Friday, March 27, 2015

Voucher Party

One of the foundational assertions of the charter movement is that public school tax dollars, once collected, should be attached to the child, maybe in a backpack, or perhaps surgically. "This public money... belongs to the student, not the failing school" wrote a commenter on one of my HuffPost pieces today. And I've heard variations on that over and over from charter advocates.

The money belongs to the student.

I've resisted this notion for a long time. The money, I liked to say, belongs to the taxpayers, who have used it to create a school system that serves the entire community by filling that community with well-educated adults who make better employees, customers, voters, neighbors, parents, and citizens. But hey-- maybe I've been wrong. Maybe that money, once collected really does belong to the student. In which case, let's really do this.

Let's let the student spend his voucher money (and let's stop pussyfooting around this-- when we talk about the money following the students, we're talking about vouchers) on the education of his dreams.

Does she want to go to the shiny new charter school? Let her go (as long as they'll take her, of course). But why stop there? Travel has long been considered a broadening experience-- what if she wants to take the voucher and spend it on a world cruise? Why not? It's her money. Perhaps she wants to become a champion basketball player-- would her time not be well spent hiring a coach and shooting hoops all day? Maybe she would like to develop her skills playing PS4 games, pursuant to a career in video-game tournaments. That's educational. In fact, as I recall the misspent youth of many of my cohort, I seem to recall that many found smoking weed and contemplating the universe to be highly educational. I bet a voucher would buy a lot of weed.

What's that, charter advocate? Do I hear you saying that's an unfair comparison, that obviously a high quality charter school is way different from smoking a lot of weed. I agree, but that's beside the point.

The money belongs to the student.

You didn't say that the money was the student's to be used on educational experiences that met with the approval of some overseeing government body. You didn't say that the money was the student's on the condition that the student got somebody's permission to use it first.You didn't say that we'd need to put strings on how the money is spent because students and their parents might not always make responsible choices.

You said the money belongs to the student.

Heck, let's really go all in. Why use the odd fiction of a voucher at all-- let's just collect taxes and cut every single student an annual check for $10,000 (or whatever the going rate is in your neighborhood). Let's just hand them the money that we're asserting belongs to them, and let them spend it as they wish. Maybe they'd like a nice couch, or a new iPad, or a sweet skateboard, or a giant voucher party, or food and clothing for themselves and their family.

Unless of course you'd like to suggest that the taxpayers who handed over that money and the community that collected it have an interest in making sure that it's spent well and responsibly in a way that serves the community's greater good. In which case we can go back to discussing how those needs of the stakeholders--ALL the stakeholders-- are best served by an all-inclusive community-based taxpayer-controlled educational system, and stop saying silly things like, "The money belongs to the student."

On Not Being a Jerk To Young Teachers

In one of those moments that tells you where you are in your career, I had an inquiry recently about what it might take to get me to retire early. Several folks on staff did. I replied that I didn't really see myself leaving the classroom any time soon. But perhaps that made me more sensitive to some of the news that I noticed last week.

One story, widely circulated, was the one-two punch of Nancie Atwell receiving a justly deserved award for teaching awesomeness (and handing it over to her school), followed by her advice that young people aspiring to teach should avoid public school and only go into teaching if they can find an "independent" school to hire them.

I also caught wind this week of a group called the Young Teachers Collective, a new group that includes Stephanie Rivera, who over a year ago penned an instant classic post, "To All The Teachers Telling Us Not To Go Into Teaching, Stop." The group has a facebook page, where you can go watch various folks be jerks to them.

I understand the frustration and anger and frustration that leads many veteran teachers to check out, and I respect those who choose to quit rather than stay in a job they hate just to draw a check. I've looked into that particular abyss, and I know how dark it looks. I also know that I'm working in a little corner of the world where I am not subjected to a fraction of the abuse and beat-down that my professional sisters and brothers go through in the real education war zones. So I don't judge people who decide to get out. You can only take as much as you can take.

What I don't get are my present and former professional peers who decide to be jerks about it to aspiring teachers.

