Saturday, February 28, 2015

Coleman's CCSS Writing Style

Back in the summer of 2011, the Hunt Institute (they work at "the intersection of policy and politics," so right at the corner of Corporate Lobbying Way and Educational Profiteering Avenue, just across from where Lobbyist Alley empties into the sewers) produced a series of promotional videos for the Common Core.

I find it instructive to look at these older materials about the Core because reformsters were speaking so much more plainly back then, and said so many things that they would later try to pretend they'd never uttered at all.

So today's featured video is "Writing To Inform and Make Arguments." I should explain right up front that this is not one in a series of videos showing the many different types of writing required by the Common Core; this one video covers all the writing you'll ever need to be Common Core Compliant. I'll just go ahead and put the video here before I talk about it-- just so you know that I'm not making any of this up.

Yes, this video features our old buddy David Coleman and his sidekick Susan Pimentel. Let's go.

Pimentel is up first. You know she's the kind of expert you want writing language standards because she's a lawyer who has done tons of consulting work at schools, plus all sorts of edu-ronin work for the Waltons.

Pimentel lets us know there are three types of writing expected by the Core-- "to argue, to inform and explain, and to tell a story."

"Narrative writing is given early prominence, as it should, in elementary school" because narrative writing is, apparently , for small children. But eventually it "gives way" to the other types, the "analytical types" of writing so that by high school, analytical writing should take up 80% of their assigned writing. Not a shock coming from the folks who believe in 75% "informative" texts. I suppose poetry is completely off the table.

In mid-sentence, we fade over to Coleman, wearing what I've come to think of as his thoughtful, serious face. He does his best to avoid any of those unctuous self-satisfied expressions he uses in interviews, tilts his head to one side, and uses the soft, soothing tone of voice one uses with slow children and volatile crazy persons.

At any rate, he's here to earnestly tell us that this analytical writing "is much more closely connected to the demands of college and career." I have nothing against analytical writing, but I have to say that among my many students who have gone on to successful welding careers I have rarely heard of a regular demand for analytical papers.

The two important things in college and career, says Coleman, is to be able to argue using evidence and to be able to inform and take complex information and make it clear. Okay, that might be three things. Coleman's construction is such that it renders his informing a little unclear. See, for the first time, there will be a sequence from K through 12 to get students used to providing evidence for things they write to support and argument or to support clear informative writing. And "of course narrative has a marvelous role in narrative as well." Really.

Coleman tells us that the Core focuses on "short, focused research projects," which is yet another of those "the Core says X" formulations that has no actual basis in what's actually written in the Core. I actually agree with Coleman that several short projects can be preferable to the old One Big Project a Year approach, but he delivers this with an eyebrow parched expression that seems to say, "How you could possibly think about giving back my ring and killing our puppy?" Then Coleman goes a step further to say that such short, focused research is essential to college and career readiness.

Now comes the real fun.

"Good writing comes from good reading," says Coleman (and a graphic). Gathering evidence from the reading becomes the basis for excellent writing, says Coleman. This is not really a surprise-- Coleman seems to believe that students should read texts with the goal of being able to write college papers about them, so it only makes sense that the purpose of writing would be to show what details you can transfer out of a text. Now, he does want you to know that narrative writing is still in there, and that it helps with the core concepts of creativity and precision (wait-- was creativity in the standards somewhere? because that would be news).

Coleman drives to the finish by saying that when you talk to authors, whether authors of literature, polemics or clear informative pieces, "that precision and command of evidence is at the heart of their work and craft." And it's also at the heart of college and career readiness. Boy, is he earnest. It's hard to believe that this is the same guy who smirked when he said that when you grow up, you learn that nobody gives a shit what you think or feel. 

And Pimentel's back, to say that the Core asks students to learn many ways to present data and information (which I guess is meant to underline how the Core embraces the whole world of human expression from A to B). She tries to say something about how student writing in different classes might be different, but that point comes out as a sort of muddled mess. Almost as if she doesn't really know exactly what she's talking about.

We can get the easy criticism out of the way first. In this piece about the importance of using details and evidence to support writing, the presenters include zero detail and evidence to support their assertions about writing, including their bold assertion that the techniques they require are the essential element of all college and career success. But this not news; Coleman's MO has always been to present his ideas without evidence or support. One of the most remarkable features about his work as a public education policy scholar is that he never cites the work of another authority-- Coleman's ideas presumably spring full-blown from his own fertile mind without the need for any other scholars, writers, thought leaders, or researchers.

What the video has to say about writing is not wrong. It's just not the whole picture.

