June 18, 2021

Friday Fish Porn: The Good Kind Of Catfishing

Here’s Bellwether’s Ashley LiBetti out on Virginia’s Shenandoah River with a catfish she caught kayak fishing.

A few things about the Shenandoah bear mentioning. It’s a lovely river and a lovely name. There is some disagreement about the etymology. It’s a Native American word that, depending who you believe, is related to person’s name, means a river flowing through spruces, a mountain river, or means daughter of the stars. Multiple tribes trace heritage to the river. You can still see fish traps built by Native Americans if you know where to look.

The river flows mostly in Virginia, though thanks to John Denver people associate it with West Virginia. And it has two distinct forks that fish quite differently. It also flows north, which is unusual. It flows from the Shenandoah Valley into the Potomac at historic Harper’s Ferry.

For my money the best song about it is the old standard Oh Shenandoah. Here’s Harry Belafonte, here’s Suzy Bogguss. On a lovely summer night under the stars in 1992 at RFK Stadium in Washington, the Grateful Dead played it, sans lyrics, and just that once,* with Virginian Bruce Hornsby sitting in. That’s mostly lost to obscurity because the next song they played that evening was the iconic Casey Jones, for the first time eight years. It’s what everyone remembers.

Anyhow, here’s the fish:

Want more pics of fish, or education people with fish? Of course you do. Here are hundreds. Send me yours.

*Starts around 21:40 in Space. Here’s Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on the song.

June 17, 2021

Odds & Ends: Holidays, Panic Has A Point Worth Discussing, History…

I’ve walked the Normandy beaches a few times in my life. It’s a windswept place, damp and desolate in winter even more than most beach towns. Yet on warm summer days people are on the beaches enjoying them. That can seem jarring and almost disrespectful if you consider a place like Omaha Beach to be sacred ground given what Americans did and gave there. But it’s not disrespect if you think returning France, and by extension Europe, to normalcy and something better was part of the sacrifice and why they did what they did there. I was thinking about that while reading about the debate about Juneteenth as a holiday. It seems like a pretty logical choice for a national holiday (more logical than some), loaded with layers of symbolism, and will pretty quickly become part of the fabric of the season. Today’s kids will ask, soon, ‘so why was that controversial?’

While we’re on controversy there are people who genuinely disagree with Robert “Panic at the” Pondiscio, there are others who use him as an easy way to signal and score points. Thing is, agree or not, he’s an incisive thinker and has proven to be a good forecaster. So I’d pay attention to this caution whether you agree or not. I’ve heard more than a few non-profit leaders, charter folks, privately expressing misgivings about the disconnect between elite progressivism and what parents want and the implications of that. And concern about the role of funders and others in driving this and where you can go to have a conversation like that.

On some key issues of the day, if you don’t appreciate the disconnect between the political progressive left and the median Black American on a host of issues you should either familiarize yourself with some public opinion research or get out more. Even better, both. That’s not a commentary on who is “right,” about various issues. Just because only 12 or 20 percent of people support something doesn’t mean it’s self-evidently wrong. It’s just not popular right now – and it’s hard to miss how ideas what were considered wildly implausible not long ago are now mainstream political positions. So instead, this is just an observation about the political landscape. And why, for instance, you’re going to run into a lot more people on a non-profit education zoom who want to defund or abolish police, or whatever, than you will out in communities around the country right now. And given that politics turns on the here and now, it matters.

Elsewhere in culture war reading:

…Indeed the debate about critical race theory is filled with the Selfish Fallacy. CRT is now a completely floating signifier thanks to the motivated reasoning of those who defend it. Conventional center-left liberals feel compelled to defend CRT because conservatives attack it, but some aspects of that academic field are sufficiently extreme to make advocacy for them unpalatable, so the definition of CRT simply morphs to fit their boundaries for legitimate opinion. For many or most of the people defending critical race theory today, the tradition is just a vague assertion of the prevalence of racism, dressed up in a little academic jargon – because this conception is far more convenient for them than grappling with what CRT actually is..

…In 6 months the CRT debate will be over and nobody will talk about it and we’ll be on to a new bullshit “conversation about race” that never admits to the fact that our supposed racial reckoning has accomplished nothing. Because the very purpose of all of this culture war is to distract from that failure.

And in six months we’ll still be doing a lousy job teaching history.

