You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Fight Racism. But You Have to Try

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I am a white guy who talks about racism.

 

I teach mostly students of color in a western Pennsylvania public school. I write a blog about education and issues of prejudice. And I participate in social justice campaigns to try and redress the inequality all around me.

 

But in my quest to be an anti-racist, one of the most common criticisms people hurl my way is to call me smug:

 

You think you’re so perfect!

 

You’re just suffering from white guilt.

 

You love black people more than your own people.

 

Things like that.

 

Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret.

 

I make mistakes.

 

All. The. Time.

 

I am just like every other white person out there. But I have recognized certain facts about my world and I’m trying to do something about them.

 

America is built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans. The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans. Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and was hidden in the way we practiced health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

And it’s getting worse. Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

It does not make me special that I am trying to do what little I can about that. It just makes me human.

 

That’s it.

 

I am not perfect.

 

I am no better than anyone else.

 

But I am trying to do the right thing.

 

When I first became a teacher, I had the chance to go to the rich white schools and work with the wealthy white kids. I hated it.

 

I found that I had a real affinity for the struggling students, the poor and minorities.

 

 

Why? Probably because I have more in common with them than the kids who drove to school in better cars than me, wore more expensive clothes and partied with designer drugs.

 

Does that make me better than a teacher who stayed in the suburbs? No. But hopefully it gives me the chance to make a greater difference against white supremacy.

 

 

When I saw how unjust our school system is, I could have gotten out. Law school was definitely an option. So was becoming a technical writer or a job as a pharmaceutical ad rep.

 

 

But I dug in and spoke out.

 

 

I could have left, but who would be there to speak for my students? Who would speak truth to power about high stakes standardized tests, unaccountable charter and voucher schools, inequitable funding and the boondoggle of Common Core Standards?

 

 

So I got active in my union, spoke at rallies, lead marches on incorrigible law-makers and started a blog.

 

Does that make me better than teachers who kept plugging away at their jobs but didn’t rock the boat? No way. But hopefully I have a better chance at helping change things for the better.

 

 

When I saw that politicians in my state wanted to stop the parents of my students from voting by trampling their civil rights with a voter ID law, I started a campaign asking the officials that were tasked with enacting the law to ignore it.

 

 

It was a hard battle that made me do things I was not at all comfortable doing. You try asking a public servant on camera to break the law and go to jail for what he knew was right.

 

Strangely enough, it worked. Along with several other campaigns throughout the state, we got the voter ID law declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

 

Some people look at that and other accomplishments and think I’m conceited.

 

They say I’m a white savior hogging the spotlight for myself and keeping the very people I’m trying to help in my shadow.

 

That’s not my intention at all.

 

I wouldn’t be anywhere without the help and support of people of color.

 

Everything I’ve done in this fight has been with their help and encouragement.

 

Does that mean I’m impervious to making a racist comment? Does it mean I’ve never participated in a microaggression? Does it mean I see every racist impact of my society and my place in it?

 

Absolutely not.

 

I screw up every day.

 

Multiple times.

 

But that’s the point. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to try.

 

One of the books that has helped guide me on this journey is Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun.

 

The chapter on “White Supremacy Culture” should be required reading for every activist organization or budding civil rights warrior.

 

The authors offer a list of characteristics that stem from white supremacy that can affect even the best intentioned of groups and individuals. These norms are difficult to name or identify but can lead to major dysfunction:

 

 

“They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.”

 

 

And the number one characteristic is Perfectionism.

 

This involves the following bullet points:

 

  • “little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway

 

  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate

 

  • or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them

 

  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes

 

  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong

 

  • little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes

 

  • tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right”

 

 

Solutions offered to this problem are:

 

“Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;

 

develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;

 

create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results;

 

separate the person from the mistake;

 

when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism;

 

ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.”

 

These are things we should keep in mind as we try to move forward in this fight.

 

Certainly white people can be resistant to criticism and see any and every comment or appraisal as personal or demeaning – especially if that remark is made by a person of color.

 

Frankly, white people need to get a thicker skin about it. We need to realize that this impulse to personalize analysis is often a psychological attempt to avoid looking at oneself and what unconscious aspects of the social order one has internalized.

 

However, those offering criticism must realize that context is everything. We must create an environment where such remarks are constructive. Otherwise, they’ll do more harm than good.

 

None of this is easy.

 

But if we want to be anti-racists, that’s not the job we signed up to do.


 

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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STEM Education Severs the Arts from the Sciences

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What’s the most effective way to dumb down a nation?

 

 

Focus on How without Why.

 

 

That’s really the biggest problem with the pedagogical fad of STEM education.

 

 

There’s nothing objectively wrong with teaching science, technology, engineering and math – the disciplines that make up STEM.

 

 

In many cases, doing so is essential to a well-rounded education.

 

 

But therein lies the problem – you can’t have a well-rounded education if you purposely leave out some of the most vital aspects of knowledge.

 

 

Where’s the art? Where’s the literature? Where’s the social studies, government, citizenship, drawing, painting, music – heck! Where’s the philosophical understanding of life, itself?

 

 

STEM initiatives often involve creating two tiers of school subjects. You have the serious disciplines that will earn you respect and a job. And you have the soft, mamby pamby humanities that are no good to anyone.

 

 

The problem is one of focus not content.

