Stop Normalizing the Exploitation of Teachers 

 

Nearly everyday I get to school only to be confronted by the call-off sheets


 
Pages and pages of people who aren’t coming in to work – and the substitute teachers assigned to take over their classes.


 
Yikes, it’s a long list today.

I see Mrs. K is still out. She was sobbing in the faculty room last week. Wonder what that was about.

Rumor has it Mr. C was rushed to the nurse to have his blood pressure taken after his face turned beet red in the middle of his last class yesterday. Not a shock that he’s missing.

And Ms. P’s out again. I can’t blame her. If one of my students attacked me, I’d have trouble coming back, too.

My eyes pour down the names of absent teachers and present substitutes only to find the one I’m dreading – my own.

I’m expected to sub for Mrs. D’s 8th period – again.

Great.


 
Too many kids I barely know stuffed into a tiny room. Last time there was almost a fight. Will they even listen to me this time?

I have my own classes. I shouldn’t have to do this.


 
But that’s exactly what’s expected of teachers these days.  


 
If your colleagues are absent and there aren’t enough subs, you have no choice. You have to fill in somewhere.  


 
Normally, I wouldn’t mind all that much. After all, I AM being paid for doing the extra work. But day-after-day, week-after-week, for months on end – it’s exhausting.  

It’s not my responsibility to make sure every room in the building is covered.  


 


I never applied to fix the district’s supply and demand issues. 


 
It makes it harder to do my own work. Beyond the increased stress of being plopped into a situation you know nothing about, subbing means losing my daily 40-minute planning period.  


 
Grading student work, crafting lessons, reading IEPs, doing paperwork, making copies, filling out behavior sheets, contacting parents, keeping up with Google Classroom and other technologies and multi-media – one period a day is not nearly enough time for it all.

Not to mention it’s my only chance outside of lunch that I can go to the bathroom.  


 
And now I don’t even get that! If I’m going to do even the most basic things to keep my head above water, I have to find the time somewhere – usually by stealing it from my own family


 
Even under normal circumstances I routinely have to do that just to get the job done. But now I have to sacrifice even more!  


 
I’ll be honest. I often end up just putting off the most nonessential things until I get around to them. 


 
This month, alone, I’ve only had four days I didn’t have to sub. That’s just four planning periods to get all the groundwork done – about one period a week. Not even enough time to just email parents an update on their children’s grades. So little time that yesterday when I actually had a plan, there was so much to do I nearly fell over.  


 
When I frantically ran to the copier and miraculously found no one using it, I breathed a sigh of relief. But it turned into a cry of pain when the thing ran out of staples and jammed almost immediately.  


 
I didn’t have time for this.  


 
I don’t have time for things to work out perfectly! 


 
So like most teachers after being confronted with the call-off sheet for long enough, that, itself, becomes a reason for me to call off. 

I am only human.


 
I figure that I might be able to do my own work today, but I’m just too beat to take on anyone else’s, too.

Some days I get home from work and I have to spend an hour or two in bed before I can even move.

And my health is suffering.  

I’ve had more trips to the emergency room, doctor’s visits, medical procedures and new prescriptions the beginning of this year than any other time I’ve been teaching.


 
It’s a problem of exploitation and normalization. 


 
Exploitation is when you treat someone unfairly for your own benefit. 


 
Our schools have been doing that to teachers for decades – underpaying them for the high responsibilities they have, expecting each individual to do the work of multiple people and when anything goes wrong, blaming them for it. 


 
The way we mishandle call-offs is a case in point. 


 
When so many educators are absent each day, that’s not an accident. It’s the symptom of a problem – burn out.  


 


We’ve relied on teachers to keep the system running for so many years, it’s about to collapse. And the pandemic has only made things worse.  


 
We piled on so many extra duties – online teaching, hybrid learning, ever changing safety precautions – these became the proverbial straw that broke educators’ backs.  


 
And now we’re screaming in pain and frustration that we can’t go on like this anymore. That’s what the call-off sheet means. It’s a message – a cry for help. But few administrators allow themselves to see it. 


