Friday, July 3, 2015

Philadelphia Flunks Economics 101

I continue to be amazed by the selective understanding of many reformy folks.

Philadelphia schools have handed over management of their substitute teacher workforce to Source4Teachers, a business that specializes in staffing solutions "for public and charter schools":

Filling part-time positions can be a full-time task—especially in today's demanding educational environment. At Source4Teachers, our only job is helping you do yours as effectively and efficiently as possible.

S4T has run into trouble in some of the markets it has moved into. With typical complaints about the service including unqualified subs and ballooning costs (but stagnant sub wages). In at least one case, S4T's contract was terminated after allegations of hitting a student.

A look at shows middling employee satisfaction, though at least one former internal employee (a recruiter) was not a happy camper.

CEO is socially awkward and the President of the organization has a God complex and depending on the day of the week or which way the wind is blowing your guess is as good as anyone's as to how you might be treated on a given day. Benefits are non-existent, leadership is void. The COO is a former administrator that couldn't manage his way out of a paper bag.

The most common complaint was the level of pay. Looks like that's going to be the complaint in Philadelphia as well. The new pay scale (certified teachers, any grade, will be paid $90 per day; non-certified teachers, any grade, will be paid $75. And special-education positions pay the highest rate at $110 per day) represents a pay cut of well over 50% in some cases.

Philly, like many districts, has a sub shortage. My own neck of the woods has a pretty regular problem getting substitutes in. Once upon a time, substitutes were either young teachers trying to get a foot in the door, homemakers looking for some extra money, or retired teachers. All three of those streams have dried up, primarily because substituting pays really, really badly.

While nobody was watching, sub pay has fallen far, far behind. When I returned to the area in 1980, a day of subbing paid $50. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $144 today. But the going rate locally is about $85.

Administrators continue to scratch their heads over the sub shortage. This is not a mystery. Hiring personnel is like paying for any good or service-- if the seller will not give you what you want for the price you've named, you have to offer more.

It will be interesting to see how Sourc4Teachers makes out in Philly. Their big trick seems to be scooping up lots of warm bodies that don't necessarily have teaching qualifications, which may be helpful if Philly's current pool of 400 teachers suddenly gets smaller. But if they have trouble getting enough qualified subs, I believe they can find the solution in any Economics 101 textbook.

The Superteacher Shuffle

The most unmet requirement of NCLB and the pseudo-laws of Waiver is the Superteacher Shuffle Law. Last year the Obama administration offered this provision a big, wet kiss in a policy declaration that Mike Petrilli kind of awesomely called a "nothing burger."

The law requires that every state have a plan for making sure that high-poverty low-achieving schools have their fair share of excellent teachers, a policy idea that solidly and definitively declares its misunderstanding of the problem, therefor coming up with a solution that is only slightly more solutiony than declaring that states must provide low-performing schools with flags woven from the hair of magical unicorns.

We'll get back to the unicorns in a bit. Let's pretend that the law is correct about the problem, and that we just need to get great teachers into lousy schools. If that's the problem, then there can only be one of two solutions:

Move great teachers around. Once we've identified Great Teachers, either by using VAM sauce or by consulting our Ouija board (both equally effective), we have to convince them to move. This will require anything from bribery to rendering. Bribery would be too expensive, and rendering would be both illegal and unlikely to get people interested in teaching.

Create more great teachers. Problematic because policymakers and politicians have managed to make teaching increasingly unattractive as a profession.

But mostly what the law requires is that every state has a plan, and here they are. Popular strategies include fact-finding ("We'll have a big Great Teacher party, or First Year Teacher Party, or Sad Administrator Party, and afterwards we'll know everything we need to know about this stuff") and lots of folks like the idea of some sort of mentorship and support for beginning teachers (an idea that I am NOT going to make fun of because, actually, lack of support for beginning teachers is one ofthe great yawning gaps in the profession).

Some states have been amazingly detailed. The plan for my own state of Pennsylvania is 200-plus pages long. Damn. I've read a lot of things so that you wouldn't have to, dear reader, but for the fifty specific state plans, you are on your own (Alyson Klein has done some of our homework for us, and God bless her).

The Pennsylvania plan is numbingly corporate, with a focus on how better to manage Human Capital, but it will take a whole separate blog post to deal with its foolishness.

