Resistance to High Stakes Testing Persists as Media Celebrates Its End

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And that’s just the title!

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

For instance, Klein writes:

 

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

 

Really?

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And the pendulum is swinging back our way.


 

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Cyber School Kingpin Gets Slap on Wrist For Embezzling Millions from PA Students

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Nick Trombetta stole millions of dollars from Pennsylvania’s children.

 

And he cheated the federal government out of hundreds of thousands in taxes.

 

Yet at Tuesday’s sentencing, he got little more than a slap on the wrist – a handful of years in jail and a few fines.

 

He’ll serve 20 months in prison, be on supervised release for three years, and payback the tax money he concealed.

 

As CEO and founder of PA Cyber, the biggest virtual charter school network in the state, he funneled $8 million into his own pocket.

 

Instead of that money going to educate kids, he used it to buy a Florida condominium, sprawling real estate and even a private jet.

 

He already took home between $127,000 and $141,000 a year in salary.

 

But it wasn’t enough.

 

He needed to support his extravagant lifestyle, buy a $933,000 condo in the Sunshine State, score a $300,000 twin jet plane, purchase $180,000 houses for his mother and girlfriend in Ohio, and horde a pile of cash.

 

What does a man like that deserve for stealing from the most vulnerable among us – kids just asking for an education?

 

At very least, you’d think the judge would throw the book at him.

 

But no.

 

Because he took a plea deal, he got a mere 20 months in federal prison.

 

That’s less than two years in jail for defrauding tens of thousands of students and multiple districts across the Commonwealth.

 

In addition, once he serves his time he’ll be on probation for 3 years.

 

And even though there is no mystery about the amount of money he defrauded from the Internal Revenue Service by shifting his income to the tax returns of others – $437,632, to be exact – the amount he’ll have to pay back in restitution is yet to be determined.

 

One would think that’s easy math. You stole $437,632, you need to pay back at least that amount – with interest!

 

And what of the $8 million? Though I can’t find a single explicit reference to what happened to it in the media, it is implied that the money was recovered and returned to Pa Cyber.

 

Yet there seems to be no discussion of a financial penalty for embezzling all that money. If my checking account dips below a certain balance, I’m penalized. If I don’t pay the minimum on my credit cards, I’m charged an additional fee. Yet this chucklehead pilfers $8 million and won’t be docked a dime!? Just paying it back is good enough!?

 

But what makes this sentence even more infuriating to me is the paltry jail time Trombetta will serve.

 

The judge actually gave him 17 months LESS than the minimum federal guidelines for this kind of case! He should at least be serving 37 to 46 months – 3 to 4 years!

 

Nonviolent drug charges often lead to sentences much longer than that!

 

For instance, in 2010, Kevin Smith was arrested for drug possession. He was locked up in a New Orleans jail for almost 8 years (2,832 days) without ever going to trial!

 

But then again, most of these nonviolent drug charges are against people of color. And Trombetta is white.

 

So is Neal Prence, a former certified accountant who pleaded guilty to helping Trombetta hide his ill-gotten gains.

 

Prence will serve a year and a day in prison and pay back $50,000 in restitution.

 

It’s a good thing he didn’t have any drugs on him.

 

And that he didn’t have a tan.

 

This is what we talk about when we talk about white privilege.

 

And speaking of that, compare this crime with the sentences given to the Atlanta teachers who were convicted of cheating on standardized tests a few years back.

 

These were mostly women and people of color.

 

Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts received the harshest sentences.

They each got three years in prison, seven years probation, $10,000 in fines and 2,000 hours of community service.

 

So in America, cheating on standardized tests gets you a harder sentence than embezzling a fortune from school kids.

 

I’m not saying what the Atlanta teachers and administrators did was right, but their crime pales in comparison to Trombetta’s.

 

Think about it.

 

Atlanta city schools have suffered under decades of financial neglect. The kids – many of whom are students of color – receive fewer resources, have more narrowed curriculum and are forced to live under the yoke of generational poverty.

 

Yet their teachers were told to increase test scores with little to no help, and if they didn’t, they’d be fired.

 

I can’t imagine why they tried to cheat a system as fair as that.

 

It’s like being mugged at gunpoint and then the judge convicts you of giving your robber a wooden nickel.

 

The worst part of all of this is that we haven’t learned anything from either case.

