Monday, July 31, 2017

Pluralism, Democracy, and Silos

CATO Institute, the Very Libertarian thinky tank, has been maintaining an education "battle map." You can see it in all its interactive glory right here. 

The battle map is a plotting of various school-related conflicts around the country. It encompasses controversies as well as kerfluffles that escalate into court. And if you're wondering what the point is, well, that's hinted at here:

This map aggregates a relatively small, but especially painful, subset of such battles: those pitting educational effectiveness, basic rights, moral values, or individual identities against each other. Think creationism versus evolution, or assigned readings containing racial slurs. The conflicts are often intensely personal, and guarantee if one fundamental value wins, another loses.  

Neal McClusky, CATO's education guy (and one of the reformy guys who can have a civil disagreement on twitter), lays out his thinking here in the Washington Examiner, where we get a bettrer explanation of what is emerging as a new school choice talking point: "Pluralism and equality need educational freedom."

McClusky opens by noting that Americans bristle at the idea of discrimination, a word that "connotes exclusion for not just superficial, but also hateful reasons."

But we should not let our immediate, understandable feelings keep us from asking: Might there be acceptable, perhaps even good, reasons that schools would not work with some people?

McClusky offers several reasons for creating different educational silos (which is awkward, but I'm going to try to stay away from the charged word "discrimination"). They mostly boil down to the big one in his title:

First pluralism. Ours is a nation of greatly diverse people — myriad religions, ethnicities, languages, cultures — and we must allow unique communities to educate their children in ways that the political majority, which controls public schools, might not select, and do so without having to sacrifice their education tax dollars. We must enable people to choose schools that share their values, or cultures, or views of history, on a level playing field. If we do not, we doom them to unequal status under the law, and even risk their withering away in a generation or two.

Okay, then.

I don't think we share the same vision of pluralism. And probably not democracy, either.

If I understand what McClusky is suggesting here and elsewhere, it's a sort of benign balkanization. Everyone should get their own corner of the country where things can be just the way they like it, and they can cast out everyone who doesn't see things the same way, and their "values, or cultures, or views of history" can be passed on, unchallenged and unmixed with differing views.

Let me first acknowledge that this is one of those tensions in America that goes back to Day One. The Puritans didn't come to establish a colony based on pluralistic religious freedom-- they came to establish a colony where everyone would worship the way that Puritans were sure was correct. Southern colonists didn't come to establish a land where all men were created equal; they were quite certain that all men were not so created, and they set up a society that was based on that belief. Only oddball places like crazy-quilt New Amsterdam and radical Rhode Island willingly embraced the challenges of letting children of many beliefs play in the same playground. And as the nation expanded, the common response to finding yourself out of agreement with your neighbors was to move away. By and large the problems and solutions of a pluralistic society have been forced upon us.

It's a challenge we have periodically risen to. Colin Woodard's American Nations posits eleven different regional cultures, which could have resulted in eleven different nations-- but didn't. Circumstances forced cooperation upon them, and they battled out joint agreements that did not really satisfy anyone, but which allowed enough cooperation to allow the nation to exist at all. There's a huge debate to be had about the efficacy of all of this (as you may have heard, cooperation flagged a bit in 1860 and has never entirely recovered).

But some choice advocates these days seem to be arguing that freedom and democracy mean the ability to do exactly what you choose, only what you choose, and never having to do things you don't want to do. This is freedom as defined by a three-year-old

Nor does the school-choice-is-democracy argument even achieve that freedom, because what it would mean is that taxpayers without children have no say at all in how their school taxes are spent. That's not really going to reduce the number of pins on the battle map. It's just going to subject some folks, depending on what choice oversight their state prefers, to taxation without representation.

In fact, the whole business seems like a big fat new entitlement-- you are entitled to send your child to a private school at public expense, and you are entitled to have a school for your child that presents your child only with your culture and values (and now that I type it out, the whole thing seems kind of snowflakey, too).

McClusky does acknowledge one of the problems of benign balkanization-- the real possibility that some "values, or cultures, or views of history" will be at direct odds with our values as a nation. And this is a fuzzy area for hard-core choicers-- how exactly does a nation manage people whose choice is objectively and demonstrably bad?

There are other problems with this vision. If all citizens are to have equal access to schools that share their values etc, who will be responsible for leveling the playing field? If the folks who want a particular flavor of culture in their school cannot have it, not because of regulation, but because they are too poor to create and support it, whose responsibility is it to level that playing field? And who then decides which requests for assistance in setting up a school for a particular culture is a legit request? Or does is each cultural silo only entitled to the schools that it can afford, and if it's too poor, tough bananas? Because we already have that system in many states (and it is growing in popularity)-- we sort people out according to their ability to provide their own stuff with the people who can provide themselves lots of stuff over in this gated silo and the people who can't provide themselves with much stuff gathered together and then somebody inside the gated silo announces, "Everyone should be free to just take care of their own stuff."

I also anticipate a great deal of difficulty sorting out the silos. The battle map includes lots of sorts of conflicts, so it's not like we can just say, "Okay, all the Catholics go to Catholic school" because when we factor in beliefs about gender and sexuality and curriculum and fund raising and ethnicity, we'll find that silo is still filled with conflicts and battles.

But mostly I just can't see how this is pluralism. First of all, I don't see the value in ending all conflicts-- or rather, sorting people so that the conflicts are not obvious, because if conflicts exist, you don't help anything by just trying to avoid them instead of dealing with them (as a divorced guy, I think you should take my word for this). Just because you can't see the people who disagree with you doesn't mean they've disappeared. What value is there in making conflict appear to go away by sending all the conflicted parties to separate schools? McClusky suggests that these conflicts are all-or-none and so no compromise is ever possible, and I suppose that is theoretically true, though I like to count "You may disagree about everything but you must find a way to live in the same country" as a worthy compromise.

Pluralism-- a variety of viewpoints and cultures and approaches to life-- has largely made us a stronger country. Even aspiring to it has been mostly good for us. And yes-- to make that kind of thing work, individuals have to give up some of their freedom to do only the things they want to do. But who doesn't? You get married-- you give up some freedom. You have children-- you give up some freedom. You get a job-- you give up some freedom. And sometimes, because you're born into a particular community or family or race or creed, people take freedom away from you without you having a say at all. And if you grow up in America, you live in a pluralistic society where no one culture gets to have its way all day every day.

Why would we want students to have an experience that suggests otherwise?

PA: Another Hatchet Man Runs for Governor

The Pennsylvania governor's race is shaping up to be an ugly one for education. On the GOP side we already have a declaration from Scott Wagner. Wagner is one more businessman who figured that gummint couldn't be that hard, and he has quickly established himself as anti-labor, anti-government, anti-public education.

Well, now we get to meet Paul Mango.

Here's the short version of Everything You Need To Know About Paul Mango-- his previous job was working for McKinsey and Company.

No, not this guy

For those of you who don't immediately recognize that name-- McKinsey is one of the international giants of consulting, and they specialize in helping companies squeeze more money out of their assets, both in bad times and good. They have been involved in education reform, and in major cities where movers and shakers are discussing how to gut public education and unleash the free market so some folks can start making some serious charter money, you will often find McKinsey (for example, Boston and Minneapolis).

Mango's background as a hatchet-for-profits guy led to this journalistically responsible but still hilarious piece in Penn Live. Some folks endorsed Mango as a business-minded job creator, so the reporters covering asked the Mango campaign for a single example of a job that Mango had created or retained. The campaign came up blank. They asked again. The campaign came up blank again. For those who know McKinsey, this makes sense-- they are in the business of creating Return On Investment, frequently by doing the opposite of "job creation."

