“He Was Kind” – My Students Describe What I’m Like as a Teacher

13-your-childs-teacher-stundet-hug

 

 

What’s the most important attribute of a good teacher?

 

 

Some might say intelligence.

 

 

You want a teacher who knows the subject matter and can convey it clearly to students.

 

 

Others might say classroom management.

 

 

You want a teacher who keeps things organized and gets kids to behave.

 

 

But for me the most important thing a teacher can be is kind.

 

 

I’m not saying intelligence, classroom management and a host of other qualities are unimportant, but if you approach your students with good will in your heart, the rest seems to fall into place.

 

 

This isn’t a long-held pedagogical belief I could have articulated for you at the beginning of the school year.

 

 

It came to me – as did so much else – from my students.

 

 

At the end of the year as my 7th graders are finishing up their final projects and we’re tidying up the room, I always give them a little survey about their experience in the class.

 

 

“I’ve been grading you all year,” I say. “Now’s your turn to grade me.”

 

The surveys can be anonymous – kids needn’t put down their names, and whatever they write has no impact on their grades.

 

 

Yet the results are always enlightening.

 

 

I wrote in detail two years ago about the survey and the kinds of responses I often get.

 

 

But this year it was one of the simplest comments that really got me thinking.

 

 

“He was kind.”

 

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That’s what one of my students told me that I had done especially well during the year.

 

 

“He was kind.” That’s all.

 

 

It was a response that was echoed by many of my students.

 

 

Another child wrote:

 

 

“He was kind (and awesome). One of the best teachers.”

 

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And another:

 

 

“He can’t [improve]. He is the best he can be and is the teacher I wish I had every year.”

 

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This is all very flattering, but what exactly did all this niceness mean?

 

 

How did being a kind teacher help me do my job? What did I do that helped students learn?

 

 

They had an answer for that, too:

 

 

“He came and sat with me and helped me through everything I needed help with.”

 

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***

 

 

“If we needed help on anything he helped and explained everything well so work was easier.”

 

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***

 

 

“What my teacher did to help me succeed was that he made me feel motivated to do the work in class and not giving us so much work at once.”

 

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***

 

 

“[He] taught me how to write essays, indent on papers and showed me a lot of useful things.”

 

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Another particularly enlightening comment was this one:

 

 

“I don’t know [how he could improve], but in this class you grew with us. So uh yeah.”

 

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And I do try to change and grow with my students. When your mandate is to individualize instruction to fit each particular child, I don’t know how you can do otherwise.

 

 

This means opening yourself up and letting students know who you are and what you stand for.

 

 

I try not to inflict my political, religious or philosophical beliefs on my classes. However, I think some core values come through.

 

 

For instance, my students knew I was going to Connecticut to give a TED Talk on the current state of public schools.

 

 

They knew my thoughts on standardized testing and school privatization – perhaps not in detail but the general shape of them, certainly. They knew my firm conviction against racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind.

 

 

Perhaps that’s why one of them wrote this:

 

 

“You’re not only a good teacher. You’re a good friend, and man.”

 

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***

 

 

“P.S. – Nice jokes and commentary.”

 

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Of course there were dissenting opinions. One child thought I was too nice:

 

 

“He is way too nice for me and you give way too much essays for people to handle. But overall grade 94%. He doesn’t like Tom Brady so yeah. And he likes the Steelers.”

 

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I guess no one’s perfect. But how interesting she thought either she deserved a stronger hand or would have been more motivated by fear and consequences. Yet I have to take her with a few grains of salt because this student identified herself on her response and had a friendly rivalry with me about football. She said I was too nice but then referenced our interpersonal rapport.

 

Another student highlighted how I wasn’t excessively permissive:

 

[He was good at] “Helping me with instructions and keeping me on task.”

 

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Most comments were unbridled approbation:

 

 

What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed? – “Uh, everything.”

 

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***

 

 

In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction? – “I’m not sure. That’s how good a teacher he was.”

 

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***

 

“I think you did awesome, Mr. Singer. Thanks for being my reading teacher!”

 

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***

 

 

“I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He’s already a great teacher.”

 

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And so another school year comes to an end.

 

 

I’ll miss this class. It was the first year I taught exclusively 7th grade. I’d taught one or two sections of that grade before, but never only that grade.

 

 

I’m more used to 8th grade. You wouldn’t think there’d be a world of difference between the two. And who knows? Perhaps if I teach the same grade level next year things will be even more unexpected because the kids will be different.

 

 

But when that final bell chimed, I was surprised that so many kids came up to me with hugs and tears.

