Tuesday, March 31, 2015

NY: Have Evaluation, Will Travel

The situation with education as described by the New York State budget could best be described as fluid, like the contents of one of those lagoons of pig poop one finds near factory farms.

In the twitterverse some folks have declared the budget a huge win for education, but as the pig poop flows, it becomes seems that actual specific winning portions are as hard to locate as a tiny daisy at the bottom of, well, a lake full of pig poop.

Earlier today, my esteemed blogging colleague Daniel Katz pulled apart the issue of the outside evaluator, the element of teacher evaluation that's supposed to involve somebody outside the school descending, like the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, to evaluate complete strangers in a completely unfamiliar setting.

Katz demolished each of the supposed sources of outside evaluators (principals with nothing in particular to do at their own schools, retired teachers who like driving around, college professors who aren't busy not teaching their own classes, or the five teachers who will be found highly effective under the NY system).

But it turns out those assumptions are so Earlier This Afternoon. Sharpeyed tweetists watching NY legislature proceedings have been tweeting the news that actually shouldn't be news to anybody who's been paying attention to the reform biz-- Outside Evaluators don't have to be educators at all.

This gives rise to some hilarious scenarios (what would teacher evaluation by, say, an out of work circus clown look like) as well as some practical ones (at last-- something for all those craigslist-hired test scorers to do in the off season). But we have seen this movie, and we know how it's going to end.

Should the amateur-hour outside evaluation idea stand, we will shortly see the launch of Pearson Teacher Eval R Us. Hell, all they have to do as is adapt the edTPA baloney that's already in place to suck money from aspiring new teachers help launch bold young careers. They will scarf up a team of crack teacher evaluators (keep your eyes on craigslist), train 'em up right, and offer them to your district at bargain basement prices.

There may be other vendors who enter the market, but the effect will be the same-- more money flowing away from classrooms and toward corporate bank accounts while at the same time trashing careers with a rout of random vandalizing that New Yorkers will support with their hard-earned tax dollars. It will be just one more golden yolk to be extracted in the continuing drive to turn public education into a private profit opportunity.

I'll be happy to be proven wrong. Happier than a pig upwind of the giant poop lagoon.

The Cage-Busting Life

If you have been anywhere remotely in the neighborhood of Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, you've heard the phrase "cage-busting teacher." Hess has a book by that title coming out, and he's been preparing the ground for the seeds that book is meant to plant. You can find bits and pieces of the cage-busting idea in various bits of his writing lately, but a good cage-busting primer is on AEI's website, with excerpts from the book itself.

Busting Cages by Leaning in with Gritty Bootstraps

Cage-busting shares a great deal with the conservative ideas expressed by proponents of grittology and the book Leaning In. The underlying idea-- that people should step up, get tough, exert their power, and generally stop waiting for help is a hard one to talk about.

"Get tough. Find a way. Set a goal and work toward it. Don't depend on help. Figure out a solution you can pursue with the tools at hand."

As advice to yourself, this can be powerful and exceptionally useful. As advice to others, particularly others over whom you have power and administrative control, it can be dismissive and unhelpful. As an excuse to withhold assistance and support from those who need it, this stance is morally and ethically reprehensible.

As self-talk, this is useful stuff. "What can I do with the goals that I have and the resources that are available to me?" is powerful, far more powerful than "Well, there's no use trying because I'm boxed in on all sides." For decades, I have described teaching as a kind of guerilla warfare, where there are many people who don't want you to do your job (including people who should be supporting you and who are, technically, in charge of you) so you have to be willing to get your job done through whatever means you can come up with. So it's possible that I am already a cage-buster of sorts.

And yet I have misgivings about Hess's description. While I have seen him occasionally acknowledge that some teachers inhabit cages that are wrapped in barbed wire, covered by machine guns, and electrified, mostly he doesn't. His examples include a teacher who defied a school policy of only giving ACT info to top students via the guidance office by handing out ACT info himself to any and all students who asked. The story has a happy ending-- even though the guidance counselor was furious, the administration ultimately shifted stance. But the end of the story could have as easily ended with the teacher being ripped a new one by a principal and charges of insubordination.

Hess's examples are, in fact, pretty tame, and likely to remind many teachers of the time an administrator "empowered" them by saying, "You can address this issue with any ideas you like as long as you do the work on your own time and it doesn't cost the district a cent." That's not nothing, but it's not exactly earth-shattering, either.

Cage-Busting Entrepreneurs

While Hess likes classroom teachers whose cage busting nibbles around the edges of policy, he really loves cage-busters who are entrepreneurs finding great new programs to market ideas to shift education. He says that "cage-busters know they sometimes need to step out of their schools or classrooms to do their best work." His examples are the founders of EMERGE and LearnZillion, and they illustrate the difficult gap between cage busting and just plain cage leaving. Of LearnZillion founder Eric Westendorf, Hess writes:

Sure, Westendorf has left the classroom to tackle this problem. But a cage-buster would have a hard time suggesting that he’s left schools, teachers, or students behind.

Okay. But is the problem unintentionally revealed here that teachers have to leave the classroom to have real effects on schools?

One Person's Cage-Buster

Cage-busting and rabble-rousing are, for Hess, two different animals. In a recent interview with the Colorado edition of Chalkbeat, Hess has this to say.

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

Now, make no mistake-- when it comes to calling out fellow reformsters on their bad choices, their misreading of the field, and their just plain lies, Hess is in the forefront. His picture of the education field is complex and careful, but absolutely geared toward the corporate conservative values that he and AEI back. But he does not reflexively slam teachers, nor does he automatically support anyone who is on His Team.

But he does seem to prefer his cage-busting within certain boundaries. When Newark students, frustrated with a school superintendent who literally refused to meet with the citizens and students of Newark-- when those students followed Cami Anderson to an AEI event to confront her, Hess was not impressed by their cage-busting spirit. Instead, he called them rabble-rousers.

Nor do I look for him to come out in support of teachers supporting the opt-out movement as a way to try to effect policy change. Hess's cage-busters seem to be primarily supporters of favored reform programs.

In fact, most of Hess's examples seem to be ways in which teachers can step up and help the school more effectively pursue the policies it is already pursuing. Hess's Cage-Busting comes perilously close to Cage-Redecorating.

So, Can We Bust a Cage

Hess's basic advice-- step up, do what you can with the resources you have, and don't be afraid to cross some lines to do it-- that's advice I endorse. I'm not sure that Hess fully endorses it, or really wants teachers to bust only certain cages only in certain ways, but that's okay-- the fact that he might not fully embrace the implications of his own advice doesn't make the advice bad. We can still take cage-busting steps.

Teachers really do ask for permission more often than we need to. One of the best ways I know to sell a program is to do what you can with what you've got and then present it to the Powers That Be, saying "See how successful we were with peanuts! Don't you want to give us more resources so we can do more?"

Private industry is loaded with people who fight the system. Teachers often have a natural reluctance to break the rules, even when we know they need to be broken. But sometimes in the service of education or our students, we need to just go ahead and work around the system, push the system, find ways to coax the system into new shapes, or just plain poke holes in the system.

But you have to know the territory. You have to know which line-crossing will lead to Very Bad Consequences, not just because VBC are hard on the recipient, but because you won't achieve your objectives if the VBC are raining down.

You have to recognize the possible consequences. As with Hess, lots of people like the idea of a rebel, as long as they're rebelling against the right things in a proper politely rebellious manner.

And while I appreciate that Hess's book is directed at teachers and not, say, policymakers, I would hate to see it used by policymakers as an excuse. Grit, leaning in, cage-busting-- these are all ideas that are sometimes used by people in power to avoid facing their own responsibility for finding solutions. The value of bootstrapping strategies depend completely on context. Deciding, "We'll just eat rats and plants," is a fine survival strategy for a starving person to choose for himself. But looking down at a starving person from your seat at the Endless Buffet and saying, "Well, you should just eat rats and plants" is indefensible.

Teachers should be problem-solvers who take initiative regardless of what resources and support they may or may not have. As Hess acknowledges, every school in the country has cage-busting teachers in it and always has. But the existence of cage-busting teachers does not excuse cage-welding administrators, politicians, and policymakers from their own obligations to help solve (and to not create more) problems.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Closing The Educator Equity Gap

Because we don't have enough gaps to talk about in education, Kevin Zimmer at TNTP would like to talk about the educator equity gap. It would be a conversation worth having, if we were going to have it honestly. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Where's the gap?

