Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pardon One Offense, and You Encourage the Commission of Many

So saith Publilius Syrus, better known for "a rolling stone gathers no moss." It seems an apt quote today. And speaking of commissions, now that the Guv is under fire for hobbling his own Moreland Commission, maybe it's time to look at his other commissions for a moment. What ever became of the Education Reform Commission, notable for including no one who actually worked in public schools at a level below state union president? They issued a couple of reports calling for merit pay, more early education, better technology, raising the bar for entrance into teaching programs, and an extended school day. The extended day may apply to a handful of districts who could afford a grantwriter to do the preliminary work. The better technology may have led to the Smart Schools Bond Act, and the more early education to the UPK Expansion plan this year, both of which were ripoffs for upstate (more about that later). And what ho, Mandate Relief Council, whose Chair was none other than the very Lawrence Schwartz who stood between reform and the Guv's pals and office on the Moreland Ethics probe? Let's see. You enabled school districts to share superintendents and to transport kids based on "patterns of actual ridership." How'd you do on anything that might save a district or municipality more than a handful of dollars? And where are you now?

Here's how that Council went: It requested proposals for unfunded mandate relief. It received thousands. It allowed public comment on some. It selected a handful through magical means. It referred a percentage of those forward to be repealed or modified.

This was Dryden's list of most burdensome mandates as described by the administration in 2008:

1. Academic Intervention Services (AIS) 2. 3-8 testing (costs accrue for scoring [including substitutes to replace classroom teachers], printing, and reporting)

3. 504 Accommodation Plans

4. Response to Intervention (costs for committees and implementation of strategies)

5. School safety plans (costs for committee time and printing)

6. Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs)

7. ID badges and fingerprinting

8. CPR and First Aid requirements for special ed aides and athletics

9. Mentoring program costs

10. Professional Development costs

11. Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) costs

12. Green product use

SPECIAL MENTION: Wicks Law, Taylor Law

Every one of these is still unfunded and still a burden. But the Mandate Relief Council has been and gone, so tough luck for Dryden, I guess.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Major Rant on CCSS and Politics

My favorite gubernatorial candidate, Zephyr Teachout, has leapt into the deep end of the cesspool of Common Core politics with a recent op ed calling for their immediate halt. In her piece, which blames Bill Gates and focuses on something Teachout calls “education democracy,” Teachout goes beyond even the famous WaPo article that tied Gates to the standards to imply that there is a vast corporate conspiracy to destroy our schools and that local control is always best. She quotes and parses Diane Ravitch, once the darling of conservatives and now the darling of urban left-wing thought on educational policy.

THE RAVITCH FACTOR

I like a person who can admit when she’s wrong. Diane Ravitch built a career on wrongheaded education policy, but very recently, she’s pulled a 180 and rejected most of what she supported up till now. Privatization of schools: Was good, now bad. Accountability through testing: Was good, now bad. And with the zeal of the true convert, she has spread the revised Gospel far and wide, primarily through her popular blog.

Unfortunately, Common Core has come under Ravitch’s scrutiny, and when the ink was barely dry on the policy, she declared that it was not working and must be tossed. Would the FDA, she fretted, approve the use of a drug with no trials? (I wish I could have my late father-in-law, a longtime FDA whistle blower, respond to that one.) She was suddenly fearful that such national standards, which she once freely supported as many reformers did, would cause irreparable harm to children.

I know that Ravitch, as a student of education history, understands that standards are not field tested, tests are field tested. I know she knows that we’ve been “a nation of guinea pigs” many, many times, through a thousand twists and turns of educational policy, including some where she held the scalpel for the mad scientists. I’m sure she realizes that the states’ 50 sets of disparate standards were no more field tested or voluntary or public or democratic than the Common Core has been. She may even recognize that the public comment period for Common Core was far longer and more inclusive than any such period for a set of state standards. What her motivation is, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I’m even willing to concede that she may be sincere. But since she published her original screed in 2013, her anti-Core comments have become a noisy series of ad hominem attacks on people who support the plan, and far too many otherwise sensible people have taken to parroting her opinions.

Here’s Ravitch in 2010 after rejecting NCLB, which she once supported: “[It has failed because] it has encouraged the states to dumb down the standards by saying that every state would have its own definition of proficiency, every state would use its own test, by setting a deadline of 2014—which is totally unrealistic—by which all students are supposed to be proficient….”

