The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 10.35.05 PM

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

George Santayana (1905)

 

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

 

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

 

Take high stakes standardized testing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

 

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

 

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

BOSTON SCHOOLS

 

Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

HORACE MANN’S TEST

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Most failed.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

BACKLASH

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

And that’s how standardized testing began.

 

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

 

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

HISTORY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

LEGACY

 

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

 

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

 

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


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
book-1

Schools That Hinder Opt Outs Are Participating in Their Own Demise

thumbnail_1511359_10203413055118040_897780773_n

You can’t be a public school and still ignore the will of the people.

 

That’s the problem at too many districts across the country where narrow-minded administrators are waging an all out war on parents opting their children out of standardized testing.

 

The federal government still requires all states to give high stakes tests to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. So states require their districts to give the tests – despite increasing criticism over the assessments’ validity, age appropriateness, racial and economic bias and the very manner in which the scores are used to justify narrowing the curriculum, school privatization, funding cuts, teacher firings and closing buildings serving the most underprivileged children.

 

In response, parents from coast to coast continue to fight the havoc being forced upon their communities by refusing the tests for their children.

 

Yet instead of welcoming this rush of familial interest, at some schools we find principals, superintendents and every level of functionary in between doing whatever they can to impede parental will.

 

Most administrators don’t actually go so far as out right refusal of a parent’s demand to opt out their children.

 

That’s especially true in states where the right to opt out is codified in the law.

 

Three states – California, Utah, and Wisconsin – have enacted legislation permitting parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. However, at least five others, including my home of Pennsylvania, have laws respecting parents’ opt-out wishes for certain reasons. In others states there may not be specific legislation permitting it, but none have laws forbidding it either. At worst, test refusal is an act of civil disobedience like tearing down a confederate monument or freedom rides.

 

In Pennsylvania, the school code specifies that parents can refuse the test for their children for “religious reasons.” Those reasons and the religion in question never need be named. Citing “religious reasons” is rationale enough.

 

Consider:

 

“PA School Code Chapter 4.4(d):

 

(4)  …If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied upon written request that states the objection to the applicable school district superintendent, charter school chief executive officer or AVTS director.”

 

So when a parent provides just such an objection, it’s there in black and white that administrators must comply with that request.

 

However, some administrators are trying to game the system. When the other students are taking the state standardized test, the opt out students are rounded up and forced instead to take a district created assessment that just so happens to look almost exactly like the test their parents explicitly asked they not be subjected to.

 

So in my state, some parents have opted their children out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) or Keystone Exams, but administrators are requiring them instead to take an assessment they cobbled together themselves that closely resembles the PSSA and/or Keystone Exam.

 

They take a little bit from the PSSA, a bit from the Partnership for Assessment of Reading Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) test, a question or two from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and voila! A brand new Frankenstein’s monster of standardized assessment.

 

But that’s not all. Some districts go one step further. They tie the results of this bogus “district” assessment with class placement. The results of the faux test are used to determine whether students are placed in the remedial, academic or the honors class in a given subject (English Language Arts, Math or Science) in the next grade.

 

Does that violate the law? Parents did not want their children to be assessed with a standardized test, and that’s exactly what the school did anyway. The only difference is the name of the standardized test they used.

 

I am not a lawyer, but I’ve contacted several. The answer I’ve gotten is that this may not be technically illegal, but it does at least violate the spirit of the law.

 

Districts are given a certain latitude to determine their own curriculum and assessments. This kind of runaround is ugly, petty and possibly just on the line of legality.

 

But our administrators are not done. Not only are they requiring such students to take a cobbled together standardized assessment, when children are done, they are forced to do hours of test prep for the state assessment that their parents refused for them.

 

Imagine opting out of the PSSA and then being forced to spend that time preparing for that very test. Imagine refusing to allow your children to take the Keystone Exam but then having them forced to prepare for it instead.

 

Petty, small-minded, punitive and – in this case – possibly illegal.

 

The school code is specifically against this. From the same section (4.4):

 

“(d) School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following:

 

(3) …The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.”

 

Again, I am not a lawyer, but it seems pretty clear that this, at least, is a violation of the law.

 

They can request their children not be given specific instruction – in this case test prep. Yet that’s exactly what administrators are doing anyway.

 

So what are opt out parents to do? Should they lawyer up?

