The El Chapo edition
The Friedrichs case and the future of teacher unions, whether schools are asking too much of young students, debating the role of federal regulation under ESSA, and computers’ effect on the writing gap. Mike Petrilli and Robert Pondiscio cohost, and Amber Northern delivers the Research Minute.
Amber's Research Minute
Sheida White, Young Yee Kim, Jing Chen, and Fei Liu, "Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment," Nation Center for Education Statistics (October 2015).
Mike: Hello, this is your host, Mike Petrilli of the The Thomas B. Fordham Institute here at The Education Gadfly Show and online at edexcellence.net. Now please join me in welcoming my co-host out of hiding, the El Chapo of education policy, Robert Pondiscio.
Robert: That makes you Sean Penn.
Mike: That's exactly right.
Robert: Oh, man.
Mike: Hey, hey, hey.
Robert: At least Charlize Theron didn't break up with me, dude.
Mike: Oh my gosh. What is up with all of this? Sean Penn is an interesting guy.
Robert: You know what, I have no patience here. As you know, I spent a lot of years in the print journalism business. I'm kind of in mourning over Rolling Stone. I think one of two things should happen. Either they need to give up, or their readers.
Mike: Hey. We're still not sure that maybe Sean Penn was just working with the US Government ...
Robert: Oh, stop.
Mike: ... that this was all an elaborate ...
Robert: Stop it.
Mike: ... plan that it worked. It worked.
Robert: The US Government that he has reviled and given every opportu-
Mike: Hey, that's what makes it such a great plot.
Robert: Not possible.
Mike: You can imagine the pitch. They said, "All right, here's the plan. We're going to have you set up an interview with this guy, and we're going to track you." It's perfect. It's brilliant.
Robert: Are you done?
Mike: I'm done.
Robert: Good. Is Sean Penn done?
Mike: We'll see. He may be done, because if that was not ... if he did, in fact, lure the Government to him, I would be watching my back.
Robert: He's now in hiding.
Mike: I think that's true. Okay, hey, but we're not the El Chapo podcast. We're not the El Cheapo podcast. We're the Education Gadfly podcast.
Robert: We are in a secure location.
Mike: Yes, we are. Okay, hey, lots of interesting things happening. Clara, let's play Pardon the Gadfly.
Clara: The Friedrichs versus California Teachers Association case reached the Supreme Court this week. How will this ruling impact education reform?
Robert: Mike, for those of you who are not watching at home, is doing a happy dance right now.
Mike: That is my happy dance. You're right.
Robert: Go ahead. Explain.
Mike: Oh my gosh, explain, what are you talking about? This is great news. It certainly looked like there are at least five Justices who are ready to declare the plaintiffs the winners in this one, which would mean that California and every other State that is, so far, not a right to work State for public employee unions, will become a right to work State. What that means is that California and these other, mostly blue, States, teachers will now be able to both opt out of the union, which they can already do now ...
Robert: A new opt-out movement.
Mike: A new opt-out movement, and they don't have to pay these agency fees anymore, where they have been made to pay for collective bargaining and other activities of the union, even if they are not members. The thing is, these agency fees are almost as expensive as membership fees.
Robert: Okay, time out. Let me point out that you are not answering Clara's question.
Mike: I'm giving background.
Robert: Clara's question was, how will this ruling, and by the way, caveat here, you cannot assume you know how the ruling is going to go based on oral discussions ...
Mike: That's correct.
Robert: ... we know this.
Mike: We could be surprised.
Robert: Let's just assume that you're right. They're going to throw this out. No more agency fees. The question that Clara asked, the question I want to hear you answer, is, how will this ruling impact-
Mike: Are you the host here? What's going on? This is some kind of mutiny. What's happening?
Robert: Yeah, there you go. How will it impact education reform?
Mike: All right. Point is, if it goes against the unions, they are going to lose a lot of money. They're going to not only lose the money from these agency fees, they are also ...
Robert: Still not answering the question.
