Category Archives: reform

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

Rick Hess’s article, How the Common Core Went Wrong, unerringly dissects the failures of the proponents’ strategy, no small feat for contemporaneous writing. Granted, he goes off the rails when he offers the states a three step way-out: take back control from the feds, form a small coalition of states willing to implement tough standards consistently and test on them, and make sure they implement the “rigorous” Common Core, not the “frivolous” one. Uh, sure.  (I am reminded of Ender’s siblings Valentine and Peter, who never agreed about what the world ought to be, but rarely disagreed about what the world actually was.)

Here Hess is on the world as it actually is.

The crucial compromise [of NCLB] was that states could set their own standards and tests. In fact, NCLB specifically prohibited national testing or a federally controlled curriculum.

What followed was not difficult to anticipate. The possibility of sanctions gave more than a few state leaders reason to adopt easy tests and lower the scores required for proficiency. A “race to the bottom” was soon underway, prompting an effort to combat the gamesmanship.

In December 2008, Achieve, Inc., the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association issued “Benchmarking for Success,” a report that urged states to develop and adopt common standards; called for federal incentives to promote that effort; and advocated aligning textbooks, curricula, and tests to those standards. If all states played by the same rules, there would be no race to the bottom. (emphasis mine)

Here he is on the world as it ought to be.

A push for a meaningful common measure of educational quality should start with a small number of deeply committed states that choose the rigors of true commonality.

So let’s unpack that.

First, No Child Left Behind set criteria of 100% proficiency with stiff penalties for states that didn’t make progress. In response, states made their tests easier to increase proficiency rates and reduce the noticeable proficiency gap between races, demographics, language status, etc.

Is this true? Yes. Without question, states were lowering cut scores.

So why did they need waivers?

Remember all those media stories recording reformer complaints about low cut scores? Not one reporter asked, “if cut scores were so ridiculously low, why were waivers required? Shouldn’t all the students have been passing?”

Again: The states made the tests easier. They made the tests a lot easier.

And there was still an achievement gap. Not a single state achieved 100% proficiency. 

The Obama administration was able to force states to adopt Common Core because the states needed waivers because various student demographic groups weren’t passing their extremely easy tests.

The governor’s association that dreamed up the need for Common Core didn’t think “Hmm, the states lowered the standards to the point that 10% correct was proficient and still there were kids who didn’t get proficient so maybe we should take a beat and evaluate if perhaps our expectations of all American kids are a tad unrealistic.”

No, what they thought was, “We need to force the states to use a much more difficult common test.”

Now return to the point of my last article, which is that the states are experts at taking federal money without any intention of fulfilling the requirements attached to the largesse (which is only fair, mind you, given the idiotic demands the feds make without anything approaching full funding).

The last law was ignored in everything but spirit and nonetheless drove all the states into non-compliance. The Obama administration used the states’ desperate desire to get a penalty waive to force them to sign up for common standards and collaborate to create really difficult and expensive tests–that they didn’t have to use.

So the states didn’t use them.

The only way you could make states “play by the same rules”, as Hess puts it, is to force them to. He envisioned a voluntary cooperative because, as I said, Hess is better at describing reality than anticipating it. There’s no way states would sign up for tests that would increase their achievement gap. They couldn’t even end the achievement gap by making the tests simple. Why would they sign up for something harder?

Insanity. Also amazingly stupid. And of course, expensive.

At which point you realize that only really unique aspect of Common Core was the redistribution of $345 million  from the federal government to Pearson and other testing companies. Everything else was business as usual: feds hand out money with requirements, the states take the money and ignore the requirements.

Common Core standards survived, sure. But only because the tests didn’t.

Now the standards are just….wallpaper.

Hey, under a thousand.


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Zenith

(This is part 2 of my brief (hahahah) history of the rise and fall of modern education reform. This part is longer because much more happened. Unlike the events in part 1, I experienced the Obama reforms as a teacher, having graduated from ed school the year of his inauguration. I began blogging the year he was re-elected.)

Bipartisan Achievements

Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 while simultaneously blasting NCLB and praising charters and merit pay for teachers. In practice, he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kept giving reformers everything they wanted–although in fairness, reformers got increasingly nervous about their gifts as his presidency matured.

Ironically, given the general sympathy that the Obama administration had for education reform, a new version of the ESEA was impossible throughout most of the Obama presidency. This proves to be an extremely significant limitation.  Arne Duncan and Obama, rather than force states to live with the unpopular mandates, invited the states to submit waivers asking to be exempt from the penalties. This gave the Obama administration considerable power to force states to adopt policies the federal government wanted. Conservatives were unnerved by what most would considera a violation of Section 438 of the General Education Provisions Act banning any federal control over state educational choices.

Bribing the States, round I: Race to the Top, Waivers

First up was Race to the Top, enacted as part of the economic stimulus plan of 2009, in which over $3 billion was set aside for rewards to competitive bids. Compared to the moon shot by Arne Duncan, the competition demanded compliance with most key aspects of education reform. Of the 500 points awarded,  313 of them (63%) were for teacher effectiveness (138 points), adopting “common core” standards (70 points), supporting the growth of “high quality” charters (55 points) and intervention into low-performing schools (50 points).  Schools that didn’t promise to  fulfill ed reformers’ wildest dreams didn’t stand much of a chance. From the link above: “Between 2001 and 2008, states on average enacted about 10 percent of reform policies. Between 2009 and 2014, however, they had enacted 68 percent. And during this later period, adoption rates increased every single year.”

Around 2010, it became possible to observe two developments that were in fact completely forseeable to everyone back in 2001, when NCLB was signed.

First, NCLB allowed states to define proficiency and then penalized schools that didn’t meet that definition.  That might not have been a problem except for the second development:  no matter how easy the tests got, 100% proficiency never happened. And the gaps were the usual ones.

But now  2014 was squarely in sight and closer and schools well outside the usual urban dystopias were getting hammered into program improvement.

Since a new ESEA was still politically impossible, the Obama administration began offering “waivers” from the consequences of extended failure to meet NCLB,   in exchange for setting their own higher, more honest standards for student success:

  • State must adopt college and career ready standards
  • Schools must be held accountable
  • Teacher and principal evaluation systems

Some education reformers (the conservatives) were concerned about the quid pro quo nature of the waiver requirements.   Other education reformers (the neoliberals) pishtoshed those concerns, saying (much as they said later about immigration) that Congressional gridlock made the waivers and demands logical and reasonable. A typical debate, in which  Andrew Rothernam, neoliberal reformer from the Clinton administration, rationalized the Obama waivers  “This dysfunction matters because when NCLB was passed in 2001, no one involved imagined the law would run for at least a decade without a congressional overhaul.” (translated, good god, no one took that nonsense about 100% proficiency, we expected to modify it before then!)

Obama announced the waivers in February, 2012, and by July of that year 26 states had waivers, with another 9 awaiting approval. A year later, all but seven states had waivers. Jerry Brown and the California team flatly refused to intervene in “failing schools” or evaluate teachers by test results and never got a waiver (although a few districts applied separately and got one).

While we refer to the testing consortiums (consortia?) as the Common Core tests, I was surprised to learn that the original competition for the grants was part of Race to the Top. Arne Duncan announced the winners, PARCC, which had 26 states signing on, and SBAC, which had 33 (some states joined both), in 2010.

The tests, almost more than the standards, excited education reformers. No more would individual states be able to dumb down their tests to reach NCLB standards. All the states would be held to the same standard.

But it wasn’t federal mandates, of course. No, no. This was all voluntary!

Bribing the States, round II: Common Core

The Common Core initiative was originally the brainchild of Janet Napolitano when she heading up the National Governor’s conference, documented in 2007’s Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring US Students Receive a World-Class Education (note: it’s kind of amazing how hard this document is to find. All the links to it reference the NGA doc, but that’s been deleted. I think this is the only existing online copy). She convened a group, and they came up with a set of five action items, three of which you can see reiterated above in the Obama waiver, because they were basically copied.

But it would never have gone anywhere had not Gene Wilhoit (head of school superintendant organization) and David Coleman, described in the link ahead as “emerging evangelical of standards” but actually little more than an ex-McKinsey guy with an assessment display (display. not design) startup  went to see Bill Gates, whose enthusiasm should have been a big neon light of warning, given his track record. Gates funded the development of standards. Coleman used the money to start “found” Student Achievement Partners and hire Jason Zimba, an ex-business partner who now worked for Coleman’s mothert(or, was a professorat Bennington College, where Coleman’s mom was president). Zimba, Phil Daro, and William McCallum wrote the math standards. Coleman and Susan Pimental wrote the ELA standards. The original Benchmarking report stated that the standards would be based on the American Diploma Project, but for reasons I don’t understand and might be interesting for someone else to explore, Coleman and crew rewrote a lot of it.

