Monday, June 30, 2014

A Little Help, Please!

Next week, I'm off to Seattle for a 2.5 day session on PLCs. Our school district is trying to pilot PLCs, and my principal has asked me to attend. He's working his posterior off to get our school on track, so I would probably walk across coals if he asked, but the fact that my daughter and son-in-law just moved to Seattle is definitely a bonus.

Anyway, we have a variety of breakout sessions to attend, so I thought I would see if anyone had any recommendations regarding any of these folks. You can leave something in the comments, find me on facebook or twitter-- whatever works. Here's the list of presenters

Tim Brown
Austin Buffum
Luis Cruz
Rebecca & Richard DuFour
William M. Ferriter
Janel Keating
Shanon V. Kramer
Mike Mattos
Anthony Muhammad
Sara Schuhl

Note: It won't be useful to tell me to avoid the whole thing. I'm going. I'll be there. Any idea of how I can best use my time?


Thomas Newkirk's Superlative Look at CCSS

Thomas Newkirk's Holding Onto Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones was already a book worth reading. In 2009, it was a very thoughtful response to some of the twisting of instruction that was happening in English classrooms. Not a practical strategies book, but a book for thinking about the philosophical foundations of what we do.

Turns out that in 2013 Newkirk added a Postscript to the book entitled "Speaking Back to the Common Core," and it's a great addition to the family of essays laying out clearly why the Common Core onslaught is bad news for education. He makes nine solid points.

1. Conflict of interest

It is a fundamental principle of governance that those who establish the guidelines do not benefit financially from those guidelines. We don’t, for example, let representatives of pharmaceutical
companies set health guidelines, for fairly obvious reasons. 

As far as health legislation goes, Newkirk is perhaps optimistic, but his point is still valid. The Core was built and written by the same people who expected to benefit financially for it.

2. Misdiagnosis of the problem

A central premise of the CCSS is that students are not reading difficult enough texts and that we need to ramp up the complexity of the texts they encounter. I would argue that the more serious problem is that students cease to read voluntarily, generally around middle school—and fail to develop the stamina for difficult texts 

In other words, the CCSS prescription is exactly backwards.

3. Developmental Inappropriateness

By working backwards from the ending goals, creators of CCSS ended up with unrealistic expectations for young students.

4. A sterile view of reading

As a reading guy, Newkirk likes the emphasis on "thoughtful reading." But the directive to "stay within the four corners of the text"-- not so much. "This seems to me an inhuman, even impossible, and certainly unwise prescription." He demonstrates with an example.

5. Underplaying role of narrative

Newkirk offers a great argument that narrative is not some sort of separate animal unto itself, but the root of much work in many disciplines."Biology, for example, is all about process, about action, about events occurring in time, in sequence. Photosynthesis is a story; our immune system is a story; digestion is a story—even “corn sex” is a story..." Again, with examples.

6. A reform that gives extraordinary power to standardized texts

The central question is this: Are standardized tests compatible with the more complex goals of twenty-first-century literacy? Or are they a regressive and reductive technology (ironically, many of the countries we are chasing in international comparisons do not share our belief in these tests)?

And my absolute favorite parable for the testing wave ever--

    It all comes down to the parable of the drunk and his keys, an old joke that goes like this: A drunk is fumbling along under a streetlight when a policeman comes up and asks him what he doing. The drunk explains he is looking for his keys. “Do you think you lost them there?” the policeman asks.
    “No. But the light is better here."

7. A bonanza for commercialism

We are already seeing at work a process I call “mystification”—taking a practice that was once viewed as within the normal competence of a teacher and making it seem so technical and advanced that a new commercial product (or form of consultation) is necessary.

8. Standards directing instruction

Newkirk recognizes that the creators were skirting a line when they chose to create (totally legal) state standards and not (completely illegal) national curriculum. But he says the line between the two was already breached by Coleman and Pimental themselves when they did things like describe how many text-dependent questions should appear in basal readers.

9. Drowning out other conversations

Newkirk is talking about opportunity cost. A great question that he heard asked of a curriculum director-- "Are you taking any initiatives that are not related to the Common Core?" Newkirk wonders what conversations we won't be having.

I have only tried to whet your appetite-- you should definitely click on over and check out the full text. It's a readable, smart, well-supported look at the Core. I would recommend it in particular as a piece to refer to your civilian friends, or people who are just arriving at "So, is there something wrong with Common Core?"

The Mystery of Excellence

Diane Ravitch's recent columns about Ms. McLaughlin, one of the undeservingly employed terrible teachers of the Vergara trial, underlines one of the central problems of the whole teacher evaluation portion of the reformster dream.

Ms. McLaughlin won awards for teaching excellence not once, but twice in her career. And yet one of the plaintiffs found her to be grossly ineffective. Now, it's possible that there are factors at play here-- the plaintiff was reportedly recruited for the lawsuit by her only "effective" teacher, a teacher who was RIFed and whose job was then taken by Ms. McLaughlin. So, wheels within wheels.

But could it be possible that a teacher so many students found wonderful was a total dog for another teacher? Of course. Because as much as we think we get excellence in this country, excellence is still a mystery.

I don't imagine I'm God's gift to teaching, but I do okay. My feedback from students, both blind and personal, has been good over the years. But there have been years of my career when I was definitely less good, and there have been students who have been sure that I sucked hugely.

I had a colleague years ago whose students were sure they never did a damn thing in her class, that she was confused and disorganized and didn't know what she was doing. Yet those students came to me next, and invariably time after time I would ask a question about X, and they would answer it, and I would ask, "How did you know that?" and they would realize that Ms. McClueless had actually taught them a great deal.

And it's not just teaching. Every successful writer has devoted fans and an assortment of rabid haters. Every boss of a successful company has supporters and employees who would like to see him roasted slowly over a gas grill. And of course there has never been a political leader who was universally hailed as excellent.

How can someone be both excellent and terrible simultaneously? Mostly it comes down to different measures. If we measure strictly on writing skill, Stephenie Meyer is not awesome, but if we measure based on ability to generate revenue, Stephenie Meyer is a genius.

When measuring excellence, we use a wide variety of metrics. Some are irrelevant; my grandmother used to stop listening to any singer who was divorced, because a divorced person couldn't possibly sing well. Some not only accept bias, but embrace it-- if you are not on The Right Side, then everything you have to say must be horribly wrong. And some are just a matter of personal values. I may just want to hire somebody who gets the job done even if he's not very pleasant, while you may be as concerned about getting along with the person as getting the job done.

The problem with identifying teacher excellence has always been that we have a million ideas about what a teacher is supposed to do. Should Pat's kindergarten teacher make sure that Pat is happy and getting along well with others and maintaining a joyful attitude about life no matter how little Pat learns, or should Pat's teacher be making sure that Pat can master sight words even if it makes Pat miserable to do it? And if we're splitting the difference, where do we split it? And that's before we get to all the other expectations-- should my students learn traditional grammar (and how much) or should we spend more time on writing and what part of the canon (if any) should we read? Should my classroom be a free and open place where everything is filled with the spirit of free and open inquiry, or should it be like a tight, well-disciplined machine? And what's the proper balance of being teacher-directed and student directed?

We could play that game all day. You get the idea. We have a gazillion ideas of what an excellent teacher looks like.

Plenty of attempts have been made to use science-ish techniques to break down the traits of teacher excellence. People still disagree. Or rather, people still default to their own idea of what teacher excellence looks like.

The reformsters thought they had a solution. We'll just define an excellent teacher as one whose students get good scores on the Big Test. And now we're going to use Vergara-style lawsuits and new teacher-eval laws to cement that definition. You can have whatever definition of teacher excellence you like. The courts and the legislatures have the last word.

We could talk about why that definition of teacher excellence is small and narrow and not particularly good. But that's been covered. Let's talk about how it's reformsters shooting themselves in the feet again.

Remember how the whole Big Test thing worked:

Reformsters: We will give students a test to show exactly what they learned in the course of the year.
Parents:Well, that sounds like a good idea.
[Students actually take the test]
Parents: Damnl! I didn't realize that was how that was going to work. You want to do it some more?! Oh, hell no.

Reformsters can install new systems of determining teacher excellence, covered with a smoke screen about how this will "protect great teachers" and "guarantee a great teacher in every classroom." But when the random "ineffectives" start appearing and the public is seeing beloved Ms. Awesomesauce being canned because some system that nobody can really explain claims that she's no good, there will be noise. Particularly in smaller districts (we don't all teach in New York City, Chicago and LA) where teachers are well-known in their communities.

