Saturday, September 30, 2023

Reducing Test Anxiety 101

From The Journal Of Blindingly Obvious Stuff, once again the news that quizzes help with testing and reduce testing anxiety. Here's a chunk from Hechinger's piece:

Several meta-analyses, which summarize the evidence from many studies, have found higher achievement when students take quizzes instead of, say, reviewing notes or rereading a book chapter. “There’s decades and decades of research showing that taking practice tests will actually improve your learning,” said David Shanks, a professor of psychology and deputy dean of the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College London.

Still, many students get overwhelmed during tests. Shanks and a team of four researchers wanted to find out whether quizzes exacerbate test anxiety. The team collected 24 studies that measured students’ test anxiety and found that, on average, practice tests and quizzes not only improved academic achievement, but also ended up reducing test anxiety. Their meta-analysis was published in Educational Psychology Review in August 2023.

Shanks says quizzes can be a “gentle” way to help students face challenges.

“It’s not like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool,” said Shanks. “It’s like being put very gently into the shallow end. And then the next time a little bit deeper, and then a little bit deeper. And so the possibility of becoming properly afraid just never arises.”

Why test anxiety diminishes is unclear. It could be because students are learning to tolerate testing conditions through repeated exposure, as Shanks described. Or it could be because quizzes are helping students master the material and perform better on the final exam. We tend to be less anxious about things we’re good at. Unfortunately, the underlying studies didn’t collect the data that could resolve this academic debate.

All that to say "practice makes perfect." Let me try it another way, because there's no mystery here.

An assessment is a performance, and you prepare for performance with rehearsal.

There are two pieces to getting ready. One is to know your stuff. The other is to have practice presenting the stuff you know in the way that's required. Sometimes teachers focus on the first and ignore the second.

An actor needs to know his lines. A musician needs to know her notes. A dancer needs to know the steps. Part of rehearsal is breaking down those things into pieces and parts so that you can get them stuck inside you. But as performance nears, you need to actually do the thing in ways that more and more resemble the actual performance. This will culminate, usually, in a dress rehearsal--in other words, performing the piece exactly as you will under final circumstances, just without an audience.

Messing with this can be terrifying for performers. Most performers have had the experience of being under-rehearsed. I once played for a director who would break a work down into pieces, and we would rehearse the pieces, but never play through the whole thing, performance style, until the very last minute, if at all. The result was a shaky performance, anxious performers lacking confidence, and the occasional debacle.

It's exactly the same in a classroom. To teach the material without ever practicing it is like having a cast memorize their lines and blocking but never setting foot on stage until opening night. Quizes and tests both reinforce the content and give students valuable practice in doing the content on a test format. And of course the more your quizzes and pre-tests match the final assessment, the more prepared, confident, and capable they will be on that test. 

I'm familiar with the theory that says "If these students really know the content, then they'll be able to perform it in a completely unfamiliar format." Sure. And if the cast of The Music Man really knows their lines and music, they won't be thrown if you put them in inflatable Sumo costumes and ask them to perform the show on a stage made of dead flounders while accompanied by bagpipes. There are some gifted performers who could pull it off, but for most, the unfamiliar format will kick their confidence in the gut. And once confidence goes...

This is why a basic piece of test advice is "Do what you're sure of first." Because once you struggle with an answer that raises doubts and uncertainty, once you start to doubt yourself, then you'll find yourself thinking things like "I'm pretty sure cat starts with a c, but maybe..."

You reduce test anxiety by helping students learn the content and by having them rehearse the kind of performance of that content that they'll be asked to do at test time. It's that simple.

All of this, incidentally, is why all standardized test results can be affected by test prep, which is why the Big Standardized Test has a steady toxic effect on instruction. The performance will require students to read a short, context-free excerpt and answer--RIGHT NOW-- some multiple choice questions. So if we care about BS Test results, it makes sense to rehearse exactly that and not, say, reading entire works of literature and delve into them over time with reflection and discussion. 

I can't believe it takes an academic meta-analysis to tell us all of this, or that an academic finds an explanation unclear. Maybe he didn't play in band or take part in a school play. I'm surprised that anyone needs to spell this stuff out, but apparently we do. 

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Let's Just Test All The Damned Year

One of the repeated techniques of reformsters is this: when a proposed policy fails, insist that we need to do it more harder.

Using the Big Standardized Test as the foundation of all school evaluation is a failure. It hasn't provided teachers with actionable data. It hasn't improved student learning. It doesn't tell us much that we couldn't learn from looking at a school's demographics. And you'd be hard pressed to find a word of approval from anyone who 1) has first hand experience with it and 2) doesn't make money from it. It doesn't measure what it's supposed to measure, doesn't provide the benefits it's supposed to provide, and fails to make anyone happy.

So what could possibly be the solution? Might Bill Gates pop up to say, "Hey, this didn't work out so well, so let's drop the whole idea."

Of course not. Instead, this is what happened:

In the fall of 2021, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funded Education First to work with assessment developers and state education agencies on researching and developing a new generation of through-year solutions connecting what is taught with what is tested by aligning assessments with scope-and-sequences or curriculum. If the grant program is successful, by June 2023, the project will have seeded multiple new assessment designs and test prototypes available for development into full-scale operational systems.

Education First is "a mission-driven strategy and policy organization dedicated to helping our clients navigate through complexity to create more people-focused, equitable and inclusive initiatives, strategies and organizations." 

It was founded by Jennifer Vranek used to make grants for The Gates Foundation. One senior management member is Anand Vaishnav, who somehow went from Boston Globe reporter to Boston Public Schools Chief of Staff in 2005. This group of "educators and strategists" includes on its executive team folks from a host of familiar reformster groups-- Gates Foundation, Teach for America, TNTP, Joyce Foundation, Broad and Harvard Graduate School of Education products. I found one person with an actual background on the ground in a public school. So it's that kind of crew.

So Education First cranked out a report about what we're now calling "through-year assessments." 

The TYA are supposed to address what the report calls "long-standing, legitimate concerns expressed by students, families and educators about traditional end-of-year summative assessments’ inability to support teaching and learning" and let me acknowledge the large clueless cajones required to call the Big Standardized Test "traditional," as if the BS Test was not foisted on schools twenty-some years ago with the enthusiastic backing of Gates et al. Tradition, my butt. 

The report even identifies three issues with the BS Tests:

Disconnected from curriculum and instruction, 

Provide results that do not inform instruction, and 

Require undue time and resources

All accurate because

1) They are disconnected from the work of the school because they were imposed from outside the school in an attempt to take control of curriculum and instruction

2) They provide results that cannot inform instruction because they arrive far too late, provide little-to-know granular insight, and (because protecting test manufacturers' proprietary right is more important that providing useful results) teachers are flying blind about what exactly the students had trouble with.

3) Oh, you have got to be kidding me. 

Because if there's any solution to the time-suck problem of BS Testing, it would be more testing. But wait-- maybe if they clarify what their thinking is, it might not seem so--

Education First believes these through-year assessment systems have the potential to be more equitable, focused and relevant for students, families and educators. In particular, we are interested in exploring the ways through-year models can strengthen the connection between assessment and instruction by timing assessments of learning immediately following relevant instruction or even aligning directly with curriculum. We refer to this as “testing what is taught, when it’s taught.”