 

Possibly. Though no one likes to have to take their own school to court. Any monetary damages thus recovered come from the collective pot that should go to help all students learn. It’s unfortunate that some administrators play so freely with taxpayer dollars when it would be a simple matter to safeguard them AND respect parental rights.

 

A better course of action may be for opt out parents in such situations to seek redress directly from the school board.

 

School directors are elected officials, after all. They may not be appraised of the actions of the administrators in their employ.

 

And that is really where the buck stops. If school directors don’t approve of this sort of chicanery, they can easily put a stop to it.

 

These are public schools. They are supposed to be run by the public. Our democracy is supposed to be what defines us. We are run by the people, for the people.

 

We’re not some charter school where school directors are appointed to their positions, hold their meetings in private and rarely if ever have to account for their decisions.

 

It’s shocking that in an age when public schools are often set against privatized ones that we’d allow such foolishness.

 

We need to set ourselves apart. Instead of denying parental requests, we should go out of our way to accommodate them.

 

Parents could, after all, remove their children and try their luck elsewhere.

 

At charter schools, they would probably get an even worse welcome. After all, most such schools pride themselves on their test scores and test prep curriculum having kicked out any students who don’t score well.

 

However, parents of means could enroll their children in private or parochial schools that are not required by law to even take these high stakes tests.

 

I’m not recommending that course of action. These schools are expensive, restrictive, insular and extremely racially and economically segregated.

 

But how short sighted must public school administrators be if they play these sorts of games with parents and children in just such an environment?

 

Any public school leader who wars against opt outs is participating in their own schools demise.

 

This is doubly so at schools serving high poverty populations.

 

Children of the poor and minorities historically get lower test scores than those from wealthier families. These tests are used to justify budget cuts and firing school staff – including these administrators.

 

Opting out of testing is one way to deny this data to the state so that they can’t use it against the school.

 

Certainly having high numbers of students opting out can, itself, become an excuse for punitive action from the state. But nowhere in the country has it ever actually happened.

 

State legislatures, too, are run by majority rule. The same with the federal government.

 

Our lawmakers have no authority to tell voters they can’t opt their children out of testing. It is the voters who are the boss.

 

We’d all best remember that.


 

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

book-3

‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ Has Never Been More Important Than It is Today

thumbnail_maxresdefault

 

 

The biggest mistake people make about “The Diary of Anne Frank” is to assume it’s about a little dead girl.

 

 

It’s not.

 

 

Anne Frank is not dead.

 

 

Not in 1945. Not in 2019.

 

 

Anne was a Dutch Jew hiding from the Nazis with her family and four others in a loft above her father’s former factory in Amsterdam.

 

 

The teenager is the most famous victim of the Holocaust, but her story doesn’t end when she succumbed to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the closing days of WWII.

 

 

Because it’s a story that never ends.

 

 

Her physical self may be gone, but her spirit remains.

 

 

In the 1990s, she was a Muslim Bosniak child killed by Christian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

In the 2000s, she was a Christian Darfuri in Western Sudan killed by Arab militias.

 

 

A decade ago, she was a Palestinian toddler torn to pieces on the West Bank – a victim of Israeli bombs.

 

 

 

And, yes, today she is a brown skinned Central American girl fleeing from violence to the United States only to be forcibly separated from her family and thrown in a cage.

 

 

 

Not only is Anne Frank not dead, she is more alive than most people who draw breath, whose hearts still pump blood, whose eyes shrink from the violence, prejudice and hatred all around them.

 

 

 

Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to teach her Diary in my 8th grade class.

 

 

It’s not a particularly difficult book.

 

 

Her prose is uncomplicated. Her ideas clear.

 

 

In fact, she jumps right off the page and into the classroom.

 

 

But that’s what makes her so difficult for me, the teacher.

 

 

Every year I help bring her to life for my students. And I suffer her loss all over again each time.

 

 

I think everyone sees something different in Anne.

 

 

My students see themselves in her. Or they see their friends or siblings.

 

 

Her problems are their problems. They, too, can feel closer to one parent than another.

 

 

They, too, can hate to be compared with a “perfect” sibling.

 

 

They, too, feel all the emotions and frustrations of growing up – the confusion, passion and hurt.

 

 

For me, though, it is different.

 

 

I don’t see Anne primarily as myself. I see her as my daughter. Or perhaps I see my daughter in her.

