Public School Boards Need to Do Better at Embracing Transparency 

 


They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.  


 
So why do so many public school boards hide in the shadows?  


 
 
One of the shining virtues of public schools is the requirement that they be transparent and open to the public.  


 
And they are! 


 
But too often school directors do so in ways that are unnecessarily burdensome, equivocal or combative.  


 
Let me give you an example.  


 
I live in the McKeesport Area School District (MASD) – a community just south of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.  


 
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:  


 
“Preliminary Budget Information for 2022-23 School Year.”
 


 
I clicked on it and got this: 


 
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.


What the heck!?  


Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy? 


It’s not like I can even turn to my local newspaper to tell me about the district’s budget. With so many cutbacks in local media, our papers rarely even cover school districts anymore unless there’s a big story.  


If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.  


We should be able to do better than this. 


Don’t get me wrong. 


 
Authentic public schools are way better than privatized schools.  


 
They’re preferable to anything you’d find at charter or private schools that take school vouchers.  


 
And one of the biggest reasons why is this requirement of local control, self-government, and a free exchange of information between representatives and the community who elected them.   


 
Authentic public schools HAVE TO hold public meetings to conduct their business.  


 
They HAVE TO take comments from the community. 


 
They HAVE TO make their documentation available to the public.  


 
And except under extreme circumstances, they HAVE TO be run by elected school boards.

 
 
None of that is a given at charter and voucher schools. 


 
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations. 


 
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.  


 
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.  


 
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it. 


 
The same thing goes for school board meetings.  


 
Before I became a public school teacher, I was a journalist often covering public schools.  


 
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.  


 
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.  


 
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.  


 
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.

 
 
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.  


 
Now I know it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public who volunteer to serve as school directors to spend all night listening to rambling or incoherent comments. But these time limits are often way too restrictive – especially when only a handful of people actually turn up to speak.  


 
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.

 
 
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.  


 
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.  


 
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line. 


 
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.  


 
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.  


 
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked. 


 
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.

 
 
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.  
 


Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.  


 
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available. 


 
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.  


 
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic. 


 
It is so unnecessary. 


 
Things don’t have to be this way.  


 
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.  


 
After all, this is one of the major factors that distinguish authentic public schools from privatized ones.  


 
School directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do a lot to boost their own reputation.  


 
President James Madison wrote


 
 “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or­ the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”  


 
School directors should take this to heart. 


 
Public schools should not be shadowy corners for school directors to try to sneak through policies under the nose of stake holders.  


 
They should be shinning centers of the community. 


 
The sooner school boards understand this, the better it will be for the state of public education and the students, families and communities we are supposed to be serving in the first place. 


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It’s Open Season on Teachers – Again  

  
I am so sick of being a scapegoat.  


  
But Republican lawmakers seem to think they can’t get elected without finding some boogeyman with which to terrify their base.  


  
Whether it’s climate scientists or Hollywood elites or a mythical caravan of brown people determined to burst through our southern border, the GOP cannot function without someone to cast as the monster. 


  
For a political party that scornfully calls others snowflakes, you will never find a more concentrated gathering of self-proclaimed victims than today’s GOP.   


  
Now they’re turning their attention once again to teachers like me.  


 
Across the country, Republican politicians are refusing to let educators give an accurate recounting of history. 


 
In Florida, the GOP is banning math books.   


 
And on Fox News, Tucker Carlson is even calling for mad dads to storm the school and “thrash” the teacher.   


  
In my home state of Pennsylvania, it’s no different.  


 
State Rep. Barbara Gleim (R – Cumberland County) stoked the flames in the Commonwealth this week with the following message to her social media crew:  


  
“We also need conservative eyes and ears in the schools. If anyone can substitute even one day a week, the teachers who are activists and indoctrinating children can be revealed. Not all teachers are for [Critical Race Theory] CRT, etc. We need to identify the ones who are pushing the professional development they received over the summer. Are they putting black children’s tests in separate piles and grading them differently? Have they separated the classrooms? We won’t know these things until parents are allowed back into schools, so the best way is to sub.”  


  
What a load of crap! 


 
Pennsylvania’s public schools are experiencing a sub shortage. I WISH people would volunteer to sub in our public schools.  


 
In fact, back in October I even suggested lawmakers like Gleim volunteer to sub a few times a week to see what’s going on in the classroom instead of pulling vacuous lies out of their butts.  


 
 
They certainly have the time!  Legislators from the Keystone State make the third highest salary in the country, and they’re only in session a few weeks every month! They could easily spend a few days a week struggling with overstuffed classes, in-school suspension, hall duty and the like. 


 
To be a sub in most public school districts in Pennsylvania, essentially all you need is a bachelors degree (it doesn’t even have to be in education) and pass criminal background checks. 


 
Districts that aren’t experiencing a shortage may require a teaching certificate as well, but beggars can’t be choosers. In districts where it is hard to get subs (i.e. those serving poor and minority kids) you can get emergency certified for a year. 


 
But when I made such a suggestion, I naively thought lawmakers might see the problems schools actually have and start to support them.  


 
Fat chance of that! 


 
People with an agenda like Gleim would simply take the most innocent of interactions and pretend they were examples of indoctrination.  


 
In Florida they banned 41% of the math books for being “woke” without a single concrete example and then patted themselves on the back for being transparent. It would be the same here. It would be like the Puritan girls in “The Crucible” finding witches in every classroom and hallway.  


 
This state representative really thinks teachers are putting black children’s tests in separate piles and grading them differently!? As if we’re somehow changing their grades or assessing them more leniently?

 
 
NEWS FLASH: Children of color are not suddenly acing all their tests or rocketing to the head of the class. In fact, just the opposite. There has been a racial proficiency gap for decades based on segregation, lack of resources and punitive and biased standardized tests. 


 
For decades teachers like me have been screaming for change but lawmakers like Gleim either shrug or double down on it. 


 
But back to her social media tirade. She wonders if there are separated classrooms – by which I assume she means classrooms segregated by race. 


 
BINGO! She got that one right! But it’s not what she seems to think.  


 
A majority of children of color are not getting privileged treatment. They’re being underprivileged. They’re in the lower academic tracks and a majority of the white kids are in the honors courses.  


 
Using standardized tests to sort students into academic tracks has hurt minority children and benefited richer white kids.  


