Thursday, April 26, 2018

Fordham Reports On Ripe Charter Markets

Today the Fordham Institute released what it calls a report on "charter deserts." I think it could be more accurately called an aid for targeting ripe and ready charter school markets, but it comes equipped with some interesting a potentially useful data tools, and so may still be worth a look.

"Charter desert" is the term Fordham uses for "areas of relatively high poverty where there are no charter schools." In other words, places that are ripe for charter picking.

We could put a new charter right next to that cactus
Fordham offers this as a solution to the "problem" of slowing charter growth. Charters have achieved "market share" of over 20% in more than three dozen cities, so maybe it's time to look for "new frontiers." Sure, the report acknowledges, "one option is to start more charters in affluent communities," but, well, let's change the subject and rather than discuss the many reasons that affluent communities have no real interest in charter schools, let's change the subject to market opportunities we may have missed.

Are we overlooking neighborhoods in America that are already home to plenty of poor kids, and contain the population density necessary to make school choice work, but lack charter school options? Especially communities in the inner-ring suburbs of flourishing cities, which increasingly are becoming magnets for poor and working-class families priced out of gentrifying areas?

To that end, a research team at Miami University of Ohio has assembled an interactive map, and that map is pretty cool. It shows broad blocks of poverty and gives the location (with info) of every charter and every public elementary school. You can zoom in and out and generally swoop around, and while you may not learn anything new, you get a real sense of charter school distribution. Clustered around certain cities in certain states, right where the poverty is. If you ever needed a visual confirmation that charter schools are largely a method of using the urban poor as a mans of extracting money from the government, here it is.

The report duly notes that some of those blocks of poverty are too sparsely populated to offer real charter marketing opportunities. But the rest as just waiting. The two "key takeaways" mentioned are that charters need to move beyond city boundaries, and that states need to be convinced to open up markets to charters.

The whole framing of the document is what you get when your priority is "expanding charter schools reach" and not "improve education for students in poor regions." The map could just as easily be called a map to places where states should be investing extra resources to help combat the endemic poverty of the region. But the goal here is "to provide more charter options" and not "to make the best use of tax dollars" or "to insure that every US student gets a great education." This is a document aimed at people who are advising investors, not at people who are serious about improving US education.

Instead, we ought to go back to the part about wealthy neighborhoods not being great charter markets (or being labeled charter deserts, either) and consider what it tells us-- that when public schools are properly funded and resourced, few people are interested in having choices. If someone is providing you with all the food and water you need, it's less worrisome to be in the middle of a desert.

The College Readiness Problem

At Ed Reform Now, Chad Aldeman (Bellwether) has revisited a chart from three years ago which shows a shift in our country's education level. Here's the chart:

The data actually are about two questions-- how many people over twenty-five have "less than a high school diploma" and how many people over twenty-five have attained "some college,. no degree." That means the chart has a double lag-- it was completed with 2013 data, and that data from over-twenty-fives would cover choices that people made 5-10(ish) years prior to that. That may make some of the specifics open to debate, but the lag doesn't really change the obvious long term trend. 

Assuming that this trend has continued for the last five years, we now have more college dropouts than high school dropouts. Interesting factoid-- but what does it mean?

Aldeman offers three ideas about the implications.

1) The low hanging fruit for high school graduation have all been picked. The higher graduation rate for high schools may represent some gaps in terms of students actually learning, and we may have run out of students that can be pushed through the system.

That's certainly a possibility. If the infamous bell curve is to be believed, there will always be a certain percentage of students who will be on the lagging end. That does raise a question though-- the above graph is based on raw numbers rather than percentages. Now I'm wondering what the chart looks like if we run percentages rather than raw numbers.

2) The ed reform crowd has mostly ignored higher education. Aldeman wants to see more "external pressure" brought to bear on colleges and universities rather than letting higher education be driven by its own internal concerns.

