Sunday, October 22, 2017

About That Zip Code

Your education shouldn't be determined by your zip code.

If we've heard that once, we've heard it a zillion times, but almost never does it lead to a discussion of the bigger question behind that statement:

What determines your zip code?

I cannot recommend hard enough that you go listen to (or, if you must, read the available transcript) for a previous episode of the podcast Have You Heard, in which Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider talk to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Rothstein's point is simple but profound. We tend to assume that people just sorted themselves out into all these neighborhoods and zip codes, that the sorting is the result of "millions of accidental, private decisions" and therefor really hard to fix. But Rothstein argues that segregation was in fact the result of specific government policy (like the federal rules that said Levittown couldn't sell units to black families), and that these policies created a systemic poverty that stretches over generations. In fact, according to Rothstein, government policy created segregation in cities where it had never existed.

I probably need to read Rothstein's book now (because I need one more tome on that stack) because I have questions. In particular, I wonder about the degree to which government policy expressed a hard-to-repress will of the people, like the folks in North Carolina re-segregating themselves by flying to white charter schools. Rothstein says we have to educate everyone about how this happened; I'm not sure how optimistic I am about the results of such a project, just as I'm not sure how we'd approach his idea that good schools must be rooted in neighborhoods that are integrated by class.

Still, it's an intriguing vision-- integrate the communities, and the schools will follow. We hear a lot about how students are trapped in their school because of their zip code, but it might be more useful to talk about what keeps people trapped in that zip code in the first place, or how government can prevent the hollowing out of a neighborhood through gentrification.

Interesting stuff. Go give a listen.

Another Faux Teacher Memoir

It takes two reviewers at the Atlantic-- and

ICYMI: After A Week Off Edition (10/22)

So a week ago I was in a  Phoenix hospital. This week I'm at home. Home is better. Here's some reading for you. Remember to amplify the stuff that speaks to you. You are how the word is spread.

The end of VAM for teacher termination in Houston

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley on the final outcome of the Houston anti-VAAS suit, and the news is great.

Eclectablog Needs Your Help

Eclectablog provides in valuable news coverage for Michigan progressives, but Chris Savage can't keep footing the bill alone.

School Improvement Tips for Civic and Community Leaders

Among reformsters. Rick Hess is one of the best for honest self-evaluation. This list of five mistakes reformsters take is great. Quibble about whether Hess and his friends take the advice or not-- the advice itself is on point.

Why Rule by the People Is Better Than Rule by Experts

Nicholas Tampio in praise of democracy.

Florida School Voucher Investigation

How bad is voucher fraud and corruption in Florida? The Orlando Sentinel gives us a three part series that answers the question (and it's not pretty)

In Pursuit of Woozles

Some Winnie-the-Pooh

Newark Schools Chief Tells Union to Stuff It

This bit of reporting from Bob Braun is short, but if you don't read it, you won't believe it. The teachers union offered to help start a new day in Newark. The response they got was... well, not very welcoming.

The Great Tennessee Achievement School District Experiment Finally Comes to an End

Gary Rubinstein revisits the Tennessee ASD, the ASD that launched a bunch of other ASDs, now that it has reached its sell-by date, to ask how it did. (Spoiler alert- not so well)

12 Tech Takeover Concerns

Nancy Bailey with a handy list of issues to be concerned about when facing an ed tech juggernaut.

Michigan Steals Public School Money for Charters

If you read here, you probably read Ravitch, but this one's too important to miss in the sheer volume of her blog.

Secret Group Wants To Take Over Your School

Set the Wayback machine to May of 2015, when Sarah Lahm warned about a threat to public schools. Let's see if she was onto something.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Kansas Takes the Lead

Kansas has found a way to leap to the head of the pack in the race to dismantle public education.

Mind you, Kansas has been working on the problem for a while. You may recall that Governor Brownback and a GOP legislature tried to turn Kansas into a free market laboratory, with "business friendly" tax cuts that have put the state's finances in free fall. The attempt to implement a full-on super-GOP model left the state broke. Tax cuts for the wealthy didn't trickle down, and the state is now in a mess (while Brownback runs the standard playbook of throwing attention to social issues, as if gay marriage is somehow responsible for Kansas poverty). It is no wonder that education is underfunded in the state using a formula that the state supreme court says is unconstitutional.

