Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Getting Stupical In NY

It seems that some state legislatures are competing to pass the worst education laws. Whether it's Kansas deciding to strengthen education by destroying teaching as a career or Florida beating up on disabled children and grieving mothers, there seems to be a race going on, and if it is to the top of something, that's a mountain I don't ever want to see.

New York has most recently made its bid for the front of the pack with its anti-test-prep law. Like the rest of these laws, it's a legislative action that requires me to invent a whole new word.

You have to be really cynical to be that stupid, and you have to be really stupid to be that cynical, so our new word is-- stupical. (I considered cynipud, but that just sounded like a walking breakfast pastry).

New York has an advantage in the stupical contest because they have Andy Cuomo, whose Thinky Leaders Retreat for High Rollers is pretty stupical all by itself. But New York's new stupical move was to put an actual limit on the amount of time that schools may spend on test prep (2%). This is monumentally stupical for two reasons.

Reason #1. 

Here in PA, we have rules that limit the number of weeks during which high school sports teams may hold practice. So, prior to those weeks, coaches hold "open gyms." An open gym is a totally optional gathering at which the athletes practice the skills involved in their sport. But it's totally optional. You don't have to attend if you don't want to, and you will be completely free to ride the bench and be cut from the team, but that's just a coincidence.

When the stakes are high, people lie. I'm pretty sure we've already documented plenty of instances of schools feeling pressure to cheat their way to acceptable results on their high stakes tests. Cheating was pretty severe and indefensible (though some people received fines and some people got to walk off into $50K speaking gigs). This won't even require actual cheating-- just creative renaming.

Reason #2

And it won't even require that, because these stupical people don't know what test prep really is. They keep saying that it's memorization and drill. It's not.

Test prep is squeezing out real short stories and novels and articles out of the course in order to make room for more "selections"-- one page or less.

Test prep is passing over the 147 different forms of legitimate assessment so that we can do one more assessment in multiple choice form.

Test prep is practicing how to spot the trick answers in those multiple choice questions.

Test prep is teaching students how to stifle their authentic voice and actual thoughts and feelings so that they can write a response that fits the formula and satisfies some faceless test-writer's template.

Test prep is tossing out teacher-made materials to make room for the materials from whichever company sold the district its "CCSS-ready" materials.

Test prep is teaching six-year-olds to do seatwork, sitting in place, for 30, 40, 50 minutes at a time so that by the time they're eight, they can handle the gritty rigors of a full-length test.

Test prep is ignoring the interests, strengths and weakness of the students, and driving right past that Teachable Moment because all of them involve material that is Not On The Test.

And in some parts of New York, test prep includes following your module script from the website instead of using any of your professional judgment and skills.

But of course the NY test prep limit law doesn't recognize any of that as test prep, because the legislators are stupical, monumentally stupical, stunningly stupical. It deserves a stupical statue, but I haven't designed one yet. Make your submissions in the comments section. I promise to steal your idea and lie about it, because stupical is as stupical does.

Computer Writer Vs. Computer Grader

Les Perelman is a hero of mine. The former director of undergraduate writing at MIT has been one of the smartest, sanest voices in the seemingly-endless debate about the use of computers to assess student writing. And now he has a new tool.

Babel (the Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language Generator) was created by Perelman with a team of students from MIT and Harvard, and it's pretty awesome as laid out in a recent article by Steve Kolowich for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given the keyword "privacy," Babel generated a full essay from scratch. More accurately, it generated "a string of bloated sentences" that were grammatically and structurally correct. Here's a sample:

Privateness has not been and undoubtedly never will be lauded, precarious, and decent. Humankind will always subjugate privateness.

Run through MY Assess! (one of the many online writing instruction products out there), Babel's privacy essay scored a 5.4 out of 6, including strong marks for "focus and meaning" and "language use and style."

Perelman has demonstrated repeatedly over the past decade that "writing" means something completely different to designers of essay-grading software and, well, human beings. When Mark Shermis and Ben Hammer produced a study in 2012 claiming that there was no real difference over 22,000 essays between human grading and computer grading, Perelman dismembered the study with both academic rigor and human-style brio. The whole take-down is worth reading, but here's one pull quote that underlines how Shermis and Hammer fail to even define what they mean by "writing."

One major problem with the study is the lack of any explicit construct of writing. Without such a construct, it is, of course, impossible to judge the validity of any measurement. Writing is foremost a rhetorical act, the transfer of information, feelings, and opinions from one mind to another mind. The exact nature of the writing construct is much too complex to outline here; suffice it to say that it differs fundamentally from the Shermis and Hammer study in that the construct of writing cannot be judged like the answer to a math problem or GPS directions. The essence of writing, like all human communication, is not that it is true or false, correct or incorrect, but that it is an action, that it does something in the world.

Computer-graded writing is the ultimate exercise in deciding that the things that matter are the things that can be measured. And while measuring the quality of human communication might not be impossible, it comes pretty damn close.

There are things that computers (nor minimum-wage human temps with rubrics in hand) cannot measure. Does it make sense? Is the information contained in it correct? Does it show some personality? Is it any good? So computer programs measure what can be measured. Are these sentences? Are there a lot of them? Do they have different lengths? Do they include big words? Do they mimic the language of the prompt?

And as Perelman and Babel show, if it's so simple a computer can score it, it's also simple enough for a computer to do it. Babel's "writing" is what you get when you reduce writing to a simple mechanical act. Babel's "writing" is what you get when you remove everything that makes "writing" writing. It's not just that the emperor has no clothes; it's that he's not even an emperor at all.

In the comments section of the Chronicles article, you can find people still willing to stick up for the computer grader with what have become familiar refrains.

"So what if the system can be gamed. A student who could do that kind of fakery would be showing mastery of writing skills." Well, no. That student might be showing mastery of some sort of skill, but it wouldn't be writing. And no mastery of anything is really required-- at my high school, we achieved near-100% proficiency on the state writing test by teaching our students to
           1) Fill up the page
           2) Write neatly
           3) Indent clearly
           4) Repeat the prompt
           5) Use big words, even if you don't know what they mean ("plethora" was a fave of ours)

Software can be useful. I teach my students to do some fairly mechanical analyses of their work (find all the forms of "be," check to see what the first four words of each sentence are structurally, count the simple sentences), but these are only a useful tool, not the most useful tool or even the only tool. I'm not anti-software, but there are limits. Most writing problems are really thinking problems (but that's another column). 

Babel demonstrates, once again, that computer grading of essays completely divorces the process from actual writing. HALO may be very exciting, but getting the high score with my squad does not mean I'm ready to be a Marine Lieutenant.

Is There No Common Ground? Well.....

I sympathize with Peter DeWitt, the former K-5 principal who has morphed into a pundit/trainer. In his blog at EdWeek he can often be found trying to chart a course between the Scylla of the CCSS-based Reformsters and the Charybdis of rabid opposition to any changey things in school while sailing under the Pigpen's Black Cloud of corporate deceitfulness with the Pebble of rhetorical purity tests in his shoe.

I get the desire to believe that surely we're all adults here and we ought to be able to work things out like intelligent human beings. Much of his writing has been about finding middle ground, bridges between the two sides, and he most recently addressed the idea directly in a blog entitled Education: Is There No Common Ground.

I understand the value of that question. A decade ago when we were on strike, one of my oft-repeated sound bites was "This is not a contest for one side to win, but a problem for all of us to solve together." DeWitt says he named his blog "Finding Common Ground" because he "was hoping to meet in the middle on some tough issues." I want to believe that's possible, because in general I believe that where people are pursuing what appear to be different goals, they are often pursuing the same values, but in different ways.

But after wading through the swamp of current education debates, I've reluctantly come to believe that some of our biggest issues are the result of fundamentally different values-- and that creates an unbridgeable gap.

We value the students, the young human beings who are trying to grow into their best selves. Reformsters value students only as cogs in the machine, a part of a system that is built to generate outputs and throughputs. When given a choice between what's good for the system and what's good for the students, reformsters pick the system. They say that they want the system to work well in order to insure students success, but they do not see a value for student success beyond using it to prove that the system is functioning well.

We value testing that helps us make more informed choices about how best to identify and meet the needs of individual students. Reformsters value testing that generates the numbers that prove how well the system is working.

We value standards that give us a guide for the direction student education should take. Reformsters value standards that keep the system trim and in line. We think good standards allow for human variety within teachers and students. Reformsters think good standards correct (i.e. wipe out) individual variations within the system.

We value the toughness and ingenuity to use limited resources to make a difference. Reformasters value the opportunity to make a buck.

We think teachers are the front line soldiers in education who have devoted their lives to the job. Reformsters think teachers are the main obstacle to education in this country.

We think people who are in trouble need help. Reformsters they need to be kicked in the butt and cast aside.

