Saturday, November 18, 2017

DeVos: Vouchers Don't Have To Serve Everyone

You may recall the case of Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District, in which the parents of an autistic child and the Douglas County schools of Colorado got into an argument about "de minimis" aka "how little education can a district get away with providing." Did Endrew's IEP require the district to pay for his tuition to a swanky school that provided fancy stuff like "education"? Somehow this made it all the way to the Supremes, who unanimously ruled sort of down the middle-- school district compliance with IDEA has to be more than a half-baked half effort, but education experts get to be the experts on education, not Mom and Dad.



The whole business now has a sequel, starring Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Remember that time DeVos was being interviewed for her job and she didn't really seem to understand what IDEA actually was? Specifically, didn't seem clear on whether schools receiving federal funds would be required to follow the federal IDEA law?

Oh-- and remember that time when she called Historically Black Colleges and Universities "pioneers of school choice"? Which was kind of like calling the underground railroad pioneers of Uber?

Well, both of those moments had a sequel this week as reported by Ann Schimke for Chalkbeat. There are two take-aways here. One is not so big, and one kind of is.

First, the F family was none too happy about being used as props for one more DeVos love letter to school choice.

“Every family should have that ability to choose the learning environment that’s right for their child,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”

Remember that DeVos quote. The Fs, Joe and Jennifer, were not pleased.

“To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe said.

“It was a little disappointing,” Jennifer said. “She picked the parts that she liked and used them for what she wanted.”

 Now to the bigger takeaway. Turns out that the Fs had actually met DeVos, privately, at her request.

They were flattered by her interest, but felt she didn’t understand why private school vouchers would never work for them — or many other families who have children with disabilities.

Specifically, how a small voucher amount does not get you into a pricey specialized private school like the one Endrew attends. But according to the Fs, they raised an even larger issue, and DeVos gave them a straight, if not welcome, answer.

Do students with disabilities lose their rights to a fair and appropriate education — a guarantee under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — if they use vouchers to attend private schools?

Yes, DeVos said.

“She answered point blank,” Joe said.

So in the DeVosian voucher world, choice schools do get to pick and choose which students they will serve-- or not serve. The USED would not require recipients of federal dollars (which given a Education Savings Account approach to vouchers would be cleansed  of their federal taint) to obey federal law.

The huge irony here? DeVos doesn't think parents should have to sue somebody to have their child's needs met, but in a voucher world, parents like the Fs would not be able to sue anybody. School choice would mean that the school could choose to show Endrew the door. School choice would mean that parents would have to give up their rights in return for their voucher. It's a reminder that school choice and the privatization of education is largely about stripping citizens of the right to a free and appropriate public education. Voucher and choice systems aren't just a different delivery system-- they represent a fundamental change in our educational mission as a country. And that's a lot less than de minimis.


PA: Graduation Test In Trouble (Again)

Pennsylvania's education bureaucrats had high hopes for the Keystone exams.

Back in 2010, the idea was that there would be at least ten of them-- one for each major course-- and students would take them at the end of the year as a final qualifying test for course credit (and therefor graduation). Donna Cooper (now of Public Citizens for Children and Youth) was part of the Rendell administration pushing for the tests, and like all good reformsters of the era, all she wanted was perfect standardization so that every student in every state was learning exactly the same thing.  "It would seem to me that a parent in Norristown and a parent in Johnstown, their kids should know the same things to graduate.” 

And like good reformy bureaucrats, neither the Rendell administration that cooked this up, nor the Corbett administration that cemented it into law, envisioned the state providing any resources at all to help students over this new hurdle. The Keystone exam system was the biggest unfunded mandate the state had ever seen.

The fiddling began immediately. Maybe the Keystones would count for a third of the full year grade. And somehow we'd have to roll the tests out over several years, only they turned out to be hard to just whip up quickly. And they were expensive, too.

Soon enough, the state decided that math, biology and English literature (aka "reading") would be the Keystone exams offered. And students and schools would get a couple of years to get up to speed before the test became a graduation requirement for the Class of 2017. 

