Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why Foot Votes Can't Work

Vote with your feet.

That's the power choice advocates offer to parents, the magic wand that the invisible hand will use to unleash the power of the free market which will in turn make schools awesomely excellent (that last part is optional for some choice advocates who mostly just want to see the free market unleashed and aren't really concerned what happens after that).

There's a huge problem with that. I'm not talking about all the reasons that it's just wrong-- I'm talking about why it won't work.

In a school choice system, parents will not have any leverage for the same reason that fry cooks at McDonalds don't have any leverage-- they are a dime a dozen and easily replaced.

Let's say I'm operating a charter/choice school with 500 seats. Let's say that there are 500,000 students in the county in which I operate. I only need to capture a tiny sliver of the market to stay solvent. If a parent says, "You know, I'm not happy with this school, so I am going to vote with my feet," which of the following strikes us as a more likely response?

A) Charter CEO calls emergency meeting of board and administration. "All hands on deck!" He announces. "Parent #492 is unhappy and withdrawing their child. I need a task force to immediately find out why that parent was unhappy and the form another task force to redesign out instructional programs so that we can keep Parent #492 happy!"

B) Charter CEO says, "Whoop-dee-shit. Somebody go round up one of the other 499,500 students in the county to fill that seat."

In fact, cyber-charters in particular put huge effort into constantly recruiting fresh meat, while making virtually (har) no effort to alter their approach in response to all those foot voters.

A parental foot vote carries no weight. And since parents get their foot votes by trading away actual votes for board members, access to any transparency about school management or finances, and in some cases even simple access to people in charge, it's a lousy trade. The only thing they can do is that bipedal vote thing, and as we've seen, doesn't carry much weight.

"Vote with your feet" is just a nicer way for charter operators to say "Take it or leave it."

 Meanwhile, in places like New Orleans, Florida and North Carolina, legislators continue to aid the invisible hand by cutting the competition off at the knees. The more parents are driven toward charter/choice schools, the less those parents matter, and the easier charter operators have it. So let's systematically gut public education. If people won't venture out of the public school building-- if they won't vote with their feet the way we need them to-- then let's coax 'em out of that building by setting fire to it. Then it doesn't matter where the stampede heads-- as long as we can catch a sliver of it, we're good.

Foot voting is never going to empower parents. In fact, since foot voting requires parents to give up all other forms of leverage, it's an approach that leaves them with nothing but tired shoe leather.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dishonest Voucher Arguments

There are many arguments to be made for a school voucher program-- lord knows we've been hearing them for decades now. Some of them reveal a different concept of what public education is for, or a values system that gives more weight to entrepreneurial opportunity than actual education (it's more important to open markets than make sure that all children are getting an education). I disagree with these value choices, but I can at least recognize arguments that are built on those foundations.

But some voucher advocate build their arguments on smoke and unicorn farts and yeti holograms. There's a good display of this style of voucher advocacy at the National Review site this morning, courtesy of Will Flanders. Flanders is Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a way-right Bradley-funded thinky tank; he has a PhD from Florida State.

Flanders wants us to know it's time to stop pussy-footing around with vouchers and just use "the language of their intellectual progenitor, Milton Friedman." Because vouchers are not a form of welfare (because if they were, that would be awful).

Flanders opens that by arguing for vouchers based on fairness, voucheristas have short-circuited their case for vouchers vouchers everywhere, and if they want to expand, they will have to take a new rhetorical tack. (Because the education debates are not about education, but about PR strategy). If vouchers are to level the playing field for poor families, then we'll never be able to expand vouchers for wealthy families.

Then Flanders tries to make his This Is Totally Not Welfare argument.

There is a critical difference between school choice and most welfare programs. Social-welfare programs are redistributive — taking from those of means and giving to those without. School-choice programs are different. In their purest form, they take money that is earmarked for a student in a public school and transfer it to an alternative private school that the student’s parents believe will provide a better education. The money is spent regardless of where a student’s parents decide to send him to school.

There are several levels of high-grade baloney here.

One is a standard choicer sleight-of-hand. We're taking the students' money, the family's money and giving it to the choice school. Except we're not, because that money is taxpayer money. This is a dishonest argument because conservatives already know the counterargument because they unleashed it against the Bernie Sanders Free College for Everyone Plan. 

But Flanders can't admit that vouchers spend tax dollars because that would mean this IS welfare-- Wealthy McGotbucks pays his school taxes and the government gives a chunk of that money to a poor kid so that the poor kid can go to a private school. Voila-- redistribution of dollars. 

So to avoid the problem of arguing for what they hate, voucheristas have to pretend that the money is"spent regardless," like a pile of money that just magically appears wrapped up in a bag marked "school." But as anybody from Wisconsin can tell you, schools are paid for with tax dollars, and just like all other tax dollars, the extraction of school tax dollars is open to argument, negotiation and general circumvention. No conservative anti-tax folks are looking at the pile of school tax dollars and saying, "Well, clearly that's a cost we have to just keep paying and there's nothing we could do about it by way of lobbying or legislation or electing a governor bent on crushing the public sector."

Then Flanders is back to arguing that Friedman's ideas are really good. And from notions such as the idea that parents will be rational actors who pick schools based on hard data, and not folks making highly emotional decisions about their children while floating in a market clogged with asymetric information where the only "hard data" they have is marketing fluff from private schools-- well, Milton was full of it on that one. 

Nor is there any reason to accept, as Flanders does, the notion that having to "compete for students" will somehow create better schools, when the very notion of treating students like prizes to be collected rather than human beings to be served is a disastrous notion (for so many reasons, but consider this one-- in a system where students are prizes to be collected, some will be more valuable than others, and the ones who are least valuable will be the ones who most need the help of the school). 

As advocates, we cannot and should not abandon the fairness-based argument for school choice. But if we are to realize Milton Friedman’s vision of an educational free market, we must couple our appeals to fairness with appeals to the economic liberty on which his vision was based. American parents of all classes and income levels deserve nothing less.
I give Flanders credit for one thing-- at no point does he try to argue that achieving Friedman's goal would provide a better education for every student in this country. But he also fails to state the obvious-- that a voucher system would be, in effect, a federally-funded free market, which is its own special kind of oxymoron. Not that we don't have such things. 
To make sure that people don't go hungry, we collect a bunch of tax dollars and redistribute them, voucher-like, to some folks who then go buy food in a free market store. Flanders and his colleagues suggest that we collect tax dollars and redistribute them to some folks who then go buy school enrollment in a free market. Flanders seems to want to distinguish between these two by not means-testing recipients of school vouchers on the theory, I guess, that when you redistribute tax dollars to non-poor folks, it's not welfare. Which is one more reason that Flander's argument is not only wrong, but intellectually dishonest.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Forbes Says 18 Dumb Things

Forbes has some super-duper insights to offer about education, courtesy of Omri Ben-Sahar and Carl E. Schneider. If you don't recognize those names from the world of education, that's because Ben-Sahar is a "law professor at the University of Chicago, the editor of a leading academic journal, and a global expert on contract law and consumer market regulation" and Schneider is "the Chauncey Stillman Professor for Ethics, Morality, and the Practice of Law and is a Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Law School." In other words, one more set of experts who are public education amateurs.

With its title, "Teacher Certification Makes Public School Education Worse, Not Better" announces its intention to be outrageous, and it does not disappoint. It's a short article, but it squeezes in 18 dumb things. Let's count them of:

1) Who does not believe that education is vital, that it is crucial to personal success, economic prosperity, and social mobility?

According to several pieces of research, social mobility is stalled in this country. Educational inequity is more appropriately viewed as a symptom, but for some folks, portraying education as the cure-all for our current rampant inequity uses schools as a convenient whipping boy and lets every other creator of inequity off the hook. Meanwhile, what does the data show about the rich and successful folks of this country-- are they rich and successful because of their great education?

2) America has excellent higher education. Yet primary and secondary school students have long performed poorly on tests compared with students from many industrialized countries.

I'll remind you that the authors work in higher education. The old "score badly on standardized test" factoid is well-worn, but pointless unless you're willing to offer evidence that the score actually means something. Do low test scores correspond to some measurable dip in American prosperity? Did we get President Trump or the Great Recession of 2009 because standardized test scores took a dive those years?