 

 

They really didn’t want to see me go, and, frankly, I don’t want to see them go, either.

 

 

If I could follow them next year, I would.

 

 

I gave them everything I had to give.

 

 

I gave them my heart. I shared with them my life.

 

 

And I got back so much more.

 

 

That’s what non-teachers don’t understand.

 

 

Education is created through often reciprocal relationships.

 

 

Learner and teacher are tied together in a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which and sometimes there is no difference at all.

 

 

Thank you so much, last year’s students.

 

 

Thank you for letting me be your teacher.

 

 

Thank you for bringing out the best in me as I tried to do the same for you.

 


 

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 Vouchers and Runaway EdTech Pave the Way for the Destruction of the Very Concept of School

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School is where you learn to learn.

 

A teacher with an advanced degree and decades of experience devotes her time to figuring out what helps you comprehend the world around you.

 

And, if she’s good, she imparts that lesson to you as well.

 

Imagine if we took that away.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many EdTech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

And school vouchers are helping them do it.

 

Take Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and other market based privatization schemes.

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

At a public school all that money must be spent on the student. At a charter school some of that money can be pocketed as profit by the private company who runs the school.

 

Public schools provide a better alternative because the funding must be dedicated to the student, living within a district’s coverage area guarantees enrollment, the school must be managed by an elected school board with open meetings and a plethora of other amenities you won’t find at a privatized institution. But at least the charter school is a school!

 

However, an ESA or other voucher would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school where organizers can use it however they like – pocketing some and using the rest to help the child as you’ll find in most charter schools.

 

But as bad as that is, vulture capitalists want to add another destination for that money – let it pile up in the bank where it can be used for discrete education services provided by the EdTech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without the loving parent being in charge.

 

It goes by many names – a learning ecosystem, personalized learning, competency based or individualized education.

 

But it’s really a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 

Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. We just transform a crappy job market where workers bounce from a few hours of minimum wage labor here to a few hours of minimum wage toil there – all without benefits or union protections – into learning. Children bouncing from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

In short, it’s school without the school or teachers.

 

And make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to rubes as innovation.

 

The wealthy will still get institutions of learning. They will still be educated by the most qualified teachers in the world. They will still learn how to learn.

 

The best path to becoming a truly educated person involves human interaction and mentorship. You need experienced professional educators who use the empirical evidence they see in the classroom about your child to tailor lessons to their needs. The wealthy would never dream of making their children learn from the academic equivalent of an automated check out aisle or telemarketer robocall.

 

It is only the poor and middle class who will be released like chickens into the pasture of a learning ecosystem.

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin! So all the stability of the pre-crash housing market! What could possibly go wrong!?

 

Let me be clear – this is the ultimate goal of the school privatization movement.

 

Charter and voucher schools are only the tip of the iceberg. They still require real human beings to act as teachers (though they need not be as well educated or have as much experience as public school teachers). They still require buildings and grounds.

 

But this depersonalized learning approach allows them to do away with all of that. They can just provide students with an Internet accessible device and some dubious on-line tracking and management system.

 

Then they can pocket all the rest of the money taxpayers put aside to educate children and call it profit.

 

And they can use the programs students access to “learn” as a way to gather valuable marketing data about our kids. Everything students do on the device is free market research – every word they input, every keystroke, every site visited down to the slightest eye movement.

 

This is the logical conclusion of the monetization of education and an economy that only sees value in others as human capital that can be bought, sold and exploited.

 

This is where the privatization movement is going. And they’re laying the groundwork in legislation being proposed in our state capitals today.

 

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Senate Bill 2 proposes the creation of just such ESAs. If approved, the immediate result would be to boost private and parochial schools.

 

However, given a few years to strengthen the technologies and systems needed for a full learning ecosystem, the same law would allow taxpayer money to be used in this way.

 

And it’s something hardly anyone is talking about.

 

We’re fighting the privatization systems of today as the plutocrats set up the privatization systems of tomorrow.

 

Even if school vouchers never take off to the degree necessary to scaffold the most robust learning ecosystems, EdTech lobbyists are trying to install as much of this garbage as they can into our existing schools.

 

They are using one-to-one iPad initiatives and grants to fund up-to-date computers, Wi-Fi networks and software packages to pave the way for this brave new world of digital exploitation. They are selling our test score obsessed bureaucrats software like iStation and IXL that bridge the gap between test prep and learning ecosystems lite.

 

You can walk into many schools today where students spend hours on-line earning digital badges for watching videos and taking stealth assessments.

 

Few people are sounding the alarm because few people understand what’s going on.