 
But back to her social media bubble. She wants parents to be allowed “back” into public schools!? Parents have never been excluded. As long as they can pass the background check, they can come in almost any time.  


 
And if they want to know what’s going on, they can come to any school board meeting and be in the room where all things are decided and be heard during public comment periods. They can even run for school board and make those decisions, themselves.  


 
But way better to pretend a grievance where no such problem exists.  


 
Public schools do not indoctrinate kids.  


 
We teach them to think and come to their own conclusions.  


 
Yes, we teach history, science, English and math. But it’s up to kids to decide what to make of it all.  


 
However, if she wants to see REAL indoctrination all she has to do is look at the private and parochial schools who accept school vouchers – a policy her party usually supports.  


 
These schools use books like America: Land I Love, an A Beka Book; United States History for Christian Schools; and the Teacher’s Resource Guide to Current Events for Christian Schools, the last two published by Bob Jones University Press (BJU). 


 
 
The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one text labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from white Europeans. 


 
 
They teach that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, some dinosaurs survive into the present day (i.e. the Loch Ness monster), evolution is a myth disproved by REAL science as is the claim that homosexuality is anything but a choice. 


 
 
Teaching these things in school is not just educational malpractice, it’s exactly the kind of indoctrination the right is claiming without evidence happens at public schools. 


 
 
And this kind of brain washing is common at voucher schools. 


 
 
If there’s one thing we need to understand about today’s GOP leaders, it’s this: their accusations are always admissions.  


 
They accuse Democrats of the pedophilia Republican congresspeople like Matt Gaetz are already under investigation for.  


 
They accuse Democrats of fixing elections while the last GOP President actually tried to steal an election. 


 
They accuse public schools of indoctrination while private schools routinely do that already


 
Or as the old proverb puts it: 


 
“I looked, and looked, 
 And this I came to see:  
That what I thought was you and you, 
 Was really me and me.”   


  
 
We could stop these shenanigans if the rest of society actually took it seriously.  


 
But that would require news sources to point out the hypocrisy above every time a MAGA supporter started making these sorts of claims.  


 
And that won’t happen because modern media is committed to giving equal measure to both sides of a story – even if one is patently false. They’re too afraid to appear biased to report the truth.  


 
It would stop if the Democrats actually prosecuted the former President and his cronies for the Jan. 6 insurrection.  


 
But that won’t happen because they’re terrified it might lose them a vote. They’re too afraid of being called partisan. Yet there is no middle ground with justice. You either have it or you don’t. 


 
It would require a stance on principle.  


 
So far, it hasn’t happened, and I doubt it will.  


 
So Republicans will continue to take aim at all the usual scapegoats like teachers.  


 
Like when Chris Christie threatened to punch educators in the face.  


 
Their base will get fired up – perhaps maybe even too fired up – and someone will walk into a school with gun-in-hand to take down all these indoctrinating teachers.  


 
That’s the kind of thing that happened a few years ago at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. A MAGA gunman was convinced by Trump that Jews were helping immigrants come into the country illegally. So he decided to kill as many Saturday worshipers as he could. 


 
If we don’t stand up to this, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.

 
 
Look. I don’t want to be at the center of this ridiculous culture war.  


 
I just want to teach. I just want to do right by my students and their families.
 


But as our country burns to the ground, the school house often seems to be the center of the blaze.  


 
I am sick of it. 


 
I am sick of it.  
 


I am just so sick of it. 


 

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


 
 
 
Standardized tests were supposed to be the magic remedy to fix our public schools.  


 
 
They were supposed to make all students proficient in reading and math.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources.  


 
 
They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students.  


 
 
But after more than four decades, standardized tests have not fulfilled a single one of these promises.

 
 
 
In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.  


 
 
So why haven’t we gotten rid of them? 


 
 
To answer that question, we have to understand how we got here in the first place – where these kinds of assessments came from in the US and how they became the guiding policy of our public schools. 


 
Standardized testing has been around in this country since the 1920s.  


 
It was the product of the pseudoscientific eugenicist movement that tried to justify white supremacy with bad logic and biased premises.  


 
Psychologists Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham invented these assessments to justify privileging upper-class whites over lower class immigrants, Blacks and Hispanics. That was always the goal and they tailored their tests to find that result. 


 
From the very start, it had serious consequences for public policy. The results were used to rationalize the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool.  


 
However, Brigham’s greatest claim to fame was the creation of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. These tests were not central to school curriculum and mainly used as gatekeepers with the SAT in particular still in wide use today. 


 
The problem then – as now – is that standardized tests aren’t very good assessments. They work okay for really simple things like rudimentary math. However, the more complex a skill you’re assessing, the more inadequate the tests. For example, imagine just trying to have a conversation with someone where your only choices of reply were limited to four canned responses. That’s a multiple-choice assessment. The result is a testing system that selects against the poor and minorities. At best, it reproduces the economic and racial disparities of society. At worst, it ensures those disparities will continue into the next generation. 


 
That isn’t to say the system went unchallenged. By the 1960s, the junk science and leaps of logic behind standardized testing were obvious and people began fighting back in court. 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, middleclass group. 


 
 
Nevertheless, just as the tests were beginning to disappear, radical economists like Milton Friedman saw them as an opportunity to push their own personal agenda. More than anything, these extreme capitalists wanted to do away with almost all public services – especially public schools. They hoped the assessments could be repurposed to undermine these institutions and usher in an era of private education through measures like school vouchers. 


 
 
 
So in the 1980s, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” a campfire tale about how America’s public schools were failing. Thus, the authors argued we needed standardized testing to make American children competitive in a global marketplace. 


 
 
However, the report, which examined test scores from the past 20 years, was misleading and full of statistical and mathematical errors.  


 
 
For instance, it concluded that average student test scores had decreased but didn’t take into account that scores had actually increased in every demographic group. It compared two decades worth of test scores, but failed to mention that more students took the test at the end of that period than at the beginning, and many of the newer students were disadvantaged. In other words, it compared test scores between an unrepresentative group at the beginning of the comparison with a more representative group at the end and concluded that these oranges were nothing like the apples they started with. Well, duh. 


 
Most people weren’t convinced by the disaster capitalism at work here, but the report marks a significant moment in the standardization movement. In fact, this is really where our modern era began.

