Children of the Gun: How Lax Firearm Legislation Affects My Students

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Tanisha was just 6-years-old the first time she was in a shooting.

 

She was home in the kitchen looking for a cookie when she heard a “pop pop pop” sound.

 

Her mother rushed into the room and told her to get down.

 

Tanisha didn’t know what was happening.

 

“Hush, Baby,” her mom said wrapping the child in her arms and pulling her to the floor. “Someone’s out there shooting up the neighborhood.”

 

That was a story one of my 8th grade students told me today.

 

And it was far from the only one.

 

For the first time, my urban school district in Western Pennsylvania had an ALICE training for the students.

 

The program helps prepare schools, businesses and churches in case of an active shooter. Its name is an acronym for its suggested courses of action – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.

 

In a district like mine where three separate gunmen went on sprees within 5 miles of each other during the last few years, this sort of training is becoming more frequent.

 

We’ve had numerous seminars for the teachers – even active shooter drills. With the students, we’ve had lockdown drills were the kids were basically instructed to duck and cover under their desks or in corners or closets.

 

But this was the first time the danger was made explicit in an assembly by grade level.

 

Our school resource officer and middle school principal stood side-by-side before the 8th grade going over in detail how someone might come into the building with the express purpose to kill as many of them as possible.

 

And then they told these 12 and 13-year-olds that it was up to them to do something about it.

 

That hiding wasn’t good enough. They needed to try to escape or incapacitate the attacker.

 

It still shocks me that we’ve gotten to this point.

 

We no longer expect society to keep us safe – to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

 

It’s up to the children to watch out for themselves.

 

I can tell you as a teacher with more than 15 years experience in the classroom, I have never seen kids so quiet as they were in that auditorium.

 

It makes me sick.

 

When I was their age I was playing with Luke Skywalker action figures and building space ships out of Legos. I wasn’t discussing with police how to avoid a bullet to the brain. I wasn’t advised to wear my backpack on my chest to help protect against being gut shot.

 

I wasn’t then going back to class and talking over with my teacher how we can best barricade the room against any would-be bad guys.

 

But that’s what we did today.

 

I tried to reassure my kids that they were safe, that we could secure the door and if worst came to worst I wouldn’t let anything happen to them.

 

But these children aren’t like I was at their age.

 

They were shocked by the directness of the assembly. But they were no strangers to violence.

 

Later in the day, so many of them came back to me to talk about their relationship to guns and how firearms impacted their lives.

 

“I know you can’t get an automatic rifle unless…”

 

“I have a friend whose brother…”

 

“You don’t know what it’s like to lose your best friend to a gun.”

 

One of them had been friends with Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh friends with Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh. They knew all the details about how he ran from police and was shot down.

 

Someone coming into the school with a gun? Heck! They experience that everyday with the police.

 

For many of my kids, law enforcement isn’t automatically a comforting thought. They don’t trust the uniform. Often with good reason.

 

And now they were being told that safety was just another one of their responsibilities – like doing their homework and picking up after themselves in the cafeteria.

 

I can’t shake the feeling that these kids are being cheated – that the world we’ve built isn’t worthy of them.

 

What point is a society that can’t keep its own children safe?

 

What point police and firefighters and lawmakers and courts and laws and even a system of justice if we can’t use them to protect our own kids?

 

Isn’t that our job?

 

Isn’t that what adults are supposed to do?

 

Keep the danger out there so that the little ones can grow up and inherit a better world?

 

But we don’t even try to do that anymore.

 

We’ve given up trying.

 

No more pushing for better laws and safer regulations.

 

Just look the kids straight in the eye and tell them that death may be coming and there’s nothing we can do about it.

 

It’s up to them.

 

If that’s the best we can do, then shame on us.


 

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

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Yellow Vest Protests Include Resistance to School Corporatization

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If you want to know what the French Yellow Vest Protests are all about, just refer to the arrest of 153 teenage students this month near Paris.

 

 

The kids at a high school in Mantes-La-Jolie were forced to kneel down, hands on their heads or secured behind their backs with zip ties as riot police circled them with assault weapons.