It's certainly not wrong to find a link between good writing and good reading. But it shows an astonishingly narrow focus to suggest that the entire purpose of writing is to convey evidence that you have gathered from a piece of reading. In Coleman's universe, you read so that you can write a good paper for class, and you write a paper so that you can show how well you read. It's like suggesting that the purpose of an automobile is to go get groceries; that's certainly a good and worthwhile purpose, but is that really the only reason you're ever going to get the Buick out of the garage?

We write to express something that we have to say, that we want to say. I often tell my students that their writing problems are based in asking the wrong question-- instead of asking "What do I want to say about this" they ask "what can I write to fulfill this assignment." Do I expect them to include support and evidence that helps them say what they have to say? Sure. But support and evidence are just one of many hows, and for Coleman they seem to be the only how, or even the what. Coleman continually reminds me of students I've had who didn't really want to say anything-- they just wanted the teacher to praise them for being Really Smart.

Recently, Maria Popova at the indispensable Brain Pickings wrote a piece about William Faulkner and the question of why write. She includes a list of links to many authors' answer to the question, but she offers a hefty quote from Faulkner himself. It's long, but I'm including it anyway.

You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.
He endures.

He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose; that as frail as he is, he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.
Some people are going to say, well, yeah, right, that's a motivation if you are going to be an author of great literature. I disagree.

The answer to "Why read" or "Why write" is not "To get a really good grade in class." It is not even "to succeed in college and in my career," because that just transfers the "why" down the line. I believe the answer is to better grasp what it means to be human and alive and here on this planet. I believe the answer is that we try to better understand ourselves and the people around us so that we can better serve and aid and support each other, and come one step closer to being the best version of ourselves we can become in the short time we have here on the planet. At the very least, we are here to take joy in what makes us human whenever we can, and to help others embrace the opportunity to experience that joy.

Coleman and Pimentel offer a Common Core vision that is small and cramped and stunted. They have found an elephant's toe nail clipping and think it represents the entire animal.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Politics and ESEA

As we come down to the first of many wires on the next of many rewrites of ESEA, Politico provides a nail-biting tale of House Republicans looking to make sure they have the votes, while Andy Smarick has provided a handy chart of the range of political stances, ideas, and versions of a new ESEA.

The pieces are instructive. Smarick in particular shows how the various proposals, from Lamar Alexander's to NGA to FEE to-- hmmm, I don't see anything from Secretary Duncan on here. Almost as if he's completely irrelevant to the discussion. Anyway, it's an easy to size up look at the various political positions on the ESEA rewrite. As such it is somewhat informative and entirely depressing.

Likewise, the Politico piece which approaches the rewriting of ESEA as if it's a political office deserving the same horse-race style coverage of a battle for the job of Mayor of Chicago. Also depressing?

Why depressing? Because both pieces are a reminder that the one thing that is not being discussed with any degree of fervor or intensity or even at all is the educational basis for any of these choices. Many of the policy discussions (say, the desire for an eternal onslaught of standardized testing) could be informed by actual research and facts and stuff, but they won't be. ESEA could be rewritten in an atmosphere in which lawmakers and policy writers sit quietly and listen to what actual teachers and educators and researchers (real researchers, not thinky tank un-peer non-reviewed opinion pieces) have to say.

That's not going to happen, and I'm enough of a big boy to understand that that's not how the world works when it comes to any policy. I understand we've crafted a system where expertise and knowledge are often dwarfed by money and power, and that it's hard to have any kind of political system that tries to organize representative government will tilt in that direction. I'm a grown-up. I get it. I'm not going to sit and moan about how we should be living in some non-political utopia where lions and lambs lie down together and the birds and the bees sing kumbayyah. We live in the real world, and this is part of that.

But, by God, the next time some reformster wants to complain that the opponents of Common Core and standardized testing and charter schools keep politicizing things instead of discussing educational policies on their educational merits, I'm going to refer him back to these two pieces. It's time to watch, once again, how the sausage is made, and it's not made out of educational pieces-parts in an educational sausage factory. It's political sausage made at a political sausagefest.

This is a reminder to teachers who want to stay home and say, "Well, I don't want to get my hands dirty with political stuff" that they are opting out of making the decisions that they have to live with. And it's a reminder that "Why must you make this so political?" is another way to say, "I'd like you to go back to being uninvolved and ineffective, please."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Teaching: Too Hard for Teachers

What exactly is a teacher's job? I have generally felt that I know the answer, but in these reformy times I have moments when I wonder.