 

 

Corporate-minded bureaucrats who know nothing of human psychology, child development or education look solely at standardized test scores and get hysterical.

 

 

The U.S. is falling behind other nations – especially in science and math, they say. So we must do whatever we can to bring those test scores up, Up, UP!

 

 

Yet they have never bothered to see that our student test scores have never been at the top of the pack for all the decades we’ve been making international comparisons.

 

 

We started contrasting multiple choice assessment results for 13-year-olds in a dozen countries back in 1964. And ever since, America has always been right in the middle.

 

Yet for those five decades we’ve dominated the world in science, technology, research and innovation.

 

 

In that time we sent the first people to the moon, mapped the human genome, and invented the Internet – all while getting middling test scores.

 

 

In short, standardized assessments are a fantastically unreliable indicator of national success, just as they are poor indicators of individual learning.

 

 

We’ve never been a nation content with picking our answers from four options – A,B,C,D. We blaze new paths!

 

 

But number obsessed fools have convinced a public blinded by sports statistics that these tests mean our kids are deficient. And the only cure is to put on blinders and focus almost exclusively on those subjects most featured on the tests.

 

Even reading and writing are only valuable if they let us guess what a normalized reader is supposed to comprehend from a given passage and if they allow us to express ourselves in the most rudimentary and generic ways.

 

 

This is exactly what they do in countries with the highest test scores – countries that are LESS innovative than the U.S.

 

 

Asian countries from Singapore to South Korea to India are not blind to this irony. While we are trying to imitate them, they are trying to imitate the kind of broad liberal arts education in which we used to pride ourselves.

 

“Many painters learn by having fun,” said Jack Ma, founder of one of China’s biggest Internet companies Alibaba.

 

“Many works of art and literature are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”

 

Ma worries that his country is not as innovative as those in the West because China’s educational system focuses too much on the basics and does not foster a student’s complete intelligence, allowing him or her to experiment and enjoy the learning process.

 

In other words, no matter how good you are at math and science, you still need to know how to learn, think and express yourself.

 

To be fair, these criticisms of STEM are not new.

 

Even global pundits like Fareed Zakaria have made similar arguments.

 

The result has been a hasty addition – change STEM to STEAM by adding in the arts.

 

Unfortunately, this hasn’t always worked out for the best.

 

Most of the time, the arts component is either an after thought or merely a sweetener to get students interested in beginning the journey – a journey that is all STEM all the time.

 

There is still an education hierarchy with the sciences and math at the top and the humanities and social studies at the bottom.

 

This is extremely unfortunate and will cause long-term detrimental effects to our society.

 

For instance, we pride ourselves in being democratically ruled. Political power does not come from authority, it comes from the consent of the governed.

 

This requires a public that knows how to do more than just add and subtract. Voters need to understand the mechanisms of government so they grasp their rights. They need a knowledge of history so they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. They need to grasp human psychology, anthropology, and sociology to understand how people work in groups and individually.

 

Moreover, as human beings, they need the humanities. People have thoughts and feelings. They need to know how to express those thoughts and feelings and not just by writing a five-paragraph essay. They need to be able to create works of art. They need to be able to write a story or poem. They need to be able to manipulate images. They need to understand and create music.

 

Without these things, it can be difficult to become fully actualized people.

 

That used to be the goal of education. Provide students with the tools to become the best version of themselves.

 

But this focus on STEM and STEAM only endeavors to make them the best cogs the workforce needs.

 

We have relinquished our commitment to students and replaced it with a commitment to business and industry.

 

The idea is that schools owe the job market workers. That could not be further from the truth. We owe our students the tools that will help them live the best lives. And employment is only one small facet of that goal.

 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach math and science. We should – we MUST. But those can’t be prioritized over and above other essential human endeavors.

 

We need to fund and encourage a broad liberal arts education for all students. As they get older and move on to post-secondary studies including industrial arts they will inevitably specialize in areas that they find most interesting.

 

But until then, it is our job to give them every opportunity to learn – not to mold them into future wage slaves or boost national pride with arbitrary and meaningless test scores.


 

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 Only Way to Survive Trump is Together

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There are days when I feel like a broken man.

 

And it is Donald Trump who has broken me.

 

Not his political victories. Not the failures of his opposition.

 

But the very fact that this piece of shit is President of the United States – that fact sits on my brain like an insect I can’t swat.

 

On those days my belief in this country wavers and disappears.

 

 

Oh, I’ve always recognized its faults, how our reality hardly ever lived up to our ideals. But I also thought that the United States was populated by mostly good people who knew right from wrong.

 

To run this country we wouldn’t choose an obvious conman, a racist and sexist, a person of low IQ, a man with little to no experience, a reality TV star. We wouldn’t let him pick the next Supreme Court justices. We wouldn’t give him the power to pardon whomever he likes. We wouldn’t give him the ability to write almost whatever he wants into law through signing statements. And we certainly wouldn’t give him the nuclear codes.

 

But we did.

 

We did all of that.

 

Or we allowed it to happen by ignoring a broken electoral system that overturns the popular vote with frightening regularity.

 

So there he sits in the Oval Office – when he isn’t on vacation at Mar-a-Lago – like a smear of feces on the American flag.

 

Therapists call this feeling “Trump Anxiety Disorder” and I have it. Boy! Do I have it!

