Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What Lily Misses about the Common Core

My esteemed colleague at Edushyster scored an interview with NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia, and as always, it's pretty encouraging to see an NEA boss express herself in plain English that clearly opposes reformster ideas-- except for the Common Core. I'm going to reprint a full paragraph because I think it articulates more clearly than anything I've seen where LEG's mistake lies.

But listen, I have this exact conversation with my best friend all the time. She hate, hate, hates the Common Core and she always says: *You know exactly what’s going to happen, Lily. You know the Common Core is just going to be turned into one more high-stakes punishment. It will be all about cut scores, you get fired, this kid doesn’t graduate.* I can’t disagree with her on that. She’s basically describing what happened in New York. Before teachers were even trained to know what was in the Common Core at their grade level, before they had time to do anything in a thoughtful way, it was clearly so much more important to have the cut scores and the punishments in place. But here’s what I tell my friend. Let’s say you could develop the perfect standards. They’re so perfect that everyone is throwing up confetti because that’s how perfect they are. And you find the perfect curriculum and you have text books that are aligned to these perfect standards. And you only have to give one test a year instead of a thousand of them. In other words, it’s perfect! But some politician says, *you get punished, you get a prize.* It’s not the standards. It’s not the curriculum. It is the high-stakes punishment that is hooked to them. That’s why people are so upset about the standards, because of the high-stakes punishment that’s now attached to them and that has corrupted what it means to teach. We have to get rid of that. 

What happened in New York (and with various variations, around the country) is what the Common Core was designed to do. The Core was designed as a means of imposing standardization on US public schools, and as any manufacturing person can tell you, you cannot have that kind of standardization without measuring the output. 

The Standards and the Tests are inextricable, because conceptually, the Test came first. The cut scores and punishments were put in place first because they were always the point. What the Founding Fathers of Coresylvania said was, "We are going to put a mechanism in place for checking to see that every state is on point. Of course, we'll tell them what the instrument is checking for, but the checking-- that's the important part."

The Test is not there to measure the outcome of the Standards. The Standards are there to facilitate preparation for the test. They are not designed to answer the question "What would a great education look like." They are designed to answer the question, "What will be on the test? What must your students do to prove to the People In Charge that you are doing a good job?" For the people who created, promote, and profit from the Core, it is inconceivable that it could be separated from testing.

Let's look at that hypothetical perfect standard.

The perfection would be rooted in a completely different purpose and intent. The perfect standards would exist in order to help provide guidance and support to teachers, filtered through their own professional judgment. The Standards would exist as a means to assist teachers, not as an avenue through which they must prove they are meeting someone else's conception of their job.

The number of tests I would give per year with the perfect standards would be zero, because no standardized test will be capable of giving a true measure of how well my students met those standards. 

Proving you're doing a good job and actually doing a good job are two separate activities. The Common Core are designed around proving we're doing a good job, and for that reason (among others, but let me be brief-ish) they cannot be simply separated from testing. 

Put another way, the Common Core Standards and LEG's hypothetical perfect standards are two completely different kind of standards. 

The Core standards are manufacturing standards, a list of tolerances that widget construction must adhere to. Manufacturing standards mean nothing unless you use them to test your widgets, either passing them on or throwing them out, depending on how well they meet the standards. These are standards that People in Power use to judge, accept, and reject others.

Perfect human standards are internal guidance systems. As in, "I trust my daughter's choice in boyfriends because I know she has high standards" or "Our hospital personnel are committed to a high standard of care." These are standards that people use as their own personal compass.

Manufacturing standards may be used to make course corrections in the process, but the individual widgets are in a strictly binary win-or-lose situation. The human standards allow for course corrections constantly, with the goal of making use of multiple, continuous opportunities to do well.

Manufacturing standards are followed by people who are concerned about avoiding punishment. Perfect human standards are followed by people who are concerned about being the best they can be, being able to see a friendly face in the mirror and to sleep soundly at night. Manufacturing standards have no moral imperative other than "Save yourself." Human standards have some sort of moral code at their foundation.

Removing the threat of punishment from manufacturing standards does not turn them into human standards. Because they have no moral basis, without the threat of punishment they simply evaporate, or join the big shelf full of dusty binders. Manufacturing standards are the standards that you follow only when somebody is watching. Human standards are the ones you follow all the time, even when you're alone.

Imagining that you can remove the Tests from the Core and end up with useful standards is like imagining that you can chain-saw off the roof of your car and have a convertible. It's like imagining that you can create a housebroken pony by chopping the back end off of a horse. It's like imagining that your spouse would be a great spouse if that spouse were an entirely different person. 

Lily, it is the standards, because the standards have no existence independent of the Test. The standards are not the kind of standards you imagine as being perfect (or nearly so), and removing the testing will not turn them into those standards. Removing the testing will turn them into an irrelevant mass of documentation created by amateurs and ignored by real teachers, so for that reason, I still support removing the tests as a tactic-- but for that exact reason the Core supporters will fight decoupling tooth and nail.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gates at Politico. Wrong. So Wrong.

Bill Gates popped up once again, spicing up a Politico interview with some of his standard educational wrongness.

First, he proposes that Common Core is simply a technocratic solution for education. He then compares the standards to the standardized railroad gauge or standardized plugs for appliances. Let me take a deep breath and see if I can put in words (beyond the obvious "children are not toasters") why this analogy is simply wrong.

Railroad gauges and plug configurations are, within certain engineering requirements, fairly arbitrary choices. Had railroad gauges been set a few inches wider or a few inches, it would not matter. The purpose of setting a standard is not to impose a choice that's a better choice for the rails, but to impose a choice that makes all the rails work as parts of a larger whole. Within certain extremes, there's no bad choice for gauge width; the actual width of the gauge matters less than the uniformity.

Decisions about educational standards are not arbitrary. Some educational choices are better than others, and those choices matter in and of themselves. The choice of standards matters far more than the uniformity. Human children are not in school for the primary purpose of being fitted to become part of a larger whole. Imposing a bad standards choice simply to have uniformity is a disastrous choice, but that is what the Common Core has done-- sacrificed good standards in order to have uniformity, which is not even a desirable goal for human children in the first place.

(There's an irony here-- the computer biz has been messing with the standards for powering equipment for years. Manufacturers have been forced to rig up a variety of adaptations because they are stuck with a world of outlets locked into old standards, but we also have power-by-USB cords, allowing tech equipment to circumvent the old standards.)

Gates has some intellectual blind spots, and they shine through in this interview.

First, it appears from out here in the cheap seats that he's simply been a boss far too long.

The idea that what you should know at various grades … should be well structured and you should really insist on kids knowing something so you can build on that.

Because that's how education happens? You just "insist" that kids know something at a particular stage of their development. This is the language of someone who's used to simply being a boss, and not having to deal with people who hold onto their own preferences or demand that their individuality be recognized.

Gates also describes the previous fifty standards as a "cacophony," which is an interesting word choice. A cacophony is a big bunch of noise, disorderly. It's what you call the Rolling Stones if you'd rather listen to Bach. With this word, Gates is not suggesting that the previous standards were ineffective or bad or destructive-- he's just saying they were messy and bothersome. This is Cult of Order talk. This is demanding that all the pencils on every desk are lined up just so, not because there's any proof that it's more effective, but because the mess just makes his fingers itch and his head hurt.

And charters. He loves charters. Which-- more irony-- is an odd thing to be in favor of when your other goal is to make all schools essentially the same, anyway.

The Market Hates Losers

Fans of market forces for education simply don't understand how market forces actually work.

What they like to say is that free market competition breeds excellence. It does not, and it never has.

Free market competition breeds excellent marketing. McDonald's did not become successful by creating the most excellent food. Coke and Pepsi are not that outstandingly superior to RC or any store brand. Betamax was actually technically superior to VHS, but VHS had a better marketing plan.

The market loves winners. It loves winners even if they aren't winning-- Amazon has yet to turn an actual profit, ever, but investors think that Bezos is a winner, so they keep shoveling money on top of him. And when we enter the area of crony capitalism, which likes to pretend it's the free market, picking winners becomes even less related to success. Charter schools were once a great idea with some real promise, but the whole business has become so toxically polluted with crony capitalism that it has no hope of producing educational excellence in its present form.

