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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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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Resistance to High Stakes Testing Persists as Media Celebrates Its End

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There has never been more opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

 

Yet the corporate controlled media is pretending that the resistance is over.

 

Parents are refusing to let their kids take these tests at the same or even greater numbers than ever.

 

Fewer states require high stakes tests as graduation exams and/or use them to evaluate their teachers. Across the nation, states are cutting the size of standardized tests or eliminating them altogether. And more state legislatures passed laws explicitly allowing parents to opt their children out of the tests.

 

Yet Education Week published an article a few days ago called “Anti-Test Movement Slows to a Crawl.”

 

I think we have different definitions of “Slows” and “Crawl.”

 

That may not be surprising since we also seem to have different definitions of “Anti-Test.”

 

The Opt Out Movement is not “Anti-Test.” It is anti-high stakes standardized test.

 

It is against the federal government forcing states to use corporate written, corporate graded and corporate remediated standardized assessments.

 

It is against the federal government requiring each state to participate in a corporate boondoggle that not only wastes billions of tax dollars that could be better spent to educate children but also unfairly assesses their academic progress and feeds the push to privatize public schools.

 

Most people against high stakes standardized testing, however, have no problem with authentic teacher-created assessments.

 

Calling these folks “Anti-Test” is like labeling those pushing for stricter gun regulations “Anti-Gun” or smearing those protesting government corruption as “Anti-Government.”

 

And that’s just the title!

 

The author Alyson Klein further misdirects readers by conflating opt out rates and test resistance.

 

She implied that the only measure of opposition was the percentage of students who opt out. However, as noted above, there are multiple measures of resistance.

 

 

Moreover, few states advertise their opt out rates. Especially after the movement began, states made that information harder to come by to dissuade more people from joining it.

 

Of those states where information is available, Klein puts the most negative possible spin on the facts in order to make her point – a point that it seems to me is not at all justified.

 

For instance, Klein writes:

 

“At least some of the steam has gone out of the opt-out movement in states such as New Jersey and New York, considered hotbeds of anti-testing fervor.”

 

Really?

 

In New York, Opt out numbers remained at approximately 20% – the same as they have for the past three years.

 

And New York is one of our most densely populated states. That percentage represents more than 225,000 parents across the Empire State who refused to let their children take the tests despite threats from many administrators and district officials for doing so.

 

 

In New Jersey, opt out rates were marginally lower this year than last year. They went from 7% to 5%. But once again New Jersey is a populous state. That percentage represents about 68,500 students.

 

In addition, this is after massive opt outs three years ago that forced the state to change its federally mandated assessment. Testing boycotts pushed the state education association to get rid of four PARCC assessments and allow students who fail the remaining two tests to take an alternative assessment. And this is in a state where there is no law explicitly allowing parents to opt out of the tests.

 

I don’t know if I’d call that running out of steam.

 

Moreover, opt out rates have increased in other states for which we have data. For instance, test refusal is on the rise in heartland states like Minnesota.

 

And it nearly doubled in Utah over the past two years to about 6%. In some schools in the Beehive State, rates are much higher. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, 1 in 5 students in the Park City school district refused to take the tests.

 

 

Though my own state of Pennsylvania has been mum on last year’s opt outs, from my own personal experience as a teacher in suburban Pittsburgh, I never had more students boycott our federally mandated standardized test than I did last year.

 

There were so many they had to be quarantined in a special room.

 

Moreover, an increasing number of parents ask me about the issue, express concern and wonder about their rights.

 

So even when examining just the rate of opt out, I don’t see any reason to assume the movement is slowing down.

 

On the contrary, it is picking up steam with multiple victories.

 

As recently as 2012, half of all U.S. states required high school exit exams in order for students to graduate. Today that number has dropped to 12. The reason? Exit exams don’t raise student achievement – they raise the dropout rate. At least that’s what The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences tells us.