 
They won’t even admit there is a problem.  


 
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard principals and administrators talk about the call-off sheet like it’s an act of God or a force of nature like a flood or a tornado.  


 
No! This wasn’t unpredictable! This didn’t just happen! It’s your fault!  


 


If there have been a high number of call-offs nearly every day for the past few weeks, it’s not a freak of nature when it happens again today! Administrators are responsible for anticipating that and finding a solution. 


 
This is not a situation where our school leaders are helpless. 


 
There are things they can do to alleviate this situation – reducing nonessential tasks, eliminating unnecessary paperwork, refraining from excess staff meetings, forgoing new initiatives, letting teachers work from home on professional development days – anything to give us a break and an opportunity to heal from the years of overburdening.

These are just the short term solutions – the things that don’t require money or political will


 
However, most administrators refuse to do any of it! They refuse to even admit there is a problem.  


 
They’re happy to just let teachers keep picking up the slack


 
That’s what I mean by normalization.  


 
It’s taking a bad situation and redefining it as usual, typical and expected. 


 
It’s like saying “This is the way things are now. This is school. This is our new baseline.”  


 
However, it is not sustainable! 


 
We cannot continue to apply the old model of public schooling to the problems we have today. It didn’t work before the pandemic and now it is frayed to the breaking point.  


 
When the first wave of Covid-19 washed over us and many schools went to online learning, leaders promised we’d rebuild back better when they finally reopened. 


 
This was the perfect chance, they said, to change, to reform the things that weren’t working and do all the positive things we’d wanted to do for years.  


 
Even at the time I thought it was rather optimistic to the point of naivety. Time has proven me correct.

 


 
Since schools have reopened, there has been no rebuilding back better. We’ve been forced to accept things worse.  


 
Teachers were already trickling away from the profession before Covid-19 was even discovered. Now they’re running away in droves.  

Standardized tests were always poor assessments of student learning. Now we’re encouraged to spend every minute teaching to those tests to overcome the bogeyman of “learning loss.”

Poor and minority students often suffered more traumas and insecurities than their wealthier and more privileged peers. Now after as much as two years of online learning, student trauma is the norm. Kids lack the basic social skills needed to communicate without fighting and they’re taking out their frustration on their teachers.

It’s a raging dumpster fire. And few people in a position to take action have the courage to do so.

Few are even brave enough to admit the dumpster is on fire.

Teachers cannot be exploited forever.

Even we have our limits.

We want to be there for students and their families, but we can’t do that if we’re sick and suffering.

We are a renewable resource but we need renewed.

If society is not willing to do that, there will be none of us left.

The call-off sheet will stretch to the horizon and there will be no one there to take our place.


 

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Where Are the Parents? The School Shortage We Ignore 

Our public schools are suffering from crippling shortages. 


 
Classroom teachers, substitute teachers, special education aides, even bus drivers are hard to find. 


 
But of all the essential personnel who have gone missing, the group with the largest impact is the one we least want to mention – parents. 


 
I’m a middle school Language Arts teacher.  


 
Every year I look forward to parent-teacher conferences.  


 
I gather samples of student work, journal entries, drawings and grade reports. I put out a row of chairs in the hall so people have a place to sit if they have to wait for one group to finish before they can see me. And I write in big, bold, colorful chalk on the board, “Welcome, Parents!” 


 
Then I sit at my desk trying to stay awake as the hours creep by in my empty classroom. 


 
Where are all the parents?  


 
Seriously. Where did the moms and dads go? Where are the grandparents, the older siblings, the guardians, the primary or even secondary caregivers? 


 
On Parent-Teacher Day, they must be somewhere, but they’re not here.  


 
We typically have a section from noon to 3 and one from 5 to 8 pm so that people with various schedules can come in.  


 
And every year it’s the same. Only about 20-30% of my students’ parent or guardians usually visit me on these days – and that’s after the promise of bonus points if they come in! 


