Pittsburgh Charter Schools Take Federal Bailout Money Meant for Small Businesses

Screen Shot 2020-07-15 at 12.39.01 AM

 
Are charter schools small businesses or public schools?

 

They can’t be both.

 

Several Pittsburgh area charter schools took a bailout meant for small businesses after already getting monetary relief meant for public schools.

 

Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, Hill House Passport Academy Charter School, Manchester Academic Charter School and Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship all applied for and received substantial low-interest loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

 

The $660 billion federal initiative was intended to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The loans will be forgiven if businesses meet certain conditions such as retaining or rehiring employees.

 

However, charter schools – including those in the Pittsburgh region – already should have received financial relief through the federal CARES Act.

 

Pennsylvania got $523 million to distribute to both authentic public schools and charters. However, of the two, only charters were eligible for additional PPP funds.

 

So these ‘Burgh charters are double dipping. They’re receiving aid from two different federal sources while authentic public schools only can get aid from one.

 

The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park got a $2 million – $5 million cash infusion from PPP.

 

The Environmental Charter calls itself a nonprofit organization but there are many reasons to be dubious.

 

First, nonprofits usually are dedicated to furthering some social cause like helping the poor and minorities.

 

However, The Environmental Charter actually caters to upper socioeconomic and white students.

 

It serves wealthier children than surrounding schools. Just one-third of Environmental Charter students are eligible for free or reduced lunches compared to 71% at Pittsburgh Public schools.

 

Moreover, only 30% of the charter’s students are minorities. Pittsburgh Public serves a student body of which nearly half are African American.

 

Next, there’s the issue of who runs the institution.

 

All charter schools in the Commonwealth have to be designated as nonprofits. However, many like the Environmental Charter School hire for-profit companies to actually operate their day-to-day functions and make almost all of their major administrative decisions.

 

The Environmental Charter is run by Virginia-based Imagine Schools, one of the nation’s largest charter-management companies with more than 71 charters nationwide.

 

Since Imagine writes the Environmental Charter’s operating budget, the management company ends up paying itself for a number of services.

 

After the school gets funding from state, federal and community taxes (this year including bailouts from PPP and the CARES act), it pays 12 percent back to Imagine. This came to $406,000 in 2009, according to an independent financial audit.

 

The school also pays Imagine on a $250,000 loan that the charter operating company took out to launch the program. Payments come out to about $2,500 per month over 20 years with an interest rate of 10.524 percent.

 

The charter also pays Imagine rent on its building which was purchased in 2006 by Schoolhouse Finance – Imagine’s real estate arm – for $3 million.

 

The lease costs $526,000 annually and is binding until 2032 unless the school loses its charter.

 

Given such facts, it’s hard to imagine why we’ve allowed our tax dollars to prop up a business venture that could certainly afford to reduce its profit margins rather than rely on public support.

 
Hill House Passport Academy Charter School got a $150,000 – $350,000 bailout from PPP.

 

Unlike the Environmental Charter, Hill House does actually cater to low income and minority children. In fact, it was founded to help Pittsburgh students who are failing in another district and in danger of dropping out unless they receive some kind of academic intervention.

 

However, the results haven’t been stellar. Where the Environmental Charter was too white, Hill House serves almost exclusively black students. It is exponentially more segregated than neighboring authentic public schools (96% minority) and its students still have extremely poor academic performance.

 

The question remains whether these results are better than they would be at an authentic public school. Does the charter provide any value for these students or is it just a holding area?

 

Like the Environmental Charter, this so-called nonprofit hires a management company. In this case, it’s the infamous K12 Incorporated – a nationwide cyber charter network with a record of academic failure and financial shenanigans.

 

In 2016, the company reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state of California. The state claimed K12 had reported incorrect student attendance records and otherwise lied about its academic programs. The company ended up settling with the state for $2.5 million with an additional $6 million to cover the state’s investigation and K12 voided $160 million in credits it had given to the affiliated schools to cover the cost of their contracts.

 

Hill House offers a blended model with in-person teachers and virtual classes somewhat different than most K12 schools.

 

However, why the state should bailout such a dubious endeavor is beyond me.

 

Manchester Academic Charter School got a $350,000 – $1 million loan from PPP.

 

It is one of the oldest charter schools in the city, having started as a tutoring program in 1968 and becoming a full fledged charter school in 1998.

 

However, like Hill House, it is infamous for racial segregation and low academic performance. Approximately 99% of students are minorities.

 

In 2016-17,only 12% of the school’s students were proficient in math (state average is 46%) and 37% were proficient in language arts (state average is 63%).

 

Where Manchester fails at academics, it excels at administrative salaries. The school’s administrators take home beaucoup bucks while being responsible for fewer students than those at authentic public schools.

 

For example, Vasilios Scoumis, Manchester CEO for more than two decades, is given a $146,000 salary not counting a potential $15,000 yearly bonus though he is only responsible for 340 students.

 

Compare that with Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet. He earns a $210,000 salary for managing a district of about 24,000 students.

 

But such high salaries for relatively little work aren’t only a hallmark at Manchester.
Environmental Charter School CEO John McCann earned $120,000 with a school enrollment of 630 students.

 

Nice work if you can get it!

 

Speaking of which, Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship got $350,000 – $1 million from PPP.

 

This is another so-called non-profit school run by the Imagine Schools company. It is highly segregated with 82% minority children.

 

Only 32% of students are proficient in math and 57% in reading – again below state averages.

 

The school suffered a scandal in 2015 when the state Charter Review Board overruled Penn Hills School Directors decision to deny allowing the charter to expand into a second building.

 

But given that the Charter Review Board is made up of six members – charter school advocates chosen by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett – any pretense to impartiality is laughable.

 

Penn Hills School Board – a duly elected body, not government appointees – outlined criticisms of the charter that do not put the entrepreneurial venture in a positive light.

 

Penn Hills School Board said the charter had failed to produce current student rosters, failed in record management, failed to accurately maintain student tuition payments, improperly billed the school district for special education students, failed to maintain and develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs), had poor academic growth and is under a Department of Education Corrective Action Plan setting forth 31 areas of needed improvement.

 
Directors were also leery of the venture because the charter planned to use half of the new building for students and to lease the remainder as office space.

 

Finally, the charter school sucks away necessary funding from the authentic public school. The Penn Hills School District paid Imagine about $3 million in 2014-15. Costs increased to $12 million a year and continue to rise.

 

So one wonders why we’re throwing more money at these charter schools.

 

Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has spoken out of both sides of her mouth on the issue. She has insisted that charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid – all the while advising charter schools also to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.

 

Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, did not mince words.

 

“Once again, the charter sector, through the lobbying efforts of Nina Rees…worked behind the scenes to gain fiscal advantage for the privately operated schools they claim are public schools.”

 

Education historian Diane Ravitch agreed.

 

“Charters claim to be ‘public schools’ when that’s where the money is,” she said. “But when the money is available for small businesses, they claim to be small businesses.”

 

Charters go where the money is.

 

We get the privilege of paying the tab.

 

If it were up to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, we wouldn’t even know about it.

 

Mnuchin only released the information to the public after 11 news organizations sued the Small Business Administration .

 

Even now, not all of it is available.

 

Moreover, the deadline to apply for a PPP loan has been extended to Aug. 8.

 

So if you haven’t seen some of the most infamous neighborhood charter schools taking advantage of the program, it may only be a matter of time.

 

ProPublica has put all the information into an easy to use search engine. Just enter a zip code and it will display all the businesses located there that received PPP loans.

 

This includes high tuition private prep schools like Sewickley Academy and Shady Side Academy both of which got $2 – $5 million, Winchester Thurston School which got $1 million – $2 million, and the charter schools listed above.

 

You can check it out here: https://projects.propublica.org/coronavirus/bailouts/


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-1

Trapped On a Runaway Train to a Public School Disaster

Screen Shot 2020-06-30 at 9.10.56 AM

 
Congratulations, America.

 

We did it.

 

We screwed up the response to COVID-19 so badly that things can only get worse in the fall.

 

I’m a public school teacher and the father of a public school student.

 

I spent the last 9 weeks of class trying to create a new on-line curriculum for my 7th and 8th grade students out of thin air. Meanwhile, I had to assure my 11-year-old daughter that everything was okay during a global pandemic that robbed her of friends and teachers – all while trying to help her with her own school work.

