Saturday, October 31, 2015

Eva's Very Bad Month

It has not been a fun couple of weeks for Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academy chain of test score workshops. I just want to collect all these high points in one spot.

First, she found herself the subject of a John Merrow PBS piece on the use of discipline to push students out and raise the collective scores of her schools. It's worth watching the clip to see her performance:

This is what happens when you get too used to only appearing in media settings that you totally control.

But Eva fought back quickly, demanding an apology in a letter that I won't link to because, incredibly, Moskowitz included the easily-identifiable disciplinary record of a then six year old student. Because when your charter business is under attack, you fight back with whatever weapons are at your disposal against whoever stands in your way. Talk about putting adult interests ahead of the needs of children.

Does that sound like a violation of the law? The child's mother thinks so, and has filed suit against Moskowitz.

That was two weeks ago. Then this week, Moskowitz found herself facing off against the city. City Controller Scott Stringer put it plainly:

If an organization wants to be paid New York City taxpayer dollars, they need to follow New York City rules.  

Moskowitz wants those sweet sweet Pre-K tax dollars, but as she has periodically reminded the State of New York, school regulations are for little people, and she is not a public school when it comes to accountability (only when it comes to collecting checks). Moskowitz held a press event to declare her right not to listen to Stringer, featuring parents as props and a closed setting where only those she wanted present could attend.

But even as Moskowitz was standing up for her right to take public tax dollars without having to be accountable for them, she was getting questions about an article by Kate Taylor in the New York Times laying out just how determined Success Academies can get about pushing out students that they don't want to teach. This piece includes the damning story of one SA locations "Got To Go" list in which, incredibly, a principal actually wrote out a list of students that were marked for pushing out. Stories of Moskowitz's determined work in pushing out students (and teachers) she didn't want to teach has been widely documented, but the school hit list added a new level of awfulness.

Moskowitz tried to put out that fire yesterday (twittering public ed advocates noted that admission to the event was once again carefully controlled). The offending principal apologized, complete with tears and early departure, but Moskowitz said he would not be fired:

At Success, we simply don't believe in throwing people on the trash heap for the sake of public relations.

She also released an e-mail in which she called the principal "stubborn" and "dense." She indicated that she was too cool to take PR advice, and she insisted repeatedly that this instance was an anomaly. She also tried to provide evidence that she had been all over this way back when it came to her attention.

She did not indicate that Success Academy would be making any policy changes to avoid similar events in the future.

Politico's full report on the press event is worth reading, especially such dry observations as noting that after the NYT piece ran, "other charter advocates declined to come to Success' defense." I'm not surprised. Mike Petrilli, however, did run a piece in the Daily News defending Moskowitz's right to do what she says she doesn't do. So there's that.

All in all, the fiction of Success Academy's great achievements is taking a beating. We shall see if things start looking up once November rolls around.

Petrilli: Creaming Is a Feature

You have to give Mike Petrilli, Head Honcho of the Very Reformy Fordham Foundation, credit. He will say what many charter supporters will not.

The standard charter claim is that charters can do what public schools cannot-- take the same kids and get them to score well on standardized tests raise their achievement levels. They have been hemming and hawing all week over the revelation that Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy was caught keeping a "Got To Go" list of students who were to be driven out of their Very Special Test Score Factory. Success Academy has thrown that principal under the bus, and then had him publicly drive the bus over himself, and then underline it with a classic Moskowitz quote:

At Success, we simply don't believe in throwing people on the trash heap for the sake of public relations.

Success Academy simply doesn't just toss human beings aside because those people don't serve Moskowitz's purpose. Of course, that still leaves the mystery of how SA loses half of each cohort on the way to graduation. But all those parents talking about their experience of being pushed out? Liars or deluded or something.

Mike Petrilli calls "bullshit." In fact, he calls bullshit on everybody, including the people who have been howling at the Success Academy revelations, in particular taking a shot at Randi Weingarten of AFT:

What makes this sort of demagoguery more disappointing than usual is the nature of the issue at hand. As Weingarten’s own members know all too well, classroom disruption is a major problem. In a Public Agenda survey, 85% of public school teachers said that the experience of most students suffers because of a few chronic offenders.

Petrilli's position has been consistent and clear for years--  some students are a Big Problem, and schools should be able to make those students go away, so that the deserving, worthy students can have an education untroubled by troublemakers. I have a couple of problems with Petrilli's position:

1) After we get rid of trouble students, where do they go?
2) It's a mistake to assume that being a problem student is a static, immutable, hardwired, consistent condition.
3) The whole American public education deal is that we educate everybody, not just the "deserving."

For Petrilli, the whole point of charters is to give a space where "strivers" can stop being held back by all those Other Students who create disruption and trouble. And instead of yelling at people like Eva Moskowitz who are doing such a good job of winnowing out the non-strivers, we should give public schools the same sorts of powers.

This is exactly the wrong approach. Rather than piling old restrictions on charter schools, we should be working to reduce the restrictions on traditional public schools. 

Well, sort of. Though I have to ask-- if we actually did that, why would we need charters at all? But when you say it that way, it doesn't sound so bad. But then, as his closer, Petrilli says it this way.

By all means, we should work to serve all kids well, including the serial disrupters, but not necessarily in the same classrooms or schools.

Rather than blast Moskowitz, Weingarten and others should ask that district teachers have the ability to prioritize the vast majority of their students, too. That would be worth crowing about.

Prioritize our students? Like, decide which students deserve how much education?

Petrilli's point is not completely without merit, and as teachers often lack sufficient time and resources, many do perform a certain amount of educational triage by considering which students need us most. And every teacher knows the frustration of having a classroom tyrannized by one serial disrupter. But "prioritize" students? That sounds like a level of judgmental school administration that I'm not comfy with, and I suspect would provide an avenue for biases and concerns for compliance to run roughshod over actual care and concerns for the well-being of students.

Look-- Success Academy is not nobly rescuing the top strivers from difficult situations. They are picking winners and losers based on the school's preferences and the school's convenience, based on Moskowitz's two guiding values-- compliance and test scores. When a six year old cracks under that sort of misguided pressure, that's not revealing some sort of character deficiency or lack of striverness. It's revealing an institutional incompetence in dealing with six year olds.

But I appreciate Petrilli's willingness to just say it-- charters are only for the chosen few, those that the school finds deserving. What I'd really like to know next is how a system in which a school is the final arbiter of what level of education a child deserves fits together with the reformy ideals of school choice?

Reformsters and Dinosaurs

Last night my wife and I watched our newly acquired copy of Jurassic World, a movie that doesn't have an original idea in its head, but is still plenty of fun to watch. Even more than when we saw it in the theater, I'm struck by how the themes of education reform are laced through the film, and though I wrote about the movie at the time, I want a do-over, to expand on what I originally noticed.

Virtually every reformster foible is on display in this movie.

Our leading lady is introduced with a big Marked for Redemption sign on her forehead. She refers to the animals in the park as "assets," things rather than living beings, and she prefers to manage based on data and spreadsheets-- management by screen. She follows procedure rather than listening to her expert.

The movies baddest human is Vincent D'Onofrio's ex-military corporate tool. He's most immediately marked as a bad guy with his speech about competition, and how that's the road to improvement. What I noticed more clearly this time through is that he likes the idea of competition because he believes that he will come out on top-- competition is important because it's how other things are brought up to snuff.

Paired with that belief in competition is yet another rejection of expertise. Chris Pratt (playing what we affectionately refer to as Bert Macklin, Dinosaur Hunter) tries to explain to D'Onofrio all of the specifics and understanding needed to handle the almost-trained raptors, but D'Onofrio brushes him off because D'Onofrio believes that he just has a gut-level understanding that is greater than Pratt's actual knowledge and experience. D'Onofrio is so sure that he just knows how things go that he will prevail-- right up to the moment the raptor chomps down on his arm.

Also worth noting-- the billionaire backer of the park. He seems to be a voice concerned about the right things (Are the customers happy? Are the animals happy?) but he also suffers from a hubris problem. As he climbs aboard a helicopter that he intends to pilot, another character asks if there is anyone else who can pilot the copter. The billionaire replies, "We don't need anybody else." Again he believes in his own awesomeness over any needed expertise, and the result is death and destruction for himself and others.

