Student Test Scores May Play a Smaller Role in Future PA Teacher Evaluations

Group Of Elementary Age Children In Art Class With Teacher

 

Pennsylvania lawmakers may have finally realized that treating teachers like crap isn’t a good way to improve public schools.

 

Across the country it’s getting harder to fill teaching positions with qualified educators. And that’s because of the way we treat the people who volunteer to educate the next generation.

 

You can’t raise expectations while taking away resources, union protections, and fair ways to evaluate their work.

 

And to his credit, state Sen. Ryan Aument seems to have finally seen the light.

 

In 2012, the Republican from Lancaster County was one of the leading proponents of the Commonwealth’s new teacher evaluation system which drastically increased the amount student test scores are used to assess educators.

 

But now Aument and other Republicans are proposing new legislation to cut back on these same measures.

 

Under the current system, only 50 percent of state teachers annual evaluations come from observations of what they actually do in the classroom. The rest comes from student test scores and other factors that are out of their control.

 

The proposed legislation would increase teacher observations to 70 percent of their evaluations and try to account for student poverty – in addition to student test scores – in the remaining 30 percent.

 

If passed, the new evaluation system would begin in the 2021-22 school year.

 

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Source: PSEA

The proposed legislation – Senate Bill 751passed in the Senate by a vote of 38-11.

 

However, the identical House Bill 1607 proposed by Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford County) was not considered in time before the legislative session ended. It is expected to come up for a vote in the fall.

 

J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, said that the governor generally supports the proposal. It has also been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).

 

Each year teachers are judged either Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement or Failing. The first two are passing scores. The last two are not and require teachers to be more closely monitored, more frequently evaluated, complete a performance improvement plan and if improvements are not made, they can be fired.

 

If approved, the new bill would shorten the window when teachers are penalized for bad evaluations.

 

Under the current system, teachers who get two “Needs Improvement” ratings in 10 years can be sacked. The new bill shortens that period to four years. This incentivizes improvement and doesn’t hold a bad evaluation over a teacher’s head for a decade.

 

Moreover, the current law only allows principals to judge a very small percentage of their staff as Distinguished – the top of the scale. The proposed law puts no cap on this allowing them to give more honest and accurate evaluations.

 

Finally, there’s the issue of Student Learning Outcomes or SLOs. These are cumbersome and time consuming evaluations teachers are currently required to create and submit to their administrators for approval before conducting complicated performance measures of their classes that must be reviewed a second time by administrators as part of the annual evaluation.

 

I can’t find anywhere in either bill that spells out that these SLOs would be discontinued, but that does appear to be the case. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the new proposals where in the current law they make up 20% of the total evaluation.

 

The only thing I see that’s even close to the SLO is the requirement under Section 1138.7. Overall performance rating. Part II:

 

“A classroom teacher shall provide documented input to an evaluator on the development of teacher-specific data measures and annual results of data. The documented input shall be included with documentation of the classroom teacher’s overall annual rating.”

 

However, I don’t think this is the same thing.

 

Despite bipartisan support, there are important groups calling for caution on the proposal.

 

Teachers in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh districts – the areas of the state with the highest percentage of impoverished students – say that they weren’t consulted on the bill and have not had time to fully consider it. Both groups belong to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

 

They worry that the poverty index included in the bill may not accurately account for  economic disparities and whether the proposal really reduces the influence of standardized testing on teacher evaluations. After all, test scores are part of the teacher specific evaluation which under the proposal would go from 15-20 percent of educator’s evaluations. It may be the elimination of the SLOs which rely on student performance that ultimately reduce student outcomes from the evaluation while slightly increasing standardized test scores.

 

In any case, educators and advocates should scour the proposed legislation in the summer months to ensure that legislators know the full impact of what they’ll be asked to vote on as early as September.

 

The proposal may have been initiated in part to deal with the nationwide plague of teachers walking off the job due to unfair legislative practices and the demonization of educators. Since 1996, the number of undergraduate education majors has declined by 55 percent. And, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the number of newly issued instructional teaching certificates in the Commonwealth has dropped by 71 percent since 2009. The state used to issue more than 14,000 new teachers licenses  annually. In 2016-17, the state only gave out 4,412.

 

Perhaps offering educators more equitable evaluations may help stem the tide – otherwise we’ll soon find our classrooms filled with students that no one is willing to teach.

 

Another reason behind the new proposal may be a reaction to previous bad legislation in Harrisburg.

 

It seems to be an attempt to numb some of the sting from a 2017 bill that ended seniority-based teacher layoffs in the Commonwealth and instead tied those decisions to these teacher evaluations.

 

Now teachers who receive Unsatisfactory evaluations – even if that only means they need improvement – are the first to go. It allows administrators to stack the deck against teachers they don’t like, teachers at the top of the pay scale or who advocate for policies different than those favored by the bosses.

 

Frankly, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

 

That bill was passed mostly by the Republican majority and though Wolf could have vetoed it, he chose to let it become law without his signature.

 

As bad as it is, it set a fire under legislators to at least create a better system for teacher evaluation which they seem to have actually taken seriously.

 

One concern lawmakers have with the current system is that it tends to penalize the best teachers and buoy the worst ones.

 

The best teachers get their evaluations dragged down if they work in low performing districts just as struggling teachers get theirs pushed up if they work in high performing ones.