 
Even then it’s most often the parents of the kids with the best grades who show up. It’s the parents of kids who say “Please” and “Thank you,” the kids who smile when you walk in the room, the kids who want you to hang up their drawings on the bulletin board.  


 
The children who are struggling, the ones who don’t know how to behave and look at you out of the corner of their eyes expecting pain and negativity – their parents rarely show up.  


 
And it’s these bruised and battered kids who are in the majority. 


 
Where are their parents? 


 
They’re missing. Gone. Poof. 


 
We saw this when schools went to on-line learning at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.  


 
Teachers would turn on their Zoom links to give lessons to their students only to find many of the kids vanished.  


 
These kids usually were there when school was in-person. But on-line they were MIA. And even if they were technically present, they often hid behind a turned off camera and didn’t hand in their work


 
Why?  


 
At school, the teacher was there to make sure these kids took care of business. But at home there simply was no one to hold them accountable. No one to get them up, feed them, and make sure they were online when classes began, ensure they paid attention and did their work.  


 
That’s why so many kids were absent or otherwise failed the online experience.  


 
Granted this kind of cyber learning is developmentally inappropriate for most K-12 students – certainly those up through middle school. But with the proper parental support, most children would have done much better.  


 
It just wasn’t there.  


 
Now let me be clear about one thing – I am not blaming anybody here.  


 
It is not my intention to pass judgment on anyone.  


 
As a parent, myself, I know from experience how difficult the job is – especially during a global pandemic.  


 
But we have to face the facts. As a whole, parents were the weak link in the chain. And it didn’t start with Covid – they have been the weak link for decades. 


 
Teachers can’t go to every student’s home and be caregiver as well as educator. The fact that so many children are struggling with basic socialization skills after as much as two years of online schooling goes to show how much of the responsibility for raising children has rested on schools and teachers.  


 
This year many students don’t know how to talk with each other without instigating a fight. They constantly pick on each other, demand respect they aren’t giving and are starving for any kind of attention they can get.  


 
Without daily in-person contact with teachers, many children have become socially awkward and need to relearn the basics of interpersonal interaction. That’s how much we’ve come to expect teachers to be co-parents from year-to-year. 


 
Let me stop again and clarify that I am not talking about all parents.  


 
Many parents go out of their way to be present in their children’s lives.  


 
They get their kids up for school, make sure they eat a nutritious breakfast, ensure they catch the bus or get a ride to school, make sure they do their homework after the day is over and establish a healthy bedtime.  


 
But this should be the norm, not the exception.  


 
I know how hard it is to do. Waking my daughter up every morning often takes a stick of dynamite. And getting that girl to eat a healthy breakfast is a battle I often lose. But her mother and I make darn sure she does her homework and we even sit down with her to help it get done. And weekday bedtimes are religiously adhered to – no one wants a cranky, fussy child the next morning. 


 
However, it’s easier for us because we have certain advantages.  
 


Class, privilege, wealth, upbringing, social status all conspire to give us a boost.  


 
My wife and I don’t have to work more than one job to make ends meet, for example. It would probably help if we did, but neither of us has the wherewithal, and we get by.  


 
But many folks are not so lucky.  


 
They DO have to work multiple jobs. They have work schedules that are less in tune with the school day. They can’t be home to wake up their kids and send them off. They can’t be home when kids are dismissed and don’t have the time to help with homework. Some barely have the education, themselves, to be of much assistance.  


 
Disadvantaged parents often had bad experiences with school when they were students. So they don’t instill the importance of education to their kids. Nor do they prove good role models since they often don’t read for pleasure, speak in the dominant vernacular or respect teachers.  


 
All this has tremendous effects on the education children receive. 


 
In fact, many academic studies have shown that the most important factor in the education process isn’t the school or teachers – it’s the parents. 


 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004). 


  
  
Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are just a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components. 


 
Study after study conclude that students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, have better attendance and social skills, and adapt well to school.  


 
According to the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), the most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are the extent to which families create home environments that encourage learning, communicate high yet reasonable expectations, and become involved in the children’s education at school.  


