Saturday, March 17, 2018

Harvest Time in Dataland

If you have not already caught the story breaking today, you may want to take a moment and read about how Cambridge Analytica harvested a giant mountain of data from Facebook in order to help Trump win the election. And by giant mountain I mean, apparently, something like 50 million people.

There will be a bunch of noise about the "helped Trump win the election" part of this, but for the education angle, I'd like to focus on just a couple of things.

First, the how. The company got a bunch of people to take a personality test and have their personal data collected. Cambridge Analytica went ahead and used that "in" to hover up data from all their friends. This is a violation of Facebook rules, but fat lot of good that does anybody after the fact. Strands of data are interconnected all over the place-- someone picks up one strand and just starts pulling and heaven only knows where it ends. But it's worth noting that this was not a hack, exactly-- just a willingness to ignore the rules in pursuit of profit.

Also, every time you take one of those "Which condiment are you" or "We can guess your IQ by how you answer these questions about fish" quizzes, the main point is not the quiz-- it's the permissions you give to the quiz app creators without even noticing it.

Second, the who. Facebook is a giant pile of data, and that means that people will attack it for the same reason Willie Sutton supposedly robbed banks ("That's where the money is.") Facebook should have the biggest, baddest data vault in the world. They don't. And this is all important because Facebook is the point of origin for Summit schools, a data-grabbing charter system that now aims to scale up by putting their software in schools all across the country. Can parents expect a bundle of education software to have greater data protection than Facebook? Or will students who get involved in such edu-programs become vulnerable to anyone who wants to chase their data through legit or illegit means? I'm betting the second one.

And note-- Facebook knew the violations were happening, and they kept their corporate mouth shut and did nothing. Not exactly a data watchdog.

Third, the what. Cambridge Analytica didn't just use data for straight-up analysis on the order of "Do most people like lox on their bagels?" They crunched that data in order to generate behavioral profiles that would allow them to nudge and manipulate the behavior of millions of people. They used that data to try to throw the election for the President of the United States. The lesson is clear-- a whole bunch of data is worth a lot of power and money, and therefor provides ample motivation for bad actors to do bad things. Do you think the massive pile of students data gathered by educational software will work any differently?

Fourth, my ex-wife's junk mail. I can't say this hard enough-- on top of all the Big Brothery things we worry about Big Brother doing, we should also worry about Big Data's tendency to get things wrong. It takes not one, but a whole series of mistakes, to send my ex-wife's mail to my current address (particularly under her subsequent married names)-- but it still happens. And there isn't a thing anybody can do about it, because once a mistake (or twelve) makes it into the Great Data Swamp, there's nobody with the power to fish it out or fix it.

We have not even begun to wrestle with the practical, legal and ethical issues of Big Data running loose in society. We sure as hell aren't ready to deal with Big Data in the schoolhouse (which, I suspect, is precisely why Big Data is in a hurry to get there before we can really think about it). Every one of these data adventures is one more reminder of how not-ready-for-big-data-in-schools we really are, and how careful we should be before we let the Big Data harvester mow down fields of students.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Blowing (Up) Your Mind Trust

When I first wrote about Indianapolis's Mind Trust, it was because they were looking for New School Leaders on Twitter. When I started digging, what I discovered was not very heartening.

Mind Trust was launched in 2006 by David Harris, who voluntarily left the mayor's office to start it, and Bart Peterson, who would involuntarily leave the office of mayor the very next year.

Indiana had already started the charter school gravy train in 2001 by handing the reins of the Indianapolis school system to the mayor (that was Peterson) who promptly created an office for developing and launching charter schools (that was Harris). The Mind Trust was a next step, a way to work on what Harris called "stimulating supply." This meant connecting big money backers with charter entrepreneurs, pushing what the called "Opportunity Schools." Indianapolis became a reformster oasis, with generous donations to groups like Teacher for America, backed by folks like Education Reform Now (an arm of DFER) and Stand for Children.

