Moreover, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to not just instruct but to closely observe every student’s behavior and constantly give positive reinforcement to those doing what should be the norm.
And that’s not even mentioning the frequent disruptions necessary to reward those children who can best navigate the system.
But that’s only one way of addressing the problem of bad behavior.
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice.
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess.
The Pandemic Effect
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.
Why Are Public Schools Important?
Because of what they are and what they represent.
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US.
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.
Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs.
We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.
In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.
That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it.
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate.
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?
You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community.
“We also need conservative eyes and ears in the schools. If anyone can substitute even one day a week, the teachers who are activists and indoctrinating children can be revealed. Not all teachers are for [Critical Race Theory] CRT, etc. We need to identify the ones who are pushing the professional development they received over the summer. Are they putting black children’s tests in separate piles and grading them differently? Have they separated the classrooms? We won’t know these things until parents are allowed back into schools, so the best way is to sub.”
They certainly have the time! Legislators from the Keystone State make the third highest salary in the country, and they’re only in session a few weeks every month! They could easily spend a few days a week struggling with overstuffed classes, in-school suspension, hall duty and the like.
Districts that aren’t experiencing a shortage may require a teaching certificate as well, but beggars can’t be choosers. In districts where it is hard to get subs (i.e. those serving poor and minority kids) you can get emergency certified for a year.
But when I made such a suggestion, I naively thought lawmakers might see the problems schools actually have and start to support them.
Fat chance of that!
People with an agenda like Gleim would simply take the most innocent of interactions and pretend they were examples of indoctrination.
This state representative really thinks teachers are putting black children’s tests in separate piles and grading them differently!? As if we’re somehow changing their grades or assessing them more leniently?
NEWS FLASH: Children of color are not suddenly acing all their tests or rocketing to the head of the class. In fact, just the opposite. There has been a racial proficiency gap for decades based on segregation, lack of resources and punitive and biased standardized tests.
But back to her social media bubble. She wants parents to be allowed “back” into public schools!? Parents have never been excluded. As long as they can pass the background check, they can come in almost any time.
The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one text labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from white Europeans.
To be fair, some charter defenders will argue that since they are free from the same regulations as public schools, they can cut costs WITHIN their institutions and provide the same services for less. However, they never return that savings to the taxpayers. They simply cut services for their students and then pocket the savings. Lowering quality may be a way to cut costs, but it’s not exactly an innovation – and certainly not something to be envied.
This may be cost effective to the bureaucrats and profiteers running charter schools, but it is not a savings to you and me – to speak nothing of how it hurts the students hoping to receive a quality education.
So do charter schools save money?
QUICK ANSWER: NO!
3. Students do Better Academically in Charter Schools
This is what it says on all those charter school advertisements you see popping up everywhere. But is it true?
The problem with answering that is one of apples and oranges. How do you fairly compare charter and public school students when each group is so different?
According to a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research study funded by the federal government, middle-school students who were selected by lottery to attend charter schools performed no better than their peers who lost out in the lottery and attended nearby public schools. This was the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education, and it found no overall positive benefit for charter schools.
And there have been many others. A 2016 study found that Texas charter schools had no overall positive impact on test scores and, in fact, had a negative impact on students’ earnings later in life.
So, taken as a whole, do charter schools outperform authentic public schools?
QUICK ANSWER: NO!
4. Charter Schools are About Innovation
This was, in fact, one of the selling points of the charter school concept when it was first proposed. Being freed of the regulations that authentic public schools have to abide by would allow charter schools to be laboratories for innovation.
Moreover, those few charter schools that do engage in creative practices such as organizing the curriculum around a theme like creative arts or racial justice issues aren’t doing anything that isn’t already being done at authentic public schools – specifically magnet and lab schools.
This is perhaps the most often cited benefit of charter schools. In fact, the impression has been that charters are the choice of people of color and serve them better than their neighborhood public school.
However, the facts show a somewhat different reality.
Are these schools doing a better job of meeting the needs of these children? A 2016 report from UCLA casts doubt on this idea.
Charter schools are notorious for suspending their black students at much higher rates than their white students. While suspensions for students of color are high at public schools as well, they are much more extreme at charter schools.
More than 500 charter schools suspended Black students 10 percent more often than white students. Moreover, the same figure holds for students with disabilities at 1,093 charter schools. In fact, 374 charter schools suspended 25% of their entire student bodies at least once.
In the first case, the charter schools end up with a disproportionate percentage of Black students and the white students are left in the public schools. In the later case, the Black students are left in the authentic public schools and the white kids flee to the charter schools.
“With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color.”
