Sunday, February 18, 2018

ICYMI: Bad News Week Edition (2/18)

Your reading for this week. Remember to share and amplify.

A Democracy for Those Who've Never Known It

Jose Luis Vilson takes on the tough topic of democracy in schools-- or rather, the lack thereof.

As the COT Slow-Moving Train Wreck Continues, the Republican Blame Game Begins

ECOT was given years of access to Ohio taxpayer dollars, and didn't do much with it except make one guy rich. Now the gravy train has been stopped. Plunderbund takes a look at who's being set up to take the blame.

Inside the Virtual Schools Lobby

How the talking point of parent empowerment is leveraged to keep cyber-schools going, even when there isn't a shred of evidence that they work.

Why Amerca's Teacher Shortage Is Going To Get Worse

Yeah, we already know the answer, but here's the NY Post saying something about the issue. And they don't even like teachers.

The Regret Industry

Audrey Watters takes a look at the new cottage industry in reformer revelations- "Hey, I think I might have been wrong about something!"

The Skills Trap

Have You Heard talks to Mike Rose about the problems of narrowing education to a vocational focus.

Every Day We Fail To Take Action, We Choose This Fate

There are so many good pieces being written in the aftermath of the latest school shooting, but this one from Nancy Flanagan is particularly on point.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Is Gates America's Dumbest Smart Guy?

If you glanced at EdWeek's Teacher Beat blog last week, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bill Gates had joined the growing list of tech "regrets" writers. It's a cool new writing genre in which some longtime techy reformster announces that he's had an epiphany and realized all by himself that there's something fundamentally ineffective, misguided and just plain wrong with the baloney he's been frying up lo these many years. We've gotten them from big names and small fish and they are marked by Columbus-style discover, a shitless Sherlockian highlighting of some Truth that unheeded educators have been pointing out for years.

Anyway, a cursory glance at the EdWeek piece "Teacher-Evaluation Efforts Haven't Shown Results, Say Bill and Melinda Gates" would suggest that Gates has had a similar epiphany.

He hasn't.

The EdWeek piece is referring to the Gatesian annual letter, their own little State of the Union address. This year it takes the form of answering ten "tough" questions, and among the pack we find a question about education, in which Gates reveals that he has another in the long series of Gates-style non-epiphanies.

The comments in the latter are an extension of a speech he delivered last fall, and that is an extension of his work in education so far. And when we look at Gates's history in education policy meddling, there are two things that jump out:

1) He is almost always wrong.

2) He never learns anything.

If we look at last fall's speech (both the pre-speech PR and the actual edited-down version he delivered), we can see that Gates knows he's supposed to be learning things, that a shift in direction and emphasis needs to look like a pivot based on a learning curve, and not just flailing off blindly in another direction because the previous flails didn't turn out like you hoped (against all evidence and advice) they would.

What looks on the surface like an admission of failure turns out to be an assignment of blame. Small schools, teacher evaluation, merit pay, and the ever-unloved Common Core have all been a bust, and yet somehow, their failure is never the result of a flawed design, a bad concept, or being flat-out wrong about the whole picture. What Gates invariably announces he's "learned" is that he was basically correct, but he underestimated just how unready people were to welcome his rightness, and he needs to tweak a few features.

So Tough Question #2 was "What do you have to show for the billions you’ve spent on U.S. education?" And his short answer is "A lot, but not as much as either of us would like."

This is classic Gates. "The Zune was a huge success, but we needed to tweak the matter of customers not wanting to buy them." "Mrs. Lincoln thought the play was a triumph, but we might need to tweak that last part a bit."

We made education the focus of our work in the United States because it is the key to a prosperous future, for individuals and the country. Unfortunately, although there’s been some progress over the past decade, America’s public schools are still falling short on important metrics, especially college completion.

It's a curious observation to come from America's richest college dropout. And it's a curious choice to make college completion a metric for measuring K-12 success, as if no other factors were involved in successful completion of college.

We’ve learned a lot about what works in education, but the challenge has been to replicate the successes widely

No. What you have failed to learn is that in education, what works is not using "solutions" that are intended to replicate widely. The very moment you try to a scalable solution, a one size that will fit all, you take a bold step away from what actually works. Next he addresses graduation rate (did you know that it's the Gates people who figured out how to compute the rate correctly).

