Charter School’s Two Dads – How a Hatred for Public School Gave Us School Privatization

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If bad ideas can be said to have fathers, then charter schools have two.

 

And I’m not talking about greed and racism.

 

No, I mean two flesh and blood men who did more than any others to give this terrible idea life – Minnesota ideologues Ted Kolderie, 89, and Joe Nathan, 71.

 

In my article “Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along,” I wrote about Kolderie’s role but neglected to mention Nathan’s.

 

And of the two men, Nathan has actually commented on this blog.

 

He flamed on your humble narrator when I dared to say that charter schools and voucher schools are virtually identical.

 

I guess he didn’t like me connecting “liberal” charters with “conservative” vouchers. And in the years since, with Trump’s universally hated Billionaire Education Secretary Betsy Devos assuming the face of both regressive policies, he was right to fear the public relations nightmare for his brainchild, the charter school.

 

It’s kind of amazing that these two white men tried to convince scores of minorities that giving up self-governance of their children’s schools is in their own best interests, that children of color don’t need the same services white kids routinely get at their neighborhood public schools and that letting appointed bureaucrats decide whether your child actually gets to enroll in their school is somehow school choice!

 

 

But now that Nathan and Kolderie’s progeny policy initiative is waning in popularity, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter are calling for moratoriums on new charters and even progressive politicians are calling for legislative oversight, it’s important that people know exactly who is responsible for this monster.

 

And more than anyone else, that’s Kolderie and Nathan.

 

Over the last three decades, Nathan has made a career of sabotaging authentic public schools while pushing for school privatization.

 

He is director of the Center for School Change, a Minneapolis charter school cheerleading organization, that’s received at least $1,317,813 in grants to undermine neighborhood schools and replace them with fly-by-night privatized monstrosities.

 

He’s written extensively in newspapers around the country and nationwide magazines and Websites like the Huffington Post.

 

But it all started for Nathan back in 1987 when he happened to see an advertisement on TV, according to Ember Reichgott, the former Minnesota State Senator who originally proposed the first charter school bill.

 

The ad was called “Ah, Those Marvelous Minnesota Schools,” writes Reichgott.

 

 

It dared to dispute the Reagan administration’s propaganda hit piece “A Nation at Risk” which painted public schools as failures that needed to be disrupted and replaced.

 

 

Well Nathan wasn’t about to take it.

 

According to Reichgott’s book, “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story”, Nathan:

 

“…talked with the Minneapolis Foundation, among others, about what they might do. ‘The Minneapolis Foundation decided it was time to introduce into Minnesota some pretty radical ideas,’ said Nathan. So plans got underway for the Itasca Seminar, with a focus on public education.”

 

This seminar was instrumental in turning the tide in Minnesota that ultimately birthed the most infectious school privatization virus on an unwitting nation.

 

Nathan had always been a fan of transferring public services to private control. In fact, he had just finished lobbying for privatization in the National Governors Association. Now back in Minnesota, he joined together with Kolderie, a former journalist and self professed “policy entrepreneur” who had been pushing for the same thing since at least the 1970s.

 

Their ideology – expounded by southern segregationists and people like the divisive economist Milton Friedman – was extremely unpopular, but they were about to get a break.

 

In 1988, Albert Shanker, the union hero President of the American Federation of Teachers, had just given an infamous speech to the National Press Club praising the idea of a new concept called “charter schools.”

 

However, he wasn’t talking about the modern idea of a charter school. Shanker was building off an idea originally proposed by Ray Budde, a little-known professor of education from upstate New York.

 

It was Budde who actually coined the term “charter school.” He thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker liked this idea because of his own teaching experience in East Harlem where administrators constantly got in the way of educators. “One of the things that discourages people from bringing about change in schools is the experience of having that effort stopped for no good reason,” he said.

 

Nathan saw in this an opportunity and invited Shanker to speak at the Itasca Seminar. His goal was to hide his side’s privatization aims under the shadow of progressive unionism.

 

 

And it worked. In fact, if you look up the history of charter schools, you’ll STILL find people who insist they were invented by Shanker.

 

 

With this cover, the Citizen’s League, which was underwritten by the Minneapolis Foundation, was able to pass a bill requiring mandatory statewide standardized testing. The bill, authored by the Minnesota Business Partnership put forth the evaluation system necessary to demonize the public schools and prepare the way for the ultimate goal – privatization.

 

 

In 1991, the same forces passed the nation’s first charter school bill.

 

 

But let’s be clear on this – the charter schools created in this bill and the “charter schools” talked about by Shanker and Budde are very different concepts.

 

 

Nathan and Kolderie wrote the majority of the bill and they stripped out almost everything any educator had ever proposed.

 

 

According to Budde’s conception, charters would be authorized by school districts and run by teachers. Central office administrators would step out of the way, but charter schools would still operate within collective bargaining arrangements negotiated between districts and unions.

 

 

Instead, Nathan and Kolderie proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate from local districts. The state had the power, not communities or their elected representatives. That meant charters could be run not just by teachers but also by entrepreneurs. And that’s almost always who has been in charge of them ever since – corporations and business interests.

 

 

This was the goal Friedman and the deregulators had been fighting for since the 1950s finally realized – almost the same goal, it should be noted, as that behind school vouchers.

 

 

From the start, this was a business initiative. Competition between charters and authentic public schools was encouraged. And that included union busting. Thus charters were free of all the constraints of collective bargaining that districts had negotiated with their unions. The needs of workers and students were secondary to those of big business and the profit principle.

 

 

Shanker eventually realized this and repudiated what charter schools had become. But by then the damage was done.

 

 

Shanker hadn’t created charter schools. He had suggested something very different. And that suggestion was used to help usher in a concept that has haunted our public school system ever since.

 

 

Kolderie had been working on it for two decades, and with Nathan’s help it became a reality.

 

 

With the backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the two men went on to push a version of this same bill from legislature to legislature. Kolderie even boasts of helping 25 other states enact charter school legislation.