Add--of course-- the scientist who has met the demands for a bigger, badder dinosaur without regard for the moral and ethical issues involved. Park management needs newer, scarier "assets" to keep their numbers up, and the scientist has delivered. Had the character ever read any Michael Crichton book, he might have paused to consider Crichton's favorite idea-- that human beings always underestimate the problems that come with their technological solutions.

All of these factors-- the focus on keeping numbers up, the impersonal data focus, the creation of artificial solutions, the belief in competition, the hubristic disregard for expertise-- combine to produce a monster. The monster was supposed to be the best, the creation that would save the park. Instead, it destroys it before being itself destroyed. It's all very, very reminiscent of the education debates, of the drive by powerful people whose faith is in their own rightness and not in expertise and experience to create something that is supposed to fix everything. But their values are warped and instead of trying to do what is best for the animals or the human guests of the park, they are really driving to create weapons, to create profits that will prove they are the best. What they create is meant to be the best, a savior, but because their values and goals are wrong, their creation is a destructive monster.

I suppose I might have spoiled a few details, but in truth there are no spoilers for this film because absolutely nothing happens that comes as a real surprise. And that's what's really interesting to me-- the characters who display the coldness, the detachment, the self-importance, the hubris that we associate with reformsters, are all immediately recognizable as characters who will be dealt either redemption or destruction. I venture a guess that nobody who watches the film sees D'Onofrio's character, hears him talk about how the raptors can be used, how competition makes the world work, how expertise can be ignored because he just knows-- nobody sees all this and thinks, "Yeah, that guy is going to be the hero."

Yes, the parallels aren't perfect. I'm happy to think of Chris Pratt as a proxy for teachers, but the dinosaurs end up as proxies for students and/or traditional public ed, which is less flattering. 

So public ed fans can enjoy the movie because the good guys win and the bad guys, mostly, get their comeuppance. And public ed fans can take heart from the fact that the good guys are readily recognizable by just about anybody, that our struggle does include recognizable archetypes. Maybe that will help the public really understand what is happening to public ed.

One thing, though, that might get missed in the Big Finale-- the scientist and his engineered embryos escape unscathed.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Charter Knives Come Out

This week you may have caught this report that ran in the Columbus Dispatch and the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press, to name a few. Turns out there's a study that shows that online charter school students learn far less than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts.

Check out this mind-boggling statistic:

Nationally, online charter students received on average 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days in reading during a typical 180-day school year. In Ohio, with the largest e-school enrollment, students lost 144 days of math and 79 days of reading.

180 days fewer than 180 would seem to equal, well, zero. So on average, the study suggests that studying math in cyber-school is no more productive than 180 days of watching Dr. Phil. And 180 days is an average-- which means that some cyberschools actually move students backwards during the year, I guess. ("Students, in today's lesson, we'll be forcing you to forget everything you know about the quadratic equation.")

These are stunning results, even worse than some of the mean things that I have had to say about cyber charters (and I've said some mean things about the bloodsucking cyberschool vampires that have been allowed to lay waste to much of Pennsylvania's educational landscape).

Who would go after cyber charters with such verve?

Well, let's check the pull quotes. From the Washington Post:

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said her group was “disheartened to learn of the large-scale underperformance of full-time virtual charter public schools. While we know that this model works for some students, the CREDO report shows that too many students aren’t succeeding in a full-time online environment.”  

From the Detroit Free Press:

Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said in a statement that the results are "deeply troubling."

"There is a place for virtual schooling in our nation, but there is no place for results like these," he said.

And from the Dispatch

“In Ohio and across the United States, students attending virtual charter schools simply are not learning enough,” said Chad L. Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsors 11 traditional charter schools.

“Proponents of school choice are increasingly hard-pressed to defend virtual charters when their academic gains fall so far below the traditional schools against which they are compared.”

Yes, three top charter-loving outfits, all lined up to stick it to the cybers based on the results of this study conducted by-- wait for it-- CREDO.

Yup. If you didn't read these reports carefully enough, you might have missed that the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford. This drubbing of cyber charters comes from the choice-favoring, charter-leaning folks at CREDO, and then has been enthusiastically endorsed by a brace of charter advocates.

What's going on? A new epiphany about chartering? A willingness to confront hard truths? Opposite day?

I don't know. But I can guess. Let's see.... besides advocating for choice and charters, what else does Fordham do in Ohio? That's right--they run bricks and mortar charters.

One aspect of the zero-sum charter-choice landscape has always been predictable. At some point, the charter operators will have to fight each other for those sweet slices of that finite school funding pie. The lofty picture of "competition" has always been neat and bloodless, noble charter operators simply pursuing excellence in hopes that if they built a better math trap, the students would beat a path to their school.

But of course that's not always how competition works. Some times you get out the long knives and start trying to carve up competitors. Because until we fix the stupid, stupid funding system we've got now, more for me must always mean less for you.

So, yes-- charter operators will call for reforms (like say, a New York law that only schools with "success" in the name can be authorized, or an Ohio law that allows payments only for schools that have car manufacturers' names and pork products in their organization title). It was only a matter of time before they started promoting research that proved that some charters are Bad. So they shake their heads, cluck their tongues, and express sadness that Those Terrible Charters are taking attention away from Our Awesome Charters (accepting applications for next year's class soon).

Do I think cyber charters are often dreadful? Sure. But call me a little cynical if I see a bit of self-serving cynicism in the charter community's announcement that they are shocked-- shocked!!-- at some of the awful shenanigans going on. But only Over There.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Only Good Standardized Test

As testing has risen once again to the surface of the ed policy soup,  I have found myself in versions of the same conversation, because people who like the idea of standardized testing really like the idea of standardized testing, and because I said the number of necessary standardized tests is zero.

data from tests are the life blood of education and he took exception with my exception. Someone in the comments called me a "union shill." And a reporter asked me what the alternative to standardized testing would be.

It's a fair question. Is there such a thing as a useful standardized test?

But First a Few Words about Opposition

To have this conversation, we have to get one thing out of the way first. If you believe (and I think some reformsters sincerely believe it) that the only reason that teachers oppose the current high stakes test-and-punish status quo is because their self-serving union tells them to, you are blinding yourself to some real issues. First, there is a real gulf between national union leadership and rank and file teachers precisely because union opposition to reformster policies has been tepid at best. For the most part, NEA and AFT leadership is not whipping up opposition to ed reform policies-- they are trying to tamp it down.

The teacher opposition to testing comes first and foremost from teachers who are watching testing become a toxic and destructive element in our classrooms. Testing doesn't just drive the bus, but it drives it straight toward a cliff. It gets in our way, interfering with our ability to deliver real education. It's detrimental to our students. It is educational malpractice. And on top of all that, it is used in many places to deliver a professional verdict on our schools and ourselves with an accuracy no greater than a roll of the dice.

The other opposition to testing comes from the other people who see how it plays out on the ground-- the parents. The Opt Out movement was not created by teachers, is not led by teachers and, in some places, is actually potentially damaging to teachers under the current bizarro test-driven accountability system.

So if you imagine that test opposition is some sort of political ploy engineered top-down by the unions, you are kidding yourself.

None of That Answers the Question, so Let's Get Back To It

If I am such a dedicated opponent of standardized testing, what do I propose as an acceptable substitute.

Before we go any further, we'd better clarify our rather fuzzy terms.

"Standardized" Test?

Come to think of it, we'd better clarify "test" as well. For many folks, it's only a "test" if the student is answering questions. A five page paper assignment, for instance, is usually not called a test. In fact, the more open-ended the assessment, the less likely folks are to call it a "test." In schools, a test (students must prove they know something) is different from tests anywhere else (e.g. if we test the water, it is not up to the water to prove anything, but it is up to the tester to find a way to measure the nature of the water). Requiring students to prove themselves is the very first step in developing a bad assessment.

"Standardized" when applied to a test can mean any or all (well, most) of the following: mass-produced, mass-administered, simultaneously mass-administered, objective, created by a third party, scored by a third party, reported to a third party, formative, summative, norm-referenced or criterion referenced.

This broad palate of definitions means that conversations about standardized testing often run at cross-purposes. When Binis talks about the new performance assessment task piloting in NH, she thinks she's making a case for standardization, and I'm think that performance based assessment is pretty much the opposite of standardized testing. There's a lot of this happening in the testing debates-- people arguing unproductively because they have very different things in mind.