Moreover, the Journey for Justice Alliance – a coalition of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in over 30 cities – has gone even further calling for an end to all school privatization.
The organization posted on it’s Website:
“The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students and community residents in America’s cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people. There is no such thing as “school choice” in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion.”
So do charters improve civil rights?
QUICK ANSWER: NO!
There are a lot of myths spread about charter schools – many of them being propagated by the charter school industry, itself.
Most of these are not facts; they are marketing.
While there are some charter schools that do a decent job educating children, the charter school concept is deeply flawed.
From the very start, it had serious consequences for public policy. The results were used to rationalize the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool.
However, Brigham’s greatest claim to fame was the creation of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. These tests were not central to school curriculum and mainly used as gatekeepers with the SAT in particular still in wide use today.
The problem then – as now – is that standardized tests aren’t very good assessments. They work okay for really simple things like rudimentary math. However, the more complex a skill you’re assessing, the more inadequate the tests. For example, imagine just trying to have a conversation with someone where your only choices of reply were limited to four canned responses. That’s a multiple-choice assessment. The result is a testing system that selects against the poor and minorities. At best, it reproduces the economic and racial disparities of society. At worst, it ensures those disparities will continue into the next generation.
That isn’t to say the system went unchallenged. By the 1960s, the junk science and leaps of logic behind standardized testing were obvious and people began fighting back in court. Black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry.
Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middleclass group.
So in the 1980s, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” a campfire tale about how America’s public schools were failing. Thus, the authors argued we needed standardized testing to make American children competitive in a global marketplace.
For instance, it concluded that average student test scores had decreased but didn’t take into account that scores had actually increased in every demographic group. It compared two decades worth of test scores, but failed to mention that more students took the test at the end of that period than at the beginning, and many of the newer students were disadvantaged. In other words, it compared test scores between an unrepresentative group at the beginning of the comparison with a more representative group at the end and concluded that these oranges were nothing like the apples they started with. Well, duh.
Most people weren’t convinced by the disaster capitalism at work here, but the report marks a significant moment in the standardization movement. In fact, this is really where our modern era began.
It took an additional two decades, until 2001, for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to require standardized testing in ALL public schools.
With bipartisan support, Bush tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress. And from then on, the die was cast. This policy has been upheld through both Republican and Democratic regimes.
From the 1980s to 2022 we’ve had wide scale standardized testing in our schools. That’s roughly 40 years where the entirety of what is done in public school has been organized around these assessments. They drive the curriculum and are the ultimate benchmark by which success or failure is judged. If this policy was ever going to work, it would have done so by now.
However, it has achieved NONE of its stated goals.
NCLB also championed the idea that competing for test scores would result in better teachers. However, that didn’t happen either. Instead, educators were forced to narrow the curriculum to cover mostly what was assessed, reduce creativity and critical thinking, and teachers who served poor and minority students were even punished for doing so.
If the purpose of standardized testing was all the things the law purported, then it was a decades long failure. It is the policy equivalent of slamming your head into a wall repeatedly and wondering why you aren’t moving forward. (And where did this headache come from?)
If, however, the purpose of standardized testing was to fulfill Friedman’s privatization dreams, then it was a resounding success. Public schools still persist, but they have been drained, weakened and in many ways subverted.
Look at the evidence.
Standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one today. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.
Huge corporations make the tests, grade the tests and then sell remediation materials when students fail. It’s a huge scam.
The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota. It allowed for the creation of new schools that would have special agreements (or charters) with states or districts to run without having to abide by all the usual regulations. Thus, the school could go without an elected board, pocket public money as private profit, etc. The bill was quickly copied and spread to legislatures across the country by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
However, charter schools are rife with fraud and malfeasance. For instance, more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education. It’s a get rich quick scheme. And since these types of schools are free from the kinds of regulations, democratic governance and/or transparency that keeps authentic public schools in check, another charter school scandal pops up almost every day.
But let’s not forget school vouchers. Before high stakes testing, the idea of using public money to pay for private or parochial schools was widely considered unconstitutional. Now about 4% of US students go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers. This is an option in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 600,000 students participated in a voucher, scholarship tax credit or education savings account program last school year, according to EdChoice, a pro-voucher and school choice group.
In short, they’re subsidies for wealthier kids at the expense of the middle class and disadvantaged.
Without standardized testing, it is impossible to imagine such an increase in privatization.
High stakes testing is a Trojan horse. It is a way to secretly undermine and weaken public schools so that testing corporations, charter schools and voucher schools can thrive.
Judged by its own metrics of success, standardized testing is an abject failure. Judged by the metric of business and school privatization it is a rousing success.
