Follow the Money

Daniel Katz, an assistant professor of educational studies at Seton Hall University offers some suggestions on How to Spot a Fake Grassroots Education Reform Group.

Genuine grassroots organizations cannot just pop up out of nowhere, grow by 1000s of members practically overnight, afford slick web designs, afford Manhattan rent and big staffs.  But without knowing what to look for it can be difficult for the casual observer, or even a working teacher, to spot the signs of a group that is more AstroTurf than grassroots.

Although Katz makes great points all the way through the post, for me it all boils down to his question “Who is funding the group and for how much?”.

When the answer is organizations like “the Koch brothers, conservative financier Rex Sinquefield, Rupert Murdoch, The Walton Family Foundation, and the American Federation for Children, which is a charter supporting organization”, as it was for the group Katz used for his example, the lack of grassroots becomes crystal clear.

In addition to fake reform groups, follow the money is also good advice for assessing educational research, survey results, “miracle” school turnarounds, and “innovative” edtech startups.

Burglarizing the Future

From the always hazardous intersection of education and politics, comes Reading, Writing, Ransacking, a summary of the systematic process to dismantle public education in Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania.

There’s way too much good stuff in the column to quote without copying the whole thing, so take a few minutes to click through and read it. Just be prepared to yell at your screen.

However, I can’t resist posting the final paragraph.

They all have so very much to answer for, the people who have decided to enrich themselves by bashing public school teachers and, in doing so, putting the entire philosophy of public education, one of the lasting contributions to society of the American political commonwealth, at serious risk. No wonder they operate secretly, and in the shadows, and beyond the reach of public accountability. They are burglarizing the future for their own profit.

I can think of stronger criminal metaphors than “burglarizing” but, ok, let’s go with that.

Gotta Fill Up Those Young Brains

Jay Mathews believes we are not teaching young children enough facts.

Before continuing I should note that I’ve spent most of my instructional time working with middle and high school students and adults, which means I have very few qualifications to pontificate on elementary education. However, there are a couple of thoughts in Mathews piece that need to be challenged.

First, he quotes the parent of a first grader and president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank.1

“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on — this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.

I can’t help thinking that if elementary teachers were able to do more with that “conceptual understanding” early, instead of all the drilling on “rote facts and figures”, kids might be better prepared for advanced study later in their educational lives. Not to mention less inclined to dislike school by the time they reach the middle years.

Of course, since the standardized tests that Mathews and the Fordham people adore so much depend heavily on kids being able to spit back the facts and figures, I understand the longing for stuffing the curriculum with more of them as early as possible.

Then there is this statement from Mathews himself: “But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read.”

Again, I can’t speak to the process of how young children learn to read, but the concept of “filling young brains with useful facts” is straight out of the classic, simplistic concept of education as a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.

It’s an incredibly clueless idea, one still widely embraced by “reformers”. And one of the major impediments to ever bringing true reform to American schools.

  1. The National Zoo also has a “think tank”… for orangutans. I wonder which one gets more useful results. :-)

The Magical Properties of EdTech

Much has been written over the past year about the ill-fated 1-1 program in the Los Angeles Unified School district, which has now been suspended, scaled back and/or modified, depending on whose story you read. It began in the summer of 2013 with the announcement of ambitious plans to give an iPad to each of their 650,000 students.

And the project began to fall apart almost immediately with questions about financial and political irregularities in the procurement process. Followed closely by breathless news reports of students “hacking” their devices to get around the security measures installed by district IT. That “hack” turned out to be nothing more than removing one file to bypass the filtering system, but it was enough to insert even more media outrage into the mess.

However, in all that reporting, many writers, especially in the “traditional” media, miss a big point. They concentrated on the political (which public official should we blame this week) or the financial (Apple is doomed).1 Missing is the fact that this was, more than anything else, a crappy instructional plan.

You could start with the fact that very few if any teachers were involved in creating the proposal. As with so many of these grand ideas for improving education, the plan was pushed down on schools by administration (starting with the superintendent who claimed the devices would be “transformational”) and school board members who apparently believe that adding tech will magically fix all the other issues schools face.

Officials and parents say they hope the iPads will boost achievement and help put low-income students on an even footing with wealthier ones.

Many of those administrators also seemed to be far more worried about having enough connected devices for collecting data (through standardized testing, of course) rather than for student learning. The superintendent even called data a “pillar of his administration”.