June 16, 2021

Are The Kids Alright?

Here’s a DC teacher in The Times basically saying last year’s pandemic response was less than underwhelming. In all the cheerleading and backslapping, stuff like this is still often whispered in furtive asides. I don’t think live school made sense in all situations, especially last winter, but it seems hard to argue the sector moved heaven and earth to meet families where they were.

I am still bewildered and horrified that our society walked away from this responsibility, that we called school inessential and left each family to fend for itself.

Here’s the case for letting kids get out more:

The problem with a society devoted to zero risk is that kids grow up overprotected and under-socialized. They miss out on the thrilling experience of fending for themselves, crucial in forging confidence. They miss out on learning to assess risk and dealing with minimal danger without constantly deferring to an authority.

And then there is this from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.

People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.’

People who do not recognize that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mix of abstraction and orthodoxy – sophistication in this case being a showing-off of how au fait they are on the current version of ideological orthodoxy.

People who wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks. People who depend on obfuscation, who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence. (How ironic, speaking of violence, that it is one of these two who encouraged Twitter followers to pick up machetes and attack me.)

And so we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.

I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.

And here’s OG Kids Are Alright.

June 15, 2021

Odds & Ends: ARP Plans, CRT, 14% Of Charlottesville Parents Asking WTF? More…

I wrote in The 74 about the debate over transgender students and sports and why and how I think we can do better. Guest post below from Shilpi!

This is a pretty good take on the CRT wars, that might help answer the why so little attention to the structural problems in education at a time like this,

Far safer to equate radicalism with social hygiene. Far easier to act like feelings are the unit with which we measure racial justice. The question is, how did the same misplaced sense of radicalism that burned down laundromats in 2020 produce $5,000 a plate antiracism dinners in 2021?

When the race to the moon got underway the consensus, voiced by rocketeer Wernher Von Braun, was that the U.S. had a sporting chance to get there first. I’m not sure our ARP spending odds are that good. Anyway, here’s a look at State ARP plans.

There are a lot of gifted kids in Charlottesville, Virginia. And as our friends at Axios might say, but but but,

the division’s gifted coordinator, said 86% of students were identified as gifted this spring, following changes aimed at opening up the label to more students — a label that’s essentially meaningless in that it doesn’t provide anything different for students formally identified as such. Third- through 11th-graders were screened for gifted education this year.

Homeschoolers may not be what you think – come for that, it’s worth the slog through the tired adult politics. Via New Yorker. 

Periodic reminder of something we’ve talked about around here from time to time, teachers unions and hedge funds and private equity are frenemies.

Guest Post: Shilpi Niyogi “Testing isn’t complicated—it’s just hard”

This blog post on testing sparked some great discussions and one was with my friend and colleague Shilpi, who as you’ll see has a background on these issues. I’m grateful she accepted my suggestion to put it in a blog post, her words follow:

The holy grail, it seems to me, remains K-12 tests that can yield good information for parents, teachers, and in aggregate for policymakers, about what students know and are able to do but is embedded in the day-to-day of schools in ways that make it less visible and intrusive. — Andy Rotherham

Reading Andy Rotherham’s recent Eduwonk blog on testing and his earlier piece in The 74 on investing the influx of American Recovery Act dollars in schools wisely, I found myself thinking about how and why we’re still chasing the same holy grail in K-12 education after three decades.  I was working at ETS when President George H.W. Bush and our governors were setting national education goals for the year 2000. I wrote a piece in the 1990s probing the research on how we might do a better job of capturing rich insights from classroom-based assessments to guide policy reforms without diminishing or distorting the experience of teaching and learning. Reflecting on our progress and setbacks in education generally and testing specifically, I keep coming back to an insight about innovation my colleague Holly Kemp shared in a workshop with Pascal Finette in 2018, which he promptly co-opted: It is not complicated, it is just hard.

A 2005 national survey conducted by pollsters Peter Hart and David Winston showed that when asked what factor was most responsible for America’s success in the world, the top responses were “our public education system that offers everyone a chance to learn” followed closely by our “democratic system of government.” The survey also showed that “just as Americans view education as a foundation of national success, most also believe that the United States will have difficulty maintaining its global competitiveness unless it reforms its public high schools.”