Reformsters keep making the same mistake. It's not enough to have a great sales pitch and convincing story about how well your super-duper plan is going to work. At some point, you have to deliver. From the promise of the Awesome Big Test (which was never going to work) to the promise of charter schools (which, operated for something other than profit, could have), reformsters have made promises they failed to keep.

The promise of evaluation-based staffing will be more of the same. When people see how badly it actually work, reformsters will feel the same kind of pushback that has them scurrying for cover on testing (umm... moratorium! yea, that's it!). The truly unfortunate part is that some large number of teaching careers will be derailed and uncountable could-have-been teachers chased away from the profession by the time that pushback happens. Reformsters are shooting themselves in the feet, but a lot of other people are going to get caught in the crossfire.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Uses of Small Data

Brian Kibby, the president of the Higher Education Group at McGraw-Hill, took to Huffington Post last week to praise Small Data.

"Big data" might be the most hollow, misused term in education. For all of the chest-pounding about how big data has come to education, how are colleges and instructors actually using it --now, in 2014? 

Kibby notes that we've long heard that Big Data will change everything. But in fact "true big data does not exist in education today." Instead of cheering or fearing how Big Data will save us or bring on doomsday, Kibby suggests that we look at how it might actually be useful right now. Big Data could be awesome, and Kibby is a fan in theory, but in practice there are justifiable concerns about privacy as well as a lack of technology that can actually collect, crunch and process the data back to an instructor in any useful way.

Kibby would rather talk about what we can actually do today, and what we can do today are targetted analytics: "things like assignment scores, time spent on the material, progress in an adaptive learning environment."

What we're talking about is short term use, small picture stuff. "These tools aren't paying attention to whether the student had Frosted Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast the morning before a test, but they're looking at what matters most." (I'm guessing Kibby's familiar with the Knewton video) Instead, small data can monitor things like exactly how well the student did on the homework, or how long he worked on it.

What is the upside for McGraw-Hill in the moderately-courageous, slightly-new world?

Odd coincidence-- I just saw the Undercover Boss episode about the chancellor of the University of California at Riverside. He watched a class of 250 do lecture question response with a clicker which allowed the instructor to immediately gauge how well the class was getting it. It's cool stuff. I've seen it in action. I would use it.

What conclusion did the chancellor draw? This is really cool tech that would work well to scale up into other large classes. With this kind of tech, everybody could teach classes of five hundred.

I've always maintained that classroom teachers already do massive amounts of data collection, far more rich and varied than what reformsters have been pushing at us via testing etc. What a teacher collects by looking at, talking to, interacting with, giving small quizes, informal assessments-- we collect a ton of data every day that allows us to develop rich and valuable student assessments that help us make instructional choices and adapt teaching to the individual needs.

But there are limits to that. Beyond a certain number of students, I just can't collect all the data. I can't watch 100 faces to see reactions. I can't informally verbally assess 100 students.

With small data systems in place? Hmmm. Cyber schooling has turned out to be a bust for all but a small sector of the student population. But what about a hybrid, somewhere in between the two extremes. A few hundred students still in a classroom with a live, actual instructor, but interacting through computer tech that allows him to collect and save response data from all those students.

I'm not sure how well it would work. But if it worked well at all, McGraw-Hill could sell a lot of materials, and Anywhere University could cut 50% of that pesky adjunct staff.

A Few Blog Recommendations

This will be post #400 on the blog, and I thought I'd use it to direct your attention to some other blogs. This is by no means an exhaustive and comprehensive list-- there are tons of people blogging about education these days, and I keep discovering new (to me) voices. I've put off writing this kind of post because I don't want to short-change someone, but I'm going to go ahead anyway, because better imperfectly than never on this.

@ the Chalk Face

One of several collective blogs, gathering together many of the major writers in the blogosphere, including Mercedes Schneider, Kris Nielsen, Shaun Johnson and Tim Slekar. Comes with a radio show on Blog Talk Radio

Network for Public Education News Briefs
Another anthology blog, with pieces from many members of the Network for Public Education.

Public School Shakedown
A blog from the Progressive that presents a fine roster of many great bloggers, collected with a progressive bent.

Jersey Jazzman
One of many regional bloggers who make it worth your while to read about places that you don't actually live. He's good with sass and sharp language, but the Jazzman is also a very capable cruncher of numbers and stalker of stats. And New Jersey is ground zero for many reformster initiatives, so it's worth your while to pay attention.

Crazy Crawfish's Blog  
New Orleans is another petri dish in which strange and important things have been left to grow. This blog covers it with style.

Perdido Street Station
This blog covers all things New York. You'll notice that I have a soft spot for writers who bring a sharp edge and wit to their writing. Bonus points for the obscure-ish SF reference in the title.

Pittsburgh based, but covering Pennsylvania, this blogger-activist has scored some major victories over the past few years.

Common Core
Out in Utah, three conservative moms got together to stand up against CCSS. These ladies have done their homework, and they are often a great source of facts.

Wait What?
Jonathan Pelto has kept the heat turned up in Connecticut, to the point that he is now running for governor against an incumbent not-very-education-friendly Democratic governor.

School Finance 101
With as many economists and business types are lined up against public education, it's nice to have someone who can count those beans honestly and clearly enough that laypeople can get it working on the side of the angels.

Teacher Under Construction
John Kuhn called Steph Rivera "a force of nature." Follow this young woman who has a powerful record as an activist and an impossible-to-ignore voice as a writer.

Wag the Dog
Freewheeling far-ranging discussion of many of the issues of the day in education.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley brings a clear understanding of the data and fuzzy math behind the murkiest subject of the day-- VAM. She makes it easy to understand what the heck is going on, and why it should stop.

Russ on Reading
Russ Walsh came to blog about reading and reading instruction; he stayed to try to figure out what the heck is happening in our schools today. Often wry and witty, this teaching veteran belongs on your blogroll.

Edushyster brings legitimate journalist chops to her work, but she is also one of the funniest writers in the blogosphere. Real substance in a sweet candy coating.

The Becoming Radical
Reading Paul Thomas just makes me feel smarter. Well-read, deep-thinking, Thomas manages to connect the clear specifics of the education world to the Big Ideas underlying them. And he knows his comics, too, so bonus.

Susan Ohanian
Navigating Ohanian's blog can be daunting, but that's because she's been on line forever. Ohanian was sounding the alarm on the modern school reform movement while many of us were still snoozing. Hers is a voice that deserves attention.

Peg with Pen
She does not post often, but when she does, you want to pay attention.

Cloaking Inequity
Julian Vasquez Heilig is one of the most powerful important voices out there right now. The man appears to need neither sleep nor rest, and he has forced many people to take another look at what's happening to equity and equality in education.

Gatsby in L.A.
An unusual blog in that it's just about finished. Ellie Herman was a screenwriter/producer who dropped out of the biz to get into a classroom. Her adventure started last August, and you can read through her whole year. Smart and sensitive.

Honest Practicum
Erin Osborne working to find her way through the reformy morass, with a real gift for graphics.

Living in Dialogue
Anthony Cody is a founding member of the Network for Public Education and a great voice for the resistance. His EdWeek blog examines many of the important topics of the day.

Mercedes Schneider's Edublog
If you read here often, you already know I'm a fan. Indispensable research hound, this woman has ferreted out more raw information about what's really going on behind the curtain than any other single writer.

The Answer Key
At the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss is one of the best mainstream writers about education out there, and she features plenty of top-notch guest talent.

Diane Ravitch's Blog
If you read me, you undoubtedly read Ravitch, but just in case, know that in the edublogoverse, all roads lead to her. An insanely prolific poster, she provides a daily digest of what's being written, what news is breaking, and what we all need to know.

There are many, many, many, many more. Hunt through the links on the right side of the screen. I encourage you to read, follow links, and pass on what you like. You can help voices be heard by posting, tweeting and sharing the words that are powerful for you.

John King's Story

Listening to people tell their story often gives us a clue what they are thinking about, how they do the connecting of certain dots. That was my reaction to watching this video from a Manhattan Institute appearance by John King. Sometimes people who are sincere about wanting to fix education in this country (I do not assume all reformsters are cynical profiteering greedhounds) make connections between things that simply don't make sense. But by looking at their stories, sometimes we can see what The Dream is for education.

The whole business is introed by Charles Sahm, a deputy director at the Institute with whom I've had some entirely pleasant email correspondence, and his intro contains one notable nugget-- apparently the Manhattan Institute is planning to release rankings of every school in the country next year. Swell.

Norman Atkins Leads Off

But next up, to introduce John King, is Norman Atkins of the Relay Graduate School of Education and Uncommon Schools. Between his intro and the beginning of John King's speech, we get a full version of the John King Story.