But for right now, let's stay focused on the national law, and why it's a bad law.

This is the Hero Teacher Syndrome writ large, the idea that great teachers carry their greatness around with them like backpacks that travel with them wherever they go, and that the solution to getting better schools is to just stuff each school with Superteachers.

If you want to understand why this is not going to work, imagine a national initiative to improve the state of marriage in this country. "We've got to fix that divorce rate," declare policymakers. "We've got to make sure that each person has a Great Spouse." So each state is required to come up with a plan for shifting the Great Spouses around so that marriage improves.

So Mr. Smithingstein, who was a great wealthy husband when he was married to his well-to-do wife, is transferred to a low-income neighborhood where he must now be husband to a woman living below the poverty level. Mrs. Bogswallow is transferred to become the wife of an absolutely abusive jerk. Mr. Blienfetz was a great hetorosexual husband, but his new transfer spouse is a man.

Teaching, like marriage, is a relationship, and while there's no question that some people bring more skills and useful qualities to the table than others, it's also true that setting, context and fellow human beings in the place can make a huge difference.

Trying to transfer your way to school excellence is like trying to transfer your way to a dry staff in a roofless building; it doesn't matter how many new, dry teachers you put in there, they will still end up wet until you fix the roof. States that have the strongest links between test scores and teacher evaluation and test scores make the task doubly hard because high-poverty, low-achieving schools are just hard places to work-- they're schools that can potentially be career-killers. The best players in the draft are not hoping to be snapped up by the worst team in the league.

Michael Fullan writes about how social capital, the health of the whole interconnected organization, is far more powerful than the ruggedly individual power of a hero teacher. It's the connections and relationships with a teaching staff that can create a whole greater (or less) than the sum of the parts, and it's the support and resources provided by community, state and federal government that either foster or stifle growth of that web of relationships.

It's not that I don't believe that some folks have more of a gift for teaching than others-- I do. But we could put twelve awesome teachers who can't work together in a building that lacks resources and support, working for terrible administrators in a crumbling facility, and we could end up with a terrible school. On the other hand, twelve middlin' educators who mesh perfectly as a team with lots of resources and administrators who know how to get those teachers to do their best-- that will be a great school.

This all explains the other huge flaw in this approach-- we can only shuffle Superteachers around if we can find them, and currently we have no idea how to do that. It's more than just the uselessness of VAM. Great teaching looks different in different places, so one measure does not fit all. And student outcomes are not the "proof." I have absolutely no doubt that there are teachers in high-poverty urban schools who are working way harder and way better than I am, here in my relatively comfy only-sort-of-poor district-- but my numbers are better.

If Runner A beats Runner B in the 100 yard dash, but Runner B started 75 yards behind, I have not proven that Runner A is faster.

So, to recap. We don't know how to find great teachers, we don't know how to move them, and we have unrealistic ideas about what moving them would actually accomplish.

The one bright I see in these plans is the mentoring. I've heard this theory more than once: A small percentage of new teachers will be great no matter what. A small percentage will be terrible (and leave) no matter what. All the rest could go either way, depending on what kind of support they get. Some new teachers' entire career is shaped by something as simple as who they eat lunch with or who shares their clerical work period.

We should have a far stronger system for mentoring new teachers and helping them become the best teachers they can be, and that system needs to be built on more than random luck. We should be focusing resources on the New Folks and helping them find their way, their strengths, and in doing so, to build up the system and relationships within a school. That would be far more useful than one more round of the Superteacher Shuffle.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Driving the Testing Car

You may have heard this one-- just teach your students really well and they will do well on the test, just like a person who can drive really well can do well on the driver's test.

Well, no. This is not a great analogy.

Let's say instead that it would be like saying that since you are a great driver of your family automobile, you should be able to pass the driving test on a motorcycle or an eighteen-wheeler.

For our purposes today, I'm just going to talk about the reading test. There are several reasons that just Being a Good Reader does not mean that things will automatically be hunky dory on the Big Standardized Test.

First-- the reading task is completely inauthentic.

In plain speech, the reading assigned on a BS Test is, by design, unlike the reading that good readers do.