Mike: Robert, I'm getting there. They're also going to likely lose a lot of members, because members are now going to choose between a thousand dollar fee a year and zero. Before, they were choosing between the eight thousand dollars a year and maybe eight hundred dollars a year. Okay, this is going to have a couple of things for education reform. One is, in all of these big political fights, the unions are going to have less political money to spend.
Robert: Fair enough.
Mike: Supposedly, the non-members were already able to opt out of the political spending, but a lot of this stuff is squishy. What's political, what's not? They're going to have less money. The unions are probably going to have to find other ways to save money. They're going to have, for example, fewer resources in order to provide experts when collective bargaining. The way it works right now all over the country is you've got these volunteer school boards who go up against the unions. The unions have paid people who fly in and help them negotiate. They're going to have less money for that kind of stuff. All of this is going to mean that the unions are going to be somewhat weaker than they are now. That doesn't mean that their power completely goes away. There's still a lot of teachers and teachers' families. In States like California, there's still going to be plenty of union members and political spending and all the rest, but they will likely be ...
Here's the other thing that Mike Antonucci thinks is likely to happen, is that the more moderate members of the union, people who may be can take it or leave it, but just hasn't been worth the while to opt out at this point. If they now decide, "Hey, I could save a thousand bucks. Yeah, I'm opting out," the union becomes smaller, but it becomes more ideologically strident.
Robert: Oh, interesting.
Mike: Only the true believers stay behind.
Robert: That makes sense, actually.
Mike: If you want to see a glimpse of the future, look to the Chicago Teacher's Union, for example, ...
Robert: Do we have to?
Mike: ... and how they act.
Robert: Okay. The only reason I was being extraporous on the point, and I will freely admit this is somewhat of an unorthodox view, especially in these halls - I just, at the end of the day, I was saying to one of our colleagues, if you gave me a magic wand and said, okay, you can fix anything you want in education. Go down the list ... I'd get pretty far down my list before I'd get around to defanging the Unions. Not that I think that they are good guys, I just don't think they have the deleterious effect on education outcomes that a lot of people who do what we do seem to believe.
Mike: I don't know, Robert. There is certainly the case that there are plenty of States or school districts that are unionized and do get good results: Massachusetts, is the best example.
Robert: A lot, just the opposite.
Mike: You're right. You would also say in recent years we see Florida making big gains, you see Arizona making big gains, DC has had this big turnaround where the unions are very weak. I do think it is helpful if you can remove some of the worst parts of the unionization.
Robert: Fair enough.
Mike: I don't know that it's so much ... it works on several levels. One is, literally, the contracts that can be barriers to improvement, but the other thing is the political power. They try to stop so many of the promising reforms that are out there, and if they have less, fewer members, less money, less clout, that means that they are going to have a harder time getting in the way of promising reform.
Robert: All of that true. I'm not disagreeing with any of that, and believe me, I'm not suggesting that the unions are good guys in our struggles, but I don't think they are the three-headed monsters of some people's bull-
Mike: That's just because you are Mr. Curriculum, Robert. If you were a true believer on structural reform, you might feel differently.
Robert: There you go. I'm not going to gain-say that. You're right.
Mike: Okay. Do you still have that Al Shanker poster up in your office? Is that ... just kidding.
Robert: I do not.
Mike: Okay. Topic number two.
Clara: NPR recently wrote that Kindergarten is the new First Grade. Are school's asking for too much, too soon?
Robert: No. Next question.
Mike: Oh, now you're going to be the one who ... I'm going to push you on this one, a little bit. First of all, the evidence. Is there really ...
Robert: What evidence?
Mike: Is there really evidence that Kindergarten is the new First Grade? I thought I saw something recently from AERA that said, "Well, we looked, and actually Kindergarten still looks pretty much the same as it did ten, twenty years ago.
Robert: I think, and I don't have the transcript in front of me, I think the NPR piece that Clara was alluding to was that teachers, themselves, report higher expectations in terms of reading than they did a generation ago. NPR being NPR, looked somewhat ascant to that. I do not. I think that's a very, very, good thing. The data could not be more clear. As regular listeners to this podcast know, I still teach one day a week, working predominantly with low-income kids of color, so that is the population that I'm concerned with. The evidence could not be clearer, that if kids are struggling in First Grade, they have a ninety-percent chance of still struggling in Fourth Grade. If three out of four strugglers in Third Grade are still struggling in Ninth Grade.
