Saturday, February 24, 2018

WV: Teachers Stand up to Trump's Billionaire Ally

While the rest of the nation was reeling from the murder of seventeen students and teachers in Parkland Florida, and while we've been wading through the resulting conversations about what we're (not) going to do about gun violence in America, the teachers of West Virginia have been taking a stand on another issue.

West Virginia's teachers walked out Thursday and Friday and shut down every single public school in all fifty-five counties across the state. They plan to do it again on Monday.

What's the issue?

Just the usual-- pay and respect.

The pay issue has been brewing in West Virginia for a while. According to the NEA, WV teachers rank 48th in US teacher pay, with an average starting salary of $32,435, and an average teacher salary of $44,701. You will be unsurprised to learn that West Virginia has trouble filling teaching vacancies; it's hard to attract teachers when the list of better places to work is basically "Anywhere else." Teachers in the state have pretty much had it.

Yeah, that kind of figures, doesn't it

West Virginia is ruled over by Governor Jim Justice, the state's richest man and only billionaire (he inherited a lucrative coal business from his father), who made some news by stepping up to change his party from Democrat to Republican  while standing side by side with Donald Trump.

Justice was reportedly offering just a 1% raise for each of the next few years. That wouldn't be enough of a raise to offset inflation, but it's even less of a raise when it's coupled with increased health insurance costs. West Virginia teachers were facing a pay cut, after going without a raise for a decade. Democrats were not much more help, offering to try to stump for a 3% raise.

Justice made some last minute sort-of-concessions, signing into law a whopping 2% increase for teachers and offering to freeze health insurance increases for sixteen months, but it was too little, too late.

The state-wide strike (first since 1990) is all the more extraordinary because strikes are illegal in West Virginia. And the Attorney General wants teachers and their district supervisors to remember it:

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, also issued a statement on Wednesday calling the strike unlawful and threatening to take legal action.

“Let us make no mistake, the impending work stoppage is unlawful,” Morrisey said. “We also stand ready to assist and support any county board of education or county superintendent as they enforce the law.”

“Breaking the law does not set a good example for our children,” he added.

You know what else does not set a god example for our children? Treating their teachers like second-class citizens and offering them bottom dollar. Telling children, "You don't really deserve the best we can attract to the state." However, the teachers' union is not terribly concerned:

“There’s rumor out there that anybody who takes this action is going to be fired,” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee told the Gazette-Mail. “That’s not a major concern of mine, we have 727 vacancies right now.”

State officials have also invoked the children, but WV teachers are way ahead of them-- one school that regularly makes food available for students to take home over the weekend provided an extra supply on Wednesday, and other schools are working with churches and local charities to make sure children's basic needs are still taken care of.

The teachers do reportedly have strong support from their communities, but it remains to see how things will turn out as the underpaid, under-respected teachers of West Virginia face off against the state's richest citizen. But there's no question they can use some support from the rest of us.

Bogus Measures of Learning

There may be more ridiculous ways to measure education than "days of learning," but this bogus measure remains popular, particularly among charter cheerleaders.

CREDO studies often attribute, say, an extra 26 days of reading to charter programs. What the heck does that even mean? Which 26 days would that be? 26 days in September, because noticeably less learning gets done in that first month of school. Is it 26 Wednesdays? Mondays? Fridays? Because each of those days looks a little different in my classroom. And is that a day of First Grade or Tenth Grade? Is that a day for some sort of standardized student, or an average student? Do we correct for distractions, like a day on which a student is upset about some problem at home? How do we arrive at that metric for a single day-- take the gains that somebody somewhere says students are supposed to make from one year's test to the next and divide it by 180? Because, of course, there are some days on which no learning takes place at all (for instance, the days we spend taking that Big Standardized Test). Can we keep breaking this down-- can I talk about hours of learning or minutes of learning? Seconds of learning?

Most importantly, has anybody ever provided any validation of this kind of measure at all?

The answer, of course, is no. If you want the real researcher's explanation of what that means, I recommend this piece by Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman), which as always makes the complicated sciency stuff clear.

So why should you call bullshit when somebody starts throwing the "days of learning."

Well, first, per Weber's piece:

The consistently small effect sizes have been pumped up by an unvalidated conversion into "days of learning" which has never been properly justified by the authors.

In other words, "days of learning" is a way of making a tiny little effect look like a big one, like saying you doubled my pay when you raised me from $0.10 an hour to $0.20. I recommend Weber's piece for a clearer sense of how much nothing is being converted to the illusion of something. But it's also worth noting that besides inflating the size of the effects, the "days of learning" dodge allows us to skip right past the question of whether the Big Standardized Tests are a valid measure of anything at all.

