Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: What Did My Readers Care About?

Had I known what this blog was going to turn into, I probably would have done it on wordpress, which has many more nifty tools. This last week, I have watched with envy as worpressers get their own little number-crunching nicely-graphicked end-o'-year wrap-up. Meanwhile, even doing simple tagging is a chore on blogspot.

But my wife has been under the weather, so we've stayed close to home and I've had time to break a few things down here at the blogstand. What could I see in the tea leaves of my sites stats?

I always start with the assumption that readers in the bloggoverse respond mostly to subject. When I see a post take off and draw large readership, I don't think "Wow, I must have written the hell out of that one" so much as I think, "Damn, that must have touched a nerve." So by looking at what posts were popular, I get a sense of what nerves are out there, waiting to be touched.

By far, nothing I have ever written in my life has touched as many nerves as this piece:

The Hard Part dealt with the issue of teachers never having enough-- enough time, enough resources, enough you to do everything you know you should do. It ran on this blog a year ago, and then I later used it on my HuffPost space, where it blew up. At this point it has 560,000 likes on facebook, and has been translated into French, Spanish and German. It is not my greatest moment of writing (at one point, I announce a metaphor and then launch a simile--d'oh) but boy does it ever speak to something that many, many teachers feel-- a sense of just not being enough, of having too much to do and too little to do it with. If there was ever a moment in which blogging made me feel as if I were not the only person to feel a particular way, this was it.

As much as we've all learned to pay attention on the national level, people still respond very strongly to their own local concerns. Three of my four top posts for the year are regional: a piece about the publishing of Minneapolis teacher ratings, a piece from last spring about North Carolina's spirited drive to kick its teachers repeatedly in the face, and one of several posts following the stripping of special subjects in Ohio. Massachusetts's flirtation with teacher certificate screwery made the top 10.

Posts also take off when they address some of the favorite reformsters. People never seem to get tired of seeing what Arne Duncan's latest move of gooberdom, and I swore off directly referencing She Who Will Not Be Named because She always served as the most base-but-effective clickbait. Besides, she simply never deserved to be famous, so I stopped being part of that process.

Once you get away from the reformster A-list, however, interest drops. I will not hurt the feelings of some reformsters by listing the people in whom there's just not much interest, and I will continue responding to their work just because I like to.

People also like mockery, apparently, which is a need I'm prepared to fill. The top ten posts for the year include my directory of anti-teacher trolls and my own take on the ubiquitous "Why I Heart Common Core" letters. Which tells me that as serious as the situation is, folks are still willing to laugh at it. In seven hundred and some posts of varying degrees of seriousness, I have never gotten a "How dare you make light of these serious issues" note. I have, however, received several notes from reformsters-friendly folks saying essentially, "I disagree with most of the substance of what you wrote, but that was still pretty funny." So I guess as contentious as the debates about the future of US public education have become, we are not all so grim as the folks in some of the other big debates in this country.

My sampling here is obviously self-selecting, and not representative of the general population, but it still is interesting to get a hint of what sorts of things people are concerned about. And now I have also fulfilled my contractual obligation to do some sort of end-of-the-year post. Happy New Year to us all!

Common Core Now Loves Inertia

It is by far the weakest argument presented in favor of the Common Core (well, the weakest argument that is not, like "written by teachers" or "internationally benchmarked," based on fabrications and falsehoods). It is the argument that we must stick with Common Core because dropping the standards would be too costly and disruptive.

This argument has been around since CCSS support started to erode. One of the first signs that Louisianna Governor Bobby Jindal and his state superintendent of education John White were growing apart was White's spirited proclamation that dumping the Core testing would throw teachers into a "state of chaos."

Within the last month, two more states have given voice to plaintive cries of "stay the course!" The Hechinger Report presented "Tennessee Common Core Backtrack Leaves Teachers Stranded" which includes several concerns about the Volunteer State's backtracking (a de-Core-ifying augmented by the departure of reformster Kevin Huffman from the state education commissioner position). Tennessee's back-transition leaves teachers straddling both old and new standards. Said one teacher, "I make sure my students are exposed to both standards, but it's only fair that they're assessed genuinely and authentically to the way they're instructed." Not to mention the additional mess the discombobulated assessment creates in a state that is still all in on VAM, using test based bad data and magic formula voodoo to evaluate teachers.

Meanwhile, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant is making noises about reclaiming Mississippi's educational autonomy and dumping the evil federally over-reaching Core. Some teachers are quoted as being not happy.

"I don't think we've been teaching the standards long enough to tell if it's going to fail," said Robin Herring, a fifth-grade teacher at Eastside Elementary in Clinton. "It really scares me that if we stop in the middle of what we're doing that we're just going to move backwards."

It's not that I don't think these folks have a point. But all of this seems... familiar, somehow. Look at the following quote:

"The education of ... children should not be 'politicized' in this way. This is not about what is best for students or best practices in education or even based on proven research, but rather more political rhetoric based on taking advantage of the latest buzz phrase or issue of the day and today it just happens to be 'Common Core.'"

Quick quiz. Were those words spoken by someone opposing the Common Core a few years ago, or someone defending the Common Core today?

Answer: someone defending Common Core today. But you weren't sure, were you?

Yes, it makes a mess when you change an entire system quickly and with little foresight and planning. Yes, it's unfair to give Big Important Tests on material that's not actually being taught. Yes, it's bizarre to implement programs when we don't even know if they work. Those objections to quickly booting out Common Core are valid today, just as they were when they were raised regarding the implementation of the Core in the first place.

When we were implementing the Core, we were all about blowing up the status quo. We were fighting inertia. We were building planes in mid-air and anybody who complained was just a tool of the establishment. We werer throwing out standards that had been rated higher than the Core because we needed to move forward, and do it quickly (even if we had no earthly way of knowing whether forward was really forward). People who complained about moving too quickly, testing too unfairly, throwing out programs and materials without reasons-- these were just people who Didn't Get It. Back in those days, disruption was necessary. Disruption was good.

Now, suddenly, disruption is bad. Inertia is to be revered and respected. We have no proof-- none-- that Common Core is working, but we shouldn't disturb it or throw it off course.

This has been a repeated pattern for reformsters. They used political gamesmanship, emotional leveraging, and rhetorical smoke and mirrors to install the Common Core, and now that those tools are coming back to bite them in the butt, they want to change the rules of the game. "You're making this too political," cry the people who used insider political power plays to get their agenda in place. "You are being too disruptive," complain the people who treated disruption as a virtue when it served their purposes.

It's too bad we're not having more of a conversation about Common Core's (lack of) virtues, but that was a choice reformsters made five years ago. Those who live by the creative disruption must die by it as well.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

The Biggest Ed Win of 2014

As the battle for the heart, soul, and future of US public education has heated up this year, there have been wins for the Resistance this year. Because it's the time of year in which we all Make Lists and Declare Winners, I'm going to go ahead and sort through public education victories this year and declare the greatest.


It's now quaint to remember a time when education was the easy choice for pols who wanted a win. Coming out for better schools was like announcing your support of cute puppies and apple pie, a political stance with only an up side and no possible downside.

No longer. No longer can politicians just say, "Let's make schools better" and not have to explain what they mean and not suffer consequences for those specifics. Sure, the new opposition to Common Core from guys like Bobby Jindal is strictly political, but then, the support was strictly political in the first place. The good news is that politicians must now do some sort of homework instead of just making platitudinous mouth noises about education.

And while the fall elections left reformster politicians largely untouched, the brutal shellacking of incumbent PA governor Tom Corbett is a clear signal that voters will put up with only so much gutting of public education.


I hope Leonie Haimson is having a great New Year's celebration tonight, because this year she was the most visible face of a movement that took down inBloom, the data collecting giant. It would be a mistake to thing our Data Overlords have given up their dreams of hoovering up every speck of data on every sentient being on the planet (it is still fundamental to Pearson's world domination business plan). But their flagship corporate initiative got its ass handed to it in 2014.


This was the year for reformsters to talk about the Conversation. Changing the Conversation. Renewing the Conversation. Improving the Conversation. Reformsters talk about the Conversation uniformly ignored one uncomfortable truth-- the Conversation they were talking about changing was the same one they had refused to have. Common Core was rolled out quickly and in a manner deliberately designed to keep national standards, test, and (let's be honest) curriculum from being derailed by any conversation about how (or even if) these things should be done.

So 2014 was the year that reformsters, mostly, acknowledged that simply rolling over the entire country was no longer working as a strategy. Some, like Peter Cunningham at Education Post, still worked on the theory that the public just needed to be rolled over more artfully, but even that was a backhanded acknowledgement that people who disagree with the reform agenda exist and have voices and can't just be ignored. That means there's a possibility that in 2015 we might actually begin the national conversation we should have had in 2009.

