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Category: educational politics Page 1 of 93

Do You Feel Essential Yet?

School House

For some reason, I find news that teachers have now been declared “essential workers” by the Department of Homeland Security amusing. Not too long ago we were being told that all of us would soon be replaced by Google, YouTube, and artificial intelligence.

I guess the concept of taking school entirely online didn’t turn out to be all that attractive.

Back to School

Screen Shot 2020 07 13 at 12 07 05 PM

Lots of politicians, pundits, and other experts, with minimal uncertainty, have declared that kids must go back to school this fall. I guess that whole online schooling we tried last spring didn’t work for them.1

About three weeks ago, the superintendent for our overly-large school district announced their plans for opening, a compromise between full in-person attendance and being fully online. Parents have been given the choice of their children being in the building two days a week, completing the rest of their work from home, or having their instruction completely online.

Teachers would also be given the same options, although, from what I’ve read and heard, administrators made it clear that they might not be able to honor all the choices.

As with most compromises, the many different constituencies immediately found something they didn’t like about the plan. The three organizations representing teachers2 were among the loudest, telling their members to all select the all-online option.

All of which is completely understandable since it generated far more questions than answers, even nearly a month later. And, as you might expect, the specifics keep changing.

For one thing, the school board moved the first day of school ahead two weeks to the day after Labor Day. Administrators also bumped the date by which parents and teachers had to make their decision, from last Friday to this coming Wednesday.

To complicate everything even more, in the past few days Fairfax’s plans were given a big national spotlight when the Secretary of Education3 offered her thoughts, all of them negative, and the district was featured in reports on CNN and other media. Plus lots of sometimes conflicting advice from medical organizations and other experts.

So, if I were running the overly-large school district,4 and the school board told me I had to plan for at least some students in the buildings, here’s what I would do.

For at least the first quarter, have all middle and high school students attend their classes online. Then send the elementary kids back but put half of them into the middle and high school buildings where they would have lots of room to spread out. It’s not a perfect plan, but show me one that is.

Anyway, here we are with fall fast approaching and plenty of uncertainty about… well, pretty much everything, starting with the course of the pandemic itself. Jen has a good post with some questions she’s been considering, and there are many more. I don’t envy my many friends and former colleagues who also have difficult issues to face, in and out of their jobs, probably for at least the rest of the year.

I’m still pretty sure the new school year will start sometime in September but beyond that, everything is up in the air.

Welcome to the new reality, for schools and everyone else.


The illustration is by Tom Toles, long time editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post. It pretty well sums up the current situation, don’t ya think?

1. Many more thoughts on that are coming.

2. Officially, the three groups are not “unions” since the state of Virginia does not allow public employees to be represented by unions. That may be changing soon.

3. She who must not be named. With any luck, she will be out of the job next January.

4. Something no one, including me, would ever want!

Acting Small in an Overly-Large System

George Couros, one of the most thoughtful voices in my RSS feed, recently wrote about leading in a large school district. The post was triggered by an administrator with a good question: “Do you really believe that you can make this change happen with such a large district?”

That “large” district serves 30,000 students and it started me thinking again about the overly-large school district in which I worked for many, many years.1 If this person has trouble wrapping their head around steering a system that size, what does it take to significantly change course in one with more than 188,000 students? As I’ve said, overly-large.

One of George’s suggestions is that “leadership needs to always act small”, regardless of the actual size of the system. He wonders whether teachers and others actually know who the superintendent is, and by extension in a large system, the other members of the “leadership team”.

Does your leadership go into schools? When they do, does anyone know? Do they show up with their “entourage” and pop in and out? Do they hang out in classrooms, sometimes bring their laptop, and sit in classrooms to understand the impact of their decisions on classrooms? You should never make decisions for classrooms, students, and teachers unless you are present in those classrooms.

I know when any of the superintendents I worked for visited a school, it was a major press event. They never sat in a classroom without plenty of notice and several assistants in tow. Plus at least one photographer. Same for school board members, most of whom seemed to make principals very nervous.

Later in the post, George makes this observation.

Your district or school might be gigantic, but if you are in a leadership position, your job is the same; you serve students and educators.

In an overly-large district like ours, I think the superintendent and most of the leadership team often lose sight of that idea. Their days (and many nights) were often taken up by various political factions and issues, both internal and external, leaving little time to consider the everyday process of teaching and learning. Occasionally some of them will talk about “change”. It’s usually in very general terms, using the cliches drawn from the most current issue of their ed journals, and little of it gets translated into policy.

Now, none of this is intended to be critical of the people themselves. Most of the leaders in our district were well meaning (with the exception of a few nutball school board members) and believed their work was in the best interest of students. It’s the nature of the job that they have no time to develop a good understanding of the impact their decisions made in the thousands of classrooms of our district.

Currently the Fairfax school board is looking for a new superintendent to try and steer this colossus. They hired a “top” recruitment firm to conduct the usual “exhaustive national search”. Screening for the qualities of vision, leadership, and the ability to make data-driven decisions, at the top of the impossibly long list. The board should be getting close to making a decision, at least if they want that person in place for the start of the annual budget wrestling season.