 
 
Slowly governors and state legislators began drinking the Kool-aide and mandating standardized testing in schools along with corporate-written academic standards the tests were supposed to assess. It wasn’t everywhere, but the model for test-and-punish was in place. 


 
It took an additional two decades, until 2001, for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to require standardized testing in ALL public schools.  


 
With bipartisan support, Bush tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress. And from then on, the die was cast. This policy has been upheld through both Republican and Democratic regimes.  


 
In fact, standardized testing intensified under President Barack Obama and was continued with few changes by Donald Trump and even Joe Biden. Far from changing course, Biden broke a campaign promise to discontinue the tests. Once in office, he thought testing was so important that he forced schools to give the assessments during the Covid-19 pandemic when districts had trouble even keeping school buildings open. 


 
And that brings us to today.  


 
From the 1980s to 2022 we’ve had wide scale standardized testing in our schools. That’s roughly 40 years where the entirety of what is done in public school has been organized around these assessments. They drive the curriculum and are the ultimate benchmark by which success or failure is judged. If this policy was ever going to work, it would have done so by now.  


 
 
However, it has achieved NONE of its stated goals.  


 
NCLB specifically stated that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. That has not happened. Despite spending billions of dollars on remediation and completely reorganizing our schools around the assessments, test scores have remained mostly static or even decreased. 


 
The law also justified its existence with claims to equity. Somehow taking resources away from districts with low test scores was supposed to increase funding at the neediest schools. Unsurprisingly this did not happen. All it did was further increase the funding gap between rich and poor schools and between wealthy and disadvantaged students.  


 
NCLB also championed the idea that competing for test scores would result in better teachers. However, that didn’t happen either. Instead, educators were forced to narrow the curriculum to cover mostly what was assessed, reduce creativity and critical thinking, and teachers who served poor and minority students were even punished for doing so.  


 
If the purpose of standardized testing was all the things the law purported, then it was a decades long failure. It is the policy equivalent of slamming your head into a wall repeatedly and wondering why you aren’t moving forward. (And where did this headache come from?) 


 
If, however, the purpose of standardized testing was to fulfill Friedman’s privatization dreams, then it was a resounding success. Public schools still persist, but they have been drained, weakened and in many ways subverted.  


 
Look at the evidence. 


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


 
Huge corporations make the tests, grade the tests and then sell remediation materials when students fail. It’s a huge scam. 


 
But that’s not the only business created by this policy. Test and punish opened entirely new markets that hadn’t existed before. The emphasis on test scores and the “failing schools” narrative stoked unwarranted distrust in the public school system and a demand for more privatized alternatives. 


 
 Chief among these was charter schools. 


 
The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota. It allowed for the creation of new schools that would have special agreements (or charters) with states or districts to run without having to abide by all the usual regulations. Thus, the school could go without an elected board, pocket public money as private profit, etc. The bill was quickly copied and spread to legislatures across the country by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 


  
Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students. Charter schools enroll about 6% of the students in the country.  


 
 
However, charter schools are rife with fraud and malfeasance. For instance, more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education. It’s a get rich quick scheme. And since these types of schools are free from the kinds of regulations, democratic governance and/or transparency that keeps authentic public schools in check, another charter school scandal pops up almost every day. 


 
 
But let’s not forget school vouchers. Before high stakes testing, the idea of using public money to pay for private or parochial schools was widely considered unconstitutional. Now about 4% of US students go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers. This is an option in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 600,000 students participated in a voucher, scholarship tax credit or education savings account program last school year, according to EdChoice, a pro-voucher and school choice group.  


 
There is little evidence that school vouchers actually improve student performance, however, and there’s even evidence that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools may do worse on tests than they would have if they had stayed in authentic public schools.  


 
Moreover, the cost of attending one of these private or parochial schools isn’t completely covered by the voucher. On average, vouchers offer about $4,600 a year, according to American Federation for Children, which supports voucher programs. The average annual cost of tuition at a private K-12 school nationwide is $12,350, according to Educationdata.org, though that can be much more expensive in some states. In Connecticut, for example, the average tuition is almost $24,000. So vouchers only REDUCE the cost of attending private or parochial schools for a few kids while siphoning away tax dollars that should go to educating all kids.  


 
In short, they’re subsidies for wealthier kids at the expense of the middle class and disadvantaged. 


 
Without standardized testing, it is impossible to imagine such an increase in privatization.

 
 
 
High stakes testing is a Trojan horse. It is a way to secretly undermine and weaken public schools so that testing corporations, charter schools and voucher schools can thrive. 


 
 
Judged by its own metrics of success, standardized testing is an abject failure. Judged by the metric of business and school privatization it is a rousing success.  


 
And that’s why it has been so hard to discontinue.  


 
This is corporate welfare at its finest, and the people getting rich off our tax dollars won’t allow us to turn off the flow of funding without a fight.  


 
 
On the right, policymakers are often boldly honest about their goals to bolster privatization over public schools. On the left, policymakers still cling to the failed measures of success testing has not been able to meet time-and-again.  


 
However, both groups support the same system. They only give different reasons.  


 
 
It is past time to wake up and smell the flowers.  


 
 
If we want to ensure education dollars go to education and not profiteers, we need to end standardized testing. 


 
 
If we want to help students learn to the best of their abilities, we need to stop gaslighting them with faulty measures of success or failure. 
 


 
If we want to allow teachers to do the best for their students, we need to stop holding them back with antiquated eugenicist shackles. 


 
 
And if we truly want to save our public school system, we have to stop propping up privatization.  


 
 
In short, we need to end standardized testing.  
 


 
The sooner, the better. 


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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

 

 

 

Silencing School Whistleblowers Through Social Media 

 
I used to write a thriving blog. 


 
A month and a half ago.  


 
But as soon as the New Year dawned, my readership dropped to the tiniest fraction of what it had been in 2021. 


 
I went from about 1,000 readers per article to a few hundred.

 
 
Overnight.  


 
How does that happen?  


 
I suppose it could be that people are sick of me.  


 
Maybe my writing just isn’t what it was and readers are tired of hearing about the same old topics over and over again.  


 
Education and civil rights. That stuff is just so 60 days ago! 


 
Yet look at the reality. School boards are banning Holocaust narratives like Art Spiegleman’s “Maus.” State governments are passing laws to restrict what teachers can say in the classroom or make their jobs more untenable so even more leave the profession.  