The Biggest Public Education Win of 2014

None of these victories, or the many other victories for public ed this year, were the biggest win. Because the biggest win was also the quietest one. Let me tell you what it was, in case you missed it.

In the midst of a staggering assault on public education, with their integrity, judgment, reputation, and ability under attack by everyone from corporate stooges to the US Secretary of Education, and, in many areas, with their job security under direct assault by people who don't know what the hell they're talking about, while powerful forces worked to dismantle the very institutions and ideals that they have devoted their lives to-- in the middle of all that, millions of teachers went to work and did their jobs.

In environments ranging from openly hostile to merely unsupportive, teachers went into their classrooms and did their best to meet the needs of their students. Teachers helped millions of young human become smarter, wiser, more capable, more confident, and better educated. Millions of teachers went to school, met students where they were, and helped those students move forward, helped them grasp what it meant to be fully human, to be the most that they could be. Teachers helped millions of students learn to read and write and figure and draw and make music and play games and know history and understand science and a list of things so varied and rich that I have no room here for them all.

When so many groups were slandering us and our own political leaders were giving us a giant middle finger, we squared our shoulders and said, "Well, dammit, I've got a job to do, and if even if I've got to go in there and do it with my bare hands in a hailstorm, I'm going to do it." And we did.

Yes, some of us finally ran out of fight this year. There's no shame in that; despite what our detractors say, this is not a job that just anybody can do for a lifetime, particularly not under today's conditions. The people who had to leave the classroom are just our measure of how hard it is to stay these days.

And yet, this year, millions of us stayed and fought and taught and did our best this year. While powerful forces lined up to make us fail, or at least make us look as if we were failing, we went into our classrooms armed with professional skills and knowledge and experience and judgment and hours of outside preparation and work, and we didn't fail. We stood up for our students, stood up for the education, their future, their value as human beings. We didn't fail.

So, if you want the biggest public education win of 2014, there it is. Millions of teachers, caught in a storm not of their own making, under fire, under pressure, under the thumb of people with far more money and power still stood up and did their job. The powers that be tried to make us fail, and we got the job done anyway. Celebrate that.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

PA's Education Spending Gap

The AP has put research and specific numbers to something that those of us in the Pennsylvania ed biz had already figured out-- the gap between rich schools and poor schools has opened up tremendously over the four years of Tom Corbett as governor.

Pennsylvania has had school funding issues for a while. We are tops in the nation when it comes to local contributions; the state contributes a hair over 36% of the funding for secondary and elementary spending, which puts us well below the national average of 45.5%. We rank 45th out of 50 in state education financial support in K-12. Our state universities are likewise outstanding-- Pitt and Penn State boast the two most expensive in-state tuition costs in the country.

Local school districts carry a big part of the burden for funding their schools, which means, of course, that how much money a district can spend on its students is hugely affected by how much money the local district can gather through real estate taxes because, yeah, that's still how we do it here. A 2008 bill tried to make the funding formula compensate more equitably for local tax base weakness, but Corbett scrapped that and went back to an earlier formula, giving poor districts a double (at least) whammy.

Oh-- and no quick course corrections for PA schools. Act 1, passed in 2006, said that a district must ask for state permission and hold a referendum if they want to increase taxes beyond a very low ceiling. So even districts that have the means to make up the state shortfall are hogtied when it comes to raising tax revenues.

There's more. Remember how some people got suckered back ten years ago into thinking that real estate would be a constant source of vastly growing investment income? On that list of suckers you'll find the state of Pennsylvania, which bet the education pension fund on that giant scam. PA teacher pensions are defined benefit pensions, meaning that we get a pre-determined payout and it's up to the state to make sure the money's there to pay it. When the bottom fell out, the state and local school districts found themselves on the hook for massive pension payments to make up the non-growth of the investments. PA's legislature dealt with this potential crisis by saying, "Yeah, let's just wait and see if things get better on their own." They didn't. Now the state and local districts are trying to deal with the biggest balloon payment ever.

Wealthy districts have been able to pick up the slack from all these budgetary pressures. Poor districts have not. Critics are now saying that to bring poor districts up to parity with rich ones would cost at least a billion dollars.

In the meantime, the AP report shows that rich districts now spend as much as $4K more per student than the poorest districts. That's an increase of about $2,300 more per student. A study from the Center for American Progress last summer crowned Pennsylvania and Illinois the king and queen of school spending inequality.

Tom Corbett didn't create this mess single-handedly. Previous governor Ed Rendell, who was no friend of public education or the teachers who work there, created an extra booby-trap by spending stimulus money to prop up the regular education budget. The GOP-controlled legislature gets credit for making a hash of the pension fund. But if Tom Corbett is not the guy who set the house on fire, he is the guy who told the fire department to go home because they weren't needed.

Corbett has been steadfast in hewing to the classic line that throwing money at schools doesn't make any difference. If that's true, then there should be no problem in taking all that "extra" money away from the wealthy districts and redistributing it to poor districts. After all, the extra $4K per student isn't making a difference, right?

Asked this month about the growing disparity, Corbett didn't point to his administration's policies. Rather, he said, it is a subject of great concern that lawmakers must figure out. He also said a system of 500 school districts that make independent budgeting decisions will complicate the effort to decide how much should be spent to educate a child or achieve parity between the rich and poor.

Corbett has absolutely refused to see his policies as exacerbating the problem. He does have a point about the 500 school districts. In the 1960s the state had even more, and they were almost-forcibly combined,, but each tiny district could join with any district it touched. Consequently, some counties have one unified district. My own county has four district (plus bits of a few others). Students in my building are picked up in the morning and driven through another district and then back into our district (which is shaped kind of like a big backwards E). It is, frankly, an inefficient mess. Several governors have tried to address it, but communities are not going to give up their identities easily.

When confronted with the issue of moving money into poor districts, Corbett told the AP, "So who do I take it away from?"

Corbett's administration has been marked by a real reluctance to take money away from anybody. Pennsylvania should be cashing in on the big marcellus shale boom, but Harrisburg has been determined to charge as little in fees and taxes as they can. Corbett was also determined to make PA attractive to businesses by taking away as little of their money as possible. But critics say that his determination to reverse Pennsylvania's reputation as a business-unfriendly state has left the state treasury with a huge revenue gap. 

I am always cautious about using the cost-per-pupil figure, but even if we aren't certain what the figures mean exactly, the change in them sends a clear message. In Pennsylvania, the poor districts are falling behind with less revenue, less money for staff, for buildings, for resources, for basic maintenance. York is one example of what happens next-- after gutting their budget, the state can then declare that they are no longer fit to govern their own schools. This starvation diet is a perfect setting for privatization.

It's politically pleasing to lambaste Tom Corbett over this, and he certainly made things worse, but Pennsylvania has a problem bigger than partisan politics. In a few days, a new governor takes over. I have no idea if Tom Wolf is going to make things better or not-- Pennsylvania has not had an education governor in my lifetime. But I do know that things are as bad right now as they've ever been, and if you're in a poor school district, they're worse than that.

PBS's Common Core Lifeboat

On Christmas Day, PBS Newshour ran a piece about Common Core that was, if nothing else, organized around a fun central image. "Special correspondent" John Tulenko harkens back to the film classic Lifeboat (which he incorrectly places in the 50s), about survivors stuck in the titular conveyance.

The dilemma of that old film, who stays on board, who gets thrown over, that’s a great way to think about the Common Core these days.

It was launched in 2008, a lifeboat full of big ideas to save public schools. But, out on open seas, it’s had to toss aside key parts of the plan just to stay afloat. And the water is getting rougher.

2008? Now I know Tulenko's in trouble, because even wikipdia and the Core's own website mark launch year as 2009. He goes on to cite an unknown survey that says 60% of Americans don't love the Core, and then cuts to a Louis C. K. core-joke clip, because television. Good news, though-- he's landed three experts to help "navigate these troubled waters." Because Tulenko may be loose on facts, but he is tight on metaphor-maintenance.

Our experts? Neal McClusky from CATO, Chris Minnich of CCSSO, and Catherine Gewertz of Education Week. Each gets an opening sound bite (because television). McClusky goes with, "People sure hate the Core, and they hate the brand name most of all." Minnich floated a cool new talking point saying, roughly, "The fact that everyone hates the Core and we're still in the game just shows how vast is the mountain of money that our backers are willing to throw at this." Ha, no, just kidding. But he does claim that "We're not dead yet" is proof that the Core is still vital and viable. Minnich observes that opponents come in many stripes, and many of them hate the Core origin story than the contents.

