Tag Archives: education reform

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.

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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.

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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)

 


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.

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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!


Letter to Betsy (#1): Dance with the Ones Who Brung Him

Hey, Bets.

Before I start: My parents loved Amway products and I still think SA8, LOC, Pursue, and Trizyme are the awesome. Please give my best to your father-in-law. Now, to business.

Congrats on being a relatively uncontroversial Trump cabinet pick. You have been subjected to all sorts of advice, I know. But I have some qualifications that are not often found in combination.  I am the only college graduate in my family. I teach three subjects at a Title I high school.  I voted for Trump. You’re 0 for 3 thus far.

Plus, while I have no money, fame, or influence, I’m an original thinker.  You…aren’t. I’ve reviewed a number of interviews you’ve given before your nomination. I’ve read your quotes on education. Every comment you’ve made was said by others first. You’re not unintelligent. It’s just that up to now, your primary task hasn’t involved thinking, but rather signing. The education policy field is comprised of the occasional thinker, ideologically-driven funders, and far too many hacks grovelling for  whatever notion gets them the check. You’re the one in the middle.

So your contribution to education has been, literally, contributions, the checks you’ve written to further your conservative values through education reform, and therein lies a potential problem. Education reform was born out of the conservative movement, and education reform, traditional conservatives and the neo-liberals, went all in on Never Trump.  I mean, y’all didn’t even try to be nice. But then Trump won, and wow, talk about a lucky break: education is one of the areas that Trump doesn’t care about, so is happy to give out jobs to conservatives like kibble to puppies.

But precisely because Trump doesn’t care much about education, because he picked someone without giving much thought to policy, you could get into trouble. Remember that feeling all you traditional conservatives had during the primaries? The horrible, stomach-turning realization that most of the GOP didn’t give a damn about all your dearest principles? The realization that GOP voters had shrugged and voted for your candidates because they didn’t have any other choice? Except now they did?

Bets, you need to remember that feeling and hold onto it for dear life. You live in that traditional conservative bubble, the one that sees black kids getting shot by white cops and blames bad (white female) teachers.  Technically, education reform focuses on improving education, but the reason they get funding is conservative belief that decimating union clout in traditionally blue states, thus disrupting a faithful, powerful Democrat lobby, will make the world a better place.

What, you think I’m cynical? In the metric ton of writing Rick Hess does every year the words “West Virginia” rarely, if ever, appear. (I thought I’d found an example but  it turned out to be a guest blogger.) Michael Petrilli is equally uncaring about the Mountain State, and mentions Detroit often, Michigan rarely or never. Go through the list of education reform organizations and see how often they worry about those isolated Wyoming schools, or whether or not the children of those Syrian refugees Hamdi  Ulukaya brings into Idaho because apparently no native workers want employment in his Chobani yogurt factories.

Reformers might be conservative, but they target blue states and blue voters. Take a look at the school district with the greatest charter penetration  as of 2015:

charterschoolenrollment

Hey, that map looks familiar. Oh, yeah, it looks like this county by county election map for 2016:

Except it’s a weird mismatch, isn’t it? Conservative reformers have had their greatest strengths in  Democrat strongholds. Even the ones found in Trump territory are in majority-blue areas.

Here’s what the reformers never tell you while asking for funds: Charter support requires unhappy parents. But most parents are quite pleased with their schools, and most parents understand, despite years of attempts to convince them otherwise, that native ability and peers matter more than teachers and curriculum. Changing innate ability levels is tough, so selling charters means finding parents who are unhappy with their childrens’ peer groups. Put another way, all parents want their kids away from Those Kids. Charters are attractive to parents who can’t use geography to achieve that aim.

Practically, this means selling charters primarily to two groups of parents: 1) highly motivated but poor black and Hispanic parents in schools overwhelmed with low ability, low motivated kids (the KIPP sell) 2) white suburban professional parents in schools that are either too brown or too competitive for their students, but who aren’t rich enough for private school or a house in a less diverse district (the Summit sell, or the progressive suburban charter). These are very blue groups.

Understanding the charter constituency explains the discrepancies between the charter and election map, and why the discrepancies go mostly in one direction–that is, why are there blue spots on the map that don’t have significant charter penetration?

In overwhelmingly white districts, parents aren’t buying. Vermont, an all-white state, doesn’t even have a charter law, last I checked, despite being so progressive that networks called the state the minute the polls closed. The California Bay Area doesn’t have the battalion of charters you see in Los Angeles–and many of the ones that do exist are in Oakland, the only place in the Bay Area with enough blacks to support urban charters. The Bay Area and other wealthy suburbs with lots of Hispanics do get some limited support for progressive charters like Summit, in part because Hispanics aren’t easily districted out in the suburbs without inviting lawsuits and in part because suburban comprehensive high schools can be very competitive and some parents would prefer a softer environment for their snowflakes.

In dominant red states,  charters aren’t selling. Not a lot of charters in rural Mississippi and Alabama, despite the pockets of black voters, because teachers unions are historically weak in the South. Nothing of interest to conservatives. (See? Told you it wasn’t about making education better.)

Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants tend to build ethnic cocoons which create Asian majorities in public schools. Increased Asian presence in schools drive out whites, who find their approach to education….unattractive, giving a whole new meaning to the term white flight.  Asian immigrants are much better than whites at crafting race-segregated environments, and they aren’t terribly tolerant of blacks or Hispanics. Hence, not much need for charters. We’ll see how this all plays out when we get to third or fourth generation Asian American in significant numbers. When they don’t have enough numbers to create an enclave, Asian charter selection most closely mirrors whites–they like progressive charters or better yet, competitive ones.

None of this should be news. Michael Petrilli has been desperately trying to convince the suburbs that charters matter to them because their schools suck. Such a compelling message.

So charters, the only real success of the reform effort, have seen  their efforts pay off with quasi-private schools for people who aren’t going to be voting Republican any time soon.   GOP voters, those faithless bastards who voted in Trump, aren’t terribly interested in reform. Education Next surveys the public on those values traditional conservatives hold dear. You can see all the 10-year trends at this link, but I thought I’d pick out GOP and general public trends on a few select–and somewhat damning–questions:

First up: support for charters, unions and merit pay. GOP responses first, general public second. You can click to see the enlarged version, but  you can clearly see that two of them have flatlined and one of them is increasing slightly.

 

gop10yrtrendschartersunions

gp10yrtrendscharterunions

The increasing trendline? Union support. Yes, Bets, GOP belief that teacher unions are a net positive for schools is on  the rise. Charters and merit pay? Decreasing slightly, but look at them over time. No movement. Needle’s stopped. Public opinion, same.

I grant you, of course, that GOP voters still like unions less than Democrat ones. But I think you can agree these trendlines are all resistant to happy talk.

Next up: support for vouchers, both low income and universal.

Whoa, serious tanking there. Isn’t that your primary issue, Betsy? I’m assuming Trump hasn’t seen these numbers, or he’d wonder why he’s hiring a fool who’s gotten nothing for her money all these years. How the hell can education reformers demand merit pay when they’ve failed so miserably at their own assignments?

Reformers haven’t changed public opinion about the overall suckiness of teachers and unions or the fabulosity of vouchers.  Yeah, you’ve got more charters but not dramatically more public support for them–and the people who want and get charters aren’t grateful GOP voters. At least charters provide dramatically better academic outcomes. Oh, wait.

Where was I?

Oh. Yeah. Look. You didn’t get Trump here. The epic wave that gave Trump the win didn’t start or end with education reform. You gotta dance with the people who did get him the job. Your policies aren’t popular. Try to remember that. Try to act like that. Try to care about actually making education better, not enacting reforms that have already failed and don’t have popular support.

That doesn’t mean ignoring black and Hispanic kids.

It means coming up with education “reforms” that speak to all schools, all students. I’ll have some suggestions. I promise they won’t involve spending more money.  You won’t have to write a single check!

And remember: education reform has not traditionally been a friendly place for women in charge. Voters and parents have found them wanting. And the bosses haven’t shown much sympathy. Just ask Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson. You don’t want Trump to suddenly start caring about education for the wrong reasons, y’know?

