The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

You take a test to determine what you’ve learned and that will in turn predict what you will be able to learn in the future.

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

We don’t measure babies’ leg muscles to predict whether they’re ready to walk. We let them do what they do, possibly with some encouragement and positive models of locomotion, and they do it.

 

There are cognitive and developmental benchmarks we look for, and if children don’t hit them, we provide help. But no further prediction is necessary – certainly not based on artificial markers put together by corporate interests.

 

In most situations, predictions are superfluous. We just assume that everyone can learn if they so desire – unless something happens to make us think otherwise. And whether someone actually learns something is demonstrated by doing the thing, itself.

 

The only time we link prediction and assessment so closely is when the consequences of failure are irreversible – like when you’re going solo skydiving for the first time. If you jump out of an airplane and don’t know how to pull the ripcord to get your parachute to work, you probably won’t get a second chance to try again.

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

The world of standardized testing is very different. The high stakes nature of the assessments are what ramp out the consequences and thus the severity.

 

Testing looks at learning like two points on a map and sets up a gate between points A and B.

 

In order to cross, you have to determine if you’ve passed through the previous gate. And only then can you be allowed to progress on to point C.

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

First, you don’t need a test to determine which point you’re at. If Point B is the ability to add, you can simply add. If it’s the ability to write a complete sentence, you can simply write a sentence.

 

There is no need to fill out a formal multiple-choice assessment that – depending on the complexity of the task being considered – is completely inadequate to capture the subtleties involved. The task, itself, is enough.

 

Imagine if you were testing whether someone had learned how to drink a glass of water. You could just give them a cup filled with H2O and see if they can gulp it down. Or you could have them sharpen their number 2 pencil and answer questions about how their throat works, their digestive and excretory systems and the chemical composition of agua – all answers predetermined to A, B, C or D.

 

Observation of a skill, we are told, is not enough to determine success because it relies on the judgment of an observer. A standardized test replaces the observer with an impersonal, distant testing corporation which then assesses only predetermined markers and makes decisions devoid of any situational context.

 

This is done to remove observational bias but it doesn’t avoid bias altogether. In setting up the markers and deciding which elements of the task are to be assessed (or in fact can be assessed in such a distant manner), the testing corporation is inserting its own biases into the process. In fact, in any assessment conducted by human beings, this would be inevitable. So going through this maze of perceived objectivity is really just a matter of subterfuge meant to disguise the biases of the corporation.

 

Second, assessing people in this way is extremely unnatural because very few fields of knowledge can be divided and subdivided into two or more discrete points.

 

When writing a complex sentence, for example, you need to know not just spelling and grammar but logic, handwriting, subject matter, colloquialisms, literary devices, and a plethora of other cultural and linguistic artifacts.

 

Moreover, there is not always a natural progression from Point A to B to C. Sometimes A jumps directly to C. Sometimes B leads directly to A. Sometimes A leads to Z.

 

Knowledge, skills and human cognition are far too complex a web to ever hope to be captured by such a reductive enterprise. But by insisting that we make this complexity fit into such a small box, we end up depriving people of the right to move on. We say predictive models show they aren’t ready to move forward and so we bury them in remediation. Or we deny them access to important opportunities like advanced classes, electives, field trips, extracurricular clubs or even post-secondary education.

 

Third, this emphasis on knowledge as discrete bits of information or skills (often called standards) leads to bad teaching.

 

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

 

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

 

A focus on standardized testing or even trying to educate in a system where these tests are attached to high stakes, results in an increase in item teaching. We often call it teaching to the test.

 

I’m not saying that item teaching is always bad. But curriculum teaching is to be much preferred. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

 

So when we find students who have made dramatic improvements on standardized tests, we often don’t find equal improvements in their over all knowledge or ability.

 

Test scores are often a false positive. They show students have mastered the art of taking the test but not necessarily the knowledge or skills it was meant to assess.

 

They are more like trained circus animals who can jump through flaming hoops but would be lost in the wild.

 

That’s why certain computer modeled artificial intelligences are able to pass standardized tests but would fail preschool.

 

These reflections have troubling implications for our system of standardized testing.

 

The false curtain of objectivity we’ve set up in our assessments may also be hiding from us what authentic learning is taking place and it may even hinder such learning from taking place at all.