As the history shows, education reformer groups–those involved with accountability and choice–weren’t directly involved in the birth of Common Core, although it’s also clear from the verbiage in the Benchmarking report that education reform initiatives like teacher value-added measurement, charters, and school takeovers were very much in political parlance at that time, and very much bipartisan.

But education reformer groups loved the Common Core because they saw it as a way to bail them out of the two serious failures of NCLB described above. As Rick Hess observed in a five-year retrospective of Common Core, “The problem with that is if you had hard tests or hard standards you made your schools look bad. So there was a real, kind of perverse incentive baked into NCLB [to make the tests easier]“.  Hilariously, Michael Petrilli, who was in the Bush administration and was a key bureaucrat in the passage, has often said he disagreed that the 100% proficiency goal but “his boss” forced it on him. So now that NCLB was in a bind, the ed reformers were all for Common Core bailing them out.

The waiver process is often blamed for the rapid adoption, but in fact every state but Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia had adopted Common Core standards by  2012, and all of those but Wyoming had done so long before Obama announced the waivers. Apart from the conservatives “in principle” objections, the original hullaballoo over heavy-handed federal interference was teachers’ outrage at a president–a Democrat, no less–using money to bribe states into evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores.

Regardless, states eagerly adopted the Common Core standards and in 2012, all seemed right in the world of education reform.

Governance

Technically, all of the above was the Obama Administration’s bribes to the states to change their governance.  These are just some specific cases or other items of interest.

Tennessee won the Race to the Top, getting $500 million to enact First to the Top. Initiated by Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, carried through by Bill Haslam, Republican. Tennessee’s application promised two things of note, First, it would use its existing, longstanding teacher evaluation system (TVAAS) and use it as a formal evaluation tool, responsible for 35% of teacher evaluations. Then, in order to invervene in “failing” schools,  it set up a state-run district, the Achievement School District, creating a  as opposed to a state taking over a district. The lowest performing schools were simply placed in that district. The stated goal of the ASD was to take schools from the bottom 5% and “vault” them to the top 25%.  In 2011, Haslam appointed Kevin Huffman, ex-TFA teacher and executive, as well as Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband,  as Commissioner of Education.  The first ASD superintendent was Chris Barbic, former TFA teacher and founder of Yes Prep, another charter system in Houston.

Mark Zuckerberg went on Oprah in 2010 and, with great fanfare, donated $100 million to Newark, New Jersey schools.  Chris Christie appointed Cami Anderson, alumni of TFA management,  as superintendent of the district in May 2011. A year later, Anderson signed a contract with the Newark Teachers Union giving bonus pay for higher test scores or teaching math and science (although teachers could choose to be paid traditionally). The pot was sweetened with a lot of back pay which, to put it mildly, was not what Zuckerberg wanted the money to be spent on.

Michelle Rhee got a lot of attention, bragging of giving DC schools a “clean sweep”, dumping all the “bad” teachers and administrators who didn’t get test scores up. Eva Moskowitz was dumping students who didn’t get test scores up. Joel Klein left his NYC post in 2011; Bloomberg’s pick of Cathy Black, a woman with no teaching or administrative experience, was extremely unpopular. Bloomberg gave up on Black after four months and appointed Dennis Walcott, who was accepted at face value as an improvement. School turnaround consultant Paul Vallas ran the Louisiana Recovery District (mostly New Orleans Schools) for 4 years.

Education reform generally became more popular in Democratic circles, given Obama’s strong support.  Steven Brill’s article The Rubber Room called attention to NYC’s practice of housing teachers who’d been removed from the classroom but couldn’t actually be fired.  Waiting for Superman, a documentary promoting choice and blasing unions and tenure, opened to universal praise by media, politicians, and other thought leaders. In 2010, Obama openly supported the dismissalof a Rhode Island high school’s entire staff, saying, “our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.”

All this criticism kept building. 2012 was a nadir year terms of establishment discourse about public school teachers, although their reputation among the public seemed largely unchanged. It became increasingly popular to attack teacher tenure, again by both Democrats and Republicans, and certainly in the generally left of center media. Many states had agreed to evaluate teachers by test scores and both major unions had signed onto the Common Core standards, although teachers themselves were very doubtful.  A preponderance of politicians and academics were more than willing to agree that teacher quality needed to improve, that tenure might be problematic, and that teachers should be judged at least in part on test scores.  The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, pitting union president Karen Lewis against Rahm Emmanuel, and media sympathies were entirely with Rahm. Governor Scott Walker ended collective bargaining for public workers (except cops and firefighters!).

One major setback: DC’s 2010 election, in which black voters booted Adrian Fenty, the media-popular mayor, largely because they wanted to get rid of Michelle Rhee, who stepped down the day after the election. Her successor, Kaya Henderson, kept firing teachers, but she’s black, which might have made a difference. Rhee immediately announced a new organization, Students First, and let Richard Whitmire write an admiring biography.

Standards

In 2008, California made algebra I the “test of record” for eight graders, meaning that 8th graders would take an algebra end of course test or the schools would receive a penalty towards average yearly progress.

High school exit exams mostly held constant; this 2008 Edweek article actually says that fewer than half of the states required exams, but that may be because of lawsuits. California, for example, was sued constantly about the use of the CAHSEE in the early 2002.

Charter Growth, Choice, TFA

Just one state, Washington, authorized charters during the Obama administration. Absolute growth was still slow through  2011,  but then recovered from 2012 to 2017. As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017.  By 2012, charter advocates began pushing the suburban progressive charter, realizing that growth would continue to slow if they couldn’t disengage white folks from their beloved public schools. Suburban charters were (and are) popular with whites in racially diverse areas, particularly in the south; for example, Wake County charter schools were 62% white in 2012.

When the 2007-2008 meltdown hit, TFA recruitment soared ever higher as elite grads sought shelter from a horrible job market. Relay Graduate School began in 2011, basically providing a teaching credential for new hires of inner city charters.

In 2010, Douglas County (major Colorado suburb) began a highly contested investigation into a voucher program, one that would give public money for all private schools, including religious ones. The school board ultimately supported a move forward, despite a split community.

And that’s the end of the very nearly straightforward rise of education reform. It’s impossible to cover every major development, but I really tried to look at advances in every major area.

I’m going to call 2012 as the peak of the era, for reasons I’ll go through in the next post. It’s not that all progress stopped. It took four more years before education reformers even began to consider how badly they’d been beaten. But most of them would realize that they were now fighting significant opposition that they couldn’t easily dismiss.

Something I’ve mentioned before: it’s amazing that Republican media folk, as opposed to education reformers and even politicians, still talk like it’s 2008-2012. There’s really no understanding in the pundit world how badly they’ve been beaten.

Working on the next; hoping to get it done before the new year. I will go back and edit these if something significant occurred to me.

 

 


Bush/Obama Ed Reform: The Road to Glory

The utter collapse of ed reform in 2016 and beyond really hasn’t received much notice in the mainstream media, although the conservative branch of the old movement certainly talks about it. So prompted by Spotted Toad, I’m expanding (of course), the rise and eventual fall that I began in response to a question in a comments section.  As an aside, if you haven’t read Spotted Toad’s outstanding article referencing this collapse, do so after finishing this piece, however long it becomes, the better to appreciate his sublime analogy.

While education reformers were of both the left (Howard Fuller, Theodore Sizer, Andrew Rotherham) and right (Checker Finn, Rick Hess), the Republican party eventually seized the agenda and made it their own. Most teachers (raises hand) considered the GOP adoption as a weapon to weaken teachers’ unions, but motives aside, the school reform movement was traditionally considered as conservative policy, primarily because teachers, whose unions are very much of the left, were the opposition. But ultimately, education reform efforts in this era were shared and then arguably taken over by Democrats.

Beginnings

Understand that there’s always education reform going on in our country, so I’ll be specific: in the late 80s/90s, several highly influential books created momentum for specific public school reforms. Public education was, these people argued, corrupt, inefficient, incompetent, and expensive. Proposals to address its failures fell into three categories, broadly. First, give parents public money to spend freely on their own educational choices. Second, invest and examine instruction and curriculum. Finally, tie up federal education funds with demands that the dollars are being spent well, holding schools accountable. (For more on choice and accountability, see my thoughts here.)

Charters

During the Clinton administration, Democrats were still eager to prove they weren’t McGovern leftists.  California and Minnesota already had authorized charter schools by 1993, when Clinton became president. Clinton and Congress passed a new version of the ESEA, Charter Schools Program, which gave a whole bunch of federal money to charter schools. From the start of Clinton’s presidency to the end, charter school growth increased by 1, 992 schools–literally, from 1 to 1, 993.

I was surprised to learn while preparing this piece that most states had authorized charters during the Clinton administration–by my count, 36 states had charter laws and charter schools by the time Clinton left office.

