Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joan J. Strong, Signing Out

"[A]s he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."  -- Albert Camus, The Plague
I certainly don't mean to compare myself to the heroic doctor fighting an epidemic in a small town as chronicled in the above classic, but with the recent five year peace agreement with our public schools and Bullis Charter School in place, the analogy of a powerful disease in our community going into remission seems fitting.

I never thought the war in our community would last that much longer in any case: one cannot win a war when war itself is the enemy of the people. Neutrals in this conflict want the war to stop, and stopping the war means there needs to be a winner and a loser. LASD is permanent and BCS is temporary: there's no question as to who would have to go. BCS leaders ultimately had no choice but to stop looking out for their broader political agenda, and instead focus on the practical everyday needs of their school's students.

Today I am ending my experiment in anonymous dissent. This will be the end of Joan J. Strong.

I invented this alias almost three years ago at the spur of the moment. I kept using it, carefully keeping the details of my physical identity a secret while being open and accurate about the details of my life that are relevant to this subject. I have shared all sorts of personal aspects of my personal life and I might have even twisted an insignificant fact or two in order to throw off the those who would spend ridiculous amounts of time and money trying to zero in on my physical identity. My plan worked: after almost three years, I remain anonymous. I will probably remain so forever.

I always knew my anonymous character would be a journey, and that the journey would end some day. I've learned a lot on this trip. Amazing details about education policy, local politics, and the Internet's role in democracy. It's made quite an impression.

I've learned about the power and importance of anonymous dissent on the Internet. While my own reasons for anonymity pale in comparison to those who use it around the world to protect against threats against their very lives, the principle remains the same. Without anonymity people can be afraid of speaking out, and often won't.

I've learned that free and equitable public schools are a critical pillar of our system of government, and of a free society in general. Public schools aren't just a government welfare program, they are as necessary to maintaining our freedom as the police, the courts and the military. Those who would tear down that system are tearing at the roots of a successful and lasting democracy, whether they know it or not.

I've learned that public schools in the United States are currently under attack by a union of ultra-rich ideologues, segregation-seeking parents, and petty profiteers.

We have unprecedented concentrations of wealth among a class of super-rich, and unprecedented ability by those rich to affect political outcomes. Often spending only a few minutes thinking about a vast problem like education policy, many of them resemble a three year old at the console of a nuclear missile base. (They remind one of a certain French aristocrat who famously advocated an idiotically oversimplified solution to a complex social problem). Others, however, know exactly what they are doing.

The threat to our future is not only the destruction itself, but the inevitable change in the American view of rich people: as Americans watch one local election after another get purchased, and they watch how a single super-rich individual dictates what their child will learn, Americans will change their views of the rich in unstable ways. They will view the rich as dictators. Their emotions will change from harmless envy to fear, and then anger, and then action. It's already happening in unexpected ways.

Chief among the dangerous naivete among the super-rich backers of public school privatization and "choice" is the a denial of the reality of prejudice: racism and bigotry is alive and well in the United States. Many parents, when given a choice, will choose segregation, isolation, and a host of things that the relatively moral majority of Americans (including some of the very same parents) have voted against over the years. Given a business-friendly, deregulated new system of school privatization (also known as charter schools and vouchers) and the allure of a $500 billion dollar potential market, investors are going to give these bigots what they want, and pronto.

So the virus has been unleashed: rich ideologues buy the politicians to allow greedy investors to sell a product to an enormous market of willing buyers. It's a self-perpetuating illness that can destroy our democracy.

Because of all of this, while I am ending the anonymous--and probably, local--chapter of my foray into this aspect of public policy, I'm going to continue to do whatever I can to advance the cause of what is often called, "community-based education reform": improving schools while maintaining a truly equitable system of public education that is necessary to maintain our democracy. We cannot forget about--and then sell off to the highest bidder--the pillars of our free society without reaping existential consequences. Maintaining the sanctity of truly public public schools is as important to the continued existence of our free and democratic society as a free press or fair elections. Separation leads to polarization. The road the privatizers are leading us down ends in a deeply polarized caste system that will devolve into despotism. It portends a world where rich kids attend lavish academies partially funded by "donations" and poor kids will attend cut-rate computerized military-style schools that are run for a profit, and an even less fortunate class of children born into less diligent homes show up "over the counter" at what is left of public schools. It portends the unstable society that Thomas Jefferson sought to prevent in his advocacy of public education.

