Short Take On One Aspect Of AI & Schools + New Wonkyfolk

Jed Wallace and I have a new Wonkyfolk out this morning. We cover a few issues, but in particular what Ron DeSantis and the teachers unions have in common – love of theater and they sure don’t like to take yes for an answer. Plus NAEP and civics, The Economist, more…

You can also read or watch via this link. Or listen wherever you get your podcasts.

This post is not written by AI, that’s been done enough. But it’s about AI. An observation and a question for you.

A few weeks ago John Bailey posted a funny riff on the Good Will Hunting library card scene, but with an education flavor:

There is lot of speculation about what kinds of jobs might be most disrupted by AI. People have realized the issue is no longer just truck drivers and retail jobs, the traditional targets of automation. AI is a whole new ballgame. AI can do entry level journalism, ad copy, and many other tasks that seemed at least somewhat insulated from disruptive technologies. It is primed to revolutionize tutoring and likely parts of the teaching job. That has a lot of people freaked out.

In our little part of the world even now I suspect that AI can do 80% of what an early career analyst or writer in this sector does. But that 20% matters. A lot. It’s still a funny joke, but in the example above the characterization of Yong Zhao and to some extent Darling-Hammond is off. That’s where the 20% comes in. You can’t just plug and play, you have to know something about content to learn new things.

The other day we looked at history and civics and how part of our history and civics problem is we don’t teach civics and history content. Content gets supplanted by the allure of teaching “skills” and the education field is always a sucker for that play.

This is where it might really matter. If AI can do 80% but the last 20 requires domain knowledge/subject matter expertise then that’s one way AI could increase gaps between education haves and have nots. Sure, AI will get better – and quickly – and in a few years Bailey’s script would likely be more refined. But although the ‘we don’t need to teach content with this great new technology’ crowd is making themselves heard again, it might be that we need content more than ever.

How do you like them apples?

Like a lot of organizations we’re doing work around AI at Bellwether. One thing I’m interested in the education space is the most interesting unsanctioned uses around schools. So there are lots of applications prek-12 emerging. But what uses are students figuring out themselves. In particular examples of younger (elementary and middle school) students using AI on their own? Creative informal student led applications? Other things that are less common? Please send me any ideas, anonymous or blinded is fine, to eduwonk AT

Book Banning Could Be A Good Issue For Democrats, But It’s Not A Sure Thing

Bottom line: If the Republicans can land on a message that highlights the Democratic liabilities here then the issue won’t break as cleanly to the Democrats as people assume.

I’ve mentioned before that the core Democratic political problem right now is how the party is being held hostage by its activist class. It’s not a new dynamic, but is more intense in the social media era when everyone fears a Twitter pile on. The Republicans’ core problem, conversely, is ransom demands from the party’s base. Few issues illustrate that better than the debate about book “bans.” Book “banning” is one of these issues that though it’s been with us for a while hardly anyone cared about 15 minutes ago. Now it’s the only thing standing between us as fascism. At least until the next thing, which will be along soon.

President Biden is making book banning a big focus of his reelect message. Secretary of Education Cardona seems have picked it up to repeat as some sort of a nervous tic when various things come up. That’s illustrative of the convention wisdom , which sees “book banning” as an absolute gift to the Democrats and something they should talk about as much as possible. And while it certainly has the potential to be a potent issue, I wouldn’t get carried away.

Book bans are also one of those issues where the various combatants all have their own definitions. Historically, both the right and left have tried to get various books banned from schools for various reasons. Consequently, because the definitions are confused, the politics work in different ways for different players. Are we talking about literally banning books in bookstores? That’s not really on the table, though restrictions by age are well-established. But hold on, many of the people most ready to pick up pitch forks now in the name of freedom to read were curiously struck mute when, for example, Abigail Shrier’s book criticizing transgender care came on the market. Or they were on the side of the banners. An ACLU(!) official called for stopping the circulation of that book. Most people, you’ll discover, aren’t actually against censorship, rather, they’re for restricting access to content they don’t approve of (at any given point in time, the velocity around some of these issues is remarkable).

Nazi cows!

That’s just one reason book banning is also one of those issues where the first answer to most questions or assertions should be more questions. What book? For what reason? In what venue? For what age? Calling for banning books in public libraries is different than school libraries, and school libraries are different than what’s in classrooms and the curriculum. The specifics matter, and will matter in some key ways to the politics. And of course, book bans and general questions about education content and curriculum bleed together in the culture wars.

It’s worth remembering that in public schools we restrict access to or make choices about content all the time. Choices about what gets taught and what doesn’t are a fact of life. Sometimes that’s around controversial content, mostly it’s just the normal process of calls to change what is in or out of the ‘canon’ and as a nod to time constraints. Debating what’s essential knowledge can be contentious, but it’s a healthy activity for a society and schooling inherently requires choices.

Still, even within this confused environment there is an opportunity for Democrats. As we saw with Dobbs in 2022, people don’t like rights being taken from them. Book banning polls badly. And Republicans have overreached. The pushback around books about Ruby Bridges, for instance, or Martin Luther King, understandably concerns pretty much everyone to the left of David Duke. If the Republicans can’t get right on issues like that they will deservedly pay a price.

