Fact Checking Propel Charter Schools – Do They Live Up to Their Own Hype?

The Propel Charter School network has a history of making fabulous claims for its schools – claims not always backed up by reality.

The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.

At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.

Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.

The other day I saw a bus advertisement bragging:

“Catch Your Star!

#1 Elementary Charter School in the Nation – Just Blocks Away!

Propel McKeesport”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any support for this claim anywhere.

When I went to Propel’s own Website, in fact, there was nothing about it. Instead, it claimed Propel McKeesport was:

“…ranked as ONE OF THE BEST charter schools in the nation by U.S. News World Report” (Emphasis mine).

One of the best is not THE best. But it’s still good. Let’s call it embellishing the school’s resume.

According to Propel’s Website, in 2021, the McKeesport location was #11 in the state’s charter elementary schools and #7 in the state’s charter middle schools.


I suppose that is impressive, too, though being one of the best CHARTER SCHOOLS isn’t the same as being one of the best SCHOOLS.

In fact, when compared with all schools in the state, Propel McKeesport is in the bottom half for standardized test scores in both math and reading – one of the main metrics used to calculate its rank by US News and World Report.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.

Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.

So what exactly is Propel celebrating?

Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).

I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?

That still sounds like a worthy goal – and one that is being actively worked against by Propel’s business model.

Moreover, Propel McKeesport is the only school in the charter chain where students of color outscore white students. Across the Propel system, white kids do anywhere from 17.6% better in math at Propel Pitcairn to 32.6% better in science at Propel Braddock Hills.

Not exactly a civil rights victory.

So what about the rest of Propel’s claims?

Since charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but can be privately operated (like Propel), they are free from many of the safety regulations that make authentic public schools great – like elected school boards, and transparent curriculum and finances.

The corporation runs the following schools in Allegheny County: Propel Andrew Street High School, Propel Hazelwood K-8, Propel Montour Middle School, Propel Braddock Hills Elementary School, Propel Homestead K-8, Propel Northside K-8, Propel McKeesport K-8, Propel Pitcairn K-8, Propel Braddock Hills High School, Propel Montour Elementary School, Propel Braddock Hills Middle School, Propel Montour High School, and Propel East K-8.

According to an advertisement in mass circulation, each of the schools in the charter chain provides:

“Safe Learning Environment

Individual Attention


Small Class Size

100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Award Winning Arts Programs

Leaders in Technology Integration

Uniforms

Tuition Free”

Let’s take a look at each claim in turn.

-Safe Learning Environment

What exactly does that mean?

Propel schools are no more safe than other schools in the area. There certainly isn’t any evidence they are somehow MORE safe.

There have been numerous incidents of arrest, criminality and danger in and around Propel Schools.

In 2021, a security guard at Turtle Creek, Pitcairn and McKeesport Propel Schools was fired after being charged with open lewdness and indecent exposure, according to court documents. North Versailles Police said the suspect was captured on video exposing and fondling himself inside a Walmart. When confronted by police, he allegedly showed officers his Propel School ID badge.

In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.

In 2015, a visiting dance instructor at the Propel Middle School in Braddock was fired and arrested after allegedly sexting a 13-year-old female student. He allegedly told the girl not to tell anyone about it. In a statement from Propel, school officials say it happened “after school hours and off of Propel property.”

In 2019, Pitcairn Propel was evacuated when fumes made three teachers and four students nauseous. Roughly 280 teachers and students were evacuated from the school and the affected people were taken to nearby hospitals. Monroeville Borough was doing work on a sewer when fumes got into the school.

In 2019, police arrested four people in connection with a scheme to steal nearly $23,000 from Propel Schools by forging checks in the charter school operator’s name. The Propel Schools Foundation filed a report with police after discovering nearly two dozen fraudulent checks in Propel’s name had been cashed at various places, a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman said. At least 28 checks drawn against the school’s bank account were counterfeit, the complaint said. The fake checks were cashed using the forged signature of the school’s co-founder, Jeremy Resnick.

So does Propel provide a safe learning environment? Maybe. But not more so than any other district.

Individual Attention and Small Class Size


The problem here is verification.

Charter schools are not nearly as transparent as authentic public schools. They are not required by law to provide as much information about their operations as neighborhood public schools. For instance, nearly every authentic public school district is run by an elected school board which has open meetings and open records.

For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.

According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.

So for most details we’re really left with just taking Propel’s word without any method of verifying it.

When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.

However, individual attention is even harder to verify.

Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.

Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.

Even in 2018 when Propel had submitted applications to the state to consolidate its network into a Multiple Charter School Organization, it did not submit its entire curriculum which had been requested to see if it was aligned to state academic standards. The state ultimately denied this request due to insufficient information.

So does Propel provide individual attention? Your guess is as good as mine.

-100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Authentic public schools need to have certified and qualified teachers by law. To teach math, for example, you usually need someone with at least a 4-year teaching degree or more. Only in the case of shortages can positions by temporarily filled by individuals with emergency certifications. Not so with charter schools. They only have to have certified and qualified teachers in core content areas – English, Math, Science and Social Studies.

So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.

Unfortunately, it is definitively false.

According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.

Moreover, a state audit of the Propel network conducted in 2016, found that even in core content areas, Propel charter schools did not have “highly qualified” teachers in accordance with state law.

So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.

Award Winning Arts Programs

Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.

In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”

What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?

-Leaders in Technology Integration

Some Propel charter schools do claim to provide laptops to students. However, details are pretty sketchy beyond this point.

Moreover, technology in school is a terrible end in itself. It really matters how it’s being used. There are very few details on this that I can find.

-Uniforms

Yes! Propel does require students to wear blue, black or khaki clothing of a particular type. And you can even buy clothing on the network’s Website.

But is this really such a positive? Standardized testing is bad enough? Do we have to standardized dress, too?

Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.

-Tuition Free

Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.

Also having multiple schools that provide duplicate services is instrumental in raising your local taxes.

Think about it. You already have an authentic public school you pay to operate. Now here comes Propel, a charter school network, demanding to open up shop. That means an additional tax burden on all residents and a reduction in resources for the neighborhood schools already in service.

In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?

Certainly.

Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.

Don’t let its non-profit status fool you.