 
I just can’t believe that in light of such a flame dancing ever more quickly down an ever-shorter fuse that people aren’t interested in reading about how to stomp it out. 


 
From conservative scholars supporting standardized testing to local athletic leagues saying racism is a matter of both sides. From the effect on education of constantly depriving teachers of planning time to the continuing trauma of Coronavirus raging through our schools as decision makers refuse to take necessary precautions to protect students and staff.  


 
The readership is there.  


 
It’s the method of distribution that’s the problem.  


 
And that method is social media.  


 
It’s been this way since I began the blog back in July of 2014.  


 
I write an article then I post it to Facebook and Twitter.  


 
The later platform has never been a huge draw for me. But until recently Facebook was my bread and butter.  


 
My work was posted on message boards and in online forums and organizations’ pages focused on the issues I write about.  


 
After the first year, the result was hundreds of thousands of readers annually.  


 
But then as Facebook began trying to monetize the distribution of posts beyond a person’s local friend circle, those numbers started to drop.  


 
I went from 446,000 hits in 2015 to 222,000 last year.  


 
It’s demoralizing but not because of any need for fame. 
 


I don’t need to have thousands of people hang on my every word. This isn’t about ego.


It’s about change.  


 
I write this blog to get the word out about what’s really happening in our public schools. And to try to push back against the rising tide trying to destroy my profession.  


 
Mass media is not particularly kind to educators like me.  


 
Even when journalists are writing about schools and learning, they rarely ask classroom teachers their opinions. Instead, the media often turns to self-appointed experts, think tank flunkies, billionaire philanthropists or politicians.  


 
It’s like they can’t even conceive of the fact that someone with a masters degree or higher in education who devotes her whole life to the practice of the discipline has anything worthwhile to say.

 
 
So many of us have taken to the blogosphere to circumvent the regular media channels.  


 
We write out our frustrations. We tell our truths. We give a peek of what it’s like in our public schools, an educated opinion about the ills therein, and how to fix them.  


 
But as time has worn on, more and more of us are leaving the field. We’re abandoning the classroom and the Web.  


 
We’re giving up.  


 
And even those like me who are still desperately sounding the alarm every week are being silenced.  


 
Frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. 


 
I know Facebook is trying to pressure me into paying the company to more widely distribute my articles.

 
 
If I give them $50-$100 a week, they promise to deliver my work as widely as they used to do when I didn’t have to pay for the privilege.  


 
Actually, it wasn’t Facebook that delivered it. It was people on Facebook.  


 
People who really cared about what I had to say would see it and share it with others.  


 
But now there’s a strict algorithm that determines what you get to see on your page. And if it says you’re invisible, then POOF! You’re gone and the people who would most enjoy your writing and want to pass it on don’t get the chance.


 
It’s undemocratic in the extreme but totally legal because Facebook is a for-profit company, not a public service.  


 
It’s not about the free expression of ideas. It’s about making money.  


 
And so people like Joe Rogan make millions on their podcasts spreading science denial, vaccine disinformation and racist dog whistles.  


 
A guy like me just trying to make the world a better place?  


 
I get silenced.  


 
I guess when money is speech, poverty is the real cancel culture.  


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

The Absurdity of PROTECTING Kids from the Holocaust Narrative ‘Maus’ 

 
Nudity and bad language.  


 
That’s a Tennessee school board’s excuse for banning Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus.”  


 
Not Holocaust denial.  


 
Not antisemitism. 

Not a hundred other things they don’t want to admit to themselves about themselves.


 
It was simply a dirty drawing and some curse words. 


 
The graphic novel focuses on the cartoonist and his estranged father. Spiegelman slowly unravels the true story of how his dad survived the Holocaust. All the while, the son draws the narrative portraying Jewish people as mice and Germans as cats. 

It’s a work of literature that looks directly into the unfathomable and recontextualizes it into something we can attempt to understand.

The committee at Columbia University awarded the story a Pulitzer Prize – the only graphic novel yet to win such a prestigious award.

But the Tennessee school board awarded it their walking papers.

And why?

Naughty words and risqué images.


 
In particular, the board objected to eight bad words and the drawing of a nude woman.  


 
On its Website, district administrators posted the following explanation of their action


 
“One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves. The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.” 


 
Can you imagine living in a community that values refraining from swear words and covering up the human body more than telling the truth about genocide


 
Can you imagine putting a premium on decorum and propriety over an honest portrayal of events? 


 
And who are the McMinn County Board of Education to say these words and this image are “unnecessary” to tell the story!? 


 
It’s the Holocaust! It’s not a Disney theme park! 


 
If you’re talking about the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish people and 5 million non-Jewish people, wouldn’t it be appropriate to use some bad language!?  


 
To their credit, the image the school board objects to isn’t one of mice being tortured and murdered in a concentration camp. It’s not the genitals of naked mice – after all, aren’t mice always naked?  


 
It’s the drawing of the author’s mother who couldn’t live with the atrocities she endured and committed suicide. His father discovers her naked body in the bathtub.  


 
There’s nothing salacious about it.  


 
It’s shocking. It’s disturbing. It’s deeply sad.

But that’s exactly what it’s meant to be.

To react – as this board has – is the height of callousness.

Here we have the story of so many deaths, so many murders, and all they can do is decry the way it is told.

As a person of Jewish ancestry, it hits me hard.

Imagine being told that the story of your family’s murder is only acceptable if it isn’t upsetting.

It’s only acceptable if it doesn’t provoke a reaction in your heart – only if it keeps your eyes dry and your throat unstopped.

But that’s the point! It SHOULD be upsetting! It should hurt your heart! It should make your eyes leak and your throat close up.

However, school director Tony Allman said something that disproved the fiction that the board’s action was limited to pure decorum.

In the meeting minutes he was quoted as saying, “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy. Being in the schools, educators and stuff we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.” 

You’re wrong, Sir.

You DO need to promote this stuff.

Not encourage people to engage in future Holocausts but to promote that it DID happen so that it will not happen again.

Because on Oct 27, 2018, it happened again at the Tree of Life synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh when a gunman killed 11 and wounded six.


 
In August 2017, it happened at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when hundreds of marchers threw Nazi salutes and waved Swastika flags while shouting “Siege Heil” and “Jews will not replace us!”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment against Jewish people in 2021 – an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. This is the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. This includes five fatalities directly linked to antisemitic violence and another 91 individuals targeted in physical assaults. 


Assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2020 hate crime statistics showed not only that hate crimes were up for all minority groups, but crimes targeting Jewish people made up 54.9% of all religious bias crimes. 

According to the American Jewish Committee, nearly one out of every four Jews in the U.S. has been the subject of antisemitism over the past year.


Seventeen percent of respondents in the committee’s survey said they had been the subject of an antisemitic remark in person, while 12% said they were the victim of an antisemitic remark online. Three percent of Jews who responded to the poll said they were the target of an antisemitic physical attack. 

And this school board thinks the problem is a book that merely reports such events in the past.

Your children don’t need protection from the STORY of the Holocaust.

They need protection from the Holocaust, itself.

They need protection from it happening again – from the kind of violence and bigotry on the rise today.

They need protection from becoming the mice.

They need protection from becoming the cats.

They need adults brave enough to take a stand against these horrors.

It’s just too bad that you aren’t brave enough to do it, yourselves.


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

Don’t Blame Teachers for Covid Quarantines and Closures

 
This week the US reported more than a million Covid-19 cases in one day – a new global record! 


 
As this latest surge in the pandemic hits, schools all over the nation are closing up again and returning to on-line classes.  


 
People everywhere are wondering if teachers are to blame


 
Here are some things for school directors and administrators to consider:  


 
 
If you don’t require all students and staff to wear masks – don’t blame teachers. 

If you don’t regularly test students and staff for Covid – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require all students and staff to be vaccinated – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If your classrooms are not well ventilated – don’t blame teachers. 

If you force staff to come into the building for professional development and don’t allow them to attend remotely – don’t blame teachers.


 
If you don’t provide K95 masks to all students and staff – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you didn’t devise a schedule to keep students socially distanced – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t deep clean each classroom and other student spaces between classes – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If you don’t have lunches outdoors or in some other extremely well-ventilated space – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require a negative Covid test before sick students or staff can return to school – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If students and staff have steadily been getting sick for weeks and you’ve done nothing to prepare – Don’t Blame Teachers. 


 
 
In short, if you haven’t done everything you can do to prevent an outbreak sweeping through your school and your community – DON’T. BLAME. TEACHERS.  


 
BLAME YOURSELF. 


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


 

I Love Teaching, But…

 
 
I love teaching. 


 
I love greeting the kids as they come into class every day. I love listening to their stories, making them laugh, giving advice, and calming their fears. I love accepting assignments, helping with problems, and making connections about things we talked about last week


 
I don’t love being perpetually exhausted.  


 
I don’t love struggling to keep my eyes open as I drive home every day. I don’t love shuffling through the door, dropping my bag on the floor and collapsing into bed for a few hours before I can even think about cooking dinner. I don’t love the paralysis every tiny decision gives me after making thousands of choices all day long in class. I don’t love missing giant chunks of my family’s life. 


 
I love teaching. 


 
I love inspiring kids to write. I love coming up with creative and interesting journal topics and poetry assignments. I love explaining the far out concepts – hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia. I love jamming to Blackalicious’ “Alphabet Aerobics,” sharing “Whose Line is it Anyway” videos and trying to write paragraphs to the melodies of Miles Davis. 


 
I don’t love having so little planning time.  


 
I don’t love having to fly by the seat of my pants rehashing lessons that were getting stale two years ago but having no time to make them fresh or original. I don’t love trying to fit in as much grading as I can in class, trying to call or email parents on my lunch break. I don’t love having to fill in for missing staff 4 out of 5 days a week, being a glorified security guard in lunch duty, subbing for a teacher who isn’t absent but who has been called into an unnecessary staff meeting for yet another scattershot initiative to fight bogus learning loss.  


 
I don’t love the impossibly high expectations. 


 
I don’t love being praised for being the most important factor in school for student learning but bullied to ignore the importance of out of school factors. I don’t love being blamed for a child’s poverty or home life or the bias of standardized test questions. I don’t love being held responsible for everything by people who don’t listen to me and are, themselves, responsible for nothing


 
 
I love teaching. 
 


I love reading books with my students – both together and separately. I love going to the library and helping them find something suited to their tastes – try a Ray Bradbury classic;  maybe a new anime; and when you’re ready, a deep meditation by Toni Morrison. I love reading “The Outsiders” with my classes and experiencing Ponyboy’s story anew every year – feeling the highs, the lows, the losses, the victories. I love seeing the look on children’s faces when the realization dawns that they can no longer honestly say they hate reading, but only that sometimes it’s hard. I love catching them with a book in their bags or the same book on their desks being read over and over again because they love it so much. 


 
 
I don’t love the low pay.  


 
I don’t love that starting salary for most teachers is just $10,000 above the most generous minimum wage. I don’t love that becoming a teacher often means going into debt so you can earn a four-year degree in education and serve an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom just to make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education. I don’t love that our salaries start low and grow even more slowly. I don’t love that many of us need a second or third job just to make ends meet. I don’t love that teachers get crap for having summers off (unpaid) but average 53 hours a week during the school year – making up for any downtime in June, July and August. 


 
I don’t love the lack of autonomy.  


 
I don’t love having to waste time writing formal lesson plans detailing what I hope to do every minute of every day complete with justifications and references to developmentally inappropriate academic standards written by the testing industry and political hacks. I don’t love being told to differentiate student learning but standardize my assessments. And when things go wrong, I don’t love being forced to enact scripted lessons when everything my students do and ask and feel and care about is unscripted. 


 
I don’t love the gaslighting. 


 
I don’t love having my health concerns about Covid-19 ignored as the school board votes to make our buildings mask optional while their children are quietly quarantined in greater numbers. I don’t love explaining to my administrators or principals about how useless standardized tests are and being told that my opinion is wrong. I don’t love how my educated viewpoints based on decades of classroom experience are always silenced by charter school operators, think tank goons and newly minted principals fresh out of prep schools funded by billionaire philanthropists who make money off the standardized testing industry. I don’t love being called a hero if I put my life on the line to keep children safe during a shooting or emergency but vilified if I ask for reforms to make sure it doesn’t happen (again).  


 
 
I love teaching.  


