Tag Archives: Rick Hess

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

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

Here Hess is on the world as it actually is.

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s unpack that.

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

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

So why did they need waivers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the states didn’t use them.

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

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

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

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

Now the standards are just….wallpaper.

Hey, under a thousand.


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

In my last post* I  said that the tests excited reformers “almost more” than the standards. That’s because the truth would have derailed the article. The truth?  The tests were more important to reformers than the standards.

And the tests failed beyond the reformers’ wildest, most dystopian nightmares.

To focus on the standards is to miss the point entirely. As Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn of the Thomas Fordham Institute said, famously, “…..standards often end up like wallpaper. They sit there on a state website, available for download, but mostly they’re ignored.

Recall once more  that No Child Left Behind’s failure, which the education reformers themselves baked into the law, created the very failure they were planning to resolve with Common Core tests. States eager to avoid the penalities of not meeting this impossible standard just lowered the cut scores to allow more students to score as proficient.

So as far as reformers were concerned, NCLB failed because the states refused to maintain high standards.

From that perspective, a primary argument for common standards was to provide an excuse for new, common, assessments. Standards themselves were incidental.  That’s why no one pushing Common Core was bothered by a McKinsey hack was in charge of writing the standards. That’s why all the pedantic objections to specific Core strands were waved off. The people who foisted Common Core on America thought of standards as…..wallpaper.  What they cared about was the tests. They wanted to use the tests to hold states and schools and teachers accountable.

Ed reformers’ reliance on the assessments might be considered the Alex Forrest component of Common Core.

“They weren’t going to be ignored, Dan.”

It was all right there out in the open. From the beginning, all the people pushing Common Core standards mentioned assessments in the same breath.

President Obama:
…I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.

Checker Finn: Implementation, Implementation, Assessment, Assessment

But standards are not self-actualizing. Indeed, they can be purely symbolic, even illusory. Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.

In a well-known 2014 Intelligence Squared debate on “embracing the Common Core” , usual allies Michael Petrilli  and Rick Hess of AEI took opposite sides. But both confirm the primary purpose of all this change.

Petrilli: “Rick is right that…a number of states have decided to pull back from common core testing….My argument is that those states have not fully embraced the common core. You cannot embrace higher standards if you don’t also embrace better assessments. They go together…..We should embrace the idea of moving to next generation assessments..that are worlds better than the tests that we’ve been living with for the past few decades.”

Rick Hess: “The Common Core does not solve the problem it was designed to solve…the concern that state were playing games with their test scores in order to make their schools look better than they were. Common Core was supposed to help address this… (emphasis mine)

Note: Hess and partner Carol Burris lost the debate by audience vote.  They both come out very well in retrospect. Petrilli and his partner were wrong on everything.

Given this obvious expectation, the Common Core proponents were, quite simply, idiots.

Alex Forrest thought she’d won Dan when he succumbed to her charms–at the bar, in the restaurant, in the kitchen sink, in the elevator. How could he say no?

The new tests were going to be so great. No one could say no.

“I don’t think having dinner with anybody’s a crime.”

Playing Michael Douglas’s Dan, the cheating husband, are the progressive educators on the left–the union, ed schools, academia.

These folks examined the standards purely on their educational merits and gave into temptation. Remember, liberal policy wonks want integrated math. They support delay in algorithms while emphasizing “conceptual understanding”. They liked the lack of content and, while they’re rarely honest on this point, progressive educators prefer the emphasis on writing over reading. Reading between the lines, Common Core’s instructional shifts” (the “dog whistles”, as Tom Loveless called them) suggested that the Common Core would allow them cover to demand schools use these methods. I doubt they would have had much success, but that’s another issue.

By supporting Common Core, they could point to nationwide standards mandating all their progressive shibboleths while also getting brownie points for  accommodating with the then-popular ed reform movement. Play nice, and get cover to official  progressive instructional methods. It seemed win-win. And the wife–public school parents, for the most part–would never know because no one cares about standards.

Hey, it’s just dinner.

But just as Dan never thought Alex was a beserker who wouldn’t leave him alone, the progressive left never once realized that Obama, their president hero, was explicitly planning on using these new assessments to evaluate schools and teachers.

You can tell the point at which they figured out it because  union leadership and other key players on the left went ballistic. And so you see Carol Burris, at the time a nationally-known Virginia high school principal, and Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT teacher’s union, originally support the standards and then speak out in opposition.   Both Burris and Weingarten mention that they didn’t realize the standards would be linked so firmly to accountability tests. They also realized that the standards which on paper supported progressive goals would in fact create tremendously difficult tests that would not only make life difficult for public schools

” If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you.”

Once this horror dawned on them the unions and other left of center advocates not repudiated the standards, they also alerted Dan’s wife, Beth, played in our little saga by affluent parents. Some of those parents take elementary and middle school far more seriously than, really, they should. Some of those parents have high school kids sitting ten to twelve hours for 4 or 5 Advanced Placement tests in May and are ready for any excuse to accede to the kids’ demands for a few days off while the schools give tests they find meaningless. And so the “opt out” movement, driven primarily by parents, encouraged occasionally by teacher unions, centered in states with stronger links between test scores and teacher evaluations. Students also took the opportunity to jump in and opt out.

Parents don’t care about standards. Before Common Core, they didn’t care much about state tests, either. Granted, many parents didn’t like them much, especially if they had sensitive children prone to bursting into tears at the least sign of stress. But without a hook, opting out just seemed…weird. Everyone else’s kids were taking the tests.

Then the tests went and killed their bunny.

The Power Player

The flamboozle about opting out and “instructional shifts” acted as a shiny bright object for the media, and certainly explains the public distaste for Common Core and its assessments. But the progressive left and public school parents aren’t responsible for the total meltdown of the Common Core tests, in my opinion.

The temporary agreement of the unions? The parenting optouts? Irrelevant, really. Nice theater. The power players here were the states.

What mattered, in the end, wasn’t that the tests made parents unhappy.

What mattered is that the tests were ridiculously expensive.

But….but wait, you ask. Isn’t that what Obama administration forked out hundreds of millions of dollars for?

No. NAY. Nyet. Nein. Aw HELL naw, Karen.

The Race to the Top money was just to develop the tests. All that money went to consultants and right about now is when you realize why progressives froth at the mouth over Pearson.

How the Money was Spent, courtesy of hard work by Edweek. Orange is SBAC only, blue is PARCC only, and green for greedy got both.

SBACPARCCVendors

So the Common Core consortia funds went to a bunch of testing and curriculum companies. Said testing and curriculum companies developed the tests for Smarter Balanced and PARCC.

But the tests had to pay for the administration and scoring.

As early as 2012, the great Gewertz (Catherine, of Edweek, the only publication that consistently did bang-up reporting on Common Core), asked how much Common Core would cost, comparing Fordham’s cheerleading lowball estimate with the Pioneer Institute’s warning about the implementation costs. Other Common Core advocates acknowledged the cost, but argued it was worth it.