 

Any sane society would halt such a system with these drawbacks. It would stop, regroup and devise a better alternative.

 

To continue with such a pedagogical framework truly would be the most absurd thing of 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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Inside Bill Gates’ Hubris: Propaganda to Make America Neoliberal Again

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Once upon a time, the world was run by rich men.

 

And all was good.

 

But then the world was conquered by other rich men.

 

And that is something the first group of rich men could not allow.

 

That is the reason behind Netflix’s new film “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.”

 

The three-part documentary goes live on Sept. 20. But the film’s aims are clear from the trailer.

 

It’s a vanity project about Bill Gates, the second richest man in the world.
By examining his mind and motivations, director and executive producer Davis Guggenheim will show us how Gates deserves his billionaire status and that we should allow him to use his philanthrocapitalist ventures to rule the world.

 

After all, shouldn’t the best and richest among us make all the decisions?

 

It’s a cry for oligarchy in an age of idiocracy, a love letter to neoliberalism in a time of neofascism.

 

The pity is that Donald Trump and the “Make America Great Again” crowd have goose stepped all over their new world order.

 

But instead of showing the world why we need to return to democratic principles, strengthen the common good and empower the people to govern themselves, some would rather continue the same plutocracy just with a different set of plutocrats at the wheel.

 

In the days of Obama, the Bushes and Clinton, it wasn’t membership in the same political party that defined the ruling class. It was holding the same ideology.

 

It’s not that neoliberals were so much wiser, ethical or empathetic than Trump. They just kept their greed a secret or tried to make it seem a virtue. They told better lies and didn’t incite as much violence on our shores, and they were better at manipulating markets to make themselves richer while keeping the rest of us relatively poorer.

 

The MAGA insurgents are also rich men, but their greed is transparent. They lie and no one expects them to tell the truth. They can freely dismantle the social safety net because they stoke our prejudices and keep us fighting over race, gender and abortion so much we forget they’re robbing us blind. And when the market crashes, they don’t have to care because they’ve stolen everything of value and can weather the economic depression that will destroy the nation.

 

Neofacism is certainly worse – but it’s only a difference of degree, not of kind.

 

It’s no wonder then that the neoliberals want to make us nostalgic for their brand of simmering destruction instead of Trump’s rapid boil disasters.

 

And Gates is the perfect poster child for old style neoliberalism.

 

He’s the former CEO of Microsoft and – together with his wife – the founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In the trailer, Gates confides that his deepest fear is that one day his brain will “stop working.”

 

Gates is a “multiprocessor” says his wife Melinda. “He will be reading something else but then processing at the same time. It’s chaos!”

 

Gates “thrives on complexity,” Melinda says. “He makes a framework in his mind, then he starts slotting in the information. If something doesn’t line up, he gets really frustrated.”

 

“It’s scary,” says Melinda. “But when Bill stills himself, he can pull ideas together that other people can’t see.”

 

Thus we gain a picture of a brilliant man striding over a world populated by intellectual inferiors. How foolish we would be to question his authority!

 

And since his intelligence has enabled him to hoard more money than almost anyone else in the world, why shouldn’t we let him use this economic power to change it for our benefit?

 

It’s truly one of the most patronizing, paternal and insulting pieces of propaganda I’ve ever seen in my life. And that includes Guggenheim’s previous movies.

 

Guggenheim is, after all, the man behind the most notorious propaganda film of modern times, “Waiting for Superman.” Back in 2010, he popularized the school privatization of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He made charter schools cool until Betsy DeVos came along and made them uncool again.

 
Though I can’t imagine what could possibly be cool about for-profit schools run by appointed bureaucrats that can discriminate against students in enrollment, skimp on special education services and cut academic programs for students while pocketing the savings! All while gobbling up funding for the public schools that try to educate everyone!

 
More recently, he tried to pull the same sleight of hand for education technology firms in 2013 with the film “Teach,” but by then no one was really paying attention to him.

 

 

And for all that time his ventures have been backed by the richest neoliberals out there – Netflix CEO Reed Hasgtings, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, eBay founder Jeff Skoll, and Salman Khan of Khan Academy.