The selection is short and disjointed, and would qualify as authentic if real readers routinely grabbed a book from the shelf and said, "Well, this looks interesting. I'll just read one page of it." And the disjointed part is on purpose. Test designers try to make selections that take prior knowledge off the table-- but that is also an inauthentic task. All reading that we do, we do because we are connecting something to prior knowledge. We pick a book because it's about something we're already interested in. We read informational texts in order to extend the knowledge we already have.

We do not, in the real world, say, "Boy, I'd like to read about something I know nothing about-- but I'd only like to read just a little bit, and with no context, either, please."

Second-- the reading task is not the only reading task.

We don't talk about this enough-- the students don't just have to read and understand the reading selection-in-a-bubble. They also have to read an interpret the questions.

In our driving test analogy, this is like saying that since you are a good driver, you should have no trouble taking a driving test while balancing a stack of plates on your head. We have added a complete extra task and tied to slough it off as something that , of course, everyone can do.

Test manufacturers and promoters try to hide this by talking about test questions as if they descended from God on a cloud powered by a burning bush. The implication is that these questions are completely objective. But they can't be. Yes, "what color is the ball in the picture" is pretty cut and dried, but the higher order we get to in thinking skills, the more subjective the questions and answers must be, until we arrive at questions along the lines of "which picture of the ball is best?"

Test prep for SAT and ACT and other BS Tests is largely centered on How To Read The Questions, or How To Figure Out What The Guy Who Wrote the Question Wants You To Say.

This is where the much-noted bias creeps in. If it's easy for you to get in the head of the test writers, to paraphrase John Oliver, congratulations on your rich, white penis.

More to my point-- this pick-out-a-correct-answer-from-the-choices-we-gave-you is an inauthentic activity that does not resemble anything we ever do anywhere ever in the real world. It is actually worse than the inauthentic reading around which the test is centered, because that at least bears a passing resemblance to real reading. Driving the eighteen-wheeler has some passing resemblance to driving my car, but balancing the plates on my head has nothing to do with anything!

So, no

To suggest that just making students into good readers will automatically insure good test results is baloney, and it's not like the relationship between driving well and passing the driver's test at all. The BS Test is a hugely inauthentic task, and as such has its own set of skills and behaviors that it rewards. And I have no desire to practice balancing plates on my head just so I can get a drivers license.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How To Train Teachers

This is the sequel to a post you'll find here, which was a response to a blog post by Cristina Evans Duncan that you'll find here.

So if education majors are currently "too easy" or "not useful," then what can we put in their place? I have some ideas, and most of them are based on how I myself was trained. I've talked about this program here and there around the blog, but today I'm going to focus directly on it in the context of that important question-- how should we train teachers?

I will preface this with a huge caveat-- this is all about training secondary teachers. I'm pretty sure elementary teaching has a different set of requirements.

Undergrad studies

I attended Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, a small liberal arts college with a serious split personality-- dedicated to the liberal arts, and yet primarily adept at churning out pre-law and pre-med majors.

I went to Allegheny so I could become an English teacher. But I was not an education major because there was no such thing. My major (and my degree) were English. I studied exactly the same range of classes that any English major did, but my coursework included a couple of English courses designed for future teachers. Additionally and unofficially, several of my professors, knowing that I was a future teacher (did I mention that it's a small school) hooked me up with projects and independent studies that put me in local high school classrooms.

This was part of Allegheny's basic philosophy-- Step One in being a good classroom teacher is knowing what the hell you're talking about when you teach.

Undergrad Education Courses

We only had a couple. One was a philosophy course which included non-majors, and it was strictly about looking at the very idea of what we were trying to do and why. Another was a proto-methods course that involved trying to design and teach lessons. One of the highlights of that class was the professor, Robert Schall (we called him Dr. Bob, after the character on the Muppet Show's Veterinarian's Hospital) who sat in the back of the room and played Bobby, the World's Worst Student. To this day, I marvel at his ability to pre-channel every difficult student I was ever going to teach.

I don't know how he did it, but Dr. Bob provided a feature missing from too many education departments-- a professor with a realistic grasp of what a real classroom is really like, really.

Prior to student teaching, I took only two (maybe two and a half-- it's been a long time) education courses.

Student Teaching

Here is where our program varied wildly from most traditional education programs.

