Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Chester Finn Is Right

Yup. I'm going to direct your attention to a piece from reformster Chester "Checker" Finn (Fordham Institute Emeritus) because I agree with huge chunks of it.



This new piece-- "Betsy DeVos is wrong about accountability for schools of choice"-- does not come out of nowhere. Earlier this summer Finn came out swinging hard for accountability more deliberate and defined than a simple, childlike faith in a parent-wielded invisible hand. But now he's doubling down and explaining why-- and damned if we don't agree on much of this.

He starts by noting that DeVos, in her recent interview with the AP, once again indicated that parent choice is pretty much all we need to hold schools accountable in a choice/voucher system. Also, authorizers matter, and here Finn notices a bit of an issue:

When it comes to charter schools, the Secretary acknowledged that authorizers play a role alongside parents, though she picked the dubious case of Michigan, her home state, to illustrate the point. The Wolverine State certainly has some top-notch authorizers, and they have indeed closed down some failing charter schools, yet the overall track record of Michigan charters is too spotty—at least in the eyes of those who value academic achievement and fiscal probity—to warrant citing it as a stellar example of quality control via authorizing.

Indeed. Consider Bay Mills Community College, a tiny upper peninsula Michigan college that gets the lion's share of its funding by authorizing charter schools hundreds of miles away in Detroit. "Spotty" is a kind term for the charter record in DeVos's home state.

Then he notes this about parents as the first line of defense:

Parents as first line of defense, sure, although she appears to trust the schools themselves to equip the parents with the information they need to make competent decisions. There’s no sign of any sort of impartial data source.

Indeed. What we've seen is that charters are far more interested in marketing than informing, that they are no more committed to getting fair, full, impartial information to their customers than any other company with a product to sell.

And the second line of defense? DeVos doesn't mention any such line at all. Again, this is not a surprise-- everyone who knew told us that DeVos had been strongly anti-accountability as a choice activist.

That's not okay with Finn, who rattles off many of the accountability measures that the Fordham has touted over the years. They're all Big Standardized Test based and therefor junk as far as accountability goes, but I'm going to step past that for today. What's most important, and what I agree hardest with, and what I have often said is wrong with parent-centered choice-- well, Finn lays right into that. He notes that several studies have suggested that voucher systems get lousy or at least not-good academic results.Then:

Sobering, yes, and if we were single-mindedly dedicated—as perhaps Secretary DeVos is—to expanding and extending access to such programs, we might back off from results-linked accountability. In the long run, however, it’s better for choice, for kids, for taxpayers, and for the country’s economic vitality and social mobility that we continue to insist: No school, public or private, is a good school unless its students are learning what they should. And where public policy and public funding are concerned, what kids should learn is a matter of public interest and so are the results that their schools are—or aren’t—producing. It would be wonderful if the parent marketplace were a sure-fire mechanism for gauging and producing those results. Sadly, it simply isn’t. Which is to say, again sadly, Secretary DeVos has this one wrong.

Yeah, we're still going to disagree about what students "should" learn and how we'll know they're learning it. But we are in agreement that public education is not simply a service provided to parents, as if there are no other stakeholders. In fact, taxpayers and society as a whole have a huge stake in good schools. My take-- DeVos and other free market purists want to get all those other stakeholders out of the room so that private schools can pitch as they like to individual parents without some nosy gummint poking its head in to say, "Actually, this school kind of sucks" and queering the whole sales pitch.

But hey-- these are contentious times lately, so I'm just going to enjoy this harmonious moment with someone with whom I generally disagree a great deal.

Oh-- and before someone pipes up with, "But you public ed defenders hate accountability," let me just say for the sixty gazillionth time, no, we don't. That's a story that reformsters tell themselves to explain why we've been so resistant to so many terrible accountability ideas. We are actually big fans of accountability; what we are not fans of are crappy measures based on imaginary data and fried baloney equations and counter-factual assumptions and just generally crap no more valid than bouncing a seven-sided die off the warts on the back of a one-legged horny toad under a full moon. Come up with something real, and we'll be fans.




Happy Curmudgabirthday

Today marks the four-year anniversary of the first post on this blog. I wish I could say it shows early signs of promise, but it took a while to hit any kind of stride here. It also took the help of readers to root out a million typos as well as reconsidering some bold design choices (when this blog premiered, it was white font on black background).

There are more people than I can safely name to thank for supporting the blog (which is rapidly approaching the five million reads mark). I have taken a great deal of inspiration from other writers, and I owe all my readership to the people who found it worthwhile to pass on what they read here. Diane Ravitch, the Badass Teachers, Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, Jennifer Berkshire, Jose Luis Vilson and a whole bunch of early followers who (probably knowingly) nudged me forward on this path. It helped me turn this from a place where I just vent spleen to a place where I could. hopefully, help clarify some issues and make some more sense of the ongoing public education debate. It has also been my great privilege to pass along other voices that deserve to be heard, just as others passed me along.

The most frequent question I get is "How do you write so much?" I still don't have a good answer beyond "low standards." It also turns out to be like the answer to "Twins! How do you do it?" You just do, because you have to. There's a lot that needs to be said. I'm going to keep trying to say as much of it as I can.

I'm grateful for this opportunity, and humbled that  folks are still reading. Thank you-- and keep standing up for public education.


Waiting for my book deal.

Netflix, Disney and Choice

Netflix subscribers may have already heard the news-- Disney is going to pull their content from the online media empire, and start a streaming subscription service of their own.

