When Good Students Get Bad Standardized Test Scores 

 
 
Ameer is a good student.  


 
He takes notes in class, does all his homework and participates in discussions.  


 
He writes insightful essays and demonstrates a mastery of spelling and grammar.  


 
He reads aloud with fluency and inflection. He asks deep questions about the literature and aces nearly all of his classroom reading comprehension tests. 


 
However, when it is standardized test time, things are very different.  


 
He still arrives early, takes his time with the questions and reviews his work when he’s done – but the results are not the same.  


 
His grades are A’s. His test scores are Below Basic. 


 
How is that?  


 
How can a student demonstrate mastery of a subject in class but fail to do the same on a standardized test?  


 
And which assessment should I, his teacher, take seriously?  


 
After all, they can’t BOTH be correct. 


 
This is a problem with which most classroom teachers are forced to contend.  


 
Bureaucrats at the administrative or state level demand teachers assess students with standardized tests but the results often contradict a year or more of observation. 


 
Take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  


 
This year at my Western Pennsylvania district, administration decided to use this computer-based standardized assessment as a pre-test or practice assessment before the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). 


 
I’ve already written about what a waste of time and money this is. A test before the test!? 


 
But after reluctantly subjecting my classes to the MAP and being instructed to analyze the results with my colleagues, we noticed this contradiction. 


 
In many cases, scores did not match up with teacher expectations for our students.  


 
In about 60-80% of cases, students who had demonstrated high skills in the subject were given scores below the 50th percentile – many below the 25th percentile.  


 
These were kids with average to high grades who the MAP scored as if they were in the bottom half of their peers across the state. 


 
 Heck! A third of my students are in the advanced class this year – but the MAP test would tell me most of them need remediation! 


 
If we look at that data dispassionately, there are possible explanations. For one, students may not have taken the test seriously. 


 
And to some degree this is certainly the case. The MAP times student responses and when they are input fast and furious, it stops the test taker until the teacher can unlock the test after warning them against rapid guessing. 


 
However, the sheer number of mislabeled students is far too great to be accounted for in this way. Maybe five of my students got the slow down sloth graphic. Yet so many more were mislabeled as failures despite strong classroom academics. 


 
The other possibility – and one that media doom-mongers love to repeat – is that districts like mine routinely inflate mediocre achievement so that bad students look like good ones.  


 
In other words, they resolve the contradiction by throwing away the work of classroom teachers and prioritizing what standardized tests say


 
Nice for them. However, I am not some rube reading this in the paper. I am not examining some spreadsheet for which I have no other data. I am IN the classroom every day observing these very same kids. I’ve been right there for almost an entire grading period of lessons and assessments – formative and summative. I have many strong indications of what these kids can do, what they know and what they don’t know.  


 
Valuing the MAP scores over weeks of empirical classroom data is absurd.  


 
I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with more than two decades experience. But Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a testing company out of Portland, Oregon, wants me to believe that after 90 minutes it knows my students better than I do after six weeks! 


 
Time to admit the MAP is a faulty product. 


 
But it’s not just that one standardized test. We find the same disparity with the PSSA and other like assessments.  


 
Nationally, classroom grades are better than these test scores.  


 
In the media, pundits tell us this means our public school system is faulty. Yet that conclusion is merely an advertisement for these testing companies and a host of school privatization enterprises offering profit-making alternatives predicated on that exact premise.  


 
So how to resolve the contradiction? 


 
The only logical conclusion one can draw is that standardized assessments are bad at determining student learning.  


 
In fact, that is not their primary function. First and foremost, they are designed to compare students with each other. How they make that comparison – based on what data – is secondary.  


 
The MAP, PSSA and other standardized tests are primarily concerned with sorting and ranking students – determining which are best, second best and so on. 


 
By contrast, teacher-created tests are just the opposite. They are designed almost exclusively to assess whether learning has taken place and to what degree. Comparability isn’t really something we do. That’s the province of administrators and other support staff.  


 
The primary job of teaching is just that – the transfer of knowledge, offering opportunities and a conducive environment for students to learn.  


 
That is why standardized tests fail so miserably most of the time. They are not designed for the same function. They are about competition, not acquisition of knowledge or skill. 


 
That’s why so many teachers have been calling for the elimination of standardized testing for decades. It isn’t just inaccurate and a waste of time and money. It gets in the way of real learning.  


 
You can’t give a person a blood transfusion if you can’t accurately measure how much blood you’re giving her. And comparing how much blood was given to a national average of transfusions is not helpful. 


 
You need to know how much THIS PERSON needs. You need to know what would help her particular needs.  


 
When good students get bad test scores, it invariably means you have a bad test.  


 
 
An entire year of daily data points is not invalidated by one mark to the contrary.  


 
Until society accepts this obvious truth, we will never be able to provide our students with the education they deserve.  

Good students will continue to be mislabeled for the sake of a standardized testing industry that is too big to fail.


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An Open Letter to Josh Shapiro Asking Him to Reject School Vouchers 


 

Dear Josh Shapiro, 


 
Are you for public education or not?

I only ask because as the Democratic candidate for Governor in Pennsylvania, you come off as the savior of schools and children on the campaign trail.

You say you want to increase state funding to public schools. Wonderful!

You say you want to reduce standardized testing. Excellent!

You want to guarantee every student has access to technical and vocational courses and make sure every school building has at least one dedicated mental health counselor on staff. Outstanding!

But in interviews and on your campaign Website, you say you’re in favor of school vouchers!

Wha-Wha-What!?

Did Charles Koch just hack your election headquarters? Is Betsy DeVos impersonating you in the media?

Because supporting school vouchers does not fit in at all with someone who claims to champion public education.

Public education means public schools. It means tax dollars being used to fund public schools and those schools being run by elected school boards.

It does not mean tax dollars going to private and parochial schools. It does not mean our money going to institutions where we get no say in how it’s spent. It does not mean circumventing duly elected school boards. It does not mean the public paying for religious indoctrination or the kind of right wing biased education routinely provided at private schools.

But that’s what school vouchers do.

They steal taxpayer dollars from authentic public schools and allow them to be wasted on private and parochial schools. They destroy any accountability for how our collective money is spent and do serious harm to thousands of the most struggling authentic public school students while lining the pockets of private companies and religious institutions.

And the separation of church and state – forget about it!

This doesn’t sound like the candidate teachers like me have been backing since before this election cycle began. Frankly, it’s almost what your gubernatorial opponent, MAGA Republican Doug Mastriano, champions.

Mastriano – a Trump insurrectionist – says he wants to use state education funding to give EVERY student a school voucher they can use at almost any school in the Commonwealth – public, private or parochial.

You seem to want vouchers ONLY for students at the most underfunded and struggling schools.

Well that’s some distinction!

Instead of providing more support to the most inequitably funded schools, you want to slash their funding even more in the name of some old time Republican plan to let a few escape a bad situation while the rest all drown!?

That is repulsive!

On your your campaign Website it says


 Josh favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania. 