We all know that highly effective teachers can have a lifelong impact on students. But we also know that too often, the students who need great teachers the most are the least likely to get them.

Yes, that link takes you to the entirely bogus Chetty research (incidentally, have any independent researchers ever checked or replicated that study?), but you know what? I'm going to go ahead and stipulate to the idea that having a good teacher is a Very Good Thing.

Unfortunately, we're not talking about Very Good Teachers. We're talking about highly effective teachers, and the definition of a highly effective teacher is "one whose students score well on the Big Standardized Test." And as long as we focus on that measure, this is a gap that can never be closed.

We know that the higher the poverty level, the lower the test scores. That means that any teacher teaching in a high poverty school will not be, by definition, a highly effective teacher.

Zimmer is referencing the newest in a long series of deadlines for states providing a plan for how they will shuffle teachers around so that highly effective teachers are in high poverty schools. Let's skip over the question of how this could be done (cash bonuses? trickery? rendering?) because it can't actually be done! 

Here's a classroom with no roof over it. Maybe it collapsed and nobody wanted to fix it. Maybe we saved money by never building it in the first place. But every time it rains, the water pours right into the classroom and the teacher and the students get soaked. "Well, there's your problem," says some bureaucratic wizard. "The students are wet because the teacher is wet. Get a dry teacher in there and everything will be super-duper."

And yet it doesn't matter how many fresh, dry teachers you put into that roofless classroom-- every time it rains, everybody gets wet. You can find the driest, most arid, most highly dehydrated teacher in the country, but when you set that teacher in your roofless classroom, she'll still end up drenched.

Could the gap be real?

Is it possible that high-poverty low-achieving schools really do have a lower quality teaching force? Although there's no real serious data, it would make sense that if you offer some teachers a job at a shiny well-funded school that offers strong teacher support, plenty of resources, and the teacher autonomy to make a real difference-- well, they might choose that over a job at a school where they'll be underfunded, provided insufficient supplies and books, and stripped of any autonomy. It seems intuitive that any professional would prefer a situation where they're given all the tools and support needed to be successful.

Of course, one might also argue that teachers who choose to teach in tough schools in a high-poverty setting would have to be highly motivated teachers who had no intention of just coasting along. So maybe our high poverty schools are actually housing the best teachers in the nation-- we just can't see it because a) they are hamstrung by bad management and funding and b) all we're looking at are BS Test scores.

But I do know this-- offering incentives to teach at high needs schools makes more sense than offering penalties. But penalties are what policymakers are offering when they advance ideas such as using test scores to punish or even fire teachers who don't make their numbers. It's hard enough to find volunteers to teach in the roofless room; if you add that we'll start penalizing any teacher who is found to be soggy, teachers have even fewer reasons to want to teach in the roofless room.

Zimmer has some other ideas about how to close the gap.

Staffing flexibility. He cites Memphis, home of the ASD that promised to turn the bottom 5% into the top 25% and has so far failed to do so. Principals in those bottom schools are given extra budget and first pick as a way to recruit and retain top teachers. I actually like these ideas. The problem, of course, is that topness is still rated by test scores. Principals are also free to hire and fire at will, a policy that is only as good as the principal using it.

New school structures. I have mixed feelings here. If we're talking about allowing public schools to play with structure and format, that's a great idea. Schools could be reconfigured to meet the particular needs and concerns of their community. However, if we're talking about letting charters float new marketing ideas, I'm not a fan. And if we're talking about restructuring that comes top-down, you're wasting time. And that includes, especially, telling a community that their definition of success must be "better test scores." But mostly, notice that this idea doesn't really have anything to do with getting higher-quality staff at all-- this is just a full on test score improvement strategy.

Promote data transparency and establish rewards and consequences for districts to eliminate their equity gaps. Ah, carrots and sticks. And data, as if the local school community has no idea what is going on within its walls. And the childlike belief that "equipping district and school leaders with data and empowering them to take action tailored to their unique context should help close equity gaps over time." Because weighing the pig always makes it heavier.

Share innovations. Zimmer likes Georgia's online portal for dialogue between districts. "States should serve as a clearinghouse for tools, resources and ideas." Again, even Zimmer can't keep straight the distinction between raising test scores and teacher quality. This is all about the former, not remotely about the latter.

So what should we be doing?

Well, fixing the roof is huge. Some reformsters try to slip this by declaring, "Why do you always blame the roof? Are you saying that kids in this room can't be as dry as rich kids is nice fully-roofed schools?" And they have part of a point-- we won't stop teaching just because it's raining. There has to be a two-pronged attack. We cannot wait for the roof to be fixed in order to start teaching, and we can't ignore the missing roof just because teaching is going on.

To close the teacher equity gap, I'd first look for a useful tool for measuring it. Checking test scores is not that tool. The BS Test doesn't measure anything except test-taking skills, which are directly tied to affluence, and we cannot pretend that the goal of educating students, especially our poorest students, is to make them good at taking standardized tests. Right now, we know nothing, really, about the teacher equity gap.

Stop assuming teachers are widgets. One of the great ironic pieces of white paperiness is TNTP's Widget Effect, which says that we have a problem with treating teachers like interchangeable widgets, but then proposes that they are, in fact, interchangeable widgets whose single distinguishing factor is how well their students do on tests. Reform has by and large ignored every other characteristic of teachers. This gives us features like the "reform" of New Orleans schools that principally seems to involve moving native, local African-American teachers out of the system and replacing them with transient white teachers with no knowledge of or investment in the community.

In truth, different teachers are better suited for different school settings. Zimmer seems to think that we could take a great 9th grade teacher from a small rural school and that teacher would be equally awesome in a 12th grade classroom in a large urban school.

But teachers don't teach in a vacuum; they teach in relationship with their students and community. It makes no more sense to say that a person would be a great teacher in all possible school settings that it makes to say that an individual man would be a great husband no matter which woman in all the world is his wife. Sure, there will be some exemplars for whom this is true, but for most ordinary humans, context is absolutely key.

It's a poor workman who blames his tools, but it's a terrible manager who does not give her workers the tools they need to be great. It's a lazy manager who says, "I won't try to help anyone become great. I'll just do a random measurement every six months and fire the bottom 10%." Any idiot can walk into the roofless room and fire the wet widget standing in front of the class. It takes considerably more gifted leadership and considerable resources to build a roof, hold an umbrella, and help the teacher be great.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

EdWeek's Big Package

The latest Education Week features a package of essays about the Common Core from the perspective of "five leading educators." The package was paid for by the Gates Foundation, but EdWeek retained "total editorial control" of the package. Before you roll your eyes, I can vouch for at least some of that; I am one of the five contributors and at no point did I feel as if EdWeek or Gates were tying to mess with my part of the package (although EdWeek did call me a "leading educator" which calls their journalistic judgment into question). Clearly EdWeek did get to control who they asked to write in the first place, but I can't help feeling that if they were looking for five CCSS cheerleaders, they should have chosen differently.

In the interests of full disclosure, I will also report that EdWeek paid me more for this piece than anybody has ever paid me for a single piece of writing ever. The only effect this had on me was that I felt obliged to eschew juvenile behavior (like sophomoric "package" jokes). Also, I had an actual editor to notice when I made mistakes. You readers get juvenile behavior and mistakes for free. You're welcome.

These articles also ran in the print version, which means you may have paywall issues accessing them, but you may be able to find a print version. Is it worth your trouble? Let me give you the quick rundown-- what did Gates get for their big State of the Common Core journalism package?

Ariel Sacks contributes "Decoding the Common Core: A Teacher's Perspective."

Sacks is a New York City English teacher who has published a book about teaching whole novels in a student-centered approach. She blogs over at the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory and while CTQ can feel a bit reformy at times, I've found lots of smart, interesting teachers over there, Sacks among them.

