Is AI Like The Early Days Of Covid?

A few memories stay with me from the very early days of the pandemic. Mostly about what I got wrong or right, or just got lucky.

My wife and I throw themed dinner parties and on Feb. 29th of 2020 we threw a small one with a leap theme, about great leaps. We served grasshoppers among other jumpy food. The attendees included a managing editor at a media outlet, a former secretary of education, an artist friend, non-profit leaders, a FAANG type, that sort of thing. People who were generally connected to information. By that point everyone knew it was bad news, the worst was coming, and part of the conversation tended to, ‘probably the last dinner party for a while, enjoy it.’ People offered predictions about what was about to happen. I remember one guest saying that a lot of people were about to die, we just didn’t know who yet or all the characteristics they might share. It was odd to be talking about that over wine and leap themed dishes as the world sort of ticked on.

That was a Saturday. Early the next week I remember being at the supermarket with my kids. We filled three carts. They thought this was beyond embarrassing. “Everyone is staring at us,” one said with dismay because that really is hell on earth for an 8th-grader. They always think everyone is staring at them, in this instance they were right. We were buying a lot of groceries. A week or so later? Well, they they were glad for it.

Here’s the thing. We were late to all this and I slept on Covid in its early days, assuming it would be disruptive but more or less like a bad flu year. I chocked some of the more severe reports up to click-hungry media. In February 2020, some schools in Virginia were actually closed because of flu, so episodic not widespread closures wasn’t a radical idea. Epidemiologists, though, knew this was not the case. The rest of us not yet. Professionally, I underestimated it in the early going, still wondering if we could pull off a meeting in California in early March or some school visits and spring training in Florida before things had to really close down.

We’re not “preppers.” I don’t have a bunker in my back yard, closest full of ARs, or a year’s worth of food. I stockpile bourbon and DVDs of 80s films. Nor am I any more prescient than the next person. But I am connected to pretty good information flow. I have friends in various fields, government, aviation, sports, medicine and, although later than some, once I started paying attention I was able to piece together what was going on and likely to happen. (I was also moonlighting as an EMT doing 911 at the time so though we were basically treated like mushrooms we got some trickle down by early March). By March people I knew were making big financial or logistical moves. A friend who was getting regular non-public briefings told me that first week of March that all the decisions about work, life, travel, that seemed debatable would soon be obvious. It became alarming.

Most of the country was still not yet alarmed.

It seems like the same thing is happening with AI now, albeit in slower motion. To be clear, I don’t think AI is simply something to be alarmed about. It’s not like Covid. With AI there will be upsides and downsides, as with any novel technology. But, those downsides will be as acute in some cases as the upsides are profound. Adverse consequences are talked about quietly, generally in my experience by elites or those connected to the information flow. ‘A lot of people…we just don’t know who yet.’ (My own hunch is the next recession will create the permission structure for layoffs that are actually AI-related and those jobs will not come back.)

Some people are in the know, some are waking up, some have no idea. In that way it feels a lot like the early days of Covid.

Via DALL·E 2

In my experience, most conferences or meetings about AI have a very ‘in the know’ vibe to them. At one level that’s normal. If you went to a charter school meeting in the 1990s, for instance, you were talking about a new disruptive innovation that few people were yet aware of. I raise a lot of money for cancer research and try to stay connected but I’m sure there are all manner of emerging treatments I am unaware of but are common knowledge among insiders. Hang out with professionals in almost any field if you want to understand how little you know about some things. But AI is different in that the effects will be broad across the economy and society, they will affect all of us.

Some people are preparing for those effects more than others. They’re counseling their kids. They’re thinking about their careers. They’re thinking about efficiency and upside as well as risk. Others are unaware and will be buffeted. In our little corner of the world, people talk in hushed tones about what this might mean for education’s labor market and various roles wary of causing alarm or setting off political tripwires. In the media world you hear conversations about the serious impacts of AI on how people find and consume news. In elite government circles there is attention being paid.

If you trust tech, trust our tech leaders, think they have everyone’s best interests at heart, then rest easy and carry on. If you don’t, then something is coming that a small group of people understand – like Covid not fully, but in its broad dimensions – and most people don’t. This doesn’t mean you should go bury a shipping container in your yard. Or buy guns and antibiotics. (Though I will say those old John Cusack films stand up and you’ll want them on hand regardless.) But it does mean leaders should probably do more to ask questions, democratize the flow of information, and help people prepare for opportunity and disruption. Help people understand what’s happening and what it might mean – knowing we can’t be sure. And be more candid about the potential upsides and downsides. We should do that less in cloistered groups and as much as possible in a more open way around the sector and particularly among its organizing entities – various organizations and associations.

In 2020 we didn’t have a leader with the skills and manner to do this for Covid. With AI, in 2024, it’s on all of us.

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From Bellwether

Here’s a new analysis on school finance in metro areas. Here’s a USAT story featuring it. And here’s a Reason article doing the same.

Next week I’m participating in this webinar with Aspen about de-polarization and bipartisan policy work. Karen Nussle is a participant too. More on her below.

Nota Bene

Ruy Teixeira is trying to warn you that the election’s demographic contours may not be what you think.

Kevin Huffman notes some teacher evaluation noise and signal problems.

Chris Stewart with a reminder that not everything that’s a problem can be laid on charters (and also that when it comes to race and education horseshoe politics are a real thing).