I had one such moment today, reading this piece from The Hechinger Report entitled "Common Core's Unintended Consequence." The subheading of this piece by Jonathan Sapers tells us what that dreadful, unintended, potentially tragic consequence might be-- "More teachers write their own curricula." Clearly an unexpected tragic side effect of Common Core is that some teachers have forgotten what their proper place is.

OMG! How did such a terrible thing happen!!

According to many teachers, experts and advocates of the Common Core, traditional curriculum sources haven’t been meeting the demands of the new set of math and English standards that have been rolled out in more than 40 states in the past few years. More and more teachers are scrapping off-the-shelf lessons and searching for replacements on the Internet or writing new curriculum materials themselves.

Yes, it's true. Because of a failure of the education materials publishing industry, teachers out there are being forced to find their own teaching materials. Some are even-- choke-- designing teaching materials all by themselves! Oh, the humanity!!

The Center on Education Policy (CEP), a nonpartisan research group, reports that in roughly two-thirds of districts in Common Core states, teachers have developed or are developing their own curricular materials in math (66 percent) and English Language Arts (65 percent). In more than 80 percent of districts, the CEP found that at least one source for curriculum materials was local — from teachers, the district itself or other districts in the state.

Local materials!?! Good heavens! How can teachers hope to create teaching materials?! Don't they understand that they are only teachers?? Do they imagine that just because they went to college and got a degree and completed student teaching and have spent some amount of time in a classroom with students-- I mean, do they think all that qualifies them to create instructional materials?!

Whose fault is this?

Authorities (by which, of course, I mean people other than teachers, who are clearly not authorities on any of this important educational stuff) seem to feel that a large part of the blame lies with publishing companies that have been creating books that do not perfectly align with the Common Core Standards, leaving poor dazed and confused educators to fill in the gaps. At least, they say it's an alignment problem. I know many elementary teachers who seem to think that their Common Core teaching materials involve techniques and a pace that does not actually result in "learning" among actual live "students."

These teachers, whose frustration has driven them to the crazy-ass step of trying to come up with their own materials have been aided and abetted by teacher sharing sites-- places like Teachers Pay Teachers and But those sites are Very Highly Questionable, because the materials there have been developed by mere teachers, and what the hell do they know?

Potential disasters in the making

Sapers notes that there is research soon to be published that "seems to confirm teachers’ predicament." I can only assume that by "predicament" he means teachers finding themselves trapped in the terrible, terrible position of creating teaching materials for their classrooms. Oh, the woe.

The research will be coming from William Schmidt at the Center for the Study of Curriculum at Michigan State University. Schmidt is concerned:

“It’s a rather elaborate and extensive endeavor to write instructional materials for a whole year, and I think that no one should expect that teachers have the time nor the professional background to do that.”

Yes, this is what it has come to. Teachers designing teaching materials. Teachers delivering lessons. Teachers coming up with their own assignments and assessments and then-- gasp-- actually grading those assignments and assessments.And doing it all with nothing more than the training, education and experience that comes with being a teacher. It is enough to make one weep.

Sapers reports that some brave administrators have tried to aid in this process. For instance, there's principal Shelley Ritz from the Belle Chasse Primary School in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish. Her teachers were totes thrilled about the Common Core.

“Who doesn’t want their child to read grade-level appropriate texts? Answer questions taking evidence from the text? That’s awesome. But how to help that evolve into a curriculum? We’re not curriculum writers. There are companies that are paid millions and millions of dollars to do the research.”

It was frustrating, she said. “There was limited understanding of how to create curriculum, lesson plans and assessments from scratch. And who knew if the final products were correct?”

Who indeed? Clearly classroom teachers lack the professional knowledge and ability to know whether the materials they are using in their classroom with their students are effective or not.

Some good news from our sponsors

Incidentally, Schmidt and the Center have a new product that will allow teachers to get their textbooks lined up properly and direct them to the proper materials for filling any gaps. Because they want to help the poor lost teachers trapped in classroom armed with nothing but their inadequate teaching wits and their tiny unprofessional brains. So, thanks for that Center.

Plus, the folks at Student Achievement Partners, founded by some of the Common Core creators who developed those standards with a deep understanding of education unencumbered by any actual direct knowledge of the teaching profession-- those guys have also developed a tool to help teachers find teaching materials.

Seriously, this has to stop

Before you know it, doctors will be doing diagnosis and prescription on their own without deferring to the superior medical knowledge of drug salesmen.

Teaching is a noble profession, devoted to delivering and implementing the teaching programs created for them by the wise education thought leaders of publishing and government bureaucratacy (and, actually, there are so few of these superior individuals that they have to balance working for both corporations and government). As teacher, our place is simply to deliver the content that Far Smarter People have designed. I mean, Common Core Standards are just more than we could hope to grasp, and we need to back away from our misguided impulses to create our own materials before we hurt ourselves.