 
In an interview in the Patriot News you say


 “And I’m for making sure we add scholarships like lifeline scholarships to make sure that that’s additive to their education. That it gives them other opportunities…to be able to help them achieve success”  

These so-called Lifeline Scholarships are a Republican lead measure to give direct-to-student tax-funded scholarships that parents and guardians in the state’s most neglected public schools could use for a variety of options including going toward tuition at a different school.

The GOP sponsored bill passed the state House of Representatives in April on a 104-98 vote and cleared the state Senate Education Committee in June. However, because of an amendment to protect low performing charter schools from losing their funding, it would still need final passage votes in both chambers before getting to current Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk where he would almost certainly veto it.

It would affect about 191,000 students in 382 schools, across 76 of the state’s 500 school districts. However, Two-thirds of the cost of the program (63.1%) is born by four districts – Philadelphia (43.9%), Reading (8.9%), Allentown (5.8%) and Pittsburgh (4.5%).

This would create another taxpayer funded system of education. Affected districts would lose so much funding it would ultimately force them to reduce programs, services, and staffing and/or raise property taxes to compensate.

Moreover, these would be the most neglected districts, and thus the least able to support the cost.

It’s a terrible idea, and I can’t understand why you would buck the overwhelming majority of your party and would-be constituents to support it.

Is it because you send your own kids to a faith-based private school, and that you are the product of just such an education, yourself?

This is how you lose votes, Sir.

Your opponent is perhaps the most odious person to ever run for Governor in the state. He looks to usher in an era of theocratic fascism, curtail human rights and take the Commonwealth back to the Middle Ages.

But that doesn’t mean you should run closer to his positions in the vain hope of stealing some of his base.

The MAGA Republicans will never vote for you. Dressing yourself up in their clothing will not help you do anything but disgust your own supporters until some can’t bring themselves to vote at all.

As election day nears, the polls get closer and closer between Mastriano and you.

Pennsylvanians can’t afford losing their only chance at self rule because of demoralization and despair at a candidate too weak to support the platform he began this campaign on – championing public education.

I urge you to reconsider this flirtation with Republican values and school vouchers.

I hope you are better than this.

We deserve a governor who is better than this.

Please have the courage to stand by authentic public schools.

Yours,

Steven Singer


Tell Josh Shapiro what you think. Email him here: contact@joshshapiro.org


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Why Even the Best Charter Schools are Fundamentally Inequitable

Not MY charter school!

That’s the usual reaction from charter school fans to any criticism of the industry.

I say many of these institutions lack accountability about how tax dollars are spent…

Not MY charter school!

I say they waste millions of taxpayer dollars to duplicate services already in existence….

Not MY charter school!

I talk about frequent scandals where unscrupulous charter school operators use copious loopholes in state law to enrich themselves without providing services to parents, students and the community…

Not MY charter school!

I mention charter school lotteries, cherry-picking students, not providing adequate special education services, zero tolerance discipline policies, teaching to standardized tests, targeting black and brown kids for profit and feeding the school to prison pipeline….

Not MY charter school! Not MY charter school! Not MY…

Really!?

If the industry is subject to this much malfeasance and corruption, doesn’t that reflect badly on the entire educational model – even the examples that avoid the worst of it?

One model has daily scandals. The other – authentic public schools – is far from perfect but relatively tame by comparison. You can’t blame people for generalizing.

Not My….

Okay. We get it!

But sadly this defensiveness against any criticism hides an enormous ignorance of exactly what charter schools are and how they operate at the most basic level.

Yes, there is a difference between how the best and worst charter schools act.

Yes, there are some charter schools that are run much better, more humanely and responsibly than others.

But that doesn’t mean the very concept of a charter school isn’t rotten to the core.

It’s like colonialism.

Yes, there were colonies where the invaders treated the conquered with more respect and dignity than others.

But not a single colony was a good thing. Not a single colonial enterprise avoided subjugating people who should have been free to determine their own destinies.

The same goes with charter schools.

When I discuss the industry, it’s surprising how many people – especially supporters of the enterprise – don’t understand what charter schools really are.

Let’s start with a simple definition.

A charter school is a school with a charter.

Get it?

And a charter is a contract – a special agreement with the state or some other governmental entity that this school can exist.

Why is that necessary?

Because there are rules laid out by each state in their school codes detailing what schools must do in order to qualify for taxpayer funding.

For example, under normal circumstances they must have an elected school board made up of members from the community where the school is located.

All authentic public schools must follow these rules. But not Charter schools.

Instead, they get to follow whatever rules are set down in their charter.

So without even examining exactly which special rules are stipulated in that charter, these schools are founded on the very concept of privilege.

They get to abide by their own rules tailor-made just for them.

Why does that matter? Because they get public funding.

And, yes, ALL charter schools are publicly funded – they get at least part of their money from taxpayers, usually all or the majority of their funding.

That opens a huge divide in accountability between types of schools.

On the one hand, authentic public schools are publicly funded but required by law to be run by elected members of the public. You pay your taxes and you get a say in how those taxes are spent.

However, many states allow charter schools to avoid this stipulation. They can be run by appointed boards or other functionaries that taxpayers have no say in hiring.

It’s a common feature of most charter agreements and often exploited.

You pay taxes and have no say in how that money is spent at these charter schools.

Parents of students enrolled in the school can vote with their feet and remove their kids if they don’t like the direction the school is taking. But the overwhelming majority of taxpayers don’t have kids in the charter school – they might not have kids at all. But their money is still being collected and their voice is silenced.

That is fundamentally unjust.

In fact, it’s one of the main reasons given for the American colonies fighting a war with Great Britain. No taxation without representation.

And most charter schools are guilty of it.

But not all!

There are charter schools run by elected school boards. They either choose this management system though it is not required by their charter or their charter explicitly requires it – like any other taxpayer funded school.

Does this excuse these charter schools from the same inequities as their more privileged brethren?

No.

And this is an important point.

How does a charter school open in the first place?

Most authentic public schools were started many years ago by the communities where they operate.

Community members got together, agreed they needed a school, elected board members to manage it, collected tax money, etc.

Charter schools are much newer inventions that come about differently.

Instead of starting with a community, they start with a charter operator. This could be a single individual, a group, an organization or a corporation.

The operator then goes to the state, community or usually school district where they propose to open the charter (it depends on the state charter law) and puts forward a proposal. Then the state, community or board decides to approve or deny that proposal.

However, nearly every charter school law does not give local communities an unlimited right of refusal. After all, if they did, there would be hardly any charter schools in existence.

Think about it.

When an authentic public school district decides to open a charter school inside its borders, it is agreeing to give a portion of the tax dollars it already receives to the charter school. It is agreeing to run its existing schools on less money so the charter can open up.

Why would any authentic public school do this? Only if it saw a real need for a new school and did not want to open a new school, itself. That’s a pretty rare situation.

However, nearly every charter school law gives very narrow reasons that new charter applications can be refused. So most of the time, the district has no choice but to approve these proposals. And if a district does refuse, the matter often goes to a state charter approval board which almost always reverses the decision. The community says no – state functionaries say yes.

