January 12, 2022

Charter Crickets? Why Isn’t Everyone More Excited About Bloomberg’s $750m?

Me, this afternoon, in The 74:

The $750 million that Bloomberg’s foundation plans to spend over five years may seem like a pittance against the backdrop of a system that annually spends 1,000 times that amount, and especially as almost $200 billion in federal COVID aid is working its way through the system. Yet one lesson of decades of education reform is that relatively small amounts of money, well targeted, can leverage more change than larger but diffuse slugs of funding. Bloomberg’s $750 million isn’t small in any real sense — it’s a lot of money, and the kind of commitment that can tangibly change lives —  but let’s hope this ends up being a down payment on a longer-term commitment.

It’s also an exciting jolt to a sector that needs it.

All this is why the lack of enthusiasm from the education reform and charter school world over the Bloomberg announcement was as noteworthy as the commitment itself…

Click here for the entire thing.


January 10, 2022

Closure? And What Are Schools For Anyway? Chicago Still Matters…More Edumusic

As I mentioned in December I don’t have a big take on the whole “should schools stay open?” debate. That’s because it seems situational to me and there are a whole bunch of secondary questions like what’s the local context with regard to Covid and other things, for whom should they be open, how, etc…* And we’ve had well more than a year to make sure there are effective options for families and have still failed to do that at any scale.

So all else equal schools should be open, of course, and adults should be creative and aggressive in making that happen, Still, all else is not equal everywhere because we’re in a pandemic that remains quite serious no matter how much we might wish it were over.

This Freddie deBoer essay makes some good points on the tradeoffs and complexity around closing schools and also about how generally inane the debate is. But this graf points up a larger issue,

Here’s a basic point I’ve been making for at least a dozen years, including in my book, and will now do again: the educational function of public schools, while certainly of prime importance, is the secondary function of public schools. The first function is giving children warm, safe places where they can be stimulated and looked after, and where they can access cheap or free meals if they need them. The humanitarian good of this function dwarfs that of the education function.

Though I get why deBoer does given his worldview, I’m not sure why we have to force rank these two priorities? Both seem really important? And neither will succeed without the other.

In the education “debate” it seems like there are a few camps on this question. There is the camp deBoer is in. And I respect that he’s explicit about it. There are a lot of folks who talk a good game about opportunity or academics but actually agree with him and the Cult of Smart thesis and for various reasons don’t want to say so.

The second camp would be the “why choose?” camp. We should have a robust system that does both and for three quarters of a trillion dollars annually, the GDP of a top 25 country globally, we can have that. This camp would point to things like the Harlem Children’s Zone sibling study as evidence that focusing on both makes sense.

Then the third camp would be the more libertarian or right-leaning camp that doesn’t minimize the importance of these broader issues but thinks it’s the job of civil society, the non-profit and/or faith-based sectors, and other non-governmental players to bring it into being. The second camp, which as you can probably tell is more or less where I land, is not averse to some of these same solutions but sees a stronger role for the public sector.

And there is of course a fourth camp, thankfully smaller, of people just indifferent to all this.

So what I really have are two questions:

First, the whole “Bigger Bolder” versus accountability debate sort of fizzled out, and why not? ESSA was the white flag on accountability and the Covid chaos has served as a smokescreen to obscure that. But it’s interesting to compare the “Bigger Bolder” positions on the broad things around schools with the “well if the teachers union say schools should be closed close them” position we see today. Or maybe it’s not. OK that’s less of a question than an observation but it’s a meta question of why the rhetoric and politics of this sector run in not just divergent but often opposite directions?

Second, in 2012 it was Chicago that really saved the teachers’ unions and took what was left of the fight out of the Obama Administration. It’s where and when the teachers unions’ decided, or rather the late Karen Lewis showed, that they could fight off change and maintain power. But perhaps history does rhyme or something because it’s an open question right now if they’re overplaying their hand in Chicago now around closures. Or maybe it’s just that if you’re going to do Karen Lewis smashmouth politics you need someone with the savvy of Karen Lewis?

Finally, the other day we had a music playlist from Empirical Education, here’s one from research firm MDRC.

