Wednesday, September 30, 2015

RI: This Is Why Tenure Is Necessary, Part 32,871,299

William Ashton is in trouble again.

Ashton is an English teacher in Rhode Island. If you remember his name, it's because last spring, the Jacqueline Walsh School for the Performing Arts suspended him for allegedly badmouthing the PARCC. The "badmouthing" was the process of correcting student misconceptions about how an under-95% testing rate would affect the school; to put it another way, he contradicted the standard state-generated propaganda about why students "must" take the Big Standardized Test.

The suspension spurred student protests, including old-school (picketing) and new-school (facebook page). And ultimately, Ashton was back in his classroom. That was last March.

Now, Ashton is in trouble again.

This time, he appears to have answered a question about birth control in the time of the Pilgrims. And now the student is back out on the sidewalk, picketing and protesting that her teacher is in trouble for answering her question.

Pawtucket Superintendent Patti DiCenso has seized this teachable moment by dragging the students out of class to scold them, informing them that "they were being inappropriate and shouldn't be protesting." DiCenso, in what I can only assume is a bid to model how grown-up professionals deal with disagreement, has blocked one of the students from the superintendent's twitter page (@PawtuckSup, just in case you want to say hi).

DiCenso told Norton and Roberts that they were being bullies because they were demanding the return of their teacher and threatening to peacefully protest if he wasn’t reinstated, they said.

Now, we are only getting the students' version of this meeting, so I'm going to hope that this is a big of hyperbole on their part and not their superintendent of schools saying foolish, foolish things. DiCenso's office will not confirm the identity of the suspended teacher nor discuss the situation, which is an appropriate response at this point.

Is Ashton on the chopping block again because his bosses are still steamed about last spring? Is this a district prone to over-reaction? I don't know.

What I do know is that this is just one more example of why tenure is a good idea. Remember-- Ashton's current problems are because he answered a student's question.

DiCenso told the students that Ashton had “strayed from the curriculum” but Long [a student] asked, “Does the curriculum say what questions we are allowed to ask?”

Because that is kind of the point. A teacher can't control what questions a student might ask, but a teacher can certainly create a classroom atmosphere in which students understand that questions-- particularly questions of a remotely controversial nature-- are not welcome. Nothing like a simple, "I won't answer that question because it could cost me my job, and please, students, never ask a question like that ever again or else I will send you to the office to make sure it's clear that I in now way condone that kind of job-threatening talk in my classroom" to really kick off some valuable classroom discussion that opens the doors of learning.

In an atmosphere like this, a teacher has to view each student as a ticking time bomb, ready to go off with some question at any moment. That's no way to run a school.

Students Should Be Able To Show What They Know

Students should be able to show what they know.

Many folks take this as a self-evident truth. Arne Duncan has said it more than a few times, and heads nod as if this is one of those reasonable-sounding things that Duncan says from time to time.

But I think it demands closer examination.

Because possessing a skill or piece of knowledge is not the same thing as being able to demonstrate it. This problem lies at the heart of public education; it is one of our largest, most fundamental, and yet most commonly unexamined issues.

Ask your students. This is why many smart young people hate school. Understanding, figuring out, getting a handle on a piece of knowledge is really exciting-- but having to prove to somebody else that you understand is a big fat pain in the ass.

Finding proof of student learning is a huge part of the teacher's job, and whether it is done poorly or not makes all the difference in that teacher's effectiveness. The challenge starts from the very moment you formulate the problem. There is a huge difference between "How do I figure out of this student understands" and "How do I make this student prove to me he gets it." The first is a valuable approach; the second is the first step on the road toward wasting everybody's time.

Consider a manager in a workplace. A figuring out manager finds ways to unobtrusively monitor a worker who is on the job to see how that worker is doing without interfering with the actual Doing. Meanwhile, the prove it manager calls the employee in for a hour-long meeting in the office every day to be grilled about job performance, leaving the employee acting as if one of his main jobs is to prepare for and sit in meetings, while the actual Doing now takes up far less of his day.

Or, since learning is far more internal and personal than job performance, consider the question of love, and the eternal question, "Does this person love me?" You could look at the person, pay attention , watch for signs, learn to interpret the person's behavior and words. Or you could demand that the person prove their love by passing some test you set. You might do this in the privacy of your own head, thinking, "Anybody who really loves another person will call that person every day." Or you could create an explicit test. "If you love me, you'll wear purple every day." Or, "If you love me, you'll say you love me."

And there's the problem. If I set the performance standard for love at an easy-to-perform task like saying "I love you," a woman who is just after my vast wealth can just perform that easily-faked task without actually caring about me at all.

The performance task is separate from the actual competence. The showing and the knowing are two different things.

The more we demand that students put on a show to prove to us that they Know Stuff, the more we will design artificial tasks that demand a set of skills and knowledge entirely different from the skills and knowledge we really want to measure.

If you want to find out if a student can write, you give her the opportunity to write and take a look at what she's done. You don't give her a multiple-choice test or a canned task for which she'll be judged on how close she comes to the ideal "correct" essay for the task.

Admittedly, emphasizing knowing over showing is hard on teachers. Much student learning happens inside their heads, where we cannot see. And our method of organizing students into groups means we tend to expect individuals to learn on our schedule, and not their own. Consequently, there will always be a slightly artificial element in even our most authentic assessments.

But if we start with the assumption that a student who knows must be able to demonstrate that knowledge to our satisfaction on whatever cockamamie assessment somebody whips up, we will be traveling down the wrong road. As a classroom teacher, I have to remember that the burden is on me to find a way to see what my students know; the burden is not on them to put on whatever trained monkey show I design for my own ease and convenience. This is one more reason the business of writing objectives on the board is silly; usually, we are not doing anything more than telling what trick the students have to perform in order to reinforce the fiction that they may have learned something.

Thomas Newkirk, in his exceptional essay about Common Core, tells the parable of the drunk and the car keys:

It all comes down to the parable of the drunk and his keys, an old joke that goes like this: A drunk is fumbling along under a streetlight when a policeman comes up and asks him what he doing. The drunk explains he is looking for his keys. “Do you think you lost them there?” the policeman asks.

“No. But the light is better here.”

We have here a parable of standardized assessment. There is the learning we hope to evaluate (the keys) and the instruments we have to assess that learning (the streetlight). The central question of assessment is whether our instruments help us see what we should be looking for—or are we like the drunk, simply looking where the light is better? 

It may not be the worst thing ever to say, "Students should be able to show what they know." But I think it's far more useful to say, "Teachers should be able to discover what students know."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

NY: Cuomo's New Common Core Faux Commission

My absolute favorite part of Gov. Amdrew Cuomo's announcement about the Common Core Task Force is this stock art student on the front page

This is a face that says, "Yeah, like that shit's gonna happen."

The task force has been charged "with comprehensively reviewing and making recommendations to overhaul the current Common Core system and the way we test our students." It features several return appearances by members of the governor's "successful" NY Education Reform Commission-- you remember their big hit, the edu-improving report of January 2014.

So who do you get to head up a group that is going to re-examine and possibly rewrite the baseline education standards for an entire state? A top educator? A leading expert in educational standards? An experienced educational scholar?

Ha! Of course not, you dope. You get a financial master of the universe like Richard Parsons, former chairman of the board at Citigroup and a top advisor at Providence Equity Partners, Inc. Parsons is happy to have this opportunity  "to fix New York's education standards and improve the lives and learning outcomes of students across the state." Does that not seem like a big enough helping of edubaloney. Try this:

By performing an in-depth review of everything from curriculum to testing, we can lay out exactly what needs to be done to fix the Common Core.

So they are going to examine everything and fix everything. Wow. They must have a whole bunch of education heavy hitters on this task force. Ha, again. Here's what we've got in addition to Parson's.

Heather Buskirk, ten year science teacher, instructional coach, Master Teacher, and member of TeachNY advisory council.

