Five Things I Learned About Ed Tech While Playing ‘Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

the-legend-of-zelda-breath-of-the-wild-guardian-e1489251354463 

I don’t mean to brag, but I just beat “Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”

 

This summer I sat down with my 9-year-old daughter and together we played the most popular Nintendo Switch game for hours, days, weeks.

 

And at the end of all that time, I came away victorious – something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do when I started.

 

There are so many buttons to learn, two joy sticks, various info screens and menus.

 

But when it was all over, I had cleared all four divine beasts. I got all 18 captured memories. I completed about 80 shrines. I mastered about 45 side quests. I shredded guardians, lynols and bokoblins. And, yes, I opened a major can of whoop ass on Calamity Gannon.

 

As the kids say, I’m jelly.

 

My video game skills are lit.

 

You can’t handle me, bro.

 

And so on.

 

 

But I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man.

 

Didn’t I have anything better to do?

 

Couldn’t I have found a more productive use for all that time?

 

Maybe. Maybe not. However, beyond the sheer fun, I did learn something from the whole experience.

 

As a public school teacher, I learned about my students by following in their footsteps.

 

That’s really why I started playing in the first place – my middle school kids this year loved that game.

 

I got more Zelda doodles, more Hyrule poetry, more Link fan fiction than you might at first believe.

 

The world of the game was really important to my children and having even a passing knowledge of that world helped me relate to them.

 

I even asked for a few tips after class.

 

One of my best students took her Switch out of her backpack and showed me a prime location to pick hot peppers so I could withstand the cold of Mount Hyrule (Don’t ask).

 

It was worth doing just for that – I showed my willingness to be the student and for them to be the teachers. I showed them we were all a community of learners.

 

At least, that’s my hope.

 

But now that the dog days of summer are here and my video game victory is complete, I keep thinking of the implications of my experience in Hyrule on the world of education.

 

Specifically, I’m thinking about education technology or Ed Tech.

 

I’m thinking about how we use various software packages to try to teach students and how they invariably fail at the task.

 

Well-meaning administrators hear about this program or that classroom management system or an assessment app and they spend beaucoup bucks on it.

 

We’re instructed to give up valuable instruction time so our kids can sit in front of a computer while a digital avatar attempts to do our job.

 

Kids listen to a cartoon person instruct them in the rudiments of grammar or literacy, play loose skills exercises and earn digital badges.

 

It may sound like fun to us, but they hate it.

 

The reason: nine times out of ten it’s little more than a standardized test given on a computer.

 

Sure, there are lots of bells and whistles, but the kids catch on mighty quickly. There is no student as bored as a student forced to play an educational video game.

 

I have real concerns with issues of student privacy and how the data being collected by these apps is used. I have real problems with how this technology facilitates dumbing down the curriculum – narrowing it to only that which can be measured on a multiple choice assessment. I take umbrage that these programs are used by some as “evidence” that human educators and brick and mortar schools are unnecessary. And I shed real tears at the massive amounts of funding being funneled to corporations that could be better spent in our own districts.

 

But playing this game has given me hope.

 

In seeing how “Zelda” succeeds with kids – because it succeeded with me – I think we can illuminate some ways ed tech goes awry.

 

I found five distinct lessons from the game, five areas where “Zelda” succeeds where ed tech fails.

 

Perhaps these could be used to improve the quality of ed tech devices to make them better at teaching students.

 

Or they could show why ed tech will never be as effective at teaching as flesh and blood instructors.

 

In any case, here is what I learned.

1) Focus on Fun

 

One of the biggest differences between ed tech and “Zelda” was the focus.

 

The games we make children play at school are designed to teach them something. That is their purpose. It is their raison d’être. The point behind the entire activity is to instruct, test and reward.

 

By contrast, the purpose of “Zelda” is fun.

 

Don’t get me wrong. “Zelda” can be very educational.

 

There are points where the game is actively trying to teach you how to do things usually associated with game play.

 

You have to learn how to make your character (Link) do what you want him to do. You have to learn how to manipulate him through the world. How to run, how to climb, how to heal, how to use weapons, how to cook and make elixirs, etc.

 

However, the point behind the entire game is not instructional. It’s fun – pure and simple.

 

If you have to learn something, it is all in service to that larger goal.

 

In the world of the game, learning is explicitly extrinsic. It helps you have more fun playing. Only the pursuit of winning is intrinsic or even conceptualized as being so.

 

In real life, this may not be the right approach to education, but it seems to be a rule of virtual experience. If it is superseded, the game becomes just another class assignment – lifeless, dead, boring.

 

If educational software is going to be effective in the classroom, it must find a way to bridge this divide. It must either put fun before pedagogy or trick the user into thinking it has done so.

 

I’m not sure this is possible or desirable. But there it is.

 

2) Logic and Problem Solving Work but not Curriculum

 

There are many aspects of “Zelda” one could consider educational.

 

However, when it comes to things that have importance outside of the game, the biggest would be problem solving and logic games.

 

A great deal of game play can be characterized under this umbrella.

 

The ostensible mission is to defeat the bad guy, Calamity Gannon. However, to do so you often have to solve various puzzles in order to have the strength and skills to take him down.

 

The most obvious of these puzzles are shrines. There are 120 special areas throughout Hyrule that Link needs to find and solve.

