Friday, May 26, 2017

PA: Report Shows Charter Financial Impact

Pennsylvania's Legislative Budget and Finance Committee has released a report looking at "Public [sic] Charter Schools Fiscal Impact on School Districts." The findings of the joint committee underscore what many have already been saying-- charter schools, particularly in a badly regulated state like Pennsylvania, are hurting public schools.

The report is 105 pages long, so I'm going to be focusing on just some of the highlights here.

How PA Stacks up Against US

The committee looked to compare PA to its chartery brethren and sistern, so it looked across all forty-three states that allow charter schools. In particular, they noted some differences in charter laws.

* Twenty-two states (including PA) have no caps on schools on enrollment.

* Eleven states (including PA) require public schools to provide transportation for charter students.

* Thirteen states include "access" to local funding in charter revenue. PA is up in front of the pack on this, which makes a certain kind of sense since PA also leads the pack in requiring local revenue to fund public schools.

* PA is one of two states that has a special ed supplemental formula. That means every charter gets some funding based on nothing more than the assumption that around 16% of its student body is special needs. According to PDE data, in the 20145-2015 school year, the state gave $466.8 million in special ed tuition payments to charter schools, and roughly $294.8 million of that was special ed supplement. Actual charter expenditures on special ed-- $193.1 million. In other words, in PA and Massachusetts, it's extra-profitable for a charter NOT to take students with special needs, because they will get paid to educate those students even if those students are not enrolled at the school.

* PA is one of the the only three states that let charters appeal to the courts when they don't like the answer they get from other folks (we just saw an example of this).

* "Virtually all" of PA's pubic school districts have at least one student enrolled in a charter. However, Philadelphia accounts for about half the charter students in the state.

This chart puts the PA charter industry in the context of other states in the region. I do wonder what exactly it means that Ohio has over twice as many charter schools that handle fewer total students than PA, but that's a question for another day.

What Superintendents Say

The joint committee's staff reached out to several districts, including the "financially distressed" and charter-heavy in PA. Thirty-six superintendents responded with observations about the economic impact of charters.

Four had nice things to say, like "innovative programming," "customer-friendly," "prevents overcrowding," and "replaces the high school we can no longer afford to run."

Twenty-nine had less positive thoughts.

* When charters pull students from private schools, that shifts additional costs onto the public sector.

* Running multiple parallel systems is expensive.

* Consolidating buildings in a district often leads to charter exodus, which pressures districts not to consolidate even when it is costly to keep all buildings open.

* Transportation is expensive.

* Oversight of charters within district also costs money.

You see the pattern here. Having charter schools in your district makes education more expensive.

Policies That Add To Issues

The joint committee found that certain policy decisions by the state had an impact on how much charters could hurt local districts. Which-- well, yes. I look forward to the commission to study where the sun will come up tomorrow. Pennsylvania has several policies that make charters more damaging.

For instance, the state used to reimburse local school districts for part or all of the charter tuition that they handed over. In 2010-2011, that was $225 million. Currently, the figure is $0.00, a de facto funding cut to public schools.

PA has also opened up the field to "regional" charters. Originally, a charter had to have the approval of the district from which it would poach students. Now students can travel across district lines, meaning that the public district hands money over to a school over which the public district has no oversight at all.

And as many education observers in PA note repeatedly, our charter tuition formula is not related at all to the actual costs of running the charter. This is particularly striking with cyber schools, which have no bricks-and-mortar expenses, and yet receive the same tuition money as a bricks-and-mortar school.

Why Do Parents Choose Charters

Choice proponents like to fancy a world where parents "shop" by checking out academic indicators like Big Standardized Test scores. The BS Test scores aren't really academic indicators, but that's okay because parents aren't worried about academics anyway.

The joint committee looked at both national and state-level studies and found many curious things. There's the Indiana study where parents say they go looking for academics, but actually switched their children to lower-performing schools. Of the New Orleans study where parents said they go looking for academics, but actually choose based on location. And although the committee doesn't connect these dots, some studies show parents choosing charters for smaller class size, less emphasis on testing, and more specialized programs-- in short, they want a school like the public schools we had before the test-centered reformy juggernaut hit.


Let financial impact count. Current law doesn't allow a district to consider financial impact when approving (or not) a charter application. This is crazy-pants, like saying you are only allowed to choose not to eat something based on appearance, and not on whether it's poisonous or not. Districts should be able to say, "No, we can't afford this." Also, applying charters should provide a detailed financial plan, including "the proposed actions the charter school will take to protect the school districts (and the Commonwealth) from financial liability in case of charter school bankruptcy or other illegal acts."

Permit the public school district to negotiate per-pupil costs. Instead of letting the state set a required tuition rate, let the local district work it out with the charters. At a bare minimum, the committee suggests revisiting the flat rates for cyberstudents and students with special needs.

Fix the transportation piece. PA requires districts to provide transportation services for charter schools that they do not provide for their own district's students.

If you are going to pull your child out of private school to send her to a charter, you should register with the district that will be paying the tuition. This and a provision for changing how PDE "intercepts" funds is more bureaucratic streamlining than cost saving. The report also recommends that local districts be relieved of their duties as attendance watchdogs for charters, and that charters operate with considerably more financial transparency.

Other Thoughts

The report is perhaps a bit narrow in scope and context, given that Pennsylvania has 500 separate public school districts. But while the report focuses on PA, its attempt to give a national context to charter policy means it gives an interestingly broad picture of the charter industry across the nation. For that reason alone, you might find this interesting reading.

But for those of us in PA, anything that can put a little more weight behind any real attempt to fix our terrible charter laws would be great. Our legislators keep trying to come up with bills that can be sold to parents, taxpayers, school districts, and the general population, but which keep the deep-pocketed friends of the charter industry happy and the results, like this most recent attempt, don't really fix a thing. Pennsylvania taxpayers and students deserve better.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

DeVos Still Anti-Accountability

As she's spent time in the public eye this week, Betsy DeVos may have enraged, but she hasn't surprised. She continues to be what we always thought she was-- and that includes her attitude about accountability.

She's against it.

Here's a critical CNN clip from today's hearings:

If a school wants to use federal money to discriminate on the basis of race or religion or sexual preference or gender orientation, DeVos thinks that's between the parents and the state. She literally refuses to imagine a scenario in which the federal government would hold a school accountable for the way it used federal dollars. The issue is perfectly captured in this exchange. DeVos is dodging a question about whether or not she would allow federal dollars to go to a school that was discriminating against African-American students:

DeVos: But when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of--

Clark: This isn't-- this isn't about parents making choices. This is about use of federal dollars.

At another point in the day, similarly pressed on whether or not she would require voucher schools to comply with IDEA, DeVos took a similar stance.

Her long answer is thank you for asking that question about [insert good standardized testing technique of restating the question--sort of--in your answer] and  states should get to set the rules and parents should get to make the choices.

Her short answer is, no, she's not going to hold anybody accountable for anything.

If a state wants to bring back Jim Crow schooling and funnel federal dollars to a school that only accepts white kids, she's okay with that. If a state wants to funnel federal dollars to schools that refuse to adequately serve students with special needs, she's okay with that.

No reframing of the issue budged her in the slightest. DeVos really does bear an infuriating resemblance to Dolores Umbridge, except that J. K. Rowlings ultimately gives audiences the pleasure of seeing cracks in Umbridge's self-righteous calm. DeVos shows no such cracks. It's the kind of calm that comes from absolute righteous True Belief, of knowing that your enemies can't hurt you because you are armored in Righteousness and Truth. It's also the kind of calm that comes from an empathy deficit; you don't feel sympathy or empathy for your Lessers because they have chosen their path. You can watch the world burn because you know the fire will never touch you, and the people who burn are people who are lesser beings who deserve to burn.

But enough armchair analysis. What we know is what we've known since the days that DeVos beat back attempts at accountability measures in Michigan-- she opposes anything that might in any way tie the hands of the Right Kind of People, the people who deserve to set policy and create schools and profit from all of it.

