Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The State Penalized My School Because We Tried to Integrate

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The original sin of American education is segregation.

 

Yet in Pennsylvania, taking steps to integrate can result in a penalty from the state legislature.

 

That’s what happened to my school this year.

 

After years of innovation and academic growth, my school added a new program to bring in struggling students from another institution – and the state rewarded us by putting us on a list of “failing” schools and forcing us into a voucher program.

 

I teach in a racially diverse, high poverty district in the western part of the state, just outside of Pittsburgh.

 

Charter schools have been leeching off us for years.

 

But today was the first day school vouchers sunk their teeth into us, too.

 

It’s called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTCP) – a ridiculous bit of legislation that allows children in struggling public schools to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at a private or parochial school.

 

I’d say they could use that money at a participating public school, too, but in Pennsylvania the public schools taking part in the program can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

 

And why does my school now qualify for this dubious distinction? Because of our standardized test scores.

 

Not our test scores from this year. They won’t be released until at least June – more likely August or September.

 

This is based on test scores from last year – 2016-17.

 

Moreover, it’s not district wide. It’s just the middle school and one elementary school.

 

In previous years, the middle school was the district powerhouse. We had the highest test scores and the most innovation. So what happened?

 

In short, we integrated.

 

From a state-wide standpoint, my district is hugely segregated.

 

About 60% of our students are poor and/or minorities. Yet if you go a few miles north, south, east or west, you’ll find schools serving every flavor of white privilege. Beautiful big buildings with the best of everything and a tax base to pay for it. My district, on the other hand, is made to do the best it can with what we’ve got, which isn’t much.

 

To make matters worse, the structure within our district, inherited from decades of unenlightened social planning, doubles down on that segregation.

 

Though we only have one middle school and one high school where all our students rub shoulders, we have two elementary schools – one for the middle class white kids and one for the poorer black ones.

 

This has dramatic academic consequences. Kids at the better-resourced white school flourish scholastically more than kids from the crumbling black school. So the racial and economic skills gap becomes entrenched by the time kids move to the middle school in 6th grade.

 

If only we could integrate the elementaries.

 

However, we can’t bus kids from one neighborhood to the other because we can’t afford it. We have a walking district. Moreover, parents would revolt at the idea of elementary kids having to trudge long distances or take a city bus to school.

 

The only long-term solution is to create a new, centrally located elementary center serving both populations. However, that takes money we don’t have.

 

So last year we tried a partial solution – move the 5th grade up to the middle school. That way, we can at least integrate our students a year earlier.

 

Of course, this means taking kids from the black school with terrible test scores up to the middle school. This means adding more struggling students from the school that already is on the state’s bottom 15% list and making them the middle school’s responsibility. It means a new program, new trials and challenges.

 

You’d think we’d get praise or at least understanding for tackling such a problem. But no.

 

Taking on the 5th grade tipped the middle school’s test scores over the edge.

 

Now we’re in the bottom 15%, too. Now we have to let our students go to a private or parochial school with public tax dollars.

 

Why? Because we tried to right a wrong. We tried to correct a social and academic injustice. And the result was a kick in the gut.

 

Thanks, Harrisburg legislators! Way to support students of color!

 

This is just another way that school vouchers support white supremacy. They make it harder to battle segregation.

 

Why would anyone integrate if doing so could mean losing funding and looking like a failure in the press?

 

Moreover, forget all the junk you hear from the state about growth.

 

This penalty is based on whether we hit testing benchmarks – what percentage of students we have earning proficient or advanced on the tests. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve improved. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone from the lowest of the low to scratching at the ceiling of proficient.

 

My 8th graders last year (the year we’re being penalized for) experienced tremendous growth just like my students this year are doing. From where they came in to where they’re leaving, the difference is phenomenal!

 

But apparently that doesn’t count in Pennsylvania.

 

A poor school serving mostly underprivileged minorities needs to meet the same benchmarks as schools with Cadillac resources serving kids who have everything money can buy. There’s certainly no need for the state or federal government to do anything about equitable resources (At least, not until the result of a lawsuit is handed down where local districts are suing the state over just such strategic disinvestment).

