Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

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Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

If schools follow the state’s instructions and give students this exam in reading, math and science 3 to 5 times a year, that’s an additional 50-90 minutes per test. That comes to 22.5 hours of additional testing!

 

So 22.5 hours minus 2 hours equals… NOT A REDUCATION IN TESTING!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

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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Wagner Spouts Trumpian Lie About Education at Gubernatorial Debate

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The defining moment of Pennsylvania’s one and only gubernatorial debate wasn’t made by incumbent Tom Wolf or his challenger Scott Wagner.

 

It was made by former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

 

At least it was made by him seven years ago.

 

Before voters overwhelmingly choose the Democratic Wolf to replace him, Corbett told a whooper about his administration and education funding – namely that he DIDN’T cut almost $1 billion from the poorest schools in the Commonwealth.

 

Yes,  ten thousand teachers were furloughed. Class sizes ballooned. Children literally died for lack of nurses.

 

But Corbett wanted us all to believe it wasn’t him or his administration that took that money away.

 

It was untrue then, and it’s untrue now.

 

Yet that didn’t stop Wagner from dusting it off before 1,700 people and moderator Alex Trebek at the annual Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry dinner in Hershey:

 

Trebek: What you have not mentioned is education suffered immensely about seven years ago when Gov. Corbett knocked off about a billion dollars. And…

 

Wagner: That’s totally false.

 

Trebek: Oh, it’s false.

 

Wagner: That’s totally false. Those were federal stimulus dollars. Gov. Wolf went around and told that. It was a lie. Gov. Corbett … (Clapping)… And the stimulus money came in during Gov. Rendell’s administration. And so Gov. Corbett’s here tonight. People need to know that Gov. Corbett did as much for education as really any governor. (Clapping) And he needs to be remembered for that. He didn’t cut the billion dollars. It was a billion dollars of stimulus money that came in and they were told – the education system – I wasn’t there – Don’t hire teachers, don’t… They did all that. Guess what? Here’s the problem with the system, Alex. The billion dollars. It’s gone. We have nothing to show for it.”

 

Here’s the crux of the bedtime story he’s telling.

 

The big bad federal government gave us money, and when that money was spent, we didn’t have it anymore. So what mean ol’ Gov Wolf calls a budget cut was no one’s fault.

 

The problem is it’s baloney.

 

The federal government DID give Pennsylvania stimulus dollars for its schools for one-time infrastructure improvements. However, the state legislature reacted by reducing the amount of state money it used to fund schools at the same time forcing districts to use the stimulus for operating costs.

 

It’s as if someone gives you a couple hundred dollars for your birthday and then your boss stops paying you your salary. That may work this week, but next week you need your paycheck. Otherwise you don’t have money to pay the bills.

 

Your boss can’t say to you: I’m not cutting your wages. Look I gave you just as much money this week as last week.

 

That won’t fly. But it’s exactly what Corbett tried to sell voters almost four years ago and they weren’t buying it.

 

And now Wagner is pulling out the same moldy lie, brushing off the flies and trying to pass it off as the truth.

 

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This is troubling for two reasons.

 

First, it shows Wagner is as deceitful as his heroes Corbett and Donald Trump.

 

Second, it shows he’s playing from the same morally bankrupt playbook.

 

Corbett didn’t stop at saying he never cut the money he cut. He went so far as to say he actually RAISED school funding!

 

That’s like urinating on someone and telling them it’s raining.

 

And he did it with dishonest accounting – lumping pension funds for teachers in with classroom funding and pretending they were all the same.

 

He took a bill that was already due (pension costs) and pretended like that money was paying to run the state’s classrooms.

 

It wasn’t.

 

So children throughout the keystone state suffered and some even died.

 

Apply that to Wagner’s rapidly changing position on education funding.

 

He has long been an advocate for slashing school budgets. In fact, he was a popular surrogate for Corbett when this whole catastrophe was going down.

 

But now that his campaign has seen how unpopular that position is, very recently he’s changed his tune.

 

Suddenly he says we should increase education funding.

 

And good for him.

 

However, if he’s using the Corbett playbook, it seems that “increase” really won’t be anything of the sort.

 

It will just be more creative accounting and fantasy storytelling. He’ll pay for pensions and say he’s increasing school funding. Or maybe he’ll fudge something else from column A and pretend it’s funding column B.

 

It’s disingenuous, dishonest and Pennsylvanians aren’t going to put up with it.

 

Perhaps that’s why Wolf is leading in the polls.

 

Wagner may have found a way to get his supporters into the debate hall – they certainly clapped loud at his points – but they are a minority among voters.

 

I wish Trebek had called him out on it.

 

I wish Gov. Wolf had challenged him.

 

But time was running short and Wagner still had to complain about a college swimming coach with too high a pension, and he had to whine about mean old Wolf demanding the Marcellus Shale industry pay its fair share of taxes.

