Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Five Lessons from Jeanne Allen

Jeanne Allen is sad, because of the new documentary "Backpack Full of Cash."

Allen is the head honcho of the Center for Education Reform, a group that is very vocal in their opposition to teachers unions and public school, and very vocal in their desire to see choice and charters happen, no matter what. Allen frequently employs her snarky tone in defense of causes that even other reformsters find hard to defend, such as cyber-schools and Donald Trump (her explanation, which explains much, is that Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway made her feel better about the Donald). She's also the lady who tried to teach John Oliver a lesson.

So it's hard to understand exactly why she's grumpy about being featured in "Backpack Full of Cash" as a woman who is strongly pro-charter. The problem seems to be that the movie itself is not very pro-charter at all, and the indignity is doubled because it's Allen's own quote that lends the film its title. A quote that she still stands by, because it's strapping a backpack full of cash onto each student that makes her world go around.


But Jeanne Allen is going on the offensive, which as usual involves issuing a bunch of press releases quoting Jeanne Allen, against that Matt Damon movie (while it is exciting that this movie was made and is out there being seen, it is depressing to note that it might well have sunk without a trace if Famous Actor Guy Damon were not attached as the narrator, because we can only ever have conversations about education in this country when actors or comedians or politicians or academics do the talking which only makes sense because who else would we listen to-- teachers?? Oh well-- I don't fault the film makers their choice because if you want your work to be seen you have to do what you have to do... but I digress).

Allen is also trying to leverage the Damon name by scolding him publicly for the involvement in this film that dares to quote her directly, including an #EducateMattDamon hashtag that so far has been used just by Allen and the CER and a few pro-public education wags (feel free to head over to twitter and help out). She grouped five of them together under an inflammatory headline, "New Matt Damon Movie Maligns Poor Parents" 

As always, the Allen press release comes with an Allen quote:

It was a shock to see them cunningly and deliberately cut my quote to serve their own purpose. We always have to fight people who are, frankly, uneducated about the issue. If I could show Matt Damon what we actually do, and the options kids can have so they don’t have to go to failing schools, he’d be a supporter.

It has all the Allen standards. Some emotionally charged words ("cunning") to support her suggestion that all her enemies are acting out of malice, because in Allen's world, the only people who disagree with her are evil, bad people. Oh, and ignorant ones, because if people understood the issues, they would side with her. Including Damon, who's grasp of the issues seems rather deep and long-standing (I suggest a visit to the BustED Pencils site for a stroll through the many great interviews with Damon's teacher mom).

But that's okay-- Allen is going to educate him with five lessons.

1) NYC charter schools show more academic growth than district schools.

Her link is to a paywalled WSJ article, but her assertion is meaningless. It's like saying "The plants in my field grow taller than the plants in Pat's field, so my field must be better." Without knowing what plants we're talking about, it's a meaningless statement. And since we're know about NYC charter tendency to skim and cream, it's suspect as well. And, of course, "academic growth" really means "scores on single narrow standardized test" which is a lousy point of comparison unless you think the point of sending your child to school is to get their test scores up.

2) Charters are a vital tool for low-income and minority families.

Allen here links to an op-ed asserting that supporting black colleges helps charter schools, so how that fits her point is not clear. On the other hand, we could link to five years worth of articles about how charter schools have increased segregation, and, in areas like North Carolina, have created a new version of white flight where white families flee to mostly-white charter schools, leaving everyone else in increasingly underfunded (thanks to charters) public schools.It's unfortunate, because in some parallel universe where charter schools are not meant primarily to serve the interests of "entrepreneurs" who are motivated by chasing backpacks full of cash strapped to students-- in THAT universe, charters could be useful. In this universe, charters are not a tool for low-income and minority families.

3) Listen to why these students chose their charter school.

Allen replays some greatest hits from her bounty-offering contest to spank John Oliver. Boy, wouldn't it be an interesting world if public schools could wave around $100K and say, "Whoever says the nicest things about us gets this!"

4) Give parents real power in their child's education.

Nope. Simply not true. First, communities have to give up any sort of representative control of the school and replace it with a board of directors that does not have to answer to them. Then they have to give up any ability to see how the charter school is spending tax dollars. And then they have to wait and see whether the charter school is willing to accept and serve their child. The charter deal is that parents must give up what little power they have and hope they get something worthwhile in return. Travel to Florida for an example of how bad a deal that turns out to be for many parents.

5) Look! An NBA star!!

Seriously. Allen's point here seems to be that sometimes celebrities and sports stars back charter schools. That his been true since the years it became obvious that a charter school would make for both good PR and good ROI, but it has not worked out very well very often. For example, Deion Sanders' attempt was a spectacular disaster. 

Wait! Where was the maligning??

 Nowhere. Allen doesn't even attempt to back up the main accusation of her title. Nor does she ever address the subheading of the film-- "the real cost of privatizing America's pubic schools." She's not trying to make a point-- just fling some mud and hope it sticks somewhere. You would think that a chief of a big budget advocacy group would shoot for a higher bar than, say, a blogger.

So let me suggest that you track down a screening of this award-winning documentary and see for yourself if Allen has been herself maligned, or if she is in fact a fine exemplar of the sort of folks pushing the privatization of one of our oldest democratic public institutions.



BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Where I Went (or How a Weekend at NPE Turned into a Spot Check of the Pheonix, Arizona Health Care System)

So the blog has gone dark for a few days. In the meantime,I had some adventures and drew some conclusions in the process. Feel free to skip the tale; but I figure I owe an explanation to both loyal readers who aren't related to me.

What actually happened, short form:

On the way to the Network for Public Education convention in Oakland, CA, I missed my connecting in Phoenix due to illness, resulting in a brief stay in a Phoenix hospital

What actually happened, longer form:


Whatever it was that felled me kept a low profile from Pittsburgh to Phoenix, but at the beginning of the second leg of the trip, my Issue announced itself with explosive enthusiasm on the taxiway. And so I got to be the medical emergency that turned the plane around and headed it back to the terminal, where nice paramedics escorted me off the plane. Pro tip: if you want to really make an impression on fellow travelers, make sure the meal you’re going to share includes some Twizzlers for striking color effects (Note: Twizzlers did not pay me for that endorsement.)

A nice American Airlines lady offered to rebook me for later that evening or the next morning. It became clear that Late That Evening was not happening, so I booked a room in hopes that a good night's sleep would make me more travel-worthy. It did not. A nice lady at the hotel front desk helped me find an urgi-care, and called me a taxi. Roberto, my taxi-driver and 23-year Phoenix citizen, nicely suggested that I probably wanted the big hospital. The nice medical people at the urgi-care agreed with him, so it was off to the ER at Banner University Hospital, where some very nice people helped reassemble me until later in the afternoon, when (and there is no delicate way to recapture the moment) the airport Chinese made a surprise reappearance. The possibility of blood in that event led to being booked for an overnite stay in the observation wing, where some more nice folks kept me hydrated and relatively comfortable. There was an endoscope, with the most dashing anesthesiologist ever, and by late Sunday I was sprung. I took the red-eye back to Pittsburgh on Sunday night/Monday morning after sitting in the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport ("America's Friendliest Airport").