Not that Mango is leaning on his private sector hatchet work in his campaign. Mango wants you yo know that he's an American Patriot with a Working Class Background who Served His Country and is now a Good Family Man. Mango coverage always comes with mention that he's a West Point grad who served in the 82nd Airborne. He's also touting the multi-million dollar business he created for McKinsey in Pittsburgh as proof that he's more businessy than Governor Tom Wolf (also a business guy in gummint).

Yeah, this guy.

Mango's announcement tour in May was short on specifics (and press access). His website includes a snappy slogan ("Big Ideas Instead of Big Taxes') and his attack on Wolf includes one pretty snappy idea (calling Wolf "Thomas the Tax Engine"). But while he bothers to single out education as an issue, his video on the subject doesn't have much to say-- if children had crappy life goals, it wouldn't matter that one website (Wallethub) rates our schools low, but we pay a lot of money for them, and they should be better. Mango will fix schools by "spending smarter, being more innovative, and making sure your child gets the education you're paying for" which is pretty weak sauce. At his website, we get slightly more detail:

Paul Mango will ensure every one of our children has the choice and the means to obtain a good education.  Pennsylvania families must be empowered to make choices for their children’s success.

While this toes the usual line, it's pretty wimpy compared to Scott Wagner's full-throated "let's get rid of the unions, gut the public schools, and give everyone a voucher" talk. Wagner's campaign site is even vaguer than Mango's, but he's had a platform as state senator, and he's used it. 

What's more surprising about Mango's launch is the absence of any strong statements about health care. He was, after all, McKinsey's health care expert, with lots of attention to the impact of the ACA and some looks at what the GOP countermeasures could mean. Pittsburgh City Paper outlined just how much expertise he displayed as a business consultant; as a candidate, he's pretty meek and vague. Hell, the guy has an MBA in Healthcare from Harvard.

If Mango wants to make a splash, he's going to have to do more than take a bunch of "I'm totally working class and not a Harvard MBA type" shirtsleeve photos. Particularly if he wants to be heard over the noise of Scott Wagner's blustery Scott Walkeresque Tea Party angriness.

But Pennsylvania education voters only have to remember one thing about Mango-- he's the guy from McKinsey, the company that specializes in dismantling and destroying jobs, including those in education. This is not our guy.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why Are Entrepreneurs Special

Entrepreneurship has been trampling up and down the fields of education, like some beautiful windswept unicorn.

Read the work of reformsters like Jeanne Allen of the charter-loving Center for Education Reform and you will begin to imagine that the fallow fields of education can only be brought back to life by the magical poop of these silver-maned uni-edu-preneurs, but loathsome teachers and miserable unions and the loathed "status quo" keep trying to harpoon the beautiful unicorn and wrap it up in a net of regulations tied down with straps of resistance. We are a bunch of grubby ponies trying to force those beautiful unicorns to lower themselves, to be haltered and hampered and forced to roam with the rest of our ordinary, ugly herd.

This narrative would lead one to believe that entrepreneurs are somehow imbued with a special quality, a quality that people who merely devoted their entire professional lives to education sorely lack. These entrepreneurs, whether they are launching charter schools or unveiling hot new programs or building up their new models of education, have some sort of secret special awesomeness, a genius that must not be restrained.

Because, you know-- entrepreneurs.

So what is so special about these majestical creatures? If only we could unlock the secret of what makes entrepreneurs, in and out of education, just so entrepreneury.

Well, it turns out researchers have been trying to reverse engineer that special unicorn sauce. There's an older study from back in 2013:

University of California, Berkeley economists Ross Levine and Rona Rubenstein analyzed the shared traits of entrepreneurs in a 2013 paper, and found that most were white, male, and highly educated. “If one does not have money in the form of a family with money, the chances of becoming an entrepreneur drop quite a bit,” Levine tells Quartz.

 Oh. That. Well how about a more recent study.

New research out this week from the National Bureau of Economic Research (paywall) looked at risk-taking in the stock market and found that environmental factors (not genetic) most influenced behavior, pointing to the fact that risk tolerance is conditioned over time (dispelling the myth of an elusive “entrepreneurship gene“).

What environmental factors influence risk-taking? Well, there's the 2012 re-examination of the famous marshmallow experiment (do some children have more ability to defer gratification than others) that concluded that the ability to defer gratification (a pretty simple type of risk taking) is deeply influenced by what history has taught you about how much of a risk you're taking.

Bill Gates can go start a computer company in the garage because the garage is attached to a really nice house and no matter what happens to the computers, his life is still going to be safe and comfortable. And being an entrepreneurial unicorn has its price as well:

For creative professions, starting a new venture is the ultimate privilege. Many startup founders do not take a salary for some time. The average cost to launch a startup is around $30,000, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor show that more than 80% of funding for new businesses comes from personal savings and friends and family.

My point here is not big or complicated. These entrepreneurial are not unicorns who are somehow born to greater abilities and wisdom than the rest of our ordinary herd-- they're just a few more ordinary horses who have the money to buy fake gold-encrusted horns to wear. Entrepreneurs are not wiser or smarter or better, certainly not gifted with a gene that substitutes for experience or training in a field like education. No, they're just richer.And somehow, that isn't enough for me to think their unicorn poop is magical.

PA: Tenure Under Attack Yet Again

Okay, Pennsylvania. Here we go again.

Slipped into the byzantine negotiations surrounding this year's Budget-pallooza, some kind soul has re-inserted a favorite reformster method of doing away with teacher tenure.

This is an idea that reformsters have pitched with varying degrees of success in a multitude of states. The idea is to do away with job protections without actually saying so, instead saying that a school district should be able to fire teachers for "economic reasons" and that firing should be based not on seniority, but on teacher evaluation scores.

Usually this is pitched as a law. In 2014, StudentsFirst was pitching it like crazy. Not surprising as the group (which has apparently let the security certificate on its site expire) is the reform group set up by former DC chancellor, She Who Will Not Be Named*, a group that has worked hard to gut public education and tear down the teaching profession. I don't say that lightly-- I've learned to believe that there are reform-minded people with whom I strongly disagree, but who are reasonably honest and sincere in their pursuit of their goal. She and StudentsFirst are no such group-- intellectually dishonest and self-serving, this is a group that has been devoted to tearing down the profession and public education. And they've done it with the happy cooperation of Democrats as well as GOP folks.

These days, post-She, the group's profile has sagged a bit, but in 2014 they were lobbying hard in Pennsylvania. That year, House Bill 1722 was the result. In 2015, the same idea surfaced in Senate Bill 805, and by 2016, the damn thing was still kicking around, though at that point Governor Tom Wolf was pledged to kill it if it landed on his desk.

But now it's back again.

The idea is pretty simple. If your school district wants to cut teachers, it used to have to justify this with reasons like declining enrollment, cut programs, combined schools, and combined districts. You know-- reasons related to education. But the new rule would add "economic reasons" to the list. And in Pennsylvania, with the most inequitable funding system in the country, just about every district in the state can claim "economic reasons."

