Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Angry (tl;dr)

It's important to remember that America has seen angry, agitated times before. The Civil War, when politicians became so angry they left the country and raised armies to kill each other-- that was a fairly angry time. We've had Presidential campaigns that were hugely vicious and libelous, Hell, as we've all been musically reminded, once upon a time the Vice President of the United States killed a prominent political leader in a duel.

And yet, something feels different now. My stock explanation is that while we've always had anger and viciousness as part of our public and political life, we've at least agreed that civility was the ideal, the norm to be pursued, and now we don't. I'm not sure that's true, but it feels true. We have become outrage junkies; we are sold policy and products based on the outrage it will cause. "The Secret That [fill in the blank] Doesn't Want You To Know" which translates roughly to "This will really piss those bastards off." The GOP policy position on the ground has been largely reduced to "Do things that will enrage liberals" and political coverage in the second-hand full-bias media is usually framed in terms of who will be outraged. And damn-- progressives and liberals and anti-Trump's really have to stop publishing versions of "Trump has now done something that will totally end his run!" Sorry, but 2,437th time is not a charm.

Telling truth to power is important, hugely important. But truth is not measured by how enraged you can imagine somebody being about what's been written. And when you start steering by imagined outrage rather than truth, understanding and accuracy, you are headed for the weeds. Sometimes I find Samantha Bee funny; sometimes I think maybe we've found a progressive Ann Coulter.

I was talking about this on twitter (to the extent that anybody can talk about anything on twitter) and was called out for my own contributions to incivility in the education debates. Well, sir, that's fair. But I like to think I've made a bit of a journey in this regard, and I think it tells us a little something about the shape of these debates.

When I started blogging, my defining characteristic was anger. It had been growing for a few years. Having stupid policies, anti-education and anti-student policies, inflicted on my classroom was nothing new, but I was noticing that I was increasingly losing my power to defend my students from them. The idea of national standards backed up by a national standardized test that would be enforced by making it part of student grades all seemed like self-evident educational malpractice, and yet policy makers were talking about it, taking steps to inflict it. So I went to learn more, and I fell through a door into a world where I found all sorts of people whose policy ideas struck me as wildly insane and rather abusive-- and who seemed absolutely uninterested in paying any attention to what actual teachers had to say.

My colleagues at school were, by and large, not interested. They complained when we were gored by the tip of the iceberg that passed by us, but they had no particular interest in finding out what the tip was attached to, or how big and wide the iceberg really was. And I was turning into the staff crank. So I turned to the outlet that has always served me in the past-- writing-- and for a number of reasons (mostly admiration of the bloggers already out there) I turned to blogging.

It did not occur to me that anybody would read my stuff. My goal was to vent, to rail about policies and articles that struck me as foolish, destructive, blind, ignorant. And so I regularly broke Rule #1. I called people names-- some of them kind of mean. I broke one of my big rules of online discourse-- I said things about people online that I never would have said to their faces.

I was angry. And the more I read, the angrier I became. Not just the anger of seeing destructive and dangerous policies pushed, but the anger of seeing my own profession and the institution to which I devoted my adult life both under attack. And the anger that comes with being under attack and not being heard-- not just being unheard, but seeing no avenue whatsoever to say a word. Was it effective? Well, yes, in two ways. It was effective in giving me an outlet for what I was thinking and feeling, and it was effective in letting other people who felt angry and upset and isolated know that they weren't the only ones, that they weren't crazy, that somebody else could see what they saw. We teachers are a terribly isolated tribe, and in troubled times, that does not serve us well.

What has surprised me most about social media is the avenues of conversation that have opened up, not just with fellow teachers and supporters of public ed, but with thinky tankers and policy wonks on the other side of the debates. The mere fact of being actually able to be heard in, as they say, some of these spaces has made me more careful and less ragey over the past couple of years. That's not a bad thing.

In times like these, it behooves all of us to pay a little more attention to our rhetoric. There may be times when rhetorical flourishes like "I'd like to punch him in the face" or "She should just go die somewhere" may be harmless hyperbole; these are not those times. We have a civility problem these days, and every time you put out some words, you are either helping or hurting. It's no good arguing you are in the righteous right, so it's okay-- everyone thinks they're in the right.

At the same time, I believe firmly that you feel what you feel. Telling somebody, "Hey, you should have different feelings" is a waste of everyone's time. You feel what you feel.

And I still firmly believe that some people can be taken seriously, and some can not. Some people are using words in good faith, and some are just using words as a tool for leveraging whatever goal they have, and still some others in high office use words like magical incantations, intended to conjure lies into reality. There are good grown-up arguments for charter schools that I disagree with, but can recognize as serious arguments; there are also pro-charter arguments rooted in deliberate skewing of the facts and denial of reality. I am absolutely opposed to national standards, but I understand how people of sound mind and good faith can like the idea. On the other hand, there isn't a serious argument in the world for the retention of third graders who passed their classes but failed one standardized reading test. Civility does not mean letting someone piss on you and tell you it's raining while you cheerfully agree with their weather assessment.

In other words, during times of conflict and stress, it is hard to chart a path between civility and honesty, and anger can make a lousy GPS system.

People want to be heard, and if they can't be heard when they speak, they will keep raising their voice until they think they are heard. I've survived many tough meetings and tense classroom situations by holding onto that truth. But the flip side of it is that if you scream at people like they're stupid and evil, it's really hard to get them to hear you. Which doesn't mean that you couldn't be dealing with someone who is, in fact, stupid and evil.

On the one hand. On the other hand. But. So. However. You see the problem-- balancing the line between civility and honesty in contentious times defies easy answers. It's not as simple as "Everyone on that side of this line is an evil beast" or "Everyone on this side of the line is fully trustworthy" or even "People on both sides of the line are equally culpable." In fact, there is never a clear place to draw a line.

That may be the disease of our age-- not incivility or meanness or anger or viciousness, but just a fervent belief in easy answers that can divide everyone up into simply delineated tribes. Twisting our map of the world to accommodate our simplified view of the world is distorting everything, and the strain of doing the twisting is making most of us extra cranky. And while our leaders seem unwilling to engage in thoughtful introspection and reflection, that also means that "Just follow some leader I trust" is off the table as an operating procedure. It may be that we just have to be big boys and girls and think for ourselves.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

5 Reasons I Oppose Vouchers

Honestly, I had thought that vouchers were pretty much dead and gone and living only in the hearts and minds of determined free market cult members. But since it looks like DeVouchers are on the fast track to Policytown, I want to just list, without a lot of fanfare or my usual gumflappery, the reasons I believe that vouchers are Really Bad Policy. So here's a quick list of five reasons to oppose the policy.

1. Church and State

Turns out that in practice, vouchers have mostly been a subsidy for people who send their children to private religious school. I think separation of church and state is a hugely good idea, and I think it's a good idea both for the state and for the church. Using public tax dollars to finance private religious schools violates that tremendously. That should bother those schools more than it bothers taxpayers, because in the long run it can't lead anywhere except to government oversight of religious practices. I don't want to pay tax dollars so some Religious Academy can teach the Bible as factual history and flat earth as science, and I also don't want to see the Federal Bureau of Religious Education set up to decide which religious schools pass muster (including the faux religious schools set up by profiteering oportunists.

2. School for All

If your school wants my tax dollars to pay for student tuition, you had damn well better take every student who applies and fits. No turning away students just because you don't want to be bothered with them or because they're the wrong race or the wrong creed or not properly abled or they just might cost too much to educate. That is one mighty messed-up part of voucher programs-- my tax dollars go to finance the same school that refused to admit my child.