Happy New Year.


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.


White Elephant Students and Charters: A Proposal

I was re-reading a barely started essay (you don’t want to know how many I have) on reform’s bait and switch, in which I quoted Jersey Jazzman on reformers finally admitting they cream the easy to educate. This reminded me of white elephants.

Our faculty holiday party had a white elephant gift exchange . Everyone brought an item of questionable value, nicely wrapped, and turned it in for a ticket number. The person who got ticket #1 opened a present of his choice. Oh, look, it’s a mug gift with some hot cocoa mix! Oooh, ahh. Then the person with ticket #2 could either “steal” the mug gift with hot cocoa mix, or select a new present, open it, and oh, look, it’s coal in the stocking! (a joke gift, it’s candy.) Then person with ticket #3 could “steal” one of the previous gifts, and so on.

Each person could steal a previous gift or take a new present. But once a gift has been stolen, it’s off limits.

I very much enjoyed this game because my proffered white elephant, a 9 year old digital photo frame that sat in my trunk for six years before I finally needed the room and stuck it in a closet through three moves until I happened to be cleaning out the closet 3 days before the party, was stolen! Someone wanted it! I felt very high status, I can tell you. Plus, I stole a gift when my turn came. All this and lumpia, too. A great party.

And so the white elephant metaphor stood fresh in my mind, ready to hand when I reviewed that draft essay. I’ve been trying to write about this topic forever, specifically about the restraints public schools face with disruptive students. (Charters aren’t public schools. They just use public money. ) But like many issues I feel strongly about, the essay began life as a cranky rant. I do better with humorous rants, so I abandoned delayed the effort.

But thanks to the faculty party, I’m ready to take this on.

Charter advocates’ constraint: caps. They want more schools.

Public school constraint: laws. They are bound by laws that charters can ignore or game, and bound by law to hand their district kids and associated monies over to charters, who aren’t bound by those law when they kick some students back, with no feds chasing after them for racially imbalanced rejects.

So publics can’t reduce their unmotivated misbehaving population; charters want more room to grow because, after all, they provide a superior education.

And it came to me: let public schools create white elephant students, by making a “gift” of a disruptive, unmotivated student, something the public school has and doesn’t really want.

Give public schools the right to involuntarily transfer up to 1-3% of their students to charter schools in their geography, with the limit set by the number of available charters. “Involuntary” to both the students and the charters, neither of whom are given any say in the matter.

In exchange, charter caps are significantly increased.

Involuntary transfer, not an expulsion. Students have rights in an expulsion hearing. White elephant students have no say in an involuntary transfer. Parents couldn’t appeal. They can accept the assigned school or try to convince another public school or charter to take their student, now identified as difficult.

But remember the other condition of white elephants gifts: they can’t be handed about indefinitely. Parents “gifted” the public schools, public schools “gift” charters. Game ends. The receiving charter has no involuntary transfer rights for that student. The transfer occurs without regard to the charter population limits or backfilling preferences.

Moreover, the transferred students maintain their public school protections. The charters can’t refuse admission in subsequent years. Unless the students can be expelled, the charters are stuck until the transfers age out or graduate. This restriction means that some kids at charter schools would have more rights than others. Welcome to public education, folks. Public schools have been dealing with this tension for decades.

So public schools would continue to have no choice on incoming students within their districts, but would win a (limited) choice to send students away. Charters would continue to have considerable selection benefits on incoming and outgoing students, but would lose those benefits with a few students.

Logistical issues would need ironing out. Transportation comes immediately to mind, as do actual numbers on transfer limits, but I’m sure others would show up.

Ironically, given the name, the white elephant students would be almost entirely black and Hispanic. Literally and figuratively, that’s where the money is. White and Asian districts aren’t facing heavy competition for their students. Billionaire philanthropists don’t give a damn about poor white kids, which is one big reason why West Virginia’s charter ban doesn’t attract a lot of interest. We could speculate why (perhaps they aren’t really interested in educating kids, just killing teacher unions), but never mind that.

Parents of white elephant kids would lose any real sense of school choice. Sorry about that. But at least the kids will be at a charter, with far fewer peers to help them get in trouble.

On the other hand, the white elephant kids would have a real incentive to behave better in public school. They’d see charters as a real threat. “Behave or I’ll send you to a school that makes you SLANT!

Public schools would see this purely as win-win. They’d still lose money on the transferred students. This incentive, coupled with the involuntary transfer cap, will limit their desire to cavalierly toss out kids for minor offenses. But even if publics did act capriciously, what would the feds say? “I’m sorry, but you are dooming these children by sending them to a charter school, trapped with well-behaved children in smaller classes!”

Never mind whether or not it could be enacted as policy; consider the white elephant proposal purely as a thought experiment, because everyone knows this is true: Charter operators, the highly regarded “lottery” schools, would reject this proposal out of hand.

Why? Because KIPP failed miserably the one time it tried to turn around an existing school. Because to get the results that reformers brag about, charter schools have to control their student population: selection bias at the start, sculpting as needed, uniform learning schedule.

But this proposal on the surface makes perfect sense, based solely on the reform and choice rhetoric over the past decades. Charters have absolutely no grounds for bitching. They want the caps lifted, they want to end charter bans. They’ve been bragging about their superior schools for twenty years. They swear they aren’t creaming, aren’t selecting, aren’t cherrypicking. Great. This policy gives charters everything they want, in exchange for educating students they claim they could educate in the first place. What do they have to lose?

As Jersey Jazzman and countless others have pointed out, this makes a lie out of their boasts. They aren’t getting better results than public schools; they just have better kids and fewer laws to follow.

Now, just for fun, pretend that charter operators took the deal: the occasional mandated student in exchange for additional growth.

Motivated students are desirable, but without the guarantee of high scores, they aren’t in and of themselves a competitive strategy. White elephant students, in contrast, are ideal for horsetrading.

Public schools can designate white elephants only to the extent that charters exist to receive them, and based on the number of public schools affected. So, imagine a district with three elementary schools: one high poverty, two low poverty. When a new elementary charter opens, the state declares that three white elephants per grade per school are allocated for dumping transferring to the charter. The charter primarily skims from the high poverty school. But the other two elementary schools don’t want charters popping up, and see an advantage in a hostile environment, so they “gift” their allocations to the high poverty school, which can now move nine white elephants per grade.

The “lottery” charters will naturally want to opt out of this involuntary transfer program. Sure! For a small fee, of course. How about shaving off 50% of per-student fees charters get for their willing transfers? In that case, the charter would be doing less damage to the public schools by creaming. Moreover, any charter that publicly opted out of the involuntary transfer program has revealed its Achilles heel. Choice advocates couldn’t maunder on endlessly about the superior education charters offered if all the best ones paid to cherrypick.

To recap:

  1. Public schools restricted from selecting their students can use an involuntary transfer mechanism to move troublesome students creating disruptive learning environments to charters.
  2. The maximum number of students subject to involuntary transfer depends on school and charter populations.
  3. Public schools can trade or gift their transfer vouchers to other district schools.
  4. Charter growth caps are significantly increased.
  5. Charters required to give full weight of education law to white elephant students.
  6. Charters can opt out of involuntary transfer program by accepting substantially reduced per-student fee for voluntary charter attendees.

How would this play out, given some time?

Long term, the white elephant program could ironically limit charter growth. The fewer the charters, the fewer involuntary transfers possible. One charter could probably handle 3-4 white elephants per grade without sacrificing too much control and wouldn’t take too many motivated students to damage the public schools in the area. Additional charters, each taking 5-6 troublemakers? Suddenly the charters are struggling with difficult students while the public schools have considerably improved environments, potentially enabling them to lure many prospective charter students back. The fewer charters, the less likely the public schools can dump all their white elephants.