But the far larger problem in all this, the single factor that doomed this project from the first day, lies in how too many educators, politicians, and business people picture 1-1 computing in the learning process. A concept neatly summarized by this photo:

kids and ipads

Kids, sitting in front of devices, isolated from each other, performing traditional instructional tasks.2 Or, very likely today, working their way through canned “individualized” lessons. But it’s nothing new. We’ve done the same thing since the first desktop computers were formed into school labs and teachers trooped their classes down the hall to do Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit.

Although many of the articles I’ve read blame the choice of iPads for failure of this project, it is not the device that’s at fault. Had LA schools bought Chromebooks, or Android devices, or Surface tablets, or just plain generic laptops, the ultimate result would be the same.

A district spends lots of money on classroom technology while changing nothing about the curriculum, classroom practice, teacher training, or assessment. District administrators and politicians stand for photo ops followed by high minded statements about “21st century” something and creating “world-class learners”. After everyone leaves, a small number of teachers relish the opportunity and try to do great things with the devices, while most, having had minimal opportunity for professional learning, continue with the standard test prep process and only use the new technology enough to satisfy the expectations of whoever is writing their evaluation.

And a few years later the next set of politicians, administrators and/or school board members come up with yet another idea to “reform” education.

Now, I have a pretty lousy track record at forecasting, so I could be wrong. But in my time as an educator in an overly-large (but smaller than LA) school district, I’ve seen many, many attempts to activate the magical learning properties of technology.

No one yet has found the right spell. It doesn’t exist. Not even the next shiny device to be announced any minute now.

  1. Although someone writes about that every week of every year.

  2. With a “smart” board waiting behind them.

What Does Your “Research” Really Say?

An essay by an English teacher posted in the wonderful Post blog The Answer Sheet 1 offers Seven things teachers are sick of hearing from school reformers.

It’s all good, worth your time to read and pass along, and she probably could have added eight or ten more. But this is one that really stands out.

4. Don’t tell us “The research says…” unless you’re willing to talk about what it really says.

It’s not that we don’t care about research, but that most often when research is mentioned in a school context, it is used to end legitimate conversation rather than to begin it, as a cudgel to silence us rather than an opening to engage us constructively. Very often when confronted with a “research says” claim that I find dubious or irrelevant, I ask for a citation and get a blank or vaguely menacing stare, or some invented claim about the demands of the Common Core, or a single name, “Marzano,” as though he completed all instructional research.

Research on children and learning is difficult to do right and the best you can say about almost studies in this area is that they are incomplete. However, at the very least those education “experts” pontificating on research should be required to read past the executive summary.

Oh, and I’m one more teacher who’s tired of “Marzano” being cited as the solution to everything.

  1. And there isn’t much wonderful in the Washington Post these days, on paper or the web.

Time to Kill This Long Summer Break

It’s been quiet recently here in Lake Wobegon the overly-large school district.

Because, of course, it’s July, with most teachers and students on their far too extended summer break, a monumental waste of time, money, energy and learning that I was planning to write about once again.

However, rather than inflicting the web with yet another rant on the subject, go read A Teacher’s Case Against Summer Vacation, a better and certainly more concise argument for making much needed alterations to our archaic academic calendar.

As she points out, we hold on to our current system1 largely due to tradition and emotion, and despite much evidence that it is actually detrimental to learning for many kids. Or at least to the type of student learning we most value, that assessed on standardized tests.

However, this not about increasing school time, just rearranging it. Taking the long summer block and spreading the still very much needed breaks more evenly throughout the year. Allowing for family vacations and assorted kid camps in other months, regular building maintenance, embedded professional development time for teachers, and remediation for students who need it when it will be more relevant.

Like this writer, I’m also puzzled why this kind of calendar change is not a big part of the education reform discussion. Maybe it really is just too simple of an idea.

Or maybe a new approach to school time like this never occurred to the politicians and billionaires leading the debate because it doesn’t contribute larger profits to owners of charter schools, standardized testing creators, or the many vendors of Common Core “solutions”.

  1. Which, contrary to popular folklore, does NOT have agrarian roots.

Why Change?

Last summer the school board here in the overly-large school district hired a new superintendent1 and since then we’ve been waiting for her reorganization of the system. Because that’s what new big bosses do, they rearrange things to fit their vision and add their imprint to the bureaucracy.

A couple of weeks ago that plan was dropped on us. The centerpiece is grouping the schools into five regions, each lead by an assistant superintendent and an “executive” principal. Which is different from the eight clusters we have now, created by the previous superintendent’s reorg. And the three areas (reduced from four) passed along by his predecessors. I’m sure there were other arrangement prior to that but my memory of past changes is exhausted.

