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NC GOP Legislators Drastically Cut Public School Funding. Now They Point to Flight of Students as Proof that Choice is Necessary

July 15, 2018 Leave a comment

The Charlotte News and Observer Editorial Board wrote a scathing editorial this weekend excoriating the action of the NC legislature toward public education. The editorial opens noting that “Advocates of school choice are heartened by new numbers showing that nearly 1 in 5 North Carolina students are opting out of traditional public schools. Many children are instead attending charter schools or private schools or being educated at home.

These “advocates” of choice believe this shift in enrollment patterns is a positive trend because it is evidence that “…parents are gaining educational options for their children and traditional public schools are being sharpened by the competition.” The editorial board, however, sees through this argument:

But the truth is quite different. What’s happening in North Carolina is that a concerted effort by the Republican-controlled General Assembly is starving public schools of resources and encouraging the expansion of educational options that lack standards and oversight.

…There’s nothing wrong with school choice itself.There’s nothing wrong with school choice itself. Parents have chosen to send their children to private schools and religious schools since schools have existed. But it is wrong to encourage the expansion of school choice by making traditional public schools less effective and less attractive.

The latter is what has happened since Republicans took control after gaining majorities in the state House and Senate in 2011. The 100-school cap on charter schools was lifted and the resulting proliferation of charters in some districts is draining funding.

Meanwhile, despite much talk about raising teacher salaries, the legislature has favored tax cuts over investment in public education. Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil funding is less today than it was 10 years ago.But even as funding shrinks, the legislature is mandating smaller class sizes and putting letter grades on public schools. The grades only advertise the obvious: the greater the poverty, the lower the grade.

Educational options are fine, but the foundation of public education also must be protected. Fortunately public school teachers are taking steps to protect that foundation. The group Red4EDNC plans to form a “Teachers Congress” that will press for more school funding and slow the shift of traditional school funding to charter schools and vouchers.

If North Carolina is going to foster school choice, it should first ensure that choosing a traditional public school anywhere in the state is an excellent choice.

Given the caveat at the beginning of one of the paragraphs, “…there’s nothing wrong with school choice itself”, it’s possible that the editors at one time offered qualified support for offering options to parents. Indeed, given the disingenuous “civil rights” sales pitch offered by “reformers” it is probable that op ed pieces appeared on the pages of the paper promoting the virtues of “choice” by advocating “competition”.

It is heartening to see the editorial board expressing strident opposition to “choice” and to acknowledge that legislators who advocate choice among schools should first ensure that choosing a traditional public school anywhere in the state is an excellent choice. I only wish that editors in states who are beginning to redirect public school funds toward charter schools and choice would read this editorial and understand that any effort to expand charters and choice without expanding funding for schools across the board has the effect of diminishing funds for traditional public schools. If the pool of funds for public education does not expand at the same time as choices for public education expand traditional public education will suffer and privatization and profiteering will advance.

 

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Technology and Surveillance: A Chilling Combination That COULD Be Undone

June 27, 2018 Comments off

Will Richardson who writes the Modern Learners blog, had a thought provoking post a few days ago titled “EdTech is Driving Me Crazy, Too“. In the post, Mr. Richardson described the ways that education technology could be used to transform the way instruction is delivered to schools, but lamented the ways that education technology is actually being used in schools. He is especially concerned with the use of technology as a surveillance tool:

More often than not, ed tech is something done to the student rather than done in service of the student. And there’s no better example of this than a new tool called “Emote” that preys on our current fears around the socio-emotional state of our students and sets a whole new bar for “helicopter educating” (which, I’m sorry to say, is not the first time that phrase has been uttered.) John Warner in Inside Higher Ed does a great job of teasing out the insidiousness of Emote, an app which makes it easier for the adults to record any time a particular student looks depressed or sad or anxious. As Warner notes:

When a child arrives in school, if they are observed to be angry or upset by a staff member, this is logged into the app. Later, a teacher may see additional evidence, creating another alert. The goal, according to Emote CEO Juilan Golder, is to prevent “escalation.” Student behavior can also be tracked longitudinally. Maybe a student is grumpy or sleepy every Monday, suggesting something is amiss at home. The app will know.

No one will be shocked, either, to hear that the CEO says “There’s more interest than we can handle at this point.”

This example of what technology can do leads to the inevitable question about technology in general: is there a limit to what we want technology to do? Just because technology makes it possible to track a student 24/7 doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Don’t children today deserve a chance to be free from adult supervision? Just because technology makes it possible to track a students attentiveness in completing work doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Don’t children today deserve a chance to daydream? Mr. Richardson posits that education technology devoted to surveillance of all kinds is currently make things worse for students, and when that technology is combined with the narrowed test-driven curriculum it makes public schools toxic. Quoting John Warner again, Mr. Richardson writes:

There is mounting evidence that school is demonstrably bad for students’ mental health. The incidence of anxiety and depression are increasing. Each year, more students report being “actively disengaged” from schools.