And that's not all. Kansas has voted to allow unlicensed persons to teach in the classroom. They voted to strip teachers of all job protections in a bizarre fracas that featured the Koch Brothers coming to Topeka to extort votes out of moderate GOP members (Nice re-election prospects you have there. Shame if anything happened to them). They have suggested that teacher evaluation could be handled by the school janitor. And they have been watching a steady exodus of teachers from the state. All that on top of the purposeful and deliberate underfunding of education, which is where the state supreme court shows up to tell them they are violating the state's own constitution. And they responded to that issue by trying to rewrite the rules for getting rid of obnoxious judges. Most recently, the state handled its ESSA plan comment period so very quietly that only about 20 citizens commented on the plan (Ed chief Randy Watson says that's because the citizens are "attuned to where the board is heading" and not because they were kept in the dark).

So here comes the Kansas Can School Redesign project. Seven school districts have been selected (each given, for because this is their "moonshot", the name of one of the seven original Mercury astronauts-- the folks in Kansas do know that we actually made it to the moon already, right?)

The redesign is supposed to highlight several principles--  developing individual study plans, measuring social and economic growth, improving graduation rates and post-secondary completion and addressing kindergarten readiness, and the original press was pretty vague about how that would happen, exactly. The buzz has included many of the usual reformy vocabulary (this will be all about "hard data" and being ready for "real life").

But last Wednesday, Kansas State Board of Education members were given a more specific briefing about what is in the wind. And it's... ambitious.

Brad Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner who seems to be taking point on this, suggested that the entire delivery system for education is going to change:

"I would speculate that if you walked into one of those districts, you’re not going to see a traditional setting," he told the state board Wednesday. "I think you’re going to walk in there and maybe see a group of kids not based on age, but based on experience and where they’re at. You may see 30 kids in a room with three adults supporting that. The whole structure of it, it’s hard to define."  

Meanwhile, the state has changed the rules on how accreditation works (now it's districts, not schools, that are certified).

Students need no longer be organized by grades, nor do school years have to be defined by hours in the classroom. The primary concern is "individualized education, focusing on the unique needs of each student." All of which suggests that Kansas just convinced seven school districts to go all in on competency-based education. Certifying a district instead of schools makes a lot of sense if you aren't really going to have schools any more-- just students who can plug in to the computerized "personalized" learning system from wherever. And you'll notice that Neuenswander expects to see three "adults," not necessarily teachers (though that point is moot, since Kansas has already scrubbed most professional requirements to be a teacher).

Another red flag? Kansas has apparently devoted around $0.00 to back this change. Which would be insane-- unless you think businesses will step in to do the heavy lifting. This supremely vague plan is supposed to be ready to launch in the fall of 2018. How any district would completely redesign itself in less than a year is a mystery-- unless, of course, they just hire somebody to plug in a pre-made CBE program. Just call Summit.

Meanwhile, there is one huge red flag for the program's survival. Many discussions of it stress the idea of non-academics, the need to teach "character development, citizenship and work ethics." Back in the nineties, when CBE was called Outcome-Based Education, this is exactly what killed it dead. As soon as it became clear that the idea was for schools to teach students to have the Right Values and live the Right Way, conservatives rose up and stomped the whole initiative (I remember it well because Pennsylvania was Ground Zero for much of the stomping).

So it will be interesting to see how Kansans react to discovering that not only will the school be teaching their child values and proper attitudes, but that software will be evaluating those qualities-- and recording the data to go in the child's permanent, corporate-owned record. I have to believe that at least a few folks will sqawk.

It's true that a pre-requirement to become a Mercury school was to get the cheerful cooperation of staff and community. But one wonders just how clear and specific the early information released to build buy-in was.

Twenty-two more districts are scheduled to launch in 2019-2020. Kansas looks on track to land on a planet where they barely have to provide public education at all. Congratulations?

Friday, October 20, 2017

8 Rules for Writing

Every October 20, the National Council of Teachers of English celebrates the National Day on Writing. I'll admit I have misgivings-- it reminds me too much of the teachers who teach a "writing unit" for two weeks in April and ignore writing the rest of the year-- but this year I thought I'd recognize the day with a list.

Here are the things that I believe are true, that form the foundation of my writing and my writing instruction:

1) There are no writing prodigies.

Mozart started playing piano at age three and composed his first piece at age eight. Pascal wrote a mathematical paper at age nine. Piaget published a paper at age eleven.

But there are no writing prodigies. There are no classic poems or timeless novels or important essays written by six-year-olds. And what that tells me is that all writers started out in exactly the same place-- downtown Suckville. Some people are better equipped to climb to the top of Mount Awesome faster than others, but when I encounter a student who is not very good at writing, I have to assume that they aren't very good yet. Students get where they're going in their own way in their own time. My job is to help them in their journey, but if they aren't very far along yet, that doesn't mean they can't still make great progress.