 

 

Today 43 states are afflicted with charter schools enrolling about 6% of the students in the country. An additional 4% go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers.

 

 

This distinction between charter and voucher schools is important to political pundits, but it’s really just hair splitting.  It’s like saying vanilla chocolate swirl ice cream is nothing like chocolate vanilla swirl.

 

 

Consider: charter schools are privatized schools paid for with taxes. Voucher schools are private schools paid for with money diverted from taxes.

 

 

False distinctions like these are another way of managing public perception just like the pettifogging contrast between for-profit and non-profit charter schools. Again they’re pretty much the same thing. They can each cut services to students and pocket the left overs – the only difference is which loopholes they have to jump through and how they designate their tax status.

 

 

They are both the flowering of the deregulationist dream of destroying public education and replacing it with business-operated schools. They are attempts to destabilize, defame and destroy public education.

 

 

And though the plan has worked for decades, here’s hoping that the current political pause represents the beginning of a change of course.

 

 

Kolderie and Nathan’s monster has devoured too many schools and with them too many children’s hopes of an excellent education.

 

 

It’s time to pin the monster down with facts and shove a stake through its heart.

 


 

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 Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along

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America has been fooled by the charter school industry for too long.

 

The popular myth that charter schools were invented by unions to empower teachers and communities so that students would have better options is as phony as a three dollar bill.

 

The concept always was about privatizing schools to make money.

 

It has always been about stealing control of public education, enacting corporate welfare, engaging in union busting, and an abiding belief that the free hand of the market can do no wrong.

 

Charter schools are, after all, institutions run privately but paid for with tax dollars. So operators can make all decisions behind closed doors without public input or accountability. They can cut student services and pocket the difference. And they can enroll whoever the heck they want without providing the same level of education or programs you routinely get at your neighborhood public school.

 

In essence, charter schools are a scheme to eliminate the public from public education paid for at public expense.

 

 

But whenever anyone brings up these facts, they are confronted by the bedtime story of Albert Shanker and his alleged advocacy of the industry.

 
So grab your teddy bear and put on your jammies, because here’s how it goes:

 
Once upon a time, hero president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Al Shanker had an idea. He wanted to make laboratory schools where educators would be freed of regulations so they could experiment and find new pedagogies that worked. Then these innovations could spread to the rest of the school system.

 

One day in 1988, he gave a speech at the National Press Club and subsequently published a column in the New York Times advancing this idea.

 

And he called it – Dum, Dum, DUM! – charter schools!
The second act of the story opens in the mid-1990s when Shanker had largely turned against the idea after it had been co-opted by business interests.

 

He dreamed of places where unionized teachers would work with union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.” But instead he got for-profit monstrosities that didn’t empower workers but busted their unions.

 

If only we’d stuck with Shanker’s bold dream!

 

Or at least, that’s how the story goes.

 

Unfortunately it’s just a story.

 

It’s not true. Hardly a word of it.

 

Shanker did not come up with the idea of charter schools. He wasn’t part of the plan to popularize them. He didn’t even come up with the term “charter school.”

 

If anything, he was a useful patsy in this stratagem who worked tirelessly to give teachers unions a seat at the table where he then discovered they were also on the menu.

 

The real origin of charter schools goes back decades to at least the 1950s and the far right push for deregulation.

 

When the afterglow of the atomic bomb and the allied victory in Europe had faded, there was political backlash at home to roll back the amazing economic successes of the New Deal. Social security, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, a minimum wage, job programs that put millions of people to work – all of that had to go in favor of right wing ideology.

 

A cabal of mostly wealthy, privileged elites wanted to do away with these policies in the name of the prosperity it would bring to themselves and their kind. They claimed it would be for the good of everyone but it was really just about enriching the already rich who felt entitled to all economic goods and that everyone else should have to fight over the crumbs.

 

Never mind that it was just such thinking that burst economic bubbles causing calamities like the Great Depression in the first place and made the conditions ripe for two world wars.

 

Show me the money!

 

However, this really didn’t go anywhere until it was combined with that most American of institutions – racism.

 

Even before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision struck down school segregation, many white people said they’d never allow their children to go to school with black children.

 

In the South, several districts tried “freedom of choice” plans to allow white kids to transfer out of desegregated schools.

 

In 1952 and ’57, governments in two states – Georgia and Virginia – tried out what became known as the “private school plan.” Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge and community leaders in Prince Edward County, Virginia, tried to privatize public schools to avoid any federal desegregation requirements. Each student would be given a voucher to go to whatever school would enroll them – segregated by race.
The plan was never implemented in Georgia and struck down by the federal government in Virginia after only one year as a misuse of taxpayer funds.

 

But these failed plans got the attention of one of the leading deregulation champions, economist Milton Friedman.

 

He sided with the segregationists citing their prejudice and racism as merely “market forces.”

 

In his seminal 1955 tract, “The Role of Government in Education,” he wrote:

 

“So long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser. Privately conducted schools can resolve the dilemma … Under such a system, there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”

 

Throughout the 1970s, school voucher proposals were widely understood as a means to preserve school segregation, according to education historian Diane Ravitch. But they couldn’t gain any traction until privatizers came up with a new wrinkle in the formula – the charter school.

 

Charter schools are really just school vouchers with more money and regulations.

 

In the case of vouchers, we use tax dollars to pay for a portion of student enrollment at private and parochial schools. In the case of charters, we use tax dollars to pay for all of a student’s enrollment at a school that is privately managed. The only difference is how much taxpayer money we give to these privatized schools and how much leeway we give them in terms of pedagogy.

 

Charter schools can do almost whatever they want but they can’t blatantly teach religion. Voucher schools can.

 

Other than that, they’re almost the same thing.

 

In order to get the public to support school privatization, Friedman thought we’d need to convince them that they didn’t need the burden of self-government. This was especially true of minorities.

