Five Things I Learned About Ed Tech While Playing ‘Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

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I don’t mean to brag, but I just beat “Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”

 

This summer I sat down with my 9-year-old daughter and together we played the most popular Nintendo Switch game for hours, days, weeks.

 

And at the end of all that time, I came away victorious – something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do when I started.

 

There are so many buttons to learn, two joy sticks, various info screens and menus.

 

But when it was all over, I had cleared all four divine beasts. I got all 18 captured memories. I completed about 80 shrines. I mastered about 45 side quests. I shredded guardians, lynols and bokoblins. And, yes, I opened a major can of whoop ass on Calamity Gannon.

 

As the kids say, I’m jelly.

 

My video game skills are lit.

 

You can’t handle me, bro.

 

And so on.

 

 

But I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man.

 

Didn’t I have anything better to do?

 

Couldn’t I have found a more productive use for all that time?

 

Maybe. Maybe not. However, beyond the sheer fun, I did learn something from the whole experience.

 

As a public school teacher, I learned about my students by following in their footsteps.

 

That’s really why I started playing in the first place – my middle school kids this year loved that game.

 

I got more Zelda doodles, more Hyrule poetry, more Link fan fiction than you might at first believe.

 

The world of the game was really important to my children and having even a passing knowledge of that world helped me relate to them.

 

I even asked for a few tips after class.

 

One of my best students took her Switch out of her backpack and showed me a prime location to pick hot peppers so I could withstand the cold of Mount Hyrule (Don’t ask).

 

It was worth doing just for that – I showed my willingness to be the student and for them to be the teachers. I showed them we were all a community of learners.

 

At least, that’s my hope.

 

But now that the dog days of summer are here and my video game victory is complete, I keep thinking of the implications of my experience in Hyrule on the world of education.

 

Specifically, I’m thinking about education technology or Ed Tech.

 

I’m thinking about how we use various software packages to try to teach students and how they invariably fail at the task.

 

Well-meaning administrators hear about this program or that classroom management system or an assessment app and they spend beaucoup bucks on it.

 

We’re instructed to give up valuable instruction time so our kids can sit in front of a computer while a digital avatar attempts to do our job.

 

Kids listen to a cartoon person instruct them in the rudiments of grammar or literacy, play loose skills exercises and earn digital badges.

 

It may sound like fun to us, but they hate it.

 

The reason: nine times out of ten it’s little more than a standardized test given on a computer.

 

Sure, there are lots of bells and whistles, but the kids catch on mighty quickly. There is no student as bored as a student forced to play an educational video game.

 

I have real concerns with issues of student privacy and how the data being collected by these apps is used. I have real problems with how this technology facilitates dumbing down the curriculum – narrowing it to only that which can be measured on a multiple choice assessment. I take umbrage that these programs are used by some as “evidence” that human educators and brick and mortar schools are unnecessary. And I shed real tears at the massive amounts of funding being funneled to corporations that could be better spent in our own districts.

 

But playing this game has given me hope.

 

In seeing how “Zelda” succeeds with kids – because it succeeded with me – I think we can illuminate some ways ed tech goes awry.

 

I found five distinct lessons from the game, five areas where “Zelda” succeeds where ed tech fails.

 

Perhaps these could be used to improve the quality of ed tech devices to make them better at teaching students.

 

Or they could show why ed tech will never be as effective at teaching as flesh and blood instructors.

 

In any case, here is what I learned.

1) Focus on Fun

 

One of the biggest differences between ed tech and “Zelda” was the focus.

 

The games we make children play at school are designed to teach them something. That is their purpose. It is their raison d’être. The point behind the entire activity is to instruct, test and reward.

 

By contrast, the purpose of “Zelda” is fun.

 

Don’t get me wrong. “Zelda” can be very educational.

 

There are points where the game is actively trying to teach you how to do things usually associated with game play.

 

You have to learn how to make your character (Link) do what you want him to do. You have to learn how to manipulate him through the world. How to run, how to climb, how to heal, how to use weapons, how to cook and make elixirs, etc.

 

However, the point behind the entire game is not instructional. It’s fun – pure and simple.

 

If you have to learn something, it is all in service to that larger goal.

 

In the world of the game, learning is explicitly extrinsic. It helps you have more fun playing. Only the pursuit of winning is intrinsic or even conceptualized as being so.

 

In real life, this may not be the right approach to education, but it seems to be a rule of virtual experience. If it is superseded, the game becomes just another class assignment – lifeless, dead, boring.

 

If educational software is going to be effective in the classroom, it must find a way to bridge this divide. It must either put fun before pedagogy or trick the user into thinking it has done so.

 

I’m not sure this is possible or desirable. But there it is.

 

2) Logic and Problem Solving Work but not Curriculum

 

There are many aspects of “Zelda” one could consider educational.

 

However, when it comes to things that have importance outside of the game, the biggest would be problem solving and logic games.

 

A great deal of game play can be characterized under this umbrella.

 

The ostensible mission is to defeat the bad guy, Calamity Gannon. However, to do so you often have to solve various puzzles in order to have the strength and skills to take him down.

 

The most obvious of these puzzles are shrines. There are 120 special areas throughout Hyrule that Link needs to find and solve.

 

Each one involves a special skill and asks the gamer to decipher problems using that skill. For example, one asks you to manipulate fans so that the air flow makes windmills turn in a pattern. Another asks you to get a ball through an obstacle course.