 

There were plenty of other sparks at the debate.

 

Wagner raged about this and lied about that. He thinks running a state like Pennsylvania is like managing his $75 million garbage hauling company. But if given the chance, it will be our children’s future’s that are left in the trash.

 

Meanwhile, Gov. Wolf looked like the adult in the room, soberly explaining the improvements he’d overseen in his term in office (a balanced budget, healing some of the Corbett education cuts, etc.) and outlining where we need to go in the future.

 

Every time Wagner slammed him for taking support from unions, I wished he’d spoken up. But he just let it pass like Casey at Bat looking for a perfect pitch.

 

“You keep talking trash on unions,” he’d say. “Yeah, many of my supporters are union workers, union teachers, nurses, letter carriers, construction workers. Yes, I’m supported by working people and I support them in turn. Labor is the backbone of this nation and that’s true here in Pennsylvania as it’s true everywhere.”

 

But, no. He didn’t say that.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I think Pennsylvania voters have a clear choice here – the sane, sensible Wolf vs. the blowhard and capricious Wagner. But how I wish Wolf had shown more fight!

 

The only thing the media seemed moved to report, though, were the antics of Trebek.

 

Twitter squeaky wheels thought the Jeopardy host’s moderation was weird. I’ll admit a tangent into the Catholic church and pedophile priests may not have been necessary. But he made the entire event more watchable and he called out Wagner’s lies more often than not.

 

The question is: What will voters do in November?


Watch the whole debate HERE.


 

Here’s a video I made about Corbett’s budget cuts – a story so simple even Wagner and Corbett could understand 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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Scott Wagner Wants to be Pa.’s Anti-Education Governor. Will We Let Him?

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Art by Sue Goncarovs

 

If there’s one thing Scott Wagner hates, it’s education.

 

He hates science. He hates schools. He hates teachers. And if students get in the way, he’ll hate them, too.

 

These are the qualities he thinks Pennsylvanians are looking for in their next governor.

 

The York Township Republican will challenge incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf on Nov. 6, 2018.

 

So who is this guy?

 

Wagner’s a college dropout who made a fortune starting a garbage hauling firm. He became a state senator four years ago after winning a write in campaign during a special election where only 17% of the electorate could be bothered to vote.

 

And ever since, he’s been consistent about one thing: he really, Really, REALLY hates teachers.

 

 

“We have 180,000 teachers in the state of Pennsylvania,” Wagner said in 2015. “If we laid off 10 percent of the teachers in the state of Pennsylvania, we’d never miss them.”

 

Let’s be clear.

 

Scott wouldn’t miss them. But the 1.75 million Commonwealth school children would.

 

 

Ever since the last Republican Governor, Tom Corbett, slashed funding by almost $1 billion a year to the poorest schools with the full help of a state legislature that is even now still under GOP control, our institutions of learning have been reeling.

 

We lost 27,000 education jobs, most of which were teaching positions.

 

That’s a deficit we still haven’t recovered from. Even today, state schools are staffed at a 10-year low. Class sizes are at an all time high.

 

Yet Wagner wants to fire even more teachers!?

 

That’s not the policy of a man who wants to help improve life throughout the state for all. That’s not the policy of a man who wants to help kids learn.

 

It’s the policy of a man who has a personal grudge against educators.

 

And his other legislative objectives?

 

Wagner wants to further slash education funding. He wants to spend whatever is left inequitably. And he really wants to help his heroes Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos enact school vouchers so business people like him can continue to cash in on children from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places between.

 

 

By contrast, in his four years in office, Gov. Wolf has pushed to increase education funding, pushed to spend it more fairly, and even cut the time it takes for students to take high stakes standardized tests.

 

 

The good news: voters throughout the Commonwealth have never had a clearer choice for governor.

 

 

The bad news: when has that ever stopped them from getting it wrong?

 

 

Here’s a couple of Wagner’s other big ideas cribbed from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and his buddies the Koch Brothers.

 

 

 

He Thinks Teachers Make Too Much Money

 

“We have created a special class in this state and the special class is the public sector union employee,” Wagner told Keystone Crossroads in a 2015 interview.

 

“Teachers are doing very well in this state,” he said. “People would be appalled if they knew what their teachers made, in certain areas.”

 

Unfortunately, Wagner has no idea, himself.

 

He keeps quoting a bogus salary figure that I’m not going to repeat. It’s not true statewide, it’s not an average, nor is it true in his home district.

 

In truth, the low end for teachers entering the field nationwide is around $30,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). So go to college, get a four – sometimes five – year degree including a rigorous internship of student teaching and you make a mere $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage!?

 

However, Pennsylvania pays its teachers better than average. We have the 12th highest pay in the country, according to financial services outlet GOBankingRates which compiled average teacher salaries by state using 2015 federal data.