I can understand how liberals are bothered by this policy. What I don't quite understand is where the conservatives are. Where are all the people who built up the education reform wave in the first place with rallying calls for teacher accountability and school accountability and don't just trustingly throw money at schools and where the hell are our tax dollars going, anyway? Oh wait-- they are off in the corner, counting up all the money they aren't going to pay in taxes under the GOP plan.

As my college ed prof told us in the seventies, the accountability needle keeps swinging back and forth-- but this time it has gone so far in the accountability direction that it has come out the other side in a place so unaccountable that the federal Secretary of Education cannot imagine a situation in which she would deny federal dollars to any voucher school, ever, for any reason. This isn't just throwing money at schools-- it's lighting the money on fire and throwing it off a cliff. This is wrapping all the money around a big club that will be used to beat anybody who's not white and wealthy and healthy.

Charters and Open Books

My school district's board of directors held their regular meeting two days ago and passed a tentative budget for the coming year. I could link you to the newspaper report of the meeting, but it's behind a paywall. So let me just copy out the two important paragraphs:

Now that the tentative budget has been approved, members of the general public have an opportunity to review and/or comment on the spending plan until June 26, which is the day the board is slated to vote on the budget.

Anyone who would like to see a copy of the budget can access one either at the school district's administrative building or online at

Just to be clear. For a month, any citizen in the area can look at the proposed budget. They could then attend a board meeting or call a board member or stop a board member when they encounter them out and about in the community, and that citizen could express an opinion about the budget. Any citizen, parent, voter or taxpayer can both see the budget and offer feedback on it. That's a thing that can happen here in our public school district.

This is different from the charter school business world, where budgets are proposed and passed in private and where the people who create those budgets may not even live anywhere nearby at all. It's different from the charter business world, where some charter operators fight hard, all the way to court, to keep their budgets secret, and where state regulations do not require the charter operators to reveal anything at all.

This is just one of the reasons that charter schools are not public schools. Funneling tax dollars to charter schools and private religious schools (as Trump and DeVos propose to do) is shoveling taxpayer money into a black hole. It's the very definition of taxation without representation, a policy that does away with accountability to taxpayers.

That is not how public schools in a democracy work. Push that policy if you like, but at least be honest about it. A school district with closed books and an unaccountable board in charge of those books-- that is not a public school system.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dear Jeb Bush:

Today you put in an appearance at Betsy DeVos's American Federation for Children, a group very much in tune with your goals in education. I can see why you and DeVos have always gotten along-- wealthy children of privilege who feel a righteous need to remake your home state according to your own beliefs in competition and battle and a system that sorts people into their proper places.

Reporter Matt Barnum tweeted this quote from you this afternoon:

The simple fact is when you create a marketplace of school choice ...the children do better ... It defies logic to suggest otherwise.

That's consistent with things you've said in the past. Just a month ago you sent an op-ed out to New Hampshire newspapers in which you wrote

When public schools face increased competition, they get better and kids learn more.

Now, your assertions don't really hold up to any sort of scrutiny (Politifacts ruled your NH line "mostly false") and I've burned many bloggy bytes arguing that. If you like, you can amble through this blog, but I'm not going to wade into that argument here.

No, what I want to do is ask a question, addressing your belief in the power of competition and the marketplace. This is going to sound like a snotty gotcha question, but it's really not. I find that all of us do better at grappling with these kinds of abstract ideas if we look at how they really play out in our own lives, and so I'm going to ask you this--

Do you think that marketplace-style competition for the job of President of the United States created a better outcome?

Do you think competition among the many candidates made each one better, resulting in the very best one being elevated to the White House? Do you think that competition got us the most excellent President that we could ever hope for?

Do you feel that you personally became a better man, a better person, a better candidate, a better politician through your competition with the other GOP candidates, including and especially the eventual winner of the office?

Can you imagine yourself calling the White House to say, "Mr. President, I want to thank you for making me a better person by competing so well with me?"

I suspect that your answer to all of these questions would be something other than "yes," and I would actually agree with you. You might be inclined to explain that all sorts of extraneous factors like a tilted playing field or a hugely imperfect transmission of information to the voters interfered with the "proper" outcome, and I would say to you, how do you imagine that the marketplace of schools would be any different?

I truly am not trying to rub your defeat in your face. But I do want to point out that while your imagined version of competition in the marketplace may work flawlessly to bring about awesome outcomes, the Presidential election that ate years of your life is a far better real-world example of how a competitive marketplace can actually work, particularly when applied to something that is supposed to be a service for the public good and not just a chance for personal profiteering.

See, I believe that the Bush family, in its own way, really does have a heritage of service and a sense of responsibility to the country as a whole. But you got smoked by a scam artist, a huckster who's far more interested in personal profiteering than the good of the community at large. And that is about as perfect a real-life metaphor as we could find for how school choice and competition is working in the real world. Charters and choice are the Trump family of the education world.

So I'm hoping that you can take a step back, clear your head, and see that your logic is confused-- competition and the marketplace, particularly in matters of public service, does not get us excellence. There is no reason to believe that it will improve schools, and even less reason to believe it will provide good results for students. Of all the conservative fans of this philosophy, your unique personal experience makes you especially positioned to see this. I hope some day you will open your eyes and stop spouting nonsense about the wonders of competition and the marketplace. Feel free to give me a call when you're ready to see the light.

Religious Voucher Schools

Like everyone else in the education universe, I was talking vouchers on line, and in the midst of a conversation, this tweet popped up:

Remember that question, because it's going to be part of how this debate is framed-- mean old flat-Earth public education advocates trying to deny poor families their choices. This carefully constructed question gets one things right, and several things wrong, all worth remembering in the days ahead:

Vouchers are about private religious schools.

Where vouchers have been put into effect, the effect has been to funnel all sorts of public money into religious school coffers. Take a look at this piece from Jersey Jazzman's website. It breaks down exactly what schools are receiving voucher money, and in all cases, we're talking overwhelmingly about private religious schools. In Indiana, 97% of vouchers go to religious schools. In Milwaukee, 93% of vouchers go to religious schools. In Louisiana, 93% of vouchers go to religious schools (75% Roman Catholic).

So Petrilli is correct in making this about religious schools-- because vouchers are by and large about private religious schools. But everything else about his question is wrong.

Private Religious Schools Choose

There is no system that would allow poor families to choose religious schools. Well, I take that back-- a system in which government regulation forced religious schools to take any and all students. But I suspect some religious schools would have an issue with that (we'll get back to this).

For right now, private religious schools do the choosing. Whether it's the private parochial school that suggested to my divorced friend that her children might not be a good fit, or the private school that just says "No" with no explanation at all, or the private school that says, "You don't really want to send your child here because we will not make any accommodations for her special needs," it is private religious schools that do the choosing.

And that's before we even get to the question of whether or not that voucher will cover more than a fraction of the cost of the private school.

Your Tax Dollars At Work

Vouchers direct public tax dollars to private religious organizations. While the Supremes have conditionally blessed this sort of transaction, there are still problems. Vouchers disenfranchise taxpayers who don't have children (no kids-- no vote on what kind of schools serve your community, but you still pay). And the exclusive nature of private religious schools means that taxpayers with children could end up paying tuition to send a neighbor's kid to a school that would refuse to educate their own child.

And vouchers are not exactly "rescuing" poor children from failing zip codes. In Indiana, a whopping 1% of voucher students are leaving a "failing" school, and more than half have never set foot in a public school to begin with. Poor students in failing public schools make great poster children for voucher programs-- but that's not who's getting served. Some parents are getting a rebate on the private school tuition that they were going to pay anyway.

The New Entitlement

When Bernie Sanders wanted to make college free to everyone, their were howls of outrage over a "new entitlement" funded by taxpayer dollars. I have never quite figured out why similar howls have not greeted voucher programs, which are also a new entitlement for (some) students to attend a private school at taxpayer expense.

Un-hiding the Costs

I would be more willing to consider the above issues if the funding of vouchers were handled honestly. But to do all of the above at the expense of public schools is dishonest and not okay. As most states handle vouchers, the real question is "Why do you have against letting families send their children to religious schools at the cost of educating students in public schools?" If you want vouchers, fund them with something other than money stolen from the public school system.

