Readers React On Parental Rights And Philanthropy, Big Friday Fish, Plus Education & Politics

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Today, reader reactions to two recent posts, a couple of items not by me you may have missed, and a serious fish.

Some selected reactions to the recent post on funders and risk. A few funders wrote to say, ‘hey we’re doing this!’ A few shared interesting examples of different kinds of grant making methods. And that’s all great. I wrote,

Some funders are obviously doing this – in the political and practice space. But it’s far from the norm.

This summarizes a more common refrain, a former funder wrote,

Great piece on risk and philanthropy.  It’s really scary how conservative philanthropy has become from an innovation and risk perspective. I think a lot retrenched during Covid in a back to the basics, fill in the gaps mindset.  It’s truly shocking.  When I was a funder, I lived through a transition to outcomes focused grantmaking. I agree, measures and outcomes are very helpful, but as we started to go through elaborate Expected Return calculations with our consultants (that were super loaded with false precision btw, and could be easily discredited by an amateur), I found my strategies getting more and more conservative because of the need to justify every aspect with numbers and inherently put my claims/reputation on the line for each step. Learning and education are notoriously harder to measure than say climate or health….Sadly, I see this throughout foundations now, and am also the recipient of it myself through the grants I receive. I see many colleagues that struggle with it, and it can often squeeze the risk and innovation out of projects.

A longtime journalist and observer of the space wrote about what they see as a consequence,

The prevailing winds of fashion within K-12, combined with a terrible insularity and a conformist intellectual environment, made for a sick environment before 2016. But now it’s worse. Name-calling instead of reasoned argument. Silence in the face of questionable ideas instead of criticism. Cancelling instead of critique.

An operator wrote,

I like the idea of more risk taking, and was going to respond with your third footnote. Somehow foundations without accountability in my experience can’t seem to resist making market choices or affecting market dynamics.

A philanthropic c-level person wrote,

Want to send your latest blog post to every program officer I know, but that would be a bit too passive-aggressive.

Here’s some reaction to last week’s look at why Democrats are having a hard time on parental rights:

A philanthropic sector person wrote,

Seriously, this.  I may just be getting older and crankier (it’s probably partly that), but the interest some progressives have in discrediting parents’ perspectives on educating their own children is really wild. Also, unfortunately my interest in “trusting the experts” stopped around the time that the entire world opened up post-pandemic and my toddler was still being forced to wear a mask at daycare.

Very much agree with the points related to transparency around schools – namely how difficult it is to find out what curriculum and approaches are being used. We have a child starting kindergarten in the fall and it’s been very challenging to learn more about what materials they use and whether they are aligned to anything evidence-based.

Jed Wallace – who I will be doing more podcasting with soon – noted,

Red blue disconnect has so much nuance that people aren’t getting, and generally there’s way too much focus on surface rather than substance. The harm in that is not just superficiality, but some of the substance ends up being worse than it needs to be because it’s not being considered deeply. We end up wasting time screaming at one another rather than discussing/debating.

Elsewhere: Some of the data in this EdChoice/Morning Consult deck challenges various shibboleths around this sector.

Ruy Teixeira, the Democratic political demographer, was sort of voted off the island for not toeing the party line and now works at AEI. That’s too bad, his work is insightful and I highlight it around here from time to time. This passage in a recent analysis on voting behavior is important,

Which brings us to the key issue for many Asian voters: education. It is difficult to overestimate how important education is to Asian voters, who see it as the key tool for upward mobility—a tool that even the poorest Asian parents can take advantage of. But Democrats are becoming increasingly associated with an approach to schooling that seems anti-meritocratic, oriented away from standardized tests, gifted and talented programs and test-in elite schools—all areas where Asian children have excelled. In New York City, Democrat Bill de Blasio’s 2018 proposal to do away with the rigorous test that governed admission to the city’s elite high schools in the name of “equity” became a defining issue in the Asian community.

It does not seem mysterious that Asian voters might react negatively to this approach. In fact, it would be somewhat baffling if they didn’t. Yet Democrats do seem to have great difficulty admitting the nature of the problem they now face with burgeoning numbers of these voters.

Right now the Republicans have a base problem and the Democrats have an activist problem. The party that can solve, at least to some extent, for their problem sooner seems likely to do well in national races. Education and adjacent issues are a key indicator and fulcrum of where things stand.

Part of that basket of issues is the pronounced political shift left the past few years, which has affected schools. You may like that shift in whole, in part, or not at all. It’s a free country. But people keep denying that it’s happening. That’s an affront to common sense and gets in the way of serious conversations about what’s going on. You have people who were not in favor of gay marriage a decade ago now arguing that schools know better than families on gender questions. Wherever you come down on those issues, you can’t deny that’s real velocity. Here’s a good take on all that.

It’s Friday, Whiteboard Advisor’s Ben Wallerstein caught this ridiculous fish recently,

You can find hundreds of pictures of education people with fish via this link.

In A Country With A Lot Of Parents, Why Can’t Democrats Even Cough Up The Words ‘Parent’s Rights?’

I was recently having lunch with a friend, who was a senior hand in the Carter White House. We were noting that in those days if you had predicted there would be a TV network where much of the guest talent was former military, CIA and other spooky types, FBI, and assorted other national security players and the audience lapping it up would be mostly Democrats you’d be laughed at. You’d be ridiculed even more if you then added that when the Russians invaded a sovereign nation many Republicans and conservatives would advocate against supporting efforts to counter Russian military force.