 
I love conferencing with students every step of the way as they write essays. I love providing whole group instruction, mini-lessons, and even reteaching it all at individual desks when they didn’t catch it the first time. I love watching students’ abilities grow with each passing day, with each line they write, with each assignment they turn in. I love cheerleading, championing and boosting their confidence until they can see their own powers increase. 


 
I don’t love the disrespect – sometimes in the classroom but often outside of it
. I don’t love being told I’m not man enough, not woman enough, too black, too brown, not black enough, not brown enough, not bilingual, not poor enough, too poor, too selfish, too selfless, too anything and everything. I don’t love being blamed for all the evils of society while having none of the power to change anything


 
I don’t love being used as a political football. I don’t love being scapegoated for the latest scare tactic jargon used to trick people into thinking public education is a failure when it works better than almost any other social program we have and would work even better than it does if we adequately, equitably and sustainably funded it. I don’t love having my work compared to that of teachers in other countries when our public education system teaches everyone and most others are extremely selective about who gets 12 years of schooling. I don’t love having to explain why complaints about per pupil spending in the US are misleading since they’re talking about averages and we don’t spend the money equally – some kids get riches and many get pennies. I don’t love getting hate mail and risking pink slips for teaching honest history or science while politicians foam at the mouth hurling racist dog whistles like “Critical Race Theory.” 


 
I don’t love getting death threats just for doing my job. I don’t love TikTok challenging students to slap a teacher or encouraging nationwide school bomb threats and shootings.  I don’t love going to trainings where the police offer advice on how to fight back if there’s a shooter because at that point it’s survival of the fittest in the middle school. I don’t love being in class and all of a sudden everything goes quiet and you hear a strange noise in the distance and wonder if this is the moment you have to make sure the door is locked and get the kids to take up their positions in the dark.  


 
 
I love teaching. 


 
I do.  


 
I really love teaching.  


 
But all this other stuff makes it hard to keep coming back and doing this thing I love


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

If You’re Afraid Kids Will Learn Racism is Bad, Perhaps Public School is Not For You   

Some people are terrified that kids will learn about racism.   
  
Especially white people.   
  
Especially that white KIDS might learn about it.   
  
How would that affect a white child’s self-esteem, they say.   
  
Imagine learning that racism existed in the United States.   
  
A country founded by white people.   
  
(Taken from brown people.   
  
Made largely profitable by the enslavement of black people.) 
  
Wouldn’t that make white kids feel bad?   
  
It’s a strange question.  
 
First of all, wouldn’t it make the black and brown kids feel worse than the white kids?  
 
After all, it was their ancestors who were brutalized and subjugated.  
  
Second of all, what does history have to do with your feelings? 
 
This isn’t aroma therapy or yoga. It’s the past.   
  
We never worry about how learning any other subject will impact a student’s emotional states.   
  
It makes me wonder about all the sentiments pedagogues ignore when designing curriculum.  
  
Does learning to read harm a happy illiterate’s self-respect?  
  
Does learning science make a know-it-all feel less confident?  
  
How does learning fractions dispel a person’s sense of the oneness of being?  
  
No. We never even stop to consider such things.   
  
We don’t bother with emotions or feelings. We just fuss over whether it’s true.   
  
Moreover, how would one even teach American history without talking about racism?  
  
This is the United States – a country that built much of its economy on the backs of black people kidnapped from their homes across the sea and then bought and sold here as property.  
  
Not only that but the very land we stand on was once the domain of dark-skinned indigenous people.  
  
People who were tricked, coerced and killed if they did not give up this land – if they did not move on to ever shrinking corners of the continent until they were almost all dead, assimilated or stashed away on reservations.  
   
  
What would it do to a white child to learn all this?   
  
Provide an accurate account of events, I suppose.   
  
These people terrified that children will learn about racism – I don’t think it’s facts that they’re trying to deny. 
 
I mean I’m sure they would certainly like to gloss over the ugliest atrocities committed by their ancestors, but they don’t really seem to dispute the story of conquest that makes up our founding. It’s more the way the facts are being presented.  
  
History is written by the winners and these white people won.  
  
That’s not what they want to hide.  
  
It’s the TONE in which the story is told.  
  
If we talked about the ingenuity of white people in colonizing these others, they might find that tolerable.   
  
If we talked about how great the white people were and how bad the brown and black people were, that might be acceptable.   
  
Even if we spun a tall tale about how subjugating these others was really in their best interests in the long run, that would be okay.   
  
After all, that’s what they do in many private and parochial schools.   
  
They use textbooks that frame the history of our country just like that – books from The American Christian Education group, the A Beka Book and Bob Jones University Press textbooks. A Beka publishers, in particular, report that about 9,000 schools nationwide purchase their textbooks.  
  
So it’s not the story, it’s the way it’s told.  
 
We can’t focus on the victims.   
  
We can’t humanize them by looking at things from their point of view.   
  
We can’t empathize or admit wrongdoing in any way.  
  
In fact, that’s the problem, they say, with public schools. 
  
That’s what they object to. 
  
Public schools teach what it was like to live as an enslaved person. How you could be beaten and murdered with no cause. How you had no rights to anything. How your own children were likewise doomed to a life of servitude and could even be taken away from you never to be seen again.   
  
And not just that but they’re teaching about Jim Crow. They’re teaching about how even after slavery, black people’s rights were almost nonexistent. How they were denied an education, kept in menial jobs, red-lined into ghettos, and often lynched without the slightest provocation.   
  
When children hear about all that, they start to get ideas.   
 
Even the white kids. 
  
It’s not just the history of racism these children are learning, but they’re starting to think that racism is WRONG.   
  
And that’s a problem because it has an impact on how we view the modern world today.   
  
Because there are still black and brown people in the United States.   
  
They make up about 40% of the population and still protest the way they’re treated.  
  
They say it’s harder to get well-paying jobs than whites with the same education and experience. They say their neighborhoods and schools are segregated. They say their right to vote is being suppressed. They say they’re incarcerated at greater rates even though they don’t commit more crimes. They say they’re being killed by police at greater rates even though they aren’t more violent.   
  
And the facts back them up!  
  
So if we teach the history of racism, how do we justify saying that it ever ended?   
  
How do we not admit that it merely evolved into the status quo?  
  
That’s really the issue.   
 
Not the past but the present. 
   
It’s not the racism of the antebellum South or even the pre-civil rights period North of the Mason-Dixon line.  
  
It’s the everyday racism of today that they want to ignore.  
  