3. Disenfranchised Taxpayers

A voucher system is taxation without representation. The idea is that the marketplace is supposed to sort these schools out or pressure them to do develop a good aquatics program or tiddly winks team. But that means only parents have a say. If you are an employer or a neighbor or a fellow voter and taxpayer or a citizen depending on educated professionals to take care of you later-- well, you have no say in a voucher system. You still get to pay taxes, but you have no say.

4. Accountability

It's not just the question of what is being taught in the schools. As a taxpayer, I'd like to know what my money is being spent on. So voucher schools had better be just as accountable as public schools. Public board meetings by known school directors. Transparent and fully open and available budgets and financial records.

5. Tell the Truth about Costs

It is amazing to me how rarely discussions and proposals about vouchers actually address the amount. Because that is everything. If the government announced that it was giving everybody automobile vouchers, folks would want to know whether the voucher was enough for a new Lexus or just a used Kia. It's pointless to discuss vouchers without discussing the dollar amount. If the voucher is one third the cost of tuition at a participating private school, it's pretty much useless as anything but a partial rebate to people who already send their students there. If it's a full-on, cover-the-cost-of-any-good-private-school voucher, then taxpayers might want to know how that voucher is going to be paid for.

A real voucher system would be expensive. Right off the bat, the day vouchers go into effect, a whole bunch of money moves even though not a single student leaves the public school. Where did that money come from? Did the public school just lose it, even though their expenses didn't change? Did the taxpayers just cough up a bunch of extra school tax money to pay for sending students to private school? Will the taxpayers pay more to fill the new gap in the public budget, or will they just be taxed for the vouchers directly? Were the vouchers underwritten by corporations who took a corresponding tax break, and now, because LexCorp directed a half million of its tax payment to voucher schools, taxpayers have to make up the difference in, say, road maintenance?

Vouchers, especially vouchers that are big enough to actually pay for some school, increase the total system cost for education. Where is that money coming from?

There's more to all this argument, most especially dealing with all the issues involved in privatizing one of our most important public institutions (yeah-- other than that, Mrs. Lincoln) but I promised myself I'd put up a short, clear listicle, so here it is. Vouchers are a huge mistake, even if they're being pushed at the federal level. Push back.

The End of May

My Memorial Day weekend generally contains two major features. One feature is the actual honoring of Memorial Day. Here's how I finished up my morning yesterday.

This is the park in my small town. On the left is a the Civil War Monument, one of the first couple put up in Pennsylvania. The large building in the back is our County Courthouse. And on the right, our band stand, where I have played summer concerts with our 161-year-old town band for almost fifty years. That band of course marched in the parade today; you can see a few members in our faux Union Army uniforms in this shot. Some are people I graduated from high school with, and others are former students. When I say I live and teach ins some of postcard small town, I am not kidding.

My other activity for the weekend is grading papers. This year finals were last week, and this weekend I graded all the final papers, final essays, final tests, and final Hey-Mr-Greene-is-it-too-late-to-turn-this-in? work. It's a big deal for me, partly because it's just a big mountain of paperwork and grading, but also because in reading through those last major efforts, I see who really pulled some things together, and who I perhaps failed to open up.

On the list of Things They Don't Really Tell You About Teaching, or the list of Ways This Job Is Different From Many Others is the part that is driven home this time of year, every year-- that every year of teaching has an end. We meet a new batch of students, we pick apart their strengths and weaknesses, figure out what makes them tick (the better to motivate them), we work to build them up, and then, hopefully, we look to see what strides and changes and growth they have developed by the end of the year.

And then we say goodbye.

It's like working in an office where every year every person who works there is fired or promoted or leaves to work at a new company. Every person except you.

These last weeks are often like school redux, gathering together stripped of the notion that we'll be at this for a while, that we have lots of time left to figure some things out. Routines fall away, culminating projects consume time, and the necessities of paperwork and report card processing dictate that "this could affect your grade" is no longer part of the landscape.The moment when they will no longer be your students is close enough to touch.

This can be an awesome time of year, or a terrible one. It's the time when as a teacher you either realize that you managed to craft a beautiful roomful of learning this year, and you and your students can all feel pretty good about it. It can also be the time when it comes slamming home just how much you came up short. It's point where your students sprint across the finish line powered by sheer glowing joy, or they drag across it, barely scraping forward.

And no matter what, it's a time when it's all over.

You've done what you can do. They are who they are, and in these last great days you can hope to see some of that. It's times like the end of May that make me laugh at the folks who try to measure Days of Learning. I don't know how you would ever measure a May 30th, and I really don't know how you would stack that up beside a September 4th. They're just different days.

Graduation for my school is coming up this Sunday. Weather permitting, the students will walk across that same stage in the picture above, surrounded by 150 years of history and under a canopy of cool green. After they get their diplomas, they'll disperse, run to their families, walk out into the world. They will never be together like this again. I will never see some of them ever again. And in three months or so, I'll start over again from scratch.

The park is about five blocks away from my house, so after Memorial Day programs and band concerts and graduation, I walk home, through tree-lined sidewalks like this one. In the fall, they'll be a range of golds and browns, and that will start a new year as well. But for right now, it's the last days of May.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Politics vs. Ed Reform

Derrell Bradford is the head of NYCAN (and some other CANs too), one of the reformy arms of 50CAN, a reliably reformy group. He turns up in many of the usual reformy places, including Campbell Brown's the74 site, where he recently wrapped up a three-part series about the state of the reform movement, adapted from his speech at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference in April. It's the third piece that I found most interesting; in it, he addresses the growing partisan problems that the reform movement has faced ever since Donald Trump became President.

I know what I think I see-- reformsters who self-identified as Democrats faced a challenge in a President whose politics they opposed, but whose policies were pretty much in line with what they've been advocating all along. But I'm curious about how they see it, and Bradford has always been an articulate advocate for the reformy world.

Party allegiance is the new litmus test not just for political philosophy, but for personal belief and social inclusion. Answering the wrong way on the wrong question not just on reform — but on anything — carries the weight of possible ostracism from both the left and the right. 

Agreed. In fact, that fits the trend I've seen presented that we are entering an era of "tribal epistemology," where the truth of any proposition or observation is not tested by any objective means, but by whether or not the proposition is supported by the tribal leaders. This has the effect of turning everything political-- if Beloved Leader says the sky is green, to look up at the sky yourself becomes an act of political defiance. You must prove your allegiance to the tribe.

Bradford notes that the election was tough to navigate.

I ultimately supported Clinton despite my firm belief that she would appoint a secretary of education determined to make our lives harder, not easier. In the professional sense, I voted against my own interests because I thought it might be best for America.

Agreed. Pretty sure that's a broadly held position in the education world.

He notes that These Times have led to many reformers heading further into their hard right or hard left positions, and this would be the place where I'd like to see further explanation because it remains hard for me to see the "left" wing of the reform movement as being all that leftist. But here he offers a pretty simple encapsulation of the political split of reformsterism:

We don’t have an education reform movement because liberal Democrats believe in civil rights. And we don’t have one because conservative Republicans believe in market solutions, low regulation, and freedom. We have one because they could believe in them both, at the same time, together, and at the same table. The golden age of “reform” that folks associate with President Barack Obama exists only because of a history of this sort of collaboration.

Out here in the cheap seats, I'm not sure that's what I saw.

First of all, what's up with putting "freedom" on the GOP list, as if Democrats aren't interested in freedom?

Second, this model suggests that reformsters came together as equals in this coalition. I'm not sure this is true-- the charter movement (which is about all that's left when we talk about an "ed reform movement") has been almost exclusive a business-driven movement. Corporate and privatization interests have used a variety of ideas as protective cover, including progressive ideas about equity and civil rights, but after years of this, I remain unconvinced that the major players have any real political bent at all. But we're talking about the left because it's impossible under the current administration to pretend that ed reform policies are about social justice or equity. And it is telling that when the language of equity and social justice is stripped from ed reform policy, hardly anything about the actual policy actually has to change.

