Friday, September 22, 2017

CRPE: Public Schools Should Assist Their Own Execution

The Center for Reinventing Publiv Education is an advocacy group intent on pushing corporate reformy agenda. They've taken shots at holding schools and teachers acountable, and they've fought for charter schools in their home state of Washington. And like many of these corporately-funded reformily-networked pseudo thinky tanks, they like to publish the occasional "report." Their newest one offers some bold and ballsy solutions to the problems of shrinking public schools.

Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment is a masterpiece of concern-trolling self-serving For The Children with a side-order of PR spin advice for charters. And I have read it so that you don't have to.

Foreword

Robin Lake, the director at CRPE, sets a tone with the very first introductory adverb clause--

When districts go into a major period of “declining enrollment,”

So it's only so-called "declining enrollment," meaning that something else is really going on?

Whatever it is, it's happening to many districts, like Detroit. Lots of folks want to call charter schools a factor in this phenomenon, but Lake is not so sure. So she got together with the Economics Lab at Georgetown and Afton Partners, a DC consulting firm that specializes in school finances, along with some un-named various edu-leaders gathered in Houston.

Lake is not going to make us read the whole thing to get to her point:

The bottom line: public charter schools are not to blame for districts’ financial struggles, but it is in their best interest to be part of a solution moving forward.

That's the pre-concluded conclusion of this paper-- all that's left is the how's and why's. Nothing, Lake says, will change the inevitable marching onslaught of charters, and school districts are just going to have to figure out how to be more nimble and learn how to compete. And CRPE wants to "help lead that work." Because of their deep concern for public education and also, for the children.

Introduction

A quote from an unnamed "District superintendent" says that there are always transition costs and the charter movement "forgot that in the transition from the monopoly district system to individual schools" transition costs would rear their pricey heads. Man-- which district superintendent referred to traditional public schools as a "monopoly district system"? But let's move on.


Declining public school enrollment has led to the "perception" that charter expansion is coming at the cost of public schools, and that perception "even if unfounded" has led to "tensions" between charter and public schools. Yes, and the declining number of hairs on my head has led to the perception that I'm balder than I used to be.

There's a message here for charteristas from CRPE-- you can pooh-pooh these "perceptions," but you just got your ass handed to you over Question 2 in Massachusetts. But CRPE doesn't want readers to think they're simply discussing a tweakage of charter marketing-- the defeats of charter initiatives could hurt the children who are trapped in public schools that "decline in quality." So charters have got to up their PR game. For the children.

Also, the writers are concerned-- really concerned-- that public schools are not holding up well under the pressures created by declining enrollment, because that would be bad For The Children, and so CRPE would like to offer some suggestions, just to help. Because they're so concerned. About the children.

What We Know (And Don't Know) About District Transformation

Lots of districts had declining enrollment before charters showed up. But it sure does look like more recently, charters have certainly contributed to public enrollment decline. In Detroit and DC, public school enrollment dropped. In fact, in DC charter enrollment grew more than public enrollment dropped  over 18 years "implying that a significant minority (11,000) of charter students had come from private schools or outside the district." There are some interesting numbers being thrown around, though I'm kind of wondering if CRPE knows that new students can also be, you know, born.

CRPE notes that public schools are designed to grow rather than shrink, and I'm not sure I believe that, but they do manage to describe, with a handy graphic, a district financial death spiral-- cuts in money leads to cuts in service leads to drops in enrollment leads to cuts in funding etc etc etc.

But CRPE has some thoughts about what public schools need to do to better respond flexibly to the various cuts they suffer from. Let's see what they have in mind to "help" public schools.

Oh, This List Again

Eight items. All familiar.

1) Close schools and make some money selling real estate.

2) Redistricting and tweaking enrollment set ups.

3) End FILO so that you can fire the more expensive senior teachers. In discussing this CRPE barely pretends there are issues of quality here (the old "save our great young teachers and can those washed up burnouts"). No, if you fire old staff, you can keep more warm bodies.

4) Advocate for reform of long-term, fixed-cost obligations. AKA, ask your legislators to get you released from your pension commitments.

5) Ending unsustainable/unfunded salary commitments, such as automatic step-and-lane raises. You can save so much money if you don't have to pay those damn teachers jack. Also, though CRPE doesn't mention this, if public schools weren't paying teachers so much money, charters wouldn't be under pressure to keep their own salary offers competitive.

6) Create a uniform funding system that would blah blah blah "pay charters more" is where I think we're headed here.

7) Commit to long-term decision-making to help manage decline. In other words, you may just think that public schools are sick and need some treatment to get better, but we think it's time to check them into a hospice. Stop trying to save them, and start working on death with dignity.

8) Keep looking for "operational efficiencies, in part by making more costs, such as transportaion and special education, variable." Which I think is business-speak for "find ways to squeeze and screw your suppliers and subcontractors."

Notice that none of these suggestions include mitigating the outside pressures on public schools. For instance "Cap charter growth" or "Fully fund schools" did not make it onto this list.

CRPE notes that the issue can be complex. They even note that the financial crunch is often felt worst by the students who need support most. A one-size-fits-all strategy won't work, but, CRPE, "it is also important to transcend  finger-pointing." No single party is to blame and no parties are blameless. There's trouble created on many sides. On many sides. (And don't forget, charters-- though none of this may be your fault, you've still got to have a plan for managing the optics and politics of it.)

