Racial Disparity in Student Discipline Isn’t All About Race

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Black students are suspended from school at substantially higher rates than white ones.

 

That’s indisputable.

 

When teachers send kids to the office, when principals issue detentions and suspensions, the faces of those students are disproportionately black or brown.

 

So what does that mean?

 

Are minority children more badly behaved than white ones?

 

Or is it an indication that our public schools are overrun with racist teachers and principals?

 

Those appear to be the only choices in Trump’s America.

 

There’s either something desperately wrong with children of color or the majority of white staff at public schools can’t handle them.

 

But the reality is far more complex, and no matter who you are, it will probably make you uncomfortable.

 

The problem is that there are variables the binary choice above doesn’t even begin to explain, and chief among them is child poverty.

 

In short, there are an awful lot of poor kids in America. And children living in poverty act out more than those living in middle or upper income brackets.

 

It’s not that these kids are inherently bad. They’re just coping with the stress of an impoverished life style by claiming whatever attention they can – even negative attention.

 

And since children of color are disproportionately more impoverished than white kids, it just makes sense that more of them would act up.

 

It should come as no surprise that living with economic deprivations translates into behavioral problems.

 

I’m not saying poverty is the only factor. I’m not saying that white teachers and administrators don’t engage in bias and racism. But it isn’t all one or the other.

 

Both are factors in this equation. And others variables as well.

 

To truly understand the problem, we have to give up the easy answers and the blame game and come together to find real, workable solutions.

 

SUSPENSIONS

 

About 15.5 percent of American school children are black, yet they make up 39 percent of students who are suspended from school, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) first study on the issue.

 

The study used data from 95,000 schools compiled from the federal Civil Rights Collection.

 

Particularly alarming is the fact that almost the same disparity exists in our prison system, where nearly 38 percent of inmates are black.

 

Researchers concluded that this disparity persists in both rich and poor schools, so the primary cause is racial bias.

 

However, the study was also used by the GAO as a means to put pressure on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she considered whether to rescind 2014 civil rights guidelines from the Obama Administration. The report was part of a political move to force DeVos to keep using guidelines meant to ensure that students are not discriminated against when punishments are handed out or schools would risk being found in violation of civil rights laws.

 

The problem is that the study is undeniably partisan and politically motivated.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with its motivation. It’s just that we can’t let a single well-intentioned political action falsely impugn the nation’s teachers and public schools.

 

It IS important to keep the Obama era guidelines on civil rights violations. We DO need to be aware of possible incidents of discrimination against minorities in our schools and work to rectify these issues.

 

However, we can’t let this change the facts. The issue is whether poverty or race has a greater impact on racial discrepancies in student discipline. Are a greater percentage of black kids suspended mainly because of prejudice or is it more a symptom of their poverty?

 

And the answer can’t depend on whether it makes an odious person like DeVos squirm or smile.

 

POVERTY

 

The problem with answering this question comes from the various definitions of poverty we employ.

 

If we define poverty for students as those eligible for free or reduced lunch programs (a determination based on household income), then more than half – 51% – of public school children are poor.

 

But if we take the more conservative formula developed in the 1960s based on food expenses as a part of a family budget, poverty estimates shrink.

 

According to the Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) which uses the more conservative definition, childhood poverty in the U.S. breaks down as follows: 10% of white kids (4.2 million), 27% of Latino children (4 million), 33% of Black students (3.6 million), 12% of Asian children (400,000) and 40% of Native American children (200,000).

 

And those figures are rising. There are 1.2 million more poor children in the U.S. today than there were in 2000.

 

However, there is real reason to assume these figures don’t capture the whole picture. After all, in just the last 30 years, food expenses (up 100%) have not risen as dramatically as other costs such as health care (up 500%), housing (up 250%) and college tuition (up 1,000%). So any real-world definition of poverty would include substantially more children than just those who qualify under these out-of-date federal guidelines.

 

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concludes, “If the same basic methodology developed in the early 1960s was applied today, the poverty thresholds would be over three times higher than the current thresholds.”

 

And the GAO study used the conservative 1960s threshold.

 

It underestimated how poor our nation, families and children have become.

 

Consider: in the past 20 years as wages have stagnated, median household expenses increased by 25 to 30 percent. As a result, 3 out of 5 Americans today spend more than they earn – not on useless frivolities – but on essential needs.

 

It’s estimated that over three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

 

People are working more hours for decreasing wages and benefits. A Princeton study concluded that 94 percent of the nine million new jobs created in the past decade were temporary or contract-based instead of traditional full-time positions.

 

In 2016, the poorest 50% of American adults had an average net worth (home and financial assets minus debt) of just $7,500. To make matters worse, only a year previously it was $9,000. The difference all went to the top 1% who gained an average of $1.5 million during that same year.

 

These facts have real world consequences for every level of society – especially how our children behave in school.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

It seems clear then that the scope and effects of poverty have been underestimated by the GAO report and others who wish to emphasize the effect of racism and bias.

 

Again this is not to say that racism and bias are misrepresented or unimportant. It’s a question of how much – not an either/or situation.

 

The fact of the matter is that poverty has a more pervasive impact on student discipline because students of color experience it at greater rates than white kids.

 

This is mainly because of the way poverty affects students’ home lives – an area that has a much greater influence on education than what goes on in the school, itself.

 

For instance, children who don’t know how to “play school” – to navigate the expectations, routines, social situations and academic demands – don’t learn as much as those who do. In fact, this may be a partial reason why children of color don’t do as well academically as kids from other groups. Certainly biased standardized assessments and the high stakes decisions made based on these tests play an even larger role. But at least some of the gap may be caused by lost opportunities due to behavioral issues.

 

Sadly, children who act out in class usually do the same at home. We must ask then: are parents present when this happens? Do they have similar standards of misbehavior? Do they know how to correct misbehavior when it happens?

 

Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that many parents aren’t able to be present for their kids.

 

They are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t have the time to do the groundwork necessary to eliminate behavior problems before their children go to class. They don’t have the time to set up routines, expectations, rewards and punishments, etc. And even when they do attempt to do these things, they have less ability to get it right because their attention is focused on putting food on the table, providing clothing and shelter, etc.

 

This is not because these people are bad parents. In fact, they are good parents who are doing the best they can. But this is a symptom of a deformed society that requires a disproportionate investment of time from the poor for the essentials that is not required of those in higher income brackets.

 

This is not something unique to black and brown families, either. It is a feature of millions of white households as well – but the demographics of poverty cluster these impacts disproportionately on children of color.

 

HOME LIFE

 

There is also a change in the sociological makeup and values of poor and minority families.