This raises a question as well-- what external pressures should reformsters consider, given their less-than-stellar success from bringing external pressures against K-12. Furthermore, the central thesis of K-12 reformsterism has been finding ways to unleash market forces in public education, and when it comes to higher ed, market forces have already been running loose since the invention of dirt. Aldeman, like many reformsters, complains that colleges face "almost no accountability" for student outcomes, but colleges and universities face exactly the kind of market-based accountability that reformsters have sworn would fix K-12 public ed if given the chance. The ed reform crowd will have to make up its mind on this one.

I'll get to Aldeman's third point in a moment, but let me offer some other observations of my own first.

The chart can be read to mean that we have delayed the moment when a person gets off the education train. In other words, folks who used to drop out of high school now hang in until they're partway through college. That's not a terrible thing.

And the big question is why folks are dropping out of college. As Aldeman told me on Twitter, there are many reasons (academics, soft skills, bureaucracy, finances, etc) and no single silver bullet to fix them all. But if we think people should be sticking around in college until graduation, we'll need to narrow down the issues and address them.

Aldeman's third point adds a new possibility to the list. Well, it's new for an ed reform guy to mention it-- some of us have been pointing this out for years.

For example, we’ve enacted a number of reforms over the last 10 years in the name of “college- and career-readiness,” but we failed to make the link to higher education and we forgot that colleges determine which students are college ready. Colleges and universities never signed on to the Common Core movement in any meaningful way...

Yup-- since the day Common Core was introduced through the day when the term was deemed toxic and replaced with the coded phrase "college and career ready," standards champions have insisted that these standards would make all students ready for any major at any college or any career. That's a ridiculous claim (see also Arne Duncan's promise that we would be able to tell an 8-year-old if she was on track for college), and it always has been, rendered even more so by the fact that standards champions have never ever offered a shred of credible evidence that their standards would, in fact, prepare students for college. And now look-- further evidence that they don't.

"College ready" is a complicated and complex condition that exists at the twisty intersection of specific student goals, the specific college, the specific field of study, the specific cultural and family background, the specific financial issues involved, and a dozen other specific factors. Saying someone is "college ready" is like saying that somebody who's currently single is "marriage ready"-- while we can identify ready and not-ready at the extreme ends of the spectrum, most of the scale is taken up by a big, fat, grey middle. One-size-fits-all solutions are actually one-size-fits-nobody solutions.

Aldeman calls the issue here "myopia," and I think that's generous. A key component of ed reform has been the insistence that we can see and predict things that we can neither see nor predict, to insist that we have a system by which we can know things that cannot, in fact, be known. If we want to help more people get through college, step one is to stop trying to dress them in the emperor's new clothes.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

When China Buys Our Data

We have worried about what ed tech companies would do with all the data that they could (and do) collect from students. We have worried about the creation of a permanent digital that provides a detailed (but not necessarily accurate) profile of students that could be viewed by future employers. We have worried about ed tech companies and their ability to keep this vast treasure trove of data safe from hackers and data thieves. We have worried about sensitive and specific data about students being stolen and used for God-knows-what.

We have worried about all these things. Now a new piece at EdSurge suggests we have not worried enough.

The title of Jenny Abamu's piece is direct and stark: What Happens to Student Data Privacy When Chinese Firms Acquire U.S. Edtech Companies?

As you might well guess, this is not a rhetorical question. For instance, NetDragon, a Chinese gaming company looking to build an education division (with the "largest learning community globally"), bought Edmodo. Price tag-- $137.5 million. NetDragon just last year snapped up JumpStart, the educational game software company, but Edmodo, which is more of a platform company, has its hands on a huge amount of student data, leaving some to wonder whether NetDragon bought the company for, well, the company, or just its Giant Vault O'Data.

Is this a big deal? Well...

William Carter, the deputy director and fellow of the Technology Policy Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says US government officials are taking note of these Chinese acquisitions in the tech startup space.

“There is a concern that data is now a strategic resource, and that acquiring companies for their large data sets could be a means by which China could undermine the strategic influence of the United States,” says Carter.