Geoffrey Canada, past president of the Harlem Children's Zone, "thought leader and passionate advocate for education reform," president of Promise Academy board, and a co-chair of Bloomberg's commission for reducing poverty (remember when NYC reduced all the poverty?).

Carol Conklin-Spillane, principal of Sleepy Hollow High, school district consultant.

MaryEllen Elia, ed commissioner and fired from leadership of Hillsborough Schools in Florida.

Constance Evelyn, superintendent of Valley Stream School District for the last three months. She comes to administration by way of special ed.

Catalina Fortino, VP of NYSUT. I prefer not to touch the thorny internal politics of NY teacher unions with a ten foot pole.

Kishayan Hazlewood, 10th year third grade teacher at a Community Learning school in Brooklyn.

Tim Kremer, executive director of NY State School Boards Association since 1998.

Senator Carl Marcellino, chair of Senate Education Committee. He represents part of Long Island.

Assemblywoman Catherin Nolan, chair of Assembly Education Committee. From Queens.

Samuel Radford III, president of District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo, former marine.

Carrie Remis, founder of the Parent Power Project from the Rochester area, administrator at Eastman School of Music.

Randi Weingarten, head of AFT.

Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor at SUNY.

In addition to these august representatives of the education world, the Task Force has also set up a website for soliciting and collecting input from the general public.

So, to get this diverse group of very busy people together to review all the standards, all the testing programs, all the alignments between them, all the state's "curriculum guidance," make sure teachers will receive all the support and training they need to implement, and "complete a top to bottom review"-- to do all that while weighing input from each team member plus the information from the public. How long do you figure that would take? To set up standards and testing for the entire state of New York, to give thorough oversight and thought from these people from varied backgrounds and interests, while all these people are still busy at their actual jobs-- what do you figure? Six months? A year?

Ha! The report is due by the end of the year. Roughly twelve weeks. Twelve weeks to get from, "Okay, let's get started" to "Oh, look. The report just came back from the printers!" Oh-- and do it all without a place at the table for any of the people who spearheaded the opt-out movement that forced Cuomo's hand in the first place.

To do all that and end up with a system that has any sort of educational validity, that really addresses the state's concerns and is not just an exercise in empty rebranding-- in twelve weeks.

NY: Turning Screws on Opt Out

If you are a struggling school in New York, congratulations-- you've been drafted to fight against the state's burgeoning opt out movement.

As reported yesterday at Politico, one new requirement for struggling and persistently struggling schools to avoid a state takeover is to get their participation on the Big Standardized Test above 95%.

Those of you who are living above ground may recall that last year upwards of 200,000 New York students refused to take the BS Test. This prompted a variety of reactions. The feds made veiled threats. Governor Andrew Cuomo and chancellor Merryl Tisch reaffirmed their belief in a parent's right to choose. New education commissioner MaryEllen Elia was a bit more stern. 

But when life hands you lemons, say reformsters, you can always make one more mechanism for privatizing schools, and right now NY Ed department has figured out how to turn Opt Out into Win Win.

Elia's position remains that NY parents just don't understand how awesomely wonderful the tests are. Asked for a comment on the new takeover participation requirement, the department of ed told Politico:

We encourage and support the efforts of all schools and districts to explain to parents the benefits that parents, students, teachers, schools, and district and state policymakers derive from student participation in state assessments.

In other words, struggling school districts are welcome to get stuffed or start working for us in pushing the damn test.

It really is a win win-- either the school district really bears down on recalcitrant parents, squelches opt out, and gets the state (and its pet test manufacturers) the kind of test numbers they want, or the district fails to do so and the state gets to confiscate the school district and hand it over to the top privatizer do jour.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has announced his hot new commission to "review" Common Core, composed of well-placed amateurs, who, I predict, will determine that Common Core needs a serious rebranding with no meaningful change of substance.

It's a win-win-win-win-win for everybody except folks in New York who care about public education.

Monday, September 28, 2015

USED: Accountability for Public Schools Only

Arne Duncan today held a press chat to announce that USED would be throwing more money ($157 million) at charter schools. 

Throwing money at public schools is, you may recall, anathema to reformsters, who are concerned that while money has been thrown higgledy piggledy at public schools, it appears that insufficient amounts of the money have struck students in the test-taking parts of their brains.

Throwing money at public schools is bad, because we are just certain that they are wasting it and that the taxpayers are not getting a sufficient bang-to-buckage ratio.

But throwing money at charter schools is awesome, because we have no idea where the hell it's going.

The department's inspector general issued a report in 2012 that Lyndsey Layton calls "scathing." The report suggests that the feds have been throwing that money at charters with blindfolds on. The Center for Media and Democracy has a more recent, more scathing report on the vast piles of money that has been thrown into charter black holes. "Gosh," say the feds. "That's a state problem. It's up to them to exercise oversight. Not our problem." Although, just in case you think USED is providing no oversight at all, I am happy to report they did send states a strongly worded letter, exhorting them to be more oversighty.

With all that, you'll be unsurprised to discover that the top winner in the charter change chunking festival is the state of Ohio. Yes, that Ohio. The Ohio where hundreds of charters have failed in just about every way a charter can fail, the Ohio where the husband of the governor's campaign manager had to resign from his ed department job because he was caught cooking the books to make charters look better (including some belonging to some political money throwers, proving that throwing money at politicians can also work well). That Ohio gets another $32.5 million to throw at charters. Even the journalists listening to Duncan's news apparently felt the urge to question that decision, but USED assistant deputy secretary Nadya Dabby responded:

“Ohio has a pretty good mechanism in place to improve overall quality and oversight,” said Dabby, although she could not provide details. “We believe Ohio has put practices in place, although there ‘s always room for them to grow.”

So, they hear that probably stuff happening to lead to considering some things that could maybe get better, they think. I feel better already.

This festival of federal financial largesse will not at all remind you of the administration's position on Title I portability when it came up during the ESEA rewrite discussions. The administration hated this idea a great deal, concerned that it would take, for instance, $7 million out of poor schools in Mississippi. That money can't just go wandering any old place-- the feds want to know exactly where it's being thrown.

Still, if they are concerned about where money might go that could have been spent on public schools, they might try paying attention to where the grants to charter schools are going. If $7 mill of Title I money is enough to get bent out of shape, surely $32.5 million is enough to actually keep tabs on in Ohio with more than wishes and fairy dust. (And that's before we even get to the amount of money that charters suck out of public schools through various money-follows-the-child gymnastics.)

The double standard remains the same. Public schools must account for every penny, including federal bucks that must be spent only as Uncle Sugar demands. Public schools must keep open records always available to the taxpayers. Public schools must even hire employees whose only job is to monitor and report on the money-- all the money. Meanwhile, charter schools just get money thrown at them with no requirement to do anything except, I suppose, have a nice day.

Charters Are Not Common Schools

Charter boosters continue trying to muster some sort of argument against the decision in Washington State that the charter laws there violate the state constitution. So far, none of the attempts really sing.

Over at Campbell Brown's PR site, the 74, Andrew Rotherham (Bellwether) and Richard Whitmire (general reformsterism) make the argument that charter opponents are "on the wrong side of history" and that charter schools are the true common schools. You will not be surprised to read that I disagree.

In truth, the ideal of the common school is one the country has never lived up to. While we romanticize the common school, people too frequently forget that those schools were at different times not open to blacks, religious minorities, or, until the 1970s, students with special needs and disabilities. 

Despite serving those groups today, the continuing trend of segregated housing  and the staggeringly uneven performance of different public schools prompts this question: What exactly is all that common about the common school anyway?

First, it's important to recognize the True Parts of what they are saying-- ever since this country latched onto the idea of a common school and public education, we have struggled with living up to that ideal. This is not surprising-- as public institutions under public control, schools have reflected and expressed every twist and turn, every shameful lapse and every difficult step forward in the public life of this country. Public schools have not always delivered on their promise, and in some places, are still not delivering on it today. 

