Who Will Protect My Right NOT to Pay for Your Child’s Religious Education?

Image: Supreme Court Hears Montana State Tax Credit Case

 

 

When I was a kid back in middle school, I had a crush on this girl, let’s call her Patty.

 

 

She wasn’t the most popular or beautiful girl in class, but I kinda’ liked her.

 

 

 

Of course, she had no idea I was alive.

 

 

Or so I thought, until one day she walked straight up to my desk and started rubbing my hair.

 

 

I was shocked at first, but then I just closed my eyes and went with it.

 

 

 

I remember the soft caress of her fingers in my mop of curls. She seemed to massage every inch of my scalp. Then she asked, “Where are they?”

 

 

“Where are what?” I asked.

 

 

“Your horns,” she said. “I want to see your horns.”

 

 

“What?” I said. “I don’t have any horns.”

 

 

“Of course you do,” she said. “My pastor said all you Jews have horns but you hide them in your hair. I want to see them.”

 

 

I had never even heard that bit of anti-Semitism before Patty. But I knew when I was being ridiculed.

 

 

The laughter. The embarrassment. I think I asked to go to the bathroom and stayed until the class was over.

 

 

 

Why bring up such childhood trauma?

 

 

It has baring on a case before the US Supreme Court this week –  Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

 

 

Three women are suing the state of Montana for refusing to pay for their kids to attend religious schools through a defunct voucher program.

 

 

Backing the effort are far right figures and groups like The Cato Institute, The Council for American Private Education, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Center for Education Reform – all of which have filed Amici Curiae briefs arguing that prohibiting religious schools from getting public money is somehow a violation of the First Amendment.

 

 

If successful, the case would open the door to publicly-funded private religious education across the country – not to mention siphoning much-needed money away from the public schools.

 

 

It’s bad enough that kids learn prejudicial lies from the pulpit and parochial schools. It’s worse if the victims of such prejudice have to pay for their tormentors to be thus indoctrinated.

 

 

In the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical . . . ”

 

 

I agree. That is sinful and tyrannical. Especially if those abhorrent beliefs lead to actions detrimental to the health and well-being of those being forced to pay for just such ignorance to be renewed in yet another generation.

 

 

The incident with Patty wasn’t the first or last time I suffered through religious persecution. I went to public school but the worst torment usually came from kids who had a year or two of parochial education.

 

 

For example, I can’t tell you how many times classmates asked me why I killed Jesus.

 

 

Now I’m a middle school teacher, myself.

 

 

I do my best to foster understanding and acceptance of all peoples no matter their race, gender, orientation or creed.

 

 

That doesn’t mean I squash religious discussion or opinions, either.

 

 

Kids are allowed to think and say what they choose. If they want to pray or express a religious belief, that’s fine so long as they don’t hurt others.

 

 

Though radical right ideologues decry the loss of religion in public schools, all that really means is that the adults don’t get to express their theologies. The kids have never been thus encumbered.

 

 

Even so, religious ignorance is never far away.

 

 

 

Every year before I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” I go over the history of the Holocaust.

 

 

 

At least one student always raises his or her hand and asks if Hitler was Jewish.

 

 

I patiently explain that he wasn’t, but they insist that he must have been. After all, Father Such-And-Such said it, so it must be true.

 

 

And this is the kind of nonsense that is often taught as fact at parochial schools.

 

 

Private religious institutions are infamous for revisionist history and denying climate science. What’s less well-known is how they often try to normalize racist attitudes.

 

 

The American Christian Education (ACE) organization provides fundamentalist school curriculum to thousands of religious schools throughout the country. Included in this curriculum is the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks. A Beka publishers, in particular, reported that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.

 

 

In their pages you’ll find glowing descriptions of the Ku Klux Klan, how the massacre of Native Americans saved many souls, African slaves had really good lives, homosexuals are no better than rapists and child molesters, and progressive attempts at equal rights such as Brown vs. Board of Education were illegal and misguided. You know – all the greatest Donald Trump campaign hits!

 

 

Today these claims are uncritically being taught to children at schools receiving school vouchers. We’re using public money to increase the racism and prejudice in the next generation.

 

 

In any sane country, a case like Espinoza would be about stopping such nonsense! But the plaintiffs and their billionaire backers actually want to EXPAND IT!

