The Last Day of School

thumbnail_IMG_8831

On the last day of school this year, my 8th grade students gave me one of the greatest salutes a teacher can get.

 

They reenacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poets Society.”

 

You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization.

 

That’s what my students did for me. And I almost didn’t even notice it at first.

 

The whole thing went down like this.

 
The bell rang and an announcement was made telling us that the day was done.

 
I was immediately rushed by a crowd of children turning in final projects, shaking my hand, saying goodbye.

 
In fact, I was so occupied with the students right in front of me that I didn’t notice what was happening with the ones just behind them.

 
I heard someone say in a ringing voice, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

 
I looked up and there they were.

 
About a dozen students were standing on their desks, looking down at me with big goofy grins.

 

Some had their hands on their hearts. One had raised his fist in the air. I think someone in the back was even making jazz hands. But they were each standing up there with the same look on their faces – a mixture of independence, humor and gratitude.

 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this happened. Some of them had threatened months ago to make just such a demonstration.

 
We had watched the movie together back in April at the introduction of our poetry unit. I guess it was my way of trying to show them that poetry could make a deep impact on people. But I certainly hadn’t wanted them to put themselves at risk by standing on the furniture.

 

In fact, I had specifically cautioned them NOT to do this exact thing because someone might fall off their desk and hurt themselves.

 

But on the last day of school after the last bell has rung and my tenure as their teacher has expired – well, things are different then.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That is really one of the nicest things students have ever done for me.”

 

Then I took out my phone and asked if I could snap a few pictures, because who’d ever believe me if I didn’t? They didn’t mind.

 

thumbnail_IMG_8835thumbnail_IMG_8830thumbnail_IMG_8832

 

When I was done, they hopped down one at a time, many of them rushing forward to give me a hug.

 

This class will always be a special one in my heart.

 

We’ve come a long way together.

 

For most of them, I was their language arts teacher for two years. When they first came in the classroom they were just babies. Now they are going off to high school.

 

Unless you’re a parent, you wouldn’t believe how much kids can grow and change in just a few short years. And the middle school years are some of the most extreme. The line between child and adult fades into nothingness.

 

I’ve had a handful of children who were enrolled in my classes for multiple years before, but I’d never had so many. In some ways, we were more like a family than a classroom.

 

I had been there when parents got sick, left, died. I knew them all so well – who would ask questions just to stall, who never got enough sleep and why (often Fortnite), which ones had athletic aspirations, which were incredible artists, etc. Some had come out of the closet to me and their classmates but not at home.

 

Many of us went on a school field trip to Washington, DC, together. We’d toured the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. When I was invited to do a TED talk, they tracked it down on YouTube. They even found my Twitter account and made merciless fun of my profile picture. And when I actually had my book published on education issues last year, a bunch of my kids even came out to hear me talk about it at local book stores.

 

It’s hard to explain the depth of the relationship.

 

At the end of the year, I always give my students a survey to gauge how they think I did as their teacher. It’s not graded, and they can even turn it in anonymously.

 

The results are almost always positive, but this year, I got responses like never before:

 

“I love you, Mr. Singer. Thanks for a great 2 years. I will terribly miss you.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8849

“I’ve never been bored here. You are the first teacher that made me want to go to their class and has been one of my favorites.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8847

“He stayed cool as a cucumber and was never angry… Basically the greatest teacher I’ve had all year.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8846

 He was “fair to all students.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8845

“He was more inclusive to many different groups.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8844

“He made sure I didn’t fool around. He let me hand in my work late. He was always very kind and he cares about us. He shows us that he cares about how we feel. He made sure everything was fair.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8843

“He breaks things down A LOT better than other teachers. He’s a very nice person. I like the way he teaches.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8842

 

“Mr. Singer did well to motivate us and help us to succeed and get a better grade.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8841

 

“He explained things better than other teachers.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8840

“He helped me mentally and physically to be ready for the PSSAs. Also he gave us good books to read and not bad ones such as “The Outsiders,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also you taught me a lot these past 2 years to be ready for high school.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8839

 

“To be absolutely honest, I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He actually has done more than the rest of my teachers.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8838

 

“Well he encouraged me to succeed more in his class and in life as well. He also taught me that the meaning of life is not how you take it but where you go with it. I’m thankful that he taught me more than the history my actual history teacher taught me. He also told me the truth of our history. He talked about the parts no one else would talk about.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8837

 

I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that.

 

As these now former students reluctantly walked away in ones or twos, a few stayed behind.

 

I did a lot of reassuring that 9th grade would be great and that I’d probably be right here if they needed me.

 

I overheard one girl say to another that a certain teacher was good but not “Mr. Singer good.” I thanked her and she blushed because I wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

There were tears. Some of them shed by me.

 

But when the last student left, I remained at my desk surrounded by a hum of fluorescent lights and ear numbing silence.

 

There is no emptiness like that of a space that has just been filled – a space that cries out for more.

 

My classroom is like that. And so is my heart.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I need this summer break to recover.