Acceptable Substitute for What Purpose

The confusion is further exacerbated by a myriad of stated and unstated purposes for standardized testing. This confusion about purpose has emerged as a huge issue in the ed debates because far too many of the amateurs designing testing policy don't understand this at all. At. All.

It's not just that reformsters argue that you can make the pig gain weight by measuring it. It's that they also assert that the scales used for weighing the pig can also be used to measure the voltage of your house's electrical system and the rate of water flow in the Upper Mississippi.

If we want to find an acceptable test, we have to first declare what the test is going to be used for.

Ranking schools, students and teachers

This is where purpose becomes important, because I can't think of a good test for achieving these goals because I don't think these goals are worth achieving. As a teacher, I don't need to know how my student compares to students in Idaho. I don't need to know that as a parent, either.

Comparing teachers to other teachers, schools to other schools, students to other students-- it's a fool's game. First of all, I can only make the comparison based on a narrowly defined criteria. Otherwise I'm reduced to deciding if my insensitive smart flabby artist student ranks lower or higher than my sensitive tall winning cross country racer student. The comparison only has meaning if it is based on narrow criteria (which student answered the most math problems correctly on Tuesday)-- but what good is a narrowly defined comparison.

If I find that my smart, funny wife is not as smart and funny as some other woman, should I be unhappy in my marriage? If this delicious steak is not as delicious as the steak I had last night, should I spit it out? If all the teachers in my school are great, should it be closed down because some other school has greater ones?

The signature feature of a ranking system is that it locates losers. But what decent teacher would stand in front of a class of thirty on the first day of school and say, "Five of you will turn out to be losers." Testy science wonks like Binis would scold me for saying "loser" and argue for something less loaded and more clinical, but I'm working with students and all the sugar coating in the world will not hide the medicine in this model.

Ranking and rating means that even if everyone is excellent, the least excellent must be marked Below Basic or Underperforming or Just Not Good Enough. A system based on ranking and rating is a system that assumes that in every endeavor, there are people who just aren't good enough. I reject that view of the world, and so I reject any testing system designed to re-inforce that view. If everybody in my classroom does a great job, everybody in my classroom gets an A.

Providing feedback for parents

Here we have a standardization problem because not all parents want the same feedback. Is she getting an A? Is she passing? Is she developing a better grasp of abstract language particularly as used in classic literature? Is she okay? Does she seem happy? These are all types of feedback I've been asked for by some parents. What one measuring tool would satisfy all those questions?

Standardized testing is repeatedly sold with the myth of the clueless parents, the parents who have no idea how their students are doing. But the solution to this problem is transparency, the levels of which can be controlled by the parents.

For example, the electronic gradebook. Our parents can look up their students any time and see exactly what I see when I pull up the gradebook. Some of my parents look every day. Some look never. Some look and then call or email me to ask, "So what exactly was this one assignment."

When we control the available information, we do parents a disservice. Only revealing the grade at report card time is a disservice. But anyone who has taught at a school with big detailed portfolio gradeless systems can tell the story of the parent who looked at all that data and said, "Look, can you just tell me what grade she's getting?"

Parents deserve just as much feedback as they want. Standardized testing has nothing to do with providing that.

Feedback for teachers

Any decent teacher generates this kind of data daily. Any lousy teacher will have no use for standardized test data even if it arrives on gold-clothed ponies.

You are dodging the question

Okay, yeah. I've laid out my usual assortment of objections to standardized testing, but I still haven't said what would be an acceptable substitute. If you're still here, I'll try to address that now.

What qualities would an acceptable-to-me standardized test have?

If I ever were to find a standardized test that I could live with (or even date regularly), this is what it would look like.

Criterion-based (and so, objective)

If I'm going to measure my students against a standard, not against each other. I can use the test to answer the question, "Do my students know how to find verbs" or "Can my students identify dependent clauses?" If every student in my class can't potentially get a top score, I'm not interested. And if it's not objectively scoreable, it's no help. That means that no standardized test is going to be used for any higher order critical thinking type skills.

(This is part of the whole point of Depth of Knowledge testing love--it creates the illusion that higher order stuff can be scored objectively. But no, it can't).

It is possible to come up with standardized questions. I once had a textbook with great literature questions-- but I still had to evaluate the answers myself.

In fact, I can only see using a standardized test for checking the lowest levels of simple operations-- simple recall, basic application.

As Close to Authentic as Possible

I want a task that actually assesses what it claims to assess. Multiple choice questions don't assess writing skills. Click-and-drag questions don't assess critical thinking.


This ought to go without saying, but if I don't get to see the questions, the answers, and the exact results from my students, then, no, thank you. I can do better myself.


I rarely re-use my own test-like assessments; instead, I make new ones each year to fit the class and the instruction. Particularly when I'm working summative assessments, I'll create something that focuses on the issues that we're struggling with. For instance, if we're solid on spotting infinitive phrases but have trouble picking out gerunds used as direct objects, I can design a test that will help both me and my students. I can adjust assessment to build confidence or prompt a come-to-Jesus moment.

Expertise and Convenience

There are lots of things I don't know. Materials prepared by people who are experts in particular areas are a necessary aid, and those sometimes include assessments. I'm happy to have an expert in a particular field in my classroom.

And at some points, I can use the convenience of having something pre-built to save me some time.

So, the acceptable alternative...?

Man, this ended up far longer than I meant it to, but I wanted to seriously examine my thoughts about this. Do I really think that there are no necessary standardized tests?

Well, Binis is correct when she argues that we all use standardization because we don't completely individualize everything from assessment through evaluation-- but that's a hugely broad definition of "standardized."(She disagrees with my reading of her "ever do this..." list.)

By that standard (har) everything used with two or more students is a standardized test-- and maybe it's useful to think of standardization as a sliding scale. The more we broaden the reach of the assessment, the more students we try to make it each, and the more we try to make the grading of the test be quick and uniform, the less useful the assessment becomes. A test that you can give to every student in America and which can be scored in just a week will by necessity be inauthentic and measure little. So for best classroom assessment, we stay as close to the individualized specifics end as we possibly can. The more that an assessment is developed in response to specific instruction by a specific teacher of specific students, the more useful that assessment will be in performing the most useful function of any test-- telling students and teachers where their strengths and weaknesses lie.

Yes, that information is not what the policymakers would really like to have. But the information they would like to have is completely useless to me in the classroom (and so far, they've found no reliable method for either collecting or using such information anyway). I'm not convinced that information can be collected by standardized tests anyway, but Good lord in Heaven am I still typing???

The number of necessary standardized tests, the number of tests I really need in my classroom? I still say zero. Mind you, I'm not saying that all standardized tests are an evil plague, and stripped of baseless high-stakes consequences, their plaguiness is greatly reduced. There are standardized tools that are tolerable, and a few that might rise to the level of useful. But necessary? Needed?

Still zero.

StudentsFirst Weak Core Endorsement

Andy Cuomo's Common Core Task Force is supposed to be busily working today to come up with a new name for the Common Core to carefully examine and consider educational modifications to the Core because it's politically expedient to do so because it's politically expedient to do so.

StudentsFirst NY was only too happy to get involved with a forum sponsored by High Achievement New York, a coalition that asks the question, "If you rub a whole bunch of astroturf together, can you light a fire under New York politicians?" Today they're reporting the testimony of four parents, and it's a sign of how weak the pro-Core argument has become. I'm not going to list the parent names, though SFNY does. I just want to concentrate on the actual argument being pushed here.

Parent #1

Parent #1 has a third grade student who will be taking his first CCSS-aligned test in February. And he has a story to tell.

In the past, I had no way of really knowing if he was making the grade. Last year, he fell behind academically and the only way I found out was after I asked his teacher at a parent teacher conference.  I don’t understand why they didn’t let me know he needed extra help. 

Let me be clear-- this is a real problem, and Parent #1 has every reason to be upset. However, the Core and and Core-aligned tests are not a solution.
The Common Core will make sure my son is on track. I’ll have a way to make sure he’s making the grade – and his teachers will be able to show me clearly what he needs to work on.

What way to make sure he's on track? The CCSS-aligned test? The one he's taking in February??? Because otherwise I'm not clear on how the Core makes the teacher more transparent and communicative about the student's progress (or lack thereof). 

Parent #2

This parent's child is in sixth grade. 

I was lucky enough to grow up in a school environment where my parents and teachers could track my progress. I want my child to have that same opportunity.