 

In his 1981 book Free to Choose, Friedman and his wife Rose suggested the necessity of convincing black voters that they didn’t need Democracy. School privatization could be pitched as a system that would “free the black man from dominion by his own political leaders.”

 

The opportune moment came in 1983 with the publication of the Reagan administration’s propaganda piece A Nation at Risk. Using bogus statistics and outright lies, the report painted our public school system as a failure and set up the false urgency that school deregulationists needed.

 

From this point forward, a series of supply side lawmakers, policy wonks, economists, billionaires and CEOs came out of the woodwork to push for school privatization which culminated in the first charter school law in 1991 in Minnesota.

 

In the middle of all this tumult came Shanker’s National Press Club speech in 1988.

 

Ronald Reagan was still in office and it’s hard to overstate the threat he posed to unions having infamously fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

 

Shanker was trying to ride the tide of public opinion in favor of deregulation and privatization. He accepted the bogus criticisms of schools in A Nation At Risk and offered to restructure schools to fix the problem. Like so many union leaders after him, Shanker gave away much of the power of his people-driven movement so as not to come across as obstructionist. He didn’t think teachers unions could oppose the rising tide of privatization without offering innovations of their own.

 

It’s true that he called these reforms “charter schools” but he didn’t invent the term. He borrowed it from a little-known Massachusetts educator, Ray Budde, who meant by it something very different from what it has become. Budde thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker’s proposal wasn’t nearly the first time a public figure had suggested restructuring public schools.

 

In the late 1960s after helping provide justification for school desegregation, sociologist Kenneth Clark advocated for alternative school systems that could be run by groups as diverse as universities to the Department of Defense.

 

Shanker’s contribution was not nearly as powerful as subsequent apologists have claimed. He was one voice among many. Though his comments were useful to the deregulators, they ignored everything of substance he had said beyond the myth that he supported their efforts at school privatization.

 

According to journalist Rachel Cohen, the true architect of the charter school concept as it appears today wasn’t Shanker, Budde or Clark. It was Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie.

 

He was at the heart of the issue pushing for school privatization from the 1970s through the 1990s.

 

Throughout the 1970s, Kolderie lobbied for a plethora of ways for private industry to provide government services – including education – through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO). By 1981, the focus narrowed almost exclusively to education.

 

In several reports, he blamed the bogus failure of public schools on the democracy of the school boards. Though he didn’t use the term “charter school,” his conception was essentially the same as the modern charter school: independent schools accountable only through market forces and a set of contractual obligations. He thought they could be run by almost anyone – universities, corporations, nonprofits— even public school districts – if state law could be amended to allow it.

 

That’s pretty much a charter school – a privately run learning institution that’s publicly financed.

 

Why doesn’t Kolderie get the credit? Why the emphasis on Shanker who had very little to do with what ultimately became law?

 

Because Kolderie and others wanted to hide behind the union. They wanted their policy to have a friendlier public image than that of a shadowy puppet master.

 

Shanker walked right into their trap.

 

He even agreed to give another speech in favor of charter schools in October 1988 at the Minneapolis Foundation’s annual Itasca Seminar for political and business leaders.

 

With continued lobbying from the corporate sector and right wing ideologues, three years later the state was the first to pass a charter school law.

 

And the die was cast.

 

Sure charter school cheerleaders like to give Shanker the credit today, but the legislation that was eventually passed and funneled to other states through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had little resemblance to anything Shanker said.

 

It was the deregulation and privatization model first conceived in the 1950s, funneled through Friedman and now Kolderie.

 

And make no mistake – the overall plot wasn’t simply to enact charter schools. That was merely the foothold that enabled subsequent school voucher bills and tax scholarship plans (vouchers lite). The end game was made clear by Friedman time and again – the complete destruction of public schools.

 

While speaking to rightwing lawmakers at a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman explained that school privatization was always about “abolishing the public school system.”

 

Here is an excerpt from Friedman’s ALEC speech:

 

“How do we get from where we are to where we want to be—to a system in which parents control the education of their children? Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it. Then parents would have enough money to pay for private schools, but you’re not gonna do that. So you have to ask, what are politically feasible ways of solving the problem. The answer, in my opinion, is choice…”

When Minnesota proposed the first charter school law, the state teachers union fought against it. But tellingly Shanker refused to speak out during legislative debates.

 

And this was due in part to the rise of the neoliberals.

 

School privatization was the brainchild of the far right. But as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, so dawned a new type of political figure – the social progressive with distinctly right wing economic views.

 

In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie worked closely with the DLC and even wrote its first policy paper on school privatization.

 

Clinton was an immediate convert, embracing Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches even though he knew it was unpopular with teachers unions. Clinton ruffled so many feathers that Shanker, himself, commented, “It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches.”

 

Though the first charter school law came a year later, in 1990 Wisconsin passed the first school voucher program. Since it was pushed through with mostly Republican support, this provided cover for neoliberal charter supporters. Though there was little difference between the two policies, neoliberals could distinguish themselves by criticizing school vouchers while endorsing their ideological cousins the charter schools.

 

So we had the two major political parties both supporting different flavors of the same school privatization.

 

It allowed Democrats to stop supporting more funding for social programs and schools while weakening the main driver of such policies – labor unions. This allowed the neoliberals to be economically as conservative as their “adversaries” across the aisle while publicly pretending to support progressivism.

 

Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students.

 

This does not now – and never did – represent any ideal offered by Shanker or unions.

 

His dream of teacher-run schools as laboratories of innovation may or may not have merit, but not at the expense of making different rules for different schools. Where regulation is important, it is important for all schools. Where it is too restrictive, all schools should be freed from its requirements. All teachers should be allowed to innovate and take a leadership role in their schools.

 

When Shanker spoke about “charter schools,” he was not a visionary. He was leading us down a dead end. He was foolishly offering an olive branch to an inferno. That doesn’t mean he started the blaze or even that it was his idea.

