Friday, June 30, 2017

Why Your ESSA Plan Is Nonsense

At EdWeek, Andrew Ujifusa offers an explanation. In "Here's Why You Can't Understand Your State's New Plan for Education" he points the finger at jargon and offers some rather fun analytics for education argle-bargle. The top four bits of balonial verbage are, in descending order, stakeholder, engagement, professional development, and needs assessment.

Yes, this can only end well
Ujifusa breaks down the nature of the nonsense in your state's ESSA plan, but he doesn't really address the cause. But at this juncture, it's useful to remember why ESSA plans will be just as much jelly-filled fluffernuttery as oh, so, many government-drafted educational master plans before them.

It's not complicated. Master Plans for Education, both Great and Small, are almost always nonsense because they are written by bureaucrats, not educators.

Imagine military strategy and tactics being written by people who have no military training and who have never set foot on a battlefield. Imagine a plan for manufacture and assembly of widgets concocted by someone who has never used, built or worked on a widget. Imagine someone holding the highest office in the land who had no concept of how any of the policies or functions under his control actually work.

That's where we have been with education for decades. On the state and federal level we consistently find bureaucrats overseeing education who don't really know what they're talking about. Their knowledge and understanding of actual education is second, third or fourth hand. Sometimes it's no hands-- just made up out of whatever they come up with in their own little heads.

So they come up with policies that sound good, or that are birthed by the committee process (it's not right, but it's what we could all agree on), or that play well with the legislators who will have to pass them. They include lots of fine-sounding jargonny blather of the type not used by teachers (I won't lie-- we have plenty of jargon of our own) but preferred by policy wonks and thinky tanks and people who are trying to hide empty ideas behind cluttered language. And what merges eventually is policy language that makes classroom teachers roll our eyes and go back to doing our jobs as best we know. Or, if the policies hamstring us badly enough, we get beaten down a bit more.

Your state's ESSA plan is nonsense, just as your state's RttT plan was nonsense, and the NCLB plan before it, and let's not forget the super-nonsense of Common Core. It's nonsense because few-to-none actual educators had a hand in crafting it.

I'm not saying it's an easy fix. We could send teachers to the state capitols, to DC, but while we are educational experts, we are government amateurs. We know about teaching, but we don't know about working on Big Important Commissions or getting things through The Process, and we would probably create excellent policies that died in a dark closet somewhere.

Teachers are occasionally included in the process-- as long as they've been carefully vetted and determined to be agreeable enough to play well with others.

But on the whole things have probably gotten worse over the past decade, as Teach for America has helped create a whole new class of people who believe that since they have spent a year or two in a classroom, they are now legitimate Educational Thought Leaders and Policy Experts.

At any rate, it's important that those of us who do the actual work of education remember that policies like the ones about to be laid out and adopted in ESSA plans have been lovingly crafted by a bunch of educational amateurs. We read these things and invariably some teacher will exclaim, "Do these people know anything about teaching at all?" and it's meant as a half-joke, because as teachers we tend to believe in institutions and of course the People In Charge couldn't be completely ignorant, could they?

Well, yes, they could. We're about to be hit with a whole new wave of nonsense, and we should not be afraid, when we encounter amateur educational nonsense, to call it by its true name.

Well, yes, they could.

Ed Reform v 6.3 Accountability Lite

Full disclosure-- I made the number 6.3 out of the air, because frankly I've lost track of the various versions of ed reform that we've seen. But we're definitely on to something new.

The new ed reform has staked out a position against bureaucracy and paperwork. This conversation starts with a Rick Hess piece, which becomes a thing because Betsy DeVos decided to quote it in her address to charteristas. And so we arrive at a call for reformsters to stand up against reformocracy.

The call for getting rid of bureaucracy is not without disagreement. Checker Finn pushed back hard, and Mike Petrilli chimed in. But there continues to be a buzz surrounding the issue of accountability/bureaucracy. The most recent entry in the discussion is on the Fordham website, written by Max Eden of the Manhattan Insititute, defending the book project that Finn attacked.

The piece highlights some of the important features of v 6.3 reforminess. "Results: Yes. Regulation: No. How to beat back the new education establishment" is a rather mixed-up manifesto.

One of the curious features of current reforminess is the complete brain-wipe when it comes to Common Core State [sic] Standards. Reformers led the charge to inflict a set of national standards on every state and every public school district, and I'm happy that CCSS is more ghost-like these days, but it's mighty disingenuous for Core supporters to pretend that it's just awful how someone somehow created a mighty web of regulations and paperwork and bureaucratic hoop-jumping to make sure that the Core was properly implemented. This selective amnesia occurs periodically in the reform movement. Reformsters were shocked that the Big Standardized Test narrowed curriculum and warped education, after they worked hard to create a test-based accountability system. Reformsters used political tricks and tools to install their various policy ideas, and then complained that education discussions had become too political.

This has been a pattern for a long time. Slap public schools with tons of regulation and mandates, then declare that school choice is needed because public schools are too tied up in regulations and mandates.

Eden quotes the old saw that charters trade autonomy for accountability, a red flag all by itself because A) if that's the secret, then lets fight for more autonomy for public schools and B) charters have regularly and forcefully fought to avoid accountability as much as possible.

And then the flat-out falsehoods begin:

Unlike public schools, charter schools are accountable to parents (whose children they must enroll by choice), authorizers (which may choose to shut or not renew charters), and the state (which sets rules and regulations for authorizers). The debate over charter accountability is a question of emphasis among these actors.

Public schools operate transparently, run by elected boards. They are accountable to every taxpayer, including parents. The "unlike" is baloney.

But central here is Eden's definition of the issue of accountability-- balance between parents, authorizers and the state.

The “new education establishment” wants to shift the locus away from parents and authorizers, and to the state, by passing laws that prescribe and circumscribe the work of authorizers.

He identifies  National Association of Charter School Authorizers as an example of this group, with a published call for such prescriptions. Eden says that their calls for uniform authorizer standards and student achievement requirements should make sense, but don't seem to make any difference-- as always, the measure of effectiveness used here is test scores, which remains a terrible choice, like judging food quality based only on color. But he worries that the cost is greater:

As Tulane professor Doug Harris says, there hasn’t “been as much actual innovation as maybe the original charter folks hoped…when you have intense test based accountability it really restricts what you can do and to what degree you can innovate because…there are only so many ways to make test scores go up.”

First, I've got another explanation for the absence of any charter-ignited wildfire of innovation-- charter operators (who are largely education amateurs) don't know anything innovative and have leaned heavily on old non-innovative solutions of controlling the quality of the student body. But Eden does note the other obvious implication of the quote-- that depending on test scores as a measure does mall sorts of damage to the whole educational model.

This does not lead him to conclude that maybe we should ditch the whole test-centered model for all schools. Instead, it leads him to conclude that  "authorizers ought to retain autonomy to open and closer charters based on their own human judgment." Here he again glosses over some realities, including states where authorizers have a financial interest in keeping charters open, or the more common situation where it's much harder for authorizers to close a charter than -- well, than it is for public schools to fire a tenured teacher.

Eden says that then book calls not for ditching state-based accountability entirely (just mostly) but leaning on authorizers and parents. In particular, he says this:

Parents know things that authorizers don’t, and authorizers know things that parents don’t. While low test scores shouldn’t trigger a default closure, they could trigger a default conversation. If parents have a good reason to love their school despite its low test scores, they should be able to make that case directly to authorizers. Then authorizers can come to a decision informed by parents rather than have their hand forced by the state.

