Monday, January 22, 2018

Selling Choice

Selling charter and choice policy has always been a challenge.

Some challenges have been in place from the beginning. Charters are education-flavored businesses, but that's not an easy sale, so charter-choice fans have been adamant that charters are public schools. They aren't, but it's far more marketable for charters to push themselves as an extension to the public school system than a replacement for it. And by calling themselves "public schools," they can imply that they offer certain qualities and guarantees (open to all students, committed to stay open, staffed by qualified teachers, following established professional practices, etc) without having to explicitly commit to those qualities.

This has not been a haphazard process. These are businesses, and they use the same sort of market research any business would use. Back in 2013, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools hired the Glover Park Group, DC PR consultants, to help them with messaging. The result was a helpful handbook that is filled with useful advice like don't say "consumers," say "families." They also suggested stressing that charters get better results for less money, but that pig will no longer fly.

Charter marketing has been a bit of a moving target; like Common Core nd other reformy greatest hits, familiarity has not bred support. Giving public tax dollars to charter-based fraudsters and scam artists who are unable to deliver on promises of educational awesomeness has been hard on the brand.

Vouchers have also been a tough sell. While charter laws have flourished, attempts to pass voucher laws have almost always failed. 

But Betsy DeVos is in the Big Seat, and she loves vouchers, so it seems time for voucher fans to move again. And that includes hiring yet another conaulting firm-- this time, Beck Research-- to help them figure out a message.

The research was commissioned by American Federation For Children, the old DeVos choice advocacy group, and the memo was issued just last week. What did they find?

Much would seem to be supportive  Most folks like the general concept of school choice. People also like the idea of giving all students access to good private schools, and they're particularly supportive of providing such voucher opportunities to poor students and students with special needs. Many respondents also agreed that "we need to make major changes to the ways that public schools are run." But there are two problems here for voucher fans.

First, what people support in voucher policy is not what voucher fans are prepared to offer. Voucher programs don't offer nearly enough money for families to send their children to top private schools-- assuming those schools are even interested in accepting their child in the first place. Private schools are not flinging wide their doors to enroll students that offer any sort of expensive challenge (or they may discriminate for other reasons), and while voucher advocates can brand themselves champions of choice till the cows come home, the fact remains that it is the schools that get to choose-- not the parents. And while folks from many subgroups (minorities, millennials, rural folks) say yes to major changes in public schools, the only major change to come from vouchers would be public schools that are more strapped for resources. Meanwhile, the voucher schools are accountable to nobody-- if you think they need changes, you are welcome to just walk out the door. Shut your mouth and vote with your feet.

Second, Beck discovered that all of this support is tied to Things Not Called Vouchers. Support fro "school vouchers" was about 50-50-- the weakest support of any of the school choice proposals. And this is all with relatively favorable phrasing-- when the AFT asked how folks felt about "shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers" support was weak.

So let the re-branding begin. Education Savings Accounts, Scholarship Tax Credits, even Virtual Learning draw more support. Public tax dollars are used to send some students to private schools. They are vouchers by other names, but those other names make all the difference.

So watch this week as School Choice Week celebrates the many ways that operators of private education-flavored businesses can get their hands on public tax dollars without having to account for them, without having to account for the quality or type of education they provide, and without having to account for which students they refuse to serve. It's a sales job, and like any other sales job, it's pushed with carefully chosen language recommended by well-paid messaging specialists.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

AZ: How Privatizing Damages Schools

It can be hard to connect the dots between charter/voucher movement and damage to public education, but here's a video that does a pretty good job in under two and a half minutes. The speaker is the head of the Arizona School Board Association. She's also a retired Air Force Colonel, and she's seen how this business of outsourcing critical support to businesses works out in that setting. Take a look.

Linda Lyon from S4E Media on Vimeo.