2) Writing is craft.

Too many people rule themselves out as writers because they don't experience blinding flashes of transportive inspiration. But when you call a carpenter, they don't say, "Well, I'd like to fix your cabinets, but I just don't feel inspired today." Writing is hammering and framing and laying planks and re-building and altering and fiddling endlessly to get it right. Hammer away and bang it out.

3) Ideas are the basic building blocks

There are still folks out there claiming that the building blocks of writing are sentences. Don't believe it. The basic building blocks of writing are ideas. All good writing begins with a person who has something they want to say, an idea or concept or feeling or image they want to convey. Everything else is the business of getting that Something through the pipeline. The mechanics and the grammatical nuts and bolts and the usage rules are all about making sure that the pipeline doesn't get clogged, that technical issues don't interfere with the audiemce's ability to get what the writer is putting out there. 

4) Form follows function

Do what you need to do to best convey your Something. There are no right and wrong choices-- there are only choices that work and choices that don't, and your measure is always "Does this serve the material? Does this support my Something?"

5) Avoiding mistakes is a mistake

A musician can play every note exactly as written, and be absolutely mediocre. A sports team can make zero mistakes and still get thoroughly beaten. In writing, concentrating on avoiding mistakes is a fool's game. It's not good enough to not do anything wrong-- you have to do something right. Be bold. Don't focus on what you're not going to do-- focus on what you are going to do.

6) You do you

Idea webs. Classical outlines. Free-writing to generate ideas. Discussion. Thinking in isolation. Pulling it out of your butt at the last minute. These pre-writing techniques all work for somebody (and not for some others). Pen or typewriter or computer screen. You have to know what works for you. There is no "correct" or "incorrect" way to write-- there are only the ways that work for you and the ways that don't work for you.

Here's the catch-- you have to be brutally honest with yourself about what does and doesn't work. You may want to be the "pull it out your butt at the last minute" person, but you have to take a hard, honest look at your product and ask yourself if it really represents your best work.

7) Testing is not writing

Never, ever mistake the kind of word tofu product required by standardized tests for actual writing. We live in a golden age of bad writing instruction, almost all of it aimed at standardized test writing-flavored behavioral products. That is not actual writing; it's mindless idea-free hoop-jumping. Never mistake it for anything else.

8) Write

Yes, read about writing. Talk about writing. Read, read, read, read, read, read-- and do it like a writer. But at the end of the day, there is only one way to perfect your craft, and that is to write. Write every day. Write about whatever is passing through your head. When Something scratches and bangs and hollers against the inside of your head and demands to be released, release it. Write. Write during your lunch hour. Stay up an extra hour. Get up an hour early. But write.

Today is the National Day on Writing. Let's go ahead and proclaim 363 more Days on Writing to follow it up.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gates Shifts Gears Again (And Claims To Have Learned Things)

Today in Cleveland, wealthy education amateur Bill Gates announced that he and Melinda are about to drop another $1.7 Billion-with-a-B on education-- but in new and more exciting ways, because Bill Gates has definitely Learned Things.  The announcement came as a speech in front of the Council of Great City Schools, and it came in several distinct parts.

The Challenge

Gates rings the usual low scoring bells, though he has the nuance to note that our wealthy white students are actually kicking ass on the OECD test , and our not-wealthy, not-white, not so much. I'm not going to run down that rabbit hole to check his figures, because they don't really matter. Gates has been playing with schools for seventeen years because Gates personally thinks schools ought to work differently.

Some Gatesian History

Next, Gates recapped his history as an education-flavored philanthropist, nodding vaguely in the direction of Things He Has Learned in those seventeen whole years. Remember all his greatest hits?

There was the small schools movement, where Gates was going to throw money at the creation of smaller schools:

When we first got involved in U.S. education, we thought smaller schools were the way to increase high school graduation and college-readiness rates. In some places and in some ways, small schools worked. 

In other words, that didn't work .

So then they switched their attention to fixing teachers and playing with merit pay. Gates doesn't mention the disaster in Florida, but mentions some other big cities plus Tennessee where they've seen "promising" results.  So again, he's going to call it a success even as he lists the reasons it didn't succeed (local contexts and the fact that there are other important drivers beyond teacher quality).

And then Common Core, the results of which he finds "exciting" but there's still more to do.

So what did he learn from the last seventeen years?