I would love, just once, to see a voucher proponent get out in front of the taxpayers and say, "We believe that this new entitlement to private religious education is so important that we are proposing a tax increase to fund it." Tell parents-- including poor parents-- "We want to raise your taxes so that the McGotrocks family can more easily pay for sending their child to a school that would reject your child in five seconds flat." If that's the system you want, be open and honest, not only about where the money is coming from, but which families are benefiting.

Show the Courage of Your Convictions

While we're being open and honest, let's talk about all the reasons that smart conservative religious schools should want nothing to do with vouchers.

Just up the road from me is a small religious conservative college named Grove City College. It made the news recently because the college president invited his old friend Mike Pence to speak at commencement. Protesting ensued. 

But GCC has been in the news before, as a leader in the vanguard of conservative colleges that don't take any federal money at all. The college pursued the matter all the way to the Supreme Court back in 1984, and it has kept itself federal-dollar-free all along, because it understands one simple rule-- where government dollars go, government strings follow. And what might be a friendly government today could easily turn into a Follow Federal Guidelines Or Else government tomorrow. Why would a private religious school sign up for that, unless it was desperate for money?

If you are going to take taxpayer money, you must expect to be accountable to the taxpayers.

And if there's a lot of money involved, like millions and billions of dollars, with little accountability-- well, we already know what happens. Before you can say "antitheistic cynicism," you will have more fly-by-night folks pretending to be religious educators than you can shake a crucifix at. 

So That Question Again...

What do I have against letting poor people choose religious schools?

Nothing, really-- as long as they get to do the choosing and as long it's funded honestly and not by stripping money from public schools and as long as we're honest about creating a new entitlement for any and all students to attend private school at public expense and as long as we're actually talking about poor families and as long as there is real accountability for taxpayer dollars and as long as it's handled in a way that doesn't violate the Constitution and as long as "religious schools" means all religions and as long as private religious schools are sure they actually want to go through with this.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Education's Existential Crisis

No, it's not the possibility that Betsy DeVos's DeVoucher program may gut public education with the goal of replacing it with privatized school by and for the People Who Matter. Nor is it the policy goal held by some that the whole concept of "school" can be replaced with an array of modules geared to different competencies that can be accessed and completed on line at the time and place of the student's choosing. It's not even the steady clamping shut of the pipeline that provides actual trained professional teachers, without whom a school is difficult to put together.

No, the biggest existential threat strikes at the very foundation of education, the foundation of knowledge itself.

Plenty of bytes have been burned discussing a post-fact society, a culture where truth no longer matters. And that nibbles at the edges of what we're talking about.

This Vox piece by David Roberts (Vox's climate and science reporter) is long and thorough, but here's the key idea. He sets it up by recapping a classic Rush Limbaugh rant from 2009, in which Limbaugh claims that we live in two universe, and one is a universe of lies (he was talking about climate science, but at this point, it could be just about anything):

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

"Epistomology" seems like a scary word, but it's actually pretty simple-- what does it mean to know something, and how does that knowing something happen?

Over the course of human history, we've had many different answers for how we know things. Because the approved priests told us so. By way of divine revelation. Because some currently-dead guys once wrote it down. We don't all know things, because only people with power and money are entitled to know things at all. Or even, we don't, we just make shit up.

But eventually we arrived at some collective standards, some shared agreements that pieces of knowledge would be written down and presented as Known Things once they had been tested and certified. New knowledge would be gleaned by some version of a scientific method, bolstered by some agreed-upon techniques of proof.

It hasn't been perfect, but it has worked pretty well for a while. And we teachers and our schools had our place in that, working at the job of passing on a solid core of widely accepted Truths on to young humans. And public education added the notion that all citizens should be given access, early and often, to the same shared body of knowledge.

But if we submit to tribal epistemology-- if we slide into a world where people are, Daniel Patrick Moynahan notwithstanding, entitled not only to their own opinions, but only to those facts that their tribal leaders certify, then what job is there for public education or teachers?

If the only thing that's true is what my Beloved Leader says is true (and only what he says is true today, because the past carries no weight in such a system), then what is there for a teacher to do except pass on the latest reports from the Truth Bureau? Well, there would be one other task-- to help students erase the sharp edges of their own intellects that want to perk up and say, "Hey, wait a minute---"

Another effect-- and this one you've probably already noticed-- is that when the world runs on tribal epistemology, everything-- everything-- is political.

If Beloved Leader and the tribe say that the sky is green, then making an observation about the color of the sky is a challenge to Beloved Leader, a political act. If Beloved Leader says that we ate soup yesterday, then digging through the trash to find yesterday's lunch scraps is a political act. If Beloved Leader and tribal elders define truth in all matters great and small, then any attempt to search out truth on your own, great or small, is a political act. And teaching, which we've come to see as apolitical, an act where it's "inappropriate" to impose your own political views on your students-- in the land of tribal epistemology, teaching is the most political act of all. Like many teachers, I have always avoided being overtly political in my classroom, and yet that seems increasingly impossible.

What is the role of teachers and education in a society that does not know how to know, a society led by a man who, as George Will put it, "does not know what it is to know something."

The most useful thing I learned in college (and what many of my professors  explicitly copped to teaching) was how to teach myself, how to learn things. But in times of tribal epistemology, the very act of believing that one can construct meaning and understanding using impersonal, objective standards and techniques-- well, that's just crazy radical stuff.

This is the most existential crisis we face. It may not be the most immediate, and I can certainly see many opportunities to turn back the tide. But we are living intermixed with a great tribe of people who think all wisdom is received from Beloved Leader and not by inspection, reflection, logic, reason, or just plain using your brain to consider evidence. Human beings are sloppy enough about this stuff as it is-- we do not need to have the prevailing winds shift against knowing. So, no-- I don't worry that this is going to wipe us out tomorrow, or the next day. But it is still a terrible thing to contemplate-- a world in which a "teacher" has no job but to pass on the tribal "facts" of the day, and squelch all independent inquiry and thought.

It's not that we've been perfect on this issue, but we have at least maintained the means of finding better paths. Maintaining, building, nurturing and supporting such means of finding one's own way to a truer understanding is then most important job of a teacher, and the mission we must defend at all costs

Sunday, May 21, 2017

NYT: Value Not Added

Our old friend Kevin Carey popped up in the New York Times this week, using the death of William Sanders as a case to soft-pedal VAM. The article has some interesting points to make about VAM, and it also unintentionally reveals some of the reasons that Value-Added Measuring of teacher performance is a fool's game.

Carey is the education policy program director for the New America Foundation. NAF bills itself as a non-partisan thinky tank based in DC. Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, is chair of the NAF board. Their over-a-million-dollar funders include the Gates Foundation and the US State Department. So their objectivity in these matters is suspect. In the past Carey has turned up trying to support Common Core, attacking public education, using shoddy research to slam higher ed, and helping spread PR for Mark Zuckerberg's AltSchool.

Carey apparently met Sanders and talked to the inventor of the Value Added Measure (specifically, the one known these days as VAAS--  the one that a Houston court just threw out). That provides a fascinatingly specific tale of what started Sanders, who had a doctorate in statistics and quantitative genetics, on the path to evaluating teacher performance:

“In 1945, the United States government set off an atomic bomb.”

That’s how Mr. Sanders began telling me the story of his life, when we met several years ago....

Nuclear weapons tests had released clouds of radiation that had drifted with the weather. Sometime later, farm animals downwind began to die. Did the first event, a mushroom cloud, cause the second event, dead sheep? Or did one merely follow the other coincidentally? Solving this problem required expertise in both statistical probability and livestock biology. Oak Ridge hired Bill Sanders.

So, VAM is tied to nukes. Somehow that seems right.

Another fun factoid: Lamar Alexander was offered the VAM idea when he was governor of Tennessee, but he passed. I would love to hear the story of how he decided not to use Sander's idea.