We believe that American public education is a system worth saving. Reformsters believe it is a system worth stripping for parts and destroying.

We believe in a process that allows all voices to be heard, that allows for discussion and revision and redirecting, open to all stakeholders. Reformsters believe that if you don't have money or powerful friends, you don't count and your voice is, at most, an annoyance.

That is perhaps the most frustrating part of these bridging discussions. While men of good faith like Peter DeWitt are really trying to keep the possibility of finding common ground open, reformsters like Duncan and Pearson and the Gates et al have no interest in even opening the door to such a conversation. They don't need to talk to the little people, and they so no reason they should have to.

You know who fought tirelessly to maintain peace between the British government and their American colonies? Benjamin Franklin. Franklin desperately and repeatedly worked to do his very best to find common ground with Great Britain, believing fervently that there was more to unite us than separate us. It was one of the great disappointments of his life when he stood (by some accounts) in Parliament, listened to the British, and realized finally that there was no common ground, there would be no bridge, that the British government did not have peace or bridge-building or anything remotely resembling the best interests of the colonies in mind.

I've had my Ben Franklin moment, and I suspect, at some point, Peter DeWitt is going to have his. I admire him for his optimism. I just can't share it any more. I still want to understand, and I still believe that there may be some people tucked in among the reformsters who are good faith and good intent, but I am no longer in the market to buy a bridge.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Malloy: I Didn't Bring That Ugly Girl to the Prom

Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy has joined the parade of politicians working to backpedal like a boss away from the Common Core.

On the CTMonitor site, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas recaps Malloy's Monday interview on NPR.

Malloy does his best to create fear and trepidation for anybody considering an opt-out for testing, and his best includes raising the specter of the feds cracking down. "If too many students opt out," he says in what I imagine to be his spooky voice, "the federal government will take our money and find us in violation of No Child Left Behind. I hear that Washington State is going to lose $40 million for losing their waiver, and we don't want to do that!"

This is, at best, a fuzzy version of the truth, but it is actually an interesting invitation to a cost/benefits analysis. Will it cost Connecticut more to continue complying with the Duncan Waiver Edict than it would cost them to stay in compliance? Because "Spend fifty dollars or else I will fine you ten" is not all that compelling an argument.

But Malloy seems to know he's on shaky ground because instead of doubling down on his federal oogie-boogerie, he throws DWE under the bus.

I didn't adopt Common Core. My predecessor did. Like handling the deficit, I was also handed the problem of seeing this implemented.

Well, that certainly speaks to Malloy's great confidence in the value of the CCSS. "The Common Core: As Appealing As Massive Budget Deficits" would make an awesome slogan for the standards, though I'm guessing we won't be seeing it a lot, and Malloy will probably not get his invitation to the next CCSS Boosters Ball.

Thomas wraps the piece up with appropriate journalistic dryness:

While former Gov. M. Jodi Rell entered the state into an agreement with other states to implement Common Core, the Malloy administration signed an agreement in 2012 with the federal government to implement the new standards and tests in order to receive a federal waiver to the No Child Left Behind law.

While we're rejecting slogans, we can probably throw out "Dannel Malloy: Because Courage and Truth-telling Are Overrated" as a campaign slogan.

The New Enemies List

The Tea Party threat is over. Well, over-ish.

I've been writing about this in the context of other topics, but I believe it deserves its own attention. Over the past ten days, I've noticed a shift  in the narrative about the Enemies of the Core. Back in the day, the Core's enemies were those crazy fringe Tea Partiers. No longer.

On April 21, The Daily Beast attributed attacks on the Core to "an unholy alliance between the Tea Party and the teachers' unions." That article got some play across the internet.

By last weekend, the calmer voice of MSNBC reporter/commentator Steve Kornacki was also discussing Core opposition under the headline of "Unions and Tea Party Find Common Ground."

Yesterday, Michael Petrilli at the Core-loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute was discussing opposition and dividing it into two basic groups-- Libertarians and conservatives on the right, and the NEA on the left. No Tea Party in sight, but the union wanted to use this chance to back away from policy "it has never liked in the first place." Not only do unions oppose CCSS now, but despite but what you may remember seeing and hearing, they never did. Hooray for rewrites of history.

And of course today, Brookings releases a new "study" showing that both unions and teachers are the biggest problem with education reform.

I popped on over to the NEA websites to see any signs of this new opposition, but no-- at NEAToday the most current CCSS article is still President Dennis Van Roekel's weak and almost-immediately-backpedaled-from denunciation of the implementation of the core. That was back in mid-February. At, a link to a CCSS-shilling article about how change can be swell is still on the front page. So if the NEA is opposing CCSS, it's doing so very very quietly.

Why make the extra effort to hold up the unions as CCSS opponents? Are we trying to bring conservatives to heel on CCSS by trotting out the standard boogie-men of unions? Are we just putting more weight into the Reformster narrative of teachers as the biggest obstacles to education (just as doctors and nurses are the biggest threat to health).

I'm going to read the timing as desperation. It wasn't that long ago that Reformsters were busily trying to convince teachers that all teachers really lerve the Core. Apparently we've stopped trying to sell that story and we're heading back to teachers as education-hating obstacles to truth, beauty and the American way. I can live with it.

Petrilli Warns of the Day After

Fordham has deployed the Damage Control team of Michael Petrilli  to put up an article at the Governing website. Petrilli and his sidekick Michael Brickman (who, sadly, did not even get his picture on this article for which he's billed as co-writer) have a warning for Common Core foes:

Like a dog that finally catches the bus he'd been chasing forever, what happens when opponents of the Common Core State Standards finally succeed in getting a state's policymakers to "repeal" the education initiative? Early signs from Indiana and elsewhere suggest that the opponents' stated goals are likely to get run over.

The Thomas B. Fordham Insitute is a thinky tank that famously was paid both to promote and evaluate the Core, and they've been carrying water for it ever since. In particular, Fordham has been trying to thread the needle of whipping up conservative support for the Core. This article hints about the newest angle of spin they'll be attempting.

Petrilli acknowledges that opposition to CCSS is not "monolithic," and he proceeds to break it down. On the right we have Libertarians who want states to reject everything, and conservatives who want higher standards. Both want to get the feds out of the ed biz; Petrilli and Brickman think those folks are swell. On the left, "the National Education Association sees an opportunity to push back against a policy it never liked in the first place." Lefties object to the Core because of teacher evaluations and the standards being "too hard." Petrilli and Brickman think these guys are full of it.

Indiana and Oklahoma are hitting the rewind button hard, but no state is giving up the whole package because they don't want to give up the money attached, and because they don't trust the schools to do right by students if there aren't measures and sanctions.

But Indiana critics are also unhappy because the new standards look a lot like the Core (only, Petrilli claims, wimpier and suckier). But they should not be surprised, because "if the goal is to align the Hoosier K-12 system with the expectations of colleges and employers, standards drafters will inexorably come to many of the same conclusions."

See? If you want to get your students ready for college and career, you will unavoidably reach the exact same conclusions as the crafters of the Core, because they were just that good and just that correct, and one size really does fit all.

Indiana's new standards (like other "new" standards) don't AT ALL resemble CCSS because state leaders were trying to get rid of the political albatross of the Common Core brand without pissing off Arne Duncan and his Big Buckets of Money. The new standards' resemblance to the Core is not the result of political tap-dancing-- it's the result of the inevitable, inescapable Rightness of the Core. Relax. One way or another, you will all be assimilated.

What about states that want to keep the Core and ditch the Tests? Petrilli warns that new tests will be really, really expensive (not like the PARCC and SBA with their annual massive per-student costs added on top of a complete rebuild of computer infrastructure-- those things were a damn bargain).

What about the criticism that we aren't allowed to change or alter the Core. Of all the people who have pointed this True Thing out, Petrilli picks Phyllis Schafly (!!!) to carry that quote. He says, sure, states can make changes, like how some states added cursive writing, and I guess Petrelli conveniently forgot the 15% rule on additions. Though honestly-- he probably has a point here. If you do mess with the Core exactly who is going to come after you, and with what?

"Is there a better way forward?" Short Petrilli answer-- no. Leaders should grasp the business case for the Core (not the educational one, Mike?) "Half measures designed to mollify the critics will not cut it. The best that policymakers can do is to give voice to their concerns and then get out of the way." And so we return to one of the recurring themes of the Reformsters-- Democracy sucks, and people who aren't as wise as their betters should just be ignored.

It's worth noting that the CCSS support has shifted. From "Don't even go near that door" we've shifted to "Don't even put your hand on the doorknob" to "Okay, well, you may have turned the handle, but you better not pull the door the rest -- no no-- don't open it any more!!" You'll be sorry. Big costs and much inconvenience, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!I look forward to his next column, "Wait Till Your Father Gets Home."

