Plaintiffs complain that the program is vague, requires teachers to think a certain way, encroaches on districts’ autonomy to pick their own curriculum and threatens to take away owed subsidies if districts don’t comply.
Let’s examine each in turn.
Is the policy vague? No way. It has nine core competencies, each with between 4 and 7 standards. These are guidelines and certainly don’t outline every possible use, but you could argue they’re detailed to a fault. One regulation requires educators to disrupt harmful institutional practices. Another asks educators to acknowledge microaggressions – when someone unintentionally expresses prejudice towards a person or group.
Do they encroach on district’s autonomy? That’s debatable – but should districts really resist taking steps to make themselves less racist?
Do they threaten districts with loss of funding if schools don’t comply? I don’t see anything explicit in the program that says this, but that could be implicit in the program or have been expressed by PDE employees. In any case, I don’t see why it’s a problem to offer tools to do something you really should want to do anyway.
In short, there’s nothing wrong with the guidelines, per se, if you agree that racism is something schools and teachers should strive against. Now I can’t read people’s minds, and I don’t know explicitly what their motivations are, but the real issue seems to be that certain people don’t believe in the cause.
They don’t believe racism is much of a problem today or that schools should be engaged in antiracist work.
But no. They do none of these things. Instead they throw it all on teachers.
Once again the powerful do nothing to actually fix our problems but put the burden of our crumbling societies on our crumbling public schools and traumatized teachers.
THAT’S my problem with this program.
It’s not that they want to teach teachers to be antiracist and to take steps to create more fair and equitable classrooms. It’s that this is all a smokescreen to allow the people who are really behind many of the racist systems in our society to keep getting away with it and perpetuating more and more inequality.
I can just imagine how well the state would greet educators “disrupt[ing] harmful institutional practices” by refusing to give standardized tests!
So this year, my blog had the fewest hits since I started – 124,984 in 2022. By comparison, last year I had 222,414.
I’d write an article, post it on social media and see it reposted again and again. You’d think that would mean it was popular, but no. The people who saw it liked it enough to suggest it to others, but it went little further. With each share, fewer people saw it. Like someone put up a wall in front of it.
In truth, I’m lucky as many people had the opportunity to read my work as did.
Description: My school’s football team is mostly black. They played a mostly white football team and were greeted by racial slurs and an allegedly intentional injury to one of our players. However, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) blamed both sides for the incident.
Fun Fact: It’s one of those decidedly local stories that community newspapers used to cover before almost all went bankrupt or were sold to the media giants. Having this platform allowed me to call out an injustice when most voices were silenced. The injured player’s mother thanked me for doing so. Stories like this keep me going.
Description: At the beginning of the summer, governments were so shaken by the exodus of teachers from the classroom that they were discussing raising our salaries or giving us bonuses. Parents were so adamantly against distance learning they demanding in-person classes with real, live human teachers. What a shock to the super elite education “experts” who had been pushing ways to eliminate teachers for decades and ignoring our consistent march out of the field under these conditions.
Description: Charter schools are inequitable because they have charters. These are special agreements that they don’t have to follow all the rules other authentic public schools funded by tax dollars must follow. That’s unfair and it applies to EVERY charter school because every one has a charter. Hence, the name.
Fun Fact: Criticism of charter schools in general usually degrades to defense of individual charter schools avoiding whatever general criticism is leveled against the industry. The argument in this article has the benefit of avoiding any such evasion. All charter schools are guilty of this (and many are guilty of much more). All of them.
Description: Just a list of many things classroom teachers know about schools and education but that the general public often ignores. These are the kinds of things missing from the education debate because we rarely include teachers in the discussion about the field where they are the experts.
Fun Fact: For a few hours people were talking about this article far and wide. And then – boom – it got shut down with a bang. This one was so universal it should have been popular for weeks. But it just disappeared.
Description: Charter schools are colonial enterprises. They loot and pillage the local tax base but without having to be governed by school boards made up of community members – otherwise known as local taxpayers. They can be run by appointed boards often made up of people who do not come from the community in question. They are outsiders come merely for personal profit. These invaders are quite literally taking local, community resources and liquidating them for their own use – the maximization of personal profit. The public is removed from the decision-making process about how its own resources are utilized and/or spent.
