Thursday, December 31, 2015

NYT Spots the Problem

The New York Times is wrapping up the year with a full-court press on the magical marvels of testing, including a shot today from the editorial board that really does show us a major part of the problem. But not on purpose.

They open with this line:

Teachers unions and other critics of federally required standardized tests have behaved in recent years as though killing the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States.

Then they go on to talk about testing as though following the testing mandate would magically remedy everything that ails education in the United States.

They make sure to call out the usual villains--look, teachers unions make the very front of the multi-wrong lede. First, teachers unions are hardly the most notable critics of the testing mandate in New York, but the Times has been steadfast in its refusal to see the Opt Out movement as parent-led. Second, nobody has claimed that the end of a testing mandate would fix all that ills public education, particularly ills like poverty and systemic refusal to fully fund schools that are most in need. (Also, "get rid of tests in the early grades"? What early grades, because no federal law has ever reached lower than third grade)

The writer then goes on to complain about weak curriculum and graduation requirements, and at this point a fog of confusion settles over the writer, who seems to believe that no student should graduate from high school unless that student is fully prepared for college. Really? As "proof," the Times offers vague references to "college entrance exams" by which they mean... SAT? ACT? The exam given by the college (either Harvard or Podunk U)? As an example of why this is bad, the writer expresses concern that South Carolina, with its lax graduation requirements, "is producing high school graduates who are not qualified to compete for higher-skilled jobs at companies like Boeing, Volvo and BMW."

Five minutes of googling indicates that they can be less worried. BMW appears ready to add more jobs in South Carolina, and these jobs include Forklift Operator and Production Associate. Production associates must have a year of steady job experience and be able to pass a drug test; they must also be willing to work any day they're called, for a 10-12 hour shift. Forklift operators must have experience operating a forklift. Clearly more AP math courses would help graduates be better-prepared for these jobs.

The NYT has of course completely skipped over the question of students who seek employment in areas that don't require a college degree, just as they've skipped over the question of who determines the need for college remediation, and how.

The editorial board complains that 40% of students are not ready for college math and English, though they offer no source for this figure (which I find kind of incredible from the New York Times). The figure suggests that they've picked up this finding from the NAEP folks, but that's a problem as we've known since 2007 that NAEP doesn't know all that much about college readiness (about half of the students who scored "basic" i.e. "not college ready" went on to achieve bachelors degrees or higher). Or they could have pulled the 40% from this analysis by the ACT folks, which says that only 40% of ACT-takers scored high in at least three of English, reading, math and science. In other words, that math genius who graduated valedictorian from your college but who needed your help to pass Freshman Composition 101-- that guy was count by ACT as "not ready for college."

Sigh. We're not done yet, and we haven't even gotten to the crux of the matter.

But here's the board decrying high school grad's unpreparedness for the military by citing .... a study from 2010! Has nobody looked at this in the last five years? Politifact took a look at this talking point back when Jeb! garbled it in 2014. Here's what the Defense Department had to say:

For the military, the largest single disqualifying factor is health, including such problems as obesity. The estimate for those who are disqualified only because of aptitude is about 2 percent, said Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman. That includes not just people who failed the test but also those with other academic deficiencies, such as failure to get a GED.

There are other big chunks of wrong, well-worn and repeatedly gnawed on by commenters, like the old baloney that the teacher unions oppose Common Core (they didn't-- they supported it and continue to do so) and the connected testing because they "did not want to be evaluated based on how much students learned," a statement which ignores the question of whether the Big Standardized Tests actually measure any such thing, and which also ignores the rich and detailed arguments about these points that are all over the interwebs.

So here's the big question? How did the New York Times editorial board get so very much wrong? Does the NYT not have Google? I mean-- here's my New York Times story. One of my oldest friends from here in our small NW PA town now lives in Manhattan, and when he got married years ago, his wedding announcement ran in the NYT. A fact-checker called to verify the name of the business that his mother runs here in our population 7000 town hundreds of miles away. That's the level of commitment to accuracy that I associate with the the NYT.

What's the problem? I think we can find it in these two sentences:

A recent study from Achieve, a nonpartisan organization that works with the states to raise academic standards....

An alarming study by the Education Trust, a nonpartisan foundation...

These are the sources that the NYT relied on? Seriously?  

I suppose they are "bi-partisan" in the same way that The Tobacco Institute and most lobbying groups are "bi-partisan." In that sense, the NYT board just stopped short of flat out lying by saying that these two groups are impartial or unbiased. But the Education Trust is a Gates-funded advocacy group from the earliest days of the Core. And Achieve is the organization that "helped" the CCSSO and NGA write the Common Core to begin with-- no organization is more highly invested in the continued support and push of the Core Standards and the tests that are welded to them. And they earlier this month released a report that says-- well, it says pretty much exactly what this editorial says.

In short, the NYT board has done the opposite of journalism here. This belongs with such classics as "Cigarettes Are Totally Good For You" or "US Must Solve Critical New Car Gap." This is endorsing one political candidate without ever actually talking to any of the others.

The problems that face public education are complicated. In fact, right now they're more complicated than ever because we have a muddy mix of actual problems (e.g. poverty, refusal to fully fund), created problems (e.g. charters stripping public schools of resources), and made-up problems (e.g. Oh Nos! Our students aren't taking enough standardized tests!). All of these problems exist at the intersection of larger national issues such as income inequality, systemic racism, and the proper relationship between corporate and citizen interests.

What would help? Information. Correct, well-researched, thoughtful information. If you want to find one of the problems getting in the way of finding a remedy for everything that ails education, a good first step would be for journalists to stop uncritically running the PR of the people who want to dismantle public education and sell off the parts. The NYT did not solve any problems today, and they didn't identify any, either. But they surely provided an example of one of them. Come on, New York Times-- do journalism better.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Why Do the Feds Heart Testing?

It has been a fact of educational life for so long, that we don't take the question out and ask it much any more, but really--

Why is there a federal requirement to give students a standardized test?

Why has that provision, that requirement, that burden been given the weight of federal regulation? Even as ESSA tore down and ripped up many pieces of federal oversight and regulation, that provision was never in doubt. At best, for a while, there was hope that the testing requirement would be reduced, but nobody ever thought that the federal requirement to make schools give students a standardized test would go away. And it didn't.

But why? Why does the federal government believe that an important national interest is served by testing every American school student, year after year?

There's no federal requirement that every automobile be inspected year after year. There's no federal requirement to even register firearms, let alone make sure they're still working properly. Federal requirements for food are loose and getting looser, with the FDA limited in how much inspecting they can get done and what they can do about the results. There's no annual federal testing requirement for soldiers and armaments, no federal requirement for annual testing of road surfaces, no federal requirement for annual testing of judges or legislators-- you get the idea. There's a big long list of things that are important for the welfare and safety of the country, a long list of things that taxpayers spend big money on, and yet do not operate under a federal demand for constant testing.

On top of that, once the federally required tests have been given-- what will the feds do with the results?

The official answer under ESSA is "Nothing." The feds don't get to draw pass-fail lines, nor do they get to proscribe the consequences for schools on the fail side of the line. There's enough leeway in how states can handle their testing that it won't be possible to make a legit comparison between states. And the NAEP (America's Report Card) will still be a thing, anyway. So why do the feds need to require that Big Standardized Tests be given to every student in every year for every grade 3-8.

What federal interest is served by requiring these tests? Do they make us safer? Smarter? If we want to require that each state monitors its school system to make sure that nobody is falling through the cracks or being deprived of an education, then why not require that the states do that-- why require the mechanism of a very narrow BS Test?

I know the unofficial reasons. Pearson et al are making a buttload of money from testing, and they'd prefer not to stop. The government will continue to collect giant heaping mountains of data from testing which will help keep the dream of a cradle to career pipeline alive. And a whole bunch of people believe that tests are magical devices that somehow make education work, and that without a federally required test, education would collapse into anarchy with teachers napping and students mired in ignorance, knickerbockers rolled down below their knees, dogs and cats living together, and the country conquered by Estonia.

But seriously. We became one of the most powerful and successful nations on earth without federally mandated BS Tests. We instituted federally mandated BS Tests in order to achieve certain swell goals, and we achieved none of them. Now we don't even have federal aspirations to accomplish certain goals attached to the BS Tests, and yet the tests are still here, enshrined in law, like a federal appendix that can't do anything except maybe swell and burst and spread poison throughout the body. Federally mandated tests are the education equivalent of the Bridge To Nowhere.

