April 29, 2022

Three Gold Medalists, Panic On SEL, Boston Disaster, And Rare Collectible Willingham Fish Porn! More…

Photo: Jen Mull-Brooks

It’s SEL Week here at Eduwonk!

On Wednesday we talked about how SEL is not inherently crazy political and to the extent people try to make it that way SEL leaders should push back.

Today, there is a new essay from Panic at the Pondiscio arguing SEL is not a Trojan Horse for CRT while also repeating his argument that some SEL activity does cross some lines from educational to therapeutic. Both are  important points that will at once antagonize right and left for different reasons. I don’t agree with the full scope of Robert’s SEL critique, though I think the blurred boundaries issue is one that is not getting enough attention in this hot house moment. Recommend the essay.

Also on Wednesday I mentioned this discussion I did with Kelly Pannek and Nicole Hensley from the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team. They won Gold in 2018 and Silver in 2022. We talked about coaching, teaching, relationships, drive, and why addressing gender inequity in sports is good for everyone. You can watch it here via the BARR Center’s feed.

The BARR agenda was a really thoughtful compilation of mind, body, culture and art. Great arc for a meeting. One final random note from the BARR conference. After the evening events ended Wednesday night I was walking across the hotel property to a friend’s room for a little party she was throwing. It was hard to miss that every few patios or so there was a group of teachers partying. The pools had teachers in them hanging out and partying. And it was not early evening, it was late. After two years of off-again and on-again interaction it’s so clear a lot of people want to be together and are ready to have a good time with others.

Here’s Steve Mesler, also a Gold Medalist, also has contributed Fish Porn, everything on Eduwonk today ties together, on SEL and touching on the same issues. Steve is the co-founder of Classroom Champions, an organization that uses mentors and the mindset of elite athletes to mentor students. About 4:20 in, but watch the whole thing:

(And disclosures, so many. BARR is a client, Steve Mesler is a personal friend and I’m on his board at Classroom Champions).

The Boston Schools Fund puts out a terrific weekly round-up on what’s happening in education there. Today’s is must-read with regard to the Mission Hill situation. Surprised there is not more attention on this. OK not surprised, but still…c’mon.

This Noah Smith column is interesting and weirdly made me a little happier:

This morning I noticed that the New York Times blamed rising imports for the fall in U.S. GDP in the first quarter of 2022:

“The ballooning trade deficit, meanwhile, took more than three percentage points away from G.D.P. growth in the first quarter. Imports, which are subtracted from gross domestic product because they are produced abroad, have soared in recent months as U.S. consumers have kept spending. But exports, which add to G.D.P., have lagged in part because of weaker economic growth abroad.:” (emphasis mine)

The part in bold is not right. In fact, it’s the most common mistake in economics journalism. And it’s a mistake that helped to fuel Donald Trump’s misguided trade policies.

There is a tendency, I know I am sometimes guilty, to think that misconceptions in the media about your field are uniquely sloppy, common, or bad. Grass is greener, expertise bias, or whatever. There are certainly some issues with education coverage but in practice all fields have gaps of various kinds and commonly repeated mistakes or misconceptions that find their way into the political debate. It’s not good, nor helpful, but it’s a thing in life. And it’s not unique to education. Sometimes it’s ideological or biased, but sometimes people are just doing the best they can, reporting well is not an easy job, and things are confusing. Anyhow, a good reminder.

It’s Friday, where is the fish porn?

People ask! I have been awfully busy lately and the pics have been piling up. I have Katie Rouse, Jonathan Harber, Chad Ratliff, Simmons Lettre, Ben Wallerstein, and more! I will get to them. For now, here’s a pic Dan Willingham sent. It’s a nice one to end the week. And because the past few weeks have been a little rough for a lot of people Dan’s the perfect fisherman to highlight. He doesn’t even fish. He sent me this note:

I don’t fish, so I never thought I’d get to participate in fish porn. And in truth the attached hardly qualifies as porn of any sort. But here I am posing with a lightning whelk, probably 12-14 inches, which is likely as close as I’m going to get.

That is close enough for what we do here. Especially because Dan is one of the nicest, most caring, and most committed people you will run across in this sector. Genuinely lovely human. And his work (at least the stuff he and I don’t collaborate on) is really valuable for the field and will push your thinking. All of which is why it’s a great pic to feature even if Dan didn’t actually catch the fish.

Finally, for the real Dan nerds, here’s a track from the archives. An article Dan and I did together was recently traducido al español y publicado en Chile. Puedes leerlo aquí. Originales aquí.

Have a warm, in all senses of the word, weekend.

April 27, 2022

Let’s Not “CRT” And “Groomer” SEL. Plus, What’s Old Is New On Sloppy Poll Trends? Fake Vax Cards, Northern Reads…More!

I’m in California for the BARR Center annual conference – first time in-person in a few years. BARR does – shhhhh – SEL work for teachers. Great results from independent evaluations. And they’re a client so all the usual disclosures and disclaimers. But, if you needed a reminder that our culture wars are dumb this is it. 700 teachers here and they are interested in helping kids learn a full panoply of skills to succeed in school and life, not in brainwashing them. This is not controversial stuff with parents or teachers. You hear nothing about any of the culture war stuff that animates the SEL debate on social media and in some communities.