But then, many charters aren’t choosy and don’t have lotteries. They need butts in seats, and could use the white elephant students as a growth strategy. Hire teachers who specialize in handling tough kids, advertise for desperate parents, take the public school white elephants and expulsions. Win win for everyone. Collaboration, not competition. In fact, districts would probably set up their own white elephant charter school, in absence of an outside enterprise for their own schools to use as an outlet. Alternative high schools, you ask?Best avoided.

In an environment where white elephant charters work synergistically (oooh! Big word) with district public schools, any other charters would have to compete with public schools on merits, without the added appeal of “no knuckleheads”. That, too, is going to limit growth.

And of course, it’s entirely possible that typical charters–no excuses, discipline oriented, progressive, whatever–accept white elephants and the disruptive kids thrive. In many cases, disruptive, unmotivated kids with no other options improve in a stricter environment, or perhaps one with a higher percentage of motivated students.

However, this outcome is only likely in a district not drowning with white elephants—that is, a suburban district. Suburban charters operate under entirely different premises, geared towards a progressive curriculum and a “diverse” student population. Suburban districts consider charters an annoyance and an aggravation, not a threat. So if they can dump some white elephants on the earnest do-gooders, it’s all good.

I could go on, but the New Year approaches and this piece is long enough. One final point, for any new reader who comes across this piece: I am kind of the go-to math teacher for low ability and/or poorly motivated kids. This isn’t personal; I don’t have a gift list of white elephants.

But I’ve said before now that I stick with the suburban poor, because when Ta Nahesi Coates casually describes the disruption he routinely inflicted on his high school classes, threatening substitutes, disrespecting teachers while getting violent at any hint of disrespect (and remember, none of his friends or family considered him a “thug”), I get slightly ill at the utter chaos that must have reigned in his school. So I work in Title I suburbs, where my daily tales shock my friends with the disrespect and disruption my students dole out daily, while I know full well it ain’t all that.

Meanwhile, all the signals are pointing in the opposite direction, what with federal discipline “guidelines” and that god awful spare me restorative justice nonsense.

So let’s try gifting. After all, it’s the thought that counts.


Not Why This. Just Why Not That.

I like to argue why not a lot.

Why not public school choice? Because it won’t improve educational outcomes and will increase expenses. Why not higher standards? Because they are based on well-meant but foolish delusions about reasonable academic goals for large, heterogeneous populations. Why not poverty as a reason for the achievement gap? Because poverty is trumped by race, which is probably a proxy for cognitive ability distribution (which does not mandate a genetic cause). Why not blame unintelligent teachers? Why not blame unions that protect those teachers? Because teachers aren’t incompetent, there’s vanishingly little evidence that teacher smarts affect educational outcomes, and unions can be blamed for increasing costs, but not for educational outcomes of any sort. Why not believe we can change and improve public education? Because given its task, public education is not doing a bad job. Certainly not as bad a job as many people believe. Cf: blood from turnips.

What I don’t do is openly advocate for my own vision of public education, which entails ending, limiting, or at least challenging the reforms of the last 40 years.

I gave a brief history of education reform since 1965 or so in The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform, which doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should, and so I shall quote myself:

So here we are. Schools are stuck with the outcome of two different waves of political reform—first, the progressive mandates designed to enforce surface “equality” of their dreams, then the reforms mandated by conservatives to make the surface equality a reality, which they knew was impossible but would give them a tool to break progressives and, more importantly, unions.

From the schools’ point of view, all these mandates, progressive or “reform” are alike in one key sense: they are bent on imposing political and ideological mandates that haven’t the slightest link to educational validity.

I’ve written before of my perplexity on this point: Why has there been no organized effort to resist or repeal the legislation and court decisions that buttress progressive reforms?

For example, only recently has the reform movement taken up the tracking gauntlet again, and they are doing so most timidly—even blaming Americans for their reluctance to sort by ability. (Um. What?) And sometimes, they tentatively advocate reforms that teachers want, like discipline and tracking, but never with any acknowledgement that these restrictions weren’t organically generated by public schools, but rather mandates imposed by courts and lawsuits. Other reformers gently chastise us for even thinking about sorting by ability, which can “condemn these high-potential, low-performing students into lower classes…sadly, these “tracks” frequently become castes from which it is all but impossible to escape.” With nonsense like this, who needs progressives? Last summer, Checker Finn announced that private schools were being replaced by charters, as if we should celebrate the increased costs incurred by parents who might otherwise fork out money to educate Junior at a Catholic school. Just recently, Fordham tentatively suggested that districts band together to educate severely disabled students, and a decade ago, it cheered the reauthorization of IDEA without ever challenging it.

Whenever I ask why the right, broadly speaking, has abandoned the field to expensive federal intrusion, a commenter will post in a sepulchral voice, “Conservatives have given up. Regular people have given up. The game is lost.”

As I write this, conservatives are busily pushing voter ID and reviling the mainstream press for claiming the knockout game is a myth. So clearly, it’s okay to mock the liberal obsession with political correctness, access, and race…..except when education is involved?

In twenty years, the modern reform movement has certainly achieved results, but not public buy-in. They get legislative victories occasionally, but polls routinely show lukewarm support at best for their main objectives. The public likes public schools. Where’s the political opportunism, the craven catering to public whim? It’s very irritating.

So this next part is my best effort to interpret the absence of any attempt to push back on the original progressive reforms, and it’s….not to be taken as some grand scheme. Just a combination of typical advocacy fund hunger and genuine—and unobjectionable—political goals. And the absence does need explaining. The current reform movement really doesn’t make sense, given that lack of buy-in.

But advocacy groups need money and the group of education givers include a lot of billionaires, many of them conservatives. Not a group, I’m thinking, that would be open to the idea that public education is doing a good job, that teachers aren’t incompetent, that we should stop treating parents as consumers who can re-allocate their portion of tax dollars to the detriment of public schools. And of course, the billionaires who aren’t well right of center are way off to the middlebrow left and would not take kindly to cognitive reality. So they found their own group of “new left” reformers.

So that explains billionaires and the reform agenda, but it doesn’t explain Republicans as a whole. Why aren’t they pushing back on the reform agenda, which implicitly adopts the same progressive objectives of equity, access, and equal results? That, too, seems more a political strategy than a genuine effort to improve education. Teacher unions pour millions into the Democrat coffers. So I guess the thinking from the Republican point of view is why invite media castigation and endless legal battles on disparate impact, why piss off the extremely activist parents of disabled children, when the alternative is attacking and hopefully obliterating a major source of Democrat money? Once they kill the unions they can focus on actually improving public education. And so the culling of teachers for special opprobrium, for job features that apply to all government workers, particularly those relative bastions of Republican support, cops and firefighters.

Oh lord, you’re thinking, Ed’s gone the way of Diane Ravitch. No. Well. Yeah. But not because I think it’s bad. I’m fine with, you know, whatever. It’s fine to want to stop union money from going all Dem. It’s fine to want to end unions, if that’s your bag. I am not criticizing the goal or the desire to spend money to achieve a goal. If you’re a reformer insulted by my conclusion that you’re tailoring your message to please the moneymen, or a Republican angry that I doubt the purity of your motives, well, remember, I’m trying to figure out an interpretation of your stated objectives that doesn’t make you an idiot. At least naked opportunism and a political agenda makes you deviously dishonest.

So the groups that would logically push for ending or at least curtailing the progressive overreaches, the absurd mandates that hurt public education, are funded by people who, for various reasons, aren’t interested in kicking them over, and the political party most likely to push back sees a big pile of Democrat money. That’s my current take as to the puzzling absence of pushback on public education mandates and expectations.

Whatever the motives, the current reform agenda will only make things worse by delegitimizing and ultimately destroying the public school’s still-essential role as community resource, and increasing both direct and indirect costs at the same time. No, thank you.

Of course, my consistent rejection of reform means I support the status quo, imposed upon us by progressives. Yes. Not happily, and only as an alternative to reform goals. Remember, progressives aren’t deviously dishonest, in my paradigm. They’re idiots. No offense, progressives. But you didn’t need donors to cater to; you all had an entire academic infrastructure supporting your reforms, and a whole bunch of lawyers happy to sue for equal access, disparate impact, and a host of other millstones you hoisted around public education’s neck. And you did all this on purpose.