This is the hero we need.

Friday Fish Porn

Speaking of Karen Nussle, who is a great person in the sector, here she is with some fish. A largemouth bass and a pike both from the same lake in Wisconsin.

Friday fish what? Yes. Here is a unique archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish they’ve caught. Send me yours!

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Charter Schools Might Not Have A Chair When The Music Stops. Plus, Remembering Greg Schneiders.

Recent And Coming Attractions

I discussed Virginia’s efforts on school accountability with Susan Pendergrass on her “There’s A Policy For That” podcast.

This month, on the 22nd I’m participating in this Aspen Institute webinar about advancing bipartisan policy ideas in a hyper-polarized time. I’ll be at the RISE conference in D.C. on the 23rd, moderating what should be a lively panel about school choice, parent voice, and pluralism.

ICYMI new briefs this week on school finance as part of Bellwether’s Splitting the Bill series this week, this time on special education.

Let’s Hope The Music Never Stops

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools made an inspired choice in Starlee Coleman as its next President and CEO. That was announced this week. She brings political acumen, public affairs experience, and has run a state charter school association – as a former board member of one I can tell you that’s harder than it looks! (I also should note I was a founding board member of the Alliance). Nina Rees did a great job at the Alliance, and will be a tough act to follow so this is a solid choice.

One reason it’s a good choice is that the charter sector has some particular challenges ahead. (It’s important to note it’s a freewheeling sector and the Alliance doesn’t call the shots.) The challenges are somewhat ironic, of course, because overall charter performance continues to get better and is in some cases simply outstanding. The reasons why some charters outperform haven’t been some great mystery for a while. They’re common sense. But in a sector where, ‘it’s all about what’s good for the kids’ is the benediction at any meeting, charters somehow remain controversial in a lot of circles despite turning in results we don’t see a lot.

The other day I posted on Twitter that while I get paid to do elaborate analyses of various questions, the challenge facing charters is pretty simple so it’s a freebie:

I was screwing around but it’s a real point. This is part of the political problem charters have, we’ll talk about the other part in a second and they are to some extent related. A few things are happening. One, big statewide universal voucher plans, ESA’s, are passing now on the regular. 13 states have ESA’s of some kind, more will this year. It used to be a big deal when you had a pilot voucher program in places like D.C., Cleveland, and Milwaukee. Now another state passes universal choice and it’s like, yawn. And whether you love them, hate them, or are a wait and see how they play out type, these programs are wildly popular right now. Speaks volumes about where the energy is.

Second, the Republicans are, on average, a lot more interested in ESA’s than other choice options. They like the universal features, less regulations, less publicness, all of it. Democrats, meanwhile, mostly see those things as flaws. For a while there was stasis in this debate, charters were something of a compromise. Charters offered less regulations, could be universal, but they had key elements of publicness. They were an outpost for Democrats and a way station for Republicans. The ground has shifted and post-pandemic the energy is with rapidly expanding choice.

This perhaps would not be such a big problem for charters if they enjoyed a strong base of support in the Democratic party and were genuinely bipartisan in 2024. But they don’t. They’re not. Sure, there are still some pro-charter Dem governors, but Joe Biden cut the public charter school program at the Department of Education in his budget. Tells you what you need to know. Charters enjoy support among base Democratic voters, but not among elites and powerbrokers. And as the Democratic party becomes more a party of the highly educated and affluent suburbs this further pressures and threatens charter support.

For their part, many charter leaders read the political problem with Democrats as a challenge of convincing Democrats that charters are, in fact, the good guys. That they themselves are the good guys. This often showed up as a “we’re for social justice, too!” agenda.

The problem is, the Democratic opposition to charters is not about the politics of the schools, which were always to some extent left wing ideas about opportunity, equity, economic mobility, and empowerment funded with right wing money that wanted choice by any means. It’s not about the politics of the personal either. Rather, the opposition is about the intraparty politics of the Democratic coalition. Democrats are cross-pressured between education producers and education consumers and the producers – in particular the teachers unions – are incredibly powerful in American politics and especially in the Democratic coalition. You can dress it up however you like but that’s the dynamic. Full stop. It’s why, despite the evidence, you don’t have more Dem charter supporters.

The parents may want more charters, the polling and preferences on the ground clearly show that, but the parents are not yet organized. The teachers unions are. In politics concentrated beats diffuse most of the time. And the parents are less interested in the wide-ranging social justice agenda than you probably heard at the last education conference you attended. They just want good safe schools and are less interested in discipline reform, DEI, culture wars, and so forth than your median education non-profit employee and certainly less than the activists. People are pragmatic, if not conservative, about their own kids.

So what’s happened in practice is many charters have tried to play up to the party that structurally really can’t embrace them while antagonizing, or on a good day giving the cold shoulder, to the one that could. And in the process they’ve started to dilute and blur the crispness of their brand and differentiation, too.

The Republicans are no picnic in general these days. Here, although they’re allergic to accountability in some of these ESA programs, they are pretty good on school choice. That’s the awkward reality Democratic education reformers have to accept. What charters need to do is engage, maintain, and build on that Republican support while also organizing parents to actually pressure Democratic leaders to moderate their posture here and again make charters a default consensus position. That can’t be about partisan politics, it has to be about charter politics.

