Robots Will Never Replace Teachers. They Can Only Displace Us

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My favorite movie of all time is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

 

 

And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.

 

In the future (now past) of the movie, HAL is paradoxically the most human personality. Tasked with running the day-to-day operations of a spaceship, HAL becomes strained to the breaking point when he’s given a command to lie about the mission’s true objectives. He ends up having a psychotic break and killing most of the people he was supposed to protect.

 

It’s heartbreaking finally when Dave Bowman slowly turns off the higher functions of HAL’s brain and the supercomputer regresses in intelligence while singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” – one of the first things he was programmed to do.

 

I’m gonna’ be honest here – I cry like a baby at that point.

 

But once I clean up my face and blow my nose, I realize this is science fiction – emphasis on the fiction.

 

 

 

I am well aware that today’s calendar reads 2020, yet our efforts at artificial intelligence are not nearly as advanced as HAL and may never be.

 

That hasn’t stopped supposedly serious publications like Education Week – “The American Education News Site of Record” – from continuously pretending HAL is right around the corner and ready to take over my classroom.

 

 
What’s worse, this isn’t fear mongering – beware the coming robo-apocalypse. It’s an invitation!

 

A few days ago, the on-line periodical published an article called “Teachers, the Robots Are Coming. But That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Kevin Bushweller.

 

It was truly one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a long time.

 

Bushweller, an assistant managing editor at Education Week and Executive Editor at both the Ed Tech Leader and Ed Week’s Market Brief, seems to think it is inevitable that robots will replace classroom teachers.

 

This is especially true for educators he describes as “chronically low-performing.”

 

And we all know what he means by that!

 

These are teachers whose students get low scores on high stakes standardized tests.

 

Which students are these? Mostly poor and minority children.

 

These are kids without all the advantages of wealth and class, kids with fewer books in the home and fewer native English speakers as role models, kids suffering from food, housing and healthcare insecurity, kids navigating the immigration system and fearing they or someone they love could be deported, kids faced with institutional racism, kids who’ve lost parents, friends and family to the for-profit prison industry and the inequitable justice system.

 

And what does our society do to help these kids catch up with their more privileged peers? It underfunds their schools, subjects them to increased segregation, narrows their curriculum, offers them as prey to charter school charlatans – in short, it adds to their hurtles more than removes them.

 

So “chronically low-performing” teachers would be those who can’t overcome all these obstacles for their students by just teaching more good.

 

I can’t imagine why such educators can’t get the same results as their colleagues who teach richer, whiter kids without all these issues. It’s almost like teachers can’t do it all, themselves, — and the solution? Robots.

 

 

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

 
Bushweller suggests we fire all the human beings who work in the most impoverished and segregated schools and replace them… with an army of robots.

 

 

Yeah.

 

 

Seriously.

 

Black and brown kids won’t get interactions with real adult human beings. Instead they can connect with the ed tech version of Siri programmed to drill and kill every aspect of the federally mandated standardized test.

 

Shakespeare’s Miranda famously exclaimed:

 

“O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

 

But the future envisioned by technophiles like Bushweller has NO such people in’t – only robots ensuring the school-to-prison pipeline remains intact for generations to come.

 

In such a techo-utopia, there will be two tiers of education. The rich will get human teachers and the poor and minorities will get Bluetooth connected voice services like Alexa.

 

But when people like me complain, Bushweller gas lights us away as being narrow-minded.
 

He says:

 

“It makes sense that teachers might think that machines would be even worse than bad human educators. And just the idea of a human teacher being replaced by a robot is likely too much for many of us, and especially educators, to believe at this point.”

 
The solution, he says, isn’t to resist being replaced but to actually help train our mechanistic successors:

 

“…educators should not be putting their heads in the sand and hoping they never get replaced by an AI-powered robot. They need to play a big role in the development of these technologies so that whatever is produced is ethical and unbiased, improves student learning, and helps teachers spend more time inspiring students, building strong relationships with them, and focusing on the priorities that matter most. If designed with educator input, these technologies could free up teachers to do what they do best: inspire students to learn and coach them along the way.”

 

To me this sounds very similar to a corporate drone rhapsodizing on the merits of downsizing: Sure your job is being sent overseas, but you get to train your replacement!

 

Forgive me if I am not sufficiently grateful for that privilege.

 

Maybe I should be relieved that he at least admits robots may not be able to replace EVERYTHING teachers do. At least, not yet. In the meantime, he expects robots could become co-teachers or effective tools in the classroom to improve student learning by taking over administrative tasks, grading, and classroom management.

 

And this is the kind of nonsense teachers often get from administrators who’ve fallen under the spell of the Next Big Thing – iPads, software packages, data management systems, etc.

 

However, classroom teachers know the truth. This stuff is more often than not overhyped bells and whistles. It’s stuff that CAN be used to improve learning but rarely with more clarity and efficiency than the way we’re already doing it. And the use of edtech opens up so many dangers to students – loss of privacy, susceptibility to being data mined, exposure to unsafe and untried programs, unscrupulous advertising, etc.

 

 

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Bushweller cites a plethora of examples of how robots are used in other parts of the world to improve learning that are of just this type – gimmicky and shallow.

 

It reminds me of IBM’s Watson computing system that in 2011 famously beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, some of the best players, at the game show Jeopardy.

 

 

What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?

 

Now that Watson has been applied to the medical field diagnosing cancer patients, doctors are seeing that the emperor has no clothes. Its diagnoses have been dangerous and incorrect – for instance recommending medication that can cause increased bleeding to a hypothetical patient who already suffered from intense bleeding.

 

Do we really want to apply the same kind of artificial intelligence to children’s learning?

 

AI will never be able to replace human beings. They can only displace us.