You or I or anyone who has actually worked in a classroom might refer to this as "what teacher already do on a regular basis." Seriously. Are we imagining teachers somewhere saying, "Yeah, I teach a unit, and then at the end of the unit, I give a test on a unit from a few months ago, or maybe just read toad warts soaked in tea leaves. But you know-- teach a unit and then give a test on what I just taught??!! That's crazy talk! "

There's plenty of details and examples in this paper, because thirteen states are busy implementing some version of this foolishness. I could walk you through some of the details-- we should stop long enough to admire the heading, "How are states designing through-year assessments to change perceptions about the time and resources devoted to testing?" because, I guess, changing the perceptions is a better goal than changing the reality? But this is one of those times when it's pointless to get wrapped up in examining the trees because the whole forest is perched on a mountain of lime jello and fairy dust.

What exactly is going on here? A couple of possibilities come to mind:

1) Once again, some teaching amateurs are proud of themselves for inventing the wheel.

2) Certain people are looking for ways to expand the market and increase revenue for test manufacturers (partners who get thanks for "reviewing and improving" the paper include reps of the Walton Foundation, NWEA, Center for Assessment, and Learning Policy Institute). 

3) Certain people see a new path for trying to micromanage curriculum and instruction, since the BS Test didn't quite get as far down that road as they had hoped. Because standards are magical and if we can just force everyone to get in line, things would be awesome.

4) More testing means more data to mine! Ka-ching!

The three foundations have created a whole grant for this kind of year round test-a-palooza, so if it hasn't hit your state yet, keep an eye peeled. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

OK: Notre Dame Law School Aids Push For Catholic Charter

Earlier this year, Oklahoma State Attorney General Gentner Drummond issued an opinion about the prospect of the state approving a church-run charter school. He was reversing the opinion of his predecessor, saying that previous opinion “misuses the concept of religious liberty by employing it as a means to justify state-funded religion. If allowed to remain in force, I fear the opinion will be used as a basis for taxpayer-funded religious schools.”

In June, the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board ignored him and approved the St. Isidore of Seville virtual charter, a cyber school that was proposed by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in collaboration with the Diocese of Tulsa. It was in anticipation of this application that the virtual charter board asked the previous AG for an opinion in the first place.

As an AP report noted, “Archdiocese officials have been unequivocal that the school will promote the Catholic faith and operate according to church doctrine, including its views on sexual orientation and gender identity.” 

And just in case you wonder if the state knew what it was doing, or was trying to preserve any plausible deniability, State Superintendent Ryan Walters supported the decision:

This decision reflects months of hard work, and more importantly, the will of the people of Oklahoma. I encouraged the board to approve this monumental decision, and now the U.S.’s first religious charter school will be welcomed by my administration.

And Governor Stitt hailed it as “a win for religious liberty and education freedom in our great state.”

Meanwhile, AG Drummond called the decision “contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interests of taxpayers.” Furthermore, "It’s extremely disappointing that board members violated their oath in order to fund religious schools with our tax dollars. In doing so, these members have exposed themselves and the state to potential legal action that could be costly.”

To the surprise of nobody, that lawsuit was filed before summer's end with Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee and individual parents as plaintiffs in a case that has already been busy and twisty

The case has drawn a number of national groups to the case, including for the plaintiffs the ACLU, Americans for Separation of Church and State, and the Education Law Center. 

The defendant side is a more interesting array. Drummond, having made it clear that he believes the charter proponents are dead wrong, is not using the attorney general's office to defend them. So the school board, the state department of education, and Ryan Walters are being defended by private attorneys in Oklahoma and some other hired guns. 

Two are part of the usual array of legal shops that work to defund and dismantle public education. There's the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian advocacy group that was incorporated in 1993 by six right-wing luminaries, including Larry Burkett, Bill Bright, and James Dobson. They are supported by a host of right-wing foundations, including the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. And they oppose abortion, same-sex marriage, most all LGBTQ+ rights. Their track record is sadly successful; these are the Hobby Lobby lawsuit folks. They have a summer legal training program to get Christian law students whipped up for legal careers; Justice Amy Coney Barrett taught at it. They successfully litigated against Vermont, establishing that the state must include Catholic students in its voucher program, a sort of throat-clearing for Carson v. Makin.

There's First Liberty Institute a Christian conservative firm based in Texas, which co-took Carson v. Makin all the way to SCOTUS, as well as the case of the praying coach

These are to be expected; getting money away from public education and into church coffers is their thing. But you get a fuller idea of who has a lot riding on this case from the third set of lawyers-- the Notre Dame Religious Liberty  Clinic

Says John Meiser, director of the Religious Liberty Clinic. “By welcoming faith-based charter schools, Oklahomans uphold the freedom for all people — religious or not — to serve our communities and extend educational opportunities to all children.” The quote does not go on to explain how, exactly, how a Catholic charter school would uphold freedom for non-religious people. But that continues to be a central argument--freedom, and how churches can't be free unless they are allowed to hoover up taxpayer dollars. 

"Access to private education can be limited by affordability and proximity. The pandemic prompted us to see technology as a bridge to provide education to all,” said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma. "That is why we have used the vast financial power of the church to lower tuition prices," he absolutely did not say. 

The Catholic Church has always been a fan of school choice. They got excited after the Espinoza decision, the Montana decision that was first to require direct transfer of taxpayer dollars to a church, and they were perfectly comfortable cozying up with then-secretary of education Betsy DeVos. In fact, while the conventional wisdom associates Trump with evangelicals, the Catholic Church was also a big Trump booster, especially if the conversation was about school vouchers

A Catholic charter in Oklahoma would pretty much erase the difference between charters and vouchers, and the Catholic charter in Oklahoma serves as a proof of legal concept, so this case is a good fit for the church. It is winding through various legal twists and turns (the defendants just moved to have it dismissed), but if it ends up before SCOTUS, it could represent one more reduction of the pile of rubble that now stands where the wall between church and state used to. 

ID: West Bonner's Fake Superintendent Quits. Probably.

One more chapter in the ongoing saga of Branden Durst and the West Bonner School District. If you've missed the story so far, you can find the first three chapters here, here, and here

The very short synopsis is this: West Bonner voters snoozed through another school board election, and so a far right majority installed itself and proceeded to hire Branden Durst, possibly the most unqualified person to ever be offered a superintendent's position with an especially wacky contract. But it was contingent on Durst receiving an emergency credential from the state, and the state said "You have got to be kidding." Meanwhile, two of the three conservatives on the five-person board were ousted in a special recall election. It looked briefly as if the remaining third could keep the board from doing anything (like firing their uncredentialed superintendent) by just refusing to show up. 

Then yesterday Durst offered his resignation, saying he would seek an exit that was "amicable and fair," two qualities that were absent from all other stages of his employment.