Anyway, here are some specific issues/thoughts/stuff that they came up with in their Houston meeting with all those anonymous folks.

The charter-district dynamic can no longer be thought of as a zero-sum game.

Um, no. That's exactly wrong. Under current charter laws, it is exactly a zero-sum game. Every student who attends a charter is a student who doesn't attend a public school. Every dollar sent to a charter school is a dollar that public schools no longer have. It is the very definition of a zero-sum game.

But the folks at CRPE's meeting were really talking about something else.

Participants agreed that the issue must be framed around creating better opportunities for all students, meeting their widely varying needs and learning styles, regardless of what kind of school they’re in.

In other words, if charters want to handle their PR more effectively, they've got to stop saying out loud, "Those kids still in public school aren't our problem. Screw 'em." Charters must at least pretend to care that all students are "buffered" from the effects of "disruptive change." CRPE doesn't really know what that looks like. But I am going to give them credit for at least talking about how charters affect all students in a community-- not just the ones at the charter.

Districts have a responsibility to act in the best interests of students-- existing and future

This is a cool new spin on For The Children. Basically, we have to cut costs and keep staffing cheap so that we will be viable, and when we have to cut even more, it won't hurt the children.

Note that it does not mean to go lobby hard for legislators to fully fund all schools.

Legacy Costs

More of the same. This may seem kind of hard to read about, but whenever you see "legacy costs" just think "financial promises made in the past that we find it inconvenient to live up to in the present."

The charter sector needs to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to district

Well, that is a challenge, because the public has eyes and ears and, for the most part, brains, and over the past decade or two they've been able to plainly see how charters do, in fact, harm public school districts. Not only that, but charters leave the vast majority of students in those public schools that are being harmed-- and they do so after deciding which students they feel like "saving."

The old answers don't work. "Charters are cooking up awesome game-changing innovations" has turned out to be false. "Just pay attention to the ones we're saving," is less and less effective. And nobody has ever really addressed the biggest charter lie of all, which is the notion that we can run three or six or ten parallel schools for the same money we spent to run one. If you really want to have four different school systems serving the same community, you need to fund four school systems. For some reason, nobody wants to be the one telling taxpayers, "We are going to raise your taxes to pay for schools to duplicate the work of the school's you are already paying for."

CRPE knows this, because one of their pieces of advice is "close school buildings" because operating fewer buildings is cheaper. So what do you suppose it does to overall costs in a community if we close one district school building and open four charter buildings?

Charter schools and districts alone don't own all the problems.

And by "problems," we mean "pensions." And laws about teacher tenure, and how schools are financed. Legislators need to fix some of this. Not, mind you, by using caps to manage charter growth, or by expanding financing to cover several school systems.

First Steps Toward Solutions

So how do we fix all of these things? CRPE has some thoughts.

Districts need to close schools and negotiate contracts that don't spend so much money. The closing school solution seems to run up against the "don't take on long-term debts and costs" solution, as schools frequently manage consolidation of schools by taking on construction projects.

They would like to see more partnership, but their example is "if charters find a way to give cheap retirement plans might encourage public systems to adopt similar systems." So, yeah, charters that want to pay teachers less could, I suppose, try to convince public schools not to outbid them. That's cooperation, sort of.

And there would need to be city-level strategy sessions. Which should be a hoot as long as nobody ever addresses the underlying zero-sum game that is charter vs. public schools. But that's not going to happen, since one proposed solution is that districts "publicly identify" their legacy costs in exchange for a charter funding formula that more closely resembles public per-pupil costs:

For example, charter schools might receive less per-pupil funding under such an agreement but would be able to tell the public, with confidence, that charter and district students received the same classroom funding and that charter schools weren’t contributing to a district’s impending insolvency.

Yeah, that doesn't even make sense. "Getting same classroom funding" doesn't equal "not sucking public school dry." So maybe the suggestion here is that charter's get their funding and public schools admit that they're insolvent because their buildings and pensions and teacher pay are all just way expensive. In other words, charters agree to get paid public tax dollars, and public schools agree to publicly say it's their own damn fault they're having financial problems. Why would public schools want to enter into this deal, exactly? And would the funding formula include all the "philanthropic" contributions to charters?

CRPE also suggests that public schools be given some limited extra funding to be used only as a means of down-sizing. Or if districts can prove they're shrinking as fast as possible, charters would agree to a voluntary growth slow down. Or some other grand bargain that basically involves charters conducting business as usual while public schools agree to work harder at dying, already.

CRPE also has a list of Things To Discuss and Research Further. Gather more data about how much financial vampirage charters are really committing, and how much is just, you know, other reasons for districts to lose money. More data about "fixed costs" and just generally how teachers are draining money by wanting to be paid. Figure out the greatest number of students the charters could handle, because that's the ideal, apparently--  as many students taken out of public school as possible. More power for superintendents. They don't say which power, exactly, but context suggests that old favorite-- hire, fire and set salaries without stupid rules and unions. Learning from other sectors like energy and healthcare, because they're just like schools.