 

What I mean by that is this: We can put an AI system in the same position as a human being but it will never be of the same high quality.

 

It is a displacement, a disruption, but not an authentic replacement of equal or greater value.

 

In his paper “The Rhetoric and Reality of Anthropomorphism in Artificial Intelligence,” David Watson explains why.

 

Watson (no relation to IBM’s supercomputer) of the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Touring Institute, writes that AI do not think in the same way humans do – if what they do can even accurately be described as thinking at all.

 

These are algorithms, not minds. They are sets of rules not contemplations.

 

 

An algorithm of a smile would specify which muscles to move and when. But it wouldn’t be anything a live human being would mistake for an authentic expression of a person’s emotion. At best it would be a parabola, at worst a rictus.

 

 

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Picture of an actual Japanese robot teacher in use.

 

In his recent paper in Minds and Machines, Watson outlines three main ways deep neural networks (DNNs) like the ones we’re considering here “think” and “learn” differently from humans.

 

1) DNN’s are easily fooled. While both humans and AIs can recognize things like a picture of an apple, computers are much more easily led astray. Computers are more likely to misconstrue part of the background and foreground, for instance, while human beings naturally comprehend this difference. As a result, humans are less distracted by background noise.

 

2) DNN’s need much more information to learn than human beings. People need relatively fewer examples of a concept like “apple” to be able to recognize one. DNN’s need thousands of examples to be able to do the same thing. Human toddlers demonstrate a much easier capacity for learning than the most advanced AI.

 

3) DNN’s are much more focused on details and less on the bigger picture. For example, a DNN could successfully label a picture of Diane Ravitch as a woman, a historian, and an author. However, switching the position of her mouth and one of her eyes could end up improving the confidence of the DNN’s prediction. The computer wouldn’t see anything wrong with the image though to human eyes there definitely was something glaring incorrect.

 

“It would be a mistake to say that these algorithms recreate human intelligence,” Watson says. “Instead, they introduce some new mode of inference that outperforms us in some ways and falls short in others.”

 

Obviously the technology may improve and change, but it seems more likely that AI’s will always be different. In fact, that’s kind of what we want from them – to outperform human minds in some ways.

 

However, the gap between humanity and AI should never be glossed over.

 

I think that’s what technophiles like Bushweller are doing when they suggest robots could adequately replace teachers. Robots will never do that. They can only be tools.

 

For instance, only the most lonely people frequently have long conversations with SIRI or Alexa. After all, we know there is no one else really there. These wireless Internet voice services are just a trick – an illusion of another person. We turn to them for information but not friendship.

 

The same with teachers. Most of the time, we WANT to be taught by a real human person. If we fear judgment, we may want to look up discrete facts on a device. But if we want guidance, encouragement, direction or feedback, we need a person. AI’s can imitate such things but never as well as the real thing.

 

So we can displace teachers with these subpar imitations. But once the novelty wears off – and it does – we’re left with a lower quality instructor and a subpar education.

 

The computer HAL is not real. To borrow a phrase from science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Artificial intelligence is not yet “more human than human.”
 
Maybe it never will be.

 

The problem is not narrow minded teachers unwilling to sacrifice their jobs for some nebulous techno-utopia. The problem is market based solutions that ignore the human cost of steam rolling over educators and students for the sake of profits.

 

As a society, we must commit ourselves to a renewed ethic of humanity. We must value people more than things.

 

And that includes a commitment to never even attempting to forgo human teachers as guides for the most precious things in our lives – our children.

 

“Algorithms are not ‘just like us’… by anthropomorphizing a statistical model, we implicitly grant it a degree of agency that not only overstates its true abilities, but robs us of our own autonomy… It is always humans who choose whether or not to abdicate this authority, to empower some piece of technology to intervene on our behalf. It would be a mistake to presume that this transfer of authority involves a simultaneous absolution of responsibility. It does not.”

David Watson

 


 

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

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Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

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

 

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The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

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I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

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

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Charter Schools Cherry Pick Students & Call it Choice – PART 2: The “EVERYONE’S DOING IT!” Excuse

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“Got school choice?” asks a charter school supporter.

 

But who exactly is she addressing – families or charter school operators?

 

Because it is the later group who is offered choice by school privatization – not parents, families or students.

 
Billionaire investors and charter school managers answer, “Heck yeah – we’ve got school choice! We get to choose to take your tax dollars but not your child!”

 

As we’ve seen in Part 1 of this article, charter schools unequivocally cherry pick the children who get to enroll there.

 

These institutions are funded by tax dollars but privately managed – and the private interests who run them get to decide how to spend that money with little oversight or strings attached. As businesses, they can increase their bottom line by letting in only the easiest kids to teach.

 

This is not opinion. It is fact.

 

Admittedly, every single charter school in the country is not guilty of this crime. Yet the charter concept explicitly allows such unscrupulous behavior, and it is widespread.

 

It’s like permitting a bank to work on the honor system – the safe being unlocked, people could just walk in and make withdrawals and deposits on their own. Not everyone would cheat, but that doesn’t make this a good way to safeguard your finances.

 

And that’s the situation at charter schools. Operators can pick and choose which students to enroll – so many do.

 

Charter school supporters usually respond to this critique in one of two ways. They either deny it happens or admit the truth while deflecting its importance.

 

In Part 1, we saw how the denial (or the “I Didn’t Do It” Excuse”) flies in the face of facts.

 

In this article, we will be examining those who relent that charter school do, in fact, cherry pick students but claim there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

In particular, we will look at their claim that charter schools are doing nothing different than what authentic public schools do.

 

In sum, they’re claiming that “Everyone’s doing it!”