 

This is not conjecture. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is the goal the edtech entrepreneurs will gladly tell you all about hoping you’ll invest.

 

There are hours of videos, pages of documents, mountains of graphs, charts and graphics about how this scheme will pay off for investment bankers and venture capitalists. (See below)

 

The only true way to win this battle is a cultural shift away from dehumanizing runaway capitalism.

 

We need to stop thinking that the private sector is always better than the public good. We need to stop allowing big business and corporations to get away without paying their fair share. We need to increase the voice of citizens and decrease the megaphone of money and privilege.

 

Otherwise, the science fiction dystopias of books like “Ready Player One” will no longer be fiction.

 

They will become the reality for every school child in this country.

 

A reality where school, itself, is a thing of the past.

 

And education is reduced to the mercenary collection of discrete skills that add up to nothing of value for the students except their own enslavement.


 

But don’t take my word for it. Here is the learning ecosystems model from the EdTech industry, itself, in corporate officers own words and graphics:

LEARNING IS EARNING – the scariest 6:58 video you’ll ever see.

 

KNOWLEDGEWORKS Vision for the Future of Education:

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Graphic as a PDF

More on KnowledgeWorks

Listing for PARENTS AS CONSUMERS Symposium

Read all about it here.

 


FIGHT BACK AGAINST SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION AND RUNAWAY EDTECH:

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The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School

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There are good charter schools.

 

I admit that.

 

There are bad public schools.

 

I admit that, too.

 

But if one had to choose between the worst public school and the best charter school, you’d still be better off with the public school.

 

Does that sound crazy? Does it sound ideological, partisan, or close-minded.

 

I don’t think so.

 

Imagine if we said the same thing about tyrannies and democracies.

 

There are good tyrannies.

 

There are bad democracies.

 

Still, I’d prefer the worst democracy to the best tyranny.

 

Why?

 

Because even a badly run democracy is based on the principle of self rule. The government gets its right to make and enforce laws from the consent of the will of the governed.

 

Even if our representatives are corrupt and stupid, even if our federal, state and local agencies are mismanaged and disorganized – there is the potential for positive change.

 

In fact, the catalyst to that change is embedded in democracy, itself.  Egalitarian systems founded on the principle of one person, one vote tend toward fairness, equity and liberty much more than others.

 

Bad leaders will be replaced. Bad functionaries will be retrained or superseded. Bad agencies will be renovated, renewed, and made to serve the will of the people.

 

However, in a tyranny, none of this is true.

 

Even if you have a benevolent tyrant who does nothing all day but try to do whatever is best for his or her subjects, that is a worse state of affairs.

 

Eventually the tyrant will change. Absolute power will corrupt him or her absolutely. Or even if this bastion of human goodness is incorruptible, he or she will eventually be deposed, replaced or die.

 

And there is nothing – absolutely nothing – to ensure the next tyrant is likewise benevolent. In fact, the system is set up to increase the likelihood that the next ruler will be as selfish, greedy and malevolent as possible.

 

This is because it is the system of tyranny, itself, that is corrupt – even if those that fill its offices are not.

 

The same goes for good charter schools.

 

These are schools that are publicly funded but privately run.

 

As such, the overwhelming majority have no elected school board, their meetings are held in private, their documents are kept secret, they discriminate in enrollment and they take advantage of a plethora of legal loopholes and bad policy to embezzle funds, overcharge for nonexistent utilities and cut services for students while pocketing the “savings” as profit.

 

If you can find a charter school that does none of these things – congratulations! You have found a diamond in the rough! But it is a diamond that is more likely to turn to coal the second you turn away.

 

Let’s say you find the rare charter school run by an elected school board. THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Organizers could at any time revert to an appointed board. Community members could be making all the decisions when you send your child to school, but by dismissal time they could have all been replaced with flunkies appointed by the private business people who took out the charter from the state in the first place!

 

 

Let’s say your charter school has open meetings and public documents. They invite the public to their deliberations. They take public comment and share all their internal communications with taxpayers and the media.  THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. They could close the doors any day they wanted. And there’s nothing you could do about it.

 

 

Why? Because that’s what a charter school is. Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, it is not fundamentally a public school. It is a private school at public expense.

 

 

All these things that are optional at a charter school are required at public schools. Not just some public schools – ALL OF THEM!

 

 

Public schools are required to have elected school boards (unless taken over by the state). They are required to have open meetings and public documents. They are essentially democratic, whereas even the best charter schools are only democracies because of someone’s goodwill. When the wind changes, so will their system of government.

 

 

But that’ not all.