Excellent! Did you grow up with Common Core in your school? No? Then let's talk about how to install that excellent system and environment that you grew up with, because there's no reason to think that it had anything to do with CCSS.

I am sick and tired of hearing that every child doesn't deserve high standards. 

And yet I don't think I've ever heard anybody say it ever, at all, even once. 

Parent #3 

Two daughters who have both taken Core-aligned tests, and boy were they hard, but now the girls are proud of having "made it through."  This parent asserts that the daughters "are getting a better education now because of the Common Core." No indication of how, exactly. The Core is a critical tool for teachers, somehow, and it is "critical for parent to hold the system accountable." Again, not clear how that works, exactly, or more importantly, why one needs Common Core to do it..

Parent #4

Fourth grade son. And this parent loves the Core a lot.

I believe that all parents should be able to track their children’s progress – and that’s exactly what the Common Core does 

Because of one aligned test a year? That may seem bizarre, but next up is this false equivalency built of straw.

There are some parents who don’t want their kids to take the annual tests. I just don’t understand why they don’t want to know if their kids are learning what they need to learn. Burying your head in the sand may make you feel better, but it’s not going to help your child learn the skills he needs to be successful.

Not such a mystery. I'm going to bet those parents figure that the Big Standardized Test does not actually tell them whether their kids are learning. They might even suspect that there's no reason to believe that the Common Core is an actual list of what students need to learn.

And that's it

Let me point out, for the record, that when Core advocates complain that folks conflate the Core Standards and the Big Standardized Tests, this is the sort of piece they should be looking at-- all four parents draw no distinction at all between the standards and the tests and treat them as part of the same swell Corey creature. Which is as it was always designed-- I'm just saying that Core fans need to stop asking, "Where did people get such an idea? The standards and the tests are totally different things!"

Beyond that, this weak sauce is a reduction of the classic reformster stew of real problems and fake solutions. Every one of these parents is concerned about something worth being concerned about, and every one of them puts in a plug for a solution that is not a solution.

If you are really concerned about getting lots of useful feedback about your child's progress, call your child's teacher. If your child's teacher is not forthcoming, that's a problem, and you should raise a ruckus. But no matter what, a once-a-year BS Tests that tests only for narrow areas of math and English will not address your concern about useful feedback. Agitate for a transparent system-- heck, the technology is already in existence and in use to make a teacher's electronic gradebook available for student and parent view. My students and their parents can see exactly where they stand every single day, and if more detailed explanation is needed, I am only a phone call or email away. Compared to the dark ages when I went to school, we live in an age of unparalleled transparency and availability of school information.

The advocacy here is representative of the current state of the Core itself-- weak, vague, and confused. The problems listed are real, legitimate concerns, but there isn't one of them that isn't better addressed by something other than the Common Core. If this is what StudentsFirst has mustered to fight off their own reformy buddies in Albany, then the Common Core brand is in big trouble in New York.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

NAEP: Further Evidence of Reformy Failure

Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has gone so far as to call the new NAEP scores "heartbreak." The scores on the Nation's Report Card are crappy, ranging from "barely stagnant" to "plunging."

Petrilli and other reformsters have started the business of finding an explanation for this tragic result (more about that in a moment), but while we are thinking about what did make this happen, let's not lose sight of what didn't happen.

Test-driven accountability tied to national standards did not make NAEP scores rise.

Fifteen years of reformsterism has not moved the needle. Well, actually, that's not entirely true-- the NAEP trend has been ever upward since before the Reformster Era, so we could argue that ed reform actually stopped the needle from moving. So, worse than nothing.

But let's not quibble for the moment. The bottom line is still clear: reformsterism is failing. The reform programs, which are in fact our current status quo, are failing. And we all know what reformsters have been telling us, over and over and over again, about the status quo-- when it's not working, it must be changed.

Now, honestly, I'm not all that concerned about the Nation's Report Card. There are many reasons to suspect that the NAEP is not a reliable benchmark of student learning. But it was part of the rules that reformsters wanted to play by, so it's worth noting that by their own rules, reformsters have failed.

The most entertaining part of the failure is the discovery by reformsters that poverty matters!! Who knew? Oh, wait-- everybody except the reformsters, who could not stop themselves from repeatedly criticizing people who wanted to use poverty as an "excuse."

Kevin Welner at the National Education Policy Center has a great piece collecting many of the prominent reformster "NAEPscuses". "Look," they declare. "There are powerful forces outside of schools that have an effect on how students fare on Big Standardized Tests." I try not to use a lot of salty language here at the blog, but is there any better response than, "No, shit, Sherlock."

How much further will reformsters insist on driving us down this same failed road? How deep into the Big Muddy do we need to get before the Big Fool decides to turn around? How many versions of "maybe the critics had a point" do we have to hear before reformsters finally switch to, "we'd like to talk to teachers and professional educators before we finish developing this policy."

It is 2015, and none of the promised benefits of reformster policies have appeared. Colleges are not announcing, "Man, we are swamped with college and career ready freshmen." Charters are not learning brand new educational techniques that can be adopted by public schools. High stakes testing is not bringing social justice to every corner of the nation. Rich, standardy goodness is not ushering in an end to inequity.

And the NAEP scores are not going up.

It will be natural at this point for many classroom teachers to want to engage in a round of "I told you so." But that's really not the important thing. Instead, we need to ask some big questions. How many more education reform failures must we endure, wasting time and money and grinding teachers and schools down? How many more years will we keep pursuing these failed policies? How much longer will we drift helplessly in the wasted waters of a stagnant status quo?

High stakes standardized testing, national standards, and test-based accountability are wasting time, money, effort, and people, while providing not a glimmer of success in return. Let's be done, already.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cartman Rules

What is absolutely guaranteed to pop the wheels right off the school bus when it comes to order and atmosphere and culture and just plain treating children with the decency to which they are entitled because they are A) living human beings and B) here?

Cartman rules. (NSFW ahead)

Yeah, that's the whole point of a Cartman Rule. You will respect my authoritah. You will acknowledge that I am The Man. You will do whatever the hell I say because I AM the boss of you.

Is there anything more ridiculous, more silly, more counterproductive, more flat out disrespectful than getting in a grudge match with a child or young adult with absolutely no intent except to force them, through word or deed, to acknowledge that they respect your authority?

I wish it weren't true, but we've all seen it too many times within the walls of a school. The kid laughs with the wrong kind of smile. The kid responds to a direction with a shrug instead of quick compliance. The kid gives all the appearance of not giving a rat's rear about what he's just been told.

And the Enforcer of the Cartman Rule completely loses the thread. What were we trying to do? Were we trying to cover the instruction for today's lesson? Were we trying to get the class focused on a goal, or engaged with some practice? Never mind-- we're going to drop it all so that we can back this kid into a corner and browbeat him into submission.

Hell, we've now got entire schools devoted to Cartman Rules, where the first rule of the school is not about learning or growing but about recognizing the absolute authority of the school over every student action, and no excuses for failing to comply.

Cartman Rules have nothing to do with education, though the justification is always that we have to have order and control in order to teach Those Children. Cartman Rules are recognizable because they are tiny and picky and unrelated to any sort of instructional goals. You must sit just so. You must address me with the correct tone. You must not look at me with the wrong expression. Many Cartman Rules are never written down because in print it would be obvious just how wrong-headed they are.

Cartman Rules clash with race and class. Students who belong to my tribe already know how to play the game and show respect. But Those Students-- you know the ones-- are always too loud, too brash, not respectful enough in the way my tribe understands it. When a student from my tribe says something to a neighbor and laughs, I know nothing's wrong because he's Good People. But when one of Those Students does it-- well, you know how Those Students are and it is undoubtedly one more example of failing to respect my authoritah. Sometimes a Cartman Ruler is so sure that Those Students are out there that he will go looking for them, prodding and provoking until he can push some child to react, "proving" that he was right all along.

Cartman Rules believe in the slippery slope. We must not give an inch. I once heard an administrator explain that if we were going to let students violate parts of the dress code, we might as well just let them start murdering each other. Because dress code violations and murder are totally the same thing.

But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that those who live by Cartman Rules will make judgments that stick. Cartman Rule folks tend to sort the world into good and bad. That student who failed to respect my authoritah? His behavior just proves he's a Bad Kid, and once I know he's a Bad Kid, I can start seeing disrespect and defiance in every single thing he does.