Well, nothing, actually. This has been the Gates pattern-- what looks like it will take the form of admission of failure or at least a serious mistake turns out to be an admission that he basically had it right and he just needs to tweak a few things. So after talking to some folks, here are the things he learned:

* Teachers need better professional development and curricula aligned with the Common Core. That loud crack you just heard is the sound of a million teachers smacking themselves in the forehead. Yes, after all this, Gates thinks our problem is that schools and teachers have not given up enough of their autonomy to the wildly unpopular, still unproven standards.

* "Schools that track indicators of student progress — like test scores, attendance, suspensions, and grades and credit accumulation – improved high school graduation and college success rates."  In other words, Gates is now convinced that weighing the pig does, in fact, cause it to grow. Crack!!

* Schools are the "unit of change." Each has its own challenges-- and he underlines social and emotional stuff-- but their solutions need to be aligned to l;ocal concerns.

So what is he doing next?

First, no more money to be spent on teacher evaluation (though they'll keep watching the data).

Second, "locally-driven" solutions created by networks of schools.

Third, they are doubling down on curriculum and PD development to be aligned to the Core.

Fourth, they will keep spending money on charter schools. But since the charter school biz is glutted with money from rich folks, Gates will focus on developing stuff for students with special needs.

And finally, a bunch of money thrown at developing "innovative research to accelerate progress for underserved students." Which could mean any number of things, including cyberized learning in the new CBE mode.

$1.7 billion over five years.

Things that Bill Gates thinks are exciting.

Gates mentions some highlights of Great and Exciting Things going on right now. You may not agree with his assessment.

Fresno set up a system to let students know they could go to college. That seems like a much more harmless innovation than his next item, which is the Zuckerberg Summit Computerized School in a Box, his terrible competency-based education idea. And in Chicago, while they may be cutting programs and student support like crazy, they are really great at weighing the pig (if you weigh the pig enough, can you skip feeding it?).

Better still, there are school networks popping up all over, and nothing makes local schools better than an additional layer of bureaucracy whose main function is to land and administer grants. Seriously-- most of this is in line with the usual Gates priorities of charters and Common Core and computerized education-like programming, but I don't quite see why he wants to push networking, unless it is to facilitate the networking of computer-delivered ed-product.

The long view

Our goal is to work with the field to ensure that five years from now, teachers at every grade level in secondary schools have access to high-quality, aligned curriculum choices in English and math, as well as science curricula based on the Next Generation Science Standards. In a few places, we also will support pilots of scalable professional development supports anchored in high quality curriculum.

That's the dream. And if you have any doubts about how far divorced from reality the vision is, Gates offers DC and Louisiana as examples of places that really Get It.

Gates promises to spend 25% of his stack o'cash on "big bets," and charters get 15%. Also, heavy push for math and preparing "students for the dramatic changes underway in the workforce."

Your Gatesian moment of irony

This seems to be a Bill Gates requirement-- a moment of blissfully self-unaware irony. Here, we get this quote:

Giving schools and districts more flexibility is more likely to lead to solutions that fit the needs of local communities and are potentially replicable elsewhere.

Flexibility-- just as long as the teachers, school, and curricula are more tightly aligned with the Common Core. It is a fine successor to Henry Ford's "any color you want as long as it's black" edict.

Lots of folks are going to pick this apart in the days ahead, and there are some differences here. I'm delighted to see Gates get out of the teacher evaluation business; less delighted to see him double down on Common Core, charters, and the hints of more computerized privatized standardized education-flavored products.

So there's a slight shift of direction, but one thing stays the same-- the Gates conviction that he can serve as an unelected, unexperienced tsar of American education, reworking education to his will by sheer force of money. After seventeen years, he still hasn't noticed that he isn't helping.

Charter Leader: Can We Talk?

Public Source is a news outlet centered in Pittsburgh, and they've been working their way through a series about charter schools. Is it even-handed and balanced? I think you can judge where we are based on this quote from their answer to the reader question, "Are charter schools public schools?"

Nationally, all charter schools are public schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Sigh. Yes, and red meat is unequivocally healthy for everyone, according to the National Beef Council. Also, sources within the Ford Motor Company suggest that Ford's are the best cars to drive.

Earlier this week Public Source ran an entry in their series entitled "Charter schools and traditional public schools must work together to deliver on 21st century promise to students." And it comes to us from Ron Sofo, a Pittsburgh charter school principal. Sofo heads up the well-regarded City Charter High School. Sofo's piece has... some problems. But it is an exemplar of a certain point of view, and so worth a look. Let's do that.

The mission of public education in the 21st century is to maximize the probability that all students upon graduation will be college- and career-ready. 