Proponents  argued that the $25 or so per student was ” not far from the nationwide average of what states currently pay”, but there were a lot of states below that national average and California’s lower than average costs tilted the average down.

But that per seat prices was just for administration and scoring. That cost didn’t include the tremendous infrastructure investment required to create a testing platform. The tests were all computer based, so many states and districts had to spend millions beyond the millions required for the tests, the implementation, and the scoring.

In other words, the states were going to have to shell out a lot of money to be told their students were total losers as far as David Coleman was concerned.

The  Common Core advocates always knew that, so far as love and affection goes, they were the mistress, the girlfriend, the bit on the side. They were always going to lose out to the wife and kids. But that didn’t matter, because those tests meant they weren’t going to be ignored.

It’s just they had the wrong mistress in mind.

The wrong woman

You know who else thought she was Alex Forrest? Gloria Trillo.

She thought she’d seduced a married guy who’d feel so guilty and scared by his infidelity that she could brazen her way into a relationship with him, whether or not he left his wife.

But she’d gotten herself involved with a mob boss, and didn’t know what that meant.

I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but it’s important to understand that despite this battle being fought in the media by think tanks and unions and progressive educators, these people were entirely out of the loop on delivery. The states  signed up for Common Core. The states joined testing consortiums,. The states had to deliver the tests, score the tests, live by the results of the tests.

The states aren’t Alex’s slighty guilty Dan. The states are fifty Tony Sopranos. They got mistresses, they got whores, they got the bimbos they screw occasionally at the Ba Da Bing club, they got the infrequent smoking hot number they spot at a party and screw in an elevator for a quick thrill but in the end, they go home to the Madonna, the woman too good to f*** the way they want. Guilt? Fuggedabout it. They’ve been playing this game for 50 years.

SBAC and PARCC were the testing equivalent of strippers. Strippers who want the occasional mob boss attention don’t make waves. They don’t create headaches. They don’t for sure go visit the wife and upset her.

Because if you do, well, Patsy comes by for a test drive and makes it really, really clear that Gloria understands just how thoroughly she can be ignored.

“And here’s the point to remember: my face is the last one you’ll see. Not Tony’s.”

Tony is going to ignore you, Gloria. Go back to selling cars, or end up splattered all over those fine leather seats. That’s the choice. You’ll never get near the wife. You’ll never spend a second more of time in Dan’s brain, even as annoyance, because alas, Dan wasn’t Dan. Dan was Tony.

And the end, well. Not very cinematic. As of late 2017,

parcsbacgeogparccsbactestdecline

Collapse. As bad as that looks, it’s worse just two years later. SBAC is down to 12 and PARCC–well, PARCC isn’t used in full by any state, best I can tell. (Spotted_Toad, who has been watching the PARCC demise up close, agrees.) PARCC’s gone. SBAC has traction in the West Coast. But no common cut scores, no universal benchmarks, not even the figleaf of a win for the people who went to so much trouble to foist Common Core upon a serene and oblivious public.

This was a long way around but I hope it communicates the primary issue: whatever you hear about the standards quality, the unhappy parents, the worried teachers–it was all mostly irrelevant. Politically useful, sure. But the reason that Common Core advocates consider the effort a failure is not because the standards weren’t popular, nor are they particularly worried that states rooted them out. They wanted the tests. They didn’t get the tests.  They thought they were dealing with Dan, that the opposition was the union. In fact, they were cut out of the game by mob bosses.

I have more, but let’s see how this goes.

*****************************************************************************
*(Seven or so weeks. Sorry. No one thing, but a great deal of the delay was because I couldn’t figure out how to explain the fall of the Common Core assessments in a way that covered everything. I mean, you could talk about opt out or bad polls or the 2016 election, but none of it really captured the root cause for the failure. How could I get that point across? Then I could deal with the details.

Suddenly, and I can’t remember why, I thought of probably absurd analogy that runs through this piece. Hope it helps.)


What the Public Means by “Public Education”

Rick Hess asks what it means to be an enemy of public education and then links in an old essay he wrote.

There are really three ways to understand what it means for educational services to be “public”: We’ll call them the procedural, the input, and the outcome approaches . . . Traditionally, we lean on the procedural approach and term “public schools” those in which policymaking and oversight are the responsibility of governmental bodies, such as a local school board. Nongovernmental providers of educational services, such as independent schools, EMOs, and home schoolers, tend to be labeled “nonpublic.” The distinction is whether a formal political body is making decisions regarding service provision, since the fact that public officials stand for election or reappointment ensures some responsiveness to the larger voting “public.”

Yeah, that’s kind of….soulless. I don’t disagree with any particular part, but  education reform has just been handed a number of defeats over the past couple years, and this sort of definition hints at why.  Public education has a resonance, a heartbeat.  Public education in this country has spawned a million red schoolhouses, a billion dreams, battles that both inspire and embarrass us today, as communities fought, and still fight, passionately over who is, and isn’t, eligible for “public” education. And Hess’s definition misses all that.

So here’s an anecdote that in many ways covers the same point as Hess does with just a bit of heart:

In the August after my fifth birthday, my mom went down to the school to sign me up for kindergarten.

“I’m sorry, but the classes are full,” the clerk told her.

My mother was stunned. I’d been reading since I was three. I’d been talking non-stop about starting school since my birthday six months earlier, somehow having the impression I was able to start school right when I turned five and being very very disappointed, and loudly so, when I found out I still had to wait. I was oh so very ready. My mom was ready. I’m annoying; she had two toddlers still at home and would be pregnant again in less than a year. A break from me would be welcome.

“How can they be full?”

“We’re overcrowded this year. We only have four teachers. You should have signed up earlier. But we can guarantee you a spot next year.”

Mom asked to see principal X, who had the same answer. My mother related this story regularly for the next fifteen years or so, will still tell it whenever public school tales come up, and every telling makes it clear she probably still hates principal X. He actually sneered at her. We lived in a socio-economically (and somewhat racially) diverse town, and a mechanic’s wife who managed an apartment building was not high on his list of essential people who need to be kept happy. “There’s a waiting list. We often have kids drop out due to lack of readiness. Otherwise, you can start next year. I’m sure your child can wait.”

Mom persisted. The next day, she got out the phonebook and started calling other schools, who told her she wasn’t in their region, and that they were overcrowded, too. One of the clerks suggested calling the district. She called an assistant superintendent first, who shrugged her off and told her the principal had the authority here. She called the superintendent’s office, but he was on vacation. His secretary, however, listened carefully to Mom’s story and must have realized its import, because a couple days later–just before Labor Day weekend–the district superintendent called her back. He asked for her address, asked my age, and let my mom expostulate for a while before he told her she didn’t have a problem.

“I don’t?”

“No. Principal X has a problem, though. We’re a public school district. Public schools don’t get to say they’re full. So Principal X has about 4 days to hire a kindergarten teacher and open up a new class. I’ll get things started on our end. But you don’t worry any more. You just show up at school with Ed on Monday morning.”