I for one will be going to school tomorrow to burn my files of teacher-created materials, dump all my teacher-created worksheets and unit plans into a landfill somewhere, and just sit patiently, my hands folded, waiting for instructions from my betters. I'll use no materials that haven't been passed down by the Proper Authorities, and I will never add anything to them without direct instructions from Certified Educational Thought Leaders.

After all, what the hell do I know about teaching? I'm just a teacher.

Schools Offer Teacher Test Bonuses

In a move of incredible cheapness and stunted vision, the school leaders of Tipp City, Ohio, have decided to institute performance based pay. It's a good look at just how ridiculous such a system would be.

Tipp City is a bit north of Dayton and has a population of just under 10K. It used to be named Tippecanoe, and was later Tippecanoe City, but there's another Tippecanoe in Ohio and so Tipp City had its name changed. This was apparently a big deal. Fun fact: Kim Deal of the Pixies is from Tipp City.

The school district actually conducted its own phone survey, and respondents overwhelmingly rated the district's education excellent, and its use of tax dollars good.

But the phone survey also touched on another issue facing Tipp Schools--

Tipp City lost many teachers last year to higher paying jobs and nearly 40% of teachers reported they were looking or planned to look for jobs elsewhere. Do you think this is a very important, somewhat important, or not very important concern?

61.1% of respondents (who were overwhelmingly old and without children in the system, because apparently this phone survey was run during the daytime) rated that a Very Important Concern. It came in behind older schools' lack of modern facilities, and the too-small, run-down sports stadium as an important issue for the district. However, because this is Ohio, a state in which schools must go hat in hand to the voters for everything, the survey also checked on support for raising taxes to pay for holding onto teachers. From this we learn that there's a certain percentage of folks who want teachers to stay-- they just don't want to pay for it personally.

So why are Tipp City schools having a personnel problem? They spend less per pupil than eighteen of the surrounding twenty districts. Their personnel problem might be that the teachers have been frozen on their salary step for four years, and for two of those years they have had no cost-of-living increase, which means two years of real-money pay cuts. Working for Tipps is worse than working for tips.

In fact, things have gotten so bad that Tipp teachers are in the midst of forming a union. Seriously. This is playing well locally:

“I am incensed over the fact that we stand on the precipice of having a union in this town,” resident Pete Schinaman said. Schinaman is the co-chair of the levy campaign. He asked the board what could have been done to prevent the teachers association from forming.

Which brings us back to the merit pay.

This is not merit pay as in "additional pay above your step." This is merit pay as in "we're scrapping the entire pay scale and replacing it with this." The proposal is that teachers rated "accomplished" get a 1% raise. (Yes, that's 1 %, with a 1.) "Skilled" teachers get a .75% raise, and "developing" teachers get a .5%. Some quick math tells us that for someone currently stranded on a $50K pay step, the resulting raise will range from $500 down to $250.

So, still losing real dollars every year. I can't imagine why these teachers felt the need to unionize.

I am not sure on which planet this classifies as "trying to retain talented and capable teachers." I'm pretty sure that it sends a clear message and the message is, "If you're waiting for us to finally reinstate a decent pay program, you can stop waiting and start freshening up that resume."

Meanwhile, while other Ohio superintendents are standing up to the state over high-stakes testing, Tipp City's super has sent out a letter reminding parents that while they can opt out, they really shouldn't because it will have bad consequences for the schools, the community and maybe their child, and if they want to opt out, they'll have to do it in person or by phone. Did I mention that administrators can earn up to 3% raises?

So, good luck to you, Tipp City Exempted Village Schools! You have identified a problem and a need, and you have responded to it with a resounding thud, an idea so small and unhelpful that it seems more like mockery than a real attempt to help your teachers thrive and survive, like leaving a one cent tip for the wait-person instead of stiffing them entirely. I hope you enjoy your new union, but if you're worried about that, don't fret, because teachers will probably be too busy packing to bother joining in the first place.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Coke Provides a Marketing Lesson

Proponents of vouchers and choice systems never tire of touting the benefits of the free market. For them, the free market is like a colosseum in which gladiator products battle to become better, until the crown goes to those who are Most Excellent of All. It's a touchingly childlike belief; the free market will deliver excellence to customers just like Santa will deliver presents to good boys and girls.
But in our American free-ish market capitalism-lite system, the path to victory often has nothing to do with the pursuit of excellence.