*I don’t know if this really needs a disclosure but just in case I’ve advised and Bellwether has consulted for districts, charter schools, and states around these questions and weve done analysis work for a Covid pool testing company with education applications and a hospital system. As always all clients and funders since day one are here.


January 7, 2022

Friday Fish Porn – Mayor Kosar

It’s 2022. A new year. New fishing possibilities.

Here, at the end of last year, is Fish Porn Mayor Kevin Kosar with some nice trout in South Carolina. He’s done a lot of work in the ed sector and by day he covers several government functions for AEI.

Send me your late pics from 2021 or your new ones from 2022.

Friday fish what? Yes. Here are hundreds of pictures in this one of a kind archive, that also includes Fish Pics, of education types with fish. And it’s always fish pics if you get Eduwonk via Substack. 


Who Is The Bad Education Friend?

The Oregon governor race is turning interesting on education. A few things stand out. Notably, Tobias Read, the current state treasurer, is making education a cornerstone of his campaign in the Democratic primary. In particular he’s talking about keeping schools open and not just for academics but for other supports they provide.  For instance, a recent mailing from the campaign,

In the constantly changing landscape of multiple organizations making dozens of public health recommendations, I’d forgive you if you missed the new Oregon guidelines for school extracurriculars. For now, the state isn’t mandating this, but the recommendations are to cancel or seriously restrict important non-academic activities. The goal here is commendable – keeping schools open. But restricting and canceling extra-curricular activities will only worsen the growing mental health crisis our children are facing.

Since long before the pandemic Read’s been a friend to those who want to see better public education and a sensible and principled pol. But this stance and how much he’s leaning into the school issue is notable in a state where pandering to the teachers unions matters a lot to campaign finance.

So why, then, are reformers gravitating so much toward former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof who is also in the race along with a state legislator, who is generally expected to be the teachers union candidate? I should note here that just yesterday Oregon’s Secretary of State ruled that Kristof, who is from Oregon and owns property there, is ineligible to run given he recently lived, paid taxes, and, crucially, voted in New York. I’m hardly an expert on Oregon election law so I have no idea how this will play out, Kristof can and says he will appeal the ruling. And I’d be stunned if he hadn’t gamed this out before he quit one of the few remaining great jobs in journalism. (I’m also not-anti Kristof. On the contrary, he’s written favorably about Bellwether’s work and said and written plenty of sensible things about education over the years. And he does things like go backpacking with his daughter that resonate with me personally. In national politics he might be a breath of fresh air.)

But Read’s making reform a centerpiece now. At a time that’s not the go-to move. 

Reformers, more or less, “but Kristof, it’s Nick Kristof!” “He’s so cool…”

Yes, sure, he is. But…

Recently I asked whether the problem with reformers was whether they were bad at politics, or just bad at sustaining politics given the number of things that have been achieved then abandoned as fashions changed and people moved on. Maybe, though, it’s both?

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of politicians in the legislative and executive branches complain that reformers were asking them to jump into swimming pools that didn’t have water in them. The ed reform movement is based on heroes not average bears is the complaint. And given the choice, most politicians would rather be reelected than be heroes.

This post is neither an endorsement of Read or a fundraising note – though full disclosure I am donating to Read who I consider a conscientious public servant of the kind we need more of and knew before he entered elected politics – because that’s not appropriate here. It’s also not intended to minimize other important aspects of politics, broad support and good ideas that matter along with finance. Ironically, based on both evidence and ample public opinion and political behavior data the reform world has those things even as everyone puts on a show of running around in a hairshirt claiming otherwise.* And some people have done tireless work in these finance vineyards, I don’t mean to detract from that work- they’re just being asked to move mountains with trowels.

Rather, my point here is, say whatever you want about the teachers’ unions they are reliable political friends to people who carry their water. It’s why despite everything that’s happened, and is happening, since 2020, and really long before that, they still command a lot of political allegiance. It’s how you get things like this that are completely at odds with reality but whether because of Stockholm syndrome, self-preservation, or opportunism a lot of people are like, oh yeah, right that makes sense.