Have some schools crossed lines into clumsiness or straight-up political indoctrination? Of course. And not every issue being raised is unreasonable. Some schools are teaching CRT or “CRT-light,” and not as one way some people understand the world or as a theory but as inarguable fact. At the same time, some schools cross the line into what a reasonable observer would consider racism. This sector struggles mightily to talk honestly about both those issues right now. “No one is teaching CRT, but if we did that would be good” seems to be the current party line from Democrats. Too many Republicans have turned into snowflakes about teaching the uglier parts of American history. One “side” can’t get enough of essentialism, the other of exceptionalism.

Whatever party can grab the mantle of teaching rigorously about racism and discrimination without crossing the line into politics will hold the dominant ground. For Democrats getting there means saying no to activists, for Republicans it means defying the base and some loud but factional voices. There is some evidence the votes of parents are more in play than in the past.

The risk for Democrats, however, beyond blurring the lines of race and politics, is around age-appropriateness and gender theory and sexuality. The public is pretty clear that age-appropriateness matters to them – a lot. Where Republicans are pushing content restrictions into the upper-grades Democrats are pushing what’s seen as questionable content into the younger ones. This is the Achilles’ Heel of the idea this is a sure fire thing for Democrats. Caitlin Flanagan, a former English teacher and far from a book banner, pointed up the obvious liability here:

If the Republicans can instead make this issue about sexualized content in the early-grade, the idea that schools are foisting an agenda on kids, and age-appropriateness, the Democrats will regret having brought all this up. The Republican challenge is to cleanly break thorough on specific books in specific places, and specific age groups as exemplars. If they do, watch out. It’s here the Democrats get cross pressured in the face of activist demands and is an aspect of the Democrats’ broader basket of cultural liabilities. This was an issue in a few places in 2022, for instance Michigan where the state education agency had to pull back some content. It was swamped, though, by abortion politics and poor candidate recruitment by Republicans. The freelance problem and social media, however, magnify it and mean it can emerge in unpredictable ways.

Obviously, “Republicans” and “getting their act together” are not words that often appear in the same sentence these days. Right now the Republicans make the Democrats look downright Swiss. And leading Republicans are not helping themselves. A recent Florida move shows the basic problem. Here Republicans have – no limiting principle. The high profile Florida law restricting teaching about gender theory in K-12 was a lot more popular than you heard in the media. That’s because there is majority support for restricting teaching about these issues in K-3, where we’re taking about 5 to 8 year old children. Conversely, there is majority support for teaching these issues in high school. For instance, only 23% of independents support teaching about sexual orientation in elementary school but 64% do in high school. Yet Florida recently extended its K-3 ban to all grades.

Here’s some recent Washington Post data on this question:

Age of students exerts a lot of leverage on opinion here

While some activists want schools to over-index on gender in the early grades and others do want a “don’t say gay”culture, most people get that these are absurd extremes and are unwilling combatants in this culture war. The public seems to be able to keep multiple ideas in their head at the same time. In the same Washington Post poll 69% of adults supported laws to protect transgender individuals from discrimination in school.

So there are some trapdoors the Democrats ought to be more wary of. Still, if you’re handicapping this you have to give the edge to the Democrats. Biden enjoys some clear advantages here. He’s the President, so speaks with one voice and a loud one, and the media rarely scratches below the surface to get at any of the nuance here and certainly won’t if Donald Trump emerges as the Republican nominee and a second term is on offer. And so far there is no real primary to drag Biden leftward. Republicans, by contrast, speak with a lot of voices right now now and aren’t going to catch many breaks in a media primed to magnify the most outlier voices and egregious cases if for no other reason than clicks. So far the Republican shadow primary has been one “hold my beer” episode after the next on this stuff.

In other words, a strong Democratic candidate will be clear about age-inappropriate content. Which isn’t that difficult, even the authors of some of the books most at the center of today’s debates say that, of course, those books were not meant for young children. A strong Republican candidate will take a firm stand on teaching about racism and history freeing them up to focus on more controversial content. The path is pretty clear, we’ll see if either party gets there given the penchant of both to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Meanwhile, outside the political hot house most people appreciate the differences between different venues, bookstores, libraries, school libraries, and classroom curriculum. They also appreciate that what’s appropriate for a high school student might not be for middle school or elementary.

Our reactionary politics don’t reflect the general common sense of the American people. Political actors have developed a taste for these fights, or profit from them with internet clout, dollars, or both. That, more than what your kids are reading or not reading at school, is the real reason we can’t have nice things.

I Love The Smell Of NAEPalm In The Morning

Jed and I did a new WonkyFolk this week. We talk about history, Nation At Risk history, and why Randi Weingarten is hoping people forget history (and why Jed wants to forget the NBA playoffs). We also note the loss of Mike Smith, some charter news, and the real game the teachers’ unions are playing – it’s about Janus not Covid policies). Thanks for the feedback and please send topic ideas.

Available wherever you get your podcasts, also here if you want to listen:

And on YouTube if you like to watch.

In other podcast news, I also sat down with the team at Fordham on the Gadfly Podcast to talk about Virginia’s new History and Social Science Standards and the process of revising them. Amber Northern, who knows standards work and lives in Virginia, joined as well. Cause for optimism!

In related news, new NAEP data on history and civics out today, it’s not good news. Some of the data suggest our social divides are getting worse with students furthest from opportunity more impacted.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona made the following statement:

“The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress further affirms the profound impact the pandemic had on student learning in subjects beyond math and reading. It tells us that now is not the time for politicians to try to extract double-digit cuts to education funding, nor is it the time to limit what students learn in U.S. history and civics classes. We need to provide every student with rich opportunities to learn about America’s history and understand the U.S. Constitution and how our system of government works. Banning history books and censoring educators from teaching these important subjects does our students a disservice and will move America in the wrong direction.”

