Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does.

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My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades.

 

They don’t matter all that much.

 

The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

 

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened.

 

She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment.

 

I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

 

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed.

 

But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

 

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack.

 

Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework.

 

He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework.

 

So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

 

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores.

 

I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

 

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals.

 

In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating.

 

After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

 

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal.

 

According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80% of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

 

Common Core fanatics like Bill Gates and David Coleman probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously.

 

However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

 

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance.

 

We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

 

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

 

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score.

 

It also increases the motivation to cheat.

 

According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64% admitted to cheating on a test.

 

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension.

 

If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy.

 

I know this is heresy to some people.

 

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.

 

After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

 

Of course, some of us realize standardized testing doesn’t provide an objective measurement. It’s culturally and racially biased. Those test scores don’t just correlate with race and class. They are BASED on factors inextricably linked with those characteristics.

 

When the standard is wealth and whiteness, it should come as no surprise that poor students of color don’t make the grade. It’s no accident, for example, that American standardized testing sprung out of the eugenics movement.

 

Yet you don’t need to crack open a book on history or pedagogy to see the uselessness of testing.

 

High stakes assessments like the SAT do NOT accurately predict future academic success.

 

Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or ACT tests don’t do better than kids who got lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.

 

Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.

 

Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.

 

However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

 

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

 

Yet even classroom grades have their limits.

 

I remember my high school graduation – sitting on the bleachers in my cap and gown listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches about the glorious future ahead of us.

 

Yet for each of those individuals, the future wasn’t quite so bright. Oh, neither of them burned out, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either.

 

In fact, when I went to college, I found a lot of the highest achievers in high school struggled or had to drop out because they couldn’t adjust. The new freedom of college was too much – they partied and passed out. Yet a middle-of-the-road student like me (Okay, I was really good in English) did much better. I ended up in the honors college with a double major, a masters degree and graduating magna cum laude.

 

And it’s not just my own experience. The research backs this up.

 

A Boston College study tracked more than 80 valedictorians over 14 years. These high school high achievers all became well-adjusted professional adults. But none of them made major discoveries, lead their fields or were trailblazers.

 

For that, you need someone willing to take risks.

 

The folks the researchers followed admitted that this wasn’t them. Many confessed that they weren’t the smartest people in their classes. They just worked really hard and gave teachers exactly what they thought they wanted.

 

So what’s the point?

 

Some people will read this and think I’m against all testing and grading.

 

Wrong.

 

I give tests. I calculate grades. And I would do this even if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. (Though I would throw every standardized test right in the garbage.)

 

I think grades and testing have their place. But they aren’t the end, they are a means to an end.

 

They are crude estimations of learning. They’re an educated guess. That’s all.

 

We need to move beyond them if we are to modernize our public schools.

 

Don’t get rid of grades and testing, just change the emphasis. Put a premium on curiosity and creativity. Reward academic risk taking, innovation and imagination. And recognize that most of the time there may be several right answers to the same question.

 

Heck other countries like Finland already do this.

 

For the first six years of school, Finnish children are subjected to zero measurement of their abilities. The only standardized test is a final given at the end of senior year in high school.

 

As a result, their kids have some of the highest test scores in the world. By not focusing on standards and assessments, they counterintuitively top the charts with these very things.

 

There’s a lesson here for American education policy analysts.

 

And that lesson is the title of this article.

 


 

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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Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

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There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

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Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.

Kiss My Assessment – A High Stakes Testing Poem

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Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.

 

 

Little Laquan, Empty belly

Reading passages by Maichiavelli

Does he know what the author thinks

Last night did he get forty winks

Drive-by shooting in his neighborhood

Answer questions that he should

Interrogated by the cops

Took away and locked his pops

Now he sits slumped in school

Testing, testing, it’s a rule

Will he – this time – make the grade

A debt to society he has paid

 

 

For being poor and his black skin

Success and riches, let me in!