But there was a problem. It quickly became clear that if the Keystones were required for graduation, a whole bunch of students weren't going to graduate. In more than 100 districts (and charters) well over half the students would not get a diploma.

Nobody in Harrisburg wanted to attach his name to that, so Keystones-as-grad-requirements were pushed back to 2019, and to insure that the results looked better by then, the state government did-- well, they did nothing. Hopes and dreams, thoughts and prayers, maybe. But still no resources to help in those afflicted districts. And sure enough-- as 2019 approaches (those students are taking the tests this year in many districts) things still look bad.

So buried within Harrisburg's most recent attempt to enact a budget, there's another postponement for the Keystones.   

Fans of local control are pleased-- let local districts set their own graduation requirements. But members of the Cult of Testing and Standardization are unhappy. Like Cooper, they argue that the previous Big Standardized Test, the PSSA, proved that local standards were inadequate.

“58,000 students were graduated and given diplomas who could not pass the state’s 11th grade PSSA,” said Cooper.  “That’s a real indication of the failure of local control to understand the market signals of what is needed for a kid to succeed in today’s economy.”


Cooper and others like her might have a point-- if there were a speck of evidence that the PSSA was a valid measure of what is needed for a kid to succeed in today's economy, or college, or anything. There was no such evidence for the PSSA, nor is there any such evidence for the Keystone. And the PSSA, which is still given in lower grades, is a norm-referenced test with cut scores reset every year -- so somebody has to fail. 

The Keystone exams are theoretically standards-referenced, which should mean that everyone can pass. But it should also mean that we can get test results literally five minutes after the student finishes the test, but we're still waiting months. Why is that? Maybe because of something called scaling, which seems like a fancy way to explain different weights for different questions on different forms of the test. Or maybe it has to do with rangefinding, which seems an awful lot like norm-referencing-- collect answers and see what their distribution looks like. 

Trying to uncover the problems of the Keystone exams can be a daunting task. The technical reports from every year are available (here's 2015), with hundreds of pages each, including illuminating passages like this one 

Reading these technical reports might suggest to a layperson, even a highly educated one, that testocrats have disappeared so far up their own butts that they are now viewing the world through the tiny little lenses of their own belly buttons.

But the answer to the Keystone problem may be much simpler than psychometric gobbledeegook or legislative refusal to fund what they demand. 

It could be that the Keystones are just bad tests.

Mind you, I'm not supposed to know that. The PA DOE Code of Ethics says that I should never set eyes on the test itself, and if I accidentally see anything, I should make myself forget it. We are supposed to remain ignorant of the test except in the most general terms, and the students have to swear not to talk about them either. We are all not only supposed to hit the target, but we're supposed to do it blindfolded. That way the test manufacturers won't have to spend money rebuilding the test every year the integrity of the test will be maintained.

But, scofflaw that I am, I look anyway. And I'm telling you that if someone offered me the test to use for free in my class so that I could have more time with my children and less time test writing, I would turn it down. It's junk. Questions with no objectively supportable single correct answer. Questions that are simple vocabulary tests. Questions that require the students to use psychic powers on the authors of the passages. These tests do not measure anything except the students' ability to navigate a bunch of trick questions and guess what the test manufacturers are thinking. 

You know who else knows that? My students. Like most districts, we have made the tests mandatory for graduation because we want the students to try because our school rating depends largely on those test results. But the students know that they'll do a performance task (the Binder of Doom) if they fail, and many of them are not only tired of taking stupid tests year after year, but they have long since concluded that they might as well roll dice, because success or failure feel pretty much random to them. 

Pennsylvania is having the same damn argument as much of the rest of the education world, with accountability mavens arguing that we must test to have accountability, but skipping over the entire question of whether the test being used is actually measuring anything worth measuring. It's like listening to someone insist, "We have to know whether or not you have cancer, so you must wave your hand over this horny toad under a full moon." It's the same old reformy disconnect-- establishing that something is a real problem is not the same as establishing that you are proposing a real solution (and for those of us who don't agree that local control and variation is a real problem, you are even further off base).