[Edited: Apparently I don't know how to spell Mike Petrilli's name before I've had my morning bagel]

Monday, April 28, 2014

Branding Education

What if we were serious about treating education like a business?

I recently finished an advance copy of What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn. It is a book that has absolutely nothing to do with education. Instead, Yohn looks at how brands from Kodak to Nike fail or succeed, and how building a brand leads to a higher level of real success.

Yohn has been around through several decades of corporate work from Frito-Lay through the rescue work of Sony. She is a business uber-expert. So let's see what happens if we measure the Education Reform Brand with the yardsticks delievered in her book. Yohn presents seven brand-building principles, and it takes her a whole book to do it, so I'll be grossly over-simplifying here. So what else is new.

Great Brands Start Inside

This chapter was the one that immediately made me think of education reform. She is loaded with great pull quotes.

It's always easier to change what you say about your company than it is to actually change your company.

Or this quote she passes on from Sam Palmisano at IBM:

When your business is primarily based on knowledge, [then] people-- rather than products-- become your brand.

Yohn tells the story of IBM's reboot to underline the need to build a brand that grows from the inside, that is an outgrowth of the culture of the people who do the work of the company. She shows a process in which the company starts by finding out what their culture is (not insisting on what they think it is, or should be) and then generating a new culture by starting with employees as the foundational building blocks.

In other words, brand building can't be done as a top-down imposition with an eye on the customer experience and making that customer experience reflect the values.

In the case of the Reformy Status Quo, we already know how much the people on the inside have been involved in creating the brand culture-- not at all. But this view also shows how the brand fails. No matter what Reformsters say about their brand, the customer experience of students is high stakes standardized testing and the preparation for it.

We can see this in the tenor of the current push back. For most of the customers of Reformy Status Quo, the Test is the ultimate expression of what the whole brand is about.

Yohn quotes Jim Collins: "The great companies are internally driven, externally aware." Ed Reform has been deaf to the voices of teachers inside the system, and blind to the results for students outside of it.

Great Brands Avoid Selling Products

Yohn opens with the story of Nike's momentous decision to scrap an ad campaign about how Nike started the fitness revolution and instead launched "Just Do It."

We humans are emotional creatures. We make our purchases based on how products make us feel. That's why great brands succeed by seeking intimate emotional connection with customers. Either the product satisfies and emotional need I have ("I want to feel healthy and successful") or it offers me access to a self-identity that I want to experience and express ("I'm an athlete").

Education should be able to lock into this-- we are all about helping students fulfill desires and express self-identity. But RSQ has deliberately rejected all of this.

We know what David Coleman has to say about what you feel and think ("Nobody gives a shit") and the whole RSQ movement has been like. We don't care about feelings, emotions-- we want data, meeting standards, hitting benchmarks. We want kids to show grit, not whine. Once I started thinking about this, I was struck by how completely RSQ has worked to strip all emotional language from discussion of education. How your child feels about going to school and getting an education is immaterial. Be college and career ready as a mechanical meeting of a standard requirement, not because it will allow you to realize hopes and dreams about yourself, to become the person you dream of being.

It's striking, the degree to which RSQ passed up the chance to make the debate all about hopes and dreams and aspirations and emotions. Instead, the message has been charts and data and, when feelings are mentioned, it's only to suggest that students should feel bad (and get rigor). In that context, one of Yohn's sub-headings really jumps out--

Emotions Trump Efficacy

Great brands are built on feelings, an emotional connection between the customer and the company. Not unlike the emotional connection that so many people feel for their local school, the emotional connection that so many Reformsters believe an obstacle rather than the point.

Great Brands Ignore Trends

If you follow trends, you are always behind. RSQ goes one step behinder by following trends that are already fading because they have failed. Vouchers, VAM, stack ranking, standardized testing-- all trends borrowed from the business world and all being dropped just as RSQ is setting them in cement.

Yohn points out the value of being a challenge brand, and to their credit the Reformsters have tried to frame themselves as challengers of the status quo. They just.... aren't. As one of Yohn's subheadings notes,

It's Not the Data; It's What You Do With It

Great Brands Don't Chase Customers

The idea here is that having a strong brand attracts customers. A "lighthouse brand" doesn't chase customers, but rather lets them come.

Oddly enough, old school charter schools (back before the primary metric for a charter was ROI) used this. Be very good at something, wait for students who want that thing to sign up. But "without a strong sense of self, a brand doesn't inspire success."  What projects a strong sense of self? If we go back to the top, we're reminded that the projection comes from the customer experience and relationship with the brand employees who are suffused with the brand culture.

Meanwhile, the RSQ chases students with butterfly nets, trying to grab them up with all manner of charter takeovers and faux parent triggers.

Great Brands Sweat the Small Stuff

Attention to detail. Attention to design. Making sure that every choice is an expression of the brand culture. "The mark of a great brand is not being obsessive compulsive; it is being intentional."

This also means that a brand's dysfunctional qualities will be reflected in the details, which is where we are with RSQ. CCSS supporters complain that critics are picking away at tiny details, but it is in the tiny details that they reveal themselves. In fact, in some details (like the lack of any real plan for how RSQ will affect special needs students), they reveal what they think is tiny and unimportant (answer: special needs student population).

Yohn has advice on how to catch this: experience your brand like a customer. If Reformsters want to really experience the brand, they need to get in a classroom, take a PARCC. Yohn also talks about silos, and how disconnected parts of the company lead to a clunky, just-plain-bad customer experience. Such as when standards development is disconnected from testing  is disconnected from materials development is disconnected from staff development (if any).

Great Brands Commit and Stay Committed

This is the story, for instance, of how Krispy Kreme gets more interested in expanding and making big bucks than in making especially good donuts. The problem about commitment with RSQ is that Reformsters are committed to things like political power, making money, pushing their agenda, and winning. Lots of things other than education.

Commitment to education would look like, "We are going to find the best practices, no matter how much we have to search, who we have to talk to, how many of our pet theories we have to abandon." Instead, Reformsters make commitments like "Nobody can change the CCSS at all."

What you commit to, no matter what, is what identifies your brand. Reformsters are not comitted to education.

If you made a list of all the things your brand is able to do, you'd probably find that the list is quite long. Now try compiling another list, the list of what your brand was made to do.

Common Core and the testing regime attached to it are defined around what we are able to do. Try to find me a teacher, even a CCSS-supporting teacher, who looks at the Core and says, "This is what I was made to do." Commitment is about identifying core competencies and staying focused on them. RSQ has defined education's core competency as data generation and testing. This is not what we were born to do.

Great Brands Never Have To "Give Back"

"Great brands are themselves becoming a force for positive social change, rather than simply supporting external programs."

Yohn lists four traits to consider when looking at this aspect of a brand:

       *Success-- quality products and financially strong
       *Fairness-- well-priced, good value, honest and decent relationships with customers
       *Responsibility-- respectful of employees
       *Trust-- consistently delivers on promises about products and services

So, zero out of four for the Reformsters.

What Have We Learned       

Yohn certainly isn't the only business consultant in the world, and I am certainly the last person in the world to argue that education should be measured with the yardstick of the business world.

But at the very least, this look at an actual book about current business theory demonstrates that EVEN BY BUSINESS STANDARDS, the Reformsters are failing. Many other writers and I have spun out light-years of wordage to demonstrate that Reformsters have failed by our standards, by the standards of the education world. But it is well worth noting that they have also failed by their own standards, by the standards of good brand management.

The Gates Wants Higher Ed To Take a Stand

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Dan Greenstein and Vicki Phillips are making yet another pitch for the Core on behalf of the Gates Foundation (Greenstein is director of postsecondary success and Pillips is director of education).  I would love to tell you that they have shiny new talking points to offer, but no-- it's the same old fluffernuttery. Here's the breakdown.

They begin with a mystery-- why, they have wondered, don't more young people who start college actually earn degrees. They had reams of data (really? like what, pray tell) but they wanted to hear from college leaders, and let me say that it's refreshing to hear reformsters say that sometimes you just have to ignore the data and actually talk to people.

So they asked college leaders what the barriers to success were, and shockingly, college leaders responded with a resounding, "Hey, it's not our fault. It's those damn high schools." G & P note that the complaint was most prevalent at community colleges, which I take as a big fat hint. I've discussed the college unreadiness phenomenon before, but here's my short theory-- college freshmen are increasingly unready for college because colleges are increasingly accepting students who are clearly not ready for college. This might be related to the increasing college full court marketing press aimed at convincing every student on the planet that OMGZ they must has college or they will fail and be poor.

And about the P word-- the research tells us repeatedly that what is linked to school achievement? What's that, boys and girls? Yes, poverty. And which students are most likely to enroll in community colleges? That's right-- poor ones. So two graphs in, I'm ready to solve this mystery for them. But no-- they are headed in another direction.