Sometimes the market place just doesn't want excellence enough to pay for it; analysts have suggested that's why the airline travel experience is lousy and getting lousier. Or consider cable television, which promised a cornucopia of varied and quality channels and instead delivered 500 versions of the same bland culture-mulch.

Yesterday, Coca-Cola delivered another lesson in how the free market really works. Coke has been having troubles financially, and it's worth noting that many of these troubles have absolutely nothing to do with the product at all, but with the financial machinations of international exchange rates. Apparently when those aren't tilted in the proper direction, you can magically turn your money into less money. Additionally, Coke has suffered some loss of market share because it has occurred to many people that they could put more healthful substances into their bodies.

So how did Coke handle this? Did they find a way to make their product better? Did they pursue excellence so that they could be rewarded by the free market? Of course not. As reported by the AP, they did this:

To make up for weak volume gains at home, the company has been using a variety of tactics including a focus on "mini-cans" and smaller bottles that are positioned as premium offerings and help push up revenue.

That's right. They looked for a better way to trick the customers into giving them more money. Specifically, they put their flavored fizzy water in smaller cans, essentially raising their price-per-unit and then marketing the increased cost as a Good Thing. They put less of the same old product in new cans. That's it.

This is the free market at its worst. The customer is your adversary-- they have your money and somehow, some way, you have to get it away from them. It's not that you need a product that actually has better quality-- you need a product that can more easily be sold.

I've written this many times. If I'm ever important enough to have a law named after me, this might be my best shot:

The free market does not foster superior quality; the free market fosters superior marketing.

The notion that unleashing these sorts of market forces in education would somehow lead to better schools would be funny if it weren't so destructive in practice. It is particularly problematic because under school choice, the school can't raise the price because that voucher payment is set by the state (I know we rarely call these vouchers any more, but that's only because the term has become a political liability-- school choice programs are still essentially voucher programs). So the only option for schools in a free market system is to cut services, to put less education in a smaller, shinier can.

When a school's guiding principle, its business plan, is to ask, "How much less can we give these students and still keep market share," that school is broken. A system that rewards better marketing of a poorer product is not a system that creates excellence, and we do not need to put education in smaller cans.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

Sheep, Simplicity and Losing the Point

David Greene (no relation) has a long but exceptionally worthwhile post up on his blog, "On Excellent Sheep: Our New Ruling Class." You should absolutely read the whole thing-- I am going to spin off one particular point here, but his whole piece is worth your time.

His "excellent sheep" are the people who are good at playing the school game.

They took as many AP courses as they could accumulate without any love of the subjects. They did all the same extracurriculars. They were tutored to get the highest SAT scores possible. They either had coaches or had “ghost”writers help them write their college essays They had all figured out how to play the academic game of success without taking risks but many couldn’t do simple tasks like get on a commuter train to NYC. These students were the epitome of a saying one of my “regular kids” put on a  t-shirt we made up one year: “Be Different. Just Like Everyone Else.” They followed the script to get the highest grades, the highest SAT scores, and to get them into the most elite universities in the country. And get in they did.

I do not teach in a high-powered super-school, but I have taught an honors class to juniors for twenty-some years now, and I know the students he's speaking about. Mine are generally less wealthy and may have fewer resources that his excellent sheep, but as I read Greene's piece I recognized the habits of mind.

You might think that smarter students, intellectually gifted students would be more engaged in their educations, but as I tell my students, "Some of you do not use your powers for good." Their stronger mental and school skills often mean that they are less engaged than my less academically gifted students.

Teaching is like setting up an obstacle course for students, with the intent that running the course will cause them to develop certain skills and acquire certain knowledge. But the excellent sheep are good at seeing ways to just walk around the obstacle course and still end up at the other side. They like to reduce assignments to a simple series of hoops. Thinking about what they're doing, becoming engaged, really wrestling mentally with the material-- all of that just slows them down. They will ask questions about assignments, but these are not questions borne of curiosity-- they're just carefully reworded versions of "Just tell me exactly what you have to see in order for me to get my A." Thwarting these sheep and putting them in pens that they must think their way out of is one of the great ongoing goals of my teaching career.

Like Greene, I see this ability to skip the process and fake the outcome in the people driving reform. In fact, Andrew Rotherman of reformster-friendly Bellwether said much the same thing at US News when he points out that the people driving the ed reform bus are the people who were "good at school" and so want to install exactly the same sort of systems that they were so good at gaming.

At first glance it might seem that what we're looking at is the ability to simplify-- and isn't that a good thing? Henry David Thoreau's Walden is a hymn to simplicity, to cutting away all the extra fat so that we can see the bare bones of What Really Matters.