 

But I also need the end of August, when a new group of students will come rushing through those doors.

 

Here’s looking forward to the first day of school.

 


 

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-1

The Best School Innovation Would Be More People

thumbnail_o-TEACHER-COLLABORATION-facebook

 

Public schools thrive on innovation.

 

In nearly every classroom around the country you’ll find teachers discovering new ways to reach students and foster skills, understanding and creativity.

 

But if you pan out to the macro level, the overwhelming majority of innovations aren’t organic. They’re imposed on us by bureaucrats and functionaries from outside the classroom:

 

Education Technologies.

 

School privatization.

 

Standardized tests and Common Core.

 

For the last two decades, these are the kinds of innovations that have been forced on public schools at gun point.

 

And each and every one of them is pure bullshit.

 

They are corporate schemes written by the wealthy to cash in on education dollars for themselves. Big business hands them out to their paid political lapdogs to push through our state and federal legislatures to become laws and policies the rest of us have to obey.

 

They have nothing to do with helping students learn. Their purpose is to boost profits.

 

Just look at the difference between the ways the word innovation is defined.

 

Merriam Webster says the word signifies “the introduction of something new” or  “a new idea, method, or device: Novelty.”

 

But BusinessDictionary.com finds a tellingly distinct meaning:

 

“The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.”

 

 

It is that second business-friendly definition that has dominated our schools and narrowed our view until the only concept of advancement and revolution has been centered exclusively on the profit principle.

 

It is time to put a stop to all of it.

 

No more useless iPads, apps, software and so-called “personalized” educational technologies that do little more than allow marketers to steal student data and profit off of a new form of school where everything can be provided by technology at a cost while the quality of services takes a nosedive. No more technology for technology’s sake instead of using it as a tool to promote authentic learning.

 

No more laughable charter and voucher schools where education budgets become slush funds for corporations who don’t have to provide the same standard of services to students or the community. No more operating without  transparency or accountability.

 

No more outmoded and disproven standardized tests. No more canned academic standards that strip classroom educators of autonomy while reducing effective teaching behind a smoke screen of test scores that merely conflate the economic situation students live in with their academic abilities. No more corporations creating bogus multiple choice assessments whose only utility is to demonstrate how many more test prep materials we need to buy from the same company or industry.

 

It’s too bad we’re not interested in that FIRST definition of innovation, or at least innovation tied with the motive of providing quality education for children.

 

If we were interested in that kind of real, authentic school reform, we would focus on things that really matter. And chief among those would be one main thing, one major innovation that would be easy to accomplish but could change the fabric of our schools from top to bottom – people.

 

After all, that is what our public schools need the most – more people.

 

Have you walked into a public school lately? Peak your head into the faculty room. It’s like snatching a glance of the flying Dutchman. There are plenty of students, but at the front of the overcrowded classrooms, you’ll find a skeleton crew.

 

Today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students. So if we want today’s children to have not better but just the same quality of services kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

 

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

 

 

And the solution is really pretty simple – people not apps. Human beings willing and able to get the job done.

 

If we were fighting a war, we’d find ways to increase the number of soldiers in our military. Well, this is a war on ignorance – so we need real folks to get in the trenches and win the battle.

 

We need teachers, counselors, aides and administrators promoted from within and not functionaries from some think tank’s management program.

 

We need more people with masters or even more advanced teaching degrees – not business students with a three-week crash course in education under their belts who are willing to teach for a few years before becoming a self-professed expert and then writing education policy in the halls of government.

 

We need people from the community taking a leadership role deciding how our schools should be run, not simply appointing corporate lackeys to these positions at charter or voucher schools and narrowing down the only choices parents have to “Take It” or “Leave It.”

 

We need people. Real live people who can come into our schools and do the actual work with students.

 

And that means money. It means cutting the crap boondoggles to corporations and spending on flesh and blood reform.

 

It means fixing the funding inequality at the heart of nearly every public school in the country. No more spending tens or hundreds of thousands on wealthy students and merely hundreds on poor ones. No more dilapidated school buildings for the poor and palaces for the rich. No more socialistic pulling together for the wealthy and rugged individualism for the poor.

 

THIS is how you solve our education crisis – a crisis not caused by falling test scores or failing schools. A crisis caused by vulture capitalists preying on our educational institutions and our students as if they were some bloated carcass on the side of the road and not our best hope for the future.

 

It’s really that simple.

 

It’s a matter of ideology based on empiricism not “common sense” Laissezfaire maxims of “This is how we’ve always done it.”

 

We’ve been trying so-called corporate education reform for decades now – through Bush and Obama and now Trump. It doesn’t work.

 

It’s time we stopped making excuses for failing policies and got back to the best thing that works.

 

People.

 


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

The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 10.35.05 PM

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana (1905)

 

The merry-go-round of history continues to spin because the riders forget they are free to get off at any time.

 

But we rarely do it. We keep to our seats and commit the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

 

Take high stakes standardized testing.

 

It was a disaster the very first time it was attempted in America – in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1845.