Things I noticed (when I wasn't pre-occupied with my body's betrayal):

Niceness really matters

This whole business was simultaneously scary and depressing. Depressing because I was missing a conference I really wanted to attend, the registration and hotel room an anniversary gift from my wife. Missing also meant I was letting down the people who had included me in a panel. And as the adventure stretched on, I was acutely aware that I was leaving my wife to handle our four-month-old twins without husbandly assistance. She's fully capable, but I felt as if I was really letting down the team-- several teams, in fact.


On top of that, feeling so sick in a strange place, with no support network, friends, family, and no clear answers on what's happening next-- that is also not a great feeling.Not when you're far, far from home.

But as you may have noticed above, the people I dealt with were unfailingly nice and kind, without sacrificing a bit of their professional devotion to their jobs. It was a reminder to me that any system or institution can be made infinitely more human and supportive and nurturing simply if the people operating within that system are nice. "Be nice" doesn't necessarily fit in a policies and procedure manual, nor is it often written into the sort of curriculum-in-a-box programs beloved these days, and it certainly isn't something that can be written into a computerized algorithmic academic content delivery system.

It's worth remembering, when we're about to get into deep, complicated arguments about the relative merits (or lack thereof) of computer-based teaching systems, that some of it comes down to simple things-- human beings can be nice and kind, and computer software cannot. And it's worth remembering ALL the time as teachers that our ability to be nice and kind is one of the most important abilities we bring into a classroom. Dealing with a big system when you are beat down and far from home is hard and scary; it doesn't cost any of us a cent to be nice and kind to that person.

Thank God for professional expertise

Looking at my situation, and watching the medical professionals respond to it, made me grateful that a nursing degree is not based (yet) on micro-badges that can be earned anywhere. When I consider all the various factors that went into just my case alone, and then try to imagine how all those features and intersections of features could be broken down into a checklist of badge-worthy competencies-- well, it's just silly.

No, I'm glad I dealt with people who were professionally trained, professionally experienced, and ready to make the complex and complicated judgments involved in balancing all the data they were receiving. All data is not created equal, and it still takes a human to sort out the meaningful from the not-so-important data.

How the hell do people without health insurance even live in this world?

Seriously? How? I defy anybody to navigate the medical labyrinth and think to himself, "Yeah, somebody who had no insurance at all could totally manage this."

It is possible to drive too hard.

I'm slowly becoming open to the possibility that, occasionally, one needs to Give It A Rest. It's a possibility.


The end of the story

So what actually felled me? Maybe some virus (as I type this, my mother-in-law, who stayed with my wife to help with the twins is at home, in a condition similar to mine). I'm willing to blame the airport Chinese food from PIT. Or maybe flying without my wife makes me really anxious. Meanwhile, the NPE conference sounded and looked great, and I missed it. And this blog went dark for three days. But now I'm just shaking off the effects of jet lag and sleep deprivation, and the twins have trained me pretty well for that sort of thing. Tomorrow I expect to be back here waggling my fist at the state of public education in this country once again.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Charter Is a Public School

A charter school is a public school

If

If it is owned and operated by the local community and their duly elected representatives. If you can call the people who run your school to talk about your school, and it's not a long distance call, that might be a public school. If your school is run by a board of directors who must all stand for election by the taxpayers who foot the bill for your school, you are probably a public school.

If it is operated with financial transparency. If any taxpayer can walk into the main district office and request a copy of the budget and receive a copy, that's a public school system. If you have the opportunity to call or meet with those local elected board members t argue about how your tax dollars are being spent, it's probably a public school.


If it cannot turn down a single student from your community. Your school system may sort students into specialized schools, or it may pay the cost of sending Very Special Need students to Highly Specialized schools, but it cannot ever deny unilaterally responsibility for students just because they cost a lot of money or require specialized programs or just fail to behave compliantly. If your school system can't wave a student off and say, "She's not our problem," your system is probably a public school system.

If it provides students and staff the full amount of  appropriate legal protections, it could be a public school.

If it operates in a building owned by the taxpayers, it could well be a public school.

If it operates under the assumption that it will stay in operation for as long as the community wants it there, and plans to be there for generations irregardless of how well the "business" is doing, it is probably a public school.

And if your school does not make budgeting choices based on the notion that the less money spent on the students, the more money some private individual gets to pocket, that's a healthy sign of a public school.

If it meets all these standards, then your charter school is indeed a public school. If not-- well, it may be a lovely, delightful, popular school, but it is not a public school. A private school that collects public tax dollars is still a private school.

And if your public school system no longer meets these standards (if, for instance, your elected local board has been replaced with state or mayoral control, that's a sign that somebody is trying to privatize it, and may have partially succeeded.

You can say that a pig is a cow. You can dress it up in a cow suit and just keep insisting over and over that it's a cow, correcting everyone who says differently. But at the end of the day, when you butcher it, you still get pork.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why the Charter School Movement Can't Help Alienating Republicans

Over atthe Fordham blog, Mike Petrilli (Fordham Grand Poohbah) is taking another swipe at addressing the ed reform schism that has been playing out ever since Betsy DeVos unpacked her bags in DC.

"The charter-schools movement needs to stop alienating Republicans," he says. echoing a sentiment first floated in the reformisphere by Robert Pondiscio who was concerned that the Left was driving conservatives out of the reform movement.

Conservatives and the choice movement

The problem has been there all along. Ed reform has always been a fundamentally right-tilted movement, but during a nominally Democratic liberal-branded administration, it was helpful to also sell reform as a means of creating social justice. But these days, social justice is not exactly a priority of the folks in DC, and so the ed reform movement has been convulsing as those who want to view ed reform as a means of social justice have tried to run away from Trump-DeVos, while those who see it as a means of promoting choice and the free market have found it remarkably easy to embrace the current administration (looking at you, Jeanne Allen) or at least have tried to stake out a clear conservative camp for charter-choice reform, in hopes that some day rational grown-ups will be in charge again in our nation's capital.

Which brings us back to Petrilli's argument. 

He's trying to understand why EdNext's own poll showed a drop in carter support, including among GOP and GOP-lite respondents. But, Petrilli, seems to ask, shouldn't the same folks who loved Reaganism embrace school choice? Trickle down, anybody? Union-busting the flight controllers?  Ignoring the problems of Reaganism and the modern mis-remembering of his legacy (does anyone think he wouldn't be drummed out of the modern hard-core GOP by the same people who claim to want his mantle), Petrilli has some ideas about recapturing GOP hearts and minds, like emphasizing how the charter movement empowers parental choice, "using the magic of competition to lift all boats," which is an apt phrase since the raise-all-boat-thinking is an excellent example of the magical thinking behind free market education ideas. Free market unicorn ponies for everyone!