In other words, charter and choice policy that doesn't explicitly pursue equity and social justice looks almost exactly like charter and choice policy that claims to care about equity and social justice. Mostly you just have to change some language in the PR.

In fact, Bradford is very correct to put "low regulation" on the GOP list, because that is the one significant difference between reform policy that does or does not pursue equity. Regulation and accountability are a necessary element if you don't want the reform landscape to be clogged with fraudsters and scam artists, not to mention operators who are racist and classist. 

The golden age that Bradford speaks of could exist not because reform had protective cover on both flanks. Obama could not easily be accused of being anti-progressive, and yet his neoliberal leanings put him in perfect tune with the corporate privatization approach. 

Bradford recaps some reform history to underscore that it has been built on bipartisan deals. True enough. Dems and GOP politicians have put party aside for something else. Bradford suggests that something else has been, and should be, For The Children. My cynical sided suggests that the something else has been For The Money, or For the Deep-Pocketed Private Interests Driving So Much of Ed Reform. 

And Bradford offers an interesting example of working across lines of personal and political belief-- Martin Luther King, Jr., and his willingness to work with all manner of people (including the hugely racist LBJ) to achieve goals of social justice. 

"Keep your eye on the goal" seems like an excellent piece of advice (it's actually one of my rules), but it highlights exactly the problem that Bradford is trying to address. Bradford suggests that the goal to keep eyes on is the needs of 

 a boy on a corner in Bridgeport who just needs you to be on one side — and that side is his. He’s actually the last person who needs you to be a partisan — steeped in what you won’t do and closing off policy opportunities that make you uncomfortable because of your political beliefs — because in the end, it’s his life, not yours, that depends on it.

First, there are huge differences of opinion about how to serve that boy's needs.  

But more importantly, that boy's future is not the goal that all reformers have their eyes on. For some, choice for its own sake is what matters, and if a choice system leaves that boy in a lousy school, well omelets and eggs. For some others, the goal has always been to open up that billion-dollar marketplace so that they can get in there and compete for those sweet, sweet dollars. And some reformsters are in no hurry to help that boy on the corner until he proves himself to be worth the trouble, because it's possible he's not a striver and out on the corner is where he deserves to be left. 

On the most fundamental level, we have two philosophies of school operating-- one that sees education as a means of raising up every single child, and one that sees schools as part of a way to sort the deserving form the undeserving. The sorters thought they had to at least pretend to get along with the uplift crowd to get what they wanted, but now they are ascendant, in power, and damned sure they're not going to stop the bus to pick up some ragamuffin on the streetcorner who is just looking for a hand out paid for with some deserving wealthy person's tax dollars.

In any coalition, as the endgame approaches, the different views of what that end should look like become more evident as coalition members pull apart for their special. It's easy to carpool from Omaha to New York City for the first several hundred miles. But once you get to the city limits, if one car is headed for the Bronx and another is headed for Wall Street and another is headed for Long Island, your carpool is going to have problems.

The ed reform coalition was always going to fall apart. Well, unless you take a cynical view of the movement. Because maybe it was never a coalition at all, but a big solid core of pragmatic opportunistic corporate privatizers who surrounded themselves with just enough of people from different political viewpoints that they could protect that core. Maybe the "coalition" was just a thin candy shell, and now some parts of the shell are being sloughed off.

There is one other thing that always strikes me about these calls for cooperation within the ed reform community. I realize that Bradford's original material was a speech for a particular audience, but if we are talking about social justice activists working with racists and Democrats working with Republicans, couldn't we also talk about folks who want to remake the education system working with, talking to, even listening to the people who work in that system. Everyone should think about working side by side with everyone else-- except teachers. And I don't mean some carefully handpicked we-know-they-mostly-agree-with-us teachers. Bradford says that real progress is uncomfortable, and yet reformsters largely remain unwilling to suffer the discomfort of listening to actual working teachers who might disagree with them. 


ICYMI: Memorial Day Weekend Edition (5/28)

The best read of the week was actually an eight-part series at Slate about cyber schooling, and that's so important that I gave it its own post. So if you haven't caught that yet, you can find the posts laid out here. 

And for reasons to cast a careful eye on that series, read this piece from Wrench in the Gears.

In the meantime, here's the rest of your reading selections. Remember to post, tweet, promote and otherwise amplify the work of the writers you support. It's a way that everyone can help shape the conversation.

Trump Budget Would Abandon Public Education for Private Choice

How the Trump/DeVos education program looks to a law professor (spoiler alert: not good).

Five Startling Things Betsy DeVos Just Told Congress

There was a lot to process in the DeVos testimony at the top of the week. Here Valerie Strauss lays out the five most striking things that came out of DeVos's mouth.

Who Is Behind the Assault on Public Schools

Howard Ryan at the independent Socialist magazine takes a look at what, exactly, has been driving the assault on public education.

Don't Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats.

Diane Ravitch in the New Republic with a little history lesson to remind us how Democrats bear some of the blame for Betsy DeVos and her policies.

Why Do Billionaires Care So Much About Charter Schools

Harold Meyerson in the LA Times talking about why folks like Eli Broad just have to get their fingers in the charter pie. You have to love a piece that ends with this line:

Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself. How very comforting for them.

Personalized Learning Pathways and the Gig Economy

How not really getting an education dovetails nicely with growing up to not really get a job.

What Betsy DeVos Calls Education Transformation Is Actually Public Theft

Jeff Bryant walks us through what DeVos is actually telling us, and what's she's telling us is that she's going to turn education over to privateers.

The TFA Top-Ten Listers: Where Are They Now?

Remember when ten TFA-ers went on Letterman to say why they became a teacher? That was four years ago. Gery Rubinstein checked to see how their teaching careers are coming along.

The Facts about Charter School Finances in Camden, NJ

Jersey Jazzman is actually continuing his series about how University of Arkansas screwed up its study, but this segment also has some larger implications.

The New York Times on the "Little-Known Statistician" Who Passed

Audrey Amslein-Beardsley on the passing of William Sanders, the inventor of VAAS. 


Betsy DeVos has brought Robert Eitel in to "right-size" the Department of Education. His previous experience is running a fraudulent for-profit university. Jennifer Berkshire and Christopher Crowley look at all the bad signs here.

Death by a Thousand Retirements

Marie Corfield passes on her speech from a retirement dinner that saw 800 years of educational experience head out the door. 

I Am Done-- I Hope Public Education Is Not

Thomas Ultican, friend of this blog, is retiring, and he offers some reflections on what he's been through in his career.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

NC: Vindictive GOP Cuts Education Just Because

This is now two-week old news, but I swear-- in the current climate, somebody can murder a nun with his bare hands in front of a bus full of young orphans, and the outrage will die down in less than twelve hours (or be replaced by the outrage over a new awfulness). I almost passed on this story, thinking it was past time to comment on it.

It's only two weeks old, and that makes it moldy and stale-- except that the outrage over this should be endless. I mean, God bless the people who keep a steady count of the number of days the people of Flint have gone without clean water, because leaders in Michigan poisoned an entire city and the country was in an uproar, and then-- squirrel!!

I imagine these days a politician who intends to do something terrible, even if he understands that a lot of people will call it terrible, figures that after twenty-four hours of anguished tweeting and blogging and the sharing thereof, everyone will just move on, and all the politicians have to do is run out the clock.

Maybe democracy got lost in those hills somewhere
So if you ask me how the GOP of North Carolina keeps doing terrible things, I'm betting that's part of the explanation. "Don't worry boys," someone days in a back room. "In about two days the fuss will blow over and our newest plan will still be in place."