 

 

The goal is to destroy facts and promote ignorance. That requires the destruction of public schools.

 

 

Kyle Olson said as much in a 2018 op-ed for National School Choice Week – a bit of propaganda he helped create in 2011 through his lobbying firm, the Education Action Group. In fact, he credited Jesus, himself, with anti-public school venom.

 

Olson wrote:

 

“I would like to think that, yes, Jesus would destroy the public education temple and save the children from despair and a hopeless future.”

 

 

These are the folks complaining that public tax dollars aren’t being allowed to fund parochial schools everywhere and where they are allowed to bankroll such schools they aren’t being allowed to do so enough.

 

 

Technically, the First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to support religious schools.

 

 

But the Espinoza crowd think that laundering the money through Tax Credit Scholarships somehow makes it all okay. A business or rich donor hands money to families to send their kids to private schools. Except that money makes a stop at a “scholarship” organization first, and the donors get to deduct their contributions from their taxes. Blogger Peter Greene tells us to think of it like this:

 

 

“I’m the state, and you owe me $100. I am not allowed to gamble, but if you give that $100 to my bookie instead, I’ll consider us square.”

 

 

It’s a shell game that pretends spending tax money before it gets deposited in the government’s account frees our public servants from following the rules.

 

 

I don’t care where it’s been, that’s my money as good as if you took it from my wallet because it’s money owed to me and every other taxpayer. That money is owed to the public good, not some ideologue’s Sunday school project, and its absence means I have to pay more to fund things we all need like police, firefighters, public transportation, and public schools.

 

 

They’re right about one thing. This is an issue of religious freedom, but it’s not about their freedom. It’s about MY freedom not to support their beliefs.

 

 

I say – let them believe what they will. It’s their choice, and they have the right to subject their children to it if they want.

 

 

But leave me out of it.

 

 

Don’t expect me to foot the bill.

 

 

I’m rightly compelled to pay for public education because it benefits everyone. It creates an educated populace capable of keeping the lights on. It creates people who know enough about the world that they can make knowledgeable decisions and vote for good leaders.

 

 

But parochial schools are exclusionary by design. Spreading their ignorance does not benefit society. It hurts it.

 

 

We talk a lot about the First Amendment, but we seem to forget what it actually says:

 

 

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

 

 

That should be our guiding principle – religious freedom.

 

 

Let people practice their faiths however they see fit.

 

 

But respect my freedom from religion as much as I respect your freedom of 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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Robots Will Never Replace Teachers. They Can Only Displace Us

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

 

 

And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And we all know what he means by that!

 

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

 

Which students are these? Mostly poor and minority children.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

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

 

 

Yeah.

 

 

Seriously.

 

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

 

Shakespeare’s Miranda famously exclaimed:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

He says:

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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Picture of an actual Japanese robot teacher in use.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

David Watson

 


 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

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

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

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

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

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

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

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

 

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Sixteen Gadfly Articles That Made Betsy DeVos Itch in 2019


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“Life can only be understood backwards,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, “but it must be lived forwards.”

 
I remember reading the Danish philosopher’s “Fear and Trembling” in my philosophy of religion class back in college.

 

To be honest I was never a big fan of his work – I thought if the only way to truth was taking a leap of faith, how many madmen have already reached enlightenment?

 

 

But he had a point when he wrote about the backwards order of perspective – that we can only understand the meaning of our lives once those moments have passed. How cruel that we must live our lives without knowing the importance of those moments until later.

 

 

The only times I remember knowing – really knowing – that I was living through an important moment were when I was married and when my daughter was born.

 

 
Other than those few instants of my life, I’ve wandered forward like an infant – unaware of whether this would really leave an indelible mark on the fabric of my reality or not.

 

 

And that’s not even mentioning what I’ve done – if anything – that has had an effect – any effect – on our larger shared reality.

 

 

It’s the same with writing a blog. I wrote 77 posts in 2019 – a full 32 less than last year. Yet my blog got 297,000 hits – 82,000 more than the year before.

 

However, which articles – if any – will have any staying power?

 

Will anything I wrote this year still be read in the days to come? Has any of it made a difference?

 

Maybe it’s foolish but that is what I’m trying to do.

 

 
I sit at my laptop pounding away at the keys as if any of it has an impact on the world.

