Workers Rights are Human Rights – Even If Our Government is Too Cowardly to Support Them

In today’s America, the more essential your job, the fewer rights you are allowed to exercise.

Teachers aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the kids.

Nurses aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the patients.

And – as we discovered just this week – railway workers aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the economy.

None of these are actually true, however. It’s just union busting hidden under government sponsored propaganda.

Teachers strikes are inconvenient for students, families AND teachers. But having burned out, underpaid educators in the classroom does not help kids learn.

Nurses don’t want to strike. But going to the hospital and being cared for by an overworked, underpaid, unsupported nurse is not going to improve your health.

Railway workers would certainly rather get on with their jobs than contend with the bosses or Congress. But having no paid sick leave and a lack of adequate pay will not help move goods across the country any better, either.

Don’t believe the hype.

This isn’t about what’s good for society or the economy. It’s about protecting the upper class from having to respect people who do the most indispensable work. It’s about making sure workers will continue to labor in dangerous conditions.

That is all. It’s about who gets the power – the bosses or the people who do the actual work.

That’s why the Senate forced national freight rail roads and their unions to avert a strike and accept a contract which failed to provide workers with a component they aggressively sought: paid sick leave.

Congress passed the motion and President Joe Biden signed it. So both political parties are to blame.

Neither Republicans or Democrats have the backs of working people.

It’s no wonder that the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid sick and family leave to workers.

Instead, we are at the mercy of employers to step up and do so. And when it comes to the poorest but most important workers – the ones without which our country would grind to a stop – employers are often extremely reluctant to do so.

Roughly a quarter of the private workforce — more than 33 million people — have no paid sick days so they can take care of themselves if they get ill. Even worse, more than 80 percent of private sector workers have no access to paid leave so they can care for a family member. 

And it’s indisputably a racial and class phenomenon.

Higher-paid, professional workers almost universally have paid sick and family leave. But, of course, most of these workers don’t just lack pigment on their collars, they lack it on their faces, too. Among the lowest-paid quarter of the workforce, the majority of whom are Black and Latinx workers, only half of them have any paid sick days, and just 7 percent have paid family leave.

So workers of color, the poor, and disproportionately women are much more likely to lack sick and family leave than those who are paid more, have white skin and are male.

And before you explode with indignation, let it be known that this could be rectified any day our government sees fit.

Our representatives could stop holding water for groups like the railway companies that pulled in $20 billion in profits last year alone. Our government could represent us, the people, instead of businesses that could afford to do better but don’t because we aren’t holding them accountable and our Congress and the President refuse to stop them or even let us force them to do right by subjecting them to a strike.

It is past time for the U.S. to pass a national law enshrining the right to paid sick and family leave.

It is past time for our government to begin respecting the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better treatment.

We just suffered through a pandemic where these so-called essential workers had to put themselves in the most danger just to keep society running while the rest of us stayed home and were unequally protected.

If these workers are truly essential, they at least deserve sick and family leave. Otherwise, it is all too obvious how bogus the term is.

The U.S. can no longer run on the unrespected work of an underclass of the poor and people of color.

This must change if our nation is to continue. And it must change today.

I stand with American workers. Do you?


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Posting Learning Objectives in the Classroom is Still a Dumb Idea

One of the worst problems in education is that we never let bad ideas die.

There’s always some know-nothing hack from another field who pokes his nose into the profession and makes pronouncements like he’s an expert.

And since he’s so successful at X (usually something in technology or business) we take these pronouncements like they’re holy writ.

This is why we never get rid of standardized testing, charter schools, evaluating teachers on student test scores, and a hundred other practices that have demonstrably failed over-and-over again.

However, perhaps the most annoying of these zombie practices is the demand for teachers to post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom.

This is beyond stupid and a waste of time.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying teachers should go into the classroom with no idea of what they hope their students will learn everyday.

But the idea that we have so much control over our students that we can tell them with pinpoint accuracy exactly what knowledge and/or skills will be implanted in their skulls on any given day is so reductively stupid as to be laughable.

Anyone who still thinks teachers can post A on the wall and A is what will be accomplished has no business in the teaching profession.

Because, Brother, you don’t understand how teaching works!

So let’s begin with the reasons why this idea is still attractive.

First, we want to let students know what they’ll be experiencing in class on a day-by-day basis.

It’s a reasonable request to a degree. How many times have students walked into the classroom and the first thing that comes out of their mouths are, “What are we doing today?”

However, experienced classroom teachers know that this isn’t the real question. Most of the time when a student asks this they aren’t interested in what we are doing. They’re interested in what we AREN’T doing.

They want to know if we’re writing an essay, or if we’re reading a text or something that they specifically don’t feel like doing that day.

I hear this question most often in my last period classes because the students are exhausted from a full day of academics. They want to know if I’m going to tire them further or if there might be a chance at a breather here and there.

The second reason this practice is attractive is for principals.

Today’s principal is a frightening thing. After decades of educational malpractice at colleges and universities in creating new school administrators, principals no longer understand what their job truly is.

They think it’s to be a toady to the Superintendent or higher level administrators. They think they have to demonstrate their performance to their bosses with whatever data is available at every turn. (This is also what they expect teachers to do for them.)

This is why they tend to turn everything into something less important but quantifiable.

So demanding teachers to post learning objectives in their classrooms every day is something concrete and tangible that can be checked on and checked off on a clipboard. They can say to their bosses, “Look at what a good principal I am! My teachers post their learning objectives everyday!”

When I think of how principals used to manage their buildings and create an environment conducive for learning – for teachers to best impact their students – it makes me want to cry.

I miss real principals.

In any case, we can see why this demand is attractive.

However, it’s also really, really dumb.


Here’s why.

First, you have to understand how teaching works.

It’s not behavioralism. It’s not the 1920s anymore.

Students will be able to… WRONG! Students will have the OPPORTUNITY to, they will be ENCOURAGED to, their ENVIRONMENT will be altered to make it most conducive to…

You can’t rob them of agency. And if you think you can, you’re a fool.

No teacher – no matter how skilled or experienced – acts on her students like Gandalf or Dumbledore. Teaching is not magic and students are not passive objects.

You can’t say “Learn how to use nouns!” And WOOSH students can distinguish nouns from pronouns with pinpoint accuracy. You can’t put hands on a student’s head and say “Reading Comprehension!” And suddenly they pick up a book and start reading Shakespeare with absolute fidelity.

Yes, you can post these things on the wall. But what good does it do?

