Monday, January 30, 2017

Beyond Tuesday

It's late Monday night. I've finished firing off today's set of e-mails and vented some general internet outrage (because, you know, a well-turned tweet from a small town English teacher is totally going to shift the American conversation). And I think I'm settled for tomorrow.

Look, sooner or later one of two things is going to happen. Betsy DeVos is going to be confirmed as Secretary of Education, or she's not. One of those is far more likely than the other, but in both cases, we need to be prepared for what comes next.

The far-less-likely possibility is that she will be defeated and rejected, and that will be a good thing, but if it happens, the next thing that will happen is that Herr Trump will nominate someone else, and that person will be terrible. It might seem like an improvement because it may just be garden variety terrible and not burn-down-the-world terrible. But any education nominee out of this administration is going to be terrible. But still-- remember that Eva Moskowitz and She Who Will Not Be Named (former DC chancellor) were both reportedly considered, and both would suck hugely.

So if far-less-likely option occurs, we are going to have one more terrible Secretary of Education. We will have to do some loin girding and battening of hatches, and we will have to get back to the business of teaching in the storm, dancing into the apocalypse.

The far-more-likely possibility is that she will be confirmed. It is possible that some set of GOP senators will blink, but in case you haven't noticed, DC is not exactly awash in bold vertebrate behavior right now.

If DeVos is confirmed, you're going to hear a lot about how this was a big defeat for teachers and Democrats, a big victory for the Trumpsters. "tsk tsk," they'll say. Or maybe "Neener neener." Followed by, "Look at all the money and effort they wasted."

Do not believe it. The people who say that will be wrong.

Speaking up for what is right, speaking up for what you value, speaking up for the institutions that helped make this country great-- those actions are never wasted.

It is brutish, short-term foolishness to believe that effort is only well-spent when you get your way. It is a position of moral and ethical emptiness to assert that the only efforts and expressions that matter are those that end in victory. "If I don't get my way, then all my work was wasted," is the reasoning of a five-year-old.

You stand up and speak for what is right because that's what a functioning moral being does. You stand up for the people and choices and values and country that you value because to not do so is moral cowardice, spiritual and intellectual laziness.

It is, in fact, childish in the extreme to believe that every time you speak your truth, the world must stop and reorganize itself to revolve around it. But if you don't speak your truth, nobody can hear it. If you don't stand for something, nobody can stand up with you.

The whole business is much like teaching itself. Every day in the classroom we make choices about what to say, what to do, how to interact with students. Some of what we do will vanish into the depths of time without leaving a trace on a single brain or heart. Some of what we do will absolutely alter the trajectory of some student. If you have taught for more than a decade, you have had the experience of talking to an old student who shares something you did that was absolutely life-altering for them-- and you have no memory of it at all.

Point is, going forward, you never know which choices will be earth-shattering and which will simply vanish into the dusts of time. So you have to make each choice the best you can, choosing as if each choice is one that will change someone's world. You make the best choices you can because that's how you become the best person you can be. The alternative is to live like some kind of morally stunted troll who tries to say or do whatever will make them feel as if they've won, no matter what that victory costs in integrity and decency. You can win with that approach-- hell, you can apparently become President-- but you will live as a hollow, empty, shitty human being who walked past a million chances to do something right and ignored them all.

So you stand up for what is right because there is value in being the kind of person who stands up for what is right, whether you win the day or not.

No matter what happens next, the effort to oppose DeVos (and all the other acts of resistance that are going on in the cavalcade of giant whalloping wrongness parading out of DC) will not be a waste. It won't be a defeat, either, because as we've been learning anew over the past decade, you never cross the finish line for Important Stuff. The work of defending the promise of public education is a marathon, not a sprint, and there is no finish line.

This has, in fact, been a big surprise to the Trumpkins, who seemed certain that once they won, all their opponents would just shut up and go away and let them blunder on in peace. But no-- we're all still here.

There is no ultimate victory, and there is no final defeat. Not as long as you stand back up.

And we will still be here the days beyond Tuesday. This DeVos business is just a blip in the race; it may tell us what route the marathon will follow next, but it won't end the race, and when they look around, we'll be right there, and you can bet that regardless of who is out in front at the moment, the great galloping pack of us force them to think about how to take their next steps.

And here's one of the most important secrets of all-- standing up for what is right creates its own sort of vigor and strength, while standing up for a lie, for what is wrong, for what is shallow and self-serving is exhausting work. I don't say this lightly-- I have lived my life badly, and it was absolutely draining and toxic and burdensome. Trying to live well for what is right-- that takes years off your life, weight off your shoulders. Trust me on this one. It is our advantage in the long haul.

So grab a breath. Get a cool glass of water. Shake the dust off your shoes.

And most of all, remember that as large as all this seems to loom, the real work still goes on in teh classroom, with the young humans that are our charges, and for day after day after day they will present themselves to us and we will meet their needs to the best of our ability. We will stand up for them, for what they need, for who they are, for who they can become, and as we will stand for them through this lousy Secretary of Education just as we have through the lousy Secretaries of Education who came before them. We will stand up through injustice and inequity and neglect and ugly empty foolishness. We will stand in that classroom, and we will show them how it's done.

Beyond Tuesday there is a whole world of opportunity for us, a whole sprawling world of what can be and could be and should be, and we may not always fight our way through the obstacles in our path, but it's still all there, and the appointment of a bunch of government functionaries doesn't change that. I will step back into my classroom, and I will look at those faces, and I will feel better for having stood up, and then I will move forward on whatever path is laid out for me next.

This is neither the end or the beginning, and there is still a world of work to do out there beyond Tuesday. Stand up. Take heart. Breathe deep. Step forward. Here we go.

PAC Makes Final DeVos Push

America Rising is a super PAC created by Republicans back in 2013 when the RNC determined that they needed a group that did "nothing but post inappropriate Democrat utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information on Democrats.” You may remember them as the folks that followed every single Democratic candidate around and taped everything they ever said.

These masters of opposition research have turned their money on Herr Trump's cabinet nominees, and they felt the need to make one last push for Betsy DeVos through their division called America Rising Squared. The weakness of the video underlines the weakness of the nominee.

The spot is thirty seconds long, and it doesn't have much to say.

"If elected, I will not seeeeeerrrvvveeeeeeeee....."

Over a greyed-out image of Beloved Leader, we get the words "Americans sent a clear message." This seems disingenuous at best, since three million more Americans sent the message "I will pick the Democrat-favored Lesser of Two Evils." Because first, Trump lost the popular voe and eked out an electoral college win. And second, all sides should remember that this was the election in which "Earth hit by comet" was a contender. This face-off between the two most unpopular candidates in ever may have done many things, but it was never going to deliver any sort of clear message.

We want to fix what is broken.

Maybe that's supposed to be the message?But no-- I think it's supposed to be a lead-in to the next sentence, which arrives over a big picture if Randi Weingarten speaking in front of a crowd in front of a garish screen with her name, her title, and "working Americans."

But Senate Democrats are taking orders from the BIG UNION allies

As a dues-paying NEA member, I'm wondering why MY president isn't up there looking like an evil embodiment of those terrible, terrible unions. Why isn't Lily scarier?

And then over images of Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer looking dangerous/deranged

Playing politics as usual

We are fourteen seconds in and DeVos makes her first appearance.

Blocking nominations like Betsy DeVos

Exactly which nominations have they blocked? Because the last time I checked, Senate Democrats were mostly disappointing their constituents by being less resistant than overcooked linguini in a hurricane.

I will give them credit for one thing-- their next photo of DeVos is one that we haven't all seen or used a hundred times. In this one, she's sitting in a rocking chair in front of a bunch of tykes, smiling with a book on her lap. See! See!! She's in a school!

Betsy DeVos knows what it takes 

Now some moving pictures of smiling, happy children

so that every American child has a chance to achieve their destiny

And now we're back to that shot of DeVos and Beloved Leader standing on the steps in front of the door. Man. Mike Pence is greyed out, behind an overlay (you might even call it a visual curtain) on which is displayed

Call your senator * (202)224-3121  Confirm Betsy DeVos

And that's it. That's the whole message:

Americans sent a clear message. We want to fix what is broken. But Senate Democrats are taking orders from the BIG UNION allies. Playing politics as usual. Blocking nominations like Betsy DeVos.
Betsy DeVos knows what it takes so that every American child has a chance to achieve their destiny.  Call your senator * (202)224-3121  Confirm Betsy DeVos

That's it. This message is running on social media in key-ish states. That's the argument. Never mind that DeVos is inexperienced in education, has no experience running a large, complex organization, has no experience in politics beyond purchasing compliance, has shown disregard for students with special needs, didn't know basic education policy issues at her hearing, made a hash out of Detroit and Michigan, and has generally shown no qualifications except being a major contributor to the GOP.