But not unless you answer right

Like wealthy kids whose hue is white

Not two plus two or three and four

Context implied when you ask for

European culture and white society

If you know it, you’re in propriety

If not, take a longer road

Hurdles to jump and words to decode

 

 

But do not label the test unfair

Rich folks will blast you with hot air

Testing makes them bundles of billions

Leaching off of us civilians

Test prep, grading and remediation

Never mind that it keeps you in your station

Need new books, here’s Common Core

So big corporations can make some more

Money off your starving schools

The funding is drying up in pools

 

 

As politicians vote to gut

So they can give bankers another tax cut

Hotels and yachts and Maltese vacations

Touring havens in other nations

To hide their money and avoid paying

Anything to keep preying

On little kids and their moms

So long as they aren’t forced to pay alms

 

 

No nurses, no librarians, no psychologists

Nothing to feed a tummy or an esophagus

No fancy buildings, no small class sizes

Nothing to match the suburban enterprises

Fewer resources, fewer tutors,

Crumbling classrooms, archaic computers

Just give them tests as charity

And pretend it means populace parity

When he fails, we’ll blame Laquan

Fire his teacher and make her move on

 

 

Close his school and open a charter

And then his services we can barter

To turn his funding into profit

Democracy melts like warm chocolate

Private boards get public voice

Deciding who to enroll and calling it choice

Spending tax money behind closed doors

Filling classrooms with Americorps

Instructors who never earned a degree

But cheap trumps any pedigree

For teachers to teach the darkest of humans

As long as they don’t form any pesky unions

Reformers they’re called, really just hypocrites

Wolves with sheep skin in their identity kits

 

 

They might refuse to come out of the closet

But don’t burn this humble prophet

Who tells you the truth about high stakes tests

About the school system and the unholy mess

We’ve made for kids so hedge funders

Can bark and rave and push for blunders

To make money off of kids misery

And a better world – not for you, not for me.

Am I obsessed and distressed by oppressive divestment?

Oh who cares? Kiss my assessment!

 

 

Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.


NOTE: I wrote this poem during and after proctoring this year’s PSSA test for my 7th grade students. Can’t imagine where the inspiration came from! I’ll just say that the opposite of standardized testing has always seemed to be poetry. I hope you enjoyed my verses.  It was either that or spit curses!


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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With Education Such a Low Priority in America, It’s No Wonder The Holocaust is Fading From Memory

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The Holocaust has never been more relevant than it is today.

 

Racism and prejudice are on the rise. Hate crimes are becoming more common. Anti-immigrant sentiment is becoming more widespread.

 

And anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

 

Yet just last week, a comprehensive study of Holocaust awareness was released concluding that Americans are forgetting this vital chapter of our history.

 

After more than 1,350 interviews, Schoen Consulting found that 11 percent of U.S. adults and more than one-fifth of millennials either haven’t heard of the European Holocaust or aren’t sure what it is.

 

From 1933-1945, approximately 12 million people – 6 million of whom were Jews – were systematically put to death by Nazi forces.

 

However, even many of those who admitted to having some knowledge of these events were unsure about the specifics. For instance, one third of respondents – and 41% of millennials – said that only 2 million people were killed.

 

This is unacceptable.

 

But not unexpected.

 

Not in a country that has made education such a low priority for decades.

 

Only a handful of states mandate Holocaust curriculum in schools – Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Michigan, Indiana, New York and Rhode Island – and each one does so to varying degrees of detail.

 

Other states like Pennsylvania have laws strongly encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust but not requiring it outright.

 

Wasn’t this why 42 states adopted Common Core – to make sure all students were learning the same things?

 

Well, first of all those standards were only adopted in English and Math. Social studies standards were far too controversial to make it over the partisan divide.

 

Moreover, Common Core has actually been an impediment to Holocaust studies, not a help.

 

A principal in Delaware refused to let a concentration camp survivor speak to students because he didn’t think it was rigorous enough under Common Core.

 

Another district tried to encourage critical thinking by asking students if the Holocaust was true or if it had been exaggerated – as if proven facts were up for debate.

 

Additionally, the reading standards push for texts to be taught as if they were standardized test items without proper context for a robust understanding. Combine that with an emphasis on texts that are exceedingly complex and it’s no wonder that young people’s understanding of this important part of history is fuzzy.

 

And I write this as an educator who taught the Holocaust in middle school for more than a decade.

