Charter Schools, Harrisburg & Mayor Peduto Created Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Budget Deficit

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 12.28.52 AM

 
Where did all the money go?

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools will start 2020 with a $25.1 million budget deficit.

 

 

Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet has asked for a 2.3% tax increase to cover the shortfall, but school directors ended up approving his spending plan without approving the tax increase.

 

 

The school board will meet on Friday to decide whether to ultimately raise taxes or make cuts including possible staff furloughs.

 

 

But in the meantime, city residents are left wondering why the measure was necessary in the first place.

 

 

After all, student enrollment has gone down at the second biggest district in the state after Philadelphia, yet spending is up 2.4% from 2019.

 

 

It really all comes down to three things: charter schools, retirement costs and tax revenue differed to the city.

 

 

CHARTER SCHOOLS

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 12.37.32 AM

 

Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but often privately run. As such, any student living within district boundaries takes funding away from the district.

 

 

And the amount of money keeps rising even though enrollment has not increased at these charter schools.

 

 

Since 2014, the amount the district has sent to these privatized schools has gone up by 88%.

 

 

In 2019, the district paid $95,129,023 to charter schools. In the proposed 2020 budget, new district projections put the expenditure at $102,150,444. That’s an increase of $7,021,421 in a single year.

 

 

 

So the cost of charter schools is 15% of the entire proposed budget. If it were eliminated, the district wouldn’t have a budget deficit at all – it would be running with a dramatic surplus.

 

 

And this is money that need not be spent.

 

 

Only about 6% of public school students state-wide are enrolled in these schools, and they duplicate services students are already receiving. Yet charter schools provide little value for students.

 

 

Nearly every study has found that charter schools do not produce better academic results than authentic public schools – in fact, many drastically underperform their public school counterparts.

 

 

For instance, a recent study of charter school students in Pennsylvania conducted by the school privatization friendly Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter students do about the same on reading exams but score worse in math than students in authentic public schools. The study also found major disparities between charter schools – with cyber charters performing especially poorly.

 

 

In addition they have been found to increase racial segregation, cherrypick students, increase administrative overhead and discriminate against students with special needs.

 

 

But the state passed a law in 1997 allowing charter schools and there is nothing Pittsburgh Public Schools can do but continue to pay for them.

 

 

School directors, administrators, teachers, students, parents and concerned citizens can lobby their representatives in Harrisburg to fix these problems, but until they do there is little local districts can do.

 

 

However, the fact that charter schools increase local taxes is beyond doubt.

 

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

 

RETIREMENT COSTS

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 12.38.25 AM

 

 

Another large expenditure beyond the district’s control is retirement costs.

 

 

In 2019, the district spent $73,769,809 on contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS). In 2020, that number is expected to increase to $76,770,577. That’s an increase of $3,000,768.

 

 

Why the increase?

 

 

Because our state lawmakers were fiscally irresponsible.

 

 

Basically, the legislature stopped paying the bills for nearly two decades.

 

 

pa_required_vs_actual_contributions_pew_600

 

The state government, local school districts and commonwealth employees are responsible for paying into the pension system. Districts and state workers made all their payments. Employees put aside 7.5% of their salaries every year to pay for their retirement.

 

 

But the legislature didn’t make its payments. It pushed them off to the future, and now that the future’s here, a larger percentage of the cost has fallen on local school districts.

 

 

It’s a problem of Harrisburg’s making and – frankly – the legislature should be buckling down to find a solution.

 

 

But instead they’re planning on the cynical assumption that voters are too stupid to understand it all and will just blame public school employees for demanding what we promised them when they were hired. The legislature has continuously reduced benefits for future employees and tried to illegally cut benefits for current ones.

 

 

What they should do is increase taxes on the wealthy and pay their damn bills.

 

 

We had a contract with employees when they were hired. We can’t renege on it now that they’ve retired.

 

 

Once again this is something Pittsburgh Public school directors and administrators have no control over. It will take a combined effort by local communities across the Commonwealth to lobby Harrisburg to get off its ass and fix the problem it made.

 

 

MAYOR PEDUTO

 

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 12.38.56 AM

 

The final factor behind the proposed tax increase is Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

 

 

When the city was on the verge of financial collapse 15 years ago, the school district agreed to help by diverting a portion of its tax revenue to the city.

 

 

Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), Dr. Hamlet has suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.

 

 

It wouldn’t heal the budget shortfall all by itself, but it would certainly help.

 

 

However, Peduto has furiously raged that he would not support such a measure and would fight it in Harrisburg.

 

 

Frankly, it’s a real dick move.

 

 

When asked about it he deflects to criticisms of the Hamlet administration that really have nothing to do with anything.

 

 

It’s really a simple matter. The schools lent the city money when it was in distress. The city is no longer in distress, so it should stop taking that additional money.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 12.28.52 AM

 

The first thing that has to be done is for Pittsburgh Public School directors to put on their grown up pants and raise taxes.

 

 

Look, I get it. No one wants to raise millage. But sometimes being an adult means doing things you don’t want to do.

 

 

And frankly, it’s not really that hard a call.

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools has the lowest tax rate in Allegheny County at only 9.84 mills. Most suburban districts range from 12 to 31 mils.

 

 

The proposed tax increase would mean paying an additional $23 for a property valued at $100,000.

 

 

This is not an unbearable burden.
Some complain that it would push city residents to move – but really anywhere else you move will have higher taxes! Anyone who packs up and moves away will not be doing it for financial reasons.

 

 

According to the district’s own Website, 67% of its students are non-white. Only 33% are white, with 53% African American and 14% other races.

 

 

Anyone complaining about money being spent on district students is upset about money being spent on THOSE KIDS. Just as so many of the criticisms of Dr. Hamlet, who is black, come down to an inability to accept a person of color in a position of power – especially if he isn’t going to simply give in to corporate interests looking to pick the district dry.

 

 

The fact is the majority of district students live in poverty. Though enrollment has gone down, that has allowed per pupil expenditures to increase and help heal the trauma of penury.

 

 

These kids need smaller class sizes, more tutoring, librarians, counselors, wider curriculum, etc. The money being spent on them is not wasted. In fact, in a perfect world it would be increased. We need to spend MORE on our poorest students than our most privileged ones to help them catch up.

 

 

I am thankful that board members Veronica Edwards, Pam Harbin, Devon Taliaferro, and Sylvia Wilson understood that by voting for both the proposed budget and the tax increase.

 

 

Kevin Carter, at least approved the spending plan, but he abstained from voting on whether the district should raise taxes, explaining later that he promised his constituents that was something he wouldn’t do.

 

 

Board members Cindy Falls, Bill Gallagher, Terry Kennedy, and Sala Udin voted against both measures.

 

 

Here’s hoping they find the courage to do what’s right after the holidays.