Yet here we are. It’s hard to miss how as a feature of the partisan hardening in this country our politics are becoming predictably and sometimes comically reactionary. There are counterexamples, sure, Joe Biden on crime and policing for instance cuts against the activist grain of the Democratic Party. But in general there is a reaction – counter-reaction problem. How many people died because they wouldn’t follow “Democratic” public health advice? When Donald Trump would call for due process Twitter would light up with people who formerly were at least nominally on board with civil liberties shouting him down. (Reader, even toxic losers deserve due process, it’s basically the whole idea). The ongoing January 6th saga is a depressing, and dangerous, example. Not long ago the Twitter spectacle would have freaked out liberals.

Here in education, one place this reactionary trend shows up a lot is around “parents rights.” Like “Make America Great Again” it’s one of these slogans that it’s sort of politically suicidal to be against yet people do it anyway. (I’m not talking about “MAGA” and 1/6 and all that, but just the 2016 version with those four words and their plain meaning.) When confronted with “Make America Great Again” Democrats could have said, yes, we should do that and here’s our agenda for how. Instead, prominent voices started arguing America wasn’t really ever great, and ridiculing people who love their country. Or, worse, claiming those who believe in American greatness are racist or deplorable and openly or secretly hoping to resurrect a pre-civil rights America. Sure, those types exist, but, not surprisingly this sentiment didn’t sit well with a lot of people who don’t think like that and also love their country. It helped turn a consequential election and drive a brutal wedge in our politics and culture. It’s why “ultra” MAGA or whatever stupid nomenclature is now being road tested.

You can see the same trend on parents rights.

Sure, this is one rando on Twitter but I hear it a lot including from influential people behind the scenes. Some say it out loud:

More recently, here’s the United States Secretary of Education dismissing the idea.

I want to underscore this for the folks in the back: Seething contempt for the idea that parents should get a say in their children’s education is really not a great political strategy in a country with a lot of parents who vote. As I wrote back in 2021 not acknowledging the problems parents are facing, or worse being contemptuous of them is politically tone deaf. It has real consequences – especially right now.

My – should be obvious – point here is that Democrats should champion their own parents rights agenda, too. Ideally in my view it would include school choice, given that’s sort of the ultimate parent right and can be a part of an accountability strategy. But Democrats remain cross-pressured between Democratic voters who want choice (in particular Black and Hispanic voters as well as moderate voters) and white progressives and powerful Democratic special interest groups that don’t.* The producer v. consumer tension in the Democratic coalition will not be easily resolved – certainly not in this post.

Still, even short of using the c-word a robust parents’ rights could include things like a right to equitable school finance and access to high quality curriculum and advanced classes. It could include some sort of right to know whether the material your children are learning is grade-level aligned and research-based. Tutoring and other post-pandemic recovery supports would be a good right to champion, especially coupled with some requirement around an actual evidence base. Transparency about school performance and student learning. Universal screening for gifted and other enrichment programs. Sensible and fair school discipline policies that both ensure orderly safe schools and create positive alternatives to just tossing kids out of school or criminalizing them. And yes, it’s not unreasonable for parents to have a right to see surveys their kids are going to take and to be confident schools are not actively concealing things from them or offering counseling or other services without parental consent. C’mon. Being against that is not only political suicide, it undercuts the public schools. Those are strong majority positions among parents and voters.

You could even do some really bold stuff like empowering parents more around who their child’s teacher is so that it’s not just to connected or affluent parents having access to that valuable information. Not all of these are federal plays, but they are the kind of things that could lead to more responsive and accountable schools.

Right now House Republicans are championing a messaging bill on parents’ rights, and the debate is playing out in predictable fashion. (You should also read Neal McCluskey’s libertarian critique of the whole idea.) The Dems have an idea of their own but it has political liabilities, too, because it’s an exercise in activist pleasing and it doesn’t seem sufficient to the moment.

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or a ‘no thank you,’ the salutary benefit of a debate over parents rights like this would be an actual debate about policy and practice questions relating to kids and parents, not just culture war atmospherics like what’s happening on the Hill right now. And it would better highlight both the large areas of overlap and the real fault lines. My – should be clear now – bias is I don’t think either “side” has it right so that’s a debate I welcome. But even objectively I can’t help but think a debate about what an education focused agenda for schools and families looks like would have a clarifying effect and perhaps move us forward even a small bit. It’s surely better than what passes for an education debate now.

There is a school of thought that the culture war appeal has peaked. And to some extent I think that’s true and plenty of evidence shows there is more common ground than the professional culture warriors on right and left want to acknowledge because it’s not in their interest to. I pointed out back when this was heating up that what Glenn Youngkin accomplished in Virginia was not a just-add water strategy in all federal races and that some Republicans would overreach – see DeSantis, Ron.

But I’d suggest an older adage applies even more: In politics it’s hard to beat something with nothing. And right now the Democratic answer on parents’ rights is nothing. Not in the badass Godfather, “my final offer is this: nothing” way, but in a we got nothing way.

That’s a miss. An avoidable and consequential one.

*In my view any parents rights agenda that doesn’t include any choice will be easy pickings for the critics and perhaps politically worse than doing nothing because it will lay bare the tensions. Choice ideas are not rapidly being adopted in states because they’re all proven, but because right now they’re all popular. Parents want change. You have charters, public school choice, inter-district choice, there are plenty of options that address zip-code assigned schooling that while still party splitting for the Dems nonetheless enjoy sufficient support to make the politics work. It’s not vouchers or ESAs or nothing. Democrats could also focus on student choice and agency – for instance access to post-secondary options or CTE opportunities in high school. Here, too, doing nothing is not a great strategy.

