Category Archives: philosophy

False Positives

I quit writing about tests. And test prep.  Five, six, years ago? I still taught test prep until this year, always giving in to my old employer’s pleas to teach his Saturday classes. But I largely quit the SAT after the last changes, focusing on the ACT. I still love tests, still enjoy coaching kids for the big day.

Explaining why has been a task I’ve avoided for several years, as the doubt is hard to put into words. 

It was an APUSH review course, the last one I taught, I think. Class hadn’t started for the day, but one of my five students was sitting there highlighting notes. She was a tiny little thing, perky and eager but not intellectually remarkable and it was March of what would have been her junior year.

“This is my last test prep course. I’ve taken the SAT for the fourth time, took AP Calculus BC last year, and I’m all done.”

“Yay! How’d you do on the SAT?”

“2400,” she said, casually. “I got 2000 the first time, but I spent the whole summer in two prep courses, plus over Christmas.”

Boom.

Like I said, she was….ordinary. Bright, sure. But her APUSH essays were predictable, regurgitating the key points she’d read in the prep material–pedestrian grammar, too many commas. Her lexile level was unimpressive. Nothing terrible. I gave her some tips. 

This girl had placed in the 99th percentile for the SAT but couldn’t write a grammatically complex sentence, much less an interesting one. Couldn’t come up with interesting ways to use data (graphs, statistics). Couldn’t accurately use the words she’d memorized and didn’t understand their nuance in reading text

She was a false positive.

I’ve known a lot of high scoring students of every ethnicity over the years–and by high scoring, I mean 1400-1600 on the 1600 SAT, and 2200-2400 on the 10 years with the three tests. 5s on all AP tests, 700+ on all Subject tests. Until that conversation, I would have said kids had high test scores were without exception tremendously impressive kids: usually creative, solid to great writing, opinionated, spotted patterns, knew history, knew the underlying theory of anything that interested them. I could see the difference, I’d say, between these kids and those slightly lower on the score scale–the 1200s, the kids who were well rounded with solid skills who were sometimes as impressive, sometimes not, sometimes a swot, sometimes a bright kid who didn’t see much point in striving.

Every time saying it, though, I’d push back memories of a few kids who’d casually mentioned a 5 score, or a 1600 or 2400, that took me aback. That particular kid who didn’t seem all that remarkable for such a high score. But in all these cases, I was only relying on gut instinct and besides, disappointingly high IQ folks exist.   For every Steven Hawking there’s a Ron Hoeflin. Or a Marilyn vos Savant, telling us whether or not larks are happy.  Surely the test would sometimes capture intellect that just wasn’t there in the creative original ways I looked for. Or hey, maybe some of those kids were stretching the truth.

But here, I had my own experience of her work and her scores were easily confirmable, as my employer kept track (her name was on the “2400 list”, the length of which was another shock to my prior understanding). She got a perfect score despite being a banal teen who couldn’t write or think in ways worthy of that score.

Since that first real awareness, I’ve met other kids with top 1% test scores who are similarly…unimpressive.  98+ percentile SAT scores, eight 5 AP scores, and a 4.5 GPA with no intellectual depth, no ability to make connections, or even to use their knowledge to do anything but pick the correct letter on the multiple choice test or regurgitate the correct answer for a teacher. Some I could confirm their high scores, others I just trusted my gut, now that I’d validated instinct. These are kids with certainly decent brains, but not unusually so.  No shame in that.  But no originality, not even the kind I’d expect from their actual abilities. No interest in anything but achieving high scores, without any interest in what that meant.

It probably won’t come as a shock to learn that all the kids with scores much higher than demonstrated ability were born somewhere in east Asia, that they all spent months and months learning how to take the test, taking practice tests, endlessly prepping.

The inverse doesn’t hold. I know dozens, possibly hundreds, of exceptional Asian immigrants with extraordinary brains and the requisite intellectual depth and heft I would expect from their profile of perfect SAT scores and AP Honors status. But when I am shocked at a test score that is much higher than demonstrated ability, the owner of that score is Chinese or Korean of recent vintage. 

I don’t know whether American kids (of any race) could achieve similar scores if they swotted away endlessly. Maybe some of them are. But my sample size of all races is pretty high, and I’ve not seen it.  On the other hand, I’m certain that very few American kids would find this a worthwhile goal. 

Brief aside: when I taught ELL, I had a kid who was supposedly 18. That’s what his birth certificate said, although there’s a lot of visa fraud in Chinese immigrants, so who knows. He didn’t look a day older than fourteen. And he had very little interest in speaking or learning English. Maybe he was just shy, like Taio, although I’d test him every so often by offering him chocolate or asking him about his beloved bike and he showed no sign of comprehension. But then he’d ace multiple choice reading passages. Without reading the passage. He had no idea what the words meant, but he’d pick the right A, B, or C, every time. I mentioned this to the senior ELL teacher, a Chinese American, and she snorted, “It’s in our genes.”

I don’t think she was kidding but the thing is, I don’t much care how it happens. If American kids are doing this, then it changes not a whit about my unhappiness. It’s not a skill I want to see transferred to the general teenage American population. (That said, the college admissions scandal makes it pretty clear that, as I’ve said many times, rich parents are buying or bribing their way in, not prepping. And unsurprisingly, it appears that Chinese parents were the biggest part of his business.)

Now, before everyone cites data that I probably know better than they do, let me dispatch with the obvious. Many people think test prep doesn’t work at all. That was never my opinion  When people asked me if test prep “worked”, I’d always say the same thing: depends on the kid. “Average score improvement” is a useless metric; some kids don’t improve, some improve a bit, some improve a huge amount. Why not pay to see if your kid improves a lot? But I also felt strongly that test prep couldn’t distort measured ability to beyond actual ability, and I no longer believe that.

But I didn’t believe what critics at the time said, that test prep worked…..too well. I didn’t believe that false positives were a real problem. And the terrible thing is–at least to me–is that I still believe normal test prep is a good thing. Distortion of ability, however, is not.

As the push to de-emphasize tests came, as test-entry high schools came under attack, as colleges turn to grades only–a change I find horrifying–I could no longer join the opposition because the opposition focused their fire almost exclusively on their dismay at the end of meritocracy and the concomitant discrimination against Asian immigrants. I oppose the discrimination, but I no longer really believe the tests we have reliably reveal merit to a granular degree. The changes I want to see in the admissions process would almost certainly reduce Asian headcount not by design, but by acknowledging that specific test scores aren’t as important.

I have other topics I’ve been holding off discussing:

  • why I support an end to test-based high schools in its current form
  • why we still need tests
  • how the SAT changes made all this worse
  • how the emphasis on grades for the past 20 years has exacerbated this insanity
  • why we need to stop using hard work as a proxy for merit

But I needed to try, at least,  to express how my feelings have changed. This is a start. It’s probably badly written, but as you all know, I’ve been trying to write more even if the thoughts aren’t fully baked, so bear with me.

 

 


Three Covid19 Lawsuits We Need

I was against masks and lockdowns and school closings in March 2020, so I’m close to losing my mind at this point.  I find this return to lockdown and masks infuriating, and no media institution seems up to the job of explaining just why it’s horrible. From Commentary to National Review to The Dispatch to Richochet to Fox News, the message is “Get vaccinated” and “it’s not our job to care about the people who don’t get vaccinated.” Sure. Fine. Whatever. I agree. That’s not the point, and by missing the point everyone taking that stance is little more than an appeaser.

What we need are lawsuits. I’ve been amazed at how few we’ve seen. Let the suing begin.

I’ve identified three lawsuits that need to happen. Two are obviously the source of much government fear. The other one isn’t even mentioned, from what I can see.

Lawsuit 1: Can Vaccines Be Mandated?

I am assured endlessly by Twitter folk that this is a no brainer. I’m….skeptical. Assume the FDA approves one or more of them.

The federal government can require immigrants to vaccinate, and I’d like to know why they are only now getting around to adding  covid19 to the list. The feds can also make life unpleasant for its own employees (and probably contractors) who don’t get vaccinated, without going so far as demanding they get “the jab”, as some so loathesomely describe it. Military vaccination mandates are  But permissible. I couldn’t find any source that disagreed with the  Kaiser Family Foundation:

The federal government’s authority to institute a general vaccine mandate is unclear, and has not yet been tested in the courts, though it is likely limited at best.

As the KFF goes on to point out, states have much more clearly defined authority (cf Jacobson vs Mass, Zucht vs King), although no state has ever mandated vaccines for adults. Employers? Health care workers live with mandates. Some states ban employer mandates. 

Bottom line, really, is that anyone who says vaccine mandates are a done deal are ignoring the fact that federal government has no case history supporting mandates, and states have never required adult vaccinations.  And the real thing I wonder about is whether the case law supporting state mandates ever intersected with the ADA? 

Finally, schools are an excellent control point for ensuring vaccinations, and while they do a very good job, it seems that a percentage escape vaccines without exemptions.

So 5% have exemptions, and another varying percent just gets away with not vaccinating. If that’s true for all the states, then even with mandates, it’s going to be tough to get full coverage.

Are Vaccine Passports Constitutional?

The difference between a vaccine mandate and a vaccine passport (proof of vaccine) strikes me as a bit fuzzy around the edges. Let’s restrict the term vaccine mandate for a requirement imposed by the federal or state government, while a passport is something that can be required by either government or private business in an environment where no vaccine mandate exists.

So for example, a private business requiring that employees and customers be vaccinated would want to see a vaccine passport, preferably one superior to a piece of paper with a scribble and a stamp. A government might not mandate a vaccine for everyone, but require evidence of vaccination to enter an official building.  Or a business could require proof of vaccine for employees and customers to be unmasked, but still employ and serve the unvaccinated. 

 Some argue  that proof of vaccine is constitutional; others say it’s not clear cut. I have no idea. Seriously, not even an opinion, although I’m far more in favor of the government just adding one more vaccine to the school list than I am a vaccine passport which in this era will see all sorts of new requirements once it’s created. That said when I consider the contortions that schools experience because of the judicial rights granted by the ADA and, separately, disparate impact, well. Let’s have that lawsuit, shall we? 

Can Governments Require the Vaccinated to Wear Masks?

I care not at all about vaccine mandates, am more troubled by vaccine passports, but am seething with rage at this one, and no one else seems to care.  Many call for people to ignore the mandate, but how will that help employees or government demands? Or, in the case of teachers, a government employer? 

There are dozens of lawsuits protesting mask mandates, for children–unvaccinated children.   Think about that.  Everyone is up in arms about protesting mask mandates for the unvaccinated, and best I can see there are no lawsuits challenging the right of the government or employers to demand that vaccinated people wear masks. 

