Monday, November 23, 2015

This explains a few things, including TFA

Paul Rosenberg:

But the golden age for elites causes their population to grow as well—both through reproduction and through social mobility. As a result, “The class of the wealthy and powerful expands in relation to the whole population,” which eventually creates scarcity for them. In particular, “There are not enough positions, power positions governing, in business and government, to satisfy all elite aspirants. And that’s when inter-elite competition starts to take uglier forms.” That can be measured in terms of “overproduction of law degrees, because that’s a direct route into government, or the overproduction of MBAs,” and, higher up, in the increased competition for House and Senate seats, where the money spent on such contests spirals ever upwards.

“So the competition intensifies, and when competition intensifies, there are losers. There are many more losers now than there were 40 or 50 years ago,” Turchin said, and “Many of them are not good losers,” meaning they devote themselves to frustrating others, further eroding the cooperative ethos societies need to keep functioning.

This in turn connects with the role of the state in moving toward increased instability. “During this pre-crisis phases of the secular cycle, the governments tend to get more and more indebted,” Turchin said. “The reason is, most simply, the inter-elite competition becomes very hot. You have a lot of frustrated elite aspirants, and the states try to respond by providing them with jobs…. even in the historical societies… they would expand the army, so that offices could serve…. That puts a lot of pressure on the state coffers.” (Even nowadays, when elite opinion rallies around the idea that “middle class entitlements” are the great threat to fiscal solvency, Thomas Ferguson and Robert Johnson have pointed out that the actual primary threats are “the excessive costs of oligopoly in health care and defense spending” plus “the contingent liability of another financial crisis,” all of them rooted in elite special interest demands on the state.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Getting channeled into school reform

Matt Bruenig:

I think the typical TFA person is earnest about wanting to help poor kids. However, they are not very knowledgeable about what it is that poor kids are dealing with. I don’t mean that they haven’t experienced being a poor kid (though that’s true too). Rather, I mean that they aren’t familiar with the empirical facts about the ways in which material conditions majorly influence educational attainment and life outcomes.

The reason their interest in helping poor kids gets channeled into educational stuff is because the idea that education is the universal solvent of economic problems is the hegemonic ideology of the country. Additionally, the educational story we tell in our society matches what they have personally experienced (as people who’ve excelled academically). By living in this society, they also have probably heard “bad schools” talked about a lot, perhaps by their own parents.

Because they aren’t very knowledgeable, and the hegemonic tendency of the society is to emphasize education, it’s not surprising that the naive college student signs up to be a brave education warrior. It helps also that there is a huge amount of organization that exists to give them the ability to plug in to TFA and other education reform outlets. An earnest, but ignorant, college student who wants to help poor kids can fire off a TFA application on their own campus and get right into the fight (and as Williams shows, feel really good about doing so). Similar outlets don’t really exist for any other kind of cause (there is no Welfare State for America, for instance).

Once the naive college student gets plugged into education reform organization (and especially TFA), they are then path dependent on education reform. Some might defect, but for the most part, there is nothing you will ever be able to do to convince them to decide that they’ve basically been wasting their time. Nothing. They are going to be education/school guys to the very end.

This is what school choice looks like

Julie Vassilatos:

We're veterans of choice in our family. I can tell you what I see in my neighborhood.

This is what school choice looks like: no schoolmates in your neighborhood for your whole life.

Yeah, pretty much.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Couple Points on "Competency-Based Education"

Here are a few things I've gleaned from reading up on the latest buzz for "competency-based education."

The most important word in "competency-based education" is not "competency," but "-based." That is, the reason we need to switch to the current system using standards to "competency-based" is not that "competencies" are better than "standards," in part because neither are defined precisely or consistently enough to draw an important distinction, and in part because the real concern is that the whole standards movement has not actually changed the foundation of the educational process. Standards are grafted onto the school system, instead of the system being built from the ground up to be "based on" standards. Of course, what they're saying about breaking down structures regarding time and course credit is not new at all, it is just a re-boot/re-branding of the most ambitious standards, outcome and mastery-based concepts.

There are two distinct schools of thought regarding the differences between standards and competencies, which I'm going to give names to:

  • fine-grained/high-tech: These people think competencies are more specific than standards. This comes from the use of competencies in job training, where the whole point is to break down a job into clearly defined tasks and sub-tasks so you are sure someone with a particular certification knows all the steps in, say, TIG welding. These people also tend to favor high-tech approaches to the process because these systems is difficult for humans to manage.
  • coarse-grained/humanist: These people tend to think of "competency" with a the positive and expansive connotation, where "competency" means flexibility and fluency beyond merely meeting a standard, focusing on application and transference.