So even when one of these so-called good charter schools managed by an elected school board opens up, it does so by overruling the decisions of the community it serves.

Charter schools create burdens for their communities. They siphon tax dollars from the existent public schools without reducing costs by much at all. So the authentic public school board is forced to make a hard decision – cut services for students and run with their reduced tax revenue or increase taxes to make up the difference.

Charter schools equal higher taxes in districts that can afford it and a reduction in educational quality in those districts that can’t.

This is a situation the community did not ask for. The community did not demand a new charter school. A handful of charter operators did to enroll a handful of students.

This is not fair.

And, yes, it applies to every charter school.

School choice is based on lack of choice in the first place.

However, my favorite response from charter school fans is that their school doesn’t have any special agreement at all.

Their school has no charter.

It’s like saying your ice cube isn’t cold, or your fire isn’t hot.

What is a charter school without a charter? Not a charter school.

If there really is such an institution out there, I would say it is a charter school in name only. Best to rename it as an authentic public school just for the sake of accuracy.

And if anyone does find a yellowed document for one of these schools labeled “charter,” best to tear it up. You don’t need it since your charter school has no need of special agreements.

Keep in mind, this is long before we get into the specifics of how charter schools can (and often do) exploit children and communities.

If the very existence of your school is predicated on the existence of a charter agreement, that is inequitable.

It does not need to follow all of the rules that authentic public schools must.

These are rules about being accountable for how you spend tax dollars, having minimum academic standards, hiring qualified staff, etc.


If there really are some rules that charter schools should be freed from obeying, why not just free all taxpayer funded schools from these rules? You don’t need a special agreement. You need to renegotiate the state school code.

Otherwise, this is giving special treatment to some schools rather than others.

That is the point.

Charter schools – ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS – are inequitable by definition and design.

It is an unjust system.

And no amount of defensiveness will avoid this truth.


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Classroom Grades Show Learning Better than Standardized Test Scores

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

William Bruce Cameron

This summer my family suffered a tremendous blow.

My grandmother, Ce Ce, died.

She was in her 90s and had been unwell since before COVID. But she was also our matriarch, the point around which so much of our interrelations orbited and met.

After the funeral, I found myself at my uncle’s house somehow tasked with watching over several young cousins who had had just about enough of sitting around quietly in itchy suits and dresses.

To get a moment to myself, I set them a task: go downstairs among the assorted relatives and ask them to tell you a story about Ce Ce. Best story wins.

They went off like an explosion. And when they came back, they each had a touching tale about Ce Ce.

One was about how she defended a niece who wanted to marry someone of another faith. Another story was a fond recollection of the sweet and sour spaghetti sauce she used to make, the recipe of which is lost forever.

I was even surprised to hear some stories I had never known like that after my grandfather died, a semi-famous painter had asked Ce Ce on a date!

When my little cousins’ recitations were done, they were united in one thing – wanting to know who won.

I stumbled. I stammered.

I really had no way of judging such a thing.

They had all brought back such wonderful stories. Who won? We were ALL enriched by hearing them.

And that’s kind of how I feel about learning.

It is a fool’s errand to try and compare one person’s acquisition of knowledge with another. But that’s exactly what our current education system is built on.

Unless opted out by a parent or guardian, every public school child in America is required to take standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

And the results of these tests are used to make high stakes decisions about which classes the students can enroll in, which enrichments, field trips or remediation they require, and even how much funding will be given or withheld from the schools and districts where they attend.

As a result, the social effects of poverty and racial discrimination end up being transformed into numbers. Thus, instead of being seen as indictments of the economic and racist status quo, they are viewed as the problem of schools and the individual students, themselves.

Standardized tests purport to show that poor children and/or children of color aren’t learning at the same rate as other children. So by the end of 12th grade they have learned less. When they are discriminated against in the job market then, that discrimination is justified – because it is not based on economics or race; it is based on numbers.

However, to perform this alchemy, we have to ignore the fact that standardized assessments are not the only way to determine whether students have learned anything. In fact, for the majority of students’ school experience that learning is assessed by something else entirely – classroom grades.

What if we took classroom grades as seriously as we take standardized test scores?

What if we valued them MORE?

The world would be a very different place.

The entire narrative of failing students and failing schools would turn on its head. After all, graduation rates have steadily increased over the last decade.

Students are completing more courses and more difficult courses. And students are even getting higher grades in these classes!

Yet at the same time, standardized test scores on national exams have remained at about the same level or gone down.

How is that possible?

The new analysis comes from the U.S. Department of Education, and tracks transcripts of a representative sample of high school graduates in 1990, 2000, 2009, and 2019.

It does not include scores from 2020 and 2022 when both classroom grades and national test scores fell. But that’s clearly because of the pandemic and the fact that most students educations and testing schedules were disrupted.

Before COVID, students increasingly were taking higher-level courses, and their Grade Point Averages (GPAs) were steadily rising — from an average of 2.68 in 1990 to 2.94 in 2000, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.11 in 2019. 

This is true of students from all backgrounds, but disparities still existed. On average, white and Asian students had higher GPAs than Black and Hispanic students. Though girls, overall, had higher GPAs than boys.

However, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), given to a sample of students across the country, test scores during the same period did not show a similar increase. Math and reading scores in 2019 were slightly lower than in 2009 and unchanged from 2005. Science scores haven’t budged since 2009. 

Why the disparity?

It seems that either teachers are making it too easy to get good classroom grades or standardized testing does not assess student learning accurately.

Scholars, teachers, parents and students have been complaining about the validity of standardized testing for more than a century. But business interests make billions of dollars off the industry it creates. Guess which group policymakers continue to heed over the other.

It doesn’t take much to show why classroom grades are better at assessing student learning. Compare them with standardized test scores.

Students earn grades based on a wide range of assessments, activities, and behaviors – quizzes, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, homework, and in-class work.

Standardized tests, on the other hand, are not assigned on such a multifaceted range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within limited academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.

Classroom grades are tapestries sown from many patches showing a year’s worth of progress. Standardized tests are at best snapshots of a moment in time.

In class, students can speak with teachers about grades to get a better sense of how and why they earned the marks they did. They can then use this explanation to guide them in the future thus tailoring the classroom experience to individuals.

The value seen in standardized test is its apparent comparability. Scores are supposed to reflect student performance under roughly the same conditions, so the results can be equated and analyzed.

So the biggest difference isn’t a matter of validity, it is pragmatism. Test scores can be used to rate students from all over the country or the world. They can be used to sort kids into a hierarchy of best to worst. Though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me. The purpose of education is not like the National Football League (NFL). It’s to encourage learning, not competition based on a simulation of learning.

And there is evidence that classroom grades are more valid than standardized test scores.

After all, high stakes assessments like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) do NOT accurately predict future academic success as classroom grades, in fact, do.