 

 

Sure these folks are usually identified as Democrats, but their philosophy is completely in line with The Walton Family Foundation, Charles Koch, Walden Media (run by creationist Philip Anschutz), and lobbying groups such as the Lumina Foundation, the New American Foundation, and others.

 

Oh! And let’s not forget Bill Gates, himself, who has bankrolled a number of Guggenheim’s projects including “Waiting for Superman.”

 

It’s no wonder Guggenheim is making a fawning tribute to Gates. He owes the man!

 

It’s time to pay back his sugar daddy with what he does best – agitprop public relations.

 

Yes, Gates is a very intelligent person.

 

But he is also a very stupid one.

 

When it comes to computers, few people can beat him. But like so many overprivileged people, he takes excellence in one area to mean excellence in all areas.

 

And that’s just not how things work.

 

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates famously bragged that he was the wisest person in Athens – not because he knew so much more than everyone else but because he was the only person who knew that he didn’t know anything.

 

Gates could have learned something from that humility, because it’s the trait he is most lacking.

 

Take public education.

 

No one has had a greater negative impact on public schools than Gates. With his so-called philanthropic contributions, he has steered the course of education policy away from research-based pedagogy to a business-minded approach favored by corporate raiders.

 
He didn’t come up with Common Core State Standards, but he did bankroll them. He bribed the state and federal government to force their schools to adopt the same or similar academic standards for all students. Not good standards. Not standards developed by classroom teachers, psychologists or experts. But standards created by the standardized testing industry.

 

 

The result has been more high stakes standardized tests, narrowing the curriculum, shrinking education budgets for the poor and minorities, and an increase in developmentally inappropriate approaches to education. Nearly every parent with a school age child will tell you horror stories of attempting to do homework with their children and having to relearn basic math and English skills just to untwist the needlessly complex knot that children are expected to unsnarl in order to grasp the bare basics of academia.

 

 

Gates poured billions of dollars into that failed initiative, spent hundreds of millions of dollars for development and promotion and influenced trillions of taxpayer dollars to be flushed down the drain on it. All to no avail.

 

But it’s not his only education policy failure.

 

Gates now admits that the approximate $2 billion he spent pushing us to break up large high schools into smaller schools was a bust.

 
Then he spent $100 million on inBloom, a corporation he financed that would quietly steal student data and sell it to the corporate world. However, that blew up when parents found out and demanded their children be protected.

 

 

He also quietly admits that the $80 million he spent pushing for teachers to be evaluated on student test scores was a mistake. However, state, federal and local governments often still insist on enacting it despite all the evidence against it. Teachers have literally committed suicide over these unfair evaluations, but it hasn’t stopped Gates from continuing to experiment on the rest of humanity with his money.

 

 

And he’s still at it.

 

His new plan has been to spend $1.7 billion over five years to develop new curriculums and networks of schools, use data to drive continuous improvement, and give out grants to high needs schools to do whatever he says.

 

There’s nothing wrong with someone wanting to help improve public schools. But the best way to do that is to listen to the people most knowledgeable and invested and then give them the tools they need to succeed.

 

But Gates doesn’t play that way. He reads up on a subject and then comes up with his own harebrained schemes.

 

“It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade,” he said during a speech at Harvard in 2014.

 

Lots of people know, Bill. Teachers, students, parents, psychologists, professors. You just won’t listen to us.

 

You just insist the rest of us listen to you despite the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

 

You’re rich and you think that makes you better than us.

 

And Guggenheim’s documentary purports to support this position by reference to Gates’ incredible brain.

He is a smart guy. No one would really contradict it.

 

He was a National Merit Scholar who scored a 1590 out of 1600 on his SATs. But he also comes from a very privileged upbringing.

 

He didn’t grow up on the mean streets of urban America while attending a neighborhood public school. He went to an elite preparatory school since he was 13.

 

At Harvard he wasn’t a polymath. He excelled in subjects he cared about, but neglected others that weren’t immediately interesting. According to a college friend:

 

“Gates was a typical freshman in many ways, thrown off pace by the new requirements and a higher level of competition. He skipped classes, spent days on end in the computer lab working on his own projects, played poker all night, and slept in a bed without sheets when he did go
 to bed. Other students recall that he often went without sleep for 18 to 36 hours.”