So, is this view an attack on high school educators? Not at all. We see this as a reason for K-12 and higher education leaders to work together on behalf of students. It’s exactly why higher education leaders must engage with the Common Core State Standards — the biggest and boldest effort in a generation to ensure every student is prepared to succeed in college and the workforce.

For too long, they opine, we have taught to standards that don't match knowledge and skills needed for post-secondary success. The CCSS were designed to address this by providing rrrrrigorous goals for all students. No matter where they live or what they want to do after school, this one size will fit all. HOW do we know the CCSS match the knowledge and skills needed for post-secondary success? Because we just do, shut up.

The new standards move far beyond memorizing facts and figures. They challenge our students to develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, to think critically, and to apply what they are learning to the real world.

And thank God for that, because in my classroom we have never done anything but memorize stuff and poke rocks with sticks. Yes, a critical part of the CCSS sales pitch remains the implication that all schools and teachers have been mired in stone-age teaching techniques and general stupidity. Tell me again the part about how this is not an attack on high school educators.

Specifically, the full and faithful implementation of the Common Core could all but eliminate the need for colleges to provide academic remediation to students enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school.

I am out of words. This sentence is like a black hole of dumb that just sucks the air out of my brain.

CCSS is not curriculum, nor does it prescribe content, I hear. But any student going to any college who earned any grades from any courses at any high school will be fully prepared to be a freshman at any college. Even in the fantasyland that reformsters occupy, how does that work. How. Does. That. Work.

G & P follow up with the news that Kentucky adopted the Core and their percentage of grads ready for college and career increased from 38% to 47% in a single year, a statement is only true if you believe that a single bubble test will tell you whether someone is college and career ready or not. I don't. You don't. Bill "We'll have to wait a decade to see if this works" Gates doesn't. And I don't believe that G & P believe it either.

This imaginary college readiness will reduce the college time and save students lots of money, and I am sure that the colleges who are trying to con my former students into taking extra remedial course they don't need will welcome the chance to make less income with wide open arms.

G & P say another swell benefit of the Core will be purposeful connection between high schools and colleges and I say, bring it on, since colleges currently ignore us when we do everything attach a blinking red sign on transcripts that screams "This student is not ready for college!" Of course, we often talk about our students preparing themselves for college, and clearly they bear no responsibility at all.

But now to the action item portion of this piece.

Many colleges are working to align their freshman course to fit the new high school course standards and-- wait! what? Let me see if I follow this.

We rewrote high school standards to better match expectations of college freshman courses. Now we are rewriting freshman course expectations to match the new high school standards. So in fact the Core Standards are actually written on a Moebius strip? The back of the Worm Ouroborus? Or somebody just made them up from air and is now using circular reasoning to make it look like they have some objective basis. One of those three. Got it.

Anyway, G & P want to sound the alarm, because some groups are "working to purposefully undermine them with misinformation that isn't about quality."  Critics continue to claim that CCSS are improper federal overreach, that educators weren't involved in creating them, and that they dictate curriculum. And here we arrive at the plea of this article:

The higher education community is in a unique position to reinforce what matters most, affirming the quality of the Common Core State Standards and attesting that the standards are aligned to better prepare students for credit-bearing courses.

In other words, "We told everybody that you really want this stuff, so it would really help us out if you would play along with that and talk and act as if you really DO want this stuff."

The Common Core State Standards should be a watershed moment in our nation’s efforts to improve the lives of young people. The new standards will be critical in determining how well our students succeed in K-12, and whether they are ready to succeed in college, the workforce, and beyond.
You know what would really sell that? Proof. Any proof or support at all. One study that shows how standards improve college readiness. One study that shows how the CCSS are directly related to requirements to college success. One study that shows how one-size-fits-all standards improve student achievement across large, nation-sized student populations.
G & P wrap up with the old "let's not lose momentum" cheer, with a special emphasis on how they really need higher ed people to engage in the battle for the corporate co-opting of American public ed. It took two high-priced Gates directors who-knows-how-long to write this. It took one teacher a lunch shift to respond. I probably should have just eaten lunch instead.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Steve Kornacki & The New Narrative

The old narrative attributed Common Core opposition to the Tin Hat Wing of the Tea Party Wing of the GOP. Arne Duncan was fond of claiming that opponents were just a fringe group of (probably racist) looney tunes who could be easily dismissed. Good dependable conservatives, like, say, Jeb Bush, were those who distanced themselves from the crazypants wing of their party. Hey-- if those crazy tin hat folks were claiming that CCSS was federal overreach and bad policy, that must mean the Core are totally okay, right?

Well, that narrative has been failing for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that it's severely truth-impaired.

Clearly there are CCSS critics on the Left, and clearly association with the Tea Party hasn't been enough to scare turncoats like Bobby "Local Control" Jindal into behaving themselves and keeping in line with other solid corporate conservatives.

So what can we do? What's a new narrative that would both explain Core opposition from the Left AND present conservatives with another toxic boogeyman with which they don't want to be associated?

How about teachers' unions!

Enter The Daily Beast and its screeching story about the "unholy alliance between the Tea Party and the teachers' unions." I might have taken that for a one-off, but today over at MSNBC, a network deeply devoted to the corporate masters of the Core, we have this story from Steve Kornacki.

Kornacki is a kinder, gentler reporter than the overwrought Beast, but his point is the same. His chronology of the Core's genesis isn't all that far off, but he winds his way around to an explanation of why the Core's conservative supporters are suddenly flipping their flops. Kornacki acknowledges that the rollout of Common Core testing has freaked out a lot of parents and teachers, but he arrives quickly at the real game changer, the new opposition from the NEA and the AFT.

This will come as a shock to all the union members who have been begging the NEA and AFT to pull their faces out of the Common Core's hindquarters. But on-- Kornacki says politicians now face the difficult task of navigating between the Tea Party on the right and some organized teacher groups on the left.

There's a good seven minutes of discussion between an assortment of folks including Rob Astorino, Lindsay Layton from the WaPo, Jim Douglas, and NJ teacher Wendell Steinhauser. I am going to brush past them really quickly.

Layton: Boring history of standards attempts going back to Eisenhower. All Presidential, all failures. DOE started with specific no-touchy-states mandate.

Kornacki: But when "they" created Core, they thought they had threaded the needle.

Layton: And so it went very quickly with success until now, because it came from the states. (Did the WaPo send an education reporter?)

Kornacki: Why I am hearing so much resistance all of a sudden from Republicans, Astorino?

Astorino: I don't think it's just from Republicans. Astorino sets up the ordinary citizens angle, namechecks his kids, talks about homework, ticks off the inappropriateness of the requirements and the problems of IEP students. He gets what they want, but one size fits all, everybody crossing same finish line at same time, just doesn't happen. Oh, come be Governor of PA, Rob Astorino. Differences between on paper and in real life. Three weeks wasted on test prep. This whole thing is a huge untested experiment. Bill Gate "we'll find out in ten years." Don't like the idea of my child being a lab rat, and by the way this is expensive. He is strong and confident, yet pleasant and not at all mean or grumpy.

And BOOM-- in about three minutes, Astorino delivers a Master Class in how to run on opposition to the Common Core. I'm going to put up a second link to the clip, just so you can watch that.

Douglass: Former VT and NGA head for CCSS is perplexed. And here is a great new narrative bit-- because remember how NCLB was a federal program pushing into states. The Governors created CCSS BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO PUSH BACK!! The Common Core are a blow for states' rights! How about THAT, you conservative opponents. Also, employers wanted it and 30th in world on standardized test scores, wah.

Steinhauser: NJEA guy who likes standards, hates testing. PARCC sucks, and that's why the pushback. Overtesting is bad. Also, talking is hard.

There is apparently more after the break, but I have seen plenty. Our lessons for the day.

1) Tea Party and Teachers' Unions oppose the Core. Don't you hate those guys? Don't you love the Core now?

2) The CCSS were a blow against the federal government.

3) Rob Astorino is a guy to pay attention to.

Brookings Research Reveals Teachers Are the Problem

Brookings will release a new book this week with the charming title Teachers versus the Public: What Americans Think about Schools and How To Fix Them.

And yes-- that title tells us where we're going right off the bat-- teachers really are the problem. In fact, teachers aren't just the opposition-- teachers aren't even American. Perhaps we are all bused in from Outer Slobovia?

The blurb promises that the book "offers the first comparison of the education policy views of both teachers and the public as a whole, and reveals a deep, broad divide between the opinions held by citizens and those who teach in the public schools." And here are some of the specific findings.

* The opinion gap is larger between teachers and actual Americans, that it is between any subsets of eal Americans.

* Widest teacher-human gap issues are (brace yourself) merit pay, vouchers, tenure "reform", charter schools, and annual student testing.