Atkins opens by observing that "teacher training" is now a "politically incorrect" phrase. "So we have to be careful with our language." He's just saying, I guess.

Atkins sets up an analogy by referring to the group that launched Uncommon Schools as a dream team, and John King was Michael Jordan. But he's going to tell a story.

Labor Day, 1999. John King (who would have been about 24) and Evan Ruttle (sp?) were getting ready to open Roxberry Prep, one of the country's most swell charter schools. John had worked for two or three years (my sources say two) at City on the Hill Charter School. So it's been a long day, but late in the day, they noticed that the student name stickers on the lockers were "put up in a really sloppy fashion." King declared that unacceptable, so in the wee hours, they were fixing the stickers on the lockers. And while they were doing that, King was describing the vision for teaching each of the core subjects at Roxberry, based on all the work they had done preparing the school. In Atkins telling, this involved scouring the international standards and national standards "such as they were" and Massachusetts standards. King had figured out the arc of lessons and units and "was narrating this with tremendous energy and detail." And at that moment, Roxberry Prep was born.

So here's one piece of The Dream-- a school that is squeaky-perfect, completely planned and controlled by the people who run it. Also note-- given all the illustrative stories Atkins could pick to show how King injected greatness into Roxberry, he picks a story without any teachers or students in it.

Classroom Is Key

Atkins quotes Sol Stern to Sol Stern, saying "the primal scene of all education reform is in the classsroom." One of the reasons we're in so much trouble in American education, says Atkins, is many of the people in charge of education haven't spent time in the classroom." But we are blessed in New York to have a leader "who knows instruction and what goes on in the classroom better than anybody."

Someday I'll have a chance to send out a reformster questionnaire, and one of the questions I'll ask is "How do you think people best acquire knowledge of how to do classroom instruction?" Because on the one hand reformsters think teachers (particularly experienced ones) have no knowledge worth consulting. On the other hand, John King, who taught in a public classroom a grand total ONE year, and only two more in a charter classroom, somehow knows more about classroom instruction than God. 

Atkins says that one of the reasons that King is beloved is that he would plan down to every small detail the instruction for the entire year in his school and our schools. He would do this with high standards, and plan the entire year in detail for the students to achieve that.

Well, one can certainly see how that might lead to an education commissioner who likes the idea of canned online day-by-day lessons on engageNY. But what reason do we have to believe that this is good teaching? Certainly I should not walk into the classroom and pull today's lesson out of my butt, but if know exactly what I'm doing on the 150th day of school before I have even met my students on the first, I am NOT a great teacher. I am a content delivery specialist, and my students are little cogs who are supposed to mold themselves to fit my program. I have already built my square hole; all you pegs had better shape up, no matter what shape you started out as.

Educational Rock Star

Also, according to Atkins, King was out and about in his schools a great deal, popping into every classroom on a daily basis, "managing instruction." He continues to do this as commissioner. He isn't just watching teachers, but his eye is on the students, seeing what they're learning and if they're learning. He's asking would this class be good enough for my kids. He is also a master at giving feedback; his visits are not evaluative with your career on the line, but a way to get better. Imagine having someone "so brilliant" come into your room and give you "incredible" feedback.

This is another part of The Dream. A necessary ingredient for excellent schools is rock star leaders, educational geniuses who can lead all the lesser beings. Reformsters like to talk about teams, but what they invariably describe is a benevolent monarchy. A brilliant creates and directs a vision, and the rest of the plebes fall in line and implement it.

I expect this is why King has spent his whole career gravitating to charters-- because in a charter, the ability to control everything, every detail, every teacher, every student, is so much greater. You can teach exactly the kind of students you want with exactly the teachers you want teaching exactly as you want.

Boosting Common Core

John asks questions, and the core question is "Is this good enough?" Always positive, but never satisfied. And always told the truth. Being the "captain" for education is hard, but we need a truth teller because we are lying to ourselves. 80% think other people's schools are failing, but our own schools are great. "There's something not right about that." By plugging CCSS, King is exposing that what we're doing isn't good enough.

Why is that a good idea? Again, I'm no fan of building educational camels in committee, but what if there aren't enough geniuses to go around? What if the genius isn't right all of the time? What if somebody passes themselves off as a genius but is actually a gigantic tool? And doesn't this tend to result in schools that are organized around the genius and not the students?

Atkins now attaches King to the tradition of Horace Mann. Mann wanted common schools for everyone; King wants Common Core for everyone. Atkins defines Common Core as "highest possible standards for all our children." Atkins name-checks Steiner and Cerf who both suggested that John's intro include a reference to his courage. When other states are ducking away from CCSS, King has the courage to stay the course.

King Tells His Story

The Dream is always of high standards, and we continue to cling to the unexamined (by reformsters) assumption that CCSS represent high standards, not to mention the unexamined assumption that such a thing as a single set of standards that will fit our entire nation of children is even do-able, or could even bring about results. None of those assumptions have been proven correct. Repeatedly pushing them forward is not the same as proving them.

King leads off with his story. And make no mistake-- King's story is a hell of a story. Mother passed away when he was eight, leaving King with a father who was dying of Alazheimers, King credits public school teachers with saving him. And he doesn't do it in a vague, general way-- he routinely names the guy. Mr. Osterweil was challenging and exciting and King says that in his class, they had the Common Core before it was the Common Core. They studied Shakespeare. They would read the New York Times every day and summarize the articles, and King benefited forever after from the academic work and the discipline. They had a classroom that was stable, challenging, and nurturing.

It is a great story, even if usually skips over the part where he was thrown out of Phillips Andover ivy league prep school. And the fact that King equates Common Core with Mr. Osterweil's class shows yet another disconnect in the CCSS love-fest. Because, of course, Mr. Osterweil's class was like that because Mr. Osterweil was free to do what he judged best for his roomful of students.

What I wish King would ask himself is, what would happen to Mr. Osterweil today? How many of those lessons that King cherishes would be put aside for test prep. How much time would he have to spend teaching the required lessons from the state; would Principal King let Mr. Osterweil set his own program, or would King have the lessons all planned out in detail, first day through last, before Mr. Osterweil even came back from summer break? How stable and nurturing would the class be when Mr. Osterweil had to guide his charges through this week's punishing and demoralizing test. I'd bet that King is confident that Mr. Osterweil would be found highly effective on his modern evaluation, but I'm not so confident. If Mr. Osterweil had the wrong assortment of students, or was unable to use his most effective techniques because Principal King's program didn't allow for them, would it turn out that King's favorite life-saving teacher was rated ineffective?

Just how many more Mr. Osterweil's are out there, and what is Commissioner King doing to make sure that they be the best classroom teachers they can be?

Being White Guys

I'm going to write this companion piece to last night's post about race and gender and then I'm going to set this topic aside (until I don't).

Preamble and Disclaimer

Let me make two points before I start this exercise in gross generalization. These apply to the previous post as well.

1) I cannot possibly speak for everybody in any category and to every person's experience. If you want to point out to me that you know of experiences or persons who don't fit what I'm saying, all I have to say is, "Of course."

2) I am trying to describe how people see, hear or experience certain stuff. I am not trying to evaluate the correctness of those beliefs. In my experience, when you want to talk with someone, it's useful to understand how they see things, period.

Why Are White Guys So Bad At This Conversation

The "privilege" conversation degenerates rapidly every time it comes up in this culture. Why don't we white guys just admit we live in privilege and move the conversation forward?

Because most of us don't feel privileged.

Tell a working class guy who is pulling fifty-sixty hours a week because he wants to grapple with the frustration of not being able to give his children nice things, and who spends those fifty-sixty hours having is every move dictated by the many people who have power over him at work-- tell that guy about his white guy privilege, and he will think you're making a bad joke.

In a school setting, we may feel that we've got the same size classroom, work for the same people, teach the same material.

For some of us, it's not that we want to defend "privilege," or justify it, but that we literally cannot see what the heck you are talking about. And when someone starts talking about "privilege," we hear an accusation, a charge that we somehow cheated by being born white and male, which we feel is unfair because we worked hard to get where we are.

Suck It Up

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Walk it off. Grab life by the balls. Make it happen. No excuses. The buck stops here.

If life is a mountain to climb, then women and minorities are told that there are certain paths for them to take, areas they are barred from, obstacles they cannot surmount. White guys are shown the mountain and told, "There is no excuse for you not to get to the top. If you don't climb the mountain, it's because you aren't strong enough, focused enough, good enough." For some men, that is exhilarating, and for some it is terrifying.