Well, yes. When every state has its own definition of proficiency and uses its own test, as has been the case for decades now, students in a mobile society get screwed. That is exactly why those of us who work with state standards for a living and see daily how crazy they are have been fighting for national standards for years.

THE GATES FACTOR

I don’t have big opinions about the Gates Foundation. Malaria stuff: Great. School-related stuff: Iffy. That huge study about what makes a good teacher good seems like the sort of thing I’d probably reject as a master’s thesis topic. The “science” becomes too squishy, a bit like defining what makes a good mother. That being said, I certainly do not believe that Gates has pulled off an educational “coup” or that the Common Core Standards are “Bill Gates’s standards.” Even the WaPo makes clear that Gates money was used to promote the standards once they were created. Gates didn’t write them; it’s not entirely clear that he’s read them. This is not a case of private money “supplanting democracy.” It is more likely a case of a typically ham-fisted Obama administration reaching out to friends to help them support a cause they like. Does he have more money than he knows what to do with? Yes. Does he hope to use that money to influence policy? Probably. Is it fair to point out Teachout’s pride in being supported by inventors and entrepreneurs from Wordpress and DIGG? How many millions are too many? When is money in politics okay, and when is it dangerous? (Yeah, that’s rhetorical.)

As for Gates making a pile on Common Core assessments, his market share in public schools pales beside Apple and now Chromebook, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I’m sorry lots of people don’t feel they had input into the Common Core Standards. Do they feel that they had sufficient input into their own state standards? I wrote comments; so did thousands of parents, teachers, administrators, and ordinary citizens. Sorry you didn’t hear about it until the comment period had closed. Could it be that most people don’t really pay attention to public policy until it directly affects them? (Rhetorical, again.)

ABOUT STANDARDS-BASED EDUCATION

Before the 1980s, and specifically before A Nation at Risk, we used mostly norm-referenced methods to compare students to one another and create a bell-curved picture of our kids compared to a mythical “average” student. Standards-based education instead compares individual student progress and growth to a set of standards or goals. Zephyr Teachout started her school career in Vermont, which she remembers so fondly in her op ed, under a norm-referenced system and ended it using Vermont’s learning standards. As a student, was she aware of this? Almost certainly not. Students care whether their teachers are good and their content is interesting. Only recently have we begun to start lessons with a suggestion about what is to be learned, in the hopes that kids will be able to think about and monitor their own learning. This sounds like a good idea to me.

Who decides on those goals, of course, is a question that should be asked. Should it be democratic—should we let the people decide? How? District by district, region by region, state by state?

THE WHIMSY OF LOCAL CONTROL

If the people of my child’s district set the standards for the district, we’d have Bible study all morning and lacrosse all afternoon. We’d teach no foreign languages, for, as one memorable chap remarked at the very first board of ed meeting I ever attended, “In my house, we speak English.” There would be no course on the Holocaust, a course that is provided by an interested teacher and garners much student interest, because after all, there are just two Jewish kids in the whole district, and one, mine, is merely a half-breed.

If you want to see local control in action, move to Texas. Texas, of course, is one of the few states that from the first refused to sign on to the Common Core. God forbid that the Texas School Board lose its power to gut separation of church and state, highlight conservative ideology, and remove the word “democratic” from any description of the nation.

Texas is an egregious example of what happens when you unleash local control and throw a lot of money around. I remember being a young editor at MH in the 1980s and hearing a sales manager remark, “Well, we made the list in Texas, and I didn’t even get pregnant!” Making the list in Texas meant millions for textbook companies (why yes, market forces have controlled education since long before the Common Core), and the amount of booze, money, and yes, sex, that flowed down south during so-called “adoption” cycles was terrifying to behold. Texas Board of Ed members and their connected TEA associates expected to be wooed. Most publishers spent the extra dollars to create “Texas editions” of textbooks, often with separate chapters showing how the state figured prominently in American history or science. Where separate editions were cost-prohibitive, publishers followed Texas’s lead. Don’t like evolution? We’ll minimize that. Love those Founding Fathers? In they go. Because Texas money was especially green, Texas local control trumped other states’ local control, and the results may be seen in textbooks from the 1980s through to the present day.

Local control, in other words, is a major contributor to the culture wars. If majority rules in curricula, minorities get screwed.

