Bernie Sanders Would Be the First Jewish President – What That Means to Me

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Being Jewish is not something I advertise.

 

Some of my earliest memories are trying to explain to school friends that no, I didn’t kill Jesus – and, yes, I do eat matzo but it isn’t made with baby’s blood – and would they like to come over to my house and play Legos?

 

I’ve been called “yid,” “kike,” “heeb,” even just plain “Jew” with the lips curled and the word hurled at me like a knife.

 

Heck. When I was a kid even the bus driver called me “moneybags,” though my family was far from rich.

 

So it makes sense to me that Bernie Sanders isn’t running for President as a Jew first.

 

He’s running on his policies and experience.

 

But it still hurts when pundits complain that there are now just two white men vying for the democratic nomination.

 

Um. Okay.
 
Sanders IS Jewish. You know that, right? If he were elected, it would not be business as usual. It would be unprecedented.

 

Yet that fact is almost always glossed over because it doesn’t fit the media narrative they’re selling.

 

Sanders is the “crazy socialist,” not the “historic Jew.”

 

This constant erasure is a slap in the face.

 

And I mean MY face, not just Sander’s.

 

I doubt it feels too good to him, either, but it feels personal to me, as well.

 

My family and I live just outside of Pittsburgh, about a half hour away from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill where just two years ago 17 people were gunned down in perhaps the worst act of violence against Jews in our nation’s history.

 

 

I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” to middle school children less than 15 minutes away.

 

 

I have relatives who belong to that congregation, though I didn’t know any of the 11 people who died.

 

 

Let me ask – were they white?

 

 

I’ll bet they thought they were, but all it took was an anti-Semite with a gun to challenge that.

 

Like Bernie, I lost my extended family in the Holocaust – great grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins,  who I will never meet. I grew up with only the closest of familial relations.

 

 

Before I was old enough to get in to see a PG-13 movie, I knew about mass graves, ghettos, cattle cars and crematoriums.

 

 

Generation upon generation of European Jewry never expected to be singled out for extermination. They probably thought of themselves as regular, everyday people, too – an US not a THEM.

 

Bernie would meet that same standard. Like all of us, he knows we’re white only until someone decides we’re not.

 

 
So when talking heads decide to erase the fact of Bernie’s ancestry, they aren’t just playing politics. They’re engaged in naked prejudice.

 

Let me be clear. I don’t bring this up out of some sense of political tokenism. Bernie shouldn’t be recognized just for appearances sake. He needs to be seen for who and what he is.

 

 

This isn’t about identity politics. It’s about basic truth.

 

 

When some folks complain about the way Bernie speaks or that he yells too much, they’re really showing a xenophobic bigotry.

 

 

Bernie is a Jewish man who grew up in New York.That is how people from there talk.

 

 

I’ve known scores of people who speak like that – often at the dinner table during family gatherings. Just because it isn’t a part of your personal experience doesn’t make it acceptable to dismiss.

 

 

If you belittled someone for speaking with a Spanish accent, it would be called out for what it is – prejudice.

 

 

But by ignoring Bernie’s Judaism, you allow all kinds of discriminatory preconceptions to pass as little more than valid criticisms.

 

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

 

I don’t think Bernie’s Judaism is the most important thing about him or his campaign.

 

 

I wouldn’t support just any Jew who was running. For example, I wouldn’t back Joe Lieberman or Jared Kushner if they were seeking elected office.

 

 

But it DOES mean something that Bernie is in the hunt for the Democratic nomination and is Jewish.

 

 

For me, he typifies what is best about us.

 

 

He embodies the spirit of doing good for others and trying to make the world a better place. He seeks justice in economic, social, racial, gender and political relationships. He tells truth even when it’s uncomfortable to hear. And that includes the truth about the Israeli government’s reprehensible treatment of the Palestinian people.

 

 

In his 30 years in Congress he passed mountains of bipartisan legislation as the amendment king. He refused to support the Iraq War or cuts to social security. He supports unions, workers, public schools and universal healthcare.

 

 

Being Jewish does not take precedence to those things. But I hope supporting those things will help redefine what people think of when they think of Judaism.

 

 


 

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Don’t Extend Kids’ School Day; Shorten Parents’ Work Week

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It’s rough being the parent of an American school student.

