Classroom Grades Show Learning Better than Standardized Test Scores

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

William Bruce Cameron

This summer my family suffered a tremendous blow.

My grandmother, Ce Ce, died.

She was in her 90s and had been unwell since before COVID. But she was also our matriarch, the point around which so much of our interrelations orbited and met.

After the funeral, I found myself at my uncle’s house somehow tasked with watching over several young cousins who had had just about enough of sitting around quietly in itchy suits and dresses.

To get a moment to myself, I set them a task: go downstairs among the assorted relatives and ask them to tell you a story about Ce Ce. Best story wins.

They went off like an explosion. And when they came back, they each had a touching tale about Ce Ce.

One was about how she defended a niece who wanted to marry someone of another faith. Another story was a fond recollection of the sweet and sour spaghetti sauce she used to make, the recipe of which is lost forever.

I was even surprised to hear some stories I had never known like that after my grandfather died, a semi-famous painter had asked Ce Ce on a date!

When my little cousins’ recitations were done, they were united in one thing – wanting to know who won.

I stumbled. I stammered.

I really had no way of judging such a thing.

They had all brought back such wonderful stories. Who won? We were ALL enriched by hearing them.

And that’s kind of how I feel about learning.

It is a fool’s errand to try and compare one person’s acquisition of knowledge with another. But that’s exactly what our current education system is built on.

Unless opted out by a parent or guardian, every public school child in America is required to take standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

And the results of these tests are used to make high stakes decisions about which classes the students can enroll in, which enrichments, field trips or remediation they require, and even how much funding will be given or withheld from the schools and districts where they attend.

As a result, the social effects of poverty and racial discrimination end up being transformed into numbers. Thus, instead of being seen as indictments of the economic and racist status quo, they are viewed as the problem of schools and the individual students, themselves.

Standardized tests purport to show that poor children and/or children of color aren’t learning at the same rate as other children. So by the end of 12th grade they have learned less. When they are discriminated against in the job market then, that discrimination is justified – because it is not based on economics or race; it is based on numbers.

However, to perform this alchemy, we have to ignore the fact that standardized assessments are not the only way to determine whether students have learned anything. In fact, for the majority of students’ school experience that learning is assessed by something else entirely – classroom grades.

What if we took classroom grades as seriously as we take standardized test scores?

What if we valued them MORE?

The world would be a very different place.

The entire narrative of failing students and failing schools would turn on its head. After all, graduation rates have steadily increased over the last decade.

Students are completing more courses and more difficult courses. And students are even getting higher grades in these classes!

Yet at the same time, standardized test scores on national exams have remained at about the same level or gone down.

How is that possible?

The new analysis comes from the U.S. Department of Education, and tracks transcripts of a representative sample of high school graduates in 1990, 2000, 2009, and 2019.

It does not include scores from 2020 and 2022 when both classroom grades and national test scores fell. But that’s clearly because of the pandemic and the fact that most students educations and testing schedules were disrupted.

Before COVID, students increasingly were taking higher-level courses, and their Grade Point Averages (GPAs) were steadily rising — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.11 in 2019. 

This is true of students from all backgrounds, but disparities still existed. On average, white and Asian students had higher GPAs than Black and Hispanic students. Though girls, overall, had higher GPAs than boys.

However, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given to a sample of students across the country, test scores during the same period did not show a similar increase. Math and reading scores in 2019 were slightly lower than in 2009 and unchanged from 2005. Science scores haven’t budged since 2009. 

Why the disparity?

It seems that either teachers are making it too easy to get good classroom grades or standardized testing does not assess student learning accurately.

Scholars, teachers, parents and students have been complaining about the validity of standardized testing for more than a century. But business interests make billions of dollars off the industry it creates. Guess which group policymakers continue to heed over the other.

It doesn’t take much to show why classroom grades are better at assessing student learning. Compare them with standardized test scores.

Students earn grades based on a wide range of assessments, activities, and behaviors – quizzes, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, homework, and in-class work.

Standardized tests, on the other hand, are not assigned on such a multifaceted range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within limited academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.

Classroom grades are tapestries sown from many patches showing a year’s worth of progress. Standardized tests are at best snapshots of a moment in time.

In class, students can speak with teachers about grades to get a better sense of how and why they earned the marks they did. They can then use this explanation to guide them in the future thus tailoring the classroom experience to individuals.

The value seen in standardized test is its apparent comparability. Scores are supposed to reflect student performance under roughly the same conditions, so the results can be equated and analyzed.

So the biggest difference isn’t a matter of validity, it is pragmatism. Test scores can be used to rate students from all over the country or the world. They can be used to sort kids into a hierarchy of best to worst. Though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. The purpose of education is not like the National Football League (NFL). It’s to encourage learning, not competition based on a simulation of learning.

And there is evidence that classroom grades are more valid than standardized test scores.

After all, high stakes assessments like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) do NOT accurately predict future academic success as classroom grades, in fact, do.


 
Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or American College Testing (ACT) tests don’t achieve more than kids who received lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.


 
Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.


 
Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.


 
However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

Classroom grades would not have such consistent predictive value if they were nothing but the result of grade inflation or lenient teachers.

In fact, of the two assessments – classroom grades and standardized tests – one is far more essential to the daily learning of students than the other.

We could abolish all standardized testing without any damage to student learning. In fact, the vacuum created by the loss of these high stakes tests would probably result in much less teaching to the test. Days, weeks, months of additional class time would suddenly appear and much more learning would probably take place.

Academic decisions about which classes students can enroll in or what remediation is necessary could just as easily be made based on classroom grades and teacher observations. And funding decisions for schools and districts could be made based on need and equity – not the political football of standardized testing.

However, getting rid of classroom grades would be much more disruptive. Parents and students would have few measures by which to determine if students had learned the material. Teachers would have fewer tools to encourage children to complete assignments. And if only test scores remained, the curriculum would narrow to a degree unheard of – constant, daily test prep with no engagement to ones life, critical thinking or creativity.

To be fair, there are mastery-based learning programs that try to do without grades, but they are much more experimental and require a complete shift in how we view learning. This is a more holistic system that requires students to demonstrate learning at one level before moving ahead to the next. However, it is incredibly labor intensive for teachers and often relies heavily on edtech solutions to make it viable.

I’m not saying this is an impossible system or even taking a stance on its value. But a large scale shift away from classroom grades would be chaotic, confusing and probably a failure without serious support, scaffolding and parental, teacher and student buy-in.

At the end of the day, classroom grades are the best tool we have to determine whether learning has taken place and to what degree. We should do everything we can to change the way policymakers prefer the standardized approach to the personalized one.

To return to a fuller quote by sociology professor Cameron with which I began this article:

‘It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Thus, the urge to quantify student learning seems predicated on the popular maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Standardized testing is about managing students – sorting them into valuable and disposable for the workforce.

Classroom grades are actually concerned with the project at hand – assessment of learning.

Which brings me back to my little cousins.

When I told them I couldn’t possibly pick a winner between them based on their stories, there were lots of groans of annoyance.

They viewed the whole project as a competition and they wanted to win.

I hope on reflection they’ll see that we all won.

Everything isn’t a contest. We are not all opponents.

If they can grasp that, it would be the greatest lesson I could teach.


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The MAP Test – Selling Schools Unnecessary Junk at Student Expense

School districts are easy targets for grifters.

Corporations everywhere are trying to sell them unnecessary junk and pocket wads of taxpayer cash.

The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is a particularly egregious example of this, but let me begin with a more everyday example.

I’m a public school teacher in western Pennsylvania, and when I returned to school this week before classes started, I noticed my stapler was irreparably jammed from last year.

Normally, I’d just go out and buy another one. But I was running out of time to get things done, so I went to the office and asked if they had any staplers.

As luck would have it, they did.

The secretary lead me to a closet full of brand new Swingline staplers.

I thanked her, took one back to my room and started stapling.

Three staples in, it was irreparably jammed.

When I returned home that evening and complained to my family about the woes of the day, my sweet 13-year-old daughter offered me a stapler we had around the house.

When I brought it to school, it worked like a dream.

It wasn’t some top of the line model. It was another basic Swingline stapler. It was slightly less boxy and more modern than the kind I got from the office. But it worked. That’s the important difference.

So why did the office have a closet full of faulty staplers?

Because most teachers – unlike me – know the staplers the district buys are crap. You have to purchase your own supplies.

But think of the money wasted here!

The basic model sells for almost $14 on amazon.com.

Those staplers – that many staplers – probably add up to hundreds of dollars.