Then you start cutting teachers based on evaluations. Earlier versions of the law organized teachers by their rating-- awesome, great, okay-ish and sucky-- but I'm not sure how the current proposal reads. PA's evaluation system uses numbers that would allow a more exact stack-ranking, though it would be a joke, as we are also a state where teacher evaluation includes a building score (SPP) and THAT score is 90% based on test scores. Teacher scores are soaked in the widely debunked VAM sauce. Here's what I found when the bill surfaced in 2015:

Here you can see a letter written by the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Stephen Bloom, back in February. It contains several fine slices of baloney, including this statistic thrown out without any references:
Research demonstrates that under a seniority-based layoff system, the more effective teacher is dismissed roughly four out of five times. 
What research? How is it demonstrated? And why haven't we heard about this before like, say, during the Vergara trial's work of destroying tenure and seniority in California? Those guys were clearly willing to bring up anything they could think of to make their point-- but I don't believe they mentioned this. So I kind of suspect this is not an entirely fact-based statement.

The implications of this kind of policy are many and ugly. Teachers who want job security had better fight their way into a schedule that includes the best test-takers, and collegial sharing of techniques and ideas between teachers would be self-defeating-- if your professional peer has a good year and you have a bad one, it could cost you your job.

Supporters of this law repeatedly frame it as a law to protect excellent teachers, as if Pennsylvania has a problem with schools that are laying off genius first-year teachers left and right while hoary old burnouts take up space. But there's no sign that this is true, in particular no evidence that older teachers are lousy, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. As for chasing off great young teachers-- well, the more common problem in the state is that there are no jobs to hire them into in the first place as budgets are slashed and funding is sucked off by charters.

And seriously-- if PA legislators wanted to make sure that bright young teachers weren't scared away from teaching, they might attempt to fix Pennsylvania's broken funding system, boost funding to where it needs to be, and generally insure that no district had "economic reasons" for firing anybody. After all, if we're only firing teachers because of economic reasons, that means the district is then operating with fewer teachers than it should have. How exactly is that a win for anyone? And how does it "protect" young teachers to know that they will never, ever have job security again? Exactly what about that makes the job attractive?

This is union-busting, profession-gutting legislation that can barely even pretend to do what it claims it will do. The ideal for She-style reformsters is a frequently-churned, easily-fired, low-earning teaching staff that never gets comfortable enough to get uppity or to provide support to the union, and this bill is perfect for those goals.

It's an attack against the teaching profession and public education, and it's back-- again-- on the table in Harrisburg, so it's time-- again-- to call your elected representative and voice your opinion. This thing has passed the Senate, but the whole budget business is such a clusterfarpfignugen that it's hard to know when it will make it to the governor. And this is a far more politically adept move than previous attempts-- I'm guessing the Governor won't trash the whole budget just because it includes a part about ending teacher tenure. Call. Call call call.

*It's been a longstanding policy of this blog not to increase the internet footprint of a woman who is the Kim Kardasian of education

ICYMI: End of July Edition (7/30)

How the heck did that happen? Here's some reading from the week-- and remember, you can amplify the voices of your favorite writers just be tweeting and sharing. So, you know, do that.

Internalizing the Myth of Meritocracy

Another hard-hitting Anderson piece in the Atlantic, looking at how the myth of meritocracy becomes damaging to children of color. Because if I believe that the system is fair and rewards excellence, and I'm not being rewarded, I can only conclude one thing...

Demolishing the Myth of the Grumpy Crusty Veteran

It's true-- veteran teachers might not suck.

The Brave New Word

Somehow I dropped this piece from June, but better late than never. The word is "personalization" and the blog explains why that word is probably bunk.

The Alum-lie

Gary Rubinstein crunches some numbers and uncovers the lies charters tell about their college completion rates.

For Deeper Teacher Learning, Follow the Leader

Now that research has identified seven main qualities of effective professional development, all we have to do is design sessions that include all seven qualities, right? Wrong.

The Charter Effect

While this is specific to Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, it's a very detailed and well-researched look at how charters make enemies as they suck public schools dry.

I Quit

Jennifer Berkshire does some podcasting on her own while her partner is of continent, and this is a powerful look at the growing phenomenon of teachers who quit and what they say on their way out the door.

NJ Charter School Follieshttp: Asbury Park and Patterson Edition

Jersey Jazzman takes a look under the hood to see what's wrong with NJ's charter authorization system.

Why Schools Should Be Wary of Free Ed Tech Products and Start-ups Shouldn't Make Them

Why free ed tech stuff is bad news for everyone-- from Forbes.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Read One Percent Solution

I just finished up Gordon Lafer's book The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time. It's a simultaneously clear and depressing look at what's going on across the country, and how groups like ALEC are working to reshape our very notion of how America works, and what Americans should expect. And for those of us in the ed biz, there's a whole chapter looking at the reform movement.

Lafer's goal is to look at the broad span of corporate lobbying and legislative efforts. He sets out to make sense of the large mess, and his approach is fairly simple. Looking at what corporations and legislators and lobbyists and advocates for certain programs say, one can become confused at what the actual goal is. Lafer's technique boils down to looking at what they do. "Right To Work" is sold as a way to protect the rights of workers-- well, what else would we expect people who want to protect the rights of workers to do, and are these powerful groups doing those things (spoiler alert-- no).

In other words, never mind what they say to the public. What do they actually do (an what do they say to each other when they think the public isn't listening).

The conclusions are not cheering. Lafer sees a pattern or dismantling government, destroying unions, and pushing workers to lower and lower tiers of income and security while directing more and more fruits of the economy to that one percent at the top. All while gutting any political platform from which the rest of this can be fought.

The conclusion that may come as the biggest, most depressing revelation-- Lafer sees a systematic attempt to lower American expectations, to just get average Americans to think that life really shouldn't be any better for US citizens. For me, this insight is a bit of a gut punch. Who in the teaching world hasn't heard, come contract time, the mantra that teachers just get paid too much and if some convenience store worker is struggling on minimum wage and meager benefits, well, then, why shouldn't teachers do the same? We hear that argument over and over, instead of arguing that people at the bottom should be better paid, better treated.

Education merits its own full chapter because Lafer sees there an intersection of all the other threads. There's all this public money that ought to be funneled toward corporate bank accounts. There's the country;s biggest unions, constantly (well, often) acting as a thorn in the side of the one percent and a political counterweight to the GOP. There's the belief in a democratically, locally controlled institution instead of a corporately controlled business. There's a whole nation of people who expect certain things from public education, and the desire to adjust those expectations ever downward. Lafer writes

Wall Street looks at education the same way it regards Social Security-- a huge flow of public guaranteed funding that is waiting to be privatized, if only the politics can be worked out.

And there is high stakes testing as an instrument of the whole business:

Thus, what "slum clearance" did for the real estate industry in the 1960s and 1970s, high-stakes testing will do for the charter industry: wipe away large swaths of public schools, enabling private operators to grow not school by school, but twenty or thirty schools at a time.

Corporate America is manufacturing failure as a way both to improve their own power and control even as they convince folks to settle for less.

Lafer backs all of this with relentless and specific research and evidence.

It is not an uplifting read, but it does provide some clarity and it does help help you realize that you aren't just imagining some of what seems to be going wrong around us. Very readable and accessible, and free of demonization or sensationalism. I recommend you read this book.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Speak Up, Betsy!

One of the many odd features of this week's Adventures in Congressional Fumblebludgery was that at no point did GOP senators try to make a case publicly for any of what they were trying to do.

This is, I suppose, a predictable effect of our post-Citizens United era-- our elected representatives only have to explain themselves to the billionaires who bankroll them. As long as those guys are happy, a multi-million dollar media buy should be able to manufacture consent from the rest of us. They don't actually answer to We Lesser Peons, so why bother trying to talk to us (particularly if the vast majority of us disagree with whatever skullduggery they're up to.)

