Do you know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in the least, I’m afraid.”
“I often wonder what we go to school for,” said Wimsey.”
― Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
Do you know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in the least, I’m afraid.”
“I often wonder what we go to school for,” said Wimsey.”
― Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
His massive, unregulated, opaque, and technocratically-dominated influence on public education may be very troublesome…
…but honestly, some of the vicious (or do I mean viscous) mud-slinging I’ve been seeing around these parts make it a little hard for me to sing my Billy Bragg Labor Day tunes. We all need evidence, people. Where’s your Common Core?
(OK, maybe that wasn’t the right question.)
Put less flippantly: it seems to me that one can ask critical, hard and necessary questions about Gates funding without assuming that accepting money from them makes your organization a cheap front for corporate school takeover.
We need people who do that– and here’s one of them. I introduce to you today Ken Libby, a doctoral student and blogger at the University of Colorado Boulder.
While skating around looking for non-polemicist texts on Gates, I stumbled across this post of Ken’s at the Shanker Blog, which I highly recommend reading. I sent him an email, as I tend to do, and now I gleefully follow him on Twitter (@kenlibby) where amongst erudite and interesting links, he also he posts some of the more hilarious examples of Extreme Edu-Makeover under the hash tag #CORESPIRACY.
What follows is an edited version of an extended email conversation we had over the summer. ~ DS
Given your research, what sort of summative one-sentence statement would you make about what Gates funds in education?
If I only get one sentence, it would be: Gates funds lots of work in education and is without a doubt a significant factor in education reform, but the foundation is only one factor among many.
On the one hand, it is quite staggering to see the extent to which the foundation spreads money among a significant number of organizations that support similar policy positions. Critics make a big deal of this: either that Gates alone is pushing for something, or that the foundation is large enough to sway the kind of work that happens.
On the other hand, a lot of other things are happening in education that Gates doesn’t (and likely cannot) control: major budget cuts, other reform pushes (e.g., vouchers), and politics more broadly. Personally, I think a lot of Gates criticism overlooks the context in which the foundation operates. For instance, what would Gates’ work look like absent NCLB accountability systems? How about without the economic turmoil of the last five years? How about, as Larry Cuban notes, the larger trend of “unvarnished embrace of market-driven capitalism and business practices that has swept across all U.S. institutions, including schools”?
So statements like “Gates funds everyone” should be taken as a bit tongue-in-cheek. There are still a significant number of conservative philanthropies involved in K12 education, a collection of more liberal philanthropies, and local foundations that support education work.
What facts about the Gates Foundation do we not know– or hear about enough?
Gates doesn’t fund StudentsFirst. The foundation didn’t support Michelle Rhee’s DC teacher contract. Maybe I’m reading more into it than is appropriate, but I think the foundation’s distance from Rhee is indicative of a different, less brash approach. (There was some support for TNTP, which Rhee founded, early on, however.)
The foundation is also known for changing directions. It’ll be around for about 50 years after Bill and Melinda die. There’s still a good chance – looking in the longer term – that the foundation one day takes a very different approach to education reform. It’s actually kind of fun to think about.
Do you have any examples you like of Gates funding divergent educational approaches, and/or changing course, as you mention?
The foundation’s work in Washington State is different than their more nation-wide strategy. They do a good amount of work with early childhood ed and some interesting stuff bringing together different agencies that work with children and families. But the foundation also supports a lot of education reform advocacy in the state, and Bill personally contributed to the ballot measure that allows charter schools.
Other divergent strategies… the foundation supports the Cristo Rey Network, a private Catholic school network. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen support for voucher advocacy, although some grantees may support it. Nothing too radically different: no unschooling, “progressive” stuff, etc.
As far as changing course, the foundation started off just giving out money to school districts to buy technology. That was early 2000s. By mid-2000s they were doing the small schools thing pretty intensely, but then Tom Vander Ark left and the foundation focused more on teacher evaluations, Common Core, and charter schools (to some extent). It also got more involved in supporting education advocacy. Small schools funding is gone. So yeah, they’ve changed course before– and probably will do so again.
