Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Semi-Annual Attempt To Legalize Religious Discrimination

My U.S. Representative, used car dealer and insurrection apologist Mike Kelly, announced this week that he and Senator Tim Scott (who's now got some extra time on his hands) have introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act. What's that about? Here's the description:
This legislation protects child welfare providers from being discriminated against for acting in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs and prohibits federal, state and local government agencies that receive federal adoption assistance funding from discriminating against child welfare service providers based on the providers’ unwillingness to take action contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.

In other words, if you are a religious agency that handles adoptions or foster care placements, the feds should not pick on you just because you refuse to deal LGBTQ children or parents.  

The legislators backing this frame it as the mean federal government picking on "faith-based organizations" and thereby depriving children in need, somehow depriving them of loving homes. "President Biden has discriminated against these faith-based providers," says Kelly, "because of their deeply held religious beliefs." And discrimination is bad, unless you're discriminating against LGBTQ persons. Then it's a religious necessity. 

I don't know who they blamed for this anti-religion discrimination when the same bill was proposed in 2017 under then-President Trump. Ditto when Kelly proposed it in 2019l surely he didn't declare the bill was necessary because of Dear Leader. Scott and Kelly also sponsored the same bill in 2021, decrying the religious discrimination as an "attack on the First Amendment." 

The bill appears semi-annually, like a insomniac locust, draws a bunch of religious oppression rhetoric, and then is quietly retired. 

The rationale is a familiar one at this point--some folks just can't properly and fully exercise their christianish faith unless they are free to discriminate against certain people of whom they disapprove. This always strikes me as a bizarre notion. If you think you can't fully and effectively follow and glorify Jesus unless you are able to treat some people badly, I have to believe that you are doing Christianity wrong. 

Perhaps the only point here is to be able to issue some press releases so that you can earn some points from the evangelical right. The whole business strikes me as an exercise in bad legislating and bad religion. Whatever it is, it certainly is no way to look out for children.

Universal Vouchers Unmask True Goals

The voucher pitch, in state after state, has been that poor, low-resource families need taxpayer-funded education vouchers in order to escape "failing" public schools. Privatizers have been selling the failing public school narrative since the Reagan administration engineered their first big piece of marketing-- A Nation at Risk

At the last Network for Public Education conference, I had the chance to hear James Harvey, the guy who was in the room where it happened, talk about how attempts at moderation and actual fact-based items were brushed aside; it's impossible to take the finished product seriously as anything other than a propaganda tool. 

But it did the job. It helped set the stage for high stakes testing, which policy makers understood was necessary as a tool to root out all the bad schools and bad teachers, which in turn got us to No Child Left Behind, a policy that guaranteed that by 2014 all schools would be either failing or cheating (or, I suppose, miraculous in getting all students to score above average on the Big Standardized Test).

Once the alarms were ringing, the pressure could be increased for a means of "escaping" these terrible public schools. Help the many public schools that were under-resourced and struggling? No, the line there was "we already spend money on those schools and they are still struggling. Better we should rescue at least a few students from them."

First, charters, because vouchers were still a bridge too far. And then vouchers (under various assumed names), expressly to save the struggling poor from their failing public schools. And now, at last, universal vouchers--vouchers for one and all, no matter how poor their family or how high their public school's test scores.

In Florida and Arizona and Arkansas and the rest, the story is the same. Universal vouchers don't help more poor families. How could they, since making vouchers universal means raising or removing the income cap for families? Raising an income cap from $65K to $125K does not include more poor people (a thing I can't believe I have to actually point out, but here we are). 

Nor does making vouchers universal make private school admissions universal. Private schools can still accept or reject anyone they wish for any reason they want to concoct. In fact, most voucher laws now require the state to keep hands off. And we're seeing private school raise tuitions as more taxpayer-funded vouchers become available. All of which helps insure that none of Those Peoples' Children will have any more access to upscale exclusive private schools than they ever could. Let them take their piddly little voucher and go set up a microschool

Making vouchers universal doesn't extend any of the promises made originally for vouchers. It doesn't reach more people in need, and it doesn't extend the reach of quality education. What it does is provide a subsidy for people already in the private school system and through them, subsidies for schools that largely prefer to put forth a religious curriculum that public schools rightly eschew (mostly). Of course we're finding in universal voucher states like Arkansas that the vast majority of taxpayer-funded vouchers are being used by students who are already in private school.

My usual caveat--at every stage of this, you will find people who sincerely believe in the correctness of their policy preferences. But there is a through line for all this composed of folks whose primary interest is the Friedmanesque dream of a nation in which government has nothing to do with education.
Making vouchers universal doesn't increase the amount of high quality education nor access to it. It only increases the taxpayer dollars to used subsidize the Right Students in learning the Right Things. 

I disagree with people who complain, "I pay my taxes. Why should I have to pay for a public education system and the private tuition for my child? Why should I pay for education twice?" I disagree with them, but they are at least making an honest argument instead of trying to hide behind poor children and a manufactured crisis. But for universal vouchers, there's not much of an argument to make other than "I want my favorite private school to get a bunch of free taxpayer money, with no government oversight or taxpayer accountability." 

That's not much of a winning argument. There's a reason that polls from choicer advocates ask questions like "Do you think a child should be able to attend the school of their choice for free" and not "Would you like your tax dollars for education not to fund your public school, but instead go to subsidize tuition for a family that makes twice what you do so that their child can attend a private religious school that would never accept any of your children as students?"

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

AR: Are Vouchers Rescuing Anyone?

Arkansas's Governor Sanders made it a top priority to ram through a package of Florida-style education privatization law when she took office, and the legislature obliged, with the passage of the LEARNS Act last year. It was followed by a lawsuit intended to roll back some of the law. Now the state has released a report on the ESA super-voucher that was part of the law, and the lawyer attached to the lawsuit sums it up pretty well
“This program was passed and sold to the public, and sold to legislators, as a way to help poor students trapped in failing public schools, but in fact, that’s not at all what happened,” Attorney Ali Noland said.

What does the report tell us?

The Education Freedom Accounts (because nobody wants to call vouchers "vouchers") were used by 4,785+ students at $6,672 a pop. 94 schools participated. 59% of those students were located in the Little Rock area, with another 19% in the northwest corner of the state. 

And here's the part that Noland spotted:

5% of the students who used the taxpayer-funded vouchers actually left a public school. 5%. Five percent (just making sure you know this was not one of my usual typos). All the other 95% were either first-time kindergartners or already enrolled in private school. 

What else? 38% of voucher users are in ten of the voucher-accepting schools. Of those top ten, nine are explicitly religious schools. The usual religious restrictions apply. Some examples.

Little Rock Christian Academy is the biggest school on the list, with 1,665 enrolled, of whom 324 voucher students. In its Christian Community Statement, it says:

As a religious organization, the LRCA Christian community views trustee, employee, student, parent, and family lifestyle choices and conduct to be a reflection of religious beliefs and Christian commitment. LRCA will exercise its prerogative as a religious organization to neither commence nor continue an appointment, employment, admission, enrollment, or other category of LRCA Christian community relationship if it is believed by LRCA that so doing will cause confusion about, conflict with, or compromise of the LRCA Christian community’s mission to provide a distinctly Christian education from a Christ-centered worldview.

