Wednesday, February 28, 2024

DeVos And Other Rich Carpetbaggers Target Texas

Back when she was throwing her weight around her home state of Michigan, a standard Betsy DeVos technique was to threaten uncooperative GOP officials with her willingness to throw her money behind a primary opponent. Now she's taking that technique to the national stage.

Last fall, DeVos's school choice advocacy group American Federation for Children announced the AFC Victory Fund, "a national Super PAC that will take AFC’s work of championing school choice and empowering parents to the next level."  The PAC's mission is to support candidates who will support the dismantling of public education, replacing it with a privatized, voucher-fed market version. 

Tommy Schultz is CEO of AFC these days; Schultz is a comms professional, a regular talking head, and, his bios specify, a Catholic. He promised at least $10 million to be invested in some aggressive campaigning. 
If you’re a candidate or lawmaker who opposes school choice and freedom in education – you’re a target. If you’re a champion for parents – we’ll be your shield.

It looks like one place they'll be drawing targets is Texas. After spending a year fruitlessly trying to convince members of his own party to back his voucher play, Greg Abbott has been clear that he is going to push hard to get more compliant GOP members elected

And boy does he have help.

AFC Victory Fund has its own Texas Committee, with $5 million and change cash on hand. Take a gander at their top contributors. 

Richard Uihlein tops the list with a cool million. Uihlein is an heir to the Schlitz beer fortune, and has pumped something like $200 million into right-wing support. He's anti-union (helped back the Janus lawsuit), has backed Tea Party and Trump, and were top contributors to MAGA christianist nationalist wingnut candidate Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania (also backed Herschel Walker, Ron Johnson, and Louis Freakin' Gohmert). Also, Uihlein is from Illinois. Not Texas.

Right behind him we get Dick DeVos, Jeff Yass, and Richard and Elisabeth DeVos Jr., all at a cool half million each. They are also not from, or in, Texas. There's the Future of Education LLC, in existence for less than a year. It is at least sort of Texas related (Delaware, too). The one name I can find associated with them is Mackenzie Price, an edupreneur in Austin. But they managed to funnel some $1 million in  dark money to Glen Youngkin.

What has AFC Victory Find been doing with all this money? Well, so far, attack mailers in the districts of the targeted representatives.

Its latest mail piece portrays the incumbents in a “Wanted” poster, saying they are being sought for “working against schools, teachers, parents, and kids.” The mailer says they not only denied school vouchers but also “$4,000 pay raises for teachers” and “over $97 million in funding for our local schools.”

Sure. They denied those things in the sense that Abbott used them as hostages to his voucher dreams.

Funny story about those mailers. Apparently the first batch went out with AFC's Virginia address on them, so AFC has since rented some space in Dallas, presumably so they can look a little less like rich people from out of state trying to meddle with Texas politics. 

Also looking to pack the Texas legislature with voucher-friendly Republicans is the School Freedom Fund, a group operated by the Club for Growth. SFF is headed by David McIntosh. a former student of Antonin Scalia and a co-founder of the Federalist Society. The Club for Growth has gotten itself busy in voucher promotion before, teaming up with Betsy DeVos in 2021 for a national Choiciness tour. Their interest in choice tells us a lot about the movement, because Club for Growth really only has one focus-- they want taxation to go away. In other words, they represent the choicer wing that is in favor of free market education specifically because they do not want to pay to educate other peoples' children.

Two of their big funders? Jeff Yass and Richard Uihlein.

SFF paid for a media blitz to clobber Abbott's foes. 

Also, right wing christianist rich guy Tim Dunn has pumped a ton of money into the battle through his own group, Texans United for a Conservative Majority. I'll give Dunn this--he is at least an actual resident of Texas.

A whole nation of rich folks have made it their mission to help their rich governor buddy sell his unpopular policy, and they are willing to throw a whole lot of money at the problem. But one of the legislators under attack, Glenn Rogers, doesn't seem intimidated. I'll let this clip from the Texas Tribune have the last word:

Rogers said in a direct-to-camera video released Tuesday that he would not cow to the “out-of-state voucher lobby, which is pumping millions of dollars into Texas to kill public education.”

“I have something important to tell you: I can’t be bought, I can’t be bullied and I can’t be intimidated,” Rogers told voters. “I will only be your representative.”

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

School Choice Movement Fissures (2024 Edition)

Milton Friedman's vision was never popular.

The idea of doing away with public school as a public good, a service provided to all citizens, funded and managed by some combination of federal, state and local government, and replacing it all with an unregulated free market of education services in which families had to find their own way with their own resources-- that was never going to be a winner. 

Replace a promise to provide every child with an education with a promise to just let everyone fend for themselves-- not a popular idea. Even school vouchers--Friedman's idea of a gateway to the future he really wanted to see--were never popular.

So they needed allies. The first batch of allies--segregationists who wanted school choice so they could choose not to send White kids to school with Black kids-- were not terribly helpful from a policy standpoint. 

The big obstacle--people really like and believe in the idea of public schools.

So the Reagan administration gave us A Nation At Risk, a manifesto masquerading as a research report that aimed to chip away at that public support for public schools. "Burn it all down" was still a fringe notion, but the Overton window was shifting, and the repeated assertion that public schools were failing was the crowbar used to shift it.

By the turn of the millennium, a partnership had emerged, between choicers (we need more options because competition will help), reformsters (we need standards and tests and incentives to force teachers to suck less), neo-liberals (the private sector can do this better), technocrats (let's be data driven), accountability hawks (make schools prove they're doing a good job), social justice fabulists (better education will magically erase poverty), and folks who had real concerns about real issues in education. 

Overall, this patchwork alliance had the outward appearance of a bipartisan team-up, and that was just perfect for the Bush-Obama years and the sham that was No Child Left Behind

But what the alliance didn't produce was results. Choice did not provide a sudden lifting of all boats, despite some data-torturing attempts to show otherwise. Data-driven instruction didn't improve the data generated by either students or teachers. Underserved communities that were supposed to be rescued from failing schools by charters and choice too often had education policies done to them rather than with them. And then there was the gross miscalculation that was Common Core, which drew attack from all across the political spectrum.

By the mid 2010s, the deal was splintering. Robert Pondiscio was one of the first to publicly talk about it-- the social justice wing of the choice movement was demanding more focus on actual education results, and the free market wing that was more committed to the idea of choice as an end in itself, whether it improved educational outcomes or not.

The alliance probably would have fallen apart under the simple force of gravity, but Trump arrived like a sledgehammer to bust it up. The social justice wing of reform bailed immediately, and the free market wing-- well, Jeanne Allen typified the speedy shift from "I don't want my issues coming out of his mouth" to much love for MAGAland. 

