Student Projects are Better Than Tests 

 
 
The class was silent. 


 
Students were hunched over their desks writing on paper, looking in books, consulting planners.  


I stood among them ready to help but surprised at the change that had overcome them.  
 


Maybe 10 minutes before I had heard groans, complaints and the kind of whining you only get from students at the end of the year.  
 


“Do we have to keep doing work!?” 
 


“Can’t we just watch a movie!?” 
 


“Ms. X- isn’t doing anything with her students!” 
 


And then I dropped the bomb on them.  
 


We had less than 3 weeks left in the school year. We had just finished our last text. In 8th grade that was “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. In 7th grade it was “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg.  
 


Now was the time for the infamous final project.  
 


Some kids asked me about it at the beginning of the year having heard about it from a brother or sister who had already graduated from my class. 
 


“Mr. Singer,” they’d say, “Is it true you give a 1,000 point project at the end of the year?” 
 


I’d laugh and ask who told them that, or if that sounded credible.  
 


“Do you really think I’d give a 1,000 point project!?” I’d say in my most incredulous voice, and they’d usually laugh along with me.  
 


But some of them still believed it.  
 


That was nearly 9 months ago. Yet it all came flooding back when I passed out the assignment sheet.  
 
 
 


 
In the world of education there are few truths more self-evident than this
 


Projects are better than tests. 
 


Just think about it for a minute. 
 


On the one hand you have a project – an extended group of related assignments demonstrating learning and culminating in a product of some sort – a paper, a poster, a movie, a presentation or some mix of these. 
 


On the other hand you have a test – a quick snapshot of skills taken out of context.  
 


Which do you think is the better assessment? 
 


Imagine a musician.  
 


You could have her answers questions about notation, rhythm and theory…. Or you could just have her play music.  
 


Which would best demonstrate that she can play? 
 


It’s the same with other subjects.  
 


Take a test on reading – or actually read.  
 


Take a test on writing – or actually write.  
 


Take a test on math – or actually….  
 


You get the picture.  
 


And so did my students.  
 


I place a huge emphasis on writing in my English Language Arts classes. In 8th grade, my students have already written at least a dozen single paragraph and two multi-paragraph essays. So they’re pretty familiar with the format. I try to get them to internalize it so that it’s almost second nature.  
 


So when the final project comes along, it’s really a culmination of everything we’ve done.  
 


In Harper Lee’s book, there is the symbol of the mockingbird: 
 


“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” 
 


We already discussed how several characters in the book could count as mockingbirds – Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, etc.  


 
So I have students write about mockingbirds in all of the texts we’ve read this year. That includes “The Outsiders” by S. E. Hinton, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and several short stories.  


 
In 7th grade, we’re at a slightly different place. 


 
At the end of the year, students have written nearly as many single paragraph essays but no multi-paragraph ones yet. I use the final project to introduce them to the concept and explain how it’s the culmination of what we’ve done before.  


 
Students write about characters that they like from all the stories we’ve read throughout the year. These would be characters from texts as diverse as the one by Konigsburg, “The Giver” by Lois Lowery, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and several short stories.  


 
As projects go, it’s kind of narrow.  
 


In the past, I’ve had students make movies together interviewing various characters from their texts. I’ve had them design posters extolling various aspects of the Civil Rights movement. I’ve had them design graphics explaining the difference between internal and external conflict.  
 


But this is the end of the year – time to keep it simple.  
 


There’s actually a lot of research supporting this kind of assessment. 


Two separate studies were published by Lucas Education Research with Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Southern California (USC), and the University of Michigan. Researchers took either high school students or third graders and put them through a Project Based Learning (PBL) curriculum. 


The high school experiment conducted by MSU and USC involved 6,000 students in science and humanities from 114 schools about half of which were from low-income households. Students who were taught Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics and AP Environmental Science with a PBL approach outperformed their peers on AP exams by 8 percentage points in the first year and were more likely to earn a passing score of 3 or above, giving them a chance to receive college credit. In the second year, the gap widened to 10 percentage points. One key finding of the study, which included large urban school districts, was that the higher scores were seen among both students of color and those from lower-income households. 


The experiment with third-graders produced similar results. Students from a variety of backgrounds in PBL classrooms scored 8 percentage points higher than peers on a state science test. These results held regardless of a student’s reading level. 


 
In some ways, this should be obvious.  


When you put assessment in context it is more accurate. When you divorce it from its academic context (as you do with tests) it’s more abstract and less accurate. 
 


The problem is one of time and ease of execution. 
 


Put simply – tests are easy to give and grade. Projects are difficult.  
 


Even designing a good project can take lots of trial and error. Tests are often prepackaged and easy to design – you just have questions clustered around whatever skills you were hoping students would learn. 
 


It is very difficult for teachers to design entire courses with projects at every step of the way. Some might say it isn’t even desirable since such a course would probably not be able to cover as much material as traditional curriculum and it is generally preferable to use different modes of assessment in a single course. Let’s not forget that some students excel at tests and would suffer academically if the only kind of assessments were project based.  
 


My personal philosophy is one of moderation. Use projects when you can and when appropriate – but not always. And if you’re going to test, a teacher created assessment is orders of magnitude more valuable than a standardized one. 


 
And in terms of projects, the best is at the end. What better way to demonstrate the cumulative learning of a course than through a cumulative project?  


My students seem to agree. 


 
After the initial anxiety of such a hefty project, my kids in both grades settle down pretty quickly and get to work. I think they find the project comfortable because they’ve been exposed to almost every part of it before. This just brings it all together under one project.  
 


It’s the opposite of learned helplessness. Students already know they can do it. All they have to do is step up and get it done. 
 


That’s also why I make the project worth such a huge amount of points.  
 


I already double points for the last grading period. Doing that and having such a hefty final project sends the message to kids that they can’t slack off now. The work they do in the closing days of school will have an outsized impact on their grade. If kids care at all about that – and most still do in middle school – they’ll make the effort.  
 


It also helps fill the last few days and weeks with a focus on process. Nothing has to be memorized. Nothing is beyond anyone’s ability. We’re going to work together – each student and me – to make sure the final project gets done.  
 


Usually they accomplish it with flying colors.  
 


It’s something they often remember and pass on in legend to their younger siblings who bring it up in hushed tones when they enter my classroom for the first time. 


 

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When Our Students Leave Us

Being a teacher is kind of like being a time traveler.  


 
So much of what you do and say changes those around you, and the effects can shoot off into the distant horizon far beyond your line of sight. 
 


I sometimes wonder what happened to certain students, if they continued to become the people they wanted to be or if time and circumstance caught up to them. 
 


As a public school teacher with more than two decades experience, sometimes the years sneak up on me. 


 
Students whom I remember as little children in middle school desks have grown into adults since they left.  


 
Not that I usually get to see their grown-up faces. Often times their lives never intersect with mine again and I never know what become of them.  
 


But occasionally an invitation, a chance encounter or an article in the local news gives a glimpse of who they are or where they end up. 
 


For example, a few months ago I was invited to a ceremony where one of my former students was being awarded the rank of Eagle Scout. He was getting ready to graduate high school now, and in the picture on the invitation he looked about ready to burst out of his scouting uniform – but he had the same smile, the same glimmer of mischief in the eye. 
 


At first, I wasn’t sure if I should attend – if after four years the student – let’s call him Doug – really wanted me to be there. But then he stopped by my classroom after school one day. He must have remembered that I’d still be there grading papers, rewriting lessons, making myself available if needed.  


 
“Are you going to come to the ceremony, Mr. Singer?” he asked in a way that left no doubt how important this was to him.  
 


I remembered Doug in class. He was always such a prankster. He was the first person to crack a joke – even reciting some classic but inappropriate standup routines as if they were his own. I’d shared with him some old Doctor Demento tapes and we’d had a few laughs.  
 