The flip side of the assumption that women are helpless is the assumption that men, real men, never are. I know more than a couple of strong, capable women who still believe that the procedure for solving problems is
        1) Tell a man about it
        2) Wait

In schools, this is the staff meeting where the women turn to the man for answers. It's the female teachers who want to get that guy from the union to come fix this problem.

To someone else, it may look as if a white guy lives without an extra set of invisible obstacles, but he may experience that as huge pressure, as a situation where his success or failure all rests on him, and meeting the challenge is a straight-up measure of his worth as a person. And we've raised to think that's how the world works (not how the world works just for white guys). So when other groups start explaining the kinds of cultural obstacles and differences they face, what white guys hear is a list of excuses.

Yes, the no excuses schools, along with much of the reformster movement, are straight out of the white guy world view.

Our Big Blind Spot 

White guys overcome obstacles all the time. All the time. Things do not come easily for us, and the success that we experience comes, as near as we can tell, from the exertion of our strength and smarts and willpower and hard work and grit.

And we literally cannot imagine how it would not be possible for any human being to exert their own strength and smarts and willpower and hard work and grit. We do not see that any sort of privilege is involved in being able to use all those tools to create our success. We are kind of like the person who can't understand why clinically depressed people don't just cheer themselves up. Or the teacher who stands in front of a class saying, "Well, just understand it. You're not trying."

Not a Contest

My intent is not to say "Waa! White guys have it tough, too." It's never useful when these conversations devolve into Who Gets Pissed On More contests. But if we're going to have these conversations, we're going to have to stop talking past each other, and that gets easier if we understand where the other person is coming from.

That's particularly true as teachers. As both the teaching pool and the student population diversify, and as American culture itself spreads out into a gazillion subcultures, our ability to reach across those lines becomes critical to our success and the success of our students.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

For White Guys

A few days back, I reported on a study that noted seven trends in the teacher workforce. Two of those trends noted were 1) the teacher workforce is getting more female and 2) the teacher workforce is getting less white. Whether it is synchronicity, or just heightened awareness, I've seen both of those topics flare up in various discussions about the interwebs.

While very aware of these topics, I have avoided addressing them because I am a white guy. And when it comes to issues of gender and race, I've always assumed two things.

         1) There are things that I really don't get.
         2) I have no idea what all the items under #1 are.

I am also painfully aware of the tendency that white guys have to turn discussions of gender in race into conversations about being a white guy.

But I am going to take some of my own advice and venture outside of my comfort zone. I will try not to presume to speak people of other races or genders about what they should know or do about being female or black or brown. Instead, I'm going to try to speak to my people-- white guys.


Guys, there are many things we don't get about being a woman. And I don't mean in a ha-ha women are so wacky with their crazy mysterious thinky parts. I mean like the degree to what it must be challenging to have to always associate intimacy and love with making yourself physically vulnerable to someone who is usually larger and stronger than you, and who, in the early stages of a relationship, you don't know if you can trust.

What do we guys do when we find ourselves in a situation where we're around people who can physically dominate us? We make nice. We even have a special pseudo-psychological term for little guys who insist on being aggressive instead of sensibly making nice (Napoleon complex). Women are in that situation pretty much all the time. Being nice isn't just the socially acceptable thing to do-- it's a survival skill.

At the same time, niceness is socially preferred in women. Society tells them constantly to play nice, be nice. If you are going to deal with women, particularly in a work situation, you need to check yourself. If you are going to ding a woman for being too nice and not sticking up for herself, you also cannot ding her for being uppity and pushy.

Keep that double ding in mind, because as I mentioned above, teaching is a mostly-female profession, and in some areas, that means we male teachers are being approached as if we are women-- play nice, don't talk out of turn. On top of that, we are going to find ourselves surrounded by lots of women who are not necessarily ready to step out of that mold and fight beside you. You can't fix that by yelling, "What the hell is the matter with you!" and you can't fix it by saying, "That's okay honey. You sit down and I'll take care of it."

If you're of my generation (high school class of '75), you grew up with some confusing and ultimately incomplete messages. You will also encounter young women who act like what we would have called feminists who insist they aren't feminists (as near as I can tell, the current definition of "feminist" is "woman who demands unreasonable things." women who advocate things like equal pay are just using common sense, and aren't feminists at all). But my experience is that if you treat them like individual human beings-- listen to them, hear what they want, help them see how to get it, offer advice when they want it and shut the hell up when they don't-- that all seems to work.

We guys are supposed to approach conflict like it's no big deal. Just whale the tar out of each other, then get a drink. Everybody's buds. No blood, no foul. But for women conflict is a more threatening thing. The good news is that that is mostly trained into them, not hardwired, and they can learn to leave it behind. Just not the same way we do. Be a coach, but not a mansplainer, and recognize when to step back and get out of the way.

And (and this is huge) if you are in a mostly-female building, recognize that you need to adjust to the culture of the building, and not insist that it get all manned up. In teaching, we are more likely to find ourselves in that position in the years ahead.

I've heard the complaints. How are little boys supposed to grow up when they are surrounded by women in school all day? Won't they get all infected with the womenny stuff? Shouldn't there be more men around so they have male role models?

Well, hold that thought.


My ignorance runs deep here. I'm a really white guy who lives in a small town setting where most of out black population belongs to one of the same five families that have lived here for generations.

Teaching is becoming blacker and browner, but-- and this is huge-- minority teachers are also leaving the profession at a higher rate than white teachers. So there's something wrong there, and I honestly have no idea what. Somebody really needs to figure it out, and soon. Because we need more minority teachers.

We need more minority teachers because we are going to have increasingly more minority students. Why? Remember a few graphs ago when you were worried about little boys not seeing anybody they could identify with at school? Same thing. Same. Thing.

Look, I know we were raised to think of ourselves as colorblind. There's a place for that, but there's also a way in which it can go horribly wrong.

As I try to explain to my students, racism is not just "Black people are all stupid and inferior." Racism is also, "Normal people are just like me. Everybody else is abnormal to whatever degree they are not like me."

"Black folks are just like me," sounds generous, but it's not, because it implies, "Like me. You know, normal. Oh, I know they look or act like they're not normal, but I'm willing to overlook those abnormalities, so they're really just a white guy like me." One of the privileges we enjoy as white guys is that we never have to explain any part of ourselves away. Even a term like "non-white" reinforces that-- we're defining race by whether it's normal whiteness or not. We are "normal" by default.

With that in mind, teaching needs to be a place where being black or brown is normal, and that is doubly, triply true in schools with predominantly minority populations. Yes, we white guys can do great work in those schools, be great teachers, even be great models of what it means to be a man. But we will never be somebody that a black seven year old can look at and imagine growing up to be. That's a valuable quality, and we will never have it.


I'm a big believer in individual situations. The chances of something working can be one in a million, but if you're the one, it doesn't matter. General rules of thumb, general tendencies, general ways to be and understand-- none of those matter in the face of particular specific situation. But you know what makes it easy for me to think that? I'm a white guy, and the general circumstances of being a white guy rarely ever get in the way of anything for us.

It would be enormously useful for us, when dealing with our female and minority colleagues, if we listen, and listen particularly with an understanding that other people on this planet navigate a series of barriers and obstacles that we pretty much never see. The fact that we don't see doesn't mean they aren't there, and -- hardest for us to accept -- the fact that we don't see them also doesn't mean that we don't have a hand in keeping them in place.

But if we are ever going to see them or understand them, we are going to have to listen and try to understand. And then, I think there's a question we are actually well-placed to help answer-- "If you didn't have to deal with obstacle X, what would you do?" Because if we could help remove the obstacles, people could do for themselves, and living in a world without those obstacles is a subject we're actually well-qualified to talk about-- not why you shouldn't be held back or why you shouldn't care about the obstacle or how we can do for you, but how much you could enjoy that world, if we could help make it.

Look, this is a hugely complicated set of issues, and that's before we throw in delineators such as socio-economics and sexual orientation. But I'm beginning to think that we white guys need to spend less time mansplaining to everyone else, start actually listening, and start talking to each other about what part we can play in  making a better world for everyone.

We Need Fewer Nice Teachers

A colleague tells the story of taking an on-line graduate course and being chastised for calling out fellow students for some fairly low-information posts on the topic. Could my colleague please be more polite, reword the posts so they were less "offensive." So he did, and the original posts were erased. The punchline, of course, is that the topic was censorship.

For some reason, it is often a problem in our profession that teachers value niceness over truth.

