Sunday, October 22, 2017

About That Zip Code

Your education shouldn't be determined by your zip code.

If we've heard that once, we've heard it a zillion times, but almost never does it lead to a discussion of the bigger question behind that statement:

What determines your zip code?

I cannot recommend hard enough that you go listen to (or, if you must, read the available transcript) for a previous episode of the podcast Have You Heard, in which Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider talk to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Rothstein's point is simple but profound. We tend to assume that people just sorted themselves out into all these neighborhoods and zip codes, that the sorting is the result of "millions of accidental, private decisions" and therefor really hard to fix. But Rothstein argues that segregation was in fact the result of specific government policy (like the federal rules that said Levittown couldn't sell units to black families), and that these policies created a systemic poverty that stretches over generations. In fact, according to Rothstein, government policy created segregation in cities where it had never existed.

I probably need to read Rothstein's book now (because I need one more tome on that stack) because I have questions. In particular, I wonder about the degree to which government policy expressed a hard-to-repress will of the people, like the folks in North Carolina re-segregating themselves by flying to white charter schools. Rothstein says we have to educate everyone about how this happened; I'm not sure how optimistic I am about the results of such a project, just as I'm not sure how we'd approach his idea that good schools must be rooted in neighborhoods that are integrated by class.

Still, it's an intriguing vision-- integrate the communities, and the schools will follow. We hear a lot about how students are trapped in their school because of their zip code, but it might be more useful to talk about what keeps people trapped in that zip code in the first place, or how government can prevent the hollowing out of a neighborhood through gentrification.

Interesting stuff. Go give a listen.

Another Faux Teacher Memoir

It takes two reviewers at the Atlantic-- and

ICYMI: After A Week Off Edition (10/22)

So a week ago I was in a  Phoenix hospital. This week I'm at home. Home is better. Here's some reading for you. Remember to amplify the stuff that speaks to you. You are how the word is spread.

The end of VAM for teacher termination in Houston

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley on the final outcome of the Houston anti-VAAS suit, and the news is great.

Eclectablog Needs Your Help

Eclectablog provides in valuable news coverage for Michigan progressives, but Chris Savage can't keep footing the bill alone.

School Improvement Tips for Civic and Community Leaders

Among reformsters. Rick Hess is one of the best for honest self-evaluation. This list of five mistakes reformsters take is great. Quibble about whether Hess and his friends take the advice or not-- the advice itself is on point.

Why Rule by the People Is Better Than Rule by Experts

Nicholas Tampio in praise of democracy.

Florida School Voucher Investigation

How bad is voucher fraud and corruption in Florida? The Orlando Sentinel gives us a three part series that answers the question (and it's not pretty)

In Pursuit of Woozles

Some Winnie-the-Pooh

Newark Schools Chief Tells Union to Stuff It

This bit of reporting from Bob Braun is short, but if you don't read it, you won't believe it. The teachers union offered to help start a new day in Newark. The response they got was... well, not very welcoming.

The Great Tennessee Achievement School District Experiment Finally Comes to an End

Gary Rubinstein revisits the Tennessee ASD, the ASD that launched a bunch of other ASDs, now that it has reached its sell-by date, to ask how it did. (Spoiler alert- not so well)

12 Tech Takeover Concerns

Nancy Bailey with a handy list of issues to be concerned about when facing an ed tech juggernaut.

Michigan Steals Public School Money for Charters

If you read here, you probably read Ravitch, but this one's too important to miss in the sheer volume of her blog.

Secret Group Wants To Take Over Your School

Set the Wayback machine to May of 2015, when Sarah Lahm warned about a threat to public schools. Let's see if she was onto something.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Kansas Takes the Lead

Kansas has found a way to leap to the head of the pack in the race to dismantle public education.

Mind you, Kansas has been working on the problem for a while. You may recall that Governor Brownback and a GOP legislature tried to turn Kansas into a free market laboratory, with "business friendly" tax cuts that have put the state's finances in free fall. The attempt to implement a full-on super-GOP model left the state broke. Tax cuts for the wealthy didn't trickle down, and the state is now in a mess (while Brownback runs the standard playbook of throwing attention to social issues, as if gay marriage is somehow responsible for Kansas poverty). It is no wonder that education is underfunded in the state using a formula that the state supreme court says is unconstitutional.

And that's not all. Kansas has voted to allow unlicensed persons to teach in the classroom. They voted to strip teachers of all job protections in a bizarre fracas that featured the Koch Brothers coming to Topeka to extort votes out of moderate GOP members (Nice re-election prospects you have there. Shame if anything happened to them). They have suggested that teacher evaluation could be handled by the school janitor. And they have been watching a steady exodus of teachers from the state. All that on top of the purposeful and deliberate underfunding of education, which is where the state supreme court shows up to tell them they are violating the state's own constitution. And they responded to that issue by trying to rewrite the rules for getting rid of obnoxious judges. Most recently, the state handled its ESSA plan comment period so very quietly that only about 20 citizens commented on the plan (Ed chief Randy Watson says that's because the citizens are "attuned to where the board is heading" and not because they were kept in the dark).

So here comes the Kansas Can School Redesign project. Seven school districts have been selected (each given, for because this is their "moonshot", the name of one of the seven original Mercury astronauts-- the folks in Kansas do know that we actually made it to the moon already, right?)

The redesign is supposed to highlight several principles--  developing individual study plans, measuring social and economic growth, improving graduation rates and post-secondary completion and addressing kindergarten readiness, and the original press was pretty vague about how that would happen, exactly. The buzz has included many of the usual reformy vocabulary (this will be all about "hard data" and being ready for "real life").

But last Wednesday, Kansas State Board of Education members were given a more specific briefing about what is in the wind. And it's... ambitious.

Brad Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner who seems to be taking point on this, suggested that the entire delivery system for education is going to change:

"I would speculate that if you walked into one of those districts, you’re not going to see a traditional setting," he told the state board Wednesday. "I think you’re going to walk in there and maybe see a group of kids not based on age, but based on experience and where they’re at. You may see 30 kids in a room with three adults supporting that. The whole structure of it, it’s hard to define."  

Meanwhile, the state has changed the rules on how accreditation works (now it's districts, not schools, that are certified).

