Sunday, September 21, 2014

How Much College Remediation Is Really Needed?

When reformsters want to beat the College Ready drum, they get out the sticks of college remediation statistics. Tons, mountains, endless chains of entering freshmen must be remediated, they declare. Clearly, high schools are turning out defective products. Something Must Be Done. Otherwise we will continue to fall behind Estonia and be conquered by Finland or Vikings, or something.

I've talked about this before, and I've offered some explanations.

1) The admissions process has stopped screening for Students Who Can Be Successful Here and moved on to screening for Students Willing To Come Here And Who Have Access To Money.

2) Let's make students take extra courses that we can charge for but which don't count toward a diploma. After the original post, I heard from college folks who swore no such thing happens ever, and college students who said, "That totally happened to me," so I'm concluding this is a localized issue and not a universal one.

3) Marketing. We've been trying to convince all students that they must all go to college or they will end up alone, unloved and living in a one room apartment over a hardware store and eating cat food they've warmed up on a hot plate.

Bonus reason) As we spend more and more time getting students ready to take standardized tests, we spend less and less actually preparing them for college.

Well, thanks to blog reader Ajay Srikanth, I've been reading up on the work of Judith Scott-Clayton. Scott-Clayton and colleagues Peter M. Crosta and Clive R. Belfield published some research back in 2012 on this very subject, and Scott-Clayton (Columbia University) penned this little piece for the New York Times.

She was spinning off an article about how early medical screening might not be all it's cracked up to be. And she applies the same thoughts to college placement exams and the remediation they often lead to.

While remediation rates based on placement exams has increased dramatically, Scott-Clayton notes that the major increase is among students with strong high school grades.

For students with high school grade-point averages between 3.5 and 4.0, remediation rates have more than doubled (see chart below). This is not a result of high school grade inflation – the percentage of students with G.P.A.’s in this range has not changed – but is consistent with increasingly ubiquitous placement testing.
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Beginning Postsecondary Students database; computation by N.C.E.S. QuickStats.

Scott-Clayton considers two important questions raised by all this.

First, is there even any benefit to the remediation, because "remediation has been referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of postsecondary education, because the majority of those who enter never make it out. " 

The second point is so obvious I feel foolish for not having originally considered it. 

Maybe the placement tests just suck.

Scott-Clayton, whose research covers this very subject, says "the tests commonly used to screen for college readiness are only weakly related to college outcomes" and cites two studies mentioned in another NYT piece that say so. Students who go on to have trouble in college pass the test, and students who would have done just fine fail it. This is a murky area of coulda-woulda-shoulda, but Scott-Clayton estimates that one in four remediated math students could have pulled B-or-better grades without remediation, and one in three English students would have done the same in freshman comp.

Scott-Clayton further figures that remediation rates could be dropped by 8 to 12 percent just by exempting strong high school students from placement tests, with no drop in the college's pass-fail rate. At the very least, this would be a cheaper solution that re-tooling the entire US public secondary school system.

Scott-Clayton posits that this system remains in place, like medical screening, because you can regret failing to catch a Bad Thing before it happened, but little regret is involved in pursuing a solution that may not have been necessary. I mean, as long as we've had a dog, our home has not been attacked by Vikings. Maybe we don't need a big floppy chocolate lab to keep the Vikings away, but do we want to take that chance? I think not.

So once again we find that Common Core supporters are trying to sell the Core as a solution that won't work for a problem we don't have. Well, actually, it might work. Since the real problem is that too many incoming freshmen are failing poorly designed standardized placement exams, giving them more high school training taking badly designed standardized tests might indeed fix the problem. Of course, so would throwing the exams out the window and just focusing on actual education. We could prepare them to take college courses instead of preparing them for college placement exams. But we wouldn't want to get too crazy. Vikings, you know.

Running a Business with No Employees

This week New York magazine profiled a new type of business, and while it has nothing to do with teaching, it's a business model that those of us who work in the ed biz should pay attention to.