Durst modeled the amicable part in his resignation letter by grousing about the community members who found his hiring wildly inappropriate. Probably thinking of people like the mother who called his hiring "asinine" and said “Why on earth would you hire a mechanic to bake your wedding cake? It’s terrifying.” But Durst claimed in his Twitter-posted retirement letter:

Throughout my short tenure, I remained cognizant of the fact that not everyone in the community welcomed my hiring, and there were those who hoped to see me fail and did everything in their power to try to make that so, even if meant hurting very students they claimed to support. I was undeterred by the naysayers and their negativity only strengthened my resolve to do what needed to be done to put this district on a path toward success.

To the end, Durst remains defiantly blind to any notion that his problem might be that he has absolutely no qualifications for running a school district other than his far right ideological bent. This is MAGA brand ego material here, the idea that opposition was personal, that Only He Could Do It, and that to interfere with his rule would somehow hurt the students. 

The whole world was arrayed against him! The community and state officials threw "relentless obstacles" in his path. Sure. Every teacher has had that student who didn't do the reading, slept through class, didn't do any of the practice or homework, and then complains that they failed the test because "the teacher doesn't like me." 

But Durst is going to 'promote healing and unity within the community" by stepping aside. "It may not be entirely fair, but life rarely is." It's not clear what exactly is unfair here. It's just not fair that a man can't have a major leadership position just because he wants it, even if he has none of the qualifications for that job? 

It's worth noting that Durst didn't actually give a final date. His last day of employment "will be up to the board." That's the same board that only has three filled seats and one of them belongs to a Durst supporter. So we may not be at the final chapter of this tale yet.

The moral here is that elections have consequences, that people should not snooze through their local school board elections. Thankfully, the moral is also that when people finally wake up, they are not particularly excited about far right MAGA approaches to running their schools. That story has definitely not reached its final chapter.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

ID: West Bonner Tries To Fight Back, But Fake Superintendent Still In Place

The saga of the West Bonner School District and its completely unqualified and unlicensed superintendent continues, with more twists and turns and fairly spectacular dysfunction.

The board had hired Branden Durst, a noisy political wanna-be with a checkered past and zero qualifications, to be superintendent. But his highly unusual contract depended on his procurement of an emergency superintendent certification, and the state board decided that A) he met zero of the qualifications and B) they didn't have the power to do that anyway.

Some of the story echoes other districts where a conservative group managed to commandeer the school board. People simply became complacent about board elections, not paying attention to what the board was up to, or not bothering to vote because they assumed the reasonable candidates were shoo-ins. 

In the case of West Bonner, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, yet another of those far right groups that wants to do away with public schools entirely, pounced. Dropped textbooks and a curriculum replaced with the far right Hillsdale curriculum and a defeated levy to fund things like books and salaries--those were the prelude to installing Durst as superintendent.

Now, you might think that would be the end of the story, but you'd be wrong.

About the time Durst was hired, a recall effort was under way to remove two of the most right wing board members. Despite any number of nasty tricks, the recall succeeded at the beginning of September. Those seats will be filled in November, but in the meantime, Durst and the board have tried some last minute antics, like moving to dissolve the school board at a board meeting scheduled at the last minute for a Friday evening of a three day weekend. It took a court ordered injunction to stop that nonsense.

The recall has created another problem. It leaves three board members, which means all three must be present to conduct business, and one member, the other third of the conservative coalition, decided not to attend last week's board meeting, which would have been the first since the state board said that there is "no path" for Durst to become credentialled to fill a superintendent spot. But with only two members present, the meeting was canceled for lack of a quorum.

That means, among other things, that Durst is still in the superintendent's post and that the district, not the state, will have to pay his salary. One would think he can't be superintendent on account of, you know, being unqualified and uncredentialed, but Durst has other thoughts.

But, Durst told KREM 2 he still is the superintendent.

"They don’t make the law," Durst said. "They aren’t the law. How many people could say that? That they don’t have to follow the laws of Idaho.”

The state board's action, says Durst, was "pretty discriminatory." Durst says a lot of things, although nothing about what, other than his ideological bent, qualifies him to be a school superintendent.

There's a lot riding on the next election for West Bonner, but folks are awake and paying attention now. We'll see what the next chapter holds.

ICYMI: S'more edition (9/24)

Nobody would mistake the Institute for a palace, but it has a nice back yard with room for a campfire suitable for roasting marshmallows, and September is the month. We S'mored it up last night, despite the fact that the Board of Directors doesn't actually like gooey marshmallows. That's okay. Anything that gives us the chance to stop and breathe is welcome.

Here's your reading list for the week. Remember--when you find things in this weekly compendium that you think are worth reading, please share (on whatever social media you're using these days). It's how the word gets out--one person at a time.

We must stand up to school privatizers for the sake of Wisconsin kids

Christian Phelps in the Wisconsin Examiner explains some of the unequal outcomes of the state's voucher program and the privatization of education.

Delays in state voucher funding causing problems for Northwest Florida private schools

Turns out when you expand your voucher program beyond what your money managers can handle, it creates problems for the voucher schools that pop up to take advantage of the voucher windfall.

A "Woke Agenda" Burned in Effigy by Missouri Senators

Jess Piper is one of the better known voices in the social media realm of public ed defenders these days, and now she's got a substack. Here's the story of some folks who decided to take a literal flamethrower to s pile of figurative woke agenda. Well, not just some folks. Some folks who want to be political leaders in Missouri.

The Ex-‘South Park’ Writer Taking On Moms for Liberty

Opposition to Moms for Liberty takes many forms. Here's one of the more unexpected ones.

Research Shows State School District Report Cards Do Not Measure the Quality of Public Schools

Yet another tale of research confirming what we already knew. Jan Resseger has the details.

Overhaul of Ohio's K-12 education system is unconstitutional, new lawsuit says

This is the kind of stuff that is wonky yet important, because this is how privatizers use wonky government stuff to take power and bypass democratic processes.

Children's book banned for some CMS students after parent complaints

North Carolina continues its educational descent with this story of the district where a book been pulled because, I kid you not, it shows an unwrapped crayon.

Texas teacher fired after assigning an illustrated Anne Frank book\

Meanwhile, in reading restriction news from Texas.

From the Washington Post. In South Carolina, a look at the other kinds of collateral damage that comes from turning students into little cultural narcs.

The Kids on the Night Shift

This New York Times investigative piece is heartbreaking. It also answers two questions--who actually wants undocumented immigration? and who wants to roll back child labor laws? 

The Case for Autonomy in Professional Development

Well, it's a little depressing that somehow a case must be made for letting teaching professionals control their own PD, but at least someone is making the case.

12K third graders at risk of being held back under Alabama Literacy Act, superintendent warns

Dumb law passed in 2019 goes into effect this year. How this bad policy is shaking out in Alabama. Don't miss the part where they note that the cut score will probably go up next year.

Success Academy, New York's big charter chain, ranked near the top of US News & World Report listings this time. Gary Rubinstein explains how they did it (and why you shouldn't be impressed).

School vouchers in Pennsylvania would violate the principles of ‘public’ education

Vouchers just won't go away in Pennsylvania. Marc Stier explains why they really should.

How to Improve Public Schools: Involve ‘Outsiders’

John Merrow has had a long and distinguished career as an education reporter. Here are some thoughts about how public schools could build their base.