Fun Fact: It’s an argument from consistency. If we’re against the colonial enterprise, we must be against charter schools, too. I’m particularly proud of the graphic (above) I created to go with this article.
Description: Dr. Mark Holtzman, the Superintendent from the district where I live, left under strange circumstances. He resigned and took a new contract in a matter of hours so he could get a raise from a lame duck school board without having to wait for the people the community elected to decide the matter to take office first. Then when it all came to light, he left the district for greener pastures.
Fun Fact: More than any other news source, I documented what happened in detail. Without a series of articles I wrote on this, most people would have had very little idea what happened. It would have just been rumors. This is why we need local journalism. It shouldn’t be left to bloggers like me.
Description: This was social media’s latest crackdown on edu-bloggers and other truth tellers. I used to get 1,000 readers a week. Now I’m lucky to get a few hundred. There’s a strict algorithm that determines what people get to see on their Facebook pages. And if it says you’re invisible, then POOF! You’re gone and the people who would most enjoy your writing and want to pass it on don’t get the chance. It’s undemocratic in the extreme but totally legal because Facebook is a for-profit company, not a public service. Money wins over free exchange of ideas.
Fun Fact: There used to be so many other education bloggers like me out there. Now there are just a handful. This is why.
Description: Standardized tests were supposed to improve our public schools. They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources. They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students. But after more than four decades, these assessments have not fulfilled a single one of these promises. In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.
Fun Fact: Pundits still talk about standardized testing as if it were innovative. It’s not. It’s the status quo. Time to end this failed experiment.
Description: Let’s examine some charter school propaganda – one piece at a time – and see if there’s any truth to these marketing claims. Charter schools are actually not public schools in the same way as other taxpayer funded schools. They do not save money – they waste it. Their students do not outperform authentic public school students. They are not innovative – they are regressive. They do not protect children’s civil rights – they violate them.
Fun Fact: I designed the title and picture to trick readers into thinking this was a pro-charter school article. So many people were butt hurt when they read it! I just hope it helped clarify the matter to those who were undecided.
Description: The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon. Some states require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in my home state of Pennsylvania, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it. What a waste! Why do we need a test BEFORE the test? The assessment’s job is to show how our students are doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker. How does that help? I don’t teach average test takers. I teach human beings. Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.
Fun Fact: I think this article was as popular as it was because people could relate. So many teachers told me how relieved they were to hear someone else expressing all the frustrations they were experiencing in their own districts with the MAP and other tests like it. If administrators and school boards would just listen to teachers! If they’d even bother asking them!
Description: When it comes to dumb ideas that just won’t go away, there is a special place in the underworld for the demand that teachers post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom. It presupposes that teachers control everything their students learn in the classroom and can offer it to them on a silver platter. It’s not just a useless waste of time but a dangerous misunderstanding of what actually happens in the learning process.
Fun Fact: This isn’t exactly news, but teachers were relieved to hear their truth finally given voice. So many of us still have to abide by this nonsense when we could be doing something that actually makes a difference. It’s nice to have your sanity and frustration confirmed. If only administrators could admit they were wrong and stop demanding this crap!
Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups
This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look. Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:
This is fundamentally different from authentic public schools which are funded in the same way but subject to the leadership of an elected board of directors made up of members of the community. At charter schools, decisions can be made entirely by an appointed board who are not beholden to the public but to the organizers and investors who created the charter school in the first place.
To be fair, a charter school cannot exist in a community unless its operators can convince enough parents to enroll their children. However, no one needs to invite the charter school into the community in the first place.
Like with any business, these entrepreneurs can decide to set up shop pretty much anywhere, and though local public schools are tasked with approving or disapproving their request to locate within district boundaries, most state charter school laws provide very few resources to authentic public schools to turn charter schools away. Moreover, when charter applications are denied, the community that turned them away are often overruled by unelected privatization-friendly functionaries in state government.
Think about what a transformation has been thus accomplished.
Stakeholders such as students, families, teachers, and communities become merely economic resources ripe for hegemony – not free people with the right to control their own destinies.