The concern is not merely that China can acquire a ton of data about US citizens (citizens who are young now, but won't always be) but also that companies like Edmodo can become one more way for foreign powers to influence, nudge and control the political and cultural dialogue in the US-- and start wielding that influence early on.

As a responsible journalist, Abamu has asked NetDragon if they are intending to do any of these naughty things, to which the Chinese company replied, "Not us! We're just trying to make some profit here."

Pep So, NetDragon’s Director of Corporate Development, offers one interesting observation about the US education market. Not only is it "mature," but it is unique in that "we have seen patterns like teachers willingly paying annually $500 from their pockets to buy content on their own. Whereas in China we don't see that." Huh. Do tell.

NetDragon hopes to turn Edmodo into a TeachersPayTeachers type business. And when asked about data safety, so replies

Of course we want to protect our users’ data, and we also want to be targeting our users [with products], so that’s always a difficult balance to strike. We don’t have a straight answer about what we can and cannot do and to be honest I don’t think Facebook has one as well.

Which is a ballsy answer, but more diplomatic than, "Hell, you guys don't know what the rules are anyway."

Can the US keep an eye on US data that is now owned by a foreign power? Especially when, as Carter notes, the "lack of transparency" about the what and how of data collection in various online platforms makes it hard for anyone to even begin to know what is going on.

But we do know a few things about the Chinese and data. We know that the Chinese were hugely successful at waving enough money at Google to make them forget the whole "don't be evil" thing and instead help provide more tools for a repressive surveillance state. And we know that China's rulers have long been interested in the idea of giving citizens "social credit" scores based on basically everything they ever do, as monitored by surveillance software, and then using those scores to allow-- or not allow-- certain activities.. These are not good signs in terms of Chinese treatment of US student data.

As I said, we're probably not worried enough.

Monday, April 23, 2018

One More Bad Personalized Learning Puff Piece

Yet another example of a writer who just took the PR packet he was handed and ran with it.

Adam Thomson has covered a variety of topics for the Financial Times, including real estate in Law Vegas, a review of John Mayer's handling of Grateful Dead music, and an update on the weed industry. I guess that made him just the guy to report on that new Personalized Learning thing that all the kids are talking about these days.

No, journalists-- that is not your job.

Mind you, there is no special rule that one must be part of a special elite corps in order to report on education. But there are a couple of rules that apply for journalism of any sort that are frequently flouted by folks reporting on education, and Thomson's article is a prime example. Following just two rules would have saved this piece:

1) Do your homework.

2) Check your subject's claims.

Thomson gets off to a bad start, claiming that "if you are already an adult" you have probably never seen a mathematics class like the one he's profiling. Then he describes a class where students check in, work at stations, and complete an "exit ticket." In other words, a classroom that runs exactly as millions of classrooms have been running for years.

Thomson is visiting Joel Rose, the guy behind Teach To One, a super-duper tech-based math platform. Rose is a Teach for America alumnus who served three years, then (having beefed up his application) went to law school, then went to work with Edison Education before working on the School of One for NYC schools-- then he launched New Classrooms which now sells Teach To One. Oddly enough, Rose's corporate bio mentions that he started out as a teacher without noting his TFA background.

Anyway, Rose wants us to know that "teacher-led instruction for all kids for all kids at all times" can't be the best way for each child to learn. Then it's time to drop a definition:

Welcome to personalised learning (PL), the fast-emerging face of education that is changing traditional approaches to how we educate young minds by tailoring the content and intensity of study to an individual students' needs, abilities and goals

One might observe that this sort of tailoring is what all good teachers do on a daily basis since forever. But Thomson isn't going to go there. He will talk to Linda Shaw (University of Arizona), a specialist in disabilities and counseling.  Her observation is that

PL has been around for a long time but did not catch on until recently because teachers lacked the tools to tailor material in a highly personalised way.