 

The first thing I did was throw those corporate-written standards in the trash.

 

My 8th graders and I watched various award-winning documentaries such as “Auschwitz: If You Cried, You Died.” We read the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but supplemented it with various interviews and autobiographical articles from concentration camp survivors and even a presentation from community members who had first-hand experience of these events until their age and health made that impossible.

 

The whole unit culminated in a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

 

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the norm.

 

Though America students make up one third of the 1.7 million visitors to the National Holocaust Museum, 80 percent of Americans say they have never visited any Holocaust museum.

 

I get it. Teaching about this is hard.

 

It’s ugly and scary and repulsive – but it’s meant to be.

 

The DC National Holocaust Memorial  recommends the following guidelines for teaching about the European Holocaust:

 

“Be sensitive to appropriate written and audiovisual content. One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all . . . Some students may be so appalled by the images of brutality and mass murder that they are discouraged from studying the subject further. Others may become fascinated in a more voyeuristic fashion, subordinating further critical analysis of the history to the superficial titillation of looking at images of starvation, disfigurement, and death . . . There is also a tendency among students to glorify power, even when it is used to kill innocent people. Many teachers indicated that their students are intrigued and, in some cases, intellectually seduced by the symbols of power that pervaded Nazi propaganda (e.g., the swastika and/or Nazi flags, regalia, slogans, rituals, and music). Rather than highlight the trappings of Nazi power, you should ask your students to evaluate how such elements are used by governments (including our own) to build, protect, and mobilize a society. Students should also be encouraged to contemplate how such elements can be abused and manipulated by governments to implement and legitimize acts of terror and even genocide.”

 

That’s what I tried to do.

 

This is the first year that I’m not explicitly teaching the Holocaust – and the only reason is because I’m not teaching 8th grade, I’m teaching 7th.

 

It’s not in my curriculum.

 

However, I know my students will get it when they advance to the next grade.

 

I wish that were true everywhere.

 

Unfortunately, a deep knowledge of history does not come from a society obsessed with standardization and privatization.

 

In fact, our policy of high stakes testing is an artifact of the eugenicist movement that inspired the Nazis. Our privatization movement is a holdover from the white flight reactionaries trying to circumvent the integration of Brown vs. Board.

 

We don’t do a comprehensive job teaching the Holocaust because we haven’t, as a society, learned its lessons.

 

We don’t teach the consequences of the European Holocaust because we haven’t come to terms with the consequences of our own American varieties. We haven’t acknowledged the effects of Europeans conquest and genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade, Jim Crow, Japanese internment or the prison industrial complex.

 

To teach the Holocaust we must take a step toward understanding where we, as a nation, have engaged in similar practices.

 

These are lessons vital to our survival and progress.

 

And that is exactly why it hasn’t been made a priority. It is exactly why we don’t have equitable education for all children in America.

 

Doing so would upset the status quo.

 

Doing so would be troublesome to the powers that be who use a racial and economic caste system to keep us all in line.

 

Understanding the Holocaust prevents us from reliving it.

 

And the people in power want to keep that door unequivocally open.


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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Every Public School Teacher Should Support Opting Out of Standardized Tests

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Over the last few years, educators and parents have built up a wall of opposition to high stakes testing in the Opt Out movement.

 

But now it seems some teachers are starting to tear it down.

 

Not so long ago, tens of thousands of parents refused letting their children take the tests – with full support of their teachers.

 

Yet today you hear some educators question their involvement or even if they’re on the right side.

 

It’s almost like an anthropomorphic red pitcher smashed through the bricks and offered beat down educators a drink.

 

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And far from refusing that rancid brew, some are actually gulping it down.

 

“OHH YEAH!”

 

You hear things like these:

 

“Opt Out’s dead. Stealth assessment schemes like Personalized Learning and Competency Based Education have replaced the federally mandated tests.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The tests often take up fewer days now so there’s no reason to opt out.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The kids who opt out aren’t doing it for the right reasons. They just want to get out of work.”

 

GLUG. GLUG…

 

Blargh! I can’t drink any more of that artificially flavored propaganda crap!