But all that's okay, because she "knows what it takes."

Not that the spot even hints at what that might be. Maybe this is such weak sauce because it looks like, barring some sort of actual comet impact on DC, DeVos will be confirmed (however, still contact your senator because you never know, and doing nothing is not a useful option). But if this is the best counterargument that DeVos supporters can muster-- well, it's just further evidence that she deserves to be shot down and replaced by just about anybody else on the planet.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Friedrichs At It Again

You remember Rebecca Friedrichs. She had a whole lawsuit named after her in which she was the face of union-busting in California. That case stalled when Justice Scalia died and the GOP decided that they would keep the court stuck with eight justices for almost a year (yes, that would be the same GOP that says only dirty rotten America-haters would obstruct a Presidential appointment).

But Rebecca "I'm Not Anti-Union I'm Just Drawn That Way" Friedrich has found other fun things to do, like record a video for Prager University entitled "Why Good Teachers Want School Choice." (Spoiler alert: to stick it to those evil unions). If you want to see the current version of the choice argument in action, this clip is for you.

Teachers' unions? Let's kill them with fire.

Prager University might be best described as an alternative university founded by conservative Dennis Prager and, well, is not so much a university as a library of videos. Many are hosted by semi-famous conservative voices, and none of them are particularly friendly to public education. There are several about choice and charters, but let's just deal with this one today.

What if schools had to compete for students in the same way that businesses have to compete for customers?

That's how Friedrichs, with a kind of sing-songy delivery, opens the video, and while you might be inclined to reply, "Do you mean by marketing based on spin, puffery, half-truths and the occasional flat out lie? Or do you mean by ignoring the larger market and just focusing on the customers you want?" But of course she doesn't mean either of those things.

Well, actually she kind of does, because she;s going to unleash some of those magical alternative facts before we even hit the twenty second mark. Would schools get better or worse with competition. There's no need to guess, she assures us, "because in almost every state and city where there's competition today, educational outcomes improve."

Now, I have to warn you-- if you expect a Prager University video to back up its claims with actual research or facts or even, in some cases, specifics, you will be disappointed. Does she mean that test scores (because that's all we mean by "educational outcomes"-- just scores on a standardized math and reading test) improve for everyone in the entire city? Because that would be some Grade A Made Up Alternative Factage. Does she mean that scores improve in the charter/choice schools? Because there's very little support for that and, honestly, it ought to be true. Given the chance to choose their student body, charters ought to do better. Yet they don't. It's almost as if charter operators don't know anything about education that public schools don't already know.

See, Friedrichs explains, under the old model, the government-- not the parent-- decides which school the student will attend. But with school choice, the money follows the student. Doesn't that sound great? At this point, Friedrich's voice motivated me to look up what she used to teach. Sure enough-- twenty-some years as an elementary teacher, which may explain why it seems as if she's pitching this video to six-year-olds.

At any rate, parents can direct their money to public, private, charter or home school (one bonus point for not trying to claim that charters are public schools). We're going to skip over the question of whether or not it's school choice when the school gets to tell the parents whether or not their child can attend there.

She will now cite a University of Arkansas study that shows choice students getting better reading and math scores. We're going to skip over the study that showed Louisiana voucher students did worse at new schools, or Ohio vouchers are used mostly to segregate schools, or the uncountable number of choice systems that allow huge graft and fraud.

[Update: To see how badly she misrepresents the research, check out this piece from Jersey Jazzman.]

Sounds like something we should get behind, doesn't it? 

But Friedrichs wants us to know that in some states, like her home state of California, school choice is not a choice. And can you guess the "one reason why"?

Teachers' unions.

Now she will relitigate her case. She was a teacher for 28 years, and a union person for part of that, so she's seen it all. California teachers are coerced to pay dues to the teachers' union. This is another alternative fact, as California, like most states, allows unions to charge a fee for non-members since those non-members still enjoy the benefits of negotiated contract and unions must represent all teachers who need it, members or not. But let's not rehash that whole mess again-- bottom line is that all the holes in her case are still right there.

But Friedrichs is now adding on to her argument-- the unions collect a ton of money, and they use that money to lobby the government for more money for public education. Those bastards.

That might sound good, but it's really just a smokescreen.

And Friedrichs shakes her head sadly for that part. Poor, sad, stupid public, duped into thinking public education is a good thing. Let her set you straight.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, school enrollment has gone up 5% since 1970. That's a true thing; so is the fact that education spending as a percentage of GDP has stayed pretty static. But Friedrichs isn't going to mention that; instead she wants you to know that staffing has gone up 95%. Now, you might think this is because we have dramatically increased our attempts to actually teach students with special needs instead of warehousing them, or that more complicated rules and regulations mean more office employees. But don't you believe it-- it's just the teachers' unions getting greedy because "more public school employment mean more dues for the unions."

But it doesn't mean better schools, because California is 45th in the nation in reading and math and they spend billions of dollars.

And yet rarely is anyone held accountable for those dismal results.

I thought maybe she would now tell us about her twenty-eight years of being wracked with guilt for her crappy job teaching, but I guess that's not where we're headed. She's personally seen awesome beginning teachers lose their jobs while some crappy veteran teacher kept their job because of tenure and FILO.

For these reasons and more, parents almost always prefer school choice when allowed to choose.

Yes, parents want school choice because they want to stick it to the unions. That "and more" covers an awful lot of ground, but I am more curious about all those regions where school choice has emptied out public schools entirely because, after all, parents almost always prefer school choice. So in the many, many areas where school choice is a thing, public schools were instantly deserted, right? Right? No-- because where choice happens it takes deliberately starving the public schools of resources or getting them all flattened by a natural disaster to actually drive the majority of parents into charters.

Rich parents always get to choose private schools, and so do middle class and poor parents, she says. And "the real giveaway" is that teachers send their kids out of public schools "when given the choice," which is a cool statistic that will not be backed up by any factual support.

So why are choice schools better?

Because teachers at these schools are free from the union's stifling work rules.

Darn right. Teachers want to be free to work eighty hour weeks and get less pay and not have to worry about job security, but those damned unions. "In short, they're free to teach" says Friedrichs, although she didn't give the "in long" version of her point because there isn't one.

"Administrators in these schools can reward good teachers and fire bad ones." Of course, any public school system can fire the bad ones. And "reward good teachers" is another way to say "withhold decent pay from everyone else."  So I'm not impressed.

But we're back on unions, who don't like school choice because it means less power and money (she perhaps didn't get the "flush with cash" memo). I think we can all agree that teachers went into the business for the power and money.

Unions, she says, will say or do anything to stop choice, often by backing particular candidates, which I guess is another thing that only rich people are supposed to get to do. Unions also appear on tv with "sweet-sounding commercials." Those duplicitous bastards-- trying to act as if they actually care about children!

Friedrichs and some unnamed colleagues tried to reform the unions from within, but realized it wasn't possible to convince the union to curl up and die, and so she went to the Supremes. Her current version of her case is that teachers should be free to not join the union free of fear or coercion, which is ironic since its fear and coercion exerted on teachers that fueled the whole union thing in the first place. Friedrich's lost because of a 4-4 tie, which is another way of saying that she lost in the lower court and couldn't get the Supremes to overturn that decision.

Friedrichs still has hope because government and unions don't have the power-- "We do!"

I'm actually inclined to believe that Friedrich's we has some power, because that "we" apparently includes ALEC, where she has her shiny own page these days. She's left the classroom to better pursue her career as a perky union-busting mascot for the biggest bunch of profiteers around. And to think she finds it offensive that teachers' unions try to influence legislators- compared to ALEC's network of high rollers and well-greased legislators, teacher lobbying is bush league.

