Tuesday, March 28, 2017

NV: Their Money and Their Mouths

So let's say you're home to the fifth largest school district in the country. Let's say your teacher shortages are legendary. Let's say they're so bad that you hire recruiters and mount a national ad campaign. Let's say your state has implemented the loosest voucheriest funding system in the country so that your funding is, you'll pardon the expression, a crapshoot. Let's say your legislators are in a legal battle with your school board because your legislators want to slap your schools with a "reorganization" plan that might me mighty pricey. Let's say that your school funding is kind of a nightmare that shells out less than $6K per student and depends on revenue that's tied to tourist business via a hotel room tax. Let's say that you have managed to out-Mississippi Mississippi so that you now command the bottom ranking spot for education in the USA.

Let's say all that. What do you do?

Did you say, "Why, build the world's most expensive sports stadium?"

If you did, you're a winner-- probably the only one in this sad tale.

Las Vegas made what is being called "the worst stadium deal" ever to lure the Oakland Raiders to Sin City. The stadium is reportedly projected to cost $1.9 billion. Billion. With a B.

While come of that money is coming from rich people who have presumably run out of ways to waste money and the Bank of America, who have-- well, I can't figure out what's in it for them. But the city itself is kicking in $750 million. $750 million. Some or most of that will come from an increased hotel tax applied to a new influx of almost half a million new tourists who will presumably be flocking to Las Vegas to see the Oakland Raiders, a team that people won't walk across Oakland to watch now. Fans of the deal insist that the combination of the Raiders and Las Vegas will be unstoppable ("Pittsburgh isn't Las Vegas," says one article, and thank God they're correct).

And if the imaginary tourists don't swell the tax coffers, who else is dipping out of that pool of money? Who else might get squeezed aside? Who, did you say? Yes-- the schools.

Opportunity cost is a way to look at an expenditure. You see a scarf and it looks so cool and it's only ten bucks, so it's a great deal. But the opportunity cost angle is to ask, "Well, what else could I do with the ten bucks if I didn't spend it on a scarf?" If the answers are things like "Food for my children" or "Outstanding parking fines," you should probably pass on the scarf. At the very least, buying the scarf will make a statement about what you really value.

So, if we look around Las Vegas, what's our opportunity cost. Is there something else that we could do with $750 million? Anything? Anything at all?

Perhaps the stadium will benefit some other teams. But the actual research on stadiums done by actual economists (working, for a change, in their actual area of expertise) is that stadiums are not investments:

Academic studies consistently find no discernible positive relationship between sports facility construction and local economic development, income growth, or job creation.

Las Vegas has decided to put both its money and its mouth somewhere other than its schools. Mississippi has a chance to stay out of the very lowest part of the US education basement only because Nevada is intent on going down to the basement and digging a hole.

Is Testing Accountability Dead Yet?

Today Education Next features a three-headed take on the question, "Is test-based accountability dead?" Three prominent reformy thinkers address the question. Do they come up with any useful answers? Let's see.


Why Accountability Matters, and Why It Must Evolve

Morgan Polikoff (USC Rossier) leads us off. Polikoff is a long-time Big Standardized Test supporter and logged some time with the Gates effective teaching project. And he is making a very creative case for the BS Test here.

What positively affects student outcomes, has "overwhelming" support of parents and voters, supports various policies and research, and has been used widely for a decade? "School accountability" is his broad and inclusive answer. But when it comes to test-based accountability specifically, I think he's only batting .500 here.

Does BS Testing work? It's a tricky question only because so much of the research is so bad, boiling down mostly to "ever since we started giving the BS Test for high stakes, students have scored higher on the BS Test." That may be true, but so what? That tautological progression holds whether the BS Test is a good test, a bad test, or a test of how well students can recite the Preamble to the Constitution. Update: Matt Barnum suggests that I'm conflating accountability tests with the NAEP, which has been used in some studies to "measure" effectiveness of other reformy ideas. This steers us back towards places like the Honesty gap, which is a side trip we don't have time for, but my point-- that taking lots of standardized tests makes students better at taking standardized tests-- remains the same.

Polikoff does pull off a masterful piece of data-juggling. You may recall a CREDO study suggesting that students in urban charters lost ground compared to their NCLB public school counterparts. Polikoff flips that around and tells us that NCLB caused public school students gains "equivalent to the gain from spending three or four years in an average urban charter." That is some fancy baloney slicing there, showing once again that anything can be made to look good if you compare it to the right Brand X. Update: Okay, Barnum kindly referred me to the study that Polikoff was referring to, and it does say something more like what he argued in his piece. This time, my snark is misplaced.

Polikoff cites Education Next's poll that that folks agree that schools should be accountable for providing a good education. Sure. This conveniently skips past the question that really matters-- are the BS Tests a good measure of whether or not a school is providing a good education.

So, 0 for 2 so far. His final two points are valid, but irrelevant. He asserts that high stakes testing puts weight behind certain policies and generates data for certain studies. Again, no word on whether any of these policies or studies are actually valid. And we've been doing this test-centered education thing for a while. No argument there. Are we tired of winning yet?

What you might find fun about Polikoff's essay is he's not arguing with those of us in the non-reformy camp.

Despite this track record of modest success, many parties seem poised to throw the policy overboard and use the guise of “parental choice” or “local control” to return us to a time when we had little idea which schools were educating children well and which were not.

What fun times we live in, when reformers scold other reformers. Polikoff also alludes to the idea that people who hate the Common Core only because they associate it with President Obama. And then he addresses some real concerns.

He touches on the issue of test-centered education narrowing and shallowing and hollowing out the curriculum, but that is totes going to get better when PARCC and SBA unveil their new! improved! tests. This has been the promise for years, and it has always been an empty one-- standardized tests, particularly if they are to be administered on a grand scale, will always be severely limited. Polikoff also responds to the notion that BS Tests do not predict "life outcomes," but unfortunately his response is to bring up Raj Chetty again, and Chetty has no real answer to this criticism, no matter how many times testocrats trot him out.

Polikoff acknowledges that the "accountability coalition" has frayed, and he restates his belief that choice must travel hand-in-hand with accountability or we are wasting tax dollars. He sees hope in ESSA's call for broader measures of school quality. And he swears we're really making progress and we can't give up now.

Polikoff's problem remains-- the BS Tests are junk that provide junk data and damage schools in the process. Accountability is a good idea, but the standards-based high-stakes tests that we've been subjected to for the past more-than-ten years are junk, and they do not provide a useful, reliable, or valid measure of school quality-- not even sort of. Nor have they helped-- not even incrementally. They have hurt, and hurt badly, a system that is now geared toward test prep and a narrow, stunted version of what education even means. Accountability matters, but Polikoff is asking all the wrong questions, ultimately getting the way of true accountability rather than supporting it.

Futile Accountability Systems Should Be Abandoned

Jay Greene (no relation) speaks up next. And as usual, he is not entering the conversation gently:

Is test-based accountability “on the wane”? The question is based on a fallacy. For something to be on the wane, it has to exist, and test-based accountability has never truly existed in the United States. Holding people accountable requires that they face significant consequences as a result of their actions.

So, the current system fails because it doesn't punish people hard enough. Greene also notes that it "has distorted the operation of schools to the detriment of educational quality." It is a Soviet-style central planning system that cannot possibly "capture the diverse spectrum of local priorities in our nation." It focuses on math and reading and ignores learning to be good citizens. It has crappy metrics. And schools are figuring out that the punishment for "failing" isn't so great (Greene juxtaposes this with stalled NAEP scores, as if a lack of fear among school personnel has caused growth to stop). Greene also, as he has before, notes that there's no proven or apparent connection between scoring well on the BS Test and doing well at life.