So when I oppose modern charters, I don't do so with the insistence that public schools have no problems. They have plenty of problems (just like, and because of, the problems in the country as a whole). Those problems are real. But charter boosters are not proposing solutions to them.
Take "segregated housing," which is having a moment as a reformster buzzword. I'll view it as something more than a rhetorical trick when it is accompanied by a discussion of how to address that issue directly, or a spirited stand against trends such as gentrification in which rich folks are allowed to drive poor folks out of their neighborhoods. Of course, some critics argue that charter schools are in fact tools of gentrification. So this point will carry more weight where charters are proposed as a part of the solution and not part of the problem. Show me a charter that promises to take every single student from its home neighborhood-- every single one, without exception. Show me charter operators who stand up for their poor customers and advocate for housing regulations that protect those poor citizens from being pushed out. 

How else do the writers advocate for charters as the new common school?

Rotherham and Whitmire argue that charters are getting results, that they are hothouses for growing innovation. But after all these years, charters still have nothing to teach public school. Not one pedagogical technique, not one educational innovation to point at that has spread into public education. What charters have "discovered" is what public schools have always known-- if you don't have to accept every single student in your neighborhood, without exception, without excuse, AND if you have ample funding and facilities, AND if you can also narrowly define "success" (as, say, a pair of scores on a single standardized test)-- then you can do much better than schools that don't have all those advantages. None of this is news to anybody.

In other words, where charters can point to anything like success, it is precisely because they are NOT common schools, fully and equally open to all students within their reach. 

Rotherham and Whitmire also argue about accountability, but these are arguments hold no water at all. None.

That accountability starts with parents who choose those schools, or don’t, which is the ultimate accountability.

That is not even close to the ultimate accountability. The ultimate accountability is a school board that must stand for election, and which must answer to parents and community members who show up at public meetings to speak their mind. Accountability is parents and taxpayers who may see a schools financial records any time they want to. Accountability is parents and taxpayers who can call a school at any time to question what goes on within those walls. Are there school districts that try to weasel their way around all of these things? Absolutely-- and they do it to avoid accountability, and they have to weasel around to do so because no public school can simply say, as Eva Moskowitz did to the entire state of New York, "We're a private corporation and you have no right to look at our books."

"Voting with your feet" is a lousy form of accountability. If you walk out of a restaurant and never come back, those owners have no idea of what to improve, and the restaurant just closes-- still unsure of why. It does no good for schools to close repeatedly. It does not serve student interests to be shunted about from failed charter to failed charter.

Charter advocates have taken to saying that the closing of charter schools (at least 2,500 in the last fifteen years) is a sign of a healthy system, a feature the public system ought to emulate. But why? Why treat schools as disposable pop-up businesses? Students and communities benefit from stability-- not constant churn and burn.

Charter schools are not common schools. They don't take on all students in a community. They are not accountable to citizens in that community.

Some public schools may well be disastrous messes, but charter operators propose to save just some of the students, and in the process make matters far worse for the students they leave behind. I would give charter fans points at least for consistency if they said, "Public schools are failing, so we'd like to replace the whole system." But they don't. They say, "Public schools are failing, so we'd like to replace just some parts of the system-- the profitable parts."

Rotherham and Whitmire salt their argument with talking points that simply aren't true. They cite The Prize including Russakoff's incorrect data about costs in Newark-- you can get the truth here and here. They praise New Orleans for having "toughest public oversight," despite NOLA's scattered and uncoordinated charter non-system having no accountability for knowing where students are.

And Rotherham and Whitmire pull up the old refrain of union's and "adult interests," suggesting that the Washington decision was all about the teachers' unions. And having made their case, they summarize:

So which school better serves the common good, the traditional school that barely keeps its head above water and is awash in the politics of the various adult interests or the high-performing charter that can use its autonomy to focus on students?

Again-- let's acknowledge the true parts. Public schools are awash in the politics of various adult interests, because there are many, many, many interests that intersect at schools. Parents. Teachers. Taxpayers. Business. Vendors. Anybody anywhere in the community. All of these people have interests in the school, including those like parents and teachers who also speak on behalf of the interests of children.

What Rotherham and Whitmire are suggesting is that education is better served by silencing ALL of those people, and substituting the wisdom of the charter operator, who is not "awash" in all those interests because he is free to ignore any interests he feels like ignoring. What they call "autonomy" is a lack of accountability, a freedom to ignore taxpayers who pay the bills but have no school-age children, parents who don't fit the charter's vision, elected officials who are accountable to the citizens, and, yes, those terrible awful teachers and their unions. It's true: democracy is messy, and sometimes you don't get your own way.

Just shut up, they say, and watch how well we make the trains run on time.

Charter boosters are next going to argue, "So, what? We're supposed to abandon students in those failing public schools?"

It's a fair question, but I have to point out that every charter does, in fact, abandon a whole bunch of students in schools that have had resources stripped by charters, making it harder to help those abandoned students. But no-- we're not supposed to abandon anybody.

So what should we do?

Take care of the true common schools.

Fully fund each and every one. Keep the elected board awash in politics, which is just another way of saying that the community should keep pressure on for what they want. In fact, state government's also need to be awash in politics so that states like Washington will stop ignoring their obligation to fully fund each and every school. Improve teacher training, and take steps to make the profession more attractive. Roll back the idiocy of Common Core and the Big Standardized Test and let teachers teach. And make a larger national effort to address poverty in both its causes and effects.

Charter fans dismiss and write off "failing" public schools, but they have never put half the effort into improving existing schools that they have thrown into creating new ones from the ground up. I watch the huge amounts of money and activism and money and influence-peddling and money that the charteristas sink into promoting and creating and funding and advertising charters, and I think about how much we could help public schools with that sort of concentrated effort. Think of what could be accomplished with so many resources focused on the common good, and not just return on investment.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

ICYMI: Edureading for the Week

Shortly I have to run up to school and start undecorating from last night's Homecoming Dance (woo-hoo), but I still have time to give you some reading suggestions for your Sunday.

The Cost of Ignoring Developmentally Appropriate Practice

We still love the idea that the faster we move a child through childhood, the more advanced they will be. Here's a good article, in clear layman's terms, about why that's just not true-- and all the trouble we cause when we try to make it true.

Who's the Real Liar?

Jersey Jazzman's once again comes through with charts and graphs and explanations in plain English, so that you can see just why all this baloney about higher failing rates and tests now telling us the real truth about how well our students are learning is a big bunch of horse patootie.

Do The Rights Thing

Want to see a group of kids that you can feel excited about and support? Edushyster has the group for you.

Why I Oppose Early Endorsement

Word on the street is that NEA is poised to give Hillary Clinton an early endorsement. In her own response to that bad idea, Marie Corfield also provides some links to many of the pieces out there on the subject.

Boehner's Exit and the ESEA Reauthorization

What does John Boehner's exit mean to the NCLB rewrite? Nothing good, as Mercedes Schneider explains.

School Fight about Gentrification 

In an op-ed that has implications for many locations, Keith E. Benson explains that the fight over schools in Camden NJ is really a proxy battle about who gets to live there.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Lily Eskelsen-Garcia

Dear Lily:

I am a thirty-seven year classroom veteran, a former local EA president, and a lifelong NEA member. I am a member, and I have concerns.

The internet has been buzzing with the news of an upcoming endorsement of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Presidential nominee. In particular, there is talk of a procedural move that will sidestep the general membership and their representatives. The most likely motivation would seem to be that Clinton's campaign is sinking, and it is reported that while you admit Sanders is more in line with our interests, you see Clinton as more electable.

I am asking you, as a member-- please don't do this.

It is true that I'm not a fan of Clinton, and that I see her as likely to carry on the corporate, anti-public education policies of the last two administrations. And it's also true that I am, cautiously, a Sanders fan. But believe me when I tell you that, even were this maneuver being considered in support of Sanders, I would still oppose it.

Here's why.

