Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Why Does Everyone Think They Can Lie To Educators about "Disruptive Innovation?"

Jason Tomassini:

In the case of "disruption," both Horn and Christensen, who is profiled in an excellent recent New Yorker article, point out there is a specific definition: technology that offers an affordable, efficient alternative to an expensive, unwieldy one. There is legitimate debate over whether something like digital textbooks is disruptive; the same isn't true of your average charter school.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Let's just look at the excellent New Yorker article:

In industry after industry, Christensen discovered, the new technologies that had brought the big, established companies to their knees weren’t better or more advanced—they were actually worse. The new products were low-end, dumb, shoddy, and in almost every way inferior. But the new products were usually cheaper and easier to use, and so people or companies who were not rich or sophisticated enough for the old ones started buying the new ones, and there were so many more of the regular people than there were of the rich, sophisticated people that the companies making the new products prospered. Christensen called these low-end products “disruptive technologies,” because, rather than sustaining technological progress toward better performance, they disrupted it.

See the difference? You can, I might add, make a good case that the Khan Academy does fit the second definition vis a vis traditional educational publishing or teaching (but not education as a consumer product).

I Guess We're Getting Somewhere When "Bare Bones" Means Everyone Gets a Computer


The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts and mathematics represent a sea change in standards-based reform and their implementation is the movement’s next—and greatest—challenge. Yet, while most states have now set forth implementation plans, these tomes seldom address the crucial matter of cost. Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? estimates the implementation cost for each of the forty-five states (and the District of Columbia) that have adopted the Common Core State Standards and shows that costs naturally depend on how states approach implementation. Authors Patrick J. Murphy of the University of San Francisco and Elliot Regenstein of EducationCounsel LLC illustrate this with three models:

  • Business as Usual. This “traditional” (and priciest) approach to standards-implementation involves buying hard-copy textbooks, administering annual student assessments on paper, and delivering in-person professional development to all teachers.

  • Bare Bones. This lowest-cost alternative employs open-source instructional materials, annual computer-administered assessments, and online professional development via webinars and modules.

  • Balanced Implementation. This is a blend of approaches, some of them apt to be effective as well as relatively cost-efficient.

If you assume "access to technology for all students and their teachers," then you can provide new instructional materials for just $20 a year!


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

If Schools Were More Like Games

The Mittani:

It is undeniable: games as a whole are getting easier each year, with more handholding, simpler control schemes, extended tutorials, and a relentless drive to seize the money of even the most drooling incompetent. Simultaneously, games are getting more immersive and addictive, with the psychological feedback loops first seen in MUDs exploding into the MMO industry with Everquest and then being refined into their most destructive forms by both Blizzard and Zynga.  What does a hobby with ever-increasing levels of addiction, ease, and immersion for its users create? A sense of entitlement - an entitlement that is a threat to every ‘hard’ game out there, but especially to EVE Online.

Just for Reference

Peter Edelman:

The median job in this country pays now about $34,000 a year, if you have it full time and you have it all year. That’s half the jobs in the U.S. that pay less than $34,000. A quarter of the jobs pay less than the poverty line for a family of four, $22,000 a year.

Reduced lunch eligibility, household of 3: $34,281; household of 4: $41,438.

Free lunch eligibility, household of 3: $24,089; household of 4: $29,055.

Just Don't Call it a "Learning Style"

Mark Guzdial:

This is from a longitudinal study, testing students’ visual ability, then tracking what fields they go into later. Having significant visual ability most strongly predicts an Engineering career, but in second place (and really close) is “Mathematics and Computer Science.” That score at the bottom is worth noting: Having significant visual ability is negatively correlated with going into Education. Nora points out that this is a significant problem. Visual skills are not fixed. Training in visual skills improves those skills, and the effect is durable and transferable. But, the researchers at SILC found that teachers with low visual skills had more anxiety about teaching visual skills, and those teachers depressed the impact on their students.

"Learning styles" is probably the wrong model for a real phenomenon.

Who Wrote What in the Common Core ELA Standards?

I remain a bit dubious about David Coleman's actual role in the creation of the Common Core ELA standards. In particular, I'm wondering if he actually just worked on the supporting narrative and commentary but not so much on the enumerated standards themselves. Kind of like a cookbook ghost writer who is responsible for everything except the recipes.

There is, as I've pointed out various times, a lot of inconsistency between the two, particularly where the commentary claims that things are required by the standards themselves that are actually entirely outside the scope of standards in general.

In his barnstorming tour, Coleman doesn't seem particularly interested in the actual standards. They don't sound like his voice. I don't even think he is interested in the role of standards in contemporary American schools. I don't think he likes standards.

I can assure you that if I was the lead author of the new national ELA standards, I'd be going around telling you how much I like my favorite standards and why you should too. You don't hear that from Coleman. (Later: I suppose he does like to talk about the standards requiring analysis of "seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance", but that one is so poorly grafted into the overall structure that I think it only reinforces my point.)

This is ok, I suppose, since maybe he didn't write them anyhow and maybe he's really working on a totally different agenda.

In the meantime, nobody in particular is promoting the standards themselves. It is all about curriculum and assessment. It isn't clear who would rise to defend the standards themselves.

The harder you look at this situation, the more it looks like either a very complicated double-bank shot conspiracy, or just a bunch of independent actors who are not as well coordinated as they'd like to think. I tend to think -- in this specific case -- it is the latter.

Friday, May 25, 2012

There Can Be No Stability for the PPSD Under SIG

Elisabeth Harrison:

“People say if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger, and I think they have come out of this stronger,” Duncan continued. “Great new superintendent, great union leader, strong board, and I’m very hopeful that Providence with some stability can significantly improve student achievement.”

We can't do 3, 4, 5 or more turnarounds a year forever. Did anyone try to explain that?

Also, "strong board?" They can't even show up!

Didn't Just Hurt Rhode Island

Scott Jennings:

Loyalty matters, but character also matters. And in this case, Schillings failure of character has damaged an industry, to the point where it may be years before we see another investment in MMOs. I am loathe to link to anything said by the possibly sentient Michael Pachter, but even a stopped watch is right twice a day. The MMO industry in general is in deep trouble this year, and Schilling this month pile-drived it even further into the concrete.

I have nothing but sympathy for the now-unemployed former employees of Schilling at 38, and I know from my own time working in the trenches that many of them will violently object to much of what I have said here. But I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Read the whole thing, Rhode Islanders.

38 Studios outperformed my expectations by releasing a single game that not only ran, but was reportedly at least somewhat interesting.

Also, EVE Online may outlast the rest of the industry if this keeps up.

Good Question. I'll go with "No."

Mark Guzdial:

Is it a good strategy to get positive learning effects by telling students something that may not be true?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

It is Worth Reading this a Second Time

Deborah Meier:

We have three very serious flaws to deal with. One is that the skill involved in doing well on reading and math tests do not constitute something worthy of the name "academic achievement." Such a claim dumbs down "academia" in ways that do serious damage. And the second is that even simple-minded questions of "can she or can't she read, and how well" can't be answered "psychometrically." The third strike is that belief in them takes time away from using our schools to develop intellectually honest habits of mind, genuine respect for evidence, the capacity to take apart or defend a good argument, etc., in a variety of domains (including math and literature).

All of the various approaches to reading instruction -- and education -- are increasingly distored by these flaws, and it gets harder and harder to remember how to think outside this context.

I Hope This Includes Board Meeting Attendance Rates

Alyson Klein:

What's more, also by the 2014-15 school year, districts (applying for the next round of Race to the Top) will have to promise to implement evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account--not just for teacher and principal performance, but for district superintendents and school boards. That's a big departure from the state-level Race to the Top competitions, which just looked at educators who actually work in schools, not district-level leaders.