 

In each case, the emphasis is on logic and critical thinking.

 

That has tremendous educational value. And it’s something I’ve seen done easily and well in many educational video games.

 

The problem is it doesn’t teach any particular curriculum. It doesn’t teach math, science, English or social studies – though it does help contribute to all of these pursuits.

 

 

Ed tech games are not nearly so coy. They often try to go right for the curriculum with disastrous results. Ed tech software, for instance, will have you find the grammatical error in a sentence or solve an equation in order to move on in the game.

 

That just doesn’t work. It feels false, extraneous and forced. It’s doesn’t seem like an organic part of the experience. It’s something contrived onto it from outside and reminds the gamer exactly why you’re playing – to learn.

 

3) Option to Seek Help

 

One of the most surprising things to me about playing “Zelda” on the Switch was how much of an on-line gaming community has formed around the whole experience.

 

If you get stuck in a particular area, you can find numerous sites on-line that will help you get passed it. You can even find gamer videos where YouTubers will show you exactly how they solved this or that problem. And they don’t all have the same solution. Some provide elegant, well-detailed advice, and others seem to stumble on it and offer you their videos as proof they could actually get the job done somehow.

 

It’s a lot different from when I was a kid playing video games. Back then (30 years ago) you had your friends but there were few other places to go for help. There were fan magazines and a few video game companies had tip hotlines. But other than that, you were on your own.

 

One of my favorite YouTubers this summer was Hyrule Dude. His videos were clear, informative and helpful. However, I didn’t always agree with his solutions. But they invariably helped me find things that would work for me.

 

It reminded me a bit of Khan Academy and other learning sites.

 

If kids really want to grasp something today, they have so many places they can go on-line. As educators, it’s hard to incorporate them into a classroom environment because there are certain things we want kids to find out for themselves.

 

For instance, as a language arts teacher, I want my students to do the assigned readings on their own. Yet I know some of them try to skip to the on-line summaries they can find and use that instead of reading the text. I have no problem if they access good summaries and analysis but I don’t want them to take the place of trying to comprehend the text on their own first.

 

I think there are ways to use this larger social media community to help support learning without spoiling the hard work kids need to put in on their own. But it’s something we need to think about more and find better ways to incorporate.

 

4) Open Ended

 

One of the most striking things about this new “Zelda” is how much choice the gamer has. In most games you have to complete the first board and then the second and so on until you win.

 

On the Switch, the world you’re thrust into is incredibly open ended. You can do pretty much what you want, when you want. Or at least you can try.

 

At first, your character is limited to one area of the world – a plateau. But once you complete a certain number of the challenges there, you get the paraglider which allows you to access most of the rest of the world.

 

It’s a huge area to explore – impossible to travel the entire length of it without spending hours of game play. And it’s entirely up to you where to go and what to do next.

 

The central mission of the game is to defeat Calamity Gannon in Hyrule Castle. However, that would be incredibly difficult early on. You’re advised to get the four Divine Beasts first. And you can do them in any order you want.

 

Moreover, I mentioned shrines earlier. When you complete four shrines, you can either increase your hearts (the amount you can be hurt without dying) or your stamina (how long your character can do something hard like climbing or swimming without having to rest). Technically, you don’t have to complete more than a few shrines, but doing so makes your character stronger and better able to get the Divine Beasts and defeat Gannon.

 

There are also side-quests (totally optional) that reward your character with money, items, etc.

 

I think this is the secret to the game’s success. It’s why game play is so immersive and addictive.

 

Ed tech software is exactly the opposite. You must do section A before section B before section C. It’s little more than a multiple choice test with only limited possible answers of which only one is correct.

 

In “Zelda” there are often multiple ways to achieve the same end. For instance, I would assume the programmers wanted me to fight my way through every room of Hyrule Castle to get to Calamity Gannon. However, I simply climbed over the walls and swan through the moats – a much quicker and efficient method.

 

If we could recreate this freedom of movement and multifarious solutions within educational software, we might really be onto something. But, frankly, it’s something that even traditional video games have difficulty being able to recreate.

 

5) Choice to Play or Not

 

And speaking of choice, there is the choice whether to play or not.

 

Video games are one of the things kids choose for leisure. When we force kids to play them in school, that choice is gone.

 

They become a task, a trial, an assignment.

 

Moreover, not every child enjoys video games.

 

We can’t mandate kids learn from games – even the best of ed tech games. At best, they should be an option. They could be one tool in the toolbox.

 

In summary, I think the goal of the ed tech industry is deeply flawed.

 

Ed tech will never adequately replace brick-and-mortar schools and flesh and blood teachers.

 

At best, it could provide a tool to help kids learn.

 

To do so, games would have to primarily be focused on fun – not learning. They would have to be organized around critical thinking and logic – not curriculum. They would need to utilize the on-line community for help but not cheating. They would need to be open ended worlds and not simply repackaged standardized testing. And finally, students would need the choice whether to play them or not.

 

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that the ed tech industry would even attempt to incorporate these ideas in its products.

 

They are market driven and not student driven. The corporate creatures behind these products don’t care how well they work. They only want to increase profitability and boost market share.

 

Cheaper commodities are better – especially when the consumer isn’t the student forced to play the game but the politician or administrator in charge of school policy.

