Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation. Worry About Grading Fairly.

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Hard work should be rewarded.

 

If you earn an A in a given class, you should get an A on your report card.

 

And this is true no matter how many of your classmates work just as hard as you do.

 

If everyone in class gives it their best shot, they should all get A’s. It is not the teacher’s job to split hairs and sort kids into arbitrary categories in order to preserve a monetary myth about grades’ value based on a model of scarcity.

 

Those who demand otherwise are under the spell of one of the oldest myths in academia – grade inflation.

 

It goes like this: You can’t give all your students excellent marks! That would devalue what it means to get an A!

 

To which I reply: Bullshit.

 

Almost every plane that leaves an airport lands safely. Does that devalue what it means to travel? When you arrive at your destination, are you upset that everyone else has arrived safely or would you feel better if some of the planes crashed?

 

According to the American Journal of Public Health, 93% of New York City restaurants earn an “A” from the health department. Does that shake your faith in the food service industry? Would you feel better if more restaurants were unsanitary? Would your food digest more efficiently if there were more people going home with stomach pain and food poisoning?

 

Of course not! In fact, these stats actually reassure us about both industries. We’re glad air travel and eating out is so safe. Why would we feel any different about academia?

 

The idea of grade inflation is a simple imposition of the concept of economic value onto learning. It has no meaning in the field of academics, psychology or ethics. It is just some fools who worship money imaging that the whole world works the same way – and if it doesn’t, it should.

 

It’s nothing new.

 

Conservatives have been whining about grade inflation for at least a century. It’s not that the quality of teachers has declined and they’re letting all their students pass without doing the work. It’s that certain types of curmudgeons want to justify their own intelligence by denying others the same privilege.

 

It’s the “I’ve Got Mine” philosophy.

 

We see the same thing with Baby Boomers who grew up in the counter culture and pushed for progressive values in their youth. Once they got everything they wanted for themselves, they became conservatives in their old age and worked to deny the same things for subsequent generations.

 

It’s the very definition of Age scoffing at Youth – a pathology that goes back at least to Hesiod if not further. (Golden age of man, my foot!)

 

Moreover, there is no authentic way to prove grade inflation is actually happening. Grades are a subjective measure of student learning. They are human beings’ attempt to gauge an invisible mental process. At best they are frail approximations of a complex neural process that is not even bounded temporally or causally. If a student doesn’t know something now, they may come to know it later even without further academic stimulus. Moreover, isolating the stimulus that produced the learning is also nearly impossible.

 

The important thing is not grade inflation. It is ensuring that grades are given fairly.

 

If students work hard, they should be rewarded.

 

I am very upfront with my students about this. And doing so seems to have a positive and motivating effect on them.

 

This year, I had students who told me they had never read a book from cover-to-cover before my class. I’ve had students look at their report cards in shock saying they’ve never received such high marks in Language Arts before. And doing so makes them want to try all the harder next year to repeat the results.

 

They leave me excited about learning. They feel empowered and ready to give academics their all. Because the greatest lesson a teacher can instill is that the student is capable of learning.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just hand out these grades. Students have to earn them. They have to demonstrate that they have actually learned something.

 

Everyone rarely measures up to the challenge. But that’s not the point. Everyone COULD. There is nothing in my design that prohibits that outcome. I don’t start with the assumption that I’ll only have 3 A’s, 4 B’s, 10 C’s, etc.

 

In fact, it is THAT scarcity model that dumbs down academics. If I grade on a curve like that, I have to give out a certain number of high marks regardless of achievement. I’m committed to giving out those 3 A’s regardless of whether that trio of students deserve it or not. However, in my abundance model, I give exactly the number of A’s that are deserved. If that’s zero, no one gets an A. If that’s everyone, then everyone gets an A. It all depends on what students actually deserve, not some preconceived notion about how the world works.

 

To do this, I give very few tests. I just don’t find them to be very helpful assessments.