Why not?

I asked a lawyer friend who shrugged and said first, no one is interested in challenging these mandates. He also said that the courts would defer to health emergencies for some amount of time. Great, I said, for how long? He said that a lawsuit might result in a government response that explained their standards, and most likely a protest that the mandate would be of short-term. Well, I said, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Once the government made that response, wouldn’t a judge be more likely to use that standard–or even question the standard? He agreed that was a decent possibility. I’m depressed that a judge would defer to the government for a vaccinated mask mandate under any conditions, but as absurd as that would be, at least a judge would at worst demand the government prove its standard and duration. 

So why no lawsuit? I am really boggled by people like Tim Carney and Jonah Goldberg, who agreed on a recent podcast that they were fine with a mandate if it prevented lockdowns (Carney said it again in an article.) I can’t bear such thinking and that it comes from “the right”, it’s downright disgusting. (When Carney and Goldberg moan that the right has moved inexplicably away from them, I hope they remember how willing they were to bend the knee to this bullshit.)

So where’s the lawsuit?

Do people not realize that if the government starts mandating masks for covid19, it’s a short step to mandating them for measles outbreaks, diptheria, pertussis?  You may think that’s absurd, and I hope it is, but there’s literally no difference. If the government no longer accepts vaccines as the last word in prevention. And yet I can find no one challenging this demand legally–and legally is what matters.  God help us all if the court system holds that the government can force citizens to wear masks any time it wants to. 

I am reasonably certain that the government is mandating masks for everyone because they are afraid they’ll lose the first two lawsuits. The loopholes for disabilities and disparate impact in the other two challenges seem obvious. And maybe all the zealots in pursuit of zero covid19 understand how reluctant everyone is to challenge a mask mandate for the unvaccinated. Because reluctance is the only word I can see for it, given all the brave, bold people calling to ignore the mandate.

As regular readers know, I’m getting back into writing after a long hiatus (and long intermittent spells before that) in part by abandoning the research component that would normally send me down a bunch of enjoyable rabbit holes learning the ins and outs of Jacobson vs Massachussetts and Zucht vs. King or the Public Health Service Act. But I am a damn good internet researcher and I can’t find any serious legal analysis of forcing vaccinated to wear masks and on that point, I’ve been looking hard. Misleading headlines of worried articles, sure.  But even a cursory discussion of the legal issues involved in forcing vaccinated people to wear masks, I can’t find. Maybe I missed something. By all means, let me know. Here’s a starting search. I went down four pages. 

Meanwhile, everyone left right and center is righteously demanding that the unvaccinated comply. Why the hell should they, if the government can randomly demand we wear masks despite the fullest medical protection any time they feel queasy? 

Far too many conservative commentators are more interested in mocking liberals and using the child mask mandate to push for their favorite school choice initiative. If you don’t see mask mandates for the vaccinated as the single most pressing issue–worse than making unvaccinated kids wear masks, worse then refusing vaccination, then you are doing it wrong. We need start there, if we’re going to push back. 

I don’t bargain with these control freaks and think the many conservative appeasers who originally backed or demanded these mandates and are now whining did much to lead to this appalling situation. I think it’s all a horrorshow. Back when most of the media was calling for a temporary lockdown, I was warning that it was a foolish overreaction that would be hard to undo. I don’t care if people get vaccinated and find the lectures are articles on “persuasion” to be offensive and condescending. I oppose vaccine passports. I don’t think children should have to wear masks. But none of these are as bad as forcing masks on people who have vaccinated. So let’s start with the most important idiocy.


Coins Dropping, Lights Dawning, and Other Impossibilities

So I was just snotty to Aaron Sibarium last night and now I feel mean. 

I should be gracious to the guy who took on a topic I’ve been howling about for months. My point: for all the hysteria about “leftists taking over public schools” as the ads on NRO podcasts bleat, parents have far more control over public schools than they do private schools and charters. The real CRT insanity is taking hold at the most elite private schools and is a much bigger problem at charter schools than it is at public schools. (When I was in ed school over a decade ago, one of my adjunct professors was leaving to start an all black charter school that was devoted to critical race theory, although she didn’t call it that).

Not that Sibarium mention charter schools at all, or even correctly identifies the problem with private school wokeness. I mean, he’s completely wrong in arguing that an ideological cartel of gatekeepers is keeping Dalton and other elite private schools from abandoning DIE dogma. That’s hilariously nuts. But he gets closer to the point here:

The challenge for both proposals is the college admissions process. In interviews with the Free Beacon, multiple parents expressed concern that elite universities would not look kindly on schools outside the accreditation establishment, which could handicap their kids’ odds of getting in. “The better the school, the more woke it is,” one mother said—”because all the best colleges are woke.” If Dalton is held hostage by the accreditors, parents are held hostage by the meritocracy.

The last sentence is where he goes wrong: like there are Dalton administrators blinking in code: “Send help. End cartel.” But the rest of it correctly identifies the real problem, which is that parents are more interested in access than education.

But the real reason I approve of Aaron’s article is here:

All this poses a problem for market-based education reform: For many parents, there is no market. Far from offering more choice than public schools, private schools may offer even less.

Hahahaha. Yeah,  no shit, Aaron! Well done!  Seriously–he’s maybe 25 years old and says the unsayable. 

And I was mean to him anyway, because first, he’s wrong about the cartel nonsense, but most importantly because of a tweet comment:

If you want school choice to actually offer choice, you’ve got to go after the woke bureaucracy that stifles market competition.

The sound you hear is the point whizzing over Aaron’s head.

The less important wrongness is, again, that Aaron gets the cause completely backwards. As he already pointed out, parents choose these schools for access, not education. The “woke bureaucracy” isn’t the reason there are no excellent conservative private schools that are a pipeline to the Ivies. Elite colleges manage that gatekeeping all by themselves. The “woke bureaucracies” aren’t gatekeepers. While I haven’t looked into it, my first guess is that the various organizations and consulting groups are full-employment mandates for well-connected spouses, much in the way we pretend that Michelle Obama had an important job at a hospital when in fact she got the job when her husband got important. They aren’t powerful. The jobs aren’t powerful. The jobs are mostly wife sinecures. That’s my guess, anyway.

But the really important issue here is way meta, and it’s in the opener: “If you want school choice to actually offer choice”…

Think about it.

Thirty years. THIRTY YEARS conservatives have been pushing school choice. THIRTY YEARS they’ve been howling about the evil public school cartels. THIRTY YEARS their only solution to any education problem was the wholesale destruction of public schools.

Result? Almost every initiative they won during a 16-year reign of bipartisan state and federal legislation was ripped out and declared a total failure by the voters and general public. If education reform organizations were held to the same criteria they demand for teachers, Rick Hess, Michael Petrilli, Nat Malkus, Matt Chingos, and a host of other think tankers would be on unemployment.

I do believe it’s finally sunk in that the institutions, private schools AND charters, that conservatives have been pushing as the right and proper solution to “government schools” are unrelentingly dedicated to the wholesale destruction of everything conservatives hold dear: free speech, merit, academic achieve ment, high standards. Everything that conservatives held the evil teachers’ unions responsible for is now more present, more powerful, and more destructive than before.

But here’s Aaron, offering a fix: “If you want school choice….”

Dude. Some humility.

If nothing else, the smoking, hulking wreck of conservative dreams should give them all pause. Perhaps–I’m gonna just throw this idea out there–perhaps school choice isn’t going to do a damn thing to achieve your goals. In fact, perhaps school choice is an actively wrong answer. Perhaps, given that the organizations you dreamed of are dedicated to your obliteration, you should stop trying to obliterate public schools.

Just a thought.

But in any case, stop offering fixes, Aaron. and everyone else. It’s time to acknowledge that school choice has failed in critical ways to advance conservative or even Republican agendas.  Be a little less flip with solutions.

As a Republican, if not a conservative, who knows public schools are a lot better and far more responsive to communities than the choice shrines, I have no definitive answers. But I have some thoughts. 

School choice gives power to schools, not parents.

The right to attend a local public school is near absolute. The right to attend charters, magnets, and private schools is non-existent. The school choice movement works on the fringes, appealing to the parents who don’t have the money to choose their kids’ peers. It’s not a serious universal solution. Parents know this very well. Schools of choice can always reject the kids and teachers they don’t want, which allows them to enforce ideological demands.

Public schools respond to community demands. Private schools don’t have to.

Naturally, conservatives get this entirely backwards. Never has this been more obvious than in the recent pandemic year. Yes, private schools were more likely to offer in-person instruction. Duh. Why pay for zoom school when you can get it for free? But charters were as likely to be in hybrid or remote as publics were, and for the same reason: parent demand. It was parents, coupled with idiotic state-wide restriction, that kept schools in remote. Every single take blaming teachers unions is goofy. Don’t believe me? Maybe Andrew Smarick, conservative and choice advocate in good standing, will convince you:

The comfort of citizens and parents in any particular geography—not missives from the CDC, studies from universities, or prodding from politicians—is proving to be the key factor in returning to normal. Indeed, though school systems have gotten lousy press for months on end, there might come a time when we see the behavior of American K-12 education during the COVID era as typifying decentralization and democracy in action.

And remember this: anywhere schools opened, teachers went back to work.

Right now, while private school parents are chafing at the woke theology their kids are subjected to, public school parents are voting out school boards and demanding their legislators ban CRT instruction. Public schools are a hell of a lot more democratic than they’re given credit for.

While I’m supportive of CRT laws, remember they’ll only go so far precisely because of local control. Go into any inner city school and odds are the history teachers are using CRT lessons to keep their kids engaged. Try the same thing in the suburbs of Tennessee or Florida and the teacher will be summarily canned.

1 in 3 teachers are Republicans

Do you know who they are? Have you bothered to talk to them? I don’t mean the Fordham Institute-sponsored puppets who mouth the choice dogma that gets them published, but rather the every day teachers who vote for Republicans but don’t think public schools are irretrievably broken. Like me, except probably in red states where it’s not instant suicide to come forward.

Might want to find out who they are, what they think, and how you could support them and maybe make more of them. Hint: best not talk about how useless teachers are, and “we don’t hate teachers, just teachers unions” line won’t reassure them.

Focus your energy on college, not high school

I have been writing about the wholesale destruction of college diplomas for years. It’s a huge problem. Conservatives correctly complain that college isn’t for everyone, but no one is pushing Congress to do anything about it. 

Weakening private colleges and strengthening state colleges is key to addressing the gatekeeping issues that Aaron correctly observes in his article. 