"Well, it's the law now, so we have to live with it," is what many school administrators will say. And that 95% requirement may give some states pause. But they don't have to live with federally mandated BS Testing. And you know who really really doesn't have to live with it?


Prohibition died as law because people just ignored it. Citizens wouldn't follow the law, and states wouldn't enforce it.

FL: Stamping Out Science?

Florida remains an important reminder that as much as I love the idea of local control, it can a powerful instrument for educational malpractice.

Yes, the state has managed to fumble everything from their Big Standardized Test crash-and-burn to making Florida a petri dish for growing some of the most odious reformster groups around (and all of that educational baloney just to help launch Jeb! into the biggest national campaign fizzle since New Coke). They let Bill Gates play with (and crash) a whole school district. But Florida has also allowed local school boards the freedom to make baldly racist assaults on their own school system. Pinellas County schools resegregated their elementary schools and cut off proper funding and support to the poor black ones.

Now some right-wing Common Core opponents are backing proposed laws that would give local taxpayers a tactical nuke to use on their school districts.

House Bill 899 and Senate Bill 1018 are aimed at the book-buying procedure in Florida. Florida Citizens' Alliance is one of the groups backing this measure; on their web page you can find a call to action for both these actions (billed as anti-Common Core legislation) and open carry and campus carry bills.

They would like to see a change in how textbooks are selected. The bill calls for a committee chosen by the local school board, containing at least one third parents, following public meeting laws, and unbound by the 50% digital/electronic content requirement. And one other item, but we'll get to that in a second.

The conditions listed so far are... well, why would you not put textbook selection in the hands of your professional staff? Here in PA, as in many states, the schools put requests before the board. Sometimes they consult their teachers (sometimes, not so much). But the general assumption is that people who teach professionally are knowledgable about what their own professional needs are. Textbook salespersons are a hardy breed, and they will pitch to whoever controls the pursestrings. Like all salespeople, they are often full of baloney and power their pitches with usual sales tricks ("I can only hold this special offer for you for another few days" never fails with one local district). So, yeah, maybe teaming up someone who actually knows the material with, say, a used car salesman might make the procurement process more interesting.

But there's one other stipulation in the bill-- that parents who don't like the selection can appeal to the circuit court.

This is a dumb idea. Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.

Part of the dumb is the intent. The National Center for Science Education calls these bills "anti-science." They point back to the Florida Citizens' Alliance website where there are complaints that textbooks treat Darwin and evolution as if it's real and the Bible creation story is not. Plus, there's all this talk about climate change. And Florida has a history of anti-science fervor. At one point, Governor Rick Scott banned any use of the term "climate change" by state officials. If you want to see a full litany of Florida's creative assaults on science, check out the Florida Citizens for Science blog (and really-- in how many states does anyone feel the need to create a group to support science).

But there's no question that these bills would give plenty of leverage to any group of citizens who decided that they didn't want science in the classroom (or, for that matter, history that didn't fit their particular notions of what history should be). Florida does have standards for science and other subjects, but the new laws says that texts can either meet the standards or be even better-- without explaining what would constitute "better" or how that would be decided.

So if this is one more idea about how to roll Florida back into the eighteenth century, that's not a benefit to anybody.

But it's also dumb because it will almost certainly backfire on the supporters.

Advocates for particular political viewpoints make this mistake all the time. All. The. Time. They construct a powerful weapon for winning particular battles, imagining that the weapon will only ever be used by them and the people who agree with them. Religious conservatives got all excited because the Supremes ruled that government meetings could open with prayer, because religious conservatives imagined that they were the only people who would be offering up such prayers. But right in Florida, we got one of the earliest tests as a Florida man demanded to be allowed to open a city council meeting with a satanic prayer.

These laws will seem like a super idea right up until the first time that a family drags a school district into an expensive court case because they demand that schools NEVER teach creationism, or demand that the Flying Spagetti Monster be included in history class, or demand that texts reflect the Flat Earth model of the solar system.

The notion that science should be subject to public debate and court rulings is in itself fundamentally anti-science. Millions of people can agree that the sun circles around the earth; that does not make it so. That's not how science works, and to try to create a system in which scientific facts are open to debate and rulings is, in fact, an assault on science. The folks who are pushing this kind of bill are not doing their state, their schools, and least of all their students any favors. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Soft Bigotry of Baloney

You may not know Michael Gerson's name, but odds are you know one of his most famous pieces of writing-- "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Well, Gerson was in the Washington Post * yesterday expressing his displeasure with the new version of ESEA. At the same time, he was serving up the hard baloney of reformster ideals.

Gerson opens by recapping some of the results of ESSA in a voice that-- well, maybe he's sincere, but it feels as if he's being sarcastic as what he sees as self-evidently wrong points of view, a style of writing that I am somewhat familiar with (game recognizes game).

The whole thing [NCLB] was a mess from the start. Failing schools didn’t like to be labeled failures, because it made administrators feel as though they were, like, you know, failing or something. Many teachers didn’t like the relentless emphasis on testing, which ate into their time for the unmeasurable joys of learning.  

His summary, as he winds up for the main pitch:

The Every Student Succeeds Act is a win-win-win for everyone who counts. Most Republicans are pleased that the federal role in enforcing educational standards has been effectively abolished. Many teachers are pleased to see lower stakes on standardized tests. States and localities are pleased that they can declare all their schools successful, or at least make accountability a fuzzy, gentle, toothless friend. 

And now he launches his point-- "We actually have some experience in how education systems operate in the absence of accountability enforced from above," and they suck. Non-wealthy, non-white students get screwed over and neglected. He quotes Chad Aldeman (Bellwether) saying what most folks already assume-- that under ESSA, some states will do really well, some will stay about the same, and some will start to shaft schools and students, particularly those that are non-wealthy and non-white.

Gerson is worried that such "betrayal by our education system can be more effectively hidden" and notes that "We live in a nation in which gaps in academic achievement between black and white students are large, continuing and disturbing."

Well, yes. Those gaps and betrayals have continued, unabated, unaddressed, and unimproved through all the years of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Duncan's Waiverpallooza. All this reform that was touted as a solution to those very problems-- real problems, pressing problems, problems that as a nation we have a moral and ethical obligation to deal with-- all that reform didn't accomplish a damn thing.

Instead, the non-wealthy and the non-white were descended upon by vulture capitalists, privateers, and all manner of folks interested in pretending to address these issues in order to get their hands on piles of those sweet, sweet public tax dollars. And all that happened as the government pushed the huge lie that all non-white non-wealthy students needed to do was get a score on the Big Standardized Test and the doors of prosperity would be opened to them.

What is missing from Gerson's piece? What's missing is the part where he tells the story of a community where the disaggregated tests scores came in and state and federal officials exclaimed, "Look! This poor minority school is doing really badly! We need to mobilize resources right away, make sure they have everything they need, and work with community members to make this school a success." And then within years, they had done it, lifting up those non-white non-wealthy students to lives of success, and empowering members of the community to become active and effective stakeholders in their community school! Why didn't Gerson tell that story? Because that story hasn't been happening. Name any part of any district in this country that was saved over the past decade by the oversight of the federal government.

Instead, from Newark to Detroit to Chicago to New Orleans, we've seen local stakeholders stripped of their voices and public schools replaced with charters that serve only a few and do no better than public schools that now struggle with the neediest students and reduced resources. Federal oversight hasn't accomplished a damn thing except to enable some of the most destructive forces in the education world, and to enable them on a national level.

Look, I share some of Gerson's concerns. ESSA shifts the school debates to the state level, and many states have already made it clear that they are more than happy to gut public education, particularly where it serves Those People (lookin' at you, North Carolina and Florida). Education advocates are going to have to fight, and in some cases fight hard, on the state level. But to pretend that the federally-mandated test-and-punish privatizing movement of the last fifteen years has yielded any sort of progress is just the hardest kind of baloney.

*In the original posting of this piece, I mistakenly attributed Gerson's article to the New York Times. My mistake. It was the Washington Post.


Tweetist/blogger Jennifer Borgioli Binis has often expressed frustration with how often people play fast and loose with the word "fail," some of which she has piled up into a blog post. This whole post is really for her, because 140 characters is never enough.

I get some of her frustration. "Fail" is a harsh word to throw around, particularly in the vicinity of children. When my kids were little, their mother and I tried to never say that they had failed at something, but that they hadn't succeeded yet. When my school put together the local version of the state-mandated graduation project, we deliberately did not offer a "failing" rank on the evaluation-- instead, it just goes straight to what still needs to be completed successfully.

