Trapped On a Runaway Train to a Public School Disaster

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Congratulations, America.

 

We did it.

 

We screwed up the response to COVID-19 so badly that things can only get worse in the fall.

 

I’m a public school teacher and the father of a public school student.

 

I spent the last 9 weeks of class trying to create a new on-line curriculum for my 7th and 8th grade students out of thin air. Meanwhile, I had to assure my 11-year-old daughter that everything was okay during a global pandemic that robbed her of friends and teachers – all while trying to help her with her own school work.

 

And now at the end of June during Summer break I look at the upward curve of Coronavirus infections in the United States, and I want to cry.

 

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We had this thing on a downward trajectory in May. It continued until about the middle of June and then took off like a rocket to the moon – straight up.

 

 

More than 126,000 deaths, and 2.5 million cases – with 40,000 new cases for each of the last four days, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

 

To put that in context, the CDC also says our testing is so inadequate, there are likely 10 times more actual cases than that!

 
The coronavirus is spreading too quickly and too widely for us to bring it under control, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal CDC deputy director.

 

“We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea where a new case is rapidly identified and all the contacts are traced and people are isolated who are sick and people who are exposed are quarantined and they can keep things under control,” she said. “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.”

 

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Source: European CDC

 
Nearly every other comparable country kept that downward trend. But not us.

 

The United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Canada…

 

But the United States!?

 

Ha!

 

You think we can wear masks in public to guard against the spread of infection? No way! Our President politicized them.

 

Stay indoors to keep away from infected people? It’s summer and the beaches are open.

 

And – heck! – we’ve got to make sure restaurants and bars and other businesses are open, too, or else the economy will suffer – and we can’t figure out how to run the country without a never-ending game of Monopoly going.

 

Gotta find out who owns Boardwalk and Park Place. (Surprise! It’s the same 1% who always have and now they’ve got enough to buy a few more hotels!)

 

A sane country would come together and provide people with federal relief checks, personal protective equipment (PPE), protection from evictions, and universal healthcare. But we don’t live in that country.

 

Instead we’re all just going to have to suffer.

 

Not only you and me, but our kids, too.

 

Because they will have to somehow try to continue their educations through all this madness – again. And this time it won’t merely be for the last quarter of the year. It will be at the start of a new grade when everything is new and fresh and the groundwork is being laid for the entire academic year.

 

I don’t even know what to hope for anymore.

 

Would it be better to try to do a whole year of distance learning?

 

I speak from experience here – April and May were a cluster.

 

Kids didn’t have the necessary technology, infrastructure or understanding of how to navigate it. And there was no way to give it to them when those were the prerequisites to instruction.

 

Not to mention resources. All the books and papers and lessons were back in the classroom – difficult to digitize. Teachers had to figure out how to do everything from scratch with little to no training at the drop of a hat. (And guess what – not much has changed in the subsequent weeks.)

 

Let’s talk motivation. Kids can be hard to motivate under the best of circumstances, but try doing it through a screen! Try building a trusting instructional relationship with a child when you’re just a noisy bunch of pixels. Try meeting individual special needs.

 

A lot of things inevitably end up falling through the cracks and it’s up to parents to pick up the pieces. But how can they do that when they’re trying to work from home or working outside of the home or paralyzed with anxiety and fear?

 

And this is probably the BEST option, because what else do we have?

 

Are we really going to open the school buildings and teach in-person? While that would be much better from an academic standpoint, there’s still the problem of a global pandemic.

 

Kids will get sick. As time goes on we see increasingly younger people getting infected with worsening symptoms. We really don’t know what the long term effects of this disease will be.

 

And even if young people are mostly asymptomatic, chances are good they’ll spread this thing to the rest of us.

 

They’ll bring it home to their families. They’ll give it to their teachers.

 

Even if we only have half the kids one day and the other half on another day, that won’t help much. We’re still being exposed to at least a hundred kids every week. (Not to mention the question of how to effectively teach some kids in-person while the rest are on-line!)

 
Even with masks on – and can you imagine teaching in a mask!? Can you imagine kids wearing masks all day!? – those respiratory droplets will spread through our buildings like mad!

 

Many of us are in the most susceptible groups because of age or health.

 
Don’t get me wrong – I want to get back to my classroom and teach my students in-person more than almost anything – except dying.

 

I’d rather live a little bit longer, thank you.

 

And even if you could guarantee I’d eventually pull through,I really don’t want a ventilator shoved down my throat in order to breathe.

 

It’s better than not breathing at all, but I’m not taking unnecessary risks, thank you.

 

So even with all its dysfunctions and discontents, I guess I’d rather teach on-line.

 

On the plus side, the state where I live, Pennsylvania, has done better with infections than many others.

 

Cases are generally down though we had more than 600 new ones a few days ago.

 

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Pennsylvania Cases – Source: PA Dept. of Health

 

But the Commonwealth is not a closed system. It just takes one fool to travel across state lines from a closed arena of thousands where he heard an insecure public figure spout racist diatribes. One fool like that can spread his infection to thousands more.

 

And he can spread Coronavirus, too!

 

So we seem to be facing a no win situation here.

 

We seem to be hurtling forward in time from July to August while a hard reality is waiting to smack us in the face like a brick wall.

 

We’ll have to make a final decision about what to do with schools soon.

 

And as much as I hate the idea, there seems only one sensible solution.

 

We can’t reopen the classroom until it is safe to do so.

 

It is not yet safe. It does not appear that it will be in August.

 

COVID-19 cases are not trending downward. We do not have adequate testing to ensure that it is doing so. And we have no vaccine.

 

We have to protect our children, families and teachers.

 

A crappy year of education is better than mass death.

 

We will pay for it, but that’s the best we can hope for – that we’ll all survive long enough to make it right somewhere down the line.


 

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White People, We Need to be Responsible for Our Own Racism

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Hey, White people.

 

We need to talk.

 

You may be watching all these protests and demonstrations lately and be wondering what they have to do with you.

 

After all, you didn’t kill George Floyd. You didn’t put up a Confederate statue. You didn’t call the police on a Black person just because he was being Black.

 

At least, I hope you didn’t.

 

But all this strife and unrest really does have a lot to do with you.
Not because of anything you did necessarily, but because of who you are – your role in society.

 

Now don’t get all defensive on me.

 

I’m not saying you should feel guilty for things that you had no control over, don’t approve of or possibly didn’t even know happened.

 

As James Baldwin said:

 

“I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, too, for the very same reason…”

 

That’s really the point – responsibility.

 

You have responsibilities just by being a White citizen of the United States. I have those same obligations.

 

And it’s high time we talked about exactly what those commitments are and how we can meet them.

 

One of those responsibilities is consciousness.

 

We can’t be so ignorant of racism and White supremacy anymore.

 

I know everyone is different and some people know more about these things than others. However, you have to admit that just being a White person, you probably don’t know nearly as much about them as any random Black person.

 

After all, Black folks deal with this every day. You and I, we’re just visiting.

 
And, heck, maybe we don’t know much about them.

 

Maybe the schools should have taught us more. Maybe movies and TV and media should have prepared us better.

 

But they didn’t.

 

So we need to remedy that ignorance.

 

That means reading up on the subject – reading a book like “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander or “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi, or “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

 

There are also some great films like “13th” and “When They See Us” by Ava Duvernay, “Do the Right Thing” by Spike Lee or “I Am Not Your Negro” by Raoul Peck.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I’m not saying this like I know everything there is about the subject. I need to crack open some more books, watch some more movies and learn more, too.

 

There’s always more to learn.