The best solution: Mandate a minimum demonstrated ability level for college loans (Congress) or state universities (state legislatures): Nothing too high. Something like a 550 SAT section minimum, or a composite 25 ACT. Be flexible–we could use more competition in the test market. This suggestion has HUGE disparate impact problems and will be the subject of endless lawsuits, so get started on it now.

I realize all of these suggestions, as well as a host of others I left off because of time and focus factors, are anathema to the people in a position to work on enacting them.  Because Sibarium’s article makes it clear that no one is rethinking things. The coin ain’t dropping. The light ain’t dawning. Textbook definition of insanity runs all through his piece.

But I’m a teacher in a Title I school, which makes me an expert in teaching people who take a long time to learn.

*********************************************************************************

This the first actual Ed_Realist article I’ve been able to write in months, so I’m not going in depth on these and didn’t have time to support with links to things I consider obvious. Spending time trying to craft this would add it to the large pile of unfinished pieces in my draft folder. So I just decided to put these thoughts out there rather than endlessly mull the best way to write this. 

 


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: It All Came Tumbling Down

Education Reform, on the other hand, was a Napoleon-Invades-Russia near-total victory followed by collapse—new teacher evaluation, curriculum, and testing systems were adopted across almost every state, implemented in almost every district, and promptly drove almost everybody crazy—suburban and urban parents and teachers alike—while promised results failed to appear. We are now, it appears, in the “gaunt, haunted French soldiers scrambling westward in blind fear across Poland” stage of the Napoleonic story of recent education reforms. Mass charter conversion, new multi-day online tests, new quantitative test-based teacher evaluation systems—states simply can’t drop the reforms they adopted just a few years ago fast enough. More than a pendulum swing, it has become a panicked rout.

Spotted Toad, Waking From Meritocracy

Over a year ago, just after Toad’s epic article hit, he suggested I write a “single coherent summary” of the education reform era–expand on the glorious extended analogy he uses above. Yeah. And I’d keep it under a thousand words, too.  

And now, the denouement:  It all disappeared. Better yet, it all disappeared because the public hated it.

NCLB/Race to the Top:

Just as the Bush/Obama era began with No Child Left Behind, the 2001 version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) so it ended with the 2015 version of the same law, Every Student Succeeds. All the accountability, controls, and demands that the Republican-controlled 2001 Congress put in, the Republican-controlled 2016 Congress took out. The Department of Education became little more than a bank, so far as K-12 was concerned, leaving states to make their own decisions again while giving them block grants to succeed.

I hope readers of the entire series understands this point, but I meander sometimes.

It’s called the “Bush/Obama era” for a reason. It began with NCLB’s critical failure: the mandate that all students test above average. While No Child Left Behind was unpopular with the very schools it was intended to fix, it might have survived in a toothless form were it not for the deeply flawed assumption at the heart of the policy.  NCLB was built on the assumption that good schools would not have an achievement gap. Alas. All schools have an achievement gap. Therefore, all schools, including all the excellent public schools in the suburbs, failed to meet that criteria, and thus all schools were threatened with  “program improvement” status and a variety of unattractive restriction.

It was this terminal and universal state of restriction that created both the necessity for the NCLB “waivers” and the power the Obama administration had to enforce a new round of reform demands without the messiness of Congressional approval. This gave SecEd Arne Duncan tremendous power to enforce states to commit to value added testing and Common Core adoption. From 2001-2015, the federal government had profound control over state education.

And again: the public hated the results.  Education reformers got almost everything they could conceivably want to convince the public of the value of choice, accountability, and curriculum reform and their nirvana was so despised that every bit of these changes were ripped out and states were given control of their own destiny.

Common Core and  Value Added Metric Evaluations

I devoted four articles to the Common Core meltdown, and if I do say so myself they kicked the crap out of Dana Goldstein’s somewhat mealy-mouthed overview. VAM demanded its own thousand or so words.

Upshot: both rendered largely toothless.

Split in the Reform Movement

Much of the remaining story doesn’t make sense without understanding that the bipartisan reform movement splintered. On the Democrat side, the reform movement began as “neoliberals”, with moderates like Andrew Rotherham, but it’s really impossible to do anything as a Democrat without running into headcounts by race. As the left side of education reform moved away from ex-Clinton policy wonks and towards ex-TFAers, the movement’s whiteness became an issue. I’m not involved enough to know if the movement became progressive because the leaders became increasingly black and Hispanic or if the movement became progressive AND the leaders became increasingly black and Hispanic. Doesn’t matter, I’m just pointing out I don’t know which. But it most assuredly became really left of center.

Robert Pondiscio was, I think, the first person to point out that conservatives were being sidelined in education reform–describing in early 2016 actions that had been going on for a couple years.  Making matters worse for conservative reformers (or reformers working for thinktanks funded by conservatives, at least), is that they were all never Trump or silent on the subject. Hillary Clinton was the friendliest Democrat teachers unions had seen in eight years, so they had no good options. 

And then Trump won. So both sides of education reform were entirely out of power during the Trump administration, even though he appointed as SecEd reform moneybags Betsy Devos who never met a “government school” she didn’t want to raze to the ground. (Note: Devos was useless in K-12, thankfully, but in all other purviews, she did much better than I expected.) Meanwhile, the education reform movement schism grew. 

The progressive side was completely radicalized. Most black reform activists had concluded, as Andre Perry wrote, that the education reform movement was too white to do any good. Many felt sincerely that the obsessive focus on test scores and failure was hurting black kids. Many now openly working for black schools and empowerment:  Chris Stewart, Derrell Bradford, and most notably, Howard Fuller (“I didn’t get into this business to help white kids.”). I say that not in criticism, but it’s a huge shift from the marching orders that traditional reformers had, which was to expand suburban charters to get more white support.

Ironically, these progressive reformers have no institutional support. Teachers unions are back in the heart of the Democrats. So the progressives shat all over the conservatives but their own party is moving back hard against charters.

This split is, I think, permanent. As a result, education reform has been political crippled. The progressive reformers agree with the Dems and unions on everything except charters, so they will be taking a back seat. The conservative ed reformers, particularly those who have 20-30 years in (Hess, Petrilli) are among the few who understand what happened, and aren’t sure what to do about it. The Republican party and non-education reform conservatives are completely clueless as to what happened, but that’s because they get their talking points from The Big Book of Ed Reform Shibboleths, and there’s no  money for a new edition.

TFA

TFA was beautifully positioned to be wiped out by crossfire in the reform split. By 2012,it was targeted for being too much a puppet of the charter school movement, even while it was being feted as the solution to the lazy, union-fed teacher population. Possibly suspecting her charmed existence was ending, Wendy Kopp quit TFA in 2013 and appointed two co-directors. One was a McKinsey consultant who got hired into TFA management. One was a teacher who worked up the ladder. One was a Hispanic woman. One was a white guy. One quit within two years, saying that “we spend a lot of time maintaining alignment, and we often speak in a voice that reflects our daily compromises”. One is still the director of TFA. Guess which one was more radical? (Hint: the resignation letter didn’t mention racism.)

Following Kopp’s departure, applications and cohort size cratered.

 

The organization recovered by emphasizing its diverse student body, but that may have further dimmed its appeal.

I suspected this back in 2014, when I wrote TFA Diversity and the Credibility Gap, about TFA’s much touted diversity push–or, as I indelicately asked, “How the hell can Teach for America have recruited 1000 African Americans?” It’s not that I don’t think a thousand or more could pass the credential tests, but elite black candidates have far better options. I go through the numbers in the articles that give rise to skepticism–but I also point out ways that TFA could scout out candidates, and I suspect they took many of these steps.

The thing is, and here’s another indelicate truth: you can focus on diversity or merit. Not both. Once TFA made diversity its brand, it seemed to become a lot less attractive to elite candidates. 

Significantly, they no longer mention their application or cohort size. It’s difficult even to find their previous announcements, all 404-ed. Moreover, as Rise and Fall of TFA points out, Arizona State University is now a top source of admits. 

 

Charters

Stalled.

Source

Enrollment population is still growing, but charter school growth is becoming polarized, and previously strong blue charter states are slowing or reversing.

2016: Massachussetts voters crushed a proposition to lift the charter cap. 

In 2019,  California enacted a new law allowing school districts to consider financial impact when reviewing charter school applications, a major defeat for choice advocates.

In 2020, New York reached its charter limit and Cuomo hadn’t had any luck in getting the legislature to lift the cap.

In 2021, Newark charter schools,  object of Mark Zuckerberg’s largesse, applied for an expansion and the state slapped them down. 

For all the talk about charters being separate from those pesky union-run public schools, they are just as likely to be closed during covid19 as public schools are, which makes sense. Most charters are in Democrat-run areas, and Dem run areas are more likely to demand CDC guidance, social distancing, and more likely to have non-white parents who are worried about returning to school. Once again, reformers are let down by reality.

Reform advocates will cite New Orleans as a major success, but the scores are still dismal for African American students, and the dropout rate is hard to track but pretty scary.  Besides, go right ahead and say “Hey, the trick to fixing schools is to fire all the black teachers!” and see how far you get. Bottom line, if you think that kids are actually doing better, go buy a bridge in Manhattan. 

I don’t wish to overstate the case. Charters are private schools for free, and there will always be a market for them if parents are given a say. But eventually, the state is given a say, and charters turned out to be more expensive than anticipated. 

New York, California, and New Jersey politics have seen a significant shift away from charters. According to Michael Petrilli, support for charters has declined in many states since 2016, but it’s more popular where white parents can use charters to get away from non-white public schools (my interpretation, obviously, not his). Which…has a limited shelf life, because most white parents like their schools, and they won’t like the diminished funding that comes along with white parents crafting their own private schools on the public dime. Probably. We’ll see. I’m not spiking the football on charters.

Vouchers

Like charters, mostly stalled. Vouchers are popular in the South, where white parents support them for private schools.  The Supreme Court has been very friendly, ruling that vouchers could be used for private religious schools.

But courts can’t mandate vouchers, and for a fascinating look at how fast the public has switched, consider at Douglas County, Colorado.

2011: Voucher program established and instantly blocked by litigation by the ACLU, Citizens for Separation of Church and State (not unions, that I can see, but don’t quote me).

2015: Colorado Supreme Court blocked the voucher program. 

2017: The Supreme Court established that religious entities couldn’t be denied public funds available to similar secular institutions in  Trinity Lutheran and shortly thereafter ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to rethink its 2015 decision.

BUT! also in 2017: a head to head school board election, in which one slate CommUnity Matters, promised to undo all the reform changes of the previous six years and end the voucher program and give more support to teachers, while the other slate, Elevate Douglas County,  promised to keep all the reform agenda. CommUnity Matters stomped Elevate Douglas County and the board rescinded the voucher program and all those lawsuits were for nothing.