Mom never failed to mention that superintendent’s name. Writing this account, it occurred to me to google the name and my elementary school. In a newspaper archive, I found a story from early September of 1967 reporting that the superintendent did indeed call an emergency school board meeting and get an authorization to open two more kindergarten classes for the severe overcrowding at my long-ago little school.

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

My mom always repeated that point: Public schools don’t get to say they’re full.

It’s still true. So true that these days, a principal wouldn’t think for a moment he could fool a working-class mom into waiting another year. Public schools have to take kids even when they don’t have teachers with the right credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers with any credentials. Even when they don’t have teachers. Even when half the staff is long-term subs, or teachers don’t show up.

Public schools don’t get to say no.

I don’t want to romanticize things then or now. Communities creating public schools back in the early days of the country had no intention of giving all races equal funding, or even free education at all. To this day, we haven’t really found the perfect solution to ending the tension between equal access and parental desire to select peer groups, and many efforts have failed. Ending de jure segregation may have taken a century, but the parents just substituted the de facto version, which the courts tried their damnedest to end until some judges finally blinked.

But lord knows those judges didn’t blink at much else. Communities didn’t start public school to educate severely handicapped children. They didn’t start the local high school movement to guarantee everyone a diploma, much less grant a wide range of accommodations to kids with “learning disabilities”. They didn’t expect to be held responsible for disruptive kids being booted out.

Communities didn’t start schools with the idea of guaranteeing equal results for every student, or being held accountable if racial groups didn’t have exactly equal achievement outcomes. Most assuredly, communities didn’t begin public schools with the expectation that they be forced to teach students in their own language. Nor were they expecting that they’d be forced to treat girls as boys or vice versa or any particular gender any particular kid happens to happen upon.

The courts and the federal government have cheerfully, ruthlessly, often unthinkingly expanded “public” well beyond what any community would ever envision. With the arguable exception of special education funding, the communities of America haven’t effusively welcomed these expansions (and if they knew how few results we’ve gotten and how much we spend, they wouldn’t be keen about special education, either.)

If public education of 150 years ago had to live with all the mandates placed on it today, well. The public would have said no. If the public was given a say today, it’d probably still say no.

But if what it wants is no longer available, the public still has a dream of public schools, a dream that surveys show time and again those schools deliver for their constituents, even while the politicians declare them “failing”.

But what the public means by public education isn’t charters. It’s not those carefully managed magnet schools. No, those eight specialized New York high schools aren’t public, either. Vouchers for private schools certainly aren’t public, particularly not when existing private schools reject most applicants and most vouchers go to kids already in private schools or to create fraud opportunities by con men.

If a school can deny students access despite living within its mandated boundary; if attendance is a privilege and not a right, then it’s not public school. It’s merely a free school run by public dollars that doesn’t have to act like a public school.

But despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies. Both constituencies want to improve their children’s peers. Neither really believes  for a cold second that the free versions of private school are in any other way vastly superior to public schools. And both constituencies are limited by geography and demography.

All the demonizing, all the castigation, all the freebies, all the dedicated billionaires willing to write checks right up until they manage to kill teachers’ unions (and boy, watch the money dry up then), and yet there’s not much of a sale, is there?

Public schools aren’t anywhere near perfect. And I have no idea how to balance public access, public need, and public will.

But despite all demands piling on more services, more mandates, more expectations, our public education system comes closer to our country’s ideal of education than charters and private schools designed to hoover up vouchers can ever dream of.

Charters and vouchers have lobbyists, politicians, judges, and occasional carefully marketed tales.

Public education has history. It has resonance. It has heart. I hope that’s enough.


Vocational Ed and the Elephant

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

brooksvotech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hessvoced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teaching in the Off Hours

I recently got a text message from my nephew: “Thanks so much for believing in me because I never would have applied if you didn’t tell me I could.”

After a high school career of a 4.0 GPA with numerous AP courses, my nephew got the same excellent grade point average at the  local community college. As of last summer, he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.

I was unimpressed with these plans, just as I’d been unimpressed with his twin sister’s plans eighteen months earlier. Said twin had an identical high school and junior college resume, and a stated objective of getting an AA in nursing and then maybe going to an online university in a couple years to get a BA. I threw a small fit, and my sister, the twins’ mom, balanced my expert input with her husband’s reluctance to pay more than a pittance for college. My sister and husband are wealthy evangelicals, with a high school diploma and trade school AA between them, and aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense of paying a bunch of liberals to attempt to indoctrinate their children wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t entirely disagree, but as I told my sister, well-heeled parents  should buckle the hell down and pony up the funds for the top tier schools that accept their high achieving, hard working children.

After chastising my sister, I educated her and my niece about the opportunity cost of putting off a nursing BA. Last fall, my niece transferred to a 4-year school, accepted into its well-regarded nursing program. (Update spring 2018: she’ll be graduating in May.)

So when my nephew explained his lackadaisical thoughts for his next steps, I invited him up to my section of the state and  took him on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system. After he was utterly wowed by the campus, we stopped by the transfer admissions office, where a counselor informed the young man he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier.

My nephew went home, scheduled a meeting with his community college adviser. The text I mentioned above was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country–one several tiers higher than the one we visited. (Update: he’ll be graduating in December).

The cool thing about my work with the twins, to me, is that I was able to do my teacher thang for family. Usually, I only get to help students.

For example, Ysenia was one of my favorite students at my last school. Before I knew her, she’d a terrible first two years of school only to make one of those miracle turnarounds. Late in May of her senior year, she came to me for advice. She wasn’t a star student, just a good hard worker who’d done really well in the vocational program our school interacted with. Should she take out a loan to go to a for-profit trade school and get out quickly, to start working as a dental technician? Or should she go on a waiting list and wait a year or more for a much cheaper community college? Her family was poor (and, for the most part, here illegally); she wanted to get a salary and help out as soon as possible.

I didn’t know the answer, but spent time researching options and getting her in touch with the right people to advise her. She still hadn’t made up her mind by the time she graduated, and I left the school that year. I still wonder about her, and what the right decision would have been, in light of the Corinthian College meltdown. But what I do know, at least, is that one teen living in poverty who didn’t make the decision unthinkingly, unaware of the downsides, unaided.

Just last week, I met with Javier, who been a top student in both my algebra two and trig classes. His special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, had asked me to advise him because they were worried Javier was ignoring reality. Mr. Patel, a retired immigrant PhD, had been caring for Javier’s physical and academic needs since the eighth grade, when Javier’s muscular dystrophy put him in a wheelchair. Javier, who also has a 4.0 GPA and several AP courses to his credit, was making college plans without giving any thought to the physical care he’d need, or arranging for it.

I asked Javier who would take care of him while he was in college. How he would get to college. What support programs, if any, the colleges he was considering had to offer. The answers were all I don’t know, yeah, I need to look into that, and I don’t know. Was it possible, I asked, if he was avoiding the nitty gritty administrative details of his college life. He allowed it wasn’t just possible, but definite.