 

Ed tech’s potential as a positive tool in a school’s toolbox has been smothered by the needs of business and industry. Until we recognize the harm corporations do in the school, we will be doomed to dehumanizing students, devaluing teachers and wasting our limited resources on already wealthy big business.

 


 

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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This Fathers Day Let’s Be Worthy of Our Children

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My daughter wrote me a card for Father’s Day.

 

 

It had a heart on the front and the following message on the back:

 

 

“Happy Fathers Day! Dad, you are my superstar. You help me when I’m sad. And I love everything you do for me. That is why I wish you a Happy Fathers Day.”

 

 

It was a sweet token of affection from a 9-year-old to her sleepy daddy sitting at the kitchen table.

 

 

But it got me thinking.

 

 

All over this country fathers are probably receiving something similar from their children.

 

 

Hawaiian shirts, blotchy neckties and more finger paintings than you could fit in the Louvre.

 

 

But the sentiment is probably the same.

 

 

Thank you for being there for me.

 

 

But are we there for America’s children?

 

 

We may be there for our own kids, but where genetics end, are we there for others?

 

 

Our government has separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents at the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

 

 

Two thousand children forcibly separated from their parents in our name and we dare to celebrate Father’s Day?

 

 

From April through May, the policy has separated 1,995 minors from 1,940 adults traveling with them who said they were the children’s guardians.

 

 

A country that doesn’t respect the rights of parents – even if those parents aren’t documented US citizens – has no right to pretend it values fatherhood or motherhood.

 

 

At best, we value WHITE parenthood, and that, my friends, is not good enough.

 

 

Look at what we subject our own children to in the public school system.

 

 

We segregate our schools by race and class so we can horde resources for wealthy and middle class white kids while providing the bare minimum to the poor and children of color.

 

 

In the name of accountability we bestow upon them high stakes standardized tests to “prove” even those meager funds are wasted – yet we ignore the financial disparity, the social problems, the health issues and a host of other obstacles the underprivileged face.

 

 

The only help we’re willing to offer is privatized schools that can pocket a portion of their funding and reduce resources for these kids. We demand local control and democratically elected school boards for rich white kids, but expect the poor brown ones at charter and voucher schools to get along with appointed boards where their parents have no choice except to take it or leave it.

 

 

Does a society that routinely treats its children this way deserve a thank you card? I think not.

 

 

Last month, the CDC released a report indicating that the U.S. birth rate ― the number of babies born nationwide ― is the lowest it’s been in 30 years and is below the “replacement” rate needed to sustain the population.

 

Various media sources were quick to blame women nationwide. Women put off having kids because they want to focus on careers. They aren’t sexy or submissive enough.

 

Yet few look at the responsibilities of men in this equation.

 

Who is it behind the salary gap between men and women? Who conflates women’s healthcare with abortion and communism? Who makes it easier to get a gun in this country than proper maternity leave, childcare or any adequate resources to make having a family sustainable?

 

Answer: men.

 

We’re grossly over-represented in government, business and management.

 

We don’t even support men who want to have families. Men make more money than women, but salaries are down for them as well. If there’s little support for pregnant women, there’s little support for the fathers who impregnated them.

 

We pretend family values are the bedrock of our society but we don’t do much to support families.

 

And when we look to the future, it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

 

Big business and huge corporations are salivating all over the prospect of further monetizing our children.

 

They’re piloting scores of so-called personalized learning programs, apps and devices to spy on children and monitor every aspect of their learning.

 

Not only are they asking kids whether they feel excited or bored by canned test prep lessons provided on-line, they’re focusing cameras on children’s faces, monitoring their breathing and heart rate. They’re collecting mountains of data with little accountability, privacy or even the promise of these things.

 

Investment bankers and hedge fund managers are funding these programs and more to create a priceless database on each individual child that can be used for lifelong marketing, job placement, even profiling by law enforcement.

 

These are not practices that are done in the best interest of children. They are in the best interest of investors and free market privateers.

 

No wonder fewer people are having children! They don’t want their kids to become helpless victims to a society that cares less and less about our humanity and more and more about our marketability.

 

It is us vs. them – where the us is significantly limited by race, economics and class.

 

So this Fathers Day, we need to do more than accept a congratulatory pat on the back.

 

We need to accept our responsibility for the status quo.

 

If we don’t like the way things are, we need to commit ourselves to doing something about it.

 

Call and/or write your Senators and Representatives about the policy of separating undocumented parents and children. Visit your lawmakers’ offices and demand fair funding and an end to school segregation, high stakes testing and school privatization. Get active in your local school district going to meetings and making your voice heard. Do everything you can to educate the powers that be on the coming Ed Tech scandal and remove or block it from your district.

 

We’re not just fathers on Fathers Day.

 

We’re fathers all year long.

 

Let’s do something more to deserve it.

 


 

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

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African Immigrants Excel Academically. Why Don’t African Americans?

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The presence of melanin in your skin shouldn’t affect your academics.

But in America, it does.

On average, black students achieve less academically than white students. They have worse grades, lower test scores, meager graduation rates and fewer achieve advanced degrees.

The question is – why?

Why does pigmentation matter so much in this country? What about it brings such negative academic consequences?

This is especially apt since it doesn’t apply to foreign born black students who come here to study or those who recently emigrated here.