Without a decent, fair, valid test, and without resources to back up this unfunded  mandate, and without a reason for students to care, the Keystones will always be a disaster. We can only hope that the state legislature stops kicking this can down the road and finally just throws it in the dumpster of history, where it belongs.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Data and Numbers and Audiences

During the last week, Pat has shown a 6.3 rate of response in class, with a score of 75 on the Hendrix Orientation Scale. Informal assessment yield a 82 (well within the "moderate" range) for response accuracy. In a forty-minute period Pat showed a 45 for Attentiveness Measure, but Pat's interactions with peers score a 21 on Hemmings Interaction Index. However, that places Pat's Optimal Utilization Index Score well under the minimum desired level of 55. 

That's one report I could fill out for Imaginary Student Pat. Or I could say:

Pat has some trouble paying attention, but Pat can still answer questions if I call on Pat. Pat's not really distracting any of the other students, but it's pretty clear that Pat isn't trying and is still managing to do just enough to get by. Pat's a good kid; just kind of bored.

In fact, the first one is composed entirely of fake data measures, but you weren't sure, were you. It sounds more official than the second one. Because it's data, with numbers.


The thing is-- the second explanation is also packed with data. In fact, it's the same data, but expressed in human terms rather than in numbers and technobabble. Reform-resistant teachers are often accused of being anti-data, but the problem with much of the data we're offered by education technicians is that it is flat and meager compared to what we are used to gathering on a daily basis. To reduce and aspect of a student's behavior, performance or existence to a single digit on some manufactured scale means I must actually flatten or simplify the data I have, throwing out plenty that is valuable.

It's like coming up with a digital rating for a kiss. It can be done, but what I end up with will be far less descriptive, rich or thorough than a poem or a song or a description.

Data Overlords don't like verbal packages of data because they are "messy," but the only way to make them less messy is to throw a bunch of "extra" data out. The resulting digit score actually contains less data than the messy version-- and the mess that we've thrown out can be hugely important. We complain a lot about what the Data Overlords decide to focus on, but what they choose to ignore is at least as large a part of the problem.

But Big Data requires digital data so that it can be crunched and spread-sheeted and used for big picture centralized measuring and planning (someday we will have to talk about Seeing Like a State, a somewhat wonky but also brilliant book about this phenomenon). And in the process, Big Data has also usurped the anser to the question, "What data are important, and which can be safely ignored."

In fact, the shift to digital data is about a shift in audience-- schools are no longer expected to be accountable to local taxpayers and parents, but to some larger government or corporate entity. If I give Pat's parents that digital data report, their first question will be some version of "What does that mean in plain English." And then I'll give them the second explanation, which will have far more data in a far more useful context.

Do not buy the idea that teachers do not gather data. We have never done anything except gather data. What we haven't done is gather bad flattened data selected according to the instructions of functionaries who are far away from the intersection of the rubber and the road. And just because it's a digit, that doesn't mean it's good data-- in fact, it may be exactly the opposite.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

FL: What?! A teacher shortage??!!

Shocking news in today's Sun-Sentinel:

Almost three months into the school year, thousands of public school students in South Florida still don't have a permanent teacher —a problem expected to get worse as more educators flee the classroom and the number of those seeking teaching degrees plummets.

Okay, not shocking. Utterly predictable, given Florida's unending efforts to create the worst atmosphere for public education in the country. Here are some of the things they've done, in no particular order:

* They have tried to make it possible for parents to stamp out the teaching of science.
* They have given charters the unchecked ability to steal local tax dollars.
* They have made an absolute disastrous amateur-hour hash out of their Big Standardized Test.
* They have made successful students repeat third grade for failing to love the BST
* They have declared-- in court-- that teacher-prepared report cards are meaningless
* They have demonstrated how badly teacher merit pay can fail
* They made a dying child take the Big Standardized Test 
* They turned recess into a political football.
* They based a strategic plan based on bad retail management.
* They abolished tenure, and fired teachers for advocating for students.
* They've allowed racist underfunding of schools to flourish.
* They have provided ample proof that an A-F school rating system doesn't work.
* They host experiments in computerized avatar classrooms.
* They have charter legislation hustled through the capital by lawmakers who profit from it
* They allow more charter misbehavior than you can shake a stick at
* They have created a charter money grab law so onerous and obnoxious they have actually moved public schools to sue the state government.