 

Some would put blame squarely on the increasing prevalence of one-parent households. I think this is deceptive, though, because many one-parent households are stronger and more stable than two parent ones. It really depends. But it makes sense that households with two parents – where one adult can lean on the other for support – are often more stable than those without this feature.

 

This may be an area where black children have a disadvantage since according to census data the percentage of white children under 18 who live with both parents almost doubles that of black children. While 74.3 percent of all white children below the age of 18 live with both parents, only 38.7 percent of African-American minors do the same.

 

There is also the issue of parents who aren’t just absent during the workday but absent altogether. People of color also are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to white people – even when convicted for the same crimes. This is not to say that black people commit more crimes, but that they are more harshly punished for them than whites – they have higher conviction rates and serve longer sentences.

 

This has consequences for children of color. It adds to the prevalence of grandparents and/or other siblings or foster caregivers filling that parental role. Again, these households can be exceptionally strong and stable. But there is less support, more struggles and the increased possibility that children’s behavioral home foundations may be less robust.

 

RACIAL TRAUMA

 

People of color also experience racial trauma compounded from our national history of slavery, racism and prejudice. Black and brown people today are still dealing with the effects of generational slavery. This is one of the reasons they are disproportionately poor – they did not have the chance to gather wealth over successive generations as white families did.

 

Moreover, the culture of black people was disrupted by the slave trade. Genealogies, legacies, traditions, faiths, etc. were stolen from them by the slave industry. Parenthood, as we know it today, was forbidden to black people. Is it any wonder that they have struggled to regain what was taken from them by white society?

 

Finally, there are the effects of Jim Crow and racial discrimination after the end of slavery. Black people have continually been told they had the same rights and opportunities as white people but when they went to claim these alleged boons, they were beaten back. This has had the effect of turning some of them against the very idea of many of the behaviors they see exemplified by white people.

 

Some students of color don’t want to behave like the white kids because they want to assert their blackness. There is among some of them an internalization of negative behaviors as black and positive ones as white. This misdirected self-determination results in racial pride for acting up regardless of the academic consequences.

 

RACISM AT SCHOOL

 

Of course by the same token there is certainly bias, prejudice and racism among white teachers, administrators, faculty and staff.

 

The fact that our public schools are mostly staffed with non-black and non-brown people, itself, ensures that bias will be prevalent in our schools. It is vital that we increase the percentage of black staff – especially teachers – in our classrooms. Though this will require the elevation of the profession of educator to attract teachers of all backgrounds.

 

The problem is that white people often don’t understand black culture or even recognize how much white people have been enculturated to accept stereotypes and bias as the norm.

 

This has a direct impact on school discipline. Many discipline policies are written to unduly target students of color. I’m not saying this is necessarily intentional – though it may be in some cases – but that these policies result in discipline discrepancies.

 

Many of these are dress code policies. How many schools criminalize the wearing of black hair in certain ways or the simple hooded sweatshirt? Hoodies, for example, are a preferred manner of dress for many students of color and really cause no harm to academics or social interactions. But administrators and/or school boards ban them – why? It’s just another way to police black bodies and minds.

 

These sorts of practices are everywhere in our schools and take reflection to undo. For instance, I found myself guilty of this same thing for years in my classroom when some of my black students started compulsively brushing their hair at their desks. These were mainly boys with short hair who were trying to get a wave effect their peers considered stylish.

 

At first, I found this incredibly annoying – the sound of constant brushing as students were doing their work. But then I realized that these students WERE doing their work. The brushing in no way interfered with academics. It didn’t bother anyone except for me and perhaps some of the white students.

 

Simply allowing cultures to express themselves should not result in disciplinary action. And since I’ve permitted the behavior, I’ve had less reason to discipline my students and no negative impact on academics.

 

SOLUTIONS

 

Most analyses of this problem stop with blame.

 

Who’s responsible for this? And once we have an answer – and it’s usually one very simple answer – then we’ve done all we set out to do.

 

In the case of the GAO report, once again the blame was put on everyone’s favorite scapegoat, public schools and teachers. But this is not earned given how much poverty was overlooked. The reality is that the responsibility for the problem is multifaceted with much of it stemming from cruel economics.

 

The solutions to the issue, if we are ever to really try to do more than just point fingers, must address a variety of ills.

 

First, we need to monitor and help public school staff to be less biased.

 

We need more teachers of color without a doubt, but this will never happen until all teachers are better paid, have stronger labor protections, autonomy and prestige. On top of that, there should be additional incentives to attract teachers of color. It’s hard for white teachers to notice their own biases unless there is someone in the building who can see them more clearly and offer advice. Just making the staff more multicultural will make white teachers more reflective of their own practices.

 

Of course actively pointing out prejudice is extremely difficult for co-workers to do by themselves. In addition, white teachers need cultural sensitivity training. And not just them. Since no educator comes from all cultures, everyone could use frequent reminders of how to be more inclusive, impartial and fair to students from various backgrounds.

 

Next, we need to broaden our idea of what discipline is. Every infraction doesn’t need a detention or suspension. We can enact interventions like restorative justice practices, conflict resolution and other positive procedures that actively teach kids how to deal with their emotions and better behave.

 

In short, we’re teaching kids what they should have learned at home, but like so many things in our society, it’s left to the schools to get it done. I bring this up not to shame anyone but to remind society that any expectation that schools can fix this problem by themselves is laughably naïve – but someone has to try.

 

At the macro level, we need to take steps to reduce and eliminate poverty.

 

This is one of the richest countries in the history of the world. Surely we can find ways to better share that wealth to the benefit of all. If parents don’t have to work multiple jobs to survive, they are more able to teach, model and discipline their own kids. And when parents are present in children’s lives, those kids don’t have as great a need for attention. It would certainly cut down on negative attention seeking behaviors.

 

In addition, with schools at the center of neighborhoods, we can have more adult education classes for parents. This would be not just courses on how to effectively raise children but on job skills and lifelong learning. After all, parents who value learning raise kids who do, too.

 

Finally, we need to enact antiracist policies at the local, state and federal level to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) prejudice of all kinds. We need integrated schools and neighborhoods. We need more antidiscrimination policies. We need to end mass incarceration and selective enforcement of the law. And we need some form of reparations to black people for the generations of racism they have had to endure.

 

I know these are big goals. But they are the only way to make a just society for everyone.

 

We cannot continue to blame our school system for reproducing the society that created it. Education is aspirational and strives to better itself. But it cannot reach that goal alone.


 

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

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Greater Test Scores Often Mean Less Authentic Learning

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The main goal of schooling is no longer learning.

 

It is test scores.