That said, to the extent SEL is being used in some instances as a cover to smuggle political things into curriculum – and in some cases it is – the SEL community should stand up and call BS. Otherwise one more worthwhile thing will be steamrolled by culture war theatrics.

At 2:45PT/5:45ET this afternoon I’m doing a discussion with Kelly Pannek and Nicole Hensley from the U.S. Women’s Olympic Hockey Team. Both women won gold in 2018 and silver in 2022.  We’ll talk about teachers, mentors, coaches, and what they’ve learned on their path to the pinnacle of their sport. It’ll be available after the fact on video, too.

This from an interview I did with The 74 following the 2021 Virginia election:

I’m wondering what you make of the fact that Glenn Youngkin can win a blue state in part due to outrage about school governance even as activists in Idaho Falls can’t get rid of a few board members?

This is an important point. It doesn’t seem like there was a unidirectional wave around the country where it all went one way in board races. Parents are frustrated, people disagree, but in general, people don’t gamble with their schools. There is a real chance the Republicans will misread this and overreach.

From the overreach beat:

Republican lawmakers around the country are pushing an array of bills that limit the discussion of gay rights in schools under the auspices of parental rights, leading some party strategists to worry that the initiatives may backfire with moderate voters by making the party seem anti-gay.

Hateful and politically stupid is no way to go through life son.

You generally have a broad consensus in this country arounds greater inclusion for LGBT individuals. It’s why in relatively short order you had Lawrence, Obergefell, and Bostock (6-3!) at the Supreme Court. The modal voter is now broadly supportive of what used to be called gay rights. From where I sit that’s a very good thing. The issues we fight about, sports, bathrooms, are not trivial issues, but at the same time show how far we’ve come. And we’re talking about kids, and that creates some sympathy, too. So the Republicans are playing with fire if they extend and conflate efforts to restrict sex and gender education in the early grades and parental rights, which enjoys broad support, with things like not allowing gay teachers to acknowledge their families and eroding tolerance and acceptance more generally.

Rick Hess points out that politically the Democrats are struggling on education but the Republicans are not cleaning up. This may be in part why.

Eroding confidence in Democrats has not yet, however, translated into substantial Republican gains. When it comes to education, confidence in the GOP hovered between 32 and 40 percent in all but two years between 2003 and 2019, and it remains firmly planted in that same range now (though it has recovered from Trump-era lows).

When it comes to education, the share of voters rejecting both parties has jumped sharply in the past five years. A substantial chunk of voters (nearly one in five) currently expresses confidence in neither party.

On the other hand, a school could go full realist and adopt this Freddie deBoer passage as its DEI statement. (It would also make a fantastic wedding or graduation card):

I don’t mean to be a bummer here. But it’s important to point out that we’re born in terror, we exist for no reason, we experience confusion and shame as children, we busily prepare ourselves for lives we don’t want or can’t have, we are forced to take on the burdens of adult responsibility, we compromise relentlessly on what life we’ll pursue, we settle and settle and settle, we fear death and ponder our meaninglessness, we experience the horrors of aging, and when we die the only comfort we have is that we aren’t conscious to learn that there was never any heaven or God to give it all meaning. This is the inevitable reality of human life and it can never change. That condition has a way of spilling out into our quotidian day-to-day concerns of being desirable or important.

Here we go again. A few years ago I noticed something weird in the MetLife teacher survey and realized they were cooking the books by conflating two seemingly similar but actually different questions.

When asked about career satisfaction in 2009, 59 percent of teachers said they were “very satisfied.” The next time the satisfaction question was asked, in 2011 —  this time focused on about jobsatisfaction — only 44 percent said so. Perhaps things got bad; you can’t know. But in 1985 and 1986, the question was also changed — again from asking about career to asking about job. What happened? Those saying they were “very satisfied” fell 11 points. It’s reasonable to infer, both as a matter of survey methodology and also common sense, that the wording does matter.

In other words, asking about job satisfaction and career satisfaction are two different things. One is more temporal. You can’t build a trend if you conflate those questions.

The other day Robert Pondiscio wrote excitedly that this survey is being resurrected. But it appears the new survey, now by Education Week and Merrimack College is doing the same thing and conflating the job and career numbers to build a trend line.

On the most current data, what the new survey finds (online survey, usual caveats apply) is that 66% of teachers are “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their job. Only 12% said “very satisfied” and only 15% “very unsatisfied.” Look, it’s a tough time for teachers. It’s a challenging job normally. The pandemic was not normally. And now many teachers are unwilling combatants in our stupid culture fights. So maybe 66% is actually pretty remarkable? And compared to some other fields it is. I don’t know, but we rarely talk about these numbers in context.

Now the bad faith reading of what I’m saying is that I’m somehow oblivious to the realities teachers face and the challenges today. That’s obviously not the point I’m making. But we can overstate the problems, God knows this field loves a crisis. So this is merely a plea to play the data straight and put it all in context. Things aren’t great, but also aren’t so bad!

We talked about NCTE’s novel position on reading the other day. Amber Northern does not want to decenter books!

If that weren’t enough, they make a feeble attempt to prove that “research evidence amply shows the need to move beyond the exclusive focus on traditional reading and writing competencies.” Where’s this evidence, you say? Well, they cite two studies—one of which is published in a journal about the “cultural politics of education” and takes place in England and Northern Ireland. It finds that “when students are empowered to critically examine popular culture texts in the classroom, the process can productively disrupt classroom hierarchies.” That hardly qualifies as a bounty of research justifying the “decentering” of traditional reading and writing.