 
Kids with perfect scores on the SAT or American College Testing (ACT) tests don’t achieve more than kids who received lower scores or never took the tests in the first place.


 
Numerous studies have shown this to be true. The most recent one I’ve seen was from 2014.


 
Researchers followed more than 123,000 students who attended universities that don’t require applicants to take these tests as a prerequisite for admission. They concluded that SAT and ACT test scores do not correlate with how well a student does in college.


 
However, classroom grades do have predictive value – especially when compared to standardized tests. Students with high grades in high school but middling test scores do better in college than students with higher test scores and lower grades.

Why? Because grades are based on something other than the ability to take one test. They demonstrate a daily commitment to work hard. They are based on 180 days (in Pennsylvania) of classroom endeavors, whereas standardized tests are based on the labor of an afternoon or a few days.

Classroom grades would not have such consistent predictive value if they were nothing but the result of grade inflation or lenient teachers.

In fact, of the two assessments – classroom grades and standardized tests – one is far more essential to the daily learning of students than the other.

We could abolish all standardized testing without any damage to student learning. In fact, the vacuum created by the loss of these high stakes tests would probably result in much less teaching to the test. Days, weeks, months of additional class time would suddenly appear and much more learning would probably take place.

Academic decisions about which classes students can enroll in or what remediation is necessary could just as easily be made based on classroom grades and teacher observations. And funding decisions for schools and districts could be made based on need and equity – not the political football of standardized testing.

However, getting rid of classroom grades would be much more disruptive. Parents and students would have few measures by which to determine if students had learned the material. Teachers would have fewer tools to encourage children to complete assignments. And if only test scores remained, the curriculum would narrow to a degree unheard of – constant, daily test prep with no engagement to ones life, critical thinking or creativity.

To be fair, there are mastery-based learning programs that try to do without grades, but they are much more experimental and require a complete shift in how we view learning. This is a more holistic system that requires students to demonstrate learning at one level before moving ahead to the next. However, it is incredibly labor intensive for teachers and often relies heavily on edtech solutions to make it viable.

I’m not saying this is an impossible system or even taking a stance on its value. But a large scale shift away from classroom grades would be chaotic, confusing and probably a failure without serious support, scaffolding and parental, teacher and student buy-in.

At the end of the day, classroom grades are the best tool we have to determine whether learning has taken place and to what degree. We should do everything we can to change the way policymakers prefer the standardized approach to the personalized one.

To return to a fuller quote by sociology professor Cameron with which I began this article:

‘It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Thus, the urge to quantify student learning seems predicated on the popular maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

Standardized testing is about managing students – sorting them into valuable and disposable for the workforce.

Classroom grades are actually concerned with the project at hand – assessment of learning.

Which brings me back to my little cousins.

When I told them I couldn’t possibly pick a winner between them based on their stories, there were lots of groans of annoyance.

They viewed the whole project as a competition and they wanted to win.

I hope on reflection they’ll see that we all won.

Everything isn’t a contest. We are not all opponents.

If they can grasp that, it would be the greatest lesson I could teach.


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

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Just CLICK HERE.

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

The MAP Test – Selling Schools Unnecessary Junk at Student Expense

School districts are easy targets for grifters.

Corporations everywhere are trying to sell them unnecessary junk and pocket wads of taxpayer cash.

The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test is a particularly egregious example of this, but let me begin with a more everyday example.

I’m a public school teacher in western Pennsylvania, and when I returned to school this week before classes started, I noticed my stapler was irreparably jammed from last year.

Normally, I’d just go out and buy another one. But I was running out of time to get things done, so I went to the office and asked if they had any staplers.

As luck would have it, they did.

The secretary lead me to a closet full of brand new Swingline staplers.

I thanked her, took one back to my room and started stapling.

Three staples in, it was irreparably jammed.

When I returned home that evening and complained to my family about the woes of the day, my sweet 13-year-old daughter offered me a stapler we had around the house.

When I brought it to school, it worked like a dream.

It wasn’t some top of the line model. It was another basic Swingline stapler. It was slightly less boxy and more modern than the kind I got from the office. But it worked. That’s the important difference.

So why did the office have a closet full of faulty staplers?

Because most teachers – unlike me – know the staplers the district buys are crap. You have to purchase your own supplies.

But think of the money wasted here!

The basic model sells for almost $14 on amazon.com.

Those staplers – that many staplers – probably add up to hundreds of dollars.

And they don’t even work!

Sadly, the full extent of the waste district-wide is much farther reaching than just the staplers.

Later that very day, teachers in my building were forced to sit through a virtual training on the MAP test.

This is an assessment made by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a so-called non-profit organization out of Portland, Oregon.

The company claims its assessments are used by over 9,500 schools and districts in 145 countries – but none is more popular than the MAP.

Some states even require the MAP as part of their standardized testing machinery. However, in the Commonwealth, the MAP is used as a pre-test or practice assessment by districts that elect to pay for it.

My building – the middle school – used a variety of different assessments throughout the years for this purpose – IXL, CDT, etc.

However, things are changing this year. No, we’re not getting rid of these pretests altogether – why enact sane policy now after a decade of wrongheadedness!?

My district had used the MAP consistently for years at the elementary schools, so someone in administration thought it made sense to bring it to the middle school now and eventually institute it in the high school, as well.

Do we really need an assessment BEFORE the state mandated assessments?

Heck no!

Classroom teachers give enough assignments and tests of their own to know where their students are academically throughout the year. We grade them after all. What do you think that’s based on – guessing?

But certain administrators just love these pre-tests. They love looking at spreadsheets of student data and comparing one grading period to another. They think if the numbers go higher, it will be proof they’re good principals and functionaries.

It’s pathetic to be honest. What a waste of taxpayer dollars that could be used for actual learning! What a waste of class time that could be used for actual teaching!

And what a negative impact these assessment actually have on students and their learning!

For instance, at the MAP training, teachers were told the assessment’s job was to show how our students were doing in Reading, Math and Science compared with an average test taker.

How is that useful?

I don’t teach average test takers. I don’t even teach average students.

How is constantly comparing them to a norm going to help them improve?

If I went on a diet and stepped on the scale, learning that my weight loss wasn’t as high as an average dieter would not help me stay away from sweets. If anything, it would inspire me to go on a binge in the snack drawer.

It’s the same with my students. Constantly pounding into them how below average their scores are does not inspire them to do better. It teaches them that they cannot do what is being asked of them so they stop trying.

When learning a skill, it doesn’t help to know how well others are or are not learning that same skill. It matters how much you are learning in comparison to yourself. Yesterday I knew THIS. Today I know a bit MORE. Who cares what the so-called average learner can do!?

Students learn at their own rates – sometimes faster, sometimes slower. We don’t quicken the timescale with needless comparisons.

But no matter how many times I say such things to administrators or paid trainers from NWEA, they just don’t get it.

At this training, the instructor actually wanted to know what “elevator speech” teachers were going to give to parents about why the MAP was important!

It’s bad enough we’re being forced to give this crappy assessment, but now you want us to spout propaganda to the very people paying our salaries!?

