“Life can only be understood backwards,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, “but it must be lived forwards.”
I remember reading the Danish philosopher’s “Fear and Trembling” in my philosophy of religion class back in college.
To be honest I was never a big fan of his work – I thought if the only way to truth was taking a leap of faith, how many madmen have already reached enlightenment?
But he had a point when he wrote about the backwards order of perspective – that we can only understand the meaning of our lives once those moments have passed. How cruel that we must live our lives without knowing the importance of those moments until later.
The only times I remember knowing – really knowing – that I was living through an important moment were when I was married and when my daughter was born.
Other than those few instants of my life, I’ve wandered forward like an infant – unaware of whether this would really leave an indelible mark on the fabric of my reality or not.
And that’s not even mentioning what I’ve done – if anything – that has had an effect – any effect – on our larger shared reality.
It’s the same with writing a blog. I wrote 77 posts in 2019 – a full 32 less than last year. Yet my blog got 297,000 hits – 82,000 more than the year before.
However, which articles – if any – will have any staying power?
Will anything I wrote this year still be read in the days to come? Has any of it made a difference?
Maybe it’s foolish but that is what I’m trying to do.
I sit at my laptop pounding away at the keys as if any of it has an impact on the world.
A few weeks ago at the Education Forum in Pittsburgh – when the leading Democratic candidates for President actually seemed to have heard the education activist community’s concerns – it felt like what I had been writing really HAD made some sort of mark.
Then a week later when the Pittsburgh School Board decided to make cuts to services for students instead of raising taxes to meet costs beyond the district’s control, it felt like nothing I wrote really mattered. Really, Pittsburgh? You have the lowest millage in Allegheny County, but you can’t get the gumption to fund your schools? You’re beset by charter schools, pension costs and a mayor who refuses to put back tax revenue he was perfectly willing to use to help the city when it was in dire straights.
Does no one care about school children – if they’re poor and black?
Anyway, to the best of my knowledge, if anything I’ve written this year has made a difference, it was probably one of these articles.
I’ll include the usual top 10 list – a countdown of my most popular works this year – but I’ll end with six honorable mentions. These are articles that I feel personally proud of that wouldn’t qualify based just on sheer numbers alone.
I hope you enjoy this stroll down memory lane, and here’s hoping 2020 will leave the negativity behind while still continuing the positive change that may have crept in this year that was.
Published: April 5
Description: Here’s the story of how standardized testing went from the eugenicist movement to the Barack Obama administration to continually enforce white power. High stakes testing is an instance of being color blind – when “post racial” just means racist and ignorant.
Fun Fact: I think the title really captured people’s attention. Black people have been saying this for decades, but the so-called mainstream has refused to listen. This article still gets a lot of readers in its incarnation on commondreams.org. I hope it provides easy proof of this point to stop the constant gas lighting from naysayers in every walk of life who can’t seem to grasp how something so pervasive can be so pernicious to people of color.
Published: Aug. 12
Description: One of the most frequent excuses given for high stakes testing is that we can substitute growth for achievement. However, that idea has its own problems.
Fun Fact: A lot of folks have guzzled so much of the testing Kool-Aid that they simply refuse to accept the facts about cognition and development here. Growth has its place – but it doesn’t fit at all in a pedagogy based on standardized testing.
Published: June 29
Description: Question – If standardized testing doesn’t assess student learning, what does it assess?Answer – not much. And certainly not what you thought it did.
Fun Fact: There will come a day when standardized tests are rightly considered pseudoscientific. This is my attempt to get this idea across to a larger audience. Audience reactions have ranged from giving me looks like I’m deranged to sighs at how obvious this is.
Published: Sept. 8
Description: The world finally seems to be realizing that charter schools are deeply problematic. But what to do with them? My answer is to shut them all down and any that actually provide value to their students should be transitioned to becoming authentic public schools.
Fun Fact: This article was partially in response to charter school critics who would say things on Twitter like “No one wants to shut down all charter schools, but…” No. I really do want to shut them all down. I think their time is up. We need to abolish this failed concept and move on to real education policies that actually have a chance at helping students.
Published: June 4
Description: Before Elizabeth Warren introduced her education policy, no one really knew where she stood on the issue. So many of us in the education activist community became worried when she had former charter school teacher Sonya Mehta introduce her at a California Rally.
Fun Fact: This article drudged up huge controversy over my characterization of Mehta. At first, I called her a “Charter school lobbyist.” This was unfair and I changed the article to reflect that. However, I was dragged in the media as an anti-Warren troll and Russian bot. Since Warren has released her education policy, I have written extensively about how really comprehensive it is. I think Warren is second only to Bernie Sanders in this race and even exceeds him in some areas of policy. But no one has yet to apologize to me for daring to question a political figure.
Published: Nov. 29
Description: Teachers can’t make students learn. We can’t even make them grow. We can do lots of things to optimize the conditions for growth, but we are not ultimately responsible for the result. We’re only responsible for what we do to help bring it about.
