Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Stap Asking Kids "What Do You Want for Christmas"

My daughter is a pretty terrific green mom blogger, but one of her recent pieces has, I think, a lot to say to those of us who spend a lot of our time with other peoples' children. I'm going to start the piece here, and encourage you to follow the link over to her blog for the rest:

My grandsons in a quieter moment

This week at the store, the person checking us out asked my son what he wanted for Christmas. I think that he said something about Santa coming.  It bugged me, but I couldn't figure out why.

The most annoying part of this question is how often we hear it. It comes up all the time, from family, from neighbors, and even from people we don't know. Santa is a scapegoat, but people cannot stop asking.

 It is used as an ice breaker with little kids all the time, even if they don't have much answer to the question (he just told everyone at checkout about lightning mcqueen wrapping paper).

Honestly, it's a terrible question. 

Why do people think this is an interesting thing to ask?

I don't want my kids to build a deep mental link between celebrating and getting stuff. I don't think getting things or having things is an accomplishment. In fact, I think our society of debt is based on this pressure to look like we have things, because that is what success means. I don't think these are useful values for my kids. My goal as a parent is that they have less and do more.

Even if you aren't out to live a more minimalist lifestyle, you still have to see there is something screwed up by constantly asking kids what they want to receive. As if they are passive vessels to pour toys into instead of interesting people who are already doing activities, thinking about the world (not just the toys in it), and planning adventures. They have more interesting things to tell you, and the constant question just minimizes them.

So just stop. Please stop. Stop. Seriously, it's so easy. Just stop.

Click here to continue reading...

DC: Should Charters Be Paid More?

Spoiler alert:

When Monday comes, however, the city stops treating its children — and the public schools they attend — equally. 

Sigh. That is, I'm sure, the view of some DC public parks. But let's consider what we would see if we went to a DC charter park. The charter park would be surrounded by a fence, and only some children would be allowed in through the gate. Mind you, it wouldn't always be explicit. It might turn out, for instance, that the gate is narrow and you can't fit a wheelchair through it. Or the playground monitors might keep yelling at certain children every two minutes until those children gave up and left. And of course every child would have to go through an application process first.

That's what happens to the children of DC on Monday morning-- the charter and choice schools of DC stop treating the children of DC equally.

The complaint from charters is predictable. Once upon a time part of the charter brag was that they could accomplish more with less. Inevitably, they decided that "less" wasn't enough. You might blame that on greed, but I'm more inclined to believe that they learned that their claim about being able to do more with less was.... excessively hopeful? Aspirational? Flat out wrong? Take your pick.

So now they find themselves up against one of the basic lies of charter and voucher systems, the lie that we can fund multiple school systems for the same money we spent to fund (or in DC[s case, underfund) a single system.

Until that lie is addressed by legislators, the problem will remain-- tax dollars may leave public schools, but many costs stay behind. It's a zero sum game and somebody will have to lose.

Charters don't want to lose, and that's understandable. But the plea here is that the multiple systems all have equal standing, so they should get equal funding.

That's incorrect, and to see why, I refer you back to the opening of this piece. Charters and voucher schools do not do equal work, and do not make an equal commitment to educate any and all students. Charter and voucher schools do not make an equal commitment to stay open and operating even if "business reasons" argue otherwise. Charters in fact enjoy one tool that public schools do not have-- charters can control their expenses by controlling their staffing (just keep churning cheap entry level teachers) and by controlling their student body (keep those high-cost students with special needs out of here).

In short, charter schools are not public schools (and the voucher schools of DC are certainly not public schools). The field is not level, the playground is not open to everyone, and not everyone has made a commitment to keep the playground open and operating for all students, no matter what. When charters decide they want to behave like real public schools, then and only then will they have earned the same funding that public schools receive from taxpayers.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

AltSchool -- Just Another Business

For several years, we've been following the fortunes of the Silicon Valley Wunderskool, AltSchool, created by a Google whiz master and funded by Zuckerberg and all the other tech whiz masters, this was supposed to be the Next Great Big Thing-- Personalized Learning Done Right. 

Alas, it is looking as if AltSchool is about to follow Rocketship Academies and Summit School-in-a-Box into the land of Snake Oil Education. Skoolmeister Max Ventilla has announced that he's shuttering several of the school sites and focusing on the market end of the biz, with AltSchool to be reduced to a brand name for one more school-in-software biz. This is perhaps not as sudden a decision as it might seem; in a BBC interview, Ventllla was already referring his schools as "lab schools."

One reporter I spoke to said that parents are upset at being left in the lurch. And Melia Robinson at Business Insider has found a few other parents who are not exactly beamful of high tech testimonials for the school.