Stupid or Evil? Take 254

John Thompson:

Eli Broad's Education Week Commentary "Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste" proves the dictum that a journal of record should never deny a billionaire the soap box he craves, even if he offers little of substance. Especially when a corporate leader is just pontificating, always let him speak. Broad's "do what I say, not what I do" approach to school reform offers an invaluable glimpse into what he thinks the "billionaires boys club" is doing for schools. It also shows that Broad has no clue about what it is actually doing to schools.

Based on "one difficult year" teaching in a university a half of a century ago, Broad says that schools should "never shy from an unreasonable goal." Broad tells educators to "use crises as chances to rethink everything, question your assumptions, and start afresh." For instance, Broad complains that diverse children with varied learning styles should not be expected to "learn the same lesson taught in the same way."

So, Mr. Broad, why were poor children in Philadelphia and my home of Oklahoma City subjected to a rushed, top down, paced curriculum, where everyone "learn(s) the same lesson taught in the same way?" Our "everyone must be on the same page" instruction was imposed by a graduate of the Broad Superintendent's Academy. Where did our superintendent, who had no background in urban education, get such a strange idea? His mentor, Arlene Ackerman, was superintendent of the Broad Academy. She then imposed the same command and control model on neighborhood schools in Philadelphia.

Or both, of course.

Mitt Romney Calls for Direct Action to Stop School Closures

Mitt Romney:

We have good teachers, like the ones who are leading New York City’s Democracy Prep. Because of them, kids from the city’s poorest community are outperforming children from the wealthiest. Last summer, these teachers took over the worst elementary school in Harlem rather than let it shut down. Democracy Prep is a testament to good people who refuse to give up on our kids or leave our cities without a fight.

Everything is Connected

Amanda Marcotte:

The answer throughout is always, always that it's a systemic problem and not the fault of individuals. The filmmakers and the experts they consult are extremely invested in making it clear that they don't hold individuals making "bad" choices accountable for this. Repeatedly, for instance, they point out that a person's BMI is surprisingly predictable based on nothing more than a zip code, which I thought was a nice, clear-cut way to get the audience out of the "personal responsibility" framework of utter meaninglessness, and move them towards the "collective responsibility" framework that actually suggests solutions. From there, we're treated to two episodes where food marketers, agriculture subsidies, conservative politicians, increasing work loads, and underfunded schools and communities are targeted as the cause of the problem. I was particularly interested in the emphasis on how overworked Americans are, which is an aspect that a lot of other writers on this issue don't look at. One in four Americans doesn't get any physical activity at all, and the reason pegged in this documentary is their jobs---between commuting to and from work and sitting at a desk all day, people just don't have time. Turns out that stress is a major factor in developing obesity, because being stressed out tends to override a lot of brain functions that prevent overeating. One expert talks witheringly of how stupid the concept of "free will" really is, and how it's a distraction from the real issues, which are that our society pressures you at every turn to eat more and exercise less.

Positive feedback loops are bad.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Recent Links on Integration

Andrew Rotherham:

I’m all for (integration), but, to put it plainly, it’s as likely to snow Hershey’s Kisses as for this to happen at scale given politics, housing patterns, city and town boundaries, and school boundaries. So doesn’t this make those pursuing other strategies to improve school quality for low-income and minority kids, you know, pragmatists?  Even within jurisdictions with great racial and economic diversity (and liberal voting records) there is a lot of resistance to just changing school boundaries and enrollment patterns. Meanwhile, many schools that are integrated on paper are much less so within classrooms.

John Thompson:

Political scientist, Patrick McGuinn, in a sympathetic article in Education Next, helps explain the belligerent culture of the contemporary "reform movement. McGuinn reports that education reform advocacy organizations (ERAOs) meet every few weeks in Washington D.C. to discuss their fight with teachers and their unions, which they dismiss as the "blob." The ERAOs refer to themselves, only half in jest, as the "Fight Club." In other words, they are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they embrace "brass knuckle" edu-politics, as they demonize their opponents.

So basically, for all the posturing and "civil rights issue of our time" rhetoric the "Fight Club" is fond of picking on the easier, "pragmatic" target -- working teachers and poor people.

Maybe the best model for understanding school reform is real estate politics -- urban renewal, gentrification, etc. Or maybe it is just a component of those processes. This is not a coincidence.

The late Bob Fitch in 2008(via Doug Henwood):

If we examine more carefully the interests that Obama represents; if we look at his core financial supporters; as well as his inmost circle of advisors, we’ll see that they represent the primary activists in the demolition movement and the primary real estate beneficiaries of this transformation of public housing projects into condos and townhouses: the profitable creep of the Central Business District and elite residential neighborhoods southward; and the shifting of the pile of human misery about three miles further into the South Side and the south suburbs.

Obama’s political base comes primarily from Chicago FIRE—the finance, insurance and real estate industry. And the wealthiest families—the Pritzkers, the Crowns and the Levins. But it’s more than just Chicago FIRE. Also within Obama’s inner core of support are allies from the non-profit sector: the liberal foundations, the elite universities, the non- profit community developers and the real estate reverends who produce market rate housing with tax breaks from the city and who have been known to shout from the pulpit “give us this day our Daley, Richard Daley bread.”

Aggregate them and what emerges is a constellation of interests around Obama that I call “Friendly FIRE.” Fire power disguised by the camouflage of community uplift; augmented by the authority of academia; greased by billions in foundation grants; and wired to conventional FIRE by the terms of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1995. And yet friendly FIRE is just as deadly as the conventional FIRE that comes from bankers and developers that we’re used to ducking from. It’s the whole condominium of interests whose advancement depends on the elimination of poor blacks from the community and their replacement by white people and—at least temporarily—by the black middle class—who’ve gotten subprime mortgages—in a kind of redlining in reverse. This “friendly FIRE” analysis stands in opposition to the two main themes of the McCain attack ads. Either they try to frighten people into believing that Obama is a dangerous leftist who hangs with Bill Ayers the former Weatherperson; or they assert he’s a creature of the corrupt Chicago machine.

There are a few slivers of meat floating in this beggar’s broth of charges. Yes, Obama worked with Ayers, but not the Ayers who blew up buildings; but the Ayers who was able to bring down $50 million from the Walter Annenberg foundation, leveraging it to create a $120 million a non-profit organization with Obama as its head. Annenberg was a billionaire friend of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Why would he give mega- millions to a terrorist? Perhaps because he liked Ayers’ new politics. Ayer’s initiative grew out of the backlash against the 1985 Chicago teachers’ strike; his plan promoted “the community” as a third force in education politics between the union and the city administration. Friendly FIRE wants the same kind of education reform as FIRE: the forces that brought about welfare reform have now moved onto education reform and for the same reason: crippling the power of the union will reduce teachers’ salaries, which will cut real estate taxes which will raise land values.

I'd note that I don't know if that is fair to Ayers (probably not), but it certainly reflects the "parent trigger" strategy being pushed now.

I'll give The Jose Vilson the last word:

...integration isn’t just a school of education, but a school of thought, a belief system in which we need to invest. If we don’t believe children of color can have an education that gives them as many options as the next child, then we ought to rip up the one little lesson plan on Martin Luther King Jr. for Black History Month and toss it in the recycle bin. We as a country have to care enough to integrate our schools, and thus, our collective consciousness.

There are many seemingly impossible fights to chose from once you decide you want to improve education. What defines you is which one you pick.

