Friday, October 24, 2014

Charter Wolves in Public School Clothing: Buffalo Edition

The Alliance for Quality Education and Citizen Action of New York have released a report that shows in impressive detail how one school board member is raking in money in the charter biz.

Carl Paladino runs Ellicott Development, a large property develop company in the Buffalo area. Ellicott does a big chunk of business with charter operators in Buffalo, having worked with "the private operators of at least five Buffalo charter schools. His preferred money-making technique appears to be either flipping properties back to the operators, or "leaseback" deals.

The report also suggests that Paladino makes money indirectly from properties near new charters, which are now more valuable because the neighborhood has been improved. In one particularly sweet deal, Paladino bought up twenty-two properties on Buffalo's East Side, turned two of them into charter schools, and then started developing the other nearby nineteen as apartments.

Paladino ran for school board on the assertion that he would recuse himself from charter school votes. But the report notes that he has instead acted as "the most vocal proponent" of charters.

It reminds me a bit of the old westerns where the wily politician grabs himself a chunk of land and then colludes with the railroad company to run the new tracks through his property.

Paladino's interest in charter schools is not in dispute-- not even by him. On the question of making money from working with charters, the Buffalo City News quotes him:  "If I didn't, I'd be a friggin' idiot."

The News sat down with Paladino after the report was released and gave him an opportunity to respond. His argument appears to boil down to:

* Charters are only a small fraction of Ellicott's business.
* His investments in charters are crazy risky and yield a paltry 10% ROI, but he's a charter believer.
* Ellicott is a private company and he's not opening his books.
* He'll recuse himself from votes in which he has direct financial interest, but that's it.

The News also found at least charter founder who found Paladino to be an angel. These testimonies include schools in which Paladino is the sole investor; I am thinking they know how to treat that feeding hand.

The report gets into the specifics of how some of these arrangements work. The leaseback is particularly tasty. For those of you who don't play games with money for a living, here's how it works:

* Chris buys a building.
* Pat leases the building from Chris for a buck ($1.00)
* Chris leases the building (which he actually already owns) from Pat for a buttload of money.

Why would anybody even do that? Why pay a buttload of money to lease a building you already own? At least two possibilities come to mind.

1) In some regions, you may get tax breaks on lease payments that aren't available if you outright own the place. If you make the lease "include" features like custodial services and utilities, you can get breaks for basic overhead.

2) It gives a plausible cover for any large sum of money that Chris wants to give Pat without having to explain it. It can also be a way to hire and pay someone to fix your building up-- you could say that one is leasing back the improvements on the property. Of course, it all gets much more interesting if Chris and Pat are business partners-- or the same guy. Like, say, a not-for-profit school operator who still wants to pocket profit-like money.

I don't know what's going on in Paladino's case. He has scarfed up something like $685 K in tax breaks from sales and mortgage tax. Whatever he is, he is not a friggin' idiot.

Paladino may not be a generally shady operator at all-- at least no shadier than the average developer. Much of this likely falls within SOP for developers, and what Buffalo is simply witnessing the predictable shenanigans that come when you turn education from a public trust into a private enterprise. Paladino spent much of the article clarifying and supporting his business practices, but there was not a word about the quality of the charter schools that he has profited from.

The real shame here is that Paladino is on the school board, that he has basically been given a voice in how to run his business's main competitor and the oversight for his charter business. The conflict of interest here is huge, and anybody who says that charter interests and public school interests aren't directly opposed is smoking something. This is like giving a major leadership role at Coke to somebody with a major financial interest in Pepsi. It is like putting a wolf in charge of shepherding.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Should We Embrace Charter Districts

First in USA Today, and a few days later, a bit more expansively in the Hechinger Report, Richard Whitmire argues for the embrace of charter growth, particularly since charters are starting to look like school districts.

We'll look at the Hechinger Report version, because it allows Whitmire to lay out his complete argument. It's an impressive compendium of almost every pro-charter argument ever made, and it manages to get very little correct.

More than twenty years ago when charter schools first got launched in Minnesota no one envisioned that one day we would see charter management networks growing to resemble medium-size school districts.