 

 

A few weeks ago at the Education 
Forum in Pittsburgh – when the leading Democratic candidates for President actually seemed to have heard the education activist community’s concerns – it felt like what I had been writing really HAD made some sort of mark.

 

 

Then a week later when the Pittsburgh School Board decided to make cuts to services for students instead of raising taxes to meet costs beyond the district’s control, it felt like nothing I wrote really mattered. Really, Pittsburgh? You have the lowest millage in Allegheny County, but you can’t get the gumption to fund your schools? You’re beset by charter schools, pension costs and a mayor who refuses to put back tax revenue he was perfectly willing to use to help the city when it was in dire straights.

 

 

Does no one care about school children – if they’re poor and black?

 

 

Anyway, to the best of my knowledge, if anything I’ve written this year has made a difference, it was probably one of these articles.

 

 

I’ll include the usual top 10 list – a countdown of my most popular works this year – but I’ll end with six honorable mentions. These are articles that I feel personally proud of that wouldn’t qualify based just on sheer numbers alone.

 

 

I hope you enjoy this stroll down memory lane, and here’s hoping 2020 will leave the negativity behind while still continuing the positive change that may have crept in this year that was.


 

10) Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy

 

 

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Published: April 5

 

 

Views: 4,389

 

 

Description: Here’s the story of how standardized testing went from the eugenicist movement to the Barack Obama administration to continually enforce white power. High stakes testing is an instance of being color blind – when “post racial” just means racist and ignorant.

 

 

Fun Fact: I think the title really captured people’s attention. Black people have been saying this for decades, but the so-called mainstream has refused to listen. This article still gets a lot of readers in its incarnation on commondreams.org. I hope it provides easy proof of this point to stop the constant gas lighting from naysayers in every walk of life who can’t seem to grasp how something so pervasive can be so pernicious to people of color.

 


9) Six Problems with a Growth Mindset in Education

 

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Published: Aug. 12

 

 

Views: 4,678

 

 

Description: One of the most frequent excuses given for high stakes testing is that we can substitute growth for achievement. However, that idea has its own problems.

 

 

Fun Fact: A lot of folks have guzzled so much of the testing Kool-Aid that they simply refuse to accept the facts about cognition and development here. Growth has its place – but it doesn’t fit at all in a pedagogy based on standardized testing.

 


8) Standardized Tests Are Not Objective Measures of Anything

 

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Published: June 29

 

 

Views: 5,290

 

 

Description: Question – If standardized testing doesn’t assess student learning, what does it assess?Answer – not much. And certainly not what you thought it did.

 

 

Fun Fact: There will come a day when standardized tests are rightly considered pseudoscientific. This is my attempt to get this idea across to a larger audience. Audience reactions have ranged from giving me looks like I’m deranged to sighs at how obvious this is.

 


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

 

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Published: Sept. 8

 

 

Views: 6,869

 

 

Description: The world finally seems to be realizing that charter schools are deeply problematic. But what to do with them? My answer is to shut them all down and any that actually provide value to their students should be transitioned to becoming authentic public schools.

 

 

Fun Fact: This article was partially in response to charter school critics who would say things on Twitter like “No one wants to shut down all charter schools, but…” No. I really do want to shut them all down. I think their time is up. We need to abolish this failed concept and move on to real education policies that actually have a chance at helping students.

 


6) Charter School Teacher Introduces Elizabeth Warren at Rally

 

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Published: June 4

 

 

Views: 9,761

 

 

Description: Before Elizabeth Warren introduced her education policy, no one really knew where she stood on the issue. So many of us in the education activist community became worried when she had former charter school teacher Sonya Mehta introduce her at a California Rally.

 

 

Fun Fact: This article drudged up huge controversy over my characterization of Mehta. At first, I called her a “Charter school lobbyist.” This was unfair and I changed the article to reflect that. However, I was dragged in the media as an anti-Warren troll and Russian bot. Since Warren has released her education policy, I have written extensively about how really comprehensive it is. I think Warren is second only to Bernie Sanders in this race and even exceeds him in some areas of policy. But no one has yet to apologize to me for daring to question a political figure.

 


5) Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

 

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Published: Nov. 29

 

 

Views: 11,188

 

 

Description: Teachers can’t make students learn. We can’t even make them grow. We can do lots of things to optimize the conditions for growth, but we are not ultimately responsible for the result. We’re only responsible for what we do to help bring it about.