In fact, they see just the opposite effect – they earn some of the best grades, have some of the highest test scores, and disproportionately graduate from high school and achieve advanced degrees.

This is something that distinguishes foreign-born Africans – especially those from Sub-Saharan Africa – even from other immigrants. African immigrants sit near the top of the scale of so-called model minorities.

According to a report by Christine Gambino and associates at the Census Bureau, 41% of the African-born immigrant population earned a bachelor degree compared with 28% of the overall foreign-born population in the US.

The four African birth countries with the highest percentages of bachelor and higher degrees among their expat populations in the US are Egypt at 64%, Nigeria at 61%, South Africa at 57% and Kenya at 47%.

So why the difference?

Obviously, it’s not skin color.

Part of it seems to be qualities selected for in the immigration process, itself.

We don’t let just anyone come to the U.S. We have rigorous qualifications and prerequisites that have to be met. For instance, students who want to study here must get high marks on the SAT, Act and/or the TOFFEL – the language proficiency test. To do that, they need the money and resources to study for these exams. They are already some of the best achievers in their native countries.

Moreover, there is a huge cultural difference coming from Africa as opposed to coming from the United States. Native-born Africans have to deal with the effects of post-colonialism. It wasn’t so long ago that European nations conquered and plundered the African continent for gold and resources. That era has mostly ended, but those living there still have to deal with lingering consequences. This has an effect on everything from gender, ethnicity, class, language, family relationships, professions, religions and nation states.

However, native-born Africans do not have to navigate the world of American white supremacy. The affects of being black in this country may be much more harmful than negotiating post-colonialism.

For instance, most mainland Africans enjoy intact cultures. They are not the product of families that were torn apart, religions that were displaced and entire belief systems, world views and genealogies that were stolen.

Nigerian cultures, in particular, highlight the importance of learning.

One typical Nigerian saying goes like this:

“The best inheritance that a parent can give you is not jewelry or cash or material things, it is a good education.”

This is why academics in Nigeria are widely supported, mandatory and free.

Meanwhile, in America native-born black students grow up in a much more stressful and unstable environment. This translates to academic struggles.

For one, they are the victims of educational apartheid. Brown v. Board is more than 60 years old, but American schools have become increasingly segregated by race and class. Black students receive fewer resources than whites and their schools struggle to provide the same quality of education. Moreover, they are the target – either directly or indirectly – of privatization schemes that result in less control over their own schools and the further reduction of resources through charter and voucher schools that can cut services and pocket the savings as profit.

However, the problem is not just systemic. I hate to say it, but sometimes even American teachers put up obstacles to black students success due to (often unconscious) bias.

Most teachers are white. They have certain societally reinforced expectations of black students. When these children struggle, they are more often put into special education and stigmatized for their differences.

It is no doubt that black students are more often disciplined and suspended than white students – numerous studies have shown this.

I think this is due at least partially to white teachers’ expectations. It is tempting to see black student behavior as negative in the default. We too often label them “bad kids” and then try to find evidence to support it instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt or assuming they’re smart and well-behaved until proven otherwise.

African immigrants don’t have to deal with these stigmas to nearly the same degree. They don’t get the same negative label. They have more support from close-knit families. They have more positive role models including more college graduates in the family.

Another obstacle for American born black students is a cultural imputation against academic achievement. Doing well in school can be seen as “acting white.” In order to maintain popularity and prestige, they are steered away from the exact things that immigrant Africans are steered toward.

The poverty of American blacks plays a huge factor, too. Even in moderately successful African American homes, parents or guardians are often working multiple jobs or long hours to make ends meet. This reduces their ability to oversee their children’s homework and monitor academic progress.

It seems then that the so-called proficiency gap between native-born black and white students in this country is due to generational poverty, white racism and coping mechanism in their own culture.

If we want to help American-born black students, we need to realize, first, that this problem is not due to inherent racial deficiencies. It is the product of class warfare and white supremacy.

As such, it can be cured through progressive economic policies and anti-racist efforts.

The strongest argument for reparations comes from a recognition of the lingering effects of our history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex.

These are daunting problems, but they can be solved.

It just takes an honest appraisal of the issues and the social will to make things right.


 

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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Dear Betsy DeVos, I Will NEVER Report My Students to ICE

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Teachers fill a lot of roles in our public schools.

 

 

We’re mentors to kids in need.

 

 

We’re aides to students struggling with new concepts and skills.

 

 

We’re homework-givers, pencil-providers, idea-encouragers, lunch-buyers, scrape-bandagers, hand-holders, hug-givers, good listeners, counselors, caregivers and – yes – sometimes even butt-kickers.

 

 

It’s no wonder that we occasionally get mistaken for mothers and fathers.

 

 

But one thing we will never be is a snitch.

 

 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently intimated that principals and teachers could report their undocumented children to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

 

 

She’s not going to say what we should do one way or another. She’s just saying that this is something we COULD do if we wanted.

 

 

If that results in those kids and their families being deported, well we are a nation of laws, after all.

 

 

It’s a remark that sounds so reasonable to some folks.

 

 

Luckily, I speak dog whistle.

 

 

So did the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1982 when justices ruled in Plyler v. Doe that schools cannot deny children their right to a free education based on immigration status.

 

 

When kids are afraid to learn because they or their parents or extended family may be undocumented, that has a smothering affect on the classroom.