For instance, in 2016 the state caught Propel stealing $376,922 of your tax dollars to pay for rental fees on properties it already owns. It was literally charging itself an unnecessary fee and paying itself with your money.

Technically, this is not illegal. But it certainly doesn’t help educate children. It just goes to enrich the charter school operators.

Non-profit? Yeah, in name only.

However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.

indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.

The site has many entries on schools in the Propel network. Some are positive. Some are glowing. But most are incredibly negative.

Here in their own words is what it’s like inside the Propel network from the people who work (or worked) there.

Propel Schools – Insiders’ Accounts:

 

 

Students rule.

Para Educator (Former Employee) – Propel East, Turtle Creek – July 19, 2020

Pandering to the cultural climate and using all the right talking points still doesn’t provide a quality education because of the many behavior problems.

 

 

 

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – August 4, 2022

Management verbalizes a desire, but does not actively seek to improve diversity within the ranks of educators. The lack of diversity directly impacts how the student body is educated.

 

Stressful, consuming place to work with little support from administration.

First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022
I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being.
Pros
Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits
Cons
Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure

 

 

Hope you have a good therapist if you get hired at the Hazelwood location.

Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022
My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.

In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one.
Pros
There were no pros. I can’t even make one up.
Cons
Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.

 

 

Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021
Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare.
Pros
There is not one pro I can think of.
Cons
Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”

 

Don’t work for them

Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022

Hr treats you bad
Teachers treat you bad
You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses
Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen
Pros
Nothing
Cons
You will be treated like you are worthless

 

Pure and total chaos

Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021
Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible.
Pros
Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance.
Cons
Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff

 

Long school day, longer school year, longest time spent working outside of contractual hours

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021
Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator.
Pros
Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum
Cons
Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support

 

Schools care for kids but profit can get in the way

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021
Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this.
Pros
Dedicated cohorts
Cons
Work-life balance off

 

Administration had a lack of trust for teachers and lack of discipline for students.

teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020
There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment.
When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.

 

Not very friendly

Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020
Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.

 

Ehhh.

Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020
Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.

 

This is a good ole boys system

Principal (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 26, 2020
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
 
 
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.

Cons

Being cussed at and put down by students daily
 
 
 

Poor working place

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 10, 2019
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!

Pros

Good benefits

Cons

Everything
 
 
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – May 6, 2017
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.

Pros

Teaching children, benefits and compensation

Cons

Bad work/home life balance

 


 

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

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


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


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


 
This almost always concludes with two types of plan.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
However, even this is an illusion.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


   
He writes:  

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


   
Think about what this means.  


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


 
This is important when it comes to equity.  


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


 
And let’s not forget where these tests come from


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
This is incompatible with any enterprise aimed at increasing equity.  


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

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


 
Equity and standardized testing do not go together.  


 
 
They CANNOT go together. They are anathema.  


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


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


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


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


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

It does not exist.


 

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Top Five Republican Nightmare Fantasies About Public Schools

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

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

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

Pole dancing!

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

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

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

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

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

On Twitter he routinely makes statements like this from August:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Teaching boys to hate themselves

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

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

And the GOP attention-seeker is not alone.

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

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

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

But, Marjorie, the following ARE facts:

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

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

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

Should we teach such facts in school?

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

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

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

2) Teaching kids to be gay

Republicans literally think public school teachers are turning kids gay.

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

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

First, believing this shows massive ignorance.

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

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

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

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

They want it to be okay to hate gay people.

Sorry. Not in public school.

3) Teaching kids to be trans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Teaching kids to hate white people

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

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

Yeah. We do that.

I make no apologies.

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

It’s called history and current events.

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

These facts matter.

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

And that’s what Republicans are really against.

5) Teaching kids to be sexually active

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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With the Death of Queen Elizabeth II, the US Should End Its Biggest Colonial Enterprise – Charter Schools

In the United States, colonialism isn’t just something we do to other people – we do it to our own citizens.

A prime example of this is the charter school industry.

Now that the UK’s longest-reigning monarch has died, perhaps we can admit that.

To many people, Queen Elizabeth II is more than just a 70-year figure head – she remains a symbol of the British colonial empire — an institution that enriched itself through violence, theft and oppression.

But one needn’t look solely at European nations pillaging Africa and Asia to condemn the practice.

Nor should we limit ourselves to United States’ hegemony in the Caribbean, Pacific and Middle East.

We’ve got colonialism right here – down the street, in our own neighborhoods.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, colonialism is:

“the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.”

That’s a pretty good description of the relationship between charter schools and the communities where they insert themselves.

Consider what a charter school does.

It is a school funded by taxpayer dollars but free from regulations protecting the people it supposedly serves.


Like a colonial power, a charter school loots and pillages the local tax base but is not required to be governed by the local taxpayers.

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.

And often those investors 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.

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.

In this context, the colonizers aren’t foreign governments but hedge fund managers and other investors who treat the charter school in the same manner as real estate or stocks, playing a gambler’s game of speculation while local taxpayers are left with the tab and the lion’s share of risk. After all, if the speculators lose, they are out a certain dollar amount. If the charter school fails, the community loses a quality education for its children. Moreover, money that should have been spent according to community needs and priorities—hiring school nurses, keeping music programs, reductions in class size, etc. – is wasted.

Make no mistake – this is theft. It is pillaging and looting a community. The citizens lose their right to self government, how their land is used and how their resources are utilized. They become enslaved to the so-called free market.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect is the change in attitude, as Ohio social studies teacher Dr. Chuck Greanoff writes:

“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.

He writes:

“The children of the inner city are being treated by their “benefactors” as inferiors. Charter schools are colonial enterprises.”

However, the most damning testimony comes from Julian Vasquez Heilig’s Cloaking Inequality blog. He published a guest piece written by a former New Orleans charter school dean of students decrying just such colonial practices.

He writes about the experience first hand:

“…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.

Further Reading:

Fisher, David R.   Education in the Settler Colony: Displacement, Inequality, and Disappearance via Charter Schools. University of South Florida ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2019. 27548561.

-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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Teachers are Being Spied on for Thoughtcrimes

Teachers, be careful.

Big Mother is watching you.

When you post a rainbow flag on your Facebook profile…

When you tweet support for Black Lives Matter…

When you like a YouTube video of someone punching a Nazi…

Big Mother is watching.