 

 

Fun Fact: Lots of folks hate me for writing this article. Lots of folks love me for writing it. However, it was past time someone said it. Teachers make a huge impact on their students, but we are not magical. When you expect us to be wizards, you end up destroying our ability to do our jobs and you enable all the corporate testing and privatization hacks who build themselves up by tearing down our profession because we’re not magic.

 


4) Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along

 

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Published: Sept. 15

 

 

Views: 13,153

 

 

Description: Where did charter schools come from and what was their original purpose? Read here to find the facts.

 

 

Fun Fact: I wrote this article because of the common lie that charter schools were created by union president Albert Shanker to empower teachers. WRONG. They were created by Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie and privatization cheerleader Joe Nathan. This is an attempt to get the record straight. I hope it succeeds.

 


3) Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

 

 

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Published: Nov. 7

 

 

Views: 22,041

 

 

Description: It’s kind of a simple question. Many administrators and school boards treat teachers like robots to be programmed and do what they’re told. But we’re also expected to display a large degree of autonomy. Which one is the real expectation because we can’t ultimately be both.

 

 

Fun Fact: This article was republished in the Washington Post and continues to be hugely popular. I think that’s partially because it calls out the elephant in the room in every faculty meeting, school board meeting and education policy session at local, state and the federal government. Maybe allow teachers to be part of the conversation if you really want to bring about positive change.

 

 


2) How Many Decisions Do Teachers Make Every Day?

 

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Published: Jan. 5

 

 

Views: 27,286

 

 

Description: Answer – on average, teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day. That comes out to about 4 decisions a minute given six hours of class time.

 

 
Fun Fact: This fact has been around since at least the 1980s. It represents the kinds of things we were interested in education before standardized testing and school privatization took over. And it has implications that go on for miles and miles and miles…

 


1) As LA Teachers Strike Over Charter Schools, Democrat Cory Booker Speaks at Pro-Charter Rally

 

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Published: Jan. 18

 

 

Views: 37,652

 

 

Description: In California, 30,000 Los Angeles teachers were on strike because charter schools are gobbling up their funding without providing the same level of quality services or accountability. Meanwhile in New Orleans, Sen. Cory Booker was giving the keynote address at a charter school rally.

 

 
Fun Fact: This raised the question of where the Democrats stand on education policy. And thankfully the Booker branch of neoliberals has been overpowered by the Sanders-Warren wing. We’ll see if this continues through the Presidential nomination and (hopefully) the next administration. Could it be a sea change in Democratic support for real, authentic education policy and away from standardization and privatization? Time will tell.

 


Honorable Mentions

 

 

6) Pittsburgh Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity

 

 

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Published: Nov. 17

 
Views: 3,237

 

 

Description: Mayor Bill Peduto refuses to give back millions of dollars in tax revenue to city schools that could help close budget gaps and provide the services students need. The money was given to the city when it was in financial distress, but now that the city situation has improved, the schools are calling for that money to be returned. Just simple fairness.

 

 

Fun Fact: This was one of the first times I really addressed Pittsburgh politics especially as it branches out from the schools. Readers were extremely interested and I seemed to have tapped into a real conversation about the mayor’s role in school politics.

 


5) Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


 
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Published: May 20

 

 

Views: 2,919

 

 

Description: The Propel charter school chain keeps getting more and more of Steel Valley Schools budget despite enrolling around the same number of kids. It is expected to get away with 16% of Steel Valley Schools’ entire $37 million yearly budget in the coming year. How is that fair?

 

 
Fun Fact: This is one of the first times I have written so openly about the district where I teach. The result was extremely positive. It really got people talking and put together a lot of information that – sadly – our local media has failed to compile. With the loss of neighborhood papers and the consolidation of newspaper budgets, it’s left to bloggers like me to do actual journalism.

 


4) Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

 
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Published: Oct. 5

 

 

Views: 2,580

 

 

Description: Standardized tests only assess ability at taking standardized tests. So if we misconstrue test scores for learning, we’re leaving out the entire universe of concepts and skills that are not and cannot be captured by those tests.