Unaccountable Philanthropy Please

A few months ago I noted that you can’t really divorce the concern about meltdowns at progressive non-profits from the structure of prevalent models of funding. A lot of feedback on that one, basically everyone except the Jacobins who thrill to this theater agreed with the broad idea that funding should allow leaders to lead.

Implicit is the idea that you’ll lead and be accountable to funders and whatever other governance arrangement you operate in. So here’s another idea about philanthropy, and one that at least to certain ears will sound more crazy: I’d like to see more unaccountable philanthropy. A lot more.

via Wikimedia

Over roughly the past fifteen years or so philanthropy became wed to a model of metrics. Being accountable – as distinct from being transparent – is a common refrain and a focus of strategy. There is a whole cottage industry around accountable philanthropy.

This approach is often seen as a way to make giving more equitable – in practice it can have the opposite effect. I’ll have a post on that soon. And privately you hear a lot of foundation types grumbling about what they see as a management consultant-driven and metric-fetishizing approach to giving they think hampers effectiveness. (I’m not anti-management consultant, I have a friend who is a management consultant…some of my best friends are…)

Of course, quite obviously, some metrics are important and reasonable. For example, if you take money saying you’re going to produce five reports, then you should produce five reports. If the money is given for work on school choice, or SEL, or teacher quality, then work should be done on those issues. If you are going to build something, then build it. I’m not arguing for carte blanche.

I’m talking about something different, risk.

Everyone was very excited about this new DARPA- like approach in education. (And the work IES’ Mark Schneider is doing to try to modernize the federal role in education research is thankless and essential.) I have argued for an approach like this myself. Sara Mead and I did a project about it for Brookings in 2008. I tried to convince OMB this was a good idea back in 1999 (unsuccessfully, obviously).

Still, there is probably something to the cautions Rick Hess raises and my views about the constraints of government here are changing. And there are some fundamental differences with DARPA and education including clear mission focus* and having a single regulated buyer as opposed to the prism-like structure of K-12 procurement. That’s also true in some other areas of government innovation often compared to education, for instance NASA.

The federal government does have a role to play in R&D and in innovation. But what the federal government is really good at, especially where social policy is concerned, is writing checks. As we’ve discussed here this is why unflashy but effective programs like Social Security are so important. And it’s why in education perhaps scaling effective ideas is a more important and has a better record in terms of the federal federal role than trying to be an innovator.

What does this mean for philanthropy? Well for starters, the philanthropic sector is a place (at least in theory) where you can take a risk. Both because you can and because you must.

Philanthropies – like other tax-exempt public charities and non-profits – have to meet certain legal standards and they also must disburse a minimum share of assets. But within those rules they can more or less do what they want – so the question of risk appetite is up to them. The philanthropic spend on K-12 schools is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of total K-12 spending. To make a difference it has to be catalyzing rather than additive. Or it should do things government can’t or doesn’t. It’s really the whole point.

When I say unaccountable philanthropy I also don’t mean reckless, without proper diligence and consideration, or absent a broader theory of change. That’s all important work (and a place I will note that effective consultants can add real value). Despite some fashionable ideas today, casually giving away money can cause real chaos. Nor do I mean absent transparency. Even beyond the legal requirements on foundations real transparency about success and failure is important to learning and progress.

Rather, I mean taking some real risks, leaning into the messiness of innovation and failure that is inherent in progress. And as importantly creating space for that kind of work, not only substantively but also politically.

Right now we basically have it backwards. Government takes the risks, often badly. Philanthropy often addresses public sector shortfalls – and not just in education but across a range of social policy issues.

So for instance, there’s a case to be made that having philanthropy underwrite curriculum reviews through EdReports is not the best way to finance that work and either the private sector or government would be more preferable.**

Philanthropy funds a lot of things that work, on average or even more consistently than that, because government won’t for various political reasons. Urban charter schools are probably exhibit A here. The track record is strong, but these schools still need philanthropic support to grow (and in some cases to operate because they get so much less money per-pupil than other public schools around them).

But there are plenty of other examples. – and also certainly some compelling counterexamples where government has moved the needle. Yet is underwriting successful initiatives or initiatives where a good business plan is the best path to sustainability really the highest-leverage use of philanthropic dollars? There are also counter examples of some grantmakers funding initiatives with a lot of risk or failure potential.

Philanthropic capital is risk capital, especially in a sector with a lot of market gaps and externalities and screwed up systems given the haphazard nature of the system. And we really need some risk taking because even at its best the current model is not delivering the results people want to see. Some funders are obviously doing this – in the political and practice space. But it’s far from the norm.

Perhaps the shorter version of this post would be – what’s the point of having billions if you don’t take on some risk with them and are not willing to whether the political hits? I don’t know, because I don’t have billions. But I’d like to think if I did I’d be less worried about being accountable to various politics or ideologies or whatever and more into making some dice roles with an eye toward progress. Even if you’re not bought into the theory of change it at least seems more fun than much of the status quo today.

*One reason innovation in education is often synonymous with fad is the lack of a clear mission. Success or the most important thing often looks five different ways to five different people in our sector. You certainly don’t want to romanticize military procurement or the private sector but clear outcomes do help a lot.