Modern business leaders in America face what seems to them to be a dreadful problem-- employees who want to be paid. Earlier this week, I was involved in a bloggy exchange with Neerav Kingsland, and both he and commentors on his blog were clear that what they see as a problem in the education business-- labor costs are too fixed and too high. They really, desperately, want to be able to repurpose all that money that is going to employees, the better to make their business "nimble" and "robust."

The New York article highlights the up-and-coming way to do that. Do not hire employees. Hire independent contractors.

This is not a brand new idea. Virtually all of the writing work that I've done over the last two decades has been as an independent contractor (well, except things like this blog, for which I'm paid in satisfaction, eyestrain, and a cleared-out head) . I don't get a W-2; instead, I get a Form 1099. That means I also don't get benefits, retirement, and, as a bonus, I get to pay some self-employment taxes to Uncle Sam. It's a sensible approach for a writer. I don't go in to work, my bosses don't really boss me, and I set my work hours. It's very flexible, which makes it easy to fit it in with the work I do that actually supports me.

But what if we extended that idea to other businesses? Uber doesn't "hire" anybody to drive you around; they just maintain a middleman kind of system. The article starts with an example from Homejoy-- hire a house cleaner for just $19 (and try not to shocked when he turns out to be homeless).

There's some economic sense in it. How do you get a business started when there's not really enough money in the potential market to make the business profitable or even do-able? Lower the labor costs hugely by using contract labor that is paid by job, not by hourly rates, and costs you $0.00 for benefits and pension costs.

For some workers this makes for a great way to earn some extra money on the side. For other workers, this makes for a way to get screwed (which reminds me that, yes, the world's oldest profession has tended to use the contract employee model as well).

But I think it also marks a continued shift in our fundamental model of a business's responsibilities to the community. Lots of Americans continue to believe that if you are able-bodied and willing to work, you should be able to support yourself. We are being exceedingly slow to catch on to just how many people in this country are now working poor-- employed and working hard, and yet not being paid enough to live.

Understand, I am not an opponent of profit. Making money is a great and worthwhile objective for a business. But in the "Not MY Problem" economy, many businesses no longer feel any need to provide jobs at which people can make a living. "Roll up your sleeves and we will make sure that you get an honest day's wage for an honest day's work," was once a thing that employers would say with pride. But it's being replaced with "We'll use you when it's handy for us and pay you as little as possible."

I am sure that some 1099 Biz operators are doing their best to serve both employees and business interests. But it's also clear from the article that some businesses are just using the model as a way to slash payroll costs dramatically. Shame on them.

Why mention any of this in an education blog? Because this contract employee model is one that many edbiz operators are excited to use themselves. It is easy to see how a charter school company could really boost that bottom line by simply using contract employees-- teachers who are only hired for a year at a time (or even less) but as contract employees do not get benefits or retirement. (As Paul Thomas smartly observed, "TFA, anyone?")  If you didn't think such a thing was possible or viable, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. But first, I suggest you read the New York article.

[Update: While this may be a new sort of thing in the US, the world already has plenty of experience with independent contractors in teaching. Check out Alyssa Hadley Dunn's expose of Teachers Without Borders and take a look at this post on Teacher Solidarity, a blog that keeps an eye on the international teaching scene from the UK. ]

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Students Travel in Packs

It's true-- with few exceptions, we encounter students in groups. Student groups are like chemical reactions, where every element present changes and is changed by the other elements encountered.

This is news to almost nobody. Every teacher can tell a story about that one student whose absence would make a usually-difficult class well-behaved. Or maybe the tale of that class where several top students drove each other to greater achievements. Or the student who was an angel one-on-one, but who just couldn't focus when in class.

I've long had a theory that male intelligence is inversely proportional to the number of males in the room. IOW, the more of us you put together, the dumber we act (eg men's softball leagues or Congress). I first developed that theory watching my son's elementary school class proceed from K through 6; the group was infamous because the twenty-seven students included twenty-four boys and three girls.