* "Public willingness to give local schools high marks, its readiness to support higher spending levels, and its support for teacher unions all decline when the public learns the national ranking of their local schools."

* When given "new information" current performance levels, teacher pay and current expenditure levels, teachers' opinions change less than the opinions of civilians.

 I cannot explain the first finding, nor can I think of a reason to care. The second is not shocking. The third and fourth are an extraordinarily easy effect to create. I've written about it before re: a Hunt Institute poll. The whole key is the "new information" that you provide your respondents; just pick "new information" that prompts the response you want.

This also explains why the "new information" doesn't move teachers so much-- because it's hard to change people's opinions with new information if the people know enough to recognize your "new information" as unvarnished baloney.

The book provides the first experimental study of public and teacher opinion. Using a recently developed research strategy, the authors ask differently worded questions about the same topic to randomly chosen segments of representative groups of citizens. This approach allows them to identify the impact on public opinion of new information on issues such as student performance and school expenditures in each respondent's community.

See what we're really looking for here, what we are really researching? This is not a study about understanding the political tectonics of education issues, and it's not a study about how people are forming their opinions. It's not even research about how teachers are big stupid Slobovians who are trying to pull their Slobovian wool over good American eyes. It's reseach about how to change peoples' minds. Here's the conclusion.

Altogether, the results indicate that support for many school reforms would increase if common core state standards were established and implemented in such a way as to inform the public about the quality of their local schools. 

So what we've actually got here is a marketing study framing how to achieve more victory in the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public. The way to beat our enemy, that vast army of Slobovian teachers, is to provide "new information" to the public ("Get your New Information right here! You know it's fresh because I just made it up!") and in particular, to make sure that CCSS is set up to "prove" that their schools are failing.

The blurb also contains "advance praise" from four education titans. I'll paraphrase--

Joel Klein-- Teachers want the status quo (not the actual status quo, but the status quo we wiped away a decade ago) but when the public discovers what big fat failures schools are, they'll let us do whatever we want.

Jeb Bush-- blah blah blah. It's weird, but Jeb's words actually resist being read, like there's some osrt of force field. Educating the next generation (current students are SOL)

That Woman- This mighty fine research underlines how out of touch teachers are with regular humans and how we will have to drag them into alignment.

Bunch of People from Hoover Institute-- "This scholarly book corrects and changes the political debate.  The authors reveal that it is teachers themselves—not just their union representatives—who stand opposed to school reforms a majority of the public favors.  In many ways this points to a much larger problem with improving our schools."

It's not just the unions-- it's those actual damn teachers. This seems like a no-brainer, since the national teacher union leadership has already rolled over on school reform.

That last quote underlines what seems to be the message here-- we have marketing to do, and we have to do it to wipe away the influence of those damn teachers. Those damn teachers are, in fact, the main obstacle to education in this country. Clearly, teachers went to college and worked to find a full-time job with mediocre pay just so that they could build a beachhead on the shores of Educationland and fight off anyone who tried to settle there. We always knew that teachers were the problem, but now we have Real Sciency Research to prove it.

This isn't really about teachers versus the public-- it's about teachers versus the reformsters for public hearts and minds. So, one part marketing research, one part explicit attack on teachers. The book comes out April 29. You know you'll want to reserve your copy now.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

MSNBC Re-affirms Its Uselessness in Education Coverage

Over at MSNBC, you can watch Andrea Mitchell interview Arne Duncan with all the hard-hitting journalistic thoroughness displayed by Arne's Rent-a-Teacher interviews produced by the DOE.  It's four and a half minutes of blood-pressurizing fluffernuttery. And I'm going to break it down for you so you don't have to watch it. Once again, you owe me, reader.

Andrea starts out in front of a pretty picture of the White House saying that the Obama administration has announced, or will announced (when are we running this tape, again?) a new program to hold state moneys hostage unless schools of education Fix Things Real Good. And look-- here's Arne Duncan. Let's open with a hard-hitting, probing question-- What is this, and how is it going to work?

"Quite simply, we believe that every child deserves a highly effective teacher. And every teacher deserves to be well-trained, well-prepared before they ever enter the classroom," says Arne, wearing his happy yet intense face. "And that is why we are, as of today, completely shutting down the Teach for America program." Ha! No, just kidding. As always, the irony of a call for effective teachers from people who also believe that anybody off the street can and should be a teacher is lost.

Arne says he travels all over the country, all the time, and talks to starting out teachers. All the new teachers know Arne. "Often the vast majority feel they were not prepared," So..... some number. But that's unacceptable. So we want to challenge states--er, I mean partner with states (because, you know, if I were actually running the whole country like my own federal school district, that would be illegal) to make sure every teacher is ready to hit the classroom.

Which is not really a bad sentiment, except then Arne oversells it as each teacher being completely ready to succeed on the first day in September (sucks for you guys who start in August, I guess), and I guess that's okay except that if Arne knows the secret of making a beginning teacher fully equipped on Year One, Day One, he should bottle that miracle goo right away, because most of us take several years to really get a grip. But "success" is a fuzzy word, so I'll let it go.

Are you putting any money behind this? Curriculum advice? Andrea wants to ask a question that will keep Arne explaining. He says, "We have resources." So, well, there you go. We're already throwing around $100 mill every year on teach grants-- we want to make sure that those are going to places that take teacher prep seriously.

Arne thinks about the medical model. Doctors have residencies, and they study stuff before they ever touch a patient. They have a seriousness of purpose there that we don't have in teacher training, and I have agreed with Arne about this before (the short form of my point is that if we were serious about American education, Arne Duncan wouldn't be in charge of it).

And now Andrea is going to take over for Arne and carry some of his talking points for him, starting with Finland being oh, so, serious about teaching and we're just going to ignore the many ways in which our current Reformy Status Quo goes against the Finnish model. Those students do so much better, which means scoring higher on international tests, because teachers are taken more seriously. And look-- Andrea Mitchell has both explained the purpose of education AND diagnosed the entire problem! Arne didn't even have to show up!

Arne says "We want to do everything we can to elevate the profession," and I'm pretty sure he and I have different meanings for "everything we can." Because I think maybe they could, for instance, talk to teachers and parents and listen to what they have to say rather than dismissing them as a bunch of distracting noise or whiny liars who want to obstruct CCSS because they can't handle the truth about their idiot children. Maybe he meant "we want to do everything we feel like," or maybe he meant "we want to do everything we can, but we aren't going to." Also, he loves the South Koreans, because there is a culture that really mirrors our own.

Our teachers are/could be nation builders too, but we don't train, prepare, respect or compensate them as such. So we're going to do everything we can (there's that phrase again) to elevate the profession, starting with spanking college programs.

Mitchell has heard that there is some controversy about tying teacher evals to test scores. And here's your Arne Dunan t-shirt ready wisdom chunk for the day--

The goal of teaching is not to teach; the goal of teaching is to have students learn.

He is proud of that-- he's got his best Arne smirk on. So we have to measure that and tie accountability and multiple measures. Andrea asks about the metrics, and Arne assures her (with hand gestures) that states would have lots of flexibility, and Andrea cuts to Washington State, where officials explain that when the US DOE says "flexibility" they mean "flex my way or I'll bomb you into the Bush era." Ha. Just kidding. The irony of that term's use will fly quietly away, like a fluffy albatross. Arne also wants to survey teachers. I suggest he get on twitter and do an #askArne because that always works out well, but I'm guessing we'll select who we ask question a little more carefully.

And now comes the special part where Andrea and Arne join in demonstrating that they apparently have NO IDEA WHATSOVER of how teachers are actually trained. They appear to believe that teachers do nothing but take philosophy, history and psychology of education and never actually practice teaching, and Andrea thinks maybe prospective teachers should get out in a classroom as part of their college training and HOLY MOTHER OF GOD how can they not know that Student Teaching is a Thing? I have had a college senior in my classroom for fourteen weeks working on her technique and practice side by side with an actual teacher (that's me) and I'm preeeeeeetty sure that our situation is not unusual! But no, Arne says that this is the crux, that teacher wannabes need actual practical experience with (you'll like this) twenty-eight or thirty diverse students. "Clinical experience is so important," says Arne, and I guess that's true because an seasoned television reporter and the head of the Department of Education just sat there and displayed that they don't know how doctors or teachers enter their professions.

Now moving on at the 3:00 mark, we'll pivot to a Common Core question. It's a controversy. Are you surprised, Arne? Arne deflects like crazy-- People want to play politics with lots of issues. Republican, Democrat, Arne could care less because he's a father with two kids ("as you know, Andrea"-- what? Do they hang out a lot?) and we all want high standards for our children. We don't want to lie to our children (but their parents are another matter), we don't want to dummy down standards, and we want students across the nation to be truly college and career ready when they graduate.