Her take on the Core is familiar. She sees much that aligns with what she already does, but she also sees some problems that can be traced to Core creation by non-educators, including the backwards scaffolding that produces so many developmentally inappropriate standards in lower grades. She also expresses some issues with the fiction vs. non-fiction issues. Her conclusion:

All in all, I feel that, if the common standards had never been developed, teachers wouldn't necessarily be worse off, and we might have been able to put our attention toward something equally or more beneficial to students. Yet, if the standards were to disappear today, I would also feel that a valuable conversation had been cut short, an opportunity to connect and expand students' learning in classrooms across the country abandoned rather than developed.

I disagree on what would be lost. I haven't encountered that many valuable conversations sparked by the Core, and I don't see any Core connection to expanding and connecting learning. Her other conclusion is that the standards will survive only with teacher input, but that assumes that the standards can be changed or re-interpreted. That is possible on a local level, if local leadership supports it. But that's about it.

John Troutman McCrann contributes "Teaching the Common Core Requires Fine-tuning School Policies."

McCrann is an America Achieves fellow who teaches math at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City; he's also a local UFT leader. McCrann is, for me, another fine example of a teacher who does whatever he thinks is best in his professional judgment and then just chalks it up to the Common Core. If it were a few decades ago, he'd likely be doing exactly the same thing in his classroom and calling it Outcomes Based Education with some Authentic Assessment Sauce on the side.

In fact, Common Core appears in McCrann's first and last paragraph. In between, he discusses some initiatives and policies that his school implemented. It is perhaps early to announce success; Harvest only opened in fall of 2012 with its first 9th grade class. But these are interesting ideas about how to operate a school and Harvest's website is intriguing. But I'm not convinced that McCrann's article couldn't be entitled "Teaching the Common Core Requires Ignoring It and Using Sound Professional Judgment."

Jeff Riley contributes "Why My School District Is Holding Off on PARCC Tests."

Riley is the receiver/superintendent of the Lawrence public schools in Massachusetts. Lawrence is an interesting study, a district in receivership that has not been turned, a la New Orleans, into a charter playground.

Riley's piece is an interesting inclusion in the package, because he's not all that interested in the Core. "Yeah, yeah, we had standards before. These are new ones. Whatever-- I have a bunch of poverty-soaked children to try to educate." Riley's argument about holding off on PARCC and using the old MA test is that he can use another year of comparable data to see how he's doing. But he is pretty relentless in his piece about poverty as a factor, observing among other things that poor students and rich students who graduate with the same scores do not enjoy the same college success.

All students should be challenged to reach high standards. Whether these are set locally, at the state level, or nationally, I will leave it to the politicians to decide. The real question—given that over half our nation's public school children now live at or near the poverty line—is whether we can ensure that all children receive a great education and a chance at the American Dream.

Charlotte Danielson contributes "Helping Educators Overcome 'Initiative Fatigue'"

I'm not going to bother explaining who Danielson is. Her contribution is some research, conducted by interviewing 500 educators in four school districts between March 2013 and June 2014 and she found that lots of teachers think dealing with CCSS-based changes is hard.

There are some other findings as well, but for several reasons, I am not inclined to pay much attention to her findings.

First of all, March of 2013 is a long, long time ago on teachers' reform timeline. In March of 2013, I would have told you that this Common Core stuff looked challenging, but probably no big deal, and I was hopeful it could be used to move us forward. I was looking forward to getting a look at it. The 2013-2104 school year was the year that many teachers finally looked Common Core in its beady eyes and realized they didn't like it a bit. It sucks to be a researcher in such a rapidly-shifting environment, but reporting two-year-old data on educator attitudes about the Core is like reporting my three-year-old dog's weight from two years ago.

The other problem is the focus on just four districts. Again, I know researchers are human beings with limits, but implementation of CCSS is so hugely varied in style, severity, autonomy and programming choices from place to place that a sample of four school districts is pretty much meaningless as a nationwide picture of how the implementation is going.

So move on. Nothing to see here.

Finally, there's my contribution. My point is pretty simple, and it's actually supported by the other pieces of the package:

If the goal of Common Core was to provide a consistent framework within and across state lines, to get all the teachers and schools and students in the country on the same page at the same time, then Common Core is a complete and miserable failure. At this point there are a myriad, a plethora, a giant honking mass of versions of the Core, from the version espoused by each state, to the versions that are being tested, to the versions being pushed in programs and textbooks, to the versions being pushed by teachers and PD vendors. We no longer have the slightest assurance that two different people using the term "Common Core" are even talking about the same thing.

And there isn't even a controlling body or authority in place which could settle the argument; those guys are all busy making money on various other companies' versions of Common Core.

There are some interesting pieces here, a conversation-worthy idea or two, but if The Gates was hoping for a Common Core pep rally, they did not get the package they were hoping for.

Razing Arizona

The Arizona Capitol Times last week ran an op-ed from a concerned citizen who wants to stick up for the beleaguered common core standards. Rebecca Hipps bills herself as a descendant of some of Arizona's founding families, and as such, she doesn't want the pioneer spirit to be damaged by the ejection of CCSS.

Hipps is not actually in Arizona. According to her LinkedIn profile, she spent her first three post-college years in three different teaching jobs before heading to DC, where she has worked for the DC Common Core Collaborative, a charter school, Teach Plus, and O'Dell Education, an outfit that appears to specialize in the manufacture and sales of Core-related programs and PD. They were founded by Judson O'Dell, who was Dean of Students at a university in Argentina before coming to work at the College Board and Educational Testing Service. That's Hipps' current employer, so her love for the Core is not exactly a surprise.

When she discusses her fears about the core ditchery that Arizona is contemplating, she says this:

My greatest fear in Arizona repealing the CCSS is that poorly developed standards with a hidden agenda will take its place.

Yes, yes, I can see how one would worry that schools would be commandeered by a set of standards developed by educational amateurs and pushed forward with an agenda of opening up public schools to private corporations or cracking open and unifying markets for publishing companies. Seriously-- "poorly developed standards with a hidden agenda" is as good a description of the common core standards as anyone has ever written. It's as if for a split second Hipps forgot which side she's paid to be on.

Her list of reasons that Arizona students need the Core is the usual boilerplate. Critical thinking, writing, reading, mathematical reasoning-- because apparently Arizona teachers are currently unaware of these things. Hipps is afraid that without the Core, Arizona teachers will slide back to some lesser land of educational inadequacy.

Given Hipps' concern for Arizona education, it's curious that she doesn't mention one of Arizona's other outstanding educational features-- leadership in frequent and brutal cuts to education budgets in the entire country. Arizona has cut public ed spending steadily since the late oughts, and they rank 50th in college per-student spending. It's a wonder that Hipps did not bring this up, as it would seem that Arizona is a poster child for spending bottom dollar on education and getting bottom dollar results.

At least Hipps is able to speak out at all. Arizona's teachers, superintendents, principals and school board members have spoken up about the slash and burn methods of their state leaders, and the state leader response has been to float a law that will require them to shut up.

Arizona lawmakers have attached an amendment to Senate Bill 1172. It prohibits "an employee of a school district or charter school, acting on the district's or charter school's behalf, from distributing electronic materials to influence the outcome of an election or to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation."

On the one hand, it's a good idea that Mrs. O'Teacher not give her class an hour of self-directed worksheets while she stuffs envelopes for the new ballot initiative. On the other hand, there's that whole First Amendment thing. And the law is so broadly worded that I imagine a citizen asking a school district employee, "I'm really worried about the new proposed law cutting all money to public schools. Will that hurt our programs here," and said school employee must reply, by law, "I cannot share any information about that with you." Other critics of the bill fear that it would even prohibit any discussion of educational programs that directly affect children with those children's parents.

And while I'm not concerned, exactly, I am curious-- would this law also prohibit charter schools from advertising?

The law is clearly one more attempt to push educators out of the political world. No more informational letters to parents and voters. No more taking a public stand against assaults on school funding by the governor and legislators. Presumably no teacher or administrator in Arizona could write a response to Hipps' op-ed-- at least not with any indication that they were writing their response from the perspective of a public educator.

In other words, Arizona educators can use their professional judgement and expertise-- they just can't let anybody know that they have any, or share what it leads them to conclude. Note that the law doesn't make any distinction between advocacy based on facts and that based on political preferences.