 

The fact that so many white people found out about the Tulsa Massacre from the HBO’s series “Watchmen” proves that, as does the fact that many of us learned about Juneteenth only because President Trump suggested having one of his hate-filled MAGA rallies in Tulsa on that date.

 

Knowledge is power. So let’s get some.

 

Second, we need to understand that racism is first and foremost a system.

 

It is a built-in component of almost every social structure, government policy, historical narrative and media message in this country.

 

Think about what that means.

 

We don’t need racists to have racism.

 

The system, itself, is enough.

 

Let’s say we had a ray gun that could eliminate racism. You shoot people with this zap gun and POOF they’re no longer racist.

 

So we take the gun to space and hit everyone in the US with it. All racist attitudes immediately disappear. Not a single person in the entire country is racist.

 

It wouldn’t matter.

 

All of our systems are still racist.

 

The way our government works, the legal system, law enforcement, housing, the tax code, the schools – everything.

 

You don’t need a single racist person. The system, itself, perpetuates the ideology by treating people of color unfairly and pretending that this injustice is exactly the opposite, and – what’s worse – our unquestioning acceptance of that system makes it invisible.

 

That gives us another responsibility.

 

We have to actively change the system.

 

To go back to Baldwin:

 

“I’m an American whether I like it or not and I’ve got to take responsibility for it, though it’s not my doing. What can you do about it except accept that, and then you protest it with all your strength. I’m not responsible for Vietnam, but I had to take responsibility for it, at least to the extent of opposing my government’s role in Vietnam.”

 

So it is our responsibility to recognize where our systems are racist and to do everything we can to change them.

 

We need to fully integrate our schools, for instance. We need to reform our criminal justice system so that Black people are not arrested and convicted at higher rates than White people who commit the same crimes. We need to stop police or others from killing unarmed Black people and getting away with it. We need to stop denigrating Black people for the “crime” of having Black-sounding names.

 

This is the work of social justice. It requires us to get involved in organizations like Black Lives Matter, Journey for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

 

It requires us to think about which policies we support and which politicians we can support at the polls.

 

But that’s not all.

 

We have one more great responsibility to meet.

 

We can’t just understand racism and fight systems of oppression. We have to fight the most insidious proponent of White supremacy.

 

And it is us.

 

These systems that create an unjust society also created you and me.

 

So to a greater or lesser degree they have shaped our minds, our conceptions, our norms, our values.

 

If we’re being honest, we have to admit that includes some racism.

 

We didn’t ask for it, but racist ideas have seeped into our consciousnesses.

 

And most of the time we may not even be aware they’re there.

 

I know I’m not.

 

Let me give you an example.

 

Several years ago my wife and I won free tickets to an opera recital. We like that sort of thing so we dressed in our finest and went to the concert hall to enjoy some culture.

 

The soprano was a local girl I’d never heard of (I’m sorry. I can’t remember her name), but she was wonderful. She was also Black.

 

And the Black community was out in force to support her. The concert hall was filled with mostly Black faces above suits and Sunday dresses.

 

It was the first time I could remember not being in the majority, and it made me uncomfortable.

 

I knew it was stupid. The other people there at the concert were no danger. No one was going to take their suit jacket off to jump a couple of White people who came to hear Puccini and Verdi.

 

But I felt some fear in my gut.

 

It wasn’t rational. I guess all those nightly news reports disproportionately megaphoning Black crime while ignoring that committed by White folks had an effect on me. I didn’t ask to be taught that fear. I didn’t want it. I recognized it as dumb and bigoted.

 

I couldn’t control the way I felt. But I could control the way I reacted.

 

I made an effort to talk with those around us and be as friendly as possible. And for their part these folks were entirely warm, cordial and inviting.

 

That’s what I’m talking about.

 

We, White people, have to take a step beyond learning about racism and acting against it. We have to do some soul searching and locate it within ourselves.

 

It’s probably there.

 

You can’t grow up in America without having it grow inside you like an alien pathogen.

 

We are sick with it – some people more than others – but all of us White folks are infected.

 

Maybe that doesn’t bother you.

 

It bothers me.

 

I don’t want it.

 

I don’t want these stupid ideas inside my head. And, yes, I don’t want the privileges I get just because of my pigmentation.

 

If I succeed in this life, let it be because I did something worthy of success. Don’t let it be just because of the lack of melanin in my skin.

 

Everyone deserves to be treated fairly.

 

Black people even more so because they are so often not treated that way.

 

As Baldwin said:

 

“We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

 

I bring this up not to judge you.

 

Brother, I’ve never met you. Sister, I don’t know you.

 

I’m on my own parallel journey.

 

There is only one person you have to be accountable to – and that is yourself.

 

Can you live with yourself if you have not taken these few steps?

 

If you believe in justice, don’t you have a responsibility to be so in all your dealings with other people?

 

Black people are people.

 

Black lives matter.

 

White people like us have responsibilities to our brothers and sisters of color.

 

Let’s meet them.


 

 

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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!

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Standardized Tests Increase School Segregation

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Let’s say your community has two schools.

 

One serves mostly white students and the other serves mostly black students.

 

How do you eliminate such open segregation?

 

After all, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education as essentially separate and unequal.

 

It’s been nearly 70 years. We must have a recourse to such things these days. Mustn’t we?

 

Well, the highest court in the land laid down a series of decisions, starting with Milliken vs. Bradley in 1974, that effectively made school integration voluntary especially within district lines. So much so, in fact, that according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from 2000 to 2014, school segregation more than doubled nationwide.

 
But let’s say you did find some right-minded individuals who cared enough to make the effort to fix the problem.

 

What could they do?

 
The most obvious solution would be to build a single new school to serve both populations.

 

So if you could find the will and the money, you could give it a try.

 
Unfortunately, that alone wouldn’t solve the problem.

 

Why?

 

Standardized tests.

 

Even when students from different racial or ethnic groups aren’t physically separated by district boundaries or school buildings, the way we rate and sort these students within the same space causes segregation.

 

This is because our manner of placing kids into classes, itself, is discriminatory.

 

We have exactly this situation in my own western Pennsylvania district, Steel Valley. We have two elementary schools – Barrett and Park – one of which serves mostly black kids and the other which serves mostly white kids. However, even when the children get to our single middle and high schools, segregation persists.

 

They may finally be in the same building, but they aren’t in the same classes.

 

Most academic tracks have at least a lower and a higher level of each course. The former is invariably organized around remediation and basic skills, the latter around critical thinking and creativity.

 

Moreover, being in the higher level course comes with increased opportunities for mentoring, field trips, special speakers, contests, prizes, and self esteem. And the lower courses can degenerate into mindless test prep.

 

Which would you rather your child experience?

 

We don’t enroll students in one or the other at random. Nor do we place them explicitly based on their race or ethnicity.

 

Increasingly schools enroll students based primarily on their test scores.

 

Classroom grades, student interest, even teacher recommendations are largely ignored. Kids who pass their state mandated standardized assessments generally get in the higher classes and those who fail get in the lower classes.

 

And – Surprise! Surprise! – since test scores are highly correlated with race and class, most of the black kids are in the lower classes and most of the white kids are in the higher classes.

 

Let me be clear.

 

This isn’t because there’s something wrong with the poor kids and children of color or something right about higher socioeconomic status and white kids.

 

It’s because of (1) economic inequality, and (2) implicit bias in the tests.

 

In short, standardized assessments at best show which kids have had all the advantages. Which ones have had all the resources, books in the home, the best nutrition, live in the safest environments, get the most sleep, don’t live with the trauma of racism and prejudice everyday.

 

However, even more than that is something indisputable but that most policymakers and media talking heads refuse to acknowledge: standardized testing is a tool of white supremacy.