And they don’t even work!

Sadly, the full extent of the waste district-wide is much farther reaching than just the staplers.

Later that very day, teachers in my building were forced to sit through a virtual training on the MAP test.

This is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon.

The company claims its assessments are used by over 9,500 schools and districts in 145 countries – but none is more popular than the MAP.

Some states even require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in the Commonwealth, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it.

My building – the middle school – used a variety of different assessments throughout the years for this purpose – IXL, CDT, etc.

However, things are changing this year. No, we’re not getting rid of these pretests altogether – why enact sane policy now after a decade of wrongheadedness!?

My district had used the MAP consistently for years at the elementary schools, so someone in administration thought it made sense to bring it to the middle school now and eventually institute it in the high school, as well.

Do we really need an assessment BEFORE the state mandated assessments?

Heck no!

Classroom teachers give enough assignments and tests of their own to know where their students are academically throughout the year. We grade them after all. What do you think that’s based on – guessing?

But certain administrators just love these pre-tests. They love looking at spreadsheets of student data and comparing one grading period to another. They think if the numbers go higher, it will be proof they’re good principals and functionaries.

It’s pathetic to be honest. What a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be used for actual learning! What a waste of class time that could be used for actual teaching!

And what a negative impact these assessment actually have on students and their learning!

For instance, at the MAP training, teachers were told the assessment’s job was to show how our students were doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker.

How is that useful?

I don’t teach average test takers. I don’t even teach average students.

How is constantly comparing them to a norm going to help them improve?

If I went on a diet and stepped on the scale, learning that my weight loss wasn’t as high as an average dieter would not help me stay away from sweets. If anything, it would inspire me to go on a binge in the snack drawer.

It’s the same with my students. Constantly pounding into them how below average their scores are does not inspire them to do better. It teaches them that they cannot do what is being asked of them so they stop trying.

When learning a skill, it doesn’t help to know how well others are or are not learning that same skill. It matters how much you are learning in comparison to yourself. Yesterday I knew THIS. Today I know a bit MORE. Who cares what the so-called average learner can do!?

Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.

But no matter how many times I say such things to administrators or paid trainers from NWEA, they just don’t get it.

At this training, the instructor actually wanted to know what “elevator speech” teachers were going to give to parents about why the MAP was important!

It’s bad enough we’re being forced to give this crappy assessment, but now you want us to spout propaganda to the very people paying our salaries!?

Why not invite us to the school board meeting and ask us what we really think of this initiative? Why not have us submit comments anonymously and have them read publicly to the school board?

But of course not! That would be actually valuing the opinion of the people you’ve hired to teach!

It’s no wonder the trainer was anticipating blow back. Many parent and teacher groups across the country have opposed the MAP test. Most famously in 2013, teachers at several Seattle schools lead by Garfield High School actually refused to give the MAP test.

Having trusted teachers sooth community worry with corporate propaganda would be a big win for the testing company.

However, I’ll give the trainer one thing – she understood that the MAP assessment scores would not be useful unless students could be encouraged to take the test seriously. Nobody tries their best at something they think is unimportant.

Her solution was two-fold. First, NWEA has produced several propaganda videos to show students why the test is important.

I can imagine how much they’ll love that!

Second, the MAP is an adaptive test taken on a computer or iPad. And it actively monitors the students taking the test.

If its algorithm determines that students are answering questions too quickly or “rapid guessing,” the program pauses the student test.

Teachers are supposed to monitor all this on a screen and intervene when it occurs. We’re supposed to counsel kids not to just guess and then allow them back on the test. If the algorithm still thinks students are guessing, we’re supposed to suspend their test and make them take it all over again.

You know, I did not get a masters in education to become a policeman for a standardized testing organization.

Moreover, this is exactly the kind of test proctoring that would get me fired if I tried it during the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). I would be guilty of violating test security.

Teachers throughout the state have to take on-line classes every year about what we are and are not allowed to do during the PSSA test. Stopping students who seem to be guessing, is not allowed. I’m not even allowed to point out if a student skipped a question on the test!

I certainly can’t scrap a PSSA test that I think a student didn’t give his best effort on and make him do it again!

So how exactly is this MAP test a practice for the real thing!?

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s an artificial environment where scores are massaged to give an unrealistic picture of how students will do on the PSSA.

Of course, administration at my school has one more trick up its sleeve to get students to take the MAP test seriously.

Like the CDT, IXL and other assessments before it, administrators plan to use MAP scores to make decisions about which classes students can take in the next grade. Students in the advanced classes must test well on the MAP or be denied access to this class in subsequent years. Students who score badly on the MAP may have to take the remedial class.

And unlike the PSSA or Keystone Exams – assessments required by the state – administrators are trying to forbid parents from opting their children out of the MAP test.

State test – you can opt out.

Local assessment – you have to take it. Or else!

I wonder if enough parents will complain to the school board about such behavior or just give up and enroll their kids in the local charter school or the private parochial school located RIGHT NEXT DOOR!

As if this all wasn’t counterproductive enough, it’s also a huge waste of money.

Though NWEA claims to be a non-profit, the company posted $166,775,470 in revenue in 2020 – the most recent year available. Its CEO Chris Minnich made $397,582.

These people are making lots of money off this standardized testing baloney!

According to a 2015 brochure from NWEA about the MAP test, it costs $13.50 per student to take the test every year. And that’s just for the Reading and Math. It costs an additional $2.50 per pupil for the Science test.

So if we estimate 1000 students at the elementary and middle school level, that’s roughly $16,000 a year to take the test.

And that doesn’t include the price of trainings like the one I had to sit through this week.

According to that same brochure, the cost for a single days training is $4,000, though sometimes it can be reduced to $3,500 if you buy the right package.

Trainings can go up to $40,000 for multiple days and an in-person trainer.

I wonder how much money my district flushed down the toilet on this garbage.

I look in my classroom closet at the crumbling books, and wonder.

I look at my steadily increasing class sizes and wonder.

My district doesn’t need the MAP test.

We need a test of basic decency for decision makers.


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

Overturning Abortion Rights is Fascism – Pure and Simple

The US Supreme Court is a fascist organization.

Let me cut right to the chase to explain why.

This week the conservative majority (I won’t call them justices) overturned Roe v. Wade – the landmark 1973 decision that expanded access to abortion nationwide.

This is on top of decisions deeply wounding state’s rights to make gun regulations, to hold police civilly accountable for reading suspects their Miranda rights, and even the separation of Church and State in regard to public funding of parochial schools.

Let me be very clear – this is not about consistency based on legal precedent or interpretation of the law. It is ideology – pure and simple.

In the case of abortion, these four men and one woman did it because they wanted to. That’s all.

And they wanted to for a while now. They each lied to Congress during their confirmation hearings.

Maybe money exchanged hands. Maybe they were influenced by powerful pundits, politicians and ideologues.

But their rulings were certainly not based on logic. After all, in the same week they decided states CAN’T regulate guns but states CAN regulate women’s bodies.

This is inconsistent and irrational.

The right to an abortion is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have.

It is central to the very idea of personal freedom and autonomy.

And no argument based on the rights of the unborn can support this travesty of justice.

Look at the facts.

At the beginning of pregnancy, a fetus is nothing but a cluster of cells.

This cluster is alive but so is cancer. So are insects. So are bacteria.

Being alive is not enough to give it rights over-and-above the person these cells are clustered inside.

Electrical impulses in these cells do not constitute a heartbeat. Nearly every cell has such electrical impulses – the brain, muscles, organs, etc. That doesn’t make them separate organisms.

Your belief that a cluster of cells is a person is not a compelling argument for anything.

There are no facts behind it.

It is purely a matter of a faith.

There is no way to prove either position right or wrong. It is definitional.

It is purely something you believe without any evidence.

It is religion, and in a free society one person’s religion cannot compel someone of another faith or someone of no faith whatsoever.

Catholics can’t make Jews attend midnight mass before Christmas. Jews can’t make Baptists refrain from eating pork. Muslims can’t stop atheists from drawing cartoons of religious figures.

Doing so would be theocracy.

So using your belief as a justification to force people who do not share it to take that cluster of cells to term is a textbook example of fascism.

It clearly violates the First Amendment establishment clause of the Constitution. It forces others to be compelled by your faith-based claims.

Moreover, it violates a person’s right to bodily autonomy.

If you have a right to anything, it is to do whatever you want with your own body. After all, that is you at its most essential.

Without this right, you are the same as livestock or an enslaved person.