 

In truth, everyone is NOT doing it. School privatizers are doing it while the rest of us aren’t allowed to do it and actually try to equitably educate all the children in our neighborhoods.

 

THE “EVERYONE’S DOING IT!” EXCUSE

Some charter school apologists admit this much.

 

They see the mountain of evidence that cherry picking exists at their schools and concede the point.

 

However, they claim that this is a practice at authentic public schools as well. After all, public schools expel students for all sorts of reasons and even have special magnet schools that enroll only certain students.

 

MAGNET SCHOOLS

 

One of the most frequent criticisms of authentic public schools is that they don’t give students and families enough choice. But that’s exactly what magnet schools are – institutions WITHIN the district that cater to individual choice and needs.

 

Magnet schools came into existence in the late 1960slong before the first charter school law was passed in 1991. They were a method of encouraging voluntary desegregation by attracting diverse groups to enroll around specific academic specialties.

 

Magnet schools are organized around a theme. This could be STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or fine and performing arts. As such, they cater to students with an interest and ability in that theme. This is not true of most charter schools, which have no particular theme or specialty.

 

The goal in magnet schools is to attract so many applicants that the school can select a racially diverse student body. However, this is exactly the opposite of what we find at charter schools where racial integration is extremely rare. As we’ve seen, many charter schools have students of one-race or ethnicity. Charters increase – not decrease – segregation wherever they are located.

 

 

Moreover, though a particular magnet school DOES allow only certain students enrollment, the public district does not. The district accepts everyone at SOME school within its boundaries. By comparison, charter schools are usually just one building and even when they are chains of schools owned and operated by the same people, they generally make no effort to accept all who apply.

 

There are many other differences between charter schools and magnet schools not the least of which is who runs them. Charters are often managed by appointed bureaucrats. Magnet schools are still run by the elected school board of the district. As such, they are still subject to all the rules and regulations of authentic public school districts. As we’ve seen, this is not true of charters.

 

In addition, many charter schools are run for-profit. Even those not directly labeled as such often contract with a for-profit management company thereby avoiding the negative connotations of the name while still indulging in the money-making practices. However, no authentic public schools do this. None. That removes the motivation for selective enrollment. Authentic public schools would get no financial benefit from doing so – in fact just the opposite.

 
One similarity about the two types of school, at least superficially, is enrollment. At both magnets and charters, admission is often determined by the use of a lottery system, due to high demand for limited seats.

 

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 2.6 million students were enrolled in magnet schools nationwide, compared with more than 2.8 million in charters across 43 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

 

Does this mean that BOTH charter and magnet schools cherry pick students?

 
No, because of the most distinguishing feature between charters and authentic public schools: transparency.

 

When a charter school conducts a lottery, it does so behind closed doors. There is no one watching over its shoulder to make sure it is doing so fairly. And as we’ve seen those charter school lotteries result in student bodies that could not come from chance.

 

However, magnets are fully authentic public schools, which means that everything has to happen out in the open and in the light of day. Not only that but all nonsensitive public school documents are a matter of public record. Anyone can see that these lotteries are being conducted fairly, and the results of these lotteries produce much more equitable student distributions than we find at charter schools.

 

Magnet schools are like first class restaurants where the health inspector comes in and writes a glowing report of the kitchens. Charter schools are shady dives where the health inspector is not allowed where the food is prepared – ever.

 

Where would you take your family for dinner?

 

DISCIPLINE AND EXPULSIONS

 

Putting aside the issue of magnet schools, some critics of authentic public schools claim that they still engage in selective enrollment through discipline and expulsion policies.

 

But there are big differences in the ways both types of school engage in disciplinary actions.

 

Charter schools are known for excessive discipline policies that encourage difficult children to go elsewhere. They also kick out kids with behavior problems.

 

Do authentic public schools do the same?

 

Yes and no.

 

It has been documented that all school types suspend and expel black students at a higher rate than white students. However, the most draconian discipline policies – such as those designated zero tolerance – are to be found at charter schools.

 

Authentic public schools are restrained by state and federal law in this regard coupled with increased transparency. There’s less they’re legally allowed to do and a greater chance they’d get caught if they tried to do it anyway.

 

However, the biggest difference is one of motivation.

 

Think about it.

 

Charter schools only gain by getting rid of difficult children. It costs them less money to educate more well-behaved students and increases academic outcomes that they can use as marketing materials to entice greater enrollment.

 

Authentic public school districts lose out when students go elsewhere because they still are responsible for those students.

 

Authentic public school districts must ensure that all children living in their communities get a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This is true whether a child attends the district or not.

 

If a child goes to a neighborhood charter school, the public school district has to pay that charter school to educate him or her. If the child has such special needs that make it necessary for him or her to attend a school outside of the district that specializes in ways to meet those needs, the district is responsible for paying. And in this case the cost will almost definitely be greater than the district receives in tax revenue – by orders of magnitude.

 

It costs authentic public school districts much more money to expel or outsource services for a child than to keep him or her in the district. Public schools are encouraged to find ways to meet student needs WITHIN the district and to send them elsewhere only as a last resort.

 

Even a child who attacked classmates in school with a weapon and ended up in jail would be the district’s responsibility. The district would still have to pay to educate that child at an alternative sight – probably in the prison system.

 

Authentic public schools are even responsible for homeless students and undocumented children.

 

This is all in the best interests of the child and represents an inclusive ideal of education you won’t find in many other countries.

 

But it’s not present in charter schools.

 

Charter schools are there to make a buck. If administrators don’t see how to do that with a given child, it makes economic sense to get rid of that child.

 

Not so at your local, neighborhood authentic public school.

 

CONCLUSIONS

So we’ve seen that charter schools really do cherry pick which students to enroll.

 


It’s all about the Benjamins.

