Friday, September 30, 2016

OK: Teach Like a Robot

This week Tulsa news outlets were covering an exciting non-innovation innovation arriving in local classrooms-- real time coaching.

See, in normal coaching, a principal watches a teacher and then it is hours, or even days, before the teacher gets the feedback. But in real time coaching, the coach directs the teacher through an earpiece, presumably because the technology to simply control her body from a distance does not yet exist.

One more example of real time coaching about to go badly

This piece follows poor second-year teacher Krystal Medina who goes through this process. Perhaps that teacher should talk to Amy Berard, a Massachusetts teacher who has been dragged through this particular corner of ed reform hell, as she wrote at Edushyster.

The students were also perplexed by my new earpiece accessory. "Um, Miss, what’s that in your ear?" they asked. I looked over to the three adults in the far back corner of the room for my scripted answer. "Tell them you are like Tom Brady. Tom Brady wears an earpiece to be coached remotely and so do you," was the response. I never would have said that, and mumbled instead: "But I’m not Tom Brady. No, I’m not Tom Brady." The students, who could hear me, but not what I was hearing through my earpiece, were more confused than ever.

The press were there to watch Remote Control Scripting in action because they had been invited there by Tulsa Public Schools and the company TPS hired to provide this program. It's the same company that put Berard through her paces-- CT3 (The Center for Transformative Teacher Training). They are partners with all the cool kids-- Success Academies, Teach for America, Aspire, and many other charter schools.

CT3 has two co-founders. Co-founder Kristyn Klei Borrero is also CEO. Borrero did at least start out with an education degree from Miami (1995). Borrero was a principal at age 27 and running turnaround charter schools in Oakland and Palo Alto, California. She was also a honcho at Aspire charters in California, the charter chain set up by Don Shalvey (Gates Foundation) and Reed "Elected School Boards Suck" Hastings (Netflix). Aspire is also in the Build Your Own Teachers business.

The other co-founder's name is familiar to most teachers Of A Certain Age. Lee Canter made a name for himself on the professional development circuit with Assertive Discipline, an approach based on taking control of your classroom. But for CT3 Cantor has also developed the No-Nonsense Nurturer program and the Real-Time Coaching model. Both NNN and RTC are registered trademarks, because there's no point in repackaging well-worn materials with a little twist unless you can call it proprietary information. It's a hoot, isn't it, that Jonas Salk never patented the polio vaccine; in fact, when asked about the patent he said, "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?" Nowadays that would be considered certified crazy person talk. If you develop something people need, of course you patent it and make a mint. And if you "discover" something that is not actually new, you just tweak it a little so that you can patent it. You may not yet be able to get a patent on a pig, but put lipstick on the pig, and you've got yourself a proprietary product. Ka-ching.

But I digress.

No Nonsense Nurturing has been around forever, but previously we've called it "tough love" or "taking a hard line" or even "acting like an emotionally-withholding, borderline-abusive jerk." I have never seen nor read of an example of it that doesn't make me immediately think "this is no way to treat human beings."

Real-Time Coaching, the part that got all the press attention in Tulsa, is actually Real-Time Scripting, and like scripting, it has no place in a classroom. Ever. No child should ever, ever have a teacher whose answer to, "Why are we doing this?" is "Because the voices in my head tell me to."

The real time nature of the coaching is actually a bug, not a feature. If I'm coaching another teacher, after I've watched the lesson, I'll need at least a few minutes to reflect. In the real time moment, I'm pretty much limited to the instant thought of What I Would Do, or, if I've been trained in a particular method, the One Correct Response to that situation. Either response devalues and dismisses that teacher's own teaching voice.

It's just silly to say that there is One Correct Way to teach a particular lesson, irregardless of the teacher or the class involved. It makes no more sense than saying there is One Correct Way to be a spouse, irregardless of who is your partner.

Borrero defends CT3 practices by saying, "Our programs were developed through careful analysis of high performing teachers’ practices in schools serving traditionally disenfranchised communities across the country; all of our work is rooted in building positive life-altering relationships with youth and their families." But it is hard for me to imagine how Real Time Coaching could possibly help accomplish any such thing.

Standardizing and human behavior is the worst kind of folly. To fit in such a system requires the practitioners to be less themselves, less real, less human. It is a favored dream of people who are too small to comprehend the vast variety of human experience and behavior, too scared to face anything but the narrow sliver of possibilities they feel prepared to master, or too morally impaired to respect the independence and autonomy of other human beings.

Good teaching exists at the intersection of the material, the humanity of the teacher, and the humanity of the students in the room. Additionally, that intersection is influenced by a background of previous experience, current events, and the feelings of the moment. It cannot be standardized any more than a marriage or a child or a pancake or a planet can be standardized. And it can't be attempted because it shouldn't be attempted.

I have no doubt that buried here in there in the real-time scripting and the no-nurturing nonsense, there are occasional nuggets of useful information or technique. But it is saddening to see CT3 still successfully peddling their wares. Nobody needs to teach like a robot.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

NC: Charters Get Their More-Than-Fair Share

The North Carolina Justice Center has just released a study of charter school funding, and if anyone was worried that poor NC charters were not getting sufficient support, they can relax.

"Fair Funding for Charter Schools: Mission Accomplished" comes from Kris Nordstrom. Nordstrom is a NC economist who has worked in government before joining NCJC. He's no anti-charter zealot; witness this quote from a piece about the report:

Charter schools are public schools, and North Carolina’s students deserve equal funding whether they attend a public charter school or a "traditional" public school operated by a local school district. Luckily, "fair funding" already exists.

As regular readers know, I'm in complete disagreement with him on this point-- charters are private schools run with public tax dollars. But I mention this so that it's clear I'm not simply cherry-picking from the work of someone who already agrees with me.

Nordstrom's report has some simple but important findings, but first, he makes this observation about "fairness."

It is worth noting that under both current law and HB 539, the sharing of local funds only flows in one direction: from the school district, to the charter school. Under neither scenario is the charter school required to share local funding – which includes grant funding and private donations – with the traditional public school system.

Yeah, you know, it is worth noting. In fact, that's one more way in which charter schools really aren't public schools at all. But let's get on to the findings.

These findings are important, because charter advocates in NC have been advocating for "fair funding" by making claims such as "On average, our state’s public charter schools get less than 75 cents for every dollar given to traditional public schools." First of all, that's a pretty clear abandonment of the old charter claim that they could spend tax dollars more wisely and efficiently than stupid, bloated public schools.

"We will only spend 75 cents compared to every public school dollar," used to be a proud charter boast. Now it's their sad complaint.

But it turns out that it's also a big fat Thing That Is Not Exactly True.

Nordstrom is looking at data from fiscal 2014-15, and what his data says is that charters actually spend more local tax dollars per student than public schools. That's about $215 more local dollars being spent by charters, per student, than at public schools.

To put it another way, charter advocates claim they are getting 75% of the local funding that public schools get, when they are actually getting 110%.

There are lots of twists and turns to this data. For one, NC bases payments to charters on the per-pupil spending in the student's district of origin, so there's some averaging and slack in those figures. Nordstrom tries correcting for that and still finds charters spending $40 more per pupil than public schools. His analysis is that charters have a higher population of students from districts with higher-than-average per pupil spending. That would be consistent with the findings that wealthier white parents are using the charter system to get their kids away from Those People's Children

Nordstrom does a few more rounds of number-crunching, concluding that under a truly fair system, charters would owe the public system about $3 million. Probably not going to happen. But his conclusion is pretty clear:

No matter how you cut it, local funding of North Carolina's charter schools looks awfully fair.