How easy is it to take shots at Sanders for trying to evaluate teachers based on his work with radioactive cows? Pretty easy-- but it really is striking how little he seemed to grasp the complexity of the whole teaching-learning thing:

To fairly evaluate teachers, Mr. Sanders argued, the state needed to calculate an expected growth trajectory for each student in each subject, based on past test performance, then compare those predictions with their actual growth. Outside-of-school factors like talent, wealth and home life were thus baked into each student’s expected growth. Teachers whose students’ scores consistently grew more than expected were achieving unusually high levels of “value-added.” Those, Mr. Sanders declared, were the best teachers.

It's that simple! The test scores the students produced in previous years make this year's score completely predictable, and any difference must be because of the teacher because no other factor could possible account for a deviation from the predicted student path. Seriously? Sanders had children of his own, so he's definitely met young humans. And yet this overly-simplistic model of human growth and behavior (students just keep progressing along this fully-predictable line unless some teacher disrupts that path) is the mechanical inhuman heart of his system.

But Carey's piece also shows how simple innumeracy has driven the adoption of Sander's work. Sanders tried out his model and found it distributed teacher performance over a "normal" bell curve (kind of like the student achievement fits on a bell curve-- almost as if the teacher bell curve is just an echo of the student one, and not a measurement of something else entirely). Here's how Carey describes the reaction to that curve:

Reformers also looked at the right-hand side of the bell curve, where the effective teachers were, and thought, “What if we could have a lot more of those?” 

Sigh. It's a frickin' bell curve. You can't make the right hand side bigger or the left hand side smaller. You can't, in short, have a system in which all the teachers are above average.

Carey offers the more recent picture of Sanders as a guy who hung back from the argu8ments about policy, but if we look at this friendly profile of Sanders from 2000, we see that in the early days he was a busy eVAMgelist, hitting the road and preaching the Word of Data. That was just before he left the university to join SAS, a data-crunching company that has made a bundle by selling VAAS as a useful product. Presenting Sanders as a kindly old farmer with a PhD glides past the fact that he was employed by a company that made its living selling people on this giant slab of data baloney.

Carey reaches for a valedictory conclusion:

While the use of value-added ratings to hire, fire and pay teachers may have been limited by political pressure, the importance of the value-added bell curve itself continues to grow — less like a sudden explosion than a chime whose resonance gains in power over time. 

Oh, let's tell the truth. VAM systems have also been limited by the fact that they're junk, taking bad data from test scores, massaging them through an opaque and improbable mathematical model to arrive at conclusions that are volatile and inconsistent and which a myriad educators have looked at and responded, "Well, this can't possible be right."

You'll never find me arguing against any accountability; taxpayers (and I am one) have the right to know how their money is spent. But Sander's work ultimately wasted a lot of time and money and produced a system about as effective as checking toad warts under a full moon-- worse, because it looked all number and sciencey and so lots of suckers believed in it. Carey can be the apologist crafting it all into a charming and earnest tale, but the bottom line is that VAM has done plenty of damage, and we'd all be better off if Sanders had stuck to his radioactive cows.

ICYMI: I'm More Grown Up Edition (5/21)

Yesterday was my birthday, but I wouldn't forget to give you your Sunday reading list. Remember-- if you like it, pass it on.

A Tour of Stock Photo Academy

The British blog Othmar's Trombone takes us on a tour of Stock Photo Academy, and it's just so special. This is your fun and games reading assignment for the week.

My Response to the NYT Google Article

A reply from Morna McDermott to the Times' love note to the tech giant.

The Privatization Prophets

Jennifer Berkshire in the Jacobin lays out what DeVos and friends are working toward.

For Families with Special Needs, Vouchers Bring Choices, Not Guarantees

At NPR, Anya Kamenetz lays out how choice systems fail to serve students with special needs, who end up with neither a guarantee of good education or even any choice at all.

New York State's Early Childhood Ed Shakedown

Bianca Tanis with a look at how New York went after early childhood education, and why it has made for bad policy for the littles.

Robbing Peter To Pay Paul

Andre Perry looks at how DeVos hopes to gut some parts of education in order to fund her own pet policies.

The Zeal and Inexperience of Betsy DeVos

From back in January, but only just now brought to my attention. Another insightful view of how politics and religion drive DeVos's policy ideas.

U-Ark Screws Up Charter Revenue Study, AGAIN

Jersey Jazzman offers a two-part explanation of why the widely read University of Arkansas study of charter funding is just plain wrong. This link will take you to Part II, and from there you can hop to Part I. As always, hard data presented in plain English.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

My 16 Rules

Today I turn sixty, so it's time form one of those posts. These are the rules. Mind you, they are not a sign of any particular wisdom or smartitude on my part-- I have learned about these rules in the same way a somewhat dim cow learns about an electric fence.

About 59 years ago. My typing skills have not improved

1. Don't be a dick.

There is no excuse for being mean on purpose. Life will provide ample occasions on which you will hurt other people, either through ignorance or just because sometimes life puts us on collision courses with others and people get hurt. There is enough hurt and trouble and disappointment and rejection and hurt in the world; there is no reason to deliberately go out of your way to add more.

2. Do better.

You are not necessarily going to be great. But you can always be better. You can always do a better job today than you did yesterday. Make better choices. Do better. You can always do better.

3. Tell the truth.

Words matter. Do not use them as tools with which to attack the world or attempt to pry prizes out of your fellow humans (see Rule #1). Say what you understand to be true. Life is too short to put your name to a lie. This does not mean that every word out of your mouth is some sort of Pronouncement from God. Nor does it mean you must be unkind. But you simply can't speak words that you know to be untrue.

4. Seek to understand.

Do not seek comfort or confirmation. Do not simply look for ways to prove what you already believe. Seek to understand, and always be open to the possibility that what you knew to be true yesterday must be rewritten today in the light of new, better understanding. Ignoring evidence you don't like because you want to protect your cherished beliefs is not good.

5. Listen and pay attention.

Shut up, listen, watch, and pay attention. How else will you seek understanding? Watch carefully. Really see. Really hear. People in particular, even the ones who lie, will tell you who they are if you just pay attention. Your life is happening right now, and the idea of Special Moments just tricks us into ignoring a million other moments that are just as important.

6. Be grateful.

You are the recipient of all sorts of bounty that you didn't earn. Call it the grace of God or good fortune, but be grateful for the gifts you have been given. You did not make yourself. Nobody owes you anything, but you owe God/the Universe/fate everything. I have been hugely fortunate/blessed/privileged; I would have to be some sort of huge dope to grab all that life has given me and say, "This is mine. I made this. It's all because I'm so richly deserving." I've been given gifts, and the only rational response I can think of is to be grateful.

7. Mind the 5%

95% of life is silly foolishness that humans just made up and then pretended had some Great Significance. Only about 5% really matters, has real value. Don't spend energy, worry, fret, concern, time, stress on the other 95%.  The trick is that every person has a different idea of what constitutes the 5%.

8. Take care of the people around you.

"What difference can one person make" is a dumb question. It is impossible for any individual human to avoid making a difference. Every day you make a difference either for good or bad. People cross your path. You either makes their lives a little better or you don't. Choose to make them better. The opportunity to make the world a better place is right in front of your face every day; it just happens to look like other people (including the annoying ones).

9. Commit.

If you're going to do it, do it. Commitment lives on in the days when love and passion are too tired to get off the couch. Also, commitment is like food. You don't eat on Monday and then say, "Well, that takes care of that. I don't need to think about eating for another week or so. " Commitment must be renewed regularly.

10. Shut up and do the work

While I recognize there are successful people who ignore this rule, this is my list, so these are my rules. And my rule is: Stop talking about how hard you're working or what a great job you're doing or what tremendous obstacles you're overcoming. In short, stop delivering variations on, "Hey, look at me do this work! Look at me!" Note, however, there is a difference between "Hey, lookit me do this work" and "Hey, look at this important work that needs to be done." Ask the ego check question-- if you could don the work under the condition that nobody would ever know that you did it, would you still sign up? If the answer isn't "yes," as yourself why not.