Otherwise, we have to ask, when the music stops and ESAs are even more established and the Dems have moved further from an embrace of any kind of school choice, will there be a chair for public charter schools?

Greg Schneiders

The political world, and the education world, lost a good friend and wonderful person earlier this week when Greg Schneiders passed unexpectedly. Greg was a pollster and strategist, loyal Democrat and veteran of many Democratic campaigns. I interviewed him about all that a few years ago just prior to the pandemic. More recently he was working to try to ensure that Donald Trump doesn’t return to The White House.

Far more important than all that he was just a terrific person to be around. Politics has great people and ones who are more of an acquired taste. Ones who think they’re God’s gift to the rest of us and humble ones. Greg was humble and great. A lot fun with a contagious joie de vivre and appreciation of the charmed life. Whip smart. Wise counsel. I worked with him on some projects but really connected when we realized we had some friends in common in the education and media scenes. So what I really treasure are boozy lunches and dinners, usually at The Palm (the “cafeteria” to Greg), discussing, sometimes arguing, politics and current affairs and learning from his stories and experiences. After he moved from Washington I looked forward to his visits back to the city and a long lunch or dinner with a small crew. Like so many, I will miss him.

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Joe Biden & NPR Have The Same Problem, Jed Wallace And I Have The Same Wardrobe, Plus Edujobs, Teachers And AI!

Jed and I have a new WonkyFolk out. Most of you listen on various podcasts apps but if you watch on YouTube you’ll see that although we don’t preplan Jed and I are aligned and on point on fashion. We talk about AI, ASU-GSV, charter school history, charter school present, politics, and why Jed wants charter folk to get crisp. I own up to my biggest parenting mistake and being a lousy boyfriend. 

Words On Fashions

ICYMI – I wrote recently about why these phony hair shirts reformers are wearing are a bad fit. Sure there have been mistakes and missteps but that’s true in any area of social policy and there has also been progress. Fordham republished it this week.

In the Richmond Times I wrote about school accountability in Virginia and why we’re long overdo to have some. There is pretty much nothing Glenn Youngkin has said about school accountability that the Education Trust and various civil rights groups didn’t used to say as well. The only thing that’s changed is the politics.


And people said teachers would be slow to adopt this stuff! A Maryland teacher used AI to create deepfake recordings of his principal. Chaos ensued.

Edujob! (Paid advertisement)

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Oh Dems…

In February on a WonkyFolk I said I thought Joe Biden’s electoral chances were better than it appeared. I still think that although there are obvious caveats. First, this mess on campus is a liability. Second, the convention in Chicago, which could mar things right as most people start paying attention to politics. And then third, of course, health and gaffes. That’s fine with me as far as a status quo, Donald Trump is unfit in my view and so I want to see Biden prevail. But it’s worth asking, given Trump’s record, lack of support from his cabinet when he was president, and that most charitably you could say he was unconcerned with illegal acts to thwart the the transfer of power, why the hell is the election even this close?

There are a lot of reasons why, and education is not foremost amongst them. But education does matter as a frame and in a close election, everything matters. It turns out that Black and Hispanic parents are a demographic quite likely to be switching from Biden to Trump. (In a close election switchers matter a lot, too, because they take a vote and get a vote).

From The Economist:

There are a few plausible reasons why this might be (everyone will graft their favorite one on). But it does align with some other polling. Here’s an interesting take on some of the dynamics.

Meanwhile, DFER has a new poll also suggesting trouble on the education issue specifically.

(If you want an unsparing take on all this here’s former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty).

None of this is all that surprising, President Biden has an education policy pretty skewed towards white progressives. People care. What is surprising? He already has those votes in the bag. His immediate political problem is a bleed he can ill-afford among Black and Hispanic voters. Here, education might help, or at a minimum the White House might practice a little more do no harm in its politics. Cutting the public charter school budget is a signal there is just no reason to send. It tickles the teachers’ union, sure, but you already had their endorsement.

In the Uri Berliner piece on NPR that caused the recent dust up and cost him his job he noted:

The New York Times confirmed the same demographic challenges despite an emphasis on diversity at NPR.

It’s not hard to discern why. The data are clear that the median Black or Hispanic voter is to the political right of the median white progressive. Yet white progressives graft their own political preferences onto “people of color,” who are in fact a diverse group as far as viewpoint is concerned, and more generally. They are mostly, like the rest of us, normies. It’s why, politically, although consultants keep reinventing the wheel you can do a lot worse than a good schools, safe neighborhoods, economic opportunity agenda.

This idea that everyone is super-progressive is reinforced by the bubbles people operate in. If you work in an education non-profit, or perhaps at NPR (though I used to do paid commentary for them I have never worked there) you’re not going to run into a lot of Black conservatives, for instance. What’s more, the big divides are in fact by education level and geography – as Berliner noted about NPR’s listenership. You do see that same issue show up in elite education circles.

The sooner education leaders key in on this the better it will be for the political health of the public schools. The sooner Joe Biden’s political team does the better it will be for the country.

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Buck Up!

When my daughters were pre-teens they came home from school one day alarmed. During a lesson on climate change the teacher or some part of the lesson, it was never quite clear, had basically stated that absent radical attention to warming there would be little hope for survivability on earth after 2030. This was during peak Thunberg-mania.