 

Raising them. Measuring growth. Determining what each score means in terms of future instruction, opportunities, class placement, special education services, funding incentives and punishments, and judging the effectiveness of individual teachers, administrators, buildings and districts.

 

We’ve become so obsessed with these scores – a set of discrete numbers – that we’ve lost sight of what they always were supposed to be about in the first place – learning.

 

In fact, properly understood, that’s the mission of the public school system – to promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Test scores are just supposed to be tools to help us quantify that learning in meaningful ways.

 
Somewhere along the line we’ve misconstrued the tool for the goal. And when you do that, it should come as no surprise that you achieve the goal less successfully.

 

There are two kinds of standardized assessment – aptitude and achievement tests. Both are supposed to measure scholarship and skill – though in different ways.

 

Aptitude tests are designed to predict how well a student will do in the future. Achievement tests are designed to determine how much a student knows now.

 

There is, of course, intense overlap between these two types because aptitude tests base their predictions on assessment of achievements. So they’re basically achievements tests that go one step further. They ask questions designed to give more information than just the present state but also about whether a student has progressed to a state which is most likely to then give way to another state in the future.

 

Either way, standardized assessments are supposed to be based on what students have learned. But the problem is that not all learning is equal.

 

For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how long to stir the risotto.

 

That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.

 

The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.

 

This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.

 

When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.

 

When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.

 

New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.

 

According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.

 

If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.

 

He writes:

 

“As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”

 

Think about what this means.

 

We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.

 

We talk about leaving no child left behind, and making sure all students do better on standardized tests, but these tests are norm-referenced. By definition, all students cannot score well no matter how great their knowledge or skills. If you gave a standardized test to a class of genius-level intellects, there would still be the same percentage of failures and outstanding scores with the majority clustered in the middle. That’s how the tests are designed.

 

And if this highly suspect method of question selection, alone, doesn’t achieve that end, the test companies have a way to correct the scores at the end of the process through the way they grade them.

 

These tests are graded with cut scores. In other words, the state or the testing company or the graders, themselves, decide anew each year which scores are passing and which failing.

 

One year a 1200 might be proficient. Another year it’s basic. It all depends on what the decision makers come up with on a given year.

 

What do they base this on? No one has ever given a definitive answer. In fact, I doubt there is one. In each case, the deciding body just makes it up.

 

We’ve seen countless times when state scores are criticized for being too low one year, and then they miraculously bounce up the next. It’s not that students score differently, it’s that the cut score was raised. Why? Perhaps to stifle questions about the test’s validity. After all, people are less angry when more students pass.

 

The goal is always getting the bell curve. That is what validates the tests. But it’s a human construction, not a function of assessment. It says less about the test takers than the test makers and their enablers.

 

This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests don’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction.

 

We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.

 

That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.

 

It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!

 

It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. But this degradation of education isn’t even the worst part.

 

The same method of question selection also builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.

 

According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.

 

This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.

 

So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.

 

As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:

 

“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

 

 

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Popham is less critical of high stakes testing. He sees more of a problem in using student test scores to assess teacher performance. But even he thinks the tests and the scores are being over valued and misunderstood in a wider context.

 

He writes:

 

“Merely because these test scores are reported in numbers (sometimes even with decimals!) should not incline anyone to attribute unwarranted precision to them. Standardized achievement test scores should be regarded as rough approximations of a student’s status with respect to the content domain represented by the test.”

 

I’d go even further.

 

Standardized test scores are tools used by big business to make money. That is as far as their validity goes.

 

And the fact that we make so many vital educational decisions on them is nothing less than criminal.

 

The tests are bogus nonsense at best and a conspiracy against the poor and minorities at worst.

 

When well-meaning people let themselves get wrapped up in knots over low scores and what that means for student learning, they are actually hurting the very thing that they value.

 

Student learning is not bettered by higher test scores. It is often made worse by them.

 

High test scores don’t mean greater learning. They often mean learning the knowledge du jour to the detriment of what’s really important. They mean biased education against the poor and minorities.

 

And they make those with real concerns complicit in a sham being perpetrated on our children and our society.

 


 

 

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

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Charter School’s Two Dads – How a Hatred for Public School Gave Us School Privatization

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If bad ideas can be said to have fathers, then charter schools have two.

 

And I’m not talking about greed and racism.

 

No, I mean two flesh and blood men who did more than any others to give this terrible idea life – Minnesota ideologues Ted Kolderie, 89, and Joe Nathan, 71.

 

In my article “Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along,” I wrote about Kolderie’s role but neglected to mention Nathan’s.

 

And of the two men, Nathan has actually commented on this blog.

 

He flamed on your humble narrator when I dared to say that charter schools and voucher schools are virtually identical.

 

I guess he didn’t like me connecting “liberal” charters with “conservative” vouchers. And in the years since, with Trump’s universally hated Billionaire Education Secretary Betsy Devos assuming the face of both regressive policies, he was right to fear the public relations nightmare for his brainchild, the charter school.

 

It’s kind of amazing that these two white men tried to convince scores of minorities that giving up self-governance of their children’s schools is in their own best interests, that children of color don’t need the same services white kids routinely get at their neighborhood public schools and that letting appointed bureaucrats decide whether your child actually gets to enroll in their school is somehow school choice!

 

 

But now that Nathan and Kolderie’s progeny policy initiative is waning in popularity, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter are calling for moratoriums on new charters and even progressive politicians are calling for legislative oversight, it’s important that people know exactly who is responsible for this monster.

 

And more than anyone else, that’s Kolderie and Nathan.

 

Over the last three decades, Nathan has made a career of sabotaging authentic public schools while pushing for school privatization.

 

He is director of the Center for School Change, a Minneapolis charter school cheerleading organization, that’s received at least $1,317,813 in grants to undermine neighborhood schools and replace them with fly-by-night privatized monstrosities.

 

He’s written extensively in newspapers around the country and nationwide magazines and Websites like the Huffington Post.

 

But it all started for Nathan back in 1987 when he happened to see an advertisement on TV, according to Ember Reichgott, the former Minnesota State Senator who originally proposed the first charter school bill.

 

The ad was called “Ah, Those Marvelous Minnesota Schools,” writes Reichgott.

 

 

It dared to dispute the Reagan administration’s propaganda hit piece “A Nation at Risk” which painted public schools as failures that needed to be disrupted and replaced.

 

 

Well Nathan wasn’t about to take it.

 

According to Reichgott’s book, “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story”, Nathan:

 

“…talked with the Minneapolis Foundation, among others, about what they might do. ‘The Minneapolis Foundation decided it was time to introduce into Minnesota some pretty radical ideas,’ said Nathan. So plans got underway for the Itasca Seminar, with a focus on public education.”