 

Families with the easiest kids to educate are encouraged to enroll and all others are dissuaded away. Charters pick and choose between applicants often relying on test scores and academic records. And they kick out or otherwise encourage difficult students to find an education elsewhere – usually the local neighborhood authentic public school.

 

Moreover, these practices are radically different than what you find at authentic public schools.

 

It’s true that public districts sometimes include magnet schools organized around a theme that use lotteries to determine which kids get enrolled there. However, the standards of transparency are so much higher at public schools and the results so much more equitable that any charge of unfairness is much harder to support.

 

In addition, it’s true that public schools also discipline and sometimes expel students. But the discipline policies at public schools are never as extreme as the zero tolerance policies you’ll find at many charter schools.

 

Finally, expelling a difficult student is all gain for a charter school and all cost at authentic public districts. No matter which school a student attends, the district where that child resides is still responsible for FAPE, and the cost of educating that child outside the district is nearly always greater than inside the district.

 

These are just some of the reasons why the charter school experiment should end.

 

No reform in the world can make equity out of schools that are by definition “separate but equal.”

 

Schools paid for with tax dollars need to be accountable and transparent. And the only way to do that is to rip up every bogus charter contract in the country and make them all abide by the same rules and regulations that ensure every child gets the high quality education he or she deserves.

 

In other words, reverse the privatization. Public-ize them all.

 

 


 

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

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Racial Disparity in Student Discipline Isn’t All About Race

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Black students are suspended from school at substantially higher rates than white ones.

 

That’s indisputable.

 

When teachers send kids to the office, when principals issue detentions and suspensions, the faces of those students are disproportionately black or brown.

 

So what does that mean?

 

Are minority children more badly behaved than white ones?

 

Or is it an indication that our public schools are overrun with racist teachers and principals?

 

Those appear to be the only choices in Trump’s America.

 

There’s either something desperately wrong with children of color or the majority of white staff at public schools can’t handle them.

 

But the reality is far more complex, and no matter who you are, it will probably make you uncomfortable.

 

The problem is that there are variables the binary choice above doesn’t even begin to explain, and chief among them is child poverty.

 

In short, there are an awful lot of poor kids in America. And children living in poverty act out more than those living in middle or upper income brackets.

 

It’s not that these kids are inherently bad. They’re just coping with the stress of an impoverished life style by claiming whatever attention they can – even negative attention.

 

And since children of color are disproportionately more impoverished than white kids, it just makes sense that more of them would act up.

 

It should come as no surprise that living with economic deprivations translates into behavioral problems.

 

I’m not saying poverty is the only factor. I’m not saying that white teachers and administrators don’t engage in bias and racism. But it isn’t all one or the other.

 

Both are factors in this equation. And others variables as well.

 

To truly understand the problem, we have to give up the easy answers and the blame game and come together to find real, workable solutions.

 

SUSPENSIONS

 

About 15.5 percent of American school children are black, yet they make up 39 percent of students who are suspended from school, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) first study on the issue.

 

The study used data from 95,000 schools compiled from the federal Civil Rights Collection.

 

Particularly alarming is the fact that almost the same disparity exists in our prison system, where nearly 38 percent of inmates are black.

 

Researchers concluded that this disparity persists in both rich and poor schools, so the primary cause is racial bias.

 

However, the study was also used by the GAO as a means to put pressure on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she considered whether to rescind 2014 civil rights guidelines from the Obama Administration. The report was part of a political move to force DeVos to keep using guidelines meant to ensure that students are not discriminated against when punishments are handed out or schools would risk being found in violation of civil rights laws.

 

The problem is that the study is undeniably partisan and politically motivated.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with its motivation. It’s just that we can’t let a single well-intentioned political action falsely impugn the nation’s teachers and public schools.

 

It IS important to keep the Obama era guidelines on civil rights violations. We DO need to be aware of possible incidents of discrimination against minorities in our schools and work to rectify these issues.

 

However, we can’t let this change the facts. The issue is whether poverty or race has a greater impact on racial discrepancies in student discipline. Are a greater percentage of black kids suspended mainly because of prejudice or is it more a symptom of their poverty?

 

And the answer can’t depend on whether it makes an odious person like DeVos squirm or smile.

 

POVERTY

 

The problem with answering this question comes from the various definitions of poverty we employ.

 

If we define poverty for students as those eligible for free or reduced lunch programs (a determination based on household income), then more than half – 51% – of public school children are poor.

 

But if we take the more conservative formula developed in the 1960s based on food expenses as a part of a family budget, poverty estimates shrink.

 

According to the Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) which uses the more conservative definition, childhood poverty in the U.S. breaks down as follows: 10% of white kids (4.2 million), 27% of Latino children (4 million), 33% of Black students (3.6 million), 12% of Asian children (400,000) and 40% of Native American children (200,000).

 

And those figures are rising. There are 1.2 million more poor children in the U.S. today than there were in 2000.

 

However, there is real reason to assume these figures don’t capture the whole picture. After all, in just the last 30 years, food expenses (up 100%) have not risen as dramatically as other costs such as health care (up 500%), housing (up 250%) and college tuition (up 1,000%). So any real-world definition of poverty would include substantially more children than just those who qualify under these out-of-date federal guidelines.

 

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concludes, “If the same basic methodology developed in the early 1960s was applied today, the poverty thresholds would be over three times higher than the current thresholds.”

 

And the GAO study used the conservative 1960s threshold.

 

It underestimated how poor our nation, families and children have become.

 

Consider: in the past 20 years as wages have stagnated, median household expenses increased by 25 to 30 percent. As a result, 3 out of 5 Americans today spend more than they earn – not on useless frivolities – but on essential needs.