“I asked Mr. Kimble to come, too, but he said he was busy. He’s dead to me now,” he said with a smirk.  
 


It was a joke, but it struck me hard. Did it still matter to me whether I disappointed this child? The answer came back immediately – it still did. 
 


So I ventured out of the house on the weekend dressed as my weekday self. I sat through the speeches and solemn rites. I listened to his speech and finally understood why he wanted me there.  
 


He wanted me to see how far he’d come – that as dedicated to humor and jollity as he was, Doug could be serious as stone when need be. He had led his fellow scouts in refurbishing a local veterans memorial and showed himself to be a real leader. If he wanted the world to laugh, it was only in service of making it a better place.  
 


Several weeks later I found myself in a similar situation with another former student. 


 
Unlike the scenario with Doug, I wasn’t expecting anything. In fact, it took me a few moments to even recognize the boy through the man he had become.  
 


I was at a local movie theater with a section of my school’s Dungeons and Dragons club. I started the extracurricular club and am lead sponsor. During the week, we get together and play the tabletop role playing game. I try to have them both organize the adventures and play through them. Some kids function as Dungeon Masters and others have characters like warriors, wizards, elves, orcs and dragon-borns.  
 


On this weekend, one of our local families had paid for the group to see the “Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” movie. I was herding the kids together in front of the movie poster to take a picture of the event when this full-grown man walks up to me and says, “Hey! Mr. Singer!” 
 


I squinted at him, but he had a huge grin on his face and seemed happy to see me. Then I noticed that one of my club members was at his waist pulling on his sleeve asking for some popcorn.  
 


We shook hands and he introduced himself as Jamal’s big brother. Then he asked if his brother was good in class or bad like he had been.  


 
That’s when it came together. I saw through the adult and to the kid he had been – a kid pretty similar to his brother Jamal. 


 
It must have been 10 years ago. He had been a diminutive boy in a class of kids who had hit puberty a few months before him. He had been shy and often got picked on. He tried hard on his assignments – at least the ones he turned in.  
 


The adult version chatted with me as his brother went to the concessions stand with the money he had given him. Though he lived a few neighborhoods away these days, he tried his best to come back to the district to look out for his brother.  


 
He didn’t go into many details, but it was obvious he had gone through a lot in the intervening years. He had a limp and smelled of musty pine trees. But he was clearly there for Jamal when no one else was.  
 


Before the movie, there was a preview for a documentary about Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani education advocate and winner of the Noble Peace Prize. Several students, including Jamal, turned to me in my corner in the back and chanted her name because we had talked about her in class. 
 


Jamal’s big brother was still smiling, proud that his little brother knew who this brave woman is before the film had explained it. 
 


If you saw him on the street, you might not think him a success story. He seemed an average person just doing what he could to get by. But I knew (at least some) of the journey he had taken to get there. I knew how hard won his peace was. And I recognized that smile still on his face – so rare when he had been in class but now a permanent feature. I think that is success, too. 
 


But the last former student I want to talk about is Marquis.  
 


He was in one of my first classes. I remember him as a gawky middle schooler with string bean arms and legs below a sullen face.  
 


When I started, if there was one student sent to the office that day – it was him. If there was one kid shouting out a swear word or picking a fight, it was Marquis. This was an angry kid who demanded attention – positive, negative, it didn’t matter. 
 


I used to make badly behaved students stay 15 minutes after school for detention. It’s not something I do so much these days but I was a new teacher then – strict and consumed with reciprocal justice. In fact, students had to WORK during my detentions. No sleeping or even doing homework. They had to copy definitions out of the dictionary for the full time. If they slacked off, I added more time. Some days a 15-minute detention could last an hour, because if I reported that they hadn’t satisfied me, the principal would keep them on the weekend or in a longer detention during the week with an administrator. 
 


I remember Marquis whining and complaining as he copied definitions. He’d spend more time whining than working – but eventually he learned.  
 


Eventually he’d come in, sit up straight in his seat and copy those definitions from start to finish like a machine. He did it so well, his scores on my vocabulary quizzes started to improve. But he still ended up getting detentions – at least twice a week.  
 


One day he finished the definitions and I told him he could go. “Can I stay?” he said.  
 


“What?” 
 


“Can I stay and copy definitions a little longer?” 
 


I almost started to cry – right then and there. 
 


So THAT’S why he always got detentions. He wanted somewhere to go after school. He wanted someone to talk to, someplace safe to wait so he could walk home unmolested by the other kids.  


 
He never got detention again because I told him he could stay with me any day he wanted after school for as long as he wanted. And he did. Sometimes we’d talk. Sometimes he’d do work. It didn’t matter, but his behavior in my class improved.  
 


At the end of the year, when he passed English Language Arts – one of very few classes he managed to get a C or better in that year and the first time he had passed ELA in middle school – I told him how proud I was of him. And he smiled the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.  
 


He continued building on that success, too. He went up to the high school and got better and better grades. He kept out of trouble and became one of those kids everyone seems to know and most people seem to like. He was the kind of kid that every teacher had an anecdote about.  
 


I hadn’t thought about him in some time, but then an item appeared in the local news.  
 


Drive-by Shooting Kills Area Man. It was Marquis.  


 
He had just been walking along the street helping some younger kids to the basketball courts. By all accounts he has straightened up his life, got a college degree and was just starting on a career as a social worker in the same community where he grew up.  


 
It was a shock.  
 


I turned to my files and I saw I still had a folder with his name on it – back when I used to collect such things. Inside were a few old write ups, and pages and pages of vocabulary words in his childish handwriting.  
 


We never know what will happen to the kids in our classrooms.  
 


We never know who will be successful, who will be happy, who will live fulfilling lives.  
 


But we try – we try SO HARD – to give our kids everything we can. 
 


Doug had a straight path, and so far he’s walked it without incident.  
 


Jamal’s brother had a lot of bumps on the road, but he’s still walking it.  
 


And poor Marquis. He walked as far as he could. I wish we could have made for him an easier road – and a longer one. 
 


“Count no man happy until the end is known,” wrote the ancient Greek story-teller Herodotus
 


Known as the father of history, he meant that you never know if someone is truly happy until their death, because even a seemingly happy person today could have a tragedy befall them tomorrow taking away everything that made them happy. 
 
 


I think about that sometimes when considering the fate of my former students. 
 


 
After more than two decades in the classroom, it seems to me that the quality of the journey is more important than whether it may all disappear tomorrow. 
 


 
After all, knowing the fate of any of our students wouldn’t really change what we do for them. We’re teachers – will give them our all no matter what.  
 
 


Because that’s the road we’ve chosen to walk
 


 

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!

book-2

Stay Woke, Public School Teachers

“I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

Lead Belly “Scottsboro Boys”

How can you understand a problem if you are not allowed to name it?

How can you fight injustice if you are forbidden from learning its history and connection to the present moment?

These questions are at the heart of a well-financed war against a simple term – woke-ness.


Since the summer of 2020, oligarchs and their tools in the United States have been waging a disinformation campaign against that term – especially as it pertains to our schools.

Chiding, nagging, insinuating – you hear it constantly, usually with a sneer and wagging finger, but what does it really mean?

To hear certain governors, state legislators and TV pundits talk, you’d think it was the worst thing in the world. But it’s not that at all.

In its simplest form, being woke is just being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.

That’s all – just knowing that these things exist and trying to recognize them when present.

I’m not sure what’s so controversial about that. If we all agree racism is bad, why is it undesirable to acknowledge it exists when it’s demonstrably there?

More specifically, being woke means focusing on intersectionality – how issues of race, class and gender overlap and interrelate with each other. It means practicing critical race theory – not the made up dog whistle conservatives use to describe anything they don’t like being taught in school, but the study of how racial bias is inherent in many Western social and legal systems. It means using the lens of Black feminism, queer theory and others to address structural inequality.

