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Derrell Bradford’s Thoughtful Insights on the Benefits of Choice

March 29, 2017 1 comment

When I saw a link to an article in the pro-choice, pro-voucher publication The 74 that countered the compelling arguments advanced by NYTimes writer Nichole Hannah-Jones, I was tempted to skip it, believing it would be a shallow and infuriating screed that reinforced the often simplistic positions taken by writers on that website. After reading the article by Derrell Bradford, though, I find myself needing to re-frame and re-calibrate my opposition to choice… particularly in urban settings. And even more surprisingly, I found myself agreeing with Mr. Bradford’s argument in favor of choice that was derived from a quote by Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s appointee to Secretary of Education who launched the “choice” movement embedded in NCLB that ultimately led us to Betsy DeVos:

Former secretary of education Rod Paige once offered that the country’s public schools have two incredible powers. The first is mandatory attendance: you will go to school; and the second is mandatory assignment: you will go to this school.

And even though state constitutional language varies on the kind and caliber of education a child will receive under these edicts, what’s certain is this: When a public institution can conscript you into a school with a long track record of underperformance, the egalitarian spirit of education, available to all, paid for by taxpayers and free at the point of delivery, is not only not served, it is subverted. The moment the state and public schools can force you into something that will likely inhibit your ability to be free and equal in the future — as is the case with children of color in underperforming public schools — you don’t control them anymore.

As noted in many earlier posts, I have long believed that exclusionary zoning and the economic segregation that results from that practice are the root cause of inequality or opportunity and the primary reason that social mobility is thwarted. Equal opportunity is impossible in our current world where children born into a particular zip code benefit from well-funded schools attended by classmates whose parents have college degrees while other children are effectively penalized by being born into a different zip code where schools cannot be well-funded and their classmates are from less educated backgrounds.

From my perspective, there are two ways to work around this issue: one is to provide more funding to less affluent districts and the other is to eliminate attendance zones within districts and between districts.

Providing equitable funding would make certain that if you are required to attend this school in an under-resourced district you can be confident that it has the same resources as that school in a fully-resourced district.  But providing equitable funding would require an increase in taxes and a redistribution of funds. Both of these are an anathema to voters who have been convinced that “throwing money” at schools is not the solution and it is “unfair” to ask those who worked hard for their earnings to “give money” to those who are “takers”.

Eliminating attendance zones between school districts and within school districts would also help eliminate the differences between this school and that school… but doing so would require a means of transporting students to the school of their choice and require some form of a lottery to ensure equitable opportunity. This poses a logistical challenge in all cases, a geographical challenge in some cases, and would result in diminished real estate values in those neighborhoods and communities where affluent residents live. In short, this, too, is unlikely to occur.

This unwillingness to pay more taxes or to allow mobility between and within districts led to the work around called “choice”. By abandoning the requirement that students are assigned to this school based on attendance zones or district boundaries, and creating “charter schools” that can draw from any part of the city or region, parents are able to enroll children in the “school of their choice”. Since the number of charter schools was limited, the schools themselves got the”choice” of students, and they often avoided choosing those children with special needs or those children whose parents failed to submit detailed paperwork. In other words, parents could only go to that school if they and their children passed muster… hardly the egalitarian model Rod Paige envisioned and hardly the egalitarian model The 74 suggests would emerge if schools competed with each other.

This “choice” workaround is based on the paradigm that “schooling” is a commodity and “schools” are enterprises that like shopping malls where consumers can go to whatever store they wish. And like that paradigm, the high-end shopping malls and grocery stores are used by the affluent while those without resources have no malls whatsoever and are forced to buy groceries from bodegas with limited elections.

In the end both Mr. Bradford and Ms. Hannah-Jones are engaged in fantastical thinking. Mr. Bradford believes that unregulated capitalism is inherently fair and there is virtue in selfishness. Ms. Hannah-Jones, like me, believes that in a democracy people will ultimately seek a solution that is fair to all, one that will require those with means to willingly share with those who have less opportunity due solely to accidents of birth. I hope the democracy minded voters will prevail.

 

“Can Grit Be Measured?” Yes… but to What End?

March 29, 2017 Comments off

As noted in many previous posts, there is a belief that something called “grit” can help determine which students will succeed in school despite adversity… and IF that is the case then developing a means of measuring would be informative to colleges and universities who are trying to determine who will be able to adapt to the more rigorous environment students will face once they get on campus

A column by George Anders in yesterday’s EdSurge online publication poses the question “Can Grit Be Measured?”, explains what grit is, and then explains how University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth is striving to answer that question despite it’s complexity. Anders writes:

Grit is important. Many K-12 educators and researchers all share that starting point. If children try hard, stay on task, and keep pressing through difficulties, good things happen. When school systems want to track the role of grit, or help instill it, however, everything gets trickier.

While I am afraid of the consequences that might result if we developed a “Grit Quotient” of some sort, I do agree with Ms. Duckworth’s assertion that any measurement of “grit” should be done without adding another standardized examination. But after reading Mr. Anders’ article, I’m not at all confident that the embedded metrics or the “bean counting” metrics Ms. Duckworth advocates will be at all helpful or informative in classrooms.

The one embedded metric described in Anders article is particularly appalling:

One approach that intrigues Duckworth: keeping tabs on students’ moment-by-moment habits when doing schoolwork online. Some students are easily distracted by ads, games or other diversions, she notes. Others can power through their work without interruption.