After all, just because a small number of parents have decided to enroll their kids at a charter school, that doesn’t mean the community at large – which is far more numerous and will have to fund this endeavor – supports it. Moreover, the money taxpayers are expected to offload on the charter school come from their existent public schools – and the slight reduction in students does not equal a proportionate reduction in cost. Most expenses are fixed regardless of enrollment. You still have to heat and cool the building, staff the classes, etc. So the community has to decide whether to shortchange the majority of children who continue to be enrolled at the authentic public school or (as often is the case) pay more in taxes to make up the difference.
“Our minds are targets of colonization, the goal being the replacement of any sense of a common good and shared responsibly with the neoliberal axiom that economic self-interest is the only right and natural course of action. You are to think like consumers, not citizens. You are to shop for the best schools for your student, not invest your time and effort in improving them for everyone.”
Others have gone even farther finding racism in the daily administration of charter schools, themselves. After all, many charter schools locate themselves around inner city black communities and therefore exploit the children of color they find there.
Bloggers Russ Walsh and Jonathan Pelto noted how similarly both colonialists and charter school operators often treat the people in the communities where they are located.
Colonialism is often white Europeans acting on brown indigenous people. The colonizers are going to “raise those savages up” or in the words of noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling, ease the “white man’s burden.”
Walsh notes that we see the same apparent motivation among charter school operators with regard to the often black and brown children enrolled in their schools. They use militaristic, highly autocratic systems of discipline to keep these children in-line.
“…while working as the Dean of Students for a charter school in New Orleans, it took me some time to realize that I had been enforcing rules and policies that stymied creativity, culture and student voice…
My daily routine consisted of running around chasing young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they added a different color streak to their hair, or following young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally as students were not able to wear their hair in uncombed afro styles. None of which had anything to do with teaching and learning, but administration was keen on making sure that before Black students entered the classroom that they looked “appropriate” for learning. As if students whose hair was natural or those whose parents could not afford a uniform tie could not achieve like others who possessed these items…
…everything at the school was done in a militaristic/prison fashion. Students had to walk in lines everywhere they went, including to class and the cafeteria. The behavioral norms and expectations called for all students to stand in unison with their hands to their sides, facing forward, silent until given further instruction.”
Students should not be treated like prisoners. Children should not be forced to comply with such harsh rules of conduct. And no one should be compelled to give up their cultural heritage for any reason – but especially because those in charge don’t value them as human beings.
It’s way past time we admit it.
This is colonialism.
Charter schools are colonial enterprises.
We can and should criticize the UK for its history of violence and oppression. We can and should include many US international policies in the same condemnation.
But we mustn’t stop there.
Colonialism is on our streets and in our schools.
We have been colonized by the rich and powerful and our children of color have received the worst of it.
We must end the charter school experiment.
We must end the neighborhood colonialism that too few are willing to call by its rightful name.
-Vasquez Heilig, J., Khalifa, M., & Tillman, L. (2013). Why have NCLB and high-stakes reforms failed?: Reframing the discourse with a post-colonial lens. In K. Lomotey and R. Milner (Eds.), Handbook of Urban Education. New York: Routledge.
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How can an organization dedicated to the same ideas that prompted the exodus turn around and stop the evacuation!?
That’s like hiring a pyromaniac as a fire fighter!
“Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” Boyce said at the press conference.
“If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward. Teach Plus teachers have been sounding the alarm about this crisis and are eager to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes to better recruit and retain educators in Pennsylvania.”
Given the track record of Teach Plus, any well-informed individual should be wary of the how “eager [the organization is] to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes.”
They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.
Yet increasing teacher salary is only briefly mentioned in step 13 of the first focus group as follows:
“13. Based on the resources that PDE develops on competitive compensation and incentives, advocate for and secure funding from the General Assembly that enables hiring entities to compete more effectively in the regional labor market.”
Talk about anemic language!
Imagine being on a sinking ship and someone only mentioning plugging the leak in such terms – if we can, based on our resources, yada, yada, yada.
Another point that jumped out to me was recruitment of new teachers.
Under focus two, the plan calls for:
“6. Partner with nonprofit organizations working to develop recruitment, training, and mentoring programs for middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds to identify and recruit future educators.”
Getting more people to become teachers sounds great, but why are we partnering with “nonprofit organizations” and which ones in particular do you have in mind?