But if you believe that parents and not the government should choose where children go to school, and competition will make schools better, well, then, she has a bridge she's like to sell you. But first, join the School Choice Movement, and take the pledge (about 11,000 people have, which given that at least 350,000 have viewed the video is not a great rate of return). "We can have good schools for all children," she says, ignoring the fact that no free market sector has worked on the premise that a good or service should be provided to every single person.

Friedrich's signs herself out as a "mother and California public school teacher" which is sort of true, though her children are full-grown and she's out of the classroom these days. But if you want to check my work and get your dander up, go ahead and watch this clip yourself-- just grab your blood pressure medication first.

OR: Protecting the Tests

Oregon has a law-- House Bill 2713-- that directs their Secretary of State to conduct an audit of "use of statewide summative assessment in public schools in this state." It's an audacious, wacky move-- don't just implement the Big Standardized Test, but actually check back and do some studies to see if it's a big waste of money or not.

The audit was actually released back in September of 2016, to what appears to be not very much fanfare or attention. I ran across it only because of an op-ed published earlier this week.So this is definitely Not Breaking News. But I'm always intrigued when  a state actually bothers to see if their reformy measures are doing any good or not, and Oregon has just started out with the Smarter Balanced Assessment folks, so I've decided to take a look at the report.

Here are some of the findings:

The new tests are more expensive. In 2013-2104, Oregon shelled out $5.2 million to run the statewide Big Standardized Test. In 2014-2015, that leapt up to $10.2 million.$8.2 million was for the test and the scoring thereof. $1.8 was for "membership fees." Who knew that belonging to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium was like belonging to a really fancy country club? Also, the assertion is out there that this is a lowball-- it does not account for the inhouse costs for Department of Ed supervision and administration of the test.

The audit declares that "statewide results are a measure of school performance" They say that "organizations" that use test results to "facilitate learning and improvement" can "deliver better outcomes." This is all part of using "measurement information" as part of a "broader performance management framework," and a lot of other baloney that come straight from corporate management consultant boilerplate.

But the audit noted that some people have concerns about the testing, like " how certain student populations experience the test." Or all the time lost to testing. Many of the folks surveyed had some thoughts about how to improve the whole business.Yeah, I'll bet they did.

Having said that, the audit goes on to say that "the test benefits and purposes are not always clear." People who thought they knew what the test is for gave conflicting answers. Parents want to know what the test is for. Teachers want to know why they're mandated to give a test that has no use for the classroom.

Can you guess what the audit's response to that widespread understanding that the BS Test is a purposeless waste? Of course you can-- "The department could clarify its message about the purpose of the test and take a more active communications role." We saw the same thing back when Common Core was still fighting for its zombie half-life. When your product is a dud and everyone is telling you it's a dud and it's proving it's a dud by failing to do any of the things you said it was going to do, why, then you have a PR problem, and you just need to sell your dud of a product harder.

Oh, and then there's this finding:

Smarter Balanced results are not consistently used in ways that provide clear benefits to everyone. 

Yes, we remember this from Common Core as well-- the product is great but you're implementing it all wrong.

Survey respondents identified current and potential limitations to using data, such as untimely results, uncertainty about how to use results, different skill levels in interpreting data, and a lack of complimentary resources. 

The committee forgot to include "the data does not actually represent any useful insights into student knowledge or instruction."

The report slips in one suggestion-- perhaps we need more assessment. "Comprehensive assessment systems" would provide more data, and therefor be more wonderful. We could throw in common state-level formative and interim assessments on top of the summative ones, and just standardized test the little buggers all the time. In fact, the SBA folks offer just such a larger testing package, just in case you're worried they're not getting enough Oregon tax dollars yet.

The audit also notes that a lot of folks think the test receives "too much emphasis." That may be because some folks feel there "are not clear benefits to the students and educators most affected by the test..."

Our next subheading signals that the audit committee will now drive directly toward the weeds.

The test demands more time and depth of knowledge

And once we've set our weedward course, the audit can start saying foolish things like "Because it assesses critical thinking and problem‐solving skills required by the Common Core State Standards..." which a clause without a single True Thing in it. The test does not assess critical thinking and problem-solving skills and neither does any other standardized test out there. That's okay, because the Common Core does not require any of those higher order thinky skills, anyway.

The test does require a bunch of time, though. For ELA testing, most grades require more than three hours, while the math test takes up five or six. Would we make it longer?

Understandably, with so much time invested in the test, many are interested in receiving individual students’ results. In order to offer those results in detail, the test must ask more questions of each student, making it longer. A shorter test, focused solely on the health of the system, would provide less precise individual results.

Got that. The SBA test cannot tell you anything valuable about your individual student, meaning that all the bunk about using the test to determine whether your child is on track for college, or teachers using it as a diagnostic test to see what Chris needs to be taught-- that was all, in fact, bunk. The test we've got actually focuses "on the health of the system" which means God knows what.

Anyway, parents stop asking for meaningful results for your specific kid. It's not going to happen. Quick-- somebody get a PR guy in here.

There were plenty of challenges with test administration. Turns out that when every student has to take the BS Test on a computer but you only have so many computers in the building that work it all turns into a huge mess that even better PR wouldn't solve. One quoted administrator noted that the school computer lab was tied up with testing from March through June. Notes the audit wryly, "We heard that having at least one computer for every student can be helpful."

Also test preparation and administration may have reduced available instruction time. May have. Or instructional time may have been reduced by localized time dilation fields. Or test preparation and administration actually increased instruction time by unleashing the power of black holes. Or maybe SBA tests come with a free time turner. May have??

Hi there! I'm your new testing administrator.

Schools do not always understand test administration guidance or have access to information about best practices.

Well, actually, as I read through the explanation of this section, it doesn't seem like an "understanding" problem so much as a "thinking some of these directives are stupid" problem. Nobody may enter a testing room. Teacher interaction with children testing is limited to "do your best."

Also, the audit has forgotten what it said a page or two back, because this:

The department sets requirements for secure and valid testing to ensure that each student has a fair opportunity to demonstrate his or her abilities... 

We established earlier that these tests will not measure individual student ability. The second half of the sentence reminds us that the school will be judged (and rated and punished) based on these results, and the state wants to be sure they catch all the schools that need to be punished. So let those kids suffer.

The audit also notes that some districts are better prepared than others to take the test. But wait-- isn't the test supposed to measure the school's educational achievement? Why should "prepared for the test" even be a factor-- shouldn't the mere fact of being well-educated be enough to prepare students for a well-designed test?

The audit gives a whole big subheading to Some student populations may experience more negative impacts than others.

For instance, Title I schools (aka poor schools) report they lose a lot of instruction time while trying to do test prep. Also, in high schools, students have the option of doing portfolios to meet Oregon's Essential Skills requirement, which means those students need to take the BS Test like a fish needs a high-powered Harley-Davison.

The audit acknowledges that some students will not be accurately measured by the test, including English Language Learners and students with special needs. You can sit a blind student down at a computer with no modifications to click on answers she can't see, or you can force a student who barely speaks English to take a test in English, but if you think their results tell you anything real, you're delusional. This applies to the student who is functioning below grade level but who must be tested at grade level. This also goes for all the students who are disinclined to bother to try at all on the BS Test.

In other words, a lot of your test result data is junk.

The audit nods to the idea that BS Tests can't fulfill their beloved PR talking point purpose of identifying underserved schools and communities if the data doesn't actually mean anything.

The report comes with a page of recommendations at the end. There are twelve.

1) More PR
2) Check which PR is working and do more of that.
3) Also, more PR directed at parents
4) More guidance for schools on how to use the damn things and PR to make them happier
5) Badger company to get results back faster
6) Look for other data to combine test data with
7) Add more standardized tests more often
8) Badger company to fix all the technical issues
9) Give better advice from state, because that will totally help with scheduling and facilities
10) Actually put in place feedback system so people can let us know about problems
11) Share happy stories about any place this stuff is actually doing some good (aka more PR)
12) Look for "opportunities to reduce individual impacts," or something.

Finally they get to methodology. Many reports like to do this, which is a pain if you're not experienced in this kind of fluffernuttery because you read through forty pages only to discover at the end that the "report" was generated by a chimpanzee using a Ouija board.

