Thursday, October 6, 2016

“Empowerment or Abandonment”

Dean Dad has some insightful things to say about the ways different students react to different teaching approaches.

At the time, I felt confident in my overall philosophy, even if not necessarily in every single moment.  My job, as I saw it, was to create students who didn’t need professors.  At some level, I still believe that.  After all, when they graduate, they won’t have professors or t.a.’s around to decode things for them. 

From a distance, though, and in a very different institutional setting, I see a different possible interpretation of what I was doing.  Students with some cultural capital, and some academic confidence, could respond to that sort of teaching as a challenge, and some did.  Students without much cultural or academic capital could read it as indifference, and respond in kind.  That wasn’t what I intended, but intentions only get you so far.  If you’re a student with a relatively fragile sense of belonging in college in the first place, someone refusing to help you could look like a sign of hostility, or as confirmation that you don’t belong. 

The teaching style with which I started was the one I had seen quite a bit as a student.  I cobbled together a general theory behind it and went with it.  And at the flagship research university where I was in grad school, it worked tolerably well.  The students generally were well-enough prepared in traditional ways that they could work with it.  They didn’t always like it, but they could work with it.

Upon moving to a very different setting, it took a while to make the adjustment. 

I was reminded of that recently in visiting a class of entering students and hearing them describe their own frustration at some institutional practices designed to empower them.  What was supposed to convey empowerment instead made them feel abandoned. 

The challenge in designing systems for students is in accurately picturing different students encountering it for the first time.  Does being told “it’s on the website” come as a relief -- “I don’t have to wait for you!” -- or as evasion (“why won’t you help me?”)?  Given the diversity of the student body at most community colleges, the answer is “yes.” 

The long-term answer (!), I think, is in conceiving of all of our processes as part of the learning experience.  Even if the eventual goal is to foster empowered, self-directed learners, some need more initial guidance than others to get there.  And that’s okay; people start in different places.  I can just imagine if I hired a personal trainer who started with “okay, let’s warm up with a five mile run.”  Um, no.  Not gonna happen.  Maybe someday, but not right out of the gate.  Replace “five mile run” with “five page paper” or “FAFSA workshop,” and the same principle holds.  If you don’t start within shouting distance of where people are, you’ll lose them.

Why AP?

I always got the feeling that others saw something in the advanced placement program that I didn't. It was never entirely clear to me why people who so often complained that our schools were doing a poor job teaching secondary-level courses were so damned happy about the same schools trying to teach college-level.

I did understand the argument for key prerequisite courses like calculus or statistics. Getting those out of the way in high school could be very helpful when trying to complete, say, an engineering degree in four years. Putting aside those exceptions, though, there didn't seem to be much point. We already had a program set up for self-study and testing out of courses. CLEP-based approaches are flexible, self-paced and cheap. They reward initiative and independence. They provide an excellent ready-made foundation when you're experimenting with new methods (If the people behind MOOCs were serious…). AP courses are, by comparison, expensive, tradition bound, cumbersome, difficult to schedule, and best serve students who are already well served by the conventional high school classroom approach.

From the moment they were introduced, AP courses tended to force out more varied and interesting elective courses for a standard slate of General Ed classes. In terms of quality of instruction, it was a Peter Principle anecdote waiting to happen. At best, you had teachers who were good at algebra and geometry being pushed out of their depth. At worst, you had faculty members who were good at sucking up to the administration being rewarded with plum positions.

Worse still was the inequality question. The schools that already had an unfair advantage in terms of financing and demographics were the very ones that could attract the highly qualified teachers with advanced degrees.

AP classes also play to one of the worst trends in education, the bury-the-kids-in-work approach which brings us to this recent essay from the Washington Post.

From Why I regret letting my teen sign up for an AP course by Kate Haas

My misgivings started when the homework began to pile up. I knew my son would have a lot of material to cover — the syllabus had been explicit about the required reading. But most of his homework seemed to consist of filling in charts. Night after night, I watched him spend hours scanning the pages of his textbook for relevant facts about ancient civilizations. He was not reading to learn but simply to plug correct bits of information into appropriate boxes.

“But you talk about this stuff in class, right?” I asked him. “You discuss the Code of Hammurabi, and all that?”

No, he told me, they did not. They took notes from the teacher’s slideshow presentations.

This did not remind me of college.