I don't know. Maybe the thinking is "I have to believe that this is an awful profession for everyone in the world because then my frustrations won't in any way be about me." Maybe the thinking is, "I could not have made it if the person I was way back then were trying to get started today." I do get that one-- I'm not sure the teacher I was in 1979 could hack it today. Lucky for me I'm tougher than that guy.

Maybe there's the impulse to offer a reality check. Back when we old farts started, teaching was an easier profession; you could stay in your room, work with your students, trust the leaders in your profession and state capitol, and know that while nobody was ever going to treat you like a rock star, society at large offered a sort of grudging low-level respect and support. Granted, it didn't seem that way at the time, but now that we've seen what a full-on assault on professional ability and personal character looks like, we can get nostalgic for the Old Days. So maybe new teachers are a proxy for our younger selves-- "Open your eyes and look at what is really going to hit you, you foolish, naive child!"

Nor will I ignore the fact that as the products of a decade of reform-mandated malpractice make their way through college, we have teacher grads who Really Don't Get It. Download lesson plans from a website, line up all your test prep materials, get out the door at the last bell-- how hard can it be, they seem to think.

But that's not close to all of the new and aspiring teacher material out there. Because it has been a decade of educational chaos and stupidity run rampant in legislatures and boardrooms, many of the next wave of teachers have a far clearer idea of the cost of test-driven, privatizing, teacher-ignoring reformsterism. They may not be the cavalry, but they are certainly solid, knowledgeable reinforcements in the fight to restore the promise of public education.

So can we please, please stop being jerks to them?

Can we stop talking to them as if they're stupid? They're in their early twenties, which means they do know some things and don't know some other things (making them exactly like every twenty-something person in the history of ever). They want to be teachers, despite the ravages of reformsterism which is pretty much all they've ever known, so we should probably stop suggesting they have no idea what schools are like since No Child Left Behind started unraveling the fabric of public ed-- actually, that's the ONLY idea of schools they've ever seen.

But I don't want to spend a bunch of time speaking about their perspective for them, because I am not a young aspiring teacher and therefor if I want to know what it's like to be a young aspiring teacher I should shut my mouth and listen to one.

I teach high school, mostly the older students, so I get lots and lots of What Shall I Do With My Life inquiries. I tell them nobody can decide for them. I ask them what they want to do, why they want to do it, what they like about it. I ask if they've done some research, shadowed some people in the field, studied up what the job requirements are. And I try to get them to talk about it, because they mostly have the wisdom they need to make the decisions that best fits them.

Yes, teaching is hard to break in to. Yes, teachers are working upstream against all sorts of opposing forces. Yes, teaching often feels like a job nobody actually wants us to do. Isn't that all the more reason to do it? When somebody says she wants to be an ER doctor, why would we say, "You don't want to work there-- sick and injured people keep coming in all the time." We don't tell future welders, "They'll keep giving you metal to stick together." We don't tell lawyers, "Try to practice somewhere where people won't come to you with legal problems all the time."

A time of great challenges is a time of great need. It's true that I don't plan to retire soon, but that means I want to spend my time working side by side with strong, committed professionals, and someday, when I do pack it in, it would be nice to know that somebody strong and capable will be there to take over. Those people have to come from somewhere. And with all the forces arrayed against teachers, why would we want to create more obstacles?

We are in the business of supporting and fostering the dreams and ambitions of young students. Why we should forget all about that when talking to aspiring teachers is beyond me, particularly when we frame it in a disrespectful "You don't know what's good for you" manner. We should not need anyone to explain that it's uncool jerkitude to treat any humans, particularly young ones, with a default assumption that they are too stupid to know their own minds or exhibit decent judgment.

If teaching is not for them, that is for them to find out, in their own way and in their own time. 

It's awesome that the Young Teachers Collective has come together and has begun the business of finding a mission, direction, set of priorities. I hope that lots and lots of young teachers find their way to the group, and I hope that we old farts stop trying to kill the spark before it can fully catch flame. Teaching is a big field and it needs a full supply of strong and vibrant voices.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ken-Ton Schools Receive First Official Threat from State

Well, that didn't take long.

The Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school board adopted a resolution Tuesday night (two nights ago as I write this) to "seriously consider" boycotting both the state's test for grades 3-8 and the state's teacher evaluation via testing results.

This afternoon, WGRZ (and other Buffalo newmedia) reports that Senior Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner delivered the state's threat to the board members and the district superintendent (who was never a fan of the resolution to begin with).

You can read a full copy of the letter here.  This particular copy is addressed to school board president Bob Dana at the district's central office, but you can see it has been cc'ed to all the important folks. Cause if you're going to make a threat, make sure you get the maximum number of people involved.

Wagner makes the assertion that administering the grade 3-8 tests "is required under federal law" and also by the state's accountability system and I am wondering, hmmm, exactly which federal law might that be. It could be ESEA's original NCLB requirement, or maybe the waiver requirement, which is sort of an end run around ESEA. What's really fun here is to play the game of what penalty, exactly, the federal law carries. What exactly is he threatening the board with? So, interesting assertion there, Senior Deputy Commissioner Wagner, and one sure to mollify people who are already pissed off about the state government pushing them around. Just wait till your Uncle Sam gets home.

Wagner says this "may result" in a loss of funds from the state, to the possible tune of maybe $1.1 million, perhaps. Between all these conditionals and the board's "seriously consider" resolution, we have a real battle of the possible maybe mights going on here.

Wagner also notes that while the board is only now considering becoming a bunch of rogue scofflaws, should they actually choose outlaw status, "the members of the Board responsible will be subject to removal from office by the Commissioner of Education pursuant to Education Law §306 for willful violation of law, the Rules of the Board of Regents and the Regulations of the Commissioner."

The Buffalo News carried a response from Dana.

“I didn’t see anything in there that we haven’t shared with the community in terms of what the ramifications could be,” Dana said Thursday. “He addressed them specifically and he seems to have a good grasp of what’s going on. Obviously, it would seem that they mean business. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

So, no in-boot shaking as yet. The board today scheduled a meeting for April 8 to decide what comes next. Their testing is supposed to begin on April 14.

In the meantime, Dana and the board had intended to send a message to Albany. Clearly, the message was received. We'll see who considers throwing the possibility of what at whom, perhaps, next.

Embrace the Core

You know, perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps we are missing a golden opportunity.

After all-- at this point, very few people know what the hell the Common Core Standards actually are. We've learned that the vast majority of Common Core textbook materials are actually not aligned at all. We know that the Common Core tests are a random crapshoot. We know that what Common Core looks like tends to depend on who's interpreting it for your district.

If the Common Core Standards were supposed to create a common, shared framework that would put students and teachers across this country on the same educational page, then they have failed spectacularly and completely. (I make that point at greater length in an article in the new Education Week, which is available behind a paywall here and in the current print edition.)

Pushers of professional development use the CCSS brand to push their favorite ideas. Teacher-advocates describe their programs, based on nothing more than their own best teacher judgment, and give all the credit to the Core. Opponents of the Core blame it for every dumb homework paper ever created, whether that assignment has anything to do with the Core or not.

Those last groups are the ones we can learn from, really.

It's so simple, I can't believe I didn't see it sooner.

Do whatever the hell you want, and blame it on the Core.

Teaching students to research material before reading it? I'll call that core-aligned. Forbidding students to research material before reading it? Also core-aligned. Want to do writing-based assessments? Why, that's totally core. Drilling reading assignments with bubble question quiz at the end? Also complete core. I have a great new idea for a program that integrates research, literature and video presentations. Pitch it as aligned to the core.

My home ec students have to read recipes, so I'm a core teacher. I'm a band director? Create a new tweak to the program-- web-based video pre-reviews of works as concert advertisement. Declare it aligned to the Core. Increase in the budget? I need it for Core-related stuff. Teaching students to make a souffle? It's a Common Core souffle. 

Teacher core advocates and publishing companies have shown us the way-- there is literally nothing that can't be claimed as a Core-aligned program. Slap "common core" on anything-- there is nobody who can tell you you aren't allowed.