Are you aware of places where the Foundation supports voices critical of the Foundation?
Ed Week receives Gates funding, and there are several bloggers over there who are very critical of Gates. (Not So Obvious Disclosure: I have published over at Ed Week in the past, as well as at ASCD’s blog InService. ASCD also has Gates funding. ~ DS)
Diane Ravitch recently linked to a post that purports to audit– extremely critically– Gates funding in education. What are your thoughts on it?
When we highlight Gates’ role in the standards (or education), we sometimes forget that there are a whole lot of other important players with a variety of different viewpoints, positions, and resources. Maybe it’s just a word, but even suggesting Gates “purchased” these services seems to imply that organizations have been bought off or bribed. I just don’t think that’s the case in many instances. There are plenty of orgs that have long supported standards – the Fordham Institute, for instance. Fordham’s support pre-dates CC and even Gates. Others support the standards because the commonality facilitates product development. And it’s not difficult to find teachers who actually like the standards for a variety of reasons. (Fairly Obvious Disclosure: I am– cautiously– one of them. ~ DS)
Also, the AEI grant linked to in Mercedes’ first post is supposed to explore the challenges of Common Core. Yet if you look at what Rick Hess is saying, it’s not at all pro-CC! Heck, one of the articles Mercedes links to has Hess saying he’s not on board with CC.
The tone of posts like these strike me continually as unhelpful– but those facts are upsetting (as they always have been).
Yes. That upsetting feeling is nagging. Even the harshest critics are correct that the foundation’s work is very influential. But too much of the talk about Gates and philanthropy more broadly can be characterized as mud slinging or conspiracy theories.That stuff gets attention. More reasoned discussions, like the recent Boston Review forum, do a much better job of helping us understand philanthropy, including the possible benefits and disadvantages of these kinds of foundations.
Mysterious words on the sides of your newly acquired apple crates. Solution?
Sic your internationally-recognized genealogist mother on it.
Mom emails me within 24 hours:
Veto Janto was born in the town of Galen, NY, on 7 Sept. 1895 and died in Clyde, Wayne County, NY in Feb. 1968. He was a farmer. He and his wife May had two children in the 1930 census of the town of Galen, Wayne County, Josephine B. Janto, 8, and Rocco V. Janto, 5.Veto’s son Rocco (Rockie), probably named for his paternal grandfather, died at the age of 87 in April 2012 (b. May 3, 1924.) His obituary says he was the son of “Vito & Mar Sapp Janto” [sic]. The “Vito” spelling is probably the original, and I suspect the surname was changed somewhere along the line. From the obit:”Rockie was a successful and innovative fruit, dairy and cash crop farmer for over 70 years. He was the recipient of the Cornell Conservation Farmer of the Year Award for his skillful knowledge in the field of farming and agriculture. He was a past member of the Wayne County Planning Board. Rockie loved spending his free time with his family and grandchildren on the farm.”
But there’s the students, not here, not laughing and crying with you. And Syria. And whole city-wide school systems failing, and not enough food.
Solution. I don’t know.
But it has something to do with understanding where your apple crates come from. Remembering that the man who used them, and his son after him, cultivated the land along the shore of Lake Ontario.
It has something to do with Seamus Heaney– what he saw, what he remembered, what he honored. The man who used the spade, and his son after him.
Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests.
Like Veto and Rocco Janto– like Seamus’ father– and like Seamus.
I’ll dig with it.