 

And now at the end of June during Summer break I look at the upward curve of Coronavirus infections in the United States, and I want to cry.

 

EbrYapvWoAEUvYu

 

We had this thing on a downward trajectory in May. It continued until about the middle of June and then took off like a rocket to the moon – straight up.

 

 

More than 126,000 deaths, and 2.5 million cases – with 40,000 new cases for each of the last four days, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

 

To put that in context, the CDC also says our testing is so inadequate, there are likely 10 times more actual cases than that!

 
The coronavirus is spreading too quickly and too widely for us to bring it under control, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal CDC deputy director.

 

“We’re not in the situation of New Zealand or Singapore or Korea where a new case is rapidly identified and all the contacts are traced and people are isolated who are sick and people who are exposed are quarantined and they can keep things under control,” she said. “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now, so it’s very discouraging.”

 

Screen Shot 2020-06-30 at 8.48.18 AM
Source: European CDC

 
Nearly every other comparable country kept that downward trend. But not us.

 

The United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Canada…

 

But the United States!?

 

Ha!

 

You think we can wear masks in public to guard against the spread of infection? No way! Our President politicized them.

 

Stay indoors to keep away from infected people? It’s summer and the beaches are open.

 

And – heck! – we’ve got to make sure restaurants and bars and other businesses are open, too, or else the economy will suffer – and we can’t figure out how to run the country without a never-ending game of Monopoly going.

 

Gotta find out who owns Boardwalk and Park Place. (Surprise! It’s the same 1% who always have and now they’ve got enough to buy a few more hotels!)

 

A sane country would come together and provide people with federal relief checks, personal protective equipment (PPE), protection from evictions, and universal healthcare. But we don’t live in that country.

 

Instead we’re all just going to have to suffer.

 

Not only you and me, but our kids, too.

 

Because they will have to somehow try to continue their educations through all this madness – again. And this time it won’t merely be for the last quarter of the year. It will be at the start of a new grade when everything is new and fresh and the groundwork is being laid for the entire academic year.

 

I don’t even know what to hope for anymore.

 

Would it be better to try to do a whole year of distance learning?

 

I speak from experience here – April and May were a cluster.

 

Kids didn’t have the necessary technology, infrastructure or understanding of how to navigate it. And there was no way to give it to them when those were the prerequisites to instruction.

 

Not to mention resources. All the books and papers and lessons were back in the classroom – difficult to digitize. Teachers had to figure out how to do everything from scratch with little to no training at the drop of a hat. (And guess what – not much has changed in the subsequent weeks.)

 

Let’s talk motivation. Kids can be hard to motivate under the best of circumstances, but try doing it through a screen! Try building a trusting instructional relationship with a child when you’re just a noisy bunch of pixels. Try meeting individual special needs.

 

A lot of things inevitably end up falling through the cracks and it’s up to parents to pick up the pieces. But how can they do that when they’re trying to work from home or working outside of the home or paralyzed with anxiety and fear?

 

And this is probably the BEST option, because what else do we have?

 

Are we really going to open the school buildings and teach in-person? While that would be much better from an academic standpoint, there’s still the problem of a global pandemic.

 

Kids will get sick. As time goes on we see increasingly younger people getting infected with worsening symptoms. We really don’t know what the long term effects of this disease will be.

 

And even if young people are mostly asymptomatic, chances are good they’ll spread this thing to the rest of us.

 

They’ll bring it home to their families. They’ll give it to their teachers.

 

Even if we only have half the kids one day and the other half on another day, that won’t help much. We’re still being exposed to at least a hundred kids every week. (Not to mention the question of how to effectively teach some kids in-person while the rest are on-line!)

 
Even with masks on – and can you imagine teaching in a mask!? Can you imagine kids wearing masks all day!? – those respiratory droplets will spread through our buildings like mad!

 

Many of us are in the most susceptible groups because of age or health.

 
Don’t get me wrong – I want to get back to my classroom and teach my students in-person more than almost anything – except dying.

 

I’d rather live a little bit longer, thank you.

 

And even if you could guarantee I’d eventually pull through,I really don’t want a ventilator shoved down my throat in order to breathe.

 

It’s better than not breathing at all, but I’m not taking unnecessary risks, thank you.

 

So even with all its dysfunctions and discontents, I guess I’d rather teach on-line.

 

On the plus side, the state where I live, Pennsylvania, has done better with infections than many others.

 

Cases are generally down though we had more than 600 new ones a few days ago.

 

Screen Shot 2020-06-30 at 8.44.39 AM
Pennsylvania Cases – Source: PA Dept. of Health

 

But the Commonwealth is not a closed system. It just takes one fool to travel across state lines from a closed arena of thousands where he heard an insecure public figure spout racist diatribes. One fool like that can spread his infection to thousands more.

 

And he can spread Coronavirus, too!

 

So we seem to be facing a no win situation here.

 

We seem to be hurtling forward in time from July to August while a hard reality is waiting to smack us in the face like a brick wall.

 

We’ll have to make a final decision about what to do with schools soon.

 

And as much as I hate the idea, there seems only one sensible solution.

 

We can’t reopen the classroom until it is safe to do so.

 

It is not yet safe. It does not appear that it will be in August.

 

COVID-19 cases are not trending downward. We do not have adequate testing to ensure that it is doing so. And we have no vaccine.

 

We have to protect our children, families and teachers.

 

A crappy year of education is better than mass death.

 

We will pay for it, but that’s the best we can hope for – that we’ll all survive long enough to make it right somewhere down the line.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-4

Good News: Harrisburg is Not Cutting Education Funding! Bad News: Handouts for the Rich & Charter Schools

Screen Shot 2020-05-30 at 4.08.07 PM

 

If you live in Pennsylvania, you can breathe a sigh of relief now that the legislature has passed a stopgap budget that does not cut education funding.

 

But you can let out that breath in a cry of disgust when you see where much of that money is going and how many underprivileged kids will be left wanting.

 

GOOD NEWS

 

With the economy in tatters due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the state legislature never-the-less passed a budget this week providing flat funding for most state programs for five months.

 

The major exception is public schooling. That has been fully funded for the entire year.

 

So for 12 months, there will be no state cuts to basic and special education or block grant programs for K-12 schools. Nor will there be state cuts to pre-kindergarten programs or colleges and universities receiving state funding such as community colleges.

 

That’s really good news in such uncertain times.

 

School directors can get their own financial houses in order for 2020-2021 without wondering whether the state is going to pull the rug out from under them.

 

In any other year, flat funding would be a disappointment though.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In rich neighborhoods, the local tax base can pick up the slack. In middle class neighborhoods, they can try. But poor communities end up relying more on the state to help or else their kids (who already have greater needs growing up in poverty) have to do without.

 

Last year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was able to increase funding for K-12 schools by $160 million, $50 million more for special education and $25 million for Pre-K programs.

 

Even this victory was a baby step to healing the billions of dollars looted from our schools during Republican Tom Corbett’s administration which has never been fully replaced or outpaced with increased inflationary costs.

 

Flat funding is great in a time of a global pandemic.

 

But in the broader view, it still shirks our duties to subsequent generations.

 

BAD NEWS

 

The 2020-21 state budget also includes $200 million in one-time funds to help districts pay for additional costs incurred during the Coronavirus crisis.

 

This includes the price of new technology to allow for distance learning, as well as deep cleanings in school buildings, new materials, remodeling, etc.

 

This money includes $150 million received from the federal government’s CARES Act and $50 million from state taxpayers.

 

That’s good news. Districts need extra money to help with unforeseen costs during this health crisis.

 

Unfortunately, this money is not being allocated by need.

 

Those with greater problems are not given more money to deal with them. Instead, the money is being divided nearly evenly.

 

If you think that’s fair, imagine dividing $10 so a rich person, a middle class person and a poor person could get lunch. They’d each get $3 and change. The poor person can eat off the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant. The middle class person can use it to pay for tip at a sit-down restaurant. And the rich person can light his cigar with it on the way to a fine dining establishment.

 

In the case of theCOVID-19 stimulus money, each school district will get a minimum of $120,000 while each intermediate unit, career and technical center, charter school, regional charter school and cyber charter school gets $90,000. If there is any money left over, those funds will be distributed to school districts based on 2018-19 average daily membership.

 

However, why should cyber charter schools receive this money at all? They don’t have any extra costs for transitioning to distance learning. That is their stock and trade already. Moreover, they don’t have buildings that need deep cleaning or remodeling. This money is a no strings gift to such enterprises while other educational institutions go wanting.