 

A test is a snapshot of student learning. It has its place, but the information it gives you is very limited.

 

 

Most of my grades are based on projects, homework, essays, class discussion, creative writing, journaling, poetry, etc. Give me a string of data points from which I can extrapolate a fair grade – not just one high stakes data point.

 

This may work to some degree because of the subject I teach. Language arts is an exceptionally subjective subject, after all. It may be more challenging to do this in math or science. However, it is certainly attainable because it is not really that hard to determine whether students have given you their best work.

 

Good teaching practices lend themselves to good assessment.

 

You get to know your students. You watch them work. You help them when they struggle. By the time they hand in their final product, you barely need to read it. You know exactly what it says because you were there for its construction.

 

For me, this doesn’t mean I have no students who fail. Almost every year I have a few who don’t achieve. This is usually because of attendance issues, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, home issues or simple laziness.

 

I only have control over what happens in the classroom, after all. I can call home and try to work with parents, but if those parents are – themselves – absent, unavailable or unwilling to work with me, there’s little I can do.

 

And before you start on about standardized testing and the utopia of “objectivity” it can bring, let me tell you about one such student I had who was not even trying in my class.

 

He never turned in homework, never tried his best on assignments, rarely attended and sleepwalked through the year. However, he knew his only chance was the state mandated reading test – so for three days he was present and awake. The resulting test score was the only reason he moved on to the next grade.

 

Was he smart? Yes. Did he deserve to go on to the next grade not having learned the important lessons of his classmates? No. But your so-called “objective” measure valued three days of effort over 180.

 

The problem is that we are in love with certain academic myths.

 

MYTH 1: Grading must be objective.

 

WRONG! Grading will never be objective because it is done by subjective humans. These standardized tests you’re so in love with are deeply biased on economic and racial lines. Whether you pass or fail is determined by a cut score and a grading curve that changes from year-to-year making them essentially useless for comparisons and as valid assessments. They’re just a tool for big business to make money off the academic process.

 

MYTH 2: Learning is Economics.

 

WRONG! Grades are not money. They don’t function in any way like currency or capital. They aren’t something to be bought and sold. They are an approximate indication of academic success. Treating them as a commodity only degrades their value and the value of students and learning, itself.

 

Treating grades economically actually represses the desire to learn, dispels curiosity and eliminates the intrinsic value of education.

 

So go ahead – inflate the “value” of your grades.

 

Give A’s to every student who deserves it.

 

That’s how you promote learning and fairly assess it.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

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There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

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Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.

Kiss My Assessment – A High Stakes Testing Poem

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Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.

 

 

Little Laquan, Empty belly

Reading passages by Maichiavelli

Does he know what the author thinks

Last night did he get forty winks

Drive-by shooting in his neighborhood

Answer questions that he should

Interrogated by the cops

Took away and locked his pops

Now he sits slumped in school

Testing, testing, it’s a rule

Will he – this time – make the grade

A debt to society he has paid

 

 

For being poor and his black skin

Success and riches, let me in!

But not unless you answer right

Like wealthy kids whose hue is white

Not two plus two or three and four

Context implied when you ask for

European culture and white society

If you know it, you’re in propriety

If not, take a longer road

Hurdles to jump and words to decode

 

 

But do not label the test unfair

Rich folks will blast you with hot air

Testing makes them bundles of billions

Leaching off of us civilians

Test prep, grading and remediation

Never mind that it keeps you in your station

Need new books, here’s Common Core

So big corporations can make some more

Money off your starving schools

The funding is drying up in pools

 

 

As politicians vote to gut

So they can give bankers another tax cut

Hotels and yachts and Maltese vacations

Touring havens in other nations

To hide their money and avoid paying

Anything to keep preying

On little kids and their moms

So long as they aren’t forced to pay alms

 

 

