Thursday, March 31, 2016

FL: More Insane Testing Abuse

By way of the Opt Out Florida Network comes one more horrifying tale of a child suffering at the hands of Florida's bizarre test fetish.

Elizabeth Shea of Pinellas County is the mother of a nine-year-old autistic son. The students has an IEP and a service dog to help him cope with the stress and difficulty that come with being a nine-year-old autistic boy. Yes, service dogs for autistic folks is a thing, and kind of a genius thing at that. But because the student in question is nine years old, the law says that the dog must be accompanied by its cerified handler, which in this case is Shea herself.

Shea's story should have been simple, because she reports doing everything that sense would tell you needs to be done.

We had arranged months ago through IEP meetings, supplying all paperwork, ID, records, that the dog would report with him for any testing, both with the school district and the FLVA where he is a student.

And yet, when Shea reported to the testing site, the folks in charge simply couldn't wrap their head around the situation. The dog has to stay with the child. The handler has to stay with the dog. But the handler may not be in the room with the child while he is taking the test. It took a vice-principal and a test proctor to assert and re-assert that the child had to be alone in the room with the test.

Even when Shea and her husband proposed that their son simply break the seal and sign his name, satisfying Florida's beyond-silly rule that every student must "participate" in the test in some manner, the officials were adamant that nobody could be in the room with this nine year old boy (who was by this point was crying and hitting himself in the face) even to commit an act that would "invalidate" the child's test results.

None of this is exactly a surprise for those who pay attention to Florida, the state that hounded the mother of a dying child and the family of a child who can barely communicate.

The devotion to the test is astonishing. Officials were not concerned about the Americans with Disabilities Act. They were not concerned about the child's IEP. They were not concerned with the child's well-being. And most bizarrely, they were not even concerned with getting legitimate results from the test, for surely they couldn't have imagined that a child so agitated under such conditions would produce test results that meant anything remotely authentic. So they weren't even interested in the integrity of the test-- just bound and determined that the child would go through the "proper" test motions in the "proper" manner.

I know people with whom I disagree strenuously about the Big Standardized Test, and while I think they are absolutely wrong, I believe that some of them sincerely believe that the test is a valid instrument that accomplishes useful things for students and teachers and schools.

But this is something else entirely. This is a devotion to the BS Test completely divorced from any belief in its validity or usefulness, a fetishism separated from any functional quality of the test itself. This is idol worship, and an idol worship that sets the Test above all else. It's not just educationally unsound and abusive of children-- it's nuts!

Changing Chiefs for Change

Pity the Chiefs for Change. They were destined to be part of the superstructure of educational reforminess that would help sweep Jeb! Bush into power, then be poised to cash in on uplift US education once he got into the White House. But now the Jebster's Presidential hopes have gone the way of Betamax tapes and the Zune, and Chiefs for Change is on the last leg of a long, downhill slide.

CFC was originally spun off of Jeb's Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), a group that lobbied hard for Common Core, school A-F ratings, test-based evaluation, and mountains of money thrown at charter schools. FEE started up CFC because they thought that the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the group that holds the Common Core copyright and was the figurehead guiding force behind the core's creation-- that group wasn't aggressively reformy enough for the Jebster.

Initially, the group was to be a new nexus of reform, but they were immediately beset by problems. And I'm not counting the naming problem-- did they think that change would never come, or once the change was the status quo, were they going to just disband? I mean, if your brand is that you favor change, does that mean you just keep trying to change the change that you just implemented? Do you ever say, "Well, hell, no-- we don't worked hard to install that policy and we surely don't want to change that!" I'm just saying-- doesn't seem like a very well thought out name.

At any rate, by the time Jeb's 2013 Reformster Convention rolled around (incidentally, the 2016 National Education Summit is scheduled for end of November in DC-- I wonder how that's going to go), the Chiefs were already in rather a mess. Chief Tony Bennett had already had to change jobs because of that whole lying and cheating thing. And Jennifer Berkshire provides a great account of Rahm Emmanuel's speech, a weathervane moment that showed the Winds of Change no longer at CFC's back.

Since those not-so-halcyon days, CFC has decided to implement a little mission creep. Last year they dropped their connection to FEE, which was more than financial, but also structural and organizational. They also decided to change their definition of "chief." Previously that had meant a state-level education chief, but they had already developed a problem in that department. If we scan the list of the current seventeen CFC members, we find these:

Chris Barbic: Former Superintendent of the Achievement School District, Tennessee
Dale Erquiaga: Former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Nevada
Kevin Huffman: Former Commissioner of Education, Tennessee; Chief-in-
Residence, Chiefs for Change
Mike Miles: Former Superintendent of Dallas Independent School District, Texas
Mark Murphy: Former Secretary of Education, Delaware
Brad Smith: Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Utah

The other eleven members include Chis Cerf who is currently a superintendent, but is the former New Jersey Chief. The list also includes Hanna Skandera (New Mexico) and John White (Louisiana), neither of whom is exactly packing heavy political clout these days. The Glorious League of Washed-up Education Reformers  doesn't really reek of political power and influence, so GLOWER CFC has opened its doors to lowly superintendents. The six newest members, announced just this month, are

Robert Avossa: Superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools, Florida
Desmond Blackburn: Superintendent of Brevard County Schools, Florida
Tom Boasberg: Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Colorado
Chris Cerf: Superintendent of Newark Public Schools, New Jersey
Barbara Jenkins: Superintendent of Orange County Public Schools, Florida
Antwan Wilson: Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, California

In fact, among the seventeen members, in addition to White and Skandera, the only members who are state ed chiefs are-- oops. Hansuel Kang, state superintendent of DC schools. And Veronica Conforme, head of the Education Achievement Authority in Michigan, which has troubles of its own and is marked for termination.

Oh, and let's not forget Deborah Gist, who used to be the Ed Chieftain for Rhode Island, who was last year hired as superintendent of Tulsa, OK schools, an appointment so unpopular that teachers walked out of the board meeting where Gist was hired.

So that means the Chiefs are now a group of seven school district superintendents allied with some former state chiefs and a handful of barely-in-power education leaders. John White, the hood ornament on this busted-down bus, says that the CFC now has a new mission:

The turnover in Chief roles is incredibly high, and we know that education leadership is not diverse enough. The work we are doing together to build a pipeline of diverse Future Chiefs, and to envision new systems to support students and teachers under ESSA, is essential and exciting.

It's like they made a half-hearted attempt to crib some copy from the last couple of Teach for America reboots. "What are we doing now? Something something diversity? Fine. I'll put that down."

Chiefs for Change were going to be Educational Masters of the Universe. Now they're more like one of those padded ghost band versions of some sixties rock group playing county fairs and mall openings. Such big dreams. They coulda been contenders. Now, like many folks who were depending on the Jeb! Bush political machine, they are going to have to find a new path.

Guys & Dolls: OPTING OUT!

I don't generally do simple Hey Look At This posts, but the Bald Piano Guy has outdone himself this time. So hey. Look at this!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

See You in Raleigh

I will be attending this year's Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh, NC.

It was not an easy call for me. Life has been a little crazy, and my multimillion dollar book deal has apparently been lost in the mail, and it just generally looked like a bad time to try to pull this off, and I had just sort of resigned myself to not being able to make it.

But at the same time, there were things and people well worth seeing, from Jennifer Berkshire talking to Peter Cunningham, to a panel with Mercedes Schneider, to an address by the founder of the Moral Mondays movement, to important conversations about race and community and building coalitions and effective activism and the value and support of public education. Plus, I know from attending last year's conference, the opportunity to talk to other people who get it, to meet and mingle with many people who have become my heroes over the interwebs.

It was that last part that finally convinced me. In the midst of the spring crush and some family adventures and all the rest, I knew I really needed some time with people who get it, who can actually see what's going on. That's what energized me about last year's conference, and what finally drew me back this year.

So my wife and I will make the ten hour drive down and back (because airfare is crazy expensive), which will burn a personal day that I may eventually wish I still had, but I will not be sorry that I used it for this.

I tell you all this not to impress you with the epic tale of my decision to attend, but to underline that this is how many of us come to these sorts of events, trying to somehow shoehorn them into our lives and personal resources. This is not how the other half lives; the reformsters have plenty of time and resources for this kind of thing because it is their actual job, not the thing they somehow squeeze in around the margins. Which is one more reason that those of us who care about public education need to keep finding ways to get our voices out there, and to gather together, network, talk, and draw strength and support and inspiration from each other.

Life is too short not to stand up for what you believe in, and it's too hard not to stand up with other people who share your beliefs. So I look forward to seeing the folks who can make it to Raleigh. If you see me (I'm doing a session on Saturday with Leonie Haimson), come up and say hi (though I will warn you that I am neither as dynamic nor as witty in person as this blog has led you to believe), and let's see what we all can learn and gather strength from at the convention.