But then, the market has only one measure for winning, and that is the production of money. The heart of a business plan is not "Can I build a really excellent mousetrap?" The heart of a business plan is "Can I sell this mousetrap and make money doing it?"

There is nothing about that question that is compatible with pursuing excellence in public education.

The most incompatible part of market-driven education is not its love of money-making winner, but its attitude about losers. Because the market hates losers. The market has no plan for dealing with losers. It simply wants all losers to go away.

Here's the problem. I teach plenty of students whom the market would consider losers. They take too long to learn. They have developmental obstacles to learning. They have disciplinary issues. They may be learning disabled. They have families of origin who create obstacles rather than providing support. What this means to a market-driven education system is that these loser students are too costly, offer too little profit margin, and, in their failures, hurt the numbers that are so critical to marketing the school.

In PA, we already know how the market-driven sector feels about these students. It loves to recruit them by promising a free computer and a happy land of success where nobody ever hounds you about attendance and all homework can be completed by whoever is sitting by the computer. But sooner or later, those students are sloughed off and sent back to public schools. And by "sooner or later," I mean some time after the cyber-charter has collected the money for that student.

The market sheds its losers, its failures (well, unless they can convince some patron or crony that they are just winners who are suffering a minor setback). Schools cannot.

For the free market, failure is not only an option, but a necessity. Losers must fail, be defeated, go away. For a public school system, that is not an option. Only with due process and extraordinary circumstances should a student be refused a public education. And certainly no traditional respectable public school system can simply declare that it has too many loser kids, so it's going to shut down.

The free market approach to schools must inevitably turn them upside down. In a free market system, the school does not exist to serve the student, but the student exists to serve the interests of the school by bringing in money and by generating the kinds of numbers that make good marketing (so that the school can bring in more money). And that means that students who do not serve the interests of the free-market school must be dumped, tossed out, discarded.

To label students losers, to abandon them, to toss them aside, and to do all that to the students who are in most need of an education-- that is the very antithesis of American public education. The free market approach to schools will no more unleash innovation and excellence than did 500 channels on cable TV. What it will do is chew up and spit out large numbers of students for being business liabilities.

Free market forces will not save US education; they will destroy it. To suggest that entrepreneurs should have the chance to profit at the cost of young lives is not simply bad policy-- it's immoral. It's wrong.

Data Dopiness Survives in Indiana

You may recall that back in the day, one of the items on our List of Terrible Things About Reformy Stuff was data mining. Featured in RttT and RttT Lite Waivers, the mandate to hoover up giant mounds of data was one of the great hated evils of reformsterdom, loathed by conservatives and liberals alike.

The Leonie Haimson led a fight against InBloom in New York, and won.

Since then, we've dialed back the data fretting considerably.

That's a mistake. The federal requirements for massive data management have not gone away. None of the advocates for cradle-to-career data tracking have stepped forward to say, "Gee, we now realize that's a horrifying idea that out-Big-Brothers George Orwell." The Data Overlords do not sleep, and a reminder of that comes through Shaina Cavazos at Chalkbeat's Indiana bureau. 

Steve Braun would like to use oceans of data to match up students and jobs, and that suits Governor Mike Pence fine-- he's been pushing the connection between education and workforce development since his days as a state representative. He would now like to see a new state office for a data czar created to manage an ocean of K-12 and college data, along with coordinating with an outside company to "identify trends and opportunities."

It's a dopey idea for several reasons.

First, it further enshrines the reformster notion that "education" actually means "job training." It's a small-minded meager vision of education which vastly shortchanges our students in the short term and our culture, country and society in the long term.

Second, it requires a level of prescience not generally associated with government in general or actual human beings in particular. Do you think you can say today, right now, what a six-year-old's career ought to be? Our students will be employed in jobs that don't exist yet. Hell-- in the late 1970s I correctly deduced that computer knowledge would be good to have, so kudos to me-- except that my ground-floor computer training consisted of learning to program in BASIC, so, never mind my kudos.

Third, it turns students into fodder for corporate interests. My standard response to "Your school needs to produce more people who are employable as widget twiddlers" is "I'm comfortable preparing 100 students to be widget twiddlers if you're prepared to guarantee that all 100 will have jobs waiting for them at your company when they graduate." But if you want me to produce 100 twiddle ready widgeters so that you can pick the best ten and leave ninety others to twist in the wind, I'd say you are deeply confused about the purpose of public education.

The idea is to collect long-term data from three state agencies — The Indiana Department of Education, Department of Workforce Development and Commission on Higher Education — and, hopefully, merge it with data tracked by private employers. Four other states — Washington, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maryland — have similar data systems but none have yet harnessed the information in the way Indiana envisions.

Of course, one of the most common concerns about the Great Data Mines is privacy. Exactly who will be poking through student records, and how safe will they actually be. But Braun says those concerns "should not come into play." The network will just study trends, not individuals. No word yet on whether or not the network would like to sell you a bridge.

When it’s operational, state officials hope Indiana can use the network to be a national trailblazer for using data and collaborating with business.

“There is big social and economic value if we do better,” Braun said.

One would hope that some educational value would appear as well.

There's more ridiculousness. Braun says that data is so far just snapshots of the past; he would like to...I don't know? Take snapshots of the future? Is there a TARDIS in this plan?  No-- he would like to align educational processes around workforce analytics. Cavazos notes that "thinking of education that way is sometimes hard for teachers." Perhaps in the same way that is hard for doctors to think of medical treatment as only fixing broken legs.

Accountability? Indiana has dopey ideas for that, too.

Braun thinks the Indiana’s forecasting can be good enough that training kids to assure they get jobs should be more than a goal. It should be expected. In the future, he said, that state should consider tying data about how many graduates earn good jobs to its school accountability system.

Super idea. Perhaps we could also link economic performance to jobs for politicians and bureaucrats-- if the employment rate drops too low, governors and their appointees can be automatically ejected from office, and their failures can be noted in their permanent data records as we try to counsel them into new jobs.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

One More Way To Kill Public Schools

AEI has a new video about education. It's slick and well-produced, featuring Muchael McShane walking through a school while telling us how things should be. He has a three-point program which features, among other things, school choice on steroids. It also has numbers and facts, and I'm not even going to address whether they're accurate or not, because even if they are, the arguments attached are full of holes.
You can watch it here if you must. I've hit the salient points below.

The Haves and Have-Nots

McShane opens with the usual business about how Americans without high school diplomas end up having crappy lives, and those with diplomas don't do much better. He introduces Hypothetical Child Jennifer, born into the bottom 20%. He notes that without a college diploma, it's likely she will not get off that bottom rung.

The problem with this argument has been, and will always be, that it confuses correlation with causation. Jennifer is poor. Because she is poor, there is a high likelihood that her life will include certain features, and somewhere on that list will be lower level of education and later success in life. What reformsters want to do is take one of those outcomes (lower educational prospects) and assign it the role of cause.

We could make the same argument about nutrition or clothing. Jennifer probably doesn't eat as well or dress as well as a child from the top 20%. Does it follow that we need a program to get her better food or better clothing because if we do that, she will escape poverty?

McShane says that with a college degree, Jennifer is more likely to make it out of poverty. Is it not equally likely that if she has the qualities to make it out of poverty, those qualities will lead her to pursue a college degree? It's not that I don't see value in a college degree, but the case that simply having a college degree causes an escape from poverty hasn't been made.

Choices and Price Per Pupil

McShane says Jennifer's big hurdle is a lack of choices; wealthy kids have options that she does not.Well, yes.

McShane says the poor-schools-in-poor-neighborhoods is not a spending problem, citing stats about how some of the poorer districts actually spend more per pupil. That may be a stat that can be challenged, but I don't care. It could well be true, because when we talk about Cost Per Pupil, we are talking about an incomplete stat.

What rich kids have going for them is a hugely larger expenditure per pupil-- just not in direct tax dollars to school district. Buffy and Chip may cost $10K apiece for the taxpayers, but they are also taking tennis lessons and SAT coaching and dance class and a hundred other enrichment opportunities that are not paid taxpayer. Part of being a poor kid is not having your total education subsidized by family and friends.