No nurses, no librarians, no psychologists

Nothing to feed a tummy or an esophagus

No fancy buildings, no small class sizes

Nothing to match the suburban enterprises

Fewer resources, fewer tutors,

Crumbling classrooms, archaic computers

Just give them tests as charity

And pretend it means populace parity

When he fails, we’ll blame Laquan

Fire his teacher and make her move on

 

 

Close his school and open a charter

And then his services we can barter

To turn his funding into profit

Democracy melts like warm chocolate

Private boards get public voice

Deciding who to enroll and calling it choice

Spending tax money behind closed doors

Filling classrooms with Americorps

Instructors who never earned a degree

But cheap trumps any pedigree

For teachers to teach the darkest of humans

As long as they don’t form any pesky unions

Reformers they’re called, really just hypocrites

Wolves with sheep skin in their identity kits

 

 

They might refuse to come out of the closet

But don’t burn this humble prophet

Who tells you the truth about high stakes tests

About the school system and the unholy mess

We’ve made for kids so hedge funders

Can bark and rave and push for blunders

To make money off of kids misery

And a better world – not for you, not for me.

Am I obsessed and distressed by oppressive divestment?

Oh who cares? Kiss my assessment!

 

 

Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.


NOTE: I wrote this poem during and after proctoring this year’s PSSA test for my 7th grade students. Can’t imagine where the inspiration came from! I’ll just say that the opposite of standardized testing has always seemed to be poetry. I hope you enjoyed my verses.  It was either that or spit curses!


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Alt Right Has a Friend in Common Core

 

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Let’s say you’re a modern-day hipster Nazi.

 

 

You’re bummed out.

 

 

No one wants to hang out with you because of your bald head and your red suspenders and your commitment to the ideals of a defeated and disgraced totalitarian regime.

 

 

What are you to do?

 

 

REBRAND, son!

 

 

It’s simple.

 

 

No more National Socialist German Workers Party! That sounds too pinko!

 

 

Now you’re simply a member of the Alt Right!

 

 

It’s not racist! You’re just committed to traditional attitudes and values — if those traditional attitudes and values come from 1945 Berlin!

 

 

Heck, you don’t even have to call yourself Alt Right.

 

 

You can call yourself a White Identitarian.

 

You aren’t over-concerned with any one side of the political spectrum or other. You just strongly identify with whiteness — and by extension increasing the political power of white people at the expense of all others.

 

 

That’s all.

 

 

It should be obvious that this isn’t merely rebranding. It’s propaganda.

 

In today’s fast paced information age – where every fact is merely a Google away – that can be hard to get away with – UNLESS

 

 

Unless you already have a readymade tool to protect propaganda from the kind of informed critical thought that can pop it like a bubble. Something to insolate the ignorance and keep out the enlightened analysis.

 

 

I am, of course, talking about Common Core.

 

 

What!?

 

 

How does Common Core have anything to do with white nationalism?

 

 

Common Core is just a set of academic standards for what should be taught in public schools adopted by 42 of 50 states.

 

 

Academic standards aren’t political. Are they?

 

Actually, they are. Quite political.

 

Just take a look at how the standards came to be adopted in the first place.

 

The Obama administration bribed and coerced the states to adopt these standards before many of them were even done being written.

 

 

Hold your horses. The Obama administration!? That doesn’t sound exactly like a friend of the Third Reich.

 

And it wasn’t.

 

 

It was a friend to big business.

 

When first created, these standards weren’t the result of a real educational need, nor were they written by classroom educators and psychologists. They were written by the standardized testing industry as a ploy to get federal, state and local governments to recommit to standardized testing through buying new tests, new text books, new software and new remediation materials.

 

 

It was a bipartisan effort supported by the likes of Obama, the Clintons and Bill Gates on the left and Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos and Bobby Jindal on the right.

 

 

After Obama’s success pushing them down our collective throats, many Republicans vocally decried the standards – often while quietly supporting them.

 

That’s why after all this time very few state legislatures have repealed them despite being controlled predominantly by Republicans.