In addition, the org chart for central office gets “streamlined” (although not really) with a new Chief Academic Officer, Chief Operations Officer and Chief of Staff. 2 Very telling that the Testing/Assessment office is shown reporting directly to the CAO,3 above anything to do with instruction in the diagram.

Anyway, that’s all very interesting (and not especially different) but the real bottom line question is: will any of this impact schools and classrooms? Does this latest organizational chart lead to improvements in how students learn and are assessed? Of course it’s way too early for clear answers. Bureaucracies like ours just don’t change very quickly.

I would like to believe that things will change in our district. I really would. Maybe this latest reorganization, combined with other initiatives from the superintendent (like the Portrait of a Graduate project), is the one that leads to that “learning revolution” I’ve heard our leadership speak of.

However, over the years I’ve seen too many of these promised “new way of doing business” to know that the odds of any meaningful change resulting from them are very low. There are far too many factors beyond the organizational structure that will work against any meaningful changes. 

You’ll hear many of our school and community leaders using phrases like “21st century learning”, “global student”, “4Cs”, “world class education” while still believing there’s little or nothing wrong. That the basic structure of our instructional system is solid and needs only a few tweaks.

We also are hobbled by a community, one of the wealthiest in the US, that refuses to adequately support essential elements of society like education and health, and politicians more worried about getting re-elected than about explaining to their constituents that, no, you can’t have high quality anything without paying for it.

Bottom line, standardized test score are high, the dropout rate is low, something like 80+% of our graduates go on to college, and every one of our high schools rank high on the Post’s “challenge” index. Oh, yeah, and real estate prices are solid.

How do you improve on that?

  1. After July 1 we’ll have to drop that “new” appellation.

  2. To catch whatever isn’t academic or operations, I guess.

  3. Chief Academic Officer, because we have to shorten everything to initials, right?

Getting Unstuck

Seth Godin:

When times get confusing, it’s easy to revert to the habits that got you here. More often than not, that’s precisely the wrong approach. The very thing that got you here is the thing that everyone who’s here is doing, and if that’s what it took to get to the next level, no one would be stuck.

Of course his point is directed at business.

However, falling back on the habits that got us here is exactly why reform of the American education system is stuck in the 1960’s. Teacher-directed instruction, using a curriculum based on the concept of a fixed knowledge base, with learning assessed in the narrowest possible manner is “precisely the wrong approach”.

When do we move to the next level?

US Education Policy is Screwed Up

To back that blanket statement, consider these two pieces of evidence found on the interwebs just today.

First we have a new report showing that “fraudulent charter operators in 15 states are responsible for losing, misusing or wasting over $100 million in taxpayer money”.

We found, as stated in the introduction, that at least $100 million in public tax dollars has been lost due to fraud, waste, and abuse. These instances of fraud and mismanagement, which are catalogued in appendixes A-F, fall into six basic categories:

  • Charter operators using public funds illegally for personal gain;
  • School revenue used to illegally support other charter operator businesses;
  • Mismanagement that puts children in actual or potential danger;
  • Charters illegally requesting public dollars for services not provided;
  • Charter operators illegally inflating enrollment to boost revenues; and,
  • Charter operators mismanaging public funds and schools.

Charter schools, of course, are the cornerstone of many school reform plans, including those from the current federal administration, many states, and billionaire education “experts” like the Gates and Walton Foundations.

This report is on top of other studies showing that student learning at charters is no better, and often worse, than the districts from which they are taking students and money. And, contrary to the claims of supporters that the competition provided by charters will improve schools for all kids, are actually undermining public education.

With all this data to review, what’s a politician to do? Why, push for more charters, of course.

A bipartisan group of senators plans to introduce a bill Wednesday meant to encourage the growth of charter schools across the country, mirroring legislation expected to be taken up in the House later this week.

Building on the “success of charter schools”, according to one Senator.

Congress critters must not use the same set of web-based tubes that I do.

Then there’s the matter of how to assess the quality of teachers.

Many states and districts have begun using some variation on the Value-Add Model, about which I’ve ranted recently, that assesses teachers based in part on the increase in student learning (aka standardized test scores) over time. In other words, how much value did the teacher add.

Some teachers in Florida objected to the system used in that state in which they would be “evaluated on the scores of students they haven’t taught and on subjects they don’t teach”. Seems like an unfair process, one that might even violate “the Equal Protection and Due Process Clause of the Constitution”. And a District Judge agreed that the process is ridiculous.

However, he also said it was legal.