 

Another positive sign – seven states have stopped using value added measures (VAM) to judge teachers. This is the highly controversial practice of assessing educators based on their students test scores – a practice that has never been proven fair to teachers or effective in helping students learn. Six states have dropped this requirement altogether: Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Connecticut still gathers the information but cannot use it in the teacher’s “summative rating.” And other states like New Mexico still use value added measures but have reduced the weight given to student test scores.

 

Moreover, let’s not forget how many states have slashed the size of the high stakes tests they’re giving to students. After the recent wave of opt outs and public outcry, state education departments have ensured that testing at least takes up less time. This includes New York, Maryland, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Washington, Illinois, West Virginia, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. Some of this is because the PARCC test used in 21 states was slashed by 90 minutes.

 

And when it comes to opt out, two more states – Idaho and North Dakota – now have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to refuse the test for their children – in whole or in part. That brings the total number of states up to 10. It would have been 11, but Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, vetoed an opt-out bill. The federal government still wants us to penalize these districts for non-participation in flagrant violation of its authority. But as more states respect parents’ rights on this matter, it will be increasingly difficult for the U.S. Department of Education to continue trampling them.

 

And speaking of the federal government, some states are taking advantage of the wiggle room in the federal law that governs K-12 education – the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – to allow students to avoid standardized testing entirely. Some states are implementation performance assessments instead. Kids can use a portfolio of classwork to demonstrate learning instead of getting a grade on a corporate-written standardized test. New Hampshire, for instance, has pioneered this approach with a program that now involves half the state’s districts.

 

These are not the signs of a movement that is slowing to a crawl.

 

It just makes sense that some of the rhetoric of the movement may have become less forceful with the enactment of the federal ESSA.

 

Many had hoped for a better law – one that did away with federally mandated testing altogether.

 

And that could still happen sooner than many think. Next year it will be time to reauthorize the law again.

 

It took Congress six years to reauthorize the federal education law last time. Perhaps our duly elected representatives can be coaxed into doing their jobs a bit quicker this time.

 

There is already some proposed legislation to make positive changes. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) introduced legislation last year to replace annual assessments with grade-span tests. The United States is, after all, one of the only countries in the world – if not the only one – to require students be tested every year. These proposed changes are not nearly enough, but they’re a step in the right direction.

 

One of the biggest obstacles to abolishing federally mandated testing last time was that some of the oldest and most well funded civil rights organizations opposed it. Many of them get their money and support from the same billionaires who profit off of the standardized testing and privatization industries.

 

However, that support for testing was short lived. Already the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has revoked it returning to a call for opposition to testing.

 

If our nation survives the many crises of the Donald Trump administration, there is no reason our future cannot be bright.

 

We have the support, we have the tools, we just need the chance to do right by our children.

 

And the pendulum is swinging back our way.


 

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 NAACP Once Again Opposes High Stakes Standardized Testing!

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The nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization has come out against high stakes standardized testing.

 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) distributed an issue brief yesterday at its national convention in San Antonio, Texas, titled “NAACP OPPOSES HIGH-STAKES EDUCATIONAL TESTING.”

 

The brief stated that the organization has concerns about using a single standardized test as a graduation requirement, as a prerequisite for advancement to the next grade or otherwise blocking students from receiving various educational opportunities. In its place, the organization favors the use of multiple measures, which may include standardized testing but should also include other assessments such as student grades and teacher evaluations.

 

In short, the brief concluded:

 

“Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for promotion, tracking, ability grouping and graduation is not fair and does not foster equality or opportunity for students regardless of race, income, or gender.”

 

This is a huge policy shift from where the organization was just three years ago.

 

In 2015, the NAACP along with several other larger and older civil rights groups changed its position against testing to one in favor of it.

 

At the time, Congress was getting ready to pass a new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The civil rights organizations – many of whom had just asked Congress a year earlier to reduce standardized testing – suddenly demanded it be kept a federal accountability standard and that taking these tests was, itself, a civil right.

 

At the time, many education activists were shocked by the turnaround obviously coerced by the standardized testing and school privatization industry. For instance, see this email from Teach for America alum Liz King giving organizations an ultimatum to sign.