 

 

A precocious child hunched over a book scribbling away her deepest thoughts? Sounds like my precious 10-year-old drawing her comic books, or writing her stories, or acting out melodramas with her dolls and stuffed animals.

 

 

I want to take her somewhere safe, to keep her away from the Nazis, to conceal her from all the evil in the world.

 

 

After teaching the book for almost a decade and a half, it was only this year that I hit upon a new perspective. I realized that if Anne had survived, she would be almost the same age as my grandmother.

 

 

And for a moment, an image of her was almost superimposed over my Grandma Ce Ce. There she was – a physical Anne, a living person. But then it was gone.

 

 

When speaking about her to my students, I try to be extremely careful of their feelings. I make it exceedingly clear from the very beginning where her physical life ends.

 

 

She and her family are in hiding for 25 months before the Nazis find and send them to concentration camps. Only her father, Otto Frank, is left.

 

 

I don’t want any of that to be a surprise.

 

 

Yet it is.

 

 

Every time.

 

 

My classes stare back at me with shocked expressions when we reach the last page.

 

 

That can’t be the end. There has to be more.

 

 

So we read first hand accounts of Anne in the camp.

 

 

But that can’t be all, either. Can it?

 

 

So we learn about her legacy – about the Anne Frank House, the Academy Award winning film, and how her book is an international best seller.

 

 

Somehow her spirit still refuses to die.

 

 

I think it’s because she has become more than just a victim. More even than a single physical person.

 

 

We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. We know that 5 million non-Jews were also killed. But no matter how many documentaries we see, or how many pictures we look at – none of them come alive in quite the same way as Anne.

 

 

She is a face for these faceless.

 

 

She irreparably humanizes the other.

 

 

Once you read her Diary, you can’t forget that smiling little girl whose light was so suddenly snuffed out.

 

 

We can go numb at the numbers – the sheer scale of these atrocities.

 

 

But with Anne, it becomes something personal.

 

 

On Dec. 24, 1943, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager badly in need of some good, plain fun.

 

We see you, Anne.

 

 

And because we do, we see beyond you, too.

 

 

We see you in the continuing horrors of our age.

 

 

Because your death is never in the past tense. It is always present.

 

 

Your eyes look out at us through the victims of our day, too.

 

 

And your words ring in our ears:

 

“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” (May 7, 1944)

 

 

We have not prevented it.

 

 

It continues.

 

 

Hatred and prejudice and murder echo through our human interactions.

 

 

All while the history fades.

 

 

According to a 2018 study, only 22 percent of millennials say they’ve even heard of the Holocaust.

 

 

I don’t think any of those young adults read your Diary, because my students remember you.

 

 

That’s why I’ll never stop teaching your story.

 

 

In the vain hope that by remembering you, they’ll see your eyes on the faces of all the future’s would-be victims.

 

 

In the vain hope that caring about you will help them care about the faceless strangers, the propagandized others.

 

 

In the vain hope that knowing your face will force their eyes to see – actually see – the faces of those who are demonized and dehumanized so someone will care when the boot comes down on their visage.

 

 

So that someone will stop the boot from ever coming down again.

 

 

In one of her last entries, on July 15, 1944, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”

 

 

That time has come for us all.

 

 

Anne’s Diary remains to remind us – a clarion call to empathy and action.


 

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

book-4

 

What Will It Take to Get Equitable School Funding in Pennsylvania – a Statewide Teachers Strike!?

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 1.29.47 PM

What if every public school teacher in Pennsylvania refused to come to work on Monday?

What if instead they took to the streets with signs and placards, bullhorns and chanted slogans.

Maybe:

“Hey! HEY! Ho! HO! This Unfair Funding Has to Go!”
Or:

“What do we want!? FAIR FUNDING! When do we want it? YESTERDAY!”

The problem is that from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all places in between, the Keystone state has the most unequal school funding system in the country. And no one in Harrisburg seems able and/or willing to do a damn thing about it.

Nor is anyone going to do much again this year.

Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t mention it once last week during the Democrat’s first budget speech to the legislature after being re-elected.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not exactly ignoring the issue. His newly proposed budget asks for a $200 million increase in education funding.

But that’s far from what’s needed to heal the billions of dollars schools lost during the massive budget cuts of Tom Corbett, the former Republican governor, nor does it address the underlying inequity of how we fund these schools in the first place.

Sadly, failing to fix education funding gaps is par for the course in Harrisburg.