 

High stakes standardized testing has become entrenched in our public schools by the newly passed federal law – the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

And though Trombetta resigned from his post as CEO of PA Cyber in September 2013, cyber charters are as popular as ever.

 

These are publicly funded but privately run schools that provide all or most instruction on-line. Think Trump University for tweens and teenagers.

 

You can’t turn on the TV without a commercial for a cyber charter school showing up. You can’t drive through a poor neighborhood without a billboard advertising a virtual charter. They even have ads on the buggies at the grocery store!

 

Yet these schools have a demonstrated track record of failure even when compared to  brick-and-mortar charter schools. And when you compare them to traditional public schools, it’s like comparing a piece of chewed up gum on the bottom of your shoe to a prime cut of filet mignon.

 

A 2016 study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction than traditional public schools.

 

Keep in mind there are only 180 days of school in Pennsylvania!

 

That means cyber charters provide less math instruction than not going to school at all.

 

When it comes to reading, the same study found cyber charters provide 72 days less instruction than traditional public schools.

 

That’s like skipping 40% of the school year!

 

And this isn’t just at one or two cyber charters. Researchers noted that 88 percent of cyber charter schools produce weaker academic growth than similar brick and mortar schools.

 

They concluded that these schools have an “overwhelming negative impact” on students.

 

AND THAT’S ALL LEGAL!

 

In Pennsylvania, nearly 35,100 of the 1.7 million children attending public schools are enrolled in cyber-charter schools. With more than 11,000 students, PA Cyber is by far the largest of the state’s 16 such schools.

 

 

If Trombetta had just stiffed Pennsylvania’s students that much, he wouldn’t have been in any trouble with the law.

 

However, he got even greedier than that!

 

He needed more, More, MORE!

 

Justice – such as it is in this case – was a long time coming.

 

Trombetta was first indicted back in 2013 – five years ago.

 

 

He was facing 11 counts of mail fraud, theft or bribery, conspiracy and tax offenses related to his involvement in entities that did business with Pa. Cyber. He pleaded guilty to tax conspiracy almost two years ago, acknowledging that he siphoned off $8 million from The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.

 

He has been free on bond all this time.

 

His sister, Elaine Trombetta, agreed to cooperate with prosecution, according to federal court filings. She pleaded guilty in October 2013 to filing a false individual income tax return on her brother’s behalf and has yet to be sentenced.

 

It was only yesterday that her brother – the kingpin of this conspiracy – was ultimately sentenced.

 

Finally, he’ll have to face up to what he did.

 

Finally, he’ll have to pay for what he’s done.

 

Just don’t blink or you’ll miss 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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I Voted for Jill Stein. Was I Wrong?

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On November 8, 2016, I had a heart attack.

 

That’s not a metaphor.

 

I went to vote. I went to the doctor. I was sent to the hospital.

 

How much of that was a result of the Presidential election? I will never know.

 

But whenever I think back on that day, I am filled with a sense of bone-deep sadness.

 

After only a little more than a year in office, Donald Trump is already the worst President of my lifetime – and that’s saying something after the disaster that was George W. Bush.

 

Yet today our country is separating parents and children seeking asylum on the border and locking them away in detention centers. Nearly every cabinet secretary is an incompetent plutocrat put in office to dismantle the department in which they’re in charge. Meanwhile, Trump insults traditional allies and consorts with dictators all over the globe. And nationwide white supremacists of all stripes are emboldened, on the rise, and openly running for office.

 

I wish there is something I could do to go back in time and change the results of that day. I wish there was something I could do to stop Donald Trump from being elected President. And though I did not vote for her, I would do anything to have Hillary Clinton defeat him.

 

On that day, though, I voted for Jill Stein.

 

There’s nothing I can do about that now.

 

I imagine going back in time and telling myself not to do it. “Go vote for Hillary,” I imagine Future Me telling an ailing younger version.

 

Yet even now, I’m not sure if I’d say that to myself.

 

Go vote for Hillary? Would it have made a difference?

 

Factually, no. One more vote wouldn’t have put her over the top in my home state of Pennsylvania.

 

But I wrote articles advising readers to do like me and vote Jill Stein. Does that mean I’m responsible for every Stein vote cast in the Keystone state?

 

No, not really. I may have influenced some people. But I certainly didn’t influence them all.

 

I suppose the bigger question is this: did Stein spoil the 2016 election for Clinton?

 

Let’s look at some numbers.