All of this over and above the continued drip, drip, drip of starving public schools of resources and finding new ways to treat public school teachers with disrespect. And the pay stinks.

There is no reason to be surprised that Florida teachers are "fleeing." And the article notes just how much fleeing is going on. Broward County lost 1,000 teachers last year-- and that's not counting retirees.


The Sun-Sentinel article is brutal, noting that the drain of teachers leads to economic problems for communities, as well as becoming a self-perpetuating problem-- as the teacher pool is drained in schools, schools become less effective, which means they turn out fewer and fewer grads well-prepared for or interested in teaching. The article piles on the anecdotal evidence. A teacher who left, tired of constant testing and lack of autonomy. A teacher who left because you can't afford to be a single mom on a Florida teacher salary. A teacher who handles over thirty kids in an honors class because the state class size law only applies to "core" classes.

And of course, Florida is "solving" the problem by opening up alternative paths, because the way to get better teachers and fill teaching jobs is by making it possible to slap any warm body into a classroom. My favorite bar-lowering idea-- Florida Atlantic University will give Palm Beach Schools a list of students who flunked out of medical and science programs so that those students can be recruited to teach. And meanwhile the remaining dedicated, qualified teachers of Florida wonder how much longer they can hold on.

Of course, somehow, these champions of free market, these lovers of the invisible hand, cannot figure out that if people won't sell you a good or service under the terms you set, free market competition demands that you offer better terms and conditions. It's as simple as that. If you can't buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn't mean there's an automobile shortage. Even convenience stores understand that if you can't get enough quality people to work for you, you have to offer better terms of employment. Florida's leaders simply insist on pretending not to understand this, even as they try to starve pubic education so that the unregulated world of Florida charter schools will look more appealing. This is like setting fire to an apartment building so that the tenants will "choose" to move into a shifty trailer park operation, while in the meantime you "try" to hire firefighters by offering $1.00 an hour wages and a punch-in-the-face benefits.

This-- all of this-- I have to remind you, is what USED Secretary Betsy DeVos thinks is the shining light that our nation should be following. This disastrous train wreck, this state that has worked hard to destroy its public education system-- this is what DeVos thinks the nation should be emulating. Run the public system into the ground, drive the teachers away, and sell the pieces to privatizers.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A TURN of the Screw

You may not have heard of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN). They have kept a lowish profile despite having been around for a couple of decades (founded 1995) (I hadn't really paid attention until writer Rachel Cohen contacted me for a piece she was writing). Mostly they've just kind of talked about stuff in an aspirational way, occasionally throwing their weight behind someone else's delightful idea as a way of putting a teacher and union stamp of approval on those ideas (more about that in a bit). But now they've decided to float an idea of their own, and we need to talk about that.

This is cold fusion, as far as you know

The group is a network of teachers affiliated with NEA and AFT, originally formed by a group of local union leaders. One of those leaders (Adam Urbanski) wrote a spirited defense of the idea of getting unions involved in reform and not seen as an obstacle. That piece appeared in the reformy journal Education Next in 2001, back before the reformy excrement really hit the fan. Their goal was basically “to promote progressive reforms in education and in teacher unions.” Nowadays their stated goals are a little fuzzy--

It brings local unions together to promote progressive reform in education and teacher unions, build relationships among key stakeholders and to cultivate the next generation of teacher leaders to influence education policymaking and improve teaching effectiveness and student learning

The idea of getting teachers involved and out in front of reform attempts in education has some obvious appeal (better, for some folks, than simply sitting and waiting for another batch of reformsters to drop another schoolhouse on us). I would be swell if more of us were "empowered." But collaborating and cooperating with people who mean you harm can be tricky business, and there are some red flags in TURN's history. There's the big chunk of money they took from Eli Broad. There's the time they apparently let TNTP come edu-splain to them about the damn widget effect (a made-up thing that TNTP never tires of using as "proof" that teacher pay and job security should be worse).