 

Instead, we’ve got to offer our student the “opportunity” to go to a private school on the public dime.

 

And what an opportunity it is!

 

The chance to send your child to a cooperating private or parochial school at public expense.

 

The opportunity to lose your duly-elected school board. The opportunity for decisions about how your money is spent being made behind closed doors with little to no input from you. The opportunity to send your child to a school with fewer resources and fewer certified teachers. The opportunity to send your child to (an often) religious school on the public dime.

 

Wow! I can’t imagine why so few parents take advantage of that opportunity! My district has had a few schools on the OSTCP list before, and families overwhelmingly opt to stay put.

 

Let’s not forget the justification for this “opportunity” is low test scores.

 

Wait a minute. These cooperating private and parochial schools don’t even take the same standardized tests, if they take any at all.

 

In our community, there is only one cooperating private school – a catholic school located right next door.

 

Students enrolled there don’t take the PSSA or Keystone Exams. I believe they take the Terra Nova test. And the school must do a great job because its Website is three years out of date about the results of those tests.

 

What a great way to improve test scores for our students – comparing apples-to-pears or, to be honest, actually making no comparison at all.

 

This OSTCP law is based on an unjustified assumption that private schools are always better than public ones. The reality is that if the resources both schools receive are similar, the public school usually greatly outperforms the private or parochial one.

 

I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve toured our next door Catholic institution. A few years ago, we relocated our students there temporarily during an emergency drill.

 

It’s a quaint school. Cobblestones and a shaded green campus.

 

But the buildings are crumbling – especially on the inside. Watermarks on the walls and dirt collecting in the corners.

 

It’s also much smaller than my school. They only have less than 300 students from K-8. We have about 1,500 from K-12.

 

I can see why parents who graduated from that school and have a history with it might want to send their kids there to continue that legacy. But anyone else would be giving up much better facilities, a much wider curriculum, much better trained and experienced teachers and even smaller classes!

 

The OSTCP bill has nothing to do with providing better opportunities for children and families.

 

It’s a public tax giveaway to private businesses.

 

The private/religious schools benefit and so do the businesses who “donate” their taxes to these programs.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for contributing to this scam.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools like mine. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off the industrial testing complex.

 

In the Keystone state, we have the OSTCP and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).

 

This blatant swindle is championed on both sides of the political aisle.

 

We already waste $200 million in business taxes to these programs in the Commonwealth, yet both Democrats and Republicans keep trying to pass another bill to increase that sum by another $50 million.

 

In Allegheny County, where I teach, that includes Democratic State Reps. Dom Costa, Daniel J. Deasy, William C. Kortz II (who represents part of my school district) and Harry Readshaw.

 

Because of this bogus philanthropy, there will always be a bottom 15% of state schools – approximately 400 “failing schools” – that are ripe for the picking from private and parochial school vultures.

 

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t right.

 

That money should be going to public schools not private or religious institutions many of which espouse fundamentalist or racist teachings.

 

There is a reason our founders legislated a separation of church and state. We’d do best to remember it.

 

We could be using our resources to help solve our problems, alleviate segregation and increase equity.

 

Instead our lawmakers are too interested in giveaways to business and corporations even if that means stealing the money from our children.

Facebook is Censoring Your Favorite Bloggers

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Have you seen me?

 

Probably not.

 

In fact, you’re probably not even seeing this right now.

 

Though you may have read and enjoyed my articles in the past, though you may still want to have the opportunity to see and enjoy my posts in the future, you probably aren’t seeing them anymore.

 

The reason? Facebook has employed a new algorithm to determine exactly what you’re allowed to see on your news feed.

 

Like a parent or a government censor, they are scanning your content for certain words, judging your posts based on interactions, and otherwise making choices on your behalf without your consent.

 

Unless someone pays them to do otherwise. Then they’ll spam you with nonsense – fake news, lies, propaganda: it doesn’t matter so long as money is changing hands.

 

So homegrown blogs like this one are left in the dust while corporations and lobbyists get a megaphone to shout their ideas across social media.