I graduated from an academically rigorous liberal arts school. In my freshman humanities class, I read a book a week: philosophy, literature, biographies, social science. But my classmates and I did not spend our time charting the number of syllables in Emily Dickinson’s poems or listing all the noble houses in Ssu-ma Chien’s chronicle of Chinese history. We were asked to think critically, raise questions, cite relevant passages and discuss a work’s implications in the wider world.

Nothing like that appeared to be taking place in my son’s AP history class. But I kept my mouth shut.

“I would enjoy learning about this,” he told me one night, “if the whole point wasn’t to go through it as fast as possible and then take a kajillion quizzes.”

“I’m sure that’s not the whole point,” I said.

At back-to-school night, I looked forward to meeting the teacher, who would undoubtedly put all this in perspective. Instead, she talked for 15 minutes about tests and grading policies.

At the end, my husband raised his hand. “What’s the main thing you want students to get from this class?” he asked.

I leaned forward expectantly. Now, surely, the teacher would mention an appreciation for the sweep of human history or the importance of an informed perspective on world events.

“Test-taking strategies and study skills,” she said briskly. “That’s the main thing.”

[This post originally ran on the sister blog West Coast Stat Views.]

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Friday, June 3, 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Cosmo Garvin give us a tour of the Johnson/Rhee machine

Perhaps the saddest part is that, even after all this, there are still a number of movement reformers who continue to hold Michelle Rhee up as a martyr being so blunt because she cared so much.

Sacramento Shakedown  [emphasis added]

For his community work, Johnson was named one of George H. W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” in 1991. The Sacramento Bee described Johnson’s charity as “almost saintly.”

Looked at more closely, it’s clear that the public benefits promised by Johnson’s various “public–private partnerships” often fail to materialize. Or they come at a very high price. A few examples:

• St. Hope’s development arm built Oak Park’s signature “40 Acres” building, including a beautifully restored Guild Theater, bookstore, and Oak Park’s first Starbucks. It also took nearly $3 million in city loans and grants. But for years, Oak Park residents complained that St. Hope’s properties were overgrown with weeds and illegal dumping. Johnson’s properties gathered dozens of code violations—racking up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Today, the St. Hope website still promises that some of those properties “will be renovated over the next five years” or that they are “scheduled for 2007.” But as that last vow makes painfully clear, the website hasn’t been updated in years; meanwhile, the properties sit empty, unbuilt, or unrefurbished.

• St. Hope also promised to save Johnson’s alma mater, Sacramento High School. Lagging test scores in the early 2000s put Sac High on the state’s list of “failing schools.” Established in 1856, Sac High billed itself as the “second-oldest high school west of the Mississippi,” though the current building dates only from the 1970s. In 2003 the school board gave Sac High to Johnson’s St. Hope to run as a charter school.

The closure of Sac High was bitterly contested. Groups of parents and activists tried for years to kick St. Hope out and revive it as a neighborhood school. The takeover created an undying enmity between Johnson and the Sacramento teachers’ union. Sacramento Charter High School is a success if you go by test scores and graduation rates. But no real empirical comparison can be fairly made between the teeming comprehensive high school of two thousand students and the small charter school of nine hundred that is there today. The latter has an application process, and the local teachers’ union has accused the school of “counseling out” students who don’t perform. In other words, Johnson didn’t turn around Sac High—he gutted it and established a much smaller, more selective school in its place.

• St. Hope’s “Hood Corps” program was funded with AmeriCorps grants to get young volunteers involved in tutoring at-risk youth and other kinds of community service. In 2008 federal officials found that St. Hope had misused the AmeriCorps money for Johnson’s “personal needs and purposes and/or to provide added free or subsidized staff for one or more of the entities controlled by Mr. Johnson.” In other words, the AmeriCorps money helped pay salaries of St. Hope employees. Hood Corps students were also used to run errands for Johnson, to wash his car, and to recruit students for Johnson’s charter schools. Some were even assigned to work on political campaigns for incumbent school board members who, according to federal investigators, “would be more likely to vote in favor of renewing Sac High’s charter.” St. Hope eventually had to give back more than $400,000 to AmeriCorps, and for a time Johnson was barred from receiving public funds from the federal government.