Again, why is that a bad thing? If we agree that prejudice is bad, we should want to avoid it in every way possible, and these are the primary tools that enable us to do so.

Our society is not new. We have history to show us how we got here and how these issues have most successfully been addressed in the past.

But these Regressives demand we ignore it all.

Shouldn’t we protect hard-fought advances in human rights? Shouldn’t we continue to strive for social justice and the ability of every citizen to freely participate in our democracy – especially in our public schools?

Of course we should!

But leaders of the backlash will disagree.

Like in so many other areas of our culture, they have stolen the term “woke-ness” and tried to co-opt it into another invented grievance. For people who deride their political opponents as being too fragile and unable to handle reality, they certainly find a million things to cry about on their 24-hour news networks to keep their base angry and engaged all the time.

They have attacked librarians, spied on and harassed teachers, banned books and weaponized the law to forbid certain ideas from our schools and public spheres.


They have targeted and demonized antiracist work. They have tried to discredit the concepts that Black women and LGBTQ people have created to explain and improve the inequitable conditions of their lives.

And the reason is crystal clear – they oppose that work.

They oppose anti-racism. They oppose the rights of Black women and LGBTQ people to better treatment.

They are against everyone but a perceived white, male, heteronormative majority that doesn’t even really exist.

They call their political opponents extremist. They call them groomers. They call them prejudiced and racist.

But it is Regressives’ anti-woke agenda that is really all of those things.

For them, up is down and circles are squares.

As public school teachers, being woke is not a choice. It is a responsibility.

For we are the keepers of history, science and culture.

Who will teach the true history that for more than 400 years in excess of 15 million men, women and children were the victims of the transatlantic slave trade? Who will teach the true history of the fight against human bondage and the struggle for equal rights? Who will teach about women’s fight for suffrage, equal pay, and reproductive freedom? Who will teach about the struggle of the individual to affirm their own gender identity and sexual expression?

We, teachers, must help students understand what happened, what’s happening and why. And to do so we must protect concepts that emerged from decades of struggle against all forms of domination.

It must be us.

It won’t be the College Board, a billion-dollar American business calling itself a non-profit, that after years of stalling finally released its Advanced Placement African American Studies curriculum – a college-level course available for high school students nationwide. In the wake of political backlash, the new course material is as watered-down as weak tea in comparison to previous drafts of the course.

This just goes to show that the free market will never stand up to political power if it is perceived as adversely affecting the bottom line. True education comes not from corporate academic standards or standardized test gatekeepers. It comes from teachers.

And we must teach like never before because our lessons have a pivotal impact on society at large.

Intersectional frames such as those under attack by billionaires posing as populists have been incredibly important in supporting overlooked social problems and addressing today’s human rights failures.

Those of us who know history understand that suppression of knowledge and intellectuals (especially those from marginalized peoples) are a tool used to increase racism and oppression – to overturn the progress of the last century.

Refusing students access to books, criminalizing “divisive concepts,” and discrediting those with whom they disagree have all been tools of domination. Just as denying the persistence of any inequality has been a tool to discredit its victims.

Progress has been made in the last hundred years, but the struggle is not over. And denying that there are any problems left to solve is a way of stifling that progress and turning back the clock against it.

If we give in to these partisan “anti-woke” imperatives, we enable the return of racist and cultural inequalities that had been at least partially rectified years ago. We clear the way for these extremists to bring back a mythical past in which women are meant to be merely subservient to men and where race, gender and sexuality are rigidly defined and limited according to the ruling class.

Teachers, we cannot allow this to happen.

We stand at the gates, the first (and perhaps last) line of defense, because we stand at the schoolhouse doors.

It is a responsibility none of us signed up to take. But here we are.

If we are truly educators, we must teach the truth.

We must put the facts in their proper context.

We must encourage our students to think about what came before and what’s happening now.

We must stay woke.

Or the whole world sleeps.


 

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When Students Cheat, They Only Hurt Themselves 

 
 
Paolo invited me to his desk yesterday.  


 
“Mr. Singer, take a look at this,” he said and handed me a scrap of paper with a few hastily scribbled lines of poetry on it.  


 
“What do you think?” he said and smiled up at me hopefully.  
 


 
I squinted at the page and said slowly, “I think it’s wonderful. The use of assonance in these lines is perfect…” 


 
And his smile matured into a grin, until… 


 
“…if only Edgar Allan Poe hadn’t already written them.” 


 
Cheating is a part of school.  


 
It’s probably always been.  


 
Students copy off of other students, they take quotes from books without giving the author credit, they make crib sheets to consult during the test. 


 
But since technology has pervaded nearly every aspect of our classrooms, cheating has skyrocketed


 
Just ask the students. 


 
According to a survey of 70,000 high school students conducted between 2002 and 2015 across the United States, 95 percent admitted to cheating in one way or another, and 58 percent admitted to plagiarizing papers outright.

According to a 2012 Josephson Institute’s Center for Youth Ethics report, nearly 3/4 of high schoolers said they’d copied a friends’ homework, and more than half said they’d cheated on a test.


It’s hard to blame them. These days there are few things cheaper than information.

Nearly every student – no matter how impoverished – has a smartphone. And even if they don’t, districts supply them with virtually the same features in tablets or laptops. Like never before, students can connect to the Internet anywhere, anytime, and they don’t even have to type in a question – they can simply ask Alexa or Siri.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen children sit in front of shelves stuffed to bursting with dictionaries as they clandestinely whisper into their phones asking how to spell certain words.

Mountains of studies show that technology has made cheating in school easier, increasingly convenient, and more difficult to detect. So much so that many students don’t even consider digital plagiarism to be plagiarism.

Current generations practically were raised on social media and thus have a warped sense of intellectual property. Watching TikTok parody videos, reposting images on Instagram, and repurposing memes on Facebook or Twitter have eroded their sense of what constitutes intellectual property and what counts as original work.

Going back to Paolo, I don’t think he consciously tried to pass off Poe’s poetry as his own. He was trying to complete an assignment using assonance (repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words) in a poem.

He probably asked his district-issued iPad for examples and was directed to a snippet from Poe’s “The Bells.” So he copied it down, changing a word here and there and thought he had created something new.

It wasn’t word-for-word. It was just very close. He didn’t realize that such an exact approximation of an iconic verse would be so obvious.

And it was my understanding – knowing the student, judging his reaction to being caught, and being able to piece together how this act of plagiarism took place – that informed my reaction.

I explained to him that he needed to go further a field – to create his own lines that might be inspired but more distinct from Poe’s. And he did.

This wasn’t the end product; it was a bump in the road.

However, not all cheating is so forgivable.

There are many cases where students know exactly what they’re doing and simply don’t care or feel the risk is worth the reward.

A study from 2021 published in the International Journal for Educational Integrity concluded that students’ emotions and attitudes toward assignments have a lot to do with whether they engage in purposeful cheating.

Students who feel sad, distressed or other negative emotions tend to be more open to plagiarism than those who feel more positive. In fact, one can use student’s negative emotions to predict the chances that they’ll cheat on assignments, according to this research.

The fact that so many aspects of modern day curriculum focus on standardized testing and teaching to the test also factors into the equation.

Students have admitted that drill-and-kill assignments, testing look-a-likes, etc. are seen as worthless and thus they are more prone to cheating on them.

Students will perpetrate fraud even on assignments that they see as valuable, but they are much more likely to do so on standardized curriculum – the kind policymakers and many administrators are increasingly pressuring districts and teachers to include in the classroom.

Educators are under incredible pressure to include the most boring and useless of skills in their lessons – not how to think critically, read thoughtfully or write expressively, but how to take this or that assessment. Then when students rebel by cheating, teachers are admonished to detect it at every corner but not to punish students too severely.

Thus we create an infinite loop of academic dishonesty. And no matter what happens, it’s the teacher’s fault.