 

The D.C. Counseling and Psychotherapy Center has identified it as a “collective politically induced anxiety among patients.”

 

Apparently, Trump’s name comes up frequently in sessions with mental health professionals. Patients say they feel on edge because of the President’s ill-chosen, childish and undiplomatic words, fear of his bad decision making, and anxiety over his xenophobic and prejudicial policies.

 

Trump Anxiety Disorder is not yet an official diagnosis, but symptoms seem to include lack of sleep, a feeling of losing control and helplessness in an unpredictable political scene, along with endless negative headlines and excessive time spent on social media.

 

Elisabeth LaMotte, a therapist at the Washington, DC, center, said, “There is a fear of the world ending. It’s very disorienting and constantly unsettling.”

 

I’m not sure I fear that Armageddon is close at hand, but I certainly feel like the world I thought I knew is unraveling.

 

Fox News was quick to frame this story as a joke – those silly “libtards” are losing their minds over Trump. But it’s not just people on the left who suffer from the disorder, says LaMotte.

 

Many Trump supporters feel isolated from friends and family who don’t blindly follow their diminutive Furor. I guess it’s hard to pal around with someone who thinks it’s completely justified to separate children from their parents and lock them up in cages – unless you think the same thing.

 

Even the American Psychological Association (APA) has recorded a rise in anxiety since the 2016 election that increases depending on how political a person is regardless of affiliation.

 

The APA also noted that electronic news consumption increases that risk.

 

In my own case, my symptoms manifested physically on Election Day, itself.

 

I literally had a heart attack in 2016 after casting my ballot. And I had another one a short while later.

 

The first one may have had something to do with depression over the political options.

 

I didn’t know Trump would win. I thought the chances of it were infinitesimal. But I didn’t want Hillary Clinton, either.

 

I wanted Bernie Sanders, and since I thought the Democratic National Convention stacked the deck against him (and therefore voters) in the primaries, I voted for Jill Stein.

 

In the months since, I’ve run that decision over in my mind a million times.

 

Was I right? Was I wrong? Could I have given Trump the margin of victory with my one stupid vote?

 

When I examine all the information I had at the time, it still makes sense.

 

The media was telling us that there was no way Trump could win. Clinton was going to come storming into the White House and continue or worsen the neoliberal policies of Barack Obama.

 

As a school teacher, I was concerned that she would continue to wage war on public education – she would continue to boost charter schools and standardized testing while shrugging at funding inequity, increased segregation and the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

It’s not that I didn’t realize Trump would be worse. It’s that I didn’t think Clinton would be that much better.

 

But had she won, I don’t think I would be suffering the same anxiety.

 

We would have a sane and sensible leader who wouldn’t do anything much to make things better, but certainly wouldn’t be plunging us into an abyss. She wouldn’t betray every single American value while blatantly using her office for personal gain and gaslighting anyone who had the temerity to point out what was happening in plain sight.

 

So maybe some of it is guilt in my case.

 

Maybe I caused all this chaos. But I’ve looked at the numbers and that doesn’t add up.

 

Even if my position as a blogger who criticized Clinton (and Trump) convinced thousands of voters to cast ballots like I did, I could not have significantly affected the outcome.

 

But on those days of doubt and depression, I still feel guilty.

 

This is not the world I want to live in.

 

Things would be different if I thought there were any real hope of change.

 

Sure Trump may be defeated. If there’s a blue wave in the midterms, the orange one may be impeached. Or he may find it increasingly difficult to continue his corruption and be ousted in 2020.

 

But long term I don’t see much changing.

 

The Democrats are almost as corrupt as the Republicans.

 

Don’t give me this false equivalency crap. I’m not saying they’re the same. The Democrats are unequivocally better. But with the exception of social issues, their policies are almost the same as Republicans. The only difference is timeframe.

 

Republicans will destroy the world tomorrow. Democrats will destroy it next week.

 

And the system is just not set up to offer any challenge to the duopoly.

 

I desperately want to believe that insurgent progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Zephyr Teachout will somehow wrest control of the Democrats and steer the party back to real populist goals, but on most days it’s hard to keep that hope alive.

 

On those days it seems like the rich and powerful own our government and will never allow us to take it back no matter how many of us try to vote, no matter how often we take to the streets, no matter what we do.

 

We live in a world of shit.

 

And none of it will ever change for the better.

 

I don’t want to feel this way.

 

I still want to believe that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.

 

But on most days that feels like an illusion.

 

Is that a mental disorder? Or do I finally see the world for the way it is?

 

I have no answers.

 

Perhaps this article has no point.

 

I only offer it as a mark of solidarity.

 

If you’re feeling this way, you are not alone.

 

There are many more out there like you.

 

I don’t know how we get through this or even if we can. But this much seems certain.

 

If we are to survive, the only way is together.

 

So I send out this missive of hope and fear with all my love and a big virtual hug.

 

Be kind to each other. We’re all we’ve got.


 

For a peak at my views on more positive days, see HERE and HERE.


 

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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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Democrats for Education Reform Think Being Progressive Means Mirroring Betsy DeVos

 

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Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) put out a new video about what they think it means to be an education progressive.

 

And by the political action committee’s definition, Betsy DeVos may be the most “progressive” education secretary ever.

 

She champions “public charter schools.” Just like them!