The playbook by now is familiar-- declare public schools a terrible failure, take a bunch of money away from them, use it to plant baskets full of charter schools. Harris was a source of ridiculous commenst like "when you go to schools that have excellent test scores, they're not teaching to the test" and "when people say we're trying to privatize education, I really don't understand that." And then they proceeded to privatize the hell out of Indiana's school system.

Now Indiana has "Innovation Schools" which are schools operated on the Visionary CEO model, where one awesome guy gets to run a school unh9indered by all those dumb rules and things. Or as Mind Trust's Number 2 (soon to be Number 1) Brandon Brown:

We believe it’s critically important to have real, school level autonomy. We think it’s critical that you have an exceptional school leader in charge of that school

In other words, some Great Man of Vision who can hire and fire and pull policy out of his butt at will. The whole business is a hit with other reformsters:

“David Harris is one of the most thoughtful and pragmatic education leaders in the nation,” Neerav Kingsland, who leads K-12 education work for the Arnold Foundation, wrote in an email. “The partnership between Indianapolis Public Schools and The Mind Trust serves as a model of how school districts and non-profits can work together to get more kids into great schools.”

Kingsland is not just an Arnold Foundation guy-- he's also one of the architects of the post-Katrina mess in New Orleans. The mind of partnership is the kind you get when charter fans get control of a public school system so that stop resisting and actively cooperate with the charter attempt to gut them. The result-- almost half of Indianapolis students are in a charter school, and the public system is in trouble.

“I honestly think that if The Mind Trust … hadn’t been in Indianapolis over the past 10 or 11 years, that IPS would not be decimated and flailing like it is now,” said Chrissy Smith, a parent and member of the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that is critical of the current administration. “We would not see innovation schools coming in. We would not see the proliferation of charter schools.”

All of this matters because the Mind Trust is aiming to pursue the dream of all reform programs-- to scale up. Harris has been widely announced to be "stepping down," but that's not really accurate. As reformsters will, he is stepping up, ready to take the Mind Trust model national.

What will that actually mean? The Mind Trust model depends on

* piles of cash from the usual backers to help launch things
* new, friendly regulations
* and inside man or two who will get the public school system to roll over and let charter developers do as they wish
* visionary CEO style school leaders (with, obviously, no real education background)

That means the Mind Trust model will translate to some region better than others, plus there will be the added issue of established reformsters reacting to a new guy muscling in on their territory. Hard to say how this will fall out, but if you see David Harris headed for your neighborhood public school, it's time to be extra alert, because he is not there to help.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

10 Reasons To Support Public School

You may have missed the fact that this is National Public Schools Week, or you may have noticed it on Monday, but now it's Thursday and who can really remember these things for the entire week? And, of course, public schools do not have giant slick PR departments to create polished promotional materials for such a week. You might think that the United States Department of Education might make some noise-- any noise-- in support of public education, but over the past couple of decades, the department has moved from uninterested in public education over to openly hostile toward it.

Public education has become a political orphan in this country. So it's important to take the time to remember why US public education is actually a great thing. Here are some reasons.

1) Public schools are student-centered.

In many countries, public education is simply a system for telling children what they get to be when they grow up. Does Pat want to be a doctor, a lawyer or a civil engineer? Too bad-- the school system has determined that Pat should be an elevator repair person, and so that's what Pat gets to do.

But in our system, Pat gets to chart a course and the public school system is obliged to help Pat steer in that direction. Our system is not created to whip up a batch of employees for businesses, and it's not set up to tell Pat what the future is supposed to hold. It is set up to allow, aid and support Pat in making Pat's own choices.

2) Public schools are publically owned and operated.

The local taxpayers fund schools and elect the people who will run them. The taxpayers own the buildings and pay the salaries of the people who work in them. That means that public schools, unlike any other private business, cannot be gutted and squeezed for profit at the expense of a long, sustainable life (like, say, Toys R Us). That also means that the taxpayers get to ask any questions they like and know anything they want to know about how their money is being spent.