But there's another problem. The "days of learning" plays straight into the engineering model of ed reform, as laid out by semi-repentant reformster Larry Berger (CEO, Amplify):

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.
Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn't learn it, you try something simpler.

"Days of learning" assumes that education is like tofu-- any slice is like any other slice. It assumes that education is a steady journey down a fixed track in a constant-speed train-- X number of hours traveled always equals Y number of feet traversed. It's a comforting enough model and gives the technocrats of ed reform the comforting feeling that everything about education easily measurable and therefor technically manageable. The only problem with the model is that it doesn't have anything to do with how actual live humans function.

Live humans progress in fits and starts, plateaus and step climbs. Live humans travel on a million different paths to a million different destinations. Trying to talk about how many days of learning you gained in your education program is like trying to talk about how many ounces of love you added to your marriage or how many tubs of anger you emptied out of your basement. It's like trying to use a yardstick to measure history.

In other words, when you hear someone talking seriously about "days of learning," you can be sure you're listening to someone who doesn't know what the hell they're talking about.

Friday, February 23, 2018

PA: Dropping the Data Ball

This email was waiting for me when I arrived this morning, forwarded to all of the staff by our superintendent.

From: ED, Secretary of Ed Res Acct [] 
Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2018 7:03 PM
Cc: ED, Deputy Secretary Admin
Subject: Important notification regarding TIMS
Importance: High
The incident occurred between 12:00 and 12:30 PM on Thursday, February 22. The exposure was the result of human error by an employee in the Office of Administration (OA); no hacking occurred. Upon discovery of the security incident, TIMS was taken offline immediately, and remains unavailable. PDE and OA are currently investigating the scope of the potential compromise.
In the coming days, PDE and OA will notify in writing the individuals who were potentially impacted, and will provide information about free credit monitoring services. PDE and OA will review their internal procedures to prevent similar mishaps in the future and sincerely apologize to anyone impacted. 
Additional information will be forthcoming. Immediate concerns can be directed to Deputy Secretary Debbie Reeves
Pedro A. Rivera II | Secretary of Education
Department of Education | Executive Office 
333 Market Street | Harrisburg PA 17126
Twitter: @PADeptofEd
TIMS stores basically every piece of important personal information there is to know about PA teachers, so the breach of security is a big deal. We'll have to wait and see what actually happened and how much trouble has been caused, but let this serve as the sixty-gazzilionth reminder that collecting a whole bunch of critical data and storing it in one digital bucket is an invitation for all sorts of disaster.

Put another way, when someone who wants to collect All the Data tells you that their plan is nothing more than "We'll just guard it real good so nothing bad will ever happen," that is not a realistic, viable or believable plan. Require them to do better, or don't let them have the data.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Coleman's College Board Hits a New Low

Most folks looked at the mass murders of students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High and saw an unspeakable horror, a moment for national mourning and action. Unfortunately, some looked at it and saw a call to defend gun ownership against people who dared to think that human lives are more important than gun ownership. 

And then there's David Coleman's College Board. Somebody there looked at the loss of life in Florida and saw, apparently, a marketing opportunity.

Wednesday, the College Board reportedly sent out an email to admissions leaders over the signature of College Board president (and Common Core architect) David Coleman. 

"The shootings in Florida reverberate throughout our halls, hearts and minds," the letter begins. Then it gets down to business. Coleman (or whoever wrote the letter-- I'll give him the benefit of that doubt) goes on to praise the speech by Emma Gonzalez, noting that "One of the things that makes Emma's speech so striking is that is infused with references to her AP Government class" AP tests, and the AP classes that lead up to them, are a product of the College Board.

Coleman (or someone) also praises David Hogg whose "words honor Advanced Placement teachers everywhere, for they reflect their power to open worlds and futures to readers." 

But just in case you worried that the Coleman and hi company are advocating the kind of crazy radical ideas that those AP-infused students actually expressed--

I do not write today to endorse Emma's every word; her speech may have benefited from a less partisan approach and an attempt to better understand the positions of gun rights proponents.

So the letter not only tries to use the students as advertising props, but it simultaneously criticizes them and undercuts their position. 

The letter hit twitter along with the less-than-impressed reactions of some admissions officers. 

I've seldom seen something in poorer taste.

In all seriousness, who are the individuals at the @CollegeBoard that wrote and approved the sending of this message?! Absolutely disgusted with bthis horrible judgment.

It's an astonishingly lousy moment for the College Board; I'm not sure who needs to be fired and what kind of apology needs to be issued, but something sure needs to happen. We'll see if somebody there has enough sense to figure out what to do next.

[Update: Somebody did. An apology of sorts followed, although not from David Coleman himself, which adds fuel to the notion that he did indeed write the spectacularly bad original note. Which would not be a surprise.]