We start with some fundamental problems, like the poverty-based inequity already in place by the time students get to school. Private companies promise to fix that, but they can't-- instead they siphon resources from public schools and turn the charge "public schools can't handle the problem" into a self-fulfilling prophecy, in turn creating the widespread morale issue that are chewing away at the teacher supply line. And what is true for Arizona is true for every other state.

I particularly like this line-- as Lyon encourages her audience to get involved in local politics (even-- gasp-- running for school board) she says this:

When we blame government for its problems, we're really blaming ourselves.

Maybe it's because I just got home from the Women's March in Pittsburgh, but that line resonates for me. It is necessary to act.

We're all going to see lots of noise and PR in the next seven days for National School Choice Week, much of it slickly polished PR 9and most of it paid for with tax dollars that were meant to educate children). As all that self-congratulatory puffery comes rolling out, it's good to remember Lyon's final point-- businesses, whether defense contractors, charter management groups, or ed tech enterprises are not responsible to the children or the troops; ultimately, they are responsible only to their shareholders.

That doesn't make them evil, but it does make them lousy people to entrust with the care, safety and education of valuable human beings.

ICYMI: Women's March Weekend Edition (1/21)

We're headed to Pittsburgh today, but here's some reading for you from this week.

Economists Still Think Economics Is the Best

This is an old article, and it's not about education, but I find it helpful in understanding the mindset of all those economists who think they're education experts.

The College Board Monster and Why It's Time To Slay the Dragon

From Long Island, a great op-ed calling for the end of the SAT-shilling monster

An Insider's Take on Assessment

The Chronicle of Higher Ed is talking about college assessments here, but K-12 folks will recognize all the huge problems laid  out here.

Florida's Education Reforms: A Warning, Not a Model

One more look at how Florida is not the land of reformy awesomeness its fans claim.

Stop Dismantling of NH Public Schools

New Hampshire legislator's plea to fellow legislators to stop plans for privatizing Granite State schools

Public School Administrator Runs a Side School Choice Consulting Business

Sarah Lahm illuminates a fairly stunning example of choice-related corruption

Elephant in the Room: It's the Tech Takeover, not the Common Core

Nancy Bailey makes the case that it's past time to switch our thinking about what the big threat really is

The GOPs Biggest Charter School Experiment Just Imploded

Ohio's ECOT was one of the first big cyber charters and just plain charters to hit the market/ Mother Jones has a fascinating and thoroughly researched look at how this massive scam bilked the taxpayers for so long. Your must-read of the week.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

NCTQ Worries About the Movement

Kate Walsh (National Council on Teacher Quality) has created a small stir over the past couple of days for daring to question the reformster movement's new level of self-correction.

In "Has the Education Movement Lost Its Way" Walsh says that the aftermath of fall conference season left a bad taste in her mouth.

I'm struggling with the seismic shift in tone at these conferences, where education advocates traditionally assembled to give each other a pep talk. In a few short years, we've gone from thinking we were right about everything—granted, that was kind of obnoxious—to adopting a rather pathetic and unattractive lament, professing just how wrong we've been about everything. I guess I prefer smug to self-flagellation. 

I wanted a laser, and if I'm going to have a laser, let's put it on a shark

Boy, I wish I were privy to a bit more of that self-flagellation. Because, no, the self-important always-right certainty wasn't kind of obnoxious. It was extremely obnoxious. In fact, it included a lot of teacher flagellation and school flagellation and in many cases, flagellation that ended careers and cut schools off at the knees.

And maybe it is unattractive to lament just how wrong you've been about things, but damn-- you were wrong about a lot of things. Not only wrong, but wrong in the face of a whole of experts in the education field who repeatedly tried to tell you that you were wrong.

You were wrong about using a single narrow poorly-written Big Standardized Test to gather reliable data about student learning, teacher effectiveness and school quality. You were wrong about the whole idea of identifying "bad" schools and turning them around. You were wrong to treat teachers as the enemies instead of partners and frontline troops in the work to make deliver quality education.