Or more specifically, Moms for Liberty is watching.


And, no, the group’s members probably don’t get the irony of their name.

Moms for Liberty (MFL) is a billionaire-funded front group dedicated to spreading disinformation and chaos at public schools across the country.

They’ve offered cash prizes for turning in teachers who dare to educate on topics that go against far right doctrine. They’ve demanded books on similar topics be removed from school libraries and curriculum. And they’ve even stormed school board meetings where they don’t necessary live to complain about every petty grievance Fox News is broadcasting this week.

Now they’re coming after teachers social media.

They’re creating workshops to encourage people to find public educators’ online accounts and report anything they don’t like at school board meetings or in the media, ultimately demanding the offenders be fired.

After all, if Miss Roosevelt has a rainbow flag on her personal Facebook account, what’s to stop her from making her students gay!?

If Mr. Kennedy tweeted in favor of Black Lives Matter, what’s to stop him from making our White children hate themselves because of the color of their skin!?

And if Mrs. Gore liked a YouTube video where a Nazi got punched in the face, how do we know she won’t condone such violence in the classroom!?

MFL is based in Florida, but operates on a county-by-county basis, claiming 200 chapters in 37 states including Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Eerie, Bucks, Lancaster counties, etc).

This is an image advertising one such workshop in Nueces, Texas, but they are popping up everywhere.

One of the many ironies about the situation is how the idea has been pulled almost directly from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”

Orwell coined the term “thoughtcrime” to describe a person’s politically unorthodox thoughts – anything that runs counter to the party line. In criminalizing thought and even tasking the Thinkpol (i.e. thought police) with monitoring things people say, write or how they act, Orwell could be describing MFL.

In the fictional country of Oceania, the party controls all speech, actions and thoughts of citizens. This is pretty much what MFL is trying to do here.

It’s a strange way to love “liberty.”

These right-wingers actively harass people on the left for their politics, but cry foul when anyone dares to call them out on theirs.

The Florida-based organization claims to be just “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” Yet it’s infamous for encouraging a “mass exodus from the public school system” while disrupting that same system at every turn.

Its members are using culture war shenanigans to intimidate and harass people into silence.

They’re weaponizing fear to coerce people into curtailing political speech of which they don’t approve.

As infuriating as this is, it’s not new.

There have always been a few petty people in nearly every community willing to scroll through teachers feeds looking for trouble. Frankly, it’s why new educators are warned to keep their personal lives off the Internet or to keep their information private.

The only difference now is how concentrated these spying efforts may become.

We’re not talking about just the local crank looking for photos of teachers drinking or engaged in the crime of living an adult life.

We’re talking about well-funded ideologues out to destroy the public school system, one teacher at a time.

Incorporated in 2021, MFL is a 501(c)4 corporation, so it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. However, one of the group’s founders is Bridget Ziegler, wife of the Florida vice chairman of the Republican Party. The organization is affiliated with at least three separate PACs, and has the funds to pay for keynote speakers like Megyn Kelly and Ben Carson at its fundraisers. Some of its biggest supporters are the Koch family, the DeVos family, former Trump officials and The Federalist Society. 

They have the money to go through your Web footprint with a fine toothed comb.

So what should teachers do about it?

As a public school teacher, myself, the way I see it, there are two things we can do:

1) Lock down or disengage from social media


2) Keep doing what you’re doing

Your response will depend on your own situation.

If you live in a so-called Right to Work state or where worker protections are few and far between, you should probably get a tight grip on your online presence.

Make sure your personal Facebook account and any groups you belong to are private and secure. Ensure that anyone invited into these groups is verified through either questions or personal invitation. Check that everyone has agreed not to screen shot any discussions happening – and even then be careful what you post because nothing is ever 100% secure.

Use a privacy audit to make sure you don’t have something embarrassing out there. This guide from Violet Blue is a good starting place to ensure your private information is not easily findable online.

On the other hand, if you live in a state with strong union protections, you have a reliable union at your school, etc., then you have less to worry about.

You can’t be fired for expressing your freedom of speech on your own time on your own social media accounts. As long as you’re not on school devices, using or sharing such accounts in school or with students, you should be fine.

That doesn’t mean someone won’t try to harass you over your digital presence. But if you understand the dangers and feel relatively safe, you probably are.

I’ve been writing on education and civil rights issues for 8 years. I actively TRY to get people to read this stuff.

In that time, there have been a lot of folks mad at me for what I write. I sometimes get hate mail (usually email) calling me everything you can think of and more you can’t. And when some of these folks find out where I work, they sometimes call up to complain and demand I be let go with haste!

Nothing has come of it.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen tomorrow. But I refuse to live in fear.

I am who I am.

I shout it to the world.

And if someone wants to fire me for it, then fine.

There are lots of things I could be doing other than this.

We’re in a national crisis with teachers leaving the profession in droves at least in part because of fascist shenanigans like this.

Bottom line: I love teaching, but I’m not going to change who I am to do it.

Moms for Liberty can rage. They can spend all of Betsy DeVos’ billions trying to fire me and other educators who dare to have thoughts that may deviate from the right-wing.

Big Mother is not MY mom. And I don’t owe her anything.


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Top 5 Charter School Myths Debunked 

If there’s one thing people love to argue about, it’s charter schools.

Go to any school board meeting, PTA forum or editorial page, and you’re bound to see folks from all different walks of life getting red in the face over these institutions.

But what are they anyway? And why do they generate so much passionate disagreement?

To answer these questions and many more, I’m going to examine five of the most pernicious myths about charter schools, debunk the fallacies and come to the simple truths.

1. Charter Schools are Public Schools 

That’s what charter school supporters say, anyway. But it’s only partially true.

In short, charter schools are schools that were opened by special arrangement (or charter) with a state or authentic public school district that allows them to exist without having to abide by all the rules and regulations that govern all the other schools. Thus, the charter school can go without an elected board, it can pocket public money as private profit, hire uncertified teachers, refuse to admit special education students, etc. The degree of latitude depends on the special arrangement.

Is that a public school? In one way it most certainly is. All charter schools are funded by public tax dollars. Everything else is up for grabs.