Allegheny student teachers did their work in urban schools in Cleveland. Initially the school used Cleveland City Schools, but as that district became unstable (closing in October because levies failed), Allegheny moved out into Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland. The theory here-- if you could handle an urban elementary or middle school, you could handle pretty much anything.

Allegheny leased a set of rooms at a hotel in downtown Cleveland (corner of East 9th and Superior) where the student teachers lived. In that same hotel, the college rented a set of conference rooms which were used as classrooms. And now, while we were student teaching, we took our practical heavy-duty methods courses.

That's not even the amazing part-- my student teaching supervisor saw me roughly once a week, usually for a couple of hours. And that same guy was one of my methods teachers in the evening. Imagine a teaching methods class where your professor says, "Okay, here's a thing that happened to you yesterday in your classroom. Let's all talk about how to handle a situation like that." We could spitball approaches for dealing with problem students, test them out, and talk about it within a week.

In short, the support during student teaching was huge, both from faculty (mostly adjuncts in Cleveland, most of whom were working classroom master teachers) and from fellow student teachers. Isolated far from home base (in those days, you didn't go out in our neighborhood after dark), we had nothing to do but focus on becoming teachers. And my eighth graders at Wiley Junior High were relentless and unforgiving-- I had no choice but to get it figured out, but I had lots of help.

When I watch my student teachers get visited two or three times, for thirty or forty minutes a pop, by a supervisor they've never met before, I feel sad for them. The traditional system depends entirely on the luck of the draw for cooperating teachers-- get a good co-op and you can get a great career start, but get a bad one and you're in a world of hurt.

But we're not done yet

We moved immediately from graduation into our Master's program. This was how the college had made a deal to put teachers without the requisite number of education credits in a classroom. We started in summer school after graduation, and the following fall--

Well, the next fall was our first year of teaching, as far as our school district was concerned. But the college considered us interns. Our first job had to be within forty miles of that same Cleveland field office. Every couple of weeks we traveled there for more coursework, and once a month or so, the same guy who had watched me through student teaching came to watch me work in my first classroom (Lorain, OH). So the same network of support that had helped us through our first teaching year.

A few more years of summer coursework, and we were fresh new MA in Ed grads. This, I think, is one of the great undiscussed necessities, but I'm going to argue that there is not enough room in a standard four-year program to learn everything you need to learn (and not enough experience in the undergrad years to know what you wish knew).

Where can I sign up?

Not at Allegheny. They canned the program years ago.

You may have deduced, reading through the description, that this program did not handle huge numbers. I student taught with eight other undergrads, and graduated with a total class of thirteen or so. The kind of support required for the small number of students was not cheap.

And so we arrive at the same old problem that badgers education around every turn-- we know how to do it right, but that would be expensive, and we don't want to spend a bunch of money on education.

So what do we need

If I were going to start a teacher training program, here's what I would require:

* Professors who have found some means of staying connected to actual classrooms
* Intense and thorough content area training
* Heavy duty support through student teaching
* Support that continues through the first year of teaching
* Involvement of working master teachers
* Graduate work
* Enough funding to do all these things well

I do not know if such a program would be easier or harder (it can be pretty hard to do senseless activities), but it would be better preparation than what most schools do now.

Are Education Majors Too Easy?

Last week at EdWeek, Cristiina Duncan Evans said yes, yes they are. But while she raises some interesting points, she also misses the boat on others. (Apologies to those of you hoping for a discussion of the promiscuity of education majors.)

What's the problem?

Evans opens by noting that, had she gone into an actual teacher program, she probably would have quit before finishing.

This may seem a like a weird statement if you consider that I love learning and I self-identify as a nerd. I like it when learning something is difficult; and when I see a puzzle I feel compelled to try to solve it. I'm very literal, and I'm only satisfied with an abstract conversation when it's anchored in observable phenomena. I crave specifics, and as both a learner and as a teacher I sometimes don't see the forest because I'm busy inspecting the trees. 

Evans did not like the lack of rigor and problem solving, and that combined with her love of learning (not teaching?) and self-identified nerd line make me wonder how good a risk she was for teaching at that point in her career. I've had more than one student teacher who came from a strong classroom background, but who didn't really want to be a teacher-- he just wanted to be the smartest kid in a classroom.