 

Moreover, brick and mortar charter schools almost always serve smaller student populations than authentic public schools. Why should they receive a flat $90,000? Wouldn’t it be better to given them a portion of this money based on the number of students they serve and the degree of poverty these kids live in?

 

In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to do the same among authentic public school districts, too? Why should a rich district where almost everyone already has wi-fi and personal technology devices get the same as a poor one where these services are much less widespread? Why should the state give the wealthy as much help as those who can’t meet their basic obligations to children without it?

 

It’s not like the Commonwealth doesn’t already have a measure to allocate funding more fairly. The legislature passed a bipartisan Basic Education Funding formula that we could have used to ensured districts would have received funding proportionate to the needs of their students.

 

The fact that the legislature neglected to use it here shows too many in the Republican majority are not committed to equity. In fact, they revel in being able to bring unnecessary money to their wealthier districts.

THE COMING STORM

 
These measures from the state legislature are a start at addressing the financial impact of the 
Coronavirus crisis.

 

But the worst is yet to come.

 

Across the nation with the inevitable loss of taxes after shutting down the economy to save lives during the global Coronavirus outbreak, local districts are bracing for a 15-25% loss in revenues next fiscal year.

 

In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.

 

That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.

 

The state legislature can’t fix the problem alone.

 

The $13.5 billion in CARES Act stimulus provided to states is a fraction of the $79 billion that the federal government provided during the Great Recession. U.S. Congress needs to step up federal aide to protect our children and ensure their educations aren’t forfeit for economic woes they played no part in causing.

 

At the same time, Harrisburg can do more to stop giving handouts to educational entities that don’t need or deserve it thereby freeing up that money to patching holes in funding streams to local districts.

 

At the top of the list is charter school funding reforms already proposed by Gov. Wolf.

 

It is way passed time to end gross overpayments to cyber charter schools and eliminate all charter schools ability to profit off of students with disabilities. Gov. Wolf estimates this would save districts more than $200 million while stopping wasteful spending by charters on advertising and other things that should not be bankrolled by taxpayers.

 

Another way to generate extra money is to stop letting businesses and the wealthy cut their own taxes to support private and parochial schools.

 

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program allows people and businesses to donate their expected tax bill to the state for the purpose of helping parents pay off enrollment at a private or religious school for their children. Then these same people or businesses get between 75-90% of that donation back.

 

So if your tax bill is $100 and you donate $100, you can get back $90 – reducing your total tax bill to a mere 10 bucks.

Heck! Since this money is classified as a “donation” you can even claim it on your taxes and get an additional refund – even to the point where you end up making money on the deal! Pennsylvania even allows a “triple dip” – so you get the EITC tax credit, a reduction in your taxable income, and a reduction in your federal taxable income. We actually pay you to shortchange us on your taxes!

Now I’m oversimplifying a bit since you can only use the EITC for up to $750,000 a year, but it’s still a sweet deal for those who take advantage of it.

 

Meanwhile, this is less money for the rest of us to pay for much needed services. We lost $124 million in 2018-19, alone, to this program. Yet the legislature still voted to increase the program by $25 million last year.

 

We cannot afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private and parochial schools while our authentic public schools which serve more than 90% of our children are underfunded.

 

And this doesn’t even address the blatant unconstitutionality of the program which, itself, is an obvious workaround to the separation of church and state!

 

It’s high time we closed this and many other loopholes that allow unscrupulous people and businesses to get away without paying their fair share.

 

Societies only work when everyone pulls their weight.

 

The commonwealth will only weather this storm if we stop the fiscal shenanigans and pull together for the benefit of all.

 

We are all being tested here.

 

Will Pennsylvania pass or fail?


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-4

Why High Stakes Testing Was Cancelled This Year (and Probably Will Be Next Year, Too)

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 10.22.26 AM

 
There are at least two silver linings to the current Coronavirus catastrophe for education.

 

One – with nearly all public schools closed, March was the first month since 2002 without a school shooting.

 

Two – districts nationwide cancelled high stakes standardized tests in April and May.

 

Taken together, these are two victories that no one could have predicted before November.

 

Gun safety restrictions remain laughably lax in the US compared to the rest of the world. And our system’s reliance on high stakes testing to hold schools and teachers accountable for economic inequalities and racially biased standards has been thoroughly criticized for nearly a century.

 

In short, the virus succeeded where policy did not.

 
The pandemic’s other effects have been more damaging as students, parents and teachers have struggled to move education online at home.

 

Teachers are seeing high absences especially among poor, underprivileged and special needs children. Not to mention worries about the quality and depth of education provided virtually and the stress it places on families.

 

To make matters worse, the situation seems likely to continue in some form when next school year begins in the fall.

 

With the COVID-19 virus likely to endure spreading unchecked due to a lack of adequate health screenings, the time it takes to make a vaccine, and an unwillingness by the government to save everyday people from the economic consequences of a nearly stopped economy, not to mention an increasing unwillingness among people to continue thorough social distancing procedures, schools may be left to solve the crisis themselves.

 

There’s been talk that when schools start up in August and September they may simply continue with cyber curriculum. Or they may open the physical buildings with safety protocols including half day classes of smaller size to keep students a safe distance apart.

 

In any case, the question of standardized testing arises again with a vengeance.

 

While there is some wiggle room, federal law (The Every Student Succeeds Act) requires all public school students be given standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

The U.S. Department of Education waived that mandate this year because of the virus.

 

That was great news – a sound decision from a government agency known more for market solutions than rationality.

 

The question remains: why did the department do it?

 

Whether staffed by Democrats or Republicans, this doesn’t sound like them.

 

Why was this exception made and will it be extended again given that the circumstances may be little different in 2020-21 than they were in 2019-20?

 

The answer seems to be rooted in the tests, themselves, and the economic circumstances which create and sustains them.

 

WHY TESTS WERE CANCELLED

 
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.

 

DeVos said in a statement:

 

“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

 

How did we get here?

 

Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.

 

Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.

 

If the federal government hadn’t answered these requests in the affirmative, it would have had to engage in an open power struggle with the states over control of public schooling.

 

This would be especially damaging for a Republican administration because of the party’s stance on state’s rights.

 

However, even if we put aside this power dynamic, the decision was inevitable.

 

CORPORATIONS FIRST

 

 

All of these assessments are the property of private corporations. These include Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

 

States purchase the right to use these tests but assessment material is the ideological property of the parent corporation. And so they want it guarded from theft.

 

That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.

 

This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.

 

I know because I’ve spent every year of my teaching career employed as a proctor throughout most of April as my students take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. But also when I got my degree I had to go to a designated testing center where I could be monitored as I took a series of assessments necessary to get my certification.

 

I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.

 

With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.

 

The College Board tried anyway with an abbreviated Advanced Placement test taken online from home this month to disastrous results – glitches, server issues and a failure by the organization to take responsibility.

 

However, the problem isn’t essentially technological. These assessments could be given online. Many districts do exactly that, but with teachers in the room acting as proctors.

 

The technological infrastructure may not yet be in place for widespread virtual testing, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle.

 

Test security is a much stickier issue – without real, live people policing the environment, testing information would be at risk.

 

Rival companies could get access to trade secrets. The value of scores could come under scrutiny due to concerns of student cheating. And the tests, themselves, would for the first time be visible to parents and the general public.

 

TESTING SECRECY

 

 

As a classroom teacher, I get to see these infernal tests. I get to see the questions.

 

They are not good. They are not well-written, well considered, developmentally appropriate or even good at evaluating student understanding of the knowledge they claim to be assessing.

 

But up to this point, anyone who gets to see the tests is sworn to secrecy including the students.

 

The kids taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

 

At the start of these tests, they are warned of the legal consequences of violating the terms of this agreement.

 

THE PSSAS

 
In particular,the PSSAs require students to read the following warning on the first day of the assessment:

 

DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq

 

So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.

 

In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.

 

Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.

 

But some of it is deeply disturbing.

 

For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”

 

They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.

 

In addition, they are told NOT to:

 

-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.

 

-take notes about the test to share with others.

 

Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:

 

By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.

 

As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.

 

Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.

 

As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:

 

DO NOT:

 
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.

 

-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.

 

So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.

 

And according to the “Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Directions for Administration Manuel”:

 

Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]

 

CORPORATE VULNERABILITY

 

 

If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.