And then some. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Outsourcing College

The Education Management Corporation is based right up the road from me in Pittsburgh, PA. They're a for-profit education provider whose best-known outlet is the Art Institute chain. (They should not be confused with the Education Credit Management Corporation, an outfit that is also in the for-profit college biz, having bought up the pieces of the Corinthian empire.)

They've had their problems. You know a company has been struggling when its website proudly announces front and center that it has struck a deal with thirty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Justice to end the many, many, many state and federal suits, investigations,  and charges against it for fraud and bad recruiting practices.

Mock my hair all you want. It cost more than your house.

Now this morning's Politico includes other shenanigans-flavored news:

The latest downsizing move by one of the nation's largest for-profit college chains — the cash-strapped Education Management Corporation — may be selling off campuses to a company in India.

The company in question appears to be Ritman Balved Education Foundation, a non-profit that runs the relatively huge Amity International School chain. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (one of the thirty-nine attorney generals involved with EDMC's other shenanigans) describes the sale as a "plan to outsource the remainder of its teach-out obligations to an unlicensed foreign entity."

Amity is part of a rising trend in India of private universities, a trend that attracted attention from the Wall Street Journal in 2007. That story notes that India was having trouble adjusting to the rise of private businesses in education, and that while Indian law required schools of higher learning to be non-profit, they were still plenty expensive and making some folks mighty rich. There are concerns they are "blurring the lines between philanthropy and business." Go figure. It all sounds familiar:

While the private universities are adding much-needed capacity, they are also raising questions about the quality of their degrees and the motives of some wealthy backers.

RBEF is one philanthropy-flavored foundation behind this movement, though it does have some features that don't immediately resemble our US brand of edu-philanthropic-profiteering. For instance, their website touts their educational commitment, but notes that RBEF

also supports nation building through initiatives like military training, environment & energy research, corporate social responsibility, youth empowerment activities like hosting world youth forums, sporting academies and extensive support for the underprivileged sections of the society.

Nation building through military training. Well, then. That's one thing that Gates and Walton don't do, as far as I know.

RBEF was founded by Dr Ashok K Chauhan, an international corporate billionaire who decided in 1986 to get into the edubusiness. His main business is the AKC Group of Companies, which includes a bit of everything, now including the RBEF. He has done very very well for himself, with a chain that includes five universities and hundreds of schools at other levels. Chauhan is pushing 75, but his son is already in place to take over the family business.

So I'm torn here. On the one hand, EDMC's Bob Greenlee offers what are clearly weasel words (EDMC "remains committed to providing current students with the resources on-site to meet their educational and career needs" which of course means that once the current crop is outta here, all bets are off). Meanwhile, Politico reports that current students are being vigorously pushed toward the door. EDMC is already has its boarding pass and its luggage tagged for a trip on Outsource Airlines.

On the other hand, RBEF appears to have a hell of a lot more positive experience than EDMC, a group that is admittedly older (1962) but has spent the last decade hemorrhaging money and picking up lawsuits. They may be one more money-grubbing corporation in education to make a buck, but at least they're a stable one.

We've seen the pattern with private business universities before-- ultimately the revenue matters more than taking care of the students, corners are cut, false promises are made, more corners are cut, and soon the school has polluted its own business so badly that it can't be sustained. Outsourcing is one more logical evolution of a model that is bad business and worse education.

TX: Denying Special Education

You must read this piece of investigative reporting from the Houston Chronicle.

In "Denied:How Texas keeps tens of thousands of children out of special education,"
reporter Brian M. Rosenthal lays out the secret of yet another Texas miracle-- getting special education numbers down by systematically denying support and services to the students who need them.

The bottom line is simple-- and chilling:

Over a decade ago, the [unelected Texas Education Agency] officials arbitrarily decided what percentage of students should get special education services — 8.5 percent — and since then they have forced school districts to comply by strictly auditing those serving too many kids.

It is a system that has worked remarkably well at getting state expenses down, but as the story of one child denied support and services heartbreakingly lays out, it has not been very successful for the children of Texas. The denial of services has reached every sort of special need students can have, from learning disabilities to speech impediments to orthopedic impairments to visual problems. And it is worst in the cities, where need is arguably highest:

In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 are in Texas.

The "target" of 8.5% was set in 2004, and it was based on nothing--

Four agency officials set the benchmark, former employees said: special education director Eugene Lenz; his deputies, Laura Taylor and Kathy Clayton; and accountability chief Criss Cloudt.

The only one who agreed to speak with the Chronicle, Clayton, said the choice of 8.5 percent was not based on research. Instead, she said, it was driven by the statewide average special education enrollment.

Reminded that the statewide average was nearly 12 percent at the time, Clayton paused.

"Well, it was set at a little bit of a reach," she said. "Any time you set a goal, you want to make it a bit of a reach because you're trying to move the number."

The story strongly suggests that what Texas has done is illegal, but it's worth remembering that its very much in line with thinking of reformsters like Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who argued that students with special needs could be cured of any problems by having teachers with high expectations for them and that the Department of Education has repeatedly taken shots at special education programs while insisting that the Big Standardized Test is one size fits absolutely all.

In other words, what is happening in Texas, as outlined by this story, is absolutely wrong and completely insupportable-- but it is also in line with ongoing federal policies aimed at pushing back against special education.  

Professor Bush Goes To Harvard

So, Jeb Bush is going to be a visiting fellow at Harvard at the Kennedy School's Program on Education Policy and Governance.


I suppose he could open his lecture with a recap of all the educational successes he had in Florida with programs that helped teachers teach and led to greater students success, but after that two minutes were up, what would he talk about for the rest of the time.

It is easy to imagine the many edifying lectures he could present. There's "How To Use Letter Grades To Grossly Oversimplify A Complex Human Service and Crush the Spirits of the People Who Work There." Or for the more business oriented crowd, "How To Dismantle a Public Service for Private Profit" as well as "How To Create an Astro-Turf Organization." And of course folks would line up for "Don't Build the House of Your Presidential Ambitions on the Sand of Your Education Policy." Maybe he'll even visit the philosophy department for "The Unbearable Angst of Watching All Your Hopes and Dreams Turn To Dust."

Presumably each lecture by Bush will conclude with a plea for the students to "please clap."

Harvard also announced other visiting fellows. Over at the medical school, Bob Phlegm will be lecturing on medicine and the proper uses of pharmaceuticals. Says Phlegm, "I should be great at this. After all, I've been to the doctor and had drugs prescribed. Also, I used to get high when I was a teenager. So I figured I'm as qualified to lecture about medicinal herbs as anyone."

Britney Spears will also be appearing as a guest lecturer on brain surgery. Said Harvard spokesman, "She once shaved her head, which is where the brain is located, so she's a qualified expert."

"Also," the spokesman continued, "we're going to get Kim Kardashian in here for something. I'm sure she has many areas of expertise, and lots of name recognition, and she's pretty rich, too. So, you know, we'll find some department for her to lecture in."

It is hard not to feel a little bit sorry for Jeb! at this stage of the game. This is a guy who spent his entire life building a big, beautiful sand castle with hopes of winning the big sculpture contest, only to have the castle ignored by the crowds and kicked over by some cheeto-faced baboon.

On the other hand, this is a guy who believes in the power of meritocracy and grit, so I think it's fair to ask what exactly qualifies him to talk about anything related to education other than dismantling it for fun and profit. Where are his successes? What is the merit, other than a famous name, a family fortune, and a lot of connections, that Jeb! Bush brings to Harvard's crimson table?