 

It’s estimated that over three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

 

People are working more hours for decreasing wages and benefits. A Princeton study concluded that 94 percent of the nine million new jobs created in the past decade were temporary or contract-based instead of traditional full-time positions.

 

In 2016, the poorest 50% of American adults had an average net worth (home and financial assets minus debt) of just $7,500. To make matters worse, only a year previously it was $9,000. The difference all went to the top 1% who gained an average of $1.5 million during that same year.

 

These facts have real world consequences for every level of society – especially how our children behave in school.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

It seems clear then that the scope and effects of poverty have been underestimated by the GAO report and others who wish to emphasize the effect of racism and bias.

 

Again this is not to say that racism and bias are misrepresented or unimportant. It’s a question of how much – not an either/or situation.

 

The fact of the matter is that poverty has a more pervasive impact on student discipline because students of color experience it at greater rates than white kids.

 

This is mainly because of the way poverty affects students’ home lives – an area that has a much greater influence on education than what goes on in the school, itself.

 

For instance, children who don’t know how to “play school” – to navigate the expectations, routines, social situations and academic demands – don’t learn as much as those who do. In fact, this may be a partial reason why children of color don’t do as well academically as kids from other groups. Certainly biased standardized assessments and the high stakes decisions made based on these tests play an even larger role. But at least some of the gap may be caused by lost opportunities due to behavioral issues.

 

Sadly, children who act out in class usually do the same at home. We must ask then: are parents present when this happens? Do they have similar standards of misbehavior? Do they know how to correct misbehavior when it happens?

 

Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that many parents aren’t able to be present for their kids.

 

They are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t have the time to do the groundwork necessary to eliminate behavior problems before their children go to class. They don’t have the time to set up routines, expectations, rewards and punishments, etc. And even when they do attempt to do these things, they have less ability to get it right because their attention is focused on putting food on the table, providing clothing and shelter, etc.

 

This is not because these people are bad parents. In fact, they are good parents who are doing the best they can. But this is a symptom of a deformed society that requires a disproportionate investment of time from the poor for the essentials that is not required of those in higher income brackets.

 

This is not something unique to black and brown families, either. It is a feature of millions of white households as well – but the demographics of poverty cluster these impacts disproportionately on children of color.

 

HOME LIFE

 

There is also a change in the sociological makeup and values of poor and minority families.

 

Some would put blame squarely on the increasing prevalence of one-parent households. I think this is deceptive, though, because many one-parent households are stronger and more stable than two parent ones. It really depends. But it makes sense that households with two parents – where one adult can lean on the other for support – are often more stable than those without this feature.

 

This may be an area where black children have a disadvantage since according to census data the percentage of white children under 18 who live with both parents almost doubles that of black children. While 74.3 percent of all white children below the age of 18 live with both parents, only 38.7 percent of African-American minors do the same.

 

There is also the issue of parents who aren’t just absent during the workday but absent altogether. People of color also are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to white people – even when convicted for the same crimes. This is not to say that black people commit more crimes, but that they are more harshly punished for them than whites – they have higher conviction rates and serve longer sentences.

 

This has consequences for children of color. It adds to the prevalence of grandparents and/or other siblings or foster caregivers filling that parental role. Again, these households can be exceptionally strong and stable. But there is less support, more struggles and the increased possibility that children’s behavioral home foundations may be less robust.

 

RACIAL TRAUMA

 

People of color also experience racial trauma compounded from our national history of slavery, racism and prejudice. Black and brown people today are still dealing with the effects of generational slavery. This is one of the reasons they are disproportionately poor – they did not have the chance to gather wealth over successive generations as white families did.

 

Moreover, the culture of black people was disrupted by the slave trade. Genealogies, legacies, traditions, faiths, etc. were stolen from them by the slave industry. Parenthood, as we know it today, was forbidden to black people. Is it any wonder that they have struggled to regain what was taken from them by white society?

 

Finally, there are the effects of Jim Crow and racial discrimination after the end of slavery. Black people have continually been told they had the same rights and opportunities as white people but when they went to claim these alleged boons, they were beaten back. This has had the effect of turning some of them against the very idea of many of the behaviors they see exemplified by white people.

 

Some students of color don’t want to behave like the white kids because they want to assert their blackness. There is among some of them an internalization of negative behaviors as black and positive ones as white. This misdirected self-determination results in racial pride for acting up regardless of the academic consequences.

 

RACISM AT SCHOOL

 

Of course by the same token there is certainly bias, prejudice and racism among white teachers, administrators, faculty and staff.

 

The fact that our public schools are mostly staffed with non-black and non-brown people, itself, ensures that bias will be prevalent in our schools. It is vital that we increase the percentage of black staff – especially teachers – in our classrooms. Though this will require the elevation of the profession of educator to attract teachers of all backgrounds.

 

The problem is that white people often don’t understand black culture or even recognize how much white people have been enculturated to accept stereotypes and bias as the norm.

 

This has a direct impact on school discipline. Many discipline policies are written to unduly target students of color. I’m not saying this is necessarily intentional – though it may be in some cases – but that these policies result in discipline discrepancies.

 

Many of these are dress code policies. How many schools criminalize the wearing of black hair in certain ways or the simple hooded sweatshirt? Hoodies, for example, are a preferred manner of dress for many students of color and really cause no harm to academics or social interactions. But administrators and/or school boards ban them – why? It’s just another way to police black bodies and minds.

 

These sorts of practices are everywhere in our schools and take reflection to undo. For instance, I found myself guilty of this same thing for years in my classroom when some of my black students started compulsively brushing their hair at their desks. These were mainly boys with short hair who were trying to get a wave effect their peers considered stylish.