I'm going to have an extra order of fries-- for the Common Core. I am going to get the red Porsche instead of the mini-van because I need it for the Common Core. I did not have sex with that woman-- we were just aligning some Common Core. Please put more frosting on my cupcakes-- it's required by the Core. If anyone tries to question you, just exclaim, "Critical thinking! Alignment! Why are you against higher standards?"

If you happen to be deep in red state Common Core hating territory, just flip the script. Anything you dislike can be blamed on Common Core.

I'm not going to teach Herman Melville because he's part of the Common Core. Don't order that cheap recycled papers-- it's part of the Common Core. Don't you dare put any of that low-fat dressing on my salad-- that's just another way to promote Common Core. I had to punch that guy; he looked like he was going to talk to my kids about Common Core. If anybody questions you on this, just holler, "Communism! Indoctrination! Why do you hate freedom!"

The Common Core, primarily through the efforts of its alleged friends, has been reduced to a meaningless ball of mush. In hindsight, this seems like a completely predictable result-- there is no hard underlying structure of solid sound education ideas based on research and professional experience. Just blobs of personal preferences slapped together by educational amateurs. There is no solid framework, no sturdy skeleton to stay standing when bits and pieces are chipped away. When you dig into CCSS, there's no there there. And so under stress, exploitation, and just being passed along like a nonsense message in a game of telephone, the Core is being reduced to its most basic parts-- nothing at all.

We can take advantage of that by raising the CCSS flag over any and all territory we want to explore (or want to forbid). We were worried that CCSS would be a concrete straightjacket, but as its allies have tweaked and twisted and slanted and squeezed until it's a soggy mess of nothing, a document written on unobtainium with a unicorn horn dipped in invisible ink. And then, with rare exceptions, they've run off so that they don't have to defend the weak sauce they've left behind.

Now, there's no question that on the state and local level, we still have officials doing their best to slavishly enforce their version of the core-- but the vast majority of them aren't enforcing the standards as actually written, either. Andrew Cuomo would be the same size tyrant whether CCSS existed or not. If your district is in the steely grip of Test Prep Mania, the core really doesn't have anything to do with your problems-- the Core can go away, but until the Big Standardized Test goes away, your troubles will remain.

So do whatever you like and use the Common Core as your excuse. Slap the Core justification on every single thing you do in the classroom-- all the cool kids are doing it. Not only will it give you ammunition to defend your teaching choices, but you will help hasten the ongoing disintegration of the standards into a mushy, meaningless, irrelevant mess. The Common Core Standards are over and done. If we do embrace it, perhaps we can embrace it extra hard and help finish it off. I would say to stick a fork in them, but you'll probably need a spoon, and it will be much more fun to use a blender.

Opt In and Think of England

As we enter testing opt-out season with its ever-increasing rising tide of test opposition, the fans of test-driven accountability have had to use every weapon in their arsenal to try to beat back the non-testing hordes who threaten modern educational progress (and corporate revenue streams).
Sometimes the infidels can be combated locally. The head of the Ken-Ton School Board, a district near Buffalo, NY, roused a bunch of local rabble by calling for New York to stop holding money hostage and demanding pointless testing for teacher evaluations and threatening that the district just wouldn't give the tests. The superintendent was able to scare the board into compliance speak reason to the board by suggesting that the state might cut funding, defrock board members, and decertify teachers if such crazy talk led to crazy action. But the motion, which had been tabled till April, just passed!  

Sometimes the big guns must be called out. Chicago Public Schools had threatened to give the Big Standardized Test to only 10% of their students. The feds told the state to tell CPS that they would take a gigantic financial hit, and the district reluctantly gave in, much to the disappointment of many who had backed the testing slowdown.
In recent days, test-o-philes have also unleashed the power of ridicule. Mike Thomas, over at reform-loving FEE, put up a blog post that artfully wrapped the technique known in the sales biz as "assuming the sale" in a carpet of wacky mockery.