Bottom Line

CRPE is correct in one thing-- we do have to look at how charters affect the whole local educational eco-system. But their belief in the inevitable supremacy of charters gets in the way of a useful conversation.

The report seems to boil down basically to "Charters and public schools should work together to make employment conditions worse for teachers. Also, they should team up to help charters thrive and to help public schools die more efficiently and without making charters look bad. For The Children."

Maybe this is supposed to be an innovative approach to the Socratic method, and public schools are just supposed to take a hemlock bath because it would make life easier for charters. But I don't imagine many takers will line up to take CRPE's offer. Not even for the children.



Thursday, September 21, 2017

Computer Limitations

I had my first encounter with computer programming in a college math class in 1978. Turing machines, if-then switches. Fun times. A year or so later, I took an actual programming course; we wrote programs in BASIC on punch cards. Really fun times.

Software and hardware have changed, but not so some of the most basic lessons I learned at the time, and one of the most important lessons about computers is this.

Computers are stupid.



They are tireless, and they are insanely fast. But they are stupid. And as we contemplate the increasing wave of edtech products that claim to have artificial intelligence baked in (though in virtually all cases what's actually baked in is a complex algorithm), we must remember one simple truth about these stupid, stupid machines.

A computer cannot do anything that a human does not know how to do.

Take for instance the many programs that now claim they can read a student's character and personality by monitoring facial expressions and answering patterns. The first question we have to ask is, are there any human beings who know how to do that?

Is there any person who can look at still pictures or video shots of a single human face and definitively analyze that person's character?

Because if there's no human who can do it, then there's no human who can program a computer to do it because (say it with me) computers are stupid.

There may well be actions that a human could not complete, because it would take a gazillion person-hours to do it, like compute Pi out to a zillion places-- but a human still knows how to do it, and so a human can tell a computer how to do it.

Can a human predict exactly what the stock market will do next? Does a human know how to predict who will win the 2020 Presidential election? Does a human know how to read personality via facial expressions (and remember-- we already debunked phrenology)? Can a human look at ten multiple choice questions and know definitively how well a student understands algebra? Can a human use only sentence length and vocabulary choice to determine whether an essay is any good or not? Does a human know how to look at one test and predict exactly how a specific student will fare on an entirely different test?

The answer to all of these is "no." And that means that a computer program can't do any of these things, either.

When someone presents you with a computer program that allegedly does something magical, the question to ask is, "How can it do that, exactly?" If no human knows the algorithm for achieving that goal, then no computer programmer knows how to tell software to achieve that goal.

Computers are not magical. They're just fast, tireless, persistent, and stupid.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That Teacher Absenteeism Report

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a Washington DC based advocacy group that works the reformy side of the street. They worked hard to sell the Common Core, and they operate charter schools in Ohio while pushing hard to sell pro-charter policy across the country. They are well-connected; I can only assume that there is some federal law that requires all journalists writing a piece about education to get a quote from Fordham head Mike Petrilli.

I've crossed words with Petrilli many times (in fact, he was the first blog subject to clap back at me). He seems smart and sharp, and most reminds me of that kid in class who likes to debate and really doesn't care what side he's on. I think Fordham has some scruples; I don't think they'd try to promote bludgeoning baby seals no matter how much they were paid. They don't come across as idelogues. But at the end of the day, they strike me as a PR/lobbying firm dressed up as a thinky tank and ready to do the job they were hired to do.


All of which is the baggage I carry with me as I read about their newest research-ish hatchet job on public school teachers.

Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools comes with a headline that writes itself (and has been doing so all day)-- public school teachers miss way more school than charter school teachers. Or as Fox News put it in, " Another reason to love charters: Their teachers actually show up for work."

The whole report really boils down to this chart:




State by state, the numbers are clear and appear damning, and Fordham is too slick and smart to hammer the point home, as in moments like this from the intro:

But compared to their counterparts in other industries and other countries, U.S. teachers seem to have poor attendance. On average, they miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave (in addition to the breaks they get for school vacations and national holidays); meanwhile, the average US worker takes about three-and-a-half sick days a year.  

Can a research paper press release be passive-aggressive?

My first response this morning upon seeing this covered in EdWeek was to call it cynical bullshit, and I'll stand by that initial reaction. Not because of the data. It is what it is, with the public school figures drawn from the Office of Civil Rights, which supposedly corrects for things like maternity leave and professional days.

No, I'm going to stick with "cynical bullshit" because what the report, and the pitching of it, lacks is anything that looks like a sincere attempt to figure out what's going on here. Instead, the whole process smacks much more of someone setting out a rack of clubs next to a bunch of baby seals. "We're not saying you have to club the baby seals, but if you're so inclined, there are the seals and here are some clubs. Just sayin'"

So the bullet points from this report are immediately recognizable as ammunition for some old arguments:

* Public school teachers miss more school than charter school teachers.

* Unionized teachers miss more school than noon-unionized teachers.

* Some states sure do give teachers a lot of sick days.

* Schools with a better culture have fewer teacher absences.

And just for some context, donchaknow

* When a teacher misses more than ten days, students in her class test lower

* People in other jobs don't get so many sick days, or summers off, either.