Department of pandemic absurdity: The UFT and fake vax card teachers are squaring off against New York City.

The teachers union is planning to sue the NYC Department of Education after dozens of staffers were placed on unpaid leave for allegedly submitting fake vaccination cards.


Posted on Apr 27, 2022 @ 3:18pm

April 22, 2022

Teachers Of Tik Tok…Big Loss For The Sector…Plus, Eduwonk Wildlife Edition

Earlier this week I wrote about or highlighted Prince, but also why tribalism is making us dumber in the policy world, the new charter regulations (politically dumb), NFTs, NCTE’s new aversion to books, pandemic closures, testing, and pensions.

Lillian Lowery has passed. She was wonderful. Committed to kids, smart, effective. A good superintendent and state superintendent. I enjoyed working with her. Big loss for the sector, she’ll be missed professionally and personally.

Teachers of Tik Tok…

Everyone went berserk this week over the Wash Post story on the Libs of Tik Tok Twitter account. It does have an education angle, it was sometimes teachers being highlighted. But it’s more a story of just how dumb our debates are.

When I’ve written here that a lot (though not all) of the stuff animating social media around “CRT” or gender or whatever is teachers freelancing, this is in part the kind of thing I’m referring to. That account’s bread and butter was not teachers talking about the formal curriculum and it was not made up. It’s why the way through a lot of this is better curriculum not leaving it to teachers.

This wasn’t a doxxing. If you run a Twitter feed with hundreds of thousands of followers and go on cable news to talk about it, well then you can’t expect anonymity.

The story was lame because there is nothing there. It’s a Twitter feed. The person who runs it is a random – there was no big ‘aha’ like some major donor or figure funding this. And you did not really even get a sense who this person was, and, really, who cares? Did you learn anything you didn’t already know? The news angle seemed weak to me. The account and its impact seem more germane.

There are more than three million public school teachers in the United States. That’s a large number so even if an incredibly small fraction say stupid stuff for whatever reason on social media that’s still plenty of content for a Twitter feed. The Opossums have their own feed, too, though it’s cuter. Most teachers are not like the ones highlighted. That’s why they call it “nutpicking.” Social media screws up our sense of prevalence and across a range of issues leads to lousy journalism.

A contagion in the school choice sector is the idea of being for choice only when it’s a choice you’d make. Conversely, there is also this idea out there that we can just choice our way out of all these social issues. I tend to think school choice is good in that it shrinks the sphere of stuff to argue about – you want Montessori and you want Core Knowledge and you want unschooling, great have at it. But at some level a society can’t escape having to wrestle with these questions.

This seems like an under-discussed issue to me (both on its own terms and especially in relation to the teacher shortage panic:

Here’s Ruy Teixeria on Democratic politics but with clear parallels to the elite education sector:

The culture of the left has evolved and not in a good way. It is now thoroughly out of touch with its working class roots and completely dominated by college-educated professionals, typically in big metropolitan areas and university towns and typically younger. These are the people that fill the ranks of the media, nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations and the infrastructure of the Democratic party. They speak their own language and highlight the issues that most animate their commitments to ‘social justice”.

These commitments are increasingly driven by what is now referred to as identity politics. This form of politics originated in the 1960s movements that sought to eliminate discrimination against and establish equal treatment and access for women and for racial and sexual minorities. In evolving to the present day, the focus has mutated into an attempt to impose a worldview that emphasizes multiple, intersecting levels of oppression (“intersectionality”) based on group identification. In place of promoting universal rights and principles—the traditional remit of the left–advocates now police others on the left, including within the Democratic party, to uncritically embrace this intersectional approach, insist on an arcane vocabulary for speaking about these purportedly oppressed groups, and prohibit discourse based on logic and evidence to evaluate the assertions of those who claim to speak on the groups’ behalf.

Policy can work!

Source: Virginia DWR

There is a “nothing” works crowd in education running around Eeyore-like making claims like nothing has improved in education in the past 30 years. This isn’t the case.

Unrelated to education, the other day I was looking at harvest numbers in Virginia for wildlife and saw this chart about bears. I don’t hunt bears, I like having them around, but like any other resource they do need to be managed. And, wow, look at that growth curve – more impressive when you realize it happened against a backdrop of shrinking habitat. Bears were hunted almost to extinction, thanks to the North American approach to wildlife management they’ve made an amazing recovery (deer, too, turkeys are a somewhat different story). You also see the same thing with cold water conservation and fishery restoration.

You can decide if wildlife conservation is more or less complicated than education policy, but it seems clear our problem in education right now is politics, not that policy can’t improve things. Also I just wanted to share the bear chart.

Enjoy your weekend.

April 19, 2022

Odds & Ends, Plus Prince

Keep an eye on the public comments for the proposed regulations to restrict charter school growth. Apparently not going as planned. What’s unfortunate here is that charter school policy in 2022 is not charter policy in 2012, or 2002, or 1992, so there is room for a thoughtful conversation about lessons learned and the future of the federal charter program. This gambit just isn’t it.

Last week I wrote about common errors and how they confuse important issues and also about why “groomer” is the new “CRT” and why that’s no good.

