Thursday, August 31, 2023

Questions for Voucher Supporters

In Pennsylvania, the GOP is still pursuing the voucher program that Governor Shapiro just vetoed. Their dismay over his veto is understandable-- it's a version of the long-pitched voucher program that was tooled to meet his requirements. So the GOP can be forgiven for feeling as if they're victims of a bait and switch from someone who said "This is what I want," and then, presented with that, said, "No, not that."

So the full court press is on. And it has the same problem as other voucher bills. I'm going to skip over the philosophical issues, like the fundamental question of whether we should have education as a shared responsibility and public good or as a market-based good, or the basic efficiency of running multiple education systems. Those are important questions, but the various players already have their position staked out, and sometimes I fear that discussions of broad philosophical issues let us skip past some major practical matters.

So I want to ask some questions that address practical concerns that should be concerns even for conservative supporters of vouchers, and which have to be addressed one way or another in order to create a voucher system.

Here's a basic set of questions that every voucher advocate should be asked.

1) What regulations you support to keep private schools from denying voucher students? 

What good does it do to give a family a voucher if the school they choose will not admit the student? Most recent voucher bills include a "hands off" clause that says the state will not be allowed to interfere in how the school operates, but if the private schools can pick and choose which students to admit, what good is a voucher to a student who is not a desirable "get" for a private school?  If this is about putting kids above "special interests," why put the special interests of the school operators ahead of the needs or desires of the students?

2) Do you support allowing private schools to discriminate on the basis of religion?

In most voucher states, vouchers are used for private religious schools, including those that discriminate against LGBTQ students or families and others that require a family be born-again Christians. It's not an answer to say, "Well, why would non-religious people want to attend such a school?" They might. The religious school might have an attractive location or academic program. Should be schools be allowed to discriminate against them, and should the taxpayers foot the bill in such cases?

3) What kind of oversight and accountability do you support?

It's not going to help if students escape a failing public school and end up in a failing private school. Voucher programs tend to lead to "pop-up" schools created simply to take advantage of the voucher program, and these "sub-prime" schools tend to be not good. Of course families can "vote with their feet," but by the time they are exiting the school, damage has already been done.

4) What kind of taxpayer accountability and oversight do you support?

Taxpayers have a right to know how their dollars are spent. How will you insure that voucher dollars are transparently and accountably spent? In particular, who will protect or represent the interests of taxpayers without children, who will foot the bill but have no say in how the money is spent?

5) Do you support regulating or mitigating private school tuition costs? 

Cost is another barrier to choice that vouchers don't fully address. Vouchers will not cover the cost of the more expensive private schools (especially if costs like uniforms and transportation are factored in). In several voucher states, private schools have increased their tuition costs specifically because of vouchers. Families could of course borrow money to attend private schools still financially out of their reach, but we've seen how that can work out on the college level. Should a voucher system be one that provides choice to families with a certain amount of wealth?

6) Where do you see voucher levels long term?

In ten years, will voucher amounts be the same as the current proposed level? Do you anticipate raising the dollar value of the voucher over the years, or will the real value of the voucher shrink? 

7) What about the students left behind?

For a variety of reasons (many of which are suggested above), only a small percentage of the students at the failing public schools will be able to use vouchers to "escape." What solutions do you propose for the other students who are left behind at those schools? 

8) How will you manage the impact of the voucher program on taxpayers?

In several states, the cost of the voucher program to the state treasury has ballooned hundreds of millions of dollars above original projections. Do you anticipate avoiding that scenario here? 

You can't install a voucher system without answering these questions, whether you do so openly and publicly or just quietly in the office. But every one of them has big implications for taxpayers and parents. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

What's In Hillsdale's 1776 Curriculum?

Hillsdale College, the little conservative college that has become a big player in the school culture wars, has tried to assert itself a variety of ways. There was the Barney Charter School Initiative, started in 2010 to help 20 charter schools based on classical curriculum. The Barney mission statement used to include the goal "to recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West.”

They also work to launch voucher-powered private schools se curriculum materials, which have most recently surface in Pennridge School District, where a Hillsdale product and his one man fledgling anti-woke consulting biz, has just overcome public opposition (well, not so much overcome as ignored) to have his curriculum ideas implemented by the conservative majority of the board.

Part of the proposal is to make Hillsdale's 1776 Curriculum a required resource, one more time that this free resource has cropped up. So I've taken some time to read through it so that you don't have to. I'm going to make some general observations, then dig into a couple of specific units. This will take a while, so strap in. 

Some basic takeaways

There's not as much jaw-dropping bias as you think. Just a regular grade right wing tilt. This matters because lots of civilians are going to look at this and think it doesn't seem so bad. It's so bad.

It's not really a curriculum. More like a guide. And it fails to deliver much of what it promises.

The Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum is a complete collection of lesson plans for teaching American history, civics, and government to K-12 students.

It isn't. Not even sort of. There are no standards attached. Lesson objectives use language that anyone with teacher training would avoid ("Students learn about etc...")

It is undergirded with a belief in Truth, the notion that history is one single true narrative, a notion that bleeds through repeatedly, as when the guide refers to the "true story of history." For instance, in describing the "harmonious" nature of a history and civics classroom:

...sound history and civics classrooms will embrace an ordering and arranging of parts, just as the members of a symphony orchestra or athletic team move in complement to one another toward a common end, led by a director or captain or coach.

Emphasis mine. Or from the "Dear Teacher" message about the basis for the "curriculum," rooted in "truths which Hillsdale holds to be accessible to human reason, proven through the ages, and true of all people and all times."-

That truth is objective, according to the first law of logic, the law of contradiction: that something cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same way. The first object of the human mind and the first end of education is this objective truth about the world

The guide offers units, broken into "lessons" that some number of classes, lists of sources, some "enduring ideas," a list of stories to tell (but not the actual stories), questions to consider (Hillsdale's "classical" approach is fond of Socratic questioning, which is a curious approach to take when you only recognize one right answer to anything), some "keys," and some quizzes. Also carefully selected primary sources, because classical school people love those--as long as they're the right ones. 

In short, this curriculum is long on how, and short on what. If I were making my best guess, it would be that the "curriculum" here is what many teachers would recognize as the old "Take this textbook and follow it." 

For the littles, Hillsdale likes Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Young Readers Edition), by Wilfred McClay, Professor of History and the Victor Davis Hanson Chair in Classical History and Western Civilization at Hillsdale College. 

Land of Hope is published by Encounter Books, a conservative book company founded by the Bradley Foundation, a group excellent at funding the think tanks and university programs that provide this intellectual foundation for far right policy ideas. When the book came out in 2019, conservative outlets praised it as an alternative. Here's how National Review summed up the story of America conveyed in the book:

They fought a revolution to preserve an existing culture of self-government and further distinguished themselves by proclaiming their shared ideals. They governed themselves under a Constitution designed to put those ideals into action. When tested by slavery, expansion, immigration, and the challenges of democracy, Americans made the constitutional order work. When their brethren rebelled in order to create a government on a different basis, Americans preserved the system of ordered liberty as understood by the Founders. 

There's more, but you get the gist. 

These threads run through the "curriculum." American exceptionalism. The Constitution as holy writ. History as the story of individuals; social forces, systems, none of that stuff matters. The constant challenge of people who want to overthrow the Constitution with "modern" ideas. 

Nothing is really, truly up for discussion. Of course, traditional history texts also avoid any discussion topics by simply avoiding anything that is discussable and sticking to dates and simple accounts of events (which is why you remember high school history class as unspeakably dull). Hillsdale gets around the issue of discussion by operating on the belief that all history is settled, that there is one Truth, and that anyone who tells you otherwise is operating out of some sort of bias or attempt to push their unfounded agenda. 