 

Okay, so what does this have to do with the Alt Right?

 

 

People like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are engaged in redefining the conservative movement. Instead of circulating ideas with a merely racist and classist undertone, they want to make those subtleties more explicit.

 

Most aren’t about to hop out of the closet and declare themselves open Nazis or members of the Hitler fan club, but they want to make it clear exactly how wunderbar the Fuhrer’s ideals are with a wink and a smirk.

 

For instance, Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

 

 

When exactly was America great? When white people had unchallenged political and social power and minorities and people of color knew their place. That’s when.

 

 

This is obvious to some of us, but we face a real obstacle making it obvious to others.

 

And that obstacle is Common Core.

 

 

A generation of Americans have been brought up with these shoddy academic standards that don’t develop critical thinking but actively suppress it.

 

 

For instance, take the absurd ravings of the Core’s chief writer – and current head of the College Board – David Coleman.

 

 

Going counter to the thinking of nearly every expert on literacy, he emphasized cold or close reading over reading text in context.

 

 

In particular, he said:

 

 

“Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think… It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

 

 

Later, he added:

 

 

“The most popular 3rd grade standard in American today…is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is that no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either.”

 

And finally:

 

 

“This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.”

 

 

However, Coleman was dead wrong on all counts.

 

 

What you think and feel IS important. The requirements of the corporate world ARE NOT the only reasons to teach something. Being able to distinguish between similar but different concepts IS important. And context is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to understanding!

 

For instance, today’s spin doctor Nazis soon realized that you can’t go goose stepping down main street blindly espousing how much better it is to be white — better than, say, being black or Jewish.

 

 

But you can hang up posters in college campuses that say the same sort of thing in a cutesy, passive aggressive way. For instance: “It’s okay to be white.”

 

If we look just at the text, as Coleman advises, we see a rather innocuous statement.

 

 

There’s nothing racist here. It’s just a simple statement that being white is also acceptable.

 

 

However, if we add back the context, we find an indirect racial undertone.

 

These posters weren’t put up willy nilly. They were hung on college campuses where white nationalists wearing MAGA hats were recruiting. They were pasted over Black Lives Matter posters, accompanying drawings of Donald Trump.

 

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In context, then, this statement doesn’t just mean “It’s okay to be white.” It means “It’s okay to be pro-white supremacist, to be pro-white power.”

 

 

And that brings up two other examples.

 

 

MAGA – Make America Great Again.

 

Take it out of context and it’s innocuous. It just means to increase the abstract greatness of the country to what it was at some unspecified time in the past.

 

However, if we put that statement in the context of the Trump campaign and its xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc. — then it’s meaning becomes clear. As noted above, it’s an ode to white power and nostalgia for greater white privilege.

 

 

And “Black Lives Matter”? Why do many of these same Identitarians take exception to that slogan and the movement behind it?

 

 

The Alt Right says BLM is reverse racist. They claim the name BLM means “ONLY black lives matter.”

 

 

Context tells us differently.

 

 

The BLM group was formed in response to the indiscriminate murder of people of color and those who committed these crimes not behind held accountable. Officer Darren Wilson not indicted for killing Michael Brown. Officer Daniel Pantaleo not indicted for killing Eric Garner. Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback not indicted for killing Tamir Rice. And on and on.

 

 

Yet the Alt Right is allowed to mischaracterize a simple call for peace as if it identified a terrorist organization.

 

 

Why? Because context has been banished from the building.

 

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I’m not saying that Common Core has caused these problems, but it has allowed them.

 

I doubt this is what Coleman, who is Jewish, intended.

 

 

But whenever you water down critical thinking – even if it’s for purely practical ends – you end up hurting everyone.

 

 

The best societies praise intellect and tolerance.

 

 

For all their faults, our founders knew this. That’s why they emphasized the importance of public education.

 

 

If we had ensured everyone in the country had access to the best possible education, this modern Nazi subculture wouldn’t be able to make as much headway as it has.