11.  Assume good intent.

Do not assume that everyone who disagrees with you is either evil or stupid. They may well be either, or both-- but make them prove it. People mostly see themselves as following a set of rules that makes sense to them. If you can understand their set of rules, you can understand why they do what they do. Doesn't mean you'll like it any better, but you may have a basis for trying to talk to them about it. And as a bare minimum, you will see yourself operating in a world where people are trying to do the right thing, rather than a hostile universe filled with senseless evil idiots. It's a happier, more hopeful way to see the world. But yeah-- there are still evil dopes in the world.

12. Don't waste time on people who are not serious.

Some people are just not serious people. They don't use words seriously. They don't have a serious understanding of other people or their actions or the consequences of those actions. They can be silly or careless or mean, but whatever batch of words they are tossing together, they are not serious about them. They are not guided by principle or empathy or anything substantial. Note: do not mistake grimness for seriousness and do not mistake joy and fun for the absence of seriousness.

13. Don't forget the point.

Whatever it is you're doing, don't lose sight of the point. Don't lose sight of the objective. It's basic Drivers Ed 101. If you look a foot in front of the car, you'll wander all over the road. If you stare right at the tree you want to miss, you will drive right into it. Where you look is where you go. Keep your eye on the goal. Remember your purpose.

14. Nobody sucks all the time forever

People grow up. People learn things. People have a day in which their peculiar batch of quirks is just what the day needs. Nobody can be safely written off and ignored completely. Corollary: nobody can be unquestioningly trusted and uncritically accepted all the time. People are a mixed mess of stuff. Trying to sort folks into good guys and bad guys is a fool's game.

15. Say "yes."

Doors will appear on your path. Open them even if they are not exactly what you were expecting or looking for. Don't simply fight or flee everything that surprises or challenges you (but don't be a dope about it, either). Most of what I've screwed up in life came from reacting in fear-- not sensible evaluation of potential problems, but just visceral fear. Most of what is good about my life has come from saying "yes." And most of that is not at all what I would have expected or planned for.

16. Make something.

Music, art, refurbished furniture, machinery. Something.

Sixteen is kind of bulky to be a good listicle. And yet it will probably expand in the years ahead, because there's always more to figure out.

Friday, May 19, 2017

PA: Cyber School Court-Ordered Crowded Clown Car

Pennsylvania has been a big, fat profitable garden of cyber schools, taking an early lead over even California in letting virtual education take root. And there are so many aspects of cyber-schooling in Pennsylvania that we could discuss. As always, I'll preface this by saying that there are students fro whom cyber-schooling is a useful option. But the modern cyber charter industry is not aimed at them. It is aimed at money-- as much money as they could cram into a crowded clown car. When we talk about cybers in PA, there is so uch to discuss.

We could talk about how some are linked through not-entirely-admirable means to Pearson, the great money-grabbing educorporation.

We could talk about the astonishing amount of profit generated by cybers like K12, the school founded by an ex-Goldman Sachs exec. Or that chain's rather loose association with ethical behavior and telling the truth.

We could talk about how cyber charters have performance so lousy that even other supporters of the charter industry talk smack on them and call for them to be more heavily regulated. We could talk about how the widespread failure of cyber schools is obvious enough to make it into even mainstream media.

We could talk about massive cyber-school fraud, like the case of Nicholas Trombetta of Pennsylvania Cyber School, who was convicted of siphoning off $8 million of the tax dollars funneled to him from PA taxpayers.

And while we're talking about Trombetta, we could also talk about the fact that Pennsylvania laws are so lax that Trombetta was finally brought down by federal authorities. The Commonwealth of PA would have let him go on indefinitely. That's probably one reason why PA State Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale has called Pennsylvania's charter laws the worst in the nation. And yet, our legislature has consistently tried to make life even easier for charters and cyber-charters.

We could talk about the huge amount of charter lobbying money being spent in Harrisburg.In fact, K12 and Connections have spent more money on Harrisburg than on any other state in the union. That might fit in with the same discussion involving PA being the most cyber-friendly state in the union.

We could even talk about the problems of cyber schools accounting (or not) for students and the rare but horrifying issues that emerge from that gap.

We could even get out into rural areas like mine where folks can tell you (not that you'll ever read much actual coverage of this) about how an insane but hugely profitable cyber-charter reimbursement formula is gutting public school budgets.If you imagine that cyber schools are a money-saver for taxpayers because, obviously, their costs are far less than bricks-and-mortar schools-- well, think again. Cybers are reimbursed at a hefty rate based on the price-per-pupil of any other school. Ka-ching.

And if you want to believe that Big Standardized Test results mean anything (in PA, instead of the PARCC and SBA, we have PSSA and Keystone exams), then we could talk about this chart:

That's right-- not a single Pennsylvania cyber charter has ever achieved a "passing" grade. Not one.

And yet, somehow, they persist. The newest version of the charter sort-of kinda reform bill lets cybers sail on unhampered by things like rules and oversight.

And now, courts have sided with one more cyber-operator who wants to join Pennsylvania's virtual clown car. Well, sort of one more school, which is kind of the point. Insight PA Cyber Charter School has been battling its way forward over the last four years. The state department of education and the charter review board have both determined that Insight would basically be a sock puppet for K12, and so they rejected the application. In the process, Insight accused the state of engaging in an "effective moratorium" since 2012, which I think they mean to suggest is a bad thing-- but we've got fourteen cyber charter schools operating in the state, and they all stink. So a moratorium seems like a pretty mild response when the most appropriate response is to shut them all down.

Insight/K12 are proposing the oldest trick in the charter book. Insight will be non-profit, but it will buy its supplies, services, etc, from the very for-profit K12. It will, in effect, serve as a K12 money funnel.

The state's allegation was that, among other things, the relationship between Insight and K12 (which took in almost $1 billion-with-a-B dollars in 2014) would be so close that taxpayer dollars would be buying supplies and services from only K12, whether there were better, more competitive bids out there or not. Insight's counter-argument was that the state department of ed had been mean when they rejected previous application.

But when you're collecting a billion-with-a-b dollars a year, you can afford to keep throwing things against the wall until something sticks. What stuck was a lawsuit, and the wall was the Commonwealth Court, which decided "There is no evidence in the record of this case that Insight’s board lacks independence from K12."

The case could be bumped up to the state supreme court, where some sort of rational decision might be made. Because there's no evidence that Insight's plan would be a terrible idea except for K12's entire shabby history and the well-documented failure of their business.  Or-- and here's a crazy thought-- state legislators could start listening to something other than the sound of corporate money raining on the capital, and do the right thing, which is, at a minimum, slapping a strong leash on the education-flavored scam that is the cyber school industry.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

So Now Failure Is Okay, Apparently

"Fail better," says Michael Q. McShane (Show-Me Institute, AEI) in a piece at US News, arguing to reformsters for the virtue of admitting failure and building upon it. Part of his point is vaid, part is hugely self-serving and part of it is just plain annoying.

Policy ideas like charter schools, teacher evaluation and high standards first exist in the abstract. When they are actually implemented, they look quite different from state to state or district to district. What one state calls "charter schooling" might look different from charter schooling in another state. So if charter schools struggle in one state, it isn't necessarily an indictment on the idea as a whole. It might just be that the particular manifestation didn't match the context of the specific environment where it was tried. In an ideal world, we'd learn from that, and do better.

In other words,even when a policy has been tested and it has failed, that doesn't mean it's not a great policy that we should keep trying in new and different markets. This is just a variation of that golden oldie that folks used to defend Common Core-- "The policy is brilliant; you're just implementing it wrong." The policy may look like an utter failure, even after over a decade of reforminess, but honest-- any day now it's finally going to work the way we imagined it would.

This is part of a valid idea. But his list of possible causes for failure is missing one critical possibility-- your policy idea is a bad policy idea, and that sad pig won't fly no matter what shade of lipstick you try smearing on it.

He does offer a good description of the process often involved with reformy policy failures:

When a new study comes out that says a policy has "failed," we man the ramparts. Opponents (who were against the policy before any data were available) come out and tut-tut at advocates, telling them to "follow the data" or not to "cling to ideology." Advocates circle the wagons. They spin the findings or pettifog the implications. They counter with personal stories or impugn the motives of critics. Rinse and repeat.