Also worth tracking, she says, are the ways that students respond after getting two or three online problems wrong in a row. Does their attention drift? Do they give up entirely? Or do they redouble their efforts to learn a difficult lesson?

Both these approaches have the benefit of assessing students without interrupting their normal learning day. As Duckworth observes, the school year already is filled with special-mission tests that interrupt regular course work. The less time commandeered by any grit-specific evaluations, the better, she says, adding: “The goal is something that takes zero extra time.”

Implicit in this approach is the idea that a student’s “normal learning day” includes on-line instruction. Also implicit is the idea that a student who has a singular focus, who “can power through their work without interruption” is somehow superior to a student who might occasionally daydream or “multi-task”. Finally, the idea that a student is deficient because they “give up” on an on-line task assumes that the task itself is not flawed or that the way the task was explained on line was sufficiently clear.

The idea behind what I call “bean counting” is also questionable. Mr. Anders writes:

Another simple measure that’s worth a look, she says, is the degree to which high school students persist with one activity across multiple years, taking on more responsibility in domains such as band, theater or a sports team. Students with an enduring passion for one field could be showing more grit that their peers. Such data is readily available, she notes; it passes her zero-time test.

Implicit in this “grit” measurement is that the “fields” in school reflect the “fields” outside of school, and if someone is passionate about a field, that passion is transferrable to another field. This are both self-evidently wrong. There are students who have passions for things that are not the part of any school curriculum yet are more predictive of success than any “field” currently taught in school. Entrepreneurship, for example, is not a part of any “field” in school… nor are creative thinking, interpersonal skills, intra-personal skills, or many other “soft” areas that are increasingly recognized as crucial to success outside of the classroom.

Ultimately Ms. Duckworth is seeking a measurement that meets the ideal of being cheap and fast, a measurement whose ultimate use seems to be to sort and select as opposed to assisting the student in gaining self-awareness and self-understanding. As long as measurements are used to sort-and-select they are reinforcing the factory model and not the network model that is predicated on each student learning about themselves… learning their strengths and determining what brings them joy and finding a way to parlay those strengths and joyful experiences into a productive career. Grit is not an entity that can be teased out and applied to meet the needs of our economy. It is a by-product of joyful engagement  in mastering a skill.

President Trump’s Plan for Destroying “Failed” Programs and Departments

March 28, 2017 Comments off

Most presidents want to build things to leave a legacy. But from what I’ve witnessed thus far, it is evident that Donald Trump wants to destroy the government as we’ve known it and, in it’s wake, destroy democracy as well. A post published by Diance Ravtich on the vacancies in the US Department of Education positions reinforced this notion. In the post, she draws from fellow blogger Laura Chapman’s post enumerating the positions filled thus far, which are far down on the organization chart, and those that remain vacant, which are key assignments that require an ethics review. Dianne Ravitch summarize the filled vacancies in one blistering sentence: “All of the appointments to date are political cronies of Trump or DeVos.” And Ms. Chapman offers this list of positions that are unfilled:

Deputy Secretary
Under Secretary
General Counsel, Office of the General Counsel

Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director, Office of English Language Acquisition
Assistant Deputy Secretary, Office of Innovation and Improvement

Assistant Secretary, Office for Civil Rights
Assistant Secretary, Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education
Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education
Assistant Secretary, Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs
Assistant Secretary, Office of Management
Assistant Secretary, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development
Assistant Secretary, Office of Postsecondary Education
Assistant Secretary, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Director, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
Director, Educational Technology
Director, Institute of Education Sciences
Director, International Affairs Office

Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education

Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans
Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans
Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Performance Improvement Officer

Ms. Chapman concludes this list with this observation:

On April 3, 2014 about twenty states will be submitting to USDE their ESSA compliance plans. I think these will probably be unopened and just sit “somewhere” because nobody seems to be in charge of Elementary and Secondary Education. These plans run 150 pages or more and are supposed to be “approved” by someone at USDE after they are thoroughly reviewed.

This slow filling of vacancies in the USDOE is a feature, not a bug…. and it is happening in every department Mr. Trump wants to eliminate or make small enough to drown in a bathtub. When State Department of Education officials are forced to wait for months to determine if their plans are approved the complaints about the ineffectiveness of the USDOE will mount and Mr. Trump will have “proof” that the Department of Education should be eliminated and education should be returned to the states where it belongs. He will also have “proof” that the need for regulations regarding the spending of block grants is unimportant which, in turn, makes any number of jobs in USDOE superfluous.

Moreover, Mr. Trump seems to be completely indifferent to public education, so USDOE seems like a good place to stick people who are wholly unqualified to lead. And as an added bonus, many of those appointees have a deep seated antipathy for public schools that will help them sabotage the efforts of a department supposedly committed to the improvement of public education. And if they do a terrible job they will help him “prove” that the USDOE is worthless!

BUT… at the same time, like every politician he spoke of disdainfully, Mr. Trump needs to reward those who did legwork to get him in office by giving them a job…. and like every CEO with an over-large ego he needs to reward sycophants as well….

Finally, this is not the only program that will suffer at the hands of intentionally incompetent leadership or understaffing. Watch what happens in the next few months with Obamacare… Mr. Trump will be making sure that it crashes and burns by underfunding HHS and keeping scores of positions open or filled with people who are opposed to programs they are “overseeing”. The same will be true in Energy, in Interior, and State Departments. In Mr. Trump’s administration, in every department except Defense and Homeland Security, “Small is Beautiful”.