 

The new issue brief is more in-line with the NAACP’s history of opposition and activism against corporate education reform.

 

Once again we have the NAACP that advocated against standardized testing in the Debra P v. Turlington case (1981), where the Florida legislature made passing a single standardized test a graduation requirement. The NAACP supported black students who had a disproportionate failing rate on the test and claimed the Florida legislature was violating the Fourteenth Amendment. The courts eventually ruled against the plaintiffs but the issue has remained contentious to this day.

 

The new issue brief isn’t just a return to form. It builds on concerns that are still plaguing our schools.

 

Of particular note in the new issue brief is the caution that, “…when standardized tests are used by schools and school districts, that the tests be valid and reliable, measure what the student was taught and provide appropriate accommodations for disabled children.”

 

Many would argue that the new batch of Common Core aligned tests being used by states do not meet this requirement. They do not test what students have been taught – they test students’ ability to spit back the same kind of thinking of the person who wrote the test. Moreover, special needs students are rarely afforded the same accommodations on federally mandated standardized test day that they are allowed during every other assessment they take during the school year.

 

The brief continues:

 

“Furthermore, the NAACP is opposed to individual students being unfairly denied critical educational opportunities because of their performance on a single, standardized test.

 

This, itself, is a nationwide problem. Administrators are pressured to make district policies “data-driven” and thus deny students the chance to take advanced classes or go on special field trips because of performance on one multiple choice test.

 

The NAACP certainly could go farther in its criticism of high stakes testing.

 

Organizations like the Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have never wavered in their opposition to high stakes standardized testing. In 2015 while the NAACP and other well established groups defended testing, JJA was joined by 175 other national and local grassroots community, youth and civil rights organizations asking Congress to stop requiring standardized tests at all.

 

Standardized testing violates students civil rights – especially the poor and students of color.

 

It is nice to see the NAACP returning to the activism on which it built its justly deserved reputation.

 

What follows is the full text of the new NAACP issue brief:

 

 

 

“ISSUE BRIEF

 

Date: Summer, 2018

 

To: Concerned Parties

 

From: Hilary O. Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau

 

NAACP OPPOSES HIGH-STAKES EDUCATIONAL TESTING

 

THE ISSUE

 

Many states are relying on a single examination to determine decisions (such as graduating from high school or promoting students to the next grade), despite the fact that leading education experts nationwide recommend multiple measures of student performance for such decisions. While these “high-stakes” tests serve an important role in education settings, they are not perfect and when used improperly can create real barriers to educational opportunity and progress. Furthermore, one-time, standardized tests may have a disparate impact on students of color, many of whom have not had the benefit of high quality teaching staff (urban school districts have the greatest challenge in attracting and keeping high qualified teachers), adequate classroom resources, or instruction on the content and skills being tested by the standardized tests. Considering additional measures of student achievement, such as grades and teacher evaluations, adds not only to the fairness of a decision with major consequences for students but also increases the validity of such high stakes decisions.

 

Due to our concerns about the fairness of such testing, as well as the potential impact these tests have on the lives of our children, the NAACP has supported legislation in the past that would require that States follow the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Specifically, the bills require that High Stakes decisions be based upon multiple measures of student performance and, when standardized tests are used by schools and school districts, that the tests be valid and reliable, measure what the student was taught and provide appropriate accommodations for disabled children. Furthermore, the NAACP is opposed to individual students being unfairly denied critical educational opportunities because of their performance on a single, standardized test.

 

The NAACP will continue to promote the initiatives that ensure equal opportunity, fairness, and accuracy in education by coupling standardized tests with other measures of academic achievement. Using a single standardized test as the sole determinant for promotion, tracking, ability grouping and graduation is not fair and does not foster equality or opportunity for students regardless of race, income, or gender.”

 

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Special thanks to Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig who first released the issue brief on his education blog.


 

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 School Lobby Panics as NAACP Rejects For-Profit Schools

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White America has a history of freaking out at perfectly reasonable suggestions by the black community.

 

 

Hey, maybe black people shouldn’t be slaves.