 

It was invented by eugenicists – people who believed that white folks were racially superior to darker skinned people. And the purpose of these tests from the very beginning was to provide a scientific (now recognized as pseudo scientific) justification for their racism.

 

A standardized test is an assessment where the questions are selected based on what the “standard” test taker would answer. And since this norm is defined as a white, middle-to-upper-class person, the tests enshrine white bias.

 

I don’t mean that 2+2=4 has a racial bias. But most questions aren’t so simple. They ask test takers to read passages and pick out certain things that are more obvious to people enculturated as white than those enculturated as black. They use the vocabulary of middle to upper class people just to ask the questions.

 

This is white supremacy. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for funding, tracking, and self-respect is educational apartheid.

 
Black students make up almost 17 percent of American students nationwide. If all things were equal, you’d expect them to make up a similar percentage of advanced courses. However, they account for only 10 percent of students in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) classes.

 
In some areas it’s worse than others.

 

For example, according to a Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report from 2014, black students in the northern California city of Sacramento make up 16.3 percent of the population but only 5.5 percent of GATE programs. Meanwhile, in the south of the state, in San Diego, 8 percent of students are black, but make up just 3 percent of GATE classes.

 

Those are big disparities. In fact, the phenomenon is so common that social scientists created a term to describe it – racialized tracking.

 

But it has also been the subject of civil rights complaints.

 
In New Jersey the imbalance was so extreme the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint in 2014 against the South Orange–Maplewood School District. In a statement, the ACLU said racial segregation across academic tracks “has created a school within a school at Columbia High School.” More than 70 percent of students in lower classes were black while more than 70 percent of students in advanced classes were white.

 

Even so there wasn’t much that could be done. The matter ended with the Office for Civil Rights ordering the district to hire a consultant to fix the problem, but it still persists to this day.

 

This “school within a school” went from metaphor to reality in Austin, Texas. In 2007, a city school, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Early College High School, split into two different entities existing within the same building. And the main factor separating the two was race.

 

The second floor became the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA), a public magnet high school serving mostly white and Asian students. Meanwhile, the majority black and Latino students stayed on the first floor taking regular education courses.

 

How can that be legal? Because too many people want it that way.

 

LASA is ranked the best Texas high school and the 11th-best high school in the United States. In fact, whenever you see those lists of the best schools in the country, they are often the result of a wealthy local tax base combined with how many poor and minority kids they were able to keep out.

 

It’s a matter of priorities.

 

Many people – especially white people – talk a good game about equity but what they really want for their own children is privilege.

 

It’s what happens when you let scarcity dominate public education, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

We can invest in our schools so that all children have what they need – so that they aren’t in competition for dwindling resources.

 

But this must go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on social justice. Black lives matter. We cannot continue to treat black children as disposable.

 

Being gifted, talented or advanced can’t be reduced to a score on a standardized test. In fact, I’d argue that such measures should be banished from our conception of excellence altogether as the tests, themselves, should be discontinued.

 

This doesn’t mean we can ignore the centuries of racist policies that keep our children of color down – housing segregation, inequitable funding, over policing, a lack of resources, being left out of specialized programs. Nor does it mean that we can ignore implicit bias white teachers invariably have about black students.
But we have to dismantle the systemic racism enshrined in our school policies. The most well-meaning individuals will make little headway if the system, itself, is corrupt.

 

The two must be accomplished hand-in-hand, at the micro and macro level.

 

Integration is absolutely essential. We must ensure that all of our students get to go to school together – but not just in the same buildings, in the same classes.

 

This requires an end to standardized testing but maybe also an end to advanced placement courses as we know them. Why focus on higher order thinking only for the privileged kids – do it for all. Individual student needs can be met with dual teachers in the room, pullout resources and the like.

 

It is important to meet the needs of every student, but we cannot in doing so allow unspoken bias to be the gatekeeper of opportunity.

 

Equity is not just a pretty word. It has to be one of our most cherished goals.

 

Otherwise our policies and our people will leave many children behind.


 

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

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Just CLICK HERE.

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!

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The Student-Teacher Relationship is One of the Most Misunderstood and Underrated Aspects of Education

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When I came back to school for the first time since the Coronavirus closed the building, there were a pile of letters waiting for me in my mailbox.

 

I took them to my empty classroom and read the first one:

 

“Hello Mr. Singer, I just thought you should know that you are the greatest teacher I’ve had since Kindergarten all the way to my freshman year of High School and probably will remain that way forever. You always helped me with my work when I was behind and gave me extra time to finish it. Your class was the class I looked forward to every day. You were always a nice and funny man. Thank you for being there for me and everyone else in your classes. I’ll be sure to visit you after school every now and then…”

 

I picked up another:

 

“You have no idea how much I miss you… I quite miss our talks after class about video games, movies and musicals. As cheesy as it sounds, I always looked forward to them; especially during the days I was having problems with other students, your wise words always helped…”

 

And another:

 

“…we had fun times in your class. There wasn’t one non-fun day that we had because if we was going to have a bad day you made it better and way more fun. You also helped us a lot even when we didn’t ask for it. When people didn’t want to do our work, you got them happy and got them to do their work. Thanks for everything and thanks for helping me be a smarter kid.”

 

I felt a lump forming in my throat.

 

My cheeks were hot.

 

And why was my face wet?

 

I hadn’t expected any of this.

 

After a semester of distance learning, I’d come back to school to return all the materials I had hastily marauded from my own filing cabinets and book shelves.

 

I had stopped in the office merely as a matter of course.

 

With the school year at a close, I had gathered the odds and ends in my mailbox including this bundle of correspondence.

 

Now as I sat at my desk smiling, laughing and crying – experiencing each letter like a warm hug on a winters day – I remembered something Ms. Williams had said in an email.

 

She had assigned a thank you letter to her high school business classes. Her students had to write a formal thank you to a previous teacher. But that was all that was required. Who they wrote to and what they said was entirely up to them.

 

She had written to me months ago to let me know these letters were coming.
It was just bad luck that the assignment was due just as the global pandemic closed everything down so I was only reading them now.

 

Kids usually spend about 1,000 hours with their teachers in a single year.

 

During that time we build strong relationships.

 

While just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things.

 

Some policymakers will insist on limiting that relationship to connections that increase academic outcomes. Others advise a more holistic approach.

 

Both are backed by research.

 

A review of 46 educational studies concluded that strong student-teacher relationships are associated with positive outcomes in everything from higher student academic engagement, attendance and grades, better behavior and fewer suspensions to higher graduation rates. And this is true of both short term and long term effects and even after controlling for differences in student backgrounds.

 

However, many studies disregard everything but standardized test scores. That is the primary goal and arbiter of effectiveness. As such, in those cases the relationship they are looking for is much different than in those with broader aims.

 

A 2018 study from Arizona State University found a disparity in teacher-training programs that highlighted this difference.

 

Some programs prioritized an “instrumental focus” with students where teachers were encouraged to use personal information on students to get them to behave and do their work. The goal was compliance not autonomy or problem solving.

 

Other programs valued a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal was free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures.

 

Moreover, the study found that the differences in focus corresponded to where aspiring teachers were expected to get a job after the training was complete. The instrumental focused teacher prep programs invariably trained incoming educators for low-income and high-minority schools. The reciprocal approach was preferred for teachers preparing for wealthier and whiter students.

 

So once again the physical segregation of our children becomes “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But while President George W. Bush used that famous phrase to demonize anyone who thought poverty and racism were barriers to achievement, it is actually a focus on test scores that is bigoted.

 

We expect teachers to care about their wealthy white students but merely manipulate their poor brown ones.

 
This just goes to justify my own reciprocal approach in the classroom.