We sit in a professional development session and listen to a presenter give instructions that we know are questionable at best and just plain dead wrong at worst, but we nod and smile and politely avoid asking any questions or making any comments. After all, we don't want to be rude. We wouldn't like to make anybody uncomfortable. So the presenter leaves thinking he's hit a home run and we go back to our rooms and tell each other how terrible it was (but we don't tell our principal, because that would be rude).

When I was president of a striking union, I had many members who simply didn't want to do anything that might make anybody uncomfortable. Some members were pretty sure that the board and their attorney would be more giving and conciliatory if we were just nicer.

Sometimes this conflict avoidance turns teachers into institutional enablers. A principal creates a new policy that causes some problems, but rather than confront him with the problems, some classroom teachers go out of their way to fix the problem. In the worst version of this scenario, they then sulk because fixing the problem makes them sad, and they think the administration should see their sadness and feel compelled to address it. "Why don't they see the problem and fix it?" they ask. The answer-- because you fixed the problem already. The fact that you are now sad is not his problem. It is no more motivational than telling an alcoholic that you had to lie to cover up for him again.

This is not to say that we should not be team players and do our best for our schools. It is also not to say that we should be contentious shrews who pick a fight over every picayune peccadillo (how long have I waited for an excuse to stick those two words together).

Sometimes conflict happens, and you can only deal with it by dealing with it.

Trust me on this. It's one of the lessons I learned at Divorce School (or "Top Ten Ways I Blew Up My First Marriage") In ALL relationships in life, Rule #1 is You Must Show Up. When you run away or hide to avoid conflict, you break relationship rule #1.

People often blast Laziness as the big enemy of virtue; I think Comfort is far worse. We will go to amazing lengths to avoid being uncomfortable. Like a nice girl being pawed by a grade-A lout, we will allow ourselves to be victims of inexcusable indignities because we don't want to "be mean" or "cause a scene" or "make anyone uncomfortable."

Teachers do this way too much. Way too much. We avoid confronting or speaking out or just standing up and saying "I think that's wrong." We don't tell the truth, or we wrap it in comfortable layers of cotton until it is muffled and all its sharp edges are hidden.

But if you won't tell the truth, you can't be surprised that nobody hears it.

Given the choice between Being Nice and Telling the Truth (and we don't always have to choose between the two), pick Telling the Truth. Pick telling the truth. Show up. You cannot fix what's wrong in your relationship, whether it's with your spouse, your child, your students, your colleagues, your bosses, your profession-- you can't fix ANY of those relationships until you follow Rule #1 and Show Up. And you can't run away from an uncomfortable truth AND show up both at the same time.

Yes, sometimes conflict arrives when you wish it wouldn't. Sometimes we don't get to choose, just like the times that some student in a classroom does something so obvious and unmistakable that you sigh and think, "Well, dammit, now I have to do something." It's like your hungry crying baby or your parent with newly-diagnosed cancer or the spouse who announces they can't take it (whatever it is) one more minute-- you don't choose the fight, but to walk away from the fight is to walk away from the relationship. Sometimes you don't get to choose.

That's why it's generally no kindness to lie to people. And truthfully (and I say this as someone who used to, believe it or not, love Being Nice), Being Nice is basically a selfish impulse. It's not about making life easier for other people; it's about making life nicer, more comfy, for ourselves. Being Nice is not a virtue, particularly when it excuses running away from the truth.

The usual teacher niceness, our compliance, our love of rules, our belief in the hierarchy of schools, has been used against too often. Too many people feel they can kick us knowing that we will not complain, that we will in fact turn on any of our own number who do complain.

We don't have to be mean. We don't have to be unkind ("kind" and "nice" are not the same at all, but this post is already too long). But we do have to speak our truth. We do have to stop sitting silently when people say things in our hearing that are just not so. We have to stop taking attacks and slander on our profession because we don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable.

Believe it or not, I am not really a fighter. And one of my guiding principles is that life produces enough pain and challenge on its own, so it's a sin to make more pain and challenge in the world when you don't have to. Bu I also believe it's wrong to sit silent so that someone else can commit a wrong unnoticed and unchallenged. You can't just talk; you must also listen (also a whole other post). But you have to speak up. You have to value the truth over niceness.

The Attack on Higher Ed Continues in the NYT

In the battle for American education, new fronts (aka new profit and growth opportunities) have been opening up steadily from Pre-K and Pre-Pre-K all the way up to colleges and universities. Today's New York Times includes a peek at what the attack on colleges and universities will look like.

Kevin Carey says not only do American public schools suck, but so do American colleges and universities.

Kevin Carey is the education policy program director for the New America Foundation. NAF bills itself as a non-partisan thinky tank based in DC. Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, is chair of the NAF board. Their over-a-million-dollar funders include the Gates Foundation and the US State Department. They have their fingers in several pies in their search for bold new ideas that will make America sweller.

However, as presented in the NYT, their new ideas are not so new.

Carey's basis for saying that American public schools suck is that tired old chestnut, PISA scores. And his answer to the question, "How can we know how good our colleges are" is, "Another test from the OECD."

The new OECD project is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies and it is stunningly dumb. The OECD gave a test to 166,000 grown men and women with college degrees between the ages of 16 and 65. The test itself, with its alleged emphasis on "real world" problems of literacy and math, sounds plenty dumb on its own. But we don't have to look at the test to see how pointless this exercise is. The test-takers were from the thirty-four member nations plus Russia and Cyprus. So that means roughly 4600 test takers per country, and only some of that small sample were college grads. Whatever tiny data slivers that remained were used to judge the quality of every iteration of every college over the past forty-ish years. That also means that the OECD gave a test to a sixty-year old person and assumed that his results were indicative of the college education he received forty-some years ago, and nothing that happened during those forty years.

This is quote possibly one of the dumbest studies I have ever seen touted as fact. But Carey's point is that American's need to stop thinking that our colleges and universities are any good. Actually, I suppose the point (although he stayed away from this, perhaps realizing it shows the ridiculousness of the study) is that American colleges have been sucking for the last forty-some years. It's funny, because if our colleges and universities had been so bad for so long we might have noticed. I guess those wily graduates of Giant Suck University have been covering it up successfully.

But this is going to be the new line of attack. We have this test, and it proves that our colleges and universities are terrible. I wonder if the solution will turn out to involve government regulation and private corporate take-overs. I would try to figure it all out, but gosh, I graduated from an American college in 1979, so I am probably too dumb.

[Edit: I made a huge mistake. When rereading the NYT piece, I realized that the test was not given to 16-65 year old college grads, but apparently all adults. Meaning that the sample of college grads being compared is even smaller. I have edited the text accordingly.]

Friday, June 27, 2014

CAP Releases New CCSS Baloney Sandwich

For a couple of days I have had CAP's new "report" open on my desktop, trying to slowly drag myself through it. From its odd cover image (uniformed school children, grasping gigantic pencils; one tries to nonchalantly look at the other's paper, while the cheatee looks back with an expression of "Oh, no, you didn't") to its final pages of "endnotes" cataloging references to everything short of wikipedia, this "report" is a fine embodiment of the Thinky Tank As PR Firm school of advocacy.

"Roadmap for a Successful Transition to the Common Core in States and Districts" caught my eye thanks to a CAP tweet touting it as a document that"shows" how CCSS, impemented well, totally works. I think CAP has confused "shows" with "says." The "report" is actually a set of recommendations. Let's look, shall we?


At this point, these reformster puff pieces of CCSS praise pretty much write themselves. Roadmap of knowledge and skills needed for 21st century. End of rote memorization and bubble tests; it'll be all sunshine and critical thinking form now on. Evidence based. BUT despite the awesome, CCSS are in jeopardy Righties think feds overreach, but "no federal input" into standards (at least CAP doesn't try to claim they are teacher-written). And there have been some implementation bobbles that we need to work out. Teachers are "apprehensive" about test-based eval (nice word choice-- I hear many front-line soldiers are apprehensive about being shot and killed).

But good news-- we can save the Core. Just follow this handy list of recommendations and everything will be all hunky AND dory! The recommendations are summarized in the intro, but let's skip the foreplay and jump right into bed!

1. States and Districts should administer better, fairer and fewer.

So I see the heading and think, "Hey, something I can agree with," but CAP blows it in the very first sentence:

"Testing is critical to ensuring students receive a high-quality education..." Yes, just like a yardstick is necessary to growing tall and a scale is necessary to getting in shape.