In New Jersey, charter operators have been trying to shut down Rutgers researcher Julia Sass Rubin, whose research has been embarrassing charter operators and the government buddies with the use of actual facts and fully-supported data. Their argument in NJ has been that Rubin shouldn't be allowed to mention her credentials-- in other words, she can share her data without explaining why it should be given credence.

But that's reformsterism, and as Hipps' plaintive cry for the Core and the amendment's inclusion of charters might indicate, Arizona's leadership is not so much pro-reform as it is just plain anti-public education. Hell, even DFER is on their case (turns out that Arizona has little money for schools, but lots for prisons). New governor Doug Ducey (previous job-- CEO of Cold Stone Creamery) has shown no interest in continuing the reformy policies of his predecessor Jan Brewer.

Governor Ducey (whose children attend Catholic school) was plain as day at his inauguration that tax hikes are verbotten and that all of Arizona's financial problems come from spending money poorly, not spending too little. He likes school choice, but has not explained how that will work, particularly if all the choices are brutally underfunded. But then, he seems to admire the model of such no-government paradises as Somalia; it would seem that school choice is not so important as making sure that all schools are underfunded and unregulated. This is all more than a little ironic-- have you ever been in a Cold Stone Creamery? Workers there are regulated down to how they must talk and behave for the customers, and franchise owners must spend enough money to do things properly.

Why, out of this whole constellation of issues, Hipps would find the possible ejection of Common Core to be most alarming and troubling is, given her employment history, not exactly a puzzle. But even from way over here in Pennsylvania, I can see that dumping a bad set of amateur-created standards is the least of Arizona's worries. Let's just hope that the people who can identify those problems are still allowed to talk about them.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Vouchers and Tax Credit Scholarships in the U.S.

I don't have anything to add to this. But it's worth watching and it's a great video to share with folks who may not yet fully grasp what's going on nationally.

Who Put the D in DFER?

DFER stands for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that has the distinction of possessing a name in which none of the words are accurate.

The Democrat part is a fun piece of trivia. One of the key founders of DFER is Whitney Tilson, a big time hedge fund manager (you can read more about him here). Leonie Haimson has a great quote from the film version of Tilson's magnum opus about ed reform, "A Right Denied," and it's a dream of mine that every time somebody searches for DFER on line, this quote comes up.

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

It's kind of genius. Like if I wanted to keep Wal-Mart out of town, just declaring myself a Wal-Mart executive and announcing repeatedly that Wal-Mart doesn't want to build in my town and convincing a bunch of actual Wal-Mart executives to join my organization and to start promoting my anti-building-in-my-town agenda. 

Watch DFER's video or read their statements of belief and vision. Their narrative is clear. Public schools are failing because entrenched bureaucracy and those damn teacher unions have ruined everything. So we need to blow up public schools by using standards to create tests that will provide proof of how much public schools suck; then we can replace them with charters and choice.

DFER may have started as a thinly-disguised attempt to infiltrate the Democratic party, but they have bought their way in quite successfully in some regions. The intro video features a parade of elected Dem officials (though it's not recent-- in the video Cory Booker is still mayor of Newark) who are proud to lay the responsibility for failing public schools on the backs of teachers.

Why tell this story? Again-- most of the names behind DFER are big time hedge fund managers. Ripping open markets is a win-win; you have the satisfaction of helping lesser beings with your superior knowledge, and you can make a buttload of cash. You can see both on display in this insider story of the charterista assault on Bridgeport. You can also make your contributions to politicians running in key education elections (right now DFER would like to help Anthony Williams become mayor of Philly).

DFER is no more Democratic than my dog. There's not enough space between their positions and the positions of the conservative Fordham Institute (though I think, on balance, Fordham is generally more respectful of teachers). But for the privatizers to be effective, they need to work both sides of the aisle. Also, RFER would sound too much like a pot advocacy group.

So they're not really Democrats. And they don't want to reform education-- they just want to privatize it and reduce teachers to easily replaced widgets. And they aren't particularly interested in education other than as a sector of the economy. I suppose I have no beef with their use of the word "for," as long as they put it with the things that they are really for-- privatization and profit. So, Apoliticals Supporting Privatization and Profit. ASPP. Much better.

Presidential Magical Misery Tour

Man, do I not look forward to the upcoming Presidential race. Or the already-started race. Whatever you want to call it.

On the GOP side, we've already got Ted Cruz deciding to distinguish himself by getting out ahead of the Silly Pack. That's fine. The sooner he burns out, the better for America.

But the Jebster's irony-drenched and self-awareness-parched campaign has been chugging along for a while, including his nifty Super-PAC, the Right to Rise. This PAC is established to "support candidates who want to restore the promise of America with a positive, conservative vision of reform and renewal." Apparently those candidates are all wrapped up in just one guy-- the Jebbinator, Bush III, the Littlest Shrub of All. What do they absolutely and unironically believe?

We believe passionately that the Right to Rise — to move up the income ladder based on merit, hard work and earned success — is the central moral promise of American economic life. 

Because if there's anything that the Bush story tells us, it's that anybody born into riches and power can climb the ladder of ivy league connections to a position of even more wealth and power. Jeb's staff the completely independent operators of Right to Rise do acknowledge that the playing field no longer seems to be level and that the recovery did not raise all boats.

We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility. We will celebrate success and risk-taking, protect liberty, cherish free enterprise, strengthen our national defense, embrace the energy revolution, fix our broken and obsolete immigration system, and give all children a better future by transforming our education system through choice, high standards and accountability. We will strive to put our fiscal house back in order, re-limit government and ensure that America is a welcoming society.

So there's Jebby's plan, comfortingly vague except for the doubling down on reformster principles. But Jeb is stuck between two wings of the GOP-- the GOP well-paid-bv-corporate-interests wing and the still-attached-to-conservative-values wing. As a teacher, I'm not excited.

I am no more excited about the Democratic side. We're saying that the nomination is in Hillary Clinton's bag (hmmm... have I heard this before??) and the press is trying hard to shape a narrative in which she represents a struggle between the wings of the Democratic party- the Democratic well-paid-for-by-corporate-interests wing and the still-attached-to-liberal-values wing. You see how this is shaping up. The New York Times portrays her as torn between teachers and Democratic hedge fund guys and Democrats for Education Reform, a group the New York Times describes as "left-leaning" and which I would describe as about as Democratic as the Harvard Boat Club.

Leonie Haimson (of Class Size Matters) pulled up this quote from DFER honcho Whitney Tilson's film manifesto, "A Right Denied," and it should be pulled out every time DFER appears. It explains how DFER decided to be Democrats.

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

I'm not looking for Hillary to align herself with teachers. Maybe with the national teachers union, but of course we're still trying to get NEA and AFT to align more tightly with teachers, so that's an issue.

It was Hillary Clinton who way back in the day received the infamous Mark Tucker letter outlining how public education could be retooled into a cradle-to-career pipeline, managed by the government and devoted to tracking and training children for their proper place in society. Now, if we held everyone accountable for every letter they ever received, I'd be a sweepstake winner many times over. But that was in 1998, and neither Clinton has exactly stepped up to say, "No, that's just crazy talk and wrong." Clinton's support for traditional US public education has been pretty much invisible.

That may seem like picking at the nits, but here's the thing-- the last guy I voted for said all sorts of wonderful things about public education and about schools and teachers, and that all turned out to be baloney. I vote for Barrack Obama once with enthusiasm and once while holding my nose, and nothing that happened after either vote convinced me that I would have been any worse off somehow putting George Bush II in the White House.

My distrust of Democrats at this point is huge, enormous, massive, a yawning chasm into which we could dump every beanie baby ever manufactured sealed in its own Iowa-sized vacuum container. The Democrat slogan has become, "You probably figure the GOP will be absolutely terrible, so we're banking that you'll vote for us because we're only horrible."

I've never not voted in an election (any election) and I hate the idea of throwing away a symbolic vote, but I have truly had it. I will never again vote for a national candidate who can't convince me that s/he will support public education. And it's already looking as if I'll have to do a lot of searching for 2016.

Help for the Failing Schools

This is newest reformster talking point-- the Big Standardized Test is a big boon to poor and minority students, and to ask them to opt out is to ask them is to ask them to become invisible. Robert Pondiscio was pushing it again at the Fordham's blog this week. It's a nice rhetorical move, but it's limited by the degree to which it doesn't actually reflect reality.