Petrilli also, in one of his characteristic flashes of unvarnished honesty, points out that conservatives should love charters because charters are anti-union. Oh, and they can fire lots of people, too. Also, he would like to bring up Fordham's bullshit study about how terribly absent public school teachers are, compared to charter teachers. That study defines "chronically absent" as "misses one day of work a month" and while that's not a super-high bar to clear, the study skips over any possible explanations for the pattern (like age differences in the two workforces) in favor of just scoring this talking point.

And as a final sprinkling on top of his proposed ad campaign for charters, Petrilli also tosses no-nonsense discipline, the success sequence, and "classical" education.

Petrilli says that charter supporters who appear to be on the Left encourage the charter movement to downplay all these features, and that's a mistake.

But I say Petrilli has made some miscalculations here, and that there are good and solid reasons for conservatives not to support charter-choice programs.

Conservatives like accountability

The biggest conservative problem for charter-choice is accountability. At this point, wherever you live in this country, you are probably within earshot of a charter scandal where a school suddenly closed or someone got caught with their hand (or their family's) hand in the till or the whole thing just turned out to be a scam. And now that we've had a few years of chartering, an increasing number of folks have had this conversation:

Taxpayer: Why don't our schools have enough money for this program?

Government: Your tax dollars were taken from your local school to pay for that charter school.

Taxpayer: Well, damn. Can we at least see what the charter school did with our tax dollars?

Government: Nope. Nobody can know.

Taxpayer: But those are my tax dollars!

Government: Too bad. It's a special charter secret.

"Just hand us your hard-earned money and trust us," was never a winning pitch for public schools, but charters are even less forthcoming. Conservatives do not like being told, "We are going to take your hard-earned dollars but we will tell you absolutely nothing about how they are spent. In fact, we will go to court to keep you from finding out." And the steady drip-drip-drip of charter scandals is a clear signal that some kind of accountability measures are needed-- and yet Betsy DeVos has signaled clearly that she doesn't favor accountability and that she, in fact, likes the voucher system which has even less accountability.

Public schools are a conservative institution

Petrilli's colleague Andy Smarick has written extensively about this. Public schools are stolid, time-tested, and a foundational part of many communities. Public education is an institution that is steeped in conservative values of tradition, financial efficiency, local control, and community values. Occasionally reformsters try to fly in the face of this by hollering that teachers are a pack of wild-eyed liberals, but people know their local schools, and they know it's largely untrue (sooo many teachers voted for Trump). Reformsters have tried to make the case that schools are just awful and undermining American security but poll after poll tells us that most Americans think their local schools are okay-- more so if they have children actually in the school.

Trying to upend this kind of institution is not the act of a classical conservative.

About that parental choice thing

In community after community, it turns out that parents don't really get all that much choice. Choice looks a lot more like trying to get into college-- you make your choices and then you hope and pray that they choose you. And in the world of charters, if you have special needs or require special adaptations or are just an extra challenge, there may not be a place for you (and if we start talking vouchers, then we can start talking about whether or not you are of the correct religious faith).

Parental choice is a lovely talking point, but in many markets, that's simply not what happens. And where it does happen, it ends up looking like North Carolina, where "choice" turns out to be short for "I would like to choose that my white children don't go to school with black children." Racism and discrimination are not conservative values (I've met plenty of racist liberals and plenty of non-racist conservatives) and restoring segregation is not a worthwhile reason to support charters.

Teacher pool

Petrilli zeros in on the idea of busting the teachers' unions, but while that may make it easier for ed-flavored businesses to run their schools, it hasn't produced any improvement in quality. Personally, I'm dying to see the rollout of New York charter advertising that boasts "No more dealing with certified teachers-- your child will be taught by the cheapest, undertrained non-expert non-educators we could find!"

Maybe it's just the conservatives I've grown up around, but an oft-overlooked quality that I think of as a conservative value is competence-- knowing what the hell you're doing, being a trained professional at your craft.

Other peoples' kids and values education

Places like the "no excuses" schools and the schools centered on the "success sequence" (get a diploma, get a job, get a spouse, get a kid-- in that order) do not strike me as the sort of schools that conservatives would put their own schools in, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that conservatives are not real big on the whole "teach children what their correct values and proper life choices should be" thing rubs them the wrong way.

You can find conservatives who will agree that Those Peoples' Children should be taught those things, but I'm not sure that translates into "Use my tax dollars to set up a second school system for those kids."

One more entitlement

If you thought it was a lousy idea to give "free" college to every 19-year-old, why would you think it's a good idea to give "free" private school to every K-12 student. 

The ravages of time

Mostly what I think explains Petrilli's unwelcome poll results is time.

When Common Core was an abstract idea in think pieces, people either ignored it or thought it could be swell. But the more it took a real, palpable form, and the more people could see how it actually worked and saw what students were experiencing and heard tales of how it really played out, the less people supported it. I'll bet dollars to donuts that's what's happening to charters.

"Parents should be able to choose the school that best fits their child's needs" sounds great. But it's not what's actually happening. What's actually happening is that people are seeing money drained from their public school system to fund private schools that at best are hiding what they do with that money and at worst are wasting and stealing that money, all to support a system that isn't really providing all the choices it said it would-- and that's all before you discover that the entire charter set-up is run by people who don't answer to you, don't know you, and don't live in your community. Surprise-- you no longer have any control or say in how your education tax dollars are spent.

You can argue that all of these problems exist in the public system-- but that doesn't mean you're offering anything any better, and your not-any-better is coming at considerable cost, which folks are becoming more and more aware of. Five years ago the Trump-loving denizens of my community would complain about how local school boards were wasting their money; today more and more of them are asking when somebody is going to do something about those damn charter schools that are bleeding our local schools dry.

The Achilles heel

The conservative side of ed reform has always had the same critical weakness-- opening up the education market so that free market forces can unleash new edu-business possibilities is an act that mostly just benefits people at the top. It's great for people who are at the top, who operate these businesses. Hell, who wouldn't want to open a bunch of charter schools in NYC, serve a carefully curated fraction of the students as the public system, and still make more than the leader of the entire citywide public system?

Maybe this is the Reaganism coming back-- give the people who run these operations a chance to fill their pockets and good education will eventually trickle down to the students below. But the reality isn't living up to the hype-- it can't-- and ed reformers can't start a war or set fire to some other dumpster to distract people. There will still be plenty of conservative support for charters, bot from market-based conservatives as well as those who see charters as a solution to systemic social problems in public schools. But the support is going to erode, rather than grow.

Unless

Of course, charters could build support by becoming actual public schools rather than simply wearing the name "public" like an ill-fitting sheep suit. They could be locally controlled. They could be transparent and open in their operation. They could employ and be operated by fully-trained professional educators. They could take all students instead of creaming and skimming. And their legislative supporters could create financial structures that fully support all schools instead of trying to run multiple systems with the same money previously used to run just one system.