The assault on public education-- the push to close public schools and replace them with money-making charters, the various "reform" actions to redirect public tax dollars to private corporate coffers, the use of Big Standardized Tests to foster a narrative of failure, the constant attempts through all political avenues to break down the teaching profession so that an experienced well-paid unionized workforce can be replaced with a cheaper, inexperienced, short-term more easily controlled pool of pseudo-teachers-- all of these are part of a larger assault.

An attempt to circumvent democracy itself.

At Dyett High, in New Orleans, in Newark and Camden, in Detroit, in Philadelphia to Eli Broad's new LA takeover, the push is to disenfranchise voters, taxpayers, citizens, community members. Reformsters of all different stripes, from Bill Gates to Reed Hastings to Campbell Brown to Arne Duncan-- they all share one simple belief: that in this country there are some people who should have a say, and some people who should not. It's a movement that says that some peoples' voices just don't matter.

NEA cannot become part of that narrative.

I've been a local president during  a strike. I know how seductive the old belief about ends justifying means can be. I know how easily and often union leaders end up in a meeting about how we need the members to make a particular decision, so here's how we'll stage manage the meeting so that they decide what we want them to decide. There have been times, I suppose, when such realpolitik was an acceptable choice.

But now more than ever, NEA cannot sidestep democracy.

It's a mistake, and it's a mistake for two reasons.

Read Anthony Cody's more complete analysis of how an early endorsement will backfire within the NEA. Teachers are tired of having their voices silenced and ignored. We have been silenced and ignored by political leaders, corporate leaders, virtually every big name in the last fifteen years of education reformy fiasco. To ask us to accept the same from our own national union is just too much. The democratic process is under attack in our country; we do not want to see it under attack within our own union.

It is a mistake on the larger scale as well. The early endorsement is just another attempt to circumvent the democratic process, to say, "Well, it looks like the voters at large might make a choice we don't like, so we are going to take steps to keep that from happening. We can't just be letting the Democratic Party make these choices based on the will of the voter. We need to tip the scale." This does not say, "We have faith in the American voters." It says, "The American voters are boobs, and we need to push them where we want them."

It won't work. The howls from NEA members will be loud and palpable, and the whole mess will feed the narrative that NEA is NOT the voice of three million teachers, but a group of political operatives who try to harness those voices for their own purposes.

Democracy is under attack. The voices of ordinary citizens are being ignored and silenced. NEA must not become one more big organization saying, "Some peoples' voices just don't matter."

I am begging you not to offer an early endorsement.

Let the candidates make their case to the members. Let them earn an endorsement from the members. And if they find that the members are slow to embrace them, let them think long and hard about why that might be. We handed Barrack Obama a blank check and he used it to bring in Arne Duncan and policies that simply built on the failed policies of Bush II.

Take a step back. Reach out to some rank and file (hell, give me a call-- I'll be glad to talk).

But do not let the NEA be one more group that is more interested in circumventing the democratic process than embracing, preserving, and advocating for it. How will we stand up for students in communities where parents and neighbors have been silenced, when we have been silenced by our own union? How will we stand up for a representative, democratic process when we don't use it ourselves.

Do not do this.

Do. Not. Do. This.


Peter Greene

Friday, September 25, 2015

Grove City & The College Scoreboard

First, let me confess that I like the idea of the new USED College Scorecard. It is the right sort of approach-- providing information without making judgment. I compare it to the nutritional facts panel now included with all our food. Don't give me some government rating of "Good" or "Awesome" or "Sucky." Don't decide for me how many grams of fat I should eat-- just tell me how many are in there and let me decide.

I know the feds wanted to offer their judgment on how great colleges are, because Duncan's ed department is devoted to the idea that only they are wise enough to understand and all citizens are dopes. But if we pretended for a moment that all citizens weren't dopes, and we just provided them with information so that they could make informed choices. Maybe I don't care how much calcium is in my Twinkies, but if I want to know, it's there, and if I still don't care, I'm free to ignore it.

But the Washington Post noted this week that a handful of colleges are not in the data base, and that grabbed my interest, because one of them is Grove City College of Pennsylvania.

Grove City College is right up the road from me. My brother attended there. Members of my extended family graduated from there. We send lots of our graduates there. I've had several student teachers from there.

It is an excellent school, though certainly less liberal than many. It's major (but loose) church affiliation is with the Presbyterians, and you know how wild those folks get. GCC has a great reputation as a school for engineers, a strong humanities emphasis, and also as a place for young ladies to get their MRS degree (at orientation: "Look to your left. Look to your right Your future mate may be in sight"). They are not LGBT friendly, but then, they aren't really very excited about allowing any heterosexual activity on campus, either. They are not snooty, though they may get a largish sampling of privately and even home- schooled students. Students must attens chapel sixteen times per semester. Every teacher education program has its own reputation-- when we get a GCC student teacher, we expect someone who really knows their content, but may find dealing with public school students a challenge.

GCC has made the news a few times over the years. Back in the eighties, they were in court to be excused from filing federal paperwork about Title IX because they didn't directly take federal funds, an argument that GCC essentially won-- but then soon after new laws were passed to plug the hole that GCC had walked through. Today, GCC does not participate in federal programs such as the Pell grants or Stafford loans, which keeps them free of the federal requirements;they fill the financial gaps with their own loan program-- the school was founded by a close friend of the founder of Sun Oil. (They also ended up in the news when a student turned out to be paying his way through school by shooting gay porn videos- he was suspended, not expelled).

Folks who don't know the school assume that Grove City wanted to be free to discriminate against women. But ironically, when the school opened in the late 1800's, they became one of the first colleges in America to take both men and women, and they have maintained a 1-to-1 male-female ratio. I've known many women who attended the school, and while GCC tends to attract many (but not exclusively) women with a traditional bent, I've never heard any complain about being ill-used, mistreated, ignored or underserved by the school.

Mostly, I think GCC has a big libertarian streak that makes them allergic to paying people just to file a bunch of federal paperwork, and access to the kind of money that makes it possible for them to tell the feds to shove off.

GCC doesn't do any of that federal reportage, including reporting on Title IV. GCC has never been noted for having a very high non-white population, but neither does my entire region. GCC is a very white college, but they are also the college that employs Ej Brown, the creator of the mugshots series, a group of photos challenging views of black men.

That lack of Title IV reportage lies at the center of the USED's omission of GCC (and the other skipped schools). The GCC president says that the feds told him they were working from the Title IV list.

So were the feds trying to nail conservative colleges? It seems more likely that they were deliberately overlooking colleges that don't play ball with the federal government. That's arguably six of one, half dozen of the other, but there seems no reason to believe that a liberal school that didn't do Title Iv paperwork wouldn't also be omitted.

For that matter, if you were going to target conservative colleges, Grove City hardly belongs at the top of your. Further up the road is Geneva College, small but hugely conservative, or we could just go to Liberty University, a place that makes GCC look like UCLA. Both Geneva and Liberty have report cards.

Grove City College, like many "authentic" conservatives, is a little more complicated than the kind of cartoon conservatives that liberals sometime imagine. It has provided a good college home for many of my students who wanted college without a distracting emphasis on getting drunk and laid (and it is notoriously safe-- like "people don't lock their dorm room" safe-- so parents love it), and it provided them a good education as well, and it didn't turn them into tin-hatted Bible-hammering lunatics but did, in many cases, instill a sense of responsibility for making useful contributions to the world. It's too strict and conservative for my tastes, but it doesn't scare me in the same way that some homophobic, xenophobic, otherphobic, thinkingophobic alleged places of education do. It deserves better than to be left out of this lovely government created marketing tool.

The Big Map O' Charter Failure

The Center for Media and Democracy has done a great public service, collecting and sorting a big pile of charter school failure data that the USED somehow just wasn't interested in pursuing all that much.

They have taken the NCES data from 2000-2013 and pulled out a state-by-state list of failed charter schools. This gives you, or your local press if they actually feel moved to pursue a story, a heaping database of charter failure info. One interesting feature from a Your Tax Dollars at Work perspective-- the charter schools that hoovered up some tasty public tax dollars and never even opened in the first place! In Michigan in the 2011-2012 school year, according to CMD, twenty-five charters received grants and never opened.