 

Gates was no genius. He earned good grades in the subjects he liked and significantly less so in classes he didn’t. Nor was his heart in his studies. Gates joined few college activities unless someone dragged him off to a party.

 

School was of little interest to him. He dropped out of Harvard before getting a degree to start his computer software company.

 

Imagine how privileged you have to be to feel empowered to do that!

 

Nothing much was at stake for him at school so he could do whatever he liked with little to no real life consequences.

 

You want to decode Bill’s brain? Look at his family’s wealth. Look at his upbringing. Look at his medical records.

 

But the moral of the story of Bill Gates is not that rich elites should rule the world.

 

It is that everyone – EVERYONE – should practice humility and not deign to think they have all the answers.

 

It is a paean to the need for collaboration to solve problems, the need to listen to all voices and decide the best course together.

 

And more than anything it is a desperate cry for democracy and social goods – not to defeat Trump through Gates’ example – but to lead to real human flourishing by smashing through the fallacies supporting Trump and Gates together.

 

 

 


 

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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What Kind of A—hole Ransoms School Data?

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You’ve got to be a grade A sleaze bag to steal from kids’ public schools.

 

But that’s exactly what a growing number of slime balls are doing when they hack into schools’ computer networks and hold their data for ransom.

 

Even worse – districts are paying it!

 

Just this week the Rockville Center School District in New York state paid an $88,000 ransom to get back files that had been encrypted by Ryuk ransomware.

 

The district negotiated the payment down from $176,000. School directors only decided to pay after realizing it would cost more to hire another firm to fix the problem.

 

Plus the school had insurance that covered ransomware so it only ended up losing its $10,000 deductible.

 

But this district isn’t the only one being extorted by these basement dweller bandits.

 

In July, alone, schools in New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Connecticut and another in New York suffered similar cyber attacks.

 

Nor do they show any signs of slowing down.

 

A report by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future concluded that attacks on state and local governments have reached an all time high. There were 170 cyber attacks since 2013, of which 22 occurred just this year.

 

After years of budget cuts and downsizing, hackers see local governments like wolves see the oldest and weakest animals in the herd – easy pickings.

 

And schools are particularly vulnerable.

 

They often have small IT departments, antiquated equipment and the cheapest cybersecurity.

 

That’s why in recent months schools in Lake City, Fla.; La Porte County, Indiana; and Riviera Beach, Fla. have all paid ransoms to regain access to their data.

 

If you think about it, data is one of the most financially valuable things schools have.

 

Districts are responsible for students’ privacy in so many ways – records of special services, grades, accommodations, discipline, etc. In addition, schools are large employers with privileged information on their staffs including healthcare, finances, insurance, social security numbers, etc.

 

School directors and administrators have a responsibility to safeguard this information. It’s no wonder, then, that many are giving in to these demands, especially when nefarious nonentities ensure payment is cheaper than any other alternative.

 

Even so, what a monster you have to be to squeeze schools in order to make a buck!

 

Every dollar you blackmail away from district coffers is a dollar not spent on children’s educations.

 

That’s less money for teachers, supplies, classes, tutors, nurses, counselors, etc.

 

You aren’t stealing candy from a baby. You are literally snatching away opportunities for a better future.

 

Given the stakes involved, it shouldn’t be all up to individual districts to stop cyber thieves. The state and federal government should be flexing their muscles to help.

 

One thing they can do is toughen laws against using ransomware.

 

Maryland legislators proposed a law to consider ransomware attacks that resulted in a loss of more than $1,000 as a felony, which would then be subject to a fine of up to $100,000 and 10 years in jail.

 

Current Maryland laws define such attacks that extort less than $10,000 as misdemeanors, while only a breach that results in a loss of greater than $10,000 is a felony.

 

But some argue that there are already federal laws on the books criminalizing ransomware such as The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Unfortunately, these laws don’t mention ransomware specifically and may be too broad.

 

Federal and state governments could at least offer grants to update school cybersecurity to make such attacks more difficult. Otherwise, the burden becomes an exponential increase in the cost of doing business for schools which can only be made up by increasing local taxes and/or cutting student services.

 

Another option would be setting up a federal program to step in whenever schools are victims of ransomware. After all, these are public schools! If they were under attack by armed terrorists, the federal government wouldn’t think twice before jumping in.