So here we are, billions wasted on ideas that most people understand won’t ever work. And no one openly challenges the modern mandates of public education.

I don’t spend much time arguing for an end to the progressive reforms. I’m not sure I want to end them all. I just want people to discuss it more, dammit. But I must confess to a temperament that prefers analysis to advocacy. If you put up a list of your top ten films, I’ll critique your choices. Where’s my list for you to critique? Don’t have one. Too limiting. Let’s get back to debating your list.

This gives rise to the claim that I’m just a naysayer. Okay. That I can’t be taken seriously unless I put up my own proposal. Whoops, back up. Sure I can. I am, in fact, taken seriously, far more seriously than I ever envisioned. Good opposition is best when it’s done by the relatively pure of heart. I have no agenda other than convincing you that everyone else is wrong.

This next part is what I set out to do five days ago when I began this essay, without the excessively long throat-clearing:

So suppose I were going to advocate for a particular vision. What would it entail? To which I say oh, please. I can’t even come up with a list of ten best films. However, I will offer up the questions, the issues, that I think we should seriously engage with:

  1. The public, not the parent, is the intended beneficiary of public education.
  2. The state should be able to charge immigrants, both legal and illegal, for their K-12 education.
  3. The state should not be responsible for the education of English Language Learners, whether immigrants or not.
  4. We should consider centralized schools, possibly federal, for educating the organically retarded or any students with physical disabilities requiring significant financial support. The familial retarded should remain as a local responsibility.
  5. Public schools should be able to organize their students by cognitive or demonstrated ability without consideration of race, class, religion, or gender.
  6. High school diplomas should denote tiers of ability, to better reflect a diverse population with a broad range of cognitive abilities.
  7. Publicly funded college should be restricted as described in this essay, and restricted to the top two tiers of high school diplomas.
  8. Adult education, as opposed to college, should be an offering for those who haven’t met the top two tiers.
  9. Immigration’s impact on public education and the job opportunities of the cognitive spectrum’s lower half should be a matter of national attention and debate.
  10. Public K-12 education should not include charters, magnets, gifted student schools, or any other specialized resource school that can restrict access.
  11. Select schools should be reserved for incorrigible students who disrupt education for others—and these schools should be educational, but not terribly fun. Hey. We could call them “reform” schools!
  12. Private school tuition should be tax deductible, with a cap. Benefits of deduction should accrue primarily to middle income savers, not the rich. (I’m in favor of this approach for tuition and other investments in education.)
  13. The federal government’s role in education should be limited to data collection and investigation. I would like very much to learn what, exactly, we can teach people with IQs lower than 100, for starters.

Far fewer words: roll back Plyler, Lau, IDEA, and any notion of evaluating for disparate impact (as opposed to actual racial discrimination which, for the record, I consider a Bad Thing).

There. I am not necessarily advocating for these positions (cop out! you betcha.) But these are the issues I’d like to see discussed.

We must broaden the field of debate. That’s agenda enough for the time being.

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

I went off to dinner a few minutes after I posted this, came back and read it again. Ack. Spent four hours rewriting it. The message is the same, but it’s much shorter and, I hope, more focused. Apologies if you read the earlier version.


Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers

I have at least one more post on reform math, but I got distracted while looking for examples of Dan Meyer’s teaching (as an example of his math in action) then realizing that many of my regular readers wouldn’t know Dan Meyer, and so started to construct a brief bio. In doing so, I got distracted again in considering Meyer’s quick-yeast rise and what it says about the gatekeepers in the education racket and access to microphones.

This may seem like insider baseball, but I hope to illustrate that Dan Meyer is an unobjectionable guy with a good idea, whose unhesitating adoption by the elites represents a real problem with educational discourse in this country. I will probably overstate and paint a picture that suggests plan and intent by those causing the trouble, when in fact it’s fuzzy and reactive with only big picture general directions, but probably not to the extent that Diane Ravitch (or, indeed, Dan Meyer) commit that particular sin.

Dan Meyer, 31, is in the process of becoming a celebrity math teacher (hey, it’s a small group). Much of his rapid trajectory upward can be explained by his message, which involves a digital curriculum that will (he says) instantly engage and perplex kids and thus resolve all classroom management issues (more on this later), a message tailor-made to appeal to both techies, since it implicitly attacks all teachers, and progressive educators, since it is inherently constructivist.

Most of the rest of his said trajectory can be explained by his excellent luck in his early audience—not only were they progressives and techies, but they were influential progressives and techies–Chris Lehmann, O’Reilly Publishing folk like Kathy Sierra, Nat Torkington and Tim O’Reilly himself, Brian Fitzpatrik of Google, and Maggie Johnson of Google and Stanford.

A teeny-tiny bit–ok, maybe more–of that trajectory can be explained by the Great White Hope factor. As I’ve written many times, every corner of education is desperate for young teachers, particularly young male teachers, most especially young white male teachers. Smart young white male pushes technology-based teaching, implicitly or explicitly declaring that all those old teachers (mostly white female grandmas) are doing it wrong. Hard to resist. So attractive message, demographic felicity, and luck. Not bad.

I’m going to summarize what I see as the relevant points of Meyer’s career thus far, but go straight to the source: Meyer describes his teaching career in this excellent video, which I recommend watching to instantly “get” his appeal. Go watch. I’ll wait.

He taught his first year at a Title I school in Sacramento, CA and, as he says above, was both miserable and ineffective, which he blames on his failure to create a “classroom ethos”. The improvement in classroom ethos began during his second year at San Lorenzo Valley High. It apparently never occurred to him to wonder whether the “classroom ethos” improvement at his second school, was helped along by a student demographic that was 87% white. Meyer actually noted the novelty of a non-English speaking Hispanic student which is the only time he ever mentions a minority student on his blog, best I can see.

While he made numerous videos that ended with the tagline, “I like to teach”, he in fact wasn’t all that attached to teaching. At the beginning of his third year, he was already predicting he’d be in school for either an administrative credential or doctorate by the end of the next year (he was off by two), because “I’m just keenly aware how much of my strength as a teacher derives from my ability to relate to student culture, to talk like they talk and dress like they dress” and his awareness that he feels “obliged to entertain”. He often implied that he’d mastered the technical aspects My personal favorite::

I am at a place, for example, where classroom management no longer challenges me. Not that every day is all smiles and hard work, just that I have identified the mix of engaging instruction, mutual respect, and tough love that eluded me for years.

Four ENTIRE years, this eluded him! This meme runs throughout his blog and is, in fact, the seed of his image-based curriculum. Meyer states time and again that he worked hours on end to keep from boring his students, thinks student approval as essential to improved learning outcomes and thus presents his curriculum as a better way to entertain kids, to perplex them in a way they will value, and once entertained and perplexed, they will learn.

Then, at the end of five years, he declared he was quitting teaching because he’d been transformed from “miserable to happy, incompetent to competent” (astonishing, really, how few of the commenters openly laughed at his hubris). He originally planned to attend UC Santa Cruz’s PhD program but his aforementioned contacts got him a year as curriculum fellow at Google, and he taught part-time for one more year. While at Google, he made his first TV appearance on Good Morning America (probably via Google) to discuss his theory as to whether regular or express grocery lanes were faster.

At some point after that, he pulled a TEDx invitation—very nice work if you can get it—which got him onto CNN and good lord, how could Stanford let him get his doctorate at Santa Cruz, after all that publicity? So now he’s at Stanford in year 3 of his doctoral program.

A star was born.

Like most teachers, Meyer’s a good talker; unlike many teachers, he’s good with any audience. He’s a bright guy and his videos are genuinely entertaining (go to the end to catch his early work), and I say that as someone who disagrees with very close to all of his primary assertions. As a young white male teacher he could demand nearly anything, and he nonetheless stayed in algebra and geometry, rather than push for advanced classes that his principal, eager to keep him, would easily grant. I suspect that some of his willingness to stay in low status classes was caused by his short-timer’s attitude, while another part of it was caused by his 70-hour work week. Anyone working that hard and long on classes he’s been teaching for years is unlikely to embrace new subjects. But those stated priorities nonetheless reveal a guy who is well beyond committed and flat out obsessed with doing a good job.