 

Yet even now you can read propaganda that says otherwise on the AFT’s own Website – “Restoring Shanker’s Vision for Charter Schools” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. It’s funny how Potter, a former charter school teacher, and Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation – which loves charter schools – both want to keep the happy face on an ugly idea. And sad that one of the largest teachers unions can’t face up to one of its heroes biggest mistakes.

 

If charter schools have a face, it should be Kolderie’s or Friedman’s – or perhaps it should be the industry’s most famous modern champion Betsy Devos.
Charter schools are no progressive dream.

 

They are the corporate paradise of spending tax dollars with zero accountability, zero transparency and as much deregulation as possible. They are the continued destabilization of public education in the knowledge that the edifice cannot stand without support indefinitely.

 

Public education will crumble and fall just as the architects of school privatization always knew it would.

 

Unless we take a stand and take back our power.

 

To do that we need to understand where charter and voucher schools came from and who is responsible.

 

Charter schools do NOT represent a good idea that was perverted by the corporate world. It is an essentially bad policy that should be abolished immediately.

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the reporting of Rachel Cohen.


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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Every Charter School Must Be Closed Down – Every. Single. One.

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The problem with charter schools isn’t that they have been implemented badly.

 

Nor is it that some are for-profit and others are not.

 

The problem is the concept, itself.

 

Put simply: charter schools are a bad idea. They always were a bad idea. And it is high time we put an end to them.

 

I am overjoyed that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to hear the criticisms leveled against the charter school industry in the face of the naked greed and bias of the Trump administration and its high priestess of privatization, Betsy DeVos. However, I am also disappointed in the lack of courage displayed by many of these same lawmakers when proposing solutions.

 

Charter schools enroll only 6 percent of students nationwide yet they gobble up billions of dollars in funding. In my home state of Pennsylvania, they cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding. That’s for merely 180 schools with 135,000 students!

 

Charter schools are privately run but publicly financed. They are what happens when the public abrogates its responsibility to run a school and signs that right away (in a charter agreement) with another entity, usually a business or corporation.
As such, these schools are not held to the same standards as authentic public schools. Unlike your neighborhood school, charters are not required to be run by elected boards, to have public meetings, to have open records, or to spend all their money in the service of their students. Nor do they have to provide the same standard of services for students – even children with special needs. Nor do they have to accept all students within their coverage area who enroll. And that’s to say nothing of how they increase racial segregation, are susceptible to fraud and malfeasance, often produce much worse academic results, close without notice, hire many uncertified teachers, trample workers rights and destabilize the authentic neighborhood public schools.

 

These are not problems that can be solved by fiddling around the edges.

 

 

We cannot simply constrain them from stealing AS MUCH from authentic public schools and consider it a victory.

 

We need to address the issue head on – and that issue is the very concept of charter schools.

 

Why would the public give up its schools to a private entity? Why allow someone else to take our money and do whatever they want with it behind closed doors? Why allow anyone to give our children less of an education than we’re already providing at our own schools?

 

We must end this failed experiment. Nothing less will do. It will only provide more breathing room so  that this unjust situation can drag on for another generation.

 

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed sweeping reforms via executive order that would make real progress toward holding charter schools accountable. He has asked that the state senate and house take the next step with legislation to finish the job.

 

Just this past week, Wolf visited Twin Rivers Elementary School in McKeesport along with state Senator Jim Brewster and state Reps Austin Davis and Jake Wheatley to listen to resident and teachers’ concerns and propose solutions.

 

Such a move is unprecedented and represents a seismic shift in the political landscape. However, I am concerned that lawmakers are too timid to fix the real problem here.

 

No one has the bravery to come out and say what I’ve said here.

 

Consider this statement from Brewster, my state Senator:

 

I have legislation to address some of these issues, but it’s not an indictment on charter school teachers. It’s not an indictment on the charter school concept. It’s an indictment on the process that was put in place 20 some years ago that has put in a playing field that’s not level. Together I believe if we get the charter school folks to the table we can iron this out, we can fix several things that need to be fixed – the funding formula, the capacity, the cap and those sort of things – and when we do that, then the mission statements of the charter schools and the public schools are the same – educate our children, bring their skill sets out, help them achieve their dreams.”

 

 

I am deeply grateful for Brewster’s support and willingness to take on the charter industry. And he is right about many things. But not all of them.

 

He is right, for example, about the financial impact of charter schools on authentic neighborhood public schools.

 

At the same meeting, McKeesport superintendent Mark Holtzman said, “Charter schools are depleting our resources with no accountability or without being financially responsible. Taxpayer money is being used to flood the media with commercials and billboards right before the start of school so that they can take our students.”

 

There are roughly 500 students living in the McKeesport district enrolled in brick-and-mortar charter schools and 100 students enrolled in cyber charters. The district spends about $7 million — or 10% of its budget — on charter school payments, according to Holtzman.

 

It’s roughly the same at other districts in the Mon-Valley. Steel Valley Schools, where I work as a middle school teacher, has budgeted a $6 million payment to charter schools this year – 16% of our spending plan.

 

Again, I am extremely grateful that Wolf and other state Democrats recognize this fact and are willing to take measures to make matters more fair. I hope many Republicans will join them in this.

 

However, fixing the way charters are funded alone will not correct the problem.

 

Charter schools are a parallel service to authentic public schools. If you’re suggesting we fund them both, you’re asking taxpayers to pay for two complete and separate school systems.

 

Why should we do that? Why should we waste our money on it? I don’t think the people of Pennsylvania – or any state of the union – have money to spare on a pointless duplication of services.

 

It is a politically impossible position that has zero justification – especially when you consider all the inequitable practices charter schools are allowed to get away with.

 

In his executive orders, Wolf proposes putting a stop to some of this.

 

For example, he wants to require charter schools to stop turning away students based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, intellectual deficits, or other factors. He wants to make charter schools as transparent as authentic public schools. He wants to stop conflicts of interests for charter school board members and operating companies so that they can’t make decisions on behalf of the school that would enrich themselves, their families and/or friends.