DiggingBetween my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests; snug as a gun.Under my window, a clean rasping soundWhen the spade sinks into gravelly ground:My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbedsBends low, comes up twenty years awayStooping in rhythm through potato drillsWhere he was digging.The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaftAgainst the inside knee was levered firmly.He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deepTo scatter new potatoes that we picked,Loving their cool hardness in our hands.By God, the old man could handle a spade.Just like his old man.My grandfather cut more turf in a dayThan any other man on Toner’s bog.Once I carried him milk in a bottleCorked sloppily with paper.He straightened upTo drink it, then fell to right awayNicking and slicing neatly, heaving sodsOver his shoulder, going down and downFor the good turf.Digging.The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slapOf soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edgeThrough living roots awaken in my head.But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.Between my finger and my thumbThe squat pen rests.I’ll dig with it.Seamus Heaney
As of last week, my summer work with Expeditionary Learning has turned into a full-time consulting position through the fall, with anticipated equal work through the spring. To recap, I have been serving as a curriculum designer and writer for EL as they complete their contract with New York State to create and roll out Common-Core aligned curriculum, accessible for free to everyone at www.engageny.org. In order to accept this new journey, I’ve taken an unpaid leave of absence from school for one year.
This all happened very, very suddenly, and I am still somewhat astonished and very grateful that my district agreed to support it. My head is also spinning at the idea that I don’t have to clean my classroom, figure out my attendance book, deliver my annual performance of “IQ” by Ani DiFranco, or call 90 parents next week. I suspect I’ll have some kind of full out, temporary breakdown shortly, and then everything will be fine.
I already miss the kids. The big room I always try to prepare and furnish for them in my heart at this time of year is empty, and I don’t quite know what to put there.
That being said, I am in love with Expeditionary Learning, what they do, how they do it, and what they stand for. The fact that New York was perspicacious enough to hire them is the flashlight I hold in the dark, murky night of other educational decisions New York has made. And now, I find myself in the very strange position of being 200% against the current wielding of standardized testing and the methods used to develop the Common Core, only about 75% sold on the full range of the Common Core itself, and 100% behind this work I am now doing. Try and label that, please, because I have no idea what it is.
A recent silly online political quiz I took pegged me as a “tender-minded moderate progressive”: I suppose that’s as accurate a description of my educational stance as there is. I like the idea of being “tender-minded”. It seems to describe someone who places almost equal weight on the input of the heart and head, with the balance being in favor of the head. I think this is something to which I can aspire this year with a clean conscience.
I am looking forward tremendously to continuing to blog as I work for EL. The curriculum and its implementation are going to create a lot of questions for practitioners as they feel their way through it, and I am raring to work through to the answers– or to further and better questions– together with my peeps still in the trenches.
So there you have it.
Below, I present, quite unintentionally with great serendipity, the first-hand account of New York State cut score-setting from my gracious guest blogger Dr. Maria Baldassarre-Hopkins, Assistant Professor of Language, Literacy and Technology at my alma mater, Nazareth College in Rochester New York.
If you have ever wondered…
~ Where the hell do those cut scores come from, anyway?
~ How does the state actually set a cut score?
~ How political is this process?
~ Are there any teachers involved at all?
…then this is the article for you.
Maria spoke to me often during the writing of this piece of having to navigate legalese, non-disclosure agreements and so on, so you will not find a tell-all blow-up here. However, you may certainly find a window into the process that you may not have had before. The fight begins, as it always should begin, with good intelligence.
Take it and use it well. ~ Dina
UPDATE: This post has been picked up by Diane Ravich, who has a testing expert respond– also a whole new set of comments. Go check it out.
If you are a teacher who has ever yearned to be sent on a secret mission (really, who hasn’t?), complete with coded documents, non-disclosure agreements, men in dark suits watching you, advance e-mails to dress in layers, unanswered questions and enormous breakfast buffets with zero protein, you must spend a week of your life working for Pearson. My mission: Make cut score recommendations to the commissioner for the maiden voyage of the Common Core ELA assessments.
The most thought-provoking question asked of me during my five days in Albany was by a no-nonsense, b.s.-calling principal from the Bronx whose intensity scared me a little: “So, what do you hope to get out of this?” I said something about using my new knowledge of the standards, the tests and how they are constructed and evaluated to help my students think about using sound literacy instruction to prepare their students for them. That was Day 2.