If You Don't Pay the Management Fee They Demand, They Do Leave Without a Fight

Mitt Romney:

We have good teachers, like the ones who are leading New York City’s Democracy Prep. Because of them, kids from the city’s poorest community are outperforming children from the wealthiest. Last summer, these teachers took over the worst elementary school in Harlem rather than let it shut down. Democracy Prep is a testament to good people who refuse to give up on our kids or leave our cities without a fight.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

That's Equivalent to Having 25 1 SD Higher VA Teachers (according to Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff)

David Kirp:

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

Or maybe it is exactly the same thing.

Action Research on the Tools of Ignorance

Like most people who have spent time studying and playing 19th century base ball, I have some clear opinions about how the position of catcher was played in the period. I try not to be too emphatic about sharing them with our catchers, though, because it is a tough assignment to get through at all, let alone with a coddled left fielder nit picking your form. Also, the Grays for many years enjoyed the services of Gil Faria behind the plate, acknowledged by all who had the pleasure of seeing him to be the greatest 19th century catcher since the 19th century.

However, Gil is now semi-retired, and we've been limping along with Charlie Dryer, his bad knee, and his hernia behind the plate. Charlie's sense of self-preservation is not well developed. However, he had a finger bent all the way back last game, and finally seems discouraged by ongoing pain in his hand.

With no serious intent, I donned the catcher's mask and gloves (full fingered heavy but unpadded glove in the left hand, fingerless in right) and got behind the plate to play a role in some baserunning drills at practice Sunday morning. Much to my surprise I felt quite comfortable. Thanks to my new skateboarding muscles I could settle into the correct stooped half-crouch used in the period (as pictured above), and since I actually used the correct two-handed catching technique, it wasn't unduly painful.

Johnny Ward quoted in Catcher by Peter Morris:

Some players catch with their fingers pointing toward the ball, but such men are continually being hurt. A slight foul-tip diverts the ball just enough to carry it against the end of the fingers, and on account of their position the necessary result is a break and dislocation. but with the hands held [properly] there is a 'give' to the fingers and the chances of injury are much reduced. For a low ball the hands should be held so that the fingers point downward, and for a waist ball, by crouching slightly it may be taken in the same manner as a high ball.

This is the technique it is difficult to get modern "vintage" catchers to embrace, and they subsequently tend to get hurt. On Saturday, at Moses Brown (double header starting at 11:00), I'm going to see if I can pull it off with the correct form.

This is the baseball equivalent of running with the bulls. Well, our likely starting pitcher is pushing 50, so it might be more accurate to say it is like running with a somewhat old and slow selection of bulls. Nonetheless, the only thing you can do in baseball more dangerous than mid-1880's (pre-mitt) catching of overhand pitching from 50 feet is mid-1870's catching with hard submarine pitching, fingerless gloves and no mask. As far as I know that has never really been seriously attempted by contemporary teams.

I may also have to model my throwing on a contemporary account of author Steven Crane's technique circa 1890 (from Morris):

He would not stand on his two feet and snap the ball down to the base. It was necessary for him to throw off his mask, cap and protector, give a hop and a skip an throw with a complete body swing. The strain upon the ligaments of his shoulder would, at times, cause him to double up with pain.

So... we'll see how it goes. I may last an inning or the whole game. Hopefully someone will get some video.

Photo from

Monday, May 21, 2012

I Make Comments

Over at Diane Ravitch's:

I truly wish Dr. Coleman would follow his own standards and “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text,” because much of what he claims is required or even implied by the standards simply is not.

For example: “in elementary there is more time for history, science and the arts.” This is outside the scope of the ELA/Literacy standards.

“The Core Standards ask for a 50/50 balance between reading, writing, listening and speaking about literature and texts in science, history and the arts.” Actually, this is accurate. They ask for it, in the supporting texts. No standard requires it.

“Standards celebrates the role literature plays in building student knowledge and creativity” Really? Which standard celebrates student creativity?

Which standard requires “rich knowledge of history, science, and the arts?”

“The Common Core Standards in this way restore elementary teachers to their rightful role as guides to the world.” I see standards that require elementary teachers to focus on textual complexity and analysis. Where is the “guide to the world” standard, exactly?

“The main reason the reading of informational text expands is that there is a requirement for the analysis of content rich non-fiction in history/social studies, science and technical subjects.” Is this requirement part of the ELA/Literacy standards or part of the science and history/social studies standards and/or curriculum? What exactly are the practical limits of the requirements of these standards? Can the science standards make English teachers responsible for students knowing how to use a two pan balance? If more informational reading is simply an organic outgrowth of higher levels of education, why are we even talking about it?

“The Standards do require content rich non-fiction to play a more central role in student reading, writing, listening and speaking than it has in the past.” Which standard requires this, compared to what standard?

When these standards were released, one reaction I had was “Whoever wrote this is not very interested in the discipline of English, or standards documents, or how standards are used in American schools today.” Dr. Coleman seems much more interested in how much time is spent doing what than what students should know and be able to do. Only the latter is the proper domain of “standards” as they are used in 21st century America.

Ultimately this controversy will fade away as more people realize that there is no particular reason to listen to curricular commandments from Dr. Coleman or anyone else about the “right” way to teach to the Common Core. The entire point of standards-based reform is that whatever works is the right way, and today, what “works” is whatever raises test scores.

If you want a longer-running hobby-horse, start asking why the Common Core ELA/Literacy standards were never internationally benchmarked, despite the requirement to do so for any standards used in RttT applications. The answer of course is that they are nothing like those used by any high performing country.


Back in the stone ages of 2004 I was at SXSW to be on a panel about blogging in education, and I attended a session about the future of web publishing with a panel of luminaries including Danah Boyd. My takeaway was "The future is web publishing for people who don't want to publish and don't want to use the web." That overall thrust has proven to be quite prescient.

I Write Emails

Mr. Krieger,

Before I forget about it entirely, I should note that RIDE's May 1 press release "12 Schools that are Leading the Way" misuses the term "poverty."

For example: "At the Citizens Memorial School, in Woonsocket, which has a poverty rate of more than 90 percent" is not accurate.   According to RIDE's Information Works!, 87% of Citizens Memorial students were eligible for subsized lunches.  This is not, however, synonymous with "poverty."

As you no doubt know, no students receiving reduced price lunches are considered by the official definition to live in "poverty," and as free lunch eligibility extends to 130% of the poverty line, it also includes many students not living in poverty.

I have friends whose children are eligible for reduced lunches that neither they, nor you, nor I would consider to be living in "poverty," including families led by parents working in the Providence Public Schools.

This is particularly important because lumping in reduced lunch eligible students with free lunch eligible students obscures important demographic differences between schools.  The NEAP achievement gaps between free and reduced lunch eligible students are almost as large as those between reduced and no lunch subsidy.

This is also timely because higher performing urban schools, particularly charters, tend to enroll higher percentages of reduced lunch students relative to the overall population and neighboring schools.  In Rhode Island as a whole, 6.6% of students are eligible for reduced lunches.  According to the 2009-2010 federal Common Core of Data, most RI charters had 2 to 3 times that number.

In 2009-2012, at Citizens Elementary had 82% of its students eligible for free lunch so the percentage living is somewhere below that.  I would note that 32 Rhode Island schools, mostly in Providence, had a higher percentage of free lunch students in that year.

Similarly, The Learning Community had 71% of its students eligible for free lunch, not 90% in poverty, making them ranked 58 in free lunch rate statewide.

I would strongly encourage RIDE to report more data available broken down by only free lunch and reduced lunch eligible students, and to refrain from using the term "poverty" inaccurately.

Tom Hoffman
Providence, RI

Follow the Dancing Dots

Here's a plot of student growth suburban RI elementary schools. It should be a fairly homogeneous group, similar sized schools, in most cases the same teachers teaching both reading and math to the same sets of kids.