Today when students graduate "far too many of them" have to take remedial courses "because they weren't prepared" and of the thousands of separate elements that could explain that, we're going to go with "standards." That's unacceptable. The remedial stuff, not the bad solutions. That should be a bipartisan issue. So, what controversy?

Mitchell winds up with the issue of college value and college cost. She asks about that in a questiony kind of way, and then answers her own question by saying that, golly bob howdy, if you go to college you end up rich (so I guess we're not going to discuss the research that suggests that it's the other way around), and Arne talks about wanting it to be more affordable, and Mitchell brings in Elizabeth Warren to discuss making college loans as cheap as Big Bankster loans instead of using student loans to create huge profits for the DOE and no, I'm joking again, Mitchell does no such thing. Mitchell and Duncan stumble over each other trying to get this talking point across the finish line in time, but by working together, they manage.

Arne thanks her for the opportunity to present his press release live and in person with her help, and MSNBC has successfully used up another 4:30 without allowing its airwaves to be tainted with any hint of actual journalism.

US DOE Revives Truly Terrible Proposal

President Obama has brushed the mothballs off one of the worst, dumbest proposals in Arne Duncan's USDOE toolbox (and that is not an easy bar to clear). As reported by Reuters, Duncan is poised to revive the plan for test-based evaluation of college teacher prep programs.

There are already many dumb plans in place, from the content specific Praxis tests (because if you can pass a computerized bubble test about your content area, clearly you can teach it) to recent suggestions that we can test prospective teachers for grit.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters poor teacher preparation programs produce teachers "who are under-prepared, who are ineffective and who are frustrated."

When it comes to identifying a problem, the feds have actually done pretty well. There are some truly execrable teacher training programs out there. I know that because, like most teachers, I have dealt with some of their products as either student teachers or colleagues, and it is hard not to conclude that the application for some teacher programs consists of a simple question:

Will you give us this large sum of money if we let you take teacher classes from us?

One can easily identify at least one source of the problem. There are simple too few 18-to-22-year-olds to go around these days. Being picky is an expensive set of principles for a college to embrace. So I think most teachers have to admit that what Arne has to say about some teacher prep programs isn't any harsher than some of the things we've said in our own teacher lounges about certain programs. (We might also point out that Arne has offered, all on his own, an excellent reason to shut down TFA, but let's move on.)

So in the face of a real issue-- subpar teacher prep at a few colleges and universities-- what does Arne have to offer? Nothing less than one of the dumbest ideas ever in the history of bad, dumb, dumbly bad ideas ever. Duncan wants to track student back through their teachers all the way back to the teachers' college of origin. Yes, an eight-year-old's low reading score will be used to help shut down Wassamatta U's art education program. Because, data.

It's hard to really convey how terrible this idea is. It's cliche at this point to observe vis-a-vis Testing that you do not make a pig grow fatter by weighing it. But even that metaphor is inadequate, as putting a pig on a scale will actually tell you how much it weighs.

No, Duncan's college program data scoring program would work more like this: Shave a strip of hair of the back of the pig, then weigh that hair and, using a special proprietary formula, calculate the weight of the pig. then use the pig's weight to determine how healthy the pig is. Then use the pig's health index to calculate the health index for the whole barn full of pigs. Then use that data to calculate a rating for the quality of the barn. Then use the barn's rating to work out the quality of the lumber used to build the barn. Then use the lumber unit ranking to score the mill from which the lumber came, which in turn can be used to rank the equipment used to cut down the trees that were turned into lumber. And from there we can arrive at a quality rating for the gloves worn by the guy who operated the equipment used to cut down the trees that were turned into lumber that was built into the barn where we raised the pig that grew the hair that we shaved off his back. Easy peasy, and all done with numbers and formulas, so you know that it's just loaded with science and data and stuff. 

The US DOE proposes to start with tests that measure, at best, a small sliver of student learning which will be used to evaluate teachers, who only affect a small sliver of that learning, and then use that rating to rank the college of origin (which only affected a small sliver of that teacher's professional skills). 

The US DOE proposes to take a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of slice of pie, and given just how bad the CCSS tests are, it proposes to have all the sliver slicing done by a blind one-armed guy using a chainsaw. 

This proposal rests on two favorite administration assumptions:

1) Standardized tests, particularly those produced by large corporations, are flawless measures of a child's education.

2) Everyone who works in public education is too stupid to figure out anything at all without corporate-backed feds to tell them.

Do I know a better way to fix teacher education? You know I do (who would become a blogger if he didn't have an answer for everything). But I'm going to save that for another day, because I don't want anything to distract us from the sheer awesome mountainous screamingly foolish heap of dumb that is this new proposal. It is the Grand Canyon of dumb, and it deserves to be viewed quietly, with awe and respect, before we start telling our state legislators that there's one more dumb idea from DC that we need them to ignore.


Friday, April 25, 2014

What Test Prep Is Not

I've noticed a meme in writing promoting CCSS tests lately in which fans promote the New Improved Test's ability to dig deep into the furthest thinky places of the human brain. "It's the end of the old bubble test," these enthusiastic testinators declaim. "No more of that test prep." Here. Here. And here.

And then, as sort of a rhetorical bank shot, they slip in what "test prep" means to them, and it's generally defined as it is here, in this fairly direct example included in New York's recently-released FAQ guide to Corporate Baloney Talking Points About Testing:

Do Common Core tests require excessive or rote standardized test preparation?
No. NYSED discourages rote standardized test preparation, which takes time away from learning. The best preparation for testing is good teaching.

Got that? "Test prep" here and elsewhere is defined as rote memorization. And it's swell that we're going to stamp it out-- except that "test prep" hasn't meant rote memorization since your great-grandfather invented dirt!

We've been doing hard core test prep ever since No Child Left Behind was a pup, and it has NOT consisted of rote learning or memorization. It has consisted of learning how to perform the specific cockamamie tasks favored by the designers of the various state-level assessments.

We have covered "How To Spot the Fake Answers Put There To Fool You." We've discussed "Questions About Context Clues Mean You Must Ignore What You Think You Know." We've discussed how open-ended questions require counting skills (the answer to any question that includes "Give three reasons that..." just requires a full three reasons of anything at all, but give three). For lower-function students, we covered such basics as "Read All Four Answers Before You Pick One."

We have pushed aside old literary forms like "short stories" and "novels" in favor of "reading selections"-- one-page-sized chunks of boring contextless pablum which nobody reads in real life, but everybody reads on standardized tests. We have taught them to always use big words like "plethora" on their essay answers, and to always fill up the whole essay page, no matter what repetitive gibberish is requires. We have taught them to always rewrite the prompt as their topic sentence. In PA, we have taught them what sort of crazy possible meaning the test-writers might have assigned to the words "tone" and "mood."

Like the Test Prep Titans of the SAT world (who will not be going out of business any time soon, no matter what David Coleman says), we have not had our students rotely memorize a thing. We have simply tried to prepare them to travel from the Land of Education to the planet Crazy Baloney, where everything operates according to different laws of sense and physics.

Still, it is technically correct that the new CCSS Tests will not require memorization, just as we will also not demand that students ride to school on their pennyfarthings and take the test with self-sharpened quills. Once again, Reformistas have rushed in to solve a problem that we don't have.

But test prep? We'll certainly doing that, like a boss, all day, hard, because our jobs and our students' futures depend on this newest trip to Crazy Baloney. Memorization won't help them a bit. Unfortunately, neither will a good education, critical thinking, and great reading and writing skills. The New CCSS Tests test exactly what the Old NCLB Tests tested-- the students' ability to take a high stakes poorly designed unvalidated craptastic standardized test. And as long as that's what we're testing, we will be test prepping until we can't pedal our pennyfarthings another inch.

When Washington Waiver Is Washed Away, Will We Waive Weeping?

Arne Duncan, King of All Schools, has banished Washington State to an earlier age. Stripped of their flexibility (our current word the law-cancelling edict that cabinet secretaries can apparently issue), the state must now tumble back into the unloving embrace of No Child Left Behind.

In the short term, this is terrible news for the state. Under NCLB, this is the year that we should all have reached 100% proficiency-- every single, solitary student, no exceptions, should be scoring above average on the state evaluation. If they don't, then Terrible Things are supposed to happen.

But in the long term, this may very well be great news for all of us.

As of September, every single school in Washington will be failing. Every single school in Washington will be under a mandated turnaround. In the most extreme application of the law, every school could be stripped of staff, administration, and funding, and then handed over to some turnaround company to fix them. And that would be good.

Look at it this way. Duncan just engineered what some activists have been dreaming of-- a complete walkout of teachers across an entire state.

Teachers know this one-- it's the nightmare we all had when we started, the nightmare where all the students in your room get up and walk out and dare you to try to give every single one of them a detention. And you wake up feeling a lump in your gut because you know you never could. How do you punish EVERYBODY!??