Jeb! wants to unleash the power of the free market on schools, forcing those that "fail" to fold up and go away, and those that provide "value" should prosper. So I have to wonder-- what free market forces determine that Jeb! is somehow entitled to function in this universe as an educational expert? What successes can he point to that reasonably lead the free market to reward him for his expertise? Yes, he has been successful in imposing and advocating for bad education policies that have consistently failed to work, so I guess he might be a good fit for lectures about marketing.

Maybe it's just that for children of Great Privilege, Harvard lecturer is such a step down from Leader of the Free World that this is what passes for failure (may my friends and I all fail so badly some day). Maybe it's name recognition-- after all, Lindsey Lohan kept getting cast long after anyone thought it was a good idea because her name brought customers in. 

But education expert and lecturer? I'm pretty sure Harvard can do better, can provide meaningful and useful teaching about public education, if they're so inclined. Selecting Jeb! is just further proof that their inclinations run another direction.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

FL: Bad Retail Management As Ed Policy

If you have worked in the retail world, you have probably had this experience. If you teach in Florida, you're about to.

Somewhere way up the corporate ladder, some guys in a board room declare that they predict an awesome quarter for the corporate coffers. This awesome result is based on an uptick in revenue and that uptick is based on... well, it's based on pressuring the sales force. Not improved product, not greater demand in the marketplace, not any attempt to create a new relationship between the brand and the customers. Not any of the things that would actually be the responsibility of those boardroom guys.

No, what's going to happen is that the new Sales Goal Figures will be passed down the ladder until we finally arrive at a meeting between a store manager and the sales staff in which the store manager informs them that they are expected to move another $2,000 in merchandise per week.

What's the corporate assumption here? Well, it's not that the product or the corporate structure needs to be tweaked or fixed. The assumption is that, somehow, the sales staff could sell more if they just...well, did it.

Management may offer or impose some new policies or procedures (develop a customer call list and hit it every day, cry when you are trying to land the sale, or tackle customers when they get in the door and don't let them up until they buy something). But these are implemented backwards, after the fact. In other words, corporate doesn't say, "We've got some new ideas that we think will improve your sales so much that we can reasonably raise your goals." No-- it's "We are going to raise your goals. Here are some wild-ass guesses at things that might help you meet those goals."

This is bad management, and it can be found all over the retail sales world. It burns out sales people, gives management an excuse to keep wages low (you didn't meet your numbers again this month, Vern), and worst of all, it encourages sales staff to view customers as adversaries (I need to get your money away from you-- stop holding out on me).

Florida remains determined to establish itself as the leading state for Bad Education Policy (watch out, North Carolina) and so the Florida Board of Education decided to set "ambitious" education goals for state schools.

According to the strategic plan, reading and math scores on the Big Standardized Test are going to go up 7% by the 2019-2020 school year. So math and ELA numbers will both go from 52% to 59%. The graduation rate will increase 7.1% because that will increase the rate from 77.9% to the nicely rounded 85%. Postsecondary completion is going to increase by 10%!

Florida calls this a "strategic plan," and that's sort of accurate if you overlook the fact that there is neither a plan nor a strategy.

This is not a coach saying, "We've got these great new plays to try and I think they will raise our scoring 25%." This is a coach saying, "Get out there and score more points. Somehow. I don't know how-- just do it, dammit!"

This is not a corporate bigwig saying, "With the new strategies we have in place, we project the following improvements in our revenues next quarter." This is a corporate bigwig hammering his fist on the desk and hollering, "Bring in another ten percent in revenues or I will fire the whole damn lot of you." This is the heads of Wells Fargo saying, "I want every front line salesman opening 50 new accounts per month. I don't know or care how they're going to do it-- just tell them to do it or I'll can their asses." (The part where the corporate boss acts surprised by rampant cheating comes later.)

What's the theory here? Children will be getting smarter over the next few years? Teachers have been holding out and when faced with super-duper targets they will finally shrug and say, "Well, okay, I guess I'll finally really try to do my job." Or is it just that if we have a "bold" target set for no reason other than we aimed somewhere between "too small to be impressive" and "so large it's clearly ridiculous" and then we just threaten teachers and schools to go ahead and hit it, somehow.

This, of course, was the operating theory of No Child Left Behind-- set goals based on unicorn tears and fairy whispers and then just threaten people real hard so that they'll meet those goals. The whole rest of the country has since figured out that the NCLB operating theory is junk and gets you a whole lot of Nothing Good. So kudos to Florida board members for throwing one more burning sack of donkey poo that is the dumpster fire of Florida education policy. If nothing else, you are making many other states look enlightened and wise by comparison, and for that, those of us who don't teach in Florida thank you.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Center for Ed Reform All In on Privatizing

The Center for Education Reform, Jeanne Allen's charter-and-choice advocacy group, is having a senior moment. Under the breathless headline, "Nation's Most Senior Education Reform Group Relaunches," CER has issued a press release about "its complete refocus on the changing landscape of American education, taking on the most difficult issues that no other national organization is currently pursuing."

Wow! What plucky drive these folks have! This appears to be a follow-up to the manifesto they issued this summer. I waded through the whole thing here, but let me summarize even more succinctly--

Reformsters have gotten too wimpy and off-message, allowing themselves to be too often engaged by the dupes of the evil teachers' unions, and so now we must have bold and decisive leadership that unashamedly embraces the value of turning education over to corporate control. We must learn a lesson from the fate of the Common Core, struck down in its prime because its defenders did not boldly resist the evil forces arrayed against it (and not at all because it sucked and couldn't deliver any of what it promised).

But now, the CER has found new focus, new dedication, and, apparently, a new English-to-corporate gobbledeegook translator:

Coming on the heels of an intensive 8-month review of the organization, the larger education ecosystem and the hundreds of new entrants to the market that have emerged since The Center was founded in 1993, the Center’s board, team and advisors crafted a new theory of change to refocus the intent of education reform toward every student -- no matter their stage in life, where they live, and how they learn. By leading the creation of a new eco-system that has innovators and entrepreneurs at the center of the work, CER will ensure that thousands more thought leaders and millions more people become engaged in new efforts to advance educational excellence.

That is some rich baloney there. There's lots of choice language here, but the key phrase is "eco-system that has innovators and entrepreneurs at the center of the work." Nowhere here is there even a whisper or a hint of respect or care for public education as we know it, the "conventional wisdom" that Allen says she wants people to buck. This is just straight-up corporate privatizing let us take over the whole sector talking now.

This comes with some sort of ill-defined retooling of CER itself, apparently, though what comes out is phrases like "the intensive 360 review of the education reform sector and the Center’s own capabilities has resulted in a novel and impactful new organization and mission." Impactful, huh? Sounds awesome. Maybe a graphic would make all this clearer and plainer:

Okay, maybe that's a little too plain-- I hope nobody was paid much to come up with that graphic. But here's one thing that has clearly changed about CER-- in this press release, someone other than Allen gets to speak:

“Innovation is the pathway to opportunity,” said CER Vice Chair Michael Moe, the co-founder of Global Silicon Valley Advisors (GSV). “Our work must no longer just be about reform, but about results, which can come about from thousands of disrupting innovations and efforts across the world, if we are willing to explore them.”

Allen has chided me in the past for making fun of CER, but honestly, when people insist on writing this kind of obfuscating jorgonesque fluffernuttery, how can one not? As Horation puts it to the rambling and wordy Osric in Hamlet: "Is't not possible to understand in another tongue? You will do't, sir, really."