But let's leave it for the moment that we may or may not be able to trust these guys, and let's look at what they've come up with.

Our TURN: Revitalizing Public Education and Strengthening Our Democracy Through the Collective Wisdom of Teachers is a big title that makes big promises. And in the conclusion of the paper, they make a pretty clear statement about the broadest of goals:

The unprecedented threat to public schooling that we face requires us to think creatively about some basic questions: How can public education, once again, become “the great equalizer”  and the foundation for our democracy? And how could it be made to benefit all our students,  not just some?

Those are good questions, but they come at the end of a document that only sort of tries to answer them. They also come, it should be noted, at the end of a document that TURN thanks (in an endnote) Richard D. Kahlenberg for helping to write. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a NYC-DC thinky tank. His involvement likely explains why a thinky tankish verbal fog seems to roll in and obscure plain English at many points of the document.

The document is organized around four "pillars" of educational swellness, which are then expanded into a four-part vision, which then is upped to policies and practice. And frankly, if you try to read the document too closely your head starts to hurt, due in no small part to a anesthetizing blend of repetition, self-contradiction, and billowy verbage. So I'm going to approach each pillar-policy once, rather than circling the track multiple times.

Pillar One: Learning Centered Schools

Many. many ideas have been dumped into the first pillar. The focus is not on "coverage" but on what is "actually learned" which s0omehow requires a "fundamental shift" (because none of us were paying attention to what our students learned?) from skills and facts to "preparing learners to understand ideas and processes" for applying "flexibly and autonomously." Somehow this means that teachers will need to understand student individual needs, learning styles, and cultural backgrounds. But in LCS, "students are rarely lectured to" but instead  "do most of the work themselves" through "well-crafted active learning opportunities."

And that's just the first three paragraphs.

This type of school connects learning to the real world, and "lessons often take place in real life settings, not just in classrooms," which betrays the belief here that a classroom is not a real life place.

But TURN believes this all has "enormous implications," including the idea that we must measure what we value, not the other way around. Which sounds correct, if not particularly new. Standards must be broad and assessments must be performance-based to "assess not only what students know but rather what students are able to do with what they know" which-- are you kidding me? This is outcome based education, with lesson plans built around TSWBAT ("the student will be able to...") So this is a thirty-year old idea that currently is stumping around as Performance-Based Learning aka Competency-Based Education, and now I'm suspecting that TURN has deployed all of this verbage as the biggest, lushest fig leaf that was ever grown to cover the naked naughty bits that are modern CBE.

It gets worse. We're also going to assess the students on "whether they are ethical human beings" and whether they can "get along with those how are different than them." Damn. Am I the only person who remembers that OBE was gutted and rejected over just this exact point-- the idea that schools would mold and judge the characters of tiny humans?

AND we are going to test all day every day, by integrating assessments into learning which is either A) exactly what every competent teacher has now and always done or B) a pitch for computerized CBE programs in a can.

Because TURN wants to see big exams "fully funded by the federal government" (like, you know, PARCC and SBA), I'm going to assume that TURN leans towards the big-brotherly CBE approach, though honestly, there is just so much raw jargon clogging this report, it's sometimes hard to tell. Big Standardized Tests have all sorts of problems, especially when norm-referenced, but we still want high-quality BSTs.

And finally, don't forget that having high standards and tests to go with them "can be powerful engines for equity," as the reformsters have been telling us since NCLB launched, without a shred of evidence or support for this notion.

It occurs to me that it's possible that TURN is trying to synthesize every education reform idea that has surfaced in the last forty years, somehow folding them into one gooey mass. It is not a good look.

Pillar Two: Recognizing Teaching as a Profession

This very pillar captures a feature that I alluded to in the previous pillar, a sense that TURN simultaneously remembers everything and nothing from the past several decades. Is teaching not already a profession? TURN (which, don't forget, is supposedly a union-spawned group) has some self-contradictory thoughts.

The United States today has a teacher shortage in part because educators are not paid enough and are tired of being micromanaged and  denigrated. The inability to consistently  attract the very strongest candidates to  teaching is deeply problematic, because  even the best redesigns will not be well  implemented without high-performing  professional teachers.