Moral: Court decisions can’t get you past the voters.

As with charters, I’m not spiking the football. But vouchers and charters take money away from public schools, and most voters like public schools. 

The money folks

Bill Gates has found his education philanthropy very disappointing. School children and teachers everywhere have let him down.

Mark Zuckerberg, humbled by the lack of results in Newark, has decided to listen to his wife, do more small bore stuff, and focus on efforts close to home.

Eli Broad suspended the Broad Prize in 2014, giving no more money to “good” urban districts. Three years later, California’s response to the leaked information about Broad’s plan to double the number of charters in Los Angeles was so hostile the organization was forced to regroup and claim they weren’t focusing on charters. No one believed them, and the anger may have led to California’s decision to give districts more power to deny charter applications (see above). A year later, Broad retired. His successor pulled up stakes from California and paid Yale to give them digs–the pandemic followed. I’m not saying it was a cause, or anything. 

Betsy DeVos learned that writing checks to people who want her approval and trying to make  policy by winning the approval of people who don’t need her money isn’t at all the same thing.

Unions

The 2012 Chicago teachers won their strike and won big, despite the active opposition of  liberal columnists and wonks, in addition to the usual  criticism by education reformers or just conservatives. Obama probably would have supported mayor Rahm Emmanuel in fighting for what were clearly the Administration’s priorities, but he was running for re-election and couldn’t alienate teachers. Yet in the face of all that Democratic establishment support, and the near-complete support of the media, polls showed that over 60% of black and Hispanics, and nearly half of whites, supported the teachers. (I was fascinated by those polls because “an extremely overweight, frowsy, no-bullshit, way the hell left of center black woman virtually coldcocked a younger, relatively good-looking hard ass Democrat mayor who’s best buds with the big O.” Just as had been the case two years earlier, when black voters kicked out Michelle Rhee’s boss so she’d have to be fired, the CTU strike showed the vast gap between the widely bipartisan establishment view of those greedy teachers and the ground view reality of the voters.

Unions lost a number of court cases, but it’s hard to argue it hurt them much. Vergara was overturned. Janus, the victory that conservative have awaited for 30 years,  led to a minor loss of union membership but certainly didn’t yield the desired results.  Almost immediately after the decision in 2018, a wave of red state teacher strikes proved successful. Unions have very little power in these states, and yet wild-cat unauthorized strikes were successful in winning pay increases. Why? Well, parents supported the teachers and it’s a bit difficult to fire all the teachers in an illegal strike if there aren’t any replacements waiting around.

Meanwhile, during the pandemic, conservatives have been shrieking about the corrupt union hold on public schools and how they are keeping the schools closed despite no covid19 risk. Now, this is also nonsense, but leave the details for another article. The larger point is this:  it’s two years past Janus and Republicans are still blaming unions for their money and their power and their chokehold on Democrat policy. Again, nonsense. But what the hell did Janus do, if they’re still bitching? 

Governance

The Tennessee Achievement School District, which took on all the state’s lowest scoring schools to be fixed and sent on their way by miracle worker Chris Barbic, has crashed and burned. (Barbic got out before anyone noticed.) Mark Zuckerberg and Corey Booker’s handpicked superintendent, Cami Anderson, was run out of town by an angry parent population. Joel Klein left his job running NYC schools after everyone learned that the great test score gains of the previous few years had been due to lowered cut scores. He then ran a Murdoch-owned education company Amplify that was a complete failure, and he’s out of education now as well. Quick: what’s the name of the next two NYC chancellors? You can’t remember, can you? (Cathie Black and, when she flamed out after a few months, Dennis Walcott.) Then diBlasio won, and while Governor Cuomo jerked him around with Success Academy, New York City schools have rolled back a lot of the reform movement.

And it’s no use blaming teachers unions money, either. Pro-charter Marshall Tuck outspent both Tonys, Torlakson and Thormond, for California superintendent and lost both times. In 2012, pro-union underdog Gloria Ritz beat  Tony Bennett, literally the education reform idol, for state superintendent in Indiana, despite Bennett outspending her. Then Ritz lost to Republican Jennifer McCormack in 2016–but Jennifer, a special ed teacher, proved very union friendly, siding with the teachers time and again. Meanwhile, Bennett went to Florida to be state commissioner, and was fired in 2013.

It all really did come tumbling down.

Today

Michelle Rhee has, last I checked, completely left education. Wendy Kopp doesn’t have nearly the visibility; her Wikipedia entry ends in 2013. Most of the school “fixers” of the reform era have moved on: Cami Anderson, Christopher Cerf, Chris Barbic, Joel Klein, John King, Tony Bennett. They’re consulting and think tanking,  but not getting their hands dirty, and there’s no new generation of “miracle workers” in part because the media has moved left and is much more suspicious of reform. 

Reformers move on. They’re movers and shakers. They got shit to do.

You know who’s still in the same job?

Randi Weingarten. Michael Mulgrew. Until recently, Lily Eskalen Garcia.

Go back and look at all those glowing articles on TFA and Success Academy and other reform miracles, and see how many of those earnest purveyors of excellence are still teaching. 

Now do the same thing for real teachers, the teachers that the cool people talk shit about.

Remember back in 2010 when the Los Angeles Times evaluated every teacher in LA Unified for their value add, humiliating teachers. Some of those teachers wrote in and protested the entire effort. One of them was Joan Lavery, who was found “less effective than average“. A decade later, Joan’s still teaching with a National Board Certification (which I’m not that impressed by, but hey, she’s still here.) Irma Estrada of Gledhill Elementary got “most effective“. She’s still teaching, too. Rigobuerto Ruelas isn’t teaching, despite a passion that kept him on the job nearly every day for 14 years, but that’s because the LA Times reporting of his “low” achievement impact depressed him to the point of suicide. Yeah, low blow. 

Teachers abide, is what I’m saying. A lot of them do, anyway. We just duck down and wait until you all move on.

************************************************************************************************

And so, dear readers, I come to the end of my history. The pandemic was merely a Chinese whisper when I began, while now we have a vaccine but the schools are still closed. And everyone blames unions.

As I’ve said ad nauseum on Twitter, closures are supported by roughly half of non-white parents and about 1 in 4 white parents, meaning that in diverse school districts (translation: most large cities and almost all blue states), roughly half of parents don’t want to open schools. Democrat governors complicate matters with absurd demands that districts follow CDC guidelines, which force them to act as if there’s no vaccine and kids drop over dead the minute they are infected. Unions, being Democrat-run organizations, naturally oppose schools opening in the name of safety. That did them no good in Florida, Texas, or any other red state. They get what they want in blue states and blue cities because the people want the schools closed. It’s that simple.

But meanwhile, all you folks licking your chops at the notion that this, finally, will be the end of public school dominance: remember your history. Don’t get cocky.

Because at the end of the day, you’re trying to kill what the public means when it says public education. The public might not take kindly to your efforts.

Peace out, peeps.

The History of Education Reform:

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: The Road to Glory

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Zenith

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Meltdown Came

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Alex or Gloria?Common Core Assessments

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Why Didn’t They See Common Core Fail Coming?

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Damage?

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Victory over Value Add

(and this one)

 


Asymmetrical Executioners

So this is a bit outside my bailiwick, but it’s been on my mind for a while. Besides, I am pseudonymous precisely because I fear the woke world, and was wise enough to do so long before it blossomed into full power. Prescience has to count for something.

One attractive aspect of the new media cancel culture, in which lightweight  crossword puzzle columnists and the most tedious of the people with three names (as John McWhorter refers to various black progressives) demand their betters be fired, is that at least they’re not obliterating ordinary folk any more.

Anyway, whether it be James Bennet or Donald McNeil or any of the other recent absurd terminations, I read responses that are heavy on two questions that don’t really matter, and light on the one that does.

Who the hell do these employees think they are, making demands? Why are they so unreasonable?

This is a boring question. An irrelevant question. A question asked by those who don’t understand how employment works.  Which is why it was odd to hear Rob Long shrug this off in a recent GLOP podcast as Circle of Life cut-throat culture, the younger employees using the threat of bad publicity to cull their seniors from the herd. Odd because Rob Long definitely understands how employment works, so he should be focused on the correct question (see below).

He’s not wrong, of course. Media jobs are hard to come by. If a few complaints can force your manager to fire a worker above you in the food chain, why not?

But that’s not the question.

How can we move out of this cycle? What can we do to raise the next generation to be less horrifyingly fascist?

First question is interesting, but at this point, as indicated by the followup, is focused on the wrong subject. We don’t care about the next generation. They aren’t the problem and so aren’t the question.

Why are the media management folks acquiescing and firing on demand?

Ah. That’s definitely the question.

I was never a big Cheers fan. Carla was mean, Diane was cringy awful, Cliff was fardo personified. The memes were fun, individual moments were classic but I couldn’t usually tell you which episode it was from. For example, for 30 years I’ve remembered the nut job who said “No, I’m the vice president of the Eastern Seaboard! [pause] Now I’m the Eastern Seaboard! [pause] What a view!” but  couldn’t have told you anything else about the episode until I googled it for this piece. I only remember two episodes vividly: the highly ranked “The Heart is a Lonely Snipe Hunter” and the one on point here, “The Executive’s Executioner.

The storyline: Norm Peterson, high status within Cheers, a chubby loser schlub elsewhere in life, is promoted to “corporate killer”. Research has shown that people feel worse if they are fired by someone they can look up to and admire.  So Norm gets a huge salary boost and fires people all day. Eventually, he realizes he’s lost all his humanity and really is the “killer” he was hired to be. So he decides to quit. He calls his boss to resign, but the minute the boss hears Norm’s voice, he screams and hangs up. Puzzled, Norm tries again, getting his boss’s secretary…who screams and hangs up. That’s all the denouement that matters for my purposes, but go watch the last scene.

For a plot a decade older than Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air, it’s all quite insightful and very funny, particularly the denouement. White collar layoffs were a new thing in the 80s, as America’s corporate titans began worrying about Japan and profitability, to say nothing of the equity compensation that made high stock prices tremendously attractive. Blue collar workers were, at that time, unionized so their mass firings were based on seniority. But middle management, accountants, computer programmers and secretaries had no protection and as someone who lived through that time, I can tell you that the selection process for the chopping block seemed an awful lot like voodoo.

So when Norm’s  manager thought that he, too, had been targeted for extinction, the humor derives from the boss’s entirely credible fear that his superiors had targeted him for the same random execution. No one scoffed and said how silly, why wouldn’t the boss know better? Why wouldn’t they know that Norm wouldn’t be firing them if they hadn’t heard first?