Greene also argues that test-based accountability is politically weak:

Rather, accountability that centers on testing is doomed because it has many political adversaries but no enduring political constituency. Parents have never rallied to demand that their children be tested more, that tests be used to retain students or prevent them from graduating, or that tests be used to determine teacher pay or employment. Educators revile test-based accountability even more. Test-based accountability was initiated by policy elites frustrated over rising education costs and subpar results. But elites cannot sustain such a policy in the face of opposition from educators and families. American politics is shaped by the activity of organized interests, not poll results.

Common Core is the canary in the coal mine, the demonstration of how centralized planning with no political backing is doomed to collapse.

All of this leads Greene to conclude that real accountability can only come from families exercising local control and local choice. Interestingly, though, his argument actually undercuts the typical choice-voucher argument. Choice fans argue that rich and middle class parents get to choose a school they like, but Greene talks about the power of those families "to exercise control over how and what their children are taught." In other words, maybe those families don't so much choose their school as the force their school to shape itself to their preferences. That's an idea I'd like to come back to on another day.

If Parents Push for It, Accountability Can Work

Says Kevin Huffman, a guy who has never made it work anywhere despite having control of an entire state's education system (Tennesee). But he will also lead with the idea that reformsters never had a big enough stick. "Shockingly few public school educators" lost salary or jobs or raises or promotions because of BS Test results. That, I would argue, is because most people on the local level recognized that tying those things to student results on bad standardized tests was A) unfair and B) unlikely to accomplish anything useful.

Huffman will go ahead and claim that BS Test results did predict life outcomes, by which he means early tests predict results on later tests. This is unsurprising, since all test results (and much of later life results as well) correlate most closely with socio-economic background. But Huffman wants to tell us a sad tale about an eighth grader facing a "lifetime of truncated opportunities dictated by weak performance at an incredibly young age." Because the nation is filled with people who are now poor because they did badly on the BS Test back in eighth grade.

Huffman is a long-standing member of the Everything Is The Teacher's Fault club. He joined in with Arne Duncan in claiming that students with special needs could be "fixed' by having teachers with high expectations ("Go on, Chris-- your dyslexia won't be a problem if you just listen to the sound of my expectations and try harder.")

Huffman is also going to chime in on the testing ouroborus-- students who take tests get better at taking tests, and therefor test-based accountability works. And as a leading test cultist, he is going to boldy assert as "fact" that higher scores on a narrowly-focused badly-designed standardized math and reading test prove that students are getting a better education. He's upset that the response to "improved results" in Tennessee and DC has been "a deafening silence," but it doesn't occur to him that the results are an unimpressive mirage. He might ask Chris Barbic, the head of Tennessee's Achievement School District who left the post early because he discovered he couldn't get results.

Huffman poses a question:

If test-based accountability works to improve student results but is unpopular with people who make their living in schools, can we reasonably expect it to find a foothold?

This is the wrong question. Let me suggest a rewrite:

If test-based accountability shows no independently verifiable improvement for students and is largely criticized by the trained professionals and experts in the education field, is there any reason to hold onto it?

 But Huffman is an education amateur who holds tight to what he doesn't know.

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some schools, districts, and states are doing better work than their peers. Some are getting better results, and some are driving faster improvements. How do we know this? Because of tests.

Man, I disagree with some of what Greene says and most of what Polikoff says, but this is just dumb. Does Huffman really, truly believe that nobody can tell the difference between a good school and a bad school except by looking at BS Test scores? Oh, and we can use test results to improve schools, somehow, except that of course we've been claiming to do that for over a decade.I guess we didn't threaten and punish teachers enough.

 Huffman is Arne Duncan lite, right down to insisting that test opponents are those rich, white suburbanites. Well, Duncan had seven years to make his pitch, and he failed to demonstrate any significant successes ever. Huffman is banging a drum that stopped making any semblance of music ages ago.  

So, Is It Dead ?

Oh, if only. But BS Testing is still enshrined in ESSA and in many state systems. It will continue to be a toxic drag on the school system, providing no useful information and warping the very idea of education.

So it won't go away, and it can't do anything useful or nurturing, and in fact can be destructive and damaging at times. Let's call test-centered accountability one more zombie loose in the education world.

Do I have some ideas about how to do better? I do, but this has dragged on enough for today.

In Praise of One To One

Back in 2010-2011, my school went to one-to-one computing. We put a netbook in the hands of every 9-12 grader.

It is rather unusual for my school district to be out in front of things. We're small, largely rural, and not terribly wealthy. But a combination of factors came together to launch us into one-to-one computing. And I'm here to tell you that I don't regret it a bit. And yet, I don't disagree with writers like Thomas Ultican when he says that one-to-one is Bad News.

Let me tell you what I think we did right, because I recommend that should your district make noises about such a program, you agitate to follow our somewhat aimless lead.

I say "aimless" because one of the very first things our administration did was fail to give us any specific instructions about how we were to use our students' newfound technotools. I am not kidding. That lack of direction was genius, and it was exactly right. Different teachers incorporated different aspects of the technology in different ways. Some classes were converted to digital textbooks (that's a big part of how the expense was sold to our board). Some teachers used a variety of tools. Some found some cool things they could use in their class. Some teachers didn't do a damned thing. We were initially given a tool for monitoring what the students were doing on their screens; it faded quickly, as most of us discovered we could monitor students using a tried and true teacher management technique you may already know as "Looking at them." Also, we had anticipated problems with things like keeping the netbooks charged. It turned out to be no problem.

I'm sure administration became a little frustrated with how slowly some teachers adopted the tech, and many teachers were frustrated that our infrastructure had some hiccups. Actually, it's still hiccuping.

But the minimum planning was genius because, first of all, the little planning that was done all turned out to be Not On Point. And second of all, it let teachers advance comfortably at a speed they could work with.

Many folks were doubtful, and students in the first few years pronounced the experiment a waste of time. This had more to do with expectations than anything else-- because we didn't have the computers out every day for some new round of whizbangery, folks thought they were underused. I disagree-- we don't use textbooks every single day, or paper, or pencils. You use the tools when there's a need. Some complained that the netbooks needed careful handling and treatment. Well, so does paper, but everyone just gets used to it early on and we don't think about it.

But the most critical part of a one-to-one program is not the technology. The computers are just a conduit, a straw through which students can either suck up tasty healthful fruit juice or harsh grain alcohol or battery acid.

Therein lies the problem. One-to-one computing is obviously a great avenue for implementing Competency Based Education, various forms of "personalized" learning and a host of software driven education programs. It's the infrastructure through which these clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk can enter schools. And that requires due diligence. A door is just a door, and anything can enter through it. Heck, a book can lay out the wonders of history, or it can tell students that African slaves were just "immigrants."

There are unavoidable issues. You may have noticed that I talked about how we used netbooks, a type of computer that has now not been made for years. In any one-to-one setting not supported by incredibly wealthy donors, your tech will become obsolete quickly. That's an expensive curve to stay ahead of.