In other words, a rich kid's education costs more than a poor kid's. Let me try an example. Poor Pat and Comfy Chris both need to buy a car. Each gets a stipend of $10K, but Chris's folks chip in another $10K. So Chris ends up driving a nice new fully loaded Ford Focus, and Pat ends up in a used Yugo. What reformsters want to argue is that Pat is driving a lousier car because Pat shops at a crappy car dealership, and if there were only more competition, Pat could have a fully loaded new Focus, too. They are pretending that Chris bought a new Focus with the $10K.

Yes, school financing is way more complicated, and my analogy is imperfect. But my point is still, I believe, valid. These comparisons of schools are invalid because we are not counting the true costs of a wealthier student's education. And the assertion that spending money on schools doesn't help has been debunked more times than Sasquatch.

McShane would also like us to know that school staffing has mushroomed since the seventies, which is undoubtedly true for a myriad of reasons. It's just not immediately obvious what his point is, except maybe "look at all this money wasted on personnel costs," a favorite refrain of the profiteer reform crowd.

The problem

McShane says the system does not foster innovative and entrepreneurial solutions. Do not expect him to tell us why or how entrepreneurial solutions would help education. For privateers, that question makes no more sense than being asked to prove that water is wet.

Schools stifle creativity. Principals spend more time on reports than leading. Teachers are stuck in narrowed curriculum directed at passing tests. "It's demoralizing, it's dehumanizing, and it hurts kids like Jennifer." The AEI folks are not blithering idiots. These are true things. What is not at all clear is how entrepreneurial solutions would fix any of that. In fact, I'm pretty sure that it's the innovative entrepreneurial spirit that brought us some of those stifling reforms in the first place. 

But McShane does have three solutions to propose.

1) You think you know choice and vouchers? You ain't seen nothing yet.

McShane starts out with the old victims of geography argument, where students flow to schools and the money follows them, whether the schools suck or not. This is a nice rhetorical trick, because it presents schools as objects that just appear, like barnacles or crop circles, and not as community institutions created and maintained by the local taxpayers in order to provide education for their local children.

McShane says vouchers would be better, and I've already burned up bandwidth addressing why he's simply wrong. But let's not stop for that argument because this is not your father's school voucher concept. This is choice hopped up on steroids.

McShane wants choice on the course level. Giving one school, any school, Jennifer's block of money in order to arrange her whole education is a fail. Better, in his opinion, is an educational account for Jennifer that she can use to buy/hire specific courses.

This is a pretty stunning vision. It allows content-providing companies to specialize to make their profits, and it puts all the responsibility on the parents, many of whom will pay dearly for advice on how manage Jennifer's account. It is the educational version of the idea to abolish social security and let/make everyone manage their own retirement fund.

The most obvious implication that McShane doesn't flat out state-- under this system, we can get rid of schools as institutions entirely. McShane's out not just to cut personnel costs, but to get rid of many other overhead costs involved in operating schools. Hear that sound? Ka-ching, baby.

2) Better regulatory approach.

Using "scores and formulas" to hold schools and teachers accountable for a "one size fits all definition of success" is sucky. Can't disagree with that a bit.

Oh, wait. Yes, I can. Because McShane says it sucks because it stifles competition, and we need to let parents vote with their feet. He also says that we need a "flexible, market-based system that relies on performance contracts, inspectors and accreditors to hold educators responsible to many kinds of results." It's hard to be certain what he has in mind other than scores and formulas, though "performance contracts" suggests deliverables. But that means concrete number results, which means data, which invariably means test scores. It would seem that McShane has something else in mind, but it's really not clear what.

3) Freedom to slash

Okay, that's not how McShane puts it. He wants the people who provide these new services to have access to financial and human capital. "They would need the freedom to rethink the roles and compensations of teachers and leaders." "Rethink" is such a harmless word. It sounds much nicer than "freedom to squeeze money out of every corner of the company without regard for the human beings involved."

He'd also like to be able to retrain teachers for "unique environments," and these companies need the flexibility to search out private and public funds.

Behind that curtain

The system that McShane envisions would be extraordinarily cumbersome, with dozens of independent operators jostling for their market share of Jennifers while thousands of parents try to sort through the marketplace. It seems that the inevitable result would be the rise of contractors-- businesses that operate as clearinghouses for content providers and shopping centers for parents.

Some charter operators are close enough to the model to jump on it quickly. Jennifer's Not-Actually-A-School could hire independent contractors for low pay and no benefits, easily replaceable. Not-Actually-A-School would be most efficient if it had programs in a box and just had to hire some content delivery specialists to unpack the box (a job requiring no real expertise). The education services would basically be go-betweens, connecting audience-students with content deliverypersons. In effect, these innovative entrepreneurs would re-invent the recording industry.

Wrap it up

McShane wants to unleash the innovators and entrepreneurs so that they can help Jennifer, who is sweet and well-scrubbed and bright-looking and who walks compliantly beside McShane as he brings it on home. He wants a vibrant marketplace that will compete for her dollar (it is apparently not the taxpayers' money once we hand it to Jennifer). These businesses would compete by showing "better results for her futures" so I guess there is a time machine or a crystal ball in there somewhere.

McShane says nothing at all about how this vibrant "ecosystem" would respond to Jennifer's classmate-- the one who has disabilities and behavior problems and is more expensive to teach. McShane says nothing at all about how this nimble marketplace would treat "customers" who were not attractive or optimal for use of human and financial capital.

McShane asserts that his ideas are pro-teacher, pro-principal, pro-family and pro-children, and I'd assert that they aren't any of those things. He would like to reduce teachers and principals to at-will subcontractors, children to walking piles of money (bring us your voucher!), and families to advertising targets.

Would the education system he envisions be any good? Would it honor the American ideal of educating every single student? Would it in any way honor the tradition of community based and supported schools?

Or would it just make somebody a big pile of money? Ka-ching. Yes, I'm doing a lot of conjecturing here. I look forward to being shown how I'm wrong, because in this instance, I really don't want to be right.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Corbett, Wolf, Money, and Schools in PA

My own governor, Tom Corbett of PA, is looking at an uphill battle in his effort to get re-elected for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his education record.

Pennsylvania is a complicated state, and this is a complicated race for teachers. Corbett is opposed by Tom Wolf, a sort-of Democrat who comes from York (location of the latest rapacious charter incursion) and whose main qualification for the governor's office is that he's a rich businessman. His previous government experience was working for Governor "Smilin' Ed" Rendell, a Democrat who viewed teachers about as fondly as he viewed the gum stuck to the bottom of old gym shoes. The Pennsylvania State Education Association endorsed Wolf's opponent in the primary but is now solidly backing Wolf, because politics.

Wolf's York connection turns out to be doubly important, because many of his buddies (including his campaign treasurer, who also works for the family business) are directly involved in the report that recommended converting York schools to a 100% charter. Activist Colleen Kennedy put that together back in May. David Meckley, the Corbett-picked "recovery officer" heading up the push to replace an entire public school system with charters (yes, I know I'm repeating myself, but it's so hard to believe that I want you to be sure I didn't suffer a massive typo) is also part of a multigenerational successful York family, and a friend of Wolf's.

Now Wolf has finally come out to specifically reject that plan. Maybe it's just good politics, and maybe it's a quid pro quo for the PSEA endorsement, but you'll excuse me if I don't get out my checkbook and start putting "Wolf for Governor" signs in my yard. The PSEA liked Ed Rendell, too, but once in office he was a lousy governor for education. PSEA likes to play the "let's earn a seat at the table" game, a point I've bitched about to PSEA officials, and I generally get a response of "Well, it could have been so much worse." Which is true, I suppose. I mean, you can add "and then I was diagnosed with cancer and hit by a truck" to the end of any news and make it worse. Doesn't mean I want to be friends with someone just because he punches me in the face slightly less hard than my enemies.

All of which is a way of saying that I'm not pre-disposed to automatically accept anybody's rhetoric about education in this election.

The big talking point is the $1 billion that Corbett took out of education spending. You would think that sort of accusation would involve pretty cut and dried facts. You would be wrong.