This report is a little bit better than the chimp method. Mostly they surveyed people. They surveyed lots of groups, including groups connected to ethnic groups (e.g. Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon), issue-specific groups (e.g. Disability Rights Oregon), the Oregon Education Association, some parent groups, and some reformster outfits that there's no good reason to include (e.g. Stand for Children). Mostly, they involved groups who do not have a track record of really challenging the test, or who are not normally players in the education biz. They interviewed people at the Oregon Department of Education, a department committed to the testing program, so I'm sure they were all about an objective look. They talked to the bosses at Smarter Balanced. They visited six whole public schools. Six! Way to get out there and see how things look on the ground, folks.

The survey was distributed to regular teachers and parents through a government mailing list, the Oregon PTA newsletter and facebook page. Which means that non-parental taxpayers were completely skipped here. 799 parents, a few hundred administrators, and some teachers responded, and the audit concedes there's a response bias built in.

But mostly the report seems to have been built to rearrange a few deck chairs without ever questioning the course of the SS Standardized Test. It's one more example of how to "examine" the testing program and conclude that everything is actually just fine, no large changes needed, maybe increase the PR budget, and do even more testing. The audit does mention that Oregon parents have the choice to opt out of the test; they might want to remember that in a few months.

ICYMI: Has it only been a week edition (1/29)

It is really hard to keep a focus strictly on education these days, and yet tomorrow morning, those of us who teach will be headed back into our classrooms whether the world is burning or not.

Media Consensus on Failing Schools Paved Way for DeVos

Making the case that years of repeating that "everybody knows" how badly schools are failing set us all up for someone like Betsy DeVos.

Channeling My Rage

Mary Holden on finding a way to turn frustration and anger into positive action.

What Taxpayers Should Know About the Public Cost of School Choice

Valerie Strauss and Carol Burris take a look at what school choice really does to public schools.

Can the President Handle the Truth

Yet another excellent response to that ignorant "flush with cash" line

Chris Christie Bashes Teachers, But Now Noone Cares

Jersey Jazzman notes that Christie has returned to his standard fallback in troubled times-- those damned teachers. But this time it's not enough to save his butt.


As our congresspersons make themselves harder and harder to contact (well, harder if you don't have a bunch of money to flash), it's necessary to get more creative. This website will let you send a free fax to your senator without even registering or setting up an account.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Don't Read Me Today

Seriously. I'm not blogging today. I'm throwing all those words into tweeting, emailing and Facebook messaging my Senators and Representatives and telling them that so much of what's happening this week is not okay (I would be phoning them, but nobody's answering the phones and all the voicemails are full). Not the refusal to oppose Betsy DeVos. Not the muslim ban, exerted against legal residents of the US but not against countries with whom Trump does business. Not that stupid wall. Tomorrow I'll get back to it, but today, I'm contacting my representative.

You do the same. Seriously-- you're already on the internet-- spend the five minutes you were going to use to check me out and go bother your elected representative.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Friend$ of DeVos

If you follow the many pieces about Presumptive Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, you will notice that there are folks who stand up for her as a super-duper prospect for Secretary of Education.

For instance, Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal spoke up for her hometown girl Betsy, and was, according to released emails, prepared to accept an all-expenses-paid trip to DC to give a public school stamp of approval to the private charter school face of Betsy DeVos. The DeVos organization American Federation for Children was all set to foot the bill-- and at no extra charge, they were throwing in some dandy talking points that Neal could use while in DC. All heart, those AFC folks.

In fact, the talking points were so thorough that if Neal was questioned by reporters about how a public school superintendent from Michigan just happened to be sitting behind DeVos providing helpful optics, she needn't worry about how to respond to that-- just say

I’m proud and honored to be a guest of Secretary of Education-designate DeVos and confident she’ll be an effective, compassionate and innovative Secretary of Education.

The rescheduling of the hearing threw off the travel plans, which included a steak dinner and a night at the Marriot, costs for which fall roughly into the "loose money we dig out of the sofa cushions" category for the DeVos clan.

DeVos friendships often are tied up in money; witness the Senate Democrat's inquiry into the several school business operators who have sent dark money floating her way. Nothing nefarious there-- just being friendly with a woman who may soon decide the fate of education entrepreneurs.

But nobody is a better friend of Betsy DeVos than the organization Friends of Betsy DeVos. Here they are defending her a few days ago in the Washington Post, where they speak out against returning to "pre-Watergate" ethics standards where partisanship determines who gets chased.

Well, actually, Ed Patru spokesman for Friends of Betsy DeVos said it.

Patru is a busy friend, and yet, it seems that he is perhaps the only friend. I've looked for the organization on line and cannot find hide nor hair of it. Mercedes Schneider, who has an advanced degree in Look-It-Up-And-Hunt-It-Down-Ology, can't find anything, either. Just a string of articles with Patru leaping to DeVos's defense.

The most likely explanation is that Patru is paid to be Betsy's friend, and that he is a group all by himself.

Patru is currently a vice-president at DCI, a PR firm whose self-description is "an independent public affairs consulting firm that specializes in public relations, crisis management, grassroots engagement, and digital advocacy." A Michigan native, Patru has logged a lot of time with GOP contests, serving at one point with the House Republican Committee. Back in 2008 the Daily KOS was wondering if he was the new Karl Rove. Patru mentions that he worked on John McCain's 2000 Presidential campaign as Michigan media specialist; he also helmed the Senate campaign of Linda McMahon (wife of wrestling mogul Vince McMahon).

He's had some cute spats with other operatives like Jen Crider as part of his time with Freedom's Watch, the attempt to launch a conservative MoveOn that ultimately failed due, reportedly, to lots of infighting. After FW folded, Patru launched his own firm Amplifico which was supposed to provide "corporations and business coalitions with a fully staffed presidential-campaign-style war room on a contractual basis." Patru said that 

Amplifico is prepared to participate in today's high speed news cycle, providing campaigns with "a turn-key, fully functional 24-hour war room [paired] with aggressive online or offline public relations."

Which seems kind of like what he's doing for DeVos right now.

Annnd once upon a time he was the spokesman of the American Automobile Dealers Association.

Friends of Betsy DeVos doesn't have a twitter account, but Ed Patru does, and I've asked him to let me know who else is in the club with him. I'll let you know if he replies.

In the meantime, Betsy DeVos displays another characteristic common to many reformsters-- most of her "friends" are people to whom she has some sort of financial ties. They pay her, she pays them, everyone pays each other. It remains to be seen just how much she intends to turn USED into a pay-to-play business, but at least as long as the department and its secretary have a bunch of money, they will never run out of friends.

More Discouraging USED Appointments

The Trump Department of Education continues to shape up as a place that is, perhaps, more about patronage than education.

Today we have word from the Huffington Post that a memo from Jason Botel (another supremely reformy appointment as Senior White House Adviser for Education) that the following folks have been brought into the department:

Derrick Bolen
Debbie Cox-Roush
Kevin Eck
Holly Ham
Ron Holden
Amy Jones
Andrew Kossack
Cody J. Reynolds
Patrick Shaheen
Teresa UnRue
Josh Venable
Eric Ventimiglia
Beatriz Ramos
Jerry Ward
Patrick Young

The name that has attracted the most attention is Teresa UnRue, a 2010 grad of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh whose background is graphic design and printing and who served as an advance organizer for the Trump campaign in South Carolina. She's also apparently given to plenty of racist tweeting. She's passed along hi-larious Mexican jokes and a knee-slapping joke about how blacks should stop whining because they aren't slaves any more. Ladies and gentlemen, your new Department of Education.

[Update: Politico reports that UnRue's name has disappeared from the list of new hires. Whatever she was going to do for USED, apparently someone else is taking on that work.]

What about the rest of the list? Well, Dr. Google's work must always be taken with a grain of salt, but here's what I can find this morning.

There's a Derrick Bolen who is a regional field director for the Republican National Committee who graduated from Liberty University in 2016 with a BS in Political Science and Government.

 Debbie Cox Roush has already updated her LinkedIN account to show her as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the US Department of Education. Her previous experience is running DCR Creative Solutions of Florida, "an advocacy consulting and events Management Company." She was the Florida State Grassroots Director for the Trump campaign (she previously worked for Rubio). She's been politically active, has not always played well with fellow GOPs, but has little education background at all (Georgetown College, BA in History/Education, 1976).

There's a Kevin Eck who is a professional wrestler who says that Donald Trump is not fit to be in the WWE Hall of Fame. I'm guessing that's not our guy. There are a lot of Kevin Ecks out there.