 

 

Why did law enforcement take such extreme measures? The students had been protesting their government’s education policies.

 

 

“What a well-behaved class!” French police commented ironically on a video documenting the arrest on social media by Violences Policières, a watchdog group.

 

Yes, how well behaved!

 

 

Of course! Children should be seen and not heard. Speaking out for yourself is a definite faux pas.

 

 

So is detaining minors without a lawyer, which the officers did and which is illegal in France.

 

But C’est la vie!

 

 

 

Unfortunately such scenes have been repeated throughout the country since November. Despite police opposition, high school students from a number of French schools have joined the Yellow Vests to protest French President Emmanuel Macron’s education policies – inaccurately dubbed “reforms” – among other austerity measures resulting in stagnant wages and a high cost of living.

 

 

Macron was elected in 2017 on a neoliberal platform much like that of Barack Obama. And though he was praised for his demeanor, especially in comparison to the boorish Donald Trump, his policies at first met with criticism and then outright protests in the streets.

 

 

Citizens took issue with new labor laws, the rail system and taxes. You can’t save the environment by cutting taxes for the wealthy and raising them for the poor to discourage them from driving. You can’t stomp on workers rights in order to create more low-paying jobs.

 

 

Protestors repurposed the yellow vests they are required to keep in their cars in case of an emergency into an iconic image of resistance to the gas tax. Hundreds of thousands demanded not just a repeal of Macron’s policies but a new platform to bolster social services and the economy.

 

 

The Macron administration has met these demands by at first violently stifling them and then agreeing to individual points before returning to suppression.

 

 

Perhaps it is the administration’s insistence that it is beset by violent “hooligans” while most protestors do no more than block traffic that has resulted in a continued rejection of Macron. Protestors even spray-painted a demand that Macron resign on the Arc de Triomphe, the arch on the Champs-Elysées.

 

 

Though the American media has mostly ignored the situation, critics blame widespread police brutality including the use of tear gas and clubs for at least four deaths and 700 people wounded in weeks of political challenges that some have compared to the French Revolution.

 

 

In particular, students take issue with at least three components of Macron’s plan: (1) changes to the high school graduation exam, (2) changes to college admissions and (3) a new requirement that all students participate in a lengthy volunteer national service project.

 

 

First, protestors oppose changes to the end-of-school exams known as baccalaureate or ‘bac.’ Though the proposal includes positive reforms such as reducing the number of exams and providing a longer time frame to take them, it also changes focus from academics to careers.

 

 

Much like Common Core did in the United States, the exams would be revised and rewritten. Instead of being tested on broad subjects such as science, literature or social sciences, students would be assessed on much narrower content.

 

 

Macron seems to be taking his queue from US philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates in order to make French students more “college and career ready.”

 

 

The new assessments would push students toward specific degrees sooner. Before their final undergraduate year, high school students would have to choose two specific majors and two specific minors alongside the standard curriculum – similar to American colleges.

 

 

Students are against this because of what they call “hyper-specialization.” They say these changes would deprive them of exposure to a wide range of disciplines and force them to make life-long choices too early. This would be especially harmful for poor students because, as Liberation editorialist Laurent Joffrin put it, “Those who have more, know more.” In other words, wealthier students would probably be better prepared to navigate the choices open to them than those in poorer areas.

 

 

Next, students also want the repeal of stricter selection criteria to universities – a law passed just last year – which they say increases economic inequality between rich and poor schools.

 

 

The government provides free college to any student who passes the high school exit exams. However, just like in the US, corporate interests complain that college students struggle with the increased workload and pressures at universities. The new measure solves this by ensuring that fewer students are admitted.

 

 

Students say Macron has it backwards. The government shouldn’t be undermining free access to higher education. It should be investing more in the country’s universities and helping students succeed.

 

 

Finally, students want to get rid of a mandate that all 16-year-olds will have to participate in a national civic service program scheduled to begin in 2026.