Before we take a closer look into the Department of Toldyaso, the final quote from Robinson's article needs to be plastered in 100 point font across every article touting charter schools--

"We're not the constituency of the school," a parent of a former AltSchool student told Business Insider. "We were not the ones [Ventilla] had to be accountable to." 

Exactly. AltSchool, for all its benevolent trappings, is a business. And businesses make decisions for business reasons. This (as I often say) does not make them evil, but it does make them uniquely unsuited to run public education. Businesses are accountable to investors first. Not students. Not families. Investors. Every parent who enrolls their child in a charter school needs to understand that the school will only exist as long as it makes business sense to do so, will only educate their child as long as it makes business sense to do so, will only provide their child with a full range of educational services as long as it makes business sense to do so.

And parents have apparently been learning that at AltSchool for a while.

Personalized learning?

Parents told Business Insider they expected their children to be engaged in activities handpicked for them but that assignments were more or less the same for the class.

Learning with a human touch assisted by technology?

A parent told Business Insider that she figured the startup — which has poached talent from Google, Uber, Airbnb, and Zynga — would provide "cutting-edge" technology as a supplement to human instruction. Instead, she and others said, technology replaced it at the cost of learning. 

 Flexibility to meet all student needs, no matter how challenging?

A different mother, whose children no longer attend AltSchool, told Business Insider that her second-grader listened to audio books on a tablet in class, instead of being taught to read. The parent said she had taken her concerns to AltSchool several times and was repeatedly told to be patient as her daughter fell behind in reading. She was later diagnosed with a learning disability. 

Though it turns out that parents can pay extra for extra instructional help if their child needs it.

Some parents are upset that their children were used as guinea pigs or beta testers, but if they had been paying attention at all they had to know that's what they were signing up for-- a school-sized tech-based experiment performed by educational amateurs. These parents can be excused for discovering that Ventilla decided to ditch the money-losing school for the "far more profitable" software biz, but still-- it's a business making business decisions, not a school making educational decisions, and that's what you get with a charter school-- particularly one with investors. Savvy parents will have to learn to ask exactly what business their child's prospective charter operator is in.

There is one other issue that parents need to start paying attention to. In that same BBC interview from last summer, Judah asks one of the teachers about the great amount of data collected and stored by the school. Is she concerned about what might be done with that data, where it's stored, for how long? "I don't know," she says. "I just have trust." The AltSchool story, as it spins on to its business flavored next chapter, is a reminder that maybe a little less trust is called for. What will become of all the student data that AltSchool has already collected and stored, and just how much data mining will the new branded software be doing? Parents had better ask-- and remember that decisions will be made on business terms.

Schools Should Belong To Corporations

Corey DeAngelis is a scholar (I know because he says so) who has had a busy couple of years suckling off various Libertarian teats. He's a Fellow for the Cato Institute, policy adviser for the Heartland Institute, and a Distinguished Working-on-his-PhD Fellow at the University of Arkansas, all of this built on a foundation of a BBA (2012) and MA (2015) in economics from the University of Texas in San Antonio (because nobody understands education like economists). And while plugging away on that Masters, he worked first as the Risk Management Operations Coordinator and then the Fraud Coordinator for Kohl's. So yet another education experts with no education background.

He also hangs out with the fine folks at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE, not to be confused with the Jeb Bush FEE), where he writes pieces with catchy titles like "Legalizing Discrimination Would Improve the Education System" and "Governments Shouldn't Even Certify Schools, Much Less Run Them." So we should not be surprised to find his name attached to an article arguing that schools should belong to businesses.

"Government Is Not The Solution to Educational Inequality"  shows off DeAngelis's ability for gross overstatement (it's like he thinks he's a blogger or something) with statements like "it is almost impossible for one to imagine an aspect of society with greater inequities than those existing in the U.S. education system." He might want to look at justice or housing or economics. But no-- DeAngelis has a particular destination in mind, and he will not be distracted on the journey.

He's going to lead with the idea that schools, linked to zip codes, are racially and socioeconomically segregated. A useful question to consider here might be to ask how those zip codes end up segregated in the first place-- after all, if we made them that way, maybe we could unsegregate them. But that's not where we're going. But we're not taking that exit from this highway. Instead, he wants to forge straight ahead to peer effects-- in other words, poor minority kids do poorly because they have to go to school with a bunch of poor minority kids. 

Linking funding to real estate means that schools in poor areas are poorly funded. Is DeAngelis going to talk about how to change funding in order to solve that problem? No, he's not going there, either. 

Teachers? Well...