 
You often leave for work before your kids have even made it to school yet – and you get home long after they’ve returned.

 
When exactly are you supposed to parent?

 

Your kids have to get themselves to school. They have to get themselves home. And helping with homework, talking about their days, even setting a good example are all luxuries you have to pay dearly for with an ever-shrinking amount of time.

 

 

So what’s the solution?

 

 

For those of the think tank persuasion, the answer is more school.

 
Parents and kids schedules aren’t aligned? Well, align them then. Have kids in class from 9 to 5 just like their parents.

 
Not only will that make it easier for adults to take them to-and-from school, but it will prepare kids for the rigors of the adult world.

 

The neoliberal Center for American Progress, for instance, suggests that synching the school and workday would better allow parents to meet their obligations to their children.

 

This is especially true, they say, for kids in low-income communities where competitive grant programs could fund the initiative while also holding the money hostage unless their schools engage in more test prep as part of their curriculums.

 

It’s a terrible idea proposed by terrible individuals working for billionaire philanthrocapitalists.

 

The think tank is run by John Podesta who was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and manager of President Barack Obama’s transition team – which tells you a lot about Democratic politics of the last several decades.

 

However, it does hold a kernel of truth.

 

The school and workday ARE out of step with each other.

 

This DOES cause problems.

 

Something SHOULD be done.

 

But the solution isn’t to lengthen the time kids are required to spend in the classroom. It is solved by reducing the amount of time their parents have to stay at work.

 

Think about it.

 

A LONGER SCHOOL DAY WOULD BE HARMFUL TO STUDENTS

 

Currently, most children attend school for six to seven hours a day.

 

If school started earlier or was in session later, we’d be forcing many kids to put in as much as 12-hour days – especially when you factor in transportation and after-school activities.

 

Students in rural areas or those who live the farthest from school would be the most impacted. Many kids get to school early for breakfast. So if classes began at 9 am, many kids would need to get to school by 8:30 am at the latest – that could mean leaving home by 7:30 am. If the school day ended at 5 pm, these same kids wouldn’t get home until 6 to 7 pm or later.

 

This would not lead to better academic performance or well adjusted kids. It would result in exhausted and burned out students. Some – perhaps many – would probably cut out after-school activities which would hurt their social, emotional and physical development.

 

Moreover, kids need time – free time – to discover who they are. They need time to spend with friends, build relationships and enjoy themselves.

 

 

They shouldn’t be forced to be adults before they are developmentally ready to do so.

 

And it’s not just me who says so. Youth advocate Vicki Abeles is sounding the alarm against the idea of a longer school day, too. Abeles, who authored Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, and Underestimated Generation, wrote in The New York Times:
 

 

“Many of our children are already stretched to unhealthy breaking points, loaded down with excessive homework, extracurricular activities and outside tutoring because they’re led to believe high test scores, a slew of Advanced Placement classes and a packed résumé are their ticket to college and success. This has led to an epidemic of anxious, unhealthy, sleep-deprived, burned-out, disengaged, unprepared children — and overwhelmed and discouraged teachers. The key is creating a healthier, more balanced, more engaging and effective school day, not a longer one.”

 

Moreover, this is not what other high achieving nations do to succeed. Countries like Finland, Singapore, and China have SHORTER school days – not longer ones. They just try to make the most of the class time they have.

 

In fact, U.S. teachers already spend more time in the classroom with students than their peers in practically every other developed nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 

Maybe instead of listening to think tank fools like Podesta, we should pay attention to educators around the world.

 

And this is to say nothing of cost.

 

Nine years ago, it took $10 million to lengthen the day at 50 Chicago schools. Each school got $150,000 just to pay for additional salary to compensate teachers for the extra time. The district projected that it would have cost $84 million to increase the program to all its schools.

 

But that doesn’t include the cost for additional electricity, maintenance and other utilities which is more difficult to estimate.

 

Who’s going to pay this extra money? We don’t even adequately fund the time kids spend in class NOW! We’re going to stretch tax revenue even further to increase those hours!?

 

This is the definition of doing more with less. More time, less quality.

 

SHORTENING THE ADULT WORK WEEK

 

It would make far more sense to cut parents’ time at work than to increase children’s time at school.

 

Adults already work too many hours as it is.

 

In fact, doing so actually makes adults better at their jobs.