It doesn't get any better. CAP's complaint is that the current tests aren't Common Core-y enough. They should be harder and more confusing. And states should all get in the national testing pool, because what good is a test if it doesn't let you compare your kid to a kid a thousand miles away. And we'll also invoke the children of military families because we need to remake the entire education system to accommodate that minute percentage of students, and yet there is no other subgroup we're worried about like, say, students with special needs or English Language Learners or primary grade students whose first encounter with a computer is to take a standardized tests. All of those students should suck it up and get some grit, but military students who move into new states should have a nation's education system designed around them. Also, if CCSS is not a curriculum, how does it help traveling students?

And with better tests, there should be no drilling or test prep. Because although the tests will show if a student is getting a complete education, it will not test anything related to actual knowledge? As long as there are standardized tests, there will be standardized test prep. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

2. States and Districts should phase in high stakes for teachers and students

I'm pretty sure the authors managed to write this section without including a single True Thing. Take this:

A meaningful system of teacher evaluation that assesses teacher performance across multiple measures, including multiple observations of classroom instruction, student feedback, and measures of achievement gains based on assessments over multiple years, can fairly and reliably identify effective teaching.

And so on. We'll use these VAMMY systems, even though they've been repeatedly debunked and proven inaccurate, invalid, and unreliable, and we will identify the best teachers and then we will, somehow, move them around so that students who previously had ineffective teachers will be given great ones. I've already explained how this is a massive crock.But let me do the short form.

In a 2011 study of 10 school districts across 7 states, the National Center for Education Evaluation found an “overall trend that indicates that low-income students have unequal access, on average, to the district’s highest-performing teachers,” and the distribution of effective teachers is uneven within
and across districts.

No. The study found that low-income students tend to get low scores on tests (not a new finding). The study then assumed that no other reason in the whole entire world could account for that except low-performing teachers, so that must be what kind of teachers the poor kids have.

CAP recognizes that teachers may have concerns about being evaluated by this cockamamie system, and while those concerns are valid, CAP recommends that schools do it anyway-- just not so fast that you spook the natives.

3. States should have statewide accountability systems that single out individual schools

Not how they put it, but my way has fewer words. Use tests to identify problem schools, redirect money and resources accordingly. Show no results because you didn't address the actual problems. Declare schools useless failures, announce that only closing them and bringing in charter operators will fix the schools. Fortunately, charter operators will not be hard to attract since area is receiving additional resources.

Okay, I actually skipped ahead. They only admit to the first couple of steps. I filled in the rest based on what we've already seen in great urban reformist areas.

4. States and schools must ensure that teachers are engaged in the development of—and have access to—comprehensive curricula and instructional materials aligned with the Common Core standards.

Least weaselly thing they've said so far. Giving teachers a fighting chance to adapt to new materials seems like a no-brainer, but a few years ago reformsters were so sure we could build the airplane while we were flying it that this objection was rolled over repeatedly. Nowadays fashionable reformistas are more into building the plane on the ground, so they're "discovering" this idea that teachers have been yelling at them for a while.

CAP points out that schools and states can do this design work on their own, but, hey, there are plenty of consultants out there just itching to cash in on the new standards help schools achieve excellence.

5. States and districts must invest in teacher preparation and ongoing professional development for educators. 

Speaking of consultants, there are many that would love to take your money for help you out with teacher training. And don't forget, states-- all college and university teacher training programs should be assimilated as well. It's easier to train them properly if you catch them young.

6. States, districts, and schools should provide additional time for teachers to collaborate and plan together. 

This is not stupid. Oddly enough, it's at this point that CAP chooses to bring up the example of what they do in high-performing school systems of other countries. You would think they would have already brought up examples of high-performing nations that organize their schools around a national system of standards-- oh! except there aren't any!

CAP points out that Finland, for example, has its teachers up in front of students several hundred hours per year fewer than we US teachers spend. And then CAP recommends that the solution here is to lengthen the school day. Damn, CAP. This was like shooting fish in a barrel and you still ended up spearing the family cat.

7. States and districts should engage educators, parents, and other stakeholders in the implementation effort

Parents, teachers, community members, businesses, institutions of higher education, and student advocates must be engaged regularly for the Common Core to be implemented successfully.

The fact that we're even talking about this as a recommendation is a sign of how far off track we've been. This is like including "put on pants before you leave the house" in a list of fashion recommendations. Put another way-- if this is news to you, shame on you.

But it does represent a change of direction for reformsters, who started this Journey to the New Status Quo thinking they could just snap their fingers and everyone would fall into line. Live and learn, I guess. Wouldn't it be wacky, though, if someone like David Coleman stepped up and said something like, "Yeah, I was kind of a dick about all of this, and I'd like to apologize for not considering your thoughts and feelings. I'd like to apologize, and I'd like to start over, and I'd like to begin our fresh start by listening to you, teachers, parents community members, etc."

But I digress. What CAP actually advocates is that districts should " partner with supportive nonprofits and other organizations across the state." So, not actual people. Just get hooked up with the right groups.

Schools should prepare parents and families for the revelation that their children suck (probably not looking to Arne for a model here). As for teachers--"States and districts must similarly engage teachers. Not only will it increase teacher readiness to teach to the Common Core, but it also recognizes that teachers are trusted ambassadors with parents and other stakeholders." CAP's point, driven home through the paragraph, is that teacher support is a great marketing tool. They even cite a 50CAN (another fine CCSS advocacy group) study indicating that teachers are most trusted when it comes to evaluating educational changes. No kidding! Who knew?

8. States should help districts get enough computers to take tests.

These tests are supposed to be taken online, because, computers. But those test-taking terminals computers aren't going to buy themselves. There's a boatload of money to be handed over, and it will have to some form somewhere.

9. States and districts should use available resources andguidance to improve the Common Core implementation process

That turns out to mean that states and districts should pick up some of these handy papers from various other CCSS-promotion groups. So, like a last "buy our t-shirts in the lobby" announcement.


Insert rewrite of introduction.

Bonus Round

Each recommendation comes with some tales from particular districts. Tales from Hartford's teacher eval system, North Carolina's Move Teachers Around program, Colorado's Involve Teachers in Writing Programs program. Some are just filler-- after the first (fewer tests) section, the anecdotes were of school districts that are definitely looking into probably doing something about that. I didn't find any of them compelling; perhaps you'll feel differently.


CAP wants you to see how researchy this paper is. However, almost none of the notes reference actual scholarly studies of any of the standards in action. There are plenty of newspaper articles, many commentaries from other reformsters on the topic of "What I Think You Should Do."In short, there is "proof" in this paper on the same order of the "proof" I include in this blog when I link to myself and to other bloggers.

Finishing Up

Since falling down the reformy rabbit hole, I've become kind of fascinated with this kind of faux scholarly paper product. CAP hasn't done anything more rigorous than what I do here at the blog-- state my opinion in a semi-organized manner, arguing for it based on my own ideas about what's right, what should be right, and how I think the world works. The less-than-serious tone and language I use is my way of acknowledging that this blog is just me, shooting off steam, generally based on nothing except my own powers of observation, logic and language. It would be foolish to use anything I've ever posted as "proof" of anything.

But this type of faux paper dresses it all up in the appearance of scholarship (look! endnotes!!) and slick layout, attached to an organization with a fancy name and slick production values. All of these fake thinky tank PR groups are doing their best to convey some sort of Great Authority when in fact they are just like the rest of us-- bullshitting some words about what they happen to believe is right and true, using some sort of political PR theater to add weight.

It makes me wonder how much undeserved power I could gather if I were an organization instead of a guy, and somebody had given me a huge grant to fancy things up around here. I don't begrudge CAP the right to get on line and express their own sets of beliefs about education, but the only difference between CAP and a Mercedes Schneider or a Jersey Jazzman or a Paul Thomas is that CAP comes wrapped in the finest veneer that money can buy (well, and the number of actual facts used, but let's let that slide for the moment). [Added value addendum: And it's a good pile of money too. From Schneider's research, we learn that CAPS got a nice piece of the Gate$ Foundation pie-- $6.4 million since 2008, with $550,000 specifically for CCSS.]

In other words, stripped of its glossy pdf file, using links instead of endnotes, and attached to its three authors instead of a big PR group, this would just be one more unremarkable blog post, and would probably sink into the same couple-hundred views ephemeracy as most blog posts. Beyond its repackaged same-old-baloney content, this "report" is one more example of how the reformsters depend on money to keep their point of view alive in the marketplace of ideas.

NEA Gives Unencouraging Assembly Preview

The NEA issued an open letter on behalf of itself and "the educators of America." It says something about my tortured relationship with my national union that when they speak, I become anxious. Are they going to say something useful, or are they going to embarrass me again? Let's see how things go this time.