To help raise those graduation rates, we supported hundreds of new secondary schools. Many of them have better achievement and graduation rates than the ones they replaced or complemented.

SMH. First, "many" is a vague and unimpressive measurement. I believe Microsoft sold "many" Zunes, and yet there they sit, on the ash heap of musical history. Second, comparisons mean nothing if you aren't certain you're comparing similar student populations. If you're getting your results by swapping out your old students for "better" ones, you've accomplished nothing. Of course, that could be why Gates writes

One thing we learned is that it’s extremely hard to transform low-performing schools; overall they didn’t perform as well as newly created schools.

The letter also includes groaners like this one:

We also helped the education sector learn more about what makes a school highly effective. Strong leadership, proven instructional practices, a healthy school culture, and high expectations are all key.

Yes, you sure helped us out there. We look forward to future studies in which Gates helps us understand that water is wet and the fire burns. Seriously-- how can he possibly think we didn't already know this?

Next, he updates us on the Gates attempt to make teachers better.

We have also worked with districts across the country to help them improve the quality of teaching. This effort helped educators understand how to observe teachers, rate their performance fairly, and give them feedback they can act on. But we haven’t seen the large impact we had hoped for.

Now, if I order miracle hair grower on line and I use it, and my hair doesn't grow back, I might be inclined to question whether or not the hair grower was as miraculous as it claimed. If I had a great system for improving teachers, and I used it, and it didn't look like it worked, I might question whether my brilliant ideas were really brilliant or not. In short, I might wonder if I weren't, you know, wrong. But not Gates. He gives us the three measures for success-- good pilot, self-sustaining system, and spreading to other locations. Then he provides the excuses for why his teacher system failed all three.

The pilot feedback systems were handled differently in each place. Some places, like Memphis, maintained the system, but others didn't (do you suppose they stopped using it because it didn't work). And districts didn't produce enough investment or systemic change. And, Gates says, you have to build consensus among a wide range of people. And at this point, Bill Gates(or some intern) hands the keyboard over to Melinda Gates. And she leaps right in with both feet.

Everything we do in education begins as an idea that educators bring to us.

Nope. Not unless you were suffering from the delusion that David Coleman was an educator when he brought you the Common Core and convinced you to foist it on the rest of us. This statement is simply untrue.

We will work with networks of middle and high schools across the country to help them develop and implement their own strategies for overcoming the obstacles that keep students from succeeding. We will help these networks with the process: using key indicators of student success like grades and attendance to drive continuous learning and improvement. But the substance of the changes they make will depend on what local leaders and the available evidence say are most likely to be effective.

So, those of us who work in education will keep doing what we've always done and you will... help us, somehow? How, exactly? Exactly what educational expertise do you bring to the table, other than several years as self-appointed redesigners of America's education system. Which you've repeatedly failed at. And learned nothing about in the process.

What the letter notably does not address is the new Gatesian plan to double down on Common Core by adding what we've always said was an implied requirement of the standards-- a curriculum, aligned to that monstrous amateur-hour beast. On the one hand, the missing curriculum piece has always been one of the Core's major flaws- the focus on skills while ignoring content is just dumb. Reading is not a skill that exists in some vacuum. On the other hand, designing curriculum is hard, and involves debates that have been raging since the creation of dirt, and anything that Gates offers to the debate will be colored by the fact that, well, he doesn't know what he's talking about. If he hires someone like Pearson to do it for him, then we're into the issue of having a fox design the henhouse. And creating curriculum is generally a local thing-- why exactly do we need someone coming in to tell us how to do our jobs? The icing on top is that none of these issues will be aided by the sales line "Brought to you by the same people who brought you the Common Core."

It doesn't matter. Gates just plugs on, sure that he's right, and even when he's wrong, he's right and somebody else just messed things up.

Bill Gates is not part of the tech regrets wave. He's not a guy who is looking back at the reform techy ideas that he's pushed and suddenly realized that they are a house built on a foundation of sand with a frame carved out of baloney. He is not a guy thinking that maybe it's time for a major course correction rather than just tweaking some cosmetics while pursuing the same old line of bogus unicorns and empty fairy dust.

But he should be.

Tactics of Reduction (Act V)

One more thing about the Gun Problem, and then I'll get back to other things. Probably.