If there's any good guy that the education reform movement at large has created is this sense of urgency around early education, in general, and early literacy in specific. We dare not let go of that.
Mike: People complain. They say, "Well, the Common Core, they expect kids to be doing some reading by the end of Kindergarten.
Robert: Nothing wrong with that.
Mike: We're not quite sure, what, the sounding out words a little bit, that kind of stuff, some degree of fluency.
Robert: Sure, absolutely, by the end of Kindergarten.
Mike: By the end of Kindergarten. The question would be, you say sooner is better. We wouldn't' say that, okay, therefore we're going to try to get three-year-olds to start sounding out words.
Robert: A lot of three-year-olds come into Kindergarten already with letter-recognition and knowing how to spell their names, and whatnot.
Mike: How do we draw these lines? How do we know? There is such a thing as too young to do some stuff.
Mike: I don't know. What kind of evidence do you have to look to to say, hey, maybe these people have a point, that if we try to push it too early for some kids, it's just not going to work and it's going to provide unnecessary stress?
Robert: This is that, what was that ridiculous piece the Atlantic, a few weeks ago, about the joyful little literate Kindergartners of Finland or someplace ... Mike: By the way, my preschooler is in a Waldorf preschool, as many listeners know. Otherwise known as Finland, here in America.
Robert: Do as I say, not as I do, says Mike Petrilli.
Mike: He spends all his day playing outside in the woods, gardening.
Robert: Are you unschooling your kid, then?
Mike: We're paying a lot of money for him not to learn how to read, is what you do in the Waldorf system. I do not plan to stick with that system after preschool. Look, is this just more of the same in terms of upper-middle class parents, like me, we don't like to have our little ones be too pressured. We find, boy, my kid goes to preschool and does nothing but play and sing all day, and he's also learning to read. Therefore, why are we forcing those poor kids ...
Robert: Play is not necessarily play. A lot of play is building literacy skills.
Mike: Not in Waldorf.
Robert: Perhaps. I have no experience with them.
Mike: You can't even have letters on your shirts.
Robert: Oh, my goodness. Again, I think this is one of those classic, false dichotomies that ... take me to the Kindergarten, someplace, where kids are working with worksheets all day and they're not playing at all. This is one of those ridiculous ...
Mike: You don't think those places exist?
Robert: I really don't think that they exist.
Mike: I think there's some horrible school districts out there who responded to the pressure of no child left behind and other things, and had no clue what to do, and had five-year-olds sit down and do worksheets.
Robert: Here's what I will say. You try making a five-year-old sit down and do worksheets.
Mike: No, I know, but my concern is that we would all agree that's terrible practice ...
Robert: Of course.
Mike: Yet, what do you do if that's actually the case out there?
Robert: First, show me where that's the case. I earnestly do not believe that any Kindergartner in America is being forced to do nothing but sit in front of worksheets all day. Not one.
Mike: All right. There's your challenge. Find us one.
Robert: I'm talking to you, Alfie Cohen, I know you're out there.
Mike: Find us that kid. Okay. Topic number three.
Clara: The US Department of Education is asking for public comments on what the new role of Federal Regulation under ESSA should be. What are your thoughts?
Mike: The thing I love about this, you look at the public, the announcement in the Federal Register, as I have, and they say, "We would like to know what you think we should regulate on. Regulations that might be helpful or necessary.
Robert: How about none? Let's start with none.
Mike: Helpful. That's very interesting. Right. Yes. Let's start with zero-based budgeting, okay? It is possible, if you really have to do the regulations, you can just cut and paste from the Bill itself, and that's it. You can repeat the Bill.
Robert: You can grow thousands of people out of work, Mike?
Mike: No, no, no. It doesn't take thousands. I know these people, the Department. They mean well, but they are busy-bodies and micro-managers.
Robert: What's that thing, the road to hell is paved with what, again?
Mike: Yes, exactly. We, at Fordham, are excited that we are having a big accountability design competition.
Robert: This is going to be fun.
