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.