Top 10 Reasons Bernie Sanders’ Education Policies Are Light Years Ahead of Everyone Else’s

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For most of my life, the United States has been neglecting its public school children – especially the black and brown ones.

 

Since the mid 1970s, instead of integrating our schools, we’ve been slowly resegregating them on the basis of race and social class.

 

Since the 1980s, instead of measuring academic success by the satisfaction of an individuals curiosity and authentic learning, we’ve been slowly redefining it to mean nothing but achievement on standardized tests.

 

And since the 1990s, instead of making sure our schools meet the needs of all students, we’ve been slowly allowing charter schools to infect our system of authentic public education so that business interests are education’s organizing principle.

 

But now, for the first time in at least 60 years, a mainstream political candidate running for President has had the courage to go another way.

 

And that person is Bernie Sanders.

 

We didn’t see this with Barack Obama. We didn’t see it with Bill Clinton. We certainly didn’t see it with any Republican Presidents from Reagan to the Bushes to Trump.

 

Only Sanders in his 2020 campaign. Even among his Democratic rivals for the party’s nomination – Warren, Biden, Harris, Booker and a host of others – he stands apart and unique. Heck! He’s even more progressive today on this issue than he was when he ran in 2015.

 

It doesn’t take a deep dive into the mass media to find this out. You don’t have to parse disparate comments he made at this rally or in that interview. If you want to know what Bernie thinks about education policy, you can just go on his campaign Website and read all about it.

 

The other candidates barely address these issues at all. They may be open about one or even two of them, but to understand where they stand on education in total – especially K-12 schooling – you have to read the tea leaves of who they’ve selected as an education advisor or what they wrote in decades old books or what offhand comments they made in interviews.

 

In almost every regard, only Sanders has the guts to tell you straight out exactly what he thinks. And that’s clear right from the name of his proposal.

 

He calls it “A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.”

 

Why name his agenda after the first black Supreme Court justice? Because prior to accepting a nomination to the highest court in the land, Marshall argued several cases before that court including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education. He also founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Not only did Marshall successfully argue that school segregation violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, but he spent his life fighting for civil rights.

 

Sanders is the only candidate out there today brave enough to connect those dots. The fight against segregation, high stakes testing and school privatization is a fight for civil rights.

 

That is clear in nearly every aspect of his plan.

 

I’m not saying it’s perfect. He doesn’t go as far as he might in some areas – especially against high stakes testing. But his plan is so far advanced of anything anyone else has even considered, it deserves recognition and strong consideration.

 

So without further ado, I give you the top 10 reasons Bernie Sanders’ education platform is the most progressive in modern American history:

 

1) He Proposes Fighting School Segregation and Racial Discrimination

 

Sanders understands that many of our public schools today are more segregated than they were 65 years ago when Brown v. Board was decided. Only 20 percent of our teachers are nonwhite – even in schools that serve a majority of black and brown children. Implicit racial bias puts these students at risk of higher suspensions, unfair discipline policies and an early introduction into the criminal justice system through the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

Bernie proposes we increase funding to integrate schools, enforce desegregation orders and appoint federal judges who will support these measures. He wants to triple Title I funding for schools serving poor and minority children and increase funding for English as a Second Language programs. He even suggests racial sensitivity training for teachers and better review of civil rights complaints and discipline policies.

 

This could have an amazingly positive impact on our schools. Imagine a school system where people of all different races, nationalities, sexualities and creeds could meet and get to know one another. It’s harder to be racist and prejudiced adults when as children you learned not to consider people different than you as an other. It’s also harder to withhold funding and opportunities to minority populations when you mix all children together in the same schools.

 

2) He Would Ban For-Profit Charter Schools

 

This is a case of Bernie just listening to what educators, school directors and civil rights organizations like the NAACP are already saying. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated. Though this differs somewhat from state to state, in general it means that charters don’t have to abide by the same rules as the authentic public schools in the same neighborhoods. They can run without an elected school board, have selective enrollment, don’t have to provide the same services for students especially those requiring special education, and they can even cut services for children and pocket the savings as profit.

 

Moreover, charters increase segregation – 17 percent of charter schools are 99 percent minority, compared to 4 percent of traditional public schools.
To reverse this trend, Bernie would ban for-profit charter schools and impose a moratorium on federal dollars for charter expansion until a national audit was conducted. That means no more federal funds for new charter schools.

 

Moving forward, charter schools would have to be more accountable for their actions. They would have to comply with the same rules as authentic public schools, open their records about what happens at these schools, have the same employment practices as at the neighborhood authentic public school, and abide by local union contracts.

 

I know. I know. I might have gone a bit further regulating charter schools, myself, especially since the real difference between a for-profit charter school and a non-profit one is often just its tax status. But let’s pause a moment here to consider what he’s actually proposing.

 

If all charter schools had to actually abide by all these rules, they would almost be the same as authentic public schools. This is almost tantamount to eliminating charter schools unless they can meet the same standards as authentic public schools.

 

I think we would find very few that could meet this standard – but those that did could – with financial help – be integrated into the community school system as a productive part of it and not – as too many are now – as parasites.