 

 

But even if they do, there is much more we must accomplish – and it requires everyone.

 

 

City residents need to rise up and demand their representatives put out the raging dumpster fires they keep lighting.

 

 

We need a state legislature willing to take on the charter school industry and at very least stop making it compete with authentic public schools for funding.

 

 

We need lawmakers willing to make the wealthy pay their fair share so the rest of us get the civil society we deserve – and that includes paying for the pension obligations we’ve already incurred.

 

 

And Pittsburgh needs a mayor who isn’t going to rage and foam at the prospect of FairPlay and will return the money Pittsburgh Public lent to the city.

 


 

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!

 

book-3

Top 10 Lessons From the 2020 Public Education Forum

Democratic-candidates-address-teachers-advocates-in-Pittsburgh-education-forum
The school bell chimed and the class shuffled home.

 

But the students weren’t little children.

 

They were Democratic Presidential candidates!

 

And boy-oh-boy did they get sent packing with a ton of homework!

 

Teachers, students, parents and community members from all over the country sat them down with instructions on how to improve the public education system.

 

Kudos to the candidates for agreeing to listen.

 

It was billed as the MSNBC “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All” – and though it’s over now, its effects may be felt for months or years yet to come.

 

The fact that it happened at all is almost miraculous.

 

Who would have thought Presidential hopefuls would care enough about public schools to address education issues and answer our questions?

 

Who would have thought it would be broadcast live on TV and the Internet?

 

And – come to think of it – who would have EVER thought it would happen in my hometown of Pittsburgh!?
But it did.

 

I was there – along with about 1,500 other education activists, stakeholders and public school warriors from around the country.

 

It was an amazing day which I will never forget.

 

Perhaps the best part was getting to see so many amazing people in one place – and I’m not talking about the candidates.

 

There were members of the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education, Journey for Justice, One Pennsylvania, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and so many more!

 

I wish I could bottle up that feeling of commitment to our children and hope in the future.

 

Perhaps that’s kind of the point behind this article.
So much happened and there is so much worth noting, let me put my impressions down as a series of takeaways or lessons for us to savor between now and the primary election – maybe even until the general.

 

Here’s my top 10 most important lessons:

 

1) Charter School Support is Weak

 

When the forum was announced, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform wrote a blistering memoabout how the charter school community would not put up with politicians listening to constituents critical of their industry. Allen is a far right Republican with close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who even used Donald Trump’s public relations firm to publicize her protest. But when we got to the forum, all it amounted to were a dozen folks with matching yellow signs trudging through the rainwho didn’t even stay for the duration of the forum. YAWN! Silly school privatizers, that’s not how you protest!

 

2) Michael Bennet Doesn’t Understand Much About Public Education

 

The Colorado Senator and former school superintendent really doesn’t get a lot of the important issues – even when they intersect his life. As superintendent, he enacted a merit pay initiative for teachers that resulted in a teachers strike. He still doesn’t comprehend why this was a bad idea – that tying teachers salaries to student test scores makes for educators who only teach to the test, that it demands teachers be responsible for things beyond their control, etc. Moreover, he thinks there’s a difference between public and private charter schools – there isn’t. They’re all bankrolled by tax dollars and can be privately operated.

 

But I suppose that doesn’t matter so much because few people know who Michael Bennet is anyway.

 

3) Pete Buttigeig is Too Smart Not to Understand Education – Unless He’s Paid Not to Understand

 

Mayor Pete came off as a very well spoken and intelligent guy. But he also seemed about as credible as wet tissue. He said a bunch of wrongheaded things. For instance, he said that “separate has never, ever been equal,” but he supports charter schools. Separate but equal is their business model.

 

It’s the kind of misunderstanding that only happens on purpose, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s taken so much money from anti-education billionaires like Netflix Founder Reed Hastings, no one else can trust him. How are we supposed to think he works for us when his salary comes from the super rich? You never recover from ignorance when it’s your job to be ignorant.

4) Gender Neutral Bathrooms Just Make Sense

I used a gender neutral bathroom for the first time at the forum. I figured I just had to pee so it didn’t matter. Inside were nothing but bathroom stalls – no standing urinals. People of all genders were in there using the facilities and it didn’t matter at all. In fact, it just made sense. It only seems strange because of what we’ve grown to expect. Gender neutral is just logical – no one uses the bathroom for anything but… using the bathroom. Try it and you’ll see – it’s the most logical and natural thing in the world.

 

5) Elizabeth Warren is a Star!

 

Warren simply electrified the room as soon as she entered it. She was at least as smart and well-spoken as Mayor Pete, but she was credible, too. She said all charter schools should have to meet the same requirements as authentic public schools. She said public school money should stay in public schools. She had detailed plans for how to fix what ails or school systemincluding a two cent wealth tax (three cents if you’re a billionaire) to pay for universal child care, universal pre-kindergarten, better pay for childcare workers, broader pell grants, and SO much more.

 

I was even more impressed with her in person and she got a standing ovation from the crowd. She would make a great President.

 

6) Bernie Sanders is a Superstar!

 

If Warren electrified the audience, Bernie was like a nuclear explosion. I don’t think anyone stayed in their seat when he entered. Fists pumping in the air, applause, chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” It was clear who the audience appreciated most.

 

And he was amazing. He said we need to break our dependence on property taxes to fund our schools. He said the problem with testing is we spend too much time teaching to the test. There are better ways to assess learning. He said we need a revolution in how we feel about education and learning. We’ve got to respect the educators who provide that education. He talked about criminal justice and unions and a broader range of issues and in more depth than any other candidate.

 

But my favorite moment was this.

 

Question: Should the federal government subsidize student lunch?

 

Bernie: “And breakfast and dinner as well.”

 

I think he solidified for most of us that he’s our number one candidate in this election. He would be a once in a lifetime President!

 

7) MSNBC Anchor Rehema Ellis Does Not Understand Standardized Testing

 

Throughout the forum, Ellis kept asking the same question over-and-over. She kept asking about America’s dismal standardized test scores compared to other countries. But we weren’t ignorant rubes. She was talking before an audience of teachers. It became clear she didn’t understand what these international test scores mean. First of all, she kept talking about US kids being behind grade level. Proficiency on tests like the NAEP isn’t the same as grade level proficiency. Moreover, comparing the US – which educates everyone – and other countries that do not is like comparing apples to oranges. But Ellis was part of NBC’s Education Nation initiative and has been spreading falsehoods and half-truths about testing for a decade. Maybe after educating the politicians we need to send the media back to school, too.

 

8) This is Not the Moment for Tom Steyer

 

Steyer is a billionaire self-funding his campaign in a time when voters are sick to death of the rich controlling our politics. He’s like a fox warning us all about foxes. It doesn’t make me want to vote for him. It makes me wonder if he thinks I’m lunch.