This is corporate baloney-speak, aimed at the same corporate folks who want so very much to get their hands on public education dollars. As elaborated in their manifesto, CER wants to see the handcuffs and regulations taken off charters, and for a million opportunities to be financed. Allen is sure it is time to just stop pussyfooting around and sweep the damn public schools with their double-damned unions right off the table. I don't know how many folks in the charter-choice camp she's in tune with (probably not the ones saying, "Yeah, okay, maybe we should stomp harder on the rogue fraudsters"), but she should be very happy under the reign of Fuhrer Trump, should that come to pass.

There's really not much that's clear here except that CER is fully behind a privatized school system. In their New Mission statement, they call for "improved economic outcomes for all Americans — particularly our youth," and I guess it's nice that Our Youth made it onto the list at all, but if a man says, "I pledge to make love beautifully and sweetly-- particularly to my wife," I'm not sure his wife would find that very reassuring. When CER calls for "conditions are ripe for innovation, freedom and flexibility throughout U.S. education" they are not talking about improving anything for students. They are talking about creating a better investment climate so that hedge funders and Wall Street titans can more easily make bank on the backs of the education system. I suppose it's nice that CER is clearer than ever about that, but just because someone is clear that they want to do something that's dead wrong, that doesn't mean it isn't dead wrong.

NAEP Board Still Includes Few Educators

See, John King. This is one more reason we have a hard time taking you seriously. Because for all your big talk about teachers being leaders and raising the profession and teach to lead and all the rest, when it comes time to put people in charge of Important Stuff, actual teachers do not get the call.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is sometimes called the nation's report card. It is the grandmama of Big Standardized Tests, the measure by which other BS Tests are sometimes measured. The NAEP is managed by the National Assessment Governing Board, and King just announced the appointment of six members to four-year terms on that board.

“We are honored to welcome these exceptional education leaders to the Board,” King said. “The Board plays a vital role in helping to shape education in our country, and their perspectives and insights will be major assets in strengthening the status of The Nation’s Report Card as the gold standard for measuring academic achievement.”

Exceptional education leaders! Well, that sounds awesome. Who are these exceptional education leaders? (Spoiler alert: not people who have ever spent time in a classroom.)

Rebecca Gagnon- Gagnon is a member of the Minneapolis School Board and a stay-at-home mom, whose board campaign was marked by the kind of union support that makes reformsters cranky. But educational experience? Not so much.

Andrew Ho- Ho is a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Ed, specializing in psychometrics and test-based accountability.  So he at least has some expertise in the testing field. And some of his writing suggests that he has a good grasp of the problems that occur when politicians and policy makers start playing with test result data.

Terry Mazany- Mazany is president and CEO of the Chicago Trust, one of those organizations formed by businessmen when they want to run a piece of government (in this case, education) without being elected, but look like public-spirited good guys while they're doing it. Mazany has been an occasional superintendent and one-time interim head of Chicago schools. Arne Duncan put him on the NAGB, where he is now the chair.

Jeanette Nunez- A GOP state legislator from Florida (aka ten-time finalist for "Worst Education State in USA"). She's been a political staffer, a hospital administrator, and a part-time college prof.

Joseph O'Keefe- Jesuit priest who's been a visiting professor and has been long involved with Catholic school biz and teacher assessment. He's here as a non-public school administrator.

Alice Peisch- A Dem state legislator from Massachusetts. She's currently head of the Joint Committee on Education, and has previously been a town clerk and school board member.

Look, these may all be absolutely swell people. But clearly the slate was selected with an eye on the optics and yet still, somehow, nobody whose background is firmly rooted in the classroom was included. And while the group is soliciting nominations to fill four more positions, those open positions are for an elementary school principal, two general public representatives, and a testing and measurement expert. Yes, this committee that shapes the gold standard of assessment, which in turn shapes instruction and education in the country, has spots set aside for regular civilians.

By law, the NAGB has twenty-five seats, and of those twenty-five seats, a grand total of three are set aside for actual teachers. There are four general public members of the general public, two governors, two principals, but three testing and measurement experts. There's ample opportunity to include people who are heavy in actual classroom background, but instead we've got folks like Massachusetts Pusher of Privatization Mitchell Chester and Ken Wagner, brought in to be Rhode Island's educational Reformer in Chief after helping New York State try to launch the inBloom data mining adventure.

So KIng can make noises about teacher leaders and building respect for the profession, but at the end of the day, when the feds want to do Important Things, it's not teachers that they call upon.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

ICYMI: Readings from the week (9/25)

As always, remember to share and spread the word. Everyone can be an amplifier.

Don't Believe the Charter School Hype

Charles Pierce is one mainstream journalist who has taken up the cause of public ed and given reformsters some serious grief. Here's his take on the charter push in Massachusetts

Preaching to the Educhoir

William Ferriter reminds us why preaching to the educhoir is not a waste of time.

A Righteous Anger

Opposing charters is not enough-- not when public schools are screwing up.

Drowning in Systematic Injustice

Rev. William Barber speaks up about the unrest in Charlotte. As always, there is real fire in his words.

Finance Is Ruining America

Alana Semuels at the Atlantic looks at how hedge funders and other financial wizards are spreading poevrty and screwing up the US economy

This Was the Summer of Charter School Discontent

Daniel Katz runs down the set-backs, disappointment and general shenanigans of the charter industry over the past few months.

M-Stepping Those Results Right Into the Trash Can

Looking at your child's test results in Michigan (though even if you're not in Michigan, some of these issues are very recognizable).

It's not about Race

An exceptional look at race, culture and history, from the Anglo-Saxons to African-Americans

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Essential Reading for Education Activists (and Wonks)

Corporate, privatized, market-driven education reform hasn't worked-- and now there's a book chock full of research to prove it.

The National Education Policy Center is based at the University of Colorado (Boulder) School of Education. They look kind of like what I always imagined when I thought of an actual think tank-- one that was interested in real inquiry and research, and not just put together to lobby for a particular set of ideas. They've created a network composed of many of the top researchers in the education policy world (just look at this list of fellows) and they are a regular source of actual education policy research (as well as doing solid analyses of other research that is out there, even when it's just "research").

William J. Mathis and Tina M. Trujillo have put together an important (and huge) look at what's been going on in education. Learning from the Federal Market-Based Reforms is a collection of twenty-eight articles from a rather amazing array of top scholars in the field, looking at what has been tried, what hasn't worked, and the research says will work.

The preface, foreword, and introduction lay out the vision pretty clearly and forcefully. In the second paragraph of the preface, Mathis and Trujillo summarize where we are pretty succinctly:

Unfortunately, our review also confirmed that, despite decades of solid research evidence demonstrating the limited and contradictory effects of the market model on school reform, it is still the model that dominates education in this country, particularly in schools that serve low-income families and children of color.

In her foreword, Jeannie Oakes argues that cultural values have dominated the arena while pushing aside actual research-based approaches, and that the dominant value is a sort of behaviorism. Reformsters have "normalized the idea that school quality and equity will improve" as families shop in an unequal "competitive" marketplace. Oakes raises an idea that I confess I hadn't really considered-- that a market-based approach doesn't just fail to erase differences, but actually cements a marketplace of schools of varying quality. The implication is clear-- in a free market there must always be "bad" schools, and some students will be stuck attending them.

Instead of a system promoting equity and education as a common good

 market-based, test-driven reforms have only reinforced the weak notion that a high-quality education is a scarce commodity that few schools provide and that families must compete for good opportunities for their children.