This stirred up a little tempest on Twitter. People are doing gymnastics to try to argue this isn’t a politicized response. NAEP expert Tom Loveless thinks it’s a sign of coming attractions with the new timing on NAEP releases. I hope he’s wrong but he’s probably right. Marty West says stop worrying, they’re on it.

I think you can make a case that people freaking out over a book about Ruby Bridges doesn’t make it any easier to address these issues. But the idea that Republicans wanting to ban “Gender Queer,” or in some cases even Toni Morrison or other authors, is the cause or even related to these declines we’ve seen over the past decade is unserious, whatever you happen to think on the various book questions. It sounds chic, polls pretty well (for now…), but it makes no sense in this context and is a distraction. It does nothing help us address the problem.* Federal budget cuts, debates over what’s taught, etc…these are not the core issues with these results.

What is? Here are a few causes to look at:

First, in large parts of the education world there is a longstanding and deeply held belief that content is secondary to “skills” or that it is superfluous altogether. You hear people say, you don’t need to know “mere” facts when you can Google them. AI will reignite this debate. (These same people were aghast at January 6th, without seeing the possible link there).

If you really want to blame someone for America’s educational woes then Rousseau isn’t the worst target…conservatives for the most part loathe him but it’s weird American ed schools so revere someone who would be a #Metoo problem if they were around today. His basic idea that we largely can learn of our own accord undergirds much of the resistance to a focus on content in K-12 schools and systematic reading instruction. It’s a romantic idea but a lousy way to run a school.

In this instance, these ideas lead to vague standards that are not useful for teachers, open the door for ideology of all kinds in the classroom, can lead to weak curriculum, and fail to give students essential knowledge. Fordham has done excellent work documenting this issue.

Knowledge is key to comprehension, critical thinking, and literacy. We have devalued it to our detriment. ** If you haven’t seen the work of the Knowledge Matters Campaign they are trying to highlight these issues and solutions.

Second, we don’t train or support educators well. Teachers are often left to fend for themselves on high-quality curriculum and teaching materials and are not given quality professional development or training. That’s on the ed schools and teacher prep programs but also on states and school districts. The situation is so confused that sometimes efforts to promote high quality materials are castigated for being anti-teacher – by teachers unions! (For a long time a focus on content and curriculum was a key distinction between the Al Shanker infused AFT and the larger but more progressive NEA but in recent years the differences are starting to blur).

Third, this issue is keenly linked with literacy and reading. The kind of rich content kids need in history, civics, or social studies drives literacy and vice versa. Blue states and red states are trying to address reading and curriculum and Secretary Cardona could have used today to give those efforts a little cover. Instead we got 2024 talking points.

If you haven’t yet, check out this new study on Core Knowledge. This isn’t a theoretical issue. It’s in our grasp to do better. It’s an analysis that should be getting more attention.

And many of these divides are not nearly as wide as people think or various culture warriors claim. Stoking them is only good business for advocates.

*Nobody asked, but in the spirit of being solution oriented, here’s how I would have written that statement, there are plenty of places for politics but this isn’t one of them:

“The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress further affirms the profound impact the pandemic had on student learning in subjects beyond math and reading. But we must also remember these challenges long predate the pandemic. We need to provide every student with rich opportunities to learn about America’s history and understand the U.S. Constitution and how our system of government works. Knowledge rich curricula are essential to student learning about these and Stoehr issues, and are also instrumental to improving literacy in America. The lack of access to this sort of high quality education isn’t a Republican problem or a Democratic problem – it’s an American problem. And it’s a solvable one if we come together to support educators to do so, which is why the Department will be convening a politically diverse group of leaders to formulate plans to better support history and civics education and reading instruction.”

**I’m biased, but here are some examples from Virginia’s new History and Social Science standards of what content coverage looks like in practice. It’s not ‘mere facts,’ it’s a framework for powerful instruction and learning. These are (unproofed) high school level standards:

Here’s an elementary level civics standard (when students are older they learn more about ideas like peaceful protest and how to change laws you don’t like).

Knowledge Matters…New Podcast, Admission From Beta By Bellwether. Fish Pics!

Light posting, spent the week on the West Coast. Saw a Neil Young and Stephen Stills show that was pretty special. And spent a few days with the BARR Center at their conference. It’s such a high energy and hopeful event each year.


Jed Wallace and I released another WonkyFolk. We ask why after fumbling some layups – to mix metaphors – the Biden Administration proposed a Title IX policy that stuck the landing – to do it again – with some real nuance despite a lot of activist pushback. We discuss Chicago, New York, and the evolving legal status with religion and charter schools and what that means for politics. Jed wants to light the beam, always. We’ll do another one next week.

There is also a video version. And a transcript depending how you prefer to consume these things.

At Bellwether we released the start of our second Beta project – Admission.

Like a lot of arguments in our sector, the one about whether college is “worth it” suffers from a failure to hold two things in mind at once: College can be expensive and can create financial burdens for students and their families. But in the aggregate, earning a bachelor’s degree is one of the most reliable paths to the American dream, associated with an increase of $1.2 million in median lifetime earnings compared to a high school diploma. That return on investment and economic mobility is especially pronounced for low-income students.

Yet here’s the thing. The return on investment can vary from person to person, from school to school, or from major to major within the same school. The problem – there are no easy ways for people to learn their own particular odds in advance.