At the Central Arkansas Christian School, the secondary school application includes a survey that asks if the student has ever been in trouble with the law, has Attention Deficit Disorder "or any other learning issues, or if they are or have been married or pregnant. Shiloh Christian School promises instruction by "born-again Christian teachers in an environment where God and His Word are the highest authority."

That's just the top three participants. Also worth noting that while the first two are located in Little Rock, which is almost 50% Black, the depicted students are almost entirely white. Of the 94 participating schools, 65 are clearly religious schools (one Islamic, the rest Christian). Unsurprising, as Arkansas's Department of Education has been actively promoting private Christian schools

While service providers can also participate, it appears that so far that group0 is just three uniform supply companies and Staples. Money from the voucher system has been spent almost entirely on tuition, with a tiny amount for uniforms and "required academic expenses." Out of the $7,077,597 handed out in the first quart, $176,853 went to ClassWallet for managing the money. Arkansas set up an ESA style voucher that allows for all manner of spending, but so far it's behaving like a traditional voucher that is used for tuition.

So is this voucher set-up rescuing poor students from failing schools? Clearly not. But it is throwing a whole bunch of money at private religious schools and affluent families. And advocates are anticipating they'll be throwing more and more in the years ahead. 

More Voucher-Fueled Price Hikes

A new piece in The Hechinger Report shows that Arizona is one more state where universal vouchers have been followed by private school tuition increases.

Iowa has already demonstrated this phenomenon, with Catholic schools in Des Moines, Dubuque and Cedar Rapids raising tuition costs anywhere from 7% to 40%. Taxpayer-funded vouchers have been a big windfall for Catholic schools there and elsewhere. 

Neal Morton, writing for Hechinger, finds the same thing happening in Arizona, with new universal vouchers being followed by private school price hikes of thousands of dollars. 

Voucher fans can't be surprised by this. After all, voucher supporters have a huge overlap with people who argue that college and university tuition costs have grown so massively precisely because students can get all that free federal money, and if government stopped subsidizing tuition costs, those costs would go down. Whyever have we not heard from those same folks with the same complaint about subsidizing K-12 tuition costs. 

It's not just that the vouchers allow private schools to get a little fatter. 

Raising tuition prices insures that the Those People still won't be able to afford the top private schools, that the high-status schools can still make sure that all the Right People have access. In Iowa, some of those Catholic schools only raised tuition for non-Catholic students.

Vouchers aren't going to let any poor families get their children into one of those high-toned private schools, but they will give a nice taxpayer-funded subsidy to the affluent. Morton reports that some private school parents are being nudged to go get that voucher to help cover the increased tuition costs. As Morton quotes:

[S]aid Nik Nartowicz, state policy counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a legal advocacy group. “This doesn’t help low-income families.”

Slowly but surely, vouchers bring us full circle. Free marketeers argue that the market will correct itself, and that the "forced funding of government schools" provides less freedom than what they propose. It's a puzzler-- the free market education system that sorts students out according to what they can afford is somehow supposed to fix the free market system of housing that sorts students into districts according to what their parents can afford. The injection of government subsidies into the college marketplace has caused distortions and inflation and that's bad, but injecting government subsidies into the K-12 marketplace would be a good thing.

A cynic might conclude that what voucher supporters want is a system with multiple tiers based on wealth and religion, but without any government oversight or accountability--just the role of reverse Robin Hood, taking money from everyone and giving it to the wealthy. 

Morton does talk to some voucher advocates, and their comments are not encouraging.

Matt Ladner, a fellow with the nonprofit group EdChoice, said low-income parents might find second or third jobs to afford tuition for their kids. And, he added, even children whose families pay for private school on their own dime deserve some portion of state funding for education.

“Their parents pay taxes too,” Ladner said. “Everyone pays into the system, and everyone with a child should be entitled to an equitable share. We publicly fund education for all kids.”

So we've gone from "here's your child's way out of low-income school" to "go get two or three jobs." And I'm not sure where to begin with the idea that only people with children are "entitled" to an equitable share. I'm pretty sure that everyone who pays taxes is entitled to live in a world in which fellow citizens, neighbors, and co-workers have gotten a decent education and not a half-baked private school or an empty husk of a defunded public school. 


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

How Bad Can It Get? Diplomas For $465

I just added a post at Forbes about how the school choice movement has abandoned the old "grand bargain" in which autonomy was tied to accountability, and I want to add a little PS to that piece.

We've seen the idea of accountability scrapped, with some of the most committed choicers declaring that, when push comes to shove, having a free market choice system is more important than making sure it's a system that protects the students' rights to a quality education. For some, the belief is that a free market system is how you get to a quality system, but there's a sector of the choicer movement that seems unconcerned about even that part.

So how bad can it get? How low can choice providers go?

We've seen that voucher schools are largely religious, and sometimes very discriminatory in their religious operation. We've seen that these choice schools can teach some highly questionable content (eg Satan created psychology). We know that all those taxpayer dollars attract a huge amount of fraud, failure, and scammage. And John Oliver just did a scary piece about the unregulated world of home schooling

Do these all seem like the lowest the accountability bar can be dropped? Louisiana says, "Hold my beer."

Sharon Lurye reports today for the Associated Press that Louisiana's wide open world of home schooling has produced a great new service-- for $465 and a double pinky swear (less if you don't want to walk in a ceremony wearing cap and gown), you can have a high school diploma.

That's courtesy of Springfield Preparatory School, one of many home school umbrella schools in Louisiana. Louisiana offers two home schooling approaches-- you can register with the state board and seek approval for your home study program, or you can register with the state as a non-public school which is not seeking state approval. Mostly they are just a single family "school" but last year 30 of them had more than 50 students. Over a dozen states allow the call-your-homeschool-a-private-school model (California had one such school that turned out to be the site of horrific child abuse), but some at least require some sort of proof that education is happening. Louisiana's non-public schools operate in a black box, with no oversight or accountability at all.

Louisiana's system (Lurye calls it an off-the-grid school system) enrolls over 21,000 students in Louisiana, and there is zero accountability or oversight. Lurye's article includes this paragraph:

To supporters of the system, avoiding state oversight is entirely the point. Advocates say Louisiana's unapproved schools are a natural extension of the doctrine of parental rights.

Springfield Prep's principal will grant a diploma to anyone who's not actually enrolled in her school, but whose parents say they were homeschooled at some point in their life.

And if all of that sounds cut very much from the right wing parental rights branch of the choice movement, it also taps into a more lefty/mainstream idea. Here's Lurye talking to Springfield Prep's principal about those gifted diplomas:
She says the diploma recognizes the value of educational experiences outside the classroom.

“I think you’re working the oil field, you’re working the McDonald’s, all of that is just as valid as what the classroom was,” Sibley Morrison said.

That's the same "credits for anywhere, anytime learning" idea beloved by folks like the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Only fused with this parental rights, we get "credits for any learning your parents claim you ever got, verification not necessary."

School-flavored operations like Springfield Prep aren't eligible for taxpayer-funded vouchers yet. And, I suppose one could argue that a diploma for nothing at all is better than a diploma for Nazi homeschool. But it's clear that when it comes to unaccountable, unregulated schooling, we haven't gotten to the bottom yet. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Chris Rufo Wants To Boost More Culture Chaos Agents

What if Chris Rufo, education dudebro, astroturf landscaper, and cultural chaos agent, could scale up his work? Looks like we may get to find out.