Many advocates appear to be abandoning our once shared convictions about what it takes to lift children out of poverty, the very wellspring of the movement's power and mass appeal. For years, we had stuck hard and fast to a sensible, winnable, and research-based strategy: Improve student learning. Teach children to read. That is how we tackle society's inequities.

Oh, wait. Now I think I know what she's talking about, at least in part. Robert Pondiscio got himself in all sorts of reformy hot water almost two years ago for suggesting that the social justice and equity side of the reformster movement was pushing out the free market conservative wing. This kicked off all sorts of debate in the reformy world. Walsh makes reference, obliquely, to the notion that more reformy panels included black folks coming to yell at the white folks for not taking a broader, social justice view.

She has a problem, of course, in that reform has had a while to have things its own way, and it hasn't demonstrated any ability to teach more children to read or improve student learning. At best it has shown a skill for separating better student learners from their less able neighbors. But improving learning? Not so much. And because we have such a lousy measure of student achievement in place, what reformsters are left arguing is that if a student gets good scores on the preferred BS Test of her state, that student will be more happy and successful in life. That is a hard premise to sell. It's silly on its face, and there's no evidence to back it up.

Walsh does not agree with me on this.

It's a sure way to lose an audience these days to remind them that tests have merit, not just for accountability purposes, not just because they measure numeracy and literacy, but because they are highly predictive of the quality of a child's future. (Thank you Raj Chetty and other academic purists.) A few short years ago, reminding an audience of this connection was a rallying cry. Now our eyes avert, we squirm in our seats, and feel the sudden need for another cup of hotel coffee. 

Well, tests don't have merit. They aren't good for accountability, and they don't measure numeracy and literacy, and they are not predictive of a child's future. Also, Raj Chetty has been repeatedly debunked, his methods iffy and his ultimate results one more example of confusing correlation with causation. But Walsh is feeling frustrated:

By many measures, children's academic outcomes have improved—particularly in the charters which this movement created—but the consensus is that progress has either not been fast enough or it's not even legit. If we agree to expand our role to also tackle the social, economic, racial, and political contexts of students' lives, we'll surely be more successful...right?

There is nothing wrong with any of these goals. They're all good—but their collective impact leaves me limp and rudderless, rather than inspired. This job was hard enough. 

But there's very little charter success that isn't explained by techniques we could use in public schools (longer day, more resources, smaller classes) or by techniques that turn their back on the mission of public education (charters that only take the few students who are a "good fit"). Meanwhile, too many charters are demonstrating just how badly the charter system can be abused by con artists, frauds, and self-dealing money-grubbers (eg ECOT, today).

As for expanding the educational mission to include a hundred other issues...? On the one hand, I understand her reaction to the large set of goals. On the other hand, I understand it because that's what every public school teacher is asked to do every day of every year for as long as I've been working at this. And while some of these issues are handed to us in a formal way by one program or another ("Hey, here's a thing that we need to get out to every child, so let's have teachers do it") we also end up handling them because you cannot teach part of a child. You cannot pluck the "learning to read" part of the child out and away from everything else and just address it in isolation. Tiny humans do not work that way. Certainly there are attempts to do so-- what is a No Excuses school except a school that demands that young humans leave all the rest of their lives and selves outside the schoolhouse door. But mostly that trick doesn't work.

Achieving a complex, ambitious goal—like providing all children in this nation with a strong education—requires laser focus, determination, abundant resources, an ability to measure progress, exceptional expertise, and a strong research basis. The movement had each of these elements and still does (for the most part). 