And hey, that’s the same question as the one heading this section. Why would the boss think Norm would be firing him? Why didn’t Dean Bacquet tell his staff to go find another job if they didn’t like the way he was running his newspaper? Better yet, why didn’t he just fire them for their arrogant hubris? It’s not as if he couldn’t find other hypersensitive Ivy League prima donnas.

So why?

This is the question I don’t see many people asking seriously, as opposed to a rhetorical flourish.

Jonathan Chait wrote a whole article assessing the management decision without ever asking why, which was also the topic of Bret Stephens’ spiked column. Ann Coulter wrote a very funny piece without ever mentioning management.  Others provided AP Lang & Comp students excellent examples in synecdoche by referring to “the paper” and its decisions. But no one ever really engages with the question, as opposed to deride NYT management.

Why?

The real answer, the one that links this back to Norm, is mentioned almost casually, as Rod Dreher does: “After a meeting in which Madame Defarge Nikole Hannah-Jones was present, and reportedly threatened Baquet by proposing to undertake her own investigation of what happened on that 2019 field trip”

Threatened.

Threatened?

You need leverage to threaten. What does Hannah-Jones have? Why is Baquet afraid of her and his underlings?

When Norm’s boss shrieked, we laughed. No one’s laughing any more. But that’s the answer. Baquet is afraid. He can’t ever be certain that someone, somewhere, might send Norm to call on him.

Cancellation is an asymmetrical threat. Baquet probably wants to write a book someday. All powerful within the NYT structure, sure, but it’s not entirely unrealistic to think Hannah-Jones could “raise questions” after Baquet retired.  You can see the headlines now. “Journalist wonders why Baquet is getting millions in book deal when he continued to employ racists after their behavior came to light.” (leaving aside the joke of calling the Nikole Hannah-Jones a journalist.)

Who, after all, is going to buy Baquet’s eventual memoir? Or give him a talking head job at MSNBC? Who would those decisionmakers see as the natural Baquet audience, the people who’d be impressed and read reviews of his autobiography or celebrate his appearances on Maddow? If that audience is willing to reject him, given the right people pushing the rght outrage, what objective value does Baquet have to any organization outside the Times looking for pricey talent?

Understand that Baquet only rules one tiny portion of the work universe and his decision becomes obvious. No, he won’t get fired for laughing at the idiots demanding McNeil’s ouster. But he might not get a book deal. Or a TV gig. Or whatever else he wants a few years from now. Because the people who work for him in his NYTimes silo have more influence in another.

The answer to the question is: the bosses are complying because they fear negative blowback in an entirely unanticipated direction, not just now but forever.

Which leads me to the skipped question.

How can we move out of this cycle?

Once it’s clear that the real question is the acquiescent management teams, the solution is clearer, if not simpler. We need more Hyatts and fewer Deltas. Dean Baquet has to start caring about the quality of his paper more than he does his book deal or Davos panels.

That’s a big ask.

On the other hand, Justine Sacco is working at the same company that caved in and fired her. David Shor survived an attempt to end his career.

But is that enough?

Once I had this explanation worked out, back in February, my first thought was well, good. Instead of ordinary folk being random victims of a progressive PR onslaught, the problem has narrowed its focus and victims to elites and their management, the people who have book deals and Davos panels and so on. That’s not good, but a big step up from the Smith cafeteria worker who can’t find a job. These are mostly rich people, or at least rich adjacent. Or at least journalists who talk a lot to rich people.

Now, I’m not so sure. Recently, there’s been a spate of articles about critical race theory infiltrating public schools and lots of reaction pieces hyperventilating about thought control. My own take has traditionally been far less hysterical. Communities have always exercised tremendous influence over public and private school curriculum, unless federal or state law mandates override their preferences (and sometimes not even then). Teachers have near total control over what they teach in their classroom. No one can make me teach critical race theory or woke math. Some teachers have been using critical race theory for decades or more. Others will never use it. In both cases, these decisions are policed by the community preference. That is, after all, how these stories all come to light: a parent gets annoyed, contacts a journalist, a big hooha is made, some kid has recorded incendiary comments on her cellphone or a parent has saved a ridiculous work sheet, the offending party (which is often the principal but sometimes the teacher) is taken to task and put on paid leave and even, on occasion, fired. (Ironically, these efforts are often by woke teachers trying to raise their white students’ consciousness but forgetting they have black students.)

Except.

In the past six months, private schools have been in the news because the staff–non-unionized, often poorly paid, no tenure–is making outrageous demands for a more diverse teaching staff and population and a critical race curriculum, while rich and powerful parents are silent and acquiescent despite privately opposing these idiotic demands.

Why are they silent? Why pay thousands of dollars a year for a bad education? The journalists think the parents are silent because they want their kids to get into elite universities. Maybe. I myself think that loudly resisting critical race theory could prove risky. Parents protesting their private school insanity might think they are acting in a single silo of their lives. Then, suddenly, an angry brainwashed young teacher has contacted an ambitious media twenty-something who transforms the tale of liberal parents upholding educational values into a David and Goliath story of racist white parents objecting to progressive teachers bent on telling the truth about America. Then suddenly parent employers enter into the story, customers email outrage, and Norm calls.

Unlikely? The parents themselves make it clear they fear cancellation. The more interesting question here is who is the “boss” equivalent tolerating the demands? The parents, quietly going along with critical race theory, or the parents’ bosses who’ll get hit with demands to fire any parent who puts up a fight?  It’s both. In all directions.

Even more terrifying is the story out of Virginia, in which public school employees angry at parental recalcitrant to their progressive agenda are trying to hack private Facebook groups opposing their efforts and doxxing the parents. Look. I know it’s received conservative wisdom that public schools indoctrinate children. English and history teachers are indeed quite left of center. But as I keep on saying on Twitter, if we can’t teach them reading, why the hell are you worried we’ll teach them to hate America?  In reality the far more progressive agendas are found in charter schools and privates (see above).

And then I read that public school teachers are seeking out names to feed the media and ruin lives by putting jobs at risk, and my god. That’s simply appalling.

Maybe anyone who has a life to ruin will need to fear asymmetric execution by  waiting, watchful zealots and a helpful, compliant media.

Or maybe not. American social excesses have always been far more pendulum than progression. I am, after all, the person who predicted that cops would eventually take teachers’ place in the hot seat because “acceptable targets change over time”. If nothing else, rest assured that American history shows people don’t take kindly to whackos messing with their schools.

But sometimes “over time” is a long time, so beware. Above all, know this: right at this moment in time, Norm can come calling for all of us.


2020 Thankfulness.

I’m thankful for my brother.

On January 22, I was sitting in stopped traffic at 9:30 at night, thanks to two closed lanes on a major interstate. I’d been at work trying to get grades in shape while finishing the final for the next day, and was cursing my aversion to road tolls and the shorter trip home–I do what I can to deny the government money, but I’d have been home half an hour by now if I’d paid. Suddenly the world seemed to explode. I remember Tom Petty’s “American Girl” was on the radio and thinking I’ll never hear a song in this car again because some motherfucker just killed it. (Yes, readers, my first thought during what turned out to be a four-car pileup was that my beloved 2001 Honda Accord with 300K miles on it was no more.) The motherfucker in question was a county bus driver who never bothered to brake.

Four hours later, when the tow trucks finally came to clear up the mess and I’d made it to my mother’s house (the closest to the accident), staring at the ceiling from my spot on her couch mulling a  a grim and expensive month or three. Either I cut out of school at the semester cutover, when I get new students, all to buy a car in a hurry, or I uber to work, which would be $100/day. (You might think the bus company would cut a quick check but my instincts said no, and I was right).  Yes, of course, I should have been grateful I was unharmed but I’m a pessimist. At 6 am, my couple hours sleep was woken by a text from my brother, already at work, wondering why my car hadn’t been in the driveway. I’d gotten lucky, perhaps? Alas, no, I said, and texted back a picture of my car.  He called. “Hey, my car just sits here all day. Want to borrow it?”

And so for the next two months I got up early, drove him and his bike to his store, and then to school. He rode his bike home and lost ten pounds. I got a blissful break from having to buy a car in a hurry. Even once the shutdown ended my commute, his car was mine to borrow whenever needed.

I pay most of the bills of our household outside of rent, as my salary is nearly double his, but when he had a chance to offer something of value, he didn’t hesitate. I didn’t buy a car until late July.

I’m thankful for all my family.

It was my stepfather’s mechanic who mentioned he had a 2005 Honda Civic for $4000. I said no when my stepfather called. Automatic transmission? Civic not Accord? Pish tosh. He said I should think for longer. Five minutes later I called him back and said yes. The case may never settle.  I had 4K in the bank. This was a nobrainer. Defying his daughter’s social distancing orders, my stepdad and my mom drove me to check out the Civic, which I bought on sight. It’s a good car.

I’m thankful that my sister mostly ignores the similar social strictures of her daughter, my niece, an adorable nurse who has been traumatized by her time in the covid-19 wards. I”ve defied nonsensical travel guidelines to visit twice: first in June, now for Thanksgiving.

I’m thankful my father is doing well as can be expected, given that he spent six weeks in the hospital in February and March. When he came home, he did so well that by early July, he was bored. When I called and told him that my brother and I would like to come see him and take him on a vacation but, you know, covid-19, you’re 83 with every known risk factor and even if we could get in to take a test, the waiting period would render it useless. My dad said unhesitatingly, “Screw that. Let’s go fishing.” We went on a two-week trip through Table Rock Lake and Bull Shoals. Caught nothing, although my casting improved dramatically. Epic vacation.

I’m thankful my son is a good father and husband, even if it means  I can’t go see my grandkids because his wife is, well, clearly not of the same mindset as my family, and the kids can’t leave the house because she’s afraid they’ll get covid19. He backs her play loyally. Or maybe she’s convinced him. Whatever. I’m happy he’s happy.

I’m thankful for my family’s economic good fortune.

No one in my family is suffering from these idiotic pandemic shutdowns. It’s truly a blessing that we’re all still gainfully employed. Hell, my investments are even slightly ahead.

I’m thankful for my students.

Back in September late one night, endlessly grading, I noticed Valerie hadn’t turned in anything in a week and suddenly realized I had no idea what Valerie looked like.

There’s one mirror in my house, in the bathroom. Until the shutdown, I never spent more than a second or two seeing my face, usually when brushing my teeth. Now I spend all day looking at myself in a zoom shot but can’t summon a mental image of my students–a tiny thumbnail impression, maybe, or their avatar.