 

Yet we continue to prescribe the same error to students in schools today.

 

Judging learners, schools and teachers based on standardized assessments has the same problems now as it did 174 years ago. Yet we act as if it’s the only accurate way to assess knowledge, the only fair and equitable way to assign resources and judge the professionalism of our schools and teachers.

 

IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

 

If we simply remembered our history, we’d know that. But our collective amnesia allows this bad policy to reappear every generation despite any criticisms or protests.

 

So let me take you back to Boston in the middle of the 19th Century and show you exactly where things first went wrong and how they still go wrong in nearly the same way.

BOSTON SCHOOLS

 

Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

 

One of the country’s most prestigious institutions – the city Latin School – was founded in 1635 and had a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of American history up through modern times. This includes Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein and even Santayana, himself!

 

But Boston wasn’t known just for educating the elite. The city’s school committee had opened the nation’s first public high school in 1821. This wasn’t a charity. The community funded its public schools relatively well and took pride in its students’ accomplishments.

 

Testing was a much different affair in the early 1800s than it is today.

 

At the local English Grammar Schools, most examinations were strictly oral. Students were questioned in person about the various subjects in which they had received instruction. Teachers tested students’ memory in a recitation to find out whether or not they were proficient in the subject at hand.

 

The purpose behind such an assessment wasn’t to assign a grade like children were eggs or melons. It was to give the teacher information about how much his students had learned and where the students’ teacher should begin instruction next year.

 

However, critics complained that such assessments weren’t impartial and that a written exam might be better. Unfortunately, having every student complete one was impractical before the pencil and steel pen came into common usage in the late 1800s. Besides, teachers – then called School Masters – were trusted to use their judgment measuring student achievement and ability based on empirical observation of students’ day-to-day work.

 

It should also be noted that many more teachers were men at this time. This changed by the 1920s, when the majority of educators were women while most men had fled to the administrative offices. As this transformation took place, it accompanied greater trust in administrators and decreasing confidence in classroom teachers. And if you don’t see the sexism in that, you aren’t paying attention.

 

This shift began with standardized testing – an innovation first introduced by a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator named Horace Mann.

HORACE MANN’S TEST

 

To this day Mann remains a somewhat controversial figure. To some he was a reformer seeking to modernize education. To others he was a self-serving politician looking to increase his own power and that of his party no matter what the cost.

 

In 1837, Mann was appointed secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. As a member of the Whig Party, he wanted to centralize authority. To do that, he needed to discredit the history of excellence in Boston.

 

Mann had traveled abroad to see the innovations of European schools and concluded that Prussia’s schools, in particular, were far superior to America’s. His remarks were included in a highly publicized 1844 report that demanded action lest our country’s children be left behind. (Sound familiar?)

 

When other prominent Whigs including his friend Samuel Gridley Howe were elected to the School Committee and later the examining committee, Mann had everything he needed to make a change.

 

Howe dispensed with the oral exams in favor of written tests, what today we’d call short-answer exams. Without any warning to teachers or students, this new committee came to Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions. Teachers and administrators were furious. Students were terrified.

 

The examiners picked 530 out of the city’s approximately 7,000 students — allegedly the best below high school age – and made them take the new exams. This was about 20 or 30 children from each school. Students had an hour to write their responses on each subject to questions taken from assigned textbooks -geography, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy.

 

Most failed.

 

A contemporary report on the exams concluded that the results “show beyond all doubt, that a large proportion of the scholars in our first classes, boys and girls of 14 or 15 years of age, when called upon to write simple sentences, to express their thoughts on common subjects, without the aid of a dictionary or a master, cannot write, without such errors in grammar, in spelling, and in punctuation.”

 

Examiners explained in a subsequent report that they had been looking for “positive information, in black and white,” exactly what students had learned. Teachers took no offense at that goal, but complained that the test questions had not pertained to what students had been taught.

 

Howe and his examiners countered that they had ensured their new assessment was valid with field testing – a practice that modern day corporations like Pearson and Data Recognition Corp. still do today.

 

Howe’s committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb. In all, the committee tested 31,159 students the previous summer. The result – an average score of 30 percent correct.

 

However, the wealthy Roxbury students outscored all the other schools. Therefore, they were made the standard of excellence that all other schools were expected to reach.

 

So when Boston students – all of whom did not have the privileges of Roxbury students – didn’t achieve the same scores, they were deemed failing, inadequate, losers.

 

Thus Mann could justify criticizing the district, firing teachers and administrators and consolidating control over the city’s schools.

BACKLASH

 

The result was pandemonium. Howe issued a scathing report lambasting the schools and even naming individual teachers who should be fired. Mann published the results in his influential Common School Journal and these kinds of tests started to appear at urban schools across the country.

 

However, Bostonians were not all convinced. Editorials were published both for and against the tests.

 

Every aspect of the exam was disputed – and in similar ways to the testing controversies we still see today.

 

To start, raising the stakes of the exams invited cheating. One teacher was caught leaking questions to his students before the testing session began.