Pondiscio makes a few side points before he gets to the main event, suggesting that the New Jersey numbers on how many actual opt-outs are perhaps somewhere between fuzzy and wrong. But then he breaks down the numbers and the opt-out sales pitch to make another point-- as a battleground, Opt Out is shaping up as rich white suburbanites vs. poor brown and black urban dwellers.

I'm going to leave that point alone. Sarah Blaine turned over her blog space to Belinda Edmondson, a mom in Montclair, NJ, who is surprised to discover that she's white and pleased to inform her family that they're wealthy. Edmondson deals with that part of Pondiscio's point pretty well.

Instead, let's move on to Pondiscio's larger point, which is that BS Tests have been a force for positive change in "non-affluent non-white" communities.

Blacks, Latinos, and low-income kids have generally benefitted from test-driven accountability, particularly in the increased number of charters and school choice options...

Okay, if you think charters have actually benefited those students over and above any benefits they would have experienced from public school, I can see believing this point is valid. But first, the case that charters have benefits greater than public schools is a case that has not been effectively made. What we do know is that charters accept only a portion of the students in a community, stripping resources from the schools where all of the rest of the students remain. Are the gains (ranging from arguable to non-existent) for the few charter-accepted students worth the costs to all the other students?

Nor is it clear that BS Tests really had anything to do with these "benefits." Are there really pockets of bad, run-down, under-resourced schools out there that existed in some sort of unseen, unheard reverse Shangri-La and not a soul knew about them until test results came out? Because I haven't heard a convincing story of that yet.

Kids who are not tested end up not counting,” observed Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust

This is one of those lines that sounds good, but what are we really saying here. Specifically, those untested kids end up not counting to whom? Surely not their parents. To their schools? To their state and federal representatives? If that's the case, are we really saying that in the face of poverty and want and crumbling buildings and lack of resources and students crying out for dignity, support and education that it's a score on a standardized test that's our best idea of how to move the needle?

"It could be a race problem but it's definitely a respect problem,” says Derrell Bradford, the African American executive director of NYCAN. “There is a pretty strong undertow beneath the opt-out wave. And the force of it is one where some people don't think testing, or Common Core, is the right fit for their child, so they don't think it's the right fit for anyone's child.”

Fair point. Of course, the door swings both ways. If the testing is the right fit for your child, should all children take it? But I think Bradford is missing the point-- we get closer to it with this quote from Pondiscio:

But I’m equally sympathetic to the low-income parents who think that testing reveals how badly they have been failed.

There's room to disagree about part of this sentences. Regular readers know what I think standardized testing reveals (hint: nothing useful at all), but even if we accept that the test reveal "how badly they have been failed," the sentence ends too soon.

Failed by whom?

We could look at test results and declare, "These students have been failed by their state and federal government, left to deal with the kind of poverty that we know leads directly to these sorts of low test results. We must marshall the resources of our society and country to bring and end to this poverty."

We could look at the tests and say, "The education establishment has failed these students by sending such tiny, narrow measures of achievement that have no proven connection to future success and which ignore the full breadth of human achievement that students in more affluent environments take for granted."

We could even say, "Somebody has failed these children, and we will not rest until we have performed the studies and research and in-the-earth examinations that tell us how these children have been failed. It's not an easy question, and we don't know the exact answer, but we will find it."

Instead, we've settled quickly and easily on, "Oh, they were failed by their teacher" and let it go at that.

You tell me that testing has pinpointed communities that need assistance and intervention, and I ask you-- show me school districts where the reaction to low test scores has been to send more resources. Show me five. Show me one!

Even when test scores are used to send in the charters, there's no increase in resources, no attempt to get these students all the help they need. Because we open second and third school systems without increasing resources, we're just shuffling resources around to less and less affect. We're like a painter trying to paint an entire house with one gallon of paint who, instead of buying more paint, just tries using more brushes to push the same amount of paint around.

What is undeniable is that those most likely to be negatively effected by the opt-out impulse are low-income children of color, for whom testing has been a catalyst for attention and mostly positive change.

I'm pretty sure that's deniable. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's completely unproven and without any basis. Testing has not been a catalyst for attention; it has been a catalyst for opening up markets to charter operators, a source of billion dollar paydays for test manufacturers, and an excuse not to invest any more resources or money in the students who need them the most.

This is one of those times when I really wish I were wrong. I wish I already knew stories from places like Philly and Chicago and Detroit and New Orleans where state governments said, "These tests make it clear-- we can no longer give our poorest students inadequate levels of support. We must find the will and the money to build these districts up, to create buildings so beautiful filed with resources so top-of-the-line that suburban parents will fight to send their children into the city to go to school."

But of course, that hasn't happened anywhere. Instead, we get scenes like New York State where a court order to fund poor schools equitably is gathering dust as the Governor says, "You can;t make me" and blames every low test score on teachers. We get New Jersey, where the state first starves then dismantles the school systems that serve brown and black children.

Reformsters make all this big talk about how the tests will be like a signal. "Take this flare gun," they tell our poorest students as they're left out in the desert. "If you feel like you're about to starve, just fire it off and we'll send someone to help." Then the reformsters drive away in cars spacious enough to carry many children, and they wait. And when they see the flare, instead of sending help, they send vultures.

I can imagine an assessment system that would help target schools in trouble (it would involve, among other things, listening to parents no matter how rich they weren't) and get them the sort of financial and resource help they needed. I would support a system like that. We keep talking about the BS Tests as if they were part of a system like that. But they aren't.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Voucher Party

One of the foundational assertions of the charter movement is that public school tax dollars, once collected, should be attached to the child, maybe in a backpack, or perhaps surgically. "This public money... belongs to the student, not the failing school" wrote a commenter on one of my HuffPost pieces today. And I've heard variations on that over and over from charter advocates.

The money belongs to the student.

I've resisted this notion for a long time. The money, I liked to say, belongs to the taxpayers, who have used it to create a school system that serves the entire community by filling that community with well-educated adults who make better employees, customers, voters, neighbors, parents, and citizens. But hey-- maybe I've been wrong. Maybe that money, once collected really does belong to the student. In which case, let's really do this.

Let's let the student spend his voucher money (and let's stop pussyfooting around this-- when we talk about the money following the students, we're talking about vouchers) on the education of his dreams.

Does she want to go to the shiny new charter school? Let her go (as long as they'll take her, of course). But why stop there? Travel has long been considered a broadening experience-- what if she wants to take the voucher and spend it on a world cruise? Why not? It's her money. Perhaps she wants to become a champion basketball player-- would her time not be well spent hiring a coach and shooting hoops all day? Maybe she would like to develop her skills playing PS4 games, pursuant to a career in video-game tournaments. That's educational. In fact, as I recall the misspent youth of many of my cohort, I seem to recall that many found smoking weed and contemplating the universe to be highly educational. I bet a voucher would buy a lot of weed.

What's that, charter advocate? Do I hear you saying that's an unfair comparison, that obviously a high quality charter school is way different from smoking a lot of weed. I agree, but that's beside the point.

The money belongs to the student.

You didn't say that the money was the student's to be used on educational experiences that met with the approval of some overseeing government body. You didn't say that the money was the student's on the condition that the student got somebody's permission to use it first.You didn't say that we'd need to put strings on how the money is spent because students and their parents might not always make responsible choices.

You said the money belongs to the student.

Heck, let's really go all in. Why use the odd fiction of a voucher at all-- let's just collect taxes and cut every single student an annual check for $10,000 (or whatever the going rate is in your neighborhood). Let's just hand them the money that we're asserting belongs to them, and let them spend it as they wish. Maybe they'd like a nice couch, or a new iPad, or a sweet skateboard, or a giant voucher party, or food and clothing for themselves and their family.

Unless of course you'd like to suggest that the taxpayers who handed over that money and the community that collected it have an interest in making sure that it's spent well and responsibly in a way that serves the community's greater good. In which case we can go back to discussing how those needs of the stakeholders--ALL the stakeholders-- are best served by an all-inclusive community-based taxpayer-controlled educational system, and stop saying silly things like, "The money belongs to the student."