Students may see it and think to themselves, “So that’s what the teacher is trying to get me to know!” But how does that help?

When I took piano lessons, my teacher never told me the lesson was on the chromatic scale. She just gave me a few pieces to practice and helped me over the parts where I was stumbling.

Moreover, even if she had told me that, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Because I didn’t know what the chromatic scale was!

So much of education is skill based. We learn HOW to do something. We don’t spend much time on WHAT it is or any theories of how it all comes together. And even if we did, that would come at the end, not the beginning.

This is one of the major reasons why I resent the very notion of posting my learning objectives in the classroom. It ruins the surprise!

Teaching is an art at least as much as it is a science. We aren’t programing our kids like you would a computer.

When I teach my students how to write a single paragraph essay, for example, I have them write three drafts – a prewriting, a first draft (heavily scaffolded with a planner) and a final copy.

They often complain that this is a lot of writing and want to know why I’m making them do all this when they feel they could probably skip one or two steps and still come to almost as good of a final project.

I ask them to trust me. I tell them this is the best way, and that they’ll understand later. And since I’ve spent so much time creating a relationship of give-and-take, of trust, they often just get on with the work.

What I’m really doing with all these drafts is getting the format of the single paragraph essay embedded in their minds. They’re memorizing it without even knowing it.

Moreover, writing multiple drafts is good practice when you get to more complicated and longer essays. It forces you to re-evaluate what you wrote previously and it encourages you to improve it before you are finished.

Finally, it instills a process into your mind. You start to feel like this is the right way to do something and you resist taking the easier road because the way you were taught has lead to success in the past (and it will probably serve you well in the future as things get more complex).

Do you really think I should stop and explain all that to my students before we begin? Do you think it would help?

Absolutely not! Children (like tech entrepreneurs and business tycoons) often think they know everything when they really know nothing. If you explain everything to them at the beginning, they can get contrary and refuse to do all you ask to demonstrate they know better. This often leads to dead ends and reteaching – if possible.

These are things teachers like me have learned after decades in the classroom. So when a new administrator starts spouting the shallow dictums they were taught in a corporate dominated college course, it’s beyond frustrating.

Education is the one field where experience is considered a detriment. Classroom teachers are all fools. We must control educators top down with administrators full of ideology and little to no actual practical knowledge.

Teachers have far too much to do already without kowtowing to a worthless mandate to post their learning objectives in the classroom.

That, along with writing formal lesson plans, endless faculty meetings and thrown together professional development, compound to make a teacher’s workload unmanageable.

With so many experienced teachers running for the door these days, wouldn’t it be better to stop and listen to them once in a while?

Maybe it might help encourage some of them to stay in the profession?

Maybe that might actually help student learning?

Huh? Maybe?


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School Vouchers Don’t Increase Academics; They Increase Bigotry   

  
  
Let’s be honest.  


  
At best, school vouchers are a failed education policy experiment.  


 
At worst, they’re an attempt to normalize bigotry. 


  
Using taxpayer money to send your child to a private or parochial school has got nothing to do with getting a quality education.  


  
If we look at the facts, using a school voucher to go from a public school to a private one actually hurts kids academically.  


  
Large-scale independent studies in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C., show that students who used vouchers were as negatively impacted as if they had experienced a natural disaster. Their standardized test scores went down as much or more than students during the Covid-19 pandemic or Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  


 
This should come as no surprise. When we give children school vouchers, we’re removing their support systems already in place.

 
 
They lose the friends, teachers, and communities where they grew up. It’s like yanking a sapling from out of the ground and transplanting it to another climate with another type of soil which may not be suited to it at all.  


 
  
Vouchers have nothing to do with helping kids escape struggling public schools.  


 
  
School vouchers overwhelmingly go to kids who already attend private or parochial schools.  


In the states that have released their data, more than three quarters of families who apply for vouchers for their children already send their kids to private schools. That’s 75% of voucher students in Wisconsin, 80% in Arizona, and 89% in New Hampshire. So these kids didn’t need our tax dollars in the first place.  We’re just paying for services they’re already receiving.


 
Moreover, the very idea is absurd. If the school where the student is enrolled is struggling, why wouldn’t you simply invest in that school to make it better and fix the underlying problem? Why disrupt children’s educations by moving them to another school in another system that is entirely unproven, itself? 


 
  
Vouchers have nothing to do with more efficient schools.  


  
Let’s get one thing straight – voucher schools are businesses, often new businesses just opening up. And like any other start-up, the failure rate is extremely high. According to Forbes, 90% of start-ups fail – often within the first few years.  


 
The same is true here. Like charter schools (another privatized education scheme), most voucher schools close in the first few years after they open. In Wisconsin, for example, 41% of voucher-receiving schools have opened and subsequently closed since public funding began in the early 1990s.  


  
Yet when they close, they take our tax dollars with them leaving less funding available to educate all kids in the community.  


 
Public schools, by contrast, are community institutions that usually last (and have been around) for generations. Their goal isn’t profit – it’s providing a quality education. 


 
 
Lastly, vouchers have nothing to do with freedom or choice.  


 
  
Unless it’s the choice to be a bigot and indoctrinate your child into your own bigotry. 

 
  
 
  
Vouchers are about exclusion – who gets to attend these PRIVATE schools –  and indoctrination – what nonsense they can teach that public schools cannot.  


  
 
Private schools can and do discriminate against children based on religion, race, gender, sexuality, special needs – you name it – even if those schools take public money.  
 


  
For example, in Florida, Grace Christian School, a private institution that refuses to enroll LGBTQ kids has received $1.6 million so far in taxpayer funding. In Indiana, more than $16 million has gone to schools banning LGBTQ kids—or even kids with LGBTQ parents! That’s roughly 1 out of every 10 private schools in the state with just this one discriminatory enrollment.  


  
 
Meanwhile thousands of parochial schools that receive public funding use textbooks provided by The American Christian Education (ACE) group. This includes the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks. A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.  


 
   
In their pages you’ll find glowing descriptions of the Ku Klux Klan, how the massacre of Native Americans saved many souls, African slaves had really good lives, homosexuals are no better than rapists and child molesters, and progressive attempts at equal rights such as Brown vs. Board of Education were illegal and misguided. You know – all the greatest Trump/MAGA hits!  


  
Call me crazy, but I don’t think that’s a curriculum worthy of taxpayer dollars. I think if you’re going to take public money, you should have to accept all of the public, and you shouldn’t be allowed to teach counterfactual claims and prejudice as if they were fact.  


  
 
You want freedom? Fine.  