 

In Pennsylvania, the results went like this:

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 10.21.41 AM
Source: New York Times.

 

Trump got 2,970,733 votes.

 

Clinton got 2,926,441 votes.

 

So he won the state by 44,292 votes.

 

Stein got 49,941 votes – 5,649 more than Trump’s margin of victory.

 

So if every Stein voter had cast a ballot for Clinton, she would have won the state – though she’d still lose the Presidency by 10 electoral votes.

 

But if the same process were repeated even in a few other swing states Clinton lost, the result would change. Clinton would have won and be sitting in the Oval Office right now.

 

Those are just facts. Or at least they’re facts manipulated in a game with counterfactuals.

 

If this had happened, then this other thing would have happened, too.

 

However, it is rarely so clear even with numbers.

 

For instance, Stein ran in 2012, too. She ran against Obama and Romney. She got 20,710 votes in Pennsylvania.

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 10.22.27 AM
Source: New York Times

 

That’s tens of thousands of Green voters who didn’t cast a ballot for centrist Obama. I don’t think it’s fair to assume they would have voted for centrist Clinton, either.

 

So if we subtract that 20,000 from Stein’s 2016 totals, (49,941 – 20,710) you get 29,231 new people who voted Green who didn’t do so in 2012.

 

That’s less than Trump’s margin of victory (44,292).

 

So even if every NEW Stein voter cast a ballot for Clinton, Trump still would have won the state.

 

The point?

 

I don’t think it’s factual or fair to assume Stein or Stein voters gave Trump the election.

 

If I had voted for Clinton, even if I had advised my readers to vote for her, the end result probably would have been the same.

 

These are the things I think about in the middle of the night when sleep won’t come.

 

Is there anything I could have done to change things? In trying to make things better, did I make things worse?

 

I don’t assume I have that much power – either way.

 

I’m just a school teacher with a blog.

 

And that’s why I voted for Stein.

 

Hillary Clinton made her name politically going against teachers unions. She and her husband have done quite a lot to weaken my profession and the school my daughter attends.

 

The national teachers unions may have supported her run for President, but they did so without fairly polling members. Her entire nomination process was marred by unfair and undemocratic practices by the Democratic Party that left many progressive voters who favored Bernie Sanders feeling left out and silenced.

 

I still think THAT more than any scribbling on my blog contributed to her loss.

 

Compared to Trump, Barack Obama was one of the best Presidents we’ve ever had. But compared to Trump, so was George W. Bush. So would be an inanimate carbon rod!

 

However, Obama was not particularly good for education. He and the corporate Democrats favored every anti-union, pro-privatization scheme they could. What a missed opportunity!

 

You’d think our first African American President might do something about school segregation – which has been on the rise in the last few decades. Instead, he helped make it worse by promoting charter schools. You’d think he might do something to stop the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead he helped lubricate it by championing high stakes standardized tests.

 

I think that’s another reason Clinton lost. Many of us were fed up with Obama’s neoliberal policies and wanted a candidate who might change course. Clinton promised only more of the same.

 

Don’t get me wrong. In retrospect, more of the same sounds lovely. Give me that old time Obama neoliberalism over Trump’s neo-fascism, any day!

 

But back in 2016 I thought we had a chance for something more – real hope and change. Was I wrong to vote for a candidate who promised to end high stakes testing and school privatization? Was I wrong to vote for a candidate who promised to fairly fund public schools, provide free college for all and end all student debt?

 

Maybe.

 

I suppose I should have been more frightened of Trump back then. But my anger at the Democrats who continually stabbed me and other progressives in the back outweighed my fear of this buffoon.

 

Perhaps I was wrong in that.

 

I don’t think it’s too much of an assumption to say we all underestimated Trump. We all underestimated how many people in this country would vote for him.

 

So was I wrong to vote for Jill Stein?

 

I still don’t know.

 

I’m sure many people will criticize me for this article. They’ll blame me for every horrible thing Trump does. If I have any point here, it’s that there’s plenty of blame to go around.

 

Perhaps we’d do better fighting against Trump than fighting amongst ourselves.

 

I still believe there is a silent majority of Americans for whom the status quo is unacceptable. Most of us don’t want a wall on our border – we want healthcare for all. Most of us don’t want families separated and undocumented immigrants scapegoated and rounded up – we want a path toward citizenship. Most of us don’t want our democracy subverted and the wealthy to have a greater say in our policies – we want freedom and justice for all.