I asked Valerie to office hours. She kept her camera off until I told her the missing assignments weren’t a problem, that I just needed to know how she was doing. Could she turn on the camera? She was crying. She didn’t understand anything. She was so busy with her English assignments. She kept putting my work off because she didn’t know what to do or how to catch up. She listened, she paid attention, she just didn’t get it. I told her to breathe, to not worry about catching up, and to turn in the next assignment no matter how much wasn’t done so I could see what she needed.

Valerie nodded and smiled. She turned in the next assignment. And the one after that. She’s doing well now. And I know what she looks like.

My attendance rates in all three classes are 100% most days. No chronic absences. No cuts.  All of my students get enough work done to pass, most are learning and improving. Some are thriving.

I am so thankful they come back, day after day, in a world where their lives and opportunities have been traded off in a mostly doomed effort to save the elderly.

I wish their faces were all in my memory.

I’m thankful I’m a teacher.

I’m so angry at this wasted year. My own life is splendid, as you might infer from the regular mention of vacations.  But the idiocy of politicians, the media, the “public health experts” who are doing their best to destroy the young and the poor, to obliterate small businesses by forcing them closed….enough. I’m not going to rant again. And I know they can only achieve this destruction with our permission. Far too many people are terrified of a generally mild illness, embrace the shutdowns, wear their masks in the belief they protect, blame the spread on non-compliance. I await the day those people, the compliers, the believers, realize what a waste all this is. Or the vaccine. Whatever gets life back.

Until then, I find great comfort in my job.  Like many other teachers, I work constantly to improve my lessons, to reach more students, to find ways to help them learn. How much worse would all this be if I were forced to watch the effect of these hated shutdowns, do nothing? If nothing else, I can focus my energy on making education something enjoyable and productive for my ninety or so students. I’m grateful for that privilege.

I’m thankful you’re reading.

Hope your Thanksgiving was as good as mine.


Will the Rising Tide of Nuttiness Come My Way?

********************************************************************************
Back when school was real life, my phone rang.

“I need you to send Manuel Perez to the front office.”

“Wrong room. I don’t have a Manuel Perez.”

“This is your precalc class?”

“Yes.”

“Manuel Perez.”

“No. I have a Sophie Perez.”

Pause.

“That’s Manuel.”

My turn to pause. I looked at the phone. Looked at Sophie, in the front group of desks, working diligently: an extremely cute, mildly butch, openly lesbian girl I’ve taught in four separate classes. As reference only, without disdain, much more this than this or this.

“Oh. I didn’t know Sophie was calling herself Manuel these days.”

The voice grew, if possible, even sterner at the multiple gender transgressions in my last sentence. “Perhaps Manuel didn’t feel comfortable sharing his identity with you.”

I paused long enough to be rude, thinking bad thoughts. “I’ll send her.”

Hung up. Turned.

Algebra 2 and geometry students hold their breath when the phone rings. If I send a student to the front office, there’s always someone willing to scream “BUSTED!” Precalc students, less likely to be in trouble, tend to ignore the phone. But this call had gone on long enough to gather some casual interest up front.

“Sophie?”

“Yeah?”

“Something you aren’t telling me?

“Huh? Oh, I went to senior cut day.”

“No. Mrs. Silveria in front says you’re Manuel.”

“Oh. Yeah, sometimes.  Some places.”

“Am I supposed to be calling you Manuel?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Do you want me to call you Manuel?”

“No, man, I’ve had you since sophomore year. Call me Sophie.”

“Okay, but the thought control police are yelling at me and you need to keep me up on current events. Anyway, they want some dude called Manuel in the front office.”

Sophie jaunted out.

I looked at Consuela, one of Sophie’s closest friends, also a four time student. “She’s been Manuel for a while–well, he’s been Manuel. You know.”

“It’s hard to say this…correctly, but has anyone told her she’s going to score way more chicks as a girl than as a guy?”

The class broke up laughing. Understand, most of these kids knew that Sophie was also calling herself Manuel. Little bastards never thought to tell me.

“I mean. She’s short! Adorable! She’s had girlfriends all through school! Is she planning on dating straight chicks? They like tall guys, normally. It just seems, I don’t know, a counterproductive mating strategy.”

*********************************************************************

I very wisely began my blog and twitter account in anonymous mode. Recently, Phillippe Lemoine chastised all pseudonymous personalities for not living our real identities online, arguing that “if you want to change people’s minds, you really should consider writing under your real name”, and that there’s no real excuse for the cowardice of a pseudonym. Unsurprisingly, I had some thoughts about that, which you can read in our conversation at the link.

The anecdote above, I related in a  conversation Toad and I had about how the bell will toll for all of us one day, signalling the death of our intellectual independence as we pledge fealty to whatever gods our corporate and governmental overlords deem the victor, or the most fearsome source of lawsuits.

To integrate the two conversations:  I’m not terribly concerned about the lunatics demanding fealty.  I am not normally a sunny person, so my belief that schools would not have fallen whole hog into the crap festival of posturing going on should have some value. Had school been open during this insanity, we teachers would not have been forced into kneeling, feet washing, or even posting some meaningless sign in our classrooms. Is my belief. Our school and district haven’t sent out more than two carefully worded emails, one each from principal and superintendent, bewailing the riots and promising some sort of discussion at a future date.

I am quite afraid of being outed as Ed and then fired and cancelled and probably stripped of a pension. Hell, maybe not even outed as Ed–the wrong person could learn I voted for Trump, and it’s game over. The idea that I should post under my own name is….insulting in its grotesque stupidity. Who the hell do you people think you are, I say as respectfully as possible, to Philippe to Jonah Goldberg to Tim Carney to Charles Murray to all the other people who think the eggnuts trolling them on twitter are the same as eight years of blogging and tweeting under the same identity.  Razib Khan might have a job at a university, but he lost out on a part-time gig at the Times, and that was three or four years ago. But to Philippe, hey, Razib still has a job so it’s all good. Jason Richwine is still employed, David Shor still has a job after his company threw him to the wolves. So this is all evidence that people like me shouldn’t worry.

Nuts to that. (Is “Bugger that for a lark” the same thing or does it carry a different semantic overtone? I remember DEATH saying that in Reaper Man and it’s always stuck with me.)

So leave aside the horror of being outed and cancelled. I’m talking here about having my Ed Realist identity secure and still getting fired. Assume I’d win a lawsuit in the event I was fired for voting for Trump. What erroneous comment could result in my undoing without appeal?

Back in the 90s and oughts, it was all about the holy trinity: race, gender, and gay rights. At the time, race was my big offender–not because I’m a racist, because I’m not, but because I was opposed to affirmative action and ascribed to the Voldemort View. My sins regarding gender are many and varied, but since I’ve never had the power or the inclination to harass women and support early term abortion rights, I’ve always been solid. Cleanest of all, pristine in fact, was my general support for gay rights, although I would have withheld marriage bennies from them because they’re too expensive. But then, I’d ban straight marriages from them, too–women can earn their own money, dammit. (See what I mean about the gender stuff?).

Today, it’s a different story. Certainly I sin on IQ, but I would never mention these beliefs in school. I’m actually more in favor of affirmative action (with a basement) than I was back then, simply because a decade of familiarity with Asian test prep tends to alter your thinking. I’m more likely to offend people with my comments on Asians than on blacks–but then, most Asians agree with me about my thoughts on Asians, so they’d be unlikely to agitate much.

My views on gender rights and gay rights haven’t changed. Alas, the entire issue of gender rights and gay rights have altered beyond all recognition. For example, even though I loathe radical feminists, I’m completely sympathetic with TERFs. And while I was totally on the right side of god with gay rights, I can’t tell if transgender insanity counts as gay rights or gender rights.

Whatever the ultimate category is, as the story above shows, it’s transgender issues that are most likely to get me fired. I’d like to think I could distinguish between someone who was experimenting and cool with it and a student who was genuinely fraught and go running to the authorities screaming. But bottom line, wrong comment to wrong student, and I’m toast.

Which is odd, from my perspective, and evidence again of how completely things have changed. My opposition to gay marriage was largely theoretical. I didn’t really think, as conservatives did, that knocking down gay marriage would result in insane demands for people to choose whatever the hell behavior they want under any gender they want to label it. They were right, and the awareness that such a bizarre concern could come true has utterly changed my thinking.

I have a friend who agrees with me, but whenever he discusses it, even if we’re the only two in the room, he lowers his voice because he’s afraid someone will hear.

I was worried about this before the Supreme Court went insane and declared that transgenders are a protected category.  It’s even more insulting and degrading if Gorsuch and Roberts came to this conclusion because they are planning on striking down affirmative action for African Americans. It’s so typical, really, that they’d privilege the mentally ill over the descendants of slavery, typical that they’d screw over the average citizen who has normal views on gender and sex just so they could be sure that more whites and Asians get into Harvard. (Typical, too, that the Supreme Court wouldn’t give a shit about how this affects public schools. Left or right, the Court hates public schools.)

You can see, can’t you, the irony. If it’s any consolation, if you’d asked affirmative action opponent me back in the 90s if I’d trade affirmative action for giving Bruce Jenner the right to use the women’s bathroom, I’d have said hell, no, let blacks and Hispanics get in with lower test scores. If my opinions have altered slightly with time, my priorities stay constant.

 


Life During Lockdown

I am living my best life.

I sleep in until 8:00. In the early days of the shutdown, my beloved Starbucks abandoned me. Only two little independent coffee shops were open through March and early April. One is just around the corner and serves cornbeef hash made from scratch. The other is a mile away with a fairly generic menu. So every morning I go on a two mile jaunt for coffee to avoid the thirty pounds I’d gain eating that cornbeef hash every day.  The walk gives me plenty of time to chat with the dozens of others out on the sidewalk, something I rarely have the opportunity to do when commuting every day. The rest of the morning in and around coffee is Twitter, the news, water the garden, maybe make a trip to the hardware or grocery store. Nothing intense, just little tasks. At 10:30 I start my first “office hours” session, working on zoom calls until 2, occasionally scheduling a later session for working students.

I don’t offer “classes” per se. I just assign work, tell students to show up a couple times a week in Zoom sessions, and let them choose when.  Timeshifting isn’t usually an opportunity granted teachers, much less the ability to work from home.  While I love the flexibility of office hours, remote classes narrow the entire act of teaching down to one mode. Explanation has always been my strong suit, but there’s so much more to teaching.  I miss the variety. I miss my job.