One of the two most famous charter chains and the only one that really tries to reach throughout the nation, KIPP, was founded in 1994–and arguably created the market for charters as selective schools for inner city African Americans and Hispanics whose public schools were chaotic and/or academically undemanding.  KIPP’s success, which was originally evaluated without controlled comparisons, seemed miraculous and charter advocates saw an immediately compelling “killer app” (to use the parlance of  the times). While many advocates were honestly interested in improving educational outcomes for poor African American and Hispanic students, it’s hard to believe they would have gotten as much funding for their efforts if wealthy conservative organizations didn’t see the growth of charters as a way to wipe out teachers’ unions and their Democratic party donations. It’s hard to escape noticing that neither educational advocates nor charter funders have ever been much interested in improving academic outcomes for poor whites.

Alternative Teacher Credentialing

In 1990, billionaire Ross Perot gave half a million dollars to Wendy Kopp to help her get a new organization,Teach for America, off the ground. Based on the premise that the education gap was created by ignorant teachers, Kopp got corporate funding and political support by making it attractive for elite college graduates to teach for a few years in inner city schools. TFA attracted idealist 22 year olds who also, pragmatically, saw the value of a TFA stint on their resume–as Kopp herself put it, she wanted TFA to be the equivalent of a Rhodes scholar award.

It was during the Clinton era that it first became common to think of public school teachers as dull mediocrities. Credential tests for elementary school teachers started to show up in state requirements by the late 1980s, and the Higher Education Act of 1998 required them. Eager to dethrone ed schools as a means of teacher production, education reformers succeeded in including a requirement for ed schools to publish their credential pass rates, certain that outrage at teacher incompetence would push parents and politicians to join with reformers in demanding alternate education credential paths.

Republicans had been targeting teacher tenure and unions as the obstacles to educational excellence since at least “A Nation at Risk”. But Terry Moe, a Democrat, started making such heresy popular among Democrats (at least the neoliberals, as some called them) in the late 80s. Increasingly, critics of  teachers held them responsible for student test scores, and compared them unfavorably to non-union charters.

Governance

Another notable development during the Clinton era was the high school exit exam, although the media really only began to notice during the Bush and Obama administrations. A number of states had very simple exit exams (called MCE for minimum competency exam) in the 1970s, but the “Nation at Risk” report led to the cancellation of many of these. Texas instituted a more difficult test in 1985; that’s the earliest I could find of a more typical high school exam requirement. But the rise of the modern high school exit exam is definitely linked to the Clinton administration. Somewere between 24 and 26 states required a high school exit exam by 2002, and increasingly these exams required passage for a diploma.

(note: I added the above the next day.)

Ascending to Glory

In 2000, George W. Bush’s election put school reform in the driver’s seat. For the next dozen years, reformers achieved almost all of their major policy goals with two consecutive, supportive presidents–as my title notes, the era will be named after them. There’s at least one book on the subject already.

No Child Left Behind

The decade started with the rewrite of ESEA famous enough to get its own name: No Child Left Behind.  NCLB was bipartisan; Democrats George Miller and Edward Kennedy were co-sponsors. Accountability was always a key component in the education reform agenda. In a nutshell, NCLB required that all students in all categories score at proficient or higher by 2014,  leading to the absurd demand that all students be above average. Schools that didn’t meet what was called “adequate yearly progress” in state-defined proficiency were put on “program improvement’;  students were allowed to go to any other public school that accepted them. Oddly enough, the threat of students leaving wasn’t all that terrible, as students who wanted to go to charters were already leaving, and public schools weren’t terribly interested in accepting students outside their geographic district. But there was plenty left that was horrible about program improvement, including the never-ending relentless focus on test scores.

TFA had solid growth during the Bush era, although it wasn’t the soaring rates that they’d see next term.

Charters

Absolute growth slowed from 2001 to 2011.  As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017. Part of this is because most states had authorized charters before the Bush administration; from 2001 to 2008 Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Wyoming authorized charters.

However, charters saw a major boost because of a natural disaster. Education reformers were a little too ecstatic about the “opportunity” provided by Hurricane Katrina, when the Louisiana legislature summarily fired the vast majority of New Orleans teachers, 71% of whom were black women, in order to turn New Orleans’ schools over to the State Recovery District. (More than half of these teachers never taught again.) New Orleans became a predominantly charter school district after that, and less than 50% of its teaching population is black (as of five years ago).

New Orleans became the crucible for education reformers. Finally, they’d been able to completely scrub (one might say bleach) a school district and redefine it the way they thought schools would run. Overwhelmingly, they believed that New Orleans would serve as an impetus for more cities to go full charter, or at least full-scale choice.

Another famous charter network, Success Academy, was founded in 2006 when Eva Moskowitz lost her election for the NYC council and needed a backup job.

Charters were still being primarily targeted as a method to improve black and Hispanic student outcomes, but Summit Prep in the Bay Area, California was began as a suburban charter in 2003.

Governance

School and district takeovers continued to be an important strategy to institute charters and choice. TFA alum Michelle Rhee was appointed the head of Washington DC schools by mayor Adrian Fenty after the DC Board of Education was stripped of its power.  Joel Klein, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support, instituted choice throughout the NYC school system and supported dramatic growth in charters.

The outcry against ed schools got stronger, aided in no small part by the National Council on Teacher Quality (which, in my view, is the educational equivalent of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Founded in 2004, NCTQ is well-known for providing research fodder for sympathetic education reformers that is generally ignored by teachers, even more than they ignore most research.

NCLB built on the 1998 Higher Education Act to require that all states define “highly qualified teachers” that test in through credential test or other rigorous standard.  In many states, middle school teachers had to meet the same requirements as high school teachers (although existing teachers were grandfathered in). The credential test created significant challenges for new black and Hispanic teachers.

One crushing blow, however, to ed school critics, was the failure of the 1998 HEA to create an ed school ranking system. Ed schools were required to publish their graduates’ credential test pass rate which critics expected to be low for many schools. This, they hoped, would create a ranking system and thus an opening for alternate credentialing programs to break the near-monopoly of university-based ed schools. Alas, ed schools bit hard on a bullet and simply denied diplomas to any ed school candidates who couldn’t pass the credential tests. Thus, the vast majority of ed schools had a 100% pass rate, and alternative ed school programs simply copied the prevailing requirements. Curses! foiled again.

However, this new ed school policy, coupled with NCLB’s demands for teacher quality, led to many black and Hispanic teachers losing their jobs. In the 90s, ed schools simply issued diplomas to everyone who completed a program, leaving the credential test an open issue. Teachers who couldn’t pass the tests (a disproportionately black and Hispanic population) just applied for an emergency credential and kept teaching with that, sometimes for years. No Child Left Behind eliminated the emergency credential, thus forcing teachers, sometimes with a decade or more experience, to take the credential tests.

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

So this became much longer than I expected. I split it into two sections.


How The Other Half Learns: Who are the Students?

Years before I became a teacher, I found kids of all ages interesting on an intellectual level.  I enjoyed seeing the different ways that their intelligence manifested. I remember the moment I realized my son, just four, was extremely bright, capable of synthesizing a wide range  of information and coming up with interesting conclusions–and this despite the fact that he didn’t read until he was over six, and was always slow on speech milestones. A few years later, I was playing a card game with my twin niece and nephew and realized they, at age two, were out there on the IQ scale, but in different ways: my niece solves problems, my nephew instantly grasps and files away information.

The three proved out my predictions, all with  SAT or ACT scores in the 95+ percentile. My niece has a nursing degree (getting into a nursing school is cutthroat competitive these days), my nephew graduated from a top 20 school with a degree in linguistics. (My son’s history is here.)  Recall that I’m the only college graduate in my family of origin, so degrees aren’t really in the family tradition.

But kids don’t have to be unusually intelligent–or relatives–to capture my interest. My articles are filled with student profiles and class profiles in which I try to give a sense of the intellectual presence in the room, in the interaction. I link in a bunch at the end as a demonstration.

I wanted to know more about the students at Bronx Academy 1, and in this way, How the Other Half Learns disappoints. We get no real insight into the students’ intellectual lives.

This is a shame, really. Why, after all, do we care so much about these charters? Because of their academic results:

If you are a black or Hispanic child in a New York City public school, you have a one-in-four chance of passing the state English Language Arts exam. At Success, 82 percent of black and Hispanic students passed in 2016–a rate that easily outpaces even the 59 percent rate of Asian and white students citywide. In math, 93 percent of Success Academy’s black students and 95 percent of its Hispanic students passed their math test, with 73 percent scoring at Level 4, the highest level.