 

 
Fun Fact: I think this is an important point that can’t be emphasized enough. It frustrated some readers because they wanted the easy conflation between test scores and learning. But few things in education are that easy. This article outlines exactly where the tests go wrong. It’s a tour of the sausage factory that will leave anyone less hungry for standardization.

 


3) Top 7 Ways Technology Stifles Student Learning in My Classroom

 
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Published: July 31

 

 

Views: 1,991

 

 

Description: We have become too reliant on technology in schools. We’ve welcomed and incorporated it without testing it, or even reflecting upon whether it promises to offer better pathways toward student comprehension and discovery or whether it merely offers flash and novelty devoid of substance. And perhaps even more frightening, we have not investigated the ways in which using these technologies actually puts student privacy and intellectual growth at risk.

 

 

Fun Fact: It is essential we question our assumptions – especially about technology. Many teachers fund this article a breath of fresh air. Others condemned me as a technophobe. You be the judge.

 


2) The Last Day of School

 

 

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Views: 1,271

 

 

Description: I had a stronger connection with last year’s students than any group I’ve ever taught. I was their Language Arts teacher for two consecutive years – 7th and 8th grade. When our time ended, they even re-enacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poet’s Society” – a movie we had watched together in class.

 

 

Fun Fact: I will always treasure the two years I had with these children. They changed my life for the better and made me a better teacher. I am honored by their reviews of my teaching.

 


1) The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

 
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Published: Nov. 12

 

 

Views: 988

 

 

Description: The dark secret of my district is how deeply segregated our elementary schools are. I wrote about what the problem is and how I think we can solve it. This is about as real and raw as policy making gets.

 

 

Fun Fact: Again this was one of the first times I let myself talk so openly about my district and what I thought needed to be done to improve it. Community members have come forward to talk with me about it but the response from anyone in the district has been total silence. I hope we’re actually serious about making a change here. The community is crying out for it. Teachers want to help. Where we go in the future is anyone’s guess.

 

 


 

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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Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

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Earlier this week, I was rushed to another urgent early morning staff meeting at my school.

 

I had my laptop with me and was frantically trying to get everything ready that I’d need for the day.

 

Text dependent analysis question? Check.

 

Discussion guide to introduce the concept of science fiction? Check.

 

Questions on literacy, analogy, vocabulary and sentence structure suitable for 7th grade? Check.

 

The same suitable for 8th grade? Check.

 

And as I was anxiously trying to get all this together in time for me to rush to my morning duty when the meeting was over, I quickly took a sip of my tea and tried to listen to what my administrator was saying from the front of the room.

 

He handed out two white sheets of paper with a compilation of standardized test scores – last year’s and those from the year before.

 

He asked us what we noticed about these two sets of scores and I almost spit out my tea.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT US HERE FOR!?” I wanted to shout.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE STOPPING US FROM DOING OUR WORK TO DISCUSS!?”

 

But I choked down my response and waited for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.

 

The scores have gone down in the preceding year.

 
 
Nothing drastic but enough.

 

When he got his answer – actually he had to say it himself because none of us were ready to play this game so early in the morning – he offered us an olive branch.

 

Isn’t that the way of it? Shame then reconciliation. Blame then peace.

 

Those are just the achievement scores, he said. Admin. generously doesn’t expect us to be able to do much about those. They go up one year and down the next.

 

But look at these growth scores!

 

That’s where we can have an impact!

 

And again I felt my throat convulse and a mouthful of Earl Grey came back up my gullet.

 

Growth!?

 

It doesn’t make that much difference whether you look at growth or achievement. If you’re holding teachers accountable for either, you’re expecting us to be able to do things beyond our powers as mere mortal human beings.

 

I hate to break it to you, but teachers are not magical.

 

We cannot MAKE things happen in student brains.

 

Nothing we say or do can cause a specific reaction inside a human mind.

 

That’s just not how learning and teaching works.

 

We can INFLUENCE learning.
 
We can try to create some kind of optimum condition that is most likely to spark learning.

 

But we cannot make it happen like turning on a switch or lighting a candle.

 

Let me give you a real world example.

 

The day before the meeting I was conferencing with a student about his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I pointed out that he had misspelled Christmas as “Crismist.”

 

He refused to fix it.

 

Literally refused.
 
I pointed out that the word was already typed out and spelled correctly in the prompt. All he had to do was erase what he had written and rewrite it correctly.