So two weeks back, Senate Republicans got testy about the length of budget debate, so they called a recess after midnight, and came back at 3 AM with, among other things, an amendment to combat the opioids crisis.

What they didn't mention was that the million dollar program would be funded by cutting the education support for the districts of Senate Democrats. This included some very specific chopping. For instance, a program to help teacher assistants become full-fledged teachers didn't have its funding cut, but the program itself is now only allowed in GOP districts. As Dems skew rural and minority in NC, that means that areas that particularly need to get more future teachers in the pipeline have now had that pipeline tightened instead. Another cut removes support for getting fruits and vegetables into school lunches-- but only in Democrat-represented districts.

NC Republicans have been spanked twice this month by the Supreme Court, with that court striking down measures intended to reduce the non-white vote and negating some of NC's spectacular gerrymandering. According to the New York Times, NC Republicans will just rewrite the laws.

It is fair to note that NC Dems were not exactly models of fair play and democracy when they had power. But the NC GOP has abandoned all pretense of fairness or cooperation. Besides trying to find new ways to bring racist Jim Crow practices back to government, they have rewritten the rules of government to try to keep a newly-elected Democratic governor from doing his job, worked steadily to destroy the teaching profession, and designed bold new ways to destroy public education.

North Carolina might once have stamped "First in Flight" on its license plates, and it has a nifty Latin motto, but it seems that the signs greeting visitors to North Carolina should be read "North Carolina: Where Democracy Goes To Die." Anyone who cares about North Carolina should keep paying attention and keep making noise.

What Do Charter Schools Solve

The challenge-- the problem to be solved-- for public education is fairly simple: How do we provide a solid education for every child in the United States for a politically sustainable cost? (I wish the last part of the challenge wasn't there, but let's face it-- it's not like education is, say, a war in Afghanistan for which politicians are willing to write a blank check).

The challenge is not easily met, and in many places, in many ways, public schools have not fully succeeded. From entrenched racism, to the effects of poverty, to denial of necessary resources, to "failures" that are manufactured or imposed on schools, to widespread and hard-to-budge inequity, public schools are sometimes hampered by larger issues, and sometimes are part of the problem.

Public schools are not perfect. They're pretty damn good, and in many cases, their problems have been exaggerated or created out of whole cloth (Oh nos! Low PARRC scores!!!). But public schools are definitely not perfect.

I don't know any public school advocates who won't acknowledge that, despite being labeled as intractable flat-earth defenders of the status quo. But charter advocates often fall back on a style of argument roughly outlined as "There are HUGE problems here, therefor we must use our solution." This is the rhetorical equivalent of a person who shouts, "You're on fire, so you have to let me punch you in the face" and when you try to ask why, exactly, a punch in the face is a solution, they just keep hollering "But you are on FIRE!"

The presence of a problem does not automatically prove that a proposed solution is actually a solution. Which is why I keep coming back to this question:

What problem do charter schools solve?

Are charters just a road to nowhere?

Public school critics say that wealthy folks can choose the school they want by choosing which upscale neighborhood they want to stay in. Do charter schools solve this problem of privilege? Entry to some charter systems require an educated adult who can navigate an application system(and has time off during the day to do it). Some charter schools require contributions of either time or money or both. Privilege does help with access to a charter system-- just like the public system. How that plays out varies from location to location-- just like the public system.

Public school critics say that they want to extend the same kind of choice that rich folks get. But charters don't solve that problem. Poor families can't choose to live in a rich neighborhood so that their child can attend a rich neighborhood school. But a charter system does not give them a free selection, either. Ultimately the charters will choose who attends them by finding ways to reject or discourage or push out students who "don't fit." Charters will choose to bar students with language issues certain special needs by refusing to offer the supports those students need. Charters also choose WHEN students can enter-- if you miss the window at a relatively young age, you're SOL because they don't accept students in the middle of the year or entering higher grades.

And our current Secretary of Education has made it quite clear-- she cannot imagine situation in which the federal government will say to a charter or other private school, "You  may not have federal tax dollars if you are going to discriminate against those students." The ability of charters to pick and choose their students without penalty is being dramatically expanded.

Public school critics say that public education is hidebound and trapped in other centuries, in need of a stiff shot of Vitamin Innovate. But we've had modern charters for over a decade-- exactly what educational innovations have they discovered that can be used to improve the nation's schools? If you have good facilities, plenty of resources, and a carefully chosen batch of students, you can run a good school? That's not an innovation-- everybody already knew it. Other attempts at innovation, from strapping a child to a computer to enforcing a prison camp atmosphere, have proven to be not particularly useful and often depend on the power to get rid of students who "don't fit" to keep from totally collapsing.

I don't bring these up simply to play neener-neener so's-your-old-man. In fact, if these were the only problems that charters failed to solve, I'd say go ahead and let a thousand charters bloom. But that is not the case.

Public school critics say that public schools cost a lot of money and don't give enough returns. But running a parallel system of schools, duplicating administration and buildings-- it's a very expensive way to do education. And again, I would say, even as a taxpayer, to bring it on. But most states have set up a system of trying to run several systems with the same money that used to run one system, and that means that every child taken out of the public system weakens that system for the students left behind, the students whose parents can neither move them to a ritzy neighborhood OR get them into a charter school.

Public school critics say that the public system is an unresponsive monolith, and that can certainly be the truth. But how is it an improvement to have a charter school whose operators are unelected, do not have to meet in public, and are not accountable to the public. My small town is served by a public school system and some cyber charters. This month, the proposed budget for the public system is available to anyone who wants to look at it. Taxpayers can come to the next board meeting to comment on that budget, or they can just call their elected board member and spout off. Meanwhile, nobody knows who even runs the cyber charters or what they intend to do with the tax dollars they collect. How is that better?

Public schools screw up, and it's not just public school critics that notice. But there are laws and rules and regulations in place that govern public school and public school staff, providing an avenue for reporting, punishing, and correcting those issues. Charters are mostly operating with far fewer rules and regulations. How does that make them more accountable or reliable?

Public schools often reflect and exacerbate equity issues. But charters have also been instrumental in increased segregation, as well as programs that seem aimed at creating compliant worker drones and not future leaders.

Again, my point is not "Hey, these charters are no better than public schools." That would suggest that the effect of charters is simply neutral. But it's not-- modern charter policy is economically damaging, the dispersal of students to charters damages the community, and charters attempt to rescue a handful of students at considerable expense to all the students who are left in public schools.

This is like taking a special tonic that costs a thousand dollars a bottle and makes you feel worse. It's bad policy.

Charters do solve the problems of some individual families-- I don't want to send my child to public school (for any number of reasons, some more admirable than others) and now I don't have to. I'm sympathetic to that choice (well, unless your beef is that you don't want your white kid to go to school with those black kids-- then you're just a racist jerk) and I understand why you want to make it. But as a nation, our approach to education can't be, "We'll make sure that some kids can get a good education, and the rest-- oh, well. They're not our problem."

The challenge of public education is, again, to provide a good education for every child in the United States for a politically sustainable cost. It is a challenge that comes with lots of obstacles and problems, and after so many years, it is still not clear to me how modern charter schools help meet that challenge. Instead, I think modern charters have been set up to be one more obstacle. But by all means, if you want to explain to me exactly what problems charter provide a solution for (and not more explanation of how public schools are bad), my comments section is open for business.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Slate Series Unmasks Cyber School

Slate, for whatever reason, teamed up this week with Columbia Journalism School's Teacher Project, to take a look at on line education. Much of their work is focused on on line courses as a means of credit recovery-- the quick-and-easy method of letting students replace credits for courses they failed. But the series tells us a great deal about what on line "education" is really like-- and it is not pretty. This is just how bad cyber schooling is.