 

It’s hoped that judging teachers more on what they actually do and trying to account for the poverty level of the students they teach will avoid this trap.

 

In truth, it’s unfair to judge teachers on student test scores at all. Mountains of research have concluded that such so-called Value-Added Measures (VAM) are inaccurate and discriminatory.

 

Relying on these measures even to a lessor degree opens the state and individual districts up to legal challenges as has happened in other states.

 

But at least this new suggestion improves over the present system in many ways.

 

We’ll have to see if Philadelphia and Pittsburgh teachers end up endorsing the plan and whether the House finally passes the measure and Wolf signs it.

 

Stay tuned.

 


 

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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PA Officials Want to Replace Bad Keystone Exams with Bad College Entrance Exams

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Pennsylvania officials are scandalized that the Commonwealth is wasting more than $100 million on unnecessary and unfair Keystone Exams.

 
They’d rather the state spend slightly less on biased college entrance exams.

 
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and State Sen. Andy Dinniman held a joint press conference last week to introduce a new report compiled by DePasquale’s office on the subject which concludes with this recommendation.

 

Replacing bad with bad will somehow equal good?

 
Under the proposal, elementary and middle school students would still take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. However, instead of requiring all high school students to take the Keystone Exams in Algebra I, Literature and Science, the report proposes the same students be required to take the SAT or ACT test at state expense.

 

This is certainly an improvement over what the state demands now, but it’s really just replacing one faulty test with another – albeit at about a $1 million annual cost savings to taxpayers.

 

The report does a good job of outlining the fiscal waste, lack of accountability and dubious academic merits of the Keystone Exams, but it fails to note similar qualities in its own proposal.

 

From 2008 to 2019, the state already paid Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. more than $426 million for the PSSAs, Keystone Exams and Classroom Diagnostic Tools (an optional pretesting program). The federal government paid the company more than an additional $106 million. Officials wonder if this money couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere, like in helping students actually learn.

 

DePasquale, who recently launched a congressional bid, puts it like this:

 

“When the federal law changed in 2015, why didn’t Pennsylvania begin to phase out Keystone Exams? I could understand if they use them for a short period of time after that, but it’s been four years, and will cost taxpayers nearly $100 million by the end of the contract for tests our students do not even need to take.”

 

The federal government dropped its mandate four years ago and the state legislature did the same last year.

 

Originally, state lawmakers intended to make the Keystone Exams a graduation requirement, but in 2018 they passed legislation to make the assessments one of many avenues to qualify for graduation starting in 2021-22. Students can instead pass their core courses and get into college among other things.

 

“The Department of Education itself said they [the Keystone Exams] are not an accurate or adequate indicator of career or academic readiness,” Dinniman said. “So what I’m always surprised about is, they said it and then they continue to use it. These tests have faced opposition from almost every educational organization that exists. And when we got rid of the requirement and put in [more] pathways to graduation, this was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House.”

 

The federal government also changed its testing mandate. It used to require all public school students to take state-specific assessments in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

When Congress reauthorized the federal law overseeing education in 2015, it offered states more flexibility in this regard. Elementary and middle school students still have to take a state-specific test. But now the high school portion can be fulfilled with college admissions tests – and, in fact, a dozen other states legislate just such a requirement.

 
Democrats DePasquale and Dinniman think the SAT and ACT test are an improvement because students who taken them are more likely to go to college. But that’s a classic case of confusing correlation and causation.

 

Students motivated to go to college often take these exams because they are required to get in to a lot of these schools. Taking these tests doesn’t make students MORE motivated and determined to enroll in post-secondary education. They’re ALREADY motivated and determined.

 

Moreover, one of the faults the report finds with the Keystone Exams is that the assessments measure student’s parental income more than children’s academics.

 

Kids in wealthier districts almost always do better on the Keystone Exams than those in poorer districts. In fact, the report notes that of the 100 state schools with the highest scores, only five were located in impoverished districts —where the average household income is below $50,000.

 

Yet the report fails to note that this same discrepancy holds for the SAT and ACT tests. Poor kids tend to get low scores and rich kids get the highest scores.

 

In fact, the College Board – the corporation that makes and distributes the SAT – recently started adjusting scores on its test in an attempt to counteract this effect thereby accounting for high schools and neighborhoods “level of disadvantage.”

 

Does this creative scoring actually work? Who knows – but it’s kind of like being forced to swallow poison and an antidote at the same time when any sensible person would simply refuse to swallow poison in the first place.

 

And that’s the best solution state officials have for our children.

 

They’re suggesting we replace discriminatory Keystone Exams with discriminatory college entrance exams.

 

To be fair, DePasquale and Dinniman are somewhat constrained by boneheaded federal law here.

 

Though the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an improvement over No Child Left Behind, it still requires all high school students to take standardized tests.

 

Given what we know about the limits and biases of these assessments, policymakers should remove that hurdle altogether. But until the federal government gets its act together, one could argue that DePasquale and Dinniman’s policy suggestion may be the best available.

 

When you can’t do right, maybe it’s best to do less wrong.

 

But we must acknowledge that this isn’t the ultimate solution, it’s only a stopgap. We must continue to push for intelligent assessment policy that’s best for our children.

 

Standardized testing should be eliminated altogether – especially in high stakes situations. Instead we should rely on classroom grades, portfolios of student work and/or other authentic measures of what children have learned in school.

