February 8, 2021

Times Weingarten Profile – Probably Not A Puffer

The 74 has a breakdown of proposed K-12 spending in the Biden relief bill. 

Lots of chatter about today’s Dana Goldstein Times profile of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and her efforts on school reopening. It’s being viewed as a source greaser or evidence that media won’t hold its friends accountable (along with some less SFW descriptors).

I think that’s a mistake. A few things about it seem significant.

First, Weingarten is a keen reader of the political tea leaves and a very good tactician. Remember, as the Obama Administration was ascendant no one was as vocal about the need for unions to reform and lead as she was. She even said sometimes tenure was a job for life and other heresies. When the politics changed, she changed. In this case she is reading that the Biden Administration while obviously pro-labor and willing to throw a lot of money at the problem still has its limits in terms of its avowed goal for school reopening. And governors are moving that way. Even Virginia’s Ralph Northam, who Virginia’s teacher association has a mechanic’s lien on, is now calling for a March opening timeline. Progressive cities are trying to lower the temperature.

She’s also reading the growing exasperation with the unions and reopening – especially among the governing and influencer class. There is a half life on the just say no strategy and with Trump gone the politics have changed. Weingarten’s power in labor is fundamentally national and this is a national play. She can’t get too far out in front of her members but she can straddle like this and has to in order to be effective. That play is evident in the Goldstein article and an important signal. This is about Weingarten and the Biden Administration and that relationship, the future, and her national profile. There’s risk, sure, but a consistent bet for her has been that people are opportunistic, temporal, and have short memories and that’s a bet that usually pays off.

There is substance, too. As the article indicates Weingarten appreciates that the finances of public education are more fragile than people think and even a modest change in parent behavior as a result of the pandemic experience would create problems that would impact labor.

Weingarten is also not wrong on the trust issues. You don’t have to be a fan of the teachers’ unions response during Covid overall to acknowledge they have some important points that should be heeded. And, you have to be close to schools to appreciate how little trust often exists among teachers. And if you’re in a school where there are frequent shortages on things like soap or toilet paper and just general low-grade chaos then would you really trust that something like PPE would be done effectively? Especially against the backdrop of the larger Covid experience in a lot of communities? Unions like to say that management gets the union it deserves and there is some truth to that.

That’s not a comment on whether or not schools should be open or that whole debate, it’s just a fact of life given the dysfunction we allow to persist in a lot of places. Dysfunction it should be noted that can be laid at the feet of labor, but also management and our political class.

So this is a long way of saying, if you’re just dismissing the Goldstein article as a puff piece you may be missing an important signal about the politics the next few years. One of my favorite quotes is Gertrude Stein commenting that wars settle things that were already evident politically. Seems that’s what’s going on here.

Updates: If you got this far you should also read Antonucci here. And also read Erika Sanzi here.

February 7, 2021

Teaching And The Super Bowl

Kansas City coach Brendan Daly…all this guy does now is go to the Super Bowl. Tonight will be his 6th, he has four rings.

Back before all that when he was coaching the Vikings and Rams, Brendan Daly and his brother Tim (TNTP and Ed Navigator) and I did some work on teaching and coaching and transferable lessons.

Here’s something from TIME and we did an event at Harvard GSE with then-Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth.

Since then Brendan has coached for New England for a while and now the Chiefs, so he keeps turning up in Super Bowls.

At the Harvard event Brendan walked through some teach the skill then apply the skill work with a player. He showed practice video of the method and then game video of it being applied on a Sunday. It was a new player in the league at the time, former UVA standout Chris Long doing the learning, but you didn’t know that until you saw it run in the game jersey.

There are also some cultural lessons, too. Comfort with transparency and constant feedback for instance. Brendan, who coaches defense, worked his way up by helping struggling defenses improve. That gets you respect. In too many schools what gets you respect is teaching AP or gifted, not dropout recovery or 9th-grade remedial math or English, where the stakes are often highest for kids.

He started out as a high school teacher and football coach.

February 5, 2021

February 3, 2021

Cardona In The Dock!