 

The assessments also showed a racial achievement gap that far from helping diagnose structural inequalities was instead weaponized against the very people working hardest to help minority students learn. Examiners criticized the head teacher of the segregated Smith School because his African American students had scored particularly low. He was accused of not seeing the potential in black children. Never mind that these students were the most different from the Roxbury standard in terms of culture and privilege.

 

The tests also began the endless failing schools narrative that has been used by ambitious policymakers and disaster capitalists to get support for risky and unproven policies. Rivalries began between city and suburban schools with Bostonians wondering why their schools had been allowed to get so much worse.

 

Much of the criticism came back on Mann and Howe who reacted by throwing it back on the teachers for doing such a bad job.

 

In the end, a few educators were let go, but the voters had had enough of Mann.

 

Parents accused him of deliberately embarrassing students and in 1848 he was not re-elected to office.

 

The tests were given again in 1846, but by 1850, Boston had abandoned its strategy and reverted to non-standarized exams that were mostly based on oral presentations.

 

The experiment deeply disturbed many people. No one could explain why there was a discrepancy between scores of rich vs. poor students. The original justification of these exams was that they would eliminate partiality and treat students fairly and equally. Yet the results showed a racial and economic bias that didn’t escape contemporaries. In 1850 as the tests were being discontinued, the chairman of the examination committee wrote:

“Comparison of schools cannot be just while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

 

And that’s how standardized testing began.

 

It was a political power play justified by so-called universal testing.

 

Numbers, charts and graphs were used to mesmerize people into going along with policies that were never meant to help children learn, but instead to gain power for certain policymakers while taking it away from others.

HISTORY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

In the years that followed, standardized testing became much more efficient. In 1915, the first test was given with multiple-choice questions – Frederick J. Kelly’s Kansas Silent Reading Test. It was roundly criticized and eventually disowned by Kelly for focusing almost exclusively on lower order thinking skills.

 

Then in the 1920s eugenicists like Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham went a step further with similar IQ tests to justify privileging upper class whites from lower class immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. Their work was even used to justify the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool. Ultimately this lead Brigham to create the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. It is still in wide use today.

 

It wasn’t until 1938 that Kaplan Inc. was founded to tutor students in these same tests. Stanley Kaplan, son of Jewish immigrants, showed that far from assessing learning, these tests merely assessed students’ ability to take the tests. Thus he was able to provide a gateway to higher education for many Jews and other minorities who had been unfairly excluded because of testing.

 

In the 1960s black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry. Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middle class group.

 

And then in 2001, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation revved the whole thing up into overdrive. With bipartisan support, he tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress – a policy that was only intensified under President Barack Obama who added competitive grants for additional funding based on test performance under Race to the Top.

 

Since then, standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one decades later. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.

 

Despite hundreds of principal, teacher, parent and student protests, tens of thousands of opt outs and a slew of lawsuits, high stakes testing continues to be the law of the land.

 

Yet the problems today are almost the same as those in Boston nearly two centuries ago.

LEGACY

 

These tests are political smokescreens used to stop policymakers from having to enact real reforms like equitable funding, wraparound services and addressing the trauma our most impoverished students deal with everyday. Instead, we push a school privatization and testing industry that makes trillions of dollars for corporations at the expense of our children.

 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

Here’s hoping that one day we remember and get the heck off this runaway merry-go-round.


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-1

I Assign my Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good

thumbnail_Homework_debate-e1445976586714

In academic circles the debate over homework rages on.

Does it actually help students learn or does it just cause undue stress and frustration for children and parents?

As a teacher and a parent, I see both sides of the issue.

In class, I assign my students homework every week – Monday through Thursday. Never on the weekends.

My daughter’s teacher does the same. So at home, I’m on the receiving end, spending hours with my little munchkin helping her get through mountains of assignments for her classes the next day.

Perhaps this is what they mean by the proverb – you reap what you sow. Except my daughter isn’t doing the homework I assigned. She isn’t in my class and we don’t even live in the district where I teach.

But it sometimes does feel like payback plodding through seemingly endless elementary worksheets, spelling words and vocabulary.

After a while, even I begin to question whether any of this junk does any good.

As a teacher, I know the research on the subject provides slim support at best.

In fact, the closest we have ever come to an answer is a reformulation of the question.

It really comes down to a matter of causality – a chicken and the egg conundrum with a side of sharpened pencil and crumpled paper.

If we look really hard, we can find a correlation between students who do their homework and those who get good grades.

The problem is we can’t PROVE it’s the homework that’s causing the grades.

It could just be that kids who excel academically also happen to do their homework. If we removed the homework, these kids might still get good grades.

So which comes first – the homework or the grades?

There has been surprisingly little research that goes this deep. And almost all of it is anecdotal.

Even the investigations that found a correlation did so in tight parameters – only in secondary grades and usually just for math.

Some wealthy districts have even reduced the amount of homework without seeing a subsequent drop in learning.

But nothing has been tested across socioeconomic divides or with any consistency and very little has been proven definitively.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no consensus on the matter.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) suggest educators assign no more than a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” per night.