 
  
You are free to be as intolerant as you want to be, but do it on your own dime.  


 
  
If racism, homophobia, classism or xenophobia is your thing, you can jolly well pay for it, yourself.  


 
  
But biased, partisan and sectarian education isn’t in the interest of the public good.   

  
We should reserve our tax dollars to pay for things in the common interest. Not Klan camp.   


 
 
 Don’t get me wrong. 


 
 
Every private or parochial school isn’t like that.  


 
 
But a heck of a lot of them are! 


 
 
We shouldn’t be wasting our time trying to sort through other people’s businesses when we have our own educational enterprise – public schools – which cumulatively do a much better job. 


 
 
And our public system would do an even better job than that if instead of trying to “save kids” from underfunded public schools, we simply funded them enough to meet student need and beyond.  


 
It should come as no surprise that removing students from public school and sending them to a private or parochial school doesn’t work to help them academically.  


 
 
 
It would be much more effective to provide support where students are than make them undergo the trauma of uprooting.  


 
 
Finally let me say something about the issue of standardized testing.  

 
I still believe that standardized test scores are a terrible way to try to assess student learning. And the fact that voucher students tank their tests – by itself – does not prove to me that private and parochial schools provide a substandard education compared to public schools.  


 
It is the surrounding factors – like that most voucher schools don’t have to use certified teachers with the same quality degrees as public schools, that they don’t have to use the same kind of high-quality curriculum or pass the same kinds of public scrutiny.  
 


 
However, test scores do matter to policymakers. They are using the same test scores to disparage public schools and then in the same breath ignore the scores when they delegate more taxpayer funding for school vouchers.  


 
This is hypocritical. We need to demand more from our lawmakers in this regard.  


 
 
The same far right ideologues that support Trump and the MAGA fascists are the driving force behind the push for more school vouchers.  


 
 
Undoubtedly, they are helped by unscrupulous Democrats, but at least the Dems CLAIM to still believe in facts and representative government. 
 


 
It’s time they paid heed to the facts and represented us by ending their support for school vouchers and the MAGA factories most of these vouchers go to support. 


 
 
Bigotry is a losing proposition in a democracy where you need as many votes as possible to get elected to office.  


 
 
And dressing up indoctrination as if it were just freedom and economics only works if we’re foolish enough to let it. 


NOTE: In this article, I am indebted to the work of Josh Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University who has been studying school vouchers for more than two decades.


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What Democratic Midterm Victories Mean for Pennsylvania’s Schools

We can breathe a sigh of relief.

Fascism was defeated at the polls.

Christian nationalism, snake oil salesmen and angertainment all fell to the power of the ballot at this week’s midterm election in Pennsylvania.

Democrat Josh Shapiro beat far right Republican Doug Mastriano for Governor.

John Fetterman beat reality TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz for Senator.

And a host of local grassroots progressives triumphed from Summer Lee becoming the first black woman ever elected from our state to the House to Lindsay Williams retaining her seat in the state legislature. Even Austin Davis (my state representative) will become the first black Lt. Governor in the Commonwealth.

And most surprising, the state house may have even flipped to Democratic control after decades in Republican hands. (There are still a few races that are too close to call.)

All-in-all, it was a good night. Especially in an election cycle where Republicans had every advantage. The President’s party usually loses seats during the midterms, and just last week it seemed that Joe Biden would be no exception. However, now that the dust has cleared, the losses seem to be minimal to nonexistent.

So what does it all mean for our state’s schools and the future of our kids’ educations?

First, we can expect far fewer insane policy proposals and those that are put forward will have next to zero chance of passing.

No more worries about our already meager education funding being cut in half.

No more fears of Florida’s regressive “Don’t Say Gay” law restricting free speech coming to the Keystone state.

The Critical Race Theory panic (A.K.A. – teaching actual history) will fade to just another wing nut conspiracy theory thrown to the Republican base to generate support instead of an actual policy proposal to restrict academic freedom.

I suspect a lot of the baseless hysteria Republicans had been shouting from the rafters will decrease as pollsters show them how ineffective it was in getting votes that weren’t already staunchly GOP.

For the first time in years, Republicans may have to push toward the center instead of constantly to the lunatic fringe. Otherwise, they’ll continue to lose.

Second, we may actually see some positive education policies make their way through the state legislature.

Shapiro has promised to increase education funding. That and the still pending court decision on a lawsuit against the state demanding adequate funding may be enough to turn the funding faucet on a few cranks. With Democrats holding an increasing share of seats, all it takes is a few moderate Republicans (are they out there?) to join them to get things done.

However, it isn’t all wine and roses.

During the general election, Shapiro came out in favor of some school voucher programs. This puts him to the right of our current Governor Tom Wolf. So we can look forward to our new Governor supporting an increase for tax credit scholarships and other de facto voucher plans that will drain public education coffers just as we’re working to increase them.

It is also anyone’s guess whether a pro-voucher Governor would support charter school reform – something we desperately need and that Wolf championed during his tenure.

And though both Wolf and Shapiro criticized standardized testing, it would take a mightily informed and courageous state politician to go up against the economic powerhouse of the testing industry.

In short, the election mostly means we don’t have to worry about as many flaming meteorites crashing down on our schools.

Things might even get better here and there – especially with additional funding.

However, we will have to monitor our representatives as if they were little kids sulking by the cookie jar. They will almost definitely try to sneak in some garbage legislation to hurt our students and enrich their corporate buddies.

When we look at the national situation, it appears much the same. Even with Fetterman going to the Senate, it’s unclear whether Democrats will have control of either legislative body. Even if they do, the majority will be razor thin.

A robust Democratic Party determined to enact progressive legislation could make much of such a situation, but as we’ve seen in the past, that is not the case with the current leadership.

The most we can realistically hope for is that they put a stop to insane GOP legislation.

The question is whether we can build on such Democratic gains at both the state and national level. Usually that doesn’t happen. But it will have to be the goal moving forward.

Stopping the worst is a worthy aim but it cannot be everything. We must continue to push our representatives to make actual progress and fix the slow and steady drip of fascism, corporatism and Christian nationalism that has dominated our politics for far too long.

So let us celebrate a worthy election cycle while we prepare for all the political battles still to come.

A sigh of relief, a renewed fighting stance and back into the fray.


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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!

 

Standardized Test Scores are Incompatible with Your School’s Equity Plan  

 
 
The primary goal of public education is to teach all children fairly.  


 
But since its inception, the system has never been set up to actually accomplish this.  