I owe it to my children to prevent such an ending and to do whatever I can to get us off this road and onto a better one.

That's what I've learned from this battle with a local charter school and a local set of super-rich would-be plutocrats through my role as Joan J. Strong.

I hope to continue my advocacy of public school policy in any way I can--but under my real name. I will, however, share one other important personal detail about myself: this writing has nothing to do with my career or working aspirations. I'm not a politician, I'm not a political pundit, I'm not an activist, I'm not a lawyer, educator, policy maker, or even so much as a local committee member. It's not what I do. I have had an excellent career so far and I think I'm good at what I do--but it's not this. Not even close. There are extremely talented and well-meaning people in this community that are much better than I could ever be at all of those things I mentioned. On the national level, there are now hundreds of academic policy departments, hundreds of pundits, hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of voters hearing their message.

Yes, many in Los Altos have been exposed to a different viewpoint about charter schools, and many have now read the same extensive research I have read and have come to the same conclusions. But I think I've moved things forward here in Los Altos only in the sense of tossing a bucket of water in front of a coming tidal wave. Charter schools have lost the philosophical and academic support that brought them to where they are now, and their complete unraveling is only a matter of time. One part-time amateur anonymous pundit like myself might get a few people's feet wet in the mean time, but in a few years we will all be deeply immersed in a new way of thinking about public schools that doesn't involve privatizing and segregating them.

If there's any impact I hope I have had it would be this: I hope people in this community stand up for positive values. Stand up for the truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for equity. Stand up for openness and inclusiveness. Stand up for a sustainable community that works for everybody for the long-run and not just themselves for the here and now.

And perhaps use the tools I have used these past couple of years, when appropriate. The tool of anonymous dissent as I've used it is no mere conjuring of an alias for every comment, and in fact has a set of rules that must be followed to the letter. First among those is integrity. An anonymous dissenter must above all be consistent and true to their own values and beliefs. They must engage, honestly, in self-examination. They must be focused entirely on their goal and not that which might be peripheral or personal. The anonymous dissenter builds a brand around their cause because their anonymity depersonalizes them. That brand must be carefully maintained lest the cause be compromised. And most importantly, the anonymous dissenter respects the medium--because they know that to abuse the medium with dishonesty is to destroy it, and no person with anything positive to say needs to engage in deception to say it. The anonymous dissenter knows that they have the truth--but that's all.

I'm putting down this tool now, and I suspect I will never again have a reason to pick it back up. But others might. While the genesis of Joan J. Strong has come and gone, the genesis of its successors has not nor will it ever. We live in a happy city, but we're always going to have the occasional diseases to fight, and the occasional rats to exterminate. If I've had any impact at all, I hope I've introduced this community to another important tool for doing so. I hope I've advanced the collective working knowledge--locally and globally--of how it can be done and how it can be effective.

Maybe the next gang of would-be plutocrats will think twice before they attempt to buy a local election or attempt to win a legal war of attrition against a local democratically-elected institution, or launch a smear campaign against their political enemies, or emit blatantly false or misleading political ads. Maybe they will need to account for a certain amount of "online resistance" in their break-even analysis which will make such a campaign untenable. Maybe they will fear the uncertainty that such an uncontrollable element brings to the situation.

Maybe the next set of rats will be afraid of Joan J. Strong, or any of her rightful heirs.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Don't Bother BCS Supporters With the Facts (Even If They Help)

" 'Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing." 
-- Douglas Adams
So here's a weird one: why haven't BCS supporters ever pointed out more flattering demographics numbers about their school when we've debated it?

Let me explain.

A considerable part of our discussion over education policy in Los Altos is about numbers and statistics. These numbers drive conclusions which in turn drive public opinion, and ultimately policy.

One key statistic about BCS versus the wider Los Altos School District are its demographic numbers (note there are two different links here). These numbers are important because they speak to BCS's role as a public school. Study after study (as well as common sense) shows that the output of schools are driven mostly by their input: schools with easier-to-educate populations score better than schools more difficult students.