In other words, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework on a given evening, a second grader no more than 20 minutes, etc.

However, it appears that students – especially in the primary grades – are getting more work than these recommended maximums.

A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy surveyed more than 1,100 Rhode Island parents with school age children.

Researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night – almost double the recommended maximums. Even more shocking, Kindergarteners – who according to the guideline should receive no homework at all – actually were assigned an average of 25 minutes per night.

That’s a lot of extra time sitting and slogging through practice problems instead of spending time with friends or family.

Though I live in western Pennsylvania, this study is certainly consistent with what I see in my own home. My daughter is in 4th grade but has been assigned between 30 minutes and two hours of homework almost every weekday since she was in Kindergarten.

It’s one of the reasons I try to abide by the guidelines religiously in my own classroom. I give about an hours worth of homework every week – 15 minutes per day for four days. If you add in cumulative assignments like book reports, that number may go up slightly but not beyond the recommended maximums.

I teach 8th graders, so they should not be receiving more than 80 minutes of homework a night. If the teachers in the other three core classes give the same amount of homework as I do, we’d still be below the maximum.

I’m well aware that the consequences of giving too much homework can be severe.

A 2014 Stanford study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that giving too much homework can have extremely damaging effects on children.

Still this isn’t exactly hard science.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California neighborhoods. They also used open-ended answers to gauge the students’ views on homework.

They concluded that too much homework was associated with greater stress, reductions in health, and less quality time with friends and family.

So where does that leave us?

We have anecdotal evidence that excessive homework is harmful. And limited evidence that homework may increase academic outcomes in the higher grades in math.

Frankly, if that was all I had to go on, I would never assign another piece of homework ever again.

But I’m a classroom teacher. I don’t have to rely solely on psychological and sociological studies. Everyday in school is an opportunity for action research.

My classroom is a laboratory. I am a scientist. Nearly every decision I make is based on empiricism, hypothesis and testing the results.

Maybe X will help students understand Y – that sort of thing.

This applies to homework, too.

I’ve had more than 15 years to test what works with my students. I’m not saying my results would necessarily be reproducible everywhere, but they’re at least as scientific as the body of research we have on homework. In fact, within these parameters they’re even more rigorous.

So why do I give homework?

For several reasons:

1)  It prepares students for the higher grades.

Most of my career has been spent in the middle school teaching 7th and 8th grade. In my district, high school teachers give a lot of homework. I need my students to get used to that rhythm – homework being assigned and handed in – so that they’ll have a chance at being successful in the upper secondary grades. Too many students go no further academically than 9th grade. Giving homework is my way to help provide the skills necessary to avoid that pitfall.

However, this isn’t a sufficient reason to give homework all by itself. If high school teachers stopped assigning it – and maybe they should if we have no further reason to do so – then I’d have no reason to assign it either.

2)  It makes kids responsible.

There’s something to be said for getting kids used to deadlines. You need to know what work you’re responsible for turning in, getting it done on your own and then handing it in on time. This is an important skill that I won’t apologize for reinforcing. I’m well aware that some students have extended support systems at home that can help them get their assignments done and done correctly, but I design the work so that even if they aren’t so privileged, it should be easily accessible on an individual level. Plus I’m available, myself, as a resource if necessary.

3)  It’s good practice.

In school, we learn. At home, we practice. That pattern is necessary to reinforce almost any skill acquisition. I know it’s trendy to flip the classroom a la Khan Academy with learning done through videos watched on-line at home and practice done in school. But when Internet access in not guaranteed, and home environments often are the least stable places in my students’ lives, it makes little sense to try to move the most essential part of the lesson outside of the classroom. After all, it’s easier to find a place to do some low tech practice than it is to find space, silence and infrastructure for high tech learning.

Don’t get me wrong. We practice in school, too. But there’s only so many hours in the school day. I use homework in my language arts classes for a few select things: increased vocabulary, word manipulation, grammar, self-selected reading and the ability to do work on your own. I think it’s important for my students to increase their vocabularies. Having kids read a self-selected book (both inside and outside of class) helps do that. It’s also a benefit to be able to play with words and language, find words in a puzzle, recognize synonyms and antonyms, etc. Grammar may not be essential, but a rough knowledge of it is certainly useful to increase recognition of context clues and better writing skills. Finally, some students benefit from the simple opportunity to do an assignment by themselves without an adult or even a peer looking over their shoulder.

That being said, I think it is important that the homework I give be seen as something students can achieve.

I’ve had numerous co-workers tell me they don’t assign homework for the simple reason that their students won’t do it.

This isn’t a big problem in my class. Almost all of my students do the homework. Why? Because we go over it and they know it’s something they can do without too much difficulty.

I scaffold assignments building the difficulty progressively as we proceed through the year (or years). I make myself available for extra help. I accept late work (with a penalty).

And most of all – I stress that I’m not expecting anyone to be a genius. I’m looking for hard work.

I tell my students explicitly that anyone who puts in their best effort will pass my class – probably with a B or an A. And that’s exactly what happens.

