Smorgasbord: The politics of Ed

Chalkbeat takes a look at De Blasio’s campaign promises on education and how they’ve played out

Overall, seems to me De Blasio & Farina have rolled out some pretty solid stuff when you look at it as a whole, minus the politics. I think the district restructuring is a mixed bag and the top-down management is problematic, but the smooth roll-out of pre-K services, and Single Shepherd and AP and College Access programs will be gamechangers for kids in the long run.

Where we need to keep pushing De Blasio and Farina: autonomy and accountability for school leaders, reducing partisanship over charters and choice, and fighting segregation.

There’s always plenty to criticize in any Mayor or Chancellor’s reign. I’ve gotten into frequent arguments with my colleagues about Bloomberg and Klein’s administration because I’m unwilling to paint their leadership and policies with one broad stroke of good/bad. Let’s talk about what is working and criticize what’s not.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made many education promises. Here’s what he’s delivered so far — and what he hasn’t, Chalkbeat NY

Speaking of critique–here’s the problem with the way we talk about improvement in ed

David Cantor at the 74 has insightful analysis of NY politics and how it’s affecting the Mayoral Control debate–and the way we talk about education.

“Preschools don’t yield the hard, annual data markers that reputations and public support are built on. The measurable impact of the program likely won’t reveal itself to researchers until this mayor is no longer in office.”

He’s right. This is one of the fundamental problems with how we look at education. If we are only focused on the short-term, then all we will get is short-term effects, which may ultimately be detrimental.

Here’s a case in point. Due to the outsized focus on test scores in elementary schools, many principals place their most effective teachers in the 3rd grade or higher, because that’s the grades that are tested. But a far better strategy, in the long-term, would be to place your hard-hitters in the earliest grades, because that investment will better build the foundations for learning that many kids desperately need.

Similarly, principals talk about focusing all their attention and resources on their “pushables”–the kids who are at the upper borders of a 1 or 2 or 3 on the state test. So what’s going to happen to the students that aren’t so labeled? And what’s going to happen to the coherence in your instruction across your school?

Interestingly, some reform pundit focus in response to Cantor’s cogent article is to highlight his criticism of De Blasio’s renewal school bloatware and his antipathy to the media. But here’s what Cantor says right after that:

There may be something more: apathy. Not his; ours. Fixing schools is difficult work; it’s slow; you lose people’s attention. “People are more concerned about the subways,” said Weisberg.

Holding attention is essential to warding off politicians and being able to do “the hard work that has to happen inside schools,” as Henig says.”

Indeed. The real work of education is incremental, it’s hard, and it won’t grab many headlines.

Analysis: The Fierce Fight Over Mayoral Control Reflects De Blasio’s Weakness on Education, the 74

Speaking of surface level judgments . . . college teachers grade attractive students higher

This result, they add, was “driven mainly by courses taught by male instructors.”

ATTRACTIVE STUDENTS GET HIGHER GRADES, Pacific Standard

All charters can’t be painted with the same brush–just like public schools

Sara Mead argues that “it’s hard to make any single statement that accurately characterizes the national charter school landscape as a whole.”

Indeed. It’s hard to make any single statement that accurately characterizes schools period. This is one of the core issues about how we talk about schools, whether public, charter, or private.

Look Beyond the Acela Corridor, US News

Lessons on desegregation from Dallas

1) Open up admissions (a lottery system, rather than selective admissions)

2) Set aside a certain percentage for low-income students

Dallas Schools, Long Segregated, Charge Forward on Diversity, NY Times

A new study says that diverse classrooms increase student well-being

In the more diverse schools, “kids have more opportunity to have cross-race friendships and then they become protective,” Graham said. “So if you’re in a diverse school and you’ve made friends with people from different racial and ethnic groups then they help protect you, they help introduce you to kids in their ethnic, racial group, there’s more opportunities to find your niche and fit in.”

New research: student well-being higher in diverse schools, KPCC

EdBuild releases a report on the secession of white parents from school districts that deepens segregation

“Alabama makes it particularly easy for small towns to secede from a larger school district, but 30 states have processes codified in state law that allow for secession, some more permissive than others. Procedures range from only a majority vote in a small, breakaway neighborhood in some states to a multistep process involving a state agency or legislative approval in others.”

Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts, EdBuild

Privatizing (aka “optimizing”) public services

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration was focusing on technology this week. He said there was “a lot of room for optimization in the federal government.”