It’s a safe bet that Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing today won’t be as lively as the last one –  Betsy DeVos’ was something of a train wreck. He’ll get protection from Democrats, the country is in a crisis, and he’s a pretty consensus pick. Still, expect some interesting questions that preview coming attractions and some efforts to create wedges on school reopening.

For now education is being strongly driven from the White House. The West and East  Wings have education talent as does the VP’s office. That’s the key subtext here. 

Some additional 411: Here’s a deck Bellwether shared with clients last month outlining Cardona’s background and key issues.

And here’s my take on the pick.

Keep an eye on the Deputy Secretary hearing, she’s been criticized for a lack of transparency with the media and the public, charter advocate have concerns, and questions have been raised about her views on student discipline.

January 28, 2021

School Reopening – It’s All Politics Now?

It’s easy to knock (and a favored sport for some) Politico for focusing on horse race politics – but the debate about reopening schools has become horse race politics not substance so this is a pretty good overview:

President Joe Biden’s vow to reopen most schools during his first 100 days is crashing into demands of one of his party’s most powerful constituencies: teachers’ unions. And the friction is creating an early test for the Democratic Party’s commitment to following the advice of scientists when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

That about covers it. And already reductionist claims that would have occasioned knowing clucking and tsk tsking had the chronically fact challenged Trump Administration made them are now greeted with crickets. John Bailey unpacks some of the weediness with the Wisconsin study and the idea that all we need is money, for instance, in his indispensable daily Covid newsletter (you can subscribe here).

The bottom line is the White House and CDC are not in the same place on reopening and there are a lot of politics. A few weeks ago such dissonance was seen as an existential threat to the republic, today a shrug. It’s entirely reasonable for political officials to disagree with scientists, we just shouldn’t be so situational about our response to it. And in general, this is not a great look for the sector. Let’s hope the White House is at least getting some concessions on other issues.

Few things:

– Some people are dismissing the calls for ventilation to be a priority. This seems like a mistake given what we know about air quality in schools in general and then also the evidence on ventilation and Covid-19. Arguing against the idea that money is the only thing schools need to reopen is not the same as arguing money doesn’t matter for short and long terms response efforts here.

– Does not seem like we’re doing a good job disentangling a massive Covid-19 testing plan for schools as a confidence building measure versus as a public health strategy. And there is a lot of money in play at a time when equity strategies like targeted tutoring could also use an infusion of billions of dollars. There might be more cost effective ways to build public confidence?

– People keep saying parents are fed up and aren’t going to take it any more. And yes, a lot of otherwise down the line progressive and woke parents sound like Pinkerton men when discussing the teachers unions right now.* But with a few exceptions (there is an effort in CA worth keeping an eye on, for instance) it doesn’t seem that parents are well organized right now. The teachers unions are. A basic rule in politics is organized and focused power beats disorganized sentiment most of the time. Given the larger politics it’s hard to see Republicans figuring out how to take advantage of this politically in the short term (speaking of not good looks, they have a Parkland denier on the House committee that handles education). Democrats want the new president to succeed in the pivotal early going. And the issues are complicated. So it’s unclear, absent a concerted effort, how parent angst plays out politically.

– We still seem to have no consensus or real leadership on an important aspect of the CDC’s recommendation – you can’t have everything open if you want schools open. As others have noted, if this is a national marshmallow test we’re failing. That’s an unfair burden to lay on schools and school leaders.

Here’s some past BW and Eduwonk content on this issue: Questions about reopening here, a look at whether a push for a 100 day reopening strategy might create bad incentives, CALDER data, webinar with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Brown’s Emily Oster. And is the ‘best of both worlds’ concurrent approach a recipe for mediocrity?

*A more gentle sentiment is this one, via Matt Bai, that you also hear:

What I keep thinking about, though, are all the times over the years I’ve asked leaders of teachers unions about some of the controversial reforms they’ve long resisted — merit pay, relaxed tenure, scaled back pension plans.

Every time, they’ve dismissed these ideas with the argument that teachers belong in a special category — that they are public servants, every bit as essential as soldiers and first responders, who forgo careers with higher pay and more prestige for the privilege of educating our children.

I actually agree with this. A lot of us do. We know teachers deserve more money and more respect, not less.