In Admission, our newest Beta by Bellwether initiative, we’ll be working with stakeholders to chart a course toward a more equitable and effective postsecondary system — one that’s more of an informed investment than a guess. We released the first two publications from this work last week: a lay of the land on the biggest challenges in the current postsecondary system and the role information, navigation, and high-quality options can play in addressing them, and a deeper dive on different ways to measure the value of postsecondary pathways.

Knowledge Matters

Perhaps the biggest divide in education, insofar as content, isn’t about censorship or book banning or even hard left or right ideological versions of history or current issues. Rather, it’s a longstanding divide about content and knowledge versus what’s often referred to as inquiry or skills. It’s well-established that content and knowledge is a predicate for critical thinking. This is just common sense – you need something to think critically about and that requires domain knowledge. Education has just been slow to get that memo.

What can sometimes seem really engaging is actually devoid of content and vapid. You see this in too much instruction now where the students seem engaged but they’re not actually learning much because the classroom discussion isn’t actually linked to content. And good content in the hands of a great teacher is engaging so there is not a tradeoff between engagement and learning. That’s a false choice. As my wife, who teaches Homer and Shakespeare, among other things, to high school students often points out, if you can’t make tales like those (murder, treachery, sex) exciting for teenagers then you’re in the wrong line of work.

A new study from, among others, David Grissmer and Dan Willingham looks at Core Knowledge charter schools and finds some notable results for the knowledge rich Core Knowledge* curriculum. This obviously has enormous importance for reading and for efforts to increase social equity more generally. It’s an important study, the kind that if this were medicine would probably be big news.

Two things I especially like about this study. First, it does a nice job walking through limitations and caveats and possible threats to validity. Second, it gets at the force multiplier issue – what happens when we stack multiple effective interventions?


It’s Friday. Here’s Kevin Kosar with a shad from this year’s run on the Potomac.

And that picture at the top is Bellwether’s Christi Shingara with a chain pickerel. (Her family owns Old Trail Tackle and Sports, if you’re fishing the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania it’s a local shop you can support).

If you want to see hundreds of pictures of education types with fish – then click here.

*Disclosure, we’re about to start some work with the Core Knowledge Foundation at Bellwether.

A Little T&A. (Testing And Assessment, C’mon People…)

The debate over standardized testing is an odd one. It’s highly political, often divorced from the facts. But that’s hardly unusual in education – and other issues.

What strikes me, in addition to the pervasive lack of appreciation for how these assessment systems work and why, is that testing and accountability proponents generally like tests much less than their critics think they do. It’s more of a Churchill and democracy kind of sentiment. A lot of people don’t realize that the information and quality assurance yield for pennies on the dollar is the envy of most industries. And almost everyone, frequently the media spoon fed by activists, underestimates the generally broad support for assessment among the general public and especially parents. People want to know how their kids are doing in some comparable way.

Bellwether recently released six primers on major elements of assessment practice. They are not intended to convince you that testing is great. Some of this is a values debate and some of this is, as yesterday’s post mentioned, a ‘for what purpose’ debate.

And there is plenty of room for nuance. I have some concerns about high stakes testing for kids, but also think employing scores aggregated at the classroom, school, district, and state level can provide important analytic leverage.

Others disagree. And that’s all fine and healthy insofar as that debate is grounded in how these things actually work rather than misinformation or caricatures. That’s the point of these new Bellwether briefs, which were funded by a consortia of assessment providers, not to convince but to inform. They look at how assessments are designed, special populations, comparability, reporting, and other key issues:

As with all work that carries our byline or brand, we retained absolute editorial control so nothing in these briefs should be attributed to any entity or anyone other than the authors.

Bellwether’s Michelle Croft, an actual psychometrician, and I sat down to talk about some of the issues:

Previously on this issue: Here’s a 2021 look at testing. Here’s Shilpi Niyogi on testing. Here’s Anne Wicks. And here’s Jenn Schiess, Bonnie O’Keefe, and me for NASBE on the broader issues.

We haven’t had music in a bit, so here are the Chainsmokers.

The Best Answer To Many Education Questions? Another Question

You know how they say don’t answer a question with a question. It’s sometimes good advice. Along the lines of don’t use a word to define that word.

Here in education, however, the inverse may be true. When someone asks a question, the best answer is often another question, or three.

Via Wikimedia Commons

That’s not only because asking good questions is key to getting to good answers. It’s also because, in broad strokes, America’s education system is sprawling and diverse while most of the questions turn on specifics and particulars. The issues tend to be blunt force, but the answers require nuance and texture.

For example, when we talk about standardized testing you often hear the debate framed as for or against or good or bad or more or less. In fact, if someone asks about standardized testing the key questions are, what kind of test? What age level? For what purpose? High stakes for who, adults or kids?

Policy around transgender athletes. The debate is quick to yes or no. But the actual questions that matter are what age, what level of competition, what specific sports?

We talk a lot about whether big funding streams work? When the questions should be about what specific intervention(s)? For which students? Under what conditions? That question bedevils the ed tech industry and seems likely to be an issue with AI as well.

With today’s debates about censorship and talk of – and actual – book banning questions about what age group, what book, for what reason, and in what setting, for instance classroom library versus school library versus community library, are key to sorting out various claims and counterclaims. And it’s worth asking, is this a new issue (and some are the past few years) or a long running debate with a new culture war veneer or click-seeking take on it.