If you want a long, thorough, fact-laden unraveling of the issue, with lots of interactive charts, I recommend this piece (oddly enough, from the York Daily Record). But we can get the rough cut from this article and its attendant chart at factcheck.org.

The yellow pieces of bar would be the part where Smilin' Ed decided to use stimulus money to finance cuts to the education budget. The light blue part would be the part where we try to rescue PA education pensions from the economically disastrously incompetent skullduggery of the banksters. The short explanation of the argument is that Corbett would like voters to notice the yellow parts; he would also like voters to count the pension spending as education spending. This is deliciously ironic, as it involves an elected official officially arguing that anything that is for the good of teachers is also for the good of schools and education. (Do not hold your breath waiting for this argument to be applied anywhere else.) 

Meanwhile, Wolf would rather that voters not notice the yellow parts, but would like them to NOT count pension costs as education costs. 

Each campaign is actually peddling its own slightly massaged version of the truth. Because, politics.

There are other financial issue adding to the murk. It used to be that after a student switched to charter schools, some of the money that followed him there was shuttled back to his real public school. Under Corbett, that shuttling stopped. Add the complete lack of cyber-charter oversight in PA, and you get a state where running a cyber-school is faster, easier, and safer than just printing money in your garage. Meanwhile, the funding formula is bleeding public schools dry.

Not that public schools can do much about it. Under Smilin' Ed (who was all about property tax relief), school districts lost the ability to raises taxes in any given year by more than a smidge without a referendum. (Among other unintended consequences, this means that I am filling out my budget for the 2015-2016 right now). And because of a decade of can-kicking (maybe if we just wait, the market will suck less again), all of these districts have staggering pension bills coming due soon.

Let me also throw this in-- we have one of the hugest ranges of district types in the country. We have super-urban Philly and Pittsburgh, but we also have West Forest County schools, where half the geographical area of the county is served by a single building that includes about 400 students, K-12. Our funding system sucks, but I guarantee you that whatever system you devise, it will be royally shafting some district somewhere in the state.

The past two administrations in PA-- one GOP and one Dem-- have been disastrous for education. As noted by Factchecker.org, PA ranks 13th in spending per pupil, but 21st in per pupil spending that comes from the state. Local distracts are hurting. 

I wish I could paint a clearer, more pleasant picture of good guys and bad guys, but Pennsylvania is another state facing some difficult choices. Make no mistake-- Corbett is dreadful in general and terrible for education in particular. But it would take a hell of a whiz to get us sorted out, and I'm disinclined to see Wolf as that whiz. We're in trouble, and we're going to have an election, and afterwards, we're still going to be in trouble. That's about all I'm sure of.

Why Teachers Can't Have a Seat at the Table

This month has been declared New Conversation Month by reformsters. Teachers are being offered (in vaguely non-specific ways) some sort of seats at various tables. Unfortunately, this largesse underlines just how much teachers have not been included in conversations about public education. Every step of the way, every part of the discussion, teachers have not been included.

I got to wondering-- why not? I mean, there are only so many possible explanations. Knowing why teacher voices have not been pursued or included would tell us something about reformster attitudes about teachers and illuminate the relationships at the heart of how public education works in this country.

So let's consider the possible reasons that teachers are not, and have not been, at the infamous table. What are the reformsters thinking?

Teachers would sidetrack the process.

If we're going to get things done, we must begin with the end in mind. The conversation is not, for instance, whether charters would be a good solution or how to make charters a good solution. We're talking tactics and strategy, not inquiry and philosophy. So it's not "How could charters most effectively enhance education in a community" but "We know we want to get charters into this area. How do we make that happen?" Ditto for high stakes tests, Common Core, data mining, tenure stripping, teacher evaluations and evaluation-driven (aka less) pay.

Teachers might want to question those premises, try to open up for discussion things we just don't need to discuss.

Teachers lack our shared vision.

We need people who see the same things, who share the same vision for remaking Amerucan public education. Teachers by and large lack that vision and would detract from the focused unity we need to do What Must Be Done. We certainly don't need to waste time and energy arguing about what must be done or why it must be done. Teachers are way too attached to traditional models; it's almost as if they think traditional public education in this country actually works instead of recognizing that our premise of total educational failure is Totally Truthy. Proof shmoof. If they won't get on the bus with us, leave 'em behind.

In a proper society, one does not bargain with the help.

It was a sad day when the Captains of Industry and Commerce were forced to start dealing with unions. Yuck! The proper order of things is that the People in Charge determine the best action to take, and then the employees do as they're told. Bill Gates does not have to sit down and talk corporate policy with the Microsoft janitorial staff, General Patton did not consult with privates about military strategy, and the People In Charge of Education should not have to sit down and talk with teachers. It's true that teacher's unions sometimes become such a nuisance that they have to be listened to, but we're working on that.

Teachers are beneath us.

Arne Duncan plays basketball with the Reformster-in-Chief. The corporate titans of reformsterdom hobnob with the rich and famous. The hedge fund operators of reformsterdom deal with heads of state and juggle millions of dollars. We reformsters are big, important, rich, powerful people. Why the heck would we want to sit down with a bunch of women who make thirty-five grand a year and who manage milk money for a roomful of seven-year-olds?

Look, these policy decisions have to be made at very high levels. Teachers just don't belong there. After all, they're just... teachers.

We aren't friends with any teachers.

We like to work with people we know and like and trust. We don't know any teachers. It nothing personal. There isn't anybody at the table whom we don't already know and like and trust. Don't call them cronies. They're just people who Are On The Same Page.

Teachers suck.

Teachers have totally screwed up American education. Some huge percentage of them are grossly incompetent (and as soon as we tweak up the right evaluation process, we'll chase them out). They don't know a thing about how to educate children, and a huge percentage of them don't even want to. They just want to hand out worksheets and sit on their big fat tenure-enhanced butts. Everything that's wrong about public education is their fault. We're cleaning up their mess. Have them help us? No, thank you-- they've done enough already.

Okay, maybe they don't suck. But they lack expertise.

Teachers don't have expertise in dealing with educational theory and policy. They're just teachers. They sit around and run off worksheet copies and drill students in math facts and make sure that kids line up for recess. They help teenagers put up crepe paper for school dances. Teachers simply don't know enough about education to be involved in education policy discussions.

Okay, maybe they have some educational expertise, but this isn't about education.

This isn't about education. It's about how things really get done, and that comes down to politics, power, and money. Teachers don't know anything about how those work. Just sit out in the hall, honey, while the big boys take care of business.

Teachers will try to protect their careers at the cost of our goals.

Our goals include redefining teaching as a job that people only do for a couple of years, for middling pay with no retirement benefits. To make school finance more "nimble" and to provide better ROI, we need to transform teaching from a lifetime profession into a short time job. It would also be great if we could neuter their damn union. There's a ton of money tied up in education, and we want it, and some of that money is tied up in personnel costs. We need to get money away from the schools in general and the teachers in particular, and in our experience, nobody likes having money taken away (lord knows, we don't). We expect that a lot of teachers and a lot of union people will object to this, and we don't want to listen to their damn whining all the time.

Teachers will harsh our buzz.

It is just such a huge bummer when you think up a cool idea for how schools should work and teachers chime in with "That's a stupid idea that will never work blah blah facts blah blah blah research" or "Yes, that's a good idea which is why we've been doing it for the past twenty years." How can we enjoy feeling like great thought-leaders and education revolutionaries when people keep interrupting with that shit?

We totally included teachers.

We searched all over for teachers who agreed with everything we have to say and were totally willing to go along with us every step of the way. We have included those teachers. Well, at least, we've allowed those teachers to be spokespersons for us. They've been great and have given us no trouble at all. What else did you want?

You didn't get your invitation? Hmm. It must have gotten lost in the mail.

We totally meant to invite you guys. Did you check your spam filters? Our secretary must have messed up. Man, we wondered why you weren't here.

Are there any other possible explanations? In particular, are there any that don't smell of disrespect or disregard for public school teachers? I'm stumped. Maybe We knew you were busy with Real Important Stuff and we didn't want to bother you is a possibility, but I don't think I've ever read anything that would suggest it.