Yup. Nobody ever did this before, ever. Oh, no, wait-- PL has a long history. I know this from a variety of sources, including the Teach To One website! Now, her point may be that super-duper personalization was never possible until we had-- ta-dah!!-- technology. Thomson goes to the VP of Education at Microsoft for a quote, and Anthony Salcito comes through with "the journey towards personalization has been a goal for education all over the world for the last two decades." Hey, did you know Minecraft can be educational?

Now Thomson will go ahead and note that there has been criticism of PL. Screen-time. Breaking learning into tiny unintegrated bites. Data mining. Hacking and theft of data. These are all problems people apparently talk about, but Thomson will not further examine any of them. He will, via a Rand Corporation analyst, finally acknowledge that PL remains largely undefined, but it's definitely about watching out for students who are behind or ahead. Thomson is not going to follow up on any of this, either, not even to note that tracking has been a thing for decades. But having sort of acknowledged some dissenting views, kind of, Thomson will now return to his infomercial:

Mr Rose of Teach to One remembers his time as a fifth-grade mathematics teacher in Texas, teaching 10-11-year-old students: "I had a classroom full of kids with second-grade math skills and eighth-grade math skills,"  he says. "Then I was given a stack of fifth-grade books and told, 'good luck'."

Yes, when you've only had five weeks of training and you don't stick around a school long enough to figure out how to do your job, this is the sort of thing that's a problem. And because he hasn't uncritically repeated enough baloney yet, Thomson drops the old idea that Rose's students have made "a year-and-a-half's-worth of gains in one school year." Is Thomson going to ask what that even means? Don't be silly.

Thomson finishes with our Rand guy again, who says the research on PL is mixed, and that "widely varying technology products often did not integrate with existing data systems, teachers' efforts to develop personalised lessons were very time consuming, and personalised learning plans were sometimes at odds with what was needed to pass standardised tests." More research is needed.

The final line is another quote from Mr. Pane at Rand-- "It's a nuanced story."

That may be, but there's no nuance in Thomson's story. And there certainly could be. Along with the missed opportunities noted above, I found that Googling Teach To One quickly turned up this story: "Trainwreck: The Teach to One Math Experiment in Mountain View, CA Is a Cautionary Tale About the Perils of Digital Math Education." The post at Open Cultures links back to local coverage in the Mountain View Voice (Mountain View is right in the heart of Silicon Valley), and it includes some "nuance" like this:

Since the program's launch, however, parents at both schools have voiced major concerns that the curriculum is a haphazard mess, jumping between remedial math and overly challenging course content, and that the primary role of the math teacher has been relegated to managing the program rather than to providing direct instruction. Worse yet, some parents say their sixth-grade children have become frustrated and unhappy with math under Teach to One, and are turned off to the subject entirely because of the pilot program.

I found that in roughly thirty seconds, during my lunch half-hour. The same Googling turned up the Bill Gates connection to Teach To One, and it would take little effort to uncover Gates' controversial relationship with ed reform. Presumably Thomson also has access to Google and could have found some nuance on his own.

It's the same experience again and again-- some ed tech reform guru or other announces "We have software that can create luxurious clothes that are visible only to the Very Best People," and entirely too many journalists reply, "You have?!! That's incredible! Tell me more, and I will print whatever you say!!" Journalists are supposed to tell us that the emperor is naked, not provide uncritical listing of the non-existent clothing's detail work. I have no reason to doubt that Thomson is a fine person who is just doing his best to make a living, but dammit guys-- you have got to do a better job than this.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

My Next Career

So, I'm retiring shortly-- June 3 will be my last day working for my school district-- and like many retirees, I'm wondering about my next career.

For the immediate future, my primary job will be Stay At Home Dad; the pay is terrible but the benefits are immense. And I'll continue writing here, where the pay is also terrible.

It's odd how this works. If I had only taught for two or three years, I would be qualified to run an entire charter school, or even serve as the education chief for an entire state. But as I understand it, having worked an entire teaching career instead of just a couple of years disqualifies me for that kind of work.