3) This chart

The US is spending more money all the time, and the other lines on the chart don't justify it and still our test scores don't go up (though why we don't throw that line on the chart too, I do not know). And we have no interest in considering any possible explanations for increased expenditures for education. Just keep it simple-- we spend All This Money!

4) The key to successful education is to attract good teachers.

Yup. Teachers are the only important factor in education, meaning, of course, that everything that ever goes wrong with education is the teachers' fault.

5) We can try to do so by raising teachers’ salaries (as commonly advocated). But this strategy also seems to fail, partly because higher incomes go to both good teachers and bad, giving bad teachers as much incentive as good ones to become and remain teachers.

There are several things wrong with this. Take your pick. You could start with the dopey notion that "good" and "bad" are solid state characteristics of teachers, like height or hair color. But lets look at some others.

One theory is that if you offer more money, you increase the pool of teacher hires and then-- then- you get to pick only the good ones.  You could even use money to outbid other districts for the top people. Or-- and here's a radical notion-- you might believe that teachers respond to incentives other than cold, hard cash, like respect and support and cushy offices. After all-- isn't that why you higher education stick around even for low collegiate pay?

Finally, folks who have never spent time in an actual classroom tend to seriously underestimate how taxing it is to be to teach poorly. Of all the jobs in the world that a person can drudge away at, day after day of disengaged misery just to get a paycheck, teaching is by far the worst. Sure, some people head toward teaching because they think it will be easy; the figure out otherwise pretty quickly. Students are unforgiving and the work is demanding, even when you half-ass it. You've seen the figures on the huge number of teachers who quit the field within the first few years-- do you think perhaps a large portion of those are people who aren't so great at the work?

Teaching badly is hard and taxing. Not that many people are going to keep at it just for the check.

6) Higher standards make things worse.

After dismissing higher pay, the writers consider tougher standards. And then they reject that idea.

For two reasons. First, more stringent certification standards do little to keep out bad teachers. Second, such standards deter excellent prospects from entering teaching.

They have part of a point here, arguing that we don't know how to identify and test for teacherly excellence. But then there's #2-- the idea that higher standards reduce the teaching pool. Wouldn't you like to see some kind of support for that odd idea? Well, too bad. The writers will repeat the assertion two more times, and throw in the idea that teaching standards also create teacher shortages, but at no point will they offer any evidence or support. Nope-- the best teacher candidates want to enter a field with low standards.

7) It is no surprise, then, that researchers find little difference between teachers with or without a certificate. Allowing genuine alternatives to certification thus does not hurt the quality of learning (and even can improve it, some studies suggest).

Sigh. Once again, by "little difference" what we mean is "little difference in scores on a single narrowly focused standardized test." Which simply doesn't qualify as a measure of teacher quality. Another of the link takes us to the work of Eric Hanushek, which has been refuted more often than a Ouija board reading.

8) If we want schools to hire better teachers, we should expand, not contract, the pool from which schools may draw.

What was that part about not raising the pay for teachers? But let's not expand the pool by making teaching more attractive-- let's just open up the job to anybody with a warm pulse.

9) It also creates teacher shortages, especially in chronically understaffed subjects like science and math, in poor communities, and in schools with high proportions of minority students. Budgets are not to blame (they have not been cut). Licensing barriers are the culprits.

Yup. People are just lined up to take those jobs. And there's a clear training and career path for anybody who wants those jobs. But somehow, it's the need to get a teaching license that's holding them back. And certainly not any factors that make the job less attractive, like pay or treatment or support or respect.

10) The writers have been comparing teachers to doctors and lawyers, but argue that doctors and lawyers have a body of knowledge that can be easily tested. But there's another reason that teachers don't need the same kind of licensing as other professions.

Doctors and lawyers are also hired by people not competent to judge their performance. No such protection against bad teachers is needed because they are hired not by individuals but by experienced administrators.

I don't even know what to do with the idea that doctors and lawyers are hired by incompetents. But I do know what to do with the idea that experienced administrators can be the gatekeepers of the profession. First, not all administrators are experienced. Second, since organizations like Teach for America and Relay Graduate School have opened the profession  to anyone with a pulse, I'm not prepared to assume that every administrator is fit to sort teachers.

11) By far, the most effective way to improve teacher quality is to require administrators to selectively retain, after the first few years of experience, only the more effective teachers.

But administrators can do this now. Administrators can totally catch or release whatever teaching fish they catch. So what could be the barrier the writers are concerned about. Oh, come on-- you know. We've been slow to getting to this, but here we go.

The biggest barrier to improving teacher quality is therefore union contracts that block such selective retentions and, with lock step pay, eliminate success-based compensation.

Yes, those damned unions.

It's not clear to me what "selective retention" the union thwarts, but the assumption here that "success-based competition" would somehow improve teaching is a deeply dumb idea without the slightest bit of support. In fact, Microsoft abandoned it and Sears is currently dying from it.

12) Truth be told, incumbents like licensing because it reduces competition from entrants, keeps incomes high, and raises the status. Why else require florists, manicurists, or auctioneers to get licenses to cut flowers, nails, or deals. Do you really need 300 hours of supervised training to shampoo hair safely (in Tennessee)? Or seven years of training to be an interior designer (in DC)?

Yes, teaching is pretty much like being a florist. And licensing professions is just about keeping all the goodies for yourself. Because lord knows, by keeping a lock on the profession, teachers (and florists) have reaped huge financial rewards and awesome status in society.

Of course, it's also possible consumers like to know that somebody has actually checked out the person who's doing the work. It's also possible that people in a given profession have a stake in sharing that profession with people who are competent and who don't give their colleagues a bad name.

13) We are so committed to the idea of teacher certification that eliminating it may take getting used to.

Particularly if nobody ever makes a good case for doing it.

14) American higher education (we observed) is world class in ways that American primary and secondary education are not. Yet university faculty members are not certified to teach.

Please. Professors Ben-Sahar and Schneider both have very advanced degrees, because you don't get to be a university professor without a terminal degree (and, in some cases, publication).
University faculty go through their own sort of special certification. And regardless of their high self-regard, I've spoken to more than a few former students who agreed that no, their college professors aren't certified-- or qualified-- to teach.

15)  Instead, any college that develops a reputation for a weak faculty will struggle to attract students and the tuition they pay.

Colleges will be comparable to public K-12 schools on the day that all students must attend college and no colleges can select their own student body. In the meantime, saying that teaching staffs will be kept in line by free market forces is skipping a whole argument in which someone successfully makes the case for turning public education into a free market system (spoiler alert: such a case can't be made).

16) For many years, Americans have been admonished to pay more to get educations comparable to those many other countries provide. Americans have paid more but have not gotten that education.

Oh, passive voice. Who exactly has been doing this admonishing? And "comparable" in what way? And how do we know we haven't gotten it.

17) Abolishing certification requirements is not only virtually costless, but it would eliminate the onerous costs certification exacts.

Virtually costless? Letting any warm body walk into a classroom is virtually costless? I do agree that the cost of becoming certified has become onerous in some states, but that's an easy fix-- pointless programs like EdTPA could be shut down tomorrow.

18) And it offers the best hope of bringing more capable people into the teaching that all agree is so vital.

This is the final line of the article, and nothing in it has been proven in any of the lines that came before. Great teachers are somehow born and not made, and they alone can fix everything, and they are apparently distributed randomly throughout the population. Somehow by lowering standards, lowering pay, destabilizing pay, and removing job security, we will attract more of them and flush them out.

That's 18 dumb things in one short article. I suppose Forbes could get better articles if they paid less and let anybody write for them.

ICYMI: Hot and Sticky Edition (7/23)

I don't have a lot for you this week, but what's here is, as we say, cherce. 

A Detailed Critique of a PBS Run Education Documentary

PBS has seen fit for $ome rea$on to run an advertorial for school privatization. Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch here provide a detailed rebuttal. You'll want this for that dinner when your brother-in-law opens with, "Hey, I saw this thing on PBS that says you all suck."

Teacher Tests Test Teachers

Rachel Cohen with a great piece about how VAM and its ilk are increasingly coming under well-deserved attack.

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing

Paul Thomas takes a look at writing instruction and the importance of shared terminology.

