The Druids of Data

Final Dumpty

Just five days after we celebrated the signing of the Declaration of Independence this year, Ulrich Boser, former writer for U.S. News & World Report, the Washington Post Express, and Education Week dropped another document on the unsuspecting American public titled “Return on Educational Investment: 2014–A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity.” Published by the Center for American Progress, that bastion of privatization and “alternative certification” for teachers – as well as shill for the Common Core State Standards – the document promises to reveal those districts that spend money properly and those that don’t.

Below you’ll find a “translation” of the document’s claims, caveats, and a brief conclusion. This document cries out for translation, since it is written in corporatese–language designed explicitly to impress and befuddle the public despite a complete lack of substance. But first, a taste of passive-aggressive corporatist self-justification:

  • “For people not deeply familiar with the accounting procedures, this makes it hard to compare spending across districts types.”

We have you covered; we are the Druids of Data, and we will wave entrails over the numbers to be sure their real meaning is revealed to us and us only.

  • Fiscal accountability is central to our public education system, and educators need to spend school dollars well, if they want more school dollars. Looking forward, then, we must ask ourselves: How can we do more with what we have? How can we ensure that each school dollar is well spent? How can we make sure all education funds work for students?”

We care about money above all else. If you do what you are told, you might get a few more bucks. Just make sure you are focusing on standardized tests, because we don’t have anything else that makes numbers that can be propped up next to a cost statement. That’s how we make sure that public education serves a corporatist agenda instead of equipping citizens to act effectively as members of a democratic society…

Claims

  • “…effective organizational change can only be achieved by using data, setting goals, and thoughtfully implementing incentive and consequence programs and processes to boost outcomes.”

We want carrots and sticks to force you lazy educators to increase test scores.

  • “Policymakers should develop funding policies that direct money to students based on their needs.”

We will fund only those things that increase test scores, because numbers always trump professional judgment in our book.

  • “The Common Core State Standards Initiative provides an example of how states can work together to create a stronger, more innovative education system.”

We drank the entire keg of Kool-Aid Bill Gates and his cronies brewed. We have no evidence to show that the CCSS “strengthens” education or makes it more innovative. You are supposed to simply accept this untested, unproven statement and the system it misrepresents. Okay?

  • “…education leaders and stakeholders could create a common chart of accounts—a type of budget dictionary—as well as set out best practices when it comes to linking fiscal data to other databases.”

Let’s match up money with your test scores because everything needs to have a number attached to it, right?

  • One crucial approach to improving data is providing districts with productivity evaluations. “

Our numbers are crap, but we publish them publicly in order to embarrass you and bludgeon you into submission anyway.

  • “For this reason, we took significant steps in our report to control for funding disparities among populations of students, yet low-productivity districts are also more likely to enroll students from low-income households.”

Poverty plays a central role in “educational outcomes,” but we prefer to fudge the numbers a bit and then pretend it doesn’t.

  • “…without focused programs and policies, education spending does not always boost test scores.”

You guys might spend money on things that don’t improve test scores, like drama, art, physical fitness, foreign language or other unimportant stuff.

  • “…the issue here is not that any districts are necessarily wasting money on their education efforts. Rather, the issue is that too many districts are spending taxpayer money in ways that do not appear to dramatically boost reading and math scores, and some districts are able to gain similar levels of reading and math achievement with the same population of students but at lower levels of per- student spending.”

We do think you are wasting money if it doesn’t pay off in higher math and reading test scores. Oh, and we also believe that students are interchangeable parts in this numbers game.

Caveats…

  • Currently, many districts lack the capacity to do more with less.”

Just want to get you to lower your guard  before we deliver a series of sucker-punches…

  • We also recognize that there are myriad of other issues plaguing our school finance system—from issues of equity to a simple lack of good data.”

Nothing written in our document should be interpreted as factual or scientific, and we had an attorney add this clause just to make sure you can’t say we thought it could be…

  • “…while we believe that our district-level evaluations rely on the best available methods—and show important results—we caution against making firm conclusions about the ratings of an individual district.”