About that Band Director Who Got Tased

If you are connected to the marching band world, you saw the story of the marching band director who was tased by the police for having his band play after a football game. It was one of those stories that made you think, "Well, there must be more to this." Then police released video, and, well, it was worse. Nancy Flanagan, retired music teacher, takes a look.

Elsewhere this week, at the Bucks County Beacon, I put up a story focusing on Khan Academy's new AI tool for school, and at Forbes, I looked at a book that offers a new explanation of what's behind the Great DeChurching of America.

And don't forget, you can get all my stuff in your inbox courtesy of substack.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Trouble With Single Parents

This week we're getting a barrage of reviews of The Two-Parent Privilege, a book that presents the unsurprising conclusion that having two married parents is good for kids. Here's one by Annie Lowry in The Atlantic, if you need a taste.

I have thoughts. I have done parenting three ways in my life-- two working parents, single divorced dad, and two married parents with one stay-at-home. There is no doubt that the third way is better, easier-- but the big question is why.

Two working parents had the advantage of two incomes. Neither of us had the kind of income that would have made raising two kids particularly easy. We had other advantages. My job as a teacher fir better with the kids' schedule and we lucked out with a neighbor for good child care. By the time their mother and I split, we were both making enough to operate our own household, and the kids still had the benefit of two-income support. We were also able to be amicable and put the kids first, rather than stick them in the middle of an endless battle. My ex was a good co-parent, so I didn't even have to do the harder version of single parenting. And we had the flexibility of professional careers where getting time off is not a major struggle.

Those kids grew. Putting them through college tapped my resources to the limit, but we got there. Eventually I remarried, and the Board of Directors followed. I retired when they were one. My pension gives us two incomes, but my retirement gives us the flexibility of one non-working parent, which is huge. Huge. And the CMO (Chief Marital Officer) has decent health insurance. 

Single parenting is hard. Getting kids (and yourself) where they need to be without backup is hard. Paying for everything with a single income is hard. Finding childcare is hard, and paying for it often cancels out attempts to work. Managing the mental and emotional bandwidth for yourself and your small humans is hard. Dealing with an unending parade of institutions that all assume that you can take time off and that there are two of you to manage things is hard. Even with plenty of privilege, single parenting is a big square peg in society's round hole 

Not a week goes by that I don't have the thought, "How do people without our advantages manage this?" How do people who can't just leave work deal with a suddenly sick child? How do people without decent health insurance deal with the health care issues that pop up? How do people with only two hands manage the daily grind of parent stuff? How does anyone run a home on a single income in an era in which single incomes just aren't enough? It's a lot of hard choices, a lot of choices where the best available options aren't always that great.

I mean, I know how they do this stuff, but the mind boggles at how hard some of it can be. And I live in a compact small town area where life is marginally cheaper, there's a local hospital, and it's not a big project just to get from Point A to Point B. I have tons of privilege, and the single dad thing was still rough. But married with two incomes and one stay-at-home is so much easier--so very much easier--than the other options. Child care. Getting them managed to and from school. Health care (especially appointments). Financial stuff. Food stuff. All of these things become an uphill grind when there's just one of you. 

But the most frustrating part is that it doesn't have to be this way. We have built a society around the assumption that most normal households have one working parent and one stay at home, and we have just doubled down even as reality changes (Exhibit A: A school day that is still completely out of synch with the work day. Exhibit B: literally the world's worst leave policy for parents of newborns.). 

Yes, I agree that some folks have bent over backwards to avoid saying any version of "Single parenting has a lot of disadvantages." Partly because most single parents don't want or need to hear it; as a single parent, I was pretty sure I had failed and was screwing everything up, and having someone tell me that wasn't particularly helpful. Nor are the non-zero number of persons who chose no partner over a terrible toxic partner likely to buy the notion they'd be better off with that person. And conservatives have often adopted such a scolding tone that single parent disapproval just sounds like one more way to tell poor folks, "It's your own fault you're poor."

But letting the single parent discussion become a political football, where sticking to the team orthodoxy is more important than talking about the actual issue for actual humans.

The why. The why is that we have built a society arranged around A) that hypothetical family and B) the needs of employers and businesses. 

We have built a house with doors that all have a five foot clearances, and now we're telling six foot tall people that they ought to be trying harder to fit. We've built an entire infrastructure without sidewalks on the assumption that driving is the correct moral choice, and now we deliver lectures on how people without cars should be more careful when they walk places.

So we can say that single parenting contributes to a high rate of child poverty, or we could say that the way our country handles single parenting contributes to a high rate of poverty. At a minimum, we can say both.

I don't know how we get past the premise that when people make bad choices, it's really important that they suffer for them, and attempts to ameliorate that suffering are morally wrong. I happen to agree that raising children in a stable home and partnership is the best choice. But it's not the best available choice for everyone. We can come up with systems that work for everybody, or we can stick with systems that only work well for people who are making the choices we approve of, but then we have to reckon with the results for a generation of young innocent bystanders. 

We know how to dramatically reduce child poverty--we just did it for a couple of years, on the premise that it was nobody's personal fault that they were caught in a medical disaster. Going forward, we can decide that people must suffer for the choices that supposedly made them single and/or poor, or we can help them to get to a place where options for a better life, single or married, are available and accessible. Wagging our fingers at single parents will not get us there; creating a world where they actually fit, might.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Time for Reformster Benefit Poker Again

It's a reminder that the wealthy are not like the rest of us.

Next Thursday, it will be time for the 13th Annual Take 'Em To School Poker Tournament, a night of benefit money flinging to help out Education Reform Now

ERN, which calls itself "a think tank and advocacy organization" is the funding arm of Democrats for Education Reform, a group beloved by hedge fundies interested in monetizing charter schools, do-founded by big time hedge fundie Whitney Tilson, who once explained where the D came from:

The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…

There was actually a big kerfluffle a few years back when Colorado Democrats made the Colorado chapter of DFER get out of the Democratic state assembly. DFER/ERN are the folks who do fun things like try to defeat local anti-reform candidates and have silly philosopher retreats to think deep thoughts about reform.

These days the CEO of both groups is Jorge Elorza, formerly mayor of Providence. He was still in office when the state took over Providence schools. DFER has shifted its message in a more social justicy direction (" We elect Democratic leaders who prioritize a high-quality equitable education for all students") with "anti-racism" and "remedying a history of systemic inequity" among their values. That still translates to big support for charter schools, with an emphasis on trying to convince Democrats that they should get with the choice program.

The big poker bash will be next Thursday in Gotham Hall. It is not nearly as star-studded as it was the last time we checked it out, but it's still not for the shallow pockets crowd.

Want to sponsor a table with ten seats plus a special guest? A Straight Flush Table costs only $100,000. For $50K you can host a Full House Table, and $30K gets you a regular table of ten. If you just want to grab a single seat for yourself, that's a mere $3K. Just want to skip the poker and have some dinner and cocktails while playing some casino games? That's a mere $250. Sadly, I will be busy that day and unable to attend. Too bad, because

This charity event is a meaningful opportunity for you to connect with corporate executives, philanthropists, financiers, and celebrities who are passionate about ERN's mission. The event will feature poker players battling for valuable prizes, such as once-in-a-lifetime experiences, exotic trips, golf outings and more. In addition to poker, guests can enjoy the silent auction, golf simulator, casino games, premium open bar, delicious food and a swag bag to take home. There are plenty of opportunities to endorse your business by setting up an area, sponsoring a table, or contributing an item to the swag bag.