On Not Being a Jerk To Young Teachers

In one of those moments that tells you where you are in your career, I had an inquiry recently about what it might take to get me to retire early. Several folks on staff did. I replied that I didn't really see myself leaving the classroom any time soon. But perhaps that made me more sensitive to some of the news that I noticed last week.

One story, widely circulated, was the one-two punch of Nancie Atwell receiving a justly deserved award for teaching awesomeness (and handing it over to her school), followed by her advice that young people aspiring to teach should avoid public school and only go into teaching if they can find an "independent" school to hire them.

I also caught wind this week of a group called the Young Teachers Collective, a new group that includes Stephanie Rivera, who over a year ago penned an instant classic post, "To All The Teachers Telling Us Not To Go Into Teaching, Stop." The group has a facebook page, where you can go watch various folks be jerks to them.

I understand the frustration and anger and frustration that leads many veteran teachers to check out, and I respect those who choose to quit rather than stay in a job they hate just to draw a check. I've looked into that particular abyss, and I know how dark it looks. I also know that I'm working in a little corner of the world where I am not subjected to a fraction of the abuse and beat-down that my professional sisters and brothers go through in the real education war zones. So I don't judge people who decide to get out. You can only take as much as you can take.

What I don't get are my present and former professional peers who decide to be jerks about it to aspiring teachers.

I don't know. Maybe the thinking is "I have to believe that this is an awful profession for everyone in the world because then my frustrations won't in any way be about me." Maybe the thinking is, "I could not have made it if the person I was way back then were trying to get started today." I do get that one-- I'm not sure the teacher I was in 1979 could hack it today. Lucky for me I'm tougher than that guy.

Maybe there's the impulse to offer a reality check. Back when we old farts started, teaching was an easier profession; you could stay in your room, work with your students, trust the leaders in your profession and state capitol, and know that while nobody was ever going to treat you like a rock star, society at large offered a sort of grudging low-level respect and support. Granted, it didn't seem that way at the time, but now that we've seen what a full-on assault on professional ability and personal character looks like, we can get nostalgic for the Old Days. So maybe new teachers are a proxy for our younger selves-- "Open your eyes and look at what is really going to hit you, you foolish, naive child!"

Nor will I ignore the fact that as the products of a decade of reform-mandated malpractice make their way through college, we have teacher grads who Really Don't Get It. Download lesson plans from a website, line up all your test prep materials, get out the door at the last bell-- how hard can it be, they seem to think.

But that's not close to all of the new and aspiring teacher material out there. Because it has been a decade of educational chaos and stupidity run rampant in legislatures and boardrooms, many of the next wave of teachers have a far clearer idea of the cost of test-driven, privatizing, teacher-ignoring reformsterism. They may not be the cavalry, but they are certainly solid, knowledgeable reinforcements in the fight to restore the promise of public education.

So can we please, please stop being jerks to them?

Can we stop talking to them as if they're stupid? They're in their early twenties, which means they do know some things and don't know some other things (making them exactly like every twenty-something person in the history of ever). They want to be teachers, despite the ravages of reformsterism which is pretty much all they've ever known, so we should probably stop suggesting they have no idea what schools are like since No Child Left Behind started unraveling the fabric of public ed-- actually, that's the ONLY idea of schools they've ever seen.

But I don't want to spend a bunch of time speaking about their perspective for them, because I am not a young aspiring teacher and therefor if I want to know what it's like to be a young aspiring teacher I should shut my mouth and listen to one.

I teach high school, mostly the older students, so I get lots and lots of What Shall I Do With My Life inquiries. I tell them nobody can decide for them. I ask them what they want to do, why they want to do it, what they like about it. I ask if they've done some research, shadowed some people in the field, studied up what the job requirements are. And I try to get them to talk about it, because they mostly have the wisdom they need to make the decisions that best fits them.

Yes, teaching is hard to break in to. Yes, teachers are working upstream against all sorts of opposing forces. Yes, teaching often feels like a job nobody actually wants us to do. Isn't that all the more reason to do it? When somebody says she wants to be an ER doctor, why would we say, "You don't want to work there-- sick and injured people keep coming in all the time." We don't tell future welders, "They'll keep giving you metal to stick together." We don't tell lawyers, "Try to practice somewhere where people won't come to you with legal problems all the time."

A time of great challenges is a time of great need. It's true that I don't plan to retire soon, but that means I want to spend my time working side by side with strong, committed professionals, and someday, when I do pack it in, it would be nice to know that somebody strong and capable will be there to take over. Those people have to come from somewhere. And with all the forces arrayed against teachers, why would we want to create more obstacles?

We are in the business of supporting and fostering the dreams and ambitions of young students. Why we should forget all about that when talking to aspiring teachers is beyond me, particularly when we frame it in a disrespectful "You don't know what's good for you" manner. We should not need anyone to explain that it's uncool jerkitude to treat any humans, particularly young ones, with a default assumption that they are too stupid to know their own minds or exhibit decent judgment.

If teaching is not for them, that is for them to find out, in their own way and in their own time. 

It's awesome that the Young Teachers Collective has come together and has begun the business of finding a mission, direction, set of priorities. I hope that lots and lots of young teachers find their way to the group, and I hope that we old farts stop trying to kill the spark before it can fully catch flame. Teaching is a big field and it needs a full supply of strong and vibrant voices.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ken-Ton Schools Receive First Official Threat from State

Well, that didn't take long.

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school board adopted a resolution Tuesday night (two nights ago as I write this) to "seriously consider" boycotting both the state's test for grades 3-8 and the state's teacher evaluation via testing results.

This afternoon, WGRZ (and other Buffalo newmedia) reports that Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner delivered the state's threat to the board members and the district superintendent (who was never a fan of the resolution to begin with).

You can read a full copy of the letter here.  This particular copy is addressed to school board president Bob Dana at the district's central office, but you can see it has been cc'ed to all the important folks. Cause if you're going to make a threat, make sure you get the maximum number of people involved.

Wagner makes the assertion that administering the grade 3-8 tests "is required under federal law" and also by the state's accountability system and I am wondering, hmmm, exactly which federal law might that be. It could be ESEA's original NCLB requirement, or maybe the waiver requirement, which is sort of an end run around ESEA. What's really fun here is to play the game of what penalty, exactly, the federal law carries. What exactly is he threatening the board with? So, interesting assertion there, Senior Deputy Commissioner Wagner, and one sure to mollify people who are already pissed off about the state government pushing them around. Just wait till your Uncle Sam gets home.

Wagner says this "may result" in a loss of funds from the state, to the possible tune of maybe $1.1 million, perhaps. Between all these conditionals and the board's "seriously consider" resolution, we have a real battle of the possible maybe mights going on here.

Wagner also notes that while the board is only now considering becoming a bunch of rogue scofflaws, should they actually choose outlaw status, "the members of the Board responsible will be subject to removal from office by the Commissioner of Education pursuant to Education Law §306 for willful violation of law, the Rules of the Board of Regents and the Regulations of the Commissioner."

The Buffalo News carried a response from Dana.

“I didn’t see anything in there that we haven’t shared with the community in terms of what the ramifications could be,” Dana said Thursday. “He addressed them specifically and he seems to have a good grasp of what’s going on. Obviously, it would seem that they mean business. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

So, no in-boot shaking as yet. The board today scheduled a meeting for April 8 to decide what comes next. Their testing is supposed to begin on April 14.

In the meantime, Dana and the board had intended to send a message to Albany. Clearly, the message was received. We'll see who considers throwing the possibility of what at whom, perhaps, next.

Embrace the Core

You know, perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps we are missing a golden opportunity.

After all-- at this point, very few people know what the hell the Common Core Standards actually are. We've learned that the vast majority of Common Core textbook materials are actually not aligned at all. We know that the Common Core tests are a random crapshoot. We know that what Common Core looks like tends to depend on who's interpreting it for your district.

If the Common Core Standards were supposed to create a common, shared framework that would put students and teachers across this country on the same educational page, then they have failed spectacularly and completely. (I make that point at greater length in an article in the new Education Week, which is available behind a paywall here and in the current print edition.)

Pushers of professional development use the CCSS brand to push their favorite ideas. Teacher-advocates describe their programs, based on nothing more than their own best teacher judgment, and give all the credit to the Core. Opponents of the Core blame it for every dumb homework paper ever created, whether that assignment has anything to do with the Core or not.