The Big Question, one I hoped I’d get some insight into: to what extent is Success Academy creaming? Are the charters taking some of those 1 in 4 black or Hispanic students who would pass the ELA exam anyway? Are they taking ordinary kids of average skills and beating enough information into their heads to barely get them past the “proficient” rating? Or are they taking barely literate children and turning them into excellent readers?

Pondiscio argues that Success Academy selects for parents, not for students. It’s certainly true that the school is vetting for parents who can be instantly available on demand, willing to put up with truckloads of excessive and unpleasant demands, which are clearly designed with the same goals that Van Halen had when banning brown M&Ms.  Because he sees parents as central to Success Academy, Pondiscio interviews several, uncovering their own educational history.

But the book has very little insight into the children themselves.

On Tiffany, the student whose needs gave Pondiscio the entire focus of his career:

Her eyes are on the teacher, paying careful attention and following directions. She is bright and pleasant, happy to help and eager to please. Her desk is clean and well-organized; her homework neat and complete. She has grown up hearing about the importance of education. She believes it, and her behavior shows it. She gets praise and good grades. (emphasis mine)

With the exception of “bright”, which appears to be more about mood than intellect, Pondiscio describes Tiffany primarily by behavior and intent, not ability.

I would trade most of the parent interviews, which all sound the same (“I hated school, I was passed on, I was a drug addict, I fell into a hole, I made something of my life, I need to save my kid, I don’t want my kid to be passed on the way I was, I love the discipline, the end”), for a series of student conversations throughout the year.

Instead, give me evidence the students are developing intellectually. Show me that these are interesting, aware, educated children with an interest in the world around them. Better yet, show me that some kids went from picking their noses to discoursing eloquently on the reasons for a blue sky, all thanks to Success Academy’s brilliant teaching and curriculum.

Interview fourth graders, both those who scored proficient on the third grade test, and those who missed the mark. Are those students who failed still in the school, or were they cut from the program? Are the ones who passed noticeably more developed than the ones who didn’t–assuming they’re still in the school?

I want to hear from all those students who were forced to repeat grades. Did they ever move forward, or did all of them eventually transfer? It’s completely obvious that Success Academy is forcing students to repeat as a way of enticing them to drop out, but do any of them ultimately pass? How are their results?

Tell me stories about the kids who apparently have been spoon fed six books a week for years. What do the kids think about all this reading time? Do the parents actually meet their commitments? What books do they read? Do the parents read the same books more than once? What are their favorite stories?

But Pondiscio gives very little insight into the minds that Success Academy is supposed to develop. For the most part, the students are props. He does provide a description of one pseudo-discovery math class, but his focus is on the teacher, not the students.

When he does provide detail, the results undercut the Success story. (heh).  For example, a student takes a reading test:

“So what did you learn in this book?” she asks. Luis begins to rattle off random facts from memory. Whales send messages to other whales. They communicate with “whistles and burps and…” he struggles to recall a word. “They click,” he says finally. Syskowski presses for more. “What other information did you learn about whales?” Luis describes their ability to “bounce sounds off of fish” to find food. “A blue whale is as big as 25 elephants. They’re the giants of the sea,” he adds, a phrase that comes directly from the book. To ensure he’s demonstrating reading comprehension, not just prior knowledge, Syskowski asks Luis to show her evidence for the facts he’s just cited. …

“….How are whales like people?” she asks. “They find food. They send messages to each other,” the boy answers. “They have babies.” And how are they different? Luis twists his face and looks to the book to jog hism emory. “When people need help with something, they don’t cry or whistle or click. They just call for help. Like on the phone,” he answers. “And whales can’t speak. They speak, like, whale….Is that all of your questions?”

The word for this display is regurgitation. You don’t see a Luis who is interested in whales, enthusiastically telling his teacher about cool whale facts, but rather a Luis desperately trying to “empty his head of all that he’s just read.” Luis isn’t fascinated by whales or constructing background knowledge. In fact, the kid doesn’t seem interested in reading at all. He just wants the reward–to be moved up a level in grading. I’m sure Luis is an adorable little boy, but his reading comprehension skills do not strike me as a ringing endorsement for the Success Academy regime.

On a second grade field trip:

Some boys are trying to impress Ibrahim’s dad, Solomon, a Nigerian immigrant, with everything they have learned about Washington Roebling, the chief engineer of the bridge. “He got ill and died,” one says….Showing good teaching instincts, [Solomon] pushes for more. “How do you know that’s not the Queensboro Bridge?” he demands. “Tell me how you know.” The boys point out that it’s a suspension bridge but seem at a loss to “prove” that the suspension bridge in front of them is Roebling’s masterpiece. They just know.

I have to take Pondiscio’s word for it that the only fact of note retained from the Roebling reading is not that he fought in the Civil War, made several major advances in bridgebuilding,  or that he lived to 89 before dying of an illness.  Nor could they tell the dad that the Queensboro Bridge isn’t a suspension bridge.

In an already famous anecdote from the book, the kindergarten teacher  tells a kindergartner that his book review (a pencil sketch and a few words) doesn’t make sense and that he can’t play with the “blocks” the next day.

Why not describe the “book report”? What did it say? What was the picture of? How did it compare to the other sketches? What words did the kids know well enough to write?

I never get the sense that Pondiscio is interested in the kids themselves–not because he doesn’t care about them, which he clearly does. But for whatever reason, the kids don’t seem important to his story. Ability  and individualism doesn’t make much of an appearance. Parental character is all:

If Eva Moskowitz is to be charged with creating an opportunity for parents…with more ambition for their children than means, it is a curious charge. If you demand that engaged and committed parents send their children to school with the children of disengaged and uncommitted parents, then you are obligated to explain why this standard applies to low-income black and brown parents–and to only them.

This is an egregious statement on many levels, but for now, consider it purely as insight into Pondiscio’s mindset.

Those familiar with Pondiscio’s writing won’t be surprised. Regardless of what he actually believes, he doesn’t often discuss students in terms of their abilities, as opposed to what methods he wants to use to teach them. In one well-known earlier article, he wrote that students can’t be educated with the “lighting of the fire”, as many teachers say, because “empty buckets seldom burst into flames.” As he wrote in the book, he first turned to the Core Knowledge Foundation because he became convinced that, to quote Dan Willingham, “the wellspring of reading comprehension is common knowledge”. (This always gets near suggesting that kids must be taught knowledge before they can read about it, even though both Pondiscio and Willingham protest whenever this is pointed out.)

Meanwhile, he’s got dozens of articles on the importance of giving parents choice.

“Adult self-interest is the heart of this debate, and the ideological question is whether we trust poor parents to exercise it. ” (Let Poor Parents Choose Too)

“That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” (Putting the evidence cart before the school choice horse)

“About the last thing I want to do is spend the next several years arguing about whose approach to discipline is ‘right.’ The salient question ought to be, ‘Which is right for you?'” (When it Comes to School Discipline, Let Parents Choose)

“I’m strongly biased toward school choice. I defer deeply to parental prerogative.” Deborah Meier, Libertarian?

Even in the book, even when talking about Tiffany, it’s about what her parents did: “She has grown up hearing about the importance of education.” Tiffany didn’t decide this for herself.

Give parents the ability to choose, Pondiscio believes, and they will find the best education for their children. How he squares this with the many caring, ambitious, committed parents who chose Success Academy, jumped through all those idiotic control hoops only to deal with months of harassment once the school targeted their child for expulsion, I don’t know.

I don’t see students as empty buckets. I see them as individual agents with capacities from their parents’ ambitions and desires. For that reason, I wish Pondiscio had dumped all those parent profiles (to say nothing of the Moskowitz power meetings) and spent more time in the book recounting student stories. Let the readers know more about the young people who actually deliver the test scores needed to maintain the Success Academy reputation–and whether they display the intellectual presence we want those scores to represent.

I want to reiterate that I like the book and strongly recommend it. These pieces are just offered up for discussion–the difference between teachers and policy advocates, maybe.

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

Students:
The kid who can do arithmetic in his head but can’t manage basic algebra.
The kid who trusted me more than a math teacher who knew a lot more math.
The kids who had to build a business plan for a basketball team and started by looking up shoe prices.
The kid who asked questions without ever expecting to understand the answers. 
The kid who came back two years after his SAT scores were worse than his worst fears. 

Classes:
Seeing the link between algebraic equations and graphs just before the weekend.
Figuring out the Third Dimension
The electoral college and Trump
Reading aloud to my ELL class.
Advising students on their narratives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Education Reform with Beer and Bourbon

Tis my wont to recount conversations with colleagues and students by assigning them pseudonyms similar to their real names.  However, the debates I describe here weren’t with work folks, but two public figures, each quite well-known in their own field. Identifying them would not only compromise my own pseudonymity, but also be a bit too much like (heh) talking out of school.   Simply assigning them similar names might help someone figure out their identities as well.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to name the two men for the booze imbibed whilst debate was underway.