Why strike?

I have been through two strikes in my life.

The first was in Lorain, Ohio in 1979, and it started about three days after I was hired. It was my first job, and the strike was ugly. The superintendent had been hired for his union-busting skills. My building rep and my principal both advised me to stay home and keep my head down. The whole thing lasted over six weeks, and it was a vicious mess. I emerged absolutely convinced that almost anything was preferable to a teacher strike, but that

The second was in Franklin, Pennsylvania in 2002. I was the union president, and it was a contentious struggle. The board opened negotiations by stripping the contract, and their chief negotiator at one point said, "Yes, we have the money to give them a raise, but they don't deserve it." A couple of our union actions are on my "If I could take back parts of the past..." list, but for the most part I thought both sides managed things reasonably well and the district came out of the whole thing with a minimum of scarring. I don't have that many years left in my career, and I fervently hope that I never have to go through a strike again.

So I absolutely recognize the arguments put forth by two Chicago teachers in today's Chicago Tribune commentary. I am not going to try to speak for the Chicago teachers' union, but I can speak to why those two teachers are wrong and why, sometimes, teachers just have to take that kind of stand.

Their very first sentence is this:

Teaching is a personal mission, not a political one.

I understand their point, just as I understand them when they later write this:

When we think of speaking out and being heard, most of us don't think about unions and politics. We think about what we need to do better to reach that child who misses too much school or struggles to read at grade level. We think about programs that we believe need to be implemented, supports that need to be in place. We want our principals to respect our assessments of what happens in our classrooms, we want our parents to understand that they need to be involved.

And I get that-- I truly do. The best teachers are absolutely clear that their primary mission is in their classroom, with their students. I have never encountered a strike or really any kind of teacher activism that did not evoke pleas of "But why do we have to get into politics? Can't we just teach?"

I get that, too. There's no question that unions sometimes get wayy too interested in politics and make bad decisions for as a result of strictly political calculus (like, say, endorsing a specific Presidential primary candidate way early, even though her education bona fides are not so stellar). And the politicized politics-playing mess that is the New York teachers union(s) is nothing to get excited about.

The problem, however, is that we teachers can decide we're done with politics, but politics is not done with us. Our work conditions, our pay, the very definition of our job and purpose-- they're all politically decided these days. And why do we hate politics? Because it's a bunch of baloney wrapped in posturing slathered with lies and soaked in bullshit dressing. It is, as P J O'Rourke once wrote, the accumulation and maintenance of unearned power.

I well remember early in my career thinking it, and during my second strike hearing my members saying it-- if we just lay out the facts and explain the truth of the situation, won't people just see what's reasonable and do the right thing? And here come our Chicago teachers:

If we want to be political, why not do so in a way that engages our communities, our politicians to truly hear what we have to say, that's not at the expense of our children?

Because most of your politicians can already hear what you have to say. In the case of Chicago, do you really think that Rahm is just hard of hearing, that he just doesn't hear you? He hears you just fine.

If we want to be political, and we are seeking more stability and funding for education, programming, schools and staff, why engage in a protest that further destabilizes, playing right into the hands of those looking for proof that the state must take over our schools and declare bankruptcy? Whom does that serve?

What any union has to ask is, "What role has proof played so far?" What willingness has the other side shown to listen to what the union, what the teachers, have to say?

As for the whom does this serve question, this is always the most important question teachers have to ask when contemplating a strike. Ultimately what you are weighing is the immediate needs of your current students against the needs of your students in the future. Teachers have a great tendency to be institutional enablers, trying to pick up the slack so that no children are hurt right now by bad policies or toxic leadership. While this is a noble impulse, it must be weighed against what will happen if the district gets no pushback on its bad policy and therefor continues to inflict it on thousands of students for years to come.

Politics run on a sort of means testing basis. You say you want X. The people with power say, "How badly do you want it? Badly enough to whine about it? Because we can stand your whining for as long as you can stand to whine? Badly enough to make us sit through meetings? Because we can sit through meetings every day. Badly enough to inconvenience yourselves and us and the people who have our phone numbers? Badly enough to draw attention from the sleepy public? Because if you're willing to go that far, then maybe we'll think about giving you a piece of what you want just to make it stop."

When the students of Boston Public high schools walked out for a day and the Powers That Be decided to re-instate budget cuts (sort of kinda), it wasn't because the PTB suddenly slapped their foreheads and said, "Oh, I didn't realize that budget cuts would actually cut peoples' budgets." They slapped their heads and said, "Oh, you actually care enough about this to make a real noise."

Striking is the last thing you want to do as a teacher. It costs you time and inconvenience, and invariably you lose some of the noble heroic shine of someone who puts the students before everything else. It can bust up relationships, destabilize a staff, and make a real mess. Nobody wants to start a fight. But sometimes the fight comes to you, and your only choice is whether you'll actually stand up for something or not. As Patrick Henry pointed out in his speech in the Virginia Convention, the war has already started-- there's no question of avoiding it, only of whether or not we'll try to stand up or just roll over and take our lumps.

You strike to make a statement. That statement is generally some version of "These policies are not okay" or "We are done being ignored" or "Better we suffer this small battle today than wait and be smashed apart tomorrow." The Chicago twosome frame it as a choice of whether "to punitively turn away or work together to move forward" but there are times when those are not the available choices and are in fact the equivalent of telling a battered wife "Why do you want to break up your family when you could get back in there and try to work on your marriage."

I say it again-- a teacher strike is my absolute last choice and there isn't a thing I wouldn't try first. But sometimes you reach a point where you have to recognize that the other party has no interest in solving problems together, but is only interested in pushing you as far as they can get you to go. At some point you have to plant your feet and say, "This is enough. We have taken enough. This cannot go any further-- not today, and definitely not for the children in the future. Somebody has to take a stand for our schools, our profession, and our present and future students. We have tried everything to work with you, but now we will make our stand."

As a veteran of two multi-week strikes, I have to say that a one-day work stoppage seems like a pretty measured and relatively mild job action. I hope that the PTB in Chicago hear what the teachers have to say.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

More Ohio Charter Fakery

We've been here before. Back in January of 2015, the Columbus Dispatch reported that some charter schools in Ohio were reporting on and taking state tax money in payment for students who did not, technically, exist.

John Kasich's Ohio has been a veritable Wild West of education reform. It's a great place to open up a charter and close it right back down again, or to make a truckload of money providing "consulting" services. Most famously, Ohio is also the state that set aside an entire official government office just to handle faking charter success numbers in order to make the movement look successful, as well as mounting government moves to simply bushwack a public school system and rip the "public" right out of it.

So last Friday's news from the Columbus Dispatch should come as no surprise.

Turns out that an Akron cyber-charter has some 'splainin' to do about student "attendance."

Cyber-charter attendance, like cyber-charter homework and cyber-charter test-taking, is a nebulous thing that is not always super-clear. But the Akron Digital Academy had some problems that were plenty clear. For one, they gave students excused absences for weeks so that those students could work at jobs. Turns out "wanted to go work instead" is not recognized as a legit reason to play hooky. They also seem to have trouble counting the exact number of students with special needs (the ones for whom they get more money).

This comes on the heels of reports of yet another cyber-charter that scored almost a million extra dollars by counting students that it had no right to count.

There are students who are well served by cyber charters. But as the cyber charter industry has "matured," it has enjoyed more and more success by marketing itself as school for students who don't really want to go to school. It's only natural that such a market would appreciate a school that wasn't too strict on that whole attendance thing.

Add to this the research showing that cyber charters are bad, so very very bad, that even the biggest defenders and fans of the charter industry will no longer stand up for them and one wonders why any state allows them to operate at all outside of very strict and specific strictures. The need to clamp down on cyber charters should be obvious even in a state like Ohio, no matter how many invisible students they serve.

Learning Management Systems: Fish or Fowl?

For several days I've been part of a protracted twitter discussion of the use of LMS (Learning Management Systems) in education. The discussion emerged from a previous piece here, bounced around twitter, which led to this post from Anthony Cody, and then I think it went on some more. (Multiday, multivoice conversations on twitter about contentious topics are like trying to play soccer with your legs duct-taped together and a badger stapled to your head.)

Learning Management Systems are a complicated issue, both an opportunity and a challenge. Are they good news or bad news? Well....

I am a fan of the basic concept. I lobbied hard for my district to adopt Moodle ages ago, and when we moved to one-to-one computing, I was ready to leap in. Moodle is a widely beloved LMS, an open-source platform of the college-popular Blackboard. It allows the teacher to push material out to students and for students to respond in a variety of pipelines. I've used it with my own students, and I have taken on-line courses that used Moodle as their platform.