Mike: We've encouraged people, including you, Robert, to come up with ideas for how State accountability systems could work under ESSA. Part of the reason that I want to do this right away is to surface promising ideas that you may look at and say, "Well, I'm not quite sure if that's allowed under the Law, or not," that maybe doesn't quite meet the letter of the Law, as a way to identify areas where the Department should either tread carefully - make sure, whatever you do. Don't write the regulation in a way that makes this good idea unallowable, or could be proactive and say, "Hey, here's ten ideas that we've heard of and we are okay with all of them."
Robert: My big one, this will surprise you not in the least, I'm back to early literacy. I'm a content guy, I'm a literacy guy. My big concern under the past regime under NCLB, is we've created conditions that almost literally disincentivised teachers to invest in vocabulary and background knowledge from the earliest days of school. Reading tests, speaking of good intentions, get in the way of that. I'm not going to sit here and give away my ideas, but I'm going to tell you that that's what I'm going to be focused like a laser on, is how can we create the conditions through assessments, through accountability, that encourage schools to make those patient, steady investments in background knowledge and vocabulary that are not happening right now.
Mike: I think that's exactly right. Some of this stuff gets super wonky, but for example, they added one - every State has to have an indicator in their accountability system, now, that looks at the progress that English language learners are making toward language proficiency. That's never been as prominent a part of State accountability systems before. Makes a lot of sense, a lot of schools out there have lots of English language learners.
What if your school doesn't have a lot of English language learners? What if you have ten kids out of the whole school who are English language learners, should that indicator count a whole lot towards your grade? Should it count as much as if fifty-percent of your kids are English language learners? That's the sort of thing where hey, you might want to have a little nuance, there, in your accountability system to have waiting and deferred, depending on that student population.
Again, I don't think anybody sort of thought that through in writing the Law. States are going to come up with ideas like that, and you don't want the Department to have this mindset where they say "no" to ideas that make sense.
Robert: Sure, because if they do, then local control is a myth.
Mike: Yeah, and the idea that this Law gives a lot of power back to the States. Furthermore, what you do is you recreate a system where people look at it and it doesn't make sense.
Robert: Right. Let's replace the Federal system that's not working with fifty State systems that aren't working.
Mike: Right. In this example, again, okay, now you're going to have some school, somewhere, that's a great school, but gets a "D" because ten of its kids who are English language learners aren't doing well, and you say, come on, that doesn't pass the smell-test. Not to mention, what's going to happen? The rest of the school's going to be really mad at those ten immigrant kids from Mexico. This is practically calling on Donald Trump to make this an issue.
Robert: You lost me there. I kind of agree with you ...
Mike: El Chapo.
Robert: ... except I'm always going to have at least some concern for let's not go back to the bad old days where you could completely throw those ten kids under the bus and say, hey, we're a great school. You're not a great school for those ten kids.
Mike: How about this. Those ten kids don't do well, then instead of getting an "A," you get an "A minus."
Robert: I'm flexible, Mike.
Mike: We'll see you on February 2nd for the design competition.
Robert: Yes, you will.
Mike: These are the kinds of things that are going to be in play, and the fundamental question, of course, the ideological question is, who should get to decide?
Mike: Conservatives generally say on all of these issues, why should the Federal Government have anything to do with any of this? Let the States decide. The Civil Rights Left is going to say, oh, no, no, no, without oversight, the States are going to find creative ways to throw poor and minority kids under the bus.
Robert: I suppose that's true, but do you really believe, and I'm not being naive here, but do you really believe in 2016 that States need an incentive to not throw large numbers of their own kids under the bus? Come on. It's not 1964 anymore.
Mike: Look, Robert. We're on the same side on that one. At the same time, will there be examples of States doing stupid things?
Robert: From carelessness, yes, but not out of maleficence.
Mike: Well, people say, well, if that were the case, Robert, why do we have so many States that still don't fund poor and minority schools at an appropriate level, right? That's not just carelessness, that's a lack of political will.
What we need, we need somebody from the Civil Rights Left to come on the show, here, and talk through these issues with us.
Mike: If you are from the Civil Rights Left and you're listening ...