I sense that McShane is leaning toward the use of data to really determine whether a policy is a failure or not, but that's a self-defeating inclination because so many education policies are tangled up in the question of what data we'll use, how we'll collect it, what it actually shows, and whether or not the entire data set that we're dependent on is a heaping pile of junk (spoiler alert: in the education world, mostly we're looking at the heaping pile).

But the rightest thing McShane says is in the final paragraph:

Anyone who has spent more than a day in front a classroom knows that failure is an essential part of learning.

Yes-- that's absolutely true. Failure is a necessary part of exploration and exploration is a necessary part of education. One can't help but wonder, however, if learning offers a legitimate parallel with concocting, pushing and implementing policy.

But I don't want to pick at that-- it's absolutely correct and I'm only tempted to nitpick because of my huge irritation over McShane's reformy central point.

Failure is super-okay! It's how we get better! It's a necessary part of the process!

Which is all great-- but where the heck has tis attitude been for the last twenty years.

Reformers have stapled "failed" onto "public schools" relentlessly, occasionally swapping it with "failing" for variety's sake. Public schools are "failure factories." The public school system is a "dead end," a "failed model." Students are 'trapped" in these "failing" schools, and must be liberated ASAP, because the "failure" constitutes a state of emergency that must be rectified immediately because the Fail is just So Very Bad! Nothing to learn from-- just run away from the Fail.

Now, all of sudden, failure is cool? Failure is okay? Failure is to be not only tolerated, but embraced?

McShane and Jay Greene are going to have a whole conference, a day-long celebration of the fail,
which somehow still works on the premise that public schools are to be avoided and replaced, not embraced.

Once upon a time, reformers wanted to blow up the status quo, but now that they are the status quo, somehow it has to be massaged, embraced, studied, tweaked, and lovingly nursed to hoped-for health. I am ceaselessly amazed at how one of the defining characteristics of the education reform movement is a steady and repeated redefining of term, repeated changing of objectives, constant moving of the goal posts. It is useful only in that, as everything else changes, we can see more clearly what the true values and goals of some within the movement are.

But that's a discussion for another day. Right now I'm trying to wrap my head around the news that failure is now awesome. I will wait with bated breath for that new fail love to be extended to public schools.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Geography of Reform

It's an oft-repeated reformster refrain.

Students trapped by zip code in failed schools. Paul Ryan offering a lifeline for trapped students.  And here's Betsy DeVos at a recent speech, explaining some of the fundamental flaws of our terrible awful no good very bad public education system:

The system assigns your child to a school based solely upon the street on which you live.

We get these repeated versions of the same question-- why can't students leave their zip code to attend a quality school?

I believe that's the wrong question. Here's the one we should be asking--

Why can't every single student attend a great school without leaving their own community?

Really. Why should a student have to leave her friends, neighbors, the familiar sights and sounds of her neighborhood? Why should she have to travel far from home to get a good education? Why shouldn't every community get the chance to create and support a great school that reflects the community and serves every child in it?

That's the promise of public education-- that every community will get to create its own school to serve all of its students, even as it strengthens the ties that bind that community together.

But why not give non-wealthy students the choice that wealthier families get? Sure-- but when those families get to choose, what do they choose? They choose to attend a good school in their own community. So I agree-- let's give that choice to everyone.

I know the counterarguments. My ideas is great, but we already know that many communities are not living up to that promise. Reformsters used to say, "Children can't wait for us to fix those schools." They stopped saying that so much about the same time they started saying that charters should have three or five or ten years to get their acts together. They stopped saying it about the time they started arguing that regardless of education quality, choice is its own excuse for being. Choice for choice's sake is good enough. Except that people don't choose choice; they choose a good school in their own community.

And we're past the point of arguing that a charter school Somewhere Else knows a secret about education that couldn't possibly be implemented in the community's own public school. There is no secret sauce-- just lots of money, plenty of resources, and a carefully selective student body.

Which brings us back to another flaw of choice. Nobody in the choice camp ever says, "Let's rescue ALL of the students who are trapped in that failing zip code." No, we're just going to liberate some trapped students, leaving the rest still trapped there while we let the failing school keep failing, or even failing harder as resources are stripped from it.

And while not all reformsters are guilty, we have to acknowledge the ugliest idea behind the geography of reform-- some reformsters believe that some communities deserve their crappy schools, and that while there may be a few worthwhile strivers worth liberating that zip code, by getting them the hell out of there, we certainly don't want our tax dollars going to improve the community for Those (brown, black, and/or poor) People.

None of this really answers my question-- why can't every child attend a good school in her own community? Too expensive? Too hard? Nobody actually knows how to do it? Some communities don't deserve it? We don't want to? Those all seem like lousy, particularly for a nation that put a man on the moon and an army in Afghanistan.

Why can't every child have a good school in her own community?

Why can't every child have a good school in her own community?

I'll keep asking till I hear a good answer.

Petrilli Pokes Personalized Processing

Mike Petrilli, head honcho of the ever-reformy Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has taken a look at the future of Personalized Learning, and he has some concerns. He's read the PR, and he knows about the appeal of super-flexible differentiation, the varied student-customized pathways to excellence. However:

Hooray for all that. But after seeing a version of personalized learning in action recently, I’m worried that it may be reinforcing some of the worst aspects of standards-based, data-driven instruction. Namely: It might be encouraging a reductionist type of education that breaks learning into little bits and scraps and bytes of disparate skills, disconnected from an inspiring, coherent whole.

What he's noting here is the ways in which Personalized Learning has become the cojoined twin of Competency Based Education. Saying that PL/CBE "might be" encouraging reductionist, list-based, disjointed education is like saying that Betsy DeVos "might be" leaning toward school choice as a policy approach to education.

We have had versions of this conversation before. Back in the day when folks bothered to talk about Common Core, defenders frequently countered the real-life problems of CCSS with explanations of how it was "supposed" to be. Even people who wrote it would argue that people were misusing their beautiful creation and that's not how it was supposed to look at all. It wasn't supposed to be top-down or prescriptive or rigid or a straightjacket on both curriculum and instruction. And yet, in the real world, it was absolutely all those things.

Over the past years, I have had multiple conversations with CBE fans who direct me to things like the CBE work in Chugach, Alaska, as a sign that CBE doesn't have to be an Outcome-Based Education retread with lists to check off and "outcomes" reduced to simple, easily measured mini-tasks. Yet, that is exactly what's being sold-- often with the additional phrase "in any environment" because part of the pitch is that competencies can be acquired at any time, which means they competencies will be taught and assessed by computer software, which means that the competencies must be assessed with an instrument that computer software can do, which means no writing and no critical thinking. This fits nicely with choice on steroids, the a la carte choice system where students just select particular competencies from an online supermarket.

Likewise, Personalized Learning is sold as just an extension of the IEPs that students with special needs already get. Just super-differentiation, which doesn't sound scary at all, and yet it always turns into a discussion of how AI software will chart an individualized path for each student.

Folks all the way up to our Secretary of Education see the CBE/PL system as tied to technology. iNACOL sees both as a wide-open market opportunity for techsters. Petrilli already knows this.

Picture an elementary school. Yes, there’s a long list of skills that kids need to master and for which an individualized approach would work fine: decoding; spelling; writing letters and numbers; counting to one hundred; keyboarding; and so forth. Measuring children’s progress in learning these skills is the sort of thing that assessments like iReady’s can readily do, and then point teachers and parents toward learning modules that will help them take the next step.

And he's aware of the limits:

Yet there’s so much else that we also want young children to experience and that’s hard—maybe impossible—to break down into little bits.

 Well, yes-- it is impossible. But that is exactly what the very marketplace that the Fordham has championed  for years is pushing toward. But he is either ignoring or in denial about the implications of what he has been pushing. Here he is imagining how a standards-based classroom should work:

Teachers would stop projecting the day’s standards-to-be-tackled on the board; they would stop asking students to determine whether they have mastered a particular standard, and how to know when they’ve mastered it—practices I saw at the school I visited. They would stop planning lessons by “back-mapping” from the standards. They would simply adopt a great curriculum that is aligned to the standards, then forget about the standards and teach the curriculum instead.