Like many kids with a severe physical disability, Javier faces life with a preternatural optimism that cranky pessimists like me find somewhat infuriating. This conversation had dimmed his usually cheery face. I felt so frickin’ mean.

But I told him that US law means he gets guaranteed services in high school that are a different matter once he graduates. (Ironically, he’d get the services for longer if he were cognitively incapable of high school level work.)

I gave him specific objectives: file an application for state services, contact the state rehabilitation services for an assessment, get a list of services offered by the local community college and his top state pick. I told him these objectives outweighed his high school homework, which he agreed was getting more focus than it needed out of a desire to avoid thinking about his future.

I heard from both his case manager and Mr. Patel; Javier is making calls, filling out forms, and getting his support in order.

I’m now running a school club that offers free 30 minute test prep after school two days a week, but for years, students have come by after school for practice sessions. I’ve coached kids, read application essays, advised on college selection, provided perspective on parent priorities (alliteration!), and basically operate my own small, free, consulting service to many students of all races and ethnicities who couldn’t otherwise afford it–even after graduation. There are kids in top colleges today who once never had a thought of attending, because I had the opportunity to work with them. There are kids with scholarships and grants thanks to respectable SAT scores achieved working off-the-clock, in my classroom, coming in weekly on their own time and mine. There are also kids who I’ve helped convince their parents that community college is their best plan, and saved themselves considerable debt, kids doing better in high school because I’ve convinced them they have a future, kids who will be going to trades with a high school diploma because I’ve convinced them that they can put in the time and make it pay off. There are kids in the military who entered as officers with more prospects and kids who took the time to work at math to get a better ASVAB score and more career options.

High school teachers all have gigabytes of memory archives of similar stories. This isn’t a Huggy Happy Teacher Tales Edition, though. I actually have a point, one related to my time in the tech halls of corporate America.

The best, happiest time in my tech life was my five years at a major financial company, a time that made an appearance in this autobiographical essay of a few years back, specifically this bit. I loved that job. I ran a whole bunch of applications for every aspect of change, problems, and service that IT (information technology) supported. None of my apps were business critical or even known to business, making my job laughably uninimportant.

I tried, my first year or so, to get into a more glamorous line of work supporting the line of business systems, either operations or apps, and came close a couple times. But ultimately, I stayed and offered apps that provided essential, timely data to enabled business critical staff to support equally important systems or justify their budget, or an increase in budget. Over time, I became a known quantity–almost, dare I say, respected. While at first my job was the butt of good-humored jokes (which I took in kind), I ultimately became a bit of an institution. When a department needed to improve their services, they’d always send a friendly naysayer who’d come in dramatically waving his arms (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”) and ask if I could build or modify an app.

For the last two years, I ran my own little empire. I took on my own projects, had my own little service request form. I’d build new reports, add fields to collect new data. I was part of the corporate ecosystem. Project managers pulled me into meetings and new initiatives so I could plan changes to their service apps as they changed their business apps.

And then I left. Never regretted it. I never got paid enough, and after my divorce, money and time at home became a premium. I became a consultant, worked less and got paid more for the next decade, before the dot-com crash.

It was never as much fun. I often got paid $15-20K for jobs that never happened; people just hired me to talk them through meetings then decided not to move forward. Or I put hours and hours in on a project that lost its funding even though I got paid nicely. This is quite normal in that line of work; it was only my longevity in my last job that allowed me to build a suite that got used and trusted–and then expanded. But consulting work is quantified and measured; it’s a budget item. Everything must get approved, politics and leadership change, plans change, you know how it is.

So I suddenly realized last week when talking to Javier that finally, I had my old job back. When I was a tutor, I could talk to the kids whose parents or well-meaning philanthropists paid for me, or for Kaplan classes. That was satisfying–much more satisfying than any tech job. But now, my salary covers all sorts of services that would never survive a budget or line item query: ad hoc test prep, counseling advice, adult supervision, sometimes just a place to sit and chat. Many kids just stop by and find me and sit, talking about their parents, their plans, their hopes, troubles at school. While I’m sure many teachers just listen, my support is usually a tad more active. I’ve been paid to give opinions most of my adult life. Why stop now?

Rick Hess talks a lot about cagebusting teachers, and how teachers can influence policy and practice. I like Rick Hess; he’s usually right in his assessments if often wrong in his prescriptions. But he’s a guy who left teaching after two years, frustrated at the bureaucracy, feeling he couldn’t make a difference. And as a policy wonk, Hess particularly pushes the dramatic, bold teacher-driven initiatives–leaving teaching to work at the district level, heading up a grant-funded after-school tutoring program.

Me, I like becoming part of the community–part of the eco-system. I don’t need to be an invasive species. I’m not interested in getting grants or extending my power. I want and have my own locus of control. I am….unconvinced….that charter schools as a whole will ever be able to build a sustaining ecosystem. They have way too much turnover. Most of them are obsessively interested in either a) good test scores or b) progressive ideology. Teachers are more constrained, in my view, by one of these goals—and then, turnover prevents slow growth. I could be wrong.

I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter that this has been a simply awful year for education reformers. So let me say again: you can never change teaching until you understand it, and understand the people who enter the profession long term.

So start by understanding that teaching goes on in the off hours. Many–I’d never say all–teachers find some way of offering extra value for their salary. They provide ad hoc services that would cost a small fortune if ever quantified and salaried and required, but because they’re just baked in, never cost an additional penny.

Think of it as your tax dollars at work.


The Myth of the Teacher Leader, Redux

To understand why outsiders don’t grasp teacher quality in meaningful terms, consider this list.

Which of the teachers described here are leaders, working with their colleagues to improve school quality? Which ones are speaking out in support of improving the professional community? Which ones forge the way to a new professional concept? Which ones have a clear vision of their teaching identities? Which ones are committed to student achievement? Which ones, in Rick Hess’s phrasing, are cagebusters?

Ignore trifling matters like whether or not the teachers agree with your own values and priorities. Focus on leadership, caring, professional commitment. Yes, this makes it a more difficult task.

  • Teachers work late into the evening developing curriculum and planning instruction, but violate their contractual obligations by occasionally or consistent tardiness to staff and department meetings. Their timely colleagues see the tardy attendance as unprofessional. But the gripers often leave campus three minutes after last bell.

  • An attendance clerk wonders why a student is skipping first period each day for two weeks. The clerk contacts the other teachers and learns that he’s actually been absent in all classes, but that unlike the first period teacher, they’ve been letting it slide, since the student told them he was joining the Marines. Further investigation reveals that the student was on a cruise. Shortly after this incident, the principal announced that failure to take attendance and submit completed attendance verification reports would be made an evaluation point, if needed.

  • A new teacher is confused as to what responsibilities are held by the “department head” and a “math coach”, since neither approached to offer assistance when he began his job. The teacher who did approach him with help (and has no official role) told him not to worry about it, as department “leadership” roles are meaningless.