I remember having a few thoughts. First, I’m someone deeply concerned about climate change but this isn’t what the evidence shows and is a bananas lesson. But also, even assuming this is what the evidence convincingly shows, these are really young kids, what would be the point of telling them anyway?

This episode occurred to me recently in the context of the constant, and weirdly fashionable, bellyaching by reformers about how education reform has accomplished so little if anything at all. Oddly this is one place reformers and anti-reformers seem to agree these days, even as the evidence indicates it’s not true. What’s more, even assuming it was in fact the case, if you’re an advocate why the hell would you run around braying?

Has everything gone swimmingly, of course not. But in the context of U.S. social policy, until a few years ago we were making what would be considered good progress. (It’s worth noting how long social policy change takes in a country like this – perhaps the recent quite rapid progress in issues like gay and transgender rights has skewed perceptions.)

Until ESSA and the Obama Administration’s decision to throw in the towel on accountability student achievement was on a steady, if modest, growth path. Students furthest from opportunity were making gains. Not enough, but gains. The pandemic, of course, scrambled everything but we should not lose sight of those earlier trajectories – that are averages across an entire student population. People will argue about counterfactuals and the pace of change, but “barely budged,” which you often hear, this is not.

Here’s a deeper dive on all this from Tom Kane and several colleagues. Tom, who while being perhaps the most passionate voice on the urgency of pandemic learning loss, also suggests we may have the longer-term story of achievement wrong. Here’s Rick Hanushek and several colleagues on gaps, “We find a steady, albeit modest, reduction in the SES-achievement relationship over the past four decades.” Other data indicate the same thing about low-achievers, notable progress during the standards-era toward what we used to call equity.

Time to throw a party? Nope. The data are all as sobering as encouraging. But it does mean the Dante-like abandon all hope approach to talking about educational progress is not only politically stupid whether you’re a reformer, staunch public school supporter, or both, it’s also empirically questionable.

There are also plenty of other examples.

I can remember being lectured by the smart set in education that KIPP would never have more than 15 schools and was consequently more or less a distraction I was naive to even be interested in. (The same people said Teach For America would be perhaps a boutique program of 500 teachers a year if they were really lucky.) By extension most people thought Bill Clinton’s goal of 3,000 charter schools was just throwaway political hyperbole. Today there are more than 7,000 charter schools (and about 275 of them are KIPP schools). Are charters all fantastic, no. But many are and the data shows on average they’re getting better and are a good bet as a policy. And there are inferences you can draw on why that is. If you had told people 25 or even 20 years ago that there would be so many you would have been greeted with a lot of skepticism.

More people are going to college, too. Again, not an unvarnished blessing given the mixed quality and ROI of higher education, but also on average for the good. Especially for low-income students in quality higher education programs.

Standards are also improving. There is plenty to critique about President Obama’s education record but it seems inarguable that in aggregate state standards were better in 2016 than they were in 2008 and he and Arne Duncan played a role in nudging that along. Standards are also more specific and actionable for teachers, and more often aligned with curriculum. We’re also seeing a boom in high quality curriculum hitting the market and the focus on curriculum is a welcome and noteworthy change. In addition to being good for students, curricular support makes the job of teaching more sustainable.

That’s in part because of another good news story, we’re finally getting serious about reading and knowledge rich instruction and curricula. The politically fashionable but largely ineffective approaches are being sidelined, an evidence-based approach to reading is taking hold. Is this arguably a half-century overdue? Yes. But you can bemoan that or appreciate that late is better than never. It’s still progress.

On all these issues you saw a combination of government activity, philanthropy, and social entrepreneurs of different sorts. The private sector also played an important role in some key aspects including innovation. And that activity for a time engaged journalists and policy leaders. It was exciting.

If we’re being honest the biggest barrier to a lot of changes has been and continues to be the constantly changing fads and politics in education. On reading, curriculum, or assessment too many people figure out what is politically fashionable and proceed from there. I’ve had people tell me that phonics is just a Republican way of teaching reading. That’s idiotic. That sort of ethos is why the gap between evidence and practice is often so substantial and preference falsification is rampant.

This is also the same problem we see now with everyone having the mopes about education improvement and reform. Like those tan shoes with white soles it seems like every dude was suddenly wearing, it’s just the fashionable thing.

It’s remarkable how often you hear at an education meeting that little or nothing has improved in schools, or even that things are basically the same as they were during Jim Crow. It’s complete nonsense, of course, most people are smart, well-read enough, and aware of the larger world to know this (at least I sure hope that’s the case). Yet it’s the fashion right now to be in that mode, you get socially and professionally rewarded for it even as it’s creating a culture at odds with high-expectations and optimism for young people.

We’ve also created a culture where saying there has been progress or things aren’t so bad is likened to being blind to the problems. Progress and continuing challenges are not mutually exclusive. This country, and this sector, has made enormous progress *and* there is still a lot of work to do.

But, obviously, to do that work you need people to believe it’s possible. That’s why saying there is no progress, woe is us, and all that is insane as an advocacy strategy. As we’ve discussed, Joe Biden is not going to lead a parade, but he’ll get in front of one. So will most pols. But who wants to lead or be anywhere near the parade of Eeyores? Right now the message to politicians, philanthropy, and media is a dour if not repellent one.

Sure, if you genuinely believe education is not a lever for change or empowerment then you should go work in a different sector or on different issues. Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to effect change. Otherwise, let’s stop admiring the problems and get back at it with a lot more energy, new ideas, and some fresh arguments and debates.