 

 

This is yet another way that our obsession with unrestrained capitalism, neoliberalism and plutocracy has put us on a road that may end in fascism.

When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.

Gamification – The Hottest New Trend to Monetize Education

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When I was a kid, Super Mario Bros. was my jam.

 

After school, I couldn’t wait to take on the role of plucky plumber Mario or his brother Luigi. I’d jump on a few turtle shells, bounce over a bottomless pit and smash just the right secret brick to get my flashing star power up and wipe the floor with endless levels of Koopa Troopas.

 

But through it all, I never really learned anything.

 

With the possible exception of a few Italian stereotypes, the only knowledge I gained was where the warp zones were, which blocks to hit and the muscle memory necessary to defeat the next bad guy.

 

However, now-a-days that’s all changed.

 

Someone in marketing and accounting has decided that the same techniques I used to save Princess Toadstool would make an exceptional method of pedagogy.

 

They call it gamification, the process of making academic lessons, courses and objectives look more like video games.

 

Sure, the process has applications in the business world and advertising, but its biggest market has been education.

 

In fact, the Gamification industry is worth $2 billion worldwide and some estimate it to jump to $22 billion by 2022.

 

Want to teach grammar? Welcome to the good ship Verb sailing on the seas of Nouns and Pronouns. Interjections, A-hoy!

 

Wish your students knew fractions? Let them blast away the wrong numbers so only the correct numerator matches with the correct denominator.

 

That kind of thing.

 

It’s incredibly popular in some circles.

 

Advocates claim it increases student engagement and enthusiasm, provides instant feedback and the opportunity for social interactions.

 

Critics say it reduces students’ attention spans, narrows the curriculum and replaces human interaction with canned interfaces.

 

But when something is bringing in this kind of cash for big business, it’s kind of beside the point whether it works or not.

 

It’s the latest form of snake oil out of the cobra factory, and your teacher may be forced to pour it into your children’s brains.

 

That’s just Education 2018. Under the old model, the hucksters would have to approach each teacher one-at-a-time and convince them to try the shinny new toy in the box. But when you remove teacher autonomy, that frees all the used car salesmen to go right to the one person in your district – often the technology coordinator or academic coach – who controls the purse strings and convince him or her to buy what they’re selling.

 

In short, I’m not a fan.

 

In fact, I think gamification is one of the dumbest fads to hit public schools since standardized testing.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

Games can have limited use in the classroom.

 

My students love reviewing already mastered material in teams or competing against each other individually.

 

But there’s a big difference between playing Jeopardy or Kahoot with soon-to-be-tested material and plopping kids on an app or software package that pretends to teach them the concept.

There’s a world of difference between a 10-minute detour and an entire curriculum structured around game theory.

 

The biggest problem seems to be this.

 

Games are not intrinsically valuable.

 

They are good or bad based on the amount of fun they provide the user.

 

Be honest. No one really cares if Link puts together the Tri-force. No one is losing any sleep over rampaging Metroids on the loose. No one is putting out an Amber Alert the next time Princess Peach is inevitably kidnapped by Bowser. The only thing that matters is if meeting these objectives and countering these fictional bad guys is fun and exciting.

 

However, the same is not true for the ends of education.

 

People care whether you can read and write. You may lose sleep over being unable to add, subtract, multiple and divide. Co-workers will be alerted if you don’t comprehend the basics of science and history.

 

And the higher the skill we’re aiming for, the greater the degree of importance.

 

Gamification divorces these two ends. It turns education from an intrinsic activity into an extrinsic one.

 

This is a big deal.

 

Students shouldn’t struggle through a reading passage so they’ll get a score or a badge. They should actually care about what they’re reading.

 

My students and I just finished reading Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and they loved it.

 

After the first few chapters, they weren’t reading for a grade or to please me, their teacher. They truly wanted to know what would happen next. And to fully understand that, they had to exercise and refine their reading skills.