My first sparring partner is very well-known in education reform circles; anyone who reads or writes about ed policy would at least know his name. We met in a pub, a good one, and went through easily four rounds before dinner crossed our minds. And so he is Beer.

The second man is more famous than the first in any absolute sense. He’s frequently on TV where his name is met with applause, and writes for a major political magazine. If I described his achievements even in the most generic sense, most Republicans would be able to identify him. I met him in a bar with other fans, after he gave a speech (not at the bar), and Maker’s Mark was flowing free, so he’s Bourbon.

Bourbon doesn’t talk or present like an elite, but his educational resume reads like one. Describing Beer’s educational history would give away his identity, but suffice it to say a simple google doesn’t give up his alma mater, although he has one. Beer spent some time teaching K-12 in high poverty schools. Bourbon has not taught K-12, poverty or otherwise.

Beer’s views are difficult to predict, save his primary cause, which I can’t describe because it would instantly identify him. Bourbon, who is not involved with education in any real sense, holds utterly typical conservative views: choice, more choice, and more choice still, vouchers good, unions suck. In both cases, I knew this going in. I’ve read both men’s work for years.

As to my own participation, the setting with Beer is right in my zone. We talked for easily three hours. I had plenty of time to lose track, retrack, restate, dig deep, hop around, zing his boss with a clever tag (he laughed).  I was at my best.

Bourbon, on the other hand, was a celebrity giving time to fans. I was one of many. He was generously sharing his time with everyone.  It was a good time for an elevator speech, and, er, well. I write something under 1000 words, it’s a big day. Short enough for three floors, I don’t do. Paradigm-shifting takes time and in this case I’d never really expected education policy to emerge as a topic. So I don’t know what sort of impression I left. At my best, for better or worse,  people remember me. I’m not sure Bourbon would.

Wait. Trump-voting teacher,  three credentials, thinks charters and choice are overrated and expensive.

He’ll remember me.

Anyway.  While I enjoyed both encounters tremendously,  I’m writing about them because both Beer and Bourbon made comments that helped me to see past the end of this era of education reform. Both men, in the midst of discussions about various education policy issues, waved off an issue that was a foundational basis for the modern education reform movement.

In Beer’s case, we were discussing his ready acceptance of cherrypicking charters. Because charter school attendance isn’t a right linked directly to geography, as it is for public schools, charters can be selective. There are academically selective chartersimmigrant only charters, Muslim-run charters. Despite all these obvious cases, the major public argument is about the technically open charters (KIPP, Success, other no excuses charters) and whether or not they are secretly selective. The research is pretty conclusive on this point, much as charter advocates deny it.

But Beer shrugged this off. “I want charters to skim. I want them to be selective.”

I was taken aback. “I mean, come on.  Go back to the mid-90s when charters started taking off. The entire argument for charters was ‘failing public schools’. The whole point was that the failure of public education was located in the public schools themselves: unions, bad teachers, stupid rules, curriculum, whatever. Charter schools, freed from all those stupid laws, but open to everyone, could do better automatically simply by not being those rules bound public schools. Now you’re saying that they can’t actually do better unless they skim, unless they have different discipline rules.”

“Yeah.”

“But….that won’t scale.”

Shrug.

“And you’re going to increase segregation, probably, since if charters can skim then they’re going to focus more on homogeneity.”

Shrug. “I want as many kids to get as good an education as possible. Skim away.”

I don’t want to continue, because I don’t want to get his arguments wrong. And for this particular piece, the shrug is the point.

So now, on to Bourbon who was waxing eloquent on the uselessness of unions, one large one (with which I am unaffiliated) in particular.

“They’re losing kids because their schools suck. It’s not money.  They’ve had billions. They want more, more, always more. Charters just do a better job and don’t whine for money.”

“Well, charters get to pick and choose their kids. But leaev that aside, charters aren’t ever going to end public schools. Catholic schools in inner cities have been almost obliterated. and even  private schools are getting hurt bad by charters, with declining enrollment. Once you offer basically private school at public prices, then many people who would otherwise pay private are going to go for the free option.”

“That’s fine.”

“Wait, what? You’re arguing in favor of a government policy that kills private enterprise?”

“Sure. Well, I reject your premise that private schools are being hurt all that bad by charters. But if so, so what?”

I can only imagine the look on my face. “So you’re arguing against free markets and private enterprise?”

“No that’s what I’m arguing for. Free markets. Parental choice.”

“But no. You are arguing for public schools to be able to act like private schools. That’s government intervention. If the public option allows discrimination and selectivity,  there’s no need for private.”

“Great.”

“But then you’re moving all the teachers from the private market into the public market–meaning higher salaries, higher pensions, more government costs. And because these are basically private schools, so you can cap–so there will be even more teachers, thus creating shortages, driving up salaries, driving up costs.”

“So?”

“SO?”

I wasn’t mad. I was genuinely perplexed. Again, I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to recreate any part of a debate that I didn’t have down cold. In this case, as in Beer’s, I am certain that this was my understanding of Bourbon’s position, and I’m at least reasonably sure I had it right.

Like most teachers, I see the modern education reform movement (choice and accountability legs) as being fueled by two things. Funding the effort were billionaire Republicans or elitist technocrats, the first dedicated to killing the Democrat fundraising monster known as teacher unions, the second dedicated to upgrading a non-meritocratic profession. Nothing personal, that’s just how we see it.

But on the surface, where it counted, the argument for education reform focused on “failing schools”, caused by incompetent and stupid teachers, creating a horrible racial achievement gap because lazy teachers didn’t believe all students could succeed.

[Note: The actual arguments were often more nuanced than that, with many choice advocates like Cato and Jay Greene arguing for all choice and no accountability, and others arguing that all students, regardless of race, deserved the education of their choice. But the bottom line sale, the one designed to gain the support of a public who loved their own schools, was the let’s get poor kids out of failing schools pitch.}

A while back at Steve Sailer’s blog, I wrote a short synopsis of the rise and fall of the modern education reform era, and I probably should rewrite it for here sometime. I’ve also written at length about it here, notably “Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education ReformEnd of Education Reform?, and Charters: The Center Won’t Hold.

So the modern education reform movement will probably be dated in the future from either 1991 (first charter) or 1995, the year when the Public Charter Schools Program began, through the early heady days when people were allowed to say that KIPP was ending the achievement gap, the 1998 Higher Education Act, which advocates thought would kill ed schools, through No Child Left Behind,  onto New York becoming an all choice district, to Hurricane Katrina allowing the New Orleans’ conversion to an all-charter district, Race to the Top waivers, Common Core, and then the unspooling: Adrian Fenty getting thrown out of office on account of Michelle Rhee (who has apparently left education entirely), Common Core opposition leading to a massive repudiation of all forms of federal accountability, teacher unions rising in red states after Janus was supposed to end union power entirely, and the wholesale rewrite of the ESEA that wiped out most of the reforms won during the Bush/Obama era. Education reformers understand these are dark days, even though the mainstream media appears to have no idea anything happened.

Charters are ed reform’s one happy place. For the moment, they are still popular. Why not? They are, as I say, private schools at public prices.  Although everyone should look carefully at California, which is considering not only giving charter control to districts, but also restricting TFA and other alternative teacher programs.  Taxpayers may finally care about the issues that didn’t trouble Bourbon.

But as so much else falls away from their grasp, it’s instructive to see both an ed reformer and a conservative shrug off aspects of charters that the original case argued strongly against. Charters were supposed to weaken teachers, but unlimited charters coupled with strong federal laws will only increase their scarcity. Charters were supposed to improve the achievement gap for all kids, but now they’ll just do so for a lucky few.

Or am I missing something?

Anyway. They were great arguments, and have given me much to mull. My thanks to Beer and Bourbon–both the men and the booze.

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

I met some other cool people at the Bourbon event, and at some point in the evening, I mentioned I write a blog.

One guy said, “Wow, that’s dangerous for a teacher.”

“Indeed, which is why it’s an anonymous blog.”

“Really? I read a blog written by an anonymous teacher from this area who voted for Trump.”

I laughed. “Well, if that’s true, then you read me, although I never say what area I’m from.”

“It can’t be you.”

“I’m crushed.”

“No, no, I just mean…it’s not you.”

“OK, then I’d love to know who it is, because as far as I know I’m the only anonymous teacher blogger, Trump voter or otherwise, from this area.”

He got out his phone, brought up his Twitter account, and clicked on a profile. “This you?”

And reader, it was.

First time I’ve met my audience!


What Teachers are Worth

I enjoy reading both Jason Richwine, who I’ve defended before, and Andrew Biggs, who I follow on Twitter. But they don’t strike me as persuasive when discussing teacher salaries, which they do often, most recently No, Teachers Aren’t Underpaid , and also the first time they came to my attention, having written Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid (do you sense a trend?).