Of all the problematic parts of the Hillsdale guide, this is probably the worst--the idea that history is settled and set in stone, and that any attempt to suggest that it could be seen differently is just wrong. This is not doing history; it's doing something else. History is a conversation, unending and always open to new discussion and insights. What Hillsdale is pushing is a completely other view of what history even is, a view that looks remarkably like indoctrination.

Okay-- so what does all this look like in a specific example?

Some K-2 Units: British Colonies

Since I'm daily contact with both someone who teaches 2nd graders and two small K-2 humans, I thought I'd look at what the guide offers. Turns out that this level is particularly weak.

Unit 1 is the British Colonies of North America, broken into four lessons which are supposed to take up 35-39 lessons. One of the threads of Hillsdale's program is a belief that geography is really important, so Lesson 1 focuses on that, on the advantages of the "virgin territory," America's excellent and untouched soil, though the indigenous tribes get a mention as well. "Explain how Americas is and has always been a land of immigrants," it advises, noting that even the "native" people (the guide puts "native" in quotes) had probably immigrated from Asia. And also talk about Columbus "discovering" this "New World."

Lesson 2 is exploration and settlement is heavy on the economic and spiritual freedom aspect of settlement, while getting Winthrop's City on a Hill in there top cue the exceptionalism. Teachers could ask students to compare current life to life prior to the 1600s, and not for the last time I'm wondering how many littles the writers know.

They would also like teachers to highlight that one motivation for founding Jamestown was "material opportunity for the lower classes." This is the lesson that includes the one quote you may have already seen:

Of particular note was Jamestown’s original experiment with a form of communism. This collectivism, plus rampant disease, helped produce a disastrous first year and a half for the fledgling settlement. John Smith’s requirement that settlers earn their bread by their work and his guarantee of private property ownership, along with some much-needed assistance from the local Native Americans, not only saved the settlement but also became quintessentially American traits, both in law and in the character of the people.

Let me remind you again that this is the lesson for K-2 students. This stuff, too.

Emphasize the English tradition of the rule of law and of forms of democratic expression traced back at least to the Magna Carta. Facing a lawless wilderness with families to protect and ex-convicts in their midst, the Pilgrims resorted to that English tradition of self-government under the rule of law—a social contract among themselves—with God as its ultimate judge.

And this:

Like the Pilgrims, these Puritans were fierce critics of the Church of England. Unlike the Pilgrims, however, the Puritans at Massachusetts Bay sought not to separate from the Church of England but to establish a community that would help purify and correct the Church of England while remaining a part of it. As evident in Winthrop’s “A Modell of Christian Charity,” New England would convert Old England by its example.

The writers are heavy on the self-governing part, and they also include other bits about religious dissent and "severe restrictions on religious belief," but fail to mention that these restrictions were part of a complete lack of separation between church and state, much like the Puritans who executed Quakers caught proselytizing in Massachusetts. Certainly no hint that someone might have drawn some lessons about church-state separation from these.

Lesson 3 is a look at colonies. Teachers are to emphasize that it was a Good Thing that the English government (the Dutch are left out of these accounts) stayed away and that neglect allowed colonies to be independence. Most colonies were private property ventures (you know--much better than government interference).

Spend time on what it meant to make a living and survive in the daunting wilderness and how such perseverance shaped the character and mind of the colonists. This would include looking at lifestyles and kinds of work done in the colonies and the type of self-reliance necessary for such lives.

No suggestions for addressing how such "self-reliance" might involve enslaved laborers helping you be self-reliant, but we are supposed to bring up the American character of "grit and determination." There is some mention elsewhere in the lesson of slavery, mostly in the context of pointing out that indentured servants had it just as bad, and also slavery has been around through the whole history of the world. Relationships with the Native Americans? These, we are told, "ran the gamut from friendly to violent, varying widely depending on the tribe involved." Apparently any problems were the fault of the natives.

And I know I already made this point, but I cannot get over the kind of instructions this guide provides for delivering lessons to 5-8 year olds. Seriously.

Emphasize with students the degree of self-government that the colonists exercised. Include in this discussion the meaning of self-government. In brief, the colonists largely governed their own internal affairs (rule over local matters, including taxation, as opposed to international trade and security) through local legislatures and governance structures chosen by the people. This was partly due to the English tradition of legislative authority and the rule of law, the loose and decentralized pattern of British colonial settlements and rule compared to other empires. Another factor at play here was the great distance between London and the American eastern seaboard, which led to long periods of “benign neglect” of the colonies and the further development of local institutions of self-government. While all of the colonies would eventually become official royal colonies with royal governors, colony-wide legislative bodies were prolific, as were local governments such as townships, counties, and cities.

Lesson 4 is major colonial events. More about how British government neglect was "healthy for the colonists." The lesson points out that the colonies weren't regulated by a government, but of course they all had their own government which somehow counts as self-government, except when they begged the British for more help in governing the colonies and protecting them and look, I'm not going to thrash this out here because the question of colonials ties to Britain was super-complicated and complex. But not in Hillsdale's stuff. 

And here's a new one-- The Great Awakening provided the colonies "with something they could hold in common," suggesting it helped pave the way for the Revolution. Except that it also happened in England, and many colonial churches split up over their feelings about this largely evangelical event. 

The Unit comes with assessments, sort of, both for those who can read and write and those who can't, though the reading and writing ones make some large demands. Some are very open-ended ("Tell me the story of the First Thanksgiving"), some are a little confusing ("What was daily life like for African colonists and African slaves?"), most assume the answer ("Why was it good that England did not pay the colonists much attention?"), and some are crazy wide open ("What were some of the lessons we can learn from the stories of the American colonists?")

All assume that there's just one correct way to view the events of history. If the classical education folks at Hillsdale want to foster critical thinking, this is surely not the way.

More K-2: Civil War

Look, I told you this would take a while. But I'll try to briefer this time. Here's one "enduring idea" from this unit.

 That slavery was the original contradiction in America, and that slavery is immoral, unjust, dehumanizing, and in violation of the inherent dignity and equal possession of natural rights of each person, as are any ways in which one person or group of people is favored over another due to the color of their skin.

Got that? Slavery was bad, and so is that affirmative action reverse racism stuff. 

Also, Lincoln was a great statesman who "ended the barbarous and tyrannical institution of slavery, and nevertheless abided by the rule of law in doing so." So imposing the income tax to fund the war, and imposing a draft that struck some people as so awful that there were riots, and just generally exercising federal authority to an extent never before witnessed (suspension of habeas corpus, etc). Nothing complicated there. 

Lesson 1 covers the expansion of slavery. Interesting twist--they talk about popular sovereignty defined not as the idea that power comes from the consent of the governed, but as the idea "that right and wrong are the mere will of the majority opinion." Lincoln, they assert, knew better. There's even an activity to drive home the point of majority tyranny. So remember, kids. Democracy is bad.

The outcome of the Civil War determined whether the nation would live according to the principles of liberty, equality under law, and self-government, or reject those truths in favor of slavery, inequality, and tyrannical rule.

Reconstruction is also covered. The Southern states, it turns out, were brought into the war through actions of their elite leaders, but two lessons later, Southern states are undoing civil rights for Blacks during Reconstruction. 

Also, the Founders were against slavery and thought it would die out on its own. Definitely no more complicated issues to be touched on there (though in later grades, the guide does note that some founders held slaves. 

Grades 9-12

While there is more ground to cover in the high school units, much of the language describing teacher focus and ideas and "keys to the lesson" are word for word the same as the K-2 units, almost as if this "curriculum" doesn't differentiate all that much between students at different developmental levels.