 

The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.

 

THAT’S why the tests were cancelled this year.

 

It wasn’t because anyone rethought the value of high stakes tests – though they should have. It wasn’t because anyone had considered standardized testing’s history in the eugenics movement – which they should have. It wasn’t because anyone was worried that giving these tests would take away precious academic time – though they should have.

 

It was to protect the business interests that would be at risk otherwise.

 

THE DYSTOPIAN TESTING FUTURE

 

 

The need for proctors is a problem that the testing companies know about and are working to eliminate.

 

In fact, they’ve been trying to line things up in their favor for years.

 

Their answer is something called Competency Based Education (CBE) or Proficiency Based Education (PBE). But don’t let these names fool you. It has nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.

 
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.

 

This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”

 

Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

But that’s just how it is used in schools today.

 

The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.

 

It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

One thing they need is a pet policy of DeVos and the Trump administration – Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

 

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

 

 

However, ESAs would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school like a traditional school voucher.

 

 

Or it could be used for discrete education services provided by the ed tech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without a parent or guardian in charge.

 

The idea is often called a learning ecosystem.

 

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

 

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

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

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!

 

 

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

 

 

It’s school without the school or teachers.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

This is where the testing industry is going.

 

This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.

 

In the short term, this is good news.

 

As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.

 

On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.

 

However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.

 

A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.

 

“As the coronavirus pandemic evolves on a daily basis, it would be premature to issue blanket national waivers from core components of the law. Thus, case-by-case consideration of each state’s needs is, at this time, most appropriate,” said a letter signed by testing industry lobbyists including John King, the former secretary of education and head of the Education Trust.

 
They have the future mapped out – a future with immense earnings for their companies and shareholders.

 

We must be fully aware of what is happening and why if we are to have any chance of opposing the next disaster and coming out of the current crisis with better school policy than we went in.

 

If we are to safeguard an authentic education for our children, we must learn these lessons, ourselves, now.


 

 

 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-1

Adventures in Online Teaching: Reinventing the Wheel for a Handful of Students

Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 8.28.00 PM

 
Today in our ZOOM meeting, one of my students tried to get one over on me.

 

I sat at the bureau in my guest bedroom, surveying a gallery of 7th grade faces lined up in little boxes on my laptop like the opening scene of the Brady Bunch.

 

Lilly was lying on her bed face up, almost definitely scrolling on her cell phone.

 

Pha’rrel was eating a cookie as he tried to fit his overgrown curls under a gray hoodie.

 

And Jimmy was smiling at me with the cheesiest close up you ever saw in your life.

 

The smile was so wide. The eyes were so glassy. The face was so still.

 

“Jimmy, did you put up a picture of yourself on your camera!?” I asked.

 

Somewhere miles away he laughed, apologized and took it down.

 

If we were back in the classroom, I probably would have come down on him.

 

He used to sit in the back of the room, face buried in his iPad, ear buds plugged into his brain and his work done in the most careless but high-speed fashion possible.

 

About once a week I had to take away some device just so his Internet-rattled mind could pay attention.

 

What am I to do now? Those apps and devices are the only thing connecting him to even the most rudimentary schooling.

 

He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.

 

So I moved on.

 

We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.

 

Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.

 

“Melanie?” I say.

 

No response.

 

“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”

 

Nothing.

 

She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.

 

I remember conferencing with her and her mom trying to find out if there was anything wrong – but, no, she was simply misusing the privilege of picking her own bedtime.

 

How was I to keep her awake online? I couldn’t shake the desk, rattle her papers or even let my voice naturally get louder as it gained proximity.

 

I had to let her sleep.

 

Oh and what’s this? Was that Teddy finally joining the ZOOM Meeting 20 minutes in?

 

I clicked to let him join and immediately it was clear that he was missing something important.

 

“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.

 

“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”

 

“Ted, you forget something?”

 

“Wha?”

 

“Ted, your shirt?”

 

He looks down at his naked torso.

 

“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

 

“Uh, we can see that, Buddy. Why don’t you turn your iPad around and put on a shirt and pants? Okay?”

 

These are just some of the hurdles you face as an online teacher.

 

Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the country, teachers like me have been asked to finish up the year with students via the Internet.

 

It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.

 

Getting kids attention is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Online it’s nearly a Herculean labor.

 

Strangely the episodes related above aren’t even close to the worst of it.

 

More than students’ attempts to message each other through the lesson or the constant screaming in the background at some kids homes or the vacant stares of the child with ADHD whose IEP calls for teacher proximity and eye contact, but how do you do that from across town? – more than all of that is the silence.

 

The empty, deafening silence of the majority of kids who don’t even show up.

 

I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and I average about 40% participation.

 

Some days a class might be almost full. Another day there might be two kids.

 

I know it’s not necessarily the children or the parents’ fault.

 

We’re in the middle of a global catastrophe. Family members are sick, kids are scared, and many don’t have experience with Internet, the devices or certainly the learning platforms we’re using.

 

Districts can give out iPads and mobile hot spots, but not familiarity with technology, not a quiet place to work, not a safe and secure learning environment.

 

When a parent tells me her child is having trouble with something, I excuse him. I get it.

 

When a student tells me she doesn’t understand how to do something, I don’t penalize her. I try to fix the problem and ask her to give it another shot.

 

But when you’ve been tasked with creating almost entirely new curriculum on the fly for several different classes– and you do – it’s anticlimactic that so few kids show up to see it.

 

I almost don’t mind it when someone’s cat swaggers in front of the screen and flaunts its butthole for all to see.

 

That’s just life in the age of distance learning.

 

But when I design all these assignments and teach all these classes, I wish more students showed up.

 

My district doesn’t require me to do all this.

 

I could have just thrown a few worksheets up on Google Classroom and called it a day.

 

That’s kind of what administrators want, I think. Just review previously taught skills. Make it look like we’re doing something. And we’ll close the academic gaps next year.

 

But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?

 

My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?

 

So I narrowed it all down to essentials.

 

I could have assigned my students to read the texts on their own and then made them write reader response journals. But I don’t think any but my most self-motivated students would have done it and even they would have lost a lot without being able to discuss it.

 

So I put a few assignments on Google Classroom, but most are through live ZOOM Meetings where the students and I talk through the texts together.

 

The 8th graders read the play version of “Anne Frank” together with me, and it’s actually going pretty well.

 

I’m able to display the text on the screen and move the cursor under what they’re reading.

 

I’ve even seen some reluctant readers improve right before my eyes.

 

I’ve always suggested that students put their index fingers under the words as they read, but few do it. Using ZOOM like this forces them to follow my advice.

 

Of course, the class is a tiny fraction of what it would be in person.

 

If we were still in the school building, I’m positive they’d be learning more. We’d be able to discuss more. I’d have a better read of the room. They would be less capable of hiding behind the technology.

 

But there is real life-long learning taking place.

 

It’s my most successful group.

 

My 7th graders are a different story.

 

They are the kind of class you have to explode a stick of dynamite under to get them to notice what’s right before their eyes.

 

And more of them actually show up. Yet much of what we’re reading seems lost on them.

 

They are much more dedicated to being present in body if not in spirit – and barring an exorcism, I’m unsure how to reach many of them through fiber optic cables.

 

Then we have my Creative Writing class – basically a journaling course taught to a different group of students every few weeks.

 

It’s particularly challenging because I’ve met very few of them in person before the school closed.

 

However the course also lends itself best to this distance learning format.

 

Back in the school building, I used to give students a prompt every day, explain it and then have them write. I’d go from desk-to-desk as they worked and give feedback. Once they were all done, we’d share the writings aloud.

 

Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.

 

The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.

 

I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.

 

It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.

 

For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.

 

That kind of thing happens all the time.

 

And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.

 

In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.

 

Which brings me to the final challenge – managing my home and teacher-life.

 

I’m not just an educator. I’m a parent.

 

I don’t teach my daughter. I don’t assign her lessons or work. But I have to oversee what her teacher wants her to do and make sure it gets done – and done correctly.

 

I’ll tell her to go in the dinning room and do three BrainPop assignments, or sign on to Edmentum and finish this diagnostic test, etc.

 

She’s generally pretty good about things, but if I don’t watch her, she’ll play Mario Party on her Nintendo all day long.

 

With the wife working from home, too, I usually give her the living room, my daughter is someplace else or her room, and I’m in the office.