Probably not true. I think plenty of people called this one. More importantly, I think plenty of people interested in the charter business were absolutely banking on it.

Whitmire goes on to applaud the greenlighting of fourteen more Success Academy branches in NY. He cheers that the rapid expansion of the chain doesn't seem to have hurt the quality, and that even students in freshly opened branches have gotten swell test results.

"Regardless of your personal opinion of charter schools versus traditional schools," says Whitmire, "that’s remarkable."

Well, no. It isn't remarkable at all. If Success Academies, say, retained all of a starting class to the point of graduation instead of losing more than half, that would be remarkable. And if that wholly retained batch of eighth graders qualified for one of NYC's top high schools, instead of having to just move into another Success Academy berth, that would be remarkable. But it's not what happened. Raising standardized test scores is not the same thing as providing a quality education-- particularly if you drop the educating to focus on weeks and weeks of preparatory drilling. There is nothing remarkable about creaming a select student population and training them to get better test scores to the detriment of everything else.

Of course, there are larger chains than Success. Others reach greater states of hugification, but Whitmire is thankful that "only the best charter networks were allowed to grow to this size." It begs the question who, exactly, is "allowing" the growth, but okay. All of these large chains are, he claims, able to catch these students up with a year-and-a-half of learning for every year in the classroom. Measuring student learning in years? Not an ounce of support that that is actually a real thing.

Whitmire knows the secrets that allow charter chains to scale up. For instance, there's this:

...their ability to attract some of the nation’s brightest college graduates as teachers. Many of those teachers move on to other careers, but they stay long enough to make a difference.

So, TFA temps make charters better (I am curious-- how long exactly is "long enough to make a difference"?)  Sure, they may have little or training, and contribute nothing to the stability of the school. But at least they're cheap, easily replaced, and don't draw a pension. Whitmire has that stability thing covered-- charters are also great because they establish a common classroom culture. In other words, if you have a strong policies and procedures manual, you can plug any warm body into a classroom without making a difference.

Whitmire will trot out the old canard that charter schools are public schools. I've explained what four requirements must be met to earn the name "public" and I don't think the charter chains are meeting any of them (including Success Academy, which went to court to keep their finances secret).

He notes that charters have waiting lists out the whazoo, and cites Success as an example. Interesting choice, given Success's well-documented high-priced recruitment/marketing campaigns.

Whitmire does admit that charter networks don't take as many special education students. He also allows as how charters drain resources from public districts, forcing them to downsize "to meet diminished demand," which is incorrect. Public schools downsize to meet diminished funding, which would be easy if there were, in fact, a diminished demand. But when one kid leaves a classroom a charter, the students left behind still demand a fully resourced classroom.

When a charter kids leaves public school, she takes 100% of her funding with her, but she does not take 100% of the costs that she incurred for the district.

Whitmire proceeds to sign a song of many charter successes. Except they aren't successes. Tennessee's ASD is a mess. He claims that charter vs. public competition in DC benefits students on both sides. And he spends a whole paragraph touting the miracle of New Orleans, which appears to be only a miracle of PR. Like many hotbeds of charterfication, New Orleans' success has been in getting tax dollars directed to corporate pockets. Educating children? Not so much.

And why is it that no charter advocates want to talk about one place that is really working on implementing the New Orleans model? Where are the songs of praise dedicated to One Newark? Could it be that in New Jersey, charteristas have been freed to Do As They Please, and what they've created is a horrible, horrible mess. (If you want a link, read the collected works of Jersey Jazzman-- this is a mess so large that one blog post can't hold it.)

On the home stretch, Whitmire admits that some charters aren't pulling their weight, and he thinks that the authorizers should be all over their chartery butts.

But the growth of high performing single charters, as well as these larger CMOs such as IDEA, KIPP and Uncommon Schools, should be welcomed, not stonewalled or smeared with conspiracy theories about “privatizing” education.

"Conspiracy theory" is a polite and classy way to dismiss somebody as being crazy wrong. But when the state legislature of New York passes special laws requiring New York City schools to hand over real estate to the private company that runs Success Academy so that they can rake in the money (but not account for it, even as they pay their boss a cool half million) -- well, I'm not sure what that is, if not "privatization." I mean, it might come up short of "privatization" because it is being paid for with "public tax dollars," but other than that "splitting of hairs" I'm not sure what Whitmire is "talking about."