 

9) Amy Klobuchar is a Better Candidate Than I Expected

 

And the winner of most improved image is Klobuchar – by a mile. She came off so authentic and honest. She started with an emotional story about her mother – a teacher – which naturally lead into some really smart policy suggestions. And saying that she’d fire Betsy DeVos in seconds after becoming President and replace her with an educator was nice, too. I’m not saying I think she can or should win the nomination, but I’m glad she’s in the race and I hope we see more of her.

 

10) Joe Biden is Not Going to Beat Donald Trump

 

Biden came tottering onto the stage late like a friendly but lost old man. He flashed the charm and told us what his policies were but he couldn’t explain why he supported a single one of them.

 

He was the worst public speaker all day. His words rambled this way and that. At one point he told the audience to stop clapping so he could explain why he wanted to fully fund special education, but then he went off on a digression and got lost. At one point he rhapsodized about all the terrible teachers out there and said teachers touch students’ lives – “metaphorically speaking.”

 

Dr. Denisha Jones – an amazing activist and friend – asked him a pointed question about standardized testing and whether he was against it? He told her she was “preaching to the choir” but then rambled on for moments more about … something. I don’t know what.

 

Biden seems more like someone with Alzheimer’s Disease than aspirations to the chief executive. If he won, his wife or someone else would really be making the decisions. He isn’t well. And all you have to do is hear him speak for a few minutes to see it.

 

Bottom line: I don’t think he could beat Trump.

 

 

As terrible as Trump is, he can speak more coherently than Biden. That’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true.


So there you have it – my top 10 takeaways from the education forum.

 

It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

 

The candidates left knowing exactly where the education community stands. They know what they need to do to get our votes – and many of them are actively trying to do that.

 

We have several candidates that would make good Presidents – and several who stand a good chance against Trump.

 

Here’s hoping that we all learn our lessons and use them to win back our government in 2020.

 

thumbnail_IMG_9185

 

thumbnail_IMG_9176
Mark Fallon and Me
thumbnail_IMG_9173
Network for Public Education buddies – Carol Burris, Dan Greenberg, me and Peter Greene.
thumbnail_IMG_9186
Pittsburgh strong – Kathleen Newman, me and Jesse Ramey
thumbnail_IMG_9187
Mitchell Robinson and me
thumbnail_IMG_9188
Keeping it Local – State Rep Summer Lee (Homestead), Mark Fallon and me.

 

 

 


If you missed the event, you can still watch it here:


 

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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Charter Schools Exploit Children of Color

thumbnail_Screen Shot 2019-12-01 at 7.13.25 PM

 

 

Go to most impoverished black neighborhoods and you’re bound to find three things in abundance.

 

 

Liquor stores, payday lenders and charter schools.

 

 

It is no accident.

 

 

In the inner city, the underemployed compete for a shortage of minimum wage jobs, healthcare is minimal, public transportation inadequate and the schools are underfunded and short staffed.

 

 

But that doesn’t mean money isn’t being made.

 

 

In capitalist America, we make sure to turn a profit off of everything – including our peculiar institutions of racial inequality.

 

 

Businesses are on every corner, but they aren’t set up for the convenience of those living there.

 

 

Ethnic isolation – whether caused by poverty, legal coercion, safety in numbers or white flight – often puts the segregated at a disadvantage. It creates a quarantined economy set up for profiteers and carpetbaggers to get rich off the misery of the poor.

 

 

The system is set up to wring as much blood as it can from people forced to live as stones.

 

 

Families struggle to survive in a community where they are exploited by grasping landlords and greedy grocers. And the system is kept in check by law enforcement officers who are either disposed to turn the other way or so overzealous as to shoot first and ask questions later.

 

 

As W.E.B. DuBois described it nearly a century ago, “Murder sat on our doorstep, police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.”

 

 

The economy is glutted with enterprises offering cheap promises of relief but which actually reinforce the status quo.

 

Predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods are eight times more likely to have carry-out liquor stores than white or racially integrated neighborhoods, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

 

Yet in higher income black neighborhoods in the same cities, you don’t find these same liquor stores.

 

They are established in the poorest neighborhoods to offer cheap, temporary respite from the trauma of living in poverty. Yet they increase the likelihood of alcoholism, addiction and violence.

 

The same goes for payday lenders.

 

These are basically legal loan sharks who offer ready cash at exorbitant interest rates.  Typically these payday loans are meant to last the length between paychecks – approximately two weeks. However, they come with extremely high interest rates. For instance, the average $375 loan ends up costing $520 (139%) in interest.

 

These businesses aren’t located in the suburbs or wealthy parts of town. You find them typically in the inner cities and poor black neighborhoods. They promise temporary help with one-time purchases and unexpected expenses, but in truth most are used to pay for necessities like rent or food.

 

They end up trapping users in a debt spiral where they have to take out payday loans to pay off previous payday loans. This is mostly because these loans are made based on the lender’s ability to collect, not the borrower’s ability to repay while meeting other financial obligations.

 

And these are just two of the most common features of this predatory economy – capitalist enterprises designed to enrich businesses for exploiting consumers beyond their ability to cope.

 

Others include high priced but limited stock grocery markets, fast food restaurants, gun stores, inner city rental properties and charter schools.

 

That last one may seem out of place.

 

Most descriptions of urban neighborhoods neglect to mention charter schools, but in the last few decades they have become an increasingly common part of the landscape. And this is no wonder. They fit the same pattern of exploitation as the other establishments mentioned above.

 

 

Think about it: (1) charter schools disproportionately locate in poor black communities, (2) offer the promise of relief from inequality but end up recreating or worsening the same unjust circumstances and (3) they are often owned by rich white folks from outside the neighborhood who profit off the venture.

 

1) LOCATION

 

Who attends charter schools and where are they located?

 

The charter sector represents only a tiny fraction of students attending public school.

 

Of the 50.4 million students in the public school system in 2015, only about 3.2 million students were enrolled in roughly 7,000 privately-operated charter schools across the country.

 

To put that in context, that means just a little more than 6% of all public school students are enrolled in charter schools.

 

According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 26% of all charter school students are black (832,000) compared with 33% of Hispanics (1,056,000) and 32% of whites (1,024,000).

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-02 at 11.56.47 AM
Source: NCES

 

This doesn’t come close to a majority for any racial group. Consider the fact that authentic public schools enroll approximately:

 

•7 million black students (14% of the total)

 

•12 million Hispanic students (24% of the total)

 

•24 million white students (48% of the total)

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-02 at 11.40.38 AM
NOTE: These figures include charter school students. To get the totals of authentic public school students (above) I subtracted the charter students out. SOURCE: NCES

 

 

More students of all ethnicities attend authentic public schools than charter schools – by orders of magnitude. However, those that are enrolled at charter schools are not distributed evenly. Charter schools do educate a disproportionate percentage of students of color – especially among Hispanic students.

