January 22, 2021

Odds & Ends…Will Reopening Create Bad Incentives?

President George W. Bush spoke for many when he remarked following President Biden’s inauguration speech, “that was some normal shit.” Since the election it’s been refreshing to have a president-elect and now a president who doesn’t trigger anxiety every time he wanders near a podium. That’s not a partisan sentiment, many Republicans say the same thing behind the scenes.

But normal sh*t is also political sh*t, so understandable relief with the exit of President Trump shouldn’t suspend scrutiny. Which brings us to President Biden’s plan to open schools this school year.

There is ample evidence the reopening debate was clouded by politics – on all sides. That’s not entirely inappropriate – neither public health or public education decisions are made in a political vacuum nor should they be. “Just follow the science” makes a great bumper sticker but a lousy way to govern a society. As Biden’s goal has evolved from opening all schools this school year to its current “majority” of K-8 schools it has attracted more support along the way and is obviously buoyed by the fact that the president’s last name is no longer Trump. Still, a few questions:

– Will the attraction of concurrent as a way to achieve a reopening goal and dodge hard choices work against the larger goal of quality instruction? And related, how creative will districts be challenged to be on using teachers in a way that maximizes their safety but also maximizes benefit to students?

– Given the amount of money being proposed for rapid Covid testing for schools, would that money be better spent on interventions like tutoring or other immediate student supports? Jokes about the sector’s sudden appetite for testing are easy. But is it the best use of tens of billions right now?

– What information should the federal government collect and provide to help states and communities make the best decisions for them? There are plenty of things that are interesting to know, but perhaps better left to the media or other entities. At the same time there remains some key information school leaders and states are still struggling to distill.

– What’s the plan for Fall 2021? The Moderna vaccine is only authorized for people 18 or older, Pfizer for people 16 and older. Normalcy bias and pandemic fatigue may be blinding us to challenges that will accompany the 2021-22 school year and the variety of choices parents may continue making.

– And with all of this there is no way to get the health risk to zero, so there will always be room for objections. How should reasonable people decide what’s good enough? The debate does, quite literally, range from ‘if you’re not prepared to teach live you shouldn’t be teaching’ to ‘no live instruction until there are no Covid cases.’ I find both of those unsatisfying but where and how should lines be drawn?

Obviously to some extent with his political goals Biden is betting on the come and it’s a good bet. Despite problems with the rollout America is already sticking needles in nearly a million arms each day (though because it’s a two-shot regimen that’s less coverage than it appears at first glance). And 100 days from the inauguration is the end of April and trends indicate we’ll be in an upswing then anyway, at least as far as the virus goes.

But again, normal sh*t is political sh*t and political sh*t is about getting wins or the perception of wins. What American kids need – most especially those students most adversely affected by the pandemic closures (and the Biden executive order yesterday admirably included specific attention to these students) – is a real change in their educational circumstances. That’s about instruction, in whatever setting(s). Real attention to them would be, well, refreshingly abnormal.

Department of Ed:

Hires announced. A few to note, former Jill Biden COS as COS, former Ed Truster in the policy and programs role.


President Trump seems to have been unaware of IES during his time in office. That undoubtably seems like a good thing. But the agency quietly continued to do important work and here’s some news from the director. 


Unrelated, this article on the future of liberalism implicates education. Preliminary look at an important question: What’s the impact of the opioid crises on student learning? Are the demographics of the Democratic coalition changing in ways that will affect education? Riccards on civic education.

January 21, 2021

More Détente

Bruno Manno in The Hill on the idea that Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona offers a chance for détente in the education wars. I tend to think that’s right and a real opportunity.

Still, advocates of public charter schools and other reforms that disrupt traditional political power arrangements should also stay attuned to the risk that subsurface policymaking, in particular through the regulatory or guidance process will create opportunities for special interest pressure on charters and other reforms. There is no shortage of cross pressures on the Biden Administration.

Combating Misinformation

Yesterday in his Inaugural Address President Biden said,

Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war. And, we must reject a culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured

That last line points to this problem of helping people resist misinformation and, educationally,  what might work best to equip Americans to do that. Toward that, RAND just released some media literacy standards and analysis about them, you can read them here.

January 20, 2021

We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear.

– FDR, January 20, 1945

January 18, 2021


Blind conformity makes us so suspicious of an individual who insists on saying what he really believes that we recklessly threaten his civil liberties. If a man, who believes vigorously in peace, is foolish enough to carry a sign in a public demonstration, or if a Southern white person, believing in the American dream of the dignity and worth of every human personality, dares to invite a Negro into his home and join with him in his struggle for freedom, he is liable to be summoned before some legislative investigation body. He lost certainly is a Communist if he espouses the cause of human brotherhood!

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” To the conformist and the shapers of the conformist mentality this must surely sound like a most dangerous and radical doctrine. Have we permitted the lamp of independent thought and individualism to become so dim that were Jefferson to write and live by these words today we would find cause to harass and investigate him? If Americans permit thought-control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism.

   Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

January 15, 2021

Concurrent Online & Live Instruction: The Swiss Army Knife Approach?

Swiss Army knives are fun and full of gadgets. They make a nice gift. But in general, like most multitools, they’re just OK at everything and not really great at anything. If you really need to do something well, sawing, cutting, even opening a bottle of wine, you find the best tool to do that.