Then there’s the emphasis on building a diverse workforce.
In itself, that’s an excellent and necessary goal. However, if you aren’t going to make the profession more attractive, you aren’t going to increase diversity. Right now one of the major reasons our schools are full of mostly white, middle class teachers is because white, middle class people are the only ones who can afford to take the job.
This is what Teach Plus does. It advocates for neoliberal disruptions in school management.
In the past, Teach Plus has insisted older more experienced educators be fired while shielding “promising young teachers” from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators – not just test scores – increases as teachers gain experience. However, new teachers are easier to brainwash into corporate education reform – to be driven by standardized test scores and data instead of the needs of the living, human beings in front of them in the classroom.
So this proposed teacher preparation and professional development is of what kind exactly? I’ll bet it’s mostly reeducation to accept corporate education reform. I’ll bet it’s focused on ways to increase student test scores which will then be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness – a program that has been roundly disproven for decades.
So where does that leave us?
A decades ago roughly 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year, while last year only 6,000 did so, according to PDE.
Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.
It really comes down to who controls the environment.
In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.
I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.
Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.
You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.
In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.
As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.
Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.
HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE
Then there’s the question of… well… questions.
In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.
The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.
Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.
I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.
However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.
In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.
These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.
Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.
Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.
Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.
There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.
On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.
So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.
Districts are jumping at the chance. They’re encouraging teachers to use apps, services and software that have never been tried before locally in an attempt to abide by continuity of education guidelines written by departments of education.
“That’s right. Absolutely free. But if you want some more, next time I’ll have to charge you a little something…”
So when the pandemic is over and classes eventually are reopened, a great deal of the technology that schools used to get through the crisis will no longer be on the house.
Continuing to use them will require an additional fee, and if districts end up budgeting for them, the money has to come from somewhere. So that means fewer books, field trips, tutors, classroom aides, and – yes – teachers.
When classes resume, we can’t simply go back to normal. Nothing can ever be normal again. Normal is what got us into this mess – a society ill equipped to meet this pandemic – ill equipped to take care of its citizens, provide basic resources, equity and put people before profits.
The post coronavirus world must be one of universal healthcare, a social safety net for all and a robust, fully funded system of public education. We cannot allow it to be a dystopian world of edu-tech vulture capitalism where the economics of street corner drug pushers is used to dictate how public money is spent.
These applications collect a torrent of data on students. So do teachers, in fact, to calculate grades. However, if an educator were to share this information with outsiders, she could be sued. But if a corporation did the same thing, it falls into a legal no man’s land.
The FBI warned schools and parents that widespread collection of student data involved in these applications could cause safety concerns if the information is compromised or exploited.
The Bureau was concerned about ed tech services because many are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”
For instance, imagine how much more effective the hiring process would be if businesses had access to applicants school attendance records. Imagine if businesses had an applicant’s entire academic record.
Employers could buy vast amounts of data and use algorithms to sort through it looking for red flags without fully comprehending what was being compiled. Imagine an applicant being turned down for a job because of low middle school attendance but not being able to explain that this was due to a legitimate illness.
There are reasons we protect people’s privacy. You shouldn’t have to explain your score on a 1st grade spelling test the rest of your life or have the need for special education services damage your credit rating.
Yet all of these things are possible when student data is up for grabs.
No one is protecting our children from this kind of mercantile future – one which will only be exacerbated if we allow educational technologies to become common place after the current crisis.
Hardly any attention is being paid to how these technologies can be used for harms unrelated to business and industry.
Tablets, laptops or monitoring devices such as cameras or microphones could be exploitable by tech savvy criminals – especially since many ed tech programs allow remote-access capabilities without the user even being aware of what is happening.
Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. Other children could use it to bully and harass classmates.
How did we let ed tech get so out of control? Like so many problems of the pre-coronavirus world, money was allowed to dictate policy.
Global venture capital investments in ed tech finished 14 times higher by the end of the decade than they started. Investments went from $500 million in 2010 to $7 billion in 2019. And insiders expect that to triple in the next decade to more than $87 billion.
The two biggest spenders by far are China and the US.
Yet enthusiasm for such technologies are not nearly as prevalent among educators.