If these defenses all sound familiar-- don't tie our hands with bureaucratic red tape, don't enforce unfair standardization, don't judge us on Big Standardized Test results-- it's because this was what public school supporters back when charteristas were trying to clear the ground to make room for their babies. One of the large, consistent shifts in ed reform has been from "We should use these pickaxes on public schools to test their worthiness" to "It's not right to use these pickaxes on charter schools."

It should be noted that some reformsters have been pretty consistent and intellectually honest over the last decade (Rick Hess among them). And some reformsters have been pretty adamant about holding the accountability line (see above-referenced Chester Finn piece). While it's tempting to attribute the pickaxial shift to self-serving hypocrisy, it's also true that the charter industry has been largely run by educational amateurs, leading to same sort of revelations that Trump has experienced in the White House (Hey, this is harder than I thought).

If public education supporters seem a little touchy about reform's new opposition to bureaucracy and paperwork and red tape and test-centered evaluation, it's because we could have used all this outrage and resistance back when reformers were on the other side of the p0ush. It's like reformers whipped up a mob against schools, set the mob on public schools, then, after the public schools were weakened and charters were built, stood up and hollered, "Hey, you mob! You should knock it off and go home."

Eden winds up his argument by saying that accountability isn't a binary thing-- you could be all for it, all against it, or just trying to walk a line somewhere down the middle. But even Eden's "nuanced" view of accountability oversimplifies the questions of accountability. To whom? For what? With what consequences for coming up short?

Those are all important accountability question to ask (just in case you've been confused by reformster rhetoric, let me be clear that I, a union public school teachers, am absolutely in favor of accountability). But Eden doesn't really seem to be exploring the realm issues of accountability so much as he's looking at a way to make it hard to close charters without actively arguing against accountability. So we have the new reformster stance for accountability lite-- of course we want accountability for charter schools, but here's a long list of the ways in which we don't want it. Enough accountability to keep critics happy, but not so much that it actually gets in our way.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Does Zuck Want To Be The Next Gates with Personalized Learning

Here's lead from the EdWeek article:

Pediatrician Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg are gearing up to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning,” with the aim of dramatically expanding the scope and scale of efforts to provide every student with a customized education.

The power couple's Big Initiative has announced its intent to "support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs—while also supporting a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development." So, slap the child in front of a screen, but somehow have the child turn out physically and emotionally well-rounded.

To head this up, they've hired former Deputy Sec of Ed James Shelton. Shelton knows the territory-- besides overseeing the Office of Innovation and Improvement (before John King took the job), he was an Ed Guy for the Gates Foundation, worked with New School Venture Fund, spent time with McKinsey, and worked for 2U, an organization that helped for-profit colleges take advantages of the loopholes that he wrote into laws governing such schools back when he was at USED. In other words, he has carved out a long and useful career at the intersection of Big Investor Dollars and education "innovation."

The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative presents new opportunities because A) it has more money than God and B) it's not really a philanthropy so much as a philanthropy-flavored investment business.

CZI will be able to make philanthropic donations, invest in for-profit companies, lobby for favored policies and legislation, and directly support candidates for elected office­­—all with minimal public-reporting requirements.

CZI often runs with the word "start-up," and Shelton's plans sound very businessy.

Within five years, Shelton said in the June 22 interview, CZI’s work should have helped launch a “meaningful number” of schools and learning environments “where kids are performing dramatically better, and feel more engaged, and teachers feel more engaged in the work that they’re doing.”

 The important part of that quote comes in the first half. They are looking to start some education-flavored businesses. The article includes some pointed words of caution from Rick Hess, who is rapidly becoming a prolific sub-tweeter of Betsy DeVos:

“This isn’t engineering a new ride-sharing app,” he said. “It’s how do we influence the learning of millions of children, day after day, for years to come.”

(IOW, Mrs. DeVos, charter schools are not UBER) The article does, however, give an accurate and pointed summary of the recent history of personalized learning:

Over the past several years, other philanthropists, venture capitalists, and advocates, along with the ed-tech industry, have pushed the notion hard. Many district and school leaders have responded favorably.

In other words, the PL "revolution" is about investors and corporations-- not about teachers or educators or schools. It is the new technocratic horizon, with Zuckerberg poised to become for Personalized Learning (at least this particular version of it) what Bill Gates was for the Common Core-- its patron saint, its bank, its armtwister, and all without any real input from people who work in education. Hoo-frickin-ray.

The article's author, Benjamin Herold, notes that it's hard to talk about personalized learning because the meaning is so fuzzy (and that includes when Zuckerberg is talking about it, as he has on many occasions). Part of the question is scale-- at one point Zuckerberg announced his intention to get PL to everyone-- but Shelton told EW that he wanted to focus on large improvements for small groups of students. Well.

"Large improvements for small groups of students" would make an excellent motto for the charter school industry (though they often fail to live up to it). It's not all that helpful for a public education system aimed at all students. And Shelton's exemplar shows that his aim is not true:

As an example, he cited a recent grant to the College Board, aimed at expanding access to the organization’s personalized online SAT preparation and college-planning resources, which have shown early promise.

No. What College Board has sort-of-proven is that when you give students a lot of test prep aimed at one particular test, they get better scores on that test. This is not innovation, and it's not education, either.

Herold notes that some skeptics are calling for open-sourcing. As Bill Fitzgerald notes in the article, "If you’re serious about allowing people to learn in the ways that make the most sense to them, you have to give them more choices than just using your software, under your rules.” On the other hand, if you're serious about getting good ROI on your fledgling education-flavored business, then you make sure all of your proprietary materials stay under wraps so that all customers must deal with you.

And let's remember again how Zuckerberg is specially equipped in ways that Bill Gates was not. In fact, the article notes that the special structure allows CZI to out-Gates Gates. "Levers" they can "pull." For instance, actual philanthropies have their hands tied when it comes to lobbying; CZI has no such limitations. And CZI doesn't "rule out" other sorts of political activities to push its initiatives. Yeah, I know-- the rules didn't slow Gates down a bit. But it's one more level CZI has to yank upon. And while Gates is required to employ some transparency (hence all the research folks have done tracking Gates Foundation grants), CZI will have no such requirement. They can operate in darkness as much as they like.

And CZI has clearly signaled its intent to try to shape policy debates in education and to exert different kinds of influence in complementary ways. An online job description for the position of “director of innovative schools and tools,” for example, called for someone who can “ensure our nonprofits and for-profit investments are coordinated for maximum impact.”

That not only underlines the nature of how CZI will try to impose its will, but what will they want to impose. This is a business, just barely disguised as philanthropic work, and personalized learning is emerging as the next big technocratic frontier in getting public education money tucked into private corporate pockets. And the possibility for conflicts of interest that are huge but invisible to the public-- like basically paying people to use and promote your product while keeping your sponsorship secret-- that's a big concern as well. How does Shelton plan to avoid such problems?

 We’re paying really close attention

Phew! That's a relief.

As is its wont, EW circles back around to a feels-okay finale:

Ultimately, Shelton said, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative feels as though it’s responsible primarily to the people the organization is hoping to serve.

That's probably true. The bigger question is-- who are those people, really. Of course, according to Shelton, it's all For The Children. Call me cynical, but it appears that other large interests are in play as well.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

PA: Charter Transparency Fail

Last night, my district's school board voted to raise taxes.

They did it at a public meeting. I could have attended it easily (they meet just across the street from my home) as could any member of the public. I could also have commented on the budget situation, and I could have based my comments on having looked at the proposed budget, a document that has been available for at least a month. And if I attend all meetings regularly, I know the whole process that has gone into the board decisions, because it's illegal for board members to get together and do board work outside of meetings, and it's illegal for them to hold a meeting without giving public notice (PA law allows them to hold private sidebars on personnel matters).

That's transparency in the function of a public school district.