Folks who live by Cartman Rules will always come off the rails sooner or later, and then they'll start flailing about and damaging everyone in sight. Sometimes they'll make such a mess they'll lose their position; sometimes they're so protected that they can get away with awful stuff. Another fictional teacher who lives by Cartman Rules-- Dolores Umbrage.

So (a Cartman Rules teacher will say) do you want chaos and disorder? Are you one of those touchy feely teachers who just lets the students run riot in your classroom?

The answer is no. The antidote to Cartman Rules ("Everyone must respect my authoritah") is another, simpler classroom and school rule. Everyone must treat everyone else with respect-- and "everyone" means everyone. If you like a simpler wording, try "everyone must treat everyone else as if they are a live human person."

Build an atmosphere of respect and decency and human consideration, and the order will follow. Try to build a system where rules and authority are the highest values, and nothing will thrive, not order, not education, and certainly not the students. Are there students out there who present a huge, huge challenge to a functioning classroom? Sure. But they are still human beings, and are entitled to be treated as such.

Every time you see one more news story about a student who was assaulted by a school official (though we never call the assault by its name) or about a child who was slapped in handcuffs or some other horrifying treatment of a student, you are seeing Cartman Rules in action. You are seeing an adult who put his or her own power and authority ahead of student needs or concerns. It's not okay. It's never okay. And the excuses are always lame because they always boil down to the same damn thing-- Cartman bleating "she wouldn't respect my authoritah."

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Correct Number of Standardized Tests

The national conversation will now swing around to figuring out exactly how many standardized test should be given in schools. What, we will all wonder, is the correct number of standardized tests necessary for every student to experience in a year, or in an entire school career.

Here's the correct answer.


Zip. Zero. Nada.

Students need standardized tests like a fish needs a bicycle. Standardized tests are as essential to education as a mugging is essential to better financial health.

Is there a benefit to the child to be compared and ranked against the rest of the children in the country, to be part of the Great Sorting of children into winners and losers? No. Having such rankings and ratings may advance the agenda of other folks when it comes to writing policy and distributing money, but those benefits are for those folks-- not the children. The mugger may benefit from mugging me, but it does not follow that I enjoy a benefit.

Are there standardized tests from which a classroom teacher can glean useful information? Sure-- but those tests are best chosen to fit the needs and concerns of one particular teacher and one particular collection of students. A diagnostic test might help me with Chris, but there's no reason to believe it would help me better understand Chris if it were given to every other student at the same time.
Do the poor children of some non-white non-wealthy neighborhood need to take the Big Standardized Test just like the rich white kids so that we have equity? Maybe-- but you know how else we could even that out? We could have all the public school kids do what the very wealthy private school students do-- take no BS Test at all. That would also provide equity.
Can I squeeze some useful information out of some standardized tests? Sure. I can grow and learn important lessons from being mugged, but that doesn't mean that getting mugged is still great and worthwhile. Do not tell me what I can learn from student standardized test results-- tell me what I can learn from those results that I cannot learn in faster, better, clearer, easier, cheaper ways on my own. Getting mugged might teach me not to take a lot of money with me when I leave the house, but are you sure I couldn't learn that lesson without getting punched in the face?

Do we need tests so that teachers, parents and students know "how the student is doing"? Only if the teacher, parents and students are clueless. Parents and teachers who are paying attention and doing their jobs know how the children are doing (and those who don't care still won't care when you wave a test score at them). And the students should be learning one of the most important lessons and skills of an educated person-- how to evaluate and assess yourself, so that you can be a self-directed, self-actuated human being, answerable to your own judgment, goals and assessment. You cannot learn that from a standardized test.

If you want me to inflict a Big Standardized Test on every single one of my students, you need to be able to answer one question:

What will I be able to do to further my students' education that I could not possibly accomplish any other way? If your BS Tests were denied access to my classroom, what benefits would my students be cheated of? If the universal one-size-fits-all BS Tests were banned today, what would my students be missing from their education tomorrow?

Nothing. The number of necessary standardized tests is zero.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

ICYMI: Edu-reading for the week

Hey, remember back before everyone was busy writing responses to the latest administration PR blitz? Let's travel back to that land of a Few Days Ago, shall we, and look at some of what deserved reading this week.

Is Success Academy Fighting Inequality

A good look at SA's policy's and involvement in NY lobbying

As a Weapon in the Hands of the Restless Poor

This is a long form piece that originally ran in Harper's back in 1997. It's Earl Shorris writing about his launch of the Clemente Class project, and if you don't know about any of that, this is a good introduction. But it's also an answer to a fundamental question-- is there a point to teaching classical humanities to the poor (or anyone)?

Dear USD, Testing Disaster Is Yours

Don't miss Paul Thomas's take on the current kerfluffle, including a great reading list to put the whole testing biz into historical perspective.

Newark: The Day the Dream Died

Bob Braun takes a look, from right on the front lines, at how things are headed south in Newark. A bummer, but a necessary read.

Should Reading Be Taught in Kindergarten? 

Reading expert Russ Walsh takes a look at this question and handles it with intelligence and balance, as always.

This Is What Has To Be Done

Jose Luis Vilson, as always an articulate advocate for both the positive and the challenging. A good positive note to end this week's list on.

Obama's Testing Action Plan Sucks (And Changes Nothing)

As I noted yesterday, the administrative announcement of "Wow, this testing things sure is out of control. We should do something." is absolutely nothing new-- we went through the exact same exercise last year. I know I have readers who don't care for the snark or language over something so serious, but damn-- this makes me so frustrated and angry that it's what I do to cope. So, warning, snark ahead, because I cannot believe that we are going through this same dance of lies and obfuscation again.

What's new this time around is a Presidential video and an action plan. But there's a problem with the action plan. The problem is that it sucks. More specifically, it doesn't represent any shift in administrative policy at all.

Let's take a look at this action plan that some folks are so excited about.

Start with the first three sentences:

One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners.

Read those sentences carefully, because they make one thing crystal clear-- the administrations philosophy on Big Standardized Testing has not shifted so much as a micro-millimeter. The rest of the document simply underlines that.

The preamble goes on to talk about "bad" tests that have been proliferating out there:

--unintended effects of policies that have aimed to provide more useful information to educators, families, students, and policymakers and to ensure attention to the learning progress of low-income and minority students, English learners, students with disabilities, and members of other groups that have been traditionally underserved. These aims are right, but support in implementing them well has been inadequate, including from this Administration. We have focused on encouraging states to take on these challenges and to provide them with flexibility. One of the results of this approach is that we have not provided clear enough assistance for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment.

Emphasis mine. Because before you get excited about the administration taking "some" blame for the testing mess, please notice what they think their mistake was-- not telling states specifically enough what they were supposed to do. They provided states with flexibility when they should have provided hard and fast crystal clear commands directions for what they were supposed to do.

Because yes-- the problem with education reform has been not enough federal control of state education departments.

Now, here come the guidelines for getting "fewer and smarter assessments."

1. Worth taking.

The assessment should provide info about how the student is doing in a quick and actionable manner. It should be part of good instruction. And, my favorite line, "No standardized test should be given solely for educator evaluation." Emphasis on "solely" is mine.

2. High quality.

That means it covers all the state standards (looking forward to those speaking, listening and collaborating tests), elicits complex demonstration of knowledge, accurately measures student achievement, and provides accurate measure of student growth. Now personally, I think they just ruled out every single BS Test currently on the market. But I'm pretty sure the administration believes the opposite-- that they have just described the PARCC, SBA, and all their bastard cousins.

3. Time-limited

Here's the famous 2% rule. Only 2% of instructional time can be spent on testing. I've seen many computations here, but my back-of-envelope figures say 180 days times 6 hours a day times 2% equals 21.6 hours for testing. Thanks a lot.

The action plan also forbids "drill and kill" test prep, and while they're at it, banning quill pens would be great, too. Let's also ban riding penny-farthings. Test prep, of which we all do a great deal, and of which we continue to do a great deal, is not drill and kill.

4. Fairness

There's a bunch of pretty language, but what it boils down to is the same old administrative position-- the BS Test, unmodified and unadapted, must be taken by all students, including students with special needs and English language learners (because taking the same test will magically erase all their obstacles).