Those steps would build support among conservatives and liberals alike. They just wouldn't build support among the folks currently trying to push charter schools. That's the real question for those folks, the real dilemma they face-- do they want to have the freedom to impose their will and reap profits, or do they actually want charter schools, even if they don't get those schools exactly the way they wanted to.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blockchain For Dummies

Whenever we talk about That Thing That's Being Pushed-- the thing that is sort of competency based education and and sort of personalized learning and sort of cradle to career pipeline and sort of Big Brother data mining your entire life-- we inevitably run into the idea of blockchains. If that part leaves you a big befuddled, join the club. I'm going to attempt an easy-to-follow yet reasonably accurate explanation  of what's going on, because I think it's worth understanding. Blockchains are shaping the education conversation just by their very nature-- and they are not politically neutral, either. This may not make you feel any better, but at least you'll understand a little better what's going on when blockchain is discussed.

Blockchains emerged hand in hand with bitcoins, a so-called cryptocurrency, that had been hinted at in SF literature (go read some Neal Stephenson, like the short story "The Great Simoleon Caper" or the absolutely awesome novel Cryptonomicon). It appeared in 2008, created by a pseudonymous computer guy/group Satoshi Nakamoto.


Bitcoins do not physically exist, which is not that crazy an idea when you consider that your paper currency is just a piece of paper, and mostly you handle money electronically, anyway. Bitcoins exist on a ledger, maintained in the cloud on a variety of computers (nodes) but without any central authority. (IOW, there's no bitcoin main server parked somewhere).

At one point this decentralized bookkeeping seemed like crazy talk, but we've been sliding rapidly toward it. The easiest available comparison is a google doc. In the old days, if you and I wanted to collaborate on a document, we'd have to send it back and forth and back and forth, with each send creating a new copy (and a need to keep track of them). Now we'd just create a google doc that we could both work on. There's only ever one copy, and we can both manipulate it at any time.

A bitcoin ledger is like that, with one huge difference. It requires huge and complicated security, a level of encryption (hence "cryptocurrency') that makes my head hurt. Not all the attempts to manage the system worked out at all, causing some early bitcoin "crashes," but one approach has held on. The blocks of bitcoin data were linked through a heavy encryption to earlier versions of the ledger, as well as a series of encryptions that "certified" each transaction. Those blocks of data, connected through a chain-- well, yes, here we are at blockchain.

What these folks believe they have is a hackproof unified ledger that can be updated reliably. Bitcoin fans believed that they now had a system that would keep their currency stable, universal, and unaffected by the slings and arrows of national politics and monetary policy. No government necessary to issue, certify or control currency. The system even generates its own currency through performance of the crypto-problems that maintain the system-- bitcoins are "mined" and not "isssued."

But folks also saw huge potential in blockchain itself. Here, they said, was the ultimate digital strongbox-- permanent, universal, and utterly secure. Transparent and incorruptible. It could handle all kinds of commerce.

And, some blockchain advocates believed, it could store identity information.

Your identity. Your personal information. Your medical records-- all of them. Bloomberg just ran an article pitching blochchain as a substitute for social security numbers. And if it can store that information, incorruptibly and transparently, why not other personal information.

There is a serious Libertarian feel to the blockchain world-- the decentralized dependability means that no centralized authorities of any type are needed, No governments needed for money supply. No central authorities to create and certify information about individuals.

You can see how easily this idea lent itself to the notion of needing no central authority to authorize or create educational certification. Education can be mined, found, certified, tracked and recorded without any central authority needing to intervene. We would never need official schools or certified teachers or even diplomas ever again. Your various trainings would just become bits in the blockchain of your life, and your value, your worth as a future employee or member of society would be right there in your digital permanent record.

Not everyone believes in the power of blockchain. Some folks believe it could become the basis of a whole second internet, a completely new techno-evolutionary jump forward. To which other folks say that blockchain is not the next internet, but the next Linux-- nerdy, obscure and ultimately unable to make the jump to widespread mainstream use.

And there are certainly issues to sort out. An amount of currency is a simple piece of data, a one-dimensional bit to store. To make such a system work for the full broad spectrum of human skills and aptitudes, we'd have to flatten all those qualities to simple, single dimensions. Reducing "pretty decent novelist" or "fine jazz player but not strong in the classical repertoire" or "great teacher of seven year olds but not quite so great with fourteen year olds" or "decent diagnostician of pulmonary system ailments with an excellent bedside manner and a good team player"  to simple data points is a real challenge-- but there are people trying to meet it, to flatten every skill set in the world into little mini-competency badges that will fit the system. And not just the functional skills, but the social-emotional domains as well, so that the full complexity of a human's character and personality can be reduced to data points as well.

Because that's one of the things that's different about CBE this time around-- the tail is wagging the dog. As is too often the case, the system is being designed around what the technology can do, and not being designed about what needs to be done.

And if you don't think people aren't working hard to make this all real, look at The Ledger, which imagines this system in place a decade from now. Every person a "teacher" and no schools in sight. Plus, the very act of being educated turned into a transaction. And your whole value reduced to a set of digits.

See. I told you it wouldn't make you feel any better.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

How Parents Choose

The ideal version of how school choice is supposed to work, the happy picture portrayed by charter-choice advocates, is that parents will search their available options, consider the salient characteristics of academic achievement, and select the best-performing schools. Charters that perform poorly will, the theory goes, be driven out of business because their lousy test scores will make them an undesirable "product" that will not be able to grab enough "customers."

The high-performing schools will rise to the top of the marketplace, and the duds will descend and drop.

It's a nice picture, but now we have research that suggests it's just a dream.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has published the working paper "Do Parents Value School Effectiveness," by researchers Atila Abdulkadiroglu (MIT), Parag A. Pathak (MIT), Jonathan Schellenberg (UC Berkeley), and Christopher R. Walters (UC at Berkeley).

We could draw this out, but the researchers are pretty clear about their findings.

We find no relationship between preferences and school effectiveness after controlling for peer quality. 
 
Is this the table with the high PARCC scores?

The study looked at New York City high school assignments, so it may or may not be representative of how things work in other locales. But how it works in NYC is that parents want to send their students to the schools with the smart kids. Or to put it another, non-researchy way, everyone wants to sit at the cool table in the cafeteria, regardless of what food is being served there or how convenient it is to the lunch line.

Not a shocker. Marketers have long understood that you can sell a product by emphasizing all sorts of traits other than the products actual level of quality. Take, for example, earbuds, which are all virtually the same product, but are marketed a variety of ways including the more expensive brands that are used by the cool artists.

I'll also take this as a good sign that parents are by and large smart enough not to be fooled by the notion that test scores on the Big Standardized Test are somehow a useful proxy for actual school quality. Parents, it turns out, are not saying, "Which school has the highest BS Test results-- that's where I want my child to go!" Nice to know the market may be smarter than that.