Here’s the bottom line: Until the one-two punch of ESSA and the pandemic achievement trends were going in the right direction – especially for students on the wrong end of the achievement gap. And the supports for students, whether new school options or curriculum are improving. There is pent up demand and increasingly supply around innovation.

That’s not a bad time to work in education, it should be an exciting time. Reform has hardly been flawless and hasn’t achieved its loftier goals and at the same time evidence of progress is all around. This sort of fits and starts progress is how social policy change generally happens. In fact, given how stubbornly resistant to change the education system is, how political, and how fad driven, the narrative that nothing has worked is pretty much backwards.

We should say so.

Eclipse Reax:

Monday I wrote about the eclipse. They’re amazing to experience – especially totality. Yet in some cases schools were not embracing that. I got emails with stories of ‘don’t worry we’re closing the blinds’ and ‘out of an abundance of caution we’re keeping everyone inside.’ I heard from someone in Boston saying indoor activities were being canceled so kids could be home safe with their parents. One parent from a school making sure kids would not see the eclipse wrote, “Such a missed opportunity to get kids excited about the universe and its wonders.” Exactly, this is something to be awed by not fearful of. Why are we teaching kids anything different?

But the good news is we have two decades to prepare for the next one here in the U.S. So order those eclipse glasses now.

San Diego:

We’re going to have a lively and fun discussion about AI next week in San Diego, please join us if you can.

Friday, so fish.

Going vintage today with the Friday fish porn. Here’s Ben Sayeski of ESC, a former principal who moved into data visualization with a nice Alaska salmon. Not his first time here.

Check out this unique archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. Send me yours!

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Let Kids Look Up…Join Bellwether In San Diego!

Totally Incredible

Greetings from Ohio. I’m out here with family in the path of totality because eclipses are an amazing thing to experience and I’ll go out of my way to experience one. Totality and standing inside of Stonehenge one evening at sunset are the two experiences I’ve had where time does feel like it’s moving differently. I hope you are somewhere you can experience it. (I also visited Neil Armstrong’s childhood home, which was cool to see. I’m a nerd).

Alas, not everyone feels that way and some schools are doing the hide the kids thing again. I wrote about this back in 2017 for U.S. News & World Report. It’s understandable why schools in the path of totality are going to make some changes given the time of day, there are traffic and other logistical concerns. But it’s not understandable for some schools to just keep kids inside out of “an abundance of caution.”

There is no world where we’re not better off exposing young people to science and natural phenomena. It’s how we get them engaged for the future. This still holds:

It’s understandable that the ancients were terrified of eclipses. Professional educators in 2017? There is no excuse.


Joe Lieberman fell, and then passed away at the end of March. He was a controversial politician but you could see the respect many of his peers had for him in their tributes.

I had the privilege of working with him some, when I was in government and in the think tank world. He was decent, not a hater, and did what he thought was right (even if you didn’t agree, and at times I certainly didn’t). He was also funny. And he wasn’t a partisan, which as it turns out presaged much of our polarization and negative polarization now.

You can’t ask for more than that, and we need more people in government, whether you agree or disagree with them, who do what they think is right rather than just running in the worn grooves of a broken politics.


Join us for this event in San Diego next week:

Or, we’re hiring at Bellwether – so just join us.

Nota Bene

Jim Traub on books and phones:

A study by the American Psychological Association found that while in the late 1970s, 60 percent of twelfth-graders reported reading a book or a magazine every day, the figure had plummeted to 16 percent by 2016. It’s almost certainly fallen further since then.

Tyler Austin Harper on White Rural Rage:

Instead of reckoning with the ugly fact that a threat to our democracy is emerging from right-wing extremists in suburban and urban areas, the authors of White Rural Rage contorted studies and called unambiguously metro areas “rural” so that they could tell an all-too-familiar story about scary hillbillies. Perhaps this was easier than confronting the truth: that the call is coming from inside the house.

Alex Grodd, formerly of BetterLesson, has a smart new podcast on disagreeing better.

Outside on kids , schools, and BMI.

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See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil On FAFSA? Plus Join BW In San Diego, History, And Fish

If A Form Fails In the Forest And No One Hears About It…

Imagine for a moment that hackers attacked Harvard’s computer systems, or someone dragged a huge magnet through Cambridge, and suddenly we had no record of who had attended and graduated for the past 40 years. Would it get a lot of media attention? I suspect so. Especially from The Times and other outfits that are essentially Harvard’s outposts across the realm. We’d hear non-stop about the disruption and downstream consequences for now unverifiable Harvard graduates, even as most people never darken the door of Harvard. We’d hear about fake Harvard grads. We’d get think pieces on, ‘what really is a Harvard degree anyway?’

Yet the ongoing FAFSA disaster? The one that affects millions of poor kids because it involves the federal financial aid form that is determinative for their aid? Not so much. And it’s not just The Times.

Yes, The Times did do one FAFSA deep dive where we got to see who might take the political hit. It led with the revelation that 70,000 emails from students had turned up unopened in an inbox.

So here’s another counterfactual: Imagine if the Trump Administration stumbled on 70,000 emails from students. In an inbox! All hell would break loose and Twitter/X would be nothing but a river of stupid GIFs. And rightly so. It would be a mess and unacceptable.

