Fordham and Hess Temporarily Acknowledge that Reformers Can’t Have it Both Ways

Voucher advocates are in an absolute tizzy over a recent paper from the pro-education-reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

It is truly a thing of beauty. Jay P. Greene is not amused. He is a titan in the ed-reformer ranks and the blog-host of such dandies as “New Column on Florida’s Anti-Testing Nihlists” (sic) wherein one finds wisdom touting the timeless benefits of testing and accountability such as “Since the advent of testing and reform, the nation’s most highly respected measure of academic achievement shows strong gains in Florida.” Precisely as a result of testing and accountability, mind you, Greene’s guest poster Matthew Ladner argues that “Florida’s residents and students are getting more of what they want, need and deserve from the public education system today.”

Jay P. Greene’s blog contends–or did, in 2012–that testing is an absolute boon for guaranteeing a quality education.

Long live testing!

But Jay P. Greene doesn’t think that way anymore. When the folks at Fordham had the unmitigated gall to suggest that voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs serving more than 10 students be subjected to the same testing regimes that traditional schools are subjected to–because, you know, accountability–Jay P. Greene became apoplectic, whatever that means.

Jay P. Greene said this: “test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools.”

Down with testing!

Isn’t it Diane Ravitch’s line that standardized tests fail to account for many of the benefits realized by schools? Or are Jay P. Greene’s sudden insights regarding the obvious limitations of standardized testing as a quality assurance tool somehow exclusively tied to testing conducted in “choice schools”? It’s all very confusing, isn’t it?

(Pro-testing Jay P. Greene needs to be careful or anti-testing Jay P. Greene might get placed on Diane Ravitch’s Honor Roll.)

So, in case you’re confused, let me summarize Jay P. Greene’s innovative arguments: Standardized test results and consequences driven almost exclusively by them are wonderful ways to hold public schools accountable, up to and including shutting down public schools, because public schools are funded by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayer has a right to expect accountability for the effective use of his or her taxes. On the other hand, standardized test results and consequences driven almost exclusively by them are terrible ways to hold voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs accountable, even though voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs provide the exact same service and are also funded by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayer would normally be right to expect accountability for the effective use of his or her taxes but is (for some reason) not right in expecting those things of voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs.

It’s the same public dime, isn’t it?

Look, you can have public funding with public accountability, or you can have an absence of public accountability and an absence of public funding. You can’t have the public funding and sidestep the public accountability. Sorry, that isn’t how it works.

And if choice advocates don’t like the public accountability system as it snarls at their weaker choice schools, someone should remind them that they all cheered as it tore “failing” public schools limb from limb. Oh, and they also insisted for years that choice schools would leave public schools in the dust, performance-wise. That was one of the reasons for promoting a choice system, wasn’t it?

Jay P. Greene can’t have it both ways. Either public funding should come with test-and-punish accountability, or it shouldn’t. There’s no need to parse that statement when applying it to “kinds” of publicly-funded schools, unless you’re trying to get by with something.

And, honestly, either way is probably fine with most of my peeps (you know, the “anti-testing nihilists”) who are probably more wound up about Jay P. Greene and Company’s blatant double standards–dating back to the dawn of corporate education reform–than they are about testing itself. (On a side topic, this is also the ethic among educators and their friends–pro-fairness–that animates much of the resistance to the Common Core. Many don’t oppose standards, per se; they oppose the cynical deployment of standards to create a testing shock that will then be used to justify a hostile private takeover of public education.)

These scary anti-testers (and, really, isn’t Jay P. Greene now officially an “anti-testing nihilist” too? Welcome to the club, Jay!) will probably get a whole lot quieter once there is fairness in accountability and publicly-funded schools of all stripes are treated the same way. That’s what it will take for the ed reform wars to end. Reformist concern trolls might as well keep their “can’t we all just get along for the sake of the kids” rhetoric to themselves; as long as they are asking for (and getting) policy favoritism, public education supporters will fight, write, blog, agitate, advocate, rally, strike, and opt out.

Especially when spokespeople like Jay P. Greene are pro-favoritism in education policy, rather than either pro- or anti-testing.

Well, the rub is this: fairness in school accountability is really bad for business, isn’t it? If all schools have to compete by the same rules, how is a start-up supposed to get a leg-up?

Hat tip to the increasingly semi-reasonable Rick Hess (not getting carried away) for highlighting the quotes from the formerly pro-test, now anti-test-but-pro-test-depending-of-course-upon-which-publicly-funded-school-will-have-to-give-the-test-and-get-the-labels-based-on-the-test Jay P. Greene.

So, the voucher movement has not surprisingly come out strong for stern test-based accountability for traditional schools, and for no test-based accountability for voucher schools and tax credit programs. This does not appear to be a very credible position to people of the fair-minded persuasion, though it does serve the fierce desires of certain constituents in the ed game. (Down with testing for privately-run schools; up with testing for publicly-run schools!)

Jay P. Greene is not alone among public education haters suddenly joining Team Ravitch in condemning corrosive standardizing testing. The Cato Institute also lashed out at Fordham (and inadvertently channeled/embraced/emulated/bolstered Diane Ravitch), writing this: “By forcing every school to administer the same tests, states would…stifle diversity and innovation… Common Core-aligned tests create a powerful incentive for schools to teach the same concepts in the same order at the same time.”

I haven’t found it yet, but I’m half-certain that line was cribbed from either EduShyster, United Opt-Out, or The Answer Sheet. I’ve heard that Cato Institute is now under consideration as an honorary BAT. (I’m only shocked that Twitter hasn’t yet tagged CATO’s line a #corespiracy.)

Hess, while somehow concluding that he agrees with Jay P. Greene and the Cato dudes he had only just dashed against the stones of logical consistency, rightly noted the infuriating hypocrisy that prior to seeing the light about testing (which occurred at the precise moment, it must be noted, when it was merely suggested that testing be applied to their choice schools) “many choice advocates have long slammed districts and promoted school choice by pointing to reading and math scores.” (Um, first of all, der; and second of all, wouldn’t the “many choice advocates” in this quote include one Frederick Hess? And in stating his agreement with the people he just undressed, Hess’s conclusion to the article is what one might call counterintuitive, if by “counterintuitive,” one means that he proved one point and then disowned it at the end of the article, using logic apparently from another dimension.) At least Hess has “sympathy for those who feel like (Jay P.) Greene’s position constitutes something of a bait-and-switch, with choice advocates are (sic) changing the rules when it suits them.”

By the way, I don’t want sympathy. I want education policies that aren’t 100-proof sabotage chased with naked double standards.

And wait. “Feel like?” We “feel like” a guy going suddenly from pro-testing to anti-testing is “something of” a bait-and-switch. It’s a feeling, not a fact? Really? That’s like saying we “feel like” water is “somewhat” wet.

Then again, I remember how generous the reformers have always been about Ravitch’s change of heart.

Being adamantly pro-testing while the tests are used to undermine traditional public schools and then flipping a switch and becoming thoughtfully anti-testing when the same tests threaten to gauge the quality (or publicize the lack thereof) of private schools that are funded with public money doesn’t “feel like” a bait-and-switch.

It *is* the height of cynicism.

(H/T to EduShyster for trailblazing new ways to use the asterisk. Not since “@” was called upon for service in sending emails [probably by Bill Gates] has a punctuation mark been so ennobled.)

Let’s not soften what Jay P. Greene has done here, Mr. Rick Hess. He has switched his opinion to its polar opposite when the same logic he long applied to the schools he wants to kill was applied (entirely fairly) to the schools he wants to save and replicate. Jay P. Greene even tossed out this gem to bolster his point: “score increases may well be just an artifact of…schools deciding to start prepping students for that high-stakes test… Fordham is confusing real learning increases with test manipulation.”

What? Standardized test scores don’t accurately reflect quality of education? Didn’t Jay P. Greene’s blog once call people who think that way about testing “nihilists”? At any rate, I have been told (by reformers) that test prep is just fine if the tests are built on the standards that kids were supposed to be mastering. What happened to that chestnut?

Where was all this refreshing nuance when Jay P. Greene was pro-standardized test? Oh, I know where it was: Diane Ravitch was using it, and Jay P. Greene was blasting her for it. The test-and-obliterate shoe is now on the voucher-y foot, and our friends in the choice movement are suddenly all-excuses.

New motto for the reformers: “Test them. Don’t test us.”

That way, when traditional public schools fail the tests, the powers that be can close them and give their funding to someone else. And, miracle of miracles, that someone else will be able to run a voucher school that can never fail and never be closed and never lose its funding, because they will never give the tests and never publish the results.

Is this approach really in the public interest?

Situational accountability, you might call it. Accountability for thee and not for me. Unfairness has always been the rallying cry of the reform critics’ movement, and it always will be because it was never the golden apple of education reform that disgusted us but rather the writhing worms that from the start found a welcome home there.

I also love how at the end of his article, Hess is suddenly “concerned about relying too heavily on reading and math scores.” Wow, did this just occur to him? Hess sounds like Gerald Bracey, only he’s about three decades late to the “let’s keep an eye on the risks inherent in all this testing-and-punishing” party.

Accountability politics have been used to drive a stark narrative about public schooling since at least 1983. Now that the same sharp sword is merely imagined against the throat of voucher schools, advocates are squealing, “No fair.”

Bad news for the voucherites, though. When vouchers are widely introduced, the general public won’t be deferential enough to buy the “no tests for us” line as long as tests are used to judge traditional schools. That dog won’t hunt. People aren’t that dumb. The shock of their doctrine will shake their schools, not only ours.

Hey, while I’m extolling the virtues of reformers like the almost-honest Hess (I would drop the “almost-” if it hadn’t been for his “some may feel like this 180 degree change of opinion may be something of a hint of a smidge of a trace of a bait-and-switch” bit of airbrushing) and my new test-resisting comrade Jay P. Greene, let me also pat one Alexander Russo on the back, if only for highlighting this piece from Jacobin magazine. (There’s a middling chance that Russo may be linking to it solely because he likes to highlight disagreements in union town.)

I like Randi Weingarten. I’m not in a collective bargaining state, but her willingness to engage with critics on Twitter has always impressed me. She has been wrong on a some occasions, but we all have. Holding hands with Bill Gates a few times (joint appearances, joint statements, that sort of thing) was always going to be a tough sell when he has dough-horned into place a bunch of suspect policies that, despite the “we just want to help kids” rhetoric, seem to echo the tape-recorded priorities of folks like Jonah Edelman more than those of parents, students, teachers, and communities.

Embracing VAM, then, was also a mistake. She is calling it a sham today, and I am with her. I’m also with the group that celebrates this shift rather than wanting to punish her for not doing it sooner. Having said that, though, I’ve noticed that even Bill Gates has taken to speaking in general terms softly against VAM and over-testing, even while letting the value-added and standardized fires his organization stoked continue to burn unabated through our schools, as Anthony Cody has noted. My state only recently signed off on a federal waiver that requires standardized test scores to be tied to teacher evaluation. (Implementation of this policy will be a huge fight in Texas, I predict. We’ll see.) But these kinds of VAM-nostic comments from Gates smack of triangulation when the Gates Foundation is at the same time withholding a $40 million grant it had offered the Pittsburgh school district because the union and management won’t agree to partially test-based standards for punishing teachers that are “more stringent than those used to evaluate teachers elsewhere in Pennsylvania.”

That’s teacher-mean Gates. Cue teacher-kindly Gates: “as states and districts rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems, there is a risk they’ll use hastily contrived, unproven measures.” Kindly Gates also notes that education leaders must be “careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust…”

Agreed. But while he says this, the actions of his Foundation come way too close  to saying, “VAM is bad; now use it or give us back our money.” (Too close for my comfort, anyway, and probably the comfort of lots of public school advocates, who–remember–are supposed to trust these systems, and, presumably, the people pushing them)

So union members are understandably a bit cautious about Weingarten’s “VAM is a sham” campaign. Is it also triangulation, meant merely to calm the sheep until they are coaxed irrevocably in the privatizers’ chute for a good fleecing? I hope it isn’t.

So is Russo linking to this piece because he loves Karen Lewis’s approach to unionism in Chicago, which is touted in the piece but is decidedly not as pro-reform as Russo’s “This Week in Education” blog? (I know, tweets do not equal endorsements. It appears that Russo just thought this was an interesting take, and it is.) Anyway, the article definitely endorses a more confrontational approach by teacher organizations because, as it notes, collaboration has gotten teachers some of the following winning policies:

1. a “Camden…school superintendent who was never a school principal and barely taught.” (Not at all uncommon for quote-unquote-CEOs to run schools; and this kind of business-values leadership has resulted in pretty uniformly anti-community and anti-teaching-as-a-profession governance processes at the local level.)