Those last groups are the ones we can learn from, really.

It's so simple, I can't believe I didn't see it sooner.

Do whatever the hell you want, and blame it on the Core.

Teaching students to research material before reading it? I'll call that core-aligned. Forbidding students to research material before reading it? Also core-aligned. Want to do writing-based assessments? Why, that's totally core. Drilling reading assignments with bubble question quiz at the end? Also complete core. I have a great new idea for a program that integrates research, literature and video presentations. Pitch it as aligned to the core.

My home ec students have to read recipes, so I'm a core teacher. I'm a band director? Create a new tweak to the program-- web-based video pre-reviews of works as concert advertisement. Declare it aligned to the Core. Increase in the budget? I need it for Core-related stuff. Teaching students to make a souffle? It's a Common Core souffle. 

Teacher core advocates and publishing companies have shown us the way-- there is literally nothing that can't be claimed as a Core-aligned program. Slap "common core" on anything-- there is nobody who can tell you you aren't allowed.

I'm going to have an extra order of fries-- for the Common Core. I am going to get the red Porsche instead of the mini-van because I need it for the Common Core. I did not have sex with that woman-- we were just aligning some Common Core. Please put more frosting on my cupcakes-- it's required by the Core. If anyone tries to question you, just exclaim, "Critical thinking! Alignment! Why are you against higher standards?"

If you happen to be deep in red state Common Core hating territory, just flip the script. Anything you dislike can be blamed on Common Core.

I'm not going to teach Herman Melville because he's part of the Common Core. Don't order that cheap recycled papers-- it's part of the Common Core. Don't you dare put any of that low-fat dressing on my salad-- that's just another way to promote Common Core. I had to punch that guy; he looked like he was going to talk to my kids about Common Core. If anybody questions you on this, just holler, "Communism! Indoctrination! Why do you hate freedom!"

The Common Core, primarily through the efforts of its alleged friends, has been reduced to a meaningless ball of mush. In hindsight, this seems like a completely predictable result-- there is no hard underlying structure of solid sound education ideas based on research and professional experience. Just blobs of personal preferences slapped together by educational amateurs. There is no solid framework, no sturdy skeleton to stay standing when bits and pieces are chipped away. When you dig into CCSS, there's no there there. And so under stress, exploitation, and just being passed along like a nonsense message in a game of telephone, the Core is being reduced to its most basic parts-- nothing at all.

We can take advantage of that by raising the CCSS flag over any and all territory we want to explore (or want to forbid). We were worried that CCSS would be a concrete straightjacket, but as its allies have tweaked and twisted and slanted and squeezed until it's a soggy mess of nothing, a document written on unobtainium with a unicorn horn dipped in invisible ink. And then, with rare exceptions, they've run off so that they don't have to defend the weak sauce they've left behind.

Now, there's no question that on the state and local level, we still have officials doing their best to slavishly enforce their version of the core-- but the vast majority of them aren't enforcing the standards as actually written, either. Andrew Cuomo would be the same size tyrant whether CCSS existed or not. If your district is in the steely grip of Test Prep Mania, the core really doesn't have anything to do with your problems-- the Core can go away, but until the Big Standardized Test goes away, your troubles will remain.

So do whatever you like and use the Common Core as your excuse. Slap the Core justification on every single thing you do in the classroom-- all the cool kids are doing it. Not only will it give you ammunition to defend your teaching choices, but you will help hasten the ongoing disintegration of the standards into a mushy, meaningless, irrelevant mess. The Common Core Standards are over and done. If we do embrace it, perhaps we can embrace it extra hard and help finish it off. I would say to stick a fork in them, but you'll probably need a spoon, and it will be much more fun to use a blender.

Opt In and Think of England

As we enter testing opt-out season with its ever-increasing rising tide of test opposition, the
fans of test-driven accountability have had to use every weapon in their arsenal to try to beat back the non-testing hordes who threaten modern educational progress (and corporate revenue streams).
Sometimes the infidels can be combated locally. The head of the Ken-Ton School Board, a district near Buffalo, NY, roused a bunch of local rabble by calling for New York to stop holding money hostage and demanding pointless testing for teacher evaluations and threatening that the district just wouldn't give the tests. The superintendent was able to scare the board into compliance  speak reason to the board by suggesting that the state might cut funding, defrock board members, and decertify teachers if such crazy talk led to crazy action. But the motion, which had been tabled till April, just passed!  

Sometimes the big guns must be called out. Chicago Public Schools had threatened to give the Big Standardized Test to only 10% of their students. The feds told the state to tell CPS that they would take a gigantic financial hit, and the district reluctantly gave in, much to the disappointment of many who had backed the testing slowdown.
In recent days, test-o-philes have also unleashed the power of ridicule. Mike Thomas, over at reform-loving FEE, put up a blog post that artfully wrapped the technique known in the sales biz as "assuming the sale" in a carpet of wacky mockery.

"I Wish I Could Opt-Out of Writing This" makes the same old point-- some things in life are unpleasant but necessary, and whiners should just suck it up and do what they have to. In fact, oddly enough, Thomas suggests that he would rather not write this blog post in favor of testing, but he's being paid to do it, so he must. Way to show your deep support of testing, Mike.
Thomas presents (and borrows from a Twitter thread that Amanda Ripley started in a similar vein) a list of unpleasant things that people have to do even though they don't want to. The list includes colonoscopies, teeth cleanings, lice checks, braces, lockdown drills, and watching romantic comedies with your wife, and it's a swell list. It's just that the list has nothing to do with the Big Standardized Test.

The items on the list only occur when there is a particular reason for them. You get a colonoscopy when your doctor, a trained medical professional, says it's time. You get braces when a trained professional says they're needed. You go see a movie with your wife when she asks you to (though if that's a chore for you, you have other problems). And like all the other items on the wacky list, these are annoyances you endure because you know there is some good reason to endure them.

The "well, you just have to suck it up and do some unpleasant but necessary things in life" argument assumes the sale. It focuses on the "unpleasant" rap on testing so that it can pretend that the "necessary" part is not in doubt. But of course it's the notion that the Big Standardized Test is necessary that is at the heart of the opt-out movement.

Why are Big Standardized Tests necessary? BS Test fans have lost some of their classic arguments. For instance, they can no longer say that test results are needed to do national comparisons that run across state lines because the dream of a single national test is dead, dead, dead. VAM has been debunked far and wide. From the test quality to test validity to every justification given for testing-- as ESEA has heated up, they've all been subject to responsible, data-based, professional attack.
Writers like Thomas have been reduced to justifications like this:

And that's why I'm an opt-in on testing. I want to know how well my kid is doing in algebra. I want to know how smart she is compared to all the other kids in the state. The same goes for reading, writing and science...This information will let me know if she is on track for being first in line when the University of Florida opens its doors to incoming freshman.

Is Thomas suggesting that all students everywhere should be tested so that he can brag about his own daughter? Or is he suggesting that his daughter's teachers keep all her grades, school work and achievements a secret from him? And does he really mean to suggest that he's an opt-in, because if that's what he wants, I'm sure we can find support for a system where people can opt-in to testing if they wish, but would otherwise be in a no-testing default.

That system would have great support, but it's not what Thomas and FEE and other reformsters and testing corporations want-- they want a system in which all students are compelled to test, not one where they have a choice (though oddly enough, they are huge fans of choice when it comes to charter schools).

Here's the other thing about colonoscopies and braces-- the government doesn't compel you to have them, whether your professional expert thinks you need one or not. You opt-in, voluntarily, weighing the advice of trained experts and the advantages of the procedure. You don't need to come up with a justification for not having a root canal today-- you only have one if someone (or your tooth) presents a reason to opt in.

Reformsters would like us to skip all of that. Just take their word for it that tests are a necessary unpleasantry, like vaccination shots for babies or sex for Victorian ladies. Don't ask why. Don't question the necessity. Just lie back and think of England.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats
- See more at: http://excelined.org/2015/03/09/wish-opt-writing/#sthash.oACr3jPH.dpuf

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ken-Ton Schools Take Stand

You may recall that earlier this month the president of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school board raised the possibility of passing a motion to threaten withdrawing from New York's testing program. Then the superintendent hollered, "Hold on there, Tex!" and the board put the issue off until later.