 

Test-obsessed policy makers will tell educators to manage everything with a clipboard and a spreadsheet – for example, to increase the percentage of positive interactions vs negative ones in a given class period. But such a data-centric mindset dehumanizes both student and teacher.

 

The goal cannot be to maximize numbers whether they be test scores or some other metric. It has to be about the relationship, itself.

 

Teachers have to care about their students. All teachers. All students.

 

Or at least we have to try.

 

A little bit of empathy goes a long way. And not just to get students to jump through hoops.

You have to care about each student as a person.

 

The goal can never be a test score. It has to be self actualization.

 

Teachers have to help kids become their best selves. And the definition of what counts as your best self is largely defined by the student, his- or herself.

 

How telling that we implicitly understand this when it comes to high socioeconomic kids with lighter skin! How pathetic that we lower our sights when it comes to poor kids and children of color.

 

I teach mostly minority students in a low income school in Western Pennsylvania. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always fought against this prescription to see student relationships as instrumental to their outcomes.

 

And the results are evident in what they wrote to me.

 

“…now that I’m no longer in your class I’ve decided it was about time that I give you a proper thank you for all you did, putting up with me and dealing with me in class… You helped me learn how to write essays. But most important of all, for two years you made school fun for me again, which was something I thought was impossible.”

 

***

 

“…Everyday I was always looking forward to having your class because I knew that having your class would be thrilling. I miss having your class because you made me laugh and in return I made you laugh a couple of times.”

***

 

“…Being in your class made me enjoy learning and reading more. It was almost always something I looked forward to throughout my day. We were always learning about interesting topics and I was never bored in your class… Thank you for being the greatest teacher ever and a cool dude.”

 

***

 

“…I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”

 

***

 

“You were my favorite teacher because your class was always fun and we were always doing fun things and fun projects in your class and your class was never boring. You also taught us a lot of useful things… we’ve been using them so far this year. You were also never in a bad mood and always were positive in the morning so you always brought my energy up… I never looked forward to a morning class besides your class because I knew that we were going to do something fun.”

 

***

 

“…Your class was the only class that I got excited for because we always read good stories and did fun things… I also wanted to say I’m sorry for talking and disrupting the classroom when I was carrying on. I should have been paying attention to what you had to say and what you were trying to teach me.”

 

***

 

“It was interesting to have a teacher that wrote a book because not a lot of teachers write books. It was also interesting [you had a] TED Talk…”

 

***

 

“You have had some pretty good accomplishments in your life if I may say so. Like your book “Gadfly on the Wall”, and I have to say it’s a pretty good book. I read some of it and I get what you’re saying.”

 

***

 

“…middle school was hard for me. I had difficult days with tons of IXLS piled [on from other classes] but instead of you giving them to me you actually taught me by yourself. Also we were able to joke around a lot about books and just random things in class.”

 

***

 

“…you taught me how to write and put punctuation in my sentences and in my paragraphs. Coming into your class in the beginning of 7th grade I didn’t know how to read that good or consistent… My vocabulary and speech increased in your class.”

 
***

 

“…You always had a way to make the class fun or easy. Also you always had a way to keep me on track and prepared… If I didn’t have you for 7th and 8th grade I don’t think I would be able to handle 9th grade… I’m glad to of had you for two years because I learned double the stuff and was double ready for 9th grade. I’m doing well [now] because of you…”

 
***

 

“I wanted to write to you because you’re honestly my favorite teacher and you kept my spirits up. I had your class for two years [7th and 8th grade]; the first year I wasn’t sure how I felt about you but overtime I realized you’re pretty cool. I loved Socratic Seminars . They were a way to voice your opinion and that’s always fun… You helped me find a few of my favorite books like “The Outsiders”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “The Diary of Anne Frank” which my friends and I still mention to this day… I’m in the musical this year and… without you I don’t think I would have been able to build up the courage to try out… You made me the person I am today. You taught me to challenge things that are unfair and to treat people with respect.”

 
Those are just some of the highlights.

 

I think more than anything I could say, they prove the point.

 

But to put a cherry on top, I’ll add one last thing.

 

In my 8th grade poetry unit, we watch “Dead Poets Society.”

 

Last year my students threatened to reenact the ending of the film where the kids stand on their desks to honor Mr. Keating, their English teacher who taught them to think for themselves instead of being cogs in the machine.

 

On the last day of school, they did it, too.

 

I cautioned against it because I didn’t want anyone to fall and get hurt. But when the last bell rang and emotions ran high, I simply took the compliment.

 

A year later, they must have remembered the moment as much as I did because many, many of the letters weren’t addressed just to Mr. Singer.

 

They were addressed to “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

 

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I wrote each student a personal response and sent it to them via the US Post Office. For many this may be the first actual letter they’ve received.

 


 

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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!

book-3

 

 

Defund the Police to Fund Public Schools

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Back in the pre-Coronavirus days when we still had in-person classes I used to come to school in a suit.

 

Every day, suit and tie.

 

I didn’t have to – the dress code allowed me to wear pretty much whatever I wanted and most teachers dressed much more casually.

 

Now let me be clear – I’m not saying my way was the only way. Each teacher has his or her own way of doing things that work in their particular cases. But as for me, I’ve always agreed with the old adage that you should come dressed for the job you want, not necessarily the job you have.

 

I think educators are professionals. They should be respected and taken seriously.

 

And on the first day of school that’s what I want to tell my students without even opening my mouth: Hey! We’re doing important work here today.

 

However, as time goes on I often wear whimsical ties. A saxophone, multicolored fish, Space Invaders on test days.

 

In fact, this year some of the kids nicknamed me “tie man” and even if they didn’t have me as their teacher they’d pop their heads into the room to see what was hanging from my neck that day.

 

So when I see police officers lined up at George Floyd rallies, I’m aware of what they’re saying without saying a word.

 
Wearing riot gear, armed with billy clubs and shields. Tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at the ready. Backed by military style tanks and helicopters flying overhead.

 

That all sends a message: We’re not here to protect and serve. We’re here to pacify and put down.

 

And like my choice of school attire, this message isn’t just for the observer. It’s for the wearer, too.

 

There’s no mistaking what you’re there to do with a sport jacket across your shoulders and a piece of fabric knotted around your neck. Just as I’m sure there’s no mistaking your intent when you survey the public behind a plexiglass helmet with a heavy wooden club in your gloved fist.

 

You’re a soldier and the protesters are your enemy.

 

Any individual police officer can act differently, but if they do, they’re going against the tide.

 

That’s why many people are saying “Defund the Police.”

 

To some that may sound kind of scary.

 

Defund the police? If we do that, who will protect us from violent criminals?

 

But hear me out.

 

Defunding the police doesn’t have to mean abolishing the police (though some would go that far).

 

For me, it means a radical reinvention of what it means to be a police officer and their role in our society.

 

Let’s not forget that policing began in this country not so much as law enforcement but as a way to catch runaway slaves and put down labor unions.

 

It’s not enough to suggest our law enforcers not dress like stormtroopers.

 

It’s not enough that we ask often progressive mayors not to use their police as thugs and bullies.

 

It’s not enough that we demand racists be screened out of the hiring process and for more rigorous training before officers become a permanent part of the force.

 

We should do all of that, but let’s not be blind to what we’ve seen the last week.

 

A 75-year-old man shoved to the ground and left to bleed in Buffalo, NY. A police SUV driving through a crowd of protestors in Brooklyn knocking several to the ground. A group of police in Philadelphia using a baton to hit a man on the head before pinning him to the ground. In Minneapolis police shouting “Light ‘em up” before firing paint canisters at a woman standing on her own front porch. And in many cities police using teargas, flash-bangs and rubber bullets on a peaceful protesters.