Actually forcing an implementation of the nuclear options in NCLB will hold it up to public ridicule ("Wait-- our local school is in trouble because the three kids who got arrested for blowing up mailboxes didn't pass the test?") and create a bureaucratic nightmare (How many DOE officials does it take to take over the daily operations of every school in the state?). The result would be logistically unmanageable and politically unsellable.

What are the possible outcomes?

Duncan could negotiate a blunting of the impact by somehow reducing the penalties for statewide failure. At worst, this could create inconvenience in the state that makes the law and the DOE look stupid. At best, it could cause other waiver states to declare, "Hey, that doesn't look nearly as painful as trying to implement all this idiocy that King Arne decreed! Hey Arne! We'll have some of what they're having!"

Congress could get off its collective ass. There is plenty of reason to hate Duncan's unilateral installing of the waiver system, but it's also true that it wouldn't have happened if Congress hadn't spent almost an entire decade playing Hot Potato with ESEA reauthorization. You can complain about the executive branch usurping legislative power, but if the legislative branch didn't leave the keys to the car just lying on the coffee table all the time, maybe junior would not feel tempted to go joy-riding.

I don't care if they're hypocritical about it, or badly disingenuous, as long as they say, "Yeah, that law is broken. Let's fix it." And then do so. That would lead to all sorts of interesting federal arguments about education, and I would never utter "It couldn't possibly be worse," (because it always can be), but it would give us a fighting chance to make things better.

Washington's school system could be messed up so badly that a huge tidal wave of backlash washes away all the reformy nonsense that we've been choking on, and the reformista's status quo would finally fade into the past. I don't wish that kind of disaster on anybody's schools, but as anybody who has learned enabling bad behavior knows, sometimes in order to get better, you have to let things break.

Cami, Surgery & Big Stupid Democracy

Like a cat struggling with a fascinatingly ugly hairball, the internet yesterday coughed up an extraordinary video of Cami Anderson. I do not know where she is or why (the wall behind her says "Arizona State University/GSV"), and I do not usually cover New Jersey education because so many capable, local hands already have that covered.

But for the rest of us, the video answers the question, "Is she really that messed up?" And it's also yet another window into the troubled minds of the Masters of Reforming Our Nations' Schools who are defining the current dysfunctional status quo. It's down at the end of the page, but let me break down the best parts.

Cami speaks in the video about "our responsibility as educators" in reference to people actually being attached to their old schools, and she offers an illuminating metaphor.

Her sister is a trauma surgeon, a general surgeon, who cuts people open, and Cami thinks all the time about how, when her sister is in the operating room, with someone's life literally in her hands, she does not ask  a bunch of people in the second row to vote on whether or not to close or keep going. She does not have someone in the third row telling her that she has to use a rusty scalpel. She does not have the five loudest people who are anti-everything, shouting and banging on the door about the color of her hair or skin or where she went to school or not. She is empowered to make decisions that are in the best interests of saving that patient, in saving his life so that he is able to live a life as full as possible. We have that responsibility.

Cami, Cami, Cami. Here are the two biggest ways your metaphor is not quite what you had in mind.

First, your sister the surgeon is a trained professional. She has years of training, years of practice, years of learning her craft so that she has a level of expertise that earns her the right to that empowerment. She did not get that empowerment just because she is somehow an inately superior human being.

I guarantee you that she did not get her surgery licensure after five weeks of training, and she didn't get the job in the hospital because of political strings. Well, actually, I don't know that-- but I'm betting it's true. You, on the other hand, have no training, no experience, and no qualification. So in the metaphor, you are not a highly trained surgeon, but a woman whose political connections somehow got you the right to stand in an OR holding a scalpel that you know nothing about using.

Second, your sister the surgeon could not operate until she had the consent of the patient and his family. Even trauma surgeons do not just walk up to someone on the street, announce, "You need surgery," knock them unconscious, and proceed to operate. Doctors must get the consent of the patients (kind of like civil authority flows from the consent of the governed).

Before she could set foot in that operating room, she had to convince people that she had a plan, that the plan was good, and that they should agree to it.

There's more video. Cami toughs out the personal stuff because she came from a big rough family; also, her brothers might come to Jersey to show people what's up. And if a small student can come to school when it sucks, Cami can come to work and hear Mean Things.

But the main thread that we keep finding running through MoRONS speech, from this video to Reed Hastings rant about elected school boards to Arne Duncan's commandeering of the law-making process is this:

Democracy is stupid.

Look, say the Reformistas. We are just better than you are. We are wiser, smarter, and just plain righter than the rest of you. So you should stop getting in our way. All of you lesser humans should stop insisting that you're entitled to some sort of voice-- you aren't. Shut up, sit down, and let the superior humans take care of these difficult matters.

It's extraordinary. Cami feels personally attacked, and yet she does not perceive how her very framing of the situation attacks everyone else for being stupid or complainy or just not special enough to see her awesomeness. I just hope for her sake that  Christie's office never decides that she is one more hysterical female who needs to be cut loose.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Duncan Breaks Up With WA

In a move that just underlines how deeply bizarre the relationship has become between Arne Duncan, King of All Schools, and the previously-sovereign states, Arne today pulled the rug out from under Washington state, sending them tumbling toward a bureaucratic limbo that...well, at the very least, will be interesting.

The Dear John letter is trim and bureaucratic. I'll offer a translation into Plain English.

Graph 1: I got your formal request for yet another extension. In good standardized test style, I will recycle your prompt into my topic sentence. Thank you for playing. Thank you for sucking up by telling me how great our work was in helping your kids.

Graph 2: "As you know," your waiver was based on your willingness to follow our instructions. You have failed to do so, so now your "flexibility" (which is our favored code word for waiver) is at an end. I'll throw in the word "regret" because I hear frowny emoticons are inappropriate for official letters.

Graph 3: One of the promises you made (just like all the other boys and girls in class) was to evaluate your teachers and principals based on the Common Core tests (no, of course he didn't use those words-- he used the whole CCR standards etc etc-- I'm translating). It was going to be sweet, with "robust, timely, and meaningful feedback" (which is what I'm pretty sure nobody anywhere using the fed-required system is getting). And he said this: "Including student learning growth as a significant factor among the multiple measures used to determine performance levels is important as an objective measure to differentiate among teachers and principals who have made significantly different contributions to student learning growth and closing achievement gaps." And wow-- that's completely unsubstantiated, but there's federal stuff on the stationary so it must be trues!

Graph 4: I'm going to recap the timeline now. Not sure why-- we all know what happened and when-- but I guess I need it for the record. Anyway, you double-pinky swore on this date and then promised again on another date and now you're obviously not going to get it done in time. Also "I recognize that requiring the use of statewide assessments to measure student learning growth requires a legislative change, and that Governor Inslee and your office worked diligently to obtain that change. I thank you for your leadership and courage in those efforts." So, I recognize you got hammered politically. I'm not mad at you-- just your stupid doody-head legislators who don't seem to understand that I am their boss. Thanks for trying. Heckuva job, Dorny.

Graph 5: Thanks for trying, but you failed, so it sucks to be you. This will cost you money. But hey-- if you ever get some political heft behind you again, feel free to re-apply for flexibility.

Graph 6: In a masterpiece of bureaucratic understatement, Duncan opens this graph with- I appreciate that transitioning back to NCLB is not desirable, and will not be simple. Attached is a list of all the laws you are now breaking as of next fall. Asst Secretary Deborah Delisle has the thankless task of taking your phone calls begging for help with damage control, because whenever you call, I'm going to be "out of the office."

Graph 7: "Thank you again for your leadership and your efforts to keep the commitments Washington made in its ESEA flexibility request. Thank you, as well, for your continued focus on enhancing education for all of Washington’s children." See ya. Wouldn't wanna be ya!

So, to quickly recap. Washington got to ignore its violation of federal NCLB laws if they agreed to install Duncan's own untried, untested, unproven, unsubstantiated but very specific prescriptions about how to use CCSS tests to evaluate teachers and principals. Which, when you take a step back and look at it, is really ballsy! And now, having once arbitrarily extended his deadline, Duncan has arbitrarily decided not to, and so--snap--just like that, the law that Congress passed is now in effect again! It's like magic! I don't know if this is how laws are made, but I suspect it's a good way to make libertarians.

This can only get better, because it reminds me of a story about some laws and how they work. I will tell you that story in the next paragraph, if you want to skip it.

Years ago, I was president of a striking union in PA. At the time, the law said the school year must be finished by a specific date, and therefor the strike could not go past a certain date. Both we and the administration were unsure of exactly which date that might be, so we called Harrsiburg to find out. And what we found out was that although this law was on the books, nobody knew how it would be enforced, or who would be responsible for enforcing it. We literally could not find a single person in Harrisburg who would take responsibility for what the law meant or what would happen to the teachers and district if we somehow broke it. And that, boys and girls, is how laws work some times.