Value Added formulas, the formulas that promise we can magically and numerically strip away everything not-the-teacher that affects the students-- how can those formulas parse the difference between last year's group of seven year olds who never quite comfortable with each other and this year's group, which tends to give each other the giggles twice a day? How does a magic formula distinguish between the student who is part of a class that functions like a well-oiled machine and the student who dreads seeing her classmates every day?

We don't talk about this much, but one more problem with the reformster agenda is that it takes each student as an isolated unit, a human being with no context. The picture of "individualized" education often portrayed by folks like Knewton (the mad number crunching scientists at Pearson) is that we feed Pat into the Giant Data Bank and the GDB spits out Chris a student that the magic formulas claim is just like Pat. "Here's how Chris learned this stuff," says the magical computer. "Just teach Pat the same way."

This is an odd approach for many reasons, but one of the oddest reasons is that it assumes that Pat and Chris are discrete isolated student units with no real context or social setting.

In reformsterland, people are disconnected and no relationships exist. Teachers and students interact in a Strictly Business manner-- teachers deliver instruction and students respond to it by becoming capable enough to score well on standardized tests. But at least teachers and students interact in some manner; in reformsterland, students do not interact with other students at all. The relationships they form, the culture that they create in their schools-- none of this actually exists. In reformsterland, students travel in isolated bubbles, unaffected by any of the other bubbles around them.

It's ironic, because in reformsterland every one of those bubbles contains an identical data generation unit (formerly known as human children). One size fits them all, and I suppose it doesn't matter which one of the other bubbles is their "friend" because they're all interchangeable, and relationships don't affect anything anyway.

It's just one more way in which reformsterland does not resemble the real world. Because in the real world, students travel in packs, and the packs are interesting and vibrant and affecting because every person brings something unique to the table. And the possible combinations of all these humans are infinite in number, staggering in complexity, and endless in influence, whether reformsters want to recognize their existence or not.

EdPost Dials It Back, Still Whiffs

Over the last forty-eight hours, the rapid responders from Education Post ran into a rapid response of their own. They decided to go after Carol Burris, and while various bloggers called them on their response out in the bloggosphere, Burris and many other responders descended upon the comments section, particularly for the post by the extremely feisty Ann Whalen.

By the end of the day, Whalen was back with a new post and a different tone.

Whalen's first response ("When you can’t make an honest case against something, there is always rhetoric, exaggeration or falsehoods...") pretty much called Burris a liar who couldn't make an honest case for her position. The response response addressed Burris directly and took a less combative tone.

I appreciate your quick follow-up and willingness to engage in a conversation about how we can support success for all of our students. We may have different approaches and strategies, but I do believe at the core (pun intended), we all want what’s best for children and schools. 

And then she tried to address some of the issues that had been re-raised.

The set-in-stone nature of the Core came up, so she tried to once again sell the notion that, gosh, the states "are firmly in the driver’s seat." They can be just a flexible with their college-and-career-ready standards as they want, and several states have used that flexibility which is true in the sense that some states have found it politically expedient to rewrite some of the verbage of CCSS and fine new names to call it. She acknowledges that some states have paid a price for not adopting standards that they can sufficiently prove to the feds are CACR enough, but golly, that's not the feds fault. She tries hard to sell the notion of the feds being all handsy offy on the Core, and I just don't understand how she imagines that Burris or any other sentient human who has been paying attention would believe that's true for a second.

The she tosses out the old baloney about how many students arrive at college needing remediation.

Students who are told they have mastered basic skills and are ready for post-secondary work should not find out the dirty truth in college.

Oh, that dirty truth. Of course, many students are arriving at college who were never told they were ready (and how are "mastered basic skills" and "ready for post-secondary work" the same thing, anyway?) I might suggest that it's just as likely that many students who are not college material have been told repeatedly that they must attend college or else they'll be big losing losers.

Here's another conclusion to reach from the remediation numbers-- the reforms that have been forced on public schools over the past ten-plus years have hurt public education more than helping it.