We have been shifting to chromebooks, which makes sense because Google is ahead of the pack in school-friendly apps and software, but that means dealing with the issue of hooking children up to the data-gobbling maw of Google or some other privacy-rending corporation. It's scary, but then, cars and sex also come with some huge pitfalls, and we decided (mostly) years ago that the solution is to teach students rather than try to hide them in bubble wrap. The internet is not a highway-- it's a giant leech. We need to talk about that and find personal responses to that sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, every day in my classroom is computer lab day. I don't have to plan exactly when and how long, and I'm always able to say, "Good question-- look up the answer right now." My students who have little tech in their lives will not be quite so backward when they hit the workplace. My unofficial research says that students will write more on a computer than with pencil and paper (though paper and pencil still predominate in my classroom). Instead of old school journaling, my students keep blogs.

We could talk about the details all day, but the bottom line, the essence is this--  I use the computers for purposes I choose in ways I determine. That makes them another tool in my arsenal, and I am happy to have all the tools I can get my hands on, as long as I'm using them and they're not using me. Sure, the technical glitches and regular malfunctions are an annoying pain in the butt-- so are broken pencils and students who don't bring their books to class.

One to one computing can be your friend-- if you can stay in the drivers seat and if you can keep them from being an entry point for Bad Programs. As with most other tools, it can build or destroy. Stay vigilant.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Broken Promises of Tech

So, here's how I've been spending my evening.

I had a whole batch of photos that I wanted to upload, but after investing a chunk of time this morning and this evening, that whole project crashed into a bunch of disconnected bits floating off into the cyber-ether.

I took the somewhat passive-aggressive step of tweeting my displeasure with my provider (Verizon DSL-- don't tell me to switch to someone better because first, there's nobody all that better and second, even if there is, there is nobody better in my rather rural area). As usual (this is not my first disgruntled cyber-rodeo) that grumpy tweet flushed out a corporate bot who wrangled me up the line until I was chatting with what appeared to be a live human.

My problem, according to me-- speed tests on my end show upload speeds that graph like badly battered comb, and upload speeds are so low that the test just times out. Hence my inability to upload my pictures.

My problem, according to the tech-- I'm trying to use my wireless internet connection wirelessly. Other devices or objects or neighbors or bursts of cosmic rays could cause the wifi to weaken as it drags its way the ten feet across the room. Verizon can really only guarantee the wireless speeds that I purchase for devices that are actually wired to the router.

Of course, like most folks, I have the wifi so that multiple magical technobricks can operate in my home. But tonight my wife is at chorus rehearsal and there are currently two devices trying to eat internet. I could wire up some things like my main desktop, but the home office would become some sort of frightening Faraday Cage. It's not the solution I want. It's not the solution I pay for. It's not the solution I was promised.

But this is often how tech promises go. "This will do awesome things," the tech engineers declare, "At least, it does awesome things in our lab with brand new tech and controlled conditions and a support group of twelve highly trained computer whizzes."

I am no Luddite. In fact, the post I was going to write tonight was in defense of one-to-one computing. But I also believe that the only reliable thing about tech is that it will reliably promise more than it can actually deliver in the real world.

That effect is magnified in school settings-- I'm pretty sure that all those dollar signs dancing in their heads make it hard for tech bosses to see how things will actually play out in the real world, where users are piled on top of each other like cordwood, spread around buildings that are built like bunkers (if you ever need me for an emergency, do not try to call or text me by cell while I'm working-- I'm pretty sure no radiation of any sort can penetrate my school).

I recognize that these complaints are 50% whining, the noises that children make because the miracle is not happening fast enough, miraculously enough. I recognize that I'm complaining that I can't perform my magic trick with as little effort as I had hoped.

But I also know we live in an age in which many tech types are promising even greater magic for schools, that we will soon (soon!!!) be able to plunk children in front of screens and those screens will spit out educational programs perfectly tailored to those children, while magically educating each child perfectly and personally, while miraculously collecting tons of data about those children, while also miraculously keeping that data totes secure and safe. Whether these promises should be kept is one discussion worth having, but whether they can be kept is perhaps a better one, because tech makes promises it can't keep, and we end up with things like wireless internet that really works better if you don't use it wirelessly.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

ICYMI: Babymoon Edition (3/26)

My wife and I are in DC, contemplating the cherry blossoms and coming creative disruption of our lives by two currently-fetal offspring. But I've still collected some reading for you, set to auto-post at the usual Sunday AM time. Read, enjoy and share.

In the Name of Love

A little push back from a Christian about "Christian" legislators

In the America First Budget, Schools Come Last

Andre Perry with an on-point critique of the Trump budget

Are You a Big Fat Idiot

I am happy to welcome back one of my favorite blog titles-- "I Love You But You're Going To Hell," a blog that focuses on interpreting conservative Christian thought for those not of that tribe (and which treats both sides with fairness). It's not always education-related, but this time it has something to say about the teaching of science.

Words That Hurt Our Public Schools, And Ones That Help

We're doubling up on Jeff Bryant this week. First up, a look at how rhetoric shapes the education debates.

Hillbilly Elitist

Nancy Flanagan takes a look a Vance's widely-touted book, and she's not entirely impressed.

What the Dickens Is Going On

John Merrow takes us inside the mess that is the current ed department, and finds a silver lining stuffed inside a neglected closet.

The Big Lie Behind Trump's Education Budget

Jeff Bryant with another well-sourced breakdown of where exactly the problems lie in Trumps edu-budget.

Are School Leaders Becoming Too Enabled?

Peter DeWitt takes an insightful look at school leadership and using the right drivers to empower, not enable.

Privatizing Recess: Micromanaging Children's Play for Profit

Nancy Bailey looks at one of those scourges that will not die-- the professional recess managers

"We Teach English" Revisited

Paul Thomas looks at Lou LaBrant and the parts of teaching English that never change.

If You Teach and Noone Learns, Do You Really Teach

Jose Luis Vilson Reflects on parent-teacher conferences and the lenses through which we view our classrooms

Friday, March 24, 2017

How Not To Teach Writing

Imagine how crazy it would be.

An English teacher stands in front of a class and explains, "For every thought you have about the prompt, there is only one correct sentence that can use to express that thought. I'll be grading your essays based on how many of the correct sentences you use."

Nobody teaches writing that way. Nobody says, "Okay, if you have an insight about Jake's injury in The Sun Also Rises, there is on correct sentence for expressing that thought" or "On today's essay about parenting, I'll be looking for seven particular correct sentences that should be used to express these thoughts."

Certainly nobody approaches the use of words in real life in this way. Nobody says, "No, you can't be serious about this job because you didn't even try to say the right sentence," or "No, if you really loved me, you would have said the correct sentence for expressing it."

No, the entire history of human expression, human literature, human song-- it's about finding new and interesting and surprising ways to say what we have to say. It's about finding ways to express a thought that are perfectly suited to that particular person and time and place and circumstances. We are moved, touched, excited, and enlightened by those who can string words together in completely different and yet completely appropriate ways.

Certainly some of these verbal inventions are better than others. Shakespeare's plays are echoes and imitations of other versions of the same stories, and yet four centuries later his Hamlet and his Romero and Juliet endure because, although he was saying what many other playwrights were saying, he said it better. We admire (at least we should) Shakespeare not just for what he did with the language, but for his rip-roaring robust rearrangement of the language, his willingness to take his tools and hammer them into new shapes that served his needs perfectly. Shakespeare did not get to be Shakespeare by imitating everyone else. He found his own way, and found things that were so much better.