 

According to that data, Pennsylvania teachers make on average $63,063 per year. Of neighboring states, teachers in Maryland ($65,247) and New Jersey ($71,687) make more. Teachers in Ohio (59,063) and Delaware ($59,853) make less.

 

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Highest and Lowest Teacher Salaries – Source: GoBankingRates

 

But those numbers are deceiving. They’re averages. Districts serving the wealthy pay their teachers much better than those serving the poor. Actual pay ranges from $99,253 in the affluent Philadelphia district of Lower Merion to $27,592 at Wonderland Charter School in Centre Country.

 

As everywhere else, many teachers struggle to make ends meet working multiple jobs while others are well compensated.

 

 

No matter how you slice it, nationwide teachers’ salaries are 14% less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

 

In other words, if prospective teachers want to make more money, all they have to do is switch majors.

 

That may be part of the reason for our national teachers shortage. Not only have states like ours laid off tens of thousands of educators, many don’t stay in the field if given the chance. Across the country , 46 percent of educators quit before reaching the five year mark. And it’s worse in urban districts, where 20 percent quit every single year!

 

We could take steps to ensure all teachers earned a living wage and even encouraged our best and brightest to enter the field. But, nah, Wagner thinks Pennsylvania already spends “enough” money on public schools.

 

As Governor, he would do whatever he could to win his personal crusade against teachers even if Pennsylvania’s school children were collateral damage.

 

 

He Wants to Eliminate Teachers Sick Days

 

Wagner has been vocal about eliminating benefits that educators earn, including sick days. He introduced a bill that’s still floating around in the state senate to strip sick days from the school code and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

 

So forcing sick teachers to come to school and spread the germs to children is fine with Wagner as long as it hurts his nemesis – those evil teachers.

 

He Wants to Cut Teachers Pensions

 

He also plans to end pensions for working educators, and even wants retired educators to give back 10% of the retirement they earned.

 

He’s right to want reform to the state pension system but disingenuous or misinformed about the cause.

 

Pennsylvania pension costs have increased primarily because our legislature made bad plans and bad investments that were upended by the crash of 2008. You don’t fix that by stiffing your employees. If you do that, no one will believe any promises the state makes and no one of any substance will want to work for the state.

 

He Wants To Pay Teachers Based on Student Test Scores

 

No kidding:

 

“There are teachers that will exceed expectations while teaching a classroom of 100 of the toughest-to-teach students. There are also teachers that would struggle to teach just one student at a time. I want the first teacher to make a small fortune, and I want the second teacher to find a new career that is better suited for him or her.”

 

So if you teach the best students, you should make the most money? And if you teach struggling students, you should be fired?

 

 

But It’s Not Just Teachers. He Hates Other Working People, Too

 

If there is a corner to cut, he wants to take it – especially if it screws a working person. As a state senator, Wagner even introduced a bill that would exempt school districts from paying laborers the “prevailing wage” on construction projects.

 

Cheaper labor, shoddier work. That’s surely a recipe for success in buildings housing school children!

 

 

He Wants to Disband Unions

 

Oh, but he’s not done.

 

 

The man who once compared the tactics of public employee unions – including those representing teachers – to those of Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin also wants to end tenure end tenure, seniority, and disband unions.

 

 

I’m sure reducing teaching to a career without benefits, workers rights or protections will do wonders for the educational quality students receive.

 

Teachers working conditions are students learning conditions. Putting children in a building that has fewer safety precautions because there’s no union to collectively bargain for them is a great way to cut costs. But parents aren’t thrilled about having their kids try to learn in a sweat shop filled with Trump brand Russian asbestos.

 

 

He Loves School Vouchers and Charter Schools

 

 

Call them education saving accounts, education tax credits, personalized learning accounts or opportunity scholarships. It doesn’t matter. Wagner loves them all.

 

“I support all school choice,” he said in an interview.

 

Charter schools, funding private and parochial schools with public tax dollars. He’s in for all of it.

 

So long as it hurts public schools and enriches private businesses without helping students learn at all.

 

Go ahead! Take scarce funding from public schools and divert it to programs with little to no accountability. Let private school operators fraudulently misrepresent enrollment data. Let them fail to provide safe and academically appropriate learning environments. Let them game the system in any and every way.

 

That’s what Wagner calls fiscal accountability.

 

It doesn’t matter that these schools don’t improve student achievement. Evaluations of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., have all found no statistically significant differences in the academic achievement of voucher students compared to public school students. And recent evaluations of programs in Ohio, Indiana, and Louisiana revealed that voucher students scored lower than their peers attending public school.

 

But who cares about facts? This is all ideology for Wagner.

 

Vouchers have a record of undermining student’s civil rights – especially students with disabilities. Private school students give up due process and other rights guaranteed in public schools. Private schools are allowed to discriminate by denying admission based on religion, sexual orientation, citizenship status, English language proficiency and disability. Private schools that enroll students with disabilities may decide not to provide the services or accommodations guaranteed to such students in public schools. Or they may charge parents extra for them. Moreover, there is nothing to stop them from segregating these kids from other children. And, finally, private schools often suspend or expel students without due process.