Homework is a part of that equation. It demonstrates effort. And effort is the first step (the key, in fact) to accomplishment.

Do students complain about the homework?

Sure! They’re children!

I’d probably complain, too, if I were them. No one really wants to be given extra work to do. But it’s all part of the pattern of my classroom.

Students know what to expect and how to meet those expectations.

None of this makes me a super teacher. It certainly doesn’t put me on anyone’s cutting edge.

I’m just doing what educators have done for decades. I’m attempting to use best practices in my classroom with a full knowledge of the academic research and the pitfalls ahead.

I may assign homework, but I made sure to do my own before coming to that decision.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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-3

Betsy DeVos’s Right Wing School Indoctrination Program

Betsy DeVos

 
What do you do when thinking people reject your political ideology?

 
You get rid of thinking people.

 
That’s Betsy DeVos’ plan to rejuvenate and renew the Republican Party.

 
The billionaire heiress who bought her position as Donald Trump’s Education Secretary plans to spend $5 billion of your tax dollars on private, religious and parochial schools.

 
This would be federal tax credits to fund scholarships to private and religious institutions – school vouchers in all but name.

 

 

It’s a federal child indoctrination program to ensure that the next generation has an increasing number of voters who think science is a lie, white supremacy is heritage and the Bible is history – you know, people just gullible enough to believe a reality show TV star who regularly cheats on his many wives with porn stars is God’s chosen representative on Earth. A measure to make child kidnapping, imprisonment and wrongful death seem like a measured response to backward immigration policy. A measure to make collusion and fraternization with the world’s worst dictators and strongmen seem like global pragmatism.

 
To make matters even more galling, consider the timing of DeVos’ proposal.

 

 

In the beginning of February, Donald Trump Jr. criticized “loser teachers” who he said were indoctrinating school children into – gasp – socialism.

 
At the end of that same month, DeVos proposed funding Christian madrasas from sea-to-shinning-sea.

 
Apparently indoctrination is just fine for conservatives so long as it’s the right kind of indoctrination.

 
But even beyond the blatant hypocrisy, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between public and private schools.

 
Florida’s GOP Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted that if a school receives public funding – whether it be a charter or voucher institution – it is a public school.

 
To which DeVos tweeted her glowing approval.

 
This makes a few things strikingly clear: either (1) these folks have no idea what happens at authentic public schools or (2) they’re pretending not to know so as to further their political and financial ambitions.

 
Authentic public schools do not indoctrinate children into socialism or any other ideology.

 
They’ll teach what socialism is and how it has functioned historically without commenting on its merits or deficiencies. It’s up to individual students to decide whether it’s a good thing or not.

 
Public schools are supposed to be ideologically neutral.

 
At most, they teach children how to think. They teach media literacy, skepticism and critical thinking skills.

 

 

If that leads kids away from Republican orthodoxy, it’s not the fault of the teacher or the child. It’s a problem with your orthodoxy.

 
You can’t proclaim the benefits of a marketplace of ideas and then decry that too many ideas are on display.

 
Nor can you conflate the way a school is funded with what that school actually does and how it teaches.

 
There is a world of difference between authentic public schools and their market based alternatives – especially the parochial and religious variety.

 
It’s the difference between telling students the answer and getting them to think about the answer. It’s the difference between total certainty and doubt, between trite truths and useful skills that can help you arrive at deeper truths.

 
When you ask children to think, you never know what conclusions they’ll draw. When you tell children what to think, you know exactly what conclusions you want them to hold.

 

 

Authentic public schools do not indoctrinate. Conservatives graduate from these hallowed halls the same as liberals, moderates and the politically checked out. The difference is that in a world where facts are prized and logic is exercised, conservatism becomes less appealing.

 

 

I’m not saying liberalism or progressivism is guaranteed, but they are certainly more fact-based world views than their opposites.

 
The same cannot be said of the kinds of institutions DeVos wants to bankroll.

 
They educate kids behind closed doors with little to no transparency for the public about how their money is being spent. But word seeps out of the cracks in the system.

 
We’ve seen the textbooks they use to teach. Their graduates have returned to the public square to tell us about the instruction they received.

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

 

 

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

 
We should not be funding the spread of such ignorance.

 

 

Frankly, DeVos’ ambitions have little chance of coming to fruition.

 
Two years ago, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, she wanted to spend $20 billion on the same nonsense. Her party refused to back her.

 
Now with Democrats in control of the House, it seems even more unlikely that her plan will pass.

 
But sadly smaller scale versions of it have been allowed by state legislatures throughout the country – often with full support from Democrats.

 
My own state of Pennsylvania spends $125 million in taxpayer dollars on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs to send children to private/religious schools. And every year legislators ask for more.

 

 

Why any Democrat would support conservative indoctrination programs is beyond me.

 
And this is true even though indoctrination is sometimes unavoidable.

 
To a limited degree, it may even be desirable. You might even say it’s a normal part of growing up.