But there is a huge difference between "better" and "the one right way." Shrimp salad with a light dressing is better-- healthier-- than a thick steak with french fries. But it does not follow that I should eat shrimp salad for every single meal. We should not all be wearing exactly the same clothes, driving in exactly the same car, and living in houses with exactly the same floor plans while we listen to bands that sound the same play identical recordings of just a few songs.

This is all obvious-- as obvious as not teaching students to write by demanding they spit out the One Correct Sentence for whatever thought they're having.

And yet  much of writing instruction and assessment assumes a One Correct Sentence model. Error-centered instruction, where we focus instruction on all the mistakes we're supposed to root out and avoid, seems to assume that if we slice away all the Bad Things, we'll be left with the perfect sentence for our thought, and not just some sad, filleted dishrag of a sentence.

And standardized testing at times comes so very close to sending exactly the wrong message-- there's one correct answer and there's one correct sentence for expressing that answer. Just select it.

This is why, frankly, so many teachers either avoid teaching writing or just do it badly-- it cannot be reduced to a formula and it does not involve a single correct answer for each problem, so it's hard to teach and hard to assess. Even the giants of literature cannot agree on what would be a good way to express a particular thought. Mark Twain loathed James Fenimore Cooper's classic American novels, Faulkner thought Twain a hack, and some of the greatest literary insults have been delivered author-on-author:

On Jack Kerouac: “His rhythms are erratic, his sense of character is nil, and he is as pretentious as a rich whore, sentimental as a lollypop.” — Norman Mailer

On Mark Twain: “[A] hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven ‘sure fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” — William Faulkner

On Hemmingway: “I read him for the first time in the early Forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.” — Vladimir Nabokov

On Jane Austen: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer … is marriageableness.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

More than necessary to make my point, but as a genre, author-on-author insults are kind of fun.

The giants of the writing field cannot agree on with any narrow clarity what constitutes good writing. The closer we get to nailing that elusive beast down in one single, specific spot, the more likely we are to kill it dead. Pinning down writing to one specific answer is like deciding that dogs look best in one pose, so you have yours stuffed and mounted in just like that. What you have is not a loving, living animal, but a dead thing trapped in a sad, inadequate simulation of life.

There is no one right pose for your dog. There is no one right way to write.

What we have are choices. In seeing choices, we are often victims of success, because a well-written sentence or essay or story or even just a phrase leaves the reader feeling, "Well, of course. I can't imagine any other way to say it." But there were and are other ways to say it, and some of them, in other circumstances or in the hands of another writer or even just in place of what we see-- those could have been great choices too.

There are always choices.What we need to teach our students is how to see the choices, and then how to decide which choice best serves her purposes, which choice best fits her own voice, what choice best achieves her goals. Instead of looking for the One Right Answer, she needs to look for Her Right Answer, and we need to help her learn to be comfortable with the fact that there are many Perfectly Good Answers available (and she may need to stop stressing about trying to find the One). She needs to find her own voice, her own path, her own way. And there's just no way to standardized that, nor any value in trying.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

MS: Paving Way for Vouchers

Mississippi has long been considered America's Armpit of Education.

Educational lists? You name it, they've consistently ranked near the bottom. It qualified as news when Nevada beat them for dead last in EdWeek's Quality Counts list in 2016, because that was their first step up in years(and it can be argued that they didn't so much improve as Nevada just became even worse.)

Sharing another excellent investment opportunity

They've tried any number of dumb ideas, from jumping on the bandwagon for failing third graders who don't pass the Big Standardized Test in reading, to fining schools for not observing the Pledge of Allegiance. Plus the occasional attempt to force teachers to be silent on any education related issues at all.

What they haven't tried is actually funding their school system. Mississippi ranks close to the bottom there as well, with a per pupil outlay in the $7K area. Back in 1997, the legislature attempted to address this by passing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (because when you're working on education, "adequate" is plenty good enough). MAEP laid out a funding formula that the state then promptly ignored. The legislature has only voted four times to fund schools as the MAEP says they should-- and two of those times they took it back mid-year. Last year some folks tried to add some actual teeth to the law, and the legislature promptly buried the referendum in a flurry of bloviating baloney.

But Mississippi's educational finances were not going to be ignored. Instead, the GOP called upon EdBuild and their CEO, our old friend Rebecca Sibilia.

You may remember her as the woman who gleefully observed that bankrupcy is a great way to blow up a district, which is no problem for kids, but a great opportunity for charter operators. Arielle Dreher, who has been doing a bang-up job covering all this for the Jackson Free Press, does a nice job of recapping the EdBuild story--

EdBuild is in its infancy as a company (it started in 2014), and Sibilia came from an education-policy background, first working in the Washington, D.C., education department and then moving to the nonprofit Students First, run by Michelle Rhee. The former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, Rhee was a controversial figure, after firing over 200 teachers in D.C., mainly due to poor performance, she said then.

EdBuild's board of directors includes Derrell Bradford (NYCAN), Angelia Dickens(general counsel for StudentsFirst), Michael Hassi (Exponent Partners), Josh McGee (Manhattan Institute, Arnold Foundation), Henry Moseley (CFO, Washington Convention Center), Hari Sevugan (270 Strategies, former DNC press secretary, and just helped a "national, non-profit education reform group get off the ground), and Stephanie Khunrana (Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation). EdBuild's website hammers away at the notion that "current funding systems are outdated, arbitrary and segregating."

Sibilia's background is soaked in reformy swellness. If that doesn't give you a hint where EdBuild's "study" for educational financing in Mississippi is headed, note also that the quarter-million dollar study was half paid for by the legislature, and the other half with "private funding from unnamed EdBuild donors." Those donors? The Broad, Draper Richards Kaplan, Bill and Melinda Gates, CityBridge, Walton Family, and the Center for American Progress.

Mississippi reached out for help from these giants of education investment because Mississippi is, on the whole, in financial trouble. The GOP and Governor Phil Bryant last year pushed through a huge tax cut, and now state revenues are way down. Go figure.

Against that backdrop, EdBuild and GOP legislators met behind closed doors to rewrite the state's funding formula while pretty much everyone else complained about being left out of the whole process. EdBuild has produced a nifty report  full of fun recommendations, and while we could plow through the whole eighty pages, there are basically only eleven recommendations, and those recommendations boil down to one Big Idea:

Student-centered funding.

Don't fund schools. Base your formula on cost-per-student.Because that makes it way easier to implement a full-on voucher system (and in the long run, I'll predict, it makes it easier to deny budget increases).

There are other details in the recommendations. Recommendation 1 is about giving an extra bump for students who qualify as poor. And while you're doing that, redefine what "poor" means; in Georgia, these kind of shenanigans resulted in many, many people being redefined right out of poverty, even though they had no more money than ever. Recommendation 2 calls for extra support for ELL students, and #3 adds a per-pupil bump for students with special needs, depending on how special their needs are. #4-- same for gifted. #5-- extra money to schools for college-and-career-ready programs, and #6 looks after rural and "sparse" schools.

Recommendation #7 is novel-- fund schools based on enrollment rather than attendance, which strikes me as an idea that would really help charters in general and cyberschools in particular. #8 is to eliminate the 27% rule, a rule that essentially says that the state must shoulder 73% of the funding burden. #9 is about financial transparency.

#10 says, Let's look at all the rules, regulations and accreditation standards that cost money and see if they are "critical to student success"-- presumably so we can get rid of them. Oh, and create a system of "earned autonomy," where schools with good test scores earn a Get Out Of Following the Rules card.