Or, imagine if the Trump Administration and Betsy DeVos just bumbled the rollout of a revised FAFSA, something that was in the works for years (and was a rare glimmer of bipartisanship.) You’d never hear the end of that either. Rachel Maddow would be in high dudgeon. Every night. All right thinking people would be appalled at the incompetence. Education Zoom calls would open with ritualistic head shaking (and probably a little finger snapping) at the badness of it all. And that would all be correct. It wouldn’t be acceptable because this stuff matters.

Yet the actual FAFSA disaster we’re living through? The real one you don’t have to imagine because it’s happening right now? A lot of crickets.

It’s hard to miss that the people who write and think about FAFSA for a living are far less impacted by this trainwreck than the people FAFSA is aimed at.

And obviously, no one wants to criticize Joe Biden because he’s running for a second term against Donald Trump and the election is somehow far closer than it should be.

Still, at some point…c’mon. Democrats are supposed to be about a couple of things. One is opportunity for the less fortunate. That’s kinda the point of FAFSA. Democrats are also supposed to be about improving people’s material conditions and showing that government can be a force for good by making government credible. How? By making government work.

The FAFSA disaster manages to fail on all counts. At once.

Look, I don’t want Donald Trump back in The White House either. But two things are true at once here. Donald Trump shouldn’t be anywhere near the levers of governmental power in this country. And this is a big and consequential screw up. Negative polarization and how that’s impacted media coverage is certainly a factor here. But if this problem affected a more politically potent demographic or a demographic more present in elite media we’d probably hear a whole lot more about it than the low rumble of background noise we get now.


This graf in an article about school district segregation is interesting:

Despite the imbalance in school resources, Cournoyer notes that students on the reservation benefit from cultural and language support — something they could miss if they attended schools in Custer, even with its “nicer facilities and more advanced technology.” The city and its school district were named for George Armstrong Custer, a U.S. commander who fought and killed Indigenous people on the Great Plains before his defeat at Little Bighorn. 

This is all true.

You know what else you could write?

The city and its school district were named for George Armstrong Custer, a U.S. commander who fought and killed Indigenous people in the East during the U.S. Civil War and later on the Great Plains before his defeat at Little Bighorn.

I don’t carry any brief for Custer. He played a role in keeping Charlottesville and UVA from being destroyed during the Civil War, sure, but he was generally pretty reckless. It did him in.

He does illustrate a larger point. The general assumption is that the whitewashing of history only runs one way. In fact, it runs in all directions. The problem is not that we don’t do a good job teaching about the history of X, whatever X matters most to you. Rather, we don’t do a good job teaching about history. In no small part because of the politics of the present. The Smithsonian National Museum of The American Indian does a noteworthy job discussing the complicated history of Native Americans during the Civil War. Custer, Sheridan, and others brought a history with them to the west.

Like so many historical figures, Custer is an example of how the good guy/bad guy frame fails us. Was he a good guy or a bad guy? Liberator or oppressor? Depends on the conflict? We don’t do messiness well.

Living History

If you’re going to be in San Diego for ASU-GSV it would be great to connect. One way is this discussion Bellwether is hosting on AI and schools Tuesday late afternoon the 16th. It’s at a local bar, so food and drink as well as great conversation about a complicated set of questions around AI and K-12 education.

Fish Porn

One of the discussants at the Bellwether event is Ben Riley, who is doing work to help link learning science to the AI conversation.

Here he is last year in Michigan. Nick Adams country.

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Don Shalvey

As I’m sure many readers have already heard, Don Shalvey passed away this weekend from cancer at 79. Jed Wallace recounts his role in charter schooling here. EdSource’s John Fensterwald here.

The EdSource remembrance headlines that Don was “fearless,” riffing off a quote from Steve Barr, another early charter school pioneer. But I’m not sure that is the right word. Fearlessness indicates a degree of recklessness or more charitably unawareness. Don wasn’t that. What he was, in my experience, was brave.

I first met him in the 1990s when he was launching charter schools in California and what became Aspire Public Schools. He had been a school superintendent with a comfortable career in that role ahead of him. Instead, he decided to become a maverick and open charters with an eye toward dramatic economic mobility for graduates. He talked about the social and professional isolation that decision created from his former colleagues, role, and path. He knew the risk and the price. He did it anyway.

That’s what struck me, this guy is brave. (He was also a hell of a lot of fun, good energy). His north star was more important to him than all the stuff people generally get wrapped up in.

Don was also a connector, he brought people together in different ways. He, and we, may not know the full scale of his impact, because of ideas, projects, and initiatives set in motion through the randomness of connections. And, of course, the young people he helped will send ripples into the world through their lives.

There was a California surfer named Jay Moriarity who died tragically young in 2001. The film Chasing Mavericks is about his life and growth as a surfer. His life spawned a “Live Like Jay” movement because he packed a lot of life into just a few years. Don was blessed with a long and full life, people are mourning as much for us as for him. Yet that bravery of his was rare in the 1990s, it’s still far too rare now.

This field, and work to genuinely improve the condition and experience of kids, would be further along if more people lived like Don. He certainly did his part and we’re better for it.

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New WonkyFolk – Live From Arizona!

What’s something the world might not need? How about a live recording of WonkyFolk where Jed and I do it as a keynote and take questions? Probably. We did it anyway.