 

Why? Do black and brown families seek them out or is it just the opposite – charters seek out melanin abundant children.

 

 

Approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities, according to 2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s comparable with only 25% of authentic public schools.

 

Screen Shot 2019-12-02 at 12.44.05 PM

 

So like liquor stores and payday lenders, charter schools are disproportionately located in highly segregated, urban communities often with a majority black and Hispanic population. And since they are businesses (unlike their authentic public school counterparts), they literally target this demographic because it fits their profit model.

 

These are the people they think they can sell on the charter model. And they often do.

 

 

2) EXPLOITATION

 

How do charter schools disadvantage the students enrolled there?

 

Like other vulture capitalist enterprises, they exploit the students they purport to serve by convincing people of color to accept fewer services than they already get at authentic public schools.

 

Authentic public schools invariably are run by school directors elected from the community who have to make all possible decisions in public and present their records for review.

 

Charter schools are permitted to run without elected school boards. Decisions are often made by appointed bureaucrats behind closed doors. They are not required to hold public meetings or present school documents as public records. Parents have no way of having their voices heard except that they can take it or leave it.

 

Authentic public schools have to use all their funding for the benefit of the students.

 

Charter schools can cut student services and pocket the savings. This is true regardless of whether they are designated for-profit or non-profit. It’s just a matter of which loopholes you have to go through. In both circumstances there are ways for the business people running charter schools to make financial gains at the expense of the community and its children. And the result is larger class sizes, narrower curriculum, fewer field trips and extra-curricular activities – but also larger salaries and perks for administrators and investors.

 

Authentic public schools have to accept all students who live within their boundaries.

 

Charter schools are not required to accept all students who live in their coverage areas or even all who apply for enrollment. They can and often do cherry pick the easiest students to educate. The can dissuade special needs students or students with less stable families from applying by forgoing special services and/or requiring prerequisites like costly uniforms and parental voluntarism. Or they can simply choose whomever they wish from the applicant pool and claim the decision was based on a lottery that never needs to be audited for fairness.

 

Despite a lack of adequate funding and an abundance of high needs students, authentic public schools provide the best academic outcomes possible given their limitations.

 

 

Despite having every advantage, charter schools get the same or worse academic outcomes as authentic public schools.

 

Charters market themselves as providing a superior education, but this is not supported by the facts.

 

Nearly every study conducted on the matter has found that charter schools do NOT outperform authentic public schools. In fact, many charters get much worse results – especially cyber charter schools.

 

Moreover, according to the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), authentic public school students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades outperform charter school students in math, reading and science. 
In addition, no other high performing nation even has charter schools.

 

But that’s just academics. There are even clearer economic indications of how charter schools squander the tax dollars that fund them while authentic public schools are more stable and provide better value for the money.

 

Authentic public schools don’t have nearly the same amount or degree of financial scandals because they are required to be much more transparent and their budgets are subject to frequent audits. By contrast, in many cases charter schools take public tax dollars and provide literally nothing in return.

 

According to a 2015 report by Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, dozens of charter schools that have accepted federal funding closed without even opening in the first place! The federal government has spent $3.7 billion to boost the charter sector only to have these “ghost schools” pop up and spirit away our tax dollars.

 

This includes:

 

•In 2011 and 2012, the federal government gave $3.7 million in taxpayer dollars to 25 Michigan “ghost” schools that never even opened to students.

 

 

•In California, more than $4.7 million in federal taxpayer money was handed out to create charter schools that subsequently closed within a few years.

 

•In Ohio, out of the 88 schools created by planning and implementation grants under the federal “Charter School Program” (CSP) for state education agencies between 2008 and 2013, at least 15 closed within a few years; a further seven schools never even opened. These charters received more than $4 million in federal taxpayer dollars.

 

 

 

There is even more evidence that charter schools are not nearly as stable as authentic public schools.

 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in ten charter schools have closed over a three year period. That’s more than 765 charter schools that have been shuttered between 2014-15 and 2016-17.

 

This leaves thousands of families scrambling to find an education for their children.

 

Such scandals simply do not happen at authentic public schools.

 

So charter schools provide fewer services, worse results, and a greater chance of closure or wasting limited funding without even opening at all – not a good return on investment for students of color.

 

 

3) OWNERSHIP

 

And who owns and operates these charter schools?

 

There has been very little research on this topic.

 

The most detailed information I could find comes from the charter school industry, itself, specifically the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the public charter school movement.”

 

According to the NAPCS, about one-third of charter schools in 2016-17 were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools. This includes KIPP, Success Academy, Green Dot Charter Schools, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Charter Schools.

 

The remainder (57%) are owned by what they call freestanding charter schools – which just means organizations that run only one school.

 

These institutions can be run by a wide range of groups including religious organizations and local business organizations such as chambers of commerce or economic development authorities.

 

While it’s true that community groups also sometimes run charter schools, they are invariably funded by huge foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, or the Walton Family Fund – all of whom profit off the industry.

 

Are these community groups authentic representations of an abiding belief in the power of school privatization to achieve equity or are they mere fronts for the big money behind them? Even when individuals approach the matter with an open mind, is it fair to say they’ve independently reached a decision when there is a huge paycheck from a prestigious name behind one option and nothing but logic and history behind the other? Billionaires are literally paying you to favor solutions that help their bottom line. Is it any wonder some folks can’t see past all that green?

 

Even with a lack of good data, it seems clear that the overwhelming majority of the industry is owned, operated and/or supported by rich white people from outside of the black and Hispanic community.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

Charter schools are not a grassroots response to the problems of educating the urban poor.

 

They are not an authentic expression of what the majority of people of color want for their children.

 

They are a kind of “false consciousness,” an extension of the segregation economy exploiting black and brown children.

 

They are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods because operators think they can sell their educational model to people of color fed up with the inequality of their neighborhoods.

 

Yet they provide fewer services at greater cost to black communities – they convince impoverished minorities to give up the few educational guarantees they already have in favor of a worse situation. And the result is a continuation or worsening of the status quo while enriching vulture capitalists.

 

It’s a scam, a flimflam ripoff, a bamboozling hoax.

 

Like the liquor stores and payday lenders that dot the inner city landscape, charter schools are yet another way to exploit black people for the crime of putting their faith once again in capitalism to break their chains.

 

The only truly effective way to achieve equity is with collective action against white supremacy.

 

We need to tear down the systems of inequality that privilege some at the expense of others – and doing that requires a robust system of public education for all.

 

It is not only a prerequisite for social justice but it is one of the central facets of the fight, itself.