Ninety percent of my students were regular participants for the first month, eighty percfent the next, but those numbers will fall. Like most district and union shutdown grading agreements, ours is a spectacularly stupid policy. 1) Grades are credit/no credit only. 2) Students who were passing on the day the schools shut down are guaranteed a credit grade. In short, students with a D or higher in mid-march don’t have to do a thing and the district is legally committed to give them a passing grade.  It’s amazing we have any students at all.  On the other hand, the participation and learning I see my students achieving leaves my original expectations in the dust. The bureaucrats are doing a great deal wrong. My students are doing a great deal right.

After my last zoom call finishes up, once Starbucks finally reopened, I take another  mile and a half trek for an iced espresso. Sometimes the late afternoon is spent in my garden, which is the entire backyard: tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, watermelon, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, basil. Weeds are a problem this year; I’m mulching with my stepdad in a couple days.

I am running an “after school” club activity that I dreamed up to give interested students  some experience planning and managing a donation project. This takes a couple hours of every day, either creating products or buying supplies. Add to that the  few hours a week spent driving around to student homes, delivering materials to assemble various products that we’re donating.  Mondays or Wednesdays I usually head into school just to see the place, talk to my tech guy about various issues, collect any supplies I need.

My favorite restaurant has as much respect for pandemic laws as I do, and allows regulars to dine in. I stop in at least once a week, often bringing a friend or colleague, or maybe my brother.  A few other restaurants are open on the same basis: the barbecue joint up the street, the pho shop I frequent, and the Vietnamese sandwich shop. The liquor store beer bar I love is still open, but Bart left the state to teach while living with his girlfriend, so I don’t go as often as I used to.

Almost every day, I walk to one of three stores for dinner groceries. On Friday and Saturdays, my nephew hangs out with us;  we cook a big dinner and have movie night. I try to keep up on grading while watching TV.

My maid service comes every two weeks. Every six weeks, Lyle the stylist, as he insists on being called, comes by and does hair–mine, my brother’s, anyone else who hears he’s coming. I’m starting up acupuncture pretty soon. As is probably clear,  I follow only those pandemic laws that would put a business or employer in jeopardy if they were caught allowing the behavior. I’m fairly scrupulous at school and extremely cautious in any student interactions. Most of the time, I blissfully abstain from virtuous pandemic theatrics.

My life is great. Like, Tony Tiger grrrrreat. The luxury of time, meaningful occupations both professional and vocational.

Another piece of good fortune: no one in my family is financially at risk. Parents are retired. My sister and her husband are wealthy enough to be semi-retired, although my sister still sells diet products for another five figures a month. My grocery manager brother is busy and respected in the community, regularly working with city managers, nursing home staff, and so on. My other brother spent a couple weeks unemployed but is back at work. My son is in sales, but  the shutdown hit when he was at the top of a cycle and he took unemployment too. He’s enjoyed family time at home with his wife and two kids, feeling very lucky for the opportunity, and just went back to work.  If all that good fortune isn’t cause enough for celebration, my renters are employed.

So my life, which I already found deeply satisfying, has improved in almost every way by being forced to work from home–the only exception being the work itself.

But my easy living barely compensates for the fury. I am aghast at the utter waste and devastation caused by this needless national shutdown. I’m furious at the media which openly advocates for policies rather than trying to inform the public.   Disgusted at governors who caved to the media.  Incoherently, snarlingly hostile to people who see nothing wrong in placing their (or others) peace of mind above the well-being of children and young adults.  I try not to rant about it and in real life, anyway, I succeed. Most of the time.

At least the people in my community share my disdain, whether they say so or not. Surveys say my neighbors support the shutdown laws. Observations say otherwise. The parking lots are full.  Stores are crowded. Lines are long. Apart from rush hour, traffic is pretty heavy. Mask wearing is barely what’s required by law. No one’s huddling in their houses. It’s a deep deep blue region. People will starve before they give Trump the satisfaction of a protest. But random, frequent conversations reveal I’m not alone in my annoyance and anger.

It’s Twitter and the media, the outside world, that flummoxes me with the constant reminder of the mindsets that got us into this mess.  The other day, mild-mannered Damon Linker said, without apparent shame, that schools should be closed as long as need be to ensure that children don’t infect vulnerable adults in their family. When I asked how long he was planning on locking kids down, preventing them from living every day life, he asked angrily who would console his children if they infected him and his wife both of whom are in high-risk categories. Now, I don’t want Damon Linker’s kids to feel guilty, but wouldn’t it be much less catastrophic if he just kept them home? But no, he feels that since many others have the same vulnerability, schools should stay closed. That’s a whole level of entitlement I don’t get. I do not take the thousands of deaths lightly. Neither do the many other people who find this lockdown unnecessary.

I remind myself frequently of my tremendous luck and fruitful, happy life in lockdown, to keep my mood as balanced as possible.

The disconnect between my comfortable circumstances and my anger at the decisions that forced this life upon me can be disconcerting. Were I younger, I’d probably spend all my time fuming and none just enjoying the freedom. But I was self-employed for twenty years, and not a day goes by that I don’t feel a shiver of the economic devastation the pandemic would have brought down on me had it hit  had the pandemic hit during one of my earlier careers.  So I enjoy the sun, the walking, the neighbors, the coffee, the garden, the time spent with students. I try not to obsess about events–now, see, don’t get the wrong idea. I obsess all the time, but mostly about my own life. The world I leave for others to worry about, usually.

Anyway. While reviewing this piece about my terrific lockdown life, I suddenly asked myself if I could do anything to feel even more productive and happy.  And the answer came back instantly:

I could write more.

 

 


Tradeoffs in the Era of Covid-19

Lawmakers Want to Reopen America, But It May Not Be So Easy–Charles Fain Lehman
No One Is In Charge of Reopening the Country–Michael Brendan Dougherty
Curve-flattening a result of behavioral change, not central planning–Jonah  Goldberg
The important question isn’t when the government is going to lift restrictions–Megan McArdle
Experience Counts When It Comes to Preparing a Population for a Viral Threat-Jim Geraghty

(There are many other such pieces on the center and center/right; I just picked a few at random.)

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I am deeply skeptical of the totality of the nation’s shutdown. End arena attendance of professional sports, sure. Close Disneyland, yah. Halve occupancy rates of popular bars, require people to spread out when waiting in line, by all means. I’m very much in favor of closing airports, which effectively quarantines a lot of the country geographically. Require schools, gas stations and restaurants to devote considerably more labor to bleaching and cleaning restrooms several times a day, and close public access restrooms in most other retail outlets.

I’m not a “floomer”, although I really despise the smug way that people use that term. I worry a little bit about getting the bad form of the virus, but not as much, say, as I dread takeoffs when flying. My concerns revolve more about my mom and stepdad, less about my dad because he’s in a safe state.

But I firmly believe we should not have closed the schools. We should not have shut down most retail outlets, nor should we have forced restaurants to take out only. Give me back Starbucks!

The casual inequities of the shutdown really piss me off. It’s absurdly unfair that Walmart and Target, by virtue of four or five aisles of groceries, are allowed to sell pillows, picture frames, clothes, and electronics, while Best Buy, Staples, Kohls, and Macys are forced to close for months. It’s ridiculous that Home Depot and Ace can sell plants and seeds, but nurseries have to do online orders and curbside pickups.   I’m just grateful I don’t live in the state where “that woman” doesn’t let you buy mosquito repellant and seeds even from Walmart.

My attitude towards the virus is undoubtedly shaped in part by the same mindset that leads to my confusion that there are people in this world who don’t just get flu shots, but actually schedule them in advance. I worry about plane crashes and electrocution, occasionally fear the idea of getting cancer. But on a personal level, I simply don’t find a brand new virus that probably won’t kill you but might worth the level of reaction we’ve had forced on us by the governors, whipped on by a frantic media who clearly worries a hell of a lot more about germs than I do.

I am also personally outraged by the casual disregard those pushing the shutdown have for the nation at large. Shutting down the economy creates winners and losers, while the media and politicians pretended that business as usual = loser and shutdown = winning.

But such an outlook is manifestly incorrect, and before long people began (very hamhandedly) pointing out that we are bankrupting our future, hurting the children of our society, to save the elderly and the “vulnerable” (as if children aren’t vulnerable). But we aren’t, as all the same people will acknowledge, saving the elderly and the vulnerable, because without a vaccine or a cure the virus is out there and will wreak the same havoc on the elderly and vulnerable if it reaches them in six months instead of today. Thus all we achieved by shutting down, we were told constantly, is “flattening the curve”, saving our hospitals and our ventilators so they could be spread out to serve more covid-19 victims.  Except ventilators turned out to worsen symptoms, or close to it, so doctors aren’t using them as muchand we never had a shortage anyway. Meanwhile, hospitals are laying off staffbecause no covid19 patients, but no elective surgery, so no money.

I am grimly amused by the massive media layoffs which is not fair of me, especially since the layoffs aren’t really hurting the worst culprits. But here is my meanest thought: the media shutdown would have acknowledged considerably more complexity involved in shutting down the economy if the millions of opinion columnists, star reporters, and anchors  screaming for shutdown had realized how completely their industry would be clobbered when they got their wish.

The reaction to Covid-19 has split various communities of like folks. The GOP has certainly been split between those who were aggravated we didn’t shut down in late February to those who think it’s time to get back out there and eat, drink, and drive to work.  There are Dems who are noticing it’s not quite that awful, notably Kevin Drum, although most of them are all blaming Trump for, whatever. The skeptic community has been riven, and I’ve blocked more people on Twitter for their tedious lectures in the past month than in 8 years. I’ve been pretty far out there on the “this is all overkill” path and have received a number of private DMs from people saying they agree with me but are worried they’ll be professionally hurt by saying so.

But put aside what we should have done. We should reopen now. Not entirely. Not without restrictions. But we should reopen schools, stores, restaurants, and coffeeshops. We should reopen parks at all levels of government, let beaches have people, and let gas stations provide restrooms, again with restrictions. We should provide hotel rooms not just to the homeless, but to elderly and vulnerable populations that don’t live alone and might not survive their family returning to normal.

And when there are calls to reopen society, there are responses like those linked above, which fall into two categories.

First: whether or not governments reopen the economy, the public will have the final say. And the public isn’t ready to go back to work, school, and restaurants. Polls support this view. If you believe those polls are representative of actual behavior should the government reopen–well, all I can say is, you underestimate Americans’ capacity to tell pollsters what they want to hear. I think easily 30-40% of any given community will go running right out to shop, eat, drink, and beach/hike within a day of the order. And after a few days, another 40% will be right behind them. I’d guess 20 or maybe 30% of the population will claim they will “socially distance” for a while longer, but when you question them closely it turns out they go to stores early and restaurants late, after the crowds. Business will be down at first, sure. Millions are out of work. But most Americans will get out there. The only thing that’s keeping them from this now is the government fiat.