Past celebrities, they note, have included a bunch of big name poker players, sports guys, U.S. Congressman Hakeen Jeffries, Billy Crudup and Kevin Pollak.

Do people pay that kind of money, some of you may ask, correctly noting that the Straight Flush Table costs more than most teachers make in a year. Well, in 2022 there was one Straight Flush sponsor, three Full House sponsors, and twenty-five table hosts. All of them were either guys who got rich shuffling money or corporations in the capital biz. They raised over $2 million.

This is the kind of thing that reminds me of the considerable imbalance between reformsters and public school defenders. Many of us are out here doing what we can on a budget of $0.00, and these guys just get together to drop a couple mill playing games for "exotic trips." All things that folks actually working in education can totally relate to.

What I'll Really Miss About Twitter

I have maintained, throughout the various stages of Musk's various spasms, that I would stick with Twitter till the last light is turned off, if for no other reason than I want to be able to see it happen and tell the story. It would not be the first social media I stuck with until it evaporated, and it probably won't be the last (oh, Cafe Utne, you were fun). 

But I doubt that I'll pay for the privilege, and as Musk hinted this week that Twitter would charge a small fee for use. Granted, what Musk says he's going to maybe might do has only a marginal connection to what will actually happen, but I'm forced to consider life without the Twitterverse.

I don't relish working through the alternatives battling for the chance to be the next Google Plus. I'm on Threads (because what better way to get over one toxic gazillionaire than by signing up for another toxic gazillionaire). I'd try Bluesky, but I've been waiting for a code since forever [Update: several helpful readers reached out, and I am now on Bluesky. Thanks! Also, I forgot Spoutible. I'm there, too.]. Contemplating signing up for Mastodon just gives me a headache. Sigh. I think I've still got ICQ software around here somewhere.

I am not a prodigious follower on Twitter; I can't imagine how people follow thousands of other people. But I still feel plugged in to a large community there. I've "met" a lot of interesting people and learned about a lot of stuff. I read an awful lot, and Twitter has been a good place to spot articles I might have missed otherwise. I've encountered an awful lot of great public education advocates, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to chat with them, or just peer over their shoulder and absorb what they have to say. 

But the thing that I expect will be irreplaceable is the chance to connect and converse and read the folks who are on various other sides of the education debates. 

I'm a huge believer in listening to and reading people with whom you disagree. Some people are serious, and some people aren't, but it is always a mistake to default to the idea that people who oppose you do so because they are either evil or stupid. Mostly they are operating from different premises, different values, or arriving at different conclusions. Understanding all of that is more useful than simply waving them all away as evil people. (Not that there aren't evil people, but I choose to live in a world in which people have to prove that they're evil).

I'm also a huge believer in primary sources. Much of our current world of political conflict runs on what a "news" source claims someone else said, which is not automatically wrong--unless someone is sculpting that characterization for a particular effect. Seeking to confirm what we already believe instead of trying to actually understand what the other person is saying is the great bane of useful communication. (Pro tip: a not serious person tell is an insistence on deliberately misunderstanding what you're saying so they can make their point).

I'm afraid that when Twitter finally collapses, folks will migrate to platforms with likeminded persons (or just no place at all) and the chance to converse and debate with persons of differing opinions will be lost, and that would be unfortunate. Writing blog posts and opinion pieces at each other is a lot like talking past each other. Not a big help. Twitter was a good place for dialog, sometimes, and I'm not sure what will replace it.

We'll see, I suppose. In the meantime, I'm @palan57 pretty much everywhere I go, and I'll be happy to see you there. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Grammar of Fetterman's Hoodie

Ties are an emblem of some of the most ridiculous and inescapable parts of human culture.

I wore ties for my entire teaching career. I started out of a need to differentiate between my 22 year old self and my 20 year old students. I eventually stayed with it because wearing a tie was one of my Things. And once a year, my students would get some version of this shpiel:

Who's the most dressed up person in the room? Me, of course. How do we know? Because this morning I took this magic piece of cloth and tied it around my neck. Now, it only works if I tie it like this. If I do this (throw it over shoulder) or this (loosen it to comic amounts) or this (make skinny end stick out further), I don't look dressed up. I look silly.

Why is that? And what is with that phrase "dressed UP" anyway?

Ties are a perfect example of the human tendency to make shit up and then imbue it with all sorts of Deep and Important Significance. There's all sorts of history, including Chinese soldiers from the 2nd century BCE and Croatian mercenaries in France and so on, but it more or less boils down to "rich and powerful people thought they were cool."

I brought this up in class as an introduction to the units on usage. 

Usage is not grammar, although a multitude of folks conflate the two. Grammar is the mechanics of language--what works, what doesn't, how the parts fit together. Usage is about h0ow particular words or phrases are used. When we're talking about grammar, we're talking about what works or doesn't. As the soon as the word "correct" or "proper" turns up, we're probably talking about usage.

Plenty of things that aren't considered proper usage are fully grammatical. The classic example is "ain't" a word that's considered "non-standard" or "improper" usage, but is perfectly grammatical. By that I mean that a native speaker gets that "I ain't going to the store" means something and "I'm going to the ain't" does not. 

"Proper" usage is like a necktie. Most questions about what is proper usage have historically been settled the same way--whatever rich, powerful people do is correct. This is generally "decided" organically and by consensus; attempts to deliberately shape usage are very hard to pull off (see also: every attempt to fix English spelling conventions). 

After the Norman Conquest, most wealthy and powerful positions in England were occupied by people who spoke French, and so the more proper usage became aligned with French or Latin based vocabulary. Attempts to codify grammar, spelling and punctuation inevitably settled debates by deferring to "how they do it in London." 

It is usage (not grammar) that is used as a marker of class. Two things are true. First, these distinctions are completely made up and without any discernable basis in objective reality. In fact, when closely examined, they can look kind of dumb. Second, however ridiculous, you ignore them at your peril, because they still have enormous power in the world.

I love Fetterman. I don't always agree with his positions, but as a Pennsylvanian I will certify that he is the most Pennsylvanian Pennsylvanian who ever Pennsylvaniaed his way into government. He has defied the "proper usage" of political speech and fashion his whole career in a way that very much reflects a certain blue collar pragmatism that one finds in the state.

That said, not all usage transgressions are created equal. Shaking off the somewhat arbitrary restrictions of "proper" usage can get you the genius of Shakespeare, and it can get you gibberish. It can be a way to take back power, but the question of what you want to take back power for, exactly, matters a great deal. There are whole big conversations to be had about the power dynamics, and trying to put and keep people in their place, and trying to disrupt just because you're a chaos agent, and trying to shut people out just because they aren't adept at invoking the "proper" usage incantations. And I'm not going to post a whole book today.