So on the one hand, as teachers have said,  teachers are poorly treated and paid. But on the other hand, as reformsters have charged, teachers are the bottom of the barrel.

TURN talks about what requirements would make teaching a profession, and they invoke Albert Shanker, which is almost always a bad sign because Shanker is usually brought up to say "This may seem like a terrible idea, but Saint Shanker of the Teacher Union endorsed it, so shut up." TURN says get a degree, get specialized training, pass an examination, be inducted and work your way up, collaborate with other teachers, keep learning, and be rewarded by autonomy and great pay. All of which sounds okay in the large, vague picture, but the details matter. Who creates the exam? Who measures the degree to which teachers do all these things?

The answer should be "teachers," but it isn't. TURN calls for "greater voice," but they cite the supremely unimpressive Teach To Lead token teacher project from USED. They think the Dewey lab school at University of Chicago is an exemplar, too. But once again they cannot make up their minds. Current teacher eval stinks, and good teaching is more than a student's score, but evaluation "can't ignore the importance of student learning" (aka test scores).

TURN wants a career ladder and differentiated pay and they have insisted elsewhere that they don't mean merit pay, but pay differentiated and certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standard. But while NBPTS has some thoughts about the career ladder part, I'm not aware of a differentiated pay plan. So they're just going to certify it? After it comes from... somewhere? But TURN is sure "the program rewards excellence" without creating any sort of zero sum game except that of course there's a zero sum game. Education funding can't be anything BUT a zero sum game because the pile of available money is always finite. "Just spend all the money you need and send us the bill," said no bunch of taxpayers ever. One of the reasons that districts like the lock-step salary scales (that this document quietly rejects) is because it makes rational budgeting possible.

TURN supports due process and job protections, likes peer review (actually, so do I) .

Pillar Three: Excellence with Equity

TURN would like to underscore that poverty makes a difference when it comes to education, and that although this has been established through plenty of research, modern ed policy continues to ignore it. True enough. They have some policy solutions to propose, like adopting policies "to increase wages and reduce poverty." Well, that seems like a simple fix. Surprised nobody's considered that before now. All right-- I don't mean to be a jerk, but if we're going to list grand policy wish lists that we have no practical ideas about implementing, let's also ask for cold fusion and a perpetual motion engine.

Also, TURN would like "high-quality" Pre-K as part of the public school system. And they would like more resources directed to high-poverty schools. "Students with the greatest needs deserve the greatest resources." How would this affect the student-centered school approach, or the differentiated pay of teachers? Shh-- we're not talking about those things now, because the TURN plan deals with much of its internal confusion by not trying to connect any of the pillars to each other.

TURN also calls for less segregation, somehow.

And teachers and parents should build stronger ties, including the idea of consulting parents during the collective bargaining process, apparently mainly for language items like class size. Though TURN says this has been done, it seems like a challenging choice. I'm imagining a negotiating team at the table as the administration team says, "Well, you've promised your parents smaller class sizes and your members better health insurance. We're only going to give you one. Pick."

But hey-- that takes us to the fourth pillar...

Pillar Four: Promote Collective Bargaining for Educational Quality

TURN calls for nationwide collective bargaining nationwide, and it's not absolutely clear whether they mean one nationwide contract for everyone or making all the right-to-work states that did away with teacher collective bargaining start doing it again. I think it's the latter, in which case maybe we should go back to discussing cold fusion feasability.

And if getting Scott Walker to give up all of his victories against the teachers union seems improbable, well, TURN would also like contract negotiation to include educational issues, basically negotiating teachers some say over issues previously considered management prerogatives. So double cold fusion.

TURN thinks the path to this is "education quality bargaining," in which bargaining is strictly focused on educational issues and contract decisions ultimately hinge on whether or not student achievement is aided, which strikes me as a way to tie everything in the contract to test scores, which seems like an epically awful idea. Also, higher teacher salaries can be financed by cutting administrative salaries, which strikes me as a hard sell and, in a district like mine where there aren't that many administrators (and my assistant principal makes less than I do and works in an office with a revolving door).