Why Teachers Need To See Themselves as Experts

Jose Luis Vilson on one of my pet peeves-- the teacherly tendency to be all humble and yield the mantle of expert to folks who don't deserve it.

The Deep Irony in Betsy DeVos First Speech on Special Education

This will be the ongoing mystery of DeVos as ed secretary-- does she know she contradicts herself, or does she just not care.

The Many Ways We Are Deprofessionalizing Teaching

Do you read Nancy Flanagan every week? You should. Here she is looking at just how badly, widely and deeply folks are chipping away at the teaching profession.

Want To Kill Your Economy? 

Not strictly an education piece, but a clear look at how MBAs who are takers rather than makers have been blowing a hole in the economy. At a minimum this is a good piece to keep in mind every time someone starts talking about approaching education like a business.

The Economist Doesn't Do Their Homework

The Economist decided to offer its own special view of the newest wave of ed tech this week, and it's just further proof that when economists try to talk about education, it carries all the authority of Justin Bieber explaining quantum physics. It would not be worth the bother, except that this continued phenomenon of people who don't know education explaining education to other people who don't know education-- well, this is how bad ideas get into the world and keep flapping around loose. We need a new word-- maybe "economsplain"-- for when economists try to mansplain teaching to teachers.

The piece starts well enough. Once upon a time B. F. Skinner decided to create teaching machines but after a burst of interest, they just kind of lost steam. But that mini history lesson is to set up the next paragraph--

Since then education technology (edtech) has repeated the cycle of hype and flop, even as computers have reshaped almost every other part of life. One reason is the conservatism of teachers and their unions. But another is that the brain-stretching potential of edtech has remained unproven.

Emphasis mine. I marvel sometimes at the awesome power of my profession. What is teh alleged narrative here-- ed tech people have come up with awesome programs that totally worked and were beloved by students and families and everyone was poised to make them a widespread hit, but teachers folded our arms and said, "I don't care if my students are learning, this shall not stand"? Is that it?

Or could it be the second part-- the "remained unproven" part. The "some ed tech amateur's idea of a great program for learning turns out to be a total dud with live students" part.

On some level, the Economist seems to sort of get this. They've bought the idea that Zuckerberg et al are now going to change the world with "personalized learning" (so you know they've been reading the press releases that come across their desk). Still, they can see at least part of the problem:

This could help hundreds of millions of children stuck in dismal classes—but only if edtech boosters can resist the temptation to revive harmful ideas about how children learn. To succeed, edtech must be at the service of teaching, not the other way around.

That is the perennial ed tech pitch-- "Teachers, this tool will totally help you if you just stop doing what you've been hired to do and do something else" or "Just change your whole job to fit the tool we want to sell you." Kind of like telling builders, "These revolutionary welding rods will help you build houses faster, as long as you stop building houses out of wood or brick."

But then we're back to the good old standard scare stats-- like only 30% of teens in OECD countries become proficient in science, math or reading. What does that really mean, and how do we think we know such a thing? Never mind-- just believe that you've got trouble right here in International River City!

And computers alone can't fix it! No, really! Many schools have computers, and the sky is still falling! Simply running school stuff through a computer does not make it magically effective! Also, in other news, water is wet and the sun will set in the West tonight. This is one of the unending dances of reforminess-- some edu amateur runs up to breathlessly announce, "I have a sudden insight!!" that they then share and teachers are just too generally polite to say, "No shit, Sherlock."

The Economist is excited about some of what's out there, from which we can only include they failed to do their homework on this piece. For instance, they toss out the Summit personalized education thing, noting that Facebook engineers created it "for free" but failing to mention that it is Zuckerberg's baby-- so they worked on it for free by working on it while Zuckerberg paid their regtular salary? Is that free? But Summit is troubling in many, many ways which highlight one of the problems of "Personalized Learning," because Summit does not resemble an education program so much as an education-flavored data mining program. And while The Economist later notes that PL cannot do away with actual teachers, Summit is designed to do just that (all you need is a "mentor").

The writers also declare that PL must narrow achievement gaps (which is problematic in ways that you can see if you just imagine education as a race between slow and fast runners-- how exactly do you close that gap) and then they cite Rocketship Academy or Achievement First. Rocketship is a great example of all the things that can be wrong with ed tech, and an example of how the initial bloom can quickly turn to blight

And here's one of those ridiculous 99%-go-on-to-college stats, the easiest stat in the world to produce. If you want all your graduates to go to college, just make sure that any students unlikely to go to college never become graduates.

Finally, the Economist notes that success depends on teachers embracing ed tech. But they are still sidestepping the key issue:

They are right to ask for evidence that products work. But scepticism should not turn into Luddism.

False dichotomy. Because mostly what happens is we ask for evidence. Sometimes we even suspend judgment and see what kind of evidence we can collect in our own classroom. And then when the evidence doesn't appear, we move on. That's not Luddism. That's just doing our job, which includes doing our homework. And if the Economist wants to econosplain ed tech to us, they should do their homework first.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dear E: Time Management

Dear E:

As the calendar clicks closer to your departure for your first teaching job, I'm going to continue with my offerings of Useful Things To Know. It's been a while since I was a first year teacher, but I've certainly watched plenty start out since then, so I can pass on what I've seen.

I'm sure your college gave you some of the standard practical rules for teaching. Don't smile until Christmas. Make friends with the secretaries. But here's one of the major things they never tell you when you're starting out.

There won't be enough time.

Everything takes longer than you expect it to, and lots of things you end up doing over as you discover how you should have done it the first time. Grading papers. Scoring tests. Entering grades in the gradebook. Creating lesson plans and designing materials and then redoing all of it based on how well things went the first time. In my first year, I made the mistake of living across the street from my high school. I got up in the morning, ate, walked to school, did as much paperwork as I could before classes started, taught all day, worked in my room for an hour or two, walked home, got some supper and sat on the couch with supper and a stack of papers on the coffee table in front of me and worked till I went to bed. Rinse and repeat. On Saturdays and Sundays, more of the same. And that wasn't enough.

Granted, I'm an English teacher, and that comes with some expectations about paperwork, but your discipline isn't that different. We all start out with a well-developed idea about what a Really Good Teacher would be doing, and then we have the slowly dawning realization that we won't be able to do this.

The point here is not to discourage you. The point is for you to realize that 1) this is normal and 2) it gets better.

You can focus on all the things you aren't getting done and all the ways in which you aren't measuring up the image of a Really Good Teacher, and by focusing on the negatives, you can convince yourself that you suck and are no good at this and you've made a terrible mistake in your career choice.

Don't do that.

This is normal.

The longer you do this, the more efficient you will become. You will be faster at doing things, and you will be smarter about what things need to be done. In the meantime, the need to perform pedagogical triage, to figure out how best to use the not-enough-time you have, is a great opportunity to reflect on your practice, to teach even more mindfully. It will be a chance to think about what is most important and how best to work toward that objective. This is a great opportunity, so embrace it and don't beat yourself up when you drop a ball or two. Every part of this process is a chance to get better. It is why even the roughest first year in the classroom can teach a teacher more than all four years of college.

One last note on the too-little-time thing. No matter how behind and beleaguered you feel, take time to care for yourself. Skype your brothers and niece and nephews. Play a dumb game. Watch a dumb show. If you are a scrapped down shell of a person, you can't give your students what they need. This will take all of your time if you let it, but you have to save some time selfishly for yourself. You're out of college now-- this is a great time to drop the high-maintenance relationships from your life, because you don't really have time for them.

You can totally handle this. Now get back to packing-- you don't have much time left.


Friday, July 21, 2017

How To Recruit Teachers

There isn't a teacher shortage. Not really. But there is a shortage of districts and states that are successfully attracting people to teach careers. If I can't get a dealer to sell me a Lexus for $1.98, that does not mean there is an automobile shortage. The "teacher shortage" is really a shortage of $1.98 teachers.

Something is wrong. Not only do we have a drastic drop in the number of proto-teachers in the pipeline, but the profile of the teacher pool is off. The teacher pool is overwhelmingly female and white. Males and minorities are not represented in the teaching force in numbers that remotely resemble the demographics of our student population.

So how do we get and keep the teachers that we need?