 

I’ve even heard of some teachers in New York State agreeing to call families who have refused testing in the past and asking them to reconsider!

 

What the heck!? Have we all lost our minds!?

 

We’re educators!

 

If anyone knows the problems with standardized testing, it’s us.

 

We know in intimate detail how these assessments are biased and unscientific.

 

So let me counter some of this dangerous disinformation going around.

 

1) You say the tests take up less time?

 

Marginally, yes. There are fewer test days.

 

But we’re still being pressured to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test just about every other day!

 

2) You say stealth testing has made the traditional standardized assessments irrelevant?

 

Okay. Competency Based Education is a real problem that threatens to make everyday test day – I’ll go with you there. In fact, schemes like Personalized Learning could transform every app into an opportunity to test kids without them even knowing it.

 

But that doesn’t mean the old fashioned high stakes tests have gone away!

 

Far from it. The federal government still requires all states to give these assessments to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

Let’s say the feds required teachers to give rich kids higher grades than poor children.

 

Or say the state commanded teachers to copy down sensitive information about students and give it to private corporations.

 

Imagine if the school board instructed teachers to put minority kids in slower classes than white kids.

 

If any of that happened, there would be wide scale revolt!

 

Yet standardized tests do all of these things!

 

They dishonestly give higher scores to rich kids and lower scores to poor kids.

 

The apps used for preparation and remediation often steal student data and sell it to third parties.

 

They are used to justify increased segregation within school buildings because implicit testing bias means white kids generally score higher than children of color. So the white kids get more advanced courses and the brown ones get test prep.

 

3) You say the Opt Out kids are just trying to get out of doing work. It’s just laziness.

 

First, of all, it is the parents who are opting their children out of standardized testing – not the students. Second, who are you to question their motives?

 

We serve the parents and children of the community. If they say they don’t want their children tested in this way, we should listen to them.

 

Third, why are you defending these tests? They are used by charter and voucher schools as “proof” that the public schools are failing.

 

These tests are used to justify unfairly evaluating YOUR work, narrowing YOUR curriculum, repealing YOUR union protections, reducing YOUR autonomy, cutting YOUR funding, and ultimately laying YOU off.

 

Why are you standing up for THAT?

 

So why are some teachers wavering in their opposition to high stakes tests?

 

I think it has to do with who we are.

 

Most teachers are rule followers at heart. When we were in school, we were the obedient students. We were the people-pleasers. We got good grades, kept our heads down and didn’t make waves.

 

But the qualities that often make for the highest grades don’t often translate into action. That, alone, should tell you something about the limits of assessment which are only exacerbated by standardized test scores. When it comes to complex concepts, it’s hard to assess and even harder to determine if success on assessments is a predictor of future success.

 

Bottom line: Every teacher should be in favor of the Opt Out movement.

 

And I don’t mean quietly, secretly in favor. I mean publicly, vocally in favor.

 

Many teachers are parents, themselves, with children in the districts where they teach. Every educator should opt out their own children from the tests.

 

If we can’t at least do that and lead by example, what good are we?

 

Next, we should force our unions to do the things that we can’t as safely do as individuals.

 

Call parents and ask them to opt IN!? We should be doing just the opposite, but that would put a target on our backs.

 

As a teacher, I can’t unilaterally call or send a letter home to my students’ parents explaining why they should opt their kids out. If I did that, I could find myself in administration’s cross hairs and face grave repercussions.

 

But isn’t that why we have a union? To stand up as a collective and do the necessary things we can’t do as individuals?

 

Imagine if every teachers union in the country routinely sent open letters to all parents asking them to opt their kids out! What an impact that would make!

 

Imagine if the unions put pressure on the school boards to pass resolutions against testing and in favor of opt out! What effect would that have on state legislatures and the federal government?

 

How could the feds continue to demand we give high stakes tests when nearly every school board across the country objected and advised parents to refuse testing for their children?

 

Taken individually, these aren’t really all that difficult things to do.

 

They require a certain degree of moral courage, to be sure. And teachers have been beaten down by a society that devalues their work and begrudges them just about everything.

 

But what do we have to lose?

 

Our backs are already against the wall.