Florida Legislators Might Be The Worst People in America

About fifteen years ago, I was the president of our local teachers union. We were on strike. It was not fun. But the most not-fun part about it was the number of people-- many strangers, but also friends and neighbors and even former students-- went out of their way to call me or look me in my eye and tell me just how little they value the work that I do, just how much they don't care about the school and the people who work in it.

It's not like any of it was news to me. But it's one thing to kind of know, somewhere in the background, that your work is not valued, that you are not valued. It's another to look that dark straight in the face.

I've thought about that in the last few days, along with my thoughts of the young people across Florida and the rest of the country. I think, for instance, of this picture:

That's a photo of some students watching the Florida legislature send a clear message, and the message was, "Your friends and classmates are dead, and while you may want that death to mean something, thereby giving their too-short lives some meaning and value, we reject all of it. We don't care. You don't matter. Your dead friends don't matter. We aren't even going to talk about it." They could, however, consider a bill that dealt with the evils of pornography. One GOP lawmaker noted

a connection between pornography use and mental and physical illnesses, forming and maintaining intimate relationships and deviant sexual behavior

No word if any Florida legislators had discovered any connection between mental illness and holding a weapon of war while shooting a bunch of innocent civilians.

This goes beyond the mockery of an ass like Dinesh D'Souza or Ben Shapiro, who apparently believes that only he was given the gift of wisdom at age 17.  This is beyond the attacks by the morons who claim this is all an act, that these grieving teens are crisis actors (as if that's even a thing in the first place).

It was more closely expressed by the poster on social media who stated bluntly, "My right to own a gun matters more to me than your dead child." Except that, of course, what's pouring out right now is being addressed directly to the children themselves. If it were, it would come out more directly in something like, "Some day someone may decide to shoot you dead, and I don't care. You can go die, as long as I get to keep my guns."

In many ways, there is no news here. Not in Florida, where the legislature has also been busy gutting public education  some more so that private operators can have a better shot at making money by operating education-flavored businesses (while giving a boost to car sales-- I'm not kidding). Florida's legislator has shown in so many many many many many many ways that there is such a very long list of things that they care about more than they care about the education, health and well-being of children. Remaining unmoved and unconcerned about the actual deaths of those children is not a huge leap, or even a big step.

This has not been about, "We share your concerns, even as we have different ideas about how to best address them." This has been "Your blood might be the cost of freedom, and we're okay with that."

This is my biggest worry for these students-- that being forced to confront how little they matter in the political calculus of their elected leaders will be too hard to bear. But this is where we are-- our students face an unthinkable trauma, a horror that most of us can't even imagine, and as they stand up and cry out in their grief, a sizable slice of our state and national leaders belittle them as fakers and dupes, and another sizable slice looks at their grief and says, "You just aren't all that important to us."

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

It Shouldn't Make Any Difference

You may have heard this in a discussion of education policy in general, or if you're a teacher, you may have heard it in internal discussions of curriculum and instruction.

It shouldn't make any difference.

It shouldn't make any difference which teacher you have. It shouldn't make any difference who teaches that course. It shouldn't make any difference if we have to replace you with a new hire next year, or next week, or tomorrow.

It's a variation on the dream of the teacher-proof classroom, a hope for standardization so rigorous that individual teachers can be switched like cogs in a machine or bricks in a wall. And it's wrong. Really wrong.

It is a call to bland mediocrity. Anything that sticks out about a particular teacher, anything that they do better than their peers, anything that is a special strength they bring to the table-- those things must all be lopped out and ground down, because they would be a difference. Do you (like my colleague) teach a unit centered around reading Paradise Lost and putting John Milton on trial in front of a jury of local attorneys and educators? Well, not any teacher who stepped into your job could pull that off, so that unit should not be part of your class.

Are you someone with a particular gift for teaching writing? Well, knock it off-- if you are going to deliver the prescribed, aligned curriculum with fidelity, then you can devote no more or less time to that material than anyone else in the department.

You might remember a time when schools were staffed by a veritable Avengers roster of teachers-- each with her own special power, special field of expertise, special style. It was, in fact, one of the most effective ways to provide school choice-- by having a wide variety of teachers under one roof, so that students could find a good fit without having to leave their friends or their neighborhood schools behind.

In truth, such schools still exist. But they are not the dream of many education "leaders."

Instead, the dream is a cookie cutter school, a school where the scope and sequence are set in stone, bought in a box, or meant to be executed with extreme fidelity. If it's Tuesday, this must be adverbs.

Some school "leaders" will insist they don't want to stamp out differences between teachers. "No. of course not," they declare. "Once you have properly taught all the material that we've aligned to the standards, you can go ahead and spend the rest of the time on those little extras you like to do." Because, of course, the material aligned to the standards is what matters, and those things you teach because you are knowledgeable and passionate about them, because you know how to connect students to them like connecting a light bulb to a live wire, because your professional judgment tells you that they are an important part of the body of knowledge in your field-- those things are just silly little frills.