Last month we went to Phoenix and helped keynote a Charter School Growth fund summit with a great group from across the country. You can listen below.

We had an audio issue the first few minutes. There is a bit of cross talk/music with the techs, but it’s only for the first minute or so.

Otherwise the meat of the discussion is there. We screwed up a question at the end from a fantastic New Orleans charter school leader because we could not hear it well. We’ll get to that on a later episode with guests in a month or two. It was our first live one, so be gentle. But we covered a lot of ground on politics, policy, school choice, and why the Dems are so out of position on an issue that should be a layup. Jed was throwing Aristotle references like darts. More notes below.

You can listen or read a transcript here, below or wherever you get your podcasts:

Notes and key points:
  • At 3:15, Jed responds to a question from Andy about school choice and how we break the link between place of residence and access to educational opportunity.
  • At 5:38, Andy provides some historical context about where the left and right used to be on matters related to school choice and attendance zones.
  • At 7:54, Jed talks about what Aristotle teaches us about how to drive a narrative for charter schools across a landscape as vast as the State of California.
  • At 10:05, Andy talks about how counter-productive it can be for some education reform advocates to embrace conflict for conflict’s sake.
  • At 14:26, Jed describes the two great forces that support and defend the public education status quo.
  • At 17:11, Jed asks Andy whether he had overstated the charter school momentum story in his recent article at Education Next.
  • At 20:46, Jed shares his view that charter schools’ standing varies greatly by states, even across red states.
  • At 27:37, Andy shares thoughts about how charter schools can best navigate the red/blue divide happening across the country.
  • At 32:16, Andy responds to a question from the audience about prospects for school choice in Virginia.
  • At 38:30, Jed answers a question about where the charter school movement should be coming together to develop a shared agenda for the future.
  • At 44:00, Andy and Jed take a question about school choice and charter school developments happening in Florida.
  • At 50:38, an audience member asks Jed and Andy to share thoughts about what are the kinds of school choice that we should be embracing.
  • At 58:48, Andy and Jed take a question about what we need to do to improve the charter school narrative in Black communities across the U.S.
  • At 105:38, an audience member asks a final question about what advocacy organizations need to do to increase the number of charter school parents who are voting.
Show Notes:
Previous episodes of WonkyFolk can be accessed here.

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Dems, Dial It Back A Few Clicks. Please. It Matters. Down With Dress Codes! And Probably The Sweetest Fish Pic Ever.

ICYMI earlier in the week I wrote about why, despite the stridency about non-profit and for-profit status, tax status actually doesn’t matter a lot in key ways.

Last week I took a look at AI and suggested that while bias is an issue given how these models work, we shouldn’t over-index on it. Google over-indexed on it. Nellie Bowles has a good take on that.

If you missed our Science of Reading webinar based on this new Bellwether report, it’s here:

My team, really working hard to get the most awkward screen grabs.

Read The Room

Also last week, I sat down with Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises to discuss Black History month and history teaching and why it’s so hard. The pressure from the right is amply documented, but Sonja also got into the pressure from the left in some pretty candid ways.

I can’t embed it but you can watch and listen to that here.

This is not a minor thing, the 2024 election will be close and while it won’t turn on education as an issue, education will matter as a frame. People seem to be noticing that things are a little, well, weird. Just this week Joe Klein (the journalist, not Joel Klein, calm down haters) pointed this out:

Now this may just be one school. Let’s hope so. I fear not. And I’m certain of this: It will make a killer negative ad for Republicans next fall. Oh, you say: Only a minuscule number of Dems actually believe this crap. Remember, Defund The Police? Very few Democrats, outside AOC’s Suicide Squad, believed that either. The Republicans are still using it.

It’s not just one school. Here (as Sonja also pointed out) is more or less what normies think:

Furthermore, she said, the coloring book presents controversial ideas “as fact.” But, “it’s not necessarily true. It’s not like every black person believes in these principles.” 

Shufutinsky agrees: “There is nothing in these principles that talks about honoring greats in black American history. There is nothing in here that is actual scholarship. It doesn’t speak to education. It speaks to ideology.”

Ruy Teixeira who has been documenting this trend went deep on education for Education Next. Why Education Next? Well, AEI’s Rick Hess is a senior editor there, Ruy, despite a long Democratic pedigree, now works at AEI…because… (Note Klein’s critique of Teixeira as well.)

Cat Power was in DC this week to play the setlist from Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall” concert at the Lincoln Theater. As Bob himself might say, “something is happening here and you don’t know what it is.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that this is all more nuanced than you’ve heard (and in some cases than they told you) and, as Klein notes, many perceived views are not so broadly held. We did a deep dive on all that last year at Bellwether. I point it out around here a lot, obviously to no avail. And the non-profit sector is no help because it’s so elite and left that centrists and moderates appear to be conservatives.

This coalition of the shrilling would all be sort of amusing in its way if the stakes were not so high in November with the real prospect that Donald Trump could return to The White House. The thing for Dems is this is fixable, and fixable without compromising the party’s core values. People want merit, choices, and opportunity in public schools. Those are, or were, Democratic values. The idea that Black lives matter as an inclusive organizing principle, don’t comprise. The political agenda of Black Lives Matter? Well, have you read it? Freedom to live your life as you want and be free from discrimination is a core commitment that should not be compromised. Playing whatever sport you want regardless of fairness or safety, teaching kindergarten students that doctors make mistakes when it comes to the sex and gender of babies, luxury beliefs about family structure, are those postmodern fads really the hills to die on? In 2024?