 

These are excellent suggestions and I hope he is able to make them a reality.

 

However, these “fixes” are all things that authentic public schools already do. They don’t discriminate in enrollment. They are financially accountable and transparent. They aren’t allowed to engage in conflicts of interest.

 

Why bother making charter schools act like authentic public schools when we already have authentic public schools? That’s like genetically engineering your cat to have a longer snout and say “woof.” Why bother when you already have a dog?

 

The same could be said about for-profit and non-profit charter schools.

 

Apologists want to pretend that the former is the “bad” type of charter and the latter is the “good” type.

 

Wrong.

 

As Jeff Bryant, an editor at Education Opportunity Network, puts it, this is a “Distinction without a difference.”

 

These terms only define an organization’s tax status – not whether it is engaged in gathering large sums of money for investors.

 

With a knowledgeable accountant or hedge fund manager, almost anyone can claim nonprofit status while still enriching yourself. It happens all the time.

 

For instance, take the use of management companies.

 

A for-profit charter school can simply cut services to students and pocket the savings as profit.

A nonprofit charter school can do the same thing after engaging in one additional step.

All they have to do is start a “nonprofit” charter school and then hire a for-profit management company to run it. Then the management company can cut services and pocket the profits!

 

 

Yet we call such a school “nonprofit.” It’s meaningless.

 

 

It doesn’t even matter who owns the for-profit management company. It could even be the same people who own the nonprofit charter school.

 

The law actually allows you to wear one hat saying you’re nonprofit and then put on a different hat and rake in the cash! The only difference is what hat you’re wearing at the time! You get to claim to be a nonprofit while enjoying all the advantages of being for-profit.

 

You can even buy things with public tax dollars through your for-profit management company and then if your “nonprofit” school goes bankrupt, you get to keep everything you bought! Or your management company does.

 

So the public takes all the risk and you reap all the reward. And you’re still called a “nonprofit.”

 

 

But let’s not forget real estate shenanigans.

 

 

If I own property X, I can sell it to my own charter school and pay myself whatever I want. And I can do the same thing with a nonprofit charter school, I just need to sell it to my for-profit management company which will still buy my property for whatever I decide to pay myself.

 

 

Face it – charter schools are a scam.

 

They are a failed policy initiative.

 

It’s time they were ended.

 

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we simply throw away the people who work there or the students who are enrolled there.

 

We need to look at each charter on a case-by-case basis and decide how best to transition them to an authentic public school system.

 

In some cases, it may make sense to rehabilitate charters into fully public schools with all the transparency and regulations that means. However, in most cases it will mean eventually closing them.

 

If there are any charters that actually provide valuable services for students and their families wish to keep children enrolled there, we should allow these students to finish their academic careers there. But let the present classes be the last.

 

In schools that do not offer better outcomes than the neighborhood public school (i.e. the overwhelming majority) students should be transitioned back to the neighborhood schools.

 

If there are any charters that do not wish to abide by such changes, they should have the opportunity to become what they already are except in name – private schools. The only difference is that taxpayers will no longer take up the tab.

 

And when it comes to charter school teachers, they should not be punished for having worked in the industry. In fact, we should find ways to bring them into the authentic public schools.

 

Our public schools need more teachers. Charter teachers who are fully certified should be given first chance to fill some of those vacancies. And charter teachers who are not certified should be given the opportunity to go back to school and complete their education degrees.

 

Any sane solution to the charter school mess would include these measures with the ultimate goal of ending school privatization in all its forms financed at public expense.

 

We don’t want privatized prisons. We don’t want privatized mercenary armies like Blackwater. We don’t want privatized schools.

 

Tax dollars should go to our authentic neighborhood public schools so that we can make them even better than they already are.

 

Our students deserve the best we can give them – and we can’t give them the best when we’re needlessly paying for two separate school systems and passing legislation with more of an eye on private investors than the welfare of the next generation.

 

It is my sincere hope that this push for real charter school reform becomes an effort to solve this problem once and for all.

 

Are we brave enough to do it?

 

 

Do we have the courage and conviction to take that on?


 

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

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Blaming Schools for Student Absences is Like Denouncing Doctors for Disease

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If something is wrong with children, it must be the school’s fault.

 

Right?

 

If kids can’t read, write and do ‘rithmetic, the teachers must not have taught ’em right.

 

It couldn’t have anything to do with home life, generational poverty, economic inequality and systemic racism.

 

Except that it almost always does.

 

Inextricably.

 
The fact is children who don’t live in safe, loving homes have much greater difficulty concentrating and caring about academics. Kids with impoverished parents are much more likely to go to underfunded schools and sit in classrooms that are racially segregated.

 

None of that is under the control of teachers or schools, but a focus on high stakes standardized testing, school privatization and dangerously unregulated ed tech hides the problem.

 
It’s not that teachers don’t teach. Inequality, prejudice and privatization – these are the root causes and the reason we do nothing about them generation after generation is that we have an easy scapegoat in the public schools in general and public school teachers in particular.

 
Take student absences.

 

It’s a huge problem.

 

When kids don’t show up to school, they learn less. It’s a simple concept.

 

Yet just four years ago when we had a chance to rewrite the federal law governing public education to actually DO SOMETHING about the problems we’re facing, we dropped the ball. Again!

 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include five indicators measuring school performance: four based on academic achievement, and a fifth, “non-academic” measure of student success.

 

Most states have adopted chronic student absenteeism as this “fifth indicator.”

 

So we take those five indicators, weight them and combine them together to get overall school scores that are used to sort and rank educational institutions. That way we can prioritize funding to the highest performers and withhold it from the lowest.

 

It’s the same supply side nonsense we’ve been doing for years with a few numbers moved around and given a different name.

 

Schools overflowing with resources serving rich white kids get a sticker. Schools starving for resources serving poor brown kids get a kick.