The Revolutionary War unit hits on the idea that language in various documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, were

consistent with the Christian tradition within which the American founding occurred. Other references to divine sources of truth in the Declaration include that men are “endowed by their Creator” and its appeals to “the Supreme Judge of the world” and to “the protection of divine Providence.”

When it comes to the Constitution, there's a lot of talk about the Founders and the Framers as if they are a unified whole and not a cantankerous bunch of folks with serious disagreements. Do make sure they understand that it's a Republic, not a Democracy, and point out early examples of majority tyranny, like debt cancellation by states. Also spend some time on the Electoral College and its purposeful creation to prevent fraudulent and tyrannical choices--but states "abandoned" that purpose when they tied the electoral college to popular votes. 

There's a lot about slavery and how the founders were really keen on getting rid of it eventually, because they were pretty sure that putting stuff in the Constitution would cause slavery to die out, which was better than losing the South. When we get to the Civil War, we'll address the fact that the Founders got that totally wrong by blaming the cotton gin, which changed the whole nature of slavery by making it more profitable. You might think that's an argument that the Constitution cannot simply be read by hewing to the Founders and ignoring the impact of changing times and contexts, but we're surely not going there. Instead, we'll argue that 

” Moral relativism, the idea that “might makes right,” and a belief in unfettered democracy through the vote of the majority were the slaveholders’ pillars in arguing to preserve slavery.

Abraham Lincoln was great because he realized that popular sovereignty (aka democracy) was bad, and so he stuck to the defense of objective standards of truth and justice, of good and evil.

This, as much as anything, is a critical piece of understanding the thinking on the right-- a government does not derive legitimacy by the votes and support of citizens, but by aligning itself with what is True and Right--even if the majority of citizens disagree. 

This, as much as anything in Hillsdale's 1776, is a reason not to put this in schools--because it is working hard to lay a foundation for a rejection of democracy, to be replaced by rule of those who are sure they know what is Right and True. 

And Federalist papers all day.

If you want more 9-12--how about civics?

There's also a set of units for American Civics. There's the Principles of America (liberty, equality, rights and self-government). 

There's a section about the Constitution and federalism that includes plenty about how limited a federal government is supposed to be, plus

The framers were very intentional about which level of government would have which powers based on a careful review of what each government’s purposes would be by nature.

Which is kind of nuts because the framers could not agree about much of anything about the Constitution, and that's on top of the fact that we say "framers" instead of "founders" because some of our founding fathers didn't even want a Constitution in the first place (looking at you, Patrick "Give me liberty or give me death" Henry).

There's a unit about Equality, and it's as close as the guide comes to admitting that history is complicated. There's this paragraph:

So when the truth that slavery was present when the United States was being founded is set side-by-side with the truth that America was founded on the idea that “all men are created equal,” judgements of hypocrisy at best and outright lying at worst are entirely expected. And such judgments were made at the time of the founding as they are made today. By themselves, these two facts can only lead to these two conclusions.

Oh, but then this line comes next:

And yet, these facts do not stand by themselves.

Everybody was doing it, in every country, since the dawn of time. But we at least argued about it and some of us felt bad about it and  eventually shot each other over it and meanwhile "peoples across the world turned to America and its founding principle of equality to end tyrannies, colonization, and other injustices." 

Nobody else in the world is founded on "all men are created equal." When MLK Jr talked about the "promissory note" that we didn't deliver on, that actually shows how exceptional and great we were to make the promise in the first place, even if we didn't keep it. But, the guide warns, be careful with "consider the times" as that might give the impression that truth and morality are relative to time and place and not immutable Truth. 

There's a unit about Progressivism. Spoiler alert: it was and is bad. It denies objective Truth. It supports government doing a bunch of stuff--the administrative state. Not saying that stuff is wrong, but it goes against the Constitution, which is codified to fit absolute Truth. So there are "philosophical differences" between Progressives and "the founding."

There's a unit about late-20th century that includes lessons about the civil rights movement which try very hard to parse the difference between demanding that the law treat all persons equally and demanding some larger levels of justice that involve noticing someone's race. The term "color blind" isn't much used, but it might as well be plastered all over the pages. 

There are lessons about other new philosophies like the New Left, but first a reminder for students:

Ask students to consider once more the claims to objective truth and objective morality on which the American regime rests. On one hand, thinkers in the West since ancient times had seen in nature and in human nature a basic objective reality that the human mind is capable of recognizing and understanding, and upon which government could be based. On the other hand, the founders also argued for the existence of an objective human good, something toward which all human actions should aim and in light of which human beings should act freely in the pursuit of their happiness, but which government had no power to control unless a pursuit violated the natural rights of an individual. It is important to review both of these facets to truth and morality as they relate to establishing self-government and to what a government may and may not do. Many critiques in the late 20th century challenged these presumptions.

In short, we've known what is True since ancient times, therefor anything new is probably wrong. New rights like privacy and self-expression? Liberation and social justice? Affirmative action? That's all looking pretty shady.

Are you still here?

God bless you. I'll try to wrap it up.

Again, if you're scanning the Hillsdale "curriculum" for the kind of jaw-dropping crazy-pants stuff you'd expect from a rogue MAGA tool, you won't find it. What you do find is a thorough laying out of the conservative view of US history, based on some premises that I would deem dubious.

There is objective and immutable truth, and wise people have reasoned it out since ancient times. Our founders and framers knew that Truth and wrote it into a Constitution. Our government gets its legitimacy from adherence to those Truths and not from any tyranny of the majority. In fact, every time this nation has ever messed up, it has been because too many voters and powerful people ignored those Truths. 

As an actual curriculum, 1776 is not particularly well-crafted, developmentally appropriate, thorough, complete or, well, good. As an attempt to create and transmit the right wing argument against democracy in general and our country's history in particular, it's coherent, consistent, and absolutely indoctrinaty. No public school in this country should be using it, or anything built on top of it. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Dear Teachers Headed Back

This will be my sixth fall of not going back to the classroom, and this time of year still brings a twinge to my heart.

I'm sure it's exacerbated by the fact that both the Board of Directors and the Chief Marital Officer (CMO) here at the Curmudgucation Institute will resume classes this week, and I will not.

In retirement, I have not yet adjusted to this time of year. As a teacher, it was always like the biggest case of stage fright ever. And there was always a sense of anticipation, of a whole world of possibilities just about to open up. Fresh off a summer of thinking and reading about the work, I would have a toolbox full of new ideas that I was just chomping at the bit to try out. The CMO, like most elementary teachers, has been in to retool and arrange her space, so that it is fresh and new and will smell like new classroom tomorrow. It's a cool smell. I envy that smell.

I know there are so many things that can get in the way of that new year scent of joy and anticipation and possibility.

Teachers were heroes in the national culture for about six weeks in 2020. But other than that, it has twenty years of politicians and privatizers figuring out that they could score an advantage by coming after public education, and the drumbeat has just gotten louder and worse, moving from "American public schools are failing" to "teachers are a bunch of groomers." And all of that contempt for public schools has mixed with the covid-created vacation from actually doing the school thing to create a stew that students have soaked in so that they are now carrying that contempt and contentiousness right into the classroom.

Add to that an increased awareness of shortcomings of the system. Add to that increased, unfunded expectations. And add to that whatever local issues you have, because while state and national policy debates may create problems that trickle down to your classroom, nothing is more problematic than working for an administrators who is some toxic trifle with layers of incompetence, malignance, and weaselly untrustworthiness.