 

 

Let’s say you find a charter school that has open enrollment. It accepts every student who applies from its coverage area. Or at least it does so until it runs out of room. If demand exceeds supply, it conducts a lottery to determine which students to let in and which it has to unfortunately turn away.

 

First of all, if the school doesn’t have open meetings and public documentation, you have no way of knowing whether these lotteries are fair and unbiased. Operators are often charged with cherry picking the best and brightest and denying students with disabilities or behavioral problems – they’ve even been known to discriminate based on race and class.

 

Second of all, even if your charter school is one of the magical few that just does the right thing with no oversight, THEY AREN’T REQUIRED TO DO THAT. Once they figure out how much money they can save by only accepting the cheapest students to educate, inclusive enrollment policies will be a thing of the past. And you’ll probably never even know the difference.

 

Public schools aren’t allowed to do that. They have to accept every student from their coverage area regardless of academic deficits, emotional needs, race, religion, class or creed. And if there isn’t enough space, they still can’t turn students away. They have to expand!

 

And what about the most salient feature of charter schools?

 

 

Unlike public schools where all the funding has to be spent on student services, most charter schools are run for profit. They are allowed to cut services for students and swipe the savings for their investors.

 

Some charter schools don’t do this. BUT THEY CAN! Any day now they could cut little Timmy’s gym class down to twice a week so a shady group of business people in a smoke filled room could stuff a bunch of bills in their own wallets.

 

Offering French AND Spanish? Adios muchachos. And bonjour to a fistful of dollars going directly into their bank accounts.

 

All of that is perfectly legal even though it’s your money they’re collecting – money you put aside to help your child learn – there’s not a thing you can do about it.

 

Sure, you can take your child out of the charter school. But the money funding the school isn’t just your child’s. You’re paying for every student enrolled there. Even if you don’t have kids, you’re footing the bill. And unlike the public school system where you get a voice in how that money is spent, here you don’t get to say a thing.

 

You just get to pay.

 

Call me crazy, but I think there’s something wrong with that.

 

I think that’s worse than even the most decrepit public school.

 

If a public school has a terrible school board, they can be replaced. In fact, they most certainly will be given time. With each bad policy and unpopular decision, bad school directors motivate taxpayers to vote them out.

 

This is the exact opposite of charter schools. There is more reason for a charter to replace an elected board with an appointed one so as to increase their autonomy and ability to make money.

 

Most of the problems with public schools aren’t located in the schools, themselves.

 

They are the result of strategic disinvestment – archaic funding formulas that allocate less to districts without a large tax base than those in richer neighborhoods. They are the result of segregation schemes that keep the poor and minorities in neighborhoods where they can be ignored and then blamed for their own underprivileged status. They are the result of national and state policies allowed to play the parasite on their budgets – high stakes testing, Common Core and – yes – charter schools.

 

So, no, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be so positive about public schools and so negative about charter schools.

 

The problem with privatized education isn’t just specific to individual schools. It is a feature of the very kind of school we’re talking about in the first place.

 

Charter schools are at heart a less democratic system than public schools.

 

Therefore, public schools are always preferable.

 

I wouldn’t give up my country just because we have an idiot in the oval office. Nor would I give up my public school just because of inadequacies in my local district.

 

Democracy isn’t for wimps. You have to fight for it.

 

Those people who are telling you to switch teams are trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

 

Don’t fall for it.

 

Public school proud.

 

Today.

 

Tomorrow.

 

Always.


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!

WANT A SIGNED COPY?

Click here to order one directly from me to your door!

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Pennsylvania’s Zombie School Voucher Bill is Back! And It Wants Your Tax Dollars!

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First, there was the horror of a School Voucher Bill.

 

No one wanted it.

 

It robbed kids of a quality education. It violated the Constitution. And raised taxes.

 

So it was soundly defeated.

 

Then there was Bride of the Voucher Bill.

 

And it likewise went down in flames.

 

This was soon followed by Son of the Voucher Bill.

 

Return of the Voucher Bill.

 

School Vouchers from the Black Lagoon.

 

Plan 9 from Voucher Space.

 

And a host of B-grade legislation straight from the desk of a billionaire think tank to Harrisburg.

 

All ended up in the same place – the legislative graveyard. Oooh! Scary!

 

Now we have the latest shambling zombie iteration of a voucher bill, called Senate Bill 2.

 

Yesterday, after years of false starts and political wheeling and dealing, it’s finally been voted out of the Education Committee.

 

Which means it will come to a vote by the state Senate and then the state House.