 

This seminar was instrumental in turning the tide in Minnesota that ultimately birthed the most infectious school privatization virus on an unwitting nation.

 

Nathan had always been a fan of transferring public services to private control. In fact, he had just finished lobbying for privatization in the National Governors Association. Now back in Minnesota, he joined together with Kolderie, a former journalist and self professed “policy entrepreneur” who had been pushing for the same thing since at least the 1970s.

 

Their ideology – expounded by southern segregationists and people like the divisive economist Milton Friedman – was extremely unpopular, but they were about to get a break.

 

In 1988, Albert Shanker, the union hero President of the American Federation of Teachers, had just given an infamous speech to the National Press Club praising the idea of a new concept called “charter schools.”

 

However, he wasn’t talking about the modern idea of a charter school. Shanker was building off an idea originally proposed by Ray Budde, a little-known professor of education from upstate New York.

 

It was Budde who actually coined the term “charter school.” He thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker liked this idea because of his own teaching experience in East Harlem where administrators constantly got in the way of educators. “One of the things that discourages people from bringing about change in schools is the experience of having that effort stopped for no good reason,” he said.

 

Nathan saw in this an opportunity and invited Shanker to speak at the Itasca Seminar. His goal was to hide his side’s privatization aims under the shadow of progressive unionism.

 

 

And it worked. In fact, if you look up the history of charter schools, you’ll STILL find people who insist they were invented by Shanker.

 

 

With this cover, the Citizen’s League, which was underwritten by the Minneapolis Foundation, was able to pass a bill requiring mandatory statewide standardized testing. The bill, authored by the Minnesota Business Partnership put forth the evaluation system necessary to demonize the public schools and prepare the way for the ultimate goal – privatization.

 

 

In 1991, the same forces passed the nation’s first charter school bill.

 

 

But let’s be clear on this – the charter schools created in this bill and the “charter schools” talked about by Shanker and Budde are very different concepts.

 

 

Nathan and Kolderie wrote the majority of the bill and they stripped out almost everything any educator had ever proposed.

 

 

According to Budde’s conception, charters would be authorized by school districts and run by teachers. Central office administrators would step out of the way, but charter schools would still operate within collective bargaining arrangements negotiated between districts and unions.

 

 

Instead, Nathan and Kolderie proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate from local districts. The state had the power, not communities or their elected representatives. That meant charters could be run not just by teachers but also by entrepreneurs. And that’s almost always who has been in charge of them ever since – corporations and business interests.

 

 

This was the goal Friedman and the deregulators had been fighting for since the 1950s finally realized – almost the same goal, it should be noted, as that behind school vouchers.

 

 

From the start, this was a business initiative. Competition between charters and authentic public schools was encouraged. And that included union busting. Thus charters were free of all the constraints of collective bargaining that districts had negotiated with their unions. The needs of workers and students were secondary to those of big business and the profit principle.

 

 

Shanker eventually realized this and repudiated what charter schools had become. But by then the damage was done.

 

 

Shanker hadn’t created charter schools. He had suggested something very different. And that suggestion was used to help usher in a concept that has haunted our public school system ever since.

 

 

Kolderie had been working on it for two decades, and with Nathan’s help it became a reality.

 

 

With the backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the two men went on to push a version of this same bill from legislature to legislature. Kolderie even boasts of helping 25 other states enact charter school legislation.

 

 

Today 43 states are afflicted with charter schools enrolling about 6% of the students in the country. An additional 4% go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers.

 

 

This distinction between charter and voucher schools is important to political pundits, but it’s really just hair splitting.  It’s like saying vanilla chocolate swirl ice cream is nothing like chocolate vanilla swirl.

 

 

Consider: charter schools are privatized schools paid for with taxes. Voucher schools are private schools paid for with money diverted from taxes.

 

 

False distinctions like these are another way of managing public perception just like the pettifogging contrast between for-profit and non-profit charter schools. Again they’re pretty much the same thing. They can each cut services to students and pocket the left overs – the only difference is which loopholes they have to jump through and how they designate their tax status.

 

 

They are both the flowering of the deregulationist dream of destroying public education and replacing it with business-operated schools. They are attempts to destabilize, defame and destroy public education.

 

 

And though the plan has worked for decades, here’s hoping that the current political pause represents the beginning of a change of course.

 

 

Kolderie and Nathan’s monster has devoured too many schools and with them too many children’s hopes of an excellent education.

 

 

It’s time to pin the monster down with facts and shove a stake through its heart.

 


 

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

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Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along

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America has been fooled by the charter school industry for too long.

 

The popular myth that charter schools were invented by unions to empower teachers and communities so that students would have better options is as phony as a three dollar bill.

 

The concept always was about privatizing schools to make money.

 

It has always been about stealing control of public education, enacting corporate welfare, engaging in union busting, and an abiding belief that the free hand of the market can do no wrong.

 

Charter schools are, after all, institutions run privately but paid for with tax dollars. So operators can make all decisions behind closed doors without public input or accountability. They can cut student services and pocket the difference. And they can enroll whoever the heck they want without providing the same level of education or programs you routinely get at your neighborhood public school.

 

In essence, charter schools are a scheme to eliminate the public from public education paid for at public expense.

 

 

But whenever anyone brings up these facts, they are confronted by the bedtime story of Albert Shanker and his alleged advocacy of the industry.

 
So grab your teddy bear and put on your jammies, because here’s how it goes:

 
Once upon a time, hero president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Al Shanker had an idea. He wanted to make laboratory schools where educators would be freed of regulations so they could experiment and find new pedagogies that worked. Then these innovations could spread to the rest of the school system.

 

One day in 1988, he gave a speech at the National Press Club and subsequently published a column in the New York Times advancing this idea.

 

And he called it – Dum, Dum, DUM! – charter schools!
The second act of the story opens in the mid-1990s when Shanker had largely turned against the idea after it had been co-opted by business interests.

 

He dreamed of places where unionized teachers would work with union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.” But instead he got for-profit monstrosities that didn’t empower workers but busted their unions.

 

If only we’d stuck with Shanker’s bold dream!

 

Or at least, that’s how the story goes.

 

Unfortunately it’s just a story.

 

It’s not true. Hardly a word of it.

 

Shanker did not come up with the idea of charter schools. He wasn’t part of the plan to popularize them. He didn’t even come up with the term “charter school.”

 

If anything, he was a useful patsy in this stratagem who worked tirelessly to give teachers unions a seat at the table where he then discovered they were also on the menu.

 

The real origin of charter schools goes back decades to at least the 1950s and the far right push for deregulation.