 

This may be Trump and Wagner’s ideal. But it is certainly not what Commonwealth voters want for their children.

 

 

 

He Wants to Get Rid of Many State Colleges

 

Wagner caused an uproar when he said the state’s 14 state colleges will not be around in four years. “So, for those of you who think your school’s going to be around four years from now, it isn’t going to be around,” Wagner said.

 

Fewer institutions of higher learning. Fewer opportunities to get a college degree. That sounds like the policy of a college dropout.

 

 

He Wants to Slash School Funding

 

Wagner has made no bones about this from day one.

 

This is a guy who took a television reporter on a helicopter tour of schools in his district in 2015 to highlight the fact that “we spend a lot of money on schools.”

 

“They think the solution is more money,” he said of Wolf and the Democrats. “Every time you do that the money disappears and the problem is still there.”

 

It’s like taking a bath, Scott. You can’t just do it once and be clean for the rest of your life. You need to bathe every day. One-time funding windfalls don’t work. You need equitable and sustainable funding revenues.

 

But that’s either too complicated for Wagner or he just doesn’t care.

 

He supported Gov. Corbett’s plan to decimate Pennsylvania’s schools. And he doesn’t think the culling should be over.

 

When asked point blank about Corbett’s cuts in 2011, he said, “Yes, I believe that Governor Corbett needs to stick to his plan.”

 

He’s said repeatedly that we spend “enough money” on public schools, while stressing the need for frugality and fewer regulations.

 

 

He Wants to Play with How Schools Are Funded

 

He’s an advocate for legislation that would eliminate school property taxes and replace them with increased state sales and income taxes.

 

True we need a better funding mechanism than local property taxes. But you can bet Wagner’s plan is worse than the current system.

 

It would lock funding inequities among Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts into place.

 

He Thinks Global Warming is Caused by the Earth Getting Closer to the Sun

 

 

Wagner is an incredibly stupid man who thinks he’s rather intelligent.

 

But of all the dumb or evil things that come spewing out of his mouth, this one has to be my favorite.

 

When asked about global climate change, he didn’t simply deny that it was happening. He had an alternative theory to why it was taking place.

 

It’s not business and industry or fossil fuels that is causing global temperatures to rise. He actually said that it’s because the earth is getting closer to the sun every year. Another cause? Human bodies on the planet are giving off enough heat to raise the global temperature.

 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a person who hates schools and teachers so much knows very little, himself.

 

These comments made him a national laughing stock.

 

His words were repeated on every late night comedy show across the country for giggles and guffaws.

 

The question is “Will the joke be on us come Election Day?”

 

It’s not “How dumb is Scott Wagner?”

 

It’s “Is Pennsylvania dumb enough to vote for him?”

 


NOTE: Special Thank you to Sue Goncarovs for the Wagner cartoon with which I began this piece. I love your work!


 

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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Stupid Ass School Voucher Bill Back for Pennsylvania Vote Tomorrow

Shake the world to make money

 

Close your eyes and imagine a school like the one where I teach.

 

The public middle school is right next door to a Catholic middle school.

 

Some of the wealthiest families send their kids to the religious school. The rest send their kids to the public school.

 

Now imagine that the state passes a school voucher bill.

 

Those wealthy families can now use public tax dollars to help fund their kids’ Catholic school tuition.

 

A truckload of taxpayer wealth would be redistributed away from the public school and into the religious one.

 

And this is for children who weren’t attending public school in the first place.

 

Imagine what an impact that would have on the two schools. At the Catholic middle school, not much would change. At most a few more kids might enroll. And wealthy parents would get to pay less in tuition.

 

 

At the public middle school, however, the results would be disastrous. It would have to survive on much less funding than it was already receiving. Services for the majority of students in the district would be degraded. Class sizes would balloon. Educational quality would take a nose dive.

 

So why wouldn’t more kids from the public school move to the Catholic one?

 

Well, first of all, few kids in the district are Catholic. Should they be forced to be indoctrinated in a faith in which they don’t believe?

 

Second, tuition at the Catholic school costs more than the price of the voucher. Parents would have to pay above and beyond what they’re paying now to make tuition at the Catholic school. And this is a mostly poor neighborhood. Parents simply can’t afford it.

 

THIS is the situation the Pennsylvania Education Committee will vote on tomorrow.

 

The committee will decide whether State Sen. John DiSanto’s school voucher bill should be voted on by the state Senate and House.

 

School vouchers are not popular at both the national and state level.

 

 

Around 70% of people across the country oppose school vouchers, according to the PDK-Gallup public opinion poll about U.S. education.