 

That’s not just conjecture or wish fulfillment. It’s been tried and proven correct.

 

In 2019, Microsoft conducted an experiment at its offices in Japan where employees had to take every Friday off as a paid vacation day. The result was a boost in productivity of 40 percent.

 

 

In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trustee services firm, did almost the same thing on a trial basis. It had employees work four eight-hour days a week but paid them for five. Once again this resulted in an increase in productivity, but also lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.

 

The idea of a 32-hour workweek (instead of the traditional 40) is gaining support. After all, much of our time on the job is wasted.

 

The average number of truly productive hours in an eight-hour day is two hours and 53 minutes, according to a survey of U.K. office workers. Human beings aren’t robots. We can’t just sit at our desks and work. We have all these pointless meetings, frivolous emails and phone calls, co-worker discussions, disruptions and distractions. Imagine if we didn’t have to waste so much time and could focus on other endeavors after putting in a few effective hours at the office. We could get things done and still have time to live our lives.

 

The five-day, 40-hour workweek is a relatively new invention. A century ago, it was not uncommon for people to work six ten-hour days with only Sundays off for religious worship. Then Henry Ford started giving his autoworkers more time off to create leisure time – so they might have reason to actually buy the cars they were making. It became common practice throughout the country in 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law was meant to improve conditions and pay for manufacturing workers – and it did that. However, that doesn’t mean it was the be all, end all. We should continue the trend to shorten the workweek even further.

 

In fact, this is what people expected would happen – that work hours would continue to shrink over time.

 

 

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the working week eventually would be cut to 15 hours. He figured that by 2030, people would have far more leisure time as their material needs were met.

 

However, the trend changed in the 1970s as Americans started spending more – not less – time at their jobs. This also coincided with the weakening of labor unions, corporate downsizing and demanding more from employees for decreasing wages and benefits.

 

Now the US and Korea lead the developed world in long workdays. Americans average 1,786 work hours a year, which is 423 more hours than workers in Germany and over 100 hours more than workers in Japan, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

 

CONCLUSION

 
These long hours take a toll on our health and well-being.

 

It’s telling that instead of realizing that adults need fewer hours on the job, policy wonks try to convince us to make our children shoulder the same burden.

 

It reminds me of Max Weber’s thesis in his seminal “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In the book, the sociologist and economist argues that underneath our economic values lies an abiding belief in a Puritan work ethic. The value of work is given a religious and ethical fervor far beyond what it gains us monetarily.

 

Perhaps we need to take a step back from these unconscious and toxic values to see what is really in the best interests of individuals and families.

 

It is far past time to shorten the workweek for adults.

 

That would give us the time we need to be better parents to our children, allow us to be more present and available for them.

 

It would be far better for families to spend more time together learning and growing than to throw that time down an endless bin of empty industry.

 


 

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Don’t Fear Summer Lee. Fear the Devil’s Bargain Labor Leaders Are Willing to Make Opposing Her

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Cancer or unemployment.

 

That’s the choice Pennsylvanians are being asked to make in 2020.

 

Do we allow hydraulic fracking to continue to destroy our environment and increase our risk of cancers and other debilitating illnesses?

 

Or do we clean things up and risk losing jobs?

 

Some labor leaders seem willing to chose the former on behalf of their constituencies.

 

That’s why the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council (PA AFL-CIO) voted to oppose the re-election of State Representative Summer Lee, the first black woman elected to the State House from the western part of the Commonwealth.

 

She chooses life.

 

And that might put some people out of work.

 

It’s a sad commentary on the state of the labor movement that union bosses are willing to make this trade – life for a living wage.

 

And it’s a completely unnecessary choice.

 

We can have BOTH jobs and health – if Democratic politics allow for minds open enough to see the truth.

 

Let’s get this straight.

 

Lee is a badass.

 

The Democrat represents Homestead and West Homestead – two of the three municipalities in the school district where I work as a middle school teacher. She also represents parts of Pittsburgh, Braddock, Swissvale, Rankin, Turtle Creek, Forest Hills and Churchill.

 

But the 32-year-old lawyer and community organizer is more than just a politician. She’s a local hero.

 

Just two years ago, Lee beat 20-year incumbent Paul Costa by a margin of 68-32%.

 

She helped found UNITE, a grassroots political action committee, which has successfully defeated several old guard Democrats in bed with the fossil fuel industry.