But Evans was young at that point, and I have thought more than a few times (especially reflecting on my own shortcomings as a beginning teacher) that it might be a good idea not to start training teachers until they've logged a few years in the world.

We don't really know how "easy" programs are. NCTQ did some faux research in which they looked through college commencement programs, and there have been attempts to correlate teacher candidate SAT scores, but really, who are we kidding? This is not research that means anything at all. And yet, put a group of teachers together and start them talking about their own training, or the training of student teachers they've mentored, and you'll hear plenty of anecdotal data to suggest that college teacher programs are mostly not setting the world on fire.

See, I can quibble about how Evans arrives at her answer, but I agree that college teacher training programs are, at best, a mixed bag, and at the bottom of that bag are some truly useless programs. Talking about "hard" or "easy" is really beside the point; we'd be better off talking about useful or useless, and some teacher prep programs really are useless. Some programs involved a lot of hoop jumping and elaborate lesson planning techniques that will never, ever be used in the field; this kind of thing is arguably rigorous and challenging, but it's of no earthly use to actual teachers.

It may be that the professors are simply too far removed from actual classrooms, that they dispense untested or impractical theories, or it could be that they adhere too slavishly to the fad/mandate of the day. In PA, teacher programs routinely instruct teachers to get ideas and support from the state-run website that has absolutely nothing useful at all on it. And some of the more subtle damage done by Common Core has been done in college classrooms, teaching future teachers that they must use CCSS as a template for lessons. And I think pretty much everyone who ever sat in an education course has had this experience described by Evans:

Too often I've come to the end of an education class and had practical questions about how the theory I learned was supposed to guide day-to-day interactions with my students.

Also problematic-- while education majors are taking multiple ed courses of debatable usefulness, they are not taking courses in the field which they will teach. I can't tell you how many student teachers have shown up in my classroom with nothing but the same content knowledge they had when they left high school.

In general, I think Evans is talking about a problem that is a Real Thing. But when she gets into diagnosis and prescription, I think she loses her way.

So how did we end up with this issue?

Evans offers an explanation that I'm not sure I've ever seen before, but her education was at an ivy league (Dartmouth?) and only a decade ago, so we definitely come from different places. At any rate, one of her theories is that education courses have low status at highly competitive schools. So students don't take ed courses because it's just not cool for a future Master of the Universe.

Okay, fair enough. Teaching has been hammered as teachers are publicly berated for every imaginable offense and blamed for every societal ill. Pay has not kept pace with similar professions, but perhaps more significantly, teaching has also lost much of its autonomy. Today's college students are the ones who have seen teachers serve as nothing but glorified clerks and content delivery specialists. And as the talent pool dries up, it's only natural that colleges will try harder and open their doors wider in an attempt to keep these departments afloat.

When Evans complains about courses that treat her like a child, I sympathize. I also think that getting used to such treatment is probably well-aligned with what professionals can expect. Teachers are treated like children, by PD presenters, by administrators, by legislators and policymakers. I'm not saying I like it or approve of it. But it didn't appear in education courses randomly, and it's not unconnected to what teaching professionals can expect.

What do we do?

Evans does not offer much by way of ideas for making things better, and that's fine-- a blog can only run so long.

It's time for university departments of education to practice what they preach, and consider whether their programs meet the needs of different types of learners. Teachers deserve coursework that challenges and engages them, and the education system as a whole would benefit from higher standards for pedagogical instruction.

Again, we're solving the wrong problem. We don't need to insure that education coursework is more challenging and rewarding for the students who enroll in it; we need to insure that education coursework provides solid preparation for the future teachers who enroll in it. She ends with this line:

Take it from a nerd: when people who love learning don't find it remotely appealing to study education, something's wrong.

I'm not sure that's true. I'm more concerned that future teachers don't find it helpful to study education, including help in making the transition from thinking of yourself as a learner to thinking of yourself as a teacher.  

Now, as it turns out, I have some pretty clear ideas about how to train teachers and fix teacher programs. But I'm going to put that in a sequel to this post. If you want my answer to "How do we fix education departments," just follow the link.

Who the Hell Is Scott Wagner?