2. “music and gym teachers…have received unsatisfactory evaluations because students’ math or language arts scores on standardized tests haven’t risen enough…” (Emphasis in original; I love how reform-reformers like me always use exasperated italics and exclamation points when we note that teachers are getting evaluated poorly [and potentially fired] because they fail to raise the test scores of kids they don’t actually teach in subjects they don’t teach [in fact, I had a hard time just now resisting using italics on "they don't actually teach"]; the plain offensiveness and ludicrousness of this inexplicably-common policy seems so plain to us because we think, “That could happen to me,” and we can’t figure out how non-teachers aren’t recoiling violently when they hear about such clearly unethical policies, which makes us feel very alone and forsaken by our neighbors.)

3. “prinicipals trained by the Broad Academy to demand the power to fire teachers at will, with no legal or contractual protections.”

Anyway, the point of the article is that union leadership should accede more to bottom-up democratic principles in charting the path of the union. I’m no union expert by any means, but my only critique of the article is a simple question: union leadership is elected, isn’t it? If so, isn’t that where the membership exerts its pull.

Anyway, the article is very insightful. It notes that a recent issue of the AFT’s American Educator magazine doesn’t include anything that “explains that the neoliberal project is based on destroying unions, especially teachers unions” which is “a reality that won’t go away if teachers show that we want to work with politicians who do the bidding of powerful elites who are explicit about their aim to marketize education.” And, indeed, that aim seems pretty transparent to many of us.

That quote is in fact a good snapshot of the criticism many teachers have of reform as a whole. They don’t possess the trust in reform that Gates insists is necessary in order for it to fulfill the stated aims of reformers and help improve our schools and nation. Reform skeptics believe that not only VAM but all of education reform is a scam. (For many, this includes the great standardizing hope, the Common Core State Standards.) And the reformers don’t appear to be doing anything more than cosmetic, anything empowering or significant, to build trust among teachers or to listen to them. Except maybe, temporarily, for Hess and Fordham, and my feeling is that this nugget–that voucher schools should face accountability too–is an aberration and will likely be quickly followed by a retraction and a coalescing of the ranks around the precious double standard that the school choice movement must protect in order to guarantee an eventual victory in its war of attrition against public education.

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Disproportionate Evaluative Rigor and The Three Laws of Data

I promised in a recent post called The Tyranny of the Datum to write about some guiding standards for appropriate data usage, in the spirit of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and I will do that here today. Before I get to that, though, I’d like to briefly discuss–in a general sense–what I see as a fairly blatant disproportionality in evaluative rigor as applied to various facets of K-12 education.

A frequent complaint about the educational “status quo” has been that there is too little evaluative rigor. This complaint has been raised by those who note that high percentages of teachers are rated highly proficient by their appraisers even when comparatively lower percentages of students pass their required state tests. The suggestion is that the evaluation mechanism is broken and isn’t therefore adequately identifying strong versus weak teachers. The blame for this is generally placed at the feet of teacher unions, which are blamed by reformers on the left and right for protecting bad teachers and, as a consequence, compromising the teaching profession and harming students. The proposed remedy is increased evaluative rigor in the form of appraisals tied–in some percentage or another–to student test scores. This cause has been embraced by the federal department of education, and such appraisal requirements are embedded in waivers from No Child Left Behind. My state of Texas–a recent recipient of a federal NCLB waiver–will begin piloting a new teacher appraisal system that ties student test scores to their teachers’ job performance appraisals soon.

Another area where we hear calls for more rigorous evaluative protocols is in teacher preparation. Many of the people who have tasked themselves with improving the American K-12 public education system (deemed failing as a result of its students’ performance on international standardized tests primarily, and, secondarily, due to the high percentage of graduates requiring remediation when they enter post-secondary institutions) have identified teacher training as an area of weakness. Individuals and organizations have devised sometimes controversial rubrics for judging these programs and have released their results to the public. Others have suggested tying student test scores not only to their teachers but also to the teacher prep programs that trained their teachers. This is, to steal a quote from my book Test-and-Punish, like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except that it’s Six Degrees of Student Test Scores.

These are only two examples of the increased evaluative rigor that has become, ahem, de rigueur. I could also point to increased fiscal scrutiny facing public schools–in Texas, for example, we have the half-decade-old FAST reporting system from the Comptroller’s office. It rates schools based on a comparison of their spending to their test scores. (The test scores appear to be the linchpin for all comparisons and quality conclusions.)

I’m not complaining about evaluative rigor. As a person who values public education as our nation’s greatest equalizer–the most effective and broadly-implemented social structure we have that mixes our classes and races and let’s them not only get to know one another but also, in theory at least, let’s them struggle together against a common foe of ignorance, as well as against one another for preeminence in the classroom–I want public education to be great. I wish the system that I’ve given my adult life to were above reproach, but it isn’t.  Adequate evaluation is vital. I have concerns that we are over-extending and misusing student test scores fairly pathologically, but that doesn’t mean that I oppose improvements to our procedures for judging schools, administrators, teachers, and teacher prep programs. Certainly improvements are possible and necessary.

My concern, then, isn’t that I think we should evaluate less in K-12 ed. My concern is that many prominent voices appear to be extremely disproportionate in their calls for evaluative rigor. A few brief examples are in order.

1. Louisiana officials have resisted subjecting voucher schools to the same test-based accountability systems that traditional schools in that state are held to. The rationale for this distinction was that the free market would be the accountability, that parents would choose to send their kids to the better schools and the worse schools would close for lack of business. But, of course, in a system of choice, the public schools are also a choice, so you would think the free-market-in-lieu-of-test-based-accountability argument would extend to those schools as well. It did not. Rigorous accountability for purposes of evaluation remained for the traditional public schools. The great wrong here is not the accountability system (although it most likely had its flaws). The big problem was disproportionate evaluative rigor.

2. Charter school application processes have in many states been rubber stamp parties. Ohio–where the school choice juggernaut known as the Fordham Foundation resides–has some of the nation’s most lax charter authorizing practices, and also some of the nation’s most underperforming charter schools. In other states–my own included–it has come to light that many charter school applications are literally copied from other charter schools’ applications. This floors me: schools that are introducing themselves to the public as potential academic caretakers of our children commit the capital academic offense of copying right out of the gate,  on their very first assignment. And yet, for all the hue and cry over a lack of rigorous evaluation in our teacher prep programs, there is very little noise when it comes to evaluative rigor in charter authorizing. The disproportionality is the thing.

3. Charter policing is also often lax. This is perhaps to be expected, as charters were initially devised as vehicles for innovation (as opposed to profitability, which today sometimes takes precedence), and were therefore freed from many of the regulations that apply to traditional schools. However, the deregulation that was intended to create instructional advantages for children has been repurposed to provide competitive advantages for businesspeople and investors. As a result, the number of charter schools with major financial and academic performance problems that actually get closed down is surprisingly small. Choice as an inherent good has overshadowed any calls for quality control in the school choice movement, while the same people advocating for school choice have been relentless in their quest for ever-higher bars that traditional schools must clear.

There are certainly many more examples of disproportionality in evaluative rigor as it is applied to aspects of traditional K-12 education versus aspects of reform K-12 priorities, but I don’t have time to cover them all this morning.

Somewhat relatedly, there appear to me to be fairly low standards for determining how data should be used in education. Here are my suggested Three Laws of Data:

1. Data belongs to the human who generated it.

2. Humans should always be informed when their data is being collected and analyzed.

3. If data is being aggregated for the purposes of creating a value meant to reflect positively or negatively on a human, that human should have ongoing access to the aggregated data and the formula that will result in the final value, so that the human has an informed opportunity to rectify any performance-related issues that might compromise his or her final score.

I’m sure there are other considerations. This is my first swipe at data rules. I’m also sure there are complex documents on this topic from the AERA and the testing companies, but what I’m advocating is a brief and easy-to-understand set of ironclad rules for regular people to be able to cling to in our data-informed future. Also, I’m not strictly thinking about educational data. I’m also thinking about credit scores, Google advertising data collection, and so forth.

Whether we speak of traditional education’s totems or the icons of nouveau reform, the rigor of our evaluations should be the same. We should be particularly mindful to carefully vet standards for our use of data, given how central data will be (and already is) in this field.

 

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Ed Reform’s Atari Problem

My cousin John Michael had the first Atari I ever saw. Not long after, my cousin Philip got one. I went to their houses every chance I got, and while I was there I hogged their video game machines as much as I could.

I still remember the spongy feel and new plastic smell of the black joystick. The word joytick itself, as vintage as it seems today, was back then positively futuristic. We played the biggies: Space Invaders, Asteroids. I liked a game called Stampede and another game where you ran back and forth catching bombs in a bucket of water. Philip showed me Haunted House at some point. I thought it was a dazzling mystery. You had to navigate rooms in search of stuff, and you had to find that stuff in order to be able to find other stuff. Agatha Christie had nothing on that game. Once, I spent the night with a friend named Micah and he introduced me to Defender. This was a game I’d seen in the movie theater arcade, and here we were playing it on a little TV sitting in my buddy’s bedroom floor. These were incredible times for a fifth grader.

I thought I had seen the future. I thought Atari would take over the world, especially after John Michael asked me to come over and play a new game called Pitfall. It was a whole new experience: instead of Asteroid’s black background and two or three faded pastels coloring the ship and the hurtling space rocks, Pitfall had a blue sky, brown dirt, and bright green vines and alligators.

“These graphics are amazing,” I must have said. It would have probably been the first time I said it, but like all video game fans I would say it countless  more times during my youth, though not about Atari.

Atari was the fastest-growing US company in history. It was, that is, until “Atari Shock” hit in 1983. The unthinkable happened: the future that I had held in my hand, complete with its springy red button, died an inglorious death.

We kids wondered what happened to Atari when the console and its games disappeared from store shelves.

There were, I would discover years later from a documentary, many reasons for the abortive start to the home video game industry. Atari wouldn’t pay royalties or list credits, so its best programmers quit and founded Activision. Imitators followed, and Atari lost the ability to ensure game quality. The market became oversaturated with poor quality games and knockoffs of successful titles. Home computers hit the market in those days, too, compounding the other issues.

But the biggest problem was one facing my industry of education today: high-profile products were rushed to market and disappointed end users. Specifically, Atari rushed the development of Pac-Man and a game based on the hit movie E.T., hoping to have them in stores for the Christmas shopping season.

They met their deadline with inferior products, and word of mouth spread. Atari produced large numbers of each title in anticipation of brisk sales that never came. After the Pac-Man debacle, Atari’s CEO was let go. E.T. was in development for only six weeks and was panned by everyone with thumbs when it came out.

The home video game industry would come roaring back in the Nintendo era, but the lessons of Atari’s false start are instructive. They are especially instructive in today’s high-profile education-innovation industry, which is so keen on rushing untested ideas into practice that multiple people in multiple contexts have described their activities as akin to “building an airplane in the air.” (If that doesn’t instill confidence, I don’t know what will.) When one of the trademark analogies used to express foundational values of a movement is literally an impossibility of physics, stalwarts of said movement might want to specifically rethink their attitude toward the market.

Here are some examples of poor quality control in the industry, in case a single hackneyed saying isn’t enough evidence for you.

1. No Child Left Behind insisted on judging schools based on the absolute passing rates of students. Years later, it is fairly universally-admitted that schools serving large percentages of at-risk, impoverished, or special needs students should have been recognized for progress, as it was unlikely that they would ever meet the absolute passing rates easily attained by suburban schools that are often hubs of family stability and learner security. Educator protestions along these lines were quickly dismissed with the label of “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Suddenly the nation’s most egregious racists were inner city teachers being tsk-tsked for saying, “Hey, wait a minute. This isn’t fair.” Years later, the gripes of those teachers are commonly acknowledged as completely legit and progress measures are being built into next-generation accountability consoles (at least in my state). But has anyone ever admitted that what was derided as “soft bigotry” was actually sensible accommodation in the face of our nation’s long-standing and little-challenged inequities? The injustice of this boggles the fair mind.