Every year Democrats complain about the problem, suggest repairing it, and then are denied everything but an incremental increase by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Every year, that is, until this one.

This is the first time Democrats have seemingly given up on solving the problem and just proposed the incremental increase that they suspect Republicans will approve.

It’s a pitiful situation to accept as status quo.

One could argue that it’s the electorate’s fault. After all, if they keep voting for Republicans that make it clear they don’t support equity in education, that must represent the will of the people.

Except it doesn’t. Fair funding is popular among voters everywhere in the Commonwealth. And it’s one of the reasons they elected and re-elected Wolf. However, when it comes to state government, legislative districts are so gerrymandered, the will of the people gets ignored.

In November, Democrats got 381,000 more Pennsylvania votes than Republicans to represent them in the state House. But Republicans still kept the majority.

So what can you do when your voice is smothered by red tape?

You can turn to the Democratic governor who is the only thing stopping the opposition from gutting schools even further. You can ask him to push lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get off their collective asses and do their jobs.

But Wolf does not seem ready to spend his political capital in this way.

According to an Associated Press article by Marc Levy:

 

“For his part, Wolf’s office says he remains open to a discussion with the Legislature on making school funding fairer. However, someone else may have to carry the torch.”

Just who could this “someone else” be?

As usual, it may have to be the Commonwealth’s teachers.

As in every state, when governments and communities can’t or won’t do right by their children, educators step up.

We buy classroom supplies, we feed the hungry, we dry the tears, and when all else fails we put our jobs on the line and strike until school boards, legislatures and governors do the right thing.

Some have suggested that’s what’s needed here.

There have been at least nine large-scale teachers strikes across various states in the last 12 months. This includes actions in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia, and – most recently – Los Angeles, California, and Denver, Colorado.

They began in Republican dominated states but have spread to those governed mostly by Democrats.

The Denver strike ended Thursday morning with an agreement between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools. After three days on the picket line, teachers may be returning to their classrooms having achieved their goals.

In today’s climate of dark money and political gridlock, collective action seems the only way to get anything done.

Perhaps we need an army of the state’s 123,000 educators to walk out of their classes in unison demanding fair funding for our most vulnerable students.

Such a move would be unprecedented. To my knowledge, teachers strikes in the Commonwealth have always involved educators and staff at one of the hundreds of districts, not a unified action of teachers throughout the state. A movement on this scale would require cooperation and buy in from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And union bosses are rarely motivated to endorse such measures without being forced to it by grassroots pressure from members.

Moreover, it would put teachers unions in a dangerous position. Each district contract has a no strike/no lockout clause guaranteeing that membership won’t walkout during the life of a contract. Where we’re seeing these major nationwide strikes either the contract has expired like in Denver and Los Angeles or they’re so-called “Right-to-Work” states without these explicit worker protections.

It’s doubtful the state could actually fire and replace the more than 100,000 teachers in its employ, but the worst case scenario for a state-wide strike in Pennsylvania would be the invalidation of all existing contracts, the loss of arbitration, grievances, collective bargaining and even putting retirement at risk.

That’s a lot to ask of educators – though creative organizers could find ways to avoid or mitigate the risk – for instance with a sick out or mass demonstrations on weekends or holidays.

I – for one – am sick of watching my middle school students overstuffed into classrooms with crumbling infrastructure and meager resources while a few miles down the road the rich kids have small classes and schools that look like palaces. I’ll bet there are a lot of teachers and parents who feel the same way.

Perhaps it’s time for us to take to the streets.

Perhaps it’s long past time.

When I say the state is the most inequitable in the country, that’s not hyperbole.

It’s according to several studies done over multiple years by groups like the Associated Press and the U.S. Department of Education.

More than any other, the Keystone State gives a boost to rich kids and a boot to poor ones.

Why?

You have to understand where the money comes from to educate kids in America.

Public schools have basically three revenue streams – the federal government, the state and local neighborhoods.

The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligation thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the cost.

Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.

In rich neighborhoods, this is no problem. In middle class communities, it’s not much of one. But in poor communities, there isn’t enough money to make up the difference. Their kids have no choice but to do without.

So kids from rich communities get everything. Kids from middle class communities get most of what they need. And kids from poor communities get whatever scraps are left at the bottom of the barrel.

It’s trickle down economics – Pennsylvania style.

And it’s an intolerable situation!