Whalen doesn't try to prop up any of the other ideas that Burris knocked over. But just when I was going to give her credit for adroitly shifting tone and direction, she finishes with this

While I didn’t see many comments on ways we can continue to move forward and improve support and implementation, I do look forward to learning more about your soon-to-be-released solution. Please let us know when we might learn more of this effort.

Oh, Ann. You were doing so well, but then you had to finish up with a big helping of Dolores Umbrage-style snottiness.

Let me repeat this idea for you. It's not up to supporters of public education to propose a solution, because reformsters have never A) proven that there's a problem in need of solving or B) proven that any of their proposals will improve anything about education.

If you want to perform surgery on a patient, the burden is on you to show that you have the right surgery in mind and that you know how to do it. If you want to take money out of someone else's bank account, the burden is on you to prove that you should be allowed to do it.

We've been waiting for years for you guys to back up some-- any-- of your bright ideas with compelling support. It still hasn't happened. You don't get to change the conversation by saying, "Well, what's your big idea, then?" The burden of proof is on you. And really-- why do we need to submit a "solution" for your approval, anyway? The fact that you're on a $12 million website does not mean that you need to be paid attention or that we are answerable to you.

Friday, September 19, 2014

EdPost Flexes Rapid Response Muscles

Well, it turns out that Education Post will be good for one thing. Its rapid response function (in which apparently a cadre of hired bloggists are ready to grab their keyboards from their mantles and launch like internet minutemen) will allow the rest of us to see when Pro-Public Education folks have scored a palpable hit.

By that measure, Carol Burris landed a big hit with her Four Flim-Flams column (on the heels of her online debate win), because EdPost has rapidly deployed three bloggists to spank Burris by name the very next day. How do these rapid responders do? Even though the irreplaceable Mercedes Schneider has already taken a look, I can't resist taking one, too.

Headliner AnnWhalen wins the Well That Didn't Take Long Prize. She tosses out EdPost's highflying promises about raising the conversational tone in education discussions and goes straight to calling Burris a liar. Well, she uses a nifty construction to do it ("When you can’t make an honest case against something, there is always rhetoric, exaggeration or falsehoods, but it’s disheartening when it comes from an award-winning principal and educator like Carol Burris") but for those of us who can read English, yeah, Whalen just called Burris a liar.

And then she tries to refute Burris's arguements by lying. (Hey-- I never made any hollow promises about elevating the conversation).

She tries to argue that the copyrighted CCSS can and have been changed. She would have been further ahead to point out the obvious-- though the standards are copyrighted and states did agree not to change them, nobody in the current political climate is going to enforce that. Instead, she tries to pretend that the truth is not true and that no such copyrights or agreements exist.

Whalen also tries to argue that the Core do not dictate curriculum, and then best she can do here is go anecdotal with some hand-picked teachers from some hand-picked states. Trying to get in an anecdote war over CCSS is a bad choice. We could get into the whole standards vs. curriculum argument here, but let's just observe that since Core fans argue it's a great idea to have the CCSS nationally because it will make all schools the same and students will be able to switch districts without missing a step-- come one. This is such an intellectually dishonest argument that we can only conclude that Core supporters are not interested in having a real conversation with anybody.

Whalen punts the "internationally benchmarked" and "based on research" issue to Fordham. They aren't. There's not a whit of research to say they are. But she pretends not to get Burris's actual argument here.

Whalen also pretends not to understand any of the arguments about the achievement gap and high-poverty schools, at one point weirdly arguing that the Mass Insight report shows the top students are the toppiest, which is not something I'd bring up when trying show the achievement gap is closing.

And she really earns her Big Fat Liar stripes by pushing the same old tired bullshit about how the standards are not national standards and states totally volunteered to adopt the standards that they totally created and seriously, you know Whalen is fresh from government work because I don't think anybody except a career bureaucrat could type this unvarnished horse pucky with a straight face.

Whalen labels Burris's most inexcusable argument that she didn't propose a solution. Holy crap! Okay, I am going to break into your house at night and start stealing your furniture. You wake up and catch me and tell me to stop and I turn to you and say, "Okay, then. Why don't you offer a better solution?" That's how stupid this argument from Whalen is.