 
Moreover, when parents are involved, the performance of all the children at school tends to improve – not just the academics of kids with involved parents. The more comprehensive the partnership between school and home, the higher the student achievement.  


 
Put simply – parents are vital to good learning.  


 
But our society doesn’t do much to allow parents to parent. 


 
To some extent, the pandemic is making things worse. 


 
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.   


 According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.   


 
This is wreaking havoc on kids support systems.  


 
But an even larger problem is economics.  


 
When schools went online, employers could have allowed more parents to work from home so they could be there for their children. However, profits were more important.  


 
Even in non-pandemic times, employers need to provide more time and resources for parent
s. There is too much demand for overtime hours, increased productivity and very little family leave or other such services.  


 
I truly believe that most parents want to be there for their children but feel like they can’t due to the stresses and strains of work
.  


 
We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Much of the labor we force people to do is strictly unnecessary. It’s there just to justify our economic system. If we reordered things around people instead of capital, parents could more easily be involved in their children’s educations.  


 
This is fundamentally the problem with all the educational shortages we’re seeing.  


 
These are symptoms of an economic failure
. We can continue to prop up this faded machine or create a world that values life over profit.  


 
But we pretend this isn’t true. 


 
We’ve been trying to run our schools as if parents weren’t that important and then throwing all the blame on teachers when parents don’t show up.  


 
This has to stop. 


 
It’s time to admit how important parents are to their children’s educations and then provide them with the tools necessary to be parents. 


 
It’s time to include parents in the circle.  


 
It’s time to expect them to show up. 


 
Because we can’t continue educating their children without them. 


 

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I’ve also 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!

Teachers Absorb Student Trauma But Don’t Know How to Get Rid of the Pain

 
 
Today a middle school student said he hated me.  


 
He told me to go F- myself.  


 
He wrote all over his desk.  


 
He shouted insults at the other students. 


 
He asked to be sent home.  


 
He said he wished he was dead.  


 
He asked to see the school counselor.  


 
I let him. 


 
And this was all in one 42 minute period. 


 
By the time the bell rang for the next class, I was exhausted.  


 
I was worried about my student. I wondered how I could help


 
But I could barely stand up. 


 
I wiped at my eyes. They were unaccountably filled with tears. My hands were shaking.  


 
I didn’t have time for this now. I had to put on a smile and welcome in the next class. 


 
Perhaps there would be time to feel all this later. 


 
Incidents like this take a tremendous toll on educators. 


 
We’re highly trained adults, but people forget – we’re human, too.  


 
When someone unexpectedly yells at you or gets in your face, you feel it. 


 
This is especially true when it’s a child. 


 
When a student is crying out in pain and that pain manifests itself as negative and violent behavior, it impacts you. 


 
We end up absorbing it all like a sponge.  


 
But what do we do with all that poison once it’s over? 


 
Psychologists call this experience vicarious trauma


 
According to the American Counseling Association, this is sometimes called the “cost of caring” and can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.” 


 
Vicarious trauma affects teachers the same way it does students


 
The brain emits a fear response releasing cortisol and adrenaline which, in turn, increases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, followed by a rush of emotions.  


 
The biological response can display itself in mental symptoms such as anger, headaches, or even physical ones like missing staff meetings, lateness to work or avoiding certain students or situations. 

You want to know why classroom teachers are taking an increasing number of sick days lately? Dealing with vicarious trauma is a big part of it.


 
“Being a teacher is a stressful enough job, but teachers are now responsible for a lot more things than just providing education,” says LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, an organization that helps children and adults navigate trauma.  


 
“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.” 


 
This is an aspect of the job for which most teachers are unprepared.  


 
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers felt comfortable addressing grief or trauma.  


 
When I first entered the field two decades ago, I was taught how to design lessons, sequence curriculum, manage classes, calculate grades, etc. Never once did anyone mention that I would be standing between a hurting child and a world he is desperately trying to lash out against. 