But there's the problem. Because if we're not careful, what we're cutting away isn't fat at all.

This is particularly true when you simplify a complex internal human operation down to simple superficial measures. You could, for instance, that you are going to decide to measure how much somebody loves you by the superficial measure of how many times they call you, or how much they spent on your birthday present, or how many times they kiss you in a week. But these clear simple measures of a complex and intricate phenomenon are clear and simple precisely because they miss the point.

The excellent sheep, whether they are in the classroom or being educational thought leaders, have made the same mistake.

I say, "Read the Sun Also Rises, and tell me how you think ideas like alienation and powerlessness are reflected in both the novel and the modernist movement. When we've had some discussion, I'll ask you to expand those ideas in a paper about the subject."

The excellent sheep hear "Blah blah blah write a paper" and start asking questions like "Exactly how long does it have to be?" and "How many quotes from the novel should we use?" They say to each other (and remember when they grow up to be thought leaders) "I wish we were just doing a multiple choice test on this. I kick ass on multiple choice tests." They may complain about the assignment-- "Why doesn't he tell us exactly what he wants us to write? If he would tell me exactly what I'm supposed to write, I could just go ahead and write that."

Reducing complex behaviors to simple measures always means losing the idea, missing the point, cutting away that which is most essential in the behavior. My students want to do it, and the excellent sheep who have commandeered education have enshrined this sort of point-missing into regulation.

With my students, there is hope. They're young, and we go very meta on this phenomenon in my class, talking about what they're doing and how they're doing it and why it is not in their best interest to do it. I was an excellent sheep once; I know most of the shortcuts and I'm almost always there waiting for them when they try to take one.

Unfortunately, I don't get to have this discussion with the excellent sheep who are running the reformy show, nor do I think I could make an impression. They are rich and successful and they have drawn the very sheeplike conclusion that their success is a direct result of their sheepishness. Those of us who are reformed sheep almost always got there because life handed us a huge attitude adjustment, and that's a benefit that I'm in no position to deliver.

So the most I can do is write and read and talk. Those of us who aren't sheep need to do that at a minimum, because the excellent sheep are so determined and confident that the rest of us can start to doubt our own senses, and we need to remind each other that there are huge, important aspects of life that the sheep are missing entirely.

Keep the faith. Don't believe the excellent sheep.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fiction, Charter Fiction, and Damned Lies

Back in August of 2014, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published "Separating Fact & Fiction: What You Need To Know About Charter Schools." This is kind of like reading a tobacco industry publication about the health benefits of smoking. Admittedly, the NAPCS only suggests they're going to separate fact and fiction, not tell us which are which. But the National Education Policy Center, one of the most indispensable research centers for education, did their own review of the charter report, and that review was just released.

NEPC's review is scholarly, thorough, and responsible. So I figured I would take a quick scan through the NAPCS piece with a somewhat less grown-up eye (since I missed it when it first came out) and see what kind of baloney the charter folks are selling.

I'll preface this, as always, by saying that I believe there is a place for charters, particularly the classic charters that pre-date the current explosion of charters that are more interested in investment return and money-funneling than actual education. It's unfortunate that the current crop of charters are making the whole concept of charter schooling look bad. So, no, I'm not a knee-jerk automatic charter hater.

Now let's check out some myths.

MYTH: Charter Schools Are Not Public Schools

Their claim is that they meet the legal definition of a public school. Of course, there are states (looking at you, OK) where helpful legislators are actually trying to get charters excused from those pesky testing and transparency requirements. Otherwise, the rule remains the same-- charters are public when they want access to public money, and private when they want to avoid being transparent-- even to other parts of the charter network!

MYTH: Charter schools get more money than other public schools.

I see what you did there with the word "other"-- asserting some more that charters are public schools. Their claim is that charters get less money. Of course charters also get more free buildings for co-locations or just plain take overs. And charters have started agitating hard for a bigger piece of the pie, so I guess all that talk about how charters would do more with less was just a sales pitch.

MYTH: Charter schools receive a disproportionate amount of private funds.

Well, "disproportionate" is a fancy word for "fair," and fairness is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly some charters have some fancy high profile fundraisers while schools like mine are holding car washes. But I have no idea how we figure this, since every dollar a parent spends on a Hello Kitty backpack would conceivably count as a private fund.

MYTH: There is a lack of transparency around charter schools' use of funds.

Well, yes. There was also a lack of civility during assault on the US Embassy in Benghazi. Charters don't so much lack transparency as they fight it like cats being forced to bathe. One of the authors of the NEPC review sent out 400 Freedom of Information Act requests to charters. 20% answered, 10% asserted their right to ignore FOIA requests, and 70% simply ignored the request.