 

 

Even the most fair-minded parents often want their children to hold at least some of the same values as they do. They want to be able to relate to their kids and view them as a continuation of the kinds of lives they lived.

 
But what’s okay for parents is not okay for governments.

 
If Mom and Dad want their kids to have a Biblical education, they should pay for it. The burden should not be shouldered by society since it’s not in society’s interest.

 
Governments have no right taking public money and using it to prop up private interests. And that’s exactly what this is.

 
It is political and religious interest. It is a way to circumvent skepticism and free thought.

 
It’s a way to ensure that in a time where information flows freely and dogmas crumble, people like Donald Trump continue to be elected.

 


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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

How Many Decisions Do Teachers Make Every Day?

94b755b2-ad1400b671f8ad28440f6a7067004614

 

Teaching is an exhausting job.

 

If you’re a parent, you know how tiring it is with just one or two kids.

 

Imagine having a room full of them — Twenty to thirty children, each demanding your attention, each requiring your urgent help – every minute, every day, for hours at a time.

 

 

Back in the late 1980s, before education became totally absorbed by standardized testing and school privatization, we used to wonder about the effects of such need on a single individual.

 

We used to wonder how much was really being asked of our teachers.

 

Today no one outside of the classroom really gives it much thought. We think of educators as part of a vast machine that is required to give us and our children a service.

 

We’re stakeholders. They’re service providers. And the students are a national resource.

 

None of us are people.

 

Perhaps it’s this dehumanizing economic framework that’s helped the edtech industry and testing corporations make so much headway trying to replace educators with apps and iPads.

 

We no longer give the teacher an apple. We displace her with a Mac.

 

But back in the days before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind or Barrack Obama’s copycat Race to the Top, or Donald Trump’s blatant Destroy Public Education, we wondered about teacher psychology and how to best help our human workforce meet the needs of our human children.

 

That’s when researchers observed elementary school teachers and noted that, on average, they made at least 1,500 decisions a day.

 

That comes out to about 4 decisions a minute given six hours of class time.

 

In the decades since, this figure has come to be associated with elementary and secondary teachers. In fact, it’s become so ubiquitous that I wondered where it originated.

 

The first reference I can find to it comes from C.M. Clark & P.L. Peterson’s article “Teachers’ Thought Processes” published in the Handbook of Research on Teaching from 1986. (3rd ed., pp. 255–296). New York: macmillan.

 

Though subsequent studies came up with slightly different numbers, the basic argument holds.

 

Researchers Hilda Borko, Carol Livingston and Richard Shavelson mark the low end of the scale. In their 1990 article “Teachers’ Thinking About Instruction,” they summarize studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching or 42 judgements per hour, 252 a day.

 

 

On the upper end of the scale is Philip Jackson who wrote in his 1990 book “Life in Classrooms” that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 of these determination generating exchanges with students every hour (between 1,200-1,800 a day). Most of these are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teachers to make what they term shallower decisions or deeper judgments (p. 149).

 

So because teaching involves waiting for the right opportunities for learning, neither student nor teacher can say with confidence what exactly will happen next. It requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

 

As a classroom teacher with more than 15 years of experience, none of this is surprising to me.

 

Just imagine the various tasks teachers are required to do every hour. We take attendance, review homework, help with seat-work, ask questions, etc. And that doesn’t even take into account all the times we’re unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected – upset students, administrative announcements over the PA, student questions, equipment breakdowns, etc. Each one of these requires us to make spontaneous, unplanned calls before the lesson can continue.

 

It just goes to show some of the various roles teachers are expected to fill in the lives of their students. They are expected to be information providers, disciplinarians, assess student learning, administrate school policies, facilitate student inquiry, act as role models and even be foster parents.

 

In any given lesson, we have to make decisions based on our plans AND decisions based on things that just happen to crop up unexpectedly – multiple times each day.

 

In fact, it seems to me that the research fails to account for innumerable situations that also require determination and deliberation as part of an educator’s everyday routine.

 

What about curriculum and instruction design? Grading? Written and verbal feedback to students? Reflection and revision of lesson plans?

 

When you think of all that, 1,500 decisions a day seems like a conservative estimate indeed.

 

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this is where it impacts teacher quality.

 

And when I say that, I don’t mean the basterdized modern meaning of that term – that teachers are responsible for maximizing student test scores on standardized assessments. I mean the quality of authentic instruction teachers are able to give their classes.

 

When we expect educators to turn on a dime more than a thousand times a day, doesn’t that impact the depth with which we can accomplish the job?

 

Busyteacher.org certainly thinks so. I’m not sure where the Website got its statistics, but they are sobering.

 

In a fascinating infographic, the site claims that multitasking leads to a 40% drop in productivity. It causes a 10% drop in IQ. It causes people to make 50% more mistakes than concentrating on one task at a time.

 

thumbnail_multitasking-teachers-infographic-620x1783

 

I don’t know if these statistics are accurate, but the general principle is sound. When we’re forced to “do more with less” we actually end up producing more with less quality.