 

When the afterglow of the atomic bomb and the allied victory in Europe had faded, there was political backlash at home to roll back the amazing economic successes of the New Deal. Social security, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, a minimum wage, job programs that put millions of people to work – all of that had to go in favor of right wing ideology.

 

A cabal of mostly wealthy, privileged elites wanted to do away with these policies in the name of the prosperity it would bring to themselves and their kind. They claimed it would be for the good of everyone but it was really just about enriching the already rich who felt entitled to all economic goods and that everyone else should have to fight over the crumbs.

 

Never mind that it was just such thinking that burst economic bubbles causing calamities like the Great Depression in the first place and made the conditions ripe for two world wars.

 

Show me the money!

 

However, this really didn’t go anywhere until it was combined with that most American of institutions – racism.

 

Even before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision struck down school segregation, many white people said they’d never allow their children to go to school with black children.

 

In the South, several districts tried “freedom of choice” plans to allow white kids to transfer out of desegregated schools.

 

In 1952 and ’57, governments in two states – Georgia and Virginia – tried out what became known as the “private school plan.” Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge and community leaders in Prince Edward County, Virginia, tried to privatize public schools to avoid any federal desegregation requirements. Each student would be given a voucher to go to whatever school would enroll them – segregated by race.
The plan was never implemented in Georgia and struck down by the federal government in Virginia after only one year as a misuse of taxpayer funds.

 

But these failed plans got the attention of one of the leading deregulation champions, economist Milton Friedman.

 

He sided with the segregationists citing their prejudice and racism as merely “market forces.”

 

In his seminal 1955 tract, “The Role of Government in Education,” he wrote:

 

“So long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser. Privately conducted schools can resolve the dilemma … Under such a system, there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”

 

Throughout the 1970s, school voucher proposals were widely understood as a means to preserve school segregation, according to education historian Diane Ravitch. But they couldn’t gain any traction until privatizers came up with a new wrinkle in the formula – the charter school.

 

Charter schools are really just school vouchers with more money and regulations.

 

In the case of vouchers, we use tax dollars to pay for a portion of student enrollment at private and parochial schools. In the case of charters, we use tax dollars to pay for all of a student’s enrollment at a school that is privately managed. The only difference is how much taxpayer money we give to these privatized schools and how much leeway we give them in terms of pedagogy.

 

Charter schools can do almost whatever they want but they can’t blatantly teach religion. Voucher schools can.

 

Other than that, they’re almost the same thing.

 

In order to get the public to support school privatization, Friedman thought we’d need to convince them that they didn’t need the burden of self-government. This was especially true of minorities.

 

In his 1981 book Free to Choose, Friedman and his wife Rose suggested the necessity of convincing black voters that they didn’t need Democracy. School privatization could be pitched as a system that would “free the black man from dominion by his own political leaders.”

 

The opportune moment came in 1983 with the publication of the Reagan administration’s propaganda piece A Nation at Risk. Using bogus statistics and outright lies, the report painted our public school system as a failure and set up the false urgency that school deregulationists needed.

 

From this point forward, a series of supply side lawmakers, policy wonks, economists, billionaires and CEOs came out of the woodwork to push for school privatization which culminated in the first charter school law in 1991 in Minnesota.

 

In the middle of all this tumult came Shanker’s National Press Club speech in 1988.

 

Ronald Reagan was still in office and it’s hard to overstate the threat he posed to unions having infamously fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

 

Shanker was trying to ride the tide of public opinion in favor of deregulation and privatization. He accepted the bogus criticisms of schools in A Nation At Risk and offered to restructure schools to fix the problem. Like so many union leaders after him, Shanker gave away much of the power of his people-driven movement so as not to come across as obstructionist. He didn’t think teachers unions could oppose the rising tide of privatization without offering innovations of their own.

 

It’s true that he called these reforms “charter schools” but he didn’t invent the term. He borrowed it from a little-known Massachusetts educator, Ray Budde, who meant by it something very different from what it has become. Budde thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker’s proposal wasn’t nearly the first time a public figure had suggested restructuring public schools.

 

In the late 1960s after helping provide justification for school desegregation, sociologist Kenneth Clark advocated for alternative school systems that could be run by groups as diverse as universities to the Department of Defense.

 

Shanker’s contribution was not nearly as powerful as subsequent apologists have claimed. He was one voice among many. Though his comments were useful to the deregulators, they ignored everything of substance he had said beyond the myth that he supported their efforts at school privatization.

 

According to journalist Rachel Cohen, the true architect of the charter school concept as it appears today wasn’t Shanker, Budde or Clark. It was Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie.

 

He was at the heart of the issue pushing for school privatization from the 1970s through the 1990s.

 

Throughout the 1970s, Kolderie lobbied for a plethora of ways for private industry to provide government services – including education – through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO). By 1981, the focus narrowed almost exclusively to education.

 

In several reports, he blamed the bogus failure of public schools on the democracy of the school boards. Though he didn’t use the term “charter school,” his conception was essentially the same as the modern charter school: independent schools accountable only through market forces and a set of contractual obligations. He thought they could be run by almost anyone – universities, corporations, nonprofits— even public school districts – if state law could be amended to allow it.

 

That’s pretty much a charter school – a privately run learning institution that’s publicly financed.

 

Why doesn’t Kolderie get the credit? Why the emphasis on Shanker who had very little to do with what ultimately became law?

 

Because Kolderie and others wanted to hide behind the union. They wanted their policy to have a friendlier public image than that of a shadowy puppet master.

 

Shanker walked right into their trap.

 

He even agreed to give another speech in favor of charter schools in October 1988 at the Minneapolis Foundation’s annual Itasca Seminar for political and business leaders.

 

With continued lobbying from the corporate sector and right wing ideologues, three years later the state was the first to pass a charter school law.

 

And the die was cast.

 

Sure charter school cheerleaders like to give Shanker the credit today, but the legislation that was eventually passed and funneled to other states through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had little resemblance to anything Shanker said.

 

It was the deregulation and privatization model first conceived in the 1950s, funneled through Friedman and now Kolderie.

 

And make no mistake – the overall plot wasn’t simply to enact charter schools. That was merely the foothold that enabled subsequent school voucher bills and tax scholarship plans (vouchers lite). The end game was made clear by Friedman time and again – the complete destruction of public schools.

 

While speaking to rightwing lawmakers at a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman explained that school privatization was always about “abolishing the public school system.”