Matt Yglesias on quality policy analysis.

I heard from someone who used to work at a well-regarded center-left think tank that one of her colleagues noticed this exact problem earlier. But when she raised the issue, she was told to keep quiet because the care groups have always been supportive on other issues.

That is the most explicit statement of Coalition Brain that I’ve heard, but I think it’s a widespread syndrome across causes and institutions. Everyone is supposed to mind their own business and support the team, not directly fire at anyone else. And of course it’s true that politics is fundamentally a team sport and a game of coalitions.

This phenomenon is pretty pervasive and it’s why people are left confused about things like evidence on pre-K (not as robust as you’ve been told), school choice (on both the right and the left because of different narratives), school funding and finance (we spend more than many think but less equitably than many others think). Media has some culpability here, too. There are some exceptions, but in general political reliability is the coin of the realm these days. That’s not good for decisionmaking.

This NCTE statement is getting a lot of attention. More after Nellie Bowles highlighted it in her newsletter last week. There are also some issues with the writing, which is ironic. This line, in particular is causing angst,

The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.

This reminds me of the equity math workbook that went around last year. There was a lot in it that made sense – who can be against focusing on representation to help more students see themselves in math? All that, however, was swamped by the woke word salad of the document. The same dynamic is at work here. And again, the irony. Yes “decentering” books seems like a bad idea, especially now. But not all the ideas in the document are lousy and some are what good teachers do now.

By popular demand – here’s young Prince talking about teacher strikes on Minneapolis.

What do NFTs mean for education?

I think nothing!

No, that’s not quite right. Though education’s futurists are speculating. An NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first tweet sold for $2.9 million at the height of the NFT craze and the other day was valued at less than $15k by the NFT “market.”  Reminds me of the old joke that the way to make millions in education is to start with billions.

But there is something here that’s less profitable but potentially more useful. Using blockchain or distributed ledger technology for student data and credentials. Every time you raise this it leads to a Bitcoin joke – it’s probably how Libertarians feel with every predictable gold or weed quip – but this technology could transform education data and make it easier for students to carry portable and verifiable credentials from place to place. That’s an equity issue for some students now, a huge system fragmentation issue in general, and over time a systems issue for all student as education becomes more unbundled.

Steve Rees on interim assessments:

If students who take interim tests show little benefit, and if teachers misinterpret results often even after discussing them with colleagues, this shouldn’t lead to test-bashing. It should lead to a review of who’s in charge of test quality and interpretation.

Max Marchitello on teacher retirement in California:

In short, CalSTRS is expensive, it is largely ineffective, and it compounds inequities in school funding.

Can education help fight obesity? Matt Rees is on the case. 

Here’s a thoughtful take on school pandemic closures worth your time if you follow that debate and the politics around it. But I think one issue that doesn’t get enough attention here is how much – with the notable exception of Black parents – parent sentiment on schools being open or not seemed to follow whether schools were actually open for in-person instruction or not. One interpretation is that when schools were closed, people thought they should be closed, trusting officials to make good decisions about safety. And when they were open they understandably thought the inverse.

There is going to be some new case law coming out of the changes schools are making in response to social concerns. We’ve talked about some First Amendment questions. Here’s a case in Albemarle, Virginia, to keep an eye on.

School of hard knocks. Hotchkiss, Princeton, Toni Morrison and the early years of MacKenzie Scott via a Times profile.

Feels Like Rain. Purple Rain.

April 15, 2022

Category Errors

Sometimes we talk about common errors you see around this sector. One of my favorites is ecological fallacies because they’re genuinely interesting to me. There are others, some less interesting. Lately you see a lot of broad category errors. Here are two I came across recently that are illustrative both on the specifics and in general.

This column in The Washington Post echoes a common misconception, 

Frey’s first key point is that according to Census data, “for the first time, children of color (those who identify as Latino or Hispanic, Asian American, Black, Native American, or with two more races) now comprise more than half (53%) of the nation’s under-age-18 population.”

Frey’s second key point is that a very large majority of the nation’s parents — around 65 percent — are people of color or are college-educated Whites, substantially larger than among adults overall.

Those groups tend to be more Democratic-leaning, while non-college-educated Whites lean more Republican. You would think Democrats should be able to effectively address the large bloc of diverse and educated parents on these issues if they try a little harder.

The two authors are trying to make the point that if Democrats can just figure out how to talk about race in the classroom things will be good because all these various voters will join in blissful solidarity.

One would think that after Asian voters put a knife in affirmative action in California and Asian voters moved to Glenn Youngkin in Virginia (and Youngkin seems to have won Hispanic voters outright) analysts would stop with these crude generalizations. Or maybe rethink this theory? In Virginia, Asian voters helped Youngkin because of concern over admissions to selective schools and advanced classes. Those policy changes were critical race theory informed, sure, but that’s not the “CRT” backlash we heard so much about. Democrats are struggling with Hispanic voters, Asian voters, and to some extent Black voters for a bunch of reasons but one is a perception that Democrats are completely out of touch on education (and in general). This Intercept headline pretty much sums it up.