No one should be able to force you to do anything with or to your body that you don’t want.

Obviously that right has limits – for example if you intend to use your body to hurt or kill someone else.

But we’ve already established that a fetus – a glob of cells – cannot be assumed to be someone else.

Doing otherwise would be absurd.

So someone has beliefs about what’s happening inside your body. So what?

Imagine if some cult thought your kidneys have souls and must be kept inside you at all costs. Should they be able to pass a law forbidding you from removing one if it gets infected? If you want to donate it to save another person’s life?

They’re your kidneys. And that fetus is your cluster of cells. You can do with it what you want.

Eventually, if you let that cluster of cells develop long enough, it may become something else. It may become viable to live on its own and what almost everyone would agree is a person. But it is not a given at all that this conglomeration of tissue is one yet.

And your insistence that your beliefs about it must compel my actions violates my rights.

Moreover, this argument has been predicated on the believer in the personhood of a clump of cells acting in good faith.

In point of practice, we do not even see that.

The same people in favor of repealing a person’s right to abortion may be in favor of the knot of tissue developing through birth, but they do not support doing anything to help it once it has unequivocally reached personhood.

No universal healthcare. No universal daycare. No neonatal care. No robust education funding. And no protection against gun violence.

This shows that most people professing this belief in the personhood of something inside your body is pure balderdash.

It’s not about that mass growing inside a woman. It’s about the woman, herself – controlling her actions, making her bend to your will, making it harder for her to exercise her autonomy and benefit from her own economic power.

It is about upholding patriarchy. It is about subjugating women – especially poor women and women of color who are more likely to be impacted.

Make no mistake.

This is fascism.

Our Supreme Court is fascist.

And whether you are likely to ever have an abortion or not is beside the point.

Every woman, every man, every person is impacted.

We must fight this kangaroo court and the political power behind it.

We must make them regret such blatant autocracy and totalitarianism.

This is everyone’s fight.

Every PERSON. Everywhere.


 

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

Covid Has Hobbled Public Schools. Here’s Why They’re Worth Saving 

 
 
 
Is public education worth saving? 


 
That’s the question in the air these days.  


 
In the last century, the US academic system helped us reach the moon, defeat Communism and become the world’s largest super power.    


 
However, today our public schools are more damaged than ever before.  


 
An increasing number of families are leaving them for charter and voucher schools.  


 
Teachers are quitting their jobs in droves with few people willing to fill the vacancies they leave behind.

 
 
And above all, many people seem to think the schools, themselves, are failing


 
Isn’t it time to move on to something else? 


 
I’m here to tell you – no, it is not. 


 
In fact, we need to guard and cherish our public schools more than ever before. Because we face the real possibility of losing them for good.  


 
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice. 


 
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess. 


 
 
The Pandemic Effect 


 
 
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.

 
 
After decades of segregation, inequitable funding, incentives to privatize, and federally mandated standardized testing, it took a deadly virus to finally hobble the system.  


 
Being forced to contend with the uncertainties of Covid-19 damaged people’s faith in public education more than anything that had come before it. 


 
Issues of masking, contact tracing, safety of immunocompromised students and staff, and when to open or close buildings (among other issues) lead to inevitable dissatisfaction from all fronts.  


 
However, none of these issues should have been decided at the local level in the first place.  


 
These were issues of national significance. We needed a unified strategy to fight a global pandemic as it washed over our shores – not scattershot policies by part-time officials unequipped to deal with them


 
These problems should have been tackled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and enforced by the federal government without deference to big business.  


 
Instead, the CDC made conflicting decisions based more on the needs of the economy than public health (many of which were roundly ignored anyway). Then federal and state governments either refused to decide safety protocols leaving it up to individuals or municipalities, or when they did decide matters, they were embroiled in partisan battles over any kind of restrictions.  


 
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be. 


 
Public health should be decided by scientists not school directors


 
The result was widespread dissatisfaction no matter what school boards decided and an exodus of students and faculty. 


 
Many families, upset at local school board decisions, enrolled their children in charter, cyber or voucher schools.  


 
Overall, charters saw a 7% increase in enrollment – an influx of roughly 240,000 students -during the 2020-21 school year, according to a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This is the largest increase in five years. By comparison, public school enrollment dropped by 3.3% – or 1.4 million students – in the same period. 


 
The biggest increases were in cyber charter schools. For example, in Pennsylvania 99.7 percent of the charter enrollment growth occurred in virtual charter schools. Enrollment at the Commonwealth’s 14 cyber charter schools swelled from about 38,000 students in October 2019 to more than 60,000 students in October 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 


 
But it wasn’t just students leaving our public schools. It was staff, too. 


 
Teachers and other school employees who felt unsafe or were crushed by the incredible pressure thrust on their shoulders either quit or retired in droves.  


 
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available. 


 
 
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.

 
 
 
Why Are Public Schools Important? 


 
 
Because of what they are and what they represent.  


 
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.  


 
A public school is a school meant for everybody and anybody.  


 
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.  


 
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.  


 
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.  


 
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US. 


 
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.  


 
We simply define education differently. We look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some. 


Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs. 


We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year. 


In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities. 


That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it. 


 
There are plenty of ways we could improve. Even before the pandemic, we were incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas were often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students didn’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students.

 
 
But at least at the very outset what we were trying to do was better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu. 


 
Without public schools, equity is definitely not on offer. 


 
 
 Public is Better Than Private 


 
 
That’s really the point.  


 
Charter, cyber and voucher schools are not set up around this ideal.  


 
They are not instruments of inclusion. They are instruments of exclusion.  


 
They are about who is sent away, not about letting everyone in.  


The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 332,630,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools. 


 
No private system in the world has ever been able to work at that scale. If we lose our public schools, many kids will be left wanting.  


The market-driven approach does not guarantee an education. It guarantees competition for an education


 
It forces students to compete to get into schools and schools to compete for their very existence. Think of how that affects instruction. Schools have to spend a considerable amount of time and money attracting students to enroll. That’s time and money that doesn’t go to education. It goes to advertising. 


  
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate. 


  
Another major change with this approach is how privatized schools are run. Many are operated behind closed doors without the input of a duly-elected school board, without transparency for how they spend tax dollars, without even the guide rails of most regulations


  
Like in the charter school sector, these schools get almost free reign to do whatever they want.  


This means corporate interests get to run charter schools while cutting services and increasing profits. In fact, administrative costs at charter schools are much higher than at traditional public schools. Students lose, the market wins. 


  
Moreover, many charter schools provide a sub-par education. To put it more bluntly, they do things that would be impossible for public schools to do. One in Philadelphia literally transformed into a nightclub after dark. Another funneled profits into the CEO’s personal bank account to be used as a slush fund to buy gifts and pay for rent at an apartment for his girlfriend. Another CEO used tax dollars to buy a yacht cheekily called “Fishin’ 4 Schools.”  


 
And virtual charter schools are even worse. A study found that cyber-charters provide almost less education than not going to school at all. Even brick and mortar charter schools can close on a moments notice leaving students in the lurch. 


  
It’s a Darwinian model made to benefit the predators, not the prey. It’s a boon for any unselfconscious businessman who doesn’t mind getting rich stealing an education from children. 


 
We Must Fight 


 
That’s why we must fight to keep our public schools.  


 
As flawed and bruised as they are, the public school model is far superior to the alternative.  


 
But many will look only at their own individual situation and stop there.  


 
They will say, “At MY charter school we do this…” Or “That’s not the way things are at MY voucher academy…” 


 
First of all, a well-functioning privatized school is like a castle built precariously on a cliff. Things may work well now, but they could change at any moment and there’s nothing you could do but vote with your feet. When authentic public schools go bad, you have a democratic process to fix the problem.

 
 
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?  


 
Because it’s not all about you and your child. Selfishness cannot be the foundation of a just society.

 
 
Even a well-functioning charter or voucher school is publicly funded. It splits the funding that would normally go to one school and divides it among two or more. So students at both have to make do with less. 


You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?  


 
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.  


 
It is a necessary condition for democracy, shared economic prosperity and a just society.  


 
I know it may sound like an insurmountable task, but saving our public schools can be done.  


 
It will require collective action. 


 
We will need to actively participate in our school board elections, go to school board meetings and possibly even run to serve on the board, ourselves. 


 
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community. 


 
We will need to change the way our system treats teachers. If we want to encourage educators to stay on the job and even entice young people to enter the field, we need to make the profession more rewarding. That means higher salaries, more autonomy, more respect, smaller classes, less paperwork, and actually listening to educators on the subject of education.  