I get that no administrator or parents wants to discover that Pat and Chris aren't getting some critical content because they happened to land in the classroom of Mrs. Suxalot. But that is not a standards problem or a curriculum problem or a get everybody aligned with fidelity problem. It's just a bad teaching problem, and if administrators do their jobs, that problem can be addressed without trying to turn the building staff into Stepford Teachers.

No teacher ever went into the profession to not make a difference. No teacher gets up in the morning and thinks, "Today, I just hope that I can do my job in a way that's indistinguishable from anyone else's job performance." Hell, nobody does any job anywhere thinking, "I just hope that my work could have just as easily been performed by anybody else."

But this is where we are right now. And we wonder why teaching looks progressively less attractive to a new generation, a generation that has watched teachers try to become interchangeable content delivery widgets.

If you are a teacher, it should absolutely make a difference that it's you in the room and not somebody else. If you are a teacher, your relationship with the work and your students should be personal, and therefor different. If you are a teacher, you are certainly not irreplaceable, but when your replacement arrives, it should be different, because you were different, because you made a difference.

It should make a difference. That's the job-- making a difference. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Is PA Chasing Teachers Away

The Economic Policy Institute has just released a new report, and announced it with this subheading: "Undercompensation is likely a factor in Pennsylvania’s growing teacher shortage."

Pennsylvania has been working on a teacher shortage for a while, but for years we cleverly masked it by shedding teacher jobs by the thousands. From a distance, that made it appear that our teacher supply was reasonably stable, because districts were complaining far less about a teacher "shortage" than other states were. But it was also exacerbated the problems with the teacher pipeline long term because high school and college students could look around their home districts and see that nobody new had been hired for years. "Why pay college tuition to pursue a field in which there are no jobs," was the comment I heard more times than I could count from my own students. That in turn led many universities to trim their own education programs.

EPI describes the decline this way:

Pennsylvania is in the midst of a growing teacher shortage. The rate of Pennsylvania teacher certifications has declined by two-thirds between 2010 and 2015 (Benshoff 2016). College students are shunning education majors, with reports indicating that enrollment fell by 36 percent in traditional teacher education programs at the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education colleges (Palochko 2016). In 2013, 16,631 students graduated from teacher-training programs; by 2015, that number had dropped to 6,125, a 63 percent decline, according to data from the state’s Department of Education (PDE) reported on WHYY public radio in Philadelphia (Benshoff 2016).

EPI also notes that this is found in the substitute teacher sector, and from big districts like Philadelphia all the way down to my own tiny corner of the world, the substitute shortage is pretty dire.

EPI set out to see if compensation was an issue, and they did the old "compare teacher pay to pay in fields requiring similar education and skills" research. Their findings are not particularly surprising:

We find that Pennsylvania public school teachers are undercompensated relative to other full-time workers with similar education and skills. Their weekly wages are 12.1 percent lower than the wages of comparable full-time employees in Pennsylvania, and their weekly compensation (including both wages and benefits) is 6.8 percent lower.

In addition, EPI also looked at pensions-- and here's where PA is in real trouble.

We are outstandingly underfunded, our system suffering from some epic bad choices made by the legislation over a decade ago (among other things, we bet heavily on the housing boom of 2007). The legislation has been looking for a variety of fixes:

Pension legislation passed in 2010 (Act 120) decreased PSERS benefits for teachers hired in 2011 and later, while a 2017 law (Act 5) will further cut pension benefits for teachers hired in 2019 (and beyond). Act 5 will require new teachers to participate in a pension plan that significantly shifts funding from the state and school districts onto employees. The new plan includes 401(k)-style offerings, which also shift retirement income risk onto teachers.

Which is why the pension for me with 39 years in the classroom is looking far rosier than the pension that my wife faces with her 5 years. And as EPI notes, the state still isn't done fiddling, which means that lifetime compensation for PA teachers continues to be cut, and cut, and cut. "Well, the pay may not be super, but at least you'll can rest secure in the knowledge that when you finally retire, you may or may not be financially screwed in your old age," is not a very snappy or effective recruitment slogan.

And so we're back to the same old point. There is no teacher shortage. What there is is a shortage of states and districts willing to make teaching attractive enough to draw the candidates they want. If I can't buy a Porsche for $1.95, it does not follow that there is an automobile shortage. Pennsylvania has not yet put real muscle into trying to "solve" the problem by, say, letting anyone with a pulse hold a teaching job, or by trying to bolster growth of charters that can hire without regard to actual qualifications. But the state also hasn't shown any inclination to try to make teaching more attractive as a career, either. We could do better. It remains to be seen if we'll actually try to.