The interesting thing here is that if you flick the switch from reading to math and back, the dots move from side to side quite a bit, indicating changes in growth between subjects.

This is not particularly surprising, unless you think "teacher quality" is some kind of transcendent property with a strong affect on student achievement and student growth percentages is a great way to measure it. In that case, you'd expect the same sets of teachers and kids to generate similar growth across different subjects.

Also, from a technical point of view, this effect would be harder to see without the animated data graphics, but on the other hand, the dancing dots may be exaggerating the actual effect size.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I Make Comments

Me at Common Core Watch:

To be honest, I don't understand why anyone would ever think that standards should be judged by the quality of the curricula, etc., which is written immediately after the standards. Standards either represent a compelling, yet broadly appreciated view of the what students should know and be able to do within a discipline, or they don't. If they do, people will put up with failure along the way, because they recognize the goal has value -- and in particular, they don't have another set of more appealing goals waiting on the sideline.

The Common Core is vulnerable because it proposes an overly narrow set of goals, college and career readiness, that are not backed by a sufficiently broad consensus. If the standards fail practically, there is no philosophy to back them up.

My perma-caveat is that I have no opinion about the math side of Common Core (Dan).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

This is What Moneyball Looks Like


They argue that policy makers tend to look at absenteeism in the wrong way, requiring districts and states to measure average daily attendance rates, but — with the exception of a few states — not focusing on the relatively small number of students who account for most absences. They found that some schools report an average of more than 90 percent daily attendance, masking the fact that 40 percent of their students are chronically missing.

It isn't so much "hey, data!" as looking at the right data and using it correctly.

Disaggregating Student Growth by Grade Level

Most of the disaggregated data in RIDE's new growth data browser is not particularly useful or illuminating because you're mostly looking at segregated schools and districts. One exception to this is disaggregation by grade level, that gives you cross sections of students from each school which should share the same demographic characteristics (generally) within a school.

Play with this. You can hover over or click on the districts and grade levels on the left. Also toggle between reading and math.

Let me just cut to the chase here: what I find peculiar is that there are lots of small districts (3-5 schools listed) where there are 20 to 30 point differences in growth level between different grade levels. And, when you flip between reading and math, the overall span tends to remain the same, but the dots completely rearrange themselves (that is, 3rd grade math might be at 65% growth and 5th grade math at 40% in Smallville Schools, and the opposite in reading).

On the level of an individual small school, you could surmise that this actually reflects a difference in teacher quality -- or random error. The circles really could use some error halos. Once you get up to the larger districts, the differences in growth between grades smooths out.

I can't come up with a hypothesis (other than random noise) for why there would be so much variation among several classes worth of students at different grade levels, within the same small districts and mostly within the same schools, mostly using the same curricula, personnel policies, etc., especially if it is not consistent across reading and math.

I'd also note that the growth model should account for variations in the difficulty of tests from one grade level to the next, and indeed there doesn't seem to be a consistent pattern of, say, low math growth in fourth grade math across all schools.

More raw data would help, in particular multiple years. Considering the importance of this system to teacher evaluations, it would be a good thing for the union to raise a stink about. I don't see any reason we don't have five years worth of data in here, and that'd really show us how stable it is.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The End Game: Pensions

It is probably just the historical moment, but right now it certainly feels like the driving force at the core of school reform is an aversion to pensions. That's the end game. Unions are bad because they lead to pensions. Bad teachers hang around to get their pensions. Tenure is bad because it allows people to hang around and get overly large pensions. Charter schools are good because... no pensions! TFA-ers... don't want pensions!

Obviously, this is not what people consciously think, but if Mike Bloomberg could wave his wand and give all teachers 401K's, it would seriously take the wind out of the reform sails. That is to say, the money would suddenly start going to different think tanks, lobbyists, NGO's, etc.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Looking at the RI Student Growth Model

Elisabeth Harrison:

Here’s the Rhode Island Department of Education’s newly minted tool for comparing school performance.

The website graphs both proficiency rates on annual state tests of English and Mathematics and individual score changes from one year to the next. Education officials call it “the Rhode Island Growth Model Visualization Tool.”

Starting next year, the state will start keeping track of growth data for individual teachers and classrooms.

This tool is pretty uninteresting aside from its implication for future school and teacher evaluation. In particular putting growth on the X axis and overall achievement on the Y for all the views makes it hard for me, as a a parent or member of the general public looking at schools and districts, to draw any non-obvious conclusions.

The big flaming omission here is the inclusion of only one year's worth of data. If there is a practical reason for that, they should say so. Probably it is simply to obscure the instability of the scores year over year.

What you should check out, just to get a sense of where all this is going, is double clicking on some schools and get the breakdown by grade, which in some cases should narrow you down to the scores of just a handful of teachers. Then you can see, for example, that the fourth grade teachers at Vartan Gregorian might be on the hot seat soon. Or it is just random noise? There's a 30 point spread between the growth percentiles in grade 4 and 5 math at Reservoir, where I'm pretty sure it is just two teachers per grade level, but only a 6 point spread in reading. I'd love to see how these numbers jump around over the past five years. RIDE should have that data, and CPU cycles are cheap!

For more on student growth percentages in teacher and school evaluation, see Bruce Baker.

The District Practically Runs Itself Anyhow

Linda Borg:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- School Board President Keith Oliveira said he takes full responsibility for the fact that only three out of nine board members turned up for Monday's meeting.

It is not particularly easy to figure out how many of them were nominated by Taveras.

Natalia Rosa-Sosa, Megaly Sanchez, Maila Touray, and Julian Dash also missed the meeting when the new superintendent was selected.

Monday, May 14, 2012

They Are Trying to be Smarter, and It Just Makes the Task Stupider

Alice Mercer:

Looking through the sample performance task is like looking at Common Core in general. It’s a hodge-podge. Some of the tasks are great and could be “world-class”, some are the same-old, and some remind me of the Pineapple Race test passage, in that they are trying to be smarter, and it just makes the task stupider. My notes are in italics, make of it what you will:

Sample Performance Tasks for Informational Texts (Fourth and Fifth Grade)

Students explain how Melvin Berger uses reasons and evidence in his book Discovering Mars: The Amazing Story of the Red Planet to support particular points regarding the topology of the planet. [RI.4.8]
Since the text is not included in the exemplars, I can’t tell if there is something gripping about it that would make it compelling for students. I’m also trying to figure out what the idea here. Is it to learn about the topology of Mars, or how scientists determine points about Mars topology? It’s still better than this next task…

Students identify the overall structure of ideas, concepts, and information in Seymour Simon’s Horses (based on factors such as their speed and color) and compare and contrast that scheme to the one employed by Patricia Lauber in her book Hurricanes: Earth’s Mightiest Storms. [RI.5.5]
This is really comparing apples and oranges. Why would you want to compare these classification systems? If you’re going to teach them about classifying hurricanes, shouldn’t you be teaching them about “official” scales, instead of a “scheme employed” by one author? What are they learning about content matter when you teach this? It’s a central weakness of the standards in that they want to be content relevant, but without content standards, they just seem to vaguely point to science and social studies, and to have tasks that involve high level thinking about stuff that is often banal, and has NO connection to the big ideas of the subject. It replicates all the worst tendency of Open Court’s coverage of science and social studies by creating a paint-the-wall-by-polka-dots curricula.

People are starting to pick up on the idea that the Common Core encourages more "informational texts." And close reading. That the Common Core places a heavy emphasis on close reading of informational texts, due to its own "backward engineering" and rigid structure, hasn't quite sunk in. Never mind that close reading is primarily used for literature, unusually literary non-fiction (like the Gettysburg Address) or perhaps dense argument.

Thus, in the first example above, the idea is not to learn about the content, it is to study how the author has structured the text.