 

At first, I found this incredibly annoying – the sound of constant brushing as students were doing their work. But then I realized that these students WERE doing their work. The brushing in no way interfered with academics. It didn’t bother anyone except for me and perhaps some of the white students.

 

Simply allowing cultures to express themselves should not result in disciplinary action. And since I’ve permitted the behavior, I’ve had less reason to discipline my students and no negative impact on academics.

 

SOLUTIONS

 

Most analyses of this problem stop with blame.

 

Who’s responsible for this? And once we have an answer – and it’s usually one very simple answer – then we’ve done all we set out to do.

 

In the case of the GAO report, once again the blame was put on everyone’s favorite scapegoat, public schools and teachers. But this is not earned given how much poverty was overlooked. The reality is that the responsibility for the problem is multifaceted with much of it stemming from cruel economics.

 

The solutions to the issue, if we are ever to really try to do more than just point fingers, must address a variety of ills.

 

First, we need to monitor and help public school staff to be less biased.

 

We need more teachers of color without a doubt, but this will never happen until all teachers are better paid, have stronger labor protections, autonomy and prestige. On top of that, there should be additional incentives to attract teachers of color. It’s hard for white teachers to notice their own biases unless there is someone in the building who can see them more clearly and offer advice. Just making the staff more multicultural will make white teachers more reflective of their own practices.

 

Of course actively pointing out prejudice is extremely difficult for co-workers to do by themselves. In addition, white teachers need cultural sensitivity training. And not just them. Since no educator comes from all cultures, everyone could use frequent reminders of how to be more inclusive, impartial and fair to students from various backgrounds.

 

Next, we need to broaden our idea of what discipline is. Every infraction doesn’t need a detention or suspension. We can enact interventions like restorative justice practices, conflict resolution and other positive procedures that actively teach kids how to deal with their emotions and better behave.

 

In short, we’re teaching kids what they should have learned at home, but like so many things in our society, it’s left to the schools to get it done. I bring this up not to shame anyone but to remind society that any expectation that schools can fix this problem by themselves is laughably naïve – but someone has to try.

 

At the macro level, we need to take steps to reduce and eliminate poverty.

 

This is one of the richest countries in the history of the world. Surely we can find ways to better share that wealth to the benefit of all. If parents don’t have to work multiple jobs to survive, they are more able to teach, model and discipline their own kids. And when parents are present in children’s lives, those kids don’t have as great a need for attention. It would certainly cut down on negative attention seeking behaviors.

 

In addition, with schools at the center of neighborhoods, we can have more adult education classes for parents. This would be not just courses on how to effectively raise children but on job skills and lifelong learning. After all, parents who value learning raise kids who do, too.

 

Finally, we need to enact antiracist policies at the local, state and federal level to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) prejudice of all kinds. We need integrated schools and neighborhoods. We need more antidiscrimination policies. We need to end mass incarceration and selective enforcement of the law. And we need some form of reparations to black people for the generations of racism they have had to endure.

 

I know these are big goals. But they are the only way to make a just society for everyone.

 

We cannot continue to blame our school system for reproducing the society that created it. Education is aspirational and strives to better itself. But it cannot reach that goal alone.


 

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

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Blaming Schools for Student Absences is Like Denouncing Doctors for Disease

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If something is wrong with children, it must be the school’s fault.

 

Right?

 

If kids can’t read, write and do ‘rithmetic, the teachers must not have taught ’em right.

 

It couldn’t have anything to do with home life, generational poverty, economic inequality and systemic racism.

 

Except that it almost always does.

 

Inextricably.

 
The fact is children who don’t live in safe, loving homes have much greater difficulty concentrating and caring about academics. Kids with impoverished parents are much more likely to go to underfunded schools and sit in classrooms that are racially segregated.

 

None of that is under the control of teachers or schools, but a focus on high stakes standardized testing, school privatization and dangerously unregulated ed tech hides the problem.

 
It’s not that teachers don’t teach. Inequality, prejudice and privatization – these are the root causes and the reason we do nothing about them generation after generation is that we have an easy scapegoat in the public schools in general and public school teachers in particular.

 
Take student absences.

 

It’s a huge problem.

 

When kids don’t show up to school, they learn less. It’s a simple concept.

 

Yet just four years ago when we had a chance to rewrite the federal law governing public education to actually DO SOMETHING about the problems we’re facing, we dropped the ball. Again!

 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include five indicators measuring school performance: four based on academic achievement, and a fifth, “non-academic” measure of student success.

 

Most states have adopted chronic student absenteeism as this “fifth indicator.”

 

So we take those five indicators, weight them and combine them together to get overall school scores that are used to sort and rank educational institutions. That way we can prioritize funding to the highest performers and withhold it from the lowest.

 

It’s the same supply side nonsense we’ve been doing for years with a few numbers moved around and given a different name.

 

Schools overflowing with resources serving rich white kids get a sticker. Schools starving for resources serving poor brown kids get a kick.

 

And somehow that’s supposed to help things get better.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Absenteeism is important.

 

Nearly 8 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015-16 — an increase from the 6.8 million who missed the same amount in 2013-14, when the federal Department of Education began tracking the data. And there’s a mountain of research that links chronic absenteeism with poor academic performance, delayed graduation, and increased dropout rates.

 

But putting it all on neighborhood schools and local districts is a huge abrogation of responsibility.

 

By and large, public schools do not cause students to be absent. Nor do they have the resources to ensure these students start attending.

 

But we’ve found someone to blame and that’s really all this whole exercise was about in the first place.

 

It’s like denouncing your doctor for your disease. It won’t cure you, but it might make you feel justified as you die.

 

The reasons students are chronically absent have little to do with individual schools.

 

According to Attendance Works, a non-profit focusing on ways to improve student attendance, the main causes of chronic absences are:

 

•Chronic disease or lack of health care and/or dental care.