 

The fact that there was so much police brutality at nationwide anti-police brutality protests proves the need to radically rethink what it means to be law enforcement. And that starts with the money we put aside for this purpose.

 

If the police are not an occupying army, we shouldn’t fund them or outfit them like the military.

 

According to a recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data conducted by the Urban Institute, the cost of policing has tripled in the last four decades to $115 billion while violent crime has declined.

 

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In most cities, the police budget is orders of magnitude greater than many other departments. For example, Los Angeles spends $1.8 billion annually on law enforcement – nearly 18% of the city’s entire budget.

 

From 2014-19, New York City spent $41.1 billion on police and corrections while spending $9.9 billion on homeless services and $6.8 billion on housing preservation and development. If you combined the city’s spending on homelessness and housing and quadrupled it, that would still be less than what the city spent on policing and corrections.

 

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Even before the Coronavirus pandemic ravaged the economy, legislators made deep cuts to other services like education, parks, libraries, housing, public transportation, youth programs, arts and culture, and many more. But police budgets have only gotten bigger or remained largely untouched.

 

As Joe Biden said while Vice President, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

 

If we don’t want the police to be militarized thugs that keep people in line by force, we shouldn’t give them the tools to do so. 
Officer Friendly doesn’t patrol in a tank and Barney Fife never fired a rubber bullet or tear gas canister at anyone in Mayberry.

 

Likewise, if we value things like social services and public schools, we should give a lot of the savings to them. A culture of life invests in future generations. The land of the brave and home of the free does not value obedience over free thought and the learning necessary to become an educated participant in our democracy.

 

I live in Pennsylvania.

 

No other state in the country has a bigger gap between what it spends on rich vs. poor students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

 

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The state legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The Commonwealth used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays only 35% of the costs, leaving local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

 

The difference is significant. Rich districts spend $10,000 to $20,000 on each student, while poorer districts barely pull together $5,000-$6,000.

 

In addition, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Moreover, it is no accident that the group privileged with an abundance of funding is made up mostly of white students and those being underprivileged are mostly students of color.

 
What better way to show that black lives really do matter than to invest in black minds?

 

The situation isn’t limited to Pennsylvania.

 

Education still hasn’t recovered from the Great Recession. You see today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

 

So if we wanted today’s children to have the same quality of service kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

 
And it’s about to get worse!

 

Across the nation with the inevitable loss of taxes after shutting down the economy to save lives during the global Coronavirus outbreak, local districts are bracing for a 15-25% loss in revenues next fiscal year.

In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.

That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.

 

If police are there to protect people, what are they protecting us from?

 

The system is set up to criminalize citizens and keep them in line with brutality.

 

We’ve criminalized homelessness, drug addiction, even poverty, itself. And lacking a quality education increases a student’s chances of becoming part of the criminal justice system – the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

We need a new system that works for us.

 

We need a system where murdering black people – even if you’re wearing a uniform – sends you to jail, and not only after global protests.

 

We need a system where people feel safe, where no one has to worry about being targeted because of skin color, nationality, religion, immigration status, sexuality, gender or creed.

 

We need a system where mass gatherings don’t trigger a police response but a political one to redress our grievances.

 

And to get there we need to defund the police.


 

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book-1

America Has Failed in Every Way But One

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This year has been a disaster.

 

We are living through a global pandemic yet have inadequate health screenings, medical equipment or a viable vaccine.

 

We are witness to public lynchings of black people at the hands of law enforcement yet our legal system continues to be slow to act if at all.

 

Our schools and hospitals are starved for resources yet police have riot gear, tear gas and army surplus tanks to patrol the streets.

 

Climate change causes unprecedented storms, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and other extreme weather yet our policymakers refuse to take any action to change it or even acknowledge it’s happening.

 

We’re experiencing record unemployment and a stalled economy yet the super rich loot and pillage recovery efforts to record profits.

 

White supremacists are terrorizing our communities yet we ignore it until someone is killed and refuse to see any pattern, just a series of loners unrelated and unstoppable.

 

Refugees with nowhere else to go seek shelter at our door and yet we respond by rounding them up like criminals, separating them from their children and caging them like animals…

 

Guns are unregulated. Truth is uncelebrated. Fascism rebranded.

 

All while America burns and the President hides in his bunker.

 

But he is not the only one.

 

Nearly every leader in America has failed to meet these challenges.

 

So maybe the problem isn’t just our leadership but where these people come from in the first place.

 

Our politics is so beholden to monetary interests it cannot function for anyone else.

 

We are left out of the system and told that the only solution is participation in it.

 

We go door-to-door, organize and hold rallies for our chosen candidates. We navigate political labyrinths of red tape in an edifice labeled “Democracy” but at every turn stifled of collective voice. And sometimes we even win and see our preferred public servants inaugurated.

 

But every year nothing much changes.

 

Things get progressively worse no matter who is in office.

 

And we’re told to clutch at changes that are not nearly adequate or which are cosmetic at best.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that so many folks have taken to the streets to express their outrage and demand justice.

 

No one really wants a revolution we’re told, until the streets are on fire and the riot shields and rubber bullets come out.

 

In frustration we burn the place down begging to be noticed, to be heard, for anything to finally happen.

 

And the only response is echoes of the past: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

 

America is a failed state.

 

We are a failure.

 

But there is at least one thing that gives me hope, and it is this.

 

There is one major way that our country and our people have not failed.

 

There is one way that we have surveyed the present scene and responded appropriately.

 

We have not lost our outrage.

 

When George Floyd, a black man, was murder in May by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes, we did not look away.

 
Nor did we forget Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, who in March was killed in Kentucky by police serving a “no knock” warrant at her apartment for criminals they already had in custody.

 

Nor did we forget Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man jogging near his home in February who was followed and shot to death by two white men who claimed they suspected him of committing some sort of crime.

 

It would be easy to become complacent about such things.

 

They happen every year. Every month. Nearly every day.

 

But we have refused to accept them.

 

We refuse to shrug and let this just become normal.

 

America is angry. She is sick and tired of being unheard and unheeded.

 

She is fed up with unjust systems, gas lighting leaders and political thugs.

 

To quote James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

 

We are trying to face the truth.

 

Only time will tell whether it destroys us or we conquer it.


 

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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

The Internet is NOT the Best Place for Kids to Learn After the Coronavirus Pandemic

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If the Coronavirus quarantine has taught educators one thing, it’s this.

 

Online learning is not better than in-person schooling.

 

After all these years of corporations throwing apps at us and well-meaning administrators providing us with devices and philanthrocapitalists pumping billions of dollars into ed tech first academic schemes, we can all see now that the emperor has no clothes.

 

When schools nationwide are closed to stop the spread of a global pandemic and learning is restricted to whatever teachers can cobble together on sites like Google Classroom and ZOOM, we can all see the Imperial scepter blowing in the wind.

 

The problem is that this is only clear to parents, students and teachers.

 

The people who get to make ed policy decisions are as blind as ever – as witnessed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tone deaf insistence that his state reimagine schools with the help of billionaire school saboteur Bill Gates.

 

But the rest of us – you know, those grounded in reality – can see the problems with remote learning staring us in the face.

 

Most importantly, the Internet is not a conducive environment for learning.

 

I don’t mean that learning can’t take place there.

 

You could learn in a fox hole while being shelled by enemy forces. But if your content extends to something more complex than “Duck” or other survival tactics, this may not be the best place to learn it. After all, environment plays a key role in knowledge acquisition.

 

Moreover, different people learn things better in different circumstances. And, contrary to our current education policies that view children as stakeholders or consumers, they are in fact people.

 

There are some children who learn better online than in a brick and mortar classroom. But these kids are few and far between.