By the same token, formative assessments, meant to answer the question "so how are we doing," shouldn't have a "failing" grade. The assessment is supposed to provide information, like a diagnostic hookup of your car by a mechanic, or blood tests by your doctor. It's not supposed to be a matter of "did you pass or fail" but instead "so what do we need to work on next." There are some well-intentioned people out there who apparently really expected that the Common Core Big Standardized Tests would be like that-- just information for tuning up the engine, with no pass or fail attached. These people were kidding themselves.

But, Binis asks, don't writers like Jessica Fahey (The Gift of Failure) suggest that failure can be a good thing, a strengthening thing. Is failure good? Bad? Damaging? Strengthening? A fair term, or an inaccurate description of particular outcomes? All of the above? Binis is correct in arguing that "fail" is being asked to carry a lot of weight, a wide range of meanings.

At its simplest, "fail" just means "didn't hit the mark, clear the bar, or meet the goal." That's why even an eight year old who's been told their reading scores were "below basic" understands that she just failed the test. But it's what happens next that gives it the emotional freight.


Failure is scary, or not, hard, or not, depending on the consequences attached to it. Failing to successfully complete a level in a video game in which one has infinite lives is not such a big deal. That's what makes it an intriguing literal game-changer when someone designs a game with perma-death; new consequences create a new relationship with failure. That's also why there's a difference between telling an eight-year-old, "Take this reading test; if you fail, it won't affect you at all" and "Take this test; if you fail, you'll be held back a grade."

"Failing public schools" has been a trickier phrase for several reasons. First, we have no cultural consensus on what The Goal of public schools might be, so ed reform has been like a darts game in a pitch-black room with just one tiny night-light in the corner. Reformsters have said, "Let's throw darts at that. Is it the target? Who knows-- but we can see it, so it will do."

But more importantly, reformsters have tied "failure" to punishment. At no time under NCLB, RTTT, or waiverpalooza, was there a policy that said, "We will find the failing schools so that we can get them the resources they need to do a better job." In fact, policymakers were frequently quite clear that they believed (and so policy also believed) that additional resources would not help. Instead, "failing" schools were given the choice of firing administrators, firing teachers, firing everybody, or just shutting down the school.

Policymakers also rigged the game as far as attributing the failure. No policy of the last decades has said, "Once we find the failing schools, we will know where federal, state and local officials have failed to properly support schools, and we will hold those federal, state and local officials accountable."

It's worth noting that the failure refrain hasn't abated a bit, even as the failing teachers in failing schools narrative has, well, failed. In this morning's New York Times, you can find Michael "Soft Bigotry" Gerson complaining that ESSA does not do enough to root out failing schools and teachers.

Where failing loses its power to create fear and consternation is where it gives up its power to punish. But some people feel that failure without punishment is just wrong.

I understand the source of that as well; nature is full of built-in punishment for failure. Fail to eat decent food, and you suffer. Fail to properly respect the power of gravity, and you suffer. Fail to jump all the way across that chasm, and you will suffer. Certainly this means that punishment-for-failure is just nature's way, right?

Maybe. But when we talk about things like Big Standardized Tests, we're not talking about nature. We're talking about shit that humans just made up. And that takes us back to goals-- what do you want to accomplish? And a large chunk of the human race is convinced that you drive people to achievement by whipping them in your chosen direction. And we consequently constantly reinforce the idea that failure will result in something Really Bad happening to you.


In life, bad things happen. The human response to that Fact O'Life falls into two categories. First, I can try to live my life in such a way that I think Bad Things are unlikely to happen to me. Second, I can try to live my life in such a way that I will be strong enough to handle whatever bad things come up.

Your preference can depend on how permanent you think failure is. If you fail, is that who you are, or just what you did?

I have plenty of personal thoughts about this, most dating back to my graduation from Divorce School (a great education, but probably not worth the cost of tuition). I have never, ever, felt like such a huge failure in my life, never been more certain that I was a permanent Fail at life. The path forward for me was to decide that fail was something I had done, not who I actually was. That, in fact, using the notion of failure as an excuse to quit, call game over, give up was a cheat, that if anything, my failure gave me an obligation to Do Better.

If you assume failure is a permanent state, there's no next move, nowhere to go, nothing to do but curl up and wait for the cudgel to fall on you. If you assume that failure is just a condition of the moment, there is much to do about moving on to the next day, learning, trying to do better.

Now. Which of those views do you think is modeled by a Big Standardized Test that is only given once a year but which carries large, punishing consequences?

If we want students to view failure as information about how they're doing and how they can do better, we need systems and assessments that model that view. The waves of reform have given us the exact opposite.

One Last Thought 

There's another way to define failure-- "not meeting a set of expectations." This is helpful for me (as someone who has failed many times at many things) because it lets us step back and look at those expectations. Whose expectations are they? What are they based on? Are they reasonable? Are they useful? Is there any reason to think that meeting them really matters?

It is perhaps surprising to notice how often the answer to that last question is "no." Often the best way to grow from failure is to recognize that you have failed to meet an artificial expectation with no real value, no real meaning. And there is your explanation of the success of the Opt Out movement in New York.

The "matters" question is also the answer for why so many punishments have been artificially attached to the BS Testing regimen-- because it is so obvious to so many people that these tests don't really matter, we'll just attach punishments to them so that people must take them seriously. Punishment is often the go-to method for making people value artificial made-up goals that have no intrinsic value.

But opening up your understanding of expectations doesn't just help you understand how to grow from and get past failure-- it helps you understand that what looked like failure was really just a badly set expectation. You missed the target because you set the target in the wrong place.

As a teacher, I struggle daily with reflecting all of this understanding of failure and expectations and growth and resilience in my classroom practices and assessment approaches. Much of my frustration with the reformster agenda is that it runs directly counter to this (even when it tries to say it doesn't). I agree that "fail" is a loaded word, but right now in education the deck is stacked against it.

Monday, December 28, 2015

One Wrong Move

Back in November, Hanna Rosin started a ball rolling with her Atlantic cover story about the high rate of student suicides in Silicon Valley. Two high schools in Palo Alto have a 10-year suicide rate between four and five times the national average.

If students from wealthy families in one of the most affluent communities in the country are feeling driven to these sort of extremes-- what the heck can that mean.

And it's not just the issue of suicide. Rosin writes:

The rich middle- and high-school kids [Arizona State professor Suniya] Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm.* They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule-breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft.

Rosin pointed to huge pressure put on kids by their families, and Rebecca Rosen followed up with her piece, also at the Atlantic, "Why Affluent Professionals Put So Much Pressure on Their Kids."

Rosen's conclusion is that affluent professionals find their own position fragile, and their ability to pass that position on to their children non-existent.

All of this results in what the economists Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, brilliantly termed “the rug rat race.” As they wrote in a 2010 paper, “The increased scarcity of college slots appears to have heightened rivalry among parents, which takes the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities.” In their findings, the rug rat race takes place primarily among the most educated parents, because there simply aren’t enough spots at elite schools for less-educated parents to even really have a shot, especially as the competition accelerates. It’s for this reason that the most educated parents spend the most hours parenting, even though they are giving up the most in wages by doing so.

If you're looking for one of the sources of the idealization of competitiveness that has leached into public education, well, here it is.

As one soccer parent told Friedman during her research on parenting in such a competitive culture, “I think it’s important for [my son] to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.” Friedman concludes, “Such an attitude prepares children for winner-take-all settings like the school system and lucrative labor markets.”

And the competition is all the more important because of the vast gap between the top tier and everything else. The gap between middle class and the wealthy elite is now a chasm, and by the time a child is eighteen, the feeling goes, his trajectory is already set. And while the wealthy elite cannot pass on, say, their legal practice, they are the only people with the resources to get their children every inch of extra help available. The private lessons, the personal coaching, the top equipment, the best technology-- only the wealthy can provide those necessary tools to land on the right side of Prosperity Gulch.

This echoes the work of Robert Putnam in Our Kids, in which he discusses how soft ties and social capital give wealthier children an extra edge. Wealthy parents can always pick up the phone and make a call. Wealthy parents can always apply some money to the problem. That ties us back to studies like the one from John Hopkins that shows how family and neighborhood cast a long shadow over a student's future.

What Rosin and Rosen underline is just how scared and worried the wealthy are-- just one wrong move and Little Pat will end up with a life that's Less, a life that's Not Good Enough. Little Pat will be a failure.