Meanwhile, there is pretty wide agreement on teaching about race and racism across a broad swath of Americans. So orienting a strategy around engaging the dead enders, which right now looks like the caricature of the American tourist who just thinks yelling louder will somehow make people understand, seems like political malpractice. Dems will never get those votes anyway. The problem is, and this is what happened with Terry McAuliffe, if you can’t discern between age inappropriate or blatantly political content and honest teaching of history then you’re going to get painted defending some crazy stuff. And mostly freelancing by teachers who don’t have good curriculum and training. A large amount of what animates social media is not things that are actually in any curriculum.

All this is obscuring that Democrats have an education policy problem. Right now, just for instance, the Biden Administration is trying to curtail charter school growth through the regulatory process. This is an odd position for an Administration that says it wants to “center” Black and Hispanic Americans. Here’s some charter polling that’s in line with lots of other polling. 

Source: MorningConsult & Ed Choice

This, of course, while the Democratic party is facing intense pressure because it’s associated with what are perceived as longer than necessary shut downs of in-person schooling and for generally being out of touch with parents. It’s an interesting strategic choice.

The voters who really don’t like charters are white progressives, who are to the left of Black and Hispanic voters in general. When he was Lt. Governor of California Cruz Bustamante used to talk about the “Radical Hispanic Agenda,” which he would then reveal to be safe neighborhoods, good schools, and economic opportunity. Democrats could do a lot worse than returning to those basics.

As always, though, Democrats have an ace in the hole: The Republicans.  

A second and similar sort of error can be found in this interview of Delaware State Senator Sarah McBride (D), a transgender woman serving in the legislature there. McBride recently chaired a hearing about the transgender and youth sports issue. In the interview she says,

Second … within all sports, there’s biological diversity, there’s physiological diversity, and some of those biological and physiological realities for students give them competitive edges.

I will tell you, I’m bad at every sport.

But that diversity exists within every gender identity. It exists within cis [gender] students and trans students. And legislation that comes before us that isn’t making individualized determinations, that isn’t actually looking at these issues of disparities and competitiveness, whether that’s access to private coaching, whether that’s differences in height, or actual cardiovascular capacity, but specifically rooted in a protected class’s identity.

I agree on the blanket ban problem. Both the ‘athletes should decide unilaterally based on what they want to do’ and blanket bans are exclusionary and walk on the nuance here. But, this general idea about ability is a common and important misconception about this debate.

First, there are enormous benefits that come from playing sports. They are both physical in terms of movement and exercise and also mental and emotional in terms of teamwork, fair play, winning, losing, efficacy, persistence and a lot more. That’s why, for me, a first principle for this whole debate should be how do we get as many kids as possible playing for as long in their lives as possible? There are a lot of lessons there. This is one reason I helped the Aspen Institute’s Project Play work on ways to make sports, and school sports, more inclusive. 

But, this broad point about sports and how there are lots of differences so what’s one more elides a really key issue: It’s just not the case with many highly competitive sports. At that level of competitiveness the differences are often small but hugely significant. And physical ability matters a lot. That, not recreational and other youth sports, is where the action is on this complicated question. It’s why a guy whose name I can’t even recall, not even in the top 200 of male players, was able to beat the Williams sisters back to back – and they are phenomenal players. We saw this recently in NCAA swimming.

This is why the issue here is so hard – not at the level of recreational sports and young kids where inclusion is an easy default position because getting everyone playing should be the goal. But with highly competitive sports in high school and college (and the Olympics though  that’s less of an education issue). At that level it is a zero sum game, so to speak, where two different rights clash. The transgender athlete wants to compete in the gender they identify with. The female athlete – who at the point of highly competitive sports has put in untold hours of work and effort – wants to compete on a level playing field.

How you balance the rights of the athlete who just misses this finals by one place, or comes in 2nd, loses a spot on a team, etc…with the athlete who just wants to live their life and compete in a sport they love is not straightforward. If you reflexively see one of those sets of “rights” as obviously more important than the other then I’d suggest you’re not appreciating the very complicated issues here. This is a collision of claims, none of which are without merit. Yes it’s a fractional issue overall,* but it’s not to any of the athletes involved.

We’re not doing anyone any favors ducking that or waving it away because most of us never competed at that level or lack the ability to. It’s why for the umpteenth time I think we need a national commission to work through this in a more deliberate way and make recommendations for a framework.

*Just as an aside political point, I’m not sure the messaging that it’s ‘just a few kids’ helps advocates for transgender athletes the way many seem to think it does. Public opinion remains strongly on the side of the bans, consistently across a lot of polling. And governors who have cited the small number of athletes involved in vetoing bans have done it not because they favor letting athletes do what they want but rather because they want a process for the small numbers and also want to avoid a lot of litigation. It’s entirely possible when the public hears, “it’s just a few kids,” some people then think ‘well, if it’s just a few then a ban isn’t really that big of a deal.’ In other words, that messaging may cut both ways depending on someone’s priors.

April 14, 2022

“Groomer” Is The New “CRT” And That Sucks

Pointing out that our culture wars, and politics more generally, are toxic isn’t telling you anything you don’t already know. But the past several years the weaponizing of disagreement in and around the schools is an increasing problem for anyone actually trying to improve the schools.

Now we have a new creature in education’s fever swamp: The Groomer.

The conventional wisdom on the whole “grooming” thing is that it’s conservative payback after a few years of being called racist or transphobic for all manner of things  – and sometimes casually or cavalierly. I’m not sure this is right, though. Human events often aren’t that strategic. Rather, it seems like it might be the latest turn in the Rorsarch test approach to political warfare? Throw stuff up under a broad banner, make it toxic, rinse and repeat.