He’s hard to pin down ideologically not because he’s an original thinker but because he was, and is, profoundly uninterested in education policy. So no coherent philosophy, but Me Like, Me No Like. He would disavow the charge that he is on the “reform” side of the math wars, although less vehemently than a few years ago—Jo Boaler, High Priestess of Reform Math, is his adviser, after all. But even now, a few years after starting a Stanford PhD program, he’s very foggy about the specifics of major debates in math education. So he’s been trying to consolidate his positions, but he’s not always sure what the right ones are. In his earlier iterations, for example, before he became well-known, he often adopted strong education (not math) reform positions—he had an “educrush” on Michelle Rhee. In the early years of the blog, he dripped contempt on most teachers, particularly older ones, including coworkers. Early on he harped often on the need for professionalism, and asserting we’d be better off without teachers that do it just for love. But once Stanford put him on the doctoral payroll, he’s become more typically math reform, which means he’s disavowing education reform positions and doing his best to walk all that talk back. Well, not all of it–here he is on a forum last year talking about the need to train teachers on Common Core:

I think if you’ve taught for thirty years under a particular style of teaching, it has to distort what your perception is of math and how it should be taught. It’s unavoidable, to be steeped in that for so long. So to realign yourself, I imagine, is a very difficult thing. So PD that involves problem solving, involves reasoning, argumentation, that’ll be essential going forward.

So the nastiness to older teachers, still there. I don’t blame anyone who wonders if promoters consider that a bug or a feature.

Meyer’s writings never describe his “classroom action” in detail relative to other math bloggers (e.g., Fawn Nguyen, Sam Shah, Michael Pershan, Kate Nowak and, okay, me). He rarely describes the success or failure of a particular lesson, or gives any kind of walkthrough. He never describes a lesson in full detail, down to the worksheets and responses. He often went to the data collection well, and just as often failed, as in his two-month long “Feltron” project in which half the class dropped out early during data collection and had to be given other tasks, or this similar project

Meyer and metrics aren’t a natural fit. A few years ago, he was, comically, shocked by news of California’s Hispanic achievement gap. Dude, didn’t you get the memo? He never blogs about it, never discusses it, then out of the blue: Damn! We’ve got an achievement gap! And then he rarely mentions it again, save for this recap of Uri Treisman’s speech. He almost never discusses his student’s test scores and when he does, they are usually not great, although he mentions once in passing that his algebra students beat the department (no data, though). He cheerfully talked about standards-based grading for a year or two and blew off the commenters who wondered if the students were retaining the skills they’d “mastered” twice in a week. When he did finally get around to looking for that data, the answer was no, and it’s quite clear that he’d never before wondered about this essential element of success. So while I suspect that Meyer was a popular teacher who convinced a lot of kids–mostly white boys–to work hard at math, there’s little evidence of that in his written history of his years teaching.

I can find little evidence of intellectual achievement in education once he left teaching, either. At Google, he and three other curriculum fellows worked for a year on computational thinking projects. When his project shipped he wrote, somewhat obscurely, “Near as I can tell, of the sixty-or-so modules listed, only one of them ….is mine. I always admired Google’s lack of sentiment in deciding when to invest itself and when to divest itself. Still it’s strange to see a year of work reduced to a single entry in a long list.” (emphasis mine)

At Stanford, his qualifying paper was not hailed as an instant masterpiece:

The criticism I remember most vividly: a) my weak review of the literature, b) the sense that I wasn’t really taking myself anywhere new with the study, and c) a claim about equity that had me reaching beyond my data.

In short, he didn’t set the curriculum world on fire at Google, and the critiques of his qualifying paper suggest an analytical lightweight—which is pretty typical for salesfolk. So thus far Meyer has established himself as a stupendous salesman, but not much of an intellectual—at least, not of the sort that Google and Stanford like to pretend they invest in. He was even wrong in the GMA segment. Unsurprisingly, he was unflustered.

Realize that I know all of this because of Dan Meyer’s blog, so he’s not hiding anything. Hell, he doesn’t need to.

But he was brought to Google and then to Stanford and then Apple gets involved, and now we’re talking three of the most elite institutions in the country are pushing him not because they have any evidence of his ability to close the achievement gap, or even whether his digital curriculum works, but simply because he’s Dale Carnegie, and boy oh boy, is that a depressing insight into their motivations, just as his success is indicative of the desires of the larger educational world. It’s not “go develop your ideas and expand and prove them” but “here’s a bunch of elite credentials that will make your sales job easier”. So they dub Dan an “expert” and give him a microphone—which makes it a whole lot easier for a largely ignorant general media to hear him.

No, I’m not jealous. My karmic destiny demands that I enter new communities with neither warning nor fanfare and utterly polarize them within a month, usually without any intention of causing trouble. Lather, rinse, repeat. I gave up fighting that fate fifteen years ago. I have attended two elite institutions in recent memory; one of them ignored me desperately, the other did its best to hork me up like a furball. I don’t want to go back. Academia isn’t for me. And if a corporation handed me money to sell my message, they’d be facing a boycott. My blog has fifty times the readership and influence that I ever imagined, and I love teaching. I am content.

Previous paragraph notwithstanding, this essay will be interpreted by some as an attack on Dan Meyer, who is largely unfamiliar with anything short of worshipful plaudits from eager acolytes (he occasionally heeds polite dissenters, but only occasionally) since he began his blog. But while he’s a dilettante as a teacher, I think his simplistic curriculum ideas have interesting potential in teaching certain demographics, and I wish him all success in developing a coherent educational philosophy. Oh crap, that was snarky. I wish him all success in his academic and business career.

Dan Meyer’s rapid rise isn’t the problem. Dan Meyer himself isn’t the problem. The problem lies with the Gatekeepers: with Stanford, who knows that Dan’s not the solution, with Google, Apple, and publishing companies like Shell Centre (well, they’re in England) and Pearson. That intersection between academia and business, the group that picks the educational platitudes and pushes them hard, while ignoring or banishing dissent. They’re the ones granting Meyer the credentials that cloak him in the illusion of expertise. And I believe that, at least in part, they grant those credentials with a clear eye to the attributes that are diametrically opposed to the attributes they pretend to focus on. It’s no coincidence that Dan Meyer is a young white male. It’s the point. It’s not a fluke that he primarily taught white kids, many of whom were obviously sent to him with strong skills by teachers who valued homework above ability. It’s the only way he could have come up with his curriculum. Yet his message is adopted and embraced by elites who castigate education, particularly teachers, for failing black and Hispanic kids. I don’t know if they do this consciously or if they genuinely believe that all teachers are just meanspirited morons who don’t know math and deliberately deprive certain kids of meaningful math experiences. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

I suspect Meyer and others will ignore this essay (Meyer snarked obscurely at my reform piece, assuming this tweet means what I think it does), but whether that’s because he doesn’t like dissent or, more probably, because he subscribes to the Voldemort View, I couldn’t tell you. But maybe this piece will make reporters and educational wonks a bit more wary about the backgrounds of the “experts” they quote, and the gatekeepers who create them.


Two Math Teachers Talk

Hand to god, I will finish my post about the reform math fuss I twittered in mid-week, but I am blocked and trying to chop back what I discuss and I want to talk about something fun.

So I will discuss Dale, a fellow math teacher who was a colleague at my last job. Dale is half my age and three days younger than my son. Yes. I have coworkers my son’s age. Shoot me now.

He and I are very different, in that he is an incredibly hot commodity as a math teacher, whose principal would offer him hookers if he’d agree to stay, and gets the AP classes because he’s a real mathematician who majored in math and everything. He turns down the hookers because he’s highly committed to his girlfriend, who is an actual working engineer who uses math every day. I am not a hot commodity, not offered hookers, and not a real mathematician. I also don’t have a girlfriend who is an actual working engineer using math every day, but there’s a lot of qualifiers in that last independent clause so don’t jump to too many conclusions.