“This case, however, is not about the fairness of the evaluation system,” Walker wrote. “The standard of review is not whether the evaluation policies are good or bad, wise or unwise; but whether the evaluation policies are rational within the meaning of the law. The legal standard for invalidating legislative acts on substantive due process and equal protection grounds looks only to whether there is a conceivable rational basis to support them,” even though this basis might be “unsupported by evidence or empirical data.”

Obviously I’m not qualified to be a judge because I cannot see how an unfair system can have a “conceivable rational basis” to support it.

Anyway, bottom line, the political posturing represented by these examples, not to mention the tens of millions wasted, does nothing to help students get a better education.


Questioning the Portrait

A few months ago I ranted about our superintendent’s new pet project called Portrait of a Graduate. Her goal is to develop a long range plan for our schools based on a vision of the skills that students should have after 12 or so years in our classrooms.

Since then, the 72 people on the team have released their first product1, a framework of the skills a graduate should have acquired during their 12 or so years in our schools.

It begins…

The [OLSD]2 Graduate will engage in the lifelong pursuit of academic knowledge and interdisciplinary learning by being a: Communicator, Collaborator, Global Citizen, Creative and Critical Thinker, and Self-Directed and Responsible Individual.

Listed below each of those categories are four or five bullet points of evidence indicating a graduate has met the criteria. Stuff like “Engaging in problem solving” and “work interdependently within a group”, the kind of traits you’ve seen before in an endless stream of reports from commissions and think tanks. And therein lies the problem.

The intent of this project is to be forward looking, to consider the major societal changes of the past thirty years and imagine how our schools should change in response. As I said before, an excellent goal, one that is long overdue.

However, this initial document, designed to be a framework for the larger plans to come, strikes me as one that is very much rooted in the present and past, not at all forward looking.

For example, in the Communicator section, although the final item declares students should be able to use “contemporary digital tools to explore and exchange ideas”, the other four bullets deal with standard reading, face-to-face, and formal written communications, the kind of stuff that is heavily tested. The Collaborator section sounds like it came straight out of the handbook of a corporate team-building consultant.

Ok, this project is still very early in the process and I have no idea where it’s headed. So, I’m going to hold off on a lot of cynical ranting based on one page of text and wait to see what gets built on the superintendent’s framework. Instead, I’m just going to toss out a couple of simple questions.

First, repeating from my earlier post: where are the students? the recent graduates? the kids who dropped out?

There’s no evidence they were part of the team that wrote this document (maybe a few were scattered in those “community” focus groups) and the language is very much adult eduspeak. Continuing the conceit that we can discuss education reform without having the people who are most affected at the table as full partners.

Second, how do we resolve these goals with our current instructional practice, especially since very little of the ideas in this document fit with what we do now in schools?

Although we go through the motions of having students collaborate, in the end they are assessed entirely on their work as individuals. While we like to believe teachers are using activities that require critical thinking, in most cases there is still only one right answer and the path to get there was long ago predetermined.

And if I’m allowed one more question, are we really going to change the concept of school to better enable students to live and work in their future? Or will this project fuel just another meaningless reorganization of the same old system?

I have my doubts, but stay tuned.

  1. The document is publicly available on our district website but very difficult to locate and I can’t find anyway to link to it directly, so I’ve uploaded a copy here. We’ll see how much trouble that gets me.

  2. OLSD, of course, being our overly-large school district.

Dancing Around the Status Quo

Here in the overly-large school district, we are in the middle of the annual budget dance. It’s sorta like an aggressive tango mixed with a square dance involving lots of partners.1 The long, drawn-out process stems from the fact that our school board has no taxing authority. Most of the funding for schools comes from the county Board of Supervisors in a magic formula called the “transfer”, with much smaller amounts sent directly from state and federal governments.

The first movement begins in the fall with the Supervisors declaring that they will only be able to provide this much money for schools, because we are in dire financial straits and (never directly stated) no one is going to be politically stupid enough to propose a tax increase. This despite the fact that we live in one of the richest counties in the country.

A few weeks later, the superintendent presents a budget for the schools system, one that always requires more funds than the Supervisors, along with dire pronouncements of how awful the impact will be on your children if it is not fully funded. For a variety of reasons, this year is slightly more awful than in past years, including class size increases and personnel cuts right up front.

And then everyone dances. At community meetings, in the paper, online, on television, wherever there is an audience. The final steps will come in late May when the Supervisors pass their budget, the school board passes theirs, and the new fiscal year begins with everyone living with the decisions made.