I have to say this again, because we already know it, but this little event puts it back out in plain sight. Duncan doesn't just believe that CCSS test-based measures of teachers and principals are a good idea. He doesn't just deny every stone on the mountain made out of evidence that he's wrong. He has given CCSS test-based measurement the full weight of federal law.

So what will happen to Washington, and who will do it? Or will the legislators freak out and panic, installing Arne's junk science system at the 11th hour to win back his Kingly affection? You can bet a few other states will be watching (as Rick Hess notes in his fine commentary today, Washington's probably not the only state not living up to the letter of their waiver)-- how much do they need to fear a hissy fit from the King of All Schools?

In Pursuit of Failure

Let's say I'm devoted to finding the Loch Ness Monster, and I am determined to find scientific proof. So I order up a host of sciency devices to search the loch, and I set out to test them. My test-- any device that finds the monster is certified accurate, and any device that does not is rejected and faulty.

I will measure the device's scientific accuracy by measuring it against my pre-existing belief. This is a type of science called Not Actually Science, and it is an integral part of much Reformy Teacher Evaluation.

James Shuls, Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute (a maket-based solution group out of Missouri and not, sadly, a school for strippers), appeared this week in Jay P. Greene's blog (no relation afaik) reminding us of TNTP's "report" on the Lake Woebegone effect (so we've got the intersection here of three Reformy flavors).

Shuls follows a familiar path. We know that there are a bunch of sucky teachers out there. We just do. Everybody has a sucky teacher story, and Shuls also says that there is objective data to prove it, though he doesn't say what that data is, but we know it's accurate and scientific data because it confirms what we already know in our gut. So, science.

We know these teachers exist. Therefor any evaluation system that does not find heaps of bad teachers cluttering up the landscape must be a bad system. This line of reasoning was echoed this week by She Who Must Not Be Named on twitter, where a conversation with Jack Schneider spilled over. Feel free to skip the following rant.

(Because, for some reason, EdWeek has launched a new feature called Beyond the Rhetoric which features dialogue between Schneider and the Kim Kardashian of Education Reformy Stuff, and while I actually welcome the concept of the column, I am sad to see That Woman getting yet another platform from which to make word noises. Could they not have found a legitimate voice for the Reformy Status Quo? I mean, I wish the woman no ill will. I know there are people who would like to see her flesh gnawed off by angry weasels, but I'm basically a kind-hearted person. But I am baffled at how this woman can be repeatedly treated like a legitimate voice in the ed world when the only successful thing she has done is start a highly lucrative astroturf business. Sigh.)

Anyway, She tosses in the factoid that 1/2 of studied school districts didn't dismiss any teachers during the pre-tenure period. This, again, is offered as proof that the system is broken because it didn't find the Loch Ness Monster.

Now let me clear-- I think bad teachers are undoubtedly more plentiful than Loch Ness Monsters (and smaller). I've even offered my own revised eval system. I agree that the traditional teacher eval system could have used some work (the new systems, by contrast, are generally more useless than evaluation by tea leaves).

What I don't understand is this emphasis on Badness and Failure. This is the same focus that got us Jack Welch and stack ranking, widely considered "the worst thing about working at Microsoft" until Microsoft management decided they agreed and, like everyone else in the private sector, stopped doing it. This type of evaluation starts, even before a manager has met his team, with the assumption of a bell-ish curve-- at MS, out of every ten employees, the assumption was that two were great, seven were okay, and one was fire-ably sub-par.

Imagine doing that with a classroom of students. Imagine saying, "Whoever gets the lowest score on this gets an F, even if the score is a 98%."

Oh, wait. We do that, as in John White announcing before the New York test is even given, that 70% of students will fail it. And then-- voila-- they did!

It's a little scary that the Reformy Status Quo model is built around an absolute gut-based certainty that The Trouble With Education is that schools are full of terrible teachers who are lying to their gritless idiot pupils, and what we really need to do is shake up public schools by rooting out all these slackers and dopes, just drag them out into the light and publicly shame them for their inadequacy.

It's a lot scary that some of us seem to already know, based on our scientific guts, just how much failure we should be finding, and we're just going to keep tweaking systems until they show us the level of failure we expect to find.

For Shuls and free-market types, that means giving eval systems real teeth.

If school leaders actually had the authority and proper incentives to make positive pay or firing decisions based on teacher performance, we might start seeing some teacher evaluation systems that reflect reality.

Note again the assumption that we already know the "real" failure level-- we just need to get the evaluation system to reflect that. Shuls thinks the problem might be wimpy admins and weak consequences. If we threatened teachers with real damage, then we'd get somewhere.

For Education's Sarah Palin, the problem is people. VAM and other methods of including Test scores appeal to them because the test score won't be distracted by things like the teacher's personality or style or, you know, humanny stuff. The Test, these folks are sure, will reveal the students and teachers that are stinking up the joint, and it will be there in cold, hard numbers that can't be changed or softened or escaped. And they are numbers, so you know they're True.

The pursuit of the Loch Ness Failure Monster is a win-win for Purveyors of Reformy Nonsense. If a school appears to be staffed with good, capable teachers, that's proof that they are actually failing because if they had a real eval system, it would reveal all the failing teachers. And if the eval system does reveal failing teachers, well, hey, look at all the failing teachers. Not only is failure an option; it's a requirement.

The Opposite of Grit

My sister and her family recently returned from a visit to Thomas Edison's laboratory (because when engineery types head to greater NYC, that's their idea of a cool stop), and they took many pictures. The place is amazing-- all this space cleaned and arranged and perfectly fitted out for investigating and experimenting and engineering much of the modern world.

It was not, I thought, the kind of place where you needed lots of grit to work.

As much as we value the quality of grit, of perseverance, of resilience, have you noticed that what we mostly do on the road to success is eliminate the need for it?

Bill Gates did not say to his folks, "Hey, I'm working on something here that I think may be important, so to help me, I would like you to cut me off without a cent, throw me out of the house, and force me to get a job at Piggly Wiggly that will barely support a one-room run-down apartment let alone enough food to keep me conscious. Because to get this done, I really need to stimulate my grit glands."

I have never read about a CEO saying, "I want the smallest, most cramped office in the building. And no administrative assistants-- I'll answer my own phone. And no paid lunches-- I'll pack and sandwich. And do the same for all our executives! And cut all our salaries to 6% of current levels. We'll never achieve greatness if we don't have to have grit!!"

From sports stars to medical personnel to high-priced lawyers, we work hard to create a smooth supportive work environment, to get rid of any obstacles in their path to success. Nor do many privileged parents give their children an allowance of $1.00 a week and make them live in the tool shed so that they'll develop grit.

If we really believe that grit is the loam that grows excellence, we have a funny way of showing it. The more important the job, the more carefully we insulate it from the need for grit. Instead, a true marker of success and status in our culture is the degree to which one does not need grit.

So what does it say about members of the Cult of Grit that they want our students to live as if they're failures?

A clip circulated recently of Neil deGrasse Tyson responding to a question about why women seemed genetically unsuited to be scientists. He talked about his own path to science and the tremendous institutional and cultural obstacles he faced ("Wouldn't you rather play basketball?"). He talked about the toughness and devotion it took him to become so successful (he didn't use the word "grit" but he might as well have), and about looking behind him to see young black men following the path into science-- and seeing none.

How many gifted black and female scientists do we NOT have today because of the extra giant heaping helping of grit they would need to follow that path?

It's not that I don't think grit is valuable. I do. Resilience and perseverance are useful for everything from dealing with career setbacks to handling a child who always wants to cry and eat at 2 AM.

But here's the thing. Life provides plenty of need for grit all on its own. It's not necessary to provide more on purpose. And the need for grit doesn't help get things done, doesn't help people succeed. It may call on their strength, but it doesn't create it. We know that. We understand it.

When we want someone to succeed, we do as much as we can to remove the need for grit.

Do we not want our students to succeed?

It's true you don't build muscle by lifting a 3 ounce weight, but you don't build anything trying to bench press a truck, either. We really don't have to worry about making things too easy for a six-year-old. Life is never all that easy for a child-- you're physically tiny and generally powerless over your own world. And people who idealize the teen years as idyllic and happy and easy are dopes; I've been around teenagers for four decades and you couldn't print enough money in a year to pay me to be sixteen again. Trust me-- if we want students to need grit, the universe has that covered already.

But if we want them to succeed, we can stop the nonsense about fostering grit and deliberately making life more difficult for our children. Challenge, yes. Grit, no. Instead, let's try support and kindness and building them up. Let's take care of our children, and let the grit take care of itself.