Tulenko starts ticking off the parts of the Core that had to be tossed overboard. First to go? The hope that states would adopt CCSS voluntarily. When states were "slow to adopt" standards that, in 2009, still hadn't been finished yet, Obama jumped in with Race to the Top.

McClusky: In 2011, 2012, the backlash began as soon as schools started to see the actual standards and started asking what the heck are these, and who decided they were a good idea. "And so we moved to a system of national standards without ever having had a meaningful national debate about doing that."

Tulenko notes that the boat was rocked further by teachers who weren't given the tools or support to implement the new standards, and many of those teachers jumped ship (Tulenko's commitment to his metaphor is a beautiful thing).

Minnich says it's actually going great, and that the places where it's not going great are just places that flubbed the implementation, but with a little tweakage they'll be right along. I am wondering if Minnich set milk and cookies out for Santa on Christmas eve. His childlike boosterism is sort of inspiring, despite its total disconnection from reality.

But then, Tulenko says, everyone hates the testing. And to someone's credit, nobody in this conversation wastes our time trying to argue that the testing and the Common Core are like unrelated complete strangers who didn't even make eye contact on the dock and it's just random fate that they now share the same berth on this trans-educational cruise ship. With teachers about to have their careers put on the line over unproven tests used to measure not-yet-implemented standards, educators squawked loudly.

Now here's the thing about an extended metaphor; if you're not careful, it leads you to say wacky things just for the metaphor's sake. Like this:

Sharp criticism from teachers forced U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, arguably the ship’s captain, to alter course.

Oh, John. The "arguably" signals that even you know that's probably wrong. And in truth, I don't think you could find anybody on any side of this issue who thinks that Arne Duncan is actually a leader of anything. There are days I almost feel sorry for the guy because he's certainly not the captain of this ship. Deck hand? Carved mermaid on the prow? Keel? But not the captain.

Tulenko makes the point that testing has many people and states backing away, despite Arne's 11th-hour sort-of-reprieve. McClusky gets to point out that testing is also expensive as hell between technology and infrastructure.

Tulenko references the name "Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives," which appears to be the rebranding being used in West Virginia. Tulenko takes a moment to underline the use of rebranding to "right the ship," and Gerwetz allows as how that's a popular approach.

Minnich gets the last sound bite, sounding kind of small at this point: "This blip was to be expected because, as you raise the expectations on any system, there will be — there will be pain points. But I think we have weathered the storm." Minnich must have been stuck in the lifeboat after the USS Reality went down.

Ultimately the story doesn't tell us much, but it's important to pay attention to what is being repeated in the almost-mainstream, and here is PBS, an organization that has shown no inclination to take any kind of critical look at the Core, depicting the standards as a ship barely afloat and struggling to stay on course, and providing air time to more than just the usual slate of cheerleaders. It's not a real journalistic look at the Core yet (c'mon John-- take time to google at least), but at least they are drifting in the right direction.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Jason Zimba: The Other Guy

NPR just ran a piece courtesy of the Hechinger report profiling Jason Zimba. If David Coleman is widely known as the Architect of Common Core, Zimba is That Other Guy who worked on Common Core, handling the math side of things. He never quite achieved the profile of David Coleman, but he's been right there every step of the way.

Zimba has always seemed to me (and I should note that all of my impressions of reformsters are based on twelfth-hand information from reading and youtubing and who knows, if I were actually to sit in a room with David Coleman, I might find him pleasant and personable and not at all possessed of a huge helping of hubris) to be somewhat more human than Coleman, but I've paid less attention to him because math is not my area of expertise. It's hard to sort these guys out; some, like Coleman, seem to have sought out the work propelled by sheer ego, while others seem to have just blundered into the reform biz without really understanding what they were doing.

The profile by Sarah Garland really wants us to see Zimba as a human being. It opens with a scene to remind us that he has children, and that the older one attends a public school, where Common Core is used. "I would be sleeping in if I weren't frustrated," says Zimba, speaking of his Saturday morning extra math lessons for his daughter to make up for what's lacking in the public school. He is apparently also frustrated by how Common Core is playing out in schools across the country.

Common Core was supposed to fuel a revolution. It was supposed to drive improvements in curricula and materials. It would push for excellence and provide the yardstick to measure progress toward that mountain of math awesometude. That was all its creators wanted, and while they knew it would be tough, they were surprised by the pushback.

"The creation of the standards is enshrouded in mystery for people," Zimba says. "I wish people understood what a massive process it was, and how many people were involved. It was a lot of work."

Well, yes. It was shrouded in mystery on purpose. In fact, it was shrouded in mysteries that were wrapped in lies about the involvement of classroom teachers and international benchmarks. But Garland says that the math standards were essentially written by three guys, and not for the first time, I'm reading an account that echoes those SF movies where scientists don't realize that their purely scientific experiment is actually going to be used as a weapon for evil.

"It was a design project, not a political project," says Phil Daro, a former high school algebra teacher who was on the three-man writing team with Zimba and William McCallum, head of the math department at the University of Arizona. "It was not our job to do the politics while we were writing."

I've written about McCallum before, a sad scientist who simply didn't and doesn't grasp the context of CCSS, the way it plays out in the real world, and the motivation of the people powering it. We just built the bomb for good. We never intended it to be used against humans, so humans should not be upset when they get blown up.

Zimba's humble early trajectory wouldn't suggest that he was headed for this kind of government work, but when at Oxford, he "befriended" David Coleman, and in 1999 the two hooked up again to tinker with the idea of an education consulting firm. They started Grow Network, a company that produced reports to help districts and states make sense of the new NCLB test results. "Zimba had a genius for creating reports that were mathematically precise but also humanely phrased, Coleman says." That's striking all by itself; I can't tell you how much of Coleman I've read, and how very rarely he acknowledges the value of any other person's work. Grow was bought out by McGraw-Hill and Coleman and Zimba headed in semi-separate directions. Zimba ended up teaching at Bennington (in Vermont-- there's a great monument there worth visiting) where Coleman's mother was president.

Together they wrote a paper in 2007 addressing the issue of many (maybe too many) standards for math across the states. It was the right paper at the right time. Shortly thereafter, in this squeaky-clean NPR version of history, when the CCSSO and NGA decided to tackle standards, "Coleman and Zimba were picked to help lead the effort." Can't help feeling we've skipped an awful lot of insider history right there. But Student Achievement Partners were formed and given a mountain of money to get to work.

"We were looking for a skill set that was fairly unique," says Chris Minnich, executive director of CCSSO. "We needed individuals that would know the mathematics — Jason and the other writers obviously know the mathematics — but would also be able to work with the states, and a bunch of teachers who would be involved."

That's a fun quote. Particularly the "bunch of teachers" part. Does it suggest that Coleman was on board primarily for his shmoozing abilities?

At this point, Garland's grasp of history gets even slipperier. We do get the inspiring story of Zimba and McCallum working long hours, slaving over the standards in the garage (just like Bill Gates starting Microsoft). She notes again that he was human, with a life and a family and a day job, spiced up with a story of some colleague telling him to stop texting about standards stuff while his second daughter was being born.

During the course of the next year, they consulted with state officials, mathematicians and teachers, including a union group. Draft after draft was passed back and forth over email.

"Consulting." Great word. Then the final standards were released in 2010. Garland notes that "by the following year" forty states adopted them; she does not note that many adopted them before they were written, though she does note that adoption happened "thanks in part to financial incentives dangled by the Obama administration" which is kind of like saying I paid my mortgage payments thanks in part to a Keeping My House incentive dangled by my bank.

Garland's timeline for the resistance to CCSS is even debatable. She marks the pushback to 2013 and the wave of CCSS test results. She says resistance didn't enter the mainstream until this year, when a father's posting about CCSS homework went viral and Glen Beck picked it up, followed by ridicule from Louis C. K. and Stephen Colbert. Which is about the most truncated history of Common Core opposition I've ever read.

Now CCSS allies are trying to salvage the cause by calling for testing delays. But the writers are just puzzled by all the fuss.

"When I see some of those problems posted on Facebook, I think I would have been mad, too," McCallum says. Daro tells a story about his grandson, who brought home a math worksheet labeled "Common Core," with a copyright date of 1999.
They argue there's actually very little fuzziness to the math in the Common Core. Students have to memorize their times tables by third grade and be able to do the kind of meat-and-potatoes problems Zimba asks of his daughter during their Saturday tutoring sessions, requirements he believes the so-called Common Core curriculum at her school essentially ignored.

In other words, they wrote it right, but everybody is reading it incorrectly.We built the bomb for Good. We do not understand why people are being blown up with it.