Even less helpfully, TURN advocates a "living contract," which seems to mean a contract that can be opened at any time because reasons. And a majority of the union could vote to change the contract. So basically an answer to the question, what would a contract be like if it weren't actually a binding contract.

My Pillar

So what have we got here? A policy wish list which A) dreams of huge things and doesn't offer much in the way of plans to achieve those things and therefor B) opens up all sorts of doors to reformy ideas that could easily fit under the broad tent that TURN has pitched. Common Core State [sic] Standards, test-based accountability, computer-centered personalized [sic] education, computer-driven competency-based education, merit pay-- these are all terrible ideas that would fit comfortably within TURN's four pillars. There are some grand ideas that would be achievable only after a massive culture change (like having Alabama welcome teachers unions) and others that would be achievable only with a breach of the physical law of the universe  (the school district budget can expand to handle any sort of expanded differentiated teacher pay).

It may be my cynical mistrust, but I suspect this is a bad bargain, like someone who says, "If you let me keep any change I can find in your house for the next ten years, I will give you all the fairies you can locate in my magic spaceship." If I turn off the cynical part of my brain, then this report looks like a spastic camel-- a horse built by a committee and then run through a xerox machine twenty times.

Whatever the case, I'm trying to imagine the audience for this paper, and I can't. Is some lawmaker to pick it up and start trying to make it real? Doubt it. Are a bunch of union members supposed to read it and say to their officers, "Get us this, now!" Also unlikely. Resume builder for TURN members? Possibly.

I can't tell for sure, but one thing I'm certain of-- this is no game changer.












Sunday, November 12, 2017

ICYMI: Baby It's Cold Edition (11/12)

You know the drill. Here are some pieces worth your while. If you really think they're great, post them, tweet them, or otherwise pass them along. That's how voices get amplified-- people listen and pass them on. Do that.

How Do You Keep an Iceberg Fresh?

From I Love You But You're Going To Hell, possibly the most perfectly-named blog out there. Addressing the problem of taking education ideas to scale, with a perfect analogy.

The Proselytizers and the Privatizers

If you haven't read Katherine Stewart's piece from American Prospect yet, do it today. A well-sourced keen analysis of how privatizers and religious conservatives have used each other in the school choice movement. And good news- this is from the magazine, which means you can buy a copy to share with your friends who don't do internet.

Times Editorial Hypes Charter Schools

Several of us wrote a reply to the NYT's editorial supporting the lowering of the professional bar for charter teachers. But Alan Singer wrote a response poking the editorial full of holes by citing the Times' own education coverage. Nicely done.

Starve the Beast, Hurt Our Schools

In US News, Lisette Partelow shows how the GOP's beast-starving budget is bad news for education, both in short and long terms.

Life Lessons from Eva Moskowitz

Rachel Cohen read Moskowitz's biography so none of us have to, which is good, because we'd probably be chucking the damned thing out the window anyway.

Texas Pastors Who Have Conservatives Quaking

Pastors for Texas Children is a group that's been successful in standing up for public education. Jennifer Berkshire talks to Pastor Charles Johnson about how they do it-- and why.

What Happens When School Districts Use VAM to Make Decisions?

21st century principal is wrapping up a dissertation about VAM and he's sharing some of the outcome.

What We Talk About When We Talk About the Corporate Education Agenda

A not-very-uplifting episode of the Have You Heard podcast, interviewing Gordon Lafer, author of the One Percent Solution.  Important but grim.

Big Education Ape

If you do not follow the Ape, you should. Not only does the site aggregate all of the best blogging about education, but it adds mighty entertaining artwork. If the site is not on your follow list, it should be. 


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Inside a Proficiency Based Classroom [updated]

Robbie Feinberg took a trip into a Maine classroom for NPR, trying to see what things look like in the state that has shifted to Proficiency-Based Education (aka Competency Based Education, aka some form of Personalized Learning aka in the 90s Outcome Based Education). You know that I have my doubts about this bold new not-so-new idea (see here, here, and here for starters). But the devilish proof is in the details of the pudding, so let's see what Feinberg found.