Betsy DeVos Is Not a Dope (With Betsy DeVos Reader)

From the grizzly bear jokes of her confirmation hearing, to late night television lampoons, to satire from the Onion and Borowitz, DeVos has become an easy mark. Everyone's in on the joke. Do the budget numbers not add up? It's that  wacky Betsy DeVos having trouble with math.

I've said this before-- it's a huge mistake to think Betsy DeVos is a dope. She is something else ay more dangerous. I've been reading her word and a ton of words about her for a year (and you can, too-- I've included an exhaustive reading list at the end of this piece), and while any game of armchair psycho-analysis has to come with huge caveats (like "I could be completely full of bovine fecal matter"), DeVos seems very much of a type that I've known my whole life, and it makes her both familiar and scary.

Betsy and I are of the same era, just eight months age difference between us, graduating high school in 1975. Our cohort includes Scott Adams, Brad Bird, Laura Branigan, Berke Breathed, LeVar Burton, Steve Buscemi, Dan Castellaneta, Andrew Dice Clay, Katie Couric, Bill Cowher, Daniel Day- Lewis, Michael Clarke Duncan, Bill Engvall, Stephen Fry, Nick Hornby, Jon Lovitz, Kelly McGillis, Donny Osmond, Kevin Pollack, Ray Romano, Michael W. Smith, Eddie Van Halen, Sid Vicious, Vanna White, Hans Zimmer, and, yes, Osama bin Laden. We are theoretically Baby Boomers, but we are the tail end of the generation. The US pulled out of Vietnam just in time to let us ignore the draft. And our older brethren, the Woodstock and protest march crowd looked a little silly to us; many of us suspected that they were kind of full of shit. Ideals were nice and all, but they seemed to have passed us a world that had scrambled old rules while not giving us much guidance. We were the guys having discussions in our college dorm rooms about whether or not it was okay to hold a door for a woman, and if it were okay for a woman to yell at us if we did. We were more cynical than idealistic; consequently, I have always known people my own age who wanted to rewind right past all of that to a God-sanctioned rule-bounded age of moral certainty. It felt as if we were living in age of painted cardboard, and so some of us longed for an age of steely solid certainty. I knew young women  who were probably young Betsy's, like the student who, offered a gifted class course of study of comparative religion, replied, "Why would we study those other religions? They're all wrong."

We are all sixty-or-so now, which means we are well-settled into our missions in life. It's easy to forget this about the well-preserved Betsy (we are, most of us, well preserved-- we're practical that way), but this is not a woman who's looking for a direction in her life, but a woman ready to take her life's work to its next level, maybe even its culmination.

She's not a politician, and she never has been. Politicians above all else respect and support the whole political game, the structures and traditions of what P. J. O'Rourke calls "unearned power." Politicians may scrap and fight over the chess board, but they honor an unspoken agreement to never flip over the table.

But DeVos is not a politician. She  (like many of her Trumpian fellow travelers) doesn't value the board and the table-- in fact, she believes they are actually part of the problem. Tell her that her actions threaten to tear apart the foundation of traditional order and she will simply smile that self-satisfied supremely smug smile and say, "Good."

Mind you, she is not a chaos muppet like her President. rump is prime boomer, like Bush II and Clinton secure in the boomer notion that if I want to do it, and I'm a righteous person, then whatever I want to do must be okay. Only with Trump, narcissism replaces "righteous person" with "only real person that exists." In many ways, Trump is the boomer id on very bad drugs. But that's an essay for another day.

And that's not the Class of '75. We have goals and we remain suspicious of our older brethren's unmoored moral compass. So DeVos is not a chaos muppet. She is Ernie, not Bert. She answers to a higher power, and she works in pursuit of a more important moral order.

An evangelical friend explained to me once that society started to go (literally) to hell when the church lost control of the major institutions. If we are going to fix our society, the church has to take those institutions back, and schools would be a great place to start. Talk to a lot of religious right and you were hear echoes of an idea that there was a Better Time in the past when Jesus's people ran the schools and the government and health care and plenty else. (Do not try to pin them down about when that time was, or try to argue that history shows no such place-- the books and the history and the so-called learning have all been infiltrated by the Godless hedonists who have written the church out of its rightful place in American history.)

DeVos has (just keep inserting disclaimers about my suppositions and best armchair interpretations) a clear idea of how the world is supposed to work, and what has gone wrong.

Here's how the world is supposed to work.

God has created means for sorting out people in a way that reflects His justice. People who make good health choices end up healthy. People who make proper relationship choices end up with families that please Him. People who choose well in life and honor Him will be rewarded with wealth and prosperity. People who end up holding the shitty end of the stick are only getting the just punishment they deserve, and if it stings, that because the pain is supposed to spur them to better life choices.

Here is how the world got screwed up.

Opportunistic Godless humanists sold the lie that our government was not supposed to be Christian, but some sort of Godless humanist state. Then, they bought votes by giving money to the poor and the sick and the rest of the Lower Classes. This act is a violation of God's law, a heretical attempt to thwart God's law with human action. Imagine that you were trying to discipline your child for some sort of serious misbehavior, and just as you had grounded that child for a month and encouraged them to think about what they've done, someone else busted in and gave your child a pony. That's what social programs look like to these folks.

So many modern institutions have been overrun by this Godless approach. God gives the rich and powerful dominion over parts of his world, and These People get in the way. Corporate leaders should be free to use their superior judgment to run their companies without interference from unions (a group of lower class laborers who don't know their place) or government regulations (produced by selfish money-grubbing people who relish the power they don't deserve to have). Capitalism is God's way of sorting out the Good from the Poor (that famous invisible hand is His). Communism is "godless" precisely because it interferes with God's will.

And God is not racist. Is it really racist to note that white folks have always stood at the forefront of a better society, of a world that more effectively brings kingdom gains? It's not that they don't believe in equality-- they do. But "equality" means that everyone has the opportunity to rise (or sink) to their appropriate level. Black and brown people can rise to higher levels-- they just have to prove they deserve it. And if that's harder for Their Kind-- well, that's not our fault is it. Society is suffering from attempts to give minorities unearned elevations (as exemplified by having the White House captured by a man who had no right to be there at all). DeVos has been consistently unable to imagine when the government should step in to protect the rights of minorities; she cannot shake the idea that such protection is a violation, that people who have lived good and righteous lives and made good choices should have nothing to fear.

So what is to be done?

God must be put back in charge, through the work of his most trusted servants. Unions should be crushed. Government powers should be made subordinate to the powers exercised by righteous servants of God. The church must take back the schools, which means that the public schools must be cut down, killed off. Like black and brown and poor folks, public schools should have the chance to rise if they do things the Right Way. But in the meantime, government must stop taking money away from the deserving people who earned it just to throw it away on Those People. Instead, if we could just harness the power of public tax dollars and direct them to private, Christian schools.