 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be busy, and the good moments where I connect with students are just as magical as in person.

 

But most of the time, I feel lost at sea, depressed about the news and unable to concentrate or sleep the night through.

 

I’ve resigned myself to this life for the next six weeks when school will end for the academic year.

 

Perhaps the summer will be better. Maybe we’ll be able to go out and life will get somewhat back to normal.

 

However, I am not blind to the possibility that I’ll have to pick up again online in August and September.

 

School could start up with distance learning in 2020-21. Or we could have to quickly rush back to the Internet after a second wave of COVID-19 crashes upon us.

 

I keep thinking of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.

 

There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.

 

But from what I see us doing as the crisis unfolds, my hope dwindles with each passing day.

 

Stay safe and stay optimistic.

 

But let’s not stay cyber.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

thumbnail_IMG_8249

You Can’t Have My Students’ Lives to Restart Your Economy

 

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 6.36.25 PM

 

It’s okay if a few children die to start up the economy.

 

That is literally the opinion being offered by media influencers and policymakers as Coronavirus social distancing efforts continue passed the 30-day mark.

 

In the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve closed down all nonessential businesses while people self quarantine at home waiting for the curve of infection to plateau and then drop off. Medical experts tell us this is the only way to ensure there are enough ventilators and hospital beds for those who get sick.

 

As it is, more than 700,000 Americans have tested positive for COVID-19 and 38,000 have died – more than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the Oklahoma City bombing – combined. In fact, the United States has the highest number of Coronavirus deaths in the world.

 

Screen Shot 2020-04-18 at 4.11.10 PM

 

Yet there is a concerted effort by the Trump Administration and plutocrats everywhere to get business back up and running. And to do that, they need the schools to reopen so parents can return to work.

 

They literally want to reopen schools as soon as possible – even if it isn’t 100% safe.

 

And if that means students, teachers and parents die, at least their sacrifices will have been worth it.

 

“Schools are a very appetizing opportunity,” said Dr. Mehmet Oz as a guest on Fox News’ Sean Hannity show.

 
“I just saw a nice piece in [British medical journal] The Lancet arguing the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but … that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”

 
Dr. Oz walked back the comment after popular backlash, but I believed him the first time. Many people would find that acceptable.

 

Dr. Phil McGraw (who unlike Dr. Oz is not a licensed doctor) said the following on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle:

 

“The fact of the matter is, the longer this lockdown goes on, the more vulnerable people get. And it’s like there’s a tipping point. There’s a point at which people start having enough problems in lockdown that it will actually create more destruction and actually more deaths across time than the actual virus will itself.”

 

He then compared coronavirus deaths to deaths from smoking, swimming pools and car crashes – which critics pointed out result from mostly voluntary behavior.

 

Once again, Dr. Phil walked back his comments after public outrage. And once again, I saw where he was coming from – because it’s clear where these celebrity talking heads are getting their information.

 

You find the same opinion tucked into many otherwise informative articles about the virus and education.

 

Education Next published a piece by Walton Family Foundation advisor and American Enterprise Institute fellow John Bailey with this precious little nugget tucked in its middle:

 

“Currently, the public health benefits of school closures and home quarantining outweigh the costs. But at what point does that equation flip? When do the economic, societal, and educational costs outweigh the public health benefits of these aggressive social distancing actions?”

 

The rich need the poor to get back to work. And they’re willing to put our lives on the line to do it.

 

What’s worse, they’re willing to put our children’s lives on the line.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to risk my daughter’s life so that the stock market can open back up.

 

As a public school teacher, I’m not willing to bet my students lives so that the airlines and cruise industry can get back in the green.

 

Nor am I willing to gamble with my own life even if it means the NBA, NFL and MLB can start playing games and Hollywood can start premiering first run movies again.

 

There’s still so much we don’t know about COVID-19.

 

Initial reports concluded that older people were more susceptible to it, but as infections have played out worldwide, we’ve seen that 40% of patients are between 20-50 years of age. Children seem mostly asymptomatic. However, many immunologists suspect they are acting as carriers spreading the virus to the older people with whom they come into contact.

 
Children have a more difficult time with the constant hand washing and separating themselves at least 6 feet apart recommended by health experts. This is one of the justifications for closing schools in the first place. If we reopen schools too quickly, it could jumpstart another wave of infections.

 

In fact, that’s exactly what the Imperial College of London found in its own modeling study on likely U.S. and U.K. outcomes.

 

School closures can be effective to help suppress the transmission rates and flatten the curve, the report concluded, IF CONTINUED OVER FIVE MONTHS.

 

That’s a long time. But it gets worse.

 

In the absences of mass vaccinations – which may be as much as two years away – the study found the virus is likely to rebound for a second and third wave.

 

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 11.56.34 PM

 

So when would it be safe to reopen schools?

 

Honestly, no one really knows.

 
Former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released a more optimistic answer in the “National Coronavirus Response: Roadmap to Reopening.”

 

The report maintains the need to continue social distancing including school closures until cases peak and we see sustained declines in new cases for 14 days.

 

That seems to be a fair minimum standard.

 

However, we are not there yet. The death toll continues to rise in the US and may continue to do so for some time yet.

 

Despite the science, every state has a different date in mind for when schools will reopen.

 

Since the beginning of April,a total of 21 state departments of education (including Pennsylvania’s) have decided to keep schools closed for the remainder of the academic year until at least August or September. Six states plus Washington, D.C., still have plans to reopen their schools before the end of the month.

 

Screen Shot 2020-04-17 at 11.53.43 PM

 

Beyond the question of WHEN to reopen schools is the even more complicated one of HOW or IF.

 

President and chief executive of the National Association of State Boards of Education Robert Hull said administrators across the country are asking not how – but if – schools will reopen in the fall.

 

“Everybody says we hope we return to normal,” Hull said. “It’s not going to return to normal anytime soon because the new normal is going to be different.”

 

Multiple possibilities are being considered.

 

A major factor will be how well districts can test incoming students for infection.

 

The best solution would be quick and cheap Coronavirus screenings. If we could mass produce such tests and distribute them to schools or have the results be a precondition to coming to school, things might be able to run pretty much as normal.

 

If US schools all had digital thermometers (as they do in Singapore), students temperatures could be taken before letting them in to the building. Anyone running a fever could be sent home.

 

Some policymakers are even considering spot checking students throughout the day with thermometers and using video cameras to trace the path of any students running a temperature to tell who they may have come into contact with before being identified. However, this seems pretty disruptive to me and – especially in the younger grades – might terrify students and make them conversely feel less safe in school because of the very efforts done to ensure their safety.

 

In all likelihood, policymakers see to think schools will probably have to run while engaging in some sort of social distancing. And that’s not easy. Nearly everything from the way the academic day is organized to the maturity level of most students goes against this need.

 

One thought provoking proposal is reducing class size to no more than 10 students.

 

This would also have educational benefits allowing teachers the ability to give more one-on-one instruction. However, most classes are double or triple this size now. Few school buildings are large enough to double or triple the number of classrooms needed at the same time.

 

One solution to this is that children could attend on alternate days or on a half day basis – one group in the morning, another in the afternoon. The drawback is that this would reduce the hours students are in class. Lessons would either have to be cut down to essentials or some part of assignments may have to go online.

 

This might also narrow the curriculum so that the arts, music, and other subjects would be eliminated. Gym classes would probably have to be cancelled and lunches might have to be in the classroom, itself, instead of allowing large groups of students to congregate in the cafeteria.

 

Just ensuring that students aren’t all in the hallway at the same time would be a challenge. Class dismissals might be staggered or perhaps the teachers would move from room-to-room while the students stay put.

 

Moreover, the simple act of busing students to-and-from school is likewise complicated. If students sit further apart on the bus, that means each district needs either more buses at the same time or double the time to transport students at arrival and dismissal.

 

None of this would be cheap. It could necessitate more money on transportation, support staff and teachers. In a country where education budgets haven’t yet recovered from the Great Recession of George W. Bush, reopening schools safely would require an influx of cash.

 

But without it, the economy cannot get back under way.

 

When schools closed in March, many districts switched to some kind of distance learning. Teachers put assignments on-line and even teach through Internet meeting sites like ZOOM. Continuing this in some form – for part or all of the day – is also being considered. However, it causes as many problems as it solves.

 

Parents need to be able to get back to work. Many can’t stay at home taking care of their children indefinitely. And they can’t leave their kids to their own devices while trying to learn via computer, device or app.