Over the past year or so we talked a lot around here about the debate about critical race theory or CRT, generally in quotes because the debate about “CRT” wasn’t really about CRT. No, not in the sense that CRT wasn’t being taught in schools because it’s only taught in law school. That was a dumb semantical dodge parents saw right through. Ideas from CRT were, and are, being taught in school. That’s worthy of debate like other curricular and pedagogical choices public schools make but we might as well be more forthright about it.

To the extent we’re talking about things like how racism becomes embedded in American institutions or whether we should discuss the role race plays in things I don’t have any problem with that, nor do most Americans. It was the clumsier and more political things that caused problems – the talking to very young kids about who was an oppressor or how to think about privilege. Yet the clumsier stuff was enough of a wedge to spark the whole “CRT” debate and let in not only the folks concerned about things that even – at least until recently critical race theory adherents agreed were problems – and also folks who really did go into spasms when someone bought up race or racism. Everyone took their places. That was why the “CRT” debate was bonkers.

Seems like that is happening here as well with the groomer nonsense.

Now, as you’ve surely and unfortunately heard, the accusation du jour is “groomer.” It’s a way to imply someone is OK with pedophilia without saying that, because it’s so absurd. It’s coming up in the debate about laws like the recent Florida law banning instruction about sexuality and gender identity before fourth grade and fights about curriculum and books elsewhere. Maybe “OK Groomer” was sort of funny one time as a quip, but it’s surely not amusing when it’s on repeat. And it’s a serious allegation, and an overwhelming spurious one. A groomer is someone who takes intentional steps to set a child up to be sexually exploited or abused. It’s a toxic allegation. And one that has roots in some historic – and factually inaccurate and harmful – myths about homosexuals and pedophilia. Myths that until recently seemed to have receded.

Parallels to “CRT” debate? Overall the country has made great strides on inclusion for LGBT people. Yet there are still some folks who want to live back in the 1950s. And, as with “CRT,” there are some excesses it’s easy for people to latch onto – making sure schools are inclusive and accepting of all students, teachers, and a variety of family arrangements does not necessitate instruction in theories of gender for kindergartners. That’s not a hill to die on.

The good news? Most Americans don’t actually have that much trouble parsing these distinctions. The bad news? Culture warriors deliberately inflame them. With CRT, activist Chris Rufo said he was going to basically lump a bunch of different things under the brand of CRT and make it all toxic. To some extent that worked. We’re now seeing the same with “groomer.”

Perhaps groomer is the more toxic tactic. It’s hard to equate calling someone a race essentialist with saying they seek to sexually exploit children. One of those is a political position, the other is a felony. What it all has in common though is dumping these social issues at the doorsteps of schools in a less than constructive manner. And right now doing that at the very time schools should be laser focused on addressing the damage caused by the pandemic.

There has been some pushback on the groomer rhetoric from folks on the right, David French, Grant Addison, Jonah Goldberg are three I’ve seen. So maybe in some small way nature is healing. But it’s not enough. And for a lot of kids trying to figure out who they are things are challenging enough without the culture war circus coming to town. Human decency alone might occasion a pause in the arms race here.

Groomer, like racist, or transphobe, is a serious allegation that should be used judiciously. That’s because they at once poison debate and render these terms meaningless – when those terms should have meaning.

And all of this, I don’t need to tell you, makes it impossible to have sensible debates about schools. At a time we really need them.

OK, after probably telling you what you already knew, here are two provocative takes on this and the broader issues you might want to check out. Andrew Sullivan and Josh Barro.

Here’s part of Barro:

A majority of the public is bought in on acceptance of LGBT people, including opposing legislative efforts like bathroom bills, and therefore accepts the idea that some people’s gender identity diverges from their sex in a way that demands both legal protection and social acceptance. But the public is not bought in on Judith Butler, or on the idea that gender is essentially arbitrary or unlinked to sex. The ideas underlying the current orthodoxy on the relationship between sex and gender were, until just a few years ago, obscure academic ones. And as those ideas have started having consequences — as Andrew Sullivan notes, there are a substantial number of schools using teaching materials that take a truly avant-garde stance on this issue — liberals have become aggressors in a piece of the culture war without even considering what we were fighting for, whether it’s worth it, and whether we even really believe in it — or whether we just went along with it because we were afraid that otherwise we’d get yelled at.

On a lighter note, here’s an education music question:

April 8, 2022

Friday Notes

I’ll try to write more about the proposed charter school regulations, but for now here’s a pretty good take – except these regulations are not the work of bureaucrats, this is a political decision. The proposed regs are bad. And bad by design in ways intended to constrain the growth of charters and lay the groundwork for a broader pushback. This isn’t a big surprise, the Biden education team said in 2020, in multiple ways including a policy document, that they were going to do this. That was ideology from education advisors. The cold political calculus now that he’s President is that politically the benefits outweigh the costs. Special interests love the regulations, future charter parents are not an organized group, and the charter community under-punches its weight politically these days. Here’s another look at the issues in play

Marion Joseph passed earlier this month at 95. There are people better off than they would be otherwise because of her work. That, from where I sit, is a legacy. She was tenacious and was a reading reformer before it became cool.