 

In general, the younger the child (both physically and psychologically), the more important it is that he or she be given the opportunity to learn in an actual classroom.

 

Why?

 

It really comes down to who controls the environment.

 

In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.

 

In a virtual environment, the space is defined to a small degree by the teacher, but it is mostly determined by the ed tech provider and the open world of the Internet.

 

In short, teachers have much more control over physical classrooms and can remove distractions.

 

Online, educators have very little control over this.

 

LINE OF SIGHT

 
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.

 

I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.

 

Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.

 

When teaching online, I’ve had students texting on cell phones, playing video games on computers, having side conversations with friends in their bedrooms, playing with pets – and trying to hide this with the way they display themselves on camera.

 

I’ve had kids mysteriously turn off the camera or point it away from their faces until I ask them to switch it back on or swivel it back to themselves.

 

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

 
When I first started teaching online a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal seemed to be the mute button.

 

If several kids weren’t hearing me because of side chatter, I could simply mute everyone and fill the blessed silence with instruction.

 

However, I soon discovered that this is deceptive.

 

Just because you don’t hear the students, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Some kids use the online chat stream to continue side chatter. Others forgo that entirely for text and Facebook messaging.

 

What’s worse, it’s often hard for the teacher to even know whether anything she said is actually being heard.

 

TOO MUCH CHOICE

 
One of the great strengths of online learning is that it gives students an incredible amount of choice. But that is also its greatest weakness.

 

I can give assignments through a file sharing site like Google Classroom and let students complete it at their own pace.

 

The problem is that kids (especially young kids) need their pace monitored.

 

You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.

 

In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.

 

However, online it is completely up to them when to do an assignment. They are responsible for their own time management – and that’s a skill we, as educators, struggle to teach them.

 

As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.

 

Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.

 

HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE

 

 

Then there’s the question of… well… questions.

 

In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.

 

The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.

 

In my physical classroom, since all students are working on an assignment together in that same time and space, I can go from desk to desk and see how they’re progressing.

 

If they’re getting something wrong, I can correct it in real time. I can give suggestions and encouragement even before the work is done.

 

Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.

 

This presents a problem. Do I explain the error and ask him to to do the work all over again? Or do I explain the error but accept the work for what it is?

 

I’ll admit, I usually do the later.

 

STUDENTS M.I.A.

 

 

Which brings me to mysterious absences.

 

I don’t mean kids who don’t show up to video conferences – though there are many of those.

 

I mean kids who for all intents and purposes appear to be there in ZOOM and then suddenly disappear never to return that day.

 

They could have a device or Internet issue. And if this happens every once in a while, it’s understandable. But what about kids who do this all the time?

 

If your iPad isn’t charged one day, I guess things happen. But if it isn’t charged everyday, that’s a problem. Your problem – one you need to solve.

 

I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.

 

Once again, we’re putting this responsibility on students and families. In the days before distance learning, we could question whether that was fair. In the Coronavirus dystopia, we have little choice but to do it.

 

However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.

 

In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.

 

Some students are gone for the majority of the meeting. In a world where video conferences are few and far between, is it so much to ask that you use the restroom BEFORE going to ZOOM?

 

INVADERS

 
But let’s not forget unwanted guests.

 

These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.

 

Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.

 

Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.

 

Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.

 

There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.

 

On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.

 

So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.

 

It’s maddening!

 

ASSESSMENTS AND CHEATING

 
Now let’s talk tests.

 

I don’t like tests. I think they can too easily become cruel games of “guess what the testmaker was thinking.”

 

But they are a necessary evil to judge what information students have learned. Moreover, a creative teacher can design them to reduce the regurgitation of facts and increase critical analysis backed by facts.

 

In a physical classroom, teachers can monitor students during test taking. Online, they can’t. So there’s always a question of cheating.

 

Every scrap of information in human history is available somewhere online. If students try hard enough, they can find the answer to any question with a deft Google search.

 

However, to be honest I don’t think I’ve had too much trouble with this as yet. My students either don’t care enough to cheat, cannot figure out how to do so effectively or have too much self respect.

 

Or maybe I just haven’t caught them.

 

In the physical classroom, I had several students try to pass off others work – essays or poems – as their own. But I haven’t assigned anything so ambitious through distance learning yet.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
Perhaps that’s why it drives me nuts when policymakers and media types make statements about what an overwhelming success this has all been.

 

Teachers and districts have tried their best. Students and families are giving their all. But this experiment does not demonstrate why we should all embrace distance learning once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

 

It shows why we MUST return to the brick and mortar classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

Reimagining school will not require more ed tech.

 

It may require much less.

 

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

 

We need smaller classes, equitable funding, desegregation, social justice, wide curriculum, and an end to high stakes testing, school privatization, science denial and anti-intellectualism.

 

But more than anything, we need policymakers who are willing to listen to and include the people on the ground when making decisions that affect us all.


 

 

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!

book-4

Mike Turzai is Willing to Sacrifice Pennsylvania’s Students and Families to the Economy

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Mike Turzai says he’s furious with Pedro Rivera.

 

Why is the highest ranking Republican in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives so angry with the state Secretary of Education?

 

Rivera said the Commonwealth’s public schools, which have been closed since mid March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, would not reopen until it was safe to do so.

 

If that means schools don’t reopen on time in the Fall, so be it.

 

Specifically, on Wednesday, Rivera said:

 

“At the end of the day, we’re going to make sure that the health and welfare of our students is first and foremost, front and center. And we’re not going to allow and ask students to return to school in an unsafe environment. We’re preparing for the best, but we’re planning for the worst.”

 

Turzai was so infuriated by this statement that he wrote a letter to Rivera – which the Pittsburgh area representative immediately shared with the media – he went on right wing talk radio to complain, and he posted a video on his Facebook page.

 

You know a Boomer is really mad when he goes on the social media.

 

Though his comments include his usual greatest hits against public schools and those greedy teachers, Turzai’s main point was simply science denial.

 

On Facebook, after a long list of activities that he said kids enjoy doing like sports and lab experiments, he said this:

 

“All of those can be done safely, and [kids] are not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue. The fact of the matter is kids can develop herd immunity, and if you [Rivera] have not yet developed a plan where we can safely educate kids in schools, then you are going to have to rethink education forward…”

 

 

 
So there you have it, folks.

 

Turzai wants Pennsylvania to reopen schools on time whether scientists and health experts think it’s safe or not because – Turzai knows best.

 

Pennsylvania’s village idiot thinks he knows best about schools.

 

And as usual he’s as wrong as you can get.

 

The COVID-19 virus is relatively new. That’s what the 19 in its name means. It was only discovered in 2019.

 

It’s already killed more Americans than the Vietnam War (69,579 vs. 58,220). There’s no vaccine. And we really don’t know with much certainty how it will affect people in the long term.

 

And as to herd immunity, Sweden tried that – eschewing social distancing and letting people just get the virus – and the result is a death rate twice that of the US.

 

While it is true that children seem to be mostly asymptomatic, thousands have contracted the disease and several have died.

 

However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) points out the bigger issue in the organization’s April report on its Website:

 

“Pediatric COVID-19 patients might not have fever or cough. Social distancing and everyday preventive behaviors remain important for all age groups because patients with less serious illness and those without symptoms likely play an important role in disease transmission.”

So if we reopen schools before it is safe to do so, we run the risk of (1) kids dying, (2) kids becoming carriers and bringing the disease to any adults they come into contact with who are much more susceptible and (3) teachers and school staff getting sick and dying.

 

Turzai has no problem with any of that.

 

He thinks the risk is worth it.

 

Why?