There’s another striking difference between KJ’s charitable network and the nonprofit funds that other mayors control. Whereas the LA mayor’s fund is run by a board of prominent citizens, many with backgrounds in philanthropy, Johnson’s nonprofits are run entirely by his friends and political consultants.

The flagship nonprofit of KJ Inc. is, of course, St. Hope. As mayor, Johnson has been able to leverage, from real estate and other local interests, about $3 million in donations to support the family business. The biggest donors include Sacramento’s biggest sprawl developer, Angelo Tsakopoulos; arena developer Mark Friedman and his family; and Kevin Nagle, part owner of the Sacramento Kings and majority owner of the Sacramento Republic soccer team. Nagle is also on the St. Hope board of directors. All these men have been big donors to Johnson’s election campaigns and to his strong-mayor ballot measure. But while they are limited by strict political campaign contribution limits, they can give unlimited amounts to Johnson’s nonprofits.

They, along with other business interests, also give heavily to Johnson’s Sacramento Public Policy Foundation (SPPF), which is more closely associated with Johnson’s job as mayor. SPPF collects donations from interested parties who want to curry favor with the mayor, and then distributes the cash to various policy initiatives under Johnson’s direction. For a time, these initiatives included an environmental brand called Greenwise Sacramento and an arts program called For Arts’ Sake. Neither of these groups ever did much, and both are now dead links on Johnson’s website.

The real project of SPPF is Johnson’s “Think Big” initiative, which the mayor advertises as a way to “promote transformative projects that catalyze job creation and economic development.” But Think Big would be more accurately described as a public relations shop for stadium subsidies, coordinated out of City Hall, with the labor of city employees.


This was thinking big, indeed. The really innovative part of the KJ Inc. model of governance is the way in which it has studiously blurred the lines between the public and private sector. The players are hard to keep straight without a scorecard. Johnson hired former redevelopment manager Cassandra Jennings to be a liaison between his nonprofits and the mayor’s office. Jennings is on the city payroll, and also on the SPPF board of directors. In 2014 her husband, Rick Jennings—who was on the same school board that gave Sac High to St. Hope—also got himself elected to the city council. Not surprisingly, Jennings has been a reliable vote for his wife’s boss.


More typically, the operations of KJ Inc. go on with no public scrutiny at all. That’s especially true of Johnson’s use of City Hall to advance his brand of education reform, which seeks to roll back teacher protections and turn many more public schools into charters.

Johnson served on the board of the California Charter Schools Association. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Johnson pushed through pro-charter resolutions to speed the school privatization agenda on a national scale.

As it happens, the charter hustle is a Johnson family business. His (then future) wife and former St. Hope board member, Michelle Rhee, was hired by D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty as the first Chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007. That year, the city passed reforms that took power away from D.C.’s elected school board and put control of the schools in the mayor’s office. This “mayoralization” of schools is a favorite KJ policy reform.

Fenty would lose reelection in 2010, in part because of Rhee’s confrontational tactics—like her ill-timed announcement that she was firing 241 underperforming D.C. public school teachers (and putting 737 more D.C. public school employees “on notice”) weeks ahead of the mayoral ballot. Once Rhee was sent packing along with Fenty, she was well positioned to clean up on the well-heeled foundation and government-affairs circuits, beginning with the anti-teachers’-union lobbying shop Students First, headquartered just two blocks north of California’s State Capitol and two blocks south of Sacramento City Hall.

That also happened to be the address of Johnson’s own education-related nonprofit, called Stand Up for Sacramento Schools. On its tax forms, Stand Up’s stated mission is “to ensure that every child in Sacramento has the opportunity to attend an excellent public school.”

Standing Offers

In fact, Stand Up does next to nothing for Sacramento’s public schools. It is mostly a political organization, leveraging the mayor’s office to promote Johnson’s ideological brand of educational reform, and to promote Johnson himself.

This prime directive is spelled out in a 2011 email from Johnson to a potential Stand Up recruit—cc’d to Johnson’s executive assistant, a city employee. KJ says a large part of Stand Up’s function is to support his efforts to “advocate for much-needed legislation around policies such as Race to the Top, ESEA [No Child Left Behind], and LIFO (‘last in, first out’).” LIFO is the practice of laying off teachers with less seniority, a policy much in vogue among educational reformers. Johnson also mentions Stand Up’s support for “parent trigger” laws in California, which enable parents to vote to turn neighborhood schools into charters.