According to an Associated Press analysis of 2016-17 state data on school district spending, middle class districts spend as much as $673 more per student than poor districts. Rich districts spend about $4,300 more per student.

 

thumbnail_Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 3.14.15 PM
According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. That’s a significantly larger difference than the next-closest state, Vermont, where the spending difference between rich and poor schools is only 18 percent. Three other states — Illinois, Missouri and Virginia — have gaps of 17 percent.

 

pa funding inequality

 
We can’t keep kicking minorities and the destitute to the curb. We can’t keep giving the rich and middle class every opportunity to succeed while depriving the poor of that same chance.

Wolf, the Democrats and a few Republicans have tried several times to fix the problem.

First, they attempted large increases in education funding to catch up to where funding would be if the Corbett cuts hadn’t happened coupled with the rising costs caused by inflation.

In 2015, the governor proposed a $400 million increase but funded it with a tax increase on the rich that almost all Republicans refused.

Then he tried to bring the state share of education funding up to 50% by using a more equitable tax plan. He proposed cutting property taxes in poorer districts and replacing them with higher state taxes elsewhere. However, Republicans saw it as an opportunity to completely eliminate property taxes and cut school funding even further. It ended in a stalemate and another incremental education increase.

If the legislature wouldn’t approve the necessary spending increases to heal the cuts it made under Corbett, Wolf at least wanted lawmakers to approve dividing the money up more fairly among the state’s 500 school districts.

A funding formula had been approved four years ago to reflect changes in school district attendance and wealth that had been ignored for a quarter century. This would result in more support for poorer schools and less for wealthier ones.

And there’s the sticking point. Lawmakers wouldn’t approve a plan that would provide less funding to 70% of the state’s districts – but neither would they increase school spending to make up the difference.

You’d think that such legislative gridlock might make voters lose hope. However, there is a mass movement of people at the grassroots level demanding change for our children.

Most notably, the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.

The lawsuit – now in its fourth year – is scheduled for trial before the state Supreme Court in 2020. So at best, relief is still a ways in the future. Many are hoping justices will order the legislature to dramatically increase its investment in public schools. But the outcome is certainly not a sure thing.

Could striking teachers in red and blue states be showing us in Pennsylvania the solution?

Might it be time to raise our teacher voices in the purple states, too?

And is there a path to equity through collective action that doesn’t hang teachers out to dry?

 


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

There Are Few Things As Reprehensible as a Scab

scabrat

 

There is a special place in Hell for strikebreakers.

 

Some people kill. Some steal.

 

But only a filthy, disgusting scab can do all of that in one.

 

When you take someone else’s job, you’re stealing their bargaining power and killing the community’s chances for their kids.

 

This week as 30,000 teachers at Los Angeles Unified School District walked out demanding support for their students and their professions, a few slimy worms have crossed the picket line to keep some of the district’s 900 schools open.

 

Most parents have kept their children home, but some don’t have that choice. And the district is trying to use that opportunity to justify larger class sizes and fewer resources. While sitting on $2 billion in the bank, they pull out their pockets and play dumb. In the richest state in the country, they want you to believe there isn’t enough money to waste on children.

 

At least not on these black and brown children!

 

And whether they mean to or not, the craven, no account, flatulent scabs back them up 100%.

 

According to the LA Times, the district has students cloistered in holding areas while administrators tell them to fill in workbooks or go on their cell phones or iPads to learn via app.

 

Among these yes-men, you’ll find a handful of substitute teachers who put their own yellow bellies over solidarity with their fellows.

 

Not only is this sniveling, groveling behavior suitable only to strip the self-respect from the most base criminal, they aren’t even getting thirty pieces of silver for it.

 

According to the Times, at one school scabs are only being paid $160 a day – less than subs normally make. Yet for each of these fill-ins, the district is paying the Charter Substitute Teacher Network – an outside agency providing these miserable miscreants – $250 a day, which is in fact more than the usual sub rate!

 

How transparent! The district doesn’t even value its scabs! It would rather pay the corporation that provides these amoral dupes than the dupes, themselves!

 

How low a weasel do you have to be to take such a job? What kind of dung beetle? What piece of excrement could stoop so low?

 

No. Wait. That’s an insult to weasels, dung beetles and excrement!

 

Working people have one thing of value in this economy – their labor.

 

When you rob a person of the right to withhold that labor, you take away her power. You turn her into little more than a slave whose only choice is take it or leave it.