Chris Rufo is a special kind of magician. He tells the audience what he's going to and how he's going to do it, and then he does it, and somehow the audience is still amazed.

His first and in many ways still his most impressive trick was the creation of critical race theory panic. Rather than try to fig leaf the whole thing and try to mask it as some sort of spontaneous grass roots panic, Rufo told anyone who would listen (like The New Yorker) that he intended to take this obscure academic term and weaponize it, deliberately turning it into a tool to attack everything that folks out in right field didn't like. 

As he infamously tweeted, "The goals is to have the public read something crazy in the news and immediately think 'critical race theory.' We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.'

Of course, he only meant certain Americans. But there was a certain bracing clarity to his announcement that he would conduct a bad faith argument in order to strip the term of its actual meaning and instead use it to paper over the less savory term "stuff that right wing white people hate." 

This is not a new thing. As writers and historians like Adam Laats have chronicled, this sort of debate has surfaced repeatedly. "Teaching evolution" served as a shorthand for "indoctrinating children with a bunch of secular stuff." Evolution (and values-clarification and Common Core etc etc etc) was, for some opponents, emblematic of a larger trend in society, a symbol of the larger drift away from certain conservative christianist ideas and values.

What's striking about Rufo is how bald-faced he is about using convenient targets as tools for political purposes. 

It's impressive in its own way. "Se this stick," Rufo announces. "I'm going to use some words, wave my hands around, and convince you that it's really a snake so that you'll scream and run away from it, even though it's a stick." And shortly thereafter, a bunch of people can be seen screaming and running away from the stick.

He's tried the same trick with a few other sticks. "Schools should be more transparent," he said, explaining that the trick would be to "bait the left into supporting transparency" so we can force transparency on these "ideological actors." He hit on his next big stick with the topic of "gender ideology," a catch-all term for anything that promoted tolerance for LGBTQ persons. Rufo told the New York Times
The reservoir of sentiment on the sexuality issue is deeper and more explosive than the sentiment on the race issues.

This meant, he suggested, that the issue had even "more potential" as a tool for agitation. He may well be right; the Heritage Foundation's Project 2025 education document for guiding the hopes-for conservative President is dry and wonky except when it comes to gender issues, at which point it lapses raging mouth-frothing rhetoric. But Rufo's discussion of the topic (one that he didn't feel much compelled to discuss previously) is largely practical and tactical. The topic is another tool. 

It is impossible to tell how much of his own Kool-aid Rufo drinks, though he certainly shows a devotion to the fabulist narrative that America was take over by left-wing bad guys who flamed out in 1968 and then became somehow both a weak minority and also a vast powerful conspiracy to take over the country. If you have the time and the stomach, check out his ten minute video about Nixon, "a man, reviled in his time, who left behind a blueprint for counter-revolution—the last hope for restoring the American republic." (And for bonus reading, this artifact of his failed Seattle City Council run five years ago.)

But Rufo is a busy guy, and it makes sense to see if he can scale up his operation. So here comes the Logos Fellowship. Rufo announced it as "a year-long accelerator program I will be leading for conservative journalists, activists, and opinion leaders." Here's how the website for the fellowship describes it:

Modeled on successful tech-industry accelerators, the Logos Fellowship will consist of a three-day retreat in New York City and ongoing mentorship, amplification, and promotion. Fellows will bring a specific “culture war” project to the program, which our team will help nurture over the course of the year. The goal is to help move these independent projects from conception to execution, so that they begin to shape the discourse and change public policy. Some topics that we hope to address are critical race theory, gender ideology, higher education reform, crime and policing, and civil rights law.
Again, notice that none of this is about serious holding beliefs, acting out concerns, or examining complex issues. It's about a "'culture war' project" to be built up as lever for building political weight. 

If selected, you get your project kicked off at a three-day, all expenses paid retreat in New York City, where Logos Fellowship director Rufo will teach you about how to use "narrative, language, influence, power" to help you design your campaign to make people to treat your particular stick like a snake. Youi also get a $1,000 honorarium. Given that all of this is being handled by the Manhattan Institute, that seems kind of cheap.

In addition, you get:

Mentorship--workshops and office hours from Rufo and his team

Public events-- "We will host monthly Twitter Spaces to drive the narrative on our portfolio of issues" 

Connections-- get hooked up with cable news bookers, policy makers, and aligned organizations to get your stuff out there into the right wing bubble

Publication opportunities-- pitch stories to City Journal, a Manhattan Institute publication where Rufo is a contributing editor. 

So how can someone be considered for this awesome opportunity? Here's the criteria:

A qualified applicant for the Logos Fellowship is an individual who possesses a deep commitment to conservative principles, a track record of active engagement in conservative causes, and a compelling individual project for the incubator program. The ideal applicant will have strong communication skills and an active presence on X/Twitter.

Just submit a 300-500 word project proposal, a one-minute video, and a resume. The application materials "should convey passion, conviction, and a compelling narrative." I guess actually having those things is optional.  And if you've already got a regular job in the conservative thinky tank or advocacy world, that's totally cool. 

The deadline is December 1 (Rufo announced it on October 30), so you'd better hurry up and apply (though I'm going to call this right now for Daniel Buck). Gotta get things up and running for the new year--those astroturfed political outrage movements don't make themselves, you know. 

ICYMI: Deer Shootin' Time Edition (11/26)

Yes. here in Northwestern PA, tomorrow is a day off in schools because it's time to go out and shoot some deer. Make fun of it if you like, but lots of families are hunting for meat that will be a big part of their family's food supply. And this is meat on the hoof that is not factory farmed, not pumped full or hormones, and not shipped over vast distances. As a bonus, it reduces the population of one of the garden-eating, car-smashing nuisances of life in the area. I don't hunt deer and never have, but it's part of life in this region and not, I think, a bad thing at all.

But now that Thanksgiving adventures are over and we are into what my priest friend calls the War on Advent, here's some reading to do from this week.

Grade inflation is locking in learning loss, part 2: Solutions

Tim Daly at the Fordham Institute house organ offering an actually-kind-of-thoughtful take on some of the issues of grade inflation. Even if, like me, you're not convinced grade inflation is a real thing, this piece gives some food for thought about grading stuff.

Standardized Tests Lie

Steven Singer takes a look about the many ways that standardized tests fail our students.

Controversial PragerU videos gain educational foothold in a handful of states

In other annoying news...

Morning prayer, Bibles and Bible studies: Parent says school is pushing religion

Dylan Brown reports from Oklahoma, the Florida of the West.

Oklahoma restricted how race can be taught. So these Black teachers stepped up

On the other hand, as seen in this NPR piece, Oklahoma also has some teachers doing their best to counter-balance the state's worst behavior.

GOP states are embracing vouchers. Wealthy parents are benefitting.

The Andrew Atterbury piece from Politico misses a few critical points, but it still provides an overview voucher shenanigans on the national scale

In sweeping order, court holds NH school funding model is unconstitutionally low

New Hampshire is part of the court-ordered fix your damned funding club,

Policy Dialogue: The Rodriguez Decision and Its Legacy

From Cambridge, a conversation about the most important SCOTUS education decision (widely considered the worst decision in modern court history), between Bruce Baker and David Hinojosa. Informative and useful.