And people talk about the teachers’ unions as this scrappy little outfit like something out of Star Wars. They’re actually among the biggest givers in American politics. They’re the empire a lot more than they are the rebellion. They know how to play and win at the game, at least for now.

From The Oregonian,

So far, Kristof’s campaign has reported raising $2.5 million. Kotek reported raising $860,000 and Read reported raising $722,000 since 2021. Oregon’s public employee unions can spend large amounts on a race at any point so a candidate who secures their support can often more than make up for any fundraising disadvantage.

That’s the game reformers need to play, too, to get away from the kids’ table. Financially you don’t have to go toe to toe with them, a little Sun Tzu goes a long way. And if reformers can’t rally around people like Read, and a too long list of similar examples going back years, why should they expect politicians to step up? Because it’s the right thing to do? That’s not how this works. This is not “The West Wing.” And politicians notice who their political friends are – and who other people’s are.

*In politics organized concentrated interests beat generalized diffuse interests all the time across a range of issues. Having a popular issue is not enough.

Posted on Jan 7, 2022 @ 10:37am

January 6, 2022

Loudoun County Backstory, DeVos’ Diligence, Bloomberg Punches, Empirical Music….

Happy New Year. K-12 education is the one issue where Democrats don’t think giving money and power to poor people is a good idea. And it’s the one issue where Republicans generally do. After two years of pandemic disruptions, parental frustration, and a political shift is 2022 the year we square that circle a bit? Stay tuned.

Let’s start the year with a dog pic. In the last 2021 post, a fish porn post with a December fish I made two errors. First, on the Substack version I said fish porn not fish pics in the hed even though I said I wouldn’t do that for email subscribers owing to spam filters and sensiblities. In my defense, I also said I’d surely screw it up at some point. That’s on me. Apologies.

Second, on the Substack email version the subhead was a bunch of gibberish. This was not a placeholder or something. What happened is that pushing the post to Substack on the morning of the 24th was something I was doing distracted – by a dog who understandably wanted to do other things. And I did, too. He was pawing the keyboard because he knows that makes me pay attention. I neglected to notice the key strokes. That’s on me, too. Here’s a picture of the little villain enjoying some snow earlier this week.

It’s a new year, but Mike Bloomberg still throwing haymakers,

At this rate, it is a cold, hard and shameful truth that these students are on track for failure — never acquiring the skills they need to gain entry into either professional jobs, including teaching, or trade-based careers. The result, of course, is a perpetuation of intergenerational poverty.

These are not things we like to say out loud. But decades of experience tell us they are true. To begin changing them, we need to say loudly and clearly — as Democrats, Republicans and independents — that teachers are essential workers, we need them physically present in classrooms, and we will not stand for walkouts.

At the same time, we should stop using the phrase “remote learning.” “Remote languishing” is closer to the truth, as parents know all too well. They are justly furious that schools have left their children to flounder through virtual classes.

It’s unclear Virginia Democrats actually got the message voters sent in the last election. Arlington County basically wants to make it next to impossible for teachers to hold students accountable for academics – in, you know, school. Teachers understandably are saying c’mon…

And on Virginia, Matt Taibbi has been systematically going through the whole Loudoun County saga. It’s brutal.

Last month I noted that The Times had pretty credulously bought a narrative from a school board member there:

…if you’re going to use former school board member Beth Barts as a source, you’ve also got to look at things like the secret Facebook group targeting dissenting parents, threats of doxing, and issues like that. There was a lot going on around LCPS… And not a few Loudoun parents were like, “I’m not on board with the anti-“CRT” stuff but what I also don’t like is any kind of targeting of dissent and the anti-anti-CRT stuff is bad news, too.” Barts resigned in the face of both public and formal scrutiny.

Taibbi offers chapter and verse on all those shenanigans. And also the observation that,

Imagine asking a person incapable of learning the rules to Candy Land to pilot a 747 in a snowstorm, and you’re close to grasping what it meant to Loudoun to have Barts in elected office while the county tried to navigate a national controversy.

He also notes that,

It was impossible to make it through a paragraph of most of these national accounts without hitting a bluntly provable lie.