 

Well, that’s the party line he’s been handed by the Trump administration, and he does whatever he is told by his bosses.

 

Oh? The taxpayers thought THEY were his bosses?

 

No. You are just the chumps who kept re-electing him.

 

He doesn’t work for you.

 

He works for the Republican Party machine which is trying to turn people against Democratic governors like our own Tom Wolf.

 

And, man, does he want to be the next GOP challenger to Wolf. That’s really what this whole business is about – casting Turzai as even more radical than Scott Wagner, the last far right dope who tried for the governors mansion and was soundly defeated by voters.

 

He’s trying to show he’s just as stupid as Donald Trump. The President says we should all drink bleach to get rid of COVID-19? Well Turzai says we should let our kids get sick and die or make us sick.

 

Republicans truly have become the party of stupid.

 

The media helps covidiots like Turzai by uncritically reprinting his outrageous lies.

 

Turzai is like a man who calmly says it’s not raining outside while a thunderstorm beats down on the neighborhood. Instead of pointing out the truth, the media simply reports what Turzai said and at most gives equal weight to a meteorologist. But there is no OPINION about facts! And whether scientific consensus holds with his crackpot conspiracy theories about how the Coronavirus spreads or not IS a fact.

 

 

Is social distancing fun?

 

No.

 

If I could push a button and magically make the Coronavirus go away, I would.

 

But you have to live in the real world.

 

We have to get rid of the virus.

 

We need real tests to be able to tell if people have the virus. The Trump administration has completely botched that. This is why countries like South Korea are seeing hardly any new cases at all while our numbers are still extremely high.

 

Not to mention the fact that we have a bunch of morons who value their freedom to put themselves at risk without any thought to their responsibilities to the rest of society who they will also be endangering.

 

Until we can truly tell who has the virus, who had the virus, who is immune, and how to cure it, the prospect of reopening schools or the economy will be grim.

 

We should not put people at risk unnecessarily.
And we certainly shouldn’t put children at risk.

 

Don’t let fools like Turzai use a global pandemic to hawk their political agendas.

 

He goes on in his video to say that if the state’s public schools don’t open on time, we should consider things like universal cyber schooling, and (non sequitur alert!) charter and voucher schools.

 

It’s his everyday wish list wrapped in a Coronavirus-bow.

 

That’s how dumb this dummy thinks Pennsylvanians are.

 

I sure hope he’s wrong about that, too.


MYTHBUSTERS: A quick rebuttal to the other lies spewed in Turzai’s Facebook video

 

-Does Pennsylvania spend more than most other states on education?

 

We’re in the top 10 for over all spending, but we don’t distribute it equally. Kids in rich districts get tons of money. kids in poor districts get scraps. That’s why there’s a lawsuit demanding the state ensure all kids get an equitable education.

 

-Are pension payments high?

 

Yes, because while teachers and schools paid into the program, the state legislature deferred to pay its share for years and years. Now it’s due. We agreed to give state workers benefits when we hired them. We can’t go back on that now.

 

-Do administrators know if teachers are teaching online during the pandemic?

 

Yes. Parents, students AND administrators know because it’s all online. Administrators can monitor teachers MORE closely via the Internet – not less. That’s why there’s an overwhelmingly increased appreciation of what educators are doing now – it’s out in the open.

 

-Should educators call special needs students for three hours everyday?

 

Only if they aren’t already spending the majority of their days actually teaching students on-line. I’m on ZOOM meetings most days interacting with students on video conferences for almost as much time as I would in person if schools were open. And if you add in the amount of time it takes to come up with new lessons on learning platforms we’re unfamiliar with, program them in and troubleshoot them, most teachers are putting in MORE hours than usual.

 

 


 

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HBO’s “Bad Education” Aims at Public School Theft While Ignoring More Frequent Fraud at Charter Schools & Testing Companies

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“Bad Education” is a frustrating movie to watch as a public school teacher.

 

It does a fine job telling the true story of a wealthy New York district where administrators stole millions of dollars for themselves.

 

But it ignores the far more frequent waste and malfeasance caused by school privatization, high stakes testing and runaway ed tech.

 

Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but there is no subject more political than public schools.

 

During the current Coronavirus pandemic, teachers and schools are finally getting some respect from people who are trying to “home school” their own kids while the nation’s classrooms are shuttered.

 

But education budgets are still routinely slashed, and every policymaker from Betsy DeVos to Barack Obama still thinks there is nothing better than closing public schools and replacing them with charter and/or voucher schools.

 

Pundits continually decry low test scores while applauding every means to increase racial and economic segregation. They push every policy to increase the school to prison pipeline for black and brown students.

 

And now HBO drops this movie about Rosalyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) who embezzled $11 million from taxpayers.
What happened in Rosalyn was scandalous. But it’s an outlier.

 

Such misappropriation and outright theft rarely happens at public schools. After all, the records are all public. It just takes someone to check up.

 

For REAL theft you have to go to charter and voucher schools where the law literally allows them to spend our money without most of that public oversight.

 

Viewers like me from Pennsylvania still remember Nick Trombetta. The founder and former CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School stole a similar sum (at least $8 million), and got much less prison time (20 months vs. Tassone who served 3 years). Trombetta used taxpayer dollars to buy a$300,000 private jet for goodness sake! He bought a $933,000 condo in Florida! He bought $180,000 houses for his girlfriend and mother in Ohio. He did all this and more – and his lawyers got the charges down to tax evasion! Why is there no movie about THAT?

 

Or how about June Brown?

 

As the head of Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. charter empire, she was indicted for stealing $6.5 million from taxpayers. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her.

 

Where’s that movie?
The history of charter schools reads like a who’s who of hucksters and thieves!

 

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) the largest charter school in Ohio was forced to shut down and auction off all its taxpayer funded property because administrators  grossly inflated its students body of 12,000 online students to the state.

 

New Jersey charter schools spent as much as $800 million of taxpayer dollars to buy property that they then charged taxpayers additional money to rent from the charter schools, according to an IRS investigation.

 

The Network for Public Education published a report in 2019 detailing more than $1 billion in federal dollars misappropriated by charters – including hundreds of millions spent on charters that never even opened or that closed soon after opening.

 

I think those would make good movies. Don’t you?

 

But let’s not forget the other vulture industries that prey on our public school system without providing much of value in return.

 

If you want REAL fraud, you have to go to the standardized testing and ed tech industry sucking away billions or taxpayer dollars while providing services that are either unnecessary or downright destructive.

 

Why do we give every public school child high stakes tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school? Because the federal government says so.

 

These tests don’t tell us how well students are doing in school. We have at least 180 days of classroom grades that tell us that.

 

These tests taken over a period of a few days tell us what the corporation making them thinks is important. And they nearly always show that richer kids are doing better than poorer kids, and that whiter kids are somehow “smarter” than blacker kids.

 

And for this prized data we pay billions of dollars to big businesses every year.
It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

 

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

 

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

 

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

 
In fact, when I sat down to watch “Bad Education” I thought it was going to be about high stakes testing cheating scandals. I thought it was going to be about how the pressure to have students score well on the tests have in some cases resulted in teachers and/or administrators changing answers to inflate the scores.

 

But no. That’s not mentioned at all. There’s talk about test scores but their value is never questioned for one second.

 

Hugh Jackman’s superintendent dreams of leading his schools from getting the 4th highest test scores to having the 1st highest. But nowhere does anyone mention how these tests were literally developed by Nazi eugenicists or how they have been challenged countless times for violating children’s civil rights or even the sizable parent-led opt out movement in the same New York suburbs where the film takes place.

 

Okay.  Maybe I AM being too sensitive.