The installation of Betsy DeVos signaled the rise of what I guess we can call Christianist Friedmanism. Friedman was always stuck arguing that a free market approach to education was just better, because reasons. But the DeVos wing of choicers have a better explanation-- the unregulated free market approach to education is better because it is what God wants. 

DeVos could never quite go full DeVos during her tenure--she even made it a point to make nice with charter fans even though, for her, charters are just a way to get to the full voucherism she favors. Still watching that Overton window. 

Then COVID-19 came and set fire to the side of the house the Overton window is set in.

Culture warrior stuff was in. Pandemic response crazy-pants reactions made anti-government, anti-institution, anti-qualifications, anti-smarty-pants-with-all-their-book-learning sentiment Great Again. Frustrated activists like Chris Rufo and the Moms For Liberty founders, who had already been trying to break through with an anti-public school message for years suddenly found themselves with all sorts of traction. Jay Greene, who had worked as a school choice academic at the University of Arkansas, took a job with the christianist right wing Heritage Foundation, and from that new perch he announced the new alliance-- "Time for the school choice movement to embrace the culture wars."

So here we are, with the new alliance driving the school choice revolution bus. And like all the other alliances over the past seventy-some years, this one has some fault lines.

There's certainly a difference of style. Educational dudebros like Rufo, Corey DeAngelis and Ryan Walters are pretty abrasive and aggressive, sometimes in ways that might strike some of the old guard as unseemly. In the days of the earlier alliance, reformsters caught on to the idea that belittling teachers and treating them as the enemy was not a useful way to get policies fruitfully implemented. Of course, one does not need to build lines of communication across a bridge if one's goal is to just burn the bridge down. 

That's part and parcel of the biggest fracture line in the current choice movement, which is that the different factions have different goals. 

The free market wing still argues for some sort of free market of education, with some combination of private and public (if they're a little more reality based) choices for families with, perhaps, some sort of taxpayer subsidy to even the playing field a hair. You might even find one or two who believe there should be some guardrails, some accountability and oversight for such a system.

But their current allies from the culture war world are quite clear that they don't actually like choice at all. Parents Defending Education, a piece of kochtopus astro turfing, has been clear, as with their recent piece warning that in some states taxpayers are being required to help fund LGBTQ charter schools! Moms For Liberty has been clear that some books should not be an available choice for students in schools, regardless of what those students' parents might want. 

In Georgia, the legislature is considering a Don't Say Gay law to restrict teaching about gender identity in private as well as public schools. Neal McClusky has popped up reliably to argue that, no, real school choice means you can't outlaw the choices you don't like, but the culture panic MAGA christianist nationalists aren't listening. Their goal is not a robust system of public and private choices for a wide variety of viewpoints, but a system, public or private or whatever, that reflects only their values. In short, the opposite of school choice. 

I'm not sure how long the alliance will hold up, particularly since the traditional reformsters are, at best, minority partners here. This year's CPAC, the annual conservative rant-o-pallooza, seemed to have plenty to say about making schools adhere to proper values, but hardly anything about actual school choice. Trump promised school vouchers, but only in the context of a promise to "restore God to His rightful place in American culture."

Meanwhile, Chester Finn is trying hard, repeatedly, to stand up for the notion that maybe the culture wars and even free market affection are obscuring the goal of providing American children with a good education, and that some accountability and oversight might be useful, even as he waxes nostalgic for the days of bipartisan accomplishments that made the education system better. 

Like many long-time reformsters, Finn fails to see how their brand of reform set the stage for today's scorched earth attacks on public education (and, to be fair, public education's failure to address some of its own issues also opened some doors as well). When Chris Rufo asserts that the path to universal school choice requires universal distrust of public education, he's simply taking the arguments laid out in A Nation At Risk to their natural scorched earth conclusion. 

There is perhaps another way of viewing the fissures in the current movement. On one side, reformsters who still have a bit of conservative-style love for institutions; on the other, those who would simply trash it all, right down to the concept of inclusive public schools. The former had a line, a point past which they felt one shouldn't go because that would just be destructive. The latter are not concerned with any such line. 

I don't think it's any mystery that we're at this moment right now. The new shape of school choice both rising out of and pushing aside the old education reform movement sure seems to parallel the way MAGAthauritainism pushed aside the traditional conservative project and yet is also somehow rooted in it. 

Or we can parse the fissures one other way: The movement today has three main threads:

* People who want to see better schools and think that school choice gets us there.
* People who see free-market based choice as a worthy end in itself
* People who want to see education delivered in different tiers according to class, but in all tiers delivered in alignment with a single set of christianist values, and see choice policies as a tool to get there

Time will tell, I guess, which group will do the best job of using the other two as a tool for achieving their own goals. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

ICYMI: Audition Edition (2/25)

Tonight we have our first round of auditions for a local theater production of Jesus Christ, Superstar. I'm music directing this time around, and I'm excited. Like most 70s church kids, I have a special place in my heart for the show. It was the first vinyl album I actually wore out (the second was Queen's Night at the Opera). The audition phase of a theater production is always the scariest part; you're just hoping like crazy that the pieces you need to put a production together will show up. It's easy for a Broadway director--they can decide exactly what they're looking for and then get to choose between twelve of them. Community theater is much more a matter of doing the best you can with what shows up. Probably why the whole exercise seems vaguely familiar to teachers.

At any rate, here's your list for the week. Remember, sharing is caring.

Paul Thomas explains, again, with charts, how the NAEP scores are used to manufacture a crisis. 

A look at the science of reading movement through the eyes of the radical middle

Another view of the Science of Reading movement from Sam Bommarito.

Supreme Court Allows Pro-Diversity but Race-Neutral Admissions Policy at Selective Virginia High School

A good explanation of the Supreme Court decision not to decide about admissions to a selective high school and what it all means, from Jan Resseger.

NC church whose pastor says women that wear shorts invite rape has received millions in public tax dollars for school vouchers

If you follow Justin Parmenter on social media (and you should) you know he's been talking about the many discriminatory schools collecting taxpayer dollars under North Carolina's unregulated voucher system. Here's one of the most egregious examples. 

Time To Bring On The Dancing Bears

TC Weber with some on the ground view of the Tennessee voucher fight

York County militia supporter’s request for info on district employees spurs policy change

Well, that's not alarming at all. Local militia guy wants the personal info of district employees who have been critical of new conservative members of this Virgi9nia district. Yikes. Brian Reese reports for 10WAVY.

Who gets to decide which books are appropriate for a school library in Oklahoma?

Kolby Terrell provides reporting for KOCO about the newest flap in Oklahoma, where Education Dudebro Ryan Walters says the he's the decider, local control be damned.

'It's absurd': North Fort Myers teacher resigns after school removes in-class library

Dan Glaun reports for Fort Myers News-Press. It's a story providing the six gazillionth example of how administrators can either blunt bad policy or make it way worse. 