It’s voter ID laws spreading across the country.   
  
It’s military style policing, especially in neighborhoods housing mostly people of color.  
  
It’s providing less education funding to schools serving mostly brown and black students than those serving mostly white kids.  
  
The people complaining about teaching the history of racism don’t want to have to do anything about all that.  
  
They want to ensure that the extra rights and privileges given to people like them don’t come to an end. Especially as more black and brown people are born and white skin becomes less common.  
  
This is not about educational transparency.   
  
It’s not about history, truth or pedagogy.   
  
It’s about indoctrination.   
  
They want to ensure that white kids ARE indoctrinated into the world view of their parents – a world of white nationalism.  
  
We can do two things about this.   
  
One, we can give in to them and water down the public school curriculum until it contains nothing of any importance about our history of racial subjugation and white hegemony.   
  
Two, we can ignore them and teach the truth.   
  
The way I see it, the second is our only real option.   
  
There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most obvious is representation.  
 
Everyone doesn’t want to whitewash our history. Most people want us to actually teach the facts.  
  
Some of these people even have white skin.   
  
Moreover, public schools serve a large population of students of color. They certainly don’t want to be denied an accurate record of how we got to this time and place.  
  
Public schools serve the public, and these history censors are a small minority of the whole.  
  
Moreover, even if we gave in to them, it wouldn’t be enough.  
 
At their best, public schools don’t actively inculcate kids. We don’t tell students what to think. We tell them the facts and then exhort them TO think.   
  
The conclusions are all up to them.   
  
Even if we did as these people want, it would still be up to their kids to make the same twisted conclusions as their parents. They don’t just want us to refrain from pointing in any given direction, but to stop providing counter examples and facts so their kids can’t come to an educated decision. 
 
And that is unacceptable. 
  
As a public school system, it is our responsibility to provide those facts.   
  
We must provide children with the truth about what came before them. We must show them how things were and what injustices occurred.  
  
We must even point out how the inequalities of the past lead to the wrongs of today.   
  
What kids make of all this is up to them.   
  
If after knowing the truth, they still decide that today’s racist practices are acceptable, that is their right.   
  
But we cannot hide the reality from them.  
  
If that is objectionable to some people, then perhaps public school is not for them.   
  
Perhaps a system of education where truth is considered a human right is not what they’re looking for.   
  
In that case, there are plenty of private and parochial schools that will indoctrinate their children into whatever shape they’d like.   
  
That’s where they’ll probably send them anyway.  
  
And public schools are foolish to try and court the kinds of people with value systems antithetical to them.   
 
If you want to abolish public schools, if you don’t share the community values of truth and independent thinking, perhaps public school is not for you. 


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

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

Lack of Trusted Authority is Why Covid-19 is Kicking Our Butts

We have faced tough times before.

World wars, famines, pandemics, economic ruin.

But in each of these disasters, the majority of people thought they had somewhere to turn for knowledge and advice.

We had trusted authorities to tell us what to do, to counsel us how to handle these seemingly insurmountable disasters.

Today many of us face the Covid-19 pandemic feeling there are few sources to believe in – and that more than anything else – is why we are having such a difficult time coming together to overcome this crisis.

The media, government, science, religion – none hold a central place of confidence in most people’s lives. So when tough decisions about health and safety come into play, many of us aren’t sure what to do.

This wasn’t always the case.

Look back to World War II.

Not only did we defeat fascism but new vaccines put a wallop on illness and disease.

When we entered the fray, the US government organized new research initiatives targeting influenza, bacterial meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, measles, mumps, neurotropic diseases, tropical diseases and acute respiratory diseases.

And because there was an immense trust in government – after all, as a nation we had been attacked together as one at Pearl Harbor – there was enormous trust in these initiatives.

Before World War II, soldiers died more often of disease than of battle injuries. The ratio of disease-to-battle casualties was approximately 5-to-1 in the Spanish-American War and 2-to-1 in the Civil War. In World War I, we were able to reduce casualties due to disease through better sanitation efforts, but we could not protect troops from the 1918 influenza pandemic. During that outbreak, flu accounted for roughly half of US military casualties in Europe.

Much of the groundwork for innovation in vaccinations had already been laid before WWII. However, it was the organization of the war effort and the trust both the civilian and military population had in government that catapulted us ahead.

I’m not ignoring that some of this trust was misplaced. The US government has never been fully trustworthy – just ask the Asian American population forced into internment camps. However, the general feeling at the time that the government was a force for good, that we were all in this together and we all had to do our part had a vast effect on how we handled this crisis.

Today that kind of trust is gone.

In some ways that’s a good thing. It could be argued that “The Greatest Generation” put too much faith in government and the following years showed why too credulous belief in the good will of our leaders was unearned and unhealthy.

From Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal to Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct to George W. Bush lying us into a war of choice to Barack Obama’s neoliberalism to Donald Trump’s gross mismanagement and blatant racism – we can never go back to a WWII mentality.

Skepticism of government is kind of like seasoning. A certain amount is a good thing, but the inability to trust even government’s most basic ability to take care of its citizens and function in any meaningful way is hugely detrimental.

And this earned distrust has seeped into just about every source of possible certitude that might have helped us survive the current crisis.

The media used to be considered the fourth estate – one of the most important pillars of our society. After all, the freedom of information is essential to the free exercise of democracy.

However, the erosion of impartiality has been going on since at least the 1980s when the FCC under President Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine. Since 1949 this had required the media to present both sides’ of opinions. In 1987 a Democratic Congress passed a bill to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine but it was vetoed by Reagan.

This, along with the rise of talk radio and the insistence that news departments turn a profit, lead directly to the creation of more biased reporting skewed to a particular audience – Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group being the most prominent.

The fact that just six corporations own 90% of the media outlets in the country skew coverage to what’s in the best interests of big business. These corporations are GE, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS.


Finally, the loss of local newspapers and the purchase of those few that do exist by large media conglomerates further increase bias.

Few people feel they can trust the news anymore. They turn to the Internet, social media, Twitter and other sources that often are just echo chambers for what they already believe.

The irony is not lost on me that you are reading a blog by a public school teacher, not a professional journalist. But my aim is to use my experience in education to inform the debate.

It’s just too bad that I’m often forced to report the news when traditional news sources drops the ball.