2. Value-added measures have unapologetically rated teachers based on the test scores of students they never taught, in subjects they never taught. The thrill of ranking drives reformers so giddy (efficiency-drunk is the scientific term) that, when confronted with the inconvenient reality that half the teachers teach stuff that doesn’t have a state standardized test (like art, agriculture, business, or culinary arts, to name four examples), they felt justified in having those teachers simply pick a subject that was tested and then get stuck with those results as their personal “value-added” score. “How much value did you add this year?” you could ask these teachers. “Well, based primarily on the scores of students I never taught on a test over a subject I know nothing about, I added x amount of value this year,” they might reply. Bitterly. This is textbook. The title of the textbook is How You Create an Intense Opposition to Your Movement of Education Reform. These are the indiscriminate drone strikes that turn entire families against your imported governance. The injustice of this boggles the fair mind.

3. Common Core tests were unleashed on schools in certain states when large numbers of teachers were saying they hadn’t had time or sufficient professional development to get their students ready. Before the tests were given, leaders in multiple sites predicted 30% pass rates. This prediction would have been more impressive when it came true if these same leaders didn’t set passing scores after collecting the tests and finding out what percentage would pass given one cut score versus another, thereby allowing them to guarantee that 30% would pass. Meanwhile, the Godfather of Reform (Jeb Bush, not James Brown) spouted that he hoped the sure-to-come dismal results on Common Core tests would open the eyes of suburban parents to the crappiness of their by-all-appearances-successful public schools. “Don’t believe your lying eyes,” he may as well have said. “Believe these ‘objective scores’ that my friends and I play with behind closed doors.” One of those good friends, of course, insisted on secretly adjusting the A-F school grading scale in Indiana when a charter school owned by a campaign donor would have scored a C under the previously-established grading rules. (People pull this same sort of junk–changing the rules midseason to benefit a certain team–in fantasy football leagues and lose friendships over it.) This same guy–defended as the ‘class act of the reform movement’ after the grade-changing incident–had repeatedly refused to make adjustments to the system when traditional schools’ leaders complained of problems with the accuracy of the grades. Is it any wonder, then, that reform critics are so fired up when confronted by reform’s perfect storm of incompetence, hubris, disdain, and tonedeafness? When teachers and school leaders have called for a moratorium on CCSS testing in order to give teachers and students a moment to learn them, ‘the fierce urgency of the now’ has shouted them down. These test scores needed to be released in time for the Christmas rush, when reform revelers line up to condemn public school teachers and need fresh ammunition. And again, when Diane Ravitch suggested piloting the standards before rolling them out wholesale to the entire nation and testing kids on them (and denying kids graduation based on them, and firing teachers based on them) she was dismissed as over-cautious. The product would be rolled out, asap. There would be no time for de-bugging, no matter the (human) consequence. The injustice of this, again, boggles the fair mind.

Ultimately, the free market school reform movement will be undone or perfected by the free market of ideas, whether its champions and CEOs like it or not. The consumer of reform will reject half-baked ideas and false gods of faux excellence (faux-cellence?). The final judgment may be delayed by political games and marketing, but it can’t be avoided. The education-like products peddled by think tanks may easily win over politicians, but the consumers (parents and teachers) won’t buy it unless it is good for the kids and the students and subjects they cherish. Word of mouth is tearing down the reform monolith at the local level even as I write, only the reformers can’t entertain the notion. They are ordering millions of units of their latest buggy brainchild, supremely confident that the moms of suburbia will buy it. And when the moms don’t buy it, the politicians will beat a hasty retreat and the reformers will flash their teeth and insult them as uneducated consumers on their way out the door of the market where their wares don’t move.

And school reform Atari will close up shop, to be replaced by the Nintendo of sensible, responsive, and collaborative education reform that admits it needs teacher and parent support, and can only get it by listening instead of lecturing. I predict that this–2014–is the year that reforms driven by teachers and parents take center stage, and reforms driven by hedge-funders and ex-governors finally get gonged.

The only real question I have is whether the top-down Common Core State Standards will survive their association with the hot mess that has been top-down test-and-punish reform. I sense either a restart wherein CCSS is visibly divorced from the larger reform movement and opened up to a messy democratic process of critiqueing-and-tweaking by educators and parents in each state–over the vigorous protestations of the in-control-crowd–or else it goes down with the ship.

Either way, the end of the story will be buy-in among end users. If the reform camp can’t get that, their competitors will.

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The Tyranny of the Datum

Data is a big deal. A great deal of innovation is happening right now in the field of data collection, storage, and management in the field of education. There are some well-documented fears among parents and teachers regarding these trends. Who will control the data? How will the data be used? Will my child’s data be protected? The worst-case scenarios–data misuse, hacking, data misrepresentation, a great sabotage of American schools–are downright terrifying.

Some education watchers and commenters, meanwhile, are enthusiastic supporters of a more data-informed future in our schools. They note the promise of more effective daily practice informed by accurate and timely information about student performance–more data than ever before is available, as are technological tools far more powerful than ever before, placed in the hands of educators. The best-case scenarios–individualized highly-effective remediation, personalized educational experiences, de-tracking and de-grading students, a great flourishing in American schools–are dizzying in their hopeful promise.

There is a great deal of conversation that occurs online about the various particulars surrounding educational data. Like much educational discourse in social media, it is fascinating, if occasionally (or often) strident.

It goes without saying that data is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, human history is decorated with moments wherein men and women made astounding discoveries on the basis of their analysis of extant data. From Madame Curie to Einstein to George Washington Carver–and outside of science too, in worlds as diverse as music and gastronomy and exploration–the greats have always relied on information they had access to when making their discoveries. Data is the raw material for effective decision-making. If you know there is an iceberg ahead soon enough, the Titanic doesn’t sink.

Data should indeed inform decisions. And, indeed, educators need data at their fingertips.

But data should come with some serious warnings, and we’ve seen just how bad things can get in education. The way I see it, there are at least 4 major dangers when it comes to data.

1. While data (plural) should inform, each datum wants to rule alone. In an America that is uncomfortable with nuance, we have two dominant political parties, two dominant soda brands, and so on. We like to reduce things to manageable-if-extremely-imprecise chunks. As such, a single datum such as a Standardized Test Score–like the ring in The Lord of the Rings–invariably wants to take over. Data-informed quickly gives way to data-driven, and then data-driven gives way to datum-blinded. And that is, in my opinion at least, where we live today.

2. Data wants all your time and money and effort. There is a dictum that says something along the lines that the more a certain measure counts in social sciences, the more likely it is to pervert the whole process of measurement. If test scores are everything and have “high stakes,” then it is practically inevitable that end users will short-circuit the system in a single-minded effort to get good test scores. In a similar vein, I propose that the more a certain datum counts, the more time, money, and energy–all of which are limited–will be devoted to it. If the test suddenly becomes THE MEASURE, we will at length convince ourselves that it isn’t enough to test a sampling of students. We must test them all. And we will convince ourselves that it isn’t enough to test them every few years. We must test them every year, and not only that, we must test them at the beginning, middle, and end of the year, in order to see progress on the one datum that matters. Because this data, it’s the thing. It’s THE thing. Education was THE thing, but now this one tiny datum is. Data is ultimately a great and tricky usurper. We are like a hunter who once hunted deer but then got sidetracked by obsessively examining deer tracks. We became experts at deer tracks. Now we hunt deer tracks. We make molds of them. We hang them on our walls. We haven’t seen a deer in ages, and we can’t really figure out why we’re so hungry. But we have a great spreadsheet that sorts our deer track collection by circumference, regularity, and a hundred other criteria. Because deer tracks are important for finding the deer, only we kind of forgot about the deer.

3. Data is useful for correcting course, but it is also useful for charting a course straight for the iceberg. Data, like fire and shotguns, is neither intrinsically good nor bad. In fact, like fire and shotguns, it can be a life-saver when used properly in the right circumstances, and it can be deadly when used improperly in the wrong circumstances. Teachers and parents who get labeled “anti-testing” (because, again, nuance is hard) are often not at all against testing. The vast majority of the so-called “anti-testing” teachers give tests in their classrooms. So it isn’t the test that motivates much of the opposition to reform. And it isn’t the data, either. It’s the fact that many, many stakeholders don’t trust the people hoovering up the data to use–they presume, because of their experience with the school reform movement as it has unfolded–against students, teachers, and schools. The vocal opposition we see to data collection efforts like inBloom, to curriculum standards (which define the data to be collected) like the Common Core, and to tests (the data source) like the MAP can all be traced back, largely, to two things: (1) dismay over how much class time is sacrificed for the all-encompassing data hunt, and (2) a foundational mistrust regarding the aims of those who gather and control the data. If your dad brings home a new baseball bat, it’s a pretty happy time in the family–unless your dad has been in the habit of beating the family with blunt objects. Data is that baseball bat. A better analogy might be a doctor who causes his patients pain unnecessarily with his medical equipment. Patients are naturally going to resist going in for procedures that the doctor says are “good for them” if they know it will come with excessive pain. There is a vigorous campaign online and in the papers and political buildings to discredit opponents of school reform as just so many Chicken Littles “defending the status quo” and sticking their heads in the sand. A salient question, though, is this: has the sector-controlling school reform movement, going back to the dawn of No Child Left Behind, wielded data honestly, ethically, and constructively? If not, then yeah, there will be resistance. These people aren’t Chicken Littles. They’re Chickens Who Won’t Get in the Pot. The deeper the mistrust, the more vocal the resistance.

4. Big Data hates little data. Data has always been gathered by teachers, and it has always informed their instruction. Teachers give assignments and grade them–not because they like to grade, but because they want their students and themselves to see whether or not students are learning the material. But Big Data isn’t apparently interested in this arrangement, never mind that some studies have demonstrated that “high school GPA is ‘the best single predictor’” of college success. Big Data–and the people behind it–appear to dismiss the trustworthiness of the classroom teacher. Maybe because–for some Big Data adherents, anyway–there is no way to monetize teacher grading. For others, it’s probably driven by a general disdain for the quality of America’s teaching corps. The upshot is that each teacher needs a set of standards or presumably he or she will teach 180 days worth of lessons about coloring or dinosaurs. Defenders of the standards often exasperatedly say things like, “But teachers need to know what needs to be taught each year, and what has been taught the year before and will be taught the next year.” Instruction must be aligned. And this is true, but teachers are smart enough to know–because they’ve all seen this movie–that standards have trouble stopping at “informing instruction,” despite protestations to the contrary. The standards are often followed closely behind with canned lessons and scripted curricula. Teachers in many schools–particularly those that struggle with low test scores–will be instructed to “say this on this day.” For quality control purposes, one could assume. Many school leaders will resist this type of silliness of course, but many won’t. The data gathered at the local level, like teaching choices made there, is likely seen as suspect. Test scores are the holy grail, the mandatory “objective measure,” because locally-developed data is subjective and controlled by teachers. If our religion of reform is built on a foundation of mistrust regarding the efficacy and quality of our teachers, we must avoid attaching too much weight to the data they generate and handle. We have taken it on faith that they are self-interested and will twist the data to serve their own careerist purposes. For this reason, calls for multiple measures in making judgments about school quality tie reformers in knots–there are limited “objective measures” available that completely disempower local educators and keep their hands off the controls. To get a truly broad array of multiple measures informing our system of gauging student progress, we will have to let teachers’ data count.

More thoughts later on rules that should drive data so that data doesn’t drive us. Like Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws for Robotics, we need an overarching moral document to police the Wild West of Big Data, or else abuse and destructiveness will win the day.

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Teaching: The Card Game

In the spirit of “War” and “Old Maid,” I present a card game called “Teaching.”

(Note: there is something inherently icky about symbolizing students with numbers or, in this case, playing cards. I didn’t create this game to imply that students are merely numbers or that some students are “worth more” than others. Rather, I created this game in an effort to illustrate the challenges intrinsic to teaching in an era when students are seen by policymakers as little more than test scores. Like the game of “War,” this card game is an imperfect and unavoidably crude representation of a much more complex reality. You should take it in the light-hearted spirit in which it is intended.)

MATERIALS NEEDED

1 die

1 blue deck of cards

1 red deck of cards

1 notepad or scratch paper

1 pencil or pen

INSTRUCTIONS

1. This can be for one player (a la “Solitaire”) or for multiple players. Each player will need his or her own decks of cards. You can share the die.

2. To begin, roll the die to determine what kind of school you work in.

If you rolled a “1 or a 2,” you work in a low-funded school.

If you rolled a “3 or a 4,” you work in an average-funded school.

If you rolled a “5,” you work in a “no excuses” school.

If you rolled a “6,” you work in an elite school.

3. On your paper, note which kind of school you work at. You will need to know this later.

4. Ready your deck.

If you work in a low-funded school, you will most likely be teaching a lower percentage of students who come from privileged backgrounds. As a result, you must remove the following cards from the blue deck and put them on the bottom of the deck: the A, K, Q, J, and 10 of spades and hearts.