 
Most teachers aren’t taught how to help students who have experienced trauma. Nor are we taught how to handle the toll it takes on our own health and personal lives.  


 
And unfortunately things are getting much worse. 


 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma. This includes abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances. And 35 percent of kids have experienced more than one type of traumatic event. 


 
In class, these traumas can manifest in many ways such as acting out. However, they can also be more subtle such as failure to make eye contact, repeated foot tapping, etc. 


 
Childhood trauma was not unknown before the pandemic, but it was much less frequent.  


 
Since returning to the physical classroom after months or more of on-line learning, many students are having a difficult time readjusting. And some show signs of compounded emotional trauma. 


 
The student who exploded today is a prime example. 


 
Clearly something may have happened to him. 


 
A few years ago he had been an A student. He was academically gifted. But when we went to on-line classes to protect against Covid-19, he disappeared.  


 
Only to come back like this. 


 
As a classroom teacher with two decades of experience, I know that when a student acts this way, punishing him won’t help. He needs support coping, but that’s easier said than done. 


 
I need help coping with HIM! 


 
These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact kids well into adulthood with higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems. 


 
And it affects their teachers, too. 


 
Since schools have reopened, many kids don’t seem to know how to interact without teasing, goading or tormenting each other. We’re seeing children scream at each other in class over things as simple as finding a pencil. There are more frequent fights, vandalism, bullying, cyber bullying and even attacks against teachers.

 
 
Last week at my school, a student in the hall pushed another student into a teacher’s back. The first student was trying to fulfill the infamous TikTok challenge of hitting a teacher, but he wanted to avoid punishment by being able to claim it was an accident. 


 
This increase in negative behaviors can be directly attributed to the pandemic. 


 
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID.  


 
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.  


 
No wonder kids are having trouble with self-control! Their support systems are in tatters!  


 
With fewer role models at home and less time in the classroom over the last year and a half, kids are suffering. And that’s not just anecdotal. The facts back it up. 


 
The CDC reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.   


 
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC.  


 
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of the pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.   


 
The increase in student trauma and the lack of additional supports is undoubtedly contributing to the speed at which teachers are leaving the profession. 


 
We want to help our students but many of us feel ill-equipped to do so. And it’s negatively affecting our own health.  


 
As we are constantly attacked in the media for everything from teaching an accurate history of America to failing to meet every need our students have, many educators are throwing up their hands and moving on. 


 
It is vital that people stop hurling stones and understand the increased burden placed on teachers’ shoulders. Not only that, but it’s well past time for people to get off the side lines and actually support educators.  


 
We can’t do it all alone.  


 
For example, one of the most important things teachers need is time.  


 
This is time untethered to students, time without classes to teach or papers to grade or paperwork to fill out or even duties to perform.  


 
We need time to talk with our colleagues about what we’re experiencing. 


 
That’s not just gossiping or socializing. It’s necessary to function. 


 
Educators need the ability to talk through what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling with other teachers coping with secondary trauma, according to Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the TREP Project, a trauma-informed curriculum for urban teachers. 


 
“Reducing professional isolation is critical,” said Keels. “It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.” 


 
However, this can’t be something teaches do on their own. This is an essential part of the job.  


 
Part of our profession has become being put in harm’s way. We need the time to cope with that on the job with our colleagues.

 
 
In addition, this allows teachers to work together to develop coping strategies.  


 
For instance, it’s never good to meet a student’s anger with yelling or fury of your own. Educators need to find ways to de-escalate and bring the tension down in the classroom.  


 
However, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, either. Investing in high quality professional development for trauma-informed practices and enacting them school-wide would also be incredibly helpful. As would an influx of professional counselors, social workers and psychologists who are actually trained to deal with these situations.


 
Finally, it is essential that teachers are allowed the latitude to go home from their jobs. 


 
By that, I don’t mean that teachers are held hostage, that any district forces their staff to stay in the building 24/7. I mean that many teachers find it difficult to go home and stop being teachers. We’re always on. We need time to turn off and tune out. 