Teacher quality varies from one individual to the next. And teachers are paid based on years of experience rather than actual levels of quality. The result? Since the best teachers are not rewarded with pay, they are rewarded with an easier job. The highest quality teachers move to the schools with advantaged students that are relatively easy to educate. 

That's a bit of a mischaracterization. However, even if we accept it, a solution immediately presents itself-- make the jobs at the high needs schools more appealing or "easier." (And really, that word selection is a cheap shot, as if teachers are motivated by laziness rather than a desire to work in an environment in which they can better achieve the goals they set for themselves as professionals). But that's not on this journey. 

Instead, DeAngelis sets up a pair of straw men-- pay high-quality teachers more to move to high needs schools, or give teachers bonuses for raising test scores. Neither solution is the same as making the job at a high needs school more appealing, and as DeAngelis already knows, neither solution is actually a solution. As he correctly notes, we don't have a reliable measure of teacher quality (as he does not note, it would be impossible to divorce such a measure from the context in which the teacher teaches, which creates problems for a move-teachers-around plan). And tests are not strong predictors of future success, anyway. 

Part of what DeAngelis says as we breeze past these exits is kind of astonishing:

Rewarding teachers based on test scores could actually harm students that need character development. Disadvantaged children coming from single-parent families, or households that do not have the time to focus on behavioral development, would be harmed the most by such policies. 

In other words, those poor minority kids need help with the character deficiencies they have on account of their terrible poor minority background. Those Peoples' Children need a special kind of education over and above what wealthy white kids need, because rich white kids never suffer from character deficiencies because of a lousy family life. 

But DeAnglis has only begin the revolution, because we have been sailing down this highway to Oligarchy Town.

The best way to solve the educational inequality issue is to remove pieces of the education system from the democratic process. Over and over again, democracy has proven to work wonders for politically powerful groups, but not for minorities with less social capital.

Yes, once again, a reformster has decided that democracy is a bug, not a feature, and that we'd be better off without the damn thing.  Because nothing builds social capital like having no formal voice in the process? It's true that US democracy has often worked out poorly for minority voices-- but on what basis would DeAngelis like to argue that oligarchy would be better, that businesses have been, or would be, huge protectors of minority rights? But DeAngelis wants you to know he's in good company here:

As Milton Friedman and other education scholars – including myself – have pointed out, while governments may have an incentive to fund schools, it does not necessarily follow that governments should operate them.

Yes, this scholar imagines  a world of universal private school choice, and claims that it "would benefit the last advantaged children more than anyone," which is our sign that we have actually driven all the way down the highway to Baloneyville. You already know the full drill of his claims-- driven by unleashed demand, entrepreneurs would open up super-duper schools, and competitive pressures would drive down costs and drive up quality, and also erase the black-white achievement gap.

I have one question. Well, I have lots of questions, but I'll only ask one.

In what economic sector has this ever worked?

Did the economic pressures of serving many poor folks (including those who depend upon the government vouchers we call welfare) lead to an explosion of unparalleled quality in retailers like Wal-Mart? Or Kohls? What economic sector has been driven to provide top quality products for every single person in the country? What business has ever put meeting the needs of every single potential customer ahead of their own financial interests?

For businesses to own and operate schools while those schools are funded by the government-- that provides an obvious advantage to the businesses. But businesses are not philanthropies, and they serve their own interests-- not the interests of every single family in their community. This does not make them evil, but it makes them poor candidates for operating the public school system. Businesses sort-- it's fundamental to their nature. They sort human beings into "customers who are worth the business's time" and "customers who aren't." They deliver not what customers deserve, but what customers can afford (in fact,business folks have a hard time distinguishing between the two). To suggest that a business will say, "Well, helping these particular students get up from behind will be costly and challenging and probably lose us money, but we'll do it because we're just that committed to closing the achievement gap" is just-- well, come on. Even a fresh-faced twenty-something scholar with a couple of business degrees knows better than that. 

DeAngelis has sailed past all the better solutions-- invest in schools, invest in faculty, improve conditions, embrace democracy-- to somehow arrive at the conclusion that we should erase democracy, privatize public schools, and change the fundamental mission of public education in this country.He's going to have to propose a better vehicle for his journey than the one he offered here.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Singular Objectives

In the classroom, objectives are important. I remember my own painful experience as a student teacher (replicated by several of my own student teachers), imagining that we would simply read a book and the magical educationny things would just sort of happen, somehow. I had to learn to answer the question "Why are we studying thing?" I had to know what I wanted students to get out of the unit, and once I understood that, then teaching and instructional strategies and assessments all just kind of fell into place.