If you work in an average-funded school, you will use the whole blue deck.

If you work in a “no excuses” school, you will need to have a lottery to determine which cards you play with. Shuffle the blue deck and then deal it into two stacks. Without looking at the cards in either stack, place one on top of the other. The cards near the top are the lottery winners.

If you work in an elite school, you will most likely be teaching a lower percentage of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a result, you must remove the following cards from the blue deck and put them on the bottom of the deck: the 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of spades and hearts.

5. Roll the die again, this time to determine your Teacher Quality Level.

If you rolled a “1,” you are a Clock Puncher.

If you rolled a “2,” you are a Pushover.

If you rolled a “3,” you are an Enthusiastic Intern.

If you rolled a “4,” you are a Solid Performer.

If you rolled a “5,” you are a Great Teacher.

If you rolled a “6,” you are Inspirational Movie Material.

6. On your paper, write your Teacher Quality Level beneath your type of school.

7. Next, you will deal cards from the blue deck representing the starting points of your students. The number of students you must take to mastery depends on the type of school you work in.

If you work in a low-funded school, deal 30 cards face up.

If you work in an average-funded school, deal 24 cards face up.

If you work in a “no excuses” school, deal 24 cards face up. (Self-selection and motivation bonus: you may replace any “2″ cards that you deal with another randomly selected card from the deck.)

If you work in an elite school, deal 15 cards face up.

8. Take the remainder of the blue deck (the cards that you did not just deal face-up) and shuffle it thoroughly. This will be your Value-Added draw pile. Place it face down in front of you.

9. The point of the game is to get as many of your students as possible (represented by the face-up cards you just dealt) to “mastery”  before time runs out. Mastery is the equivalent of 14 points. The 2 card through the 10 card are all worth their face value. Face cards are worth the following: Jack (11 points), Queen (12 points), King (13 points), and Ace (14 points).

10. The red deck of cards represents “Factors Outside Your Control.” Shuffle this deck and place it face down beside the blue Value-Added draw pile.

BEGIN PLAY

11. Begin each turn by rolling the die. This will determine what kind of day you are having. Bad teachers can have good days and good teachers can have bad days. You will add the result of your roll each turn to the factor related to your Teacher Quality Level.

Clock-Puncher = 1

Pushover = 2

Enthusiastic Intern = 3

Solid Performer = 4

Great Teacher = 5

Inspirational Movie Material = 6

12. The sum of your die roll plus your Teacher Quality Level will give you a number ranging from 2 through 12. This number will determine how many cards you get to play from the blue Value-Added draw pile for the current turn. If the sum is:

2-5, then you get to draw one card

6-9, then you get to draw two cards

10-11, then you get to draw three cards

12, then you get to draw four cards

13. In general, you will take the cards you drew in step (12) and play them face-up on top of the cards laid out earlier that represent the students in your class; play them so that you can see both cards. Values are cumulative (if you have a “3″ in your “classroom” and play a “5″ on top of it, that student is now an “8″), so you need to see the values of all cards. You can play as many cards as you want on top of a single “student”. Your goal is to get each student to 14 points. But, wait. You can’t play the cards you drew just yet.

14. Each round, before you are allowed to play any of the cards you just drew from the blue “Value-Added” draw pile, you must turn over one card from the red “Factors Outside Your Control” deck. These cards will impact your play every turn. The “Factors Outside Your Control” are:

A = Student Assembly; return all Value-Added cards you just drew back to the draw pile and skip this turn.

Q, K = Chronic Absenteeism; your lowest-value “student” card is absent this day. You can’t play any cards atop this card for this turn. (If you draw more than one Q or K during a turn, then multiple students are absent and their progress is therefore frozen. These must be your lowest-value cards.) *See “house rule” at the end.

J = Normal School Day; play your cards as normal.

10 = Benchmarking; return all Value-Added cards you just drew back to the draw pile and skip this turn.

9 = Drama and Distraction; return the two highest Value-Added cards you just drew back to the draw pile. (If you only drew one card, return it to the draw pile.)

8 = Student Mobility; remove your highest value “student” (whether a single card or a cumulative total) and replace with a card drawn from the top of the blue deck. Shuffle the card (or cards) you removed from play back into the blue deck.

7 = Substitute; return all but your lowest Value-Added cards to the draw pile. (If you only drew one Value-Added card, you don’t have to return any cards to the pile and may play your card as normal.)

6 = Normal School Day; play your cards as normal.

5 = Field Trip; draw an extra Value-Added card (in addition to the ones you already drew) and play it only on your “student” card with the lowest current value.

4 = Meltdown; remove all previously-played Value-Added cards from the “student” who has made the most points-gain since the beginning of the game. Shuffle those cards into the blue deck. (Note: It isn’t the number of cards played or the total value, but the value-added that counts here. For example, if you had one “student” card that started as a 4 and you have added a 6 and a 2 [for a grand total of 12, but a value-add of 8] but you have another “student” that started as a 2 and you have played a single 10 on top of that card, you would remove the 10 and return it to the deck. The original “student” card remains on the table and returns to its original value.)

3 = Dropout; turn your “student” (card or stack of cards) with the lowest current point value face-down.

2 = High-Quality Professional Development; double the number of Value-Added cards you get to play this round.

1 = Low-Quality Professional Development; return the highest of the Value-Added cards you were supposed to play this round to the blue deck. If you were only supposed to play one Value-Added card, return it to the deck.

15. Play lasts 20 rounds. At the end of 20 rounds, add up your score:

4 points for every “student” whose cumulative point total is worth 14 points or better

-4 points for every “student” whose cumulative point total is worth 13 points or less

2 points for every “student” card whose value increased by more than 8 points during play

-2 points for every “dropout” you have at the end of play

16. Scoring:

If playing against other people, the highest score wins.

If playing alone:

If you score at least 10 points, you win Merit Pay.

If you score more than 0 but less than 5, you get a Growth Plan.

If you score less than 0, you lose.

—————————————————————————————————

This game hasn’t been tested and refined yet. The point totals at the end might be way off and/or unrealistic.

*I started to allow people who work at a “No Excuses” school to Expel their lowest value card (or stack) anytime they draw a Q or K from the red pile (see ‘Chronic Absenteeism’ above). Originally I was going to let them place these “Expelled” cards face up in the “classroom” of an opponent of their choosing who teaches at low-funded or average-funded schools. I ultimately decided that this rule was too harsh. Players might want to consider it as a “house rule.”

 

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Five New Years Resolutions for Public Education Supporters

2013 was a pivotal year for parents, teachers and students who support a free public education for American children. In California, Governor Jerry Brown refused to over-test the state’s students to satisfy bureaucratic demands for data, even in the face of federal threats to withhold Title 1 education funding. In Seattle, Jesse Hagopian and fellow teachers at Garfield High refused to give the MAP standardized test; after facing down threats to their employment, the teachers saw the school district waive the MAP test as a graduation requirement. On the other side of the continent, students with the Providence Student Union in Rhode Island had adults take a NECAP test and released the results,zombie-protested, and generally gave the corporate reform movement fits. In Texas, an organization lovingly known as “Mothers Against Drunk Testing” formed and teamed up with a plethora of other public schools supporters to help pass HB 5, a law that reduced the number of standardized tests required for graduation from 15 to 5.

New York City voters replaced a mayor wallet-deep in the education reform movement with one who vowed not to give charter school operators preferential treatment. Indiana voters replaced state schools chief Tony Bennett (he of “anything less than an A” for a charter school owned by a prominent donor “compromises all of our accountability work”) with teacher of the year Glenda Ritz. Bennett then went on to a soft landing in Florida before bouncing to another soft landing advising the ACT on Common Core testing.

Millionaire reformer (but I repeat myself) Colorado state representative Jared Polis called Diane Ravitch “evil” and then deleted the incriminating tweet. Meanwhile, Diane publishedanother New York Times bestseller laying out the case against the reform-bash-and-privatize movement. John Merrow unearthed a long-hidden memo that seemed to prove that Michelle Rhee knew about cheating on the DC public schools standardized tests that drove her ballyhooed merit pay system and yet did nothing about it. A number of statesdropped out of the Common Core testing consortia, and resistance to Common Core testing grew vocal in New York, where state superintendent John King was forced to go on a statewide listening tour after cancelling planned public hearings in the face of criticism of his policy choices and calling parents and teachers who had the audacity to disagree with him “special interests”. New York state principals banded together to advocate for public education, led by the indefatigable 2013 High School Principal of the Year Carol Burris.

The super-reformy school district declared by Frederick Hess as “the most interesting” school district in America did some really interesting things by paying Hess for a white paper just before the reform slate of school board candidates ran for re-election. The district released the glowing report via email blast to 85,000 local stakeholders just in time to inform opinions prior to the vote. A judge has declared that this was in violation of campaign laws. Interesting.

The Network for Public Education (disclaimer: I’m a supporter) came online in 2013, was immediately derided by reformers, and then promptly started seeing candidates it endorsed win elections they were supposed to lose. Like Monica Ratliff, for example, a teacher who was outspent 42-1 by an opponent supported by reform heavies from across the US in her successful campaign for a seat on the board in Los Angeles.

As for me, I published my own book about education reform in 2013, Test-and-Punish. I hope you’ll read it. It tells the story of how the punitive school reform movement got its start, and where we can go from here.

A number of other exciting developments unfolded in 2013, and I apologize for not listing them all. I’m sure I’ll miss some really big ones, but it’s time to turn our attention away from the old man and toward the chubby baby of 2014, who will toddle forth when the ball drops and gradually let us know what’s in store for education in the coming year.

Will the education reformers rebound from their numerous defeats this year? They still have the money, they still own the media and the US Department of Education, and they have fresh NAEP and PISA scores that “prove” whatever they want them to prove. (Tennessee and DC students showed major gains on NAEP, they enthuse, but then they conveniently forget to mention all the reform-friendly states that didn’t show gains at all. Asi es la vida.)

Will the Common Core be perceived by the masses as a sensible set of standards to guide instruction in 2014, or will progressives across America view it as another armament in the artillery trained on public education and teachers, while conservatives across the nation view it as a federal takeover of a traditional state responsibility and an attempt to brainwash the children?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I’d like to share 5 New Year’s Resolutions for Public Education Supporters.

1. Be active online, in the papers, and in your state capital. In the blogosphere, in the halls of your legislative bodies, in the letters-to-the-editor section, and during every single election, public education supporters can’t afford to sit back. Reform-friendly organizations dominate the media with press releases from ideological think tanks. They dominate vital elections with buckets of campaign money. They spin testing data any way it suits them. They are white-knuckled in their opposition to anything that might prevent them from reducing taxes, and public education as it has been traditionally provided is a huge culprit. They are likewise white-knuckled in their promotion of anything that might water down the cost of education, because this will reduce their taxes and increase their portfolios.

2. Be active locally. The corporate reformers aren’t merely interested in statewide and national elections. They have found more bang for their buck at the local level. They have taken to supporting “reform slates” of school board candidates in local school board elections, and have had some share of success. In Texas, wealthy education-interested businessmen have taken to pooling large sums in PACs with the singular goal of trying to defeat school bond elections in communities across the state. This will happen in your state soon, if it hasn’t already.

3. Embrace your expertise. I am a huge proponent of the Network for Public Educationand The Educators Room because organizations like these put educators in places of engagement and efficacy. The motto of The Educators Room is “empowering teachers as the experts,” and that is exactly the thing that is needed. Mild-mannered teachers must get over their timidity in order to embrace their own power for doing good for this nation. The teacher’s kind-if-firm voice is exactly the antivenin that our nation needs in order to counteract the poisonous greedchismo of the dominant voices in our current policy environment. The titans of self who run this place need nothing so much as a loving teacher to stand at the front of the nation and shush their hurtful words and stop their hurtful behaviors. (“Hey, you there in the Armani suit. Stop distracting the nation. We have an assignment.”) If not us, who? (Or is it whom? Got to remember who I’m talking to here.) If educators are to have an impact, they must have a voice. If they are to have a voice, they must be willing to take the microphone from people who feel they are entitled to hold it. And the same goes for students. Teachers need to embrace the student voice movement. Democracy comes from the people most affected by policy–it isn’t done to them–and in education, that’s the students.