Francie Diep takes on the current resurgence of this controversy, and manages to include quotes from Akil Bello, testing guru. 
“If you like the test, just admit you like the test,” said Akil Bello, a director at FairTest, which advocates for more limited uses of standardized exams. “Stop blaming Black and brown students for your love of the test.”
What the Globe Left Out of “MTA Exerts More Power”

The Boston Globe is remarkably consistent in its opposition to public schools and the teachers who work there. Fortunately, Maurice Cunningham is here to fill in the parts of the story the Globe likes to skip.

Woke/Not Woke

Nancy Flanagan does that thing she's so good at-- connecting a whole lot of education dots.

Pennridge School Board Scraps Hillsdale-Influenced Elementary Social Studies Curriculum

For those following the Pennridge saga, some good news. 

The far side of the creek

Paul Bowers on leaving church, leaving journalism, and never leaving home. There's a lot here, including the battle against censorship, and it's so well crafted. 

Authorizing Chaplains In Florida’s Charter Schools

Sue Kingery Woltanski talks about one more way to religify supposedly public schools.

David Lee Finkle. blogger and cartoonist, discovers that education news is so repetitive that he has accidentally repeated himself.

At I took a look at a new report that shows Democrats and Republicans are way apart on LGBTQA and race issues in school, but actually strongly united in support for public schools over vouchers. Also, a report shows how much extra vouchers are costing Arizona taxpayers

Feel free to join me on substack (in fact, it is free). 

Friday, February 23, 2024

TN: More Unregulated, Unaccountable Vouchers On Tap

Tennessee SB 2787 (also, HB 2468) is one of those odd little legislative tricks beloved by both parties and mysterious to ordinary mortals. It started out as a bill requiring the department of education to study school choice in other states and then make a report. Except by the time it's done it won't be about that at all.

The bill will be amended into some form of state-wide voucher bill. Right now folks are trying hard to figure out what form that bill might take exactly, as the vote is days away and "a deluge of proposed amendments to the proposal are rolling in."

So what will happen? One lawmaker promises an omnibus bill covering all manner of schools that "will improve education in ways that we haven't seen in decades." Sure. 

There are points of contention. Governor Lee's preferred version includes no requirement for any sort of testing in the private schools. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson explains:

This is a parental rights bill. This is giving choice to parents to pick an educational alternative that is best for their child. It may be that their child has unique learning needs – so I'm very cautious about imposing everything that we impose on our public education system on these other alternatives.

This is one of the golden oldies of choice arguments. Parents must have choice, and those choices must come without rules and regulations because the public system is so choked with rules and regulations, argue the legislators who choked the public system with rules and regulations in the first place. 

So why use testing etc for public schools at all? Because those are taxpayer dollars being spent and the taxpayers deserve some accountability. Why don't the taxpayers deserve accountability when their dollars are spent on vouchers?

“Ultimately, parents will make the decision about final accountability, in my view,” Johnson added.

This is the time-honored "people will vote with their feet and that will keep these schools accountable" argument, which is baloney.  First, parents can't walk with their feet until money and time have already been wasted.

Second, market forces do not, and will never work on charter or choice schools. Shelby County schools enroll something just over 100,000 students. A charter/voucher school may need a few hundred to stay viable. 

Let's say I'm operating a charter/choice school with 200 seats. I only need to capture a tiny sliver of the 100,000 market to stay solvent. If a parent says, "You know, I'm not happy with this school, so I am going to vote with my feet," which of the following strikes us as a more likely response?

A) Charter CEO calls emergency meeting of board and administration. "All hands on deck!" He announces. "Parent #192 is unhappy and withdrawing their child. I need a task force to immediately find out why that parent was unhappy and the form another task force to redesign out instructional programs so that we can keep Parent #192 happy!"

B) Charter CEO says, "Whoop-dee-shit. Somebody go round up one of the other 99,800 students in the county to fill that seat."

One might think that the market would at least weed out the very worst schools, but in Pennsylvania we are loaded with ineffective cyber-charters, and they have adjusted by putting huge focus on marketing and recruitment; never mind how many people are leaving the school, but how many are signing up?

It would be nice, in a choice marketplace, to have some basic guardrails in place. We mostly don't depend on market forces to protect us from markets that sell poisonous food. One would think that the government could provide that basic level of oversight for a school choice system, but voucher fans are far more likely to explicitly forbid government oversight, and true to form, none of the discussion surrounding this bill seems to center on what requirements vendors would have to meet in order to get some of those taxpayer-funded voucher dollars. 

Choice fans talk about the needs of students and families, but Tennessee with its rich history of grift-centered education reformsterism seems poised to once again put the interests of profiteers ahead of protecting the rights of families. Heaven only knows what this bill is going to look like when it finally assumes its final form, but I'm not optimistic. We'll see. 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

PA: Hillsdale Headed For State College

Nestled in the middle of Pennsylvania, State College is the home town for Penn State University, but if some local parents have their way, it might also get to welcome one of the country's most conservative christianist colleges as well.

Nittany Mountain Classical Academy would be the new charter school in the area, bringing an attachment to Hillsdale with it. NMCA currently has a single page website, saying the school is "poised to bring new educational opportunities for families in Centre County."  Furthermore, the as yet non-existent school "will stand for unparalleled academic rigor, fostering critical thinking, and a comprehensive curriculum that nurtures a lifelong love for learning."

All of the standard classical academy language is there. 

We are proud advocates of the time-tested and proven approach of Classical Education. Rooted in the rich traditions of Western civilization, Classical Education stands as a beacon of intellectual exploration, fostering a deep understanding of the world. Nittany Mountain Classical Academy will help to form the bedrock of a transformative educational experience, nurturing bright minds and developing future leaders grounded in timeless wisdom.

This is the standard classical academy fare-- the Truth was worked out centuries ago by a bunch of dead white guys and nurtured in the Western World and that "timeless wisdom" is all we need. 

Also, they promise "robust athletics," because, trust me on this, Texas high school sports fans have got nothing on the parents of Happy Valley.

The site also promises that the academy will be the "safest learning environment in Centre County. Period." which tells us something about the beef that NMCA backers have with the public school system.

Four of the parents at the exploratory pitch meeting for the academy are coming off unsuccessful runs for seats on the State College school board. Laurel Zydney lost a bid to hold onto her seat. Michelle Young, Megan Layng, and Barry Fenchek ran on the conservative slate for board seats (Pennsylvania runs non-partisan school board elections). Their thing was cutting spending. Layng was actually dropped by the slate--funny story. Layng and her husband snuck into a district school through the door open for after school practice, then snuck into the library to take pictures of Naughty Books. They were caught and escorted out by security.