When guys like Marco Rubio say, "There's no point in doing any sort of regulation because these guys will still do their evil things," they are being what we could generously call "disingenuous." If we are feeling less generous we can call it "lying."

They know how this works.

Obstacles, even small ones, placed in the path of certain behavior can make that behavior far less likely. Locking the front door stop a moderately determined burglar, but it still makes burglary far less likely.

But as I sad, they know how this works. We know they know, because they have used the tactics of reduction themselves.

Look at voting. The GOP knows that it cannot entirely eliminate voting by blacks or college students (groups that traditionally skew Democrat), but they also know that if they can just put a few obstacles in the path of that vote, it will make a difference. Close some polls so that lines are long at others, or so that college students must take a buss cross town, or add ID requirements that are harder for some folks to meet. It won't end voting by your opponents, but it will reduce it.

Likewise, look at the work of anti-abortion activists. When they lost on the issue of flat-out outlawing abortion, they switched to the tactics of reduction. Just keep putting small obstacles in the path of pregnant women, and at least some of them would not have an abortion. Make it a little harder to open a clinic so that it would be a little bit harder to get to a clinic. Add a waiting period. Make the woman look at pictures and videos and ultrasounds.

Nobody added these obstacles to getting an abortion sayin, "Oh, yeah-- this will totally end all abortions forever." What they said was, "This will keep some abortions from happening, and if we stop even a few, that'll be worth it."

So when someone like Rubio makes the claim that lefties just ant to ban all guns because those lefties think a gun ban will end all school shootings forever, he knows he's full of baloney. That's not what folks are proposing, and that's not what they expect will happen.

We made assault rifles illegal for a decade; it helped. We won't make school shootings impossible, but we can use the tactics of reduction to make them harder, and if that saves even a few children, well, that seems like a good thing. And GOP politicians know it's true.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers and Dollars and Sense

A response in four acts.

ACT I : Conversations of which I am tired, and a request.

I am tired of reading (and allowing myself to be drawn into) versions of this conversation.


Everyone else: Do you suppose we could talk about some reasonable regulations that might help lessen the number of deaths by gunfire.


Everyone else: Can you agree in principle that crazy people and children probably shouldn't have access to weapons whose only purpose is to kill other people?


Everyone else: Surely there's a way to change things so that our gun death rate isn't so dramatically huger than the rest of the world's. I don't want to take away your guns, and I'd love to hear your ideas about reasonable limits and regulations that might make our country a bit safer.


Everybody else: Well, can we at least agree that it's sad when children are killed?


I blame this inability to have an actual conversation absolutely on the NRA, which has pushed the position that nothing at all about regulating guns in any way shape or form can ever be discussed, because any restriction, no matter how sensible, is just a slippery slope only one step away from having jackbooted thugs  take everyone's guns away. I also blame the NRA not just for throwing money at legislators, but handing them a script and a strategy guide and using them as anti-gun-legislation puppets. Please, my friends-- please stop giving the NRA money. I know they don't need it (they get all they need from the gun industry), but at least it would send a message.

I am also tired of hearing from the armed guys who think that if they'd been there, they would have whipped out their piece and saved the day. I believe it's possible guys who can do that exist-- but they understand the complexity of such a situation too well to make such boastful claims. The only people claiming they would have saved the day with their own gun are people whose armed experience mostly involves a playstation. Having a good run on Call of Duty does not make you an action hero-- just sit down and shut up.

ACT II : Solving problems

After 9/11, we created an entire new security industry and protocol, banning a wide variety of objects from air travel We also re-engineered the cockpits of planes to make them harder to get into.

When one guy got caught with a shoe bomb, we started making everyone take off their shoes in airport security.

When a guy blew up a building with a fertilizer bomb, we made it harder to buy that fertilizer.

Because some people have latched onto the unfounded idea that immigrants are more dangerous than folks who were born here, we are watching immigration rolled back. We've dispatched an entire federal police force devoted just to rounding up immigrants who have cleverly hidden their lack of paperwork by becoming pillars of their communities.

We require people to pass tests and, in some states, buy insurance before they can operate a car. If they screw up, we take their right to operate the vehicle away.

Because some folks have some racist paranoia about Mexicans, we continue to seriously consider building a giant wall along the border, regardless of what we are told about the cost and the effectiveness of such a move.