No, it doesn't.  It has never had laser focus because it has always been a loose alliance of people with very different goals (free market education, justice and equity, chance for my company to make a buck, application of techno-enineering to a social problem, hey we could gather all the data with this stuff, etc). Determination-- yeah, I'll give you that one. Abundant resources? Well, you've had wealthy backers, but you've had real trouble getting and keeping solid human resources, and for all your talk about the money wasted in public schools, you keep discovering that running a school with all the programs you'd really like to have is hella expensive. Ability to measure progress? This is the one I find tiring, but I'll say it as many times as I have to-- you don't have that. You don't. You just don't. The BS Tests do not measure what you think they measure. They don't measure math and science achievement. They don't measure teacher effectiveness. They don't measure how well a school works. And they certainly don't measure the full breadth and depth of a students education beyond those two subjects, nor do they predict the child's future success. Exceptional expertise? Mostly, no. Mostly reformsters are a collection of people who may be experts in their own field but who are education amateurs. And two years as a TFAer don't change that. For most of the reform movement, they have worn their amateur status proudly (David Coleman bragged about it openly) and resolutely refused to listen to those of us who have devoted our lives to the work. They've also resolutely avoided listening to the people in the communities they were going to fix (which is part of the reason that some folks started showing up to yell at you on various panels).

There are people within the reformster world who have some real expertise. And there are many who are beginning to recognize that listening wold be useful, and that maybe not all their opponents are evil dopes. That's a good thing. But reformsters have mostly been unwilling to examine any of their premises (The tests are great. Competition works. Etc) and so they keep building shaky structures on the same bad foundations. 

While not shying away from our many imperfections, while recognizing that schools do not function in isolation, we can not and should not turn our back on what gave rise to this movement.

By all means-- don't turn your back on it. Take a good hard look at it. And then ask yourself if perhaps some of it was mistaken, or if some of your allies are correct to criticize. Consider if some of your allies had, in fact, vastly different aims from your own. You were all together when the tip of the spear penetrated the soft underbelly of American education, but some of you expected reform to lead to the invisible hand steering education and some of you expected it to lead to broad social programs for the poor and some of you expected it to lead to openings for profitable entrepreneurship. Some of you expected it to revitalize public education, and some of you expected it to destroy public education entirely. Some of you sincerely wanted social justice to be part of the movement, and some of you just wanted to use that part of the movement as protective cover for a Democratic administration-- cover that you no longer need.

In other words, you can't reunite the reform movement behind your laser-like goals, because you never had laser-like goals in the first place.

Friday, January 19, 2018

ME: Hope, Grit and Corporate Baloney

KnowledgeWorks is an uber-reformy Ohio outfit that is ready and waiting to jump on the competency-based education wagon train. Maine's RSU2 is a consolidated school district that has partnered up with the Nelie Mae Foundation, a super-reformy pusher of personalized [sic] learning, to set itself up as an exemplar reformster district.

"You have got to be kidding me..."

When these two cross paths, something special happens. I could talk about the various programs that RSU2 is implementing, and about the many unhealthy inroads that algorithm-centered mass-produced custom learning is making in Maine, but for the moment I'll just refer you to Save Maine Schools. Because what I really want to talk about is this explosion of corporate-style whole-beef-baloney verbage that has exploded at the intersection of RSU2 and KnowledgeWorks.

I used to work summers in the private sector, reading and fielding promotional materials for various corporate leadership development consultant seminars. And I have to tell you, this is prime stuff.

"Sustaining the Vision in a Personalized, Competency-Based System" is by Robin Kanaan, Director of Teaching and Learning for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. She's been with the foundation for a decade, and she has really mastered the language is short, and almost no part of it is in plain English.

The first sentence is not so bad:

Fifty miles north of Portland, Maine, superintendent of RSU2 Bill Zima is working with his admin team during their weekly meeting.

But then things start to go downhill

 “Remember our purpose is to cultivate hope in all learners,” Bill says. “All of our efforts are towards that vision, and if they are not, then we are not in alignment.”

Uh-oh. Learners? Cultivate hope? Okay, cultivating hope might be good, but "not in alignment" with what, exactly?