This same disregard for the Lessers might explain the Curious Case of Education's Silent Secretary. Her lack of interest in growing has been on display back to the moment in her confirmation hearing when she couldn't think of any lesson she'd learned in Michigan (after 30 years of education wonkslammery), and many have noted it along the way. DeVos seems to be a True Believer who operates the department opaquely, keeping her cards close to the vest even as she fails to fill in missing positions in the department, which lets her keep things even more opaque. And on the rare occasion that she speaks to press, it's a ridiculous minimalist deconstructed play on an interview, like her three-question dance with Craig Melvin.

Look, if she needed the rest of us to know or understand what was going on, she'd tell us. But she doesn't owe us any kind of explanation (this is why I'm opposed to the various Trump folks who aren't taking salaries-- it's one more way for them to say that they don't owe the American public anything.)

But DeVos's press-averse non-talkarariness may well also be one more measure of her unfitness for the job.

I called this one way back when. DeVos is not a philanthropist-- she has "donated" in order to buy compliance. She's not an advocate-- her "arguments" in favor of policies have consisted of writing checks.

In other words, while DeVos has always had strong convictions about education, she has never had to actually argue for them and convince others to agree with her. She just writes checks, finds people who see things her way, writes more checks. I wonder if she has ever had a conversation with a politician in which she couldn't close with, "Do you want me to finance a primary opponent?" A lifetime as an heiress married to an even-richer heir has not prepared her to convince other people to agree with her. Or, as Lisa Miller put it in her recent DeVos profile:

Out of Michigan, without her checkbook, DeVos is like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.

This is one of the problems with oligarchs-- they know how to command compliance, but not how to earn cooperation. I can believe that DeVos doesn't feel she should have to argue for her preferred policies-- she's right, and that should be the end of it. But I can also believe that she literally does not know how to do it.

It's just one more reason that she never should have been put in the office in the first place. She seems at once the most dangerous and least able of Trump's crew of muckthuggists. The only good news here is that she is poised to be so ineffective that many of her bad ideas will never get off ground. The bad news is that US citizens may end up with a much more privatized education system and never hear a reason why they were subjected to such suckmuggery.

Research Shmesearch

In what will come as practically no surprise at all to people who work in schools, a recent survey suggests that peer-reviewed research does not have much effect on what ed tech products a school district purchases.

The survey (ironically not itself a piece of peer-reviewed research) comes with the unsexy title Role of Federal Funding and Research Findings on Adoption and Implementation of Technology-Based Products and Tools. It's also entirely fitting that the group that produced this, as reported by EdWeek Market Brief,  "emerged from a symposium staged earlier this year by Jefferson Education Accelerator, a commercial project that pairs education companies with school districts and independent researchers; and Digital Promise, a nonprofit that tries to promote the effective use of research and technology in schools." So, a "study" by people who have a stake in the result. In fact, maybe not so much "study" as "market research."

At any rate, the survey covered 515 respondents in 17 states. 27% were teachers, with the rest a mix of administrators and district tech folks.The internet-based survey went out as a link on social media, so not exactly a random sampling here.

The study launched on the notion, "Hey, the government is spending a bunch of money funding studies so it can collect evidence-based stuff on its What Works Clearinghouse website. Do you suppose that anybody in school districts cares about either the results or the standards used?"

The answer, apparently, is "no."

While 41% would give "strong consideration" to a program with peer-reviewed research, only 11% would rule the product out if there were no such research. Respondents were less impressed by "gold standard" research. Hardly anyone in the sample was impressed by non-peer-reviewed research. (Nothing in the study shows if respondents can tell the difference.)

Bonus points to the study for asking if respondents cared if the research were performed on students comparable to their own. It's a good question to ask-- too much "education" research has been performed on subjects of convenience, giving us findings about learning among small samples of college sophomores.

For perspective, we can note that several items were far bigger dealbreakers than peer-reviewed research. A whopping 29% said they would not buy a program unless the data output was accessible. 19% would reject a program if it were not customizeable, or the data were not interoperable with district programs. 16% would reject a program if privacy options couldn't be customized or if the program was not useful for students with disabilities. 13% would rule out a program unless implementation support was available. So all those things-- more important than peer-reviewed research.

Research Lead Dr. Michael Kennedy (University of Virginia) provided some additional interpretation to Ed Week:

There’s a disconnect between what researchers think is high-quality research and what school districts think,” he said in an interview. Despite school officials’ interest in weighing evidence, for many, their attitude is, “when push comes to shove, I’m buying what I’m going to buy,” said Kennedy.

Emphasis mine, because duh.  The report itself also includes some quotes from respondents indicating that a federal stamp of approval isn't that big a deal.

If the product was developed using federal grant dollars, great, but the more important factor is the extent to which it suits our needs.

Features and functionality are what I look for. Endorsement from the feds is nice icing on the cake – But cake still tastes pretty good with or without that icing.

In other words, district official trust their own eyes first. (Also, mmmm, cake.) Kennedy also points out that the create-research-review process can take so long that the product is obsolete by the time it's recommended. Kennedy also allowed that research can be so narrow that it only "proves" a product works in very specific situations, and if those situations aren't the ones your district is dealing with, what good is the research? Not that vendors don't frequently pitch ed tech with some variation, "Well, if you just change your circumstances and environment and procedures and goals, this product will be just perfect for you."

Which suggests at least one more reason that districts don't pay a lot of attention to research-- it is most commonly encountered as part of a sales pitch. The report discusses these ed tech products in almost neutral tones, as if districts are just deciding which flower to pick from their garden. But in fact what we're talking about is a host of vendors trying to sell a product, and in that context we all know that whatever research is included is there to serve the sales pitch. Is there research suggesting that the Edtech Widgetmaster 5000 has no real effect on student achievement? It's a sure bet that the Edtech Widgetmaster sales rep will not be bringing up those studies.

In short, we all know that everything presented to us is presented to help make a sale. Of course all the research makes the product look good-- because it's chosen by the company selling the product. If a used car salesman tells you the engine in the car you're looking at are just great, are you going to take his word for it, or are you going to look under the hood yourself?

But we're talking about federally-backed research! Surely we can trust the feds to be impartial. Man, I could only just barely type that whole sentence. As the last decade-and-change have shown us, the feds are just as invested in selling their own products and views as any corporation (in fact, they're often busy selling a corporation's product for them).

In the end, a wise school district does not let "But the research!!" drown out the still small voice of "caveat emptor." The report includes recommendations that school districts depend on more research and even that policy makers consider twisting districts' arms in this regard. Since policy makers have consistently ignored the research about vouchers and cyber-schools and Big Standardized Tests, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for them to jump on this boat (unless their favorite corporation wanted them to force districts to buy the corporate product).

The people who have the best idea of what needs have to be met in a school district are the people who work in that school district. Research is nice, but if you're doing the buying for your district, using your own eyeballs and brain parts and advice from your people is still the best way to approach edtech vendors. When it comes to our own classrooms, we are the experts, and the research that matters most is our own.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Dear E: Impersonal Management

Dear E:

Only a few days till you ship out for your first ever real live teaching job. I envy the excitement you get to feel right now. I've already written you two notes, but here's one more before you hit the road.

Everyone worries about classroom management when they start out. I used to have nightmares about entire classes spinning completely out of control (and by "used to" I mean as recently as last summer-- and this summer isn't over yet). This is normal and natural.