No, to really have a new conversation, there's a message that reformsters are somehow going to have to get out. It would go something like this:

You know what? We made a mistake. We now realize that teachers are deeply committed to educating our country's children, and as America's leading education professionals, they need to be not just part of this conversation, but leading it. After a few years of trying to reshape public education, we realize we need to change our stance. So we are here to listen to you, teachers. How can we help you achieve the best results for our public school students?

To their credit, some reformsters have picked up on pieces of that. But we're not there yet.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Missing Link in the Reading Debate

The debate du jour is about reading, begun in the Intelligence Squared debate, continued through Carol Burris's follow-up column, and followed up by literacy expert Russ Walsh. Okay, it's debate in the sense that disagreements between regular scientists and the Flat Earth Society are debates. Over at the Fordham, Robert Pondiscio offered his two cents which Mike Petrilli on twitter called a "debunking" of Burris, which is a generous reading of Pondiscio's work; apparently generosity is a Fordham trait, as Pondiscio says that AnnWhalen "intelligently critiqued" Burris's post, which is an extremely generous reading of a column that boils down to "neener neener, she's a big liar."

The Big Fat Question is this: should students be given reading materials that are at their actual reading level, at the reading level at which they're supposed to be, or at frustration level?

I'll cut to the chase, and give you Russ Walsh's answer which is, I believe, the correct one: all of the above, in a mixture best determined by the teacher who is working with the child.

But let me also explain why this debate is not going to go away, despite the fact that almost everyone involved is talking out of their butt, because there are some huge, Godzilla-sized gaps in our knowledge.

Reading is hard.

Our understanding of how the human brain does language is limited and inextricably bound up in questions such as how we truly connect wit other humans and know and perceive. Layer on top of that reading and writing, highly artificial and constructed versions of language living at the intersection of Knowledge Base Boulevard and Skill Set Street, and you get the most complex human activity, bar none.

So when someone says, "Chris can read," it's such an unparalleled oversimplification that even I, whose stock in trade is illustrative analogies, don't have a really good comparison. "I can play trombone" or "I can play basketball" come close-ish. But only close-ish.

This vast complexity means that whenever we talk about reading we are always either A) trying to squeeze an 800-pound gorilla into a breadbox, or B) talking about one limb of the elephant as if it's the whole African sub-continent. I'm an English teacher, not a reading specialist (the fact that such a thing exists also tells us something), but my wife is working her way to an advanced degree via reading, and looking over her shoulder confirms my belief. Folks who fall into the A trap tend to talk about reading as if unpacking the various layers of meaning in a piece of writing is as simple as unpacking a second grader's lunch box. But it's Group B that really makes a mess.

The elephant's toe

To make the unbelievably complex manageable, many folks simply stare at one tiny part. For instance, as a high school teacher, I will never get over DIBELS, a diagnostic test for which small children are told to read nonsense words, clumps of words that have no actual meaning.

But that's typical of much that goes on in the field-- we try to isolate one part of reading from the vast complex of reading behavior. So let's have students decode sounds that aren't words, or let's have students read short excerpts without any context-- better yet, let's make them boring and unrelatable so we'll know that students aren't tapping into prior knowledge or actual interest.

It's not that we can't learn useful things from the elephant's toe. But if we get so focused in the toe that we chop it off and take it back to the lab where we subsequently discover that it is bloodless and rotting-- well, we've lost the point entirely.

But we're stuck studying the elephant's toe, because that's what we're prepared to deal with. However, all this so far leads us to the hugest, most gigantic hole in all the reading discussions--


Look, we don't even know what it means to say, "Pat read Huckleberry Finn really well." Does it mean she could read every word out loud with correct pronunciation? Does it mean that she can recall character names and plot points? Does it mean that she can recognize the use of figurative language? Can she understand Twain's sarcasm and irony? Does she get the jokes and laugh at them? Does she recognize symbolic elements? Can she effectively discuss the final chapters and argue for their effectiveness or lack thereof? Can she understand how social, economic and racial issues in both the past and present context of the book?

All of them? Sure. Now design an assessment that measures all those. And make it something that's scaleable on a national level. And remember-- reading Huck Finn is just one type of reading.

When I started this piece, I was going to wade into all the research and fake research, but it all comes down to a line about "shows improved achievement in reading" which really means "got better scores on standardized test which measured a very narrow slice from the broad spectrum of skills." If you say to me, "We have proof that this approach leads to students who can read better," I am going to ask you what you mean by "better," because I don't think you know in any specific and quantifiable way.

Put another way, reading is a real world activity. The further you get from the real world, the less meaningful your study is going to be. If you lock an elephant up in a tiny cage, you can still learn some things about the elephant, but nothing remotely comparable to studying it in the wild.

If we are concerned about real reading by real humans in the real world as a real tool for real life, most of our research and testing data is junk.

That stuff that students have to do on standardized reading tests? It bears a superficial relationship to actual reading in the same way cybersex resembles actual sex. Some of the terminology and tools are the same, but they're used in ways that in some ways run directly counter to the real life applications.

Common Core mirages

We keep insisting that CCSS requires students to be taught in complex tests at or above grade level. I'll be damned if I can find anything in the standards that actually says that. 

I believe that fans of complex frustration-level reading as an instructional technique see the Core as a great opportunity to beat their favorite drum. But I think, once again, we're seeing the phenomenon of people seeing in Common Core just what they want to see.

About those levels

When we're discussing what level of reading a student should be doing, we need to acknowledge our methods of determining levels range from Good Enough To Get By all the way down to Unspeakably Stupid. Lexiles, for example, have been deservingly ridiculed for their stupid rankings. Ernest Hemmingway is always a go-to writer for these discussions because his language is spare, sparse and simple. A Farewell to Arms has a lower lexile ranking than The Hunger Games.

This is before we even get to issues of reading motivation. Give a student a book about a subject they love, and their passion for the topic will power them through tough reading. Give them a book that completely bores them at grade level, and they will have a terrible time.

Any discussion of what level a sixth grader should be reading assumes that we have an accurate master list of what books are sixth grade level books. We don't.

So what do we do?

We are on such a wrong path right now. What we know how to do-- what we can do very, very well-- is train students to do well on tests while simultaneously insuring that they will forever think of reading as an unpleasant, unrewarding activity that they will never, ever do, unless forced. The only way we could do more effective aversion training would be to give students a painful electric shock every time they touched a book.

I don't believe this is what anybody-- not traditionalists, not reformsters, not even thinky tank guys--wants. I do believe that some folks are so invested in the reformster agenda that they simply can't see what they're doing, but I don't think it's what they want.

Reading instruction will come best from trained and dedicated educators who have developed personal relationships with the students. Some narrow testing data will be useful as a diagnostic tool, but passing a test or proving that the student can and has read-- that can never be the point of the instruction. In fact-- and this is a topic for another day-- I truly and deeply believe that meaningful reading assessment is not scaleable at all.

Meaningful assessment might look like "Find some way to tell or show me what this book means to you" or just "Talk to me about what you read." And because some reading can produce a myriad of legitimate interpretations, any reading assessment with a set answer key will always be looking at the elephant's toe.

Reading instruction is also personal. Only someone who knows the student to know what his interests are, how deeply he is capable of reading and understanding, what prior knowledge he brings to the text, what interests him, how much frustration he can stand before cracking, how much of a "reader" he already is, how much help he needs to decode the text-- only someone who can know and process all that personally can make the right assignment.

Every good teacher knows that you have to meet the students where she is. Every good teacher knows what combination of hand-holding and butt-kicking is needed to move the student forward.

Those who insist that every student must read [only or mainly] frustrating material are not simply wrong-- they're deeply and completely committed to staring at the elephant's toe. They need to take a step back and look at the whole sub-continent. A good place to start would be looking at what experts like Russ Walsh have to say.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Financial Fantasies of Choice

(Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats)

Proponents of choice systems, whether they're talking about charters or vouchers, depend on certain financial fictions to make their case. Like beach-bound vampires wearing SPF 110 sunscreen, these robust and rigorous fictions just won't die. Let's examine some of these dancing unicorns of the choice world.

System Savings

In the 1960s, Pennsylvania strongly encouraged its many small township-based school districts to consolidate. It did so because of an obvious piece of common sense-- it is cheaper and more efficient to educate 100 students in one school building to spread them out over four separate buildings.