In the second example, you're studying the use of classification systems as structural elements in informational text. And you are going to be doing a lot of that kind of thing.

This is very plainly explained in the text of the standards and supporting documents like those Alice is citing, but it is still difficult for teachers to wrap their heads around, because it makes no god damned sense to make this kind of structural analysis a central objective for 5th graders. But there it is.

Just for comparison, Finland's "description of good performance at the end of fifth grade:"

The pupils' skills in interpreting and utilizing various texts will have developed so that they

  • achieve a fluent basic reading proficiency
  • know how to use strategies to improve reading comprehension
  • know the main phases of information acquisition
  • are used to utilizing the library and capable of searching for the information they need in printed and electronic sources
  • find the main elements in texts in which there are words, sound, and illustration
  • distinguish opinion in age-appropriate texts and consider the text's dependability and meaning for themselves
  • use their reading skills for both benefit and fun

This is why you won't see international benchmarks for Common Core ELA.

Friday, May 11, 2012

While the Particulars are Idiotic, I'm Glad We're Having the Conversation

Elisabeth Harrison:

The Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says Barrington may risk discriminating against special education students with a program that would admit a limited number of students from outside the highly ranked district.

Barrington has announced plans open 10 seats to out-of-district students in a competitive application process. Families would pay tuition of $12,800 for students who gain admission to the Barrington schools.

In describing the pilot program, Barrington school officials told RIPR that students needing special services would not be eligible because of the extra cost associated with their education.

The ACLU has sent a letter to Barrington School officials warning that this could violate numerous laws designed to protect students with disabilities.

It would be nice if the reform community at least showed some consistency and started advocating for cross-district enrollment by lottery when spaces are available.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Apparently They Haven't Thought This Through at All

Bob Plain:

Patrick Guida, the chair of the Barrington School Committee as well as the vice chair of the state Board of Regents, said there are potential legal issues to grapple with before the district could put the plan into effect, such as whether the plan would effectively discriminate against students with special needs or even those who couldn’t afford to pay the tuition.

“If there are any legal issues we would cancel the whole thing,” he said, but added: “By virtue of us making this opportunity available, we ought to have some opportunity for discretion.”

I don't find it very reassuring that this guy is the vice chair of the Board of Regents, on a number of different levels.

Also, wtf is this?

Tim Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said Lincoln is considering a similar proposal and that is not unlike the mayoral academy in Cumberland set up by Mayor Dan McKee, that serves students from Cumberland as well as neighboring towns.

Crossing the Webinar Threshold

It seems like enough businesses are interested in SchoolTool that I'm going to have to start creating webinars. That's a good thing.

The free software community is used to getting by with text.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Things Grownups Do

You might want to watch this one with your eyes closed:

The Over/Under is 5 Points in Reading, 10 in Math


At a surprise news conference this morning (May 7, 2012) at the Pleasant View Elementary School, in Providence, Governor Lincoln D. Chafee and Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist announced that the school is the recipient of the first Rhode Island Innovation Powered by Technology Model School Grant.

The $470,000 grant will finance a plan that educators at the Pleasant View Elementary School developed to redesign the school and transform its instructional practices through the use of technology.

It is certainly worth mentioning, although apparently not to RIDE, that Pleasant View was also in the latest batch of "persistently low-achieving" schools. It is a little puzzling to have Commissioner Gist praise the school's "forward looking leadership" considering RIDE's view of its overall performance.

Having had a similar lump of money ($300,000 for hardware, plus me and a part-time tech on site for a couple years) for technology at the beginning of a turnaround in 2000, I can tell you it is nice but it doesn't go as far as you might think, especially if there is $0 a year budgeted for long-term support.

Um... What Happened to The Money Follows The Child?

Elisabeth Harrison:

Ever wished you could send your kids to a Barrington public school without actually moving there? Well, now you can.

The district opens a pilot program this fall for 10 students who live outside the town. Barrington School Committee Chair Patrick “Buzz” Guida says administrators are finalizing what criteria they will use to select the students.

“We’re looking to test it to see if it works,” Guida says of the pilot program. “If it works well for the students who are in district and those who might be coming from another community, then it might be something that we’d want to pursue in the future.”

Guida says the program will be aimed at students who could be “enriched” by Barrington’s school offerings. The district is open to applications from any student at any grade level, with the exception of those needing special services.

As with many things in life, there is a cost. Parents would have to provide their own transportation and pay $12,800, the equivalent of Barrington’s average cost per pupil. (Even at that price, it sounds like a bargain compared to tuition at many private schools!)

What do we have to do to just make this part of the overall "choice" system and covered by the funding formula? Can they really exclude special needs students? Can we get a lottery?

Don't Be Snowed on the Complexity of Unwritten Common Core Assessments

I'm glad Dana Goldstein is taking on the subject of computer scoring of essays and the Common Core, but I'm afraid she has been led somewhat astray by her sources, particularly the Common Core's Appendix B.

But of the eight state standardized-test writing prompts Shermis looked at in his study, none required students to demonstrate knowledge beyond what could be gleaned from a specific text, and four required “relatively content-free” responses. The Common Core, meanwhile, has much higher ambitions for student writing. Here is an example of a Common Core essay prompt—the kind students across the country should be encountering over the next five years:

Compare and contrast the themes and argument found in the Declaration of Independence to those of other U.S. documents of historical and literary significance, such as the Olive Branch Petition.

Brown University computer scientist Eugene Charniak, an expert in artificial intelligence, says it could take another century for computer software to accurately score an essay written in response to a prompt like this one, because it is so difficult for computers to assess whether a piece of writing demonstrates real knowledge across a subject as broad as American history.

Dana cites the second half of an example question meant to demonstrate mastery of Reading Standard 9 for Informational Texts at the 11th/12th grade level:

Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

Or, more succinctly:

Produce an analysis of the themes, purposes and rhetorical features of a text.

Since there are no standards for what is required for this sort of analysis beyond clarity and logical argument, and those are covered by a different standard, something like this would be perfectly adequate to accurately and completely satisfy the standard:

Based only on a reading of the Declaration of Independence and citing only evidence from the text, answer the following:

  1. What is the theme of the text?
  2. What is the purpose of the text?
  3. How does the listing of grievances (highlighted in yellow in the text) support the purpose of the text?

The standard does not require you to write an essay -- it is a reading standard, not a writing standard. Doesn't require compare and contrast between two documents. It doesn't require any content knowledge outside the text, although it would probably be very helpful. It does not require you to be familiar with those texts beforehand, although it would help, and it certainly doesn't require prior knowledge of something as obscure as the Olive Branch Petition. It does not permit evidence from outside the text, which is completely consistent with the approach and philosophy of the standards as a whole.

This prompt is much more computer-scorable. It is also easier, while still being more closely aligned to the text of the standard. If your state uses my prompt, the tests will be cheaper, the results returned more quickly, probably with more reliability and validity, and your scores will be higher. I don't see any reason why these couldn't be multiple choice questions, actually.

Which approach do you think will win out?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

I Hate Your For Your Philanthropy, and I Will Forever. As Will My Children.


Nobody but perhaps a handful of us really want Gates and Broad and all the rest to fail, give up, and go off and do something else with their loot. Which is what they'll eventually do if they make lots of bad decisions and decide they are going to end up lumped in with Annenberg and so many previous efforts. A better feedback loop would help prevent this.

I absolutely do want them to go off and do something else with their loot. And if they do so they won't be lumped in with Annenberg, which was perhaps ineffective but at least benign. This will stop when hundreds of thousands or millions of people around the country start to actively resent them, personally, for the destructive impact of their "philanthropy."

I think they should all go into transportation policy and fund bike trails. That would be awesome! Or, you know, just having libraries is nice.