And as a last shot "These charters are successfully educating thousands of students destined to fail in traditional neighborhood schools." I'm impressed that we can tell the destinies of these students in alternate universes. I would like to peek over there and see how many of the students left behind in thanks-to-charters underfunded schools would have been destined to succeed more easily. Nor do I understand why charters, with their special destiny-o-vision, send so many students back to public schools.

But that's the whole compendium. Whitmire has sandwiched in just about every piece of marketing copy ever used for charters, while simultaneously answering none of the legitimate criticisms of the modern charter movement. He also manages to avoid the very question he raises-- why exactly is a larger charter chain better than a single charter? More layers of bureaucracy? A central office far away from your child's actual school? He never did tell us why size matters here.

It's a herculean effort, and a good piece to bookmark if you want access to All the Pro-charter Arguments. But for me, I'm going to hold off on the whole embracing thing, thanks.
It's an impressive compendium

Time's Tenure Story

Time's cover story by Haley Sweetland Edwards is the tale of David Welch's crusade to provide school CEO's with more power to control their workforce. I'm sure there will be much reflection on this article in the days ahead, but here's my quick read over lunch reaction.

It comes close to being a balanced reporting of the story. Public education advocates will find that it goes to easy on Welch. Reformsters will find that it is a bit too transparent and doesn't fully capture Welch's awesome heroism.

You'll want to read the whole thing for yourself, but here are some highlights that jumped out at me.

On Vergara: It was the first time, in California or anywhere else, that a court had linked the quality of a teacher, as measured by student test scores, to a pupil’s right to an education. 

Yes. It was the court that created that linkage. The plaintiffs did not, the research does not, and reality does not. But the court did.

It is a reflection of our politics that no one elected these men to take on the knotty problem of fixing our public schools, but here they are anyway, fighting for what they firmly believe is in the public interest. 

Edwards strikes this note several times, and I give Time credit for at least including the observation. But the Real Big Story here is not the tenure wars. The real big story here is that a bunch of unelected amateurs with large piles of money have decided that they should go ahead and take over previously-democratic portions of the public sector. Perhaps the editors at Time lack the balls to pick that angle, or perhaps they simply judged that the angle would not generate the kind of clicks and sales that a tenure wars angle would.

I don't really fault Edwards. The elements of the story, the reporting, are all here. But for whatever reason, we've decided not to treat the derailing of democracy by some Very Rich Guys as the main story here.

[Update: When I wrote this earlier today, I was just looking at the cybercopy of the article. I've since seen the cover, on which Time editors have put "Rotten Apples" in big bold letters. To see the cover, one would expect a massive hatchet job on teachers inside, so I guess that answers the question about how Time editors are inclined to slant Edwards's article. That just leaves the question of whether Time editors are philosophically inclined to give teachers a big punch in the face, or they just think that punching teachers in the face is mostly likely to draw a large paying crowd. Either way, I'm not impressed. If you are also unimpressed, please use this link to an AFT action to let Time know how unimpressed you are or email]

Edwards does try to draw a line between technocrat gazillionairs of today and the robber barons of yesterday, but doesn't really stick the landing on the distinction between them. The Carnegies and Rockefellers worked mostly to create new institutions such as library systems and colleges; but today's "philanthropists" are busy engineering hostile takeovers of the public institutions that were already in place.

Welch remembers asking a big-city California superintendent to tell him the one thing he needed to improve the public-school system. The answer blew Welch away. The educator didn’t ask for more money or more iPads. “He said, ‘Give me control over my workforce,'” Welch said. “It just made so much sense. I thought, Why isn’t anyone doing something about that? Why isn’t anyone fixing this?”

In this version of the story, that is the extent of Welch's research. His next move was to start getting legal advice because "if children are being harmed by these laws, then something, somewhere, is being done that’s illegal."