 

With federal resources, perhaps we could stop all schools from ever paying these ransoms again. Because that’s the only way to truly end these cyber attacks.

 

As long as schools and governments are willing to pay, there will be trolls unscrupulous enough to take advantage.

 

Public services set up to meet the public good should never have to shortchange society so they can meet some fool’s ransom demand.

 

Ransomware has been around since at least 2012. The largest incident so far came last year with the WannaCry attack which infected more than 200,000 computers in about 150 countries, including the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, at a cost of about $4 billion.

 

It’s past time we got serious in dealing with these cowards.

 

As technology increases, data crimes have become more common. In fact, there are far too many legal ways to pilfer private data.

 

Schools, in particular, do a bad job of safeguarding student data by entering into unregulated and nefarious contracts with ed tech companies. Contracts with these companies commonly contain loopholes allowing them to take student data at will and sell it.

 

The situation is worsened by the supply-side economic policies governing public schools. There are already numerous roads to privatize public schools and turn tax dollars into corporate profits. Moreover, the standardized testing industry monetizes learning when their services are mandated by the state and federal government. They conveniently offer to remediate the large numbers of students who don’t score well on these same tests and cash in on both ends.

 

With so many fully legal ways to steal education dollars from practices and policies that actually help kids learn, it’s no surprise where these shadow dwellers get their ideas.

 

As repulsive and selfish as these hackers are, they’re only taking the greed of the testing, privatization and ed tech industry to its logical conclusion.

 

What kind of a—hole ransoms school data?

 

The a—holes we allow to get away with it.


 

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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Top 7 Ways Technology Stifles Student Learning in My Classroom

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As a middle school teacher, I have real concerns about the ways technology is used in the classroom and the effects it’s having on students.

 

That does not make me a technophobe.

 

The fact that you are reading this article on a blog – a regularly updated Website containing personal writings or a weBLOG – should prove that point.

 

I use technology in my everyday life and in many ways find it indispensable.

 

However, that does not mean I embrace all uses of technology just as criticizing some forms does not mean I think we should get rid of them all.

 

But after 17 years of teaching, I have legitimate concerns about what all this technology is doing to our students and our schools.

 

I have seen technologies come and go. Some – like a computerized grade book – have been extremely helpful, and I would not want to have to do my job without them.

 

Others have fallen by the wayside, been discontinued or proven a waste of time or even worse – they’ve become impediments rather than assistants to student learning.

 

In general, I think we have become too reliant on technology in schools. We’ve welcomed and incorporated it without testing it, or even reflecting upon whether it promises to offer better pathways toward student comprehension and discovery or whether it merely offers flash and novelty devoid of substance. And perhaps even more frightening, we have not investigated the ways in which using these technologies actually puts student privacy and intellectual growth at risk.
So, without further ado, here are the top 7 ways technology stifles student learning in my classroom:

 

1) It Stops Kids from Reading

 

I’m a language arts teacher. I want my students to read.

 

I could simply assign readings and hope students do them, but that’s not practical in today’s fast-paced world. When kids are bombarded by untold promises of instant gratification, a ream of paper bordered by cardboard doesn’t hold much of a claim on their attentions.

 

So like many teachers, I bring reading into the classroom, itself. I usually set aside class time every other day for students to read self-selected books for about 15 minutes. Students have access to the school library and a classroom library filled with books usually popular with kids their age or popular with my previous students. They can pick something from outside these boundaries, but if they haven’t already done so, I have them covered.

 

In the days before every student had an iPad, this worked fairly well. Students often had books with them they wanted to read or would quickly select one from my collection and give it a try.

 

Sometimes when there was down time in class, when they had finished assignments or tests early, they would even pick up their self-selected books and read a little.

 

What a different world it was!

 

Now that every student has an omnipresent technological device, this has become increasingly impossible. I still set aside 15 minutes, but students often waste the time looking for an eBook on-line and end up reading just the first chapter or two since they’re free. Others read nothing but the digital equivalent of magazine articles or look up disparate facts. And still others try to hide that they’re not reading at all but playing video games or watching YouTube videos.

 

Even under the best of circumstances, the act of reading on a device is different than reading a printed page.