But, I fully expect the person they hire will be far more CEO than educator. The little time spent in classrooms will be for show, when time allows. As to using social media to “create visibility during times that you can’t physically get into classrooms”, as George suggests, don’t hold your breath. It will be interesting to see if this one has any online footprint at all. Beyond newspaper articles and press releases, that is.

The Fallacy of School Choice

With the new administration pushing the privatization of public schools, headed by a Secretary of Education even less qualified than me, you hear from a lot of advocates for “school choice”.

They tell you that if all parents had the option to send their children to any school of their choice – charter, private, or public – all would be well with American education. Or at least scores on the NAEP and PISA tests would skyrocket, which is about the only way most school reformers understand learning and student “achievement”.

The Secretary and her friends in the charter school industry maintain that picking a school should be like any other purchase in the free market. After all you have lots of options when it comes to buying a car and many places to buy one. Why not offer at least a few choices when it comes to something even more important?

There are some major issues with a “free market” system for something that should be a public good, more than enough for several long posts. However, the specific concept of “choosing” as school for a child includes a big problem I haven’t seen discussed much.

Unlike finding a new minivan, the vast majority of parents don’t have enough information about the complexities of school to make a real, informed choice. And many, if not most, don’t have the resources, expertise, or time to become sufficiently informed. That’s not a criticism of most parents. Unless you’re as rich as DeVos, parents don’t have a lot of time to spend on research.

But schools, private or not, also don’t make it easy to comparison shop. Some work very hard to hide any meaningful data on their programs, outcomes, and finances. Public schools have been known to fudge the numbers. And the information provided by most private schools and charters often comes in the form of marketing brochures. Material that’s more about recruiting than transparency.

In addition to having enough information is providing it in a form that can actually be compared. When you research that new car, most of the basic metrics have common units and language that can be lined up in columns. You also have some relatively independent organizations that test drive vehicles and speak a common language about the vehicles.

No one “test drives” schools. There are few common metrics between all schools. Much of the common language – world-class, mindset, high tech, innovation, STEM – is at best vaguely defined. Test scores can’t be compared because not all schools use the same evaluations and students in charters are often not required to take them. Even graduation rates are not measured in the same way.

So, the goal is to allow every parent in the US to decide where their children will receive the basic education that will impact the rest of their lives. How do we provide them with the necessary, relevant, and comparable data to do that? Something more than websites and flyers with pictures of happy kids and competent-looking teachers, mixed with important sounding educational jargon.

That’s a serious question. One that I rarely hear the advocates of school choice address. Because without sufficient, understandable information, how does anyone make a critical decision about something as important as a child’s education?

Hey, here’s a radical idea! How about if we spend more time and resources on improving pubic schools for all children everywhere in this country? That too is a serious question.

Debating Charters, Intelligently

The concept of debate has been severely corrupted in the age of 24-hour talking head television. Boxing up two to six people on a TV screen and letting them yell opinions over each other for five minutes may make for higher ratings but it certainly doesn’t provide any context for whatever the topic is.

A more interesting approach is a public radio series called Intelligence Squared US (IQ2US), the American branch of a fifteen year old UK organization founded with the “goal of raising the level of public discourse” on important current issues. I’ve listened to a number of their programs over the years and most are a nice learning experience. More than a few found me yelling back at the speaker while driving.

The format uses what they call the “Oxford” style of debate2 in which two people on each side present their arguments for or against a specific resolution. The debate begins with each person in turn given a fixed amount of time to present their case. In part 2, the moderator and audience members get to ask questions and the participants can interact with each other, dealing only with information, not opinion. Finally each person gets a couple of minutes to present a closing argument.

Each debate does declare a winner, based on votes from the audience. Before starting, they vote for or against the resolution, or declare themselves undecided. The same vote is taken at the end. The winner is the team that has the largest percentage change to their side. The organization also takes pre and post votes on the website but it’s not clear if those numbers are included.

Last week I discovered that IQ2U events are being streamed on YouTube and I got the chance to actually watch the debate proceedings live. It’s very different from the podcast, which is only audio and obviously edited from a much longer discussion.

This particular debate (embedded below) was of particular interest since the resolution being address was “Charter Schools Are Overrated”.

I’m not going to try and summarize more than 90 minutes of discussion but I do have a few observations.

On the side opposed to the resolution was the founder of an organization that promotes school choice and a former Florida commissioner of education. They didn’t seem like they had spoken at all before coming on stage and were reciting their own list of talking points, with lots of anecdotes and very little evidence.

I thought the two college professors and researchers on the supporting side did a better job but also had some communications issues. Both brought plenty of data to the table but should have spent more time prior to the debate boiling it down to a few, very relevant points.

The moderator does get a little involved in the proceedings, while staying pretty neutral, and that’s a good thing. I liked that he challenged speakers on both sides to restrict their statements to evidence and not try to their opinion as fact. The people on the “news” channels could learn something.

Finally, there’s the proposal itself. As with many, even most, of the topics on this series, the statement is far too broad. It’s also not the most important issue when it comes to charter schools. We should be debating whether charters are a good format for the overall improvement of public education. But this was a good start.

Anyway, go watch the whole thing (I won’t spoil the ending by saying which side won), although you may want to do it in private. If you’re like me, you may feel like very vocally joining the debate.

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