Students need no longer be organized by grades, nor do school years have to be defined by hours in the classroom. The primary concern is "individualized education, focusing on the unique needs of each student." All of which suggests that Kansas just convinced seven school districts to go all in on competency-based education. Certifying a district instead of schools makes a lot of sense if you aren't really going to have schools any more-- just students who can plug in to the computerized "personalized" learning system from wherever. And you'll notice that Neuenswander expects to see three "adults," not necessarily teachers (though that point is moot, since Kansas has already scrubbed most professional requirements to be a teacher).

Another red flag? Kansas has apparently devoted around $0.00 to back this change. Which would be insane-- unless you think businesses will step in to do the heavy lifting. This supremely vague plan is supposed to be ready to launch in the fall of 2018. How any district would completely redesign itself in less than a year is a mystery-- unless, of course, they just hire somebody to plug in a pre-made CBE program. Just call Summit.

Meanwhile, there is one huge red flag for the program's survival. Many discussions of it stress the idea of non-academics, the need to teach "character development, citizenship and work ethics." Back in the nineties, when CBE was called Outcome-Based Education, this is exactly what killed it dead. As soon as it became clear that the idea was for schools to teach students to have the Right Values and live the Right Way, conservatives rose up and stomped the whole initiative (I remember it well because Pennsylvania was Ground Zero for much of the stomping).

So it will be interesting to see how Kansans react to discovering that not only will the school be teaching their child values and proper attitudes, but that software will be evaluating those qualities-- and recording the data to go in the child's permanent, corporate-owned record. I have to believe that at least a few folks will sqawk.

It's true that a pre-requirement to become a Mercury school was to get the cheerful cooperation of staff and community. But one wonders just how clear and specific the early information released to build buy-in was.

Twenty-two more districts are scheduled to launch in 2019-2020. Kansas looks on track to land on a planet where they barely have to provide public education at all. Congratulations?

Friday, October 20, 2017

8 Rules for Writing

Every October 20, the National Council of Teachers of English celebrates the National Day on Writing. I'll admit I have misgivings-- it reminds me too much of the teachers who teach a "writing unit" for two weeks in April and ignore writing the rest of the year-- but this year I thought I'd recognize the day with a list.

Here are the things that I believe are true, that form the foundation of my writing and my writing instruction:

1) There are no writing prodigies.

Mozart started playing piano at age three and composed his first piece at age eight. Pascal wrote a mathematical paper at age nine. Piaget published a paper at age eleven.

But there are no writing prodigies. There are no classic poems or timeless novels or important essays written by six-year-olds. And what that tells me is that all writers started out in exactly the same place-- downtown Suckville. Some people are better equipped to climb to the top of Mount Awesome faster than others, but when I encounter a student who is not very good at writing, I have to assume that they aren't very good yet. Students get where they're going in their own way in their own time. My job is to help them in their journey, but if they aren't very far along yet, that doesn't mean they can't still make great progress.

2) Writing is craft.

Too many people rule themselves out as writers because they don't experience blinding flashes of transportive inspiration. But when you call a carpenter, they don't say, "Well, I'd like to fix your cabinets, but I just don't feel inspired today." Writing is hammering and framing and laying planks and re-building and altering and fiddling endlessly to get it right. Hammer away and bang it out.

3) Ideas are the basic building blocks

There are still folks out there claiming that the building blocks of writing are sentences. Don't believe it. The basic building blocks of writing are ideas. All good writing begins with a person who has something they want to say, an idea or concept or feeling or image they want to convey. Everything else is the business of getting that Something through the pipeline. The mechanics and the grammatical nuts and bolts and the usage rules are all about making sure that the pipeline doesn't get clogged, that technical issues don't interfere with the audiemce's ability to get what the writer is putting out there. 

4) Form follows function

Do what you need to do to best convey your Something. There are no right and wrong choices-- there are only choices that work and choices that don't, and your measure is always "Does this serve the material? Does this support my Something?"

5) Avoiding mistakes is a mistake

A musician can play every note exactly as written, and be absolutely mediocre. A sports team can make zero mistakes and still get thoroughly beaten. In writing, concentrating on avoiding mistakes is a fool's game. It's not good enough to not do anything wrong-- you have to do something right. Be bold. Don't focus on what you're not going to do-- focus on what you are going to do.

6) You do you

Idea webs. Classical outlines. Free-writing to generate ideas. Discussion. Thinking in isolation. Pulling it out of your butt at the last minute. These pre-writing techniques all work for somebody (and not for some others). Pen or typewriter or computer screen. You have to know what works for you. There is no "correct" or "incorrect" way to write-- there are only the ways that work for you and the ways that don't work for you.

Here's the catch-- you have to be brutally honest with yourself about what does and doesn't work. You may want to be the "pull it out your butt at the last minute" person, but you have to take a hard, honest look at your product and ask yourself if it really represents your best work.

7) Testing is not writing

Never, ever mistake the kind of word tofu product required by standardized tests for actual writing. We live in a golden age of bad writing instruction, almost all of it aimed at standardized test writing-flavored behavioral products. That is not actual writing; it's mindless idea-free hoop-jumping. Never mistake it for anything else.

8) Write

Yes, read about writing. Talk about writing. Read, read, read, read, read, read-- and do it like a writer. But at the end of the day, there is only one way to perfect your craft, and that is to write. Write every day. Write about whatever is passing through your head. When Something scratches and bangs and hollers against the inside of your head and demands to be released, release it. Write. Write during your lunch hour. Stay up an extra hour. Get up an hour early. But write.

Today is the National Day on Writing. Let's go ahead and proclaim 363 more Days on Writing to follow it up.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gates Shifts Gears Again (And Claims To Have Learned Things)

Today in Cleveland, wealthy education amateur Bill Gates announced that he and Melinda are about to drop another $1.7 Billion-with-a-B on education-- but in new and more exciting ways, because Bill Gates has definitely Learned Things.  The announcement came as a speech in front of the Council of Great City Schools, and it came in several distinct parts.

The Challenge

Gates rings the usual low scoring bells, though he has the nuance to note that our wealthy white students are actually kicking ass on the OECD test , and our not-wealthy, not-white, not so much. I'm not going to run down that rabbit hole to check his figures, because they don't really matter. Gates has been playing with schools for seventeen years because Gates personally thinks schools ought to work differently.