A WORD ABOUT ASSESSMENTS

The countries where students outperform ours, which is to say a bunch, have national standards. What they do not have are annual tests. Many test kids at intervals; say, 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. This seems to be enough frequency with which to draw conclusions about efficacy of the standards.

We test kids constantly. It may come as a shock to note that we don’t test them any more now than we did seven years ago, but it’s still way too often. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the power of the major test publishers, Pearson and CTB/McGraw. Another is the accountability movement, which is not limited to the U.S. but is particularly active here. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have encouraged testing not only as a means of measuring student achievement but also as a means of measuring teacher and school achievement.

[A quick sidebar about accountability in NYS. The unions are miserable with APPR, NYS’s accountability plan for teachers, and they’ve succeeded in gaining a postponement of testing as a means of measuring teacher success. That makes sense to me—the tests are new, the standards are new, students taking tests this year haven’t been using the standards long enough to measure progress. But it’s worth pointing out that those same unions negotiated APPR contracts with every individual school district in the state. They worked out the percentages; they signed on the dotted lines. I’m not allowed to back out of a contract just because I decide it’s hard to meet the terms. My guess is that the leadership did the negotiating, and the membership balked after the fact, but I don’t really know. Still, the media has covered this as though it were something imposed on the teachers from above, and that is absolutely not true. Again, these were negotiated contracts.]

Those of us in the ed publishing racket raised a stink years ago about the movement toward increased testing. The projects we were offered made it clear to us early on that we were teaching less and testing more. Testing is nearly always an unfunded mandate for school districts. The state may pay for the tests themselves, but the schools must cough up dollars for substitutes while teachers spend valuable time grading, and the constant paperwork is a drag on the whole system. Now that testing is moving to computer-based platforms, the costs are even greater.

So why are we limited to two enormous test publishers? For the answer to that, you have to go back to the 1980s, when mergers and acquisitions erased most of the small houses and a lot of the big ones. Yes, market factors have damaged American education, but perhaps not in the way Diane Ravitch supposes. The fact that we allowed and even enabled monopolistic publishing was a disaster in many ways, but the effects on educational publishing were especially dire.

[A note about Pearson: I’ll work for nearly anyone, but I won’t work for them. Their quality control has been embarrassing, and I hate their recent entrance into the private school market. I won’t work on science for anyone, because I’m not willing to kowtow to Texas et al., and I rarely work on social studies for the same reason.]

STUCK IN THE MIRE

I’m sorry that Zephyr Teachout has jumped willingly into this pit, because it’s hard to wipe this Common Core crap off your shoe once you’re in it. I know that many administrators and pro-Core educators may withdraw support when they read her op ed, but I won’t. I’ve been around the block enough to know that there are no perfect candidates, and that any candidate worth her salt is open to diverse opinions. Teachout is right on the finances of NYS education, as far as she’s gone. I trust that she will emerge from the downstate bubble as the campaign progresses and will visit upstate educators to hear about their own experiences with the standards and their ideas about school equity. It’s a shame the primary is in September, so she won’t get the real picture of life in upstate schools.

No, I don’t want Bill Gates to decide what kids in my district learn, and you know what? I don’t want my governor to decide that, either. The NYS standards were something like the blind men’s impression of an elephant—patched and repatched over the years by committee after committee until there was no clarity, no logic, no consistency—if there ever had been any. The Common Core is simpler, it is coherent, it is relevant and rigorous, and educators actually were involved in its creation, like it or not. Will it work? Not if we don’t back off and let it. Will it work for everyone? Almost certainly not. Will someone come up with something else in five years? You bet. And when they do, I hope we talk a lot more about children and a lot less about politics, but I kind of doubt that we will.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Required Reading

Today's Hobby Lobby decision wasn't a surprise to me, but some of the information in this week's TIME article was. Well worth reading, if you like faith-based conspiracies.
In addition to Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, the Greens are beta testing a high-tech Bible-study curriculum for public schools this September in an Oklahoma district. They hope to see it adopted in thousands more districts within three years. A draft copy suggests it will be a wonderland of technological pedagogy but will raise church-state issues that could also end up before the high court.

And then there is the as-yet-unnamed museum of the Bible in a 440,000-sq.-ft. building two blocks from the National Mall, which was bought to house the best of the Greens’ 45,000-piece collection of biblical artifacts. The museum will function as both a magnet and a marker for evangelical Christians on the country’s most symbolically loaded swath of real estate.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

IJ Covers Graduation

O and her classmates are all over these photos.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The State of Educational Freelancing

I sent out a query to my freelance listserve yesterday, remarking on the fact that I've had four projects start and fold this year already and wondering whether I was just unlucky or if something else was going on. Here are some responses I received.

