satan’ in book-banning wars

You've heard some of these stories already, but Jeffrey Fleishman at the Los Angeles Times has collected a bunch of them, and the full effect is-- well, this is a rough piece to read. 

I'm a Florida teacher who's been forced to cover up the books in my classroom. Here's why I'm suing Ron DeSantis.

Don Halls has been teaching for 38 years. He loves his job, and he's filing a lawsuit. Good for him, all around. 

At this week, I took a look at critical questions to ask about voucher bills, and Maurice Cunningham's new report on dark money and parent groups for the Network for Public Education, which you should read. 

You can get also subscribe over at substack and get all of my usual stuff in your email.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Magical Thinking of School Choice

While busy implementing super-vouchers to further disrupt, defund and dismantle public education, Governor Kim Reynolds took a moment to tweet this:


Well, of course it's a zero sum game. Unless your state has an infinite supply of money, there's a limit to the number of taxpayer dollars you're going to spend on education, and any piece of that pile that you give to one sector of the education environment will absolutely be taken away from other slice.

But this piece of magical thinking has always been part of the modern school choice movement. "You don't have to settle for your one public school system," the sales pitch has gone. "You can have all these other different school systems as well-- and it won't cost you a penny more!!"

Sure. And when a business is running into financial trouble, a common tactic to make those dollars stretch is to acquire and open a bunch more sites. When a family is having trouble taking care of one house, a common tactic is to buy a second house and move part of the family into that house.

The notion that two, three, four, or more school systems can be operated at the same cost as one public system is a fairy tale, a delusion, a trip to the unicorn farm on the back of a dragon carried by break-dancing fairies. It's believing that daylight savings time makes the sun shine longer. 

Occasionally choicers try to pair that fairy tale with the fairy tale of The Public Schools That Waste Money Inefficiently, but you'd have to search far and wide to find a five hundred dollar hammer on school grounds; instead, you'll find teachers in a crumbling room wielding a third-hand stapler that they bought at a Salvation Army and reassembled with some duct tape at home. And at this stage of the game, The Tale Of The Magic Charter School That Did More With Less has been pretty much dropped in favor of The Tale Of The Charter School That Demanded A Larger Slice Of The Pie.

So the choice world hides the extra costs by getting wealthy benefactors to kick in, or hitting up parents for some extra money and/or unpaid labor. Some of the extra cost is simply passed on to taxpayers. That mechanism is admittedly complicated, as laid out by researcher Mark Weber here. Choice can actually raise per pupil spending in public schools, because fixed and stranded costs are spread over fewer remaining students, or because taxpayers put more money into the district to deal with those costs. And it's hard to figure in the "cost" of lost programming. 

It is the least surprising thing in the world to conclude that running multiple school systems costs more than running a single system. But somehow choice supporters can never quite bring themselves to make the honest pitch-- "We believe that every child should have a variety of options for education, and we believe in it so much that we are asking taxpayers to contribute more money so that the choice dream can become a reality." 

Why don't they pitch that hard reality? Because some great things could be accomplished in that reality. Well, free is always the most attractive cost for a program, and it's particularly attractive when many of the people who are driving the bus actually have the policy goal of shrinking public education spending to zero. And there are always those who sincerely believe in the magical idea that budget dollars are infinitely stretchy.  Who knows. Maybe if we close our eyes and wish real hard...