I made an extensive comment one time on Richwine’s blog that I’m still quite fond of, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Before I begin, let me point out for the umpteenth time that I like my salary just fine.

I differ with Richwine/Biggs as follows:

  • They keep going on about teacher GPAs and SAT scores as indicators without mentioning credential tests. They’ve been doing this for six (nay, seven!) years. Credential tests are kind of a thing of mine, as you may have noticed, so I’ll just refer you to my previous work. But it’s simply untrue that teacher standards are low, particularly in high school. Grades and SAT scores are irrelevant. Passing scores aren’t amenable to affirmative action.
  • They sugggest (sigh) differential pay for math teachers, special ed teachers, and “language teachers”. (Surely there’s no shortage of Spanish speakers nationwide?) Left unmentioned:  the thus far anemic evidence for other pay reforms, which are significant only occasionally, and only statistically.
  • They point out–actually, this is a Richwine thing–that teachers who leave the field usually end up with lower pay. But they never seem to mull what that means.
  • They point out that teachers get lucrative pensions and benefits. That’s the Biggs thing. They accuse the public and teachers of failing to understand the severity of the pension crisis. Naturally, if the public understood how bad things were, the public would instantly put itself on an austerity program, just as it’s done with the federal deficit. Oh. Wait.

At least they didn’t bring up the old chestnut, merit pay.

Like I said, I’m generally fans of both scholars. But the past two years have seen a complete earthquake in the education reform movement, so why is everyone still pushing the same old ideas that were roundly rejected?

Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study.

The first, sure. The second? If Christina Comerford left the chef’s life to be a secretary, a reasonable job for a woman with a few years of college and no degree, she’d take a big paycut. So is the  Executive Chef overpaid at a hundred grand a year?

But Ed, she’s a chef! An artist!

Sure. An artist who acquired skills outside any academic field of study.

Wages are not purely determined by field of study. Librarians require much more education than teachers for far less pay. College teaching adjuncts work like dogs for peanuts after graduating from a selective PhD program. And raise your hand if you think archaeologists would get higher pay if they had a union and a pay scale.

To quote myself twice:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience.

Segue to

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. …Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. On the other hand, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Don’t think of this as a plea for respect. I’m untroubled by their contempt. I just thought I’d explain why their arguments keep failing.

Besides, they mention wages are determined by supply and demand without mentioning that teachers supply’s kind of a problem at the moment, as most school districts are neverendingly short of teachers.

Despite what reformers constantly bewail as teaching’s low standards and excessive pay, all sorts of college graduates who, on paper, have “fields of study” that would allow them to teach, don’t teach. They’d rather work as, well, bus drivers. Or horribly paid college adjuncts. From 2009-2013, 45% of college graduates worked in non-college jobs, at the same time ed school enrollment plummeted.  Notice that those who pishtosh the shortage aren’t the folks trying to fill the jobs.

No blaming unions, either. West Virginia’s unions are basically social clubs. The teachers aren’t even allowed to strike.  (With teacher’s unions suing Trump over DACA and wasting my fees in various pointless efforts, I’ll cry less about Janus.) Kentucky’s Matt Bevin got whomped and was forced to apologize for insulting teachers in yet another state with weak unions. Is it likely that Colorado’s school districts will fire striking teachers when  ed schools face declining enrollment and thousands of jobs  go unfilled each year?

I’m not gloating. I don’t know where this ends. I understand pensions are a problem. But federal policy and court decisions, to say nothing of political realities, have put tremendous pressure on teacher supply. Perhaps Biggs and Richwine should consider attacking teacher pay from the demand side for a while. Richwine, at least, should find that appealing.

Under 1000!


End of Education Reform?

Four years ago, I first described the parallels between cops and teachers. A year after the election, I wrote about unions and asked, again, why the GOP was so intent on attacking teacher protections when cops and other government workers get the same advantages. I mean, even the bitching about gender imbalance is ridiculous, since law ennforcement is far more male than teaching is female.

Then came Ferguson and the start of a bizarre microtrend. Conservatives began this absurd habit of blaming teachers and crappy schools for black kids getting shot by white police officers and ensuing riots. “Choice would end this chaos!” they’d thunder. I’m paraphrasing, but as the sources  show, I’m not exaggerating.

So I’ve been writing about the parallels* between these two jobs since the early days of this blog. But I also—rather presciently, I must say—observed that “acceptable targets change over time” and that maybe we teachers should hunker down and wait for cops to take their turn in the hot seat again.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the pendulum has swung back, if teachers are getting a breather while the cops take the bulk of the scrutiny.

Just four years ago when I wrote my first essay, cops were politically beyond reproach by either party. Since Ferguson, our police forces are increasingly under rhetorical attack, and the Democrats are “balancing” their comments less often. Those on the right are starting to make noises about police unions. Moreover, while the  attempts to prosecute the police officers for high profile shootings have failed, the pressure to bring these efforts has increased.The brutal murders in Dallas, Baton Rouge of course add to this horrible climate.

Meanwhile, the new K-12 education law replacing the reform-designed No Child Left Behind, has utterly dismayed reformers on both right and left by stripping away a lot of federal control and leaving education back to the states. Conservatives, who gave birth to the reform movement, are now unhappy because social-justice warriors have taken over education reform.

Let’s take a look at the three legs of education reform:

Accountability:
Testing? Extremely unpopular, particularly with suburban whites–and if suburban whites aren’t testing, then there’s no benchmark to beat teachers up for when the black and Hispanic students don’t meet it. Kidding. Kind of.

Teacher value add measurements? Reformers are forced to argue that the American Statisticians Association supported VAM because it says that “teachers account for about 1 percent to 14 percent of the variability in test scores”. As I wrote earlier, I don’t think VAM will last much longer. Teachers are being judged by test scores in some states, but the energy is on rolling back those laws, not adding more states to the list.

Student achievement gap? Jerry Brown actually said hey, someone’s got to be a waiter. Stop waiting for me to close the achievement gap. Ain’t going to happen. The man went unscathed after this heresy. I’m still shocked. But the thing is, once people start rejecting standardized tests, demanding other solutions to “the gap” is sure to follow.

Or, as this paper asked: Can High Standards and Accountability Exist? Their answer: Not easily. My answer: No.

Curriculum:

I’m not rehashing the Common Core wars. I will remind you, however, that the governors and education reformers never really cared about the curriculum unless it would drive accountability. As of today, just 20 states are using the Common Core tests. The rest have opted for less stringent metrics.

Choice

Choice lives! Well, kind of. Barack to Hillary is a huge step back for reformers. Barack, Arne, and John King were all “neo-Democrats” on education, which means teachers didn’t like them much. Hillary is very popular with teacher’s unions, even if the teachers themselves wanted Bernie. But neither Bernie nor Hillary are big on choice.

The Donald? The most attention an education policy got at the RNC convention was Donald Trump Jr’s line comparing teacher tenure to Soviet-era stores and then only because his speechwriter had used it in an earlier column. Kind of like Carol Burnett: “Don’t pollute, folks!” Puppy chow for conservatives. It’s not a random happenstance that the presidential candidate most dedicated to traditional education reform barely finishied in the top five and is   back pitching the same old ideas that the GOP voters didn’t even bother to consider before rejecting.

Choice will stay around, but I don’t see it having a strong supporter in the White House.

The philanthropy may be shifting, too. Bill Gates admits he’s spent millions on schools to little effect. Mark Zuckerberg wants to convince us that his $100 million in Newark wasn’t wasted, but most of the world thinks he got schooled. So the “billionaire philanthropists” are backing off of education.

But Michael Jordan has just donated $2 million to non-profits in what is clearly a thoughtful and hopeful effort to support community policing.  Perhaps his act is a one-off–or perhaps we’ll see more wealthy African Americans funding ideas and programs that benefit both urban youth and the police serving their communities. I wish them more success than the billionaires had with schools.

Education reform, the era that began with Nation at Risk and traveled through the explosion of choice, the testing era of No Child Left Behind, the imposition of Common Core–well, it may be over. We’ll still have choice in urban areas where many desperate parents are willing to submit to absurd behavior standards in order to get some semblance of peer selection. Voucher programs will have periodic disruptions. I suspect, though, that ongoing regional teacher shortages  will limit charter expansion (same amount of kids, more teachers). I wonder if the public will ever notice that private schools get created simply to grab the voucher money, and whether they will find it unseemly. Or maybe vouchers will continue to exist as a way for parents who can afford tuition to get a discount. Ed tech will continue to disappoint. But I see more of a whimpering out over years, not a sudden bang, if I’m not nuts about this.

And if I’m nuts, well, at least one of the granddaddies of education reform, Checker Finn, agrees with me.