 
We also need to discontinue countless policies and programs that have been dragging our public schools down for decades. We need to eliminate high stakes standardized testing. We need to ensure every school is adequately, equitably and sustainably funded. We need to actively integrate our schools and classrooms. We need to stop supporting privatization through charter and voucher schools and instead support authentic public schools.  


 
And to do that, we need real political change at every level of government – local, municipal, state and federal.  


 
None of this is easy. All of it takes work.  


 
But it is the fight we must wage if we are ever to keep our democracy.  


 
It is the fight we must win to create the better world our children deserve.  


 
Public schools are worth saving, but it is up to you and me to do it. 


 

 


 

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If Standardized Tests Were Going to Succeed, They Would Have Done So By Now 


 
 
 
Standardized tests were supposed to be the magic remedy to fix our public schools.  


 
 
They were supposed to make all students proficient in reading and math.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students.  


 
 
But after more than four decades, standardized tests have not fulfilled a single one of these promises.

 
 
 
In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.  


 
 
So why haven’t we gotten rid of them? 


 
 
To answer that question, we have to understand how we got here in the first place – where these kinds of assessments came from in the US and how they became the guiding policy of our public schools. 


 
Standardized testing has been around in this country since the 1920s.  


 
It was the product of the pseudoscientific eugenicist movement that tried to justify white supremacy with bad logic and biased premises.  


 
Psychologists Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham invented these assessments to justify privileging upper-class whites over lower class immigrants, Blacks and Hispanics. That was always the goal and they tailored their tests to find that result. 


 
From the very start, it had serious consequences for public policy. The results were used to rationalize the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool.  


 
However, Brigham’s greatest claim to fame was the creation of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. These tests were not central to school curriculum and mainly used as gatekeepers with the SAT in particular still in wide use today. 


 
The problem then – as now – is that standardized tests aren’t very good assessments. They work okay for really simple things like rudimentary math. However, the more complex a skill you’re assessing, the more inadequate the tests. For example, imagine just trying to have a conversation with someone where your only choices of reply were limited to four canned responses. That’s a multiple-choice assessment. The result is a testing system that selects against the poor and minorities. At best, it reproduces the economic and racial disparities of society. At worst, it ensures those disparities will continue into the next generation. 


 
That isn’t to say the system went unchallenged. By the 1960s, the junk science and leaps of logic behind standardized testing were obvious and people began fighting back in court. Black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry.  


 
 
Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middleclass group. 


 
 
Nevertheless, just as the tests were beginning to disappear, radical economists like Milton Friedman saw them as an opportunity to push their own personal agenda. More than anything, these extreme capitalists wanted to do away with almost all public services – especially public schools. They hoped the assessments could be repurposed to undermine these institutions and usher in an era of private education through measures like school vouchers. 


 
 
 
So in the 1980s, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” a campfire tale about how America’s public schools were failing. Thus, the authors argued we needed standardized testing to make American children competitive in a global marketplace. 


 
 
However, the report, which examined test scores from the past 20 years, was misleading and full of statistical and mathematical errors.  


 
 
For instance, it concluded that average student test scores had decreased but didn’t take into account that scores had actually increased in every demographic group. It compared two decades worth of test scores, but failed to mention that more students took the test at the end of that period than at the beginning, and many of the newer students were disadvantaged. In other words, it compared test scores between an unrepresentative group at the beginning of the comparison with a more representative group at the end and concluded that these oranges were nothing like the apples they started with. Well, duh. 


 
Most people weren’t convinced by the disaster capitalism at work here, but the report marks a significant moment in the standardization movement. In fact, this is really where our modern era began.

 
 
Slowly governors and state legislators began drinking the Kool-aide and mandating standardized testing in schools along with corporate-written academic standards the tests were supposed to assess. It wasn’t everywhere, but the model for test-and-punish was in place. 


 
It took an additional two decades, until 2001, for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to require standardized testing in ALL public schools.  


 
With bipartisan support, Bush tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress. And from then on, the die was cast. This policy has been upheld through both Republican and Democratic regimes.  


 
In fact, standardized testing intensified under President Barack Obama and was continued with few changes by Donald Trump and even Joe Biden. Far from changing course, Biden broke a campaign promise to discontinue the tests. Once in office, he thought testing was so important that he forced schools to give the assessments during the Covid-19 pandemic when districts had trouble even keeping school buildings open. 


 
And that brings us to today.  


 
From the 1980s to 2022 we’ve had wide scale standardized testing in our schools. That’s roughly 40 years where the entirety of what is done in public school has been organized around these assessments. They drive the curriculum and are the ultimate benchmark by which success or failure is judged. If this policy was ever going to work, it would have done so by now.  


 
 
However, it has achieved NONE of its stated goals.  


 
NCLB specifically stated that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. That has not happened. Despite spending billions of dollars on remediation and completely reorganizing our schools around the assessments, test scores have remained mostly static or even decreased. 


 
The law also justified its existence with claims to equity. Somehow taking resources away from districts with low test scores was supposed to increase funding at the neediest schools. Unsurprisingly this did not happen. All it did was further increase the funding gap between rich and poor schools and between wealthy and disadvantaged students.  


 
NCLB also championed the idea that competing for test scores would result in better teachers. However, that didn’t happen either. Instead, educators were forced to narrow the curriculum to cover mostly what was assessed, reduce creativity and critical thinking, and teachers who served poor and minority students were even punished for doing so.  


 
If the purpose of standardized testing was all the things the law purported, then it was a decades long failure. It is the policy equivalent of slamming your head into a wall repeatedly and wondering why you aren’t moving forward. (And where did this headache come from?) 


 
If, however, the purpose of standardized testing was to fulfill Friedman’s privatization dreams, then it was a resounding success. Public schools still persist, but they have been drained, weakened and in many ways subverted.  


 
Look at the evidence. 


 
Standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one today. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.  


 
Huge corporations make the tests, grade the tests and then sell remediation materials when students fail. It’s a huge scam. 


 
But that’s not the only business created by this policy. Test and punish opened entirely new markets that hadn’t existed before. The emphasis on test scores and the “failing schools” narrative stoked unwarranted distrust in the public school system and a demand for more privatized alternatives. 


 
 Chief among these was charter schools. 


 
The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota. It allowed for the creation of new schools that would have special agreements (or charters) with states or districts to run without having to abide by all the usual regulations. Thus, the school could go without an elected board, pocket public money as private profit, etc. The bill was quickly copied and spread to legislatures across the country by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 


  
Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students. Charter schools enroll about 6% of the students in the country.  


 
 
However, charter schools are rife with fraud and malfeasance. For instance, more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education. It’s a get rich quick scheme. And since these types of schools are free from the kinds of regulations, democratic governance and/or transparency that keeps authentic public schools in check, another charter school scandal pops up almost every day. 


 
 
But let’s not forget school vouchers. Before high stakes testing, the idea of using public money to pay for private or parochial schools was widely considered unconstitutional. Now about 4% of US students go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers. This is an option in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 600,000 students participated in a voucher, scholarship tax credit or education savings account program last school year, according to EdChoice, a pro-voucher and school choice group.  


 
There is little evidence that school vouchers actually improve student performance, however, and there’s even evidence that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools may do worse on tests than they would have if they had stayed in authentic public schools.  


 
Moreover, the cost of attending one of these private or parochial schools isn’t completely covered by the voucher. On average, vouchers offer about $4,600 a year, according to American Federation for Children, which supports voucher programs. The average annual cost of tuition at a private K-12 school nationwide is $12,350, according to Educationdata.org, though that can be much more expensive in some states. In Connecticut, for example, the average tuition is almost $24,000. So vouchers only REDUCE the cost of attending private or parochial schools for a few kids while siphoning away tax dollars that should go to educating all kids.  


 
In short, they’re subsidies for wealthier kids at the expense of the middle class and disadvantaged. 


 
Without standardized testing, it is impossible to imagine such an increase in privatization.

 
 
 
High stakes testing is a Trojan horse. It is a way to secretly undermine and weaken public schools so that testing corporations, charter schools and voucher schools can thrive. 


 
 
Judged by its own metrics of success, standardized testing is an abject failure. Judged by the metric of business and school privatization it is a rousing success.  


 
And that’s why it has been so hard to discontinue.  


 
This is corporate welfare at its finest, and the people getting rich off our tax dollars won’t allow us to turn off the flow of funding without a fight.  