 

Look, I don’t mean to minimize what Facebook does. There’s a ton of information that comes through the network that COULD be displayed on your screen. The company uses an algorithm – a complex set of steps – to determine exactly what to show you and when. But instead of basing that solely on who you’ve friended and what you’re interested in, they’ve prioritized businesses and shut down the little guy.

 

Since Facebook made the change in January, my blog only gets about 40% of the hits it did in years passed. And I’m not alone. Other edu-bloggers and organizations dedicated to fighting school privatization and standardization are reporting the same problems – our voices are being silenced.

 

And all this is happening after a series of Facebook scandals.

 

After the whole Cambridge Analytica outrage where Facebook gave the data of 87 million users – without their consent – to a political analysis firm that used it to help elect Trump…

 

After Facebook sold more than $100,000 in advertisements to Russian bots in 2016 who used them to spread propaganda to help elect Trump…

 

After enabling the spread of hate speech in Myanmar which allowed the military to engage in “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya Muslim minority – which has forced 700,000 people from their homes and across the border into neighboring Bangladesh…

 

After all that, Facebook still pretends that changing its algorithm is simply a way to crack down on “fake news.”

 

It’s not.

 

They are controlling information.

 

They are policing free expression.

 

They are NOT cracking down on falsehoods and deception.

 

In fact, much of what they’re doing is completely devoid of ideology. It’s business – pure and simple.

 

They’re monetizing the platform. They’re finding new and creative ways to squeeze content providers to gain access to users’ news feeds.

 

This won’t stop propaganda and fabrications. It just charges a fee to propagate them.

 

It’s the same thing that allowed those Russian bots to spread Trump-friendly lies in 2016.

 

It’s pay-to-play. That’s all.

 

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg characterized the change in January of 2018 as prioritizing content from “friends, family and groups.”

 

Zuckerberg admitted this means it will be harder for brands and publishers to reach an audience on the social media platform – unless they pay for the privilege. That’s significant because even though organic reach had been diminishing for some time, this is the first time the company admitted it.

 

Zuckerberg wrote:

 

“As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard—it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”

 

What are “meaningful interactions”?

 

Apparently, what the company calls active interactions are more important than passive ones. So commenting and sharing is more important than just liking something.

 

In practice that means if you comment on someone’s post, you’re more likely to see things by that person in the future. And if they respond to your comment, their post gets seen by even more people.

 

Reactions matter, too, as does the intensity of those reactions. If people take the time to hit “Love” for a post, it will be seen by more people than if they hit “Like.” But whatever you do, don’t give a negative reaction like “Sad” or “Angry.” That hurts a post’s chances of being seen again.

 

I know it’s weird. If someone shares a sad story about their mother with cancer, the appropriate response is a negative reaction. But doing so will increase the chances the post will be hidden from other viewers. Facebook wants only happy little lab rats.

 

Sharing a post helps it be seen, but sharing it over messenger is even better. And just sharing it is not enough. It also needs to be engaged in by others once you share it.

 

Video is also prioritized over text – especially live video. So pop out those cell phone cameras, Fellini, because no one wants to read your reasoned argument against school privatization. Or they may want to, but won’t be given a chance. Better to clutter up your news feed with auto-playing videos about your trip to Disneyworld. I suppose us, social justice activists, need to become more comfortable with reading our stuff on camera.

 

And if you do happen to write something, be careful of the words you use to describe it. The algorithm is looking for negative words and click bait. For example, if you ask readers to like your posts or comment, that increases the chances of Facebook hiding it from others. And God forbid you say something negative even about injustice or civil rights violations. The algorithm will hide that faster than you can say “Eric Garner.” So I guess try to be positive when writing about inequality?

 

Do you happen to know someone famous or someone who has a lot of Facebook followers? If they engage in your posts, your writing gets seen by even more folks. It’s just like high school! Being seen with the cool kids counts.

 

One of the best things readers can do to make sure they see your content is having them follow you or your page. But even better is to click the “Following” tab and then select “See First.” That will guarantee they see your posts and they aren’t hidden by the algorithm.

 

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I know. I know.

 

This is all kind of silly, but Facebook is a private corporation. It should be allowed to control speech however it likes. Right?

 

Wrong.