 

 

When ICE raids a local business, we see a sudden drop in class attendance.

 

So if students thought their teachers or principals were scrutinizing them to determine their citizenship status, we’d be discouraging many with brown skin or extra-national credentials from ever coming back.

 

By suggesting that educators have a choice whether to obey established law or to become self-appointed border patrol officers, DeVos actually is prescribing how we should act.

 

Well, not this teacher, Betsy.

 

Not now. Not EVER.

 

No matter who you are – black, white or brown – a public school is a sanctuary. It is where kids of all different races and creeds come to escape from the ravages of poverty, violence and indifference.

 

Teachers are not the enforcers of our broken, bent and biased immigration policy. It is not our job to oblige xenophobia and bigotry.

 

It is our job to teach, to protect and inspire.

 

Sure, I’ve made my fair share of calls to parents, healthcare professionals and Child Protective Services.

 

I’ve reported abuse, addiction and mental illness.

 

But I did that to protect my kids. And I do think of them as my kids.

 

When these little people come toddling into my class, I take a kind of ownership of them.

 

For the time they’re here, we’re family. I take interest in their lives and they take interest in mine.

 

They know all about my wife and daughter, my parents and grandparents. And I know about theirs.

 

We don’t just learn grammar, reading and writing. We share our lives with each other.

 

We share a mutual trust and respect.

 

If I reported even a single student for a suspected immigration violation, I would lose that forever.

 

It’s sad how much things have changed in a little over year.

 

Hispanic names have become Anglicized. Angelo has becomes Angel. Julio has become Jules. Jorge is now George.

 

 

The dulcet melody of Spanish has been silenced. You’ll only hear it in muffled voices if you wander by a few lockers, but never in class.

 

 

My kids aren’t even 13 yet, but many of them have already learned to hide.

 

 

Don’t appear different. Don’t let anyone know your roots extend beyond national borders.

 

 

Be “normal.” Be homogenized, bland American.

 

 

That’s the world we’ve built and it’s the one that DeVos is encouraging with her tin pot nationalism.

 

 

Some things don’t change when you cross municipal lines – human decency is one of them.

 

 

So I won’t be reporting any of my students to ICE.

 

 

I won’t help the Gestapo separate parents and children based on citizenship status.

 

 

I won’t help set up ethnic checkpoints where armed guards get to ask “suspicious persons” for their papers.

 

 

White supremacy was bad enough before Trump was elected. I won’t help the unfortunately named Department of Homeland Security become the protector of a new white trash Fatherland.

 

 

I will defend my students. I will stand up for their safety and their rights.

 

 

That’s just what we do in public school. We look after our own.

 


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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School Vouchers and Runaway EdTech Pave the Way for the Destruction of the Very Concept of School

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School is where you learn to learn.

 

A teacher with an advanced degree and decades of experience devotes her time to figuring out what helps you comprehend the world around you.

 

And, if she’s good, she imparts that lesson to you as well.

 

Imagine if we took that away.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many EdTech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

And school vouchers are helping them do it.

 

Take Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and other market based privatization schemes.

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

At a public school all that money must be spent on the student. At a charter school some of that money can be pocketed as profit by the private company who runs the school.

 

Public schools provide a better alternative because the funding must be dedicated to the student, living within a district’s coverage area guarantees enrollment, the school must be managed by an elected school board with open meetings and a plethora of other amenities you won’t find at a privatized institution. But at least the charter school is a school!

 

However, an ESA or other voucher would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school where organizers can use it however they like – pocketing some and using the rest to help the child as you’ll find in most charter schools.

 

But as bad as that is, vulture capitalists want to add another destination for that money – let it pile up in the bank where it can be used for discrete education services provided by the EdTech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without the loving parent being in charge.

 

It goes by many names – a learning ecosystem, personalized learning, competency based or individualized education.

 

But it’s really a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 

Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. We just transform a crappy job market where workers bounce from a few hours of minimum wage labor here to a few hours of minimum wage toil there – all without benefits or union protections – into learning. Children bouncing from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

In short, it’s school without the school or teachers.

 

And make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to rubes as innovation.

 

The wealthy will still get institutions of learning. They will still be educated by the most qualified teachers in the world. They will still learn how to learn.

 

The best path to becoming a truly educated person involves human interaction and mentorship. You need experienced professional educators who use the empirical evidence they see in the classroom about your child to tailor lessons to their needs. The wealthy would never dream of making their children learn from the academic equivalent of an automated check out aisle or telemarketer robocall.

 

It is only the poor and middle class who will be released like chickens into the pasture of a learning ecosystem.

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin! So all the stability of the pre-crash housing market! What could possibly go wrong!?

 

Let me be clear – this is the ultimate goal of the school privatization movement.

 

Charter and voucher schools are only the tip of the iceberg. They still require real human beings to act as teachers (though they need not be as well educated or have as much experience as public school teachers). They still require buildings and grounds.

 

But this depersonalized learning approach allows them to do away with all of that. They can just provide students with an Internet accessible device and some dubious on-line tracking and management system.

 

Then they can pocket all the rest of the money taxpayers put aside to educate children and call it profit.

 

And they can use the programs students access to “learn” as a way to gather valuable marketing data about our kids. Everything students do on the device is free market research – every word they input, every keystroke, every site visited down to the slightest eye movement.