We tamperproof medicine containers because someone poisoned some pills, once and killed seven people.

We make customers jump through hoops for certain medications because those same medications can be used to make meth.

We have made a whole class of people mandatory reporters, which means that if I see or hear anything to indicate the abuse of one of my students, I must tell the authorities.

Point being, we're Americans and we like to solve problems. Sometimes we like to solve problems that don't really exist, and sometimes we like to employ solutions that don't really solve anything. But it's really, really unlike us to look at something and say, "Yeah, well, there's just nothing you can do. Price of freedom and all that." Why does this particular issue require us to pretend to be helpless in a way we don't feign helplessness for any other issue? I will not pretend that this is even remotely a simple problem to resolve-- it's complicated and requires us to balance many of our constitutional rights. But "it's hard and complicated" is not an acceptable excuse for refusing to do anything at all.

ACT III : That fake equivalency argument

The pro-gun side of this covers a wide range of arguments, from things I can understand to plain old bullshit. We are, after all, a country where some folks say everyone should be carrying a gun-- but if you see a black man carrying a gun, you should probably shoot him right away. Really, is it not odd that the NRA is not there to stand up for the right of black men and boys to carry a gun (or even just seem to be carrying a gun) without facing hostility from some police?

But then there's the non-sensical fake equivalency argument.

It goes like this: "It doesn't matter if we even outlaw guns because it's people who are the problem. People kill people. If that kid had access to a bucket of gasoline  or a rock or a pointy stick, he'd be just as deadly."

This argument is usually offered by someone who owns a gun.

Someone who bought a gun.

Someone who went to buy a weapon and did NOT buy a bucket of gasoline or rock or pointy stick.

Someone who does not say, "It doesn't matter what I buy for my defense, because guns don't defend people from attackers-- people defend people."

In other words, they know damned well that guns possess uniquely dangerous qualities, qualities that make them more dangerous than rocks or sticks. Gun fans buy guns precisely for those qualities. So to turn around and pretend that a gun has no special qualities is, simply, a lie. It has them, and you know it does. That's exactly why you own one.

ACT IV : The Depressing Finale

We've already had this conversation, many times. At the point our leaders and their financers decided that twenty small children were a level of violent death they could live with, the conversation was pretty much over. Watch our politicians today-- the basic playbook is to just offer thoughts and prayers and stall with blowsy hot air issuing from the mouth-hole of a sad-face mask, and keep that up until the next shiny thing happens, because history at this point tells them that public outrage doesn't have legs, won't last, doesn't represent a real political threat to any of them.

Pieces like this aren't about changing anything. They're about venting and dealing with the anger and fear that comes from seeing one more workplace like mine, students like mine, teachers like me, torn into bloodied victims by the intersection of many, many problems. It matters what all those problems are, and it's important to track each one back and follow the path it made and ask, could we have stopped this somewhere.  But the fact remains that at this end of that spider web of paths, we find all those problems converging at the end of a gun.

They say the devil has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all. Well, in America, we have many unresolved issues, but a gun is the tool that makes them all worse. Racism, mental health, poverty, crime, isolation, bullying-- every issue is real in and of itself, and every issue gets worse when easy access to a gun is thrown into the mix.

I always imagined that if I became a single-issue voter, the issue would be education. I now doubt that. A politician's position of guns has become a measure of his or her character, a display of just how craven he or she is, an indicator of how far he or she is willing to put personal and party concerns ahead of the actual lives of constituents. If these scenes of carnage, the real-time tweeted terror of youths and children, the senseless loss of life-- if none of that prompts you to tears and a determination to do something, then you are not someone I want representing me at the state or federal level.

This is not okay. None of this is okay.

Also, one more thought (Act V)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Failed Engineering Model of Personalized [sic] Learning

This is a remarkable thing-- someone has expressed clearly in a few paragraphs what I have tried to say over the course of multiple posts. The subject-- personalized [sic] learning-- is not remarkable, but the source -- Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify-- is. The following is excerpted from a note that Berger sent to Rick Hess (AEI) which Hess just posted in his EdWeek blog.

Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the "engineering" model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.

Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn't learn it, you try something simpler.

Here's the problem: The map doesn't exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.