Holly Ham has also updated her LinkedIn profile. The former Hewlett Packard sales exec and management consultant was a program adviser for the Trump campaign's data operations. Education background? Not so much.

Ron Holden is probably not the Seattle-based R&B singer, but you should totally check him out. 

Amy Jones? Another name that's hard to filter down.

 Andrew Kossack is straight from the Richard Fairbanks Foundation in Indiana, a money-shuttling service for Indianapolis grant-seekers. Before that, Indiana Department of Revenue commissioner and chief of staff, before that a Deputy Policy Director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and before that on the staff of Governor Mike Pence. He did spend about seventeen months in positions with "education" in the title. But his political and reformy connections are clearly strong.

Cody Reynolds. Not sure.

Patrick Shaheen has a Trump-loving twitter account and appears to have ties to New Hampshire, which makes me think he's this guy-- a field director for both the NH Republican State Committee and the Americans for Prosperity. Shaheen has attended many schools on his path toward lawyering, but none have intersected with education.

Josh Venable  helped prepare Betsy DeVos for her hearing after previously trying to help Jeb Bush get elected. He's also a former board member of FEE.

Eric Ventimiglia worked as a legislative aid and constituents relations manager for the Michigan House of Representatives. He graduated from Oakland University with a BA in Poli Sci in 2007.

Beatriz Ramos-- well, there was a travel aide for the Lt. Governor of Florida by that name involved in a briefly salacious scandal. Jerry Ward has a notably common name. Ditto Patrick Young.

I should note that none of the names I couldn't narrow down included people who were noted or accomplished educators.

Mostly what we have here are political operatives being rewarded. Apparently that's the USED mission-- reward folks for their assistance to political leaders.Let's hope that eventually one or two people who actually know about public education sneak in there somewhere.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

IN: Teacher Sit-in For DeVos Senator

Todd Young was born in 1972 in Lancaster, PA. Today (Thursday) he's an Indiana senator with an office full of grumpy teachers.

Young's family moved him to Indiana, where he graduated from public high school and then went straight into the Navy, from there to the Naval Academy, graduated Cum Laude, got a commission in the Marines. Soccer star, intelligence officer, head recruiter in Chicago/Indiana area. Honorably discharged in 2000. Studied in London. Earned a law degree.

In the meantime, he also worked for the Heritage Foundation, worked for Senator Richard Lugar, and volunteered for Mitch Daniels gubernatorial campaign. He got the bug.

In 2010 he ran as a Republican for Indiana's 9th District with endorsements from luminaries all the way up to Dan Quayle. He defeated an incumbent. He had what was called a mixed record. In 2016, he decided to step up to a Senate seat. He won the GOP primary and trounced Evan Bayh in the general election to take Quayle's former seat (he's also married to Quayle's niece).

This "Marine unafraid to stand for conservative principles" had some help getting elected. The fight with Bayh drew a grand total of $38 million total in "outside money", with $24.3 million of that going to Young.

Young now sits on the Senate HELP committee, the one deciding the fate of Education Secretary-in-waiting Betsy DeVos. Want to guess who helped swell the Young coffers just last year?

Which brings us to today. Teachers have noticed that DeVos gave at least $48,000 to Young last year. Granted, that was a small drop in a $24 million bucket. Of course, it's also a year's salary for lots of teachers. Those teachers have demanded that Young recuse himself, and today they were driving the point home by staging a sit-in in his office.

Young's staff has pointed out that this sort of greasy-palmed cross-pollination of political backer and cabinet hopeful has occurred before, citing Senator Joe Donnelly's receipt of a contribution from Commerce Secretary hopeful Penny Pritzer. On the other hand, Pritzer's contribution was $5,000 in 2013 dollars, and she was a relatively non-controversial candidate who was approved 97-1.

Young's not going to recuse himself, and he's not going to vote against DeVos, either. But the sit-in today is a reminder to Indiana and the nation about how business is conducted these days. My hat is off to those Indiana teachers who made the gesture to help bring attention to just how this process is working.

Edushyster In DeVosland

Jennifer Berkshire often takes the unusual blogging step of doing actual journalism, like the kind where you call people and go places and actually talk to the carbon-based life forms who are involved in What's Going On. That's just part of what makes Edushyster required reading for anybody in the ed debates.

She recently traveled to DeVosland, the Michigan home base and spawning ground for Betsy DeVos, presumptive Secretary of Education, and her clan. Nine days, forty-some interviews, and a couple of exceptional posts were the product, but I wanted to hear more (and to add my vote for her to write a full-on book), so I took a page from her book and talked to her via phone. There are so many more stories to tell.
Berkshire has a keen sense of a particularly worded phrase, and she was struck by Jeb Bush's pledge pledge that DeVos would be a "champion of parents, not institutions" which strikes her a reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society." What Thatcher meant was that there are only individuals, families and other groups of humans, but larger social structures aren't real-- particularly the ones that are charged with providing support and service for society's members. When DeVos says that she doesn't stand with institutions, that includes institutions that look out for vulnerable citizens who may not have the power to look out for themselves. You know. Like schools.

Traveling to Michigan is really a must when studying DeVos, because within the state, they've never been particularly sneaky or subtle about what they want; it's almost as if it never occurred to them that someday Betsy might need to talk about civil rights with a straight face. Berkshire says, "For example, the family paw prints are all over various legislative maneuvers intended to disenfranchise African Americans, the beefed up emergency manager law that created the Flint water disaster being just one of these." Berkshire says that several (off-the-record) legislators said that Betsy herself helped push through a measure to end straight ticket voting at election time in order to discourage black voters in Flint and Detroit by making lines longer and slower. A judge struck it down for that very reason.

Berkshire also notes that Michigan is essentially a one-party state. The DeVos clan doesn't really deal with Democrats at all, but focuses a lot of attention on keeping their own party in line. There's a long list of people who "have been taken to the woodshed," and the clan often brings a great deal of firepower to even small betrayals (which suggests one reason that DeVos might be a good fit for a Trump administration). DeVos demands that legislators show more loyalty to the family than to the voters.

Some folks in Michigan say that DeVos can be flexible when it suits her. Race to the Top was initially viewed with suspicion until, some claim, Betsy figured out that it could be used to break Detroit City Schools. While the knock on DeVos is that she is anti-accountability, some Michigan folks say she can embrace accountability quite well when it lets her blow shit up.

Consider specifically the story of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a fun Michigan version of the state takeover district dodge. Berkshire tells the tale:

The EAA was initially created in an effort to win Race to the Top money, and DeVos and her allies were meh about it because it was really a Broad thing. But within three months, they’re pushing hard to expand the EAA statewide, even though there wasn’t yet any data. If you go back and look at the debate over expanding the EAA, you can almost feel the DeVos’ realization that they’ve been handed a gift with this thing that will enable them to go after their favorite targets--teachers unions, school boards, public school buildings. And by 2014, even when it was a measurable, disastrous failure, they were threatening to primary anyone who voted against expanding the EAA.

There are other side stories in the Mitten State. There's the story of how Detroit was on its way to being a portfolio district, with a whole alphabet soup of reformy groups carving up the spoils before Betsy blew the whole thing up and sent many reformy groups packing. There's a good reason that "progressive" reformsters are not lining up to back her.

Scan the Mitten state landscape and you’ll notice something interesting: there are virtually no #edreform groups. Where are they all? Michigan DFER is dead. Excellent Schools Detroit has withered away. Even Ed Trust, one of the last group’s standing, has come out against DeVos. In my interview with Gary Naeyaert, Betsy’s right-hand man at GLEP, he even accused the Waltons of “cutting and running”!

There's also the fascinating story of how the clan busted the union, but other groups have risen up to become equally annoying. Surprisingly, many Charter Management Organizations, which have historically depending on TFA as their classroom fillers no longer want to work with Teach for America because TFAers have gotten themselves a reputation for being troublemakers (aka keep trying to start unions, the little ingrates).

There's the infamous University of Michigan study of charter success in Michigan that is now three years overdue. Instead, the DeVos charter crowd keeps plugging the same old CREDO study. Where are the newer numbers? Nobody seems to know-- it's almost as if someone doesn't want that information to get out.