Of course, the evergreen – is college worth it? When the questions are for who, what schools, what program or course of study, at what cost? (Look for more on that from Bellwether later this week).

Other perennial favorites include, does school choice “work”? When the actual questions are what kind of choice schemes (publicly controlled choice, charter, private, tax credits, ESAs), with what rules or regulations, for what students? And work how? Grades? Graduation? College or post-secondary going? Parent satisfaction?

Or does money matter? That’s another one everyone can’t get enough of even though the devil is in the details.

Performance pay as a binary “yes” or “no” or does it work or not, obscures all the permutations of those polices. School segregation is often taken about in broad terms that ignore local context and variance.

You get the idea.

We’ve talked in the past about the definitional confusion problem, and that’s a part of this. Just simply asking what exactly are we talking about here and being specific matters.

And some of it is sloppiness around base rates. Is what we’re seeing really a change, or is it just being noticed (or reported on) now? And category errors, not asking if things being discussed are really the same?

But asking, and answering, good questions in education is also about some more sector specific follow-on questions like, again, what works under what circumstances and for what students? Or is this an outlier or edge case or something we see a lot around the sector – with more than 100,000 schools, across 50 states and 13,000 school districts you can find an example to prove almost anything.

We should not let the education debate turn into some exercise in nihilism or relativism where the answer to every question is just more questions. There is too much evasion now, and used a certain way questions can be a deflection. And there are actors who use this strategy in order to retain power – it’s all so unknowable, so many questions, just trust us.

Good questions can help punch through bad faith obfuscation (and preference falsification) and can separate sheep from goats on hard issues. Not everyone questioning standardized tests or accountability policy is an apologist for poor school performance or achievement gaps. People concerned about fairness in women’s sports are not all axiomatically transphobes or bigots. Not everyone skeptical of performance pay is a hack. And not everyone raising questions about appropriate content in schools is censorious or unsophisticated. But you won’t know if you don’t ask.

Especially in this hopped up time becoming better at the follow up questions might elevate the conversation some and be the kind of thing that lowers the temperature some. A question I ask a lot that might apply here is, if everyone starts asking more questions, then what’s the worst that can happen?

When It Comes To Schools, The Best Gunfight Is The One That Doesn’t Happen

In The 74 today Drew Pache and I take a look at school security. The defeat of the shooter at Covenant School was professional and highly competent, which is not always the case. Still, two things are true at once. The violence there could have been far worse. It was also not the best outcome, six people still died.

From The 74:

The police body cam videos from the shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School left few unimpressed. The training and professionalism of the officers was obvious, and despite the tragic loss of life, it could have been far worse. Their actions were a stark juxtaposition with what transpired in Uvalde, Texas, or Parkland, Florida, where disorganized or delayed responses compounded tragedy. 

The outstanding performance of the Nashville Metro Police officers likely drastically reduced the number of casualties, but six killed instead of 15 or 20 doesn’t feel like a win. We must not lose sight of an underlying reality: By the time a gunfight breaks out at a school, many systems have already failed. Defeating a shooter at a school should be the very last line of defense. Politicians and educators should commend the heroism of the Nashville police without creating the impression that this response is the ideal outcome.

That’s because when it comes to schools, the most effective gunfight is the one that never happens.

You can read the entire commentary here in The 74. We talk about the measures – most importantly healthy school culture – that schools can take upstream to prevent shootings. When four in five shooters tell you what they’re going to do ahead of time we should take that seriously. Don’t take our word for it, the Secret Service says the same thing.

Drew Pache and I previously wrote about security in The 74 here, and why training for adults is more important than scaring kids. Drew, who is a retired Special Forces officer with substantial global experience, wrote here about why arming teachers is a lousy idea. And I’ve written about while these episodes are horrifying, they’re rare and there is far more common gun violence we should be more focused on.

If Charter Folk And Eduwonk Had A Baby…It Would Be…Wonky Folk! Plus Reader Reaction On deBoer And Philanthropy

Clearly, there are not enough middle-aged guys with podcasts.

So Jed Wallace and I decided to address this market gap. Jed’s popular “Charter Folk” newsletter and his interviews focus on the charter sector and issues in and around it. I’ve been a guest a few times. It’s a great medium, despite that.

Now, as I mentioned recently, Jed and I are going to do an informal and semi-regular podcast on education goings on more generally. It will be us, and some guests. In our first one, just out today, we discuss some charter stuff but also the absurdity in Los Angeles and the politics in Chicago – and why Karen Lewis still doesn’t get the credit she deserves for reversing the teachers’ unions fortunes – there and more generally. She walked so Brandon Johnson could run. We speculate wildly about what AI might mean for schools and we discuss some of the nuance around school safety. It’s the first one so feedback extra welcome.

You can listen here:

Watch here:

Transcript here if that’s your thing.

Two reactions to recent posts here on Eduwonk.

On philanthropy and metrics and investing in people, reader Mike G writes,

If I ran a big charity, I’d invert the whole thing.  Rather than metrics, I’d tell them I will ONLY consider additional funding based on the quality of them telling me everything going WRONG.  “True confessions” is what I’d reward.  With hypothesis that in telling me that, it may plausibly trigger an authentic what will we do.  

My weekly sends to all grantees would be like this: 

Dear Grantees,

This week we frigging LOVED xyz tutoring org’s report, of the absolute chaos in their NYC expansion.  We sent $10,000 of vodka just to help them cope.  Seriously, they really shared the nuance of what was going on, that they had this theoretical anti-racist framework but the kids laughed in their face about how “weak” the tutors were and just played on their phones.  So now at least CEO is trying to lead an authentic convo on what to try, that makes up happy.  