**A different issue for another time is how philanthropies can distort markets and innovation by picking winners and losers in the early stage of an innovation cycle. The CW in parts of our sector is that philanthropies support “privatization.” The messy reality is that they may impede it if you define privatization as a broader role for the private sector in education.

Vallas Slays, As The Kids Say. Plus Mesler & Horn On Sports, More Choice, Thinking About Polling…More…

I was on a Zoom a few months ago, Paul Vallas was on as well. It wasn’t political or Chicago focused, more about education policy in general. But of course someone asked him how he saw his race. At this point he wasn’t a front runner but Vallas laid out how he saw things and his odds, which he forecasted as pretty good for making the runoff. A few people privately discounted that. But obviously turns out Paul was right. More here.

Say what you want about Vallas who has led schools in Chicago and Louisiana among other roles – and people say plenty – he does not check his brain or fall in with education’s various shibboleths or narratives, or political myths more generally. People care about crime and schools. He ran on crime and schools. His long shot campaign succeeded because he learns and makes up his own mind and is pretty pragmatic. In our sector that’s always made him suspect because he doesn’t fit cleanly with any faction, but that’s our problem not his. Who knows what will happen now in the runoff where he faces Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. I’m far from an expert on Chicago’s tribal politics (I thought Lightfoot was a breath of fresh air). But I do know this, what Vallas pulled off last night is impressive, and he did it his own way.

Last year we talked about Tobias Reed and education reformers, Vallas might fall in the same bucket.

I wasn’t sure about art for this post so here’s a pic of Mesler (item below) and one of my daughters on an outrageous powder day earlier this winter. It was that or a headshot of Vallas.

A few things I’ve been up to lately:

Steve Mesler and I sat down with Michael Horn to talk youth sports on his podcast. We talked about Classroom Champions, the organization Steve and his sister Leigh launched after Steve retired as an athlete (disc – I’m on the board) and how mentoring grounded in sports can help students. But also youth sports more generally – how can we foster a culture that gets more kids moving and playing and keeps them doing that as adults. And we discussed a few other adjacent issues.

In this brief primer my colleagues Alex Spurier, Biko McMillan, Julie Squire and I took a look at public opinion and considerations about using and contextualizing polling data in education work.

Opportunity America convened a group to discuss new paths in education. Essays here. I wrote about why reformers need to move from thinking about school choice as separate prong of reform (or crazy uncle in the attic) to part of a broader strategy to make schools more responsive and accountable. Tamar Jacoby, who runs Opportunity America, is launching a new Ukraine initiative at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Periodic hygiene reminder. Google is no longer supporting the Feedburner platform so if you’re getting Edu Commentary by email that way at some point it will fail to be reliable. You can read Edu Commentary here of course. Or you can get it free by email via Substack here.

There is also an @eduwonk Twitter feed that automatically posts new content but nothing else. I am on Twitter here @arotherham. And Bellwether is here @bellwetherorg.

What Does President’s Day Have To Do With Education?

The other night my daughter and I were walking through Washington DC, after dinner on our way to the Warner Theater to see Tedeschi Trucks Band – her first time. They put on a great show and she was hooked from the jump, that’s a post for another time. Part of our stroll took us past Ford’s Theater and we talked for a bit about the counterfactual of what might have happened had that night had gone differently? It’s amazing to me, and a worrying sign, that idiots want to take Lincoln’s name off schools. He’s arguably the best we’ve had, certainly in the small top tier.

Source LOC

This President’s Day let’s pause on two parts of Lincoln’s seminal Second Inaugural Address, from March 1864, for their still relevance to education questions including pensions. Yes, there is always a pension angle.

President Lincoln notes,

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves not distributed generally over the union but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.

Later, after the war, John Mosby, the Confederate guerrilla who was a persistent problem for Union forces in Virginia and whose tactics are still studied and taught today, said much the same thing. “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery” he wrote a colleague in the late 19th Century.

Mosby, who later served in the Grant, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft Administrations and even influenced a young George Patton, took issue with Lost Cause revisionism and attempts to change the narrative of the war. Yet if you visit Mosby’s grave today, on a hill in Warrenton, Virginia, you will usually find Confederate battle flags and iconography.

One reason? For years schools in many parts of the country have taught about the many causes of the civil war – economics, states’ rights, and slavery. Of course, third of these, slavery, was the through line. It was about the economics of slavery, the right of states to maintain or expand slavery or leave the union altogether over it.

Here, for instance, are the current history standards in Virginia about causes of the Civil War:

a)   describing the cultural, economic, and constitutional issues that divided the nation;

b)   explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions;

Here are the new standards now under review:

b) examining how the institution of slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and secondary factors that contributed to the succession of the southern states.

You will search in vain for an acknowledgment of this important change, or the addition of coverage of a range of issues from Jim Crow and racial terror to civil rights to the expansion of rights for LGBT Americans. Instead it’s mostly rhetoric, including from people who when pushed admit they haven’t actually read the standards.

I’m not arguing the proposed standards are perfect, that they could not be improved, or that reasonable people can’t disagree over aspects of them. Rather, I’m arguing they have turned into a reactionary exercise and even the media coverage is now tied up in the narrative. Most of the generalizations and sweeping statements are just wrong. It’s a disservice. “Stopping” Glenn Youngkin is now more important than getting anything done. We can do better.