This despite forty years of research that provided an enormous body of knowledge about the causes and consequences of educational inequality.

If the subheading of the book ("Lessons for ESSA") concerns you, the introduction makes it clear that NEPC does not have rose-colored glasses on about the new education policy.

Unfortunately, research (such as in this book) plainly tells us that ESSA preserves most of the unproductive structures and reforms that NCLB prescribed... at its core,  ESSA is still a primarily test-based educational regime.

The introduction points at a culprit: "The faith in test-driven accountability and punitive techniques for fixing schools is the dominant operational philosophy." And the writers also summarize the bulk of the research in the book as pointing to "one unambiguous conclusion-- heavy-handed accountability policies do not produce the kinds of schools envisioned under the original ESEA."

And all that is while we're still in the part of the book where the pages are numbered with roman numerals.

There is plenty to chew on here (the book is, after all, almost 700 pages). But it is worth the chewing, and I expect that I will visit several of the chapters by themselves in blogs in the weeks ahead.

The book is built in four main sections:

Section 1: The Foundations of Market Based Reform

These four chapters look at what got us here, looking at the growth and change of policy starting all the way back with the New Deal. In particular, Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe offer an interesting idea by characterizing policy change as "educationalizing the welfare state and privatizing education." Heinrich Mintrop and Gail Sunderman consider how the failure of sanctions-driven accountability was completely predictable (but that doesn't mean we won't stay stuck with it).

Section 2: Test-based Sanctions: What the Evidence Says

Four really important chapters here, looking at what the research actually says about school turnaround strategies (spoiler alert: not much good), the effect of school choice on achievement, and the real costs of school closures.

Section 3: False Promises

This large section contains eleven articles that each address one of ed reforms beloved bright ideas. Paul Thomas writes about "miracle schools," and the American Statistical Association's statement on the use of VAM for evaluation is here. Stan Karp effectively beats the dead horse that is Common Core. Several articles look at the civil rights angles of plugging reform, and Anne Gregory, Russell Skiba and Pedro Noguera look at how the achievement gap and discipline gap are related. Private contracting, school choice--there's even a look at virtual education.

Section 4: Effective and Equitable Reforms

Here are nine articles delineating what actually does work, considering everything from poverty to adequate funding to class size. There's some talk about T-PREP as a model for evaluating education programs as well as a look at some community organizing programs that have been successful.

Section 5: Bottom Lining It

At the end, Mathis and Trujillo return to the stage to make some final observations and recommendations for moving forward under ESSA.

Those recommendations include addressing the opportunity gap, admitting that high-stakes, test-based accountability doesn't help students learn, and accepting that privatizing schools hasn't worked very well, either.


There's is a lot to read and digest here (did I mention it was almost 700 pages?) and my first pass through has been fairly cursory. Some of it is very, very wonky. And the odds are good that somewhere in those pages, you may find some ideas that you disagree with. If you are virulently anti-ESSA and anti-any-government-involvement-at-all, you may disagree with a lot.

However, it's well worth the time and effort to read work that is based on actual research as opposed to the kind of substance-free PR puffery that comes from reformsterland. Heck, it's even a good idea to take the occasional break from the ranting of various bloggers and absorb some actual scholarship.

The Gates Plan for College

Some days I feel kind of Rip Van Winklesque, as if I went to sleep and when I woke up the world had changed. Apparently while I was sleeping, the electorate rose up and elected Bill Gates the Grand Uber Head of Education. "Please," a bunch of you non-sleeping people said. "Redesign our entire education system. Redefine what it means to be an educated person, and redefine how a person gets an education. Please do that for us, and now that we've asked you to do this, please never ask us for any input on the subject ever again."

And so we got Common Core and high-stakes testing and Big Data Systems and a whole giant network of astro-turf groups pushing these policy ideas and a decade of corporate dismantling of public education, funded in astonishingly substantial ways by Bill and Melinda Gates.

But apparently while I was sleeping, y'all asked him to do something about redesigning colleges, too.

I'm looking at the most current version of Gates' Postsecondary Success Advocacy Priorities, which is kind of a non-meaning word salad of a title, but I'm thinking what we have here is what The Gates considers the priorities to advocate of in the process of redefining post-secondary success. Yes, I've read it so you don't have to, but if this is the kind of thing you let happen while I'm asleep, we've really got to talk.

The Overview

Higher education is the bridge to success. Well, it used to be, but now it's a narrow twisty high-priced toll bridge, and that's a problem. Mind you, the cost of that problem is not to the human beings who wanted to cross the bridge:

Rising costs and debt, stubbornly high dropout rates, and persistent attainment gaps threaten higher education’s ability to meet societal and workforce needs. Recent estimates show that the nation will need 11 million more workers with some form of high-quality post-high school education by 2025 than our system is currently on course to produce.

The Gates strategy is "dedicated to building human capital" by leveraging solutions, networks and incentives. So, yeah-- apparently the whole point of post-secondary education is to provide additional vocational training so that young widget-wannabes can grow into useful human capital. That human capital would be mostly poor and first-time post-sec education folks.

The rest of this is going to sound familiar to those of you who have been paying attention to personalized competency based education, credentials, and the cradle-to-career data pipeline.

The paper lays out three areas of emphasis and planning for The Gates.

Data and Information

The stated goal here is "a comprehensive national data infrastructure that enables the secure and consistent collection and reporting of key performance metrics for all students in all institutions." So once again we also have an implied goal of standardization across all institutions (otherwise the key performance metrics won't match) as well as a far-reaching and markedly creepy data system.

The Gates sees this as critical in answering questions like "whether and which colleges offer value."  The system they envisions mandates the linkage of every single private and public entity that collects or holds data about the individual students. The paper is talking about this mainly as a way to measure the value provided by post-secondary school, but that really doesn't make it seem any less creepy, and it doesn't take an even-slightly-paranoid person to imagine how such a database would be useful primarily for corporate employers, who could just order up exactly what they wanted from the Giant Database of Human Capital. Kind of like the creepiest ever.

The Gates highlights some of the steps that have been taken to further this creepy dream (but not the steps that have been thwarted, like inBloom). All that has to happen is the giant data storage structure has to be built and everyone has to be told exactly what data points are to be collected and by what instruments and in what format. Oh, and every college and university has to agree to use the same metrics and system as every other college and university. That should be easy because colleges and universities love giving up their autonomy.

Finance and Financial Aid

Have you heard? Simply everyone in the country is talking about college affordability. Good thing you all asked The Gates to fix that while I was napping.

The Gates says the feds should make getting aid easier (they think the FAFSA is too hard, complicated and slow). The feds should also make more "resources" (aka "money") available to students to pass on to schools. Also, the aid programs should add incentives for sticking with it, getting the degree, and landing a good job. Which makes me wonder-- don't those things come with built-in incentives? And if they don't, is there a different problem that we should be looking at?

But The Gates wants some outcome-based incentives, and honestly it's a little fuzzy-- it appears we want these for both the school and the students. For the school, there's a real problem with such incentives, because if I'm incentivized to graduate students, then I am also incentivized to not accept students who are iffy in the probably-graduate department, which would actually make it harder to get into college for the kind of first-generation, poverty-background students that The Gates says they're especially concerned about.
Meanwhile, The Gates is having its buddies at Research For Action look into the various implications of outcome-based funding. Outcome-based funding is always a bit of a red flag because the natural extension of the idea is the kind of system where students are rewarded for each badge or credential they achieve-- this gets us a system where students are rats in a maze and education is reduced to a series of over-simplified hoop-jumping. But there are plenty of people working on developing just such a system.