  • A few senior math teachers informally agreed to improve advanced math instruction by holding students to higher standards and a demanding pace. A new teacher was brought on, who taught at a slower pace and had a much wider “passing window”. The senior teachers requested that the new teacher be fired. The principal refused. One of the senior teachers left. The newer teacher continued with the same priorities.

  • A team of teachers and counselors are enthusiastically discussing methods to convince colleagues to comply with a new district-wide initiative. One team member cautions against mandated compliance, suggesting they accept cynicism and caution as logical responses. The team decides to go much more slowly, realizing that they can’t really enforce compliance anyway. They introduce a smaller initiative that builds on existing interest, hoping to win more compliance through results.

  • A second-career teacher works unceasingly to help at-risk students get to college, achieving a decade or more of success getting first-generation kids to college. He is a valued and highly respected leader in the teaching staff—right up until he confesses to inappropriate contact with a student. He is arrested and fired.

These examples all reveal why Rick Hess’s 90-10 split makes no sense:

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

Hess never says so, but presumably we are to assume that the “amazing teachers” are moving test scores, while the disgruntled, frustrated teachers demanding more money are out there on the picket lines, demonstrating against Eva or taking time off to bitch in Madison, while their students sit in a dull stupor.

Would that the dichotomy were that simple. Dots can’t be connected between teaching ability and political activism. The street corner screamers protesting merit pay and standardized testing might just as easily be the ones working until 9 at night, building memorable lessons. The slugs who check out each day at 3 using the same tests year after year might have worshipful students. The former teacher who cries on cue as a paid hack for Students First might actually be less admired than the much loved teacher identified as incompetent based on a single student’s opinion. (I am always flummoxed that reformers think anyone other than the already converted would find Bhavina Baktra compelling.) Political activism is one of the utterly useless proxies for teacher quality.

Teacher Quality–what is it, exactly?

What makes a good teacher? Let us count the many ways that broad circles can’t safely capture and identify teaching populations.

  • An engaging, creative teacher can be a terrible or indifferent employee, showing up to meetings late, missing supervisories, forgetting to submit grades on time.
  • An uninspiring or incompetent teacher can be a fabulous employee, impeccably on time with contract obligations: grades, attendance, and assigned tasks.
  • Teachers of any instructional or employee quality can be activists fighting against reforms they see as damaging to either their jobs or children—or on the reform payroll (yes, it does seem that way to us) pushing for merit pay or an end to tenure.
  • An ordinary, somewhat tedious teacher can have an outstanding attendance record, while a creative curriculum genius misses ten or more days a year;
  • Unlawful teachers–from the extremes of unthinkable sexual behavior to the seemingly innocuous falsification of state records—are, often, “good teachers” in the sense that reformers intend the word. (Just do a google on teacher of the year with any particular criminal activity.

No objective measure or criterion exists for teaching excellence. At best, most might agree on its display. Were a thousand people to watch a classroom video, they might agree on the teacher’s displayed merits. People might agree that certain opinions are unacceptable for teachers to have, or that certain actions are unacceptable. But those merits, actions, or opinions have next to no demonstrated relationship to test scores or other student outcomes.

So What Makes a Teacher Leader?

And if we can’t even know who or what defines a good teacher for any objective metric, then naturally the whole idea of finding “teacher leaders” is a lost cause.

Who’s a leader? The officially designated department heads or coaches, or the de facto mentors who offer advice and curriculum to the nervous newbies? The teachers who follow the contract obligations like clockwork, or the ones who work late and give hours to the kids but are weaker at the contractual obligations? The teachers who want to plow down resisters, or the teachers who suggest accommodating to the reality that the plowdowns will never happen? The teachers who want everyone to follow proven procedures, or the teachers who follow their own vision? The teacher who successfully manages a a site-wide program for at-risk kids, helping hundreds over the years while occasionally making sexual advances, or the teacher who just shows up every day to teach without ever molesting his students? The teachers who want to embrace reforms to improve schools, or the teachers who fight the reforms as the efforts of ignorant ideologues?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. There are people who can brief for either side–yes, even the molester. Just ask Mrs. Miller or, just to ratchet up the difficulty level, the hundreds of kids who weren’t abused by this predator, but found focus and purpose to achieve based on his advice and support.

So who wants teacher leaders, anyway? Reformers. Ed schools. Politicians. Administrators. Teachers who want to be teacher leaders—a handy group that serves as mouthpieces for the other organizations. The same people, in short, who believe the delusion that “good teachers” is an axiom, an easily defined, obvious trait.

Who doesn’t want teacher leaders? Teachers who don’t want to be teacher leaders. Which is most of them.

I repeat, for the umpteenth time: what the outside world sees as a bug, most teachers see as a feature. We trade promotions and pay recognition for job security and freedom from management that industry can only dream of.

Certain things just don’t make a dent in the teacher universe. When math teachers get together for beers, we don’t secretly bitch about how much more money we’d get if teaching salaries were determined by scarcity. Very few sigh for a world in which our pay is dependent on our principal’s opinion of our work. Many of us either aren’t fussed by system bureaucracy or—as if often the case—understand that the bureaucracy isn’t the underlying reason for whatever wall we face.

Given the utter lack of internal demand, teachers suspect, with much justification, that those calling for “leaders” are looking to install their mouthpieces in positions of authority over the rest of us. Call us cynical. Call us justified.

So the next time anyone calls for “teacher leaders”, please remember a few things. Any teaching community has leaders both official and informal. The official leaders are selected, often by management, sometimes by majority vote. The informal leaders are often sought out by colleagues, but occasionally self-drafted. Regardless of selection method, the relationships are many to many, not one to many. These leaders have little actual authority. They have influence. Sometimes.

Teachers don’t want leaders. We have management. We’re good, thanks.


Math isn’t Aspirin. Neither is Teaching.

First, congrats to Dan Meyer, who finished his doctorate at Stanford and just hired on as CAO for Desmos, a tremendously useful online graphing calculator. He persisted in the face of threatened failure, and didn’t give up even when he had an easy out into a great job. (Presumably Dan and most of the Math Twitter Blogosphere are still annoyed at my jeremiad about the meaning of his meteoric rise, in which Dan played the part of illustration.)

Dan has asked math teachers for ways to create “headaches” for which math can be considered aspirin:

dmeyeraspirin

And this interested me because the request completely, perfectly, captures the difference between our two philosophies, which I also wrote about a couple years ago:

meyervsme

The comparison is an instructive one, I think. Both of us find it necessary to build our own curriculum, rejecting the one on offer, and both of us, I think, tremendously enjoy the creation process. Both of us reject the typical didactic contract described by Guy Brouseau, setting expectations very different from those of typical math teachers: explain, work a few examples, assign a set. Both of us largely eschew textbooks for instruction, although I consider them completely unnecessary save as reference books that often provide interesting problems I can steal, while Dan dreams of the perfect digital textbook.

And yet we couldn’t differ more in both teaching philosophy and curriculum approach.