41 Ways a Big Lie Continues to Haunt America’s Public Schools

Nancy Bailey with a pretty comprehensive list of the damages done by the Reagan administration's hit job on public education.

REVEALED: Confidential documents describe secret effort to elect lawmakers for school privatization

Phil Williams at News Channel 5 in Nashville with the not entirely surprising news that school privatizers do some back room coordinating to get their policy pals in place. And he has receipts.

Is There A ‘Stop The Steal’ Movement Brewing In Central Bucks School District?

It appears that even though they were soundly clobbered, defeated Republican school board members in Bucks County are going to challenge the election. Cyril Mychalenjko in the Bucks County Beacon.

Virginia school cancels classes due to teacher protest over classroom violence: 'No one listens'

Meanwhile, out in the trenches, teachers are getting really tired of violence and disorder and no administrative back up. News from channel 7.

Why Is the College Board Pushing to Expand Advanced Placement?

Dana Goldstein looks at the various challenges facing the College Board in its quest to make a buck.

Republican Appointed to Arkansas State Library Board Suggested Jesus Would Burn Books

Arkansas has a problem with anti-public ed people in public office, and it just got worse. Who better to put in charge of state libraries than a guy who doesn't believe in books.

Thomas Ultican takes a look at California charters to see if that sector's growth is, in fact, all stalled out.

By Adding Huge School Voucher Entitlement for the Rich, Ohio Rises Near Top in State Spending on School Privatization

Ohio is going to sink a mountain of money into vouchers. Jan Resseger breaks it down. 

Remembering My Father, With Gratitude

Sue Kingery Woltanski pens a nice tribute to her father. Then she gets into a conversation about vouchers with her own personal troll.

This week over at the Bucks County Beacon, I took a look through what the right-wing Heritage Foundation's Project 2025 has in mind for public education.

If you are of the group weaning itself away from the Dead Bird App, you can find me at both Bluesky and Threads. Be happy to see you there. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, subscribe to my absolutely free substack to get all my stuff in your email inbox.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Why You Think Kids These Days Are Terrible

This piece of 2019 research bubbled up recently, and it's an interesting look at the eternal complaint that Kids These Days are Terrible. Or as the authors, John Protzko and Jonathan W. Schooler put it, "Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking." Protzko and Schooler were at the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara. 

The introduction kicks off just as any intro on the subject should:

Youth were never more sawcie… the ancient are scorned, the honourable are contemned, the magistrate is not dreaded.—Thomas Barnes, the minister of St. Margaret’s Church on New Fish Street in London, 1624

Since at least 624 BCE, people have lamented the decline of the present generation of youth relative to earlier generations (25). The pervasiveness of complaints about “kids these days” across millennia suggests that these criticisms are neither accurate nor due to the idiosyncrasies of a particular culture or time—but rather represent a pervasive illusion of humanity.

And yet, they note, nobody seems to have spent much time researching why this pervasive illusion persists.

The pair ran a series of studies, and golly bob howdy but the write-ups are filled with piles of wonky statistical mathy stuff, but let me pull out the highlights for you.

First, the more authoritarian a person is, the more likely they are to believe that Kids These Days respect their elders less than they used to. 

Second, they found that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to believe that Kids These Days are dumber. A particularly striking effect because, the researchers say, intelligence has been rising steadily across the decades. They also note that the belief in dumbification didn't correlate with respect for authority, suggesting that the folks in the first study weren't just down on all aspects of Kids These Days.

Third, they found that the more a person enjoys reading, the more likely they are to believe that Kids These Days don't like to read any more. In this study they also cross-checked for a correlation with politics, and found none. Conservatives are neither more nor less likely to believe in the downfall of reading in this generation.

And they provide a handy chart.

You see the pattern. People tend to believe that a trait they themselves have is lacking in Kids These Days. The researchers pursued that connection.

They did another version of the Like To Read study. They found that well-read people not only thought Kids These Days don't like to read, but they weren't too keen on Adults Thes Days either. The study suggested that memory is a bit subjective. In other words, young readers hung out with other young readers and treat that sample as representative of all their peers. "My friends and I liked to read, therefor, everybody liked to read."

The fifth study is the wacky one. They gave adults an Author Recognition Test and then randomly told them that they were either in the top or bottom 15%. That actually affected how they judged Kids These Days--even how much they "remembered" enjoying reading as a child. People are amazing.

The results in one sentence:

The present findings suggest that denigrating today’s youth is a fundamental illusion grounded in several distinct cognitive mechanisms, including a specific bias to see others as lacking in those domains on which one excels and a memory bias projecting one’s current traits to past generations.

This all tracks for me. You don't have to look at adults to see the Kids These Days effect in action. As a high school teacher who dealt with all four grades (9-12), I heard, through the entire length of my career, upperclasspersons complain about the underclasspersons. "They are so much more disrespectful than we were," goes the refrain, and more to the point, "I would never have talked to a senior or teacher like that when I was a freshman." 

The latter may have been true, but as I would tell my disturbed upperclasspersons, "You might now have, but plenty of your classmates that you didn't hang out with surely did." When they were young, they saw a very narrow slice of what was going on; now that they're older, they see much more, including the kids of people and behaviors that they were neither around nor aware of in their long-ago youth (seriously-- seniors will gladly tell you that their freshman year was roughly a thousand years ago).

Protzko and Schooler acknowledge that some of the effect could be related to actual declines in one characteristic or another, but when it comes to intelligence they're pretty sure not, and when it comes to the rest, since the complaints have been constant for 2500 years, we ought to be in a state of total societal collapse. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

WY: Voucher Bill Advances

Attempts have been made to sell a school voucher bill in the Wyoming legislature, like the Wyoming Freedom Scholarship Act  (because "scholarship" and "freedom" are more popular terms than "voucher") earlier this year, but they have all failed. Now a new variation on the theme is aiming at a place on the 2024 schedule.

Oddly enough, the bill comes from Speaker of the House Albert Sommers, a Republican who actually helped block the Freedom Scholarship Act. But he thinks this alternate form will work better. Opponents disagree. Actually, some supporters disagreed, too-- State Senator Bo Biteman said this new version was too watered down and was a "crap sandwich," and so, as we'll see, GOP reps managed to un-water the bill.

Some key features.

The bill runs on $40 million taken from the general fund. Of that $40 million, $12 million (30%) goes to fund preschool education. Because if there's one technique that voucher proponents have learned, it's to team up your unpopular voucher plan with something that people want. 

The rest of the funding would go to ESA vouchers.

The bill uses the usual foot-in-the-door feature of an income cap for receiving the vouchers. This bill sets the cap at 250% of federal poverty limit, which adds up to $75,000 for a family of four. Median household income in Wyoming is $68,000. One legislator unsuccessfully tried to boost this up to 350% ($105K). At this point, nobody should be fooled by the "we're just doing this to rescue the poor kids" line, as we have seen multiple states modify their program with ever-increasing caps or simply getting rid of the cap entirely. 

With that expansion of eligibility, we keep seeing voucher program costs explode to budget-busting extremes.

Voucher amount would be up to $5,000. According to the website Private School Review, average private school tuition in Wyoming is $8,719 per year. 