 

Moreover, these cyber schooling efforts come with educational drawbacks. Just about every educational expert acknowledges that learning in-person is preferable. Students with special needs are particularly at risk because many of their individual education plans (IEPs) cannot be met remotely. And even though efforts have been made to help impoverished students gain access to the necessary technology and Internet access, the problem has by no means been universally solved. Not to mention privacy concerns with student data being pirated by unscrupulous ed tech companies.

 

Another issue is high stakes standardized testing.

 

With the Coronavirus crisis, the tests were cancelled this year – and no one has really missed them.

 

If lessons have to be cut to essentials, standardized testing and the need for endless test prep should be the first things to go. In fact, students, educators, parents and college professors will tell you how useless these assessments are. They reflect basic economic inequalities and enforce them by tying education funding to the test scores.

 

Poor kids score badly and rich kids score well, so the funding becomes a reward for the privileged and a punishment for the underprivileged.

 

That’s why it’s laughable when Hull laments “issues of equity” including how to measure what students are learning and how to help those who have fallen behind.

 

Equity is a matter of funding and opportunities – not test scores. Regardless of the problems with reopening schools, we could solve a long standing issue by erasing high stakes testing from the academic map.

 

But that’s been the elephant in the classroom for a long time.

 

Economic interests have trumped academic ones for decades.

 

Will we continue to value money over children? Will we pave the post-Coronavirus future over the bodies of sick children and adults?

 

Like any crisis, COVID-19 is another opportunity to get things right.

 

Here’s hoping we have our priorities straight this time.

 

Here’s hoping schools stay closed until we’re certain reopening them won’t endanger students, teachers and the community.

 


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-4

The First Taste is Free: Ed Tech Follows Drug Dealer Sales Techniques with Schools During Coronavirus Crisis

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 8.27.28 PM

 

“Pst! Hey, Kid! Come here!”

 

Educational technologies are a multi-billion dollar industry.

 

“Who? Me?”

 

The coronavirus pandemic has closed schools across the globe, and districts have tried to solve this problem by putting their classes online.

 

“Yeah, you. I’ve got some… candy I want to give you.”

 

Nearly every ed tech company has offered help with this processes.

 
“Oh boy! I sure love candy… Wait a minute! How much does it cost?”

 

Teachers, parents, students and education activists are wary of educational technologies in the classroom, and research backs them up. Ed tech has been shown to widen socioeconomic divides, it hasn’t lived up to its promise of increasing academic gains, and – perhaps most tellingly – Silicon Valley executives restrict their own children’s use of technology and send them to tech-free schools.

 
“Nothing. It’s free.”

 

These for-profit corporations are offering limited time promotions – they’re providing additional services for free that would normally be behind a paywall.

 

“Oh goodie!”

 

Districts are jumping at the chance. They’re encouraging teachers to use apps, services and software that have never been tried before locally in an attempt to abide by continuity of education guidelines written by departments of education.

 

“That’s right. Absolutely free. But if you want some more, next time I’ll have to charge you a little something…”

 

So when the pandemic is over and classes eventually are reopened, a great deal of the technology that schools used to get through the crisis will no longer be on the house.

 

Continuing to use them will require an additional fee, and if districts end up budgeting for them, the money has to come from somewhere. So that means fewer books, field trips, tutors, classroom aides, and – yes – teachers.

 

In short, well-meaning governors, law-makers, administrators, school directors and even educators are participating in a program that in the long run may enrich private corporations but not be in the best interests of the students we’re supposed to serve.

 

I bring this up not to stop schools from using online learning during the crisis. Unfortunately that ship has sailed. Nor do I voice my objections to criticize teachers, parents or students. We all have to do what needs to be done to get through all this.

 

However, it is vital that we are aware of the compromises being made today so as to better avoid the pitfalls ahead.

 

When teachers use Zoom, Google Classroom, or any of dozens of other ed tech products during this season of social distancing, we must be aware that these should only be temporary measures. Do not resign yourself to any of this becoming the new status quo.

 

When classes resume, we can’t simply go back to normal. Nothing can ever be normal again. Normal is what got us into this mess – a society ill equipped to meet this pandemic – ill equipped to take care of its citizens, provide basic resources, equity and put people before profits.

 

The post coronavirus world must be one of universal healthcare, a social safety net for all and a robust, fully funded system of public education. We cannot allow it to be a dystopian world of edu-tech vulture capitalism where the economics of street corner drug pushers is used to dictate how public money is spent.

 
There are many clear reasons why.

 
First, education technologies are almost completely unregulated. Cybersecurity and student privacy laws are woefully out of date if not entirely nonexistent.

 

These applications collect a torrent of data on students. So do teachers, in fact, to calculate grades. However, if an educator were to share this information with outsiders, she could be sued. But if a corporation did the same thing, it falls into a legal no man’s land.

 

Each state has different laws denoting the limits of privacy.

 

The main federal law safeguarding student data privacy, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), was written in 1974 before much of these technologies even existed. It hasn’t been significantly amended since 2001.

 

So it’s left to individual districts, administrators, school boards and teachers to navigate these murky waters.

 
They end up trying to decipher the individual terms of service agreements and privacy statements with these companies that are often full of legal loopholes. In many cases, decision makers don’t even bother or give the job to school lawyers unversed in cybersecurity concerns or law.

 

While Congress has neglected its duty to regulate the industry, the matter is important enough that the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) put out a strong warning. Two years ago, the Bureau cautioned consumers about the risks of classroom management tools like Class Dojo as well as student testing and remediation applications like Classroom Diagnostic Tools and Study Island.

 

The FBI warned schools and parents that widespread collection of student data involved in these applications could cause safety concerns if the information is compromised or exploited.

 

The Bureau was concerned about ed tech services because many are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”

 

And these are many of the same applications being used today for distance learning initiatives.

 

Education advocates have been sounding the alarm for years.

 

Commonsense.org – a nonprofit studying education issues – conducted a three-year review of 100 ed tech companies. It concluded that 74% of these businesses hold the right to transfer any personal information they collect if the company is acquired, merged, or files for bankruptcy. And since many are start-ups, this often happens.

 

The authors wrote that there is “a widespread lack of transparency, as well as inconsistent privacy and security practices” in how student information is collected, used, and disclosed.

 

Leaking student data is often not a security failure. It’s part of a company’s business model.

 

This is valuable information about one of the most lucrative demographics in the marketplace. Companies use it to help sell products targeted directly to consumers. And they can even sell student data as a commodity, itself.

 

For instance, imagine how much more effective the hiring process would be if businesses had access to applicants school attendance records. Imagine if businesses had an applicant’s entire academic record.

 

Employers could buy vast amounts of data and use algorithms to sort through it looking for red flags without fully comprehending what was being compiled. Imagine an applicant being turned down for a job because of low middle school attendance but not being able to explain that this was due to a legitimate illness.

 

There are reasons we protect people’s privacy. You shouldn’t have to explain your score on a 1st grade spelling test the rest of your life or have the need for special education services damage your credit rating.

 

Yet all of these things are possible when student data is up for grabs.

 

No one is protecting our children from this kind of mercantile future – one which will only be exacerbated if we allow educational technologies to become common place after the current crisis.

 

And tightening our student privacy laws, will not solve everything.

 

Hardly any attention is being paid to how these technologies can be used for harms unrelated to business and industry.

 

Tablets, laptops or monitoring devices such as cameras or microphones could be exploitable by tech savvy criminals – especially since many ed tech programs allow remote-access capabilities without the user even being aware of what is happening.

 

Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. Other children could use it to bully and harass classmates.

 
It’s hard to imagine how children could be protected on such devices without increasing surveillance and thereby running similar risks. Using them will always involve a chance of endangerment so they should be kept away from the youngest and most vulnerable potential users.

 

How did we let ed tech get so out of control? Like so many problems of the pre-coronavirus world, money was allowed to dictate policy.

 

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 11.50.33 AM

 

Global venture capital investments in ed tech finished 14 times higher by the end of the decade than they started. Investments went from $500 million in 2010 to $7 billion in 2019. And insiders expect that to triple in the next decade to more than $87 billion.

 

The two biggest spenders by far are China and the US.

 

Yet enthusiasm for such technologies are not nearly as prevalent among educators.