Dan’s still selling curiosity and desire for knowledge, assuming capability will follow. I’m still selling capability because I see confidence follow.

Dan still believes that student engagement captures their curiosity which leads to academic success, that the Holy Grail of academic success in math lies in finding the perfect problems that universally stimulate interest in finding answers, which leads to understanding for all. I hold that student engagement leads to their willingness to attempt what they previously thought was impossible but that the Holy Grail doesn’t exist.

Meyer thinks teachers skeptical of his methods are resistant to change and the best interests of their students. I advise teachers and recommend curriculum; if they find my advice helpful, great. I encourage them to modify or even reject my advice, to continue to see an approach that works for them and their students.

Dan wants to be “less helpful”. I want to teach kids to use their own resources, but given a kid who wants to give up, I’m offering help every time.

Meyer’s methods would probably need tremendous readjustment if he worked in a low-income school with a wide range of abilities. I’d probably be much “less helpful” if I taught at a school with a high-achieving, homogenous population obsessed about grades.

Meyer rose quickly in the rarefied world of rock star teachers. I aspire to the role of and indie with cult status.

Dan’s query: “Why did mathematicians think this skill was worth even a little bit of our time? If the ability to factor that trinomial is aspirin for a mathematician, then how do we create the headache?

My answer: You can’t.

The commenters, mostly teachers, took the question seriously, understanding that it was another way of looking at the students’ demand, “When will we use this?”. Answering this question clearly troubles most of the commenters—or they have an affirmative answer they’re satisfied with.

My answer to the student demand: “Probably never. But the more willing you are to take on challenging tasks you learn from, the more opportunities you’ll have in life, both professional and personal. Call me crazy, but I see this as a good thing.”

Dan Meyer is wrong, I believe, in looking for the Holy Grail that makes math “aspirin”1. But that’s not the point of my running through the Dan vs. Ed showdown.

Instead, consider the comparison yet another data point in my slowly developing thesis that ed schools need more flexibility and even less prescription. Few people understand the vast scale of values, philosophies, management and curriculum found in the teaching population.

Two teachers developing uncommon curriculum who agree on very little—yet both of us are considered successful teachers. (one has much more success selling his ideas to people with money, I grant you.) Take ten more math teachers likewise who build their own curriculum, have their own takes on philosophy, discipline, and even grading and they’re unlikely to change to suit another model. Take 100 more–ditto. Voila! an expanding population of teachers who have successful teaching approaches and curriculum design that they’ve developed and modified. None of them are going to agree on much. They have come to widely varying conclusions that they will continue to develop and enhance on their timeline as they see fit. No one will have anything approaching a convincing argument that could possibly convince them otherwise.

The point: the current push to “fix” ed schools, a fond delusion of reformers, progressives and union leaders alike. People as diverse as Benjamin Riley, Paul Bruno, Rick Hess and others believe we can find (or already have) a teaching knowledge base that can be passed on to novices.

Teachers are never going to agree.

Agreement or even consensus is impossible. Teachers and students form infinite combinations of interests, values, incentives and unlike reformers, teachers are going to value their experience and unique circumstances over anything ed schools tried to pretend was the only way.

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

So when the status quo has prevailed for the next 30 years, don’t say you weren’t warned.
****************************************************************************

1which isn’t to say I don’t plan on writing up the how and why of my quadratic equations section.


Rick Hess Recycles

So Rick Hess, after delivering a bracing face slap to reformers on their complaints about pesky little implementation details, apparently decided to be evenhanded and talk tough to educators about their desires to run schools without the interference of those pesky politicians:

I had smart, talented leaders complain about ill-conceived accountability systems. About pols who weren’t willing to spend enough on schools. About why pols don’t listen to them or ask their advice. About how the pols ought to stick to their own business, and let educators run the schools.

And what does he tell them?

Mostly, I tell edu-leaders to get over themselves. Public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public policies. Whether made by legislators or bureaucrats, and in Washington or locally, those policies sketch what educators can and can’t do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

And when educators respond by saying but wait, this is new behavior, what does he say?

Two answers: One, you’re wrong. Pols have always written regs about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. Two, the reason today’s policy feels more invasive is because there’s substantial dissatisfaction with how schools are doing and with the effects of these older rules and regs. So, new policies focused on accountability, choice, teacher evaluation, and the rest, are an attempt to make sure that the public’s kids are well served and that public funds are spent effectively.

Besides, we have to sympathize with the life of a politician looking to improve schools:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

But why do they get to make policy?

it’s simple: they’re elected to do that. You can argue that educators should have an untrammeled right to spend public dollars, educate the public’s kids, and run public schools as they see fit. But you can do so coherently if, and only if, you think military officials should have a free hand to make national security policy, police should get a free hand to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical companies to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like health policy or whether police racially profile, then you need to recognize that folks expect educators to live by those same rules.

Well, he sure told off educators. But I have a few….……Wait. Wait. HOLD ON!

I’m so embarrassed. I am using the wrong Rick Hess tells off educators column! He wrote this one nearly two years ago. How could I screw up like that?

Here’s the one he wrote this week.

Talented educators regularly gripe to me about dumb accountability systems, teacher evaluation schemes, and such. They gripe about politicians who aren’t willing to spend enough on schools, to listen to them, or to ask their advice. They exclaim that policymakers ought to mind their own business and let educators run the schools.

And his response?

I get it. It’s an understandable premise, especially for a hard-working, talented teacher. But I tell these folks they need to step back and look at this with fresh eyes. See how it looks to the policymakers, say. After all, public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public officials. Those officials are going to set the policies that shape what educators can and can’t do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

Hey. They don’t have to get over themselves any more! But apparently, these educators still think it’s new behavior, and:

There are two responses here. One, is that you’re wrong. Politicians and state bureaucrats have always written regulations about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, which textbooks would be used, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. We’re used to all this, though, so it can be less noticeable. Two, the reason that today’s policy feels more invasive is because policymakers have been convinced that these older rules and regulations weren’t getting the job done. So, they’ve adopted new policies around accountability, school choice, teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and the rest, in an attempt to make sure that the public’s kids are well-served and that public funds are well spent.

No change there. He still wants sympathy for the politicians, and he “puts it the same way”:

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level or high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable to think you need to do something about it. Now, it’s totally cool to disagree with what policymakers are doing: to think it’s misguided or wrong-headed. But you’re in an infinitely better place to cage-bust if you start with an appreciation for where they’re coming from.

And why do these politicians get to make policy?

If you’re wondering why people who aren’t experts on schooling get to make policy, it’s simple: they’re elected to do that. You can wish that educators should be free to spend public funds and run public schools as they see fit. But that’s not the way it works. In any event, you can only make that argument in good conscience if you think military officials should have a free hand to craft national security policy, police to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical reps to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like whether we invade other nations, what health care should look like, or what our laws say, then educators need to be prepared to live by those same rules.