But if that's what the wealthy of Silicon Valley are thinking, what about the rest of us? Remember Richard Corey? The poem has two characters-- Corey and the ordinary people who narrate-- and its power doesn't just come from saying, "The rich have troubles you know nothing about." It also says, "If the most successful guy we can think of is that miserable, what hope do we have?"

And so that fear of failure, and the massive depth of what failure will mean, slowly leaches down into the whole system. It works its destructiveness in different ways. The children of silicon valley end up super-pressured, hammered into the shape their parents demand. But on lower levels of the economy, levels where parental units don't have access to every possible advantage, there is fear mixed with hopelessness.

For all the pressure Silicon kids feel, wealth gives them one other important advantage-- the Do-Over. Putnam and the John Hopkins study both highlight this-- how rich and poor kids both do drugs at similar rates, but poor kids are more likely to pay a huge price for being caught. When a rich kid screws up, Dad can make some phone calls, use some connections. The poor kid is just screwed. And yet Rosen and Rosin suggest that the rich kid pays in other ways, emotionally and psychologically.

And so, in different ways, children grow up on a razor's edge, imagining a world that will destroy them the moment they make One Wrong Move, raised by families that believe it, too. I'm also reminded of the work of Jessica Lahey, the teacher-writer whose book The Gift of Failure, has touched such a nerve with so many people. It has become a radical, revolutionary idea that children need to fail, that failure is a necessary part of growth, that you do not build muscles by having your parents lift weight for you.

But-- but-- let them fail??!! If they fail, that might be the One Wrong Move! It might be the moment that defines their downward spiral into failure and squalor and the child will end up living in a van by the river eating canned cat food warmed on a hot plate, alone and miserable and poor forever. They can't afford to fail. They can't handle failure.

Much of the ed reform movement has been a reflection of this mindset. We must set benchmarks, and we must get students to meet them because if they don't meet those benchmarks, they will be failures and the nation will fail and our national defense will be compromised and our international standing will disintegrate and our seat at the United nations will be moved to a van down by the East River. Everyone must be made to understand that if these third graders don't pass the super-duper Big Standardized Tests then that is a failure of epic and terrible dimensions.

I am more and more wondering how and when America turned into a nation so deeply steeped in fear (the same terrible fear has arguably turned Trump into a viable Presidential candidate), but it is killing our children. Some are raised in a bubble, repeatedly told through word and deed that they are not strong enough to face life and that all of their energy must go into building a protective shell. Some are raised out in the open, with no tools or assistance but repeated insistence that they must Grit Up and Get Tough. Even those who get those wealthy do-overs pay, as Rosin and Rosen suggest, by a look or speech that says, "I had to pay this price for you, because you can't hack it. If someone didn't bail you out, you'd be at the bottom of the barrel somewhere because that's what you actually deserve." Some learn that they must expect failure. And all of that is before we get to those who emerge from college, untested and untoughened, walking into the world and demanding their soft, protective bubble-- right now.

And all of this fearful vision of the world becomes increasingly self-fulfilling as we make the world harder and uglier and meaner. Instead of giving help where we can and lifting up people around us and designing our institutions to do the same, we let people flounder and sneer at them-- "You'd better toughen up, because this is how the world works." Well, shit, people-- this is how the world works if we decide to make the world work this way!

Yes, life comes with hard, unpleasant, painful challenges built in. But that's why we have a moral imperative not to add more hurt and trouble when we can help it. This does not have to be a world in which One Wrong Move ruins your life.

Let me tell you again, those of you who don't teach-- this is wearing on our children.

I know this is long, but I'm going to finish with a story. Just a couple years ago, I taught a class of juniors who were just so paralyzed with fear they couldn't do much of anything. These were honor students, the top students that my rural/small town high school had to offer. And they couldn't get past their fear-inflicted need to never do a thing unless they were sure it was right (because one way to avoid making One Wrong Move is to never move at all).

So one day, I kind of snapped. They were breaking my heart. So I dropped the lesson, and I got personal (and understand--if you told my students that you thought I was all warm and fuzzy, they would laugh at you). I said something along the lines of, "Look, I'm going to say some things about you, and if you think I'm getting it wrong and I don't understand, just stop me." I told them I thought they were afraid, that they were terrified that they were going to screw up and their life would be a disaster. Nobody said a word. So then I told them about some of my former students. (I have taught in the same small town for over thirty years, so I have seen pretty big sections of my student life stories.) I told them about several students who were sure they wanted to go to college for one thing and then dropped out and started over or switched schools or changed majors, and today they are living happy lives in rewarding careers. I talked about students who made terrible mistakes, like the one honor student who ended up running away from her husband with her drug dealer and ultimately serving time in prison-- after which she turned her life around, found new work, fell in love, and now has a fine family and a happy life. I talked about how, when my first marriage fell apart, I thought I was done and felt as if I had failed in every way that could possibly matter, and yet it turned out that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was.

And then I told them about themselves. I told them about how they were strong and smart and capable. I told them about how they had so much talent and brains and ability and value, and that they had good hearts and good heads and that they could trust themselves. I told them that no matter how carefully they planned, it was likely that a lot of things in their lives were not going to go the way they planned or expected, but that they would handle it and sometimes those unexpected twists and turns would bring huge rewards. I told them they would find their way. I told them that I really believed in my heart that they would all turn out okay. It's going to be okay. You can handle this. It's going to be okay.

Some bowed their heads. Some just sat. And some wept.

The point of the story is that the message I felt moved to deliver-- that they are strong, they are valuable, they can handle what happens next, they will be okay-- that's a message our children are hearing almost never from the culture. Instead, what they hear over and over is, "You are balanced on the edge of disaster, and if you make one wrong move, you will topple over into the pit, and knowing you, you're probably going to make that one wrong move."

We have allowed our school system to be overrun with an intent to find and weed out losers, instead of a system designed to lift up every student and help each one find the strength to win. Remember drivers' ed, when your teacher told you to keep your eyes on the road and not the ditch, because you will go where your vision is focused. We need to stop focusing on failure. We need to stop devoting mental energy to the wrong moves and focus on the right ones.

Most importantly, we need to work for and demand a world fit for humans. No, I don't want a fuzzy world with no sharp edges in which no hard things ever happen. That's not real. But we should demand a world in which young men and women don't feel that failing a test or losing a sporting event is the figurative End of Their Life, and we should continue to demand a world in which men and women don't feel they are in danger of being shot down because someone thought they made one wrong move. We don't need to demand a world that is all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but it doesn't seem like to much to demand a world that doesn't just grind up our children.

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies- God damn it, you've got to be kind. 
                                      -- Kurt Vonnegut

Outsourcing Subs: A Big Fat Philly Fail

Last summer, reaction abounded over Philly schools' plan to outsource its substitute teaching to the temp company Source4Teachers.

In July, some quick googling told me this about the company:

S4T has run into trouble in some of the markets it has moved into. With typical complaints about the service including unqualified subs and ballooning costs (but stagnant sub wages). In at least one case, S4T's contract was terminated after allegations of hitting a student.

Reviews at were not encouraging:

CEO is socially awkward and the President of the organization has a God complex and depending on the day of the week or which way the wind is blowing your guess is as good as anyone's as to how you might be treated on a given day. Benefits are non-existent, leadership is void. The COO is a former administrator that couldn't manage his way out of a paper bag.

S4T's plans for Philly were, shall we say, counter-intuitive. They were hired not just (or maybe even "even") to increase the sub supply, but to decrease the cost of it. They would build the sub pool by paying subs less that the district had previously paid.

If you're thinking, "Well, that sounds like a plan destined to fail," September found you sitting on the Told You So Throne. S4T had about 10% of the teachers they needed. Philly's previous best fill rate had been about 66%-- S4T wasn't hitting half that. And to make matters even less encouraging, S4T really didn't have a clue about what to do next:

"We've hired a good number of district originals, and many of them are just not accepting jobs," Murphy said. "Frankly, we're a little unsure why."

If you want to watch me take a look at S4T's company website and sadly ironic PR copy, you can do that here. But for the moment, we are going to bring the story up to today because this morning reporter Kevin McCory is checking in to see how the sub privatization plan is working out.

Short answer: very poorly.

A sad sidelight to McCory's story is that few teachers were willing to speak out on the record for fear of retaliation. Way to maintain that healthy work environment, Philly school administration!

But what is on the record is more than enough to paint the picture.