Citing the work of author Shane Lopez in his 2013 book, Making Hope Happen, RSU2 has brought hope to the forefront of their district vision. They have defined hope as the belief that the future will be better than the present, and that we have the power to make it so. Their vision also recognizes that there are many paths to the future and none of those paths are free of obstacles.

In the corporate-speak world of language, there's a special division for the use of purple prose to elevate obvious, even banal, observations. This is primo work.

But then we get into the weird attempt to turn "hope" into a bit of personalized CBE  tomfoolery:

They also determined the core competencies of hope:
  • goals
  • agency
  • pathways
They are hard at work developing strategies in their schools and their learning community to cultivate hope in all learners.  According to Zima, “when we reach our goals by overcoming the obstacles on our chosen pathways, our perceived ability to shape our lives, our agency, increases. Hope is a strategy and it can be measured.”

So hope turns out to be built out of grit, and if you find obstacles that are too big for you, that's because you don't have what it takes to be a first class hoper. But it's that last line that really grabs me-- hope is a strategy, not a feeling or emotional state, and certainly not a thing with feathers that perches on the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. Damn Emily Dickenson lived down in Massachusetts anyway. What did she know.

And it can be measured! Measured!! "Pat, eat a good breakfast this morning so you're all ready for your hope assessments today!" "Mrs. Gillwitty, your learner Chris has been doing great work in math and science, but we are a little concerned about Chris's hope index scores."

Kanaan is not going to tell us how that magical unicorn of a measurement is going to be made, because she is about to unleash a paragraph of corporate baloney-speak poetry. Set your translation software to "stun," boys and girls...

Having a district vision is one thing, but how it is operationalized is what really leads to success. With federal and state mandates, local context and five separate communities making up the school district, keeping the arrows aligned in RSU2 is a constant focus for the district. The team is transparent in their continuous improvement efforts around alignment: workshop models for literacy and mathematics instruction; applied learning; a guaranteed and viable curriculum with learning progressions anchored by learning targets; scoring guides and a taxonomy; learner-centered practices; and a relentless commitment to meeting the needs of each learner are all drivers of hope in the district.

Yes, I'm sure we've all had long conversations about operationalizing our vision, and keeping those arrows aligned. And if you're worried that those words don't seem to mean much of anything, then you're undoubtedly comforted to know that the "team is transparent in their continuous improvement efforts around alignment." Workshop models! Applied learning (as opposed to, I don't know, unapplied learning?). Guaranteed and viable curriculum! Really? Guaranteed to what? And what do I get if it doesn't deliver-- do I get my learner's childhood back? Scoring guides and a taxonomy! You're going to classify my learner by biological classification (my spouse and I are pretty sure our learner is classified as homo sapien)? Or you're going to set up your own classification system based on....? Relentless commitment to meeting the needs or each learner? Well, that sounds good, because my learner needs a bath and a bedtime story tonight and I have to work a late shift-- can you come over by seven o'clock? Or will your commitment be relenting earlier in the day?

And these are all "drivers of hope." Drive how, exactly? Can you operationalize a taxonomy of relentless drivers so that I can guaranteed some viable continuous improvement of my learner's hope index with all arrows aligned with the drivers, relentlessly?

Well, after that resounding crescendo of Schoenbergian word salad, all that's needed is a punchy finish--

While the challenges are many, the rewards abound when learners and teachers channel passions, interests and talents into the work.

Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. What does that sentence have to do with the rest of this article? Nothing, really, but people always like it when you throw in references to passion and learners and talents. What are the challenges? Who knows. What will the rewards be? Not clear on that, either, but they will be abounding all over the place.

I don't get it. Do people who write this kind of stuff just kind of giggle to themselves the whole time, knowing that it's nearly self-satirical argle bargle? Or are they so sunk into this stylistic cesspool that they actually think they are writing clear, communicative prose? Or have they fallen into that saddest of writing dead ends-- the belief that good writing should puff up and obscure, rather than trim and illuminate? Who do they imagine their audience might be? This is par for the course for the corporate reformsters of KnowledgeWorks, but it's sad, bad news when people who are supposed to be professional educators start talking like this, because this language can only indicate brutal cynicism or faulty thinking. Neither is a good sign for the schools of Maine.