The way I look at it, teachers should take steps to stop cheating in the classroom, but without administrative support, they can only go so far. If there aren’t academic consequences for cheating, administrators have tacitly accepted the behavior regardless of what teachers do in the classroom. If there are no consequence – no adequate disincentive – cheating is normalized regardless of the words written in the student handbook.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be grace and understanding, but there need to be consequences, too. Students feel more free to be authentic and original when they are immersed in a school culture where authenticity is valued over fraud.

After all, even in circumstances where teachers have full support, they can’t catch everything. And I think that’s okay.

Who is most harmed when students cheat? It is not a victimless crime. When students engage in such behavior, they aren’t really hurting anyone other than themselves.

Think about it.

You’re a student in school ostensibly here to learn. If you cheat on an assignment (a valuable assignment) you’re just stopping yourself from achieving the intended learning.

You’re limiting your own knowledge, your own skills and abilities. Instead of grasping how to write and read critically, for instance, you get the grade without the learning.


It would be like going to the doctor and presenting fake bloodwork. That’s not going to harm the physician – it’s going to hurt the patient.

It’s the same for accidental and purposeful cheating.

So what can we do about it?

1) Perhaps the most important thing to discourage the unintentional variety is to teach kids what it is – especially with relation to technology.

Districts have to shift from embracing any technology as a given to being technologically literate. EdTech is like the Internet – a sewer. There’s way more garbage in there than treasure. If the district can’t control its own technosphere, it’s best not to have one at all. Be purposeful about the kinds of hardware and software you allow, and actively teach students how to use it.

A 15-minute crash course once every four to eight years is not enough. At minimum computer etiquette and digital proficiency should be an annual semester course, because students who cannot navigate the new media will be forever slaves to it.

However, that’s only half of the solution.

2) The best way to discourage purposeful cheating is to present students with meaningful work.

If kids actually want to learn what you’re teaching, they’ll be less inclined to fake their way through it.

Of course, this can only be truly effective when educators are allowed a voice in their own curriculum, their expertise is valued, and they are free to determine how best to go about their jobs. But let’s be honest – that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

3) Focus on process more than product.

For example, when my students write an essay, I never give them the prompt and then wait to see the results. We do prewriting together that needs to be approved before they can even begin their first drafts. We discuss it every step of the way until they submit it for a grade – and if it still has issues, I simply don’t accept it. I hand it back with suggestions for changes again and again until it meets the agreed upon standard.

That makes cheating much harder to do. It also puts learning – the journey from point A to B – at the forefront rather than coming up with something arbitrary.

4) Finally, relationships are the bedrock of responsibility.

Nothing in my class is high stakes.

If a student messes up today, there’s always tomorrow. All assignments are accepted late up to a point. All tests can be retaken. Everyone gets another chance to succeed.

It’s a huge burden on me, the teacher, but I think it’s worth it to extend a little grace to students. It’s worth it demonstrating that I value them over their work.

In teaching, relationships are everything, and you’re less likely to get purposeful cheating from students who respect you and whom you respect.

I’m not saying this is perfect or that I have all the answers. But in an age where everyone seems worried about academic integrity without any concern for academic freedom, it’s important to put your priorities front and center.

Cheating may never go away entirely, but at least we can be honest about why it happens and who it hurts.


 

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I’ve also 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!

 

Reading for Pleasure – One of The Most Important Lessons in School

“Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.”

― Beverly Cleary

If you ask most middle school children whether they like to read, the answer is usually no.

However, for the last few weeks, my 7th graders have been coming into my class and remarking about the 8th grade books they find left on their desks.

“Oh! The Outsiders! I hear that’s a really good book!”

“When are we going to read this, Mr. Singer?”

“Can I take this home?”

That’s what you get when you pique a student’s interest – even a reluctant reader.

The problem is one of speed and instant gratification.

Today’s children have a multitude competing for their attention.

Video games, social media, TikTok videos – they haven’t the time to sit down with a book.

Doing so seems like something an old person would do or at least something too hard for them to enjoy.

I remember when I was growing up, my father always read Stephen King paperbacks. I still remember the covers of some of those books. The snarling Saint Bernard of “Cujo.” The empty boy’s face of “The Shining.” And “Night Shift” with its creepy bandaged hand slowly coming unraveled to reveal eyes growing under a knuckle…

I wanted nothing more than to read these books and understand what it was that lurked inside the covers.

But today a lot of novels are eBooks. If they have covers, they aren’t visible in the hands of those reading them. They aren’t left on display on a shelf. They’re nearly invisible.

The very idea of books seems like something beyond the reach of many adolescents.

That’s where teachers come in.

We need to dispel these myths, to help our students overcome them.

That means (1) reading books together in class, and (2) allowing kids self-selected reading.

First, we have to actively show kids that reading can be fun.

This means picking the right books to read as a class and trying to make the experience pleasurable.

Luckily there are some classics of young adult literature that rarely disappoint – S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, Lois Lowery’s “The Giver”, Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game”, Louis Sachar’s “Holes”, etc.

If you can catch a child’s imagination and place it in a community of learners, the result is both an individual and a social phenomenon.

Each child has his or her own experience, but it is enhanced by the thoughts and comments of others. Trying to solve the secrets of the society in “The Giver” isn’t just something you do alone – it’s a shared endeavor with your peers. Trying to decide what you’d do in the place of Ponyboy from “The Outsiders” isn’t just an academic thought experiment – it’s a way of expressing your thoughts and values and seeing them reflected, absorbed or enhanced by those around you.

However, this can’t always be done in a group setting. And the teacher can’t be the only person guiding the experience.

You have to give students the respect to make their own choices about what they read, too.

Let them choose books from the library and read them silently in class. There can be a culminating assignment like a book report or a book circle at the end of the month, but it has to be driven by individual curiosity.

This is all easier said than done.

Some years the books I pick for my students are a hit. Some years they aren’t.

Things are especially difficult now as we’re just healing from the Covid-19 pandemic. Students are just starting to get back on track and relearn all the social and academic skills they lost in years of quarantine and uncertainty.

I’m finding “The Giver” to be a harder sell this year than in most previous years. Many students want a more immediate and personal story. But some are entranced by the mystery and way the society deals with budding adolescence.

“The Outsiders”, though, is a raging success. My students don’t want to put it down or stop discussing the story. In fact, their enthusiasm is turning into rumors that have spread from grade-to-grade. However, they also aren’t as interested in racing through it toward the end as students from others years have been.

The biggest challenge is always silent reading.

The very idea of sitting down with a book and quietly reading it is entirely alien to some kids. They look around the room or try to sneak their cell phones out of their pockets – anything but turn their eyes to the pages in front of them.

It comes down to (1) finding a book that will interest the individual, and (2) one that they can easily read.

Unless you’re a librarian, it can be really hard to match students and books. As a classroom teacher I know some books that other students have enjoyed in the past and even have a few handy. For example, “Tears of a Tiger” by Sharon Draper is a story a lot of my more mature readers have gotten into – especially children of color. It tells the story of a boy who is dealing with the death of a friend who was riding in the boy’s car while he was driving drunk.

However, I don’t know the entire spectrum of children’s literature as well as a dedicated middle school librarian would. My school used to have one of those and she was brilliant at accomplishing the goal of suggesting books to students. These days, though, we have one librarian for the middle school and high school. That’s just too much ground to cover for any individual. Moreover, when you don’t dedicate your library to reading or research, you lose an incredible resource. There is far too much time when the library is closed for standardized testing or the librarian is asked to teach a class or proctor a study hall.

When it comes to matching a student to a book with a proper reading level, there are tools like Accelerated Reader which gives each book a level and tests students to find out their ability. However, the last thing we need is more standardized testing and computer software. An actual living, breathing librarian who has the time to know students and the literature is better than any technology in the world.

The point, though, is that no matter the challenges, we, as teachers, have to try.

It isn’t our job to simply teach children HOW to read. We have to encourage them TO read. We have to SHOW them that reading can be one of the most enjoyable pastimes in the world.