Well, last night, later arrived, and the board voted to stand up, sort of, to the state.

The district is north of Buffalo, and it has been small but cranky on the subject of things like Cuomo's holding financial support hostage as well as the continued ignoring of the decade-old court ruling that New York needs to get its financial support for schools straightened out.

WGRZ quoted board president Bob Dana:

We have stepped forward and decided that enough is enough. We're sending a message to Albany that we are going to consider boycotting standardized testing and not using test scores to evaluate our students and teachers. If they don't turn around and give us and every other school district across the state what we have coming.

Dana told the crowd at the meeting that he'd been told that the state might remove the board of education and that financial penalties would also be leveled. But he told the Buffalo News, "We're not playing games anymore."

Superintendent Dawn Mirand repeated her opposition to the move, and the administrators union came out against it while the teachers union supported it. A straw poll was held by written ballot, and the crowd attending the meeting voted 281-22 in support of the move. One citizen told WIVB that he was willing to pay more in taxes if it would mean the state let teachers do their jobs.

It should be noted that the protest vote is in the mildest possible terms-- at this point the board has simply voted to "seriously consider" refusing to give the test to elementary students and to use test results to evaluate teachers. It remains to be seen what will happen once that serious consideration actually leads to action.

So this is not so much a bold assault on the state as it is inching up slowly and carefully to the Line and seeing how far across it they can go before the state decides to drop the hammer. So it's measured defiance, but defiance none-the-less. How far will the district go in telling the state to shove their tests up their big fat Niagara Falls? How far will the state go to punish those who dare to question their wisdom and power? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Duncan Looks for Spare Children

Arne Duncan teams up with Marc C. Morial and Janet Murguia in a blog post on The Hill, trying once again to get some attention for his vision of the new ESEA.

His choice of new catch phrase is extraordinarily unfortunate. He rolls it out in the headline and uses it again in the post:

America has no kids to spare.

Let's think about that for a second.

When you don't have any more of something to spare, that means you're already using all that you've got. "I don't have time to spare" means "I need every second I've got for some piece of business." Our spare tire is the one that we keep to use for tire-related business if one of the regulars gives up. Buddy, if I can't spare a dime, it's because I need to spend my dimes on something for myself.

So if we have no children to spare, that must mean that we (whoever "we" are) cannot give up any children because we intend to use them for something. It evokes a century ago when families might say, "We can't spare this child for school because we need him to work in the field" or the urban poor saying "We can't spare this child for school because we need him to earn some money in the factory."

If we can't "spare" any children, it must be that "we" have some other pressing use for them. What, I wonder, does Duncan imagine we need to use all these children for. What kind of coggitious widgetry is their destined use? We can't spare one child from our plans for a drone workforce? We can't spare one child from helping us create revenue streams for corporate interests? "I have no children to spare," is what the witch in the gingerbread house says, not somebody who is concerned about allowing children to grow and develop and stand up strong as the best persons they can be.

This particular construction reveals, once again, the notion that children are the toasters on the assembly line that is the reformsters' ideal education system.

Duncan et al get into some specifics from their ESEA wish list. 

For instance, they want to be sure that districts are getting resources, including various subgroups, and I think that's a great idea except that maybe, if that's our goal, we'd want a program other than Race to the Top or other signature "competitive" programs that say, "Hey, children in struggling subgroups-- we will get resources to you IF you are fortunate enough to be in a school system run by people who are good at filling out federal Give Me Money, Please paperwork. But if the heads of your state and local system do not meet our federal standards, we will teach them a lesson by giving fewer resources to you, struggling student."

Getting resources to students who need them and making many systems compete for limited resources are not compatible goals. Duncan needs to figure out which he stands for.

Duncan says parents should know that students who are found to be in non-goal-meeting schools, the feds will be on the way with resources and supports and interventions. Of course, by that last word, we mean "handing the school over to a charter operator," an intervention technique that doesn't seem to have saved many students at all, and has certainly stripped resources and support away from other students in those same communities.

Also, he wants preschool.

He also wants feedback about individual student achievement, support and autonomy for teachers, and money to go to high poverty schools, as well as support for "innovation" with a proven track record. These are great things; these are also things that the administration has not tried at all in the last seven years. Maybe this is the part of the article that Duncan did not write.

One more spare

Of course, there's another way to understand the word "spare." It can refer to a show of mercy, a relenting of damaging and destructive force, as in "I will spare your life."

If Arne is announcing his intention to spare no child the oppression of reformster education programs, then I will give him points, at least, for accuracy and honesty. If he is saying "America has no kids to spare the indignity, timesuck and waste of pointless standardized testing," then we have here one of those rare occasiona in which Duncan's words and his actions actually match up.

But I'm guessing that's not what he meant to say. In which case, we can just dismiss this as more pointless word salad from USED.

See "Defies Measurement"

Let me cut to the chase-- I cannot recommend enough that you watch Defies Measurement, a new film by Shannon Puckett.

The film is a clear-eyed, well-sourced look at the business of test-driven corporate-managed profiteer-promoted education reform, and it has several strengths that make it excellent viewing both for those of us who have been staring at these issues for a while and for teachers and civilians who are just now starting to understand that something is going wrong.

The film is anchored by the story of Chipman Middle School in Alemeda, a school that up until ten years ago was an educational pioneer, using the solid research about brains and learning (and where Shannon Puckett once taught). They were a vibrant, exciting, hands-on school that defied expectations about what could be done with middle schools students in a poor urban setting. And then came No Child Left Behind, and we see a focus on test scores and canned programs replace programs centered on creating strong independent thinkers, even as Laura Bush comes to visit to draw attention to the school's embrace of testing culture. It is heartbreaking to watch some of the teachers from the school reflect on their experience a decade later; one sadly admits that she sold out, while another says she still feels remorse, but that she didn't sell out-- she was duped, making the mistaken assumption that the important people making edicts from on high knew something that she did not. She no longer thinks so.

The story of Chipman is a backdrop for considering the various elements that have played out in the reformosphere over the last decade. The film looks at the flow of reform-pushing money, the smoke-and-mirrors rise of charters and how that has failed in the Charter Dreamland of New Orleans, the misunderstanding of how kids learn (if you're not a Howard Gardner fan you'll have to grit your teeth for a minute), the history of standardized testing, the false narrative of US testing failure, the rise of resegregation, the corrosive effects of reform on the teaching profession, the destructiveness of Race to the Top, and how teaching the whole child in a safe and nurturing environment is great for humans, even if it doesn't help with testing.

The array of people heard from is awesome-- Puckett has tapped into an amazing group of educational experts. I'm going to give you the list as an enticement to watch: Alan Stoskopf, Alfie Kohn, Anthony Cody, David Berliner, David Kirp, Diane Ravitch, Fred Abrams, Howard Gardner, Jason France, Joan Duvall-Flynn, Jordyn Schwartz, Julian Vasquez-Heilig, Karen Klein, Karran Harper-Royal, Ken Wesson, Linda Darling-Hammond, Mark Naison, Martin Malstron, Mercedes Scneider, Robert Crease, Susan Kovalik, and Tony Wagner.

I won't tell you the ultimate fate of Chipman School, but the story of Chipman really is a sad microcosm of the disastrous arc of reformster policy. It is a perfect hook on which to hang this tale.

Puckett has done a superb job of creating a clear, comprehensible picture of the complex forces that are crushing public education. If you get frustrated with trying to explain the complex and crushing forces arrayed against what we know works in education, this film is a great resource. It is not sensationalized, it's not super-slick and it's not hyperbolized. It is a calm but relentless and clear raising of the alarm and showing what we know to do well, and how we are being taken down a failed and fruitless road. Watch this film. Share this film. Spread the word about this film.

And that's easy to do-- because in one more sign of the difference between the reformsters and the advocates for public education, the film will not cost you a cent to watch. Puckett will even let you download it for free, as long as you agree to leave the film as is and spread the word.

This is a powerful work, a powerful voice quilting together a whole group of powerful voices. Watch this film. Watch this film. Watch. This. Film. It will take only a little more than an hour of your time. You need to see this, and you need to share this.