Just sayin'

Look. Facts are facts. And just so you know where I am personally on the whole business of using sick days, I'm the guy who, after almost forty years of teaching, has accumulated enough sick days that I could be sick for two entire years. Not only that, but by the terms of our contract, when I retire, the district will reward me for all those unused sick days with a bonus of $0.00. I don't take sick days unless I absolutely have to, and I'm not a fan of teachers who stay home every time they sniffle.

But this report raises a ton of questions, and it isn't interested in any of them as long as it can point out that those lazy union public school teachers sure take a lot of time off, you know? I'm just sayin'.

Pieces of this are bogus. The old research that finds a correlation between lower test scores and teacher days missed finds just that-- a correlation. Which means that it could be proof that teachers who have low-functioning classes that do poorly on tests are more likely to want a break.

And just in case you wonder whether Fordham is using the data to build a springboard for jumping to conclusions, here's one piece of the executive summary-- emphasis is mine:

Though we cannot prove it, it’s impossible not to sense that the high chronic absenteeism rates for traditional public school teachers are linked to the generous leave policies and myriad job protections that are enshrined in state law and local collective bargaining agreements. Because they can’t easily be fired, district teachers can use all their sick and personal days (and get paid for it) without worrying about what their principal or department head will think.

Yeah, it's actually entirely possible not to sense that if you didn't arrive with a bagful of anti-union, anti-public ed bias. This leads to some "policy-makers should really keep this in mind when negotiating contracts and writing laws" but the real point here is, "Union protection makes teachers cocky and forget their place. Somebody should straighten them out. I'm just sayin'."

And while I find the gap between public and charter teachers interesting, I can think of plenty of variables I'd love to see explored. Age, for instance-- charter teachers are almost always younger, so I'm wondering what the correlation between taking sick days and age might be. And I'm wondering about state to state comparisons-- Arkansas's charter teachers take fewer sick days than their public school teacher counterparts in Arkansas, but more sick days that public school teachers in over half of all other states. What's wrong with Arkansas?  Were cyber-charters factored in? Because how do we measure teacher attendance for those? And while the report acknowledges that crappy working conditions may exacerbate absenteeism, they don't really address the well-known high-pressure 80-hour-week nature of many charters and how that fits in this big picture.

And how do employment patterns factor into this. Is charter absenteeism affected by the number of charter teachers who are regularly invited to be absent forever? And how is it we are avoiding the obvious conclusion here, which is that when you tell people they can't have sick days or they're fired, they tend to take fewer sick days. Perhaps we're avoiding that line of thought because then we'd be talking about the crappy working conditions of charter schools instead of lazy-ass public school teachers.

What about the policy discussions about sick days for teachers-- do communities have a vested interest in saying, "Sick teachers, please stay home and don't infect my kids."

And the other important policy discussion that we never have when discussing how cushy a teaching job is-- why do we think that teachers should have it as badly as others instead of arguing that others should have it as good as teachers? Yes, teachers get 12 days of sick leave on average-- why doesn't everyone else get the same?

Of course, nobody is asking these questions. EdWeek at least got quotes from Lily ("using corrupted assertions to draw misguided conclusions") and Randi ("The reality is that charter schools need better leave policies, not worse ones". But EdWeek also gave a ton oof space to Kate Freakin' Walsh of NCTQ, and while for all I know Walsh is a lovely person who's nice to her mother, NCTQ is the shoddiest generator of headline-ready faux research in the biz; NCTQ's presence in an article is a clear sign that the article is not taking a serious look at the issues. 

Meanwhile, various charter organizations and Fox news are jumping on the headline because lazy-ass union teachers, amiright? We could dig a little deeper, make sure we're really understanding what's really happening, but you know, the clubs are here and the baby seals are here. Just sayin'. I'm not going to defend excessive teacher absence, but if we're going to talk about it, let's really talk about it and not just mine the issue for a handy tool for bashing unionized public school teachers.

Automotive Century

For far too many kids, this year's first ride in the family car looks and feels a lot like last year's first ride, and the year before that, and the generation before that. And the generation before that!

Pretty much what you see on the highway today


The automobile of today has changed very little from the automobile of a century ago. Driver in the front left seat. Passenger to his right. A parallel seat behind them. A steering wheel, always circular. Wheels-- always circular, and always four of them. A roof overhead. Pedal controls located on the floor-- accelerator to the right, brakes to the left.

None of this has changed since a century ago. Whether you were driving the Jeffrey Sedan by Nash, or the Hudson Super Six, or even the good old Ford Model T, you were driving essentially the same design, the same structure that folks drive today.

You might point to a variety of features that have changed, like electric ignition, radios, air conditioning, power steering, inflatable tires, changing body styles and designs, engine efficiency, speed, gas mileage, suspension and complete redesign of the power and drive trains. Piffle, I say. Minor cosmetic differences.

Why four wheels? Why not five? Or eight? And why round-- could we not achieve greater efficiencies with oval tires? Why keep the century-old steering wheel design? Why not a computer screen that displays the road ahead and allows the driver to select a path with a mouse or touchscreen interface? And if we have the screen, why would the driver need to face forward-- why not a inward-facing circle of seats, for better conversation among the passengers?

You may say that the current design is still with us precisely because a century of testing and experience tells us that, for instance, round wheels work best. I say, unleash the power of innovation and we will sweep all of that baloney aside. Did I say oval wheels? What about-- square wheels!!