 

Could Bernie as President actually do all of this? Probably not considering that much of charter school law is controlled by the states. But holding the bully pulpit and (with the help of an ascendant Democratic legislature?) the federal purse strings, he could have a transformative impact on the industry. It would at least change the narrative and the direction these policies have been going. It would provide activists the impetus to make real change in their state legislatures supporting local politicians who likewise back the President’s agenda.

 

3) He’d Push for Equitable School Funding

 

Bernie understands that our public school funding system is a mess. Most schools rely on local property taxes to make up the majority of their funding. State legislatures and the federal government shoulder very little of the financial burden. As a result, schools in rich neighborhoods are well-funded and schools in poor neighborhoods go wanting. This means more opportunities for the already privileged and less for the needy.

 

Bernie proposes rethinking this ubiquitous connection between property taxes and education, establishing a nationwide minimum that must be allocated for every student, funding initiatives to decrease class size, and supporting the arts, foreign language acquisition and music education.

 

Once again, this isn’t something the President can do alone. He needs the support of Congress and state legislatures. But he could have tremendous influence from the Oval Office and even putting this issue on the map would be powerful. We can’t solve problems we don’t talk about – and no one else is really talking much about this. Imagine if the President was talking about it every day on the news.

 

4) He’d Provide More Funding for Special Education Students

Students with special needs cost more to educate than those without them. More than four decades ago, the federal government made a promise to school districts around the country to fund 40 percent of the cost of special education. It’s never happened. This chronic lack of funding translates to a shortage of special education teachers and physical and speech therapists. Moreover, the turnover rate for these specialists is incredibly high.

 

Bernie wants to not only fulfill the age old promise of special education funding but to go beyond it. He proposes the federal government meet half the cost for each special needs student. That, alone, would go a long way to providing financial help to districts and ensuring these children get the extra help they need.

5) He Wants to Give Teachers a Raise

 

Teachers are flooding out of the classroom because they often can’t survive on the salaries they’re being paid. Moreover, considering the amount of responsibilities heaped on their shoulders, such undervaluing is not only economically untenable, it is psychologically demoralizing and morally unfair. As a result, 20 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years – 40 percent more than the historical average.

 

Bernie suggests working with states to ensure a minimum starting salary of $60,000 tied to cost of living, years of service, etc. He also wants to protect and expand collective bargaining and tenure, allow teachers to write off at least $500 of expenses for supplies they buy for their classrooms, and end gender and racial discrepancies in teacher salaries.

 

It’s an ambitious project. I criticized Kamala Harris for proposing a more modest teacher pay raise because it wasn’t connected to a broad progressive education platform like Sanders. In short, we’ve heard neoliberal candidates make good suggestions in the past that quickly morphed into faustian bargains like merit pay programs – an initiative that would be entirely out of place among Sanders initiatives.

 

In Harris’ case, the devil is in the details. In Sanders, it’s a matter of the totality of the proposal.

6) He Wants to Expand Summer School and After School Programs

 

It’s no secret that while on summer break students forget some of what they’ve learned during the year and that summer programs can help reduce this learning loss. Moreover, after school programs provide a similar function throughout the year and help kids not just academically but socially. Children with a safe place to go before parents get home from work avoid risky behaviors and the temptations of the streets. Plus they tend to have better school attendance, better relationships with peers, better social and emotional skills, etc.

 

Under the guidance of Betsy Devos, the Trump administration has proposed cutting such programs by $2 billion. Bernie is suggesting to increase them by $5 billion. It’s as simple as that. Sanders wants to more than double our current investment in summer and after school programs. It’s emblematic of humane and rational treatment of children.

 

7) He Wants to Provide Free Meals for All Students Year-Round

 

One in six children go hungry in America today. Instead of shaming them with lunch debts and wondering why they have difficulty learning on an empty stomach, Bernie wants to feed them free breakfast, lunch and even snacks. In addition, he doesn’t want to shame them by having the needy be the only ones eligible for these free meals. This program would be open to every child, regardless of parental wealth.

 

It’s an initiative that already exists at many Title I schools like the one where I teach and the one where my daughter goes to school. I can say from experience that it is incredibly successful. This goes in the opposite direction of boot strapped conservatives like Paul Ryan who suggested a free meal gives kids an empty soul. Instead, it creates a community of children who know that their society cares about them and will ensure they don’t go hungry.

 

That may seem like a small thing to some, but to a hungry child it can make all the difference.

 

8) He Wants to Transform all Schools into Community Schools

 

This is a beautiful model of exactly what public education should be.

 

Schools shouldn’t be businesses run to make a profit for investors. They should be the beating heart of the communities they serve. Bernie thinks all schools should be made in this image and provide medical care, dental services, mental health resources, and substance abuse prevention. They should furnish programs for adults as well as students including job training, continuing education, art spaces, English language classes and places to get your GED.
Many schools already do this. Instead of eliminating funding for these types of schools as the Trump administration has suggested, Bernie proposes providing an additional $5 billion in annual funding for them.

 

9) He Would Fix Crumbling Schools

 

America’s schools, just like her roads and bridges, are falling into disrepair. A 2014 study found that at least 53 percent of the nation’s schools need immediate repair. At least 2.3 million students, mostly in rural communities, attend schools without high-speed internet access. Heating and cooling systems don’t work. 
Some schools have leaks in their roofs. This is just not acceptable.