In one feature that is not common to voucher laws, the bill proposes that the Department of Education would certify vendors eligible to be paid with the taxpayer-funded vouchers. (That was not part of the Freedom Scholarship Act.)  But a legislator successfully added an amendment, typical of current voucher law, that the state can't interfere with the private school's curriculum or admission policies, meaning that the school could teach religion, flat earth science, creationism, and racial supremacy if it so desired, as well as discriminating against whatever applicants it so desired. 

In practice, what that means is that religious schools can accept vouchers while offering religious indoctrination and religion-based discrimination (e.g. the Illinois voucher school that requires families to be born-again Christians)

And another legislator successfully stripped the portion of the bill that voucher-using students had to take the same state tests as public school students. Rep. Karlee Provenza pretty well captured what all these changes mean.

“When we remove that testing standard, we are moving away from saying is government money being well spent?” Provenza said. “We’re not regulating choice, we’re regulating accountability of our state funds.”

True enough, but current voucher theory says that a voucher bill isn't non-crappy unless it's stripped of accountability and oversight. So if Wyoming is going to have school vouchers, they should be as unaccountable and unregulated as possible. Kiss those dollars goodbye, taxpayers, and don't ask where they went or how effectively they were spent. Freedom!

The bill will still have to clear some hurdles, including a state constitution that prohibits the use of “any portion of any public school fund” for private schools (Article 7, Section 8).

Wyoming voucher advocates have struggled with this, and the argument seems to boil down to:

1) Once we hand the money over to the parents, it is transformed into private money and so there's no problem!

2) The Supreme Court thinks public money should absolutely finance the exercise of religion, so if this makes it all the way to SCOTUS, they will be on our side.

So we'll see. There are unique features to a voucher initiative in Wyoming. For one, funding vouchers by having "the money follow the child" would never fly, because Wyoming schools have wildly different per pupil costs. In 2019-2020, Laramie #1 spent $14,582 per student, but the very rural Sheridan district (90 students) spent $41,176 per student. That means Wyoming is better inclined to fund vouchers separately from public education. They could, in fact, be the first legislature to be honest and say, "We believe in choice so much that we are going to raise your taxes to fund it." 

For another, there's that state constitution, exactly the same sort of challenge that sank a voucher proposal in Kentucky.

The Wyoming Education Association's government relations director Tate Mullen told legislators that WEA's “independent analysis determines that there’s no defensible argument that could be made to support the claim that the bill is consistent with the provisions of our state constitution.” But the current state education head honcho thinks its just swell. 

The bill was passed by the Legislature's Joint Education Committee and so should be on the menu for the 2024 session. Folks on both sides have a chance to limber up their arguments. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

CAP's Unimaginative Reimagining

The Center for American Progress is a thinky tank that has historically been a home for Democrats (it's where many cooled their heels waiting for the Hillary Clinton administration--oops), and as such, it has always demonstrated the many ways in which Democrats have failed to step up for public education.

They yammered endlessly about the awesomeness of Common Core (seriously-- see here, here, here, here, here, and here, just for starters) and various other versions of chiming in on the narrative that public schools are really terrible and need some help. CAP is a fine exhibition of how Democrats completely lost the knowledge of arguments, even the vocabulary to defend public education, so that when Betsy DeVos came along they were flat-footed and flustered.

Are things getting any better over there. Doesn't seem like it. Post-COVID lots of folks have tried to use the pandemic as the new Hurrican Katrina, a chance to run the shock doctrine in real time (instead of the slow motion disaster capitalization that folks tried to implement via testing "failure"). So CAP wants to add its two cents.

CAP offers "Five Ways Government Can Reimagine K-12 School Design in the Wake of COVID-19," and like way too many of these post-COVID reimagining pieces, it could be subtitled "We sense an opportunity to get traction for the same policies we've been pushing for forever." 

Their five ideas?

Competency-based education. Aka mastery learning aka proficiency based learning. New Hampshire is currently looking at this (bundled up with many bad ideas) and it comes with a variety of shortcomings. You have to decide what mastery looks like, decide where to draw the line in what becomes basically a pass-fail system, and reconcile yourself to the notion that education is a single destination and not a process. 

Privatizers like CBE because it seems easier to automate, and CAP tellingly pairs CBE with "personalized" learning, which also appeals to folks who think school would be great if it were delivered by software algorithms (well, at least that would be great for Certain Peoples' Children). 

Credits for anytime, anywhere learning. Again, this notion suits privatizers just fine. Never mind those silly English classes in those old fashioned schools-- just buy some software, read a couple of books, earn some mastery badges, and voila! This meshes nicely with the neo-liberal vision of a world in which everyone's competencies are set down in a blockchain form so that employers can sift through meat widgets digitally to find exactly what they want.

Modernize and strengthen data systems. Yes, let's get those cradle-to-career data systems going so that you can have a digital permanent record. Because the problem with the surveillance society is that it can't get its mitts on you early enough. So let's extend it down into schools, so that prospective employers and law enforcement and God knows who else can see that you pulled some low social skills scores in second grade. 

CAP says "Strategies and systems such as these will help ensure that all students are seen and supported throughout their educational journeys" and the "seen" part is certainly true. I'm just not sure it's desirable. But it fits nicely with the toxic idea that children can be engineered to be just what parents or leaders or corporations want them to be. 

Improve the CGSA program and the IADA. That's the Competitive Grants for State Assessments program, which is the federal government helping states search for bigger, better Big Standardized Tests. Also the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority. More of the same. CAP would like more of more of the same. 

Because the way to get schools into a new future is more assessment baloney from the feds and states. And I'm pretty sure that sticking with variations on what we've been doing for the past couple of decades qualifies as "reimagining."

Invest in state learning networks and professional development.
Let's have some peer-to-peer networks "to examine the effectiveness of innovative assessment models in improving student learning outcomes, as well as scale best practices from pilot programs and ongoing redesign efforts." Because after all these years, these folks still believe that weighing the pig makes it grow fatter. Also, their steadfast belief that if it works in a rural school with 200 kids in Iowa, then we can just transfer it to an urban New York school of 2000 and it will be great. "Find a great idea and take it to scale" has yet to work, ever, but sure. Try it some more, while pretending that it's a "reimagining" of anything.

It's the conclusion that has the most CAP line--

Top-down mandates alone cannot drive the reimagining of public education.

Yeah. Top-down mandates can do it all by themselves, but they sure are important, and bottom-up stuff should try to help out. 

None of these ideas is good, none of them qualify as reimagining anything, and most of them aren't even good ideas, anyway. 

Not for the first time, I look at the vast field of right-tilted thinky-advocacy tanks, and CAP, and wonder what it would be like if there were a thinky tank devoted to support and enhancement of public education. That would be such a cool thing, but CAP certainly provides no hope that such a beautiful unicorn could come from Democrats. 

Charter School Real Estate Profits

In the movie The Founder, future business giant Ray Kroc gets a piece of advice from financial consultant Harry Sonneborn about his fledgling McDonalds chain-- "You're not in the hamburger business; you're in the real estate business." And that does, in fact, turn out to be a secret of Kroc's success.

A new paper from In The Public Interest shows how many charter school operators have learned the same lesson. 

The purchase, development, and financing of facilities for charter schools has become a lucrative industry, buoyed by public financing and the preferential credit lines and interest rates that come from the semi-public status of charter schools.

Today, while public messaging may tout the alleged popularity of charter schools and supposedly long waiting lists for charter seats, many believe that the profitability of the market—not parent demand—is driving charter school growth.