 

He said he didn’t care – that it didn’t matter.

 

So I tried to explain how people who don’t know him would read this paper and make snap judgments about him based on simple mistakes like this.

 

I told him that I knew he was smart, that I had heard his verbal discussion of the story and was impressed by his arguments about Scrooge’s character. He had made good points about Scrooge’s guilt being motivated by fear and that once the ghosts were gone he might return to his old ways.

 

But no one was going to get that far or give him the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t even try to spell Christmas correctly!
 
And he still wouldn’t do it.

 

That is literally where I was yesterday – yet today my administrator wanted to hold ME accountable for this kid’s growth!

 

As this child’s teacher, it IS my responsibility to try to reach him.

 

I am responsible for providing him with every tool I know how that can help him succeed.

 

I am responsible for trying to motivate, inspire and explain. I am responsible for knowing what are best practices and using them.

 

By all means – evaluate me on that.

 

But I can do nothing about what a student actually does with all I give him.

 

To paraphrase the old adage about horses, I can lead a student to knowledge, but I can’t make him think.

 

And, moreover, I shouldn’t be forced, myself, only to be able to acknowledge certain kinds of thinking. If a student’s ideas don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice framework, I shouldn’t be impelled to ignore or constrain them.

 

That may seem simple or even obvious with reflection, but it also goes counter to nearly every teacher evaluation system in practice in the United States.

 

Because that’s really what’s motivating my administrator’s directives here.
 
He’s just being real, he said. This is what we’ll be evaluated on and it’s something we can impact.

 

Then he asked us what each of us can do to better impact student growth.

 

Hands went flying into the air to offer suggestions about how administration could help us better accomplish these goals.

 

How about some consistency in which courses we’re instructed to teach from year-to-year?

 

How about not splitting up classes so that students leave one room to have a special and then return to finish a course already in progress?

 

How about mandating fewer diagnostic tests so there’d be more instruction time?

 

Well that last one was just too much. We were told that Admin. planned to do just the opposite – to make the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) tests MORE invasive by changing the schedule to make them appear more like the end of the year state mandated tests.

 

He said eventually we could look at some of these other ways to change things administratively, but he wanted to put the onus on us. What can WE do to increase growth?

 

A hand went up.
 
If we help a student grow this year, won’t there be less room for him to grow next year – at least within a given academic standard? Don’t we reach a point of diminishing returns?

 

To which I wanted to add – where are we measuring growth from? One standardized test to another? That’s not authentic learning – it’s assessing how well students take a test and how well they think like the corporation that makes and grades it.

 

But the meeting was already over.

 

The bell rang and we had to rush to our duties.

 

I scrambled back to my classroom to deposit my computer before getting to the cafeteria just as student breakfast began.

 

This is madness, I thought.

 

Growth and achievement. It’s all just gas lighting educators for not being superhuman.

 

The decision makers either don’t understand how learning works or they don’t care to understand.

 

They are putting everything on teachers and students without providing either of us with the tools we need to succeed.

 

Students need more than another standardized test. And they need more than another teacher who only cares about their test scores – regardless of whether you measure them in growth or achievement.

 

These kids are stressed out, living under immense pressure, coping with poverty, prejudice, an unstable society, climate change, an uncertain future and an economy that promises them little more than crushing debt as a best case scenario.

 

Educators are supposed to wade into all that, say a few incantations and it will all just go away?

 

Many parents are struggling so much to provide for their kids they don’t have time to help with homework, provide guidance or support. And you think I’ve somehow got the secret sauce in my teacher’s bag?

 

Wake up, America.

 

It’s time we faced a truth about our schools.

 

Teachers can’t do it all alone.
 
Growth, achievement, whatever.

 

Until society commits to supporting its children with equitable resources, social justice and an evaluation system that’s more valid than standardized testing, the next generation will continue to struggle.

 

If you want to make an impact, a good place to start would be a realistic conception of what it means to be a teacher and what we actually can and should be held responsible for.

 


 

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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Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

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As a public school teacher, I am often told what to do and how to do it.

 

Go teach this class.

 

Report to lunch duty at this time.

 

Monitor this student’s progress in this way, that student’s progress in another way, differentiate the following, document this medical condition, write up this behavior, check for that kind of hall pass, post and teach these academic standards, etc., etc., etc.

