Sunday, June 12, 2011


My apologies for not posting for quite some time.  Life got in the way.  A new job, a new city, a new adventure got in the way.  And so I am going to stop writing for now, for at least ten weeks.  Thank you to those who read what I wrote.  I hope it helped you become a better thinker as it did for me.  Don’t hesitate to email if you wish.  I’m always ready to talk too much about education policy, my dislike of Valerie Strauss  and pretty much anything else.  Farewell until I write again.

What We Are Really Talking About

Someone brought Diane Ravitch’s recent New York Times opinion to my attention.  The gist of it is that the idea of miracle schools are overblown and that the primary way to solve the educational woes of low performing schools and districts is to target the families.  I agree that the idea of a miracle school that suddenly turns everything around for its students is probably overblown.  Although there are some reasons that these stories become such a large part of the conversation and Diane Ravitch is one of those reasons.  I also agree that families are incredibly important factor in student outcomes.  In a sense, that reality is the reason for the whole education reform movement.

When I went to work for DC Public Schools it wasn’t because I didn’t think student outcomes were defined by student background to a large degree.  It was because I did think that.  And I thought it wasn’t right.  To me that is not, and never will be, a reason to not try whatever it takes to give everyone a chance at a successful life.  Our society is based on the idea that anyone can do anything they put their minds to, that each person has the freedom to pursue happiness, to enjoy equal protections under the law.  Is this rational? Is it really true?  Probably not and definitely not.  But we attempt to create a reality that closely aligns with our values.  Maybe the vision we Americans have of equality, meritocracy, open dialogue and social mobility is a little utopian but pursuing that utopia has led to tremendous historical success.  Just because something isn’t possible or doesn’t seem possible doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.  The mere act of attempting can lead to tremendous change and improvement.

Let there be no mistake that the goal of education reform is revolutionary.  I don’t say education reform to refer to those who are part of the education reform movement.  I say education reform to refer to all those people, mostly teachers, who work every day to give our students the best education and best chance in life possible.  If we accomplish the goal of a strong education for all students regardless of background, zip code, skin color, parents’ education, family income and every other indicator that correlates too strongly with education outcomes, then the world starts to look like a very different place.  Racial inequality starts to disappear.  Neighborhoods that have been left to struggle without answers start to build a foundation of hope based on the human capital of its newly graduate citizens.  The cycle of poverty as we know it begins to break down.  That is what we are really talking about and I can’t think of many endeavors more noble.

If changing the world to make it a better place and pursuing a reality that realizes our more utopian values is too abstract for you that is okay.  You see, the arguments put forth by Diane Ravitch and many others claiming to be protecting public education and teachers are suicidal.  I understand the frustrations among teachers when they are being held accountable, and often told they are failing, for things they cannot control.  Governments, districts, administrations undoubtedly need to do a better job of providing the necessary supports for teachers to be successful and for students to be ready to learn.  That includes the basics like making sure school breakfast and lunch is accessible and edible.  All of us need to do a better job.

However, staking out positions that imply, or outright say, that teachers are largely unimportant in the education outcomes of students is a terrible position to take if you are trying to protect teachers, public education and the system as we currently understand it. 

When Diane Ravitch argues families families families she is basically saying teachers are powerless to overcome the backgrounds of their students.  I realize this is likely a case of public negotiation pushing someone to a position that is too extreme and lacking in nuance.  Nonetheless, the argument is there and it is an argument that actually does threaten public education.  Private companies selling helpful products to under performing districts like Wireless Generation does is not going to take down public education.  Charter schools slicing off a chunk of traditional public school students is not going to take down public education.  School vouchers are definitely not going to take down public education.  Arguing that public education is not capable of overcoming demographics will.  Because ultimately if our schools make no difference they become an unconscionably enormous bad investment.  Because if teachers don’t make a difference then why do we have them at all?  Because if better schools that actually make better opportunities for students that wouldn’t otherwise have those opportunities can’t exist then why try?  In that case maybe slashing school budgets to fund tax cuts for the rich makes a little more sense, or to fund more public transportation, or to fund more defense spending, or to fund more social services, or to fund more police.  Why not lay off more teachers?  Why not just abolish public schools and let each locality, each household figure it out for themselves?  Why is Diane Ravitch making her enemies’ argument for them? 