As always, I will include the preface that A) cyber school doesn't have to be as awful as it is and B) it is a real boon to certain students.

The series ran through eight articles, and you should not miss any of them, but here are links and blurbs for each article in the series so you can make your choices (and so that they don't disappear entirely once Slate moves on to other things). Read these:

The New Diploma Mills

Zoe Kirsch digs deep for this opening article. While focusing on how Florida has used on line courses to boost graduation rates "many school districts, including several of the nation's largest, have seen graduation rates soar"), Kirsch also looks at the policies boosted cyber-schooling and just how bad it looks on the ground to actual cyber students. This piece gives a good overview-- with well-sourced specifics-- for the problem issues of virtual schooling, like cheating and content that is far less than rigorous.

Fast. Isolating. Superficial.

After she failed English her junior year at Riverbend High School in Spotsylvania, Virginia, 17-year-old Amelia Kreck had to retake the class. It took her two days.

The title of Stephen Smiley's article comes from the answer to the question, "What are on line courses like for students?" Short reading excerpts, simple questions, work without any depth-- these themes turn up throughout the interviews with many on line course students. That and missing the interaction of a classroom, not just for social purposes, but because it helps with the learning.

I Am an Online Credit Recovery Dropout

Smiley also tried some on line courses as a student-- and found them so boring and superficial that he didn't complete them. "Boring and lonely" was his characterization. A look at how just how bad these courses are to work through.

Take These Students, Please

Francesca Berardi takes us to Chicago to look at how cyber-credit-recovery can morph into full-time cyber school for students who are far behind and at risk of not graduating and ruining a schools graduation rate numbers. It's a sad picture:

Daniel has had a lonely high school experience for the past two years. He spends four hours a day at Bridgescape, usually four days a week, and he seldom interacts with peers and teachers. When he struggles with an online test, his “best friend” is Google—something he is not discouraged to use—while teachers are a last resort. His main companions are his smartphone (for listening to music) and his Galaxy smartwatch (which helps him kill the time and stay in touch with his friends). “I can spend an entire day at school and not talk with anyone,” Daniel told me. Sometimes, he returns to visit his old teachers and classmates solely because he misses the warmth and bustle of a traditional high school.

Bottom of the Class

Berardi and Kirsch take a look at which cyber-schoolers are really awful. Odysseyware, Study Island, and A Beka Academy emerge as the bottom of the heap. Read why.

Online Education Doesn't Have To Be Isolating

Sarah Carr takes us to Bronx Arena for a look at some methods for making cyber school less isolating and awful. You'll have to decide on your own whether or not you're convinced.

Why Bad Online Courses Are Still Taught in School

Kirsch and Smiley take a look at the politics behind cybers. Florida, for instance, rates cybers, but does not do anything with the ratings. In many places, even though a cyber is rated a failure by the state, local districts can and do continue to use their services.

Why are the laws so toothless? Lobbyists and money. Cybers like K12 have dropped a bundle, and it turns out that ALEC is instrumental in making sure that the Right Connections are made to keep the laws favorable to the cyber school industry.

Just Take It Again

How easy are on line tests to game? Skipping over flat out cheating (like giving someone your login to take the test for you), the answer is "Pretty easy."

Meet Jeremy Noonan, who discovered that students doing cyber credit recovery through Edgenuity were getting roughly 37 out of 50 questions repeated on retakes of a major test. It's no surprise-- developing a larger question bank costs money. But particularly if a school district is enjoying the numbers boost that easily gameable tests provide, it's one more sign that actual education isn't really happening.

The entire series of articles is worth your attention. Read them in whatever order you like, but read them. This is the reality of cyber school.     

PA: Report Shows Charter Financial Impact

Pennsylvania's Legislative Budget and Finance Committee has released a report looking at "Public [sic] Charter Schools Fiscal Impact on School Districts." The findings of the joint committee underscore what many have already been saying-- charter schools, particularly in a badly regulated state like Pennsylvania, are hurting public schools.

The report is 105 pages long, so I'm going to be focusing on just some of the highlights here.

How PA Stacks up Against US

The committee looked to compare PA to its chartery brethren and sistern, so it looked across all forty-three states that allow charter schools. In particular, they noted some differences in charter laws.

* Twenty-two states (including PA) have no caps on schools on enrollment.

* Eleven states (including PA) require public schools to provide transportation for charter students.

* Thirteen states include "access" to local funding in charter revenue. PA is up in front of the pack on this, which makes a certain kind of sense since PA also leads the pack in requiring local revenue to fund public schools.

* PA is one of two states that has a special ed supplemental formula. That means every charter gets some funding based on nothing more than the assumption that around 16% of its student body is special needs. According to PDE data, in the 20145-2015 school year, the state gave $466.8 million in special ed tuition payments to charter schools, and roughly $294.8 million of that was special ed supplement. Actual charter expenditures on special ed-- $193.1 million. In other words, in PA and Massachusetts, it's extra-profitable for a charter NOT to take students with special needs, because they will get paid to educate those students even if those students are not enrolled at the school.

* PA is one of the the only three states that let charters appeal to the courts when they don't like the answer they get from other folks (we just saw an example of this).

* "Virtually all" of PA's pubic school districts have at least one student enrolled in a charter. However, Philadelphia accounts for about half the charter students in the state.

This chart puts the PA charter industry in the context of other states in the region. I do wonder what exactly it means that Ohio has over twice as many charter schools that handle fewer total students than PA, but that's a question for another day.

What Superintendents Say

The joint committee's staff reached out to several districts, including the "financially distressed" and charter-heavy in PA. Thirty-six superintendents responded with observations about the economic impact of charters.

Four had nice things to say, like "innovative programming," "customer-friendly," "prevents overcrowding," and "replaces the high school we can no longer afford to run."

Twenty-nine had less positive thoughts.

* When charters pull students from private schools, that shifts additional costs onto the public sector.

* Running multiple parallel systems is expensive.

* Consolidating buildings in a district often leads to charter exodus, which pressures districts not to consolidate even when it is costly to keep all buildings open.

* Transportation is expensive.

* Oversight of charters within district also costs money.

You see the pattern here. Having charter schools in your district makes education more expensive.

Policies That Add To Issues

The joint committee found that certain policy decisions by the state had an impact on how much charters could hurt local districts. Which-- well, yes. I look forward to the commission to study where the sun will come up tomorrow. Pennsylvania has several policies that make charters more damaging.

For instance, the state used to reimburse local school districts for part or all of the charter tuition that they handed over. In 2010-2011, that was $225 million. Currently, the figure is $0.00, a de facto funding cut to public schools.

PA has also opened up the field to "regional" charters. Originally, a charter had to have the approval of the district from which it would poach students. Now students can travel across district lines, meaning that the public district hands money over to a school over which the public district has no oversight at all.

And as many education observers in PA note repeatedly, our charter tuition formula is not related at all to the actual costs of running the charter. This is particularly striking with cyber schools, which have no bricks-and-mortar expenses, and yet receive the same tuition money as a bricks-and-mortar school.

Why Do Parents Choose Charters

Choice proponents like to fancy a world where parents "shop" by checking out academic indicators like Big Standardized Test scores. The BS Test scores aren't really academic indicators, but that's okay because parents aren't worried about academics anyway.

The joint committee looked at both national and state-level studies and found many curious things. There's the Indiana study where parents say they go looking for academics, but actually switched their children to lower-performing schools. Of the New Orleans study where parents said they go looking for academics, but actually choose based on location. And although the committee doesn't connect these dots, some studies show parents choosing charters for smaller class size, less emphasis on testing, and more specialized programs-- in short, they want a school like the public schools we had before the test-centered reformy juggernaut hit.