Student-Centered Pathways

Well, now we're back to the world of upside-down reformster language. The problem as The Gates sees it is that college, with its "cafeteria model" course offering creates confusion and leaves students without a clear path. So to get rid of that confusion and provide clarity, why not tell them exactly what they have to do? See? Less choice is more happiness. Making students adhere to a pre-chosen path is student-centered.  Also, freedom is slavery.

This glorious future will be ushered in by Integrated Student Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS-- seriously, I didn't make that up). This software will use predictive analytics to help students stay on the right path to the right credential (which is what we keep talking about-- credentials and not degrees).

Also, "many low-income and first-generation students face the hurdle of passing introductory general education courses offered in large lecture halls with hundreds of students." So maybe it would be better if they just took their courses on the computer.

And standardization out the wazoo. Lots of students change schools, so all their credits and courses should be transferable. Also, remediation would go more smoothly if all the high school and college standards were aligned to each other, all across the board.

In summary, only by forcing every future widget onto the same one-size-fits-all pathway can we hope to provide a "student-cenetered" education experience that will best prepare them to be of use to their corporate overlords.

Why, it's a brave new world!

I'll remind you that these special Certificates of Human Capital Usefulness are being directed at first time, low-income post-secondary students. If you are a hopeful person, you'll conclude that's because The Gates wants to lead an action of social justice and economic uplift. If you are somewhat more cynical, you might conclude that folks from the Higher Classes would never allow their children to be subjected to such a system that treats them like easily-shaped widgets while devaluing higher education as nothing more than advanced job training run to benefit corporations rather than human beings. It is yet another redesign of an education sector into one more tool of the Betters class, a tool to shape the worker class into More Useful (and More Easily Used) corporate tools.

The whole thing is enough to make me very tired, but I swear, I'm not going to take another nap until everyone promises not to elect Gates to fix anything else.

The Word Charters Leave Out

The sales pitch, in various versions, pops up every time charter cheerleaders are pushing charters as the Big Solution in education.

"We know how to educate poor minority students."

The implication, of course, is that public schools don't know how to get the job done. The use of civil rights rhetoric further pushes the idea that charters can rescue non-wealthy, non-white students from a public school system that either can't or won't provide them with the education they need and deserve.

The problem with this assertion, however, is the words that charter fans invariably omit from the pitch.

The word is "some."

As in, "We know how to educate some poor minority students."

And that's a problem. That single word is the difference between a pitch that makes compelling sense and one that is simply a pack of weasel words. Let me tell you why.

First, some stipulations:

I'm going to skip for the moment my usual objections that the measures being used to determine whether a school is successful or not are grade-A useless baloney. Let's just pretend for the moment that we know how to measure student success.

And we can also insert my usual disclaimer here that not all charters are problematic, and particularly back before the rise of the modern investment-driven hedge-fundie charters, there have been charters that have truly added to the public education landscape. So I don't automatically hate charter schools.

I'm also going to acknowledge right up front that we have many schools and school districts that are not doing right by non-wealthy non-white students. That problem is real, and I am not going to pretend for a moment that if we just make modern charter schools go away, things will automatically be both hunky and dory.

So, what is the problem with--

We know how to educate some poor minority students

Problem #1: That is not the gig.

The public education gig is to educate all students. All. Students. Not some, not a few, but all. One of my objections to the rise of the modern charter is that it's a quiet re-write of the public education mission-- let's stop trying to educate everyone and just focus on the chosen few, and put Those Children in the underfunded holding pen that we'll call public school.

Some charter fans are open and honest about this; Mike Petrilli has noted that a charter mission should be to give "strivers" a place to get away from Those Other Students. But other charter fans deliberately obscure their omission of "some" and tout their ability to get good results with a few students as a sign that they know something that public schools do not.

Problem #2: This is not news.

I think this is one of the things about modern charters that absolutely drives public school teachers nuts. Charters want to claim that because they can achieve success with a small, select sample of students, they Know Something About Education. Dude, those of us in public education have known since forever that if we were free to pick and choose our students and could just get rid of the ones who don't want to learn the way we want to teach, we would look like education rock stars. Everyone knows that.

So when Boston charters start talking about their awesome results without also talking about their awesome attrition (and non-backfill) rates. When your charter system can point to a grand total of fifteen black males who went on to graduate from college, you are not showing us anything that public schools couldn't quickly and easily replicate-- if we were allowed to change the nature of the gig (see problem #1).

Bottom line

Some charters cream, deliberately, as a matter of policy (like these charters in California that got caught). Some cream more organically by targeting particular parts of the market with their advertising, and of course all charters self-select for families that are more involved in their child's education (and ask any public school teacher how schools would change if we had only the students of families that cared about education).

And we don't talk enough about the importance of the no-backfill rules in operation in many charter markets, guaranteeing that no new students ever come in in the middle of a multi-year program. Again- we already know that no-backfill would work, but that's not the public education gig.

There are charter fans who know better. Chris Barbic left the Tennessee Achievement School District noting that it's hard to raise the success rate of schools when you have to keep all the students that live in that school's community.

Anybody can do a good job of educating some students. Modern charter advocates should stop pretending they have invented the wheel. And if they really want to be honest, they can start using that one simple word-- some.

Friday, September 23, 2016

CA: Court Rejects Test-based Teacher Eval

While astro-turf group Students Matter, a front for the reformster activism of Very Rich Man David Welch, is most famous for concocting and then losing the Vergara case, they have been trying to skin the reformy cat with other knife-like lawsuits as well.

With Doe v. Antioch, Welch's group set out to compel thirteen California districts to include Big Standardized Test results in teacher evaluations. To do so, they dragged out the Stull Act (a law old enough to have been signed by Governor Ronald Reagan). The law (also amended in 1999) was supposed to require districts to base teacher evaluations on student test scores-- but it has the words "reasonably relate" which are, depending on your point of view, a necessary bit of slack to allow schools to handle the problem of alllllll those teachers who don't teach tested subjects (how exactly do you tie the evaluation of your phys ed teacher to the results of a math and reading test).

School districts have made use of that wiggle room, and reformsters have periodically waxed cranky over the wiggling.

We have actually been down this Via del Lawsuit before-- back in 2010 Doe v. Deasy was filed in Los Angeles by EdVoice, the group used as a front by Eli Broad, Reed Hastings and Richard Merkin. The case dragged on for a while and ended in a sort of draw, with reformsters and the teachers union each getting a little bit of what they wanted-- the district could include test scores, but would have to negotiate with the union about how much the tests would count.

So Welch and his crew went back to the court to see if they couldn't do better with some Bay Area districts.

The answer was no, no they couldn't. 

You can read the forty-page decision here, but Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barry Goode essentially determined that the law does not clearly say what Welch's group says it clearly says. While it says that districts must do some assessy things with students and some evaluaty things with teachers, the twain are not clearly required to meet.

The statutory language is not crystalline. It does not say (as Petitioners might prefer) “each school district shall assess each teacher, in part, based on the scores his or her pupils achieve on state adopted criterion referenced assessments.” Nor does it say (as Respondents might prefer) “each school district shall assess each teacher, in part, based on how he or she uses the scores of his or her pupils on state adopted criterion referenced assessments.”

Goode also digs through the history of the act and its four different sets of amendments (1975, 1983, 1995, 1999) to see what legislative discussion might shed light on the law's intent, and he again finds nothing to indicate that testing and teacher evals were meant to be inextricably linked.