 

Accountability – the typical reason given behind these assessments – should be determined by the resources provided to students, not a highly dubious score given by a corporation making a profit off of its testing, test prep and ed tech enterprises.

 

The most we can expect from DePasquale and Dinniman’s program if it is even considered by the legislature is a band-aid on a gaping wound.

 


Read the full report, Where Did Your Money Go? A Special Report on Improving Standardized Testing in Pennsylvania.


 

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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Standardized Tests Are Not Objective Measures of Anything

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When it comes to standardized tests, most people are blinded by science.

 

Or at least the appearance of science.

 

Because there is little about these assessments that is scientific, factual or unbiased.

 

And that has real world implications when it comes to education policy.

 

First of all, the federal government requires that all public school children take these assessments in 3-8th grade and once in high school. Second, many states require teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores.

 

Why?

 

It seems to come down to three main reasons:

 

1) Comparability
2) Accountability
3) Objectivity

 

COMPARABILITY

 

First, there is a strong desire to compare students and student groups, one with the other.

 

We look at learning like athletics. Who has shown the most success, and thereby is better than everyone else?

 

This is true for students in a single class, students in a single grade, an entire building, a district, a state, and between nations, themselves.

 

If we keep questions and grading methods the same for every student, there is an assumption that we can demonstrate which group is best and worst.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

 

Second, we want to ensure all students are receiving the best education. So if testing can show academic success through its comparability, it can also be used as a tool to hold schools and teachers accountable. We can simply look at the scores and determine where academic deficiencies exist, diagnose them based on which questions students get incorrect and then focus there to fix the problem. And if schools and teachers can’t or won’t do that, it is their fault. Thus, the high stakes in high stakes testing.

 

Obviously there are other more direct ways to determine these facts. Historically, before standardized testing became the centerpiece of education policy, we’d look at resource allocation to determine this. Are we providing each student with what they need to learn? Do they have sound facilities, wide curriculum, tutoring, proper nutrition, etc.? Are teachers abiding by best practices in their lessons? Many would argue this was a better way of ensuring accountability, but if standardized assessments produce valid results, they are at least one possible way to ensure our responsibilities to students are being met.

 

OBJECTIVITY

 

Third, and most importantly, there is the assumption that of all the ways to measure learning, only standardized testing produces objective results. Classroom grades, student writing, even high school graduation rates are considered subjective and thereby inferior.

 

Questions and grading methods are identical for every student, and a score on the test is proof that a student is either good or bad at a certain subject. Moreover, we can use that score to keep the entire education system on track and ensure it is functioning correctly.

 

So this third reason for standardized testing is really the bedrock rationale. If testing is not objective, it doesn’t matter if it’s comparable or useful for accountability.

 

After all, we could hold kids accountable for the length of their hair, but if that isn’t an objective measure of what they’ve learned, we’re merely mandating obedience not learning.

 

The same goes for comparability. We could compare all students academic success by their ability to come up with extemporaneous rhymes. But as impressive as it is, skill at spitting out sick rhymes and matching them to dope beats isn’t an objective measure of math or reading.

 

Yet in a different culture, in a different time or place, we might pretend that it was. Imagine how test scores would change and which racial and socioeconomic groups would be privileged and which would suffer. It might – in effect – upend the current trend that prizes richer, whiter students and undervalues the poor and minorities.

 
So let’s begin with objectivity.

 

ARE STANDARDIZED TESTS OBJECTIVE?

 
There is nothing objective about standardized test scores.

 

Objective means something not influenced by personal feelings or opinions. It is a fact – a provable proposition about the world.

 

An objective test would be drawing someone’s blood and looking for levels of nutrients like iron and B vitamins.

 

These nutrients are either there or not.

 

A standardized test is not like that at all. It tries to take a series of skills in a given subject like reading and reduce them to multiple choice questions.

 

Think about how artificial standardized tests are: they’re timed, you can’t talk to others, the questions you’re allowed to ask are limited as is the use of references or learning devices, you can’t even get out of your seat and move around the room.  This is nothing like the real world – unless perhaps you’re in prison.

 

Moreover, this is also true of the questions, themselves.

 

If you’re asking something simple like the addition or subtraction of two numbers or for readers to pick out the color of a character’s shirt in a passage, you’re probably okay.

 

However, the more advanced and complex the skill being assessed, the more it has to be dumbed down so that it will be able to be answered with A, B, C or D.

 

The answer does not avoid human influences or feelings. Instead it assesses how well the test taker’s influences and feelings line up with those of the test maker.

 

If I ask you why Hamlet was so upset by the death of his father, there is no one right answer. It could be because his father was murdered, because his uncle usurped his father’s position, because he was experiencing an Oedipus complex, etc. But the test maker will pick one answer and expect test takers to pick the same one.

 

If they aren’t thinking like the test maker, they are wrong. If they are, they are right.

 

MISUNDERSTANDINGS

 
Yet we pretend this is scientific – in fact, that it’s the ONLY scientific way to measure student learning.

 

And the reason we make this leap is a misunderstanding.

 

We misconstrue our first reason for testing with our third. What we take for objectivity is actually just consistency again.

 

Since we give the same tests to every student in a given state, they show the same things about all students.

 

Unfortunately, that isn’t learning. It’s likemindedness. It’s the ability to conform to one particular way of thinking about things.

 

This is one of the main reason the poor and minorities often don’t score as highly on these assessments as middle class and wealthy white students. These groups have different frames of reference.