 
So these days you hear a lot of talk about fixing the problem – of how we can ensure students of color and other historically underserved children get the same high-quality education racially and economically privileged kids always have received.


 
This almost always concludes with two types of plan.  


 
First, there is the serious venture made up of things like increasing spending to meet student need, wraparound services, early intervention, reducing class size, redistributive justice and cultural competence – a plan that looks the reality in the face and makes bold attempts to come to terms with it. 


 
Then there is the cheap knockoff proposition – a buzzword-laden scheme where someone is trying to convince you their half hearted proposal is actually a solution to the very real problem of educational inequality. 


 
 
And the number one thing you can use to tell the difference between the two is this – standardized test scores


 
 
The first plan that is centered around actually fixing disparities makes no mention of test scores – or at least relegates them to obstacles. The second is built all around them – as an essential component of the overall scheme. 


 
 
This is because the second feel-good-accomplish-nothing plan is essentially performative.  


 
 
Therefore, it is constructed around standardized test scores as a metric of success.  


 
Planners think: We’re going to do A, B and C to make our schools more equitable. And how will we know we’re doing it right? We’ll use our standardized test scores! 


 
That’s not accuracy. It’s ostentation. These scores don’t demonstrate anything at all about equity. True, they purport to show readily apparent increases or decreases in academics.  


 
However, even this is an illusion.  


 
A rise or fall in test scores is not, in fact, based on authentic academic success but merely success at taking standardized tests designed for very different purposes.  


 
And anyone who understands the history of these types of assessments and how they still work will know that this mirage is built at the cost of genuine equity.  


 
In fact, the inequalities plaguing our public school system are due in large part to our national insistence that standardized test scores be the ultimate measure of success.  


 
So constructing your plan to fix this problem around one of its root causes is like claiming you can fix a sinking ship by drilling more holes in its hull.  


 
At best, it’s naive. At worst, it’s self-defeating and disingenuous.  


 
 
The problem centers around the difference between standardized tests and assessments created by classroom teachers. 


 
 
Both types of assessment are supposed to measure what students have learned. But not all learning is equal


   
For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how to make foie gras – something that would only come in handy at a high end French restaurant.


   
That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.  


   
The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.  


   
This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.  


   
When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.  


   
When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.  


   
New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.  


   
According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.  


   
If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.  


   
He writes:  

   “As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”  


   
Think about what this means.  


   
We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.  


 
This is important when it comes to equity.  


 
 
If we are guided in large part by standardized test scores, we aren’t guided by authentic learning. We’re guided by a false picture of learning. Therefore, the most effective way – perhaps the only practical way – of raising test scores is to teach directly to a specific test. And not only the test, but the specific version of the test being given that year.

So if we do somehow manage to raise test scores, we haven’t improved academics at all but a mere semblance of it. And thus the equity we might celebrate in such a situation would be just as false. 


 
You got a good score on the MAP test. Hurrah! But that doesn’t mean you know anything of real value except how to take this particular MAP test which, itself, will change after the next round of questions are field tested.


 
 
 
This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to educate in just this manner – to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests doesn’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction. 

And if we insist on evaluating the equity of our schools on these test scores, we will only make things that much worse. 


   
We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.  


   
That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.  


   
It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!  


   
It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. 


 
And let’s not forget where these tests come from


 
They were created in the 1910s and 20s by eugenicists to prove the supremacy of white Europeans over other racial and ethnic groups.  


 
While these original tests are no longer in circulation, the assumptions behind them are an essential part of our modern day standardized tests. 
 


The very method of question selection in today’s tests builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.  


   
According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial or ethnic minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.  


   
This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.  


   
So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.  


   
As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:  


   
“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”  


 
This is incompatible with any enterprise aimed at increasing equity.  


 
You are engaged in a never-ending cycle of teaching to the test at the expense of authentic learning. You’re engaged in making minorities think like their privileged peers – of overcoming who they are just to be accepted into a game.

 
 
This is not education. It is assimilation, and it will always put the assimilated at a disadvantage to the majority – those they are being forced to imitate.  


 
Equity and standardized testing do not go together.  


 
 
They CANNOT go together. They are anathema.  


 
Those who suggest otherwise are either well-meaning fools or duplicitous malefactors.  


 
There is a multi-billion dollar standardized testing industry dependent on keeping us testing our kids.  


 
But we can no longer continue feeding that beast and pretending that we can somehow provide equity to our underserved children, too.  


 
We have to choose – equity or testing.  Fairness or unrestrained capitalism.


 
Do not believe anyone who tells you to support a plan built on both. 

It does not exist.


 

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The Teacher Exodus Continues Whether You Care or Not

Remember when federal, state and local governments actually seemed poised to do something about the great teacher exodus plaguing our schools?

With an influx of money earmarked to help schools recover from the pandemic, many expected pay raises and bonuses to keep experienced teachers in the classroom.

Ha! That didn’t happen!

Not in most places.

In fact, the very idea seems ludicrous now – and this was being discussed like it was a foregone conclusion just a few months ago at the beginning of the summer.

So what happened?

We found a cheaper way.

Just cut requirements to become a teacher.

Get more college students to enter the field even if they’re bound to run away screaming after a few years in.

It doesn’t matter – as long as we can keep them coming.

The young and dumb.

Or the old and out of options.

Entice retired teachers to come back and sub. Remove hurdles for anyone from a non-teaching field to step in and become a teacher – even military veterans because there’s so much overlap between battlefield experience and second grade reading.

And in the meantime, more and more classroom teachers with decades of experience under their belts are throwing up their hands and leaving.

Stop and think for a moment.

This is fundamentally absurd.

If you have a hole in your pocket and you keep losing your keys, wallet and other vital things from out of your pants, the first thing you do is sew up the hole! You don’t keep putting more things in your pocket!

But that’s only true if you’re actually interested in solving the problem.

Maybe you prefer the status quo. Maybe you even like it or see it as an opportunity to change your wardrobe entirely.

It’s a simple matter of cost.

The educators who have been in the classroom the longest are also the highest paid. So if we just let them go, we can save some money for other things.

Of course the problem of getting excellent teachers in the classroom is only compounded by such thinking. You don’t get more seasoned teachers by letting them leave and putting increasing pressure on those who stay.

And make no mistake – experienced teachers are incredibly valuable. That’s not to say new teachers don’t have their own positive aspects, but the profession’s expert practitioners are its heart and soul.

Think about it.