Why not invite us to the school board meeting and ask us what we really think of this initiative? Why not have us submit comments anonymously and have them read publicly to the school board?

But of course not! That would be actually valuing the opinion of the people you’ve hired to teach!

It’s no wonder the trainer was anticipating blow back. Many parent and teacher groups across the country have opposed the MAP test. Most famously in 2013, teachers at several Seattle schools lead by Garfield High School actually refused to give the MAP test.

Having trusted teachers sooth community worry with corporate propaganda would be a big win for the testing company.

However, I’ll give the trainer one thing – she understood that the MAP assessment scores would not be useful unless students could be encouraged to take the test seriously. Nobody tries their best at something they think is unimportant.

Her solution was two-fold. First, NWEA has produced several propaganda videos to show students why the test is important.

I can imagine how much they’ll love that!

Second, the MAP is an adaptive test taken on a computer or iPad. And it actively monitors the students taking the test.

If its algorithm determines that students are answering questions too quickly or “rapid guessing,” the program pauses the student test.

Teachers are supposed to monitor all this on a screen and intervene when it occurs. We’re supposed to counsel kids not to just guess and then allow them back on the test. If the algorithm still thinks students are guessing, we’re supposed to suspend their test and make them take it all over again.

You know, I did not get a masters in education to become a policeman for a standardized testing organization.

Moreover, this is exactly the kind of test proctoring that would get me fired if I tried it during the state mandated Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). I would be guilty of violating test security.

Teachers throughout the state have to take on-line classes every year about what we are and are not allowed to do during the PSSA test. Stopping students who seem to be guessing, is not allowed. I’m not even allowed to point out if a student skipped a question on the test!

I certainly can’t scrap a PSSA test that I think a student didn’t give his best effort on and make him do it again!

So how exactly is this MAP test a practice for the real thing!?

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s an artificial environment where scores are massaged to give an unrealistic picture of how students will do on the PSSA.

Of course, administration at my school has one more trick up its sleeve to get students to take the MAP test seriously.

Like the CDT, IXL and other assessments before it, administrators plan to use MAP scores to make decisions about which classes students can take in the next grade. Students in the advanced classes must test well on the MAP or be denied access to this class in subsequent years. Students who score badly on the MAP may have to take the remedial class.

And unlike the PSSA or Keystone Exams – assessments required by the state – administrators are trying to forbid parents from opting their children out of the MAP test.

State test – you can opt out.

Local assessment – you have to take it. Or else!

I wonder if enough parents will complain to the school board about such behavior or just give up and enroll their kids in the local charter school or the private parochial school located RIGHT NEXT DOOR!

As if this all wasn’t counterproductive enough, it’s also a huge waste of money.

Though NWEA claims to be a non-profit, the company posted $166,775,470 in revenue in 2020 – the most recent year available. Its CEO Chris Minnich made $397,582.

These people are making lots of money off this standardized testing baloney!

According to a 2015 brochure from NWEA about the MAP test, it costs $13.50 per student to take the test every year. And that’s just for the Reading and Math. It costs an additional $2.50 per pupil for the Science test.

So if we estimate 1000 students at the elementary and middle school level, that’s roughly $16,000 a year to take the test.

And that doesn’t include the price of trainings like the one I had to sit through this week.

According to that same brochure, the cost for a single days training is $4,000, though sometimes it can be reduced to $3,500 if you buy the right package.

Trainings can go up to $40,000 for multiple days and an in-person trainer.

I wonder how much money my district flushed down the toilet on this garbage.

I look in my classroom closet at the crumbling books, and wonder.

I look at my steadily increasing class sizes and wonder.

My district doesn’t need the MAP test.

We need a test of basic decency for decision makers.


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Why is a Gates-Funded, Anti-Union, Charter Advocacy Group Part of Pennsylvania’s New Plan to Stop the Teacher Exodus?

Teachers are fleeing the profession in droves.

So Pennsylvania has unveiled a new plan to stop the exodus with the help of an organization pushing the same policies that made teaching undesirable in the first place.

The state’s Department of Education (PDE) announced its plan to stop the state’s teacher exodus today.

One of the four people introducing the plan at the Harrisburg press conference was Laura Boyce, Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus.

Why is this surprising?

Teach Plus is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to select and train teachers to push its political agenda.

What is that agenda?

Teach Plus has embraced the practice of widespread staff firings as a strategy for school improvement.

Teach Plus mandates that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation.

Teach Plus advocates against seniority and claims that unions stifle innovation.

Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and substantial donations from the Walton Family Foundation.

How can an organization dedicated to the same ideas that prompted the exodus turn around and stop the evacuation!?

That’s like hiring a pyromaniac as a fire fighter!

“Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” Boyce said at the press conference.

“If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward. Teach Plus teachers have been sounding the alarm about this crisis and are eager to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes to better recruit and retain educators in Pennsylvania.”

However, she’s already getting things wrong.

The importance of education is NOT as the “engine of economic opportunity.” Its importance is to help students become their best selves. It is creating critical thinkers who can navigate our modern world, become well-informed participants in our democratic system and live good lives.

Given the track record of Teach Plus, any well-informed individual should be wary of the how “eager [the organization is] to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes.”

But what’s actually in the plan?

A lot of vague generalizations.

The plan (titled The Foundation of Our Economy: Pennsylvania Educator Workforce Strategy, 2022-2025) sets forth five focus areas:

1) Meeting the educator staffing needs of rural, suburban, and urban areas;

2) Building a diverse workforce representative of the students we serve;

3) Operating a rigorous, streamlined, and customer service-oriented certification process;

4) Ensuring high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators; and

5) Ensuring educator access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities.

As you can see, it is full of corporate education reform buzzwords like ‘rigorous” and “high quality” that neoliberals have used as code for their policies for decades.

There are 50 steps outlined in the report. While many seem important and well-intentioned, they lack any kind of urgency, and though organized under these five areas, still seem kind of scattershot.

For example, the number one most important thing any state has to do to retain current teachers and to attract new teachers is to increase wages.

Teachers make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

More than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

Yet increasing teacher salary is only briefly mentioned in step 13 of the first focus group as follows:

“13. Based on the resources that PDE develops on competitive compensation and incentives, advocate for and secure funding from the General Assembly that enables hiring entities to compete more effectively in the regional labor market.”

Talk about anemic language!

Imagine being on a sinking ship and someone only mentioning plugging the leak in such terms – if we can, based on our resources, yada, yada, yada.

Another point that jumped out to me was recruitment of new teachers.

Under focus two, the plan calls for:

“6. Partner with nonprofit organizations working to develop recruitment, training, and mentoring programs for middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds to identify and recruit future educators.”

Getting more people to become teachers sounds great, but why are we partnering with “nonprofit organizations” and which ones in particular do you have in mind?

There are plenty of neoliberal organizations of a similar type to Teach Plus that call themselves “nonprofit” – for example Teach for America.