For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!   - Betsy DeVos


The State of the Core

Maybe you thought we were done talking about Common Core, or maybe you just hoped we were. But here comes Maria Danilova of the Associated Press checking to see how our old buddy is doing (and talking to the Usual Suspects while she does so). But Danilova gives us a pundit's eye view of the Core's current status, and while that has value, the real story of how the Core is doing can only be seen at ground level, where teachers work. You remember teachers. Those education professionals that nobody ever talks to when it's time to write a think piece about what's going on in education.

So let's take a look.



First, it's important to remember what the lofty goals of the Core were. Every state was going to adopt them, and nobody was going to mess with them except-- maybe-- to add no more than 15% to the standards. Every school in the country would be on the same page; a student would be able to move from Iowa to Florida mid-year and never miss a step. Every student in America would take one of two standards-anchored tests, meaning that every student, school, and teacher in the country could be compared directly, thereby identifying all the outposts of genius and pockets of fail, and pieces of genius would be used to fill the gaps in failureland. Within a few years, the entire US education system would be homogenized, standardized, and uplifted.

That was the goal, though Core fans will now pretend they never heard any such thing.

That goal hasn't been achieved, and it's not going to be achieved,

Every assessment of the Core has to include that simple fact-- the Core architects failed to achieve their major goals. Any discussion of the State of the Core is really a discussion of whether or not they won some consolation prizes.

So how is the battered and unloved Core doing these days? Danilova says it's actually alive and kicking, and offers a new entry in the genre of "Quick and Simplified Histories of the Common Core"

Launched in 2010 by a bipartisan group of governors and state education chiefs, Common Core sought to bring scholastic standards to the same high level nationwide. The standards quickly became controversial when the Obama administration offered states federal dollars to nudge them to adopt it. States’ rights activists cried foul, saying the effort undermined local control. Meanwhile, some teachers criticized the standards as confusing and out of synch with students’ needs, while others feared that non-fiction would crowd out the works of Shakespeare.

That's more accurate than some, though it overlooks the Bill Gates bankrolling of the Core and the fact that the standards were written by a handful of education amateurs. I do like "nudge," though, as a replacement for the old "voluntary adoption by states" baloney.

But is the Core alive and kicking? Well......

National Standards

Danilova points out that pretty much everyone who installed the standards still has them. This is true. Many states staged some elaborate theater so that they could lie to their conservative voters about getting rid of the Core, but despite some name changes, what states still have is an edited version of the Common Core standards.

This works because many of the people who complained about the Core had objections not entirely based on reality. In other words, if you were afraid that Common Core was going to turn your child into a lesbian communist vegan, well, look-- that transformation hasn't happened, so they must have gotten rid of Common Core. Hardly anyone else has been fooled.

This raises the important question, "So what?" One of the many unproven foundations of the Core is the idea that state or national standards have any effect on anything.

Effects

Danilova uses the understatement "Measuring the direct impact of Common Core is difficult." One might even say, impossible. She cites the Brookings study that suggested an initial burst of educational achievement which then tapered off, but there's a problem with virtually all studies of CCSS impact-- they depend on results of the Big Standardized Common Core Tests. That means all you're ever really proving is "We adopted a set of standards designed to teach to this test, and once we started teaching to that test, students got better results on that test."

This is the testing worm Ouroborus eating its own tail. Do better test results prove anything at all, other than the test prep is working? Does the test prep improve anything other than preparation for the test? There are still no serious answers to either of those questions, which leads me to believe that the answer to both is "No" or even "Hell, no."

Half-Baked

Mike Petrilli, who by law must be quoted in every article about education policy, says that the core  is "a much better recipe for student achievement, but the cake is still being baked, so we don’t yet know if it’s going to taste as good as we hope." While I appreciate the opportunity to call the Common Core "half-baked," in fact, the Core is fully baked, crisped, put a fork in it, it's done.

But Danilova says the Core is used widely. This is right-but-not-right. Here's why the Core is already in its mature form, and that form is a sort of shambling zombie.

Start by gutting half

The very first thing that happened to the Common Core was the Common Core tests. The standards said, "Here are all the things that matter." The tests said, "Half of those things don't matter. Just toss them out."

Schools, teachers and students were not to be judged by how well they followed the standards, but by how well they do on the BS Tests, and the BS Tests do not even pretend to assess things like cooperation, speaking and listening. The BS Tests do pretend to assess things like writing, research and critical thinking, but the pretense is transparent and obvious and nobody can seriously believe that the test assesses these things. So we're left prepping students to answer multiple choice questions on the "anchors" aka "the only standards that actually count."

Alignment is paperwork

School districts have gone through the exercise of aligning their curriculum to the standards, and what that means is completing a bunch of paperwork. You take your scope and sequence for the things you were going to teach anyway, and you search through the list of standards to find the ones that you can pin to your pre-existing plans. Voila! Alignment!!

Alignment is creative

Here's the thing about the standards-- nobody is minding the store. As soon as they finished writing the standards up, David Coleman, Jason Zimba and the rest were out the door, off to lucrative consulting gigs and running ed-flavored corporations. Incidentally, this is, for me, one of the major indictments of the Core-- the guys who wrote it weren't even interested in sticking around to make sure it was carried through properly.