 

Bernie wants to fix these infrastructure issues while modernizing and making our schools green and welcoming.

 

10) He Wants to Ensure All Students are Safe and Included

 

Our LGBTQ students are at increased risk of bullying, self harm and suicide. We need schools where everyone can be safe and accepted for who they are.

 

Bernie wants to pass legislation that would explicitly protect the rights of LGBTQ students and protect them from harassment, discrimination and violence. He is also calling for protection of immigrant students to ensure that they are not put under surveillance or harassed due to their immigration status. Finally, this project includes gun violence prevention to make school shootings increasingly unlikely.

 

There are a lot of issues that fall under this umbrella, but they are each essential to a 21st Century school. Solutions here are not easy, but it is telling that the Sanders campaign includes them as part of his platform.
So there you have it – a truly progressive series of policy proposals for our schools.
Not since Lyndon Johnson envisioned the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has there been a more far reaching and progressive set of education initiatives.

 

What About High Stakes Testing?

 

Unfortunately, that also highlights Sanders biggest weakness.

 

Johnson’s signature legislation which had been focused on addressing funding disparities in 1965 became under George W. Bush in the 2000s a way of punishing poor schools for low standardized test scores.

 

The glaring omission from Sanders plan is anything substantive to do with high stakes testing.

 

The Thurgood Marshall plan hardly mentions it at all. In fact, the only place you’ll find testing is in the introduction to illustrate how far American education has fallen behind other countries and in this somewhat vague condemnation:

 

“We must put an end to high-stakes testing and “teaching to the test” so that our students have a more fulfilling educational life and our teachers are afforded professional respect.”

 

However, it’s troubling that for once Bernie doesn’t tie a political position with a specific policy. If he wants to “end high-stakes testing,” what exactly is his plan to do so? Where does it fit within his education platform? And why wasn’t it a specific part of the overall plan?

 

Thankfully, it is addressed in more detail on FeelTheBern.org – a Website not officially affiliated with Sanders but created by volunteers to spread his policy positions.

 

After giving a fairly good explanation of the problems with high stakes testing, it references this quote from Sanders:

 

“I voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001, and continue to oppose the bill’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions. In my view, No Child Left Behind ignores several important factors in a student’s academic performance, specifically the impact of poverty, access to adequate health care, mental health, nutrition, and a wide variety of supports that children in poverty should have access to. By placing so much emphasis on standardized testing, No Child Left Behind ignores many of the skills and qualities that are vitally important in our 21st century economy, like problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork, in favor of test preparation that provides no benefit to students after they leave school.”

 

The site suggests that Bernie supports more flexibility in how we determine academic success. It references Sanders 2015 vote for the Every Child Achieves Act which allows for states to create their own accountability systems to assess student performance.

 

However, the full impact of this bill has not been as far reaching as advocates claimed it would be. In retrospect, it seems to represent a missed opportunity to curtail high stakes testing more than a workaround of its faults.

 

In addition, the site notes the problems with Common Core and while citing Sanders reticence with certain aspects of the project admits that he voted in early 2015 against an anti-Common Core amendment thereby indicating opposition to its repeal.

 

I’ll admit this is disappointing. And perplexing in light of the rest of his education platform.

 

It’s like watching a vegan buy all of his veggies at Whole Foods and then start crunching on a slice of bacon, or like a gay rights activist who takes a lunch break at Chick-fil-a.

 

My guess is that Sanders hasn’t quite got up to speed on the issue of standardized testing yet. However, I can’t imagine him supporting it because, frankly, it doesn’t fit in with his platform at all.

 

One wonders what the purpose of high stakes testing could possibly be in a world where all of his other education goals were fulfilled.

 

If it were up to me, I’d scrap high stakes testing as a waste of education spending that did next to nothing to show how students or schools were doing. Real accountability would come from looking at the resources actually provided to schools and what schools did with them. It would result from observing teachers and principals to see what education they actually provided – not some second hand guessing game based on the whims of corporations making money on the tests, the grading of the tests and the subsequent remediation materials when students failed.

 

For me, the omission of high stakes testing from Sanders platform is acceptable only because of the degree of detail he has already provided in nearly every other aspect. There are few areas of uncertainty here. Unlike any other candidate, we know pretty well where Sanders is going.

 

It is way more likely that advocates could get Sanders to take a more progressive and substantial policy stand on this issue than that he would suddenly become a standardized testing champion while opposing everything else in the school privatization handbook.

 

Conclusion

 

So there it is.

 

Bernie Sanders has put forth the most progressive education plan in more than half a century.

 

It’s not perfect, but it’s orders of magnitude better than the plans of even his closest rival.

 

This isn’t to say that other candidates might not improve their education projects before the primary election. I hope that happens. Sanders has a knack for moving the conversation further left.

 

However, he is so far ahead, I seriously doubt that anyone else will be able to catch him here.

 

Who knows what the future will bring, but education advocates have a clear first choice in this race – Bernie Sanders.

 

He is the only one offering us a real future we can believe in.

 


 

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

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Charter Schools Will Always Waste Money Because They Duplicate Services

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You can’t save money buying more of what you already have.