Fun Fact: Lots of folks hate me for writing this article. Lots of folks love me for writing it. However, it was past time someone said it. Teachers make a huge impact on their students, but we are not magical. When you expect us to be wizards, you end up destroying our ability to do our jobs and you enable all the corporate testing and privatization hacks who build themselves up by tearing down our profession because we’re not magic.
Published: Sept. 15
Description: Where did charter schools come from and what was their original purpose? Read here to find the facts.
Fun Fact: I wrote this article because of the common lie that charter schools were created by union president Albert Shanker to empower teachers. WRONG. They were created by Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie and privatization cheerleader Joe Nathan. This is an attempt to get the record straight. I hope it succeeds.
Published: Nov. 7
Description: It’s kind of a simple question. Many administrators and school boards treat teachers like robots to be programmed and do what they’re told. But we’re also expected to display a large degree of autonomy. Which one is the real expectation because we can’t ultimately be both.
Fun Fact: This article was republished in the Washington Post and continues to be hugely popular. I think that’s partially because it calls out the elephant in the room in every faculty meeting, school board meeting and education policy session at local, state and the federal government. Maybe allow teachers to be part of the conversation if you really want to bring about positive change.
Published: Jan. 5
Description: Answer – on average, teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day. That comes out to about 4 decisions a minute given six hours of class time.
Fun Fact: This fact has been around since at least the 1980s. It represents the kinds of things we were interested in education before standardized testing and school privatization took over. And it has implications that go on for miles and miles and miles…
Published: Jan. 18
Description: In California, 30,000 Los Angeles teachers were on strike because charter schools are gobbling up their funding without providing the same level of quality services or accountability. Meanwhile in New Orleans, Sen. Cory Booker was giving the keynote address at a charter school rally.
Fun Fact: This raised the question of where the Democrats stand on education policy. And thankfully the Booker branch of neoliberals has been overpowered by the Sanders-Warren wing. We’ll see if this continues through the Presidential nomination and (hopefully) the next administration. Could it be a sea change in Democratic support for real, authentic education policy and away from standardization and privatization? Time will tell.
6) Pittsburgh Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity
Published: Nov. 17
Description: Mayor Bill Peduto refuses to give back millions of dollars in tax revenue to city schools that could help close budget gaps and provide the services students need. The money was given to the city when it was in financial distress, but now that the city situation has improved, the schools are calling for that money to be returned. Just simple fairness.
Fun Fact: This was one of the first times I really addressed Pittsburgh politics especially as it branches out from the schools. Readers were extremely interested and I seemed to have tapped into a real conversation about the mayor’s role in school politics.
Published: May 20
Description: The Propel charter school chain keeps getting more and more of Steel Valley Schools budget despite enrolling around the same number of kids. It is expected to get away with 16% of Steel Valley Schools’ entire $37 million yearly budget in the coming year. How is that fair?
Fun Fact: This is one of the first times I have written so openly about the district where I teach. The result was extremely positive. It really got people talking and put together a lot of information that – sadly – our local media has failed to compile. With the loss of neighborhood papers and the consolidation of newspaper budgets, it’s left to bloggers like me to do actual journalism.
Published: Oct. 5
Description: Standardized tests only assess ability at taking standardized tests. So if we misconstrue test scores for learning, we’re leaving out the entire universe of concepts and skills that are not and cannot be captured by those tests.
Fun Fact: I think this is an important point that can’t be emphasized enough. It frustrated some readers because they wanted the easy conflation between test scores and learning. But few things in education are that easy. This article outlines exactly where the tests go wrong. It’s a tour of the sausage factory that will leave anyone less hungry for standardization.
Published: July 31
Description: We have become too reliant on technology in schools. We’ve welcomed and incorporated it without testing it, or even reflecting upon whether it promises to offer better pathways toward student comprehension and discovery or whether it merely offers flash and novelty devoid of substance. And perhaps even more frightening, we have not investigated the ways in which using these technologies actually puts student privacy and intellectual growth at risk.
Fun Fact: It is essential we question our assumptions – especially about technology. Many teachers fund this article a breath of fresh air. Others condemned me as a technophobe. You be the judge.
Description: I had a stronger connection with last year’s students than any group I’ve ever taught. I was their Language Arts teacher for two consecutive years – 7th and 8th grade. When our time ended, they even re-enacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poet’s Society” – a movie we had watched together in class.
Fun Fact: I will always treasure the two years I had with these children. They changed my life for the better and made me a better teacher. I am honored by their reviews of my teaching.
Published: Nov. 12
Description: The dark secret of my district is how deeply segregated our elementary schools are. I wrote about what the problem is and how I think we can solve it. This is about as real and raw as policy making gets.
Fun Fact: Again this was one of the first times I let myself talk so openly about my district and what I thought needed to be done to improve it. Community members have come forward to talk with me about it but the response from anyone in the district has been total silence. I hope we’re actually serious about making a change here. The community is crying out for it. Teachers want to help. Where we go in the future is anyone’s guess.
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!