They don’t even have to accept all the students in their coverage area like authentic public schools do. You still have to support them with your taxes though.

Is that a public school?

QUICK ANSWER: NO.

2. Charter Schools Save Money 

This is another claim by the charter school industry that has been in contention for their entire 30 year existence.

Charter schools were invented in 1991 and only exist in 43 states and the District of Columbia. They enroll about 6% of the students in the country – roughly three million children.

However, the idea that they could save money is pretty absurd. They duplicate services that already exist at neighborhood public schools. When you pay for two providers to do the same thing, that doesn’t lower the cost.

It drains money from the existing public schools and often forces school directors to raise taxes so they can continue to provide the same services as before.

However, not only do charter schools increase costs, they often waste the extra money taxpayers are forced to provide.

Consider that more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education.

Moreover, 1,779 charter schools (37 percent that receive federal grants) never opened in the first place or were quickly shut down. Since 1994, the federal government has spent $4 billion on these types of schools. Think of how much money has been wasted that could have been put to better use in our much more dependable authentic public schools!

To be fair, some charter defenders will argue that since they are free from the same regulations as public schools, they can cut costs WITHIN their institutions and provide the same services for less. However, they never return that savings to the taxpayers. They simply cut services for their students and then pocket the savings. Lowering quality may be a way to cut costs, but it’s not exactly an innovation – and certainly not something to be envied.

This may be cost effective to the bureaucrats and profiteers running charter schools, but it is not a savings to you and me – to speak nothing of how it hurts the students hoping to receive a quality education.

So do charter schools save money?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
 
3. Students do Better Academically in Charter Schools 

This is what it says on all those charter school advertisements you see popping up everywhere. But is it true?

The problem with answering that is one of apples and oranges. How do you fairly compare charter and public school students when each group is so different?

Charter schools can legally cherry pick their students. They serve far fewer students with disabilities and English Language Learners. If a student is hard to teach, they “convince” them to go somewhere else.

Meanwhile, authentic public schools can’t do that. They take all comers.

As a result, charter schools can APPEAR to do better for their students but that appearance is due to privileged rules not better teaching or academic programs.

However, even with such advantages, charter schools have failed to show consistent results over authentic public schools on comparative studies.

According to a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research study funded by the federal government, middle-school students who were selected by lottery to attend charter schools performed no better than their peers who lost out in the lottery and attended nearby public schools. This was the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education, and it found no overall positive benefit for charter schools.

And there have been many others. A 2016 study found that Texas charter schools had no overall positive impact on test scores and, in fact, had a negative impact on students’ earnings later in life.

Even a 2020 study by the charter-friendly Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools are not exceeding public schools in most areas of the country. In addition, the study found vast variations in the quality of charter schools – some being better and many being much worse than the norm.

So, taken as a whole, do charter schools outperform authentic public schools?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
4. Charter Schools are About Innovation 

This was, in fact, one of the selling points of the charter school concept when it was first proposed. Being freed of the regulations that authentic public schools have to abide by would allow charter schools to be laboratories for innovation.

However, after 31 years, practices at charter schools can be seen as somewhat different than at authentic public schools, but are they innovative?

According to a 2018 report by IBM Center Visiting Fellow for Evidence-Based Practices, the practices connected with most positive academic outcomes at charter schools are:

1) Longer school days or academic years


2) Zero tolerance and other strict discipline policies associated with rewards and sanctions


3) Centering the curriculum on improving test scores and test prep.

These are pretty much the opposite of what developmental psychologists, education experts and civil rights activists want for children.

Forcing adolescents to spend more time in the classroom is the exact opposite of what other high achieving countries (like those in Scandinavia) do. Treating children like prisoners with harsh punishments for not conforming to strict rules is not considered best for developing young minds. And narrowing the curriculum to drill and kill reading and math test prep may improve scores but it certainly doesn’t create well-rounded adults with strong critical thinking skills.

Moreover, those few charter schools that do engage in creative practices such as organizing the curriculum around a theme like creative arts or racial justice issues aren’t doing anything that isn’t already being done at authentic public schools – specifically magnet and lab schools.

The creativity and innovation you find at most charter schools is in the accounting department – finding new ways to reduce the services students would find at the neighborhood public school and redefining the savings as profit. That and circumventing conflict of interest regulations to allow the corporation that manages the charter school to buy properties from itself at a hefty mark up.

Is any of this innovation?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
5. Charter Schools Improve Civil Rights 

This is perhaps the most often cited benefit of charter schools. In fact, the impression has been that charters are the choice of people of color and serve them better than their neighborhood public school.

However, the facts show a somewhat different reality.

Yes, charter schools do serve a disproportionately high percentage of children of color. According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 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).

However, approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities compared to only 25% of authentic public schools.

So black people aren’t selecting charter schools more often as much as charter schools are deciding to locate in areas where more black people live and are often marketing their services directly to black and brown populations.

Are these schools doing a better job of meeting the needs of these children? A 2016 report from UCLA casts doubt on this idea.

Charter schools are notorious for suspending their black students at much higher rates than their white students. While suspensions for students of color are high at public schools as well, they are much more extreme at charter schools.

More than 500 charter schools suspended Black students 10 percent more often than white students. Moreover, the same figure holds for students with disabilities at 1,093 charter schools. In fact, 374 charter schools suspended 25% of their entire student bodies at least once.

Charter schools are also notorious for increasing racial segregation in the neighborhoods where they locate. Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended a charter schools that was hyper-segregated (80% Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25%.

However, this increased segregation isn’t just something that affects Black charter school students. It affects white charter school students, as well.

A 2018 report by The Hechinger Report found that 10 percent of charter schools enrolled a disproportionately high number of White students as compared to the racial demographics of the district at large. Writer Kimberly Quick calls these “White-Flight Charters”. 

In the first case, the charter schools end up with a disproportionate percentage of Black students and the white students are left in the public schools. In the later case, the Black students are left in the authentic public schools and the white kids flee to the charter schools.

Both cases are not good for civil rights. They allow students of color to be targeted for disinvestment and reductive curriculum while further privileging the white students.

Don’t Black students deserve the right to an education where corporations can’t teach them on the cheap? Don’t they deserve educations free from developmentally inappropriate long days, harsh discipline policies and narrowed curriculum? Don’t their parents deserve the right to participate in the running of their schools through elected school boards?