 

Constructing two fire departments serving the same community will never be as cheap as having one.

 

Empowering two police departments to patrol the same neighborhoods will never be as economical as one.

 

Building two roads parallel to each other that go to exactly the same places will never be as cost effective as one.

 

This isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact, it’s an axiom of efficiency and sound financial planning. It’s more practical and productive to create one robust service instead of two redundant ones.

 

However, when it comes to education, a lot of so-called fiscal conservatives will try to convince us that we should erect two separate school systems – a public one and a privatized one.

 

The duplicate may be a voucher system where we use public tax dollars to fund private and parochial schools. It may be charter schools where public money is used to finance systems run by private organizations. Or it may be some combination of the two.

 

But no matter what they’re suggesting, it’s a duplication of services.

 

And it’s a huge waste of money.

 

Consider the case of my home state of Pennsylvania.

 

Charter schools cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding – yet they only enroll about 6 percent of students.

 

Just imagine – 94% of Pennsylvania students lose out on opportunities because we’re allowing so much money to be siphoned off for a small fraction of students.

 

The Keystone state only has 179 charter schools enrolling 135,100 students – the sixth highest charter enrollment in the country. Of those, about a fourth are online cyber charters.

 

Is it fair to Ma and Pa Taxpayer that they are forced to bear the extra burden of reproducing these services for a handful of students?

 

And make no mistake. This is one of the leading causes of property tax increases in the state.

 

The ideology of some results in a direct hit to everyone’s pocketbooks.

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), “Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts.”

 

The report found that state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

Part of this is due to a blind, deaf and dumb state legislature that no longer does anything to help alleviate these costs to local school districts. Neighborhood schools can only try to compensate by cutting services for students where it can and raising property taxes where it can’t make ends meet.

 

More than one third of school superintendents surveyed by PASBO report a worsening financial picture in their districts—and they put the blame on charter schools.

 

“With the state providing no state support for mandatory charter school tuition costs,” the study says, “the increases in this single budget item have the potential to decimate school district budgets.”

 

Part of this is the extremely unfair way the state determines how much money to give charter schools.

 

The legislature has constructed a funding formula that gives every advantage to charter schools while short changing authentic public schools at every turn.

 

For instance, as Jeff Bryant puts it in his article “The Charter School ‘Dumpster Fire’ in Pennsylvania Provides an Important Lesson for 2020 Democratic Candidates”:

 

 

“Charter school tuition charged to Pennsylvania public schools is calculated as if charters had to provide the same services public schools have to provide, such as transportation—they don’t. Also, the tuition bill public schools pay to charters is calculated as if every student cost the same to educate—they don’t.

 

 

Instead, the state requires authentic public schools to pay charters way more than authentic public schools get to educate the children in their care – and state law even allows charter operators to pocket the savings as profit.

 

But this just pours lighter fluid on Bryant’s already raging “dumpster fire.”

 

Even if Pennsylvania was entirely equitable in how it allocated funding between these two types of school, it would still be wasting our tax dollars because it would still be engaged in duplication of services.

 

There is simply no good reason to do this. At least, not if providing the best education to students is our goal.

 

There are few places in the entire country – if any – where charter schools are able to accommodate all students. They cater to nitch markets where operators expect they can turn a profit. There are essentially no communities with a charter school and no authentic public school but many where you find just the opposite.

 

Moreover, the quality of education provided at charter schools does not live up to the hype of its advertising.

 

Except in extremely rare circumstances, charter schools have never been shown to provide better outcomes than authentic public schools. Almost every study conducted – even those funded by the school privatization industry – show that these two types of schools produce similar results or in many cases that authentic public schools are much better.

 

And this despite the fact that such studies are already stacked in charter schools favor because unlike authentic public schools, charter schools often have selective enrollment. A school that gets to cherrypick the best and brightest students has an incredible advantage over those that can’t – yet even with such an uneven starting point charter schools rarely show large academic gains.

 

For instance, a recent study of charter school students in Pennsylvania conducted by the school privatization friendly Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter students do about the same on reading exams but score worse in math than students in authentic public schools. The study also found major disparities between charter schools – with cyber charters performing especially poorly.

 

However, this study’s methodology has been called into question suggesting that even its meager praise of charter schools may be exaggerated. Yet the overall results are in-line  with previous research that also found charter schools in the state generally  produce students who aren’t as prepared as authentic public school students.

 

Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997.

 

It’s way passed time for lawmakers in this state and beyond to acknowledge that was a mistake.

 

We cannot continue to force voters to pay for a supply-side ideology that not only has been disproven through decades of data but that many do not share.

 

That is why we have charter and voucher schools – a prejudice against authentic public education and desire to allow businesses to cash in on education dollars.

 

The duplication of services has nothing to do with helping students learn.

 

It’s about creating a slush fund for unscrupulous corporations and hangers on to get easy cash.

 

No true fiscal conservative can support charter schools.

 

Just as no one who values children can continue to justify this economic double vision.

 


 

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

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School Field Trip Turns Into a Tour of Our Nation’s Unhealed Scars

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You’ve got to be a little crazy to take a bunch of teenagers on a field trip – especially overnight and out of town.

 

But that’s what I did, and – yeah – guilty as charged.