 

We are being slowly erased – our numbers dwindle more every year while policymakers shrug and point to a teacher shortage that they refuse to explain by reference to the way we’re treated.

 

The tech moguls and the testing giants are salivating over the prospect of replacing us with apps and low-skilled, low paid babysitters to oversee students hunched over computers and tablets. (See? Told you Personalized Learning was poison.)

 

We shouldn’t be helping them destroy our own profession by advocating for the same tests they’re using as a tool in our destruction.

 

It’s high time teachers get some backbone.

 

We may all end up on the unemployment line, but that’s where we’re headed already.

 

I’d rather go kicking and screaming.

 

Who’s with me?

Testing Corporations Rake in Cash while Teachers Sell Plasma to Survive

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If you want to get rich in education, don’t become a teacher.

 

Open a charter school or take a job at a testing corporation.

 

Sure, charter schools are elaborate scams to make money off children while providing fewer services.

 

Sure, standardized tests are just corporate welfare that labels poor and minority kids failures and pretends that’s their fault.

 

And teachers? They’re just the people who do all the actual work of educating children. Yet there’s never enough money, never enough resources for the job they do.

 

 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of public school teachers in Pennsylvania is between $53,000 and $59,000 per year.

 

Compare that with the salaries of the people who make and distribute the state’s federally mandated standardized tests – employees at Data Recognition Corporation (DRC).

 

DRC publishes numerous assessments in various states. However, in the Keystone state, the corporation makes everything from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) to the Keystone Exams in Algebra, Literature and Biology.

 

At its 14 locations across the country, the company has more than 750 full time employees and 5,000 seasonal ones used mainly to help grade the tests.

 

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According to glassdoor.com, a site that showcases job listings, here are some openings at DRC and their associated salaries:

 

Test Development Specialist – $68K-$86K

 

Quality Assurance Analyst – $77K-$83K

 

Technology Manager – $77K-$84K

 

Business Analyst – $81,856

 

Software Developer – $83,199

 

Psychometrician – $95,870

 

Senior Software Developer – $96,363

 

So teachers spend 180 days in overcrowded classrooms with fewer resources than they need – often forced to buy school supplies for their students out of pocket – to get their students ready to take the high stakes tests.

 

Meanwhile, the test makers sit in luxury office buildings taking home tens of thousands of dollars more just to make the tests that students take over the course of a few weeks.

 

And these corporate test employees DO work in luxury.

 

Here are some of the benefits they receive listed on DRC’s own Website:

 

 

“DRC offers a comprehensive benefits program that allows employees to make choices that best meet their current and future needs.

Key Benefits

  • Choice of medical plans
  • Choice of dental plans
  • Flexible spending accounts
  • HSA account
  • 401K savings plan
  • Profit sharing
  • Short- and long-term disability plans

Wellbeing Benefits

  • Paid vacation
  • Paid holidays
  • Personal time off
  • Workout facilities/locker rooms at select locations
  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Community service hours
  • Discount programs
  • Adoption assistance
  • Fitness classes
  • On-site massage
  • Walking paths

Convenience Benefits

  • Business casual attire

  • On-site subsidized cafeterias

  • Dry cleaning pick-up and delivery

  • Company store”

 

It’s funny. Some folks get all in a lather about the much less extravagant benefits given to teachers, but I’ve never heard anyone in a rage about these benefits being paid to corporate test makers.

 

And keep in mind, both teachers and test makers are being paid with public tax dollars. YOU are funding the test makers on-the-job massage break just as you’re funding the public school teachers trip to the doctor for anti-anxiety meds.

 

The Pennsylvania legislature has entered into three contracts with DRC through 6/30/21 for services related to standardized testing for a total of $741,158,039.60, according to State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-West Chester).

 

That is your money funding the test makers workout facilities and flexible spending accounts. You pay for their walking trails, fitness classes, dry cleaning services and subsidized cafeterias.

 

Meanwhile, public school teachers – who do the bulk of the work educating children – are left struggling to make ends meet.

 

According to estimates by the National Education Association (NEA), teaching salaries from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia have stagnated by 2.3% in the past 15 years.

 

But that’s way better than in most parts of the country.