 

This is the logical conclusion of the monetization of education and an economy that only sees value in others as human capital that can be bought, sold and exploited.

 

This is where the privatization movement is going. And they’re laying the groundwork in legislation being proposed in our state capitals today.

 

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Senate Bill 2 proposes the creation of just such ESAs. If approved, the immediate result would be to boost private and parochial schools.

 

However, given a few years to strengthen the technologies and systems needed for a full learning ecosystem, the same law would allow taxpayer money to be used in this way.

 

And it’s something hardly anyone is talking about.

 

We’re fighting the privatization systems of today as the plutocrats set up the privatization systems of tomorrow.

 

Even if school vouchers never take off to the degree necessary to scaffold the most robust learning ecosystems, EdTech lobbyists are trying to install as much of this garbage as they can into our existing schools.

 

They are using one-to-one iPad initiatives and grants to fund up-to-date computers, Wi-Fi networks and software packages to pave the way for this brave new world of digital exploitation. They are selling our test score obsessed bureaucrats software like iStation and IXL that bridge the gap between test prep and learning ecosystems lite.

 

You can walk into many schools today where students spend hours on-line earning digital badges for watching videos and taking stealth assessments.

 

Few people are sounding the alarm because few people understand what’s going on.

 

This is not conjecture. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is the goal the edtech entrepreneurs will gladly tell you all about hoping you’ll invest.

 

There are hours of videos, pages of documents, mountains of graphs, charts and graphics about how this scheme will pay off for investment bankers and venture capitalists. (See below)

 

The only true way to win this battle is a cultural shift away from dehumanizing runaway capitalism.

 

We need to stop thinking that the private sector is always better than the public good. We need to stop allowing big business and corporations to get away without paying their fair share. We need to increase the voice of citizens and decrease the megaphone of money and privilege.

 

Otherwise, the science fiction dystopias of books like “Ready Player One” will no longer be fiction.

 

They will become the reality for every school child in this country.

 

A reality where school, itself, is a thing of the past.

 

And education is reduced to the mercenary collection of discrete skills that add up to nothing of value for the students except their own enslavement.


 

But don’t take my word for it. Here is the learning ecosystems model from the EdTech industry, itself, in corporate officers own words and graphics:

LEARNING IS EARNING – the scariest 6:58 video you’ll ever see.

 

KNOWLEDGEWORKS Vision for the Future of Education:

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Graphic as a PDF

More on KnowledgeWorks

Listing for PARENTS AS CONSUMERS Symposium

Read all about it here.

 


FIGHT BACK AGAINST SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION AND RUNAWAY EDTECH:

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The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School

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There are good charter schools.

 

I admit that.

 

There are bad public schools.

 

I admit that, too.

 

But if one had to choose between the worst public school and the best charter school, you’d still be better off with the public school.

 

Does that sound crazy? Does it sound ideological, partisan, or close-minded.

 

I don’t think so.

 

Imagine if we said the same thing about tyrannies and democracies.

 

There are good tyrannies.

 

There are bad democracies.

 

Still, I’d prefer the worst democracy to the best tyranny.

 

Why?

 

Because even a badly run democracy is based on the principle of self rule. The government gets its right to make and enforce laws from the consent of the will of the governed.

 

Even if our representatives are corrupt and stupid, even if our federal, state and local agencies are mismanaged and disorganized – there is the potential for positive change.

 

In fact, the catalyst to that change is embedded in democracy, itself.  Egalitarian systems founded on the principle of one person, one vote tend toward fairness, equity and liberty much more than others.

 

Bad leaders will be replaced. Bad functionaries will be retrained or superseded. Bad agencies will be renovated, renewed, and made to serve the will of the people.

 

However, in a tyranny, none of this is true.

 

Even if you have a benevolent tyrant who does nothing all day but try to do whatever is best for his or her subjects, that is a worse state of affairs.

 

Eventually the tyrant will change. Absolute power will corrupt him or her absolutely. Or even if this bastion of human goodness is incorruptible, he or she will eventually be deposed, replaced or die.

 

And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to ensure the next tyrant is likewise benevolent. In fact, the system is set up to increase the likelihood that the next ruler will be as selfish, greedy and malevolent as possible.

 

This is because it is the system of tyranny, itself, that is corrupt – even if those that fill its offices are not.

 

The same goes for good charter schools.

 

These are schools that are publicly funded but privately run.

 

As such, the overwhelming majority have no elected school board, their meetings are held in private, their documents are kept secret, they discriminate in enrollment and they take advantage of a plethora of legal loopholes and bad policy to embezzle funds, overcharge for nonexistent utilities and cut services for students while pocketing the “savings” as profit.

 

If you can find a charter school that does none of these things – congratulations! You have found a diamond in the rough! But it is a diamond that is more likely to turn to coal the second you turn away.

 

Let’s say you find the rare charter school run by an elected school board. THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Organizers could at any time revert to an appointed board. Community members could be making all the decisions when you send your child to school, but by dismissal time they could have all been replaced with flunkies appointed by the private business people who took out the charter from the state in the first place!

 

 

Let’s say your charter school has open meetings and public documents. They invite the public to their deliberations. They take public comment and share all their internal communications with taxpayers and the media.  THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. They could close the doors any day they wanted. And there’s nothing you could do about it.