In the meantime, let me leave you with this:

Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

AEI and Lessons Almost Learned

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently held a little mini-symposium about lessons learned from the Bush and Obama years of education reform. There's a lot to peruse, but Rick Hess does a brief examination of some takeaways in his regular EdWeek blog, and while he's struck by a few things, I'm struck by how the path to lessons learned leads right up to an important insight, but doesn't seem to seal the deal.

First, this:

I was struck how comfortable most in attendance seemed to be with the notion that "Bush-Obama school reform" was something of a unified whole. McShane and I had wondered if it might go the other way, with participants or attendees insisting that Bush and Obama reflected two very different approaches to school reform. After all, when thinking back on these administrations, they're generally regarded as being pretty far apart on a range of issues. But there seemed to be a broad consensus, for good and ill, that much of what Bush did in the NCLB era set the table for Obama's efforts, and that Obama's efforts built pretty seamlessly on what Bush had previously done.

I think an awful lot of us were hollering for eight years that the Obama education plan was simply more Bush education plan, except for the parts that were actually worse. Hess is correct that some folks have drawn distinctions between the two administration. Betsy DeVos, speaking at the same conference, characterized the difference as carrot and stick-- Bush policies threatened everyone with punishment, while Obama policies tried to bribe states into compliance. That's not unfair, although Obama's Ed Department never really put down the stick-- during and after the rounds of Race to the Top bribery, states always faced the threat that without waivers, they would be subject to all the punishments that NCLB put in place.

We could talk about details and specific policies and the kind of titanic bureaucratic chair shuffling that only seems significant if you're stuck inside the beltway, but University of Oklahoma's Deven Carlson gets us closer the important question of what, exactly, the two sets of failed policies had in common.

In surveying what we've learned about school accountability, which seems to be remembered as the defining legacy of the Bush-Obama era, Oklahoma's Carlson offered up a series of takeaways. First off, he argued that accountability clearly increased test scores in reading and math, and that "no fair reading of the literature" can deny that. That said, due to test prep and other kinds of manipulation, "achievement increases may not correspond to actual learning gains" and "reading and math gains came at the expense of instruction in other subjects." At the policy design level, he said that schools responded to accountability in unintended and unproductive ways, frequently focusing on proficiency thresholds and "bubble" kids rather than system improvement. Carlson suggested that all of this was fueled by unrealistic expectations and goals.

Accountability is a common thread, with both policy sets focused on the idea of holding states and schools and teachers accountable, and not just accountable to parents and local taxpayers, but to the federal government (this is where Andy Smarick and I will tell you to go read Seeing Like a State).

Carlson dances right up to the point here. Policies increased test scores, though it's unclear if the test scores mean anything, and likely that elements of actual education were sacrificed for the scores.

The common thread, the failure point for both Bush and Obama ed policy is not accountability.

It's the damn test.

The entire reform system, the entire house of policy built by both administrations, is built on the foundation of one single narrowly-focused standardized test, the results of which are supposed to measure student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and school quality. The entire policy structure is held together and activated by data, and that data is being generated by means no more reliable than a gerbil tossing dice onto shag carpet in the dark. It's not a house built on sand-- it's a house built on sand that's been mixed with cat poop and laced with exploding eels. Both administrations built policy machines built to run on hi-test super-pure data fuel, and then filled the tanks with toxic cool-aid mixed with mashed potatoes. It's no wonder that machine would not carry us to the promised land.

Sure, there has ben a surfeit of baloney. Attempts to create national standards. Theories about how schools can be turned around without spending money. Disregard and disrespect for professionals who work in schools. Opportunistic attempts to make sure that "reform" would include "increased market openings for entrepreneurs." Unrealistic goals and destructive penalties. These all helped insure that Bush and Obama's ed policies would fail.