Take one last look, honey, before we blow this popsicle stand

This is nothing new, but just a further trend that has been steadily developing ever since online streaming library business showed promise. If you want to watch HBO stuff, you need an Amazon Prime subscription. Other stuff is available only through Hulu, and some networks have their own proprietary set-up (Bravo, for instance, figures they should be able to get their upscale viewers to pay big for classics like Top Chef).

My question is this-- does the proliferation of different streaming services represent an increase or decrease in choice?

If one streaming service has most of the available content accessible through one interface and paid for through one subscription, that would seem to be a choice ideal. Everything I want available under one roof for the single efficient price. But increasingly, it looks like folks will need to subscribe to multiple services (so much for saving money by ditching cable) and then hop back and forth between several locations to get what they need. Greater cost, less actual choice under any single roof.

This is the choice solution proposed by voucher and charter fans.

The mission of a public school was to put all the choices under one roof. It's particularly efficient because as students shift their focus (Chris wanted be a trombone-playing astronaut, but is now leaning more toward a dentist who writes mystery novels) they can do so without withdrawing from one school and enrolling in another.

Since her confirmation hearing, DeVos has talked about how public schools are swell and all, but one might not be "a good fit" for a student. That construction, favored by many choicers, is never very clear. Not a good fit how, exactly. In some cases, "not a good fit" seems to mean "filled with too many poor/black/brown children," but I want to believe that's a minority opinion. But if we're talking about academics-- well, that makes no sense. A public school is not a single one-size-only suit. It is an institution built of educational tofu. A variety of teachers serve a variety of students in a variety of ways. A variety of programs and approaches are all there, readily accessible, in one building. If your school is too hidebound to do that, you don't need a different school-- you need to replace your administration..

But even if that is the case, how is choice better? Charters are focused on a particular mission or a particular target student. They are by nature and design more narrow and restrictive. In a choice system, Chris must enroll at Astronaut STEM High (which may not even have a music program) and when Chris's focus shifts, Chris must drop out and enroll at Dentist Academy (which may not have any kind of writing program at all). Meanwhile, the whole system is more expensive; at a minimum taxpayers are paying more to replace the money charters drain from a public system, but overall it's simple math-- operating 10 schools costs more than operating 1 school.

So exercising choice is more restrictively difficult, and the whole system is more expensive. How is this choice? How is this a good idea?

Of course, Disney isn't selling their Netflexit as a way to give consumers more choice. It's a way for Disney to make more money. Choice can be highly profitable-- if you control the access and supply of your particular choice and don't just give it away willy-nilly to the public. I mean, if we really wanted to enhance video choice, we'd somehow put everything on some single site for some single price. And if we really wanted to expand academic choices for students, we'd put those choices under the same public roof without trying to profit from them,

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

PA: Baby Steps on Testing

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced this week that schools in PA would be devoting less time to the Big Standardized Test (our version is the PSSA for elementary and middle school students, with the Keystone exams our test for high school juniors). Currently the BS Test sucks up about three weeks total in testing time; the new proposal is to reduce that time by at least 20%.



That's not a bad thing, but it's a baby step at best. This is positive news, but here's why I'm not doing a happy dance just yet.

Test Validity

Fewer test items means less actual measuring of whatever we're pretending to measure. State officials can either decide to pretend to measure fewer standards, or they can measure the same set of standards with even fewer test items, meaning that the measurement will be even less valid than it is now. I confess to not being super-agitated about this because the current PSSA and Keystone tests measure language skills only slightly more effectively than having students throw darts at a target while blindfolded.

None of that would be super-problematic except

High Stakes

These tests have no real stakes for students, but Pennsylvania still uses them to evaluate teachers and schools. The Keystones were supposed to be graduation exams, a la New York's regents, but they still aren't because the legislature still keeps deciding they're not yet ready to deny a bunch of otherwise graduation-ready seniors a diploma on the basis of a BS Test. So every spring at the high school level, we get to tell teenagers they have to take a long, boring standardized test that will not have any effect on them or their futures at all-- but which will determine whether we teachers and our school are any good, or not.

And mind you, this is in a state where some legislators are still determined to replace tenure with test-based job ranking.

Which is why

Test Prep Will Still Rule

Again, I absolutely applaud reducing the actual test-taking time by 20%. The testing days are absolutely intrusive and disruptive to the work of educating children. But they are not the only way in which the BS Tests have interrupted education. In fact, one could argue they aren't even the most time consuming.

As in many states, Pennsylvania has seen its classrooms infected by test prep. Let's do a few hundred practice exercises to get students thinking like the test manufacturers want them to think. Let's practice reading short, boring excerpts and then answers tricksy multiple choice questions about them. Let's spend day after day after day getting used to the kinds of things the test will ask us to do.

Does anybody think that this test prep practice will also be reduced by 20%? With the school and teachers' professional standing riding on the test-- the test that now has fewer questions carrying that same large weight?

No, I don't think so either.

As long as the BS Tests are high stakes, as long as they are a major instrument used to measure teacher and school effectiveness, they will remain a toxic time-sucking impetus for educational malpractice. Pennsylvania has taken a positive step, but they haven't solved the problem.

I suppose, as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So that's one baby step down, only 5,279,999.5 feet to go.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Whose Children Are These?

Saturday and Sunday we were working our way back from Maine to Western PA (drive-- feed babies-- drive- curse Mass turnpike-- drive-- etc etc). That meant that unlike other folks who watched events in Charlottesville unspool in real time, we got them in every-many-hours blasts. It was heartbreaking and horrifying and completely predictable, yet far more awful in reality than in anticipation. There are lots of thins to be said about events (though I think we're also operating in Onionesque headline "White People Once Again Surprised To Discover That Racism Exists" territory), but I want to talk about what jumped out at me from the disjointed blasts of news.