Some Gatesian History

Next, Gates recapped his history as an education-flavored philanthropist, nodding vaguely in the direction of Things He Has Learned in those seventeen whole years. Remember all his greatest hits?

There was the small schools movement, where Gates was going to throw money at the creation of smaller schools:

When we first got involved in U.S. education, we thought smaller schools were the way to increase high school graduation and college-readiness rates. In some places and in some ways, small schools worked. 

In other words, that didn't work .

So then they switched their attention to fixing teachers and playing with merit pay. Gates doesn't mention the disaster in Florida, but mentions some other big cities plus Tennessee where they've seen "promising" results.  So again, he's going to call it a success even as he lists the reasons it didn't succeed (local contexts and the fact that there are other important drivers beyond teacher quality).

And then Common Core, the results of which he finds "exciting" but there's still more to do.

So what did he learn from the last seventeen years?

Well, nothing, actually. This has been the Gates pattern-- what looks like it will take the form of admission of failure or at least a serious mistake turns out to be an admission that he basically had it right and he just needs to tweak a few things. So after talking to some folks, here are the things he learned:

* Teachers need better professional development and curricula aligned with the Common Core. That loud crack you just heard is the sound of a million teachers smacking themselves in the forehead. Yes, after all this, Gates thinks our problem is that schools and teachers have not given up enough of their autonomy to the wildly unpopular, still unproven standards.

* "Schools that track indicators of student progress — like test scores, attendance, suspensions, and grades and credit accumulation – improved high school graduation and college success rates."  In other words, Gates is now convinced that weighing the pig does, in fact, cause it to grow. Crack!!

* Schools are the "unit of change." Each has its own challenges-- and he underlines social and emotional stuff-- but their solutions need to be aligned to l;ocal concerns.

So what is he doing next?

First, no more money to be spent on teacher evaluation (though they'll keep watching the data).

Second, "locally-driven" solutions created by networks of schools.

Third, they are doubling down on curriculum and PD development to be aligned to the Core.

Fourth, they will keep spending money on charter schools. But since the charter school biz is glutted with money from rich folks, Gates will focus on developing stuff for students with special needs.

And finally, a bunch of money thrown at developing "innovative research to accelerate progress for underserved students." Which could mean any number of things, including cyberized learning in the new CBE mode.

$1.7 billion over five years.

Things that Bill Gates thinks are exciting.

Gates mentions some highlights of Great and Exciting Things going on right now. You may not agree with his assessment.

Fresno set up a system to let students know they could go to college. That seems like a much more harmless innovation than his next item, which is the Zuckerberg Summit Computerized School in a Box, his terrible competency-based education idea. And in Chicago, while they may be cutting programs and student support like crazy, they are really great at weighing the pig (if you weigh the pig enough, can you skip feeding it?).

Better still, there are school networks popping up all over, and nothing makes local schools better than an additional layer of bureaucracy whose main function is to land and administer grants. Seriously-- most of this is in line with the usual Gates priorities of charters and Common Core and computerized education-like programming, but I don't quite see why he wants to push networking, unless it is to facilitate the networking of computer-delivered ed-product.

The long view

Our goal is to work with the field to ensure that five years from now, teachers at every grade level in secondary schools have access to high-quality, aligned curriculum choices in English and math, as well as science curricula based on the Next Generation Science Standards. In a few places, we also will support pilots of scalable professional development supports anchored in high quality curriculum.

That's the dream. And if you have any doubts about how far divorced from reality the vision is, Gates offers DC and Louisiana as examples of places that really Get It.

Gates promises to spend 25% of his stack o'cash on "big bets," and charters get 15%. Also, heavy push for math and preparing "students for the dramatic changes underway in the workforce."

Your Gatesian moment of irony

This seems to be a Bill Gates requirement-- a moment of blissfully self-unaware irony. Here, we get this quote:

Giving schools and districts more flexibility is more likely to lead to solutions that fit the needs of local communities and are potentially replicable elsewhere.

Flexibility-- just as long as the teachers, school, and curricula are more tightly aligned with the Common Core. It is a fine successor to Henry Ford's "any color you want as long as it's black" edict.

Lots of folks are going to pick this apart in the days ahead, and there are some differences here. I'm delighted to see Gates get out of the teacher evaluation business; less delighted to see him double down on Common Core, charters, and the hints of more computerized privatized standardized education-flavored products.

So there's a slight shift of direction, but one thing stays the same-- the Gates conviction that he can serve as an unelected, unexperienced tsar of American education, reworking education to his will by sheer force of money. After seventeen years, he still hasn't noticed that he isn't helping.

Charter Leader: Can We Talk?

Public Source is a news outlet centered in Pittsburgh, and they've been working their way through a series about charter schools. Is it even-handed and balanced? I think you can judge where we are based on this quote from their answer to the reader question, "Are charter schools public schools?"

Nationally, all charter schools are public schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Sigh. Yes, and red meat is unequivocally healthy for everyone, according to the National Beef Council. Also, sources within the Ford Motor Company suggest that Ford's are the best cars to drive.

Earlier this week Public Source ran an entry in their series entitled "Charter schools and traditional public schools must work together to deliver on 21st century promise to students." And it comes to us from Ron Sofo, a Pittsburgh charter school principal. Sofo heads up the well-regarded City Charter High School. Sofo's piece has... some problems. But it is an exemplar of a certain point of view, and so worth a look. Let's do that.

The mission of public education in the 21st century is to maximize the probability that all students upon graduation will be college- and career-ready. 

Yikes! I mean, no! No, it's not, or at least, it shouldn't be. This is the narrowing of educational goals that NCLB and Common Core have given us-- education is just vocational training (college is where you go to get trained for the "better" jobs). This is the most meager, narrow, cramped, stilted view of education. He is correct in saying this goal requires some "redesign" of our schools, but only because they were designed for far better and broader goals, like creating future citizens or helping students discover and become their best selves or allowing students to reach their own personal understanding of what it means to be human in the world, to grasp a picture, however incomplete, of the full depth and breadth of human accomplishment and knowledge. The college-and-career-ready baloney narrows it all down to one simple goal-- will you be able to make yourself useful to some future employer. Mind you, being employable and getting a job so you can get paid-- that's all good stuff. But it has never been the only goal of public education, and it never should be.