But all of them rested upon the lie that we have a means of generating real, useful data. We can only talk about how to punish or reward teachers and schools if we think we have a valid way to evaluate them. We can only talk about standards if we think we have a way to determine that the standards are being met. We can only talk about accountability if we believe we have a valid and reliable measure of what's getting done.

And we don't.

I know that makes some folks crazy. I know that some folks believe there must be a yardstick we can use to measure schools, and they want to believe that so badly that they have convinced themselves that a piece of twisted wire they found in a junk yard is just as good as a yardstick.

They are wrong. They've been wrong for well over a decade now, and the damage continues to pile up (and that suits some people just fine-- hooray disruption and entrepreneurial opportunity!).

It's important to understand that the Big Standardized Tests are the rotten core of these failed enterprises, because ESSA encourages us to keep repeating that mistake. Our ed policy "leaders" are like people who tried to make a self-driving car by setting a brick on the gas pedal and lashing the steering wheel in one position, and every time the car rams into a tree, they say, "Well, we must need a different sized brick, and we'll tie the steering wheel in a different position." They are like people who have gathered toenail clippings from elephants and declared, "Withy the right analytical model, we can determine the height and health of trees in the jungles that grow 200 miles from where these elephants live."

No, your approach is fundamentally, fatally flawed.

There is no program, no policy, no design, no model that will allow you to turn bad data into good data. There is no model that will let you turn a small sliver of bad data into a rich, full, accurate picture of reality.

Okay, smartypants, you say. If the BS Tests won't give us the data we need, then what else will.

The real answer is that I don't know-- and neither do you and neither does anybody else. And frankly, if you want to propose a data-gathering system, the burden of proof is on you to establish that the system is any good (a burden that has never, ever been met by the purveyors of the BS Tests). There are smart people who have written whole books about the matter, but solving the problem will require a very large conversation, the likes of which we still haven't had. Having that conversation, for real, for serious, would be a good start.

But meanwhile, the critical lesson from the past two administrations remains unabsorbed. It is the generation of narrow, bad data, the placement of a bad standardized test at the center of education, that doomed all of the previous ideas, both the good ones and the bad ones, to failure (in fact, it is the unfounded belief in BS Tests as fonts of good data that has allowed some bad ideas to even exist).

Until we address that, ed policies will continue to fail.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Leaving Personalized Silicon Valley

Paul Emerich is a National Board Certified Educator and International Education Consultant, despite the fact that he's not been in the classroom for very long. He's also a blogger (InspirED: Inspiring Stories from the Classroom), and he's getting attention right now for his piece repudiating the Gospel of Personalized Learning. His rejection is important, because we're talking about someone who devoted several years to one of the most high-profile Personalized Learning schools out there, but his piece is also important because it, perhaps inadvertently, highlights the ignorance and hubris that helps pump up these projects in the first place.

I had gone into the school year with unrelenting energy, thrilled to be opening a brand new micro-school and to work on technology tools that were intended to personalize my students’ learning. The idea sounded exhilarating: I was set to work with real engineers on a technology platform for the classroom. It would allow me to send individualized “cards” to a child’s “playlist.” These cards would house activities tailored to each of my children so that they could, in theory, learn at their own pace and at their own level. It sounded like the greatest idea ever known to man.

Though he doesn't name the school, both the description and his LinkedIN profile indicate that he's talking about AltSchool , a Silicon Valley wunderschool that was backed by big names like Zuckerberg, but which just shifted its mission from actually running schools to marketing personalized learning software.

Emerich started to notice that the approach was both unsustainable and the very opposite of personalized. "Isolated," "impersonal," "disembodied" and "disconnected" are all words he used. He wishes that he had known then what he knows now, which is perhaps one key to the secret of how damn fool things like AltSchool get started and financed and promoted in the first place.