I’m not gloating, not about the potential end of reform and certainly not about the increased scrutiny and pressure that’s being placed on our police forces. I just sense a shift. We’ll see.

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

*I don’t overstate the parallels.The police are tasked with public safety with all the demands that entails.  We teachers are charged with education and student safety while they’re in our purview. Those are non-trivial differences; the police are compensated with higher pay, overtime, easier access to disability, and better pensions. I’m not complaining.

 

**I’m in a new phase, apparently, where my new essay ideas come from my tweet storms.


Vocational Ed and the Elephant

I thought I’d expand my tweet storm on Arthur C. Brooks directive on American relocation, on one point at least. The one involving the Voldemort View, which must not be spoken. Here referred to as the elephant, because it scanned better.

brooksvotech

Rod Dreher and his commenters go to this well all the time, about the so-called snobs who sneer at vocational education. Mike Rowe has built a career on it.

But these calls for a friendlier approach to vocational ed, aka CTE, aka career tech, completely misunderstand the reasons for its relative scarcity.

I have never met a public school teacher who sneers at vocational ed. I don’t often meet administrators in this category, either. I know they exist, particularly in urban environments–NOT simply high poverty schools (I teach in one of those). But overwhelmingly, the teachers I know are very realistic about college.

No, the reasons for  vocational ed’s disappearance mostly have to do with the elephant in the room.

But begin by realizing this: US has never experienced a halcyon period when committed, focused students were provided with meaningful careers through a helpful high school career training program. The term “dumping” has been around for a long time. A 1985 review of California’s vocational ed program showed that high school courses resulted in no improvement in employment or graduation rates, and even regional training centers had little impact on employment. The country’s support for any sort of vocational ed has always been tepid and cyclical. So it’s not as if we had a fantastic functioning vocational education system before the modern era.

The latest cycle began when 1983’s Nation at Risk forced radical changes in high school education in a failed attempt to raise standards. Nation badly damaged what successful vocational ed we had by arguing we needed rigorous preparation and high expectations to get more high school students ready for college. Of course, not everyone could meet the higher standards, because otherwise there’d be no point to the higher standards. The authors expected that students who weren’t ready for college would be well-trained by rigorous vocational education; they just didn’t think about the elephant.

See, Nation‘s call for high standards, joined five years later by Bill Bennett’s report update, dismissed any notion of an achievement gap. The achievement gap, according to these Ur-reformers, owed its origins not to poverty and ability, but unprepared teachers with low expectations and parents who didn’t care as much. Over time, education reformers stopped blaming parents.

But really, blame is irrelevant.  There sits the elephant firmly in the center of unspoken space: large, cranky, completely ummovable. The kids who couldn’t, and still can’t, manage college prep curriculum are disproportionately black and Hispanic and, (often separately, alas) poor.

So the insistence that “everyone could succeed”, with “succeed” meaning “go to college” led to that form of accountability otherwise known as lawsuits, which found that tracking resulted in disparate impact, which meant that tracking ended. Everyone took or tried to take college prep, and high school standards declined. Since everyone was taking college prep, no need for vocational ed, which became more of a dumping ground than usual. The low quality and already weak statistics eventually killed funding for the highest quality career training of the 80s and early 90s. (“Nation at Risk Killed Voc-Ed is mine own opinion, but this 2000 NCES report shares it, pg 49).

This did not happen with the teaching community’s enthusiastic whole-hearted consent. To put it mildly. Yes, some idealistic, progressive teachers voiced support for the idea, and unions (run largely by progressive teachers) mouthed the right things. But rank and file teachers, particularly math teachers, were usually aggressively against the whole idea. Teacher surveys show to this day that they aren’t thrilled with heterogeneous classes, so don’t blame us.

While many ambitious vocational ed programs were often killed in the Nation era, the next conservative reform movement, “No Child Left Behind”, resulted in an unexpected rebirth of excellence. Forced to prove themselves in order to avoid closure, the remaining voc-ed programs had to keep test scores high. So many career-oriented programs basically re-emerged as rigorous, but incredibly expensive and hard to staff. No longer a dumping ground, career-tech ed (CTE) supply is now outstripped by demand. The programs can pick and choose; the cognitive ability levels required are quite high. Today, career technical training is outstanding, demanding, and extremely selective. At least half the students strong enough for career training programs can easily place into college. The kids who can’t pass Algebra aren’t qualifying for career programs.

So “more technical training” in high school isn’t a magic bullet. Brooks’ AEI stable includes probably the best conservative reform policy guru, Rick Hess. If Brooks asked Rick about vocational education, the answer might have looked something like this:

hessvoced

Comparing Hess’s response to Brooks’, I’m figuring Hess wasn’t asked.

Or Brooks could have read up on Michael Petrilli’s push for moving more kids to career training. Petrilli, president of Fordham Foundation’s education reform think tank, published a harsh message for low ability kids in 2014: Sorry, Kid, You’re Just Not College Material, proposing that kids who can’t cut it in academic courses be rerouted into career and tech ed.

And Petrilli got schooled and schooled hard, as dozens of experts handed him his ass, explaining the history of vocational education, calling him a racist for writing off poor kids of color, pointing out the racial disparities, and basically calling him an uneducated yutz for blindly suggesting solutions that he didn’t understand. Anyone thinking of suggesting changes to vocational/career ed has no better starting point than Petrilli’s chagrined follow up acknowledging the error of his ways, and sounding a bit depressed about the cognitive demands of career training.

Yet here Brooks is, pushing career training again, ignoring the very recent experience of someone on his own team, blandly suggesting vocational education, continuing to avoid the Unspeakable. Twas ever thus. It’s always this vague notion that schools sneer at anything but college degrees, Brooks’ idee fixe. No one ever goes past this reason to wonder why high schools don’t track anymore.

I’m not sure anyone really understands why, until they have their noses shoved into it like Petrilli did. People just don’t understand the degree to which many high schools are forced to choose between failing most of their students year after year, with no hope of ever achieving three years of advanced math or English—that it’s not a matter of trying harder, or teaching better, or that the kids weren’t taught. They lack any real understanding of the layers of cognitive ability. They don’t realize there are perfectly normal folks who aren’t smart enough to be plumbers, welders, or dental hygienists.

But those who do understand often sound callous or dismissive of people with low IQs. Maybe it’s because my father cooks a great meal, fixes a great plane, and has a sub-100 IQ, or maybe it’s just because I was raised working class. Maybe it’s my work as a teacher. But I don’t think “low IQ” is an insult or a dismissal. And so, I’m angry at those who make basically ignorant proposals–move more! create more plumbers!–without even the slightest understanding of the political and social tensions that stop us from tracking kids by ability to the extent that, perhaps, we should.

I have never seen the cause of those tensions more eloquently expressed than in this panel on Education for Upward Mobility, by Howard Fuller. After an early life as a black activist (or maybe “after” is the wrong word), Fuller went on to become superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Pro-charters, pro-choice, the embodiment of neo-progressive education reform and in every way imaginable a partner with Petrilli, the panel moderator, who asked him his thoughts on how best to shake off the ugly history of tracking and use it to help kids succeed. It’s best to listen to him say this, around minute 12, but for those who won’t bother, here’s what Fuller had to say:

“You know Mike, my thing, starting with the whole ‘who goes to high school'[think he means college]….most of the people who talk about ‘kids don’t need to go to college”, hell, they went to college. And so that’s where my problem starts right there. Why is it okay for you, but for these low income kids, “aw, y’all can’t go to college.” ….What do rich people do for their kids?….When I hear some of y’all talk about [vocational education], just know that I’m gonna always be suspicious. It brings up to me…somehow we’re trying to figure out a way…it’s almost like a Booker T./Du Bois argument brought up to this century. Whenever I hear the Booker T. part of that argument, it’s that we’re going to accept that a certain group of people are going to have to be in the lowest level, because that’s the way our economy is set up and so some of these kids, it’s okay for them to be there….And when people say tracking….the issue of power and whose kids get tracked in what ways and where they end up…I can’t get it out of my head…..I’m afraid of whose going to make what choices for what kids.”

This is what’s known as a facer. I have two simultaneous reactions. First, I’m impatient, because Fuller’s response just kills all rational conversation dead. There’s really no way past that. It’s brilliant, effective, and utterly deadening. Why here, I’ll just point out the elephant in the room, shall I? And because everyone’s busy pretending the elephant doesn’t exist, their scrotums will retract up into their livers. We’ll just change the subject, shall we?

But my second reaction, coming right afterwards, is doubt. Brooks’s op-ed is one of many sneering at the working class these days. The GOP head of Congress is wondering if he can talk Trump out of immigration restriction, since his own position is amnesty and more immigration for skilled workers , while Clinton wants amnesty and more immigration of every sort.