 

You can’t use capitalism – a system that relies on inequality – as a method to assure equity.

 

Justice requires fairness. And the road to fairness can only be discerned by enlightenment.

 

Education is both the path and the goal.

 

It’s passed time we stop exploiting those who wish to walk that path by convincing them to go another way.

 


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!

book-4

White Billionaires Cannot Buy the Charter School Debate

Screen Shot 2019-11-23 at 12.37.53 AM

 

 

Betsy DeVos is not woke.

 
Bill Gates has not been to the mountaintop.

 
Nor is the Walton Family Foundation concerned with promoting civil rights.

 
So when white billionaires pour cash to charter school lobbying groups – as the Walton’s did Thursday for charter school protestors at an Elizabeth Warren rally – it isn’t exactly convincing.

 
Speaking at the historically black college Clark Atlanta University, Warren, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, was interrupted by audience members chanting charter school slogans.

 

 

She eventually met with the protestors after the rally.

 

 

Strangely enough, Warren hasn’t suggested any policy position that would adversely affect the charter schools from which the protestors hail.

 

 

Along with Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Warren has a progressive charter school platform calling for increased transparency and an end to federal funding of charters, which are paid for with tax dollars but privately run.

 

 

The Intercept journalist Rachel Cohen noted:

 

 

“Frankly suggesting that stronger transparency standards for publicly-funded charter schools would ‘limit parental choice’ is an incoherent talking point that really should not be taken seriously. Increased transparency only ‘limits choice’ if the charter schools themselves refuse to accept higher transparency standards.”

 

 

Intercept journalist Ryan Grim, who was present at the rally, noted that the group of protestors was funded by the Waltons.

 

 

The group was from Memphis Lift Parent Institute which bused in people from around the country. It was supported by a GoFundMe page showing numerous $1,000 donations from anonymous sources.

 

 

Published financial reports clearly show the Waltons backing Memphis Lift to the tune of $1.5 million since 2015. And since then, their 2017 filing shows $375,200 more, with a mere $200 coming from other public contributions. That’s pretty close to 100%. The Walton’s Website makes the connection even more undeniable.

 

 

Support also came from Nashville education consulting firm Strategy Redefined, the Tennessee’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and Chris Barbic, the original head of Tennessee’s disastrous Achievement School District.

 

 

That is not grassroots.

 

 

That is astroturf.

 

 

Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on new charter schools primarily because of how they increase school segregation and adversely affect children of color.

 

 

These are huge national organizations making decisions based on democratic input of their members. They are not solely representative of the tiny fraction of parents (6%) who send their kids to charter schools nationwide, nor are they funded primarily by corporations and billionaire investors who, in turn, make a profit off of the school privatization industry.

 

 

While it’s true that you’ll find polls showing strong support for charters among people of color, the overwhelming majority of these polls are conducted by pro-charter groups. They’re like the American Apple Foundation finding high support for U.S. apples – little more than paid advertising.

 

 

However, even a poll conducted by charter school lobbying organization Democrats for Education Reform found that both black and white respondents support a moratorium on new charter schools.

 

 

Billionaires like DeVos, Bill Gates and the Waltons have spent incredible amounts of money to convince the public that school privatization is grassroots, but we have the receipts.

 

 

The Walton foundation has promised $1 billion since 2018 to expanding charter schools.

 

 

Andre Perry, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution, describes the Walton foundation as hiding behind black faces to obscure who’s really in charge – they’re exploiting black people for a “white agenda.”

 

 

“It’s a sad thing that education reform is about how much money you have and not about what connection you have with black communities,” Perry said.

 

 

The Walton Foundation gave $9 million to the United Negro College Fund for a scholarship to the organization’s fellowship program for students interested in education reform. They are literally paying to indoctrinate black people to the ideology that school privatization is in their best interests.

 

 

This also includes $530,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to sponsor an affiliated education policy advocacy and campaign training workshop and an additional $170,000 to sponsor events.

 
Walton money has also gone to two other pro-charter groups – nearly $2 million to the 100 Black Men of America campaign and $7.3 million to the National Urban League.

 

 

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

 

Charter schools are not required to provide the same basic services that authentic public schools must.

 

 

To suggest that providing fewer services to black and brown children is somehow in their best interest should insult Americans of every race.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools run by elected school boards.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that accept all comers, not institutions that cherry pick which kids to enroll and which to counsel out to other institutions.

 

 

Black children – just like white children – deserve schools that will provide them with robust services and don’t try to cut programs and pocket the savings as profit.

 

 

None of this is controversial.

 

 

It is common sense.

 

 

The problem is that after decades of misinformation, people are becoming ever more aware of how charter schools are scamming the public in general and black communities in particular.

 

 

The billionaires funding this industry are using their vast wealth to try and buy the debate.

 

 

It is up to every thinking American to look at the facts and understand the extent to which we are being bamboozled by white elites at the expense of our black and brown brothers and sisters.

 


 

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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Racial Disparity in Student Discipline Isn’t All About Race

black-male-student_sm

 

Black students are suspended from school at substantially higher rates than white ones.

 

That’s indisputable.

 

When teachers send kids to the office, when principals issue detentions and suspensions, the faces of those students are disproportionately black or brown.

 

So what does that mean?

 

Are minority children more badly behaved than white ones?

 

Or is it an indication that our public schools are overrun with racist teachers and principals?

 

Those appear to be the only choices in Trump’s America.

 

There’s either something desperately wrong with children of color or the majority of white staff at public schools can’t handle them.

 

But the reality is far more complex, and no matter who you are, it will probably make you uncomfortable.

 

The problem is that there are variables the binary choice above doesn’t even begin to explain, and chief among them is child poverty.

 

In short, there are an awful lot of poor kids in America. And children living in poverty act out more than those living in middle or upper income brackets.

 

It’s not that these kids are inherently bad. They’re just coping with the stress of an impoverished life style by claiming whatever attention they can – even negative attention.

 

And since children of color are disproportionately more impoverished than white kids, it just makes sense that more of them would act up.

 

It should come as no surprise that living with economic deprivations translates into behavioral problems.

 

I’m not saying poverty is the only factor. I’m not saying that white teachers and administrators don’t engage in bias and racism. But it isn’t all one or the other.

 

Both are factors in this equation. And others variables as well.

 

To truly understand the problem, we have to give up the easy answers and the blame game and come together to find real, workable solutions.

 

SUSPENSIONS

 

About 15.5 percent of American school children are black, yet they make up 39 percent of students who are suspended from school, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) first study on the issue.

 

The study used data from 95,000 schools compiled from the federal Civil Rights Collection.

 

Particularly alarming is the fact that almost the same disparity exists in our prison system, where nearly 38 percent of inmates are black.