Robert: Call Mike Petrilli.
Mike: Call me. Let's talk. Okay. That's all the time we got for Pardon the Gadfly. Now it's time for everyone's favorite, Amber's Research Minute.
Welcome back to the show.
Amber: Thank you, Mike.
Mike: If you had to pick, who is your favorite: El Chapo, or Sean Penn?
Amber: I don't have a favorite out of those two. Really, really don't. That's a head-scratcher, isn't it? What the heck?
Mike: Quite a story.
Amber: Quite a story.
Mike: I think Sean Penn is redeeming himself by working for the CIA ...
Amber: Do you?
Mike: ... or the DIA, or whatever it might be.
Amber: I had warm and fuzzy feelings about him because of his reaction after Katrina, where you saw him in a little boat helping people. He went down to Katrina and really help. I've always kind of had a soft-spot for him, even though I don't agree with his politics. Yeah, I was kind of dismayed at this latest news.
Mike: Head-scratcher. Speaking of head-scratchers, what do you have for us this week?
Amber: We have a new study by IES that provides results for Fourth Grade students on the 2012 NAEP Pilot Computer Based Writing Assessment. The study asked whether Fourth Graders can fully demonstrate their writing ability, on a computer, and what factors are related to Fourth Graders' writing performance on that computer?
About ten thousand four hundred Fourth Graders from five hundred and ten private and public schools were asked to compose writing tasks intended to gauge their ability to persuade or change a reader's opinion, explain their understanding of a topic, or convey an experience, real or imagined.
It's like narrative, persuasive writing, descriptive writing, basically.
There were randomly assigned two writing tasks out of thirty-six. They had thirty minutes to complete each of their writing task. The study built-in all this other information from a 2010 paper-based pilot, so we got both a paper-based pilot and we got a computer-based pilot. Then we have 2011 NAEP results for Grade Eight and Twelve computer-based tests. We actually have the real tests. It's a bunch of stuff, okay?
Amber: That's not that important. What is important, is they were all different groups of kids. We can't say these kids are the same kids. This is a cross-cohort. Whatever.
Mike: They didn't have Johnny sit down one day and do it on the computer, and another day do it on the paper?
Amber: Ditto. Why didn't I just say that? That's exactly right. They did have results for am analysis of fifteen tasks that were common to both the paper version of the test and the computer version of the test.
Amber: They spent a lot of time talking about these fifteen tasks.
Key findings. Number one, sixty-eight percent of Fourth Graders received scores in the bottom-half of the scoring scale on the computer pilot. The majority of kids are in the bottom on the computer test. Okay?
Number two ...
Mike: Isn't that just, I guess I'm not quite understanding. Fifty-percent of the kids are always going to be below average, is that all that it's saying?
Amber: The bottom-half of the scoring scale. They were like a six-point scale, but they're in the ...
Mike: Oh, I see. That's a Criterion effort? Okay. A lot of these kids did not do well.
Amber: Didn't do well. I didn't want to get into the nitty-gritty of the six-point scale.
Number two, the percentage of responses in the top two categories of the scale, was higher on the computer than the paper assessment.
Related high performers scored substantively higher on the computer than on the paper assessment. The high performers did good on the computer rather than the paper. Low and middle performers did not appear to benefit from using the computer. Either way, it seemed like a non-factor for our low and middle performers.
Then they dug into some nitty-gritty. The number of words produced by Fourth Graders was smaller on the 2012 Computer Pilot than on the 2010 Paper Pilot. Even though they're not the same kids, but still they're not producing as many words on the computer as they are on paper.
Mike: They're pecking around the keyboard looking for their ...
Amber: Well, that's what we're going to get to. Low performers produced fewer words by about sixty, than middle and high performers. Middle kids produced about a hundred and four words, high performers about a hundred and seventy-nine. Then they dug into all these things that might have to do with all these factors that might relate to these results.
Having access to the internet as home, is associated with text-link. You have access, it has to do with how many words you're typing up.
Use of editing tools was also associated with having access to the internet. You're more likely to use your spell check or your backspace, that kind of thing.
