Bending Toward Justice: BATS Congress and the Fight Against Corporate Education Reform Taking Back the Power of Teachers

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(NOTE: This article was written by Yohuru Williams and Steven Singer)

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.—Mahatma Gandhi

Nearly a year ago today, I joined an inspiring band of intrepid activists who made their way to the nation’s capital to protest the impact of high stakes testing and corporate education reform. We arrived with the genuine hope that a demonstration at the Department of Education might encourage a national discussion about what many have rightfully identified as the destruction of public education.

After a long day of speeches and activities, a representative from the Department came out and asked for a meeting. After being ushered through security, a small contingent of protesters and I travelled upstairs where we were hustled into a small conference room. After a few minutes, Secretary Arne Duncan joined us. He stayed for only a few minutes, sometimes listening, but mostly politely but firmly pushing back and evading our grievances. It was clear that we had come to the wrong place.

After he departed, Arne’s staff pressed us for solutions. I suggested a National Teacher Congress that would allow real teachers, from across the nation, and from all backgrounds and districts, to convene in Washington to earnestly discuss and explore solutions. Arne’s aides perked up. “What a fantastic idea,” one his staffers chimed in. In abstract it was, but as we debated it in the weeks following the protest it was clear that we needed something stronger. We felt acknowledged for sure, but certainly not heard. For all the power projected on him, Arne is a functionary and we determined that we needed to go after the persons and entities on whose behalf he functioned.

In the months that followed my idea of a Teachers Congress morphed into a week of lobbying to educate elected officials about the detrimental impact of corporate education exacerbated by rampant racism and poverty. The idea of a National Badass Teachers Association (BATs) Congress was born.

On Saturday, July 24, 2015 I reprised my role as keynote speaker as part of that Congress, but the real action had already taken place as my fellow BAT and edu-blogger Steven Singer of Pennsylvania chronicles below. The BATs returned to DC, not to revisit history but to continue our mission of creating real opportunity and equity in the nation’s schools. For even as we all firmly believe, as the Reverend Dr. King once expressed that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, we also acknowledge that sometimes you have to push at its base to help it’s curvature along. —Yohuru Williams

Steven Singer:

We came to Washington, D.C., in ones, twos and threes.

We came by the carload. On the train. In transcontinental flights. Even walked.

No mass uprising. No angry rhetoric. No fists shaking.

No corporate funding. No thick rolls of bills. Just whatever jingling change we could spare for travel, room and board.

We occupied the Capitol stuffed overcapacity in hotel rooms, sometimes sleeping on the floor or even in the hall.

Not ideologues, not Democrats, not Republicans – just parents, teachers, students, people.

Who are we? We are the Badass Teachers Association. And we came to be heard.

Last year we stood outside the U.S. Department of Education to air our grievances. We spoke to those walls, we spoke to each other and the open air. We spoke with such volume, the doors opened and we were invited inside.

And in the presence of The Powerful, we didn’t stumble, we didn’t lose our courage, we told the truth to their disbelieving faces.

Our public schools are not failing. YOU are failing our public schools.

Your policies are poisonous. Your testing is treasonous. Your facts are fallacious. Your designs are dangerous. Your ideas imperious. Your lectures libelous. Your measures malicious. Your networks nefarious. Your rigor ridiculous. Your standards suspicious.

Secretary Duncan, next year you should convene a congress of teachers. They would tell you what needs to be done.


And we meant it.

We didn’t wait for permission. We didn’t wait for an invitation. We gathered our own power, gathered our selves and this year became the Badass Teachers Congress.

For two days we marched up Capitol Hill and into the halls of the House and Senate. We made appointments months in advance to sit down with our legislators, and if they wouldn’t meet with us, we sat down with their aides, and if they wouldn’t commit to a meeting, we showed up anyway.

We told them the truth. Right to their faces if they were brave enough to face us.

We didn’t wait for education policy to be directed by education experts. We presented our expertise, offered it freely, shook hands, smiled and looked them right in the eye.

But we didn’t stop there. Telling Congress is one thing. We BECAME a Congress.

We drew on our own first hand experiences of the failure of national education policy. We drew on research, peer-reviewed studies, the fruits of universities and colleges – real, unmanipulated data.

And we came up with resolutions.

We acknowledged that our labor unions sometimes fail to live up to their promise. But we didn’t throw them away. We devised ways to strengthen them, to increase their power to empower and make them more like us.

We shared our fear of being the lone dissenting voice and planned ways to overcome ourselves and speak up for our children and communities even if our voices shake.

We acknowledged our national history of racism, sexism, and prejudice. And we didn’t allow our many different shades of skin to provide offense, we didn’t allow our various cultures, ethnicities, religions and sexualities to become a burden. We drew on our differences as a strength and committed ourselves to acknowledging the ways we have been disenfranchised. We decided on a path of love and acceptance even if that path might take us to places that make us uncomfortable, we’d go there together.

We resolved to continue protecting teachers from toxic work environments that far too often become abusive. Too many of our colleagues have taken their own lives due to the toll of this job. We are the last line of defense between children and people who would sooner sell their futures for a few pieces of silver. And finally the problem is being recognized and steps are being taken – slowly – to help.

In short, we did what The Powerful least expected or wanted. We held each other up. We recognized our own power and vision. We organized, made plans and set the course for our future.

In the weeks that follow, more details will emerge. We’re still examining the incredible input, ideas and information. So much happened, it’s hard for any one person to encapsulate it all.

But of this you can be sure.

We are the Badass Teachers Association.

We are not waiting to be invited anywhere. We are not asking permission. We are taking control of our own destinies.

And we will be back.

 About the Authors:

Yohuru Williams is an author, Professor of History and Black Studies, and education activist. Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, and blogger, education advocate. Both are members of the Badass Teachers Association.

williams-singerNOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive.