That's why Choice is paramount. Every parents should be free to choose a school that best fits their child, that puts their child in a place they belong, that is appropriate to their station. Future laborers should learn how to best serve their future employers, who should have a large say in how the schools can best serve their corporate needs. Some schools can best serve Those People by providing them with the discipline and control that they need in order to best serve society.

People should get what they deserve. No less, and no more.

And government should stay out of it-- if you answer to God, you don't need to answer to anyone else.

This is the secret of DeVos's apparent ignorance-- she doesn't know things because she doesn't need to know them. She already knows How the World Works, and after sixty years, she is well-practiced in blocking out the voices of a secular world that is lost, Godless, just plain wrong. DeVos was born into wealth and married into more wealth, and while some of us may look at that and see enormous luck, to DeVos it must seem obvious that she and her family are favored by, chosen by God. Every ornate chandelier and giant yacht is just further proof that they are on the right track, that they are good with God, that they are right. Just as DeVos could not think of any lesson that could be learned from the application of her education policies in Michigan, she is unlikely to think of areas where her understanding is poor and she needs the help of human experts. Experts in the things of this world who are not of the church are no experts at all. God gave her family that money to spend with the understanding that they-- and not some government functionary-- know best how to spend it. (And, incidentally, where others may see failure and chaos in Michigan and Detroit, DeVos sees water finally finding its own level, human capital being sorted into its appropriate bins).

Again, DeVos is not a politician. She is an advocate and a warrior. She has no interest in political give and take, in some sort of compromise that serves all stakeholders, because from her view, some stakeholders don't deserve to be stakeholders and as for US politics-- well, when it can be harnessed as a tool, that's fine, but you don't make deals with the devil. She famously admitted that they were buying influence and she's okay with that, because you can't corrupt a corrupt system, and you don't have to explain yourself to your Lessers-- particularly when they are allied with Satan.

As for managing her bad PR...

Betsy DeVos is not a dope. If you are on her side, tight with God and Jesus, then you already know that, and you know just what she is. If you aren't, then she doesn't really see any reason to explain herself to you. She doesn't need to have a conversation about you to achieve mutual understanding. She has spent a lifetime acquiring the power and position to win this battle for God and the Right and she doesn't need to understand the forces that she plans to trample with brute force (and really-- trying to understand Those People is just opening yourself up to the voice of Satan, and that's always a bad ides-- you know they're wrong and what else do you need to know).

I'll say again-- this is by no means all Christians or even all conservative Christians. I know people who believe much of this and yet can still have plenty of normal conversations with other, non-Christian humans. But of course none of them are incredibly wealthy and powerful, and there's nothing quite like wealth and power to insulate you from any need to interact with people Not Like You.

DeVos does not want to watch the world burn just for giggles. But there is much that she would like to tear down so that God's kingdom, white and happy and orderly, with everyone and everything in their proper places, can be raised up instead. She's almost sixty years old; nobody is going to talk her out of it.

Final disclaimer. I could be completely full of it. But here's a collection of some of the best writing about DeVos. Bookmark it; come back and work your way through it. And understand that Betsy DeVos is not a harmless incompetent ditz.


Religion Dispatches: Dutch Treat: Betsy DeVos and the Cjristian Schools Movement

Advancing God's Kingdom: Calvanism, Calvin Colege, and Betsy DeVos

Alternet: The DeVos Family: Meet the Super-Wealthy Right-Wingers Working with the Religious Right To Kill Public Education

New Yorker: Betsy DeVos and the Plan To Break Pubic Schools

Hidden Roots: Betsy DeVos's Educational Policies

Edushyster in DeVosland

Slate: How Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Could Gut Public Education

Alternet: Betsy DeVos's Vision Goes Way Beyond Prinvatizing Education

Jacobin: Education, Privatization, Charters, Public Schools and Betsy DeVos

Progressive: The Long Game of Betsy DeVos

Politico: How Betsy and Dick DeVos Used God and Amway to Take Over Michigan Politics

Washington Post: Betsy DeVos Ties To Reformed Christian Community\

Mother Jones: Betsy DeVos Wants To Use America's Schools To Build God's Kingdom

New York Times: Betsy DeVos and God's Plans for School

Religion News: Faith Facts about Betsy DeVos

Rewire: DeVos Family Promoting Christian Orthodoxy

Betsy DeVos: Religion and Free Market View of Schools

Religion and Profit in the War on Education

Huffington Post: Betsy DeVos and Potters House Christian School

Monday, October 9, 2017

Watching the Gatekeepers

This time it was Steven Singer, who published a blog post taking a characteristically fiery stance against privatization of schools. Steven was tossed into Facebook jail for, maybe, a week. Why is not exactly clear. Sure, he took a stance against privatizing education in the House of Zuckerberg (which currently employs Campbell Brown to help them sort this stuff out). But it's not like it's the first time he's taken such a stance (hell, it hasn't been that long since he depicted Trump as a pile of poop). And it's not like he's the only person to do so-- so why now, and why this post?


Singer's plight brought up the story about the Network for Public Education's attempt to place an advertisement buy on Facebook to counter "School Choice Week." NPE was apparently permanently barred from such activity. Why, exactly? Nobody really knows.

And these things happen. You may recall a while back that many bloggers posted various quotes and summaries of PARCC test questions. I could link you to my own post, except that blogger, my blogging platform, took it down. Ditto for most of the other posts on the subject. Blogger is owned and operated by Google. Why, exactly? Copyright infringement, except that many of us described the questions in only the broadest terms.

If you frequent Alternet, you've been greeted by a panel that points out that Google's new attempt to clean up their algorithmic news act seems to have aimed the big broom primarily at progressive sites-- like Alternet, which has seen a precipitous drop in traffic.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic points out that Facebook and Google fail us in times of trouble-- supposedly because most of the critical decisions are made by algorithms and not human beings, with the caveat that algorithms are the product of human beings and literally codify whatever biases those human beings bring to the software-writing table. And if you want to have some extra credit fun, just Google "Is Facebook too big..." and watch the articles pile up from over a decade's worth of concern.

There are several lessons to be learned here, but probably the most important one is that social media are not values-free wide-open unbiased platforms. They are not a public utility. They are private businesses unlike any we have ever seen, and as such make decisions based on business concerns. It would be a mistake to assume that they will always be there, always willing to push our own particular viewpoint. That also means that advocates of a cause should think really really hard about demanding that so-and-so be banned from the platform, because once we accept and promote the idea that these platforms be available only to people with acceptable points of view, we run the risk of someday being found unacceptable. So it works kind of like, you know, freedom of speech-- everybody gets it, or nobody gets it.

The other important lesson is have a Plan B, and be well networked. When word spread through the community that Singer's piece had been squelched, umpty gazzilion people posted it in his stead. If he were a solo artist, laboring in unheralded obscurity, his piece would simply have vanished. So it's important that we have each others' backs.