 

Look at it like this.

 

When I was playing Super Mario Bros., I often took a few warp zones to the last board so I could beat Bowser quickly and win the game. But that means I skipped over most of the first seven boards.

 

This didn’t matter because the only reason to play was to win. But if those first boards had included something important to the experience, skipping them would have greatly diminished my experience.

 

Gamification reduces learning until its meaningless. Why would anyone want to know something unless it carried with it a video game like reward?

 

And that’s merely the worst part.

 

In practice, most of the applications and software being pushed on kids to increase enthusiasm and motivation aren’t really very much fun at all. After a few times through, there isn’t much reason to plow through exposition heavy content with little to do. This material doesn’t connect to students’ lives, it doesn’t foster authentic competition, it doesn’t stoke their sense of wonder – it’s just a boring set of hoops to jump through to satisfy the instructor.

 

Admittedly, it does provide instant feedback, but that doesn’t matter if students don’t care about the matter at hand.

 

Social interactions are possible here but rarely have I seen this opportunity explored. A good group project will get students more engaged socially than messaging back and forth about the software challenge du jour.

 

Education can be so much more than this.

 

Students are being robbed of authentic interactions, authentic instruction and authentic learning.

 

Not all things should be turned into a game.

 

Gamification is another example of trying too hard to market something to people who won’t actually be using it in the hopes that they won’t notice it doesn’t actually work that well.

 

The consumer isn’t the gamer – it’s the administrator who buys the program. And the people best suited to assess the program’s success – teachers and students – aren’t even part of the equation.

 

It’s about monetization, not education.

 

Mario may grab a bunch of coins on his way to save the princess, but it is the corporations who are getting rich off this sad fad.

 

All that glitters is not gold, just as all that is new and technological is not cutting edge.

 

 

Can we stop letting big business drive the field and let education be determined by educators?

 

 

Otherwise, it will be game over for an entire generation of kids duped into accepting crap for curriculum.

Creating a Charter or Voucher School is Like Designing a Utopia – Biases Prevail

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Create your own Utopia!

 

Go ahead! Don’t be shy!

 

What kind of government would you like? Republic, Monarchy, Dictatorship, Anarchy? Some combination or original system?

 

It’s all up to you.

 

How would you structure the economy? Capitalistic, Socialistic, Communistic? Something else?

 

You decide.

 

What would a family look like in your perfect society? How would careers be prepared for and chosen? What level of technology would you choose?

 

All these and more must be answered when creating the ideal community for you and I to live in.

 

And that’s exactly what I had my 7th grade students do this week in preparation for reading Lois Lowery’s science fiction novel, “The Giver.”

 

In small groups, my little ones clustered together at their tables and gave social planning a go.

 

It was stunning the variety of societies they created.

 

One group had a nominal anarchy with an inherited monarchy controlling the military. Another had an oligarchy of the smartest people who got the best grades to make all the decisions while everyone else played video games.

 

 

One of my favorites though was a group who decided to let women make all the rules except who could marry whom. That was decided only by the men, but women got to decide when to have kids and how many to have.

 

It was fascinating to see how their little minds worked.

 

But it was all a preview to Lowery’s novel of a futuristic society where utopia soon descends into dystopia.

 

As it often does.

 

So it made me wonder about the most utopian thinking we find in modern life – education policy.

 

The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.

 

Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.

 

 

But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of the assignment my kids did this week.

 

After all, what is a charter school but some naïve person’s ideal of the perfect educational institution? What’s a voucher school but a theocracy elevated to the normative secular level?

 

In each case, these world builders do the same as my middle schoolers – they build a system that would be perfect – from their own individual point of view.

 

In his book, “Utopian Studies: A Guide,” Prof. Gregory Eck writes:

 

Because… utopia is rooted in theory, it will not always work.  In fact, more is written about the failure and impossibility of utopia than of its success, probably because the ideal has never been reached.