 

For the second time in my more than 15-year career as a public school teacher, I volunteered along with a group of parents and other teachers to escort my classes of 8th graders to Washington, DC, and surrounding sights.
 
And I never regretted it. Not for a moment.

 

Not when Jason bombed the bathroom in the back of the bus after eating a burrito for lunch.

 

Not when Isaac gulped down dairy creamers for dessert and threw up all over himself.

 

Not when a trio of teenage girls accidentally locked themselves in their hotel room and we needed a crowbar to get them out.

 

But as I stood in Manassas, Virginia, looking at a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the edge of regret began to creep into my mind.

 

There he was perched on the horizon, ripped and bulging like an advertisement for weight gain powder.

 

“We call him the superman statue,” the park ranger said.

 

And as I stood amongst the confused looks of my western Pennsylvania teens, I felt a wave of cognitive dissonance wash over me like a slap in the face.

 
Stonewall Jackson, a lanky Confederate General whose horse was too small for him, here mythologized, enshrined and worshiped like a hero. Yet he was a traitor to our country.

 

They call him Stonewall because the union army couldn’t get through his battle lines. He was like a wall the North could not break through.

 
So what?

 

He was fighting to preserve human slavery. Who cares how well he fought or how great his tactics? He was on the losing side of history.

 

We shouldn’t be praising him. He should be forgotten, at best a footnote in a record that celebrates those fighting to overturn human bondage, not those battling to uphold it.

 

But the confusion didn’t start at the statue. It began before our tour bus even arrived at the national park.

 

I teach Language Arts, not history, but I had never heard of the battle of Manassas. I knew it was close to Bull Run, a nearby creek where the two Civil War battles of that name were fought.
 
It was only when the park ranger was showing us the sights (of which there weren’t many) that the truth became clear.

 
Even today more than 150 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the two sides can’t agree on the names of the battles.

 

In the South, they name them after the nearest city or town. In the North, we name them after the nearest geologic landmark.

 

So even though this battle took place on a farm in northern Virginia, we still can’t agree even on what to call the confrontation – much less its import to our shared history.

 

Before we stepped out onto the battlefield, the park service treated us to a short documentary film about the site and its history – “Manassas: End of Innocence.”

 

The film was narrated by Richard Dreyfus. I marveled at hearing Mr. Holland nonchalantly inform us that this first battle of the Civil War marked the titular “end of innocence.”

 
I’m still not sure who suffered such an end. Was it the nation, as a whole, which had never before experienced such a bloody war among its own citizenry, pitting brother against brother? Was it the North who had not until this point realized the South would resist with shot and shell?  Was it the South who had not yet tasted the bitterness of Northern aggression?

 

The latter seemed to be the narrator’s implication.

 
Dreyfus painted a scene of peaceful life on the farm shattered by the sneak attack of union soldiers.
 
THAT is what marked this “end of innocence.”

 
“Innocence!?” I thought.

 

These people were not innocent. They owned slaves. Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the 85-year-old who refused to evacuate her farm and was killed in the fighting, owned another human being.

 

In my book, that disqualifies you from any kind of innocence.

 

And that’s what this whole war was essentially about. Should people be allowed to own other people?

 
The answer is an unequivocal – NO.

 

The fact that an entire segment of our population still drags its feet on that question has implications that reverberate through our history and up through our last Presidential election.

 
A few days before venturing to Manassas, my students and I toured Washington, DC. We stopped in front of the White House.

 
I’d been there before. It’s a popular place for protests of every kind. But never had I seen it so crowded with discontent.

 

Political critics had set up booths and tents. They even brought speakers to blast out music to accompany their protests. My favorite was the song “Master of the House” from Les Miserables booming from a booth with multicolored “F- Trump!” signs.

 

But as we took our picture in front of that iconic Presidential manor, itself, partially built by slaves, I couldn’t help noticing another kiosk across the way – one selling MAGA hats.
 
In fact, they were everywhere.

 
A few students even bought them – cheap red knockoff baseball caps with a slogan of dog whistle hatred emblazoned on the front.

 

Make America Great Again? Like when union troops couldn’t get passed Stonewall Jackson?
 
We hit many more famous sites.

 

We went to the Jefferson memorial and all I could think about was Sally Hemings. We went to the FDR memorial and all I could think about were the Japanese internment camps. We went to the Martin Luther King memorial and all I could think about was how the struggle continues.

 

We didn’t talk much about what we were seeing. We just raced through the experience of it – going from one to another – gotta’ get back on the bus in time to hit the next one.

 
We had a really good time together on that field trip. Me, included.

 

But we took a lot more home with us than souvenirs.

 
It wasn’t just sight seeing or a vacation from the normal school day.

 

We toured the historic scars of our nation.

 

Scars still red and ripe and bleeding.

 

Will they ever heal, I wondered.

 

Will our nation ever become whole, healthy and clean?

 

I suppose that depends on us.

 

Because the first step to healing them is recognizing that they’re still there.


 

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

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Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


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I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization.

 

Steel Valley Schools have a proud history.

 

We’re located (in part) in Homestead – the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.

 

But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.

 

It’s charter schools, voucher schools and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall.