So I’m not entirely convinced anymore that Howard Fuller is entirely wrong to doubt the intentions of the elites who want so desperately to make decisions for all the little people.

But that won’t stop me from suggesting a system for career/tech training, of course. Stay tuned.


The Many Failings of Value-Added Modeling

Scott Alexander reviews the research on value-added models measuring teacher quality1. While Scott’s overview is perfectly fine, any such effort is akin to a circa 1692 overview of the research literature on alchemy. Quantifying teacher quality will, I believe, be understood in those terms soon enough.

High School VAM is Impossible

I have many objections to the whole notion of modeling what value a teacher adds, but top of the idiocy heap is how little attention is paid to the fact that VAM is only even possible with elementary school teachers. First, reading and basic math are the primary learning objectives of years 1-5. Second, elementary schools think of reading and math ability in terms of grade level. Finally, elementary teachers or their schools have considerable leeway in allocating instruction time by subject.

Now, go to high school (of which middle school is, as always, a pale imitation with similar issues). We don’t evaluate student reading skills by grade level, but rather “proficiency”. We don’t say “this 12th grader reads at the 10th grade level”. We have 12th graders who read at the 8th grade level, of course. We have 12th graders who read at the third grade level. But we don’t acknowledge this in our test scores, and so high school tests can’t measure reading progress. Which is good, because high school teachers aren’t tasked with reading instruction, so we wouldn’t expect students to make much progress. What’s that? Why don’t we teach reading instruction in high school, if kids can’t read at high school level, you ask? Because we aren’t allowed to. High school students with remedial level skills have to wait until college acknowledges their lack of skills.

And that’s reading, where at least we have a fighting shot of measuring progress, even though the tests don’t currently measure it–if we had yearly tests, which of course we don’t. Common Core ended yearly high school tests in most states. Math, it’s impossible because we pass most kids (regardless of ability) into the next class the next year, so there’s no “progress”, unless we measure kids at the beginning and end of the year, which introduces more tests and, of course, would show that the vast majority of students entering, say, algebra 2 don’t in fact understand algebra 1. Would the end of year tests measure whether or not the students had learned algebra 1, or algebra 2?

Nor can high school legally just allocate more time to reading and math instruction, although they can put low-scoring kids in double block instruction, which is a bad, bad thing.

Scope Creep

Most teachers at all levels don’t teach tested subjects and frankly, no one really cares about teacher quality and test scores in anything other than math or reading, but just pretend on everything else. Which leads to a question that proponents answer implicitly by picking one and ignoring the other: do we measure teacher quality to improve student outcomes or to spend government dollars effectively?

If the first, then what research do we have that art teachers, music teachers, gym teachers, or, god save us, special education teachers improve student outcomes? (answer: none.) If the second, then what evidence do we have that the additional cost of testing in all these additional topics, as well as the additional cost of defending the additional lawsuits that will inevitably arise as these teachers attack the tests as invalid, will be less strain on the government coffers than the cost of the purportedly inadequate teachers? What research do we have that any such tests on non-academic subjects are valid even as measures of knowledge, much less evidence of teacher validity?

None, of course. Which is why you see lawsuits by elective teachers pointing out it’s a tad unfair to be judged on the progress of students they’ve never actually met, much less taught. While many of those lawsuits get overturned as unfair but not constitutional, the idiocy of these efforts played no small part in the newest version of the federal ESEA, the ESSA, killed the student growth measure (SGM) requirement.

So while proponents might argue that math and English score growth have some relationship to teacher quality in those subjects, they can’t really argue for testing all subjects. Sure, people can pretend (a la Common Core) that history and science teachers have an impact on reading skills, but we have no mechanism to, and are years away from, changing instruction and testing in these topics to require reading content and measuring the impact of that specific instruction in that specific topic. And again, that’s just reading. Not math, where it’s easy enough to test students on their understanding of math in science and history, but very difficult to tangle out where that instruction came from. Of course, this is only an issue after elementary school. See point one.

Abandoning false gods

For the past 20 years or so, school policy has been about addressing “preparation”, which explains the obsession with elementary school. Originally, the push for school improvement began in high school. Few people realize or acknowledge these days that the Nation at Risk, that polemic seen as groundbreaking by education reformers but kind of, um, duh? by any regular people who take the time to read it, was entirely focused on high school, as can be ascertained by a simple perusal of its findings and recommendations. Stop coddling kids with easy classes, make them take college prep courses! That’s the ticket. It’s the easy courses, the low high school standards that cause the problem. Put all kids in harder classes. And so we did, with pretty disastrous results through the 80s. Many schools began tracking, but Jeannie Oakes and disparate impact lawsuits put an end to that.

I’m not sure when the obsession with elementary school began because I wasn’t paying close attention to ed policy during the 90s. But at some point in the early 90s, it began to register that putting low-skilled kids in advanced high school classes was perhaps not the best idea, leading to either fraud or a lot of failing grades, depending on school demographics. And so, it finally dawned on education reformers that many high school students weren’t “academically prepared” to manage the challenging courses that they had in mind. Thus the dialogue turned to preparing “underserved” students for high school. Enter KIPP and all the other “no excuses” charters which, as I’ve mentioned many times, focus almost entirely on elementary school students.

In the early days of KIPP, the scores seemed miraculous. People were bragging that KIPP completely closed the achievement gap back then, rather than the more measured “slight improvement controlling for race and SES” that you hear today. Ed reformers began pushing for all kids to be academically prepared, that is hey! Let’s make sure no child is left behind! And so the law, which led to an ever increasing push for earlier reading and math instruction, because hey, if we can just be sure that all kids are academically prepared for challenging work by high school, all our problems will be fixed.

Except, alas, they weren’t. I believe that the country is nearing the end of its faith in the false god of elementary school test scores, the belief that the achievement gap in high school is caused simply by not sufficiently challenging black and Hispanic kids in elementary school. Two decades of increasing elementary scores to the point that they appear to have topped out, with nary a budge in high school scores has given pause. Likewise, Rocketship, KIPP, and Success Academy have all faced questions about how their high-scoring students do in high school and college.

As I’ve said many times, high school is brutally hard compared to elementary school. The recent attempt to genuinely shove difficulty down earlier in the curriculum went over so well that the new federal law gave a whole bunch of education rights back to the states as an apology. Kidding. Kind of.

And so, back to VAM….Remember VAM? This is an essay about VAM. Well, all the objections I pointed out above–the problems with high school, the problems with specific subject teachers–were mostly waved away early on, because come on, folks, if we fix elementary school and improve instruction there, everything will fall into place! Miracles will happen. Cats will sleep with dogs. Just like the NCLB problem with 100% above average was waved away because hey, by them, the improvements will be sooooo wonderful that we won’t have to worry about the pesky statistical impossibilities.

I am not sure, but it seems likely that the fed’s relaxed attitude towards test scores has something to do with the abandonment of this false idol, which leads inevitably to the reluctant realization that perhaps The Nation At Risk was wrong, perhaps something else is involved with academic achievement besides simply plopping kids in the right classes. I offer in support the fact that Jerry Brown, governor of California, has remained almost entirely unscathed for shrugging off the achievement gap, saying hey, life’s a meritocracy. Who’s going to be a waiter if everyone’s “elevated” into some important job? Which makes me wonder if Jerry reads my blog.

So if teacher’s don’t make any difference and VAM is pointless, how come any yutz can’t become a teacher?

No one, ever, has argued that teachers don’t make any difference. What they do say is that individual teacher qualities make very little difference in student test scores and/or student academic outcomes, and the differences aren’t predictable or measurable.

If I may quote myself:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience. Treat it as a medicine, mandate a particular course of treatment, and hundreds of thousands of teachers will simply refuse to comply because it won’t cure the challenges and opportunities they face.

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. Teaching, like art and acting, runs the range from velvet Elvis paint by numbers to Renoir, from Fast and Furious to Short Cuts. There are teaching superstars, and journeyman teachers, and the occasional lousy teacher who keeps working despite this–just as Rob Scheider still finds work, despite being so bad that Roger Ebert wrote a book about it.

Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. Upside, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Most teachers understand this. It’s the outside world and the occasional short-termers who want teachers to be rewarded for excellence. Most teachers don’t support merit pay and vehemently oppose “student growth measures”.

The country appears to be moving towards a teacher shortage. I anticipate all talk of VAM to vanish. But if you want to improve teacher quality beyond its current much-better-than-it’s-credited condition, I suggest we consider limiting the scope of public education. Four of these five education policy proposals will do just that.

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1 I was writing this up in the comments section of Scott Alexander’s commentary on teacher VAM research, when I remembered I was behind on my post quota. What the heck. I’m turning this into a post. It’s a long answer, but not as long-winded as Scott Alexander, the one blogger who makes me feel brusque.