Average fill rate last year? 64%

Best day for S4T? 37%

And as McCory notes, that all-district number hides just how bad things are in schools where substitutes prefer not to tread. And where subs are not found, teachers must give up work periods to cover classes. This is hard on a building. It means that teachers don't have a period in which to get paperwork done, copies made, take meetings with parents or peers. And it creates huge pressure for teachers not to miss school, even when they are really sick or just need to, finally, get to the doctor for a long-stewing health issue. None of this is good for anybody in the building, including students.

It's fair to note that Philly's problems are not unique. In my own PA county, which is largely rural and small-town, subs are in short supply, and that's not just a problem for all the reasons listed above, but because our contract says that if I cover a class during my work period, I'm paid for it. No sub = pulled teachers coverage = really expensive sub.

And McCory quotes the former chief talent officer (seriously, can we not have a moratorium, on ridiculous job titles) pointing out that central office cuts hurt the district's ability to manage the sub pool. We went through that, too. We use a website that basically serves substitutes as an ebay for teacher absences.

Teacher Kristin Combs says that Philly made the mistake of hiring a contractor without significant experience in a large urban district. Source4Teachers' website doesn't have anything to say about which district's it handles, but they certainly had some kind of fantasy goggles on when they made their pitch for Philly. They promised 75% on Day One (they were off by about 64%) and a 90% rate by January.

Earlier reporting said that if the company misses that 90% mark in January, they will suffer financial penalties. It seems safe to say that come January, absolutely nobody who was part of this business deal is going to be happy with how it's going. My bet is that even if Philly doesn't fire S4T, the failing flailing sub service will quit, and that will leave Philly's embattled schools (which, like the rest of us, are still trying to function in a state that is still without a budget, so schools are still without state money) with a decision to make. What next? Do they go back to running their own sub business? Will they be able to coax back all the subs that S4T's low pay chased away, and how much will it cost them to do it? Or will Philly's school leaders continue to pretend they are unfamiliar with the law of supply and demand? Can they find one more company willing to make outlandish promises it can't keep in order to tide them over for another year?

It's a puzzler. Unfortunately, it's also a losing proposition for the teachers and students of Philly schools.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

More Boston Charter Baloney

Massachusetts has shaped up to become an interesting laboratory for the reformy takeover of a state education system.

The state has specialized in not-even-trying-to-be-sneaky handoff of power to men who have far more interest in corporate education privateering than in serving the families, taxpayers and voters of Massachusetts. State Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester chairs the governing board of corporate test peddler PARCC. Jim Peyser was the head of NewSchool Venture funds, a group devoted to turning public school tax dollars into Return On Investment for rich folks-- now he's the MA Secretary of Education. The revolving door between private industry and public service has been spinning so wildly that some of these folks are essentially suing themselves.

Because Massachusetts wants charters. Soooo much, it wants charters. At least, that's what all the guys in various leadership positions who have solid ties to the charter industry keep saying over and over.

Take Paul Grogan, head of the Boston Foundation, one of those cool foundations that allows civic minded rich guys a way to impose political pressure on serve their community. Grogan has one of those very special careers in which he never does, well, anything except run these kinds of organizations. I'm not even sure what we would call it. Professional private bureaucrat?

At any rate, Grogan took to the pages of his beloving Boston Globe (seriously-- they never get tired of providing him a platform) to argue that Charters Are not Private Schools. You have to love a piece that right in its title announces boldly that it is here to sell you something, and it's not ashamed to lie to do it.

Grogan wants to make three points in support of his main assertion.

First, charter public schools do not “siphon” funding from regular district schools.

I'm not sure how one makes this point with a straight face. Perhaps his point is that it is not so much a siphon as a stripping, gutting, vacuuming or just plain taking. But this is some fancy argument weaving here. Remember, Grogan is trying to prove that charters are public schools. So here's his point:

As public schools, charters are as legitimately entitled to public funding as any district school.

Perhaps Grogan is trying to create a teachable moment about critical thinking by providing an example of a circular argument. Charters are public schools, because they get public tax dollars, which they get because they are public schools.

Grogan also argues that Massachusetts has a funding formula that keeps public schools from going cold turkey on the lost funding, making the full drainage last a few years while reimbursing public schools for the money they lost. However, the state appears to be having trouble funding this system well enough to make it actually work.

None of which supports Grogan's point. Charter schools are private businesses funded with public tax dollars. Focusing on the "public tax dollar" part doesn't prove his point. The real mark of a public, non-private school is complete transparency. Any taxpayer in my school district is entitled to see any portion of our financial records, to see exactly what we did with the tax dollars handed to us. As long as charter schools refuse to fully account for what they do with those public tax dollars, they cannot even begin to claim non-private status. If such transparency would open them to all sorts of public outrage and complaint about where the money is going and whose interests it's serving-- well, that's one more reason it's baloney to call charter schools public.

Second, charter public schools in Massachusetts are not permitted to engage in selective admissions policies, aka “cherry-picking.”

Nosirree-- when charter capacity fills up, they must have a lottery, and lotteries are open to any parents who have the drive, system savvy, time, and resources to make it through that process. So, there's no special selectivity there at all. Grogan would also like to invoke the famous Massachusetts 37,000 waiting, a factoid that people have been poking holes in for years, but it makes such a good talking point. You can read up on more of the details, but here's one simple issue-- a single student who applies to ten schools counts as ten spots on the waiting list.

Grogan attributes the waiting list to charters' "incredible success in educating low-income students and students of color." He does not, however, offer any evidence that such incredible success is an actual credible thing. And since he's trying to prove that charters aren't private schools, this point seems counterproductive-- after all, isn't it private schools that have waiting lists, while actual public schools have to come up with as much capacity as necessary to handle all the students in their region.

Grogan's third point is... well, kind of fuzzy. He wants you to know that the terrible charter track record in preparing students for college "lacks context," as if there's some context in which "sends fewer students to college than public schools do" sounds like a win. The context seems to be that rates in Boston public schools are lousy, too.

And the main point here was what, again?

Grogan wanted to show that charters are not private schools. He offered no actual evidence. Just more of the same old warmed-over charter promotion points.

ICYMI: December 27

Two days after Christmas and it is currently warmer outside my home than inside it. But here are some pieces to read as you contemplate whatever strange weather you're facing today.

Will Hillary Clinton Go All in With Us or Wall Street
Closing Schools Is Not and Educative Option

Pretty sure that Hillary's quote won the Blogger Swarm of the Month award, with some reactions more reasonable than others. Julian Vasquez Heileg took a look at it.And so did Mitchell Robinson, who I think hit at what is most bothersome about the dumb thing that came out of Clinton's mouth.

The Least of Russ on Reading

Russ Walsh does a fun thing for his year-end post. Instead of his best or most popular posts, he lists some worthwhile posts that didn't pull quite the traffic as some others. Catch up on his overlooked gems.

Why Charter Schools Are Fraud Factories

Much of what's here is old news, but there's always something about seeing just how broad and deep and wide the world of charter school shenangians runs.

The Gift of Student Voice in New Orleans

Looking for some giving that will do some good? Edushyster has an inspiring and worthwhile project in New Orleans that actually promotes student voices. Take a look and wrap up your year by contributing to a worthy cause.

Merry Christmas, Ramone

Finally, Nancy Flanagan presents a story that is both heartbreaking and uplifting, looking at both what is awful and what is hopeful in the education world.

When Business Doesn't Get It

Peter Elkind just published a "special report" in Fortune that is an illuminating read. "Business Gets Schooled" is the story of the rise and fall of Common Core from the perspective of the business interests that became involved, and I recommend that you read the whole thing yourself. It can be hugely instructive to see how things look from another vantage point.

But for right now, there are just a couple of specific points I want to pull out of the piece, and one truly amazingly awful quote.

Business Is Not Limber or Agile

When business interests backing CCSS found themselves under attack, they were simply unable to respond in any sort of quick or effective manner. The business world by and large doesn't get social media much, and it seems that the bigger the company and the more highly-placed the executive, the more deficient the understanding of how blogs and twitter and facebook can mount a damaging attack by lunchtime on any given day.

They are, as Elkind puts it, "used to exercising power through traditional channels," and so it made sense to work the political connections, work the personal power connections (the article opens with a dinner meeting between Bill Gates and Charles Koch), and when under pressure, to work big lumbering PR campaigns.