Are we advocating for teacher temps with a few weeks crash course in education? It sure sounds like it to me.

Moreover, there’s the issue of charter schools. These are schools funded by tax dollars but often run by corporations or other organizations. Many of these consider themselves nonprofit.

So doesn’t this new plan help push more educators into the charter school network? Isn’t it open to funding more charter schools and calling it teacher retention?

Considering that charter schools are not subject to the same regulations as authentic public schools and allow all kinds of fiscal and student abuses, I’m not sure how encouraging such practices will help anyone but the profiteers behind these schools.

Then there’s the emphasis on building a diverse workforce.

In itself, that’s an excellent and necessary goal. However, if you aren’t going to make the profession more attractive, you aren’t going to increase diversity. Right now one of the major reasons our schools are full of mostly white, middle class teachers is because white, middle class people are the only ones who can afford to take the job.

Teaching often requires economic white privilege and often a second member of the household to earn the lion’s share of the income. Without addressing the pure dollars and cents of this issue – something Teach Plus is overjoyed to do when talking about the importance of education – all this talk of diversity is mere tokenism. It’s hiding behind a veneer of “wokeness” with no real intention of doing anything to help people of color as teachers or students.

Finally, let’s talk about the kinds of teacher preparation, professional development and leadership opportunities in this plan.

They are described as:

“high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators” and

“access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities”

But “high quality” by whose definition?

That’s the point here. Classroom teachers would consider classroom management, effective discipline and time for effective planning to be “high quality.” Educators would value more autonomy and less paperwork. But I’m willing to bet that isn’t what the authors of this plan think it means.

This is what Teach Plus does. It advocates for neoliberal disruptions in school management.

In the past, Teach Plus has insisted older more experienced educators be fired while shielding “promising young teachers” from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators – not just test scores – increases as teachers gain experience. However, new teachers are easier to brainwash into corporate education reform – to be driven by standardized test scores and data instead of the needs of the living, human beings in front of them in the classroom.

So this proposed teacher preparation and professional development is of what kind exactly? I’ll bet it’s mostly reeducation to accept corporate education reform. I’ll bet it’s focused on ways to increase student test scores which will then be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness – a program that has been roundly disproven for decades.

So where does that leave us?

A decades ago roughly 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year, while last year only 6,000 did so, according to PDE.

The minimum teacher salary in the Commonwealth stands at $18,500 — and has since 1989.

Meanwhile lawmakers – especially Republicans – push for bills to monitor teachers, restrict them from teaching an accurate history, and ban books from their libraries and curriculums.

Standardized tests are everywhere the main metric of success or failure, and school funding is determined by them. While authentic public schools serving the poor and middle class starve for funding, the legislature gives an increasing share of our tax dollars to charter and voucher schools without oversight on how that money is spent.

This new plan is not going to change any of that.

It is at best a Band-Aid – at worst a public relations stunt.

If we really wanted to stop the teacher exodus, we wouldn’t partner with one of the architects of the current crisis to do so.

We would roll up our sleeves and take the actions necessary for real change – and chief among these would be an increase in teacher salary, autonomy and prestige.


 

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Social-Emotional Learning vs. Classroom Culture 

 


 
A student accidentally drops her books in the hall.  


 
Another student stops and helps her pick them up.  


 
Then a teacher homes in on the two and gives the helper a little yellow card which can be redeemed for candy.  


 
This is what social-emotional learning (SEL) looks like in my school. 


 
Teachers instruct on proper behaviors and then reward students they see going above and beyond to achieve them.  


 
Here’s another example. 


 
A student at his lunch table is yelling and throwing food. Nearby another student is sitting quietly and reading a book.  


 
Then a teacher walks over and gives the quiet child a yellow card which can be used to enter a raffle for a special prize. He might win an Oculus VR game system or tickets to a baseball game.  


 
That’s social-emotion learning, too.  


 
Instead of just cracking down on the negative behaviors, we try to reward the positive ones.  


 
To be fair, it works to a degree.  


 
But most of the time, it doesn’t. 


 
The same kids end up with huge stacks of yellow cards and the rest get just one or two. Few students actually change their behavior. They just become virtue signalers whenever an adult is present.  


 
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.  


 
Especially now (most student’s first full year of in-person classes after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic), students don’t seem to know how to interact.  


 
Snubs, insults and instigation seem to be their defaults ways of relating to each other. Some definitely need explicit boundaries and reinforcement.  


 
But it only goes so far in the halls, the cafeteria and during unstructured times.  


 
Inside the classroom is another beast altogether – as it always has been. 


 
Ever since I first started teaching more than two decades ago, it’s been necessary to work to achieve a classroom culture. 


 
The teacher has to expend significant time and energy with the students as a whole and each student individually to set up a mini-society where each member gets respect by giving respect. 


 
We try to set up the environment so everyone feels safe and involved, everyone is accepted for who they are, comfortable to be themselves and feels empowered to take the chances necessary to learn. 


 
It’s not easy, but it’s more about relationships than behaviorism. The reward isn’t something extrinsic – it’s participation in the classroom culture, itself.  


 
Both approaches attempt to do the same thing – create an environment in which learning is possible.

 
 
It reminds me of the famous quote by conductor Leopold Stokowski


 
“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” 


 
In the same way, you might say that learning in a group requires a canvass of positive behaviors or beneficial social interaction.  


 
This has always been the case, though today the concept has become elevated to buzzword status – SEL. 


 
It’s not so much a single program but a loose conglomeration of ideas that have been around forever. 


 
However, like so much about school these days, the work of teachers and students has become both monetized and demonized. 


 
For those on the far right, SEL is code for teaching kids how to think and feel.  


 
They fear leftwing teachers will instill the values of accepting LGBTQ people, different races and cultures.  Why that’s something to be avoided, I don’t know. Perhaps if you want your child to share your own bigotries, public school isn’t for you, no matter what you call the offending programs.  


 
However, for me the worst part is monetization.  


 
An army of corporate education consultants are looking for ways to give shallow professional development to teachers (at a cost to the district) and then run complicated programs from afar.  


 
This means: (1) testing students’ abilities in SEL, (2) holding teachers accountable for student behaviors, and (3) pretending educators are developmental psychologists.  


 
The problem with testing is multifaceted. First, it almost always comes down to more standardized assessments. Nothing is easier to measure but less accurate than multiple choice assessment created by psychometricians far removed from the reality of the classroom. Kids hate it, this wastes class time and makes the entire educational experience sterile and bland. 


 
Holding teachers responsible for the way 20 or more kids act at one time is ridiculous. Even parents with one or two children can’t control how they act – nor should that be the ultimate goal. School isn’t the military. It shouldn’t be about obedience. It should be about critical thinking and cognitive growth.

 
 
Finally, there is something incredibly unfair about expecting teachers who are already overloaded with jobs and responsibilities to suddenly become psychologists, too. Sure, we have some training in childhood psychology as part of our coursework to get our degrees, but we aren’t experts. We’re practitioners. We’re like auto-mechanics at your local garage. We can fix your car if something’s busted, but we can’t rewire the whole thing for greater efficiency. 