Also we got a total bullshit spin job from ABC ed tech grantee we won’t mention.  It wasn’t actually sent to us, it was sent to all their donors, but it was the classic annual report pack o’ lies.  Remember the test: we cold call your people on the front lines.  And we find ways to hack access to the kids themselves.  For ABC, we cold-called some teachers who said ABC was really struggling, and then they put some of their students on a Zoom who said ABC was lame.  Again, fine for ABC to be lame if they’re fighting to make it NOT lame.  But they’re in the charity collection business, the prestige business.  They’re dead to us.  

Rich Mike

On the what we should expect from schools question and the deBoer essay, David G. writes,

As you know, there are aspects of Freddie deBoer’s thesis that resonate with me, but there are two major issues with his piece that I don’t think that you picked up on that are perhaps interesting. 

Optimism bias is good/essential

He makes it as if optimism bias is bad, but actually it’s essential for innovation.  Silicon Valley is optimism bias central  — every deal is going to make a gillion dollars, and they keep on pouring money into it whether it seems to be working or not, until it’s apparent it isn’t, and then they walk 10 feet and invest in the next crazy idea. If all education people were of the opinion that nothing works, everyone would go home.

Yes, deBoer is right to the extent that we need to realize eventually when things don’t work, and in fact, education does course correct, if slowly. But being pessimism-biased would destroy our ability to dream, innovate, make mistakes, ignore the last failure and start the next one without looking back. My rose-colored glasses are welded to my face, and without them, I’d be writing grouchy pieces on my substack instead of out there fighting the good fight.  Without optimism bias, Bellwether would close its doors (and that would not be good for anyone).

To the extent that he’s right, the system doesn’t spend much time on post-mortems – that was my take home from the time that I spent at Bellwether talking years ago about the failures of education reform. If you look at the amazing success in reducing the number of planes that fall out of the sky or patients that died from anesthesia, it was all due to the system carefully analyzing why people died and coming up with better methods. I’m not sure that education really hasn’t learned many lessons from the failures of ed reform (though I’m not really a member of the inner circle of ed policy people, and so don’t know if those conversations are happening in private).  More generally, I don’t think that education has come up with a framework for analyzing successes and failures – there’s no group dedicated to this – what we at SeeMore call the Theory of No Change, which is necessary to developing a coherent Theory of Change.   

And one last point – the issues that he states about orthodoxies (and they are, as you acknowledge, not all wrong) are largely true of sociology, development economics, all economics, psychology, political science, and not only “soft fields”, but also hard sciences like biology and physics. All of these areas are cultures with their own norms and beliefs – someone should show him Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. To the extent that education fits here, I can’t see that it’s any worse than other fields, and it’s fundamentally built into human endeavors and progress. Change happens and generally to the better, but it’s on its own timeframe – faster probably in the sciences, but even there it can take a while (cf geocentric model of the universe, Newtonian physics, etc.

Much of education is actually pessimism-biased   

deBoer is complaining really about policy people.  But if you go to a lot of schools and colleges, they’re pretty skeptical about every new last great idea, and many are resistant to new ideas. Many teachers don’t actually believe that their students can learn.  I still don’t have a good sense of the distribution of optimism/pessimism among teachers in a turnaround high school, for example, but I definitely get a sense that some amount of pessimistic fatalism is there. And there’s at least some strong suggestive evidence that many teachers don’t have a growth mindset attitude about their students (and I get the sense that almost no one believes in growth mindset around personal characteristics, which I believe is very wrong). On the ground, and not in the policy clouds, I would guess that pessimism is more rampant and dangerous than unbridled optimism.

In fact, why is it that charter schools work?  Is it really that their pedagogy and curriculum is better?  That TFA teachers outperform veteran teachers? My suspicion is that their inherent optimism was a big part of what made the good ones work so well, and especially in comparison with public schools, that often have a pall hanging over them.

One of our major focuses is on self-efficacy – we think that it’s the major factor in personal success (and there’s a raft of both educational psychology and organizational development in the business world to back that up).  But we think that self-efficacy isn’t only a personal characteristic, but a characteristic of organizations and entire systems. Optimism-bias is not true self-efficacy, since it’s not always informed by actual success and a meta-cognition for what does and doesn’t work. But pessimism is pure poison to self-efficacy. Let optimism reign!

School Shooters (And Mass Shooters In General) Don’t Tell You Much That’s Useful, *Except Ahead Of Time*

It turns out some people don’t realize the Boomtown Rats hit “I Don’t Like Mondays” was born of a school shooting. When the shooter, who killed 2 and wounded 9 with a .22 rifle, was asked by a reporter why she did it she responded, “I don’t like Mondays.”

The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload
And nobody’s gonna go to school today
She’s gonna make them stay at home
And daddy doesn’t understand it
He always said she was good as gold
And he can see no reasons
‘Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need to be shown?

I Don’t Like Mondays

I was pretty young at the time but people who were actually at the scene tell me the remark didn’t set off a big discussion about Mondays, whatever deeper meaning or cause that remark portended, or ascriptive claims about people who don’t like Mondays. She wasn’t in a good mental state and did a horrible thing.