 

And who do we have to thank for yet another version of legislation billionaires insist we need but voters don’t want?
These guys:

 

  • Senator John Eichelberger, (R-Blair),
  • Senator Richard Alloway, (R-Franklin)
  • Senator Ryan Aument, (R-Lancaster),
  • Senator Pat Browne, (R-Lehigh),
  • Senator John DiSanto, (R-Dauphin)
  • Senator Mike Folmer, (R-Lebanon)
  • Senator Joe Scarnati, (R-Jefferson)

 

All Republicans. All bought and paid for by wealthy oligarchs. All convinced that we need to give School Vouchers yet another try in the Keystone state.

 

And who voted against letting the monster out once again? These guys:

 

  • Senator James Brewster (D-Allegheny)
  • Senator Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester)
  • Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery)
  • Senator Robert Tomlinson (R-Bucks)
  • Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia)

 

This time the beast has a new look – something called Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

 

It’s really just putting another horn on the same old rubber creature.

 

They say ESAs allow state money to pay for private school tuition of elementary and high school students in struggling public school districts.

 

Oh great. Another way to siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money from the public schools serving 90% of the state’s students.

 

Just what we need. A boondoggle for private businesses and religious schools.

 

Will there be any way to make sure the money in these education savings accounts is going to the right place or is being used to help kids learn?

 

Nope.

 

These schools will be able to grab your tax money and use it just about however they please with little to no oversight.

 

Thanks a lot, so-called fiscal conservatives.

 

And guess who gets to pay the bill? YOU DO!

 

Watch property taxes increase to make up the shortfall in funding so your local public school can have the privilege of continuing to operate.

 

I wouldn’t mind more of my taxes going to public schools that are run democratically, are held accountable and teach things in the American mainstream.

 

But – call me crazy – I don’t want my money going to help indoctrinate the next generation of zealots who deny science, deny history, and deny the moral standards of our society.

 

When Evangelical Christians pretend the moral high ground by backing a President who pays off porn stars and belittles war heroes and the disabled, you can see why they need to demand government assistance to keep their pews filled.

 

Will not on my dime, Buster.

 

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

 

Remember that?

 

It’s the establishment clause from the First Amendment. And if you need to wipe your ass with something, it certainly won’t be the U.S. Constitution!

 

Separation of church and state. Keep them separate.

 

This law would allow many of the rich kids who already attend private and religious schools to be subsidized by taxpayers.

 

It would rob us of hundreds of millions of dollars ($500 million at last estimate) that we need just to keep our public schools where they’re at!

 

 

Moreover, school vouchers are nothing new.

 

We’ve been trying this crap for years and they haven’t done a thing to help students learn.

 

Three out of the four most recent studies on voucher programs, which examined the nation’s largest and oldest voucher strategies in Washington DC, Indiana, Ohio and Louisiana, all show student performance getting worse or not improving at all with vouchers.

 

A 2017 report from the Economic Policy Institute concluded that extensive research on vouchers over the past quarter century demonstrates that gains in student achievement – if present at all – are at best small. Students show no significant improvement in reading or math. In addition, the report showed that the risks outweigh any insignificant gains in test scores.

 

Another report from June 2017 by the US Dept of ED found that students using a voucher had statistically significant lower performance in math compared to students who did not receive a voucher.

 

And THIS is what a gaggle of ideologues want to increase in the Commonwealth!?

 

 

Look. The problem with our public schools is poverty. Pure and simple.

 

Giving out vouchers to private and parochial schools won’t help. It just hides the problem and makes it worse.

 

Most of the lowest-performing schools are in high poverty districts that are already struggling financially and cannot afford even less funding.

 

Poverty has a significant impact in student achievement. The average acute poverty rate (% of children living in families with income less than 100% of federal poverty limits) in school districts with more than one low-achieving school was 33.3% – more than double the state average of 16.3%.

 

Higher poverty means lower standardized test scores.

 

On average, the proficiency rate for students in the highest poverty schools is 33% less than students in the wealthiest districts. Struggling schools need MORE resources – not less.

 

Yet, the highest poverty school districts receive more than $2,000 less per student than their wealthy counterparts. This means they are unable to make the investments necessary to overcome the barriers posed by being poor in America.

 

Diverting state subsidies from these school districts, to ESA vouchers reduce fair access to educational opportunities for these students.

 

Despite what voucher proponents think, this does not “Save Money.” It does not force struggling districts to do more with less. It forces them to do less – or get more.

 

Schools don’t budget or spend money on a per student basis. Fixed costs remain the same regardless of how many students are led away by the pied piper of school vouchers.