But for those of you who are visual learners, CMD has a big interactive map. I'll include that here, but I recommend you go over to CMD and read the whole piece for more details. Here's what charter failure to the tune of 2,500 schools (2,500!!) looks like. (And remember-- this is only through 2013)

Source: NCES Common Core of Data Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey for school years 2000 to 2013. Data are available at For purposes of this analysis, schools coded in the survey as “closed since last report,” and “inactive-temporarily closed” were deemed closed. Schools that changed status from “charter” and “open” to “not applicable” and “closed” in subsequent year were also deemed to be closed charter schools. Additionally, schools coded as open charters in one year that then are missing from the survey for at least the next two subsequent years are also deemed to be closed. - See more at:

Kansas Solves Teacher Eval Riddle

Governor Sam Brownback wants to pay teachers strictly based on merit, and some legislators think that's a darn fine idea.

For instance, here's a member of the special committee to find a new finance formula for schools

“I say the highest paid individual in your school should be your best teacher, period, and I believe that,” said Rep. Ron Highland, a Republican from Wamego

Of course, lots of folks find that idea appealing, but the problem remains-- how exactly does one determine who that best teacher is? What are the qualities that are most valued in a teacher, and how does one measure those qualities or outcomes or what-have-you? Well, Rep. Highland has that puzzle solved as well.

“I can walk into any school and talk to the janitor and I can tell you who the best teacher is in every school. They all know, so telling me you can’t figure that out, I don’t buy that argument,” said Highland.

So there you have it. Just ask the janitor.

Highland may have a point. I'll bet if I ask a janitor in a school building who the best teacher is, he can give me an answer.

In fact, if I ask two janitors-- or two janitors, a cafeteria lady, the floating specialist, the principal, a couple of parents, and the guy who lives next door to the school, they can all tell me who the best teacher is, they can all tell me.

They just won't tell me the same thing.

Identifying excellent teachers is not a problem. It has never been a problem. The problem has been, and remains, that every person has a different idea about what "excellent teacher" means. Despite repeated insistence by public ed critics and the secretary of education that schools are packed with terrible, awful, no good teachers, I'm betting that it's very hard to find a classroom teacher that doesn't have at least one fan.

You know the old saying-- a person with one watch always knows what time it is, but a person with two watches is never sure.

I'll give Highland this much-- his Ask a Janitor evaluation method couldn't work any worse than the various VAM models in use around the country (assuming the school still has a janitor).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gates Plan Crashes, Burns School District

Back in 2012, "teacherpreneur" Ryan Kinser wrote on the Gates Foundation blog, Impatient Optimists, to sing the praises of the Gates partnership with Hillsborough County schools in a program called Empowering Effective Teachers.

Back in 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Hillsborough County, Florida, school system a $100 million grant to revamp teacher evaluation. The Empowering Effective Teachers Initiative (EET) resulted in a massive overhaul of how we view teaching and learning in the nation’s eighth largest district. 

Sure-- the Gates had made yet another commitment to completely changing the whole teaching profession, because, hey-- they're rich and they think they know what needs to be done.

In 2012, Kinser talked about three big lessons from the program.

1) View teachers as the solution, not the problem. That lesson must have come later, because part of the original plan was to fire the bottom 5% of the teaching force every year (there's that magic 5% again).

2) Teachers and  evaluators must build trust. The plan cycled teachers out of the classroom for stints as evaluators, because, reasons. Apparently, that was not always a big team-building exercise.

3) Use multiple measures that are transparent and authentic. Yeah, the fact that this was a lesson that had to be learned tells you how straight their heads were to start with.

Oh, and Kinser refers to the ongoing program as building the ship while sailing it-- oddly less terrifying than building the plane while flying it, but still not exactly stuffed with we-know-what-we're-doing-ness.

Well, that was 2012. A few other things have happened in the meantime. Back in 2010, Arne Duncan and Dennis Van Roekel stopped by to make a fuss, but that was about the last time that anybody wanted to throw an EET party.

That fire 5% of the sucky teachers thing? It should have gotten rid of 700 (700!!!) teachers-- you know, the expensive ones, because everyone knows that the bad teachers that need to be rooted out are, coincidentally, the older teachers who cost a bunch of money. But it never happened.

And that $100 million grant that Kinser was so proud of? Funny thing. Gates officials would now like you to know that the grant actually said "up to" $100 million.

I am kind of excited about that, because I now realize that I can tell, say, a used car dealer that I will pay "up to" seventy grand for a car and just pay five thousand bucks. I could promise to buy a new house with "up to" $10 million and just fork over a check for $10.75. I do regret not knowing this trick when my children were young and I could have bribed them to do chores with offers of "up to" $100 for mowing the lawn.

The original deal was $102 million from the district and $100 million from Gates. Turns out those numbers are a little off-- the district has kicked in about $124 million, while Gates has put in $80 million. And the district estimates that the total cost of the program will land in the $271 million.

Have there been problems. Well, another cornerstone of the program was merit pay (to offset Florida teacher pay which, to use a technical term, sucks), and that merit pay element turns out to be real expensive (which, it turns out, was a problem that could even be predicted by a lowly high school English teacher).

Other issues? Well, in 2014, the Tampa Bay Times sat down with some local officials and Gates honcho Vicki Phillips, and Phillips herself recognized one unfortunate effect of the program:

Another tough challenge is education's biggest oxymoron: teacher respect. "One thing we are dismayed about is how we have made teachers feel over the last 15 years," Phillips said. "We shamed and blamed them. It was unconscionable. We do not want them to feel that way."

Meanwhile, since 2009, Gates Foundation has caught on to the researched news that merit pay doesn't work. In fact, even when it's studied by the reform-friendly Roland Fryer of Harvard, it doesn't work. (Of course, "work" means "raise student test scores" because it's always always always about test scores). So the Gates isn't very interested in the Hillsborough EET program any more.

Once again, we see the problem with a business-style reformster approach to education. Gates didn't come in and make a commitment to Hillsborough Schools-- they came in and made commitment to their own business theory, and despite the number of years written into that commitment, the actual length of the commitment was "as long as it makes business sense to keep putting money into this."

Public schools make an institutional commitment to educate students in their community for, well, ever. Businessmen make a commitment to spend money on something as long as it makes sense to them. This does not make businessmen evil, but it does mean that they are bad candidates to become involved in the institution of public education. Hillsborough has been left holding a multi-million dollar bag because, while the Gates Foundation can walk away any time they feel like it, Hillsborough County schools are committed to educating children in the county as long as there are children in the county.

Charter operators are bad enough, sweeping into a community, hoovering up as many tax dollars as they can get their hands on, and quitting when it suits them to do so. But this seems somehow worse-- the Gates paid Hillsborough a pile of money for the chance to use their schools and their teaching staff as guinea pigs. And once the experiment looked like it wasn't going to pan out, the Gates just walks away from the lab, leaving someone else to clean up the mess and look after the experimental subjects with no regard for how badly those subjects may have been messed up.

One would hope that Gates would eventually learn something, that with a little reflection he might say to himself, "Gee, I was so sure that small schools would work, but they didn't. Then I was so sure merit pay would work, but it didn't. Maybe I should think twice about other stuff I'm so sure of before I start screwing with people's lives and livelihoods." Of course, there's a worse possibility-- that Gates isn't "so sure" at all, but that he's just casually tinkering with notions like a ten year old poking new trails for ants with a stick and as he wreaks havoc, he's not even all that invested in what he's doing. That would be awful, and I have a hard time imagining someone that detached from the lives he messes with, but as I remember his "We'll have to wait a decade to see if this stuff works" comment-- well, it's not inconceivable.

P.S. If the Hillsborough School district sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because you heard it in conjunction with MaryEllen Elia, who is currently the Reformy Boss of Education in New York State. But before that, she was the superintendent of Hillsborough schools when this Gatesian money pit was welcomed into the district. Honestly, some days I feel as if public education is an orphan in a coincidence-riddled Dickensian novel.