Mr. Richardson suggests that instead of developing more apps that track how poorly students are doing relative to our definition of “success” based on test scores, we might provide students with an app to tell us how we’re doing in addressing their needs:

But how many therapists or prescriptions or apps could we get away without if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids? What if we rewrote the script and put mental health above “achievement” or “success” as measured by grade point averages, the number of AP classes we offer, college acceptances, and other “narrow path” measures?

And if you really want to get crazy, why don’t we create an app for students so they can track every time our “narrow path” narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them? We could call it “Ed-mote” or some other silly Silicon Valley play on words, and the software would send DMs to superintendents and principals when an intervention is required, like an immediate two-hour play period for everyone in the school. (We could also, by the way, encourage them to track the many positives about their school experience as well.)

Too bad Mr. Richardson isn’t interested in making a lot of money. I think his idea for such an app would be very helpful in transforming our schools into Summerhill-like institutions instead of the imprisoning institutions they are devolving into thanks to technology.

Virtual Learning: Godsend or Scam?

May 19, 2018 Comments off

Yesterday’s Valley News featured an op ed article written by Washington Post contributor David von Drehle praising the virtues of virtual learning. The article profiled recent graduation ceremony of an alternative school in Kansas where:

The bleachers were filled with proud family and friends. But this wasn’t a group that grew up together through ballgames and choir concerts. Alienated from traditional high schools, seeking an alternative, they found the Humboldt Virtual Education Program, one of the largest and best-regarded online high schools in the Sunflower State.After months, even years, of solitary study in internet classrooms, they gathered as a physical community for the first, and probably the last, time.

Mr. von Drehle went on to describe the growth taking place in virtual learning.

Across the United States, online education is booming. Sixth- through 12th-graders enrolled in Florida’s largest full-time virtual high school completed more than 44,000 semesters of classwork last year. In Kansas, virtual school enrollment grew 100-fold between 1999 and 2014, from about 60 students to more than 6,000.

He is particularly impressed with the students who succeeded in the Kansas program, seeing its asynchronous model as helpful for both ends of the spectrum: the student who could not keep up and the student who wanted to complete schooling faster and felt held back. Indeed, Mr. von Drehle’s paeans to virtual learning could be used as selling points by the for-profit fly-by-night operations like ECOT who raked in over a billion of Ohio taxpayers money and graduated a microscopic percentage of the students it enrolled. He writes:

Thankfully, we’ve begun to appreciate that students aren’t stamped from a single mold.

Some do their best learning at their own pace and rhythm. This awakening is surely one reason more Americans are finishing high school: The dropout rate fell from 11 percent to 6 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Well-run virtual education programs are part of that success. Educators with up-close experience of at-risk students understand this — which is why Humboldt’s virtual school includes the daughter of a traditional school principal. And the daughter of a newspaper columnist.

When the nontraditional learner in my family gripped her diploma proudly and gave Siebenmorgen a tearful hug, she became one of more than 400 alumni of a little Kansas town’s very big idea, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

These aren’t students normally celebrated with trophies and scholarships. But I would not bet against them.

In an age of constant change, they’ve seized tools offered by technology and put them to good use.

Instead of dropping out, they stepped up, toward a future that will favor those who see and grab new possibilities. An hour after they marched in, they sailed forth on the stream of lifelong learning, which promises to take them far.

There is one key point about the Humboldt Virtual Education Program that Mr. von Drehe neglected to mention: it is overseen by the local school district in his community, which means that it is a non-profit entity operated by an elected school board whose mission is to provide education for all the children in the region and not a for-profit entity whose mission is to get a high return on investment for its shareholders.

Mr. von Drehe’s oversight on this key governance issue muddles the issue of virtual learning. When virtual learning opportunities are provided by local public schools, as they are in Vermont, New Hampshire, and at least one place in Kansas, they work to educate students who would otherwise drop out of school. When profit is the goal, the ECOTs of this world predominate.

 

Politico Recaps Legislative Action in Response to Parkland Shooting— and Good Guys With Guns Won Out

May 16, 2018 Comments off

Immediately after the shooting of innocent high school students in Parkland, Florida, politicians across the country pledged to provide more mental health services in schools and many politicians— including President Trump, changed their positions on gun laws advocated by the NRA. Since then, things changed. The NRA got most legislators and the President to back off on changes to gun regulations and most states beefed up law enforcement in schools instead of prioritizing mental health services. Indeed, the President went from a position of decrying legislators for their lack of courage in standing up to the NRA to adopting a position on school safety that only NRA hardliners believed in: arming classroom teachers.