 

Each one involves a special skill and asks the gamer to decipher problems using that skill. For example, one asks you to manipulate fans so that the air flow makes windmills turn in a pattern. Another asks you to get a ball through an obstacle course.

 

In each case, the emphasis is on logic and critical thinking.

 

That has tremendous educational value. And it’s something I’ve seen done easily and well in many educational video games.

 

The problem is it doesn’t teach any particular curriculum. It doesn’t teach math, science, English or social studies – though it does help contribute to all of these pursuits.

 

 

Ed tech games are not nearly so coy. They often try to go right for the curriculum with disastrous results. Ed tech software, for instance, will have you find the grammatical error in a sentence or solve an equation in order to move on in the game.

 

That just doesn’t work. It feels false, extraneous and forced. It’s doesn’t seem like an organic part of the experience. It’s something contrived onto it from outside and reminds the gamer exactly why you’re playing – to learn.

 

3) Option to Seek Help

 

One of the most surprising things to me about playing “Zelda” on the Switch was how much of an on-line gaming community has formed around the whole experience.

 

If you get stuck in a particular area, you can find numerous sites on-line that will help you get passed it. You can even find gamer videos where YouTubers will show you exactly how they solved this or that problem. And they don’t all have the same solution. Some provide elegant, well-detailed advice, and others seem to stumble on it and offer you their videos as proof they could actually get the job done somehow.

 

It’s a lot different from when I was a kid playing video games. Back then (30 years ago) you had your friends but there were few other places to go for help. There were fan magazines and a few video game companies had tip hotlines. But other than that, you were on your own.

 

One of my favorite YouTubers this summer was Hyrule Dude. His videos were clear, informative and helpful. However, I didn’t always agree with his solutions. But they invariably helped me find things that would work for me.

 

It reminded me a bit of Khan Academy and other learning sites.

 

If kids really want to grasp something today, they have so many places they can go on-line. As educators, it’s hard to incorporate them into a classroom environment because there are certain things we want kids to find out for themselves.

 

For instance, as a language arts teacher, I want my students to do the assigned readings on their own. Yet I know some of them try to skip to the on-line summaries they can find and use that instead of reading the text. I have no problem if they access good summaries and analysis but I don’t want them to take the place of trying to comprehend the text on their own first.

 

I think there are ways to use this larger social media community to help support learning without spoiling the hard work kids need to put in on their own. But it’s something we need to think about more and find better ways to incorporate.

 

4) Open Ended

 

One of the most striking things about this new “Zelda” is how much choice the gamer has. In most games you have to complete the first board and then the second and so on until you win.

 

On the Switch, the world you’re thrust into is incredibly open ended. You can do pretty much what you want, when you want. Or at least you can try.

 

At first, your character is limited to one area of the world – a plateau. But once you complete a certain number of the challenges there, you get the paraglider which allows you to access most of the rest of the world.

 

It’s a huge area to explore – impossible to travel the entire length of it without spending hours of game play. And it’s entirely up to you where to go and what to do next.

 

The central mission of the game is to defeat Calamity Gannon in Hyrule Castle. However, that would be incredibly difficult early on. You’re advised to get the four Divine Beasts first. And you can do them in any order you want.

 

Moreover, I mentioned shrines earlier. When you complete four shrines, you can either increase your hearts (the amount you can be hurt without dying) or your stamina (how long your character can do something hard like climbing or swimming without having to rest). Technically, you don’t have to complete more than a few shrines, but doing so makes your character stronger and better able to get the Divine Beasts and defeat Gannon.

 

There are also side-quests (totally optional) that reward your character with money, items, etc.

 

I think this is the secret to the game’s success. It’s why game play is so immersive and addictive.

 

Ed tech software is exactly the opposite. You must do section A before section B before section C. It’s little more than a multiple choice test with only limited possible answers of which only one is correct.

 

In “Zelda” there are often multiple ways to achieve the same end. For instance, I would assume the programmers wanted me to fight my way through every room of Hyrule Castle to get to Calamity Gannon. However, I simply climbed over the walls and swan through the moats – a much quicker and efficient method.

 

If we could recreate this freedom of movement and multifarious solutions within educational software, we might really be onto something. But, frankly, it’s something that even traditional video games have difficulty being able to recreate.

 

5) Choice to Play or Not

 

And speaking of choice, there is the choice whether to play or not.

 

Video games are one of the things kids choose for leisure. When we force kids to play them in school, that choice is gone.

 

They become a task, a trial, an assignment.

 

Moreover, not every child enjoys video games.

 

We can’t mandate kids learn from games – even the best of ed tech games. At best, they should be an option. They could be one tool in the toolbox.

 

In summary, I think the goal of the ed tech industry is deeply flawed.

 

Ed tech will never adequately replace brick-and-mortar schools and flesh and blood teachers.

 

At best, it could provide a tool to help kids learn.

 

To do so, games would have to primarily be focused on fun – not learning. They would have to be organized around critical thinking and logic – not curriculum. They would need to utilize the on-line community for help but not cheating. They would need to be open ended worlds and not simply repackaged standardized testing. And finally, students would need the choice whether to play them or not.

 

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that the ed tech industry would even attempt to incorporate these ideas in its products.

 

They are market driven and not student driven. The corporate creatures behind these products don’t care how well they work. They only want to increase profitability and boost market share.

 

Cheaper commodities are better – especially when the consumer isn’t the student forced to play the game but the politician or administrator in charge of school policy.