I have not been out so long that I've forgotten the challenging parts. I left for a variety of reasons, some having nothing to do with the work itself, but the fatigue that comes from having to repeatedly make the least bad choice still lives large in some sharp-edged cells of memory. There are parts that I don't miss a bit.

But, still.

The sun is going to rise and reveal something new. That scent of promise and possibility. Fresh office supplies, and a room just waiting to be lit up. The chance to do the work, to fashion lessons out of your own knowledge and skill and bridge across a moment that you can't control but only plan for, where you find those students where they are and pass on to them something they can use, maybe right now or maybe years from now. The times when the classroom is firing on all cylinders. The times when students are lighting up, growing stronger and smarter right in front of you. The times collaborating and just jawing with colleagues who are at it, too. All the times when the work is getting done.

Helping students become their best selves, figuring out what it means to be fully human in the world. 

Lord, and the scale--the huge human picture of it matters and the sweeping ideas matter and the nuts and bolts and dirt under the fingernails matter. 

I miss it, every fall especially. And I am excited for you that you get to go back to it. Because for all the crap heaped up around it and thrown at it, there is no better job in the whole world. It is great and exciting and energizing work, one of a handful of jobs that let's you work right there at the core of what it means to connect the world and humanity and yes you can get distracted and tangled up in baloney and stifling strips of foolishness, but unlike people who spend their whole days wrapped up in that crap, all you have to do is remember to turn your head and adjust your focus because it's always right there, the heart and humanity and reality of starting out as a tiny human and coming into your full true self and entering into a relationship with your world--it's all right there. It's always right there. Human beings--particularly young human beings in the business of becoming--are miraculous, and you are right there.

So God bless you and good luck. May your year be filled with the best parts of the work, and may you find the chance to enjoy them. May your memory be a blessing to your students. May you pass on some of the best parts of human knowledge and skills, the miracles involved in memory and art and making sense out of strange scribblings on screens and paper. May the hard work stretch your sinew and bone and still feel good, because it is work worth doing. If you have to fight to do the work, may you find strength in knowing it's work worth fighting for.

New day, new year. I envy you. Have a good time.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

PA: Pennridge Right Wing Looks To Pack Audience At Board Meeting

“Our end goal is that every single kid who leaves Pennridge loves this country and understands our constitution,” said Pennridge board member Ricki Chaikin back in April. But it turns out that installing a Christian nationalist curriculum created by a guy with no qualifications to create curriculum of any sort--well, a few folks are pushing back. And so right wingers have put out a request to pack tomorrow night's board meeting with "talented clappers." 

If you're just catching up on this story, let me bring you up to speed on the players.

Vermilion Education LLC

Vermilion as a consulting service that's just fresh off the edu-biz bush (about eight months old), so fresh that it appears to be just one guy. The address on its first contract proposal was a single family dwelling in a residential neighborhood in Hillsdale, Michigan. 

The one guy is Jordan Adams. Adams is a Hillsdale grad ('13), which means he was a Hillsdale student when they were launching their Barney charter schools initiative, and eventually became their Associate Director of Instructional Resources, supposedly teaching at charters for a year or two (though I can't find confirmation of that). I'll let you draw your own conclusion about his fitness for the role:

“I mostly focus on the history and Latin curricula, figuring out how things are taught in a fourth-grade or eleventh-grade classroom,” said Adams. He looks forward to experimenting with more accessible resources for teachers: “When you’re a first-year teacher, you’re just trying to stay one day ahead of what you’re supposed to be teaching. You don’t have time to sit down and read a long text about teaching. But maybe if there’s a short video that is clearly titled and easy to access, you might conceivably watch it while you’re making dinner.”

Gee, if there were only some place a first year teacher could get the education and preparation needed to be ready for that first day. But Adams' ideas about the first day are going to come back to haunt us.

Adams's original undergrad plan was to work at a think tank, then he went to grad school for a Masters of Humanities. One more educational amateur rediscovering the wheel. But apparently reinvented it well enough to move up to interim director of curriculum for the Hillsdale College K-12 Education Office, a job he was holding back in October of 2022.

Adams was part of the crew that screened the Florida math textbooks that DeSantis accused of being too indoctrinatey

Mentions of Adans have been scrubbed from the Hillsdale College website, but given how hard he's working promote their curriculum, I'd guess that the scrubbing is less about disowning him and more about covering his tracks. Because Adams has shown quite the tendency to talk out of both sides of his mouth about what his goals are.

Vermilion's First Attempt To Land A Gig

Adams first attempt to get a gig was launched in Sarasota County, Florida, where Bridget Ziegler, a co-founder of Moms For Liberty, is school board president. So it should have been a very friendly environment in which to get his educational dewokifying services a first hire.

Adams made a couple of fumbles, not the least of which was sending Ziegler his real pitch without realizing it would become public record. So his promises to be an extension of the same right wing movement that got her elected with the intent of reshaping public education. He even offered to use his position to spy for her. He would audit the district's programs and screen for signs of staff and materials that weren't of the correct ideology. He would sit in on teacher interviews!

His mission was clear--root out and eradicate the wokeness from every corner of the district. His qualifications? Educationally non-existent, but ideologically right in line. The proposed contract, vague and open-ended, with odd features like Adams reporting directly and only to Ziegler. And all of it proposed with a very, very brief timeline presumably so that people couldn't go digging around too much.

But WTXL went digging anyway. And folks started noticing how shady it all looked. Protests were mounted. And in a surprise twist, the board voted 3-2 against the contract, with some deciding that, political leanings aside, it was a lot of money to pay for a guy with no actual qualifications.

Adams would have to look elsewhere for his first paying customer.

Welcome To Pennridge

If you want to find a home for right-wing education ideas north of the Mason-Dixon line, Bucks County PA is a fine place to go shopping. 

Pennridge School District is located in the Southeast, just north of Philly, in Bucks County. Their board has been pretty relentless in pursuing repressive and reactionary policies. They have trouble telling creationism from science. They banned Banned Books Week. They tried to clamp down on student expression. And they blew up DEI policies (even as they demonstrated why they needed such policies in place). And they are considering Hillsdale's ideological, biased and not very great 1776 Curriculum (Hillsdale is presided over by Larry Arrn, the guy that Donald Trump appointed to create an anti-1619 curriculum). So it was just the place to hire Vermilion.

By the end of April, Pennridge was hiring Adams on the promise that every kid in the district needed to learn to love this country and over the objections of staff and community members. 

By June, the wheels were already coming off, with the board essentially using Adams to replace in-house curriculum experts and comments, all negative, pushing a meeting to wee hours of the morning. His proposals included teaching Ancient Near East to first graders, to which some asked where one even finds age level materials for the topic.

“The question is why one man with limited experience is being entrusted to make educational decisions for the students in a district that he is not even a part of,” said Gordienko. “I implore you to please reexamine the decision to employ Mr. Adams and look at what you have right here in front of you.”

Adams had not worked with the staff, and one board member pointed out that the school board is required to ensure that employees charged with developing curriculum have appropriate qualifications, which includes five years of teaching and a principal or supervisory certification. Does Adams have those qualifications, he asked. No, Adams does not.

Despite his lack of qualifications, experience, or track record (when Pennridge hired him in April, he told them they were the first, and there are no signs that he's landed a second gig anywhere), Adams appeared at the Moms For Liberty conference on July 1 (his 65th day of employmety on his first consulting job) presenting a session entitled "The First 100 Days: Getting Flipped School Boards To Take Action." The Bucks County Beacon obtained audio, and hoo boy. 