Meanwhile, in another part of Pennsylvania, one more charter is demonstrating how the opposite of transparency works.

Down Catasauqua way, Innovative Arts charter school has been a source for some concerns. Two teachers from the charter went before the Catasauqua public school board with their concerns.

Special education teacher Ann Tarafas and Spanish teacher Elizabeth Fox, herself hired as a paraprofessional and lacking an emergency permit to teach a foreign language, rehashed their non-compliance stories now accompanied with a total lack of inclusion...

Referring to inadequate special education department staffing (down from five to three), [Special Ed teacher Ann] Tarafas declared, "We're not in compliance with state standards nor are we holding up to the contracts we signed with parents of special ed students on behalf of the school. There is a blatant disregard for what those kids need and that's been exhausting," she remarked.

According to Tarafas, seven of the last eight Innovative hires were not certified teachers. Hearing the full litany of issues, the board president commented, "I don't know what to say I'm speechless."

The Innovative Arts charter was approved by the Catasauqua public school board just last February, and by April of this year, they were already restructuring in response to a drop in enrollment from 283 to 250 (after originally saying 300 students were needed to open). Their new principal is a veteran of NJ KIPP.

Innovative has adopted a budget, too. Only, they did it at an unadvertised meeting that did not allow public comment, and the budget is still not available for viewing. This is three or four shades of illegal, so it's not surprising that the Catasauqua board wants some answers from the Innovative Arts people.

The board called a special meeting for tonight to look into these questions-- and Innovative Arts has indicated they will not attend. "Acting on advice of counsel," IA leaders will not attend the meeting to discuss or explain their situation. And while you may think that it's foolhardy not to give a report to the board that is responsible for authorizing them, but as is the case in many states, Pennsylvania requires something just short of a mountain of paperwork and video proof of intense puppy abuse to rescind a charter.

The specific concerns of IA's lawyer, Daniel Fennick, is that the meeting might involve asking Innovative Arts leaders questions "that should not be addressed in public." For instance, those two whistleblowing teachers? They learned their contracts aren't going to be renewed just a few days after they spoke to the public board. So, yeah, that could be an awkward question. Or "Do you really think that members of a public school board don't know what business can be discussed in public?"-- that might be an awkward question. IA's fall-back excuse is that they've already answered all the questions (though their budget is still unreleased).

So, one more example of how charter schools cut the public out and do their best to avoid accountability. This is not how public education is supposed to work.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Supremes Breaking Down Church State Wall

The basic question was minor. The implications are huge. The bottom line is that supporters of using public tax dollars to support private religious schools got some major support from the Supreme Court today.

A church in Missouri wanted a shot at some public monies to resurface a playground. The state said no. The trip up through the levels of US courts began. Five years later, here we are.

What matters in a case like this is the reasoning. Here's the oft-quoted excerpt from the majority:

“The exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution … and cannot stand,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

As Bloomberg notes, this is a big deal:

It’s the first time the court has used the free exercise clause of the Constitution to require a direct transfer of taxpayers’ money to a church. In other words, the free exercise clause has trumped the establishment clause, which was created precisely to stop government money going to religious purposes. Somewhere, James Madison is shaking his head in disbelief.

A portion of the majority made an attempt to mitigate the effects of the decision with a small footnote (the full opinion is here).

That note may be meant to indicate that the ruling is meant to be narrow-- but not all of the seven justices who ruled against the state signed off on this footnote.

Reading through the decision leaves little mystery about where the majority are headed. The church argued that it was being disqualified from a public benefit for which it was otherwise qualified. The majority agrees:

The State has pursued its preferred policy to the point of expressly denying a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious quality. Under our precedents, that goes too far.

And just in case that's not clear enough, here's Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, explaining why they don't agree with footnote three. They argue that there is no point in distinguishing between religious purposes and activities, and that the exercise clause does not care, either.

...the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise-- whether on the playground or anywhere else.

In other words, giving public tax dollars to a church-run private school would be just fine. In fact, it's hard to know exactly where the court would draw the line. If an organization is in the community, competing for community funds for an activity, you can't rule them out just because they are a religious organization. If a church wants money to pave a playground or run a school, you can't deny them just because they're a church.

The dissenting opinion sees this pretty clearly:

To hear the Court tell it, this is a simple case about recycling tires to resurface a playground.  The stakes are higher. This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government—that is, between church and state.  The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church.

That sounds about right. With this decision, the wall between church and state is pretty well shot, and there is nothing to stand in the way of, say, a federally-financed multi-billion dollar program that would funnel money to private religious schools. Trump and DeVos could not have a brighter green light for their voucher program.

I'll argue, as always, that churches will rue the day the wall is taken down. The separation of church and state doesn't just protect the state-- it protects the church, too. When you mix religion and politics, you get politics. And where federal money goes, federal strings follow. Sooner or later the right combination of misbehavior and people in federal power will result in a call for accountability for private schools that get federal money-- even religious schools. And as the requests for private religious vouchers roll in, folks will be shocked and surprised to find that Muslim and satanic and flying spaghetti monster houses of worship will line up for money, then the feds will have to come up with a mechanism for determining "legitimacy" and voila! That's how you get the federal department of church oversight. Of course, this will only happen once we're finally tired of the idea that charter and voucher schools don't have to be accountable for anything to anyone.

But that's further down the road. For right now, what we know is that the Supremes just punched a huge hole in the wall and a bunch of voucher-loving religious private schools are about to start sucking up public tax money through that breach. A bunch of public tax money is about to disappear into a black hole, and we won't know where it went or how it was used. Education, religion, law, and American society will all be a little bit worse for it.

HYH: The "i" in School

Personalized Learning continues to gather steam as a way to privatize and standardize education. And for educating yourself about the movement and what it really means, I'm here to recommend the latest edition of Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider's podcast, Have You Heard. Berkshire and Schneider talk to guest Bill Fitzgerald about some of the more important aspects of this magical "algorithmically mediated learning."

Schneider, an actual education historian, puts this new tech-based movement echoes similar revolutionary predictions about television, movies and, yes, radio.

Fitzgerald addresses the problem of multiple interpretations of personalized learning, focusing on the issues of the tech-centered model currently prevalent.

Yeah, so I mean I think that there is not a single definition of personalized learning that  satisfies everybody who actually works in education technology. When we talk about  algorithmically mediated learning, we're talking about a very specific type of  interaction, which even though it's actually called personalized learning, actually cuts  people out of the project, cuts people out of the equation. So we have the semantics  of the term, which actually sound very human, but in some implementations, not all,  but in some, we actually have a process where what we call personalized learning is  actually less personal and less human. 

The conversation deals with the related issue of assessment, because as always, in bad teaching design, assessment drives everything else. And that's not the only important related issue. Here's Fitzgerald again:

So when we talk about our education system and one size fits all, I think we need to  acknowledge that there's a context within which our education system has never  worked in an equitable way. So when we talk about one size fits all, I think we need to  be very careful about how we're defining all.

Schneider on the allure of technology:

The challenge of desegregating schools is a political and moral problem, not a  technical problem and part of the allure of technology is that it suggests that whatever  is holding our schools back in terms of delivering an equally excellent education for all  children is simply a matter of a technological fix, that it's not going to require us to  make a difficult trade off, that it does not pose a dilemma that is unsolvable and that  will require us to collectively make a decision about what we value and for some of us  to give things up.

Which brings to one of Fitzgerald's most important insights:

Yeah, we have these social and ethical and moral issues and algorithms can effectively  embeds those and make them less visible and because it's an automated process, we  were trained to think that it's more objective, when the reality is its lack of objectivity  just gets done automatically every single time. So I think there's some large scale  misunderstanding of actually what algorithms do and how they can invent biases and  we have examples of this all over the place. 