Parent Blogger Alison McDowell has studied these issues in more depth than nearly anyone else. She warns that adaptive applications become the gatekeeper of children’s educations. They only allow students to move on once they’ve demonstrated mastery on a previous academic standard – or at least once they’ve been able to guess which one answer a programmer thought correct:
“The “personalized learning” model conditions students to view themselves as independent operators, free agents attempting to navigate a precarious gig economy alone. Screen-based isolation and an emphasis on data-driven metrics steadily erode children’s innate tendencies to creative cooperation. Which is ultimately better for society, an algorithm that learns each student in a classroom and delivers a pre-determined reading selection that they review and are quizzed on online, or a human teacher who selects an all class reading in which there is lively debate? The first scenario forecloses creative thought in service of data generation and reinforces there is but one correct answer. The second opens up chances for students to gain new insights while limiting opportunities for digital surveillance.”
Ed tech may allow us to stumble forward during the coronavirus quarantine, but it is not a central part of a healthy education system.
The people who bust unions before most of us have even had breakfast yet claim they have nothing to do with this anti-union movement. It is all the parents doing. The Walmart heirs just put up the money to let these parents live their dream of union free schools – as if schools where educators have no rights or intellectual freedom were somehow in the best interests of students.
The group is set to officially launch operations on Thursday, Jan. 16.
Teachers aren’t just fighting for higher wages. They’re fighting for smaller class sizes, more tutors, counselors and librarians. They’re fighting for more funding and resources for students. They’re fighting for relief from school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.
And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.
In the future (now past) of the movie, HAL is paradoxically the most human personality. Tasked with running the day-to-day operations of a spaceship, HAL becomes strained to the breaking point when he’s given a command to lie about the mission’s true objectives. He ends up having a psychotic break and killing most of the people he was supposed to protect.
It’s heartbreaking finally when Dave Bowman slowly turns off the higher functions of HAL’s brain and the supercomputer regresses in intelligence while singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” – one of the first things he was programmed to do.
I’m gonna’ be honest here – I cry like a baby at that point.
But once I clean up my face and blow my nose, I realize this is science fiction – emphasis on the fiction.
I am well aware that today’s calendar reads 2020, yet our efforts at artificial intelligence are not nearly as advanced as HAL and may never be.
That hasn’t stopped supposedly serious publications like Education Week – “The American Education News Site of Record” – from continuously pretending HAL is right around the corner and ready to take over my classroom.
What’s worse, this isn’t fear mongering – beware the coming robo-apocalypse. It’s an invitation!
It was truly one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a long time.
Bushweller, an assistant managing editor at Education Week and Executive Editor at both the Ed Tech Leader and Ed Week’s Market Brief, seems to think it is inevitable that robots will replace classroom teachers.
These are kids without all the advantages of wealth and class, kids with fewer books in the home and fewer native English speakers as role models, kids suffering from food, housing and healthcare insecurity, kids navigating the immigration system and fearing they or someone they love could be deported, kids faced with institutional racism, kids who’ve lost parents, friends and family to the for-profit prison industry and the inequitable justice system.
So “chronically low-performing” teachers would be those who can’t overcome all these obstacles for their students by just teaching more good.
I can’t imagine why such educators can’t get the same results as their colleagues who teach richer, whiter kids without all these issues. It’s almost like teachers can’t do it all, themselves, — and the solution? Robots.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bushweller suggests we fire all the human beings who work in the most impoverished and segregated schools and replace them… with an army of robots.
“It makes sense that teachers might think that machines would be even worse than bad human educators. And just the idea of a human teacher being replaced by a robot is likely too much for many of us, and especially educators, to believe at this point.”
“…educators should not be putting their heads in the sand and hoping they never get replaced by an AI-powered robot. They need to play a big role in the development of these technologies so that whatever is produced is ethical and unbiased, improves student learning, and helps teachers spend more time inspiring students, building strong relationships with them, and focusing on the priorities that matter most. If designed with educator input, these technologies could free up teachers to do what they do best: inspire students to learn and coach them along the way.”
Forgive me if I am not sufficiently grateful for that privilege.
Maybe I should be relieved that he at least admits robots may not be able to replace EVERYTHING teachers do. At least, not yet. In the meantime, he expects robots could become co-teachers or effective tools in the classroom to improve student learning by taking over administrative tasks, grading, and classroom management.