 

Our middle school-high school complex is located at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill in our most impoverished neighborhood sits one of the Propel network of charter schools.

 

Our district is so poor we can’t even afford to bus our kids to school. So Propel tempts kids who don’t feel like making the long walk to our door.

 

Institutions like Propel are publicly funded but privately operated. That means they take our tax dollars but don’t have to be as accountable, transparent or sensible in how they spend them.

 

And like McDonalds, KFC or Walmart, they take in a lot of money.

 

Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.

 

Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?

 

No.

 

Enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.

 


The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.

 

If you’re a charter school operator and you want to increase your salary, you can do that. Just make sure to cut student services an equal amount.

 

Want to buy a piece of property and pay yourself to lease it? Fine. Just take another slice of student funding.

 

Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else.

 

Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, water, maintenance, etc. are the same. We just have less money with which to pay them.

 

But that’s not all. The state funding formula also requires we give exponentially more money to charters for students labeled special needs – orders of magnitude more than we spend on these kids at my district.

 

Here’s how the state school code mandates we determine special education funding for charter school kids:

 

“For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.”

 

So authentic public schools spend a different amount per each special education student depending on their needs. But we have to pay our charter schools an average. If they only accept students without severe disabilities, this amounts to a net profit for the charter schools – and they can spend that profit however they want.

 

Moreover, if they reclassify students without disabilities or with slight disabilities as special needs, that means more money for them, too. Is anyone checking up on them to make sure they aren’t gaming the system? Heck no! That’s what being a charter school is all about – little transparency, little accountability and a promise of academic results (which don’t have to pan out either).

 

In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.

 

According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:

 

Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:

 

2000-01 – 2012-13

Non-Special Ed: $9,321

Special Ed: $16,903

 

2013-14

Non-Special Ed: $9,731

Special Ed: $16,803

 

2014-15

Non-special Ed: $10,340

Special Ed $20,112

 

2015-16

Non-Special Ed: $12,326

Special Ed: $25,634

 

2016-17

Non-Special Ed: $13,879

Special Ed: $29,441

 

2017-18

Non-Special Ed: $13,484

Special Ed: $25,601

 

2018-19

Non-special ed: $14,965

Special ed: $32,809

 

All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.

 

Our State Senator Jim Brewster understands the problem.

 

“Charters are strangling school districts, eventually will put them out of business. When you lose your school district, you lose your city,” he said in an article published by Public Source.

 

Brewster is a Democrat from McKeesport with four school districts being likewise “cannibalized” by charter schools.

 

Steel Valley School Board President Jim Bulger also characterized the situation as dire.

 

“ Charter Schools have become a twisted profit-making machine and not what they were originally intended for,” he said.

 

 “Originally charter schools were meant to serve a demographic that the public schools could not. For example being heavy in the performing arts or items like that. It’s unfortunate that several people have decided to twist this decent idea into a profit-making scheme that bleeds public education and its very soul.”

 

Much of the problem is in Harrisburg where legislators refuse to see or address the issue. And that’s often the best situation. Others actively make things worse.

 

For instance, the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools. Then in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut that while slashing the education budget by an additional $1 billion a year.

 

Though some of that money has been restored in subsequent budgets, the charter reimbursement has not. Putting it back in the budget would go far to alleviating the bleeding.

 

But legislators need to get serious about charter school reform.

 

We can no longer afford a system that requires authentic public schools to fund their own competition. In fact, schools should never be in competition in the first place. Every school should be excellent – and the only way to get there is to start with adequate, equitable, sustainable funding in the first place.

 

There are seven charter schools within 5 miles of my district: Propel Homestead, Propel Braddock Hills, Environmental Charter School at Frick PA, Propel Hazelwood, Academy Charter School (in Pittsburgh), Propel Mckeesport, and Propel East (in Monroeville).

 

In addition, there are 55 private schools in the same area. Though the Commonwealth doesn’t have school vouchers, per se, it does have a backdoor version supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Many of these private and parochial schools gobble up $210 million of state tax dollars through these tax credit programs – the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. And there’s a bill currently being considered in Harrisburg to increase that amount by $100 million this year and even more in subsequent years!

 

It seems our legislature has no problem spending on the school system so long as it isn’t the PUBLIC school system.

 

And the reason usually given for such support is the results privatized schools get. They claim to be better alternatives to the public system, but this is rarely if ever true.

 

Test scores are a terrible way compare schools, but charter and voucher schools rarely – if ever – outpace their authentic public school competitors. They either get similar scores or in many cases do much, MUCH worse.

 

For instance, take Propel Homestead.

 

In 2015-16, it served 573 students in grades K-12. Only 22% of students were proficient in math and 40% in Reading on state tests. Both scores are below state average.

 

Meanwhile, at Steel Valley High School during the same time period, we served 486 students in grades 9-12. In math, 50-54% of our students were proficient and 65-69% were proficient in Reading. That’s above state average in both cases. And we had similar results at our middle and elementary schools.

 

However, test scores are poor indicators of success.

 

Steel Valley Schools also had lower class sizes. We averaged 12 students per teacher. Propel Homestead averaged 15 students per teacher.

 

And then we come to segregation. Though both schools had significant minority populations, Steel Valley Schools had 42% minority enrollment, most of whom are black. Propel Homestead had 96% minority enrollment, most of whom are black.