I've stopped doing educational publishing. Ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more.
I was burned out on assessment projects years ago, kind of in solidarity with kids, I reasoned, and tried to live in hope of the return of the olden days when nearly all the writing projects I worked on seemed to value high-quality research, creativity, and writing. So much fun! Hard work, but great compensation and satisfaction.

I'm still open to such a project, but I'm no longer expecting it to happen...in my working lifetime anyhow. Still, I mull what it would take to get out of this rat's nest we're in and will fight to the end for a vibrant public education system worthy of our children and, in my case, my grandchildren. :)

I don't know whether to be glad or sorry to learn that I'm not the only one. I have literally had no work since December. One project seems to have fizzled; other people not even getting back to me. Longtime clients whom I've worked for repeatedly over several years; it burns me when they can't even be bothered to reply to e-mails.
I had a relatively decent year in 2013. There was steady (if not always well-paying) work through the winter and into the early spring. Since then, however, I've had three projects that have turned sour: One was cut back in scope and then postponed until the fall (and I'll be surprised it if revives even then), one suddenly went back to the drawing board (and has since revived--but it's very small, and I hear that it is still a very rocky road), and one that has parceled out one lesson at a time, with unannounced gaps in-between (thus far). In putting out a few feelers, I've heard from one client, "Maybe something in July or August"; and from another, "It's still very much up in the air."
I recently did a social studies project that ended up with my earning less than the lowest paid employee at McDonald’s. The only advantage over McDonald's is that I don’t smell of cooking oil.

The whole industry seems to be fracturing. Digital publishing is spawning a whole new set of players—and a new mentality about publishing. Remember when we prided ourselves on our "bookmaking skills"?

There are now Indian firms who are training their writers to do assessment. I know this because I was approached to do the training! The offer was too low to consider (especially when it involved flying coach to India); I also had serious qualms about undermining a threatened species--American editors. Cries of “turncoat!” haunted my dreams. Nonetheless, overseas writers are poised to grab a share of our too limited market. A writer from another (somewhat) English-speaking culture could do assessment in some areas (math and science, for example) with relative success. With an American editor, non-native writers could even do assessments in other subjects. Their biggest challenge would be to avoid the forbidden topics.

I am currently working on a project for a company that has to have a translator on site so that editors can communicate with the boss a few steps away in the corner office.

Mind you, these are the best of the best and include two people I worked with closely at McGraw-Hill and Harcourt back in the short-lived glory days of educational publishing. DZ wrote a blog post that sums up all of our feelings, I think.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Nimbleness and the News

At TST BOCES this year, we've talked a lot about the advantages of being a smaller, more localized organization than some other BOCES. It gives us the opportunity for a sort of agility that larger organizations just cannot have. If necessary, we should be able to turn on a dime to support new objectives or unexpected requests. We haven't entirely reached our goal of nimbleness, but we're getting there.

A few weeks ago, wearing my other hat as Director of Communications for the local Dems, I met with the editor of a new online newspaper, the Ithaca Voice. The paperless paper went live on June 15, and just five days later, this new medium was tested in the fire of a genuine disaster when a tractor-trailer laden with cars missed the turn at the bottom of State Street, avoided a group of construction workers, and barreled into Simeon's, killing one, injuring several, and nearly destroying a beautiful historic building at the entrance to the City.

What made the Voice's coverage stand out was its nimbleness. Other media tweeted from the site, but the Voice did so continuously and in depth. The Journal was limited by the fact that the accident happened on a Friday late afternoon, when much of the Saturday paper is already complete, and the paper does not publish on Sunday. The radio stations were hampered by lack of personnel and the fact that their local news coverage mostly happens in the morning. Other media arrived late to the scene, but the Voice had already been sending updates for hours on Facebook and Twitter, while putting together longer pieces on its website.

To its credit and reputation, the Voice clambered all over the story, interviewing key players, posting photos (but deciding not to post video of the incident itself), and generally comporting itself like a real, live, capable, scrupulous, nimble newsforce to be reckoned with.

UPDATE: And now the Voice reveals itself as a credible investigative tool as well, with an aspect of the story no one else has broken.