But all of those other public servants whom we can’t do without — cops and firefighters, nurses and National Guard troops, mail carriers and DMV workers, spies and bureaucrats — have been back on the job for months or never left. (Not to mention the workers at your local supermarket and drugstore.)

Posted on Jan 28, 2021 @ 3:58pm

January 22, 2021

Odds & Ends…Will Reopening Create Bad Incentives?

President George W. Bush spoke for many when he remarked following President Biden’s inauguration speech, “that was some normal shit.” Since the election it’s been refreshing to have a president-elect and now a president who doesn’t trigger anxiety every time he wanders near a podium. That’s not a partisan sentiment, many Republicans say the same thing behind the scenes.

But normal sh*t is also political sh*t, so understandable relief with the exit of President Trump shouldn’t suspend scrutiny. Which brings us to President Biden’s plan to open schools this school year.

There is ample evidence the reopening debate was clouded by politics – on all sides. That’s not entirely inappropriate – neither public health or public education decisions are made in a political vacuum nor should they be. “Just follow the science” makes a great bumper sticker but a lousy way to govern a society. As Biden’s goal has evolved from opening all schools this school year to its current “majority” of K-8 schools it has attracted more support along the way and is obviously buoyed by the fact that the president’s last name is no longer Trump. Still, a few questions:

– Will the attraction of concurrent as a way to achieve a reopening goal and dodge hard choices work against the larger goal of quality instruction? And related, how creative will districts be challenged to be on using teachers in a way that maximizes their safety but also maximizes benefit to students?

– Given the amount of money being proposed for rapid Covid testing for schools, would that money be better spent on interventions like tutoring or other immediate student supports? Jokes about the sector’s sudden appetite for testing are easy. But is it the best use of tens of billions right now?

– What information should the federal government collect and provide to help states and communities make the best decisions for them? There are plenty of things that are interesting to know, but perhaps better left to the media or other entities. At the same time there remains some key information school leaders and states are still struggling to distill.

– What’s the plan for Fall 2021? The Moderna vaccine is only authorized for people 18 or older, Pfizer for people 16 and older. Normalcy bias and pandemic fatigue may be blinding us to challenges that will accompany the 2021-22 school year and the variety of choices parents may continue making.

– And with all of this there is no way to get the health risk to zero, so there will always be room for objections. How should reasonable people decide what’s good enough? The debate does, quite literally, range from ‘if you’re not prepared to teach live you shouldn’t be teaching’ to ‘no live instruction until there are no Covid cases.’ I find both of those unsatisfying but where and how should lines be drawn?

Obviously to some extent with his political goals Biden is betting on the come and it’s a good bet. Despite problems with the rollout America is already sticking needles in nearly a million arms each day (though because it’s a two-shot regimen that’s less coverage than it appears at first glance). And 100 days from the inauguration is the end of April and trends indicate we’ll be in an upswing then anyway, at least as far as the virus goes.

But again, normal sh*t is political sh*t and political sh*t is about getting wins or the perception of wins. What American kids need – most especially those students most adversely affected by the pandemic closures (and the Biden executive order yesterday admirably included specific attention to these students) – is a real change in their educational circumstances. That’s about instruction, in whatever setting(s). Real attention to them would be, well, refreshingly abnormal.

Department of Ed:

Hires announced. A few to note, former Jill Biden COS as COS, former Ed Truster in the policy and programs role.


President Trump seems to have been unaware of IES during his time in office. That undoubtably seems like a good thing. But the agency quietly continued to do important work and here’s some news from the director. 


Unrelated, this article on the future of liberalism implicates education. Preliminary look at an important question: What’s the impact of the opioid crises on student learning? Are the demographics of the Democratic coalition changing in ways that will affect education? Riccards on civic education.

January 21, 2021

More Détente

Bruno Manno in The Hill on the idea that Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona offers a chance for détente in the education wars. I tend to think that’s right and a real opportunity.

Still, advocates of public charter schools and other reforms that disrupt traditional political power arrangements should also stay attuned to the risk that subsurface policymaking, in particular through the regulatory or guidance process will create opportunities for special interest pressure on charters and other reforms. There is no shortage of cross pressures on the Biden Administration.