Meeting with my new Board of Directors
I could set myself up as a consulting firm. That seems to be a pretty sweet deal. Take Antwan Wilson. Wilson spent just a couple of years in a classroom, but upped his skills by attending the Broad Fake Superintendent School and then worked several school administration jobs, then got himself hired for the Big Show in DC Public Schools-- and then got himself booted for skirting the rules of the system. But that's okay, because Denver schools, where he previously worked, hired him to be a consultant with a contract that pays $60,000 for 24 days of work (two days a week for twelve weeks)-- plus per diem and daily lodging expenses. The fee is based on a $150/hour rate. And for those of us considering the consulting biz, here's the kicker-- the Denver COO justified the huge no-bid contract by noting that other consulting companies would have been way more expensive. From which we can deduce that $150/hour is the low end of the money that a well-connected consultant could make (meanwhile, substitute teachers in my district make $100/day). That would certainly help put my board of directors through college.

I like traveling and speaking; maybe I can con people into hiring me to travel to where they are and to talk at them. It could be fun to work at a thinky tank and crank out position papers in my robe at home while my board of directors plays on the floor, but most of the thinky tank money is going to tanks that support ed reform. Hardly anybody is operating a pro-public education thinky tank. Whether you're left-tilted (Center for American Progress, the Century Foundation) or right-tilted (Fordham, American Enterprise Institute), you have to be a fan of charters and choice and privatization and busting Those Damned Teachers Unions. NEPC hires actual scholars, and NPE, while they support the values I care about, does not have the kind of money involved in hiring a bunch of tanky thinkers.

Politics? I suppose, but it's a tough path-- look at how few retired teachers are in office anywhere. And of course there's always Wal-Mart greeter.

Like many teachers, I have managed large groups of not-easily-managed individuals, handled logistics and budgeting for every kind of enterprise from elaborate dances to theatrical productions to sales of merchandise that nobody really wants to buy. I have developed a unique constellation of skills (though I don't have the micro-credential badges to show for them). And all of this qualifies me to do.... what?

It has always been a mystery to me-- in the private sector, employers poach people all the time, including people who don't even work in their particular industry. Government hires private sector people constantly. Where is the teacher poaching? We think lots of folks can enter the classroom after a career in other areas-- why doesn't the door swing both ways?

Why do newly-elected governors never say, "I need a new education chief-- get me a list of the top ten teachers in the state!" Why don't government education agencies issue lists of positions that Must Be Filed by trained and experienced teachers? Why do corporations never say, "We need someone who can herd cats and stretch tiny resources to accomplish great things-- get me a teacher." I mean, it's not like a local school district is hard to outbid-- government or the private sector could easily less money than is typical for such jobs, and still be offering a teacher more money than she's ever made in her life.

But not even teaching businesses go looking for teachers. Colleges and universities can rarely be found stalking local high schools, looking for their next hires. And I'll confess-- at one point I thought charters might be good for teachers because a sensible charter business model would be, "Go out and find the most well-known, best-beloved, most successful teachers in the local public schools and offer them top dollar to come work at our charter school." But that never happened; instead, charters have largely built their business model on being cheap bastards when it comes to staffing.

Teachers are widely respected, trained to be trustworthy, experienced at multi-tasking, well-and-continuously-educated. We can learn new things quickly. Most of us have developed a whole set of "extra" skills, on top of skills like the ability to grab and hold a not-entirely-interested audience. Need someone who can sell something? I sold Julius Caesar to fifteen-year-olds. And nobody-- nobody-- knows more about navigating bureaucracies and foolish red tape than teachers do. But still, about the only folks who regularly look to hire teachers are vendors who want someone to sell their stuff to teachers.

Why doesn't every government and business office include at least one person who says, "Yes, I had a good career as a teacher going, but the opportunity and money that they offered me here were just too good to pass up." People certainly leave the teaching profession (in fairly large numbers these days), but their Next Career is a matter of their own necessity, not of corporate or government raids on teaching staffs.