 

The film does seem to have a theme about how we expect everything from schools and teachers and don’t reward them well enough. But this is undercut by the obvious villainy of people who use that discrepancy to take advantage of the trust the public has placed in them.

 

Public schools rarely act this way.

 

I fear that many people will miss that point.

 

Instead it will be more fuel to the fire that public schools are bad and must be replaced.

 

There’s even a parting shot about Jackman’s character’s pension.

 

I’m all for drama.
But when filmmakers bend over backward to ignore the elephant in the room, I tend to lose my appetite for popcorn.

 

 


 

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Adventures in Online Teaching: Reinventing the Wheel for a Handful of Students

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Today in our ZOOM meeting, one of my students tried to get one over on me.

 

I sat at the bureau in my guest bedroom, surveying a gallery of 7th grade faces lined up in little boxes on my laptop like the opening scene of the Brady Bunch.

 

Lilly was lying on her bed face up, almost definitely scrolling on her cell phone.

 

Pha’rrel was eating a cookie as he tried to fit his overgrown curls under a gray hoodie.

 

And Jimmy was smiling at me with the cheesiest close up you ever saw in your life.

 

The smile was so wide. The eyes were so glassy. The face was so still.

 

“Jimmy, did you put up a picture of yourself on your camera!?” I asked.

 

Somewhere miles away he laughed, apologized and took it down.

 

If we were back in the classroom, I probably would have come down on him.

 

He used to sit in the back of the room, face buried in his iPad, ear buds plugged into his brain and his work done in the most careless but high-speed fashion possible.

 

About once a week I had to take away some device just so his Internet-rattled mind could pay attention.

 

What am I to do now? Those apps and devices are the only thing connecting him to even the most rudimentary schooling.

 

He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.

 

So I moved on.

 

We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.

 

Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.

 

“Melanie?” I say.

 

No response.

 

“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”

 

Nothing.

 

She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.

 

I remember conferencing with her and her mom trying to find out if there was anything wrong – but, no, she was simply misusing the privilege of picking her own bedtime.

 

How was I to keep her awake online? I couldn’t shake the desk, rattle her papers or even let my voice naturally get louder as it gained proximity.

 

I had to let her sleep.

 

Oh and what’s this? Was that Teddy finally joining the ZOOM Meeting 20 minutes in?

 

I clicked to let him join and immediately it was clear that he was missing something important.

 

“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.

 

“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”

 

“Ted, you forget something?”

 

“Wha?”

 

“Ted, your shirt?”

 

He looks down at his naked torso.

 

“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

 

“Uh, we can see that, Buddy. Why don’t you turn your iPad around and put on a shirt and pants? Okay?”

 

These are just some of the hurdles you face as an online teacher.

 

Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the country, teachers like me have been asked to finish up the year with students via the Internet.

 

It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.

 

Getting kids attention is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Online it’s nearly a Herculean labor.

 

Strangely the episodes related above aren’t even close to the worst of it.

 

More than students’ attempts to message each other through the lesson or the constant screaming in the background at some kids homes or the vacant stares of the child with ADHD whose IEP calls for teacher proximity and eye contact, but how do you do that from across town? – more than all of that is the silence.

 

The empty, deafening silence of the majority of kids who don’t even show up.

 

I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and I average about 40% participation.

 

Some days a class might be almost full. Another day there might be two kids.

 

I know it’s not necessarily the children or the parents’ fault.

 

We’re in the middle of a global catastrophe. Family members are sick, kids are scared, and many don’t have experience with Internet, the devices or certainly the learning platforms we’re using.

 

Districts can give out iPads and mobile hot spots, but not familiarity with technology, not a quiet place to work, not a safe and secure learning environment.

 

When a parent tells me her child is having trouble with something, I excuse him. I get it.

 

When a student tells me she doesn’t understand how to do something, I don’t penalize her. I try to fix the problem and ask her to give it another shot.

 

But when you’ve been tasked with creating almost entirely new curriculum on the fly for several different classes– and you do – it’s anticlimactic that so few kids show up to see it.

 

I almost don’t mind it when someone’s cat swaggers in front of the screen and flaunts its butthole for all to see.

 

That’s just life in the age of distance learning.

 

But when I design all these assignments and teach all these classes, I wish more students showed up.

 

My district doesn’t require me to do all this.

 

I could have just thrown a few worksheets up on Google Classroom and called it a day.

 

That’s kind of what administrators want, I think. Just review previously taught skills. Make it look like we’re doing something. And we’ll close the academic gaps next year.

 

But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?

 

My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?

 

So I narrowed it all down to essentials.

 

I could have assigned my students to read the texts on their own and then made them write reader response journals. But I don’t think any but my most self-motivated students would have done it and even they would have lost a lot without being able to discuss it.

 

So I put a few assignments on Google Classroom, but most are through live ZOOM Meetings where the students and I talk through the texts together.

 

The 8th graders read the play version of “Anne Frank” together with me, and it’s actually going pretty well.

 

I’m able to display the text on the screen and move the cursor under what they’re reading.

 

I’ve even seen some reluctant readers improve right before my eyes.

 

I’ve always suggested that students put their index fingers under the words as they read, but few do it. Using ZOOM like this forces them to follow my advice.

 

Of course, the class is a tiny fraction of what it would be in person.

 

If we were still in the school building, I’m positive they’d be learning more. We’d be able to discuss more. I’d have a better read of the room. They would be less capable of hiding behind the technology.

 

But there is real life-long learning taking place.

 

It’s my most successful group.

 

My 7th graders are a different story.

 

They are the kind of class you have to explode a stick of dynamite under to get them to notice what’s right before their eyes.

 

And more of them actually show up. Yet much of what we’re reading seems lost on them.

 

They are much more dedicated to being present in body if not in spirit – and barring an exorcism, I’m unsure how to reach many of them through fiber optic cables.

 

Then we have my Creative Writing class – basically a journaling course taught to a different group of students every few weeks.

 

It’s particularly challenging because I’ve met very few of them in person before the school closed.

 

However the course also lends itself best to this distance learning format.

 

Back in the school building, I used to give students a prompt every day, explain it and then have them write. I’d go from desk-to-desk as they worked and give feedback. Once they were all done, we’d share the writings aloud.

 

Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.

 

The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.

 

I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.

 

It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.

 

For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.

 

That kind of thing happens all the time.

 

And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.

 

In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.

 

Which brings me to the final challenge – managing my home and teacher-life.

 

I’m not just an educator. I’m a parent.

 

I don’t teach my daughter. I don’t assign her lessons or work. But I have to oversee what her teacher wants her to do and make sure it gets done – and done correctly.

 

I’ll tell her to go in the dinning room and do three BrainPop assignments, or sign on to Edmentum and finish this diagnostic test, etc.

 

She’s generally pretty good about things, but if I don’t watch her, she’ll play Mario Party on her Nintendo all day long.

 

With the wife working from home, too, I usually give her the living room, my daughter is someplace else or her room, and I’m in the office.

 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be busy, and the good moments where I connect with students are just as magical as in person.

 

But most of the time, I feel lost at sea, depressed about the news and unable to concentrate or sleep the night through.

 

I’ve resigned myself to this life for the next six weeks when school will end for the academic year.

 

Perhaps the summer will be better. Maybe we’ll be able to go out and life will get somewhat back to normal.

 

However, I am not blind to the possibility that I’ll have to pick up again online in August and September.

 

School could start up with distance learning in 2020-21. Or we could have to quickly rush back to the Internet after a second wave of COVID-19 crashes upon us.

 

I keep thinking of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.

 

There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.

 

But from what I see us doing as the crisis unfolds, my hope dwindles with each passing day.

 

Stay safe and stay optimistic.

 

But let’s not stay cyber.


 

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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!

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