Part of the trick, as I'm sure you've been told, is to focus on what you want them to do, not what you don't want them to do. In other words, I don't make my class stop screwing around so we can get to work; I get to work so that they'll stop screwing around. And I'm fudging the language-- I teach school students just like you will, and we can't "make" them do anything.

Another part of the trick is to earn respect, and it helps to give it. It also helps to know your stuff. I know it's a thing for young teachers to be told that they should be the "lead learner" or a "co-explorer" with students, but I'm pretty sure all that gets you is a room full of teenagers thinking, "Well, if he doesn't know any more than I do, why should I listen to him?" Know your stuff.

But you're a new unknown quantity, and that means in addition to the usual squirrelliness of freshmen, you'll probably be tested. The best thing I know here is what my own co-operating teacher taught me a thousand years ago, and it has held up all this time.

Don't take it personally.

To students, we are not actual people. Oh, some will eventually see us as human beings, but probably not before March or thereabouts, if ever. But mostly we are just the face of the institution, part of the Big Machine.

Complaints about things like the assignments and subject matter are just fried grousing, with a side order of checking to see if we'll come off track. When some student says, "This is just so stupid," about the work we've devoted our lives to, it's easy to hear "You're an ugly, stupid jerk" and respond accordingly. But even when students actually say, "You're a stupid ugly jerk," it's not personal. It's just an attempt to push back against the machine, to see if some sand in the gears might get the machine to leave them alone for even five minutes (because five minutes a teacher spends ranting are five minutes that the teacher doesn't spend trying to make you work).

Taking these things personally and either feeling hurt in your heart or escalating to strike back-- none of that helps.

You know who you are and what you're there to do, and you know how to pursue those goals. And when you're not sure how to handle some part of your teacherly mission, you know how to get the answers you need. Don't let the hasty words of some fourteen-year-old (words that they may not even remember tomorrow) throw you off track. Do listen-- there may be a lot for you to learn about the student-- but don't take it to heart. Don't take it personally. You know what you're doing.

I know it's hard in that first year to be sure that you know what you're doing, but you're a smart capable person, and you've trained for this (and I think we can rule out the possibility that you're hopelessly cocky). You will learn a lot this year, but you already know plenty going in. You've totally got this.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Why Foot Votes Can't Work

Vote with your feet.

That's the power choice advocates offer to parents, the magic wand that the invisible hand will use to unleash the power of the free market which will in turn make schools awesomely excellent (that last part is optional for some choice advocates who mostly just want to see the free market unleashed and aren't really concerned what happens after that).

There's a huge problem with that. I'm not talking about all the reasons that it's just wrong-- I'm talking about why it won't work.

In a school choice system, parents will not have any leverage for the same reason that fry cooks at McDonalds don't have any leverage-- they are a dime a dozen and easily replaced.

Let's say I'm operating a charter/choice school with 500 seats. Let's say that there are 500,000 students in the county in which I operate. I only need to capture a tiny sliver of the market to stay solvent. If a parent says, "You know, I'm not happy with this school, so I am going to vote with my feet," which of the following strikes us as a more likely response?

A) Charter CEO calls emergency meeting of board and administration. "All hands on deck!" He announces. "Parent #492 is unhappy and withdrawing their child. I need a task force to immediately find out why that parent was unhappy and the form another task force to redesign out instructional programs so that we can keep Parent #492 happy!"

B) Charter CEO says, "Whoop-dee-shit. Somebody go round up one of the other 499,500 students in the county to fill that seat."

In fact, cyber-charters in particular put huge effort into constantly recruiting fresh meat, while making virtually (har) no effort to alter their approach in response to all those foot voters.

A parental foot vote carries no weight. And since parents get their foot votes by trading away actual votes for board members, access to any transparency about school management or finances, and in some cases even simple access to people in charge, it's a lousy trade. The only thing they can do is that bipedal vote thing, and as we've seen, doesn't carry much weight.

"Vote with your feet" is just a nicer way for charter operators to say "Take it or leave it."

 Meanwhile, in places like New Orleans, Florida and North Carolina, legislators continue to aid the invisible hand by cutting the competition off at the knees. The more parents are driven toward charter/choice schools, the less those parents matter, and the easier charter operators have it. So let's systematically gut public education. If people won't venture out of the public school building-- if they won't vote with their feet the way we need them to-- then let's coax 'em out of that building by setting fire to it. Then it doesn't matter where the stampede heads-- as long as we can catch a sliver of it, we're good.

Foot voting is never going to empower parents. In fact, since foot voting requires parents to give up all other forms of leverage, it's an approach that leaves them with nothing but tired shoe leather.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dishonest Voucher Arguments

There are many arguments to be made for a school voucher program-- lord knows we've been hearing them for decades now. Some of them reveal a different concept of what public education is for, or a values system that gives more weight to entrepreneurial opportunity than actual education (it's more important to open markets than make sure that all children are getting an education). I disagree with these value choices, but I can at least recognize arguments that are built on those foundations.

But some voucher advocate build their arguments on smoke and unicorn farts and yeti holograms. There's a good display of this style of voucher advocacy at the National Review site this morning, courtesy of Will Flanders. Flanders is Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a way-right Bradley-funded thinky tank; he has a PhD from Florida State.

Flanders wants us to know it's time to stop pussy-footing around with vouchers and just use "the language of their intellectual progenitor, Milton Friedman." Because vouchers are not a form of welfare (because if they were, that would be awful).

Flanders opens that by arguing for vouchers based on fairness, voucheristas have short-circuited their case for vouchers vouchers everywhere, and if they want to expand, they will have to take a new rhetorical tack. (Because the education debates are not about education, but about PR strategy). If vouchers are to level the playing field for poor families, then we'll never be able to expand vouchers for wealthy families.

Then Flanders tries to make his This Is Totally Not Welfare argument.

There is a critical difference between school choice and most welfare programs. Social-welfare programs are redistributive — taking from those of means and giving to those without. School-choice programs are different. In their purest form, they take money that is earmarked for a student in a public school and transfer it to an alternative private school that the student’s parents believe will provide a better education. The money is spent regardless of where a student’s parents decide to send him to school.

There are several levels of high-grade baloney here.

One is a standard choicer sleight-of-hand. We're taking the students' money, the family's money and giving it to the choice school. Except we're not, because that money is taxpayer money. This is a dishonest argument because conservatives already know the counterargument because they unleashed it against the Bernie Sanders Free College for Everyone Plan. 

But Flanders can't admit that vouchers spend tax dollars because that would mean this IS welfare-- Wealthy McGotbucks pays his school taxes and the government gives a chunk of that money to a poor kid so that the poor kid can go to a private school. Voila-- redistribution of dollars. 

So to avoid the problem of arguing for what they hate, voucheristas have to pretend that the money is"spent regardless," like a pile of money that just magically appears wrapped up in a bag marked "school." But as anybody from Wisconsin can tell you, schools are paid for with tax dollars, and just like all other tax dollars, the extraction of school tax dollars is open to argument, negotiation and general circumvention. No conservative anti-tax folks are looking at the pile of school tax dollars and saying, "Well, clearly that's a cost we have to just keep paying and there's nothing we could do about it by way of lobbying or legislation or electing a governor bent on crushing the public sector."

Then Flanders is back to arguing that Friedman's ideas are really good. And from notions such as the idea that parents will be rational actors who pick schools based on hard data, and not folks making highly emotional decisions about their children while floating in a market clogged with asymetric information where the only "hard data" they have is marketing fluff from private schools-- well, Milton was full of it on that one. 