Even as Zimba and his colleagues defend the standards against cries of federal overreach, they are helpless when it comes to making sure textbook publishers, test makers, superintendents, principals and teachers interpret the standards in ways that will actually improve American public education, not make it worse.

All of this has pushed Zimba to a new conclusion, a new crusade, a new battle.

These days, Zimba and his colleagues acknowledge better standards aren't enough.
"I used to think if you got the assessments right, it would virtually be enough," he says. "In the No Child Left Behind world, everything follows from the test."
Now, he says, "I think it's curriculum."

Yes, the problem is that we didn't build a powerful enough bomb. If we built a bigger bomb, then it would be used the correct way. 

It is hard not to see these guys as hopelessly naive about How Things Work, about the implications of the work they were doing. I sympathize in part-- when he claims that publishers are mucking up the works by using CCSS to market any old crap lying around the warehouse, I don't disagree, but at the same time, dude, what did you think they were going to do with the bomb once you had finished building it?? You may have thought you were building an instrument of peace and wisdom and growth, but you should have paid better attention to the people who were signing your checks and collecting your work, because this is exactly what they wanted it for.

All three are trying to fix it. McCallum has some little start-up you've never heard of to make math apps. Daro is writing a complete math curriculum for Pearson, presumably because, you know, the politics and business are not his problem. Zimba's trying to work on it, too. None of them seem to see their own hand in the mess that is now choking public education. Granted, I see all of these characters through the smudgy lens of various journalists, but I keep feeling as if Coleman knows exactly what he's doing, but The Other Guys don't really get it. They don't see the battlefield because they are only focused on the bomb.

Zimba does not pick up the lesson that he now realizes that he was wrong back when he thought the standards would fix everything, so maybe he's wrong again now that he thinks national curriculum is the answer. And he doesn't seem to have any sense of the moral or ethical implications of trying to rewrite the education system for everybody part time in his garage-- did nobody at any point say, "Gee, for a project this massive, maybe there's a better way and other people who should be involved." While he seems to lack the strutting ballsiness of Coleman, he still must have the hubris required to think, "Yeah, I could write the math guidelines for every student in the country."

Hotel Impossible, Systems, and Schools

We're a cable-less home, so when we land on a favorite series, we tend to binge watch. When the Travel Channel and the Food Network dropped packages of shows on Netflix, we found several "intervention" shows that we enjoyed, but none so much as Hotel Impossible.

The premise is unsurprising-- a hotel that's in trouble gets a visit from an expert who tries to diagnose and treat major ailments in a couple of days. We like the host (Anthony Melchiorri) who is blunt, but seems really passionate about hotels and displays some real managerial skills on the show. He's forceful, yet respectful, and he has a fun working relationship with the lead designer on the show, Blanche (we are never happy when it's a non-Blanche episode), as opposed to some of the prima donnas who host similar shows on similar networks.

It's reality television, which means its connection to reality is perhaps contrived at times. But it still offers some interesting lessons in How To Be a Turnaround Expert that might be applicable in other situations such as, say, turning around a school.

Respect the people who do the work. Melchiorri is always respectful of the people he's dealing with. He's respectful of the cleaning and other staff in the hotel. He listens to the people who are invested in the place, and he respects what their goals and vision are. He does not try to tell them what they are supposed to want.

Support support support. It is always clear that he is there to help. Not to berate, not to belittle, not to beat them into submission to his vision of what the hotel should be. He helps them find solutions. And as brash and New Yorky as he is, he can be incredibly patient past the point where my wife and I are hollering unkind suggestions to some folks on the show. He is particularly good at maneuvering them so that they can feel like they just had a win, even when less kind managers might have said, "My God, you suck at this. Go do something else."

Systems. Melchiorri strikes a familiar chord with me because he is a huge believer in systems. A repeated theme of the show is that successful hotels run on systems. But his use of and approach to systems is markedly different from the that of the systems guys who have been besieging public education for the past few years.

In almost every episode, Melchiorri proposes or installs a system. But it is not a one-size-fits-all system. He does not demand that the hotel change its culture and vision so that it can better use his system. And that would seem to be simple common sense-- he visits everything from 125-room beach resort hotels to a 12-room inn in Vermont, every place from Puerto Rico to Alaska. So he talks to the owners and workers, watches how the place runs, listens to what the owners want to achieve, and he develops a system that suits that particular hotel.

Imagine-- you "fix" a place based on the particular needs, goals, strengths and weaknesses of that particular place, rather than trying to beat it into the same shape as every other similar place in the country. There are certainly standards that he consistently follows (cleanliness is a biggie), but there is not just One Correct Way to run every hotel in the world.

The show is undoubtedly not everyone's cup of tea, but I can think of a few reformsters who could learn a thing or two from it.

Teachers Declare EVAAS Useless Baloney

From Audrey Amrein-Beardsley at Vamboozled comes a report on a piece of research about SAS EVAAS, the granddaddy of VAM systems, beloved in several states including my own home state. Amrein-Beardsley has a guest post by Clarin Collins, author of the study and former doctoral student under Amrein-Beardsley (if you don't follow this blog, you should). I was interested enough to go read the actual paper, because in Pennsylvania we just lovvvvve PVAAS to pieces.

If you don't live in VAAS state, well, you're missing out on some of the fun. We have a nifty website where we are supposed to find out oodles of data about how we're doing, how our students are doing, and what is supposed to be happening next in our classroom. Periodically some of us are sent off for professional development to show us which nifty charts are there and how we can crunch numbers in order to achieve teacherly awesomeness. SAS (the owner-operators of this business) also include a database of terrible lesson materials, because that helps them sell the site. I have literally never met a single human being who used a lesson from the SAS site.

At any rate, when you hear reformsters talking about how data can be used to rate teacher effectiveness and help teachers design and tweak instruction, this site is what they think they are talking about. Funny thing, though-- prior to Collins's research, nobody went out to talk to teachers in the wild and ask if they were getting any real use out of VAAS, and so VAAS's reputation among educrats and reformsters has rested entirely on its well-polished marketing and not what it actually does in the field. So let's see what Collins found out, shall we?

The Subjects

Collins used an un-named district in the Southwest that is heavily invested in VAAS, has a strong union presences, and 11K teachers. By using a researchy randomizer and digging down to teachers who are actually directly evaluated by VAAS, the research ended up with 882 responders. The responders were mostly female, with a wide range of ages and ethnicities (the oldest was 78!) Collins speaks fluent researchese and if you want to evaluate the solid basis of the research, everything you need is there in the paper. We're just going to skip ahead to the civilian comprehensible parts.


Collins first set out to see if, from the teacher perspective, VAAS results seemed reliable. The answer was... not so much. Teachers reported fluctuating from year to year. One teacher drew the gifted student short straw and so showed up on VAAS as a terrible teacher but "the School Improvement Officer observed my teaching and reported that my teaching did not reflect the downward spiral in the scores." The repeated story through the various responses was that a teacher's effectiveness was most directly related to the students in the classroom, except when scores fluctuated year-to-year for no apparent reason.


For a smaller percentage of teachers, the usual horror stories applied. About 10% reported that they'd been evaluated for scores for subjects in which they were not the teacher of record. Almost 20% reported being VAASed for students for whom they were not the teacher of record, including those like the student who arrived late in the year and left soon thereafter for alternative school. "I'm still considered the teacher of record even though he spent 5-6 months out of my classroom."

Over half of the teachers indicated that their VAASified scores did not match their principal evaluation. Most commonly the principal rated higher, but some teachers did report that VAAS gave them some help with bucking a principal with a personal beef against the teacher. At the same time, a large chunk of the teachers reported that they were getting an award of some sort for teacherly swellness at the same time VAAS was calling them stinky.

Formative Use

We are told repeatedly that VAAS info is formatively useful-- that peeking in there should help inform our remediation and help us fine-tune our instruction. In fact, that is what several of our regional college teacher prep programs teach aspiring teachers.

Well, baloney. 59% of the responders flat-out said they don't use VAAS for that, at all. One teacher noted that by the time the data is up, it's for students you don't teach any more, and to find data for the students you do have requires a long student-by-student search (feel free to work on that in your copious free time).

Of the teachers who said they do use VAAS to inform instruction, further questioning indicated that what they meant was "but not really."

The most common response was from teachers who responded that they knew they were “supposed to” look at their SAS EVAAS® reports, so they would look at the reports to get an overview on how the students performed; however, these same teachers called the reports “vague” and “unclear” and they were “not quite sure how to interpret” and use the data to inform instruction.