Elkind recounts the story of how Rex Tillerson, head of Exxon, threatened to pull the company out of Pennsylvania if the state did not embrace Common Core (and quotes without citing Kris Nielson's blog response-- in Elkind's world, the businessmen and politicians all have names and faces, but only a few bloggers and activists get the same consideration). Business interests tried founding groups like the Collaborative for Student Success to gin up some CCSS love among the citizenry, says Elkind, but he neglects to mention just how many similar groups have been created-- all fruitlessly, right up to recent entries like Education Post and the74, both well-funded with the hope that CCSS fans can fight internet fire with internet fire. And yet all of these have fizzled, almost as if corporate chieftains don't understand why there is opposition or how it spreads.

One thing that jumps out at me is that Elkind mostly talks about corporations like Exxon and Intel and SAS-- companies where corporate executives are unlikely to ever face the business problem of "How do we sell our product to individual consumers." And so when they discover that Common Core is a product that individual consumers don't actually want, they are stumped. Their "marketing" usually consists of gathering the political and corporate connections to make themselves inescapable. If Intel convinces the major computer companies to use their chips, it doesn't matter so much how individual consumers feel about it.

In short, big business is neither nimble, quick, or smart enough to fight this fight.

Business's Hard Lessons for the Left

There's been some criticism that Elkind's article largely ignores the Common Core opposition on the Left. But I think that reflects some hard truths about the left-side opposition to the Core, most particularly that it just hasn't been as effective as the opposition from the right.

The dump common core movements that have been at least cosmetically effective in some states-- those don't come from the left. Huckabee and Bush and other lovers of the Core didn't dump it like a itchy disease because they were worried about folks on the left. In fact, one of the (unsuccessful) tactics adopted by Core supporters for a while was to try to slap one more "Thanks, Obama!" sticker on the Core in an attempt to get right-wing knees to jerk in a Core-friendly direction.

None of that worked. And at the risk of offending some of my right-leaning readers, it didn't work in part because some of the far-right arguments against the Core are fact-free and logic-impaired. I can go on all day about the reasons that Common Core is a giant pile of toxic waste, but I still don't think it's going to turn our nation's children into a bunch of gay commie welfare bums.

The left-ward opponents don't appear in Elkind's article because they don't appear on business's radar, at least not as anything more than the usual background buzz of people who always hate and oppose them every time they try to make a buck. And they can point at groups like DFER and the NEA/AFT early embrace of the Core and say, "Well, see. We've got some lefties on our side, too."

I have no doubt that these folks seriously underestimate the strength and effectiveness of progressives who oppose the Core. But for me, the article is a reminder not to overestimate your own effectiveness just because you're being listened to in a room of folks who already agree with you. Common Core's conservative opponents have been very effective in spreading the word to people who didn't otherwise have an opinion. (NY is perhaps our best model for how the Left can get it done)

Business Just Doesn't Understand The Purpose of Education in a Democratic Society

Tillerson is a central figure in Elkind's article, and it's Tillerson who gets to demonstrated just how completely, clueless, stupidly wrong these guys are. Elkind takes us to a 2014 panel discussion in DC.

But Tillerson articulates his view in a fashion unlikely to resonate with the average parent. “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”

The Exxon CEO didn’t hesitate to extend his analogy. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?” American schools, Tillerson declared, “have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

Man. The fact that anybody can shamelessly express such an opinion out loud, without recognizing that it is ethically dense and morally bankrupt, a view of both human beings and an entire country that is about as odious and indefensible as anything spit out by a Ted Bundy or an Eric Harris.

This is not an aberration-- just about two years ago I had my first widely-read post on this blog responding to Gates Foundation's Allan Golston when he issued what I called the "wrongest sentence ever in the CCSS debate." Golston said, "Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so it’s a natural alliance."

No. No no no no no no no no no no, hell no.

Students are not a product. Corporations are not "customers," and the public institutions of our nation do not exist to serve the needs of those corporations. The measure of public education is not how well it produces drones that serve the needs of corporations, not how "interested" corporations are in the meat widgets that pop out of a public education assembly line.

Tillerson's viewpoint is anti-education, anti-American, anti-human. It's a reminder that the education debates are not about Left versus Right or GOP versus Dems. The education debates are about the interests of the human beings who are citizens of a nation and stakeholders in its public institutions versus the interests of a those who believe their power and money entitle them to stripmine an entire nation in order to gather more power and money for themselves. The education debates are about democracy versus oligarchy. The education debates are about valuing the voices of all citizens versus giving voice only to the special few Who Really Matter.

Again, give Elkind's article a read. It explains both how business is losing (though he tries to make it all end on a "hopeful" note), but more importantly, it explains why businessmen like Tillerson and Bill Bennett and Bill Gates deserve to lose.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Playlist

Here's my Christmas playlist, with a few standard issue pieces and a few somewhat less well-traveled (I do not know why this gentleman is the face of my list-- I'm sure there's some sort of moral there). This year, my entire family is home, the weather is comfortable, and it's just about time for me to make the breakfast waffles. May this day (and every day) bring you things you hope for and things you need.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

IN: Let's Try Solo Bargaining

Indiana State Senator Pete Miller is not the first guy to have this idea, but he's the one currently floating it in a state legislature-- let's do away with collective bargaining and let every teacher negotiate her own individual contract.

This is Miller's idea for fixing the teacher shortage. Let's treat teachers fairly, he says. But only when a shortage forces us to, and only some of the teachers. After all, why should I have to pay big bucks for both a first grade teacher and a science teacher when the former are a dime a dozen and the latter are so hard to come by?

I've thought about the solo negotiating approach before, because it seems like an interesting thought experiment. What would schools look like if each contract was individually negotiated?

They would probably look poorer, because at least the larger districts would hire professional negotiators to handle the workload. There are over 2,500 teachers in the Indianapolis district-- exactly who is going to negotiate 2,500 contracts? It's going to be somebody who doesn't have any other job and who was hired just to handle negotiations, which means administration just got bigger.

Or they would look more...well, awkward. In a smaller district, individual contracts would be negotiated by the same people who work as supervisors. I'm trying to imagine the dynamic of, "Yes, I told you last month that you couldn't have another $500 of pay, and now this month I am asking you to take on another extra duty."

And such a system would be sure to breed some intra-staff resentment, as people come to realize they are being paid far less for the same job as the guy next door. "What do you mean you want to borrow my worksheets about subjects and verbs?! Take your extra couple thousand dollars and go buy your own worksheets." And-- as everyone who's served on the front lines of contract negotiations well knows-- it is very easy for negotiations to breed an adversarial relationship. Does it really help a district for teachers to know that one of their supervisor's job is to make sure they never make too much money?

Of course, the current system also results in people being paid different amounts for the same job, but-- and here we get into the weirdities of the human brain-- nobody gets paid "less" than anybody else. Some people just get paid "more." Everyone starts at the same place, and everybody has the same opportunity to move up the ladder. And while I can agree that it's not ideal, I believe that it helps foster the collegiality needed in a school. When you set teachers against each other and make them compete for every dollar, nobody wins.

And they would have to compete, because school funding is a zero sum game. The district has as much money as it has, so if it is going to cough up an extra $10K to hire Rockstar McSuperteach for the science department, somewhere in the system, $10K is going to be cut. "Sorry, you can't have new literature books this year because we wanted to hire a math teacher," is not going to foster collegiality.

Worse, the competition would not even be about who was the best teacher, but who was the best negotiator. Negotiating is a skill. It's a profession. And the balance will always be against teachers, because each teacher will have practice negotiating one contract-- her own-- while the district will have a pro who has handled all the contracts. And really-- is it fair that the same sweet, kind demeanor that makes Quietina O'Introversion such a great first grade teacher will guarantee her a crappy contract negotiation year after year?

In fact, here's what I really imagine happening. Teachers, lacking the time or expertise to handle their own negotiations, will hire someone to do it for them. In fact, they'll probably pool resources so that they can get somebody a little better to negotiate for the whole pool. Kind of like a union.

Meanwhile, districts will get tired of negotiating multiple versions of the contract (and there will be multiple versions-- if I go in there you'd better bet I will also be negotiating for leave time, office space, what duties I will or won't be assigned, etc) as well as managing a host of employees who all have different conditions for their employment. Plus such negotiations would make budgeting too murky and problematic. So districts will develop a menu of contract offerings, a sort of ladder that teachers are placed on

Of course, some districts would just say, "Screw it. We're paying bottom dollar and we'll take whatever is lying around the bottom of the barrel." Just like now.