Berkshire also has some good stories about charter pluggers in Michigan, who have to go through some real contortions because Michigan is such a charter disaster. There is the story (recounted in her blog here) of the charter fans who, when asked to name a shining star, a prime example of great Michigan charters in action, actually named the charter run by an optometrist who was sent to jail for running his fraudulent charter school. That's their shining star.

If DeVos is confirmed (and while I will keep calling, and you should too, a confirmation is hugely likely), there will be some small upsides. Berkshire notes that defenders of public ed will no longer have to struggle to show the connection between charters, choice, and the privatization of pieces of a dismantled public ed system. Kind of like all those House episodes where he deliberately makes the disease worse so that it's easier to see and diagnose. Sending DeVos to DC may also earn Michigan a breather.

And if DeVos is confirmed, all of Berkshire's material will become hugely relevant and she can write the full account of DeVos's Michigan.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Local Control

States are increasingly telling cities what laws they may or may not pass. The most famous example may be North Carolina's HB-2, the notorious law that restricted bathroom access- but also, like laws passed in Alabama and other states, forbid cities to pass laws raising the minimum wage.

State legislatures are taking action to undo the choices of voters. North Carolina's legislature decided they were unhappy about the election for governor, so they stripped power from the office. And just this week, South Dakota's legislature is moving to throw out the law passed by the voters which would establish a host of ethics rules and oversight.

Throughout the nation, government is in the hands of the very rich, who since the advent of Citizens United have unbridled freedom to shop for the legislators who will provide the desired results. When the DeVos family couldn't convince the electorate to pass a voucher law or elect Dick DeVos governor, the billionaire family decided that it was time to just do an end run around the voters. If democratic local voter control won't provide the results you want, just circumvent it.

And what a week it has been. Herr Trump has declared that maybe he should send the feds into Chicago to clean things up. Government agencies, paid for with taxpayer dollars, have been forbidden to speak to those taxpayers. And we're getting a wall, courtesy of an executive order (that curious method by which Presidents get to pretend that they're actually the legislative branch and make laws).

And while Trump's declaration to launch an inquiry into election fraud may be related to a frail and tender ego, it may also make a handy first step toward extending the tools of voter suppression that have been steadily encroaching on voters over the past few years.

Charter schools and choice-- the good, the bad, and the ugly-- are perhaps best understood in the context of the larger erosion of democracy in our country.

There's no reason that charter schools have to be part of this problem. Charter schools can be run by and responsive to local taxpayers and voters. Just up the road from me is a community that lost their local school because the district felt enrollment had dropped too far; the community restarted their school as a charter school, owned, operated and controlled by a local board.

Charter schools do not have to mean the end of local control.

And yet, in the modern charter era, they almost always do. From Philly to Detroit to New Orleans, a signature feature of charter-choice systems is to do away with the local control of an elected board. Replace it with properly connected board members, or run it out of a corporate office-- sometimes far, far away. Hold meetings in the dark. Make decisions in seclusion. Keep the financial operations under wraps.

Charteristas have not been shy about it. Reed Hastings, head of Netflix and well-muscled charter supporter, famously outlined how bad elected school boards are for the business plan, and how they should be done away with. To the investors and businessmen, it is only common sense-- you do not let the help dictate how your business will be run and you do not let the customers see anything you don't want them to see. And those "customers" will damn well settle for the choices that you decide to give them, that you think they deserve, that make business sense for you.

There was a time when faux Democrats provided protective cover for this, and neo-liberals were fre market wolves in progressive sheeps' clothing. But that camouflage coalition is starting to show signs of strain, and it becomes increasingly obvious that this is a variant strain of Republicanism. I find that hard to face-- I come from a long line of Republicans, and there are strains of the classic version that I still resonate to. The less government, the better. Let people get together with their own neighbors to deal with their own stuff.

But this is one of the mysteries that we live with. How did the party of small government, local control, and no federal overreach-- how did they become the party of disenfranchisement, the party of government intrusion that works to disempower city governments and disenfranchise citizens. How did the party of Lincoln become the party that aims those attempts to disempower and disenfranchise mostly at citizens who are not wealthy and not white. How did the Grand Old Party end up providing a haven for a bunch of money-hungry power-grabbing racist sumbitches?

At any rate, school choice week is a frighteningly perfect time to reflect on how the worst of the modern charter movement is just a small part of a bigger movement, a sea change in which huge chunks of our elected government no longer holds the democratic process as a valuable or important part of our national life. If you want to pitch charter schools to me, your warm-up needs to be an explanation of how that charter will be a reflection of and responsive to local control, and if you can't do that, give me a good explanation of why democracy and local control are no longer an important part of our national character.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reformster Jason Botel Added To USED

Jason Botel comes with the full reformy pedigree. He graduated from U of Penn in 1997 with a degree in English and went straight to work as a Teach for America recruit in Baltimore. He spent three whole years in the classroom, then went on to launch a Baltimore franchise of the KIPP school brand. He served as principal (on LinkedIN he calls it a "public school principal" job) while also serving as the KIPP Baltimore executive director.

In that capacity he went head-to-head with the teachers union, arguing that they shouldn't actually be paid for extra days and hours spent teaching. Presumably if you went to work for KIPP you just accepted that you would do more work for less pay than your professional peers in public schools.

From KIPP Botel moved on to become executive director of MarylandCAN, one of the network of fifty(ish) CANs that serve as lobbyists and financiers for the reformster movement, bolstered by all the big names like Gates and Walton. His job there was to be a soldier in the ongoing fight of charteristas trying desperately to get Maryland to unloose its restrictions and rules for charters (because, as we've all heard, the deal with charters is that they are all about accountability).

Botel has kept a relatively low profile on the large stage (at least according to Dr. Google). I'm sure more info is coming and we will learn more about him the days ahead (or the comments below), but as Betsy DeVos stumbles toward the Department of Education Secretary's office, the rest of the department is slowly filling up with tried-and-true reformster types like Hannah Skandera, whose checkered past includes Jeb Bush's Chiefs for Change, and Botel himself.

In fact, it's becoming increasingly clear that Trumps USED will be jam packed with conventional reformsters (led by the most extreme version of their crowd). It's also clear that we really need to retire the "reform" moniker, because the fans of corporate privatization and dismantling public education are now the status quo, the establishment, the swamp. This is a USED that either Jeb or Hillary would have been comfortable with. Stay tuned for more additions to the department roster.

Competition vs. Quality

It is an oft-stated truism-- competition creates excellence.

If you are running a race, you will run faster and harder to beat people who are also running fast. If you are playing football, you will train to be better than the team facing you on the field. It seems sensible.

There are some problems with this model just on its face. The people in the front of the pack, the winners, will get stronger perhaps, but the race will also separate out some losers, who will either have to either accept losing as their lot in life. Or they'll figure out ways to cheat. After all, if the definition of winning too narrow, like "being first to cross the finish line"-- well, there are plenty of ways to accomplish that without having to run the whole race faster than anyone else.

If we really believe that every student in America should get to attend a school that's a winner, then a competition that only a few can win seems like a poor model.

Competition may deliver excellence for a few, but it will not deliver excellence for everyone.

But there are other issues. If we make the reward for winning something important like, say, your food, then by losing, racers lose the very thing they need to compete. Competition will make them weak and hungry, the very opposite of breeding excellence.

But competition often does not breed excellence at all-- in fact, it can create the opposite effect.

Consider a market competition this way-- that vendors are competing for the chance to sell their wares. When prime customers are scare, competition favors those who lower their standards-- not those who raise them.

Colleges, for instance. As reformsters often point out while decrying the proliferation of remedial college coursework, colleges have responding to shrinking pol of college prospects by lowering their standards. They have competed for customers by admitting folks who would not have been considered customers at all in an earlier day, and since a college's customers are also part of their process and "product," they've competed by running away from excellence.

Wal-Mart did not conquer the retail world by pursuing excellence. "I want the very best product on the market, so let's go to Wal-Mart," said no consumer ever. Getting the greatest number of customers means lowering the bar as much as possible, both for the products on sale and the customers welcomed through the door.

The very term "exclusive" is associated with high quality. Clubs bill themselves as "exclusive" because everyone hears "selective" and "the best." Private schools and charter schools have long understood that "excellence" is achieved by being careful about who gets in your front door. Other charters have understood that "success" (as in "enriching the bottom line") can be achieved by lowering the bar as you open the front door.