Even teachers who made actual use of the reports (commonly to do ability grouping) couldn't really explain how they did that. This puts them on a par, apparently, with many principals who reportedly shared VAAS scores with teachers "in a manner that was 'vague,' 'not in depth,' and 'not discussed thoroughly.' "

Does it deliver on its promises

SAS EVAAS makes plenty of promises about how it will revolutionize and awesometize your school district. Collins did a quick and simple check to see if teachers on the ground were seeing the marketing promises actually materialize. Here's the list of promises:

EVAAS helps create professional goals
EVAAS helps improve instruction
EVAAS will provide incentives for good practices
EVAAS ensures growth opportunities for very low achieving students
EVAAS ensures growth opportunities for students
EVAAS helps increase student learning
EVAAS helps you become a more effective teacher
Overall, the EVAAS is beneficial to my school
EVAAS reports are simple to use
Overall, the EVAAS is beneficial to me as a teacher
Overall, the EVAAS is beneficial to the district
EVAAS ensures growth opportunities for very high achieving students
EVAAS will identify excellence in teaching or leadership
EVAAS will validly identify and help to remove ineffective teachers
EVAAS will enhance the school environment
EVAAS will enhance working conditions

Collins just asked teachers whether they agreed or disagreed. The list here puts the items in ascending amount of disagreement, so the very first "professional goals" item is the one teachers disagreed with least-- and still more than 50% of the respondents disagreed. From there it was just downhill-- at the bottom of the list are items with which almost 80% of teachers disagreed.

Unintended consequences

Did teachers report any effects of VAAS that were not advertised? Yes, they did.

There was a disincentive to teach certain students. ELL students in a transition year and gifted students with their ceiling effect were both unloved. Given the choice, some teachers reported they would choose not to teach those students.

Teacher mobility-- moving from one grade level to another-- was also a casualty of the VAAS model, particularly in those schools that use looping (staying with one group of students for two or more years).

Gaming the system and teaching to the test. Angling for the best students (or having the worst packed into your classroom by an unfriendly principal) seem common. And, of course, as we all already know, the best way to get good test results is to drop all that other teaching and just teach to the test.

Numerous teachers reflected on their own questionable practices. As one English teacher
said, “When I figured out how to teach to the test, the scores went up.” A fifth grade teacher added,
“Anything based on a test can be ‘tricked.’ EVAAS leaves room for me to teach to the test and
appear successful.”

Distrust, competition and low morale also rose in these schools, where VAAS is linked to a "merit" system. Why share a good teaching technique if it's only going to hurt your own ranking? It is bad news for you if the teachers who are the feeders for your classroom do well-- their failure is the foundation of your own success. All of this is predictably bad for morale, and Collins's research supports that.

The incentive program is not an incentive. For something to be an incentive, you need to know what you have to do to get the incentive. All we know is that as a teacher you have to improve your scores more than the other teachers. You can make improvements each year, but if other teachers improve the same amount, you have made no gains according to the system. It is a constantly moving target. You don't know what you need to do to get the "prize" until after the "contest" is over.


SAS EVAAS® and other VAMs, by themselves, are sophisticated statistical models that purportedly provide diagnostic information about student academic growth, and represent teachers’ value-add. In other words, SAS EVAAS® and VAMs are tools. It is what teachers, schools, districts, and states do with this information that matters most. However, for the teachers in this study, even for those participating in training sessions on how to use the data, the SAS EVAAS® data alone were unclear and virtually unusable. For SSD, not only are teachers not using the “product” that costs the district half a million dollars per year, but teachers are aware that SAS EVAAS® inputs can be manipulated based on the student makeup of their classroom, and some teachers even confess to teaching to the test and cheating in attempt to increase their SAS EVAAS® scores.

Collins hasn't found anything that reasonable teachers haven't talked about and predicted for these models, but now we all have a real research paper we can link to for people who have to have those sorts of things for proof. The view from ground zero is clear-- the system is unreliable, invalid, unable to produce the results it promises, and all too capable of producing toxic effects.

It's true that this paper deals a great deal in sheer accumulation of anecdote. I'm struck by just how brutal all the findings are for VAM, because with this type of survey instrument I'm certain that the teacher tendency to be a good little soldier and give the answers you're supposed to give (look back at the formative question) and so a certain percentage of teachers are inclined to just say, "Why, yes! The emperor's new clothes are beautiful and grand," and then go back to the lounge and make comments about the emperor's shocking nakedness.

A teacher of my acquaintance took an on-line course that included some portion about the awesome usefulness of SAS-PVAAS; the teacher was reluctant to openly say how useless the site was for that teacher. When the awful statement was finally out there, many other teachers finally broke down and said, yeah, me too. Nobody tried to defend it. Too many times teachers stand by quietly while the house burns down because they don't want to be impolite or rock the boat.

So when I see research like this that brings forth a whole bunch of boat-rockers, my immediate suspicion is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. I've just hit the highlights here; I recommend you go read the whole thing and get the full picture. But once again, the challenge is to get people in power to actually listen to teachers. Maybe that will happen if it comes in the form of actual research. 

Choice and Disenfranchising the Public

School choice is one of those policy ideas that just never goes away, and it probably never will. For some people, it is an irresistible way to unlock all those public tax dollars and turn them into private profits. For some people, it's a way to make sure their children don't have to go to school with Those People. And some people have a sincere belief that competition really does create greatness.

I'll save my disagreements with those folks for another day. Because there is a huge fault with school choice that we discuss way too rarely.

School choice disenfranchises the public.

Our public school system is set up to serve the public. All the public. It is not set up to serve just parents or just students. Everybody benefits from a system of roadways in this country-- even people who don't drive cars-- because it allows a hundred other systems of service and commerce to function well.

School choice treats parents as if they are the only stakeholders in education. They are not. We all depend on a society in which people are reasonably well-educated. We all depend on a society in which people have a reasonably good understanding of how things work. We all depends on a society in which people have the basic abilities needed to take care of themselves and the people around them. We all depend on dealing with doctors and plumbers and lawyers and clerks and neighbors who can read and write and figure. We hope for fellow voters who will not elect a politician because he promises to convert straw to gold by using cold fusion. We all depend on a society that can move forward because it is composed of people who Know Things.

This is why everybody votes for school board members-- not just the people who have kids in school. Everybody has a stake in the students who come out of schools, and every taxpayer has a stake in the money spent on schools.

A choice system says no-- you only get a say in how education works if you have a kid.

Reformsters like to make the argument that schools need to be more responsive to what employers and businesses are looking for in graduates, but in a choice system, these folks have even less say. Charter operators and other choice beneficiaries don't have to listen to anybody except the people who affect market share.

This has the potential of serious long-term harm for the choice schools themselves. Most notably, disenfranchising the public literally moves them from the list of stakeholders. It will vastly increase the list of people saying, "Well, I don't have a kid in school. Why do I have to pay taxes, anyway?" The day those people make a large enough group is the day that choice school operators suddenly find the pie shrinking as voters decide they're tired of paying for a system they've been cut out of.

But the biggest damage will come to communities themselves, because choice and charter systems are based on business principles, not education or community principles. And the most basic business principle is, when you aren't making money, close up shop.

There has been a lot of shock and surprise around the country as charter schools just close their doors. People tend to assume that part of being a school means staying open in your community, and they keep being surprised to discover that a charter school is not a school-- it's a business. Charter and choice systems don't just disenfranchise the public in saying how schools in the community should work-- charter and choice systems also take away any choice about whether there are schools in the community or not.

A public school system cannot suddenly just close its doors, even just a few of its doors, without answering to the taxpaying and voting public. But when it comes to decisions about whether to stay open or not, even the parents themselves are disenfranchised. A choice system in your community doesn't only mean that the public has lost the ability to decide what kind of schools they'll have today. A choice system also means they've lost control over how much longer they'll have any schools at all.

That's the trade. A few people get to have a choice about schools today, and in return, nobody gets a choice about what schools, if any, to have in the community tomorrow.

The First All-Charter District

As news continues to come out of York, PA about plans to hand the entire school district over to a for-profit charter company, you'll see the prospect referred to as making York the "first in Pennsylvania" and "the only one in the country." That's because, as one of my readers reminded me, we have in fact tried this before.

Muskegon Heights, Michigan, owns the distinction of first all-charter district in the nation. Muskegon Heights is a city of about 10,000 located on the western side of Michigan; the nearest large city is Grand Rapids. Its school district was handed over to emergency manager Donald Weatherspoon who in July of 2012 hired Mosaica to operate the district's four buildings because, with $16 million in debt, the school district would not be able to open in the fall.