Choice systems sometimes hide the additional costs by transfering them to parents or corporate sponsors or fund-raising projects. Charters can also bridge the financial gap by slashing teacher pay and maintaining high turnover so that there's little to no cost for benefits and pensions; that's just transfering the additional costs of a choice system to the teachers who work in it. But the bottom line is that opening a whole bunch of schools to serve a population that previously fit into one is cost-ineffective and usually more expensive. There may be clever methods used to hide the additional costs, but it is still there.

Cost Per Pupil

Let's say you read a statement that a car is stolen every forty-four seconds in this country. That's a lot of cars to steal, and a tough crime wave to put a dent in. But hey-- that means that about 163 cars are stolen between 2:00 and 4:00 AM every day. Streets are pretty quiet then-- it would be easy to spot nefarious doings. So let's create a federal grant to stem the tide of auto theft in those early morning hours. It will save almost 60,000 stolen cars a year!

Except, of course, that it really won't, because every statement about how [Bad Thing A] happens every [unit of time] is a fiction, a way to present data that is easily understood. But there is no ring of car thieves out there carefully and precisely stealing a car every forty-four seconds.
Likewise, Cost Per Pupil is a fiction. It makes a neat number for comparison of different districts, but a $10K per pupil expense does not mean that East Podwallow Schools are actually spending precisely $10K on each student.

Choice fans like to treat the per pupil cost as if it's a stipend, a chunk of money set aside for each specific student. The money, they insist, does not belong to the taxpayer or the school district, but should follow the student around like an imprinted gosling. But the per pupil cost is not an education allowance from the government that can be put into any educational vending machine.

Public schools are brutalized by this fiction time after time. If Chris leaves my school, taking "his" $10K with him, my school's expenses do not decrease. We do not hire fewer teachers, run fewer buses, heat the building to a lower temperature, or turn Chris's textbooks in for a refund from the publisher.

This remains true if ten of Chris's friends (and another $100K) leave the school. Or twenty- unless by some bizarre coincidence all twenty leave from the same classroom. And by the same token, when ten more students move into the district, the budget does not increase by $100K.

These statistical fictions have a place, particularly in comparison. If one city has a car stolen "every day" and another has them stolen "every twelve hours," it helps me decide when to park. And if Blorgville Schools spend $10K per pupil and East Woggle Schools spend $18K, that tells me something about how the districts are different. But it does not tell me that each student in East Woggle has a literal $18K paying for her education. 


That Cost Per Pupil amount is not an allowance paid to students by the state, and to treat it as such is to disenfranchise every taxpayer who contributed to it. Parents and students are not entitled to clutch that not-actually-a-stipend and claim, "This is mine. My school choice is only about me, and not about anybody else."

It is about other people. It's about the students left behind in the public school that is now some number of dollars poorer. And it is about the taxpayers who now have no say in how the money they invested in public schools will be spent. Every taxpayer is a stakeholder, because every citizen hopes to live in a country filled with educated people.

"Schools take money from taxpayers without giving them a say," protest the choice fans. That is simply untrue. School board members are elected, and taxpayers have a say (aka "vote"). That's true everywhere except in places like Newark and Philadelphia, where the public has been shut out of the democratic process, and you can see in those places just how bad this sort of disenfranchisement gets.
Apply the same argument to the army, and we would have soldiers trained and equipped by the taxpayers going back home and saying, "I am only going to protect my own house."

Zero Sum

A choice advocate once told me that I should stop talking about this issue as if it were a zero sum game. But it is a zero sum game. The tax dollars involved are finite. Money taken for one school must come from another school. And if we try to run two homes on a strict one-home budget, we are playing a zero-sum game that guarantees disappointment for some players.

There are many fine reasons to consider at least some aspects of a choice system. But we can't have those conversations until and unless we drop the financial fantasies and are honest about the true cost. Feel free to start in the comments section here.


Secrets are rarely a good thing. Sure, there can be secret treasure maps and secrets of hidden temples, but mostly, secrets are bad news.

I'm not talking about simply postponing information for a bit, like hiding a surprise birthday party until it's time. And I'm not talking about confidentiality, which is all about not telling people a story that is not your to tell. I'm not even talking about privacy, which is just the business of maintaining appropriate boundaries.

I'm talking about a pattern of consistently withholding information, usually in an attempt to manipulate somebody else's behavior.

If you are just starting to date someone and that person won't share a home phone number or work history or family details or bits of information such as, say, a full name-- these are not signs that Things Are Going Well. People who keep secrets are up to something. Institutions that keep secrets are definitely up to something, and it's not something good.

So what are we to make of so much reformy stuff that is so very secretive.

High stakes tests, on which so much of the reformy architecture rests, are given the kind of secrecy blanket usually reserved for things like plans to overthrow third world dictators. Teachers are sworn to twelve kinds of secrecy, promising that they will never divulge what they see in the bowels of the testing dungeons of America. The tests are given the kind of trade secret protection that we usually see with, say, the Colonels special blend of herbs and spices.

Some trainers have told us that the tests must be kept secure to preserve their validity, which strikes me about like buying a chastity belt to preserve Charlie Sheen's virginity.

Then there are the secrets of teacher evaluation systems, the Special Super-Secret Sauce that goes into VAM and turns student scores on standardized tests into measures of the educational effect of teachers-- and ONLY the effects of the teacher and not the effects of poverty, home life, emotional state, phases of the moon, or student attitudes about stupid standardized tests. VAM sauce has been criticized mercilessly (in much the same way that gravity will mercilessly criticize your decision to step off a high roof), and if the VAMsters wanted to build support for their technique, all they need to do is pull up a stool and a power point slide show and say, "We will now show you exactly how the VAM sauce works so that you need never have doubts again."

And yet, years into the VAMification of teaching, that conversation has not occured. VAM sauce remains secret in the same way that fracking wonder-chemical mixes remain secret.

All these secrets. We can't know exactly who is backing Campbell Brown-- it's secret. In fact, we can't know who's bankrolling many reformster enterprises, nor who's profiting from them. We are not meant to know where from the great deep to the great deep the money flows.

So many secrets, and the great wall of secrets suggests only one thing-- that reformsters are Up To Something. They like to call for transparency (particularly when publishing teacher ratings)-- well, let's have some. Because if all your methods and tests and proofs that your methods and tests work-- if all those things must be secret, it only gives further credence to the theory that it's all baloney, and we must not be allowed to look behind the curtain or check out the emperor's new tailor or we would give the game away for the scam it is.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reforming Accountability: Does CRPE Have Something New To Say?

News comes this morning of yet another initiative, this one aimed squarely at school accountability. Or as Michael Petrilli put it on twitter, "Not just a change in tone."

It's the Center on Reinventing Public Education (and why couldn't they be reinventing Excellent public education, because then they would be CREPE instead of CRPE). And they are going to deserve a look on their own. CRPE's founders include Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation. [Correction: Petrilli is part of this particular conversation, and Fordham is connected to CRPE, but Petrilli is not actually offically "at" CRPE]. Next is Robin Lake, "internationally recognized for her research and analysis of U.S. public school system reforms, including charter schools and charter management organizations; innovation and scale; portfolio school districts; school turnaround efforts; and performance-based accountability systems." And Paul Hill, whose "current work focuses on re-missioning states and school districts to promote school performance; school choice and innovation; and finance and productivity."

Yes, the reformster is strong in this one.

This morning the three founders offer "A New Start on Accountability." It's an outline of where they propose the accountability bus needs to travel.

They lay out their premises pretty simply.

First: "Every child should be in a school where he or she can learn effectively." "Effectively" is a vague enough word to make this acceptable to anyone.

Second: "Actions taken in pursuit of the goal are controversial because they are difficult and complicated. There is a lot of work of many kinds to be done: improving teacher training, experimenting with more effective methods, and continuously improving learning opportunities for children." Like many teachers, I've been doing two of these and complaining about one for decades, so I can't disagree.