 

The social media giant collects a ton of data about its users and sells that to advertisers. As a user, you have to make that Faustian bargain in order to gain free access to the platform. However, as we’ve seen, that data can be used by political organizations for nefarious ends. Private business cannot be trusted with it.

 

Moreover, there is the echo chamber effect. Facebook controls what users see. As such, the company has tremendous power to shape public opinion and even our conception of reality. This used to be the province of a free and independent press, but after media conglomeratization and shrinking advertising revenues, our press has become a shadow of its former self.

 

In order to maintain a democratic system that is not under the sway of any one party, faction or special interest group, it is essential that social media providers like Facebook become public utilities.

 

It must be regulated and free from manipulation by those who would use it for their own ends.

 

The way things are going, this seems more unlikely than ever.

 

Our democracy is a fading dream. Fascism is on the rise.

 

But if we want even a chance of representative government, we need to reclaim social media for ourselves. We need control over what we get to see on Facebook – whether that be a school teacher’s blog or your cousin’s muffin recipe.

 

In the meantime, do what you can to take back your own news feed.

 

If you want to keep seeing this blog, follow me on Facebook and click “See First.” Hit “Love” on my content. Comment and share.

 

The only thing standing in our way right now is a brainless computer algorithm. We can outsmart it, if we work together.

 

Hope to be seeing you again real soon.

Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does.

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My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades.

 

They don’t matter all that much.

 

The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

 

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened.

 

She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment.

 

I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

 

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed.

 

But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

 

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack.

 

Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework.

 

He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework.

 

So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores.

 

I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

 

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals.

 

In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating.

 

After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

 

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal.

 

According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80% of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

 

Common Core fanatics like Bill Gates and David Coleman probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously.

 

However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

 

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance.

 

We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

 

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

 

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score.

 

It also increases the motivation to cheat.

 

According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64% admitted to cheating on a test.

 

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension.

 

If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy.

 

I know this is heresy to some people.

 

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.

 

After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

 

Of course, some of us realize standardized testing doesn’t provide an objective measurement. It’s culturally and racially biased. Those test scores don’t just correlate with race and class. They are BASED on factors inextricably linked with those characteristics.

 

When the standard is wealth and whiteness, it should come as no surprise that poor students of color don’t make the grade. It’s no accident, for example, that American standardized testing sprung out of the eugenics movement.

 

Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing.

 

High stakes assessments like the SAT do NOT accurately predict future academic success.

 

Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or ACT tests don’t do better than kids who got lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.

 

Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.

 

Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.

 

However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

 

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

 

Yet even classroom grades have their limits.

 

I remember my high school graduation – sitting on the bleachers in my cap and gown listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches about the glorious future ahead of us.

 

Yet for each of those individuals, the future wasn’t quite so bright. Oh, neither of them burned out, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

 

In fact, when I went to college, I found a lot of the highest achievers in high school struggled or had to drop out because they couldn’t adjust. The new freedom of college was too much – they partied and passed out. Yet a middle-of-the-road student like me (Okay, I was really good in English) did much better. I ended up in the honors college with a double major, a masters degree and graduating magna cum laude.

 

And it’s not just my own experience. The research backs this up.

 

A Boston College study tracked more than 80 valedictorians over 14 years. These high school high achievers all became well-adjusted professional adults. But none of them made major discoveries, lead their fields or were trailblazers.

 

For that, you need someone willing to take risks.

 

The folks the researchers followed admitted that this wasn’t them. Many confessed that they weren’t the smartest people in their classes. They just worked really hard and gave teachers exactly what they thought they wanted.

 

So what’s the point?

 

Some people will read this and think I’m against all testing and grading.

 

Wrong.

 

I give tests. I calculate grades. And I would do this even if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. (Though I would throw every standardized test right in the garbage.)

 

I think grades and testing have their place. But they aren’t the end, they are a means to an end.

 

They are crude estimations of learning. They’re an educated guess. That’s all.

 

We need to move beyond them if we are to modernize our public schools.

 

Don’t get rid of grades and testing, just change the emphasis. Put a premium on curiosity and creativity. Reward academic risk taking, innovation and imagination. And recognize that most of the time there may be several right answers to the same question.