It's a valuable and informative podcast. Take the time to give a listen:

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Problems with Performance-Based Compensation

Bellwether Education Partners want to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of performance-based compensation (aka "merit pay" aka "fun ways to reduce total personnel costs for a school district"). But if you want writer Jen Bolson Meer's fancy definition, that's "Performance-based compensation is an approach where some or all monetary compensation is related to how employee performance is assessed relative to stated criteria."

Meer takes a moment to attack the traditional steps and lanes payment system. Advanced degrees and years of experience, she says, do not make teachers any better. And by "better" we mean "correlated to higher student scores on a narrow, invalid Big Standardized Test." That's pretty much the only way we could hope to make the absurd argument that neither additional education nor years of experience make teachers any better at our jobs.

That argument poorly made, Meer is on to her main point. Why is there no model, no "playbook" for PBC in the teaching world. Meer says that's because in all versions, there are winners and losers. She has three possible versions of PBC

1) Stick with a traditional “step and lanes” system, but teachers only move up a step if they meet a minimum specified level of performance

Nobody gets a raise unless she makes her numbers; "ineffective" teachers would stay stalled on a single step for years, just like all of the teachers in places like North Carolina. Meer says that winners would be programs that benefitted from  the "freed up" money saved  by all the people not getting raises.

There are two problems with that. One is that money would be "freed up" which h is an idea carried over from industry, where merit pay systems are based on the amount of money that the business made in that year. That is not how public school systems work-- we do not have an annual "profit" to divvy up.

Second, the system assumes, as do all PBC systems, that there is a bunch of Bad Teachers out there that we will just root out and pay less money. After years of various evaluation systems that keep saying that 98% of teachers bare just fine, reformers are wedded to the theory that the results prove that the evaluation systems are messed up, and not that most teachers are just fine.

Meer says the losers here are the high-performing teachers who wouldn't get the Big Bucks because the well-reviewed crappy teachers would be glomming up all the money. Which highlights another problem with PBC systems-- the amount of merit pay would be based not on actual quality, but on the amount of money the district budgeted for teacher pay. I've read many merit-based policy ideas and not one has ever said, "And at this point, if it turns out that the district has a plethora of great teachers, they'll just have to raise taxes to meet the merit payroll."

2. Earn one-time incentives such as bonuses

As a teacher, you basically take a cut in your base pay so that you might one year get a one-time lump sum. Meer says the winners would be teachers who actually get the bonuses, "especially teachers who find particular meaning and recognition in one-time 'gifts.'" and I do not even know what that means. Somewhere there are teachers who say, "I don't want a dependable, predictable salary. Just surprise me with a wad of cash every several years. My family will take 'surprise' vacations."

And Meer acknowledges that if districts go cheap with these bonuses, they won't actually motivate anybody to do anything like, say, stick around in a district with crappy pay.

3. Adjust base salary based on performance

Meer notes that this system is supported by people who feel they'll beat it, and opposed by people who think it will beat them. She even acknowledges that this confidence may be rooted in faith in the system, not just teacherly self-confidence. Her language acknowledges another issue with PBC-- that such a system is built to measure a teacher's built-in awesomeness, assuming that such a quality is a solid state hard-wired feature of each educator, and not a quality that ebbs and flows over decades.

Discussions about performance-based compensation are hard because there will be winners and losers with any approach, and defining high and low performance can be challenging and controversial

It's a start to admit that any PBC system must have winners and losers, but it skips over the question of why we need a system with winners and losers. There are all sorts of assumptions embedded here, from flushing out the Secret Society of Terrible Teachers noted above to the Motivate the Lazy fallacy-- the notion that teachers could be teaching students well, but just don't bother because we haven't been sufficiently bribed or threatened. This is not only hugely insulting (Yes, I could teach the children better in this profession that I've made my life's work, but I choose not to just to be a dick) but it reveals a profound lack of understanding of what a classroom is like. Teaching badly is hard-- it's exhausting and stressful and the students will punish us much more in that moment than any reformster ever dreamed of.

But even if the perfect plan is elusive,  a “works for us” compensation approach doesn’t have to be, whether it’s a variation of one of the categories above or another creative approach.

Yes, actually, it does have to be. Because the biggest weak point of all of these systems, beyond the funding of them or the insulting nature of them or the tendency to turn colleagues against each other as they fight for that money or even the dishonesty behind systems that aren't about paying more for the best as much as they're about finding ways to pay less for average teachers-- beyond all of that is the problem of measuring teacher performance.

We can't do it.

We have no reliable, valid, tested, proven method of definitively distinguishing good teachers from mediocre teachers. And we must choose the method carefully, not merely because of justice and fairness, but because of what that system will do to the work of the school.

We have ample evidence of what happens when you tie the definition of "effective" to the scores on a crappy standardized test-- education is re-organized around teaching to that test. And nobody-- nobody-- has jumped up in the last decade to say, "This is working awesome!"

A performance based compensation system is another way to tell your staff, "This-- and just this-- is what we're paying you for. This is what matters." So before you install any such system, you'd better be damned sure that you have c hosen well. Otherwise all you're doing is installing a system of perverse incentives. So no-- a "works for us" or "good enough" or "close enough for jazz" system is not easy or okay.

The obstacles to all PBC systems are many, and largely unacknowledged by the people pushing them. Meer has scratched the surface.

ICYMI: What Day Is It Now Edition (6/25)

I'm pretty sure that before this summer is over, I will miss one of these Sunday reading lists, because the three week old twins in my house exert some sort of time warping field. But today I'm on it. Here are some things to read from the past week. And remember-- if you like it, pass it on.

Um, Teacher Retention Is Not Just a DCPS Problem

Despite the fact that they are reportedly more awesome than ever, DC public schools are having some trouble holding onto staff. Go figure. A look at why schools might be having such problems.

Why Teachers Suck..

Yes, you know it's going to be the reverse, but a nice addition to the Clever Attateacher files

Is School Choice Just Expanding Privilege

That is the question. Does school choice cut into support for students who needed the most in the first place?

When a Community Loses Its Schools

Closing schools comes with a number of prices, including costs to the community at large.

Intersection of Philanthropy and Dark Money

There are many, many, many dollars being thrown behind ed reform. Exactly where are they coming from?

The Structure of Educational Reform

You'll probably disagree with a lot of this (I certainly do). But Andy Smarick remains the refomster most likely to take a thoughtful look at the tension between the goals of reform and traditional conservatism.

Charter Schools Do Bad Stuff Because They Can

Jeff Bryant gives a well-sourced overview of charter misbehavior.

Things That Principals Know About Great Teachers

Another piece cheering on the real qualities of actual teachers. At a minimum, food for thought.

White People Keep Finding New Ways To Segregate Schools

From Mother Jones, a piece that looks at ed reform through a different lens, and shows how creative white folks have been about getting their children away from black and brown students.

Newpoint Charges As Bad As We Reported

A careful look at one Florida charter scam. It's worth studying, because this model can be pulled off in many states.

ECOT Continues Tax Funded Ad Blitz Despite Layoff Announcement

Ohio's premiere cyber school is in trouble. The state wants its money back because ECOT's been lying about enrollment. ECOT is laying off hundreds of workers. But somehow they can still spend taxpayer dollars on advertising.

Putting the "i" in School

The latest Have You Heard podcast from Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider looks at personalized learning

Well-Funded Non-Profits Pave the Way to Privatization

Over at Living in Dialogue, John Thompson has been taking a look at the book The Givers, a tough look at what modern philanthropy is doing to our society.