It may be out of touch with our modern society, but that is why it is so valuable.

Through books we can access any place – even places that never existed. Through books, we can talk with anyone in the entire history of time – even people who were never born.

And in doing so we gain access to that secret part of our own mind – our imagination – and build it into something strong and vibrant.

Few things are more important.

Creating lifelong readers – not a bad way to spend a teaching career.

“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”

-Malala Yousafzai


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also 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!

No, Public School Teachers are Not Turning Their Students into Communists

Have you heard the latest Republican lie?

There are so many it’s hard to keep track, but here’s the newest one.

Public school teachers are turning their students into communists.

I’m not kidding.

That’s what they’re saying on far right blogs, podcasts and TV shows.

Everyone from Betsy DeVos to Ron DeSantis and the sober fellows of the Heritage Foundation are up in arms.

All because Mr. Singer wore a red sweater vest one day to class.

Not really, but that might have been a better provocation than the reality – which is all in far right pundits’ heads.

So for the GOP, it’s all about fear – what can you scare voters to believe that will shepherd them to support your agenda?

So to start with, Republicans want you to be terrified of public schools.

The reason?

They want you to have to pay to get your kids educated – but public schools give learning away for free to everyone – just for paying taxes.

Right-wingers would much rather make it all a business where the more you pay, the better the education your kids get. There’d be poor quality charter schools for those who can’t afford the entry fee, but the best of everything would be reserved for the kids of the rich and powerful whose parents would use school vouchers to offset some of their tuition at private institutions.

Public schools would undo all that – especially if they were adequately funded.

Can you imagine a country where EVERYONE was fully educated!?

People might become informed voters and demand freedom and justice for all!

Lawmakers might have to create real policies, a platform, solutions – to actually govern!

So GOP operatives spread hysterical lies about public schools. They call them “government schools” as if that meant some imposed bureaucracy of outsiders and not what it actually does – schools governed by elected members of the community.

The lies and innuendo are never ending. Public school educators teach fake history where the civil rights movement was a good thing. They refuse to instill the truth of Creationism over fake Evolution. Teachers are pedophile groomers – never mind the actual Republican lawmakers charged with pedophilia and rape. And on and on and on.

Which brings us to the latest one – the new red scare that public school teachers are raising the next generation to hate Adam Smith and love Karl Marx.

The whole idea seems to have started with DeVos, the billionaire heiress and former Secretary of Education under President Donald Trump.

Robert Bluey, vice president of publishing for the Heritage Foundation, asked her a question on The Daily Signal Podcast (a Heritage Foundation mouthpiece) about the growing popularity of socialism among young people.

And it’s true, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, Americans aged 18 to 29 are almost as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%).

So on behalf of the right-wing think tank behind the critical race theory brouhaha, transphobic legislation, climate change denial and a host of other regressive causes, Bluey asked DeVos why young people aren’t as firmly championing capitalism as previous generations.

DeVos, of course, blamed teachers. She responded:

“I recall visiting a classroom not too long ago where one of the teachers was wearing a shirt that said “Find Your Truth,” suggesting that, of course, truth is a very fungible and mutable thing instead of focusing on the fact that there is objective truth and part of learning is actually pursuing that truth.”

This is a rather strange answer. It may be the case that there are absolute truths in the world, but economic theories certainly don’t qualify. In matters of opinion, isn’t it better to tell students the facts and let them think for themselves about their relative virtues?

Not for DeVos. Indoctrination apparently is just fine so long as you’re indoctrinating kids into the right things.

Tell them capitalism is great. Tell them socialism is terrible. Screw critical thinking.

The Heritage Foundation, at least, liked her answer, using it as a template to fund a plethora of stories about public schools – not just leaving the matter up to students to decide – but actually bullying kids into championing communism.

Douglas Blair, a Daily Signal producer, codified the idea in his article “I’m a Former Teacher. Here’s How Your Children Are Getting Indoctrinated in Leftist Ideology.”

In the text of article, Blair admits he was only “in education” for 4 years, but it seems he was not a full-time classroom teacher for most of that time. According to his Linked-In account, he was a French teacher for 9 months in a school in Portland, Oregon. Before that he was an Extracurricular Aide, an English Language Assistant and Language Immersion Counselor at various schools in the US and France.

His evidence of indoctrination reads like “Kids Say the Darndest Things – Republican Edition.”

For example, he says he asked an elementary school girl if she liked Winston Churchill, and she frowned calling Churchill racist.

I’m not sure why that’s so upsetting. Churchill led Great Britain through WWII, but he undeniably WAS a racist, too. Churchill said that he hated people with “slit eyes and pig tails.” To him, people from India were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” He admitted that he “did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.”

So Blair’s examples of indoctrination come out to complaining that kids learned accurate history.

If only the GOP could use history and education to change minds instead of decrying them.

Florida Gov. DeSantis is giving it a try. In 2022, he signed a law requiring schools in the sunshine state to actively teach about the horrors of communism.

That’s right. Whether teachers need to or not, they have to spend at least 45 minutes on it every November.

“We want to make sure that every year folks in Florida, but particularly our students, will learn about the evils of communism. The dictators that have led communist regimes and the hundreds of millions of individuals who suffered and continue to suffer under the weight of this discredited ideology,” DeSantis said, adding that “a lot of young people don’t really know that much” about the political ideology.

At first blush, this may sound like a good idea. More historical knowledge is a good thing, but it’s the context that makes this troubling.

Florida Republicans already have passed a battalion of laws telling educators what they CANNOT teach.

So you can’t teach about racial issues including the history of slavery if it makes any student “feel uncomfortable.” Math books are censored from depicting “prohibited topics.” You can’t talk about a wide range of human sexuality including LGBTQ people because of the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

But you’d better teach about how bad communism is! Or else!

First, this is the very definition of a GOVERNMENT SCHOOL the legislature dictating what teachers teach on a given day and not trusting them to do their own jobs.

Second, why single out communism? Certainly it has lead to horrors and misery, but so has capitalism. Are we to teach about the terrors of rampant greed, sweatshops, wars for oil, runaway inequality? After all, students in impoverished neighborhoods going to underfunded schools are actual victims of free enterprise, not collectivism. The free hand of the market is soaked in blood, too.

Third, there’s the subtext. This sounds to me like an invitation to conflate communism with socialism (which are two different ideas with different histories) and to champion one ideology over another.

Finally, let’s not forget this all comes from state law. It’s politics, not pedagogy, and in politics it’s only indoctrination when someone else does it.

So are public school teachers really molding their students into young Bolsheviks?

I seriously doubt it.

Economic theory rarely comes up in math, reading or science. Maybe it comes up occasionally in social studies.

In my middle school language arts classes, we discuss all kinds of things that come out of the books we’re reading.

Sometimes economic inequality comes out of S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” When we read Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” the concept of distribution of resources is broached.

In each case, I encourage my students to think about the problems from the stories, the solutions offered in the narratives and to discuss the matter with classmates. We hold Socratic Seminars and write critical essays. For “The Giver,” students work in groups to create their own utopias – you’d be surprised how many are socialist, though there are also a number of capitalist republics, dictatorships and anarchies. Kids love anarchy.

And I admit it – I encourage my students to think for themselves. I try not to give them my answers – my truths.

Facts are facts and opinions are opinions.

I would be a bad teacher if I forced my conclusions on my students.

So why ARE young people increasingly more critical of capitalism these days and more friendly toward socialism?

I’d say it’s because of the income inequality they see in the world around them.

Despite Republican’s claims, capitalism is not a perfect system. To be fair, no system is. But criticizing capitalism is not a bad thing, and finding value in aspects of socialism is no crime.

To achieve a better world, we have to do more than simply recreate the one in which we live.

That’s why education is so important. It is one of the chief engines of change, and nothing can truly stop that.