 

We just need a way to find each other again. We need to find a way to look past any political, social, racial, gender or cultural differences and find a common humanity.

 

What better way to do that than in a common cause?

 

I hope you’ll join me by stopping the recriminations and take on the fight.

 

We may never fully solve the riddle that was the 2016 election.

 

There are political and social lessons to be had. But the most important thing is to remember the value of unity and to hold on to each other tight.

 

We’re all we’ve got.

 


 

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!

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Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

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 State Penalized My School Because We Tried to Integrate

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The original sin of American education is segregation.

 

Yet in Pennsylvania, taking steps to integrate can result in a penalty from the state legislature.

 

That’s what happened to my school this year.

 

After years of innovation and academic growth, my school added a new program to bring in struggling students from another institution – and the state rewarded us by putting us on a list of “failing” schools and forcing us into a voucher program.

 

I teach in a racially diverse, high poverty district in the western part of the state, just outside of Pittsburgh.

 

Charter schools have been leeching off us for years.

 

But today was the first day school vouchers sunk their teeth into us, too.

 

It’s called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTCP) – a ridiculous bit of legislation that allows children in struggling public schools to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at a private or parochial school.

 

I’d say they could use that money at a participating public school, too, but in Pennsylvania the public schools taking part in the program can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

 

And why does my school now qualify for this dubious distinction? Because of our standardized test scores.

 

Not our test scores from this year. They won’t be released until at least June – more likely August or September.

 

This is based on test scores from last year – 2016-17.

 

Moreover, it’s not district wide. It’s just the middle school and one elementary school.

 

In previous years, the middle school was the district powerhouse. We had the highest test scores and the most innovation. So what happened?

 

In short, we integrated.

 

From a state-wide standpoint, my district is hugely segregated.

 

About 60% of our students are poor and/or minorities. Yet if you go a few miles north, south, east or west, you’ll find schools serving every flavor of white privilege. Beautiful big buildings with the best of everything and a tax base to pay for it. My district, on the other hand, is made to do the best it can with what we’ve got, which isn’t much.

 

To make matters worse, the structure within our district, inherited from decades of unenlightened social planning, doubles down on that segregation.

 

Though we only have one middle school and one high school where all our students rub shoulders, we have two elementary schools – one for the middle class white kids and one for the poorer black ones.

 

This has dramatic academic consequences. Kids at the better-resourced white school flourish scholastically more than kids from the crumbling black school. So the racial and economic skills gap becomes entrenched by the time kids move to the middle school in 6th grade.

 

If only we could integrate the elementaries.

 

However, we can’t bus kids from one neighborhood to the other because we can’t afford it. We have a walking district. Moreover, parents would revolt at the idea of elementary kids having to trudge long distances or take a city bus to school.

 

The only long-term solution is to create a new, centrally located elementary center serving both populations. However, that takes money we don’t have.

 

So last year we tried a partial solution – move the 5th grade up to the middle school. That way, we can at least integrate our students a year earlier.

 

Of course, this means taking kids from the black school with terrible test scores up to the middle school. This means adding more struggling students from the school that already is on the state’s bottom 15% list and making them the middle school’s responsibility. It means a new program, new trials and challenges.

 

You’d think we’d get praise or at least understanding for tackling such a problem. But no.

 

Taking on the 5th grade tipped the middle school’s test scores over the edge.

 

Now we’re in the bottom 15%, too. Now we have to let our students go to a private or parochial school with public tax dollars.

 

Why? Because we tried to right a wrong. We tried to correct a social and academic injustice. And the result was a kick in the gut.

 

Thanks, Harrisburg legislators! Way to support students of color!

 

This is just another way that school vouchers support white supremacy. They make it harder to battle segregation.

 

Why would anyone integrate if doing so could mean losing funding and looking like a failure in the press?

 

Moreover, forget all the junk you hear from the state about growth.

 

This penalty is based on whether we hit testing benchmarks – what percentage of students we have earning proficient or advanced on the tests. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve improved. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone from the lowest of the low to scratching at the ceiling of proficient.

 

My 8th graders last year (the year we’re being penalized for) experienced tremendous growth just like my students this year are doing. From where they came in to where they’re leaving, the difference is phenomenal!

 

But apparently that doesn’t count in Pennsylvania.