So now, anybody can call anything Common Core. Book publishers slap "Common Core" on any old text. Any classroom teacher can say, "Yes, this unit is totally Common Core aligned," and there's nobody in a position of authority to say, "Hey, wait a minute." I've lost track of the number of Core cheerleaders who have declared that the Core is awesome because now they can do a unit about singing waffles on Mars and their singing waffle unit doesn't have a damn thing to do with the Core. Core apologists routinely praise the Core for elements it does not possess, sometimes because they are just deluded and sometimes because they have correctly reasoned that if the Core doesn't imply/require X, then the Core is stupid. And yet, dig through the Core, and X rarely marks any spot on the list of standards.

That includes "rigor," an ill-defined term that is not a feature of the Common Core State [sic] Standards. In fact, the best way to prepare my students for the reading test is not rigorous at all, but to simply practice reading random short excerpts of various readings followed by some BS Test style bubble test questions. No deep, critical or creative thinking needed. No tie for reflection or development of more complex ideas allowed. The Core's rigor is a mirage, and artifact of wishful thinking and pixie dust. We could ramp up "rigor" in schools more easily if the amateur-hour standards and the narrow bubble tests were not in our way.

I have asked all along for any Core-loving teacher to tell me about one unit, one teaching idea, that they couldn't do before the Core, or that they would have to stop doing if the Core were outlawed. Nobody has ever had an answer for that. The Core can be anything you want it to be, as long as you don't pay too much attention to what it actually says. The article itself presents a prime example, as a teacher argues that reading more non-fiction instead of fairy tales is better because it's more real. That is both A) baloney and B) not supported by the standards.

The Core had been assimilated

The basic proposition that the Core offered to every classroom teacher was this-- substitute these standards for your own professional judgment. That's why the Core had to be pushed out with the Big Lie that they had come from education professionals (even as Coleman was bragging that they were the result of amateurs and that's why they were awesome).

And teachers are good soldiers. So when our bosses said "Do this," we said, "Okay, we'll give it a shot." We like to do what we're Supposed To, and we generally trust that these things come down from people who at least sort of know what they're doing.

But teachers also work in our own little research lab. We try out an approach, regardless of the source, and we get immediate feedback. So when elementary teachers got new Common Core textbooks that said, "Don't teach math facts (e.g. times table)." Teachers scratched their heads, tried it, determined it didn't work, and started doing what good teachers always do-- adapting materials to fit the situation in the classroom. Those instructional shifts we were all going to be doing? Not so much.

Zombies can bite

Comon Core is an undead zombie at this point, but like a zombie, it can do real damage.  Common Core fans with other pushers of test-centered schooling can take the blame for the destruction of Kindergarten and the unjustifiable insistence on making five year olds sit at a desk for long periods of time to learn academic subjects. This damage to the littles is one of the lasting effects of the Core movement, and every person who helped push for it should be ashamed.

It is that test-centered schooling that is the most egregious, unsupportable, destructive legacy of Common Core. There is no rigor and no standards-- just desperate attempts to game the numbers.

In schools where administrators don't have the guts to value actual education over the pursuit of test scores, the poison has spread wide. Test-centered schooling doesn't just narrow the education being delivered (If it's not on the test, just give it a rest) but has also narrowed the actual delivery of education. Across the country, school administrators are using "diagnostic tests" to target students who are close enough to the line to be dragged over it. Top kids can be left alone. Bottom kids can be abandoned. Close-to-the-line kids get an extra battery of test prep in hopes that the school's numbers can be improved-- and they give up other parts of their education to make room.

Core advocates will argue that this is a problem with the test, but saying you want the Common Core standards without the Common Core testing is like asking to have the front end of the puppy but not the end that poops.The Core and the BS Tests were always welded together, and it's really not a surprise-- without an "accountability" element, the architects of this mess would have had to trust schools to actually implement the standards, and the whole point of the standards was that they didn't trust us in the first place. Put another way, without the linked testing (and related penalties), the Common Core would have had to sink or swim on its own merits which would have been much like trying to help a tyrannosaurus swim the Pacific Ocean by taping a tired pool noodle to its toe. Mind you, the linked testing isn't very well linked or very good testing, but here we are.

Winners?

In the end, almost nobody is winning. The folks who dreamed of an entire nation united in a single school district-- they didn't win. The schools and teachers who dreamed of retaining their autonomy and the freedom to exercise their professional judgment-- they didn't win. The technocrats who hoped for neatly organized stacks on stacks on stacks of data-- they didn't win. The winners would be all the people who hoped to profit from the shift, the folks who wanted test-centered schooling to make charters and vouchers look more appealing, and the folks who wanted to de-professionalize teaching so that anybody with a pulse could be handed a program and a classroom. Those folks are winning.

So, yes, Common Core is still shambling about, not alive enough to accomplish its original goals, but not dead enough to keep from doing damage wherever its broken legs carry it. It's a bad walking rorschach test that can be read as anything you like, just before it bites your face. Is "Common Core used widely"? I guess that depends on what you mean by "Common Core" or "used." Is there still continuing debate? Sure. The noise had better keep going on. The standards are dangerous bunk, and you know what happens to the person in a zombie movie who says, "I guess the coast is clear now. Let's go out."