If Republicans think they can, they’re in for a shock.

Perhaps they should have paid more attention in school.

Or exposed their opinions to more rigorous critical thinking…

Nah!

I wonder what lie about public school they’ll try next.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

Top 11 Education Articles of 2022 Hidden by Facebook, Buried by Twitter, and Written by a Gadfly

If you’ve stumbled across this article on social media, congratulations!

You’re one of the few people allowed to read it!

This blog, Gadfly on the Wall, used to be read by at least half a million people each year. Now it’s seen by barely 100,000.

The reason? Poor writing? Flagging interest in the subject?

I don’t think so.

Education is still as important today as it was in 2014 when I started this venture. And as to my writing ability, it’s no worse now than it was 8 years ago.

The difference it seems to me is the rise of social media censorship – not in the name of fact checking or peer review. After all, I’m a nationally board certified classroom teacher with a masters in education writing about the field where I’ve been employed for two decades.

However, the tech bros who gate keep what could have been the free exchange of information on the Internet insist they get paid for access.

You want your voice to be heard? You’ve got to pay like any other advertiser – even if your product is simply your opinion backed by facts.

So this year, my blog had the fewest hits since I started – 124,984 in 2022. By comparison, last year I had 222,414.

I’d write an article, post it on social media and see it reposted again and again. You’d think that would mean it was popular, but no. The people who saw it liked it enough to suggest it to others, but it went little further. With each share, fewer people saw it. Like someone put up a wall in front of it.

In truth, I’m lucky as many people had the opportunity to read my work as did.

The question is where do I go from here?

Should I continue, knowing only a select few will get to hear me? Should I try paying the billionaire tech bros to let more readers in?

My work isn’t a product and no one is paying me to do it.

Oh well…

In any case, here’s a look back at my most popular articles from the year that was and one honorable mention:

HONORABLE MENTION

11) WPIAL is Wrong! Racist Taunts at a Football Game are NOT a Matter of Both Sides

Published: Feb. 4

Views: 301

Description: My school’s football team is mostly black. They played a mostly white football team and were greeted by racial slurs and an allegedly intentional injury to one of our players. However, the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) blamed both sides for the incident.

Fun Fact: It’s one of those decidedly local stories that community newspapers used to cover before almost all went bankrupt or were sold to the media giants. Having this platform allowed me to call out an injustice when most voices were silenced. The injured player’s mother thanked me for doing so. Stories like this keep me going.

10) Federal or State Legislature May Raise Teacher Salaries so Schools Have Enough Staff to Reopen

Published: June 8

 Views: 1,468

 Description: At the beginning of the summer, governments were so shaken by the exodus of teachers from the classroom that they were discussing raising our salaries or giving us bonuses. Parents were so adamantly against distance learning they demanding in-person classes with real, live human teachers. What a shock to the super elite education “experts” who had been pushing ways to eliminate teachers for decades and ignoring our consistent march out of the field under these conditions.

 Fun Fact: The federal government is still discussing pay raises with a bill to increase the minimum salary nationwide. Will this lead to any action? Who knows? It’s actually surprising that legislators even recognize the issue exists.

9) Why Even the Best Charter Schools are Fundamentally Inequitable

Published: Sept. 17

 Views: 1,514

 Description: Charter schools are inequitable because they have charters. These are special agreements that they don’t have to follow all the rules other authentic public schools funded by tax dollars must follow. That’s unfair and it applies to EVERY charter school because every one has a charter. Hence, the name.


 Fun Fact: Criticism of charter schools in general usually degrades to defense of individual charter schools avoiding whatever general criticism is leveled against the industry. The argument in this article has the benefit of avoiding any such evasion. All charter schools are guilty of this (and many are guilty of much more). All of them.

8) Every Teacher Knows

Published: March 17

 Views: 1,675

 Description: Just a list of many things classroom teachers know about schools and education but that the general public often ignores. These are the kinds of things missing from the education debate because we rarely include teachers in the discussion about the field where they are the experts.


 Fun Fact: For a few hours people were talking about this article far and wide. And then – boom – it got shut down with a bang. This one was so universal it should have been popular for weeks. But it just disappeared.

7) With the Death of Queen Elizabeth II, the US Should End Its Biggest Colonial Enterprise – Charter Schools

Published: Sept. 10

 Views: 1,817

 Description: Charter schools are colonial enterprises. They loot and pillage the local tax base but without having to be governed by school boards made up of community members – otherwise known as local taxpayers. They can be run by appointed boards often made up of people who do not come from the community in question. They are outsiders come merely for personal profit. These invaders are quite literally taking local, community resources and liquidating them for their own use – the maximization of personal profit. The public is removed from the decision-making process about how its own resources are utilized and/or spent.

 Fun Fact: It’s an argument from consistency. If we’re against the colonial enterprise, we must be against charter schools, too. I’m particularly proud of the graphic (above) I created to go with this article.

6) Holtzman Resigns as MASD Superintendent After Questions Over Contract Shenanigans

Published: May 26

 Views: 1,933

 Description: Dr. Mark Holtzman, the Superintendent from the district where I live, left under strange circumstances. He resigned and took a new contract in a matter of hours so he could get a raise from a lame duck school board without having to wait for the people the community elected to decide the matter to take office first. Then when it all came to light, he left the district for greener pastures.


 Fun Fact: More than any other news source, I documented what happened in detail. Without a series of articles I wrote on this, most people would have had very little idea what happened. It would have just been rumors. This is why we need local journalism. It shouldn’t be left to bloggers like me.

5) Silencing School Whistleblowers Through Social Media 

Published: Feb. 12

 Views: 2,065

 Description: This was social media’s latest crackdown on edu-bloggers and other truth tellers. I used to get 1,000 readers a week. Now I’m lucky to get a few hundred. There’s a strict algorithm that determines what people get to see on their Facebook pages. And if it says you’re invisible, then POOF! You’re gone and the people who would most enjoy your writing and want to pass it on don’t get the chance. It’s undemocratic in the extreme but totally legal because Facebook is a for-profit company, not a public service. Money wins over free exchange of ideas. 

 Fun Fact: There used to be so many other education bloggers like me out there. Now there are just a handful. This is why.

4) If Standardized Tests Were Going to Succeed, They Would Have Done So By Now

Published: April 7

 Views: 2,478

 Description: Standardized tests were supposed to improve our public schools. They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources. They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students. But after more than four decades, these assessments have not fulfilled a single one of these promises. In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.  

 Fun Fact: Pundits still talk about standardized testing as if it were innovative. It’s not. It’s the status quo. Time to end this failed experiment.

3) Top 5 Charter School Myths Debunked 

Published: April 15

 Views: 3,604

 Description: Let’s examine some charter school propaganda – one piece at a time – and see if there’s any truth to these marketing claims. Charter schools are actually not public schools in the same way as other taxpayer funded schools. They do not save money – they waste it. Their students do not outperform authentic public school students. They are not innovative – they are regressive. They do not protect children’s civil rights – they violate them.


 Fun Fact: I designed the title and picture to trick readers into thinking this was a pro-charter school article. So many people were butt hurt when they read it! I just hope it helped clarify the matter to those who were undecided.

2) The MAP Test – Selling Schools Unnecessary Junk at Student Expense

Published: Aug 27

 Views: 3,937

 Description: The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon. Some states require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in my home state of Pennsylvania, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it. What a waste! Why do we need a test BEFORE the test? The assessment’s job is to show how our students are doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker. How does that help? I don’t teach average test takers. I teach human beings. Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.

 Fun Fact: I think this article was as popular as it was because people could relate. So many teachers told me how relieved they were to hear someone else expressing all the frustrations they were experiencing in their own districts with the MAP and other tests like it. If administrators and school boards would just listen to teachers! If they’d even bother asking them!