The other day we talked about state boards of education.

Here’s an interesting view from a reader, who is a local school board member:

I definitely agree state DOEs shouldn’t be boosters or apologists, but they shouldn’t be regulators either (or at least just regulators).  They need to act like OWNERS – that is, the ones responsible for making sure the organization produces the best possible result.  To my way of thinking, that lack of ownership and resulting accountability makes sustained ed system improvement very difficult (FL and DC being the only two exceptions that come to mind).  Using your analogy, if the state DOE is the SEC, then who is the owner – presumably the local school board?  But, as you know, most school board members are just well-meaning volunteers, often influenced by adult interests, and will struggle to drive long-term, sustainable improvement.  Even when they do, they are only a couple of election cycles from unraveling (e.g, Denver).
So if the local board cannot or will not drive accountability and performance, who will?   There can be a “market model” here, where the “consumer” drives improvement – arguably FL’s choice-happy system is an example, and there’s no denying their results.  But to me that looks like an exception, driven by the uniquely effective efforts of former Gov Bush and his team (and probably other things I’m unaware of).  For most, unless state agencies define their mission as muscular change agents, instead of semi-passive regulators, improvement will be sporadic and short-lived – they (and their Governors/legislators) need to own their result.

What the attack on charters and this issue of regulation or ownership have in common is among the various divides is this one about whether the best way to help public schools is to defend them or make them better. We talked about that at SXSW last month:

There are fun NOLA education bits in this fantastic John Batiste video that won a Grammy the other night. I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in that wonderful city this week. Have a great weekend, thanks for reading.

April 4, 2022

State Boards Of Education Are Regulators, Not Advocates

Kennedy center right. Photo via SEC Historical Society

On June 30, 1934 Joseph Kennedy became the first Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman. FDR had made clear he wanted Kennedy to be the chair among his initial appointees. It was an interesting choice because it cut against the wishes of progressive Democrats and Kennedy had by that time made a fortune in the “markets” – in some cases doing things the SEC would subsequently prohibit. But Kennedy – a successful studio head, investor, and businessman, who would later chair the Maritime Commission, serve as Ambassador to England, parent three influential United States Senators, one who would become president and one who was arguably more influential than many presidents* – understood the role. He wasn’t there to just advocate for capitalism. He was there to help Roosevelt save capitalism from itself.

Here’s a good book about Kennedy if you’re interested.

Roosevelt’s gambit in picking Kennedy for the role was clever. It allowed the SEC to build credibility with business and move into the regulatory game. And, well, if you want to understand sin you should talk to sinners. Kennedy could have gone faster or further but he understood the line between regulator and advocate, why it mattered and what side the SEC should be on. The SEC has evolved a great deal since then into the vital agency it is today.

This came up last week when I was fortunate enough to spend part of a morning with some state board members at the annual NASBE legislative conference.Too many state board of education members don’t the advocate versus regulator distinction. Or, their proper role in the principal – agent relationship between state oversight and school operation.

State boards face a lot of challenges but one of them, that is in their control to fix, is this basic client confusion. Around the country you talk with a lot of board members and ask them who their client is and they will tell you it’s the school districts, or the various adults who work in the system. “I represent all the hard working educators” you sometimes hear or things to that effect. When I was on the state board in Virginia a colleague said, in an open meeting during a debate about a policy about where to set the bar for new teachers, that sometimes we should put what’s best for the adults first. It was an honest and revealing slip.

But this is wrong. The client is kids and families and more broadly the taxpayers. Full stop.

Let me be clear, people who are hostile to public education shouldn’t be on state boards of education. You wouldn’t want your fish and game commission chock full of vegans and PETA activists either. Likewise, avoid people whose default instinct is to make things harder in various ways for adults working in schools. And those people exist and at times operate in the orbit of schools. At the same time, however, people who see their default role as being just an advocate for the system should not be in these roles either. People with experience in and around the system are vital – and so are people who are just committed to public service. But what they should all share is an orientation toward being a regulator rather than a booster.

Why? The job is not to advocate for the schools, it’s to regulate the schools. Just like the SEC isn’t hostile to capitalism, but its role is not to excuse away every failing in the financial world. The SEC is charged with holding people accountable for those failures, remedies where appropriate, and putting in place policies and practices to try to prevent problems upstream by creating an environment that broadly speaking is conducive to effective capitalism. Substitute education for capitalism and state boards of education should seek roughly the same.

After the disastrous pandemic experience – and also before that for anyone who was paying attention – the education system is in desperate need of some regulation and prods to do better because it’s largely unaccountable to anyone outside of organized constituency groups right now and there are few remedies for people being consistently failed by it who don’t have personal financial means.

The tells on this come up a lot. You will often hear things like, ‘we can’t do that because the districts/teachers/x group won’t like it.’ Obviously leaders should listen to and parse feedback, and often objections will make a proposal stronger. Yet at the end of the day these various groups not liking something is not dispositive.

In the NCLB-era the gyrations boards went through to avoid transparency about system performance or measure that might reveal problems reached the point of total absurdity.

It’s not just policymaking. You see this in the ethos. Consider press releases. Next time some dismal results come out take a look at the spin. Post-pandemic closures in 2020 and 2021 some state board releases spent more time trying to convince parents why they shouldn’t pay attention to the dismal scores than explaining what the results were or why they might matter for your kid. Or when NAEP time comes and scores are generally stagnant or down you often see the press release with a headline to the effect of “Left-handed 8th-grade girls who play sports up 3 points.” And a credulous media too often writes from the release rather than parsing the actual data.