The end point of pointing the finger at poverty or demographics or social services or crime or health or all of the other hundred things that are stacked against our most at-risk children is giving up on education as a solution.  The end point is reinvesting all that education money elsewhere, away from schools, away from teachers, away from the current, broken, failed system.  But I think Diane Ravitch is wrong.  I think teachers, schools, districts can make a difference.  I think we can do better.  I think we can create a world where a child is not doomed just by the happenstance of being born to the wrong family in the wrong part of town.  


I have never been a teacher.  I have never faced the day to day of standing in front of students and showing them the world.  I can’t understand what that is really like, what each and every challenge feels like, how success can push you forward or failure can break your heart.  I can’t understand what it is like to be a teacher.  All I know is what I have been told, what I have seen and what I have experienced as a student.  For me good teachers are heroes, capable of things I am afraid to attempt.  Teachers are people of course, but growing up they seem like more than normal people and that has stuck with me to this day.

Teaching is a profession that is at once deified and vilified.  Teachers are underpaid, overworked guardians of future.  Teachers are lazy lifers who are in it for friendly hours and summers off.  Teachers are noble, making sacrifices most would never make, saving people who nobody else can save, bringing light where there is darkness.  Teachers fail to teach everyone to read, fail to work hard, fail to create people ready to produce in society.  Today, I’m not so interested in the false dichotomy that plays in the media.

I’m interested in the profession and what it should be.  First and foremost it is important to remember that teachers are people, like you and me, and have the same wants and desires as we do.  Wanting to be paid more is not a bad thing.  Wanting time off to go to Hawaii or Spain or wherever is not a bad thing.  Being ambitious is not a bad thing.  Wanting to be rewarded, supported, free and flexible are not bad things.
I want to pay teachers more because I want to attract the highest caliber people into the profession.  Unless someone is independently wealthy money does factor into the decision making process of choosing a job.  That isn’t an insult to the art of teaching.  That is how the world works.

I want to advance the best teachers whether through higher pay, more powerful positions or some other kind of hierarchy.  Recognizing who your best are and asking more of them, compensating them more, giving them more power and leeway, that is good human capital.  That is making the most of your resources.  Not every teacher needs to be ambitious.  But those that wish to work their way up, to coach other teachers, to join in the policy discussions, to become principals and superintendents and thought leaders should do so.

I want a future President of the United States to be a former teacher from an urban school district.  Why not?  Republicans have a pipeline from the military to politics.  Democrats should have the same pipeline from urban teaching corps to politics.  Recruit a young, ambitious, socially conscious person out of college to serve our future as a teacher.  Watch them flourish, mastering the art of teaching, working as part of a team, helping others better themselves.  Watch them ascend and learn how to lead, how to manage, how to execute.  Watch them learn all of the issues that face politicians today by actually experiencing those issues, seeing what poverty and unemployment do, seeing the dysfunction of bad government.  They will master the politics of a school, of a neighborhood, of a ward, of a city, just like politicians do, just like military men and women do.  They can join their local school team, then the school board, then the city council, then become mayor or state senator or governor, then to the national stage.

I want teachers who are so great they can do anything they want but they choose to teach.  I want every individual teacher to be so valued that they hold power as individuals, able to say “I am so good that I am irreplaceable”.  

I want college students to battle over scarce slots in teaching schools, worrying over difficult tests, intimidating interviews and convoluted essay questions to get into that top choice school that will set them up for future success. 

I want alternative credential pathways to step up their game to ensure they are as good as the improving teaching schools, to make sure they don’t get left behind.