Filed Away for Future Claim Chowder

Dr. Tony Bennett:

Armed with these bold reforms, Louisiana will soon lead our country in quality public K-12 education.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Do You Think Pensions Cause Bad Teaching?

Tim Furman:

Just remember, that when you're talking to a Democratic legislator in Illinois, that person is probably quietly under the impression that the pension system itself is the underlying cause of the (manufactured) existential crisis in public education. She or he is just being too coy to tell you that this is the underlying belief.

The thing I've now taken to asking before I even bother with my unanswered questions about the Constitutionality of the Quinn proposal is this: "Do you think pensions cause bad teaching?" Because that's what they think. They've all got this report on their desks.

Since You Asked...


Wess is not teaching a third year in her placement school. Is probably not teaching a third year at all. Is more excited and energized by this decision than she has been since August 2011.

See also my comments under Am I Wrong For Teaching?

We May Never Know What a Close Run Thing It Was

Dan McGowan:

The Providence School Board will appoint Dr. Susan Lusi Superintendent of schools at a meeting set for this evening, GoLocalProv has learned...

Board members were said to be impressed with Thomas Darden, a Philadelphia-based educator who emerged as the other finalist in the search. But after mulling the decision over, the majority opted to support Lusi.

"Mulling it over" indeed.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

In This Environment, It is Rumor or Nothing

George Schmidt:

Thus, this article has two parts. The first part will examine the slow accretion of overpaid and underqualified outsiders who are now holding the top ranks at CPS. This part will also examine how, over time, the public would become more and more aware of the outlines and ideology behind what amounted to an undisclosed plan to radically reshape the public schools of the third largest school system in the USA with virtually no democratic public input or debate.

The second part will discuss one iteration of that phenomenon: The unprecedented expansion, in both personnel and cost, of the publicity department at the nation's third largest school system. To put a start point on what is now a bloated "Communications" staff at CPS: when mayoral control began in 1995 at CPS, there was one person, former Sun-Times education reporter Maribeth Vander Weele, handling all information requests and publicity for the school system.

Friday, May 04, 2012

There Is No Difference Between RI, VT, and NH's Math Standards


Unlike previous research, Schmidt analyzed the link between states with standards that were similar to the CCSS and their NAEP math scores. He used cut scores aligned to NAEP as a proxy to determine if states were serious about high expectations and implementation of standards. The preliminary results showed states with standards in line with CCSS combined with higher cut scores also had higher NAEP scores.

I don't think the whole study is online, but I was not reassured by the chart which shows a five level rating of "Consistency with the CCSSM" where Vermont is at 3, New Hampshire at 2 and Rhode Island at 1. That'll help get the results described above, but it is objectively bogus.

Also, Dan might be surprised that Callifornia gets a 5 and Massachusetts gets a 3.

Reliant Equity Went Bust in 2008

Private Equity Insider (via the Wayback Machine):

Fed-Up Investors Force Reliant to Liquidate

Buyout firm Reliant Equity is shutting down what remains of its only fund.

The move is the result of a vote within the past few months by a limited-partner advisory board for the vehicle, which has been riddled with losses. Feeling that Chicago-based Reliant wouldn't be able to salvage any value from the portfolio by remaining as manager, those dozen or so shareholders ordered the firm to liquidate the entity's assets as quickly as possible through a secondary-direct offering.

While the hope is to recover some portion of the $123 million that investors initially contributed, it doesn't look like the sale will bring in even close to that amount. As of Dec. 31, the fund was running an average annual loss of more than 53%, and it has never yielded a single dollar of distributions.

What's more, shareholders say that about half of the portfolio has been written down to zero, and that the remaining positions are valued at or below what Reliant paid for them. The upshot is that prospective bidders believe the fund is worth less than $50 million - including a small undrawn component that investors have no interest in fulfilling.

Right now, likely bidders consist mainly of secondary-direct funds, which buy portfolio-company stakes from other private equity vehicles. Some are looking at the offering with keen interest, while others are approaching with only passive curiosity.

Reliant's limited partners include Calpers, Illinois Public Employees and Illinois State Teachers.

Reliant formed in 2001 and assembled its sole fund in 2002 and 2003. The outfit invested mainly in minority-owned businesses in the industrial, manufacturing and consumer-product sectors, following what one shareholder deemed a "buy-and-build" strategy. "There's not a single thing in that portfolio that's worth talking about," the limited partner said.

Among the higher-profile blowups in Reliant's portfolio was Blue Sky Brands, a consumer-product company that the firm created in 2005 through a buyout of Paragon Gift Holdings. Blue Sky shut down in March.

Depite the struggles, investors' demands that Reliant shutter its fund may have come as something of a surprise to the firm. Indeed, from 2005 until last year, the outfit was talking about marketing a new vehicle, as executives there expressed optimism that they would be able to turn the previous one around. But Reliant didn't get a warm reception as it pitched the idea of a new fund, and outsiders told the firm that its chances of raising any money were slim.

Now the operation's staff is dwindling. Managing director Carr Preston left earlier this year. Before joining Reliant, he was a principal at Allied Capital of Washington. Managing director Omar Simmons split earlier this year as well. He now works at Windjammer Capital of Newport Beach, Calif. The status of managing director Roy Roberts is less clear. Prior to Reliant, he served as a group vice president in the truck division at General Motors.

Founder Thomas Darden is still on board. He was a managing director at Windpoint Capital of Southfield, Mich., before starting Reliant.

via The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.


Rolling Stone:

Adam Yauch, one-third of the pioneering hip-hop group the Beastie Boys, has died at the age of 47, Rolling Stone has learned. Yauch, also known as MCA, had been in treatment for cancer since 2009. The rapper was diagnosed in 2009 after discovering a tumor in his salivary gland.

If you'd told me in high school how much I'd respect the Beastie Boys at 42, I would not have believed you.

The Thomas Darden and Roy Roberts Connection -- Making Providence the Next Detroit

Oh, I see:

LANSING, Mich. - Gov. Rick Snyder today announced the appointment of Roy S. Roberts as emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools. Roberts is managing director of private-equity investment firm Reliant Equity Investors, L.L.C. and is the former group vice president of North American Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing for General Motors Corporation. Roberts will transition into the role of emergency manager in the upcoming weeks.

Small world, isn't it?

Time for Some Stability

Jill Davidson:

Please speak up if you have not already. If you have already, speak up again. Here's why: Dr. Lusi is building systems that will see the district through the long haul. Dr. Lusi has experience as a superintendent, not only via this past year in Providence but during a long stretch as Portsmouth's superintendent. She's stabilized the district's relationship with the union. She takes teaching and learning seriously. She communicates with parents and families confidently, compassionately, thoughtfully, and competently. Providence's schools desperately need the continuity, commitment, fierce focus and work ethic, deep expertise and experience, local roots and knowledge, that she has provided and will continue to bring to the job. She has the knowledge and experience to work well with the Rhode Island Department of Education. If all that were not sufficient, we cannot afford the interruption and disruption that will result if the school board does not appoint Dr. Lusi.

I am Now the Matt Drudge of Providence Education News

Linda Borg:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- An education blogger has named Thomas Darden, a top administrator with the Philadelphia school district, as one of two finalists for the superintendent's job in Providence.

The blogger, Tom Hoffman, calls Darden the "rumored front-runner" for the position. The School Board is expected to name a superintendent Monday night.

You can't report a rumor, but you can report on someone else reporting a rumor!