And that’s why it has been so hard to discontinue.
This is corporate welfare at its finest, and the people getting rich off our tax dollars won’t allow us to turn off the flow of funding without a fight.
On the right, policymakers are often boldly honest about their goals to bolster privatization over public schools. On the left, policymakers still cling to the failed measures of success testing has not been able to meet time-and-again.
However, both groups support the same system. They only give different reasons.
It is past time to wake up and smell the flowers.
If we want to ensure education dollars go to education and not profiteers, we need to end standardized testing.
If we want to help students learn to the best of their abilities, we need to stop gaslighting them with faulty measures of success or failure.
If we want to allow teachers to do the best for their students, we need to stop holding them back with antiquated eugenicist shackles.
And if we truly want to save our public school system, we have to stop propping up privatization.
In short, we need to end standardized testing.
The sooner, the better.
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And today the scores still routinely fail Black and Brown people while passing whites thus barring many people of color from graduation or college entrance.
However, describing such a state of affairs as “racist” has been criticized by a self-described anti-woke backlash.
People as diverse as Fox News correspondents, old school neoliberals and contrarian progressive academicians have taken arms together to fight against what they see as an overstatement of the degree of racism present in modern America and an attack on free speech.
“…an old-school Black progressive who doesn’t hide his disdain for white liberals and what he considers their Black enablers in academia and the culture. He argues that the anti-racism movement of the “elected” is more performative than intellectually serious and that the white allies who provide the shock troops at universities and street rallies are just as gross as white supremacists because their virtue signaling hides their condescension.”
Ultimately Norman concludes, “I agreed with so much of what the writer had to say about specific hypocrisies of white saviors while disagreeing with much of its premise.”
As a white person, I make no judgment on McWhorter’s overall thesis because I don’t feel qualified to do so.
However, as a classroom educator with more than two decades experience teaching mostly poor and minority students, I feel qualified to address the issue of testing.
The very term “standardized test” means an assessment based around a standard. It privileges the kinds of questions white students are more likely to get correct. After all, that’s how test questions are chosen – not based on the quality of the question but on whether the majority (i.e. white people) get the questions right and the minority (i.e. people of color and others) consistently get it wrong.
It’s not just about knowing math. It’s about knowing the cultural terms, shared experiences and assumptions the math question is embedded in.
McWhorter sees nothing wrong in this. He thinks people of color simply need the tools necessary to pass the tests even if that means being taught to respond as a white person would and to make the same linguistic assumptions and have the same cultural knowledge as privileged white people.
I think it’s kind of sad that in McWhorter’s view Black people would have to engage in such a radical and complete double consciousness or more likely give up their own uniqueness and assimilate as much as possible just to be considered the equal of a white person.
However, another thing he doesn’t seem to understand is that even if he got his wish and the playing field were level giving all children the same chances on the tests, it wouldn’t change a thing.
These exams are made up of multiple choice questions. This is not the best way to determine whether learning has taken place on complex topics. How a linguist could ever suppose even the most rudimentary subtleties of meaning could be captured by a simple A, B, C and D is beyond me.
Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Chomsky… all just so you could choose between a narrow set of prewritten answers!?
“And yet it is considered beyond the pale to discuss getting the kids up to speed: Instead we are to change the standards—the current idea is to bring GPA, performance on a state test, and even attendance into the equation as well. What an honor to black kids to have attendance treated as a measure of excellence. What’s next, rhythm?”
However, it’s not a matter of adding ridiculous or insulting data to the mix to make Black kids look better. It’s about adding enough data to give a clear enough picture of a student’s learning.
At best a standardized test is a snapshot of a student’s learning. It shows what a student answers on a single day or even two or three. By contrast, grade point average (GPA) is made up of student assessments (informal, formal, formative and summative) over the course of 360 some days.
These tests are not just immoral because they’re racist, but they’re bad at the act of fairly assessing.
And part of the reason for that is their embedded prejudice.
An assessment that unfairly singles out certain groups not because of their lack of knowledge of the subject being tested but their different enculturation and lack of similar opportunities as the dominant culture can never be a good assessment.
But even if they didn’t do that, they would be like using a pencil to eat soup.
The systems of our society matter. Using the right tool matters.
Whether we call an appreciation of these facts being “woke,” “antiracist” or anything else does not.
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Description: The title says it all. Stop wasting teachers’ time by making us fill out paperwork that won’t help us do our jobs but will make administrators and principals look good. We make our own plans for ourselves. We don’t need to share with you a bunch of BS with Common Core nonsense and step-by-step blah-blah that will probably have to change in the heat of the moment anyway.