After Nashville we’ve heard quite the opposite. The details are still sketchy, in part because of media fecklessness*, but it seems the shooter at Covenant School was transgender or was transitioning their gender identity. This has occasioned all manner of speculation and toxicity. People have asked if the LGBT “community” should denounce the shooter. Really.

I get it. Every time some jackass shoots up a school, church, club, or store there is a race to ascribe some motive or cast widespread blame (that often ends up being wildly discordant with the facts, fog of culture war), so some people see a goose – gander situation, political opportunism, or just a clickbait opportunity here. But the only thing mass shooters have in common is derangement and brokenness. It’s an unhinged act not a rational one, so the search for rational causes and logical motives is a fool’s errand. Most shooters don’t intend to survive the scene as may have been the case in Nashville, it’s often explicitly an act of suicide by law enforcement. None of this is normal or a normal reaction to information or circumstances.

Sure, the 2022 Buffalo shooter was motivated by racial hate. He also was a self-described “eco-fascist” and anti-corporatist. Should anyone criticizing corporations apologize for that part? Of course not, because he’s a whackjob, much of his “manifesto” was cut and paste and all over the place. You’ll search in vain for a coherent ideology or worldview. Whatever the Nashville shooter’s grievances were, at some level they were not rational because rational people don’t kill others at schools.

Remember the whole panic about Goth kids and Marilyn Manson after Columbine?

These episodes are horrifying, so a human instinct is to make sense of them by placing them in a broader context or cause. Perhaps because it’s even scarier to think that sometimes people just snap and do incredibly deranged things because they believe incredibly deranged things because they’re not thinking straight. Lots of people get exposed to hateful or crazy ideology and don’t go shoot up public spaces or drive into parades. The randomness is even more terrifying than the sense that perhaps there is a pattern we can discern and address.

Here’s the thing about school shootings: They’re random, but rare, and often preventable. For starters, by definition these are small n events. When you ask people how many people have been killed in mass shootings at schools since Columbine almost a quarter century ago, you usually get numbers in the high hundreds and the thousands (or even tens of thousands among people who really spend too much time online). The actual answer is 175. That’s quite obviously 175 too many and each one is uniquely awful in its impact on families, friends, and others. One is too much. But it’s a pretty rare episode given the scale of American education. Both those things are true.

More common is the interpersonal violence and neighborhood or domestic situations playing out at schools one small episode at a time because of the ubiquitousness of schools. More common still is all the out-of-school violence that takes a staggering toll on American youth.

In addition, about four in five school shooters tell you what they’re going to do ahead of time. Episodes like Parkland, Florida or Oxford, Michigan were preventable. That’s what should haunt us. (We don’t yet know the details, but the Nashville shooter’s parents were apparently concerned enough about their behavior to try to restrict their access to firearms.)

Professionals call this “leakage” and it’s often present upstream with mass shootings in general. School shooters signal their intentions or just tell you outright what they’re planning in a majority of cases. That’s what we should take seriously, not toxic theories about this group or that one. You can’t profile school shooters, they’re too varied, but you can act when someone shows you their hand. Attacks by outsiders – for instance in Uvalde or Nashville – are rarer still.

The loud rhetorical approach to all this is mostly politics not safety. And the focus on politics means the school safety industry is largely becoming a reaction industry when it should be a prevention industry. There is a lot of money in reaction-based security. Yet it doesn’t matter how many lockdown drills or how much ALICE you do, if your school culture sucks and kids don’t trust adults then you are at risk.

*The coverage has been something. People can’t even live up to their prior (like week before last prior) commitments and routinely misgender the Nashville shooter, who apparently wanted to be called he/him not she/her. Until a few minutes ago misgendering was violence. Except not in this case. Because…something.

That sort of panicked situational BS just fuels more mistrust and the idea that something is up. Echoes of Loudoun County. That this apparently trans person in Nashville did something horrible doesn’t tell you really anything about trans people any more than white, Black, or Asian shooters lend themselves to generalizations about their race or ethnicity. In the social media era, idiotic reactions on the left and also the right get magnified, but they’re outliers. It would be helpful if people more forthrightly stepped up to the plate on all that so we could focus on the real lessons here. What’s seen as good intentions or allyship makes an awful situation even worse and does little to prevent the next one.

Is Diversifying Grantmaking About Metrics Or Methods?

Earlier this year I took a look at how different ways of grantmaking – in particular project based funding –  might be a contributing factor to the ongoing meltdowns at progressive organizations. And more recently a look at philanthropy and risk.

In both cases, some of the most interesting responses came from people inside philanthropy – blink three times if you’re being held against your will.

So I want to share a third and related observation. In an effort to improve diversity in the education sector we may be hindering effective operations of non-profits more than helping. Some people in the non-profit and philanthropic sector have raised concerns about this as well, it’s not my unique insight.

Also, at the outset let me be clear: Improving access to philanthropic capital (and private capital for that matter) is an essential goal and a goal that involves a focus on diversity. As in many areas of American life patterns, in particular race, ethnicity, and gender, should cause concern and action. To the sector’s credit, philanthropists saw this problem, too, and are trying to address it. (It’s also a problem along ethnic and class lines. Going to the “right” schools, for instance, still helps a lot.)  The end result is that lot of people are shut out. Changing that is for the good.

My concern, instead, is about the how of changing that, not the goal.

A brief history of grantmaking that is over-simplified but good enough for our purposes goes like this: For a long time grantmakers gave money to people, usually men, and usually white men, who they saw as change agents. There were generally agreed upon goals, open up schools, develop new university or secondary school curriculum, or pilot this or that. But the specifics of how to do the work were generally left up to the grantees. Sometimes this strategy led to positive change, sometimes it didn’t.