Twenty years old.















The white supremacist who murdered one woman with his car (while trying to murder others)-- twenty years old. The torch guy who was later shocked that his picture, face pulled back in open raw hatred, was identified and shared far and wide-- twenty years old.

Twenty years old.

So these racists are not grown men, battered and beaten by the long, hard haul of trying to make a living, trying to raise and support a family, trying to make their way in a world that beat them up so badly that they have finally retreated in a huddled posture of hatred. These are not that particular caricature of a nazi, a white supremacist, a fascist racist.

These are boys. These are nearly children.

Their lives have not been long and difficult. They haven't lived long enough to lose big or lose hard. Their life experience is short. Their life experience is not years of rattling around in the big, wide world. We cannot blame the hard edges of the world for making them this way.

Their life experience is school.

They are barely high school graduates. They walked through some teachers' classrooms, across a stage, grabbed a diploma, strode into the heart of this evil movement.

And that means that those of us who teach in those classrooms cannot escape our responsibility in all this.

Teenage boys can be jerks. Some love Ayn Rand's call to selfishness, to abuse of the weak, because it fits so nicely with their inclinations. Some have been soaked in the stew of toxic manhood, told since infancy that the only manly feelings are anger and violence. And some like to say things like "Hitler was really a great guy" not because they have any coherent belief system, but because it shocks their elders in the same satisfying way that "F@#! the government-- I'm burning my draft card" once set aged hackles up.

And those of us who see them in our classrooms are often the last people to get a shot at getting them to understand you can't go moving through the world like that.

So as I face the return to school in a few weeks, I have to ask the question-- what can I do to change that trajectory? How do I convince students who are that way inclined that there are better ways to be in the world?

There are resources out there. Xian Franzinger Barret offers a good set of recommendations on Alternet. There are several good reading lists out there-- this is just one. And Audrey Watters echoes what I have always pursued in the classroom-- teach history. The white supremacist stance feeds on hate and anger, but its foundation is ignorance. And as authorities, knowledgeable in history, it's part of our job to say "This happened. That did not."

As an 11th grade English teacher, I teach a lot of history, and I teach to it overwhelmingly white classes. I suppose it's easy for us who teach in similar situations to focus on the "white" parts of our history because that's "our" culture. But the truth has always been that while the face of American history has often been presented as white, the blood and guts and heart has always been black and brown and red and every damn shade. White students need to learn slave narratives, because that is "our" history, too. They need to know it all. And in times like these, they need to know that just because they would never have walked with those racists in Charlottesville, never said the awful things they said there-- well, racism doesn't always have such an obvious face, no matter how comforting it is to think so.

But I digress, probably because I have no good, clear answer to this. I know we can't always make an impression on our students.I know that you don't make evil go away by refusing to let students say it out loud, and I know you can't deal with uncomfortable things if you aren't willing to have uncomfortable conversations, and that means somehow making a classroom a safe place for everyone, even as you put the pressure on to stand against evil. I know that any company suggesting that we might use a battery of standardized tests to both evaluate and address such issues is a ludicrous scam. I know this is not easily faced or changed.

But twenty years old.

Maybe a mere two years from graduation-- maybe less. Meaning that the only non-related adults who may have ever had a chance to push these children in a better direction were their school teachers. I know none of us want to hear about one more thing we're responsible for, a God knows we cannot work miracles on the hardened skulls of white teenaged boys. We are certainly not the last line or only line of defense.

But the truth is inescapable. There are more of these children out there, waiting to become  raging face of anger or even a murderer, and this fall, they are sitting in our classrooms, and we will have to deal with that mindfully and purposefully. And I also know that it needs most of all to come from grown-ass white men like me, that we are the ones best positioned to talk about the choices a grown-ass white man makes about how to be in the world as either a force for good or for evil. And I know most of all that in this time and place, we cannot be silent about it.


Friday, August 11, 2017

The Squishiness of Writing Instruction

For whatever reason, Judith Hochman's name has been bouncing around the interwebs lately. Most likely it was kicked off by her appearance in a recent Kids These Days article by Dana Goldstein at the New York Times. In it, Hochman lets loose with the sort of pronouncement that guarantees I will disagree with her (which Goldstein underlines by placing it all by itself in a single-sentence paragraph):

“It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman said.



Hochman has a long education pedigree. She taught in New York starting in 1957 (the year I was born) through 1974. In 1978 she turned up at the Windward School (in New York, not the tony LA private school) where she took on teacher training and leading the whole school.  She still runs their teacher training institute, but since 2014 she has also headed up an organization called the Writing Revolution, where they push The Hochman Method of writing instruction. The claims she makes for her method are not small:

Across the country, students are being held to higher, more rigorous standards. These standards provide a set of goals, but rarely provide a map showing teachers how to reach those goals. The Hochman Method is that map.

The Method boils down to six main principles:

*   Students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.
  • Sentences are the building blocks of all writing.

  • When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.

  • The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities.

  • Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.

  • The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.


  • If you are of a Certain Age, none of this may seem familiar, what you might call How Most of MY Teachers Taught Me (this was pretty much Jack Ferrang at my high school). And that's fine-- I have a certain respect for teachers who pick up techniques that have been lying around loose, put a little spin on them, and use them to launch a consulting career. Hochman's is certainly not the worst that's out there (that would be Collins Writing

    And I get why so many schools and teachers like the idea of a system that provides a detailed map, a solid set of instructions for the teaching of writing. It's an understandable impulse. It's just not a very good way to teach writing.