We ultimately dropped moodle because it would have required our IT department to buy and dedicate a server to managing it. We next switched to My Big Campus, a free web-based platform that was not so wonderful. Currently we have shifted into the Goggle universe, where a complex of edu-tools really want to simulate an LMS, but, well, not so much. And that's before we get to the creepy, creepy creeping of the googleverse.

But even in the worst of these LMS platforms, I've been able to use the technology to extend my class beyond my walls and my day. Moodle was an excellent too for class discussions that favored writing skill over vocal volume. All have allowed me to fold mini-units into a class without costing me valuable classroom time. The LMS can absolutely be a useful tool for the classroom teacher.

That said, the LMS can also be a useful tool for administrators and policy makers who want to strip classroom teachers of every last vestige of autonomy and professionalism.

Consider this example, which promises not just an online, but course agendas, outcome-based gradebook, a searchable library of standards-based projects, and extensive library of instructional resources. In other words, it comes pre-loaded with everything a district would need to lock its teachers into implementing competency-based education. An LMS is a perfect tool for implementing the complicated record-keeping and data collection of a personalized CBE program.

So, yes. For some folks, LMS look like a means of top-down, data-grabbing, teacher-contricting, techno-control. For some folks, LMS look like a possible tool that teachers should seize as a means of their own liberation.

Who's correct? Both of them, sort of.

An LMS is like a bucket. You can fill it up with a delicious giant root beer float or a large serving of arsenic stew. You can use it carry fluffy bunnies or poisonous adders.

Or if you like, and LMS is like a gaming platform. You can't actually play anything on it until you load up game software, and then what you can play depends on what software you loaded. Is a Playstation 4 for playing shooting games, sports simulations, or dancing games? Yes.

It's also true that while a tool can serve many purposes, good and bad, a tool also influences its own uses. If your bucket isn't watertight, you can't carry root beer or soup. And its size and shape will influence just what you can carry in it. Meanwhile, your Playstation 4 cannot be used to play Mario Kart, or any other game that doesn't come in a compatible software configuration. You can use a hammer to drive a woodscrew, but it won't really work out well. You can't change a light bulb with it at all. And as long as your only tool is that hammer, everything sure looks like a nail.

When it comes to software, small details have big implications. I bought the phone I have because the lock screen has a button that takes me straight to the camera, which means I can always quickly grab a shot of something. My old phone took so many buttons to get to the camera that I took few pictures, but with this phone I now take many. Moodle's discussion function was great, and so I did many on-line discussions with my students. Google's discussion feature is far less handy, and so that feature has disappeared from my course.

In short, yes, an LMS is just a tool. But no tool is neutral; all tools encourage and discourage various functions. The LMS is a tool that naturally favors controlling a classroom, a school, a teaching staff, even an entire district from a distance. It is the perfect tool for top down control-- particularly top down control by someone who doesn't have the guts to exercises that control face to face (like, say, in meetings where people ask questions and express disagreement and just generally try to force you to listen to them). And an LMS hooks up quickly and easily to your preferred conduit for hoovering up a ton of data from the students.

So I don't believe that any Learning management System is inherently evil, and I have in fact used them myself, on purpose, willingly, and will do so for the rest of my career. But-- and this is the huge but-- they lend themselves very easily to some of the worst kinds of abuses-- the top-down, disempowerment of teachers, the over-reaching Big Brothery data mining of students, the inflexible imposition of sameness through bad standards and worse instruction-- and for that reason they must always be viewed with a careful and wary eye.

It is true, as various folks have typed on the interwebs, that an LMS can A) provide a great opportunity for teacher empowerment and B) provide a great threat for terrible reformster policies to shove their big fat noses into the educational tent, with the full animal (including the part that poops) close behind. For that reason, it would be a huge mistake to ever assume that either of those things is happening without taking a careful look first.

Bottom line-- Really Wrong Things do not suddenly become okay just because they're done with computer assitance.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Problems with School Ratings

Recently Chad Aldeman (Bellwether) ran an interview with a school ratings "expert," Christy Hovanetz. Hovanetz is from the Jeb Bush wing of the reformster world, having cut her teeth on Florida Ed policy in 1999, graduating to Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform advocacy group that was supposed to help Jeb! use education to help boost his Presidential prospects. Boy, life just throws some crazy curve balls, doesn't it?

Florida was a leader in the rush to slap unsubstantiated letter grades on schools, and Hovanetz has since taken her show on the road. Aldeman wanted to ask her about what she'd learned, and the resulting interview tells us a lot about the fundamental flaws underlying most school rating systems.

Hovanetz starts right out with some classics. Parents need to know if a school will be a good fit. Taxpayers deserve to know that they are getting their money's worth. And my favorite-- "what gets measured gets done." Which in other words means that school rating is really a backdoor method of taking control of schools.

As the interview proceeds, other purposes for school ratings also emerge. For instance, there should be "a transparent way to report information that people understand and can use to improve student outcomes." And "The whole goal of accountability systems is to make sure that students are learning."

So now we're up to at least five goals-- marketing information for the "customers," quality assurance reports for the taxpayers, actionable data to drive instructional choices, evaluation of student progress, and as a tool for allowing whoever's in charge of ratings to inject their own agenda into schools. That is a huge, huge order for any evaluation system, particularly one from which the only outcome is a single letter grade.

But wait-- there's more. And it's arguably the worst of all.

As we work with states, we want to make sure they are providing information to parents and the public as to whether or not students will be successful once they leave the K-12 system.

There are certain policy ideas that signal to me that a person simply isn't serious about education or any of the things they say about it. This is one of them. You cannot know, insure, predict or otherwise provide information about how successful students will be after they leave the system, and if you claim such a thing is possible, either your are a fool or you think I'm one. It cannot be done.

I mean, let's imagine a family, highly successful, with all the advantages. Two of their sons (let's call them Jed and, um, Blorge) look like they're on two entirely different paths. Blorge is a bad student, a party boy, and repeatedly needs to be bailed out or propped up by help from the family's contacts. Meanwhile, Jed works hard, makes all the right marks, shows himself to have all the right stuff. Early on, the family would have predicted that Jed was destined for Presidential dreams, while Blorge would probably just have to draw a salary as a figurehead at whatever business someone could set him up with. Nobody at the end of the K-12 years would have predicted that someday Blorge would be comfortably retired from the highest halls of power while Jed would have to repeatedly slink home after suffering a series of campaign swirlies from a well-heeled jerk.

So do not-- do not-- claim that any system at all can tell parents whether or not Generic Are Schools will aim their child at success.

Hovanetz has more to explain. Turns out that the single letter grade is a sort of attention grabber, and once the overall impression has been made, a good system lets you dig down deep, into, you know, stuff.

Being able to draw in parents, the public, policymakers, and others who are interested in education, we need something to be able to say, “This particular school is high-performing or not a high-performing school,” and then provide additional information that supports that letter grade.

So now we're up to seven purposes.

Is there a way for states to check their work? Hovanetz suggests checking your work against the NAEP which brings us back to the same old question-- if NAEP is the benchmark against which you judge effective ratings, why not just use the NAEP as the rating instrument. The answer is "because the NAEP isn't a very good benchmark," but that of course means it isn't a good measure of your measurement system, either. Also Hovanetz says to check against your graduates college completion rates and how much they make later in life, though a ton of research says that we can predict those things while the students are in kindergarten just by looking at their collective socio-economic information.

Hovanetz does avoid the classic "multiple measures" dodge and goes ahead and argues for the narrowing of education.

Some states might be inclined to try to accommodate every single wish or desire of all stakeholders in a state, including things that may not be as important as whether or not kids are learning to do math or learning to read. Including those extra measures can dilute those really important things that students need to learn in school.

Remember, part of the reason we rate schools is because what gets measured is what matters. So use your rating system to focus in on only the important parts of school (because, of course, we all know and agree on exactly which parts of school are important and which are not) and get the educational program narrowed down to just that stuff. If the message from the state is, "Teach only math and reading," then that should be fine.

There is a strong desire to expand beyond just academic indicators—including a measure of growth is very important—but including things that are not direct learning outcomes and focus more on environment and other input measures blurs the vision on what we want students to know and be able to do. All of those things support a strong learning environment, and will indirectly will lead to success, but do not in themselves measure success. It’s trying to balance what’s important and what we want from student outcomes versus what it takes to put those conditions in place. Including too many things in the system complicates it and reduces the importance of student outcomes that we’re really looking for.

Who is this "we" and what are the outcomes that "we" have decided are the only important ones. And does Hovantez really think that parents only care about reading and math scores when they ask the question, "Is this school a good fit for my child?" Does she really think that taxpayers mean, "Just tell me about the reading and math scores-- nothing else matters" when they ask if they're getting their money's worth? For that matter, does she think taxpayers are saying, "I don't care what you do with my money as long as there are good reading and math scores."