 

 

Why? Because that’s what a charter school is. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, it is not fundamentally a public school. It is a private school at public expense.

 

 

All these things that are optional at a charter school are required at public schools. Not just some public schools – ALL OF THEM!

 

 

Public schools are required to have elected school boards (unless taken over by the state). They are required to have open meetings and public documents. They are essentially democratic, whereas even the best charter schools are only democracies because of someone’s goodwill. When the wind changes, so will their system of government.

 

 

But that’ not all.

 

 

Let’s say you find a charter school that has open enrollment. It accepts every student who applies from its coverage area. Or at least it does so until it runs out of room. If demand exceeds supply, it conducts a lottery to determine which students to let in and which it has to unfortunately turn away.

 

First of all, if the school doesn’t have open meetings and public documentation, you have no way of knowing whether these lotteries are fair and unbiased. Operators are often charged with cherry picking the best and brightest and denying students with disabilities or behavioral problems – they’ve even been known to discriminate based on race and class.

 

Second of all, even if your charter school is one of the magical few that just does the right thing with no oversight, THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Once they figure out how much money they can save by only accepting the cheapest students to educate, inclusive enrollment policies will be a thing of the past. And you’ll probably never even know the difference.

 

Public schools aren’t allowed to do that. They have to accept every student from their coverage area regardless of academic deficits, emotional needs, race, religion, class or creed. And if there isn’t enough space, they still can’t turn students away. They have to expand!

 

And what about the most salient feature of charter schools?

 

 

Unlike public schools where all the funding has to be spent on student services, most charter schools are run for profit. They are allowed to cut services for students and swipe the savings for their investors.

 

Some charter schools don’t do this. BUT THEY CAN! Any day now they could cut little Timmy’s gym class down to twice a week so a shady group of business people in a smoke filled room could stuff a bunch of bills in their own wallets.

 

Offering French AND Spanish? Adios muchachos. And bonjour to a fistful of dollars going directly into their bank accounts.

 

All of that is perfectly legal even though it’s your money they’re collecting – money you put aside to help your child learn – there’s not a thing you can do about it.

 

Sure, you can take your child out of the charter school. But the money funding the school isn’t just your child’s. You’re paying for every student enrolled there. Even if you don’t have kids, you’re footing the bill. And unlike the public school system where you get a voice in how that money is spent, here you don’t get to say a thing.

 

You just get to pay.

 

Call me crazy, but I think there’s something wrong with that.

 

I think that’s worse than even the most decrepit public school.

 

If a public school has a terrible school board, they can be replaced. In fact, they most certainly will be given time. With each bad policy and unpopular decision, bad school directors motivate taxpayers to vote them out.

 

This is the exact opposite of charter schools. There is more reason for a charter to replace an elected board with an appointed one so as to increase their autonomy and ability to make money.

 

Most of the problems with public schools aren’t located in the schools, themselves.

 

They are the result of strategic disinvestment – archaic funding formulas that allocate less to districts without a large tax base than those in richer neighborhoods. They are the result of segregation schemes that keep the poor and minorities in neighborhoods where they can be ignored and then blamed for their own underprivileged status. They are the result of national and state policies allowed to play the parasite on their budgets – high stakes testing, Common Core and – yes – charter schools.

 

So, no, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be so positive about public schools and so negative about charter schools.

 

The problem with privatized education isn’t just specific to individual schools. It is a feature of the very kind of school we’re talking about in the first place.

 

Charter schools are at heart a less democratic system than public schools.

 

Therefore, public schools are always preferable.

 

I wouldn’t give up my country just because we have an idiot in the oval office. Nor would I give up my public school just because of inadequacies in my local district.

 

Democracy isn’t for wimps. You have to fight for it.

 

Those people who are telling you to switch teams are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

 

Don’t fall for it.

 

Public school proud.

 

Today.

 

Tomorrow.

 

Always.


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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Pennsylvania’s Zombie School Voucher Bill is Back! And It Wants Your Tax Dollars!

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First, there was the horror of a School Voucher Bill.

 

No one wanted it.

 

It robbed kids of a quality education. It violated the Constitution. And raised taxes.

 

So it was soundly defeated.

 

Then there was Bride of the Voucher Bill.

 

And it likewise went down in flames.

 

This was soon followed by Son of the Voucher Bill.

 

Return of the Voucher Bill.

 

School Vouchers from the Black Lagoon.

 

Plan 9 from Voucher Space.

 

And a host of B-grade legislation straight from the desk of a billionaire think tank to Harrisburg.

 

All ended up in the same place – the legislative graveyard. Oooh! Scary!

 

Now we have the latest shambling zombie iteration of a voucher bill, called Senate Bill 2.

 

Yesterday, after years of false starts and political wheeling and dealing, it’s finally been voted out of the Education Committee.

 

Which means it will come to a vote by the state Senate and then the state House.

 

And who do we have to thank for yet another version of legislation billionaires insist we need but voters don’t want?
These guys:

 

  • Senator John Eichelberger, (R-Blair),
  • Senator Richard Alloway, (R-Franklin)
  • Senator Ryan Aument, (R-Lancaster),
  • Senator Pat Browne, (R-Lehigh),
  • Senator John DiSanto, (R-Dauphin)
  • Senator Mike Folmer, (R-Lebanon)
  • Senator Joe Scarnati, (R-Jefferson)

 

All Republicans. All bought and paid for by wealthy oligarchs. All convinced that we need to give School Vouchers yet another try in the Keystone state.