 

The act of reading traditional books is slower, closer and more linear. It’s the way teachers really want kids to read and which will most increase comprehension.

 

Reading on a screen is a product of social media. We scroll or scan through, seeking specific information and clicking on hyperlinks.

 

The old style of reading was transformative, absorbing and a much deeper and richer experience. The newer style is more superficial, mechanical and extrinsic. (And, Yes, I’m aware of which style of reading you’re engaged in now!)

 

To be fair, some students actually prefer reading eBooks on devices and may even experience the richness of the original style. But they are few and far between. Usually students use the devices to escape from the deeper kind of reading because they’ve never really done it before and don’t understand what it really is. And when they have this choice, they may never find out.

 

2) It’s a Distraction

 

As a teacher, I want my students to be able to focus on one thing at a time. There are situations and assignments that call for multitasking, but usually we need students to be able to look at text closely, examine an argument, identify figurative language or write creatively, etc. They can’t do that if they’re constantly checking their devices.

 

We have to admit that iPads, laptops, social media, etc. are addictive. If given the chance, many teenagers will spend hours there. Heck, many adults will, too. It’s common for students to rush through assignments to get back to watching videos about the latest on-line gaming trend Fortnite, or listen to music with earbuds, or others such things.

 

Technology is usually associated in their minds with entertainment, not education. I’m not saying that technologies don’t have their place. If you want to look up information quickly, devices are great. But the most common words I tell my students on any given day are “Apples up.” In others words, turn your iPads face down and focus on the lesson at hand.

 

3) It’s Unhealthy

 

For most students, technology is not a novelty. It is something with which they already have a lot of experience. Many studies find that kids between the ages of 13-18 spend up to 18 hours a day in front of a screen.

 

Why are we adding to that in the classroom?

 

Children need face-to-face interactions. They need to learn social skills, how to communicate with people, not screen avatars. They need time outdoors, time to get up and move around and interact with the world. Heck! They need unstructured time where they actually experience boredom and have to find ways to cope.

 

We’re robbing them of these skills by giving in to the electronic nanny. And it’s creating children who are less able to survive without that technological crutch.

 

As technology has become more widespread in my classes, I’ve noticed attention spans decreasing. So has self control, mindfulness and an ability for critical thinking.

 

4) It Costs Too Much

 

Public schools are already grossly underfunded. We have to pick and choose the most effective tools to help kids learn. Technology is often very expensive and takes away valuable money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

 

And the way these technologies are marketed is often reminiscent of the drug trade. The first uses are free. But if you want to expand, it will cost.

 

Even those that don’t demand briefcasefulls of cash often recoup their costs by collecting and selling student data.

 

In the school system, we are privy to an enormous amount of information about the children in our care – information that we are tasked with keeping safe. Ed tech software and technologies also routinely collect data on students. But they are not as constrained or legally responsible for it in the way schools and teachers are.

 

Some of the data technologies collect is indeed necessary for whatever task they perform – tabulating which questions students get correct and incorrect, etc. However, much of it is unnecessary for those tasks – information about student preferences or marketing information.

 
We have no guarantee that this data is secure. The FBI has warned schools, parents and students of information breaches at these ed tech companies. And the contracts these companies have with schools and/or users are shady at best. They don’t guarantee your data will be secure, don’t accept liability and even when they do, they routinely warn that their policies can change at any time without warning – especially if they go bankrupt.

 

These are costs too expensive to pay.

 

5) It Has Never Been Proven to Help Kids Learn

Educational technologies’ claims about student learning outcomes are based on faith not facts. There are few (if any) long-term, large scale, peer reviewed studies showing that most technologies are effective educational tools.

 
This is partially because they’re too new to have been around long enough to be adequately tested. Moreover, the field is flooded with “studies” payed for by the same companies or organizations being studied – which is like having McDonald’s tell you the McRib is nutritious. Some small-scale peer reviewed studies have been done, but the results have been inconclusive.

 

We are literally unleashing these devices and software applications on children without knowing their full effects.

 

Ed tech is a market-based solution to an academic problem. It is the triumph of big business over pedagogy.

 

Our children deserve better than this.