1) Posting Learning Objectives in the Classroom is Still a Dumb Idea

Published: Nov. 25

 Views: 7,285

 Description: When it comes to dumb ideas that just won’t go away, there is a special place in the underworld for the demand that teachers post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom. It presupposes that teachers control everything their students learn in the classroom and can offer it to them on a silver platter. It’s not just a useless waste of time but a dangerous misunderstanding of what actually happens in the learning process.


 Fun Fact: This isn’t exactly news, but teachers were relieved to hear their truth finally given voice. So many of us still have to abide by this nonsense when we could be doing something that actually makes a difference. It’s nice to have your sanity and frustration confirmed. If only administrators could admit they were wrong and stop demanding this crap!


Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups

This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look. Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:

 

2021:

Gadfly’s Most Outrageous Articles in 2021 That You May Have Missed or Been Too Polite to Share

Gadfly’s Top 10 Articles of 2021 – Shouts in the Dark

2020:

The Most Important Education Articles (By Me) That You Probably Missed in 2020

Outrunning the Pandemic – Racing Through Gadfly’s Top 10 Stories of 2020

 

2019:

Sixteen Gadfly Articles That Made Betsy DeVos Itch in 2019


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2018:

A Gadfly’s Dozen: Top 13 Education Articles of 2018 (By Me)

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2017:

 

What’s the Buzz? A Crown of Gadflies! Top 10 Articles (by Me) in 2017

 

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Hidden Gadfly – Top 5 Stories (By Me) You May Have Missed in 2017

 

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2016

Worse Than Fake News – Ignored News. Top 5 Education Stories You May Have Missed in 2016

 

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Goodbye, 2016, and Good Riddance – Top 10 Blog Post by Me From a Crappy Year

 

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2015

 

Gadfly’s Choice – Top 5 Blogs (By Me) You May Have Missed from 2015

 

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Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

 

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2014

 

 

Off the Beaten Gadfly – the Best Education Blog Pieces You Never Read in 2014

 

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Top 10 Education Blog Posts (By Me) You Should Be Reading Right Now!

 

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Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!

 

Who is Education For?

Everyday we send our children to school.

Why?

In whose interest are we sending our kids to school?

Is it for businesses so that they’ll have the kinds of workers they need?

Is it so that our students’ educations will align with the demands of industry?

Or is it for the children? So they’ll become mature, intelligent adults capable of independent thought and making rational decisions?

Who, after all, is this education for?

I mean our society has jobs that need doing and people need to do those jobs or we won’t survive – but is that really the overriding, predominant impetus behind school? Survival?

Are we primarily helping the economy by subjecting our kids to the classroom? Or are we doing something to benefit THEM?

Is there a value in being educated? A value to the person who has become educated?

Does it provide any advantage to a person to know things? To be able to think about things? To be able to express oneself in writing? To be able to make calculations? To use logic and reason? To know history? To be able to read and comprehend what one’s read? To form an educated opinion on what one’s read? To know and practice the scientific method? To express one’s creativity? To do any of a hundred other things kids learn in school?

Or are we just filling the factories with button pushers to keep smoke spilling out of the chimneys?

It’s more than two decades past the millennium, and I can’t believe I still have to ask such questions.

But I do. Because nearly every day some policymaker, pundit, billionaire or other over-privileged talking head feels free to answer these questions wrong.

Five minutes alone in the dark and the answers are inescapable. But these guys (and it’s usually men) don’t have that kind of time or integrity.

It could be the CEO of the world’s largest petroleum company. Or the President of the United States. Or the Secretary of Education.

In what they say, what they do, what they promise, what they ponder in earshot of the press, they show a persistent ignorance of what education is and who it is for.

They think it’s something that can be adequately measured by standardized tests. Something that can be improved by competition. Something that is supposed to earn them money.

So they get the answer wrong. Every time.

I’m tired of telling them the truth. I’m tired of correcting them. Because they don’t care to be corrected. They have a fixed conception of the world, and understanding the truth about education might make that all come tumbling down.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates is purported to have said that 2,400 years ago.

It’s not exactly news.

What’s the purpose of life if you don’t think about things?

But no matter how much money they have, the plutocrats can’t afford to think about things. And they certainly can’t afford for YOU or your children to think about things.

What would happen if we all went around examining our lives? Would we still submit to being cogs in an economy designed to benefit them and not us?

Would we still show up everyday to jobs we hate for salaries incapable of paying the bills?

Would we still shop constantly to fill the aching void in our hearts, not thinking but just re-enacting the American mantra of consume, Consume, CONSUME!?

Would we still worship the rich like gods regardless of the reality – their immature actions, their crude posturing, their obvious amoral banality?

Would we still pretend that skin color determines character, that nationality determines morality, that sex determines temperament, that biology determines gender, that rationality determines politics?

Would we still vote for one of two prepackaged, preconceived, preprocessed options neither of which will actually do what we know needs done but one of which will hurt us and the other of which will hurt others more or not hurt us worse than we already are?

The answers are obvious. We all know. You don’t need me to tell you.

Just like the purpose of education.

It is the most dangerous thing in the world to the status quo.

Education, learning, thought is a cocoon. And no one knows what will come crawling out after the metamorphosis.

No one controls education. Not even the educator.

So how can we let anyone truly be educated? They might end up different – different from their parents, different from their congregations, their friends, neighbors, society.

Who is education for?

For whom would we risk all this?

Who is worth such danger, such terror, such uncertainty?

You know who.


 

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Posting Learning Objectives in the Classroom is Still a Dumb Idea

One of the worst problems in education is that we never let bad ideas die.

There’s always some know-nothing hack from another field who pokes his nose into the profession and makes pronouncements like he’s an expert.

And since he’s so successful at X (usually something in technology or business) we take these pronouncements like they’re holy writ.

This is why we never get rid of standardized testing, charter schools, evaluating teachers on student test scores, and a hundred other practices that have demonstrably failed over-and-over again.

However, perhaps the most annoying of these zombie practices is the demand for teachers to post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom.

This is beyond stupid and a waste of time.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying teachers should go into the classroom with no idea of what they hope their students will learn everyday.

But the idea that we have so much control over our students that we can tell them with pinpoint accuracy exactly what knowledge and/or skills will be implanted in their skulls on any given day is so reductively stupid as to be laughable.

Anyone who still thinks teachers can post A on the wall and A is what will be accomplished has no business in the teaching profession.

Because, Brother, you don’t understand how teaching works!

So let’s begin with the reasons why this idea is still attractive.

First, we want to let students know what they’ll be experiencing in class on a day-by-day basis.

It’s a reasonable request to a degree. How many times have students walked into the classroom and the first thing that comes out of their mouths are, “What are we doing today?”

However, experienced classroom teachers know that this isn’t the real question. Most of the time when a student asks this they aren’t interested in what we are doing. They’re interested in what we AREN’T doing.

They want to know if we’re writing an essay, or if we’re reading a text or something that they specifically don’t feel like doing that day.

I hear this question most often in my last period classes because the students are exhausted from a full day of academics. They want to know if I’m going to tire them further or if there might be a chance at a breather here and there.

The second reason this practice is attractive is for principals.

Today’s principal is a frightening thing. After decades of educational malpractice at colleges and universities in creating new school administrators, principals no longer understand what their job truly is.

They think it’s to be a toady to the Superintendent or higher level administrators. They think they have to demonstrate their performance to their bosses with whatever data is available at every turn. (This is also what they expect teachers to do for them.)

This is why they tend to turn everything into something less important but quantifiable.

So demanding teachers to post learning objectives in their classrooms every day is something concrete and tangible that can be checked on and checked off on a clipboard. They can say to their bosses, “Look at what a good principal I am! My teachers post their learning objectives everyday!”

When I think of how principals used to manage their buildings and create an environment conducive for learning – for teachers to best impact their students – it makes me want to cry.

I miss real principals.

In any case, we can see why this demand is attractive.

However, it’s also really, really dumb.


Here’s why.