Berger gets into the specifics of the problems with the map, the measurement and the library, and he further notes that even if all those parts worked, you'd still have to deal with what the live human child actually wanted to learn next.

This failed model for personalized learning grows out of a failed model of learning, the idea that there is a train that runs from Ignoranceville straight to downtown Smartland, and everyone needs to ride a train along those same tracks. In this model, "personalized" just means that we'll let people get on the train at different stations.

True personalized learning is a whole bunch of territory, and everyone sets their own destination and everyone starts from a different place and everyone has their own particular means of transportation. That's why you need a human teacher-- someone who functions as native guide who knows the whole territory, can find people where they are, and can help them navigate whatever sorts of challenges they face on their particular journey.

So why does the engineering model persist? Partly because of the flawed notion of what education is, but also because the engineering model can produce a good ROI at scale. You describe the ideal set-up of map, measure and library, and then, like a designer hawking a ready-to-wear knockoff of a Fashion Week hit, you sell folks the scaled down version. The engineering model may not be achievable, ever, but it is definitely marketable and, until folks catch on, profitable.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hess: The Promise and New Rhetoric of School Choice

Regular readers know that I have a measure of respect for Rich Hess (AEI) among the reformsters, and today he has published a defense of school choice in US News. It's articulate and thoughtful.

But he's still wrong.

He opens with a concern that we might be arguing too much about outcomes. This is ironic, since the choice movement was launched primarily on the promise of better outcomes, coupled with the assertion that public school outcomes were terrible. Choice was necessary, we were told, to rescue students from failing public schools. But the rhetoric of the choice movement has shifted, and in Hess's piece, we can see the shift before our very eyes. Hess worries that "amidst these energetic debates" about outcomes, evidence, and cost, a larger point is being lost.

While choice advocates tend to talk mechanistically about the results of "randomized control trials" or the failures of "bureaucratic monopolies," the real promise of school choice is its humane, empowering and organic vision of educational improvement.

Choice is not an "intervention" or a "pill."

If we're being honest, the promise of school choice is not that, tomorrow, schools will magically be "better." The promise is that, over the long haul, things like charter schooling, voucher programs and educational savings accounts will create room for individuals to innovate, problem-solve and build. They can empower educators and families to create and choose better schools.

Remember when charter/choice advocates declared that students couldn't wait one more day for public schools to get better. Now that charter/choice schools have discovered they can't make magic overnight (well, except for that one trick where they make a whole school vanish overnight), the urgency has been dialed back.

But central to the new sales pitch is the story of parent empowerment. The new pitch is that if we just put the power in parent hands, the educational world will be better. That's an arguable point-- some parents are awesome, but every teacher has stories of students who would have been better off raised by wolves (my true stories include the father who spent the utility money on beer and the mother who tried to run over her daughter with a car). But let's agree that parents are by and large responsible and concerned.

The problem remains-- choice systems, particularly voucher and ESA super-voucher systems do not empower parents.

More precisely, they only empower parents of Highly Desirable Children. Students with high ability, great test scores, and engaged parents are able to pick and choose the school they want (provided, in some cases, that they also attend the right church, follow a traditional gender orientation, and are born the correct ethnicity). But parents of Less Desirable Children do not get to choose a school to attend, because ultimately in a choice system, it is the schools that get to choose.

Consider what this means, for instance, to a parent of a child with special needs. It is true that public schools often are reluctant to properly meet those needs, and parents end up in court-- but parents end up in court precisely because the law does not give public schools a choice-- they MUST meet the needs of those students. Yes, it stinks that the parents have to go to court, but at least they have the leverage of the law. Any private school can simply show them the door-- if you don't think we're meeting your child's needs, your option is to vote with your feet. Charter and private schools can make their position clear right up front-- "You're welcome to apply, of course, but we don't hire any staff with the expertise to run a program to help your child."

Or consider the article today by Anya Kamanetz, showing how charters have learned to repeat the mantra "I trust parents," but use and manipulate those parents as political tools.

This is not parent empowerment.

When the school has the final say over whether a child can attend, or continue to attend that school, that is not parent empowerment.

A choice system also disempowers taxpayers without children. That means employers, neighbors, fellow citizens, grandparents-- it is the very definition of taxation without representation. Under a choice system, you can be a black citizen paying taxes to support a school that teaches you would be better off as a slave, and there's no place for you to complain about it. Do public schools include some horrifying pockets of inexcusable racism? Absolutely-- but taxpayers have a recourse in those cases. In a choice system, they have none. That is not empowerment.