It was an invest in people strategy. Give people money to do things they seek to do to try to improve the world.

While this work certainly led to some progress in a variety of ways, it also had one big problem. Owing to the structure of American life and prevailing views it was mostly white guys getting the money. Sure, there were exceptions. But the fact that we can quickly name so many of those exceptions, historically and more recently, basically illustrates the problem.

This is not a pre-1964 or 19th-century problem. This was still a pretty common pattern when I started doing this work a couple of decades ago.

To address this, grantmakers decided they needed metrics and measures to help ensure more diversified philanthropy. This became something of a best practice. And they turned to management consultants to create those metrics, often consultants who said, ‘well, why use five metrics when 50 will do?’ (I’m obviously not anti-consultant, Bellwether consults. But my tastes run more to KISS or stuff like this).

Meanwhile, woe to the grantees who have to live under all of those metrics. It’s especially hard for new, scrappy, and under-resourced  grantees – who are more likely to come from what’s now fashionably called “marginalized” backgrounds. And even in well-established organizations it can distort priorities and create paper chases. And yes, it can lead to the kind of internal discord fueled by lots of small grants that leads to meltdowns.

So here’s the question: What if this solution is a misreading of the problem and consequently a badly designed remedy?

I’d suggest the problem might not have been the method of giving – invest in people and be tight on goals and results and loose on the rest. Rather, it was the more basic problem of who was and was not getting the money. In other words, we might ask if the method was sound but the field of view was too constrained. Invest in people, yes, but make sure you are investing in a far more diverse and representative group of people.

This would point to a strategy of opening the aperture, but perhaps not changing the foundational methods of giving.

The problem with the “old” way of grantmaking, it seems, was a problem being far too narrowcast. But the method itself, give money to people and expect them to do good things is not inherently flawed. In fact, it may be preferable to burying everyone in metrics.

The detailed metrics all feel safe. Everyone is doing the same things, being measured the same way. Using metrics and data to compare, that feels very progressive and equitable.

But there are costs.

First, there is a noise to signal problem. Grantees are going to try to meet these metrics or at least appear to meet them and sometimes it’s stuff that is measurable but a distraction from the core goal of a grant.  Take for example “press hits,” a popular metric for policy work. The media is a key part of the policy ecosystem but getting a press hit and getting something done are two different things. Some of the most impactful work is behind the scenes. And a focus on press hits creates an incentive for bad or distracting behavior. Or meetings, a metric for how many you take. With both media or meetings, quality matters more than quantity. Yes, requirements can focus on high quality earned media or decision-maker level meetings. But why? If you don’t trust grantees to have that political sophistication a better strategy is to provide support to develop it.

Second, there is a capacity inequity. Large grantees can bring on talent to manage these grant processes. Setting up all these metrics and tracking progress against them takes time. Smaller grantees – and smaller organizations are more likely to be led by people from exactly the kind of backgrounds funders now want to include – often don’t have that capacity. It’s really not a highest and best use of scarce resources for them anyway.

Third it leads to informal evasion and bad practice. I’ve been told by funders not to worry about metrics, “no one reads them.”I know others get that advice. I don’t have any reason to believe that different people are being held to different standards in any way that’s not pretty random and program officer driven. But why leave people wondering what metrics actually matter when you could just ask for data on the ones that really do matter. It’s sort of mandarin.

Leveling down. The idea that a focus on compliance or common outcomes leads to a leveling down of quality is hardly a new one. But it seems relevant and hard to miss here.

Now look, to be clear* – there’s always a ‘to be clear’ graf on complicated stuff and especially on complicated stuff being oversimplified – I’m not against measurement and evaluation. Or against diligence. We do a lot of that work here at Bellwether. As I’ve noted I don’t think blank check giving it all it’s made out to be. I just think the sector can find a happier medium.

The point is that metrics and measurement should be the minimal amount to help discern impact, not tied to every aspect of a logic model – especially on dynamic work like policy or advocacy. It should certainly not take on a life of its own within any project. So more MVP than pseudo-scientific or creating false precision.** Measurement should serve the work, not the other way around. I should also note, there are also a variety of methods of giving out there, some like what I’m arguing for. Not every grant is a blizzard of metrics. But too many are.

And also to be clear, I don’t want to conflate metrics about who gets dollars with the metrics attached to a grant. Collecting data on the who is important and not especially burdensome. And tracking the who is pretty essential to ensuring that efforts to diversify portfolios are working. I’d suggest a broader set of metrics than what is sometimes used, to also include economic class, veterans status, political orientation, and other measures of diversity.

The larger point is pretty obvious, was the problem with the old way a problem of method of giving or rather the size of the aperture in terms of who was involved? Broadening the aperture and also giving people a lot of room to run seems worth considering?

More diverse grantees and more flexibility for them. Not a great bumper sticker or tee shirt. But maybe worth trying more? A more diverse set of grantees all laboring under the same constraints doesn’t seem like true progress.

*Also, to be clear, at Bellwether we get some foundation funding (though not as much as would help us achieve all our goals and it’s a fraction of our overall annual budget). All sources of funding are disclosed on our website and in any project or publication where it’s relevant. All our funders are brilliant, virtuous, beautiful, visionary people. 

**The tyranny and craziness of small n sizes in all these things is a whole separate issue.