Our evaluation standards aren’t really useful, but that’s all we got, so use ’em anyway.

  • The literature on productivity is limited, and there is a lot we do not know about the relationship between spending and achievement.”

We have no research basis for believing that what we are talking about is valid.

  • …the link between outcomes and money is not always linear. In other words, even in an efficient school system, the first few dollars spent on a program or school might not have the same effect as subsequent expenditures, with additional dollars not boosting outcomes as much as initial investments.”

We really don’t have any reason to make these comparisons, since they’re useless. We just do it to make public schools look bad.

  • “Our measures also cannot account for all of the variables outside the control of a district…”

We really don’t know what a district that “measures poorly” needs to do any more than they would. We just want to point fingers.

  • The available data are also problematic. State and district data often suffer from weak definitions and questionable reliability.”

We know they say “Garbage in, garbage out,” but we figure we’ve been feeding you garbage for so long that you’d be offended if we didn’t at least try.

  • “Moreover, our study looks only at reading and math test scores, an admittedly very narrow slice of what students need to know to succeed in college and the workplace.”

We put all of our eggs in one basket, (okay, two) which is pretty ridiculous, but that can’t really hurt anyone’s chance to get a rich curriculum experience, can it?

  • Despite these caveats, we believe our evaluations are the best available, given existing traditions and knowledge. We designed our color-rating system to empower the public…”

Despite the fact that our data sucks, and we have no reason to believe the data tells us anything that can be verified, we still intend to abuse public schools with our findings. Aren’t the colors on our chart pretty?

Conclusion

A wonderful master chef, Ulrich Korn, frequently reminded me to focus on the positive during my youthful stint in his kitchen. He interrogated me every time I dined at a three-star restaurant, coffee shop or hot dog stand, asking what was “really good,” maintaining that there was frequently a valuable idea in the humblest eatery. I have applied that lesson in many areas of my life, and I’m pleased to say that after intense study I was able to find just such a nugget in Ulrich Boser’s manifesto:

“We also encourage readers to closely examine the data and our approach to evaluating productivity.”

I heartily agree with those words, and have attempted to do just that.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Are You Laughing or Crying?

Market Forces Joke

I’m a big fan of comedians who can put me in stitches while remaining apparently oblivious to their own jokes. I don’t need tickets to a comedy club to have my funny bone tickled, though. All I have to do is listen to what Bill Gates and other assorted dilettantes have to say about public education.

Gates broke out of the education comedy pack with his gig at the National Conference of State Legislatures in 2009, where he said that a common set of standards in education would “…unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching.” His frank and edgy humor surprised people who didn’t understand that what he says to get laughs out of an audience he himself takes perfectly seriously.

Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” This is Bill at his most sophisticated; after all, he knows full well that teachers are his tools. Technology is the means by which they will be pushed aside, so that students—instead of working together—will work separately, each facing their own glowing screen. Just another example of Bill’s subtle humor.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” This quip always makes me chuckle. Bill’s a magnificently successful businessman who just can’t imagine that educators might not share his views, and that’s why I enjoy watching him set himself up for a fall. I’d love to have a handful of bananas to toss in his path. Better yet, I think I’ll sell bananas to educators outside the Gates Foundation headquarters here in Seattle. I’ll be as rich as Mr. Gates in no time.

If you think that Bill kills with his one-liners, you ought to listen to the slick yarns the Koch Bros. like to promote.

Koch Industries leads with the statement, “…all forms of energy—whether oil, gas, wind, solar or biofuels—should be allowed to succeed or fail on their own in the free market, without the assistance (or hindrance) of government subsidies or mandates.” The punch line? The Kochs buy and sell about a tenth of all ethanol produced in the US, picking up plenty of cash from government subsidies. What a hoot!

And how about this “well-Koched” nugget: “We always strive to act with integrity, even if it’s politically unpopular.” Hey, maybe that’s why they spend so much on political campaigns! By winning, they can act without integrity and blame voters for the popularity of their ideas…Kinda makes me think that the boys have confused integrity with consistency, because their unethical actions certainly have established a pattern. Maybe they share a learning disorder and need 504 plans?