And this is the kind of nonsense teachers often get from administrators who’ve fallen under the spell of the Next Big Thing – iPads, software packages, data management systems, etc.
Bushweller cites a plethora of examples of how robots are used in other parts of the world to improve learning that are of just this type – gimmicky and shallow.
It reminds me of IBM’s Watson computing system that in 2011 famously beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, some of the best players, at the game show Jeopardy.
What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?
Now that Watson has been applied to the medical field diagnosing cancer patients, doctors are seeing that the emperor has no clothes. Its diagnoses have been dangerous and incorrect – for instance recommending medication that can cause increased bleeding to a hypothetical patient who already suffered from intense bleeding.
Do we really want to apply the same kind of artificial intelligence to children’s learning?
AI will never be able to replace human beings. They can only displace us.
What I mean by that is this: We can put an AI system in the same position as a human being but it will never be of the same high quality.
Watson (no relation to IBM’s supercomputer) of the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Touring Institute, writes that AI do not think in the same way humans do – if what they do can even accurately be described as thinking at all.
These are algorithms, not minds. They are sets of rules not contemplations.
An algorithm of a smile would specify which muscles to move and when. But it wouldn’t be anything a live human being would mistake for an authentic expression of a person’s emotion. At best it would be a parabola, at worst a rictus.
1) DNN’s are easily fooled. While both humans and AIs can recognize things like a picture of an apple, computers are much more easily led astray. Computers are more likely to misconstrue part of the background and foreground, for instance, while human beings naturally comprehend this difference. As a result, humans are less distracted by background noise.
2) DNN’s need much more information to learn than human beings. People need relatively fewer examples of a concept like “apple” to be able to recognize one. DNN’s need thousands of examples to be able to do the same thing. Human toddlers demonstrate a much easier capacity for learning than the most advanced AI.
“It would be a mistake to say that these algorithms recreate human intelligence,” Watson says. “Instead, they introduce some new mode of inference that outperforms us in some ways and falls short in others.”
Obviously the technology may improve and change, but it seems more likely that AI’s will always be different. In fact, that’s kind of what we want from them – to outperform human minds in some ways.
However, the gap between humanity and AI should never be glossed over.
I think that’s what technophiles like Bushweller are doing when they suggest robots could adequately replace teachers. Robots will never do that. They can only be tools.
For instance, only the most lonely people frequently have long conversations with SIRI or Alexa. After all, we know there is no one else really there. These wireless Internet voice services are just a trick – an illusion of another person. We turn to them for information but not friendship.
And that includes a commitment to never even attempting to forgo human teachers as guides for the most precious things in our lives – our children.
“Algorithms are not ‘just like us’… by anthropomorphizing a statistical model, we implicitly grant it a degree of agency that not only overstates its true abilities, but robs us of our own autonomy… It is always humans who choose whether or not to abdicate this authority, to empower some piece of technology to intervene on our behalf. It would be a mistake to presume that this transfer of authority involves a simultaneous absolution of responsibility. It does not.”
Charter schools siphon money from authentic public schools serving the neediest students creating a deficit spiral. Money gushes out of public districts which have to cut teachers and programs to patch budget gaps which in turn result in even more parents pulling their children out of the public schools and trying to enroll them in charters.
Comments can be as long or short as you want, but here are some suggestions to keep in mind when writing.
1) Begin by telling who you are.
2) Explain the problem with charter schools briefly. Use real world examples if you can. There’s nothing wrong with referring to a newspaper article or blog. And if you can mention specifics from your school district, all the better.
3) Make suggestions for reform. You can address anything, but PDE is specifically looking for comments on these topics:
· Charter school applications: Strong regulations would require the application be comprehensive, set high standards, ensure only operators with needed skills are approved and maintain maximum local control.
· Admissions policies: Strong regulations would ensure charters conduct fair lotteries that don’t allow cherry picking. Schools should be located in areas that are accessible to poor students and those relying on public transportation. Charters should be required to create recruitment plans for specific groups of vulnerable students including EL students, students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students and students in foster care.
· Accountability for boards of trustees: Strong regulations would aim to prevent financial wrongdoing, eliminate conflicts of interest, and impose stronger penalties for the misuse of public funds.