The idea that it is somehow in the best interest of children of color to be provided with schools containing fewer safety precautions is kind of insulting.

Far from improving civil rights, charter schools too often violate them.

This is why the NAACP has repeatedly called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Members of the organization’s educational task force released a statement saying:

“With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color.”

Black Lives Matter organizers also called for a charter school moratorium. Charters, they wrote, represent a shift of public funds and control to private entities. Along with “an end to the privatization of education,” the Movement for Black Lives organizers are demanding increased investments in traditional community schools and the health and social services they provide.

Moreover, the Journey for Justice Alliance – a coalition of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in over 30 cities – has gone even further calling for an end to all school privatization.

The organization posted on it’s Website:

“The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students and community residents in America’s cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people. There is no such thing as “school choice” in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”

So do charters improve civil rights?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!


There are a lot of myths spread about charter schools – many of them being propagated by the charter school industry, itself.

Most of these are not facts; they are marketing.

While there are some charter schools that do a decent job educating children, the charter school concept is deeply flawed.

Authentic public schools are far from perfect, but taken as a whole they are much more effective, reliable, economical, transparent and democratic than the alternatives.

We should take steps to end the charter school model and transition those schools that are working back to the authentic public school system that has served our students well for more than a century.


 

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I Teach Banned Books   

  
  
If you want people to do something, forbid them from doing it.  


  
As a middle school language arts teacher, that’s always worked for me.   


  
Many of my students are reluctant readers.  


  
If a text is longer than a Tweet or a YouTube description, most of them would rather skip it.  


  
And when it comes to books, many of them wouldn’t intentionally crack one open under any circumstances.  


  
Unless you tell them not to.   


  
Unless you point out a specific book on the shelf and say it’s off limits.   


  
Unless you open it up right in front of them before quickly snatching it away and saying, “Oops! I forgot! We can’t read that one!”  


  
So most of my curriculum is made up of banned books.  


  
The Giver, Silent to the Bone, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird – all forbidden in one place or another.   


  
Just not in my district.   


  
In fact, my school board has included each of these books on the approved reading list.

  
  
That doesn’t mean I have to use them.  


  
Language Arts teachers like me have a few different options at each grade level. And some of us actively avoid the more controversial texts to keep out of trouble.   


  
But not me.   


  
I go right for these taboo, prohibited, and oh so naughty books – for very good reasons

 

The Giver

  
Take “The Giver” by Lois Lowry.  


  
It’s almost the poster child for why we shouldn’t ban books in the first place. The story is set in a dystopian society where everyone is raised to be the same and people are discouraged from questioning things or having deep feelings.  


  
The book is most often challenged because parents don’t want their children to have to wrestle with its deep social criticism.  


 
When it first came under fire, Lowry responded thusly


 
”Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.”  


 
 
However, not everyone is willing to let children think through these issues themselves – and what a bundle of issues Lowry presents! 


 
In the plot, she mentions sex, infanticide, suicide, starvation, and euthanasia.   


  
Nothing is graphic or developmentally inappropriate for middle schoolers, but the very idea of children thinking about S-E-X and challenging authority is enough to put it afoul of some censors.  


  
Which is exactly why my students love it.   


 
Too often teachers give students short passages taken from standardized tests where the only reason to read is to hunt for multiple choice answers. It’s dry, boring and meaningless to their everyday lives. 


  
That’s why they enjoy books like “The Giver” so much. This isn’t just for a grade. It’s reading something worth taking the time to consider, something that gets under their skin and makes them want to think.  


 
They’re at an age (12-14) when they’re starting to find their own place in society and struggling to understand adult issues like reproduction and romantic attachment. Making these topics explicit and being able to talk through them in the safety of the classroom can be liberating – and worth the effort to decode.   


  
That is – if you accept that children are little human beings who deserve the chance to consider these things aloud.  

Silent to the Bone

  
And speaking of adult issues, there’s the other comprehensive novel I teach in 7th grade – “Silent to the Bone” by E. L. Konigsburg.  


  
It’s a classic detective story where the characters try to discover why a young teen, Branwell, refuses to speak after his baby sister suffers a potentially life threatening injury.   


  
The plot grabs readers from the beginning and students find themselves really invested in unraveling the mystery. But to do so they come face-to-face with topics ranging from family, divorce, death, bigotry, sexuality and exploitation.   


 
It’s not about finding textual details to satisfy the number crunchers at Data Recognition Corp. or NCS Pearson Inc. It’s about getting textual to better understand what happened in the plot and why. 


  
Again the narrative is written for middle school readers but the concepts get them thinking and enthusiastic.  


 
As we come to the big reveal, I’ve had students turn to me with huge smiles saying they can’t believe we’re actually reading about this stuff in school.  
 


In an age where they usually communicate with emojis, I’m just glad that they’re reading. 


 
It can get uncomfortable, but by the end I definitely feel like I’ve reached them.

The Diary of Anne Frank


  
Speaking of uncomfortable, one of the hardest books I teach in 8th grade is “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

  
 
It’s not that the text is so difficult, but as a person of Jewish ancestry, I find it personally harrowing to relive this story every year.  


 
The plot centers on Anne, a historical Jewish girl in 1940s Amsterdam who with her family and others hid from the Nazis before eventually being captured and dying in a concentration camp. 


 
Like most teachers, I eschew the actual diary for the play version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  


 
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine why this book would be banned. After all, it’s a true story of the Holocaust written by one of the people who lived it.   


  
However, there are an increasing number of people in this country these days who want to deny that the Holocaust even happened or claim that it was exaggerated. It’s hard to do that with a witness staring you in the face – even if that witness is just the book she left behind.  


  
Usually the text is challenged not on the basis of its plot so much as its sexual frankness. Not that there is much sex going on with people hiding above a factory in WWII. But the character of Anne is so real, she writes about everything including what it’s like to become a mature woman.   


  
For example, in Act II, scene 1, she mentions getting her period for the first time:  


  
“There is one great change, however. A change within myself. I read somewhere that girls of my age don’t feel quite certain of themselves. That they become quiet within and begin to think of the miracle that is taking place in their bodies. I think what is happening to me is so wonderful… not only what can be seen, but what is taking place inside. Each time it has happened I have the feeling that I have a sweet secret… and in spite of any pain, I long for that time when I shall feel that secret within me again.” 