However, in all the claims, threats, and political posturing, one thing is missing from the ballroom: any serious discussion of what this community wants from it’s schools.

The process is all about the status quo, specifically how much of it everyone wants and is willing to pay for. The assumption is that, during the coming year, schools will operate exactly as they have in the past. The classes may be a little larger, the busses a little older, fewer of us lazy central office folks,2 but still the same basic education formula.

At the same time, we have politicians, parents, administrators, business folks, community leaders, and others using phrases like “world class”, “21st century skills”, “life-long learners”, “innovation”, “problem solvers” to describe the lofty (and somewhat vague) goals they want for students and schools. Ideas that don’t at all fit with our traditional teacher-directed, test-focused, fact-transfer instructional process.

Anyway, the bottom line question, if our leaders are really serious about wanting to make those major changes to the way we education our children, is how do we pay for it?

As I said, we live in one of the richest areas in the US, probably the world, able to pay whatever is necessary for a high quality school system, whatever we decide that means.  All the different participants in our annual budget dance need to stop the music and have that serious and comprehensive discussion of what we expect from our schools?3

  1. Just as chaotic and entertaining as it sounds.

  2. As you might expect, never fewer assistant superintendents and their pet programs.

  3. Beyond higher property values, lower taxes, and the best SAT scores in the DC area.

Charter Schools Are a Great Idea

In the original concept of charter schools, a few innovative educators would be enabled to organize their own school and experiment with new ideas for reforming the old model and improving student learning, all under the auspices of, and using funds from, the surrounding public system. The ideas that worked could be incorporated into “regular” schools. The ones that didn’t would also provide a learning experience.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality has been far different.

Two different articles that landed near each other in my Instapaper queue over winter break offer plenty of evidence showing that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results, and are undermining public education.

Possibly the biggest problem is that nearly half of charter students are enrolled in schools being run by corporations,1 often supported by grants from large, well-funded philanthropic organizations with a political agenda like the Walton Foundation. And their schools are rarely held to the same accountability standards (instructional or financial) as public schools.

Beyond serious questions about who are running these schools (more business people, fewer educators), is the fact that study after study shows they produce “mixed results” at best.

A 2009 national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter “reform,” found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. Earlier this year, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance.”

However, there is an equally fundamental problem with the way the charter concept has been applied that goes back to the original idea: very few charters are not doing anything innovative.

Most are structured around the traditional teacher information delivery model, with students required to learn the same material, in the same order, often using the same resources as has been standard in public schools for decades (if not centuries). And then demonstrate their learning on programmed standardized tests.

Some charters make a big deal out of requiring longer days, Saturday school, and more regimentation (KIPP), others substitute computer-delivered instruction for human teachers (Rocketship). Certainly these changes may work for some students under some circumstances, but as test cases that might be more broadly applied, they are generally worthless. For many public schools, these ideas could be classified as “been there, done that”.

Even with all these problems, what I’ve covered here only scratches the surface of why the charter school movement (pushed by many high profile education “reformers”) are doing nothing to improve American public education and are probably detrimental.

Spend some time and read the two articles, along with some of the many supporting citations they link to, for a much fuller picture of why the theory of the charter concept is a great idea, while the reality of charter schools in this country is a crappy mess.

  1. “such as K12 Inc., National Heritage Academies, Charter Schools USA and KIPP”

Common Core Gives Me a Headache, But Give It a Chance Anyway

Look around and it’s not hard to find negative reviews for Common Core, along with the many education reform “leaders” promoting this latest framework for testing kids.1

However, Jay Mathews’ column from last week sets a new low for arguments in support of this program, starting with the title: I’m no Common Core fan, but give it a chance.

He gets off to a good start by explaining why new standards are the wrong approach and will do nothing to improve learning for kids.

As our national battle over the Common Core standards escalates this year, remember that new standards and curricula rarely improve schools. What does work is families becoming more affluent, teachers becoming more proficient and students spending more time and energy on their studies.

New lesson plans and textbooks such as those being unleashed by the Common Core in nearly all states have no effect on parental income. Some teachers and students may do better when there are changes in what they study, but so far there is little proof of that.

Mathews goes on to say that the standards are “difficult to summarize” and “[r]eading their jargon gives me headaches.”, but he still knows that “in general they encourage a deeper approach to teaching”.

And ignore the research (not to mention a long history of experience) showing that “raising standards doesn’t improve student achievement” (aka test scores).

C’mon, everyone, stop complaining about Common Core and give it a chance.

  1. Guess which side I’m on. :-)