We've seen many times over the years how it's the real estate aspect of the business that attracts some folks to charter school world. Carl Paladino of Bufalo ran a property development company who favored a technique of grabbing charter school properties and then either flipping them back to the operators or making "leaseback" deals. Paladino most notably got himself on the Buffalo School Board where he could promote charter schools further. 

Paladino's interest in charter schools is not in dispute-- not even by him. On the question of making money from working with charters, the Buffalo City News quotes him: "If I didn't, I'd be a friggin' idiot."
The charter school real estate biz is a whole niche, and it turns out there is a such a thing as "charter school niche brokers" who specialize in "helping charter schools find and acquire buildings."

The real estate returns are attractive enough that investors remain a large part of the charter school sector. If you're seeing a proliferation of charter schools in your area even though there seems to be no educational demand for them, you're likely seeing a push by real estate investors who can make a few bucks off of charter real estate deals, whether or not anyone actually gets educated.

Charter operators could watch wheeler-dealers like Paladino or specialty brokers walk off with a bunch of their money, or they could take the next step of just getting into the real estate business themselves. And as ITPI's report shows, that's exactly what many have done. 

Some charter operators grow a hefty real estate wing. Take the 800-pound gorilla of Pennsylvania cyber schools:

Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA) is the biggest cyber charter in Pennsylvania. Launched in 2003, they have also become big property owners and landlords in Pennsylvania.

Back in 2016, CCA bought the former PA State Employee Credit Union headquarters in Harrisburg for $5 million, to replace several leased offices. They planned to use about 90,000 square feet for a headquarters. That’s about half the space in the building. In 2020, they spent $15.3 million to acquire a 106,000 square foot office building in Malvern (the former headquarters of Ricoh USA), and did so with the help of a company that claims to have “developed deep expertise” in working charter school real estate deals. 

In 2021, they bought out one of their landlords. The Waterfront shopping complex in Homestead had originally housed a Macy’s, which was purchased and turned into office space. CCA was one of the tenants, then bought the 140,000 square feet of office space, using almost half the space themselves, and leasing out the rest. 

Said Commonwealth Charter Academy CEO Thomas Longenecker, “During the last few years, we’ve created a complete business ecosystem at The Waterfront. This strategic purchase was the natural step as we continue to expand our operations.”

But CCA hasn't really tapped the full potential of charter school real estate profiteering. Charter Management Organizations (CMO) often operate in a rules-free zone, allowing lucrative self-dealing. 

National Heritage Academies would be one example of how this works. NHA operates 100 schools in nine states, including Ohio, where NHA leases their buildings from Charter Development Company (CDC)--which is a subsidiary of NHA. Ohio's auditor found that NHA was paying (and collecting from itself) some of the highest lease rates in the state. 

Two things to remember in every example of this sort-- every dollar paid (to themselves) for rent is a dollar not spent on educating children, and every dollar was handed over by taxpayers.

Related party transactions can be absolutely mind-boggling, in a "that can't possibly be legal" kind of boggle. Take this example for the ITPI report:
Alim Ansari owned a 3-acre piece of land in Weslaco, Texas that includes a house and a school building. Ansari is the superintendent of that school—Horizon Montessori Public (charter) school, along with three other charters in the area. The superintendent lived in the house, and leased the building to the school, collecting $168,000 a year in rent in 2020. In 2022, he sold the property for $1.9 million to South Texas Educational Technologies for more than twice its appraised value. South Texas Educational Technologies is a charter management organization that now holds almost $13 million in land/property assets and pays its chief executive officer—Alim Ansari—a comfortable six-figure salary (along with, apparently, free housing).
And while it may make sense that someone who opens a charter school might want to take on the job of building it, smell detectors go off when that turns out to be extraordinarily lucrative. Check this account from Craig Harris at the Arizona Republic:

Glenn Way, charter operator, was in debt, seeking bankruptcy, and resigned the Utah legislature after his wife filed a protective order against him. So Arizona, with a well-funded but barely-regulated charter industry seemed like the place for a fresh start. Way launched the American Leadership Academy, soaked in moral wholesomeness. Way's development and finance companies bought the land and built schools, then leased Way's properties to Way's schools. And it worked out just great. Way's companies handed money back and forth and pocketed about $37 million on real estate deals.

Again-- that's #37 million in taxpayer dollars intended for educating students that was not used for educating students.

There is one other way these shenanigans make off with taxpayer dollars. When charter schools close (as so many of them do), who gets the assets?  An example from ITPI's report
In seeking to discontinue their management contracts in 2010, the governing boards of ten Cleveland charter schools managed by White Hat Management filed suit when White Hat refused to provide in-depth financial records showing how the schools’ public dollars had been spent. White Hat’s agreement with the schools required them to turn over 95 or 96 percent of their public funding to White Hat, and stated that, should the schools close or not renew their contract, all the property associated with the school, including facilities, computers, textbooks, and furniture, belonged to White Hat. The schools lost that suit, with the Court ruling that the contract, as written, was enforceable.

Taxpayers can end up paying for the same building multiple times. First, the taxpayers pay for the school district to build it. Then they pay for the charter operator to buy it from the school district. Then, in cases like the White Hat fiasco, they end up not owning the building at all, as the CMO, or some CMO real estate subsidiary, walks off with the building when the charter fails. In the worst of situations, this means that CMOs actually win whether then charter school succeeds or not. 

The ultimate problem with charters getting into the real estate business is that it exacerbates a fundamental flaw of the "run schools like a business" approach of free market based school choice-- if a school is a business, then its interests conflict with the interests of students. Every dollar spent educating students is a dollar not spent enriching the business and its owners, and vice versa. The argument that the free market will punish the business for not spending enough on students is not really valid; in a free market, the challenge for an education-flavored business is not how to provide the very best education for students, but how to find the bare minimum they can get away with and still make a profit. Maximizing profit means minimizing service provided.

That tension is present in all free marketeering of education. But when the most attractive driver of profit is not even the service, but the building the service is housed in, it just makes matters worse.

Read the ITPI report (it's a brisk 8 pages) including recommendations on how to fix some of this. It's worth a look. 

Monday, November 20, 2023

PA: Moms For Liberty Philly Leader A Registered Sex Offender

Back in July, with their big Philadelphia rally coming up, Moms for Liberty still didn't have a functioning Philadelphia chapter. Right now, they're probably wishing that was still the case.

Back then, there was a Facebook group with 45 members (today its up to 121); the administrators were the national group, Pat Blackburn (the national chapter coordinator), and Sheila Armstrong. Armstrong is the woman who shared her personal grief over gun violence at a campaign event with Dr. Oz, without anyone mentioning that she was a paid member of the campaign staff. In April, she launched a new Pennsylvania chapter office of the Black Conservatives Federation

So they've been trying hard to find people to lead operations there. And somehow they ended up with Philip Fisher, Jr., a registered sex offender.

Chris Brennan reported the story for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fisher is a pastor and (now-ex-) GOP ward leader in Philly "who co-ordinates faith-based outreach for Philadelphia's Moms for Liberty chapter." Fisher is not listed as an administrator on the group's Facebook page.

He said his conviction is the result of a “railroad job” concocted by the political action committee for Lyndon LaRouche, a fringe conspiracy theorist who ran repeatedly for president.