A second educationally relevant passage is what follows the famous “bind up the nation’s wounds” line,

With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

It’s an incredible piece of political speech. But, also, and here it comes….a signal and prelude to an evolution of pension and retirement security policy that continues to this day. Theda Skocpol traces some of this history in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. Pensions emerged for veterans, widows, and orphans before the broader expansion of social insurance through Social Security and other government programs. In his lively book on Grover Cleveland Troy Senik traces some of the problems with these early policies that landed on Cleveland’s desk.

For teachers, these pensions still don’t work that well. The narrative – from right and left – is that they’re generous or “gold plated” but this is belied by the reality – as many teachers will tell you and the data. Chad Aldeman and I looked at that in Democracy a few years ago. The debate is framed as less or more for teachers, when in fact the real action is about “different.”

My broader point is one I make around here a lot. Don’t trust the narratives and don’t outsource your thinking. At at time there is evidence elites are bending their education views to fit their broader political views while parents are now more willing to break out of traditional partisan alliances over education this seems especially important. Our divides are real, but nothing like what we’ve endured in the past. Keeping it that way is everyone’s responsibility.

Happy President’s Day.

Guestpost: When K12 Leaders Make Mistakes, Who Takes Note?

Steve Rees is an education polymath. I have vintage pictures he took of Jerry Garcia and Alan Ginsburg in 1960s California. His photography appeared in the recent Bill Graham retrospective and in documentaries about the Grateful Dead. Steve once gave me a Warlocks poster. He’s also a fine fly fisherman. And I should also mention he’s been a leader on education data, how to use it, think about it, communicate about it – long before data took on some prominence in education.

Today, a guest post by Steve about his new book, with Jill Wynns, about data, Mismeasuring Schools’ Vital Signs. Here’s Steve, enjoy:

I’ll confess, mistakes, errors and miscalculations fascinate me. I find they hold rich opportunities to learn. The errors made by district and site leaders, their origins and the learning lessons they offer became the heart of a book I wrote during the pandemic, together with my friend Jill Wynns: Mismeasuring Schools’ Vital Signs. Her 24 years as a school board leader in San Francisco, and my 23 years working with more than 240 California districts, gave us a wealth of stories to draw from.

Some of these stories come from my having read many dozens of California school districts’ plans and school site annual plans. They are artifacts of human judgment, and they are filled with weak evidence and broken logic: test results misinterpreted; miniscule changes in grad rates mistaken as consequential; teaching staff experience and attrition ignored; the progress of emerging bilingual students mismeasured. This mess supports John Hattie’s question in Visible Learning

“The key question is whether teaching can shift from an immature to a mature profession, from opinions to evidence, from subjective judgments and personal contact to critique of judgments.”

Disregarding signals of misteaching

I’ve worked with districts where 30 percent of third-grade students lag in reading by one year or greater by the spring. Yet no one dares ask whether this is the result of how they teach reading to everyone. Could teachers and the district curriculum and instruction leaders have selected the wrong instructional materials? 

I’ve worked with districts, as analytic partner, where seven graduating class cohorts in a row start out strongly in math in 3rd grade, but when they hit 6th grade, progress stops. Middle school math results go flat as a pancake (negligible scale score increase from grade 6 to 7 to 8). Principals see the pattern (good) but continue teaching the same way with the same instructional materials the next year (bad).

California Dept. of Education warps the evidence

I’ve seen California’s official measuring tool for school and district accountability, the Dashboard, taken as the gospel truth. Yet it is riddled with six types of errors, which combine to make it a festival of false positives and false negatives. It reaches wrong conclusions about academic achievement. It mismeasures gaps. It often classifies schools and districts into color zones that are fundamentally incorrect. It ignores imprecision inherent in test results. It still omits growth measures. Although the Dashboard is the butt of jokes at conferences, the California Department of Education (CDE) requires that it be the primary source of evidence for all schools’ and districts’ annual plans. The result: money and time are being wasted. Planning becomes a charade. At charter renewal hearings, it is sometimes the justification for denying reauthorization to schools that shine. (See this scary example from Los Angeles.)

Why aren’t these errors learning opportunities? 

When practitioners make mistakes in other professions, they are often noted. In hospitals, when patients are harmed by a surgical team’s error, it is documented. It may be studied by quality control teams. If the error was the result of misfeasance, the error may be the subject of an internal review, or a case study. If it is negligence, it may lead to litigation. 

If they aren’t visible errors, however, the human tendency to disguise those errors may prevail. In schools, I believe this happens all too often. We have data galore that documents the misclassification of English learners, the failure to screen for dyslexia, and the misteaching of reading. Yet the data isn’t really understood. Why? Perhaps one factor is that data has not been built into solid evidence, and put in the hands of people ready to bring it to light, and if necessary, raise a ruckus.

Why does it take public interest lawyers like Mark Rosenbaum suing California school districts like BerkeleyUSD to get K12 leaders and school board trustees to consider that they have adopted the wrong reading curriculum? Will the absence of dyslexia screening in 11 states, including California, be seen as a mistake soon, or will it take litigation to force the question?

If you share my hope that K12 leaders can eventually learn from their mistakes without the help of lawyers, I hope you’ll pick up our book, Mismeasuring Schools’ Vital Signs. It will help sharpen up your b.s. detectors, and encourage you to bring errors into the light of day. 

For faculty to request a review copy

Steve Rees is the founder of School Wise Press, and currently leads their K12 Measures team. He welcomes your comments by email.

Edujobs, Plus Safety, Surveys, And What College And Social Security Have In Common

Greetings! Carnival week really gets going in New Orleans this week – they even close the schools, something I support. (But don’t take school attendance advice from me…although I’d argue with longer school year the flexibility for teachers and students would be powerful).