Let financial impact count. Current law doesn't allow a district to consider financial impact when approving (or not) a charter application. This is crazy-pants, like saying you are only allowed to choose not to eat something based on appearance, and not on whether it's poisonous or not. Districts should be able to say, "No, we can't afford this." Also, applying charters should provide a detailed financial plan, including "the proposed actions the charter school will take to protect the school districts (and the Commonwealth) from financial liability in case of charter school bankruptcy or other illegal acts."

Permit the public school district to negotiate per-pupil costs. Instead of letting the state set a required tuition rate, let the local district work it out with the charters. At a bare minimum, the committee suggests revisiting the flat rates for cyberstudents and students with special needs.

Fix the transportation piece. PA requires districts to provide transportation services for charter schools that they do not provide for their own district's students.

If you are going to pull your child out of private school to send her to a charter, you should register with the district that will be paying the tuition. This and a provision for changing how PDE "intercepts" funds is more bureaucratic streamlining than cost saving. The report also recommends that local districts be relieved of their duties as attendance watchdogs for charters, and that charters operate with considerably more financial transparency.

Other Thoughts

The report is perhaps a bit narrow in scope and context, given that Pennsylvania has 500 separate public school districts. But while the report focuses on PA, its attempt to give a national context to charter policy means it gives an interestingly broad picture of the charter industry across the nation. For that reason alone, you might find this interesting reading.

But for those of us in PA, anything that can put a little more weight behind any real attempt to fix our terrible charter laws would be great. Our legislators keep trying to come up with bills that can be sold to parents, taxpayers, school districts, and the general population, but which keep the deep-pocketed friends of the charter industry happy and the results, like this most recent attempt, don't really fix a thing. Pennsylvania taxpayers and students deserve better.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

DeVos Still Anti-Accountability

As she's spent time in the public eye this week, Betsy DeVos may have enraged, but she hasn't surprised. She continues to be what we always thought she was-- and that includes her attitude about accountability.

She's against it.

Here's a critical CNN clip from today's hearings:

If a school wants to use federal money to discriminate on the basis of race or religion or sexual preference or gender orientation, DeVos thinks that's between the parents and the state. She literally refuses to imagine a scenario in which the federal government would hold a school accountable for the way it used federal dollars. The issue is perfectly captured in this exchange. DeVos is dodging a question about whether or not she would allow federal dollars to go to a school that was discriminating against African-American students:

DeVos: But when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of--

Clark: This isn't-- this isn't about parents making choices. This is about use of federal dollars.

At another point in the day, similarly pressed on whether or not she would require voucher schools to comply with IDEA, DeVos took a similar stance.

Her long answer is thank you for asking that question about [insert good standardized testing technique of restating the question--sort of--in your answer] and  states should get to set the rules and parents should get to make the choices.

Her short answer is, no, she's not going to hold anybody accountable for anything.

If a state wants to bring back Jim Crow schooling and funnel federal dollars to a school that only accepts white kids, she's okay with that. If a state wants to funnel federal dollars to schools that refuse to adequately serve students with special needs, she's okay with that.

No reframing of the issue budged her in the slightest. DeVos really does bear an infuriating resemblance to Dolores Umbridge, except that J. K. Rowlings ultimately gives audiences the pleasure of seeing cracks in Umbridge's self-righteous calm. DeVos shows no such cracks. It's the kind of calm that comes from absolute righteous True Belief, of knowing that your enemies can't hurt you because you are armored in Righteousness and Truth. It's also the kind of calm that comes from an empathy deficit; you don't feel sympathy or empathy for your Lessers because they have chosen their path. You can watch the world burn because you know the fire will never touch you, and the people who burn are people who are lesser beings who deserve to burn.

But enough armchair analysis. What we know is what we've known since the days that DeVos beat back attempts at accountability measures in Michigan-- she opposes anything that might in any way tie the hands of the Right Kind of People, the people who deserve to set policy and create schools and profit from all of it.

I can understand how liberals are bothered by this policy. What I don't quite understand is where the conservatives are. Where are all the people who built up the education reform wave in the first place with rallying calls for teacher accountability and school accountability and don't just trustingly throw money at schools and where the hell are our tax dollars going, anyway? Oh wait-- they are off in the corner, counting up all the money they aren't going to pay in taxes under the GOP plan.

As my college ed prof told us in the seventies, the accountability needle keeps swinging back and forth-- but this time it has gone so far in the accountability direction that it has come out the other side in a place so unaccountable that the federal Secretary of Education cannot imagine a situation in which she would deny federal dollars to any voucher school, ever, for any reason. This isn't just throwing money at schools-- it's lighting the money on fire and throwing it off a cliff. This is wrapping all the money around a big club that will be used to beat anybody who's not white and wealthy and healthy.

Charters and Open Books

My school district's board of directors held their regular meeting two days ago and passed a tentative budget for the coming year. I could link you to the newspaper report of the meeting, but it's behind a paywall. So let me just copy out the two important paragraphs:

Now that the tentative budget has been approved, members of the general public have an opportunity to review and/or comment on the spending plan until June 26, which is the day the board is slated to vote on the budget.

Anyone who would like to see a copy of the budget can access one either at the school district's administrative building or online at

Just to be clear. For a month, any citizen in the area can look at the proposed budget. They could then attend a board meeting or call a board member or stop a board member when they encounter them out and about in the community, and that citizen could express an opinion about the budget. Any citizen, parent, voter or taxpayer can both see the budget and offer feedback on it. That's a thing that can happen here in our public school district.

This is different from the charter school business world, where budgets are proposed and passed in private and where the people who create those budgets may not even live anywhere nearby at all. It's different from the charter business world, where some charter operators fight hard, all the way to court, to keep their budgets secret, and where state regulations do not require the charter operators to reveal anything at all.

This is just one of the reasons that charter schools are not public schools. Funneling tax dollars to charter schools and private religious schools (as Trump and DeVos propose to do) is shoveling taxpayer money into a black hole. It's the very definition of taxation without representation, a policy that does away with accountability to taxpayers.

That is not how public schools in a democracy work. Push that policy if you like, but at least be honest about it. A school district with closed books and an unaccountable board in charge of those books-- that is not a public school system.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dear Jeb Bush:

Today you put in an appearance at Betsy DeVos's American Federation for Children, a group very much in tune with your goals in education. I can see why you and DeVos have always gotten along-- wealthy children of privilege who feel a righteous need to remake your home state according to your own beliefs in competition and battle and a system that sorts people into their proper places.

Reporter Matt Barnum tweeted this quote from you this afternoon:

The simple fact is when you create a marketplace of school choice ...the children do better ... It defies logic to suggest otherwise.

That's consistent with things you've said in the past. Just a month ago you sent an op-ed out to New Hampshire newspapers in which you wrote

When public schools face increased competition, they get better and kids learn more.

Now, your assertions don't really hold up to any sort of scrutiny (Politifacts ruled your NH line "mostly false") and I've burned many bloggy bytes arguing that. If you like, you can amble through this blog, but I'm not going to wade into that argument here.

No, what I want to do is ask a question, addressing your belief in the power of competition and the marketplace. This is going to sound like a snotty gotcha question, but it's really not. I find that all of us do better at grappling with these kinds of abstract ideas if we look at how they really play out in our own lives, and so I'm going to ask you this--

Do you think that marketplace-style competition for the job of President of the United States created a better outcome?

Do you think competition among the many candidates made each one better, resulting in the very best one being elevated to the White House? Do you think that competition got us the most excellent President that we could ever hope for?

Do you feel that you personally became a better man, a better person, a better candidate, a better politician through your competition with the other GOP candidates, including and especially the eventual winner of the office?

