Monday, October 23, 2017

PA: Urgent! Vouchers Are Back

Tomorrow morning, the Senate Education Committee will be once again considering a bill to promote vouchers across the state of Pennsylvania, and to pay for them by stripping money from public schools. If you're in Pennsylvania, drop what you're doing and call your Senator today.

SB 2, Education Savings Accounts for Students in Underperforming Schools, sets up vouchers with  no oversight and an extremely broad criterion for how the vouchers can be spent. According to the official summary, voucher money may be spent on

1) Tuition and fees at a participating private school; 
2) Payment for a licensed or accredited tutor; 
3) Fees for nationally norm-referenced tests and similar exams; 
4) Industry certifications; 
5) Curriculum and textbooks; and 
6) Services to special education students such as occupational, speech, and behavioral therapies.

So anything from private school tuition to buying books for home schooling to sending a child to massage therapist school.

Money can be carried over from one year to the next, and if there's still some left at graduation time, the money may be used for higher education costs.

The amount placed in each child's Education Savings Account will be the per-pupil amount of state money spent in the district, with corresponding funds subtracted from the district's state subsidy payment (this is all, of course, assuming that the state legislature can get its act together and actually make those payments).  This amount varies wildly by district, but in no district is way up there as Pennsylvania has one of the nation's lowest rates of state support for public schools. That means local districts make up the difference, which means the poorest districts can least afford to lose state money to a voucher bill.  In the meantime, a few thousand dollars will not get your child into a top private school-- but it will let you buy some nice books for homeschooling.

This bill is also a potential windfall for parochial schools. As we've seen in other voucher states like Indiana and Wisconsin, the vast majority of voucher money ends up in private religious schools, supporting students who were never in public school to begin with.

But hey-- it only applies to schools on the Pennsylvania naughty list, right? Have you seen the Pennsylvania naughty list? It is just under 800 schools long. Take a look. In my county, two school districts are on it, including the district where my wife works. If this bill became law today, tomorrow a whole bunch of money would move from those districts' state support to the local Catholic school, the local private Christian school, and local homeschoolers-- even though not a single student changed enrollment.

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials already has an action alert up, if you want a quick and easy way to send word to Harrisburg. They also note some other features of the bill. For instance, once a child is enrolled, even if the school district of origin improves, or the child moves away entirely, the child keeps the voucher/savings account. And as an extra bonus kick in the teeth, the public school district must provide the student with transportation within  a 10 mile radius.

This bill is bad news, and would have an immediate and damaging effect on school finances across the state. It is an attack on public education. And conservatives really shouldn't be fans, either-- this bill provides zero accountability, and our tax dollars disappear down a black hole where we have no say and no knowledge of how they are spent. A family could decide that it would be educational for Junior to go to Disney World, and your tax dollars would pay for it.

You can check here to see if your senator is on the Senate Education Committee, which will be considering this bill tomorrow. Since the bill is sponsored by committee members, its chances look good and the press will be on for the full senate. The bill's main sponsor is John DiSanto (R), who unseated a Democratic incumbent last fall and who has been announcing his intent to bring vouchers to Pennsylvania.

This is not the first time someone has tried to push a voucher bill, and it won't be the last. But it is time, once again, for defenders of public education to hit the phones. Even if your senator is not among those who will act on the bill tomorrow, chances are good that he'll be looking at it a bit later. Let him know that stripping funds from public schools in order to fund unregulated oversight-free vouchers is not okay.

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.