While Adams was still claiming to be a non-partisan, non-ideological consultant, he was in Philadelphia delivering his template for how to manage the ideological takeover of a school district's operation. He was, he said, "a fox in the henhouse." His strategy advice involved flooding the zone, paralyze the district with constant requests for information, and basically roll over the educators who work in the district because they are to be treated as the enemy to your righteous crusade to install christianist nationalist education-ish stuff. 

So where are they now?

Maddie Hanna has been following the district for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and her latest update from last Monday is not pretty.  Adams has his new social studies program, and remember his thoughts about the first day? Turns out it's policy, and the teachers at Pennridge are warning that they have not had the time to prep to teach all new units for the school year. 

“To be honest, I can feel a little panic setting in,” Melinda McCormick, a fifth-grade teacher, told the board at a meeting last Monday. McCormick said she’d never taught some of the topics in the new course — which includes a focus on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln — and had she known of the changes earlier, “I would have spent many hours over the summer building my own background knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Adams has made Hillsdale's "1776 Curriculum" as a "required" resource for teachers. Plenty has been written about the inadequacies of the program, but this sums it up well:

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz told The Inquirer the Hillsdale curriculum “fundamentally distorts modern American history into a crusade of righteous conservative patriots against heretical big-government liberals.”

Hillsdale’s curriculum for third to fifth graders refers to Jamestown’s “original experiment with a form of communism,” which “helped produce a disastrous first year and a half for the fledgling settlement."

That upset was the subject of last Monday's board committees meeting; the next full meeting will be tomorrow (August 28), and the supporters for Adams redesign of the district curriculum are getting ready. The following was sent out Friday from Hope for PA, one of Bucks County's many rightwing groups:

Yes, that's real. Note: "You do not have to be a resident" 

I am not sure what "untalented clappers" would look like (they insist in clapping on 1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4?) but I imagine they might welcome them, too. The important lesson here is that the next time you see coverage showing a noisy and enthusiastic crowd at a board meeting, it may not have anything to do with what the actual residents actually think.

Also, if I were a Pennridge district resident who was tired of this nonsense putting ideological purity over actual educational concerns, I might get myself to that meeting tomorrow night. Because this may be Adams' first job, but if he shows he can successfully install christianist nationalism in a school district, it probably won't be his last, and it would be a shame if this particular grift is inflicted on the taxpayers and students of other districts. 

ICYMI: Quiet Soon Edition (8/27)

Both the Board of Directors and the CMO head back to school this week, leaving me to manage the sudden lack of noise here at the institute. Time to brush off that old vinyl and start ramping up some projects in an attempt to distract myself. In the meantime, here's some reading from the week.

Low pay, culture wars, and ‘bulldozer parents.’ Why Michigan’s best teachers are calling it quits.

Schools starting up, so it's time for media outlets to spend a week or two noticing education issues, like the continuing teacher exodus. Here's Melissa Frick in Michigan Live noticing the loss in DeVosland.

Gun deaths among U.S. children hit a new record high

More ugly news from the journal Pediatrics, as reported in Axios

The Battle Over a ‘Catholic Public School’ in Oklahoma

At The Progressive, Andrew Seidel takes a look at the Oklahoma proposal to start a taxpayer funded religious charter. What is it really about? Seidel says it;s the hostile takeover of public schools.

Dear God, The FLBOE Is Now Beginning Its Meetings With Prayer.

Speaking of ignoring the wall between church and state, Sue Kingery Woltanski informs us that the Florida Board of Education has a fun new custom--opening with a prayer that, in one instance, involves noting that the common good is "to build a nation that gives God glory."

Let’s Stop Pretending College Degrees Don’t Matter

There's been a lot of talk about getting rid of the whole credentialling thing, but at the New York Times, Ben Wildavsky says let's stop kidding ourselves and our children.

A Nation at Risk: Will the Truth finally set US free?

If you're a podcast person, you should have Bust-ED Pencils on your list, and a great place to start is with this new episode featuring James Harvey. He was there when A Nation At Risk, the federal report that kicked off the whole "US education sucks" thing, and he's here to tell us that it was bunk.

‘Moms’ Radical Attack on Public Education

Maurice Cunningham is one of the top researchers in the world of dark money and reformy astro-turf. Here he is in the Shepherd (Milwaukee's alternative news source) explaining what Moms for Liberty is all about.

The Model of a Modern School Administrator

RealClear Education is a reformy publication, and Max Eden's reformster credentials are impeccable, so this piece in which Eden takes a flamethrower to the current leadership of the very reformy Chiefs for Change is an unexpected barrel of Something Else.

Hard “pass” on new PA school voucher program\

Voucher fans are still fighting to get more of them in PA, but folks are still stepping up to say no, like Ada Miller in the Bucks County Herald.

More than 100 chaplains urge Texans not to hire school chaplains

Governor Abbott thought he had a clever way to get religion into schools, but a whole bunch of religious folks are not on board with his program.

Florida schools got hundreds of book complaints — mostly from 2 people

Behind the Tampa Bay Times paywall, but the headline has a lot of the story. And one these crazypants reading opponents is, I'm sorry to say, a teacher.

Teachers—or Teacher Unions? Or maybe—Neither.

Beating up on teacher unions is cool again, at least if you're one of those GOP candidates wasting his time primarying. But Nancy Flanagan has some thoughts about unions and parents and the attempts to pit them against each other.

What is a "Classical Education"?

We hear a lot about classical education, particularly from charters and private schools and places like Hillsdale College, but what is that, anyway. Steve Nuzum has a good explainer.

Is Florida’s SAT Replacement Exam A) Christian Nationalism or B) Woke Propaganda?

If you've encountered the creator of the Classic Learning Test on social media, it probably didn't leave a glowing impression. But Kiera Butler at Mother Jones has put together a fair and balanced look at this attempt to upset the SAT/ACT apple cart.

The College Board Tells TikTok and Facebook Your SAT Scores

Speaking of those odious test manufacturers, Gizmodo has a reminder that they have not changed their data-mining-and-selling ways.

Where Have School Libraries Gone?

It's not just Houston. Steven Singer was shocked and dismayed to find his old school library is now vacant space.

Superintendents continue to call for cyber charter school reform

PA cyber school funding is in dire need of fixing, and yet, superintendents and many others have to keep trying to convince the legislature to do something, and they mostly don't.

This week at Forbes. com, I wrote about the new PEN America report on teacher intimidation bills, and about the shredding of literature teaching by the Big Standardized Test. 

It's been almost a year since I launched the substack version of the Curmudgucation Institute's output, and I'm plenty pleased with how it's working. It makes it easy and convenient to follow my stuff as much or as little as you want-- it's just one more piece of email in your inbox. It's absolutely free, and I encourage you to sign up.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

PA: Shapiro Still Looking For Ways To Support Choice

It was back in early August when Governor Josh Shapiro held a press conference in Penn Hills, shortly after he signed the budget that did not include $100 million for more school vouchers in PA. As reported by the Pennsylvania Legislative Services (behind walls, so I can't link), this exchange occurred:

You recently vetoed the school voucher program, leaving $100 mill on the table. Do you have plans for that money? 

Gov. Shapiro said he considers that topic to be unfinished and the chambers need to work on the topic, much like they need to work on the minimum wage, the Fairness Act to protect LGBT, and ensuring that those who are victims of abuse are able to face their abusers in court. “There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in the House and Senate, I’m hopeful that they will come back to session in the fall prepared to work together,” he said. 

So you don’t have plans for the $100 million? 

Gov. Shapiro explained that money is no longer part of the budget. “It’s now subject to further communication between the House and Senate. It’s certainly a concept I support. I think it’s important to fully fund schools and we give children who are struggling in difficult situations aa fair opportunity to learn,” he said. Gov. Shapiro said he has only been governor for 6 months, and there is still much work to do. 