The Feds Don't Get Testing Consequences

Valerie Strauss asked a fairly simple question of the White House and the Education Department: Are you aware that one consequence of the policy requiring test results in teacher evaluation is that many teachers' evaluations are based on subjects or students they don't teach.

For example, in New York City middle schools, it’s been estimated that over 60 percent of New York City teacher evaluations are out-of-subject. An art teacher would be evaluated in part on student math scores.  Are you aware of this state-level consequence of federal policy and do you think it is fair to teachers?

The White House response was, "Go ask the Education Department."

Strauss presents the entire USED answer without comment. I would like to go ahead and present some comment.

Their Answer

The feds open with the right general sorts of noises. Parents have a right to know how their kids are doing, and student performance should be assessed because otherwise some groups will be swept under the rug (and this has been the narrative for so long that you would think, by now, the USED would be holding up some students that they finally found hiding under a rug and hollering, "See, we never would have found these kids except for The Test" but no, that hasn't happened).

After "rug" the next sentence is "Communities deserve accountable schools" which somehow thrown into this same paragraph as if assessing student progress and evaluating schools and teachers are exactly the same subject, as if there were nothing at all to discuss about how directly student achievement is a straight-ahead measure of school effectiveness. Anyway, "multiple measures" in italics and underlined. "Only a handful of states" link non-tested subject teachers to test scores, which just seems unlikely, given that the feds required all states to use test scores in the waivers, and in fact spanked Washington State for refusing to do so.

The response now moves to the DC Public Schools as an exemplar, and when that happens you know you're in the weeds. Maybe you're in the weeds with an intern who was assigned this response and doesn't know any schools except DCPS. The DC bullet points discuss the use of the state tests in teacher assessments, while ignoring the question of whether those were used for teachers of non-tested subjects or not.

Then USED quotes from its own ESEA Flexibility Policy Document, which does include a part that says you can use another assessment as long as it -- holy crap!! -- after developing, piloting and implementing, it must do all of the following--

1) be used for continuous improvement of instruction
2) rank and sort students into at least three different levels
3) I have to just copy this one because it's such bureaucratic gobbledeegook
use multiple valid measures in determining performance levels, including as a significant factor data on student growth for all students (including English Learners and students with disabilities), and other measures of professional practice (which may be gathered through multiple formats and sources, such as observations based on rigorous teacher performance standards, teacher portfolios, and student and parent surveys);
4) evaluate teachers and principals on regular basis
5) provide clear, timely and useful feedback for instruction and PD
6) must be used as part of personnel decisions

Oh, and all personnel must be trained on the system. Annnnd the data must insure that poor and minority children are not taught by a disproportionate number of inexperienced, unqualified or out-of-field teachers.

Oh, Really

First of all, can we please note that the current Big Standardized Test system in place does not meet these requirements. I mean-- clear, useful, and timely feedback? Would that be the part where we aren't allowed to see the test and get nothing back but raw scores and don't get them till the following school year? I am also wondering if the prohibition against inexperienced and unqualified teachers for poor kids would bar TFA temps from working in high-poverty areas? Ha! Of course not.

Second-- this is the solution? The art teacher in my building is supposed to do all of this, including training all of us in how the art assessment works, on top of making sure that art students are sorted into "Great," "Okay," and "Sucky" because an important part of all education is ranking students into winners and losers.

But Mostly

I want to point out that the Education Department NEVER ANSWERED STRAUSS'S QUESTION!!

What they did was carefully outline what their regulations say could be happening, maybe. They did not say if they have any knowledge of that actually happening. Nor did they acknowledge the real-world conclusion of many states which is "We can either spend a bunch of everybody's time and money working up these assessments or we can just use the BS Tests in the formula, since the USED is clearly perfectly happy with that."

The Duncan USED is an abject failure in many ways, but that failure is facilitated by their absolute refusal to confront-- or even see-- the actual consequences of their ill-considered amateur hour policies. In particular, their insistence on putting the BS Tests in the drivers seat, in making those tests the focus and purpose of education, has been hugely destructive to public education and the teaching profession. Their continued attempts to paper that over with pretty words shows that either they are truly, deeply clueless about what they've done, or they understand perfectly and are just hugely cynical. I would ask them which is the case, but if a major education writer from a major American newspaper can't get an answer, I don't imagine I'd do any better.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

LA Plan To Crush Public Education

The LA Time published further confirmation of the story they broke in August-- Eli Broad and friends would like to replace public education in Los Angeles, taking over half of the district's "business."

The confirmation comes by way of an extraordinary document-- the Great Public Schools Now Initiative. It's nothing short of amazing-- a plan to do away with democratically controlled, publicly accountable education in LA.

Granted, LA schools have never been short of people willing to just go ahead and impose their will on the school district. It was just last week the Times ran the news that a group of "concerned citizens" had gotten a meeting with LAUSD school board president Steven Zimmer to tell him what they think he should do about filling the superintendent spot. How cool is that?! I think I will call the mayor of my town and tell him I want to meet to discuss my recommendations for how to make a budget. In fact, speaking of budgets, maybe I'll just summon my state's governor and some key legislators to a meeting where I'll tell them what they should do about the budget impasse. Because, you know, representative democracy is for suckers and little people-- People Who Matter just pick up the phone and tell elected officials what's what.

But the Great Public Schools Now Initiative puts the "aud" in "audacious" and the "balls" in "holy schneikes but you have a big brass pair on you!" It's forty-four pages of How To Completely Circumvent the Public School System For Fun and Profit.

The Times coverage hits some special highlights, so I am going to skate across this pond of barely frozen pig poo as quickly as possible. But just in case you think some of what you're seeing about this plan involves scrutinous depalabration (my new term for close reading-- patent pending), here are the goals of the plan in the plain executive summary English:

This effort will be structured over an eight-year period from 2016 to 2023 with the following objectives: (1) to create 260 new high-quality charter schools, (2) to generate 130,000 high-quality charter seats, and (3) to reach 50 percent charter market share.

That is, not incidentally, almost doubling the current charter capacity in LA. But the creators of this plan say that "the opportunity is ripe for a significant expansion" of charter baloney in LA.

Big Ripe LA Dreams

GPSN thinks that LA is redolent with potential, positively fecund with charter possibilities, because reasons. [Insert Chamber of Commerce boilerplate here.]

But the dream is not just to tap into the huge market of students trapped in failing blah blah blah waiting for their chance for high-quality seats (and, man, I would love to see one of these seats, sit in one of these seats, visit the High Quality Seat Factory and see how these seats are made) blah blah blah.

No, the dream is to "create a national proof point for other states and cities seeking to dramatically improve K-12 education." GPSN wants LA to be the new New Orleans, the exemplar for charter champions everywhere, as they head out to double down, buckle up, and cash in. Gosh, let's see what kind of program they have in mind, because I'm sure it won't turn out to be a hollow, costly, unscaleable, irreproduceable, unsustainable plan at all.

But first...

Background: LA Schools Suck

Urban minority students trapped in zip codes blah blah blah no change in last years blah blah blah. Poor minority students have potential for success, and that potential goes untapped because of schools and not at all because of systemic racism and poverty. Nuh-uh. Just bad schools. Which, incidentally we keep throwing money at, but they don't get any better. Also, achievement gap.

Charter Schools Fix Everything While Riding Unicorns Across Rainbows

LA is filled with parent demand for charters, plus the suckiness of LAUSD. Oddly enough, the Deasy-loving tablet-pushing reformsters behind GPSN are not going to pause to consider their own role in the LAUSD suckness. But it doesn't matter because they have the biggest charter sector in the world, and it's awesome.

Charters "have maintained impressive growth" and  now show a "total market share" of almost twenty-five percent. This is because of "the success of charters to push past environmental and political factors and achieve sustainable growth over time." So success = more of them, It's almost as if we're discussing an investment business, and not a school. And indeed, we go on to discuss charter unit growth and enrollment trends.