 
Educators often take mountains of work home, grade papers, call parents, etc. All on their own time. 


 
There needs to be a demarcating line between our professional and personal lives. And the district, administrators, school directors and parents need to respect that line. 


 
Teachers cannot be there for children if they do not have time for themselves and their families. 


 
And these are really just the tip of the iceberg.  


 
Teachers need higher salaries, lower class sizes, and above all – RESPECT.  


 
Accomplishing all of this will not be easy. But I’ll bet every district can accomplish SOME of it.  


 
Every district can accomplish some of it TOMORROW.  


 
If we want to continue having teachers – I mean flesh-and-blood teachers with college degrees and hard won experience, not just technology, apps or a rotating cast of minders and babysitters – we have to take care of them.  


 
They take care of our children.  


 
It’s time we gave back what they need to get the job done. 


 
It’s time we gave back the respect they deserve. 


 
It’s time we gave them the opportunity to heal from the trauma of coping with our children. 


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

I Triggered Bill Maher By Writing About Standardized Testing and White Supremacy 

 


Bill Maher is mad at me. 


 
And I’ve never even met the man.  


 
I guess you could say we’re from different worlds. 


 
He’s on the West Coast. I’m on the East.  


 
He’s a political comedian. I’m a public school teacher. 


 
He’s a multimillionaire. I can barely make ends meet. 


 
What could I possibly do to provoke the ire of this man so much so that he took aim at me on his HBO TV show? 


 
 As near as I can tell, it started when I wrote a blog.  


 
Then people read that blog.  


 
It got popular and was republished throughout the Internet.  


 
And Maher disagrees with what I wrote.  


 
In fact, the very idea annoyed him as a prime example of namby-pamby liberals taking their agenda too far. 


 
What did I write in the article?  


 
Only that standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy


 
In fact, that was the title of the article, which seems to be about as far as Bill read because he ignored any arguments, facts or historical citations in the piece.  


 
On his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” this week, he posted the title of the article and the graphic that appeared with it when it was republished on commondreams.org


 
What he didn’t post was my name. I am the author, after all, but I guess that’s not important.  


 
The crucial bit was how triggered Bill was by my assertion.  


 
By connecting such allegedly alien concepts as standardized testing and racism, Maher thinks I devalued the meaning of “white supremacy.” 
 


Maher never actually examined my claim or what I wrote backing it up. Never mind the arguments I made in favor of my point, the sources I cited, the examples of actual bias or the documented history of standardized testing as a creation of the eugenicist movement.  
 


He was content to speak in a smarmy tone and make a pretty lame joke about what a racially biased test question might look like.

 
 
In fact, that’s probably why he (and his staff) picked my piece in the first place. They saw it as an opportunity to make a joke and whiffed at it pretty terribly. 


 
Here’s the relevant bit of his monologue: 


 
 
“In 2010 the New York Times used the term “White Supremacist” on 75 occasions. Last year, over 700 times. Now some of that to be sure is because Trump came along and emboldened the faction of this country that is truly white supremacist. It is of course still a real thing. But it shouldn’t apply to something like – as more than a few have suggested – getting rid of the SAT test. Now if we find the SAT test is slanted in such a way as to stack the deck in favor of Caucasians, if there are questions like Biff and Chip are sailing a yacht traveling at 12 knots to an Ed Sheeran concert on Catalina – if Catalina is 12 miles away, how many White Claws should they bring? Yes, then maybe. But of course the SAT doesn’t have questions like that so it becomes a kind of ludicrous exaggeration that makes lovers of common sense roll their eyes – and then vote for Trump.”  


 


Queue audience laughter and applause.  


 
Funny stuff I guess.  


 
Not the comedy staff’s fake SAT question but Maher’s assurance that “The SAT doesn’t have questions like that.” 


 
Really, Bill? 


 
How about this one? 


 
Runner: Marathon 
(a) envoy: embassy 
(b) martyr: massacre 
(c) oarsman: regatta 
(d) horse: stable 


 
It’s a real SAT question famously discussed in the infamous 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray – a book that tried to use discrepancies in test scores to prove white people are smarter than black people. 