After all, it ought to be easy. No other profession gets to pitch itself to every single young person who could possibly pursue it. So what are we missing?

To understand how to recruit teachers, we just have to remember how the teachers we have found their way to the classroom. And the most important thing to remember is how they start.

It's not a deep, complicated thing. Almost every teacher in a classroom started out as a student in a classroom, and that student had two simple thoughts--

1) I kind of like it here in school.

2) I can see myself doing that teaching thing.

That's it. If we get a student to harbor those two thoughts in his teenaged cranium, we have successfully created the seed from which a future teacher could grow. But looking at those two thoughts can also tell us where our edugardening has gone awry.

Kind of like it here.

No excuses. Speak when you're spoken to. School to prison pipeline. Assumption that black and brown students are a problem. Crumbling buildings. Lack of even basic supplies like books and paper. Curriculum that is centered on test prep. 

None of these are going to make a student feel as if school is just like a second home. And schools that carry the greatest weight of discrimination and mistreatment are the greatest anti-recruitment. If you have made a student feel unwanted, unwelcome and unsupported in school at age fifteen, why would that same student consider returning to school at age twenty-two?

I can see myself doing this.

The most fundamental part of this is the modeling of staff. It's hard (not impossible, but damn hard) to imagine myself doing a job if I can't see anybody like myself doing the job.

Beyond that, students will be influenced by what they think the job is, the job that they see teachers doing. Are male teachers of color responsible for breaking up all the fights in the building? Do coaches get to follow a different set of rules than other staff? Do lady teachers have to keep their heads down and never talk back to a male boss? Do some teachers spend half their time doing drill and drill and worksheet band dull, boring drill? Any such unwritten rules are noted by students, and factor into how appealing the job might be.

Do students see that teachers struggle financially, holding down extra jobs to make ends meet? Do students see their teachers treated with respect? Do students see teachers supported with resources and materials, or do they have to buy supplies out of their own pockets? Do they see the job turned into a low pay, low autonomy, de-professionalized drudge? These factors also affect whether students can see themselves living the teaching life.

The Path

Of course, there's more care required for these early seeds reach full flower. College teacher programs may support the fledgling teacher or throw more obstacles in the path (I often wonder how many male teachers of color we lose to repeated "Well, what the hell are you doing here?") Then we get to the luck of the draw with the match-up for student teaching, and finally, the problem of individual district hiring practices.

The Circle

And then we arrive back in the classroom, where the person who was once a student may have to withstand one more assault on their desire to teach. And we don't have time to get into all of that yet again.

Retention is a huge problem, easily as big as recruitment, but here's the irony-- the recruitment problem and the retention problem are the same problem, because the best way to recruit the teachers of tomorrow is by giving support and respect to the teachers of today. You cannot dump all over today's teachers and expect students to say, "Oh, yeah, I'd love to jump into that pool of pooh."  You cannot reduce teaching to mindless meat widget drudgery and expect students to say, "yes! Someday I want to be a soul-sucked functionary, too."

Of course, there are folks out there for whom the death of the teaching profession is a goal, not a problem. But for the rest of us, the path is relatively simple and clear. Elevate and support the teaching profession, and the people who look at it in action every day will want to join in. If you want good seeds, you have to tend to the plants that are already growing.

Dear E: Mind the Old Farts

Dear E:

You have landed your first teaching gig straight out of college. That's a great thing. Back in 1979, I landed my first job on the sixteenth try-- and then was laid off at the end of my first year, after which I came back here, where it took me several more years to move from covering sabbaticals to getting a job of my own. And as you know, it took my wife several years to finally land a gig of her own. Despite everything you've heard about a teacher shortage, it can still be tough to land a job straight out of school, so kudos to you.

You're getting packed and ready (congrats on the new apartment) because you leave in about a week, so I won't get to see you long enough to ramble on like an old teaching fart. Instead, I'm just going to write you letters which I'll stash here where they're easy to find. You are both a former student and family-- it's the least I can do. Ha.

You're headed for Kansas, which means you are probably going to encounter that a species that exists in almost every school-- the cranky old farts.

Cranky old farts are not always actually old; I've known teachers who were cranky old farts in their twenties. But when I say "mind the old farts" I mean it in the same way as "mind the first step" or "mind the poison ivy by the door."

Cranky old farts will not only tell you why you're making a mistake to work in their district, but why you should avoid teaching altogether. Kansas in particular has had it pretty rough for several years now, and I expect that many of your future co-workers are feeling pretty beaten down. They are going to tell you how the pay sucks and how the work conditions suck and how the gummint is totally screwing up the teaching profession these days.

Ignore them.

It's true that education is a complicated minefield these days, and it's true that in your career, you won't be able to close the door and safely ignore everything that's going on outside.

But this is the work you have been preparing for for four years now. You are excited about this, and you should be, because this is exciting and important work. You are going influence the course of peoples' lives. You are going to run your own classroom. You are going to be a real by-God teacher, and that should feel pretty damn awesome.

You do not have to apologize to anyone for your excitement and enthusiasm or the time and effort you put into doing the work. When people ty to bait you into denigrating the job ("Boy, you must have been desperate to take a position here"), you are absolutely entitled to fix them with your big, youthful smile and say, "I'm happy to have a job here. Who wouldn't be?"

Don't get bogged down in the side crap. There will be time in you career to worry about all the other stuff, but for right now just go ahead and put all your time and energy into doing the work the best you can. This is going to be one of the most intense, amazing, exciting years of your life-- savor that and don't let anybody take away from that.

Love, PAG

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Petrilli's Retro Stool Sample

At the Thomas Fordham, Mike "Ed Reporters Call Me First" Petrilli is engaged in a little summary, prognostication, and cheerleading for philanthropists, but mostly, a retelling of many favorite  reformster tales from yesteryear. "Education philanthropy and the unfinished business of policy reform" opens with what may well be a True Thought--

The era of hyperactive education policymaking is about to come to an end.

The states will take back power through ESSA plans. The DeVosian voucher dream will die in Congress. The USED will lapse into sleepy inaction. In short, Petrilli envisions the center of action to be shifting away from lawmakers (oh, please, let him be right this time), and so his eyes turn to the philanthropists.

Petrilli and I probably disagree about what constitutes philanthropy these days. Modern Phauxlanthropists aren't really giving gifts to Good Works, and their work is no more philanthropy than when I hand a tailor a "gift" of money in hopes that he will "gift" me with a pair of pants. If you expect some Quo for your Quid Pro, it's not philanthropy-- it's a transaction.

Petrilli uses some Very Special Language to cover that-- my personal favorite is when he starts to sum up Our Story So Far and says

Yet over the course of the past two decades, generous philanthropists helped to build a robust policy infrastructure that rests on high expectations for students.

Emphasis mine. That is a great, great euphemism, and sounds so much more generous than, say,

Over the past two decades, some rich guys have spent a lot of money creating pathways for circumventing the democratic process in this country.

Petrilli is here to talk about the "three-legged stool" of standards-based reform, and what a stool it is. The three legs are standards, tests, and accountability. You know, I think I've seen this stool before. Let's take a look at those three legs of the stool that Petrilli declares "finally sturdy"


Petrilli notes that the Common Core are still out and about in some form, and if by "in some form" you mean "shambling decayed zombie version of their former selves" then, yes, they're still about, under new names and with far more alterations than the 15% additions that were originally allowed. They look different everywhere, but I think the most important thing to remember about the Core is that after several years, classroom teachers have performed their own adaptations to the original standards, throwing some things out and putting some things back that the standards originally called for. Everyone who says they think the standards are awesome is lying about following them.

Because, and I can't believe we have to have this conversation again, the Common Core standards are junk. No, they will not turn our children into communist lesbians, but they're junk. They were created without any teacher input, and it shows. They were created without any reference to standards in other countries, and it shows. And they were created without any conversation ever about whether or not having a bunch of standards really improves the quality of education.


Petrilli says that half of the Common Core states still use the PARCC and SBA, which is a clever way of saying that hardly any states use these tests, which turned out to be expensive and, again, junk. After all these years, there isn't a lick of evidence to suggest that doing well on the Big Standardized Test is indicative of anything except doing well on the test.