We start with a history lesson. NCLB was a thing. It involved testing. The testing was swell insofar as it provided information "regarding students who struggle with basic math and reading skills." Really? It comes a little close to the whole "teachers don't know how students are doing without standardized tests to guide them" thing, but let's move on. "Test, label and punish" have failed. NCLB did not bring us any closer to edu-nirvana. And now, a video clip.

It's Dennis Van Roekel, trying to sound angry in a somewhat lifelike manner. As usual, he seems to shoot for "I'm angry and outraged that our profession is under attack" and comes up short, landing somewhere between "What do you mean, we're out of cucumber sandwiches" and "I am told that when humans get angry, they often exhibit some of these particular behaviors." 

The clip puts us in the context of the upcoming NEA assembly. DVR opens with the NCLB history lesson, declaring that we don't want any more of this bad testing. "We want a new path. We want high standards for all students no matter where they live or their family background." Dammit, Dennis. There is certainly nothing wrong with that on the face of it, other than it borrows the rhetoric of reformsters in general and the Vergara plaintiffs in particular. 

"We want assessments that help us truly understand where our students are struggling, but we are all tired over testing that now requires almost a third of our time." He follows up with more of the better testing complaints. Tests on materials that haven't been taught. Teachers evaluated on test scores of subjects they don't teach and students they never had in class. 

"It is time to end this toxic testing and implement real accountability for our public education system." I appreciate the sentiment. I actually like that after decades of punting on the issue, the union finally wants to get involved in accountability. But the very structure of this sentence supports the premise that student testing and teacher accountability are inextricably linked.

"As educators, we know what works." Along with "toxic testing," I think this is a sting of words we can expect to hear repeated many times. It's a nice line, but we're going to have to figure out what comes after it. What is it we know? 

DVR follows with an odd sentence about kindergartners and assessment, then jump-cuts to how race and class too often determine the line between "those who receive a quality education and those who do not." No. No no no. DVR here reinforces the reformster narrative that schools in poor and difficult areas just have a delivery problem, and not a cultural problem or poverty problem or readiness problem. Again, DVR isn't saying anything that the Vergara paintiffs wouldn't sign off on.

DVR would like us to join him in a national campaign to put the focus "back on student learning." Wait! What? Where else does he think the focus has been? That's not the problem-- reformsters will swear up and down that their whole focus is on student learning, or "outputs," or what we used to call "learning objectives (TSWBAT)." Everybody on all sides of the issues is focused on student learning (or at least pretending they are). The problem here is that some folks think a standardized test on a couple of subjects is the be-all and end-all of measuring student learning.

"We must call on leaders such as secretary Arne Duncan to start leading the effort to---" Wait!! Wait just a minute! Maybe some efforts could be lead by someone like, I don't know, the union leaders who represent millions of the teaching professionals in this country. Maybe they could be leaders!

All right-- this has degenerated quickly, but DVR has a list of things that somebody else should lead us in pursuing, so let's see what that list is, shall we.

     -- bring an end to excessive toxic testing
     -- provide equality of opportunity for each and every student
     -- develop new accountability system that prioritizes learning over labels
     -- provide best possible learning environment for our students

1 & 2 are swell. 4 is harmlessly broad. But 3-- what is that supposed to mean, exactly?

DVR is calling on everyone to sign on to this national campaign something. Also, parents and civil rights community and everyone who is a friend and supporter of public education. "Too many people want to isolate and divide us." So DVR would like us to join in a national campaign for student success. Meanwhile, the chyron touts a national campaign against toxic tests. So, something. 

For a finish, DVR reminds us that together we can reclaim our schools, our profession, and the future of our students. Did we already forget "the promise of public education," which was a really nice line.

The remaining text of the letter is a sort of different draft of DVR's speech. It actually has some better lines, like 

It is now 2014, the year that NCLB declared that all our students would be proficient. They are not.  What they are is tired of testing, and we are too.

It also expands on some of the parts of the speech, like explaining more clearly why poverty marks the line between educational haves and have-nots. This is a problem I've noticed with DVR (or his press flack) before-- when needing to edit for length, he does the job with a chainsaw and invariably cuts critical bits.

Remember DVR's list of four goals? In the text, it's three

      -- end the excessive and toxic testing in our schools
      -- develop a real accountability system that prioritizes learning over labels
      -- ensure that each public school is a place in which every student thrive

Sort of the same, sort of not. It's like this release was prepared by a committee of people who only communicated through e-mail, and not very often.

The letter ends with an opportunity to sign on in support.

It is nominally a step forward in the NEA stance, but still amounts to shuffling deck chairs, challenging some of the specifics of the high stake standardized tests corporate status quo, but not challenging any of the premises that create the foundation for everything else. I can support resistance that focuses on testing because high stakes testing is glue that holds the rest of the reformster complex together. But let's actually oppose standardized testing as a measure of all education. NEA is taking the stance that we object to being punched in the face too hard and too often; let's just come out against face-punching entirely.

Likewise, I would like to believe that NEA's use of reformster language is clever. After all, reformsters sold many of their programs by co-opting the language of civil rights, thereby presenting proposals that their opponents couldn't really oppose. It's a rhetorical ju-jitsu that has been alarmingly effective. So it would be cool if NEA were cleverly doing the reverse and presenting programs in language that reformsters couldn't object to. Sadly, at this stage of the game, I don't think the NEA is that clever. I'm inclined to think that the NEA proposals sound like something that reformsters wouldn't object to because they are something that reformsters wouldn't object to.

I hope that this years RA assembly will not be as disastrously anti-teacher as last year's, but there's not a lot to grab onto here. "Not as bad as last year" is a pretty low bar to set; clearing it would not be a great achievement, but it beats the alternative. 

Buy Mercedes Schneider's Book

Mercedes Schneider is pissed.

There are many things that come through in her book A Chronicle of Echoes, but what's most immediately palpable is her anger at what has been done to public education in this country. And as each chapter unrolls, it's impossible not to see why she is so angry.

Schneider is one of the most important bloggers in the edublogosphere. She is a tireless researcher, with a careful command both of statistical research tools and the tortured depths of government forms. What Schneider has done, time and time again, is use her research skills to act out the most standard, and yet most valuable, imperative-- follow the money. While many edubloggers stick to bold strokes or the part of the ice berg that sticks up in their particular neighborhood, Schneider repeatedly completes the painstaking job of connecting the dots.

Her blog is required reading for anyone concerned about the current battle for Amerian public education. Seriously-- over to the right of your screen is a list of blog links and you should be following the link to her blog (deursch29). But there were topics of enough complexity and detail that to really address them, Schneider needed to write a book.

A Chronicle of Echoes is a sprawling narrative the connects the dots, follows the money, and lays out how the reformsters have gotten their hands around the throat of public education. And I guarantee you-- no matter how closely you've followed events of the past several years, there is information in this book that A) you didn't know yet and B) you knew, but didn't know just how bad it was.

Here's the subject list by chapter:

     1) Joel Klein
     2) Eva Moskowitz
     3) Wendy Kopp
     4) Michelle Rhee
     5) Erik Hanushek
     6) Chicago Connect: Daley-Vallas
     7) Chicago Connection: Duncan (and Obama)
     8) Chicago Connection: Emanuel (with Obama)
     9) Paul Vallas (Philadelphia)
     10) Paul Vallas (New Orleans, Bridgeport)
     11) David Coleman and the Common Core
     12) Chester Finn and Frederick Hess
     13) Jeb Bush (Florida miracle)
     14) Jeb Bush (beyond the miracle)
     15) Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education and Chiefs for Change
     16) TNTP and StudentsFirst
     17) Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now
     18) National Council on Teacher Quality
     19) Stand for Children
     20) Black Alliance for Education Options and Parents Revolution
     21) Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)
     22) Aspen and Pahara Institutes
     23) The Big Three Foundations: Gates, Walton and Broad
     24) ALEC

Followed by almost 100 pages of endnotes (just in case you doubt her research chops.

The chapters are all stand-alone. Although an overall narrative emerges in the book, what Schneider has really written here is a reference book, an encyclopedia of reformster leaders and organizations. With meticulous research and plenty of quotes excavated throughout, this is a book to return to when one of your colleagues or even a civilian asks, "So what's that ALEC thing?" or "But doesn't TFA do great work?" or "Why do you turn purple and bulgy-eyed when I bring up David Coleman?"

The book is, in short, great arsenal support for you as you try to educate yourself or others.