 

Costs such as building operations and maintenance, utilities, technology, food service, staff salaries and benefits, transportation including fuel and bus drivers, remain.

 

Vouchers result in no savings. They produce a greater financial burden for local taxpayers. With less in state funding to provide the same education, that money would have to be raised from other sources – namely, YOU and your local taxes!

 

I know this is all very tiresome.

 

It seems like any positive legislation is impossible to get through Harrisburg, but garbage like Senate Bill 2 is ubiquitous.

 

How many times have we defeated this voucher nonsense?

 

How many times have taxpayers made it clear they don’t want to fund this nonsense?

 

But it doesn’t matter. Like a spoiled child, ideologues keep bringing it up again and again in the hopes that this time they’ll wear us down and we’ll let this terrible legislation pass.

 

Vouchers can be defeated a hundred times. All it takes is one victory and it becomes law and much more difficult to expunge.

 

So please call, write and visit your state senator and representative.

 

Tell them you’re against the latest horror show voucher monstrosity.

 

And maybe when you’re at the polls remember the names of the tools who keep making you repeat yourself.

 

Give them an unequivocal answer by voting them out of office.

 

Only then do we stand a chance of nailing a stake through vouchers’ undead heart – for good.


 

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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Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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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Pennsylvania’s Broken Testing Promise – We Don’t Assess Students Less If We Demand Constant Diagnostic Tests

Jelani Guzman

Downcast faces, dropping eyes, desperate boredom.

 

That’s not what I’m used to seeing from my students.

 

But today they were all slumped over their iPads in misery taking their Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) test.

 

It’s at times such as these that I’m reminded of the promise made by Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf.

 

He pledged that this year we’d reduce the amount of time public school students spend taking standardized assessments.

 

“Students, parents, teachers and others have told us that too much time in the classroom is used for test taking,” he said.

 

“We want to put the focus back on learning in the classroom, not teaching to a test. Standardized testing can provide a useful data point for a student’s performance, but our focus should be on teaching students for future success, not just the test in front of them.”

 

So at his urging we made slight cuts to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – the assessment for grade 3-8 students.

 

We removed two sections of the PSSA – one in math, one in reading – and reduced the number of science questions.

 

This can cut testing by as much as 48 minutes in math, 45 minutes in reading, and 22 minutes in science.

 

And that’s good news.

 

But it’s not exactly the kind of sea change the state claims, given the Department of Education’s recommendations for additional tests on top of the PSSA.

 

That’s right. The state wants schools to give the CDT assessment an additional 3 to 5 times a year in reading, math and science.

 

Unlike the PSSA, this is a voluntary assessment. Districts can decide against it, but the department’s flunkies are crisscrossing the Commonwealth advising we all give the CDT as much as possible.

 

So that’s between 50-90 minutes for each assessment. A district that follows the state’s guidelines would be adding as much as 270 minutes of testing every seven weeks. In a given year, that’s 1,350 minutes (or 22.5 hours) of additional testing!

 

Pop quiz, Governor Wolf. Cutting testing by 115 minutes while adding 1,350 minutes results in a net loss or a net gain?

 

The answer is an increase of 1,235 minutes (or more than 20 hours) of standardized testing.

 

In my classroom, that means students coming in excited to learn, but being told to put away their books, pocket their pencils and put their curiosity on standby.

 

The folks who work at the Department of Education instead of in the classroom with living, breathing children, will tell you that these CDT tests are a vital tool to help students learn.

 

They provide detailed information about which skills individual students need remediation on.

 

But who teaches that way?

 

Billy, you are having trouble with this kind of multiple-choice question, so here are 100 of them.

 

We don’t do that. We read. We write. We think. We communicate.

 

And if somewhere along the way, we struggle, we work to improve that while involved in a larger project that has intrinsic value – such as a high interest book or a report on a hero of the civil rights movement.

 

When learning to walk, no one concentrates on just bending your knees. Even if you have stiff joints, you work them out while trying to get from point A to point B.

 

Otherwise, you reduce the exercise to boring tedium.

 

That’s what the state is suggesting we do.

 

Make something essentially interesting into humdrum monotony.

 

Teachers don’t need these diagnostics. We are deeply invested in the act of learning every day.

 

I know if my students can read by observing them in that act. I know if they can write by observing them doing it. I know if they can communicate by listening to them arguing in Socratic seminar. I read their poems, essays and short stories. I watch their iMovies and Keynote projects.

 

I’m a teacher. I am present in the classroom.

 

That tells me more than any standardized diagnostic test ever will.

 

It’s ironic that on a Department of Education “CDT Frequently Asked Questions” sheet, the assessment is described as “minimizing testing time.”