So, EdPost's headliner fails.

Erin Dukeshire takes on the curriculum argument. Her argument is....curious. Burris pointed out in her column that specifying specific skills in the standards did make them awfully lot like a curriculum, but Dukeshire seems to want to say that since the CCSS are really specific, it gives her more freedom and makes them less like a curriculum. She also throws in a bit of "before the Core I was lost" baloney, but basically her argument is that since she can have order a Model A in any color, as long as it's black, she's really free.

I actually find that it’s easier to design a variety of successful learning experiences when the standards name both content and skills. During the past few years, I’ve developed several lessons around a Common Core standard that requires students to integrate text with visuals. Because the Common Core lists important literacy standards for students to develop in the science classroom, I don’t spend precious planning periods guessing at how to incorporate reading into my lessons in a meaningful way.

I think I see her problem. Where she is wasting time guessing about how to incorporate reading into her lessons in a meaningful way, I'm over here using my professional judgment and experience and knowledge of my students to figure that out in a non-guessy way.

Maricela Montoy-Wilson will also stand up for the Core. Like Dukeshire, she is an America Achieves Fellow, and she's been teaching the Core for three years, so she knows what's up. She has a great command of reformster baloney-speak, as witnessed by this fluffernuttery:

The standards do not tell me how to teach, contrary to your point, but rather they serve as a guidepost for me, as the educator, to determine the best instructional strategies to attain the standards. The standards guide me in selecting instructional methods that facilitate true understanding of the fewer, deeper standards. They help me focus on clear-cut needs, which help me identify instructional practices through collaboration, strong coaching, and feedback.

So the standards do not tell her what to do-- they just guide and help, help, help her.

Ultimately, the Common Core standards help us prepare students to enter colleges and the ever-changing workplace. We know that our nation is not up to par in mathematical reasoning, and our classrooms are not adequately responding to the fast-evolving needs of the innovative and technological workplace. Therefore, a shift from doing to understanding was imperative in creating innovators. The Common Core standards offer such a shift.

Well, except we don't actually know any of those things. We don't know that we're not up to par-- we don't even know what par is, or what the consequences of being up to it actually are. Nor do we know about the adequancy of responses (adequate for what purpose) nor do we have any authority to declare an imperative need for innovators. And no, we have absolutely no basis for believing that the Core prepares students for college or the workplace. So, very pretty, and all without foundation.

Montoy-Wilson decides to take on the four flim-flams one at a time.

The standards are a guide, she repeats. Since the standards don't tell her how to teach composing and decomposing numbers (Burris's example), they are just a guide. But she's wrong, because teaching composing and decomposing numbers is what the standards present as how teachers are supposed to teach basic math functions. Montoy-Wilson herself repeats the magic phrase "foundational to deeper understanding"-- which means that the point of learning this technique is because it's a how to understand the functions. So, the point still goes to Burris.

The achievement gap. All these arguments make my brain glaze over because they all depend on smoke and mirrors and pretty words because there is not a single fact to back up what Core fans are trying to say. What specifics Montoy-Wilson mentions are, predictably, things like project based learning that any competent teacher can do and did do for years without any Common Core.

Montoy-Wilson is another Core booster who is seeing magical tests somewhere that none of the rest of us see, tests with performance tasks and other fine features that replace the rote memorization that standardized tests were never about anyway. They're standardized tests. They will create a new test prep industry. They don't measure anything but test-taking skills and, indirectly, socio-economic class.

We are at a crossroads in education policy. We can heed calls to make things “easy” and fail to get at the heart of what our students deserve — or we can buckle down together, accept that there are challenges, that the going is tough, but ultimately the promise of these standards are worth it

Pretty sure that they aren't. Also pretty sure that there's nothing in these three blogs to convince me otherwise. Lots of things are hard. Shoving a post into your eyeball is hard. Doesn't mean it's a good idea. And promising your children a trip to Disneyland is a great promise, but if you're really driving them to a bombed-out playground, your promise doesn't really matter.

