The Magic Number

Around this time every year, the school board for our overly large school district approves the calendar for the next academic year. The process involves working around inviolable holidays, setting teacher workdays, finding room for professional development days, and so on.

And somebody on the board staff calculates everything so that the calendar includes at least 990 hours of class time.

Why 990 hours? Because the state of Virginia says so.

Why did the wise folks in Richmond settle on 990 hours? No clue.

A search for that number on the DOE site finds more than 500 documents, mostly relating to forms that must be filed and what happens if a district misses that target (it seems to start with a loss of cash).

Nothing about why 990 hours.1 No references to research showing that to be the ideal amount of time for student classroom learning in a 12 month period.

The 990 number doesn’t even seem to stem from the traditional 180 days in a school year. Or to the 120 hours of “contact time” in a traditional Carnegie Unit for high school courses. It just seems to be the number that everyone has agreed on.

And no one, least of all our school board, wants to tempt the consequences resulting from kids having one less minute of that magic seat time.


  1. 990 seems to be the number that other states, including New York and Massachusetts, have also settled on.

The Blame Belongs to Us

If you don’t live inside the ultimate company town that is the Washington DC metro area, you may not have heard of Politico. It’s basically an inside-the-beltway gossip rag that one writer calls “Tiger Beat On The Potomac”.1

While most of what they publish isn’t worth your bandwidth or time, Politico does have an investigative unit that occasionally produces something worth reading. Like their recent deep dive into Pearson, the 800-pound gorilla of standardized testing, in an aptly titled piece No Profit Left Behind. It’s not especially flattering.

A POLITICO investigation has found that Pearson stands to make tens of millions in taxpayer dollars and cuts in student tuition from deals arranged without competitive bids in states from Florida to Texas. The review also found Pearson’s contracts set forth specific performance targets — but don’t penalize the company when it fails to meet those standards. And in the higher ed realm, the contracts give Pearson extensive access to personal student data, with few constraints on how it is used.

The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.

And it’s not at all surprising when the writer states “[t]he story of Pearson’s rise is very much a story about America’s obsession with education reform over the past few decades”.

What she misses is that the “obsession” has not really been with “reform” as much as the desire to hold someone accountable for the perceived “decline” in the American education system. The politicians writing the laws needed concrete data, and companies like Pearson crafted the products to deliver it. Right place, right time.2

The worst part about the contracts many states have entered into with Pearson is that they get paid regardless of whether their products and services actually work, or at least do what the company says they will. One example that hits too close to home.

The state of Virginia recertified Pearson as an approved “school turnaround” consultant in 2013 even though the company had, at best, mixed results with that line of work: Just one of the five Virginia schools that Pearson cited as references improved both its math and reading proficiency rates against the state averages. Two schools lost ground in both math and reading and the other two had mixed results. State officials said Pearson met all the criteria they required of consultants.

Our state must have pretty low criteria for consultants. As, it seems, do many districts and states all over the country.

Anyway, go read the whole thing, keeping in mind the bottom line, as I ranted about recently, is that the blame for the educational malpractice described in this piece belongs in large part to us.

“When the federal government starts doing things like requiring all states to test all kids, there’s going to be gold in those hills. The people we’ve elected have created a landscape that’s allowed Pearson to prosper.” – Jonathan Zimmerman, education historian at New York University.

We, dear citizen and taxpayer, enable the pigs to eat at the trough.


  1. That would be Charles Pierce from Esquire’s Politics Blog, referencing the 60’s era teen gossip and fan magazine.

  2. Consider this little bit from the article: “A top executive boasted in 2012 that Pearson is the largest custodian of student data anywhere. And that’s just its K-12 business.”

Not in the Education World

I’m not sure if this story is a reflection on the political nature of education reform or on the superficiality of MOOC.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education is offering three MOOCS — massive open online courses — with “convenient, self-paced modules to accommodate busy schedules” to help you do more to “advance and effectively implement trending reforms.”

So, who are the wise and experienced educators leading these courses?

Along with [Joel] Klein, the former chancellor of New York City public schools, and [John] King, the former New York State education commissioner who is now a top adviser to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, you will hear from people including John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education; Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Bush foundation, who sent the e-mail announcement; and Greg Hughes, Utah Speaker of the House. The 18 people shown on the foundation Web site who are involved in the courses come from the policy and legislative (and not the education) world. [my emphasis]

That “not in the education world” part pretty much summarizes the entire approach to education reform in this country.

Educational Gimmicks

Remember when the superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District had big plans to give an iPad to all 640,000 of their students?

Well, they have a new superintendent.

“I don’t believe we can afford a device for every student,” Cortines told the Los Angeles Times, “Education shouldn’t become the gimmick of the year.” Cortines added that LAUSD had never made a definitive plan for how teachers would have used the iPads during instruction, nor had it planned how it was going to pay for the tablets over time.

I’m not sure what he means by education “becoming” the gimmick of the year since, for as long as I can remember, we’ve had a new gimmick almost every year. Sometimes more than one.

And that gimmick was often some kind of technology, distributed with vague plans for instructional use, and no sustainable funding plan.

Lacking Leadership

Here in the overly large school district we are having a big argument over the use of Chromebooks. But the merits of that particular device is a discussion for another post. This particular rant concerns the huge leadership vacuum we have around here when it comes to the larger issue of instructional technology.

The Chromebook conflict involves our little group in the instruction department, many of our school-based trainers, and some of our principals versus the IT department. And, as is usually the case in conflicts like this, IT prevails. Not because they have solid research or compelling facts or even good anecdotal evidence on their side. No, what IT has is a leader willing and ready to express a vision for the place for technology in our educational process.

That the IT vision is a very narrow one, incorporating educational clichés often drawn from tech industry publications, and skewed towards what is most convenient for their technicians to set up and manage is totally irrelevant. When an instructional technology issue is raised in our system, their leaders are most often the people called to respond, the people who jump in front of the microphones to answer the questions. The IT voice is the one that fills the silence.

So where are our leaders on the instructional side? The ones with actual teaching and school administration experience who are supposed to represent the needs of teachers, students, and schools?

When it comes to a vision for technology in teaching and learning, we find that huge leadership vacuum. The superintendent, her deputy super, and other assorted members of her “leadership” team offer nice phrases about “21st century” this and that, they’re concerned about inequity, suggesting that we need programs like 1-1 computing, and they rave over photo-op sidebars like BYOD.

What they lack, however, is any kind of cohesive, clearly articulated concept of the place of technology for instruction. How all the devices and connectivity, on which we already spend tens of millions of dollars a year, might alter and improve the traditional educational process. Where should we be heading in the future.

Certainly we have teachers, school administrators, and others of us who are trying to shake things up, attempting to fill in the empty space and articulate some forward-looking ideas. And that kind of grassroots, guerrilla-style approach to leadership can be very effective, especially in a large bureaucratic structure. But it’s also a slow, scattered, largely unfocused approach to changing a system that is in love with it’s past successes, and which values inertia over almost everything else.

Ok, so none of my ravings here are meant to disparage the people in our IT department, most of whom are nice, very talented people doing a great job with the given resources. But the bottom line is that IT should not be making final decisions on what tools and techniques are used in the classroom. It should be the job of our instructional leaders, beginning with a clear definition of our instructional needs.

If they would only accept their responsibility.