 

Ed tech’s potential as a positive tool in a school’s toolbox has been smothered by the needs of business and industry. Until we recognize the harm corporations do in the school, we will be doomed to dehumanizing students, devaluing teachers and wasting our limited resources on already wealthy big business.

 


 

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

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Why We Need a Department of Education

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Let’s say you have a starving child.

 

 

You take out a knife, a fork and a spoon. You hand her a cup.

 

 

This isn’t what she needs.

 

 

She needs food. She needs water.

 

 

But the utensils seem a precursor to meeting those needs.

 

 

That’s what the Department of Education has always been – a tool and a promise.

 

 

But now the Trump administration wants to do away with even that polite fiction.

 

 

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced the plan to merge the Education and Labor departments.

 

The reason you may not have heard much about it – beside the fact that bigger stories have overshadowed it like the forced separation of undocumented children and parents at the border, coercing kids into immigration court without parents or even legal counsel and then locking them up in cages in detention centers – is that the plan has about zero chance of coming to fruition.

 

Democrats oppose it and there don’t even seem to be enough Republicans in favor to get it through Congress. It may not even have enough support to get a vote.

 

Unless it’s a huge tax cut for the rich, no one seems able to get any actual laws through this GOP controlled legislature.

 

Moreover, the proposal is a definite step backward. The Department of Education was created in 1980 by splitting the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

 

At that time, its purpose was clear. It was a tool to increase funding equity and transparency while protecting students.

 

 

After all, the department was an extension of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which tried to bring equity to America’s public schools.

 

 

As President Jimmy Carter said upon signing the bill into law:

 

 

“First, [the Department of Education] will increase the Nation’s attention to education. Instead of being buried in a $200 billion-a-year bureaucracy, educational issues will receive the top-level priority they deserve. For the first time, there will be a Cabinet-level leader in education, someone with the status and the resources to stir national discussion of critical education concerns.”

 

 

Unfortunately, those principles were never fully realized.

 

 

The Department did increase funding to public schools, but it didn’t end up dramatically increasing opportunities for the underprivileged.

 

 

Sure, it provided targeted grants like Pell Grants that did offer opportunities to select groups of students. But it didn’t radically alter our outdated (even then) funding system.

 

 

Our schools are segregated by race and class – worse now than they were then. Since they’re funded primarily by local property taxes, that means the poor and minorities get less funding than richer whiter kids.

 

 

And unless you’re willing to let your kids go to a school that receives less funding than others, don’t tell me it doesn’t matter. Rich white people have long complained about the money we spend on other people’s children while doing everything in their power to protect funding for their own.

 

 

In the late 1970’s, it was hoped the creation of the Department would be the first step to increasing federal funding of schools to one third of the total cost, thereby leveling the playing field somewhat.

 

 

But that never happened.

 

 

Now as then, the federal government only funds less than 10 percent of the cost.

 

 

To return to the metaphor with which this piece began, the creation of the department was like handing a starving child utensils without much actual food.

 

 

As the years have passed, we’ve used those tools for everything except nourishing students.

 

 

We’ve fed the child by guiding an empty fork into her cheek. We’ve poked and prodded her mouth with a knife.

 

 

The result hasn’t been for her benefit. Instead we’ve let special interests feed off of HERcharter schools, voucher schools, high stakes standardized testing corporations, the ed tech industry and even book and software publishers through the boondoggle of Common Core.

 

 

Many have insisted this misuse of the Department means we should do away with it entirely.

 

 

I disagree.

 

 

The child is still starving. It is still our responsibility to feed her.

 

 

You don’t do that by taking away her utensils.

 

 

Oh, you can feed her without them, but not very effectively. She can drink from the sink, but not as well as from a cup. She can eat with her hands, but not as easily as with utensils.

 

 

This latest proposed merger wouldn’t really satisfy anyone.

 

 

It wouldn’t do away with the department – it would hide it behind closed doors.

 

 

It would simply make it harder to see what was happening to it.

 

 

Moreover, it betrays an ideological bias against education for its own sake. Making the Department of Education part of the Department of Labor implies that the only reason one goes to school to learn job skills.

 

 

One can imagine a newly reorganized federal effort to cut anything from our schools that couldn’t be immediately connected with becoming a worker drone. And I don’t mean to imply this would be a new effort, because it’s already what President’s George W. Bush and Barack Obama were using the Department to achieve. But now it would be in the shadows and who knows what monstrosity could grow without the cleansing light of day?

 

 

This would help no one. It would be a continuation of the status quo (or possibly a doubling down on it) under a different name.

 

 

No one needs that.

 

 

What we need is to roll up our sleeves and meet students’ needs.

 

 

The child is hungry.

 

 

She has been sitting before us starving for decades and all we’ve done is give her the means to eat without the food.

 

 

Isn’t it time someone open the cupboard and get this kid something to eat!?

 


 

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

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This Fathers Day Let’s Be Worthy of Our Children

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My daughter wrote me a card for Father’s Day.

 

 

It had a heart on the front and the following message on the back:

 

 

“Happy Fathers Day! Dad, you are my superstar. You help me when I’m sad. And I love everything you do for me. That is why I wish you a Happy Fathers Day.”

 

 

It was a sweet token of affection from a 9-year-old to her sleepy daddy sitting at the kitchen table.

 

 

But it got me thinking.