First, you have to understand how teaching works.

It’s not behavioralism. It’s not the 1920s anymore.

Students will be able to… WRONG! Students will have the OPPORTUNITY to, they will be ENCOURAGED to, their ENVIRONMENT will be altered to make it most conducive to…

You can’t rob them of agency. And if you think you can, you’re a fool.

No teacher – no matter how skilled or experienced – acts on her students like Gandalf or Dumbledore. Teaching is not magic and students are not passive objects.

You can’t say “Learn how to use nouns!” And WOOSH students can distinguish nouns from pronouns with pinpoint accuracy. You can’t put hands on a student’s head and say “Reading Comprehension!” And suddenly they pick up a book and start reading Shakespeare with absolute fidelity.

Yes, you can post these things on the wall. But what good does it do?

Students may see it and think to themselves, “So that’s what the teacher is trying to get me to know!” But how does that help?

When I took piano lessons, my teacher never told me the lesson was on the chromatic scale. She just gave me a few pieces to practice and helped me over the parts where I was stumbling.

Moreover, even if she had told me that, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Because I didn’t know what the chromatic scale was!

So much of education is skill based. We learn HOW to do something. We don’t spend much time on WHAT it is or any theories of how it all comes together. And even if we did, that would come at the end, not the beginning.

This is one of the major reasons why I resent the very notion of posting my learning objectives in the classroom. It ruins the surprise!

Teaching is an art at least as much as it is a science. We aren’t programing our kids like you would a computer.

When I teach my students how to write a single paragraph essay, for example, I have them write three drafts – a prewriting, a first draft (heavily scaffolded with a planner) and a final copy.

They often complain that this is a lot of writing and want to know why I’m making them do all this when they feel they could probably skip one or two steps and still come to almost as good of a final project.

I ask them to trust me. I tell them this is the best way, and that they’ll understand later. And since I’ve spent so much time creating a relationship of give-and-take, of trust, they often just get on with the work.

What I’m really doing with all these drafts is getting the format of the single paragraph essay embedded in their minds. They’re memorizing it without even knowing it.

Moreover, writing multiple drafts is good practice when you get to more complicated and longer essays. It forces you to re-evaluate what you wrote previously and it encourages you to improve it before you are finished.

Finally, it instills a process into your mind. You start to feel like this is the right way to do something and you resist taking the easier road because the way you were taught has lead to success in the past (and it will probably serve you well in the future as things get more complex).

Do you really think I should stop and explain all that to my students before we begin? Do you think it would help?

Absolutely not! Children (like tech entrepreneurs and business tycoons) often think they know everything when they really know nothing. If you explain everything to them at the beginning, they can get contrary and refuse to do all you ask to demonstrate they know better. This often leads to dead ends and reteaching – if possible.

These are things teachers like me have learned after decades in the classroom. So when a new administrator starts spouting the shallow dictums they were taught in a corporate dominated college course, it’s beyond frustrating.

Education is the one field where experience is considered a detriment. Classroom teachers are all fools. We must control educators top down with administrators full of ideology and little to no actual practical knowledge.

Teachers have far too much to do already without kowtowing to a worthless mandate to post their learning objectives in the classroom.

That, along with writing formal lesson plans, endless faculty meetings and thrown together professional development, compound to make a teacher’s workload unmanageable.

With so many experienced teachers running for the door these days, wouldn’t it be better to stop and listen to them once in a while?

Maybe it might help encourage some of them to stay in the profession?

Maybe that might actually help student learning?

Huh? Maybe?


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I’ve also 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!

 

Standardized Test Scores are Incompatible with Your School’s Equity Plan  

 
 
The primary goal of public education is to teach all children fairly.  


 
But since its inception, the system has never been set up to actually accomplish this.  


 
So these days you hear a lot of talk about fixing the problem – of how we can ensure students of color and other historically underserved children get the same high-quality education racially and economically privileged kids always have received.


 
This almost always concludes with two types of plan.  


 
First, there is the serious venture made up of things like increasing spending to meet student need, wraparound services, early intervention, reducing class size, redistributive justice and cultural competence – a plan that looks the reality in the face and makes bold attempts to come to terms with it. 


 
Then there is the cheap knockoff proposition – a buzzword-laden scheme where someone is trying to convince you their half hearted proposal is actually a solution to the very real problem of educational inequality. 


 
 
And the number one thing you can use to tell the difference between the two is this – standardized test scores


 
 
The first plan that is centered around actually fixing disparities makes no mention of test scores – or at least relegates them to obstacles. The second is built all around them – as an essential component of the overall scheme. 


 
 
This is because the second feel-good-accomplish-nothing plan is essentially performative.  


 
 
Therefore, it is constructed around standardized test scores as a metric of success.  


 
Planners think: We’re going to do A, B and C to make our schools more equitable. And how will we know we’re doing it right? We’ll use our standardized test scores! 


 
That’s not accuracy. It’s ostentation. These scores don’t demonstrate anything at all about equity. True, they purport to show readily apparent increases or decreases in academics.  


 
However, even this is an illusion.  


 
A rise or fall in test scores is not, in fact, based on authentic academic success but merely success at taking standardized tests designed for very different purposes.  


 
And anyone who understands the history of these types of assessments and how they still work will know that this mirage is built at the cost of genuine equity.  


 
In fact, the inequalities plaguing our public school system are due in large part to our national insistence that standardized test scores be the ultimate measure of success.  


 
So constructing your plan to fix this problem around one of its root causes is like claiming you can fix a sinking ship by drilling more holes in its hull.  


 
At best, it’s naive. At worst, it’s self-defeating and disingenuous.  


 
 
The problem centers around the difference between standardized tests and assessments created by classroom teachers. 


 
 
Both types of assessment are supposed to measure what students have learned. But 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 to make foie gras – something that would only come in handy at a high end French restaurant.


   
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.  


 
This is important when it comes to equity.  


 
 
If we are guided in large part by standardized test scores, we aren’t guided by authentic learning. We’re guided by a false picture of learning. Therefore, the most effective way – perhaps the only practical way – of raising test scores is to teach directly to a specific test. And not only the test, but the specific version of the test being given that year.

So if we do somehow manage to raise test scores, we haven’t improved academics at all but a mere semblance of it. And thus the equity we might celebrate in such a situation would be just as false. 


 
You got a good score on the MAP test. Hurrah! But that doesn’t mean you know anything of real value except how to take this particular MAP test which, itself, will change after the next round of questions are field tested.


 
 
 
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 educate in just this manner – to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests doesn’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction. 

And if we insist on evaluating the equity of our schools on these test scores, we will only make things that much worse. 


   
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. 


 
And let’s not forget where these tests come from


 
They were created in the 1910s and 20s by eugenicists to prove the supremacy of white Europeans over other racial and ethnic groups.  


 
While these original tests are no longer in circulation, the assumptions behind them are an essential part of our modern day standardized tests. 
 


The very method of question selection in today’s tests 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 or ethnic 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.”  


 
This is incompatible with any enterprise aimed at increasing equity.  


 
You are engaged in a never-ending cycle of teaching to the test at the expense of authentic learning. You’re engaged in making minorities think like their privileged peers – of overcoming who they are just to be accepted into a game.

 
 
This is not education. It is assimilation, and it will always put the assimilated at a disadvantage to the majority – those they are being forced to imitate.  


 
Equity and standardized testing do not go together.  


 
 
They CANNOT go together. They are anathema.  


 
Those who suggest otherwise are either well-meaning fools or duplicitous malefactors.  


 
There is a multi-billion dollar standardized testing industry dependent on keeping us testing our kids.  


 
But we can no longer continue feeding that beast and pretending that we can somehow provide equity to our underserved children, too.  


 
We have to choose – equity or testing.  Fairness or unrestrained capitalism.


 
Do not believe anyone who tells you to support a plan built on both. 

It does not exist.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also 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!