 

But when people are given the dignity to join together as one, to unify as one solid whole, they can equal the power of the wealthy and privileged.

 

They can stand together on their own two feet and demand a fair share.

 

And in these terrible times, when the powerful look at even public schooling as little more than an opportunity to further enrich themselves through no account charter schools and high stakes testing and endless ed tech bells and whistles – who is left to stand up for our children?

 

I’ll tell you who! The teachers!

 

The parents!

 

The students!

 

The community!

 

We are all here united as one. We have drawn a line in the sand – and woe to the pustulent, putrid, pissant who dares cross it!

 

You want to make America great?

 

You want to make this country into something we, the people can be proud of?

 

Don’t cross any picket lines.

 

Show some backbone, even if it hurts to stand up straight for once.

 

The only way forward, the only way to create a society worthy of our children, is to join hands and walk toward the promised land – together.

 

 

 

“After God finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab … When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out. No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.”

Jack London

 


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-4

LA Teachers Strike is About Charter Schools and High Stakes Testing

utla-strike

 

On Monday more than 30,000 teachers at 900 schools in Los Angeles, California, will be on strike.

 

And unlike the wave of teachers strikes last year in red states like West Virginia, this time educators are taking to the streets due to the policies of Democrats.

 

At issue are things like lowering class sizes and providing more nurses, librarians and counselors.

 

But behind these issues lies one of the most important facts about our country.

 

When you get right down to it, there is very little difference between many Democratic policymakers and their Republican counterparts.

 

You think Betsy Devos is the opposite of Arne Duncan? Wrong.

 

You think Barack Obama is the opposite of Donald Trump? Wrong again.

 

Though there are differences, those often amount to differences of degree.

 

Corporate Democrats like almost all Republicans support the same education policies – school privatization and high stakes testing – that are robbing the LA Unified School District of the funding it needs to meet the needs of its students.

 

THAT’S why class sizes have ballooned to more than 45 students in secondary schools; 35 students in upper elementary grades; and 25 students in lower elementary grades.

 

THAT’S why the district does not have nearly enough counselors, psychologists or librarians to give students the support they need.

 

THAT’S why 80% of schools don’t have full-time nurses.

 

The second largest district in the country has more charter schools than any other. The overwhelming majority of them are operated by corporate chains and have expanded by 287% over the last 10 years.

 

These are publicly funded but privately run schools. They don’t have to meet the same standards of accountability or transparency about how they spend taxpayer dollars – all while gobbling up $600 million a year!

 

That is money that parents and community members are forced to pay but about which they have very little say. It’s money that can – and often does – go right into the pockets of charter school operators without providing its full value to the students it was meant help educate. It’s money set aside for all children but given to educate merely a handful of students chosen by those same businesspeople who run these charters because they think these children will be cheaper and easier to educate.

 

That’s not Democracy. No self-respecting Democrat should support such a thing – but you’ll find luminaries from Obama to the Clintons to Cory Booker who will tell you what a great idea it is. Along with DeVos, Trump, Jeb Bush and the Koch Brothers.

 

 

LA Superintendent Austin Beutner is a Democrat, but he’s also a multimillionaire with experience in corporate downsizing and none in education.

 

According to an op-ed by President of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) Alex Caputo-Pearl published in the LA Times:

 

“…Beutner has moved ahead with what we believe is his agenda to dismantle the district. Through an outside foundation, he has brought on firms that have led public school closures and charter expansion in some districts where they have worked, from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. This approach, drawn from Wall Street, is called the “portfolio” model, and it has been criticized for having a negative effect on student equity and parent inclusion.”

 

These are policies in direct opposition to the progressive ideals at the heart of the Democratic Party. They are, in fact, bedrock Republican ideology and demonstrate the vast divide among Democrats.

 

New Democrats oppose them. Grassroots Democrats oppose them. Democratic voters oppose them. And it will be telling whether the policymakers in our halls of power will follow the lead of the people or try to shepherd the power behind the party into doing what the patricians think best.

 

That’s why this strike is important way beyond California. Whatever happens will send echoes throughout the country, because school districts from sea to shining sea are facing similar issues.

 

In the meantime, the LA Unified District has a $1.8 Billion budget surplus it can use to help meet these needs. But the solutions to the district’s woes require a long-term commitment to public education.