 

So the authentic public school option is demonstrably of better quality, but our inability to bus students to-and-from school opens us up to predatory school charlatans who take advantage of our poverty.

 

And the situation is similar in surrounding communities. Poor districts serving impoverished minority students become targets for privatizers looking to make a fast buck off of our kids and families. They offer them a lower quality education and a slick sales pitch.

 

They increase segregation, lower academic quality, and get away with much needed funds that could help kids get a better education.

 

This nonsense has to stop.

 

The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.

 

They should have to abide by the same regulation, the same accountability standards, the same democratic governance, the same enrollment standards as authentic public schools. Otherwise, they should not qualify for public tax dollars.

 

We’re boring holes in the ship to make rickety life boats.

 

It’s time to stop the madness.

 

It’s time to stop letting our best chance to help all kids get eaten alive by the sharks of privatization.

 


 

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

 

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Classroom Teachers are the Real Scholastic Experts – Not Education Journalists

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When you want an expert on health, you go to a doctor.

 

When you want an expert on law, you go to a lawyer.

 

So why is it that when the news media wants an expert on education they go to… themselves!?

 

That’s right. Education journalists are talking up a storm about schools and learning.

 

You’ll find them writing policy briefs, editorials and news articles. You’ll find them being interviewed about topics like class size, funding and standardized tests.

 

But they aren’t primary sources. They are distinctly secondary.

 

So why don’t we go right to the source and ask those most in the know – classroom teachers!?

 

According to a Media Matters analysis of education coverage on weeknight cable news programs in 2014, only 9 percent of guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News were educators.

 

This data is a bit out of date, but I couldn’t find a more recent analysis. Moreover, it seems pretty much consistent with what I, myself, have seen in the media.

 

Take Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas,” a comedy journalism program on HBO. The second season focuses entirely on education issues. Though Cynac interviews numerous people in the first episode (the only one I saw), he put together a panel of experts to talk about the issues that he would presumably return to throughout the season. Unfortunately, only two of these experts were classroom teachers.

 

There were more students (3), policy writers (3) and education journalists (3). There were just as many college professors (2), civil rights leaders (2), and politicians (2). Plus there was one historian (Diane Ravitch).

 

I’m not saying Cynac shouldn’t have talked to these other people. From what I’ve seen, his show is a pretty good faith attempt to talk about the issues, but in under representing classroom teachers, we’re left with a false consensus. It’s like having one climate denier debate one scientist. They aren’t equal and should not be equally represented.

 

And that’s as good as it gets!

 

Turn to most discussions of education or scholastic policy in the news and the discourse is bound to be dominated by people who are not now and have never been responsible for a class full of K-12 students.

 

Allowing journalists who cover education to rebrand themselves as “experts” is just not good enough.

 

Take it from me. Before I became a classroom teacher, I was a newspaperman, myself. Yet it’s only now that I know all that I didn’t know then.

 

If anyone values good, fact-based reporting, it’s me. But let’s not confuse an investigator with a practitioner. They both have important jobs. We just need to be clear about which job is being practiced when.

 

Reporters are not experts on the issues they cover. Certainly they know more than the average person or some political flunkey simply towing the party line. But someone who merely observes the work is not as knowledgeable as someone who does it and has done it for decades, someone with an advanced degree, dedication and a vocation in it.

 

Moreover, there is a chasm between education reporting and the schools, themselves, that is not present between journalists and most fields of endeavor. In the halls of academia, even the most fair-minded outsiders often are barred from direct observation of the very thing they’re trying to describe. We rarely let reporters in to our nation’s classrooms to see what’s happening for themselves. All they can do most of the time is uncritically report back what they’ve been told.

 

It’s almost as if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never got to attended campaign rallies. How could their ideas about these subjects be of the same value as the practitioners in these fields!?

 

It couldn’t.

 

Think about it. Journalists are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators usually keeps the school doors closed to them.

 

In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters often have great difficulty just disclosing the opinions of those most knowledgeable about what is going on.

 

At best, our nation’s education reporters are like aliens from another galaxy trying to write about human behavior without actually having seen it. It’s like a bad science fiction movie where some alien with plastic ears asks, “What is this thing you call love?”

 

Sorry. These are not experts. And if we pretend that they are, we are being incredibly dishonest.

 

Some of this obfuscation is by design.

 

Education reporting is incredibly biased in favor of market-based solutions to academic problems.

 

Why? The corporations that own the shrinking number of newspapers, news stations and media outlets are increasingly the same huge conglomerates making money off of these same policies. The line between news and advertising has faded into invisibility in too many places.

 

Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks.

 

Even when they don’t put editorial pressure on journalists to write what the company wants, they hire like-minded people from the get go.

 

Too many education journalists aren’t out for the truth. They’re out to promote the corporate line.

 

This is why it’s so important to center any education discussion on classroom teachers. They are the only people with the knowledge and experience to tell us what’s really going on.

 

And – surprise! – it’s not the same narrative you’re getting from corporate news.

 

Schools are being defunded and dismantled by the testing and privatization industry. Corporate special interests are allowed to feed off our schools like vultures off road kill. And all the while, it is our children who suffer the results.