 

And who voted against letting the monster out once again? These guys:

 

  • Senator James Brewster (D-Allegheny)
  • Senator Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester)
  • Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery)
  • Senator Robert Tomlinson (R-Bucks)
  • Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia)

 

This time the beast has a new look – something called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

 

It’s really just putting another horn on the same old rubber creature.

 

They say ESAs allow state money to pay for private school tuition of elementary and high school students in struggling public school districts.

 

Oh great. Another way to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money from the public schools serving 90% of the state’s students.

 

Just what we need. A boondoggle for private businesses and religious schools.

 

Will there be any way to make sure the money in these education savings accounts is going to the right place or is being used to help kids learn?

 

Nope.

 

These schools will be able to grab your tax money and use it just about however they please with little to no oversight.

 

Thanks a lot, so-called fiscal conservatives.

 

And guess who gets to pay the bill? YOU DO!

 

Watch property taxes increase to make up the shortfall in funding so your local public school can have the privilege of continuing to operate.

 

I wouldn’t mind more of my taxes going to public schools that are run democratically, are held accountable and teach things in the American mainstream.

 

But – call me crazy – I don’t want my money going to help indoctrinate the next generation of zealots who deny science, deny history, and deny the moral standards of our society.

 

When Evangelical Christians pretend the moral high ground by backing a President who pays off porn stars and belittles war heroes and the disabled, you can see why they need to demand government assistance to keep their pews filled.

 

Will not on my dime, Buster.

 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

 

Remember that?

 

It’s the establishment clause from the First Amendment. And if you need to wipe your ass with something, it certainly won’t be the U.S. Constitution!

 

Separation of church and state. Keep them separate.

 

This law would allow many of the rich kids who already attend private and religious schools to be subsidized by taxpayers.

 

It would rob us of hundreds of millions of dollars ($500 million at last estimate) that we need just to keep our public schools where they’re at!

 

 

Moreover, school vouchers are nothing new.

 

We’ve been trying this crap for years and they haven’t done a thing to help students learn.

 

Three out of the four most recent studies on voucher programs, which examined the nation’s largest and oldest voucher strategies in Washington DC, Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana, all show student performance getting worse or not improving at all with vouchers.

 

A 2017 report from the Economic Policy Institute concluded that extensive research on vouchers over the past quarter century demonstrates that gains in student achievement – if present at all – are at best small. Students show no significant improvement in reading or math. In addition, the report showed that the risks outweigh any insignificant gains in test scores.

 

Another report from June 2017 by the US Dept of ED found that students using a voucher had statistically significant lower performance in math compared to students who did not receive a voucher.

 

And THIS is what a gaggle of ideologues want to increase in the Commonwealth!?

 

 

Look. The problem with our public schools is poverty. Pure and simple.

 

Giving out vouchers to private and parochial schools won’t help. It just hides the problem and makes it worse.

 

Most of the lowest-performing schools are in high poverty districts that are already struggling financially and cannot afford even less funding.

 

Poverty has a significant impact in student achievement. The average acute poverty rate (% of children living in families with income less than 100% of federal poverty limits) in school districts with more than one low-achieving school was 33.3% – more than double the state average of 16.3%.

 

Higher poverty means lower standardized test scores.

 

On average, the proficiency rate for students in the highest poverty schools is 33% less than students in the wealthiest districts. Struggling schools need MORE resources – not less.

 

Yet, the highest poverty school districts receive more than $2,000 less per student than their wealthy counterparts. This means they are unable to make the investments necessary to overcome the barriers posed by being poor in America.

 

Diverting state subsidies from these school districts, to ESA vouchers reduce fair access to educational opportunities for these students.

 

Despite what voucher proponents think, this does not “Save Money.” It does not force struggling districts to do more with less. It forces them to do less – or get more.

 

Schools don’t budget or spend money on a per student basis. Fixed costs remain the same regardless of how many students are led away by the pied piper of school vouchers.

 

Costs such as building operations and maintenance, utilities, technology, food service, staff salaries and benefits, transportation including fuel and bus drivers, remain.

 

Vouchers result in no savings. They produce a greater financial burden for local taxpayers. With less in state funding to provide the same education, that money would have to be raised from other sources – namely, YOU and your local taxes!

 

I know this is all very tiresome.

 

It seems like any positive legislation is impossible to get through Harrisburg, but garbage like Senate Bill 2 is ubiquitous.

 

How many times have we defeated this voucher nonsense?

 

How many times have taxpayers made it clear they don’t want to fund this nonsense?

 

But it doesn’t matter. Like a spoiled child, ideologues keep bringing it up again and again in the hopes that this time they’ll wear us down and we’ll let this terrible legislation pass.

 

Vouchers can be defeated a hundred times. All it takes is one victory and it becomes law and much more difficult to expunge.

 

So please call, write and visit your state senator and representative.

 

Tell them you’re against the latest horror show voucher monstrosity.

 

And maybe when you’re at the polls remember the names of the tools who keep making you repeat yourself.

 

Give them an unequivocal answer by voting them out of office.

 

Only then do we stand a chance of nailing a stake through vouchers’ undead heart – for good.


 

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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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