3) Public schools are enduring community institutions.

While some charters and private schools may just close down on a moment's notice, public schools are an enduring part of their community, remaining even if it's not profitable for them to stay open. In many communities, public schools are one of the most stable institutions.

And people believe in them. Yes, people grouse and complain, and yes people want their school taxes to be roughly $1.50. But when it's time to do something to help children. to improve their lives, to make them better able to cope with one problem or another, who do we always turn to? Public schools. Even when public schools fail an entire community, we don't hear demands like "Well, just release our children from any requirement to go to school at all." No-- people demand that they get the public schools they are supposed to have.

4) Public schools are responsible for all students, no matter what.

A public school system cannot pick and choose its students. It has a responsibility, both moral and legal, to provide an education to every student, even the ones who are difficult or expensive to teach.  It's easier to educate just some students, to pick and choose the ones you'd like to work with, the ones that barely need you at all. But to educate every single child is a far bolder and broader mission-- and it's the one we've given to public schools.

5) Public schools are the last great salad.

So much of current society is sorted and gated, with people making sure they associate only with the people they want to associate. There is certainly plenty of sorting of neighborhoods and communities that is manifested in community schools-- but public schools still feature the kind of mixing and interaction that we no longer see anywhere else in our country.

6) Public schools are a glorious mess.

Because public schools represent and respond to the interests of so many different people, those schools are messy. Many varied programs, teachers, activities, and classes all exist under one roof. It can seem unfocused and scatter-shot, but that's the beauty of it; the alternative is a regimented, orderly approach that squelches variety and outliers, and that approach benefits nobody.

7) Public schools are remarkably efficient.

Strapped for resources, public school systems must make every dollar count. There are no $500 toilet seats in public school restrooms, no $250 pencils in classrooms, and few districts that run twelve different buildings where one will do.

8) Public schools are staffed by trained professionals who devote their lives to the work.

It sucks that teachers aren't paid like rock stars, but we can say this-- nobody is in teaching just for the money, glory and fame. Nobody is hating the classroom but thinking, "Well, I still need to make enough money for a second Lexus." Public school teachers are neither martyrs nor saints, but they are in the classroom because they want to be there.

9) Public schools help create citizens

That's no small thing. s noted above, many educational systems simply aspire to create functional employees-- and that's it. A little vocational training, and out the door you go. But for democracy (or a republic style version thereof) to survive and flourish, you need a nation of educated people.

10) The promise of public education

By now, you have already talked back to this piece, telling your screen about all the exceptions you can think of, all the ways that public schools failed at the eight traits I listed above. And you're right-- public schools have failed in many ways over the decades, from the failure of institutional racism to the failure to fully embrace every single child. In our large and varied history, we have fallen short many times.

But here's the thin. You can only fall short of a goal if you have a goal. US public schools aspire to do great things, which means every day of every year, we are trying to rise and advance, to improve and grow. In this, we are truly American-- this country started by setting high standards and goals for itself, and it has spent centuries trying to live up to them. But if our goals were simply "I want to make myself rich" or "I want to have power over Those People" then we would have no hope of improving. If public schools set goals like "Just try to turn a profit this quarter" or "Get high scores on that one test" then we would have no hope, no prospect for greatness ever.

Our dream is to provide every single child with the support and knowledge and skills and education that will allow each to pursue the life they dream of, to become more fully themselves, to understand what it means to be human in the world. We do not always live up to that dream, but US public schools have lifted up millions upon millions of students, elevated communities, raised up a country.

So take a moment this week to honor and acknowledge National Pubic Schools Week. And if you have two moments, use one to send a message to your elected representatives, asking them to acknowledge this week as well. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

DeVos: Made Up of Individuals

I didn't want to cover that damnable 60 Minutes speech any further, but I need to make this point because all the folks who are just pointing and saying "Har har! DeVos is so dumb!" are really missing a crucial point.