Edwards does not cloak any of Welch's moves in gauzy idealistic terms. Welch hires a PR firm to start Students Matter, an astro-turf group tasked with 1) ginning up support and money and 2) finding "a team of lawyers who were willing to reverse engineer a lawsuit on the basis of an untested legal theory on behalf of plaintiffs who didn’t yet exist."

The retelling of the Vergara story includes this line:

 Happily for Welch’s lawyers, their innovative argument happened to coincide with a flood of new academic research on teacher quality that could serve as evidence in court. 

One does not have to be a raving conspiracy theorist to note that the happy coincidence was the result of "research" funded by Welch's fellow technocrats and reformsters, much of it begun at about the same time that Welch started shopping for lawyers.

One major dropped ball for Edwards-- she does not discuss the major holes in the Veraga plaintiff arguments (including WAG statistics).

Edwards quotes, of all people, Mike Petrilli and Michael McShane on the problems of Vergara and government intervention. It's up to McShane to point out that measuring "grossly ineffective" is problematic. Edwards cherry-on-tops with the note that the teacher described as "ineffective and undeserving of tenure" was also a Pasadena Teacher of the year.

Edwards goes on to note that there's an irony that Vergara hinges on the ability to identify poor teachers just as we're all figuring out that we don't have that ability. She notes the current "outright mutiny" over high stakes testing and provides a quick guide to the studies showing that VAM is garbage science.

The close is a bit chilling:

 David Welch says he’s undeterred. While he’s received an informal crash course in the unforgiving politics of education reform in this country in the past year, the back-and-forth doesn’t interest him. “I look at this as my responsibility to help and improve the society I live in,” he says. “And I’m willing to fight that battle as long as I have to fight that battle.”

Welch would do well to remember that the society he lives in is a democratic one, where it's not up to a rich and powerful amateur to just commandeer a public service because he has some ideas-- ideas that or no better-informed or professionally supported than the ideas of any average non-billionaire shmoe. Nobody elected Welch to do any of this. And nobody thinks that the best way for America to work is for us to have a democratic system that can be shoved aside by any rich guy on a crusade.

Edwards article is a plus in that it pulls back the curtain (at least part way) on much of what has actually happened in the Vergara assault on tenure without gauzing it up or calling it pretty names. She misses, however, the full implications of the "control over the workforce" quote. The assault on tenure makes much more sense in the context of continued attempts to de-professionalize teaching and turn it into a low-paying, short-term, easily replaceable line of work. She missed that entirely.

Edwards could certainly have turned a more critical eye on the Vergara plaintiff's case, and she stops short of calling out some of the larger issues. On top of the rich-guy-buys-democratic-institution problem, Edwards also glosses over much as "political" issue; the tenure wars are "political" only to the extent that they represent the use of political power to smash another part of public education.

Should this be a country where anybody, regardless of his lack of professional background, can set education policy for the entire nation just because he wants to and just because he's rich? That would be a really good question to start some reporting. Edwards almost raised it-- but not quite.

In other words, Edwards has presented a reasonably fair and accurate part of the picture-- but it's only part of the picture.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fast Food Schooling: Worse Than You Think

It's fairly routine to draw parallels between what is happening in education and what has happened in the rise and growth of the fast food industry. But if you have not been paying attention to what's been happening in the fast food sector, let me show you how that's even worse news than you thought.

For a full rundown, check out this article in Washington Monthly by Josh Friedman. "Big Whopper Economics" is depressing reading, not just for people in the industry, but for those of us working in sectors that want to imitate the fast food biz.

Turning the screws.

1997 was marked by two pieces of case law that made life as a franchisee particularly miserable.  

Queen City Pizza vs. Domino's Pizza determined that reversed previous decisions on the issue of lock-in. Lock-in requires franchisees to abide by any and all requirements written into their franchise, including the requirement to buy supplies from the parent company at whatever price the parent company charges.

State Oil Company vs. Khan found that franchisors could put ceilings on what prices could be charged.

So if the McBig Burger main office declares that A) you must buy the fixings for the Greaseburger Max from them for $2.00 per unit and B) you must sell the Greaseburger Max at $1.00 per unit, you have no legal recourse. You must sit there and eat the loss.