 

Most notably, UNITE was part of the effort that ousted Allegheny County Council President John DeFazio in favor of another Democratic insurgent, Bethany Hallam. Once again DeFazio’s pro-fracking and fossil fuel platform went down in flames to Hallam’s environmentally friendly policies by a margin of 54%-46%.

 

Fracking is a relatively new and dangerous method of extracting natural gas from otherwise inaccessible sources like the region’s abundant Marcellus shale. “Fracking fluid” made up of water, sand and harmful chemicals is injected in a high pressure blast into deep rock formations releasing natural gas, petroleum and other substances.

 

Fracking has been known to increase health risks like respiratory problems, a negative impact on pregnancies, and a host of other problems – and that’s not even considering the risks of spills. The process also has devastating environmental impacts including the escape of greenhouse gases, groundwater pollution and increase risk of earthquakes.

 

In Harrisburg most debate has centered around removing a Republican-backed sweetheart tax deal for the industry and not outright banning the process altogether.

 

Lee, Hallam and other UNITE Democrats are changing the conversation, yet some of the area’s labor unions aren’t coming along with these insurgent winners. They’re sticking with establishment figures.

 

The PA AFL-CIO has endorsed Chris Roland against Lee in the primary. He’s a white North Braddock councilman who supports fracking. 

 

Lee is a Democratic Socialist with a massively pro-labor campaign. She’s been endorsed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and United Electrical Workers (UE).

 

She is the only incumbent who the labor council did not endorse.

 

The only reason is her environmental stance, her race, or both.

 

Lee supports a Green New Deal and tightening enforcement against illegal air emissions from steel mills.

 

Roland has already raised $77,635 mostly from local unions. Steamfitters Local 449 and the Laborers’ International Union of North America have both given him $20,000 while the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Plumbers locals each gave $10,000.

 

To combat this, Lee has raised $55,789.

 

Some pundits theorize that the move to stop Lee is doomed from the start because of her incredible popularity in her district. The real motivation is to weaken UNITE’s ability to fundraise against other pro-fracking Democrats.

 

It’s tragic that the labor movement has come to such a low point with leaders like PA AFL-CIO President Darrin Kelly willing to trade the health and safety of the people living here for the promise of a paycheck.

 

Kelly has been a vocal opponent of the Green New Deal fearing what it would do to fossil fuel employment in the area.

 

In an April interview with Payday, he said:

 

“When you have a situation where you are taking away from someone’s ability to feed their family, that is not going to be looked at favorably. I am going to be against it; I’m going to be vocal against it and not welcome it in Western Pennsylvania.”

 

He seems to forget that dead people don’t need a paycheck.

 

Trading the environment and the health and welfare of our friends and neighbors for a living wage is a bad deal.

 

Moreover, labor leaders opposing environmentalists like Lee ignore key aspects of her proposals.

 

A Green New Deal would create millions of sustainable new jobs. It would require replacing pipes, weatherizing homes, expanding railways, manufacturing wind turbines – all of which would require people to do the work.

 

These would be high quality union jobs with good salaries, benefits, safe working conditions, training opportunities, etc.

 

This opens a once in a generation opportunity for new jobs to upgrade and expand the Commonwealth’s crumbling roads, bridges, energy grid, and water systems. Not only would we repair what exists, we’d build a cleaner, more affordable, and more resilient infrastructure that would be there for our posterity.

 

We need to expand access to light rail and low-emissions public transit, replace lead pipes, build a smart grid for increased wind and solar power, replace storm water systems to prevent flooding and toxic runoff, and restore wetlands and other natural buffers to protect our communities.

 

These are exactly the things our labor leaders should be concerned about doing. These are exactly the policies we need to move forward into the future.

 

It’s time to stop the necrotic paralysis of labor propping up the dying fossil fuels industry. The future is with sustainable energy.

 

If we want to actually live to see that future, we need to back policies that save our children from getting sick, that preserves Pennsylvania’s natural resources.

 

Green New Deal Democrats like Lee and Hallam are the future.

 

It’s time the holdouts in the labor movement get with the program.

 

 

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Summer Lee, Mark Fallon and me at December’s Public Education Forum in Pittsburgh.