But underneath it all is one big important truth--all of this stuff is made up shit. It is human beings decide to staple a hat to a penguin and then declaring that hat-stapled penguins have deep significance about the fate of society. It is about declaring that one community's traditions are objectively linked in some meaningful way to the Fate of Civilization As We Know It. There is nothing we humans like better than to make shit up and then tell ourselves how important that made up shit is, and that made up importance can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, until it isn't any more. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Plunder, Private Equity, and Education

Brendan Ballou served as Special Counsel for Private Equity at the U.S. Department of Justice, which qualifies him to wrote Plunder: Private Equity's Plan to Pillage America. It's one of those books that you read to learn about things you were probably happier not knowing. And while it doesn't directly address education, when we put it together with a report on private equity in education, the writing on the wall is pretty huge.

Plunder is divided into three sections-- How They Make Their Money, How They Get Their Way, and How To Stop Them. Early on, Ballou explains how the private equity firm business model so often leads to disaster (for everyone else):

First, private equity firms typically buy businesses only for the short term. Second, they often load up the companies they buy with debt and extract onerous fees. And third, they insulate themselves from the consequences, both legal and financial, of their actions.

Ballou goes on to lay out some of the techniques used by private equity to squeeze money out of businesses. Leasebacks--make the business lease its own stuff, which also creates a insulating layer between the business and the true owner. Dividend recaps--basically borrowing money on the business's credit in order to give that money to the private equity company. Strategic bankruptcies. Forced partnerships--requiring the businesses you own to combine, perhaps by merger, or perhaps by making Company A get all its goods from Company B. Tax avoidance. Rollups--basically a monopoly style of taking control of a market. Layoffs. Price hikes. Quality cuts. Operational efficiencies.

Folks in education will recognize what he says about operational efficiencies, which "belie a certain arrogance in the private equity industry, the idea that in three to seven years, well-educated dilletantes can run a company better than those who've often spent a lifetime doing so." Yup. That sounds familiar.

The book devotes single chapters to the private equity takeovers of housing, retail, nursing homes, health care, and prisons. Ballou also gets into some very specific tactics, like suing the customers, a tactic used against "tens of thousands" of student loan borrowers.

Ballou looks at private equity takeovers in the public sector (check out The Privatization of Everything for even more details), with some attention to private equity in for-profit colleges. He brings up the example of Ashford University. Once private equity bought it, they went from 332 students to 83,000 mostly online students. But the university was allegedly "little more than a scheme to extract money from its students." When Senatore Tom Harkins looked into it, he found that the school had over 1,700 recruiters, and just one employee devoted to helping grads find jobs. And as we've seen in many cases, "the government subsidized the for-profit college, but did little to constrain its predation."

And that alone would seem like a clear indicator of the danger of voucherized private schools if private equity gets its hands on the K-12 sector. Private equity at its very worst is not simply interested in getting profits from its business--any business wants to extract enough money to pay its workers and leaders and insure its own survival into the future. But as this book shows repeatedly, private equity is not interested in the business's survival into the future, but simply looks to squeeze every penny out, right now, and if that nobbles or kills the business, oh well. Ka-ching, baby.

And you may think, "Well, let's be sure not to head down that road." And if that's your thought, I have bad news. 

The Private Equity Stakeholder Project works to track and engage the stakeholders and investors affected by various private equity shenanigans, and they have a whole report entitled Private Equity in Education that lays out some of the private equity holdings, and shows the ways that "Wall Street profits from a public good."

The big picture is striking enough. Private equity deals have been rocketing up for the past few years. In 2021, there were almost 150 deals involving $14M in capital. That's driven in part by the post-pandemic belief that "EdTech is a new and permanent asset class" aka sector that be sucked dry.

Private equity firms and the companies they own have promised to improve educational outcomes for struggling individual students and schools through new technology, personalized learning strategies, and resources for staffing and administration, but there is no conclusive data showing that school funding is better spent at private-equity owned companies than staying within the district.

The report at looks some specific areas where private equity has laid down its marker.

Curriculum development and test administration. 

The private equity technique of forcing its holdings to marry each other really figures in here. If you own the company that decides what gets taught and the company that determines how the outcomes are measured, then you can cash in big time. And it adds a whole other layer to what is already a big business octopus.

Take the Cambium group, which includes all sorts of  edu-bizes, like the Learning A-Z folks, Rosetta Stone, American Institute for Research (the SBA test folks), and a boatload of other companies both the curriculum and testing biz. Or HBH, aka Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a giant octopus that used to be strictly in the text publishing business. They've also expanded through acquisition, including their recent acquisition of NWEA (the MAP test folks). In both cases, when you take their test, what do you suppose it recommends for remediation. And if you want to be pro-active and do well on the test, whose materials do you think are your best bet.

But that's not the end of it.

Both Cambium and HBH are owned by Veritas Capital, a big private equity firm. Renaissance Learning, McGraw Hill, Imagine Learning (including Edgenuity), Edmentum, Discovery Education, Carnegie Learning-- all owned by private equity companies. 

Not only do these companies produce curriculum and tests, but they also support big time lobbying (see a cool chart here). Which, as Ballou points out, is a big private equity tool--lobbying to make sure the rules favor you every step of the way.

That means a huge chunk of the industries that support education is in the hands of folks who can be expected to put their main attention on how to squeeeeeze these businesses for every dollar, and if that means lower quality and cutting corners, oh well. Ka-ching.

Outsourced staffing

For some outfits, the teacher exodus is not a crisis or a problem, but an opportunity. The report says that education staffing companies generated $1.2 billion in revenue in 2021. If you want to see how the private equity lens affects the view of this crisis, consider a Forbes column by Evan Erdberg, head of Proximity Learning Inc (previously acquired by Education Solutions Services, result of a merger with Source4Teachers, all under the control of private equity firm Nautic Partners). 

Erdberg acknowledged that this shortage is in large part due to teachers being undervalued, and noted that even though the average teacher salary recently reached $66,000 nationwide, this is not enough: “We cannot expect these highly educated, trained and experienced individuals to continue to work above and beyond their pay scale while never recouping the costs.” Erdberg offers PLI as a solution, but the company does not solve issues related to teacher pay. As of October 2022, PLI advertised pay for part-time virtual teachers between 20 to 30 dollars per hour, which comes out to less than the national average Erdberg cited in his Forbes piece.

Access to student data

Private equity is looking for ways to get value out of assets, and has been said repeatedly, data is the new oil. 

Vista Equity Partners owns at least 27 companies that provide them with a mountain of student data. Writes The Markup in an article entitled "This Private Equity Firm Is Amassing Companies That Collect Data on America's Children."

We found that the companies, collectively, gather everything from basic demographic information—entered automatically when a student enrolls in school—to data about students’ citizenship status, religious affiliation, school disciplinary records, medical diagnoses, what speed they read and type at, the full text of answers they give on tests, the pictures they draw for assignments, whether they live in a two-parent household, whether they’ve used drugs, been the victim of a crime, or expressed interest in LGBTQ+ groups, among hundreds of other data points.

No single one of Vista's companies holds every one of those data points, but Vista itself owns all of it. That includes the popular PowerSchool, SRB, Intersect, Naviance, Schoology, and Kickboard, plus others.