 

The test makers generally come from the same socioeconomic group as the highest test takers do. So it’s no wonder that children from that group tend to think in similar ways to adults in that group.

 

This isn’t because of any deficiency in the poor or minorities. It’s a difference in what they’re exposed to, how they’re enculturated, what examples they’re given, etc.

 

And it is entirely unfair to judge these children based on these factors.

 

UNDERESTIMATING HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY

 

The theory of standardized testing is based on a series of faulty premises about human psychology that have been repeatedly discredited.

 

First, they were developed by eugenicists like Lewis Terman who explicitly was trying to justify a racial hierarchy. I’ve written in detail about how in the 1920s and 30s these pseudoscientists tried to rationalize the idea that white Europeans were genetically superior to other races based on test scores.

 

Second, even if we put blatant racism to one side, the theory is built on a flawed and outmoded conception of the human mind – Behaviorism. One of the pioneers of the practice was Edward Thorndike, who used experiments on rats going through mazes as the foundation of standardized testing.

 

This is all good for Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but human beings are much more complicated than that.

 

The idea goes like this – all learning is a combination of stimulus and response. Teaching and learning follow an input-output model where the student acquires information through practice and repetition.

 

This was innovative stuff when B. F. Skinner was writing in the 20th Century. But we live in the 21st.

 

We now know that there are various complex factors that come into play during learning – bio-psychological, developmental and neural processes. When these are aligned to undergo pattern recognition and information processing, people learn. When they aren’t, people don’t learn.

 

However, these factors are much too complicated to be captured in a standardized assessment.

 

As Noam Chomsky wrote in his classic article  “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” this theory fails to recognize much needed variables in development, intellectual adeptness, motivation, and skill application. It is impossible to make human behavior entirely predictable due to its inherent cognitive complexity.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

So we’re left with the continued use of widespread standardized testing attached to high stakes for students, schools and teachers.

 

And none of it has a sound rational basis.

 

It is far from objective. It is merely consistent. Therefore it is useless for accountability purposes as well.

 

Since children from different socioeconomic groups have such varying experiences, it is unfair.

 

Demanding everyone to meet the same measure is unjust if everyone isn’t given the same resources and advantages from the start. And that’s before we even recognize that what it consistently shows isn’t learning.

 

The assumption that other measures of academic success are inferior has obscured these truths. While quantifications like classroom grades are not objective either, they are better assessments than standardized tests and produce more valid results.

 

Given the complexity of the human mind, it takes something just as complex to understand it. Far from disparaging educators’ judgement of student performance, we should be encouraging it.

 

It is the student-teacher relationship which is the most scientific. Educators are embedded with their subjects, observe attempts at learning and can then use empirical data to increase academic success on a student-by-student basis as they go. The fact that these methods will not be identical for all students is not a deficiency. It is the ONLY way to meet the needs of diverse and complex humanity – not standardization.

 

Thus we see that the continued use of standardized testing is more a religion – an article of faith – than it is a science.

 

Yet this fact is repeatedly ignored by the media and public policymakers because there has grown up an entire industry around it that makes large profits from the inequality it recreates.

 

In the USA, it is the profit principle that rules all. We adjust our “science” to fit into our economic fictions just as test makers require students to adjust their answers to the way corporate cronies think.

 

In a land that truly was brave and free, we’d allow our children freedom of thought and not punish them for cogitating outside the bubbles.

 


 

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 Last Day of School

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On the last day of school this year, my 8th grade students gave me one of the greatest salutes a teacher can get.

 

They reenacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poets Society.”

 

You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization.

 

That’s what my students did for me. And I almost didn’t even notice it at first.

 

The whole thing went down like this.

 
The bell rang and an announcement was made telling us that the day was done.

 
I was immediately rushed by a crowd of children turning in final projects, shaking my hand, saying goodbye.

 
In fact, I was so occupied with the students right in front of me that I didn’t notice what was happening with the ones just behind them.

 
I heard someone say in a ringing voice, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

 
I looked up and there they were.

 
About a dozen students were standing on their desks, looking down at me with big goofy grins.

 

Some had their hands on their hearts. One had raised his fist in the air. I think someone in the back was even making jazz hands. But they were each standing up there with the same look on their faces – a mixture of independence, humor and gratitude.

 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this happened. Some of them had threatened months ago to make just such a demonstration.

 
We had watched the movie together back in April at the introduction of our poetry unit. I guess it was my way of trying to show them that poetry could make a deep impact on people. But I certainly hadn’t wanted them to put themselves at risk by standing on the furniture.

 

In fact, I had specifically cautioned them NOT to do this exact thing because someone might fall off their desk and hurt themselves.

 

But on the last day of school after the last bell has rung and my tenure as their teacher has expired – well, things are different then.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That is really one of the nicest things students have ever done for me.”

 

Then I took out my phone and asked if I could snap a few pictures, because who’d ever believe me if I didn’t? They didn’t mind.

 

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When I was done, they hopped down one at a time, many of them rushing forward to give me a hug.

 

This class will always be a special one in my heart.

 

We’ve come a long way together.

 

For most of them, I was their language arts teacher for two years. When they first came in the classroom they were just babies. Now they are going off to high school.

 

Unless you’re a parent, you wouldn’t believe how much kids can grow and change in just a few short years. And the middle school years are some of the most extreme. The line between child and adult fades into nothingness.