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

AZ: Leading in Charter Profiteering

Arizona may be associated with dry desert, but it is a lush, fertile playground for reformster baloney and charter profiteeringg.

Arizona has been at this for a while. Bill McCallum, co-author of the Common Core math standards, was a professor at the University of Arizona. When the Core turned out to be conservative kryptonite, Diane Douglass ran as a Core destroyer and then, once she won, promptly slapped a thin layer of lipstick on that pig.

Meanwhile, Arizona has wrestled with a teacher shortage, but not to the point of, say, fixing their basement level pay. Wrestling has been more about things like recruiting teachers from the Philipines. Oh, and Arizona also sits at the back of the pack for per-pupil spending. Meanwhile, Arizona is the home of the legislator who said that teachers are probably working two jobs because they want a fancy boat.  And that's before we get to such atmosphere boosters like considering a teacher gag law and a ban on Mexican-American studies in school.

Open a charter; make a stack of money this tall.

But while Arizona has been doing its best to stomp public schools into the dirt, they really love them some charter schools.

Actually, those two things are closely related. Arizona has been nurturing charters for over twenty years, but Arizona is an open-enrollment state, so no child is "trapped" in a failing school just because of their zip code. So to create market pressure for their extensive choice system, Arizona's leaders set fire to public education and let it burn; parents will feel they have no choice.. It's no wonder that the Network for Public Education gave the state an F.

Why throw so much effort behind the charter industry? Certainly some of the push could be ideological, but Arizona is also the state where the dreams of cracking open the education funding egg and feasting has come true. It turns out that people are using school choice to hoover up giant chunks of public tax money.

The Grand Canyon Institute ("Arizona's Centrist Think Tank") has just released a meta-study of twenty years of Arizona charters. "Following the Money" comes to some fairly appalling conclusions that suggest that Arizona is one of America's pre-eminent charter scam factories and that taxpayers are getting hosed. Here are some of the conclusions reached by this forensic analysis.

Self-Dealing

Roughly 77% of all Arizona charter schools engage in some sort of self-dealing that steers tax dollars into the pockets of charter owners, their families, or board members. Non-competitive related-party transactions are a common vehicle for this, particularly when it comes to handling real estate and other assets. The report talks about one example (American Leadership Academy) that appears to be simply a subsidiary of a real estate development company in Utah. Primavera Technical Learning Center paid $12.2 million for software it purchased from a company owned by the school's charter holder. The report points out (just in case a reader is too ethically impaired to get it) that if a superintendent of a public school awarded a no-bid multi-million-dollar contract to a for-profit company that he owned himself, that would be all kinds of wrong and a violation of various laws. However, in Arizona, it's completely legal for a charter operator to self-deal in this manner.

Ignore the ethical shadiness for a moment-- how can that possibly end up with taxpayers getting the most bang for their buck?

High Executive Salaries

Public school superintendents in Arizona make around $130/pupil as a salary. Charters were reluctant to share salary figures for the report, but of those for whom the report had numbers, a handful paid its top person a comparable salary. $200, $300, $600 per pupil payment for administrators in some charters. And on top of that, some charters had more administrators than the public system. If you take the full administrative team and lump it together, Benchmark School Inc pays administrators $952 per pupil. Crown Charter School, Inc, pays $1,885 per pupil in administrative costs. George Gervin Prep Academy pays its top two administrators $3,312 per pupil.

Questionable Profit Distribution

The for-profit charters in Arizona apparently engage in some hinky handling of their profits. 

Reduced Classroom Spending

Well, yes. Those executive salaries and dividends have to take money from somewhere. The study found that where public schools spent about 52% of expenditures on classroom instruction, for charters it was more like 45%.

Academic Underperformance

What do taxpayers get for all their money? Not outstanding school performance. But then, the law doesn't really require them to do well. The report somewhat incredulously quotes one part of the law:

A sponsor, including members, officers and employees of the sponsor, are immune from personal liability for all acts done and actions taken in good faith within the scope of its authority.

In other words, charter operators exist in the Land of Do As You Please as long  they claim they meant well. As the report puts it in one sub-heading, "Delivery or what?" The theory of Arizona's law is that the charter operators will be checked by their sense of responsibility to provide a good education. Really. The report also wryly notes that since parents actually choose charters for many reasons, there was no sudden outflow in 2013 when many charters switched to Alternative School status reporting, a means by which charters could lower their standards and get a better grade.

The report looks hard at charter performance and finds it wanting. It also looks at the theory that the free market competition would drive schools to become more excellent-- well, that's wanting, too. Or maybe just laughable. Bottom line: doing a lousy job of educating students will not hurt your profitability in the AZ charter market.

Reconciling Inconsistent Financials

Lots of charters use creative bookkeeping. In fact, as the re[port looks at some bad examples, some charters just lie.

Arizona's charter sector has consumed a billion taxpayer dollars and in return, it has mostly just provided wealth for people who know how to work the system. And those people don't have to be very clever because the system in Arizona includes few checks or oversight; the only reason we can't say the Arizona system is full of illegal scams is that very few things are against the law. I invite you to peruse all 90 depressing pages of the report. This is what the theft of taxpayer dollars in the name of school choice looks like.