If you're a Pennsylvania teacher whose blood pressure is a little low this morning, here's a little something to kick it into a higher gear:

That's Pennsylvania State Senator Scott Wagner of the 28th district, which basically covers York County (the home base of Governor Tom Wolf).

Wagner's political career is impressive. Wagner is straight out of the private sector; he owns and operates a waste management business and a trucking company. He has long been a supporter of the GOP, but in 2014, when the Senate seat opened up, the GOP attempted to thwart his attempt to run. This dance has been repeated in many GOP areas across the state, including my own, with a Tea Party-ish candidate being told to go sit down and behave by the GOP establishment.

But as sometimes happens, the GOP establishment seriously underestimated just how pissed off voters were, and Wagner became the first Pennsylvanian to win an election as a write-in candidate. Wagner did not just beat the GOP and Democrat candidates, but absolutely shellacked them, winning 48% of the vote (neither of the other candidates cracked the 30% mark).

That got people's attention. The PA legislature runs on seniority, but Wagner is now chair of the Urban Affairs and Housing Committee. And Tom Wolf's office has targeted him, saying that he's "calling the shots in the Republican Caucus."

So is the clip above a momentary aberration in Wagner's career. Nope.

On his website (I can't get them embedded here) you can find clips in which Wagner stumps for paycheck protection, a popular initiative that uses specious claims to push legislation making it illegal for unions to let their members pay dues through payroll deductions.  Wagner also takes five minutes to explain why teacher salaries are out of control, and the math he uses is--well, special. He takes one district, looks at the total costs for salary, compares that to the total salaries from a year five years later, and somehow concludes from those two numbers that teachers are getting a 6% raise every year. It's a bizarrely inaccurate way to figure out teacher wage increases, particularly when tehre's a pay scale that is public information that would give you the exact answer. Gosh, it's almost as if he was looking for a way to compute the figures that would give him a larger answer for effect, as if he weren't interested in the truth of the matter at all.

You can read his thoughts about school funding at greater length here, but the basics are in this quote: "Pennsylvania does not have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem." (Oh, and unions are kind of like Hitler and Stalin and Putin, too).

Or if you want to get another head of steam up, check out this video in which Wagner explains why no raise in minimum wage is needed.

Yep. Poor folks are just lazy, drug-addled, unwilling-to-get-up slackers.

I will give Wagner credit for this-- he inspired this fun video from the organization Kids Against Education. "Thanks, Scott Wagner!"

But I think we can safely say that although Wagner is a newbie in Harrisburg, he has quickly established himself as a staunch foe of public education and the teachers who work there. I expect his name will come up again.

Mirage: 5 Reasons Nevada's All-Choice Law Is Bad News

Charter-choice fans are ecstatic. Nevada's GOP legislature has decided to go all in on a state-wide voucher program.

"I think a healthy public school system has choice," says Sen. Scott Hammond, bill sponsor and future charter school chief. The move was also lauded by Patricia Levesque, who is currently the head of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, the organization that helped Nevada write the legislation.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is so delighted that they've devoted a few weeks of bloggy wonkathonning to talking about how awesome this will be.

It will not be awesome. Here are five reasons that Nevada's imagined future of choice-driven most excellent unicorn farming is just a mirage.

1) Let's talk about geography.

Nevada is the seventh-largest state in the US with over 110K square miles. And yet, those square miles are served by a grand total of 35,061 miles of roadway-- and that's counting every tiny local dirt road.

Nevada uses county-based school districts; there are seventeen counties in Nevada, including Esmerelda County (pop. 783). In all, there are nine counties with population of 10K or less. Of Nevada's 2.7 million people, 1.9 million live in Clark County, home of Las Vegas and one of the nation's single largest school districts.

A choice system will have a chance to play out in Clark County. In the rest of the state? Some of those counties don't even have one high school, let alone several to choose from. To choose another county's school creates serious transportation issues. So while this may look like a massive change for education across the state, this is really only aimed at one school district. Charteristas like to talk about how this new money will lead to lots of great new charters opening up, but I don't see any CMO's racing up to Esmerelda County to cash in on that market.

2. The economics are weak.

Under the new rules, poor kids get a $5,700 voucher (not-so-poor kids get $5,100). The average private school tuition in Las Vegas is $8,393 for elementary school and $8,644 for high school.