 
 
On the right, policymakers are often boldly honest about their goals to bolster privatization over public schools. On the left, policymakers still cling to the failed measures of success testing has not been able to meet time-and-again.  


 
However, both groups support the same system. They only give different reasons.  


 
 
It is past time to wake up and smell the flowers.  


 
 
If we want to ensure education dollars go to education and not profiteers, we need to end standardized testing. 


 
 
If we want to help students learn to the best of their abilities, we need to stop gaslighting them with faulty measures of success or failure. 
 


 
If we want to allow teachers to do the best for their students, we need to stop holding them back with antiquated eugenicist shackles. 


 
 
And if we truly want to save our public school system, we have to stop propping up privatization.  


 
 
In short, we need to end standardized testing.  
 


 
The sooner, the better. 


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Lack of Trusted Authority is Why Covid-19 is Kicking Our Butts

We have faced tough times before.

World wars, famines, pandemics, economic ruin.

But in each of these disasters, the majority of people thought they had somewhere to turn for knowledge and advice.

We had trusted authorities to tell us what to do, to counsel us how to handle these seemingly insurmountable disasters.

Today many of us face the Covid-19 pandemic feeling there are few sources to believe in – and that more than anything else – is why we are having such a difficult time coming together to overcome this crisis.

The media, government, science, religion – none hold a central place of confidence in most people’s lives. So when tough decisions about health and safety come into play, many of us aren’t sure what to do.

This wasn’t always the case.

Look back to World War II.

Not only did we defeat fascism but new vaccines put a wallop on illness and disease.

When we entered the fray, the US government organized new research initiatives targeting influenza, bacterial meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, measles, mumps, neurotropic diseases, tropical diseases and acute respiratory diseases.

And because there was an immense trust in government – after all, as a nation we had been attacked together as one at Pearl Harbor – there was enormous trust in these initiatives.

Before World War II, soldiers died more often of disease than of battle injuries. The ratio of disease-to-battle casualties was approximately 5-to-1 in the Spanish-American War and 2-to-1 in the Civil War. In World War I, we were able to reduce casualties due to disease through better sanitation efforts, but we could not protect troops from the 1918 influenza pandemic. During that outbreak, flu accounted for roughly half of US military casualties in Europe.

Much of the groundwork for innovation in vaccinations had already been laid before WWII. However, it was the organization of the war effort and the trust both the civilian and military population had in government that catapulted us ahead.

I’m not ignoring that some of this trust was misplaced. The US government has never been fully trustworthy – just ask the Asian American population forced into internment camps. However, the general feeling at the time that the government was a force for good, that we were all in this together and we all had to do our part had a vast effect on how we handled this crisis.

Today that kind of trust is gone.

In some ways that’s a good thing. It could be argued that “The Greatest Generation” put too much faith in government and the following years showed why too credulous belief in the good will of our leaders was unearned and unhealthy.

From Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal to Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct to George W. Bush lying us into a war of choice to Barack Obama’s neoliberalism to Donald Trump’s gross mismanagement and blatant racism – we can never go back to a WWII mentality.

Skepticism of government is kind of like seasoning. A certain amount is a good thing, but the inability to trust even government’s most basic ability to take care of its citizens and function in any meaningful way is hugely detrimental.

And this earned distrust has seeped into just about every source of possible certitude that might have helped us survive the current crisis.

The media used to be considered the fourth estate – one of the most important pillars of our society. After all, the freedom of information is essential to the free exercise of democracy.

However, the erosion of impartiality has been going on since at least the 1980s when the FCC under President Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine. Since 1949 this had required the media to present both sides’ of opinions. In 1987 a Democratic Congress passed a bill to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine but it was vetoed by Reagan.

This, along with the rise of talk radio and the insistence that news departments turn a profit, lead directly to the creation of more biased reporting skewed to a particular audience – Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group being the most prominent.

The fact that just six corporations own 90% of the media outlets in the country skew coverage to what’s in the best interests of big business. These corporations are GE, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS.


Finally, the loss of local newspapers and the purchase of those few that do exist by large media conglomerates further increase bias.

Few people feel they can trust the news anymore. They turn to the Internet, social media, Twitter and other sources that often are just echo chambers for what they already believe.

The irony is not lost on me that you are reading a blog by a public school teacher, not a professional journalist. But my aim is to use my experience in education to inform the debate.

It’s just too bad that I’m often forced to report the news when traditional news sources drops the ball.

Again skepticism of mass media is a good thing, but we should at least be able to count on the press as a reliable source of facts. However, these days few facts are free from bias, spin and editorial comment.

Even science is not immune.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made several blunders handling this pandemic which hurt the organization’s credibility.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the organization refused to acknowledge and later emphasize the airborne spread of the virus. It took until May 2021 for the organization to fully recognize that fact.

Another blunder was the guidelines on what counts as “close contact.” It went from “within 6 feet” to “within 3 feet”, and the duration went from 30 minutes consecutively to 30 minutes cumulatively. It’s not so much that the evidence changed, but that political pressure forced the CDC to lower its standards.

World scientific consensus now is that the coronavirus is capable of airborne spread without close contact between two people. Airborne droplets can linger in the air indoors and infect any number of people from one superspreading host subject.

The CDC’s advice on close contact is based on old scientific research that just isn’t as good as modern experiments.

And the organization has misjudged so much more from the importance of masking (at first they said it wasn’t important, now they say it is important), whether children can catch the virus (at first they said this was unlikely and now they admit it happens but is often asymptomatic), whether Covid spreads in schools (they used to say the limited protections in place at schools made this unlikely and now they admit it is happening), etc.

One could argue that these were simple mistakes that have changed as better science comes in. However, in each case they appear to have initially been politically motivated and justified with limited or flawed studies that could not continue to be supported as new data came in.

At first the CDC told us that masking wasn’t important not because it was true, but to hide a shortage of masks that needed to be prioritized for medical staff. These needs are understandable, but hiding the truth and then changing your messaging doesn’t engender trust.

Misinformation about the impact of Covid on children was an attempt to keep schools open and stop the economy from shutting down as parents were unable to work. Not only did this put children at risk for economic gain, it has contributed to the current refusal of so many people to follow CDC guidelines about reopening schools.

Why do so many people refuse to have their children wear masks at school? Why is there so much vaccine hesitancy? Why anxiety about reopening plans that focus on close contacts?

The CDC owns a lot of the responsibility because it has repeatedly earned our distrust.

This isn’t to say everything coming from them is dubious. I think the guidelines the CDC has put in place for the current school year are supported by the facts.

I think there is evidence that people need to wear masks in schools. I think we need to vaccinate as many people as possible.

But these are just bare minimums.

I think the CDC is still focusing too much on the economic impact of its guidelines when it should be solely focused on the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

This is not a time for scientists to be playing politics.

We need them to be as transparent as possible – as trustworthy as they can be.

Unfortunately, the erosion of institutional credibility at so many levels has become a cycle to itself.

At multiple levels, sources that should be bedrock have become wet sand.

The federal government has not taken enough action to keep people safe. State governments have not taken enough action – and some have even taken action to prevent safety.

Even at the local level, many school boards have cowardly refused to put in place mask or vaccine mandates.

It is the systematic breakdown of a society.

We have few places left we can trust.

And that is why we are fractured and scared.

We don’t know what to do to keep our loved ones safe.

People seem forced to choose between taking the virus seriously and ignoring it.

Many refuse to admit that it could hurt them. They think it’s just the sniffles. Few healthy people die and they discount the potential longterm effects of catching it.

The US has only 4% of the world population but nearly a quarter of all Covid cases.

That’s not a coincidence.

In large part, it’s because we don’t know how to combat the virus because we don’t know who to trust.

And the resulting credibility vacuum has enabled unscrupulous politicians, agents of chaos and other charlatans to position themselves as experts.

When all information is equal, disinformation is king.

The solution to the pandemic may end up being easier than this riddle.

How our institutions can regain their credibility.

Especially when our politics doesn’t allow them to be honest, and fewer people are even listening to them every day.


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Why Does Your Right to Unmask Usurp My Child’s Right to a Safe School?

“Daddy, I’m afraid.”

My 12-year-old daughter just had a nightmare, and I was sitting on her bed trying to calm her down.

“What’s wrong, Sweetie?”

“I’m worried about school.”

That’s something with which I can certainly relate.

Even after teaching for 18 years, I always get anxious before the first day of school, and I told her as much.

“Really?” She said.