 

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

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AstroTurf Alert: National Parents Union is Thinly Veiled Union Busting Backed by Billionaire Cash

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How do you do something disgusting without hurting your image?

 

 

If you’re the Walton Family, you hide behind a mask.

 

 

That’s what their latest AstroTurf front group is – the so-called National Parents Union (NPU).

 

 

 

It’s a way to bust teachers unions, destroy public schools and profit off of students behind the guise of a friendly parents organization.

 

 

Oh, it’s all funded with oodles of cash from the Walton family and other billionaires but they get to pretend to be nothing but supporters on the sidelines.

 

 

The people who bust unions before most of us have even had breakfast yet claim they have nothing to do with this anti-union movement. It is all the parents doing. The Walmart heirs just put up the money to let these parents live their dream of union free schools – as if schools where educators have no rights or intellectual freedom were somehow in the best interests of students.

 
The group is set to officially launch operations on Thursday, Jan. 16.

 

 

It is very different to another organization with the same name – the National Parents Union founded by Mona Davids and other New York parents. That organization which has existed since 2012 fights for the rights of students at both charter and authentic public schools and is not funded by supply side billionaires.

 

 

The NEW and unimproved National Parents Union is simply co-opting the existing organization’s name.

 

 

This shell group for corporate profiteers and union busters formally begins operating today at a meeting in New Orleans.

 

 

The site is well chosen. It’s where Hurricane Katrina allowed radical Republicans and neoliberal Democrats to demolish the public schools and replace them with a nearly all charter school district to disastrous effect. Neighborhoods were destroyed more by the redistricting than the natural disaster, many poor and minority families and teachers were forced out, and those left behind were forced to subsist on low quality schools obsessed with test prep and zero tolerance discipline policies. THIS is where NPU expects to trumpet the same policies that have devastated the Big Easy.

 

 

And it’s not just the Waltons behind the curtain.

 

 

Backers include a veritable who’s who of education disruption, school privatization, and failed programs that treat education like a floundering business that needs dismantling and fed to vulture capitalists.

 

 

We’ve got Barack Obama’s former education secretary John King who now serves as president and CEO of The Education Trust – itself an AstroTurf standardized testing lobbying firm funded by another billionaire, Bill Gates.

 

 

King has a record of union busting and corporate collaboration at the expense of children and parents. He was also New York Commissioner of Education, where he refused to fix a school system he was responsible for destroying all the while pointing his finger at teachers. He tied teacher evaluations to unproven and inferior Common Core tests, approved an obviously fraudulent charter school run by an obviously fraudulent con man, ignored and dismissed parents at various education forums, and sparked the largest opt out movement in the country.

 

 

And don’t forget Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) – a right wing school privatization lobbying firm that pretends to represent progressives. DFER is notorious for laundering billionaire cash and trying to make its initiatives look like they come from the grass roots. The organization is bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch and other conservative billionaires. It’s so antithetical to the Democratic Party platform that the California and Colorado Democratic State Assemblies voted to demand DFER remove “Democrat” from its name.

 

 

However, DFER demurred and continues to pass itself off as part of a political movement that wants nothing to do with it.

 

 

In similar fashion, NPU is lead by Keri Rodriguez. She’s on the advisory board of DFER.

 

 

But she also spearheaded an effort to set up a referendum in Massachusetts to raise the cap on charter schools in 2016. The measure would have allowed a dozen new charters every year forever, located wherever they chose. But voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposition.

 

 

All of these individuals have deep ties to the Walton Family.

 

 

You might even say they are puppets of the oligarch family.

 

 

In just 2018 alone, the Walton Family Foundation awarded more than $595 million in grants, according to its own financial reports, much of which funded the efforts of the same folks behind NPU.

 

 

Rodrigues’ school privatization lobbyist group, Massachusetts Parents United, got more than $886,000 just in two years – 2017 and 2018.

 

 

Maurice Cunningham, a Dark Money investigator, estimates the total is up to at least $1 million by now.

 

 

If we add DFER and other NPU associated groups, Walton funding tops at least $5 million for the fiscal year 2018, alone.

 

 

But somehow NPU expects us to believe this is a parent lead movement.

 

 

The facts don’t back it up.

 

 

In 2018, the country was rocked by a wave of teacher walkouts mostly in red states beginning with West Virginia. In every state parents and students overwhelmingly supported the teachers.