I'm talking about this specific quote from the interview:

I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.

And we can set this one, in response to the question about disparate and racist responses to student misbehavior, right next to it:

Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids. And--
 --it does come down to individual kids. And--often comes down to-- I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.

Regular DeVos watchers recognize the ideas expressed here. These statements are clumsy and awkward, but they are not stupid-- they are an attempt to frame her policy choices in language that is consistent with what she has in mind.

DeVos has consistently said that she favors individuals over institutions, and she has tried to frame all her discussion of education in terms of individual students. Take this construction:

Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in school-- school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.

Why say something like that over and over?

Because it plays better than saying, "We should defund public schools."

Why keep making these ridiculous responses about individual students instead of looking at the system?

For the same reason that government officials are forbidden to say "global warming." For the same reason that the use (or non-use) of the phrase "radical Islam" became a hot-button issue.

DeVos hesitates to talk about all schools in general because she if she did, she would have to acknowledge that they exist, and she doesn't want to-- she wants to frame education as something that has to do with individual students and not with taxpayers and not with education professionals and certainly not with the public schools that she would like to get rid of. She is saying very plainly that families and students are going to be on their own, and if that means, for instance, that black kids get unfairly hammered by whatever rules are in place, oh well, that's too bad.

She would like to rhetorically erase the idea of funding public schools and a public school system because she would like to actually erase the practice itself.

Yes, her attempts to reframe the issues of education are clumsy, partly because, stripped of her checkbook powers, she is a terrible, terrible persuader. And mostly because her idea is a really dumb idea, and rhetorical tricks will only get you so far when you're trying to sell a really dumb idea.

But it's not a set-up for a joke.

On the one hand, I'm glad that the mainstream has finally noticed some of these issues (seriously-- I'm glad folks were struck by the whole "taking money away from struggling schools is kind of dumb" thing, but some of us have been saying it for twenty years). But on the other hand I feel like I'm watching people who are being told by an assailant, "I am going to punch your children in the face" and people are reacting like this is a hilarious joke, but not, really, that assailant is really getting ready to punch your children in the face, and he just told you he's going to do it, and maybe you should do something other than make jokes about it.

CA: DFER "All-Star" Running for Governor

Whitney Tilson is the hedge fund guy behind Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a reform-backing group that is only sort of technically Democratic. Tilson sends out a regular newsletter, and in the most recent edition, he beats the drum for California gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

This guy.
Villaraigosa is a former Los Angeles mayor. In Tilson's letter, DFER calls Villaraigosa "a bonafide DFER all-star" and touts his impeccable "ed reform credentials."

As Mayor, he sought mayoral control over Los Angeles' schools, and used his platform to take responsibility over a large subset of the City’s failing schools including those in South Los Angeles, Watts and East Los Angeles.

So he's helped out reformsters with some real estate grabs. And then there's this:

Importantly, given that Mayor Villaraigosa served for years as an organizer for the local teachers' unions, he continues to be one of the only leaders in the country who can speak against inequities in education with the credibility of being a pro-union Democrat who once represented members of the unions he is now holding accountable.

While it's true that Villaraigosa used his union work to launch his political career, he may have singed that bridge a bit when he called the LA teachers union "the largest obstacle to creating quality schools." Villaraigosa has picked fights with any number of unions in LA; I'm not so sure the "pro-union" hat fits pretty well, but Villaraigosa is a fine example of what Slate was talking about when it wrote the headline "Betsy DeVos Didn’t Say Anything in Her Viral Clip That Democrats Haven’t Supported for Years."

When Eli Broad tried to launch a plan to privatize half of the LA Unified School District, Villaraigosa was there to offer his vocal support.  And while Tilson may want to label Voillaraigosa pro-union, the candidate himself makes it a point to paint the teachers union as his enemy. Because, I guess, being anti-teacher is one way to earn political and financial capital in these races. Oh-- he would like tenure to be harder to get as well.