    The problem with writing is that it's squishy, probably squishier than anything else we teach.

    There is no solid metric for measuring how "good" a writer. Can you quantify how Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Chaucer, Kate Chopin, Carl Sagan, P.J.O'Rourke, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and S. E. Hinton stack up each other by measuring how "good" they are? Of course not-- even the attempt would be absurd. Ditto for trying to give students a cold hard solid empirical writing rating.

    Not only can we not objectively measure good writing, but we cannot describe a single path for producing it. Each writer has their own path (which, yes, means that somewhere out there are probably writers who work well with the Hochman method). Trying to teach the One Correct Method for writing is like teaching One Correct Method for kissing. Teaching a student that they must eschew the method that works for them in order to employ the "correct" method is pedagogical malpractice.

    To make matters worse, many teachers of writing do not write. If you want to be an effective band director, you need to play an instrument. If you want to teach a foreign language, you must speak that foreign language. And if you want to teach writing, you must write. I'm sorry, but there it is-- getting writing instruction from someone whom doesn't write is like getting lesson in making love from a eunuch. And if I've hurt  your feelings, I'm sorry-- but this is the easiest problem in the world to fix.

    All of this is so squishy and messy, and we live in world where we have to turn in cold hard grades.

    In desperation, many teachers turn to something-- anything-- that can give them cold, hard objective measures. For generations teachers used to just count up mechanical errors and base the grade on those. Nowadays, teachers look for a rubric or a guide or a system that allows them to assign a grade, somehow, based on something, and there are actually some decent systems out there (I'm a modified six traits guy myself). You can also focus on one particular idea for an assignment ("I'll be looking at X, not Y, on this one"). I can give you exact instructions that will allow almost anyone, step by step, to locate the parts of a sentence. I can't do that for an essay. You have to make your compromises with the system (then subvert it as best you can).

    But we live in the Golden Age of Bad Writing Instruction, driven by the toxic Big Standardized Test movement, which fosters some word-based abomination that pretends to be writing, but is simply sentence-based test-taking.

    Hochman gets some thing right. Despite the fact that folks think students should learn grammar and diagramming (and, God help us, Latin) like We By-God Did Back in the Day, the research is pretty clear that knowing where to hang that adjective clause doesn't do a thing to improve writing. Grammar knowledge is a useful tool-- in the context of writing, just like a basketball is only really useful on a basketball court.

    And her content basis portion leads me to believe that she is not so much teaching writing as laying out how to use writing as an assessment tool, a "full sentence answer" approach. In other words, she's not really teaching writing there-- just sentence-based testing.

    But if we want to actually teach writing, you'll never convince me that "it all starts with a sentence."

    It starts with an idea. It starts with something that you want to say. Bad and mediocre writing starts with the same bad question-- "What can I write to fill in this sentence/paragraph shaped blank that will fulfill the assignment" also known as "What does the teacher want me to say." This is  exactly backwards. So backwards that it often requires the student to set aside what they want to say in order to produce the "correct" response. I did not start this post with a sentence; I started with something I wanted to say.

    A looked at Hochman techniques embedded in classrooms in a mixed bag. As a high school teacher, I would love it if nobody below sixth grade ever taught gramnmar or parts of speech ever again. Just have the students write once a day, minimum, and answer every "How can I...?" question that comes up. The clip that promises to use subordinate conjunction activity to assess Romeo and Juliet comprehension...? No, just no. Assess one thing at a time, please. But workshopping topic sentences for essays that have already been written...? Yes, please. As long as you make sure that students are involved and that you are looking at a variety of alternative solutions, and not One Correct Answer.

    Every piece of writing has to succeed or fail on its own terms. Every writer has to find their own path and their own voice. Some students demand explicit instructions so they know exactly how to get their A. It's all very squishy-- and that's before we even factor in the widlly varying levels of skills your students bring to the table. Sure, you can reduce it to some hard-edged squishless piece of machinery, but you will lose what makes writing worthwhile in the first place, like reducing a kiss to "Step One: Mash your lips together."



    Tuesday, August 8, 2017

    NWEA Thought Police

    Here's an astonishing piece of news from the "You're in the Wrong Line of Work" file.

    NWEA, purveyors of a whole raft of standardized computerized testing, has managed to score a grant, specifically the first annual Social-Emotional Assessment Design Challenge, a competition for assessments that measure social-emotional learning, or SEL.


    I will tell you just how they scored this prize in a minute, but first, a quiz--

    A student, confronted with a standardized computerized test, rips through it quickly with little regard for carefully answering the questions. The student does this because:

    A) The student is bored out of their skull with this stuff and tired of taking stupid tests

    B) The student knows that the test has exactly zero stakes for them

    C) The student is far more concerned about problems at home, a decaying relationship, etc

    D) The student wants to take a nap

    E) The student always fails these stoopid tests so what's the use of wasting time trying

    F) The student has not been sufficiently motivated to create good, rich data sets to benefit government bureaucrats and researchers who depend on these data to shape super-duper policy ideas

    Turns out that, according to NWEA's crack research team, it's none of the above. Here's the line of reasoning, which starts off well enough, and the veers wildly into the weeds:

    Rapid guessing behavior is defined as responding to assessment items too quickly to comprehend the question. Extensive research, conducted by NWEA senior research fellow Steve Wise, links rapid guessing behavior to a lack of student engagement on an assessment. Based on this research, Soland and Jensen studied rapid guessing behavior on NWEA’s MAP Growth assessment and found that it directly correlates to the social-emotional constructs of self-management and self-regulation. Students who demonstrated a pattern of rapid guessing also demonstrated a lower ability to self-manage and self-regulate in school.