Their ideas for higher education are even funnier. The Kochs, paragons of virtue that they claim to be, recently handed Florida State 1.5 million dollars, asking that the university establish a course called “Market Ethics: The Vices, Virtues, and Values of Capitalism.” Suggested textbooks? (Wait, wait…) The books of Ayn Rand! (Cue groans from audience.)

The Kochs are equal-opportunity jokesters, and have no compunction about playing pranks on religious as well as secular educators. For instance, the funny fellas dangled a cool million in front of the staff at Catholic University of America in DC, with the requirement that the institution teach “principled entrepreneurship.” When the faculty identified the consistent principles of the Kochs as greed and duplicity, they demanded that the money be rejected. The Kochs seem to have had the last laugh, however. University officials pointed out that parochial colleges have been accepting Koch Koin for some time, and they saw no reason to demonstrate fidelity to ridiculous ideals like truth or social conscience at this late date. I got a pretty good laugh out of the idea that people might expect otherwise.

You know, you can choose to cry about the damage done to society by these purveyors of falsehood, but their claims deserve belly laughs, and that’s no joke.

Let’s just make sure we have the last laugh.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

AlbertHandsome

I used to live in a room full of mirrors

All I could see was me

I took my spirit and I smashed those mirrors

Now the whole world is here for me to see

Jimi Hendrix

 

It is maddening to be assaulted with the cacophony of demands on public schools today. Schools (and by that I mean teachers) are expected to “fix society” in any number of ways. Each of these goals has a degree of merit, and it is not surprising that non-educators might hope that they would be met within the K-12 years. These expectations cannot be met, however. Schools have never, and will never, “fix society.” Instead, schools reflect the society they exist within.

Anti-bullying programs will not rid us of people who want to push society in one direction or another. Ask the Koch Bros. and Bill Gates if this isn’t so. “Raising standards” will not cause children to escape the effects of poverty or emotional deprivation. Teaching Shakespeare in elementary school will not inoculate future generations against the Duck Dynasties of the future.

The purpose of public schools is to preserve a democratic society by assisting citizens in their pursuit of happiness and to prepare citizens to take an active role in public affairs. Corporatists instead insist that education is utilitarian; that it functions to provide a workforce that will maintain American dominance in world markets. They work toward ensuring that every reflection of corporatism remains permanent—toward a society that shapes itself to a corporate structure, paralyzed by a need for certainty.

Corporatists are determined folks. They can amplify their messages and the political consequences of their beliefs in proportion to their willingness to use their cash. They believe that their position in society is evidence of the equivalence of capitalism and democracy, and that their socioeconomic status therefore entitles them to dominate the political scene. It’s a circular argument that has the added advantage of perpetuating their power.

It does not serve corporatists to have an engaged citizenry. They would much rather that citizens be passive spectators, disaffected by political chicanery and alienated from a government they do not think they can affect. This leaves civic affairs firmly in the hands of the one percent who distort democracy by manipulating the language of debate and purchasing the loyalty of persons who possess political power.

Corporatists want us to change the “mirror” rather than change our society. They demand a school system that conforms to market-driven forces. The mirror they offer is a distorted one; one that reflects with limited focus and exaggerated promise the possibilities of an instrumentalized education. We who have great experience in keeping the mirror in focus have been excluded from decisions that only those anointed by corporatists or their lackeys are permitted to influence. These anointed ones possess little or no experience with the population of students we engage with daily, yet feel entitled to meet behind closed doors to undermine the curriculum and limit student opportunities.

Jimi Hendrix encouraged us to smash the mirrors surrounding us, but I believe that refocusing and a bit of polish may yet permit us to enlarge and expose the image of society those mirrors reflect. Truth exists in mirrors that are square and plumb, not those built with distorting curves. That refocusing can only begin when the warping curves of education deform are straightened by teachers who demand transparency in the processes leading to determination of curriculum and the goals of public education.