Bottom line: California, like DFER, New York, Connecticut and a few other locales, is a place where many Democrats are largely indistinguishable from Republicans when it comes to public education. For the moment, California Democrats have some choices for governor. We'll have to wait and see if anyone emerges who wants to actually stand up for public education, or if California will be one more place where public education becomes a political orphan.

Monday, March 12, 2018

DeVos In This World

By this time, everyone in the education world, or even the world next door, has heard about Betsy DeVos's appearance on 60 Minutes being grilled by Lesley Stahl. Unfortunately, most of this morning's coverage seems to focus on roasting her for being an uneducated twit. I recommend folks look a little more closely at what she's saying. Ready for just one more take on this?

In the widely reposted exchange from the interview, DeVos is pressed on the results of her meddling in Michigan, where she got pretty much everything she wanted, and schools statewide have suffered because of it. DeVos tried to hold up Florida as an example of success.

Neither state is an example of success by any conventional education measures. Michigan, which has had the most DeVosuian influence, is an educational disaster area. Florida just earned a low ranking in US K-12 education. 

People look at this disconnect and think, "Well, only a dope could think that these policies actually helped these states. Betsy DeVos must be a dope."

I think the conclusion that she's a dope is a mistake.

Here's another theory. Let's assume that getting a good education to every child is not a goal. Let's assume instead that the goal is to have education functioning on the free market, free of public institutions and government meddling. Let's assume that seeing some businesses prosper and profit is further proof that the market is working properly. Let's assume that directing public money to religious schools at the expense of government programs is a desirable and commendable outcome. In fact, let's assume that in such a system, having some schools and students sink to the bottom is a desirable outcome, because the free market is supposed to reward the deserving and allow the undeserving to sink to the low level where they belong. And if gutting public education has the effect of gutting unions and taking power away from those damn Godless Democrats, well, that's only right, too.

If we assume those things, then Michigan and Florida are unqualified successes.

So you can assume that DeVos calls these states a success because she's a dope, or you can listen to what she's telling you about her goals, which is that those states have come close to achieving them.

The interview includes a clip of someone calling out her wealth, and there's the usual speaking against the idea of federal overreach (by which she seems to mean "reach") including the now-characteristic insistence that certain bad things shouldn't happen in school, but it's not the government's place to do anything about it. Nor is she ever going to really acknowledge systemic racism. The most charitable read for that last one is that she just doesn't get it; the least charitable read is that DeVos is simply racist herself (those black kids wouldn't get in so much trouble if they didn't deserve to, because you know how they are).

And throughout the interview, there's that voice and that smile. That same rictus of a smirk. What is up with that?

I have a thought.

Any analysis of DeVos that doesn't factor in her religious views, her brand of Midwestern fundamentalism, is a mistake.

Looking at that smile, I was reminded of an old Christian admonition- "Be in this world, but not of this world."

It's a view that people of faith, people who have been elevated by a relationship with a personal Lord and Savior, do not actually belong in this dirty, debased world. The rules of this world cannot be their rules. To achieve Godly goals, they may have to use worldy tools, even pretend to go along with worldly rules, but this is stooping to achieve a higher purpose. God will even give His chosen tools (like earthly wealth and political power), but they must avoid being seduced by worldly things, including a desire for worldly acclaim and recognition. That means, among other things, that the Chosen don't owe these earthly, debased, going-to-hell persons an explanation. You can be in the world with these people, and maybe feel sorry for them, but there is no need to connect with them-- you are almost like two separate species, passing each other for a brief moment as you travel to two separate destinations, you to eternal glory in Heaven, and they to endless damnation in Hell.