Monday, September 18, 2017

Teachers and Fame

Name ten famous teachers. No? Okay, name five. Yeah, me neither.

Jose Luis Vilson just asked the question-- what does fame mean for education? It's one of the continuing ripples spreading out from the NYT piece about the sponsored, branded teacher. 

I think we'd have to agree that teaching is generally not the pathway to fame and fortune. I mean, there are small fames of a sort. I mean, there's Nicholas Ferroni, named America's Sexiest Teacher by People magazine, which may seem like a frivolous sort of fame, but an awful lot of fame is frivolous and based on no real accomplishment of note.

So that may be one problem with education and fame-- not very many people get famous for doing the kind of work that, in the words of Mike Rowe, makes civilized life possible for the rest of us. Nurses, welders, waitpersons, pilots-- the world is filled with people who keep things moving in powerful ways that go unrecognized because of the dailiness of it.

Educational fame faces an obstacle of scale. You get to be a famous singer by singing (directly and through recordings) for millions of people. You get to be a famous you-tuber by getting millions of hits. No teacher in the course of her career is going to teach millions of students.

I have taught in the same small town for over thirty-five years (at the same high school I graduated from), so I'm known. Any time I walk into a restaurant or grocery store or church or just walk down the street, I will run into people who know me. But we're still talking hundreds of people, and just a localized sort of well-knownness. If this is fame, half the people in my town are famous.

Nor do people in general pay that much attention to the field. When you get to a bookstore, look for the "education" section. Test prep books, make your kid smart books, and maybe two or three shelves of books about the actual work, always including books by people who have no business talking about the field.

Since no teacher is going to achieve fame-scale work in the classroom, and since the students in your actual classroom need every piece of heart and soul you can pour out, being famous would have to be a second job. Most of us don't have time to be famous. To step up onto any sort of national platform, a teacher almost has to take at least one foot out of the classroom. It would be hard, I imagine, to do the job of faming while maintaining your professional balance-- I think some really gifted individuals could do it, but it would take mindful concentration. Many famous-ish teachers are too busy building their brand by making a proprietary package out of what thousands of teachers already know, and their students are just props and lab rats.

Beyond the challenge of achieving fame, for teachers there is always the challenge of accepting recognition. As a profession, we tend to be self-effacing, disinclined to stand in the spotlight. If you have a huge ego, teaching probably didn't call out to you as a way to get that ego fed. And there's a "why me" factor as well-- I consider myself a pretty decent teacher, but there isn't a thing I could be recognized for that thousands of other teachers aren't also doing in their classrooms, and some are doing it far better than I am. I've been recognized for my work once or twice, and everything I have to say on those occasions starts with this-- "There isn't a thing you can say about me that couldn't also be said about uncounted other teachers." Which is why I accept recognition when it comes my way-- because I can point out that the community of teachers, the great collection of those of us who work in a classroom-- we all deserve the recognition.

Fame requires some ego, some self-promotion. Almost nobody becomes famous because they just sat quietly doing their thing and the great fame machine just descended upon them. I know the teacher-bloggers who put each post on super-blast, pushing it out every way they know how. It's something I have a hard time doing; it makes me uncomfortable to self-promote. But on this, they are right and I'm wrong. Certainly the rich amateurs who afflict our profession, the policy wonks and thinky tank wise men-- they're all perfectly comfortable saying, "World, I have Important Things to say, and you should listen to me." We should all be doing that, and when we can't do it for ourselves, we should be amplifying our fellow teachers. It's good for all of us-- when I pick up a teacher-written book, or see that an actual honest-to-God teacher is going to be featured at a conference about education, I feel good about that.

Fame for educators has some pitfalls. Like the brand-minded teacher in the NYT article (who teaches a grand total of ten kids), it can be easy to make a bad trade-- give me recognition and a platform and I'll use it to promote not our work, but your business. If you get a platform, make sure you know what you're using it for.

The worst danger of teacher fame is the teacher fame that comes at the expense of students.

Think about it. Every Hero Teacher movie starts from the same place-- look at these horrible creatures in this classroom. Every tale of teacher awesomeness is marked not by the qualities of the teacher, but by the deficits of the students. The message is not that it takes a special, capable, devoted, excellent person to teach, but that it takes a special, capable, devoted, excellent person to teach those God-awful kids. Don't ever step up to your platform by standing on the necks of students.

Well, this turned out to be rambly. Let me try to circle back around--

Can teachers find fame? Man, I wish they could. There are teachers I know who deserve to be widely known, and who would use their platform for good and to elevate the work and the profession. It seems about as likely as a world-famous jazz tuba player. But I have one last thought--

People within a field don't often become famous at first by being elevated by people outside that field, because those people don't know what a good job looks like. Jazz cats are the first to know a good jazz tuba player when they hear one. Classroom teachers know a good classroom teacher when they encounter one. If you wait for someone from outside to elevate those people, they'll probably elevate the wrong one.

What I'm saying is if we want to see more famous teachers, we should make more people within the profession famous. We should hold each other up for accolades (and I mean, rally-- why are teachers of the year NOT selected by teachers) and attention. We should amplify names and buy the books and pass on the blog links and make the fuss. If we were a little more actively involved with the engines of fame, perhaps we could feel a little better about where they drive folks.