Are they really in any way helpful to public schools?

Hair And Dress

In the 2022 Eduwonk In and Out list I said keep an eye on the CROWN Act. A lot of people were like the what? Well, after this week in Texas now you know. But here’s the thing. I don’t doubt race is an issue with this school district, the comments about how this relates to affirmative action are just bizarre. But it’s also a broader issue of dress codes. The ruling may be technically correct in terms of what the Texas legislation doesn’t include. But outside of court, so what? Broaden the aperture. Why does it really matter how this young person wants to wear their hair? There are some health and safety reasons to regulate hair, which CROWN policies allow for. But that’s for specialized occupations and situations. It really should not matter in school day to day and it hardly falls under the kinds of expression schools can appropriately regulate. In the 2024 In and Out list I said dress codes would be in the dock. It’s about time. (They’re often also sexist.)

Coming Attractions

I was in Arizona this week to take in some 9U baseball. Actually, I was there because Jed Wallace and I were invited by the Charter School Growth Fund to record WonkyFolk live in front of their convening there. We had never done that, it was fun and the audience added a lot. Former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was the opening act before us. I did not know he was an ice cream baron before running for elected office. His take on that part of his career was interesting and reminded me of what schools and coffee have in common. We’ll put the show up next week.

It’s Friday, So Fish:

Chi Kim is one of those people in our sector who when you learn a few things about them you can still be surprised by the next one. She teaches at UVA, is on several important boards in the sector, and is CEO of her own venture. Earlier in her career she was a principal. Follow her on Twitter/X here.

She’s also on the board of an organization in Costa Rica, FECOP, focused on sustainable fishing. She sent me a wonderful fishing lure from that work a few months ago. And she sent a few pictures. The room was dusty when she sent this lovely one fishing with her father in California:

Here’s a more recent one:

Chi is the latest entry in this unique archive of hundreds of pictures of education types with fish. Whether fish pics or fish porn (that second fish is pretty nice) send me yours!

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How The IRS Treats Entities Is Pretty Irrelevant To How You Should Think About Them

There is a sort of truism in the education world that non-profit means white hat* and for-profit means you should be skeptical or something stronger. And because Bellwether is a non-profit it would be in my interest to perpetuate that notion. Except it’s wrong and not at all useful.

Not-for-profit and for-profit are just corporate structures. Those structures matter, for instance, legally, to some aspects of operations, to compensation, and to taxes related to various activities. (And there are different classifications of non-profits, churches, unions, political organizations, charities, etc…for our purposes here think about the generic non-profit research, service, or advocacy group, the kind you might check out on Charity Navigator).

What tax status doesn’t matter much to are two key things:

– Whether or not an entity is actually profitable; and

– Whether or not an entity adds any real value to the world.

In practice, there are plenty of for-profits education ventures that are effectively non-profit in terms of their actual returns to investors. Education can be a challenging marketplace, it’s hard to sell to school districts, the system is decentralized, people make mistakes with business plans and models, etc…etc…Meanwhile, there are plenty of non-profits with eight and even nine figure reserve funds – which in some cases are large even accounting for their ongoing run rates. They’re not paying out profit because of their corporate structure, but they are certainly making money and effectively have an EBITDA that would excite any investor. (A trend I’d keep an eye on is non-profits being acquired and becoming for-profit).

At the same time, there are plenty of for-profit organizations, and many non-profits of course, that are adding a lot of value to the world through what they do. And, there are many in both sectors that are not. This is why the ways various ventures interact with the IRS doesn’t tell you a lot about whether or how you should interact with them as a buyer.

Finally, there is a lot of talk about “sustainability” in the non-profit world. I have some bad news for you – nothing is inherently sustainable, even life itself. A little more immediately, it’s worth noting, especially in a time of philanthropic contraction in our sector, that a good business model is the most sustainable model out there. Most of Bellwether’s revenue is fee-for service and that value for value transaction and the accountability that comes with it is vital to our model. People being willing to pay you for work is sustainable, and more sustainable and a stronger signal than philanthropic activity alone. It means that when your funders decide they care more about climate change than schools or are just sick of education politics that you don’t have a financial crisis on your hands.

What does this mean for you? First, look beneath the label and worry less about tax status than actual impact and value. Second, I get asked a lot to help start up ventures think through questions about how to organize. There are benefits to being a non-profit. Despite the point this post is trying to make there are and will continue to be reputational benefits in many quarters. There is also access to philanthropic capital, and the ability run at leaner margins because you don’t have to return financial value to investors. Where you see capital coming from, the part of the sector you operate in, and whether or not the possibility for a real exit exists if you are successful are all factors to consider.

But the core thing is this: The next time someone ID’s an org first by its tax status ask, but what do they do or offer, and are they any good at it or is it quality for what we need? That matters more than the forms any entity sends to the IRS and will make you a more savvy consumer of goods and services. It would also improve signaling in our sector.

*Ironically, one of the most-notoriously low-quality for-profit charter school operators was actually called White Hat. And yet even though their overall quality was poor, they did some some programs that were OK. (There is a whole post to be done on names.) Another reminder this is all more complicated subsurface.

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