As a rapid-response exercise, EdPost is, at last, fast. But hey-- I often provide next day service and I do my writing at times like 5:30 AM and on my lunch break. Surely $12 million will get you the same level of service that my readers get for $0.00.

Beyond the speed, EdPost continues to reveal its true colors. Completely aligned with the US DOE party line. Just as dismissive and condescending and nasty as anybody in the education debates has ever been, which is not a crime-- it's noteworthy only because EdPost launched with the promise that they would change the conversation.

This is not a new conversation. It's the same old bullshit. Talking points repeated ad infinitum, even if they've been previously debunked and abandoned by thinking people on both sides. Personal attacks and dismissive language. Anecdotes and fancy language to make points (which, again, is not a terrible crime, but EdPost launched claiming it would be all facts and calm rationality).

I mean, damn-- if you're going to go after Carol Burris with accusations of being a liar and a cheat and not understanding how education works, you had better be better armed with something other than high dudgeon and government briefings. EdPost has show us what they're about, but they've also shown how good they are at it, and boy, if that were my $12 million, I'd want some of it back.

[Update. I've refrained from linking to Ed Post for the same reason that I stopped naming She Who Will Not Be Named, but you really need to watch Carol Burris take Whalen to school in the comments section, so here's a link.]

An Open Letter to My Alma Mater Re: TFA

Dear Allegheny College:

I was reading your latest alumni email with its nice batch of "Hey, you're great" quotes. It was nice in the usual boostery way, but when I saw an endorsement from Teach for America, it brought me up short. I'm sad to see Allegheny link itself to TFA. Let me explain.

I came to Allegheny in 1975. I enrolled because the school was not too far from home in NW PA, it was a comfortable size, it was a liberal arts school, and most importantly, it offered a stand-out non-traditional education program.

Let me deliver a rough reminder of how that program worked, because I doubt that many folks there remember it. My major was actually English-- Allegheny believed that Step 1 in becoming a classroom teacher was being an "expert" in your subject area. When it was time for student teaching, I had taken only a few ed courses, but like my cohort, I lived in the college's block of rooms in downtown Cleveland, where the college maintained a field office. As we student taught, we took methods courses at that field office in the evenings (down a floor and up the hall), including a course that we took from the professor who supervised our field work. He saw us in the classroom for about one to three hours about once a week, while we student taught in urban districts that challenged our small town selves to the max.

About two days after I had my diploma, I was in classes for my MA in Education, balanced with looking for a teaching job within forty miles of that field office. I needed to be there because the same professor who saw me through student teaching would supervise me through my first year. The state of Ohio issued a provisional teaching certificate, and while my school district considered me a teacher, the college considered me an intern. I took courses at that same field office, and was observed, less often, by the same man who had watched me student teach and who was familiar with my style, my strengths and weaknesses, my ongoing issues.

Few teacher prep programs provided such an intense level of subject matter study combined with serious mentoring, support and methods instruction that is directly responsive to the real situations the teacher is facing. Allegheny did not provide a traditional teacher background; it provided something far more.

So how the heck did you end up in bed with Teach for America?

I suspect that you may have been attracted by the social justice sales pitch. Teach for America has cycled through several versions of what its mission is supposed to be, but they have all been centered on some vision of social justice. And yet none of those visions have been rooted in reality.

Fix the teacher shortage? There isn't one, actually, and in places like Chicago, New Jersey and Cleveland, actual teachers are being shown the door to make room for TFA recruits. In New Orleans the district actually lost a lawsuit for summarily firing 7,500 teachers, many of whom were replaced with TFA bodies.

Improve high-poverty schools? One of the problems of high-poverty schools is a lack of stability. How exactly does it help to bring in people who have no intention of sticking around for more than a few years?

Teacher diversity recruitment? Studies of the teacher pool show that we do not have a diversity recruitment problem. Minority teachers are actually entering the field at higher rates than white teachers. The problem is that they are also leaving the field at a faster rate than white teachers. And remember those thousands of unjustly fired NOLA teachers? Three quarters of those were black.