We will also discuss student achievement, relying on API (Academic Performance Index) scores, and we don't have time right now to discuss how much baloney is stuffed into this mostly-standardized-test-scores measure. But GPSN wants you to know that the charters do better at the API stuff, mostly, pretty much. The state also has a special sauce for setting predictions of outcomes, and while I'm not super-familiar, it sounds like one more variation on "We're going to compare your students to other imaginary students over here that are more or less the same even if they are imaginary."

At any rate, charters are awesome. This report does not address the possibility that charters are creaming and skimming, nor does it discuss the value in regular, intense test prep. Charter are awesome. Awesome! And CREDO, a group that exists primarily to promote charters, says so, too, so it must be true. So many days of learning (whatever the hell that is) are added.


If you believe that waitlists actually provide meaningful data, we have some charts for you. Everyone else can just move on. Unless you want to look at the map that highlights some great market opportunities.

Things We'll Need Our Friendly Elected Officials To Do

The California Charter School Association has helpfully dragged the LAUSD into court so that judges can 'splain to them that they have to give us whatever we want. Kewl, because we're going to need space for all those super seats.

We made some headway on the last school board elections. We just need to get more people involved in the elected school board who will roll over and let us stomp them in the head.

The public support is growing. As proof, they offer a picture of a rally. You know, the kind where charter operators get all their parents to come, or else. The data point GPSN likes? There are now more charter parents than unionized teachers. 

Any Obstacles? 

GPSN spots a few.

Real estate and builders are needed to get enough snazzy charters built and filled. But the state's tax-exempt bond market is opening up to charter operators, so that's a plus.

Human capital. Yes, that's what they call it. They are going to need many, many teachers, even as the teacher pipeline in California is choking and sputtering (teacher ed program enrollment down 53%). The charters will have to compete with LAUSD for both quantity and quality (And--update-- as commenter Jack Covey notes below, the LAUSD actually got back in the game by actually giving teachers a raise, and free marketeers never want to apply the free market to teacher salaries). Charters look to "high quality providers," by which they mean TFA and Relay Academy, so it's possible they have some different definition of "high-quality"-- anyway, TFA is tanking and Relay hasn't arrived in LA yet, so charters are stuck trying to hire actual teachers with actual training. Of course, some charter outfits like Aspire are creating their own fake teaching credentials, but those don't serve the larger cause.

Also, finding principals will be a real bear.

GPSN wants to double the charter market in eight years, but by gum, they just won't sacrifice quality to do it. So funding. And closing down crappy charters that don't belong to the Right People.

Let's Talk Money

Speaking of sustainability.

Remember when a charter's selling point was that it could do more with less. That was apparently not in LA, where, if I'm reading these charts correctly, GPSN will need almost a half a billion-with-a-b dollars of outside money over the next eight years to pull this off (excluding any potential overruns, which I'm sure won't be an issue when building a few hundred new schools). In fact, late in this report, it starts to become clear that this is, in part, an investors prospectus.

That half-a-billion includes funds for building schools, "scaling" schools, getting teachers (this includes pumping up TFA and Relay), recruiting principals, organizing and advocacfy, and fund management (because you don't just stick $500 million in a desk drawer somewhere).

I am now really curious about what outside investors are spending on LA charters right now, but clearly, LA will be one more place where the effect charter schools will be to raise the total cost of the complete school system a whole hell of a lot. I'll say it again-- only charter school operators believe you can live in two homes for the cost of one.

They have many hopes, including parent groups, CCSA, and Emma Bloomberg's new Big Data group, Murmuration-- plus the United Way and other community groups who will, apparently, contribute to replacing a public school system with private profiteering.

Okay, "replace" is too strong a word. Fifty percent of LA students will be allowed to stay in the public schools, or whatever is left of them after the charters have sucked them dry. But don't worry-- I'm sure that the charters will call first dibs on the most challenging, difficult, expensive students in the system, taking on the challenges of students with special needs, English language learners, and the most vulnerable students, leaving the public school with the strongest, most capable, most resilient students in the city.

Bottom Line

I am absolutely bowled over at the magnitude of this power grab. Imagine if Broad and his friends said, "We're not happy with the LAPD, so we're going to hire and train our own police force, answerable to nobody but us, to cover some parts of the city. Also, the taxpayers have to foot the bill." Or if they decided to get their own army? Or their own mayor?

Who does this? Who says, "We can't get enough control over the elected officials in this branch of government, so we will just shove them out of the way and replace them with our own guys, who won't bug us by answering to Those People."

This is not just about educational quality (or lack thereof), or just about how to turn education into a cash cow for a few high rollers-- this is about a hamhanded effort to circumvent democracy in a major American city. There's nothing in this plan about listening to the parents or community- only about what is going to be done to them by men with power and money. This just sucks a lot.

PA: Schools Are Starving

In Pennsylvania, we're on the downhill slide toward October, and still the capital suits in Harrisburg can't get their jobs done. The state budget is long overdue, and schools are starting to feel the money crunch.

Pennsylvania budget impasses are such a regular event that they get their own Wikipedia page. This year's giant legislative screw-up means we've had five late budgets out of the last nine. And this year's has shown no signs of solution, as new governor Tom Wolfe does head to head with a GOP-controlled legislature. There are a variety of issues out there from privatizing liquor stores to fixing the pension mess to neener neener you're not the boss of me.

But while Harrisburg fiddles, the schools of Pennsylvania are doing a slow burn. Chester Uplands made headlines for not making their payroll, but they were just the leading edge of a wave of school based disasters.

In Philadelphia, the schools have stopped hiring because they're having a capital-induced cash flow problem. Consequently, we get this story of a school with over seventy students in a class.

In Erie, the district is literally living paycheck to paycheck, with the teachers union saying they'll go short-term without pay and the district talking about shutting down until they get money again.

Meanwhile, in my own neck of the woods, my district has joined the many districts looking at setting up a line of credit, but holding off as long as possible because that will cost our taxpayers real money. And our neighboring district's board was last night absorbing the news of a rating downgrade because of the state's financial logjam.

Harrisburg can make noises about holding out on budget issues in order to represent the interests of the taxpayers, but their inaction is, at this point, costing the taxpayers money, both directly in the costs of borrowing operating funds, and indirectly in higher interests rates because of rating downgrades.

And this is on top of Pennsylvania's massive mistakes with the pension fund and a senseless, money-sucking funding formula for charters (though many districts have decided to stop paying cyber school bills until they have money to do so). Plus, given PA's famously unequal funding formula, poor districts are getting squeezed far worse than wealthy ones.

The current noises out of Harrisburg are not encouraging, though there is talk of some sort of stopgap measure to slap a bandaid on the bullet holes that the legislature has shot in local school finances, and while the temporary relief is appealing, I worry that such a move will only prolong the legislative shenanigans. I'm partial to making all legislators go without paychecks and administrative budgets until they get things fixed, but that would take an act of the legislature, so it's a non-starter. But keep watching-- we may eventually show the whole nation what happens when a state stops funding its schools entirely. 


OH: 200 Failed Charters

When the Washington State supreme court ruled charters unconstitutional just before the school year started, charter fans were outraged. "How can you just toss those charter students into the street? How can you destabilize their educational life?" That's a legitimate complaint. But if charter boosters feel that way about the loss of Washington's modest charter school fleet, how must they feel about the charters of Ohio?

Ohio has worked hard to establish itself as the Nation's Bad Example when it comes to charter, providing ample examples of  every possible way to do charters poorly.

Earlier in the month, we were reminded of the scandal that unrolled when David Hansen, Ohio's department of education charter czar and husband of John Kasich's campaign manager, was forced to resign after it was discovered that he was cooking the books to pretty up the charters operated by big GOP donors (his defense was something along the lines of "Well, the rules are confusing and I don't see where it says I can't do this").

But the new year is barely under way and we are reminded, again, that Ohio wants to lead the nation in the vast number of charter schools that go belly up.