These are by far the most toxic byproduct of reform, as test-centered accountability has pushed every school in the country to teach to the test-- and even if the test was awesome (it's not) and measured really solid standards (it doesn't), teaching to the test is still educational malpractice.


Yeah, we don't have that, either. In fact, after years of throwing the word around, we still don't have any idea what we're talking about. Accountability to whom? Parents? Students? Taxpayers? Government bureaucrats? Politicians? Thinky tank guys? Philanthropists who want to see a return on their investment? And accountability for what? Growth? Ready for life? Meeting needs of students? Job preparation? Helping America? Helping the students? Helping the community? Teacher quality? School quality?

We don't really know what we mean by "accountability" and not surprisingly, we don't have any kind of measuring instrument that works. VAM is a ridiculous botch, and we don't really have anything else! Test scores. That's it-- the desired outcome of the great American institution of education is supposed to be a good score on a bad test.

So, Next?

Petrilli hears that Phauxlanthropists are looking for their next big investment opportunity, and his thought is that they should turn from "policy to practice." It's not enough to have Gates and Walton and Broad telling me what the underlying policies of my work should be-- they should now hunker down and tell me exactly how to do that work.

Mind you, Petrilli thinks they should keep their eyes on the stool because those legs are " under relentless attack from traditional education groups and libertarians alike" (so welcome, libertarians, to the resistance, I guess) and again, I can't say this enough-- those things are under attack because they are largely junk, and while a decade ago they were speculative junk, they are now tested-and-failed junk.

Now that we’ve got a set of stable, rigorous standards; challenging, honest assessments; and fair, transparent school ratings, the action is in helping schools help kids make progress. Funders are wise, then, to focus on new initiatives around curriculum development and adoption, student assignments and grading, next-generation professional development, and efforts to integrate technology and personalized learning into the classroom.

No, Mike. Just, no-- we don't now have any of those things. And no, I do not need some amateur hour philanthropist writing my curriculum for me or telling me what assignments to give or how to grade them. What in the name of God's green earth makes you think that Bill Gates or Eli Broad or any other deep-pocketed money-tosser knows anything at all about how to do these things?

But Petrilli is sure that teachers are handing out high grades "willy-nilly" and principals are just shuttling students through and Kids These Days are graduating all stupid and stuff. So as we fix education, we must be sure not to involve any actual professional educators, because they are screwing everything up (wow, it's like it's 2012 all over again).

Petrilli does identify computer-centered Personalized Learning as something fraught with all sorts of problems.

So what's the solution to all of this chicken littling?

And the only answer that stands up to scrutiny, I fear, is standards that are actually enforced. We need external assessments of whether students have demonstrated their competence and are genuinely ready for their next step. That inevitably means more testing—and real consequences linked to student performance.

But here's the thing-- we do not know which standards must be met in order for a student to proceed to her next step. We don't. And "real consequences" for failing the test can only mean one thing-- held back a grade and/or denied a diploma. Do we have any proof that such things help? Or is this just one more manifestation of that old Grumpy Old Fart impulse-- "Dammit-- these kids are going to do as I say, or else." Because any real teacher can tell you what a mistake it is to go down that road.

Notice, too, where we need more responsibility to land-- not on efforts to minimize the impact of poverty and racism, but on kids who need to suck it up. As with classic reformspiel, there is no acknowledgement that factors outside school matter. We just need to rustle up some standards and consequences and those kids won't be distracted by their poverty or hunger or the fact that their school is collapsing because the Powers That Be don't want to waste a bunch of money fixing up a school for Those Peoples' Children. Nope-- we just have to push the kids harder.

And what retro party would be complete without this classic:

That’s the sort of policy that other advanced countries take for granted, and that help to explain their superior student performance

Yes, once again we are reminded how a nation's students scores correlate directly to that nation's international success. That's why Estonia is a world leader-- because test scores.

I realize you can't raise money by announcing that a crisis is over, but this is just old rewarmed hash, a pile of "We need bicycles because a vest has no sleeves" and "If I keep saying something is true, that makes it true." Petrilli's stool is barely a frisbee, and it's long past time to toss that discus into the bay so we can go looking for a different stool.

Back the Hell Up

And there it was, the question cutting through the various nuanced and complicated discussions of the various threads of ed policy, privatization, and the Newest Big Thing for making a buck in education changing the face of education.

What do you want?

If you don't like X or Y or Z, what is it you want?

Here it is. My short, simple answer for what I want to see in a perfect world.

I want bureaucrats and politicians and business people and profiteers and other interested amateurs to just back the hell up and let the professionals work.

When the call goes out for an expert in education, I want the call to go a real live experienced classroom teacher. This morning Jose Luis Vilson has a great piece about the need for teachers to view-- and treat-- ourselves as experts. I want that.

There's more I'd like. I'd like the US to really commit to great education for every student, instead of quietly being okay if Those Kids don't get it because that would be expensive. We're unwilling to admit that we're okay with lousy schools for Some People's Children as long as it's not too expensive, and so instead of making a spare-no-expense commitment to education for every child, we get politicians and bureaucrats and profiteers trying to figure out a way to support public education on the cheap and at a profit, while wrapping it in a bunch of rhetorical bullshit so that it can pretend to be more than it is (personalized-ish learning, common core, even charters, et al). We are having way too many conversations in education where one's side position is, "I don't really have any expertise in this field, but I believe X would be a great way to look like we're doing better without too much money or effort or allowing teachers too much autonomy, plus somebody could make money selling this." This is all bullshit. I'd like a real conversation about how to really get great education, really, to every single child. Because the conversations we're having are too often (not always, thank God) fundamentally dishonest, and dishonesty is just tiring.

Just give us the tools we need. Hell, treat us like the military and give us tools we only sort of think we might maybe need. Let us get the training we need (and let us decide what that is).

And then back the hell up and let us work.

Accountability? Hell, yeah. Come sit in my classroom. Come ask me what I'm doing and why. Ask my students about the class. If you don't like what you see or hear, come talk to me about it. But don't try to micromanage me and give me a million items to tick off on a list and write my lessons and curriculum for me because you're sure that if you could just remote control me, I'd do a better job.

Back the hell up and let me do my job.

Let me study up and become an expert in my subject area, and let me practice up to become an expert in the actual work of teaching. Let me figure out how best to meet each student where she is and help her move further on the road to her own best self. And yes-- trust me to exercise my professional judgment.

Yes, I know I'm fantasizing here, that there are a plethora of obstacles to implementing my vision and stakeholders to read in and just general reality. But you asked what I want, and bottom line, this is what I want--

Back the hell up and let me work.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The "Real" Reformsters

The Center for Education Reform is a pro-privatization group that has, at least, the virtue of not pretending that it has any interest in building bridges or honoring any single part of public education. Where other reformsters may be thoughtful or interested in dialogue or evolving over time or staking out a rhetorical middle ground, CER is the Yosemite Sam of the reformster universe, leaping in with guns blazing and mouth flapping. Give them this much-- you don't have to wonder what they're really

Take this classic piece from 2014-- "How To Spot a Real Education Reformer"-- in which some unnamed CER functionary combines a codification of privatizer creed with a straw man assault on the rest of us. It's an instructive piece because it does list the hard-core reformster talking points.

These days, everyone is “for” education reform. But when everyone claims to favor “reform,” how can you tell the real reformers (“the doers” who are focused on real results for students) from the rest (“the talkers” who are more concerned about maintaining the status quo)? 

Got that? Nobody actually opposes any reformster ideas-- those folks with reasoned arguments against this stuff just don't exist. But Nameless Functionary will now walk us through the tenets of reformsterdon, topic by topic.

Education in General

Real reformsters don't admit poverty as any sort of excuse. RR believe that the only accountability is accountability based on test scores. Parents should have control of who gets the money attached to their child. And innovation should happen because the US education sky is falling.

 Big fakes talk accountability without explaining it, "banter on" about how poverty actually affects students, and try to claim pre-school as a growth for old, faily public ed instead of letting privatizers stake out that market unchallenged.

You'll note that the tune for the accountability polka has changed a bit since 2014-- choice fans are less attached to the idea of test-based accountability now that it hasn't worked out so well for choicey programs. In fact, CER just cranked out a whole book on the theme of "Maybe we shouldn't get so picky about accountability and test scores." Weaponizing test results was only attractive when the weapons didn't bite reformsters in the butt.