But that's not what happened. And Petrilli chooses to address the elephant in the classroom, which is test-centered accountability, a feature of reform that has absolutely guaranteed that schools would teach to the standards-based-ish tests. This oversight matters. Here's Petrilli on what he think has gone wrong:

That’s hard to do, though, in a personalized classroom, if the model is premised on the idea that we can break knowledge and skills into discreet standards and progressions, and if teacher-led discussions are discouraged. Perhaps that works for math. But for English? History? Science? Art and music? Character, values, and self-control?

No, no,no, no and no. And as for character traits, I refer Petrilli to the death of OBE, which was in no small part to strong reactions against the proposal that government would train students to be the Right Sort of People. 

But the problematic premises of PL/CBE are not just that we can break complex knowledge and skills into tiny pieces, but that we can use computer software to measure those pieces, and that we must measure those people, and that the ongoing measure of those pieces should drive the system, determining what module a student should work on next. PL/CBE takes the worst feature of reform so far-- test-centered accountability-- and drives it even deeper into the bones of the system. It takes the already-failing Big Standardized Test system we've been using to measure everything from student achievement to teacher effectiveness even as it has narrowed and gutted the education system-- it gets rid of that once-a-year travesty and replaces it with standardized testing, all day, every day.

Petrilli worries that the ideas will be taken to a bad extreme. The solution is the same one as ever-- take the reins out of the hands of corporations, investors, and all the other amateurs who have gathered to make a buck. Consider-- just consider-- involving trained professional educators in some of these decisions.

Petrilli visited a PL school and was not encouraged by what he saw. Little teaching, standards obsession, and "everything looked like distilled and fragmented test prep." Well, yes. That was not an aberration or mistake. It was not a bug-- it was a feature. Every piece of PL/CBE is aimed toward that product, and he can't be surprised or shocked, because he helped make that, and some of us, for years, have been telling him and others like him that this is what they are building.

Rutgers Prof Beats NJ Charter Attack

I'm happy to provide a good news follow up to an old story.

Two years ago, Rutgers University professor Julia Sass Rubin found herself under attack by the New Jersey Charter School Association. She had published research that contradicted the rosy charter picture in NJ, showing that, much to nobody's surprise, that charters enroll fewer very poor students, fewer non-English speaking students, and fewer students with special needs. So the NJCSA decided to play hardball. They filed an ethics complaint against Sass Rubin. As I wrote back at the time:

Yes, confronted by clear scientific data that conflicted with their position, the New Jersey Charter Schools Association did the only thing that reasonable, ethical, intelligent human beings can do in that situation-- they went after the bearer of bad tidings with a switchblade and brass knuckles. Not since Tonya Harding tried to have Nancy Kerrigan kneecapped have we seen such a reasoned and rational approach to conflicting views.

The NJCSA attacked Rubin by accusing her of correctly identifying herself as a Rutger professor, even when participating as a member of Save Our Schools New Jersey. Again, from my opriginal blog about the charges:
The complaint seriously seeks the remedy of having Rubin stop identifying herself as a Rutgers professor when she says these things that make the NJ Charter operators look like lying liars who lie. From coverage:

"The paper's conclusion and recommendations are identical to - and clearly intended to provide the appearance of legitimate academic support for - the lobbying positions that Dr. Rubin and SOSNJ have zealously promoted for years," the Charter Schools Association wrote in its complaint.
So, as a citizen, she's not allowed to believe what she believes as an academic? When her research as an academic leads her to certain conclusions, she must never talk about them outside of school? Or when she's speaking as a citizen, she is not allowed to note that she has professional training and skills that qualify her to make certain conclusions?

I can understand their confusion to a point. It is, of course, standard operating procedure in the reformster world to NOT identify who you actually work for, get money from, or otherwise are affiliated with. It's SOP to put out a slick "report" without actually explaining why anyone should believe you know what you're talking about, but Rubin and Weber go ahead and list their actual credentials. Apparently NJCSA's argument is that it's unethical to let people know why your work is credible.

The charter association went so far as to hire Michael Turner to handle the PR-- Turner is an expert in smear tactics to help his clients. The goal throughout was simple-- to make Rubin and her colleague Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman) shut up and stop using facts and research to undercut charter marketing. As I noted back then, the research is basically just crunching numbers, so NJCSA could have attacked the data or the methodology or even the conclusions, but instead they attacked the researcher. It's almost as if they knew they didn't have a leg to stand on when it came to the facts.

But news came yesterday that this assault on Rubin has come to naught. The State Ethics Commission bounced the complaint back to Rutgers, and Rutgers has found "no evidence to support allegations against Julia Sass Rubin."

Well, hooray for that. Nobody should have to work with allegations hanging over their heads that are boundless and intended to shut the person up. Disagree with someone? Then dispute what they've said, and don't go trying to ruin their career or just make their professional life miserable. I hope the NJCSA wasted all sorts of money of this attempt at bullying.

So this time, the good guys win and the charter forces will have to find some other way to obscure the facts.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Takeover Lie

One of the techniques in the reformster arsenal has been the school takeover, in which some august body declares a public school a failure, and that school is marked for Takeover. That failure can be certified by specious Big Standardized Test results (yay, PARCC and SBA) or by the more cynical method of refusing to fuly fund a district and then certifying them, as financially distressed. This particular "solution" was built into Race To The Trough Top and RTTT Lite (more waivers, less paperwork), but it has been embraced in a variety of forms, such as the Achievement School District of Tennessee and other attempts to create via bureaucracy what had previously been accomplished by natural disaster (aka Hurricane Katrina).

You can see it happening yet again in Gary, Indiana, where the schools have been taken over by the state. That state takeover, which strips the elected school board of power and replaces them with a state-appointed manager, was enacted a month ago and explained to the public more fully just a week ago. Gary was a two-fer, a district slammed for both low test scores and for failing to get enough money to keep itself solvent. Within roughly five minutes, a charter company was putting in its bid to run the formerly-public school system.

The proposed management group is the Phalen Leadership Academies, a group with strong ties to Indianapolis's big charter boosters with giant apsirations loaded into its name-- the Mind Trust. The group was founded by a former Indianapolis mayor and his head of charter schoolery, and it has done a fine job of finding ways to funnel public tax dollars into private pockets. So there are plenty of specific and historical reasons to oppose Phalen's glomming up one more set of de-public schools.

But the whole takeover process is itself a scam of tremendous proportions, a house of cards resting on a foundation of falsehoods.

Remember, the basic idea here is, "You public school people couldn't make this school work, so we're going to bring in someone who can." Let's consider that premise for a moment.

What's your secret?

The takeover premise requires someone who knows the secret of making a school "work." Someone who knows more about how to educate children than the trained professionals who previously ran the school. Let's mull on that for a second-- if this person (or person's company) knows the secret of Making Schools Work, what exactly have they been doing? Why have we not already hear about them? Why are they not already rich from running seminars and presenting training and having entire states adopt their special techniques for success? Why aren't principals and teachers falling all over themselves to bring these people in to run professional development so that we can all be awesomely successful? Why haven't we all heard and read about their great success?

Have they had these Secrets for Success all along, but they've been sitting on them, saying, "Well, we're not sharing this with anybody unless they pay us a bunch of money." And if so, are those the kind of people we want running schools?

Or could it be that these takeover artists don't know a damn thing more about educating students and running a school than the rest of us?

What's the cost?

In addition to pulling off the trick of deploying super-secret education techniques unknown to anyone who actually works in public education, takeover artists must also pull off some financial magic.

The takeover artists must run the school with the same money as the "failed" managers-- and they must somehow squeeze that piggy bank so that there is money left over to pay the takeover company.

In other words, they must keep doing what the school was always doing for the same amount of money, and have more money left at the end. Which means, of course, that they can only pull this off if they don't keep doing what the school was always doing. That means cutting programs or closing facilities or paying bottom dollar for personnel (and therefor having their pick of hiring from among all the people who couldn't get real jobs).