 
So when it comes to SEL, educators role should be focused and limited.  


 
We should be fully engaged in the creation of classroom culture.  


 
That is where we can have the greatest impact in the construction of our own interpersonal relationships with classes and students.  


 
When it comes to the way students interact outside of the class, teachers should be part of the planning process but the main responsibility of conducting it should be with administrators.  


 
And, finally, we mustn’t ignore the responsibility of parents and guardians.  


 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%.  


 
We must free parents from overwork and professional pressures so they can do more to teach their children how to interact with others.  


 
It takes a village to raise a child – a village that knows how to communicate with each other and respect each member’s role. 

 


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

Covid Has Hobbled Public Schools. Here’s Why They’re Worth Saving 

 
 
 
Is public education worth saving? 


 
That’s the question in the air these days.  


 
In the last century, the US academic system helped us reach the moon, defeat Communism and become the world’s largest super power.    


 
However, today our public schools are more damaged than ever before.  


 
An increasing number of families are leaving them for charter and voucher schools.  


 
Teachers are quitting their jobs in droves with few people willing to fill the vacancies they leave behind.

 
 
And above all, many people seem to think the schools, themselves, are failing


 
Isn’t it time to move on to something else? 


 
I’m here to tell you – no, it is not. 


 
In fact, we need to guard and cherish our public schools more than ever before. Because we face the real possibility of losing them for good.  


 
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.

 
 
After decades of segregation, inequitable funding, incentives to privatize, and federally mandated standardized testing, it took a deadly virus to finally hobble the system.  


 
Being forced to contend with the uncertainties of Covid-19 damaged people’s faith in public education more than anything that had come before it. 


 
Issues of masking, contact tracing, safety of immunocompromised students and staff, and when to open or close buildings (among other issues) lead to inevitable dissatisfaction from all fronts.  


 
However, none of these issues should have been decided at the local level in the first place.  


 
These were issues of national significance. We needed a unified strategy to fight a global pandemic as it washed over our shores – not scattershot policies by part-time officials unequipped to deal with them


 
These problems should have been tackled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and enforced by the federal government without deference to big business.  


 
Instead, the CDC made conflicting decisions based more on the needs of the economy than public health (many of which were roundly ignored anyway). Then federal and state governments either refused to decide safety protocols leaving it up to individuals or municipalities, or when they did decide matters, they were embroiled in partisan battles over any kind of restrictions.  


 
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. 


 
Public health should be decided by scientists not school directors


 
The result was widespread dissatisfaction no matter what school boards decided and an exodus of students and faculty. 


 
Many families, upset at local school board decisions, enrolled their children in charter, cyber or voucher schools.  


 
Overall, charters saw a 7% increase in enrollment – an influx of roughly 240,000 students -during the 2020-21 school year, according to a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This is the largest increase in five years. By comparison, public school enrollment dropped by 3.3% – or 1.4 million students – in the same period. 


 
The biggest increases were in cyber charter schools. For example, in Pennsylvania 99.7 percent of the charter enrollment growth occurred in virtual charter schools. Enrollment at the Commonwealth’s 14 cyber charter schools swelled from about 38,000 students in October 2019 to more than 60,000 students in October 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 


 
But it wasn’t just students leaving our public schools. It was staff, too. 


 
Teachers and other school employees who felt unsafe or were crushed by the incredible pressure thrust on their shoulders either quit or retired in droves.  


 
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.  


 
A public school is a school meant for everybody and anybody.  


 
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.  


 
We simply define education differently. We look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some. 


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. 


 
There are plenty of ways we could improve. Even before the pandemic, we were incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas were often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students didn’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students.

 
 
But at least at the very outset what we were trying to do was better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu. 


 
Without public schools, equity is definitely not on offer. 


 
 
 Public is Better Than Private 


 
 
That’s really the point.  


 
Charter, cyber and voucher schools are not set up around this ideal.  


 
They are not instruments of inclusion. They are instruments of exclusion.  


 
They are about who is sent away, not about letting everyone in.  


The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 332,630,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools. 


 
No private system in the world has ever been able to work at that scale. If we lose our public schools, many kids will be left wanting.  


The market-driven approach does not guarantee an education. It guarantees competition for an education


 
It forces students to compete to get into schools and schools to compete for their very existence. Think of how that affects instruction. Schools have to spend a considerable amount of time and money attracting students to enroll. That’s time and money that doesn’t go to education. It goes to advertising. 


  
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. 


  
Another major change with this approach is how privatized schools are run. Many are operated behind closed doors without the input of a duly-elected school board, without transparency for how they spend tax dollars, without even the guide rails of most regulations


  
Like in the charter school sector, these schools get almost free reign to do whatever they want.  


This means corporate interests get to run charter schools while cutting services and increasing profits. In fact, administrative costs at charter schools are much higher than at traditional public schools. Students lose, the market wins. 


  
Moreover, many charter schools provide a sub-par education. To put it more bluntly, they do things that would be impossible for public schools to do. One in Philadelphia literally transformed into a nightclub after dark. Another funneled profits into the CEO’s personal bank account to be used as a slush fund to buy gifts and pay for rent at an apartment for his girlfriend. Another CEO used tax dollars to buy a yacht cheekily called “Fishin’ 4 Schools.”  


 
And virtual charter schools are even worse. A study found that cyber-charters provide almost less education than not going to school at all. Even brick and mortar charter schools can close on a moments notice leaving students in the lurch. 


  
It’s a Darwinian model made to benefit the predators, not the prey. It’s a boon for any unselfconscious businessman who doesn’t mind getting rich stealing an education from children. 


 
We Must Fight 


 
That’s why we must fight to keep our public schools.  


 
As flawed and bruised as they are, the public school model is far superior to the alternative.  


 
But many will look only at their own individual situation and stop there.  


 
They will say, “At MY charter school we do this…” Or “That’s not the way things are at MY voucher academy…” 


 
First of all, a well-functioning privatized school is like a castle built precariously on a cliff. Things may work well now, but they could change at any moment and there’s nothing you could do but vote with your feet. When authentic public schools go bad, you have a democratic process to fix the problem.

 
 
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?  


 
Because it’s not all about you and your child. Selfishness cannot be the foundation of a just society.

 
 
Even a well-functioning charter or voucher school is publicly funded. It splits the funding that would normally go to one school and divides it among two or more. So students at both have to make do with less. 


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.  


 
It is a necessary condition for democracy, shared economic prosperity and a just society.  


 
I know it may sound like an insurmountable task, but saving our public schools can be done.  


 
It will require collective action. 


 
We will need to actively participate in our school board elections, go to school board meetings and possibly even run to serve on the board, ourselves. 


 
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 will need to change the way our system treats teachers. If we want to encourage educators to stay on the job and even entice young people to enter the field, we need to make the profession more rewarding. That means higher salaries, more autonomy, more respect, smaller classes, less paperwork, and actually listening to educators on the subject of education.  