5. Fully transparent to students and parents.

This sounds great until you look at the fine print. "Transparent" here means that students and parents are told the purpose of the test, the source of the test requirement, when the information from the test comes back to teachers, how the school uses info from the test, and how parents can use it. So the content of the test, the validity and reliability of the test, the questions on the test, the development of cut scores, and the exact questions that resulted in the student's score-- all of that will remain completely opaque.

But extra kudos to that second requirement, which is basically that the school has to say "This is not a federally required test" whenever they're doing local assessments or one of those many pre-test practice test tests (like LWEA's MAP).

6. Just one of multiple measures.

Sooooo... states must have fewer assessments, but those tests are only allowable if they are conbined with other assessments. Plus other measures. Don't worry. The feds will have a handy list of exactly what is needed.

7. Improve student learning

Test results have to be used to shape teachers, instruction, etc etc etc.

Things the Department of Education Will Do To Help Out

The feds will be providing money for getting rid of excess unnecessary tests that aren't as awesome as the tests that meet the above criteria. The feds will also provide "expertise" which seems to mean "guidelines" for what states should do and somebody sitting by a phone that states can call for consultation. The feds will provide more flexibility to meet their more specific mandates-- good lord, but what kind of mind-twist does one have to go through to do government work?

They also note that they will reduce reliance on test results for decision making. Then they elaborate the opposite. For instance, remember how they had that wacky idea to evaluate teacher education programs based on the student test scores of the teacher program graduates? Yeah, they're still totally doing that. They'll just throw in some more data, of some sort, on top. They also still want student test scores to factor in teacher evaluations, but states can go ahead and throw in other measures "such as student and parent surveys, and observation and feedback systems." So, a combination of Things States Already Do and Really Terrible Ideas.

Some exemplars

The action plan lists some good examples, like-- hey, look! It's New York, the state previously goobered up by incoming Fake Secretary of Education John King, who previously tried to "reduce testing" by trying to get everyone to drop all tests except the BS Test.

And North Carolina is an example, which is impressive since these days North Carolina is mostly an exemplar of How To Turn Your State Into The Worst Place in America For Public Education. Their cliff-bound bus has been driven by conservative GOP leadership, prompting me to wonder for the sixty gazillionth time if our current administration remembers which party they theoretically belong to. But hey-- North Carolina has a Task Force! About Stuff! So, do that, everyone.

Exemplary states also include Tennessee, Florida, the District of Columbia and Delaware, among others. The array of examples are all completely in line with long-standing administration policies and represent absolutely no change in direction whatsoever. Just saying.

About the ESEA

The action plan has a wish list for the new ESEA. Since all of these items involve making states more accountable to and guided by the feds when it comes to all testing in public schools, I think we can safely say that these items have less future than a sculpted ice swan on the banquet tables of hell.

What the action plan doesn't include

The action plan does not address the issue of grad-span testing. There is not a word here, not a comma, to back one inch away from testing every student every year. Pretending to address over-testing without addressing every-student-every-year policies is a sham.

And it certainly doesn't examine the premise of whether or not we need any BS Tests at all, ever, for anything. 

The action plan does not address what test data will be, and what it will be used for. Talking about actionable data is great, but there's nothing here to address that the actual outcome of BS Testing is ranking a student as either Great, Okay, or Not So Hot-- and that's it. There is no depth or detail to the data, absolutely nothing that is of the slightest use to a classroom teacher over and above what we already collect ourselves on a daily basis. BS Testing is not just a waste of time-- when the "results" come back, it is a farce.

Nor does the administration back away from using test results to judge teachers, schools and students-- the number one policy choice responsible for the emphasis on testing in schools (an emphasis the policy was always meant to create). To ignore that policy linkage and its effects is to declare yourself uninterested in really changing the culture of testing that is poisoning public education.

The action plan does not address the question of test quality. Not really. It does not address the issue of doing the work necessary to see if the BS Tests actually measure any of the things they claim to measure.

And the action plan certainly doesn't include any statement about how the judgment of classroom teachers should not be superseded by a standardized test.

Have we been heard?

Despite the fact that the action plan offers no real change and no actual examination of the issues around test-driven education, many folks have been dancing the happy dance all weekend. They should probably stop.

Yes, I get it-- the POTUS actually made some mouth noises that he knows something is up with testing. But look.

When someone says, "I hear you," you have to wait for the rest of the sentence.

Because there is a difference between "I hear you, and we are going to find a way to fix this" and "I hear you, and we are going to find a way to shut you up."

The fact that the administration noticed, again, that there's an issue here is nice. But all they're doing is laying down a barrage of protective PR cover. This is, once again, worse than nothing because it not only doesn't really address the problem, but it encourages everyone to throw a victory party, put down their angry signs, and go home. Don't go to the party, and don't put down your signs.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

USED: Recycled Empty Course Change on Testing

Remember that theoretical problem where someone keeps moving half the distance to a point, and how that means they'll never actually get there? Well, today Arne Duncan once again moved half the distance to the point at which he will someday theoretically accept responsibility for the administrations failed education policies and then actually do something about them.

Duncan issued a statement about testing, and I'd like to be excited that he almost admitted culpability in the Great Testing Circus while stating some actual policy changes to address the problem. But he didn't get there, and I've seen the Duncan "I'll Kind of Say the Right Thing Almost and Then Go On Acting As If I Haven't Said Anything At All" show far too many times.

So what did Duncan actually say, according to the New York Times?

“It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves,” he continued. “At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation. We can and will work with states, districts and educators to help solve it.”

Get that? It's a "problem in implementation." It's not a policy that's Just Plain Wrong. It's not a flat out mistake to demand that all states make Big Standardized Test results part of teacher evaluation or of rating and ranking schools. It's not educational malpractice to use the force of law-ish regulations to force states to use these unproven BS Tests.

No, it's just a "problem in implementation." The policy of using tests to measure, evaluate and rank everything in education-- that's still great policy, apparently.

In fact, if this all seems vague4ly familiar, it's because we did this at almost exactly the same time last year. CCSSO and the CGCS announced that it was time to rein in the testing juggernaut. They even had John King up there helping to announce how golly bob howdy it was time to stop wasting so much time on inessential testing. And the Duncan chimed in to say, "Yessirree, we've gots to roll back the testing." In fact, here's what Arne said a year ago:

Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.

Wow. We've come so-- oh, no, wait. We're exactly in the same place. And it was Downtown Baloneyville then, and the bus is stopping on the same corner today.

The new USED "cap" on testing is a suggestion for just 2% of the year to be wasted on actual testing. Big deal. That's peanuts compared to the vast time wastage of getting ready for the BS Testing. Mike Petrilli chimes in to say, "Let's be careful not to cut really useful and important tests," as if any tests are actually going to be scaled back.

And buried deep in the story is some actual useful information from the Council on Great City Schools report:

There was no evidence, the study found, that more time spent on tests improved academic performance, at least as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a longstanding test sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card.

So, although reformsters repeatedly insist that the ultimate measure of any education policy choice is whether or not it raises tests scores, we will not be applying that metric to the BS Tests. Because reasons.

The administration said it would issue “clear guidance” on testing by January. Some of the language of the announcement Saturday was general; it said, for example, that tests should be “worth taking” and “fair.” Like new guidance from many states, it stressed that academic standards and curriculum are to be fleshed out locally.

Yes, one year later we are still offering pointless PR nuggets and avoiding the real discussion, which is why, exactly, we need the BS Tests at all, and what possible justification there is for using the BS Tests to measure, rank and rate students, teachers or schools. The USED will still punch us all in the nose and take our lunch money, but they promise to try really hard not to take up too much of our time doing it. And the media, with its goldfish-sized memory, reports this as if it's a great step forward and not a recycling of last year's account of this incremental journey to nowhere. Gah. 

(And Obama's testing action plan? That's a crock, too.)

Staying the Common Course

I've asked (and answered) the question before-- is there any conceivable argument that a teacher could muster in favor of the Common Core? I remain certain that the answer is, "No." But I've now read one that makes a lightly better attempt.

A friend sent me a copy of a guest editorial for the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State (teachers belong to all the best-sounding organizations) by teacher Michael Siuta, who wants to make a case for staying the course. Siuta is in his 22nd year of teaching, which means he counts four different high school mathematics curricula in his career. And he would like not to change again.