 

Researchers concluded that this disparity persists in both rich and poor schools, so the primary cause is racial bias.

 

However, the study was also used by the GAO as a means to put pressure on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she considered whether to rescind 2014 civil rights guidelines from the Obama Administration. The report was part of a political move to force DeVos to keep using guidelines meant to ensure that students are not discriminated against when punishments are handed out or schools would risk being found in violation of civil rights laws.

 

The problem is that the study is undeniably partisan and politically motivated.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with its motivation. It’s just that we can’t let a single well-intentioned political action falsely impugn the nation’s teachers and public schools.

 

It IS important to keep the Obama era guidelines on civil rights violations. We DO need to be aware of possible incidents of discrimination against minorities in our schools and work to rectify these issues.

 

However, we can’t let this change the facts. The issue is whether poverty or race has a greater impact on racial discrepancies in student discipline. Are a greater percentage of black kids suspended mainly because of prejudice or is it more a symptom of their poverty?

 

And the answer can’t depend on whether it makes an odious person like DeVos squirm or smile.

 

POVERTY

 

The problem with answering this question comes from the various definitions of poverty we employ.

 

If we define poverty for students as those eligible for free or reduced lunch programs (a determination based on household income), then more than half – 51% – of public school children are poor.

 

But if we take the more conservative formula developed in the 1960s based on food expenses as a part of a family budget, poverty estimates shrink.

 

According to the Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) which uses the more conservative definition, childhood poverty in the U.S. breaks down as follows: 10% of white kids (4.2 million), 27% of Latino children (4 million), 33% of Black students (3.6 million), 12% of Asian children (400,000) and 40% of Native American children (200,000).

 

And those figures are rising. There are 1.2 million more poor children in the U.S. today than there were in 2000.

 

However, there is real reason to assume these figures don’t capture the whole picture. After all, in just the last 30 years, food expenses (up 100%) have not risen as dramatically as other costs such as health care (up 500%), housing (up 250%) and college tuition (up 1,000%). So any real-world definition of poverty would include substantially more children than just those who qualify under these out-of-date federal guidelines.

 

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concludes, “If the same basic methodology developed in the early 1960s was applied today, the poverty thresholds would be over three times higher than the current thresholds.”

 

And the GAO study used the conservative 1960s threshold.

 

It underestimated how poor our nation, families and children have become.

 

Consider: in the past 20 years as wages have stagnated, median household expenses increased by 25 to 30 percent. As a result, 3 out of 5 Americans today spend more than they earn – not on useless frivolities – but on essential needs.

 

It’s estimated that over three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

 

People are working more hours for decreasing wages and benefits. A Princeton study concluded that 94 percent of the nine million new jobs created in the past decade were temporary or contract-based instead of traditional full-time positions.

 

In 2016, the poorest 50% of American adults had an average net worth (home and financial assets minus debt) of just $7,500. To make matters worse, only a year previously it was $9,000. The difference all went to the top 1% who gained an average of $1.5 million during that same year.

 

These facts have real world consequences for every level of society – especially how our children behave in school.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

It seems clear then that the scope and effects of poverty have been underestimated by the GAO report and others who wish to emphasize the effect of racism and bias.

 

Again this is not to say that racism and bias are misrepresented or unimportant. It’s a question of how much – not an either/or situation.

 

The fact of the matter is that poverty has a more pervasive impact on student discipline because students of color experience it at greater rates than white kids.

 

This is mainly because of the way poverty affects students’ home lives – an area that has a much greater influence on education than what goes on in the school, itself.

 

For instance, children who don’t know how to “play school” – to navigate the expectations, routines, social situations and academic demands – don’t learn as much as those who do. In fact, this may be a partial reason why children of color don’t do as well academically as kids from other groups. Certainly biased standardized assessments and the high stakes decisions made based on these tests play an even larger role. But at least some of the gap may be caused by lost opportunities due to behavioral issues.

 

Sadly, children who act out in class usually do the same at home. We must ask then: are parents present when this happens? Do they have similar standards of misbehavior? Do they know how to correct misbehavior when it happens?

 

Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that many parents aren’t able to be present for their kids.

 

They are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t have the time to do the groundwork necessary to eliminate behavior problems before their children go to class. They don’t have the time to set up routines, expectations, rewards and punishments, etc. And even when they do attempt to do these things, they have less ability to get it right because their attention is focused on putting food on the table, providing clothing and shelter, etc.

 

This is not because these people are bad parents. In fact, they are good parents who are doing the best they can. But this is a symptom of a deformed society that requires a disproportionate investment of time from the poor for the essentials that is not required of those in higher income brackets.

 

This is not something unique to black and brown families, either. It is a feature of millions of white households as well – but the demographics of poverty cluster these impacts disproportionately on children of color.

 

HOME LIFE

 

There is also a change in the sociological makeup and values of poor and minority families.

 

Some would put blame squarely on the increasing prevalence of one-parent households. I think this is deceptive, though, because many one-parent households are stronger and more stable than two parent ones. It really depends. But it makes sense that households with two parents – where one adult can lean on the other for support – are often more stable than those without this feature.

 

This may be an area where black children have a disadvantage since according to census data the percentage of white children under 18 who live with both parents almost doubles that of black children. While 74.3 percent of all white children below the age of 18 live with both parents, only 38.7 percent of African-American minors do the same.

 

There is also the issue of parents who aren’t just absent during the workday but absent altogether. People of color also are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to white people – even when convicted for the same crimes. This is not to say that black people commit more crimes, but that they are more harshly punished for them than whites – they have higher conviction rates and serve longer sentences.

 

This has consequences for children of color. It adds to the prevalence of grandparents and/or other siblings or foster caregivers filling that parental role. Again, these households can be exceptionally strong and stable. But there is less support, more struggles and the increased possibility that children’s behavioral home foundations may be less robust.

 

RACIAL TRAUMA

 

People of color also experience racial trauma compounded from our national history of slavery, racism and prejudice. Black and brown people today are still dealing with the effects of generational slavery. This is one of the reasons they are disproportionately poor – they did not have the chance to gather wealth over successive generations as white families did.

 

Moreover, the culture of black people was disrupted by the slave trade. Genealogies, legacies, traditions, faiths, etc. were stolen from them by the slave industry. Parenthood, as we know it today, was forbidden to black people. Is it any wonder that they have struggled to regain what was taken from them by white society?

 

Finally, there are the effects of Jim Crow and racial discrimination after the end of slavery. Black people have continually been told they had the same rights and opportunities as white people but when they went to claim these alleged boons, they were beaten back. This has had the effect of turning some of them against the very idea of many of the behaviors they see exemplified by white people.