 

And somehow that’s supposed to help things get better.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Absenteeism is important.

 

Nearly 8 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015-16 — an increase from the 6.8 million who missed the same amount in 2013-14, when the federal Department of Education began tracking the data. And there’s a mountain of research that links chronic absenteeism with poor academic performance, delayed graduation, and increased dropout rates.

 

But putting it all on neighborhood schools and local districts is a huge abrogation of responsibility.

 

By and large, public schools do not cause students to be absent. Nor do they have the resources to ensure these students start attending.

 

But we’ve found someone to blame and that’s really all this whole exercise was about in the first place.

 

It’s like denouncing your doctor for your disease. It won’t cure you, but it might make you feel justified as you die.

 

The reasons students are chronically absent have little to do with individual schools.

 

According to Attendance Works, a non-profit focusing on ways to improve student attendance, the main causes of chronic absences are:

 

•Chronic disease or lack of health care and/or dental care.

 

•The need to care for siblings or other family members.

 

•Unmet basic needs: transportation, housing, food, clothing, etc.

 

•Trauma.

 

•Feeling unsafe getting to school.

 

•Academic or social struggles.

 

•Being teased or bullied.

 

•Poor school climate or unsafe schools.

 

•Parents had negative school experience.

 

•Lack of engaging and relevant instruction.

 

•Peer pressure to be with peers out of school vs. in school.

 

•No meaningful relationships with adults in school.

 

•High suspension rates and disproportionate school discipline.

 

Certainly some of these things are under the control of school directors, administrators, and teachers.

 

Schools can and should provide safe ways for students to get to and from school. They should work to reduce bullying and make school a welcoming place for all children. They should provide engaging instruction, fair discipline policies and reach out to parents and the community.

 

But most schools are already doing that – or certainly trying to do that within the confines of their budgets.

 

My own Western Pennsylvania district has been flagged by the Commonwealth for increasing chronic absences. In the state, this is defined as students with 10 or more unexcused absences. We’ve been put on an improvement plan – which basically means an employee at the state Department of Education wagging his finger and telling us to get better or else.

 

However, the overarching problem and solution are easy to see. We are a district without busing.

 

The high school and middle school sit on top of a hill. Students who live in the poorer sections of town at the bottom of the hill have to walk or take public transportation daily to get to school.

 

It’s no wonder that some of them don’t do that every day and stay home instead.

 

However, we serve a mostly impoverished population. Decades ago, school directors decided it would be more cost effective to save money on busing so they could provide greater services for students. Yet as the economy has continued to stagnate and funding has become even more hard to come by, attendance has worsened.

 

So what are we to do? Cut services and add buses?

 

Doing so would mean we’d have to bus students to local charter schools as well, increasing the burden on taxpayers and the amount of muscle and bone we’d have to cut from our own academic programs.

 

It’s all very well and good to have the federal government tell us that attendance is important – but where is the help to improve it?

 

As with everything else in education, we get threats and the promise of economic sanctions but nothing in the way of assistance, aide or intervention.

 

We could be working together to try to solve this and other social issues. We could pool resources and construct social programs to help parents get jobs, set up stable homes, fund robust systems of public transportation, and a host of social services for students and their families such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and continuing education classes. We could end discriminatory policies such as school segregation, school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

But doing so would mean abandoning the blame game and nothing has worked better to shield the rich from paying their fair share than pointing fingers at the less privileged and those who dedicate their lives to help them.

 

In truth, the problems with public schools are rarely the teachers.

 

It’s that society has written them off and refuses to take responsibility for its own role in supporting the next generation.

 


 

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

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Pennsylvania Law Meant to Forbid Arming Teachers May Have Done Just the Opposite

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Pennsylvania teachers, don’t forget to pack your Glock when returning to school this year.

 

A new law meant to close the door on arming teachers may have cracked it open.

 

Despite warnings from gun safety activists, the bill, SB 621, was approved by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf this summer.

 

The legislation explicitly allows security guards – independent contractors who are not members of law enforcement – to carry guns in schools if they go through special training.

 

And that’s bad enough.

 

Why you’d want glorified rent-a-cops with guns strapped to their hips running around schools full of children is beyond me.

 

That’s not going to make anyone safer. It’s going to do just the opposite.

 

But that’s not even the worst of it.

 

Commonwealth law already allowed for armed police and school resource officers in school buildings.

 

The new bill just adds security guards to the accepted list – so long as they go through special training.

 

So some observers are asking what happens if teachers and administrators go through the same training? Wouldn’t they then qualify as “security personnel” and thus be eligible to be armed as part of their jobs?

 

Some say yes.

 

But others go even farther.

 

The bill only says who may be armed in schools. It doesn’t say anything about who may not be armed.

 

So if a district were to arm teachers – even without that special security guard training – it wouldn’t be specifically breaking the law. It would be operating in a huge loophole left open by the legislature and Gov. Wolf.

 

In fact, the original version of the bill would have covered just such an ambiguity. It included language saying that ONLY the people specifically mentioned in the law (police, resource officers and security guards) were allowed to be armed. However, Wolf could not get legislators to agree on it, so this language was stripped from the bill that was eventually passed.

 

This isn’t just theoretical.

 

Several school administrators have already taken advantage of it.

A handful of superintendents in rural parts of the state have already gotten permission from country law enforcement officials and are now carrying guns to school, according to a lawyer representing 50 Commonwealth districts.

 

Attorney Ronald Repak, of Altoona-based Beard Legal Group, gave a presentation at a school safety conference saying that his firm had secured permission from local district attorneys for administrators to carry firearms as part of their jobs. They cited ambiguity in the law that allowed for different interpretations.

 

Repak said that fewer than six superintendents had been approved, but he would not say which ones or which districts employed them.

 

Meanwhile, a district in the eastern part of the state between Hershey and Allentown has already passed a policy to arm teachers and staff.