 

A 2019 study of educator confidence in ed tech conducted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt found that 60% of teachers were concerned that implementing technology tools could damage the student-teacher relationship.

 

Moreover, education research in the United States concluded these technologies only widen the gap between different socioeconomic groups. Global initiatives like the One Laptop per Child program, which distributed 25 million low-cost computers with learning software to children in the developing world, failed to improve language or math results.

 

Meanwhile, students seem to be telling us they prefer more old school methods of instruction. Studies have shown preference for everything from physical books over eBooks to having “ordinary, real-life lessons” and “a smart person at the front of the room.”

 

Parent Blogger Alison McDowell has studied these issues in more depth than nearly anyone else. She warns that adaptive applications become the gatekeeper of children’s educations. They only allow students to move on once they’ve demonstrated mastery on a previous academic standard – or at least once they’ve been able to guess which one answer a programmer thought correct:

 

“The “personalized learning” model conditions students to view themselves as independent operators, free agents attempting to navigate a precarious gig economy alone. Screen-based isolation and an emphasis on data-driven metrics steadily erode children’s innate tendencies to creative cooperation. Which is ultimately better for society, an algorithm that learns each student in a classroom and delivers a pre-determined reading selection that they review and are quizzed on online, or a human teacher who selects an all class reading in which there is lively debate? The first scenario forecloses creative thought in service of data generation and reinforces there is but one correct answer. The second opens up chances for students to gain new insights while limiting opportunities for digital surveillance.”

 
Ed tech may allow us to stumble forward during the coronavirus quarantine, but it is not a central part of a healthy education system.

 

It may play a limited role in remediation and augmentation, but it cannot be the fulcrum around which everything else revolves.

 
I’d like to see a new education system built from the ashes of the old where every child has the chance to learn, a system that forgoes standardized testing and corporate-written academic standards for individualization and human interaction. I’d like to see a world where charter and voucher schools are things of the past, where schools are integrated and differences valued, where teachers and learning are respected and esteemed.

 

That is not an ed tech centered world. It is a student centered one.

 

It is a world where our priorities are such that even the promise of the new and the free won’t encourage us to indulge in practices that put our children in greater danger.

 

It is a place where the pusher has no power because his product is seen for what it is – treacherous and unnecessary.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-3

How Did America’s Schools Cope with Spanish Flu vs. Coronavirus?

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 10.23.47 AM

 

They say history repeats itself.

 

And if you’ve read any accounts of the bygone days of yesteryear, the current crisis certainly appears like a rerun.

 

Look at all the closed businesses, frightened people venturing out wearing face masks or self quarantined in their homes. It sure looks a lot like 1918.

 

The Spanish Flu epidemic that swept the nation a little more than a century ago bares more than a passing resemblance to COVID-19, the coronavirus. And the ways we are trying to cope with the situation are in many cases modeled on what worked a hundred years ago.

 

For instance, when our ancestors enacted social distancing policies to flatten the curve of infection, their infrastructures were better able to save lives. When they didn’t enact such policies, death tolls were greater.

 

That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.

 

However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.

 

After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.

 

In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.

 

But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?

 

There-in lies a tale.

 

America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.

 

They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.

 

Wait. Educate at a distance? In 1918?

 

Yep.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

PITTSBURGH

 
Let’s begin in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 
City officials didn’t take the matter seriously enough and as a result, Pittsburgh ended up with the highest death rate of any major city in the country. The Spanish Flu killed at least 4,500 people – a smaller total than cities like Philadelphia, but it represented more than 1 in every 100 residents. Nearly 24,000 people sought treatment at local hospitals.

 

According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.

 

This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”

 

City officials were at least partly to blame.

 

Though local colleges and universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, and Carnegie Tech all closed their doors near the start of the outbreak, city public schools initially were kept open.

 

In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.

 

However, as Kenneth White put it in his 1985 article “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918”:

 

“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”

 
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.

 

Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.

 

Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.

 

Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.

 

I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.

 

NEW YORK CITY

 

New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.

 

While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.

 

However, just like Pittsburgh, New York kept its schools open.

 

In an October 5th New York Times article, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland explained his logic behind the controversial decision to keep students in class:

 

“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”

 

In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.

 

In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.

 

According to Francesco Aimone in “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New York City: A Review of the Public Health Response”:

 

“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”

 
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.

 

Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”

 

CHICAGO

 

However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.

 

Keeping schools open in the Windy City more closely emulated the situation in Pittsburgh.

 

According to a timeline of preventive measures published in the American Journal of Public Health by Chicago’s Health Commissioner Dr. John Dill Robertson, city schools weren’t closed because officials didn’t think children were getting sick more than adults. They thought it would be better to keep students indoors where they could be watched for symptoms.

 

However, children ended up dying from the flu in Chicago at a higher rate than their parents.

 

Like in Pittsburgh, any student who coughed or sneezed was immediately sent home – though eventually this also came with a mandatory home quarantine.

 

SMALLER TOWNS

 
Officials were more sensible in smaller towns like Adrian and Tecumseh, Michigan.

 

In both municipalities all schools were closed by the end of October when the epidemic began there.

 

By Dec. 12 there was a plan to reopen, however that was revised as the death toll continued to rise. Schools ultimately remained closed until January 1919.

 

Schools made up the missing days of class by extending the remaining year.
They stayed open for 30 minutes beyond their usual dismissal time and held half-day sessions on Saturdays.

 

Another small town that wasn’t taking chances was Pontiac, Illinois.

 

Not only did officials close the schools, they ended up using them as field hospitals for the sick.

 

Moreover, when classes were cancelled, school age children were forbidden from leaving their homes unless they had to run an errand. Anyone with the flu was immediately quarantined in his or her home.

 

Schools were closed on October 15 for what was originally supposed to be just five weeks. However, when the second wave of the flu hit, the closure was extended.

 

Things got so bad that from December 3rd through January 1st, school buildings were used as a hospital to treat those with the flu.

 

By early January, the worst had passed and schools were reopened. Beginning on January 10, 1919, the high school held an extra session on Saturday to help make up some of the missed class work.

 

This seems to be the general pattern. Larger cities tried to push on and keep things as normal as possible – with usually disastrous results. Smaller towns took more serious precautions and limited the death toll.

 

LAKELAND, FLORIDA

 

And then there’s Lakeland, Florida.

 
Leave it to this district in Polk County to be the oddball.

 

On Oct. 10, the schools were officially closed. But not really.

 

Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:

 

“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”

 

Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.

 

Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.

 

Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.

 

Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help.
 Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.

 

Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.

 

However, instead of waiting for the crisis to pass before addressing any academic deficiencies, many districts are requiring distance learning.

 

Teachers are being made to go in to school buildings or work from home creating online courses from scratch with little to no training.

 

True, this doesn’t expose educators to an added risk of catching the virus, themselves, but it does seem a bit mercenary.

 

We’re in a public health crisis where thousands of people are getting sick and dying. And the thing ourschool administrators are most concerned about is continued academic performance. They’d rather keep going with whatever quality of instruction can be provided in slapdash fashion than wait until it can be provided in the best possible circumstances.

 

They’d rather risk leaving behind those students without Internet access or whose special needs can’t be met online. Anything rather than extending the school year?

 

It’s interesting to compare today’s solutions to those of yesteryear.

 

Why didn’t more districts in 1918 try to make teachers instruct students through the newspaper and over the phone? Why didn’t more districts make teachers go to school buildings and even students homes during an epidemic?

 

Are we really doing the right thing by emulating those solutions?


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-4

Virtual Learning Through Quarantine Will Leave Poor and Disabled Students Behind

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 9.49.54 AM

 

 

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis with most people self quarantined at home, schools across the country are shut down.

 

Some offer (or are considering offering) distance learning over the Internet.

 

However, this poses problems.

 

Not all student services can be provided via computer.

 

And not all students even have a computer, online compatible device or Internet access.

 

Should our nation’s public schools soldier on anyway and provide some kind of learning experience for those not thus encumbered at the expense of those who will be left behind?

 
The U.S. Senate’s proposed coronavirus aid package includes a provision to waive existing federal law that requires all schools to provide services to special education students. Removing this specification would allow districts to move forward with virtual learning without having to worry about meeting the needs of their special education students.

 

Advocates worry that even a temporary suspension of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) could have devastating long term effects on students with disabilities and ultimately remove the requirement upheld for the last 45 years that they receive a free public education.