"We were tasked with the never-before-done vision of individualizing every child’s education," he writes, and I'm thinking "never before?!" Nobody in education has ever pursued a vision of personalization before? Because I'm pretty sure I could introduce you to a few dozen teachers for whom personalization has been their North Star for their whole career. They just didn't try to run it by computer, or make investors happy with it.

And then there's this head-slapper:

When I began working in Silicon Valley, personalized learning was very new. No one really knew what it meant, and as a result, it led to us having unrealistic expectations for what we could really achieve in the classroom and what was actually best for kids.

No. No, it wasn't "very new" or even "sort of new." The only thing that was remotely new was the idea of harnessing it to a computer, but even that was not all that new. And lots of people knew exactly what it meant, but guys like AltSchool founder Max Ventilla and funder Zuckerberg and the whole raft of technocrat warriors back to David Frickin' Coleman don't want to do their homework, because-- I don't know-- they have to believe that their idea is fresh and new? They don't think anybody in the actual field of education knows anything? Dude, people were pointing out the unreality of the expectations every step of the way. You guys just didn't want to hear it.

Emerich cites some recent articles about the shortcomings of "personalized" learning, but he wants you to know that he's still the smartest guy in the room:

Interestingly enough, I noticed this within my first year, well before these resources were made available. 

No, dude. Those particular recent articles weren't available back then, but a mountain of similar resources were totally available back then and also back when you were in college becoming a baby teacher. You got excited about this job, and you failed to do your damn homework.

I was so inspired by the company at the outset, excited to be in a private organization that truly valued teachers as 21st century knowledge workers. But as every month passed, my naïvete became resoundingly self-evident. This company I had joined was just that–a company. And their primary concern was not the children’s education: their primary concern was monetizing the tools. Their primary stakeholders were the investors who’d invested a great deal of money in this–albeit interesting–idea.

Again, I am glad that Emerich figured this out. Better late than never and all that, but damn-- this was all patently self-evident and plenty of people were saying so. But he wants to share with us all now. He has come to tell us, to tell us all.

I share this now publicly because I want teachers around the country to know that the vision for personalized learning that Silicon Valley preaches does not work. We proved it time and time again. Hyper-individualization does precisely what the emerging body of research says it does and more: it isolates children, it breeds competition, it assumes that children can learn entirely on their own, and it dehumanizes the learning environment, reducing the human experience of learning down to a mechanistic process, one where children become the objects of learning as opposed to the subjects of their own educational narrative.

I am, frankly, torn. One part of me wants to say, "Yes! You tell it, brother." The other part of me wants to say, "No shit, Sherlock."

Emerich is the guy who got excited about his hot new job hunting snipe at the unicorn farm and ignored the hundreds of people hollering "There are no snipes! There is no unicorn farm!" And then he comes back later (in this case, three years later) to announce, "I want you to know that I have discovered Something Important that I must tell you all. I have discovered that there are no snipes, and there is no unicorn farm."

I've been trying to understand why this piece, which confirms so much of what many of us have said, and does so from the perspective of someone who's been there-- why does this rub me the wrong way. The best explanation is this: Emerich calls himself naive, but I think he's letting himself off easy. I don't think he's so much naive as arrogant, and the same arrogance that was displayed in heading off to charter techno-teaching without doing any due diligence is the same arrogance that leads him to make this Momentous Announcement of things that he has personally discovered, as if a few thousand other folks hadn't already caught on years and years ago.

I appreciate his point of view, and his confirmation that charter school companies are businesses, not schools, and that personalized learning via computer is a sham and a fraud, and I'm happy that people are sharing this like crazy. But dammit-- if more of these tech folks would do their damn homework, we wouldn't have to keep learning the same old lessons over and over, and we wouldn't keep subjecting live human children to foolishness that we already know is foolishness. In the meantime, he's now the Academic Chair at the high-end private Latin School of Chicago. I guess time will tell what lessons he actually learned from his stay in Silicon Valley.