“Yeah. But I can understand why you might be even more nervous than usual. I’ll be teaching the same thing I’ve taught for years. I’ll be in the same classroom working with the same adults. Only the students will be different. But you will be in a new building with new teachers…. And you haven’t even been in a classroom in over a year.”

“That’s just it, Daddy. What if the other kids make fun of me for wearing a mask? What if I get sick?”

Our local district is reopening in a week with a mask optional policy and no vaccine requirements.

Her question was expected, but I had been dreading it.

I knew my answers and they sounded inadequate – even to me.

I explained how she would be wearing a mask and is fully vaccinated so it will be extremely unlikely for her to get sick. And even if she does, it will be extremely unlikely she’ll get VERY sick.

“And if the other kids make fun of you, just ignore it. You are going to be safe. If they take chances, they’ll just have to suffer the consequences.”

It seemed to satisfy her, but I left her room feeling like a bad parent.

Covid-19 cases are on the rise again.

Nationwide, nearly 94,000 new child Covid cases were reported last week- a substantial increase, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).

Even in the Pittsburgh region where we live, the number of kids hospitalized with Covid at UPMC Children’s Hospital has nearly doubled in the last week, according to KDKA. That’s 50 hospitalizations in the past month including 20 in the last week.

My daughter is scared? So is her daddy.

I went to the local school directors meeting and asked the board to follow recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Allegheny County Health Department by requiring masking and vaccinations for eligible students and staff. They refused.

Now I’m stuck in the position of keeping my little girl at home for another year by enrolling her in the district’s terrible on-line program, Edmentum, or rolling the dice with in-person schooling.

I’m told there will be more synchronous teaching this year in the remote program, but I don’t trust it.

Last year, she only made it through because my father-in-law – a former math teacher – and myself basically taught her everything the on-line program struggled to get across.

We just couldn’t do it again this year. It was a full time job – several full-time jobs – too hard on him and me both.

I hope we won’t regret it.

And then there’s my own work situation.

I teach at a neighboring district that looks like it will reopen the same way with masks and vaccines mere options.

I’m fully vaccinated but immunosuppressed. Might I be putting my own health at risk teaching under these conditions?

Last year, even with masks a requirement, students and staff at both districts came down with the virus nearly every week.

With the more infectious and deadly delta variant on the rise, might it be even worse this year – especially if we are lowering precautions?

Last year I burned my sick days waiting to be vaccinated before returning to the physical classroom. This year I could take a leave of absence, but once again my district is making no accommodations for people like me. I have to work or else try to survive on a reduced salary.

When you’re already living paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s not much of an option.

I just don’t understand it.

Don’t my daughter and I have rights?

We hear a lot about the anti-maskers and the anti-vaxxers. A lot about their rights. What about our right to safe schools?

Why is it that the right NOT to wear a mask supersedes the right to go to a school where everyone is required to wear one?

Because it isn’t – as I told my daughter – a matter of everyone having to deal with just the consequences of their own actions. My daughter and I have to deal with the consequences of everyone else’s actions, too.

Or to put it another way – if one person pees in the pool, we’re all swimming in their urine.

If someone else doesn’t wear a mask, hasn’t been vaccinated and hasn’t taken the proper precautions, they can spread the Covid-19 virus through the air and infect whole classrooms of people.

Everyone else could be wearing a mask. It just takes one person who isn’t.

Is it fair that everyone else has to pay the price for one person’s carelessness?

We talk about rights so much we seem to have lost entirely the idea of responsibilities. They go hand-in-hand.

Yes, you have the freedom to do whatever you like so long as it doesn’t hurt another person.

When your actions do hurt others, you have a responsibility to stop. And if you won’t do that, the government has a responsibility to stop you.

But in this anti-intellectual age, we’ve almost completely given up on that idea.

If people take precautions by masking up and getting vaccinated, the worst that will happen is they’ll be unduly inconvenienced. If my daughter and I are forced to exist in the same spaces with people not taking the proper precautions, we could get sick and die.

It’s not like we’re talking about two equal sides here. This is people who believe the overwhelming scientific majority vs. those who get their answers from YouTube videos and political figures. It’s doctors, researchers and immunologists vs. conspiracy theorists, internet trolls and the MyPillow guy.

I’m not even judging – believe what you like so long as it affects only you. But when it affects me, too, then we have a problem.

The lowest common denominator is allowed to run wild. They can do whatever they like and the rest of us just have to put up with it.

That’s why we’re beginning year two and a half of a global pandemic! Not enough of us got the vaccine by the end of the summer.

Now infections are rising and few policy makers have the courage to take a stand and protect those of us who took precautions from those of us who did not.

And don’t tell me our lawmakers don’t have the power. There is a mountain of precedent showing they have.

On the highway, you can’t just go wherever you want, whenever you want. There are lanes, speed limits, traffic lights.

Even vaccines! To enroll in Kindergarten, parents already have to prove their kids have been vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and a host of other diseases. Why is Covid-19 any different?

Public safety is a PUBLIC issue not a private one.

It just makes me feel so helpless.

I can’t do anything to protect my students.

I can’t do anything to protect myself.

I can’t do anything to protect my baby girl.

And I can’t wait for the school year to start!


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Public Schools Are Not Indoctrinating Kids About Racism. Voucher Schools ARE

Republican frenzy has reached a fever pitch with attacks in at least 16 states on schools that allegedly teach Critical Race Theory.

Right-wingers claim public schools are indoctrinating America’s youth in lies and deception about race and racism – namely the “lie” that these things remain problems.

They grudgingly concede that racism was a (slight) problem in this country before the civil rights movement, but then Rosa sat down and Martin stood up and – POOF – racism was over.

End of story. Let’s move on.

However, there are several things wrong with this besides its basic reductivism.

First, no public school actually teaches Critical Race Theory.

Second, racism is not over in the US, and talking about the facts of history and how they led to our current situation is not indoctrination. It’s education – the job of public schools.

And finally, if you really want to see taxpayer funded indoctrination, look at private and parochial schools accepting taxpayer funding through voucher and tax credit programs.

Let’s start with Critical Race Theory.

It is entirely absent from public school curriculum.

Laughably so.

Critical Race Theory is a legal framework that’s been taught for decades in law schools around the country. And just like torts, contract law, civil forfeiture and a host of other valid topics in law school, the K-12 public schools really don’t cover them much.

But right wing lawmakers and the billionaire funded think tanks that provide their propaganda ideas want to turn Critical Race Theory into a scare tactic to close down discussions of race and racism in America’s classrooms.

Which brings us to the second point – racism is not over in America.

Facts are facts.

In a country where the average Black worker earns just 62% of what the average white worker makes, and where black people are 3.23 times more likely than white people to be killed by police – racism is not over.

One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared to 1 out 6 for Latino boys, and one out of 17 for White boys.

Black people are convicted at higher rates and given longer sentences than white people for the same crimes – 5% of illicit drug users are African American, yet Black people represent 29% of those arrested and 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses. Moreover, African Americans and White people use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of White people.

And on and on.

One has to live in a factually neutral bubble to insist that racism no longer exists in this country, but that’s exactly where these right wing lawmakers are coming from.

The GOP is terrified they might actually have to protect voting rights or provide equitable school funding for black kids up to par with white kids, so they have to keep creating scary monsters to frighten the populace into believing their bogus world view.

After all, their base is almost exclusively White. If they can’t find something to rile up these people and make them feel unduly put upon, they won’t come to the polls. And nothing gets people more eager to vote than fear and anger.

Except maybe ignorance.

Which brings us to the third point – indoctrination doesn’t happen at public schools; it happens at taxpayer funded voucher schools.

The last decade has seen a steady, incremental increase in taxpayer funding in most states for private and parochial schools as public school budgets have been robbed and raided to pay for it.

In some states, this comes from outright school voucher programs. In others like Pennsylvania, this comes from tax credit programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs.

In essence, they all do the same thing. They take taxpayer money that was (or would have been) put aside for public education and funnel it to parochial or private schools.

The schools that accept this money have little to no oversight in how they spend it nor do they have to follow any of the rules that public schools do.

And many of these schools actually do indoctrinate their students into untruths about science, history and politics. On our dime.

How do we know that? We know which books they use in their curriculum. And many of them are filled with factually incorrect bigotry and bias.

For example, here’s a few justifications of slavery from America: Land I Love, an A Beka Book:

“The slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior…”

“…Although the slaves faced great difficulties, many found faith in Christ and learned to look to God for strength. By 1860, most slaveholders provided Christian instruction on their plantations.”