The Fart-Free Classroom

A look at the practical reality of negotiating with 160 different persons in your classroom, every day.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Making Cybereducation Creepier

Do you think that cyber-education is just kind of creepy, with students sitting alone in the glow of a computer screen, navigating hundreds of little standardized quizlets and activities, their every keystroke and answer compiled in an undying data file that will follow those students around forever.

Do you find it hard to imagine how it could be worse? Well, a company called LCA Learning has found a way. They've come up with a program called Nestor which adds a whole new feature to online learning-- while you're watching the course, the course is watching you:

The idea, according to LCA founder Marcel Saucet, is to use the data that Nestor collects to improve the performance of both students and professors. The software uses students’ webcams to analyze eye movements and facial expressions and determine whether students are paying attention to a video lecture. It then formulates quizzes based on the content covered during moments of inattentiveness. Professors would also be able to identify moments when students’ attention waned, which could help to improve their teaching, Saucet says.

First, the software will not "formulate" quizzes-- it will pull quiz questions out of a bank of questions according to an algorithm. Let's just stop talking about algorithms tied to question banks as if they're artificial intelligence. They aren't any kind of intelligence.

But lets think about the rest of this picture. You have to keep your face in place, and mimic whatever the computer thinks an "interested" face looks like (and as anyone who has taught for more than two years can tell you, if you think students can't learn to fake an "interested" face, you are dreaming). Feedback to professors will encourage them to make certain parts of their lectures more "interesting," though I can imagine a quick solution would be to insert random explosions in the lecture.

This software has the potential to collect a whole new data set about each student, a super-creepy data set. And it can also help professors realize that they are no longer experts presenting information about a topic, but video producers trying to create an entertaining info-clip.

Here's a quick video clip of how this is supposed to work:

Notice that in the "good" example, the robot arm of the computer still rules the student-- it's just nicer about it.

And notice the five great benefits listed at the end:

* Students are more attentive
* Fewer physical classrooms
* Personalized coach for thousands of students
* Machine learning can use data from social networks
* Can register missing students from class

Only the last is legit. The magical attentiveness feature is the kind of thing technocrats envision because they don't spend enough time in the meat world. Fewer physical classrooms (and fewer meat teachers) is only a bonus if you're intent on making a healthy profit on all this. If you are coaching a thousand students, it's not personalized. You cannot have personalized education without persons.

But the fourth bullet is perhaps the creepiest-- your cybereducation program will also sweep up the rest of your online activity. Big Brother is always watching.

This is all even creepier when you look at LCA Learning itself. Here's how they describe themselves:

Our specialties are Street Marketing ™ and Alternative Marketing, Innovation, Brand Psychoanalysis, Active Web Listening and Experiential Marketing.

Or this self-description::

LCA Learning is an academic laboratory on "New Concepts of Marketing" in partnership with the University of San Diego, California

And on their home page, under the heading of "Shades of Learning," they list Street Marketing, Stealth Marketing, Facebook& Twitter, Undercover Marketing, and Ambush Marketing.

The company's creator is Marcel Saucet, whose background is in marketing and business. You can reach him in Paris, San Diego, or Dubai. Meanwhile, the website includes some subheadings that turn out to be bad links, and another spot where you can "get more informations"

A few news outlets(Engadget, Digital Trends) have picked up the story about Nestor, running more or less the same info (from, one would assume, the same press release), hung on the hook that Nestor is being used in two courses in Paris.

But as near as I can tell, nobody has yet run the explanation of how a marketing company suddenly is a champion of artificial intelligence-driven education. The most likely explanation seems to be that it's a great piece of stealth marketing and a great way to extend Big Brother's cyber-arm and add a marketing spin to whatever online courses you're trying to peddle (LCA has a big list). What's remarkable at this point is how few people seem to be asking LCA, "Exactly what is your expertise in education, and why should we buy education software from a marketing company?" Or other useful questions like, "How much data will this program hoover up and offer for people who want more informations about their future customers in order to more effectively stealth market whatever they have tom sell.

Friday, June 23, 2017

What Choice Won't Do

When it comes to the advocates of school choice, there are many points with which I disagree. I disagree with many of their assessments of the public school situation ("a dead end for which we spend more money than God and get results lower than dirt"). I disagree with many of their policy goals (why exactly should parents-- and no other taxpayers-- have a say about how tax dollars are spent).

These are disagreements about policy and systems that can be debated and argued (when people on both sides of the discussion are speaking in good faith). But what I find frustrating in the choice debates is the pro-choice arguments that simply aren't so.

There are some things that school choice simply won't do.

Choice Will Not Save Money

Multiple duplicate school systems must cost more than one single system. When businesses want to save money, they consolidate operations. They don't open more branches and raise their costs.

School Choice Will Not Unleash Competition That Will Spur Excellence

This will not (and has not) happen. For one thing, it's a zero-sum system in which losing means having less of what's needed to compete. It's a race in which the laggards must take off their shoes and give them to the leaders. But the very nature of the competition is problematic anyway.

It's Greene's Law of the Free Market: The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.

Betamax was better than VHS, but VHS made better marketing choices. McDonald's does not dominate its market by producing top-notch gourmet food. Pepsi and Coke do not dominate their market by producing artificially flavored carbonated water that is significantly superior to other artificially flavored carbonated water.

Sure, product quality can be useful as a marketing tool. But it is often expensive, and more companies than we can count have decided they would rather save some money on production and get the product sold with marketing. And in a world jam packed with shiny spinny marketing, even quality is not enough to break through. On the other hand, a huge number of mediocre products that have ridden to success on the back of fancy, expensive marketing.

School choice will unleash marketing, schools promising any number of things they can't deliver. Worse, the drive to market affects the product. If, for instance, we push out all the students who aren't high-achieving, we'll be able to promote ourselves as a school where 100% of the seniors go to college (because everyone who isn't likely to go to college doesn't get to be a senior).

Schools in a free market choice system will not be asking, "How can we become better schools?" They will be asking "How can we convince more students to enroll here?" There will be many answers to that question, from flashier marketing to celebrity spokesperson to-- well, every sort of marketing approach used to sell breakfast cereal or beer. And as long as school attendance is mandatory, there will also be a market for people who choose schools for entirely non-educational reasons. We've already seen this, from basketball academies that minimize academics so students can shoot hoops all day, to the segregation academies where families can keep their children away from black kids.

Choice Will Not Put The Power in Parents' Hands

Choice advocates talk about how choice gives all the power to parents. It does not.

Parents, like any other customers in a free market system, will get exactly the choices that businesses choose to give them. Businesses get to choose the location at which they open. Businesses get to chose their pricing structure. In the case of education-flavored businesses, they get to choose what the requirements of admission are. And charter school businesses routinely set limits on when a student may enroll-- only at particular grade levels and almost never during the school year.

So to start, the only choices available will be the ones that businesses choose for the parents of a community. And choice schools will be highly motivated to choose which students they prefer to take on (see also above marketing section). The schools get to choose-- not the parents. This will work great if your child is a highly desirable recruit, not so much if your child belongs to the other 98%.

But then, there's also the question of how parents will exercise whatever limited choices are available, because the information available to them for making such choices is going to be limited, if not just plain packed with a bunch of noise. Marketing-- choosing a school will be like trying to choose a new car based strictly on car advertisements. It will be in the interests of many choice schools-- particularly the not-so-great ones-- to flood the decision space with inaccurate, misleading, and (depending on their ethics) false information.

Finally, once in a selected choice school, parents may well have no avenue for talking to school management. No monthly board meeting to attend, no local elected board members to call, no central office that has to respond to customer complaints. And schools don't need to keep customers happy, because those customers will be moving on shortly anyway. Who cares if these parents are unhappy-- we were already busy recruiting their replacements anyway?