A Word About Cut Scores
Cut scores were to be decided upon after NYS students in grades 3-8 took the tests. By looking alternately at test questions, Common Core State Standards, Performance Level Descriptors, and other data-which-shall-not-be-named (thank you non-disclosure agreement!), 100 educators sat in four meeting rooms at the Hilton using a method known as “bookmarking” to decide what score a student needed to earn in order to be labeled as a particular “level” (i.e., 1-4). How many questions does a student need to answer correctly in order to be considered a 3? How about a 4? 2? 1?
In each room sat teachers, administrators and college faculty from across the state. This mix made for some interesting discussion, heated debates, and a touch of hilarity. There were smartly dressed psychometricians everywhere (i.e., Pearson stats people) and silent “gamemakers” unable to participate sitting in back of room looking on, clicking away on their laptops. Sometimes they nodded to each other or whispered, other times they furrowed their brows, and at least twice when the tension was high in the room, one gamemaker (who I called “the snappy dresser” and others called “the Matrix guy”) stood up and leaned over the table like he was going to do something to make us rue the day. I kept my eye on that one.
We began the bookmarking process with grade 8, later repeating the entire process for grades 7 and 6. I will try to be as brief as possible:
I, along with the people in my room, completed this entire process for grades 6-8. A group of educators in a similarly tiny room did the same for grades 3-5. On day five, table leaders got together for vertical articulation. This meant we looked across all of the cut scores to see whether or not there was some general consistency across all grades, 3-8.
And Now, a Gentle Plea to the Reader:
I received word on the day I write this that the commissioner has made a final decision on the cut scores. I am not at liberty say whether the recommendation we made was the last word, but once the cut scores are announced I would like for you, with kindness in your heart, to hold the same image I cling to a month later – and it is this image that will have the most profound impact on how I channel this experience in my own teaching:
In the room where I sat for five days, I was among some of the most critical, thoughtful and intelligent teachers, administrators and college faculty I’ve ever met, all of whom were fiercely loyal to the students in their classrooms and communities. Despite the rigidly scaffolded and tightly constrained process of recommending cut scores, the educators in our room fought tirelessly for high standards and, at the same time, fairness to teachers and students.
What I Took from This:
It was not quite what I had hoped or expected. I wish I could say I now have answers to satiate my students’ hunger for the best practical answers to their instructional quandaries related to these tests. If anything, my thoughts about that are slightly more muddied.
While I am required here to be vague about specific data, details and conversations, I trust that the discerning eye of the critical practitioner might read between these lines. But I will be frank when I say that it has never been so clear to me that the dataphilia that is now the culture of our profession is not non-ideological.
My geek-life hero, Marilyn Cochran-Smith (among others), has written that teaching is never neutral. Every single thing we teach and how we choose to teach it is political, including how and what we assess and how we evaluate those assessments.
That admonition has never felt so real to me. I am heartened by the vehemence with which the professionals in that room pushed back, working within the system in order to simultaneously work against it.
And that is my take away. I was glad to be at the table. I wish they had given us ten more days or two more years to make some substantive changes. And I hope thoughtful people with a dog in the fight like the ones I met in Albany continue to fight to have their voices heard.
~ Maria Baldassarre-Hopkins
(<——— Bonus points for anyone who can identify what this is, and how it connects to the post.)
Heavy, heavy post title for what I intend to be a pretty small post– more of a kickstarter to conversation than anything else.
My friend Joe Henderson sent me this piece on public education on Twitter last week, where it was immediately favorited by such blogging greats as Michael Doyle and Nancy Flanagan. It comes from a collectively written political blog, Permanent Crisis, that focuses on neoliberalism; it’s wonky, but excellent fodder for thinking. If you take a look into neoliberalism, you’ll see that its tenets are spookily reflective of much of school reform rhetoric– or perhaps not so spookily, as many people believe it is the driving force behind an impending collapse of public education.