    (Emphasis mine). Yes, zipping through a standardized basically shows that you're immature. The test company doesn't have to ask question to police your thoughts-- they can check your brain innards just by how you click the answers.

    This is a classic problem in the testing industry-- these folks are so devoted to and invested in the Big Standardized Tests that they cannot imagine any intelligent response, any display of responsible agency except to take the test slowly, carefully and seriously. If this is the research that won, I cannot even imagine the research that lost. 

    Jacksonian Opportunity

    So here's what much of our vacation looks like from my vantage point:



    You can't see the tiny human sleeping on my chest, but he's there. The book is Take the Cannoli, previously the only Sarah Vowell book I hadn't read. I've corrected that now.

    The book is a collection of short Vowell pieces, including one in which Vowell and her twin sister (who are part Cherokee), take a journey tracing the path and history of the Trail of Tears.

    That, of course, involves confronting the figure of Andrew Jackson himself, who is both the guy who ended the idea of the President as a job belonging to only a Certain Class of American aristocrat, and also the guy who may be one of the most racist, genocidal asshats to ever occupy the office.

    As they contemplate Jackson's grave, Vowell pulls out a letter he wrote about the "relocation" of the Native Americans, giving a glimpse of how he sell such an awful thing to both his people and to himself:

    Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers, but what do they more than our ancestors did nor than our children are doing? To better their condition in an unknown land our forefathers left all that was dear in earthly objects. Our children by thousands yearly leave the lands of their birth to seek new homes in distant regions... Can it be cruel in the government, when, by events which it cannot control, the Indian is made discontent in his ancient home to purchase his lands, to pay the expense of his removal, and support him a year in his new abode. How many thousands of our own people would gladly embrace the opportunity of removing to the West on such conditions?

    The Trail of Tears was, of course, a forced march over thousands of miles to a harsh land not of their choosing, with uncounted dead left along the way (including, Vowell points out, chiefs who had previously been Jackson's allies in battle).

    But Jackson (and others) sold it as falsely equivalent to the voluntary immigration to American from foreign lands. He sold it as something that, you know, the Native Americans really wanted. And he sold it as an opportunity.

    Through human history, this has always been the way when one group of people wants to profit by taking something away from another group. It's really just the samed as this other good thing. Besides, these folks really want us to do it, really want the benefits of this. And in the end, this is a great opportunity for them-- golly, I bet any one of Our People would give his eyeteeth to have this same opportunity (and yet nobody ever does).

    It remains the same today. When someone wants to offer this kind of Jacksonian opportunity, watch your back and keep your hands on your valuables.

    ICYMI: Vacation Edition (88)

    My family's vacation, that is.

    But here are some of the worthy reads from last week. Read and share

    The Death of Recess

    People keep writing excellent pieces about why the shift away from r4ecess for littles is a huge mistakes. As the father of two fresh new littles, I'm going to keep passing along those pieces until the message sinks in to the numbskulls who want to stamp out recess to make room for academics.

    What's Wrong with Donald Trump's School Choice Ideas?

    What those critics really mean by "government schools."

    Close Reading Is Child Abuse

    Mind you, what we're calling close reading these days isn't, really. But here's an argument against it.

    KIPP- More Rhetoric in the Absence of Evidence 

    Paul Thomas dismantles some charter claims

    ALEC's Attack on Public Education: A Report From the Front Lines

    From a man who's been to all those ALEC meetings. It's as bad as you think.

    Screens in School a Massive Hoax\

    A fairly brutal attack on the use of computers in school

    Forming the Curriculum

    Food for thought about curriculum and content

    Why Journalists Shouldn't Write about Education

    Paul Thomas again, responding to Dana Goldstein's off-the-mark piece about writing.

    Three Myths About Reading Levels

    Psychology Today takes a shot at those damned reading levels.

    Saturday, August 5, 2017

    Blog Update

    My wife, the twins and I will be heading up into Maine for the week to just sit and chil (while my mother-in-law watches the dog and the house)l. Internet will be spotty, and there may be little or nothing going on here in this space until I get back.

    In the meantime, feel free to search through the library of posts or better stil, work your way through the blogs listed in the right-hand column. I will see you all when we get back.

    Guest Lyricist: Sympathy

    Regular reader NY Teacher offered this set of lyrics in response to the recent post about Arne Duncan's latest shenanigans. I thought it was too much fun to let languish in the comments, so here it is, with their permission:



    Sympathy For The Duncan

    Please allow me to introduce myself
    I’m a man long since disgraced
    I've been around for a long, long year
    Stole many a child’s soul and faith
    And I was 'round when Barack O’
    Had his moment of doubt and pain
    Made damn sure Billy Gates
    Washed his hands and sealed his fate
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name
    But what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game
    I stuck around Chicago-land
    When I saw it was a time for a change
    Killed the schools and the CTU
    Parents all screamed in vain
    I stacked and yanked
    Held a point guard’s rank
    Helped the charters rage
    Teachers walked the plank
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
    Ah, what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, oh yeah
    I watched with glee
    While young Miss Hell Rhee
    Taught for just ten days
    Using masking tape
    I shouted out,
    "Who’s killin’ Public Schools?"
    When after all
    It is Bill and me
    Let me please introduce myself
    I'm a man long since disgraced
    And I laid traps for Pre-K kids
    Taking tests until they screeched No way
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
    But what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
    But what's confusing you
    Is just the nature of my game
    And every kid is just a data point
    And all us reformers saints
    As heads is tails
    Just call me Arne-D
    Cause I'm in need of some restraint
    So if you meet me
    Have some courtesy
    Have some sympathy, and some taste
    Be sure to use my Common Core
    Or I'll lay your schools to waste
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guessed my name, um yeah
    But what's puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game,