What does “optimizing” our public institutions and services mean?

“Cook, the Apple CEO, requested that computer coding be taught in every public school. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said workers need more skills for a technology-based economy. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos encouraged the government to use commercial technology to save money and develop artificial intelligence to improve government services.

Venture capitalist John Doerr asked for the government to open up its databases to private firms, saying it would transform health care.”

In other words, use public institutions to serve private interests. Hmm. What does serving public interests mean again now?

Tech CEOs visit White House to talk modernizing government, AP

The ecosystem metaphor is used to argue for an ed reform focus on two-parent families

“The education reform community has a unique responsibility as keepers of perhaps the remaining civic institution—public schools—that interacts with almost every child for prolonged periods almost every week (or at least the thirty-six weeks of the school year). That is why two-generation solutions such as a parent-home-visiting program or the Success Sequence should be explored as part of a core curriculum, given the data that show it’s nearly impossible for a poor person to remain poor if that person makes a series of life choices—finish high school, secure a job, and get married before having a child, in that order.”

If not us, who will make humans human? If not now, a new generation of fragile families looms., Flypaper

Chester Finn slams book promoting free-for-all marketplace from charter school advocates

Finn uses some choice words against a recent book from charter school advocates that promotes reduced accountability to increase parental choice:

This is idiocy. It’s also entirely unrealistic in the ESSA era. It arises from the view—long since dismissed by every respectable economist—that education is a private good and the public has no interest in an educated citizenry. Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should, at least in schools that call themselves “public.”

I wish more folks understood that education is a public good.

New book from charter school advocates offers lots of bad advice, Flypaper

Let’s do something about segregated schools, New York

Dear NY readers,

There has been a bill proposed that can provide a solid first step towards a statewide conversation about desegregating our schools here in New York.

The bill number is S3794 in the Senate (sponsored by Senator Bailey), and A5795 in the Assembly (sponsored by Assemblymember Sepulveda).

The bill would establish a commission to examine segregation in primary and secondary schools across the state, specifically to investigate the degree of segregation and it’s relation to funding and long-term economic impacts.

The fact is that there are no existing state-level bills on the issue. Along with the momentum that is happening in NYC (the Chancellor and Mayor announced a diversity plan on Tuesday!), we can leverage this bill to push for future legislation.

The end of the legislative session is fast approaching, and this is an opportunity to make state-level change happen. We have the next two weeks to advocate for the passage of this bill.

If your Assembly members and Senators hear more from all of us about this bill, then it is much more likely to move forward. If you aren’t sure who your assembly person or senator are, you can check here.

Here is a draft form that you can use to speak to or write to your representative:

Dear [state representative],

I am [writing/speaking] to you today to ask for your support of bill S 3794 (Bailey) / A 5795 (Sepulveda), which establishes a temporary commission to examine and review the degree of segregation in primary and secondary schools.

New York operates some of the most segregated schools and districts by race and class in our nation, according to a 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Project and 2016 EdBuild report. There is a substantial body of research that suggests there are benefits for all children from learning in socioeconomically and racially diverse classrooms. Yet there are no existing legislation to promote greater diversity in New York schools.

Therefore, I strongly support the passage of bill to begin a statewide discussion of how greater diversity can be supported in our schools and districts. This bill will help to firmly establish and clarify the relation between segregated schools and funding. Furthermore, the bill will start an examination of the long-term impact of a segregated education on students.

Establishing a commission to examine the segregation in New York schools will provide a clear direction for future policies.


Thank you for your leadership.

[Your name]

 

Conceptual vs. Procedural Math at Mastery charters

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“Maths” by Chris de Kok is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There was an interesting recent the74 piece on a Philadelphia charter organization, Mastery, which takes low performing schools and works to “turn them around.”

 

Embedded within this article is the implication that a shift to a focus on the teaching of conceptual math, rather than “rote” procedural teaching, led to a swift downturn in math scores.

“So this year, the network began reintroducing teaching techniques that had been a staple at Mastery schools for years, while seeking a middle ground between no excuses and restorative practices. It’s a ‘journey of trying to find out what’s the right mix,’ Gordon said.

Specifically, the network is reintroducing procedural math instruction, which focuses on rote instruction like memorization and repetition.”

It seems worth digging into this supposition a bit more.