At the same time, we must not permit corporatist initiatives such as CCSS and excessive standardized testing to dishearten us. If we do, our dismay will breed the apathy that permits corporatists’ unfettered control of the one institution that exists to provide students with experiences likely to instill commitment to democracy rather than oligarchy.

No, mirrors don’t fix anything, but they do permit us to consider those aspects of ourselves that might deserve attention. The discussions that can result from honest self-reflection are the heart of democracy. But there is no honesty in the reflection I see from the corporatist’s mirror. Their vision is of a profit-driven and profit-producing educational system, for that is the sort of society they are committed to. It is a society as bereft of humane interest as it is ravenous for mammon.

And yet, the number of people who have encouraged me during these “dark times” heartens me. If we all will reach out to others with and for support, our schools and world–and we ourselves–will be better for it. If we connect, then we will be able to make a commitment to a society that we will be proud to be mirrors for. My commitment is to a society that is inclusive, supportive, and fundamentally democratic and to an educational system that reflects those values.

What do you want to see in the mirror? Let’s make the changes to our society needed to bring that vision into focus in our schools.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

The Teeches & Leeches… by Dr. Soods

The Enemy

 

The peeples of Lernville were learners—the best!

They shared what they learned; it was school, sans contest.

 

The pathways of Lernville were twisty and turny,

Fun things to look at, no one in a hurry.

 

The Pooples of Lernville were taught by their Teeches—

The Teeches of Lernville: adored by their Pooples.

 

Learning’s the journey peeps wanted to last,

They never got finished, “What for?” they all asked.

 

The Teeches all knew each Poople they taught

And the Pooples were happy—they learned quite a lot!

 

The Teeches helped Pooples with readin’ and writin’,

They helped them with buildin’, they helped ‘em stop fightin’.

 

Teeches taught Pooples old songs and new dances

They talked about kings, long ago happenstances.

 

Pooples learned to count numbers, they learned algebratin’

It weren’t always easy— it could be frustratin’…

 

But all of the Pooples knew Teeches were there

To help them and guide them if they felt despair.

 

Teeches helped ‘em explore the world and its voices,

The Pooples of Lernville, they made learning choices.

 

Their neighbors in Gatesville weren’t nearly so lucky,

The Schoolmeister there was really quite touchy.

 

“A box for each student! A box that they’ll fit in—

We chop ‘em, we pound any part that is stickin’!

 

“We make sure they learns every fact in the book,

Or go back and start over, by hookety-crook!”

 

Gatesville was orderly; neat and quite straightly,

No wasting of time, no Poople-come-lately.

 

Schoolmeister McDuncan was very specific,

His speeches on learning were, alas, quite prolific.

 

A standard for reading, a test when that’s finished,

More standards, more tests to keep students skittish!

 

Obedient students reading 70/30,

Not too much fiction; it makes your head hurty!

 

The two Bros. Kooks were both up for a quest,

They relished a chance to purloin an int’rest.

 

They handed McDuncan their credit-y cards,

And told him to spend ‘til the stack reached to Mars.

 

And the man Gatesville’s named for, he told them to hurry,

“We got to remember, Standards must be quite sure-y!”

 

Together they Kooked up a doozy for students,

They called it the Kommon Kore Standard Impudence.

 

“No student can do this! It’s truly implacable–

With this we can show Lernville Teeches are laughable!”

 

“Once Lernville parents lose faith in their Teeches,

We sell them our Kommon Komputery Leeches!”

 

Quite soon in Lernville, the message descended,

Less fun for Pooples! No school open-ended!

 

It’s got to be done to fight off the foreigners,

National security calls for cast-iron outcomers.

 

The Teeches of Lernville were terribly stressed,

They didn’t believe what they worked for were tests.

 

The Pooples of Lernville felt less than inspired—

Their grades on the tests could get Teeches fired?

 

In place of the Teeches the Leeches were tendered,

Costly machines that Poople minds might be rendered.

 

At this point, Teeches and Pooples became furious,

They hated the changes, which had grown rather serious.

 

And all of the Teeches, they came to consensus

That all of that testing made no common senses.