This picture has almost nothing to do with this post but it’s a fun time of year.

Anyhow, today, below are a few quick items not not long enough for a standalone post and several open edujobs at DSST, Advance Illinois, and Bellwether.

Safetyism. People can hold two ideas in their heads at the same time. Even if they disagree on specifics most everyone seems to generally realize that some of what is done in the name of school discipline is poor practice, perpetuates discriminatory behavior by schools, and is just bad for kids. Yet something else is true as well – people want safe schools, and that very much includes teachers. Some new data from Morning Consult and Ed Choice on that. We have some data on the same issue in this deck.

In the same way disorder undermines civil society, safe and orderly schools are a predicate for learning. People operate under something of a Maslow’s hierarchy here. If schools aren’t safe and orderly, they don’t care about much else. This is a longstanding and completely understandable finding to anyone who has kids (or has been a kid, c’mon). Yet it still often feels like the sector hasn’t gotten the memo. This isn’t the only cause of the exodus we’re seeing from public schools – but it’s a factor. And the narrative approach to talking about it is not helping.

Missing the kids. In other whistling past the graveyard news, a lot of kids left K-12 public schools during the pandemic. The percents seem low but the numbers are enormous against the scale of the system. Thomas Dee keeps pointing this out and did against last week. And we seem to keep ignoring it. This field does not act like an industry scrambling to address a big problem. The other night Biden said the pandemic was in a new phase, which is good news, but didn’t say what we’re going to do to address the damage of the policies in the last phase. More data on enrollment (and achievement) related to pandemic policies in the recent Bellwether Common Ground deck. Does someone want to speculate again on why ESA’s are so popular with parents now?

About last night week. Despite people in the moment saying it was the best State of the Union of the past 40 years or whatever, it was a fine and effective political speech that did its job but will do little to change our underlying political dynamic. Does seem like Sarah Huckabee Sanders blew a big opportunity. I also think the whole thing should be a written report to Congress so, again, take my views with a grain of salt.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the juxtaposition of two themes. Biden rope-a-doped the Republicans on entitlements, probably his best move of the night. Two things are true. We have an entitlement problem and need reform, and drastic cuts would adversely impact millions of Americans. (I tend to be someone who thinks Social Security should be expanded as part of any reform package – about four in ten teachers do not participate, for example, and that is part of our teacher retirement challenge. And we need to account for differences in different kinds of work in how we think about retirement ages, which is one piece of the solution set.)

But here’s the thing about Social Security: It’s arguably our most effective anti-poverty program. The government is good at writing checks, and those checks keep millions of Americans out of poverty in their old age. It’s not glamorous, but it works and is really important as part of a safety net.

You know what else helps move Americans out of poverty? College. It’s way out of fashion in our sector to say, but if you’re poor going to college is still a good idea. You’re unlikely to end up poor assuming you make some reasonable choices about where you go and what you study (look for some upcoming work from Bellwether on ways to help people better do that). I don’t think many people are against the idea of giving people a path to a solid life whether or not they go to college. Or against improving community colleges and using them as a pathway and a credentialing opportunity. Or generally giving young people more choices. But it seemed liked Biden over-indexed on non-college secondary paths. That’s a disservice to poor kids who we should be encouraging and better supporting to get as much education as they can.

Not normal, or all too normal now? Last week the Virginia Senate voted not to confirm my colleague on the Virginia Board of Education, Suparna Dutta, to a full term. Lots of strong feelings on all sides. Ginni Thomas got involved, which was not helpful. But here’s the thing no one said as far as I know: Suparna, a first-generation American, took time off of work to serve, on her own dime and at the expense of time off for things like family trips. I’ve served with a lot of board members and I’ve never seen one more prepared than her – she read everything, took copious notes ahead of time, asked questions. Did I agree with her on everything? No. Nor her with me. That’s good on a public body because we talked about things. But she cared and was committed, and I do wish everyone serving in public roles took it as seriously as Suparna did. Those in Virginia who want to see standards raised lost an ally.

Something real is forfeited when a parent and first-generation immigrant American who sees the public schools as a ladder of opportunity is deemed unqualified, for reasons that seem either reflexively political or personal. Especially at a time we should be encouraging people to serve, this seems likely to have the opposite effect. The activists are happy she’s gone, I’m not sure how well this will sit with average parents.

Sources and Methods. This survey is getting some of attention – it looks at the recent gender law in Florida and its impact on LGBT families. That’s an important issue even if, contra the survey, the law isn’t “don’t say gay,” which is one reason why it’s more broadly supported in Florida than among the chattering class. But here’s the problem, this self-response survey was open for almost three months, is an intentional non-random sample, and it has 113 responses. In Florida. That’s a pretty big state.

That means it could very well be biased upward, that these were 113 people far more concerned with these policies than the average parent and that’s why they took time to respond. That would skew the results and is an issue with self-response surveys. Or, conversely, it could also be that these results dramatically understate the level of concern or impact because all the families not asked have much higher levels of concern. 113 is a pretty small n. Which is it? Beats me. And based on the actual responses you could make a case either way. We just can’t know because this isn’t reliable or representative data. Modest suggestion: If you want to be an “ally” – do the kind of work that really sheds light on what’s going on. Kind of like this or like this.