    Friday, August 4, 2017

    Charter Real Estate

    This week Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale raised questions about more than $2.5 million dollars in lease reimbursements to nine different PA charter schools ( the Propel Charter School System in Allegheny County, the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County and School Lane Charter School in Bucks County).



    What we found in some of our audits is that the same people who own and operate charter schools, they themselves create separate legal entities to own the buildings and lease them to charter schools.

    Folks advocating for public education often miss this aspect of the charter industry because it's not really education related. It is, however, big money related. It's why some critics of charters characterize them as more of a real estate scheme than an educational one. In Pennsylvania, what DePasquale found works like this-- Pat McGotbux starts a PM Charter School, a non-profit entity ( so you know it's not one of those evil for profits that everyone condemns). Pat then gets a building and forms PM Realty to lease the building from himself and ka-ching-- a whole lot of taxpayer money goes to make Pat rich with his "non-profit" school.

    In Pennsylvania, part of the problem with these self-profiting arrangements is the same problem with all the other charter misbehavior in the state. DePasquale explains:

    The problem is that we find zero evidence that the Pennsylvania Department of Education makes any effort to verify ownership of the buildings or look for conflicts of interest between the school and related parties. They simply write a check for whatever amount the charter school submits.

    That's how we roll in PA. When charter operators get in trouble, it's likely to be because the feds caught him, not because the state was paying any attention.

    The real estate side of charters is one of several loopholes that make non-profit charters highly profitable. A couple of years ago, the Wall Street Journal noted that the real estate side was attracting many players for a highly profitable bit of business. And states are helping:

    Some states are beginning to make financing tools available to charter schools that had been limited to traditional public schools. For example, the states of Texas, Colorado and Utah now backstop tax exempt bond issues for some charter schools, reducing their capital costs when acquiring facilities, according to Scott Rolfs, managing director of B.C. Ziegler & Co., a niche investment-banking firm that has underwritten more than $600 million in charter school bonds.

    But the growing role of for-profit real-estate developers has added a new dimension to the debate over charters, which are taxpayer funded and independently operated schools that are largely free of union rules. Critics say charter schools are in danger of cutting costly deals with developers who are more concerned with investment return than educating children. The result can lead to failed schools.


    Carl Paladino, the notorious bad boy of the Buffalo school board, has made a mint in charter-related real estate deals. Not only does Paladino build the charters and lease them, but he builds the new apartment buildings near the shiny new school-- a one-man gentrification operation. And he sits on the public school board, where he can vote to approve and support the growth of charters.

    That's not even the most astonishing sort of charter real estate scam. A 2015 report from the National Education Policy Center outlined what might be the worst. Take a public school building, built and paid for with public tax dollars. That building is purchased by a charter school, which is using public tax dollars. At the end of this, you've got a building that the public has paid for twice-- but does not now own.

    In February of this year, researchers Preston Green, Bruce Baker and Joseph Oluwole dropped the provocative notion that charter schools may be the new Enron. It's a lot to take in, but Steven Rosenfeld pulled out five takeaways for Alternet, if you'd like a quicker look. But just some little factoids give you a taste. For instance, Imagine Schools take 40% of the money they collect from taxpayers and put that right back into lease agreements. In Los Angeles, owners of a private school leased room on their campus for a charter school that they were also involved in running-- then jacked that rent up astronomically.

    Certainly not every charter school is involved in some sort of real estate scam. But the examples of such scams aren't all that rare either. A charter in Arizona built nine buildings and then sold them to itself; in the end, only 37% of the charters revenue was spent on students. In Chicago, public schools have been closed and then essentially given away to developers. The charter that Betsy DeVos visited in Florida was part of a cozy lease-to-itself deal. Deion Sanders' ill-fated charter almost ran afoul of real estate self-dealing. And the infamous Gulen chain allegedly uses real estate dealings to help keep the money flowing to its leader.

    In too many cases, a charter school is really just an education-flavored business, a means of driving some real estate profits for the owners of the building, and what goes on inside the building is unimportant and immaterial to the major players in the transaction. In other words, while we may sometimes get preoccupied with the education implications of a charter school, Auditor General Pasquale is right to remind us that sometimes it's not about the education at all.

    Thursday, August 3, 2017

    Duncan's Blood Money

    Matt Barnum this week reported on an extraordinary private meeting of many of the Big Guns of reformsterdom.It happened back in March; only just now are people talking about it.


    Arne Duncan, John King, TFA, DFER, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, KIPP-- the twenty-five gathered folks included all these and more. Barnum reported that Shavar Jeffries (DFER) organized "in part" the meet, which says a bit about his ability to gather folks. DFER apparently still has juice.

    The headline from the meeting was Arne Duncan's call for charter operators to refuse funding from the Trump/DeVos department, calling it "blood money."