The core tenets and the primary reason for the state’s charter school system is to provide parents and students with expanded quality choices. These quality choices are especially needed for students and their families that have been underserved by our traditional public school system. Public charter schools can be and, in many cases, are sources of innovation and effective new models of educating all students to high levels.

Also no.  People don't want choices nearly as much as they want good schools. Nobody looks at a great meal and says, "Well, I can't really enjoy this unless I see some other choices" nor do happily married people contemplate their soulmate and think, "Boy, if only I had other spousal choices in front of me."

Sofo is absolutely correct that some populations are "underserved," a lovely passive voice construction that lets us skirt past the issue of who, exactly, is not sending these schools enough financial support and resources. But instead Sofo suggests the argument that if your house is messy and your furniture ugly, the solution is to buy a new house. Sofo is the guy looking into the back seat of his car, seeing a bunch of McDonald's bags and saying, "Guess I have to buy a new car."

If some communities are underserved, maybe we could look at ways to NOT underserve them.

In this same vein, he offers examples of "limitations" of the traditional model:

assigning new teachers to teach in the most struggling schools; Ds being considered a passing grade to earn a high school diploma; a lack of teacher continuity for students throughout the years; and a lack of disciplinary approaches that teach or reinforce collaboration and communication skills.

And again I have to ask-- if these are bad things to do, why do we turn to the solution of opening a whole new school instead of, I don't know, just not doing these things any more. I'd also have to note that when it comes to teacher continuity through the years, charter schools-- who like to tout their ability to hire and fire at will for any reason-- kind of suck.

With one eye on the definition of charters as laboratories of innovation, Sofo attempts a metaphor by comparing schools to school buses and our educational goals to a moon landing. "Would we expect a traditional mode of transportation like the yellow school bus to take any person to the moon?" he asks.

I have two problems. First, college and career ready is not a trip to the moon-- it's a trip across the street. Second, and more critically, a school bus is a physical thing, an object that cannot be easily modified into another physical object. A school district is an organization, not a physical object, and we can modify its function far more easily than we can rebuild a bus.

Charters schools, by law, are expected to be innovative. If they are not, the charter should not be issued and they can be closed for lack of effectiveness. It rarely happens to charter schools, but it seems even more unlikely for traditional neighborhood public schools.

Well, that's correct. Charter schools in PA are supposed to be innovative or else they'll be closed. Except they're almost never innovative and almost never closed. So I'm not sure what his point is here, because it seems to be that the whole chartery innovation thing isn't really happening, in which case, I absolutely agree.

But his school has totally innovated, by having teachers in core subjects stay with the same students for four straight years. The innovation of looping has been around for years, however, and any public school could do it (like block scheduling, there are strong arguments both for and against the practice). Sofo also enjoys the "innovation" of non-tenured teachers who have to scramble for "merit" pay (tell me again how teacher continuity is important).

But Sofo gets some things right. He acknowledges that the sharing of innovation isn't happening. And he is honest about the big financial lie of the charter system-- that we can run several parallel school systems with the money we used to spend on just one-- calling the charter law a "tremendous unfunded mandate." And he notes that our legislature is "stalled" which is true for both this issue and every other governmental function (including, incredibly, finishing a budget and spending plan for the state).

Sofo does get this part-- collaboration among the systems will be a hard sell as long as legislators set public and charter schools as competitors in a zero-sum game. And nobody is ever going to stand up in Harrisburg and say, "Look, if we want multiple school systems, we'll need to raise taxes to fully fund them."

He'd like to see all the "stakeholders" sit down at a table and work on those innovative things, despite, I guess, the fact that the many players are set up to be competitors, and that there is no universal agreement on what the school's are supposed to be accomplishing. It's hard to get people to sit down at a table when they're concerned about being the meal.

Nor is it clear what the benefit is here for public schools. It's hard to start a conversation with, "Let's talk about how you and I can work together to benefit me."

Teacher Hit With Brick

Put this in the "How Teaching Has Become a Different Sort of Job" file.

In Pittsburgh, Janice Watkins, 46, a teacher at King PreK-8 School enforced the school's no cell phone policy by taking a cell phone from a fourth grade student. The parents came to the school and reportedly threatened Watkins.

After school, Watkins headed home. At an intersection, the couple, who had apparently followed her from the school, stopped her. Watkins rolled down her window, and the student's mother hit Watkins in the face with a brick. Then the couple dragged Watkins out of the car and continued to assault her until she managed to call 911.

Watkins suffered the loss of a tooth and a hell of a headache. The 29-year-old woman who assaulted her has been charged with aggravated assault, stalking, making terroristic threats and recklessly endangering another person. The man who participated in the assault has not been identified yet.

A spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Public School system said,'"Violence of any kind against a PPS staff member or citizen is unacceptable, and the individuals responsible must be held accountable for such horrifying behavior," and that the people involved in the attack do not "represent the many great parents and families who choose Pittsburgh Public Schools."

But damn. Hit with a brick, in the face, over a cell phone. When people talk about teaching being more dangerous than it used to be, this is what they mean.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Five Lessons from Jeanne Allen

Jeanne Allen is sad, because of the new documentary "Backpack Full of Cash."

Allen is the head honcho of the Center for Education Reform, a group that is very vocal in their opposition to teachers unions and public school, and very vocal in their desire to see choice and charters happen, no matter what. Allen frequently employs her snarky tone in defense of causes that even other reformsters find hard to defend, such as cyber-schools and Donald Trump (her explanation, which explains much, is that Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway made her feel better about the Donald). She's also the lady who tried to teach John Oliver a lesson.

So it's hard to understand exactly why she's grumpy about being featured in "Backpack Full of Cash" as a woman who is strongly pro-charter. The problem seems to be that the movie itself is not very pro-charter at all, and the indignity is doubled because it's Allen's own quote that lends the film its title. A quote that she still stands by, because it's strapping a backpack full of cash onto each student that makes her world go around.