He and I are similar in that we both were instantly comfortable with teaching and the broad requirements of working with tough low income kids who don’t want to be in school, and extremely realistic about cognitive ability. We also don’t judge our students for not liking math, or get all moral about kids these days. (Of course, he is a kid).

We are also similar in that we like beer and burgers (he has a lamentable fondness for hops, but no one’s perfect), and still meet once or twice a month at an appropriate locale to talk math. I tell him my new curricular ideas, which he is kind enough to admire although his approach is far more traditional, and ask him math questions, particularly when I was teaching precalc; he tells me that most of the department wants him to be head, despite his youth and relative inexperience. We also talk policy in general. It’s fun.

“I have some news for you,” I told him, “but you will laugh, so you should put down your beer.”

He obligingly takes a pull on his schooner of Lagunitas IPA and sets it down.

“A new study came out,” I said, “and apparently, many high school algebra and geometry courses have titles that don’t actually match the course delivered.”

Dale, who clearly thought I was going in a different direction, did a double take. “Wait. What?”

“The word used was ‘rigor’. Like, some Algebra I courses don’t actually cover algebra I. Same with geometry.”

He looks at me. Takes another pull. “Like, not all algebra teachers actually cover the work formula?”

“Like, not all algebra teachers cover integer operations and fractions for two months. Like not all algebra teachers spend two weeks explaining that 2-5 is not the same as 5-2.”

“Uh huh. Um. They did a study on this?”

“They did.”

“They could have just asked me.”

“They can’t do that. They think math teachers are morons. But there’s more.”

“Of course there is.”

“Apparently, the more blacks and Hispanics and/or low income students are in a class, the less likely the course’s rigor will match the course description.”

He sighs. “I need more beer. Ulysses!” (that’s actually the bartender’s name.) “I’m assuming that nowhere in this study did they even mention the possibility that the students didn’t know the material, that the course content depended on incoming student ability?”

“Well, not in that study. But you know what happens when we point that out.”

“Oh, yeah. ‘It’s all that crap they teach in elementary schools!’ Like that teacher in that meeting you all had the year before I got here. ‘Integer operations and fractions! Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?‘”

“Yes. Actually, the researchers blamed the textbooks, which was a pleasant change from the platitude–and-money-rich reformers who argue our standards are too low.”

“Did anyone ever tell them if it were that simple, whether textbook or teacher, then we could cover the missing material in a few weeks and it’d all be over? Wait, don’t tell me. Of course they told them. That’s the whole premise behind….”

Algebra Support!” we chorused.

“But then there’s that hapless AP calculus teacher stuck teaching algebra support. He spent, what, a month on subtraction?”

“And the happy news was that at the end of the semester, the freshmen went from getting 40% right on a sixth grade math test to 55%.”

“The bad news being at the end of the year, they forgot it all. Net improvement, what–2 points?”

“Hell, I spend the entire Algebra II course teaching mostly Algebra I, and while they learn a lot, at the end of the course they’re still shaky on graphing lines and binomial multiplication. And I don’t even bother trying to teach negative numbers, although I do try to show them why the inequality sign flips in inequalities.”

“But it’s our fault, right?”

“Of course. But that’s not the best part.”

“There’s a best part?”

“If you like black comedy.”

“The Bill Cosby sort, or the Richard Pryor catching himself on fire sort?”

“Someone doesn’t know his literary genres.”

“Hey, we can’t all be English majors. What’s the best part?”

“The best part is that Common Core is supposed to fix all this.”

“Common Core? How?”

“By telling us teachers what we’re supposed to teach.”

I’d forgotten to warn Dale, who was mid-gulp. “WHAT???”

I handed him a napkin. “You’ve got beer coming out your nose. Yes. Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli always use this example of the shifty, devious schools that, when faced with a 3-year math requirement, just spread two years of instruction over three!”

“Wow. That’s painful.”

“Well, they don’t much care for unions, either, so I guess they think that when faced with a mandate that’s essentially a jobs program for math teachers, we teachers use it as an opportunity to kick back. But that’s when they are feeling uncharitable. Sometimes, when they’re trying to puff teachers up, they worry that teachers will need professional development in order to know the new material.”

“How to teach it?”

“No. The new material.”

“They think we don’t know the new material?

“Remember, they think math teachers are morons. On the plus side, they think we’re the smartest of teachers. (Which we are, but that’s another subject.) There’s still other folks who complain because ed schools don’t teach teachers the material they’re supposed to be teaching.”

“But we know that material. That’s what credential tests are for. You can’t even get into a program without passing the credential test.”

“Do not get me started.”

“So when the test scores tank, they’ll say it’s because teachers don’t know the material?”

“Well, they’ve got the backup teachers don’t have the proper material to teach the standards, in case someone points out the logical flaws in the ‘teacher don’t know the material’ argument.”

“Sure. If it ain’t in the textbook, we don’t know it’s supposed to be taught!”

“Don’t depress me. Yes, either we don’t know what’s supposed to be taught or we don’t know how to teach it without textbooks telling us to.”

Dale starts to laugh in serious. “I’m sorry, Governor. I would have taught vectors in geometry, but since it wasn’t on the standards, I taught another week of the midpoint formula.”

“I’m sorry, parents, I would have dropped linear equations entirely from my algebra two class, but I didn’t know they were supposed to learn it in algebra one!”

“Damn. A whole three weeks spent teaching fraction operations in algebra when it’s fifth grade math. I could have spent that time showing them how to find a quadratic equation from points!”

“I didn’t know proofs were a geometry standard. Why didn’t someone tell me? Here I had so much free time I taught my kids multi-step equations because my only other option was showing an Adam Sandler movie!”

“Stop, you’re killing me.”

“No, there’s too many more. Who the hell went and added conics to the standards and why wasn’t I informed? Here I spent all this time teaching my algebra II kids that a system of equations is solved by finding the points of intersection? Apparently, my kids didn’t bother to tell me that they’d mastered that material in algebra I.”

“I can’t believe it! Four weeks killed teaching kids the difference between a positive and a negative slope! Little bastards could have told me they knew it but no, they just let me explain it again. No wonder they acted out–they were bored!”

My turn to snarf my beer.

“Jesus, Ed, I’ve wondered why we’re pulling this Common Core crap, but not in my deepest, most cynical moments did I think it because they thought we teachers just might not know what to teach the kids.”

“That’s not the most depressing, cynical thought. Really cynical is that everyone knows it won’t work but the feds need to push the can—the acknowledgement that achievement gaps are largely cognitive—down the road a few more years, and everyone else sees this as a way to scam government dollars.”

“New texbooks! New PD. A pretense that technology can help!”

“Exactly. I’d think maybe it was another effort to blame unions, but no.”

“Yeah, Republicans mostly oppose the standards.”

“Well, except the ‘far-seeing Republicans’ who just want what’s best for the country. Who also are in favor of ‘immigration reform’.”

“Jeb Bush.”

“Bingo. You’ll be happy to know that libertarians hate Common Core.”

“Rock on, my people!”

“Yeah, but they want also want open borders and privatized education.”

“Eh, nobody’s perfect.”

“But all that depressing cynicism is no fun, so let me just say that I would have taught sigma notation except I thought that letter was epsilon!”

“Hey, wait. You do get sigma and epsilon confused!”

“No, I don’t, or I wouldn’t call the pointy E stuff sigma notation, dammit. I just see either E shape out of context and think epsilon. Why the hell did Greeks have two Es, and why couldn’t they give them names that start with E? Besides, the only two greek letters I have to deal with are pi and theta, and really, in right triangle trig there’s no difference between theta and x.”

“Well, you’re going to have to stop making that mistake because thanks to Common Core, you’ll know that you’re supposed to teach sequences and series.”

“Damn. So I won’t be able to teach them binomial multiplication and factoring and let them kick back and mock me with their knowledge, which they have because they learned it all in algebra I.”