This is the inertia argument that is often made for the Core-- we've already come so far and invested so much. It's a weak argument, like riding in a car, discovering you're on the wrong road, and deciding that you'll just keep driving in the wrong direction because you've already come so far. And Siuta echoes the worst part of that argument:

Change is not always a bad thing; change just for the sake of change, however, is never a good thing and does more harm than good. 

Yeah, I've heard that argument before, somewhere, some-- oh, yeah. From every single person who fought against the implementation of Common Core in the first place. It was supposedly a terrible argument then, but apparently it has improved with age.

But there is a more interesting point hiding inside Siuta's plea.

It is the nature of education; the ever present underlying question being, “How much of this topic do students need to know?” which leads to the next question of, “To what depth do I need to teach it?” These are questions that can never be answered by simply looking at a set of standards on a piece of paper; they can only be answered by teaching the course, seeing the state exam, revising it for the following year, seeing another state exam, revising the course again … and repeating this pattern for another 4-5 school years. While this is not something that NYSED, parents, or administrators want to hear, it is reality. No amount of training or consultant-led workshops will ever take the place of experience, but constant change has prevented us from ever gaining the amount of experience needed to refine our courses into well-oiled machines. Just when we start to get a feel for the best way to teach a course, we begin working on a new course. How many times over the past few years have you or one of your colleagues uttered the phrase, “I feel like a first year teacher.” That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about the state of education in New York.

But there is something that happens as the Common Core and any clump of pedagogy and content and curriculum are passed through the meat grinder of experience-- each teacher edits, rewrites and revises what has been handed them.

This has been my argument for a while now-- the Common Core, as originally conceived and created, simply doesn't exist any more. What we have is a wide range of various educational stuffs, all carrying the Common Core label and all completely different in style, content, focus, and implementation.

One of the goals of Common Core was to get everyone on the same page. It has failed, failed utterly and completely and absolutely, to do that.

A text publisher reads the core and filters it into a textbook, which come packaged with a curriculum guide attached, both representing the writers' interpretation of the Core. These are handed off to the district mucky-mucks who buy them and "implement" them by laying over them the district's own ideas and priorities. Finally these materials arrive in a classroom, where a teacher adds 'experience."

Here's what that process looks like. Open book to lesson. Teach lesson. Collect immediate first-hand data from students, and adjust accordingly. The books explanation of this sucks. These examples are bad. This test is crap. The time set is too short. Teachers rewrite these programs on the ground. Who wants to guess in how many Common Core-infused math classrooms, teachers have added units teaching students how to do certain functions "the old way" so that they can "get it."

"Implementing" Common Core was like dumping a barrel of deep red food coloring into Lake Erie. At first, it creates a shocking new coloration, alarming and disturbing. Then, as time passes, the coloration disperses, and the lake restores its own equilibrium. Now, dump in too much, too often, and the lake gets truly hurt.

But that's the implementation process. Everybody but teachers shows up with a new barrel of baloney. They dump it into the classroom, and teachers slowly but surely get back to What Actually Works. Siuta isn't really arguing in favor of the Core-- he's just pleading not to be hit with one more barrel of food coloring.

While there are topics in the standards that I do not think should be there, and some that I think are inappropriate for a specific course, in the end I don’t believe that really matters. I truly believe that we as educators can handle any curriculum, but without the time and experience needed to adapt to the change in pedagogical approach, we will never improve our system. 

So here's a real argument that UI almost buy for not "getting rid of" the Common Core (not that anybody is really doing it, but that's another essay)-- just let us keep pretending that we're implementing the Core while we figure out how to do what we know works in the classroom in spite of whatever baloney paperwork the state requires.

It's not a great argument, and it doesn't address the deeply wrong practice of districts that require teachers to stay in lockstep with a pacing guide or teaching script, or the many ways that teachers are being kept from doing what works in the name of one version of Common Core or another. Those are ultimately fatal weaknesses in the argument.  But it's the closest thing to a real argument for staying the course (or at least pretending to stay the course) that I've seen.

Eva & Charter Priorities

Yes, we're getting a little tired of the story of how Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy got some bad press and Eva went berserk, throwing a ten year old child under the bus in response.

But there's one more point I want to make.

After many critics cried FERPA rights violation and the mom in the case slapped Moskowitz with a cease and desist letter, here comes the First Amendment argument. Roughly summarized, it goes something like this: if a person bad mouths you to the press, you have the right to violate their privacy.

It's an interesting argument, and one that I'm a little familiar with. A few years back, a film-maker "featured" our school in a film about two young men who claimed to be victimized in their school settings. It had a moment, and our school took a lot of heat for it, and it was a challenging time for us because a quick stroll through the student's disciplinary file or life after the filming would have created a much different picture. In short, we could have defended ourselves by simply opening the student's confidential files to public scrutiny. But we didn't do that-- and I'm not being more specific with you right now-- because that would be the grossest kind of violation of that student's rights as well as a violation of our most fundamental ethics as a school.

As teachers and school systems, we know things about students and their families that nobody knows, and we have a front row seat to an unending cavalcade of Youthful Indiscretions. Yes, at times it can be hugely frustrating when our hands are tied and people are playing fast and loose with the truth, but the power differential between schools, with our access to a massive amounts of personal and private information, and students, who are just children-- that power differential is so huge that our hands need to be tied, both by the law and by our own professional restraint. It can be hugely frustrating to be under attack in the public sphere from which we can't defend ourselves, but the alternative is to become an institution collecting ammo to use against our most vulnerable citizens, a practice that would both poison the atmosphere inside a school, and which would be deeply, deeply wrong, on the order of a hospital that took pictures of patients when they were naked and sedated, just in case those photos were ever needed to shut a former patient up.

Moskowitz probably violated FERPA, and as a Frank LaMonte of the Student Press Law Center points out, that no school has ever suffered an actual penalty for violating FERPA in forty-one years.

Are there public schools that cross this line, public school administrators who violate student confidentiality in ways that are just plain wrong? Sure. We hear about them because everybody understands that such behavior is a serious breach of professional ethics and a violation of the public trust. Moskowitz's letter does not show the slightest inkling that she is over the line.

Moskowitz (and she did it personally, in a letter signed with her own name) violated a basic trust of any school. And in doing so, she underlined one of the problems with modern charters.

Moskowitz made a clear statement about the school's priorities, and the well-being and rights of the child come far down the list.

Moskowitz publicized the private disciplinary records of a child because the child's mother was making the school look bad. If I were a parent looking at Success Academy, I would have to ask myself-- what information would the school collect about me and my child, and under what circumstances would Moskowitz violate my confidentiality to use the information (and would she go so far as to claim it was her constitutional right to do so)? If I enroll my child in Success Academy, do I then have to hold my breath and hope it is never in her best interest to breach my confidentiality? Does the application give me a place to sign where I agree that if I ever cross her, I can expect her to come down on me with whatever information she has collected about my child during that child's time in the school?

Moskowitz didn't just fight bad PR by throwing a child under the bus. She showed just how little she understands about what it means to be a public school, just how hollow are her claims of running Success Academy "for the children."

Friday, October 23, 2015

Hillary's Teacher PAC Goes to DC

Well, not actually to DC. More like LA. But our old friends at America's Teachers are having a good time right now making connections with real DC players.

You may recall that we first talked about America's Teachers back in June, when the teacherPAC first showed up on the radar. At the time it looked like they could turn out to be a shadowy dark money funnel aimed at the Clinton campaign. But upon closer examination, and an entirely pleasant phone conversation, America's Teachers turned out to be a couple of young guys with a dream.

Naveed Amalfard and Luke Villalobos are a pair of very recently graduated just-getting-started TFA guys. You will have to take my word for it that Amalfard sounds kind of charmingly pleasant on the phone, because when you read any of his "Hey, I've taught for a year and I'm here to tell you all Great Truths About Teaching" he sounds like a self-important jerk. These two had adapted the Clintonian/Democrat approach of simply ignoring the major issues facing K-12 education and focusing on warm fuzzy things like pre-K and free college; maybe that way they could unite an otherwise world of splintered-over-education folks. In late August, they didn't seem to have gained a lot of traction.

But this week, they surfaced again. Joy Resmovits covered the boys for the LA Times, where they scored some meetings with some heavier hitters.

So how are they doing? Well, apparently they have so far raised a whopping $1,500 so as SuperPAC's go, they are more Clark Kent than Kal-el.