 

Some students of color don’t want to behave like the white kids because they want to assert their blackness. There is among some of them an internalization of negative behaviors as black and positive ones as white. This misdirected self-determination results in racial pride for acting up regardless of the academic consequences.

 

RACISM AT SCHOOL

 

Of course by the same token there is certainly bias, prejudice and racism among white teachers, administrators, faculty and staff.

 

The fact that our public schools are mostly staffed with non-black and non-brown people, itself, ensures that bias will be prevalent in our schools. It is vital that we increase the percentage of black staff – especially teachers – in our classrooms. Though this will require the elevation of the profession of educator to attract teachers of all backgrounds.

 

The problem is that white people often don’t understand black culture or even recognize how much white people have been enculturated to accept stereotypes and bias as the norm.

 

This has a direct impact on school discipline. Many discipline policies are written to unduly target students of color. I’m not saying this is necessarily intentional – though it may be in some cases – but that these policies result in discipline discrepancies.

 

Many of these are dress code policies. How many schools criminalize the wearing of black hair in certain ways or the simple hooded sweatshirt? Hoodies, for example, are a preferred manner of dress for many students of color and really cause no harm to academics or social interactions. But administrators and/or school boards ban them – why? It’s just another way to police black bodies and minds.

 

These sorts of practices are everywhere in our schools and take reflection to undo. For instance, I found myself guilty of this same thing for years in my classroom when some of my black students started compulsively brushing their hair at their desks. These were mainly boys with short hair who were trying to get a wave effect their peers considered stylish.

 

At first, I found this incredibly annoying – the sound of constant brushing as students were doing their work. But then I realized that these students WERE doing their work. The brushing in no way interfered with academics. It didn’t bother anyone except for me and perhaps some of the white students.

 

Simply allowing cultures to express themselves should not result in disciplinary action. And since I’ve permitted the behavior, I’ve had less reason to discipline my students and no negative impact on academics.

 

SOLUTIONS

 

Most analyses of this problem stop with blame.

 

Who’s responsible for this? And once we have an answer – and it’s usually one very simple answer – then we’ve done all we set out to do.

 

In the case of the GAO report, once again the blame was put on everyone’s favorite scapegoat, public schools and teachers. But this is not earned given how much poverty was overlooked. The reality is that the responsibility for the problem is multifaceted with much of it stemming from cruel economics.

 

The solutions to the issue, if we are ever to really try to do more than just point fingers, must address a variety of ills.

 

First, we need to monitor and help public school staff to be less biased.

 

We need more teachers of color without a doubt, but this will never happen until all teachers are better paid, have stronger labor protections, autonomy and prestige. On top of that, there should be additional incentives to attract teachers of color. It’s hard for white teachers to notice their own biases unless there is someone in the building who can see them more clearly and offer advice. Just making the staff more multicultural will make white teachers more reflective of their own practices.

 

Of course actively pointing out prejudice is extremely difficult for co-workers to do by themselves. In addition, white teachers need cultural sensitivity training. And not just them. Since no educator comes from all cultures, everyone could use frequent reminders of how to be more inclusive, impartial and fair to students from various backgrounds.

 

Next, we need to broaden our idea of what discipline is. Every infraction doesn’t need a detention or suspension. We can enact interventions like restorative justice practices, conflict resolution and other positive procedures that actively teach kids how to deal with their emotions and better behave.

 

In short, we’re teaching kids what they should have learned at home, but like so many things in our society, it’s left to the schools to get it done. I bring this up not to shame anyone but to remind society that any expectation that schools can fix this problem by themselves is laughably naïve – but someone has to try.

 

At the macro level, we need to take steps to reduce and eliminate poverty.

 

This is one of the richest countries in the history of the world. Surely we can find ways to better share that wealth to the benefit of all. If parents don’t have to work multiple jobs to survive, they are more able to teach, model and discipline their own kids. And when parents are present in children’s lives, those kids don’t have as great a need for attention. It would certainly cut down on negative attention seeking behaviors.

 

In addition, with schools at the center of neighborhoods, we can have more adult education classes for parents. This would be not just courses on how to effectively raise children but on job skills and lifelong learning. After all, parents who value learning raise kids who do, too.

 

Finally, we need to enact antiracist policies at the local, state and federal level to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) prejudice of all kinds. We need integrated schools and neighborhoods. We need more antidiscrimination policies. We need to end mass incarceration and selective enforcement of the law. And we need some form of reparations to black people for the generations of racism they have had to endure.

 

I know these are big goals. But they are the only way to make a just society for everyone.

 

We cannot continue to blame our school system for reproducing the society that created it. Education is aspirational and strives to better itself. But it cannot reach that goal alone.


 

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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

Screen Shot 2019-10-04 at 4.25.32 PM

 
The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

Raising them. Measuring growth. Determining what each score means in terms of future instruction, opportunities, class placement, special education services, funding incentives and punishments, and judging the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, buildings and districts.

 

We’ve become so obsessed with these scores – a set of discrete numbers – that we’ve lost sight of what they always were supposed to be about in the first place – learning.

 

In fact, properly understood, that’s the mission of the public school system – to promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Test scores are just supposed to be tools to help us quantify that learning in meaningful ways.

 
Somewhere along the line we’ve misconstrued the tool for the goal. And when you do that, it should come as no surprise that you achieve the goal less successfully.

 

There are two kinds of standardized assessment – aptitude and achievement tests. Both are supposed to measure scholarship and skill – though in different ways.

 

Aptitude tests are designed to predict how well a student will do in the future. Achievement tests are designed to determine how much a student knows now.

 

There is, of course, intense overlap between these two types because aptitude tests base their predictions on assessment of achievements. So they’re basically achievements tests that go one step further. They ask questions designed to give more information than just the present state but also about whether a student has progressed to a state which is most likely to then give way to another state in the future.

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that not all learning is equal.

 

For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how long to stir the risotto.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He writes:

 

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

 

Think about what this means.

 

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

 

We talk about leaving no child left behind, and making sure all students do better on standardized tests, but these tests are norm-referenced. By definition, all students cannot score well no matter how great their knowledge or skills. If you gave a standardized test to a class of genius-level intellects, there would still be the same percentage of failures and outstanding scores with the majority clustered in the middle. That’s how the tests are designed.

 

And if this highly suspect method of question selection, alone, doesn’t achieve that end, the test companies have a way to correct the scores at the end of the process through the way they grade them.

 

These tests are graded with cut scores. In other words, the state or the testing company or the graders, themselves, decide anew each year which scores are passing and which failing.

 

One year a 1200 might be proficient. Another year it’s basic. It all depends on what the decision makers come up with on a given year.

 

What do they base this on? No one has ever given a definitive answer. In fact, I doubt there is one. In each case, the deciding body just makes it up.