Like any other profession, the longer you practice it, the better you usually get. For example, no one going under heart surgery would willingly choose a surgeon who had never operated before over a seasoned veteran who has done this successfully multiple times.

But we don’t value the work teachers do nearly as much as we do surgeons. Or lawyers. Or almost anything else that requires a comparable level of education.

That’s really the core issue.

We don’t care about quality teaching. In fact, in many cases we actively don’t want it to occur.

Republicans are literally running a political platform on weakening teachers, schools and education because they need the poorly educated to make up their voting base.

When Trump was President, he actually praised the badly educated because they supported him more than any other demographic.

And even those who aren’t actively against education are more concerned with privatizing the public system for profit. They like it when public education fails because it gives them an excuse to push for more charter schools, more school vouchers, more cyber schools – anything where they can siphon away tax dollars earmarked for education into their own private pocketbooks (and no holes in there even to pay their own taxes)!

So the teacher exodus isn’t being fixed on purpose.

It is a political and economic plot against increasing the average intelligence and knowledge of voters, stealing government funding for personal gain and refusing to increase the quality of a government sponsored service.

In the meantime, more teachers are leaving every day.

A February 2022 report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said the numbers of public school teachers had gone from approximately 10.6 million in January 2020 to 10 million — a net loss of around 600,000 teachers.

In August, the national Education Association (NEA) sounded the alarm that an additional 300,000 educators had left since the report was issued. And it’s only getting worse. An NEA union poll found that 55% of educators were considering leaving education earlier than they had originally planned.

In my own district, there are several teachers who have taken leaves of absence or are sick and had to be temporarily replaced with long term subs. We’re located in western Pennsylvania south of Pittsburgh, just across the river from a plethora of colleges and universities with teacher prep programs. Yet it was pretty difficult to find anyone to fill these positions or serve as day-to-day subs.

There is so much we could be doing to encourage seasoned teachers to stay in the classroom beyond increased pay.

You could cut all unnecessary tasks like formal lesson plans, stop holding staff meetings unless an urgent need presents itself, refrain from new and unproven initiatives, and/or cut duties where possible to increase teacher planning time

And that’s before we even get to the lack of respect, gas lighting, scapegoating, and micromanaging teachers go through on a daily basis.

What we have here is a crisis that cuts to the very heart of America’s identity as a nation.

What do we want to be? A capitalist experiment in school privatization whose only regulation is the free hand of the market? Or a nation supported by a secure system of education that took us to the moon and made us the greatest global superpower the world has ever known?

What do we want to be? A nation of dullards who can be easily manipulated by any passing ideologue? Or a country of critical thinkers who can accept new evidence and make rational decisions based on facts?

There is a cost to becoming a great nation and not just emblazoning the idea on a hat.

That cost is education. It is paying, supporting and respecting veteran teachers.

Are we still willing to pay it?


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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!

Will We Even Try to Keep Students and Teachers Safe from Gun Violence? Or Just Keep Preparing for the Worst?

“Teachers, we are operating on a lockdown. Please keep your doors locked until we tell you it has been lifted.”

Before me a sea of wide eyes and scared faces.

I slowly walked toward the door continuing the lesson I had been giving before the announcement. The door was already shut and secured but I nonchalantly turned the extra deadbolt.

“Click!” it sounded like a gunshot across the suddenly silent room.

I continued talking while making my way back to the blackboard pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

That’s just life in the classroom these days.

According to Eduction Week, there have been 38 school shootings in the US this year resulting in injuries or deaths. That’s up from 34 last year and the highest it’s been since the media source began tracking such things in 2018.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were only 10 such shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.

That comes to a total of 130 school shootings in the last five years.

“Mr. Singer, can I go to the bathroom?” DeVon asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re still under lockdown. I’ll write you a pass as soon as it’s lifted.”

It seems like nowhere is safe.

Three of this year’s shootings were in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The first was on January 19 at Pittsburgh’s Oliver Citywide Academy, a special education school.

A 15-year-old boy waiting in a van to go home was shot and killed after at least one person opened fire outside the school.


The second was on April 5 at Erie High School. A 16-year-old student was shot and injured at the school.

The third was on Sept 27 at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.

A 14-year-old student was killed and four others wounded (ages 17, 15, 14, and 14) in a shooting near the high school athletic field after a football scrimmage.

“Mr. Singer, what’s happening?” Olivia asked.

I turned to her confused at first then I realized what she meant.

“The lockdown? Let me check my laptop. No…. Nothing. I really don’t know, Honey. But I’m sure whatever it is, it will be over soon. Why don’t you get back to the assignment?”

“Okay.”

Such violence isn’t limited to schools.

On Sept 24 three people were shot in Kennywood Park, a popular amusement park in West Mifflin.


Two years ago in September a 15-year-old boy was killed and another was wounded in a shooting at the Haunted Hills Hayride in North Versailles.

In 2020 a man was shot and killed at Monroeville Mall. In 2015, a 17-year-old entered the men’s department on the lower level of Macy’s department store in the evening and shot his intended target and two bystanders, leaving two with critical injuries.

Is there anywhere safe anymore?

You can’t go to the mall. You can’t go on a haunted hayride. You can’t go to an amusement park.

I had students who were hiding in the mall during the 2015 shooting. My daughter wasn’t involved in any shootings but she went to Kennywood this summer.

Where does it stop?

Why are we doing so little?

A few weeks ago my school had another active shooter training for teachers while the students, thankfully, had a day off.

Every few years we do this. Teachers huddle in classrooms and try to react to a shooting scenario. We either barricade ourselves in our classrooms or try to find an escape route. We help train police and local medical personnel.

At this years training, teachers were given a talk by a law enforcement “expert” who regaled us with his time working as a Blackwater mercenary in Afghanistan. He told us how difficult it was to make decisions under fire but that sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.

“Some of you teachers have kids in wheelchairs in your classrooms. You think you’re going to get your whole class out of the building and to safety!? You have to ask yourself, how are you going to get that kid in the wheelchair out? What are you going to do if a child flips out or is too scared to move? I know it’s not nice to think about, but sometimes you have to make decisions that will save the most people – not necessarily everyone.”

It made me want to vomit. But he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

I like to believe I’d pick the child up out of his wheelchair, throw him over my shoulder and carry him to safety. I hope I could calm down a child having a panic attack and whisk her out of the building.

But could I really? Alone?

We do everything we can to prepare ourselves in case something like this happens – but as a society we do nothing – NOTHING – to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

Where’s increased gun regulations to make sure these weapons aren’t getting into the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable?