So do not imagine for a moment that I don't see the value of objectives. No teacher can function well in a classroom if she can't answer the question, "What is the point of any of this?"

But the modern reform era has given us objectives that hamper teaching rather than enhance it.

The standards movement has given us objectives that are strikingly narrow and literal, as well as completely blind to the content of the material that we teach.

ELA objectives (standards) are strictly skills based, so we approach a work like Hamlet focused strictly on items like this:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

Nowhere in the standards will you find any reference to grappling with the major topics and themes of Hamlet, like mortality and coming to grips with death and the search for meaning in existence. Nope. Find some words and figure out what they mean.

And the Big Standardized Tests double down on this objective myopia. There will be no questions about the content of Hamlet-- not even simple recall of plot and character, let alone the kind of deeply considered ideas that could only be examined in lengthy writing produced over a thoughtful period of time. No, the BST will say, "Remember how you figured out what some strange words meant in that one thing you read? Here are some strange words-- do that figure-them-out trick again."

In fact, many of us have been ordered to put up posters in our room reminding our students about their singular objectives. And many of us are now required to do the same with each and every lesson-- to focus our students on the one-and-only objective of the day's teaching. "This is our goal, our only goal, and our all-consuming goal."

This is education as a ride on a train, with only one destination, one purpose, one target. This is standardization at its very worst. This is a prospector who sets up his equipment to drill for oil on his property and declares himself a failure because all he found was silver, gold, and diamonds.

This is bad teaching. This is the kindergarten teacher who flunks Pat for coloring outside the lines. This is the English teacher who teaches that there is one-- and only one-- correct interpretation for every work of literature. In fact, this is not just bad teaching, but bad living-- the people who think there is only one correct way to be in the world, only one True system of belief, only one correct way to react to a given situation. This is rigid fundamentalism at its worst.

Should we have objectives? Absolutely. Should we be open to the possibilities of many objectives? Should we be open to the possibility of opportunities arising in the classroom? Also absolutely. We certainly shouldn't suggest to our students that there is only one goal and then tell them what it is in such a way as to suggest that all other possible discoveries should be ignored. We should never throw away diamonds because we were searching only for oil.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

NPE: Charter Effects Are Alarming

We can talk all day about the intentions of charter operators, about the possible ramifications of various charter policy decisions. Heck, on occasion I can talk about the conditions under which I would welcome charter schools (because I don't automatically default to the position that they're a Bad Thing).

There is a pattern in the ed reform movement. Reformsters hold up a bright shiny polished reform idea, people hop up to say, "Wow, that looks great! Let's have some of that!" And then something else entirely is delivered. So when we talk about any reform policy, we need to talk about what is actually happening on the ground. And what is happening on the ground is fairly alarming.

The Network for Public Education has now done that for charter schools. Full disclosures-- first, I'm a member of NPE and second, NPE is not predisposed to be kind to charter schools. Nevertheless, I recommend you read their new report Charters and Consequences and judge for yourself. NPE has taken a look at what is actually happening in the charter world, and it's not good.

The report is a collection of eleven separate pieces of investigation, created over the span of a year.  These are not policy arguments or debates about how public ed should be handled. These are heavily researched, fully sourced accounts of what is actually happening in America. You may disagree with NPE's position, but this is not a position paper. It's a fact-based picture of what is actually going on.

The first four pieces  deal with California, where there are more charter schools and charter school students than in any other state. The very first piece sets the stage for California charter shenanigans:

You can find a charter in a mall, near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their “teacher on demand.” Or, you can make a cyber visit to the “blended learning” Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic—students receive $1500 for a personal “learning fund,” along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site even advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain. 

A superintendent can expand his tiny rural district of 300 students to 4000 by running "independent study" charters in storefronts in cities miles away, netting millions in revenue for his district, while draining the sometimes unsuspecting host district of students and funds. If he is clever, he might arrange a “bounty” for each one opened, while having a side business selling services to the charters. Charters can even provide lucrative investment opportunities for tennis stars and their friends. And then there is the opportunity "to cash in" on international students at a jaw dropping $31,300 per student.

The report is thick with such details. And why is California such a charter playground? Because there is plenty of big money that has come there to play, with the California Charter School Association pouring $2.3 million into just one school board election. Those pockets are deep.

The report also looks at independent learning centers, the kind of storefront charters that operate independent of any specific classroom setting. many of these turn out to be linked pieces of a chain of resource centers, and their track record is abysmal, with far fewer than half the students actually graduating.

The report threads its way through an example of how for-profits can hide behind a web of non-profits, essentially laundering money before turning it into a nice pile of cash to benefit owners of the operation.