Third: The connecting link between all improvement efforts is accountability. Meh. I've addressed this at length in responding to the Brookings bathroom scale analogy. Short answer-- you don't need a bathroom scale to lose weight. You don't even need a bathroom scale to know you're losing weight. I'm more inclined to believe the "taxpayers deserve to know what they're getting for their money" argument for accountability. The Trio say that in America, it's never enough to say "just trust us." Fair enough. But let's file that discussion for another day so we  can get on to the bullet points.

There is a little bit of mystery here.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan and multi-disciplinary group of analysts and educators met to work on our unsolved accountability problem. Everyone in the group believed accountability was necessary, but all agreed that we had not been going about it right. Under the leadership of the three of us, the group formulated a set of principles to guide our search for the best way to redesign school accountability systems that can help states deliver on the promise of Common Core. 

So, somebody met somewhere at some time about some stuff. And again, for the sake of moving forward, go ahead and insert here the argument that the "promise of the Common Core" is at best a promise made to corporate interests that they'll get to cash in big, and at worst just a big pile of crap.

Let's instead look at CRPE's list of Things We Need To Do To Make Accountability Swell:

All parents need to know immediately when, based on current achievement levels, their children are not likely to graduate high school, or be ready for college or a rewarding, career-ladder job. 

This one is just silly. Most schools issue these things called grades that are pretty good predictors of going-to-graduateness. And despite the various reformster initiatives to the contrary, nobody knows how to predict the college-or-career readiness piece.

Student test scores are indispensable as timely indicators of student and school progress. But they should be considered along with other valid indicators, e.g., course completion and normal progress toward graduation

No, they're not. Test scores are indispensable as indicators of student ability to take standardized tests. And of course, as noted a gazillion times, they are excellent ways to tell the socio-economic class of the students. So "considered along with" is a weasel phrase. In student achievement salad, test scores should not be the lettuce. At best, maybe bacon bits.

Every family should have the choice among public schools that are demonstrably capable of educating children well.

Given that the mystery committee is being run by charter folks, this is not a shocker. But since the topic du jour is accountability, I'd really like to hear how charters fit the picture. They're run by people who are not accountable to anyone, including taxpayers, and modern charters have frequently gone to court to insist that they not have to account for money or spending or much of anything. So how, exactly, do charters help with accountability.

States and school districts must support creation of new options for kids who are not learning.

 I suspect "new options" means really different things to different people, but in principle I think this is just fine. Traditional public school, particularly under the current status quo of reformster twistiness, does not serve everyone equally well.

School leaders must have enough freedom to lead their schools and take responsibility for the results they get.

This is such unobjectionable language because school principal hands are soooo tied. But I can't shake feeling that this means that you want school leaders to be able to run schools like corporations-- specifically corporations where there are no unions and labor is cheap and easily replaceable.

States should hold schools, not individual teachers, accountable for student progress.

Hey look! Something that is, in fact, different. Not new, actually-- threatening to punish just schools is what we tried under NCLB, and it didn't work. Not to mention that we don't know how to do it, just as we don't know how to hold individual teachers accountable. This is no more useful than saying "Santa should lend us his naughty and nice list for accountability purposes."

The article also provides a list of Things To Worry About While Pursuing Accountability.

  • How to avoid specifying outcomes so exhaustively that schools are unable to innovate and solve problems.
  • How to drive continuous improvement in all schools, not just the lowest-performing.
  • How to coordinate and limit federal, state, and district demands for data.
  • How to prevent cheating on tests and other outcome measures.
  • How to motivate students to do their best in school and on assessments.
  • How to give children at risk new options without causing a constant churn in their educational experience.
  • How to adjust measurement and accountability to innovations in instruction and technology.
This list is actually the best thing about the whole article. There is nothing remotely new about the list of Things To Do-- it's the same old, same old reformster stuff we've heard before.

But this list of problem areas? That's a good piece of work, because it does in fact recognize a host of obstacles that generally go ignored and unrecognized. These are "problems" in the sense that gravity is a problem for people who want to jump naked off high buildings, flap their arms, and not get hurt. I don't know that CRPE, given its clear focus on charters, finance, and high stakes standardized testing, has goals and objectives any different from a few dozen other reformy iterations. But the recognition of obstacles shows some grasp of reality, and that's always a nice sign.

Here's their finish:

These problems are solvable, but they require serious work, not sniping among rival camps. It is time to start working through the problems of accountability, with discipline, open-mindedness, and flexibility. 

We—all the co-signers of the September 24 statement—are eager to work with others, including critics of tests and accountability. Issues of measurement, system design, and implementation must be addressed, carefully and through disciplined trials. 

I'll accept that from a step up from, "Shut up and do as you're told. We totally know exactly what we're doing." I'm not seeing much in CRPE's ideas that represent a new direction on the issue; it's basically reframing and repackaging. But the recognition of real-world obstacles is more than a simple shift of tone. (And there's still the Whose Party Is This problem). But keep talking CRPE. I'm still listening.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Can We Be Less Nice, Please and Thank You?

I recently stumbled across a blog by mommy/teacher Katie Knight. It's an interesting read in that we appear to come from completely opposite ends of the bloggy spectrum. "Teacher to the Core" is awash in pink and is so precious that it nearly sent me into sugar shock, and Mrs. Knight is the sort of woman who has tiny dogs that she calls her children. Not saying that's a terrible thing, but it's surely not me.

That said, Knight is no dummy, and her blog includes the kind of filter-free blogging that makes for an authentic read. And the blog has 2300 followers (plus 6K plus on facebook), so there can be no doubt that if we're going to get in a validation-by-audience contest, she is going to kick my ass.

Well, if she did that sort of thing.

Knight is nice. Way nice. The post that I linked to above caught my attention because it underlines one of the ways that we as teachers really don't help ourselves.

The blog is a long story, complete with a printer emergency followed by trips to Staples, followed by getting the wrong cartridge, followed-- well, the point of the story is that by the time she arrives at her Common Core math module training session, she's feeling a bit edgy.

The trainer proceeds to present some ideas that Knight doesn't so much agree with, pedagogy-wise, and then proceeds to do that thing where she tries to draw out the teacher-learners into providing answers after which the presenter can either reward the teacher--leader or (more likely) point out how wrong the responder was as a set-up for Revealing Wisdom. Knight had pretty much had it (but in a pink, nice way).

I hate this Common Core engagement/struggle until you want to die kind questioning. Explore, figure it out, give me your big idea, but it better be the right one or you *might* look like an idiot. All of this happening at a training is really annoying.
I think the kids don’t like it either. At least not in the large doses it seems to be heaped on them these days. “Let the kids figure it out” “Let them EXPLORE, let them struggle.” For how long?

Knight observes that some of what she calls Common Core teaching techniques lack compassion for the learner. And she wants us to understand that, and how zen-less she's feeling, before she explains how she "freaked out" on the presenter.

So I tell her empathically . “Please stop. I don’t like this kind of Common Core questioning. I don’t like the “you know the answer and I am exploring to find it”. I don’t like that kind of questioning when I am in the thick of Module Mania. And now you are waving your arms at me. This is tricky and trainers treating the trainees like kids is not my favorite. Instructional styles in the Common Core can’t forget compassion for the learner. I am the learner here. I don’t know what you want me to say”

 And that would be totally okay, you'd think. But a few paragraphs later, we have this...

Of course, I waved her back over 15 minutes later and asked her to forgive me for having been so heated.  She did. I asked her not be afraid of me and that I was really a super nice person.

The unending pink didn't rattle me, nor did the endless cuteness nor even the apparently imperfect understanding of what the Core is and is not. But this-- this bugs me.

Why did you apologize, Katie Knight?

Why would you worry about whether or not this trainer thought were you a super-nice person?

And most especially, why would you worry more about having the trainer thinking you were not super-nice than you would worry about standing up for your students? You are clearly motivated by a gigantic heart full of compassion and caring for your students. So why set that aside for fear that a drive-by trainer who is busy teaching people things that you believe are wrong-- why is that person's opinion about your niceness more important than letting them know that a trained, professional educator believes they are making some serious pedagogical mistakes.

Yes, I know the trainer didn't write the module or the policy. In your shoes, I still want that trainer to go back to the main office and say, "You know, we're getting a lot of pushback on this point" or even "I've heard a lot of good arguments for re-thinking this."