 

 

French youths would have to volunteer in fields like defense, environment, tutoring or culture. During the long school breaks, they would have to undergo a one-month placement, consisting of two weeks in collective housing to promote a “social mix,” and then another two weeks in smaller, more “personalized” groups.

 

 

The measure doesn’t go as far as Macron wanted. He originally proposed mandatory military service.

 

 

Students object to the plan because they say it’s unnecessary and extremely expensive. The program is estimated to cost $1.8 billion ($1.6 billion Euros) with a $1.98 billion ($1.75 Euro) investment up front.

 

In addition to these demands, some have included limits on class size. Protestors have demanded no more than 25 students per class from nursery school through high school. Low class size ensures each student gets more personal attention from the teacher and a better chance to ask questions and learn.

 

 

 

What we’re seeing in France is extremely important for those living in the US.

 

 

It shows that as terrible as the Trump administration is, there are many flavors of bad government. When your representatives are more interested in seeing to corporate whims than the will of the people, chaos can ensue.

 

 

Perhaps the US media has been so adverse to reporting on the Yellow Vests because of corporate fear that protests will jump the pond and land on our shores, as well. We have many similar neoliberal and neofascist policies in the US of A, some passed by Republicans and others passed by Democrats.

 

 

Here’s hoping that we all can establish legitimate governments that seek to further the ends of liberty, equality and fraternity.


 

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

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College Remediation is Less About Bad Students Than Academic Elitism

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Ah, college.

 

The school on a hill.

 

The marble columns, wood paneled studies and ivy encrusted gardens.

 

It’s never really been a place for everybody. But in rhapsodizing the college experience, our lawmakers have pushed for universities to enroll an increasing number of students. The demand for free or reduced tuition – especially for low-income students – has meant more kids putting on a letterman jersey and giving it the ol’ college try.

 

Teenagers who wouldn’t dream of higher education in previous decades are going for it today.

 

And the result has been a greater proportion of incoming college freshman taking remedial courses before they can even begin the normal post-secondary track.

 

According to a 2017 report by the Hechinger Report, more than half a million students at two- and four-year colleges in 44 states had to take such courses.

 

This costs up to an estimated $7 billion a year.

 

So, as usual in our country, we’re looking for someone to blame. And look! Here’s our favorite scapegoat – the public school system!

 

The gripe goes like this: Incoming college freshman wouldn’t need remediation if the public schools had bothered to teach them correctly!

 

However, the argument ignores several important factors and jumps to a completely unearned conclusion.

 

 

1) Public schools don’t decide who is accepted at colleges. College admissions departments do.

 

 

If people in higher learning think all these teenagers don’t belong in college, don’t accept them. Period.

 

But that would mean fewer students, less tuition and forgoing the lucrative revenue stream provided by – surprise! – these same remediation courses!

 

We pretend that colleges are special places where honor and scholarship rule the day. It isn’t necessarily so.

 

They are run by people, and like anywhere else, those people can be ethical and egalitarian or petty and materialistic.

 

Colleges aren’t immune to small mindedness or the economic realities facing institutions of learning everywhere.

 

Like most schools, they’re starved for funding.

 

The state and federal government have slashed subsidies to colleges and universities just as they have to public schools. Colleges have to make up the shortfall somewhere.

 

So they enroll students who don’t meet their own academic standards and then charge them for the privilege of attempting to get up to snuff.

 

It’s a good deal. You get to blame kids coming in AND reap the rewards.

 

 

2) How exactly do we determine that these kids need remediation?

 

 

 

In many schools, they use standardized tests like the SAT or ACT to make this determination. Others give their own pretest to all incoming freshman and assign remediation based on the results.

 

You’d expect more from institutions of higher learning.

 

You’d expect them to know how inadequate standardized tests are at assessing student knowledge. After all, most of the mountain of studies that conclude these tests are worthless are conducted at the college level. However, it seems people in admissions don’t always read the scholarly work of their colleagues in the departments of education and psychology.

 

I remember when I was in college, several classmates were being pressured to take remedial courses but refused. It didn’t stop them from graduating with honors.

 

 

3) Let’s say some of this remediation actually is necessary. Why would that be so?