Now, what NAPSC actually says is that charter schools "have greater accountability and scrutiny over their finances than traditional public schools." They have no real support for that other than claiming that they must meet all state laws as well as keep their authorizers happy. Maybe what they really mean is that they have to answer to their investors.

MYTH: Charter school teachers are less qualified than teachers in traditional public schools.

"Like all public school leaders, charter leaders aim to hire talented, passionate, and qualified teachers who will boost student achievement and contribute to a thriving school culture." Well, baloney. Nobody asked what you aim at. You can aim at anything. But since charters aim to spend less money on teaching staffs and charters aim to fill spaces with easily-replaced TFA temps and charters aim to install systems where they can hide lousy pay structures with shiny "merit" systems, we can easily predict that what their aim is confused. They may be aiming for the target, but their big cheap gun is pointed straight at the floor. I have no doubt that there are many excellent teachers working in the charter world, but since they prize the " draw from a wider candidate pool," they will, in fact, have a teaching pool of less-qualified people filling teaching slots.

MYTH: Charter schools are anti-union.

The National Alliance believes that teachers in any school should be treated fairly and should be given the due process rights they are accorded under the law. And we believe in giving school leaders the flexibility they need to staff their schools with teachers who support the mission and will meet school standards. 

We are happy to have unions, as long as they are ineffective and powerless and never intrude on the management's freedom to run the school however they wish.

MYTH: Charter schools aren't accountable to the public since their boards aren't elected.

Yeah, we're just going to fudge our way through this one. See charters have to answer to authorizers, who are just like the public. "Charter schools are uniquely accountable to the public because they sign contracts with a government-endorsed authorizer..." So, no, they aren't accountable to the public. In fact, they rather like it that way.

MYTH: Charter schools cream or cherry-pick the best students from traditional public schools.

NAPCS says that charters are "generally required" to accept all students. But one of their most vocal supporters says, no, they don't, and that's a good thing. The modern charter is excellent at making sure it only serves the kind of students it wishes to serve, and this selectivity has been demonstrated by researchers again and again, to the point that the New Jersey Charter Schools group tried to use the court system to stop one set of researchers from proving that yet again, the charters do not serve the same population as the public system.

Part of the answer here is also marketing. If you market a restaurant as a prime steak house, you won't pull big vegan clientelle. If you market a charter as a no excuses, all science all day, we make slackers miserable school, your potential market will do some of the cherry picking for you.

Also, you know what kind of student charters never have to accept? The kind of student who comes into school in the middle of the year. For the most part, charters do not have to back fill their empty seats. None of their students have come in in the middle of the year-- those kids can hie them to a public school.

MYTH: Charter schools don't enroll children from underserved families.

The research is stacking up that charters accelerate segregation by both race and class (NEPC has a list of six). Charters do enroll such students, but not at the same rate as public schools.

MYTH: Charter schools serve fewer English language learners than traditional public schools.

NAPCS says there is "no significant difference" in the percentage of ELL students served by charter and public schools. NEPC says this claim is "unsubstantiated and demonstrably false" which is the polite researcher way of calling pants on fire. Maybe NAPCS thinks "no significant difference" means "no difference large enough to bother us."

MYTH: Charter schools serve fewer students with disabilities.

NAPCS says they're at 10% enrollment versus 12% for public schools. They neglect to mention how the disabilities sort out as far as severity, so they are counting a child with a mild processing disability the same as a child with severe learning challenges. They also give themselves a big pat on the back for keeping a huge percentage of their students in a least restrictive environment of a regular classroom, which is a great way to spin providing no special supports for students with special needs.

MYTH: Charter schools depend on counseling out for academic results blah blah this is a wordy one for some reason.

Well, not for some reason. The myth is worded to embed the notion that charters get better academic results, which they don't. The NAPCS defense is awesome: "There is no evidence of charter school policies that explicitly push out students." So, "You'll never catch us doing it."

MYTH: Charter schools have higher suspension and expulsion rates.

Pretty sure that's just wrong. For instance, Chicago just noticed a problem. And DC is really out of whack. NAPCS is using a single Education Week article covering 2009-2010 data. It's a weak stretch.

MYTH: Charter school students do no better than traditional public schools.

NAPCS uses their own studies to assert their superiority. Well, actually, just a couple of their own studies. Funny they didn't use any of the independent studies out there, most of which show that charters generally are neither better nor worse than public schools. But I'm going to give them a pass on this because most of those studies reach their conclusions by looking at standardized tests scores, and those things don't really tell us how any students in any schools are really doing.