 

 

The movement to fight for better working conditions for educators is also a fight to increase learning conditions for students.

 

 

Teachers aren’t just fighting for higher wages. They’re fighting for smaller class sizes, more tutors, counselors and librarians. They’re fighting for more funding and resources for students. They’re fighting for relief from school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

 

In short, teachers, parents and students are fighting against exactly the same kind of nonsense the Walmart heirs are hoping they can get the gullible public to believe parents actually really, REALLY want.

 

 

It’s ridiculous when you look at it.

 

 

The same company that pays poverty wages wants you to believe parents support policies that help enable low paychecks.

 

 

The same billionaires terrified their workers will unionize want you to believe that parents barely making ends meet are also horrified that people like them might have dignity at work.

 

 

The same corporation making record profits wants you to believe that hurting the people who volunteer to help your kids learn will somehow help them learn better.

 

 

A National Parents Union that’s anti-teacher and pro-corporation is like Chickens for McNuggets.

 

 

They think you’re that stupid.

 

 

And if these rich folks continue to get their way, they’ll ensure that the next generation is as dumb as they hope we are today.

 


 

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

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Robots Will Never Replace Teachers. They Can Only Displace Us

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

 

 

And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And we all know what he means by that!

 

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

 

Which students are these? Mostly poor and minority children.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

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

 

 

Yeah.

 

 

Seriously.

 

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

 

Shakespeare’s Miranda famously exclaimed:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

He says:

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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Picture of an actual Japanese robot teacher in use.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

David Watson

 


 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

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

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

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

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

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

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

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

 

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Charter Schools, Harrisburg & Mayor Peduto Created Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Budget Deficit

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Where did all the money go?

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools will start 2020 with a $25.1 million budget deficit.

 

 

Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet has asked for a 2.3% tax increase to cover the shortfall, but school directors ended up approving his spending plan without approving the tax increase.

 

 

The school board will meet on Friday to decide whether to ultimately raise taxes or make cuts including possible staff furloughs.

 

 

But in the meantime, city residents are left wondering why the measure was necessary in the first place.

 

 

After all, student enrollment has gone down at the second biggest district in the state after Philadelphia, yet spending is up 2.4% from 2019.

 

 

It really all comes down to three things: charter schools, retirement costs and tax revenue differed to the city.

 

 

CHARTER SCHOOLS

 

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Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but often privately run. As such, any student living within district boundaries takes funding away from the district.

 

 

And the amount of money keeps rising even though enrollment has not increased at these charter schools.

 

 

Since 2014, the amount the district has sent to these privatized schools has gone up by 88%.

 

 

In 2019, the district paid $95,129,023 to charter schools. In the proposed 2020 budget, new district projections put the expenditure at $102,150,444. That’s an increase of $7,021,421 in a single year.

 

 

 

So the cost of charter schools is 15% of the entire proposed budget. If it were eliminated, the district wouldn’t have a budget deficit at all – it would be running with a dramatic surplus.

 

 

And this is money that need not be spent.

 

 

Only about 6% of public school students state-wide are enrolled in these schools, and they duplicate services students are already receiving. Yet charter schools provide little value for students.

 

 

Nearly every study has found that charter schools do not produce better academic results than authentic public schools – in fact, many drastically underperform their public school counterparts.

 

 

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

 

 

In addition they have been found to increase racial segregation, cherrypick students, increase administrative overhead and discriminate against students with special needs.

 

 

But the state passed a law in 1997 allowing charter schools and there is nothing Pittsburgh Public Schools can do but continue to pay for them.

 

 

School directors, administrators, teachers, students, parents and concerned citizens can lobby their representatives in Harrisburg to fix these problems, but until they do there is little local districts can do.

 

 

However, the fact that charter schools increase local taxes is beyond doubt.

 

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

 

RETIREMENT COSTS

 

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Another large expenditure beyond the district’s control is retirement costs.

 

 

In 2019, the district spent $73,769,809 on contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS). In 2020, that number is expected to increase to $76,770,577. That’s an increase of $3,000,768.

 

 

Why the increase?

 

 

Because our state lawmakers were fiscally irresponsible.

 

 

Basically, the legislature stopped paying the bills for nearly two decades.

 

 

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The state government, local school districts and commonwealth employees are responsible for paying into the pension system. Districts and state workers made all their payments. Employees put aside 7.5% of their salaries every year to pay for their retirement.