#11 says to phase all this in, and Sibilia agrees, noting that some schools will get more money and some less, so go easy.

One other bizarre feature of this big financial plan is that it includes no dollar amounts or projections at all.

Sibilia said the dollar amount is up to lawmakers, and told the Jackson Free Press that figures used in the 80-page report are "examples only," not base figures for legislators to use.

Will this save the state money? The legislature has kept the grand total for MEAP level, but they've also fully funded the system twice in twenty years. Can you reform a system you've never actually used in the first place? Should you evaluate a new system based on the assumption that it won't be correctly funded when implemented? We have no answers. Would it help you to hear from one more reliable reformy spokesperson?

As a concept, weighted student funding aims for equity, focusing on funding the highest student needs. Dr. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University, analyzes the economics of educational issues. Weighted student funding, Hanushek says is a sensible idea, especially since the goal in most cases is to put money towards school districts that have disadvantaged kids or those that need special education. Weights, however, are the political part of the process, he says.

If we aren't adding any money to the pot, but just shifting the old money around with a new formula, how does that save money or improve education? Well, maybe that's another political question, but I suspect the answer is, "It opens the door to increased and easier voucher/charter/choice programs." Just slap a backpack full of cash on each student and let the mad scramble begin. There's not an ounce of evidence that it will serve the students well, but plenty of evidence that it will help privateers and profiteers open the otherwise closed education market and really expand their own share.

And why target Mississippi for such a program? Well, the one thing that really helps boost a voucher/charter/choice program is a public school system that has been broken down, starved, and beaten into a highly unattractive condition-- Mississippi's public schools are already halfway there. EdBuild is just there to take advantage of that failure, because the collapse of public schools is a great investment opportunity for investors and privatizers, much like the collapse of the weakest antelopes at the watering hole is a great opportunity for lions and hyenas.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Which Choice Would You Choose?

If you were (or are) a parent, which one of the following options would you prefer?


Your neighborhood is served by a single public school.

That school is well-staffed with a range of young and experienced professional educators, well-trained and committed to the needs of their students, and they are well-managed and well-paid so that they stay on as the foundation of a stable school community. The school is a well-maintained facility, clean and safe. It offers a wide variety of quality programs under one roof, with the flexibility for students to explore different educational paths and even change their minds (because young folks sometimes do that), as well as allowing them to enrich one path with samplings from others (in other words, your future biologist won't have to give up band). The school is fully funded and has a full range of up-to-date quality resources.

The school is transparently managed and controlled by an elected board of local community members who meet in public and are available to be contacted by any resident or taxpayer in the district. The management of the school is nimble, flexible, and open to input from all stakeholders.


In this option, your neighborhood is served by many schools, and you have plenty of choices that you may be able to access by using your voucher or some other sort of choice mechanism.

Choice #1: Never mind. This elite private school is out of your price range, even with your state-issued modest voucher.

Choice #2: This Christ-centered private school will gladly accept your child, as long as that child behaves properly, which includes a properly worshipful attitude in daily devotions and Bible readings. And don't worry-- we won't be teaching your child any of that foolish evolution-filled "science" stuff.

Choice #3: Our experts have determined that this is the kind of school People Like You need for their children. Strict, no excuses, speak only when spoken to regimentation. It certainly wouldn't fly over in East Egg, but it's just what the children of You People need to take your proper place in the world.

Choice #3A: If you're in the South, there's also this school, but you can only send your kid here if you're white. Because Those People need to be kept on their own side of town.

Choice #4: We will provide a program much like a regular public school, except we don't have any adaptations for students with special needs or English language learners. You're certainly welcome to send your child with special needs, or who is five years behind in English language acquisition, but understand that we aren't going to do anything special for them.

Choice #5: We decided to launch a special math-centered school. We make room in the budget for super-math stuff by cutting music, art, sports and history. All students attend the same English class which meets every other day in the auditorium. But our math program is definitely more than adequate.

Choice #6: This school was started by some Very Nice People who thought, "How hard can it be to run a school?" It looks like a nice enough place, but none of the teachers have been paid for a month and it will probably close before Easter.

Choice #7: Big National Chain Charter School. The program is already packaged and all our brand-new staff members need to do (it's always brand new because no staff stays here for more than a year or two, which is okay because we don't need to hire actual certified teachers anyway, so they're easy to replace) is open the binder and follow the program. If you would like to talk about changes to the program, feel free to contact our corporate headquarters, which are not actually in your state.

Choice #8: What do you want? Look at our glossy advertisements! We will promise you all sorts of stuff. We will never deliver any of it, but by the time you figure that out it will be too late-- we'll have your money and you'll have to decide how badly you want to disrupt your child's school year in the middle.

Choice #9: Your public school. It still exists, but the other eight schools have drained so much money from it that it is now a sad, limping, underfunded shadow of a real school.

With the exception of Choice #9, none of these schools are managed or operated publicly. You can't attend the meetings, you can't see the books, and you can't contact the board members easily, if at all. You don't get a voice-- the only stakeholders who matter are the people who own and operate the school, and they'll give you the choice they feel like giving you.


Voucher advocates-- particularly the ones who advocate for "parental choice" or "parent rights"-- seem to insist that Option 2 is the better one. Their argument is that Option 1 is a choice that only wealthier families get to exercise by virtue of their ability to buy a house in that school's neighborhood. And they aren't wrong-- linking school funding to the power of the real estate market means that schools in richer neighborhoods get better funding. That is a problem worth addressing.

And yet, Option 2 does not address it. The school in Option 1 is still not available to less wealthy parents. They are presented with only the choices that other choosers choose for them, and in the process, they lose even a limited ability to influence what those choices are going to be. So they lose a shot at improving their public school, and get little-to-nothing in return.

Parent choice advocates might argue that Option 2 is still a better option because choice is such a great value, in and of itself, that providing choice to parents is more important than anything else-- including making sure that the available choices are actually any good.

But I keep coming back to the same idea-- if we want all students to be able to choose the school in Option A, why not do what it takes to transform every public school into Option A? Option A actually offers more choice, more flexibility, but most of all, more of the things that families actually want. Once upon a time reformsters made noises about charters developing great ideas to create great schools, but we already have a plethora of model public schools-- why not use them as a template? Why not muster the sort of "War on Poverty" or "Get To The Moon" or "Endless Battles in Other Countries" willpower we've mustered before and direct it toward making all schools great schools?

If I were a cynic, I might conclude that it's because no private operators can make a bundle under that plan.

Choicers will argue that I've stacked the deck, that these aren't the real options. Real World Option A, they'll say, is one lousy school, and while that may be true in some communities, how is multiple lousy choices better than one lousy choice-- and if you only had so much money, would you rather try to fix up one house or a whole bunch of houses with that money? Real World Option B, they'll say, has more awesomely wonderful choices than I represent here, and you know, there was a time I believed that might be theoretically possible, but reality seems to be stubborn in this regard. It's almost as if running a school is hard, and doubly hard if you're trying to make a business out of it.

But seriously-- what parent would choose Option B over Option A? It's really no choice at all.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Booking.com and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Ad

The folks at booking.com put out this advertisement.