There are additional problems with the TFA model. Most notable is the frontal assault on professionalism. Allegheny has been a pre-professional college for decades. Most of my fellow freshmen were pre-med, and the ones who weren't pre-med were pre-law. I can't imagine Allegheny ever supporting a program predicated on the notion that with five weeks of training, any undergrad would be good to go for providing legal or medical services out in the world. Allegheny's teacher program only allowed undergrads to become teachers with the understanding that they would be heavily supported, carefully supervised, and required to complete graduate-level studies of education within five years.

But TFA is founded on the notion that teaching isn't really so hard-- any smart person can basically walk into a classroom and do just fine. This is turn has dovetailed with the agenda of those who want to turn teaching jobs into high-turnover, short-term, easily replaced and therefor low-paying positions. Additionally, TFA buys into and sells the notion that the only measure of educational achievement is standardized test scores, as if raising those scores is the only important work that a teacher does.

Why would Allegheny support a program that claims that any reasonably bright college grad with no educational training beyond a five week summer session is ready to fly solo in a classroom?

Admittedly, fair Allegheny, you and I have had words yonder on the hill, most especially back when you gutted the education program that produced me. There were some nice-sounding words about ending one of the most forward-thinking and sound teacher training programs in the country, but the bottom line appeared to be the bottom line-- it was an expensive program to run (the word on Cynic Street was also that teacher alumni don't contribute the kind of big bucks that doctor alumni and lawyer alumni do).

TFA may well have started out with the best of intentions, but today they have become the shock troops in the push to dismantle public education and de-professionalize teaching. I am very sad to see Allegheny on TFA's list of top supporters, and even sadder to see Allegheny bragging about that connection. Read some of the TFA critics, such as former TFAer Gary Rubinstein, or look at why Pittsburgh schools terminated their TFA contract. It's an unfortunate choice, a bad choice, and I urge you to do your homework and drop your connection to the TFA program.

Sadly, I have no large piles of money to threaten to not give you, but I would gladly talk to campus leadership about this issue further if anyone wishes to do so. My alma mater, you can do better than this.


Peter Greene, '79

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Another Call for a New Conversation

Patrick Riccards, of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the Eduflack blog, has made a fairly reasonable addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of "We reformsters need to get a new conversation started, because we are losing the old one" posts. But this one is interesting.

"Seeking Collaboration Between Reformers, Educators" is his contribution to the field. The opening line of his EdWeek piece sounds familiar:

But if we are truly serious about improving public education for all children, if we honestly want to close those achievement gaps and ensure every child is on a path to success, we need to change how the debate is framed.

The piece-about-the-piece on Eduflack is more direct:

For too long, we have heard of the battles between the education reform community and educators. From the way these debates have been framed, one would think the two sides couldn’t agree that the sky was blue or that water was wet

Part of what makes Riccards piece interesting is that it appears addressed primarily to the reformy camp, and it lacks the usual tone of "You resistance people should stop being so strident and political with us." He admits that the post-Vergara discussion led to even more folks acting as if teachers were the sworn enemies of education and the root of all failures. He counters that folks on both sides agree on more than they disagree, including a desire to see students succeed and make sure that schools have necessary resources.

Riccards sees three areas that "demand a new look." Classroom teaching, charter schools, and instructional practice.

When it comes to teachers--

We must also realize that real change and improvement come only with the involvement and support of teachers. We fool ourselves when we ignore that teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and getting more so by the day. We should lift up our most successful educators, support those in need, and seek ways to better engage and involve teachers in the process. Without them, even the most meaningful changes will be denied passage at the schoolhouse door.

This really shouldn't be news, but it's still nice to hear somebody say it for a change.

On charters, Riccards points out that even if we doubled charter capacity today, charters would still be an educational approach unavailable to 90% of US students, and a solution that leaves 90% of the student population behind does not qualify as a "Holy Grail of school improvement."  He would like to focus on transplanting the most promising practices of charters into traditional public schools.