"I Wish I Could Opt-Out of Writing This" makes the same old point-- some things in life are unpleasant but necessary, and whiners should just suck it up and do what they have to. In fact, oddly enough, Thomas suggests that he would rather not write this blog post in favor of testing, but he's being paid to do it, so he must. Way to show your deep support of testing, Mike.
Thomas presents (and borrows from a Twitter thread that Amanda Ripley started in a similar vein) a list of unpleasant things that people have to do even though they don't want to. The list includes colonoscopies, teeth cleanings, lice checks, braces, lockdown drills, and watching romantic comedies with your wife, and it's a swell list. It's just that the list has nothing to do with the Big Standardized Test.

The items on the list only occur when there is a particular reason for them. You get a colonoscopy when your doctor, a trained medical professional, says it's time. You get braces when a trained professional says they're needed. You go see a movie with your wife when she asks you to (though if that's a chore for you, you have other problems). And like all the other items on the wacky list, these are annoyances you endure because you know there is some good reason to endure them.

The "well, you just have to suck it up and do some unpleasant but necessary things in life" argument assumes the sale. It focuses on the "unpleasant" rap on testing so that it can pretend that the "necessary" part is not in doubt. But of course it's the notion that the Big Standardized Test is necessary that is at the heart of the opt-out movement.

Why are Big Standardized Tests necessary? BS Test fans have lost some of their classic arguments. For instance, they can no longer say that test results are needed to do national comparisons that run across state lines because the dream of a single national test is dead, dead, dead. VAM has been debunked far and wide. From the test quality to test validity to every justification given for testing-- as ESEA has heated up, they've all been subject to responsible, data-based, professional attack.
Writers like Thomas have been reduced to justifications like this:

And that's why I'm an opt-in on testing. I want to know how well my kid is doing in algebra. I want to know how smart she is compared to all the other kids in the state. The same goes for reading, writing and science...This information will let me know if she is on track for being first in line when the University of Florida opens its doors to incoming freshman.

Is Thomas suggesting that all students everywhere should be tested so that he can brag about his own daughter? Or is he suggesting that his daughter's teachers keep all her grades, school work and achievements a secret from him? And does he really mean to suggest that he's an opt-in, because if that's what he wants, I'm sure we can find support for a system where people can opt-in to testing if they wish, but would otherwise be in a no-testing default.

That system would have great support, but it's not what Thomas and FEE and other reformsters and testing corporations want-- they want a system in which all students are compelled to test, not one where they have a choice (though oddly enough, they are huge fans of choice when it comes to charter schools).

Here's the other thing about colonoscopies and braces-- the government doesn't compel you to have them, whether your professional expert thinks you need one or not. You opt-in, voluntarily, weighing the advice of trained experts and the advantages of the procedure. You don't need to come up with a justification for not having a root canal today-- you only have one if someone (or your tooth) presents a reason to opt in.

Reformsters would like us to skip all of that. Just take their word for it that tests are a necessary unpleasantry, like vaccination shots for babies or sex for Victorian ladies. Don't ask why. Don't question the necessity. Just lie back and think of England.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats
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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ken-Ton Schools Take Stand

You may recall that earlier this month the president of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school board raised the possibility of passing a motion to threaten withdrawing from New York's testing program. Then the superintendent hollered, "Hold on there, Tex!" and the board put the issue off until later.

Well, last night, later arrived, and the board voted to stand up, sort of, to the state.

The district is north of Buffalo, and it has been small but cranky on the subject of things like Cuomo's holding financial support hostage as well as the continued ignoring of the decade-old court ruling that New York needs to get its financial support for schools straightened out.

WGRZ quoted board president Bob Dana:

We have stepped forward and decided that enough is enough. We're sending a message to Albany that we are going to consider boycotting standardized testing and not using test scores to evaluate our students and teachers. If they don't turn around and give us and every other school district across the state what we have coming.

Dana told the crowd at the meeting that he'd been told that the state might remove the board of education and that financial penalties would also be leveled. But he told the Buffalo News, "We're not playing games anymore."