 

They marched to the office of Principal Doopt,

“This testing is tedious, it’s dull and we’ve drooped,”

they said in one voice, “Away with this scam!

We want to help Pooples, that’s who we am!”

 

And all of the peeps of Lernville that day

Decided to make sure that Teeches would stay.

 

“We don’t want Leeches or any machines

That don’t know our Pooples and walk in like kings.”

 

And that’s how they ended the Kooky Kore Schemin’

While Pooples resumed both learnin’ and dreamin’:

“We want to do stuff, and share what we’re learning,

School always includes things we might need for earning.

But don’t try to stuff us like moon pies for parties,

‘Cause the dreamin’ part makes us more than just smarties!” 

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Got Wheels?

One Pogo Stick Classroom

Did you ever try riding a pogo stick? Jumping on a pogo stick is fun for a short time…but it’s not a rational or sustainable mode of travel. A bike is far superior, but offers little stability when things slow down—and if you’re as old as me, it’s hard to imagine riding in rain and snow or dodging other vehicles. A tricycle is a safer bet, and you can sit on it at a stop light without worrying about your balance. Now, we all lust after cars, don’t we? A car affords safety, comfort, and reliability in most conditions. It’s a sustainable vehicle for the long haul.

Teachers have been riding pogo sticks for as long as I can remember. It’s the only vehicle any state provides. They won’t even admit that teachers might need a more reliable, sustainable vehicle. . . Bouncing up and down, trying to direct yourself toward some arbitrary destination and knowing you’re destined to land on your nose—it gets old, doesn’t it?

If you don’t think you’re riding a pogo stick, consider this: teachers alone are held responsible for the “outcomes” of education. Bill Gates, state legislatures and the federal government often want to evaluate teachers according to student test scores. Intervening variables that are out of our control, like poverty, mental illness, and dysfunctional homes are irrelevant to these authorities, despite the fact that research shows that these variables matter more than teacher quality. Reasonable shared responsbilities for students and parents are typically taboo topics at conferences. How many times have you bounced from one responsibility to another—then fallen from exhaustion? That pogo stick may look fun at first, but it sure hurts when you hit the ground.

Occasionally a bike is available. We pick up steam when a parent group or students take on specific responsibilities in a conscious manner. Having a partner in this educational “journey” means you have two wheels on the ground, and it’s great! It’s almost always a temporary thing, though, and you better wear your helmet in case of a pothole.

Sometimes, in rare situations, we’re provided a trike to ride. Naah, not one of those nursery school trikes. I’m talking about one of those vehicles you see on the freeway with one wheel in the back and two in the front, like a Can-Am Spyder. You know, once in a while, parents, students and teachers find themselves in harmony. Even though it takes longer to get going when you have to coordinate the responsibilities of three groups, you have a pretty stable situation. Then someone takes one of your trike wheels away. It’s usually a district administrator or a state legislator who resents the fact that teachers have such luxurious transportation.

Want a car? It’ll move you, your student and parent together safely along your path. But now you’re asking your state to adequately fund basic education for the long haul. Good luck, even if the state Supreme Court is on your side. If and when you get the car, you’ll probably have to pay for the gas and oil changes yourself. Or maybe a big corporation will give you a car to use…until they decide they need it back, or want you to crush it in order for them to avoid liability. Maybe you can use your building budget money or have a bake sale to get that Yugo you’ve been dreaming of?

But imagine if you were cruising down the highway in a Bugatti Veyron at 250 miles an hour at the expense of your school district and state government. Pretty slick! Okay, okay…a Ford Focus? I promise to obey the speed limit…

Still, once in a while I’d probably get out the old pogo stick and try something on my own, just for fun. Maybe Bill Gates will join me?

Bill, I’ll buy one for you if you promise to make it your sole form of transportation…

Testivus fȕr Alluvus

PTTestmore

It is with pride and importunity that I declare the Testivus Season open!

Festivities throughout the nation begin on the evening prior to the “window of testing” in each state, city or district. Actual dates may be adjusted locally to ensure the greatest disruption of learning and sufficient failure rates.