But Hess is interested in empowering some other folks as well.

The logic becomes easier to grasp if you spend much time talking school improvement with principals or district leaders. Conversations are peppered with phrases like, "I'd like to do this but the contract requires..." or "I'd like to pay them more but HR says..." and "I'd love to move those dollars but we're not allowed." Educators wrestle with inherited rules, regulations and contract provisions that may no longer make sense but which can be extraordinarily difficult to change. Even when formally allowed to act, school and system leaders are hamstrung by ingrained customs and culture.

This is old school charter/choice rhetoric, linked to the Visionary CEO school of school management-- the CEO should be free to do whatever he wants to do. But the absence of rules does not always lead to vitality (ask the other Koch brother William, who discovered that his charter was a financial and organizational mess). There's no doubt that many schools suffer from government mandates that make life difficult for the school-- but then, as some charter/choice fans like to point out, the school isn't supposed to be organized for the convenience of the adults. See above example of parents taking schools to court over failure to meet requirements of state and federal law.

Laws can be changed for public schools as easily as they can be dropped for charter/choice schools-- unless, of course, it turns out that the laws provide important protections for students. The reference to contracts is a red herring-- nobody is operating under a teacher contract longer than a couple of years, meaning opportunities to renegotiate appear often. "Custom and culture" often exist for good reasons (though sometimes for terrible ones).

Few older organizations, in any sector, are good at managing change. Organizations grow rigid with time, which makes it difficult to take advantage of new technology or address changing needs. When we tell educators that the only path to reimagining schools or schooling is to "fix" aged systems or schools, we can put them in a nearly impossible position.

Well, when you talk about anything as the "only" path to better schools, we get suspicious, and certainly no less so when you are not actually educators yourselves. But generally speaking, those of us who work in public education eat impossible for breakfast. It's private and charter school operators who are more likely to say, "This is impossible. Therefor, we are closing up shop."

It's not like school districts never change. They change all the time. But the changes tend to be cosmetic and inch-deep, precisely because bigger changes create discomfort and require painful modifications to existing rules, contracts and routines. This can make it prohibitive to launch a new school or reconfigure an old one.

At least Hess doesn't embrace the ridiculous "schools haven't changed in 100 years" line. But I think he's skipping over something important-- schools are conservative about change because we are working with real live young humans. Ultimately I haven't been railing against the Common Core and the Big Standardized Test because those reforms inconvenienced me or made me uncomfortable or damaged my routine, but because they have been bad for the education of the young humans for whom I have accepted responsibility. "First, do no harm" is an implied portion of my teacherly oath, and these policies have been harmful. Too many days I have been "uncomfortable" because I feel like a surgeon told that the new protocol for heart surgery is to make incisions with a rusty shovel.

Before they can even get started, educators seeking transformative change have to exhaust themselves just battling for permission to act.

I don't disagree with this, and schools often err on the side of timidity. But I'd argue that's not a bad thing. Another way to say "I'd like to radically transform how we do this" in schools is to say "I'd like to experiment on your children." That's not a request to be treated lightly.

School choice makes it far easier to start new schools, which can settle on a clear and coherent purpose from the outset. New schools can adopt the kinds of instructional programs, calendars and staffing models they want without having to unwind what's already there or negotiate with skeptical stakeholders.

School choice also makes it far easier to launch new forms of educational malpractice without anyone in place to say, "Now hold on." And they can settle on a clear and coherent purpose-- or they can not. And as practiced in most states, they can allow any fraud or scam artist to bilk the taxpayers at the expense of students who can never get the wasted years back. And while doing that, they can also strip resources away from the students who are still in public schools (the same students that the charter/choice operators manage not to choose for their schools).

But because school choice is an opportunity and not a solution, its success rests on having the ecosystem in place to cultivate and support good new schools. Since they first entered the picture more than a quarter-century ago, charter schooling and school voucher programs have enjoyed real success, but far less than advocates anticipated. I suspect this is partly because many advocates spent so much energy insisting that choice "works" that they spent less time than they should have focusing on what it takes to make it likely that choice will work.