The school's organizers "plan to apply for consideration in Hillsdale College's charter school program," which could mean one of several things. Hillsdale has a charter chain of their own, whose mission statement used to include the goal "to recover our public schools from the tide of a hundred years of progressivism that has corrupted our nation’s original faithfulness to the previous 24 centuries of teaching the young the liberal arts in the West,” but they also provide curriculum materials for other charter schools (they've attempted to get a foothold in public districts, but so far, no soap). The organizers appear to want to be a Hillsdale "Member School" which involves providing assistance, advice, materials, training, and support, but not actual ownership.

Hillsdale is often called a private Christian college or even right wing, but it's important to understand that the current version of Hillsdale is full Trumpian MAGA Christion nationalist. After a truly horrific, heartbreaking scandal under the last long-time president,  the college hired as a replacement, Larry Arnn, who still has the job.

Arnn's conservative credentials are impeccable. He's one of the founders of the Claremont Institute, a conservative thinky tank (mission-- "to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life") founded by students of Harry Jaffa (Jaffa was the Goldwater speechwriter who penned the "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice..." line); Hillsdale has a library in named after him. The Institute was quiet for years, but has emerged as a big time Trump booster funded by folks like the DeVos tribe and the Bradleys, and pumping out ideas for selling the Big Lie and the Insurrection. Arnn is also a trustee at the Heritage Foundation, which at one point offered him its presidency. And he once said that "teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country" and also "you don't have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it." And also "Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it's our weapon."

Arnn has been a Trump supporter, and the college has fallen right into MAGAland as well. Or as Politico Magazine put it in 2018:

Trump University never died. It’s located in the middle of bucolic southern Michigan, halfway between Lansing and Fort Wayne, 100 miles and a world away from Detroit.

The college uses Trump mailing lists to raise money. They used to sponsor Rush Limbaugh's show. They get grads placed on the staff of legislators such as Jim Jordan and Kevin McCarthy. In 2017, for some reason, Senator Pat Toomey created a little piece of tax reform that would have carved out a tax treat for Hillsdale and Grove City College. Arnn was on the shortlist for Secretary of Education for Trump, when Trump whipped his super-duper 1776 Commission to create some nationalistic education stuff for the country. They don't have a great history with LGBTQ students. Erik Prince (Betsy DeVos's brother) is a Hillsdale graduate. They regularly host speakers like Betsy DeVos and far-right agitator Chris Rufo

Hillsdale pushes classical education, and while it has learned to more carefully soften its religious goals, it remains part of their brand. Per its website:

In the words of its modern mission statement, the College “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.”

If you really dig into this, I recommend a three part series by Kathryn Joyce at Salon

Dig into materials like Hillsdale's 176 Curriculum, and you find a decidedly right-tilted view. American exceptionalism. The Constitution as holy writ. History as the story of individuals; social forces, systems, none of that stuff matters. The constant challenge of people who want to overthrow the Constitution with "modern" ideas. And every historical event has just one correct explanation and interpretation.

Hillsdale favors textbooks published by a wing of the Bradley Foundation, a conservative think tank whose mission supports grassroots and faith-based groups that serve individuals, strengthen families, and revitalize neighborhoods by sharing a common belief in the self-worth of individuals, the inherent dignity of work, and the need to reduce government dependence. As one writer put it, they supply “the intellectual justification for conservative causes.”

In short, if the taxpayers of State College would like to fund a school devoted to religious right-wing indoctrination, then Nittany Mountain Classical Academy is their perfect opportunity.

Does the charter have a chance? Mark Parfitt was one of the organizers of that meeting, and he had posted something about it on his LinkedIn page, but now it's not there. At the meeting, Parfitt argued that Hillsdale's curriculum focus on civics and Western-focused classical education is something that cannot be found in other area schools, which is probably true.

To establish the charter, supporters would have to get the okay from the local State College School Board (the one that some of these folks were not elected to). If rejected, they would next turn to the state charter appeal board, a group that has become more charter friendly under the Shapiro administration. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

TX: Using Computers To Make STAAR Test Worse

There are several fundamental problems with trying to use standardized testing on a large scale (say, assessing every student in the state). One is the tension between turnaround time and quality. The quickest tests to score are those based on multipole choice questions; however, multiple choice questions are not a particularly good measure of student learning. Essay questions are an excellent tool for letting students show what they know, but they are super time consuming to score.

So we have the undying dream of test manufacturers, the dream of a computer program that can assess student writing accurately. It's a fantasy, a technology that, like self-driving cars, is always right around the corner. And like self-driving cars, the imperfected not-really-functional tech keeps getting purchased by folks who succumb to the sales pitch. Add Texas to the list of suckers and Texas students to the list of victims.

The trouble with software

I've been writing about the shortcomings of these programs for a decade (here, here, here, here, and here, for starters). 

There are a variety of technical problems, including the software's ability to recognize whether the content of the answer is bunk or not. Did Hitler fight in the Civil War? Your computer does not "know."

The "solution" is "training" the software on the particular question for which it's assessing answers, but that is essentially teaching the software that a good answer looks like these sample good answers it has viewed, which in turn sets some narrow parameters for what students can write. 

Computers are good at recognizing patterns, but that recognition is based on what their trainers show them, like the facial recognition programs that can't see Black faces because they were trained on white ones. When Ohio did quick pivot to computer-scored essays, it trained its software on essays that did not use the classic "recycle the prompt as your topic sentence" technique used by many teachers (in response to the old algorithm), and a whole lot of students failed. Who is doing the software training and how are they doing it--these are critical questions.

The shift is subtle but important--the software can't tell you if the written answer is good, but it can tell you if it closely resembles the examples that the software has been told are good ones.

Which hints at the philosophical issue here. Using computer scoring fundamentally changes the task. Instead of making a good faith effort to communicate information to another human being, the student is now tasked with trying to meet the requirements of the software.

I took a look at how things were going in various states in 2021. Not well, is the short answer. A favorite dodge is to say that roboscoring works as well as human scoring, but the trick here is to train human scorers to follow a narrow algorithm cemented with examples of how to apply it--in other words, to teach humans to score the essays as a computer would. 

The trouble with STAAR

Texas's Big Standardized Test is the STAAR (which does not stand for Some Tests Are Always Ridiculous or maybe Should Throw Away Any Results or even Stupid Tests' Asses Are Raggedy). And the STAAR has a troubled history including technical glitches and questions without correct answers and just losing crates of answer sheets and just not working. Or is not aligned with state standards. And after many years, still glitch like crazy.

A big STAAR highlight is covered in this piece by poet Sara Holbrook, a poet who discovered that A) her own work was being used on the STAAR test and B) she couldn't answer some of the questions about her own work. 

After several years of struggling, STAAR went fully on line last year, which could only make the idea of roboscoring written portions more attractive.