Down and Out and Lobbying for Public Education


Let’s get one thing straight right from the start.

I’m no lobbyist.

I’m just a private citizen who’s sick of seeing his tax dollars swallowed up by big corporations under the guise of educational accountability.

I’m just a public school teacher who’s tired of his profession being demonized by policymakers and media talking heads alike.

And I’m just a father who’s worried that his daughter won’t get the same comprehensive public education he received as a child.

No one paid me. In fact, I bankrolled myself.

So like more than 300 members of the Badass Teachers Association (BATS), I came to Washington, D.C., to speak with my Congresspeople.

And what a day it was!

I met with Senators Pat Toomey (R-PA), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Corey Booker (D-NJ). I met with U.S. Reps Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ).

Well, actually I met with their legislative aides.

None of the actual lawmakers made time to sit down with a flesh and blood teacher.

In one case, a legislator seemingly went out of his way to avoid me.


While sitting on the couch in Doyle’s office, he came out of a room to the left of me, asked his secretary for packing tape and then told her he was leaving for the day. It was 2:47 p.m. on Friday.

And they say teachers have easy hours!

I can’t say whether he was actively avoiding me. I made an appointment to see him, but it was never specified if I’d be meeting with him in person or if I’d be with his aide.

For all I know his staff never let him know I was a constituent sitting there on his couch in a suit and tie with a folder perched on my lap. But it didn’t feel good.

Maybe I should have said something. “Congressman Doyle! May I have a moment?”

But I frankly couldn’t believe this was happening. Moreover, he looks a lot different in a purple Hawaiian shirt than he does in all his press photos wearing a suit. I had to check his picture on my phone to make sure I was really seeing this correctly.

I was.

Still the meetings I had with these kids helping my legislators decide public policy were actually quite productive.

Without exception these youngsters were friendly, polite and knowledgeable. They seemed receptive to new ideas, were eager to hear my point of view, asked intelligent questions and were honest about where their bosses sometimes disagreed with me.

In Sen. Toomey’s office his assistants even asked if I was THAT Steven Singer.

“Who?” I said.

And they told me about a famous advertising campaign in eastern PA where a jeweler’s competitors are seen to complain “I HATE STEVEN SINGER.”

I laughed and told them it wasn’t me, but inside I wondered if that might explain the difficulty I had in some circumstances making these appointments. Maybe congressional staff thought I was pranking them. “Steven Singer wants an appointment!? Yeah! I’ll schedule it right after we see Mickey Mouse!”


I first met with Devorah Goldman, Toomey’s legislative correspondent on education and other issues. She’d only been on the job for about a year, but her qualifications included a degree in social work and she had worked in a public school resource center.

She was a very good listener. She heard me out as I spoke about a homeless student in my classes this year. She listened as I explained why Common Core is bad policy, why we need equitable school funding, an end to high stakes standardized tests, reigning in charter schools and voucher systems, and an end to judging teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Her boss isn’t exactly known as an education advocate. But she said he would agree with most of what I had said.

The main area of dispute would be charter schools. Toomey is in favor of expanding them so students can escape “failing schools.”

I explained that it was bad policy to try to save some students and let others fall behind. We need to make sure ALL our schools do an excellent job. Moreover, the Senator’s metric for determining which schools are failing is faulty at best.

I explained that traditional public schools often outperformed charter schools, which lack transparency and accountability and are wasting taxpayers dollars.

“We’ll just have to disagree on that point,” she said without explanation.

But she agreed to continue to take input from me and the BATS in the future.


At Doyle’s office, I eventually sat down with Hannah Malvin, a political science major who, at least, is from the Pittsburgh area – her boss’ legislative district.

She listened intently to my tales of education woe, even asking follow up questions. But she was surprised I supported the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Even the strongest supporters of the rewrite of the federal law that governs K-12 schools would admit it isn’t perfect. However, I would contend that the new version being cobbled together by the House and the Senate appears to be a slight improvement over what we have now – No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Some educators think even this rewrite doesn’t go far enough to scale back standardized testing (and I sympathize but do not agree with that position). However, Malvin said Doyle had issues with it because it scaled back too much.

This was the issue I heard from Democrats all day. There isn’t enough accountability in the ESEA rewrite. How will we know which schools need extra help, they asked again-and-again.

I tried to explain that all they had to do was look at per-pupil spending. It’s no mystery which kids aren’t getting enough resources. It’s all right there on a ledger.

To her credit she heard me out and agreed to continue to dialogue with me on this subject in the future.

Next, I met up with some fellow teacher lobbyists from New Jersey and we dropped in unannounced on Booker’s office.

It’s not that we didn’t try to make an appointment. His staff never returned our calls and emails.

In fact, last week a fellow teacher not with us on Capitol Hill, Michele Miller,  even got into a scuffle with Booker on Twitter about elementary school funding. He told her to call his office and he would talk to her in detail.

To my knowledge, he never did. However, she was connected by phone to one of his aides. I’m told this is just modus operandi for Booker – strong talk in a public forum but shying away when the cameras aren’t rolling.

In any case, Booker’s senior education and health policy adviser Ashley Eden agreed to talk with us when we showed up to the office. Though her background isn’t in education, I can’t recall exactly what it is in. I do remember she has been doing this sort of legislative work for lawmakers for about 4 years – longer than any other aide we met.

She immediately made us feel welcome and found many areas of agreement. Bookers’ major point of contention – like fellow Democrat Doyle – was accountability.

How do we know which kids need help without giving them standardized tests?

Groan. But at least I had reinforcements: BATS Assistant Manager Melissa Tomlinson and retired NJ teacher extraordinaire Elizabeth DeMarco.


Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire conversation was when Eden said Booker just had to back standardized testing because every Civil Rights organization wanted it. She even criticized the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) for not supporting black and brown students.

We stopped her right there. No. Every Civil Rights organization does NOT support testing. Journey for Justice – a coalition of 38 such organizations, in conjunction with 175 additional likeminded groups wrote to both the House and Senate asking to eliminate testing. Didn’t Sen. Booker see the letter?

Suddenly she remembered it.

She said she read it real quickly and didn’t like one sentence in it so she ignored it.

Which sentence?

Something about expecting poor and minority students to do badly on tests.

I explained that it has nothing to do with thinking these children can’t achieve at the same level as other children. It’s a matter of resources. If Sen. Booker was in a foot race against someone in a Monster Truck, I’d vote on the truck. Doesn’t mean Booker can’t run or that he might not even win. But the smart money is on Big Foot.

I joined the two ladies for their meeting with Smith as well.

His legislative assistant, Katherine Talalas, was perhaps the most knowledgeable aide with whom we talked. Her mother is a special education teacher, her brother is a paraprofessional working in a public school and she went to law school focusing on education issues.

She also took more written notes than any other assistant. With her nothing seemed canned. It was a real conversation about what her boss had done to help special education students and how he might continue to help in the future.


I was on my own again to meet with Sen. Casey’s aide, Jared Solomon.

This was one of the most fascinating and perplexing conversations I had all day.

He was warm, friendly, and had a depth of knowledge that was a bit more political than school-centered.

He agreed with almost everything I said. Casey supports 95% of the things that are important to me in education.

I could have smiled and walked away happy, but Solomon was so gregarious he kept talking. We shared our backgrounds.

He proudly admitted that he had been a Teach for America (TFA) recruit. He worked two years in a Baltimore public school and then left. He knew it wasn’t going to be his permanent job. He was emulating his parents who had joined the Peace Corps. He did TFA because he wanted the experience.

Then he moved to the administrative offices of Michelle Rhee’s Washington, D.C., Public Schools.

He only worked there two years – only one of which was under Rhee’s administration – but he respected what they had done. He said he disagreed with 80% of their policies and even quit because he was tired of being blamed for practices with which he didn’t agree. But, he added, the people in Rhee’s administration worked harder than anyone he knew, and he thought they really had the best interests of the kids at heart.

I’m tempted to chalk it up to the same feeling the incredible blogger Jennifer Berkshire (a.k.a. Edushyster) says she gets when she interviews many corporate school reformers. We may disagree with them, but they really do believe this stuff.

But something happened that doesn’t sit well with me. In an unguarded moment of a more than hour-long conversation, Solomon pulled the same stunt Eden did for Sen. Booker. He said all the Civil Rights groups were crying out for testing. But when I called him out on it, he immediately took it back. It was like he, too, knew this was untrue. It was a talking point, quickly to be conceded if called out and then move on to another argument.

I frankly don’t know what to make of it. The arguments are too similar among Democrats and Republicans to shrug off. Each is speaking from a party line script. That can’t just be a coincidence.

And why would Casey, a legislator who supposedly agrees with me 95% of the time on education, hire as his education expert someone who was actively involved in many of the practices that go directly against his beliefs? Why would someone like Solomon, who was part of the corporate education reform movement, really be on my side against these policies?

It’s befuddling to say the least.

Now that it’s all over, I’m so glad I did this.

Will this change the nation’s education policies? Probably not.

But I am only one of hundreds of people who climbed Capitol Hill in the last two days and met with more than 52 federal legislators to fight against the standardization and privatization of education.

And tomorrow we, BATS, will hold a Teachers Congress to further solidify our goals and decide where the great ship of real positive school change should go.

I am so looking forward to it.

But this teacher, soon-to-be BAT Congressman, needs to go to bed.

Here’s to a brilliant tomorrow for our children.

NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

A Brief Lesson in Pennsylvania Budget Math: a VLOG

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Welcome to my first (and possibly last) VLOG or Video Log. If you haven’t already, please click on the video above, grab some popcorn and enjoy A Brief Lesson in Pennsylvania Budget Math.

Our state budget impasse continues to grow. The Republican-controlled legislature refuses to replace the almost $1 billion in annual education funding lawmakers removed 4 years ago. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf refuses to accept a spending plan that shortchanges our school children.

This is my attempt to bring clarity to the situation so ANYONE could understand what was at stake and maybe see through some of the half truths and misdirections surrounding the issue. After all, who better than a public school teacher to explain to Republicans why they need to fund our schools?

Basically, the whole video can be summarized in this graph from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center:

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For more information, please check out these other fine Gadfly on the Wall Blog articles:

NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

We Shall Overcome… Our Lack of Standardized Tests!?

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Civil Rights groups have long championed the needs of people of color, women and minorities.

Segregated schools, voting rights, police brutality – all of these have been the subject of long and brutal fights for equality.

Perhaps the strangest turn in 2015 has been the fight for standardized testing.

That’s right. Organizations that you’d expect to see fighting against racism have been clamoring for access to multiple choice bubble exams.

In fact, the Democrats have used this as an excuse for their failed attempts to keep the much maligned Test and Punish policies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The law – currently called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – is a testing corporation’s dream filled with policies that have been failing our children for 13 years. Unsurprisingly, teachers, parents and students are demanding relief.

But do Civil Rights groups who fought against unfair testing as a prerequisite to vote now really demand unfair testing as a prerequisite for a high school diploma?

The answer is yes and no.

SOME Civil Rights groups have demanded more testing, and others have demanded LESS.

The Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, wrote Congress an open letter in July asking for an end to high stakes testing. And the JJA wasn’t alone. The alliance was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations who signed on to the letter to “…call on the U.S. Congress to pass an ESEA reauthorization without requiring the regime of oppressive, high stakes, standardized testing and sanctions that have recently been promoted as civil rights provisions within ESEA.”

However, the JJA’s call has been largely ignored by lawmakers and the media. A much smaller coalition of Civil Rights organizations in favor of testing, on the other hand, has been given so much press you’d be excused if you thought they represented the entire activist community.

Yes, 19 Civil Rights organizations wrote to Congress in January, 2015, asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

However, 11 Civil Rights groups – many of them the exact same groups – wrote to Obama in October, 2014, asking him to reduce standardized testing.

What happened in less than 3 months, to change their minds?

It’s hard to say, but in October the prospect of rewriting the ESEA – the federal law that governs K-12 schools – seemed impossible. Neither Democrats nor Republicans could find any common ground. It looked like the law – which was last reauthorized in 2007 – would be pushed aside until at least the next president was sworn in.

But then like magic when the political situation changed and reauthorization seemed like it might actually happen, suddenly a coalition of Civil Rights organizations found their love for standardized testing.

It seems highly unlikely that these two events are unrelated.

But why would these organizations change their tune so quickly?

One very real possibility is money.

Most of the groups now backing standardized assessments accept huge sums of money from one of the richest men in the world – Bill Gates. And Bill loves standardized tests.

In many ways, his business profits from them. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) wouldn’t exist without his backing, and they depend on standardized tests. Moreover, most states give these assessments on computers – many of which have Microsoft emblazoned on the hard drive. And this doesn’t even count the test preparation software sold to help students get higher test scores.

The sad fact is that standardized testing is big business in this country. Everyone from book publishers to software manufacturers to professional development providers to for-profit prisons depend on the continuation of the testocracy.

And many of these Civil Rights groups would be crippled without that Gates funding. Others seem more like think tanks that really have nothing to do with Civil Rights.

Take Education Trust – an advocacy group that helped create NCLB and CCSS. It should be no surprise the organization took $49 million from Gates and thinks bubble tests are just wonderful.

However, even laudable groups like the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) owe Gates a debt.

UNCF took more than $1.5 billion from Gates. Ostensibly that money is supposed to go to scholarships. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But how could the organization go against the wishes of perhaps its biggest donor? The consequences could be disastrous for UNCF’s entirely worthy mission.

One can imagine administrators stuck between a rock and a hard place having to compromise their stance against testing in order to continue helping people of color fulfill their dreams of going to college.

Other suddenly pro-test organizations taking money from Gates include: La Raza, The Leadership Conference, National Urban League, and Children Defense Fund.

And that’s only the half of it.

To make matters worse, standardized tests don’t enhance students’ Civil Rights. They violate them.

Test scores are used as an excuse to continue spending less money on poor schools who serve mostly minority populations.

Proponents say these assessments hold schools accountable for providing children with a quality education. But how can you provide an education of equal quality with a rich school when you don’t receive even close to the same amount of funding to begin with?

Moreover, test scores have been shown countless times to be poor indicators of academic success. They are, however, excellent predictors of parental income. Poor kids score low. Rich kids score high. So when we take away funding based on low test scores and increase it based on high test scores, we only reinforce the status quo and compound the hurt against people of color.

But this sudden public mea culpa from some Civil Rights organizations is being used by political pundits to justify continuing the practices that would make Martin Luther King, Jr., turn in his grave.

And it’s not over. As Congress continues to hobble together a new version of the ESEA, politicians – mostly Democrats – are bound to lobby for as much federally mandated testing as possible. Even Obama has promised to veto the bill if it doesn’t contain enough love for the testing industry.

It’s up to education voters to educate themselves on the subject and demand real Civil Rights reforms.

End the system of Test and Punish.

Remove or reduce standardized testing from our schools.

Provide equitable funding for schools serving impoverished children.

And give our students of color a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.

NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed


Almost every Democrat in the US Senate just voted to keep Test and Punish.

But Republicans defeated them.

I know. I feel like I just entered a parallel universe, too. But that’s what happened.

Some facts:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a disaster.

It took the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a federal law designed to ensure all schools get equitable resources and funding – and turned it into a law about standardized testing and punishing schools that don’t measure up.

This was a Republican policy proposed by President George W. Bush.

But now that the ESEA is being rewritten, those pushing to keep the same horrendous Bush era policies are the Democrats.

Almost all of the Democrats!

That includes so-called far left Dems like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren!

It comes down to the Murphy Amendment, a Democratically sponsored change to the ESEA.

This provision was an attempt to keep as many Test and Punish policies as possible in the Senate rewrite.

The amendment, “reads more like NCLB, with its detailed prescription for reporting on student test results, for ‘meaningfully differentiating among all public schools’ (i.e., grading schools), including publicly identifying the lowest five percent, and, among interventions, potentially firing staff and offering students the option to transfer to other schools and using part of the budget to pay for the transportation,” according to blogger Mercedes Schneider.

Education historian Diane Ravich adds, “This amendment would have enacted tough, federal-mandated accountability, akin to setting up an ‘achievement school district’ in every state.”

Thankfully it was voted down. The ESEA will probably not be affected. The rewrite was passed by both the House and Senate without these provisions. Once the two versions of the bill are combined, it is quite possible – maybe even probable – that we’ll have a slight improvement on NCLB. Sure there is plenty of crap in it and plenty of lost opportunities, but the ESEA rewrite looks to be a baby step in the right direction.

The problem is this: the failed Murphy Amendment shows the Democrats’ education vision. Almost all of them voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

When it was defeated and the Senate approved the ESEA rewrite, Warren released a statement expressing her disapproval. But if you didn’t know about the Murphy Amendment, you could have read her criticisms quite differently.