    Which is an odd choice. Blood money is money you get because someone has died, and the funding system for charters beloved by Arne Duncan absolutely depended on getting money by taking it from public schools, even if it killed them. Duncan's USED was, if anything, more pro-charter than DeVos, who much prefers vouchers. And when it comes to public education, the major difference between Duncan and DeVos was that Duncan at least pretended to say the right thing, while DeVos wears her disdain on her sleeve. But Duncan is not suggesting the moratorium because of any loyalty to public education. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe the somebody who has died, the murdered party that Duncan wants to avenge, is the federal education bureaucracy.

    Not, says Barnum, that any charters are considering Duncan's idea [Update: at least two of the chains did not take a position at all]. So it's Arne doing what he has often done-- telling other people how they should conduct their business, even though he has no skin in their game.

    But what was really intriguing about the account of the meeting was its purpose.

    The overarching question at the March discussion, organized in part by Jeffries, was how education reformers should respond to the Trump and DeVos administration, including on issues beyond education.

    And that's because...

    The left-of-center charter school advocates who held sway in the Obama administration have a complicated relationship with DeVos, who backs charter schools but also private-school vouchers and, as a member of the Trump administration, is viewed skeptically by many. 

    In other words, they were wrestling with the problem that some reformsters have struggled with since it Trump won the election-- how to distance themselves from people who are politically linked to the wrong party and the wrong end of the left-right continuum, but whose policies are completely in alignment. As long as these nominal Democrats were led by nominal Democrats in a nominally Democratic administration, they could go ahead and pursue fundamentally conservative education policies. But now DC is occupied by something kind of like conservative Republicans-- and when it comes to education they want all the same things.

    This should not be a surprise. Let's go back the DFER founder Whitney Tilson quote about why it's Democrats for Education Reform:  

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

    This meeting circled around the distinction we seem to be going with "progressive Democrat" reformsters are doing it for the social justice, but "conservative GOP" reformsters are doing it because they love the free market. I suppose on some level the distinction matters, but the actions they want to pursue-- eroding public education and the teaching profession in order to privatize the entire system-- are identical, and ultimately, if you and another person insist on punching me in the face, I'm not sure I care a whole lot about the difference in your rationales. Particularly when, as I believe is the case in ed reform, behind both punchers is another guy who doesn't care about either rationale-- he's just bet on the fight and he wants to make a buck. 

    So it's just swell that Arne Duncan is so outraged at what's going on in his old department, but if he is imagining that there's some sort of huge disconnect and difference between the policies of his department and the policies of DeVos. In my punching analogy, Duncan is the guy who beats you up relentlessly for seven years, and then when some new kid comes in and kicks you, says, "Can you believe what she did! That's outrageous. Are you going to take that?!"

    As Diane Ravitch has pointed out, DeVos rode to Washington on a thoroughfare leveled and paved by Democrats. For them to have their little private meetings where they clutch pearls about DeVosian awfulness is either monumental cynicism or stunning delusion. Either way, Duncan better take a look at all those checks he's cashing as a sought-after consultant based on his time in DC dismantling public education, and he'd think a little harder before he starts bemoaning blood money again.
     


    Confirmative Action

    Here are some hypothetical new college admissions for next fall's freshman class at Wassamatta U::

    Jared, George, and Don, who all have lackluster grades and general subpar academic HS performance

    Chris, who would never get into WU except for prodigious skills in a sport

    Pat, a minority student who is a couple points low on their SAT scores

    Which of these students, do you think, represents a problem to be solved?

    Apparently according to the Trump administration, it's Pat. The New York Times reports today that the administration is ready to crack down on discrimination-- against white kids. (Here's a link to Slate's coverage of the coverage in case you've used up your free NYT reads.)

    This bananas initiative is the natural outcome of the meeting of historical amnesia and that aggrieved  base always alert to the possibility of some excellent non-white person actually getting something that some mediocre white person felt entitled to. I mean, seriously-- we all remember what color a snowflake really is, right?

    We've been down this road a variety of times. Remember Becky with the Bad Grades and her lawsuit against affirmative action? And Daniel Golden wrote an entire book about how the Very Rich buy their underachieving children spots in top colleges (Jared Kushner and the Trump children are not anomalies in this regard). To pretend that college admission is some sort of meritocratic system of stack ranking where the top of the stack gets in-- well, that requires us to jump a chasm of disbelief wider than Niagara Falls.

    This is (to digress) one more reason it's absurd to talk about students being "on track" for college based on standardized test scores, as if those actually had something to do with being on track for college. It would be more realistic to check students' on trackiness for college by periodically checking their parents' bank accounts and income statements.

    What we have now is a system that is riddled with confirmative action-- confirming that if you're rich or white or rich and white or athletic or maybe even brilliant, then you can have a spot. We have a long list of reasons that people can cut to the head of the line.

    And that's fine. Colleges are mostly trying to put together a student body that makes the school look good, and many colleges embrace the idea of education as an engine of upward mobility and to do that, you have to include some people who are trying to be upwardly mobile and THAT means accepting people who don't necessarily have the kinds of navigating-the-system tools that let them stroll right in.

    I tell my drama students that an audition for a role is not simply a competition to find the "best" actor. Directors have ideas about what they want, both for individual roles and for the ensemble as a whole. You may think you're great for the part, but you are never entitled to it.

    But affirmative action is more than just a college casting a well-balanced ensemble for their production of This Year's Freshmen. It's an attempt to restore some justice. If you are organizing a marathon, and after the race has started you realize that some bad actors went onto the track and tied some of the runners' legs together, you don't just say, "Oh, well. Just run harder to catch up." You do something to restore fairness to the contest. That does not include saying, "Well, the marathon has been going on for a long time, so that little tied-up thing at the beginning shouldn't matter any more."