That was the problem with the “narrative” all the way along. Terry McAulliffe is a political pro, he should have known better. But the average reader of these accounts deserved better than they got. Taibbi also makes the point a lot of people have been saying privately – Dems sure picked a hell of a time to decide to become repellent to parents.

It’s a four-part series that covers the inception of the current discontent to where we are now with recalls pending. Has details that will surprise most. It’s also far and away the best reporting on the whole episode(s).

In a related vein, Ruy Teixeira on Asian voters and education:

Which brings us to the key issue for many Asian voters: education. It is difficult to overestimate how important education is to Asian voters, who see it as the key tool for upward mobility—a tool that even the poorest Asian parents can take advantage of. But Democrats are becoming increasingly associated with an approach to schooling that seems anti-meritocratic, oriented away from standardized tests, gifted and talented programs and test-in elite schools—all areas where Asian children have excelled.

It does not seem mysterious that Asian voters might react negatively to this approach. In fact, it would be mysterious if they didn’t.

Who takes long bus rides and are long bus rides bad for kids?

Randall Kennedy, his book was on the 2021 book list, if you want an overview he talks to The Nation.

From the Holmes trial, this is close enough to education for us, via Money Stuff:

Part of Holmes’s defense to the charges of defrauding investors was that those investors did so little due diligence that at some level they must have wanted to be defrauded. This defense did not work, and I am not sure it is a valid legal defense, but I sympathize. One of the charges on which she was convicted was defrauding Betsy DeVos’s family office out of a $100 million investment. Lisa Peterson, a DeVos family investment manager, testified at the trial:

Lance Wade, a lawyer for Ms. Holmes, asked Ms. Peterson, an investment professional, if she was familiar with the concept of due diligence.

“You understand that’s a typical thing to do in investing?” he said. …

Ms. Peterson testified that she was scared Ms. Holmes would cut her firm out of the deal if they dug deeper into the details of Theranos’s business.

“We were very careful not to circumvent things and upset Elizabeth,” she said. “If we did too much, we wouldn’t be invited back to invest.”

Here’s a New Year’s playlist from Empircal Education.


December 24, 2021

Friday Fish Porn – A Christmas Miracle

Here’s Jack Shaw, he’s been here a few times, with a lovely trout he got into this month because lately the fishing is better than the skiing in Colorado.

Need a last minute stocking stuffer? Here’s the worst gift idea ever: Hundreds of pictures of education people with fish in this one of a kind archive, that also includes many Fish Pics. And it’s always fish pics if you get Eduwonk via Substack.

Have a wonderful holiday break. Posting will be sporadic.


December 21, 2021

Holiday Books…And More….

Put off your holiday shopping? Need a last minute stocking stuffer? Here’s the Eduwonk Holiday Book List. And some bonus coffee and sock ideas, too.

Jonathan Rauch’s new book “The Constitution of Knowledge” is the concise case for liberalism as a force for progress. It’s accessible, because 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, Rauch takes big ideas and elegantly presents them.

Constitution of Knowledge extends ideas in “Kindly Inquisitors” but is keenly relevant in the present moment with liberalism under pressure from the left and the right.

A few times this year I’ve written about or mentioned the idea in Julia Galef’s “The Scout Mindset” or suggested it to clients for shared reads. Trying, as best we can, to understand the world as we find it is pretty important. If you’ve ever been told that pointing out some problem, inconsistency, or awkward fact is giving comfort to the other “side” or faced pushback for deviating from a narrative in education this will resonate. Galef outlines the advantages and habits of mind of independent thinking.

Amanda Ripley’s “High Conflict” is, like all her books, a fascinating dive into an aspect of life that is at once right there in plain sight but under-examined – we can move past conflict.

Randall Kennedy’s book of essays, “Say It Loud!,” out earlier this year is an engaging perspective on a variety of people and events. A great counter to the flattening of the discourse.

Andrew Sullivan also has a new collection of essays. It’s sprawling, which underscores his eclectic career and ideas – and influence.

Jeff Shesol’s “Mercury Rising” is a fascinating look behind the scenes on the Mercury Project, the political stakes and personalities.