“Here’s to Common Core and math research. Without them, America wouldn’t be able to kid itself.”

We clinked glasses just as Maya, Dale’s girlfriend walked in, a woman who actually uses centroids, orthocenters, and piece-wise equations in her daily employment. The rest of the evening was spent discussing my search for more real-life models of quadratics that don’t involve knowing the quadratic formula first. She offered road construction and fruit ripening, which are very promising, but I still need something organic (haha), if possible, to derive the base equation. So far area and perimeter problems are my best bet, which gives me a good chance to review formulas, because until Common Core comes out I won’t know that they learned this in geometry. I wondered if velocity problems could be used to derive it. Dale warned me that it involved derivations. Maya was confused by my describing velocity problems as “-16 problems”, since gravity is either gravity is either 32 ft/sec/sec or 9.8 m/s/s. Dale interpreted. I’m like Jeez, there are people who know what gravity is off the top of their heads? This is why I don’t teach science. (edit: I KNEW I should have checked the numbers. I don’t do physics or real math, dammit. Fixed. )

But all that’s for another, happier, post.


What Can We Blame Teacher Unions For?

My dad, a blue-collar Dem, is a die-hard union man and I grew up in a pro-union household. But I was a temp worker most of my working life until becoming a teacher, and prefer to set my own rate and negotiate my own terms, even though I’m probably not very good at it. Consequently, I was not ever a big fan of unions, and until three or four years ago, agreed with the classic reform positions on teacher unions: they were responsible for keeping smart people out of teaching, they were responsible for ballooning education costs, they stood in the way of good teachers getting the job done with ridiculous rules and regulations, they protected bad teachers.

My views have changed, and the change began even before I became a teacher.

Do Unions Keep Smart People Out of the Profession?

If I could beat one new reality into the nation’s head, I would choose teacher cognitive ability, and that beating would take four parts. First, that high school teachers have always been pretty smart, and drawn from the top half of the college grad pool. Second, that testing and knowledge standards for elementary teachers was once low, is now much higher and more than reasonable since the states dramatically increased the credentialing test difficulty as part of their adherence to NCLB. (see table). Third, that this dramatic increase did not result in either improved outcomes or evidence that new teachers who qualified with tougher tests were superior to teachers who didn’t. (Cite: This is the dog that didn’t bark. All research since 2001 still shows that new teachers aren’t as effective as experienced teachers until they’ve taught for a couple years. Ergo, harder tests to find smarter teachers didn’t make a huge difference.)

ETScredreqs

2007 ETS Teacher Quality report, page 23

Fourth, that the research at best shows that smarter teachers give a teeny tiny boost to outcomes, and if we’re just being reasonable instead of squinting hard, shows no real relationship at all between teacher cognitive ability and outcomes. Both progressive and reformer discussion of teacher quality begins with the premise that mouth-breathing morons predominate. Yet the data clearly shows we are not.

Besides, unions have next to nothing to do with teacher credentialing, which is where content knowledge requirements are set. That’s a state function. The states have, as I mentioned, dramatically raised content knowledge for elementary school teachers at least once (twice if you count the original institution of Praxis I and variations). I assume unions protested, although I’m not sure why. But the states have a much bigger problem than unions—namely, disparate impact. Set credentialing standards high, and you lose your black and Hispanic teachers, something I’ve documented at length here, here, and here, and that Stephen Sawchuk has been covering vis a vis the CAEP push to raise standards.

So unions aren’t responsible for stupid teachers, both because there really aren’t that many, and because that’s the state’s job.

But that’s not all, reformers say. Unions promote pay scales that give all teachers the same raise, regardless of quality. They pay old teachers more than young teachers and protect the first at the expense of the second. They oppose merit or performance pay. The best teachers, the really smart ones, the ones who could be hedge fund managers or financial analysts, the ones we’d like to have instead of these dreary wage slaves we’ve got now—well, those sorts of people want competitive salary structures and the knowledge that they’ll be rewarded for their excellence. Otherwise, they’ll sneer at teaching and take jobs that pay them millions to obliterate the country’s financial stability.

Okay. So the very notion of a union is antithetical to getting competitive, performance-driven people who want rewards for their hard work. I’ll pretty much agree with that. But in blaming teacher’s unions, I thought—perhaps wrongly—that the gravamen of the charge was that unions weren’t in and of themselves the problem, they just needed to improve. However, this charge can only genuinely be resolved by killing teachers unions entirely. Good luck with that.

Sure, there are efforts to come up with merit pay or other pay for performance plans. Most of the research shows they don’t work. I have written up my results for algebra I growth in my students, both in algebra I and in algebra II and geometry. I subtitled one of these “Why Merit Pay Won’t Work”, even though I didn’t mention the subject directly.

I realize I am offering anecdata, but I assert here and now that my anecdata is supported nationwide, that the bulk of high school students who enter a math class will leave it scoring at roughly the same percentile of ability. Performance pay of any sort will not alter this fundamental reality. And once everyone else realizes this, no one’s going to pay big bucks to move kids taking algebra I for the third time from Far Below Basic to Below Basic. I suspect that reading ability suffers from the same constraints.

So I’ll agree that the union compensation structure keeps competitive, high-performance people from even thinking about teaching. However, were such people to enter teaching, the realization that the nation’s stated goals for educational outcomes are utterly disconnected from reality would drive them right out again. No point in performance pay if the objectives are delusions.

Do Unions Increase Costs of Education?

Are unions responsible for the ballooning costs of education? Not on a day to day basis. The bulk of increased costs is due to special ed, and we can blame politicians for that one. I agree that unions and politicians are responsible for pension costs, although teacher unions aren’t any worse than any other government union on that count. In fact, given that teachers can’t work overtime per se and retire at an average age of 59 (cops work 20 years and out, and while I can’t find average national data, California cops and firefighters have an average age of 54), teachers are probably among the least offenders. Less likely to get disability, too.

Districts are far more interested in figuring out how to keep teachers than fire them. Teacher turnover is a huge issue and major expense, and one that can’t really be laid at the union’s door.

So I would argue that unions own responsibility for the huge pensions, but day to day costs, I’d want to see more evidence. And where’s the evidence that teacher unions are worse than other government unions?

Do Union Rules and Regulations Prohibit Productivity?

Yeah, this is nuts. What are you all talking about? I assumed, before becoming a teacher, that there’d be union reps all over the place telling me what I can and can’t do, that teachers were busy bitching out other teachers who worked harder and made them look bad. Where is this happening, and is Nick Nolte on the staff?

Just one example: class assignment often results in English and history teachers getting classes bigger than the contract stipulates (usually 34 or 35). I know teachers who have had 40 kids in a class. They complain. Let me be clear: the teachers complain. The teacher union rep (who also has overlimit classes), in response to the complaints, fills out forms and encourages everyone else to do the paperwork. Some do, some don’t. In this last year, the issue was never resolved. The union didn’t attack the school. They get the difficulty of assigning classes. But at the same time, they continue to work the problem—and will probably escalate it. The union is not enforcing rules and regulations that the teachers are fine with, insisting on arcane objectives that no one gives a crap about any more, but rather responding to teacher complaints about onerous work conditions. How is that not its job?

As a math teacher, I’ve been over the limit a couple times, and I didn’t much care—it’s a whole different issue in math than English and history, with grading time being the chief determinant. However, I didn’t have enough desks. So after a union meeting, I went to the rep and mentioned that I had 35 students but only 32 desks.

“You are overlimit! You should grieve it,” she said, instantly.

“Yeah, it’s just not a big deal. But I need more desks.”

Did she insist that I grieve? Look at me with disapproval? She did not. She just gave me the bad news: other teachers had an even higher ratio of missing desks to students, and short of going out and buying my own desks, I was screwed. She didn’t deliver the news with snark, but with understanding sympathy, since her missing desk to student ratio was 6:1. We commiserated, agreed that attrition would probably fix most of the problem, but wasn’t it annoying that we had to wait? For desks, even!!