And the report talks to some of the folks in California who have tried to fight back against charter fraud and abuse, from whole school boards to individuals like Mike Matsuda. None of them are arguing to eliminate charters entirely, but all would like to see charters operate fairly and within the rules. And that concludes the four-part trip through California.

In, "Charter High Schools and the Best of High Schools List," NPE looks at some of the high-ranking charters and how they get there. For instance, the BASIS charter in Phoenix earns a super-high "challenge" ranking by combining a high attrition rate with giving the AP test to many underclasspersons.

In "Charter Chains: Risk, High Costs and Consequences" the report looks at the growing dominance of charter chains and the risks that come from putting so many schools under the control of state-spanning corporations. There's a risk for fraud and abuse, as well as directing a ton of money to the top in groups like KIPP, which boasts $6 million in administrative costs. And of course there's the Gulen chain, allegedly a fundraising arm of an out-of-power Turkish government in exile.

"Draining the Coffers: The Fiscal Impact of Charters on Public Schools" looks at how charters suck the financial blood from public schools, and what better place to look than my own Pennsylvania, where cyber-charters in particular are driving schools into financial trouble. But across the state, we see public schools that are forced to slash and gut programs, even close schools, to survive the charter drain. I'll note as always that this doesn't have to be the case-- if legislators had the guts to tell the truth and not pretend that you can run three schools for the same cost as running one. But as long as that lie is the premise of charter policy, education will be a zero sum game in which every charter student represents damage to the public system.

In "Public Funding with Private School Advantages," the report looks at how charters often try to have it both ways-- public when they want access to public tax dollars, but private when it comes to following laws governing education. BASIS again provides an example of a charter that isn't really open to everyone (eg- each family must makes a $1500 donation).

"Ignoring the Community Voice" looks at how Philadelphia lost community voice in management of its schools. It's a pattern repeated across the country-- you can have a charter school if you are willing to give up any voice in how your child's school operates.

"Are Charters Public Schools?" Do they reflect the demographic make-up of their neighborhood? Are they committed to serving all students? Are they responsible to community voices? Here's some data to answer the question (spoiler alert-- no).

Finally, the report asks "Have NAACP concerns been addressed?" In other words, are charters still functioning as engines of segregation? Are they transparent and accountable? Are they damaging the rest of the community in which they exist? Are they still disproportionately punishing and pushing out some students?

The report package ends with a statement from NPE about charter schools, with a call for a specific list of legislative policies and reforms favored by the group. Bottom line: until charters follow the public school rules, they're still private schools that take public funds.

The report is under fifty pages and quite readable. Nothing I do here can really capture the sheer weight of detail and examples provided. it will make a great resource for when one of those charter questions comes up yet again, and it's a good primer for people wondering what the fuss is about. It's a worthwhile read.

ICYMI: Last Quiet Weekend Edition (11/19)

Some important reads this week. As always, I encourage you to share and tweet and email anything you read that you think deserves a wider audience, because you, dear reader, are how those pieces get a wider audience.

Florida Teacher Shortage

Many, many folks have read the piece I wrote in response to this Sun-Sentinel article about the teacher shortage [sic] in Florida, but I encourage you to go read the original reporting, which is really top notch.

After a Political Rout in Massachusetts, New York Astro-Turf Group Mulling Strategy

When a bunch of millionaires poured money into launching new charter rules in Massachusetts, tey had no idea they'd get spanked this badly. What now? A look at one of the big dark money groups driving the charter school movement.

The Every Student Succeeds Act's Hollow Educational Ambition

Rick Hess (AEI) is a reformster, but he's not afraid to point out when ed reform makes some stupid moves. Here's his take on how NCLB dropped the ball, and ESSA is dropping the same ball again.

Closing the Gap for Native American Youth

A new study, the first ever done, looks at what can be done to close the gap for native American children. This will take you to the study; if that seems daunting, I will try to get to it at some point.

How Ed Reform Ate the Democratic Party

Jennifer Berkshire looks at the sad history of how the Democratic Party decided to stop being the party of public education and instead transformed itself into GOP-lite.

How Stranger Things Shows Support for Public Schools

One small feature of the hit Netflix series is how it places the local school in the middle of the community.

Schooling Is Never Neutral

The JLV with a brief but important reminder

The DC School Reform Fiasco: A Complete History

John Merrow and Mary Levy have created a comprehensive look at the DC "reform" shenanigans of She Who Will Not Be Named and others.  An important counterpoint to all the folks who keep insisting that DC is an example of school reform working.

But It Was The Very Best Butter

Almost forgot this one-- a quick explanation of how a good test can still be a bad test