 

•The need to care for siblings or other family members.

 

•Unmet basic needs: transportation, housing, food, clothing, etc.

 

•Trauma.

 

•Feeling unsafe getting to school.

 

•Academic or social struggles.

 

•Being teased or bullied.

 

•Poor school climate or unsafe schools.

 

•Parents had negative school experience.

 

•Lack of engaging and relevant instruction.

 

•Peer pressure to be with peers out of school vs. in school.

 

•No meaningful relationships with adults in school.

 

•High suspension rates and disproportionate school discipline.

 

Certainly some of these things are under the control of school directors, administrators, and teachers.

 

Schools can and should provide safe ways for students to get to and from school. They should work to reduce bullying and make school a welcoming place for all children. They should provide engaging instruction, fair discipline policies and reach out to parents and the community.

 

But most schools are already doing that – or certainly trying to do that within the confines of their budgets.

 

My own Western Pennsylvania district has been flagged by the Commonwealth for increasing chronic absences. In the state, this is defined as students with 10 or more unexcused absences. We’ve been put on an improvement plan – which basically means an employee at the state Department of Education wagging his finger and telling us to get better or else.

 

However, the overarching problem and solution are easy to see. We are a district without busing.

 

The high school and middle school sit on top of a hill. Students who live in the poorer sections of town at the bottom of the hill have to walk or take public transportation daily to get to school.

 

It’s no wonder that some of them don’t do that every day and stay home instead.

 

However, we serve a mostly impoverished population. Decades ago, school directors decided it would be more cost effective to save money on busing so they could provide greater services for students. Yet as the economy has continued to stagnate and funding has become even more hard to come by, attendance has worsened.

 

So what are we to do? Cut services and add buses?

 

Doing so would mean we’d have to bus students to local charter schools as well, increasing the burden on taxpayers and the amount of muscle and bone we’d have to cut from our own academic programs.

 

It’s all very well and good to have the federal government tell us that attendance is important – but where is the help to improve it?

 

As with everything else in education, we get threats and the promise of economic sanctions but nothing in the way of assistance, aide or intervention.

 

We could be working together to try to solve this and other social issues. We could pool resources and construct social programs to help parents get jobs, set up stable homes, fund robust systems of public transportation, and a host of social services for students and their families such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and continuing education classes. We could end discriminatory policies such as school segregation, school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

But doing so would mean abandoning the blame game and nothing has worked better to shield the rich from paying their fair share than pointing fingers at the less privileged and those who dedicate their lives to help them.

 

In truth, the problems with public schools are rarely the teachers.

 

It’s that society has written them off and refuses to take responsibility for its own role in supporting the next generation.

 


 

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

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Six Problems with a Growth Mindset in Education

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Sometimes the truth is not enough.

 

Especially if you misunderstand its meaning.

 

That seems to be the main problem with a growth mindset.

 

It’s one of the trendiest concepts in education today, and – though it’s based on an authentic insight into how kids learn – it’s been shackled and monetized into an excuse to support a sterile status quo.

 

The basic idea goes like this: academic ability isn’t something students have or do not have. It’s a skill that gets better depending on how hard they work at it.

 

And up to that point, it’s correct and valuable.

 

But when we try to take that insight and weave it into current education policies, it becomes a shadow of itself.

 

As a middle school language arts teacher, I’m confronted with this most often in the context of standardized test scores.

 
I am constantly being told not to pay attention to the scores. Instead, I’m told to pay attention to growth – how much this year’s scores have improved from last year’s scores. And the best way to do this, I’m told, is by paradoxically examining the scores in the most minute detail and using them to drive all instruction in the classroom.

 

To me that seems to misunderstand the essential psychological truth behind a growth mindset.

 

Instead of focusing on the individuality of real human students, we’re zeroing in on the relics of a fixed mindset – test scores – and relegating the growth mindset to happy talk and platitudes.

 

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B leads to A, and if we really want A, we just need to emphasize B.

 

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea that learning is a skill that can be strengthened with hard work. I do, however, take issue with how that observation has been used to support the status quo of test-and-punish and strategic disinvestment in public schools. I take issue with the idea that growth is the ONLY factor in student learning and how we are ignoring the multitudinous ways the human mind works and what that means for education.

 

In short, I think making the growth mindset a magic bullet has ended up shooting us in the foot.

 

Here are six problems I have with the growth mindset model:

 

1) It Has Not Been Proven to Make an Appreciable Difference in Student Academic Achievement.

 

How exactly do you use growth to drive achievement?

 

You make the concept of growth explicit by teaching it. You actively teach kids this idea that anyone can learn with hard work, and the theory goes that they’ll achieve more.

 

Does it actually work?

 

The results have been pretty inconclusive.

 

It’s been tested numerous times in various ways – some showing success, some showing nothing or even that it hurts learning.

 

The best success has come from Carol Dweck, a Stanford education professor who’s made a name for herself promoting the growth mindset model in books and TED talks.

 

Just this month, she co-authored the largest nationwide study concluding that a growth mindset can improve student results.

 

About 12,500 ninth grade students from 65 public and private schools were given an online training in the concept during the 2015-16 school year.

 

The study published in the journal Nature concluded that on average lower-achieving students who took the training earned statistically significant higher grades than those who did not.

 

However, results were “muted” when students were less encouraged to seek challenges – such as when they had fewer resources and support.

 

Despite this success, Dweck’s peers haven’t been able to reproduce her results.

 

A large-scale study of 36 schools in the United Kingdom published in July by the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that the impact on students directly receiving this kind of training did not have statistical significance. And when teachers were given the training, there were no gains at all.