President of DSST. If you want a leadership role at a top charter school network focused on STEM this is a terrific opportunity. Operating in Denver DSST is a well-regarded and impactful charter network changing how people think about what’s possible in public educaiton. You can learn more about the role here.

Senior Policy Assoicate at Advance Illinois. The quite obviously Illinois-based Advance Illinois is a long time education advocacy organization with a record of thoughtfully impacting the policy conversation in that state. Great opportunity to get involved in the policy work there if you like managing and leading policy work and are comfortable with state policy. More details here.

Edujobs at Bellwether: We are hiring for multiple jobs at Bellwether including some new roles. We have about 100 people on our team so jobs like finance director are a chance to work with systems in a growing organization. Development and Partnerships Manager is a great way to work across a dynamic organization. We’re also hiring for other roles.

In case you missed it, Bellwether put out a deck on current trends buffeting schools. A lot of data that might be useful. And here’s a look at some state school finance plays and here’s a look at how to improve state finance systems.

Recently here at Edu Commentary I wrote about our definitional problem. And Kris Amundson wrote about parents.

A Definitional Problem

Last month we put out a new analysis at Bellwether, Common Ground*, about the landscape the sector is operating in. I wrote a short post about it here.

We identified six common themes we are seeing across a range of issues, from DEI to school enrollment. One that warrants more attention in my view is the pervasive definitional confusion that is distorting educational debates today and causing people to talk past one another. There are real divides, yes, but there is also more common ground than people realize.

For instance, to use two hot-button issues that are in the news a lot lately, when we talk about teaching about gender and sexuality in school the specific age of students matters a lot. People are, understandably, a lot more concerned with what content is taught in say K-3 than middle and high school. That’s not to say objections go away where older kids are concerned, but there is a lot less opposition. Likewise, there is a big difference between a school concealing active measures they are taking from parents and just giving students some degree of privacy in their lives or turning teachers into cops. Those distinct issues are commonly conflated leading to a lot of avoidable confusion and angst.

BLM is another good example. You’re often asked, ‘do you support Black Lives Matter?’ Are we talking about the plain meaning of those three words? Then of course. The overall political agenda of the organization? Or specifics of that agenda – some of which aren’t even supported by a majority of Black Americans? All three of those questions are important, but they are three quite different questions that will elicit different answers from different people. The reason supporters and opponents conflate those things is to obscure not reveal. It’s about power, not illumination.

Book “bannings” are another. There are some folks who want to go back to the 1950s, but there are others who just want to limit access to explicit content without parental approval. People also disagree on what’s explicit and there is a lot of confusion about various books – that many people arguing about them on all sides have never read. Censorious instincts abound and are nothing new in education. We’d have a healthier conversation if people made more clear what they are and are not talking about.

And of course school shootings. Definitions of what constitutes a school shooting vary widely – from stray bullets hitting school facilities at any time day or night to narrow definitions of intentional gun violence in a school. Some activists try to hype the numbers to call attention to the problem. The result is a lot of confusion about prevalence.

Words like equity have lost all precision. Fiscal equity or equity work that focuses on addressing achievement gaps by providing more support to students who are further behind is a great distance from some of what now flies under the banner of “equity” work.

Or “anti-racism?” Are we talking about being against racism, or specific aspects of work by writers like Ibram X. Kendi or Tema Okun? Or something else? People – on all sides – often don’t say, and there is a reason for that.

In the end it all creates a lot of confusion that obscures genuine points of disagreement – and consensus. My point here is not that your views should be dictated by public opinion – on the contrary. My point is merely that we might have a healthier and less toxic conversation if we were more clear on what we’re talking about in the first place.

(Another piece of this dynamic is how infrequently people read underlying documents or materials. It’s remarkable how often the discourse about some issue or event diverges from the facts – especially on social media).

Some politicians, I’m thinking in particular of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are becoming adept at exploiting this. They let the public characterization of an issue diverge from the plain letter of some policy and that allows them to marginalize their critics as hysterical or dishonest. Others use vagueness to their advantage to obscure positions that are popular with activists but not the general public. Twitter is rocket fuel for this problem especially as our politics become polarized and zero sum.

Look, we’re all going to make mistakes. And we’re going to mischaracterize things based on misunderstandings or incomplete or imperfect communication because we’re humans. And as issues evolve how we talk about them will change, too. C’est la vie as they say. Where we can try to do better is to be as precise as possible, share definitions transparently, and avoid deliberate misinformation.

I’m not naive. Politics is what it is and some of this is par for the course. But if your role – and this especially goes for the media but also leaders more generally – is to explain and interpret then there is a lot of room to do better.

If you’re interested in learning more about some strategies and context, three books I’d recommend are Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict, Todd Rose’s Collective Illusions, and Julia Galef’s Scout Mindset. This essay by Freddie deBoer is also excellent.

ICYMI – Bellwether also released a look at some plays on school finance equity. In the spirit of this post that means ensuring funding and funding effort is allocated based more on need than is commonly the case today. It’s interesting, and certainly not the worst thing, that two related areas of education policy that are seeing a lot of attention recently are finance and also school choice. Stay tuned on that.

Guestpost: Kris Amundson On Parents

Kris Amundson is a former Democratic state legislator in Virginia, she’s been a school board member in Fairfax County, and she led NASBE as its CEO. Her book on the pandemic and education was a good look at that mess and on the holiday book list. She’s currently a consultant – and a good savvy advisor for entities navigating today’s tortuous education politics. In a recent conversation she was sharing an account of some time she’d recently spent in Honduras – she spends a fair amount of time in Central America – and I said, that’s interesting, would you write up? She graciously did. Enjoy:

Early in December, I spent time at a college graduation in Honduras. Afterward, the young parents in attendance began talking, as young parents often do, about their kids and school. 