PPSD Superintendent Frontrunner Cited by US Dept. of Labor for Mismanagement of Pension Funds in RI

Let's just say the rumored frontrunner for the job of superintendent of the Providence Public Schools is Thomas Darden, co-founder and former managing director of Chicago-based Reliant Equity Investors (not the kind of firm that has a website, apparently), and since 2009 (that date's important) deputy for process improvement and compliance of The School District of Philadelphia.

I've heard this from enough people that a little Googling was in order tonight. One of the few things that comes up for Reliant Equity Investors is a nasty piece of business down in West Virginia and Orange County, Virginia, where about 375 workers won a $1.1 million settlement on a class action lawsuit over violations of the Wage and Payment Collection Act, Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act and other labor laws after AB&C Group went bankrupt and abruptly shut its doors, leaving workers unpaid.

Audrey Holsclaw:

... the suit names AB&C, its employer BlueSky Brand, Inc., and BlueSky's employer, Reliant Investors, LLC, as defendants. It also names Carr Preston, the vice president and director of BlueSky; Thomas Darden, Jr., a director of BlueSky and Reliant; Qian Elmore, a director of BlueSky and principal of Reliant; Robert Pulciani, CEO of BlueSky; and Philip Wax, CFO of BlueSky and CFO of AB&C; as defendants.

OK, that's pretty creepy, but West Virginia might as well be Mars as far as most Rhode Islanders are concerned. What else can we find. BlueSky? Oh dear...

Multichannel Merchant, April 1 2008:

BlueSky Brands is history. The North Kingstown, RI-based parent company of the Paragon Gifts, Bits and Pieces, Bits and Pieces U.K., National Wildlife Direct, and Winterthur catalogs, which also owns McLean, VA-based third-party fulfillment provider AB&C Group, shut down on March 14...

No cash, no product, no sales Indeed, BlueSky failed to get its next level of financing as early as June 2007, according to Curt Barry, president of operations and fulfillment consulting firm F. Curtis Barry & Co. “After that, many personnel cuts were made — both in senior management and in the work force,” he says.

A key problem, according to some: BlueSky Brands incurred too much debt in its acquisitions. One source who requested anonymity describes the company's strategy as “a gross mismanagement from the beginning.”

In particular, says the same source, the National Wildlife and Winterthur titles were in debt when BlueSky acquired them in November 2006. The firm did not ever have deep enough pockets to reinvent the business and sustain the loss, the source notes.

Catalogers typically fail for two reasons, says Stuart Rose, managing director for Wellesley, MA-based investment firm Tully & Holland: “They don't have enough money to finance catalogs, and they don't have enough inventory.” Mailers get the cash from customers when the merchandise ships, not when it is ordered, so you need product in stock to function, he says.

Reports of BlueSky's troubles had been brewing for at least six months, “so the cycle has been there for a while,” Rose says.

Well, businesses do go bust! I'm sure it is all on the up and up though!

Or not. US Dept. of Labor, January 25, 2011:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The U.S. Department of Labor has obtained a court judgment and order appointing an independent fiduciary to manage the 401(k) plan of defunct BlueSky Brands Inc. of Westerly, R.I. The judgment and order resolve a lawsuit filed by the Labor Department against the company for violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Under the judgment and order, the court appointed Northeast Retirement Services Inc. of Woburn, Mass., to serve as the independent fiduciary of the BlueSky Brands Inc. 401(k) Savings Plan. The independent fiduciary has the authority to manage the plan, distribute its assets to the plan’s participants and beneficiaries, and terminate the plan. The judgment was entered in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.

“It’s doubly unfortunate when the closure of a company results in workers both losing their jobs and access to the retirement benefits they have earned,” said Edward Maloney, acting regional director of the Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration in Boston, Mass. “We took this legal action to ensure that the plan is properly managed so that its participants can finally gain access to their retirement assets.”

BlueSky Brands Inc. sponsored the 401(k) plan to provide retirement benefits to the plan participants. Prior to ceasing operations in March 2008, the company failed to take steps to ensure the ongoing prudent administration of the plan, according to the Labor Department’s suit. As a result, former employees of the company have been unable to access their 401(k) accounts. Under ERISA, plans must be managed by fiduciaries. In the absence of a plan fiduciary, participants and beneficiaries cannot obtain plan information, make investments or collect retirement benefits. As of Aug. 31, 2010, the plan had 77 participants and assets totaling $1,055,136.89, the latest data available. Fidelity Investments is the custodian of all of the plan’s assets and will not release those assets without the authorization of a plan fiduciary.

James Surowiecki lays out how these scams work:

The real reason that we should be concerned about private equity’s expanding power lies in the way these firms have become increasingly adept at using financial gimmicks to line their pockets, deriving enormous wealth not from management or investing skills but, rather, from the way the U.S. tax system works. Indeed, for an industry that’s often held up as an exemplar of free-market capitalism, private equity is surprisingly dependent on government subsidies for its profits. Financial engineering has always been central to leveraged buyouts. In a typical deal, a private-equity firm buys a company, using some of its own money and some borrowed money. It then tries to improve the performance of the acquired company, with an eye toward cashing out by selling it or taking it public. The key to this strategy is debt: the model encourages firms to borrow as much as possible, since, just as with a mortgage, the less money you put down, the bigger your potential return on investment. The rewards can be extraordinary: when Romney was at Bain, it supposedly earned eighty-eight per cent a year for its investors. But piles of debt also increase the risk that companies will go bust.

This approach has one obvious virtue: if a private-equity firm wants to make money, it has to improve the value of the companies it buys. Sometimes the improvement may be more cosmetic than real, but historically private-equity firms have in principle had a powerful incentive to make companies perform better. In the past decade, though, that calculus changed. Having already piled companies high with debt in order to buy them, many private-equity funds had their companies borrow even more, and then used that money to pay themselves huge “special dividends.” This allowed them to recoup their initial investment while keeping the same ownership stake. Before 2000, big special dividends were not that common. But between 2003 and 2007 private-equity funds took more than seventy billion dollars out of their companies. These dividends created no economic value—they just redistributed money from the company to the private-equity investors.

As a result, private-equity firms are increasingly able to profit even if the companies they run go under—an outcome made much likelier by all the extra borrowing—and many companies have been getting picked clean. In 2004, for instance, Wasserstein & Company bought the thriving mail-order fruit retailer Harry and David. The following year, Wasserstein and other investors took out more than a hundred million in dividends, paid for with borrowed money—covering their original investment plus a twenty-three per cent profit—and charged Harry and David millions in “management fees.” Last year, Harry and David defaulted on its debt and dumped its pension obligations. In other words, Wasserstein failed to improve the company’s performance, failed to meet its obligations to creditors, screwed its workers, and still made a profit. That’s not exactly how capitalism is supposed to work.

Certainly sounds like the same scam, right down to the choice of a mail-order business.

To recap: the private investment firm of which Darden was a co-founder and managing director, sunk Rhode Island based BlueSky Brands, of which Darden was a director, committing violations of labor law in the Virginias and mis-managing (if not looting) the pensions of workers in Rhode Island. Darden then headed off to the Broad Academy and Philadelphia Public Schools, where he was a key part of the corrupt and discredited Ackerman administration's strategy of parceling off the district's schools to private operators. And now he's the frontrunner for PPSD superintendent? In the middle of a rolling pension crisis?

The cherry on top of all this is that the Rhode Island businesses Darden bankrupted were up and running in no time with proper management:

Some Rhode Island residents consider fixing up their beach house as a summer project. Steve Rowley brought a shuttered 132,000 sq.-ft. distribution center in Westerly, RI, back to life.

Rowley, a semi-retired marketing consultant who was CEO of The Paragon from 1998 to 2005, helped bring jobs back to the building that once housed The Paragon and other catalogs of BlueSky Brands, which shut down last March. The Paragon’s merchandise and operations equipment stored at the Westerly DC were scheduled to be sold at auction this past June, says Rowley.