 

Some of these directives I agree with and others I do not. But that is treated as an irrelevance because the one thing I’m never told to do is to think for myself.  The one thing that seems to be expressly forbidden – is that I think for myself.

 

 

 

In fact, it’s such a glaring omission, I often wonder if it’s actually prohibited or so obviously necessary that it goes without saying.

 

 

 

Am I expected to think or just follow directions?

 

 

 

Does society want me to be a fully conscious co-conspirator of student curiosity or a mindless drone forcing kids to follow a predetermined path to work-a-day conformity?

 

Most days, it feels like the later.

 

Every last detail of my job is micromanaged and made “foolproof” to the degree that one wonders if the powers that be really consider teachers to be fools in need of proofing.

 

Teaching may be the only profession where you are required to get an advanced degree including a rigorous internship only to be treated like you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

And the pay is entirely uncompetitive considering how much you had to do to qualify for the position and how much you’re responsible for doing once you get hired.

 

It makes me wonder – why did I take all those courses on the history of education if I was never supposed to have the autonomy to apply them? Why did I have to learn about specific pedagogies if I was never to have the opportunity to create my own curriculum? Why was I instructed how to assess student learning if I was never meant to trust my own judgment and rely instead solely on prepackaged, canned standardized tests?

 

And now after 16 years in the classroom, I’m routinely told by my principal to use student testing data to drive my instruction. And, moreover, to document how I am doing so in writing.

 

But what if I don’t trust the student testing data in the first place?

 

What if – in my professional opinion – I don’t agree that the state should have purchased this standardized assessment from some corporate subsidiary? What if I don’t think it does a good job evaluating a child’s aptitude as a prediction of subsequent achievement on the next test? What if I don’t think the test provides valuable data for actual, authentic learning? What if I want to do more than just improve test scores from one standardized assessment to another? What if I want to actually teach something that will affect students’ whole lives? What if I want to empower them to think for themselves? What if my goals are higher for them than the expectations thrown on me as shackles on an educator’s waist, hands and feet?

 

Because it seems to me that there is a bit of a mixed message here.

 

On the one hand, teachers are given so many directives there’s no room for thought. On the other, teachers can’t do their jobs without it.

 

So what exactly do they want from me?

 

The principal can’t educate classes from his desk in the administrative office. The school board director can’t do it from his seat in council chambers. Lawmakers can’t do it from Washington, DC, or the state capital. Only the teacher can do it from her place in the classroom, itself.

 

You have to see, know and interact with your students to be able to tell what their needs are. No standardized test can tell you that – it requires human interaction, knowledge and – dare I say it – discernment.

 

You need to gauge student interest, background knowledge, life skills, special needs, psychology and motivation. And you need to design a curriculum that will work for these particular students at this particular time and place.

 

That can’t be done at a distance through any top-down directive. It must be accomplished in the moment using skill, empiricism and experience.

 

The fact that so many lawmakers, pundits, and administrators don’t know this, itself, has a devastating impact on the education kids actually receive.

 

Instead of helping teachers do their jobs, policymakers are accomplishing just the opposite. They are standing in the way and stopping us from getting things done.

 

We’re given impossible tasks and then impeded from doing them. At least get out of the way and leave us to it.

 

It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness.

 

So as many of these same bureaucrats complain about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” it is these very same complaints and the efforts taken in their name that result in ineffectiveness.

 

If we trusted teachers to do their jobs, they would be empowered to accomplish more. And I don’t mean blind trust. I don’t mean closing our eyes and letting teachers do whatever they want unimpeded, unadvised and unappraised. I mean letting teachers do the work in the full light of day with observation by trained professionals that know the same pedagogy, history and psychology we do – trained administrators who are or were recently teachers, themselves.

 

That would be both accountable and effective instead of the present situation, which is neither.

 

Moreover, it might incentivize policymakers to realize teachers can’t do everything themselves. Hold us accountable for what we do – not what you’d like us to do but over which we have no control.

 

After all, home life has a greater impact on students than anything that happens in class. And helping students to self-actualize into mature, productive members of society requires we equip them with the ability to work things out independently.

 

However, that does not seem to be the goal.

 

We don’t want free thinking students just as we don’t want free thinking teachers.