 

6) It Perpetuates Bad Pedagogy and Assessment

Ed tech is almost always organized around standardized testing. It takes the multiple choice test as the ultimate form of assessment and arranges itself around that paradigm.

 

Software basically teaches to the test. It shows users the kinds of questions that will be asked, how to solve them and then gauges their success by giving them test-based questions.

 

It’s ironic because the marketing departments of these corporations usually sell this junk as “personalized learning,” “individualized learning,” or “competency” or “proficiency based education.” They want you to think that the program is tailor made to the user when it’s actually just a prepackaged mess. If you can’t answer a question of type A, you don’t get to move on to a question of type B. That’s all.

 

This can be an effective method for increasing test scores – if students aren’t so tuned out by the experience that they don’t engage with what they’re being presented – which is what I often find with my students when I’ve been forced to subject them to this nonsense.

 

However, learning how to take a multiple choice test on reading is not the same as learning how to read and understand. It is not the same as interacting with, comprehending and forming an opinion about that reading.

 

This is not the best way to teach just as having students fill out endless worksheets is not, nor is even having a flesh-and-blood teacher do endless test prep.

 

It is brainwashing – teaching kids to think like the designers of a test when we should be teaching them how to think for themselves and like themselves.

 

7) It Undermines Public Schools and Teachers

 

Ed tech companies are not philanthropies. They are in this business to turn a profit. And the best way to do that is to displace and disrupt the public education system.

 

There is an entire testing and school privatization industrial complex out there trying to prove that traditional public schools are bad and need replaced with business solutions.

 

These aren’t just charter schools or private and parochial schools cashing in on vouchers siphoning tax money away from children and into their private pockets. These are ed tech companies, too.

 

The ultimate goal is to get rid of the very concept of school, itself, and to replace it with on-line cyber schooling that can be accessed anywhere without the need for any living, breathing teachers in the mix. Or at best, they want to reduce the teacher to a mere facilitator. It is the device and the software that teach. It is only the human being’s job to make sure the student is engaging with the technology.

 

This is not in the best interest of students. It is in the best interests of companies and corporations.

 

When we give away our responsibilities, our autonomy, and our humanity to these businesses, we are selling out our children.

 

I’m not saying that all technology is bad or even that it should never be used in the classroom.

 

But we must approach it with caution and intelligence. We should always know why we’re using it, what end we expect it to have and fully comprehend the consequences.

 

Otherwise our children will be left to pay for our own shortsightedness.


 

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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eBackpack Bankruptcy May Put Student & Teacher Data in Peril

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Teachers put their assignments into an on-line data base.

 

Students access them on their computers, iPads or other devices and then submit their work via the Internet.

 

What could go wrong?

 

Plenty. Especially when the company that provides this service goes bankrupt.

 

And that’s exactly what’s happened with Texas-based educational technology company eBackpack.

 

All those teacher assignments and student works are still there in computer servers somewhere. And now that eBackpack has filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, all of it has become assets the company could decide to sell off to pay its debts.

 
The company explicitly reserves the right to do so according to its own Privacy Statement:

 

“The information we collect is used to improve the content of our Web pages and the quality of our service, and is not shared with or sold to other organizations for commercial purposes, except to provide products or services you’ve requested, when we have your permission, or under the following circumstances:

 

-We transfer information about you if eBackpack or part of it is acquired by or merged with another company. In this event, eBackpack will notify you before information about you is transferred and becomes subject to a different privacy policy.” [Emphasis mine]

 

Well that’s comforting. I wonder how a company that will no longer exist will have staff to notify former customers about what’s happening to the mountains of data we put in its hands.

 

Even under the best of circumstances, who will it notify? Teachers? Students? Parents? Or just the administrators or school boards who managed the over all accounts for individual districts?

 

eBackpack’s Terms of Service Agreement contains several red flags that someone should have noticed before students’ privacy was jeopardized:

 
“-eBackpack may assign its rights and obligations under these Terms to a third party without your consent.

 

“-You agree to use the Service at your own risk, without any liability whatsoever to eBackpack.

 

-1.1. Your use of the Service is at your sole risk. The Service is provided on an “as is,” “as available” and “with all faults” basis. The Service is owned and copyrighted by eBackpack and offered through a subscription, not sold, to you.

 

-10.1. eBackpack reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, the Service (or any part thereof) with or without notice.