With mass closings of schools, entire districts declaring bankruptcy, the strings attached to the funding of Race to the Top and NCLB waivers, the disappearance of public higher education in other countries, and the rise of charter schools here, it’s an easy conclusion to draw. The article itself, which also draws this conclusion, is tightly written and linked as well.
I think that’s why I hated it.
I’m not saying it doesn’t discuss a credible view, or discuss it well. I’m mostly saying there are holes to poke in it, both on the side of those who espouse the neoliberal view, and those who label and reject school reform because of it.
Two quick examples, one from each side.
COMPLETE TRANSPARENCY/CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE NOT EVIL: I am currently hired as a consultant writer for Expeditionary Learning, which in turn has been hired by the state of New York to write some Common Core curriculum. These are, definitively, the smartest, kindest, most collaborative, kid-centered, motivated, and dedicated people I have ever worked with. Period.
SKILLED TRADES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER: If Mike Rowe testifying before Congress doesn’t convince you, try this March 2013 reporting from Forbes. While Permanent Crisis’ article seems content to lay the disconnection of education and trades employment directly at neoliberal school reform’s feet, I don’t think this is the case. Neoliberalism in and of itself doesn’t give a damn about what it commodifies, as long as it is commodified. Whether it’s a college degree or a trade doesn’t matter in the end.
Rather, this disconnect, I propose, is more directly the result of the increasing stratification of our economic classes. How can you know the need for someone to pave a road, or run the computers running your auto factory, when you don’t live, work, or talk to anyone who lives those lives?
(Don’t be that person, by the way. Get out and meet some of them– some of the parents of your kids, for example. For the definitive texts on blue-collar work in America (and, scarily, how some white-collar work is exactly the same), check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch).
Mainly, here, I am simply concerned about the trend to cull, versus surrender, in conversations about education. It’s so much easier for us to dismiss whole swaths of information instead of looking for the places where the individual story changes the theme…the cracks where the light get in. It’s in the cracks, I have come to understand, where we find hope.
If you do nothing else with this post, check out (again) Mike Rowe in this TED talk, where he gets at the exact same idea.
I’d love for other folks to read The Permanent Crisis article and leave comments on what they think is happening in American public education today, and why– or not, and leave comments on what they think is happening in American public education today anyway.
Just give me a guy (or girl) and his cello any day.
Plenty of posts in the works, but in the meantime, check out this link ; I’ll be reflecting on it shortly.
In Boot Camp for Kiddies this week, Diane Ravitch posts a criticism (and later a response) of the top-down, overly harsh management styles of certain charter schools, in specific those of Achievement First. Without mentioning specifics, Rafe Esquith named the same problem back in 2008. Ironic, since much of KIPP based their model on the letter– if not the spirit– of Rafe’s own classroom management… and then other charters built their models based on KIPP. It’s a lesson in following ideas back to their sources: often the quality of mercy is strained, shall we say.
That being said, the unexamined idea that a common school culture is racist has still always bugged me. In whatever form, involving whatever claim, it can be a seven-layer bean dip of presuppositions: that a culture imposed by privileged whites is inherently disrespectful to students who are not of the same race or class. That a common school culture is uniformly imposed by privileged whites. That a common school culture is uniformly imposed only by privileged whites. That authoritarian approaches to teaching are racist. That constructivist approaches to teaching are racist.
With all that rhetorical juicy goodness going on, why not just say that if a teacher is not teaching a classroom of 24 clones of herself, she is a racist?
(What? Someone did? Not really, as you can see. But wouldn’t it be a quick and easy jump from here?)
The muddiness kills me. So we kill the muddiness by getting our facts straight: and (Irony #2) acknowledging the muddiness within the facts.
My first thought up0n reading the Ravitch post was to brush up on the work I most trust on education and race relations, which would be that of Lisa Delpit, Peggy McIntosh, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. I did this with a strictly defined, peer-reviewed search on Google that was at least several minutes long. (But seriously, if anyone knows anything that can be added to what I was able to glean, please put it in the comments. Whole point I’m writing the post, really.)
Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, in her usual admirable straightforwardness, does not screw around with whether charter schools and their systems are racist, but goes right to whether children of color should be waiting in line, or in a lottery, for a quality education in the first place. In this fabulous blog piece, she even plays with the idea that we would be better off today with (Irony #4) ”a real Plessy than a fake Brown,” concluding simply: “We must guarantee all students and their families an equal opportunity to learn.”
I didn’t turn up any direct commentary by Dr. McIntosh on charter schools, but did find an interesting article on how several “innovation schools” (basically charters) in Massachusetts have adopted the “Open Circle” learning program that her organization, The Wellesley Centers for Women, developed specifically to train kids in supportive collaboration. Which points up messiness/Irony #5: that while Dr. Ravitch and others castigate charters schools as de facto segregators of education, it is the infrastructural freedoms afforded charter schools that often allow them to take on programs like Open Circle that dig up the roots of prejudice itself.
Finally, it turns out I completely missed the publication of Dr. Delpit’s latest book just last year, Multiplication is for White People, so I’ve fixed that with One-Click Amazon and will report on it accordingly. Lisa Delpit, as Tom Hoffman comments here, puts across her arguments “with a certain weight of moral and intellectual authority which is unique to her,” and so I am eager to see where she goes in the book– particularly as she is arguably the mother of the idea that the dominant culture of power needs to be explained, and its rules taught, to students of color.
And I imagine, in the final irony of this post, that this is exactly what Achievement First would say they are doing.
I hate you both.
You have cast me back into a time long forgotten, now remembered again in horror and shame. A time of upheaval and pain. A time of pink diaries locked with tiny gold locks. A time of laminated kitten pictures.
It began with “An Open Letter to Students Returning to School.” Later– I can only believe I was drunk– it was “Giraffe Love.” Things quickly degenerated into hours of Hankgames, greedily memorizing your witty tidbits between plays.
I am smitten, and in return, you carelessly smite my fragile, hard-won adulthood.
You have forced me to draft this fan letter– the first I have written since I sent a package of homemade chocolate chip cookies to the pre-hobbit Sean Astin for his jaw-droppingly brilliant performance in The Goonies– and to cloak my shy, sweet double crush in ribald satire, merely to preserve some tiny, tiny shred of dignity.
You have turned me back into a drooling, squealing, hand-fluttering t-shirt-buying social-media-stalking groupie twelve year old, the likes of which of I have not seen in eight hours, since I am a middle school English teacher and school is out now.
Did I say I hate you? One requires a certain amount of emotional distance, decorum, dare I say, when one teaches pre-teens. You have blown all that to hell. Students can smell it, you heartless beautiful blogging fools. How will they ever take my my faultless grammar, my arched eyebrows, my arch remarks rife with literary references they have yet to discover, my clean but not overstarched dress shirts and kitten heels, seriously again?
No. All that is gone.
Soon, despite my best efforts at concealment, they will enter the room. They will see me in a Nerdfightaria t-shirt. I will be giggling about brooms who “overswept” and muttering something about “Bald John Green” and slash fiction. I will be doing the Happy Dance. And all attempts from then on to impress upon them the importance of the Oxford comma in keeping our civilization alive, via the sheer gravitas of my tasteful pearl jewelry, will be for naught. Naught.
You have ruined me.
Don’t ever write back to me again. Or for the first time.
UPDATE: Katie Sauvain, in a much more serious and very lovely post, also reflects through the generational lens upon John and Hank Green and Nerdfightaria. Her blog is deeply intelligent and a great read. Go give it some love.
If you haven’t met the Vlogbrothers…
If you haven’t succumbed to the charms of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries…
If you haven’t used a Crash Course video in one of your classes…
Or, at the very least, if you haven’t shown your students this at the beginning of the school year…
…then prepare to have your mind blown.
Next post: The first virulent fan letter I have written in 28 years.