 

She is in favor of evaluating teachers on student test scores. Just like them!

 

She is a booster for “holding schools accountable” through the use of standardized tests. Just like them!

 

And she loves putting public tax dollars into private hands to run schools “more efficiently” by disbanding school boards, closing public debate and choosing exactly which students get to attend privatized schools. Just like… you get the idea.

 

But perhaps the most striking similarity between DeVos and DFER is their methodologies.

 

DFER announced it again was going to flood Democratic races with tons of campaign cash to bolster candidates who agreed with them. That’s exactly how DeVos gets things done, too!

 

She gives politicians bribes to do her bidding! The only difference is she pays her money mostly to Republicans while DFER pays off Democrats. But if both DeVos and DFER are paying to get would-be lawmakers to enact the same policies, what is the difference!?

 

Seriously, what is the difference between Betsy DeVos and Democrats for Education Reform?

 

Progressives in Colorado and California say it is only the word “Democrat.”

 

Democratic party conferences in both states passed resolutions asking DFER to stop using the name “Democrat” because the privatization lobbying firm does not represent party ideals or goals.

 

It is degrading what the party stands for and hurting the brand.

 

Why do some progressives vote third party? Because of groups like DFER.

 

Voters think something like – if this charter school advocacy group represents what Democrats are all about, I can’t vote Democrat. I need a new party. Hence the surge of Green and other third party votes that is blamed for hurting Democratic candidates.

 

The Democrats have always been a big tent party, but the canvas can’t shelter the most regressive far right bigotry without destroying the organization’s identity as an opposition party.

 

It is entirely incoherent to oppose Republicans by pushing for almost the same agenda.

 

The reason for the confusion is that DFER is not a grassroots organization. It is funded by Wall Street hedge fund managers.

 

It is not an authentic expression of the public’s wants and desires. It is another avenue for the mega-rich to use their power and influence to tell the rest of us what they want us to believe.

 

Yet DFER tries to hide this fact with various forms of propaganda. In effect, they’re trying to convince us that their ideas are what we actually believe.

 

For instance, the group is now offering a nationwide poll from Benson Strategy Group as proof that Democratic voters agree with DFER’s goals.

 

However, the questions asked to about 2,000 people on the phone are laughably biased:

 

 

“Do you believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can to give every child a great education, and does that mean we need faster change in our schools to prepare students for the future?”

 

Of course people are going to agree with that! It doesn’t mean people want to privatize public schools. We SHOULD do everything – including closing failing charter schools and boosting funding at struggling public schools!

 

“Do you agree that we can’t go back to the way things used to be in schools? Do you think we need to keep bringing in new ideas and finding new ways to improve schools?”

 

Of course we need new ideas, but charter schools and standardized tests aren’t new ideas! We’ve been doing that nonsense for decades and they haven’t helped a bit. In fact, they’ve made things worse!

 

“Do you think funding alone is enough to give our children the education they deserve? Do you also want to see new ideas and real changes to the way public schools operate?”

 

Of course schools need more than just additional funding. But let’s not minimize funding equity. Students of color will never get an equitable education until we pay for the resources they need to succeed. The poor will never catch up to the rich without money to provide the services they need to learn.

 

Moreover, blanket statements disparaging public schools before asking about school privatization invites bias against public schools and bias in favor of privatization.

 

When you couch privatization as “more options” and “choice,” who doesn’t want that? But it’s not what you’re offering.

 

Giving administrators the ability to accept or deny my child into their school is not “more options” for me. It is greater choice for them.

 

Slashing funding at the public school because its finances got gobbled up by the neighborhood charter is not “choice” for me. It is providing alternative revenue for the corporations that run the charter school while my only option is to accept fewer resources for my child.

 

None of this is progressive. None of this is truly supported by grassroots people or organizations.

 

Civil rights groups like Journey for Justice and even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) oppose school privatization and high stakes testing.

 

This is the meat and potatoes of DFER.

 

The only difference between these alleged Democrats and DeVos is that the Trump administration also champions school vouchers.

 

But both charters and vouchers involve sending public tax dollars to schools that are privately run. Both involve stripping taxpayers of control over how that money is spent until all we have are parents moving their children from school-to-school in a desperate attempt to find one that does a good job and will also accept their child.

 

That is not the progressive ideal.

 

Progressives want to make every public school excellent. They want all children to have the resources they need to succeed. They want to assess students, teachers and the system fairly to clearly understand what children are learning, what educators are doing to help them learn and how administrators and school directors are enabling that success. They want innovation – not the same old corporate-minded top-down policy failures of the past decades. They want technology as a tool to bridge understanding and not as an end in itself to drive the curriculum. They want an end to the school-to-prison pipeline. They want truly integrated schools, not the current segregated system where Cadillac funding goes to rich white districts and the scraps are thrown to the poor brown ones.

 

Yet DFER, these so-called Democrats, support none of this.

 

And they’re spending millions of dollars to convince our lawmakers not to support it either.

 

Politicians can’t keep accepting their dirty money and expecting grassroots voters to continue to support them.

 

To paraphrase Matthew, no one can serve two masters. If lawmakers are taking sacks of cash from billionaire hedge fund mangers, they aren’t going to listen to you or me.

 

They can serve their constituents or mammon. Not both.

 

So if Democrats want strong support in the coming elections, they need to do the progressive thing.