She does offer a surprising new idea-- never mind breaking out the subgroups and just focus on the low achievers. This seems like an unusual approach even for reformsters. We know that, when it comes to future success after K-12, SES has a huge impact. The highest-achieving poor kids still fall behind the lowest-achieving rich kids. Hovanetz wants us to ignore all data except the test scores, but if she also wants to predict future success prospects for students, she can't ignore other data. And when it comes to being accountable to taxpayers, test scores are not enough measure of what has been accomplished-- not all students are equally cheap and easy to coach across the finish line.

But she's concerned that ESSA opens the door to including too many factors and giving states too many choices.

And by the interview, she is still not done putting requirements on the many magical goals that a school rating system must accomplish.

They should make sure to create a system that is equitable and levels the playing field across all schools. They should not create a situation where some schools are accountable for 25 things and other schools are only accountable for five things.

So the system should truly be one size fits all.

But her final flourish is-- well, special. Because Hovanetz wants states to be sure that they don't put "perverse incentives" into their rating systems (for instance, a rating that covers number of expulsions might lead the school to keep many Bad Actors in the school and damage the learning environment). I don't disagree, but I would point out that a system which leans heavily on the test results of very few subject areas to define the success of the entire school is one of the most perverse incentives of all, leading to brutally narrowed curriculum and instruction at the expense of many other elements needed to help young students grow in fully rounded and functional adults.

Final note. Some reformsters are not a fan of my tone (this is not a reformster thing-- some actually are fans of my tone), but I am not arbitrarily snarky or sarcastic. There are reformster arguments out there with which I absolutely and fully disagree, but which are constructed out of a serious, thoughtful approach to real issues in education. However, there are some arguments which are simply talking points stitched together without any thought to intellectual honesty or serious consideration of the issues. Hovanetz is probably a lovely person and a decent human being, and if she ever shows up in my neighborhood, I'll buy her a cup of coffee,  but her arguments are ill-considered marketing copy for selling bad policy ideas and advocacy to political operatives. And that I just can't take seriously.

Preparation Is the Plan

I am not much of a planner.

I am an engineer's son, so it's not like I don't understand planning or its value or how to do it. In particular, I get the social value of planning; it's just not helpful to tell someone, "I'll be over to pick you up sometime or other." And I believe in the value of speaking with integrity, which really does mean things like honoring the plans that you make with someone else (that sounds really deep, but it ends up referring to things like saying you'll meet for supper at 5:00 and then actually showing up at 5:00).

But still, I'm not big on planning. I am particularly not big on planning for the classroom.

This does not mean that I think I should just plop down on a chair, turn to my class, and say, "So, what do you want to do today?" The taxpayers do not pay me to just hang out in a classroom and hope that learning randomly and spontaneously erupts.

But still, I'm not big on planning.

I am, however, a huge fan of preparation.

One of my personal controlling metaphors for learning and the content is exploring a chunk of territory, a patch of geography. For me, planning is saying that we will travel across that terrain by following a specific, pre-determined path. The territory may be dozens of square miles, but we will only ever see a couple hundred linear feet of it. And if any of my students try to stray from the path, my most immediate response will be to get them back on that path. Pre-planned, scripted material? That's when someone has laid down train tracks through the territory and all of us in the classroom are locked into our seats on the train, just passengers on someone else's journey. That's planning.

Preparation is different. For preparation, my job is to know every square foot of the territory. The students and I set out together, and I have a definite destination or two in mind on the other side of the territory, and I have some ideas about how we can get there (so we don't end up just milling around in one place aimlessly). I've been walking with my students for a while, paying attention to their strengths and weaknesses, so I can gauge whether we'd do better climbing the cliff or swimming the lake. And if somebody says, "Hey, what's this over here?" my job is to know the territory well enough that we can go take a look at the This and I will still know where we are and how to make it to our destination from there. That's preparation.

I'm no purist. Sometimes planning is called for. Taking the planned trail is quicker and simpler and less confusing for the students. For some material it's just easier and more efficient to say, "Okay, we're going to learn prepositional phrases and we're all going to do it like this. Let's go." Still, if I'm prepared, if a student wanders off the path and into the weeds, I'm better equipped to help her get unlost.

Too much planning gives a classroom the wrong emphasis. If I'm focused on the Plan, I will start to value the integrity of the plan over the curiosity or interest of the student. In a planning model, a good student is a compliant one who sticks to the path, not one who is interested in learning about the territory.

The effects of plan-focused teacher are worst with someone who doesn't prepare and doesn't really know the territory beyond the guardrails of the path. This is another way of understanding the failures of Common Core and high stakes testing and computer-plan flavored CBE-- these are all about the need of people who don't know the territory trying to monitor teachers and students. These are all about an attempt to manage Top Down Surveillance of teachers and students, and since we have already put the surveillance cameras in certain locations, and we don't really know the territory, the whole system is based on demanding that teachers and students show up at the precise locations that have been laid out by people who don't know the territory, don't understand the territory, have never visited the territory. This is planning as commanded by people who think they can successfully manage education by remote data monitoring-- if teachers and students will just stand exactly where the hell they've been told they're supposed to.

The preparation approach yields other rewards. No matter how well you know the territory, there are always moments when a student will say, "Hey, look at this!" and you discover something you'd never seen before. In a prepared approach, you end up learning, too, which is a nice model for your students.

I am biased toward the preparation model because life. I had a lot of plans. Most of them did not exactly work out, and I reached a point where I realized I could either freak out because I was off the path, and I could use all my energy trying to get back on the path, or I could be where I was and start looking at where I could go from there. I lean toward the latter.

It's not that I don't believe in planning at all (did I mention that I'm an engineer's son?) But too much emphasis on planning is fear-inducing and erosive to confidence. Even the best-laid plans can carry a subtext of "You must stick to the path, because beyond the path are terrible things that you just can't handle." Whereas preparation is about gathering our map, our compass, and all our best tools and saying, "Whatever we find, we will handle." Planning prioritizes the destination; preparation focuses on the journey.

I still translate my work into lesson plans, but I still value preparation more than planning. It is okay (and on some days, preferable) to step into a classroom and not know exactly what is going to happen. Most of the forces of reformsterdom, which very much favor the One True Path approach to learning, are pushing us in the opposite direction. But strapping ourselves and our students into railroad cars on pre-programmed rails is the least useful way to do education and bad for our students as human beings. The fans of the cradle-to-career pipeline believe that a full and satisfying life can be planned, but my job is not to plan my students' future. My job is to prepare them for it.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Practically Honest Charter Speech

Greg Richmond is the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, "an independent voice for effective charter school policy and thoughtful charter authorizing practices that lead to more great public schools." So, charter fans who make a living from promoting charters. Richmond has had an unusually stable career compared to many of the folks we encounter-- after graduating with a BA in geography and an MA in public affairs, Richmond worked for the Illinois Senate for a few years, the spent a decade at the New Schools Office of Chicago Public Schools, then moved on to NACSA, where has also been for over a decade.

Richmond regularly turns up advocating hard for charter schools. That's his job. But I want to direct your attention to the speech he delivered (and then posted on the NACSA website) at a March 10, 2016 meeting of the Philadelphia Charters for Excellence meeting. "A Way Beyond Our Public Education Weaknesses" is by no means fully free of some standard charter baloney. But it includes some unusually open and honest statements.

Richmond opens with a personal story, harking back to his days in the Chicago Public Schools office where his job was to oversee charters, and he talks about how frustrated and desperate some parents were to get their kids out of public schools, and what a bummer it was that there were not enough charter spots. It was his job to manage that response to the problem, so I'll only ding him half a point for not saying how frustrated he was that more was not being done to fix the schools that these students were trying to escape.

But Richmond sees any progress made by charters stymied, in part by the continued warfare between charter fans and charter school "opponents." He does some audience shmoozing by saying that Philadelphia is uniquely poised to take the necessary steps, but he's flat wrong there-- all public school districts in Pennsylvania are inclined to be hostile to charters because 1) under PA law, charters suck their resources directly away from public systems and 2) under PA school finance system, no public school district in the state has enough money to operate properly as it is. So in Pennsylvania, no district will be place for public-charter detente, because under current PA law, school funding is a zero-sum game, and no charter school can "win" without some public school "losing."

However, Richmond's more general points about the errors of both sides are far more interesting, no matter what state we're in.

The Three Greatest Weaknesses of Charter Schools

First, the toleration of bad charters, including those that are flat-out frauds and scams. And Richmond is not afraid to be specific, starting with an example that really hits home in PA.

There are plenty of examples. For one: virtual charter schools. Most are performing terribly, yet they continue to operate year after year, delivering, not a better education to students, but a worse education at great taxpayer expense. Pennsylvania has more than 34,000 students in virtual charter schools and these children deserve a better education than they are getting.