 

I’ve had a handful of children who were enrolled in my classes for multiple years before, but I’d never had so many. In some ways, we were more like a family than a classroom.

 

I had been there when parents got sick, left, died. I knew them all so well – who would ask questions just to stall, who never got enough sleep and why (often Fortnite), which ones had athletic aspirations, which were incredible artists, etc. Some had come out of the closet to me and their classmates but not at home.

 

Many of us went on a school field trip to Washington, DC, together. We’d toured the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. When I was invited to do a TED talk, they tracked it down on YouTube. They even found my Twitter account and made merciless fun of my profile picture. And when I actually had my book published on education issues last year, a bunch of my kids even came out to hear me talk about it at local book stores.

 

It’s hard to explain the depth of the relationship.

 

At the end of the year, I always give my students a survey to gauge how they think I did as their teacher. It’s not graded, and they can even turn it in anonymously.

 

The results are almost always positive, but this year, I got responses like never before:

 

“I love you, Mr. Singer. Thanks for a great 2 years. I will terribly miss you.”

 

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“I’ve never been bored here. You are the first teacher that made me want to go to their class and has been one of my favorites.”

 

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“He stayed cool as a cucumber and was never angry… Basically the greatest teacher I’ve had all year.”

 

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 He was “fair to all students.”

 

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“He was more inclusive to many different groups.”

 

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“He made sure I didn’t fool around. He let me hand in my work late. He was always very kind and he cares about us. He shows us that he cares about how we feel. He made sure everything was fair.”

 

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“He breaks things down A LOT better than other teachers. He’s a very nice person. I like the way he teaches.”

 

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“Mr. Singer did well to motivate us and help us to succeed and get a better grade.”

 

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“He explained things better than other teachers.”

 

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“He helped me mentally and physically to be ready for the PSSAs. Also he gave us good books to read and not bad ones such as “The Outsiders,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also you taught me a lot these past 2 years to be ready for high school.”

 

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“To be absolutely honest, I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He actually has done more than the rest of my teachers.”

 

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“Well he encouraged me to succeed more in his class and in life as well. He also taught me that the meaning of life is not how you take it but where you go with it. I’m thankful that he taught me more than the history my actual history teacher taught me. He also told me the truth of our history. He talked about the parts no one else would talk about.”

 

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I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that.

 

As these now former students reluctantly walked away in ones or twos, a few stayed behind.

 

I did a lot of reassuring that 9th grade would be great and that I’d probably be right here if they needed me.

 

I overheard one girl say to another that a certain teacher was good but not “Mr. Singer good.” I thanked her and she blushed because I wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

There were tears. Some of them shed by me.

 

But when the last student left, I remained at my desk surrounded by a hum of fluorescent lights and ear numbing silence.

 

There is no emptiness like that of a space that has just been filled – a space that cries out for more.

 

My classroom is like that. And so is my heart.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I need this summer break to recover.

 

But I also need the end of August, when a new group of students will come rushing through those doors.

 

Here’s looking forward to the first day of school.

 


 

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 Will Always Waste Money Because They Duplicate Services

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You can’t save money buying more of what you already have.

 

Constructing two fire departments serving the same community will never be as cheap as having one.

 

Empowering two police departments to patrol the same neighborhoods will never be as economical as one.

 

Building two roads parallel to each other that go to exactly the same places will never be as cost effective as one.

 

This isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact, it’s an axiom of efficiency and sound financial planning. It’s more practical and productive to create one robust service instead of two redundant ones.

 

However, when it comes to education, a lot of so-called fiscal conservatives will try to convince us that we should erect two separate school systems – a public one and a privatized one.

 

The duplicate may be a voucher system where we use public tax dollars to fund private and parochial schools. It may be charter schools where public money is used to finance systems run by private organizations. Or it may be some combination of the two.

 

But no matter what they’re suggesting, it’s a duplication of services.

 

And it’s a huge waste of money.

 

Consider the case of my home state of Pennsylvania.

 

Charter schools cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding – yet they only enroll about 6 percent of students.

 

Just imagine – 94% of Pennsylvania students lose out on opportunities because we’re allowing so much money to be siphoned off for a small fraction of students.

 

The Keystone state only has 179 charter schools enrolling 135,100 students – the sixth highest charter enrollment in the country. Of those, about a fourth are online cyber charters.

 

Is it fair to Ma and Pa Taxpayer that they are forced to bear the extra burden of reproducing these services for a handful of students?

 

And make no mistake. This is one of the leading causes of property tax increases in the state.

 

The ideology of some results in a direct hit to everyone’s pocketbooks.

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), “Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts.”

 

The report found that state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

Part of this is due to a blind, deaf and dumb state legislature that no longer does anything to help alleviate these costs to local school districts. Neighborhood schools can only try to compensate by cutting services for students where it can and raising property taxes where it can’t make ends meet.

 

More than one third of school superintendents surveyed by PASBO report a worsening financial picture in their districts—and they put the blame on charter schools.

 

“With the state providing no state support for mandatory charter school tuition costs,” the study says, “the increases in this single budget item have the potential to decimate school district budgets.”

 

Part of this is the extremely unfair way the state determines how much money to give charter schools.

 

The legislature has constructed a funding formula that gives every advantage to charter schools while short changing authentic public schools at every turn.