 

 

These are high school graduates. What has changed in public schools over the past few decades to increase the need for these additional services at colleges?

 

It seems to me the answer is three-fold:

 

1) School budgets have been cut to the bare bone

2) Schools have to fight for limited funding with charter and voucher institutions

3) Standardized testing and Common Core have been dominating the curriculum.

 

If you cut funding to schools, they won’t be able to prepare students as well.

 

That’s a pretty simple axiom. I know business-minded number crunchers will extol the virtue of “doing more with less” and other such self-help platitudes, but much of it is nonsense.

 

You never hear them explain how cutting CEO salaries will mean corporations will run more effectively. It’s only workers and schools that they think deserve tough love and penury.

 

Look, schools with less funding mean fewer teachers. That means larger class sizes. That means it’s more difficult to learn – especially for students who don’t already come from privileged backgrounds.

 

None of this is bettered by the addition of charter and voucher schools sucking up the limited money available. We don’t have enough for one school system – yet we’re asking two or more parallel systems to exist on that same amount. And we’re stacking the deck in favor of privatized systems by prioritizing their funding and not holding them to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools.

 

It’s like deliberately placing leeches on a runners back and wondering why she’s started going so slowly.

 

Moreover, it’s ironic that the Common Core revolution was conducted to make students “college and career ready.” It has done just the opposite.

 

Narrowing the curriculum to weeks and months of test prep has consequences. You can increase students ability to jump through the hoops of your one federally mandated state test. But that doesn’t translate to other assessments. It doesn’t mean they’ll do better on the SAT or other college entrance exams. Nor does it mean they’ll possess the authentic learning we pretend we’re after in the first place.

 

The bottom line: if we really want to improve student academic outcomes in public schools, we need to fully and equitably fund them. We need to abandon school privatization schemes and fully support public schools. And we need to stop the obsession with standardized assessments, curriculum and – yes – even canned standards, themselves.

 

That might actually reduce the numbers of students who allegedly need remediation at the college level.

 

However, there is another aspect that we need to consider that is harder to remedy…

 

4) Developmental psychology.

 

 

Schools – whether they be post-secondary, secondary or primary – are built to meet the needs of human beings. And human beings don’t grow according to a preconceived schedule.

 

Just because you think someone should be able to do X at a certain age, doesn’t mean they’re developmentally ready to do so.

 

Speaking from experience, I was a C student in math through high school. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to excel in that subject and earned top marks.

 

I didn’t have to take any remedial courses, but I was forced to take a quantitative reasoning course as part of my liberal arts majors.

 

I’m not alone in this. Many people aren’t cognitively ready for certain concepts and skills until later. That doesn’t make them deficient in any way nor does it betray any problems in their schooling.

 

That’s just how their brains work. We can whine about it or we can accept human nature and do what we can to help students cope.

 

 

And this brings me to my final reason behind the college remediation trend – a problem that is more insidious than all the others combined.

 

 

5) The elitism behind the whole post-secondary system.

 

 

For centuries, higher learning has been seen as a privilege of the wealthy and the upper class. Sure a few exceptional plebians were let into our hallowed halls just to “prove” how egalitarian we were.

 

But college was never seen as something fit for everyone.

 

As such, the attitude has always been that students are on their own. Many who enroll will not end up graduating. And that’s seen as perfectly acceptable. It’s part of the design.

 

It’s the baby sea turtle school of education – thousands of hatchlings but few survive to adulthood.

 

However, if you really want to make college the right fit for an increasing number of students, you have to get rid of the elitist attitude.

 

If students come to college and need remediation, stop whining and provide it.

 

And it shouldn’t incur an extra cost from students, either. This should just be a normal part of the process.

 

If a patient comes to the emergency room with heart disease, you don’t penalize him because he didn’t eat heart healthy. You do what you can to help him heal. Period.

 

That’s how colleges and universities need to approach their students.

 

You know – the way public schools already do.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

In summary, it’s not a case of colleges vs. public schools. And anyone who tells you differently probably has a hidden agenda – the standardization and privatization industry, for instance.