On the other hand, if they were hoping to keep bridging the gap between classroom teachers, the unions, and education reformsters-- well, that bridge seems to have collapsed. When Amalfard talked to me in August, he was unhappy about being lumped in with outfits like CAP and DFER, but here's where Resmovits caught up with him:

Hours after Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not seek the nomination, they joined about 30 people in the 15th-floor mid-Wilshire offices of consulting group Propper Daley. Appearing with them was Clinton advocate and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), and Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools and chairman of California Democrats for Education Reform.

Amalfard is a TFA product. When I asked him where he saw himself in ten years, and if he might still be in teaching then, he said, "I surely am considering it." But he seems to understand optics. When I talked to him, he said he had turned down a chance to be an AFT union rep, but in Resmovits piece, he seems to have reconsidered and taken the job, which makes for great PR positioning. Howard Dean also appears in Resmovits piece:

America’s Teachers visited Dean in his Washington, D.C., office, and he agreed to support them because as Teach for America and union members, “they’re the perfect example of how you can work together regardless of your background,” he said.

Dean is a whole reformy story himself.

Standing in the middle of that debate is Dean, who formerly led the Democratic National Committee. “I was a total union person,” he said in an interview. But recently, he warmed to policies that have been less than union-friendly. His views evolved when he visited the school of his son, a former Teach for America teacher, in New Orleans. He started rifling through students’ papers and discovered they were “functionally illiterate.”

"Standing in the middle" would be a generous assessment of Dean's education stance, which is too bad. He has positioned himself as one more Democrat who either cannot or will not see what is going on in education.

But in the meantime, America's Teachers has opened up an internship for anyone who can answer these three question affirmatively:

Are you excited to help elect Hillary Clinton President in 2016?
Are you passionate about improving American education?
Are you skilled at online research, communications, or speaking on the phone?

Are they are real PAC? Are they real players? Are they an actual voice for teachers? On the one hand, I kind of doubt it. Nice guys, earnest guys, but no. On the other hand, we live in an age of powerful wishful thinking. Want to be a teacher? Just join TFA and say you're a teacher? Want to be a superintendent? Just go to Broad Academy and call yourself a superintendent. Want to be an important educational expert? Just get ahold of some Gates money and declare yourself an expert? Hell-- want to be a commentator/journalist about the education world? Just start a blog and get a-typing. Nowadays we can all become anything we want to be-- we just have to say it's so. America's Teachers has moved from a modest two-man operation to a modest two-man operation that gets to meet with major national players in the ed reform politics biz. It's the new American Dream!

Eva Gets Spanked

As recently noted by several fine bloggy outlets, Eva Moskowitz set a new standard in arrogant reckless disregard when defending herself against a John Merrow piece on PBS that outlines some of the less-than-awesome practices of Success Academy.

Specifically, she defended herself by breaching the confidentiality of a young student's records at the school. I'm not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), but it sure looks like a FERPA violation to me when you release everything down to excerpts from the teacher narrative about disciplinary incidents for a student who is readily and easily identified.

Well, apparently the child's mother thinks so, too. Yesterday, Moskowitz was slapped with a cease and desist letter. The letter is reproduced here at NYC Public School Parents. 

I demand that you immediately remove the letter you wrote to PBS and sent to the press on October 19, that contained details of my son’s disciplinary record and is posted at [link removed] , as well as the second follow up letter you posted and sent on October 21 at [link removed.]

The mother notes that actual text of Moskowitz's letter includes the information that the parent did not consent to having her child's private records released. But Moskowitz was willing to smear a ten-year-old child with his six-year-old behavior to defend her pretty PR picture.

As I noted in an earlier post, the picture that emerges of Success Academy in Moskowitz's letter is of a place that deals with a problematic child by emotionally beating him into submission (or out the door, or both). In the past, we've seen her deal with elected offcials who won't give her her way by having her buddies at Families for Excellent Schools mount ugly PR campaigns and by having her friends in Albany beat the Mayor of New York into submission. Now we get to see if either of those techniques are effective against an angry parent with a lawyer.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Did RttT Jump-start Edu-Change?

At Education Next, William Howells offers a rater scholarly look at the impact of Race to the Top in "Results of President Obama’s Race to the Top." (The URL says "Race to the Top Reform"-- I wonder what editorial impulse squashed the R word from the final title.)

In particular, Howells is interested in RttT's effect on the larger world of state education policy. "In its public rhetoric, the Obama administration emphasized its intention to use Race to the Top to stimulate new education-policy activity. How would we know if it succeeded?" Howell's is really interested in just that wonky policy question-- he doesn't address the quality or basis for the policy changes, and though he mentions standards, he does once mention Common Core by name. But he does come to the conclusion that the answer is, yes, Race to the Top jump-started policy revolution in the US.

The surge of post-2009 policy activity constitutes a major accomplishment for the Obama administration. With a relatively small amount of money, little formal constitutional authority in education, and without the power to unilaterally impose his will upon state governments, President Obama managed to jump-start policy processes that had languished for years in state governments around the country.

The always-thoughtful Andy Smarick (Bellwether) thinks that Howells may be suffering from a little irrational exuberance here, and he offers nine points that Howells may have missed. I'm going to go ahead and piggyback on his list.

1) Many reformy things pre-date RttT. Smarick is right on the mark here. Common Core, charters, school takeovers, and test-linked teacher policies were already growing in a NCLB-fertlized garden Howells only mentions NCLB twice, and neither instance gives it credit for influencing ed policy. That's a serious oversight, given that RttT simply doubled down on the fundamentals of NCLB. Talking about RttT without looking at its connections to NCLB is like discussing Return of the Jedi as a stand-alone movie, or considering Paul McCartney's career to start with Wings.

2) Howells doesn't explain why RttT winners had big policy changes 2004-2008. See point 1.

3) All the money was spent by 2011. How could RttT be credited with reformy occurrences post 2011? Smarick offers possible explanations such as new state superintendents (nah), GOP political leaders (meh) and ESEA waivers (bingo).

4) Howells treats never-applying states as "controls" but also says that RttT influenced everyone. It's poor design to suggest that your control group isn't really a control group. Plus, if winners, losers and non-appliers were all influenced by something, the omnipresent influence would suggest that "something" was not Race to the Top. If even the kids who didn't eat the lasagna are throwing up, the lasagna isn't the problem. My theory? RttT was not nearly as large an influence as Race To Avoid Punitive Effects of No Child Left Behind.

5) If RttT affected all states, but affected them differently, there must be a non-RttT explanation for the difference.

6) Howells argues that the financial incentives led some states to apply, and then other states raced to keep up at their own expense, because reasons. Again, RTAPEONCLB pretty well explains this effect.

7) Howells wants to give RttT credit for every reform under the sun, even if it wasn't actually part of RttT. This is just silly.

8) Only a third of state leaders actually said, "Yeah, RttT had huge impact." And they were mostly people who won the race and scored some sweet federal funding. Smarick again points toward an alternate narrative of RttT-- that it did not really spur new reforms, but actually rewarded states that had done the most reformy stuff to comply with NCLB.

9) Howells concedes that RttT didn't have an affect on charters, even though it wanted to, which kind of shoots a hole in the claim of its wide effectiveness.

Smarick is pretty gentle and respectful about it, but bottom line is that Howells' idea just doesn't hold up. And both of them skirt the obvious (well, it's obvious to me) explanation, which is that RttT was an extension of NCLB, both in its choice of education reform priorities, its rewarding of states that were already pursuing those priorities under NCLB, and in the way that the looming shadow of NCLB punishments motivated states to grab whatever hope DC dangled before them. Credit also the recession, which made states extra hungry for cash.

Smarick frames all of this with his quest to understand how RttT was important and what there is to learn about federal grant competitions. He and I disagree about that value-- I think any system of federal funding for education based on a competition to decide which states will be denied that funding is a huge mistake. But I think the lessons and importance of RttT are inextricably bound up in its shadow-sibling, NCLB.

Look at it this way-- if there had been no NCLB before it, and Race to the Top had been proposed in, say, 1999, when state coffers were full and federal coercion of education was so much less. Would anyone have paid attention? Would the money attached to the Race been enough for states to consider handing control of their school systems over to the feds? I doubt it. Anybody who tries to explain the RttT era without a big chapter on NCLB is going to present an incomplete and inaccurate narrative.