Miller's idea is that he wants the invisible hand of the market to control teacher pay, but Indiana, like most states with so-called teacher shortages, already has the invisible hand of the market shoved right in their face-- they have a shortage because they are ignoring what the hand is telling them, which is "Make a better offer!" Miller is involved in some negotiating of his own, telling the invisible hand, "Well, what if we just a make a better offer for only a few of them? What's the absolute minimum the market will let us get away with?"

Indiana has some other interesting ideas coming up, like a proposal to trade a free college education for five years of teaching service in the state. But Miller's proposal is a lousy idea that won't really work out well for anybody.

NY: USED Rattles Sabres

The United States Department of Education has once again tried to lean on New York and other states where the opt out movement has made a dent in participation rates for the Big Standardized Test.

Newsday reports that the state has received and replied to a letter similar to the one that went out in October, suggesting that they sure could hold up some Title I funds if the state doesn't get its participation rate above 95%. Depending on the reports you read, NY's participation rate in last year's BS Testing was in the neighborhood of 80%.

Newsday reports that the USED says it will take "appropriate" action, and that such action could involve withholding funds, threatening to withhold funds, or talking about threatening to consider withholding funds. So take that, New York.

Newsday also reports that USED offers advice on how to coerce participation rates; it is typical of the department that all suggestions involve threats of some sort of punishment, from withholding aid to counting all non-participating students as non-proficient (because the test data is really really important, but it's okay to completely pollute the data pool with made-up scores).

[Update: Since I originally wrote this piece, somebody found me a copy of the actual letter. Read for yourself-- it's as bad as Newsday reports.]

In this context, High Education Commissioner Elia's actions to improve test participation actually look pretty canny. They are kind of ridiculous and seem unlikely to convince anybody of anything. But they do mean that when New York participation rates some in way below 95% next year, she can turn to Acting Pretend Education Secretary John King, shrug her shoulders, and say, "What do you want? We totally tried to get rates up."

At that point the USED will have to decide if it has the balls to cut New York's funding, a level of ballsiness that has not previously been displayed, ever. John King couldn't face the parents of New York when he worked there, and he couldn't face members of Congress in DC when he wanted to work there. Is he willing to stand up to all those folks and not back down when he's cutting a billion dollars from NY's budget?

This seems particularly improbable in the face of the new ESSA, which specifically recognizes the rights of parents to opt out of BS Testing, and gives states the right to decide what the punishment for non-compliance will be. Check out this handy FairTest guide "Why You Can Boycott Standardized Tests Without Fear of Federal Penalties to Your School" for more details.

Meanwhile, New York has a moratorium on counting BS Tests for student or teacher evaluation, making the tests a true waste of everybody's time and sharply reducing the possibility that the tests will measure anything at all other than the likelihood that bored students involved in pointless tasks will amuse themselves by playing ACDC on a standardized test.

The really big question here is-- why is the federal government doing this? Seriously? Why does the federal government have such a burning desire to have all students take the BS Tests? What use does the federal government have for the data generated by the tests? What policy decisions are going to be informed by test results? What part of the public good is threatened by children who don't take the test? If few US students take their local BS Test, so what? What bad thing happens because they don't?

The most cynical part of me says that none of those questions matter, that the feds promised test manufacturers a good, solid hold on a huge testing market, and they are doing their best to live up to the bargain they made. "Where are my customers," bark Pearson et al.

"I'm sorry, sir." says Acting Pretend Secretary King. "I'll get back out there and rattle my sabres some more." Too bad for him. I'm pretty sure the parents of the Opt Out movement don't scare that easily.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Context Does Not Absolve Clinton

Well, that was quick.

After the interwebs blew up with Clinton's ill-considered comment about closing below-average schools, Lauren Camera leapt up at US News to say, "Oh, no. Y'all just misunderstood. It was taken out of context."

I had read the original context when I first responded to her comment. It doesn't help.

The context is that she was discussing how Iowa's governor was crushing rural schools by starving them of necessary resources. She was discussing Iowa's wacky laws about not allowing school district deficits. And then she said this:

This school district and these schools throughout Iowa are doing a better than average job. Now I wouldn't keep any school open that wasn't doing a better than average job. If a school is not doing a good job then, you know, that may not be good for the kids, but when you have a district that is doing a good job it seems kind of counterproductive to impose financial burdens on it.

It is true that she did not suggest, as some slightly hyperventilating reports might have implied, that if elected President, she would make it policy to close all below average schools (i.e. slightly more than half the schools in the country). I will give her that much.

However, that doesn't change what was boneheaded about her comment.

Yes, it was an off-the-cuff comment. But if that's the comment that comes off her cuff, I have serious doubts about how well she understands the situation.

Clinton did NOT say, "If there are schools that are performing poorly, then the state should look hard at whether those schools and the communities they serve are getting the resources they need." That kind of comment would have fit perfectly in the context of the financial issues she was discussing. But she didn't say that. The context actually makes this part seem worse, because she skipped right over the financial issues that she was actually talking about.

Clinton used "below average" as shorthand for low-performing, which indicates a lack of understanding of exactly how schools end up tagged low-performing, and how the stack ranking of schools is pernicious, inaccurate, and guaranteed to always result in schools labeled low-performing (and for that matter, what "below average" really means). The use of false, inaccurate and just-plain-crappy measures to label schools and teachers as successes or failures is central to what's going on in education reform. If she doesn't understand that, she doesn't understand some of the most fundamental problems we're facing.

Clinton's glib use of "wouldn't keep any school open" shows a limited understanding of just what is involved in "closing" a school. What happens to staff? What happens to students? What happens to the community? Clinton shows no awareness of how huge a task she's glibly suggesting, nor does she suggest that there are other options that should be considered long before this nuclear option, which should be at the bottom of the list.

No, I don't think Clinton telegraphed some sort of legislative intent or policy plan. But I do think she opened a window to the bad, incorrect, and damaging assumptions that she carries into her consideration of education. And because of her long and cozy history with privatizers like the Waltons, those bad assumptions are especially troubling.

So, yes, I considered the context, and no, Clinton doesn't deserve a pass on this one. She said a really, really dumb thing. And it is just as dumb in context.

AZ: Creationist Charterista Now Head of Senate Ed Committee

Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs has named Senator Sylvia Allen to lead the education committee. This is not good news for public education.

Allen has had a colorful career. She is a Senator because a man fell off a horse. Twice.

Before she arrived in the capitol, she held down a number of jobs, including county supervisor. It was in that job that she was slapped for interfering with an investigation into her son-in-law's misbehavior as a detention officer with female inmates. After becoming a senator, she filed a bill to make it harder to investigate detention officers.

But her legislative career has featured other highlights. In a hearing about some uranium legislation, Allen made the observation that the earth has only been here for 6,000 years (and has done great without environmental regulation, so why start now).  That was 2009. In 2013 she hit facebook with a post saying, "Never mind about global warming. What about those chem trails behind planes dropping mind control drugs on all of us."

More recently, Allen offered support for a concealed carry law because the country needs a moral rebirth. Wouldn't it be great, she mused, if we could make church attendance mandatory?  It's an interesting thought from a Mormon who has perhaps forgotten that once upon a time, the US sent soldiers to settle religious differences with Joseph Smith using the barrels of the many guns.

The new head of the education committee never went to college, but she did help found a charter school. George Washington Academy is located in her home town of Snowflake.

Democrat Senator Steve Farley doesn't seem too worried. "She's made some interesting comments to the public, but it's not like she's going to be teaching," he said. "We have accredited teachers for that."

Well, perhaps. Although the rules for who gets to be accredited can certainly be rewritten by the legislature. Perhaps to weed out those who don't attend church, or who don't believe in the proper age of the earth. Farley may feel okay. I'm just feeling okay that I don't teach in Arizona.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Clinton's Math Problem

In Iowa, Clinton displayed a lack of-- well, something. Math comprehension? Education reform understanding? Thinking things through?

She wouldn't keep any school open that wasn't doing above average. So... close half the schools? Of course, once you close half the schools, then the average will have to be recalculated, and then you'll have to close half of those schools. And so on until there is only one school left. Or maybe we close parts of that school. I am suddenly remembering the many hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and imagining a Seussian school at which a sky-reaching stack of students are seated at a single desk.

But maybe what she means is close half the schools and replace them with charters, which means we'll close a new half of the schools every year. Will we allow students to move around? Will low-scoring students become educational hot potatoes, thrown off by schools who don't want to fall in the bottom half.

It will be frustrating of course-- half of the schools (a few more, actually) will always be average or lower, so every year we will close half the schools and every year we will have to farm out the students and put together new schools in time for the fall.