Here is Politico’s synopsis of what transpired in legislatures since the Parkland shootings, which my emphases added:

STATES BOLSTER LAW ENFORCEMENT IN SCHOOLS: With the exception of Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people at a school shooting on Feb. 14, most states have so far rejected the Trump administration’s call to expand the number of armed teachers in schools. Many, though, are opting to add school resource officers — usually armed and specially trained officers employed by a police department or other law enforcement agency to work in one or more schools.

Legislation enacted or moving through 23 state legislatures since Feb. 14 would increase the number of law enforcement officers in schools, boost their training and allow retired officers to work in schools and carry firearms. More than 30 measures on using officers in schools have been proposed by lawmakers, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven have been signed into law.

Roughly two-thirds of public schools across the country already have either a law enforcement officer or a guard on campus, according to recently published federal Education Department data from 2016. That represents 43 percent of students in the U.S.

Shaken by the tragedy in Parkland, Florida lawmakers enacted a school safety package that includes $67 million to establish a program under the direction of sheriffs that would arm and train school staff to assist in active shooter situations. The package would also appropriate roughly $100 million to help districts hire school-based law enforcement and $70 million for programs to boost mental health assistance. (Let me do the math for you: $167 million for guns and good-guys-with-guns vs. $70 million for “mental health assistance”.)

In Kentucky, legislators instituted a fund to award $4,000 incentives for law enforcement officers who participate in school resource officertraining. In New York, legislators increased funding for school districts to hire law enforcement officers from just over $443,000 to $1.9 million. In Colorado, the legislature set aside $30 million for school safety, which districts can used to train school law enforcement officers.

In California, legislation introduced in the state Assembly would require a school resource officer in every school, including charters. In Rhode Island, a similar bill would require an officer at every middle school and high school.

The proposals come amid concerns from civil rights groups about the potential harm of heightened law enforcement for students of color and those with disabilities. They note that more officers are already assigned to middle and high schools with mostly black students. An analysis of recent Education Department civil rights data by the nonprofit research group Child Trends found that 54 percent of black students in mostly black middle schools and high schools have school-based law enforcement or security officers. Among white students in mostly white schools, that rate is 33 percent. Mel Leonor has the full story.

At the same time as states are spending millions on security, Politico noted that in the name of “efficiency” the USDOE is scaling back it’s efforts to address civil rights litigation and consolidating departments that provide services and support to K-12 education. Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos was visiting Southern New Hampshire University and a STEM public charter school in Manchester, NH, essentially championing on-line colleges and charter schools. Something is amiss with our nation’s priorities.

My Modest Proposal: Test for Student Understanding Instead of School and Teacher Accountability

May 2, 2018 Comments off

Yesterday Diane Ravitch posted a “Modest Proposal” on testing and asked for feedback. She began by posing this question: “Why do our policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels continue to require and enforce annual testing, despite the non-existent benefits?” Her proposal to counter this testing mania was this:

Why not give the tests in the first week of school and use only a test whose results may be returned within a month? Let machines score the standardized questions, and let teachers score the constructed responses. The testing vendor would know that they would be chosen only if they could report the results in a month, in a format that informs teachers what students do and do not know. That way, the teacher can find out where students are as they begin the year and tailor instruction to address the needs of the students.

That way, tests would no longer be high-stakes. They would be expressly designed for diagnostic purposes, to help teachers help students. The results would come too early to misuse the tests to stigmatize students, punish teachers, and close schools. There would be no punishments attached to the tests, but plenty of valuable information to help teachers.

My reaction to her question about why policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels continue to require and enforce annual testing and my own “modest proposal” follow:

Why do legislators and those who elect them want to use standardized tests to measure schools? Because they are relatively cheap, relatively easy to administer, and provide seemingly precise data that can be used to sort and select students and schools in a fashion that is easy to understand. And so schools are using tests designed for accountability of adults instead of tests designed to measure student’s understanding.

It strikes me that teachers could crowd-source formative assessments using social media, formative assessments that would enable them to accomplish what Duane Swacker suggests: “… teacher-made classroom testing and assessments designed to help the students learn where they are in their own learning.” Such tests would be untethered from “grade levels”. These crowd sourced formative assessments would not only promote self-actualization on the part of students but also provide classroom teachers with valuable feedback on how the approaches they are using are work for the specific children in their classroom. Assuming someone with technological expertise would be willing to provide the expertise needed to design this kind of “testing network” without making an unseemly profit, these crowd-sourced tests would be very inexpensive to design and relatively easy to administer. Indeed, these formative assessments might replace the “unit tests” teachers use to measure student performance. The only downside of these assessments— or any formative assessments— is that they could not be used to rate schools.