It was a nice conversation.

Again, I don’t get this complaint at all. I try to think what else it could be, what case it is that unions, as opposed to teachers, insist on silly rules that stop “progress”—which is, of course, whatever the complainer thinks would be a rilly cool idea. Examples?

Do Unions Protect Bad Teachers?

Ah, the big Kahuna of teacher union beefs. It’s hard to fire bad teachers, because unions make administrators lives living hell in order to discourage them from even trying.

There’s an easy out on this one, though. If government unions ceased to exist tomorrow, teachers would still have Loudermill, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision that says that employment is a property right, and states can’t deprive their employees of property rights without due process. And most states have tenure written into their laws, independent of union contracts. So the changes necessary to undo teacher rights are far more than just dumping unions. Moreover, even the states that have eliminated tenure, like Oregon, seem to hold onto most of their teachers. Oregon dropped tenure for 2-year teaching contracts; a story just two years later reported that nothing had changed. This CAP report report on teacher tenure shows that Oregon is below average in teacher dismissal rates. While some states without tenure laws have high dismissal rates for that year (Alabama, Alaska), others have low ones (Mississippi, Texas).

In fact, as this second CAP report on state tenure laws spells out, the bulk of the apparently onerous dismissal laws are encoded in state law. So how is that the unions’ fault?

Naturally, there’s state laws, and then there’s enforcing state laws. Once, I noticed that one of my employers (a large national corporation) wasn’t paying me overtime. I thought that odd. I emailed someone in HR, and was ignored. I emailed again, no response. I emailed a third time, was told that I misunderstood the law. This annoyed me. It wasn’t the money. In fact, I knew that the employer would simply stop me from working overtime, if they took the law seriously. But they didn’t. So I reported them to the state, who eventually subjected the company to a regional audit, and months later I got a nice check. The company had to revamp its time sheets, at considerable expense, and educate managers on overtime laws by state. (To the company’s credit, I wasn’t fired. A senior HR person called me, I told him I don’t like it when companies ignore the law, he observed that I’d probably saved them a class action suit years down the line.)

This took upwards of a year to resolve, and this was on an issue that I had the corporation dead to rights–around 9 separate incidents of submitted timesheets showing overtime, and paychecks showing no overtime. And yet the corporation ignored me, figuring what the hell, it could break the law. Had my case not been so easy to prove and I been less adept at documentation, I’m sure the corporation’s strategy would have proved out.

It will not shock anyone to learn that private corporations routinely ignore state employment law.

So unions merely force their employers to follow state law. Down to the letter. They do it so effectively that districts are loathe to incur the costs of dismissal.

The CAP report I linked in makes a good case for changing state laws. I suspect that unions will fight any attempt to change, but so what? The “onerous” process required for firing government employees involves state law and federal case law. That unionized government employees simply have the means of forcing their employers to follow the law whereas employees of private corporations are screwed unless the violations reach the level of class action suit says more about the state of employment in America than it does about unions. We shouldn’t need unions to ensure the law is followed. Clearly, we do.

Of course, your average eduformer doesn’t want a state law change. Reformers want to abolish all protection for state employees, barring the usual ones, and give principals a free hand. They are okay with competent teachers being fired simply because the principal wants a younger teacher, a different style, or simply a different teacher (which of course means a cheaper teacher). Checker Finn: “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.” Whitney Tilson: ” Ending LIFO is a critical first step to getting to what’s really necessary: that every principal has the full power to hire and fire every adult (not just teachers) in the school and he/she sees fit..”. Rick Hess, whose new book Cagebusting might be subtitled “How to Fire Teachers Quickly and a Few Other Administrative Tips I Threw In So No One Can Say This is Just a Book about Firing Teachers”, encourages administrators to use private philanthropy to get the equivalent legal power on their side, but at least he’s working within the system instead of ignoring its realities.

So should unions eat the blame for denying reformers their holy grail of hire and fire power? I think not. Go change the state laws and get back to me.

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

So in the end, what are teacher unions to blame for? Big pensions—and even then, they were just doing their job with politicians who didn’t want to do theirs. A compensation structure that repels competitive, performance-driven workers. Many of the teacher protections and all of the standards lie at the state level, entirely out of the union’s purview. But there’s another point to consider.

It can’t have escaped notice that most of the beefs against teacher unions are, in fact, true for all unions. So I repeat a question I’ve written about before: why the big push against teacher unions? Cops and firefighters are just as hard to fire. DMV employees harder still, no doubt. As Richard Posner points out, judges also get paid whether they are any good or not, and without a union, even (I have other good things to say about that Posner essay). So do politicians, who get paid with taxpayer dollars if they’re elected, even if they’re horrible, also without a union.

Education is big business and education reformers are often, but not always, Republicans, a group who—totally coincidentally, I’m sure—favors an outcome that weakens or obliterates a big pile of Democrat money. Neither of those facts, however, explain why it’s apparently okay to single out teachers, castigating them for “privileges” that are de rigueur for all government employees. I just cited two separate Center for American Progress reports calling for a weakening of teacher tenure, and unless I’m mistaken CAP is one of the few pro-union organizations left. I’ll leave that question unanswered save for my previous wonderings, but it is something that nags at me.

I am no more in favor of unions for myself than I ever was. I was just reading Andrew Old’s diatribe about scabs—in fact, I think that essay was the cause of this one, because I realized again that I just couldn’t see myself going out on strike. My view of unions have undergone a profound change, but I don’t think of myself as a union member. I get paid, I go to work. I would probably strike if I voted to strike, but there’s the rub, since I can’t see voting to strike. This is visceral. I’m not sure if I can even explain it. (Note: Andrew Old’s views have changed, but I think he’d still call me a scab for not striking.)

But the past decade has made me much more sympathetic to unions in general. I was just rereading this piece by Kevin Drum on the death of unions, realizing that I would have scoffed at it back in the 90s. I still believe that America is largely antithetical to true union thinking, that union acceptance in the post-war period was a fluke due to our economic dominance in the global market. But the disappearance of work will undoubtedly travel up the pay scale, and I’m much more open to the idea that we need to constrain businesses from putting profit before everything, that stockholders don’t really matter more than workers, and that Amazon’s work practices are obscene.

Is my sympathy caused by my job change? Perhaps, but remember that I am not protected by tenure and may never attain it. Speedy termination until I’m too old to hire is a high-probability outcome for me, which is depressing, but at least suggests my opinions aren’t of the “I got mine, Jack” category.

I will grant anyone that unions make education more expensive, both by scaring politicians and, importantly, by holding onto some of the compensation value the private sector has lost because it doesn’t have the same protections that government employees have —unionized or not.

But are unions responsible in any way for our failure to achieve our educational goals, those lofty objectives that declare all high school graduates will be ready for college or career training?

No. Put another way: Pretty much everything Terry Moe says is wrong.

Those who think that teachers, or unions, or poverty causes our educational outcomes are kidding themselves. Our expectations are absurd. Criminal. The cruelest thing our education system does to our kids is not give them terrible teachers protected by thuggish unions, but ignore the role that cognitive ability plays in their ability to learn the material. Our system punishes bright kids, makes life too easy for middling ability kids, and as for the lowest ability kids, disproportionately poor, we give them all sorts of attention coupled with all sorts of absurd expectations, and leave them feeling hopeless and disconnected.

No one is comfortable admitting that. Reformers tried blaming parents, but they just got tagged as racists. Teachers are the only people left to blame. Unions are just a convenient proxy, a way for reformers to try to avoid alienating the largest profession in the country while still gutting its wages and protections—let’s assume, generously, in the genuine belief that teachers are genuinely responsible for student outcomes in an educational world with absurd and cruel expectations.

In fact, I believe teachers could make more of a difference in educational outcomes if we educated by cognitive ability and set goals accordingly. I believe we should spend more time teaching content to low-mid ability kids, and critical thinking and analysis to mid-high ability kids. But all of this starts by accepting the role that cognitive ability plays in outcomes, and coming to terms with the fact that unions have nothing to do with them.