This is one of the worst things we do. We sit and listen to someone shovel fertilizer, and we smile and nod and afterwards, in the lounge, we discuss how foolish it all was, but meanwhile the presenter is in his car driving back to the main office thinking, "This stuff must be great because those teachers are just eating it up."

I'm not saying be a jerk. I'm not saying be unspeakably rude. But if we as teachers don't stand up to say, "What you're pushing is wrong for our students,"-- who else is going to?

We worry too much about playing nice, being good team players, doing as we're told by the People In Charge. We worry too much about being nice.

Monday, September 22, 2014

CCSS: Set in Stone?

One of the ongoing side arguments in the education debates is the question of just how set in concrete the Common Core standards are.

The pro-Core talking point has become some variation of, "Pshaw! States can totally do as they wish. The Core are just like, you know, mild suggestions, and states can just rewrite them or modify them or whatever." This is a considerable shift from the days when CCSS was sold as a way to get every single state on exactly the same page.

Exhibit A in the rebuttal has been the fact that the CCSS are copyrighted, and that the original language of state adoption included a bit about adding no more than 15% to the standards.

The argument that CCSS are set in concrete (an argument that I've made myself) is both unimportant and important. Because the reformsters who are arguing that the whole copyright business doesn't matter actually have a bit of a point
Why the copyright issue doesn't matter

What difference does a copyright make if the people holding it have no intention of protecting it? The answer is "None."

If copyright infringement were going to be prosecuted, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would be losing big time over its Pennsylvania Core Standards, which are a pretty transparent cut-and-paste version of CCSS. Likewise, several states have violated both the CCSS copyright and the 15% rule, and so far there is not the slightest indication that anybody has any intention of enforcing either.

Furthermore, the standards don't matter, and they have never mattered, and they never will matter. Schools learned many things from the years of NCLB (including "Never Be Excited When the Feds Offer To Help Schools"), and one important lesson was that you should just ignore all the blather about what the standards do or do not purport to value-- the only thing that matters is the test.

Nobody important (i.e. "with the power to withhold money from the district") is going to measure how well you follow the standards. They are going to look at one thing, and on thing only-- your test scores. So despite reformster protestations to the contrary (and is anybody more pro-test than reformsters), schools will arrange themselves not to teach to the standards, but to teach to the tests. Yes, some folks will insist that if we teach the standards real good and hard, the test scores will just fall into place. But we've seen that movie already

There are items in the standards that will never, ever be truly tested on the Big High-Stakes Standardized Tests, and so schools will dump those just as quickly as they dump art, music and recess. The degree to which the dumpage happens will depend on A) the severity of the punishments being used by the state to "motivate" schools and B) the spine and integrity of the school district administrators.

Put two piles in front of school administrators. In one pile, put copies of the CCSS. In the other, put copious sample questions from their state's High Stakes Do-Or-Die Standardized Test. Which one do you think the administrators will pick up and use to design instruction?

At the end of the day, we're talking about a copyright that nobody enforces or observed exerted over material by which  nobody is really being guided. 

Why the copyright issue does matter

So if the copyright on the CCSS doesn't really matter, why talk about it at all. Why is it even important?

It's important because it speaks to the intent of the Core architects. Intent has become a whole subspecies of reformster debate, because those dismantling public education have proven to be somewhat slippery and malleable (kind of like silly putty lathered in lard) when it comes to their arguments.

But between the copyright and the 15% rule and the methods used to foist standards adoption on the states, it's clear that the Core was never meant to be adaptable, changeable or interpreted fifty different ways. Note also that there was never (and still is not) a mechanism in place to revise or revisit the Core. There's no number to call with suggestions, ideas, or requests for clarification (I suggest 1-800-WTF-CORE). There's no formal announced review process by which the creators will get together every four years to course correct. In fact, the creators have all moved on to other well-paying jobs, like David Coleman, who in the finest beltway tradition has moved into the private sector where he can profit from the rules he created while doing gummint work.

So when pro-Core folks claim that the standards are intended to be adapted and interpreted by each individual state, they are selling pure grade-A baloney. It is true that the Pro-Core Crowd has shifted from "We must all walk around with identical team mascots" to "Dress it up any way you have to in order to save its life."

The Core could have been designed for adptability. Most obviously, they could have been open source rather than copyrighted and owned. They could have been crowd sourced on the web. They could have been written with broad open ideas rather than specific mandated techniques.

But they weren't designed to be adaptable; they were designed to be a one-ring-to-rule-them-all standard for every state. When you build something to be a brick wall, trying to repurpose it as a stylish poncho after the fact just doesn't end well.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How Much College Remediation Is Really Needed?

When reformsters want to beat the College Ready drum, they get out the sticks of college remediation statistics. Tons, mountains, endless chains of entering freshmen must be remediated, they declare. Clearly, high schools are turning out defective products. Something Must Be Done. Otherwise we will continue to fall behind Estonia and be conquered by Finland or Vikings, or something.

I've talked about this before, and I've offered some explanations.

1) The admissions process has stopped screening for Students Who Can Be Successful Here and moved on to screening for Students Willing To Come Here And Who Have Access To Money.

2) Let's make students take extra courses that we can charge for but which don't count toward a diploma. After the original post, I heard from college folks who swore no such thing happens ever, and college students who said, "That totally happened to me," so I'm concluding this is a localized issue and not a universal one.

3) Marketing. We've been trying to convince all students that they must all go to college or they will end up alone, unloved and living in a one room apartment over a hardware store and eating cat food they've warmed up on a hot plate.

Bonus reason) As we spend more and more time getting students ready to take standardized tests, we spend less and less actually preparing them for college.

Well, thanks to blog reader Ajay Srikanth, I've been reading up on the work of Judith Scott-Clayton. Scott-Clayton and colleagues Peter M. Crosta and Clive R. Belfield published some research back in 2012 on this very subject, and Scott-Clayton (Columbia University) penned this little piece for the New York Times.

She was spinning off an article about how early medical screening might not be all it's cracked up to be. And she applies the same thoughts to college placement exams and the remediation they often lead to.

While remediation rates based on placement exams has increased dramatically, Scott-Clayton notes that the major increase is among students with strong high school grades.

For students with high school grade-point averages between 3.5 and 4.0, remediation rates have more than doubled (see chart below). This is not a result of high school grade inflation – the percentage of students with G.P.A.’s in this range has not changed – but is consistent with increasingly ubiquitous placement testing.
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Beginning Postsecondary Students database; computation by N.C.E.S. QuickStats.

Scott-Clayton considers two important questions raised by all this.

First, is there even any benefit to the remediation, because "remediation has been referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of postsecondary education, because the majority of those who enter never make it out. " 

The second point is so obvious I feel foolish for not having originally considered it. 

Maybe the placement tests just suck.

Scott-Clayton, whose research covers this very subject, says "the tests commonly used to screen for college readiness are only weakly related to college outcomes" and cites two studies mentioned in another NYT piece that say so. Students who go on to have trouble in college pass the test, and students who would have done just fine fail it. This is a murky area of coulda-woulda-shoulda, but Scott-Clayton estimates that one in four remediated math students could have pulled B-or-better grades without remediation, and one in three English students would have done the same in freshman comp.

Scott-Clayton further figures that remediation rates could be dropped by 8 to 12 percent just by exempting strong high school students from placement tests, with no drop in the college's pass-fail rate. At the very least, this would be a cheaper solution that re-tooling the entire US public secondary school system.

Scott-Clayton posits that this system remains in place, like medical screening, because you can regret failing to catch a Bad Thing before it happened, but little regret is involved in pursuing a solution that may not have been necessary. I mean, as long as we've had a dog, our home has not been attacked by Vikings. Maybe we don't need a big floppy chocolate lab to keep the Vikings away, but do we want to take that chance? I think not.

So once again we find that Common Core supporters are trying to sell the Core as a solution that won't work for a problem we don't have. Well, actually, it might work. Since the real problem is that too many incoming freshmen are failing poorly designed standardized placement exams, giving them more high school training taking badly designed standardized tests might indeed fix the problem. Of course, so would throwing the exams out the window and just focusing on actual education. We could prepare them to take college courses instead of preparing them for college placement exams. But we wouldn't want to get too crazy. Vikings, you know.