The report also looks at how these companies work to weaken regulations, such as student privacy regulations. 

And, of course, the sweeping up of actual education providers. In addition to the for-profit colleges that Ballou discusses, private equity has also been buying up early childhood education. KinderCare, O2B Kids, Littel Newtons, Northstar Preschools, Small Miracles--the list of private equity owned providers goes on. Many are part of the Early Care and Education Consortium (partnered with the Boston Consulting Group, another red flag), a group that lobbies hard against any public service model for pre-K. 

Charters are also ripe for the private equity crowd. The report outlines how Ron Packard, then CEO of K-12 (now Stride) the 800 pound gorilla of for-profit charters, spun off Pansophic Learning (supported with money from Dubai private equity form Safanad) which in turn gave us the ACCEL charter chain, an outfit that has really refined the many ways that a charter school can be gamed to make money using techniques that Ballou outlines in private equity handling of nursing homes and prisons. Make the business lease back its own stuff. Make money from real estate investing. In fact, Safanad also makes money in the nursing home biz, and Jeff Bryant and Yves Smith found strong parallels between how ACCEL squeezes money out of its charters and Safanad squeezes money out of nursing homes. Ka-ching.

In 2022, Carol Burris looked at how ACCEL gamed an Ohio charter school so thoroughly that even if the school failed, ACCEL would still make money. Because sometimes if you want the money out of the piggy bank, you just have to take a hammer to it.

That, as Ballou shows in his book, is the private equity game at its worst-- a dead-eyed focus on pulling money out of business so narrow that the success or failure of the business itself is irrelevant. As Ballou shows, that has catastrophic effects when applied to public utilities and prisons and nursing homes, and we can expect equally terrible effects in education. Certainly, children do not deserve to become collateral damage because some private equity dude feels he's not quite rich enough yet. 

Private equity should be kept far away from education (and all other sectors involving live human citizens). Schools are too important to be a target for plunderers, too vital to be treated as some private equity investor's piggy bank. You may want to check the Private Equity Stakeholder Project report, just to see if some private equity properties are latched onto your local school. It can help explain why it may seem as if some education business doesn't seem to be even trying to do its actual job--it's because private equity thinks a company's only real job is to generate that lovely sound that drowns out all the noises of complaint. Ka-ching. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

When Choice Advocates Work Really Closely With Legislators

Turns out that the Commonwealth Foundation has been working really closely with the PA legislature to push school vouchers.

The Commonwealth Foundation is a right wing dark money advocacy group. Goerge Coates, the chair of their board, also sits on the board to the State Policy Network (SPN), a collection of right wing activist groups and thinky tanks, and the board of DonorsTrust, a group that turns rich peoples' money dark and untraceable. They advocate for the usual stuff, and try fun tactics like "paycheck protection" and trying to convince teachers to quit their unions.

Commonwealth Foundation has always stayed close to the issue of vouchers in Pennsylvania, which have surfaced with locust-like regularity (here's 2017 and 2018, for examples). The next-to-most recent time (2022), the Foundation showed uncanny timing. When the House approved the neo-voucher Lifeline Scholarships, the Foundation had its press release ready to go that same day, with talking points remarkably similar to those used by the legislators pushing the bill. 

When the court ruled that Pennsylvania's school funding was unconstitutional, Foundation VP Nathan Benefield was at the front of the line of people trying to bend the court's ruling to mean that vouchers should happen

So there are no big surprises in today's news from The Keystone. A Right To Know request from The Keystone turned up an assortment of emails (they're right here) between Commonwealth Foundation and the state Treasurer's office. There's PA Treasury Policy Director Tom Armstrong reaching out to see if someone can come talk vouchers to Secretary Stacy Garrity, and Nathan Benefield replying that sure, the last time he spoke with her, "she said she'd like to see our office and stop for coffee, so maybe we can do that with or in addition to a policy discussion." Gee, I sure wish I could casually invite policy makers in government over here for some coffee and the chance to push my policy ideas.

Garrity's office was working with Senate GOP to get their newest version of education savings accounts--neo-vouchers- into law via the budget process. Meanwhile, Stephen Bloom, another Commonwealth Foundation VP, was staying in touch with Armstrong.

“Tom, with the Senate and the House versions of the Lifeline Scholarship bills having been introduced, we wanted to promptly provide you with our updated Fact Sheet and Talking Points on the bills. Please share with Treasurer Garrity and others on your team as you deem appropriate,” Bloom wrote.

You can read The Keystone's account of the sausage making for more detail, or if you have the stomach for it, dive on into the actual correspondence (only 13 pages of it). 

The governor vetoed the line item for vouchers, and so Commonwealth Action magically and suddenly appeared to spend money pressuring lawmakers to pass voucher anyway. 

It's another infuriating reminder that one of the best way to Get Things Done is to be someone whose only job is to sit in an office in the state capitol and maintain a network of contacts so you always get a hand in what's going on. 

P.S. The Keystone story comes with a reminder: Pennsylvania already has tax credit scholarships, a form of voucher that allows rich folks to give money to private schools instead of paying taxes to the state, and all the fans of even more vouchers dodged a ton of taxes (aka shifted the tax burden to other taxpayers) to the tune of millions of dollars. 

Sunday, September 17, 2023

ICYMI: Bunch of Dads Edition (9/17)

The CMO (Chief Marital Officer) here at the Curmudgucation Institute is complaining that Instagram is bombarding her with NSYNC reunion images, and "they just look like a bunch of dads." Also something about her lost youth. Meanwhile, the Board of Directors is sorting Legos. Just so you know about the kind of hard-hitting zero-cost scholarship that's going on here.

And now here's your weekly collection of stuff worth reading.

Raising the Bar on Kindergartners: A Nation at Risk Lives On

Nancy Bailey with a pointed reminder that littles are still under extra pressure and the secretary of education is still someone who doesn't quite get it.

Charter Schools Can’t Claim to Be Public Anymore

Carol Burris at The Progressive, explaining that North Carolina is showing the path to transforming charters into another version of private schools.

The Charter-School Movement’s New Divide

At The Atlantic, Cara Fitzpatrick takes a look at the implications of Oklahoma's proposed Catholic charter school, both for public ed and for charter schools.

Chartered: Florida is No. 2 in the country for charter school closures

A Tampa Bay news site has a whole series about charters in Florida. Start with this one about the incredible rate of charter failures and closures in the state. 

Christian lawmakers push battle over church and state after Roe

What if conservative christianists had their own version of ALEC?

James Lindsay Ties Together all the Conspiracy Theories for School Board Members and the M4L Crowd.

Sue Kingery Woltanski caught James Lindsay, a way right speaker, and his talk at a Leadership Institute Summit, and if you like your conspiracy theories with a big topping of commie alarmism, he's your guy. Read her piece, but beware the comments.

Dallas ISD superintendent says new grading method for Texas schools is connected to school voucher debate

Texas has long specialized in regularly moving the goalposts for school evaluation, but the Dallas superintendent says the latest tweak is just about making public schools "fail" so that students need to be "rescued" by the vouchers that Abbott and friends so desperately want to install.

Deeper Learning Requires Deeper Relationships?