You’re wondering how I recognized this. I’d love to say I commit Rick Hess’s work to memory, but in fact I responded to the earlier piece, in one of my favorite posts: The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. You should read it. Rick Hess did, because I emailed the post to him and we had a nice conversation about it. My conclusion:

Rick Hess is wrong in saying that education leaders are “allergic” to policy. They are “allergic” to mandates with no relationship to reality. And his sympathy for political leaders who are dragged in reluctantly, poor folks, to spare the kids from uncaring, dysfunctional schools is also misplaced. The problem isn’t the schools. The problem is the mandates—both progressive and reform. The problem is the imposition of political and ideological objectives into the educational world, screaming and howling and suing for five impossible things before breakfast.

I was tempted to just repost this whole essay and see if anyone noticed, but I’m not as famous as Rick and I doubt anyone would. Notice.

Note to Rick: I know you’re busy with the books and all, but I have to tell you this didn’t end well for Jonah Lehrer.


The Reverse Drinking Game

Well, school’s about to start and I’m two thirds of a way through a piece that I probably won’t finish for a while, and I’ve decided I need something longer than Twitter but shorter than the usual me to send out when people are being annoying.

So let’s call this the reverse drinking game post. Every time someone doesn’t mention cognitive ability while discussing student outcomes, go grab a beer.

So for example, Michael Petrilli writes about the problem of proficiency:

Proficiency rates are terrible measures of school effectiveness. As any graduate student will tell you, those rates mostly reflect a school’s demographics.

Grab a beer.

When Checker Finn rebuts Petrilli, saying:

One more point: Mike began his argument with the assumption that many schools have scads of entering pupils who are already far below “proficiency” when they arrive. He had in mind middle and high schools—and there is no doubt that many such schools do indeed face a large remediation challenge with incoming eleven- through fourteen-year-olds who have already been gypped educationally in the early grades.

Crack one open.

When Richard Venning writes:

The inconvenient truth I describe below is that when we benchmark academic growth rates, the best velocity is often not adequate to catch kids up to college and career readiness within a reasonable time.

and

However, far too many schools also have students in poverty making low-growth rates, where they progress more slowly than their advantaged peers and that is not acceptable.

Grab two beers. Three, if you spot: “Among students that score in the bottom performance level in Colorado, the percent making adequate growth is in the single digits. The statewide goal is 100 percent. Schools with top statewide velocity for low-income students are not moving kids to proficiency within three years—and Colorado is not alone.”

When Rick Hess, Rishawn Biddle, Michael Brickman talk about lowered AP scores, the importance of entrance standards vs. the importance of high expectations, go grab a whole sixpack. Or maybe some single malt scotch.

When Jason Bedrick, Michael Petrilli, or Andrew Rotherham sneer at the public schools “failing children”, it’s time to bend an elbow.

When the primary ed school credentialing organization proudly announces that it is raising the bar on “teacher quality”, when everyone goes all atwitter about Jason Richwine‘s work on teacher cognitive ability (before he broke the rules on Hispanic cognitive ability), ask yourself why so many people are willing to discuss the impact of teacher cognitive ability on academic achievement (you mostly have to squint to find any ) but never mention student cognitive ability. But do it before you get a beer, because I find, at least, that I often start banging my head in annoyance and it’s best to do that unarmed.

When people say that income matters more than race to academic achievement, tell them they are lying or misinformed on your way to the fridge.

Tweet or email whenever you spot an opportunity to play.

Hey. Under 500 words! A new record.


My #FF list, or Ed Folks I Read

If you want to know why Mike Petrilli irritates me, look no further than his recent post on top education Twitter feeds. Does Petrilli not know the difference between propagandists advocates, analysts, and hobbyists? What the hell is the point of putting Arne Duncan at the top of the list?

New annoying buzzword: curate. Petrilli should have curated. He’s a major education policy propagandist advocate; what would be interesting is his own personal list of education policy writers and specialists. Not completely out of the question is the possibility that Petrilli picks his twitter feed based on Klout score, so he was giving us his reading list.

I thought I’d show Petrilli what he should have done—assuming he was trying to advise people who actually are looking for education policy writers, as opposed to providing a self-congratulatory fist bump list for the Twitter Titans. And, since many of my readers aren’t solely or even primarily interested in education, I’m writing for a novice audience.

I don’t have a reader. My blogroll is randomly selected to demonstrate range, not totality. I periodically peruse my twitter followers—that is, the ones that I don’t follow—to see what they are up to. If I don’t follow you, it doesn’t mean I don’t read you at all. I go to blogs just as it occurs to me, and I find Twitter, which I’ve used for only a year, to be very helpful in keeping up with education topics. The people on this list have either a blog or a Twitter account, usually both. The names are in no strict order.

Paul Bruno, a middle school science teacher, has his own blog and used to write (still writes? Not sure) at This Week in Education. Bruno is the only blogger/writer who I identify with, whether we agree or not. We need more teachers writing on ed policy from an analytical perspective, rather than advocating for one side or another.

Joanne Jacobs–the best reporter’s education blog out there. Joanne rarely links to one article; she anticipates the objections and finds an effective advocate for the opposition. Everyone should read her.

Stephen Sawchuk, at Teacher Beat, is often stuck writing about topics that should be insanely boring—union conferences, pension reform, teacher preparation standards—and he does a great job making them interesting and understandable. Joanne goes wide, Sawchuk goes deep. He wins extra points for being the only person, other than, say, me, who raises red flags about minority teachers in the current push to “raise teacher quality”. I read him frequently; his stuff often leads me to interesting questions.

While you’re on the site, most of the Ed Week blogs are worth evaluating. While some of them are just advocacy sites, I find Catherine Gewertz’s Curriculum Matters useful, and many of the teacher blogs are worth checking out occasionally.

Tom Loveless–He doesn’t have a blog that I know of (AEI blogposts) and I was only able to include him here because he’s on twitter. But he’s badass. Let me put it this way, and he’s the only one on this list I say this about: if I ever disagreed with him, I’d worry I was wrong. For about 90 seconds. But still.

Larry Cuban‘s blog is excellent and wide-ranging; he never offers easy answers but always interesting questions.

John Fensterwald at Ed Source is a good reporter, particularly for California education news. He’s invaluable on Twitter.

Another valuable twitter resource is USA Today’s Greg Toppo, whose education reporting is also good stuff. No blog. Start one, why don’tcha.

Alexander Russo‘s blog, This Week in Education, is very good, but he, too, plays a major role in my information queue on Twitter, where he’s always got interesting stuff I hadn’t otherwise found.

Andrew Old (pseudonym, I think), who blogs at Teaching Battleground, is a traditionalist advocate, but I follow him because he’s a great source of info on education policy in England (UK? Britain? Great Britain?) and through him I get a lot of insight into what’s going on. I don’t know who that person is in Australia or if there are Scandinavian teachers tweeting in English, but if there are, I would like to know about them. Through Andrew Old, I’ve found bloggers like Harry Webb who I enjoy reading as well.