So now what

"Constructed responses" will now be scored mostly by computer, an "automated scoring engine." 25% will then be routed past human beings. Spanish language tests will be human scored.

Human scorers will be trained to use the rubrics with practice sets, then required to display their machine-like precision "by successfully completing a qualification set." Short answer responses (SCR) are scored on 0-1 or 0-2 rubric. The long answer questions (ECR) are scored "using an item-specific 5-point rubric that identifies scores based on two traits—development and organization of ideas (up to 3 points) and language conventions (up to 2 points)." 

Which raises two questions--who decided that conventions should count for 40%, and how will an algorithm assess development and organization of ideas?

The ASE is trained on student responses and human scores from the field-test data. It is trained to emulate how humans would score student responses for each constructed-response question...
As part of the training process, the ASE calculates confidence values that indicate the degree to which the ASE is confident the score it has assigned matches the score a human would assign. The ASE also identifies student responses that should receive condition codes. Condition codes indicate that a response is blank, uses too few words, uses mostly duplicated text, is written in another language, consists primarily of stimulus material, uses vocabulary that does not overlap with the vocabulary in the subset of responses used to train the ASE, or uses language patterns that are reflective of off-topic or off-task responses.

Emphasis mine. So, "doesn't sufficiently mimic the essay the program was trained on" is a problem on the same order as "left the page blank."  

Education professor Duncan Klussman commented, “What we don’t wanna do is have a system that moves to completely formulaic writing. Like ‘If I write exactly this way, I get the highest score,'” but that's exactly what you get. 

Well, that's what you get once you adapt teaching to fit the algorithm. Last year when the STAAR test went on line, 54% of Houston fourth graders scored a zero on the written portion. Previously, pre-online STAAR, the number was 5%. So did fourth graders turn stupid, or did the test requirements change in ways that teaching hasn't adapted to yet (believe it or not, the director of the state's assessment development division says it's not that second one, but "it really is the population of testers much more than anything else.") 

All of this matters a great deal in a state where schools are still graded largely on student results from the BS Test.

The Dallas News asked a few experts, including my hero and friend of the institute Les Perelman, an absolute authority in the many failings of roboscoring. Perelman notes that having humans backstop only 25% of the writing responses was "inherently unequal," which is an understatement. Imagine telling a class, "Okay, I'm going to actually look at the essays from 25% of you; the rest will just get whatever the computer says." 

Perelman also notes that machine scoring

“teaches students to be bad writers,” with teachers incentivized to instruct children on how to write to a computer rather than to a human. The problem, he said, is machines are “really stupid” when it comes to ideas.

Exactly. Computer-assessed grading remains a faster, cheaper way to enshrine the same hallmarks of bad writing that standardized tests were already promoting.

But TEA officials are sure they've got everything under control. They've "worked with their assessment vendors" who are Pearson, the well-known 800 pound gorilla of ed tech moneymaking, and Cambium, a sprawling octopus of education-flavored businesses (you can get a taste of their sprawl here). It might have been nice to have worked with actual educators, even to the tony extent of letting them know what was coming rather than just rolling this out quietly. 

Peter Foltz, professor at University of Colorado at Boulder, reassured the Dallas News that it's not easy to coach students how to game a scoring engine. I doubt it. We learned how to game the algorithm in PA when it was applied by humans, and that transferred just fine to roboscorers. All we had to do was replace some actual writing instruction with writing for the test instruction.

Foltz also said that automated scorers must be built with strong guardrails, and that just takes me back to when self-driving car manufacturers remind drivers of self-driving cars, "When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all times."

You know what's better than guardrails and safeguards to protect us from the many ways in which software fails to do the job that it is supposed to do but actually can't? Not using software to do a job that it actually can't. 

I'm sure that Cambium and Pearson smell big bucks. Folks at TEA may even smell a way to erase some of STAAR's sad history by being all shiny and new (a thing they presumably new because the sales force from Pearson and Cambium have told them so). But this is a bad idea. Bad for schools, bad for education, bad for writing, bad for students. Bad. 

Parents Defending Education Comes Out As Anti-Choice

Parents Defending Education is an astro-turf group aimed at sowing district of public education and chicken littling the specter of  CRT/DEWI/BLM/LGBTQ/ETC. These are the kinds of culture war folks that choicers have embraced as an asset to their cause.

Except that Parents Defending Education are anti-school choice.

Well, anti certain choices. 

In a piece at the hard right Daily Caller, Casey Ryan, an "investigative reporter" for PDE, sounds the alarm-- "LGBTQ Charter Schools Indoctrinate Kids At Taxpayer Expense — And Not Just In Blue States" (I've included the link because I think it's fair to let you check my work, but I would encourage you not to click on it). 

Ryan's resume is just perfect for the work. After interning with folks like Fox News Orlando, the Heritage Foundation, and (Newt) Gingrich Productions, he went to work for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Breakfast with Boris (Ephstyne), and doing strategic communications for the 2020 Trump campaign. He's been with PDE since December of 2021.

Ryan's point is simple. There are charter schools out there aimed at supporting and educating LGBTQ students, and your tax dollars are paying for them, and that is Very Bad. Even in states "where we would not typically expect to see such madness" we will find the government "subsidizing public schools created for the express purpose of indoctrinating children into a dangerous cult-like ideology."

It's some vile anti-LGBTQ person baloney, but at least it's honest. And it's a reminder that many of the folks lined up on the side of school choice actually have no interest in real school choice at all. Their interest is in creating a system--public, private, blended, whatever-- that reflects their values and their values only. 

Monday, February 19, 2024

American Board: Bush II's Teacher Cert Workaround

Back in 2001, Bush II launched an alternative teacher certification program. Called the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, the organization was launched with a tiny $5 million grant from the Department of Education. It's still up and running and offers one of the simplest shortcuts to teaching certification out there.

By 2003, ABCTE was rolling out, and it claimed to address the same problem that fans of alt certification schemes still love today. The Washinton Times applauded the "rebellion against sole reliance on traditional teacher certification" and quoted Ed Secretary "Fake Texas Miracle" Paige:
"Some people will argue that this change is too radical, that it's too risky, that we should maintain the status quo," Mr. Paige said at a National Press Club event with board leaders. "Well, I agree that it's radical. It's radically better than the system we have now, a system that drives thousands of talented people away from our classrooms."

Also, this:

To achieve our goal of a quality teacher in every classroom, we need to ... raise academic standards for new teachers so they are prepared to teach our children to high levels and remove the barriers that are keeping thousands of talented people out of the classroom.

Yes, even then, conservatives were sure that all sorts of talented folks were being kept out of the classroom by those silly teacher college programs (you know--the ones that are simultaneously too restrictive for many people and also too easy so they graduate the worst students).  