Yup. There is not a cyber-charter in PA that looks remotely like a success-- well, except in their ability to come up with good marketing and their ability to win protection from the legislature. Richmond also calls out for-profit companies that use charters to run real estate cons (he does not acknowledge that non-profits are also perfectly capable of this lucrative dodge).  

Second, an island mentality. Here Richmond manages to surprise me .

Charter school operators and proponents, of which I am one, have had too little concern for how charter schools impact the other public schools and students in our communities. We believed that each charter school could be an island unto itself.

We have created schools that will not enroll students in upper grade levels. We have some schools that believe it is appropriate to counsel children out mid-year. Some charters believe it is appropriate to tell families of students with disabilities that their charter school cannot serve them.

In short, charters have relied on the district schools to be a safety net for students not served by charter schools. That’s not right. If we believe that charter schools can provide a better education for children, we need to include all children. (My emphasis)

Well, yes. I mean, yes. I mean, I have no quibble or qualm about what he's saying. This is exactly correct. He might also mention that charters could stop selling themselves as if they really understood and believed all this, instead of trying to pretend that they really are including all children.  

Third, a lack of community voices.

Again, Richmond manages a surprising level of candor.

Though well intentioned, charter school boards, advocacy organizations, and funders have not been representative enough of the communities that schools are serving.

Let’s be honest: this is a movement led primarily by white middle-class and wealthy individuals, yet primarily serving low-income communities of color. I am one of those white, middle-class people and I worry that my colleagues and I do not truly understand the experiences and values of the communities our schools serve. Too often, we have resisted including their voices in our organizations because of a fear that they might lead our organizations in different directions.

And he includes teachers on the list of people that are under-represented and under-consulted. And I want to give him a big round of applause for his honesty here. Yes, charter operators resist community involvement (and in some cases, "resist" is not really a strong enough word) and many charter schemes have been built (as is Philly's) on disempowering voters entirely in then district. The charter biz really has attracted a great number of people who believe they are personally gifted with a genius vision, and that they must roll over all obstacles to implement their vision, even if those obstacles include local parents and teachers and community leaders and voters and basically everyone else. It is a genuine insightful and honest moment for Richmond to say so out loud.

Richmond also wants to list three big weaknesses of charter school opponents. He is not quite so on-the-mark here, though I think he's probably being honest about what he thinks he sees.

First, the profit myth. Richmond says that charter opponents believe that Gates and Broad and Walton are pushing charters for the money. Oh, and Wall Street hedge fund managers. His claim is that these guys aren't all about the profit, but are being swell philanthropists. This is both cutting hairs and slicing baloney.

There are definitely some big money backers of charter schools who are plenty interested in busting unions and/or launching their own personally controlled schools. There's plenty of reason to believe that charter schools are often a tool for gentrification. Even wealthy celebrities can start a charter to help finances and PR at the same time. And a charter empire is a great way to gather some political power without having to be elected by actual voters.

Oh, and get rich, too. And that's not just the research done by public school friendly writers like Juan Gonzalez, who may have his loyalties, but he also has facts about things like how getting involved in charter schools can double your money in seven years (thanks to some Clinton era lawmaking). Even Forbes, not exactly an enemy of free market economics, figured out that the charter game is a great way to make a buck. 

Mind you, I don't believe that going into a business to make some money is inherently evil. But I do think it is at odds with the purposes of public education. And I think that it's no surprise that observers in education conclude that the rich powerful people who enter the business and get more rich and powerful because of it-- well, I don't see anyone like Eva Moskowitz saying, "Pay me how much?!! That's insane-- cut my pay and put the money into the school."

Second, being stuck in the past. In public education, we're stuck in a system from another time and applied to a different population. I'd like to disagree with Richmond here, but he's not entirely wrong. Much of our education system is a kluge, based not on a starting-from-scratch assessment of how to do things, but a structure built on the foundation of tradition and history.

That said, I think many reformsters are far too impatient. Calls for revolutionary change are wrong when it comes to school-- you can't dismantle and rebuild the plane in mid-air when it is filled with vulnerable young passengers, and we can't tell America's parents, "Hey, just hold onto your kids for a year while we re-do some stuff here." Incremental change helps us preserve what's good, change what needs changing, and keep taking care of our students while we do it.

Richmond also makes the point that public school advocates can't seriously say, "Well, these schools have always been perfect, so don't tell us to change," which is true, but I don't know any serious public school advocates who say we're perfect as is.

Third, the blame game. Richmond wants public schools to stop blaming charters for their problems, "for the financial and academic failings of urban school districts." Again, he and other reformsters are hearing something I am not-- people in the most troubled schools have always known that their schools are troubled, challenged, messed up, failing, whatever-you-want-to-call-it (though testocrats insist that without a Big Standardized Test, we would never know what schools are failing. Testocrats are full of it).

Charter schools did not create unfunded pension systems. Charter schools did not force school districts to borrow money that they could not afford. Charter opponents have the cause and effect backwards. Charter schools did not cause urban school districts to fail; urban school districts failed and caused parents to demand better options, like charter schools.

Well, no. The legislatures do those things. And then legislators (often some with generous charter financial support) use those same failures that they forced as a reason to set up charters under rules that make things for the public schools even worse.

I don't doubt that many charter fans see charters as the cavalry, coming to save students from disastrous failure. But from my side of the street, it looks more like public schools are the victims of engineered failure-- a failure engineered specifically as an excuse to set up charters-- and those charters are only going to "rescue" some of the students, and the rest will have to stick it out in the now even-more-poorly-funded public schools.

It is frustrating and rage-inducing. Government creates problems with bad funding systems and bad regulations, and when the problems emerge, government penalizes schools for having bad funding and regulatory problems, setting up (and giving resources to) charter schools which are better why? Because they don't have the funding and regulatory problems of public schools. It's like demanding that your spouse wear an ugly hat and then declaring, "I'm leaving you because I don't like your hat." The missing part of the narrative is the part where government actually tries to help public schools.

And while charters don't create any of these problems, they make them all worse. Charters leave public school with less funding and turn them into dumping grounds for the most challenging students.

Richmond does have some recommendations. He'd like to see us all get past the fighting and "work for the benefit of all children." And here we find some of our fundamental disagreements.

One, equity. All students should get "their equitable share of public education resources." That is only half a solution. Splitting the pie into equal shares for one thousand dessert eaters does not work if you only have one pie. But this is one of the universally ignored issues of charter schools. You cannot fund two or three or fifty school systems for the same amount of money that you use to fund just one. If we want to have a charter-public hybrid system, we have to put up the actual money that it will actually cost, and so far nobody has successfully or willingly gone to taxpayers and said, "We want to raise your taxes so that we can open some redundant schools in your district."

In short, we don't just need equitable funding. We need honest and full funding.

Two, fairness. "Both charter and other [sic] public schools need to do better with student discipline, with special education, and with English Language Learners." No disagreement from me.

Three, teachers leading. "Our public education system needs to respect the professionalism of our educators and empower them with the autonomy they need to best serve the children in their schools. We must replace the early 20th Century, top-down model with a 21st Century model that supports educators and innovation." Also, charter folks need to let teachers start and run schools, which I'll agree with if we stipulate that we're talking about actual teachers and not Teach Faux America style pretend teachers.

Four, consequences for failure. I don't think we can carry our agreement past those three words. Richmond wants to say that no school has a right to keep on existing if it has lousy results (" a perpetual right to exist regardless of outcomes" is how he puts what they shouldn't have).

Well, no. In this, he is looking at the whole thing from an incorrect and not-very-useful angle. First, no school has "a right to exist." Every community has the right to have a school. If a community's roads start getting lumpy and potholey, the community does not expect that the people they elected to represent their interests will come in and say, "Sorry, but these roads have given up their right to exist. We're tearing them up." The "failure" of the roads is a sign that they are not being properly cared for and are not getting the resources and support they need. Ditto for schools. Because-- and again, this is where the charter biz viewpoint is radically different from the public school one-- schools are not businesses. My high school is not a restaurant or a bowling alley or a used car lot that needs to create an economic raison d'etre. It is a public service, a shared facility created and maintained to serve the public good. If the community wants to have a school, that's the only reason the school needs to have to exist.

I do not stand in my classroom and tell a student who is failing my class that she has no perpetual right to exist regardless of her outcomes, and I also would not tell her that she has no right to have a school if she keeps failing-- which is what reformsters repeatedly do. Richmond may say, "Well, we'll build a nice charter for her instead, but we both know that's not true. He admitted as much further up the page. She might not make the cut for the charter. Then what?