In a system with too few resources, competition eats excellence and spits it out. In a city education ecosystem that contains many charter schools, where there are 200,000 seats for 100,000 students, competition for customers will be fierce, and schools will compete with whatever strength they have. If they can't compete for the academically oriented crowd, they will compete for the folks who want a convenient school or an easy school or a school without Those People in it. They will compete by using creative advertising that ignores the truth. They will worry more and more about getting people in the door and less and less about what is waiting for them inside. And while Wal-Mart can't afford to disappoint customers into never coming back, a school doesn't have repeat customers-- its customer base is always aging out every couple of years.

"Competition creates excellence" only seems true to people used to being in the front of the pack and setting the rules. For everyone else, competition is a reason to game the system, change the rules, move the finish line, or just lower the standards.

The goal of public education is excellence for everyone, but competition produces excellence for only a few, and sometimes not even that. It's a lousy metaphorical framework for education. Better, say, to talk about a garden on which we focus the full resources of the community to plant and water and tend living things to grow and mature without worrying about which one is tallest, sweetest or most vibrantly colored, or how we could best deprive one flower of water so that another can win a greenery contest. Education is not a race, and competition will not improve it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Dem-ish Reformsters Play Both Sides

You know how it is. New school year starts, lunch time rolls around, and everyone has to decide who they want to sit with for the next year. 

Modern education reform has been fueled in part by folks pretending to be left-tilted Democrats while embracing right-tilted free market corporate-based policies. The sweet smoothie of neo-liberal conservatism has worked for years--it helped sell No Child Left Behind (Look! Bipartisan support For The Children!)  and it worked under the Obama neo-lib administration as well. Really, who cares about political labels and parties and tribes as long as corporate ed reform is still chugging along.

What, really, is the difference between a Democrat-flavored, left-tilted, self-identified progressive education reformster and the crew that just took over the big table in the DC cafeteria?

Remember what Democrats for Education Reform honcho Whitney Tilson had to say about putting the D in DFER:

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

Then Donald Trump won the election, and a new President means a new year in the cafeteria.

This has presented reformsters with a dilemma. They can have pretty much everything they want, but they have to throw political support to Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump to get it.

Some folks are cool with that. Jeanne Allen and the Center for Education Reform had about five seconds of misgivings last May, and they are now ready to plant a big wet kiss on any part of Trumpian flesh they can get their lips near.

But other reformsters are trying to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, maintaining their reformy credentials while keeping distance between themselves and the least-loved President ever elected along with his Secretary of Education, a woman who has no more time for Democrats than she has for public schools.

So here's Justin Cohen at Chalkbeat, with the super-descriptive headline "I'm an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan." Cohen is a Broadie and member of the board for Students for Education Reform (DFER's little sibling), and his distinction between the wings of reformsterism matches what several others have posited:

The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman...The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. 

This reads like a dispatch from an alternate universe. The reform coalition has been steadfast in its determination to ignore results that don't match its determination to charterize, voucherize and privatize education. Reformsters, for instance, still pursue the idea of an Achievement School District even though the pioneer ASD in Tennessee has failed to produce results. And in states like Florida, Ohio, New York and, yes, Michigan reformsters have held the line against accountability at every step.

And if this divide is so strong and clear, where have these progressive results-oriented accountability hawks been as DeVos has torn through the Michigan education system?

Others mark the divide elsewhere. Here's reformy press agent Richard Whitmire at the74 trying to explain the new confusion and identifying it mostly as a charters-vs-vouchers division, with a side order of pendulum fear:

One not-so-private fear is the all-too-real chance of a major pendulum swing. When the Trump era ends, chances are good that politics will swing to the progressive side. At that point, charters will be tainted by Trump, mashed up with vouchers, and will undoubtedly lose their crucial bipartisan support. Especially from any Democracts in the white middle class.

That's a reasonable fear for reformsters. By cross-branding their policy drive, they've been able to swing from Clinton to Bush to Obama without ever having to lose political juice or partisan supporters from either camp. But Trump and DeVos are likely to ruin the brand simply by stamping their names on the policies that reformsters have been pushing all along.

Whitney Tilson himself has figured out another way to split the difference. DFER said they thought no Democrats should work with DeVos, but they have not exactly been blistering in their criticism of her. Now in his latest every-so-often-ly newsletter, Tilson manages to have it both ways.

He's been quiet, he says, while weighing DeVos's testimony and perusing the record, and now he has concluded that he can't support her. However-- he will present an entire essay from "an experienced, smart and trusted friend" who says that they're a Democrat who has worked with DeVos since 2000, and lays out why she would be awesome (visionary, super-duper tough on accountability, works For The Children). Tilson doesn't endorse this argument, mind you-- he just wants everyone to hear it.

Tilson has concluded "somewhat reluctantly" that he can't endorse her: 

I say “somewhat reluctantly” because I think she is a smart, capable person who genuinely cares about every child in this country receiving a high-quality education, and also because I agree with her on many things, including the importance of parental choice, especially via good charter schools, and on the need to courageously do battle with the forces of the status quo (including playing political hardball, as this NYT article notes), which are so poorly serving so many millions of children.

That is one heck of a non-endorsement. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Tilson wants his fans to know that he is absolutely not "toeing the unions' line, perish the thought" and manages to lump the unions and Tea Party together. "The unions obviously oppose choice and, like conservative Tea Party Republicans, they oppose strong federal accountability, as they'd like to be left to their own devices locally."

This is perhaps the dividing line that matters most but which is discussed least-- some reformsters would prefer to deal with a federal bureaucracy while others prefer to work with state governments. Is it easier to get tax dollars from the feds, or do you have a better shot at chipping your paydirt off big "block grants" handed to the states? I suppose this depends upon whether your network and contacts are operating in DC or a state capital.

Tilson works his way back around to Cohen's piece, from which he pulls some salient quotes--

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy.  

In other words, because she is such a charter-choice true believer, she doesn't really know anything about anything.

It remains to be seen how reformsters will sort themselves out, and that will undoubtedly depend on what sorts of policy and administrative screw-ups DeVos perpetrates. In the meantime, it's a fascinating dance to watch, like watching middle school students sort themselves into cafeteria tables at the beginning of a new school year.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Foggy College Readiness

Chester "Checker" Finn is concerned. The former head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and current Maryland State Board of Education VP thinks that our students and families are enveloped in a giant bank of foggy lies, lies about their college readiness and their future prospects and the quality of their K-12 education.

National Affairs includes Finn in their Winter 2017 issue with "The Fog of 'College Readiness'." It's a piece that wants to set off some alarms, but actually has some serious fog problems of its own.

Finn opens by saying that maybe more than half of graduating high school students are not ready for college-- according to "some estimates." This is a problem because the "vast majority" of high school students plan to attend college. This is a very foggy place to start; I teach a Pretty Large Number (to use Finn's style of metrics here) of students who are the future welders, auto mechanics, body repair experts, home health care aids, and heavy equipment operators of America. None of them intend to go to college, and none of them need to (and in my English class, my goal is not to prepare them for college). So to summarize our starting point-- some number of students aren't ready to go to college, and some number of those students actually want to go to college.

So how does Finn think we arrived at this foggily-delineated problem?

The source of this gap between belief and reality is the K-12 education system. Our schools create a fog when it comes to academic preparation for college success. Concerned more with inclusiveness, validation, and graduation than with college preparedness, administrators encourage teachers to, for instance, consider pupil effort in their grading, and push students to take advanced courses for which they have the ambition but not the readiness. 

He devotes a paragraph to Hillary Clinton's free college ideas (leading me to believe that this piece was wrapped up before, say, mid-November) and then notes that while ambition and optimism are swell things, there just comes a point--

But at a certain point, encouragement becomes damaging. 

K-12 schools and colleges and universities should stop lying. It's an interesting position because it points in a direction that Finn never suggests or even hints at-- the conclusion that some students just aren't going to get that special level of success and they should start figuring out how to face the truth that there lives are not going to be all that great or successful. It's the subtext of so much reformsterism-- that some people are just destined for Better Things than other people, and we should stop trying to raise false hope and doomed aspirations for those other people, and we should most especially stop dumping money in a system that raises those false hopes and doomed aspirations. Instead of building Great Hope Academy, we should be offering Know Your Place and Be Happy High School.