In other words, he considers what the law doesn't say as important as what it does say. Goode rather charmingly puts it this way:

That is something of a “dog that did not bark.” If the Legislature were to have changed, so dramatically, the rules for the evaluation of teachers (as Petitioners argue), then the committee or floor analyses would likely have apprised members of that. Indeed, given the controversy over standardized tests, one would expect there to have been considerable debate and public discussion of such a change.

Goode hears no barking dog, and the barking of Welch's legal team is not enough to convince him, though bark they do:

Marcellus McRae and Joshua S. Lipshutz, the lead attorneys for the Doe v. Antioch petitioners, which included both California teachers and parents, issued a statement blasting Goode’s ruling. “A teacher evaluation that ignores student learning is a farce that serves neither students nor teachers,” they declared. “The decision ignores this basic and indisputable logic and renders the Stull Act meaningless.”

Probability that the decision will be appealed seems high.

Their complaint is, of course, bogus. Well, no, that's not quite right-- a teacher evaluation that ignores student learning is a farce that serves nobody, and when your teacher evaluation is based on bad data gleaned from bad tests, that is exactly what you have. Their presumption that BS Tests scores are valid measures of student learning-- that's the bogus, unsupportable baloney part. That, however, is beside the point in this case.

But in the meantime, the lawsuit demonstrates once again the danger of filing a lawsuit in hopes of "clarifying" a law-- sometimes it turns out to clearly mean something different than what you hoped for. For the moment, no school district in California is required to make student scores in the Big Standardized Test a major part of teacher evaluations.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Wells Fargo and Making Your Numbers

As you've probably heard by now, Wells Fargo got caught building its financial strength by a technique known variously as lying, fraud, or just making shit up. Low level employees created a bunch of fake accounts linked to actual humans who had no idea their financial matters were becoming messier by the minute. At the end of the day, 5,300 low-level employees were fired, and nobody who was responsible for those employees suffered the slightest penalty.

So what does this have to do with education?

Well, first, it's one more occasion to invite those who insist that teachers should have to face accountability measures "just like they do in the real world"-- well, those folks can just shut up. The accountability faced by executives like CEO John Stumpf was exactly zero. As Elizabeth Warren, in her highest dudgeon, dragged out of him, the entire sorry episode didn't cost him a penny and didn't cost a single high-level executive their job. This is the same "real world" accountability faced by the guys who messed up Enron and tanked the world economy in 2008-- absolutely none at all.

But mostly it's a pretty stark example of what can happen when an organization becomes focused on making its numbers.

Considerable pressure was put on front line employees to make their numbers, and employees who tried to call attention to how the business was being warped by its perverse incentives were soundly spanked and, in some cases, ruined.  

When you install shortcut proxies for actual success, and you create very high stakes around those numbers, you completely change the nature and purpose of the institution. Wells Fargo didn't just cheat and defraud customers as a matter of policy; they transformed the very nature of the company from a business built on providing customer service  to a business built on making numbers. Customers were no longer people to be served, but resources to be tricked and defrauded into providing the company what it needed keep its stock rising and its executives fat and happy.

This is Campbell's law in action-- when you use a too-simple number as a measure of a complicated network of relationships and goals in an organization, you completely twist and ultimate warp the very nature of the things you are trying to measure. When you create do-or-die goals that are impossible to meet legitimately, you corrupt the organization and make cheating the preferred culture of the institution. Those who won't cheat, who won't do whatever it takes to make their numbers, are driven out. What did the data on new accounts and instruments tell executives about how employees were doing their jobs? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Bad data plus incentivization with high stakes equals disastrous mess.

It is easy to think, "Well, even if the data numbers don't exactly precisely show us what we want to see, well, at least their something, and something is better than nothing, right?" But the Wells Fargo fiasco is a reminder that chasing bad data results is not harm-neutral. And scores or simple numbers are always bad data, because to simplify complex information to a simple number or two always means losing the full picture. It's trying to judge the health of the jungle by weighing elephant toenail clippings-- you'll always be looking at a warped and limited picture, and so trying to make your numbers will always screw up your whole system.

You can argue that Wells Fargo executives are money-hungry greed-hounds, and that's what created the problems. It certainly greased the skids, but the mechanism that caused the entire organization to lose its way is the pursuit of bad numbers.

Using this kind of bad data is a lie. Saying "If our employees are selling more of this product, we are fulfilling our service mission as a bank is a lie." Saying "If students are getting higher scores on the Big Standardized Test, then they are getting a great education and our schools are thriving" is a lie. And when you base your mission and your critical relationships on a lie, destruction follows.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Grade Inflation?

Mike Petrilli (Fordham) is concerned about grade inflation.

His concern, as expressed in a recent piece at Education Next, is hung on the hook of a recent-ish survey by Learning Heroes, a new group sponsored by the same old folks (Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Helmsley) that has partnered with some other outfits funded by the same people, like Great Schools (funded by Gates, Bloomberg, Helmsley, Walton) to help sell the notion that Big Standardized Testing is Really Important and we should care about it.

The Learning Heroes survey found that 90 percent of parents believe their child is performing at grade level or better. As you might expect, I don't put a lot of stock in what Learning Heroes have to say, but I can believe that their finding on this point is not far off the mark. Setting aside the construct of "grade level" (as Petrilli also does), I'm not sure that this finding doesn't say more about parental love than parental academic acumen. Sometimes we lose sight of how a poll actually works, but I ask you to imagine for a minute-- a stranger calls you on the phone and asks you to say how smart and accomplished your child is. What do you say? "Yeah, my kids kind of slow and behind," probably isn't it.

But for Petrilli, this feeds into a narrative that reformsters have been pushing for over a decade-- the public schools are lying to parents about what is being accomplished.

Providing a more honest assessment of student performance was one of the goals of the Common Core initiative and the new tests created by states that are meant to align to the new, higher standards.

That's Petrilli's polite way of putting it. Arne Duncan, you will recall, said that white suburban moms were going to be upset to find out their kids weren't as smart as they thought. At one point reformsters were trying to sell us the Honesty Gap, a method of crunching numbers to determine just how much your state education system was lying to you. This has been the recurring narrative-- your teachers, your schools, even your state, has been lying to you about how well your kids are doing, and only federally crafted standards backed up by Big Standardized Tests can tell you the truth.

Pertrilli is no dope; he understands the challenge here for testing industry salespersons

Conscientious parents are constantly getting feedback about the academic performance of their children, almost all of it from teachers. We see worksheets and papers marked up on a daily or weekly basis; we receive report cards every quarter; and of course there’s the annual (or, if we’re lucky, semiannual) parent-teacher conference. If the message from most of these data points is “your kid is doing fine!” then it’s going to be tough for a single “score report” from a distant state test administered months earlier to convince us otherwise. After all, who knows my kid better: his or her teacher, or a faceless test provider?

He dismisses the old test reports as impenetrably complex, and touts instead the new, improved PARCC reports, which a transparent in the sense that one can clearly see that they provide next to zero useful information.  But Petrilli argues that these reports soft-pedal the real results, and that we should look sixth graders in the eye and give them the cold hard truth. Nobody, he says, wants to incite a riot and "tell parents to grab a pitchfork and march down to their school demanding an explanation for lofty-yet-false grades their kids have gotten for years on end," but on the other hand, he says, "maybe they should."

This is the new pitch. Grade inflation. Petrilli has been asking folks to chime in with a possible solution to the grade inflation problem. My response, when asked, is that first I have to be convinced it exists.