Could it be that career teachers are really committed to their profession? Could it be that teachers are seen as too ethical to really fit in some corporate or government settings? Could it be that our cultural disinterest in children extends to people who work with children? Could it be that most teachers are women? Could it be that in the government and corporate world we just don't trust people who come out of the collegiate box not focused on grabbing money and power?

It's a benefit to schools that they don't have to worry about poaching-- a relatively stable teaching staff makes a school stronger and more effective. And most teachers are not even looking for their next career-- at least not until they've hit retirement. It's a win for education that folks don't try to poach teachers, but I can't help feeling that it's a lose for everyone else.

ICYMI: Plain Old Edition Edition (4/22)

Plenty to take in this week. Remember to pass along the pieces that you think are important. Spread the word, amplify voices, and get out the words.

Activists and Parents Demand Smaller Class Sizes

A new lawsuit in NY could force authorities to finally implement one reform that we know actually works- reduced class sizes.

Let Me Explain What Happened

Michigan's Senator Kollenberg is shocked and surprised that there's a teacher shortage. How could such a thing happen??!! Political analyst Jack Lessenberry spells it out for him.

Teacher Strikes Shake Up Red States

Rachel Cohen takes a look at how the teacher strikes could means some political shifting in states. Thanks, Trump!

I Lied To My Students Today

With that title, you know it's going to be about the Big Standardized Test.

Why Textbooks Are a Symbol of Teacher Frustration

A look at one of the most potent symbols in the Oklahoma teacher strike

Minnesota Attempts To Thwart Standardized Testing Opt Outs

How far will some states go to stop the opt-out movement. As Sarah Lahm shows, way too far.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

In which Audrey Watters goes to ASU+GSV and hears a lot of ill-informed baloney repeated.

82 Reasons

Nancy Bailey's growing list of things that schools and parents could actually do to improve reading in this country.

The Movie Most Likely To Succeed Is a Paid Infomercial for Project Based Learning

Well, that pretty much says it, but this post at Seattle Education gets into the details.

They've Got Trouble Up There in North Dakota

Speaking of Dintersmith and Competency Based Personalized Learning Education-- remember how reformsters picked Maine as a relatively low-powered state to turn into a reform laboratory. Looks like North Dakota is in line for similar treatment. This piece comes with some spectacularly researched diagrams for showing the links between the players in this new money grab growth opportunity.

Bias in the Education World

Nancy Flanagan looks at bias in the education world and the many forms it takes.

Recipes for Teachers: A Cookbook for the Exhausted Educator

Finally, this gem from Othmar's Trombone. Includes the ever-popular Fridge-Aged Salad.

Friday, April 20, 2018

DeVos Becomes an Actual Punchline

From the moment she became late night sketch fodder, Betsy DeVos has become something new in the world of education secretaries.

I doubt that the average citizen could name five education secretaries-- maybe not even three. But they know who Betsy DeVos is. She's been Kate McKinnoned multiple times on Saturday Night Live.  She's been a punchline repeatedly on late night tv She's used as an ancillary punchline-- in other words, not as the main part of a joke meant to skewer her, but as a useful barb to skewer someone else.

And the DeVos jokes just keep spreading. If you like to waste time sample the culture on YouTube, you may be familiar with the "Everything Wrong With..." series of videos that snarkily pick part various movies. Yesterday they released their clip picking apart The Shape of Water, and smack in the middle of it is a DeVos joke. If you want to see it for yourself, skip to about the 7:13 mark.

The joke is pretty simple. They run a quote from the movie in which the Evil Russians say, "We don't need to learn, we need Americans not to learn."

Then the voiceover artist simply says "Betsy DeVos."

DeVos is literally a punchline, one considered so reliable that there's not even an explanation attached. It's just one line in one video, but still....

I've written before about how I think it's a disservice to the cause to dismiss DeVFos as a dope-- she's no dope. But there's definitely something curious going on when 1) regular citizens know who the secretary of education is and 2) that secretary is widely understood to be anti-education-- even by people whose understanding of the issues is, shall we say, a bit shallow.

But this is where we are. The United States Secretary of Education is a punchline. Good luck to us all.