 

That’s just bad math.

 

And my student’s know it.

 

The district just sent out a letter telling parents and students they could take advantage of a school voucher to go to a local parochial school at public expense.

 

When presented with the prospect of another day of CDT testing in my room, one of my brightest students raised his hand and asked if kids in the local Catholic school took the test.

 

I told him I didn’t know – though I doubt it. They COULD take the test. It is available to nonpublic schools, but do you really think they’re going to waste that much instruction time?

 

Heck! They don’t even take the same MANDATORY standardized testing! Why would they bother with the optional kind!?

 

It is the public schools that are hopelessly tangled in the industrial testing complex. That’s how the moneyed interests “prove” the public schools are deficient and need to be replaced by privatized ones.

 

It’s an act of sabotage – and with the CDT it’s an act of self-sabotage.

 

School directors and administrators need to be smarter. The only way to beat a rigged game is not to play.

 

And the only way to reduce testing is to TAKE FEWER TESTS!


 

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 State Penalized My School Because We Tried to Integrate

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The original sin of American education is segregation.

 

Yet in Pennsylvania, taking steps to integrate can result in a penalty from the state legislature.

 

That’s what happened to my school this year.

 

After years of innovation and academic growth, my school added a new program to bring in struggling students from another institution – and the state rewarded us by putting us on a list of “failing” schools and forcing us into a voucher program.

 

I teach in a racially diverse, high poverty district in the western part of the state, just outside of Pittsburgh.

 

Charter schools have been leeching off us for years.

 

But today was the first day school vouchers sunk their teeth into us, too.

 

It’s called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTCP) – a ridiculous bit of legislation that allows children in struggling public schools to use public tax dollars to pay for tuition at a private or parochial school.

 

I’d say they could use that money at a participating public school, too, but in Pennsylvania the public schools taking part in the program can be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.

 

And why does my school now qualify for this dubious distinction? Because of our standardized test scores.

 

Not our test scores from this year. They won’t be released until at least June – more likely August or September.

 

This is based on test scores from last year – 2016-17.

 

Moreover, it’s not district wide. It’s just the middle school and one elementary school.

 

In previous years, the middle school was the district powerhouse. We had the highest test scores and the most innovation. So what happened?

 

In short, we integrated.

 

From a state-wide standpoint, my district is hugely segregated.

 

About 60% of our students are poor and/or minorities. Yet if you go a few miles north, south, east or west, you’ll find schools serving every flavor of white privilege. Beautiful big buildings with the best of everything and a tax base to pay for it. My district, on the other hand, is made to do the best it can with what we’ve got, which isn’t much.

 

To make matters worse, the structure within our district, inherited from decades of unenlightened social planning, doubles down on that segregation.

 

Though we only have one middle school and one high school where all our students rub shoulders, we have two elementary schools – one for the middle class white kids and one for the poorer black ones.

 

This has dramatic academic consequences. Kids at the better-resourced white school flourish scholastically more than kids from the crumbling black school. So the racial and economic skills gap becomes entrenched by the time kids move to the middle school in 6th grade.

 

If only we could integrate the elementaries.

 

However, we can’t bus kids from one neighborhood to the other because we can’t afford it. We have a walking district. Moreover, parents would revolt at the idea of elementary kids having to trudge long distances or take a city bus to school.

 

The only long-term solution is to create a new, centrally located elementary center serving both populations. However, that takes money we don’t have.

 

So last year we tried a partial solution – move the 5th grade up to the middle school. That way, we can at least integrate our students a year earlier.

 

Of course, this means taking kids from the black school with terrible test scores up to the middle school. This means adding more struggling students from the school that already is on the state’s bottom 15% list and making them the middle school’s responsibility. It means a new program, new trials and challenges.

 

You’d think we’d get praise or at least understanding for tackling such a problem. But no.

 

Taking on the 5th grade tipped the middle school’s test scores over the edge.

 

Now we’re in the bottom 15%, too. Now we have to let our students go to a private or parochial school with public tax dollars.

 

Why? Because we tried to right a wrong. We tried to correct a social and academic injustice. And the result was a kick in the gut.

 

Thanks, Harrisburg legislators! Way to support students of color!

 

This is just another way that school vouchers support white supremacy. They make it harder to battle segregation.

 

Why would anyone integrate if doing so could mean losing funding and looking like a failure in the press?

 

Moreover, forget all the junk you hear from the state about growth.

 

This penalty is based on whether we hit testing benchmarks – what percentage of students we have earning proficient or advanced on the tests. It doesn’t matter how much they’ve improved. It doesn’t matter if they’ve gone from the lowest of the low to scratching at the ceiling of proficient.