Nor is there any reason to accept, as Flanders does, the notion that having to "compete for students" will somehow create better schools, when the very notion of treating students like prizes to be collected rather than human beings to be served is a disastrous notion (for so many reasons, but consider this one-- in a system where students are prizes to be collected, some will be more valuable than others, and the ones who are least valuable will be the ones who most need the help of the school). 

As advocates, we cannot and should not abandon the fairness-based argument for school choice. But if we are to realize Milton Friedman’s vision of an educational free market, we must couple our appeals to fairness with appeals to the economic liberty on which his vision was based. American parents of all classes and income levels deserve nothing less.
I give Flanders credit for one thing-- at no point does he try to argue that achieving Friedman's goal would provide a better education for every student in this country. But he also fails to state the obvious-- that a voucher system would be, in effect, a federally-funded free market, which is its own special kind of oxymoron. Not that we don't have such things. 
To make sure that people don't go hungry, we collect a bunch of tax dollars and redistribute them, voucher-like, to some folks who then go buy food in a free market store. Flanders and his colleagues suggest that we collect tax dollars and redistribute them to some folks who then go buy school enrollment in a free market. Flanders seems to want to distinguish between these two by not means-testing recipients of school vouchers on the theory, I guess, that when you redistribute tax dollars to non-poor folks, it's not welfare. Which is one more reason that Flander's argument is not only wrong, but intellectually dishonest.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Forbes Says 18 Dumb Things

Forbes has some super-duper insights to offer about education, courtesy of Omri Ben-Sahar and Carl E. Schneider. If you don't recognize those names from the world of education, that's because Ben-Sahar is a "law professor at the University of Chicago, the editor of a leading academic journal, and a global expert on contract law and consumer market regulation" and Schneider is "the Chauncey Stillman Professor for Ethics, Morality, and the Practice of Law and is a Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Law School." In other words, one more set of experts who are public education amateurs.

With its title, "Teacher Certification Makes Public School Education Worse, Not Better" announces its intention to be outrageous, and it does not disappoint. It's a short article, but it squeezes in 18 dumb things. Let's count them of:

1) Who does not believe that education is vital, that it is crucial to personal success, economic prosperity, and social mobility?

According to several pieces of research, social mobility is stalled in this country. Educational inequity is more appropriately viewed as a symptom, but for some folks, portraying education as the cure-all for our current rampant inequity uses schools as a convenient whipping boy and lets every other creator of inequity off the hook. Meanwhile, what does the data show about the rich and successful folks of this country-- are they rich and successful because of their great education?

2) America has excellent higher education. Yet primary and secondary school students have long performed poorly on tests compared with students from many industrialized countries.

I'll remind you that the authors work in higher education. The old "score badly on standardized test" factoid is well-worn, but pointless unless you're willing to offer evidence that the score actually means something. Do low test scores correspond to some measurable dip in American prosperity? Did we get President Trump or the Great Recession of 2009 because standardized test scores took a dive those years?

3) This chart

The US is spending more money all the time, and the other lines on the chart don't justify it and still our test scores don't go up (though why we don't throw that line on the chart too, I do not know). And we have no interest in considering any possible explanations for increased expenditures for education. Just keep it simple-- we spend All This Money!

4) The key to successful education is to attract good teachers.

Yup. Teachers are the only important factor in education, meaning, of course, that everything that ever goes wrong with education is the teachers' fault.

5) We can try to do so by raising teachers’ salaries (as commonly advocated). But this strategy also seems to fail, partly because higher incomes go to both good teachers and bad, giving bad teachers as much incentive as good ones to become and remain teachers.

There are several things wrong with this. Take your pick. You could start with the dopey notion that "good" and "bad" are solid state characteristics of teachers, like height or hair color. But lets look at some others.

One theory is that if you offer more money, you increase the pool of teacher hires and then-- then- you get to pick only the good ones.  You could even use money to outbid other districts for the top people. Or-- and here's a radical notion-- you might believe that teachers respond to incentives other than cold, hard cash, like respect and support and cushy offices. After all-- isn't that why you higher education stick around even for low collegiate pay?

Finally, folks who have never spent time in an actual classroom tend to seriously underestimate how taxing it is to be to teach poorly. Of all the jobs in the world that a person can drudge away at, day after day of disengaged misery just to get a paycheck, teaching is by far the worst. Sure, some people head toward teaching because they think it will be easy; the figure out otherwise pretty quickly. Students are unforgiving and the work is demanding, even when you half-ass it. You've seen the figures on the huge number of teachers who quit the field within the first few years-- do you think perhaps a large portion of those are people who aren't so great at the work?

Teaching badly is hard and taxing. Not that many people are going to keep at it just for the check.

6) Higher standards make things worse.

After dismissing higher pay, the writers consider tougher standards. And then they reject that idea.

For two reasons. First, more stringent certification standards do little to keep out bad teachers. Second, such standards deter excellent prospects from entering teaching.

They have part of a point here, arguing that we don't know how to identify and test for teacherly excellence. But then there's #2-- the idea that higher standards reduce the teaching pool. Wouldn't you like to see some kind of support for that odd idea? Well, too bad. The writers will repeat the assertion two more times, and throw in the idea that teaching standards also create teacher shortages, but at no point will they offer any evidence or support. Nope-- the best teacher candidates want to enter a field with low standards.

7) It is no surprise, then, that researchers find little difference between teachers with or without a certificate. Allowing genuine alternatives to certification thus does not hurt the quality of learning (and even can improve it, some studies suggest).

Sigh. Once again, by "little difference" what we mean is "little difference in scores on a single narrowly focused standardized test." Which simply doesn't qualify as a measure of teacher quality. Another of the link takes us to the work of Eric Hanushek, which has been refuted more often than a Ouija board reading.

8) If we want schools to hire better teachers, we should expand, not contract, the pool from which schools may draw.

What was that part about not raising the pay for teachers? But let's not expand the pool by making teaching more attractive-- let's just open up the job to anybody with a warm pulse.

9) It also creates teacher shortages, especially in chronically understaffed subjects like science and math, in poor communities, and in schools with high proportions of minority students. Budgets are not to blame (they have not been cut). Licensing barriers are the culprits.

Yup. People are just lined up to take those jobs. And there's a clear training and career path for anybody who wants those jobs. But somehow, it's the need to get a teaching license that's holding them back. And certainly not any factors that make the job less attractive, like pay or treatment or support or respect.

10) The writers have been comparing teachers to doctors and lawyers, but argue that doctors and lawyers have a body of knowledge that can be easily tested. But there's another reason that teachers don't need the same kind of licensing as other professions.

Doctors and lawyers are also hired by people not competent to judge their performance. No such protection against bad teachers is needed because they are hired not by individuals but by experienced administrators.

I don't even know what to do with the idea that doctors and lawyers are hired by incompetents. But I do know what to do with the idea that experienced administrators can be the gatekeepers of the profession. First, not all administrators are experienced. Second, since organizations like Teach for America and Relay Graduate School have opened the profession  to anyone with a pulse, I'm not prepared to assume that every administrator is fit to sort teachers.

11) By far, the most effective way to improve teacher quality is to require administrators to selectively retain, after the first few years of experience, only the more effective teachers.

But administrators can do this now. Administrators can totally catch or release whatever teaching fish they catch. So what could be the barrier the writers are concerned about. Oh, come on-- you know. We've been slow to getting to this, but here we go.

The biggest barrier to improving teacher quality is therefore union contracts that block such selective retentions and, with lock step pay, eliminate success-based compensation.

Yes, those damned unions.