Can you imagine yourself calling the White House to say, "Mr. President, I want to thank you for making me a better person by competing so well with me?"

I suspect that your answer to all of these questions would be something other than "yes," and I would actually agree with you. You might be inclined to explain that all sorts of extraneous factors like a tilted playing field or a hugely imperfect transmission of information to the voters interfered with the "proper" outcome, and I would say to you, how do you imagine that the marketplace of schools would be any different?

I truly am not trying to rub your defeat in your face. But I do want to point out that while your imagined version of competition in the marketplace may work flawlessly to bring about awesome outcomes, the Presidential election that ate years of your life is a far better real-world example of how a competitive marketplace can actually work, particularly when applied to something that is supposed to be a service for the public good and not just a chance for personal profiteering.

See, I believe that the Bush family, in its own way, really does have a heritage of service and a sense of responsibility to the country as a whole. But you got smoked by a scam artist, a huckster who's far more interested in personal profiteering than the good of the community at large. And that is about as perfect a real-life metaphor as we could find for how school choice and competition is working in the real world. Charters and choice are the Trump family of the education world.

So I'm hoping that you can take a step back, clear your head, and see that your logic is confused-- competition and the marketplace, particularly in matters of public service, does not get us excellence. There is no reason to believe that it will improve schools, and even less reason to believe it will provide good results for students. Of all the conservative fans of this philosophy, your unique personal experience makes you especially positioned to see this. I hope some day you will open your eyes and stop spouting nonsense about the wonders of competition and the marketplace. Feel free to give me a call when you're ready to see the light.

Religious Voucher Schools

Like everyone else in the education universe, I was talking vouchers on line, and in the midst of a conversation, this tweet popped up:

Remember that question, because it's going to be part of how this debate is framed-- mean old flat-Earth public education advocates trying to deny poor families their choices. This carefully constructed question gets one things right, and several things wrong, all worth remembering in the days ahead:

Vouchers are about private religious schools.

Where vouchers have been put into effect, the effect has been to funnel all sorts of public money into religious school coffers. Take a look at this piece from Jersey Jazzman's website. It breaks down exactly what schools are receiving voucher money, and in all cases, we're talking overwhelmingly about private religious schools. In Indiana, 97% of vouchers go to religious schools. In Milwaukee, 93% of vouchers go to religious schools. In Louisiana, 93% of vouchers go to religious schools (75% Roman Catholic).

So Petrilli is correct in making this about religious schools-- because vouchers are by and large about private religious schools. But everything else about his question is wrong.

Private Religious Schools Choose

There is no system that would allow poor families to choose religious schools. Well, I take that back-- a system in which government regulation forced religious schools to take any and all students. But I suspect some religious schools would have an issue with that (we'll get back to this).

For right now, private religious schools do the choosing. Whether it's the private parochial school that suggested to my divorced friend that her children might not be a good fit, or the private school that just says "No" with no explanation at all, or the private school that says, "You don't really want to send your child here because we will not make any accommodations for her special needs," it is private religious schools that do the choosing.

And that's before we even get to the question of whether or not that voucher will cover more than a fraction of the cost of the private school.

Your Tax Dollars At Work

Vouchers direct public tax dollars to private religious organizations. While the Supremes have conditionally blessed this sort of transaction, there are still problems. Vouchers disenfranchise taxpayers who don't have children (no kids-- no vote on what kind of schools serve your community, but you still pay). And the exclusive nature of private religious schools means that taxpayers with children could end up paying tuition to send a neighbor's kid to a school that would refuse to educate their own child.

And vouchers are not exactly "rescuing" poor children from failing zip codes. In Indiana, a whopping 1% of voucher students are leaving a "failing" school, and more than half have never set foot in a public school to begin with. Poor students in failing public schools make great poster children for voucher programs-- but that's not who's getting served. Some parents are getting a rebate on the private school tuition that they were going to pay anyway.

The New Entitlement

When Bernie Sanders wanted to make college free to everyone, their were howls of outrage over a "new entitlement" funded by taxpayer dollars. I have never quite figured out why similar howls have not greeted voucher programs, which are also a new entitlement for (some) students to attend a private school at taxpayer expense.

Un-hiding the Costs

I would be more willing to consider the above issues if the funding of vouchers were handled honestly. But to do all of the above at the expense of public schools is dishonest and not okay. As most states handle vouchers, the real question is "Why do you have against letting families send their children to religious schools at the cost of educating students in public schools?" If you want vouchers, fund them with something other than money stolen from the public school system.

I would love, just once, to see a voucher proponent get out in front of the taxpayers and say, "We believe that this new entitlement to private religious education is so important that we are proposing a tax increase to fund it." Tell parents-- including poor parents-- "We want to raise your taxes so that the McGotrocks family can more easily pay for sending their child to a school that would reject your child in five seconds flat." If that's the system you want, be open and honest, not only about where the money is coming from, but which families are benefiting.

Show the Courage of Your Convictions

While we're being open and honest, let's talk about all the reasons that smart conservative religious schools should want nothing to do with vouchers.

Just up the road from me is a small religious conservative college named Grove City College. It made the news recently because the college president invited his old friend Mike Pence to speak at commencement. Protesting ensued. 

But GCC has been in the news before, as a leader in the vanguard of conservative colleges that don't take any federal money at all. The college pursued the matter all the way to the Supreme Court back in 1984, and it has kept itself federal-dollar-free all along, because it understands one simple rule-- where government dollars go, government strings follow. And what might be a friendly government today could easily turn into a Follow Federal Guidelines Or Else government tomorrow. Why would a private religious school sign up for that, unless it was desperate for money?

If you are going to take taxpayer money, you must expect to be accountable to the taxpayers.

And if there's a lot of money involved, like millions and billions of dollars, with little accountability-- well, we already know what happens. Before you can say "antitheistic cynicism," you will have more fly-by-night folks pretending to be religious educators than you can shake a crucifix at. 

So That Question Again...

What do I have against letting poor people choose religious schools?

Nothing, really-- as long as they get to do the choosing and as long it's funded honestly and not by stripping money from public schools and as long as we're honest about creating a new entitlement for any and all students to attend private school at public expense and as long as we're actually talking about poor families and as long as there is real accountability for taxpayer dollars and as long as it's handled in a way that doesn't violate the Constitution and as long as "religious schools" means all religions and as long as private religious schools are sure they actually want to go through with this.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Education's Existential Crisis

No, it's not the possibility that Betsy DeVos's DeVoucher program may gut public education with the goal of replacing it with privatized school by and for the People Who Matter. Nor is it the policy goal held by some that the whole concept of "school" can be replaced with an array of modules geared to different competencies that can be accessed and completed on line at the time and place of the student's choosing. It's not even the steady clamping shut of the pipeline that provides actual trained professional teachers, without whom a school is difficult to put together.

No, the biggest existential threat strikes at the very foundation of education, the foundation of knowledge itself.

Plenty of bytes have been burned discussing a post-fact society, a culture where truth no longer matters. And that nibbles at the edges of what we're talking about.

This Vox piece by David Roberts (Vox's climate and science reporter) is long and thorough, but here's the key idea. He sets it up by recapping a classic Rush Limbaugh rant from 2009, in which Limbaugh claims that we live in two universe, and one is a universe of lies (he was talking about climate science, but at this point, it could be just about anything):

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

"Epistomology" seems like a scary word, but it's actually pretty simple-- what does it mean to know something, and how does that knowing something happen?

Over the course of human history, we've had many different answers for how we know things. Because the approved priests told us so. By way of divine revelation. Because some currently-dead guys once wrote it down. We don't all know things, because only people with power and money are entitled to know things at all. Or even, we don't, we just make shit up.