That may not seem like a large gap to cover, but Nevada has been leading the country in child poverty rates, with Las Vegas earning a long-standing reputation for being one of those cities-- if you worked there, you couldn't afford to live there. Vouchers will be a nice windfall for families that can already afford to outsource their children's educations, but for most of the poor, all a voucher system will do is strip more resources form the public schools in which they must stay.

In other words, if the goal of the voucher program is to help poor students escape "failing" schools, the bad news is that it will not help those students escape-- it will just make their schools fail harder.

3. Choice sorts and segregates

Choice-charter supporters have an almost child-like faith in the free market system, despite all evidence. Here's Andy Smarick showing concern about previous failures:

Our experience with NCLB tutoring is instructive. It too was supposed to empower families and create a vibrant supply of services. But the law didn't work as expected.

But Smarick quickly concludes that it was "the existing system" that "gummed up the works." He admits that "emerging markets are inefficient and sometimes dodgy" but I see no reason to believe that mature markets are dodge-free.

That charter schools might further segregation is both predictable and unsurprising. To work a market that is broad and varied, a business needs to sort potential customers according to how much money can be made from them. Just watch (any non-Southwestern) airline load passengers-- the traveling cattle have been sorted according to how much good they can do for the airline.

Charter promoters insist that a robust charter system will match students with the schools that best fit their needs, but if that actually happened, it would be the first time the free market worked that way, ever. We could talk about automobiles or audio equipment, but since we're talking schools, let's look at the market-based education system we already have-- colleges and universities.

Colleges and universities maintain complete control over their own admissions process, and that process is based on one question-- what can you, potential student, do to help us? The best answer is "Hook the college up with some money," closely followed by "Make the college look good (which will help with the money hooking in the future)" The result is a post-high school system that solidifies and reinforces class divisions in America. A charter-choice system will do the same.

4) The free market does not produce excellence

Here's a conversation nobody has, ever:

Chris: I need to go shopping for a product, and I need to be certain that I am getting the very best quality.

Pat: Well, then. Let's go to Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is a huge success story, but that free market domination did not come from pursuing excellent products or excellent service, but by finding the most excellent ways to squeeze money out of retailing to non-wealthy folks.

If Nevada's voucher system survives a court challenge, I guarantee there will be charters launched on a business plan of marketing to medium-poor parents in order to get those vouchers. They will talk about marketing, and they will talk about how they can cut costs to hold onto profits from the vouchers, and they might, eventually, talk about providing a quality education, but that will never, ever be their first concern. The winners will be the charter operators who do the best job of figuring out how to make money in this system, not the ones who provide the best education for students. The losers will be the students who can't provide a good source of profit for charters.

5) Taxation without representation

If you pay taxes in Nevada and have no school age children, you have now been cut out of the loop. You have no say in what sort of education those tax dollars are spent on. Voucher systems mean that Black taxpayers can foot the bill for Aryan Supremecist High School and conservative Christian taxpayers can fund a Sharia Law elementary academy.

Worse, if many of your local parents decide to ride the voucher train out of your local school, you'll be faced with the choice of watching your local school fall into a deeper and deeper financial pit or of raising taxes to make up the difference (though Nevada has a tax cap, so that will only get you so far).
Local school districts will increasingly fail as the vouchers strip resources. If you don't believe that is so, I invite you to buy a second or third home so that you can save money by running three houses instead of one. Or perhaps you can go to work and suggest when times get tight that the company should open more offices to save money. Increasing the total cost of the education system by duplicating services and creating excess capacity is financially wasteful, and it is the public schools that will pay the price.

For those inevitably driven-to-failure public schools, Nevada would like to institute an Achievement School District, a method of managing state takeovers. At that point, local voters and taxpayers lose all semblance of a say in how their schools are run.

The end game in Nevada is pretty simple, pretty clear, and pretty close: the voucher program marks the end of any semblance of commitment to public education and the beginning of a completely privatized system of schools for Nevada. It will not be good for Nevada, it will not be good for students, it will not be good for Nevada's taxpayers, and it will not fulfill any of its promises. It will make a few edupreneurs wealthy. For everyone else, the benefits of the voucher system will remain a mirage.

Originally posted in View from the Cheap Seats