At age 70, Weatherspoon is not your typical education wunderkind. He grew up with eight siblings in a family with ties to the underground railroad. His resume is long and varied-- college football star, semi-pro player, assistant to director of department of corrections, deputy director of department of commerce, police officer in California, and, somewhere in there, assistant state superintendent of schools. And that's just a sampling. But Gov. Rick Snyder sent him to Muskegon Heights, he landed hard, laying off the entire staff and privatizing the district.

By the end of its first year, documents obtained by Michigan Live (a news outlet that covered this story pretty regularly and thoroughly, and whose reporting I leaned on heavily to produce this post), showed the relationship was already testy. Weatherspoon's expectations were plenty reformy-- one of his objections was that Mosaica had not, in one year, closed up the three-to-five year achievement gaps in the high school students. Weatherspoon told Mosaica that their progress was "far less than satisfactory" and basically told them if they didn't shape up they would be shown the door.

The door was easy to find because so many teachers were walking out of it. Mosaica's mostly-new mostly-young staff experienced hefty turnover; within the first three months of Mosaica's operation, twenty of their eighty new hires quit.  Within a year, just one teacher was left at the high school from the "old" staff, and she left for a job in Grand Rapids. Mosaica president Gene Edelman said, "We hired the best teachers we could find but some people were just not expecting how tough it's going to be." Regional Mosaica chief Alena Zachery-Ross said that turnover was higher than they had planned, saying that first it was the disciplinary challenge of low-income inner city kids, and later it was the low pay ($35K base with 10K benefits).

Teachers who left cited a lack of clear discipline policies, resources and supplies, and work expectations. Many were so frustrated that they quit without another job lined up. Meanwhile, students achievement was in the pits and attendance was in freefall. Enrollment dropped steadily as students looked to escape the chaos, and lower enrollment means less money form the state.

By the fall of 2013, Donald Weatherspoon had resigned his post in Muskegon Heights to move on to do some financial slashing in Pontiac. He was replaced by his brother-- Gregory Weatherspoon. A few months later, Mosaica was looking for the door on their own.

In spring of 2014, it was announced that the charter board for Muskegon Heights and Mosaic had decided to part ways. Why did Mosaica walk away from this "historic opportunity"?

"They came here to do a service for the children," Weatherspoon said. "They got the job done, but it didn't fit their financial model... The profit just simply wasn't there."

I will give Mosaic credit for one thing-- as things fell apart financially in the last year, they waived their one million dollar management fee. But they also arranged to get out of the final three years of their contract. As always, the charter commitment to education lasts only as long as the money is coming in.

What has happened this year in Muskegon Heights? Well, the academy board (the charter board that operates the system now) closed a building and reconfigured the remaining students. They have taken steps to get enrollment back up. They hired a superintendent of their own and instead of farming out the entire district function,  hired an outside staffing agency to handle personnel. They started the year with most of the same personnel they finished last year with. As on objective measure, the number of news stories on the general topic of "What the hell is going on over there" has dropped dramatically.

So what are the two takeaways from the Story of Muskegon Heights? What can York schools learn about Life Under a For Profit Charter Chain?

First, Mosaica didn't know what the hell they were doing. There are vague hints of protestations that they couldn't be expected to fully staff and supply a system so quickly, but that's exactly what they said they could do. They failed to recruit an adequate staff, and then they failed to retain them. They failed to provide the teaching supplies needed for the setting, and they failed to establish an environment of order and safety in the schools. The only thing Mosaica knew how to do was crunch numbers and manage cash flow (and that they did in ways that damaged every other part of their mission).

Second, they brought no commitment, no ties, no roots, no intention of fighting to the end. They came to make money. When they couldn't make money, they left.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that making money is inherently evil, a dirty motivation from the dark side of the soul. What Mosaica and other profitable charters (which include both those explicitly for-profit and the non-profits that are pocketing profits personally) do is perfectly normal, natural and rational for a business. It is normal and correct for a business that can't make money to close up shop.

And that is why school and business do not mix. A public school is a long-term commitment that stretches across the generations. It is a promise that a community makes to its children, past, present and future. That is not a reasonable expectation for a business, but it is the only acceptable expectation for a public school system.

Muskegon Heights was an historic first, but not one that the charter biz talks about much because it's not a success story. Instead, it highlights all the reasons that handing over public schools to private business interests is a lousy idea.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Truce (Part II)

As a guest blogger over at Rick Hess's EdWeek blog (everyone still with me?), Mike McShane started last week with a call for a Christmas truce. You can find a link to that original piece here in my response to it.

McShane promised a follow-up, and he delivered. It was kind of a disappointment; if the first truce call wasn't really a call for a truce, the second is even less of one.

McShane is an edu-guy at AEI, home of conservative market-style education advocacy. You can see him walk-and-talk his way through some ideas about how to gut public education right here.

In Part I, McShane floated the idea that people on different sides of the education debate share a desire to disempower large stupid impersonal institutional approaches to education. In Part II, he's going to offer some concrete steps to turn that philosophical alignment into real world action. It's a couple of winners and a huge whiff.

1. Dig deeper than the party label

Win. "If you are interested in understanding where the real fault lines are in education debates, party ID will probably not help you." Many of us have said as much in a variety of ways. There are plenty of reformsters wearing a Democrat label, and there are plenty of Republicans who actually value the traditional institution of public education. You have to pay attention to what people actually do if you are going to identify your allies.

2. Argue on the right terms

Win. McShane argues that the debate about what works has become a hopeless mess with the toxic side-effect of testing run amok. We need to refocus on the question of who needs to know what and how we could best collect and distribute that information. I suspect McShane and i have huge disagreement about the answers to that question, but I agree that it's a better to start with that question than to continue insisting that a couple of high stakes tests will provide useful information about students, teachers, schools, programs and educational techniques that can be put to good use by teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, government agencies and parents.

3. Let old wounds heal

Win. This is really another version of #1. Being opposed to anything that Talky McBlabsalot says because you've decided he's always wrong, and besides, that son-of-a-bitch once wrote something that really hurt and pissed you off-- that's always a mistake. It is always a mistake to evaluate what somebody says before they actually say it. There are reformsters who I suspect are going to be wrong 99.9% of the time, but I will still hear them out. Ideas should rise and fall on their own value, not on the value of their source.

4. Choice might be the answer

Fail. After all this fairly well-reasoned and thoughtful writing, McShane wraps up by veering off into choice territory. In other words, the final part of McShane's argument is "The way to achieve truce is for you to recognize that my side is actually correct." His analysis of the argument over choice is fair:

But, in order to find common ground, liberals have got to internalize that many conservatives support charter schools and school vouchers because they see them as an opportunity for community organizations to get involved and create new schools in neighborhoods. They like churches and non-profits and want to empower them to help serve kids. To put it another way, in school choice they see Edmund Burke, not Gordon Gekko. It would also help if more conservatives understood that most liberals oppose school choice programs for the exact same reasons. They think that school boards are a better guarantor of community input and values than markets are. They worry that for-profit companies or even far-away non-profit entities are trying to invade communities and instill their values and their vision on children, whether families like it or not. They see charter schools or voucher systems as cold, impersonal, and destructive.

He has missed a point or two here. First, while "many conservatives" may pursue choice out of these values, many conservatives are, in fact, Gordon Gekkoing all over the ed business. The biggest players in the charter school biz are not community groups-- they are hedge fund operators.  And that has led to the spread of charter and choice schools that are devoted to making money, and specifically by making money by serving only a portion of the community. There is a huge gulf between the mission of serving some students and serving all students, and public and choice systems sit on opposite sides of that gulf.

McShane offers three "safeties" to make charters more palatable and representative of the shared values he believes are there.

First, vouchers or stipends or whatever we're going to call the money that follows kids around has to be scaled to the kids. In other words, the high cost students that charters currently dump would come with more money to make them less dump-likely. Second, community groups get "first crack" at charters, before the outside operators come in. Third, schools should be free to do as they wish pedagogically; students will vote with their feet.

Why that doesn't work for me

That still doesn't close the gap for me, though I'm going to keep mulling over that sliding cost scale for students. I've written tons about this, but let me see if I can hit my main objections in short lines.

In my universe, any charter operator must contract for an extended period. Twenty, thirty, fifty years-- I'm not sure I can think of a period that would be too long. No shutting down after two years or one year or six months because it just isn't making enough money any more. Public schools don't just promise to educate every child-- they promise to be there for every child that ever lives in that community in the years to come. "We'll be right here as long as it suits us," is an unacceptable vision for a public school.

In my universe, we do not disenfranchise the taxpayers. Every choice and voucher system ever created has one thing in common-- it tells all childless taxpayers that they are no longer stakeholders in public education. That's wrong. Dead wrong, completely wrong, absolutely unjustifiable. Every citizen of this nation is a stakeholder in public education. Are parents stakeholders? Certainly. Are they the only stakeholders? Absolutely not. Charter advocates keep trying to shade this with the market-tested idea of having the money follow the child so that families can choose the educational option they prefer. That's baloney.