 

In a 2017 study, researchers gave the training to university applicants in the Czech Republic and then compared their results on a scholastic aptitude test. They found that applicants who got the training did slightly worse than those who hadn’t received it at all.

 

In 2018, two meta-analyses conducted in the US found that claims for the growth mindset may have been overstated, and that there was “little to no effect of mindset interventions on academic achievement for typical students.”

 

A 2012 review looking at students attitudes toward education in the UK found “no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes, although there were several studies attempting to provide explanations for the link (if it exists)”.

 

In short, there is little evidence that any current approaches to turning the growth mindset into a series of practices that increase learning at scale has succeeded.

 

2) It Doesn’t Fit with Current Education Policies

 
We live in a fixed mindset world.

 

That’s how we define academic achievement – test scores, grades, projects, etc.

 

We tabulate data, compile numbers and information and pretend that draws an accurate picture of students.

 

It doesn’t.

 

But the concept that student achievement isn’t one of these things – is, in fact, something changeable with enough effort – runs counter to everything else in this world view.

 

If data points don’t tell us something essential about students but only their effort, connecting them with high stakes is incredibly unfair.

 

Moreover, it’s incoherent.

 

How can you convince a student that test scores, for example, don’t tell us something essential about her when we put so much emphasis on them?

 

It’s almost impossible for students in today’s schools to keep a belief in a growth mindset when test scores and our attitude toward them confirm their belief in a fixed mindset.

 

In a world of constant summative testing, analysis and ranking of students, it is nearly impossible to believe in a growth mindset. It’s merely a platitude between the fixed academic targets we demand students hit.

 

This doesn’t exactly take anything away from the concept, but it shows that it cannot be implemented within our current educational framework.

 

If we really believed in it, we’d throw away the testing and data-centricity and focus on the students, themselves.

 

3) It Ignores Student Needs and Resources

 

When we try to force the growth mindset onto our test-obsessed world, we end up with something very much like grit.

 

After all, if the only factor students need to succeed is effort, then those who don’t succeed must be responsible for their own failures because they didn’t try hard enough.

 

And while this is true in some instances, it is not true in all of them.

 

Effort may be a necessary component of academic success but it is not in itself sufficient. There are other factors that need to be present, too, such as the presence of proper resources and support.

 

And most – if not all – of these factors are outside of students’ control. They have no say whether they are well fed, live in safe homes, have their emotional needs met. Nor have they any say whether they go to a well-resourced school with a wide curriculum, extracurricular activities, school nurses, tutors, mentors, psychologists and a host of other services.

 

Putting everything on growth is extremely cruel to students – much like the phenomenon of grit.

 

Education policy should help raise up struggling students, not continue to support their marginalization through poverty, racism and/or socioeconomic disadvantages.

 

4) It Can Make Kids Feel Disrespected and Disparaged

 
No child wants to be remediated.

 

It makes them feel small, inadequate and broken. And if they’re already feeling that way, it reinforces that helplessness instead of helping.

 

Context is everything. Well-meaning educators may gather all the students with low test scores in one place to tell them the good news about how they can finally achieve if they put in enough effort. But students may recognize this for what it is and instinctively turn away.

 

The best way to teach someone is often not to lecture, not to even let on that you’re teaching at all.

 

David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claimed in 2011:

 

“…if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.”

 

Teachers cannot set themselves up as saviors because that reinforces the idea that students are broken and thus need saved.

 

I don’t think this is an insurmountable goal, but many growth mindset interventions are planned and conceived by non-teachers. As such, they often walk right into this trap.

 

5) It is Not Suitable For All Kids

 
Everyone’s minds don’t work alike.

 

When you tell some kids that anyone can achieve with enough hard work, it makes them discouraged because they thought that their academic successes marked them as special.

 

According to a 2017 study published by the American Psychological Association, growth mindset training can backfire especially with high achieving students for exactly this reason.

 

Hard work just isn’t enough for some students. Their self-esteem relies on the idea that they are good at school because of fixed qualities about themselves.

 

When we take that belief away, we can damage their self esteem and thus their motivation to do well in school.

 

The point isn’t that a growth mindset is wrong, but that as an intervention it is not appropriate for all students. In fact, perhaps we shouldn’t be using it as an intervention at all.

 

6) It Should Not be a Student Intervention. It Should Be a Pedagogical Underpinning for Educators

 

We’ve got this growth mindset thing all wrong.

 

It’s not a tool to help students learn. It’s a tool for teachers to better understand their students and thus better help them learn. It’s a tool for administrators, parents and policymakers to better understand what grades and test scores mean.

 

If you want to teach a student any skill, let’s call it X, you shouldn’t begin by telling them that anyone can learn it with enough effort.

 

Just teach X. And when you succeed, that will become all the motivation students need to learn the next thing.

 

Education is an incremental process. Success breeds success just as failure breeds failure.

 

As every teacher knows, you start small, scaffold your lessons from point A to B to C and make whatever changes you need along the way.

 

If we really want to help students in this process, we can start by ridding ourselves of the fixed mindset that current education policy is rooted in.

 

Growth mindset is a psychological observation about how human minds work. It’s not pedagogy. It’s empiricism.

 

We can use it to help design policy, lessons and assessment. But it has limited value – if any – being taught directly to students.

 
The growth mindset model has value, but not in the way it has typically been used in our school system.

 

Instead of providing justification for equitable resources and tearing down the testocracy, it’s been used to gaslight educators into obeying the party line.

 

It is not a magic cure all, but one factor among many that provides insight into learning.

 

If we can disentangle it from the profit-driven mire of corporate education, perhaps it can help us achieve an authentic pedagogy that treats every student as an individual and not an economic incentive for billionaires to pocket more tax money.


 

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

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