I sort of agree with this (except maybe the "real success" part), though I would add that in most cases, advocates know exactly what it takes to make charter success more likely-- they just don't like it. They have valued autonomy over accountability. They have placed business concerns over educational concerns. They have put dollars over children. Or they have refused to discuss the true cost of operating multiple school systems. Or they have placed more value on amateur-hour "transformative" ideas over the experience and knowledge of education professionals. Or they have put the entrepreneurial dream ($600 billion dollars just sitting there, ripe for the taking!!) over the public education dream of getting a decent education for every single child.

In the end, the right way to think about choice is not as Dr. Pendergrast's Miracle Salve but as an opportunity to empower educators, entrepreneurs and parents.

The problem is that at this point, only one of the three groups has been consistently empowered by the modern charter/choice movement. The language of empowerment is certainly a better sell than the old language of salvation and rescue, but as charter/choice stands right now, it is no more accurate.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Breaking News: Software Still Can't Write

Chances are you've seen the ads for Grammarly, a service that, at least in the ads, seems to offer the same mediocre writing advice that you can get from the red and green squiggly lines in Word. Can we expect to see Clippy offering to run your HR department soon?

In one ad, it helps a student spot passive voice and a comma splice and a plagiarized section, and so she gets an A+ and the professor writes "wonderful use of words." It's true-- my favorite student papers are the ones that use words! And that damned thing has been viewed almost seven million times. In another, Grammarly helps a man write a come-on text, saving him from using the wrong "its" and the wrong "write." And the one I often get, for the guy who wants to write a message to his new work team, spelling mistakes and thesaurus and all. All in all, it looks like the program could be as useful as hiring a smart seventh grader to look over your stuff.

But this guy (self-publishing Dale) thinks it's swell, as do the commenters on his video, and if you can't trust youtube commenters, who can you trust? He explains that Grammarly offers word choice suggestions, context improvement (yeah, I don't know what that is), grammar correction (presumably it means usage correction-- a common error) and plagiarism detection, which-- well, I mean, if you plagiarized, you already know that, don't you. Either that tool is meant for editors of other peoples' work (and if you're an editor, why do you need the rest of these features) or the tool is to help you see if you've camouflaged your plagiarism well enough to avoid detection. Either way, shame on you.

Scanning through youtube, I also sense that Grammarly has fans among folks whose first language is not English.

So once again, we have the claim that some software can evaluate writing effectively. This claim has always been bunk in the past-- has Grammarly cracked the code?


Jacob Brogan at Slate has been playing with, and as a bonus with his article about Grammarly's security issues, he noted some other issues as well. Grammarly has some lousy ideas about how to "fix" the construction "really important," the software seems relatively easy to stump.

Even Grammarly’s most basic suggestions can still lead users astray. Take this sentence from an article I recently published in Slate: “No matter what he’s wearing, he almost always opts for long sleeves—here in an Apple Store uniform (just one of the team!), there in a plain sport shirt.” Grammarly identifies three possible problems. First, seemingly thrown by syntactical complexity, it suggests that I should replace “there in a” with “there is a,” a change that would be ungrammatical, but that still leaves me questioning my own stylistic choices. Second, it proposes substituting “sports shirt” for “sport shirt,” an acceptable, if uncalled for, alternative. Third, and worst of all, it declares, “The word "plain " doesn’t seem to fit in this context,” and informs me that I should change it to “plaid.” While switching things up might be good for your sartorial style, it’s only going to make your prose more baffling. This is an instance of what I’m tempted to call the algorithmic uncanny valley, that point at which a program is astute enough to recognize that humans often pair "shirt" with "plaid" but not enough to understand that they also do so with "plain."

So no, the key to software that can handle language like a human is still undiscovered. Let's just hope that Grammarly doesn't try to market itself as school assessment software and-- oh, hell. Too late.

Yep. Grammarly@EDU promises "better students, happier teachers" and also says it "fuels academic success." It's trusted by 600 universities, including the University of Phoenix, so you know it's only the best schools that partner up (the full 600 are not listed, meaning that somebody thought that, out of that list, University of Phoenix would be a good one to highlight).

Ask for a quote today. Because while the search for software that can handle human language is not yielding much in the way of results, the search for software that can use baseless promises to generate revenue is never-ending, and often lucrative.