Teachers Unions

Real reformsters know that unions suck and stand in the path of every good and true reformy idea. Contracts and job security somehow make people not want to be teachers. RR understand that the public school system is just a scam for the unions to suck up tax dollars for their political purposes

Faux reformers-- well, I'm just going to cut and paste this, because if I paraphrase the hatred here you'll think I'm just exaggerating for effect:
  • Issues gobs of praise for the teaching profession, for teachers in general, and begins to make excuses that the job is really much harder than most realize and never fully addresses what stands in their way.
  • Discusses, proposes, or advocates having an honest conversation with the union leadership, who (s)he sincerely believes wants what’s best for children.
These fake reformsters might even brag about having developed a policy by collaborating with teachers. Such people are traitors to the reformy agenda and must be purged. Teachers suck and have no interest in educating children, nor do they care about children or communities or anything.

School Choice

Real reformsters support parent choice, and the focus on creating an "environment" where lots of education flavored businesses can thrive. Because really, it's all about using education tax dollars to provide private businesses with entrepreneurial opportunities.

Fake reformsters bring up "misleading claims" that vouchers don't actually work. Oh, Jeanne Allen of 2014-- if only you could have known then how great 2017 would be for people who want to deny research and science and facts.

FR also make comments about how choiice schools cream and don't have to take all students as public schools do. Nameless Functionary doesn't even try to offer a theory of how those folks are wrong, though NF does allude to the old market-competition-improvemenyt baloney.

Charter Schools

Real reformsters want to see charters authorized by independent groups (aka unelected folks who don't have to answer to the taxpayers whose money they spend on charters). RR also-- and this is kind of astonishing-- believe there is no magic formula for judging what a “good” charter school looks like during the application phase. So those independent authorizers should exercise no oversight at all. Anyone who wants to start a charter should get the tax dollars to do it.

FR make excuses about why their market might not be good for charters. They speak against for-profit charters which, Functionary tells us, do not actually exist! Oh, and watch out for those who "support" charters by advocating to lift caps. There should be no caps. Charters should get all of everything they want, always.

Performance Pay

Real reformsters understand that we "honor" teachers by making them compete for piddling pay, because nobody really wants consistent, reliable pay.

The fakers only want some of teacher pay to be based on performance, or to let local district define excellence in various different ways. This is bad, apparently-- just pay teachers based on students scores.

Federal Education Policy

Oh, 2014. What fun times those were. Real reformsters wanted to tweak NCLB, but believed that the feds should only gather data and conduct nonpartisan research to support policymaking. Fake reformsters thought RTTT actually accomplished something, and thought the waivers were swell.

Of course, now that we have Trump-DeVos in DC, let's just forget about that part where the USED only does research and collects data. Let's go ahead and grab the reins and just slam vouchers into place from coast to coast, with federal money. Turns out that powerful activist federal departments are just fine when they favor your policies.

Digital Learning

Which always makes me think of counting on my fingers, but never mind that. Real reformsters love online learning because-- and again, I'll cut and paste-- reformsters recognize

the role businesses, which have transformed the nation’s infrastructure, can play in the creation and delivery of online learning.

The fakers think online learning should be developed and managed by school districts (who are they to hog all that money). Also, beware of people who think you've innovated if you just stick a computer in each kids' hands. Okay, they're right on that one.

Curriculum and Standards

Another ghost from 2014. Real reformsters know that standards aren't enough by themselves, and that the Common Core must be backed up with other stuff. Beware people who hate the Core or who think it's anti-American. And especially beware people who say "doozies" like this one that could be "uttered by phony" reformsters.

“We believe learning should be child-centered.”

Where have we heard that? Oh yeah-- it's a central pillar of DeVosian education philosophy. She says it a lot, even more often than she has nodded to her many supporters who believe that Common Core is un-American and must be scrapped. So I'm betting that CER has shifted its policy position on this particular point.

Jeanne Allen (CER's head honcho, face and voice) has lobbied hard for DeVos, and why not. DeVos shares her hatred of union, her disrespect for teachers, and her desire to get those sweet, sweet tax public tax dollars into private corporate pockets. If she has to sacrifice one or two of her previously-held sort-of beliefs to get a seat at that banquet table, well, never let it be said that CER is above realpolitik.

In the meantime, bookmark this so that the next time you're wishing that a reformster would just come right out and say what she's after, you can read a piece from one who did, untroubled by nuance, reflection, or scruples. This is not the whole reformster movement, and CER is not the arbiter of what "real" reformers believe, but it is the reformster movement's most bald, bare, avaricious, backwood-looking corner, and while other reformers have moved on to more nuanced, reflective stances, it's important to remember-- and keep an eye on-- the folks who haven't.

Did SAT Unmask Grade Inflation?

The story was carried by USA Today and rapidly picked up by much of the Kids These Days press-- the good people at the College Board have discovered rampant grade inflation as illuminated by the SAT, as witnessed by variations on this lede:

Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.

Like many education stories, this puts some thins together that have nothing to do with each other. Let's pull apart the pieces, shall we?

SAT Score Dip

The span discussed is 1998 to 2016. During that span, the average SAT score (on the 1600 scale and without the worthless writing portion) dropped from 1,026 down to 1,002. So, just a few questions we need to answer to know how exciting this is.

First, is a 24 point dip significant? That's hard to track down. This source from the College Board suggest it would mean about 3 percentile points. But folks at Fairtest (who don't work for the College Board) peg the margin of error at 60-- so the "drop" would fall well within the margin of error.

Second, are the populations who took the test comparable? That's a no. Since 1998 the folks pushed to take the test have grown, especially in states like Illinois where every student must now take the test. So over the span we've added way more students who would not have taken the test in 1998, which would tend to lower the average.

Third, did both populations take the same test? Again, no. The College Board under new boss, Common Core creator David Coleman, has worked hard to revamp its signature product over the past decade, so we are comparing scores on two entirely different tests.

Conclusion? This reported "fall" of SAT scores is a big fat nothing burger with a side of self-serving PR sauce.

Reminder about The College Board

Despite its high-sounding name, the College Board is a business, and one of the products it sells is the SAT test. Sales of that test depend on students buying the chance to take it and college buying into the notion they need it to help make a decision.

With that in mind, note this quote from Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, the lead researcher on this little project:

He said one of the goals of the research is to "make sure that college admissions professionals are equipped to make the best decisions possible.”

Hurwitz also calls the grade inflation piece of the findings "really stunning." We'll get there in a moment, but here's what you need to remember. The number one rival of the SAT is not the ACT-- it's student GPAs. Studies show that high school GPAs are a far better predictor of college success than SAT scores, so who even needs SAT scores at all?

It is absolutely in the College Board's financial interest to try to erode trust in high school GPAs, just a surely as it makes sense for Ford to suggest that Chevy's aren't reliable. Hurwitz is not an impartial observer without a stake in the outcome of this research. This is the tobacco institute doing research on healthy lifetsyles (You know, jogging can be very harmful for you).

Grade Inflation

Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen.

In 1998, it was 38.9%. By last year, it had grown to 47%.

That's USA Today again, and boy would I like to see the specific research behind both of those numbers, because I sure don't personally know any school where half the graduating class has an A average. So I have some huge questions about where those numbers come from.

Am I going to swear up and down that grade inflation doesn't happen? No, I'm not. But it's hard to believe there could be that much (I am sure someone will correct me in the comments). But do parents push for better grades? Do students put themselves in lower-than-challenging levels (particularly in senior year)? Do some special ed supervisors declare that students with special needs must get a passing grade? Yes (but not usually an A!)

It also occurs to me that in the age of differentiation, we make much more effort to match the course requirements to the student's ability, which might lead to better grades all around. 

But I'm not going to defend grade inflation-- it's not a good thing where it happens. I'm just highly doubtful that it happens this much. And when it's being reported by someone who has a stake in discrediting grades (see above), I'm extra doubtful. I guess I'll have to wait for the book.

And as the story rips around the conservative media world, that's just how it's playing. Participation trophies for all the little snowflakes-- that's why we need leadership that will kick ass and take names and give really low grades (just not to my kid). It's the damn teachers union.