 

 

All over this country fathers are probably receiving something similar from their children.

 

 

Hawaiian shirts, blotchy neckties and more finger paintings than you could fit in the Louvre.

 

 

But the sentiment is probably the same.

 

 

Thank you for being there for me.

 

 

But are we there for America’s children?

 

 

We may be there for our own kids, but where genetics end, are we there for others?

 

 

Our government has separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents at the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

 

 

Two thousand children forcibly separated from their parents in our name and we dare to celebrate Father’s Day?

 

 

From April through May, the policy has separated 1,995 minors from 1,940 adults traveling with them who said they were the children’s guardians.

 

 

A country that doesn’t respect the rights of parents – even if those parents aren’t documented US citizens – has no right to pretend it values fatherhood or motherhood.

 

 

At best, we value WHITE parenthood, and that, my friends, is not good enough.

 

 

Look at what we subject our own children to in the public school system.

 

 

We segregate our schools by race and class so we can horde resources for wealthy and middle class white kids while providing the bare minimum to the poor and children of color.

 

 

In the name of accountability we bestow upon them high stakes standardized tests to “prove” even those meager funds are wasted – yet we ignore the financial disparity, the social problems, the health issues and a host of other obstacles the underprivileged face.

 

 

The only help we’re willing to offer is privatized schools that can pocket a portion of their funding and reduce resources for these kids. We demand local control and democratically elected school boards for rich white kids, but expect the poor brown ones at charter and voucher schools to get along with appointed boards where their parents have no choice except to take it or leave it.

 

 

Does a society that routinely treats its children this way deserve a thank you card? I think not.

 

 

Last month, the CDC released a report indicating that the U.S. birth rate ― the number of babies born nationwide ― is the lowest it’s been in 30 years and is below the “replacement” rate needed to sustain the population.

 

Various media sources were quick to blame women nationwide. Women put off having kids because they want to focus on careers. They aren’t sexy or submissive enough.

 

Yet few look at the responsibilities of men in this equation.

 

Who is it behind the salary gap between men and women? Who conflates women’s healthcare with abortion and communism? Who makes it easier to get a gun in this country than proper maternity leave, childcare or any adequate resources to make having a family sustainable?

 

Answer: men.

 

We’re grossly over-represented in government, business and management.

 

We don’t even support men who want to have families. Men make more money than women, but salaries are down for them as well. If there’s little support for pregnant women, there’s little support for the fathers who impregnated them.

 

We pretend family values are the bedrock of our society but we don’t do much to support families.

 

And when we look to the future, it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

 

Big business and huge corporations are salivating all over the prospect of further monetizing our children.

 

They’re piloting scores of so-called personalized learning programs, apps and devices to spy on children and monitor every aspect of their learning.

 

Not only are they asking kids whether they feel excited or bored by canned test prep lessons provided on-line, they’re focusing cameras on children’s faces, monitoring their breathing and heart rate. They’re collecting mountains of data with little accountability, privacy or even the promise of these things.

 

Investment bankers and hedge fund managers are funding these programs and more to create a priceless database on each individual child that can be used for lifelong marketing, job placement, even profiling by law enforcement.

 

These are not practices that are done in the best interest of children. They are in the best interest of investors and free market privateers.

 

No wonder fewer people are having children! They don’t want their kids to become helpless victims to a society that cares less and less about our humanity and more and more about our marketability.

 

It is us vs. them – where the us is significantly limited by race, economics and class.

 

So this Fathers Day, we need to do more than accept a congratulatory pat on the back.

 

We need to accept our responsibility for the status quo.

 

If we don’t like the way things are, we need to commit ourselves to doing something about it.

 

Call and/or write your Senators and Representatives about the policy of separating undocumented parents and children. Visit your lawmakers’ offices and demand fair funding and an end to school segregation, high stakes testing and school privatization. Get active in your local school district going to meetings and making your voice heard. Do everything you can to educate the powers that be on the coming Ed Tech scandal and remove or block it from your district.

 

We’re not just fathers on Fathers Day.

 

We’re fathers all year long.

 

Let’s do something more to deserve it.

 


 

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

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African Immigrants Excel Academically. Why Don’t African Americans?

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The presence of melanin in your skin shouldn’t affect your academics.

But in America, it does.

On average, black students achieve less academically than white students. They have worse grades, lower test scores, meager graduation rates and fewer achieve advanced degrees.

The question is – why?

Why does pigmentation matter so much in this country? What about it brings such negative academic consequences?

This is especially apt since it doesn’t apply to foreign born black students who come here to study or those who recently emigrated here.

In fact, they see just the opposite effect – they earn some of the best grades, have some of the highest test scores, and disproportionately graduate from high school and achieve advanced degrees.

This is something that distinguishes foreign-born Africans – especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa – even from other immigrants. African immigrants sit near the top of the scale of so-called model minorities.

According to a report by Christine Gambino and associates at the Census Bureau, 41% of the African-born immigrant population earned a bachelor degree compared with 28% of the overall foreign-born population in the US.

The four African birth countries with the highest percentages of bachelor and higher degrees among their expat populations in the US are Egypt at 64%, Nigeria at 61%, South Africa at 57% and Kenya at 47%.

So why the difference?

Obviously, it’s not skin color.

Part of it seems to be qualities selected for in the immigration process, itself.

We don’t let just anyone come to the U.S. We have rigorous qualifications and prerequisites that have to be met. For instance, students who want to study here must get high marks on the SAT, Act and/or the TOFFEL – the language proficiency test. To do that, they need the money and resources to study for these exams. They are already some of the best achievers in their native countries.

Moreover, there is a huge cultural difference coming from Africa as opposed to coming from the United States. Native-born Africans have to deal with the effects of post-colonialism. It wasn’t so long ago that European nations conquered and plundered the African continent for gold and resources. That era has mostly ended, but those living there still have to deal with lingering consequences. This has an effect on everything from gender, ethnicity, class, language, family relationships, professions, religions and nation states.

However, native-born Africans do not have to navigate the world of American white supremacy. The affects of being black in this country may be much more harmful than negotiating post-colonialism.

For instance, most mainland Africans enjoy intact cultures. They are not the product of families that were torn apart, religions that were displaced and entire belief systems, world views and genealogies that were stolen.

Nigerian cultures, in particular, highlight the importance of learning.

One typical Nigerian saying goes like this:

“The best inheritance that a parent can give you is not jewelry or cash or material things, it is a good education.”

This is why academics in Nigeria are widely supported, mandatory and free.

Meanwhile, in America native-born black students grow up in a much more stressful and unstable environment. This translates to academic struggles.

For one, they are the victims of educational apartheid. Brown v. Board is more than 60 years old, but American schools have become increasingly segregated by race and class. Black students receive fewer resources than whites and their schools struggle to provide the same quality of education. Moreover, they are the target – either directly or indirectly – of privatization schemes that result in less control over their own schools and the further reduction of resources through charter and voucher schools that can cut services and pocket the savings as profit.

However, the problem is not just systemic. I hate to say it, but sometimes even American teachers put up obstacles to black students success due to (often unconscious) bias.

Most teachers are white. They have certain societally reinforced expectations of black students. When these children struggle, they are more often put into special education and stigmatized for their differences.

It is no doubt that black students are more often disciplined and suspended than white students – numerous studies have shown this.

I think this is due at least partially to white teachers’ expectations. It is tempting to see black student behavior as negative in the default. We too often label them “bad kids” and then try to find evidence to support it instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt or assuming they’re smart and well-behaved until proven otherwise.

African immigrants don’t have to deal with these stigmas to nearly the same degree. They don’t get the same negative label. They have more support from close-knit families. They have more positive role models including more college graduates in the family.

Another obstacle for American born black students is a cultural imputation against academic achievement. Doing well in school can be seen as “acting white.” In order to maintain popularity and prestige, they are steered away from the exact things that immigrant Africans are steered toward.

The poverty of American blacks plays a huge factor, too. Even in moderately successful African American homes, parents or guardians are often working multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet. This reduces their ability to oversee their children’s homework and monitor academic progress.

It seems then that the so-called proficiency gap between native-born black and white students in this country is due to generational poverty, white racism and coping mechanism in their own culture.

If we want to help American-born black students, we need to realize, first, that this problem is not due to inherent racial deficiencies. It is the product of class warfare and white supremacy.

As such, it can be cured through progressive economic policies and anti-racist efforts.

The strongest argument for reparations comes from a recognition of the lingering effects of our history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex.

These are daunting problems, but they can be solved.

It just takes an honest appraisal of the issues and the social will to make things right.


 

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

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The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School

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There are good charter schools.

 

I admit that.

 

There are bad public schools.

 

I admit that, too.

 

But if one had to choose between the worst public school and the best charter school, you’d still be better off with the public school.

 

Does that sound crazy? Does it sound ideological, partisan, or close-minded.

 

I don’t think so.

 

Imagine if we said the same thing about tyrannies and democracies.

 

There are good tyrannies.

 

There are bad democracies.

 

Still, I’d prefer the worst democracy to the best tyranny.

 

Why?

 

Because even a badly run democracy is based on the principle of self rule. The government gets its right to make and enforce laws from the consent of the will of the governed.

 

Even if our representatives are corrupt and stupid, even if our federal, state and local agencies are mismanaged and disorganized – there is the potential for positive change.

 

In fact, the catalyst to that change is embedded in democracy, itself.  Egalitarian systems founded on the principle of one person, one vote tend toward fairness, equity and liberty much more than others.

 

Bad leaders will be replaced. Bad functionaries will be retrained or superseded. Bad agencies will be renovated, renewed, and made to serve the will of the people.

 

However, in a tyranny, none of this is true.

 

Even if you have a benevolent tyrant who does nothing all day but try to do whatever is best for his or her subjects, that is a worse state of affairs.

 

Eventually the tyrant will change. Absolute power will corrupt him or her absolutely. Or even if this bastion of human goodness is incorruptible, he or she will eventually be deposed, replaced or die.

 

And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to ensure the next tyrant is likewise benevolent. In fact, the system is set up to increase the likelihood that the next ruler will be as selfish, greedy and malevolent as possible.

 

This is because it is the system of tyranny, itself, that is corrupt – even if those that fill its offices are not.

 

The same goes for good charter schools.

 

These are schools that are publicly funded but privately run.

 

As such, the overwhelming majority have no elected school board, their meetings are held in private, their documents are kept secret, they discriminate in enrollment and they take advantage of a plethora of legal loopholes and bad policy to embezzle funds, overcharge for nonexistent utilities and cut services for students while pocketing the “savings” as profit.

 

If you can find a charter school that does none of these things – congratulations! You have found a diamond in the rough! But it is a diamond that is more likely to turn to coal the second you turn away.

 

Let’s say you find the rare charter school run by an elected school board. THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Organizers could at any time revert to an appointed board. Community members could be making all the decisions when you send your child to school, but by dismissal time they could have all been replaced with flunkies appointed by the private business people who took out the charter from the state in the first place!

 

 

Let’s say your charter school has open meetings and public documents. They invite the public to their deliberations. They take public comment and share all their internal communications with taxpayers and the media.  THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. They could close the doors any day they wanted. And there’s nothing you could do about it.

 

 

Why? Because that’s what a charter school is. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, it is not fundamentally a public school. It is a private school at public expense.

 

 

All these things that are optional at a charter school are required at public schools. Not just some public schools – ALL OF THEM!

 

 

Public schools are required to have elected school boards (unless taken over by the state). They are required to have open meetings and public documents. They are essentially democratic, whereas even the best charter schools are only democracies because of someone’s goodwill. When the wind changes, so will their system of government.

 

 

But that’ not all.

 

 

Let’s say you find a charter school that has open enrollment. It accepts every student who applies from its coverage area. Or at least it does so until it runs out of room. If demand exceeds supply, it conducts a lottery to determine which students to let in and which it has to unfortunately turn away.

 

First of all, if the school doesn’t have open meetings and public documentation, you have no way of knowing whether these lotteries are fair and unbiased. Operators are often charged with cherry picking the best and brightest and denying students with disabilities or behavioral problems – they’ve even been known to discriminate based on race and class.

 

Second of all, even if your charter school is one of the magical few that just does the right thing with no oversight, THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Once they figure out how much money they can save by only accepting the cheapest students to educate, inclusive enrollment policies will be a thing of the past. And you’ll probably never even know the difference.

 

Public schools aren’t allowed to do that. They have to accept every student from their coverage area regardless of academic deficits, emotional needs, race, religion, class or creed. And if there isn’t enough space, they still can’t turn students away. They have to expand!

 

And what about the most salient feature of charter schools?

 

 

Unlike public schools where all the funding has to be spent on student services, most charter schools are run for profit. They are allowed to cut services for students and swipe the savings for their investors.

 

Some charter schools don’t do this. BUT THEY CAN! Any day now they could cut little Timmy’s gym class down to twice a week so a shady group of business people in a smoke filled room could stuff a bunch of bills in their own wallets.

 

Offering French AND Spanish? Adios muchachos. And bonjour to a fistful of dollars going directly into their bank accounts.

 

All of that is perfectly legal even though it’s your money they’re collecting – money you put aside to help your child learn – there’s not a thing you can do about it.

 

Sure, you can take your child out of the charter school. But the money funding the school isn’t just your child’s. You’re paying for every student enrolled there. Even if you don’t have kids, you’re footing the bill. And unlike the public school system where you get a voice in how that money is spent, here you don’t get to say a thing.

 

You just get to pay.

 

Call me crazy, but I think there’s something wrong with that.

 

I think that’s worse than even the most decrepit public school.

 

If a public school has a terrible school board, they can be replaced. In fact, they most certainly will be given time. With each bad policy and unpopular decision, bad school directors motivate taxpayers to vote them out.

 

This is the exact opposite of charter schools. There is more reason for a charter to replace an elected board with an appointed one so as to increase their autonomy and ability to make money.

 

Most of the problems with public schools aren’t located in the schools, themselves.

 

They are the result of strategic disinvestment – archaic funding formulas that allocate less to districts without a large tax base than those in richer neighborhoods. They are the result of segregation schemes that keep the poor and minorities in neighborhoods where they can be ignored and then blamed for their own underprivileged status. They are the result of national and state policies allowed to play the parasite on their budgets – high stakes testing, Common Core and – yes – charter schools.

 

So, no, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be so positive about public schools and so negative about charter schools.

 

The problem with privatized education isn’t just specific to individual schools. It is a feature of the very kind of school we’re talking about in the first place.

 

Charter schools are at heart a less democratic system than public schools.

 

Therefore, public schools are always preferable.

 

I wouldn’t give up my country just because we have an idiot in the oval office. Nor would I give up my public school just because of inadequacies in my local district.

 

Democracy isn’t for wimps. You have to fight for it.

 

Those people who are telling you to switch teams are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

 

Don’t fall for it.

 

Public school proud.

 

Today.

 

Tomorrow.

 

Always.


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The State Penalized My School Because We Tried to Integrate

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The original sin of American education is segregation.

 

Yet in Pennsylvania, taking steps to integrate can result in a penalty from the state legislature.

 

That’s what happened to my school this year.

 

After years of innovation and academic growth, my school added a new program to bring in struggling students from another institution – and the state rewarded us by putting us on a list of “failing” schools and forcing us into a voucher program.

 

I teach in a racially diverse, high poverty district in the western part of the state, just outside of Pittsburgh.

 

Charter schools have been leeching off us for years.

 

But today was the first day school vouchers sunk their teeth into us, too.

 

It’s called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTCP) – a ridiculous bit of legislation that allows children in struggling public schools to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at a private or parochial school.

 

I’d say they could use that money at a participating public school, too, but in Pennsylvania the public schools taking part in the program can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

 

And why does my school now qualify for this dubious distinction? Because of our standardized test scores.

 

Not our test scores from this year. They won’t be released until at least June – more likely August or September.

 

This is based on test scores from last year – 2016-17.

 

Moreover, it’s not district wide. It’s just the middle school and one elementary school.

 

In previous years, the middle school was the district powerhouse. We had the highest test scores and the most innovation. So what happened?

 

In short, we integrated.

 

From a state-wide standpoint, my district is hugely segregated.

 

About 60% of our students are poor and/or minorities. Yet if you go a few miles north, south, east or west, you’ll find schools serving every flavor of white privilege. Beautiful big buildings with the best of everything and a tax base to pay for it. My district, on the other hand, is made to do the best it can with what we’ve got, which isn’t much.

 

To make matters worse, the structure within our district, inherited from decades of unenlightened social planning, doubles down on that segregation.

 

Though we only have one middle school and one high school where all our students rub shoulders, we have two elementary schools – one for the middle class white kids and one for the poorer black ones.

 

This has dramatic academic consequences. Kids at the better-resourced white school flourish scholastically more than kids from the crumbling black school. So the racial and economic skills gap becomes entrenched by the time kids move to the middle school in 6th grade.

 

If only we could integrate the elementaries.

 

However, we can’t bus kids from one neighborhood to the other because we can’t afford it. We have a walking district. Moreover, parents would revolt at the idea of elementary kids having to trudge long distances or take a city bus to school.

 

The only long-term solution is to create a new, centrally located elementary center serving both populations. However, that takes money we don’t have.

 

So last year we tried a partial solution – move the 5th grade up to the middle school. That way, we can at least integrate our students a year earlier.

 

Of course, this means taking kids from the black school with terrible test scores up to the middle school. This means adding more struggling students from the school that already is on the state’s bottom 15% list and making them the middle school’s responsibility. It means a new program, new trials and challenges.

 

You’d think we’d get praise or at least understanding for tackling such a problem. But no.

 

Taking on the 5th grade tipped the middle school’s test scores over the edge.

 

Now we’re in the bottom 15%, too. Now we have to let our students go to a private or parochial school with public tax dollars.

 

Why? Because we tried to right a wrong. We tried to correct a social and academic injustice. And the result was a kick in the gut.

 

Thanks, Harrisburg legislators! Way to support students of color!

 

This is just another way that school vouchers support white supremacy. They make it harder to battle segregation.

 

Why would anyone integrate if doing so could mean losing funding and looking like a failure in the press?

 

Moreover, forget all the junk you hear from the state about growth.

 

This penalty is based on whether we hit testing benchmarks – what percentage of students we have earning proficient or advanced on the tests. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve improved. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone from the lowest of the low to scratching at the ceiling of proficient.

 

My 8th graders last year (the year we’re being penalized for) experienced tremendous growth just like my students this year are doing. From where they came in to where they’re leaving, the difference is phenomenal!

 

But apparently that doesn’t count in Pennsylvania.

 

A poor school serving mostly underprivileged minorities needs to meet the same benchmarks as schools with Cadillac resources serving kids who have everything money can buy. There’s certainly no need for the state or federal government to do anything about equitable resources (At least, not until the result of a lawsuit is handed down where local districts are suing the state over just such strategic disinvestment).

 

Instead, we’ve got to offer our student the “opportunity” to go to a private school on the public dime.

 

And what an opportunity it is!

 

The chance to send your child to a cooperating private or parochial school at public expense.

 

The opportunity to lose your duly-elected school board. The opportunity for decisions about how your money is spent being made behind closed doors with little to no input from you. The opportunity to send your child to a school with fewer resources and fewer certified teachers. The opportunity to send your child to (an often) religious school on the public dime.

 

Wow! I can’t imagine why so few parents take advantage of that opportunity! My district has had a few schools on the OSTCP list before, and families overwhelmingly opt to stay put.

 

Let’s not forget the justification for this “opportunity” is low test scores.

 

Wait a minute. These cooperating private and parochial schools don’t even take the same standardized tests, if they take any at all.

 

In our community, there is only one cooperating private school – a catholic school located right next door.

 

Students enrolled there don’t take the PSSA or Keystone Exams. I believe they take the Terra Nova test. And the school must do a great job because its Website is three years out of date about the results of those tests.

 

What a great way to improve test scores for our students – comparing apples-to-pears or, to be honest, actually making no comparison at all.

 

This OSTCP law is based on an unjustified assumption that private schools are always better than public ones. The reality is that if the resources both schools receive are similar, the public school usually greatly outperforms the private or parochial one.

 

I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve toured our next door Catholic institution. A few years ago, we relocated our students there temporarily during an emergency drill.

 

It’s a quaint school. Cobblestones and a shaded green campus.

 

But the buildings are crumbling – especially on the inside. Watermarks on the walls and dirt collecting in the corners.

 

It’s also much smaller than my school. They only have less than 300 students from K-8. We have about 1,500 from K-12.

 

I can see why parents who graduated from that school and have a history with it might want to send their kids there to continue that legacy. But anyone else would be giving up much better facilities, a much wider curriculum, much better trained and experienced teachers and even smaller classes!

 

The OSTCP bill has nothing to do with providing better opportunities for children and families.

 

It’s a public tax giveaway to private businesses.

 

The private/religious schools benefit and so do the businesses who “donate” their taxes to these programs.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for contributing to this scam.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools like mine. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off the industrial testing complex.

 

In the Keystone state, we have the OSTCP and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).

 

This blatant swindle is championed on both sides of the political aisle.

 

We already waste $200 million in business taxes to these programs in the Commonwealth, yet both Democrats and Republicans keep trying to pass another bill to increase that sum by another $50 million.

 

In Allegheny County, where I teach, that includes Democratic State Reps. Dom Costa, Daniel J. Deasy, William C. Kortz II (who represents part of my school district) and Harry Readshaw.

 

Because of this bogus philanthropy, there will always be a bottom 15% of state schools – approximately 400 “failing schools” – that are ripe for the picking from private and parochial school vultures.

 

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t right.

 

That money should be going to public schools not private or religious institutions many of which espouse fundamentalist or racist teachings.

 

There is a reason our founders legislated a separation of church and state. We’d do best to remember it.

 

We could be using our resources to help solve our problems, alleviate segregation and increase equity.

 

Instead our lawmakers are too interested in giveaways to business and corporations even if that means stealing the money from our children.

In Trump’s America, You No Longer Need to Pretend to be Against School Segregation

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School segregation is kind of like war.

 

When asked point blank, no one wants to admit to liking it.

 

To paraphrase Motown singer songwriter Edwin Starr:

 

 

“Segregation. Huh, Good God.

 

What is it good for?

 

Absolutely nothing.”

 

However, when it comes to supporting actual integration programs or even just education policies that don’t make segregation worse, no one in politics really gives a crap.

 

Both Republicans and Democrats are heavily invested in ways to divide up school students along racial and economic lines – whether they be charter and voucher schools or strategic disinvestment in the public schools that serve the poor and minorities and hording resources for wealthy whites.

 

That’s why it’s somewhat shocking to hear the outrage over Trump judicial nominee Wendy Vitter.

 

Trump nominated the extremely partisan justice for a federal judgeship in Louisiana. Yet during a Senate hearing Wednesday, Vitter refused to answer a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) about whether or not she believed the Supreme Court was right in its landmark 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

 

The decision overturned the excuse that we could educate white and black people in different facilities so long as they were “separate but equal.” In effect, it said that when we educate the races separately, their schools will never be equal.

 

And Vitter couldn’t bring herself to affirm this ruling.

 

“If I start commenting on ‘I agree with this case’ or don’t agree with this case,’ I think we get into a slippery slope,” she said.

 

“I don’t mean to be coy, but I think I get into a difficult area when I start commenting on Supreme Court decisions which are correctly decided and which I may disagree with,” Vitter said.

 

She added that the ruling was “binding” and that she would uphold it if confirmed as a judge.

 

 

And there we have it, people.

 

That’s where the bar is set during the Trump administration.

 

You no longer need to pretend to be against school segregation.

 

On the one hand, it’s more honest than most people in the political arena.

 

On the other, how far have we sunk when you don’t even need to feign decency in order to expect having a chance of Congress confirming you?

 

Let me be clear. Vitter’s nomination should not be approved.

 

Congress should draw a line in the sand and say that it cannot accept people who do not share bedrock American values on the bench.

 

If you aren’t in favor of integration, you have no place making decisions about race, class and education.

 

And that is the barest minimum.

 

That is merely decorum.

 

It’s like having the decency to condemn Nazis – something else Trump can’t bring himself to do.

 

What actually happens to Vitter will probably be determined by the degree of backlash against her.

 

As of Thursday afternoon, the video clip of Vitter’s comments about Brown V. Board had more than 1.7 million views, and was retweeted over 13,000 times.

 

A few months ago, another Trump judicial nominee, Matthew Petersen, withdrew from consideration after a video in which he couldn’t answer basic legal questions went viral.

 

But even if this reprehensible person who has no right sitting in judgement over anything more taxing than a checkbook gets turned away from the bench, we’ll still be far from where we need to be on school segregation.

 

Despite Brown vs. Board, many of our schools today are more segregated – not less – than they were in the 1960s.

 

And instead of putting on our big boy pants and tackling the issue, we’ve gone in the opposite direction.

 

On both sides of the aisle, lawmakers support charter schools. Republicans and a few Democrats support school vouchers. And just about everyone is fine with the fact that our public schools serve vastly disproportionate racial and economic populations yet rely on local tax revenues for funding and thus are inequitably resourced.

 

In every case, these policies make segregation worse. Yet hardly anyone in the halls of power or in the media even admits it is happening.

 

At most, you get a news story every anniversary of Brown v. Board about the increased segregation and a journalistic shrug. Well, we don’t know how to solve that one…

 

Yes, we do!

 

We need to integrate – not segregate.

 

We need to end school privatization.

 

We need to redraw district boundaries.

 

We need to audit school policies that keep the races apart within districts by building or by class.

 

And we need robust, equitable funding that can’t be manipulated to favor wealthy white kids.

 

That will take a lot more moral courage than partisan outrage against Vitter.

 

Oh, she deserves outrage, but because of her lack of morality, not her political party.

 

This can no longer be about if your political football team is in power or not.

 

It has to be about what’s right and wrong.

 

Caring about integration should be part of what it means to be an American – like freedom, justice and apple pie.

 

If it isn’t, we have a lot worse problems than one reprehensible would-be judge.


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

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