For those of the audience unfamiliar with the traditions and activities of Testivus, a brief description of the events to be endured:

The Testivus Breakfuss

It is best to begin the ceremony with the spooning of the pabulum. This ensures that all else imbibed, devoured, masticated, swallowed or otherwise consumed is swathed in a flaccid layer of tasteless gruel. Celebrants often comment on the direct comparison to our annual testing marathon, which is wrapped in a film of educational obeisance to the god of mammon and the lesser god, Marzano the Minimal.

If you can swallow that (along with the pabulum), the rest is easy:

Querical Cannelloni—questions about black holes, right whales, and Mylie Cyrus are baked into narrow pasta tubes and served with vinaigrette. Devotees swallow the pasta whole and belch their answers to each edible query. Loose interpretation of vocalizations is encouraged. This event is rumored to be a possible replacement for the SAT essay next year.

Toasts to Testivius—Nods of disapproval are directed toward effigies of politicians, wealthy “philanthropists,” Pearson officials and others who have advanced the cause of standardized testing. Doses of cod liver oil are distributed between nods to facilitate the feelings of discomfort these persons have bestowed upon teachers. Lucky winners receive an effigy for their school honor societies to use as a night light for pretest cramming.

Testivus Miracles are verified and ridiculed. In the past year, two astounding singularities were subject to catcalls at Breakfusses around the nation:

  • A Bleating Miracle—The absolute absence of a general uprising of teachers against all standardized testing was recently announced as the Department of Education’s greatest accomplishment by Randi Weingarten, who subsequently accepted the Medal of Confounding Compliance on behalf of her zombified teacher’s union in a very private ceremony.
  • The Where’s William? Oddity— In what can only be classified as a miracle escape, Bill Gates failed to debate the doughty Mercedes Schneider concerning his abuse of democracy and public education. He did, however, did appear to shill for his CCSS offspring in Washington, DC. It will be a miracle for the ages if Gates can avoid public humiliation by means of either his avoidance tactics or his debating skill during the Inter-Testivi Doldrums.

Fusstivus Interruptus

Following the Breakfuss, no discussion or mention of the events related to standardized testing is permitted until the final #2 pencil is re-sharpened, the computer labs are re-opened to daily desecration, and final attempts to get opt-out parents to rescind decisions have been abandoned.

Guilt and self-loathing are appropriate throughout.

The Testivus Hole

The final, and most sacred event of the season is the digging of a Testivus hole, excavated by hand with an entrenching tool on public land or by backhoe on Gates Foundation property (there are those who believe that popping the top of the nearest sewer hole is a righteous alternative) …into which is placed all evidence of personal participation in the past year’s federally mandated tests, including, but not limited to:

  • Mandatory staff training notices
  • Proctor training session sign-in sheets
  • The cremated remains of any U. S. Dept. of Education officials or state assessment coordinators who are at hand
  • Disturbing—Do Not Test signs once posted on classroom doors
  • Copies of testing protocols
  • Student bathroom passes (placed in Ziploc® bags for safe handling)
  • Losing Lotto tickets, purchased in moments of lucid desperation
  • Official testing calendars and class schedules
  • Receipts for snacks issued to students—(may not include items for personal use)
  • Testing tickets for logging on to malfunctioning electronic test sites
  • Test booklets smuggled home for pre-reading and lesson-planning
  • Sheets of lined yellow pre-writing paper (with student names at top)
  • Lists of pupils to be sent to alternate testing areas or for make-up tests

Under no circumstance should lists of students who have opted out of testing be included. No ceremony is to be wasted here, a wanton disregard for used testing materials is considered de rigeur, and fresh splashes of effluvia on the discarded documents prized.

Musical Accompaniment

During the dumping of the documents, a sacred chant is performed (customarily muttered under the breath to the rhythm of the Horst-Wessel-Lied or any ABBA tune):

Blessed be our Gatesmeister,

for he provides the fodder for the Testivus season!

And hail the Duncanology that the hole represents:

Dark, empty, vapid, and utterly without merit.

AlbertTestivusHole

© David Sudmeier, 2014