 
  
  
My students often read over this passage without comment. I usually have to draw their attention to it and ask them what Anne is talking about before someone gets it.   


  
You might be surprised at how freeing this kind of discourse is. Menstruation is a natural part of life for nearly half the population, but it’s something we don’t often talk about.   


 
It’s not central to the story and Anne certainly goes into greater detail in her actual diary. However, even this little digression goes to further humanize her and make her relatable, especially to people like my students who are nearly the same age she was when she wrote it. 


 
She becomes so much more than a victim. She’s someone we know – inside and out.


 

To Kill a Mockingbird

 
The most challenged book I teach is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.  


 
It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the 1930s Alabama who defends Tom Robinson, a black man, of a crime he did not commit. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer’s children who go from blissful naivety to uncomfortable understanding. 


 
In the past, people used to object most often to the book’s language since it makes liberal use of the N-word.  


 
It’s still an issue, and I make sure not to have myself or any of the students read these parts aloud. We only hear it on an audiobook as we follow along in the text. And even this only comes after we discuss how hurtful that word is. 


 
However, the language isn’t the book’s biggest sticking point today. It’s more often objected to these days on the basis of white saviorism. Critics complain that the narrative should be centered on Tom, the black man accused of the crime, and not Atticus, the defense attorney and his children.  


 
What makes this particularly troubling is the critics have a point. If the story is about racism, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the target of that racism?  


 
They suggest the book be replaced by more modern novels that center such a narrative appropriately – something like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (itself, a frequently challenged book). 


 
However, in the final analysis, I disagree.  


 
As good a book as Thomas’s is, it just isn’t as well-written or multifarious as Lee’s.  


 
Thomas reveals a lot about racism and the fight against it in today’s world, and her book is certainly worth reading. But it is a mistake to think that racism is only about people of color. White people are the cause of racism. White people have a responsibility to tear down the systems of white supremacy.

By the end of the book, my whole class – regardless of race – is devastated by what happens to Tom and furious at the injustice he experiences. To be honest, that might not happen to the same degree in a book that signals its message right from the beginning.  


 
“Mockingbird” starts quietly. It doesn’t even appear to have anything to do with racism at the beginning. We slowly get acclimated to this world, this time and place before prejudice creeps into view and surprises us. 


 
In my classroom, the book allows us to discuss so many intersectional issues – gender, economics, belief systems, etc. Plus it gives my students more cultural capital than other texts would. Having read “Mockingbird” allows them to understand more and talk to more people than other more modern books. 


 
If they haven’t already, when they go to the high school, they’ll read novels centered on blackness. Their education and discussion of this issue would be incomplete without them. But I don’t think we need to stop reading such a classic as “Mockingbird” that was, itself, part of the civil rights movement.  


 
In any case, the school board has not approved any similar texts at that grade level. If I put aside “Mockingbird,” it would mean not discussing the issue at all. I think that would be much worse. 


 

Conclusions

So this is how I teach. 


 
I know there are some adults out there who would rather my students not read these books.  


 
I know some grownups would rather my kids not think about these things and not come to their own conclusions.  


 
They’d rather children be seen and not heard – like furniture.  


 
But my students know it, too. And they’d rather be treated like actual human beings – even if that means… yuck… reading.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’d much rather decision makers put no restrictions on which books students can and cannot read. Even trash like Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” shouldn’t be forbidden. I make sure to tell my students that it’s readily available in the library but not recommended.  

Children should not be restricted to only some ideas. They will come into contact with all kinds as they grow older. They need the skill to sort through them and decide for themselves their value.  

In my experience the bigger threat isn’t prohibition, it’s indifference. 

 
As Ray Bradbury famously said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” 


 
Focusing on banned books helps me keep reading real and relevant in my classroom.  


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

How to Vote on Ballot Measures in Pennsylvania’s 2021 Primary Election

Can you feel it?

The primary election is just a few weeks away.

Voters will decide all kinds of things like who will represent their respective parties for school board, judges, magistrates, county council, etc.

However, that’s not all.

There also will be four statewide ballot initiatives. All Allegheny County residents will get a fifth. And Pittsburgh residents will get a sixth.

If you’re like me, you don’t want these questions to come as a surprise on May 18 or before (if you’re casting a mail in ballot).

These queries can change the state for better or worse in dramatic ways, yet for some reason, they don’t write these things in the way everyday people talk.

This is lawyer speak. You have to wear a long black robe and put on a white haired wig (called a peruke) just to understand these things.

But don’t get your gavel in a tizzy.

As a public service, I’m going to translate each question and make a suggestion on how you should vote.

QUESTION 1:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”

Translation: Allow the legislature to second guess the governor and terminate an emergency disaster declaration without just cause

Suggestion: VOTE NO

This is yet another example of the endless far right hissy fit from science denying lawmakers still mad that Gov. Tom Wolf had the gall to close down the state because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. If passed, this would erode the powers of the governor and give them to our gerrymandered Harrisburg legislature.

We have three branches of government for a reason – checks and balances. Robbing the executive to boost a dysfunctional legislature would make the declaration of emergencies and natural disasters a matter or politics not facts.

Emergencies could be terminated at a moment’s notice without cause sending our first responders into chaos. Emergency managers could lose precious time and resources, communities could lose relief and recovery funding from the state and federal governments, all while our chuckleheaded legislature debates reality.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not be over yet. We’re working overtime to distribute vaccines and combat threats from emerging variants. The last thing we need is a political show prematurely eliminating masking, social distancing and other safety precautions so performative ideologues can win points on Fox News.

QUESTION 2:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”

Translation: Limit an emergency disaster declaration to 21 days regardless of the severity of the emergency

Suggestion: VOTE NO

Disasters do not come with time limits. But randomly limiting them all to 21 days again takes power away from the Governor and gives it to the legislature. The only way to extend emergency declarations would be passage of a resolution by the state House and Senate.

Do we really want our emergency responses tied to the endless back and forth of legislators who rarely even pass their annual budgets on time? This is unnecessary bureaucracy so politicians can grandstand while emergency personnel wait for the go ahead to save lives.