 

Here is an excerpt from Friedman’s ALEC speech:

 

“How do we get from where we are to where we want to be—to a system in which parents control the education of their children? Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it. Then parents would have enough money to pay for private schools, but you’re not gonna do that. So you have to ask, what are politically feasible ways of solving the problem. The answer, in my opinion, is choice…”

When Minnesota proposed the first charter school law, the state teachers union fought against it. But tellingly Shanker refused to speak out during legislative debates.

 

And this was due in part to the rise of the neoliberals.

 

School privatization was the brainchild of the far right. But as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, so dawned a new type of political figure – the social progressive with distinctly right wing economic views.

 

In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie worked closely with the DLC and even wrote its first policy paper on school privatization.

 

Clinton was an immediate convert, embracing Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches even though he knew it was unpopular with teachers unions. Clinton ruffled so many feathers that Shanker, himself, commented, “It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches.”

 

Though the first charter school law came a year later, in 1990 Wisconsin passed the first school voucher program. Since it was pushed through with mostly Republican support, this provided cover for neoliberal charter supporters. Though there was little difference between the two policies, neoliberals could distinguish themselves by criticizing school vouchers while endorsing their ideological cousins the charter schools.

 

So we had the two major political parties both supporting different flavors of the same school privatization.

 

It allowed Democrats to stop supporting more funding for social programs and schools while weakening the main driver of such policies – labor unions. This allowed the neoliberals to be economically as conservative as their “adversaries” across the aisle while publicly pretending to support progressivism.

 

Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students.

 

This does not now – and never did – represent any ideal offered by Shanker or unions.

 

His dream of teacher-run schools as laboratories of innovation may or may not have merit, but not at the expense of making different rules for different schools. Where regulation is important, it is important for all schools. Where it is too restrictive, all schools should be freed from its requirements. All teachers should be allowed to innovate and take a leadership role in their schools.

 

When Shanker spoke about “charter schools,” he was not a visionary. He was leading us down a dead end. He was foolishly offering an olive branch to an inferno. That doesn’t mean he started the blaze or even that it was his idea.

 

Yet even now you can read propaganda that says otherwise on the AFT’s own Website – “Restoring Shanker’s Vision for Charter Schools” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. It’s funny how Potter, a former charter school teacher, and Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation – which loves charter schools – both want to keep the happy face on an ugly idea. And sad that one of the largest teachers unions can’t face up to one of its heroes biggest mistakes.

 

If charter schools have a face, it should be Kolderie’s or Friedman’s – or perhaps it should be the industry’s most famous modern champion Betsy Devos.
Charter schools are no progressive dream.

 

They are the corporate paradise of spending tax dollars with zero accountability, zero transparency and as much deregulation as possible. They are the continued destabilization of public education in the knowledge that the edifice cannot stand without support indefinitely.

 

Public education will crumble and fall just as the architects of school privatization always knew it would.

 

Unless we take a stand and take back our power.

 

To do that we need to understand where charter and voucher schools came from and who is responsible.

 

Charter schools do NOT represent a good idea that was perverted by the corporate world. It is an essentially bad policy that should be abolished immediately.

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the reporting of Rachel Cohen.


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

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Busing and School Segregation Used for Politics not Policy

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If children of all races went to the same schools with each other, it would be harder to treat them unequally.

 

Moreover, it would be harder for them to grow up prejudiced because they would have learned what it’s like to have classmates who are different from them.

 

And though most people agree with these premises in principle, our laws still refuse to make them a reality in fact.

 

Perhaps that’s why it was so astounding when Kamala Harris brought up the issue of school segregation and busing at the first Democratic debates.

 
If you’re anything like me, for the first time these debates made Harris look like a viable contender for the party’s Presidential nomination to face Republican incumbent Donald Trump in 2020.

 

But then she immediately contradicted herself when people actually started to take her seriously.

 

During the debates, Harris called out front runner and former vice president Joe Biden for opposing court-ordered busing in the 1970s as a way of combating school segregation.

 

The California Democrat and former federal prosecutor rightly said that 40 years ago there was a “failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” so “that’s where the federal government must step in.”

 

But her star-making moment was when she made the whole matter extremely personal.

 

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” Harris said. “That little girl was me.”

 
The tactic was so successful that Biden has been fumbling to apologize and explain away a history of obstructing desegregation ever since.

 

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the debate showed Biden had lost half of his support among black voters since earlier in June.

 

Meanwhile, the Harris campaign was quick to cash in on the political capital she earned by selling t-shirts with a picture of herself when she was in school with the emblem “That Little Girl Was Me.”

 

It could almost be a masterclass in how to make a political point to both boost your own campaign and change the narrative to improve national policy.

 

That is if Harris actually backed up her rhetoric with action.

 
Unfortunately, she has been tripping all over herself to keep this a criticism of Biden and not let it become a policy prescription for today.

 
While perfectly happy to support busing as a measure to stop segregation in the past, she seems much less comfortable using it to stop our current school segregation problems.

 

Because even though the landmark Supreme 
Court decision that found racial segregation to be unconstitutional – Brown v. Board of Education – is more than 60 years old, our nation’s schools are in many places even more segregated now than they were when this ruling was handed down.

 

So the question remains: in some areas should we bus kids from black neighborhoods to schools located in white ones and vice versa to ensure that our classrooms are integrated?

 

Since the debates, Harris has waffled saying busing should be “considered” by school districts but she would not support mandating it.

 

In subsequent comments, she said she’d support a federal mandate for busing in certain situations where other integration efforts have not been effective or when the courts have stepped in to provide the federal government that power. However, she does not believe that either of these conditions have been met.

 

Frankly, it sounds a whole lot more like someone desperately making things up as she goes along than someone with a true plan to fix a deep problem in our public education system.

 

She rightly attacked Biden on his record but then came up short trying to prove that she would be much different, herself, if elected.

 

However, that doesn’t mean all Democratic candidates are so unprepared. A handful have detailed integration policy proposals.

 

The most obvious is Bernie Sanders.

 

In fact, it is a cornerstone of his “Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education.” Not only would he repeal the existing ban on using federal transportation funding to promote school integration, he would put aside $1 billion to support magnet schools to entice more diverse students. However, the most ambitious part of his desegregation effort goes beyond legislation. Sanders promises to “execute and enforce desegregation orders and appoint federal judges who will enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act in school systems.”

 

Sanders understands that the courts have largely sabotaged most desegregation efforts in the last 40 years.

 

At least two Supreme Court rulings have taken away the federal government’s power to enforce Brown v. Board. The first was 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley ruling which established that federal courts could not order desegregation busing across school district lines. They could only do so inside districts. So in big cities like Detroit – where the case originated – you have largely black city schools surrounded by mostly white suburban ones. The ruling forbids busing from city to suburban districts and vice-versa thereby destroying any kind of authentic desegregation efforts.