MYTH: Underperforming charter schools are allowed to remain open.

Tricky one to defend, since the most striking defense is that the really bad charter schools often just close up shop during the school year with no warning at all. Closing whenever they feel like it is one of the defining characteristics of the modern charter school, and one of the reasons I oppose them.

MYTH: Charters are an urban-only phenomenon.

Well, I believe that probably is a myth. I'm sure that charter operators will go anywhere they think the market is ripe for the plucking. Pennsylvania's cyber charters have displayed a rapacious love of money that knows no boundaries whatsoever. Of course, if we can agree that charters also appear in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, then perhaps we can move onto the next logical question, which is "So what?"

MYTH: Competition from charter schools is causing neighborhood schools to close and harming the students attending them.

MYTH: Charter schools take funding away from traditional public schools.

Again, the statement of the first myth itself is a big fat lie. The implication here is that charters are just out-competing those lame-o public schools. But no-- it's not the competition that's doing the damage-- it's the sweet, sweet political deals that turn charter systems into bloodsucking leeches firmly latched onto the veins of public education.

NAPSC's defense is stupid. "No research has shown that the presence of public charter schools cause neighborhood schools to close."  Come visit me at my home, and I will walk you across the street to the former neighborhood elementary school that was closed a few years ago. In that year, our goal was to save about $800K in operating expenses. In that same year, we handed over about $760K to cyber-charters. Charters suck the money out of public schools. In places like New York City where politically-connected profiteers like Eva Moskowitz can strong-arm the city into handing them free real estate, charters are literally taking the school buildings away from the neighborhood.

One of the biggest, boldest, fattest, most destructive lies of the charter movement is that we can operate multiple school systems for the cost of one. But charters have made sure that their political backers will insure that it's the public system that loses out and that the public schools will be the ones stripped of resources and left with less than they need to function.

In 2014, the charter industry could still claim with a straight face that only a portion of the per-pupil cost left the public schools with the student. But they have been working on that. Indiana's Governor Pence actually wants the charters to get MORE per pupil tan a public school.

NAPSC ends with a non-denial denial, leaning on the competitive aspect. In essence, their position is, "Well, yes, we take resources away from pubic schools. But we are better, so we deserve to."

MYTH: Charter schools resegregate pubic education.

Asked and answered. All the reputable research suggests that they do, in fact, do this. In fact, the NAPCS defense is, "Yeah, we're working on that."

MYTH: Some charter schools are religious schools.

NAPCS response is that it would be wrong to operate as a religious school, which I guess means that charters are careful enough not to get caught. NEPC wryly observes that researchers are studying faith-based charters, which suggests that such schools exist.

MYTH: Charter schools aren't the incubators of innovation that they claim to be.

NAPCS wants you to remember that charters themselves are an innovation (though I don't know if you get to call yourself a new idea if you are older than the internet). And they've blending learning  and using online instruction. So, you know, innovation! You might expect a longer list to back this point up, but I guess this is all they've got. In all fairness to charters, I think I more often here the incubator of innovation claim from their supporters (e.g. POTUS). I don't recall often reading about a charter saying, "Hey, everyone, come look at this innovative success we're having here," probably for the same reason that you don't hear me holler, "Hey, everyone, come watch me flap my arms and fly off the top of the Chrysler Building."

That's the myth portion.

Post-mythbusting, the paper moves into the endnote section, which leans heavily on the work of NAPCS and other charter school boosters. Not so much on actual real research.

I give them credit for not crafting all of the myths as straw men, but here's the thing about myths-- they often spring into being because many, many people encounter something and reach a similar conclusion. The idea, for instance, that gay folks are actually human beings pretty much like other human beings seems to have spread mostly because, as gay folks stopped hiding the gay, straight folks looked around and went, "Oh. I know some gay folks. They appear to be regular human beings." It did not require a massive PR campaign.

Charter folks may be confused here because they shoved their way into recent prominence by spending a lot of money for PR and political influence. So perhaps they feel that these myths are the result of some sort of massive PR counter-offensive, and not the result of people using teir eyes and ears and brains. People know that charters are bleeding public schools dry because they have eyes and ears. People know that charters cream and cherry-pick and push out because people have eyes and ears.

But if you want to counter these counter-myths with facts and research and scholarship, I recommend the NEPC report, which handles the Big Bunch O' Charter Talking Points nicely. Let's hope it helps beat back the modern wave of charters and helps keep alive that charter schools can go back to being the positive force for education that they once were.