John McPhee’s “Looking for a Ship” takes you inside merchant shipping. Alex Haley took cabins on merchant ships when he needed to focus on work, which makes sense considering his Coast Guard career. After reading this book you’ll understand the attraction, or you won’t.

I’ve been getting coffee from Red Bay Coffee in Oakland. It’s an easy subscription or gift card, if you use this link you should get a discount, the Coltrane is delicious. I also get beans from Holler Roast. Recommend the Holler Roast Blend with a dark roast but your mileage may vary and she has a lot of options.

Finally, I strongly dissent from the idea that socks are a lame holiday gift. Good socks are wonderful. I’m a big adherent of Darn Tough socks for hiking, work socks, and everyday. But then Jenna Talbot bought me some Bombas and, well, they’re pretty awesome, too.

Happy holidays.


Guidera To Virginia…Plus Bad Lessons, Bad Birds, And Microschools…

ICYMI – here’s the Eduwonk ‘In and Out’ List. 

Aimee Guidera is the new Secretary of Education in Virginia. This is significant on a few levels. She’s not an ideologue, so it suggests that the narrative about Youngkin and education may need some refinement. And she’s a reformer who believes in data-informed policymaking. The quality of the talent seeking this role is a good sign as well.

I didn’t vote for Youngkin. But there is a lot of work to be done on Virginia’s schools on a few fronts, including accountability and choice for parents, and Guidera is not the kind of person you appoint if you’re not trying to do that work in a serious and bipartisan way. Great pick.

Julie Squire on microschools.

During the pandemic, many parents in New York City turned to microschools and learning pods. Policy conditions, however, are inhospitable to sustaining them for the long term. Without reforms, they are unlikely to play a robust role in NYC’s education landscape.

I mean…just don’t do stuff like this. C’mon…

A Watkins Elementary School staff member told third-graders in library class to reenact scenes from the Holocaust, directing them to dig their classmates’ mass graves and simulate shooting the victims, according to an email from the school’s principal. The instructor was placed on leave Friday.

She allegedly assigned specific roles to students. She cast one student as Adolf Hitler, according to an email from Watkins Elementary School Principal MScott Berkowitz to the third-graders’ parents.

Not surprisingly,

….the child instructed to portray Hitler is “not doing well at all” and other kids are struggling as well, based on conversations she has had with other parents.

Apparently the educator involved is not some random, rather she’s a library specialist and an AFT delegate.

We talk around here sometimes about how teachers need better training and more support. But this…this is not about training or curriculum. Seems like there is something you could ask during hiring to ascertain basic judgement (and also background check better, apparently this person previously lost their license in a different state).

Friends are important, we’ve discussed that around here. A look, via UVA, at  friends wrt to adolescents:

Allen’s advice to parents is to look to the quality of their teen’s friendships. If they are good and stable friendships, even if there is conflict in the household, “that really matters.”

The time to be concerned is when the opposite is happening.

“If you’re getting along well with them, but they don’t really have friendships, or their friendships never last more than a month or two and there’s lots of conflict, that’s actually a reason to be concerned, even though it seems like they’re getting along just fine at home. What’s going on outside the home is critical,” he said.

This barely counts as an education story but close enough: A foul (fowl?) mouthed bird showed up at a school,

Imel said the bird wasn’t aggressive at all and seemed to love the kids.

“It landed on some people’s heads,” she said.

And, she added, it spoke. The bird could say, “What’s up?” and “I’m fine” and “a lot of swear words.”

Blue Christmas.


December 20, 2021

Why Is There So Little Edu Interest In Julia Keleher’s Case? Plus, Hard Omicron Decisions and Puff Pieces…

This is not a feel-good holiday post – at least until the end. That’s coming, including the procrastinator’s book list.

For today. A lot of people seem obsessed with the big kiss to Randi Weingarten in The Times, with the evolving headlines from “Can this Woman Save Public Education?” to the current “We Desperately Need Schools to get Back To Normal.” Yes, whatever she pays her flacks she should double. But the Goldstein piece at the beginning of the year was the signal about where things were going. This is just the PR campaign, and Goldberg is apparently an easy mark on education stuff.