4. Join others. Relatedly, if you are serious about protecting the promise of public education, you have little choice but to join others in holding back the tide of corporate reform. There is diversity in the pro-public education camp. If you are progressive, there is a place for you. If you are conservative, there is a place for you. If you support or oppose the Common Core, there is a place for you. Some organizations and individuals standing together differ on their opinions about well-regulated charter schools. Some differ in their opinions about how much standardized testing is appropriate. Those of us on the front lines of defending the promise of public education are not a monolith. What binds us together is our shared desire to prevent the devaluing of public education via reckless rhetoric and demeaning and unfair policies. We don’t want to see our current system–free public schools for any student who wants an education, anywhere in America–replaced by a portfolio approach that is more interested in “radically transforming the industry” (businessspeak for “getting a piece of that action”) than in guaranteeing every single child a seat from which to learn.

5. Be great. The best defense of the public education system is a strong public education system. Yes, it feels to many of us that we are being sabotaged and set up to fail. Yes, many of us have a hard time doubting that the point of all the testing is to prove that we stink. But be that as it may, we have the opportunity day after day to go into our classrooms and our administrative offices and invest ourselves in activities that make a difference in children’s lives. When we do our jobs well, we win the support of our communities and our parents and students. And, to butcher-phrase an Abraham Lincoln quote often used by the incomparable Jamie Vollmer, “if public opinion is with us, we can’t lose; if it against us, we can’t win.” Public opinion starts in your classroom or office. There are obstacles–especially in America’s poorest communities–that often seem impossible for teachers to overcome. But we must give our all and do our very best. We must show the world that we aren’t afraid of accountability and that, in fact, we embrace something far greater: responsibility. (H/T Pasi Sahlberg)

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The Wizards of Ed

There is a conundrum facing American K-12 education. It is the same conundrum that has always faced American K-12 education.

How do we educate “those” kids?

“Those” refers to the kids who are dealing with any (or all) of a host of disadvantages. They are from the “wrong” side of the tracks. They are from the “wrong” neighborhood. They come from the “wrong” language background. They are the “wrong” race. They are poor. They are homeless.

Some education watchers cringe when they are confronted with a direct acknowledgement that our society favors (and has always favored) certain groups of children over others. It’s a tough pill to swallow, because America, we were taught, is the land of opportunity. As a result, many of us reject this idea–that some people come into this world, come into a classroom, having had the deck stacked against them.

Most public school teachers, I would bet, don’t reject this idea. Most would likely nod knowingly at the thought that some kids start the race far behind, not because of disability, not because of lack of guts or grit or genius on the child’s part. But, bluntly, because our circumstances are mean and we allow them to be that way.

That means that we are mean. Ouch.

The typical reply by those in the edbiz who don’t want to wander down the scary path of honesty-about-inequality-and-racism is to demagogue by saying “all children can learn” and thereby imply that folks saying what I just said–that some kids are getting the shaft here–are really kind of racist. You don’t think black kids are as smart as white kids? (Of course they are.) You don’t think poor kids can learn? (Of course they can.) You don’t think immigrant kids are bright? Einstein was an immigrant. (No, that isn’t what I’m saying, and you are deliberately misunderstanding me.)

Note: I don’t lump black kids, poor kids, and immigrant kids into a group because all black kids are poor and all immigrant kids are poor. I lump them into a group because they are all vulnerable to mistreatments both subtle and abject by the power structure we have in place; mistreatments that, if we are honest, often go uncorrected for generations.

But if I’m not saying poor kids can’t learn, then why is there a conundrum? If poor kids can learn, then they just need great teachers, right?

Wrong.

They need so much more than that.

If they are to reach the heights we–via our high expectations–are demanding of them, then poor kids need great teachers PLUS. And the PLUS would be (for them and their parents) the clothes, food, supplies, conveniences, and experiences that they are often lacking. Those things all cost money, which they don’t have. That means that integral to our education problem is the fact that the little guy has less money compared to the Richie Riches of our society than any time since 1928. That’s not an educational problem per se, but its fingerprints are all over our education system.

If they are to reach the heights we–via our high expectations–are demanding of them, then black and brown kids need great teachers PLUS. And the PLUS would be (for them and their parents) the opportunities and equitable treatment they are often lacking, not to mention positive, confidence-building experiences in a society that systematically proffers indignities big and small. That’s not an educational problem per se, but its fingerprints are all over our education system.

Education reformers who obsess over teacher quality, curriculum, and testing are missing well over half the story. You can’t solve a math problem if you refuse to wrestle with the inconvenient variables.

Yes, poor teaching must be confronted and eliminated. Yes, poor teacher training, where it exists, must be corrected. Yes, all students need and deserve a viable curriculum. Yes, teachers of disadvantaged students must expect appropriate academic results no matter what hurts the kids bring to the classroom. All that is true.

But it isn’t enough.

This is where our modern education reformers become an almost-identical facsimile of a previous generation of industry-inspired reformers who found their way to education system betterment. In fact, this story has already been written. When Henry Ford was our Bill Gates and the Industrial Revolution was our Internet Age, scientific management became all the rage. Taylorism, named for developer Frederick Taylor, was another name for scientific management, and it roared through the factories and assembly lines of America around the turn of the century, bringing with it efficiency and labor productivity. Those who embraced scientific management carefully studied workflows and motion and human resource investments. Using these theories, they regularly increased profitability, making more money for factory owners and shareholders.

In the early 1900s, business minds applied their genius for profit to America’s nascent public schools world. After all, what is a child other than an outcome?

And that is exactly the question, isn’t it? Just how quantifiable is a child?

I don’t believe the Taylorist reduces a child to a test score out of malice, but rather out of single-mindedness.

So we have replaced Henry Ford with Bill Gates, and we have replaced the tendency to import factory bells and shifts into our schools–which are still there, of course–with a tendency to give every child an iPad and create a nationwide data base for innumerable points of data (so that we may, for example, compare the results of our children with asthma who are Asian-American and receiving free lunches to our children with ADHD who are Native American and whose parents are divorced). It’s the same game, only bigger. It’s Taylorism on steroids.

Taylorism wasn’t all bad. Like every educational fad, it produced some lasting positive changes and some lasting negative changes, and a whole lot of shuffling of deck chairs that didn’t amount to much but kept everyone nicely occupied. Today’s education reform movement will likewise engender some improvements. But what the technocrat and the progressive dazzled by the technocrat don’t understand are the massive limitations that their preferred methodologies entail.

They are here to save the world with spreadsheets, some algorithms, a database, and some software.

Taylorism solved some tiny problems about time management and hiring practices. It fiddled at the margins of education. But before, during, and after the scientific management fad reigned in our schools, one thing held true: the deepest problems we still ran away from. They are politically tough, and we aren’t.

In other words, the modern techno-Taylorist looks at failing, hurting children (who would become brittle adults) with appropriate sympathy but then concludes that we realistically can’t do much about the racism and the unequal distribution of resources that hollow them out, so let’s not worry about that. Let the politicians sort that out (because, yeah, we should believe they’ll fix it). In the meantime, here are some cool gee-whiz gadgets and strategies that can really make a difference.

A tiny difference, truth be told.

We realistically can’t do much about the big immutable injustices that persist here, or so we all conspire to believe. That word “realistically” is a huge cop-out. It also reduces us all to enablers of the most unjust among us. And so we all work madly around the giant boulder that none of us wants to touch. But that doesn’t mean we can’t move it. It just means we aren’t willing to try.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are the biggest of today’s technocratic big ideas, and they are the one aspect of reform that may stick with us indefinitely, like school bells still hanging around from a previous era’s reforms. The CCSS are intended as something akin to building codes for learning, a list of targets that will remind Americans from coast-to-coast what their children should be learning in a given grade level, and they will remind teachers from coast-to-coast what their students should be commanding by the end of the term. I am not writing from a Common Core state, but it makes little difference. My state has its own standards, and there will shortly be vast political pressure to compete with the 45 states that have adopted CCSS, so I predict a certain evolutionary inevitability–the standards of those states that have rejected CCSS will, over time, become almost identical to CCSS in content, if not in name. This may be something the federal government is counting on when it grants waivers to states that haven’t adopted CCSS.

I don’t get as fired up in opposition to CCSS as many of my friends, because a standard is a standard is a standard. Since I started in education I’ve always taught under standards, and they are mildly constricting but I always had the freedom I needed to close the door and make my classes my own. That said, I philosophically agree with my friends who oppose the whole idea of standardizing education. I agree that children should have flexibility to pursue their passions, while also receiving some sort of guarantee that they will get a solid foundation in the basics. I agree that teachers need freedom and that paint-by-numbers education is boring and uninspiring. Standards–if implemented improperly–can become a top-down soul-sucking exercise in killing the fundamental promise of education. And standards tied to high stakes inevitably beget workbooks and a test prep focus that together conspire to sideline the teacher and his or her creativity and devolve education to mere training in basic skills and test-taking strategies.

This isn’t a prediction; it has already happened. High stakes inevitably reduce education to discrete skills training over the specific standards determined to be most likely to appear on the test. It can’t be avoided; self-interest demands such an approach to education. But champions of the standards insist that this time it will be different; this time the standards will merely “guide instruction.” Do you hear how kindly that sounds? (Those champions, of course, have no power over how the standards are implemented, so their assurances are long on hope and short on certainty.) We are encouraged repeatedly to see the promise of the CCSS standards and to ignore the scars of prior test-based reforms.

Now, when people argue back and forth about whether the Common Core State Standards were a plot driven by Bill Gates (whose foundation donated millions to ensure their taking root), I find it quite obvious that they are “a plot,” in that a plot is a plan. Was this “orchestrated”? Well, of course it was, in that “orchestrating” something means planning it out in advance.

The real fight isn’t over whether the CCSS was planned by an ‘in-group’ of billionaires and politicians and foundations for years before they were implemented, or whether cash-strapped states had little real choice in accepting them due to the carrots dangled by the federal government in exchange for acceptance. Everyone knows those two facts to be true, whether they will cop to them or not. The real fight is over the sinister connotation of words like “plot” and “orchestrated.”

The argument is over whether this plan was meant to help poor children have certain guarantees as to the quality of the education they will receive (the “benign view” of CCSS) or whether the CCSS are the nuclear bomb of a long-running scheme to devalue and then privatize large portions of the American public education system (the “malignant view” of CCSS).

I personally think it’s both.

I won’t ascribe positive impulses to BIll Gates himself, but I know that there are foundations and individuals supporting CCSS that are very supportive of public education. In other words, there are pro-education voices that are for CCSS. This leads me to conclude that it is possible to see these national standards as beneficial without necessarily being part of a cabal that wants to destroy public education.

I won’t ascribe negative impulses to Bill Gates himself, either, but I know that there are foundations and individuals supporting CCSS that have supported private school vouchers and unregulated charter schools and mass school closings and scientifically (and ethically) dubious value-added teacher evaluation protocols. This leads me to conclude that it is possible to see these national standards as highly valuable in an ongoing effort to destroy public education and build in its place a free market education system.

Is Bill Gates a philanthropist? Yes.

Is he a businessman? Yes.

Is he a technocrat? Yes.

Does he mean well? Maybe, maybe not. No one really knows what his end game is, except him. Benign view folks see him as a do-gooder (in the positive sense). Malignant view folks see him as an interloper (in the destructive sense).

Does he utilize his foundation’s money and his political clout to implement his ideas outside the restrictive confines of democracy? Yes.

Do people “on the ground” appreciate his benevolence or resent his manipulation? Yes, and yes.

Will CCSS finally fix the education of poor children? Or will it finally be the great checkmate in the school reform wars, convincing America once and for all that her public education experiment is a lumbering failure and should be replaced with agile undemocratic schools? I think the answer to this is neither.

The best and worst case scenarios won’t pan out. They rarely do. CCSS will ultimately become another school bell ringing to remind us of the good intentions and limited thinking of a generation of education reformers. The alignment of curriculum is really a great deal like the alignment of class schedules and salary schedules that reform ancestors devised. These are the products of outsiders ordering things in the schoolhouse, while disorder gleefully reigns in the streets and the homes and the workplaces.

The wizards of education–these galloping technocrats with blogs and speaking gigs and paid-for white papers–give us all hope that we can fix our children without tackling the big issues that confront our society. That hope is ultimately hollow.

They toot horns and host a polished event called “PISA Day” to tout American student test scores as compared to Singaporean student test scores. (Spoiler: it wasn’t good news.) But the technocrats, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, are men without chests. They are all brain and no heart. They put their tooting horns far away when it comes time to compare child poverty rates. There is no “child poverty day.” They put away their tooting horns when it comes time to compare levels of income inequality among the developed countries.