I am thinking about Swiss Army knives as I watch school districts plan concurrent instruction as part of a return to school strategy.

A basic first principle at a time there is no plan to vaccinate Americans under 16, and a not fully operational plan to vaccinate everyone else either, is that schools can reopen live but you cannot compel students to attend in-person. Janice Jackson, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, discussed that in a recent Bellwether webinar.

But there is a growing push to get students back in school and President-elect Biden is making return to live part of his first 100 days agenda. That will increase momentum.

In response to all this, the default emerging in some places is concurrent instruction. Some students live, some joining online. Sounds like a great third way, compromise, our universal approach. In fact, it’s really hard to do everything well at once – it’s sort of the multitool of education. Some districts have already abandoned it.

High quality live instruction is challenging – and something school districts struggled to do at scale pre-pandemic. High quality remote is challenging, too. Something that districts around the country are struggling with now. Doing both? At the same time?

An option that is at once logistically challenging and often politically complicated is to reassign students so there are live classes, remote classes, but not concurrent classes. District adherence to teacher of record norms or questions about special education are some of the issues that create an inertia against reassigning students midyear. (It’s really hard to overstate how much inertia has driven practice this past 10 months) In some cases policy flexibility will be required along with practice flexibility.

On the upside, it’s also a way to respect teacher choice and protect teachers with underlying health conditions. Of course, another option is to stay remote but that’s increasingly politically untenable and there is a growing consensus against it.

What seems like a bad idea for sure is trying to limp toward the end of the school year with fingers crossed. Now may be the time to reorganize for the short term.  And some districts and charter school networks are innovating with bifurcating by online and live now – and have been. Some have committed to virtual only to focus on that. Some have pulled back from concurrent. But there are still a lot of plans to shift to concurrent going forward. To torture the knife metaphor a bit – what we need right now is the sharpest edge we can find to get all kids learning again. That’s probably supporting teachers to focus on one thing and doing it well rather than a few things at once.

January 14, 2021

Is The Debate About Culturally Relevant Curriculum A Phony War?

Matt Yglesias had an important post over the holiday break I’ve been meaning to highlight – and not just because it name-checked Sara Mead making an important point. It’s about culturally relevant curriculum, why it matters, and how increasing stridency in the woke/anti-woke debate can obscure a fair amount of agreement about it. ($)

The article is behind a paywall but here’s the gist,

I think a phrase like “we need to give kids material that’s interesting to them, which means stuff they identify with” is probably more compelling than a highly politicized vow to combat white supremacy.

Yglesias notes the broad middle ground that exists around the idea that there is nothing wrong with making sure kids see themselves in what they’re learning, rather there is some benefit. And he cites and calls for more evidence. Obviously at some level choices have to be made around standards and curriculum, time being a constraint. But we don’t have to choose between works that have endured the centuries – and often still have contemporary resonance and lessons precisely because they have – and an inclusive curriculum. Only culture warriors want to force that choice or argue we can’t expose students to foundational ideas and diverse or contemporary material. In my experience a useful tell on someone’s intentions, right or left, is what they are focused on keeping out rather than what they’re trying to include.

The current bout of controversy seemed predictable. And sure, there have been some excesses in the curriculum wars. Ensuring a diverse curriculum is one thing, purging Shakespeare on the grounds it’s irrelevant is another and a peculiar take on “relevant.” (I’ve noted before that if you can’t make Shakespeare relevant and engaging for young people – it’s got murder, treachery, and sex galore just for starters – you might want to think about your choice of line of work. The rich panoply of adaptations speak to the timelessness of the themes*.) More generally, this sure seems like a time when heterodox writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Orwell, or Arthur Miller are especially on point.

It’s also a time when people are unusually spun up. The other day someone remarked that if you teach English then you’re teaching colonialism. No word yet on what that means for Spanish teachers. You get the idea – we’ve always had these debates and while they can sometimes be exasperating in their stridency, specifics, and everything old is new again flavor, they’re also healthy in general. It’s annoying when people fail to see the subversive nature of, say, Mark Twain or freak out about literature depicting sex or “non traditional” families and relationships. It’s also not where most people are – especially not most readers. Most people agree you can do both and a gradual distillation and evolution of curricula and anything that might be considered a canon is necessary and, again, healthy from an intellectual standpoint.

The opportunity to think about relevant curriculum seems like it was something of missed opportunity with regard to Common Core in a few ways. I remember early in the Common Core-era doing some work with some Native American education leaders who were excited by the idea that the ELA standards would allow them to develop curriculum that reflected their history and traditions. That’s just one way there was an opportunity for CCSS to be about local decison-making and preference more than people realized in the torrent of misinformation about it. Some very good curriculum and materials did come out of Common Core, but you have to wonder if more support there might have helped us get to a different place in terms of the popularity of the ELA standards, the materials in front of kids, and this question of relevance.

Instructional materials remains an important issue (and one Bellwether does some work on) so hopefully more chances coming and a less strident conversation about them.

*An aside, and a pure local business promoting one at that: When the pandemic eases, I’d recommend Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton Virginia if you want to experience a lovely Virginia town with charming inns and B&B’s, great restaurants, and a taste of why Shakespeare and diversity need not be opposing forces. It’s a wonderful place to spend an evening.