 

A poor school serving mostly underprivileged minorities needs to meet the same benchmarks as schools with Cadillac resources serving kids who have everything money can buy. There’s certainly no need for the state or federal government to do anything about equitable resources (At least, not until the result of a lawsuit is handed down where local districts are suing the state over just such strategic disinvestment).

 

Instead, we’ve got to offer our student the “opportunity” to go to a private school on the public dime.

 

And what an opportunity it is!

 

The chance to send your child to a cooperating private or parochial school at public expense.

 

The opportunity to lose your duly-elected school board. The opportunity for decisions about how your money is spent being made behind closed doors with little to no input from you. The opportunity to send your child to a school with fewer resources and fewer certified teachers. The opportunity to send your child to (an often) religious school on the public dime.

 

Wow! I can’t imagine why so few parents take advantage of that opportunity! My district has had a few schools on the OSTCP list before, and families overwhelmingly opt to stay put.

 

Let’s not forget the justification for this “opportunity” is low test scores.

 

Wait a minute. These cooperating private and parochial schools don’t even take the same standardized tests, if they take any at all.

 

In our community, there is only one cooperating private school – a catholic school located right next door.

 

Students enrolled there don’t take the PSSA or Keystone Exams. I believe they take the Terra Nova test. And the school must do a great job because its Website is three years out of date about the results of those tests.

 

What a great way to improve test scores for our students – comparing apples-to-pears or, to be honest, actually making no comparison at all.

 

This OSTCP law is based on an unjustified assumption that private schools are always better than public ones. The reality is that if the resources both schools receive are similar, the public school usually greatly outperforms the private or parochial one.

 

I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve toured our next door Catholic institution. A few years ago, we relocated our students there temporarily during an emergency drill.

 

It’s a quaint school. Cobblestones and a shaded green campus.

 

But the buildings are crumbling – especially on the inside. Watermarks on the walls and dirt collecting in the corners.

 

It’s also much smaller than my school. They only have less than 300 students from K-8. We have about 1,500 from K-12.

 

I can see why parents who graduated from that school and have a history with it might want to send their kids there to continue that legacy. But anyone else would be giving up much better facilities, a much wider curriculum, much better trained and experienced teachers and even smaller classes!

 

The OSTCP bill has nothing to do with providing better opportunities for children and families.

 

It’s a public tax giveaway to private businesses.

 

The private/religious schools benefit and so do the businesses who “donate” their taxes to these programs.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for contributing to this scam.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools like mine. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off the industrial testing complex.

 

In the Keystone state, we have the OSTCP and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).

 

This blatant swindle is championed on both sides of the political aisle.

 

We already waste $200 million in business taxes to these programs in the Commonwealth, yet both Democrats and Republicans keep trying to pass another bill to increase that sum by another $50 million.

 

In Allegheny County, where I teach, that includes Democratic State Reps. Dom Costa, Daniel J. Deasy, William C. Kortz II (who represents part of my school district) and Harry Readshaw.

 

Because of this bogus philanthropy, there will always be a bottom 15% of state schools – approximately 400 “failing schools” – that are ripe for the picking from private and parochial school vultures.

 

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t right.

 

That money should be going to public schools not private or religious institutions many of which espouse fundamentalist or racist teachings.

 

There is a reason our founders legislated a separation of church and state. We’d do best to remember it.

 

We could be using our resources to help solve our problems, alleviate segregation and increase equity.

 

Instead our lawmakers are too interested in giveaways to business and corporations even if that means stealing the money from our children.

Rick Saccone Hopes to Become Trump’s New Bobble Head in Western Pennsylvania

 

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Rick Saccone hard at work for the taxpayers of Pennsylvania.

Rick Saccone’s signature achievement in the Pennsylvania House was to get “In God We Trust” posted in every public school.

 

Actually, he didn’t even get that.

 

He wrote a successful bill that merely allowed public schools to post that – if they wanted.

 

To my knowledge not a single school in the Commonwealth has taken him up on it.

 

His second greatest hit was to authorize a state day of fasting.

 

I’m not kidding. And it’s all down hill from there.

 

Now he’s running for U.S. Senate!

 

Oh. Wait. His fundraising was terrible.

 

Excuse me. He’s running for U.S. House – because that’s an easier win!

 

Whatever. So long as he can get to Washington, DC. He’s had enough of this small potatoes Pennsylvania politics – even though he’s one of the smallest potatoes in the patch.