But wait! Free market forces!!

Freedman hears you. But bad franchisors have not gone out of business, and they don't necessarily care if their franchisees fail. The default rate for the beloved Cold Stone Creamery was over 42%. Submaker Quiznos had 39% of its franchisees with small business loans were in default in 2012. Quiznos kept selling franchises even though they knew they had oversaturated the market had a 40% failure rate.

According to Freedman, analyst Richard Adams of Franchise Equity Group estimates that one in four McDonalds are not profitable. This is why it does you know good to picket your local McDonalds and demand the owner raise his workers' wages. Your local McDonalds owner probably can't afford to eat at his own restaurant, either. The probable profit margin of most fast food franchises is about four to six percent.

“The corporations set wages by setting everything but wages,” notes Jack Temple, a policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project. Individual franchisees cannot shift money from other costs to pay for higher wages because they do not control what is left.

So can we just go picket exclusively at the fast food places that are owned by the parent corporation instead of local franchisees? Well, about that...

How the industry has been restructured.

Remember how Freedman said that the parent corporation doesn't care if its franchisees fail? That's because they've found other ways to make money.

One of his examples is Burger King. Since 2009, the parent company has sold off over 1,000 of its restaurants. "This has reduced Burger King's revenues but raised its net earnings." The company behind Applebee's and IHOP now owns only about 1% of the restaurants in the chains.

The parent corporations have adopted a strategy of "de-risking"-- they no longer face any of the risks of running a restaurant, but are actually in the business of collecting licensing fees and selling supplies to franchisees (who, remember, have no say, no power to negotiate, what any of those charges might be.) The risk hasn't been eliminated-- it's simply all been placed on the local franchisee.

With the chains primarily focused on financial engineering and no longer in the business of running their own stores, the interests of the franchisor and franchisee quickly diverge in ways that hurt everyone in the industry except those at the very top. As a former Burger King supplier noted in an interview with the popular franchisee blog BlueMauMau, “The cost of goods … and what the specs are get to be less important if you don’t have a dog in the operational part."... In this model, the role of big business is not to create a symbiotic relationship with franchisees and their employees, but rather to extract as many economic rents, or unearned gains, as possible. 

And if they actually go under and shut down (or, as one devastated Quiznos franchisee did, commit suicide), well, for the time being, they aren't much harder to replace than a burger wrapper.

Who would approach an entire industry with such a destructive approach that shows regard for neither the actual purpose of the business or the live human beings who are being ground up and bled dry? You'll never guess.

Okay, you probably will guess.

Says Freedman, "More than seventy chain restaurant brands are now owned by private equity firms."

Burger King has been passed from firm to firm (including Bain Capital) and is now held by some special investment magic trick called a special purchase acquisition company. That parent group of Applebee's and IHOP is called DineEquity.

Yes, it's the hedge fund crowd, once again displaying their willingness to trash absolutely everything as long as they get a good ROI. And that's why reading this article made my blood run just a bit chill.

Because these guys learn, and they have far better learning transfer than many of my students. They learned from the fast food lessons of the seventies and eighties-- turn all of your high-skills jobs into low-skills jobs so that you can lower wage costs and churn and burn staff at will. Standardize your product so that any shmoe can produce it, and ramp up the marketing so that people will line up to receive a mediocre (but consistent) product.

Could these new lessons be coming to education, too?

How would it look? Push the charter operation biz down onto local operators. Lock them into contracts that required them to get all their supplies from the main office-- maybe even the very buildings they occupy. Control all of their financial inputs and outputs so that the school may or may not struggle, but the investors will always get their share. Do not worry about how successful the charter is-- just how well it's pumping money back to the main office.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Google Hearts TFA in Worst Way

People looking to get a job at Google might first want to spend a few years as a teacher.

That is the lede for what appears to be a serious imitation of the classic Onion send-up of Teach For America. Business Insider has written a glowing portrait of how TFA can be a great stepping-stone to a career at Google.

A company spokesperson tells BI writer Aaron Taube that the tech giant loves people from TFA because the program "requires new graduates to think on their feet and achieve success in a challenging new environment..." Google in fact has a partnership with TFA that allows Googlers to defer a job offer until they've served their two years with TFA. How liberating it must be to walk into that classroom knowing that your real job is already waiting for you.