She says the (ESEA rewrite) “eliminates basic, fundamental safeguards to ensure that federal dollars are actually used to improve both schools and educational outcomes for those students who are often ignored.”

That sounds good until you realize what she means. “Educational outcomes” mean test scores. She’s talking about test-based accountability. She is against the ESEA rewrite because it doesn’t necessarily put strings on schools’ funding based on standardized test scores like NCLB.

She continues, “Republicans have blocked every attempt to establish even minimum safeguards to ensure that money would be used effectively. I am deeply concerned that billions in taxpayer dollars will not actually reach those schools and students who need them the most…”

She is upset because Republicans repeatedly stripped away federal power to Test and Punish schools. The GOP gave that power to the states. So Warren is concerned that somewhere in this great nation there may be a state or two that decides NOT to take away funding if some of their schools have bad test scores! God forbid!

And Warren’s about as far left as they come!

What about liberal lion Bernie Sanders? I’d sure like an explanation for his vote.

It makes me wonder if when he promised to “end No Child Left Behind,” did he mean the policies in the bill or just the name!?

The Democrats seem to be committed to the notion that the only way to tell if a school is doing a good job is by reference to its test scores. High test scores – good school. Bad test scores – bad school.

This is baloney! Test scores show parental income, not academic achievement. Virtually every school with low test scores serves a majority of poor children. Virtually every school with high test scores serves rich kids.

Real school accountability would be something more akin to the original vision of the ESEA – making sure each district had what it needs to give kids the best education possible. This means at least equalizing funding to poverty schools so they have the same resources as wealthy ones. Even better would be ending our strange reliance on local property taxes to provide the majority of district monies.

But the Dems won’t hear it. The Murphy Amendment seems to show that they’re committed to punishing poor schools and rewarding rich ones.

I really hope I’m wrong about this. Please, anyone out there, talk me down!

Up until now I’ve always been with the Democrats because they had better – though still bad – education policies than the Republicans. I’m not sure I can say that anymore. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

Which party is most committed to ending Common Core? The Republicans!

Which party has championed reducing federal power over our schools and giving us a fighting chance at real education reforms? Republicans!

Which party more often champion’s parental rights over the state? Republicans!

Sure, most of them still love vouchers and charter schools. But increasingly so do the Democrats.

This vote has me rethinking everything.

Our country’s education voters may have just been abandoned by their longest ally.

Where do we go from here?

NOTE: This article also was published on and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also mentioned in the Washington Post.

In ESEA Debate, Education is Caught in the Middle Between the State and Fed


Watching Congress debate national education policy is a bit like going to a tennis match and finding a truck and tractor pull has erupted.

“Isn’t this supposed to be about how to make our schools better?” I want to scream.

“No!” someone yells from the stands. “This is about States’ Rights vs. the Fed. Go, States!”

Face palm.

The current brouhaha centers around the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

The present version, called No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is a thorough disaster. Thankfully Congress is trying to rewrite the legislation.

However, in doing so the emphasis has been less on making things better and more on deciding who gets to make decisions about schools.

Republican President George W. Bush greatly increased federal control with NCLB, something Democratic President Barack Obama has continued through his education policies.

These days, the GOP has done a 180 and is the champion of states rights to make their own education policies.

Given the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on standardized testing, punitive accountability systems and top down education standards, a move away from federalism seems completely justified.

But this is becoming the heart of the debate even at the expense of children, parents and teachers.

Take Opt Out.

NCLB allows parents to opt their children out of standardized testing, but school districts can be punished for it. If more than 5% of the students in a district don’t take the federally mandated tests for whatever reason (including parental opt out), the district’s Title I funding is put in jeopardy.

In many parts of the country, parents are refusing to subject their children to these tests anyway. They are voting with their feet. They are telling our lawmakers they do not want their children to take standardized tests so often – or in many cases – at all.

The good news is that BOTH of the two drafts of the ESEA allow for parental Opt Outs. However, who gets to decide if doing so will penalize your school?

The House version says that opting out will not hurt your district. Period. But the Senate version leaves the matter up to the states. State legislatures get to decide if withholding your child from standardized testing will have punitive consequences for your district.

This is absurd.

It’s not a matter of States’ Rights vs. the Fed. It’s a matter of parental rights.

As a parent, I should have final say over what my child does or does not have to do in school. There may be limits in extreme circumstances (i.e. vaccines) and in terms of content (i.e. science, history), but in general the rights of parents and children should trump all others.

Ironically the parents who shield their children the most from standardized testing are those who champion it for everyone else. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is sending his children to a Chicago private school that does not use standardized tests. Likewise, Obama’s children attend a private school free from the influence of his education policies. Same with corporate education reform cheerleaders Governors Chris Christie and Rahm Emanuel.

So many cooks who refuse to eat their own cooking!

But to return to the ESEA, pundits are lauding the Senate Opt Out restriction as a selling point between the versions of the proposed law. The House version has a better Opt Out provision, so you can choose it.

However, it is also poisoned from the start because (unlike the Senate version) it includes a backdoor voucher provision. Called Title I Portability, the House bill essentially would suck up funding now given to impoverished districts and spit it back into the lap of richer ones. Poor kids need additional funding because they go to poor schools that have less money to spend educating them. If a poor child goes to a rich school, she doesn’t need additional funding – the school already spends more to educate her than a poor district ever could. But the issue is a bit of a nonstarter anyway because Obama already has promised to veto any bill containing it.

So the only option is the Senate version, and they just sunk a big turd in it.

But like any factory farm sausage, you often have to learn to accept a few unsavory morsels in with the meat. Even if the final bill includes this Senate provision, it will be an improvement over NCLB. Punishing schools for parental opt outs is the status quo. If even a few  states decide not to punish their schools because of parents choices, that will be a step in the right direction.