It's not clear to me what "selective retention" the union thwarts, but the assumption here that "success-based competition" would somehow improve teaching is a deeply dumb idea without the slightest bit of support. In fact, Microsoft abandoned it and Sears is currently dying from it.

12) Truth be told, incumbents like licensing because it reduces competition from entrants, keeps incomes high, and raises the status. Why else require florists, manicurists, or auctioneers to get licenses to cut flowers, nails, or deals. Do you really need 300 hours of supervised training to shampoo hair safely (in Tennessee)? Or seven years of training to be an interior designer (in DC)?

Yes, teaching is pretty much like being a florist. And licensing professions is just about keeping all the goodies for yourself. Because lord knows, by keeping a lock on the profession, teachers (and florists) have reaped huge financial rewards and awesome status in society.

Of course, it's also possible consumers like to know that somebody has actually checked out the person who's doing the work. It's also possible that people in a given profession have a stake in sharing that profession with people who are competent and who don't give their colleagues a bad name.

13) We are so committed to the idea of teacher certification that eliminating it may take getting used to.

Particularly if nobody ever makes a good case for doing it.

14) American higher education (we observed) is world class in ways that American primary and secondary education are not. Yet university faculty members are not certified to teach.

Please. Professors Ben-Sahar and Schneider both have very advanced degrees, because you don't get to be a university professor without a terminal degree (and, in some cases, publication).
University faculty go through their own sort of special certification. And regardless of their high self-regard, I've spoken to more than a few former students who agreed that no, their college professors aren't certified-- or qualified-- to teach.

15)  Instead, any college that develops a reputation for a weak faculty will struggle to attract students and the tuition they pay.

Colleges will be comparable to public K-12 schools on the day that all students must attend college and no colleges can select their own student body. In the meantime, saying that teaching staffs will be kept in line by free market forces is skipping a whole argument in which someone successfully makes the case for turning public education into a free market system (spoiler alert: such a case can't be made).

16) For many years, Americans have been admonished to pay more to get educations comparable to those many other countries provide. Americans have paid more but have not gotten that education.

Oh, passive voice. Who exactly has been doing this admonishing? And "comparable" in what way? And how do we know we haven't gotten it.

17) Abolishing certification requirements is not only virtually costless, but it would eliminate the onerous costs certification exacts.

Virtually costless? Letting any warm body walk into a classroom is virtually costless? I do agree that the cost of becoming certified has become onerous in some states, but that's an easy fix-- pointless programs like EdTPA could be shut down tomorrow.

18) And it offers the best hope of bringing more capable people into the teaching that all agree is so vital.

This is the final line of the article, and nothing in it has been proven in any of the lines that came before. Great teachers are somehow born and not made, and they alone can fix everything, and they are apparently distributed randomly throughout the population. Somehow by lowering standards, lowering pay, destabilizing pay, and removing job security, we will attract more of them and flush them out.

That's 18 dumb things in one short article. I suppose Forbes could get better articles if they paid less and let anybody write for them.

ICYMI: Hot and Sticky Edition (7/23)

I don't have a lot for you this week, but what's here is, as we say, cherce. 

A Detailed Critique of a PBS Run Education Documentary

PBS has seen fit for $ome rea$on to run an advertorial for school privatization. Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch here provide a detailed rebuttal. You'll want this for that dinner when your brother-in-law opens with, "Hey, I saw this thing on PBS that says you all suck."

Teacher Tests Test Teachers

Rachel Cohen with a great piece about how VAM and its ilk are increasingly coming under well-deserved attack.

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing

Paul Thomas takes a look at writing instruction and the importance of shared terminology.

Why Teachers Need To See Themselves as Experts

Jose Luis Vilson on one of my pet peeves-- the teacherly tendency to be all humble and yield the mantle of expert to folks who don't deserve it.

The Deep Irony in Betsy DeVos First Speech on Special Education

This will be the ongoing mystery of DeVos as ed secretary-- does she know she contradicts herself, or does she just not care.

The Many Ways We Are Deprofessionalizing Teaching

Do you read Nancy Flanagan every week? You should. Here she is looking at just how badly, widely and deeply folks are chipping away at the teaching profession.

Want To Kill Your Economy? 

Not strictly an education piece, but a clear look at how MBAs who are takers rather than makers have been blowing a hole in the economy. At a minimum this is a good piece to keep in mind every time someone starts talking about approaching education like a business.

The Economist Doesn't Do Their Homework

The Economist decided to offer its own special view of the newest wave of ed tech this week, and it's just further proof that when economists try to talk about education, it carries all the authority of Justin Bieber explaining quantum physics. It would not be worth the bother, except that this continued phenomenon of people who don't know education explaining education to other people who don't know education-- well, this is how bad ideas get into the world and keep flapping around loose. We need a new word-- maybe "economsplain"-- for when economists try to mansplain teaching to teachers.

The piece starts well enough. Once upon a time B. F. Skinner decided to create teaching machines but after a burst of interest, they just kind of lost steam. But that mini history lesson is to set up the next paragraph--

Since then education technology (edtech) has repeated the cycle of hype and flop, even as computers have reshaped almost every other part of life. One reason is the conservatism of teachers and their unions. But another is that the brain-stretching potential of edtech has remained unproven.

Emphasis mine. I marvel sometimes at the awesome power of my profession. What is teh alleged narrative here-- ed tech people have come up with awesome programs that totally worked and were beloved by students and families and everyone was poised to make them a widespread hit, but teachers folded our arms and said, "I don't care if my students are learning, this shall not stand"? Is that it?

Or could it be the second part-- the "remained unproven" part. The "some ed tech amateur's idea of a great program for learning turns out to be a total dud with live students" part.

On some level, the Economist seems to sort of get this. They've bought the idea that Zuckerberg et al are now going to change the world with "personalized learning" (so you know they've been reading the press releases that come across their desk). Still, they can see at least part of the problem:

This could help hundreds of millions of children stuck in dismal classes—but only if edtech boosters can resist the temptation to revive harmful ideas about how children learn. To succeed, edtech must be at the service of teaching, not the other way around.

That is the perennial ed tech pitch-- "Teachers, this tool will totally help you if you just stop doing what you've been hired to do and do something else" or "Just change your whole job to fit the tool we want to sell you." Kind of like telling builders, "These revolutionary welding rods will help you build houses faster, as long as you stop building houses out of wood or brick."

But then we're back to the good old standard scare stats-- like only 30% of teens in OECD countries become proficient in science, math or reading. What does that really mean, and how do we think we know such a thing? Never mind-- just believe that you've got trouble right here in International River City!

And computers alone can't fix it! No, really! Many schools have computers, and the sky is still falling! Simply running school stuff through a computer does not make it magically effective! Also, in other news, water is wet and the sun will set in the West tonight. This is one of the unending dances of reforminess-- some edu amateur runs up to breathlessly announce, "I have a sudden insight!!" that they then share and teachers are just too generally polite to say, "No shit, Sherlock."

The Economist is excited about some of what's out there, from which we can only include they failed to do their homework on this piece. For instance, they toss out the Summit personalized education thing, noting that Facebook engineers created it "for free" but failing to mention that it is Zuckerberg's baby-- so they worked on it for free by working on it while Zuckerberg paid their regtular salary? Is that free? But Summit is troubling in many, many ways which highlight one of the problems of "Personalized Learning," because Summit does not resemble an education program so much as an education-flavored data mining program. And while The Economist later notes that PL cannot do away with actual teachers, Summit is designed to do just that (all you need is a "mentor").