 

In West Virginia, teachers across the state went on a 9-day strike to get a 5% pay raise.

 

Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma are planning their own strike due to even worse neglect.

 

In Oklahoma, some educators have actually had to resort to selling plasma in order to survive.

 

KOCO News 5, in the Sooner State, reported on a fifth grade teacher at Newcastle Elementary school, Jay Thomas, who sells blood to supplement his income.

 

“I’ve got a permanent scar doing that. Just did it yesterday,” Thomas said.

 

“I’ve been doing it for a couple of years. I’ve given over 100 times. It’s twice a week.”

 

Though Thomas has been an Oklahoma teacher for 16 years, he makes less than $40,000 a year after taxes.

 

Selling plasma nets him about $65 a week.

 

And if you think Thomas is the anomaly, when this story was spread on Twitter, other teachers responded that they do the same, some even including pictures of themselves at the blood bank.

 

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This is why there is a teacher shortage in many states. This is why fewer college students are entering the field. And it is why many of those educators who have stayed in the classroom are considering strikes.

 

We take teachers for granted. We value the work they do but not the people who do that work.

 

 

Meanwhile, we give extravagant rewards to the corporate vultures who provide very little for children but divert funding that should be going to educate students – the standardized testing corporations and the privatized school operators.

 

If we really want to improve our education system in this country, the first step is to value those who work in it.

 

We need to turn the money hose off for unnecessary expenses like standardized testing and allowing charter and voucher operators to pocket tax money as profit.

 

And we need to spend more on the people in the trenches day-in-day-out making sure our children get the quality education they deserve.

 

We need to give teachers the resources and respect they need to succeed and end the scams of high stakes testing and school privatization.

 

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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 Alt Right Has a Friend in Common Core

 

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Let’s say you’re a modern-day hipster Nazi.

 

 

You’re bummed out.

 

 

No one wants to hang out with you because of your bald head and your red suspenders and your commitment to the ideals of a defeated and disgraced totalitarian regime.

 

 

What are you to do?

 

 

REBRAND, son!

 

 

It’s simple.

 

 

No more National Socialist German Workers Party! That sounds too pinko!

 

 

Now you’re simply a member of the Alt Right!

 

 

It’s not racist! You’re just committed to traditional attitudes and values — if those traditional attitudes and values come from 1945 Berlin!

 

 

Heck, you don’t even have to call yourself Alt Right.

 

 

You can call yourself a White Identitarian.

 

You aren’t over-concerned with any one side of the political spectrum or other. You just strongly identify with whiteness — and by extension increasing the political power of white people at the expense of all others.

 

 

That’s all.

 

 

It should be obvious that this isn’t merely rebranding. It’s propaganda.

 

In today’s fast paced information age – where every fact is merely a Google away – that can be hard to get away with – UNLESS

 

 

Unless you already have a readymade tool to protect propaganda from the kind of informed critical thought that can pop it like a bubble. Something to insolate the ignorance and keep out the enlightened analysis.

 

 

I am, of course, talking about Common Core.

 

 

What!?

 

 

How does Common Core have anything to do with white nationalism?

 

 

Common Core is just a set of academic standards for what should be taught in public schools adopted by 42 of 50 states.

 

 

Academic standards aren’t political. Are they?

 

Actually, they are. Quite political.

 

Just take a look at how the standards came to be adopted in the first place.

 

The Obama administration bribed and coerced the states to adopt these standards before many of them were even done being written.

 

 

Hold your horses. The Obama administration!? That doesn’t sound exactly like a friend of the Third Reich.

 

And it wasn’t.

 

 

It was a friend to big business.

 

When first created, these standards weren’t the result of a real educational need, nor were they written by classroom educators and psychologists. They were written by the standardized testing industry as a ploy to get federal, state and local governments to recommit to standardized testing through buying new tests, new text books, new software and new remediation materials.

 

 

It was a bipartisan effort supported by the likes of Obama, the Clintons and Bill Gates on the left and Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos and Bobby Jindal on the right.

 

 

After Obama’s success pushing them down our collective throats, many Republicans vocally decried the standards – often while quietly supporting them.