So you smile. You smile hard, because it shows that you're still better than they are, and that you haven't stooped to their level. You smile even as they say mean things about you, because if the people of this world mount powerful forces against you, it's just further proof that you are right (and they are wrong). In fact, you are so right, and so sure of it, that real conversations with them aren't necessary because what could you learn from people who are so low and earthly and wrong? But you go through the motions to show that you're the bigger person, and because sometimes worldly tools must be used to achieve divine goals. You smile.

Betsy DeVos's smile is the smile of Dolores Umbrage or the Church Lady. It's an angry, flinty smile, a smile that says, "I am in this world, but I am not of it, and some day I will rise above it and leave you behind."

I know, I know. I am engaging in more armchair psychiatrist than people who just skip straight to, "She's a dope." But when I look at her, I see a face that I saw dozens of times on the United Methodist Youth Fellowship circuit. I always wondered how those folks would grow up, and in most cases life beat them into a humbler, kinder shape. Betsy DeVos looks to me like how they would have grown up if they had been bubbled inside enough  wealth and privilege to convince them that they were right all along. There's no humility there, and no kindness, though I would bet that DeVos thinks she has kind thoughts about the rest of us, and I suppose she does, in the same way that some folks have kind thoughts about scraggly stray cats. But not only is she not of this world, but she hasn't been in it all that often.

I don't believe for a minute that DeVos is a dope. I think she's worked very hard at packaging her core beliefs, knowing that in this world you can't just say "Close all public schools, hand education over to religious schools, give everyone a voucher." You can't just say "There should be no collectives except the Church, and it should admit only those who deserve to be there." You can't just say, "Some people are supposed to be poor and miserable, because if you don't properly follow God's word, you're supposed to be poor and miserable." You can't just say, "My wealth is a sign from God that I have been anointed to do His work." You can't just say, "Your opposition to me just proves that Satan is mobilizing against me in this world." Your silence on all these matters is just a price of being in this world. But since you are not of this world, you won't have to pay that price forever.

If DeVos sometimes seems confused by questions asked by worldly interviewers and worldly Congressmen, it is in part because they are following a worldly script that she rejected back in her youth. If she seems confused, it may not be because she doesn't get it, but because she still can't quite understand why the rest of us don't get it.

Betsy DeVos is not a dope. I wish more people would see what she keeps putting right in front of our collective face. She has a vision of what education and government should look like, and if it seems that her vision is dangerous and damaging to the world, that does not matter to her, because this world is not her home.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

ICYMI: Lost Hour Edition (3/11)

It's another lovely Sunday, and here is some reading for the week. Remember-- only yu can amplify the voices that you believe should be heard.

Things Economists Should Start Saying

Jersey Jazzman takes a look at the kinds of "expert" analysis offered by economists about education.

Who Are the Data Unicorn Tech Giants

There's a lot to wade through here, but it's a good look at some of the connections within the race to monetize student data without getting bogged down by student consent.

When Big Data Goes To School

Alfie Kohn doesn't blog often, but when he does, it's always worth a read.

Teachers In Your State Are Underpaid

This Vox piece comes with a clickbaity title, but it's a pretty interesting batch of data about teacher salaries in every state.

10 Things We Shouldn't Expect Public Schools To Do

Nancy Flanagan passes on some observations from a friend about the expected roles of public schools. It's kind of stunning when you just lay it out in a list like this.

Teach Kids When They're Ready

Is there anything more consistently ignored in education then the fact that littles develop at the same pace they always have, no matter how hard we try to rush schooling?

Cost Benefits Show Failure of Voucher Plan

The Journal Gazette offers a direct and simple debunking of the Indiana voucher plan by using facts. Go figure. Once again, voucher systems turn out to be a way to channel public tax dollars to private religious schools.

Minneapolis Public School Hosts Teach for America Recruiting Event

In Minneapolis, another reminder of how TFA is the ground troops for spreading charter schools, and how some public systems have become complicit in their own destruction.

New Oklahoma Teacher Vows

A look at the super-secret vows that new Oklahoma teachers must, apparently, take when they go to work.