 

If you know what I mean.

 

He’s running against Democrat Conor Lamb in a special election to be held March 13 to fill Republican Tim Murphy’s seat.

 

You may recall Murphy. He made his name voting for anti-abortion legislation until his alleged mistress got pregnant and then he allegedly pushed for her to abort their love child.

 

You know. Family values stuff.

 

Is Saccone up to that level of hypocrisy?

 

Donald Trump thinks he is.

 

The least popular President in U.S. history with only a year under his bulging golf shorts thinks Saccone is his kind of guy.

 

Trump even came to western Pennsylvania to support Saccone tweeting:

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“Will be going to Pennsylvania today in order to give my total support to RICK SACCONE, running for Congress in a Special Election (March 13). Rick is a great guy. We need more Republicans to continue our already successful agenda!”

 

Of course, Trump immediately had to walk back this comment because his trip to the keystone state was being paid for with public tax dollars. He had to say that it was an official White House event and not (as he indicated in the tweet) that it was a campaign event.

 

You know, for once I agree with Trump.

 

Rick Saccone IS Trump’s kind of guy.

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He has lots of experience as a Yes Man. That’s really all he’s done in Harrisburg.

 

We used to have our own version of Trump – a Republican Governor who had no idea how to do his job – Tom Corbett.

 

Of course, Corbett’s reign was short lived. Like the President, his popularity plummeted and he was voted out of office like yesterday’s garbage.

 

But he had his loyal bobble head Saccone backing him every step of the way.

 

In fact, he voted for Corbett’s initiatives 95% of the time giving him the nickname of Corbett’s “Mini-me.”

 

Even when Corbett proposed something deeply unpopular, like cutting almost $1 billion from the state’s poorest public schools, Saccone went out there to explain why our children, our future, just weren’t worth the investment.

 

The Swamp recognizes Saccone as one of their own.

 

That’s why big moneyed interests are pouring cash on the sycophantic lawmaker. That and the fact that the district in question went for Trump in the last election by 20 points.

 

The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent at least $1 million on ads for broadcast and cable TV stations to boost Saccone’s candidacy.

 

And that’s not all.

 

Congressional Leadership Fund has put aside at least $1.6 million for ads, not to mention funding from outsiders like the 45Committee and Ending Spending – a group founded by the mega-donor Ricketts family.

 

All this money just to serve out the remainder of Murphy’s term!

 

Whoever wins would be up for re-election in November to secure a full two-year term.

 

Moreover, now that the state Supreme Court has overturned the Commonwealth’s gerrymandered districts that unfairly favor Republicans, that November race is likely to include newly drawn legislative lines.

 

So this GOP wonderland that boosted Trump and Mitt Romney in 2012 will likely become more competitive.

 

In fact, it may already be.

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Saccone disrespecting the flag by wearing it as a shirt.

Some polls have Saccone up over Lamb by only a 3 point lead. This may be in part because of Trump’s steadily deflating support – even among Republicans. The President’s approval rating in the district has dropped to 49 percent – not far from the national picture where 47 percent disapprove of his job performance.

 

This is not good news for Saccone.

 

The SuperPACS supporting him are trying to paint Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, as a Nancy Pelosi puppet.

 

But Lamb has repeatedly criticized Pelosi, telling The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he would not support Pelosi as the Democratic leader. There is a “need [for] new leadership on both sides,” Lamb said.

 

Yet Saccone has done everything in his power to suck up to Trump.

 

Taking his cue from the Commander in Chief, Saccone took to twitter to express his feelings:

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“I’m humbled that @realDonaldTrump for President, Inc, has officially endorsed my campaign for Congress!”

 

I’m not sure why he wrote “President, Inc.”

 

Perhaps Saccone thinks the office belongs to a private company.

 

Perhaps he doesn’t understand that a politician’s job is to serve the needs of his or her constituents.

 

Judging by his less than stellar performance in state government, this would seem to be the case.

 

He’s come a long way from earnestly trying to legislate past the establishment clause of the first amendment to fighting to starve our schools to running for a position as Trump’s favorite puppet.

 

Or not.

 

That depends on voters this March.

 


Full Disclosure: I am not a Saccone fan. Along with teachers, parents and students from across western Pennsylvania, I’ve picketed outside of his offices demanding he do his job and provide for students. He was deaf to our cries. Do you hear me now, Rick?

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