But Jeanne Allen is going on the offensive, which as usual involves issuing a bunch of press releases quoting Jeanne Allen, against that Matt Damon movie (while it is exciting that this movie was made and is out there being seen, it is depressing to note that it might well have sunk without a trace if Famous Actor Guy Damon were not attached as the narrator, because we can only ever have conversations about education in this country when actors or comedians or politicians or academics do the talking which only makes sense because who else would we listen to-- teachers?? Oh well-- I don't fault the film makers their choice because if you want your work to be seen you have to do what you have to do... but I digress).

Allen is also trying to leverage the Damon name by scolding him publicly for the involvement in this film that dares to quote her directly, including an #EducateMattDamon hashtag that so far has been used just by Allen and the CER and a few pro-public education wags (feel free to head over to twitter and help out). She grouped five of them together under an inflammatory headline, "New Matt Damon Movie Maligns Poor Parents" 

As always, the Allen press release comes with an Allen quote:

It was a shock to see them cunningly and deliberately cut my quote to serve their own purpose. We always have to fight people who are, frankly, uneducated about the issue. If I could show Matt Damon what we actually do, and the options kids can have so they don’t have to go to failing schools, he’d be a supporter.

It has all the Allen standards. Some emotionally charged words ("cunning") to support her suggestion that all her enemies are acting out of malice, because in Allen's world, the only people who disagree with her are evil, bad people. Oh, and ignorant ones, because if people understood the issues, they would side with her. Including Damon, who's grasp of the issues seems rather deep and long-standing (I suggest a visit to the BustED Pencils site for a stroll through the many great interviews with Damon's teacher mom).

But that's okay-- Allen is going to educate him with five lessons.

1) NYC charter schools show more academic growth than district schools.

Her link is to a paywalled WSJ article, but her assertion is meaningless. It's like saying "The plants in my field grow taller than the plants in Pat's field, so my field must be better." Without knowing what plants we're talking about, it's a meaningless statement. And since we're know about NYC charter tendency to skim and cream, it's suspect as well. And, of course, "academic growth" really means "scores on single narrow standardized test" which is a lousy point of comparison unless you think the point of sending your child to school is to get their test scores up.

2) Charters are a vital tool for low-income and minority families.

Allen here links to an op-ed asserting that supporting black colleges helps charter schools, so how that fits her point is not clear. On the other hand, we could link to five years worth of articles about how charter schools have increased segregation, and, in areas like North Carolina, have created a new version of white flight where white families flee to mostly-white charter schools, leaving everyone else in increasingly underfunded (thanks to charters) public schools.It's unfortunate, because in some parallel universe where charter schools are not meant primarily to serve the interests of "entrepreneurs" who are motivated by chasing backpacks full of cash strapped to students-- in THAT universe, charters could be useful. In this universe, charters are not a tool for low-income and minority families.

3) Listen to why these students chose their charter school.

Allen replays some greatest hits from her bounty-offering contest to spank John Oliver. Boy, wouldn't it be an interesting world if public schools could wave around $100K and say, "Whoever says the nicest things about us gets this!"

4) Give parents real power in their child's education.

Nope. Simply not true. First, communities have to give up any sort of representative control of the school and replace it with a board of directors that does not have to answer to them. Then they have to give up any ability to see how the charter school is spending tax dollars. And then they have to wait and see whether the charter school is willing to accept and serve their child. The charter deal is that parents must give up what little power they have and hope they get something worthwhile in return. Travel to Florida for an example of how bad a deal that turns out to be for many parents.

5) Look! An NBA star!!

Seriously. Allen's point here seems to be that sometimes celebrities and sports stars back charter schools. That his been true since the years it became obvious that a charter school would make for both good PR and good ROI, but it has not worked out very well very often. For example, Deion Sanders' attempt was a spectacular disaster. 

Wait! Where was the maligning??

 Nowhere. Allen doesn't even attempt to back up the main accusation of her title. Nor does she ever address the subheading of the film-- "the real cost of privatizing America's pubic schools." She's not trying to make a point-- just fling some mud and hope it sticks somewhere. You would think that a chief of a big budget advocacy group would shoot for a higher bar than, say, a blogger.

So let me suggest that you track down a screening of this award-winning documentary and see for yourself if Allen has been herself maligned, or if she is in fact a fine exemplar of the sort of folks pushing the privatization of one of our oldest democratic public institutions.

BACKPACK FULL OF CASH Official Trailer from Stone Lantern Films on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Where I Went (or How a Weekend at NPE Turned into a Spot Check of the Pheonix, Arizona Health Care System)

So the blog has gone dark for a few days. In the meantime,I had some adventures and drew some conclusions in the process. Feel free to skip the tale; but I figure I owe an explanation to both loyal readers who aren't related to me.

What actually happened, short form:

On the way to the Network for Public Education convention in Oakland, CA, I missed my connecting in Phoenix due to illness, resulting in a brief stay in a Phoenix hospital

What actually happened, longer form:

Whatever it was that felled me kept a low profile from Pittsburgh to Phoenix, but at the beginning of the second leg of the trip, my Issue announced itself with explosive enthusiasm on the taxiway. And so I got to be the medical emergency that turned the plane around and headed it back to the terminal, where nice paramedics escorted me off the plane. Pro tip: if you want to really make an impression on fellow travelers, make sure the meal you’re going to share includes some Twizzlers for striking color effects (Note: Twizzlers did not pay me for that endorsement.)

A nice American Airlines lady offered to rebook me for later that evening or the next morning. It became clear that Late That Evening was not happening, so I booked a room in hopes that a good night's sleep would make me more travel-worthy. It did not. A nice lady at the hotel front desk helped me find an urgi-care, and called me a taxi. Roberto, my taxi-driver and 23-year Phoenix citizen, nicely suggested that I probably wanted the big hospital. The nice medical people at the urgi-care agreed with him, so it was off to the ER at Banner University Hospital, where some very nice people helped reassemble me until later in the afternoon, when (and there is no delicate way to recapture the moment) the airport Chinese made a surprise reappearance. The possibility of blood in that event led to being booked for an overnite stay in the observation wing, where some more nice folks kept me hydrated and relatively comfortable. There was an endoscope, with the most dashing anesthesiologist ever, and by late Sunday I was sprung. I took the red-eye back to Pittsburgh on Sunday night/Monday morning after sitting in the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport ("America's Friendliest Airport").