Now people will say, if you love public education you should fiercely defend it. Highlight the good. And sometimes they throw in some social justice or democracy dies in darkness kind of rhetoric, too. Nice sentiment. Tends to shut down debate. But instead, consider the possibility that if you love public education you should fiercely work to make it a lot better – especially for those students it systematically underserves. And that means regulation and policy to make public education more effective not enabling or excusing dysfunction in the name of defense.

What might that look like in practice? More transparency about performance and finance. More accurate reporting on results and the measures those results are based on and what they do and don’t mean in practice for what students know and can do. More measures to actually hold schools accountable for results with reasonable remedies where that is not occurring. More choices for parents within public education.

Bottom line: State boards should think of themselves as akin to an SEC role not like just another star in the advocacy constellation around public schools.

*(If you’re rolling your eyes, or better yet pouring a stiff drink, because I didn’t say bootlegger among his various roles I’d suggest David Nasaw’s excellent biography of Kennedy, which doesn’t pull punches on Kennedy’s faults, but takes a fact based look at that myth. Political misinformation is not a new phenomenon.)

March 25, 2022

Odds & Ends…And Again, The Ed Sector’s Eliteness

What I’ve written: I have a short commentary in The 74 today about the Spencer Cox veto of a bill aimed the transgender students and sports issue.

What I’ve read: A few interesting things this week, with implications for education.

This survey data on special education parents is worth your time. People keep talking about pandemic disruptions in the past tense, for these parents they’re a present tense thing.

Love is a battlefield. So are the suburbs. 

There were a lot of tweets in the mold of ‘this is so surprising!‘ about this Ruy Teixeira column. This should not be surprising!

“Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.”

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, generally in the name of achieving racial equity. This has led them to a de-emphasis on high and universal academic achievement standards, an approach popular in progressive education circles but not among ordinary voters, including nonwhites.

In the Massachusetts poll, the above statement received 73-19 support, including 3:1 support among black voters. Progressive educators may think differently, but the common sense of voters is that the road to high academic achievement is through high standards and hard work, not the lowering of bars.

Ignore the narratives, please. If you don’t get the broad landscape across race and class then what’s happening now won’t make a lot of sense. Also, while we’re on it, people like testing and school choice more than you probably heard. The research base on pre-K isn’t as bulletproof as you’ve been told. Direct Instruction probably works better than you think. It’s really a wild world out there and so much more interesting.

Speaking of narratives, Jon Chait jumps into the debate about what the Dem narrative should be on education,

Convincing parents to stop caring about whether schools help their children get a good job is definitely a strategy. But it’s not a good strategy. If Democrats care about social mobility and winning elections, they need to recognize that an important faction within their own party has a program that is inimical to both goals and fight as hard as they can to keep them out of power.

Recently we talked about how sometimes people just disagree – and that’s ok. But there is growing tendency to find bad faith reasons. And that’s on top of the more longstanding nonsense of presuming to know what people “really think.” Freddie de Boer gets into all that more,

Here’s the deal. I am opposed to the “social justice movement,” while being very much in favor of social justice, for a few reasons. The first is that I think the social justice movement is legitimately wrong on a variety of core issues. For example, civil liberties – I think they’re good; the social justice movement thinks they’re a con on the part of bigots. That’s a genuine disagreement. There’s people in the social justice movement who are explicitly, unambiguously opposed to free speech as a principle. And that’s cool. They’re wrong, is all. You can find plenty of books written that define the reasons free speech is good. But that disagreement between me and them is real. It’s not code for “I think trans people are faking.” (I genuinely don’t have the slightest idea what that could mean.) Unlike many in the social justice movement, I believe that civil liberties are essential even while I understand the vital need to fight racism, sexism, and transphobia. I simply believe that those fights have to be balanced with the defense of civil liberties, and in fact think that waging those fights requires a respect for civil liberties…

…Could it be that, in the complex and ever-shifting scrum of political life, some people who you disagree with are arguing in good faith, even if you’re sure they’re mistaken? Could it be that I’m just wrong? Not secretly opposed to the broad principles I’ve dedicated my adult life to fighting for, not an agent out to defend a status quo I hate, but just incorrect about the social justice movement and its pathologies? Could it be that I’m sincere?

Nah, couldn’t be. Now please be good social justice liberals, put a sign in your window, donate to a nonprofit that will spend your money on itself, and nod along to every call for “justice” that rings out. That’s what real allies do.

This article is about “radical monogamy.” Yes, why monogamy needs radical as a modifier is a good question. The larger phenomenon Christine Emba describes, though, seems present in the elite ed sector these days,

But this inclination to view only the present as enlightened can veer into overcorrection, creating new forms of silencing and new stigmas that evoke their own kind of shame. Voguish new relationship styles become prescriptive in their own right. An overemphasis on testing out the new can make it hard for people to recognize which among the old way of doing things — whether monogamous or non- — might serve them well, or to declare what they actually want (an emotional bond, say, or a committed relationship). Thus a generation loses sight of, and loses out on, goods they might have had all along.

This essay in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about snitch culture….just wow.