 

 

And why is that ideal never reached? Margaret Atwood, the author of more than a few dystopian novels, has an answer.

 

“Every utopia,” she says, “…faces the same problem: What do you do with the people who don’t fit in?”

 

One person’s paradise is another person’s Hell.

 

So the idea of designing one system that fits all is essentially bound to fail.

 

But doesn’t that support the charter and voucher school ideal? They are marketed, after all, as “school choice.” They allegedly give parents and children a choice about which schools to attend.

 

Unfortunately, this is just a marketing term.

 

Charter and voucher schools don’t actually provide more choice. They provide less.

 

Think about it.

 

Who get to choose whether you attend one of these schools? Not you.

 

Certainly you have to apply, but it’s totally up to the charter or voucher school operators whether they want to accept you.

 

It is the public school system that gives you choice. You decide to live in a certain community, you get to go to that community’s schools. Period.

 

Certainly some communities are more accessible than others, and they are more accessible for some people than others – whether that be for economic, social, racial or religious reasons.

 

But you have much more choice here than you do from a bunch of nameless bureaucrats making decisions in secret that they never have to justify and for which they will never be held accountable.

 

What about curriculum? Don’t charter and voucher schools offer choice of curriculum?

 

No. They have one way of doing things. They have one curriculum. Either accept it or get out.

 

This is how we do things at KIPP. This is how we do things at Success Academy. You don’t like it, there’s the door.

 

By contrast, public schools tailor their curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. Each teacher does something different for every child in his or her charge whether those children are in special education, regular education, Emotional Support, the English as a Second Language Program, the academic or honors track.

 

Charter and voucher schools are naive utopias.

 

They propose one ideal way to teach all children and they expect parents to jump at their cultish schemes. All students will wear these sorts of uniforms and chant these sorts of phrases in response to these orders, etc. All children will be expected to provide marketing research to corporations on competency based learning programs and let their data be mined by these advertisers.

 

Because at these schools the emphasis is not on the curriculum. It’s on the system, itself.

 

These are privatized schools. They are schools run by private industry – not the public.

 

Decisions are not made by duly-elected representatives of the community in the light of day. They are made behind closed doors by corporate stooges.

 

THAT is the great innovation behind these schools. Everything else is mere window dressing.

 

If one of these schools found a better way to teach, public schools could pick it up and do it even better because the teachers and principals would be accountable for doing it correctly.

 

Funny how that’s never happened.

 

These so-called lab schools have never produced a single repeatable, verifiable innovation that works for all students without cherry picking the best and brightest.

 

Not once.

 

That’s because the utopia these policy wonks are interested in building isn’t for the students or parents. It’s for the investors.

 

They want to maximize return on investment. They want to decrease costs and increase profits. And whatever happens to the students is purely secondary.

 

It may be the ideal situation for the moneymen, but it’s often pure dystopia for the students. Charter schools are closed without notice, the money stolen under cloak of night. Voucher schools fool kids into thinking creationism is science and then are no where to be found when reputable colleges want nothing to do with their graduates.

 

Let me be the first to say that public school is no utopia.

 

We have real problems.

 

We need adequate, equitable and sustainable funding. We need integration. We need autonomy, respect and competitive pay for teachers. We need protection from corporate vultures in the standardized testing, publishing, edtech and school privatization industries.

 

But at heart, public schools are a much better choice because they don’t pretend to be perfect.

 

They are constantly changing. Teachers are constantly innovating.

 

A handful of years ago, I never had students design their own utopias before reading “The Giver.” But a colleague came up with the idea, I modified it for my students and we were off.

 

If I teach the same course next year, I’d modify it again based on what worked and what didn’t work this year.

 

I’m not expecting to be perfect.

 

I’m just doing the best I can.

 

Or as Jack Carroll puts it:

 

Perhaps the greatest utopia would be if we could all realize that no utopia is possible; no place to run, no place to hide, just take care of business here and now.

 


 

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