For more then a decade now, all these policies have been flash points in the ed reform wars. And most of Stand Up’s money comes from outside Sacramento, from the big underwriters of the school reform movement, like the Walmart-owning Walton family and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. In fact, Stand Up has taken in more money in mayoral behests than any of Johnson’s other nonprofits, more than $4 million since he took office.

Early on, Stand Up hosted education town halls and viewing parties for the pro-charter film Waiting for “Superman.” Stand Up promoted Teach for America and City Year in Sacramento schools, over the objections of local teachers’ unions. It supported Johnson’s frequent advocacy junkets to other frontline venues in the school wars, such as his trip to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to stump for a ballot initiative to take power away from the local school board and put it in the hands of the mayor. (Fortunately for the citizens of Bridgeport, the measure failed.)

About the only not-overtly-political thing Stand Up has touched is a reading tutoring program it helped to coordinate in 2011. The actual tutoring work was contracted to another group, which soon took over the project entirely. True to form, Johnson’s “Sacramento Reads” program is now just another dead link on KJ’s website.

Stand Up’s website contains video highlights of a handful of “education policy summits” in other cities, such as Nashville and Atlanta. These clips show Johnson, Rhee, and other Students First employees giving the ed reform pitch. But those events were nearly a year ago. Stand Up’s Facebook and Twitter feeds haven’t been updated in a year. When I called Stand Up’s directors of operations, and longtime KJ associate from back in the Phoenix days, Tracy Stigler, for an update, he hung up on me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Matt Yglesias may not be helping his cause -- REPOST

[I originally posted this at the Stat blog in 2013 but it's going to be relevant to an upcoming thread so I thought I'd reintroduce it to the conversation.]

There was an odd exchange recently between Diane Ravitch and Matthew Yglesias.

Ravitch wrote a post about James Cersonsky's American Prospect article on Teach for America's political power. She introduced the post with this:
Teach for America began with a worthy goal: to supply bright, idealistic college graduates to serve in poor children in urban and rural districts.

But then it evolved into something with grand ambitions: to groom the leaders who would one day control American education.
Yglesias's response is rather strange. He doesn't mention Cersonsky or the American Prospect his post but  he only explicitly addresses points that come from Cersonsky's article; not from Ravitch. I say explicitly because the example Yglesias uses is certainly relevant to Ravitch's claim (though definitely not in the way he intended).
I thought of this over the weekend at my college reunion, where I met up with an old friend of mine who right after graduation was a science teacher in a public school in New Orleans. Later, she taught at a KIPP-affiliated school turnaround venture in New Orleans and then became founding assistant principal of a KIPP-affiliated school there. Then she moved back to the Boston area and became principal of a charter school called Excel Academy. Now she's a fellow at an nonprofit called Unlocking Potential, but soon she's going to become principal of a troubled public middle school in a a Massachusetts town whose school district has been placed in state receivership.
The part about reunion caught my eye. That's a lot of jobs for a 2003 graduate (Matt Yglesias '03 as they say at Harvard) so I did a little digging. I may have missed some important details but here's what turned up:

Barring a really astounding coincidence, Yglesias is talking about an educator named Komal Bhasin. Here's Bhasin's job history:

She taught from 2003 to 2005.

With a bachelor's degree and two years teaching experience, she was named assistant principal of a school.

With a bachelor's degree, two years teaching experience, and two years experience as an assistant principal, she was named principal of a different school halfway across the country. (You will often find sudden promotions within a school where you're dealing with known quantities. Putting a fledgling assistant principal in charge of a different school in a different region is much more unusual, particularly an administrator with almost no teaching experience.)

With these qualifications, and five years experience as a principal, she got a principal-in-residence with a high-profile education reform institute -- a relatively short tenure and thin resume for this kind of position.

Obviously, there's a limit to how much we should infer here, but Bhasin has indisputably gotten a series of promotions that were surprising given her job history, education and (as far as I can tell) publications and she has also gotten considerable exposure as a rising star in the reform movement .

Just to be clear, I am sure that Komal Bhasin is a smart and dedicated educator and may well be an excellent administrator. Nothing should take away from that, but it is also true that, given what we know, her career path would seem overwhelmingly to support the idea that she was being groomed for a Michelle Rhee type leadership role just the way Ravitch suggests.

In other words, Yglesias came up with a great example, just not for his side.