· Information on charter management companies: Strong regulations would end high fees paid to charter management companies and increase transparency of boards, budgets, costs and contracts.
· Insurance, financial and accounting standards: Strong regulations would ensure there were independent auditors and accountants as well as increased transparency.
· Funding: This is about the subsidy redirection process that forces PDE to pay charters directly when they dispute a bill with a school district. Strong regulations would ensure all disputed funds go into an escrow account rather than just being paid.
· Academic accountability: Strong regulations would ensure all charters should be part of a performance system that is used in renewal and revocation decisions. The lowest performing charter schools should be subject to closure without appeal.
“We are recommending that your comments include the following:
1. We strongly support the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s decision to develop these regulations.
2. The regulations must end the conflicts of interest, financial self-dealing and lack of transparency that occur in the charter sector today. Charters must be held accountable for their performance in operations, finance and academics.
3. We strongly support local control over charter school opening and closing. Elected school boards know the needs of the community the best and are responsible to taxpayers and families.
4. The charter school law acknowledges that charter schools have an impact on the finances of school districts. The districts should be able to consider that impact when making decisions to open or renew a charter.”
Here is the letter I will be sending:
Dear Pedro A. Rivera:
Thank you for seeking comments from Pennsylvania residents about our 22-year-old charter school law.
I live in the Pittsburgh area and am both a public school teacher and the father of a public school student.
I have seen the damage charter schools can do in my career at the Steel Valley School District in Munhall. We have a Propel charter school in our community. Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.
Meanwhile, enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.
The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.
In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.
2000-01 – 2012-13
Non-Special Ed: $9,321
Special Ed: $16,903
Non-Special Ed: $9,731
Special Ed: $16,803
Non-special Ed: $10,340
Special Ed $20,112
Non-Special Ed: $12,326
Special Ed: $25,634
Non-Special Ed: $13,879
Special Ed: $29,441
Non-Special Ed: $13,484
Special Ed: $25,601
Non-special ed: $14,965
Special ed: $32,809
All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.
So here are the reforms I think we need to make.
There is zero reason why there should be charter schools at all. We do not need to spend public tax dollars on schools that are privately operated. If a school takes public money, it should be run by the public – specifically an elected school board. So we should repeal the charter school law in its entirety. We should be like Montana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kentucky and West Virginia and have zero charter schools.
Of course, that leaves us with the question of what to do with the charter schools that already exist here. First, we have to commit to a complete moratorium on any new charter schools – ever. Then we need to decide what to do with those that already exist.
I think we should do a thorough audit of each of them. Any charter school that fails the audit, closes. They should have to prove they haven’t been wasting taxpayer funds and are providing a real service to students and families. They also should not be drawing any kind of profit from their efforts.
If we have any charter schools that meet these stipulations, we should reform them into fully authentic public schools. They should have to be run by elected school boards. They should have to abide by every rule authentic public schools already do – fully transparent, public meetings, accept all students in their coverage areas, etc.
Finally, any funding shortfall caused by keeping these schools in existence would have to be subsidized by the state. They would not get any funding that goes to the existing authentic public school. The charter schools that we are transforming into authentic public schools would have to be funded by an additional revenue stream from the state – and this may require an increase in state taxes. No one wants that but it’s the only fair way and will help reduce the number of ex-charter schools we rehabilitate.
I realize my suggestion goes against what we have always done and may provoke heated opposition. But I think it is what is best.
Moreover, if we have to find a compromise position, this is where we start from. If we must keep charter schools in Pennsylvania, they should be as transparent as authentic public schools, they should have to be run by elected school boards, they should not be able to make a profit (regardless of their tax status), they should have to accept all students in their coverage areas, and they should be fully funded by the state and not as parasites to authentic public schools.
Thank you for considering my position. There are thousands of parents, teachers, students and community members who feel as I do and we will work to support your efforts and/or push you to do right thing.
If you live in Pennsylvania, I strongly encourage you to send a letter (whether by email or snail mail) today. Feel free to borrow as much as you like from what I have here.
Together we can make a difference for our children and our communities. Please share widely and encourage your commonwealth friends and family to raise their voices as well.
From Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, it’s time we were heard.