In East Columbus, families who thought they were sending their children to FCI Academy received a phone message the day before school was to start "reminding" them not to send their children to the school on Wednesday. Sure enough-- on Wednesday the building was locked and no officials to be found. The school turned out to be a half million dollars in debt, though that took some figuring since they also weren't keeping proper records or paying taxes.

FCI Academy was part of one more trend in John Kasich's Ohio-- religious-based charter schools. The school was headed by Tracey Posey, wife of Bishop Edgar Allen Posey of Living Faith Apostolic Church, and co-located with the church itself. The school had a history of financial issues, probably not unrelated to their employment of Carly Shye who was previously convicted of embezzling from various charter schools. FCI is not alone in its church-charter school model, which is unsurprising given Kasich's belief in churches as a replacement for the social service arm of government. Remember his school mentor program that initially required schools to partner with a church?

But there are so many, many charter stories in Ohio-- stories of corruption and incompetence and failure and if it seems like there are more stories than I can tell, more stories than we remember, a recent story from the Akron Beacon Journal tells us why.

The Beacon Journal's education writer is Doug Livingston, who does yeoman's work. In last week's story, he covers the death of yet another charter-- this time its the Next Frontier Academy of Akron-- and while the school's story is one more example of charter shenanigans, it's the context that Livingston creates that really shows how big a charter mess Ohio has become.

Next Frontier was just one more charter opened by educational amateurs; one of the co-founders appeared to want a school that he could use as a case example to sell his book about How To Fix Students. Mismanaged and unable to attract enough students, the school floundered quickly and blew through a stack of money, though as yet nobody knows how much because, once again, nobody really kept any useful records that they will yet share with the state. Their sponsor wanted to get pull the plug; the state said they could not. And, a la New Orleans, nobody is really sure which students attended the school or what has become of them since.

Livingston says that Next Frontier was one of 43 charters that opened in 2013. Today only 8 of those are still open. That's an 82% failure rate. And consider this:

Among the nearly 6,000 publicly funded agencies in operation during Next Frontier’s two-year lifetime, state audits found that three of every four missing taxpayer dollars were in charter schools — $6.3 million — among the 400 in operation.

Livingston marks 2013 as the peak year in Ohio, when the number of charters that had been opened crossed the 400 mark. And now Next Frontier has become the 200th charter school in Ohio to close. And that is a 50% failure rate.

It also represents 200 times that students, families, and communities have been tossed and turned, their stability whacked on the head, by some charter operator. It represents a whole lot of students who have been left to twist in the wind. And it represents a huge amount of tax dollars wasted.

One could argue that Ohio is particularly egregious in its lack of charter regulation and oversight, and to their credit, many charter advocates have called for better policing of charter schools (though when one operator asks the state to help clear out messy competitors, that opens another can of worms).

But it's not just that Ohio has tried to set itself up as a charter wild west; the problems in the state are not unique to Ohio, but are the same old charter school problems writ in a large, messy scribble. The modern charter industry invites people to get in the business for all the wrong reasons, so that from Day One, a new charter has priorities over and above educating students. That set of priorities (make money) in turn invites shenanigans, because like the health insurance biz, a successful charter school runs on NOT providing the service it contracted for-- the less you can get away with doing for the "customer," the more money you keep.

And while the churn and competition and winners and losers of the free market have a place in many businesses, they have no place in public education. A 50% failure rate is fine for some businesses; it is not remotely fine for public schools. You can close as many restaurants as you want, and people can still eat. But schools should be near-permanent stable institutions in a community, answerable to the community, and committed to serving them (you know-- like the public schools that charter students are dumped back into when the charters tank). Charter schools are not inclined toward any of those goals or standards. The modern business-style model of a charter school is fundamentally flawed, inherently a mismatch for the mission of public education. The scale and scope of charter failure in Ohio is spectacular, but it is not fundamentally different from the charter problem in any other state.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Time To Breathe

I looked over the brink today. For a moment, I wanted to throw stones at a teachable moment.Context. Not an excuse, but context.

My building has been in a state of flux for the last few years. This is not all bad news-- we have made some moves that have removed toxic elements from the life of the school, and we have embraced some new opportunities. But, oh, the time.

Last year we started a new schedule. It provides a chance for teachers to meet during the day (something we haven't had for over a decade) and some other new programming activities. But to do that, the Powers That Be shortened class periods to 40 minutes, down from 45-55 minutes previously. To anybody who doesn't teach, that seems like peanuts. Five minutes is a lot of teaching time, and it adds up quickly-- 25 minutes/week, 900 minutes/year. This year we're adding a new diagnostic test, and a digitized on-line platform for doing lesson plans, unit plans, curriculum alignment. We switched the platform for the school website, so everyone has to rebuild their web pages, and we're breaking in yet another platform for classroom stuff (just give me back my moodle, dammit). My duty period is now cafeteria duty, walking around the cafeteria, and that is a great chance to see the students, but it's instead of a study hall that I can cover in my room, at my desk. Last year we launched PLC's, and now that effort has veered off somewhere, and the waves of SLO's hit. We have a new curriculum director who's trying to create a newly aligned curriculum. At the end of last year, we cut a position from my department, so we are trying to pick up the slack, which includes trying to analyze the test data from last year's Keystone exams, but so far the data are just a list of which students passed and which have to retake, with raw scores appended. And today our latest assistant principal announced that she's leaving  for a new job, which means we will be suspended somewhere between old,  new, and whatever is coming next procedures.

You get the idea. It's nothing special-- it really isn't. There are teachers all across the country facing real challenges, working against real issues, fighting real obstacles. What I'm talking about is just a slice of the same old same old in school settings. There's never enough time.

So we were laying some groundwork for the discussion of American literature, and we discovered that my class didn't know about the local connection to the French and Indian War, didn't know about the soldiers who fought and died probably right near the present-day site of a playground about a block from my house. I had a split second to consider giving up 15 minutes of precious time for this side trip about their own heritage, or to put my head down and plough on into the path I'd laid out for today's lesson.

I balked.

I took the side trip. When you see those faces looking at you like you have something Really Interesting to say, like they are really ready to hear it and talk about it-- well, you don't step over a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk just because you're in a hurry and you don't pass up a teachable moment because you Have A Plan.

But I balked. Not only did I balk, but the rest of the day I felt a sharp tooth of resentment gnawing at the corner of my brain.

This is one of the dark traps of teaching, one of the places we must be sure not to go. There is only so much time, only so many resources, and especially now, with so many people looking over our shoulders to make sure we get where we're supposed to when we're supposed to-- it would be so easy to see our students as obstacles in our path, to get frustrated when they demand one more precious minute.

We can't make more time appear. Well, we can, but it costs us. You might well say, "Buddy, if you feel so strapped for time, step away form the keyboard and stop wasting time blogging." But this blog is my journal. It's my venting. And on days like today, it's my message to myself, my reminder to keep my eye on the prize.

And the prize is not the finish line. It is not the prize for covering the most ground in my 180 days. It is not the prize for winning battles over Common Core or charter privatization or whatever wrangle will be going on next year (because it really will always be some-damn-thing).

The prize is watching my students grow. The prize is watching my students become more fully human, more fully themselves, growing in understanding of who they are and who they can become. The prize, in my classroom, is watching them get better at speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Nuts to my plans and nuts to my school's plans and nuts to the tests and the programs and the ticking of the clock as my chance to get One More Thing Done slides by, one quick jerk of the second hand after another.

All of those things are important. None of those things are as important as my students.

One of the lessons I salvaged from the wreckage of my first marriage was that the important things, the things that matter-- you have to recommit to those every day. But in the rush and pressure and "cloud of war" in a classroom, it can be easy to forget why you're there and what you care about.

So this is a message to me. Me, are you reading? Pay attention.

Remember why you're here, what you're doing, what your purpose and focus are. Look past the mess, stop listening to the tick-tick-tick of the clock. Don't fantasize that the challenges aren't there, but do keep your eyes on the prize. Take a moment. Breathe. Focus. Listen. Pay attention. Now go do your damn job.