For high-powered high-information high-clout parents with high-achieving students in wealthy markets, there will be some power in choice. For everyone else, there will not. Not unlike choosing a college-- you can "pick" Harvard, but Harvard will have the final say. There will be big winners, but most customers will be powerless before, during and after the choosing.

There Are Other Goals

There are plenty of bad ideas wrapped up in the school choice movement. There are things we shouldn't want to do, but these are things that choice will not do. There may be reasons to have a serious, honest conversation about choice, but these arguments for choice do not belong in that conversation.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

NY: Competition, Shmompetition

Eva Moscowitz has some kind of magical power. Maybe it's money or pheremones or some sort of magical aura, but her record in getting New York leaders to roll over and play fetch for her is impressive.

At the beginning of the month, NY court declared that her Success Academy is not accountable to the taxpayers when it comes to her Pre-K program; the city can not hold her to any sort of performance requirement. That flies directly in the face of the old ideal that a charter works by promising the taxpayer certain results and then is held to those results. Not for Moscowitz-- she remains free to do as she pleases.

Lawmakers in Albany handed her another win. Buried amidst new legislation dealing with mayoral control of schools, there is reportedly this nugget:

The SUNY Charter Institute, the regulations read, “acknowledges that many schools and education corporations it oversees that have demonstrated strong student performance have had difficulty hiring teachers certified in accordance with the requirements of the regulations of the commissioner of education.” SUNY is now planning to create “an alternative teacher certification pathway to charter schools.” 

So New York joins the roster of states where anyone with a pulse and a degree can be certified a teacher.

There are many reasons to be annoyed by this. It degrades the teaching profession, codifying that it is a job that literally anybody could do. It thumbs its nose at all the teachers who went to the trouble and expense to get real certification. And it underlines how charter backers often support ideas for charters that they would never accept in the schools attended by their own children.

But I'm also wondering-- what about the competition?

Charters, particularly in markets like NYC, were supposed to spark competition, as each school worked hard to become the very best, to chart new courses to the Land of Excellence. But isn't that supposed to work like a high jump competition? You know-- we keep setting the bar higher and higher and the jumpers improve their skills-- literally up their game-- to meet the new requirements.

This is the opposite. This is "We can't clear the bar at that height, so we'd like the legislature to lower the bar for us." This is "We'll settle for what the leaders of the best schools and the parents who send children to them would never settle for. We will deliberately not live up to that standard."

Competition is allegedly supposed to weed out those who can't cut it. If you can't manage to adequately staff your school, you aren't cutting it.

Rural Life vs. Free Market

I live in a small town and rural county in northwest Pennsylvania. Our population is a little over 50,000. The median value of a home is a little over $80K. Per capita income is a little over $23K, and our official poverty rate is 13.5%. As of 2010, we had about 81 persons per square mile. Our biggest city contains maybe 7,000 people, though our towns are surrounded by stretches of villages, farmland, and boroughs.

My town. My house is an inch or two beyond the right edge

We are not gut-wrenchingly poor. We are not Montana-style sparse. We are not Kentucky hollow rural. We are just on the northern tip of Appalachia, and most residents would deny we live in that region. We have major cities (Pittsburgh, Cleveland) within a couple hours' drive. I'd call us a typical, if not extreme, example of a rural/small town area.

We have one mall. It has a Sears for an anchor store. We have a couple of McDonalds (first one arrived about forty-five years ago), a Wendy's, a Burger King. We have one Wal-Mart. We have no Chipotle, no Red Lobster, no higher-end retail chains. We have one movie theater. We have a couple of regional family restaurants, but no national chains like Perkins or Denny's, and if you want to go out to eat after 10 PM on any night of the week, well, you can't (well, you can get food at a bar or at Sheetz, a regional-- and far superiors-- version of 7-11). There are chunks of the county where FedEx and UPS do not deliver (they just hand the package off to USPS).

We are fortunate for regions of our sort because we do have a hospital. It's a branch of UPMC, and it's here because of a long convoluted story involving lawyers, angry doctors, mergers, and court orders, and while it provides plenty of decent care, like most rural residents, if we want any kind of more advanced treatment or procedures, we have to go to Pittsburgh or Erie. In surrounding counties, hospital health care is always a long drive away.

This is how the free market works. Businesses go where the customers and the money are, and if the local market can't sustain a particular business, the business will either avoid that market or fold after it opens.

The free market does not like rural areas. The people there are too spread out and they don't have all that much money. Some retailers have learned how to work around that. Wal-Mart is the most notable example of a company that has figured out how to make money from spread out rural non-wealthy folks (hint: it doesn't involve providing them with outstanding, excellent products). There are also variations of remainder stores-- businesses that buy up inventory that big retailers couldn't sell and then sell those at discount prices. We have several of those.

Bottom line. When you say that you want rural areas to depend on the free market for goods and services, you're saying that rural areas will just have to make do with less. When we're talking about burgers or clothing or movies or late-night dining, that's not so big a deal. But when we start talking about health care and roads and education, it's not so okay.

In some ways, rural communities can be at a disadvantage compared to high-poverty urban areas. Urban poverty is generally dense-- if the government offers businesses a ten-cent-per-person profit for providing services or goods, the business has a chance to make money by dealing in bulk. Rural communities offer no such opportunity.

The free market says that what you deserve is what you can afford, and when we talk about services that are provided to the community as a whole-- like roads and health care and education-- what rural communities can afford is not much. Every call to privatize such services is a call to rural communities saying, "You deserve less."

Privatizers slip around this point a couple of ways, most notably by erasing the idea of services to a community and replacing it with the idea of commodities sold to individuals. So a school is not an institution that provides a backbone of the community, but just a business that sells education to individual students (and has nothing to do with everyone else).

Rural communities are also ripe for internet-based businesses. Can't get it locally? Just order it on line. That's definitely a blessing in many instances, but it comes at a price. Our local hospital branch is happy to offer distance doctoring, where you can do your consulting with a far-away physician on a screen, which is not exactly a big boon at a moment when you're facing all the fear and uncertainty that comes with illness or injury. Better than nothing? That may be true, but I bet nobody who can actually get a face-to-face flesh-and-blood doctor is saying, "Never mind-- I'd rather just talk to her on a computer screen."

And internet-based businesses suck at customer service. Cyber schools have descended on some rural areas and sucked up buckets of money, seriously damaging the tax base for the local community school. At the same time, they leave students with little human interaction or parents with any recourse when things aren't quite working out. And they leave local taxpayers who aren't actual customers of the business (but whose taxes pay the bills) absolutely no recourse for complaint at all.

Rural schools are branching out beyond straight-up cyber school to "course choice," a means of saying, "Why sure, we offer Chinese language studies here" and then plunking the student down in front of software driven cyber school. My own school offered Chinese language courses at one point. A few students tried them and found them boring, lacking any human touch, isolating, and boring. Internet-based course choice in many cases seems to be nothing more than a computerized version of handing a student a textbook and saying, "Go teach yourself this subject."

Better than nothing? Probably. But when your argument for a business is "We're better than nothing!" you're not exactly raising the flag for excellence.

Abandoning rural areas to a free market education system is deciding that rural communities deserve less, should get less, will have to settle for something whose greatest virtue is "Better than nothing." As with much of ed reform, it would be easier to have a conversation about all of this if folks would say, "Look, we don't want to spend money on Those Children in Those Communities. We think they should just settle for less because that's what their socio-economic level entitles them to." That would be hard to defend, but at least it would be honest.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Sell Personalized Learning

Competency based education, one of the major flavors of personalized learning, has a great number of problems. It's beloved by our Silicon Valley tech overlords, but it has a lousy history (if you a4e of a certain age, you may recall Outcome Based Education, CBE's older failed sibling).