Five, choice. This is already a long post, so let's just leave this as "nope." My reasons are many and sprinkled through many posts on this blog, but the best answer here is that choice will not accomplish any of the things that Richmond thinks it will. It will not spark improvement (the free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing), it will not make schools cheaper, it will not make schools better, and it will not come close to guaranteeing parents what they want and need for their children.

Richmond and I remain largely on opposite sides of many crucial issues. But I appreciate his willingness to try some open and honest and everybody-should-be-reasonable dialogue (yes, I know doing that is a ju-jitsu move that elevates his charter folks to equal standing with public schools, but let's let that slide for the moment), and he had some interesting things to say here. I'd be happy to sit down and chat with him any time, if he wants to talk to a real live public school advocate.

ICYMI: For an Easter Afternoon

As usual, my Easter morning has been a whirlwind of uplifting activity. What to do for an unwindy afternoon except read and write about education! Here are a few useful pieces from the last week. 

Writing that Challenges the Grit Narrative

Chris Thinnes compiles an excellent list of pieces that question and challenge the current state of the Grit business.

How DFER Leaders Channel Out-of-State Dark Money in California, Colorado and Beyond 

Lisa Graves at the Center for Media and Democracy does a dynamite job of tracking both the sources of DFER's money and the connections they work to use that money to support their agenda. Creepy, but illuminating.

The Next-To-Last Stand

The Chicago Teachers Union (motto "Teacher unionism doesn't have to be a New York City style hot mess") is taking action April 1st to make elected officials take notice. Principal Troy LaRaviere has written a great letter to his parents explaining what's going on, why, why he supports it, but most especially, how the school can navigate these contentious times and still remains a respectful, functioning community.

Eva's Offensive

Yes, I know what you're thinking, but no, that means "the offensive of Eva" and not "Eva is offensive." Anyway. John Merrow may be technically retired, but he still takes his reporter chops out and runs them around the block from time to time. Here's his look at what Eva Moskowitz has been doing to fight back against critics.

Integrated Learning Systems: The New Slavery

Set the wayback machine for 1992, when Gary Stager wrote about something called an integrated learning system. You'll recognize most of the issues almost immediately, and Stager's analysis and reactions are worth a moment of your time.

Taking the Wonder out of Science Education

Emma C. Williams makes a moving and clear case for putting wonder back in science (as well as an explanation of how we lost it). Meaningful even if you are not a science teacher.

New Leaders-- The Pretend Principals

Nancy Bailey provides another important addition to the Know Your Reformsters reading list. Meet New Leaders, the TFA of principal prep. A look at the work of its head honcho, Jon Schnur, provides just one more example of how inbred the world of reformster leaders is.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pearson Loves Professor HAL

Here's a spoiler alert: In their recent "report" entitled "Intelligence Unleashed: An Argument for AI in Education," Pearson does not include the argument "because it would be way cheaper and easier than dealing with humans." But they have many other arguments, and none of them are as convincing as that one.

The report is sixty-ish pages, some with pretty graphics, and I've read it so that you don't have to.

Sir Michael Says Hi

No Pearson paper, not even one from their "Open Ideas" series (because I expect that "open" sounds better than "wildly speculative") is complete without Sir Michael Barber, the Grand High Chieftain of Pearson stopping by to pontificate. Here he wants to note again that education hasn't changed nearly enough in the last thirty years, and so we should demand 1) to be "empowered" by an understanding of Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIEd), 2) a clear explanation of how AI can connect to "the core of education," and 3) concrete opytions for making AIEd real.

In other words, what we need is a degree of specificity about AIEd that allows us to assess, invest, plan, deliver, and test. 

So that's where we're headed.


I'm not going to spend too much time here previewing the journey that I'm about to take you on, but we're excited about AI exploding computery stuff on a scale of cell phone apps, allowing an all-time awesome level of collecting and collating data (because at Pearson, we're sure that if we know everything, we can control everything).

Their larger argument is that as AI takes over the workforce, humans have to get still smarter. They suggest we become "metaphorical judo masters" and use the power of AI to build humans who kick AI's ass.

They also want us to know that this paper is spawned by a frustration that super-duper AIEd ideas never make it out of the lab. This is apparently not because these ideas actually suck when applied to actual educating, but because the funding system of such research is siloed and "shies away from dealing with the essential messiness of educational contexts." Oh, hey. Maybe it is because of the actual ed suckiness after all.

What Is AI?

This is actually a not terrible two-page explanation of AI, or at a minimum, a recognition that nobody can explain exactly what AI is. One expert explains that lots of AI work is in apps, but once AI becomes useful, we don't call it AI, we just call it a useful algorithm.

So one definition of AI is that its a useful algorithm that human beings might mistake for intelligent sentience. But it isn't sentient. Weirdly enough, AI is coming at the weaknesses of competency based education from an entirely different angle-- if a series of tasks can be designed that make it look like a computer "knows" something or "understands" something, is that intelligence? Are we trying to create artificial intelligence, or an intelligence simulation.

I don't want to wander too far down this rabbit hole, but I'd argue that these authors are going after the simulation, and that actual intelligence that learns and grows is much farther out of reach.

This is where I'll bring up Tay, a cool idea that Microsoft had for playing with AI. Tay was a twitter bot who was supposed to go online, simulate a teen girl, and learn new expressions while growing her language skills. Within twenty-four hours, she had "learned" to be a Hitler-loving, racist, obscene pig of a tweeter. Oops.

Real AI is hard. Learning to use language is hard, and trying to teach computers to use language "realistically" is a field that often overlaps with AI. But while there are limited successes here and there, most of the success has been with simulating the appearance on intelligence, not actually creating it. They'll later re-phrase their definition like this:

AI involves computer software that has been programmed to interact with the world in ways normally requiring human intelligence. This means that AI depends both on knowledge about the world, and algorithms to intelligently process that knowledge.

So, fake intelligence by using intelligence. This is how AI crashes into the larger debate about what intelligence is-- does intelligence rest simply in outward and observable behaviors, is it a series of processing rules, or is it more complicated in ways we don't fully understand yet.

AI In Education

At the heart of AIEd is the scientific goal to “make computationally precise and explicit forms of educational, psychological and social knowledge which are often left implicit.” In other words, in addition to being the engine behind much ‘smart’ ed tech, AIEd is also a powerful tool to open up what is sometimes called the ‘black box of learning,’ giving us deeper, and more fine-grained understandings of how learning actually happens (for example, how it is influenced by the learner’s socio-economic and physical context, or by technology).

We are going to try to learn how humans learn by writing computer software. K.

AIEd systems are organized around three models of education-- the pedagogical model, the domain (or content) model, and the student model. In other words, should the software focus on how to teach the material, what material is to be taught, or what knowledge the student has and what she "needs" next?

So the software "asks" the student a question, the student responds, the data is analyzed, and the software decides what question to ask the student next. Oh, sorry-- the data is subject to "deep" analysis. Also, we'd like to whip up some measures of social and emotional stuff, with a side order of meta-cognition. This is our supposedly adaptive model of education.

I can already see a huge problem here, but let me hold my tongue and see if it comes up in the pages ahead.

What Can AIEd Offer Right Now?

A multitude of AIEd-driven applications are already in use in our schools and universities. Many incorporate AIEd and educational data mining (EDM) techniques to ‘track’ the behaviours of students

Well, that's great to know. Data mining is a feature, and not an add-on, of such a system. There's no way AI can "figure out" how the student is doing and what the student should do next without collecting a ton of data-- just like the live human meat widgets currently teaching classrooms around the globe. Which raises, not for the first time, why we need AI when we have actual HI (human intelligence) already available? If you have plenty of apples available to eat, why exactly would you devote time and energy on methods for making pears seem kind of like apples? But moving on...

There are three things that AIEd can do right now, today.

1) Provide a tutor. "One to one human tutoring  has long been thought to be the most effective approach to teaching and learning(since at least Aristotle’s tutoring of Alexander the Great!)" but there aren't enough humans to go around, which-- wait. Don't most small humans come equipped with one or two humans directly involved in bringing the small human into existence in the first place? Granted, not all small humans have them handy, and not all of them are going to be great tutors, but-- not enough humans to go around??!!

I presume the authors would consider a program like, say, Study Island, an AI tutor. The problem with these programs is that they kind of suck, and end up mostly being programs that tutor students in how to outthink the guys who wrote the software. Because an AI tutor is not an intelligence system-- it's a way of taking one tutor (the software writer) and multiplying his effect. Kind of like a book.

2) Intelligent support for collaborative learning. By crunching all that data, the software can tell you who should be in a group together. They might moderate the collaboration, or they might participate as an "expert voice." Kind of like a book.

3) Intelligent virtual reality to support learning in authentic environments. In other words, games. Another rabbit hole I don't want to go down now. I am intrigued by their framing of this technology as a safe way of role-playing for the student.