A word of warning about Schneider's tone. I'm a big fan of her powerful mix of scathing wit and damning facts, but it is likely that someone who is new to these, a casual civilian, or just generally on the fence about ed reform issues may be put off by her tone. This is not a dispassionate attempt to lead the reader to a conclusion; this is "I'm pissed and I'm going to tell you why." It's justified, it's powerful, and it's appropriate, but not all audiences are going to make it past her anger to the mountain of facts it rests on.

If you are the kind of person who wishes everyone would just talk nicely about these things, I'm not going to have that argument with you now, but I am going to encourage you as strongly as possible to get this book and read for the facts and the details. If you know that person, your best approach may not be to simply hand them the book, but to share the facts from it.

Like Schneider's blog, this book is hugely important because it empowers a whole world of people in the resistance with facts, dates, details, quotes-- all the specifics that show what is really happening. It's the facts and figures, names and places, connections and quotes that help build a case and distinguish us from crazy-pants conspiracy theorists. This is a book to read and to keep on your shelf for ready reference. This is a book that tells you who did this, and how they did it.

If you weren't sure about picking this up when it first came out, or you meant to but didn't get around to it, I am telling you now-- buy this book. Mercedes Schneider is pissed, and she is also smart, witty, and well-grounded in facts and research. This is essential reading for anyone who supports public education. Get a copy today-- here, I'll even make it easy for you.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Do Feds Love Scalability?

It's time once again for the DOE's Charter Schools Program Grants for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools  competition. 

This program nominally supports the administrations love affair with scalability. The scenario that has been alluded to time after time is this:
           1) Many charters experiment with many educational thingies
           2) One of the educational thingies turns out to be super-duper awesome
           3) Super-duper awesome educational thingy is reproduced in every school in America

So, on the list of values that reformsters have simply presented as virtues without examination or discussion, let's add scalability-- the ability to take a product or service and expand it to the national market.

Scalability is not necessarily a great idea. Take the Krispy Kremes story. Krispy Kreme donuts started out as a regional success story, donuts that were hot and fresh and far above ordinary mass market donutry. And then they decided to go national, and turned out the best way to move the brand across the country was to make donuts that were pretty much the same as other mass market donuts. It used to be that you could only find Krispy Kremes in certain areas, and when you did it was a special treat. Now you can find them everywhere-- but there's nothing special about them at all.

Here in Western PA we have a convenience store called Sheetz. They are awesome, and not awesome in a Doing What Nobody Else Can Dream Of way, but in a We're Doing What Everybody Is Trying To Do But We're Doing It Right Way. Sheetz are what every sad 7-11 Kwickee Mart Gas and Speedy Food place in the country want to be. And they have studiously avoided scaling up to national size, and have instead remained regional and awesome.

What are the great successes in scalability? Well, McDonalds, Wal-Mart, various other fast food chains. I'm trying to think of an example of a product or service that has been scaled up to the national level and which is also synonymous with the very best in its field, and.... I've got nothing. Instead, it would seem that a big lesson of scalability is that it requires easily reproduced mediocrity.

If customers want the very best, they don't generally look for a nationally-scaled business.

Of course, if we stop looking at scalability from a customer standpoint and start looking it from the business operator's perspective, scalability shines up prettier than a semi-attractive bar patron viewed through 3 AM beer goggles.

For business operators, scalability is absolutely great. It is a super-effective way to make more money, move more of a product that is produced with inexpensive standardization, and force the market to bend to your concerns instead of your trying to react to the market.

Scalability is great for business operators and provides good enough-ish service for the customers.

Why would we want that as a goal for America's schools? Under what circumstances would it make sense to say, "You know this is a great way to teach our students here at Local High School, because the program is scalable"? Why would I as a classroom teacher decide that a program I designed myself specifically to fit the exact students in front of me-- why would I throw out that program in favor of some standardized scalable pablum that is supposedly good for any classroom in the country?

Scalability is a value for entrepreneurs. It has no value for students, teachers, schools and communities. It's unfortunate that the DOE sees it as a quality to seek out and reward. I look forward to DOE grants for Programs Producing Extreme Boredom and Schools With Exceptional Disregard For Individual Differences of Its Students.

Seven Trends in the Teacher Work Force

In April, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education released a paper entitled "Seven Trends: the Transformation of the Teaching Force." What the title lacks in sass and flash it makes up for in accuracy, and although the most recent data are from 2012, it still makes for interesting reading. Let's look at the seven trends.


Between the late 80s and 2008, the teaching force grew, and grew far faster than the student population.What happened? CPRE notes a couple of interesting trends.

Private schools added staff far faster than they added students, and charter school growth has contributed to the total number of teaching jobs. CPRE rejects these as large factors because those types of schools are a small portion of the total teaching world. Class size reduction, particularly on the state legislative scale like California, led to an increase in number of teachers needed.

The other three big growth areas were special area elementary teachers, ESL teachers, and (a biggie) pre-K teachers. High school math and science saw large gains. And the likely biggest contributing area-- special education.

The paper notes that the information is not supportive for either end of the political spectrum. Liberals who posit that rehiring all the laid-off teachers from recent years overlook the ballooning of the field before the massive layoffs of the economic crash. Conservatives who like to cry "bureaucratic bloating" at larger staffs ignore that it's private schools that did the most bloating.


The teaching force is getting older, though the trend has just about played out. If you are stuck in old-school thinking, you might conclude that this has great financial implications as a bunch of old guys retiring will reduce school costs. But nowadays, old teachers are a monetary nightmare because, pensions.

As a side note, the paper's authors note that retirements only represent 14% of teacher outflow! Fourteen percent!! The big math/science teacher shortage issue is not retirements, and it's not (see previous point) supply either-- it's people who just get out rather than make a lifetime career out of it. The "put great teachers in front of every student crowd" might want to chew on that one for a while.


So one big bump on the experience chart comes at the high end-- the other is at the newbie end. This point has been addressed in more depth elsewhere, but the bottom line is that the most common teacher is an inexperienced one.

There are interesting pieces of sub-data. For instance, of those newbs, roughly a third are over twenty-nine years old.

Greening has several implications. Instructionally, it can have an impact because, despite the anti-tenure crowd's complaints, most studies that show any link show that experinec generally goes with better teaching. Industry has long known the problems that come with too much turnover and the loss of institutional memory; schools can suffer form the same issue of simply having too few people left in the building who know how things work.

Greening also has implications for pension funds-- good ones, actually, as the number of people paying in can help bolster the system. And since this crop of newbies are highly likely to quit the profession early on, a large number of them will end up basically making contributions to the pension fund that will never have to be paid back to them. So thanks for helping to pay off my retirement, non-teaching newby.

More Female

I'll admit this one caught me by surprise, and it shouldn't have. In my own district we had an elementary building that didn't have a single male adult working in it-- not from teachers through secretaries through custodians.

The total number of male teachers has actually grown. But the number of females has grown twice as fast. The authors use several paragraphs trying to guess why, but nobody really knows.  The implications are likewise unpredictable, though the guess that turning teaching back into "women's work" reducing the respect and clout of the profession seems like a good one, and amply reflected in mostly male, mostly white reformsters' disdain for the profession.

More Diverse by Race-Ethnicity

While teaching is still a predominantly white profession, minority teachers are entering the ranks at a far higher rate than white teachers. That's the good news. The bad news is that minority teachers are leaving teaching at a far greater rate than white teachers.

Consistent in Academic Ability

You know the issue. Do teachers really come from the bottom echelons of college grades or SAT scores? And more importantly, do academic achievements have anything to do with teaching awesomeness, anyway?

CPRE determined that, if we sort first-year teachers by selectivity of college, about a tenth come from the top, a fifth come from the bottom, and everybody else comes from the middle. That doesn't seem to be changing.

Less Stable

This has been implied by most of the other categories. Teaching has become steadily less stable, with both attrition and moving from school to school on the upswing, and especially more so for minority teachers.

These researchers, who include Ingersoll, creator of the infamous 50% attrition figure, have fine tuned that number to something like 41%, but they would like to point out that since the total number of teachers has increased, percentages do not capture the growing raw numbers of teachers fleeing the profession, most commonly in their beginning years. Reasons given for leaving?

     * School Staffing Action-- 20.8%
     * Family or persona- - 35.4%
     * Pursuing another job-- 38.9%
     * Dissatisfaction-- 45.3%

What do we know? That of all the topics brought up in discussions of teaching staffing, the biggest one that we don't address is retention.

When reformsters start talking about getting a great teacher in each classroom, what they should really be talking about is attracting and keeping them. It's all great to talk about getting highly effective teachers into problem schools-- but how will you convince them to go there, and how will you convince them to stay. Spoiler alert: making it clear that you can fire them easily is NOT the answer.