 

-By submitting Content to eBackpack, you grant eBackpack a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free right to copy, display, modify, transmit, make derivative works of, and distribute your Content for the purpose of providing or developing the Service.

 

-14.2. You consent to eBackpack’s use and/or references to your name, directly or indirectly, in eBackpack’s marketing and training materials. You consent to eBackpack’s use of your communication with eBackpack for marketing and training materials. You may not use eBackpack’s name or trademark without eBackpack’s prior written consent.”

 
It’s not like schools weren’t warned.

 
Less than a year ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) issued a strong statement cautioning consumers that edtech companies put student data at risk.

 

 

The bureau advised parents, teachers and administrators to take several steps to safeguard children’s privacy. The organization also pushed for the federal government to revise privacy laws to better protect kids from this industry.

 

In addition, commonsense.org – a nonprofit studying education issues – conducted a three-year review of 100 edtech companies. It concluded that 74% of these businesses hold the right to transfer any personal information they collect if the company is acquired, merged, or files for bankruptcy.

 

The authors wrote that there is “a widespread lack of transparency, as well as inconsistent privacy and security practices” in how student information is collected, used, and disclosed.

 

 

Why would any company want such student data?

 

It helps market products and, itself, can be a very marketable product.

 

For instance, imagine how much more effective the hiring process would be if businesses had access to applicants school attendance records. Imagine if businesses had an applicant’s entire academic record.

 

Employers could buy vast amounts of data and use algorithms to sort through it looking for red flags without fully comprehending what was being compiled. Imagine an applicant being turned down for a job because of low middle school attendance but not being able to explain that this was due to a legitimate illness.

 

There are reasons we protect people’s privacy. You shouldn’t have to explain your score on a 3rd grade spelling test the rest of your life or have the need for special education services become a liability on your credit record.

 

Yet all of these things are possible when student data is up for grabs as it may be in this instance.

 
This is personal to me.

 

My district uses eBackpack.

 

Yet it was for these exact reasons that I never jumped on the bandwagon with my own students in my classroom.

 

I experimented somewhat with the platform, myself, to see what it offered and to weigh whether the advantages canceled out the disadvantages.

 

If I had decided to move forward, I would have asked parent permission first, but in the end, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk – and boy am I glad!

 

Yet having interacted with the platform at all, I received the following email from the company yesterday:

 

“Dear User,

 

We regret to inform you that this 2018-2019 school year is the last year eBackpack will be operating.  We will not be accepting any renewals going forward and we will not be providing any services past July 31, 2019. All services will be terminated on that date. Please download and save to your own devices any data prior to July 31, 2019. Once the services for eBackpack are turned off, your files and data will no longer be accessible, and we will not have staff available to respond to any customer inquiries. We appreciate your support over the past years and we will truly miss working with you all!

 
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to send an email to edison@ebackpack.com or billing@ebackpck.com.
Again, we appreciate your time with us and all of your support.

 
Thank you,
 eBackpack Team”

 

I haven’t tried to contact the company, but I’m seeing on Reddit that others have been unable to do so.

 

One customer wrote:

 

“We use eBackpack and we are unable to pay our bill as no one answers their number or responds to emails. A quick Google search shows recent bankruptcy procedure. Anyone know anything? Am I the only one still using them?”

 

EBACKPACK, LLC did in fact file a chapter 7 bankruptcy case on Feb 8, according to docket information on-line.

 
Chapter 7 is sometimes called straight bankruptcy or liquidation bankruptcy. In general, the court appoints a trustee to oversee the case, take the company’s assets, sell them and distribute the money to the creditors who file claims. However, the trustee doesn’t take every last bit of company property. Owners are allowed to keep enough  “exempt” property to get a “fresh start.”

 

 

This is big business. Venture capitalists have invested more than $1.8 billion in the edtech industry in 2015, alone.

 
At this time, it is still unclear exactly how many students and teachers have been put at risk.

 

I can’t find information anywhere about how many student or teacher accounts are in jeopardy or how many districts used the platform.

 
Hopefully this will be a wakeup call that the edtech industry needs to be more closely monitored and regulated.

 
We cannot continue to put convenience and profit ahead of student and teacher safety.

 


 

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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