 

Stop accepting bribes from dark money influence peddlers like DFER.


 

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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Top 10 Reasons You Can’t Fairly Evaluate Teachers on Student Test Scores

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I’m a public school teacher.

 

Am I any good at my job?

 

There are many ways to find out. You could look at how hard I work, how many hours I put in. You could look at the kinds of things I do in my classroom and examine if I’m adhering to best practices. You could look at how well I know my students and their families, how well I’m attempting to meet their needs.

 

Or you could just look at my students’ test scores and give me a passing or failing grade based on whether they pass or fail their assessments.

 

It’s called Value-Added Measures (VAM) and at one time it was the coming fad in education. However, after numerous studies and lawsuits, the shine is fading from this particularly narrow-minded corporate policy.

 

Most states that evaluate their teachers using VAM do so because under President Barack Obama they were offered Race to the Top grants and/or waivers.

 

Now that the government isn’t offering cash incentives, seven states have stopped using VAM and many more have reduced the weight given to these assessments. The new federal K-12 education law – the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – does not require states to have educator evaluation systems at all. And if a state chooses to enact one, it does not have to use VAM.

 

That’s a good thing because the evidence is mounting against this controversial policy. An evaluation released in June of 2018 found that a $575 million push by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to make teachers (and thereby students) better through the use of VAM was a complete waste of money.

 

Meanwhile a teacher fired from the Washington, DC, district because of low VAM scores just won a 9-year legal battle with the district and could be owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay as well as getting his job back.

 

But putting aside the waste of public tax dollars and the threat of litigation, is VAM a good way to evaluate teachers?

 

Is it fair to judge educators on their students’ test scores?

 

Here are the top 10 reasons why the answer is unequivocally negative:

 

 

1) VAM was Invented to Assess Cows.

I’m not kidding. The process was created by William L. Sanders, a statistician in the college of business at the University of Knoxville, Tennessee. He thought the same kinds of statistics used to model genetic and reproductive trends among cattle could be used to measure growth among teachers and hold them accountable. You’ve heard of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) or TxVAAS in Texas or PVAAS in Pennsylvania or more generically named EVAAS in states like Ohio, North Carolina, and South Carolina. That’s his work. The problem is that educating children is much more complex than feeding and growing cows. Not only is it insulting to assume otherwise, it’s incredibly naïve.

 

2) You can’t assess teachers on tests that were made to assess students.

This violates fundamental principles of both statistics and assessment. If you make a test to assess A, you can’t use it to assess B. That’s why many researchers have labeled the process “junk science” – most notably the American Statistical Association in 2014. Put simply, the standardized tests on which VAM estimates are based have always been, and continue to be, developed to assess student achievement and not growth in student achievement nor growth in teacher effectiveness. The tests on which VAM estimates are based were never designed to estimate teachers’ effects. Doing otherwise is like assuming all healthy people go to the best doctors and all sick people go to the bad ones. If I fail a dental screening because I have cavities, that doesn’t mean my dentist is bad at his job. It means I need to brush more and lay off the sugary snacks.

 

3) There’s No Consistency in the Scores.

Valid assessments produce consistent results. This is why doctors often run the same medical test more than once. If the first try comes up positive for cancer, let’s say, they’re hoping the second time will come up negative. However, if multiple runs of the same test produce the same result, that diagnosis gains credence. Unfortunately, VAM scores are notoriously inconsistent. When you evaluate teachers with the same test (but different students) over multiple years, you often get divergent results. And not just by a little. Teachers who do well one year may do terribly the next. This makes VAM estimates extremely unreliable. Teachers who should be (more or less) consistently effective are being classified in sometimes highly inconsistent ways over time. A teacher classified as “adding value” has a 25 to 50% chance of being classified as “subtracting value” the next year, and vice versa. This can make the probability of a teacher being identified as effective no different than the flip of a coin.

 

4) Changing the test can change the VAM score.

If you know how to add, it doesn’t matter if you’re asked to solve 2 +2 or 3+ 3. Changing the test shouldn’t have a major impact on the result. If both tests are evaluating the same learning and at the same level of difficulty, changing the test shouldn’t change the result. But when you change the tests used in VAM assessments, scores and rankings can change substantially. Using a different model or a different test often produces a different VAM score. This may indicate a problem with value added measures or with the standardized tests used in conjunction with it. Either way, it makes VAM scores invalid.

 

5) VAM measures correlation, not causation.

Sometimes A causes B. Sometimes A and B simply occur at the same time. For example, most people in wheelchairs have been in an accident. That doesn’t mean being in a wheelchair causes accidents. The same goes for education. Students who fail a test didn’t learn the material. But that doesn’t mean their teacher didn’t try to teach them. VAM does not measure teacher effectiveness. At best it measures student learning. Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model. For instance, the student may have a learning disability, the student may have been chronically absent or the test, itself, may be an invalid measure of the learning that has taken place.

 

6) Vam Scores are Based on Flawed Standardized Tests.

When you base teacher evaluations on student tests, at very least the student tests have to be valid. Otherwise, you’ll have unfairly assessed BOTH students AND teachers. Unfortunately standardized tests are narrow, limited indicators of student learning. They leave out a wide range of important knowledge and skills leaving only the easiest-to-measure parts of math and English curriculum. Test scores are not universal, abstract measures of student learning. They greatly depend on a student’s class, race, disability status and knowledge of English. Researchers have been decrying this for decades – standardized tests often measure the life circumstances of the students not how well those students learn – and therefore by extension they cannot assess how well teachers teach.