 

For instance, as Jeff Bryant puts it in his article “The Charter School ‘Dumpster Fire’ in Pennsylvania Provides an Important Lesson for 2020 Democratic Candidates”:

 

 

“Charter school tuition charged to Pennsylvania public schools is calculated as if charters had to provide the same services public schools have to provide, such as transportation—they don’t. Also, the tuition bill public schools pay to charters is calculated as if every student cost the same to educate—they don’t.

 

 

Instead, the state requires authentic public schools to pay charters way more than authentic public schools get to educate the children in their care – and state law even allows charter operators to pocket the savings as profit.

 

But this just pours lighter fluid on Bryant’s already raging “dumpster fire.”

 

Even if Pennsylvania was entirely equitable in how it allocated funding between these two types of school, it would still be wasting our tax dollars because it would still be engaged in duplication of services.

 

There is simply no good reason to do this. At least, not if providing the best education to students is our goal.

 

There are few places in the entire country – if any – where charter schools are able to accommodate all students. They cater to nitch markets where operators expect they can turn a profit. There are essentially no communities with a charter school and no authentic public school but many where you find just the opposite.

 

Moreover, the quality of education provided at charter schools does not live up to the hype of its advertising.

 

Except in extremely rare circumstances, charter schools have never been shown to provide better outcomes than authentic public schools. Almost every study conducted – even those funded by the school privatization industry – show that these two types of schools produce similar results or in many cases that authentic public schools are much better.

 

And this despite the fact that such studies are already stacked in charter schools favor because unlike authentic public schools, charter schools often have selective enrollment. A school that gets to cherrypick the best and brightest students has an incredible advantage over those that can’t – yet even with such an uneven starting point charter schools rarely show large academic gains.

 

For instance, a recent study of charter school students in Pennsylvania conducted by the school privatization friendly Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter students do about the same on reading exams but score worse in math than students in authentic public schools. The study also found major disparities between charter schools – with cyber charters performing especially poorly.

 

However, this study’s methodology has been called into question suggesting that even its meager praise of charter schools may be exaggerated. Yet the overall results are in-line  with previous research that also found charter schools in the state generally  produce students who aren’t as prepared as authentic public school students.

 

Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997.

 

It’s way passed time for lawmakers in this state and beyond to acknowledge that was a mistake.

 

We cannot continue to force voters to pay for a supply-side ideology that not only has been disproven through decades of data but that many do not share.

 

That is why we have charter and voucher schools – a prejudice against authentic public education and desire to allow businesses to cash in on education dollars.

 

The duplication of services has nothing to do with helping students learn.

 

It’s about creating a slush fund for unscrupulous corporations and hangers on to get easy cash.

 

No true fiscal conservative can support charter schools.

 

Just as no one who values children can continue to justify this economic double vision.

 


 

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 Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


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I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization.

 

Steel Valley Schools have a proud history.

 

We’re located (in part) in Homestead – the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.

 

But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.

 

It’s charter schools, voucher schools and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall.

 

Our middle school-high school complex is located at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill in our most impoverished neighborhood sits one of the Propel network of charter schools.

 

Our district is so poor we can’t even afford to bus our kids to school. So Propel tempts kids who don’t feel like making the long walk to our door.

 

Institutions like Propel are publicly funded but privately operated. That means they take our tax dollars but don’t have to be as accountable, transparent or sensible in how they spend them.

 

And like McDonalds, KFC or Walmart, they take in a lot of money.

 

Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.

 

Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?

 

No.

 

Enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.

 


The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.

 

If you’re a charter school operator and you want to increase your salary, you can do that. Just make sure to cut student services an equal amount.

 

Want to buy a piece of property and pay yourself to lease it? Fine. Just take another slice of student funding.

 

Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else.

 

Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, water, maintenance, etc. are the same. We just have less money with which to pay them.

 

But that’s not all. The state funding formula also requires we give exponentially more money to charters for students labeled special needs – orders of magnitude more than we spend on these kids at my district.

 

Here’s how the state school code mandates we determine special education funding for charter school kids:

 

“For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.”

 

So authentic public schools spend a different amount per each special education student depending on their needs. But we have to pay our charter schools an average. If they only accept students without severe disabilities, this amounts to a net profit for the charter schools – and they can spend that profit however they want.

 

Moreover, if they reclassify students without disabilities or with slight disabilities as special needs, that means more money for them, too. Is anyone checking up on them to make sure they aren’t gaming the system? Heck no! That’s what being a charter school is all about – little transparency, little accountability and a promise of academic results (which don’t have to pan out either).

 

In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.

 

According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:

 

Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:

 

2000-01 – 2012-13

Non-Special Ed: $9,321

Special Ed: $16,903

 

2013-14

Non-Special Ed: $9,731

Special Ed: $16,803

 

2014-15

Non-special Ed: $10,340

Special Ed $20,112

 

2015-16

Non-Special Ed: $12,326

Special Ed: $25,634

 

2016-17

Non-Special Ed: $13,879

Special Ed: $29,441

 

2017-18

Non-Special Ed: $13,484

Special Ed: $25,601

 

2018-19

Non-special ed: $14,965

Special ed: $32,809

 

All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.

 

Our State Senator Jim Brewster understands the problem.

 

“Charters are strangling school districts, eventually will put them out of business. When you lose your school district, you lose your city,” he said in an article published by Public Source.

 

Brewster is a Democrat from McKeesport with four school districts being likewise “cannibalized” by charter schools.