The $100 million you say you support, is that for the Level Up funding or the charter school voucher program? 

Gov. Shapiro said, “Both.”

Shapiro's support for vouchers was noted all the way back during his candidacy, and choicers have pushed hard to get him to back a stripped-down-just-for-him version of a voucher bill that has been kicking around Harrisburg for year. The dark money group Commonwealth Action has been formed just to put pressure on Shapiro to get those vouchers passed. And Shapiro himself has said he continues to support the basic idea, criticizing the GOP not for the quality of their voucher proposal, but for their inability to muster enough votes to clear the Dem-controlled House.

When Shapiro took vouchers off the table, he made the GOP sad, but work started pretty quickly to "repair" that relationship, and it looks like the bone that Shapiro threw them was a chance to "improve" the state Charter Appeals Board. President Pro Tem of the PA Senate told the Philadelphia Inquirer

that Shapiro promised to improve the efficiency of the state’s Charter Appeals Board, which can overrule school boards’ decisions about opening new charter schools or closing existing ones. GOP leaders said they want that board, chaired by Shapiro’s secretary of education, to do more to help students attend charter schools in Philadelphia.

In Pennsylvania, the local school board, composed of representatives elected by local taxpayers, gets to decide whether or not a charter gets to come in and force those taxpayers to foot the bill for multiple parallel schools. The Charter Appeals Board is where the charter operators go when they are sad about being turned down. 

In practice, this usually means charter schools in Philadelphia, which has its own messy and troubled history including the best and worst of times for charter operators.

Generally, Philly's pretty friendly to charter schools. Just a week ago, Lisa Haver outlined for WHYY how Philly's board was looking favorably upon renewal for 19 of Philly's 87 charters, even though most are failing to meet basic academic standards. Philly's charter schools average 12% proficiency in math and 30% on reading, which is well below both Philly public schools and the state's charter schools. 

There's a history of mistreatment of students. Philly is the home of Franklin Towne Charter, the one in the news because an administrator blew the whistle on a rigged lottery system (turns out the lottery itself is not rigged, but you have to pass the screening to get to enter in the first place). Haver also found that at least three Philly charter CEOs make more for running one to three schools that Superintendent Tony Watlinger makes for overseeing the city district of 217 schools.

But that apparently is not friendly enough for the GOP.

The charter appeal board has heard twelve cases since 2021. Ten were decided in favor of the district boards and the taxpayers they represent, though one of those decisions was later overturned by the courts.

Susan DeJarnatt, a Temple law professor who researches charters, told the Inquirer that the board has actually tilted toward charter operators. Previous Governor Tom Wolf left Pre-Previous Governor Tom Corbett appointees on the board for most of his eight years, and DeJarnatt argues that the board wrongly excludes consideration of a charter's financial impact on the hosting district. 

But the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public [sic] Charter Schools, a group that tussled repeatedly with Tom Wolf, argues basically that they want more pro-charter people on the appeals board. Director Anne Clark told the Inquirer that the consultants they hired with their US Department of Education charter grant money, say that the charter appeals board as “among the issues we need to be addressing.” Which is a different approach to the issue than, say, deciding that the applying charters should be better. 

The appeals process is strictly about protecting business interests. It's about charter operators being able to circumvent local democratic processes when they don't like the way that those processes turn out, a kind of educational eminent domain that allows charter businesses to grab local taxpayer dollars regardless of how those taxpayers and their elected representatives feel about it (a different flavor of the same taxpayer-scamming business as a voucher program). 

But it's clear at this point that Shapiro is a political animal who doesn't see anything wrong with privatizing public education other than it tends to lose votes among the members of his own party. I get the benefits of having a governor in this state who can actually work with both parties, but I'm not happy that bargaining away public education is how he does it. Meanwhile, choicers and right-tilted folks are salivating at the prospect of getting GOP policies pushed by a Dem governor in a swing state. And we're not done talking about vouchers yet, and Shapiro is no friend of public education. Stay tuned, I guess. 

ARK: Not Even Pretending Any More

Arkansas kicked off the year with the LEARNS Act, a big legislative smorgasbord of every bad policy idea the right has pushed for dismantling public education. So of course it includes a gag law to restrict "indoctrination":

Steps required under subdivision (a)(1) of this section shall include the review of the rules, policies, materials, and communications of the Department of Education to identify any items that may, purposely or otherwise, promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory, otherwise known as "CRT", that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual's color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal or state law.

That language is more than vague enough to justify the state's going after the AP African American studies course. 

And go after they have, declaring first that there would be no graduation credit for the course--and doing so with just a few days left before the start of the school year. Then, when school districts said, "Screw it--we're doing this course anyway" the right wingers ensconced in the state capital demanded that school superintendents hand over "all materials, including but not limited to the syllabus, textbooks, teacher resources, student resources, rubrics, and training materials" so that they could sift through it all in search of proof that the course violates the state's gag law. After all, "given some of the themes included in the pilot, including 'intersections of identity' and 'resistance and resilience,'" the department is "concerned." 

What's remarkable about this latest attempt to shut down a particular area of study is that after a few years of CRT, folks are not even trying to offer a plausible explanation of what the issue is here. 

Back a couple years ago, when CRT panic first started to spread, there was at least an attempt to pretend that there was some sort of specific objection about how exactly the subject of race was handled.

Two years ago in Tennessee, complaints explained objections to a book by Ruby Bridges about her experience desegregating schools; it upset them because it portrays raging white opponents to desegregation (aka "reality") and because the story doesn't end with redemption (aka "reality"). There were convoluted arguments about how CRT perpetuated some kind of divisive reverse racism-- folks trying to teach about the dark side of racism in the country were causing division, they said, in an argument that resembles the abusive spouse complains that his partner is tearing apart their home by reporting his abuse.

These were all, it has to be said, terrible arguments. But at least they acknowledged by their existence that if you want to suppress Black American history and an honest and full discussion of our country's history with race, you ought to have some kind of argument for doing so.

The Arkansas case marks the latest evolution of this argument. First, it was a stand against CRT. Not that any of the objectors knew what that was, but that suited folks like Chris Rufo who promised to broaden the meaning of the term until, like "evolution" 100 years ago, it simply stood for an "entire range of cultural constructions" that pissed off people of a particular cultural bent. Then it was SEL, then anything mentioning empathy or tolerance, until we reach the ludicrous point of a Twitter wing nut accusing the right tilted American Enterprise Institute of being a "cartel smuggling Woke Marxism into schools."

But in Arkansas, there is no argument. Subtext is text. Governor Sanders simply declares

We cannot perpetuate a lie to our students and push this propaganda leftist agenda teaching our kids to hate America and hate one another.

Note that this is what she had to say before the state went through the course materials. She points to nothing specific in the course of studies, gives not even a ludicrous argument. From the days of "critical race theory is bad because of the way it frames particular parts of the race narrative of America," the argument has now been reduced to "it's talking about Black Americans, so it must be illegal." 

The fig leaf is worn and tired and lazy, and it's only appropriate that it be dropped in the state where 66 years ago the governor called out the national guard to prevent nine high school students from integrating Little Rock Central High School, declaring that they were needed to "maintain order" and concluding that "the schools must be operated as they have in the past." In other words, to "keep the peace," Black students must be denied their rights, because their coming to school "caused" a bunch of conflict and divisiveness. 