A much bigger issue than Weingarten’s never ending public relations campaign is what to do about Omicron. It’s striking how hardened views have become. Just because schools stayed closed too long earlier in the year does not mean we should reflexively not close now. When facts change decisions should change and the facts on Omicron are evolving. More consistency would certainly help – keeping schools closed and bars open undermines any rationale for closing schools given how low the risk is for kids (and it would help if the media reported on the risk more forthrightly rather than dancing around touchy subjects about comorbidities.)

And people are not helping as Covid fatigue really sets in. I talked to a school nurse the other day who has parents pushing to send their Covid positive but vaccinated and asymptomatic students to school.

School officials in some places will likely face some tough and situational calls in January. Throughout the pandemic we’ve been ill-served by the nationalization of every issue and decision. That still seems true as we enter year three. Preemptively deciding schools should not close or, conversely, should certainly close, isn’t a great way to approach a dynamic situation. Like so many things in education the top line question, should schools close, is not useful and it’s the secondary questions that matter.

On the topic of asking questions, on Friday a federal judge sentenced Julia Keheler, the former education commissioner in Puerto Rico six months in prison and a $21,000 fine. We discussed her case a bit here when she entered a plea.

What’s wild is that the charges she pled to have nothing to do with what she was originally indicted for. And when she was initially charged in 2019*,

Officials said there was no evidence that Keleher or Ávila-Marrero had personally benefited from the scheme

That’s still true. Essentially it looks like her choice was to go to trial – costly and risky – on a host of charges or plead out to something minor and get on with her life. And prosecutors have leaned on her hard since the start and the case certainly raises questions about overcharging and the final disposition doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I don’t know Keleher well, but have interacted professionally and I did write a letter on her behalf because it’s hard to see the public benefit to her spending six months in prison. The Times story puts this in perspective.

Andy Plattner sent a missive on Friday to a list he maintains, here’s a part:

Most people never got to hear that at no time did the prosecutors allege that Julia took public money or benefitted personally from government dollars.

And most people never got any sense of Julia’s character or determination to do the right thing for students. She cares, she acts, she stands up for the people, particularly children, that too seldom have advocates.

It may be that a jury would have declared Julia innocent. But that was far from certain given the government’s refusal to move the trial to a more neutral setting from Puerto Rico where Julia had been hung in effigy and routinely debased on social media.

In the end, she pled guilty to two counts to move on, to acknowledge her mistakes, serve her time in federal prison and reclaim her life.

My wife and I have been lucky enough to get to know Julia well over the last 30 months. I was struck by the grace with which Julia handled herself and her concern for others when it would have been easy to bitterly turn inward. I was also struck by her analytical understanding of the need to improve Puerto Rico’s schools out of both compassion and economic necessity.

We have three daughters about the same age as Julia. I would be delighted if they demonstrated the same character and quality under fire.

I can’t say the same for many of those in the reform community who largely have turned away from her. Some assumed once she was indicted, she likely was guilty; the plea agreement will assure them they were right. Some believed in her but were unwilling to risk their own reputation to stand up and say something. Her colleagues who are chief state school officers did nothing publicly nor privately. The philanthropic community was not to be found even in seeking to understand her case.

There is a lesson that those trying to improve public schools learn early and often: If you try to reform the status quo, the establishment pushes back and often with disproportionate force.

But in the case of Julia Keleher, the establishment simply went ballistic.

OK, not leave on a sour note, I often leave a link for some music at the bottom of posts, but here’s an embed for today:

*Updated, originally said 2018, correct year is 2019.


December 17, 2021

Friday Fish Porn – Taylorism, Plus Willem Dafoe Fishing With John

That’s not Tim Taylor of America Succeeds. Tim’s been on here a few times with fish and fowl. It’s his wife, floating the iconic Madison, with her first fish on the fly. And it’s a nice one.


Also, as bonus content because he’s in the news with the Spiderman film, here’s Willem Dafoe and artist John Lurie ice fishing in Maine.

In this archive you will find hundreds of pictures of education types and their relatives with fish on rivers, lakes, and streams all over the world.