 
We also need to discontinue countless policies and programs that have been dragging our public schools down for decades. We need to eliminate high stakes standardized testing. We need to ensure every school is adequately, equitably and sustainably funded. We need to actively integrate our schools and classrooms. We need to stop supporting privatization through charter and voucher schools and instead support authentic public schools.  


 
And to do that, we need real political change at every level of government – local, municipal, state and federal.  


 
None of this is easy. All of it takes work.  


 
But it is the fight we must wage if we are ever to keep our democracy.  


 
It is the fight we must win to create the better world our children deserve.  


 
Public schools are worth saving, but it is up to you and me to do it. 


 

 


 

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It’s Open Season on Teachers – Again  

  
I am so sick of being a scapegoat.  


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


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


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


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


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


 
In Florida, the GOP is banning math books.   


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


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


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


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


  
What a load of crap! 


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Fat chance of that! 


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Public schools do not indoctrinate kids.  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Or as the old proverb puts it: 


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
It would require a stance on principle.  


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


 
I am sick of it. 


 
I am sick of it.  
 


I am just so sick of it. 


 

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Top 5 Charter School Myths Debunked 

If there’s one thing people love to argue about, it’s charter schools.

Go to any school board meeting, PTA forum or editorial page, and you’re bound to see folks from all different walks of life getting red in the face over these institutions.

But what are they anyway? And why do they generate so much passionate disagreement?

To answer these questions and many more, I’m going to examine five of the most pernicious myths about charter schools, debunk the fallacies and come to the simple truths.

1. Charter Schools are Public Schools 

That’s what charter school supporters say, anyway. But it’s only partially true.

In short, charter schools are schools that were opened by special arrangement (or charter) with a state or authentic public school district that allows them to exist without having to abide by all the rules and regulations that govern all the other schools. Thus, the charter school can go without an elected board, it can pocket public money as private profit, hire uncertified teachers, refuse to admit special education students, etc. The degree of latitude depends on the special arrangement.

Is that a public school? In one way it most certainly is. All charter schools are funded by public tax dollars. Everything else is up for grabs.

They don’t even have to accept all the students in their coverage area like authentic public schools do. You still have to support them with your taxes though.

Is that a public school?

QUICK ANSWER: NO.

2. Charter Schools Save Money 

This is another claim by the charter school industry that has been in contention for their entire 30 year existence.

Charter schools were invented in 1991 and only exist in 43 states and the District of Columbia. They enroll about 6% of the students in the country – roughly three million children.

However, the idea that they could save money is pretty absurd. They duplicate services that already exist at neighborhood public schools. When you pay for two providers to do the same thing, that doesn’t lower the cost.

It drains money from the existing public schools and often forces school directors to raise taxes so they can continue to provide the same services as before.

However, not only do charter schools increase costs, they often waste the extra money taxpayers are forced to provide.

Consider that 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.

Moreover, 1,779 charter schools (37 percent that receive federal grants) never opened in the first place or were quickly shut down. Since 1994, the federal government has spent $4 billion on these types of schools. Think of how much money has been wasted that could have been put to better use in our much more dependable authentic public schools!

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?

Charter schools can legally cherry pick their students. They serve far fewer students with disabilities and English Language Learners. If a student is hard to teach, they “convince” them to go somewhere else.

Meanwhile, authentic public schools can’t do that. They take all comers.

As a result, charter schools can APPEAR to do better for their students but that appearance is due to privileged rules not better teaching or academic programs.

However, even with such advantages, charter schools have failed to show consistent results over authentic public schools on comparative studies.

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.

Even a 2020 study by the charter-friendly Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools are not exceeding public schools in most areas of the country. In addition, the study found vast variations in the quality of charter schools – some being better and many being much worse than the norm.

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.

However, after 31 years, practices at charter schools can be seen as somewhat different than at authentic public schools, but are they innovative?

According to a 2018 report by IBM Center Visiting Fellow for Evidence-Based Practices, the practices connected with most positive academic outcomes at charter schools are:

1) Longer school days or academic years


2) Zero tolerance and other strict discipline policies associated with rewards and sanctions


3) Centering the curriculum on improving test scores and test prep.

These are pretty much the opposite of what developmental psychologists, education experts and civil rights activists want for children.

Forcing adolescents to spend more time in the classroom is the exact opposite of what other high achieving countries (like those in Scandinavia) do. Treating children like prisoners with harsh punishments for not conforming to strict rules is not considered best for developing young minds. And narrowing the curriculum to drill and kill reading and math test prep may improve scores but it certainly doesn’t create well-rounded adults with strong critical thinking skills.

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.

The creativity and innovation you find at most charter schools is in the accounting department – finding new ways to reduce the services students would find at the neighborhood public school and redefining the savings as profit. That and circumventing conflict of interest regulations to allow the corporation that manages the charter school to buy properties from itself at a hefty mark up.

Is any of this innovation?

QUICK ANSWER: NO!

 
5. Charter Schools Improve Civil Rights 

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.

Yes, charter schools do serve a disproportionately high percentage of children of color. According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 26% of all charter school students are black (832,000) compared with 33% of Hispanics (1,056,000) and 32% of whites (1,024,000).

However, approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities compared to only 25% of authentic public schools.

So black people aren’t selecting charter schools more often as much as charter schools are deciding to locate in areas where more black people live and are often marketing their services directly to black and brown populations.

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.

Charter schools are also notorious for increasing racial segregation in the neighborhoods where they locate. Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended a charter schools that was hyper-segregated (80% Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25%.

However, this increased segregation isn’t just something that affects Black charter school students. It affects white charter school students, as well.

A 2018 report by The Hechinger Report found that 10 percent of charter schools enrolled a disproportionately high number of White students as compared to the racial demographics of the district at large. Writer Kimberly Quick calls these “White-Flight Charters”. 

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.

Both cases are not good for civil rights. They allow students of color to be targeted for disinvestment and reductive curriculum while further privileging the white students.

Don’t Black students deserve the right to an education where corporations can’t teach them on the cheap? Don’t they deserve educations free from developmentally inappropriate long days, harsh discipline policies and narrowed curriculum? Don’t their parents deserve the right to participate in the running of their schools through elected school boards?

The idea that it is somehow in the best interest of children of color to be provided with schools containing fewer safety precautions is kind of insulting.

Far from improving civil rights, charter schools too often violate them.

This is why the NAACP has repeatedly called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Members of the organization’s educational task force released a statement saying:

“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.”

Black Lives Matter organizers also called for a charter school moratorium. Charters, they wrote, represent a shift of public funds and control to private entities. Along with “an end to the privatization of education,” the Movement for Black Lives organizers are demanding increased investments in traditional community schools and the health and social services they provide.

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.

Authentic public schools are far from perfect, but taken as a whole they are much more effective, reliable, economical, transparent and democratic than the alternatives.

We should take steps to end the charter school model and transition those schools that are working back to the authentic public school system that has served our students well for more than a century.


 

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

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