Lisa Graham Keegan was at the time CEO of the "reform-minded" Education Leaders Council (which would soon merge with AccountabilityWorks); Keegan has since gone on to disrupt education from Arizona to New Jersey with a variety of reformster activities. But in 2003, she was saying to anyone who called ABCTE a quicky approach that devalued professional knowledge that "the board's teacher-certification program will be "comprehensive" and is being developed by "expert thinkers" in the teaching profession." Also, fully No Child Left Behind compliant, so, sure to be awesome.

There wasn't much explanation of what these expert thinkers would came up with, exactly, though Paige had the broad outlines in hand:

It focuses on what teachers need to know and be able to do in order to be effective, instead of the number of credits or courses they've taken. It demands excellence rather than exercises in filling bureaucratic requirements.

Also, making it easier for people who studied something else in college to themselves into teaching. 

I am not going to try to track down all the ins and outs of what is now called American Board over the past twenty years, but we sure know what it looks like now. 

American Board remains aimed squarely at career changers. It has been approved in just fourteen states (my home state of Pennsylvania was the first to get on board) and the exact contours of the program vary slightly from state to state. There are other states where the program isn't recognized, but reciprocal cert programs may let you carry over the cert you got from the program in one of the fourteen states. You can choose from ten certifications. 

What do you need to get into the program? Any bachelor's degree. Pass a background check. That's it.

What do you actually do in the program? You use a bunch of self-paced, self-study on-line test prep materials to get ready to take two online tests-- the subject area exam, and the Professional Teacher Knowledge exam. When you're ready, just log on to Pearson VUE. You've got 12 months to get all of that done. 

After that, some state by state variations. In Pennsylvania you get a one-year temporary teaching license, sign up for a program with Point State Park College that involves a couple of online courses and a 12-week mentorship. (You can watch a brief video here about the program.) In Florida, you meet some state department of education requirements and then get observed and mentored by your district in your first year.

Student teaching? They figure if you're a grownup with a college degree and a real job, you probably don't need that. They do suggest you try some substitute teaching to get a feel for what and whom you'd like to teach. 

So, overall, not very rigorous preparation for the classroom, but for a couple grand, some on-your-own test prep for professional tests that some states will consider good enough to give you a toe in the door. Fast and cheap.

American Board is based in Atlanta. The current executive director is Melanie Olmstead Pharis, who also writes the blog (including the post celebrating National School Choice Week). 

I didn't find any indication of how many folks are taking advantage of the board's Passport To Teaching. It could be a useful program for a certain sort of aspiring teacher, but mostly it appears to cut so many corners that it could easily set someone up for failure in the classroom, which is always an excellent way to drive someone out of the teaching profession. It certainly doesn't seem to have dented the ongoing teacher staffing challenges in many states. One more great reformster idea that didn't pan out. 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Did DeSantis Back Off Book Bans? Well....

Education circles have been buzzing with the news that Florida's latest failed Presidential candidate has slunk back to the sunshine state and rolled back some of his signature policy. 

"He's backing down" says one headline, which goes on to roll this oft-quoted bit from a recent DeSantis speech:
With objecting - if you go to a school board meeting objecting. If you have a kid in school, okay. But if you're somebody who doesn't have a kid in school and you're gonna object to 100 books? No, I don't think that's appropriate. So I think the legislature is interested in limiting what the number of challenges you can do, and maybe making it be contingent on whether you actually have kids in school or not. We just want to make sure we're not trying to incentivize frivolous objections or any type of games being played.

The Florida anti-reading statutes are vague and punitive and crafted to exert maximum chilling effect, which as Billy Townsend points out was always going to be a problem.

But if you think DeSantis has seen any kind of light, I recommend you look more closely at his comments. Because he has some thoughts about the "types of games being played." 

His press conference opened with a video pastiche of Naughty Books, specifically the most extreme and egregious examples, because whatever else follows, he wants you to understand that the basic idea of banning some books from schools was and is a sound one. 

Then he goes on to address some of the issues that have come up. For instance, people who "banned" perfectly good classics and other things that "are not in any way a violation of any type of Florida law." Like that Roberto Clemente book that got pulled? Totally not a violation, says DeSantis. The Bible. Dictionaries! The teacher who covered up all her books.! Crazy stuff, says Ron.

So what does he conclude about all this? Does he declare that the law was too vague and punitive, so schools went way out of their way to stay out of trouble? Does he acknowledge that requiring every single book to be pre-screened by a media specialist might have created issues? 

No. Not at all.

All of these whacky examples of districts and teachers trying to avoid trouble with poorly crafted, deliberately vague laws? Those were just deliberate attempts to make him look bad. Or as he puts it"

This is fraudulent. But what it is, is it's trying to obscure the reason why parents have been concerned with the things that people saw which are clearly not appropriate. And they're basically just trying to confuse the issues to act like somehow that classic works are somehow not welcome. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want to insure that students have a very rigorous and robust education. So no, what we've seen is you have seen activists that will just go and challenge almost anything. That's not appropriate to be happening. 

Hijacking this process is not something that we want to encourage in any way. And it's been from different motivations-- you have some people that just thinks these--some people honestly think that a lot of these books are bad, even though they're classics. There's others that are doing it just to try to create a narrative, to try to act like "Oh my gosh these books are under review" and then the media will take that and run with it and try to act like there's some debate on whether Florida law requires this or not, which there's not. So this is all theater. This is all performative. And it has no place in our school system.

That's all one rambly quote. I just broke it into two paragraphs to help you out.

So if you've been seeing the headlines and thinking that Ron DeSantis has learned a lesson of some sort, the answer is that no, no he has not. The laws are fine and necessary, but those damn lefties and the media have teamed up to make it look as if the laws are a repressive, chilling, silly mess.  "Fraud" and "hoax" still turn up a lot in his speech. He describes the "random people" who don't have kids in the school system as coming in "just to try to gum up the works" and "throw sand in the gears," aka people "who are just trying to hijack this process to advance a political or ideological agenda." 

Also, they're not banning anything, because you can still get the books on Amazon. You know who's banning books! Those people on the left, who are trying to get Amazon not to sell certain books, including the Biden administration. 

And there's more complaining. And then he brings on Tina Descovich, Moms For Liberty honcho, who says "enough," praises the state's two leaders, and then works to shift the emphasis to educational quality. She leads with the statistic that the literacy rate in Florida is 40%, which is about 40% off (it's 80%). I think she means to say that the proficiency rate on the NAEP is 40%, and at this point anyone who says NAEP proficiency is "at grade level" is just not trying to get it right (NAEP proficiency is A or B level). But her point is that there is a public education crisis in America. 

Then she wags her fingers at the "media in the back of the room" and says "All you can do is be obsessed with book bans that are not happening." She tells the tale of being interviewed about the book bans and how they then show the books and that shuts folks up. They did a whole 60 Minutes thing, and it hasn't been shown yet. Where is it?