 
The answer is C, and it relies on a test taker’s knowing the meaning of regatta – something more likely to have come up in the daily lives of affluent white students than in the lives of less affluent minority students. If you don’t live by a body of water and/or don’t have much experience with rowing, you’re probably going to fail this question.  

It’s the same kind of question Maher’s comedy team came up with – find something white people are more likely to know than black people – but the Real Time writers just pilled it on over-and-over.

It doesn’t take five repetitions of something to make it biased. All it takes is one.


 
To be fair, my example is from the SAT analogy section, which was removed from the test in 2005. However, that doesn’t mean they got rid of the bias. 

In fact, the College Board, the organization that develops and administers the SAT, tacitly admits its test is biased.

It now provides an “adversity score” for poor and minority students to adjust raw SAT scores to account for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

In other words, they know that poor and minority kids get lower scores so they’re trying to fudge the results to give them a boost.

Which would be entirely unnecessary if the SAT assessed them accurately in the first place.

They are literally trying to make up for how biased their test scores are.

Consider this.

Total SAT scores range from 400 to 1600 – or from 200-800 in both Math and Reading respectively.

According to 2018 data, combined SAT scores for Asian and White students average over 1100, while all other groups average below 1000. Meanwhile, students with family income less than $20,000 score lowest on the test, and those with family income above $200,000 scored highest, according to 2015 data. And the difference is significant – a 433 average Reading score for those with the lowest family incomes compared to an average Reading score of 570 for those with the highest family income. That’s a 137 point difference!

And it holds for racial groups, too. The average Reading score on the SAT was 429 for black students – 99 points behind the average for white students.

However, the College Board is trying to justify this by saying the discrepancy is because poor and minority students are more disadvantaged than white, affluent ones. In other words, it’s not the test that is unfair, but American society in providing better resourced schools with lower class sizes and more resources for white kids than children of color.

And while American society IS unfair to the poor and minorities, several studies indicate that the problem is even deeper than that.

The SAT is biased, too.

Several studies ( Roy Freedle of the Educational Testing Service from 2003, Maria Santelices and Mark Wilson from 2010, etc.) find notable differences between the verbal scores of black and white students whose educational background and skill set suggest that they should get similar scores.

Freedle says this is because SAT questions likely reflect the cultural expressions that are used commonly in the dominant (white) society, so white students have an edge based not on education or study skills or aptitude, but because they are most likely growing up around white people.

This makes sense if you examine how test questions are selected for the SAT. In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process:


 
“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by the Educational Testing Service, whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”


 In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.

But if all this isn’t enough to convince you that standardized tests really are a tool of white supremacy, consider their sordid history.

They are literally the product of the American eugenics movement.

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.


 In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.” 


These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others. In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following: 


 
“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”


 
Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind. 


And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

Is it an exaggeration to say that assessments specifically designed to favor affluent white people over impoverished minorities still does the same thing?

Is it ridiculous to describe the century long racial and economic discrepancy in test scores as something that supports white supremacy – especially when these results are shown time and again to be a feature of the tests and not just an artifact that recreates economic inequality?

Is it going too far to call out the racism of the SAT and other standardized tests like it when even the College Board admits its own scores are biased?

Does it devalue the term “White Supremacy” to point out real world white supremacy?

But Maher apparently isn’t interested in these questions.

After a few moments he moved on to another example of the left gone wild.


 
But I can’t do that because this isn’t just a bit for me.  


 
As I mentioned, I’m a public school teacher.  


 
I deal with the impact of standardized testing every day.  


 
I watch my students degraded, depressed and dehumanized by it year after year.  

It’s become cliche for privileged white people like Bill Maher to get cranky when someone points out real world prejudice.

But for those of us in the trenches, it is an everyday reality.

And that’s what triggers me.


Here’s the segment from “Real Time with Bill Maher”: (the relevant bit starts at 4:45)


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