Fisher, who worked for LaRouche’s organization, called it “a cult” and said he was set up while trying to break free.

Brennan also talked to Armstrong, "another Republican ward leader who chairs the local Moms for Liberty chapter;" though the chapter still doesn't have a page on the M4L website, Armstrong is still one of the Facebook page admins. Armstrong says Fisher was a volunteer for the rally, and she was "astounded to hear" about his sex offender status. She might have mentioned that he is also apparently the Head of Communications for Black Conservative Federation for Pennsylvania. She had just run him through the state Department of Human Services for a child abuse history check and it came back negative. DHS told Brennan that "not all criminal convictions involving minors are considered child abuse." 

Fisher is listed on the Megan's Law website. His conviction was in 2012 in Chicago for aggravated sexual abuse of a 14-year-old boy when Fisher was 25.

The national M4L organization had not yet offered Brennan a comment. I imagine they have a few choice comments being offered in private. 

I don't bring the story up to condemn them for using a registered sex offender who appears to have kept his status secret from plenty of folks. I just want to note that Philadelphia County is a big place with a lot of people, and yet somehow, even tapped into an organization for Black conservatives, Moms for Liberty can't quite get a local Philly chapter off the ground without this kind of unforced error. There are counties in this state with three and four M4L official leads in their chapter. Not so many grass roots in Philly, apparently. 

VAM: Why Is This Zombie Policy Still Around?

It was a bit of a shock. I picked up my morning paper, and there was an article on the front page touting our school district's PVAAS scores, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania's version of VAM scores, and I was uncomfortably reminded that value-added measures are still a thing. 

Value Added Measures are bunk. 

We used to talk about this a lot. A. Lot. But VAM (also known as Something-VAAS in some states) has departed the general education discussion even though it has not departed the actual world of education. Administrators still brag about, or bemoan, their VAM scores. VAM scores still affect teacher evaluation. And VAM scores are still bunk.

So let's review. Or if you're new-ish to the ed biz, let me introduce you to what lies behind the VAM curtain.

The Basic Idea

Value Added is a concept from the manufacturing and business world. If I take a dollar's worth of sheet metal and turn it into a forty dollar toaster, then I have added thirty-nine dollars of value to the sheet metal. It's an idea that helps businesses figure out if they're really making money on something, or if adding some feature to a product or process is worth the bother. 

Like when you didn't fix the kitchen door before you tried to sell your house because fixing the door would have cost a grand but would allowed you to raise the price of the house a buck and a half. Or how a farmer might decide that putting a little more meat on bovine bones would cost more than you'd make back from selling the slightly fatter cow.

So the whole idea here is that schools are supposed to add value to students, as if students are unmade toasters or unfatted calves, and the school's job is to make them worth more money.

Yikes! Who decided this would be a good thing to do with education?

The Granddaddy of VAAS was William Sanders. Sanders grew up on a dairy farm and went on to earn a PhD in biostatistics and quantitative genetics. He was mostly interested in questions like “If you have a choice of buying Bull A, compared to Bull B, which one is more likely to produce daughters that will give more milk than the other one.” Along with some teaching, Sanders was a longtime statistical consultant for the Institute of Agricultural Research. 

He said that in 1982, while an adjunct professor at a satellite campus of the University of Tennessee, he read an article (written by then-Governor Lamar Alexander) saying that there's no proper way to hold teachers accountable for test scores.

Sure there is, he thought. He was certain he could just tweak the models he used for crunching agricultural statistics and it would work great. He sent the model off to Alexander, but it languished unused until the early 90s, when the next governor pulled it out and called Sanders in, and Educational Value-Added Assessment System (EVAAS) was on its way.

The other Granddaddy of VAAS is SAS, an analytics company founded in 1976.

Founder James H. Goodnight was born in 1943 in North Carolina. He earned a Masters in statistics; that combined with some programming background landed him a job with a company that built communication stations for the Apollo program. 

He next went to work as a professor at North Carolina State University, where he and some other faculty created Statistical Analysis System for analyzing agricultural data, a project funded mainly by the USDA. Once the first SAS was done and had acquired 100 customers, Goodnight et al left academia and started the company. 

William Sanders also worked a North Carolina University researcher, and it's not clear when, exactly, he teamed up with SAS; his EVAAS system was proprietary, and as the 90s unfolded, that made him a valuable man to go into business with. The VAAS system, rebranded for each state that signed on, became a big deal for SAS, who launched their Education Technologies Division in 1997.

Sanders passed away in 2017. Goodnight has done okay. The man owns two thirds of the company, which is still in the VAAS biz, and he's now worth $7.4 billion-with-a-B. But give him credit, apparently remembering his first crappy job, Goodnight has made SAS one of the world's best places to work-- in fact, it is SAS that influenced the more famously fun-to-work culture of Google. It's a deep slice of irony--he has sustained a corporate culture that emphasizes valuing people as live human beings, not as a bunch of statistics.

Somehow Goodnight has built a little world where people live and work among dancing rainbows and fluffy fairy dust clouds, and they spend their days manufacturing big black rainclouds to send out into the rest of the world.

How does it work?

Explanations are layered in statistics jargon:

Using mixed model equations, TVAAS uses the covariance matrix from this multivariate, longitudinal data set to evaluate the impact of the educational system on student progress in comparison to national norms, with data reports at the district, school, and teacher levels.

Sanders' explanations weren't any better. In 2009, several of us were sent off to get training in how to use PA's version (PVAAS) and among other things, I wrote this:

This is a highly complex model that three well-paid consultants could not clearly explain to seven college-educated adults, but there were lots of bars and graphs, so you know it’s really good. I searched for a comparison and first tried “sophisticated guess;” the consultant quickly corrected me—“sophisticated prediction.” I tried again—was it like a weather report, developed by comparing thousands of instances of similar conditions to predict the probability of what will happen next? Yes, I was told. That was exactly right. This makes me feel much better about PVAAS, because weather reports are the height of perfect prediction.

The basic mathless idea is this. Using sophisticated equations, the computer predicts what Student A would likely score on this year's test in some alternate universe where no school-related factors affected the student's score. Then the computer looks at the score that Actual Student A achieved. If Actual Student and Alternative Universe Student have different scores, the difference, positive or negative, is attributed to the teacher. 

Let me say that again. The computer predicts a student score. If the actual student gets a different score, that is not attributed to, say, a failure on the part of the predictive software. All the blame and/or glory belong to the teacher. 

VAAS fans insist that the model mathematically accounts for factors like socio-economic background and school and other stuff. Here's the explanatory illustration:

Here's a clarification of that illustration:

So how well does it actually work?

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a leading researcher and scholar in this field, ran a whole blog for years (VAMboozled) that did nothing but bring to light the many ways in which VAM systems were failing, so I'm going to be (sort of) brief here and stick to a handful of illustrations.

Let's ask the teachers.

Clarin Collins, a researcher, college professor and, as of this year, a high school English teacher, had a crazy idea back in 2014--why not ask teachers if they were getting anything of value out of the VAAS?

Short answer: no. 