So I wish USA Today had reported this story a little more thoughtfully. Reporter Greg Toppo does report that Hurwitz is with the College Board, but doesn't really examine what that means in this research. That's a disappointment. Just remember to fill in those blanks for all the people who are about to confront you with this story and say, "So, what are all you lazy cheaters up to, anyway?"

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

FL: Third Grade Readers Lose

And another sad chapter in the Floridian assault on education comes to a sad close.

We've been following this story for a while. Florida has a third grade reading test requirement-- Florida's third graders must show they can score high enough on the state Big Standardized Test, no matter what else they've done. Florida's "Just Read, Florida" (because the way to get students to read is to just insist they do it) is like many versions of this bad idea, and last May, a handful of families put it to the test (with the stubborn assistance of their county school systems-- not all Florida counties chose to be part of this exercise in idiocy).

Some children opted out of the Big Standardized Test, so their school district declared that despite the fact that some of those children had exemplary report cards, they would be denied advancement to fourth grade. By the end of the summer, the whole sorry mess as in court. That case was gobsmacking in its wrongheadedness, including the moment in which the state argued that teacher-issued grades were meaningless.

But by the end of the summer, sense and decency had prevailed and the state's rule was not only set aside, but subject to some scolding. The parent goals were commendable:

The goal is to have the statute, which allows third grade retention, found unconstitutional and unenforceable. The implications of a positive outcome from this case are significant and far-reaching.

It didn't matter. In September some of the school districts chose to ignore the court ruling, and took it all to the court of appeals.

The court of appeals ruled in favor of stupid, in fact opening the door to some novel legal; actions by declaring

The purpose of the state test is to “assess whether the student has a reading deficiency and needs additional reading instruction before [and after] being promoted to fourth grade".

The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student — and the public.

So, I guess, eight year olds in Florida can be arrested for not trying hard enough on the BS Test. Also, good to know that the court of appeals has such expertise in reading education that they know the difference between a laudable policy and a stupid one.

The group of parents fighting this case decided to take their last shot by appealing to the state supreme court. That attempt is now done, and the results are not good. The state supreme court has chosen not to hear the case. The ruling seems to be based on the notion that the suit was filed in the wrong court. So that sucks.

What sucks more is that the final outcome maintains Florida's power to flunk any third grader who refuses to take the test, regardless of any other academic indicators. In fact, the whole mess of a ruling would seem to suggest that Florida intends to ignore the part of ESSA that explicitly recognizes parental rights to opt out.

The parents stuck their necks out for this-- the process of appealing has cost about $80K in legal fees and their gofundme is short of halfway there. If you'd like to thank them for making the effort, you can still go chip in to cover some of these costs. There's not a lot to take comfort from here-- the state of Florida grows bad education policy like it grows oranges, and this one has survived the legal challenge. The best thing we can say about the whole business is that the state had to explicitly declare that it doesn't believe in the grades on report cards and that it values test-taking compliance above all else AND that it fully intends to ignore the opt-out portion of ESSA. So the face of education policy continues to be ugly, but at least they were required to show it without any mask or make-up.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What Is Test Prep?

Yesterday I fell into a discussion of test prep on Twitter where a participant tossed forward the notion that test prep actually decreases test results. Others asserted that test prep doesn't really help. I'm pretty sure that both of those assertions are dead wrong, but I also suspect part of the problem is that "test prep" is an Extremely Fuzzy Term that means a variety of things.

The research itself is not exactly stunning. A study that turns up from time to time is a study from Chicago from 2008 that looks at test prep and ACT results (in Illinois, everyone takes the ACT, so congrats to whatever salesperson/lobbyist from ACT's parent company that landed that contract-- ka-ching! We'll skip over all the reasons that's a bad idea for now). A quick look at the summary shows that this study didn't exactly prove that test prep is a bust:

CPS students are highly motivated to do well on the ACT, and they are spending extraordinary amounts of time preparing for it. However, the predominant ways in which students are preparing for the ACT are unlikely to help them do well on the test or to be ready for college-level work. Students are training for the ACT in a last-minute sprint focused on test practice, when the ACT requires years of hard work developing college-level skills.

That's a nice piece of sleight of hand there. Test prep wasn't failing-- just one particular type was. There are, of course, many other test prep alternatives, but the study ignores those, shrugs, and says, "I guess our only alternative is to believe the ACT PR about how the test measures 'years of hard work' on college level skills."

Meanwhile, the College Board has been touting how their special brand of test prep totally works on the SAT. I'm going to summarize the test prep research by saying that there isn't much, what exists is kind of sketchy, and clear patterns fail to emerge. So let me get back to my main question.

First of all-- which test? For our purposes, when we talk about test prep, we're talking about the Big Standardized Test that the Common Core reform wave inflicted on every state. On the subject of test prep, those are the tests that matter most because that brand of test-centered high-stakes data-generation is the thing that has twisted our schools into test prep factories.

Lots of folks have tried to define test prep very narrowly as simply drilling or rote-working the specific information that is going to be on the test. That definition serves members of the testing cult because by that definition, not much test prep goes on. But I suspect virtually no actual classroom teachers would define test prep that way.

How would I define it?

Test prep is anything that is given time in my classroom for the sole purpose of having a positive impact on test scores.

Right up front, I'll note there is some grey area. There are some test prep things that I can turn into useful learning experiences, and there are some actual education things that may have a positive impact on test scores.

But if I'm only doing it because it will help with test scores, I say it's test prep, and I say to hell with it.

This covers a broad range of activities. It is necessary, particularly in the younger grades, to teach them how to deal with a multiple choice test, doubly necessary if the test is going to be taken on computer.

But once we've introduced that, we never let it go. Fifteen years ago, the amount of time I would have spent in my English class on activities in which students read a short passage and then answered a few multiple choice questions-- that time would have been pretty close to zero. Short excerpts and context-free passages are a crappy way to build reading skills or interest in reading, and multiple choice questions are just about the worst way to assess anything, ever. But now, like English departments across the country,  we have bought stacks of workbooks chock full of short passages coupled with sets of multiple choice questions. We don't buy them because we think they represent a great pedagogical approach; we buy them because they are good practice for the sort of thing the students will deal with on the BS Test. They are test prep, pure and simple, and if I were deciding strictly on educational merit, I wouldn't include them in my class at all. Not only are they a lousy way to teach reading, but they reinforce the mistaken notion that for every piece of reading, there's only one correct way to read it and that the whole purpose of reading is to be able to answer questions that somebody else asks you with the answers that somebody else wants.

Writing is even easier to do test prep for, and my department is the proof. We teach students some quick and simple writing strategies:
   1) Rewrite the prompt as your first sentence.
   2) Write neatly.
   3) Fill up as much paper as you can. Do not worry about redundancy or wandering.
   4) Use big words. It doesn't matter if you use them correctly (I always teach my students "plethora")
   5) Indent paragraphs clearly. If that's a challenge, skip a line between paragraphs.

With those simple techniques, we were able to ride consistent mid-ninety-percent of our students writing proficiently.

In addition, because the state wants the BS Test to drive curriculum, they make sure to let us know about the anchor standards (the standards that will actually be on the test) so we can be sure to include them, which to be effective, has to be done by using the state's understanding of the standards. Our professional judgment is not only irrelevant, but potentially gets in the way. This can cover everything from broader standards to specific terms likely to appear.

And, of course, we need to familiarize the students with the state's style of questioning. For instance, PA likes to test context clue use by giving students a familiarish word used an uncommon meaning for the word to make sure that the students decipher the word using only the sentence context and not actually knowledge already in their brains.

None of this is rote memorization of details for the test. All of it is test prep, and all of it is effective up to a point. Particularly students who are neither good nor enthusiastic test-takers, this can make the difference between terrible and mediocre results. And every year it leaves an ugly bad taste in my mouth, and every year all of us struggle with maintaining a balance between that educational malpractice and doing the teaching jobs that we signed up for when we started our careers.

Test prep does, in a sense, carry beyond the classroom. The article that kicked off yesterday's conversation was a piece by Matt Barnum about the shuffling of weaker teachers to younger grades. That is absolutely a thing-- I suspect every single teacher in the country can tell a story about administration moving teachers to where they won't "hurt us on the test results." Teachers who can do good test prep are moved to the testing windows; those who can't are moved out of the BS Test Blast Zone. There are far better ways to assign staff, but many administrations, eyes on their test scores, are afraid not to make test scores Job One.