 

Tamaqua Area School District in Schuylkill County, approved the policy last year but suspended it following litigation from the teachers association and a parent group.

 

Since Harrisburg passed this new measure, school board members and administration have been going back and forth about how it pertains to their policy and whether they can legally reinstate it even with pending litigation.

 
SB 621 was supposed to fix the ambiguity of previous statutes on the matter.

 

Title 18, Section 912 of the Pa. Crimes Code says that no one except recognized security personnel may bring a weapon onto school grounds, unless it is for a supervised school activity or “other lawful purpose.”

 

But again that leaves a huge loophole.

 

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera wrote in 2016 that the Pennsylvania Department of Education considers “the scope of ‘lawful purpose’…unclear and unsettled.”

 

That’s what originally prompted Tamaqua school directors to pass their policy to arm teachers – the first of its kind in the state.

 

The Republican majority in the legislature has been trying to pass a law explicitly allowing teachers to be armed for years.

 

In June of 2017, the state Senate even passed just such a bill but it got nowhere in the House. Moreover, Gov. Wolf threatened to veto it.

 

And that has been the pattern in Harrisburg on most matters – a gerrymandered GOP-controlled legislature narrowly passing far right legislation checked by a popularly elected Democratic governor.

 

However, Republicans may have gotten one passed the goal with SB 621.

 

Wolf had hoped the bill would end the matter once and for all. When he signed it into law, he released a statement saying:

 

“The students, parents, and educators in this commonwealth can now be secure in the knowledge that teachers can dedicate themselves to teaching our children, and that the security of school facilities rests in the hands of trained, professional security personnel.”

 

Ceasefire Pennsylvania, a statewide gun safety organization, saw the danger and warned against it. The organization urged the legislature not to pass the bill and the governor not to sign it.

 

In a letter sent to lawmakers, the group wrote:

 

“…adding security personnel who do not have the same law enforcement background, training and experience of those personnel already authorized to serve as school security in the School Code is misguided.

[In addition] …although we understand that the legislation initially was intended only to address security personnel, we believe SB 621 could be manipulated by school districts intent on arming teachers as a ‘security’ measure… We hope you will Vote No on SB 621.”

 
The matter is bound to wind up in the courts where it will ultimately be decided.

 
Concerned citizens should probably go to their local school board and let directors know they don’t want school personnel – security guards or others – packing heat.

 

To be clear, the new bill doesn’t require security guards to be armed, but it does allow districts to arm them if they go through the necessary training.

 

The instruction outlined in the law required before guards can be armed costs less than $500 per person.

 

It includes lessons on developing relationships with diverse students, understanding special needs students, how to deal with violence, victimization, threat response and the prevention of violence in schools. It also includes Act 235 lethal weapons training on specifically how to carry and use lethal weapons.

 

Some legislators wanted security guards to have to go through the same training as police officers – a 900-hour municipal course. However, since this would include instruction school security officers would not need such as lessons on traffic laws and the vehicle code – not to mention its hefty cost of $9,000 per person – it was scrapped.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against security guards. There are several good ones at my district.

 

However, putting guns in their hands doesn’t make me feel any safer.

 

A few years ago, a security guard at my school lost his job because he slammed one of my students into a lunch table.

 

The child in question was certainly difficult and could be defiant. But he was a middle school age child. He didn’t deserve to have his head slammed into a table – nor would I want someone with so little impulse control to have to police his trigger finger during tense confrontations with students.

 

Arming security guards is just plain dumb. Heck! So is arming teachers and administrators!

 

This isn’t the wild west. It’s a classroom.

 

In real-world shootings, police officers miss their targets about 4-in-5 shots, according to Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist who’s studied school shootings. Do you really expect rent-a-cops and teachers to be more accurate?

 

Even armed police don’t do much to stop school shootings.

 

The four high-profile school shootings in 2018 — including the one in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas — had armed guards. All failed to stop the gunmen.

 

But research consistently shows that increasing the number of guns in schools increases the likelihood that students will get hold of them.

 

What we need are sensible gun regulations to limit the number of people who have access to firearms. We need mandatory background checks and a ban on assault weapons – the murder instrument of choice for mass shooters. We need buy back programs to reduce the ridiculous numbers of guns available.

 

This new law does none of that. It was a Faustian bargain at best – and like always happens when you try to best the Devil, you end up losing.

 

Only this time, the losers are our teachers and school children.


 

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

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The Welcome Back Letter I’d Love to Give My Students – But Can’t

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I’m a very lucky guy.

 

I get to teach language arts in an amazing urban middle school in Western Pennsylvania.

 

I have reasonable autonomy, opportunities to collaborate with my co-workers and strong union protections.

 

Even so, I know there are a lot of teachers out there who don’t have those things.

 

Yet even after counting all my blessings, I still can’t do whatever I want. I can’t even do everything that my years of academic training and experience tells me would be best for my students.

 

Every year I’m told that my worth as a professional is mainly defined by student test scores – that I should use those scores to drive my entire class, that my major goal should be increasing the scores and my every waking moment should be spent examining past scores.

 
Every year I have to watch out for this data metric and do that much more work because my district has lost even more funding to the vampire charter school in our neighborhood. Or lawmakers have compromised away another several hours of my time to do meaningless paperwork – time that I either have to take away from my students or my family.

 

I see all this and I just want to scream.

 

I want to tell everyone what’s happening so that they can help stop the madness.

 

And I do scream into the whirl of cyberspace on my blog.

 

But I can’t do the same in my district. I can’t tell those right in front of me – my school board, my administrators, the parents or students.

 

Doing so would put everything I do have in jeopardy.

 

I know this because it already has.

 

Every year on the first day of school, I give my students a welcome letter.

 
This is the kind of letter I’d love to give them – but don’t dare:

 


Dear Students,

 

In a matter of weeks you will be invited back to school and I wanted to let you in on a little secret.

 

We missed you.

 

That’s right. Your teachers missed the heck out of you over the summer.