 

 

Moreover, Harrisburg wastepaper baskets are lined with school voucher bills that fail to pass despite being introduced every few years.

 

 

DiSanto’s bill is called Education Savings Accounts for Students in Underperforming Schools or SB 2.

 

And guess what!?

 

It’s almost exactly the same as a pile of similar bills offered by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

 

The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, “Opportunity Scholarships,” The Smart Start Scholarship Program – all ALEC bills that do almost the same thing.

 

They designate some group of at risk students and say, “Hey, you know what they need? School vouchers!”

 

Well, my goodness. I’m sure glad DiSanto didn’t stress himself out writing something new. I’m certain his constituents wanted him to plagiarize someone else’s bill and pretend like it was his own.

 

And how exactly will spending public tax dollars on non-public schools help these kids succeed? That’s never explained.

 

Fools like DiSanto just pretend that it will help as a matter of faith. And since the overwhelming majority of school vouchers go to religious school coffers, this makes sense.

 

It is a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. But privatization supporters don’t give a crap about that. They don’t care about the values on which this country where founded. Their only concern is doing what their rich donors demand.

 

SB 2 would target students living in districts with the most underfunded schools serving the most impoverished populations. You know – “failing schools.”

 

If passed, kids living in these neighborhoods would have whatever the district sets aside for each student put in a savings account to be spent in almost any way parents see fit so long as they could somehow justify it as educational.

 

Send your kids to a private or parochial school?

 

Sure!

 

Homeschool your child?

 

Yep!

 

Go on a trip to the life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, Kentucky?

 

You betcha!

 

And the best part is there is hardly any accountability built in to the law, so we probably wouldn’t even know how this money was spent.

 

Your tax dollars at work. Somehow. Somewhere. Out of sight.

 

I guess that’s what Pennsylvania Republicans like DiSanto call fiscal conservatism.

 

If passed, the bill would affect 800 schools – the 15% lowest performing in the state – including mine.

 

Take a look at the list.

 

Every school serves mostly poor students. Every school is severely underfunded.

 

Pennsylvania ranks 45th out of 50 for school funding. There are only five states in the country where the state government pays less of the cost of educating students. The Commonwealth relies on local municipalities to make up the difference. That means local property taxes, so the richer an area you live in, the more money it can afford to pay to educate children. The poorer an area where you live, the less it can pay.

 

This is why Pennsylvania has the widest disparity between how much it spends on rich kids vs. poor ones. Wealthy children are cherished and coddled. Poor ones are left to fend for themselves.

 

This voucher bill would only exacerbate the situation.

 

It’s a giveaway to those who don’t need it at the expense of those who can least afford to pay.

 

If you live in the Commonwealth, please call and/or write your state Senator and Representative and ask them to oppose this bill.

PA High Court Says, “Yes, Schools CAN Sue State Over Unfair Funding, After All!”

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It’s back on!

Two years ago a group of plucky Pennsylvania public schools took the state legislature to court because the body wasn’t allocating funding to all districts fairly – some got too much, many got too little.

A lower court threw the challenge out saying it wasn’t the court’s job to tell the legislature how to legislate. But now the state Supreme Court has overturned that lower court decision.

In effect, justices are sayingHell, yes, that is the court’s job! That’s why it’s called a system of checks and balances, Baby!

Or something like that.

Before going any further, there are a few pertinent facts you have to understand about the Commonwealth.

1) No other state in the country has a bigger gap between what it spends on rich vs. poor students than Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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2) The Pennsylvania legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The state used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays only 35% of the costs, leaving local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

 

3) The state has only had a funding formula specifically legislating how to allocate money to its more than 500 districts for two years. Two years! For more than 15 years previous, the legislature just handed out money willy nilly based on political backroom deals that favored already rich districts and hurt the most impoverished ones.

4) The new funding formula still is not fair. Though it does take into account the poverty of a district, it doesn’t account for the years of systematic disinvestment the district suffered through previously. That’s like giving new sneakers to a racer who hasn’t been able to get out of the starting gate while others are already halfway to the finish line.

5) The legislature STILL hasn’t healed almost $1 billion in education cuts made under previous Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Instead, under current Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, it has reluctantly increased funding a bit at a time but failed to bring spending up to what it was four years ago. And even once the cuts are healed, spending will be behind inflationary and cost of business increases. Meanwhile the Republican controlled legislature plays games approving the state budget separately from allocating money to the programs – including schools – that it already approved!

 

6) Pennsylvania is one of seven states with a Constitution that specifically requires the state provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education. Some of these other states – like New Jersey – have used similar Constitutional requirements to force their legislatures to increase state funding to public schools.

So there you are.

Pennsylvania’s legislature is an absolute mess.

Hopelessly gerrymandered, controlled by the radical right, and opposed by a Democratic party nearly as beholden to big donors as their GOP counterparts and desperate for any area of bipartisanship so as to be able to claim they got anything done other than stop Republicans from burning the whole place to the ground.