Is Mastery’s downturn in math scores due to the failure of conceptual math in general as a pedagogical approach? Or is it a failure of the network to attract and train teachers who can teach this type of math more effectively?

Or is it a failure in the assessments that were used as a reference? Or was it that conceptual math takes longer to “stick” and pay dividends? Or was it a failure of the curriculum they used to move in a more conceptual direction? . . .

http://the74million.org/article/at-philadelphias-mastery-charter-network-culture-is-key-to-turning-around-failing-schools

Smorgasbord: It’s Been A While

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I know, I’ve mostly stopped posting. A conflux of being-really-busy at work, getting-really-sick (turns out I’m allergic to a certain type of antibiotic), and being-overwhelmed-with-information (I get way too many newsletters) and needing to just kind of hit the pause button on everything. And winter.

I guess there’s some kind of game going on, but I’m not a football person, so I’m posting this instead. So here you go:

 

On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

Bureaucracy has it’s place

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

“The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

“. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.”

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

“I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.”

Your Environment is the Invisible Hand

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Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort. Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is, especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment.

—James Clear, “Motivation is Overvalued. Environment Often Matters More.

Teachers and Education Officials: Expect More from Students with Disabilities

 

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By Onlysilence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I believe that most students with disabilities* can and should engage with the same academic content that any other student would receive. Furthermore, I believe that most students with disabilities should be held to the same academic expectations as that of their peers.

I seem to hold somewhat radical expectations for my students, if what I’m hearing from my colleagues and from NY state education officials is accurate.

I was at a meeting with fellow special education specialists in my district several weeks ago and assumed I was speaking to the choir when I shared these beliefs. I was taken aback when a number of other educators strongly disagreed. I heard my fellow educators argue that their students “can’t” be expected to do grade-level work.

When I hear the word “can’t” used by an educator to describe their students’ potential, I get so upset. I know that working with children who face significant challenges is tough work. But really?

Can’t?

I think such a perspective says more about an educator’s lack of vision than a student’s lack of ability.

When you consider disability from a historical perspective, students with disabilities have been denied access to the same expectations and content as that of other students for a very long time. They have been segregated physically, and given “different” curriculum, because no one expected anything from them.

Unsurprisingly, students so treated do not often go on to achieve success.

It was upsetting enough to hear this perspective from my colleagues here in the Bronx. But now I’m also hearing it from education officials up in Albany. There is a plan in discussion and most likely up for a vote soon to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

We’ve been here before. NY State used to have a largely meaningless piece of paper called an “IEP diploma” for students said to have met their IEP goals, which are highly subjective measurements primarily measured by those who write them.

I know that a high school diploma doesn’t mean much these days, but it’s a slippery slope when we begin completely dismantling any measure of what academic preparedness might mean.

What kind of message do we send to kids when we lower the bar for them? We don’t expect you to be able to achieve this. You CAN’T achieve this.

But that’s the wrong message. Instead, we should be saying, What will it take for you to achieve this? And if you try and aren’t ready yet — it’s OK because there’s other options for you to have a viable career in the meantime and we will help you to get there.

Not everyone is ready for college. A high school diploma should be a sign that you are prepared to succeed academically in college, not a consolation prize.

If we truly believe that not every student is able to achieve a high school diploma, than we’d better be looking very closely at what we’re doing to build alternative pathways to careers.

But watering down academic expectations for some students is not the way to go, New York. We’re fooling ourselves if we think making it “easier” is helping any kid to succeed. We’re only making it easier for adults to continue to pretend they’re doing their jobs.

 

*an extremely wide and diverse bucket, BTW. The differences between any given disability and any given student are so vast as to be nearly incomparable. Yet we persist.

Incremental Change

“Silvia Abbato, the district’s superintendent, said she could not pinpoint any one action that had led to the better scores. . . . 

“It’s not something you can do overnight,” Ms. Abbato said. “We have been taking incremental steps everywhere.”

—Motoko Rich, Amanda Cox, and Matthew Bloch, “Money, Race, and Success: How Your District Compares” in The NY Times

Government leaders need to listen

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“One of the biggest lessons we hope to impart in our report is the need for government leaders to listen to their constituents; in Flint that didn’t happen,” said Chris Kolb, co-chairman of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force.

—”Task Force: Michigan Govt ‘Fundamentally Accountable’ For Flint Crisis” on TPM News