Again skepticism of mass media is a good thing, but we should at least be able to count on the press as a reliable source of facts. However, these days few facts are free from bias, spin and editorial comment.

Even science is not immune.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made several blunders handling this pandemic which hurt the organization’s credibility.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the organization refused to acknowledge and later emphasize the airborne spread of the virus. It took until May 2021 for the organization to fully recognize that fact.

Another blunder was the guidelines on what counts as “close contact.” It went from “within 6 feet” to “within 3 feet”, and the duration went from 30 minutes consecutively to 30 minutes cumulatively. It’s not so much that the evidence changed, but that political pressure forced the CDC to lower its standards.

World scientific consensus now is that the coronavirus is capable of airborne spread without close contact between two people. Airborne droplets can linger in the air indoors and infect any number of people from one superspreading host subject.

The CDC’s advice on close contact is based on old scientific research that just isn’t as good as modern experiments.

And the organization has misjudged so much more from the importance of masking (at first they said it wasn’t important, now they say it is important), whether children can catch the virus (at first they said this was unlikely and now they admit it happens but is often asymptomatic), whether Covid spreads in schools (they used to say the limited protections in place at schools made this unlikely and now they admit it is happening), etc.

One could argue that these were simple mistakes that have changed as better science comes in. However, in each case they appear to have initially been politically motivated and justified with limited or flawed studies that could not continue to be supported as new data came in.

At first the CDC told us that masking wasn’t important not because it was true, but to hide a shortage of masks that needed to be prioritized for medical staff. These needs are understandable, but hiding the truth and then changing your messaging doesn’t engender trust.

Misinformation about the impact of Covid on children was an attempt to keep schools open and stop the economy from shutting down as parents were unable to work. Not only did this put children at risk for economic gain, it has contributed to the current refusal of so many people to follow CDC guidelines about reopening schools.

Why do so many people refuse to have their children wear masks at school? Why is there so much vaccine hesitancy? Why anxiety about reopening plans that focus on close contacts?

The CDC owns a lot of the responsibility because it has repeatedly earned our distrust.

This isn’t to say everything coming from them is dubious. I think the guidelines the CDC has put in place for the current school year are supported by the facts.

I think there is evidence that people need to wear masks in schools. I think we need to vaccinate as many people as possible.

But these are just bare minimums.

I think the CDC is still focusing too much on the economic impact of its guidelines when it should be solely focused on the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

This is not a time for scientists to be playing politics.

We need them to be as transparent as possible – as trustworthy as they can be.

Unfortunately, the erosion of institutional credibility at so many levels has become a cycle to itself.

At multiple levels, sources that should be bedrock have become wet sand.

The federal government has not taken enough action to keep people safe. State governments have not taken enough action – and some have even taken action to prevent safety.

Even at the local level, many school boards have cowardly refused to put in place mask or vaccine mandates.

It is the systematic breakdown of a society.

We have few places left we can trust.

And that is why we are fractured and scared.

We don’t know what to do to keep our loved ones safe.

People seem forced to choose between taking the virus seriously and ignoring it.

Many refuse to admit that it could hurt them. They think it’s just the sniffles. Few healthy people die and they discount the potential longterm effects of catching it.

The US has only 4% of the world population but nearly a quarter of all Covid cases.

That’s not a coincidence.

In large part, it’s because we don’t know how to combat the virus because we don’t know who to trust.

And the resulting credibility vacuum has enabled unscrupulous politicians, agents of chaos and other charlatans to position themselves as experts.

When all information is equal, disinformation is king.

The solution to the pandemic may end up being easier than this riddle.

How our institutions can regain their credibility.

Especially when our politics doesn’t allow them to be honest, and fewer people are even listening to them every day.


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Muzzling America’s Teachers with a Ban on Critical Race Theory is What Orwell Warned Us About

I first read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” while in high school almost a decade past its titular date.

At that time, it didn’t seem to be a prediction. It seemed to be a description of life in the Soviet Union.

I never would have guessed that it could be a warning of what the public school system could become in this country if Republican lawmakers have their way.

Far right legislators have proposed bans on so-called Critical Race Theory in at least 20 states that would muzzle classroom teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” and “divisive” topics or risk being disciplined, fired or facing other legal consequences if they don’t obey.

It is an attempt to legislate history.

These lawmakers are working to control information and let politics – not facts – be the guiding principle of what gets accepted in our chronicle of the past.

Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.

The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.

The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.

For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.

The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.

Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.

It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.

Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.

TRUTH

‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘

Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.

No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.

For example, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of people were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited in the production of tobacco and cotton. Any denial of that fact, any minimization of the degree of dehumanization in it, is a rejection of reality.

Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.

Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.

One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.

In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.

If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.

REWRITING HISTORY

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”

In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.

To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.

For example, it was long accepted as true that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Now we realize that not only wasn’t he the first European to come to these shores, the idea that he “discovered” anything is incoherent. You can’t “discover” lands where people are already living. More over, given the details of pillage, rape and violence in his own journals, Columbus’ accomplishment should be viewed in far less positive terms than it has been up to this point.

Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.

However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.

This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.

Whitewashing the history of slavery as less exploitative and more mutually beneficial to both the white owners and black enslaved peoples helps to reduce the impetus to contemporary reform in the systems of racism maintained in this country since our failed Reconstruction. Likewise, representing Columbus as a hero and adventurer instead of a murderer and tyrant helps justify similar actions today.

Or as Orwell puts it:

‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘

EDUCATION

Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

That’s a kind of education. Replacing what is known with whatever the Party wants to be known.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.

For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.

It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.

This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.

It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.

Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.

Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.

It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.

However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.

As Orwell wrote:

‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘

And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.

It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.

It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?

Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:

‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘

That is not the goal of our current education system.

We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.

Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.

And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.

At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.

What do you do when this happens?

Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is essential that they be confronted with opposing views so that they can think critically.

That is the purpose of education.

Not to tell students what to think, but to give them the tools to think.

It is up to each and every student to come to their own conclusions.

Educators should give them the facts and even expose them to varying concepts about the facts.

But it is up to the individual student what to do with them.

This makes some parents and politicians uneasy because it treats students as human beings with freedom of choice.

Such freedom is not allowed in Oceania, and if Republicans have their way, it will not be allowed here, either.

We must preserve academic freedom for both students and their teachers.

It is absolutely essential.

Otherwise Orwell’s book will be less a warning than a guide.



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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

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