The fantasy is that schools-- even, somehow, schools that are in  financial distress-- are loaded with such waste that a savvy business person can find efficiencies and eliminate waste., which is sort of true if one believes that paying teachers or offering certain programs are wasteful. Or, of course, one might believe that certain students, by virtue of their special needs, cost too much money to keep a trim budget, and so those students must be pushed elsewhere.

The central lie

The heart of the takeover idea is that there are people out there who know special secrets-- how to educate students, how to run schools, how to do it all for less money--  that somehow nobody in public education knows. But we've had these companies in business for years now, and there's no reason to believe that the heart of the takeover idea is anything but a profitable falsehood.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Artificial Stupidity

Facebook absolutely insist on showing me "top stories." Every time I open the Facebook page, I have to manually switch back to "most recent," because even though the Facebook Artificial Smartitude Software thinks it knows what I most want to see, it can't figure out that I want to see the "most recent" feed. Mostly because the Facebook software is consistently wrong about what I will consider Top News.

Meanwhile, my Outlook mail software has decided that I should now have the option of Focused, an email listing that lists my emails according to... well, that's not clear, but it seems to think it is "helping" me. It is not. The Artificial Smartitude Software seems to work roughly as well as rolling dice to decide the ranking of each e-mail. This is not helpful.

I pay attention to these sorts of features because we can't afford to ignore new advances in artificial intelligence, because a whole lot of people think that AI is the future of education, that computerized artificial intelligence will do a super-duper job directing the education of tiny humans, eclipsing the lame performance of old-school meat-based biological intelligence.

Take, for instance, this recent profile in Smithsonian, which is basically a puff piece to promote a meat-based biological intelligence unit named Joseph Qualls. Now-Dr Qualls (because getting meat-based biological intelligence degrees is apparently not a waste of time just yet) started his AI business back when he was a lonely BS just out of college, and he has grown the business into.... well, I'm not sure, but apparently he used AI to help train soldiers in Afghanistan among other things.

To his credit, Qualls in his interview correctly notes one of the hugest issues of AI in education or anywhere else-- What if the AI's wrong? Yes, that's a big question. It's a "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln" question. It's such a big question that Quall notes that much AI research is not driven by academics, but by lawyers who want to know how the decisions are made so they can avoid lawsuits. So, hey, it's super-encouraging to know that lawyers are so involved in developing AI. Yikes.

Still, Qualls sees this rather huge question as just a bump in the road, particularly for education.

With education, what’s going to happen, you’re still going to have monitoring. You’re going to have teachers who will be monitoring data. They’ll become more data scientists who understand the AI and can evaluate the data about how students are learning.

You’re going to need someone who’s an expert watching the data and watching the student. There will need to be a human in the loop for some time, maybe for at least 20 years. But I could be completely wrong. Technology moves so fast these days.

So neither the sage on the stage or the guide on the side, but more of a stalker in the closet, watching the data run across the screen while also keeping an eye on the students, and checking everyone's work in the process. But only for the next couple of decades or so; after that, we'll be able to get the meat widgets completely out of education. College freshmen take note-- it's not too late to change your major to something other than education.

Where Qualls' confidence comes form is unsure, since a few paragraphs earlier, he said this:

One of the great engineering challenges now is reverse engineering the human brain. You get in and then you see just how complex the brain is. As engineers, when we look at the mechanics of it, we start to realize that there is no AI system that even comes close to the human brain and what it can do.

We’re looking at the human brain and asking why humans make the decisions they do to see if that can help us understand why AI makes a decision based on a probability matrix. And we’re still no closer.

I took my first computer programming course in 1978; our professor was exceedingly clear on one point-- computers are stupid. They are fast, and they are tireless, and if you tell them to do something stupid or wrong, they will do it swiftly and relentlessly, but they will not correct for your stupid mistake. They do not think; they only do what they're told, as long as you can translate what you want into a series of things they can do.

Much of what is pitched as AI is really the same old kind of stupid, but AI does not simply mean "anything done by a computer program." When a personalized learning advocate pitches an AI-driven program, they're just pitching a huge (or not so huge) library of exercises curated by a piece of software with a complex (or not so complex) set of rules for sequencing those exercises. There is nothing intelligent about it-- it is just as stupid as stupid can be but, but implemented by a stupid machine that is swift and relentless. But that software-driven machine is the opposite of intelligence. It is the bureaucratic clerk who insists that you can't have the material signed out because you left one line on the 188R-23/Q form unfilled.

There are huge issues in directing the education of a tiny human; that is why, historically, we have been careful about who gets to do it. And the issues are not just those of intelligence, but of morals and ethics as well.

We can see these issues being played out on other AI fronts. One of the huge hurdles of self-driven cars are moral questions-- sooner or later a self-driven car is going to have to decide who lives and who dies. And as an AP story noted just last week, self-driven car software also struggles with how to interact with meat-based biological intelligence units. The car software wants a set of rules to follow all the time, every time, but meat units have their own sets of exceptions and rules for special occasions etc etc etc. But to understand and measure and deal and employ all those "rules," one has to have actual intelligence, not simply a slavish, tireless devotion to whatever rules someone programmed into you. And that remains a huge challenge for Artificial So-called-intelligence. Here are two quotes from the AP story:

"There's an endless list of these cases where we as humans know the context, we know when to bend the rules and when to break the rules," says Raj Rajkumar, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who leads the school's autonomous car research.

"Driverless cars are very rule-based, and they don't understand social graces," says Missy Cummings, director of Duke University's Humans and Autonomy Lab.

In other words, computers are stupid.

It makes sense that Personalized Learning mavens would champion the Artificial Stupidity approach to education, because what they call education is really training, and training of the simplest kind, in which a complicated task is broken down into a series of simper tasks and then executed in order without any attention to what sort of whole they add up to. Software-directed education is simply that exact same principle applied to the "task" of teaching. And like the self-driven car fans who talk about how we need to change the roads and the markings and the other cars on the highways so that the self-driven car can work, software-driven education ends up being a "This will work well if you change the task to what we can do instead of what you want to do." You may think you can't build a house with this stapler-- but what if you built the house out of paper! Huh?! Don't tell me you're so stuck in a rut with the status quo that you can't see how awesome it would be!

So, they don't really understand learning. they don't really understand teaching, and they don't really understand what computers can and cannot do-- outside of that, AI-directed Personalized Learning Fans are totally on to something.

And still, nobody is answering the question-- what if the AI is wrong?

What if, as Qualls posits, an AI decides that this budding artist is really supposed to be a math whiz? What if the AI completely mistakes what this tiny human is interested in or motivated by? What if the AI doesn't understand enough about the tiny human's emotional state and psychological well-being to avoid assigning tasks that are damaging? What if the AI encounters a child who is a smarter and more divergent thinker than the meat widget who wrote the software in the first place? What id we decide that we want education to involve deeper understanding and more complicated tasks, but we're stuck with AI that is unable to assess or respond intelligently to any sort of written expression (because, despite corporate assurances to the contrary, the industry has not produced essay-assessment software that is worth a dime, because assessing writing is hard, and computers are stupid)?

And what if it turns out (and how else could it turn out) that the AI is unable to establish the kind of personal relationship with a student that is central to education, particularly the education of tiny humans?

And what, as is no doubt the case with my Top Stories on Facebook, the AI is also tasked with following someone else's agenda, like an advertiser's or even political leader's?

All around us there are examples, demonstrations from the internet to the interstate of how hugely AI is not up to the task. True-believing technocrats keep insisting that any day now we will have the software that can accomplish all these magical things, and yet here I sit, still rebooting some piece of equipment in my house on an almost-daily basis because my computer and my router and my isp and various other devices are all too stupid to talk to each other consistently. My students don't know programming or intricacies of certain software that they use, but they all know that Step #1 with a computer problem is to reboot your device because that is the one computer activity that they all practice on a very regular basis.

Maybe someday actual AI will be a Thing, and then we can have a whole other conversation about what the virtues of replacing meat-based biological intelligence with machine-based intelligence may or may not be. But we are almost there in the sense that the moon landings put us one step closer to visiting Alpha Centauri. In the meantime, beware of vendors bearing AI, because what they are selling is a stupid, swift, relentless worker who is really not up to the task.