Mathew DiCarlo is the only guy I read at Shanker Blog. I find his analyses very useful. His resulting policy conclusions, on the rare occasions he mentions them, are often puzzling, since they seem contradicted by his analysis.

The Cato libertarians Jason Bedrick and Neil McCluskey (not much of a fan of the big boss, Andrew Coulson) are both excellent reads. I agree with almost every word of their analyses and then politely skip over their prescriptions. Both have been particularly outstanding on Common Core issues.

As I understand it, Michael Petrilli and Rick Hess don’t work for the same organization, but for some reason they show up on a lot of videos together. For that reason, I suppose, I think of Hess as Wally to Petrilli’s Beave (god, I’m old). I’ve also referred to Petrilli as a “gormless Richie Cunningham” and following his writing for any length of time invariably calls to mind the mutant dogs in Up (“Squirrel!”). And yet, he’s one of the few people on the reform side I consistently read. Go figure.

On his excellent blog, Hess spends so much time criticizing the reform movement that the newcomer might not realize he wants that team to win. He’s mostly wrong about reform, but his criticism of the movement goals is excellent. I thought his article Our Achievement Gap Mania was outstanding, but I haven’t really enjoyed any of his books I’ve read thus far. Where Petrilli looks up Klout scores, Hess comes up with an interesting, original metric to rank education scholars. A number of the AEI staffers (I guess they’re called) are worth reading, too, particularly Michael McShane.

Daniel T. Willingham rarely mentions cognitive ability (geez, I can’t think why) which allows him to post more happy talk than perhaps he should. I read him anyway.

Deborah Meier is another progressive I find to be largely on the money and, like Cuban and unlike most other education advocates, she spent a long time teaching.

Robert Pondiscio used to be the reason I read Core Knowledge’s blog. He’s doing something else with civics now, but he’s still very useful on Twitter.

Pedro Noguera is on twitter, although I don’t follow him, but that qualifies him for my list despite his lack of a blog. I rarely agree with him, but like Meier and Cuban, I find him thoughtfully progressive.

Teacher bloggers—not the same as teachers who happen to write blogs—are mostly a group that doesn’t interest me. I do like Michael Pershan, who’s enthusiastic without the slightest degree of tedium. All math teachers should check out his blogs and if he ever starts writing more about policy, he’d be very good at it. Reformers should like him–he doesn’t have a credential, I think.

If you’re a teacher who wants to become a teacher blogger, Larry Ferlazzo is the go-to guy to find out who’s blogging and what you might like–again, good blog, balanced approach, not my kind of thing.

The Math Twitterverse Blogosphere, or whatever it is called, is very angry at me for my meeeeeeeean Dan Meyer post and then for what they see as my racist writing, but in fact, I’ve checked into Meyer’s blog on and off for three years or so. I thought I posted fairly about his good points, but his comments section is really where the action is. If you’re a math teacher who hasn’t really engaged online, start with his blog and blogroll and you’ll find plenty of food for thought.

Dave, blogging at Math Equality, manages to make teaching seem miserable and joyless, but he’s exceptionally good at documenting just how brutally hard it is to teach unprepared kids at both ends of the spectrum–he teaches both calculus and algebra to kids who aren’t even close to ready for the subject. If you think I’m just making things up, go read Math Equality.

And of course, Eeyore, Gregory Taylor, who should start some sort of comic book with his math serializations.

Teacher advocates also aren’t a group I find appealing, but the best of these are all progressive: Anthony Cody, John Thompson, Gary Rubinstein are all effective, but predictable. Of these three, I think Rubiu8nstein is the only one currently teaching. They all write solid blogs and all have experience working with tough kids: Cody in Oakland, Thompson in Oklahoma, Rubinstein for TFA in Houston (although the last has been teaching smart kids in a selective school for the past decade or so, he approaches his work using his formative experience with tough kids). I read all of them occasionally, but not regularly; they just aren’t what I look for. If there are any genuinely interesting working teacher reform advocates, I’m unaware of them.

People you should probably investigate if you’re looking for education policy reporters/writers/think tankers, even though they aren’t part of my regular reading list: Andrew Rotherham (I’m really not a fan of any of the folks at Bellwether, but everyone else is), Lisa Fleisher, Stuart Buck, Andy Smarick, both Porter Magees, Lisa Hansel, Dana Goldstein, Jay P. Greene, California Teachers Empowerment Network, Rishawn Biddle, Valerie Strauss, Jay Mathews, National Association of Scholars, John Merrow. And of course, branch out from there.

People I actively advise against:

  • Diane Ravitch, not because she’s terrible, but because you’ll drown. And hell, you’ll hear if she wrote anything interesting through the other people you follow, so let them wade through the onslaught. Read her books instead; her early histories are outstanding. While I agree with most of her critics, reporters and reformers both show a tremendous distaste for her that is, I think, based on her cult-like following of teachers. After all, teachers are morons, so anyone they think is awesome can’t be all that.

    Something that’s a bit off topic but I’ve been meaning to write for a while: Ravitch is attacked for what critics see as unhinged assaults; in this particular example she is attacked for being mean. Note to ed policy wonks, and the reporters who cover them: Folks, the bulk of you are mean to teachers Every. Single. Day. When you talk about kids being trapped in failing schools, when you talk about the need for more talented teaching candidates, see neighborhood schools as death traps, when you argue that teachers unions (but not teachers, no!) care only about adults, and when you push Common Core training because teachers don’t know the subject matter—you are insulting teachers. To the bone. Go right ahead, I’m not saying you should stop. But don’t think you’re somehow superior because you don’t call teachers out by name. You’re saying we’re not terribly bright, that we don’t care about kids, that we are failing at our jobs (unless we teach at charters). You insult all of us in ways well beyond the pale as a matter of course. And you look like jackasses when you whine that one of yours is being insulted just because his name is used.

  • Michelle Rhee or Students First. Hack. For all Ravitch’s many faults, she has at least had original ideas and a coherent vision—which is why her conversion mattered. Michelle Rhee owes her entire existence to felicitous connections; the woman has never had an original thought or accomplishment in her life, and she’s a thug. I really wonder why her marriage to an accused sexual harasser and her role in the cover-up isn’t getting more attention.
  • Any union website, twitter, or representative. I’m not saying they’re wrong, they’re just not very interesting. If Randi Weingarten has had an original thought, she’s kept it well-hidden.
  • National Council on Teacher Quality–I’m not a huge fan of Jay Greene, but his takedown of NCTQ’s ed school ratings was perfect. These guys aren’t just boring and predictable, they’re flat out wrong. They don’t know what they are talking about. They lower the IQ of a website just by showing up.

So there you go. A lot of people I read and enjoy (Charles Murray, Razib Khan, Jonah Goldberg, Kevin Drum, Robert Verbruggen, Steve Sailer, Megan McArdle, Dave Barry) only occasionally or never touch on education. And HBDers looking for ed recommendations, um, there’s a reason I’m the only education writer on the network.