 

7) VAM Ignores Too Many Factors.

When a student learns or fails to learn something, there is so much more going on than just a duality between student and teacher. Teachers cannot simply touch students’ heads and magically make learning take place. It is a complex process involving multiple factors some of which are poorly understood by human psychology and neuroscience. There are inordinate amounts of inaccurate or missing data that cannot be easily replaced or disregardedvariables that cannot be statistically controlled for such as: differential summer learning gains and losses, prior teachers’ residual effects, the impact of school policies such as grouping and tracking students, the impact of race and class segregation, etc. When so many variables cannot be accounted for, any measure returned by VAMs remains essentially incomplete.

 

8) VAM Has Never been Proven to Increase Student Learning or Produce Better Teachers.

That’s the whole purpose behind using VAM. It’s supposed to do these two things but there is zero research to suggest it can do them. You’d think we wouldn’t waste billions of dollars and generations of students on a policy that has never been proven effective. But there you have it. This is a faith-based initiative. It is the pet project of philanthrocapitalists, tech gurus and politicians. There is no research yet which suggests that VAM has ever improved teachers’ instruction or student learning and achievement. This means VAM estimates are typically of no informative, formative, or instructional value.

 

9) VAM Often Makes Things Worse.

Using these measures has many unintended consequences that adversely affect the learning environment. When you use VAMs for teacher evaluations, you often end up changing the way the tests are viewed and ultimately the school culture, itself. This is actually one of the intents of using VAMs. However, the changes are rarely positive. For example, this often leads to a greater emphasis on test preparation and specific tested content to the exclusion of content that may lead to better long-term learning gains or increasing student motivation. VAM incentivizes teachers to wish for the most advanced students in their classes and to push the struggling students onto someone else so as to maximize their own personal VAM score. Instead of a collaborative environment where everyone works together to help all students learn, VAM fosters a competitive environment where innovation is horded and not shared with the rest of the staff. It increases turnover and job dissatisfaction. Principals stack classes to make sure certain teachers are more likely to get better evaluations or vice versa. Finally, being unfairly evaluated disincentives new teachers to stay in the profession and it discourages the best and the brightest from ever entering the field in the first place. You’ve heard about that “teacher shortage” everyone’s talking about. VAM is a big part of it.

 

10) An emphasis on VAM overshadows real reforms that actually would help students learn.

Research shows the best way to improve education is system wide reforms – not targeting individual teachers. We need to equitably fund our schools. We can no longer segregate children by class and race and give the majority of the money to the rich white kids while withholding it from the poor brown ones. Students need help dealing with the effects of generational poverty – food security, psychological counseling, academic tutoring, safety initiatives, wide curriculum and anti-poverty programs. A narrow focus on teacher effectiveness dwarfs all these other factors and hides them under the rug. Researchers calculate teacher influence on student test scores at about 14%. Out-of-school factors are the most important. That doesn’t mean teachers are unimportant – they are the most important single factor inside the school building. But we need to realize that outside the school has a greater impact. We must learn to see the whole child and all her relationships –not just the student-teacher dynamic. Until we do so, we will continue to do these children a disservice with corporate privatization scams like VAM which demoralize and destroy the people who dedicate their lives to helping them learn – their teachers.

 


NOTE: Special thanks to the amazingly detailed research of Audrey Amrein-Beardsley whose Vamboozled Website is THE on-line resource for scholarship about VAM.


 

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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Wannabe Terrorist Attempts to Flood Our Schools & Public Spaces With 3D Printed Guns to Make Common Sense Restrictions Moot

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In the United States, we literally have more guns than people.

 

Yet we’re trying really hard to make even more available with the touch of a button.

 

It’s not enough that our right to kill is better protected than our right to live, we need to make it EASIER to commit murder. In the land of the drive-by shooting, slaughter needs to be as convenient as ordering a pizza.

 

Cody Wilson, a wannabe terrorist who apparently believes John Wayne westerns are documentaries, claims to have invented the first gun that can be made almost completely on a 3D printer. And he wants to post the plans on-line so anyone with access to the device can make one.

 

He was stopped by a U.S. District judge in Seattle who temporarily banned the plans from publication on the Internet this week following a last-minute lawsuit filed by seven state attorneys general.

 

They argued that 3D-printed firearms would be invisible to metal detectors and could bypass gun restrictions recently adopted after a string of school shootings in some states.

 

The issue will go back to court on August 10, when the sides will discuss whether a preliminary injunction is needed.

 

The whole matter was almost settled in 2013 when the Obama administration originally stopped Wilson from putting his plans online with a lawsuit. After years of back and forth, the federal case against the virtual arms merchant seemed like a slam dunk. Then Donald Trump came into office and not only stopped the suit but paid Wilson $40,000 in damages.

 

So the question remains – why would any sane human being want to post a do-it-yourself gun kit on the Internet where any criminal, psychotic or violent fanatic could easily access it?

 

Wilson says he’s not in it for financial gain. He wants to make a political point – to flood the world with so many cheap, untraceable guns that the idea of passing any kind of regulations on them would be impossible.

 

No, really.