CBE reduces education to a series of simple standardized tasks, the complexity and depth of rigorous intellectual study reduced to a checklist of items to be tagged "done." Tech overlords love it because the whole business can be reduced to software running on computers (with little or no dependency on actual meat-based teachers). Actual live students, however, aren't that impressed. Turns out sitting in a cubicle and running through exercises on a screen is not all that compelling. And that's before we get to the Big Brothery issues of a system that records and attempts to analyze every last student key stroke. If you want to dig at greater length, you can read at Emily Talmage's Save Maine Schools.

Talmage has spent time on CBE because CBE has been spending time on Maine. Proponents, investors and other folks hoping to make it big with CBE have been using Maine as a testing ground to work out the bugs.

And one of the bugs remains how to get people to actually want CBE/PL.

Here's one version of the marketing pitch, courtesy of Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, also on the Education Committee. It ran in the Bangor Daily News today [correction- I misread the BDN masthead-- this piece actually ran in February of 2016], but it's a pitch we can expect to hear many times. As often is the reform case, it involves connecting things that have nothing to do with each other.

We start with a statement of the challenge:

Maine’s future depends on educating students who can think for themselves, write and speak clearly, and work together to solve complex problems...We can no longer treat students like widgets moving through an assembly line as though they simply are amalgams of common academic content. Today’s students demand and deserve more customization.

What's the solution?

...we need better mapping of student achievement and clearly understood benchmarks — not just for schools but also for students, parents and our communities.

The Ed Committee plans to propose "broader credentials" and a "more meaningful transcript." As a side benefit, this system will also provide a more detailed accounting of what the school has taught, so accountability. And the new records will accommodate micro-credentials while allowing for students to meet academic requirements outside of school.

Under this model, student transcripts will show employers and college admission offices the subjects students have mastered. Schools will be required to give all students the opportunity via different pathways to become proficient in all subject areas described in state standards, not just the ones required for graduation.

Additionally, "schools also will certify each student’s college and career readiness by objective measures." Those objective measures will apparently be delivered by a squad of yeti riding on winged unicorns, because no such objective measures exist.

But Langley and Hubbell, or whoever wrote this for them, are aiming at transcripts instead of diplomas, a detailed inventory of micro-credentials, badges, and other competencies gathered from any place. Schools don't really factor into this system. What these guys are proposing is to end public school as we know it and replace it with a batch of online software and a detailed data portrait of untested and unsubstantiated standardized results that will follow students around forever. The article is loaded with gobbledeegook that sounds fancy--

More detailed credentials will allow students to distinguish themselves through their individual achievements. Transcripts benchmarked against learning results will allow students, parents, colleges and employers to understand with more certainty each student’s knowledge, skills and preparation for postsecondary education and careers.

Also, standards!!

With support from four governors and a dozen legislatures, Maine has led the nation in implementing learning standards, which encompass a core of knowledge and skills essential to prepare our students for college, citizenship and fulfilling careers.

But it's for a good purpose!

Requiring schools transparently to report on these credentials will allow Maine to ensure equity of opportunity. Without a big-picture perspective of what is going on in education, we can’t know what’s working and where we need to improve.

That's the sales pitch, and it's remarkable how much this pitch hasn't really changed since the first days of Common Core-- We will set some super-duper standards, and then we will deliver lots of standardized measuring instruments which will collect lots and lots of data, which will make students smarter and schools better. We will get a really good set of scales and we will measure that pig every five minutes every day and that will make the pig grow big and fat-- or tall, or whatever way we want the pig to grow this week. And it will all be managed by computer, so you know it will be awesome.

There are only a few problems with this plan. We don't know exactly how to measure college and career readiness. It's not possible to reduce complex thinking, writing, problem solving, or any other higher order operations to a simple series of standardized tasks and measures. We don't have a set of agreed-upon or proven standards on which we can base such a system. We have no answers for the kinds of privacy concerns created by putting a ten-year-old in front of a computer program and making the results follow that child around forever. We don't know how to truly personalize a standardized system. And then there's the question of who will profit from selling and running all these privatized school-replacing pieces.

Those are just for starters. This is the same old pig with a new shade of lipstick, which is unsurprising-- if you thought a pig could make you a gazillion dollars, you'd be happy to invest some up front money in many shades of lipstick. Shame on Langley and Hubbell and whoever wrote this piece of advertising copy for them.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Finn Backs Accountability-- Hard

The Great Divide in the reform world continues to be right along the lines of accountability, with DeVos and her DeVotees being pretty much against it in any meaningful sense. Just let the marketplace sort it out, they say, and Jeanne Allen, of the Center for Education Reform (a hard core charter-backing group), put together a whole book to help argue the point.

It can happen
Several folks have taken a shot at reviewing that tome. I'm not one of them (because I have two week old twins at my house), but here's a good look at parts of the work by Mercedes Schneider. And here's a review by Chester Finn, head honcho emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a reliable backer of education reform, and a guy I generally disagree with (just search his name on this blog).

So let me mark this occasion on which I not only agree with part of what Finn has written, but would gladly written it myself. Finn first sums up the notion that "the market will provide all the quality control that’s necessary. Quality is in the eye of the beholder, i.e., the parent—and the school operator. The heck with school outcomes." And then he unloads this paragraph:

This is idiocy. It’s also entirely unrealistic in the ESSA era. It arises from the view—long since dismissed by every respectable economist—that education is a private good and the public has no interest in an educated citizenry. Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves “public.”

Mind you, Checker is still a charter fan, and he still imagines that modern Big Standardized Tests are not terrible. But at least he's figured out that unregulated charters aren't really working:

Are these folks really prepared to just hand out charters after a cursory screening? And just trust unproven people with our taxpayer dollars and our kids—after all that we've seen in Ohio and elsewhere, despite all that we know about greedy and sometimes criminal behavior in the charter space, despite mounting evidence of for-profit operators opting for shareholders over schoolchildren?

Granted, all of this was just about as surprising as the rising of the sun, but still, he's seeing it.

So Finn and I still disagree on a big pile of stuff, including what accountability should look like. But at least he supports the increasingly-unpopular idea of actually holding schools accountable for how they use taxpayer dollars instead of chiming in with "The money belongs to the students so just shut up.". But if Allen's goal was to wrap the charter movement in a big re-unitey kum-bah-yah-- well, that's not happening today.

Digital Native Naivete

The cliché is a fifty-year-old asking some ten year old student for help in making the computer work. Having trouble making working with your device or your software? Just grab one of those digital natives to handle it for you!

Well, not so fast. Here's Jenny Abamu at Edsurge saying what I've been arguing for over a decade-- our digital natives are hugely naïve about technology.

With the adoption of any new technology, there's a curve. In the 1910s, if you owned an automobile, you were also a reasonably savvy mechanic who knew how to work on his own machine. But in the century since, cars have become advanced in a way that has led to fewer and fewer car owners who could actually repair their own vehicle.

It's a simple fact of marketing-- early adopters may be willing to know the nuts and bolts of the tech, but to expand my market, I have to be able to say to non-savvy buyer, "Don't worry-- the tech will take care of everything for you." I have to make the tech user-friendly, and the friendlier it is, the less my customers need to know. The goal is to move from a product that only an aficionado can handle to a product that any dope can use. We are well into Any Dope territory with computer tech (spoiler alert: Linux is not the PC wave of the future).

Fifteen to twenty years ago, I could count on a few students in each class who could code. I used student helpers to build the school website from scratch. But nowadays I have to explain to my students how to save a photo the like on line, or how to use a Google doc. And students at the New Media Consortium Summer Conference echo that:

“Something you can do to prep your students for college is to have one day where you host a workshop on using Google Docs,” suggested Alejandra Cervantes, a junior at UCLA, in response to a question from an educator about the best way to support high school students heading to college. “Something simple like that can be pretty instrumental in helping them succeed in classes in the future.”