Taube's interview was with Meghan Casserly, Google head of culture communications, and A. T. McWilliams, TFA alum and current Googler.

"TFA graduates have to coach their students in an environment where motivation isn't always a given ... and solve very complex problems that require patience, perseverance and commitment — things we really value at Google," said Casserly. "It's difficult to find talented professionals with this kind of intense experience at such an early stage in their career."

McWilliams offers his own experience as an example. He was placed in Brooklyn (in one of the "coveted" TFA openings).  

There, McWilliams learned a handful of skills that he says have helped make him more effective at his job at Google, where he became a full-time member of the company's New York corporate communications team this past summer.

Taube actually frames TFA's infamous five weeks of training (hey-- how much do you need to be a teacher, really) as a plus. It forced McWilliams to learn on the job and come up with creative solutions. See, if he had actually been trained to be a teacher, he would have wasted his time just implementing proven professional instructional techniques, and lord knows he wouldn't have gotten any business training out of that.

It's an astonishing article. There's this sentence--

Perhaps most importantly, TFA forced him to think long and hard about how people learn, and to use that knowledge to solve difficult problems. 

Followed, without a trace of irony by this phrase--

During his two years in the classroom

Yes, two whole years of long, hard thinking. Oh, the hard thinking. It must have been exhausting, but worthwhile because it built him some big, strong thinky parts. I know that in my decades of teaching, two years was about all I spent thinking about how students learn (of course, I had the disadvantage of taking courses about that in teacher school).

McWilliams says that all of this experience will help him with managing people, although he is not in charge of anyone yet, and I am wondering why the heck not?? He was a 2012 grad, which means he finished his two years about four months ago, or at least triple the time he needed to become an awesometastic teacher-ish guy. If it takes five weeks to make a teacher, surely Google can turn him into a Leader of Men in four months!

"At Teach for America, you're not only learning how to teach someone else, you're also learning what factors help someone learn the best," McWilliams says.

Oh, for the love of God!! You know what else you might just accidentally do occasionally at Teach for America-- you might take your head out of your own rectal cavity and TEACH SOME CHILDREN!! Or did you think that all those children in your classroom were just gathered together so that you could have an educational experience to better prepare you for your real career. Do you think those children got up every morning and thought, "Boy, I just hope that today I can help Mr. McWilliams become the best Googler in the whole world! I just want him to be really succesful!" Is that what you think was going on??

Sigh. It is McWilliams who has the last word in the article. "I think the Teach for America experience is really applicable in any place that requires you to be smart and creative," he says. Because, yes, that's what TFA is apparently supposed to do-- provide college grads with an experience that they can apply to their real jobs later. Those children are just your own personal ladder to success.

I often discuss TFA as if it is dismissive of teaching as a profession, that it belittles the whole idea of teaching. But this is actually worse, because teaching isn't even on the radar in this article. It's just one more life experience for a college grad who's just passing through, unable to see the children for all the visions of Googlebucks. Sorry, Onion. Real life has passed you up.

Charter Takeovers Tennessee Style

If you don't have the good fortune to have a hurricane clear the public school competition out of your path, what other techniques can be used to convert to an all-charter system? Kevin Huffman in Tennessee appears to have an answer.

Kevin Huffman, as theTennessee Grand High Commissioner of Education, represents a reformster milestone of his own. Huffman's career path took him to Swarthmore, which led to a TFA posting, which led to law school, which led to practicing education law in DC, which led back to TFA, first as general counsel and later as various VP executive titly things. Then, a few years later, Governor Bill Haslam tapped him for Tennessee Educational Poobahdom. Which made him the first TFA temp to get to run an entire state's education system. So congrats on that, Tennessee.

Since taking over that post, Huffman has taken some great reformy steps. For instance, he chimed in with Arne Duncan to claim that low-achieving students, including those with learning disabilities, just needed to be tested harder. And as a super buddy of charter schools, he took $3.4 million dollars away from Nashville city schools because their board didn't approve the charter that he had personally shepherded through the process.