But mostly her point is that "we the parents" have had enough, and when is the media going to start covering the literacy crisis. So if you’re looking for the new talking point angle on the naughty books issue, there it is.

Another woman speaks about a book that her child was exposed to.

The DeSantis wades into the Q&A which really highlights how unclear he is on how this could work. Objections ought to be limited to parents of children in the district, except, no, he thinks that taxpayers have a stake in this to, but maybe limit how many objections they can bring.

He also wades into one of the underlying huge problems, noting that if somebody objects to "like a To Kill a Mockingbird or a Hank Aaron, that obviously it is frivolous." It's reading restriction dilemma-- what I object to is obviously bad and what I don't object to is obviously okay, so let's just have a law based on my personal obvious perspective. DeSantis spitballs "maybe after one or two frivolous objections you have to pay a fine" and I certainly look forward to seeing which court gets to decide which books count as frivolous objections. 

Also, maybe laws that punish teachers for making political waves, like that teacher who papered over all her books saying she couldn't show them. DeSantis says that was a lie; I'd say that was a way to comply with the actual law saying that a book can't go in front of a student until a media specialist looks at it. But DeSantis wants punishment for "performative nonsense," and again, looking forward to seeing which court gets to rule on how performative nonsense is judged so that "professional responsibility that's imposed" can become a thing. 

To his credit, he does acknowledge that there are books about which reasonable people could disagree. So there's that. And Manny Diaz stepped up to say that there is no permission slip required for required instruction, and Black History Month is required instruction, so that flap is solved and maybe that law doesn't mean what people think it means?

But mostly, it sure sounds like DeSantis is going to try to remedy the problems created by broad, vague rules by adding some more vague and unenforceable rules on top. Who knows what form this will all take, but I'm not convinced that things are looking up now that the governor is done with his electoral vacation. 

The Panic Is No Accident

There was a curious piece in Education Week Friday, in which Deborah Loewenberg Ball ponders the question, "Why Is the Nation Invested in Tearing Down Public Education?" 

She focuses in particular on the most recent iteration:

For the past four years, we have been retelling a shared narrative of education crisis and the severe learning losses our nation’s children have suffered as a result of the pandemic.

Well, no. "We" have not been retelling that shared narrative. 

I get the use of the collective "we" (do it myself from time to time), but there are times when it just isn't appropriate, and this is one of those times.

Learning Loss panic has been carefully crafted and aggressively marketed by two groups of people-- the folks who are intent on dismantling public education, and the people who have a vested interest in responding to the "crisis."

As I pointed out back here, it was clear almost immediately. NWEA and CREDO hit the ground running with scary pronouncements about the severity of Learning Loss based entirely on numbers that were completely made up! McKinsey, the consulting behemoth whose entire business model is "Find a crisis and get paid to help fix it," quickly joined the fray. By the time we had actual test result numbers to look at, those same folks had already done business selling pearls to clutch, and the usual public education slammers had their doomsday baloney headline generators warned up (looking at you, New York Times). 

As Ball notes, the fact that US students actually did better than most of the world at navigating the pandemic was largely ignored.

But Ball, who is an actual college professor, education researcher, and head of a teacher training organization, chalks all of this up as "a habit."

Taking a big view, she sees this "habit" tracking all the way back to A Nation At Risk, which is a great place to start, as the "report" is not a careful piece of research, but a paper deliberately crafted and edited to advance one clear narrative--America's public schools are failing. 

ANAR was not borne of some self-critical habit, and the last forty years of chipping away at public education didn't just happen. And in seemingly missing that, Ball seems to be the kind of well-intentioned booster who is just aiming at the wring target:

It should worry us that, as a nation, the United States seems to be invested in tearing down the enormous possibility and promise of public education. In retelling that our children’s opportunities have been irredeemably destroyed, we impair the possibility of collective inspiration for how to move forward.

It should worry us, but it's not that the United States seems to be invested in tearing down public schools--very specific groups and individuals are invested, sometimes literally invested, in dismantling public education. They are, in fact, very interested in deliberately destroying collective inspiration about moving forward, because their own ideas about moving forward take us in a completely different direction, into a country in which it's every family for themselves, your kid's education is your own problem, education is a commodity sold on an open and unregulated market, or education belongs only to conservative christianists. 

What is important now is whether we are prepared to shift how we support public education and the learning of all our nation’s children. Are we ready to begin rejecting the repetition of the crisis narrative and begin building a new story? A narrative that is honest about what has happened—over decades—and where we are now? One that is aimed toward building up, not tearing down? If so, this narrative must center the children themselves and the teachers who labor to support their thriving. It must be one that leads to solutions.

I get it. I appreciate the hope and positivity of this call. But. But but but but but. The crisis narrative is being deliberately and aggressively repeated by folks with big deep pockets, and from their point of view, that narrative does lead to solutions-- it's just that their solutions don't involve public education as we've previously understood it in this country.

There is a huge amount of room for debate about the how and where and why and by whom of public education, and, as with much of our nation, a need to keep finding ways forward because there is no past so perfect that we should be happy to go back to it. 

But not everyone involved in the debate is operating in good faith, and to imagine otherwise is like approaching the 2024 presidential election by saying, "Well, let's just all plan to keep things honorable and decent and not at all ugly." 

The negativity and panic about public education in this country are not a habit, and they didn't just happen, and we'll have to acknowledge that if we are going to deal with the toxicity that has been unleashed. If we keep tripping because someone keeps tying our shoelaces together, the solution will not be an impassioned plea to all pull together and support shoe manufacturers. 

ICYMI: Presidential Birthdays Edition (2/18)

I am sure that Washington and Lincoln would have wanted their birthdays to be celebrated on the Monday most convenient for creating a three day weekend, so well done, us. 

If you're new around here, welcome to the weekly compendium of Stuff To Read. I read a lot, and these are the articles that I think are worth noting, but which I may not have addressed in postings this week. It is by no means exhaustive--there's a lot of stuff out there--but I am only human. This list goes up every Sunday. There is no quiz. And you are encouraged to share anything that speaks to you. It's tough to break through out there on the interwebs and every bit of amplification helps.

Do Public Schools Suck?

Nancy Flanagan offers some useful thoughts about how to process this eternal criticism.

Christian Nationalists Attack Newton Teachers Association

You may have heard that the Newton teachers' union is being sued for its naughty strike, but before reaching a conclusion, you may want to look at who exactly is behind the lawsuit. Maurice Cunningham has the real story.

Lewisville educator on leave after Libs of TikTok post shows him in dress for spirit day

I don't know if we live in the stupidest timeline, but it sure isn't the wisest or kindest. Libs of Tik Tok strikes again, but she couldn't do it without the help of a lot of troubled and troubling people.