The Next Phase of AIEd

Pearson figures that the growing market for AI-ish stuff will drive more R&D in the field. Fair enough.

They also assert that AIEd will help teach 21st century skills, and they go to the list of skills from the World Economic Forum. The WEF is a global chamber of commerce, famous for their Davos convention. You will be unsurprised to learn that Pearson is a "strategic partner associate" which means they are "actively involved in the Forum’s mission and shape the agenda at the industry, regional and global level." So the list of skills that they call "common wisdom" are the product of a global corporate activist and advocacy group to which they belong. Just saying.

The writers feel there are two challenges for pushing these skills. First, "We must develop reliable and valid indicators that will allow us to track learner progress on all the skills and capabilities needed to thrive in the current century – at the level of the individual, the district, and the country." So, data mining the crap out of everything. Second, "We need a better understanding of the most effective teaching approaches and the learning contexts that allow these skills to be developed." So, we're not really sure exactly how to teach these skills, but we know it surely involves collecting all the data. All of it.

AIEd will obviously help with the massive data mining, and the writers believe that will unlock the keys to learning. We have heard this before-- go back to the 2012 DC speech from Knewton in which a Pearson sub-altern unironicaly explains that they hope to be able to tell you what to eat for breakfast on the day you have a math test.

Also, AIEd will help with the Renaissance in Assessment, a Pearson plan so audacious and awful that it took me six blog posts to work through it all (you can start here or here, if you're not doing anything else today).

The writers make some more claims for the future of AIEd. I'm only going to touch on a few.

AIEd will mark the end of stop-and-test. This is the CBE dream-- all assessment all the time, and Professor HAL will be there to help. AIEd will also use all the shiniest new research about psychology and learning and stuff. Oh, and this. I'd better give it its own heading.

AIEd Will Provide Lifelong Learning Partner

Your own personal Professor HAL to stay right with you through life. They can challenge you with questions, bring in experts and expert materials, and even prod you to learn by having you teach them. You will no longer need a human teacher; Professor HAL will be with you every step of the way.

Ethical Concerns

There's an actual full sidebar about this in the report, and it considers some good questions. What if something goes wrong, like say, a stock crash because of computer programming or a computerized car has a wreck? And what if the AI comes under an unsavory influence like a hacker (Pearson wrote this before Tay starting tweeting her love of f@#king Hitler). Who would be responsible for any of this, asks the report, which is a slightly different question than how do we keep this from happening or does this show an ethical void in the heart of this enterprise.

They also acknowledge the problems of data privacy, not only from the standpoint of the data-generating meat widgets , but from the standpoint of intellectual property rights. Because selling your child's data to other corporations is one thing, but letting someone pass around a copyrighted piece of Pearson intellectual revenue-generating property-- that's a real problem.

Also, this could change the way people act. Users might be tempted to have a relationship with their learning companion, and the writers acknowledge that this is very.... something. Squicky.

Also, there's a sidebar about AIEd in the physical world, so that you get squicked out about how, oh yeah, they'll keep track of you physically as well-- how you look, how you move. Also, how you feel. And I'm not sure exactly what these paragraphs right here mean, but I think Pearson is promising us all holodecks. Cool!

The Next Level: AIEd and the Great Unsolved Problems of Education

So there are all these ongoing ed challenges that AIEd will totally help with. Let's run the list.

The Achievement Gap. If we just bathe children in the AI all the time, starting at birth, we can keep the poor ones from falling behind. We could put them in some sort of facility-- call it something benign, like a creche, maybe. Incidentally, I'm thinking it's time for all of us to get out our copies of Brave New World.

Bettering teachers. Training them better, keeping them longer, getting them into high-needs schools. Professional development is important, but expensive. So let's just give every teacher their own Learning Companion. With your own personal Professor HAL at the ready, you'll be kept as informed and well-educated as you were back when you were a hatchling in the creche. Oddly enough, this bullet point almost sidesteps the obvious implication of the rest of the work, which is, what exactly do we need human teachers for, again?

Although the most effective implementations of AIEd will deploy it alongside the expertise and empathy that is peculiarly human, in some instances this simply will not be possible, at least in the short-term. This means we will need to rely on technology to make available high-quality learning experiences to places where this is currently lacking.

Bringing It All Together for a Big Finish

Throughout this paper we have set out the AIEd pieces that could– with further development and smart real-world testing – offer a proportionate response to the new innovation imperative in education. Simply stated the imperative is this: as humans live and work alongside increasingly smart machines, our education systems will need to achieve at levels that none have managed to date.

So, trying to read through the rhetorical fog that is a Pearson paper, this may mean "we must use education to help lift the masses out of their big ever-deepening hole" or "we must get the meat widgets tooled up so that the corporations of tomorrow will be able to find enough useful drones all over the globe." It's possible that these guys don't see any difference between the two.

They offer a chart for fifteen years from now, which does helpfully note that humans will continue to excelle at social skills, and the ability to get along and empathize will "continue to be valued" (though it does not say by whom).

Recommendations (theirs and mine)

So what exactly does Pearson think people should be doing to bring this brave new world to fruition? They do have some thoughts-- here are some of them, and my response.

AIEd has dealt mostly with highly structured learning like math and physics. It will have to get more ambitious, and not be seduced by technology, but focus on the learning. 

Fifty Shades of Gray aside, when someone chains you to a wall in the basement, that is not seduction. AIEd has stuck to the simple stuff because that is all the technology can handle. What software can do very well is run a fairly complicated decision tree, where each last multiple choice answer leads to a different set of follow-up questions. But the more complex the response, the more useless the software.

This is best highlighted by the testing industry's complete and utter failure at developing reliable, valid, and just plain not-ridiculous essay grading software. PARCC is just about to try it again, and it will fail-- again. Les Perelman is one of my heroes, a man who has humiliated essay-scoring software again and again and again, because, as my computer prof told me decades ago, computers are dumb. (For more on this, read here, here, and here).

The classic expression of computer stupidity is GIGO-- garbage in, garbage out. A computer learning program is only as good as the questions and answers that have been programmed into it. Because computers cannot assess complex answers, any so-called learning software is really just a huge, complex question bank. If those questions suck, the software sucks.

AIEd technology cannot be a monolithic creation. Funding and structure need to favor a multitude of individual components. 

Well, yes and no. I agree that creating one monolithic AIEd entity that can handle any possible subject or level is a fools game. But a quick look around the world of computer tech tells us that many-pronged tech isn't really a thing. Do you run Windows or Apple OS (you in the back, trying to plug Linux, just hush-- nobody cares)?

Whether we're talking computers, phones or game systems, there are many options for individual apps/games/software/whatever, but only a very few platforms on which to run them. AIEd may, and should, come from many many sources, but at the end of the day, some monolith is going to be the platform. And platform wars can be long and ugly (Sony was scheduled to make the last BETAmax videotape this month). How will schools, with already-limited budgets, handle the AIEd platform wars? Who can afford to drop a few million on tomorrow's AIEd Sega Dreamcast.

AIEd system change will be a bitch. Better make sure to include teachers, students, and parents. Also develop some standards for addressing the ethics of handling all that data. 

Nice thoughts, all. But of course teachers, parents and students have not been involved in any meaningful way in any of the education reforms of the past fifteen years. If they are admitted at all, the price of admission is to be a compliant agreenik who doesn't say mean things like, "This idea is crap," and the admission ticket generally gets you a chance to say nice things about work that has already been completed.

It's the eternal puzzle of educational expertise. If a bunch of teachers at my school called up a computer lab and said, "Clear us some space. We are going to tell you how to run your AI development project," not a human being on the planet would take us seriously. However, any human being on the planet with access to power, money or technology can barge into our classrooms and tell us how we should be doing our jobs. It's not that I think that no teachers ever need to hear advice from anyone ever. But why is teaching the only professional sector in the world that everybody feels qualified to "reform"?

Also, when developing the ethics of handling data, make sure that you cover the ethics of having and collecting it in the first place (how much private information are you entitled to take in the first place, and why are you entitled) as well as the questions of keeping it safe (much recent history suggests you can't).

That's It 

I'm still not sure that this report manages to distinguish between Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Simulation, but either way, it imagines a future that is premised by many factors not in evidence (In the future, unicorns will be carried to their cloud cities by flying pigs). The black box of learning has not been opened. The ethics of data collection, storage and use have not been settled (or even particularly discussed). The ability of software to handle anything but the most simple multiple choice questioning still doesn't exist. And the educational value of a CBE-personalized system has not yet been proven. Pearson's crystal ball needs a cleaning.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Buy This Book

I was going to be more subtle, but the point here really is to plug an invaluable new book.

The topic-- or, topics-- of education reform now requires the equivalent of a self-administered undergrad degree just to understand. Those of us who have traveled far down the rabbit hole may often forget it, but there is a whole list of names and programs and policies that we rattle off without thinking, but which hit the average civilian's ear like a sloppy bowl of foreign gibberish. We have long needed an entry-level text for people who are just entering the field.