In fact, there are districts where the structure of the schools is changed in response to testing. Eighth graders do notoriously badly on BS Tests, so it's smart to put sixth graders in your middle school with the eighth graders to mitigate the testing hit.

And there is the test prep that goes beyond instruction, because teachers understand the biggest obstacle to student performance on the BS Test-- the students have to care enough to bother to try. In a state like PA, where my students take a test that will effect my rating and my school's rating, but which has absolutely no stakes for them, that's an issue. The BS Tests are long and boring and, in some cases, hard. Youtube is filled with peppy videos and songs and cheers from the pep rallies and other endless attempts to make students actually care enough to try. This kind of test prep is not so much toxic to actual instruction as it attacks the foundation of trust in the school itself. Elementary teachers may feel it's helping, but by high school the students have figured out that it was all, as one student told me, "a big line of bullshit. You just want us to make you look good."

The most authentic assessment is the assessment that asks students to do what they've practiced doing. The reverse is also true-- the most effective preparation for an assessment task is to repeatedly do versions of that exact task. And so all across the country, students slog through various versions of practice tests. If you want students to get good at writing essays, you have them write essays. If you want them to get good at reading short stories, you read short stories. And if you want them to get good at taking bad multiple choice standardized tests, you take a steady diet of bad multiple choice standardized tests.

That's test prep, and it's effective. It won't make every student score above average for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the tests are meant to create a bell curve and not everybody can be above average.

But if you think the solution to getting ready for the BS Tests is to just teach students really, really well and the scores will just appear, like magic, then I would like to sell you a bridge in Florida that crosss the candy cane swamp to end in a land of unicorns that poop rainbows.

Building a Better Charter Authorizer

There has been a bit of a kerfluffle going on in reformsterland over charter accountability. Kicked off by the Center for Education Reform's book about how there should be less accountability, followed by Chester Finn  (Fordham Emeritus) calling their ideas names. That conversation eventually led to this piece by Rick Hess, considering the different levels of regulation by charter authorizers, which itself leads to this question:

I think the more relevant question for charter authorizing is how authorizers can deliver meaningful oversight without descending into kludgeocracy.

Okay-- so what would a better charter authorizer look like. Acknowledging that I am, in fact, a modern charter skeptic at best, let me go ahead and see if I can describe what we'd need in order to build a better charter authorizer.

The Beer Goggles Problem

Pat's had too much to drink and it's last call, so Pat takes home a person who, in  the cold morning light, turns out to be ugly and unpleasant. The problem is not the alcohol or the late hour. The problem is not even that the pickup was ugly and unpleasant. The real problem is that Pat felt it necessary to take someone whom, no matter what.

The charter industry has a beer goggles problem. Particularly in states like Florida and Ohio, folks are so committed to getting lots and lots of charters up and running, they aren't very careful about what gets authorized. "We're going to get something authorized," they declare, with the determination of someone who's damned if they'll go home alone tonight.

So step one in charter authorization? Place the burden of proof on the charter proposer. Assume that the charter is unnecessary until proven otherwise. This may not seem helpful to charter fans, but it actually helps focus the authorization process on the real reasons the charter should exist instead of a bunch of bogus paper games to justify a choice you've already made.

Geographic proximity

The authorizer should be in the same community as the charter being authorized. I would have thought this obvious, but consider Bay Mills Community College, located in the uppermost wilderness of Michigan, and yet authorizing charters all the way down in Detroit, hundreds of miles away. There's no conceivable way that an authorizer far, far away can possibly exercise meaningful oversight of the charters they authorize.

Also, authorizers far, far away lack the stakes of taxpayers in the community who will bear the burden of paying for the charter. That's a basic accountability fail.

Democratically responsive

Charter authorizers are responsible for deciding which organizations will get a cut of public tax dollars, therefor they need to be set up to be responsive to the taxpayers. I'm partial to the idea of an elected board, but I'm open to other forms. I know that many charter fans don't care for this, but I'd argue that having actual elected individuals to exercise judgment would end the need for hundreds of pages of paperwork and regulations.

No financial stakes

Authorizers must have absolutely no stake in the charters under consideration. Anything else is an obvious and (even in Trumpian times) an unacceptable invitation to self-serving conflict of interest, fraud and misuse of public funds. Charter entrepreneurs may not be charter authorizers. Charter authorizers may collect no fees or regular payments from the charters they approve.

Require educational and financial competence

New York authorized a charter for a 22-year-old education amateur with no background in any of the skills required to run a school. Florida gave a charter to a former male model with no educational o financial qualifications.  Whatever screening process authorizers use, they have got to take off their charter beer goggles and consider whether there's the slightest chance that the charter entrepreneur has a clue about what they're doing.

The only industry that comes close to such slackness restaurantery, where people routinely decide they can run a restaurant because they ate at one once. Massage therapists have to b certified. People who want to be doctors cannot just call the state and say, "Hey, could you clear me to go ahead and perform surgery? I'm really really interested in and concerned about surgery, so maybe I should be cleared to open a hospital."

Any proposal to run a charter school must clear a requirement to posses the business and educational expertise required.

Eyeballs beat paperwork

Here's a point on which reformsters and I agree-- the belief that paperwork magically represents and controls reality is more naïve than believing in Santa. The ability to create a really good stack of paperwork doesn't show anything except the ability to fill out paperwork. Authorizers must visit and inspect the charters they authorize on a regular basis. Personally.

Accountability via paperwork is the weakest kind of accountability of all, subject to inaccuracy, mistakes, confusion, and just plain lies. And it almost always measures the wrong thing.

Academic sufficiency

I'm not expecting authorizers to hold charters to some super-duper level of academic awesomeness. But authorizers should be making sure that students are taking core courses and not majoring in basket weaving.

Require representative school population

It's not that hard to figure out or track-- charter population must mirror the demographic breakdown of the community being served. No segregation academies. No charters that somehow avoid any students with special needs. If y9ou want to set up a special focus charter that's fine-- but if your Super Science Academy is 80% white males in a community with 50% black students, there's a problem. It's up the authorizer to enforce this requirement.


Perhaps implied by the rest, but I want to be clear-- authorizers should be making sure that the charter's operation and finances are an open book, easily visible to the taxpayers who foot the bill.

Hands on the Plug

Authorizers must have the power to pull the plug, and to do it right now. Many states have stacked the deck so that it's harder to close a charter than to fire a big city teacher. If authorizers can't shut down a badly failing charter school, what's the point?

Cyber charters

Nobody should be authorizing any more of these. While cybers have some value for a narrow slice of the student population, they have largely failed and we should not be talking about opening more-- we should be closing down the ones we have.

Odds and Ends

There are other issues that are probably better addressed as matters of state regulation. For instance, every classroom should be staffed with an actual trained professional teacher. But that kind of "any warm body will do" foolishness needs to be stopped in state legislatures, not at the authorizer level.

Real Accountability Is the Solution

The overall solution to charter's mountain of paperwork is more direct and regular oversight by authorizers. Despite lots of talk about the charter deal being a trade of autonomy for accountability, in practice charter operators have worked hard to have as little accountability as they can get away with, which has led to settling for the illusion of accountability, and nothing creates the illusion of accountability like miles and miles of forms and paperwork and reports and official bureaucratic baloney.

Here's what I've told my students many times: What I would like to do is assign this reading and then have some great discussions about it in class, and that will not only fun and interesting, but it will give me a good idea of how well you read. But if I toss out questions and you just stare at me, it will be a whole bunch of pop quizzes and in-class essays and other assignments I have to come up with to tell what you did or didn't do. We can do this the easy way (which is also the better way), or we can do it the hard way.

This is the same issue. The best way for charters to cut out the mountains of faux accountability paperwork is to open themselves up to authentic accountability measures (no, carefully crafted PR initiatives don't count). And yes-- I recognize there are implications in what I'm saying for public schools as well. Charters can be liberated from paperwork mountain if they are willing to come live out in the open. If they really want to escape the grip of odious authorizers, they can do it by embracing actual accountability.