I want practitioners to go out of their way to learn to teach, to devote some of their time to sharing with others.  I want ambitious thought leaders to help form the minds of tomorrow.  I want them to do it for prestige, for networks, for recruiting their future heirs. 

I want teaching to be a stepping stone, a pathway, a destination, an expectation.

I want teachers who learn to teach, can leave to go do something else they are passionate about, and are able to return, better for it and reenergized.

When I talk about alternative pay scales, accountability, data, recruitment, retention, teacher evaluation, the end of tenure and LIFO, I’m not talking about disrespecting the profession or destroying it.  I’m talking about respecting the profession of teaching the way it should be respected.  I’m talking about making the profession more powerful.  I’m talking about treating teachers the way we tend to treat out best.  Driving them hard for more success.  Rewarding them well for being the best.  Giving them freedom to explore.  Supporting and nurturing their passions.  Allowing them to stretch themselves.  We do not do this now and in our never ending negotiation between management and labor it is both sides that are holding the profession back.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

I never thought I’d be defending Rupert Murdoch and really I’m not.  I’m defending Wireless Generation sort of I guess.  Mostly I think I’m defending the idea that making money isn’t inherently evil.  Full disclosure: I haven’t made enough money in my life to know this for a fact. But I’m pretty sure that making a profit is an integral part of American society and power.  Of course there are villainous billionaires out there and Rupert Murdoch is a pretty good villain.  But there are villainous public sector workers too, and villainous Nigerian princes, and villainous writers too.

Valerie Strauss’ recent blog post paints a picture that makes for profit education companies evil because they are trying to make a profit.  She makes a couple observations that could be construed as a conflict of interest.  Basically Joel Klein left New York City Schools to work for Murdoch and now Murdoch’s company News Corp has purchased Wireless Generation, a company that does some big business with New York City Schools, and with other districts as well.  That is literally the extent of what I know so you can be the judge.  Doesn’t feel that iffy to me.  If anything it speaks to Klein thinking highly of Wireless Gen’s work.

Ms. Strauss actually acknowledges that “for-profit business can and do bring valuable products and services to public schools.”  Her major issue appears to be that for-profit companies care more about money and investors than they do about public schools and the kids.  Maybe that’s true although for-profit companies are also capable of believing in a mission.  Also self interest doesn’t exist exclusively in for-profit companies.  I can think of a few local DC watchdog groups whose interest seems to lie more in legitimizing their own existence than in actually creating real positive change for the kids. 

Teachers unions are great examples of institutions attached to education whose interest do not lie with students but with teachers.  That obviously doesn’t mean there is no place for unions in education. They serve their purposes and Ms Strauss, who is a champion of the union perspective, should be able to acknowledge that self interest can and often does intersect with the interest of the kids.

Obviously, not all business is great for students.  Just like not all activists are great for students, not all unions are great for students and so on and so forth.  There is always potential for exploitation.  But from what I’ve seen from Wireless Generation, and what I’ve heard smarter people than I am say, they by and large provide high quality service.  It is good that they are making money for providing a high quality service.  Too many of the vendors who cater to urban school districts only do so because they are bad enough at what they do and can overcharge by enough that it is worth navigating the nonsensical procurement processes that dominate government bureaucracies.

The bottom line for Ms. Strauss is that she believes big business is driving education policy.  Big business is savvy enough to enter emerging markets and with all this still relatively new focus on education and turning around low performing schools a new market has emerged.  It is education policy that is driving big business.  And by bringing a for-profit mentality into the market, new and innovative ideas are being introduced as well.  It has diversified perspectives, thought processes and personalities in a sector that has spent a long time not serving our most vulnerable communities.  This is a good thing on net.  There will definitely be slip ups, examples of profit corrupting a noble mission.  But impure motivations corrupting noble missions has always occurred and will always occur.  It is not a reason to hate all things profitable.  That is a viewpoint of a caricature from an Ayn Rand novel.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

More Mythical Myths

Another article was published in the Washington Post taking aim at the myths education reformers are using to dupe the American people, or the media, or something.  It wasn’t so long ago that I used another article using the same myth gimmick as a launching point to talk about some of the major education reform issues that are out there.  These myth articles don’t really do it for me if only because they do not accurately represent the positions they are attempting to debunk.  Thus they are of minimal use.  This one in particular seems to be arguing against…nobody at all.