But the auction was cancelled before its scheduled date when multititle gardening mailer Gardens Alive agreed to purchase all the items, plus the intellectual property and rights of The Paragon. (Gardens Alive had bought BlueSky’s games catalog Bits and Pieces in May.)

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Getting Better Results by Spending More Money

Bruce Baker (Rutgers University), Ken Libby and Kathryn Wiley (University of Colorado Boulder):

We find that in New York City, KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools charter schools spend substantially more ($2,000 to $4,300 per pupil) than similar district schools. Given that the average spending per pupil was around $12,000 to $14,000 citywide, a nearly $4,000 difference in spending amounts to an increase of some 30%. In Ohio, charters across the board spend less than district schools in the same city. And in Texas, some charter chains such as KIPP spend substantially more per pupil than district schools in the same city and serving similar populations, around 30 to 50% more in some cities (and at the middle school level) based on state reported current expenditures, and 50 to 100% more based on IRS filings. Even in New York where we have the highest degree of confidence in the match between our IRS data and Annual Financial Report Data, we remain unconvinced that we are accounting fully for all charter school expenditures.

Reasonably Sane Responses to the New Schools Venture Fund Summit

Ben Daley:

4. It’s all about “student achievement”
Despite the small shift I noticed, the overwhelming feeling at this meeting is still, “all that matters is student achievement (and unstated: and all we mean by student achievement is bubble test scores).” And this is coming from my friends. This made me feel depressed.

5. The role of for-profits in education
I wrote about how Rick Hess has helped me feel more open to the positive role that for-profits can play in education. Every time I start to get irritated by for-profit people, I try to rein myself in (Rick, I really do, I swear!). Still, I felt overwhelmed by all the characters at the Summit who are looking to get rich capitalizing on the “$700 billion education market.” This made me feel creeped out.

6. Blended learning
Just when I started to get interested in blended learning, I had to go to a meeting where 3 out of 4 people are making a living selling “blended learning solutions” to schools, because “blended learning has been proven to work.”
Umm, no it hasn’t.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tomorrow, They'll Perform the Same Analysis on Congressional Medal of Honor Winners

Alan Judd, Heather Vogell and John Perry:

Among all Blue Ribbon schools with suspicious scores, the analysis identified 27, including Highland Elementary, that had the most unlikely gains. In some grades and subjects, the odds against increases occurring without an intervention such as tampering were so high as to be virtually impossible.

The All-Powerful Unions

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson:

Unions can mobilize their members to strike and can act as a powerful interest group, but their power is also probably limited relative to those of the very rich both in democratic and non-democratic societies — and in the US, the power of unions was probably seriously, perhaps irreversibly, damaged by Ronald Reagan’s victory over the air traffic controllers’ strike.

In consequence, in the US today, the fear is not that unions will take over the political process, but that the rich elite — including but not limited to the banking elites — will and in fact have already done so.

This makes us believe that, though the unions, when they have the power, can also act as extractively as other groups in pursuing their interests at the expense of the rest of us, they are not the main elites threatening the inclusivity of Western institutions.

That being said, it is probably true that unions have been in a more rent-seeking mode in the second half of the 20th century compared to their pivotal role in the development of inclusive institutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the story of democracy in Britain would have likely been very different without the labor movement, which mobilized the disenfranchised to demand voting rights for all. Similarly, the US labor movement played a central role in giving voice to workers and improving working conditions. Is anything different today? The answer is not clear. But one possibility is that in fighting for broad-based issues such as democracy or limits on harsh, even coercive, working conditions for most workers, the labor movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries was both more effective and more clearly on the side of greater inclusivity in economic and political institutions. This may have changed once unions’ demands shifted to higher wages, more generous health insurance and better pensions for their narrow membership.

On the other hand, some also argue that a strong labor movement is even more necessary today as a counterweight against the creeping political inequality in favor of the very wealthy and the politically-connected corporations. We think that some sort of organization to counterbalance the political power of the mega-rich is indeed necessary. Whether this role can be — and should be — played by unions is a question that requires more thought and research (i.e., we don’t know the answer).

It Would Be Nice to Have a Newspaper in Town

Bob Plain:

Fewer than 300 people have signed up for the Providence Journal’s e-edition, the product that was supposed to help the august newspaper offset the loss of revenue from its print product. Please, Projo, for the good of Rhode Island, please figure out a viable digital strategy. I say this not as a media critique but as someone who has cherished your journalism since I was a young boy.

Work in Skateboarding

On a similar note, two new videos about Donny Barley and (the closing of) his Fountain of Youth shop in Providence:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

I Guess They're Doubling Down On "Nobody Cares How You (or Your Child) Feel"

Mary Reilly:

For a reader, recognizing the light within is what 'gets made' in transaction with texts. These transactions are often (in)formed by how we feel and think about what we are reading.  What is unfortunate with the some of the rhetoric from Liben and others is that in an attempt to situate the importance of attending directly to the text, they find it necessary to debase readers' feelings that arise when they interact with text. I get the interest in ensuring children actually read the text and do so with integrity.  However, it is shortsighted and misinformed to dismiss feeling.  To a large extent it is why we read. Our children need both types of experiences.

I love the idea of text-based inquiry.  As a former English teacher and professor--such methodology is akin to breathing. For example, I still think that meaning rests on Frost's use of the word 'just' in the closing line of 'After Apple-picking' and if asked to support such an assertion could do so with text in hand.  I recall this not only because of the meaning I have made within the text, but also because the text resonates with me as I age.  The meaning does not hold still, but rather re/emerges alongside occasion.  Reading is complex work. A truth is that making meaning of a text doesn't rest in one approach or the other, but rather both aspects can be found, even when naming them may be difficult. They are rather entwined.

Text dependency is of course critical and it does not represent the totality of reading.  Our expectations need to be a bit bigger so that feeling, attention to textual language and detail,  as well as inquiry are represented in our pedagogical approaches to text and in children's engagements and response to text.  I hope educators gently challenge assertions like Liben makes so that our work can be enriched, not narrowed.

But who among us does not love punching a hippie?

80% of NYC Charters Enroll Fewer Free Lunch Eligible Students Than Neighborhood Public Schools

New York City Charter School Center:

Compared to the CSDs where they are located, however, only 32% of charter schools have an equal or higher percentage of FRPL-eligible students (20% for Free Lunch only). This suggests that, while charter schools serve low-income students in low-income neighborhoods, most have not attracted an economically representative sample of local families.

Keep Superintendent Lusi

Jill Davidson:

Finally, pay careful attention to what the outcome of this process should be. If you want a strong, unified public school district (a big if, given the direction in which Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans and other busted up, privatized districts have headed), please hire Sue Lusi permanently for the position. Sue is building systems that will see the district through the long haul. She's stabilized the district's relationship with the union. She takes teaching and learning seriously. I can attest that she communicates with parents and families confidently, compassionately, thoughtfully, and competently. Her experience and expertise are very well suited for Providence.

If you agree, speak out. You may want to sign a petition that just got started on to indicate your interest in Dr. Lusi's continued work in Providence.

I Don't Know How Much Time is Spent on Reading Strategies, But I Do Know Punching Hippies is Fun!

Dan Willingham:

How much time is devoted to reading comprehension strategy instruction? I can’t find good (or poor) data on this question, and I doubt it exists. There is so much variation among districts (and probably even classrooms) on this issue, it’s hard to draw a conclusion with much confidence. Any time I talk about reading, a lot of teachers, coaches, and administrators tell me that enormous amounts of time go to reading comprehension strategy instruction in their district—but I’m sure the people who make sure to mention this to me are not a random sample.