Things I noticed (when I wasn't pre-occupied with my body's betrayal):

Niceness really matters

This whole business was simultaneously scary and depressing. Depressing because I was missing a conference I really wanted to attend, the registration and hotel room an anniversary gift from my wife. Missing also meant I was letting down the people who had included me in a panel. And as the adventure stretched on, I was acutely aware that I was leaving my wife to handle our four-month-old twins without husbandly assistance. She's fully capable, but I felt as if I was really letting down the team-- several teams, in fact.

On top of that, feeling so sick in a strange place, with no support network, friends, family, and no clear answers on what's happening next-- that is also not a great feeling.Not when you're far, far from home.

But as you may have noticed above, the people I dealt with were unfailingly nice and kind, without sacrificing a bit of their professional devotion to their jobs. It was a reminder to me that any system or institution can be made infinitely more human and supportive and nurturing simply if the people operating within that system are nice. "Be nice" doesn't necessarily fit in a policies and procedure manual, nor is it often written into the sort of curriculum-in-a-box programs beloved these days, and it certainly isn't something that can be written into a computerized algorithmic academic content delivery system.

It's worth remembering, when we're about to get into deep, complicated arguments about the relative merits (or lack thereof) of computer-based teaching systems, that some of it comes down to simple things-- human beings can be nice and kind, and computer software cannot. And it's worth remembering ALL the time as teachers that our ability to be nice and kind is one of the most important abilities we bring into a classroom. Dealing with a big system when you are beat down and far from home is hard and scary; it doesn't cost any of us a cent to be nice and kind to that person.

Thank God for professional expertise

Looking at my situation, and watching the medical professionals respond to it, made me grateful that a nursing degree is not based (yet) on micro-badges that can be earned anywhere. When I consider all the various factors that went into just my case alone, and then try to imagine how all those features and intersections of features could be broken down into a checklist of badge-worthy competencies-- well, it's just silly.

No, I'm glad I dealt with people who were professionally trained, professionally experienced, and ready to make the complex and complicated judgments involved in balancing all the data they were receiving. All data is not created equal, and it still takes a human to sort out the meaningful from the not-so-important data.

How the hell do people without health insurance even live in this world?

Seriously? How? I defy anybody to navigate the medical labyrinth and think to himself, "Yeah, somebody who had no insurance at all could totally manage this."

It is possible to drive too hard.

I'm slowly becoming open to the possibility that, occasionally, one needs to Give It A Rest. It's a possibility.

The end of the story

So what actually felled me? Maybe some virus (as I type this, my mother-in-law, who stayed with my wife to help with the twins is at home, in a condition similar to mine). I'm willing to blame the airport Chinese food from PIT. Or maybe flying without my wife makes me really anxious. Meanwhile, the NPE conference sounded and looked great, and I missed it. And this blog went dark for three days. But now I'm just shaking off the effects of jet lag and sleep deprivation, and the twins have trained me pretty well for that sort of thing. Tomorrow I expect to be back here waggling my fist at the state of public education in this country once again.

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Charter Is a Public School

A charter school is a public school


If it is owned and operated by the local community and their duly elected representatives. If you can call the people who run your school to talk about your school, and it's not a long distance call, that might be a public school. If your school is run by a board of directors who must all stand for election by the taxpayers who foot the bill for your school, you are probably a public school.

If it is operated with financial transparency. If any taxpayer can walk into the main district office and request a copy of the budget and receive a copy, that's a public school system. If you have the opportunity to call or meet with those local elected board members t argue about how your tax dollars are being spent, it's probably a public school.

If it cannot turn down a single student from your community. Your school system may sort students into specialized schools, or it may pay the cost of sending Very Special Need students to Highly Specialized schools, but it cannot ever deny unilaterally responsibility for students just because they cost a lot of money or require specialized programs or just fail to behave compliantly. If your school system can't wave a student off and say, "She's not our problem," your system is probably a public school system.

If it provides students and staff the full amount of  appropriate legal protections, it could be a public school.

If it operates in a building owned by the taxpayers, it could well be a public school.

If it operates under the assumption that it will stay in operation for as long as the community wants it there, and plans to be there for generations irregardless of how well the "business" is doing, it is probably a public school.

And if your school does not make budgeting choices based on the notion that the less money spent on the students, the more money some private individual gets to pocket, that's a healthy sign of a public school.

If it meets all these standards, then your charter school is indeed a public school. If not-- well, it may be a lovely, delightful, popular school, but it is not a public school. A private school that collects public tax dollars is still a private school.

And if your public school system no longer meets these standards (if, for instance, your elected local board has been replaced with state or mayoral control, that's a sign that somebody is trying to privatize it, and may have partially succeeded.

You can say that a pig is a cow. You can dress it up in a cow suit and just keep insisting over and over that it's a cow, correcting everyone who says differently. But at the end of the day, when you butcher it, you still get pork.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Why the Charter School Movement Can't Help Alienating Republicans

Over atthe Fordham blog, Mike Petrilli (Fordham Grand Poohbah) is taking another swipe at addressing the ed reform schism that has been playing out ever since Betsy DeVos unpacked her bags in DC.

"The charter-schools movement needs to stop alienating Republicans," he says. echoing a sentiment first floated in the reformisphere by Robert Pondiscio who was concerned that the Left was driving conservatives out of the reform movement.

Conservatives and the choice movement

The problem has been there all along. Ed reform has always been a fundamentally right-tilted movement, but during a nominally Democratic liberal-branded administration, it was helpful to also sell reform as a means of creating social justice. But these days, social justice is not exactly a priority of the folks in DC, and so the ed reform movement has been convulsing as those who want to view ed reform as a means of social justice have tried to run away from Trump-DeVos, while those who see it as a means of promoting choice and the free market have found it remarkably easy to embrace the current administration (looking at you, Jeanne Allen) or at least have tried to stake out a clear conservative camp for charter-choice reform, in hopes that some day rational grown-ups will be in charge again in our nation's capital.

Which brings us back to Petrilli's argument. 