Long answer. Collins made a list of the various marketing promises made by SAS about VAAS and asked teachers if they agreed or disagreed (they could do so strongly, too). Here's the list:

EVAAS helps create professional goals
EVAAS helps improve instruction
EVAAS will provide incentives for good practices
EVAAS ensures growth opportunities for very low achieving students
EVAAS ensures growth opportunities for students
EVAAS helps increase student learning
EVAAS helps you become a more effective teacher
Overall, the EVAAS is beneficial to my school
EVAAS reports are simple to use
Overall, the EVAAS is beneficial to me as a teacher
Overall, the EVAAS is beneficial to the district
EVAAS ensures growth opportunities for very high achieving students
EVAAS will identify excellence in teaching or leadership
EVAAS will validly identify and help to remove ineffective teachers
EVAAS will enhance the school environment
EVAAS will enhance working conditions

That's arranged in descending order, starting from the top item, with which over 50% of teachers disagreed. By the time we get to the bottom of the list, the rate of disagreement is almost 80%. At the top of the list, fewer than 20% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed, and it just went downhill from there.

Teachers reported that the data reported was "vague" and "unusable." They complained that their VAAS rating scores whipped up and down from year to year with no rhyme nor reason, with over half finding their VAAS number way different from their principal evaluation. Gifted teachers, because they had the students who had already hit their ceiling, reported low VAAS scores. And while the VAAS magic math is supposed to blunt the impact of having low-ability students in your classroom, it turns out it doesn't really do that. And this

Numerous teachers reflected on their own questionable practices. As one English teacher
said, “When I figured out how to teach to the test, the scores went up.” A fifth grade teacher added,
“Anything based on a test can be ‘tricked.’ EVAAS leaves room for me to teach to the test and
appear successful.”

EVAAS also assumes that the test data fed into the system is a valid measure of what it says it measures. That's a generous view of tests like Pennsylvania's Keystone Exam. Massaging bad data with some kind of sophisticated mathiness still just gets you bad data. 

But hey--that's just teachers and maybe they're upset about being evaluated with rigor. What do other authorities have to say?

The Houston Court Case

The Houston school district used EVAAS to not only evaluate teachers, but factor in pay systems as well. So the AFT took them to court. A whole lot of experts in education and evaluation and assessment came to testify, and when all was said and done, here are twelve big things that the assembled experts had to say about EVAAS:

1) Large-scale standardized tests have never been validated for this use. A test is only useful for the purpose for which it is designed. Nobody has designed a test for VAM purposes.

2) When tested against another VAM system, EVAAS produced wildly different results. 

3) EVAAS scores are highly volatile from one year to the next.

4) EVAAS overstates the precision of teachers' estimated impacts on growth. The system pretends to know things it doesn't really know. 

5) Teachers of English Language Learners (ELLs) and “highly mobile” students are substantially less likely to demonstrate added value. Again, the students you teach have a big effect on the results that you get.

6) The number of students each teacher teaches (i.e., class size) also biases teachers’ value-added scores.

7) Ceiling effects are certainly an issue. If your students topped out on the last round of tests, you won't be able to get them to grow enough this year.

8) There are major validity issues with “artificial conflation.” (This is the phenomenon in which administrators feel forced to make their observation scores "align" with VAAS scores.) Administrators in Houston were pressured to make sure that their own teacher evaluations confirmed rather than contradicted the magic math.

9) Teaching-to-the-test is of perpetual concern. Because it's a thing that can raise your score, and it's not much like actual teaching. 

10) HISD is not adequately monitoring the EVAAS system. HISD was not even allowed to see or test the secret VAM sauce. Nobody is allowed to know how the magic maths work. Hell, in Pennsylvania, teachers are not even allowed to see the test that their students took. You have to sign a pledge not to peek. So from start to finish, you have no knowledge of where the score came from.

11) EVAAS lacks transparency. See above. 

12) Related, teachers lack opportunities to verify their own scores. Think your score is wrong? Tough.

The experts said that EVAAS was bunk. US Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith agreed, saying that "high stakes employment decisions based on secret algorithms (are)incompatible with... due process" and the proper remedy was to overturn the policy. Houston had to kiss VAAS goodbye.

Anyone else have thoughts?

At first glance, it would appear reasonable to use VAMs to gauge teacher effectiveness. Unfortunately, policymakers have acted on that impression over the consistent objections of researchers who have cautioned against this inappropriate use of VAMs.

The American Education Research Association also cautioned in 2015 against the use of VAM scores for any sort of high stakes teacher evaluation, due to significant technical limitations. They've got a batch of other research links, too. 

The American Statistical Association released a statement in 2014 warning districts away from using VAM to measure teacher effectiveness. VAMs, they say, do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes. Also, VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.

Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.  

They cite the "peer-reviewed study" funded by Gates and published by AERA which stated emphatically that "Value-added performance measures do not reflect the content or quality of teachers' instruction." This study went on to note that VAM doesn't seem to correspond to anything that anybody considers a feature of good teaching.

What if we don't use the data soaked in VAM sauce to make Big Decisions? Can we use it just to make smaller ones? Research into decade-long experiment in using student test scores to "toughen" teacher evaluation and make everyone teach harder and better showed that the experiment was a failure.

Well, that was a decade or so ago. I bet they've done all sorts of things to VAM and VAAS to improve them.

You would lose that bet.

Well, at least they don't use them to evaluate teachers any more, right?


There's a lot less talk about tying VAM to raises or bonus/merit pay, but the primary innovation is to drape the rhetorical fig leaf of "students growth" over VAM scores. The other response has been to try to water VAAS/VAM measures down with other "multiple measures," an option that was handed to states back in 2015 when ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind as the current version of federal education law.

Pennsylvania has slightly reduced the size of PVAAS influence on teacher and building evaluations in the latest version of evaluation, but it's still in there, both as part of the building evaluation that affects all teacher evaluations and as part of the evaluation for teachers who teach the tested subjects. Pennsylvania also uses the technique of mushing together "three consecutive years of data," a technique that hopes to compensate for the fact that VAAS scores hop around from year to year. 

VAAS/VAM is still out there kicking, still being used as part of a way to evaluate teachers and buildings. And it's still bunk.

But we have to do something to evaluate schools and teachers!

You are taken to the hospital with some sort of serious respiratory problem. One afternoon you wake up suddenly to find some janitors standing over you with a chain saw.

"What the hell!" You holler. "What are you getting ready to do??!!"

"We're going to amputate your legs with a chain saw," they reply.

"Good lord," you holler, trying to be reasonable. "Is there any reason to think that would help with my breathing?"

"Not really," they reply. "Actually, all the medical experts say it's a terrible idea."

"Well, then, don't do it! It's not going to help. It's going to hurt, a lot."

"Well, we've got to do something."

"Not that!"

"Um, well. What if we just take your feet off? I mean, this is what we've come up with, and if you don't have a better idea, then we're just going to go ahead with our chain saw plan." 

VAM is a stark example of education inertia in action. Once we're doing something, somehow the burden of proof is shifted, and nobody has to prove that there's a good reason to do thing, and opponents must prove they have a better idea. Until they do, we just keep firing up the chain saw.

There are better ideas out there (check out the work of Jack Schneider at University of Massachusetts Amherst) but this post is long enough already and honestly, if you're someone who thinks it's so important to reduce teachers' work to a single score, the burden is on you to prove that you've come up with something that is valid, reliable, and non-toxic. A system that depends on the Big Standardized Tests and a mysterious black to show that somehow teachers have made students more valuable is none of those things.

VAM systems have had over a decade to prove its usefulness. They haven't. It's long past time to put them in the ground.