 

Certainly the state of California needs to increase its per pupil spending. It’s the richest state in the country, yet ranks 43rd out of 50 in this regard.

 

This would help the district raise teacher salaries to match those of surrounding districts.

 

But the root problem is a lack of ideological support among policymakers.

 

Too many Democrats inside and outside the district don’t support the very idea of public schools. They’d rather boost privatization.

 

Too many Democrats support unnecessary and harmful high stakes standardized testing which not only unfairly paints the district as a failure for the poverty of its students but forces out things of real education value like the arts and ethnic studies.

 

Too many Democrats have no problem doing this in a district that serves a majority of students of color while providing only the best for middle class white kids.

 

That’s why today the American people stand with the UTLA as they go on strike.

 

It’s why we always stand with educators – You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.

 

Democrats need to get their priorities straight.

 

It’s time to decide if they’re going to continue being Trump lite or reclaim their progressive heritage and rejoin the rest of the nation.


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-2

What Happened to 2018 As The Year of the Teacher?

merlin_137374938_25a3513b-8341-4602-8710-910d3500b1d5-jumbo

 

This year teachers took their mission way beyond the classroom.

 

Starting in West Virginia, we staged half-a-dozen walkouts in red states across the country demanding a better investment in children’s educations and often getting it.

 

Then we took that momentum and stormed our state capitals and Washington, DC, with thousands of grassroots campaigns that translated into seats in government.

 

It was so effective and unprecedented that the story began circulating that 2018 would be known as “The Year of the Teacher.”

 

And then, just as suddenly, the story stopped.

 

No more headlines. No more editorials. No more exposes.

 

So what happened?

 

The gum in the works seems to have been a story in The Atlantic by Alia Wong called “The Questionable Year of the Teacher Politician.”

 

In it, she writes that the teacher insurgence was overblown by unions and marks little more than a moment in time and not an authentic movement.

 

It really comes down to a numbers game. Numerous sources cite high numbers of teachers running for office. Wong disputes them.

 

National Education Association (NEA) senior political director Carrie Pugh says about 1,800 educators – both Republicans and Democrats – sought seats in state legislatures this year. Likewise, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a group that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures, puts the number at 1,456 educators.

 

Wong disputes these figures because she says most of these people aren’t currently K-12 classroom teachers.

 

She writes:

 

 “The NEA uses the word educator liberally, counting essentially anyone who currently works in or used to work in an education-related job, such as professors, guidance counselors, and school administrators.”

 

Maddy Will and others at Education Week agree with Wong’s assessment. According to their analysis, out of the thousands of education-related candidates, they could only prove that 177 were K-12 classroom teachers.

 

And there you have it.

 

A story about teachers taking over their own destinies is dead in the water.

 

However, this begs two important questions: (1) Is not being able to corroborate the facts the same as disproving them? And (2) Is being a K-12 classroom teacher a fair metric by which to judge education candidates?

 

First, there’s the issue of corroboration.

 

Wong, herself, notes that part of the disparity, “…may come down to the inconsistent ways in which candidate lists are compiled from state to state and organization to organization.” It’s unclear why that, by itself, throws doubt on the NEA’s and DLCC’s numbers. These are verifiable facts. Journalists could – in theory – track down their truth or falsity if their parent companies ponied up the dough for enough staff to do the hard work of researching them. The fact that this hasn’t happened is not proof of anything except low journalistic standards.

 

Second, there’s the question of whether Wong and Will are holding teachers up to a fair standard.

 

Since the Great Recession, more than 116,000 educators have been out of work. If roughly 1-2% of them decide to run for office, doesn’t that represent a rising tide of teachers striking back at the very representatives responsible for neglecting schools and students? Aren’t they seeking to right the wrongs that put them out of work in the first place?

 

Even if we look at just the people currently employed in an education field, why are college professors defined out of existence? Why are guidance counselors and principals not worthy of notice?

 

Certainly K-12 classroom teachers are at the heart of the day-to-day workings of the education system. But these others are by no means unrelated.

 

Carol Burris was an award-winning principal at South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District of New York before becoming Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Diane Ravitch, who co-founded NPE, is an education historian and research professor at New York University.

 

If Wong and Will are to be believed, the work of Burris and Ravitch on behalf of public education should be discounted because they are not currently working in the classroom. That’s just ridiculous.

 

This isn’t about logic or facts. It’s about controlling the narrative.