    I don't have a problem with those things, but it is pretty clearly a post hoc attempt to hijack the original jargon. To me, and I think most people, saying someone is "competent" at something indicates that they can deal with routine cases fine, but they are not someone you want for a difficult, surprising case. You're probably fine if your vasectomy surgeon is just "competent" as long as he's done a few thousand before, but if you need an oncologist or trauma surgeon, "competent" is not what you're looking for.

    This is not a niche perspective, by the way. New Hampshire breaks the 29 Common Core ELA/Literacy standards down into nine overall "competencies."

    These competencies can be readily evaluated and tracked by humans.

The problem is that I haven't seen this distinction clearly articulated, although I can't be the only one who has noticed. So it is certainly confusing to the reader, especially insofar as one is likely to gravitate to the version one is more comfortable with and pretend the other doesn't exist.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Things I Don't Have Trouble Imagining

Linda Borg, et al at the ProJo:

People tend to talk about integrating the children. (Anna Cano) Morales (Chairwoman of the Central Falls School Board of Trustees), the director of the Latino Policy Institute, thinks it's time to talk about integrating the adults.

"Why aren't we talking about the segregation of adults?" she said. "Imagine we had teacher exchange programs between Central Falls and North Providence? What if we just did it? What if we were able to offer high-quality instruction to all students? Maybe it means a Pawtucket teacher spends a semester in Burrillville and a Burrillville teacher spends a semester in Pawtucket.

I can tell you what would happen: not much.

What's particularly crazy about this statement is that Cano Morales has been chair of the CF board of trustees since at least 2008. That predates by a couple years (at least) the mass firing at Central Falls High School if you're having trouble with dates. That's basically the entire span of NECAP testing -- a period in which CF's scores saw practically no increase, comparing beginning to end. If the teaching staff collectively is the problem, who is accountable for that if not Cano Morales?

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Heart of Competency Education

Chris Sturgis:

At the heart of competency education is the assumption that by maintaining a laser focus on learning, allowing time to be a variable and powerful competencies to set the bar, we can create an education system that produces high achievement for students from all income levels, across all racial and ethnic communities.

That is obviously incorrect. At the heart of competency education is the assumption that the most effective way to model the educational process is as a set of competencies, and at the heart of any push to increase the use of competency education is the implicit or explicit claim that we have at hand a proven and widely admired set of competencies to guide the work. If you don't have those competencies readily available, all you've got is a not-very-novel idea.

I've been trying to do a longer piece on this new "competency-based education" buzz, but the whole thing is so slippery and hand-wavy that its difficult.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Reformer Test Score Axioms

A few quick thoughts this morning. Here are a few axioms which have guided our testing and accountability reform advocates:

  1. Low test scores are good (shows we need change).
  2. Test scores going up is good (what we're doing is working).
  3. Test scores always go up (we see to that).

If you believe those things, you'll do what we've been doing -- periodically changing the tests to produce low test scores and reset the scale to take credit for the inevitable gains.

Reformers have come to see test score inflation as a process as "natural" and apparently inevitable as price inflation, except it is a metric that they can spin as a good thing.

The problem is that 1) and 3) don't hold anymore. People are finally accepting that the reformers are now the status quo, thus bad scores just make them look bad now. And they've managed to promote a new generation of tests which will probably not inevitably creep up, at least without a lot more overt manipulation. For example, it is easier for a state to manipulate the scores of a test that only they take compared to a multi-state exam, where everyone is going to be sensitive to comparison with other states.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Is Finland Leaving Years of Educational Achievement on the Table?

Tim Shanahan argues that Finland's "illiterate kindergarteners" are not a useful exemplar for US schools, because Finnish children are much better off in general, health and welfare-wise, culturally homogenous, and because Finnish is particularly easy to learn to read (it is very phonetically straightforward, etc).

Those are all reasonable arguments, but it isn't clear why they don't serve equally well as arguments for starting reading and more academic instruction earlier in Finland. If Finnish is easy to read, the kids are well-fed and cared for by generally well-educated parents, shouldn't they be ready to get started in kindergarten?

On the other hand, if American five year olds are less well prepared for the more difficult intellectual task of reading English, isn't that a good argument for focusing kindergarten on more fundamental behavioral and social development, building a foundation of pre-literacy skills that will bring all children along reading in first and second grade?

If you believe Shanahan, you must also believe that Finland's already high literacy achievement could be even higher -- perhaps a whole "year of learning" higher -- if they would simply start their kids reading earlier. Obviously, we don't know what would happen, but I'm dubious.