 

Focusing on fewer things increases ones accuracy. Therefore, teachers who have to make fewer decisions in a day would probably be able to do their jobs more effectively.

 

And there are plenty of ways to accomplish this.

 

We could reduce class size. If educators can concentrate on the needs of fewer children, they would be more effectively able to meet those needs.

 

We could reduce the amount of time teachers have to be in the classroom in a given day. I’ve often thought teaching was analogous to being an actor up on the stage – but we’re also responsible for writing the script, operating the lighting, etc. And we have to interact with the audience many of whom would rather be elsewhere, and we have to do multiple shows each day.

 

In some countries, teachers spend a significant part of their days planning and grading and less in the classroom. They don’t have to do all that behind the scenes stuff on their own time without any additional pay.

 

In Finland, for example, teachers are paid 13% more than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average but spend 100 hours less in the classroom. And class size is between 9-14 students, the lowest in OECD countries. No wonder their children are near the top of the scale in international comparisons!

 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we lived in a society that valued education and didn’t try to turn everything into economic quantities for corporations?

 

We could actually focus on the real phenomena of educating children and not have to fight warped education policies more concerned with turning it all into dollars and cents.

 

Perhaps teachers wouldn’t have to make so many thousands of decisions if our lawmakers could just make this one.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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-3

Teachers, It’s Okay to Smile

shutterstock_303112742

 

I’m standing in front of my first period class after a long Thanksgiving break.

 

Papers are rustling.

 

Pencils are being sharpened.

 

Voices are lowering to a whisper.

 

And it occurs to me how glad I am to be here.

 

So I tell my students.

 

“We have a lot to go over today,” I begin and most of my middle school faces turn serious.

 

“But I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be here.”

 

Curiosity moves across those adolescent brows like a wave from one side of the room to the other.

 

Some even looked worried like they are afraid I am going to tell them I’m sick or dying.

 

“It’s true,” I continue. “I’m glad to be here this morning with all of you.

 

“I think teachers sometimes don’t say that enough.

 

“This is a great class. You’re all really good students, and I’ve watched you work hard and grow.

 

“For many of you this is the second year you’ve had me as your language arts teacher. For others, this is your first time with me. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I can be with you and help get you ready for the challenges that you’ll face next year in high school.

 

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I am not just some guy who stands up here and gives you assignments. I’m your resource. If there’s anything I can do to make your year a better one, please ask.

 

“If you’re having trouble with the work or you’re confused about something, I’m here. If you need help with something – even if it’s not school related – I’m here. If you just want to talk or someone to listen – I’m here.”

 

I pause to see if there are any questions.

 

There aren’t, but neither is their any apparent doubt, bewilderment, perplexity.

 

The class looks back at me in silence with serene eyes and smiling lips.

 

And then we go on with our day.

 

Is it a big deal?

 

No.

 

But I think it’s worth noting.

 

Not that I’m some super teacher. I’m not.

 

I mess up all the time. But I feel like what I said this morning was right somehow.

 

It’s simple and easy and more of us should do it.

 

Kids can get the impression that teachers aren’t human. They’re these mysterious creatures who pass judgment on them — and where do they even go when class ends? Who knows?

 

I remember when I was a young educator one of my mentors told me the old chestnut “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

 

I saw where she was coming from. It’s easier to command firm discipline if students don’t think of you as anything but an educating machine. But I could never go through with it.

 

I smile on the first day – probably the first minute students walk into the room.

 

I greet them with a grin – every day.

 

And I think that’s right.

 

Discipline is a means to an end. You have to have some sort of order in your class so you can facilitate learning. But that doesn’t mean you should preside over prisoners locked in a penitentiary of their own education.

 

Learning should be about choice, fun and curiosity. It should be about expressing yourself as much as it is about finding details and forming grammatical sentences.

 

Everything we do should be in service to the student.

 

Reading comprehension is to help the student understand what is being said and then form an opinion about it.

 

Writing is to help the student express the maelstrom of their own thoughts in a way that can be understood by others.

 

I think we lose sight of that.

 

It’s okay to enjoy the work – for both students and teachers.

 

It’s okay to enjoy each other’s company.

 

In fact, you SHOULD do so if you can.

 

It does not somehow degrade the experience of learning. It enhances it.

 

When my classes are over, I always have several students gathering around my desk wanting to prolong our interaction even if it means they’ll be late to lunch or late going home.

 

Kids ask about my break and I ask about theirs. We talk about favorite TV shows, songs we like or even local news stories.

 

They share with me their middle school crushes and ask advice.

 

You have to draw a line between teacher and friend – and between teacher and parent. Because the kids are looking for you to be both.

 

But you can’t.

 

We walk a strange middle ground, but I think that’s necessary.

 

If I’m going to help students know things, I have to let them know me to a point, and I have to get to know them.

 

I can’t share everything with them, but they have to know I care.

 

As Theodore Roosevelt said:

 

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

So go ahead and smile, teachers.

 

Let your students know you care about them.

 

It will improve both your lives – and maybe even your teaching.


 

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