 

Steel Valley School Board President Jim Bulger also characterized the situation as dire.

 

“ Charter Schools have become a twisted profit-making machine and not what they were originally intended for,” he said.

 

 “Originally charter schools were meant to serve a demographic that the public schools could not. For example being heavy in the performing arts or items like that. It’s unfortunate that several people have decided to twist this decent idea into a profit-making scheme that bleeds public education and its very soul.”

 

Much of the problem is in Harrisburg where legislators refuse to see or address the issue. And that’s often the best situation. Others actively make things worse.

 

For instance, the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools. Then in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut that while slashing the education budget by an additional $1 billion a year.

 

Though some of that money has been restored in subsequent budgets, the charter reimbursement has not. Putting it back in the budget would go far to alleviating the bleeding.

 

But legislators need to get serious about charter school reform.

 

We can no longer afford a system that requires authentic public schools to fund their own competition. In fact, schools should never be in competition in the first place. Every school should be excellent – and the only way to get there is to start with adequate, equitable, sustainable funding in the first place.

 

There are seven charter schools within 5 miles of my district: Propel Homestead, Propel Braddock Hills, Environmental Charter School at Frick PA, Propel Hazelwood, Academy Charter School (in Pittsburgh), Propel Mckeesport, and Propel East (in Monroeville).

 

In addition, there are 55 private schools in the same area. Though the Commonwealth doesn’t have school vouchers, per se, it does have a backdoor version supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Many of these private and parochial schools gobble up $210 million of state tax dollars through these tax credit programs – the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. And there’s a bill currently being considered in Harrisburg to increase that amount by $100 million this year and even more in subsequent years!

 

It seems our legislature has no problem spending on the school system so long as it isn’t the PUBLIC school system.

 

And the reason usually given for such support is the results privatized schools get. They claim to be better alternatives to the public system, but this is rarely if ever true.

 

Test scores are a terrible way compare schools, but charter and voucher schools rarely – if ever – outpace their authentic public school competitors. They either get similar scores or in many cases do much, MUCH worse.

 

For instance, take Propel Homestead.

 

In 2015-16, it served 573 students in grades K-12. Only 22% of students were proficient in math and 40% in Reading on state tests. Both scores are below state average.

 

Meanwhile, at Steel Valley High School during the same time period, we served 486 students in grades 9-12. In math, 50-54% of our students were proficient and 65-69% were proficient in Reading. That’s above state average in both cases. And we had similar results at our middle and elementary schools.

 

However, test scores are poor indicators of success.

 

Steel Valley Schools also had lower class sizes. We averaged 12 students per teacher. Propel Homestead averaged 15 students per teacher.

 

And then we come to segregation. Though both schools had significant minority populations, Steel Valley Schools had 42% minority enrollment, most of whom are black. Propel Homestead had 96% minority enrollment, most of whom are black.

 

So the authentic public school option is demonstrably of better quality, but our inability to bus students to-and-from school opens us up to predatory school charlatans who take advantage of our poverty.

 

And the situation is similar in surrounding communities. Poor districts serving impoverished minority students become targets for privatizers looking to make a fast buck off of our kids and families. They offer them a lower quality education and a slick sales pitch.

 

They increase segregation, lower academic quality, and get away with much needed funds that could help kids get a better education.

 

This nonsense has to stop.

 

The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.

 

They should have to abide by the same regulation, the same accountability standards, the same democratic governance, the same enrollment standards as authentic public schools. Otherwise, they should not qualify for public tax dollars.

 

We’re boring holes in the ship to make rickety life boats.

 

It’s time to stop the madness.

 

It’s time to stop letting our best chance to help all kids get eaten alive by the sharks of privatization.

 


 

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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Pittsburgh School Board Candidate Anna Batista Takes Big Money From Special Interests

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“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”

-George Washington

 

Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting running for Pittsburgh School Board, is taking thousands of dollars in donations from big money interests.

 

A quick look at campaign finance reports on Allegheny County’s Website shows Batista took beaucoup bucks from school privatization lobbyists, real estate developers, lawyers, and financial advisors.

 

Meanwhile, her opponent Pam Harbin, a public school watchdog, is supported almost exclusively by grassroots donations.

 

 

Both candidates are running for District 4, which serves parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland. Since they’ve cross filed and will appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, the seat should be decided in the May 21 primary.

 

Batista and Harbin have raised similar amounts for their campaigns. Harbin has $33,412.95 while Batista has $32,414.

 

Batista has support from at least two troubling industries – school privatizers and corporate crusaders – which are nowhere to be seen in her opponents financials.

 

Particularly troubling to me are the charter school and voucher advocates.

 

Someone shouldn’t be running for a public school board with backing from the same vultures demanding public schools be dismantled and their assets and funding siphoned away to private industry. Charter schools cost the Pittsburgh Public district more than $85 million per year in tuition payments. While the district has no plans to open new public schools, it is forced to open new charter schools every time one of these publicly financed but privately run institutions appeals to the state Charter Appeal Board, further draining resources away from remaining public schools.

 

In fact, Batista is using “Students First” as a title on her campaign mailers. This is the name of a well-known school privatization group founded by infamous public school saboteur Michelle Rhee. The education justice movement across the country and here in Pittsburgh has been fighting Students First for years. They are infamous for dumping money into Pennsylvania politics to back legislators friendly to school privatization. No one who is serious about education justice would use this title: either Batista does not know about Students First, she knows and doesn’t care, or she is being intentional in signaling to privatizers that she is on their side.