He's trying to understand why EdNext's own poll showed a drop in carter support, including among GOP and GOP-lite respondents. But, Petrilli, seems to ask, shouldn't the same folks who loved Reaganism embrace school choice? Trickle down, anybody? Union-busting the flight controllers?  Ignoring the problems of Reaganism and the modern mis-remembering of his legacy (does anyone think he wouldn't be drummed out of the modern hard-core GOP by the same people who claim to want his mantle), Petrilli has some ideas about recapturing GOP hearts and minds, like emphasizing how the charter movement empowers parental choice, "using the magic of competition to lift all boats," which is an apt phrase since the raise-all-boat-thinking is an excellent example of the magical thinking behind free market education ideas. Free market unicorn ponies for everyone!

Petrilli also, in one of his characteristic flashes of unvarnished honesty, points out that conservatives should love charters because charters are anti-union. Oh, and they can fire lots of people, too. Also, he would like to bring up Fordham's bullshit study about how terribly absent public school teachers are, compared to charter teachers. That study defines "chronically absent" as "misses one day of work a month" and while that's not a super-high bar to clear, the study skips over any possible explanations for the pattern (like age differences in the two workforces) in favor of just scoring this talking point.

And as a final sprinkling on top of his proposed ad campaign for charters, Petrilli also tosses no-nonsense discipline, the success sequence, and "classical" education.

Petrilli says that charter supporters who appear to be on the Left encourage the charter movement to downplay all these features, and that's a mistake.

But I say Petrilli has made some miscalculations here, and that there are good and solid reasons for conservatives not to support charter-choice programs.

Conservatives like accountability

The biggest conservative problem for charter-choice is accountability. At this point, wherever you live in this country, you are probably within earshot of a charter scandal where a school suddenly closed or someone got caught with their hand (or their family's) hand in the till or the whole thing just turned out to be a scam. And now that we've had a few years of chartering, an increasing number of folks have had this conversation:

Taxpayer: Why don't our schools have enough money for this program?

Government: Your tax dollars were taken from your local school to pay for that charter school.

Taxpayer: Well, damn. Can we at least see what the charter school did with our tax dollars?

Government: Nope. Nobody can know.

Taxpayer: But those are my tax dollars!

Government: Too bad. It's a special charter secret.

"Just hand us your hard-earned money and trust us," was never a winning pitch for public schools, but charters are even less forthcoming. Conservatives do not like being told, "We are going to take your hard-earned dollars but we will tell you absolutely nothing about how they are spent. In fact, we will go to court to keep you from finding out." And the steady drip-drip-drip of charter scandals is a clear signal that some kind of accountability measures are needed-- and yet Betsy DeVos has signaled clearly that she doesn't favor accountability and that she, in fact, likes the voucher system which has even less accountability.

Public schools are a conservative institution

Petrilli's colleague Andy Smarick has written extensively about this. Public schools are stolid, time-tested, and a foundational part of many communities. Public education is an institution that is steeped in conservative values of tradition, financial efficiency, local control, and community values. Occasionally reformsters try to fly in the face of this by hollering that teachers are a pack of wild-eyed liberals, but people know their local schools, and they know it's largely untrue (sooo many teachers voted for Trump). Reformsters have tried to make the case that schools are just awful and undermining American security but poll after poll tells us that most Americans think their local schools are okay-- more so if they have children actually in the school.

Trying to upend this kind of institution is not the act of a classical conservative.

About that parental choice thing

In community after community, it turns out that parents don't really get all that much choice. Choice looks a lot more like trying to get into college-- you make your choices and then you hope and pray that they choose you. And in the world of charters, if you have special needs or require special adaptations or are just an extra challenge, there may not be a place for you (and if we start talking vouchers, then we can start talking about whether or not you are of the correct religious faith).

Parental choice is a lovely talking point, but in many markets, that's simply not what happens. And where it does happen, it ends up looking like North Carolina, where "choice" turns out to be short for "I would like to choose that my white children don't go to school with black children." Racism and discrimination are not conservative values (I've met plenty of racist liberals and plenty of non-racist conservatives) and restoring segregation is not a worthwhile reason to support charters.

Teacher pool

Petrilli zeros in on the idea of busting the teachers' unions, but while that may make it easier for ed-flavored businesses to run their schools, it hasn't produced any improvement in quality. Personally, I'm dying to see the rollout of New York charter advertising that boasts "No more dealing with certified teachers-- your child will be taught by the cheapest, undertrained non-expert non-educators we could find!"

Maybe it's just the conservatives I've grown up around, but an oft-overlooked quality that I think of as a conservative value is competence-- knowing what the hell you're doing, being a trained professional at your craft.

Other peoples' kids and values education

Places like the "no excuses" schools and the schools centered on the "success sequence" (get a diploma, get a job, get a spouse, get a kid-- in that order) do not strike me as the sort of schools that conservatives would put their own schools in, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that conservatives are not real big on the whole "teach children what their correct values and proper life choices should be" thing rubs them the wrong way.

You can find conservatives who will agree that Those Peoples' Children should be taught those things, but I'm not sure that translates into "Use my tax dollars to set up a second school system for those kids."

One more entitlement

If you thought it was a lousy idea to give "free" college to every 19-year-old, why would you think it's a good idea to give "free" private school to every K-12 student. 

The ravages of time

Mostly what I think explains Petrilli's unwelcome poll results is time.

When Common Core was an abstract idea in think pieces, people either ignored it or thought it could be swell. But the more it took a real, palpable form, and the more people could see how it actually worked and saw what students were experiencing and heard tales of how it really played out, the less people supported it. I'll bet dollars to donuts that's what's happening to charters.

"Parents should be able to choose the school that best fits their child's needs" sounds great. But it's not what's actually happening. What's actually happening is that people are seeing money drained from their public school system to fund private schools that at best are hiding what they do with that money and at worst are wasting and stealing that money, all to support a system that isn't really providing all the choices it said it would-- and that's all before you discover that the entire charter set-up is run by people who don't answer to you, don't know you, and don't live in your community. Surprise-- you no longer have any control or say in how your education tax dollars are spent.

You can argue that all of these problems exist in the public system-- but that doesn't mean you're offering anything any better, and your not-any-better is coming at considerable cost, which folks are becoming more and more aware of. Five years ago the Trump-loving denizens of my community would complain about how local school boards were wasting their money; today more and more of them are asking when somebody is going to do something about those damn charter schools that are bleeding our local schools dry.