But eventually we arrived at some collective standards, some shared agreements that pieces of knowledge would be written down and presented as Known Things once they had been tested and certified. New knowledge would be gleaned by some version of a scientific method, bolstered by some agreed-upon techniques of proof.

It hasn't been perfect, but it has worked pretty well for a while. And we teachers and our schools had our place in that, working at the job of passing on a solid core of widely accepted Truths on to young humans. And public education added the notion that all citizens should be given access, early and often, to the same shared body of knowledge.

But if we submit to tribal epistemology-- if we slide into a world where people are, Daniel Patrick Moynahan notwithstanding, entitled not only to their own opinions, but only to those facts that their tribal leaders certify, then what job is there for public education or teachers?

If the only thing that's true is what my Beloved Leader says is true (and only what he says is true today, because the past carries no weight in such a system), then what is there for a teacher to do except pass on the latest reports from the Truth Bureau? Well, there would be one other task-- to help students erase the sharp edges of their own intellects that want to perk up and say, "Hey, wait a minute---"

Another effect-- and this one you've probably already noticed-- is that when the world runs on tribal epistemology, everything-- everything-- is political.

If Beloved Leader and the tribe say that the sky is green, then making an observation about the color of the sky is a challenge to Beloved Leader, a political act. If Beloved Leader says that we ate soup yesterday, then digging through the trash to find yesterday's lunch scraps is a political act. If Beloved Leader and tribal elders define truth in all matters great and small, then any attempt to search out truth on your own, great or small, is a political act. And teaching, which we've come to see as apolitical, an act where it's "inappropriate" to impose your own political views on your students-- in the land of tribal epistemology, teaching is the most political act of all. Like many teachers, I have always avoided being overtly political in my classroom, and yet that seems increasingly impossible.

What is the role of teachers and education in a society that does not know how to know, a society led by a man who, as George Will put it, "does not know what it is to know something."

The most useful thing I learned in college (and what many of my professors  explicitly copped to teaching) was how to teach myself, how to learn things. But in times of tribal epistemology, the very act of believing that one can construct meaning and understanding using impersonal, objective standards and techniques-- well, that's just crazy radical stuff.

This is the most existential crisis we face. It may not be the most immediate, and I can certainly see many opportunities to turn back the tide. But we are living intermixed with a great tribe of people who think all wisdom is received from Beloved Leader and not by inspection, reflection, logic, reason, or just plain using your brain to consider evidence. Human beings are sloppy enough about this stuff as it is-- we do not need to have the prevailing winds shift against knowing. So, no-- I don't worry that this is going to wipe us out tomorrow, or the next day. But it is still a terrible thing to contemplate-- a world in which a "teacher" has no job but to pass on the tribal "facts" of the day, and squelch all independent inquiry and thought.

It's not that we've been perfect on this issue, but we have at least maintained the means of finding better paths. Maintaining, building, nurturing and supporting such means of finding one's own way to a truer understanding is then most important job of a teacher, and the mission we must defend at all costs

Sunday, May 21, 2017

NYT: Value Not Added

Our old friend Kevin Carey popped up in the New York Times this week, using the death of William Sanders as a case to soft-pedal VAM. The article has some interesting points to make about VAM, and it also unintentionally reveals some of the reasons that Value-Added Measuring of teacher performance is a fool's game.

Carey is the education policy program director for the New America Foundation. NAF bills itself as a non-partisan thinky tank based in DC. Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, is chair of the NAF board. Their over-a-million-dollar funders include the Gates Foundation and the US State Department. So their objectivity in these matters is suspect. In the past Carey has turned up trying to support Common Core, attacking public education, using shoddy research to slam higher ed, and helping spread PR for Mark Zuckerberg's AltSchool.

Carey apparently met Sanders and talked to the inventor of the Value Added Measure (specifically, the one known these days as VAAS--  the one that a Houston court just threw out). That provides a fascinatingly specific tale of what started Sanders, who had a doctorate in statistics and quantitative genetics, on the path to evaluating teacher performance:

“In 1945, the United States government set off an atomic bomb.”

That’s how Mr. Sanders began telling me the story of his life, when we met several years ago....

Nuclear weapons tests had released clouds of radiation that had drifted with the weather. Sometime later, farm animals downwind began to die. Did the first event, a mushroom cloud, cause the second event, dead sheep? Or did one merely follow the other coincidentally? Solving this problem required expertise in both statistical probability and livestock biology. Oak Ridge hired Bill Sanders.

So, VAM is tied to nukes. Somehow that seems right.

Another fun factoid: Lamar Alexander was offered the VAM idea when he was governor of Tennessee, but he passed. I would love to hear the story of how he decided not to use Sander's idea.

How easy is it to take shots at Sanders for trying to evaluate teachers based on his work with radioactive cows? Pretty easy-- but it really is striking how little he seemed to grasp the complexity of the whole teaching-learning thing:

To fairly evaluate teachers, Mr. Sanders argued, the state needed to calculate an expected growth trajectory for each student in each subject, based on past test performance, then compare those predictions with their actual growth. Outside-of-school factors like talent, wealth and home life were thus baked into each student’s expected growth. Teachers whose students’ scores consistently grew more than expected were achieving unusually high levels of “value-added.” Those, Mr. Sanders declared, were the best teachers.

It's that simple! The test scores the students produced in previous years make this year's score completely predictable, and any difference must be because of the teacher because no other factor could possible account for a deviation from the predicted student path. Seriously? Sanders had children of his own, so he's definitely met young humans. And yet this overly-simplistic model of human growth and behavior (students just keep progressing along this fully-predictable line unless some teacher disrupts that path) is the mechanical inhuman heart of his system.

But Carey's piece also shows how simple innumeracy has driven the adoption of Sander's work. Sanders tried out his model and found it distributed teacher performance over a "normal" bell curve (kind of like the student achievement fits on a bell curve-- almost as if the teacher bell curve is just an echo of the student one, and not a measurement of something else entirely). Here's how Carey describes the reaction to that curve:

Reformers also looked at the right-hand side of the bell curve, where the effective teachers were, and thought, “What if we could have a lot more of those?” 

Sigh. It's a frickin' bell curve. You can't make the right hand side bigger or the left hand side smaller. You can't, in short, have a system in which all the teachers are above average.

Carey offers the more recent picture of Sanders as a guy who hung back from the argu8ments about policy, but if we look at this friendly profile of Sanders from 2000, we see that in the early days he was a busy eVAMgelist, hitting the road and preaching the Word of Data. That was just before he left the university to join SAS, a data-crunching company that has made a bundle by selling VAAS as a useful product. Presenting Sanders as a kindly old farmer with a PhD glides past the fact that he was employed by a company that made its living selling people on this giant slab of data baloney.

Carey reaches for a valedictory conclusion:

While the use of value-added ratings to hire, fire and pay teachers may have been limited by political pressure, the importance of the value-added bell curve itself continues to grow — less like a sudden explosion than a chime whose resonance gains in power over time. 

Oh, let's tell the truth. VAM systems have also been limited by the fact that they're junk, taking bad data from test scores, massaging them through an opaque and improbable mathematical model to arrive at conclusions that are volatile and inconsistent and which a myriad educators have looked at and responded, "Well, this can't possible be right."

You'll never find me arguing against any accountability; taxpayers (and I am one) have the right to know how their money is spent. But Sander's work ultimately wasted a lot of time and money and produced a system about as effective as checking toad warts under a full moon-- worse, because it looked all number and sciencey and so lots of suckers believed in it. Carey can be the apologist crafting it all into a charming and earnest tale, but the bottom line is that VAM has done plenty of damage, and we'd all be better off if Sanders had stuck to his radioactive cows.