Maybe she just missed the decimal point. After all, this is exactly the plan favored by the current administration and various versions of state-controlled Achievement School Districts-- only those folks only talk about the bottom 5% instead of the bottom 50%.

And this is not a small picky thing. Setting an "average" level for schools is awesomely difficult. What does that even look like? How do you even calculate such a thing?

And if such a thing can be calculated, is that really your policy response-- not fix it or analyze the issues or look at contributing factors or anything else except just "close it." That's what HRC has in mind for schools in America-- just close the ones that don't measure up to whatever imaginary measure someone cobbles together??

Maybe this is just thoughtless from-the-hip rhetoric from one more politician who finds it easy to crack wise about education without thinking about what it the policy choice would mean in the real world for real students. Or maybe this is a signal to charter fans that they can stop freaking out over Clinton's supposed apostasy.

Whatever the case, it is certainly proof once again (as if any were needed) that Clinton is no friend of public education.

Lamar Alexander: Privatization, Cronyism, and the Big Bucks

The rich are not like you and me. In fact, many of the rich get rich through avenues not remotely available to you or me. Would you like to see how it works?

Let's take a look at Lamar Alexander.

These days Alexander is the reasonably amiable, semi-avuncular senator currently known for helping to whip up our newest version of the ESEA. But once upon a time, Alexander was an up-and-comer with White House dreams. That kind of career sparked some big-league attention, most notably captured in an article by Doug Ireland that ran in the April 17, 1995 issue of The Nation. "The Rich Rise of Lamar Alexander" is available online only through The Nation's subscriber archives (though the bulk of the content is repeated here).

Ireland's opening gives you an idea of where this was headed:

If repeated White House leaks suggesting that Bill Clinton views Lamar Alexander as his toughest potential Republican opponent next year are true, it may be because it takes on to know one. The two ex-governors are both masters of the Permanent Campaign.

Ireland suggests that as a lifelong political insider, Alexander "is even less encumbered by principles than the man whose job he covets." Alexander is repeatedly characterized as a man whose political leanings are less stable than a sapling in a hurricane. He has often remade himself to suit the campaign he was running. He has made many friends. And Ireland gave him credit for excelling in one other area.

And in one respect he has clearly surpassed Clinton: Alexander has shamelessly used his political connections to make himself a wealthy man.

It would seem that Alexander has become a millionaire either through brilliant investments, incredible luck, or generous connections. Ireland reports that when Alexander was first elected governor of Tennessee, he was worth $151,000. When George Bush appointed him Secretary of Education, he was worth somewhere between $1.5 and $3 million. More recently he has remained among the wealthiest of senators, with a net worth as high as $28 million (2004). He took a huge dip in 2012, but in 2014 he was back up to $13 million.

What sorts of genius deals has he made? Well.

In 1981, Governor Alexander got in on a deal to buy the Knoxville Journal. He swapped his stock for some Gannett stock, and sold that stock for $620,000.

In 1987, he took time off from politics to go to Australia and write a book-- Six Months Off. The Wall Street Journal gave him a $45K advance, and he wrote off $123K as a tax deduction (he also sold the movie rights). And he was on the payroll of Belmont College in Nashville, which had hired him to create a leadership institute.

But Alexander's greatest gains have come from privatization of two public sectors-- education, and prisons.

Education and Big Bucks

Alexander scored big with an investment in Corporate Child Care, Incorporated in 1987. Alexander often liked to campaign as a co-founder of the company, but that co-founding didn't seem to involve doing any work there. But in about five years, Alexander's $5K turned into $800K. Ka-ching. A biography of Alexander's wife Honey (she'll be turning up again) calls the couple "co-founders" along with Bob Keeshan (yes, that Bob Keeshan). CCCI was launched with a $2 million investment from Massey Birch, a venture capital firm whose head, Jack Massey, we shall also meet again. Actually, we've already met him-- that leadership institute Alexander was setting up was for Belmont's Massey School of Business, named after Jack Massey.

Ireland quotes a former CEO of the company saying that Alexander was instrumental as a money-raiser, but not so much daily hands on. CCCI appears at some point to have disappeared into Bright Horizons Family Solutions. 

Alexander also logged some time as "CEO" of the University of Tennessee, where by many accounts he was something of an absentee president. It paid a nice six figures, though at the same time he was making about the same money from various corporate board of director's stipends. Ka-ching.

Alexander's other big education venture was Whittle Communications. By 1995, Chris Whittle had already built and destroyed the proto-privatization empire in education. He had launched Edison, a pioneering for-profit education adventure, along with Channel One, a plan to put a television in every classroom thereby giving advertisers access to every set of school student eyeballs. But in 1994 he was trying to explain why he wasn't a huckster, and Business Week was writing his professional obituary. (That turned out to be premature-- Whittle had a few more second acts in him).

In the eighties, Alexander worked as a consultant for Whittle and that earned him the right to buy some stock. Which he did. In Honey's name. With a check for $10K that nobody cashed. Until after the company was sold and Whittle bought Honey's stock back for $330K. Ka-ching.

But we're not done yet. When Alexander was being confirmed as Secretary of Education, he promised to cut ties with Whittle, which he did. Then he sold his house in Knoxville to a top Whittle executive, who paid $977,500 for the house that Alexander had bought for $570,000 the year before. Ka-ching.

The Prison Biz

Alexander has gotten plenty of negative press for his ties to the for-profit prison business.

Around 1983, Corrections Corporation of America was founded by Tom Beasley, former Tennessee GOP chair and, according to Ireland, a guy who in college had rented an above-the-garage apartment from the Alexanders. Financing came by way of Jack Massey. Honey invested $8,900 in CCS in 1984. In 1985, Tennessee prisons were in a mess, and CCA had an idea. Tom Beasley declared that "the market is limitless" and proposed that CCA could "lock them up better, quicker, and for less."

Governor Alexander pushed for CCA to take over the entire Tennessee prison system, a ballsy move in 1985. But there was a conflict-of-interest problem, so Honey traded her $8,900 share to Jack Massey for 10,000 shares in South Life Corporation, a life insurance company. When Honey cashed that out in 1989, she was paid $142,000. Ka-ching. As for privatizing Tennessee prisons, that was a massive fail-- eventually the state had to take the prisons back-- but CCA continued to try to spread its influence. But the privatized prison move started some commenters worrying about the issues still before us thirty years later-- if profits become privatized and liabilities remain with the public, who gets screwed and who gets rich? And do you actually get the service you paid for?

CCA is still alive and kicking. Its history has been scrubbed of any reference to Alexander (Lamar or Honey), but on its board we find Charles Overby, a man who has his own intriguing history. On the CCA board since 2001, he also has a history as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and head of the Newseum. He has worked for the Gannett chain, and more than a few people see a serious conflict between a journalist's devotion to the First Amendment and transparency versus the private prison industry's hard work to keep their operations hidden.

Oh, and Overby has held down another job-- special assistant for administration to Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

So what have we learned? 

None of this is news. None of this is new. All of this is why some folks throw phrases at Alexander like "one of the biggest non-entities in the history of modern American politics" and write posts entitled "Why I hate Lamar Alexander Today."

This is the guy who helped bring us the New! Improved! ESEA. This is a guy who has made a career and a personal fortune out of privatizing public institution, and done it largely through his personal connections. And in all the reading I've done, I've to find someone accusing him of taking a hard stand on any issue as a matter of principle.

So if it seems as if the new education law is filled with opportunities for well-connected privatizers to get their hands on public education tax dollars-- well, it's not hard to see how Alexander might have been inclined to head in that direction. After all-- what's the point of getting involved in public service if you can't cash in?

And even if Lamar Alexander is a great guy, a wonderful father and husband, and a decent human being (and I don't know the guy from Adam, so hey-- he could be all those things) his career points to a world view that is both scruple-impaired and lacking in a sense of how public goods should be preserved and maintained for public benefit. If this is how he thinks the world works-- you call some friends, you make some deals, you look out for the Right People and they look out for you, and it's all cool if this gives you an inside lead on making some huge profits from nothing but your connections-- how can that worldview not infect the legislation that you create and support?

This is not about public service or responsibility. This is a guy who regularly ranks in the top 13-14 richest Senators who has no inherited fortune and no actual job, but who has gotten rich simply by being a well-connected politician, and by using those connections to push privatized solutions that erode necessary public institutions and make life worse for the people who depend on those institutions. This is about finding new ways the Right People with the Right Connections can cash in. Ka-ching. Not the sound we're looking for in public education or a US Senator.