Where are bans on assault weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and war?

Where is increased liability for those recklessly selling firearms?

Where is anything we could be doing to make our schools, malls and places of entertainment safer?

“Mr. Singer, I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“You can’t hold it just a little longer, DeVon?”

“No,” he said hoping from foot to foot.

“Number 1 or number 2?”

He giggled and held up one finger.

I reluctantly pointed to the trash can.

“Take it over there to the corner. I’ll stand in front of you so…”

“Attention teachers! The lockdown has now been lifted. You may continue as normal.”

I sighed, unlocked the door and wrote DeVon a bathroom pass.

We never did find out what triggered the lockdown. One time it was a gunshot in the surrounding neighborhood. Another time it was an unauthorized adult seeking access to the building.

It could be much worse. And it will happen again.

The chances of it being a school shooter are low.

The chances of myself or my students being hurt or killed is even lower.

But it’s still too high.

Living under the constant shadow of this threat is creating a trauma that we’ve given up trying to solve and just call normal.

It is unacceptable.

We need to do more.

Not just on the days when one of these tragedies strike – but every day.

It is not safe for students and teachers – it will NEVER be completely safe, but it can be safer.

That’s the point – how safe can we make it?

And why aren’t we doing anything to reach that goal other than preparing for the worst?


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Top Five Republican Nightmare Fantasies About Public Schools

Republicans are fighting against a version of public education that does not exist.

Critical race theory, pornographic school books, and other bogeymen haunt their platforms without any evidence that this stuff is a reality.

Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee for Governor of Pennsylvania, actually promises to ban pole dancing in public schools.

Pole dancing!

“On day one, the sexualization of our kids, pole dancing, and all this other crap that’s going on will be forbidden in our schools,” he says.

Mr. Mastriano, I hate to tell you this, but the only school in the commonwealth where there was anything like what you describe was one of those charter schools you love so much. The Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School in Philadelphia used to run an illegal nightclub in the cafeteria after dark.

But at authentic public schools with things like regulations and school boards – no. That just doesn’t happen here.

Maybe if your plan to waste taxpayer dollars on universal school vouchers goes through you’ll get your wish.

But reality has never stopped the state Senator from complaining about a list of fictional public education woes.

On Twitter he routinely makes statements like this from August:

“Democrats are pushing woke ideology, racism, and sexuality on children in the classroom. As your governor, I will ban this on day one…”

Yikes. This is like promising to ban sorcery in school – another thing we don’t teach.

This isn’t the Republican Party I remember when I was growing up.

Instead of personal autonomy and free trade, today’s GOP solemnly swears to eliminate a series of racially and sexually motivated phantasms that are like shadows under a child’s bed. I suppose it’s easier to get rid of something that’s never existed than to fix the real problems we actually have.

But let’s be honest – for some folks this kind of unhinged messaging works.

Perhaps if we examine the most common claims against public schools, maybe we can see through the mist and electioneering to the very real fears the GOP is using in a desperate attempt to manipulate voters to their side.

So here are the top 5 Republican nightmare fantasies about public schools:

1) Teaching boys to hate themselves

“I believe that white men are the most persecuted identity in America.”

Georgia Congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene actually said this – out loud – in an interview.

And the GOP attention-seeker is not alone.

Many Republicans claim anti-male discrimination is wide spread. Men are blamed for so many things in our society they’re forced to turn to porn and video games because they have no other options, Green claimed.

And women have become “… too weak and pathetic to take care of themselves. They want a great big giant government to take care of them. It’s such a hypocrisy. They claim they want the future to be female, but they aren’t capable of taking care of themself.”

How did we get here? Public schools that teach sexual politics.

But, Marjorie, the following ARE facts:

-The US is one of only eight countries in the world that does not provide any form of paid maternity leave by federal law.  

-Women earn 83 cents for every dollar a man makes.

-Despite being almost 60% of the population, women hold only 26% of the seats in Congress.

Should we teach such facts in school?

Contrary to Republican opinion, teaching about the many ways women are unfairly treated in the US does not turn men into victims or make women helpless.

Male students are not responsible for a world created by past generations but they ARE responsible for picking a side and doing something about it as they become adult members of society.

In a country where a GOP-controlled Supreme Court has usurped women’s bodily autonomy by overturning Roe v. Wade and men still have untold economic advantages, redefining men as victims and education as infantalizing is, itself, a fantasy.

2) Teaching kids to be gay

Republicans literally think public school teachers are turning kids gay.

That’s the impetus behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill and several copycat bits of legislation the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is pumping out across the country.

They insist that even mentioning LGBTQ people exist is grooming children into a sexuality they wouldn’t otherwise have.

First, believing this shows massive ignorance.

No one can really be coerced into a sexuality they didn’t already possess. As you grow and mature, you have sexual preferences. It’s not really a matter of nurture – it’s nature. People are born this way.

Second, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that there are other ways to express your sexuality is not going to make people ignore their innate inclinations. The idea seems to be that if kids never find out there are other options, they’ll simply be satisfied with heterosexuality – how they’re told to think and feel.

And finally, it is extremely unfair to LGBTQ people. We already live in a culture that celebrates cis hetero-normativity. Trying to erase everyone else causes real harm and trauma to both people who are different and to those who are not but never get to fully understand the entire spectrum of humanity.

Teachers are not making kids gay, but they are telling kids that gay people are real. We are trying to stop bullying and homophobia. And let’s be honest – that’s really what Republicans are objecting to here.

They want it to be okay to hate gay people.

Sorry. Not in public school.

3) Teaching kids to be trans

This is where the backlash against using appropriate pronouns and recognizing trans people is coming from.

As much as Republicans hate gay people, they absolutely despise and fear the trans community.

Once again they conflate acknowledging the existence of the other with coercing students to become the other. Just knowing that trans is an authentic way human beings can live is seen as a threat. But if this kind of knowledge makes you trans, you almost certainly were trans already.

It hurts no one to call another person by the pronouns they would prefer you use. That’s just respect – treating others like you would want to be treated.

It hurts no one to see the world as bigger than just one way of living. This is reality, after all. And that’s what Republicans are rebelling against.

Far from teachers coercing students to become trans, the GOP wants us to bully children not to be. They want to constrain difference, punish and hide it.

This cannot be the mission of public schools. At its best, it is for everyone and must respect each child on their own terms.

It’s not easy. Recognizing such differences can be messy and challenging, but that’s life. Deal with it.

4) Teaching kids to hate white people

This is one of the most common complaints of Republicans everywhere.