It’s just so frustrating to watch our myopic Congresspeople take such baby steps forward.

Why would anyone try to override parental concerns about testing?

Many legislators worry if all students aren’t tested, there will be no way to determine if school districts are properly educating students.

But that is exactly the point!

Standardized testing does not show how well a school is functioning! It only shows how many poor students go to the school. Rich kids score well; poor kids score badly. And academics? There are so many better means of assessing them than multiple choice exams graded on a curve!

If lawmakers really wanted to ensure all students were getting a quality education, they’d hold BOTH the state and federal governments accountable for equitably funding our schools. No more funding based on local wealth. No more poor kids getting less funding than rich kids. No more kids doing without because mommy and daddy have lousy paying jobs.

Parents, children and educators have been crying out to lawmakers about the injustice of using high stakes tests as means of punishing schools for the poverty of their students. THIS is what needs to change. THIS is the essential reform we’re crying out to be enacted!

But no one’s listening. All they care about is which team is winning – Team State or Team Fed.

NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog and it was mentioned in the Washington Post.

Did AFT Rank and File REALLY Endorse Hillary Clinton for President? If So, Release the Raw Data


I have nothing against Hillary Clinton.

Heck! I might even vote for her in the coming Presidential race. Maybe…

But the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsement of the former First Lady is strange in many ways.

First, it’s awfully early. The initial Democratic primaries aren’t scheduled for half a year yet – February of 2016 to be exact. And the general election isn’t until Nov. 8, 2016 – more than a year away.

Second, the manner in which this endorsement was reached is somewhat mysterious.

This much seems certain:

1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.

2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

4) NOW the interviews are scheduled to be released to the public.

This is a perplexing timetable. Why would the AFT endorse BEFORE releasing the interviews? Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?

Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?

According to the AFT press release, they were:

The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.

Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.

So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.

But did they really?

Clinton may be the Democratic frontrunner, but she isn’t a favorite for a lot of teachers. Chiefly this is because her education positions are not that great. Sure, she’s better than every Republican running so far. But she has stiff competition in the Democratic field – especially from Sanders.

If Clinton had come out against Common Core, standardized testing and using student test scores to evaluate teachers effectiveness, I wouldn’t question the AFT’s endorsement at all. But she has been rather supportive of these issues – just like our current President, Barack Obama.

Teachers are fed up with Obama’s education policies. Why would they overwhelmingly endorse someone for President who seems bound and determined to continue them?

So I hope I’ll be excused if I ask for a bit more proof than a press release.

Where exactly are the polls, surveys, etc. that show the Clinton support AFT leadership claims?

For instance, which polls produced which results? The press release says AFT members prefer Clinton 3-1. But even if Clinton came out on top consistently, surely the results weren’t identical on every poll. Maybe she got 75% on one and 65% on another.

The AFT hasn’t released everything, but the organization’s website gives us a memo about ONE of these phone surveys. This national survey of membership planning to vote in Democratic primaries found 67% picked Clinton. However, only 1,150 members participated! That’s a far cry from the more than 1 million cited in the press release.

Moreover, there is no mention of what questions were asked. For instance, there is a world of difference between “Who would make the best President?” and “Who is most electable?” Is it possible there was selection bias present in the questions used to make this determination?

But that’s only one survey. Where is the rest of the data? Where is the raw information from this survey? Where is the data from all these other outreach attempts and on-line activities? How many took phone surveys? How many took on-line surveys? And what were the results in each case?

If union members really did endorse Clinton, that’s fine. But many of us would like to see the proof.

I’m not a member of the AFT, but I’m on the mailing list. I never received any survey.

A lot of my friends are AFT members, but none of them recall any survey.

As a member of numerous education and teaching groups, I know of no one else who admits to being polled either. In fact, I haven’t been able to find ANYONE who was polled on this issue!

I admit that’s not exactly scientific. But that’s why I want to see the data! Blind me with science, AFT!

I believe in teachers. I believe in Unions. I believe in Democracy.

Please release the raw data, AFT, so I can believe in this endorsement, too.

NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Do Americans “Throw Money” At Their Schools? A Fair Funding Primer

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“Don’t throw money at schools.”

It’s a common rejoinder when lobbying for an increase in public education budgets.

You offer facts why schools need it: both the state and federal government continue to reduce K-12 funds, class sizes are increasing, the curriculum is being narrowed, buildings are crumbling – real world consequences to spending deficits.

And some guy (it’s often a dude) stands up with a cock-eyed grin and says, “You know, we really need to stop throwing money at schools.”

And he pauses as if we all need a moment to take that in.

Is there anything to this? We hear it often enough, but does he have a point?

Let’s see.

“Don’t throw money at schools.”

First, is it true? Is anyone actually throwing money at our schools?

I’ve worked as a public school teacher for over a decade. To my great disappointment never once has anyone hurled greenbacks through a window in my building. I have never had to dodge, duck or otherwise exercise gymnastics to avoid being thunked in the head by a stack of airborne bills.

Origami ninja stars made out of $100 notes do not routinely fly through the air in my classroom. No government representative has ever shown up in the auditorium during a professional development and said, “Yeah baby! Let’s make it rain!” before showering my coworkers and myself in Benjamin’s.

No. This has never happened. Not even coins. More change is thrown at the fountain in my local mall than at any public school where I’ve ever worked.

At this point, you’re probably saying, but, Steven, that’s not what this guy meant. He wasn’t implying someone literally tossed bills at foundations of learning. He was just being colorful.

To which I respond: was he? Because there are lots of ways to phrase that idea. He simply could have said, “We shouldn’t increase education funding.”