 

The Atlantic and Education Week are artificially massaging the numbers to support the narrative their owners prefer.

 

And let’s not forget, both publications are in bed with the forces of standardization and privatization that educators of every stripe have been taking arms against this year and beyond.

 

Though The Atlantic is a 162-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment, it was purchased on July 28, 2017, by the Emerson Collective. This is Laurne Powell Jobs’ philanthrocapitalist cover organization which she’s been using in a media blitz to reinvent high schools by way of corporate education reform.

 

Likewise, Education Week has always had a corporatist slant on its editorial page and sometimes even in the way it reports news. Nowhere is this more blatant than the publication’s annual Quality Counts issue which promotes the standards-and-testing industrial school complex of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, etc.

 

It’s no wonder that these organizations would want to stop the narrative of insurgent teachers taking a stand against the very things these publications and their owners hold dear.

 

They want to cast doubt on the record-breaking activism of parents, students, citizens and, yes, teachers.

 

But the facts tell a very different story.

 

From West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to Colorado and Arizona, educators took to the streets last spring to rally for adequate, equitable and sustainable K–12 funding.

 

All over the country, we’re demanding properly equipped classrooms, better wages, and stronger public schools.

 

In Connecticut we sent the first black woman to the legislature from the state, Jahana Hayes, a school administrator and Teacher of the Year.

 

We took down Wisconsin’s anti-education Governor Scott Walker. Not only that, but we replaced him with the state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Evers, on a platform centered on schools and learning.

 

And he wasn’t the only educator with a gubernatorial win. Tim Walz, a former high school teacher, became governor of Minnesota.

 

In Oklahoma, former teachers Carri Hicks, Jacob Rosencrants, and John Waldron all won seats in the state legislature, who along with others riding the pro-school tide increased the state’s “education caucus” – a group of bipartisan lawmakers committed to improving schools – from nine members to 25.

 

Even where candidates weren’t explicitly educators, mobilizing around the issue of education brought electoral victories. Democratic candidates were able to break the Republican supermajority in North Carolina because of their schools advocacy.

 

Even in Michigan – home of our anti-education Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor after campaigning against public-school funding cuts.

 

In Illinois, anti-education governor Bruce Rauner got the boot, while Democrat J.B. Pritzker unseated him on a schools platform.

 

And in Kansas, not only did school districts successfully sue the state for more funding, Laura Kelly defeated conservative incumbent governor Kris Kobach on a platform of further expanding school funding.

 

These victories didn’t just happen. They were the result of grassroots people power.

 

The NEA says even beyond educators seeking office, members and their families showed a 165% increase in activism and volunteering during the midterm election over 2016. This is especially significant because participation tends to flag, not increase, around midterms.

 

So let’s return to the disputed numbers of teachers who sought election this campaign season.

 

Of the 1,800 educators the NEA identified, 1,080 of them were elected to their state legislatures. When it comes to the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 109 of 178 educators won.

 

If we go by Education Week’s numbers, just 43 of 177 won.

 

Clearly, this is not the whole picture.

 

The education insurgency was more than even getting candidates elected. It was also about changes in policy.

 

In Massachusetts, we successfully repealed the Ban on Bilingual Education so educators will be able to teach English Language Learners in a mix of the students’ native language and English as a bridge to greater English proficiency.

 

In North Carolina, we successfully lobbied state lawmakers to stop for-profit charter schools from taking over four of five public schools.

 

And everywhere you look the stranglehold of high stakes standardized testing is losing its grip.

 

Because of our advocacy, the amount of time spent on these deeply biased assessments has been cut in states like Maryland, New Mexico, West Virginia, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania.

 

The highly suspect practice of evaluating teachers on student test scores has been dropped in Connecticut and the weight it is given has been reduced in New Mexico.

 

Now with new policies in Idaho and North Dakota, 10 states have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to opt their children out of some or all of these exams.

 

Half of New Hampshire’s school districts have replaced standardized tests in most grades with local, teacher-made performance assessments.

 

I don’t care what corporate journalists are being forced to report by their billionaire owners.

 

These accomplishments should not be minimized.

 

Teachers are at the heart of communities fighting the good fight everywhere.

 

And in most places we’re winning!

 

We’re teaching our lawmakers what it means to support public education – and if they refuse to learn that lesson, we’re replacing them.

 

If that’s not “Year of the Teacher,” I don’t know what is.

 


 

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

book-2