And pay attention. Always pay attention. The gatekeepers of social media may appear to be benign and without prejudice, but that's just an illusion favored by today's business model. Best we all keep an eye out to see what tomorrow's business model brings.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

ICYMI: Applefest Edition (10/8)

The first weekend in October is Applefest-- the major festival in my town (we take a day off from school for it). But I still have some reading for you.


Teaching: If You Aren't Dead Yet, You Aren't Doing It Well Enough

If you don't read anything else this week, read this piece from Othamr's Trombone about teaching as an act of self-sacrifice and martyrdom

Education Reform Is a Right Wing Movement

Jersey Jazzman remind us where the ed reform movement's roots really lie

Recommended Reading

A good collection of books about writing, teaching, and teaching writing.

Betsy DeVos's Vision

Jennifer Berkshire at Alternet with a widely reprinted that looks at the DeVosian long game-- what is she really up to?

Dutch Treat: Betsy DeVos and the Christian Schools Movement

Another good look at what really drives DeVos.

Fordham Institute: Teachers, Don't Get Sick

John Thompson's response to the Fordham sick days study

For Profit Schools Get State Dollars for Dropouts Who Rarely Drop In

Pro Publica has been doing some bang-up work on charter schools. Here's a at the practice taking money for ghost students.

Arts Integration Is a Sucker's Game

Jay Greene is a reformster who will sometimes call his colleagues out. Here he takes aim on STEAM

Jeanne Allen: Reactionary Right Wing

Allen and her Center for Education Reform work tirelessly to support charter schools. But now she's butt-hurt that a new documentary portrays her as a tireless supporter of charter schools.

Why Privatization Is a Disaster for any Democratic Society

Salon looks at privatization in education and other areas

Looking Behind the Curtain of School Choice Again

In Chicago, one more look at how choice really works (and how you can tell it's a sham)





Saturday, October 7, 2017

Revolting Tech

It has been a typical couple of days with tech.

I spent a bunch of time on the phone with various offices of a major telecommunications company (rhymes with "Shmerizon") in an effort to upgrade our wireless plan, but this, it turns out, requires an actual phone call which in turn involves being passed around to various departments, each one of which requires a new explanation of what you're trying to do and why. This is all because we were using a Shmerizon feature that allowed us get just one bill for all of our services, but because our wireless is sharing a bill with "another company", there were extra steps. So apparently this large corporation is really several corporations, or one corporation whose internal communication is so bad that it might as well be several separate companies.

Which seems not uncommon, as meanwhile I am trying to settle issues with my tablet from Shmicroshmoft which has strange glitches that keep it from working well with other Shmicroshmoft products, for some reason that nobody knows. This particular issue I solve on my own, pretty much by randomly switching some settings and stumbling across something that neither the message boards.

Both of these take a while because on my home computer, I must deal with a browser that balloons up to huge KB use until it has to be restarted, which is also slow because the Shmerizon DSL into my home is a terribly noisy line that repeated attempts by the  company to fix have, in five years, been unsuccessful. It is especially bad when it rains, to the point that you can't have a conversation on the land line. There are no other reliable internet providers locally,

That's actually why we need the improved wireless plan-- for when we anchor our household wi-fi on the phones. This trick does not work at school, where signal is bad that the phone is basically unusable (and has to be either plugged in or turned off to avoid draining all power). I can take care of some prep work at school, provided I have what I need unblocked. And because our school has gone Google, the sites and services that are Google uncompatable are a no-go at school, too.

Many of these issues are exacerbated by the age of my equipment, but I can't afford to upgrade every six months to keep everything high grade and current. My home desktop is practically a dinosaur at five years old, which may be one more reason I need to reboot the modem almost daily to keep the connection working.

And I am not a Luddite or a digital dope. But this kind of constant maintenance and nursing and workarounds is part of my daily tech routine.

So tell me again how ed tech is going to revolutionize schools.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Bowling: Critics and Choice

I've followed Nate Bowling for a while. I admire his willingness to stay true to principles and avoid simply throwing his lot in with one faction or another.

On his website, the Washington state educator neatly sums up one of the central challenges of the current ed reform landscape:

Teachers of color face a dilemma: we know--more than anyone, the urgent need for change--we get that the status-quo screws our kids. But at the same time we also see a reform movement that "has all the answers" and doesn't want or value our experience and insights from working with marginalized communities.

Bowling is a founding member of Teachers United (recipient of many Gates $$), flies the #educolor flag (a mark of one of the most valuable networks of educators of color, including many strong public ed advocates), and won the Milken Educator Award (from the foundation set up by former junk bond king, convicted felon, and current reformster Michael Milken ). Yes, he's in a video accepting a big check from Milken while Sen. Patty Murray looks on proudly (well, as evangelist D. L. Moody supposedly said upon being challenged about accepting the "devil's money" from a reprobate, "The devil's had it long enough. It's time to give it to God.") And while he may talk about charters, he has turned down lots of charter job offers to stay teaching in a public school.

He's talked to Bill Gates, and he and I once had a bloggy back-and-forth (here's the end, with all the links).

Last week he posted Stop Berating Black and Brown Parents Over Charters (and Give Your Twitter Fingers a Rest)  and while it feels a little like a sub-tweet aimed at particular individuals, it has what I consider some useful advice that we haven't visited in a while.

Bowling starts with this point:

If there's one lesson that I have learned over the last few years, it’s that you're never going to convince a black or brown mother to change her mind about where to send her child by demonizing her choices, calling her a “neo-liberal,” or labeling her a “tool of privatizers.” 

 My first impulse is to say that folks in the pro-public school camp don't say things like that, but then I think about and, well, yes, some do. But some of us have developed a more complicated stance. Both Mark "Jersey Jazzman" Weber and I have said on numerous occasions that we can imagine charters as valuable additions to education-- but not the way folks are trying to do them currently.

And there is a tension that Bowling nails exactly. I think charters are a huge policy problem, and the current rules under which they operate are somewhere between hugely misguided and underhandedly destructive. I will gladly stand in front of legislators all day and argue that at a minimum, the rules governing charters must be radically changed. At the same time, I wouldn't stand in front of a parent for even sixty seconds and tell them that they must send their child to public school in order to support the "good guys." Parents know their kids and the situation on the ground, and so there is a real tension about what we should collectively pursue as matters of policy and what parents should pursue as matters of care for their children.

Charter-choice advocates are, of course, well aware of this tension and they are very careful to frame the issue so that we are only talking about parents and not about policy. Let's talk about letting parents have a choice, they say, and let's not talk about a charter system that stacks the deck heavily against parents and the community in favor of the operators. Current charter-choice advocates are too often in the role of spokespeople for the 1920s meat packing industry. "Let's not talk about all that ugly stuff in Upton Sinclair's novel, about the rotten meat and the inhumane conditions and the unsafe products. Let's just focus on making sure that the customers get to go to the supermarket and choose."

This is one reason Betsy DeVos keeps her focus on parent choice, to the point of arguing that the institutions of education don't even exist-- because as long as she  makes the issue parental choice, she can ignore all the systemic issues of bad standards and screwed up testing and systemic inequity and all the rest.