 

 

SOUTHERN STATES SECEDE! THE CIVIL WAR BEGINS!

 

 

Hey, maybe black lives should matter as much as white ones.

 

 

BLUE LIVES MATTER! MAGA! TRUMP!

 

 

Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be making money off of children’s educations?

 

 

PANIC!

 

 

That’s what seems to be happening at think tanks and school privatization lobbying firms across the country after a new report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) this week.

 

 

Some news sources are characterizing the report as “radical” or “controversial.”

 

 

However, the report, titled “Quality Education for All: One School at a Time,” basically says nothing more revolutionary than that all public schools should be transparent and accountable.

 

That includes charter schools.

 

“Public schools must be public,” the report states. “They must serve all children equitably and well. To the extent that they are part of our public education system, charter schools must be designed to serve these ends.”

 

And why shouldn’t they?

 

More than 3 million students attend charter schools across the country. Approximately 837,000 of them are black. Don’t they deserve the same kinds of democratically controlled schools and fiscal responsibility as their counterparts in traditional public schools?

 

 

Somehow your local public school is able to teach kids while still keeping a record of how it’s spending its money – your money. And if you don’t like what’s being done, you can go to a school board meeting and speak up or even run for a leadership position.

 

 

How does getting rid of that help kids learn? How does operating in secret in the shadows benefit children?

 

 

The report also recommends that local communities should have more control over whether to open charter schools in their districts and calls for an end to for-profit charter schools, altogether.

 

 

Not exactly the musings of anarchist provocateurs.

 

 

Charter school cheerleaders like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos call their movement School Choice. Shouldn’t communities get to choose whether they want them there in the first place? If the program is based on the free market, let them make their case to the community before setting up shop. They shouldn’t get to make a backroom deal with your congressman and then start peddling their wares wherever they want.

 

 

Moreover, if charter schools are, indeed, public schools, why should they be allowed to operate at a profit? They are supported by tax dollars. That money should go to educating children, not lining the pockets of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers.

 

 

The authors were very specific on this point:

 

“No federal, state, or local taxpayer dollars should be used to fund for-profit charter schools, nor should public funding be sent from nonprofit charters to for-profit charter management companies.”

 

But that’s not all.

 

 

The author’s also call out charters infamous enrollment and hiring practices. Specifically, these kinds of privatized schools are known to cherry pick the best and brightest students during admissions, and to kick out those who are difficult to teach or with learning disabilities before standardized testing season. The report called for charters to admit all students who apply and to work harder to keep difficult students – both hallmarks of traditional public schools.

 

 

In addition, the report suggests charters no longer try to save money by hiring uncertified teachers. If charters are going to accept public money, they should provide the same kind of qualified educators as their traditional public school counterparts.

 

 

However, even if such reforms are made, the report is doubtful that privatized education could ever be as effective and equitable as traditional public schools. In perhaps the most damning statement in the report, the authors wrote:

 

“While high-quality, accountable, and accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity, by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education.”

 

The report was written by the 12-member NAACP Task Force on Quality Education after a set of intensive hearings or “listening sessions” across the country in cities such as New Haven, Memphis, Orlando, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and New York. The final product is the result of the input they received during these meetings.

 

 

This is only the latest in a growing movement of skepticism toward privatized education of all sorts – especially in relation to its impact on students of color.

 

 

Less than a year ago, the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country, called for a moratorium on any new charter schools. This week’s report takes that caution to the next level.

 

 

Despite a truly controversial record, over the past decade, the number of students in charter schools has nearly tripled. In terms of pure numbers, black students only make up more than a quarter of charter school enrollment. However, that’s a disproportionately high number since they make up only 15 percent of total public school enrollment. To put it another way, one in eight black students in the United States today attends a charter school.

 

 

The NAACP isn’t the only civil rights organization critical of charter schools. Groups such as the Journey for Justice Alliance, a coalition of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations, and the Movement for Black Lives, a conglomeration of the nation’s youngest national civil rights organizations, have also expressed concern over the uses and abuses of students of color in charter schools.