 

 

But the legislature didn’t make its payments. It pushed them off to the future, and now that the future’s here, a larger percentage of the cost has fallen on local school districts.

 

 

It’s a problem of Harrisburg’s making and – frankly – the legislature should be buckling down to find a solution.

 

 

But instead they’re planning on the cynical assumption that voters are too stupid to understand it all and will just blame public school employees for demanding what we promised them when they were hired. The legislature has continuously reduced benefits for future employees and tried to illegally cut benefits for current ones.

 

 

What they should do is increase taxes on the wealthy and pay their damn bills.

 

 

We had a contract with employees when they were hired. We can’t renege on it now that they’ve retired.

 

 

Once again this is something Pittsburgh Public school directors and administrators have no control over. It will take a combined effort by local communities across the Commonwealth to lobby Harrisburg to get off its ass and fix the problem it made.

 

 

MAYOR PEDUTO

 

 

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The final factor behind the proposed tax increase is Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

 

 

When the city was on the verge of financial collapse 15 years ago, the school district agreed to help by diverting a portion of its tax revenue to the city.

 

 

Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), Dr. Hamlet has suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.

 

 

It wouldn’t heal the budget shortfall all by itself, but it would certainly help.

 

 

However, Peduto has furiously raged that he would not support such a measure and would fight it in Harrisburg.

 

 

Frankly, it’s a real dick move.

 

 

When asked about it he deflects to criticisms of the Hamlet administration that really have nothing to do with anything.

 

 

It’s really a simple matter. The schools lent the city money when it was in distress. The city is no longer in distress, so it should stop taking that additional money.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

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The first thing that has to be done is for Pittsburgh Public School directors to put on their grown up pants and raise taxes.

 

 

Look, I get it. No one wants to raise millage. But sometimes being an adult means doing things you don’t want to do.

 

 

And frankly, it’s not really that hard a call.

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools has the lowest tax rate in Allegheny County at only 9.84 mills. Most suburban districts range from 12 to 31 mils.

 

 

The proposed tax increase would mean paying an additional $23 for a property valued at $100,000.

 

 

This is not an unbearable burden.
Some complain that it would push city residents to move – but really anywhere else you move will have higher taxes! Anyone who packs up and moves away will not be doing it for financial reasons.

 

 

According to the district’s own Website, 67% of its students are non-white. Only 33% are white, with 53% African American and 14% other races.

 

 

Anyone complaining about money being spent on district students is upset about money being spent on THOSE KIDS. Just as so many of the criticisms of Dr. Hamlet, who is black, come down to an inability to accept a person of color in a position of power – especially if he isn’t going to simply give in to corporate interests looking to pick the district dry.

 

 

The fact is the majority of district students live in poverty. Though enrollment has gone down, that has allowed per pupil expenditures to increase and help heal the trauma of penury.

 

 

These kids need smaller class sizes, more tutoring, librarians, counselors, wider curriculum, etc. The money being spent on them is not wasted. In fact, in a perfect world it would be increased. We need to spend MORE on our poorest students than our most privileged ones to help them catch up.

 

 

I am thankful that board members Veronica Edwards, Pam Harbin, Devon Taliaferro, and Sylvia Wilson understood that by voting for both the proposed budget and the tax increase.

 

 

Kevin Carter, at least approved the spending plan, but he abstained from voting on whether the district should raise taxes, explaining later that he promised his constituents that was something he wouldn’t do.

 

 

Board members Cindy Falls, Bill Gallagher, Terry Kennedy, and Sala Udin voted against both measures.

 

 

Here’s hoping they find the courage to do what’s right after the holidays.

 

 

But even if they do, there is much more we must accomplish – and it requires everyone.

 

 

City residents need to rise up and demand their representatives put out the raging dumpster fires they keep lighting.

 

 

We need a state legislature willing to take on the charter school industry and at very least stop making it compete with authentic public schools for funding.

 

 

We need lawmakers willing to make the wealthy pay their fair share so the rest of us get the civil society we deserve – and that includes paying for the pension obligations we’ve already incurred.

 

 

And Pittsburgh needs a mayor who isn’t going to rage and foam at the prospect of FairPlay and will return the money Pittsburgh Public lent to the city.

 


 

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

 

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