Petrilli's basic argument is that grades are high and BS Test scores are low, therefor the grades must be inflated. There are several problems with his assumptions here.

1) He assumes that the Big Standardized Test is an accurate instrument for measuring student achievement. There is virtually no reason at all to believe that is true, and many many reasons, from the narrow focus to the multiple choice approach to the just-plain-lousy questions.

2) Even if we assume that, say, the PARCC is a good, solid, reliable, valid test-- which is a huge ungrounded assumption, but let's play along-- we still have to face the first hurdle, the problem of getting students to take the BS Tests seriously. We repeatedly discover that they do not.

3) Even if we assume that the BS Test is a "good" test and that the students tried their hardest on it, we still don't have any evidence that a good score on the BS Test is an indicator that the student is headed for college success and a good life thereafter. Petrilli touts the "predictive analytics" of Ohio, but all that boils down to is a way to use previous performance on a standardized test to predict future performance on a standardized test. Big whoop. When Taking Standardized Tests becomes a lucrative career option, then we may have something here.

Petrilli wants parents to understand that their kids need to "step it up" and hopes that we see a day when As and Bs are only handed to those who are on track for success. But that opens a whole other question-- are grades supposed to be a predictor of future success or a measure of current achievement?

Well, let's set all that aside for the moment and consider his main issue-- is there grade inflation happening?

My completely unscientific answer is, "Probably maybe in some places." There may well be grade inflation on the lower end of the scale, where teachers may feel pressure to make sure that too many students don't flunk their class (particularly if dealing with the kind of learning support department that demands that students with special needs be passed No Matter What). Schools that practice the business of allowing students to just keep redoing work until they pass might fall under this category, as might schools that use social promotion to move on elementary students for reasons other than academic achievement. The problem in addressing all of these cases is that we have no objective yardstick by which to measure what a student should "really" be receiving as a grade (and as much as reformsters would like PARCC, SBA, etc to be that yardstick, they fail miserably at the task).

It's a complicated problem with no easy answers, made more tricky by the fact that "grade inflation" often occurs through the mechanism of overruling the judgment of the classroom teacher. The whole topic is worthy of discussion.

Meanwhile, there is supreme irony in Petrilli's raising of the issue. We know where the most extreme and notorious grade inflation has occurred over the past few decades-- in colleges and universities. And it has occurred, arguably, because of the unleashing of market forces. College students and their families have come to see themselves as customers and are comfortable declaring, "I didn't give this school $100 grand of my money just to see Junior end up with Cs and Ds in classes that I pay for. Fix it!"

This is, of course, precisely the sort of market force that Petrilli and other charter fans want to unleash in the K-12 world, transforming families into "customers" who must be kept happy if the charter wants to avoid losing revenue. Giving families the ability to "vote with their feet" unleashes the very forces that contribute to and push for grade inflation in schools. Let's add that to the discussion. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

USED, Pay for Success and Stupid Pre-K Plans

The United States Department of (Privatizing) education is touting another boneheaded idea, this time aimed at preschool and using yet one more unproven approach-- pay for success.

What is that, exactly? Here's the explanation from the USED FAQ page:

Pay for success (PFS) is an innovative contracting and financing model that aims to test and advance promising and proven interventions while paying only for successful outcomes or impacts for families, individuals, and communities. Through a PFS project, a government (or other) entity enters into a contract with an Investor to pay for the achievement of concrete, measurable outcomes for specific people or communities. Service providers deliver interventions to achieve these outcomes. Payments, known as Outcomes Payments, are made only if the intervention achieves those outcomes agreed upon in advance. The government (or other) entity makes Outcomes Payments to repay Investors for the costs of services (and sometimes other projects costs) plus a modest return. Ideally, Outcomes Payments amount to a fraction of the short- and long-term cost savings to the government (or other) entity resulting from the successful outcomes.  

Pay for Success is the zippier nom de guerre of Social Impact Bonds. If you want my "for dummies" explanation, you can look here. If you want a grown-up's fully detailed explanation, complete with sad history, I recommend this piece by Tim Scott.

The basic idea is this. The government gets an investor to foot the bill for what's supposed to be a government program. Then if the task is completed successfully for less than the government had set aside to do the task, the government reimburses the investor for the program costs and as a bonus, the taxpayers' "savings" are magically transformed into the private investor's "earnings." It is this big time version of telling the babysitter, "Here's ten bucks to get supper. You can keep whatever change there is."

Let me rattle off just a quick list of why this is a dumb way to do business in the-- well, it's actually a dumb way to do just about any sort of business, but let's stick to why it's a dumb way to do business in the education sector.

1) It literally sets the interests of the contractor against the interests of the children. Every dollar that the contractor spends on children is a dollar the contractor doesn't get to keep.

2) It builds a system around doing the absolute least we can get away with. "Spend the least you can get away with," say Social Impact Bonds, "to get the lowest acceptable results." Nobody tells their children's school, "I want to know that you are spending the least money you can get away with to get the minimum acceptable education for my child."

3) If it remains in place, it guarantees that somebody is going to get screwed. Go back to the baby sitter example. I learn that the babysitter has successfully (or at least acceptably) fed my children for seven bucks. Why would I continue to hand her ten? Once we have established the cost for which the job can be done, all future negotiations will be about how much profit for her I build into my suppertime financing. If a Social Bond program were ever to succeed well enough to last longer than a year, that would put the government in the position of deciding how many taxpayer dollars the contractors would be handed as profit, and either the taxpayers or contractor gets screwed.

4) It not only encourages, but actually requires metrics for success that are simple and simplistic and completely inadequate for measuring actual success in a complex system like education.

5) It adds a not-very-helpful extra layer of bureaucracy. The investor deals with the government, and the contractor of the service deals with the investor. This creates a nice layer of plausible deniability for the government when the programs violate any rules-- kind of like when famous celebrity Chatty Talksalot hires a McCorporation to make her branded clothing, and McCorporation in turn hires subcontractors in the Third World to run a sweatshop, and then Chatty can say, "What?! I had no idea!" 

USED would like to graft this Pay for Success idea onto its terrible ideas about preschool, as captured in just one paragraph from their press release:

We should have a greater focus on evidenced-based practices, on measuring and improving outcomes for our youngest learners, and more incentives for promoting innovative approaches that promise to further improve child outcomes.

As we've seen, "evdience-based" is a meaningless weasel phrase. And as soon as we start talking about "measuring and improving outcomes" for four-year-olds, we are just plain full of it. Four years olds do not need to sit down and take a test so that their outcomes can be measured. They do not need to be run through academic based programs. They need to play. They need to explore. And they need to do it in an environment in which they are not required to demonstrate "outcomes" to officious adults.

PFS is not a substitute for government funding, but a different way of providing government funding –one based on rigorous evidence of impact once positive outcomes have been achieved. 

Baloney. There is no "rigorous evidence of impact once positive outcomes have been achieved" with four year olds (probably not with sixteen year olds, either, but let's set that aside for another day). There is no evidence base to indicate that the USED has a clue what rigorous evidence of preschool success would look like, and of course for a PFS program, it would have to look like something simple and easy to measure.

So if we tell McCorporation "We'll give you a hundred bucks for every kid who scores better than 75% on this reading test," what do you suppose the preschool program is going to look like? Not like anything that a small child actually needs to experience. This is a terrible idea for taxpayers, small children, and their families. But it's an awesome idea for investors who want to hoover up some of those sweet, sweet education tax dollars.