 

That’s why after all this time very few state legislatures have repealed them despite being controlled predominantly by Republicans.

 

Okay, so what does this have to do with the Alt Right?

 

 

People like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are engaged in redefining the conservative movement. Instead of circulating ideas with a merely racist and classist undertone, they want to make those subtleties more explicit.

 

Most aren’t about to hop out of the closet and declare themselves open Nazis or members of the Hitler fan club, but they want to make it clear exactly how wunderbar the Fuhrer’s ideals are with a wink and a smirk.

 

For instance, Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

 

 

When exactly was America great? When white people had unchallenged political and social power and minorities and people of color knew their place. That’s when.

 

 

This is obvious to some of us, but we face a real obstacle making it obvious to others.

 

And that obstacle is Common Core.

 

 

A generation of Americans have been brought up with these shoddy academic standards that don’t develop critical thinking but actively suppress it.

 

 

For instance, take the absurd ravings of the Core’s chief writer – and current head of the College Board – David Coleman.

 

 

Going counter to the thinking of nearly every expert on literacy, he emphasized cold or close reading over reading text in context.

 

 

In particular, he said:

 

 

“Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think… It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

 

 

Later, he added:

 

 

“The most popular 3rd grade standard in American today…is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is that no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either.”

 

And finally:

 

 

“This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.”

 

 

However, Coleman was dead wrong on all counts.

 

 

What you think and feel IS important. The requirements of the corporate world ARE NOT the only reasons to teach something. Being able to distinguish between similar but different concepts IS important. And context is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to understanding!

 

For instance, today’s spin doctor Nazis soon realized that you can’t go goose stepping down main street blindly espousing how much better it is to be white — better than, say, being black or Jewish.

 

 

But you can hang up posters in college campuses that say the same sort of thing in a cutesy, passive aggressive way. For instance: “It’s okay to be white.”

 

If we look just at the text, as Coleman advises, we see a rather innocuous statement.

 

 

There’s nothing racist here. It’s just a simple statement that being white is also acceptable.

 

 

However, if we add back the context, we find an indirect racial undertone.

 

These posters weren’t put up willy nilly. They were hung on college campuses where white nationalists wearing MAGA hats were recruiting. They were pasted over Black Lives Matter posters, accompanying drawings of Donald Trump.

 

aposter1

 

In context, then, this statement doesn’t just mean “It’s okay to be white.” It means “It’s okay to be pro-white supremacist, to be pro-white power.”

 

 

And that brings up two other examples.

 

 

MAGA – Make America Great Again.

 

Take it out of context and it’s innocuous. It just means to increase the abstract greatness of the country to what it was at some unspecified time in the past.

 

However, if we put that statement in the context of the Trump campaign and its xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc. — then it’s meaning becomes clear. As noted above, it’s an ode to white power and nostalgia for greater white privilege.

 

 

And “Black Lives Matter”? Why do many of these same Identitarians take exception to that slogan and the movement behind it?

 

 

The Alt Right says BLM is reverse racist. They claim the name BLM means “ONLY black lives matter.”

 

 

Context tells us differently.

 

 

The BLM group was formed in response to the indiscriminate murder of people of color and those who committed these crimes not behind held accountable. Officer Darren Wilson not indicted for killing Michael Brown. Officer Daniel Pantaleo not indicted for killing Eric Garner. Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback not indicted for killing Tamir Rice. And on and on.

 

 

Yet the Alt Right is allowed to mischaracterize a simple call for peace as if it identified a terrorist organization.

 

 

Why? Because context has been banished from the building.

 

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I’m not saying that Common Core has caused these problems, but it has allowed them.

 

I doubt this is what Coleman, who is Jewish, intended.

 

 

But whenever you water down critical thinking – even if it’s for purely practical ends – you end up hurting everyone.

 

 

The best societies praise intellect and tolerance.

 

 

For all their faults, our founders knew this. That’s why they emphasized the importance of public education.

 

 

If we had ensured everyone in the country had access to the best possible education, this modern Nazi subculture wouldn’t be able to make as much headway as it has.

 

 

This is yet another way that our obsession with unrestrained capitalism, neoliberalism and plutocracy has put us on a road that may end in fascism.