The writers also declare that PL must narrow achievement gaps (which is problematic in ways that you can see if you just imagine education as a race between slow and fast runners-- how exactly do you close that gap) and then they cite Rocketship Academy or Achievement First. Rocketship is a great example of all the things that can be wrong with ed tech, and an example of how the initial bloom can quickly turn to blight

And here's one of those ridiculous 99%-go-on-to-college stats, the easiest stat in the world to produce. If you want all your graduates to go to college, just make sure that any students unlikely to go to college never become graduates.

Finally, the Economist notes that success depends on teachers embracing ed tech. But they are still sidestepping the key issue:

They are right to ask for evidence that products work. But scepticism should not turn into Luddism.

False dichotomy. Because mostly what happens is we ask for evidence. Sometimes we even suspend judgment and see what kind of evidence we can collect in our own classroom. And then when the evidence doesn't appear, we move on. That's not Luddism. That's just doing our job, which includes doing our homework. And if the Economist wants to econosplain ed tech to us, they should do their homework first.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dear E: Time Management

Dear E:

As the calendar clicks closer to your departure for your first teaching job, I'm going to continue with my offerings of Useful Things To Know. It's been a while since I was a first year teacher, but I've certainly watched plenty start out since then, so I can pass on what I've seen.

I'm sure your college gave you some of the standard practical rules for teaching. Don't smile until Christmas. Make friends with the secretaries. But here's one of the major things they never tell you when you're starting out.

There won't be enough time.

Everything takes longer than you expect it to, and lots of things you end up doing over as you discover how you should have done it the first time. Grading papers. Scoring tests. Entering grades in the gradebook. Creating lesson plans and designing materials and then redoing all of it based on how well things went the first time. In my first year, I made the mistake of living across the street from my high school. I got up in the morning, ate, walked to school, did as much paperwork as I could before classes started, taught all day, worked in my room for an hour or two, walked home, got some supper and sat on the couch with supper and a stack of papers on the coffee table in front of me and worked till I went to bed. Rinse and repeat. On Saturdays and Sundays, more of the same. And that wasn't enough.

Granted, I'm an English teacher, and that comes with some expectations about paperwork, but your discipline isn't that different. We all start out with a well-developed idea about what a Really Good Teacher would be doing, and then we have the slowly dawning realization that we won't be able to do this.

The point here is not to discourage you. The point is for you to realize that 1) this is normal and 2) it gets better.

You can focus on all the things you aren't getting done and all the ways in which you aren't measuring up the image of a Really Good Teacher, and by focusing on the negatives, you can convince yourself that you suck and are no good at this and you've made a terrible mistake in your career choice.

Don't do that.

This is normal.

The longer you do this, the more efficient you will become. You will be faster at doing things, and you will be smarter about what things need to be done. In the meantime, the need to perform pedagogical triage, to figure out how best to use the not-enough-time you have, is a great opportunity to reflect on your practice, to teach even more mindfully. It will be a chance to think about what is most important and how best to work toward that objective. This is a great opportunity, so embrace it and don't beat yourself up when you drop a ball or two. Every part of this process is a chance to get better. It is why even the roughest first year in the classroom can teach a teacher more than all four years of college.

One last note on the too-little-time thing. No matter how behind and beleaguered you feel, take time to care for yourself. Skype your brothers and niece and nephews. Play a dumb game. Watch a dumb show. If you are a scrapped down shell of a person, you can't give your students what they need. This will take all of your time if you let it, but you have to save some time selfishly for yourself. You're out of college now-- this is a great time to drop the high-maintenance relationships from your life, because you don't really have time for them.

You can totally handle this. Now get back to packing-- you don't have much time left.


Friday, July 21, 2017

How To Recruit Teachers

There isn't a teacher shortage. Not really. But there is a shortage of districts and states that are successfully attracting people to teach careers. If I can't get a dealer to sell me a Lexus for $1.98, that does not mean there is an automobile shortage. The "teacher shortage" is really a shortage of $1.98 teachers.

Something is wrong. Not only do we have a drastic drop in the number of proto-teachers in the pipeline, but the profile of the teacher pool is off. The teacher pool is overwhelmingly female and white. Males and minorities are not represented in the teaching force in numbers that remotely resemble the demographics of our student population.

So how do we get and keep the teachers that we need?

After all, it ought to be easy. No other profession gets to pitch itself to every single young person who could possibly pursue it. So what are we missing?

To understand how to recruit teachers, we just have to remember how the teachers we have found their way to the classroom. And the most important thing to remember is how they start.

It's not a deep, complicated thing. Almost every teacher in a classroom started out as a student in a classroom, and that student had two simple thoughts--

1) I kind of like it here in school.

2) I can see myself doing that teaching thing.

That's it. If we get a student to harbor those two thoughts in his teenaged cranium, we have successfully created the seed from which a future teacher could grow. But looking at those two thoughts can also tell us where our edugardening has gone awry.

Kind of like it here.

No excuses. Speak when you're spoken to. School to prison pipeline. Assumption that black and brown students are a problem. Crumbling buildings. Lack of even basic supplies like books and paper. Curriculum that is centered on test prep. 

None of these are going to make a student feel as if school is just like a second home. And schools that carry the greatest weight of discrimination and mistreatment are the greatest anti-recruitment. If you have made a student feel unwanted, unwelcome and unsupported in school at age fifteen, why would that same student consider returning to school at age twenty-two?

I can see myself doing this.

The most fundamental part of this is the modeling of staff. It's hard (not impossible, but damn hard) to imagine myself doing a job if I can't see anybody like myself doing the job.

Beyond that, students will be influenced by what they think the job is, the job that they see teachers doing. Are male teachers of color responsible for breaking up all the fights in the building? Do coaches get to follow a different set of rules than other staff? Do lady teachers have to keep their heads down and never talk back to a male boss? Do some teachers spend half their time doing drill and drill and worksheet band dull, boring drill? Any such unwritten rules are noted by students, and factor into how appealing the job might be.

Do students see that teachers struggle financially, holding down extra jobs to make ends meet? Do students see their teachers treated with respect? Do students see teachers supported with resources and materials, or do they have to buy supplies out of their own pockets? Do they see the job turned into a low pay, low autonomy, de-professionalized drudge? These factors also affect whether students can see themselves living the teaching life.

The Path

Of course, there's more care required for these early seeds reach full flower. College teacher programs may support the fledgling teacher or throw more obstacles in the path (I often wonder how many male teachers of color we lose to repeated "Well, what the hell are you doing here?") Then we get to the luck of the draw with the match-up for student teaching, and finally, the problem of individual district hiring practices.

The Circle

And then we arrive back in the classroom, where the person who was once a student may have to withstand one more assault on their desire to teach. And we don't have time to get into all of that yet again.

Retention is a huge problem, easily as big as recruitment, but here's the irony-- the recruitment problem and the retention problem are the same problem, because the best way to recruit the teachers of tomorrow is by giving support and respect to the teachers of today. You cannot dump all over today's teachers and expect students to say, "Oh, yeah, I'd love to jump into that pool of pooh."  You cannot reduce teaching to mindless meat widget drudgery and expect students to say, "yes! Someday I want to be a soul-sucked functionary, too."

Of course, there are folks out there for whom the death of the teaching profession is a goal, not a problem. But for the rest of us, the path is relatively simple and clear. Elevate and support the teaching profession, and the people who look at it in action every day will want to join in. If you want good seeds, you have to tend to the plants that are already growing.