Christmas is over

So, I don't think we're getting a truce, exactly. Personally, I'll keep reading and listening and trying to make sense of people all over the map on the issue of public education, so maybe I've already been observing a kind of truce all along (and that may also be affected by the fact that I have no real power or ammunition other than whacking away at this blog).

I appreciate the effort, Mr. McShane, and I think you've drawn some important connections, but no truce yet.

More Fantasy from NYT

In yesterday's New York Times, reformster David Kirp tried to stand up for the Common Core, instead displaying just how weak the argument for the Core has become. It's a short piece, and it won't take long to spot the holes in his argument.

Our first clue of where he's headed comes from his source for the history of Common Core-- the Allie Bidwell puff piece from last February in US News which tried to argue that CCSS was a "carefully thought out educational reform." So Kirp reduces the history of the Core to the idea that in the mid-90's, "education advocates" began arguing that national standards would level the playing field for students. So in 2008, the governors and state school chiefs spearheaded a drive to create "world-class standards." This is perhaps the most stripped-down creation story of the Core yet, omitting Coleman, Gates, and imaginary teachers writing the standards. So both facts and fictions have been pared down.

Kirp also likes the old "CCSS = critical thinking" line, because nobody ever taught critical thinking before. Let me just renew my usual request for somebody, anybody, to point out the critical thinking portion of the standards. Is it right next to the singing unicorns portion?

Kirp belongs to the Blame Obama crowd, saying that administration backing of the standards. "The mishandled rollout turned a conversation about pedagogy into an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing." This is baloney. The Core was created and pushed through ideological and political means. It has ideology and partisanship in its DNA. Without political gamesmanship and ideological leverage, Common Core would not even be a twinkle in someone's eye. The conversation about Common Core was never "turned into" something political and ideological-- it was political and ideological from the first moment. At no point was the push for Common Core fueled by pedagogy. At no point did the CCSS initiative involve educational experts discussing the educational or pedagogical merits of how to launch it.

Kirp also offers this: "The misconception that standards and testing are identical has become widespread." This is a distinction without a difference. Standards and tests are different things, but CCSS and testing were designed to be strapped together from day one. The Core are standards chosen specifically for their testability, and I don't believe that anyone pushing the Core considered doing it without high stakes testing attached for even five seconds. Advocates of the standards routinely talked about how testing would allow them to enforce the standards and drive curriculumn. Tests and the Core were meant to go hand in hand, and so they have. Without the testing, the standards are pointless bad suggestions. Without the standards, testing would be revealed as the invalid punitive crapshoot that it is. In short, there really is no misconception involved, other than the original conception of national standards and testing that would go hand in hand to control education.

Kirp goes on to catalog the backlash from conservative to lefties, and he includes acknowledgment that VAM is a baloney. But he'd like to work his way around to further indictment of the Obama administration:

The Obama administration has only itself to blame. Most Democrats expected that equity would be the top education priority, with more money going to the poorest states, better teacher recruitment, more useful training and closer attention to the needs of the surging population of immigrant kids. Instead, the administration has emphasized high-stakes “accountability” and market-driven reforms. The Education Department has invested more than $370 million to develop the new standards and exams in math, reading and writing. 

He goes on to note that trying to buck the administration's priorities can get you some trouble, and he hits some highlights from Arne Duncan's Great Moments in Attacking Critics (white suburban moms, anyone?).

Kirp is correct to note that these are all stupid things the administration has done. He is incorrect to suggest that somehow these actions were the administration somehow horning in on an otherwise robust and healthy reform party. They are not. Duncan appears to get just as many marching orders from the leaders of reformsterdom as he does from Obama, and the administration has faithfully performed as leaders of the reformy movement wanted them to, adopting as policy the reform framework laid out by NGA and Achieve.

It’s no simple task to figure out what schools ought to teach and how best to teach it — how to link talented teachers with engaged students and a challenging curriculum. Turning around the great gray battleship of American public education is even harder. It requires creating new course materials, devising and field-testing new exams and, because these tests are designed to be taken online, closing the digital divide. It means retraining teachers, reorienting classrooms and explaining to anxious parents why these changes are worthwhile. 

Go ahead and try to count all of the assumptions piled into that paragraph about what is "required" by public education. Kirp uses it to wind around into his finish-- that this would all be going great if the administration had just listened to the calls for a high stakes testing moratorium. Really? There was one of those during the CCSS rollout? did it happen somewhere between the unicorn choir singing "Somewhere over the rainbow" and the ballet of the dancing ferrets? Because I stepped out then, so maybe I missed it. The only call for a moratorium came last summer when panicked reformsters thought they could manage pushback on their favorite initiatives by pretending to endorse a testing pullback (but not really).

In Kirp's world, that imaginary testing moratorium at roll-out time would have reduced resistance to the Core. Now it will be a "herculean task to get standards back on track." Which gives us one last false assumption, because standards can only get "back" on track if they were ever on track to begin with, or that they have somehow left the tracks they were traveling on.

Nope. Standards got to this place of pushback and association with toxic testing because that is exactly the track they were placed on from day one. There is no right track to get "back" on because the Core were never on that right track to begin with.

But is interesting to see this minimalist stripped-down version of the CCSS narrative and argument. The reformsters are running out of tools, which will make the "herculean task" of saving the Core even harder. We can only hope.

John Green on Public Education

If you teach high school, you are probably familiar with John Green, Author of Various Novellic Weepfests That Your Students Carry Around. He's the author of the highly popular Looking for Alaska and the even more popular The Fault in Our Stars. But John Green is also a high school teacher, and he and his brother are highly popular vloggers. Their Crash Course series on youtube presents just about everything (though mostly science and history-- their subject areas) in rapid-fire and engaging style.

In the midst of those videos, one finds John Green's "Open Letter to Students Returning to School," and it is worth four minutes of your life.

Green gives some simple perspective on public education's place in history, and he delivers a fine response to the eternal students complaint- "My teachers are stupid."

Yes, your teachers may be stupid. So are you. So am I. So is everyone, except Neil Degrasse Tyson. The whole pleasure of being a human being is in being stupid but learning to be less stupid together.

And then he goes on to make the big point-- school is not about you. Green addresses a point I believe is critical-- schools are for all of society. They are not, as modern charter operator marketing departments would have us believe, a service provided for parents and parents alone, but an important service provided for the entire nation, for all of society.

This video makes as good a case for public education as anyone could make in under four minutes. Perfect thing to watch before you head back to school in the new year.

Correction: I incorrectly called Green a high school teacher. That's what I get for writing before I eat my morning bagel. For my money, he's still a teacher, albeit through unconventional means. But not a public school teacher.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Why For Profit = Anti Student

Let me offer a simple explanation for why for-profit charters (like the one slated to take over the York PA public school system) are bad news for education.

You are leaving your child with a babysitter. You hand the babysitter ten dollars and say, "Use this to get lunch for my child. Everything you don't spend on her lunch, you get to keep."

Do you think your child is going to eat steak or baloney sandwiches?

Granted, schools are more complicated. Let's add a layer to our analogy.

You are part of a neighborhood co-op. You all put in money together to pay for babysitting for everybody's kids. Your neighbor Swell McGotrocks is in charge of the system, and Swell makes that same deal with the sitter-- only Swell stops by every day and picks up his own kid and takes her to Red Lobster for lunch.

You ask for accountability, so Swell says, "Fine. I will require the sitter to weigh the food and make sure that your child is getting at least eight ounces of food a day."

Do you think your child is getting eight ounces of steak, or eight ounces of baloney?

You would feel better if the deal were, "Here are ten dollars. Spend all of them on my child's lunch. I'll see that you're well paid, but spend all ten dollars on my child's lunch."

The anti-public school crowd is going to say, "That gives me no guarantee that the sitter won't buy ten dollars' worth of baloney and skittles." And they are correct. We will still need to keep an eye on the sitter. But with the spend-it-all-on-lunch system, we have the possibility of a good steak for my child. At the very least, we have not created a system with the strong perverse incentive to screw over my child's meal in order for the sitter to stay in business. In a for-profit charter, the students are the enemy, the obstacle to making money. The main management problem remains, "How do we keep these kids from sucking up too much of our money."

Note: It's not really any different for most modern charter non--profits, if the operators pay themselves outsize salaries, like Eva Moskowitz at $500,000+ or Deborah Kenny at Harlem Village Academy at $475,000).