In short, if all you mull is academic, you aren’t studying the whole problem and you won’t find the solution. The scariest thing for a poor child in America is a technocrat who has convinced himself or herself that he or she has all the data that matters, the key to all the right prescriptions. The technocrat is selectively blind to much of what matters most.

There is a conundrum facing American K-12 education. It is the same conundrum that we faced in 1890, and it is the same conundrum we will face when CCSS has been guiding instruction in all our schools for decades. The conundrum will outlast the reforms, because scientific managers and technocrats all fail to get at the roots.

How do we educate “those” kids?

The wizardry of technocrats, sadly, is insufficient to solve our problems. Their prescriptions may assuage some of them a bit, and then again they may not. I appreciate their concern, but I would love it if they would focus on everything that matters.

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Education Circa 2038

Twenty-five years from now, I will be just shy of 65 years old. I should be retired by then. As I read recently about Amazon’s delivery drone idea and at the same time thought about the seeming inevitability of the Common Core State Standards and their associated tests (even, eventually, in my non-CCSS home state), I began to daydream about the near future of education. Here is a short description of where I think we’ll be twenty-five years hence. Feel free to meet my prediction (which you may or may not like; I don’t necessarily like everything about it) with your own, and include a link to whatever you come up with in the comments. I’d really like to read about the most optimistic and dystopian views of the future that educators and ed-watchers harbor.

First, tiny buzzing drones will zip overhead irregularly in 2038. The low sky won’t yet be full of them like the interstates are full of cars, but that’s coming. They will be delivering books and what few paper letters and bills still go out, and they will also patrol the streets and generate video for our police forces and weather and news reporters. But there won’t yet be a great number of them. That’s still to come in 2038, but it will come. A swarm of hovering devices will eventually clog into bustling lines in directional lanes–communicating with one another to avoid collisions–and will periodically splinter off, dip down to drop their deliveries at our doorsteps or photograph suspicious or interesting interactions, and quickly rejoin the overhead traffic pattern to return to their home bases.

But that has little to do with education, and here we talk about education.

First off, I believe the Common Core State Standards will almost certainly be fully online in all 50 states by 2038. (Sorry or congrats, depending on which side you’re on, but that’s what I think will happen.) There will only be one national test over these standards that survives, and it will be a very big deal, particularly at the exit level. The hype of the recent “PISA Day” event will pale in comparison to the Super Bowl Sunday-like extravaganza that the federal Department of Education will put on annually for the release of our kids’ scores. The highest-performing states will be enthusiastically lauded, and the lowest-scoring will be passive-aggressively shamed. Improvement will be rewarded, however, and governors and state education officials will writhe and react and impose all sorts of questionable practices on schoolteachers in desperate attempts not to be the state that is shamed. But the wealthy states and the states that spend the most money uplifting their poorest citizens will inevitably score the highest. Perhaps this will be the greatest contribution of the CCSS and its test–it will force education thinkers to admit that education is about more than education. The relentlessly flagging outcomes of the places where the poor are least protected from squalor and want will perhaps finally breach the defenses of those who don’t want to provide them a higher and tauter safety net, one that doesn’t let them rebound off the concrete when they fall. But the negatives will be there too, because the rhetoric of the corporations’ foundations and think tanks will persist. They will still be pushing a portfolio model, and they will still be pushing for more accountability for traditional public schools and more deregulation for publicly-funded schools outside the traditional model. The organizations that pay the highest taxes–multinational corporations–will still push for punitive measures against states, school districts, teachers, and students. They will long for the heady days of NCLB, when we shamed and blamed gleefully.

Happily, though, we will have learned from our mistakes. The public and the media will not take staffers of think tanks who push ideology under the guise of ed-journalism with a grain of salt when they claim that privatization warnings are a red herring. They will have seen enough school closings and inequitable and destructive under-funding by then, and they will believe for the most part that there is a subtle scheme afoot, an almost unconscious undying movement not to better but rather to batter the public school system. This movement will have done a great deal of damage to the traditional public schools, but these schools will remain.

Charter schools will remain as well, but they will be under largely the same regulations as our traditional public schools. All schools will teach the same standards (as they do now), and both sets of schools will display a similar range of outcomes and a similar percentage of successful and unsuccessful schools (as they do now). The proposition that charter schools “do it better” will have fallen away under the weight of evidence to the contrary. In the case of charters as well as traditional schools, those that enroll the most poor and special-needs students and the most students from English-language-learning backgrounds will perform worst. But our government and media will have long since shed their well-intentioned marriage to the idea that these students should be expected to score on par with students who come to school with more resources and fewer challenges absent major improvements in our social supports policies. Proficiency targets for students will be adjusted according to social resource starting points available to them. Pressure on teachers to overcome resource deficits will be gradually replaced with pressure on politicians to overcome resource deficits. As we tack student expectations to available resource levels, rhetoricians will say we are lowering our expectations for poor student performance; the other side’s rhetoricians will argue contrarily that we are raising our expectations and upping the pressure on policy-makers for the provision of poor student supports.

In 2038, accountability will account for differences in our student bodies. As such, there will be no punishments for teachers who choose to teach the most challenging students. Quite the opposite, in fact. Extra funding and ample supports will flow toward the schools that serve the most challenging students. This shift in our approach to education will spur a renaissance in traditional public schools that had once been considered our “worst” and most dangerous schools. They will suddenly draw our best teachers, because there will be significant bonuses attached to those jobs. And not only will they have the highest-paid teachers, they will also have the smallest class sizes, because our student funding formulas will have changed. Some genius between now and then will use math and statistics and economic modeling to calculate the real cost of educating a student to our nation’s standards, and will vary that price tag for a student whose parents earn a salary at ten percent of the regional average salary, and twenty percent, and so on up to one hundred percent and even up to one thousand percent. The model will clearly show that it gets costlier to educate a student to national standards as his or her parents’ salary decreases, and school funding will be tied to the real cost of getting the job done. As such, we will have great teachers in our (formerly) most troubled schools for four reasons: teacher pay will be highest there, class sizes will be smallest there, the mission of changing lives will be most satisfying there, and the national esteem for teachers whose students are both poor and successful will be extremely gratifying. But we will yet have amazing teachers in our affluent traditional public schools as well, because the job will still be easiest and the students more uniformly motivated there. Great ratings for teachers will be almost assured in such schools, because those students will go into the national CCSS assessments well-prepared. Class sizes will be a little bigger, and teachers won’t earn as much as those in tougher schools, but not all teachers are primarily motivated by the paycheck.

Charter schools in 2038 will still exist, but the scammiest of them will be gone. The era of de-regulated charters will have produced enough embarrassment to have spurred meaningful regulations. There won’t be any caps on the numbers of charter schools, but there will be stringent quality assurance mechanisms in place so that crumby charters don’t get chartered in the first place. There will also be a probationary period for all new schools, during which they can and will be shuttered if they fail to abide by a host of financial, academic, enrollment, and transparency requirements. After a period, however–maybe 10 years–schools will exit probationary status and will essentially become permanent public schools under private management.

This probationary setup will extend not only to charter schools. New traditional schools will be probationary at first. Traditional school campuses that have been cornerstones in their neighborhoods, though, will no longer be shuttered unless enrollment drops below a threshold. When long-lived schools struggle academically, it will no longer be acceptable for state education departments to turn their backs on the schools without first investing sufficient resources in their remediation. The phrase “turnaround schools” will fall by the wayside, and federal involvement in turnarounds will have died an ignominious death. But at the state level, under pressure by local voters, 100-year-old schools that anchor communities will come to be celebrated as “comeback schools,” as state education departments morph from “gotcha” agencies to “helped ya” agencies. A few high-profile, successful comebacks will spark voter imaginations, and school shutdowns will no longer be socially acceptable when the schools we are talking about are longstanding community institutions. Further, the federal government will have established a rule that requires states to demonstrate that any school facing any kind of punitive measure must not have been subject to inadequate or inequitable levels of funding. Inadequacy at that time will have a definition tied to the real cost of educating a student, with weights for students of varied backgrounds facing varied challenges. When a school’s funding per pupil falls beneath what this formula requires, any punitive measures intended for the school and its workers will instead be borne by the state agency that permitted the underfunding.

Online courses will exist, but quality assurance mechanisms will assure that they are legitimate courses with legitimate expectations for the students. Attendance requirements, coursework requirements, and proctored exams will guarantee that online courses aren’t fluff anymore. These stipulations will restore the legitimacy of this approach, but they will also vastly reduce the numbers of students taking online courses. Rural schools will utilize the courses to provide subjects that small numbers of students desire. If a school has two students interested in accounting or French, online courses will exist and the rural school will be able to obtain those courses. But large national online course providers will have shuttered completely or else scaled back operations due to a lack of demand. Today’s model of large numbers of unmotivated students checking out of school because of rules they don’t like or bad grades or poor attendance and then signing up for online coursework which they don’t take seriously and often don’t complete (while guaranteeing funding redirected toward the provider) will not last. The academic performance of online students will be scrutinized and online course providers that misrepresent the quality of education they provide in their advertising will face civil and criminal penalties that will drive them either out of business or to reform themselves. There will be some children who opt for online courses for their entire educational experience, but they will usually be extremely bright and self-directed children, or children who frequently move or who have social anxiety issues, or whose parents opt to educate at home for personal reasons. Online courses will not be blow-off courses, though, and they will obligate students and overseers (parents or teachers) to take them very seriously. In other words, the quality of online classes will rise, but the quantity will fall.

Merit pay as we think of it now will have fallen by the wayside because reformers will have been forced to admit the impossibility of teasing out all the factors that drive a student’s test scores up or down. They will give up on using test scores to isolate merit, as there is too much noise in the signal. Student surveys will probably survive as one measure of teacher quality, along with teacher evaluations that have been drastically altered to more readily reflect reality. Peer review will be a common trait of teacher appraisal methodologies. There will be small bonuses tied to certain teacher traits in 2038, but the much-ballyhooed zeitgeist for stack-ranking our teachers will have already died an inglorious death. Many education thinkers and pundits in 2038 will write derisively of the massive pressure that was once brought forth to implement in our schools a personnel-management scheme modeled after something widely regarded as Microsoft Corporation’s greatest failure. Salary differentiation among teachers will be driven more by need and difficulty of the various assignments, and less by the pretend-wizardry of determining who is most- and least-deserving of extra pay.

Pre-K will be free and available for all American children.

Private school vouchers will still be lobbied-for as the magic pill that, via competition, will drive school quality through the roof. However, the anti-voucher campaign of public education supporters will have resulted in a policy that all schools receiving public funds must be publicly accountable for successfully imparting the standards-based curriculum, and success will be measured by students’ results on their CCSS assessments. Many private schools will no longer be interested in receiving public funds under these conditions. Vouchers will return to their long-cherished role as a pet project of certain economists and theoreticians.

We will no longer attempt to test every student in multitudinous subjects almost every year. Rather, there will be a national assessment for all students at the end of their high school careers, and there will be benchmarks at each grade level using sampling techniques that preserve class time for most students most of the time.

Curriculum narrowing will have been eliminated because of a national outcry from parents who want more from education than mere math and ELA proficiency. The message that over-testing and narrow emphases are destructive for children’s full development will win the day. Those who once single-mindedly pushed for math and ELA proficiency and were willing to burn down the whole house of holistic education to attain that will either admit their error, or pretend they were never part of all that, or else lose their authority.

America, unlike other international education systems, will cling to interscholastic sports and will continue to develop confidence in our student bodies alongside rote proficiency. This will continue to set us apart in our nation’s economic productivity, and the Asian nations will continue to envy the creativity and divergent thinking of our workforce, and will continue to tweak their education approaches to de-emphasize test prep and rote skills.

The CCSS themselves will only have been saved because two major changes will have occurred. Crucially, states will have been given limited authority to tweak the contents of the standards. In other words, Texas officials will have been allowed to make the Texas CCSS a tad more conservative, and Massachusetts officials will have been allowed to keep them a tad more liberal. The federal government would have at some point between now and 2038 realized that a.) the standards weren’t going to survive without genuine local agency, and that b.) if all states are brought into the national standards house (even with slightly altered standards from place to place), then over time, those disparate states would grow closer and closer to some national norm on what they teach. The feds will learn the art of loose coupling. Just as national news anchors with Midwest accents can soften the nation’s regional drawls and pull everyone toward their center of linguistic gravity, so too can common standards pull us all together, but they can’t be introduced as hard and fast rules that all must accede to. CCSS is the meat, the feds will realize, but Texans and Tennesseans will only eat it if they get to season it to their liking. (Side note: don’t tell me Memphis barbecue is better.) The feds will also have to admit that their role–by law–in the ongoing development of these standards must be more limited than what they have wanted. The CCSS will actually become state standards. The grip of the Department of Ed and the Gates Foundation on the content of the standards will necessarily slip. There will be a single overarching federal framework that will survive, and it will look much as the CCSS look today, but the states will be free to alter them. They won’t alter them much, though, because the national exam will be waiting, and no state will want to come in last. Compliance measures from heavy-handed federal officials won’t protect the quality of the standards; self-interest will. The feds will eventually learn to embrace curricular and standards flexibility-within-reason at the state level.