In 2021, both our schools and our democracy face unparalleled threats and opportunities. It seems to me we need more imagination and humanism—less technocracy and tribalism. What if instead of talking about education reform, we talked about a renaissance in public education? Continue reading

June 14, 2021

Is The Debate Over Transgender Students And Sports Really The Best We Can Do?

In The 74 I write today about the debate over transgender athletes and sports. As a practical matter, the place this is landing is competitive high school sports. Colleges and the Olympics have policies, although they’re a poor fit for high school sports, and it’s not really an issue with younger kids. Right now, the debate is not especially productive, because multiple things are true at once and it’s playing out like most culture war debates do, and not in a way that’s good for transgender kids. As the piece notes, I don’t have a clear policy solution or answer, but I argue that we have to be able to do better than what’s going now:

It’s a confused conversation and the public is split. Sure, there is bigotry — any debate about including transgender students in sports that turns on how God created humans is not really about sports at all. And yes, it would be nice if everyone suddenly concerned about women’s sports showed up for the routine athletic slights and second-class status girls and women endure all the time.

Proponents of banning transgender students from sports overstate the prevalence of transgender athletes today. Opponents, meanwhile, at once cheered the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from an actual pending federal court case brought by four female track athletes in Connecticut while chirping on social media that there is no issue here at all. For both sides it’s a proxy fight about inclusion for transgender people in American life, which is by extension part of a larger culture war. As a result there is more heat than light and what both sides have in common is some indifference to any specifics.

Yet the specifics matter. In practice, there are real complexities here that will land on the doorstep of high schools: the level of youth sports where this is really a substantial public policy issue.

Entire 74 column here.

June 11, 2021

Friday Fish Pics – Hot Summer, Cold Water

Here’s a lovely trout caught by Natasha Wanjiru, a student at Sewanee University in Tennessee. This summer she’s a counselor at Green River Preserve Camp, where this beauty was caught. Natasha is an alum of Bridge International Academies in Kenya. It’s a good reminder that it’s camp season again and that fish make people smile so take a kid fishing

Want more pics of fish, or education people with fish? Here are hundreds. Send me yours.

June 10, 2021

Odds & Ends: Read Jon Rauch. Period. Plus The Police Beat And More…

I really cannot recommend Jonathan Rauch’s new book strongly enough. Whether he’s writing about special interest gridlock, free speech and ideas and why they matter to social progress, or how to survive and thrive through middle age he’s such a gifted writer and thinker.

Constitution of Knowledge picks up on some of the themes in Kindly Inquisitors but is well-timed to our current moment, in general and within this sector

Elsewhere, congrats to the great Angie Barr who just won the wisest wonk contest. She’s a gem, the work they do at BARR is great.* I had spring training tickets to catch a Red Sox game with her in early 2020 (after spending a morning at a school!) just as everything fell apart. School closed, no more baseball…

From Bellwether:

Here’s Lina Bankert in Hechinger on to and through college during and post-pandemic.

Here’s Bellwether’s Geller, Spangler, and Payton on continuous improvement.

From the police blotter:

Former PR Secretary of Education Julia Keleher has pled guilty to two charges and is expected to serve some time in prison and pay a fine. This whole thing has never entirely made sense to me. She was arrested and charged with a truck load of felonies. Then the indictment was revised with a boat load. And then revised again. And now she pleads out to a fraction of that. Did everyone just get tired of each other and this situation? It doesn’t seem like she’s cooperating against someone else, in fact it appears others cooperated against her, so unclear exactly what’s up?

Here’s The 74 with an explainer:

Though the case has taken several twists and turns in the last few years, Keleher and five others were first indicted in 2019 and accused of conspiring to illegally direct millions of dollars in federal funds to contractors who had personal ties to the defendants. About six months later, in January 2020, she faced a second indictment accusing her of offering up a plot of public school land in exchange for help buying a luxury apartment. In a superseding indictment in August 2020, prosecutors accused Keleher of helping a firm led by a “close friend” secure an education department contract by disclosing confidential government documents, including the names and other personnel information of more than 6,000 Puerto Rico school employees. Keleher had previously pleaded not guilty.

The first charge, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, stems from an allegation that she participated in a bidding process in which she did “solicit and demand” that the company Colón & Ponce subcontract education department work to the campaign manager of a 2016 gubernatorial candidate. The action violated a contract which said the work couldn’t be subcontracted. The second charge, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, centers on Keleher offering up 1,034 square feet of public school land to a real estate company in San Juan. In return, Keleher was allowed to rent an apartment from June to December 2018 for just $1. When Keleher ultimately bought the two-bedroom apartment for $295,000, she was given a $12,000 incentive bonus, according to the indictment.