That’s why today’s 5-2 Supreme Court ruling is a breath of fresh air.

It’s like someone finally called Mom and Dad to tell our bratty lawmakers to get back to work.

The case will now go back to Commonwealth Court.

Supreme Court Justice David Wecht wrote that the courts do have a responsibility to check the power of the legislature – both in regard to the requirements of the state Constitution and that poorer districts are being discriminated against.

“It remains for (the) petitioners to substantiate and elucidate the classification at issue and to establish the nature of the right to education, if any, to determine what standard of review the lower court must employ to evaluate their challenge,” Wecht wrote. “But (the) petitioners are entitled to do so.”

This may be a Herculean task for those suing the state. And it seems unlikely that Commonwealth Court will hear their arguments favorably.

Justices rarely have the courage to challenge other branches, and the history of Pennsylvania’s courts shows multiple times when the courts have simply refused to assert such power.

This is what happened back in the 1990s when the Philadelphia School District sued the state over the same issue – unfair funding.

Time and again, poor districts have asked for help from the courts when the legislature refused to do its job. And time and again the courts have refused.

But at least this ruling gets things moving again. It’s like a dose of Kaopectate for a constipated political system.

Another possible bit of good news comes from Common Core and high stakes standardized testing. Yes, that crap!

When Philadelphia sued the state, the courts refused to rule in the schools favor because it had no way of proving the state was hurting the quality of education students were receiving there through lack of funding. But that was before Pennsylvania adopted its new Common Core look-a-like standards, PA Core, and initiated aligned tests including the souped up Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone Exams.

Ironically, the same “accountability” measures used to “demonstrate” poor schools are failing could be used to prove the common sense notion that unfairly funding schools leads to poor academic results.

In any case, far right demagogues like House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, are already whining that the Supreme Court is legislating from the bench. However, as a defendant in the case, and one of the most partisan hacks in Harrisburg, that’s exactly what the Koch Brothers probably told him to say.

Unfortunately, Gov. Wolf seems to kinda agree with him. Though he has yet to make a statement about today’s ruling, he was against the suit when it was originally brought up in 2015. Though he supports increasing education funding and has consistently pushed for it with every budget proposal, he is leery of the courts butting in.

Sadly, his strategy of incremental education budget increases has been failing. Or, to be fair, it’s succeeding at such a slow rate that it would take decades for it to catch up.

The fact of the matter is that it is patently unfair for rich districts to spend $10,000 to $20,000 on each student, while poorer districts can barely pull together $5,000-$6,000.

In addition, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Moreover, it is no accident that the group being privileged here is made up mostly of white students and those being underprivileged are mostly students of color.

The time is here when Pennsylvanians have to decide where they stand. Are they for a state that offers all children an equal start or do they prefer one where poor brown kids suffer so rich white ones can get ahead?

Today, the matter is in the court’s hands.

Pennsylvania Proposes Smaller Tests, Same High Stakes

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It’s not the size of the tests, it’s how you use them.

 

And that’s kind of the problem with Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposal for Pennsylvania public schools.

 

Wolf wants to reduce the amount of time students are taking standardized tests, but he seems to have little problem using those tests to hold schools accountable for all kinds of things that are beyond their control.

 

The proposal released today applies only to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – those taken by students in grades 3-8. Keystone Exams taken by high school students are unaffected.

 

It would cut one of three reading sections and one of three math sections – two total. Wolf also wants to cut some questions from one of the science sections.

 

Such a move is estimated to eliminate 48 minutes from the math test, 45 minutes from the reading test and 22 minutes from the science test. However, judging from my own students, these times vary considerably depending on the individual taking the tests. I’ve had 8th grade students finish a PSSA section in as little as 5 minutes or as much as two hours.

 

Most schools give either a section a day or two in one day. Therefore, this proposal probably translates to 1 to 2 fewer days testing in most districts.

 

Um. Thanks?

 

Look I don’t want to seem ungrateful here, but these suggested modifications are little more than fiddling around the edges of a massive problem.

 

Yes, it will be helpful to reduce testing times, but this does very little to address the fundamental problems with test-based accountability in the Commonwealth.

 

At best, this proposal will allow students to spend two more days a year learning. Assuming most districts don’t use that extra time for test prep, that IS a good thing.

 

But tacitly committing students throughout the state to taking these tests almost guarantees that test prep is exactly how these additional days will be used.

 

The problem with standardized testing isn’t just the number of raw days it takes students to complete the tests. It is how the tests deform the entire year-long curriculum. Students don’t just learn anymore. They learn what’s on the test – and anything else is purely optional.

 

Regardless of the size of the assessments, they are still being used to sort and judge students, teachers and schools. Shortening their length does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness of the evaluations. Rich white kids still tend to have high scores and poor minority kids still tend to have low ones.