 

 

 

However, this week’s report wasn’t focused solely on privatization. It also addressed the central issue at traditional public schools – funding disparities.

 

 

The report identifies severe inequalities between rich vs. poor communities as the cause of so-called failing schools. The report argues that “to solve the quality education problems that are at the root of many of the issues, school finance reform is essential to ensure that resources are allocated according to student needs.”

 

 

Closing the achievement gap requires specific investment in low-performing schools, not punitive measures. There should be more federal, state, and local policies to attract and retain fully qualified educators, improve instructional quality, and provide wraparound services for young people.

 

 

The report suggests states model their funding formulas on those of Massachusetts and California and that the federal government should fully enforce the funding-equity provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

 

It would be difficult to find more rational and reasonable solutions to the education problems in today’s schools.

 

 

But pay attention to the response it’s getting.

 

 

Corporate reformers are running scared with their hair on fire as someone finally has the guts to point out that the emperor is walking around stark naked!

Congress Frees Public Schools From Federal Test & Punish – Where’s the Catch?

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Let’s say you were kidnapped and kept in a small basement room where you were routinely beaten and starved.

Then after years of this treatment, your captors brought in a massage table and offered you a filet mignon after your spa treatment.

You’d be more than a little bit confused.

That’s the position of parents, students and teachers today.

After almost two decades of punishing public schools and their students for low test scores, Congress suddenly decides to step back and leave it to the states!?

Until now the federal government had mandated increasing high stakes standardized tests and forcing schools that don’t meet a certain threshold to be stripped of their school boards, turned into charters or simply closed. Until now, the federal government coerced states to enact every fly-by-night corporate education reform from Common Core to Teach for America to evaluating teachers based on student test scores.

But now the feds are just walking away!?

First, in 2015 lawmakers passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a reauthorization of federal K-12 education policy that (depending on how you interpret it) limited federal power over public schools. However, the Obama administration offered guidelines that put much of that federal power back in place.

Now both the House and Senate have voted to repeal those Obama administration guidelines in favor of… well… some other interpretation.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee and one of the architects of the ESSA, says states can just follow what’s written in the law. But this is a 1,061 page document full of legalese, meandering bipartisan compromises and – frankly – contradictory language. Even the most simple legislation needs interpretation, and in this case it needs extensive interpretation.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to offer her take on what all this means by Monday. So buckle up for that one. I’m sure the nation’s Grizzlies are so upset they can barely finish their picnic baskets.

As for the rest of us, it’s hard to know what this all will mean.

Alexander offered a detailed explanation that anyone interested in this issue should read.

I’m no fan of the Senator’s. I think he’s a blatant opportunist, an unapologetic partisan and out to protect only one person – numero uno.

But he makes some excellent points about federal overreach in the Department of Education under the previous two administrations.

Moreover, unlike DeVos, the supremely unqualified Education Secretary he helped ram through Congress over bipartisan objections, he knows something about schools. He was Secretary of Education, himself, from 1991-93 under President George H. W. Bush.

First, the ESSA still mandates annual testing. Even without the Obama guidelines, students will still be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Second, Alexander says the law still requires each state to hold its public schools accountable. Each state must submit a plan detailing how it intends to do that by September of 2017. There is plenty of latitude on exactly how states will do this, but whatever they decide, this new accountability system must be implemented by next school year (2017-2018).

Moreover, he says, states have to identify and provide support to at least the lowest performing 5% of their schools. This must be done by the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year.

They also must use academic and English language proficiency indicators in their accountability systems. Which indicators? Standardized testing? Maybe – maybe not.

Many accountability provisions, such as the requirement that educators measure reading scores, math scores, and graduation rates, are specifically mentioned in the ESSA.

Still, many questions remain.

For instance: if the Department of Education isn’t allowed to tell states what to do, how is it supposed to help them comply with the law?

Alexander cites “Non-regulatory guidance; Dear Colleague letters; Frequently-Asked-Questions documents; Webinars, phone calls, and in-person conferences.”