And yes-- that quote and the article its from raise its own set of issues. Because Google is working hard to inject themselves into the ed world, and they're not doing it just to be great humanitarians, so pieces like the Edsurge piece are meant to keep banging the drum that your student must know how to use Brand X Software or she'll fail at life.

And yet there is all this cool stuff to use, and my students don't have a clue. They know Snapchat, Instagram, a little twitter, and whatever the hot app of the week is (developers who think they can come up with an educational app that students will use enthusiastically for a year, starting months from now-- those developers have a naivete problem of their own). There are pieces of software that let them collaborate on projects-- they don't know how to use any of them. There are tools for including art and images and videos in one project and they don't know how to use any of them. And why do we keep reading stories about somebody who lost a job or a college spot because they posted something stupid on line? Because the vast majority of my students have no idea how the interwebs actually work.

In some cases it is tunnel vision-- they just use what they use, which is what they picked up from friends or the pre-loaded software on their device. In many cases, it's lack of access. A Pew Research Report from 2015 says that 17.5% of households with children have no internet access. That does not seem out of line with my own student population (though virtually all of my students have their own smartphones).

I have beaten my head against this cyberwall for years. I was hugely excited about the possibilities of web-based projects in which students could take 15 or 20 different works of literature and show a web of relationships between them-- far more complex stuff than could be managed in a traditional paper. But when I gave them the assignment, what I got was a traditional linear paper with each paragraph on its own page, linked so that the reader could go forward or back a paragraph.

I am not a thoughtless technophile, and I never implement tech just to do it. If it's not useful, I don't care. Where it is useful (I have replaced the traditional English teacher keep-em-writing practice of a paper journal with mandatory blogging for my students), I embrace it. But I have had to train and explore and learn myself first, because my digital natives are like people who have grown up in a big metropolitan city but only know their way around their own two-block neighborhood and don't even know the actual names of the streets there.

If you want to get your students into the technofuture, you are going to have to lead them there, just like you have to with Shakespeare and critical realism and new vocabulary words. That's the implication of this kind of article for teachers. The implications for people who think giving standardized tests on over-the-net software-- well, that's another discussion (spoiler alert: it's a bad idea).

Monday, June 19, 2017

PA: Islamophobes, Real Estate, and Scam Artists

I'll tell you right up front that this story raises more questions than it answers, but many of them are questions about just what comes through the door when you invite privatization in, and others are questions about how people react when they discover what an open door actually means.

The New Castle Youth Development Center was set up in about 1967 as a facility for dealing with "felonious youth." It was on almost 150 acres in rural Shenango Township, and it didn't attract a lot of attention (except for that time, back in the 1987-1988 season when its high school won the Western PA basketball championship).

In 2013, the state announced that the facility was closing. There were reasons given, but the math was pretty obvious. 210 employees. 100 beds. $19.4 million annual budget. 31 youths being held there. The end came quickly and local folks kicked, but the state-- which owned the facility-- was unmoved.

The state's intent was to sell the facility, but like many starry-eyed investment-minded homeowners, the state didn't read the market for fifty-year-old juvenile justice facilities in the middle of nowhere very well. They set an asking price of four million. Absolutely nobody bid. The property sat there, presumably getting no more attractive, the state's aspirations decreasing. A local coalition looked at buying the place with an eye to some sort of private-public partnership develop thing. That didn't happen, either.

Finally, this year, three bids came in. The top bid was $400,000, and the state said, "Sold!!"

And then local folks found out who the buyers were.

The top bid came from Hira Educational Services of North America, a New Jersey educational consulting group. That specializes in consulting work with Islamic schools. They look like a typical private school consulting group, the kind of group that has sprung up all over to help amateur hour school launchers navigate all the paperwork and finances of running an actual school.

Since the establishment of HESNA, over 200+ Islamic institutions and organizations throughout the United States have received counsel in the areas of strategic planning, board development, capital campaigns, recruitment searches, and executive coaching.

Reaction to the news has been... well, let's go with "not always representing the most egalitarian inclusive spirit of American diversity." Looking through the comments sections of local newspaper articles about this news is not for the faint-hearted; "horrible racist blather" covers much of it. Local authorities, like the county commissioners, were concerned that they knew nothing about their new neighbors-- including what those neighbors intend to do with the property. The story has also sent ripples out into the national wing-nut blogosphere (for example, this offensive racist post from a site called the Powdered Wig society; the Daily Caller has also picked up the story).

At this point in the story, we can stop to say, "I told you so." It was fairly predictable that the same folks who call for choice and vouchers and freedom from "government schools" (like, say, the Daily Caller) and who want to see tax dollars support religious schools were going to be shocked and upset when it turned out that "religious school" didn't automatically mean "Christian school." So, yeah-- if you want your tax dollars to "follow the child," some of your tax dollars are going to follow the child straight into an Islamic school, or a Buddhist school, or a satanic school, or (I'm just waiting) a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster school. Bottom line-- intolerant racist folk are not going to like some of the side effects of a choice policy.

But the story isn't quite that simple, because like many of these school consulting groups, HESNA looks kind of hinky.

For a group that has helped "200+" institutions, HESNA has a very tiny online footprint. Their LinkedIn page says nothing. Bizpedia indicates HESNA was founded in 2011. Asif Kunwar is listed as the founder and president of HESNA, but he's also left few footprints on line (though there is an Asif Kunwar who was a student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2010-2011). And the New Castle News learned that while Kunwar didn't sign the HESNA bid, one of the other two bids was a personal bid submitted under his name. The News also tried to track phone numbers for the group and found contradictory messes.The name is not helpful-- HIRA turns up in the name of many organizations, likely as a reference to the Cave of Hira, where Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed.

The website. Well. Links don't really go where you'd expect them to-- like subheadings that all lead to the same page. The subscription link for their e-newsletter is dead, is the link for viewing the latest edition of that newsletter. The facebook and twitter links just loop back to the HENSA page. Misspelled words. On one screen they declare "We arrange the occassionals events for the students to perform and watch show." They have a whole slide about "discriminition." A vision that doesn't seem tightly connected to reality--

To become top educational services consultant in North America.

The only thing the site gets remotely specific about is E-Rate, a grant program buried about five bureaucratic layers down in the FCC which gets tech stuff to schools and libraries. Your school may well be involved-- the program throws around about $2.5 billion annually. And just in case you're wondering about the criteria for E-Rate, HENSA's got your back: "The eligibility criteria or pre-requisites to acquire E-Rate discounts are well-defined and the recipients of the discount(s) must meet the required conditions." Hope that clears it up for you.

This guy may not have a clue what he's talking about. He may be one of the many groups that have sprung up to cash in by offering "consulting help" to private school entrepreneurs, and going Islamic is just his market niche. On the other hand, the infamous Gulen chain of charters appears to be a giant scam to use US tax dollars to fund a Turkish rebel government in exile. One thing that seems clear-- this is not a seasoned professional who knows his way around the private school world.

So like many groups we've seen spring up to get their hands on some of those sweet, sweet privatized education dollars, what we've got here is probably either some small time amateur bumbling around or some mid-level scam artist. But add a bunch of Islamophobic reaction,  and Pennsylvania may well blow this whole bad real estate deal up into some sort of ugly mess (it may also come to crashing halt when his first check bounces).  This is the awesome power of the private sector and the free market teaming up with state government, religion, real estate deals, and education. It could all be legit, it could be something shady, or it could be twelve types of baloney. Bottom line is that right now, nobody really knows.