 

We don’t want a school system that produces independent thinkers. We want it to simply recreate the status quo. We want the lower classes to stay put. We want social mobility and new ideas to be tightly controlled and kept only within certain boundaries.

 

And that is why our school system keeps teachers so tightly constrained – because we want status quo students.

 

Educators have always been the enemy of standardization, privatization and conformity. We are on the side of liberty, emancipation and release.

 

Which side are you on?

 


 

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

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Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

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The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

Raising them. Measuring growth. Determining what each score means in terms of future instruction, opportunities, class placement, special education services, funding incentives and punishments, and judging the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, buildings and districts.

 

We’ve become so obsessed with these scores – a set of discrete numbers – that we’ve lost sight of what they always were supposed to be about in the first place – learning.

 

In fact, properly understood, that’s the mission of the public school system – to promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Test scores are just supposed to be tools to help us quantify that learning in meaningful ways.

 
Somewhere along the line we’ve misconstrued the tool for the goal. And when you do that, it should come as no surprise that you achieve the goal less successfully.

 

There are two kinds of standardized assessment – aptitude and achievement tests. Both are supposed to measure scholarship and skill – though in different ways.

 

Aptitude tests are designed to predict how well a student will do in the future. Achievement tests are designed to determine how much a student knows now.

 

There is, of course, intense overlap between these two types because aptitude tests base their predictions on assessment of achievements. So they’re basically achievements tests that go one step further. They ask questions designed to give more information than just the present state but also about whether a student has progressed to a state which is most likely to then give way to another state in the future.

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that not all learning is equal.

 

For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how long to stir the risotto.

 

That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.

 

The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.

 

This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.

 

When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.

 

When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.

 

New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.

 

According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.

 

If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.

 

He writes:

 

“As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”

 

Think about what this means.

 

We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.

 

We talk about leaving no child left behind, and making sure all students do better on standardized tests, but these tests are norm-referenced. By definition, all students cannot score well no matter how great their knowledge or skills. If you gave a standardized test to a class of genius-level intellects, there would still be the same percentage of failures and outstanding scores with the majority clustered in the middle. That’s how the tests are designed.

 

And if this highly suspect method of question selection, alone, doesn’t achieve that end, the test companies have a way to correct the scores at the end of the process through the way they grade them.

 

These tests are graded with cut scores. In other words, the state or the testing company or the graders, themselves, decide anew each year which scores are passing and which failing.

 

One year a 1200 might be proficient. Another year it’s basic. It all depends on what the decision makers come up with on a given year.

 

What do they base this on? No one has ever given a definitive answer. In fact, I doubt there is one. In each case, the deciding body just makes it up.

 

We’ve seen countless times when state scores are criticized for being too low one year, and then they miraculously bounce up the next. It’s not that students score differently, it’s that the cut score was raised. Why? Perhaps to stifle questions about the test’s validity. After all, people are less angry when more students pass.

 

The goal is always getting the bell curve. That is what validates the tests. But it’s a human construction, not a function of assessment. It says less about the test takers than the test makers and their enablers.

 

This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests don’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction.

 

We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.

 

That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.

 

It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!

 

It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.

 

According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.

 

This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.

 

So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.

 

As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:

 

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

 

 

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Popham is less critical of high stakes testing. He sees more of a problem in using student test scores to assess teacher performance. But even he thinks the tests and the scores are being over valued and misunderstood in a wider context.

 

He writes:

 

“Merely because these test scores are reported in numbers (sometimes even with decimals!) should not incline anyone to attribute unwarranted precision to them. Standardized achievement test scores should be regarded as rough approximations of a student’s status with respect to the content domain represented by the test.”

 

I’d go even further.

 

Standardized test scores are tools used by big business to make money. That is as far as their validity goes.

 

And the fact that we make so many vital educational decisions on them is nothing less than criminal.

 

The tests are bogus nonsense at best and a conspiracy against the poor and minorities at worst.

 

When well-meaning people let themselves get wrapped up in knots over low scores and what that means for student learning, they are actually hurting the very thing that they value.

 

Student learning is not bettered by higher test scores. It is often made worse by them.

 

High test scores don’t mean greater learning. They often mean learning the knowledge du jour to the detriment of what’s really important. They mean biased education against the poor and minorities.

 

And they make those with real concerns complicit in a sham being perpetrated on our children and our society.

 


 

 

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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