Alexander stresses that repealing the Obama regulations does not open to door for the Department of Education to mandate a nationwide school voucher plan – unfortunately.

He writes, “A school choice program cannot be unilaterally created by the Department of Education. Only Congress could create a voucher program, and, unfortunately, Congress has rejected doing that.”

However, the Trump administration and DeVos have already made their intentions known about school vouchers. They intend to use Title I dollars – money usually earmarked for the most impoverished students – as federal bribes to enact vouchers. It’s basically the same thing Obama did with Race to the Top – promising federal money to states if their schools do what the feds want them to do.

For all his talk about states rights, Alexander appears to have no problems with this same kind of Obama-style coercion.

But he does appear to be correct about the transfer of power.

Apparently, the states really will regain control over their public schools.

This could be a very positive thing. And it’s not the only one.

In addition to repealing Obama’s accountability regulations, Congress scrapped Obama’s teacher preparation rules.

This change was less controversial. Eight Democrats joined Republicans in voting to repeal the teacher preparation regulations. By comparison, no Democrats voted to dismantle the accountability rules and one Republican joined them in opposition.

The teacher preparation rules were released in October after years of delay.

The main point of contention was the requirement that states develop a rating system aimed at evaluating the success of their teacher preparation programs. This would have included how programs’ teachers perform based on a measure of student academic achievement. Though the final version gained some flexibility with how to determine student academic success beyond just test scores, it remained a hot mess.

Any programs that didn’t perform well on the state’s rating system would have lost access to federal grants aimed at supporting teachers who work in high-need certification areas and in low-income schools (or TEACH grants). In effect, it would have pushed for a new generation of teachers dedicated to test prep and Common Core.

And these repeals of Obama regulations – these seeming improvements just waiting for Donald Trump’s signature – are brought to us by the same people who support removing protections for trans students. These are the same legislators who gave us an unexperienced mega-donor as Education Secretary.

Frankly, I’m having trouble believing it.

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Perhaps the standardized testing industry has consolidated so much support at the various Republican controlled state legislatures that it no longer needs support in Washington. Perhaps our ridiculously gerrymandered state legislative districts will make any resistance even more difficult. Perhaps a completely toothless Department of Education will embolden the most racist state legislators to dramatically increase segregation and civil rights abuses for the poor and minorities.

Or perhaps Republicans actually got one right?

Republicans Suggest Federal Role in Education Be Limited to Bribery

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Hey! Let’s repeal the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965!

Let’s hobble the Department of Education!

Let’s make the federal role just handing out bundles of cash to private and parochial schools!

That’s apparently how you improve public education. You make it private.

And you completely eliminate any protections for students’ civil rights.

THIS is the brave new world of Trumpian education policy. It’s called HR 610 and was introduced by Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa.

You may Remember King. He introduced an amendment in the U.S. House that would have prevented Harriet Tubman from replacing President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. Sure she was an abolitionist, women’s suffragist and hero who rescued scores of black people from slavery in the Underground Railroad. Why would we want her to replace a former slave trader and architect of the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears!?

His new piece of wonderful legislation – not at all written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – would turn the U.S. Department of Education into merely an authorizer of block grants to qualified states to participate in a nationwide voucher program.

The department would give out money to local districts to give to parents to home school or send their children to private schools.

In effect, the federal government would become a booster for private and parochial schools. Uncle Sam would be offering free cash to private interests, corporations, entrepreneurs and business people if they can just convince parents to choose them over the public school system.

Which brings up the question – what about that public school system? Would it still receive the federal help it currently does? Would there still be Title I Grants to schools serving impoverished students? What would happen to Pell Grants? Who would make sure states are doing their jobs? Where could we go to find accurate data about how our schools are doing nationally and not just state-by-state?

These are questions that have not fully been answered. It’s possible some of these services could fall back on other governmental departments as they did before the creation of the Department of Education in 1980. However, more likely this would be a redistribution of billions of dollars that used to go to public schools now going to private hands.

Moreover, abuses against students on the grounds of civil rights, gender, special education, etc. would skyrocket with little to no recourse. And we would be in the dark about how well we were educating our nation’s children.