 

Don’t get me wrong. We enjoyed our time at home with our own children, time on vacation, time spent continuing to refine our craft, and/or time spent working another job. (Hey! Those extra pencils, papers, books and supplies aren’t going to buy themselves! Right?)

 

Here’s another little secret – your teachers come to school every day not because we have to, but because we want to.

 

We literally could do anything else with our lives but we’ve devoted our time to you.

 

Why? Because we love you.

 

I know that’s mushy talk, but it’s true.

 

Another secret: We know you’re nervous about your first day back. But – heck – so are we!

 

Don’t forget you’re young. We’re old!

 

We know you’re wondering who your teachers will be this year, what they’ll require you to do, which friends will be in your classes, who will sit with you at lunch…

 

We wonder if we’re still going to be able to do all the things we need to do to help you learn? Are we going to be able to provide a safe, secure environment for you? Will we be able to keep you engaged, and excited to learn? Will we be able to actually teach everything you want and need to know?

 

This is going to be a challenging year for all of us.

 

But that’s a good thing.

 

We’re in this together.

 

That’s kind of an important point.

 

You see, we know you’ll probably be asked to take high stakes standardized tests. Just know that it’s not us who’s asking. It’s the state and federal government. Lawmakers seem to think that your answers on multiple choice tests are very, very important.

 

Another secret: they aren’t.

 

We don’t care how you score on these tests. Not really. We don’t even care if you take them at all – and if your parents decide not to have you sit through this garbage, we will honor their wishes, because they are the ultimate authority on you – their children.

 

We know that standardized tests don’t assess how much you learn. The tests your teachers make do that – the work that you do in class every day shows it better than any canned corporate exam.

 

We know those scores don’t define who you are. We see you every day. We see your creativity, your intelligence, your fire, your verve, your passion.

 

We want to stoke that fire and help you become the people you always wanted to be.

 

And none of that can be shown on a standardized test.

 

THAT’S our job – not to turn you into great test takers but into the kind of people you most want to be.

 

Oh. By the way, please thank your parents for us.

 

Thank them for ignoring the hype about the flashy charter school that hedge fund managers opened on the hill – the school sucking up our funding, cutting services for students and making its investors very rich.

 

Thank them for declining the shiny school voucher to Pastor Dan’s Creationism, Anti-vaxxor, Climate Denial Academy. Thank them for passing up the tax rebate to Ivy Laurel Prep – where the rich white kids go.

 
Thank them for trusting us with the most precious things in their lives – you.

 

You really mean a lot to all of us.

 

So rest up and try to have fun for the remainder of your summer. We’ll do the same.

 

And before you know it, we’ll be back together in class expanding minds, expressing hearts and having a great time!

 

Love you all!

 

Your Teachers


 
That’s the kind of welcome back letter I would love to give my students – but can’t.

 

 

It was partially inspired by a REAL welcome back letter given by a New York Superintendent.

 
Around this time last year, he gave it to 11 principals and about 600 teachers in the
Patchogue-Medford School District before someone posted it online and it went viral.

 

His audience was teachers, but his message was the same:

 

Aug. 14, 2018

 

Dear….

 

Once again… this letter is too let you know I DO NOT CARE what your state growth score is. Let me be clear… I DO NOT CARE. It does not define you. You are more than a score. I’m hoping you know by now that the children and parents you serve appreciate your talents and the ability to make a difference in their lives. Keep your head up and your eye on what is most important… your students and your teaching craft.

 

The Patchogue-Medford School District fully supports you as an educator, regardless of what this meaningless, invalid and inhumane score states. You have my permission to throw it out, or use it for any creative ways you may think of. I have a feeling divergent thinking will be at an all-time high at Pat-Med. Let me know if you need anything and it is my sincere hope you have an outstanding year.

 

With Warmest Regards,

 

Michael J. Hynes, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools

 

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Cheers to Superintendent Hynes!

 

If only every teacher, administrator and school board member could be that brave and honest!

 
Here’s another letter given to year six students at Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire, England, along with their results from a recent standardized exam:

 

“Please find enclosed your end of KS2 test results. We are very proud of you as you demonstrated huge amounts of commitment and tried your very best during this tricky week.

 

However, we are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you- the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do.

 

They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day.

 

They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school.

 

They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends.

 

They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.

 

So enjoy your results and be very proud of these but remember there are many ways of being smart.”

 

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Here’s another one to parents from a principal in Singapore:

 

“The exams of your child are to start soon. I know you are all really anxious for your child to do well.

 

But, please do remember, amongst the students who will be sitting for the exams there is an artist, who doesn’t need to understand Math… There is an entrepreneur, who doesn’t care about History or English literature…There is a musician, whose Chemistry marks won’t matter…There’s an athlete…whose physical fitness is more important than Physics… If your child does get top marks, that’s great! But if he or she doesn’t…please don’t take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, its just an exam! They are cut out for much bigger things in life. Tell them, no matter what they score…you love them and will not judge them.

 

Please do this, and when you do… watch your children conquer the world. One exam or low mark won’t take away…their dreams and talent. And please, do not think that doctors and engineers…are the only happy people in the world.”

PrincipalsLetterToParents

 
If teachers and principals were allowed to speak freely, I bet there’d be a lot more of these kinds of letters.

 

School should not be centered on testing and test scores. It should be centered on students.


 

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

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Top 7 Ways Technology Stifles Student Learning in My Classroom

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

 

That does not make me a technophobe.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

1) It Stops Kids from Reading

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What a different world it was!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

2) It’s a Distraction

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

3) It’s Unhealthy

 

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

 

Why are we adding to that in the classroom?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

4) It Costs Too Much

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

These are costs too expensive to pay.

 

5) It Has Never Been Proven to Help Kids Learn

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Our children deserve better than this.

 

6) It Perpetuates Bad Pedagogy and Assessment

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

7) It Undermines Public Schools and Teachers

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

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

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