The Achilles heel

The conservative side of ed reform has always had the same critical weakness-- opening up the education market so that free market forces can unleash new edu-business possibilities is an act that mostly just benefits people at the top. It's great for people who are at the top, who operate these businesses. Hell, who wouldn't want to open a bunch of charter schools in NYC, serve a carefully curated fraction of the students as the public system, and still make more than the leader of the entire citywide public system?

Maybe this is the Reaganism coming back-- give the people who run these operations a chance to fill their pockets and good education will eventually trickle down to the students below. But the reality isn't living up to the hype-- it can't-- and ed reformers can't start a war or set fire to some other dumpster to distract people. There will still be plenty of conservative support for charters, bot from market-based conservatives as well as those who see charters as a solution to systemic social problems in public schools. But the support is going to erode, rather than grow.


Of course, charters could build support by becoming actual public schools rather than simply wearing the name "public" like an ill-fitting sheep suit. They could be locally controlled. They could be transparent and open in their operation. They could employ and be operated by fully-trained professional educators. They could take all students instead of creaming and skimming. And their legislative supporters could create financial structures that fully support all schools instead of trying to run multiple systems with the same money previously used to run just one system.

Those steps would build support among conservatives and liberals alike. They just wouldn't build support among the folks currently trying to push charter schools. That's the real question for those folks, the real dilemma they face-- do they want to have the freedom to impose their will and reap profits, or do they actually want charter schools, even if they don't get those schools exactly the way they wanted to.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Blockchain For Dummies

Whenever we talk about That Thing That's Being Pushed-- the thing that is sort of competency based education and and sort of personalized learning and sort of cradle to career pipeline and sort of Big Brother data mining your entire life-- we inevitably run into the idea of blockchains. If that part leaves you a big befuddled, join the club. I'm going to attempt an easy-to-follow yet reasonably accurate explanation  of what's going on, because I think it's worth understanding. Blockchains are shaping the education conversation just by their very nature-- and they are not politically neutral, either. This may not make you feel any better, but at least you'll understand a little better what's going on when blockchain is discussed.

Blockchains emerged hand in hand with bitcoins, a so-called cryptocurrency, that had been hinted at in SF literature (go read some Neal Stephenson, like the short story "The Great Simoleon Caper" or the absolutely awesome novel Cryptonomicon). It appeared in 2008, created by a pseudonymous computer guy/group Satoshi Nakamoto.

Bitcoins do not physically exist, which is not that crazy an idea when you consider that your paper currency is just a piece of paper, and mostly you handle money electronically, anyway. Bitcoins exist on a ledger, maintained in the cloud on a variety of computers (nodes) but without any central authority. (IOW, there's no bitcoin main server parked somewhere).

At one point this decentralized bookkeeping seemed like crazy talk, but we've been sliding rapidly toward it. The easiest available comparison is a google doc. In the old days, if you and I wanted to collaborate on a document, we'd have to send it back and forth and back and forth, with each send creating a new copy (and a need to keep track of them). Now we'd just create a google doc that we could both work on. There's only ever one copy, and we can both manipulate it at any time.

A bitcoin ledger is like that, with one huge difference. It requires huge and complicated security, a level of encryption (hence "cryptocurrency') that makes my head hurt. Not all the attempts to manage the system worked out at all, causing some early bitcoin "crashes," but one approach has held on. The blocks of bitcoin data were linked through a heavy encryption to earlier versions of the ledger, as well as a series of encryptions that "certified" each transaction. Those blocks of data, connected through a chain-- well, yes, here we are at blockchain.

What these folks believe they have is a hackproof unified ledger that can be updated reliably. Bitcoin fans believed that they now had a system that would keep their currency stable, universal, and unaffected by the slings and arrows of national politics and monetary policy. No government necessary to issue, certify or control currency. The system even generates its own currency through performance of the crypto-problems that maintain the system-- bitcoins are "mined" and not "isssued."

But folks also saw huge potential in blockchain itself. Here, they said, was the ultimate digital strongbox-- permanent, universal, and utterly secure. Transparent and incorruptible. It could handle all kinds of commerce.

And, some blockchain advocates believed, it could store identity information.

Your identity. Your personal information. Your medical records-- all of them. Bloomberg just ran an article pitching blochchain as a substitute for social security numbers. And if it can store that information, incorruptibly and transparently, why not other personal information.

There is a serious Libertarian feel to the blockchain world-- the decentralized dependability means that no centralized authorities of any type are needed, No governments needed for money supply. No central authorities to create and certify information about individuals.

You can see how easily this idea lent itself to the notion of needing no central authority to authorize or create educational certification. Education can be mined, found, certified, tracked and recorded without any central authority needing to intervene. We would never need official schools or certified teachers or even diplomas ever again. Your various trainings would just become bits in the blockchain of your life, and your value, your worth as a future employee or member of society would be right there in your digital permanent record.

Not everyone believes in the power of blockchain. Some folks believe it could become the basis of a whole second internet, a completely new techno-evolutionary jump forward. To which other folks say that blockchain is not the next internet, but the next Linux-- nerdy, obscure and ultimately unable to make the jump to widespread mainstream use.

And there are certainly issues to sort out. An amount of currency is a simple piece of data, a one-dimensional bit to store. To make such a system work for the full broad spectrum of human skills and aptitudes, we'd have to flatten all those qualities to simple, single dimensions. Reducing "pretty decent novelist" or "fine jazz player but not strong in the classical repertoire" or "great teacher of seven year olds but not quite so great with fourteen year olds" or "decent diagnostician of pulmonary system ailments with an excellent bedside manner and a good team player"  to simple data points is a real challenge-- but there are people trying to meet it, to flatten every skill set in the world into little mini-competency badges that will fit the system. And not just the functional skills, but the social-emotional domains as well, so that the full complexity of a human's character and personality can be reduced to data points as well.

Because that's one of the things that's different about CBE this time around-- the tail is wagging the dog. As is too often the case, the system is being designed around what the technology can do, and not being designed about what needs to be done.

And if you don't think people aren't working hard to make this all real, look at The Ledger, which imagines this system in place a decade from now. Every person a "teacher" and no schools in sight. Plus, the very act of being educated turned into a transaction. And your whole value reduced to a set of digits.

See. I told you it wouldn't make you feel any better.