QUESTION 3:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?”

Translation: Make it illegal to deny or cut short anyone’s rights because of race or ethnicity

Suggestion: VOTE YES

This should be a no brainer. No one should be able to deny a person’s civil rights because of race or ethnicity. Or any other reason!

However, we just lived through four years of a reality TV show President who packed the federal courts with dozens of questionable and unqualified judges who made their careers discriminating against people of color, people of different creeds, religions, etc.

So it makes sense to enshrine equal protection for all at the state level and protect Commonwealth residents from federally sanctioned prejudice especially focused around workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, housing and healthcare.


Moreover, as a part of the state Constitution, this amendment would stop even our own state legislature from passing any laws inconsistent with it.

QUESTION 4:

“Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”


Translation: Allow municipal fire departments and EMS companies to apply for state loans to modernize critical safety equipment

Suggestion: VOTE YES

Both municipal fire departments and EMS companies with paid employees and volunteer departments and companies would be able to apply for state loans.

This vital funding could be used to modernize or purchase necessary safety equipment for first responders. It would keep fire fighters up to date and able to serve residents – especially those in rural areas. It would make sure every fire department could have up to date equipment.

Question 5 (Allegheny County Only):

“Shall the Allegheny County Code, Chapter 205. Allegheny County Jail, be amended and supplemented to include a new Article III, as set forth below, which shall set forth standards governing conditions of confinement in the Allegheny County Jail?”

Translation: Should we prohibit solitary confinement at Allegheny County Jail except in extreme emergencies?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. A lawsuit filed in September by ACJ inmates alleges that solitary confinement was being used as a punishment against inmates seeking mental health care. Recent research from Cornell University demonstrates that even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can increase recidivism rates, as well as unemployment rates.

Question 6 (Pittsburgh residents only):

“Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter be amended and supplemented by adding a new Article 10: Powers of the Pittsburgh Police, containing Section 1001, which shall bar employees of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from executing warrants at any residence without knocking and announcing themselves?”

Translation: Should we eliminate no-knock warrants?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

This would require all Pittsburgh Police to physically knock and announce themselves before gaining entry to execute a warrant.

No knock warrants are dangerous and often a component of racial discrimination in law enforcement.

Briana Taylor’s death in Louisville, KY, during the execution of a “no knock” warrant clearly shows how this practice recklessly endangers human life. Many municipalities now have banned no-knock warrants including Louisville, KY. Pittsburgh City Council also introduced legislation to ban the use of no-knock warrants by Pittsburgh Police officers.

So those are my suggestions for this race’s ballot initiatives.

NO. NO. YES. YES. YES.

And if you happen to be a Democrat living in Allegheny County’s District 9, please vote for me for County Council.

Together we can build a better world.


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

The Year Without Standardized Testing

Last year was the first in nearly two decades that the US did not give standardized tests to virtually every student in public school.

Think about that.

Since 2001 almost every child took the tests unless their parents explicitly demanded they be opted out.

For 19 years almost every child in grades 3-8 and once in high school took standardized assessments.

And then came 2019-20 and – nothing.

No multiple guess fill-in the bubble questions.

No sorting students into classes based on the results.

No evaluating teachers and schools based on the poverty, race and ethnicities of the children they serve.

And all it took to make us stop was a global pandemic.

What are the results of that discontinuity?

We may never really know.

There are so many variables at play.

The Covid-19 pandemic closed school rooms across the nation for various lengths of time. Some are still closed. Some are beginning to close again.

Many classes were conducted remotely through conferencing software like Zoom and file sharing programs like Google Classroom. Others were conducted through a hybrid model combining in-person instruction and cyber instruction. While still others met in-person with numerous mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing and air purifiers.

Many students were absent, struggled to learn and experienced countless traumas due to the isolation, sickness and deaths.

About 561,000 people are dead in the United States because of Covid-19.

That’s more than Americans who died in the attack on Pear Harbor (2,403), the 9/11 terrorists attacks (3,000), WWI (116,000) or WWII (405,000).

Only the Civil War (600,000 – 850,000) has a larger death toll. For now.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

How do you sort through all these tragedies and traumas and say THIS was caused by a lack of standardized testing?

You probably can’t.

But you can ask questions.

For example, how many teachers really missed the data the standardized tests would have shown?

How many students and parents agonized over what last year’s test scores would have been?

How many government agencies really wanted to provide resources to schools but couldn’t figure out where they should go because they didn’t have test scores to guide them?

I’m not sure exactly how we could find answers.

We could survey teachers and staff about it.

We could survey parents and students.

We could even subpoena Congresspeople and ask them under oath if a lack of test scores determined their legislative priorities.

But we’re not really doing any of that.

It’s a prime opportunity to find out something valuable about standardized tests – mainly if people really think they’re valuable.

But we’re not going to stop and do it.

Instead we’re rushing back onto the testing treadmill this year while the Coronavirus pandemic still rages.

Is that logical behavior?

Not really.

We already have almost 20 years of data showing that annual testing did not improve student learning nationally. US kids were no better off from 2001-2019 having yearly tests than students in Scandinavia who were tested much less frequently. In fact, the countries with the highest academic achievement give far fewer assessments.

The effectiveness and fairness of standardized testing have come into question since before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation enshrined them into law.

They were designed by eugenicists to justify racism and prejudice. Their partiality for wealthier whiter students and discrimination against poorer browner students has been demonstrated time and again.

But in 2001 we created an industry. Huge corporations write the tests, grade the tests and provide the remediation for the tests. Billions of dollars in taxes are funneled into this captive market which creates monetary incentives for our lawmakers to keep the system going.

Yes, some civil rights organizations have waffled back and forth over this as big donors who value the tests make or withhold contributions. Meanwhile, many other more grassroots civil rights organizations such as Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have continuously called for the abolition of high stakes testing.

It should be no surprise then that President Joe Biden – though as a candidate he promised to stop standardized testing if he were elected – did an immediate about face this year and insisted we reinstate the assessments.

A scientific mind would be empirical about this. It would examine the results as much as possible and determine whether moving forward made any sense.

This is especially true as the pandemic health crisis continues to make the act of giving the tests difficult at best and dangerous at worst.


There is no way a logical mind can look at the situation and not come to the conclusion that the status quo on testing is a triumph of capitalism over science and reason.

In a month or so, the year without testing will be just that – a single year.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end. We shall test during Covid, we shall test in the classes and on-line, we shall test with growing confidence and growing strength wearing masks, we shall defend our industry, whatever the cost may be. We shall test in the homes, we shall fill in bubbles on sanitized desks, we shall test in the fields and in the streets, we shall test in the hospitals; we shall never surrender!



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

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Just CLICK HERE.

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

What I Told My Students About Yesterday’s Attempted Trump Coup

The moment I had been dreading happened.

Student names started popping up on my screen waiting to be admitted into this morning’s first Zoom meeting.

What was I going to say to them?

Yesterday in Washington, DC, thousands of Trump supporters charged into the Capitol Building at his urging in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying his Presidential defeat.

What would I tell my middle schoolers?

What COULD I say?

We can’t offer you equitable resources. We can’t stop judging you with biased standardized tests. We can’t desegregate your schools. We can’t protect you from gun violence. We can’t even give you in-person classes because of a global pandemic the government has given up even trying to control!

And now I’m supposed to say that even the semblance of our democracy is up for grabs?

I started clicking on their names.

I only had a few moments before I had to speak.

I cleared my throat and began welcoming them, one-by-one as always.

And then it was time.

I stared at all these empty black boxes, and began.

“We’ve got to talk about yesterday,” I said.

“Not yesterday in class. That was fine. Everyone did an outstanding job on yesterday’s assignment.

“We have to talk about what happened yesterday in Washington, DC. Does anyone know what that was?”

And I waited.

Eventually I saw a few messages that individuals had their hands raised.

A few kids said that people had charged the Capitol. But that they didn’t know why.

So I explained it to them.

I told them how Trump was refusing to accept the results of the election. That he had lost, but continued to challenge it in the courts. Both Republican and Democratic judges had turned him down saying that he had no proof. So Trump spoke outside of the White House yesterday telling his followers to march on the Capitol, which they did.

At this point I noticed something strange on my screen.

The rows of empty boxes had turned into windows. No more memes or messages or generic names. Most of my kids had turned on their cameras and were meeting my eyes – in some cases – for the first time.

So that’s what Kelsey looks like, I thought. Wow! Marquis is really built. Is that little kid in the grey hoodie really Caulin?

I got flustered and stopped talking, but the students took up the narrative for me.

Some of them mentioned watching videos on-line of the riot. They saw a guy with horns in the President’s chair?

“No, I said. “That was the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate.”

“Wasn’t there someone at someone’s desk?”

“Yes, that was Nancy Pelosi’s desk,” I said. “A rioter broke into her office and put his feet up. She’s the Speaker of the House.”

And so it went on for a few minutes. They brought up things they had seen and I either clarified or supported them.

As a whole, they were wealthy in details but poor in meaning.

Most of the white kids seemed to be taking it ironically. The black and brown kids were more quiet and subdued.

A white boy wrote in the chat that it was “Civil War 2: electric bugaloo.”

I said, “Yes, you’ve hit on an important point. Some of these folks may have been trying to start a new Civil War.”

I tried to put the event in historical context.

I told them how nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime. That the last time people broke into the Capitol Building like this was during the War of 1812 when the British tried to force the US to become a colony again. However, that was a foreign power invading our country. Wednesday was our own citizens seeking to overturn the results of an election, trying to overwrite the will of the people.

That’s when the first black student spoke up.

“Mr. Singer, why were they waving Confederate flags?”

“Yes! That’s true, Jamal. Many of them DID have Confederate flags and that’s really important.”

Before I could say more I got a series of rapid-fire questions from the same group who had been silent up to this point.

“Why didn’t the police stop them?”

“Why’d they steal stuff? I saw some guy walking away with a podium.”

“Why they so mad?”

I smiled and said that these were all excellent questions.


I asked if any of them knew who George Floyd was.

No one responded.

I told them he was a black guy who was murdered by police when an officer knelt on his neck.

After that happened, there were protests by Black Lives Matter activists and others in several cities including Pittsburgh. The police showed up in riot gear. As these protestors demonstrated almost entirely peacefully – certainly more peacefully than what we saw in DC yesterday – more than 14,000 people were arrested.

“How many people do you think were arrested yesterday?” I asked.

“Didn’t someone die?”

“Yes, a woman was shot in the Capitol and three others died of medical emergencies. How many people were arrested?”

“None,” said a student of color who hadn’t participated before.

“Why none?” I asked.

“Because they was white.”

I told him that he right and wrong. Out of thousands of rioters who broke into the Capitol, thirteen people were arrested. And the reason there were only 13 was because they were white.

I told them that this whole affair needed to be investigated. That we needed to know how and why the police responded the way they did. That we needed to hold the rioters accountable. That we needed to make sure those who instigated this violence were made to pay for it, too.

“Is Trump still President?” Someone asked.

“Yes,” I said. “For about two more weeks. But there are a lot of people who think he should have to step down sooner.”

So we talked about how he could be removed from office. We talked about impeachment and the 25th Amendment. We even talked about how Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook – how he couldn’t post or tweet but still could send a nuclear missile anywhere he wanted.

And then it quieted down.

I asked them if there was anything more they wanted to know or if there was anything else they wanted to say.

They were still.

A few cameras clicked off.

I told them that I was there if anyone needed anything, that their teachers were here if they were feeling anything and wanted someone to talk to.

And then that was it.

I made one of the most abrupt and inelegant transitions in my career and we returned to our normally scheduled lesson.

Did it help any?

I don’t know, but I told them what I could. I told them the truth as I saw it.

There was a time when I would have been more reticent about it.

But the day after domestic terrorists try to steal our system of government isn’t the time to hold back.

As a teacher, sometimes I feel so helpless.

There’s so much I’d like to do for my students.

I want them to get the resources they need. I want to stop the unfair testing, integrate their schools, keep them safe from gun violence and control Covid-19 so we can return to the classroom.

I want to live in a country where majority rule is cherished and protected, where no one thinks the collective will should be trumped by white privilege.

But when all those things are out of reach, I still have one thing left to give.

The truth.


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