Yikes! I mean, no! No, it's not, or at least, it shouldn't be. This is the narrowing of educational goals that NCLB and Common Core have given us-- education is just vocational training (college is where you go to get trained for the "better" jobs). This is the most meager, narrow, cramped, stilted view of education. He is correct in saying this goal requires some "redesign" of our schools, but only because they were designed for far better and broader goals, like creating future citizens or helping students discover and become their best selves or allowing students to reach their own personal understanding of what it means to be human in the world, to grasp a picture, however incomplete, of the full depth and breadth of human accomplishment and knowledge. The college-and-career-ready baloney narrows it all down to one simple goal-- will you be able to make yourself useful to some future employer. Mind you, being employable and getting a job so you can get paid-- that's all good stuff. But it has never been the only goal of public education, and it never should be.

The core tenets and the primary reason for the state’s charter school system is to provide parents and students with expanded quality choices. These quality choices are especially needed for students and their families that have been underserved by our traditional public school system. Public charter schools can be and, in many cases, are sources of innovation and effective new models of educating all students to high levels.

Also no.  People don't want choices nearly as much as they want good schools. Nobody looks at a great meal and says, "Well, I can't really enjoy this unless I see some other choices" nor do happily married people contemplate their soulmate and think, "Boy, if only I had other spousal choices in front of me."

Sofo is absolutely correct that some populations are "underserved," a lovely passive voice construction that lets us skirt past the issue of who, exactly, is not sending these schools enough financial support and resources. But instead Sofo suggests the argument that if your house is messy and your furniture ugly, the solution is to buy a new house. Sofo is the guy looking into the back seat of his car, seeing a bunch of McDonald's bags and saying, "Guess I have to buy a new car."

If some communities are underserved, maybe we could look at ways to NOT underserve them.

In this same vein, he offers examples of "limitations" of the traditional model:

assigning new teachers to teach in the most struggling schools; Ds being considered a passing grade to earn a high school diploma; a lack of teacher continuity for students throughout the years; and a lack of disciplinary approaches that teach or reinforce collaboration and communication skills.

And again I have to ask-- if these are bad things to do, why do we turn to the solution of opening a whole new school instead of, I don't know, just not doing these things any more. I'd also have to note that when it comes to teacher continuity through the years, charter schools-- who like to tout their ability to hire and fire at will for any reason-- kind of suck.

With one eye on the definition of charters as laboratories of innovation, Sofo attempts a metaphor by comparing schools to school buses and our educational goals to a moon landing. "Would we expect a traditional mode of transportation like the yellow school bus to take any person to the moon?" he asks.

I have two problems. First, college and career ready is not a trip to the moon-- it's a trip across the street. Second, and more critically, a school bus is a physical thing, an object that cannot be easily modified into another physical object. A school district is an organization, not a physical object, and we can modify its function far more easily than we can rebuild a bus.

Charters schools, by law, are expected to be innovative. If they are not, the charter should not be issued and they can be closed for lack of effectiveness. It rarely happens to charter schools, but it seems even more unlikely for traditional neighborhood public schools.

Well, that's correct. Charter schools in PA are supposed to be innovative or else they'll be closed. Except they're almost never innovative and almost never closed. So I'm not sure what his point is here, because it seems to be that the whole chartery innovation thing isn't really happening, in which case, I absolutely agree.

But his school has totally innovated, by having teachers in core subjects stay with the same students for four straight years. The innovation of looping has been around for years, however, and any public school could do it (like block scheduling, there are strong arguments both for and against the practice). Sofo also enjoys the "innovation" of non-tenured teachers who have to scramble for "merit" pay (tell me again how teacher continuity is important).

But Sofo gets some things right. He acknowledges that the sharing of innovation isn't happening. And he is honest about the big financial lie of the charter system-- that we can run several parallel school systems with the money we used to spend on just one-- calling the charter law a "tremendous unfunded mandate." And he notes that our legislature is "stalled" which is true for both this issue and every other governmental function (including, incredibly, finishing a budget and spending plan for the state).

Sofo does get this part-- collaboration among the systems will be a hard sell as long as legislators set public and charter schools as competitors in a zero-sum game. And nobody is ever going to stand up in Harrisburg and say, "Look, if we want multiple school systems, we'll need to raise taxes to fully fund them."

He'd like to see all the "stakeholders" sit down at a table and work on those innovative things, despite, I guess, the fact that the many players are set up to be competitors, and that there is no universal agreement on what the school's are supposed to be accomplishing. It's hard to get people to sit down at a table when they're concerned about being the meal.

Nor is it clear what the benefit is here for public schools. It's hard to start a conversation with, "Let's talk about how you and I can work together to benefit me."