Fun Fact: Teachers in my building rarely say anything to me about my blog. But I got some serious appreciation on my home turf for this one.
Description: We talk about missing teachers, subs, aides, bus drivers, but not parents or guardians. We should. They are absolutely essential to student learning. I think there are a lot of good reasons why parents don’t participate in their children’s schooling, but they will never get the help they need if we continue to ignore this issue and throw everything on teachers and the school.
Fun Fact: So many liberals lost their minds on this article saying I was attacking parents. I’m not. If people were drowning, you would not be attacking them by pointing that out and demanding help fishing them out of the water. It is not “deficit thinking” to acknowledge that someone needs help. It’s authentic advocacy for both students and parents.
Description: It wasn’t just liberals who were butt hurt by my writing – it was neoliberals, too. Comedian Bill Maher actually mentioned my article “Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy” on his HBO show. He joked that I was devaluing the term ‘white supremacy.” Sure. These assessments only help white people unfairly maintain their collective boot on the throats of black and brown people. That’s not white supremacy. It’s melanin deficient hegemony. Happy now!?
Fun Fact: Maher’s assertion (I can’t claim it’s an argument because he never actually argued for anything) seems to be popular with neoliberals trying to counter the negative press standardized testing has been receiving lately. We need to arm against this latest corporate talking point and this article and the original give plenty of ammunition. My article was republished on Alternet and CommonDreams.org.
Description: Most of the world does not have competitive after school sports. Kids participate in sports through clubs – not through the schools. I suggested we might do that in the US, too. This would allow schools to use more of their budgets on learning. It would stop crucial school board decisions from being made for the athletics department at the expense of academics. It would remove litigation for serious injuries. Simple. Right?
Fun Fact: So many folks heads simply exploded at this. They thought I was saying we should do away with youth sports. No. Youth sports would still exist, just not competitive sports through the school. They thought poor kids wouldn’t be able to participate. No, sports clubs could be subsidized by the government just as they are in other countries. Some folks said there are kids who wouldn’t go to school without sports. No, that’s hyperbole. True, some kids love sports but they also love socialization, routine, feeling safe, interaction with caring adults and even learning! But I know this is a radical idea in this country, and I have no illusions that anyone is going to take me up on it.
Description: Republicans have a new racist dog whistle. They pretend white people are being taught to hate themselves by reference to a fake history of the US called Critical Race Theory. In reality, schools are teaching the tiniest fraction of the actual history of racism and Republicans need that to stop or else they won’t have any new members in a few generations. I wrote three articles about it this year from different points of view than I thought were being offered elsewhere.
Fun Fact: I’m proud of this work. It looks at the topic from the viewpoint of academic freedom, the indoctrination actually happening (often at taxpayer expense) at private and parochial schools, and the worthy goal of education at authentic public schools. Article B was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Description: I ran for office this year in western Pennsylvania. I tried for Allegheny County Council – a mid-sized position covering the City of Pittsburgh and the rest of the second largest county in the state. Ultimately, I lost, but these three articles document the effort.
Fun Fact: These articles explain why a teacher like me ran for office, how I could have helped public schools, and why it didn’t work out. Article C was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Description: These are terrifying times. In the future people may look back and wonder what happened. These two articles document how I got vaccinated against Covid-19 and my thoughts and feelings about the process, the pandemic, and life in general.
Fun Fact: It hasn’t even been a full year since I wrote these pieces but they somehow feel like they were written a million years ago. So much has changed – and so little.
Description: Pennsylvania Republican state legislators were whining that they didn’t know what teachers were doing in public school. So they proposed a BS law demanding teachers spend even more of their never-ending time giving updates. I suggested legislators could just volunteer as subs and see for themselves.
Fun Fact: So far no Republicans have taken me up on the offer and their cute bit of performative lawmaking still hasn’t made it through Harrisburg.
Description: When it comes to stopping a global pandemic, we need federal action. This can’t be left up to the states, or the counties, or the townships or every small town. But all we get from the federal government about Covid mitigation in schools are guidelines. Stand up and do your F-ing jobs! Make some rules already, you freaking cowards!
Fun Fact: As I write this, President Joe Biden just came out and said there is no federal solution to the pandemic. It’s not that I think the other guy would have done better, but this was a softball, Joe. History will remember. If there is a history after all this is over.
Description: On January 6, a bunch of far right traitors stormed the Capitol. This articles documents what it was like to experience that as a public school teacher with on-line classes during the pandemic.
Fun Fact: Once again, history may want to know. Posterity may have questions. At least, I hope so. The article was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups
This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look (like this one). Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014: