Artificially Intelligent Chatbots Will Not Replace Teachers

Education pundits are a lot like the guy in the “Distracted Boyfriend”meme.

They’re walking with teachers but looking around at the first thing possible to replace them.

This weekend it’s AI chatbots.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with Siri from Apple or Alexa from Amazon, you’ve interacted with a chatbot.

Bill Gates already invested more than $240 million in personalized learning and called it the future of education.

And many on social media were ready to second his claim when ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by artificial intelligence company OpenAI, responded in seemingly creative ways to users on-line.

It answered users requests to rewrite the 90s hit song, “Baby Got Back,” in the style of “The Canterbury Tales.” It wrote a letter to remove a bad account from a credit report (rather than using a credit repair lawyer). It explained nuclear fusion in a limerick.

It even wrote a 5-paragraph essay on the novel “Wuthering Heights” for the AP English exam.

Josh Ong, the Twitter user who asked for the Emily Bronte essay, wrote, “Teachers are in so much trouble with AI.”

But are they? Really?

Teachers do a lot more than provide right answers. They ask the right questions.

They get students to think and find the answers on their own.

They get to know students on a personal level and develop lessons individually suited to each child’s learning style.

That MIGHT involve explaining a math concept as a limerick or rewriting a 90’s rap song in Middle English, but only if that’s what students need to help them learn.

It’s interpersonal relationships that guide the journey and even the most sophisticated chatbot can’t do that yet and probably never will have that capacity.

ChatGPT’s responses are entertaining because we know we’re not communicating with a human being. But that’s exactly what you need to encourage the most complex learning.

Human interaction is an essential part of good teaching. You can’t do that with something that is not, in itself, human – something that cannot form relationships but can only mimic what it thinks good communication and good relationships sound like.

Even when it comes to providing right answers, chatbots have an extremely high error rate. People extolling these AI’s virtues are overlooking how often they get things wrong.

Anyone who has used Siri or Alexa knows that – sometimes they reply to your questions with non sequiturs or a bunch of random words that don’t even make sense.

ChatGPT is no different.

As more people used it, ChatGPT’s answers became so erratic that Stack Overflow – a Q&A platform for coders and programmers – temporarily banned users from sharing information from ChatGPT, noting that it’s “substantially harmful to the site and to users who are asking or looking for correct answers.”

The answers it provides are not thought out responses. They are approximations – good approximations – of what it calculates would be a correct answer if asked of a human being.

The chatbot is operating “without a contextual understanding of the language,” said Lian Jye Su, a research director at market research firm ABI Research.

“It is very easy for the model to give plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers,” she said. “It guessed when it was supposed to clarify and sometimes responded to harmful instructions or exhibited biased behavior. It also lacks regional and country-specific understanding.”

Which brings up another major problem with chatbots. They learn to mimic users, including racist and prejudicial assumptions, language and biases.

For example, Microsoft Corp.’s AI bot ‘Tay’ was taken down in 2016 after Twitter users taught it to say racist, sexist and offensive remarks. Another developed by Meta Platforms Inc. had similar problems just this year. 

Great! Just what we need! Racist Chatbots!

This kind of technology is not new, and has historically been used with mixed success at best.

ChatGPT may have received increased media coverage because its parent company, OpenAI, was co-founded by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world.

Eager for any headline that didn’t center on his disastrous takeover of Twitter, Musk endorsed the new AI even though he left the company in 2018 after disagreements over its direction.

However, AI and even chatbots have been used in some classrooms successfully.

Professor Ashok Goel secretly used a chatbot called Jill Watson as an assistant teacher of online courses at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The AI answered routine questions from students, while professors concentrated on more complicated issues. At the end of the course, when Goel revealed that Jill Watson was a chatbot, many students expressed surprise and said they had thought she was a real person.

This appears to be the primary use of a chatbot in education.

“Students have a lot of the same questions over and over again. They’re looking for the answers to easy administrative questions, and they have similar questions regarding their subjects each year. Chatbots help to get rid of some of the noise. Students are able to get to answers as quickly as possible and move on,” said Erik Bøylestad Nilsen from BI Norwegian Business School.

However, even in such instances, chatbots are expensive as yet to install, run and maintain, and (as with most EdTech) they almost always collect student data that is often sold to businesses.

Much better to rely on teachers.

You remember us? Warm blooded, fallible, human teachers.

The best innovation is still people.


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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.


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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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!

When Good Students Get Bad Standardized Test Scores 

 
 
Ameer is a good student.  


 
He takes notes in class, does all his homework and participates in discussions.  


 
He writes insightful essays and demonstrates a mastery of spelling and grammar.  


 
He reads aloud with fluency and inflection. He asks deep questions about the literature and aces nearly all of his classroom reading comprehension tests. 


 
However, when it is standardized test time, things are very different.  


 
He still arrives early, takes his time with the questions and reviews his work when he’s done – but the results are not the same.  


 
His grades are A’s. His test scores are Below Basic. 


 
How is that?  


 
How can a student demonstrate mastery of a subject in class but fail to do the same on a standardized test?  


 
And which assessment should I, his teacher, take seriously?  


 
After all, they can’t BOTH be correct. 


 
This is a problem with which most classroom teachers are forced to contend.  


 
Bureaucrats at the administrative or state level demand teachers assess students with standardized tests but the results often contradict a year or more of observation. 


 
Take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  


 
This year at my Western Pennsylvania district, administration decided to use this computer-based standardized assessment as a pre-test or practice assessment before the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). 


 
I’ve already written about what a waste of time and money this is. A test before the test!? 


 
But after reluctantly subjecting my classes to the MAP and being instructed to analyze the results with my colleagues, we noticed this contradiction. 


 
In many cases, scores did not match up with teacher expectations for our students.  


 
In about 60-80% of cases, students who had demonstrated high skills in the subject were given scores below the 50th percentile – many below the 25th percentile.  


 
These were kids with average to high grades who the MAP scored as if they were in the bottom half of their peers across the state. 


 
 Heck! A third of my students are in the advanced class this year – but the MAP test would tell me most of them need remediation! 


 
If we look at that data dispassionately, there are possible explanations. For one, students may not have taken the test seriously. 


 
And to some degree this is certainly the case. The MAP times student responses and when they are input fast and furious, it stops the test taker until the teacher can unlock the test after warning them against rapid guessing. 


 
However, the sheer number of mislabeled students is far too great to be accounted for in this way. Maybe five of my students got the slow down sloth graphic. Yet so many more were mislabeled as failures despite strong classroom academics. 


 
The other possibility – and one that media doom-mongers love to repeat – is that districts like mine routinely inflate mediocre achievement so that bad students look like good ones.  


 
In other words, they resolve the contradiction by throwing away the work of classroom teachers and prioritizing what standardized tests say


 
Nice for them. However, I am not some rube reading this in the paper. I am not examining some spreadsheet for which I have no other data. I am IN the classroom every day observing these very same kids. I’ve been right there for almost an entire grading period of lessons and assessments – formative and summative. I have many strong indications of what these kids can do, what they know and what they don’t know.  


 
Valuing the MAP scores over weeks of empirical classroom data is absurd.  


 
I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with more than two decades experience. But Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a testing company out of Portland, Oregon, wants me to believe that after 90 minutes it knows my students better than I do after six weeks! 


 
Time to admit the MAP is a faulty product. 


 
But it’s not just that one standardized test. We find the same disparity with the PSSA and other like assessments.  


 
Nationally, classroom grades are better than these test scores.  


 
In the media, pundits tell us this means our public school system is faulty. Yet that conclusion is merely an advertisement for these testing companies and a host of school privatization enterprises offering profit-making alternatives predicated on that exact premise.  


 
So how to resolve the contradiction? 


 
The only logical conclusion one can draw is that standardized assessments are bad at determining student learning.  


 
In fact, that is not their primary function. First and foremost, they are designed to compare students with each other. How they make that comparison – based on what data – is secondary.  


 
The MAP, PSSA and other standardized tests are primarily concerned with sorting and ranking students – determining which are best, second best and so on. 


 
By contrast, teacher-created tests are just the opposite. They are designed almost exclusively to assess whether learning has taken place and to what degree. Comparability isn’t really something we do. That’s the province of administrators and other support staff.  


 
The primary job of teaching is just that – the transfer of knowledge, offering opportunities and a conducive environment for students to learn.  


 
That is why standardized tests fail so miserably most of the time. They are not designed for the same function. They are about competition, not acquisition of knowledge or skill. 


 
That’s why so many teachers have been calling for the elimination of standardized testing for decades. It isn’t just inaccurate and a waste of time and money. It gets in the way of real learning.  


 
You can’t give a person a blood transfusion if you can’t accurately measure how much blood you’re giving her. And comparing how much blood was given to a national average of transfusions is not helpful. 


 
You need to know how much THIS PERSON needs. You need to know what would help her particular needs.  


 
When good students get bad test scores, it invariably means you have a bad test.  


 
 
An entire year of daily data points is not invalidated by one mark to the contrary.  


 
Until society accepts this obvious truth, we will never be able to provide our students with the education they deserve.  

Good students will continue to be mislabeled for the sake of a standardized testing industry that is too big to fail.


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.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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!

 

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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The MAP Test – Selling Schools Unnecessary Junk at Student Expense

School districts are easy targets for grifters.

Corporations everywhere are trying to sell them unnecessary junk and pocket wads of taxpayer cash.

The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is a particularly egregious example of this, but let me begin with a more everyday example.

I’m a public school teacher in western Pennsylvania, and when I returned to school this week before classes started, I noticed my stapler was irreparably jammed from last year.

Normally, I’d just go out and buy another one. But I was running out of time to get things done, so I went to the office and asked if they had any staplers.

As luck would have it, they did.

The secretary lead me to a closet full of brand new Swingline staplers.

I thanked her, took one back to my room and started stapling.

Three staples in, it was irreparably jammed.

When I returned home that evening and complained to my family about the woes of the day, my sweet 13-year-old daughter offered me a stapler we had around the house.

When I brought it to school, it worked like a dream.

It wasn’t some top of the line model. It was another basic Swingline stapler. It was slightly less boxy and more modern than the kind I got from the office. But it worked. That’s the important difference.

So why did the office have a closet full of faulty staplers?

Because most teachers – unlike me – know the staplers the district buys are crap. You have to purchase your own supplies.

But think of the money wasted here!

The basic model sells for almost $14 on amazon.com.

Those staplers – that many staplers – probably add up to hundreds of dollars.

And they don’t even work!

Sadly, the full extent of the waste district-wide is much farther reaching than just the staplers.

Later that very day, teachers in my building were forced to sit through a virtual training on the MAP test.

This is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon.

The company claims its assessments are used by over 9,500 schools and districts in 145 countries – but none is more popular than the MAP.

Some states even require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in the Commonwealth, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it.

My building – the middle school – used a variety of different assessments throughout the years for this purpose – IXL, CDT, etc.

However, things are changing this year. No, we’re not getting rid of these pretests altogether – why enact sane policy now after a decade of wrongheadedness!?

My district had used the MAP consistently for years at the elementary schools, so someone in administration thought it made sense to bring it to the middle school now and eventually institute it in the high school, as well.

Do we really need an assessment BEFORE the state mandated assessments?

Heck no!

Classroom teachers give enough assignments and tests of their own to know where their students are academically throughout the year. We grade them after all. What do you think that’s based on – guessing?

But certain administrators just love these pre-tests. They love looking at spreadsheets of student data and comparing one grading period to another. They think if the numbers go higher, it will be proof they’re good principals and functionaries.

It’s pathetic to be honest. What a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be used for actual learning! What a waste of class time that could be used for actual teaching!

And what a negative impact these assessment actually have on students and their learning!

For instance, at the MAP training, teachers were told the assessment’s job was to show how our students were doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker.

How is that useful?

I don’t teach average test takers. I don’t even teach average students.

How is constantly comparing them to a norm going to help them improve?

If I went on a diet and stepped on the scale, learning that my weight loss wasn’t as high as an average dieter would not help me stay away from sweets. If anything, it would inspire me to go on a binge in the snack drawer.

It’s the same with my students. Constantly pounding into them how below average their scores are does not inspire them to do better. It teaches them that they cannot do what is being asked of them so they stop trying.

When learning a skill, it doesn’t help to know how well others are or are not learning that same skill. It matters how much you are learning in comparison to yourself. Yesterday I knew THIS. Today I know a bit MORE. Who cares what the so-called average learner can do!?

Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.

But no matter how many times I say such things to administrators or paid trainers from NWEA, they just don’t get it.

At this training, the instructor actually wanted to know what “elevator speech” teachers were going to give to parents about why the MAP was important!

It’s bad enough we’re being forced to give this crappy assessment, but now you want us to spout propaganda to the very people paying our salaries!?

Why not invite us to the school board meeting and ask us what we really think of this initiative? Why not have us submit comments anonymously and have them read publicly to the school board?

But of course not! That would be actually valuing the opinion of the people you’ve hired to teach!

It’s no wonder the trainer was anticipating blow back. Many parent and teacher groups across the country have opposed the MAP test. Most famously in 2013, teachers at several Seattle schools lead by Garfield High School actually refused to give the MAP test.

Having trusted teachers sooth community worry with corporate propaganda would be a big win for the testing company.

However, I’ll give the trainer one thing – she understood that the MAP assessment scores would not be useful unless students could be encouraged to take the test seriously. Nobody tries their best at something they think is unimportant.

Her solution was two-fold. First, NWEA has produced several propaganda videos to show students why the test is important.

I can imagine how much they’ll love that!

Second, the MAP is an adaptive test taken on a computer or iPad. And it actively monitors the students taking the test.

If its algorithm determines that students are answering questions too quickly or “rapid guessing,” the program pauses the student test.

Teachers are supposed to monitor all this on a screen and intervene when it occurs. We’re supposed to counsel kids not to just guess and then allow them back on the test. If the algorithm still thinks students are guessing, we’re supposed to suspend their test and make them take it all over again.

You know, I did not get a masters in education to become a policeman for a standardized testing organization.

Moreover, this is exactly the kind of test proctoring that would get me fired if I tried it during the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). I would be guilty of violating test security.

Teachers throughout the state have to take on-line classes every year about what we are and are not allowed to do during the PSSA test. Stopping students who seem to be guessing, is not allowed. I’m not even allowed to point out if a student skipped a question on the test!

I certainly can’t scrap a PSSA test that I think a student didn’t give his best effort on and make him do it again!

So how exactly is this MAP test a practice for the real thing!?

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s an artificial environment where scores are massaged to give an unrealistic picture of how students will do on the PSSA.

Of course, administration at my school has one more trick up its sleeve to get students to take the MAP test seriously.

Like the CDT, IXL and other assessments before it, administrators plan to use MAP scores to make decisions about which classes students can take in the next grade. Students in the advanced classes must test well on the MAP or be denied access to this class in subsequent years. Students who score badly on the MAP may have to take the remedial class.

And unlike the PSSA or Keystone Exams – assessments required by the state – administrators are trying to forbid parents from opting their children out of the MAP test.

State test – you can opt out.

Local assessment – you have to take it. Or else!

I wonder if enough parents will complain to the school board about such behavior or just give up and enroll their kids in the local charter school or the private parochial school located RIGHT NEXT DOOR!

As if this all wasn’t counterproductive enough, it’s also a huge waste of money.

Though NWEA claims to be a non-profit, the company posted $166,775,470 in revenue in 2020 – the most recent year available. Its CEO Chris Minnich made $397,582.

These people are making lots of money off this standardized testing baloney!

According to a 2015 brochure from NWEA about the MAP test, it costs $13.50 per student to take the test every year. And that’s just for the Reading and Math. It costs an additional $2.50 per pupil for the Science test.

So if we estimate 1000 students at the elementary and middle school level, that’s roughly $16,000 a year to take the test.

And that doesn’t include the price of trainings like the one I had to sit through this week.

According to that same brochure, the cost for a single days training is $4,000, though sometimes it can be reduced to $3,500 if you buy the right package.

Trainings can go up to $40,000 for multiple days and an in-person trainer.

I wonder how much money my district flushed down the toilet on this garbage.

I look in my classroom closet at the crumbling books, and wonder.

I look at my steadily increasing class sizes and wonder.

My district doesn’t need the MAP test.

We need a test of basic decency for decision makers.


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Great Replacement Theory and School Choice

What do QAnon conspiracy theorists and school privatization promoters have in common?

Answer: ideology.

The two groups do everything they can to disassociate with each other in public.

But examine their ideas and you’ll see a lot of family resemblances.

For example, take Great Replacement Theory and School Choice.

Great Replacement Theory is the idea that people of color are replacing white people both numerically and politically. Adherents claim Democrats are overrunning native-born white people with brown skinned immigrants in order to wrest political power. The claims have no basis in fact, but that doesn’t stop the narrative from gaining traction in the darkest corners of the Internet and right wing circles.

It is a favorite of far right pundits, immigration catastrophists and mass shooters. In fact, several white men have used it as justification for mass murder.

In May a white teenager cited it as his motivation for killing 10 black people and wounding several others at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

In 2018, another white man claimed he was trying to stop Jewish people facilitating immigration by killing 11 Jewish people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

School choice, on the other hand, seems to be something much less extreme.

At least you don’t have to be a card carrying member of the lunatic fringe to espouse its supposed virtues.

It’s the idea that kids should be segregated into different school systems based on parental choice. This means that parallel systems will compete for students in a Darwinian marketplace where some will get better resources than others with profit being the prime motivator for school operators most of whom are private corporations. In practice, this usually means that the worst racial and economic segregation is justified and even preferable so long as consumers think doing so will get them some kind of advantage.

It’s quite a popular idea among certain market first ideologues. This includes both Democrats and Republicans, investment bankers, and even some social justice advocates.

These are not always the same people who publicly champion Great Replacement Theory. However, as Tucker Carlson proves on his Fox News platform, sometimes they are.

Carlson has used his media empire to promote both ideas.

For more than a year he’s been claiming on Fox News that there’s a deliberate effort by the Democrats to undermine Republicans by replacing native-born Americans with immigrants.

In July, he said:

“You can’t just replace the electorate because you didn’t like the last election outcomes. That would be the definition of undermining democracy, changing the voters… The great replacement. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s their electoral strategy.”

And when it comes to school choice, he goes even further. Not only has he promoted it on Fox News, he is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, a media source that constantly promotes school privatization and other corporate education reform strategies – school vouchers, charter schools, etc.

So what do the two concepts have in common?

In short: racism and white supremacy.

Great Replacement Theory is a kind of grievance politics complaining about the steady loss of white privilege.

School choice is an attempt to recapture or maintain white privilege at the educational level and by extension into the adult economic and political world.

Great Replacement Theory has its roots in French nationalism books dating back to the early 1900s, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Chief among these is French Author, Jean Raspail, whose 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, told a fictional tale of migrants banding together to take over France. However, the concept’s more contemporary use is attributed to Renaud Camus, a French writer who wrote “Le Grand Remplacement” (“The Great Replacement”) in 2011.

White supremacists blame Jewish people for nonwhite immigration to the U.S., and the concept is closely associated with antisemitism, according to the ADL.

Adolphus Belk Jr., professor of political science and African American studies at Winthrop University, said white nationalist movements arise when people of color are seen as a threat politically and economically.

Belk said white nationalists are worried that, “whites will no longer be a majority of the general population, but a plurality, and see that as a threat to their own well-being and the well-being of the nation.”

What makes individual extremists and white nationalist groups so dangerous, according to Belk, are the lengths they are willing to go to in order protect their position in society:

“They are willing to use any means that are available to preserve and defend their position in society … it’s almost like a sort of holy war, a conflict, where they see themselves as taking the action directly to the offending culture and people by eliminating them.”

By contrast, school choice is a quieter ideology, but based on similar foundations.

School choice originated in America’s racially segregated past. Around the time when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling outlawed direct segregation in public schools, white lawmakers created programs for redirecting public money to private institutions so that white families didn’t have to send their children to schools with their Black peers.

And we see the same in charter schools and private schools accepting taxpayer funded vouchers today. The prime motivation behind sending children to these schools is often “white flight”. White parents use these options to flee schools with higher percentages of non-white students. And choice options tend to lure the more motivated and compliant students away from public schools.

This isn’t to say that the authentic public school system is unequivocally integrated, either. While there has been tremendous progress in many districts, unscrupulous school boards, administrators and lawmakers have drawn district lines in such a way as to limit integration even in a substantial number of public schools. However, the degree of segregation at privatized schools dwarfs anything you’ll see in public education.

School choice programs create the ideal situation for Black-white segregation. An analysis of high schools in more than 100 of the largest U.S. public school districts found a positive correlation between districts that offer school choice programs and the degree to which their high schools were racially imbalanced for Black and white students.

A national study of the trends in the racial makeup of nearly every school district in the U.S. found that charter expansions made segregation worse within school districts. An analysis of national enrollment data of charter schools, conducted by the Associated Press in the 2014-2015 school year, found more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollments of at least 99%, and the number has been rising ever since.

We see the same effect with school vouchers. A 2018 study of Washington, D.C.’s voucher program found that 70% of voucher students were enrolled in heavily segregated schools with 90% or more minority students, and 58% were enrolled in all-minority schools.

So both concepts – Great Replacement Theory and school choice – center around increasing white supremacy.

Both seek to shore up white political and economic power regardless of white people’s numeric majority. In fact, as white people become less of the majority – not through any importing of people of color from other nations but as a natural consequence of birth rates – they seek to disempower people of color.

In education, this means keeping Black and white students separate and unequal. It’s a way to divert more resources to the white students and ensure the Black students do not receive the same opportunities.

Sadly, these ideas are not really new in this country. Both share the spirit of George Wallace who in 1963 proudly proclaimed:

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever!”

As Malcolm X observed:

“America preaches integration and practices segregation.”

The question remains whether voters will support such artifacts of the past or turn to a future where our ideals of equality and fairness triumph over our reality of inequality and injustice.

QAnon and school privatization may share a family resemblance, but it is up to us whether we reject that family or not.


 

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Why is a Gates-Funded, Anti-Union, Charter Advocacy Group Part of Pennsylvania’s New Plan to Stop the Teacher Exodus?

Teachers are fleeing the profession in droves.

So Pennsylvania has unveiled a new plan to stop the exodus with the help of an organization pushing the same policies that made teaching undesirable in the first place.

The state’s Department of Education (PDE) announced its plan to stop the state’s teacher exodus today.

One of the four people introducing the plan at the Harrisburg press conference was Laura Boyce, Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus.

Why is this surprising?

Teach Plus is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to select and train teachers to push its political agenda.

What is that agenda?

Teach Plus has embraced the practice of widespread staff firings as a strategy for school improvement.

Teach Plus mandates that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation.

Teach Plus advocates against seniority and claims that unions stifle innovation.

Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and substantial donations from the Walton Family Foundation.

How can an organization dedicated to the same ideas that prompted the exodus turn around and stop the evacuation!?

That’s like hiring a pyromaniac as a fire fighter!

“Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” Boyce said at the press conference.

“If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward. Teach Plus teachers have been sounding the alarm about this crisis and are eager to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes to better recruit and retain educators in Pennsylvania.”

However, she’s already getting things wrong.

The importance of education is NOT as the “engine of economic opportunity.” Its importance is to help students become their best selves. It is creating critical thinkers who can navigate our modern world, become well-informed participants in our democratic system and live good lives.

Given the track record of Teach Plus, any well-informed individual should be wary of the how “eager [the organization is] to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes.”

But what’s actually in the plan?

A lot of vague generalizations.

The plan (titled The Foundation of Our Economy: Pennsylvania Educator Workforce Strategy, 2022-2025) sets forth five focus areas:

1) Meeting the educator staffing needs of rural, suburban, and urban areas;

2) Building a diverse workforce representative of the students we serve;

3) Operating a rigorous, streamlined, and customer service-oriented certification process;

4) Ensuring high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators; and

5) Ensuring educator access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities.

As you can see, it is full of corporate education reform buzzwords like ‘rigorous” and “high quality” that neoliberals have used as code for their policies for decades.

There are 50 steps outlined in the report. While many seem important and well-intentioned, they lack any kind of urgency, and though organized under these five areas, still seem kind of scattershot.

For example, the number one most important thing any state has to do to retain current teachers and to attract new teachers is to increase wages.

Teachers make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

More than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

Yet increasing teacher salary is only briefly mentioned in step 13 of the first focus group as follows:

“13. Based on the resources that PDE develops on competitive compensation and incentives, advocate for and secure funding from the General Assembly that enables hiring entities to compete more effectively in the regional labor market.”

Talk about anemic language!

Imagine being on a sinking ship and someone only mentioning plugging the leak in such terms – if we can, based on our resources, yada, yada, yada.

Another point that jumped out to me was recruitment of new teachers.

Under focus two, the plan calls for:

“6. Partner with nonprofit organizations working to develop recruitment, training, and mentoring programs for middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds to identify and recruit future educators.”

Getting more people to become teachers sounds great, but why are we partnering with “nonprofit organizations” and which ones in particular do you have in mind?

There are plenty of neoliberal organizations of a similar type to Teach Plus that call themselves “nonprofit” – for example Teach for America.

Are we advocating for teacher temps with a few weeks crash course in education? It sure sounds like it to me.

Moreover, there’s the issue of charter schools. These are schools funded by tax dollars but often run by corporations or other organizations. Many of these consider themselves nonprofit.

So doesn’t this new plan help push more educators into the charter school network? Isn’t it open to funding more charter schools and calling it teacher retention?

Considering that charter schools are not subject to the same regulations as authentic public schools and allow all kinds of fiscal and student abuses, I’m not sure how encouraging such practices will help anyone but the profiteers behind these schools.

Then there’s the emphasis on building a diverse workforce.

In itself, that’s an excellent and necessary goal. However, if you aren’t going to make the profession more attractive, you aren’t going to increase diversity. Right now one of the major reasons our schools are full of mostly white, middle class teachers is because white, middle class people are the only ones who can afford to take the job.

Teaching often requires economic white privilege and often a second member of the household to earn the lion’s share of the income. Without addressing the pure dollars and cents of this issue – something Teach Plus is overjoyed to do when talking about the importance of education – all this talk of diversity is mere tokenism. It’s hiding behind a veneer of “wokeness” with no real intention of doing anything to help people of color as teachers or students.

Finally, let’s talk about the kinds of teacher preparation, professional development and leadership opportunities in this plan.

They are described as:

“high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators” and

“access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities”

But “high quality” by whose definition?

That’s the point here. Classroom teachers would consider classroom management, effective discipline and time for effective planning to be “high quality.” Educators would value more autonomy and less paperwork. But I’m willing to bet that isn’t what the authors of this plan think it means.

This is what Teach Plus does. It advocates for neoliberal disruptions in school management.

In the past, Teach Plus has insisted older more experienced educators be fired while shielding “promising young teachers” from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators – not just test scores – increases as teachers gain experience. However, new teachers are easier to brainwash into corporate education reform – to be driven by standardized test scores and data instead of the needs of the living, human beings in front of them in the classroom.

So this proposed teacher preparation and professional development is of what kind exactly? I’ll bet it’s mostly reeducation to accept corporate education reform. I’ll bet it’s focused on ways to increase student test scores which will then be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness – a program that has been roundly disproven for decades.

So where does that leave us?

A decades ago roughly 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year, while last year only 6,000 did so, according to PDE.

The minimum teacher salary in the Commonwealth stands at $18,500 — and has since 1989.

Meanwhile lawmakers – especially Republicans – push for bills to monitor teachers, restrict them from teaching an accurate history, and ban books from their libraries and curriculums.

Standardized tests are everywhere the main metric of success or failure, and school funding is determined by them. While authentic public schools serving the poor and middle class starve for funding, the legislature gives an increasing share of our tax dollars to charter and voucher schools without oversight on how that money is spent.

This new plan is not going to change any of that.

It is at best a Band-Aid – at worst a public relations stunt.

If we really wanted to stop the teacher exodus, we wouldn’t partner with one of the architects of the current crisis to do so.

We would roll up our sleeves and take the actions necessary for real change – and chief among these would be an increase in teacher salary, autonomy and prestige.


 

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I Will NOT Lead My Students in Prayer and Neither Should You

As a public school teacher, I have a responsibility not to bully my students into believing as I do.

In fact, I go out of my way to respect their right to form their own opinions – to think, not just to accept what they’re told.

The US Supreme Court apparently has no idea how this works.

The six Republican members (I refuse to call them justices) paved the way for organized prayer in public schools by ruling this week in support of a high school football coach who lead his team in prayer on the field.

Anyone who has ever been in the minority knows that when an authority figure leads students in an activity, it is not optional – no matter what they say.

I know this from personal experience.

When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in a building of mostly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.

In December, the kids were preparing for a choral concert where we’d sing a slew of holiday songs.

I loved to sing and enjoyed Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and all the other classics…

Except one – Silent Night.

I just didn’t feel right singing things like “Round yon virgin mother and child” and “Christ the savior is born.”

So when we practiced that song, I’d stop singing.

I’d enthusiastically belt out all the other tunes, but I just stood there when it was time for Silent Night.

I didn’t think it would make a difference. There were hundreds of others kids. No one would notice me.

But the choral teacher did.

She pulled me out of line and demanded to know why I wasn’t singing. I told her I was Jewish and didn’t want to sing that song.

She chided me for making everyone else look bad and told me to just move my mouth during the song so it looked like I was singing.

I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want people to even THINK I was singing things I didn’t believe.

It’s not that I really accepted Santa and his reindeer, either, but this was somehow different. I didn’t want my parents to go to the concert and see me participating in this farce. I didn’t want to be forced to go onstage and before everyone profess the opposite of all I had been taught – to declare myself other than what I really was.

But the other kids were right there listening to this whole conversation and giggling. It was yet another way I was being marked as an outsider, as different – so I gave in and did what she demanded.

In retrospect, I now know I could have complained to my parents and gone to the principal and we could have even taken the matter to court like the aforementioned coach.

However, when you’re a little kid in elementary school you usually just listen to what the adults tell you to do. At least I did.

It took me decades to get over it. Really.

Whenever that song would come on the radio or I’d hear it in a department store, I’d get all tense and upset. Like something had been stolen from me.

So it was with some trepidation many years later that I attended my daughter’s first winter concert when she was in elementary school.

It was with some relief that I noticed no holiday songs like Silent Night. They were all pretty secular and even multicultural.

And my daughter goes to the same district I went to as a child.

We’ve come a long way in the past three decades.

By and large, public school teachers today make an effort not to force their ways onto their students.

It’s a lesson I take to heart, myself, in my middle school classes.

When we discuss things – as you must in Language Arts – I encourage students to agree OR disagree with me or anyone else. Either option is okay so long as they try to explain why they think the way they do.

Moreover, I encourage them not to just speak but to also listen to what their classmates have to say and even be open to revising their original thoughts based on what they’ve heard.

And this includes discussions of religion.

When something Biblical or theological comes out of a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Outsiders,” we give it our full attention.

I tell my kids that they can say or think whatever they want about it. If they want to talk about God or religion, that is fine. It’s just me who is constrained. I am not allowed to give them my own opinion on these matters.

Often I tell them that this isn’t necessarily what I believe, but I’ll propose one idea or another to get them thinking.

I remember one year my students were particularly interested in religion, and they complained that they couldn’t pin me down on anything – they couldn’t tell if I was religious or an atheist.

And that’s how it should be.

Kids have never been forbidden from talking about God or praying in school.

It’s just that teachers have been forbidden from telling them what to think or leading them in prayer.

Until now.

However just because an increasingly illegitimate Supreme Court makes a regressive ruling doesn’t mean teachers have to change.

Even if we CAN lead kids in prayer, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

I don’t plan on altering a single thing in my classroom, and I don’t think my colleagues should, either.

But there are 3.2 million teachers in public schools. There are bound to be some who will use this ruling as an excuse to give in to their worst tendencies.

So here’s what I suggest we do.

We should not coerce our students to do anything, but we damn well can and SHOULD pressure our colleagues not to indoctrinate their students.

Principals should give crappy assignments to teachers who break this taboo. Keep them away from students if at all possible. After all, they don’t belong in the classroom if they’re going to misuse the trust students have in them.

Teachers should give them the cold shoulder in the faculty room and at the copier.

Want to borrow my grammar unit? Not if you’re going to subject your classes to your faith and encourage them to follow along.

Consenting adults can do what they like on their own time, but this is public school.

When it comes to undue influence, inculcation and alienation of kids who are different, we cannot be bystanders.

We may not have dark money and Christian Nationalists behind us, but until we have a rational Supreme Court to overturn this decision or a Congress with enough guts to codify freedom from religion into law, teachers still have some modicum of power.

We should use it to protect our children.


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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!

Doug Mastriano’s Rootin’ Tootin’ School Shootin’ Prevention Plan in PA

A teenage boy in a black trench coat walks down a school hallway.

A young girl abruptly turns a corner and is about to walk past when she stops and notices an oblong shape in his coat.

He pulls out an AR-15 and points it at her head.

She gasps. He smiles.

“Hold it right there, Patrick.” Says a voice behind him.

“Mr. Callahan?” The boy says starting to bring the barrel around.

‘Uh-uh. Stop right there,” says the voice shoving something in the boy’s back.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the teacher continues. “My homeroom teacher, Mr. Callahan, has a gun in his desk. Did he remember to bring it with him to hall duty? Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being it’s a 500 S&W Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

Apparently this is how Doug Mastriano thinks school shootings can best be prevented.

The Pennsylvania State Senator and Republican candidate for governor plans to introduce a bill allowing school employees to arm themselves while on school property if they have a concealed carry permit and pass a firearms course.

Not gun control. Not stopping teens from buying assault weapons. Not keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Instead, arm the teachers. Arm the principals. Put a piece in the hands of Lunch Lady Doris. Maybe even the custodians will be packing heat with a bucket and mop.

This is not the kind of serious proposal Commonwealth residents deserve from a representative of the legislature or executive branch. It’s not the kind of serious proposal you’d expect from a grown adult. Heck. It’s not what you’d expect from a small child still unable to tie his own shoes.

School shootings are not action movie scenarios. They’re not run-and-gun video games. They’re not cops and robbers. They’re real life.

They’re the cause of elementary kids being decapitated by assault weapons fire.

They’re the cause of fifth grade bodies so unrecognizable they have to be identified by their green Converse sneakers.

They’re the cause of child sized coffins adorned with cartoon doggies and kitties – brightly colored friends to accompany little kids to their final resting places.

Mastriano’s suggestion would be pathetic if it weren’t so dangerous.

He thinks school shooters are attracted to places where they know people aren’t armed.

However, history proves him wrong.

The overwhelming majority of school shootings either involved armed police stationed at the school or police responding quickly thereafter.

Lest we forget, there were police officers on both the campuses of Robb Elementary School in Texas and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where shootings cumulatively took the lives of more than 30 students.

According to a 2021 JAMA Network study that looked at 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019, armed guards did not significantly reduce injuries or deaths during school mass shootings.

In fact, when researchers controlled for location and school characteristic factors, “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”

Put simply, school shootings are not rational activities subject to cost benefit analysis from the people contemplating doing them. Would-be shooters do not expect to come out alive. They don’t care if there is armed resistance or not. In fact, the presence of armed resistance only encourages them to bring deadlier weaponry – especially semi-automatic guns.

That’s why police in Uvalde, Texas, were too scared to go into Robb Elementary School and stop the perpetrator armed with an AR-15 – perhaps the most common weapon used in school shootings.

And when trained police are afraid, Mastriano expects better from school staff – teachers, secretaries, aides, and nurses!!!?

A similar proposal permitting the arming of school employees passed the state Senate in June 2017 but it died in a House committee. In the district where I work as a middle school teacher, we talked about the issue at a staff meeting.

The few people who thought it was a good idea and said they would gladly bring a gun with them to school are nice people – but they’re the last ones you’d want armed.

Moreover, we have a school resource officer who said he was not in favor of the measure because it would make things tougher for law enforcement responding to a shooting. It would make it that much more unclear who the shooter was and increase the chances of friendly fire.

It’s hardly surprising Mastriano is making such boneheaded proposals.

If elected governor, he also promises to cut public school funding IN HALF and make it harder for educators to collectively bargain for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions.

He is an extremist who wants to destroy public education in favor or charter and voucher schools, take away people’s freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies, discriminate against anyone with a different sexuality or religious belief and give away as much tax money as possible to private businesses.

Mastriano is either a fool who does not understand the issues or a patsy of the lunatic fringe of his party or both.

He wouldn’t arm teachers with books, funding or resources to teach – just guns.

He is an embarrassment to the people of Franklin County who elected him to the legislature and the Republican base who chose him to represent them in the governor’s race.

I know it’s trendy for the GOP to pick the candidate most likely to piss off the people across the aisle, but this isn’t a game.

Fools like Mastriano are going to get innocent people and their children killed – not to mention the suffering thousands will have to endure if his policies ever see the light of day.

He thinks the answer to school shootings is to turn the school librarian into Yosemite Sam.

If you vote for him in the general election, you will reap what you sow – misery and death.


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.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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!