Who knew? Well, most actual teachers knew, but Scott McLeod adds some data to the conversation.

Federal grant pays $126K salary of Florida official who pushes DeSantis education agenda

Well, wouldn't it be fun, if you were governor, to use federal grant money to push your own agenda (instead of whatever it was the grant was for). Just another day in Ron DeSantis's Florida.

Teachers are becoming more educated, but salaries are declining

With charts. Some data to use when you get into that argument with your uncle again.

Moms for Liberty Takes on Head Lice and Other Critical Issues

Yes, I recommend Nancy Flanagan every single week. That's because you should read her every single week. This time she tries to puzzle out a Moms for Liberty tweet. What's going on? Are they coming out as pro-lice? 

Takac: Now Is the Time to Invest in All Pa. Public Schools

State Rep Paul Takac tries to make a case that Pennsylvania should actually fund its school systems.

Jose Vilson goes school supply shopping with his child, and notes that school supply lists tell us something about school resources, and who gets them and who has to go shopping for them.

Chris Rufo’s dangerous fictions

Zack Beauchamp read Chris Rufo's book and talked to the guy on the phone, and comes up with one of the better Rufo profiles out there. "Exaggeration and hyperbole are not just incidental to his intellectual project. They are his project."

Local Parents, Educators Face ‘Attack’ on Public Schools from Indiana Lawmakers

Steve Hinnefeld runs down the state of Indiana's various attacks on public education.

Chicago Diminishes Suspensions and Expulsions by Adopting Restorative Practices as School Discipline Strategy

Jan Resseger looks at some data that suggests Chicago has made restorative practices work for school discipline.

My Students Are Writing. That Makes Me Happy

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider with a brief reflection on the moments when teaching just feels great.

Refusing to Censor Myself

Children's author Maggie Tokuda-Hall writes about what happened when Scholastic said it would like to pick up her book--if she would just cut a couple of things.

The Very Common, Very Harmful Thing Well-Meaning Parents Do

Technology makes it possible for parents to subject their children to more surveillance than ever. But Devorah Heitner explains why it's just a bad idea.

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Saturday, September 16, 2023

NM: 10 Year Struggle To Fix Funding

Pennsylvania is the most recent state to be declared in violation of its obligation to properly fund education, but it's certainly not the only one. And looking at others can be instructive about how well it works to use the legal approach to forcing fair funding . (Spoiler alert: not great) Let's look at New Mexico.

Their tale starts in 2014, with Wilhelmina Yazzie and her son Xavier. Xavier got straight As at the Gallup-McKinley school, but his results on national standardized tests suggested that maybe he wasn't actually in tip top learning shape. Maybe that's because the school lacked funding, teachers, tutors, computers, and enough textbooks to allow students to take them home to study.

Yazzie couldn't get a satisfactory response from school administrators beyond "we're doing the best we can with the resources we have." So she sued the state of New Mexico for not sufficiently funding education. In particular, the suit said, the state is failing to provide for students from poor economic backgrounds, Native American student, ESL students, and students with disabilities. It was failing to make students college and career ready.

Yazzie's suit was folded in with a similar suit from Louise Martinex, and thus was born the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit.

That suit until its fifth year, 2018, Judge Sarah Singleton handed down a ruling. The thing is 76 pages long, but the outcome was simple enough--the court declared that the state was doing a lousy. 

Singleton explicitly avoided telling the state what it should do or where it should find the revenue. But she also was clear that the current method of starting with last year's budget number and arguing about whether the legislature felty like spending more or not, without once considering the question of how much money was actually needed to get the job done-- that method was not okay. 

Which is kind of remarkable when you think about it. We are pretty much used to the idea of education budgeting based on what officials feel like spending without ever, ever having a conversation about what is needed to do the job. It's an aspect of education reform that nobody ever talks about. 

At any rate, Singleton gave the state a deadline--have the public education department develop a plan to Do It Right by April of 2019. So the legislature came up with a plan that fixed the whole thing. Ha! Just kidding. The state asked the court to throw it all out, claiming that it had totally met the demands of the judge's ruling--the court said no. In some pointed words.

The state cannot be deemed to have complied with this court’s order until it shows that the necessary programs and reforms are being provided to all at risk students to ensure that they have the opportunity to be college and career ready. There is a lack of evidence in this case that the defendants have substantially satisfied this court’s express orders regarding all at risk students. The court’s injunction requires comprehensive educational reform that demonstrates substantial improvement of student outcomes so that students are actually college and career ready.

Well, yeah. In 2019 New Mexico was still 50th in graduation rate, and the Chance for Success index was D-plus--and last among all states. 

The state dragged its feet and embarked on a series of draft action plans to do... something. Here's a really comprehensive look at all the argle bargle and draft planning from 2022

Lots of various features had begin to take shape. In hopes of fostering some community and culturally responsive teaching, the PED called for Equity Councils for both public and charter schools. The job was to "implement a culturally and linguistically responsive framework to prepare students for college, career, and life by supporting their identity and holistic development, including social, emotional, and physical wellness." These, predictably, got a lot of pushback. And still, not much is actually happening.

Now it's 2023, and there was a summit in June by the Institute of American Indian Education on the subject of "So What The Heck Is Happening With That Lawsuit That Was Decided Five Years Ago?"

And now this month, New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez wants his office to take over the state's response, citing a "frustration with the lack of progress over the past five years." 

Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose administration has been in charge since 2019 (so that attempt to get the courts to let them off the hook is on her) responded via spokesperson by saying, "Hey, we created some agencies and sent more money to local schools. Maybe you should go get on those local schools' cases about not spending the money well." They have in fact increased spending by, maybe, $3000 per student, which moves New Mexico all the way up to 36th place in the nation. 

But that's just money. The actual plan for how to boost education for the most disadvantaged students in New Mexico is still a draft in the PED computers. Meanwhile, conservatives continue the old complaint of "We're spending more money but scores aren't going up." As if five years or increased spending (with a pandemic smack in the middle) should be enough to turn the whole thing around.

Yes, New Mexico has charter schools (98 of them, with 25,000 students). The legislature even just handed them piles of money for building. That hasn't fixed things. Open enrollment--they have that in some locations. New Mexico has no state subsidies for private choice, though some folks would sure like them

What New Mexico has is a clear directive to get adequate funding its schools, even if that means wealthier residents have to pay taxes to educate Those Peoples' Children, and no apparent political will or interest in actually getting the job done. And really--if this were something the state's leaders cared about, simply knowing that they were at the bottom of the barrel in most educational indicators would have been more motivational than some court directive. And now Yazzie/Martinez is approaching its tenth birthday with no end in sight.

New Mexico's issue is the same issue as Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, etc etc etc. If state leaders don't feel particularly compelled to treat education as an important priority, can a court order really change that? I'm reminded of Rick Hess's insight, from another context, that you can use rules and regulations and, I suppose, court orders, to compel people to do something--but you can't make them do it well. Particularly if they don't want to. 

After all, there's nothing to keep legislators from making quality, well-resourced public education for all students a major priority and crafting budgets that reflect that priority. Any legislature could do it any time they wanted to, and they wouldn't even have to wait for a court order.