 

More recently, in 2007, the Supreme Court’s Parent’s Involved decision put even more constraints on voluntary busing programs.

 

Sanders is acknowledging these problems and promising to select judges to the bench who would work to overturn these wrongheaded decisions.

 

To my knowledge, no one has yet offered a more comprehensive plan.

 

However, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro comes in at a close second.

 

As you might expect, his school integration plan focuses on real estate and housing issues. According to his Website, Castro’s plan includes:

 

“Fulfill the promise of Brown v Board of Education through a progressive housing policy that includes affirmatively furthering fair housing, implementing zoning reform, and expanding affordable housing in high opportunity areas. These efforts will reduce racial segregation in classrooms.”

 

In other words, Castro hopes to work around the courts by incentivizing integration in neighborhoods which would also increase it in our schools.

 

It’s a good plan – though perhaps not enough in itself.

 

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt Castro’s sincerity here. Unlike Sanders’ plan, Castro’s education policy statement is littered with jargon right out of the school privatization, edtech and high stakes testing playbook. These are, after all, the same people who have worked to increase segregation with the promotion of charter and voucher schools.

 

For instance, the second point of his plan is called “Reimagining High School” – a monicker stolen from the XQ Superschools program, a philanthrocapitalist scheme to rebrand school privatization funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs.

 

This shouldn’t be surprising coming from 
Castro. In 2013, the mayor went on a tour of cities sponsored by Education Reform Now – an arm of Democrats for Education Reform, a school privatization lobbying network. In the same year, he was also a featured guest at a ribbon cutting ceremony for IDEA charter schools. In 2010, he admitted he had no problem taking money with strings attached – a reference to the Obama administration’s chief education initiative of offering education grants if states increased reliance on high stakes testing and charter schools. In particular, Castro said: “I would have taken the Race to the Top money if I was mayor, dogcatcher, or whatever.”

 

And speaking of standardized testing and edtech, there are other telling hints that he’s on the neoliberal bandwagon in his current education plan:

 

“Provide educators and public schools flexibility in defining success, including competency-based assessments and support for transitions away from seat-time requirements. Provide maximum flexibility for school leaders, teachers, and students to work together to develop rigorous, competency-based pathways to a diploma and industry recognized credentials,” [Emphasis mine].

 

These terms “competency-based” and “rigorous” have strong associations with the privatization industry. “Competency-based” education programs usually mean making kids do daily mini-standardized tests on iPads or other devices and other untested cyber education programs. “Rigorous” has been associated with topdown academic standards like the Common Core that provide students with few resources or even taking them away and then blaming kids for not being able to meet arbitrary and developmentally inappropriate benchmarks.

 

Castro has some good ideas, but his troubling associations and language give any person familiar with these issues reason to pause.

 

Of course, Castro has not yet made a real mark among those Democrats seeking their party’s nomination.

 

Perhaps more important is the relative silence of a more popular candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

 

She hasn’t spoken much about integration efforts on the campaign trail. Along with Sanders, she is a co-sponsor of the Strength in Diversity Act, the leading congressional vehicle for school integration. However, that legislation is deeply flawed because it not only increases grant money for desegregation but also gives a big chunk of change away to charter schools.

 

In the past, Warren has supported a kind of school voucher program to separate where a student is enrolled in school from where they live entirely, but you can add it to the list of education issues she has not seen the need to clarify as yet.

 

It’s no surprise that so few Democratic hopefuls want to address the issue of desegregation – especially doing so through busing.

 

White middle class and wealthy people generally don’t support it.

 

They simply don’t want their kids going to schools with large numbers of black and brown students.

 

And this is a real moral weakness in white culture.

 

I went to an integrated school from Kindergarten to high school. My daughter goes to the same district. I teach at another integrated school.

 

The benefits of attending such a school far outweigh any negatives.

 

If students have to spend more time getting to and from school via buses to reach this goal, it wouldn’t matter if we valued the outcome.

 

In fact, many white parents don’t mind putting their kids on buses or driving them to get away from minority children.

 

Certainly we should try to minimize the time it takes to get to and from school but that shouldn’t be the only consideration.

 

They say we get the leaders we deserve.

 

If white people really want to defeat Trump, they may have to start by defeating the bigot inside themselves first.


 

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

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Standardized Tests Are Not Objective Measures of Anything

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When it comes to standardized tests, most people are blinded by science.

 

Or at least the appearance of science.

 

Because there is little about these assessments that is scientific, factual or unbiased.

 

And that has real world implications when it comes to education policy.

 

First of all, the federal government requires that all public school children take these assessments in 3-8th grade and once in high school. Second, many states require teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores.

 

Why?

 

It seems to come down to three main reasons:

 

1) Comparability
2) Accountability
3) Objectivity

 

COMPARABILITY

 

First, there is a strong desire to compare students and student groups, one with the other.

 

We look at learning like athletics. Who has shown the most success, and thereby is better than everyone else?

 

This is true for students in a single class, students in a single grade, an entire building, a district, a state, and between nations, themselves.

 

If we keep questions and grading methods the same for every student, there is an assumption that we can demonstrate which group is best and worst.

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

 

Second, we want to ensure all students are receiving the best education. So if testing can show academic success through its comparability, it can also be used as a tool to hold schools and teachers accountable. We can simply look at the scores and determine where academic deficiencies exist, diagnose them based on which questions students get incorrect and then focus there to fix the problem. And if schools and teachers can’t or won’t do that, it is their fault. Thus, the high stakes in high stakes testing.

 

Obviously there are other more direct ways to determine these facts. Historically, before standardized testing became the centerpiece of education policy, we’d look at resource allocation to determine this. Are we providing each student with what they need to learn? Do they have sound facilities, wide curriculum, tutoring, proper nutrition, etc.? Are teachers abiding by best practices in their lessons? Many would argue this was a better way of ensuring accountability, but if standardized assessments produce valid results, they are at least one possible way to ensure our responsibilities to students are being met.

 

OBJECTIVITY

 

Third, and most importantly, there is the assumption that of all the ways to measure learning, only standardized testing produces objective results. Classroom grades, student writing, even high school graduation rates are considered subjective and thereby inferior.

 

Questions and grading methods are identical for every student, and a score on the test is proof that a student is either good or bad at a certain subject. Moreover, we can use that score to keep the entire education system on track and ensure it is functioning correctly.

 

So this third reason for standardized testing is really the bedrock rationale. If testing is not objective, it doesn’t matter if it’s comparable or useful for accountability.

 

After all, we could hold kids accountable for the length of their hair, but if that isn’t an objective measure of what they’ve learned, we’re merely mandating obedience not learning.