Thy say public schools are woke. Public school teachers talk about racism and prejudice. They teach what was, what is and encourage kids to act to dismantle systems of injustice against people of color that persist.

Yeah. We do that.

I make no apologies.

It’s not Critical Race Theory (which is a legal framework) nor do we teach anyone to hate white people. But we do teach what whiteness has done and continues to do.

It’s called history and current events.

White kids today are not responsible for slavery, Jim Crow or a host of evils perpetrated throughout our collective past. But that doesn’t remove their responsibility to do something about it today.

Republicans, though, try to flip the script and call this teaching, itself, racism. That’s absurd! It is not racist to show kids injustice.

For example:

-Median household income for Black people, at $43,862, is 37 precent less than that of white people, at $69,823.

-Census data shows Black couples are more than twice as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage or a home improvement loan, which leads to just 59 percent of the median home equity white households have, and just 13 percent of Black wealth.

-A Black child born today can expect to live four years less than a white one.

-Black people have been more than twice as likely as white people to experience threats or uses of force during police encounters, and three times more likely to be jailed if arrested.

These facts matter.

They shouldn’t make children hate white people, but they may encourage them to hate white supremacy.

And that’s what Republicans are really against.

5) Teaching kids to be sexually active

This may be the strangest fantasy the GOP is trying to spread about public school.

They say we’re making kids engage in sexual activity. Which is strange because according to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer US children are choosing to engage in sexual activity.

An estimated 55% of male and female teens have had sexual intercourse by age 18, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

However, these percentages have declined since 1988 when 51% of female and 60% of male teens had engaged in sexual activity.

If public schools are teaching kids to bump uglies, we’re doing a bad job.

Are kids more sexualized today than in the past? Probably. But that’s a result of the culture. When you sell teenagers shorts with the word “juicy” on the butt, don’t complain about public schools.

Some schools offer sex education classes, but they are focused on health and wellness. There is no encouragement to have sex. In fact, many such classes are still teaching abstinence only instead of safe contraception.

The idea that public schools are teaching sex is just dog whistle politics. It is Republicans trying to scare parents that public schools are instilling values they don’t share. It is blaming public schools for social ills that the schools didn’t cause and don’t control.

Looked at calmly and rationally, all of these fantasies are just scare tactics to get the gullible to react emotionally on election day.

They want to terrify responsive voters into giving GOP candidates the power to stop a host of things that never really existed. They want an excuse for doing nothing to solve the actual problems of the day.

There’s a reason they spend so much time railing against woke education – they want to ensure America remains asleep.

A fitful sleep – tossing and turning in various Republican nightmares.


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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!

The Racist Origins of Standardized Testing Still Matter

Would you walk across a bridge that was designed to break?

Of course you wouldn’t.

But what if someone told you the bridge had been fixed?

Would you trust it – especially if people were still falling off of it all the time?

That’s the situation we’re in with standardized testing.

The tests were explicitly created more than a century ago to fail minorities and the poor.

And today, after countless revisions and new editions, they still do exactly the same thing.

Yet we’re exhorted to keep using them.

A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON

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


 In 1916, 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.

Colleague Lewis Terman made the goal clear in his book, The Measurement of Intelligence, that these “experimental” tests will show “enormously significant racial differences in general intelligence, differences which cannot be wiped out by any scheme of mental culture.” 

In 1923, another psychologist, 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.”


 
 Thus, Yerkes, Terman and Brigham’s pseudoscientific tests were used to justify Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even lynchings. Anything for “racial purity.” 


People took this research very seriously. States passed forced sterilization laws for people with “defective” traits, preventing between 60,000 and 70,000 people from “polluting” America’s ruling class. 

The practice was even upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision. Justices decided that mandatory sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals was, in fact, Constitutional.


 Of the ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” 


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. The same as nearly every standardized test still does.

HAS IT CHANGED?

None of this can be challenged. These are historical facts. They are simply what happened justified in the words of the people who perpetrated them.

However, champions of continuing the practice of standardized testing most often defend the practice by appealing to time.

This was all a long time ago, they say. Much has changed between now and then.

But has it? Really?

We certainly don’t use the editions of the tests written by the original eugenicists, but the practices used to create them and the results of these assessments are extremely similar.

In 1964, a Department of Education report found that the average black high school senior scored below 87% of white seniors (in the 13 percentile) on standardized assessments. Fifty years later, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that black seniors had narrowed the gap until they were merely behind 81% of white seniors (scoring in the 19th percentile).

Is that really the kind of progress you want to champion?

The reason for the disparity has nothing to do with the learning students of color (and the poor whose scores are similar) achieve nor their worth as human beings.

It is in the very concept of standardized testing.

Discrimination is purposefully built in to the standardization process, according to W. James Popham, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles and former test maker. He explained in an interview with Frontline:

“Traditionally constructed standardized achievements, the kinds that we’ve used in this country for a long while, are intended chiefly to discriminate among students … to say that someone was in the 83rd percentile and someone is at 43rd percentile. And the reason you do that is so you can make judgments among these kids. But in order to do so, you have to make sure that the test has in fact a spread of scores. One of the ways to have that test create a spread of scores is to limit items in the test to socioeconomic variables, because socioeconomic status is a nicely spread out distribution, and that distribution does in fact spread kids’ scores out on a test.”

The scores have to fall into categories – Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced, for instance. If too many students cluster in the middle, the results are invalid. We need the scores spread out – even if we must resort to non-educational factors to get there.

Family income is not something the tests ignore, says Popham. It is an essential component specifically tested for in question construction. In fact, he claims that between 15-80% of the questions (depending on the subject area) on norm-referenced exams are linked to socio-economic status (SES).

Thus minorities with higher percentages of impoverished people are selected against. Not because of any explicit racist ideology – but to get the pretty bell curve standardized assessments require.

Young Whan Choi, Manager of Performance Assessments at Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California, agreed.

“Too often, test designers rely on questions which assume background knowledge more often held by White, middle-class students. It’s not just that the designers have unconscious racial bias; the standardized testing industry depends on these kinds of biased questions in order to create a wide range of scores.”

For example, Choi recalled a 10th grade student in his class asking him about a standardized test question. “With a puzzled look, she pointed to the prompt asking students to write about the qualities of someone who would deserve a “key to the city.” Many of my students, nearly all of whom qualified for free and reduced lunch, were not familiar with the idea of a ‘key to the city.’”

So when they get such a question wrong, it isn’t necessarily because they don’t know the concept being tested, but they don’t understand what was being asked in the first place.