That blew open the giant can of worms that is Nashville metro schools, an ugly mess that I'm still reading up on. But there's more reformster excitement to be found in Tennessee. Let's travel cross-state to Memphis and the Achievement School District.

The ASD is yet another lesson in the kind of money to be made in the business of privatizing schools. It's also a lesson in what can happen when the state stops even pretending to have a commitment to public education.

Most states way back under NCLB had some sort of mechanism for taking over local school districts that were "failing." Most of these were site-specific and theoretically impermanent responses to local issues (eg the SRC in Philadelphia)-- turnaround pro tem operators. But Tennessee has the ASD-- a state-run board that is essentially a state-wide school district composed of Whatever Schools We've Decided To Shut Down This Week. The ASD is part school district, part brokerage firm, deciding which batch of students and real estate will be served up to which charter school operators. If your goal were to simply destroy public education and replace it with a charter system, this would be a genius way to do it.

You can see their genius right there in the big fat mission statement on the ASD site:

The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the to 25% in the state. In doing so, we dramatically expand our students' life and career options, engage parents and community members in new and exciting ways, and ensure a bright future for the state of Tennessee.

This is just brilliant (from a ruthless privatizing takeover standpoint) because there will always be schools in the bottom 5%. Maybe somebody in the state capital is dumb enough to think that eventually ALL the schools in Tennessee will be in the top 25%. But for everyone who is vaguely math literate, the implication here is clear-- if the ASD can just show a little patience, they will eventually be the only school system in Tennessee.

That process is already well under way. The ASD started out with six schools in 2012 and is up to twenty-two this year-- all in Memphis. The state has drawn big red bulls-eyes on twelve more schools in the Memphis area (though the ASD site frames it as "eligible to join ASD, as if that's a nifty prize they've just won) with nine now emerging as likely targets beneficiaries. ASD has already begun the process of deciding which charter operator gets to pick these plums, and the candidates include many of the usual suspects such as KIPP and Green Dot.

ASD is also expanding in Nashville, and I can only imagine that charter operators bidding e-bay style for the chance to snatch these beauties. ASD of course hands the schools over stripped of many of those bothersome rules about teacher certification and job security.

So sit back and relax, schools of Tennessee. You will be assimilated soon enough. Soon every single one of you will be in the top 25%, and you'll be happily wedded to your new charter overlords. In the meantime, other reformsters can just watch and learn as Memphis schools are parceled out to charter privateers.

This new type of system-- the state as a broker between communities and charters-- seems open to all manner of abuse. It seems absolutely built for pay-to-play, and it also seems to have built-in instability, since the state can run a revolving door of charter operators depending on results, ROI, and whatever operator is the flavor of the month. Students, teachers, and community members are just fodder for this giant money-generating machine.

Monday, October 20, 2014

New Robes for The Testing Cult

Do you have the slightest shred of belief that the recent reformster declaration that we must get the whole testing mess under control actually meant anything good? Then right after I send you my sales pitch for buying a bridge over Florida swampland from a Nigerian prince, let me introduce you to .

There's nothing subtle here. The line on your tab will read "Let's test less but better #passthetestmn" and the first big headline says "Let's be clear: student testing matters."

Yes, the big testing cutback announcement was just snazzy new robes for the same old cult of testing. 

Without tests, we wouldn’t have the information we need to navigate our everyday lives. The same is true in our classrooms: without tests, how would parents, teachers and community members [my emphasis] know how our kids are doing, or how to help all students get on track? Just as we need trustworthy tests in our daily lives—from the doctor’s office to the mechanic—we need unbiased, quality assessments for our kids.

Got that? Human beings are incapable of navigating their daily lives without the benefit of some Wise Authority to test us and give us the results. Yes, without tests parents and teachers would not know how students were doing (because the parents and teachers who see the child every day are simply not as wise as the people who create The Test). Also, how would community members know how well the-- wait! what? When did we decide that students need to show their report cards to everybody else in town? I knew that FERPA had been weakened, but still, this seems a bit much.