I believe we have the technological ability to design specially tailored FORMATIVE assessments that would enable students to progress at their own rate in subjects where there are clear hierarchical skills to be mastered. Instead of using SUMMATIVE assessments to hold SCHOOLS and TEACHERS accountable for students achieving specific outcomes based on the artificial construct we call “grade levels” we should use FORMATIVE assessments to “…help students learn where they are in their own learning.” We should let time be the variable and learning be constant instead of the other way around.

What T.H.E. Journal Analysis Says… and DOESN’T Say

February 21, 2018 Comments off

I was intrigued by the headline of an article in THE Journal that read “Cost to Connect Rural America: $19 Billion or Less“. Dian Shaffhauser’s article draws on the findings of a study completed by public sector consultancy CTC Technology & Energy found that

If appropriate funding were found and those construction efforts were coordinated among state and regional authorities, the proposal asserted, a savings of up to 50 percent would be possible.

The report stated that the deployment costs could be reduced by using an open application process that would allow both commercial and non-commercial providers to bid. It also suggested that broadband infrastructure be opened to “interconnection,” allowing existing infrastructure “to be used rather than building out additional, duplicative infrastructure.”

My hunch: this kind of coordinated effort could best be accomplished by the federal government, especially if broadband were viewed as a utility… that is if the FCC reversed itself and restored the rules of the game that existed two years ago. My further hunch: that isn’t going to happen any time soon… and as a result those who live in “rural backwaters”— like me— will remain unable to connect to broadband for the foreseeable future… and the digital divide will persist and widen…

 

Koch Brothers Want to Individualize at the expense of Democracy. Only State Legislatures and Local School Boards can Stop Them

February 2, 2018 Comments off

From the beginning of my career as an educator, I have been an advocate of individualization as a means of allowing students to progress through subjects at their own rate and to pursue subjects that are especially interesting to them. But my vision for implementing individualization would incorporate self-paced and self-defined learning within a framework where students instruction in social skills, inter- and intra-personal skills, and governance skills would be explicit. The role of teachers would be to monitor and coach students as they proceed through curricula that help them develop hierarchical and factual information and to facilitate dialogue sessions where student learn the skills required to operate in a democracy and make it thrive. A blend of Sal Kahn’s approach to “personalization” of content and the collaborative Harkness method used at Philips Exeter Academy comes closest to the kind of instruction that would achieve this kind of vision. If schools were organized in this fashion age cohorts would gather in groups of 12 to wrestle with age appropriate ethical issues drawn from common readings. The reading need not be complicated or lengthy: Aesop’s fables, for example, could generate in depth dialogue among students no matter what their reading level or their learning pace. From my perspective, the act of gathering around a table to debate and gain an understanding of these issues is the heart of democracy, and absent that kind of opportunity children have no way to learn how to conduct themselves with civility, how to empathize with others, or how to reflect on their own views.

The Koch Brothers, though, have a different view of the ideal education. Where progressive idealists like me want to ensure that students have an opportunity to learn from each other, learn how to collaborate, and learn how to think reflectively, the Koch Brothers view schooling as a sorting machine designed to winnow out the weak and celebrate the strong. “Public Education in Koch Network’s Sights“, Martin Levine’s article in the recent Non-Profit Quarterly offers an unsettling description of the Koch Brothers’ ultimate goal in their effort to change public education. In reading the recent Washington Post article that reported on the Koch Network’s annual meeting, Mr. Levine concluded that democracy itself will be imperiled if the Koch’s vision is adopted across the nation— and sees that as the ultimate end-game for the Koch Network:

The Koch Network’s new strategic focus appears to move beyond debates over school choice, common core curriculums, and testing; instead, they’re working toward longer-term changes in societal thinking. The Network’s vision is one of highly tailored individualized learning, which leaves little space for education to support core democratic values…

In an earlier post on this sameI encouraged local voters to WAKE UP to the Koch Brothers’ stealth funding of political campaigns at ALL levels of government, especially state legislatures and local school boards. A quick read of Mr. Levine’s article makes the alarm more urgent. He concludes his essay with this:

Those who believe public education is a shared responsibility entrusted to local governments will surely want to resist this. Replacing “public” with “individual” is a radical change that could further divide our nation along racial and economic lines as well as serve to undermine notions of equal opportunity. The Koch Network has passion and money to fuel its work. How public school and nonprofit civic advocates respond to these assaults could greatly affect our future.

One thing is clear to me: if “…public school and nonprofit civic advocates” remain on the sidelines we will not only divide our nation along racial and economic lines (and) undermine notions of equal opportunity, we will undermine democracy itself.