Further, we know that certain demographic groups score a lot higher on standardized tests than others. (Only as an aggregate of course: every student is an individual, but when you add them all together, this is what you get).

Hence when we see that BCS has a lot more of the "easier" demographic and far less of the "harder" and more expensive-to-educate demographic, we need to consider that when evaluating BCS's net contribution to our public school system.

In terms of test scores, LASD is very near the highest-ranked in the State. Meanwhile, BCS has had slightly higher test scores for the past few years than LASD as a whole, and out-ranks almost all LASD schools individually most of the time, and is typically within 1-2% in any case. In other words, in terms of objectively defined output, BCS is essentially the same as LASD.

So with the "output" of LASD and BCS being virtually identical, the key variable becomes the "input": demographics. In this case, BCS's numbers show a student population that has a far-higher propensity to score higher on standardized tests.

The common BCS retort, however, is that their numbers are "about the same" as LASD, and that the "slight" difference doesn't matter, and so forth.

Using the statistics I gathered at the Ed Data website (the first link above), I noticed a rather glaring and damning statistic about BCS: none of their English Language Learners are Spanish-speaking. When I'm trying to distill things down in our debate, this was a useful tool. Yes, all of these numbers are complicated, and need to be viewed in context that takes some reading to understand, but here's a handy "sound bite" statistic that sums everything up: "zero Spanish-speaking ELLs".

I've used that sound bite many times and many times BCS supporters have engaged me in debate about it. None of them have ever wanted to debate me on the actual numbers, nor have ever disputed my facts with any specific counter-facts. The only retort I've ever received have been opinions ("oh I think that's wrong") or just plain personal attacks of various kinds. I generally provide a URL for people to follow which backs up my facts, which in turn can really only be disputed by providing counter-facts (another URL) or an explanation of why those particular facts are not relevant.

But they never wanted to debate me on the facts, which is incredible, since my numbers were likely to be wrong.

I recently noticed the "other" source of statistics for California schools (why are there two sources for the same data?)--the second link above--and that data does show that there are Spanish-speaking ELLs at Bullis Charter School.  It shows more detail (grade levels, etc.) so I'd even be inclined to believe this data source more than the one I had previously believed.

But here's the weird part: why didn't the oodles of BCS supporters--whom I have debated over the course of several years now--ever point this out? Surely this would have helped their cause.

My own "cause" is ultimately the truth and if I find out my facts are wrong then I am happy to change my conclusions. I think this is true for most outside community members who truly want to understand what is actually going on here.

So here's the corrected summary statement: BCS has about half as many Spanish-speaking ELLs than LASD. Not as punchy as the previous sound bite, but the thesis that it's supporting--that BCS has the same output with an easier input--is still unshaken.


Now, back to the back-story (which for me is much more interesting): why didn't BCS supporters point this out? Certainly I don't know what goes on in their heads, but based on my experience in this debate, I think it's a combination of the following:

  1. Some BCS supporters probably assumed I was right and didn't question my data.
  2. Some BCS supporters knew I was using the wrong data set, but didn't want to point out the correct one because they knew it wouldn't ultimately help their argument (although wouldn't it, a little?).
  3. Certain BCS supporters knew I was using the wrong data set, but didn't want to point this out to me lest I stop using it, but instead would use this as an "example" of everything I write, leading a very willing audience enjoying a billionaire-subsidized school to feel better about themselves dismissing every single thing I say.
  4. That many--or even most--BCS supporters have long since abandoned the truth as a source of helpfulness. They instead see the battle as that of a shouting match, a battle in the courts, a battle over who has more money, a battle over who can lie the most effectively, and so forth. They deem my statistics as mere "factual arguments" which, as we sadly know do not always carry the day.

This last item is the one which is the most troubling. Recent court filings show that Bullis Charter School Chairman Ken Moore has absolutely no allegiance to the truth, not even under oath in Superior Court.

How does one get oneself to a place where the truth and reality are your enemy? I don't know, but I do know this: historically, scarcely few individuals have lasted long in such a state.