“To help them endure the difficulties of slavery, God gave Christian slaves the ability to combine the African heritage of song with the dignity of Christian praise. Through the Negro spiritual, the slaves developed the patience to wait on the Lord and discovered that the truest freedom is from the bondage of sin…”

And here’s a defense of the kindness of most slave owners from United States History for Christian Schools published by Bob Jones University Press (BJU):

“A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.”

And here’s another excerpt from the same book teaching that black people were just as responsible for slavery as white people and that white people suffered from slavery just as much:

The story of slavery in America is an excellent example of the far-reaching consequences of sin. The sin in this case was greed – greed on the part of the African tribal leaders, on the part of the slave traders, and on the part of slave owners, all of whom allowed their love for profit to outweigh their love for their fellow man. The consequences of such greed and racism extended across society and far into the future. It resulted in untold suffering – most obviously for the black race but for the white race as well.(emphasis mine)

Here’s another excerpt from the same book about the benefits of the KKK:

“[The Ku Klux] Klan in some areas of the country tried to be a means of reform, fighting the decline in morality and using the symbol of the cross. Klan targets were bootleggers, wife-beaters, and immoral movies. In some communities it achieved a certain respectability as it worked with politicians.”

Meanwhile, the Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools published by BJU wrote this about how liberal Democrats and desegregation were bad:

“While the end was a noble one – ending discrimination in schools – the means were troublesome. Liberals were not willing to wait for a political solution.”

As bad as these excerpt are, they focus only on racism.

The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from White Europeans.

They teach that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, some dinosaurs survive into the present day (i.e. the Loch Ness monster), evolution is a myth disproved by REAL science as is the claim that homosexuality is anything but a choice.

Teaching these things in school is not just educational malpractice, it’s exactly the kind of indoctrination the right is claiming without evidence happens at public schools.

And this kind of brain washing is common at voucher schools.

Along with publisher Accelerated Christian Education, A Beka and BJP are being used in countless taxpayer-funded schools. Nearly 6 million students attend private schools in the United States and about three-quarters of those are Christian schools. And that doesn’t even count the roughly 1.7 million American children who are homeschooled many of whom use these texts.

These books are used almost exclusively at religious schools or through homeschooling. However, that’s the majority of the school voucher program – even the tax credit scholarship programs.

Nearly 80 percent of scholarship students attend religious schools, and most of those institutions are Christian, according to an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel. The books mentioned above all come from a Protestant point of view. However, roughly 16 percent of scholarship schools are Catholic and use their own curriculum as do other schools including Islamic or Jewish institutions (which combined make up about 5 percent of the schools).

It is clear then that this controversy is worse than a tempest in a teacup.

It’s misdirected anger.

Political indoctrination IS going on in the United States, but it is not happening at our public schools.

It is happening at our private and parochial schools through school voucher programs.

If we ban anything, it shouldn’t be Critical Race Theory – It should be school vouchers.

For more on this subject, see the short documentary film, “School Choice: Taxpayer-Funded Creationism, Bigotry and Bias” by Rachel Tabachnick.


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Standardized Testing During a Pandemic is Stupid. And Cruel.

When the Biden administration announced that schools across the nation would have to give standardized tests during the global Coronavirus pandemic this year, America’s teachers let out a collective sigh of disgust.

If it had to be put into words, it might be this:

“I can’t even.”

Imagine a marine biologist being told she had to determine if the water in the dolphin tank is wet.

That’s kind of what the demand to test is like.

Determine if the water is wet and THEN you can feed the dolphin.

Imagine a person on fire being told to measure the temperature of the flames before you could put them out.

Imagine a person staving in the desert being required to take a blood test to determine previous caloric intake before anyone would offer food or water.

It’s literally that dumb.

No, it’s worse.

The reason the Biden administration gave for requiring testing this year was to determine the amount of learning loss students had suffered during the pandemic.

I wrote that in one sentence but it will take several to show how dumb that idea is.

First, there’s the idea of learning loss.

What does it mean?

It’s based on the idea that kids learn on a schedule.

You need to know A, B and C when you’re in 3rd Grade. You need to learn D, E, F in 4th grade. And so on.

And if you miss one of the letters somewhere in there, you’re learning will be disrupted forever.

The Biden administration seems to be worried that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be because of the pandemic and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed.

It is pure fantasy.

There is no developmental, psychological or neurological basis to it.

Some fool at a standardized testing company just made it up to sell more product.

And it doesn’t take much to prove it wrong.

Do a thought experiment with me.

Imagine you needed directions to the store.

You didn’t get them yesterday. You got them today.

Was your brain irreparably harmed?

You were still able to learn how to get to the store, weren’t you? You just did it one day later. No problem.

It might have stopped you from getting your groceries yesterday, but you can certainly go shopping today.

Now imagine we weren’t talking about directions. Imagine we were talking about addition and subtraction.

Some kids are ready to learn these concepts earlier than others. Does that mean there’s something wrong with them?

No. Absolutely not. It’s just that people’s brains develop at different rates.

And if you don’t learn something one year, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it a year or two later.

There may be issues with core concepts like language acquisition being delayed too long over larger amounts of time, but these are extreme cases.

Delaying one or two years of school curriculum won’t make or break you.

For most of us, not learning something now doesn’t preclude learning it later.

So learning loss is nonsense.

No child has lost the ability to learn because of the pandemic – except any who died as a result of catching Covid.

That’s perhaps the biggest way the Biden administration’s testing requirement is dumb. It’s justified on assessing something that doesn’t exist.

But if we redefine learning loss into the next best thing that DOES exist – learning – it at least makes sense.

So maybe Joe meant that we need standardized tests to find out how much kids have learned (not what learning they’ve lost).

It’s still deeply stupid, but at least it’s coherent.

Here’s the problem. Standardized tests are completely unnecessary to assess learning. In fact, they’re notoriously terrible at measuring this.


Under normal circumstances, standardized tests don’t show how much a child has learned. They show how well the child can take the test. They show how well the test taker can play the game of test taking.

Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.

If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.

That’s why it’s a standardized test. That’s what it means – conforming to a standard.

Out of all the possible ways to answer the question, the standard test taker will answer like THIS. And whatever that is becomes the correct answer.

The test makers get to decide what kind of person to set the standard as, and most of the time it’s white, male, Eurocentric kids.

This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.

As a result, kids from richer, whiter homes tend to score better on these tests than those from poorer, browner homes.

And that doesn’t mean poor, brown kids aren’t intelligent. It just means they don’t necessarily think like the standard rich, white kids.

We don’t need to give standardized tests to tell us who gets low scores during a pandemic. It will be the poor minority kids. During a pandemic, during a recession, during a stock market boom, during a revolution, during anything.

Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.

Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.

Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.

You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?

You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?

But let’s say you needed some independent variable.

Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.

After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.

Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.

Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.

Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.

And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.

Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!

If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.

There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.

But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.

Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.

The Biden administration says we have to give standardized tests to tell how much students have learned SO THAT WE CAN PROVIDE RESOURCES TO HELP KIDS CATCH UP!

Are you freaking kidding me!?

That’s the reason behind this fool’s errand?

You need something to tell you where to direct the resources?

Let me give you a little advice. If you’ve got a hungry dolphin, stop worrying about the wetness of the water. Feed the dang thing!

If someone’s on fire, put away the thermometer and take out the hose.

If someone’s starving, put away the needle and take out a glass of water and a sandwich.

Because that’s the ultimate problem with test-based accountability.

It purports to offer resources to students in need but never really does so.

There is no additional funding coming to help kids overcome the hurdles of Covid. Just as there were no additional resources to help children of color after many failed standardized assessments.

There’s just a boondoggle to be given to the testing companies on the dubious promise that the next time kids take the tests, they’ll do better.

There’s no money for tutoring or counselors or extra curricular activities or reducing class size. But there’s a treasure chest full of gold doubloons (i.e. tax dollars) for testing companies to give us test prep materials.

Common Core workbooks, standardized test prep software, test look-a-like apps – they’re all there.

It’s all just corporate welfare for the standardized testing industry. It’s not about helping kids learn.

In any normal year, that would be bad enough.

But this year it’s even worse.

Not only will the tests fail to bring any relief to children struggling to learn in a pandemic, they will actually stop them from learning.

Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.

Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.

Instead of using what few days remain of the academic year to reinforce skills, discuss new concepts or practice problems, the Biden administration insists teachers proctor standardized tests.

That takes time. A lot if it.

Yes, Biden is allowing all kinds of leniency in HOW we take the tests. They can be shortened, taken in school, taken remotely, even taken at a later date – but they must be taken.