Specifically, the longer a student's response, the higher a score it is likely to receive. We tend to like those longer responses.
Fourth Graders, another little factoid, more likely to say that they prefer to write on paper rather than computer. If they didn't have access to the internet at home, they also had lower average scores.
All this stuff seems to be related relative to, if you like to write on paper, low and behold, you end up having lower average scores on the computer.
There are a ton of stats, it's a really long report, I just picked out a few. Anyway, the bottom line is pretty simple. They say since low performers have less exposure to writing on the computer, and they produce shorter texts, guess what? They are likely struggling with keyboarding, which takes time away from the cognitive work, the brainpower of actually developing your essay, right?
Amber: This is great. This is simple stuff. What do you think they recommend at the end?
Mike: More internet access for low-income kids?
Amber: Well ... teach the kids keyboarding!
Mike: Teach the kids keyboarding!
Amber: Tell them how to do spell check and all that, and I guess, especially the low performers, but I'm thinking, it's been a long time since I've been in Elementary school, but wouldn't you think they're teaching keyboarding in Elementary schooling, or they just assuming kids know keyboarding?
Mike: I've seen it in my son's school that there's been some of it, in that some of it encourage for them to practice at home, and there's some little games that you can play where you have to follow some little character around and practice your keyboarding. It's interesting. This was back in 2010, 2012? You also wonder whether things have changed, at all, since then.
The internet access, I thought, Amber, that we had made huge progress in closing that digital divide?
Amber: I know.
Mike: Although, maybe some of those studies count if you have a Smartphone at home, for example, that's not going to help the kid versus ...
Amber: That's what I was wondering, too. I haven't dig into that.
Mike: ... having an actual computer?
Amber: How they operationalized internet access, and whether it was your phone.
Mike: Why not just say, you know what, Fourth Grade is too early to do the testing on ...
Mike: ... online. Keep doing paper-based tests in Fourth Grade?
Amber: Yeah, it's a good ...
Mike: …balanced have moved on?
Amber: They have. They've moved on, and they offer the paper version, but I think the push is - this has been this for twenty years, right? We're pushing closing the digital divide, and more and more and more States have put money in infrastructure into this computers in schools. That's why these testing windows, you know, these testing windows can be six weeks long, because some schools still have one computer lab where they got to shuffle the groups of kids through to take the test. It's definitely better in other places.
In Ryko County where I now live, has a laptop, and has had a laptop for every kid for like twenty years or something. They were the forerunners, and they're still doing it.
I think access, obviously, we know this looks different depending on where you live.
Mike: Are PARCC and Smarter Balanced, they're doing this at the Third Grade level?
Amber: They are, yes. Very interesting. It is a hmm, right? I tend to think that we probably do need to move kids into the computer age pretty early. I used to be really bothered, I don't know about you, you have kids that don't. I used to be so bothered when you'd see kids playing on computers when they were just so dang young. Of course, there's all these studies showing that we need to be careful about this. I don't think we really know yet if it can damage or stunt their growth or all these other things.
It tends to be, this is the way the world's moving, so I'm really torn as to how young is too young? What are your thoughts?
Mike: You absolutely worried about limiting screen time, but the other thing, and I've tried to write about this in various ways, is to say when there is screen time, can you try to be choosy about what it is? There's some stuff that's more nutritious, than other. Try to avoid the empty calorie screen time. Every once in a while, let the kid have fun is fun, but there's a lot of cool stuff out there that is educational in a variety of ways, and fun, including these games to help kids learn how to keyboard.
Amber: Yes. Very well said. My Godson likes Doodle Drop, where you catch these little bombs that fall from the air. I don't think it's too educational, but, whatever.
Mike: Checkout Leo's Fortune, very, very beautifully-designed game.
All right, well, thank you, Amber!
Amber: You're welcome!
Mike: All right. That is all the time we've got for this week. Robert, how are you going to tunnel out of prison, this time? You got a plan?
Robert: Sean Penn left me a shovel.
Mike: Good. I'm glad he did. Until next week ...
Robert: I'm Robert Pondiscio.
Mike: ... and I'm Mike Petrilli. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.