 

My 8th graders last year (the year we’re being penalized for) experienced tremendous growth just like my students this year are doing. From where they came in to where they’re leaving, the difference is phenomenal!

 

But apparently that doesn’t count in Pennsylvania.

 

A poor school serving mostly underprivileged minorities needs to meet the same benchmarks as schools with Cadillac resources serving kids who have everything money can buy. There’s certainly no need for the state or federal government to do anything about equitable resources (At least, not until the result of a lawsuit is handed down where local districts are suing the state over just such strategic disinvestment).

 

Instead, we’ve got to offer our student the “opportunity” to go to a private school on the public dime.

 

And what an opportunity it is!

 

The chance to send your child to a cooperating private or parochial school at public expense.

 

The opportunity to lose your duly-elected school board. The opportunity for decisions about how your money is spent being made behind closed doors with little to no input from you. The opportunity to send your child to a school with fewer resources and fewer certified teachers. The opportunity to send your child to (an often) religious school on the public dime.

 

Wow! I can’t imagine why so few parents take advantage of that opportunity! My district has had a few schools on the OSTCP list before, and families overwhelmingly opt to stay put.

 

Let’s not forget the justification for this “opportunity” is low test scores.

 

Wait a minute. These cooperating private and parochial schools don’t even take the same standardized tests, if they take any at all.

 

In our community, there is only one cooperating private school – a catholic school located right next door.

 

Students enrolled there don’t take the PSSA or Keystone Exams. I believe they take the Terra Nova test. And the school must do a great job because its Website is three years out of date about the results of those tests.

 

What a great way to improve test scores for our students – comparing apples-to-pears or, to be honest, actually making no comparison at all.

 

This OSTCP law is based on an unjustified assumption that private schools are always better than public ones. The reality is that if the resources both schools receive are similar, the public school usually greatly outperforms the private or parochial one.

 

I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve toured our next door Catholic institution. A few years ago, we relocated our students there temporarily during an emergency drill.

 

It’s a quaint school. Cobblestones and a shaded green campus.

 

But the buildings are crumbling – especially on the inside. Watermarks on the walls and dirt collecting in the corners.

 

It’s also much smaller than my school. They only have less than 300 students from K-8. We have about 1,500 from K-12.

 

I can see why parents who graduated from that school and have a history with it might want to send their kids there to continue that legacy. But anyone else would be giving up much better facilities, a much wider curriculum, much better trained and experienced teachers and even smaller classes!

 

The OSTCP bill has nothing to do with providing better opportunities for children and families.

 

It’s a public tax giveaway to private businesses.

 

The private/religious schools benefit and so do the businesses who “donate” their taxes to these programs.

 

In 17 states you can get substantial tax credits for contributing to this scam.

 

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia, for example, all provide tax credits worth between $65 and $95 on every $100 donated. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina go even further by reimbursing 100% of the donation. You read that right. Donate $100, get $100 back.

 

Oh, but it gets much worse. Since these are considered donations, you can also claim them as charitable deductions and get an additional 35% off your taxes. So you donate $100 and get back $135! Yes. You actually make money off this deal!

 

In Pennsylvania, investors can even “triple dip” receiving a state tax credit, a reduction in their state taxable income, and a reduction in their federal taxable income. And, yes, that means they sometimes get back more in tax breaks than they provide in contributions.

 

Meanwhile all of these “savings” come from money stolen from local public schools like mine. Businesses and individual investors are profiting off the industrial testing complex.

 

In the Keystone state, we have the OSTCP and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).

 

This blatant swindle is championed on both sides of the political aisle.

 

We already waste $200 million in business taxes to these programs in the Commonwealth, yet both Democrats and Republicans keep trying to pass another bill to increase that sum by another $50 million.

 

In Allegheny County, where I teach, that includes Democratic State Reps. Dom Costa, Daniel J. Deasy, William C. Kortz II (who represents part of my school district) and Harry Readshaw.

 

Because of this bogus philanthropy, there will always be a bottom 15% of state schools – approximately 400 “failing schools” – that are ripe for the picking from private and parochial school vultures.

 

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t right.

 

That money should be going to public schools not private or religious institutions many of which espouse fundamentalist or racist teachings.

 

There is a reason our founders legislated a separation of church and state. We’d do best to remember it.

 

We could be using our resources to help solve our problems, alleviate segregation and increase equity.

 

Instead our lawmakers are too interested in giveaways to business and corporations even if that means stealing the money from our children.