 

High stakes standardized testing must end. Charter and voucher schools must end. Parasitic education technologies must be controlled, made accountable and in many cases barred from our schools altogether.

 

But that’s a truth you can only find by talking to the real experts – classroom teachers.

 

Until we prize their voices above all others, we will never know the whole truth.

 


 

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

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Let Voters Fix Harrisburg School Board – Not State Takeover

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Pushing the self-destruct button is the ultimate measure of last resort.

 

But that’s how several Pennsylvania lawmakers are suggesting we fix the dysfunctional Harrisburg School Board.

 

An election that could oust most of the very school directors responsible for the district’s troubles is less than a month away. But Democratic Representative Patty Kim, Republican Senator John DiSanto and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse all say we shouldn’t wait – The state should takeover the Harrisburg School District immediately.

 

This would effectively destroy all democratic government in a district located in the state capital.

 

While senators and representatives from all over the Commonwealth work to enact the will of their constituents from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, residents at city schools a few miles away would be robbed of their own voices.

 

Under state law, if the district were put into receivership, a court-appointed receiver would assume all the functions of a locally elected school board, except the power to raise and levy taxes. This appointee would effectively take charge of the district’s personnel and finances.

 

Oversight and public input essentially would be repealed. The receiver could do whatever he or she liked and there’s little anyone could do about it.

 

It’s a bad idea anywhere, though one can understand why state lawmakers have suggested it here.

 

Harrisburg Schools are a mess, and it’s largely because of the inept leadership of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and five of the nine-member school board who consistently support her every move.

 

Declining academic performance, high teacher turnover rates, and poor fiscal management – all are hallmarks of the way Harrisburg schools have been run.

 

The state even suspended more than $10 million in funding to the district after the board voted not to cooperate with an audit requested because of allegations administration had mismanaged federal grant funds.

 

But the district’s problems begin before the school board even enters into the picture.

 

Like nearly every urban district in the Commonwealth, Harrisburg has a history of being neglected and underfunded. One estimate puts the Harrisburg shortfall between $35 million and $38 million a year.

 

That’s why the district is already under a state-mandated recovery plan. It serves a poor community whose tax base simply cannot support the needs of its own children. Like other impoverished schools, the administration and board are required to work with a recovery officer.

 

This recovery plan has not miraculously fixed the district’s problems. It’s magical thinking to suppose that a court-appointed receiver would do any better.

 

If the state wants to help, it should provide equitable and sustainable funding. However, it is completely reasonable that state lawmakers wait until responsible adults have taken back the school board first.

 

A citizen-led school reform group called CATCH (Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg) has been pushing to oust the incumbents who have consistently supported the administration’s disastrous decisions, most of whom are up for re-election.

 

There are nine board members. Five invariably vote with the administration: Danielle Robinson, Ellis Roy, Lola Lawson, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, and Lionel Gonzalez.

 

 

Three unfailingly vote against the administration: Brian Carter, Judd Pittman and Carrie Fowler. There is one wild card: Joseph Brown, who was just appointed to take a vacant seat on the board this month and has mostly abstained from voting.

 

Of these, Brown and all of those supporting the administration but Robinson are up for re-election.

 

To flip these seats on the board CATCH is pushing for Gerald Welch, Doug Thomson-Leader, Steven Williams, and Jayne Buchwach. The local teachers union, the Harrisburg Education Association (HEA), and the local chapter of The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) endorsed all of them and an additional one – James Thompson.

 

If even two of the newcomers are elected, that will shift the balance of power away from those who have enabled an administration infamous for irresponsible errors and neglect purchased at the expense of personal favors to weak willed school directors.

 

This includes an accounting error that kept 54 former employees on its healthcare plan, an investigation into improper grading allegations at one of its high schools, rapid teacher turnover, and falling student test scores. Administrators haven’t even presented a budget for the 2019-20 school year yet!

 

Meanwhile, this same quintet of school directors rewarded administration by reappointed Superintendent Knight-Burney last spring, hiring controversial attorney James Ellison as solicitor despite a record of fraud, lawsuits and delinquent taxes, and three times refused to fill Melvin Wilson’s vacant board seat with a candidate who had broad public support and instead punted the decision to the courts.

 

Despite an almost laughable record of corruption in the district, voters have a chance to change course in less than a month.

 

All of the reform candidates are Democrats so the matter could be settled by the May 21 primary.

 

It would be beyond absurd for the state to step in and deny the public the right to correct its own ship.

 

However, though new candidates could be elected in a matter of weeks, they wouldn’t be sworn in until December. So even under the best of circumstances, city schools would remain under the dysfunctional board for the foreseeable future.

 

That’s not good. There’s a lot of damage a lame duck board could do in that time. However, the alternative of receivership is worse.

 

Once you take away a school district’s right to govern itself, it’s hard to get it back again. Plus there is no guarantee that appointed bureaucrats will do a better job. In fact, they rarely do.

 

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera has remained silent on the issue of receivership. But in a recent statement he said his department “will consider all actions allowable by law” to guide the district through a financial recovery plan.

 

Here’s hoping that democracy is allowed to flourish in the capital of Pennsylvania.


 

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

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The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

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“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!
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