We’ll do this quickly myth by myth:

Myth 1: Our schools are failing

It isn’t just the education reformers who think a lot of schools are failing.  It is pretty much everyone who has a child in an urban school district.  It is most people paying attention to the educational outcomes of minorities.  Yes, things seem to be trending in the right direction.  But citing rising high school graduation rates that are derived from different methodologies and are often pulled from historically questionable data is not going to change the fact that way too many of our schools don’t educate students.  

Of course not all schools are failing.  There are good ones and bad ones.  Enough are failing and enough are failing in a systemic way that it feels quite cold to argue that there isn’t a problem.  For a little more oomph on this topic, responding to the same article, check out eduwonk who beat me to the punch with his pitch perfect response.

Myth 2: Unions defend bad teachers

Unions do defend bad teachers.  That is part of their job description.  And due-process can easily be code for really long, arduous, complicated process that is easy to file a grievance against.  That being said, unions are not universally bad, nor do they have bad intentions, nor are they unwilling to engage in productive reform.  A lot of the conflict between the reform movement and the unions comes down to negotiating.  There are of course high profile disagreements but on the ground and behind the scenes the relationships are not as antagonistic as they appear in the papers.

The real argument here is about reform minded administrators wanting more power over who their employees are.  This is really a myth about teacher evaluation, tenure and last in, first out policies.  Montgomery County is an interesting example.  I don’t know much about the program but according to the article it did result in 245 teachers exiting the schools over a five year period.  This is an interesting example and an interesting number to cite because 245 teachers over a five year period in a school system with 11,000 teachers seems shockingly low.  That comes out to less than half a percent of teachers per year.  I’ve never seen an organization whose human capital was so good that less than half a percent of its employees were better than replacement level.

Of course, there has been progress and unions have been a part of that progress.  More powerful and fairer evaluations are being developed.  They are still young, they are expensive but they are also essential.

Myth 3: Billionaires know best

There are some notable billionaires putting their money where their mouths are and forking over the dollars to some of the most difficult school districts in the country.  They are attaching those dollars to some pretty specific reform oriented programs that would not be possible without private dollars.  I didn’t realize this was a bad thing.  I’d rather risk Bill Gates’ money on new merit pay programs than tax payer dollars.  He was wrong about small schools, admitted his mistake and has moved on to a new idea that will hopefully be a part of a longer term solution to some of our country’s education woes.

This myth is really an attack on merit pay which I’ve already weighed in on.  But the final sentence really kills me:  “There’s no doubt that these schools can use every dime that rich guys give.  But attaching strings for pet projects is elitist and wasteful.” 

First of all I wouldn’t call merit pay for teachers the pet project of billionaires.  Secondly, wasteful would be pouring a billion dollars into a failing school district with no clear idea of what the money would be used for.  Failing school districts aren’t known for fiscal responsibility or effectively leveraging resources to create systemic success.  That is why they are failing. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cheaters Cheaters...Everywhere?

When there is a reason to cheat someone will cheat.  Not everyone will cheat.  But someone will.  It doesn’t make it right to cheat, it doesn’t make it justifiable or acceptable.  It does make it expected.  Athletes cheat in sports, people cheat on their taxes, people in relationships cheat on each other, students cheat on tests.  I attended what many consider to be the best public high school in the country, full of the brightest students, home of incredibly high standardized test scores and people cheated there.  I went to a university known for its strong academics and stronger honor code and people cheated there.  People breaking the rules is a fact of life.  That’s why we have a judicial system, drug testing and numerous oversight and regulatory bodies.
Bill Turque’s article from a few days ago announced that three DC Public Schools classrooms’ test scores will be invalidated due to cheating.  The article itself provides a good rundown of the facts but the response will inevitably consider a small group of cheaters to be a referendum on policies put in place to turn DC schools into something other than the worst in the country.  This is not what the takeaway should be.