So let’s test less, but better. Let’s use high-quality, relevant tests that strengthen teaching and learning, and give parents peace of mind about their children’s achievement.

See, this is what the new testing initiative means. "We have heard you," say the reformsters, "and we understand that you hate sprinkling arsenic over every part of every meal. So we have prepared these pills with the daily prescribed dose of arsenic in a capsule that you can quickly and easily give to your children." But under no circumstances are we going to discuss or even question the wisdom of giving children regular doses of arsenic.

Teachers Can Haz Robes, Too

There's also a cavalcade of educators offering their Stepfordian support. Well, some of them aren't technically offering support so much as protective cover that obscures the real issue.

Taylor Rub, a special ed teacher, says she uses standardized tests as "one data point." Says Matt Proulx, a kindergarten dual immersion teacher: "Testing and data collection, whether formal or informal, is my road map to knowing where my students are academically and what I need to do to help them succeed." Which I don't disagree with a bit-- it just doesn't in any way make a case for standardized testing as part of that picture.

Teacher of the Year Tom Rademacher uses the most words, and I believe they translate roughly as "I don't get a damn bit of use out of these tests in my classroom, but low scores on state exams are the only way to get politicians to acknowledge that there are some neighborhoods where students are being ignored." Which is an interesting point, though it would be more interesting if the typical political response to discovering these pockets of neglect were not to cry "Failing schools! Failing schools!!" in the same tones used in another era to cry "Witch!!" and then following up with "Golden charter opportunity right here!!"

But then there's Luke Winspur who says "As a teacher, I believe that eliminating criterion-referenced, standardized tests would ultimately hurt students. These tests give invaluable information that allow me to provide my students with targeted instruction on the exact skills they need to succeed." If by "succeed," Winspur means "Get good score on High Stakes Test," then yes-- standardized tests are a useful part of test prep for taking standardized tests. Otherwise, no-- this is baloney. Winspur's picture shows someone who appears young and intelligent; if he can't tell what instruction his students need then A) something is wrong with his teacher thinky parts and B) teh standardized test will not help him, anyway.

More Bad Analogies

Elsewhere on the site, the nameless authors offer this:

Kids don’t like tests, but they also don’t like visits to the doctor—yet both are important. Like annual check-ups, standardized tests tell you how your kid is doing, and how you can help them stay on track.

You know what happens when you go to the doctor? A trained professional human being uses his trained professional human judgment to determine how you're doing. When you go for your checkup, the doctor does not say, "I have some unproven, inaccurate tests here that sort of check for things loosely related to your health. Whatever they say I'm just going to go ahead and accept blindly, because I just don't know enough about this medical stuff."

In the medicine-education parallel, doctor does not equal standardized test. Doctor equals teacher.

Plus, tests aren’t going away. Whatever your child wants to be—a doctor, an accountant or a carpenter—they’ll have to pass tests along the way.

So relax and be assimilated. The sooner you and your child learn to be compliant and  unquestioning, the easier this will go for you. All that word salad we keep shoveling out about how important critical thinking is? We don't mean when we're talking. Definitely don't question the assertion that every single profession in the world requires a bad standardized test for admission.

Robes Are Also Good For Covering Gaping Holes in Your Reasoning

The facts are clear: students who do well on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments are more likely to succeed in college.

Correlation and causation, anyone? We have discovered that seventeen year olds who regularly help their parents get food off the top shelf in the kitchen go on to be successful basketball players, so let's train every kid to get stuff off the top shelf.

So let’s keep and improve the MCAs—one of the best indicators of whether or not kids are on track for success in college—and help all kids pass the test.

It's funny that the Cult of Testing never wants to discuss that these tests are also one of the best indicators of whether a student comes from a wealthy home or a poor one. You would think that all this interest in correlations would lead us back to one of the most regularly-documented correlations of all. And yet, somehow, it never comes up.

The Cult Is Still in Full Gear

My main point? If you seriously thought that last week's announcement from CCSSO and CGCS about testing actually signaled a change in the Cult of Testing, you were crazy. Almost as crazy as the cult members themselves, who continue to believe (or at least claim to believe) that these standardized tests measure anything other than the students' ability to do well on standardized tests.