 

The same goes for comparability. We could compare all students academic success by their ability to come up with extemporaneous rhymes. But as impressive as it is, skill at spitting out sick rhymes and matching them to dope beats isn’t an objective measure of math or reading.

 

Yet in a different culture, in a different time or place, we might pretend that it was. Imagine how test scores would change and which racial and socioeconomic groups would be privileged and which would suffer. It might – in effect – upend the current trend that prizes richer, whiter students and undervalues the poor and minorities.

 
So let’s begin with objectivity.

 

ARE STANDARDIZED TESTS OBJECTIVE?

 
There is nothing objective about standardized test scores.

 

Objective means something not influenced by personal feelings or opinions. It is a fact – a provable proposition about the world.

 

An objective test would be drawing someone’s blood and looking for levels of nutrients like iron and B vitamins.

 

These nutrients are either there or not.

 

A standardized test is not like that at all. It tries to take a series of skills in a given subject like reading and reduce them to multiple choice questions.

 

Think about how artificial standardized tests are: they’re timed, you can’t talk to others, the questions you’re allowed to ask are limited as is the use of references or learning devices, you can’t even get out of your seat and move around the room.  This is nothing like the real world – unless perhaps you’re in prison.

 

Moreover, this is also true of the questions, themselves.

 

If you’re asking something simple like the addition or subtraction of two numbers or for readers to pick out the color of a character’s shirt in a passage, you’re probably okay.

 

However, the more advanced and complex the skill being assessed, the more it has to be dumbed down so that it will be able to be answered with A, B, C or D.

 

The answer does not avoid human influences or feelings. Instead it assesses how well the test taker’s influences and feelings line up with those of the test maker.

 

If I ask you why Hamlet was so upset by the death of his father, there is no one right answer. It could be because his father was murdered, because his uncle usurped his father’s position, because he was experiencing an Oedipus complex, etc. But the test maker will pick one answer and expect test takers to pick the same one.

 

If they aren’t thinking like the test maker, they are wrong. If they are, they are right.

 

MISUNDERSTANDINGS

 
Yet we pretend this is scientific – in fact, that it’s the ONLY scientific way to measure student learning.

 

And the reason we make this leap is a misunderstanding.

 

We misconstrue our first reason for testing with our third. What we take for objectivity is actually just consistency again.

 

Since we give the same tests to every student in a given state, they show the same things about all students.

 

Unfortunately, that isn’t learning. It’s likemindedness. It’s the ability to conform to one particular way of thinking about things.

 

This is one of the main reason the poor and minorities often don’t score as highly on these assessments as middle class and wealthy white students. These groups have different frames of reference.

 

The test makers generally come from the same socioeconomic group as the highest test takers do. So it’s no wonder that children from that group tend to think in similar ways to adults in that group.

 

This isn’t because of any deficiency in the poor or minorities. It’s a difference in what they’re exposed to, how they’re enculturated, what examples they’re given, etc.

 

And it is entirely unfair to judge these children based on these factors.

 

UNDERESTIMATING HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY

 

The theory of standardized testing is based on a series of faulty premises about human psychology that have been repeatedly discredited.

 

First, they were developed by eugenicists like Lewis Terman who explicitly was trying to justify a racial hierarchy. I’ve written in detail about how in the 1920s and 30s these pseudoscientists tried to rationalize the idea that white Europeans were genetically superior to other races based on test scores.

 

Second, even if we put blatant racism to one side, the theory is built on a flawed and outmoded conception of the human mind – Behaviorism. One of the pioneers of the practice was Edward Thorndike, who used experiments on rats going through mazes as the foundation of standardized testing.

 

This is all good for Mickey and Minnie Mouse, but human beings are much more complicated than that.

 

The idea goes like this – all learning is a combination of stimulus and response. Teaching and learning follow an input-output model where the student acquires information through practice and repetition.

 

This was innovative stuff when B. F. Skinner was writing in the 20th Century. But we live in the 21st.

 

We now know that there are various complex factors that come into play during learning – bio-psychological, developmental and neural processes. When these are aligned to undergo pattern recognition and information processing, people learn. When they aren’t, people don’t learn.

 

However, these factors are much too complicated to be captured in a standardized assessment.

 

As Noam Chomsky wrote in his classic article  “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” this theory fails to recognize much needed variables in development, intellectual adeptness, motivation, and skill application. It is impossible to make human behavior entirely predictable due to its inherent cognitive complexity.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

So we’re left with the continued use of widespread standardized testing attached to high stakes for students, schools and teachers.

 

And none of it has a sound rational basis.

 

It is far from objective. It is merely consistent. Therefore it is useless for accountability purposes as well.

 

Since children from different socioeconomic groups have such varying experiences, it is unfair.

 

Demanding everyone to meet the same measure is unjust if everyone isn’t given the same resources and advantages from the start. And that’s before we even recognize that what it consistently shows isn’t learning.

 

The assumption that other measures of academic success are inferior has obscured these truths. While quantifications like classroom grades are not objective either, they are better assessments than standardized tests and produce more valid results.

 

Given the complexity of the human mind, it takes something just as complex to understand it. Far from disparaging educators’ judgement of student performance, we should be encouraging it.

 

It is the student-teacher relationship which is the most scientific. Educators are embedded with their subjects, observe attempts at learning and can then use empirical data to increase academic success on a student-by-student basis as they go. The fact that these methods will not be identical for all students is not a deficiency. It is the ONLY way to meet the needs of diverse and complex humanity – not standardization.

 

Thus we see that the continued use of standardized testing is more a religion – an article of faith – than it is a science.

 

Yet this fact is repeatedly ignored by the media and public policymakers because there has grown up an entire industry around it that makes large profits from the inequality it recreates.

 

In the USA, it is the profit principle that rules all. We adjust our “science” to fit into our economic fictions just as test makers require students to adjust their answers to the way corporate cronies think.

 

In a land that truly was brave and free, we’d allow our children freedom of thought and not punish them for cogitating outside the bubbles.

 


 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And that person is Bernie Sanders.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That is clear in nearly every aspect of his plan.

 

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

 

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

 

1) He Proposes Fighting School Segregation and Racial Discrimination

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

2) He Would Ban For-Profit Charter Schools

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

3) He’d Push for Equitable School Funding

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

5) He Wants to Give Teachers a Raise

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

8) He Wants to Transform all Schools into Community Schools

 

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

 

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

 

9) He Would Fix Crumbling Schools

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What About High Stakes Testing?

 

Unfortunately, that also highlights Sanders biggest weakness.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Conclusion

 

So there it is.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

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

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