It was wrong 66 years ago, and it's wrong now. Lord knows there are a dozen reasons not to defend the College Board and their AP programs, but now that Sanders and her people are becoming so transparent about what's really going on, maybe a few more people will recognize them for what they are. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Advocacy, Journalism, and the Science of Reading

My position in the reading wars is pretty simple:

The person who claims that one particular approach to reading instruction, codified in law and disseminated through teacher-proof scripted program-in-a-box instruction, will successfully turn every single child into a reader--that person either doesn't understand reading and literacy, or they are selling something.

As states line up to make the Science of Reading the law of their land (even if legislators have no idea what the hell it is), a pair of journalists offer some useful perspective (spoiler alert: neither one is Emily Hanford, but she offers something, too). 

One is this piece by Matt Barnum, long my favorite Chalkbeat reporter and now their interim national editor. The piece makes a solid dig into a basic truth about reading and literacy-- being able to decode is not literacy. You can decode phonemes all day, but if you don't know what the hell any of it means, you are no more literate than the software that "reads" articles aloud. For another example-- I can learn to pronounce Latin pretty easily. Phonetically it's a far more tidy language than English. But the fact that I can pronounce Latin words aloud accurately doesn't mean I can read Latin.

I also highly recommend this piece by Rachel Cohen for Vox, which presents a nuanced view of the whole SOR wrangle and a well-balanced picture, including some pointed comments from Mark Seidenberg, whose cognitive neuroscience work has been the basis of some SOR advocacy.

In an interview with Vox, Seidenberg expounded on his criticism: “It’s a difficult situation because people want to adopt better practices, they understand the idea that what was done before was not really based on solid ideas … but now you have a huge demand for science-based practices pursued by advocacy groups and people who don’t have a great understanding of the science.”

Seidenberg believes that moving away from strategies like three-cueing is important. But he warned that a simplistic reliance on some of the foundational reading science research can lead to some misinformed instructional conclusions, like the idea that children should learn units of sound (or “phonemes” ) before letters, and letters before syllables and words.

“That’s a basic misunderstanding,” said Seidenberg. “Phonemes are abstract units that are results of being exposed to an alphabet, they’re not a precursor.” He also lamented that some leaders have incorrectly cited his research to suggest there’s no downside to teaching kids phonics in the early grades for too long. “There are big opportunity costs and the clock to fourth grade is ticking,” he said. “You only want to do a lot of instruction on these components enough to get off the ground.”

All of education is about balancing different, even conflicting, ideas and approaches and interests, while the reading wars run on absolutes. At its worst, the SOR push has been a simple "everything schools do now is wrong and only this is right," which is bunk no matter how you fill in the specifics. So yes, phonics are crucial, and yes, they aren't the only crucial thing. And yes, the love of reading is a crucial thing to fosters, and yes, nobody loves doing a thing they don't do very well. It's a complex, unending discussion.

Stories like the two above are special precisely because journalists have done a pretty lousy job of covering the reading wars. Largely lacking any reading instruction expertise themselves, journalists have done a poor job of distinguishing between people who know what they're talking about and those who don't, as well as distinguishing between anecdote and data.

Education writers association (a group that does not allow full membership for those of us who don't make our primary living writing about education, but I swear I'm not bitter) hosted a panel about covering literacy with Rupen Fofaria (EdNC), Mandy McClaren (Boston Globe) and Emily Hanford. It's not encouraging.

The article about the panel doesn't really distinguish between reading and literacy, for starters.

McClaren notes that "each side" has research, and that the subject is complex and complicated, but it's important, but that it's important not to take a "both sides" approach to writing about  reading. I'm not sure which each or both sides she means. Is there a side in the reading wars that is against teaching children to read? The implication is, at a minimum, that there's one side that is right and one side that is wrong, and the wrong side has to be shut down. And the journalist will figure out which is which. But at worst, the implication is that there are a bunch of people out there actively trying to thwart the Real teaching of reading (that implication is how SOR people were an attractive target for co-opting by Moms for Liberty types).

But for all the people on Twitter who have told me repeatedly that Hanford is a journalist and not an advocate--please read this piece. 

Hanford asserts that the research on how students learn to read is settled--which is an astonishing thing to assert about any research at all. Hanford acknowledges that criticism of her work exists:

There are those who don’t believe the research or don’t understand it, she said. Others agree with the research but didn’t like that the “Sold a Story” podcast focused so heavily on phonics, and less on the other parts of learning to read, such as fluency and comprehension, that are also important.

But phonics is the piece that’s been missing, she said, and the goal was to combat “this idea” that students could largely learn to read without it, without being given explicit, direct, cumulative instruction.

As soon as you declare that your goal is combat a particular view, you're an advocate, not a journalist. And Hanford has other thoughts-- Journalists, she said, have control over the narrative. "We get to be the watchdogs. We get to be the ones who can contribute to what happens." Again, this is advocacy. 

I have nothing against advocacy (obviously). But if you're going to be a journalist, that involves things like trying to understand the various viewpoints, educating yourself to the nuances of the topic, and certainly not declaring that the whole question is settled and all that's left is to push strongly for the side you've decided is the correct one (based on your months of study). 

Coverage of the teaching of reading is hard. It would have to be, because the actual work is hard and complicated and complex and has always been at the mercy of wars between various people with partials understandings of the issues involved. A few journalists are helping. A bunch of other sort-of-journalists are not.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Gates: AI Like Great High School Teacher

Bill Gates, the wealthy education amateur, just won't stop talking about his genius ideas for education. He remains a pioneer in selling the idea that to be an expert in a field, you can either actually study and work in that field, or you can just be a rich guy.

Combine that limited understanding of teaching with aspirational fantasies about technology, and you get his latest wacky ideas.

Gates predicts that AI chatbots will be able to be just "like a great high school teacher" when it comes to teaching writing. Gates acknowledges that they can't do it now, that current software is "not that great" at teaching reading or writing skills, which is a statement on par with saying that McDonalds is "not that great" at creating fine dining experiences.

But Gates is sure that soon the algorithms will be able to provide useful feedback, like getting more clarity or making arguments more solidly reasoned and supported. 

Very few students get feedback [from software programs] on an essay that this could be clearer, you really skipped this piece and the reasoning. I do think the AI will be like a great high school teacher who really marks your essay, and you go back and think, "OK, I need to step up there."

Note the "soon." Software that can do a good job of assessing writing has been coming "soon" for decades. It has not arrived (as we have chronicled repeatedly here at this blog: see here, here, here, here, here and here for starters). Not only has it not arrived, but it has shown no signs of arriving any time soon. "I put your Big Mac on a doily," says Ronald. "Are you feeling the fine dining yet?"

There's a fundamental problem with both robo-grading and robo-writing--the software does not "read" or "understand" language in any meaningful sense of the words. What the algorithm does is say, "Based on my library of samples, the most likely word to come next in this string of words is X." The notion that algorithms could assess how clear or well-reasoned a piece of writing is is absurd (note: the algorithm in my desktop is certain that the repeated "is" is a mistake). 

The algorithms' predictive power, fed by a gazillion language "samples" stripped and/or plagiarized from a variety of sources, is getting greater all the time, but that growth is not getting us any closer to actual reading and understanding of text. The algorithm doesn't know what it's saying, and it doesn't know what you're saying. It's just increasingly adept at determining whether or not you have fallen within the parameters of linguistic probability.

Gates acknowledges that it would be a huge step. And he also didn't quite say that this "like a great teacher" software should replace human teachers. But it would help "overworked" teachers and provide better educational stuff for poor kids (without, of course, having to bother the world's jillionaires by having them pay more taxes or operate their corporations in such a way that they put more resources back into the community instead of just draining them, because one way to help "overworked" teachers is to hire more teachers and one way to get "low-income" students better schools is to spend the money to get them the resources, but hey, let's not talk crazy, because Gates would like to help the world, but only in ways that don't actually address his role in creating the current state of the world--read Winners Take All).