The second major change to the CCSS that will save them will be that they will be opened up for democratic input. There will be major nationwide standards fights over evolution, climate change, whether Nelson Mandela should be taught as a hero or a communist, whether or not Thomas Jefferson was a Christian, and so forth. Many of these fights will occur at the curriculum level, but some will touch the standards level.

These fights will be ugly, but we will by then be intelligent enough to know that they are necessary. Folks dismissing opponents of the CCSS as conspiracy theorists and kid-coddlers–silly people, not to be taken seriously–will finally wise-up and realize that the people with CCSS concerns must have an opportunity to express those concerns and have their ideas compete for legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas. The CCSS–when opened up for national critique and subjected to a referendum-style possibility for editing or tweaking–will stop being received as an imposition by distant rulers a la King George and will come to be seen as having some sort of legitimacy. In short, by 2038, it will be seen as short-sighted and counter-productive for ivory tower education and political elites to impose curricular standards on the nation just because they know what’s good for the little people. Democracy always wins in the end, because there are more of the little people. CCSS will be felicitously hi-jacked by a representative sample of the people of the United States. Some won’t like this, but CCSS will retain its flavor–critical thinking skills will be central–and most changes will be minor and specific. But they will change, and the people will drive the change. And those who oppose the democratization of the standards will be seen as petty standards tyrants whose mission for years was to prevent regular people–mommies and teachers–from messing up their precious and perfect document.

Tough. It will happen, or else the standards will not survive. There must be a viable vehicle for input by the people, for needed change as politics and the environment and our understandings change. The CCSS will no longer belong to some special population of educationists, and will instead belong to the states and the people of the states.

This means that not only will the CCSS change, but that they will differ slightly from state to state. Major corporations pushing for CCSS will accept these conditions as they evolve from the bottom up, because they will see that the alternative is the death of common standards and the indefinite continuation of totally different standards development processes from state to state. As much as the slight alteration in the standards between states will cut into these corporations’ bottom lines, the likelihood of losing the CCSS altogether will scare the pants off of them. The titans of national standards and curriculum and ed tech businesses will themselves begin to advocate for CCSS flexibility, and then it will happen.

Finally, the teacher-bashing frenzy that has afflicted our schools since 1983 will be a sad memory in 2038. Certain voices will still be pushing that old narrative, but they will be more isolated than they are today. The term “education reformer” will have graduated from crude dividing line as the strategies for reform become more nuanced and less bipolar. Business-funded foundations will be challenged increasingly for engaging in lobbying activities and laws will evolve to require more transparency from pretend grassroots groups, and these changes will curtail some of the more disingenuous activities that unfold in education policy circles.

These are not necessarily all activities and changes that I want to see–though some of them are–but these are my guesses as to how the memes of education and education reform will evolve as they are subjected to the natural selection of politics, publicity, and the constant cultural shifting that happens all around us at all times. I know some of my friends won’t like entertaining the notion that the CCSS are here to stay, but I honestly sense a sort of inevitability there. Pure local control isn’t coming back; there was too much variation in outcomes under that system. But absolute federal domination is also not likely to endure in our mishmash of states and governments. So the future, I believe, lay in the middle. In my opinion, time is the greatest moderating agent of all.

One other thing: in 2038, we STILL won’t have flying cars. (Come on, car companies.) On the upside, though, texting-while-driving will be perfectly legal, because the newest models will drive themselves.

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Common Standards, Disparate Lives

I get the push for common standards, I really do. Poor students shouldn’t be doomed to lesser expectations. As much as I dislike George Bush’s No Child Left Behind and all the unintended(?) negative consequences it has had on public education, I must admit that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” was and is a real thing. Unintentionally, we sometimes lower our sights for students who struggle, often without even realizing we do it. I don’t think anyone on the education-reform-critical side denies that this happens and should be prevented.

This is one reason proponents support the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They believe it will work to prevent school districts and individual teachers from settling into comfortable ruts of lower expectations for poor and minority students. I obviously can’t fault them for this motivation. They are on very solid ground when they point to this problem and exclaim, “We have to do something about this.”

It’s a fact that the performance of our poorest students lags, and it’s imperative that we as a nation do something about it. (That doesn’t automatically mean that common standards are the best solution to the problem or the smartest investment of our limited resources. But it does demand an effective solution.)

Another reason proponents support the CCSS is because they perceive American students’ performance on international tests as inadequate. They are on shakier ground here. Yes, American students don’t do as well as several other countries on the PISA exam, but they have often performed quite admirably on the TIMSS. So, in the first place, the test results themselves offer a mixed message, and PISA-fretters do their credibility no favors by touting only the worst scores in order to argue that drastic reforms are necessary.

In the second place, the US has always done relatively poorly on international tests. There was never a “lost era of greatness” when American kids beat the pants off of everyone else. And, yet, what of the post-test outcomes? Did our “failing American students” of the 1960s and 1970s falter in the face of competition with internationals when they became adults? Well, one look at our nation’s economic outputs over the course of these students’ post-secondary lives would suggest, as I have noted before, that doing poorly on international exams has served America quite well. The CCSS proponent, then, is on shakier ground when relying on international test scores to scare us into changing how we do school.

As questionable as the international-test-score argument is, it isn’t the weakest one out there. The worst possible pro-CCSS argument that I’ve ever seen was best expressed recently in an article at the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists website, entitled “America’s Businesses Need the Common Core.” The argument is best summed up with this one super-creepy line: “Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this argument. In my home state–which isn’t anywhere close to adopting the CCSS–I’ve heard business-affiliated education reformers use similar rhetoric to justify a variety of preferred policies, from school choice to merit pay to more testing. The “businesses need smart graduates” assurance feels (to cynics anyway) like it might be meant to deflect attention from the plausible idea that business interests’ education advocacy might actually be driven primarily by a desire to reduce the crimp that school-related taxation puts in profits and shareholder dividends. After all, many of the education policies that business interests most actively promote–private school vouchers, guaranteed-pension-conversions-to-401ks, school closings, and teacher-job-protection-reductions, among others–promise to reduce public ed’s price tag.

I have to wonder at the tone-deafness of the statement about “outputs”. Does the person who wrote it not understand how something like that sounds to a parent or a Kindergarten teacher? It raises hackles. Do big-time CEOs think the little people are raising their children so they can one day serve the fiscal interests of some corporation or another?

Well, my kids are much, much more to me than future cogs in someone else’s money-making machine. Yes, I understand that they have to be employable. And I’ll strive to make sure that they are. But their lives don’t begin and end with their employability. There are greater, nobler, holier purposes for my children than any CEO can quantify. My kids will work so they can live; they won’t live so they can work. I want to ensure that my kids have every opportunity to be humans first, citizens second, and worker bees way, way, way at the end of all that they will ever be.

Do you think I want my kids to be college- and career-ready? No, I’m not setting my sights that low. I want them to be free, just, ethical, brave, persistent, tolerant, responsible, civil, loving, merciful, kind, creative, curious, funny, engaging, polite, confident, smart, and visionary. Among other things.

Okay, plus, on top of all that, the “outputs” statement is wrong. Literally, factually, businesses are NOT the primary “consumers” of our students. (Which, really? Consume?) No, the primary beneficiaries of whatever our students become (I can’t bring myself to refer to kids as outputs or consumibles) will be those students’ current and future families, and then, following from there, society itself. Businesses will indeed benefit from what these kids become, but not primarily, and certainly not more than their families.

When I read drivel about our children being “outputs” meant to be “consumed” “primarily” by businesses, I take a huge pause and have to entertain some of the allegations that my pro-CCSS friends label as “corespiracy” theories. There is certainly financial benefit that will accrue to many of the activist billionaires promoting these standards when they are fully implemented. As Rupert Murdoch (he of massive inBloom and Amplify investments) has noted, education is a rich field just waiting to be transformed (which sounds much better than “exploited”). And as Arne Duncan’s former staffer Joanne Weiss has noted, national standards will create a national market for learning products, and this promise of vastly higher levels of remuneration will unleash the creativity of the nation’s sharpest business minds. This was posed as a way of obtaining quantum improvements in educational materials, but it comes all tangled up with a quantum increase in profit potential. Moreover, the revolving door between the for-profits and the Department of Education has not escaped the notice of many of us who are nervous about the policy environment. We dwell on one question: whose interests?

It isn’t a conspiracy to suggest that CCSS is big business. It is, in fact, an act of reckless naivete to merely take billionaires at their word and assume that the Michael Milkens and Rupert Murdochs of the education reform world have suddenly shed hard-nosed Gordon Gekko business values and converted into heartfelt and selfless advocates for the poor. I don’t dispute that there are good intentions intermingling with hopes for capital gains among the big money CCSS-promoters. And there isn’t anything wrong with making money in education or any other field, but those highlighting the competing interests of reform advocates serve an important purpose. We breezily dismiss their concerns to our peril, or to the peril of our children.

There are many heartfelt advocates for national standards who aren’t Bill Gates and Eli Broad. I think they likely get upset at all the attention CCSS critics pay to billionaires and don’t really get why critics don’t simply see the standards for what they are and embrace the promise of rigorous expectations for all American students.

Why can’t I see it their way? Because I’m afraid of the bait-and-switch, that’s why. I lived through No Child Left Behind. It was awful, and it did awful things to our schools, our teachers, and our students. Yes, it made us pay attention to the test scores of our poor and minority students, but that is the only positive thing it did. It didn’t spur equitable investment in our schools. It spurred, instead, school closings in our poorest neighborhoods. Struggling neighborhoods didn’t get smaller classes or infusions of technology or needed physical repairs in their schools when NCLB diagnosed learning deficiencies. Instead, they got labels, firings, closed libraries, and relentless bad press. NCLB provided an x-ray machine for diagnosis and nothing more than a billy club for treatment.

Very few people today argue that NCLB was a good law. It disfigured public schooling, it demoralized the people doing the educating, and it eroded public support for this institution.

Educators who most adamantly oppose CCSS fear one thing: more of the same. They fear that these standards are a Trojan horse for a whole slate of education-perverting punitive measures and “improvement strategies”. After CCSS, we will still rate schools by how students do on tests (over the standards). We will rate teachers by how their students perform on tests (over the standards).

The standards are just a foundation, supporters believe, and how can anyone be against a strong foundation? But how can anyone NOT want to blow up a foundation when the bolts for mounting gun turrets are plainly visible, and when we are still healing from disfiguring wounds inflicted by the last generation of turrets. We are pretty sure we know how this will go down. Poor kids will do worse than rich kids on the CCSS tests. And educators will get 100% the blame for the gaps. Educators will have a hard time closing the gaps in the absence of significant positive social change outside of the schools, which they will be prohibited from asking for, because they must “focus on what they can control” and not make excuses. And, finally, educators will still get fired if they don’t get results in the absence of the desperately-needed social supports they’re not allowed to plead for. Our poorest schools will still get closed.

When we are asked to support CCSS, many of us fear that we are being recruited to build our own gallows. And not only our gallows, but gallows for the institution of public education. Here’s the deal: common standards may make our schools’ expectations align, but that in itself won’t flip things, and schools and teachers are under punishment UNTIL THINGS FLIP.

It’s as if I told my son he would be grounded unless our yard were spotless. This sounds reasonable unless it means that he must not only pick up his toys but also rid the yard of puddles, while it’s raining. He would really have problems with the second half of that expectation.

It’s raining injustice in our classrooms.

At this moment the appetite of our nation’s thought leaders for quality and equity in the schoolhouse is positively ravenous, particularly when it comes to learning standards and teacher quality. But these same aggressive advocates for justice often lose their voices completely outside of the school. I find it bizarre. They may say they want to focus on education because it’s in their wheelhouse, but if there are non-education-related policies that are hamstringing the education of children–and there are–”We focus on our locus of control” sounds pretty hollow and self-defeating. Education reform, as I put it in my forthcoming book, has come to look less like “the civil rights issue of our time” and more like “the civil rights issue of our timid.”