Test makers could work to eliminate such instances but that would reduce the spread of answers. It would destroy the bell curve – and thus invalidate the goal of the test which ultimately is not assessing learning but sorting and ranking students.

Jay Rosner, a national admissions test expert, explained how this bias is built-in to the process for each revision of assessments like the SAT:


“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.

Public schools have no control over these factors. That’s why schools serving poor and minority students invariably have lower test scores. Popham concludes there will always be a testing gap because that’s the way the system is designed.

He says it’s “A game without winners.” Or more likely a game where the poor and minorities cannot win.

And that’s how the system was designed.

Whether it’s the 1920s or the 2020s.

Standardized tests came from racists assumptions about human intelligence.

And that still matters today.

We no longer profess eugenicist ideas of racial purity embedded in our assessments as self evident or based on science. But they’re there none-the-less.

Today, the very concept of intelligence being quantifiable remains in question.

In “The Mismeasurement of Man,” evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould challenged many of these ideas – in particular those of Terman. Rather than see intelligence as a genetic trait, Gould envisioned it more abstractly and thus shattered the idea that any mere number could capture human value.

Complex instances of learning cannot be accurately standardized. They have to be measured in context of the students and the learning community where they were acquired.

But this is a relatively new idea. Accepting it requires us to turn the page on a rather dark passage of our national history.

We must move on from the original test makers narrow-minded, racist ideas about intelligence and human worth.

And to do that we must leave standardized testing far, far behind.

We can’t just give a faulty bridge a new coat of paint. We must demolish it and rebuild an entirely new structure to carry us into the future.


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When Good Students Get Bad Standardized Test Scores 

 
 
Ameer is a good student.  


 
He takes notes in class, does all his homework and participates in discussions.  


 
He writes insightful essays and demonstrates a mastery of spelling and grammar.  


 
He reads aloud with fluency and inflection. He asks deep questions about the literature and aces nearly all of his classroom reading comprehension tests. 


 
However, when it is standardized test time, things are very different.  


 
He still arrives early, takes his time with the questions and reviews his work when he’s done – but the results are not the same.  


 
His grades are A’s. His test scores are Below Basic. 


 
How is that?  


 
How can a student demonstrate mastery of a subject in class but fail to do the same on a standardized test?  


 
And which assessment should I, his teacher, take seriously?  


 
After all, they can’t BOTH be correct. 


 
This is a problem with which most classroom teachers are forced to contend.  


 
Bureaucrats at the administrative or state level demand teachers assess students with standardized tests but the results often contradict a year or more of observation. 


 
Take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  


 
This year at my Western Pennsylvania district, administration decided to use this computer-based standardized assessment as a pre-test or practice assessment before the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). 


 
I’ve already written about what a waste of time and money this is. A test before the test!? 


 
But after reluctantly subjecting my classes to the MAP and being instructed to analyze the results with my colleagues, we noticed this contradiction. 


 
In many cases, scores did not match up with teacher expectations for our students.  


 
In about 60-80% of cases, students who had demonstrated high skills in the subject were given scores below the 50th percentile – many below the 25th percentile.  


 
These were kids with average to high grades who the MAP scored as if they were in the bottom half of their peers across the state. 


 
 Heck! A third of my students are in the advanced class this year – but the MAP test would tell me most of them need remediation! 


 
If we look at that data dispassionately, there are possible explanations. For one, students may not have taken the test seriously. 


 
And to some degree this is certainly the case. The MAP times student responses and when they are input fast and furious, it stops the test taker until the teacher can unlock the test after warning them against rapid guessing. 


 
However, the sheer number of mislabeled students is far too great to be accounted for in this way. Maybe five of my students got the slow down sloth graphic. Yet so many more were mislabeled as failures despite strong classroom academics. 


 
The other possibility – and one that media doom-mongers love to repeat – is that districts like mine routinely inflate mediocre achievement so that bad students look like good ones.  


 
In other words, they resolve the contradiction by throwing away the work of classroom teachers and prioritizing what standardized tests say


 
Nice for them. However, I am not some rube reading this in the paper. I am not examining some spreadsheet for which I have no other data. I am IN the classroom every day observing these very same kids. I’ve been right there for almost an entire grading period of lessons and assessments – formative and summative. I have many strong indications of what these kids can do, what they know and what they don’t know.  


 
Valuing the MAP scores over weeks of empirical classroom data is absurd.  


 
I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with more than two decades experience. But Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a testing company out of Portland, Oregon, wants me to believe that after 90 minutes it knows my students better than I do after six weeks! 


 
Time to admit the MAP is a faulty product. 


 
But it’s not just that one standardized test. We find the same disparity with the PSSA and other like assessments.  


 
Nationally, classroom grades are better than these test scores.  


 
In the media, pundits tell us this means our public school system is faulty. Yet that conclusion is merely an advertisement for these testing companies and a host of school privatization enterprises offering profit-making alternatives predicated on that exact premise.  


 
So how to resolve the contradiction? 


 
The only logical conclusion one can draw is that standardized assessments are bad at determining student learning.  


 
In fact, that is not their primary function. First and foremost, they are designed to compare students with each other. How they make that comparison – based on what data – is secondary.  


 
The MAP, PSSA and other standardized tests are primarily concerned with sorting and ranking students – determining which are best, second best and so on. 


 
By contrast, teacher-created tests are just the opposite. They are designed almost exclusively to assess whether learning has taken place and to what degree. Comparability isn’t really something we do. That’s the province of administrators and other support staff.  


 
The primary job of teaching is just that – the transfer of knowledge, offering opportunities and a conducive environment for students to learn.  


 
That is why standardized tests fail so miserably most of the time. They are not designed for the same function. They are about competition, not acquisition of knowledge or skill. 


 
That’s why so many teachers have been calling for the elimination of standardized testing for decades. It isn’t just inaccurate and a waste of time and money. It gets in the way of real learning.  


 
You can’t give a person a blood transfusion if you can’t accurately measure how much blood you’re giving her. And comparing how much blood was given to a national average of transfusions is not helpful. 


 
You need to know how much THIS PERSON needs. You need to know what would help her particular needs.  


 
When good students get bad test scores, it invariably means you have a bad test.  


 
 
An entire year of daily data points is not invalidated by one mark to the contrary.  


 
Until society accepts this obvious truth, we will never be able to provide our students with the education they deserve.  

Good students will continue to be mislabeled for the sake of a standardized testing industry that is too big to fail.


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!