What the software would need, Gates suggests, is for actual teachers to offer AI tutoring programs feedback about how tech could help them do their jobs, and he is just SO CLOSE to a useful idea here, because for thirty years what ed tech executives needed to do was ask that same question of those same people rather than what we've been getting, which is ed tech guys saying, "I've come up with this really cool tool which will really help you if you just change what you do to fit what the software does." Instead, Gates offers "Could you give us a hand in training your replacement?"

Meanwhile, various districts are playing with bot applications, like Los Angeles schools, where a chatbot named Ed will be doing... something? Answering parent phone calls about basic data that any bot could be programmed to look up and report? Or maybe writing IEPs, which would be scarier. 

An algorithm that can teach and assess writing is a longtime ed tech dream, presumably because it seems like such an open market. Grading essays and papers is time-consuming, hard, and fuzzily subjective, and so an endless parade of ed tech gurus and edu-prenuers have pitched their algorithm or hawked a product that is Just Around The Corner because either A) it would streamline and standardized a fuzzy subject area or B) the person who gets it right will make sooooo much money.

But wishes are neither horses nor English teachers, and the dreams of one of the world's richest men are still just dreams. 

Sunday, August 20, 2023

ICYMI: Last Hurrah Edition (8/19)

I'm typing this on the mobile office in a hotel in downtown Cleveland, where the CMO (Chief Marital Officer) and I have come to wrap up her summer and use the theater tickets that were her Christmas present. Next week she'll be back at that delightful mix of room prep work and soul-crushing PD that kicks off a teacher's year. 

Here's this week's list, including a couple of If You Only Read One Thing selections. 

The new “science of reading” movement, explained

Here's one must-read for the week. For Vox, Rachel Cohen provides one of the best explainers written about the science of reading flap, done with nuance and thoughtfulness. Read this.

What happened when an Ohio school district rushed to integrate classrooms

Laura Meckler in the Washington Post. Shaker Heights school district wanted to fix some equity problems. Things could have gone a little better.

Research on school vouchers suggests concerns ahead for education savings accounts

Researcher Josh Cowen once again lays out the research that shows how vouchers fail to live up to their promises, and fail to serve students and taxpayers.

Top 5 myths of separation of church and state

If you only read a couple of things on the list this week... This comes from the head of the Baptist Joint Committee, and it makes a forceful (and useful) argument for the separation of church and state (including schools). You can even view it as a pdf, making it easier to print out and send to people who really need to read it.

New Jersey Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic school that fired a teacher for having premarital sex

One can question whether this is right or not, but don't forget to ask if schools like this should be propped up by taxpayer dollars.

Texas: BASIS Charter School Sells “VIP Car Line” for $2500+ a Pop

Does it seem exclusionary that some charters don't provide transportation? You don't know the half of it. The indispensable Mercedes Schneider has the tale of one Texas charter's clever fundraising idea.

Ron DeSantis Wants To Win Over Parents — But He's Focusing On The Wrong Issues

Horsey race coverage from FiveThirtyEight, with some interesting survey results included.

Idaho law hands parents more power in choosing school curriculums. It’s led to major changes

In the Guardian, a well-rounded piece about the effects of Idaho's law forcing school-parent collaboration. In some places, it's actually going pretty okayish. In others, not so much.

Banned: 19 books pulled from Mason City School Libraries

The story here is not that schools in Iowa are pulling books from shelves--that's not news. What's new is how they're using AI to facilitate the process and banning books that nobody has objected to.

Book banning, reshelving has reached ridiculous heights

Niki Kelly is mostly a political reporter in Indiana, but she sees the moves to restrict reading materials becoming increasingly absurd and overly repressive.

From ‘crisis’ to ‘catastrophe,’ schools scramble once again to find teachers

NBC  news on the story.

Are We Failing Our Teachers?

How do we know that the story of the teacher exodus is really starting to penetrate the mediasphere? Well, this story ran in Readers' Digest, not exactly known for their heavy hitting education coverage. Yet here they are.

Idaho’s Teacher of the Year Winner Leaving State Following Right-Wing Harassment

And if you'd like your coverage of the teacher exodus more personal and specific, here's a depressing case study for you.

Wisconsin’s public schools and the war on democracy

Always happy to see Ruth Conniff write about education. Here's a deep dive into the issues facing public schools in Wisconsin, including under-funding and attempts to undercut democratic institutions.

Chaos at New College of Florida

The DeSantis attempt to replace a liberal college with a hard right one is not going all that well. Johanna Alonso covers it for Inside Higher Education.

Recall language approved for school board member charged with being fake elector for Trump

Those fake electors in Michigan who are now in trouble for trying to help steal the 2020 election? One of them is a school board member.

Philadelphia’s school board must take charter school standards seriously — and act when they’re not met

Lisa Haver looks at the condition of Philly charters, the super-well-paid leadership that is failing students and taxpayers, and the folks failing to hold the charters accountable.

Florence 1 Schools: Palmetto Youth Academy still using taxpayer money despite being closed

Their authorizers shut them down in June, but this South Carolina charter is apparently still open, and still spending taxpayer dollars.

The Claremont Institute: The Anti-Democracy Think Tank

There was a time when folks thought of the Claremont Institute as conservative, but not wing nuts. That time has passed. In more recent years, they've gone off the deep end-- and they're very well connected. Katherine Stewart writes about it in the New Republic.

A National Warning

Thomas Ultican has spotted some shenanigans in Delaware surrounding charter school regulations and a new model to make charters less accountable. Watch out and make sure it's not coming to your state.

Black teachers are burning out of classrooms. Meet the people fighting to keep them there

From Reckon, an encouraging piece about some of the groups trying to get actual support to Black teachers. 

Houston ISD student regrets performing in ‘propaganda play’ starring Mike Miles

This is crazypants. Mike Miles, to help whip up the troops coming back to work in the Houston school district that the underqualified takeover artist now runs, decided what they needed was a musical about Mike Miles. The show included students, one of whom now says they were tricked into helping with this sad propaganda ploy.

School districts call state ed department’s bluff, keep AP African American Studies on the books

Governor Huckabee Sanders' Arkansas said, "You can't teach that stuff here because it's indoctrination." Now school districts are saying, "Yeah? Try and stop us." Give a cheer, and pass the popcorn.

Inside the campaign to cancel sex ed

Sarah Crosby at Popular Information looks at how Moms For Liberty and their friends would now like to cancel sex ed, courtesy a bootleg tape of an M4L planning session.

Universal ESA vouchers: Arizona’s $1 billion failed experiment

How's that whole vouchers for everyone thing going in Arizona. Not great, if you're a taxpayer.

New ACLU Complaint Reveals Central Bucks School District Lied To The Community, Illegally Retaliated Against Teacher

But hey--at least the fake report was really expensive. Bucks County Beacon continues to keep an eye on one of the worst school boards in the country.

Using Frederick Douglass to Rationalize Slavery? In Florida, Yes!

PragerU videos are all pretty bad, but Charles Blow at the New York Times writes about one of the worst, in which Frederick Douglass explains why slavery wasn't all that bad.

Is PA’s Richest Billionaire Trying to Buy a State Supreme Court Seat?

You know, who among us has not tried to buy a judgeship? But if you're in Pennsylvania, be aware that the anti-abortion GOP candidate for state supreme court has been heavily financed by Rich Guy Jeffrey Yass.

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