The piece opens with a "first thing you notice" anecdote. At Oak Hill, Feinberg first notices that there are sticky notes on desks, colored pink, green and blue depending on whether the students are on pace, a little ahead or a little behind. And the students have their seat for the day based on the color of their sticky note. And I'm already thinking, yes, that's cool, and we could spark it up by calling them the bluebirds and the green alligators and the cardinals, because this sure seems familiar to anyone who went to school a several decades ago. Did I mention that the school Feinberg is profiling is a high school, not an elementary school?

Once in their group, they get out a "personal learning plan," which is basically a checklist of the tasks they have to perform (aka the worksheets they have to finish) in order to complete this particular months worth of stuff. And I'm going to go ahead and jump in here to say, with all due respect to the teachers who are doing this stuff, that this is not personalized learning, because personalized learning is about each student pursuing her own path to achieve her own goals. This is personalized pacing (a fact underlined by the fact that it's marked on a Pace Chart)-- each student is following exactly the same path, just at his or her own speed.

The teacher? The teacher occasionally presents mini-lectures and leads discussions, but mostly he floats around the room and "checks in" with each student as the students slogs her way through the batch of tasks. How does this particular teacher feel about it?

“The reason why I like it is because I get to talk to every single student,” he says. “One-on-one. Which never used to happen 10 years ago. There would be months going by, and I wouldn’t have a conversation with a student. So at least this way, I’m able to talk with every student a little bit at a time each day.”

Yeah, if it never happened ten years ago, and you went months without talking to students, that is totally on you, not the educational system.

In this particular district, the advent of this new system coincided with the merger of three districts, so the schools were already wrestling with a loss of local control. But like the comment about conversations, some of what they are saying about the new system is hard for me to see sense in.

The old system of grading A-F "would have to go," and in its place is a system of grades marks 1-4. Yes, that's quite a game changer there. The school hired consultants to help them deal with the new system, and the school watched a whole bunch of teachers, including, apparently, "really good, popular" ones, head out the door over the shift (the superintendent says he was glad to see them go).

Some of what is mentioned in the article is more that just befuddling-- it's appalling. The school sends out a list of "behind" students to parents, so not only do students get to suffer the public embarrassment of having to sit in the front of the room with the bluebirds, but their behind-ness is published to the world. I can't think of a single educational justification for that action-- not one at all. If you are reading this, Oak Hill administration, you should stop that right now. [Update: Feinberg reached out to me to clarify that the failure notices are sent individually to parents of students who are behind, for their own student. So not quite as horrifying. I will also clarify however, that my "stop it right now" also applies to seating by current progress.]

[Update: Since many have asked-- the article does refer some student reaction. Students note that the teachers roles is basically to tell the to stop talking and get back to work.]

It is possible that Feinberg is belongs in the reporter bluebird group*, but the picture that emerges from his story is not of a school that's on the cutting edge of anything educational. Students have a pile of worksheets and other assigned tasks to work through, teachers don't so much teach as try to push them along through the stack, and students are ranked on whether they are ahead, behind, or on pace. Nothing in the article hints at true personalization, and nothing addresses the tricky issues (what happens when the year is over and the bluebirds are still behind by forty or fifty tasks-- what happens to them then, or the next fall?) And all of that is before we even get to the thorny pedagogical questions of whether or not these sort of tasks truly show that a student has mastered a skill or a chunk of knowledge. Can education really be reduced to a checklist of tasks (and that is what Oak Hill is described as having-- the teacher literally stops by the student to check off tasks on a list).

This could be a school from fifty or sixty years ago. There's certainly nothing admirable or inspiring here, certainly nothing cutting edge. I have always argued that PBL/CBE/Personalized Learning would end up delivering far less than it promised, but even I didn't imagine it would be this much less. As I said, it may be that Feinberg simply dropped the ball (and, I should note, this article is first in series). Maybe something magical is happening at Oak Hill that he didn't see. But if this piece is an accurate portrayal of what the PBL classrooms of Maine look like, the rest of us should run-- not walk-- in the opposite direction.

Oh, and this is the first article in a series. Stay tuned for more.

*Check the comments for more about Feinberg.