 

At best, they reveal structural funding disparities between poor and wealthy districts. At worst, the cultural bias inherent in the questions favor those from dominant, privileged ethnicities while punishing those who don’t fit the standard.

 

That’s what “standardized test” means after all – defining normal and punishing those who don’t fit the definition. Most questions don’t assess universals like the value of 2 and 2. They evaluate cultural and social norms required to understand the questions and easily find an answer that another “normal” student would choose. (Don’t believe me? Watch “Black Jeopardy” on Saturday Night Live.)

 

This is true whether the test takes one day or 100 days.

 

We should not be using standardized testing to meet federal accountability standards. Period.

 

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains provisions to circumvent them. States are supposed to be given leeway about testing. They may even be able to replace them with projects or other non-standardized assessments. THAT’S what Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education should be exploring – not half measures.

 

To be fair, the state Department of Education is attempting reform based on the ESSA. This year, the department introduced Future Ready PA, a new way of using test scores and other measures to assess school success. To its credit, The Index does place additional emphasis on academic growth, evaluation of school climate, attendance, graduation rates, etc. However, for my money it still gives far too much importance to standardized testing and test prep.

 

Like reducing the size of the PSSAs, it’s a positive step but won’t do much to get us to our destination.

 

Neither measure will have much impact on the day-to-day operations of our public schools. Districts will still be pressured to emphasize test prep, test taking strategies, approaches to answering multiple choice questions, etc. Meanwhile, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will still be pushed to the side.

 

Moreover, since schools and teachers will be assessed as successful or not based largely on these test scores, districts will be under tremendous pressure to give countless practice tests throughout the year to gauge how well students are prepared for the PSSAs. The state will still be providing and encouraging the optional Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) tests be taken several times in reading and math throughout the year. Trimming off two days from the PSSA will affect that not at all.

 

In addition, today’s proposal only applies to the PSSA. While that assessment is important, the Keystone Exams given to high school students are even more so. According to existing state law, passing the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology are required in order to qualify for a diploma. However, that condition has yet to go live. So far the legislature has continuously pushed back the date when passing scores become graduation requirements. The Governor and Department of Education should be proposing the elimination of this prerequisite before anything else. Other than education funding and perhaps charter school accountability, it is the most important education issue before Commonwealth lawmakers today.

 

Don’t get me wrong. The Democratic Governor is somewhat hamstrung by the Republican-controlled legislature. Partisan politics has stopped lawmakers from accepting Wolf’s more progressive education measures.

 

Though Wolf has gotten Republicans to increase education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars during his term, K-12 schools still receive less than they did before the previous GOP governor’s administration. Moreover, there have been absolutely zero inflationary increases to keep up with the rising cost of doing business. Pennsylvania schools receive less funding – whether you adjust for inflation or not – than they should, and that has a real world impact on our public schools. Moreover, how that money has been allocated by the legislature still – even with our new better funding formula in place – benefits wealthy districts more than poor ones.

 

If you want to talk about accountability, that’s where the majority of the issue belongs.

 

And primarily it’s out of Wolf’s hands. One can understand why he is proposing changes where he can and trying to do whatever good is possible given the political climate.

 

Shortening the PSSA tests would benefit our students. It is a step in a positive direction.

 

However, it is far from solving our many education problems.

 

The biggest roadblock to authentic school reform is a legislature that refuses to do anything but the absolute minimum for our neediest students.

PA: Want to Get Rid of Keystone Exams? Then Let Us Evaluate Teachers More Unfairly

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It’s the classic Harrisburg switch.

 

Want something good passed by the legislature? Then let us pass something terrible – something you would never even consider unless something you cared about was on the table.

 

That appears to be the game being played by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee today as they consider SB 756.

 

On the one hand, the proposed bill would eliminate the state’s terrible Keystone Exams. On the other, it would force a new teacher evaluation system that is tremendously unfair.

 

Which one is more important?

 

The answer: both.

 

If lawmakers had any moral courage – and most don’t because they’re lawmakers after all – they would consider each of these measures one at a time on their own merits.

 

But if they did that, conservatives wouldn’t vote to help students by getting rid of unfair tests, and progressives wouldn’t vote to help corporations by installing unfair teacher evaluations. So they’ve apparently decided to compromise behind closed doors by putting both together in a huge omnibus bill.

 

Who knows what other treasures lurk in its pages!? Well if you have a limitless amount of time and energy, go ahead and read it!

 

THE GOOD

 

The bill would put an end to our costly, cruel and dishonest Keystone Exams. Not only would we no longer threaten to require these tests in Literature, Algebra and Biology as graduation requirements, but we would stop giving them altogether.

 

In their place to meet federal accountability regulations, the state would substitute the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT), Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), armed forces exam, competency assessment or certificate for technical students, or Pennsylvania Alternative Assessment for students with special needs.