 

Students First merged with 50CAN, a national group focused on vouchers and school privatization that grew out of ConCAN, started by Connecticut hedge fund managers. Betsy DeVos, now U.S. Secretary of Education, praised the merger and has done similar work for years through her own organization with the same privatization agenda. Here in Pennsylvania, the local branch is PennCAN. Their director, who also sits on the board of a local charter school asking for approval to set up shop in Pittsburgh, is one of Batista’s donors.

 

The largest donations are noted below. Chief among these are:

 

-Rachel Amankulor, PennCAN and Catalyst Charter School board member. (Pittsburgh Public School Board denied Catalyst’s application citing problems with its plan to accommodate students with disabilities, among other issues, but the state Charter Appeal Board overturned the board’s decision and the case may now go to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.)

 

-Catherine Axtman, spouse of William Axtman who sits on the Propel Charter School Board

 

-Kirk Burkley ($500) and Robert Bernstein ($250), of Bernstein- Burkley, a Pittsburgh law firm specializing in Business Law, Creditors Rights, Oil & Gas, Bankruptcy, & Real Estate. (Burkley ran against school board member Lynda Wrenn in 2015 – a race fought in large part around privatization issues!)

 

-Allison McCarthy, Vice President of Teach for America; Catalyst Charter School Board Member; and Broad Academy graduate (Eli Broad is a major privatizer who started the Broad Academy of which Devos is a graduate.)

 

-Nathaniel Yap, spouse of Brian Smith, Catalyst Charter Founder and CEO ($1,000)

 

And then we come to the big business partisans.

 

Many of these advocate for tax deferment programs to entice businesses into the Pittsburgh area on the condition that they are allowed to escape paying taxes or pay at a reduced rate for a certain number of years. Programs such as Tax Incremental Financing (TIFs) put a heavier burden on the schools than other public resources. They cost the school district 50% as opposed to the county and city, which only lose 25% of their owed taxes each.

 

Local politicians like County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto  – though Democrats – are chief advocates of these types of neoliberal, business friendly programs. While the city and county have nothing to do with Pittsburgh Public Schools, they do often expect the School Board to rubber stamp TIFs. The School Board is an independent taxing body, but they are rarely brought to the table at the beginning of the process.

 

Corporate donors include:

 

-Friends of Rich Fitzgerald ($500)

 

-People for Bill Peduto ($2,000)

 

-Gregg Perelmann, Walnut Capital ($1,000)

 

-Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital (Developers of Bakery Square and other projects that have received a number of TIFs)

 

-Helen Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna

 

-John Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000 plus in-kind) (His office in the Squirrel Hill business district is worth thousands)

 

-Paul Katz, Brandywine Agency ($250)

 

-Patricia Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000)

 

-Rod Werstil, McKinney Properties ($500)

 

-Kevin McKeegan, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP (Pittsburgh Real Estate Law)

 

-Luke Meyers, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates (New York Real Estate Law)

 

-Nancy Finkelstein, Schulte Roth & Zabel (Finkelstein’s Linkedin Profile includes this quote: “I have concentrated my practice on representing private equity funds, investment banks, hedge funds, financial institutions, finance companies and high-net-worth individuals in a wide variety of transactions, including financings, debt restructurings, leveraged acquisitions, and collateralized loan facilities.”)

 

-Steven Massey, Federated Investors

 

-Richard Lerach, Gateway Financial

 

-William Sheridan, Reed Smith LLP (“Represented managed care defendants in obtaining dismissal of antitrust conspiracy and monopolization claims.”)

 

All of this is truly troubling for someone running to serve as a school board director.

 

Compare Batista’s financials with that of her opponent Harbin.

 

In at least two instances, Harbin won endorsements and donations from organizations Batista had been courting.

 

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers gave Harbin $5,000 instead of Batista.

 

Likewise, Unite! Pittsburgh gave Harbin $1,500 over Batista. This is State Rep. Summer Lee’s PAC. The organization supports candidates running on a criminal justice slate who are committed to ending the school-to-prison, poverty-to-prison, and addiction-to-prison pipelines.

 

Other notable donations to Harbin’s campaign include:

 

-Women for the Future Pittsburgh ($500)

 

-Friends of Chelsea Wagner ($500) (Wagner is Allegheny County Controller and one of the founders of Women for the Future Pittsburgh)

 

-Michael Fine ($2,800) physician for the Veterans Administration

 

-Kathy Fine ($2,800)  Michael’s wife and long-time education justice activist who fought against the closing of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School.

 

-Nancy Bernstein ($1,000) J Street Board Member (J Street organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure and democratic.)

 

These are exactly the kind of donations you’d expect from a grassroots candidate – labor unions, progressive political promoters and activists.

 

Full disclosure: Though I live just outside of the Pittsburgh area, I am not unbiased in this race. I consider Harbin a friend and fully support her run for school board.

 

However, the donations outlined in this article are all facts. Feel free to go to the county Website and see for yourself.

 

Our children deserve better than Batista – a school director in the employ of the same forces out to sabotage education and pick the remains clean for their own individual ends.

 

Call me crazy, but I think children should be an end in themselves.

 

School board candidates who put themselves up for sale like Batista don’t deserve your vote. They’ve already sold theirs to the highest bidder.


 

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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