The USA Today story about erasure analysis in DC brought the story to the national level.  Please note that Turque’s most recent article is about last year’s test scores, whereas USA Today was in fact rehashing findings that were reported previously.  USA Today brought up good points about the statistical improbability of some of the findings at some DC schools.  These improbabilities indicated that further investigation should take place, although they are not considered proof of cheating.  And investigations did take place.  Apparently a few people got fired because of these investigations.

Where the USA Today story steps over the line with paragraphs like the following:
Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That's more than half of D.C. schools.
These two sentences, at first glance, seem pretty bad.  Half of schools have irregular erasure rates that could be indicative of cheating?  Well, yeah.  More than half the schools had higher than average erasure rates.  A little less than half had lower than average erasure rates.  Unless I'm missing something that sounds pretty close to the definition of the word average.  It is statements like these, which are essentially meaningless, that push the message that there is an epidemic of cheating that undermines all test scores, all assessment measures, all efforts to increase accountability. 

I’m insulted by the idea that increasing pressure forces people to cheat.  Somehow creating a system of accountability, a system of transparency, where people can see the results of your work, turns people into cheaters.  An adult cheating in an institution of learning is one of the worst kinds of cheating possible, and those who cheat should be punished.  People have free will, they can make their own decisions and blaming a standardized test for morally questionable behavior infantilizes the people we entrust our kids to every day.

But the true witch hunt is not in pursuit of the people making the decisions to cheat but the higher ups who believe standardized tests do have a role, serious accountability and evaluation is important.  On the one hand there is probably a valid argument to be made about creating a culture in which widespread cheating takes place.  But it could also be said that introducing change to a bad culture would lead to some desperate behavior no matter what.   And there is no indication of how widespread any cheating is or how the scope of cheating compares to other districts, urban and suburban, high achieving and low achieving.

When we look at the actions taken by the decision makers it doesn’t look like the leadership in DC have taken this issue lightly.  A huge amount of effort goes into training about and monitoring testing compliance.  And within Turque’s article it is clear that there is substantial self reporting of any violations, intentional or not.  The only reason there was a USA Today article is because DC Public Schools hired a third party firm to investigate, likely at great expense.  Kaya Henderson should be applauded for taking it a step further and asking the DC Inspector General to investigate further.

You see, for people who are invested in making education improvements based at least in part on rising test scores, the credibility of those scores is incredibly important.  In terms of incentives it is the very people who will be accused of covering up something sinister, or even worse setting up something sinister, who have the biggest incentive to have clean, credible tests.  The chances of getting caught systematically cheating is so high that it would be a terrible decision to make even if the decision was based solely on selfish reasoning.  And based on what everyone thinks of the education reform radicals, both positive and negative, I don’t think anyone believes the front runners of the movement are desperate or dumb.  Some say cold and calculating but not many say desperate and dumb.

The fact is most people are playing by the rules.  And in at least three instances where people weren’t playing by the rules action was taken.  Proving cheating is very difficult and making loose accusations is not something any school district would do.  There will always be some uncertainty involved with erasure analyses, cheating accusations, disciplinary action related to test security infractions.  It doesn’t undermine the entire system unless we let it.  It is just a fact of life that districts must acknowledge and work to minimize.  From my viewpoint it looks like that is exactly what DC is doing.  In a system in which so much has been broken for so long it is na├»ve to expect perfection but a good faith effort to clean things up is a strong start.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Optimally Crazy in Education

Last week I wrote about the potential benefits of signaling crazy outcomes during a negotiation.  If a credible signal is sent it can shift the power of the negotiation in favor of the side willing to do crazy things, like walk away from a lucrative deal or blow up the world.  Negotiating in this manner may be effective but it creates an adversarial environment where compromise is difficult to achieve, both sides cannot truly trust each other and brinksmanship pushes each side to extreme positions they would not necessarily adopt in more flexible situations. Think about the Cold War or the current right-left political climate where extreme positions are regularly adopted and celebrated.
This type of negotiation also exists in the education arena.  Negotiation is an enormous part of education policy and contributes a great deal to the rancor that exists in much of the debate. 