I've never established a Hall of Fame here, but if I did, this letter would go into it:

After watching your ad several times I am moved to do something I've never done before- write a company to complain of the image they are portraying of my profession. As a 15 year veteran teacher, I can assure you that my stress does NOT come from the students in my classroom. My stress comes from endless meetings forcing me to enact tactics that do not help my students learn and achieve; my stress comes from not getting a cost of living raise in 10 years; my stress comes from national figures who know nothing of public education working to destabilize our system in favor of private, religious, and for-profit charter schools that are free to discriminate against differently-abled children with no penalties. 

Isn't there enough teacher bashing without you adding to the myth of the inattentive, non-caring, child-hating teacher? 

If you want to show a teacher needing a vacation, how about showing one burnt out on caring too much? Giving of her own time and money to her kids while an uncaring administration makes ridiculous demands on her? That would be relatable and not turn off the 3.1 million public school teachers in the US. 

Thank you,

That letter is from Alana Milich, God bless her.

Because, yes, it's absolutely hilarious how this teacher is apparently incapable of doing her job is not very interested in trying, because children are awful wild malevolent creatures and teachers would certainly be doing anything else if they possibly could.

"There's nothing more important to me than my vacation"??!! Really? I'm pretty sure that teachers have a long list of things that are far more important to them than their vacation. "Now I can start relaxing before the vacation begins." Sure-- that's what teachers want to do. Anything except our jobs.

Do not tell me that it's "just a joke" and I shouldn't take it so seriously. Passive-aggressive attacks masquerading as humor are never funny. "Hey, honey-- move your fat ass! Oh, don't give me that look-- I'm just kidding." Hi-larious.

I'm not sure what makes this okay. If this were a bored, incompetent, slack-eyed housewife dreaming of getting away from her kids, or a husband dreaming of getting away from the wife he hates, or a doctor standing over an open patient on the table while the doctor absently severs organs and dreams of getting away from stupid sick people or a minister who can't stand his congregation or a national elected politician who can't stand his job and dreams of going golfing every weekend-- well, you get the idea. I know as Americans we get yuks out of people who hate their jobs or their lives or the people around them, but damn-- do we really need one more suggestion that teachers really just suck? And if someone were telling you that's how they see your children, would that be okay with you?

Booking.com sent Milich (and apparently a few other complainants) a tepidly generic response:

Thanks for your feedback.

We’ll be sure to pass it on to those relevant. At Booking.com we value all professions, including teachers, and this ad was only intended as a light-hearted bit of fun. We are passionate about connecting our customers with great stays, empowering them to experience the world in the easiest, most seamless ways possible, which this advert aimed to convey.

Kind regards,

Those relevant what, exactly? "Light-hearted" doesn't really fit, I'm afraid, unless you're the kind of person who considers Ann Coulter books a wacky romp. "We were just teasing" is, unfortunately, a whole long distance away from "We are sorry. We respect teachers and should not have treated them so insultingly."

If you'd like to add to the chorus of unamused audience members, here are some places to try.

Booking.com has a Facebook page. Their twitter handle is @booking.com. You may also be interested to know that they are part of the Priceline group, along with Kayak, Agoda, and Open Table. And while none of the categories is exactly "Complain about our insulting advert," you can find many customer service contact options here-- why not use, well, many?

Join the many folks already complaining. While this is certainly not on the order of, say, threats to gut public education and destroy the teaching profession, these folks deserve to be part of a flap-- maybe even a kerfuffle. It would be nice if advert-makers would think two seconds before they used shots at teachers for cheap punchlines. Do better, booking.com.

MD: University Privatization

The University of Maryland University College is pioneering a new business model, and not everyone thinks it's a very good idea.

George Kroner is a UMUC graduate and a former employee who worked on the tech side of things as UMUC developed a variety of on-line education and analytics programs (he is also, I should note, a former student of mine). But in the nine months since Kroner has left UMUC, he has noticed some disturbing trends.

For one thing, there has been a large administrative turn over-- and not just of personnel as some old school positions like "VP of Academic Affairs" are replaced with new-fangled jobs like "VP, Strategic Partnerships." These business-sounding titles seem to be in keeping with a new model being followed by the university:

As of the time that I left, my impression is that the university was beginning to struggle with finding a balance between its core mission focused on academics and the business aspects of focusing on future innovation. The noted shifts in the Cabinet membership seem to reflect these changes in priority and focus.  As much respect as I have for the university President, he seemed quite enamored with finding ways to use public resources to found private educational technology startup companies – instead of with the core academic mission of the university. The thinking was that the university might use excess income from these startups, or the proceeds from selling them off, to fund scholarships. This is a noble goal, but the business of edtech is extremely risky at best and can result in losing hundreds of millions of dollars for even the largest and most successful educational technology companies.

Inside Higher Ed writes about the "unbundling" university. UMUC has been a pioneer in distance and on-line learning (Kroner himself earned an advanced degree while still being able to hold down a regular job thanks to evening and online classes at UMUC). The university did big business with students attached to the military, including those on active duty.

But times are a-changin' and UMUC was looking for a way to be more sustainable. President Javier Miyares (who left Cuba after his father was taken prisoner in the Bay of Pigs invasion-- so there's another person for your immigration list) took over the office in 2012 with no intent to instigate drastic changes.

Now Miyares thinks its time to pare UMUC down to its "core mission" and part of that has turned out to be "spinning off" departments into private businesses. So the Office of Analytics became the company HelioCampus. This joined other spun-off units under a UMUC non-profit umbrella holding company. UMUC used various departments to raise money two ways-- either outright selling them off, or spinning them into private businesses. And the hiring them to do what they used to do-- so spinning off and outsourcing, all at once.

Either way, say critics, it's a dubious use of public money and the products of that public money. Eyebrows wet up when the university decided to spin off/outsource its entire IT department under the UMUC ventures brand. But outsourcing without a bidding process because they're hiring a business that they are still sort of attached to. That's a lot of spin.

Supporters say it can grow the endowment for the university. Critics point out that it puts UMUC in the business of being in business. That may be why Miyares has been making a bunch of noises that translate to, "No, really-- we're most concerned with the whole academics and teaching and students thing." But there's no getting around it-- the taxpayers of Maryland are now financing both a university and a large-scale business enterprise. And the university and the business now do business with each other:

“For the regents, it was important that there was a really clear line of control,” Miyares said. “We are very satisfied that what we are getting from [HelioCampus] in terms of analytics services is what we were getting before, but that involved very well-crafted service-level agreements. The same thing will have to be done with IT … to make sure we continue to get what we need. At the end of the day, if we don’t, well, I can appoint new directors at any time.”

Which is a bizarre conversation to have. "Let's make sure that these people who used to work for us directly still give us the service they would have given us as a matter of course if they were still working for us." It's like a divorcee saying to their ex as they leave divorce court, "But we'll still get together and the sex will be just as good as ever, right?"

The ins and outs of public-private university partnerships are always a complicated web, whether you're talking health care research or might-as-well-be-pro sports. But UMUC seems determined to push right up to the edge of the question, "When does a public university stop being a public university?" And that question lives right next door to, "If a public university is really a private business, should it be paid with public tax dollars?"

Netflix and the Myth of Personalization

Today Slate has an analysis of how Netflix began the process of personalizing marketing, of using "algorithms to micromanage distribution, not production" in particular in the multi-pronged marketing of House of Cards by creating multiple trailers to appeal to particular slices of the Netflix customer pool, based on their "likes."