    From the days of slavery, up through Jim Crow and our own modern era of systemic racism, a whole sector of American citizens have been systematically denied the tools of success. Some of that is hard to fix for a variety of reasons-- simply making poor people rich through an act of Congress is not doable for a number of reasons.

    But affirmative action college admissions are the simplest thing in the world, a chance to help equalize opportunity with a simple acceptance letter (in fact, it's too simple, and colleges should be paying more attention to helping folks succeed once they get to campus). It costs pretty much nothing-- and that includes the opportunity for some mediocre white person to take a seat. If we're going to suspend the idea of meritocratic selection for all these other reasons, why not suspend it for a bit of justice as well.

    Tuesday, August 1, 2017

    On Track

    The reformsters at The74 are providing a platform for the reformsters at Learning Heroes to pitch the same old dreck (I provide the link not because I think you should follow it, but to keep myself honest and allow anyone to check my work who wants to).

    Learning Heroes is one more Gates-linked group (via funding and founder Bibb Hubbard, who's a  Gatesian herself). They are particularly devoted to the Cult of the Test, and in fact we did pretty much this exact same song and dance about a year ago.


    This time around writer Kate Springer frames the issue as On Track-- 90% of parents say their children are on track in math and reading, but "The real number? Just 1 in 3"

    On track? On track??

    On track to what? As determined by whom? Based on what evidence?

    And really, "track" is problematic as a metaphor, because a track runs from one place to another. The people who assemble these slabs of data-like numbers never look at where the students are coming from, yet that's a piece of information with which parents are intimately familiar. And this "track" data is not a track at all, but a point, a single slice of data from one day of one year. So in a real sense, the conversation between reformy tracking groups and parents is something like this:

    Reformsters: Your child is not on track because he's only 5' 4" at age 15 and he is supposed to be 6' when he's 18.

    Parents: But he was 4' 10" just last year. He's growing like a weed!

    Reformsters: Nonsense. He's stagnant and doomed to failure.

    The underlying reformster assumptions here are all false. They assume that there is one single track that all students must travel on, and therefor one track on which their position can be measured. One track for everyone, a track that starts at the same place and ends at the same place. They also assume that they know where that track and they know what the endpoint should be. They talk as if we can know with great certainty that if you are in the Cleveland train station today then you ar right on track to arrive in Boston, even as they assume that they know you should WANT to be in Boston tomorrow. And who gets to do that? Who can best decide when a child is "doing fine" and who has the right to decide what "fine" means? Who are these people so wise that they know the one destination that all students should pursue, and the one track that leads there?

    In fact, every single student-- every single live human being-- is on an individual track, a track that starts from where they began their journey, and which ends at the destination of their choosing (including, as well, the many times that they will change their minds about the destination).

    Finally, above all the rest of this, this kind of language is an attempt to obscure and give undeserved weight to what we're really talking about-- the student score on a single narrow standardized test.

    "Student achievement," "on track," even, as in Springer's piece "how they are doing in school" are all rhetorical smokescreens for "score on a standardized test."

    Why can't we talk about what we're really talking about? Because then this conversation would be transparently foolish. "90% of parents thought their children will score above the arbitrary cut score on a single narrow standardized test, but they turned out to be wrong" is not much of a grabber. Because so what? Test scores are a reliable proxy for what, exactly? There's no reason to believe that the answer is anything except "nothing." And if you don't believe me, consider the writing by Jay Greene, an unrelated much more reformy Greene, who has written repeatedly about the disconnect between test scores and life outcomes.

    But this misuse of tests as proxy is everywhere in reformdom. Here's DC claiming that their teacher evaluation system weeds out bad apples, when all they've done is prove that if you focus on keeping teachers who are good at test prep, your students will get better test scores.

    If reformsters want to talk about test scores, then let's talk about test scores and stop pretending we're talking about bigger, loftier matters of actual substance. But pretending test scores are really indicators of a student's future or measures of student aspirations or the fur depth on an average yeti-- well, that kind of pretending will not help get anyone on track.

    Teacher Awarded Medal of Honor

    James McCloughlan was drafted in August of 1968, right after college graduation, and because of his background in athletics and sports medicine, received advanced medical specialist training. He began his combat tour in Vietnam in March of 1969.

    On May 13, his company was sent into a three-sided box, and the enemy proceeded to tear them to shreds. Things rapidly deteriorated to the point that McCloughan's superior ordered medical personnel out. McCloughan refused. In the course of the three day engagement, McCloughan ran across an open field to retrieve a wounded soldier. He took shrapnel while rescuing two other wounded soldiers. When supplies ran low, he sat in an exposed position with a blinking light so that supplies could be dropped to the troops.

    In the end, McCloughan was credited with saving ten soldiers. Ten men whose lives would have been cut short. McCloughan was twenty-three years old.

    There is, of course, plenty to object to in the Vietnam war, and McCloughan never should have been there in the first place. But once there, at great personal risk, he saved the lives of ten other young men.

    And this week he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

    But McCloughan did something else with his life. In 1970 he returned from the war, and stepped back into a deferred job that had been waiting for him-- teacher and coach at South Haven High School in his home town of South Haven, Michigan. There he taught through a four-decade career, including coaching wrestling for 22 years and coaching football and baseball for 38 years.

    And for his medal ceremony, Donald Trump delivered a speech that didn't suck.

    Read the whole story. It's not often we think of teachers as Medal of Honor material.