He could have said, “We need to spend school money more wisely before increasing it.”

He could have said, “Additional learning revenues are a waste because schools do such a bad job.”

He could have said, “We spend too much on education already.”

He could have said, “Kids don’t deserve more of my cash.”

But he didn’t say any of those things. Instead he conjured an image out of a Roman orgy or a rap video. He purposefully tried to frame this as a ridiculous situation. He wasn’t just trying to make an argument. He wanted to paint anyone who could possibly disagree with him as a fool.

“Can you believe these guys crying about public school funding?” he implied. “They’re having money thrown at them and they actually want more!?”

So before we even start to study the content of his phrase, we must remember it’s coated in bias and malicious intent. He is not really calling for a rational argument. He is appealing to emotions – most probably the emotions of those listening to the debate.

But we cannot sink to his level. We need reasons.

This is difficult because it’s not entirely clear what exactly he was getting at. Let’s examine what his statement might mean in plain English and try to determine if – underneath all this spin – he has a point or not.

Here are some possibilities.

1) “We need to spend education money more wisely before increasing it.”

This might be what he intended to say. And if so, he does have a bit of a point.

There is a problem with how school funding is spent. There is waste and misappropriation. At the local level, school boards and administrators do not always do things in the most efficient manner. But you could say the same thing at every level of democratic government. Fascist states have much less waste. Shall we just burn up the Constitution, then?

At the state and federal level, the problem is compounded by the ignorance of those allowed to write our laws. Education policy is rarely made by those who know what they’re talking about, thus funding often is wasted on useless initiatives. Common Core, standardized testing, punitive accountability systems – these were all created by business interests without regard to educational validity or efficacy and – as such – waste taxpayer money that could be better spent on things that would actually help children learn.

And speaking of waste, may I introduce you to charter schools? Favored by lawmakers yet rocked by fiscal scandals, charters are legal means of sucking up tax dollars for a profit. While public schools have to account for every penny spent and prove funds went to better the educations of real live students, charters are not just permitted but encouraged to withhold some tax money from going to student services and instead bolstering administrators’ bank accounts. Anyone who speaks of fiscal accountability in education yet is in favor of its further privatization is either disingenuous or in need of a basic math course!

The solution, however, is not to withhold additional funding. The solution is more oversight. And I don’t mean only government oversight and regulations. I mean oversight by the public.

Democracy only works if people participate. People need to push for transparency and less wasteful policies. They need to educate themselves about what’s going on. They need to investigate. They need to lobby, protest, and criticize. They need to vote. And they need a free and interested media to give them the facts to make smart decisions.

Clearly we’re lacking some of these things today. But that’s a national problem not limited to education funding.

In the meantime, we can’t wait for a perfect government before increasing school spending. Our children need help now!

If we do nothing, we doom another generation to getting less than they deserve, less than what we could have provided. Why? Because we were afraid some of it wouldn’t reach them!?

A deep sea diver with a kink in his air hose, doesn’t shrug and turn off his oxygen. He turns it up!

2) “Additional learning revenues are a waste because schools do such a bad job.”

This might have been his criticism. Let’s look at the facts.

International comparisons of national school systems are all the rage in political circles. And raw data suggests that children from the United States are not at the top. We are somewhere in the middle.

That’s all true. But what pundits refrain from admitting is that it’s been true for a long time – in fact, for as long as we’ve been making these types of comparisons. Our schools have not gotten worse. They have stayed the same.

This brings up an important issue. How does one compare national school systems to each other, anyway? What do we use to make these comparisons? Income prospects? Student portfolios? Measures of critical thinking? Classroom grades?

No. We use standardized test scores – the PISA test to be exact.

However, we’ve known for decades that standardized tests are poor measures of academic success. Bubble tests can assess simple things but nothing complex. After all, they’re scored based on answers to multiple choice questions. In fact, the only thing they seem to measure with any degree of accuracy is the parental income of the test-taker. Kids from rich families score well, and poor kids score badly.

So these comparisons are suspect.

But even if we accept them, we are leaving out a very important factor: Poverty.

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking the PISA exam have much less child poverty than the U.S. As we’ve seen, this will boost their scores. If we adjust our scores for poverty, our students jump to the top of the list.

Let me repeat that: U.S. students do the best in the world on international tests – IF THEY ARE NOT POOR.

Moreover, the U.S. education system does something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

In short, U.S. public schools do an excellent job educating children. They overcome incredible obstacles to achieve near miraculous ends often with very few resources.

Imagine what they could achieve if our schools were properly funded.

3) “We spend too much on education already.”

This one is a favorite of politicians of both parties. We already spend a lot on education. Some lawmakers and media personalities go so far as to claim that we spend more than any other country in the world.

Is that true? No.

We are near the top, but according to the most recent OECD study, four countries – Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland – spend more.

Additionally, the study was released in 2014 but used data from 2011. Since that time, the U.S. has cut its school spending by leaps and bounds while most other advanced nations have been increasing it. Look for many more countries to pass us up when the next study is released.

But even using current figures, there are troubling social, economic and political differences between nations that impact how school funding needs to be spent. While most advanced countries spend their education budgets on actual instruction, the United States mandates public schools use a larger portion of their budgets on things outside the classroom.

For example, many international schools don’t have metal detectors or security staff. Given the U.S. problem with mass shootings and gun violence, our schools need to spend a significant portion of their monies in this way. I’m not suggesting we stop. Clearly we need to continue these practices, but that’s less money to help kids learn.

In addition, unfunded legislative mandates and court decisions have made U.S. public schools responsible for many things that international schools are not. About one third of all budget increases in recent years has gone to support special education students; 8 percent went to dropout prevention programs, alternative instruction, and counseling aimed at keeping students in school; another 8 percent went to expand school lunch programs; and so forth. Very few additional dollars were provided for needs associated with basic instruction.