In the middle of the article, we find this paragraph:

House of Cards thus embodies one of the most seductive myths of the algorithmic age: the ideal of personalization, of bespoke content assembled especially for each one of us. In fact, the content, or at least the costly, aesthetically rich content we care about, like Fincher’s show, is still fairly limited. There is only one House of Cards, but there are as many ways to market the show as there are to target Netflix viewers. This is what information theorist Christian Sandvig calls “corrupt personalization”: the ways that algorithmic culture blurs the lines between our genuine interests and a set of commodities that may or may not be genuinely relevant, such as products “liked” by our friends on Facebook even if they did not knowingly endorse them.

The piece on corrupt personalization is worth the side trip, but it's a bit much to squeeze in here. But let me toss out three context-free quotes that may ring bells.

It’s as if on Facebook, people were using the yellow pages but they thought they were using the white pages. 

In sum this is again a scheme that does not serve your goals, it serves Facebook’s goals at your expense.

Money is used as a proxy for “best” and it does not work. That is, those with the most money to spend can prevail over those with the most useful information. The creation of a salable audience takes priority over your authentic interests.

And I will bring back Greene's Law-- the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.

Personalized learning, whether we're talking about a tailored-for-you learning program on your computer screen or a choose the school you'd like to go to with your voucher, is not about actual personalization. It's about another path for marketing, a way of personalizing the marketing of the product, the edu-commodity that someone is already trying to make money from.

We're being sold (and in many cases are arguing against) an AI that spits out just the digitized worksheet that Student 12-5452 needs to continue studies, but that's not where we're headed. Look, for instance, at the new, improved PSAT that returns both a score and some recommendations. "Looks like you need to log in to Khan Academy's lesson series for calculus." Or "You would really benefit from the AP Calculus course-- talk to your guidance counselor today."

That's the personalized learning dream-- students with vouchers paying for education one course or micro-credential at a time, and each exercise on the "parent" program ends with, "Good job! You should probably sign up for Edubizwang Corp's Intro to Pre-Pre-Calculus next-- just enter your edu-voucher account number." Marketing that can be directed with laser-like precision at each individual consumer. Marketing that can tell the consumer, "Yeah, this-- this is what you really want."

It's not a personalized product, but the personalized marketing will make you think it's just what you want. Netflix is just the beginning. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

IN: Vouchers and Changing the System

Indy Ed is a website devoted to exploring one idea-- "There are so many changes swirling around our schools that it’s hard to get straight answers." Their focus is Indianapolis, one more urban center suffering from a plethora of education problems, not the lest of which is a government that doesn't want to spend too many tax dollars on Those People. But Indy Ed seems to prefer focusing on that most magical of solutions-- vouchers and choice.

There's no big scam or fraud or misbehavior here. But in one simple piece, Indy Ed gives us a picture of many of the ways that vouchers open up the market and let profiteers and religious ed folks get past the system that has stood in their way for so long.

"Vouchers May Not Be a Panacea But They Are Really Working for Some Families" is the headline for this piece highlighting Oaks Academy, an example of vouchers working for some people.

So before we read the piece, what do we know about Oaks Academy? Well, here's the pitch at the top of their website:

The Oaks Academy is a Christ-centered school that exists to provide a rich, classical education to children of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, preparing them to succeed in a rigorous secondary educational program and to demonstrate spiritual, social and emotional maturity.

Indy Ed tells us that the student population of Indianapolis is three-quarters black and brown, but the header photo for OA (which Indy Ed also uses for its piece)shows a group of students who are two-thirds white.

OA has a whole page devoted to Teacher Support which highlights such great features as their outstanding professional development (so much better than public schools). One might think they are really working at recruiting and retaining teachers (you can also do Americorps or VISTA work there). Their student profile shows a blend of socio-economic backgrounds and a racial breakdown closer to 50-50 than 25-75 (Britt actually cites a 30% black population in the school, which is smaller than what the school's own graph shows). But they do great on that ISTEP (Indiana's version of the Big Standardized Test). And they've been thriving-- in the 1998-1999 year they opened with 53 students enrolled. This year they have 732 (pre-K through 8). The material is quiet about students with special needs, but that would seem to be one more area in which The Oaks does not resemble the Indianapolis student population. Reader ocg in the comments below offered this background:

The IDOE's Compass website tracks demographics, test scores, etc. for every school corporation in the Indiana, public or private. Their data shows that all three Oaks Academy campuses have far fewer rates of students on free or reduced lunch (ranging from 23.6% to 34.4%) as compared to both Indianapolis Public Schools (68.3%) and the state as a whole (45.7%).
Although lunch status is a very rough way of looking at whether a population is “low income” or not, those numbers do make me scratch my head.
Their racial demographics are also not reflective of Indianapolis schools. All three Oaks Academy campuses are about 50-55% white, 30% black, and 15-20% Asian/Hispanic/multiracial. Indianapolis Public Schools have slightly different demographics.

And then there's special ed numbers. The Oaks Academy with the highest rate of special ed students is their Fall Creek campus, at 8.1%. The other two campuses have special ed rates of 4.1% and 4.7%. The entire state has a rate of 14.5%. IPS's rate is 17%. Hmm.**

But back to our Indy Ed profile. The writer, Baratto Britt, wants to argue that vouchers are actually a "liberal, almost socialist" thing with the mission of providing poor families with the same choices that rich families enjoy. About half of the students at Oaks are voucher students. 83% get some sort of tuition assistance (the toll is $10,300-- so now I'm a little confused because Indiana vouchers only provide about $5K). Board policy reportedly says that 50% of the student body must be from poor families.  But Britt also says that the school attracts hefty philanthropy ("juggernaut" is the word he uses); their website promises "an unmatched philanthropic experience." Almost 40% of the budget comes from donations; voucher money provides about 20%. Also, Oaks "acquired" a public middle school that had been "underutilized".

The school was profiled by Ebony last fall as an example of diversity in action as an educational tool, and while The Oaks is diverse, it is far whiter than the Indianapolis public system. According to school CEO Andrew Hart, that takes some deliberate work:

We want to be diligent about maintaining this tricky balance. It’s something so unique to this place but very fragile. “The admissions pool is dominated by white families, who are moving back into the neighborhoods,” Hart added. “It would totally relieve our philanthropic burden, which would be great, but we want to make sure this unique proposition that Oaks is maintained over time

Hart graduated from UNC at Chapel Hill with an MBA, put in four years at Eli Lilly, then came to The Oaks.

Britt wants to suggest that Oaks does not cream or pick only the most-likely-to-be-successful students, but on top of the whole Christ-centered approach (about which the school is not shy, nor should they be) the school also has another requirement that Britt lays out

Additionally, parental involvement is not optional for all Oaks Families, but mandatory as a caring, committed adult must participate in various activities during the admissions cycle and school year to ensure all stakeholders have skin in the game.  

So, Jesus, plus a supportive family both willing and able to contribute work to the school, which is itself supported by extra funding from philanthropists. Is there any school, public or private, that could not achieve success with those advantages?

The Oaks is a private Christian school that self-selects for families with a commitment to their children's education, all of which is perfectly fine-- for a private school. But under Indiana's system, public tax dollars are being sent to this religious private school (and some of the taxpayers' buildings as well).

I decided to write about this precisely because The Oaks shows no signs of fraud or scandal or the kinds of egregious abuse of the system that we often see with vouchers. Except, of course, that the vouchers are completely flouting the separation of church and state by sending public dollars to a private Christian school, and that school has shown us nothing about education that we didn't already know. With a different student body than the parent district, supportive families, free labor, and extra funding you can get good results?! Do tell!