Enter Russ Walsh. Russ has just published A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century: Navigating Education Reform to Get the Best Education for my Child, and it is an excellent starting place for people who are trying to Make Sense of It All. Walsh is a blogger and teacher, an expert in the field of reading, and an erudite writer with great focus and skill.

The table of contents gives you the idea of what this book covers:

1) Education Reform in the 21st Century
2) The qualities of a good school
3) Readiness for school
4) Meeting your child's learning needs in Literacy and Mathematics
5) Meeting your child's social and emotional needs
6) Technology and learning
7) Getting a good teacher in every classroom
8) The Common Core
9) Uses and abuses of standardized tests
10) The standardized test opt-out movement
11) School choice: charter schools and vouchers

Each chapter has subheadings that allow the reader to go straight to the answers they want at the moment. The book also kicks off with Walsh's powerhouse Bill of Rights for School Children.

The book manages to lay out the issues clearly and directly, and while there is no doubt that Walsh is not on the side of the reformsters, he gives them their say and presents their side fairly and clearly as well (It's not his fault that they're just wrong).

This is the rare book that can clarify issues without cutting corners or dumbing down. Even if you are someone conversant in the rocky terrain of ed reform, Walsh's book will remind you of the clarity of the issues behind the mess, and he manages to put all of this sprawling messiness in context, creating one large picture as well. And all in under 200 pages.

This is an excellent gift for your friend or colleague who has just started to try to make sense of the reformy terrain, and it will be an invaluable aid to parents who are just realizing that the whole school biz is more complicated than it was back in their day. Buy this book!

CBE: Another Exemplar School

Fans of Competency Based Education have a few favorite go-to exemplars of their idea in action.

The granddaddy of all exemplars is the school system of Chugach, Alaska. Chugach actually joined in the Outcome Based Education movement of two decades ago and never looked back. But Chugach serves a small population spread over a large more-than-rural area (214 students over 22,000 square miles). And if you start to look at their record of success, it is perhaps not quite as awesome as it first appears.

So for many reasons, maybe not such a great example. Do we have anything closer to home?

Meet Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire and its principal, Brian Stack. Stack has spent about six years working on this, and he has written about it with a dedication that I have to respect. His school is regularly featured as an exemplar school, a model school for CBE. A couple of CBE fans have directed me toward his work, so I've been taking a look, and while I can by no means claim to have read everything he has to say about his school's work with CBE, I am prepared to react.

Good Thing: Considering Local History

One thread that runs through Stack's writing about the process of implementing CBE is just how much he considered how things had been done in the past. He appears to have really thought about how CBE could be implemented to address issues that the school already had. In other words, he seemed to have skipped the part of reform where you just drag everyone onto the new track no matter where they already are.

Bad Thing: A Not-very-typical School

The school is located in Kingston, NH, a community of just under 6,000 people. The town's population is 97.97% white, and the median income is a bit over $61K. The school also draws from Fremont and Newton , two slightly smaller towns with nearly identical demographics. The area is rural in the sense that it is neither all developed up or urbanized (Coastal New Hampshire is heavy on the marshland, which is a great inhibitor of development). I drive through the area a couple of times a year, and it most resembles what you imagine when you think of a quaint New England town (Not Near The Ocean division). Kingston is about seven miles away from Exeter (home of Philips Exeter Academy) and a little bit further from the actual ocean.

The student body is only about 750 students, and in some promotional videos for the school, I saw one black student and one Asian student. Sanborn Regional High School is not Finland, but it's certainly doesn't have the cultural or economic mix of many American schools. That means there are many educational challenges that they have neither faced nor overcome.

Good Thing: Actual Personalization

It should be noted that there is no earthly reason to assume that CBE means personalization. Schools can (and have) institute a CBE system in which every student completes exactly the same competencies and the only personalized portion of the education is the student's pace through the checklist of things to do. So I give the state of New Hampshire some credit for emphasizing personalization in the CBE context.

That is set in a fairly broad framework that leaves a great deal of room for interpreting the specifics. Sanborn lists as it values Personalization, Risk-taking, Integrity, Discovery and Empowerment (PRIDE-- get it?) and then lists as their educational goals are to effectively communicate, creatively solve problems, responsibly use information, self-manage learning, produce quality work, and contribute to their community (ECCSPRUIS... never mind). To meet these goals, students are broken down into "learning communities" that pursue these goals in a variety of ways. That would seem to set the stage for personalization.

Bad Thing: That's Not the Way the Wind Is Blowing

There are some problems with personalization if you are a reformster who hopes to make some money scaling all of this up, and don't think folks haven't noticed.

Julia Freeland Fisher works at the Clayton Christensen Institute where she "leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research." She used to work for the New Schools Venture Fund, an organization that helps hedge funders get their hands on some sweet, sweet education money. She has written about the CBE movement in NH-- here's how she defines it.

...creating opportunities for students to move at a flexible, personalized pace; providing supplemental content for students who are struggling or who want to move ahead; and making assessments more frequent and formative, with a focus on demonstrating mastery in real-world examples and settings. 

So now we're back to moving through a single track at different speeds, with the occasional "extra" work to remediate or enrich. We're back to all testing, all the time. This is not so impressive. And what obstacles does Fisher see standing in the way of making CBE really take off in NH?

First, local control still allows districts to interpret these additional mandates to their liking.

Second, scaling the state’s vision of personalized competency-based education will require new academic tools and processes that arm teachers and students with real-time feedback and enable students to move through content at a flexible pace

Fisher says that lots of districts are uncomfortable with their level of freedom and keep asking the state to just go ahead and set competencies for them. And here we find one of the central problems of modern CBE-- it's sold as personalization, but the goal is invariably to create a computer-driven model that manages all the data and assessment. So the goal is completely standardized personalization.

I don't know how this playing out at Sanborn-- in all Stack's writing, he has remarkably little to say about what the actual competencies actually look like, or how the process of personalization actually works. If we look at his letter to his earlier self, most of his "If I knew then" concerns are managerial and cultural (also, he uses "impact" as a verb, for which I give him one demerit).

Big Problem Area: Grading

So how do you do the grade thing if you have a whole bunch of different students doing different things at a different pace? You can try reading pieces like this Quality Performance Assessment article, but holy smokes, it is vague and useless. Stack talks a lot about how he had to implement and enforce a common grading system; he seems to feel that different teachers having their own philosophies and ideas about grading were a problem. Personally, I'm not so sure. Stack is also pretty adamant about not giving zeros and not tying grades to things like homework points, and his policy is that the summative assessments must be 90% of the final grade.

Additionally, the school focuses on reassessment, a rolling grade (no grading periods). But Stack's writing is always a bit oblique about exactly how assessment is done. For example:

The ability to be able to “dig deeper” into what a final grade represents and how it can be used to report learning not only intrigued the admissions officers, but it generated an entire discussion around what else a competency-based grading and reporting system could do for students. Indeed, this model should be the way of the future for all high schools.  

Stack never talks about any massive computer-driven test and store data collection, but is that what being able to dig deeper and see more detail means? Tom Vander Ark put the school on the list of thirty to watch, and since TVA is the ultimate lets just hook everyone up to a computer and start data mining technocrat, that really doesn't speak well of Sanborn.

Sanborn uses a grading system that any casual observer will recognize as an A-to-F scale by another name. Here's the sheet that parents are directed to for answers. I'm just not sure how many answers are actually here. I mean, it explains some things, kind of, and I don't find any online record of parental uproar, so it must be working in some way. I'm just left feeling that some aspects of Sanborn's system are mysterious and unclear.

A Greater Tension

So despite some peoples' insistence that looking at Sanborn will help me understand how CBE can be awesome, it doesn't.

It does help focus my mind on one of the built in tensions that emerge between personalization, competency based education, technology-driven test and data collection, and scaling any of this into state-or-nation-wide product. All four of those things are in play here, and none of them HAVE to go together. In fact, some of them operate in direct opposition. True personalized education would begin the day that the teacher meets the child, with nothing pre-created or pre-designed. True competency based education has some serious problems built in, not the least of which is its focus on reducing all learning to a series of money tricks. Hooking students up to the computer for all standardized testing, all day is great for Data Overlords, but not for education. And the degree to which any of this can be scaled up for widespread deployment is in direct opposition to the degree to which it is truly a personalized program. Computerized one size fits all is not personalized education, but places like Sanborn and Chugach suggest that fans of these approaches are trying to pilot in places where one-size-fits-all is likely to work a bit better due to a local lack of diversity.

These different aspects of CBE stand in opposition to each other, and the value of any single program is going to rest on how it settles these "tensions."