So goodbye, time that could have been spent on authentic learning. Hello, hours, days and weeks of test-taking drudgery.

That’s not a trade off many teachers, parents or students think is fair.

So President Biden can stop the charade.

America’s teachers aren’t buying it.

We know how deeply stupid this testing mandate is.

Stupid and cruel.

Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Where you at?


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

Contact Tracing Does NOT Prove Schools Are Safe During a Pandemic

“No close contacts were identified within the school district.”

That’s what it says on today’s email from my district reporting that two elementary staff and one student tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s what it said on Tuesday’s email about a different elementary staff member testing positive.

And the email from last Sunday about two elementary staff, and last Monday about a middle school staff member, and the one from Nov. 19 about an entire Kindergarten class and its teachers being quarantined.

Actually, that last email said the outbreak was limited to the Kindergarten class and teachers – that no close contacts were identified beyond its doors, in the building or the wider district as a whole.

However, considering that at least five more elementary teachers and another student tested positive later, I’m not sure I believe it.

All of which prompts the question – how accurate is contact tracing?

How Contact Tracing Works

Let’s say a little girl, Ava, gets COVID-19.

Where did she get it from?

Let’s do some contact tracing to find out.

We ask Ava to think back two days before she showed symptoms up until now. Who was she in close contact with (within six feet for at least 15 minutes)? She doesn’t remember much, but she gives us a list of two or three people who may fit the bill.

We call them, find that none of them are sick, none have been out of the state or country, ask them to quarantine and that’s it.

So where did Ava get the virus? Who did she get it from?

We don’t know.

And contact tracing rarely produces an answer to that question.

In fact, that’s not really its point.

Contact tracing is a key strategy for preventing the further spread of an infectious disease. Its goal is to limit spread beyond this point.

We already know Ava has the virus (or is suspected of having it). We’re trying to find out who she may have spread it to – as much as, if not more than – who she got it from.

In the process of doing that we may be able to trace the spread of the virus back to its source before Ava. But probably not.

Why Does Contract Tracing Often Fail to Lead Us Back to the Source of an Outbreak?

If we had rapid and ubiquitous COVID tests, perhaps we could achieve that goal. But we don’t.

Moreover, we’re relying on individuals to voluntarily cooperate with contact tracers and to provide detailed information about who they came into contact with over a wide period.

At best, people are scared and not as specific as they might be. At worst, they refuse to participate at all.

Michael Huff, Pennsylvania’s director of testing and contact tracing efforts, said that more than 34,000 new cases were reported over the past week, but case investigators were only successful in reaching about 8,332.

And of those they did reach, ninety-six people refused to quarantine.

His response:

“Why? Because people don’t want to answer the phone. Because people do not realize how important it is to give the information we need to make certain we can control disease.”

To make matters worse, most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Though they are still capable of spreading the disease, they go undetected by contact tracing entirely.

So it is entirely disingenuous to claim contact tracing proves much of anything about how the virus is spread. It’s usefulness is in stopping COVID-19 from going any further.

How Contact Tracing is Used to Make Wild Claims

Students, teachers and other school staff have come down with the virus in significant numbers.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics released last week.

No such estimate exists for school staff, but about 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And though many thousands of school staff have contracted the disease, more than 300 district employees have died nationwide from the virus according to the Associated Press.

Where did all these people get COVID-19?

Contact tracing provides no definitive answer, however, policymakers are pretending that means something.

They’re pretending that the failure of contact tracing to find a direct link means there is no link.

Since contact tracing has rarely been able to identify the source of an outbreak to a particular person in school, they assume that means the virus isn’t spreading much in our schools.

Nonsense!

First of all, there have been significant contact tracing studies that have found these direct links.

In fact, the largest contact tracing study ever conducted shows that children and young adults are potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified.

The study of more than half a million people conducted by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is much greater than previously believed.

However, many policymakers overlook this evidence as contrary or inconclusive.

They insist that contact tracing’s inability to consistently find the causal link is enough to disregard the existence of that link.

Balderdash!

That’s like sniffing the air and claiming with absolute certainty that there is no leak of carbon monoxide. The gas is odorless and colorless. A sniff test will never tell you if it’s present. You need special equipment.

The fact is Ava has only been to two places in the last two weeks – home and at school.

At home there’s just Ava, her three brothers and her parents.

At school, there are hundreds of students and 8-9 staff she comes into contact with every day.

She is probably in closer contact with the people at home than at school. But the sheer number of people she is in contact with at school multiplied by the number of hours and then days – is tremendous!

The likelihood that Ava caught the virus at school is quite high – no matter how good the precautions being taken.

Taking Advantage of Our Ignorance

It is ludicrous to assume that the lack of a direct causal link after only a few months of schools being open to reduced capacity means much of anything.

Add to that the absence of a standard national database of school cases, and it’s beyond absurd.

States don’t compile COVID cases at schools. The federal government doesn’t either. In fact, no one really does.

A few self-proclaimed experts have tried to put together what data they can – and used that data to make extreme claims.

Economist Emily Oster has used a mere two weeks worth of data in September to argue that the virus isn’t spreading much in schools.

And policymakers have jumped on that bandwagon all across the country including director of the CDC Dr. Robert Redfield.

Oster is now trying to have it both ways – defending her argument but chiding anyone for taking it too seriously.

Her Website incorporates data that school districts publish voluntarily, along with some data reported directly to the site. However, Oster says it’s far from complete, and she was surprised Dr. Redfield was citing it as fact.

She told CNN:

“It is totally bananas. I think we are doing as good a job as we can. This is not my field. It’s crazy.”

She later clarified in a series of Tweets, “…it is bananas that there isn’t a better federal effort to get these data….”

“Our data is, I think, the best available. It’s not perfect, and I’ve said that elsewhere many times…”

Besides the case of COVID-19 in schools, Oster is best known for making outrageous and often disproven claims such as that drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy is safe.

What About When Outbreaks Happen?

But it’s not just Oster who wants to have it both ways.

Policymakers say kids aren’t getting COVID at school and then walk back such claims when outbreaks happen in communities with high levels of infection.

Salt Lake City, Utah, had one of the biggest outbreaks in schools in the nation. However, that happened as infection rates reached more than double the level at which the state recommended distance learning.

“You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community,” said Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine who has advocated for opening schools under strict safety measures.

Which kind of disproves his position.

If COVID doesn’t spread much in schools, the infection rate in the community shouldn’t matter. If it does, then the virus can and does spread significantly in schools.

The situation in Utah has been partly attributed to community resistance to safety precautions like mask wearing and social distancing. When parents won’t take precautions, neither will children.

Keeping Schools Open During a Pandemic Increases Reckless Behavior

However, this highlights another danger of keeping schools open while infections are high.

Even if viral spread was low in schools, keeping buildings open minimizes the danger of the pandemic.

If Ava can see her friends in school, why shouldn’t she get together with them after school, too?

In-person learning enables more in-person extra-curricular activities, sporting events, parties and other social gatherings outside of school.

Under normal circumstances, this would be great. When there’s a raging pandemic – not so much.

With kids, it’s not always what you say. It’s what you do. And if it’s safe enough to have in-person schooling, kids aren’t as likely to social distance outside of school.

Conclusions

The point isn’t that school cannot exist during a pandemic.

In communities where infection rates are low, even in-person classes can be conducted in relative safety with proper precautions and adequate funding.

However, if the community infection rate is moderate to high, classes should be conducted remotely.

We have to take the virus and the risks it poses seriously.

We have not been doing that.

Helen Bristow, MPH, program manager of Duke’s ABC Science Collaborative, which guides schools on COVID-19 safety, cautions:

“We’re nine to 10 months into a brand-new disease. We’re regularly learning something we didn’t know before.”

We have to stop pretending that the partial data we have is enough to make broad and reckless decisions about keeping students and staff safe during this crisis.

Decisions should be made with an abundance of caution.

Protecting life and health have to be the overriding concerns.

We need a national database of COVID cases in schools for students and staff.

We need free, quick and ubiquitous viral screenings done frequently for all students and staff.

And darn if a working and safe vaccine wouldn’t be helpful, too.

But in the absence of all of these things, we should not be rushing to open schools to in-person classes.

The virus definitely is spreading in our schools.

In most communities, it’s not where the contact tracing leads. It’s the sheer number of cases, the quarantines, staffing shortages and, yes, even funerals.

For all its faults, remote learning is far preferable while the virus runs free.


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

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