In any event, I don’t know what happened or the ins and outs any more than you do. Still, it’s a little discouraging how people and media in our sector, who in general are pretty quick to flash their solidarity with criminal justice reform, basically ran the other way here throughout this episode even though it seems a little weird and heavy handed. Or at least something we should ask questions about?

Music: Lindi Ortega.

*Not a client, just a fan.

No Argument Here

Years ago I spent some time interviewing Ted Sizer, who was as thoughtful an educator as you will find. Sizer was no fan of some key aspects of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, but he had a plausible alternative. That set him apart from many critics, who lacked any serious alternative to a policy they didn’t care for. You probably didn’t hear a lot about Sizer’s alternative – you have to give parents choices – because it set the usual suspects’ teeth on edge. But Sizer appreciated how serious problems required serious alternatives.

A strange thing happening in the education sector right now is that we have plenty of arguments. Pretty much you name it and there is an argument about it. Some are about serious issues, to be sure. But they’re infrequently serious arguments. And we don’t have a big argument.

Whether you liked or hated things like Race to the Top, Common Core, Bill Clinton’s push on class size reduction, or the No Child law it was hard to miss how those initiatives created a set of politics that organized the conversation to some extent. The ante in the serious conversation was some alternative to whatever was being proposed or enacted. There were claims and ideas that could be falsified and debated based on evidence.  Seems largely absent in much of today’s arguing?

Oddly (if you know my deep contempt for Donald Trump) this is one reason I was disappointed that the Trump Administration didn’t follow through on its commitments to launch a massive push for school choice in federal policy. I suspect I would not have liked some of their proposals but at least it would have forced a political debate and begged the question of, ‘ok, if not a radical expansion of choice, then what?’ Or maybe not, the Trump years and coverage of Trump were bananas. But you get the point, it might have sparked a debate or big counterproposals.

If we’re being honest the ESSA law, still the law of the land on much of federal K-12 policy, was the legislative equivalent of throwing in the towel. By the end of that debate it was the education version of Floyd Mayweather fighting Logan Paul.  There was no real argument, it was mostly politics and boredom. President Obama didn’t want to be the last guy standing on accountability or reform, the Republicans had long since abandoned the idea, and with Senator Kennedy and George Miller gone the pro-accountability Democratic faction lacked a powerful champion.

Now, substantively, this has consequences. There is reason to be concerned about the law’s impact on equity. Not equity in its various new woke connotations. Rather, the basic idea that federal policy should be focused on ensuring that schools do right by the most underserved students, who historically and today are in general Black, Hispanic, low-income and special needs.

At the same time, we should also be concerned about how ESSA created a vacuum at the national level and took the pressure off of the states to lead with their own innovations. It’s hard to miss that the Biden pandemic relief package threw a lot of money to schools but the list of what schools cannot do with it is shorter than the list of what they can. Some states are leaning in but it’s more a function of individual committed leaders than a systemic approach. Meanwhile, schools are prohibited from using the money for one huge problem looming out there: Unfunded pension obligations. This, even as the legislation contained pension bailout funds for certain types of pensions in other sectors.

That’s life in a vacuum.

Absent big organizing debates, for instance choice, standards, or power sharing in a federal system the smaller arguments take on a tribal quality as education’s various clans squabble with each other. It’s SEL, it’s choice, no it’s standards! More CRT, no CRT! Big fun for the combatants, and big problems don’t get solved.

I’m not suggesting the answer has to come from Washington or be a federal play. Powerful state developed and led reforms can create an argument – standards based reform is a great example. But I’m suggesting that absent a big national argument of some kind, that creates some table stakes, we’ll continue spin as we have for years now and are today. 

It is, of course, especially worrisome that this state of affairs persists at the very moment the country is having a national conversation on race, racism, and inequality. That schools are not more front and center in that conversation given the role of schools is not a great signal on the quality of our arguments right now – or perhaps on the power of those arguments to transcend politics in key moments as they have in the past. Sure, the politics have become more tortuous but you can’t lay it all on that.

We need to stop arguing, and instead have an argument or two.

June 8, 2021