Superintendent Dawn Mirand repeated her opposition to the move, and the administrators union came out against it while the teachers union supported it. A straw poll was held by written ballot, and the crowd attending the meeting voted 281-22 in support of the move. One citizen told WIVB that he was willing to pay more in taxes if it would mean the state let teachers do their jobs.

It should be noted that the protest vote is in the mildest possible terms-- at this point the board has simply voted to "seriously consider" refusing to give the test to elementary students and to use test results to evaluate teachers. It remains to be seen what will happen once that serious consideration actually leads to action.

So this is not so much a bold assault on the state as it is inching up slowly and carefully to the Line and seeing how far across it they can go before the state decides to drop the hammer. So it's measured defiance, but defiance none-the-less. How far will the district go in telling the state to shove their tests up their big fat Niagara Falls? How far will the state go to punish those who dare to question their wisdom and power? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Duncan Looks for Spare Children

Arne Duncan teams up with Marc C. Morial and Janet Murguia in a blog post on The Hill, trying once again to get some attention for his vision of the new ESEA.

His choice of new catch phrase is extraordinarily unfortunate. He rolls it out in the headline and uses it again in the post:

America has no kids to spare.

Let's think about that for a second.

When you don't have any more of something to spare, that means you're already using all that you've got. "I don't have time to spare" means "I need every second I've got for some piece of business." Our spare tire is the one that we keep to use for tire-related business if one of the regulars gives up. Buddy, if I can't spare a dime, it's because I need to spend my dimes on something for myself.

So if we have no children to spare, that must mean that we (whoever "we" are) cannot give up any children because we intend to use them for something. It evokes a century ago when families might say, "We can't spare this child for school because we need him to work in the field" or the urban poor saying "We can't spare this child for school because we need him to earn some money in the factory."

If we can't "spare" any children, it must be that "we" have some other pressing use for them. What, I wonder, does Duncan imagine we need to use all these children for. What kind of coggitious widgetry is their destined use? We can't spare one child from our plans for a drone workforce? We can't spare one child from helping us create revenue streams for corporate interests? "I have no children to spare," is what the witch in the gingerbread house says, not somebody who is concerned about allowing children to grow and develop and stand up strong as the best persons they can be.

This particular construction reveals, once again, the notion that children are the toasters on the assembly line that is the reformsters' ideal education system.

Duncan et al get into some specifics from their ESEA wish list. 

For instance, they want to be sure that districts are getting resources, including various subgroups, and I think that's a great idea except that maybe, if that's our goal, we'd want a program other than Race to the Top or other signature "competitive" programs that say, "Hey, children in struggling subgroups-- we will get resources to you IF you are fortunate enough to be in a school system run by people who are good at filling out federal Give Me Money, Please paperwork. But if the heads of your state and local system do not meet our federal standards, we will teach them a lesson by giving fewer resources to you, struggling student."

Getting resources to students who need them and making many systems compete for limited resources are not compatible goals. Duncan needs to figure out which he stands for.

Duncan says parents should know that students who are found to be in non-goal-meeting schools, the feds will be on the way with resources and supports and interventions. Of course, by that last word, we mean "handing the school over to a charter operator," an intervention technique that doesn't seem to have saved many students at all, and has certainly stripped resources and support away from other students in those same communities.

Also, he wants preschool.

He also wants feedback about individual student achievement, support and autonomy for teachers, and money to go to high poverty schools, as well as support for "innovation" with a proven track record. These are great things; these are also things that the administration has not tried at all in the last seven years. Maybe this is the part of the article that Duncan did not write.

One more spare

Of course, there's another way to understand the word "spare." It can refer to a show of mercy, a relenting of damaging and destructive force, as in "I will spare your life."

If Arne is announcing his intention to spare no child the oppression of reformster education programs, then I will give him points, at least, for accuracy and honesty. If he is saying "America has no kids to spare the indignity, timesuck and waste of pointless standardized testing," then we have here one of those rare occasiona in which Duncan's words and his actions actually match up.

But I'm guessing that's not what he meant to say. In which case, we can just dismiss this as more pointless word salad from USED.