I’m proud of my work as a principal and drag queen. Nothing will change that.

Oklahoma's Education Dudebro In Chief cheered when this career educator was driven from his job. Now Shane Murnan tells his own story.

8 states restricted sex ed last year. More could join amid growing parents' rights activism

Alia Wong reports for USA Today on this growing trend. Yeah, if we just don't mention sex and LGBTQ persons around students, they probably won't ever realize those things exist.

Students lose out as cities and states give billions in property tax breaks to businesses

The Conversation teams up some researchers and journalists to create this tremendous story about one more way that some cities and states cut public education off at the knees.

They call it ‘school choice,’ but you may not end up with much of a choice at all

Pamela Lang is the mother of a student with special needs. For Hechinger Report, she writes about what school choice looks like on the ground, and how little choice she actually has.

It's You. Hi, You're the problem, It's You

TC Weber is a master of tracking the many players in Tennessee education policy, and this is an excellent example of his work, including some info about two of everyone's favorite choice evangelists.

Tim Alberta Challenges the “Single-Issue” Voter

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider is working her way through Tim Alberta's new book about evangelicals and politics (and so am I, and so should you be), and provides us with a look into one chapter here.

Scripted early reading approach no substitute for real teaching

Some teachers in Massachusetts take a look at one of those super-duper reading learning systems (Appleseeds) and explain why they find it less than great.

North Carolina School Privatizers Are Subverting Democracy

Nora de la Cour writes in Jacobin about some of the shenanigans of North Carolina privatizers, for whom democratic processes are an obstacle.

Woman challenges over 150 books in DD2 schools despite not having a child in the district

From South Carolina, just one more story of where all these challenges to books are really coming from.

School Moms Battle for Public Education

Thomas Ultican takes a look at the new book School Moms by Laura Pappano.

Book Review: “The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire”

While we're talking about books, there's also a new book about Gates out, and who better to review it than Anthony Cody, who previously wrote his own book about Gates.

Jose Luis Vilson talks about the TED experience, how it can be useful for educators, and even offers a list of TED recommendations for us to sample.

Paul Thomas talks about the terms that get tossed around during every skirmish in the reading wars.

Student Differentiation v. Alignment: Know the Difference and Set Children Free

How should teachers differentiate when the goal is to meet a standard? Nancy Bailey considers the question.

School Ratings and Rankings Cause Educational Redlining and Resegregation

Jan Resseger, spinning off an article by Ruth Wattenberg, explains another reason that rating and ranking schools is a bad idea.

Florida Legislature Poised To Give Preferential Treatment To Charter Schools With Conservative Political Agendas

Oh, Florida. Here comes a bill to favor "classical" charter schools, a small group in Florida, but one that involves several well-connected politicians' wives. Sue Kingery Woltanski has the details.

Cardinals honor injured teammate Donahue during game against Hayfield

High school sports story, here on the list because the writer is my nephew, who writes about college sports, but also does some local stringer work in his down time. There are a lot of writers in my family, but only one who actually makes a living at it, and he does some nice work.

Big Tech disrupted disruption

Cory Doctorow is a hell of a writer about tech. This is not directly about education, but disruption is certainly an education thing. Also, every time he points out what a scam Uber is, I think of all the people (like Betsy DeVos) who think Uber is a good model for how education should work.

This week at, where I write about education and get paid for it, I put up a widely read piece about a new paper covering what the Big Standardized Test really measures, and another about Florida's latest bad education bill aimed at future teachers.

You can subscribe to my substack and get all the stuff I write, wherever it may be. It's free and easy.

Friday, February 16, 2024

PA: Central Bucks Culture Panic Board Members Consider Their Options

Central Bucks School District suffered through a couple of years as a poster child for MAGA Moms For Liberty takeover of a school board. Now that the winds have shifted, some of the former board culture warriors are spilling tears and beans.

Central Bucks drew national attention for implementing a wave of conservative policies. They instituted a book banning policy, aided by the Independence Law Firm, the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute ("Our goal is for Pennsylvania to be a place where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive, and life is cherished.") They banned pride flags. They suspended a teacher who defended LGBTQ students. They implemented a policy that required the school to out LGBTQ students with a "gender identification procedure". No student name changes allowed without a note from home. Both the ACLU and the U.S. Department of Education came after the district for creating a hostile environment for LGBTQ students-- so they hired a noted anti-LGBTQ lawyer to do an internal investigation; the resulting report might not have been entirely forthcoming (but it was expensive).

The community responded by flipping the board big time in the last election, despite some heavy investment by right wing activists. Even then, conservative lame duck board members were not done with their shenanigans, voting their loyal right-wing superintendent a big fat severance package when he retired

So how have things been going since then? What options are the disempowered folks considering.

Well, one former member of the block is now a lot less coy about her connections while on the board. Leigh Vlasblom was board vp; now she's on the staff of the Leadership Institute as a school board trainer/researcher. The Leadership Institute is a right wing advocacy group focused on getting The Right People into elected positions. Moms For Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler worked in the LI school board leadership division until she resigned recently over some legal and moral issues with her husband and another woman.

Vlasblom's page on the Leadership Institute website notes many of her previous credits (US Department of Education, Elizabeth Dole campaign), and it also notes, in the paragraph about her school board tenure, that she "worked extensively with PA Family Institute, Independence Law Firm, Keeping Kids in School PAC, Hope 4 PA, and Bucks Families for Leadership." While lots of folks figured out that the culture panic board group was getting some of these outside organizations to write policy for them, this is one of the first times that anyone on the inside has been clear about the connections. Certainly not back when board members were stonewalling "Who actually wrote this" questions.

Meanwhile, the remaining conservative members, now in the minority, have been getting cranky about allegedly being on the receiving end of behavior they allegedly used to dish out. There's still work going on to undo some of their damage, like trying to claw back the huge bonus for the former super, and hiring a lawyer more in tune with the board's priorities.

After the last particularly contentious meeting, with members Debra Cannon and Lisa Sciscio refusing to take personnel matters to a closed door session. After that drama, witnesses say the two publicly quit the board (though they haven't yet turned in any official letters to that effect). 

If the dream is to get back to a board that focuses primarily on operating a school district that educates students, then Central Bucks seems to have a ways to go yet. I suppose taking their ball and going home is one way for the minority members to aid in the process. 

This is one of the problems of an authoritarian mindset focused on raw exercise of power-- it may work for you when you have the power, but you never get to hold onto that power forever, and if raw power is the only trick you know, then once you've lost it, you're pretty much out of options except either going home to sulk or getting a job with someone who works in the authoritarian raw power business. Best wishes to Vlasblom, Cannon and Sciscio as they try to work it out.