 

As he told Wired:

 

“All this Parkland stuff, the students, all these dreams of ‘common sense gun reforms’? No. The Internet will serve guns, the gun is downloadable. No amount of petitions or die-ins or anything else can change that.”

 

Not only that, but the owner and founder of Defense Distributed, an Austin, Texas, based start up that pretends to be a nonprofit organization, says he is prepared to kill police and federal agents if the courts don’t continue seeing things his way.

 

In the same Wired interview, he says he wasn’t expecting support from the Trump administration. He expected Hillary Clinton would win the White House in 2016 and that she would continue to oppose his 3D printed firearms.

 

As Wired reported:

 

“If that happened, as Wilson tells it, he was ready to launch his [3D printed gun] repository, regardless of the outcome of his lawsuit, and then defend it in an armed standoff. “I’d call a militia out to defend the server, Bundy-style,” Wilson says calmly, in the first overt mention of planned armed violence I’ve ever heard him make. “Our only option was to build an infrastructure where we had one final suicidal mission, where we dumped everything into the Internet,” Wilson says.”

 

So let’s be clear about one thing – the guy pushing for 3D printed firearms is literally a terrorist imitator.

 

He is an American extremist. He is to us as Osama bin Laden is to mainstream Muslims.

 

Or at least he wants to be that.

 

While we’re rounding up brown people and separating them from their children without any workable plan to reunite them on this or that side of the border, we have a US citizen making terroristic threats with the means to carry them out and he’s walking around free.

 

Oh, but he’s a privileged white dude, so no harm no foul.

 

If Wilson’s little plastic death dealers do become widely available on-line, they won’t immediately make a huge difference.

 

It’s hard to make a 3D-printed gun. You need an expensive, top-of-the-line 3D printer and some knowledge of how to work it. And even then the result is a shoddy firearm at best. It may only fire a few bullets before falling apart.

 

A shooter would have to work extra hard to accomplish his goal with Wilson’s design. It would be much easier to use one of the billions of firearms already available – and much more deadly.

 

But it wouldn’t take much to make a 3D-printed gun more dangerous.

 

To comply with federal law, Wilson’s design requires a metal firing pin, which he claims would set off a metal detector. However, it may be relatively easy to bypass that metal part to make his design truly concealable from such devices.

 

Moreover, technology is always advancing – 3D printers will probably be able to create stronger and more deadly firearms in time. With these sorts of designs readily available, it is easy to imagine a school shooter accessing a device in a tech or computer lab and creating a weapon of mass destruction. He wouldn’t set off any alarms because he wouldn’t have the gun when he entered the building. He’d make it in school.

 

Some shrug at these dangers saying that they’re inevitable.

 

Even if we stop Wilson, these sorts of designs will eventually be available in some form on-line. That’s the double-edged sword of mass media – all information is available including easy ways to kill a large number of people.

 

However, I think this is a cop-out.

 

For instance, the Internet and computer technology make it fairly easy to mass produce currency as well as firearms. In fact, it’s theoretically much easier.

 

Yet we don’t see a major influx of counterfeit bills. The reason? Business and industry have collaborated with government to make sure this doesn’t happen.

 

Programs like Adobe Photoshop include software that restrict the printing of your own money. We could do the same with future 3D printers. We could recall those already in service and retrofit them with such code.

 

Oh, sure not everyone will comply. There will always be someone who breaks through the safety net. But if all we can do is greatly reduce the spread of 3D-printed firearms, that doesn’t make it futile.

 

There is a mountain of research proving that the more firearms you have in a country, the greater the number of firearm deaths.

 

We should be working to restrict guns to responsible people.

 

But the Wilson’s of the world don’t want to allow us that choice.

 

They want to force us all to live in a world where guns are even more pernicious than they are today.

 

Will we let them?

 

Human beings have such potential, but we seem determined to kill ourselves.

 

If intelligent aliens came to Earth today and landed in the USA, what would they think of us?

 

Would they see what we might become or would they only see a pitiful animal struggling to put itself out of its own misery?


 

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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Resistance to High Stakes Testing Persists as Media Celebrates Its End

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There has never been more opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

 

Yet the corporate controlled media is pretending that the resistance is over.

 

Parents are refusing to let their kids take these tests at the same or even greater numbers than ever.

 

Fewer states require high stakes tests as graduation exams and/or use them to evaluate their teachers. Across the nation, states are cutting the size of standardized tests or eliminating them altogether. And more state legislatures passed laws explicitly allowing parents to opt their children out of the tests.

 

Yet Education Week published an article a few days ago called “Anti-Test Movement Slows to a Crawl.”

 

I think we have different definitions of “Slows” and “Crawl.”

 

That may not be surprising since we also seem to have different definitions of “Anti-Test.”

 

The Opt Out Movement is not “Anti-Test.” It is anti-high stakes standardized test.

 

It is against the federal government forcing states to use corporate written, corporate graded and corporate remediated standardized assessments.

 

It is against the federal government requiring each state to participate in a corporate boondoggle that not only wastes billions of tax dollars that could be better spent to educate children but also unfairly assesses their academic progress and feeds the push to privatize public schools.

 

Most people against high stakes standardized testing, however, have no problem with authentic teacher-created assessments.

 

Calling these folks “Anti-Test” is like labeling those pushing for stricter gun regulations “Anti-Gun” or smearing those protesting government corruption as “Anti-Government.”