 

We’ve seen countless times when state scores are criticized for being too low one year, and then they miraculously bounce up the next. It’s not that students score differently, it’s that the cut score was raised. Why? Perhaps to stifle questions about the test’s validity. After all, people are less angry when more students pass.

 

The goal is always getting the bell curve. That is what validates the tests. But it’s a human construction, not a function of assessment. It says less about the test takers than the test makers and their enablers.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

71087927_10157069943303860_6347601423106048000_n

Popham is less critical of high stakes testing. He sees more of a problem in using student test scores to assess teacher performance. But even he thinks the tests and the scores are being over valued and misunderstood in a wider context.

 

He writes:

 

“Merely because these test scores are reported in numbers (sometimes even with decimals!) should not incline anyone to attribute unwarranted precision to them. Standardized achievement test scores should be regarded as rough approximations of a student’s status with respect to the content domain represented by the test.”

 

I’d go even further.

 

Standardized test scores are tools used by big business to make money. That is as far as their validity goes.

 

And the fact that we make so many vital educational decisions on them is nothing less than criminal.

 

The tests are bogus nonsense at best and a conspiracy against the poor and minorities at worst.

 

When well-meaning people let themselves get wrapped up in knots over low scores and what that means for student learning, they are actually hurting the very thing that they value.

 

Student learning is not bettered by higher test scores. It is often made worse by them.

 

High test scores don’t mean greater learning. They often mean learning the knowledge du jour to the detriment of what’s really important. They mean biased education against the poor and minorities.

 

And they make those with real concerns complicit in a sham being perpetrated on our children and our society.

 


 

 

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!

book-4

 

School Field Trip Turns Into a Tour of Our Nation’s Unhealed Scars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 
You’ve got to be a little crazy to take a bunch of teenagers on a field trip – especially overnight and out of town.

 

But that’s what I did, and – yeah – guilty as charged.

 

For the second time in my more than 15-year career as a public school teacher, I volunteered along with a group of parents and other teachers to escort my classes of 8th graders to Washington, DC, and surrounding sights.
 
And I never regretted it. Not for a moment.

 

Not when Jason bombed the bathroom in the back of the bus after eating a burrito for lunch.

 

Not when Isaac gulped down dairy creamers for dessert and threw up all over himself.

 

Not when a trio of teenage girls accidentally locked themselves in their hotel room and we needed a crowbar to get them out.

 

But as I stood in Manassas, Virginia, looking at a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the edge of regret began to creep into my mind.

 

There he was perched on the horizon, ripped and bulging like an advertisement for weight gain powder.

 

“We call him the superman statue,” the park ranger said.

 

And as I stood amongst the confused looks of my western Pennsylvania teens, I felt a wave of cognitive dissonance wash over me like a slap in the face.

 
Stonewall Jackson, a lanky Confederate General whose horse was too small for him, here mythologized, enshrined and worshiped like a hero. Yet he was a traitor to our country.

 

They call him Stonewall because the union army couldn’t get through his battle lines. He was like a wall the North could not break through.

 
So what?

 

He was fighting to preserve human slavery. Who cares how well he fought or how great his tactics? He was on the losing side of history.

 

We shouldn’t be praising him. He should be forgotten, at best a footnote in a record that celebrates those fighting to overturn human bondage, not those battling to uphold it.

 

But the confusion didn’t start at the statue. It began before our tour bus even arrived at the national park.

 

I teach Language Arts, not history, but I had never heard of the battle of Manassas. I knew it was close to Bull Run, a nearby creek where the two Civil War battles of that name were fought.
 
It was only when the park ranger was showing us the sights (of which there weren’t many) that the truth became clear.

 
Even today more than 150 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the two sides can’t agree on the names of the battles.

 

In the South, they name them after the nearest city or town. In the North, we name them after the nearest geologic landmark.

 

So even though this battle took place on a farm in northern Virginia, we still can’t agree even on what to call the confrontation – much less its import to our shared history.

 

Before we stepped out onto the battlefield, the park service treated us to a short documentary film about the site and its history – “Manassas: End of Innocence.”

 

The film was narrated by Richard Dreyfus. I marveled at hearing Mr. Holland nonchalantly inform us that this first battle of the Civil War marked the titular “end of innocence.”

 
I’m still not sure who suffered such an end. Was it the nation, as a whole, which had never before experienced such a bloody war among its own citizenry, pitting brother against brother? Was it the North who had not until this point realized the South would resist with shot and shell?  Was it the South who had not yet tasted the bitterness of Northern aggression?

 

The latter seemed to be the narrator’s implication.

 
Dreyfus painted a scene of peaceful life on the farm shattered by the sneak attack of union soldiers.
 
THAT is what marked this “end of innocence.”

 
“Innocence!?” I thought.

 

These people were not innocent. They owned slaves. Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the 85-year-old who refused to evacuate her farm and was killed in the fighting, owned another human being.

 

In my book, that disqualifies you from any kind of innocence.

 

And that’s what this whole war was essentially about. Should people be allowed to own other people?

 
The answer is an unequivocal – NO.

 

The fact that an entire segment of our population still drags its feet on that question has implications that reverberate through our history and up through our last Presidential election.

 
A few days before venturing to Manassas, my students and I toured Washington, DC. We stopped in front of the White House.

 
I’d been there before. It’s a popular place for protests of every kind. But never had I seen it so crowded with discontent.

 

Political critics had set up booths and tents. They even brought speakers to blast out music to accompany their protests. My favorite was the song “Master of the House” from Les Miserables booming from a booth with multicolored “F- Trump!” signs.

 

But as we took our picture in front of that iconic Presidential manor, itself, partially built by slaves, I couldn’t help noticing another kiosk across the way – one selling MAGA hats.
 
In fact, they were everywhere.

 
A few students even bought them – cheap red knockoff baseball caps with a slogan of dog whistle hatred emblazoned on the front.

 

Make America Great Again? Like when union troops couldn’t get passed Stonewall Jackson?
 
We hit many more famous sites.

 

We went to the Jefferson memorial and all I could think about was Sally Hemings. We went to the FDR memorial and all I could think about were the Japanese internment camps. We went to the Martin Luther King memorial and all I could think about was how the struggle continues.

 

We didn’t talk much about what we were seeing. We just raced through the experience of it – going from one to another – gotta’ get back on the bus in time to hit the next one.

 
We had a really good time together on that field trip. Me, included.

 

But we took a lot more home with us than souvenirs.

 
It wasn’t just sight seeing or a vacation from the normal school day.

 

We toured the historic scars of our nation.

 

Scars still red and ripe and bleeding.

 

Will they ever heal, I wondered.

 

Will our nation ever become whole, healthy and clean?

 

I suppose that depends on us.

 

Because the first step to healing them is recognizing that they’re still there.


 

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!

book-3