The Oaks' own history page and several press accounts note that the school was started by neighbors and concerned citizens who wanted an urban alternative, and their first school was in a less-than-stellar neighborhood. Voucher supporters can and do point to The Oaks as the sort of school that can save students. They seem like Very Nice People, and not crooks at all-- and yet, they have completely changed the rules of public education, to the point that it's not public education at all.

But at some point we have to decide if saving only some students (and only those we consider deserving) is good enough. A nationwide voucher system will not be about providing choices for poor families, but about changing the entire purpose of education in this country. Vouchers will shift us from a system whose mission is to do its best for all students-- ALL students, no matter what-- to a system whose mission is to save some students, the right students, the students with the right kind of families, who belong to the correct faith. Like it or not, it's a huge mission shift for the country, and the end of public education as we know it. We should be talking about that.

** I'm copying the rest of the reader comments here to preserve the links (which blogger does not do-- man, if I had had any idea what this blog was going to be lieke when it grew up, I would have picked a different platform). Here you go::

Finally, their claim that 85% of their students receive tuition assistance is pretty worthless in this state. Another choice school in Indiana, Delaware Christian Academy (godawful website, I know - somehow this school stays open), could not even open its doors in a timely manner last year, and yet they claim that 95% of their students got full scholarships. Either they're lying, or getting tuition assistance to attend a choice school in this state is, um, extremely easy.

Anyway, the choice climate here in Indiana has very clearly hobbled certain school corporations (like IPS, and especially Gary, whose enrollment has gone from ~16,000 students to ~6,000 students in 12 years). It has also led to some very interesting data sets, like this choice school's graduate rate trend (look at the bar graph). Wonder what happened there.

The Map of the World

Boston Public Schools just caused a stir by adopting a new map of the world.

"Boston public schools map switch aims to amend 500 years of distortion"reads the headline in the The Guardian, and "amend" is a good choice of words, because BPS decided to replace one set of distortions with another.

Boston had been using the Mercator Projection (1569), a version that we're all pretty familiar with.

Mercator distorts by spreading out the world as it approaches the poles, so that by the time we get to Greenland or Alaska, the land masses are looking much larger than they actually are. Mercator was mostly trying to help with navigation, and this map was fine for that. And since his audience/customers were mostly starting from Europe, his map reinforces the idea that Europe is the center of the world. And it makes Africa and South America look relatively smaller.

This is many people's mental map of the world, complete with its built-in distortions.

BPS decided to switch to the Gall-Peters projection (1855/1967) a map that sets out to render each land mass equally, so that the relative sizes of the land masses are accurate.

But because the projection is still onto a rectangle, Gall-Peters combats one distortion with another distortion. The Marcator inflates land area by stretching it out at the bottom and the top; Gall-Peters fixes that by squishing the map in at the top and the bottom until the land areas are comparable and "correct."

This version is not necessarily very useful for navigation, but in the late 20th century it stirred up a bit of a mess. Arno Peters was actually duplicating the 100-year-old work of James Gall, and he promoted it as a more just and socially aware map than the Mercator, annoying the crap out of the cartographic community, which had been trying to downplay, improve upon, and replace Mercator for a couple of centuries. But Peters managed to build a cottage industry around his map (and even eventually acknowledged that Gall had gotten there a century earlier). The Brits use the map, and UNESCO has based some of its mappery on it, the argument in favor of it being that it shows nations in their proper relative size, even if shapes and distances are distorted.

Are there other options? You bet there are.

Try, for instance, the Cassini projection (1745), which keeps its distances somewhat standard and lets you see the poles.

Or how about the various Eckert projections (1906) that avoid lots of distortion by not trying to fit the surface of the globe on a rectangle.

And once we've chucked the whole rectangular map thing, we can get the equal-area maps right and show every land mass in proper proportion to the others. Here's the Goode homolosine projection (1923).

And cartographers haven't stopped playing. This Bottomley (that's the guy's name) equal-area projection from 2003:

We'll stop now, but there are even freakier versions of the earth in existence. There are many, many maps of the world out there-- some good for navigation, some good for figuring distances, some for showing proper relationships between land masses, some focused on ocean shaped and depths. But here's one thing we know about all of them--

They are all wrong. They are all incomplete. They are all distorted in some fairly major way.

This is to be expected. When you take something that is huge and complex and multidimensional and try to render it onto a small two-dimensional surface, you must sacrifice some major chunks of the truth. For that reason, you have to be fairly deliberate about and conscious of what parts of the truth you are sacrificing for whatever specific utility you wish to get from your map. And you have to keep trying, because every solution you come up with will be inadequate in some major way. And you must always remember that your map is inadequate in some major ways and not mistake the two-dimensional rendering for the real thing.

That's the lesson here, or rather the reminder, because we already knew all this but certain people prefer to pretend they don't, is that whenever you try to render, describe, display, or create a measured model of something complicated (like a school or a teacher or a student's mind or learning) you will absolutely fail in some major ways. Furthermore, if you get to thinking your map of that world is perfect, you will make terrible mistakes.

It is hard to make a map of the world. You will always fail, and if your goal is to achieve perfection, you are doomed to lose in a fool's game. If, on the other hand, you do the best you can, keep trying, and remain aware of your shortcomings so that you don't bet the farm or attach huge stakes to a map that's not True-- well, you might have a chance. If you think your Big Standardized Tests and data sets based on them and numbers kicked out by your fancy formulae are a perfect guide to what's going on in schools, you are doomed to be lost. And it would be really nice if you didn't drag the rest of us with you on your doomed journey.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

ICYMI: Quiet Sunday Edition (3/19)

Here's some reading for your lazy Sunday. Remember to pass on what you find useful!

Did Betsy DeVos Just Ask States To Ignore Part of Federal Law?

Nobody did a better job this week of explaining the problem with DeVos's comments on just who gets included in ESSA work than Valerie Strauss

Damning a Student's Future with Old Data

Nancy Bailey looks at one of the big problems with the work of our Data Overlords

Joel Klein Reflects in His Legacy as NYC Schools Chancellor

Well, that's something that could use some reflecting. As you might imagine, Klein has a bit more insight about some reflections than about others.

NJ Charter School Fools Gold Rush

Jersey Jazzman has been taking a look at charters cashing in in New Jersey

Dumping ESSA Regs Is Not a Big Deal But...

Leonie Haimson takes a look at what the dumping of Obama's ESSA regs really means-- and what it doesn't.

Charter School with 38% High School Completion Rate Brags About 88% College Completion Rate

Many of us were passing around a USA Today article seemingly critical of charters. Gary Rubinstein took the time to drill down a little further down to get the evene worse parts that USA Today skipped.

To The Parents of Children Who Stare at My Disabled Daughter

You might not always read Daniel Willingham because he's not often on our side of issues, but this piece-- personal and heartfelt-- deserves your attention.

The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency

Not strictly about education, but if you want to get a better sense of the ideology moving some of the people who helped push Trump on us, this profile of Robert Mercer by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker is an important read.

Albert Camus's Letter

From the indispensable blog Brain Pickings, a piece about Camus's letter of gratitude to his teacher

Rest in Peace, EVAAS Developer William Sanders

At VAMboozled, an obituary for and recap of the developer of EVAAS, one of the widely used VAM models. If you want the incredible story of where this thing came from, here it is (with links, for advanced students).