Again, I’m not saying we should stop. Given our national epidemic of child poverty – an epidemic not shared by other advanced nations – we have to address these adjacent issues. But without additional funding, we’re letting the very heart of our schools – the classroom – go to waste while other countries are providing significantly more support.

Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end there. Not only does the U.S. have unique problems that other nations do not share, we also are unique in how we allocate the funding we already have. And this difference only worsens the problem and increases the need for more money.

While most advanced countries divide their education dollars evenly between students, the United States does not. Some students get more, some get less. It all depends on local wealth.

The average per pupil expenditure for U.S. secondary students is $12,731. But that figure is deceiving. It is an average. Some kids get much more. Many get much less. It all depends on where you live. If your home is in a rich neighborhood, more money is spent on your education than if you live in a poor neighborhood.

The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

So even though we spend more than many countries, we spend it so unevenly that poor and minority children are being left out.

Therefore, we have a choice: either do away with funding based on local property taxes or increase funding to poor school districts – or both.

4) “Kids don’t deserve more of my cash.”

Dollars to doughnuts, this is probably what he really means.

The United States has a moral failing. And we’re proud of it. We call it libertarianism. It means – Screw you! I’ve got mine.

We don’t care about helping others, we don’t care about the common good, we only look out for ourselves and our immediate friends and families. Everyone else can eat crap and die.

It’s ethical immaturity and, frankly, there’s not much you can say to someone who feels this way except that you disagree.

At most you can try to appeal to his self interest. Do you really want to live in a society full of uneducated people? Do you really want your kids to grow up in a world like that?

But that’s as far as it goes. You can’t help emotionally and intellectually stunted people – especially adults. Most children go through this phase. Some never grow out of it.

The good news is that most of us aren’t so far gone. If you can show that our interlocutor’s statement really comes down to this, you may be able to convince some people to agree with you simply because no one wants to be such an odious troll.

You need to pull back the curtain and show the truth.

How do we best spend these education dollars? How do we raise the money? Those are valid questions, but only a truly horrible person simply refuses to help children learn.

Because we’re not “throwing money” at schools. We’re throwing certain kids away.

NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive, and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Playing Games With Our Children’s Future: A Pennsylvania Budget Parable


So let’s say I have this friend.

Let’s call her Ellie.

Ellie borrowed my car last week without my permission. She went off-roading and flattened all my tires.

So I’m understandably mad at Ellie, but we’ve been friends for a long time. In fact, we have plans to go on a road trip next weekend.

So I tell Ellie I’m not going to go with her unless she pays for new tires.

Sounds fair, right? And she agrees.

Well the day of the trip arrives, and Ellie shows up with my car. We tow it to the garage and the auto technician puts on brand new Michelins.

I turn to Ellie and say, “May I please have money for the tires now?”

She says, “Yeah. I already paid for them. I filled up the car with gas before we got here.”

“Wait a minute!” I reply. “You promised to pay for new tires!”

“I did,” she reassures me. “I used the tire money to fill up the tank.”

“But the technician still needs money for the tires?”


“Do you have any extra money to pay him with?”

“No. And you should be thanking me. I filled up the entire tank. It was on empty. I gave you more tire money than I’ve ever given you before. I’m not giving you another penny.”

Do you have a friend like Ellie?

Well everyone in Pennsylvania does. As the license plate used to say, “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania,” and her name is Ellie. Ellie Phont.

She’s your Republican party, everyone!

And she’s been pulling shit like this for years.

She slashes money for public schools but pays for pensions. And she’s suddenly thinks she increased school funding!

It was the common refrain under Gov. Tom Corbett, and tax payers liked it so much we rode him out of town on a rail.

Now we have a new Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, but the state House and Senate are still overflowing with Ellies!

In 4 years, Corbett and his GOP legislature slashed almost $1 billion a year from K-12 public schools. We lost 25,000 teachers70% of schools cut staff and increased class size. Kids lost music, arts, sports, extra curriculars, nurses, councilors, etc.

So this year, Wolf suggested we put that money back. Ellie refused.

Instead, she suggested adding $120 million. Not bad, but not nearly what she and Corbett sliced out of our children’s education.

Unfortunately, Ellie is still being Ellie.

Of that $120 million, $87 million would go to Social Security and $25 million would go to pension obligations.

Schools would get just enough to give every public school student in the Commonwealth a whooping 3 extra cents a year!

Oh Ellie! It’s the tires all over again!

Well, Gov. Wolf isn’t putting up with her crap. He vetoed the budget she passed.

In addition, it’s a budget that:

  • creates a $3 billion deficit.
  • doesn’t tax natural gas drillers (something every other state abundant in gas does.)
  • offers no property tax relief.

Poor Ellie. She looks so sad. How could she have known mean old Gov. Wolf would ruin her fun (Except that he told her he would do this if she tried anymore of her nonsense)?

So she turns to all her friends – all her friends in Pennsylvania.

With tear streaked eyes she cries about how much money she wanted to add to schools. She cries about how much her typical Ellie schemes would help the Commonwealth.

Now that the budget’s been vetoed, Ellie will have to come back to work on her vacation. She’ll have to sit down with Wolf and come to some sort of compromise.

And the taxpayers? We’re in the same position as the hypothetical narrator above with the busted tires.

Are we going to let Ellie get away with just filling up the tank? Or are we going to force her to do what’s right and pay for those darn tires she destroyed!?

It’s up to you, Pennsylvania.

But I, for one, am tired of her bullshit.

If you’re state representative or senator is an Ellie, please get on the phone, send an email, and/or make an appointment to tell her to stop playing games with our children’s future.