But Bowling is absolutely correct that we do not resolve this tension by demonizing black and brown parents. And he provides a list of suggestions that we might want to consider instead.

You must address their motivations and concerns. 

Why are folks choosing charters? Yes, in some cases they are choosing charters because the charters are using marketing to push attractive lies-- but that doesn't change the question we should be asking, which is why, exactly, are those lies effective. And can we take a look at the log in our own eye and address that as well. If we want to make public education more effective, we have to move past "Wow, No Excuses schools are pretty racist" to "So why do some parents fine them less racist than the local public school?"

Work to improve the experience of students of color in traditional public schools.

Bowling correctly observes that a good way to combat charters is to make public schools too attractive to leave.

In some respects, this is easier said than done. Choices are being made-- financial choices, curriculum and standards choices-- at high levels that tie our public school hands and force us to serve less-than-stellar educational material to our students.

But let's face it-- it doesn't cost a penny to put a less racist staff in place. Nor is it costly to do the self-examination and self-policing needed to create a more nurturing environment for students of color.

You can be right on the issue and still be wrong.

Here’s the deal, friends. You’re right about neo-liberalism and the decaying of public goods, but ain’t nobody trying to hear that from you when it comes to their child’s well-being. We all know there are awful schools and school systems out there in desperate need of transformation.

Bowling is talking again about the tension between larger policy issues, the business of operating and improving the institution of public education, and the needs of parents to make sure their child is getting the best shake possible. Yes, it's true that, as currently structured, when a child leaves a public school for a charter school, she makes things worse for the students who are left behind-- but would we really counsel someone to stay in a burning building because there are other people trapped in their, too.

Obviously the macro-issues and the personal issues are linked, but it's a mistake to believe that only the macro issues matter. Charter and choice folks create plenty of opposition for themselves by the way they conduct their business; public school supporters should not make that same mistake.We cannot denigrate parents for making the best choice they think they see; we must go after the system and the charters who make bad choices look good.





Kurtz and the Angry Saviors

In the past, this was the time of year in which I taught Heart of Darkness. As my teaching year has been shortened by testing and other demands on time, I've cut bits and pieces of my curriculum, so Kurtz and Marlowe are gone.

It's a work that sticks with me. It's a problematic work, a work that calls out racism even as it is itself terribly racist. But it also opens up larger questions, like the question of how evil gets into the world. Conrad only half answers that question, by suggesting that darkness and evil are part of the world's primordial soup, always barely held back by a thin veneer of civilization.

But Conrad never really offers a solution to one of the great mysteries at the work's core-- how did Kurtz, who entered Africa as an "emisarry of light," a gifted man of possibility, intent on uplift-- how did that man become the dark, twisted, murderous soul that Marlowe encounters? How is it that Kurtz comes to rage against the people he came to save? Conrad has Marlowe muse that somehow the darkness spoke to Kurtz, entered him through some weak spot, all of which has a nice metaphysical ring to it, but doesn't really explain anything. William Golding would later try to add to Conrad's work with his Lord of the Flies (and makes sure we get the reference by having Ralph weep for the "darkness of men's hearts" at the end), but I have a theory of my own.

There is something that happens when a person sets out to "save" other people, especially when the savior believes that he is inherently superior, that the folks who need saving are defective, broken, less than. Because they are broken in his eyes, he doesn't try to know them, to understand them, to so much as listen to them-- even though he approaches them with nothing but love and good intentions.

Imagine that a group of monkeys discover a lake filled with fish. "Brothers and sisters," they declare, "These poor fish know nothing about climbing trees, know nothing about fetching and eating bananas, know nothing about the joy of picking bugs out of each others' fur. We must go to them. We must help them. We must show them a better way to live."

Bet it's been at least a week since you've seen this cartoon

There are giraffes in the same area that mock this idea. "The fish are our inferiors, and they must always remain our inferiors, and we should take steps to make sure that none of them ever rise above their station." But the monkeys disagree. "We can give them the chance to rise just as far as we monkeys," they say.Because monkeys assume that since climbing trees is what they do, it must be what everyone who matters does. Only by climbing trees can one succeed in life,

So the monkeys raise up a group of missionaries to travel to the lake, to save the fish.

Some begin the careful and heartfelt work of taking the fish out of the lake and trying to teach them to climb trees. Some get the clever idea of growing trees in the lake itself.

Over time, very few fish learn to climb trees. But other things happen.

One is that some monkeys offer to "help." "Brothers and sisters," they say. "Your work would probably be easier if the lake were not quite so wet. To help with your important and uplifting work, we will gladly undertake the removal of water from the lake." And those monkeys, spouting endless pieties, go on to make a ton of money selling lake water. But they are not the worst.

The monkey missionaries, utterly convinced of their own superiority and righteousness, become increasingly frustrated. Because almost none of the fish learn to climb.

Says one group of monkeys, "Well, they're lazy. They just don't have the grit and ambition to climb trees. They need stronger discipline, tighter structure. It's the only way their kind will ever get ahead."

Inevitably, a day comes when some fish dare to speak up, perhaps even criticize the tree climbing policy, and the monkeys who had previously been so vocal about helping and uplifting fish get hurt-- and angry. "How dare they. Where's their gratitude? Where are the thanks for the benefits we've allowed them to have?" It does not occur to the monkeys that, implicit in their complaint, is the notion that they assume the fish are less than, that the fish deserve no voice in their own lives. That they are in fact just as species-ist as the gorillas.

And the monkeys get angrier and angrier. "These fish aren't just lazy. They are deliberately resisting us, deliberately refusing to climb the trees as we have so lovingly explained they ought to. We've told them and told them and showed them and given them all the help in the world and the GOD DAMN MOTHER-EFFING FISH STAY IN THE DAMNED LAKE ALL DAY!!" And then the monkeys pick the fish up and fling them at the trees, hollering all the time.

This metaphor is flawed in that we are all the same human species, doing this to each other. Golding's expansion of Conrad's point omits the racial factors of Heart of Darkness-- the boys are all from the same culture and class. But Goldings is right-- the source of this evil is in us.

I see this dynamic in many places. Not just in the colonialism of No Excuse charter schools, but in every classroom where a teacher thinks, "Lazy little bastards-- I hope they all fail." Or in the ed reformers who angrily dismiss teachers who won't see how much better the reformsters can make things.

It's the repeated arc of every situation where folks decide they are going to "fix" other folks as a big-hearted generous favor, but they never take the time to actually listen to the people they want to "fix." Of course we are not as different as monkeys and fish, but if we are going to attempt this manner of missionary work, we might as well be. There is no anger like the anger of a thwarted self-proclaimed savior.

[PS. Only now have I discovered that Fishtree is actually a company that is flogging a computer platform for personalized education. So I guess what the monkeys really need is a computer, and then the fish will finally catch on.]