 

Heck other countries like Finland already do this.

 

For the first six years of school, Finnish children are subjected to zero measurement of their abilities. The only standardized test is a final given at the end of senior year in high school.

 

As a result, their kids have some of the highest test scores in the world. By not focusing on standards and assessments, they counterintuitively top the charts with these very things.

 

There’s a lesson here for American education policy analysts.

 

And that lesson is the title of this article.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Dear Kanye, The Same Impulse That Enslaved Black Minds on the Plantation Stokes Your Admiration for Trump

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Kanye West is a brilliant musician.

 

I start with that reminder because he’s also a jackass.

 

The same iconoclastic impulses that make him so fascinating to listen to on the mic make him almost impossible to take seriously anywhere else.

 

About a week ago, he took to Twitter to say the most controversial thing he could think of – that he still likes Donald Trump:

 

“You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.”

 

Say what you will, he got the mileage he wanted out of it. People’s heads exploded all over the place.

 

How can a black man (other than Ben Carson) support perhaps the most racist Chief Executive in the history of this country?

 

Trump was endorsed by David Duke (a former KKK Grand Dragon), his supporters include white nationalists (Read: Nazis) whom he refuses to criticize, he was a notorious birther refusing to accept any of the overwhelming evidence that Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen, and his real estate company avoided renting to African Americans and gave preferential treatment to white people. And that’s only the most cursory list! I could go on and on and on!

 

But Kanye loves him. Okay. How do you feel about James Earl Ray? When he shot and killed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did he, too, have Dragon Energy?

 

Perhaps Duke does – literally. Yet Yeezy ain’t tweeting him any support!

 

However, Kanye wasn’t done. Today on TMZ, he doubled down on his contrarianism:

 

When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.

 

And:

 

You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.

 

Okay, Kanye.

 

Hold up.

 

Yes, slavery works by imprisoning minds as well as bodies. The same with our contemporary racial and economic cast system.

 

But to call slavery a choice – while true in a sense – minimizes how constrained that choice was.

 

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, most slaves had a choice between life in bondage or torture and death. They could try to run, try to organize and revolt or just try to survive.

 

What kind of choice is that?

 

Run and you might get caught – risk the little you have and risk the safety of anyone you care about for a dim chance at freedom.

 

And that was if there was anywhere to go. Without connections on the Underground Railroad or other sympathetic forces, the very idea of trying to free one’s self must have seemed next to impossible.

 

Sure, you could try to organize and overthrow your taskmasters – but that’s generally not how human psychology works. You convince yourself that going along is better, that if you just listen to authority, you’ll survive. It’s the same thought 6 million Jewish people had as they were being marched to the gas chambers.

 

I guess that’s your point. Human psychology is wrong. It’s better to fight than go along.

 

Then how do you explain your support for Trump?

 

You’re exercising your right to free thought by voicing an unpopular opinion – BECAUSE IT’S UNPOPULAR. But that’s not freedom – that’s merely thesis and antithesis. Everyone says THIS, so I say THAT.

 

I imagine plenty house slaves did the same thing back on the plantation. “The Master is kind and caring and he looks out for me.”

 

That’s really what you’re saying when you praise Trump.

 

One of the criticisms often leveled at rap music is how much it idolizes wealth and conspicuous consumption.

 

As a famous hip hop artist once said:

 

“ …And this rich n– racism
That’s that “Come in, please buy more
What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things”
Used to only be n–s now everybody playing
Spending everything on Alexander Wang…”

 

That was you, Kanye, on “New Slaves” back in 2013.

 

The Yeezus who spouted those rhymes was criticizing exactly the kind of BS you’re spewing today.

 

Yeah, Trump is a symbol of having made it in America. But if he’s who you emulate, you’ve betrayed everything you used to stand for.

 

Fight the power – don’t befriend it!

 

Overthrow our classist, racist society – don’t defend it!

 

But who am I to criticize you? You’re a black man and I’m just a white observer. If you want to throw shade on your own people, go for it. If you want to trade in rebellion for a MAGA hat, you do it. That’s your right. Just don’t be surprised if no one thanks you for it.

Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

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There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

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Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.