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Shafting of York, PA: Round One

Merry Christmas to the teachers, taxpayers, students, parents and elected school board of York, PA. Today Stephen P. Linebaugh, President Judge of the 19th Judicial District of Pennsylvania ruled that the state may go ahead with takeover of York Schools. Well, not so much "take over" as "hand over to a for-profit charter school company with a dubious track record in Florida." A lump of coal would have been an improvement. York is one step closer to being the first district in the country state  converted straight to full charter takeover. [Correction-- York will be the first all charter in PA, but not the nation. But they will be the only all-charter currently operating in the nation.]

Here are some of the salient points to keep in mind as this story continues to unfold (because appeals are going to be filed with all the quickness, you may be sure).

Why is York's school problem, anyway?

Money. York is an exceptionally poor district, and under Tom Corbett, poor schools took an enormous hit. In Pennsylvania, public schools depend a great degree on local funding, with the state historically kicking in a little extra based on just how poor the district might be. PA schools took a one-two punch over the past six or seven years. First, previous Governor Ed Rendell (D) took the stimulus money and did just what he wasn't supposed to-- he used it to fund schools. Second, when Corbett arrived and the stimulus money left, he did not replace it. The biggest cuts of state funding happened in the poorest districts (you can visit Philly for further demonstrations of how this is working out). In 2012, York had 15% of its budget-- $8.4 million-- cut by the state.

So the state took over, anointing David Meckley Grand High Recovery Officer of the district. And it turns out that Meckley loves him some charters.And now the state (rather quickly-- as if they were working against some sort of deadline) wants to upgrade him to Receiver. Others disagree. And so, court.

So why is the state taking over?

Surprise-- this is not even the kind of academic takeover turnaround we keep hearing about from reformsters. Pennsylvania put York into Recovery Purgatory for financial hardship.

While the state's proposed receiver is making noises about improving student test scores and the district's standing in the state, academics are not what got the state involved in the first place. This is about the benjamins. If you want to see how raw and simple the conversion to Full Charter Ownership can be, here it is. Have your state government cut education budgets, then have the same government take over the school district because it is too financially strapped (because the state cut their budget). The only way to make it simpler would be for state governments to say, "We are going to give your district to a charter company because we want to." If you want to take a more detailed look at this maneuver, I recommend this post from Jersey Jazzman.

Why do they want to upgrade to receivership? Because recoveryship isn't working? Because the teachers aren't cooperating? Because PA will have a new governor at the end of the month? Pick your favorite.

What did the judge's ruling say?

The full text of the ruling is attached to this story, but I can hit some of the highlights for you.

In the discussion, the judge defined the issue as whether or not the Secretary's call for a Receiver was arbitrary, capricious, or wholly irrelevant to the financial recovery of the district. "The issues was not," he said, "what action the Receiver would take if appointed by the court."

That's a critical issue because everybody knows what action the Receiver intends to take-- handing over the district, lock, stock and barrel, to for-profit corporation Charter Schools USA. And while the future plans might have a teensy bit of bearing on the case, "It is not for the court to determine whether or not it is the best plan or even a good plan for the District. That is a determination to be made by the Receiver." The ruling's list of Receiver powers indicates that he can do pretty much any damn thing he wants without being answerable to anybody.

In the judge's opinion, the state followed the rules when calling for receivership. The school district meets some basic standards of the law (minimum 7500 students, for example) and it did some things that were not in line with the Recovery Plan that was in place (failing to get its teacher union to accept a contract with massive cuts, for example).

So the judge's basic ruling, as I read it, is that the state may or may not have a good idea about how to run the schools, but it followed its rules in doing so.

Charter Schools USA is a poster child for everything wrong with charters

Local news took a quick look at what charter operation would mean. By asking the charter operators. Guess what-- it will be awesome!

Spokeswoman, Paula Jackson, says the company has a history of turning around struggling schools. Over the span of three years all schools the company has taken over have improved to a satisfactory score. She says turning York City schools around would be nothing new.

“Look we’ve been through this, this is what we have to offer, we’re here to help. Whatever we can do to support you and your students to get them out of being 499 out of 500, we believe in these kids,” says Jackson.

I particularly appreciate how Jackson believes in these kids that they've never met and don't actually know. Perhaps she means that the company believes that these kids exist and will make them a butt-load of money.

Remember, for-profit charter is the very definition of a zero-sum game-- every dollar spent on students is a dollar the company doesn't get to keep. What could be better than a school system in which students are a cost to be control, little human money hemorrhages that must be cauterized and clipped.

Apparently, many things could be better. Charter Schools USA operate in Florida, where the League of Women Voters conducted a one-year study of charters. Turns out Charter Schools USA make use of one of the great profit-making arms of charterdom-- real estate. Here's League Education Chair Patricia Hall talking about how it works:

Our shining local examples in Hillsborough County are owned by Charter Schools USA. My first glimpse of Winthrop Charter School in Riverview in November of 2011 was during a scheduled visit with then Rep. Rachel Burgin. When told the two story brick building was a charter school, I was mystified. The site on which it was built was purchased from John Sullivan by Ryan Construction Company, Minneapolis, MN. From research done by the League of Women Voters of Florida all school building purchases ultimately owned and managed by for-profit Charter Schools USA are initiated by Ryan Construction. The Winthrop site was sold to Ryan Co. in March, 2011 for $2,206,700. In September, 2011 the completed 50,000 square foot building was sold to Red Apple Development Company, LLC for $9,300,000 titled as are all schools managed by Charter Schools USA. Red Apple Development is the school development arm of Charter Schools USA. We, tax payers of Hillsborough County, have paid $969,000 and $988,380 for the last two years to Charter Schools USA in lease fees!

CSUSA has been in business since 1997. Its head honcho, Johnathan Hage, bounced around before taking a last bank shot off the Heritage Foundation in DC and ending up in Florida as a Bush Buddy at Foundations for Florida Future. When Florida passed a charter law in 1996, Hage was right there to jump on the wave. And he was riding it in Indianapolis with Tony Bennett, another Friend Indebted to Bush, where a few million dollars just kind of went missing. Florida charter biz has been big money, little oversight for years, and Hage and CSUSA have been doing just fine.

This might be a dumb move for CSUSA

CSUSA boasts about spending little money on students and getting good test results. They like uniforms. They like structure. And they like requiring "merit pay" for teachers. But this still might be a bad move for them.

The problem with having a charter take over an entire city school system is that it leaves them with no dumping ground. All modern charter success stories depend on one thing-- a dumping ground for students who will hurt the numbers. Students who cost too much to teach because they have one special need or another. Students who are behavior problems. Students who get low test scores. Students who don't show an aptitude for picking up English. Modern charter success stories require a place to dump all of the problem children. Charters depend on attrition, but if they own the whole city system, where will students attrit to?

If CSUSA takes all of York schools, what will they do with the problem students. They will, of course, devote plenty of everyone's time to test prep. But if this is going to work for them, they'll need a dumping ground for students who can not or will not respond well to a steady diet of test prep. These guys have been at this for a while so either A) they've started believing their own PR or B) they've already figured out a solution. In which case, keep your eyes open for the Dumping Ground Loophole in their proposal.

And here's the other part of their problem:

Nobody wants this

Virtually every sector of the York community has spoken out against this move. That includes the elected school board, the teachers union, various members of the taxpaying public-- and it includes York's most prominent native son, the governor-elect of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf. Do you suppose it means anything that we've been trying to ram this through in the last weeks before Wolf takes office? I would like to think it does, but the Receiver is an old friend of Wolf's, and his charter sell-out plan didn't get a squawk from candidate Wolf until journalist Colleen Kennedy stirred up some noise.

I am particularly curious about the teaching staff. CSUSA prefers the merit pay model, favored by pretty much nobody who has experienced it. What would happen if CSUSA were unable to fully staff its schools? They are claiming they can produce more resources and staff down the line, but what makes them think they can do it.

We're not done yet

I assume that the state teachers' union had their appeal already written with a finger on the "send" key before the ink was even dry on today's ruling. So there will be more court shenanigans.

In the meantime, Pennsylvania has a really lousy but quite active cyber-schooling sector. A bad upholding of this lousy decision could touch off a head-to-head battle between charters, as angry parents pull their students to get online instead.

But make no mistake-- this is not good news. It's particularly bad news if you are in PA's other high-poverty districts. If it becomes this easy, this simple for a state to simply hand a school district to a for-profit charter, then in the long run, nobody is safe. Well, except all the people running those charter corporations, cheerfully converting public tax dollars to private profits.

If you care about public education, you may not know much about York, PA, but I'll bet that before too long, you'll know plenty about the decisions that are made there.