That's not really a great idea, since the most promising practice of the most successful-on-paper charter schools is to weed out all students who would make them look not-successful, a technique not available to traditional public schools.

Riccards has some other concrete suggestions and wonders what would happen if "instead of fighting, supporters of charters and the like worked together with teachers' unions and individual educators to:"

Open lines of communication. Here's a remarkably sensible idea. Instead of sandbagging teachers and their unions, Riccards suggests that telegraphing what you're going to do and why can lessen the outrage responses. He references his own actions as head of ConnCAN, where he admits that he didn't make nice, but he did reach out to union leaders to let them know "what was coming" when he would release delightful tidbits like the teacher-contract database.

Look for areas to partner.  He doesn't really elaborate; it's a simple idea.

Recognize that the union and the teacher are two distinct audiences. Don't write off teachers because of what the union or one individual teacher might say. I would add that reformsters should probably not assume that just because the union has signed off on something, the members will happily go along.

Establish a practitioner advisory board. Riccards suggests that reformsters listen to teachers. And not just in a general fuzzy way, but by developing actual formal structures and bodies to which teachers can be attached. "Have them be part of the reform process, and not just someone reform happens to."

There's positive and negative here. The positive is the willingness to invite teachers to the table and the commitment to listen to them. And I don't want to minimize the degree to which that represents a positive shift in reformster rhetoric.

However. The willingness to invite teachers to the party also underscores the fact this is not the teachers' party. If I gather some teacher friends and start a movement to tell the local doctors, nurses, and hospital personnel how to run their business, I'm not sure how much they'll be mollified if I eventually add, "Oh, and we'll be happy to listen to your thoughts as well." When tourists pass through your town and stop a moment to decide how it should be run, offering to let local folks have say is kind of beside the point. If the guy who is sleeping with your wife calls to tell you that it's okay if you want to stop by at the birthday party he's throwing for her, your first thought is probably not, "Oh, how magnanimous of you."

See, here's the real sticking point about calls for working together, cooperating, changing the conversation, starting a new conversation. Those of us who decided to devote our lives to teaching and education have been having a conversation about how to grow and change and do better and do our jobs and make our schools better-- we've been having that conversation our entire adult lives.

Reformsters did not come along and say, "Hey, we have some thoughts. Can we join your conversation?" No, they started their own conversation, and declared that it was the only conversation, that our conversation was stupid and bad and a big failing failure; and then they gathered money and political power that let them hook their conversation up to giant mega-watt speakers that helped them drown out all other conversations. And now that they've hit a rough patch, they've started saying, "Okay-- you can come be part of our conversation now." But they are still not saying anything remotely like, "You know, as actual practitioners of teaching, as trained professionals who have devoted their lives to public education, you guys are the people having the conversation that counts. Can we come join it?"

No, even the reformster peace offerings are predicated on the notion that their conversation is the real one, and they are the deciders about the course of any conversation about public education.

I don't know. Maybe that's just a political, power and money reality and as a teacher I just need to suck it up and accept that the conversation of my peers and me has been rendered second best, a conversation that only matters to those of us having it. Maybe I have to accept that a bunch of rich, powerful, well-connected amateurs have bought not just a seat at the table, but the table and the room it's sitting in.

But damn-- some days that's a hard pill to swallow, and all the noblesse oblige in the world doesn't make it go down any easier.

Here's how Riccards finishes up

Yes, some may see it as heresy for someone who calls himself a reformer to take issue with the what-about-the-kids, charters-first, all-but-the-classroom approach to school improvement. But as a father, a former school board chairman, and someone committed to improving opportunities for all children, it seems worth taking issue with this view.

The time has come to turn away from the divisive, us-vs.-them approaches of past policy fights. Instead, we must work together with educators to improve our public schools. We must focus on options and opportunities that can have real impact on all our children, not just a select few. And we must do so in a way that improves teaching and learning for all.

It's as close as anything I've seen from reformsters to a viable way to move forward. Maybe we're getting closer.