 

But perhaps the best part is that the bill makes explicit and generous provisions for parents to opt their children out of high school standardized tests altogether. In this case, students would NOT be required to take a substitute assessment.

 

Here is the exact language from the bill:

 

“A school entity’s governing board shall adopt a policy that provides that the parent or guardian of a student may request that the student be exempt from taking an assessment that is required for the purpose of Federal accountability as permitted under ESSA [Every Student Succeeds Act]. The policy shall provide that parents and guardians of students receive written notice of the option for a student to be exempt from taking the assessment and that the exemption shall be permitted upon the school entity’s receipt of a written request from the parent or guardian of the student. A substitute assessment or an alternative assessment, course or program may not be required of a student exempted under this section. Grounds for exemption in the school entity’s policy shall include, but not be limited to:
(1) Religious grounds.
(2) The basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction
similar to a religious belief.
(3) Philosophical grounds.
(4) Privacy concerns.
(5) Health concerns for the child, which may include stress and anxiety in preparation for the assessment.”

 

This is a huge improvement over our current opt out policy. At present, parents can opt out their children from the Keystone Exams but students must take an alternate assessment. This could include a project based assessment and not merely a standardized test. Also, it only allows these exemptions based on religious convictions. Parents needn’t explain these convictions in any detail, but this is the only option they are given with which to opt out.

 

The proposed legislation would go into effect during the 2018-19 school year, when the Keystone Exams would otherwise become a graduation requirement. Students would take the SAT or other assessment in 10th grade.

 

However, students in 3-8th grade would still be subjected to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. I assume parents could still opt out their children from these exams, but the wording is a bit murky there.

 

In addition, the law would require the state to establish a task force to reevaluate whether the Commonwealth should use the PSSA in the future and how to reduce the time it takes to give the assessment. If the task force concludes the PSSA is inappropriate, they must look for an alternative exam. They are required to issue a report in 6 months from passage of the bill.

 

This is particularly important since the PSSA has been rewritten to be closer to the Keystone Exam. It is Keystone Exam-lite. If the legislature is against the high school test, one would imagine they should be against a very similar test being given in elementary and middle school.

 

THE BAD

 

Despite all the good this proposed bill would do for our school children, it would drastically worsen the situation for our classroom teachers.

 

Half of a teacher’s current evaluation is based on classroom observations by district administrators. That just makes sense. The best way to tell if an educator is doing a good job is to observe what he/she is actually doing in the classroom.

 

This new system would reduce classroom observations to only 30% of a teacher’s annual score.

 

This would allow 10% to come from a “parental” score and 10% to come from “peer evaluation.” In a non-high stakes environment, input from both of these stakeholders is vital to a teacher’s success. But when you add that high stakes component, you pervert both relationships.

 

Having parents evaluate teachers puts them in kind of a touchy place. Teachers are required to push students to do their best. This requires them to often make calls home and ask for help from parents. If parents control a portion of a teacher’s evaluation, it incentivizes educators not to bother them with student misbehavior or failing grades. Instead teachers could be pressured to unfairly increase students grades or ignore misbehavior so as to better parental evaluations.

 

Moreover, peer observations can be extremely subjective when tied to teacher assessment. Administrators are discouraged from giving out distinguished evaluations to more than a handful of teachers. This incentivizes peers who are forced to compete for these few plum scores to unfairly suppress positive evaluations from their fellows.

 

But the worst is still to come.

The new evaluations require 50% of teachers’ evaluations to come from student growth and achievement measures. For math and English teachers, this largely means using standardized test scores to assess educators.

 

It’s a terrible practice that has been shown to be ineffective and downright damaging to student learning time and again. But it does help testing corporations by discouraging opt outs. Just imagine. If you have students who you think will score well on the tests but who may opt out, you are incentivized to discourage them from doing so. Otherwise, your teacher evaluation will drop.

 

This makes teachers the testing policemen. Learning doesn’t matter, only how well your students do on the tests. It dramatically tips the scale away from things the teacher has any control over. As such, it would cause serious harm to the quality of education students receive across the state.

 

CONCLUSION

We cannot support this bill in its present form. It should not go on to consideration by the full House and/or Senate. And if it somehow is passed by these Republican-controlled bodies, our Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf should not sign it.

 

This is unfortunate because there is much to like about it. However, you can’t save students from unfair assessments by forcing teachers to be evaluated by – drum roll please – unfair assessments.

 

This sets up an unsustainable and unfair relationship between students and teachers. It puts educators in the position of having to look out for their own interests and not those of their students. The interests of both should be interlinked, not separated. Teachers get into the profession to help kids learn – not to have to look out for an arbitrary score from their administrators that may require them to act against their students needs.

 

If legislators had any ethical fortitude, they would propose both of these measures in separate bills where they could be examined on merit. But I long ago gave up expecting such qualities from our politicians.

 

In my book, they almost all deserve a failing grade.