 
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered a gleeful statement in favor of dispensing with protections for students with autism, cerebral palsy, learning disorders and other special needs:

 

“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids. This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues. It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.

 

“Nothing issued by this Department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction. We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear. These are challenging times, but we expect schools to rise to the occasion, and the Department stands ready to assist you in your efforts.”

 

The Department of Education issued a Fact Sheet that went even further:

 

“To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

 

This is tantamount to prioritizing the education of some students over others. In short, if we follow DeVos’ guidelines, we will be saying that regular education students are more important than students with special needs.

 

It is a dangerous precedent.

 

However, perhaps even more dangerous is the abdication of any responsibility for, even complete erasure of any mention of poor students without Internet access.

 

This just underlines the importance of legislation. Special education students have IDEA. Poor students have nothing. There is no right to education for them at all.

 

If there had been some legislation specifically enshrining the rights of the underprivileged, however, it is clear this administration would be likewise proposing measures to dispense with it.

 

I understand that we are in a crisis. I understand that some think it is better to take half measures so that something gets done rather than nothing.

 

However, the coronavirus outbreak is expected to be a temporary situation. It may last weeks or months, but it will not last forever.

 

We want to do things in the best interests of children now, but we also must be aware of later. And trying to meet some kids needs now while writing off a large chunk of the rest would have a huge negative impact later.

 

If we educate just the privileged kids, we will be worsening the socioeconomic gap between students – a gap that is already too wide.

 

According to the most recent federal data, nearly 7 million students in the United States do not have Internet access at home. That is about 14 percent of all U.S. students. And of those with online access at home, 18 percent do not have home access to broadband Internet so they would also have difficulty retrieving lessons or participating in Zoom meetings online.

 
Moving to distance learning on the Internet would leave tens of millions of children behind.

 
Is this really what we want to do?

 

In addition, there is the question of quality.

 

Few teachers are trained or have experience with distance learning. They will probably be able to provide some kind of learning – but it will almost certainly not be the best they could be providing.

 

Moreover, there are real questions about the quality of learning that CAN be provided in a virtual environment even under the best of circumstances.

 

Cyber schools are a perfect fit for some students. Older and more mature students would probably have an easier time adjusting to it.

 

However, many students – especially younger ones – need the face-to-face interactions of school to get the most out of the experience. Forcing them into a mold that may at best be unsuited to them individually and at worst developmentally inappropriate will only cause them undo trauma.

 

I understand that everyone wants to appear like they’re doing something to meet the challenges provided by this crisis. However, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.

 

One day the quarantine will be lifted. At that point, we can reopen the schools.

 

This may mean a few months of summer school. Or we could extend the 2020-21 school year to make up the difference.

 
Neither are perfect solutions. But they’re both better than virtual learning.

 

Neither require us to write off our poor and special education students.

 

And THAT is the most important thing.

 

Public schools don’t have to settle for whatever fad is offered from disaster capitalists.

 

We can still do what’s right for our kids.

 

All of our kids.

 


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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-4

Gov. Wolf Proposes Saving $280 Million a Year in PA With Charter School Reform

24489812593_b28b14c382_h-696x464

 

 

Charter schools waste taxpayer money.

 

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf proposes we stop wasting that money by holding charter schools as accountable as the state’s authentic public schools.

 

The Democratic governor made his most recent proposal yesterday as part of his 2020-21 budget address.

 

It’s a common sense proposal that only seems revolutionary because officials have been so blinded with school privatization fantasies.

 

Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but can be run by business interests thereby forgoing elected school boards and a host of regulations meant to safeguard children and the community’s investment.

 

The Commonwealth is infamous for allowing some of the most permissive charter school policies in the nation, which destabilize authentic public schools and force local tax increases and reductions in student services while charter operators get rich.

 

During his budget proposal, Wolf suggested three main improvements.

 

First, he wants charter schools to use a new tiered funding formula to determine how much money they get for special education students enrolled in their schools. He estimates this would save $147 million annually.

 

Right now, charters get tuition based on the average amount the local public school spends on special education.

 

This incentivizes charters to enroll (and identify) children with minimal special needs. That way, the school gets more money than needed to help students learn and operators can pocket the difference.

 

Charter-image-3-1024x538

 

It also incentivizes charters not to enroll students with greater special needs because operators won’t receive the money necessary to meet them.

 

This helps explain why charter schools in the Commonwealth typically enroll fewer and less needy special education students than authentic public schools do. Charters typically end up collecting $10,000 or more per student than they spend providing services, according to Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a public school advocacy group.

 

 

Charter-Image-4-1024x538

 

Wolf’s new proposal would more closely match the level of special education students need with the funding charter schools get for enrolling them, thus removing any financial incentives for selective enrollment of these students.

 

 

Second, Wolf wants to stop cyber charter schools from collecting the same amount of money for each student as brick and mortar schools get.

 

Cyber charters schools do not have school buildings to keep up. They do not have physical classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, gymnasiums, athletic fields, etc. In most cases, they have administrative offices and laptop computers given to students to use at their own homes.

 

At present, the statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools ranges from $7,700 to $21,400 per student per year.

 

Wolf figures that number should be a flat $9,500. That should save an estimated $133 million annually.

 

However, Wolf’s proposal is double the cost of providing a full-time education at home via computer. It reduces the waste, but his figure could still use a trim.

 

Finally, the governor proposes fixing the way we mediate financial disputes between charter schools and authentic public schools.

 

Right now, if a school district does not pay the tuition for its resident students who attend a charter school or there is some dispute between the two on tuition payments, the charter school turns to the state Department of Education (PDE) to reconcile the dispute. Wolf proposes several changes to increase fairness, accountability, and transparency in this process. For instance, he wants to require charter schools to report their expenditures and deductions so they could be included in deciding what the tuition should be at a given charter school.

 

If enacted such reforms would save $280 million a year and go a long way to fixing many of the problems with charter school finances.

 

The Democratic governor has suggested similar improvements before – even going so far as to threaten enacting some of them with executive orders if the Republican-controlled legislature continues to shirk its duty. However, yesterday’s budget proposal was the closest it has come to fruition.

 

Typically, Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, saw Wolf’s proposal as an attack on her industry.

 

Wolf wants to cut funding to charters to increase it at public schools, she said, but charter schools are, also, public schools.

 

“The level of hypocrisy from our governor knows no bounds,” she said in a written statement. “Charter school students and their families are not second-class citizens. These parents pay their taxes and their children attend a PA-designated public school. There is no reason why charter school students deserve less financial support than their district peers.”

 

However, wolf’s proposal does not leave charter school students with less. It reduces waste and helps authentic public schools keep the same level of services without having to resort to local tax increases.

 

 

Charter schools should not be allowed to squander taxpayer money, and students at authentic public schools and their communities should not be forced to pay for that fiscal irresponsibility.

 

“Our charter school system is in desperate need of reform,” Wolf said. “It’s time to close the loopholes, it’s time to establish real standards, and it’s time to level the playing field.”

 

 

Wolf’s proposal doesn’t stop with his budget outline.

 

Democratic legislators are set to introduce a 120-page proposal in Harrisburg that builds on it even further.

 
The legislation – House Bill 2261 to be introduced by Rep. Joseph Ciresi (D-Montgomery), and Senate Bill 1024, to be introduced by Senators Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) and James Brewster (D-Allegheny), would do the following:

 

  • Require charter school trustees and administrators to comply with the same financial and ethical reporting standards as school board members and district officials;
  • Require charter school meetings to comply with the Sunshine Act;
  • Require any company running a charter school to open up their records;
  • Establish a statewide, data-driven cyber charter school tuition rate;
  • Apply the state special education funding formula used by public schools to charter schools;
  • Require charter schools to use actual accounting and enrollment in calculating tuition – backed up by PA Department of Education – to make sure payments are fair, consistent, and promises are kept;
  • Require charter schools to carry enough insurance to take care of kids and families if the charter closes or the parent company goes out of business;
  • Create a standard state framework for charter school applications;
  • Standardize the method to change charter schools’ missions and goals to reward innovation and best practices, and ensure school districts have the tools needed to evaluate changes to charters;
  • Create a state grading system for charters to allow high-performing schools even more self-determination while focusing attention on low-performing schools;
  • Stop the creation of new cyber charter schools until the existing schools improve performance and require PDE to create enrollment and performance standards.

Here’s hoping that such common sense initiatives can find bipartisan support.

 


 

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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249