There are many issues in education that many people don’t agree on.  I’m going to oversimplify things to a huge degree here so bear with me.  What much of the conflict boils down to is a labor vs management relationship…with a whole bunch of other stuff added on.  And it defines the debates we have.  It pushes people to extremes they don’t normally occupy.  Think about the major issues in play in education reform today.  There are concerns that charter schools and school vouchers will lead to the privatization of public schools.  There are concerns about pay scales, last in first out, pay for performance, teacher evaluation, standardized tests; all are at their heart labor issues, negotiated in contracts and legislated with serious backing from both union lobbies and anti-union lobbies. 

This conflict played out on a micro level around the DC teacher contract.  A negotiation famous for its length, stage and personality.  A microcosm for the bigger battle occurring, as evidenced by the national union taking over negotiations from the local union.  That act alone was an extreme move, sending a clear signal that regardless of local context the union could not compromise.  The DC Public Schools administration originally pushed for a contract in which teachers would be able to choose tenure or performance bonuses (the poorly named red and green tracks). This seems…reasonable.  Giving grown-ups a choice.  But in negotiation rarely is it a good idea to start with your compromise.  The union shut it down because it did weaken tenure and therefore collective bargaining and the union in general.  The plan never went to a vote.  The union staked out a fairly extreme position that actually gave less freedom to their own members because the union’s job is to protect what they have and ask for more.  The administration responded by essentially saying they were going to do what they wanted with or without the union.  This was a very strong message, a credible signal, that if the union didn’t give a little they would be crushed.  Stalemate ensued, with both parties moving further apart, adopting more extreme positions, where early on it seemed they would reach agreement. 

On the vast majority of issues both sides agreed.  They both wanted more money for teachers, more resources, better professional development, some form of collaboration on the school level, interventions for students falling behind.  All those things are written into the contract.  Yet it took multiple years to work out the contract, to negotiate every line, to even let the teachers vote.  Because on the issues where they disagreed neither could compromise and instead of coming together they moved apart, both adopting tactics to ensure they’d get more of what they wanted.  Both sides needed to prove that they were crazy enough to not give in so they could get what they were actually after. 

On a more macro level we can see some of the results.  Optimal strategy, after all, is not just about taking an extreme position to negotiate from a position of power.  When two sides are taking extreme positions it can change where the middle ground is.  This is why extremists can be useful.  The fringe can move the center.  In DC we see a battle without compromise, an education reform movement pushing the envelope harder than anywhere else, pushing the edge of the debate further in one direction than it has in the past.  The perfect tool for Arne Duncan to use to work a middle ground that just a couple years earlier was hopelessly radical.  Arne Duncan praised the New Haven contract, a much more palatable agreement for the majority to swallow, not the DC contract.  Arne Duncan championed Race to the Top, a truly radical approach in the world of education, an approach that is quite threatening to many traditional viewpoints on education but he did with the credibility of someone who compromises.  He didn’t have to stake out an extreme position to get to the compromise he wanted because someone else already had.

But it is important to remember that as we progress through this debate we need to get beyond the negotiation.  It is limiting, it prevents the type of flexible thinking that can lead to innovative solutions.  It places more value on ideology than depth of thought.  Ultimately it is Arne Duncan’s approach that will likely net the most long term gains, taking advantage of both extremes and a shifting center to push his vision.  Look what he did with Race to the Top.  Just by proposing it he seriously altered the behavior of most states.  Of course, to do that he needs someone else to do some of his dirty work.