 

And that’s just the title!

 

The author Alyson Klein further misdirects readers by conflating opt out rates and test resistance.

 

She implied that the only measure of opposition was the percentage of students who opt out. However, as noted above, there are multiple measures of resistance.

 

 

Moreover, few states advertise their opt out rates. Especially after the movement began, states made that information harder to come by to dissuade more people from joining it.

 

Of those states where information is available, Klein puts the most negative possible spin on the facts in order to make her point – a point that it seems to me is not at all justified.

 

For instance, Klein writes:

 

“At least some of the steam has gone out of the opt-out movement in states such as New Jersey and New York, considered hotbeds of anti-testing fervor.”

 

Really?

 

In New York, Opt out numbers remained at approximately 20% – the same as they have for the past three years.

 

And New York is one of our most densely populated states. That percentage represents more than 225,000 parents across the Empire State who refused to let their children take the tests despite threats from many administrators and district officials for doing so.

 

 

In New Jersey, opt out rates were marginally lower this year than last year. They went from 7% to 5%. But once again New Jersey is a populous state. That percentage represents about 68,500 students.

 

In addition, this is after massive opt outs three years ago that forced the state to change its federally mandated assessment. Testing boycotts pushed the state education association to get rid of four PARCC assessments and allow students who fail the remaining two tests to take an alternative assessment. And this is in a state where there is no law explicitly allowing parents to opt out of the tests.

 

I don’t know if I’d call that running out of steam.

 

Moreover, opt out rates have increased in other states for which we have data. For instance, test refusal is on the rise in heartland states like Minnesota.

 

And it nearly doubled in Utah over the past two years to about 6%. In some schools in the Beehive State, rates are much higher. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, 1 in 5 students in the Park City school district refused to take the tests.

 

 

Though my own state of Pennsylvania has been mum on last year’s opt outs, from my own personal experience as a teacher in suburban Pittsburgh, I never had more students boycott our federally mandated standardized test than I did last year.

 

There were so many they had to be quarantined in a special room.

 

Moreover, an increasing number of parents ask me about the issue, express concern and wonder about their rights.

 

So even when examining just the rate of opt out, I don’t see any reason to assume the movement is slowing down.

 

On the contrary, it is picking up steam with multiple victories.

 

As recently as 2012, half of all U.S. states required high school exit exams in order for students to graduate. Today that number has dropped to 12. The reason? Exit exams don’t raise student achievement – they raise the dropout rate. At least that’s what The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences tells us.

 

Another positive sign – seven states have stopped using value added measures (VAM) to judge teachers. This is the highly controversial practice of assessing educators based on their students test scores – a practice that has never been proven fair to teachers or effective in helping students learn. Six states have dropped this requirement altogether: Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Connecticut still gathers the information but cannot use it in the teacher’s “summative rating.” And other states like New Mexico still use value added measures but have reduced the weight given to student test scores.

 

Moreover, let’s not forget how many states have slashed the size of the high stakes tests they’re giving to students. After the recent wave of opt outs and public outcry, state education departments have ensured that testing at least takes up less time. This includes New York, Maryland, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Washington, Illinois, West Virginia, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Some of this is because the PARCC test used in 21 states was slashed by 90 minutes.

 

And when it comes to opt out, two more states – Idaho and North Dakota – now have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to refuse the test for their children – in whole or in part. That brings the total number of states up to 10. It would have been 11, but Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed an opt-out bill. The federal government still wants us to penalize these districts for non-participation in flagrant violation of its authority. But as more states respect parents’ rights on this matter, it will be increasingly difficult for the U.S. Department of Education to continue trampling them.

 

And speaking of the federal government, some states are taking advantage of the wiggle room in the federal law that governs K-12 education – the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – to allow students to avoid standardized testing entirely. Some states are implementation performance assessments instead. Kids can use a portfolio of classwork to demonstrate learning instead of getting a grade on a corporate-written standardized test. New Hampshire, for instance, has pioneered this approach with a program that now involves half the state’s districts.

 

These are not the signs of a movement that is slowing to a crawl.

 

It just makes sense that some of the rhetoric of the movement may have become less forceful with the enactment of the federal ESSA.

 

Many had hoped for a better law – one that did away with federally mandated testing altogether.

 

And that could still happen sooner than many think. Next year it will be time to reauthorize the law again.

 

It took Congress six years to reauthorize the federal education law last time. Perhaps our duly elected representatives can be coaxed into doing their jobs a bit quicker this time.

 

There is already some proposed legislation to make positive changes. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation last year to replace annual assessments with grade-span tests. The United States is, after all, one of the only countries in the world – if not the only one – to require students be tested every year. These proposed changes are not nearly enough, but they’re a step in the right direction.

 

One of the biggest obstacles to abolishing federally mandated testing last time was that some of the oldest and most well funded civil rights organizations opposed it. Many of them get their money and support from the same billionaires who profit off of the standardized testing and privatization industries.

 

However, that support for testing was short lived. Already the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has revoked it returning to a call for opposition to testing.

 

If our nation survives the many crises of the Donald Trump administration, there is no reason our future cannot be bright.

 

We have the support, we have the tools, we just need the chance to do right by our children.

 

And the pendulum is swinging back our way.


 

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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