Oh! And the bill also would reduce nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts.

I’m not kidding.

King apparently is troubled that kids are eating too many fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and drinking low-fat or fat free milk. He is against reducing salt, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals. And he doesn’t think children’s nutritional needs should be met within their caloric requirements.

I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that these regulations were proposed by the Obama administration. It has nothing to do with undoing legislation from our first black President. It’s all about the children.

King’s bill, HR 610, is not to be confused with a similar bill by Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie that would simply dismantle the Department of Education in one year.

Massie, who introduced his one page, one sentence bill on the same day DeVos was confirmed, is a Tea Party Republican Libertarian. He supports disbanding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and allowing guns at the nation’s schools.

He is a hardcore Trump believer. During the election cycle after revelations about the candidate’s admitted sexual molestation of women surfaced, Massie famously said, “Trump is better than 90 percent of the congressmen I serve with.”

His bill, HR 899, reads in total:

“The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

As crazy as it sounds, Massie’s motivations are comprehensible. He wants to return complete control of education to the states.

It must be admitted that the Department of Education has overstepped the bounds of its authority during the last two administrations. When it was formed three decades ago, it was supposed to be a tool to support public schools, ensure student’s rights weren’t being violated and giving a boost to the poor. However, President George W. Bush made it all about standardized testing and giving slush money to charter schools. Obama was supposed to right these wrongs but, being a corporate Democrat, he only increased and administered them more efficiently.

The Department of Education is a tool, and like any tool, it can be misused. That doesn’t mean it should be disbanded. Republicans wouldn’t ban all guns because of instances of gun violence. Why disband the Department of Education because administrations of both parties misused it? Put it in check with proper regulations…

Oops. I think I’ve lost them.

Anyway, despite Massie’s slavish devotion for all things Trump, the President appears to be siding with King.

Trump and his mega-donor Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, have already shown their commitment to King’s voucher legislation.

On Tuesday, they invited ten parents and teachers to Washington, D.C., to talk about their education agenda.

Who did they invite? One was a public school teacher. One was a public school principal for a building specializing in special education. One was a public school parent who also had children in private school.  The rest were homeschoolers, charter school parents or private school representatives.

So 70-80% of the people they invited were not associated with public schools. The Trump administration has made it clear that they are not interested in serving public school students. They are primarily concerned with children going to private and parochial schools who currently make up less than 10 percent of the country’s students.

During the meeting, Trump even praised a “Nevada charter school” that he had visited.  This school is a religious school where students pledged allegiance to the Bible for the former Reality TV star. (Don’t believe me? Watch the video by clicking here.) Like many private or parochial schools, the one Trump praised is notorious for regularly excluding students with disabilities.

The Trump administration is apparently not very concerned with special education students. DeVos refused to commit herself to defending these students during her confirmation hearing (and still was confirmed by Republican legislators!). Moreover, one of the first things the Department did after DeVos took over was to shut down its Webpage for students with disabilities and direct users to another page with fewer resources.

Currently, Republicans control both houses of Congress. They could easily ram through this legislation and Trump would almost certainly sign it. Moreover, there are numerous corporate Democrats like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey who may be overjoyed that the ideology they have pushed for their entire careers have finally been proposed by Trump.

The only thing standing in the way of this wrecking ball bill is parents and teachers.

We flooded our lawmakers phones, emails and town halls during the DeVos confirmation. We demanded a qualified candidate with a commitment to public education. But because she and her family have paid more than $200 million to these same GOP lawmakers, they voted for her anyway.

Will they continue to override their constituents? Only time will tell.

As the Trump administration continues to unravel and public support plummets for him and his corporate agenda, resistance will become more politically possible.

All we can do is keep up the pressure. Keep calling. Keep emailing. Keep showing up at lawmakers offices. Keep marching in the streets.

Eventually, these people will have to listen to us – or else we’ll stop them at the voting booth.

But will public schools last that long?


You can email your U.S. Representative about HR 610 by clicking HERE.