But as I said, Finn isn't going to go there, or even admit that such a there is implicit in his argument (of all the reformsters, only Finn's successor at Fordham, Mike Petrilli, is willing to just say that some students are of a better type and therefor need a better type of school, away from the non-strivers).

So where does he go?

It's no secret that possessing a college degree vastly improves one's chances of attaining the "good life." It helps greatly in the quest for a decent job, a living wage, upward mobility (if one's parents had no such degrees), and full participation in American society. Indeed, a society full of college graduates is apt to be not just wealthier but healthier and more stable than one populated by dropouts and people with only K-12 schooling.

Well, no. Finn tried to muster some evidence for this by citing Coming Apart and Our Kids. But I'd argue what Robert Putnam shows in Our Kids is what is supported by other research-- the best predictor of the Good Life is being raised by parents who have the Good Life themselves. A college degree is just one of those things that people on the Good Life track get; it's an effect, not a cause. When Finn envisions a society full of these Better People, he's not envisioning a society full of college grads so much as he's imagining a world where more people are Better People from privileged backgrounds. Although he's also imagining a society in which a lot of people might be cranky about being fast food managers and garbage collectors with college degrees and college debt out the wazoo. College degrees do not make college degree-requiring jobs appear, and they do not make laboring jobs disappear.

Finn rings the bell about disappearing lower-skills work, and that's a fair point. We seem to be slowly figuring out that automation is a much a threat to our workforce as outsourcing. That means we need more college-educated folks, and Finn also wants to ring the bell of college remediation-- which means that those students must not have been prepared to attend. To his credit, Finn lays some blame for this on the college's choice to accept the student in the first place. I would love it if the right-tilted Finn recognized this as an effect of the free market on education-- that if the market shrinks, the business must get fast and loose about whom it accepts as customers, and in this way, competition and free market pressures can actually lead to a worse product, rather than the high quality that free market acolytes believe must be the result of competition.

Anyway, Finn would be okay with the over-acceptance of deficient college freshmen if colleges were any good at remediation, but they aren't. For this moment, at least, Finn and I are in agreement. Finn also notes that remediation is now part of the business model, which matches what I hear from former students.

So where is this terrible honesty gap sneaking in?

Finn names several culprits. Grade inflation, leading to lost of students getting Bs and As. Students getting scores that have incorporated things like hard work. Kids These Days, with their droopy pants and participation trophies.

But Finn is also unhappy with standardized tests, and he argues against norming because that ends up defining "fifth grade level" for readings as "about average for all fifth graders." Finn wants standards-- hard, tough, immovable standards that will give lots of students the failing scores they deserve. It is not clear what Finn thinks the standards should be based on-- who exactly will decide what a fifth grader "should" be able to do. Nor does he mention that the modern emphasis on normed testing and rating and ranking is built into the dna of the reformster movement, which has repeatedly insisted that we need standards in order to compare students, teachers and schools, to sort out the winners and losers.

Oh, and look-- coming out of the fog is this large piece of baloney. Finn believes despite the "furor" raised over the Common Core, "a welcome outcome of the recent round of improvements in state standards is that young people who actually master them will be prepared for college-level academics." So wrong, in so many ways. Do the CCSS math and English standards guarantee that someone is ready to be a biology major or history major or music major? Is there a single solitary piece of evidence that the standards prepare someone to be a math or English major? And we've had the standards for years now-- do we see a corresponding spike in college success? No, to all of that?

Well, Finn can explain the last part. Wimpy states have balked at setting honesty cut scores for tests because they don't want to face the truth that huge swaths of students should be labeled deficient. And the primary and middle school grades sent home form the tests are "cagey" about whether or not students are on track for college. Because surely you can tell whether a ten year old is on track for college or not, and you shouldn't be "cagey" about it.

Finn says that high schools add to the fog with things like lots of AP courses. As with many of his other complaints, Finn skips the part where he and his reformy friends have added to the problem. AP courses (which are a product sold by the College Board, the company that is now headed by David Coleman, architect of the Common Core) are widely added because in some states like mine, offering AP courses helps improve your school performance score.

Finn does note that pressure from all (feds, reformsters, etc) over has pushed schools to increase grad rates some way, any way, and he sees ties to the Go To College rate here. That creates pressure to finagle, which creates students and families who are lied to by "adults in the K-12 system," none of whom will suffer any adverse effects for their duplicity. But teachers who give those As and Bs are like doctors who prescribe opiates.

There are all sorts of pieces lost in the fog of Finn's portrayal. One piece is the students and families themselves. In thirty-some years, I have lost track of the students and parents who have chosen less rigorous coursework so that they could get higher grades or have less stressful lives. Give me control of those students' educational choices and they would have been much more prepared for college-- but that's not how the system works. Every year I have at least one or two students in my non-college prep class who want to go to college, but don't want to take college track courses, despite my explaining in no uncertain terms the mistake they're making.

One proposed Finnian solution? Well, colleges could be honest and tell high schools "you can give a diploma to anyone you want, but they can't come to college without evidence that they're ready to do the work here." Finn envisions a two-tier graduation system, with one track for Plain Old Vanilla Diplomas and one for Ready For College certificates. Colleges would be completely upfront about who could and could not gain admittance and which students would be denied the opportunity to pay tuition to the college and again I ask, has Finn ever met the Free Market?

I do think he's on the verge of another realization here, which is that colleges and universities, as engines and markers of the regular old systems of privilege, often make admissions decisions that have nothing to do with academic promise. Can you imagine Yale telling George H. W. Bush, "Sorry, but your son George, with his lackluster high school performance and poor test scores simply isn't Yale material, and he'll have to go somewhere else because, you know, we have standards here. Also, can we count on your generous donation to the alumni fund again this year?"

This is also as good a place as any to note another giant gaping fogbank in Finn's reasoning which has been typical at every step of the College Ready reformster movement. College Ready is not a single, measurable thing. Not even a little. "Ready to major in art history at Harvard" does not look remotely like "ready to major in biology at Penn State" which does not look remotely like "ready to major in Spanish at Outer Dipwillow Community College" which does not look like "ready to major in underwater basket weaving at Bob's For-Profit Online University." When Finn says that colleges should be frank with high schools about what students need to be admitted there, I am imagining a 300-page document from every single college in the country.

If Finn or anyone else wants me to take this College Ready baloney seriously (because I'm sure he's losing sleep worrying about my approval), they should show me a specific list of exact skill and knowledge areas that they believe defines College Ready for all schools for all courses of study. It cannot be done. College Ready is not a thing.

Finn imagines the ripples that would spread if colleges implemented his policy of hard honesty:

If colleges stopped admitting sorely unprepared students — or Washington curbed their access to financial aid — there would be an initial uproar, with cries of discrimination, narrowed opportunity, and fresh barriers to social mobility. A number of colleges would lose enrollment and some — especially community colleges, but also some private colleges, including a number of "historically black" campuses — would shrink. At least a handful would likely close.

Yes, Checker Finn just said that if we tightened college standards, black students would be hit hardest.

Finn imagines that high schools would get a whole lot of pushback from parents who discovered that Junior was not doing well enough to get into college.

But those schools, too, need to be part of the solution, not just by preparing their pupils more effectively but also by advising parents — in those annual test-score reports, of course, but also in teacher conferences, quarterly report cards, and other bulletins — as to the kinds of colleges that their kids are or are not on track for.

Yeah, we could add new staff-- we could call them Know Your Place counselors.

Somewhere in all of this classist mess is the notion that college is not for everyone, which is dead on, because there are plenty of rewarding, well-paid, and absolutely essential jobs that are necessary, as Mike Rowe sayd, "to make civilized life possible for the rest of us." In fact, if folks like Finn want to help with this issue, one thing they could do is stand up for unions and advocate for solid union protection and good union wages, thereby helping folks realize that blue collar jobs are not the jobs people "settle" for because they're not "smart" enough to go to college. That would be a huge help!

But in the meantime, we will float in the fog where the proposed solution to a problem that may not even exist is to assess a quality we don't know how to measure to foster outcomes that we don't know how to create, all in the name of separating out the winners from the losers, the Betters from the Lessers, even though we're so lost in a fog with our non-existent measuring tools that we can't tell our elbows from our ears. Should be a piece of cake.