Suppose, however, that I am wrong and only a few people leave their homes, so restaurants and stores will still go bankrupt. Well, so what? Isn’t that what we’re spending trillions of dollars to help? Isn’t there a case for government support helping those businesses who get out there to help our economy recover, start rebuilding our tax base? Let the people who want to go out and shop, eat, drink, and recreate get started on it–again, with restrictions.

And if the reply is yes, but those people are going to transmit the coronavirus if they go out and about? Well, then, you’ve just shifted the debate again, haven’t you? If you don’t want to reopen the economy, then just say so.

Second: there are those who create these laundry lists of requirements that have to happen to end the shutdown. First, we need more tests. Then we need to use technology to track down infected contacts so we can stick them in hotel rooms. Then we need infrastructure to enforce and track all this and then we need to close everything down again in case we have a recurrence.

Wrong. We don’t need surveillance. We don’t need tests. We don’t need to build out an infrastructure. All of these things are nice. But we can do our best with what we have and move on, continuing to build capabability. Surveillance and tests are what the laundry list writers want, and they’re just continuing to confuse their preferences with what America needs. Generally, these are the writers who say things like: the American people had no idea how much covid19 was going to change their lives. There’s no returning to normal soon.

Well, no. Covid19 didn’t change Americans’ lives. Forced shutdowns did. And the Americans who don’t think these all-encompassing shutdowns were necessary don’t blame covid19. They blame governors. The media. By and large, these people appreciate Trump’s resistance to total shutdown and his enthusiasm for moving back to something approaching normal, whether or not it’s his call.

I don’t want old folks to die. I appreciate the need to protect the elderly and the vulnerable from a new virus that’s cutting a swathe through our population. But make no mistake: we are privileging the security of the vulnerable by purchasing the well-being of the youngest generations not just in terms of immediately lost education but also in the huge budget cuts that schools and other institutions will face because of the forced bankruptcy we’ve just imposed on much of America.  The public discourse is not acknowledging the tradeoffs involved in minimizing covid-19 deaths over the wellbeing of those who face minimal risk. People who argue for balance are ignored or mocked.

Change is coming. I hope it’s soon.

 

 


How the Other Half Learns: Cannon Fodder

Consider the case of Elena Ortiz (a pseudonym):

Things are ragged and rough in Ortiz’s classroom, noticeably so compared to the others I’ve seen. She struggles to keep her students focused and engaged, and unlike in nearly every other classroom, there is no full-time assistant teacher to help her maintain order….(emphasis mine)

She walks out in October.

….Ortiz freaked out [and leaves her job permanently]. Whether it was over Adama, the cumulative stress of leading a classroom with a large number of challenging students, the lack of a second teacher in the room, or some other factor, no one is able or willing to say. Nick Carton [an assistant principal] has been pressed into service teaching second grade; a full-time assistant teacher, Brandon Whitaker, has arrived from the network. (emphasis mine)

A bit later:

When the meeting [to discuss the weak second grade reading results] breaks up, [principal] Vandlik and McDermott [Kaitlin McDermott] ask Belkin [Laura Belkin] as to stay behind. Her data is stronger than the rest of the team’s; they enlist her to take the lead in grade-level planning and improve her colleagues’ practice. At the same time, they assure her that they want to support her continued growth as a teacher, not just put the onus on her to get her colleagues up to snuff.

Belkin was, at the time, a five year Success Academy veteran.  Ortiz was a second year teacher who had never taught second grade before. Belkin had Tyrone, who she was allowed to bribe for occasional good behavior, while Elena Ortiz had Adama, a kid the school was determined to eject.  (Tyrone vs Adama).

So Ortiz had the toughest kids, no assistant teacher–but her replacement gets an assistant teacher.

Is it completely irrelevant that Belkin’s alma mater is top 50 Boston University, while Elena Ortiz went to Hudson, a regional teacher’s college?  That when Vandlik chose an AVP to get downgraded to a second grade teacher she chose Nick Carton, from a state New York school, instead of Amy Young, from Columbia, or Kerrie Riley, from a highly ranked liberal arts school?

Long before Ortiz walked out, it was clear from Pondiscio’s reporting that she was cannon fodder. Shoving cannon fodder into the line of fire, giving weaker teachers less support–that’s a practice by no means unique to Success Academy principals. I have seen teachers in this position. I have been in this position. In my second school, I was given a substantial chunk of the weakest, most challenging students, and no one thought it was an accident. It’s how principals often use the least desirable teachers in their school.

Given that Vandlik runs a school for a woman whose entire self-image is based on high test scores, I can see she might prefer to segregate the strongest students with the most valuable and experienced teachers. Use the more disposable teacher with the kids who probably aren’t going to make it to third grade.

Up to here, it’s all properly Macchiavelian. However, the rest of the story is just bad management.  Create a dumping ground, sure. But perhaps it’d be better to be sure the teacher has plenty of support, rather than singling her out for less support. Perhaps come down hard on any assistant principals that snark about her,  calling her “delicate” and asking if “she’s going to go over the edge” without ever acknowledging that she’s given the far more difficult task with less support and less experience.

And if that teacher up and walks out mid-year, then why compound the staffing difficulties by shoving the most dispensable of the assistant principals into the line of fire? “Vandlik thought it would benefit Carton…to gain hands-on experience with curriculum,culture, and classroom”. Ha, ha.

Nick Carton is much smarter than that. He quits Success Academy at Christmas break, realizing that he’s not one of Vandlik’s chosen. So once again, Bronx I is short a second grade teacher and is down to one AVP.  This time, though, Vlandik gets lucky and hires an excessed NYC public school teacher–in fact, she puts two fulltime teachers in the class and give them full support.

Perhaps she should have given that support to Elena Ortiz in the first place.

Later, Pondiscio learns that Ortiz might have left because principal Vandlik wanted her to lie. Adama’s parents have retained Nelson Mar, a lawyer who has often taken on the charter network for its many abuses. He was there to meet with Ortiz and Vandlik on what turned out to be Ortiz’s last day.

“We get there, we’re waiting, and 4:45 comes, 4:50 comes, we see Ms. Vandlik walking back and forth. We’re like, ‘Well, this is strange.’ Usually they’re fairly prompt about starting a meeting,” Mar recalled. Ortiz walked up and told them that she’d just quit her job. “She said, They want me to say that Adama did this and did that and I can’t say that,'” Mar said. “The thing that I remember distinctly was that she said, “They want me to lie, and I’m not going to do that.'”

Four different staffers with whom I discussed the matter expressed skepticism, even incredulity, that Vandlik would ask Ortiz to lie…Others noted Ortiz herself had had a rocky tenure at the school and was erratic even before her flameout. One former colleague suggests she was looking for an excuse to quit.

Pondiscio reached out to Ortiz but she refused to interview with him. Given his clear sympathy for Vandlik, who he refers to as “very good at her job”, and his readiness to allow a bunch of Success Academy staffers to stab Ortiz in the back, I don’t blame her in the slightest.

Pondiscio concedes that “the story Adama’s parents tell cannot  be dismissed.” But it’s not the parents, but the parents’ lawyer who told him that story, which is a different matter altogether. And unlike all of Vandlik’s defenders, the lawyer uses his own name. Would a lawyer make such a charge, leaving himself open to a litigious, aggressive charter network, if he couldn’t back it up?

Moreover, even before Nelson Mar’s story, Pondiscio reports that Elena Ortiz walked out “during a prep meeting with the leadership team prior to the sit-down with Adama’s parents”.  Teachers, even teachers on the edge, don’t storm out before a parent meeting without significant cause.

Pondiscio’s own evidence strongly suggests Ortiz was outraged by something that occurred during the meeting, and it was the last straw for her. I find it entirely believable that Vandlik asked her to lie. It’s consistent with Success Academy practice of dumping students who’ll hurt their test scores.

But leave aside that question and I still wonder why Pondiscio is so admiring of Vandlik, who he consistently presents as competent, assured, and impressive.

My read: Vandlik created the entire second grade staffing fiasco through her own mismanagement and obvious favoritism. She seems to have a ranking system, and treats teachers and staff based on her own priorities, rather than on needed support.  She gave the lead teacher, Belkin, the most resources rather than offer more support to a teacher with more difficult students. Then, when the second grade team confesses they aren’t working together, she not only doesn’t hold the lead teacher responsible, but rather calls Belkin aside to tell her not to feel she’ll be held responsible for the two other losers on the team.

Staffing a school is by far the most important job a principal has. Vandlik seems completely unaware that she created the second grade mess, and is content to let her staff badmouth the teacher struggling to handle difficult kids without support.

Disclosure: I’m a teacher who doesn’t trust principals. (My own admins are gods, naturally). Vandlik is exactly the sort of person I dislike on general principle. I like creative people, not control freaks. There literally isn’t a single moment where I’m not rolling my eyes every time Pondiscio goes ooh-ahh over some impressive Vandlik maneuver, like answering the phone or telling a parent off. But I’d argue the data supports my interpretation.

As always, I want more data. Pondiscio doesn’t seem to have checked for any patterns in which second graders were kept back, and whether these students were disproportionately assigned to particular teachers. He doesn’t appear to wonder if perhaps Belkin’s better results were a product of classroom assignment rather than superior teaching. He doesn’t ask why Elena Ortiz didn’t have an assistant teacher. He seems to share the negative opinion of the struggling teacher, which might explain why he repeats the trash talk to cast doubt upon possibility that Vandlik told a teacher to lie. It may be he knows more than he’s writing, information that would lead to judging Ortiz more harshly, Vandlik less so.

Missed opportunities.

All three of the assistant principals have left Success Academy. Nick Carton is now principal of the school that hired him away. Amy Young is an assistant principal at another charter. Kerrie Riley is in senior management at KIPP.  Meanwhile, Kaitlynn McDermott,  who Pondiscio says is “not unlike the Wolf the character played by Harvey Keitel in the movie Pulp Fiction who shows up to try to clean up”–well, she left as well.  So in the end, favoritism doesn’t seem to pay off. I suspect most staffers see Success Academy as a place to come from, not stay.

But to every rule there is an exception: Laura Belkin is still teaching at Success Academy.

In my last article, I argued that principal education profiles suggest the school is  grooming some teachers for leadership roles and the rest–well, if they returned after one year, that was kind of a surprise. Anyone who wants to work for Success Academy should read How The Other Half Learns to get an inkling of what might await those teachers who aren’t targeted for, er, success.