Except for the fact that everyone was speaking Spanish, the discussion could have taken place in any living room in the U.S. These parents made it clear that the effects of the pandemic and school closures have not gone away. Their kids are still struggling in school. They are behind where these parents knew they should be. And the schools are not giving the help they need.

One mom compared the work her current second grader was doing to the work her older sister had done in the year before COVID. “It’s not the same,” she said. “I know where she should be, and she’s not there.” 

For these parents, worries about education have a special resonance. All of them grew up in poverty. (And as Sen. Tim Kaine sometimes says, “There’s poor and then there’s poor in Honduras.” They were poor in Honduras.) It was only because of hard work and scholarships (many provided by a scholarship foundation I helped found) that they themselves had arrived in the middle class.

As a result, they are laser-focused on making sure their children’s hard-won educational opportunities are not wasted. So they ask their schools to send home additional activities to help close learning gaps. They devote time every night to tackling the gaps they know exist.

But they don’t always feel like schools are their partners. Yes, students get some remediation in school, but it’s hard to address the learning issues of a large group of students if each one is missing a different skill. 

These Honduran moms were saying what I have heard from many American parents.   When I was doing research for my new book Unfinished Learning: Parents, Schools, and the COVID School Closures, I heard the same worries over and over. One young dad almost broke my heart when he said, “When it comes down to it, the pandemic made me realize that families are fundamentally on our own.”  

That worry is what makes young American parents I know anxiously exchange recommendations for phonics reading workbooks. It’s also, I am afraid, a big reason that so many parents are leaving public schools.

When Dan Goldhaber recently spoke about the “urgency gap” in discussing a CALDER study about COVID recovery, he was addressing those anxieties. Schools need to listen. 

Parents also need a more honest view of how their kids are doing. My Honduran mom friends, who themselves only recently became members of the middle class, are much more clear-eyed about where they want their kids to be.

In Central America and in the US, what parents really want is for some accurate information . . . and some action . . . on helping their kids recover from COVID learning loss.

Kris Amundson is a former school board member, state legislator, and CEO of NASBE. 

Schools & Transitions In The Times

Thoughtful deep dive in The Times on transgender youth and when it’s appropriate for schools to withhold information from parents. Notably, The Times seems to be breaking the taboo that this whole thing is just conservatives whipping up an issue.

I wrote about this a few months ago – short version I think it’s only OK to conceal things K-12 schools are doing with students from parents when safety is involved and then only until the situation can be stabilized. There is a lot more concern about this idea that it’s ok to cut parents out among clinicians than activists. The Times talks with Erica Anderson.

The real flashpoint is going to be some unsettled First Amendment questions about teacher rights. Those are in the courts and bear watching.

Related to that, this part of the Times article struck me,

“Educators have also said they feel bound by their own morality to affirm students’ gender identities, especially in cases where students don’t feel safe coming out at home.”

Leave aside that affirming and actively concealing your actions from parents are two different things, this is not good ground to fight this issue out on.

Advocates and some educators seem not to get that there are other educators who feel bound by a different sense of morality. Some don’t want to use a student’s preferred pronouns – even when the student’s parents request it. Some think that gay kids are somehow defective or wrong. Like the idea of “lived experience,” personal conceptions of morality are a bad way to govern actions in the public sector. They’re not falsifiable. They are arbitrary in a pluralistic society.

In the public schools – and the public sector more generally – you’re not bound by your own morality. You’re bound by the law. It’s why you can’t, for instance, decide to not issue marriage licenses to gay couples if you’re a public official. That’s the other side of this same culture war coin. On any particular issue you may not get the result you personally prefer, but it’s less capricious and preferable to unilateral action by state actors based on their own feelings. That basic idea is getting lost here.

If you’re on the side of the debate where public opinion is not yet on your side – you should be especially cautious about claiming that conceptions of morality are grounds for individual action by state actors. Yes, sometimes defying laws is part of changing them. In this instance, however, we’re talking about kids and their parents and families.

And, yes, the law here is a mess right now. What rights young people do and don’t have objectively makes little sense across the states and within particular states. But in a liberal society the law is the best we’ve got. It’s more stable and predictable than any person’s individual sense of what’s moral. Danger that way lies for public schools and more generally.

A colleague remarked recently that everyone he knows who has gone off to the culture wars comes back wounded. I’m worried that will be true for the public schools as well.

One other note on this. It’s the kind of issue where people are going to disagree in good faith. And one where I suspect society will evolve. My own view is that we’ll become much more welcoming toward kids (and adults) who express themselves in ways that don’t correspond with biological sex but much more restrained on medicalization of gender issues for kids. Other countries are already moving that way. In a decade or so people will wonder why we fought about pronouns so much but other aspects of today’s debate won’t age well at all.

At the same time, what’s startling to me is the intensity of preference falsification here. There are conservatives who are fairly libertarian about how people should live their lives and just want to ensure schools aren’t getting front of families. They should speak up more. And plenty of people on the left who don’t think schools should conceal transitions from parents feel pressured not to say so (or want to signal group solidarity). Everyone, especially these kids, would be a lot better off with a more honest conversation.

ICYMI – Bellwether released a deck last week that had a little data related to this issue and a lot on a variety of political and cultural issues affecting schools.