CCSS proponents are ultimately advocating for common standards in the midst of disparate lives, and they hesitate to challenge the disparity. “We shouldn’t wait until poverty is fixed to improve the schools,” some say, implying that this is what people like me are asking for. But hopefully they realize that’s an imprecise representation. We are asking for simultaneous action within and without the school, action of an equally-tenacious nature. We are asking for an identical impatience with all social practices and existing realities that hinder our children’s academic success–whether they exist in the schools or merely devour the schools from without. The non-comprehensive accountability they advocate simply feels like the nation is picking on its teachers and giving a free pass to everybody else.

Teachers are quite reasonably asking that the outcry against their poverty-enabling insufficiency not be one decibel louder than the outcry against the poverty-enabling sins of those who prevent better health care for students, permit insufficient wages for parents, etc., etc., etc. The outcry shouldn’t be disproportionate. If something harms students, it harms them no matter where it originates from, and the harms of the CEOs and their lobbyists are very doubtfully less grave than the harms of the teachers.

Some honestly believe the standards will help rescue many children from poverty, which is pleasantly hopeful. Sadly, however, this useful naivete–that the standards are enough–also has the downside of excusing an increasingly-abusive global business class for its many quantifiable failures, failures which manifest themselves in our students’ test scores (along with a million other depressing national symptoms). Inequity and unfairness–intolerable in school these days, which is a good thing–persist in any number of other areas, and seemingly without terribly troubling the consciences of the foundations and individuals pouring millions into education reform. Our economic policies and tax codes, our health care practices, our drug laws and penal codes, our housing policies, our wages and hiring and outsourcing practices, and so on–all of these things shave points off of PISA and NAEP and TIMSS and all the other tests.

I am not anti-CCSS. I am not pro-CCSS. I am CCSS-cautious. After looking around at the corrosive conditions that envelope our students–and I haven’t even mentioned the inequitable school funding that persists around the nation and provokes very little outrage–I would be crazy not to be cautious.

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Snow Day Blues

Today is a snow day at my school, and I’m happy about that because I like to think and write. I love my job, and I love being around kids, but a snow day gives me a chance to stop and wonder. There isn’t enough time for wondering when you’re working, unless you’re better at managing your time and energies than I am.

There is a lot of angst for a school leader when it comes to declaring a school day. I tend to watch closely what neighboring school districts do so that “we can all be wrong together,” as I like to say. And I watch the weather, of course, and I drive the roads. It’s “better safe than sorry” that often wins the day with me. One bus in the ditch on an icy day on which I didn’t cancel classes, and I have no choice but to blame myself for it.

I often think about school leaders in states to my north: Colorado, upstate New York. I suspect that if they saw the panicky skittishness of a Texas superintendent when the temperature is 25 degrees and there’s icy specks clicking against the windows, they might shake their heads and laugh. Sometimes we in Southern schools–just before we call for an early release to “get these buses off the roads before it gets worse”–will say things to one another like, “You know they wouldn’t call off school for this weather in Vermont.” It’s just something to say, and maybe that stuff doesn’t really come out of anyone’s mouth but my own, but I’ve said that who-knows-how-many-times. It’s a way, perhaps, of admitting our own limitations and maybe even probing the edges of those limitations, expressing a desire to better them, to expand our own possibilities.

It may not even be true, but I suspect Northern superintendents have a higher ice threshold than Southern superintendents. But it isn’t because they’re tougher than us or because they value classtime and learning more. It’s because–assuming that the suspicion is even true–they have more experience than we do dealing with the challenge. More experience plays out in a predictable way. More experience with a certain challenge results in more tools for moderating the impact of that challenge. I was in the New Mexico mountains one Spring Break and it was icy. My car slipped and slid, but the locals all had chains on their tires. Confession: I don’t even know how to put chains on my tires. Confession #2: I don’t even know where to buy chains for my tires.

So there’s a lesson in here, and it just happens to conform with my way of thinking about things in general. I was on Twitter last night (@johnkuhntx)–which I am on way too much in the evenings–and I watched some education pundits giddily trashing Sir Ken Robinson. The tweeters reminded me of that movie Mean Girls, but that’s mostly probably because I like Sir Ken Robinson. I chose not to weigh in because Twitter fights start but they never end–we all have to get the last word in, so they go on and on. Their issue with the famed TED talker was that, according to them, he deals in “pabulum.” My understanding of Robinson’s message is that he urges a less mechanistic approach to teaching and learning, and he advocates an embrace of creativity and a shunning of an overly prescriptive and exploration-limiting pedagogy.

That seems like a rich vein to me. “Pabulum” to me means that something is shallow, ill-considered, and airy or light on meaning. I don’t think the issues raised by Robinson qualify as “pabulum.” As a practicing educator, I see his concerns as valid.

Now, let me be generous, because I’m trying to coach myself to “assume good intentions” when I engage with other education thinkers. So, I think what these four guys were really decrying was the popularity of Ken’s message, and I think their worry–despite how they expressed it–was less that Ken peddles fluffy meaningless ideas, and more that we all who love his message might embrace some extreme version of it and wander far off into some kind of educational anarchy wherein learning standards and “the basics” are completely forgotten in our delirious dance with creativity.

I think these guys are trying to hold a line they value: the line of minimum learning and of “important stuff kids need to know.” The technical (and possibly trademarked) terms for this include “core knowledge,” “core curriculum,” and “cultural literacy.”

This is an important zone of investigation for me. This is where I lose the handle on whether I’m a progressive or a conservative. I personally think Ken Robinson (he of ‘more creativity and student-agency in schools’) and E.D. Hirsch (he of ‘a minimum body of learning that all successful Americans need to know’) are both correct. The angst of both sides is legitimate. Learning can be too unstructured, and learning can be too structured.

I read somewhere that one prominent education activist once embraced the concepts inherent in the unschooling movement, only to come to the conclusion that unschooling tends to work best with students who have had a certain level of academic support in the home. The upshot was that Sudbury-type schooling works pretty well for affluent children whose parents had them reading at a young age and whose basic aptitude equipped them for a schooling life of ideas exploration, but that students from a more deprived background don’t thrive in such an environment.

It isn’t that the poor can’t handle as much freedom as the rich. That’s an offensive concept. Rather, the issue as I see it is that children who come from something I’ll call “educative” homes–and these homes could be financially wealthy or impoverished–homes in which from a very young age the children have access to an open spigot of knowledge and are led to connect to and drink from that fount–are better equipped to make the most of their academic freedom. They would most likely find the absolute freedom of unschooling to be liberating and would pursue their interests with a voracious curiosity. resulting in deep and meaningful learning. These are the children for whom, like Bill Gates and Albert Einstein, traditional and restrictive schooling is a hindrance more than a help.

But students from less educationally-rich homes–which, again, could be financially well-off or financially poor–may well find unschooling to be an exercise in futility. These students may lack the basic foundational proficiency to be able to invest academic freedom in any kind of pursuit that would expand their horizons whatsoever.

All of us have limitations on our human agency, and those limitations are driven by our prior experience. If you put me and my dad in a room with a pen and paper and give us absolute freedom, I’m going to enjoy myself more than him and probably produce a better product. But if you put us in a room with a hammer and lumber, he’ll come out with a work of art and I’ll produce yet another monstrosity that will inspire great laughter from my wife. I’m not smarter than my dad, and he’s not smarter than me. We could each interpret these events to indicate our own general superiority if we were that insecure or disliked one another sufficiently, but we aren’t and we don’t, so we wouldn’t.

In other words, some of us are equipped to “drive on ice,” as it were, and some of us need to have a snow day when there’s ice on the asphalt. I believe that it is best that my friends and I in Texas call a snow day when it’s icy, even on a day when a school leader in Michigan would look outside and say, “School is so on.”

I believe that Sir Ken Robinson is right in sounding the alarm that too rigid of an educational approach threatens to harm kids’  agency and, in turn, their motivation, investment, and returns. This isn’t pabulum, and those who say it is are being quite one-sided in their thinking.

I believe that E.D. Hirsch is also right in sounding the alarm that too loose of an educational approach threatens to deprive kids of a solid foundation that should serve as a launching point for their own giddy exploration of this world we share. Those who reject any-and-all standards are, in my opinion, ignoring the beneficence of a certain level of imposed cultural fluency and general academic proficiency.

The question is how much freedom do we give the learner, and when does it start? The answer to me–as sleet ticks against my back window here in Texas–is that we must customize K-12 education to the individual.

1. First, establish the minimum knowledge and skills that we wish all kids to obtain–yes, I know that’s what the Common Core State Standards attempt to do, but to save them from destruction they must a) be put before the mass of learners and teachers in America for comment and validation, with a real opportunity to affect them (thereby not to remain something done to them by masters from other places), and b) they must be opened-up for state-by-state editorial input so that they truly become “state standards” and don’t remain politically toxic, probably illegal, and likely-to-ultimately-be-rejected “national standards.” (I’m not being a concern troll here. I’m trying to tell my pro-standards friends that federally-imposed standards will not survive. Certainly not in Texas, in the current political climate, anyway. And probably not anywhere where the federal government is distrusted–and the zones of distrust will shift constantly as the party-in-power in D.C. shifts. I have watched standards-wars for years at the Texas State Board of Education, and I don’t think the eager dismissers of CCSS concerns understand the virulence of the state-by-state fight-over-specific-aspects-of-these-standards that is ahead. The standards will not survive politics if they don’t get teachers on board–which will only happen if the teachers have a real voice–and give the states the right to tweak the standards to better fit their populations’ tastes and needs. My two cents.)

2. De-link these standards from grade levels and ages.

3. Cut down on standardized testing by rejecting the corrosive test-every-subject-every-year-for-compliance model.

4. Embrace the “Boss Level” model of testing. Have students test online, on no set schedule (completely de-linked from their age), when they and their teachers feel they have mastered the knowledge deemed necessary to advance from the Basic Facts and Skills level of American education to the Personal Relevance level of American education. Give teachers the autonomy to permit or not permit students to test based on their observations of student learning in their classrooms. Let teachers be the gatekeepers for the tests, and let the tests be the gate-keepers for student advancement.

5. After a student passes the first test, let them choose their path forward by embracing Career or College, and embarking on studies in that vein.

6. After engaging in Career preparatory or College preparatory studies, the students could then face their second (and final K-12) “Boss Level” test, and it would test either Career Readiness or College Readiness.

7. To prevent the “tracking” of students from minority and economically disadvantaged backgrounds into vocational fields and away from college, accountability could shift from a focus on test score disaggregation to a focus on program population disaggregation. How many poor students is your school getting to and past the College Prep test? This could be a value-added approach, wherein the school must strive for growth and gap-closing.

8. Such an approach maintains accountability for rigor (basic knowledge) while also inspiring accountability for relevance (student agency).

9. It is a wonderful ideal that all American students should take Algebra II and be prepared for college. It is also grossly unrealistic. Students who don’t want to go to college shouldn’t be forced to by adults, and students who already know they want to make a living working with their hands in fields that pay a decent wage shouldn’t have to fend off well-meaning educationists before finally embracing their desired future. If you’ve ever had a kid who badly wanted to be welder sitting in your Algebra II class because the state said he needed it even if he didn’t think he needed it, you know what it does to the depth and breadth of what you teach the entire class. Force-feeding rigor does little good for that student and does harm to all the other students. (We shouldn’t let them all eat ice cream at every meal, but we also can’t shove broccoli down everyone’s gullet.)

10. Students who choose the Career preparatory option should be rewarded if they choose to include college preparatory courses in their studies by being awarded an advanced credential–a “distinguished” career certification. When a would-be plumber “chooses” to be in Algebra II in pursuit of a better career-related, personally-relevant credential (rather than being forced by the state to take the class in order to merely graduate and advance in life), the teacher has some personal motivation on the part of the student to work with. To quote Robert Frost, this makes all the difference.

11. Within the College preparatory and Career preparatory courses of study, there should be variation in coursework for the students depending upon their self-identified areas of interest. Some may focus on STEM, others on humanities, others on business.

Well, there should be enough in here to irritate and tickle people on both sides of the reform wars. Full disclosure: I’m a K-12 educator, so I’m biased toward those who think there’s too much testing and the data is being abused and misused right now. So, you know, grain of salt or whatever.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Kids will be awake any minute now, and I’m sure we’re going to go outside and try to build a snowman out of ice pellets. Don’t laugh at us, though–we’re from Texas.

*There is a good chance that this piece will be cross-posted at The Educator’s Room and possibly at EdGator.com

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