 

We need to support colleges and universities. We need to support public schools. Both need additional funding and political will.

 

However, colleges need to become more accepting and supportive of the students enrolled there. They need to meet them where they are and provide whatever they need to succeed.

 

Moreover, public schools need the autonomy and respect routinely given to college professors.

 

The answer is a transformation of BOTH institutions.

 

That’s how you make a better school system for everyone.

 

That or we could just keep grumbling at each other, forever pointing fingers instead of working together to find solutions.


 

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

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Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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

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Few Kids in the World Can Pass America’s Common Core Tests, According to New Study

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Could you jump through a hoop?

 

 

Probably if it were lying on the ground.

 

 

But what if it were held slightly higher? Let’s say waist high? Sure.

 

 

Shoulder height? Maybe with some practice.

 

How about if we raised the hoop to the rafters of a three story auditorium? Could you jump through THAT?

 

 

No. Of course not.

 

 

You could train with the world’s greatest coach, with the best equipment, 24-hours a day and you still couldn’t jump that high.

 

 

Yet that’s kind of what the U.S. has been expecting of its public school students – minus the resources.

 

 

We hold the hoop ridiculously out of reach and then blame them when they can’t jump through it.

 

 

But don’t take my word for it.

 

 

This is the conclusion of a new study that came out in January called “How High the Bar?” by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League.

 

 

They found the benchmarks for passing the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and American Common Core tests put success out of reach for most students the world over.

 

To do so, they linked the performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science to the proficiency benchmarks of NAEP and thus Common Core aligned tests which use NAEP benchmarks to determine passing or failure.

 

The difference is the NAEP is only meant to compare how students in various states stack up against each other. Common Core tests, on the other hand, apply exclusively to kids within states.

 

 

No one’s actually expected to pass the NAEP. It’s only given to a sample of kids in each state and used to rank state education systems. The U.S. government, however, gives almost all its students Common Core tests and expects them all to pass – in fact, failure to do so could result in your public school being closed and replaced with a charter or voucher institution.

 

 

However, in both cases, the study concluded the score needed to meet the bare minimum of passing was absurdly too high – so much so that hardly any group of children in the entire world met it.

 

 

It’s important to note that these aren’t standardized testing skeptics.

 

 

They believe in the assessments. They even believe in Common Core. What they don’t believe in is the benchmarks we’re expecting our kids to meet to consider them having passed.

 

 

And this has massive consequences for the entire education system.

 

 

The media has uncritically repeated the lie that American public schools are failing based almost exclusively on test scores that show only one third of our students passing.

 

 

But if the same tests were given to students the world over with the same standard for success, even less would pass it, according to the study. If we drew the red line on international tests at the same place we draw it on the NAEP and  Common Core tests, almost every child in the world would be a dunce.

 

 

Kids from Singapore would fail. Kids from South Korea would fail. Kids from Japan would fail. You name a country where kids do nothing but study for high stakes standardized tests, and even they couldn’t meet our uniquely American criterion for passing.

 

 

In fact, the percentage of our students who do pass under these ridiculous benchmarks often exceeds that of other countries.

 

 

So when you hold kids up to impossible standards a few actually make it – and more of our kids do than our international peers.

 

 

That doesn’t mean the benchmarks are good. But it doesn’t mean the American education system is failing either. In fact, just the opposite.

 

 

We have a high stakes standardized testing system that not only does not assess kids fairly, but it actually hides their success!

 

 

In the words of the study’s authors, “…the analysis suggest the U.S. has established benchmarks that are neither useful nor credible.”

 

 

How did this happen?

 

 

It comes down to one word – proficient.

 

 

If you’re proficient, it’s thought you’re competent, you are able to do something. You might not be incredible at it, but you can get the job done.

 

 

Kind of like this:

 

 

Hey. Did you hear about my leaky faucet? The plumber fixed it after three tries because he’s proficient at his job.

 

 

Oh really? My plumber fixed my leaky faucet in only one try and didn’t even charge me because she’s advanced at her job.

 

 

That sort of thing.

 

 

There are only four scores you can achieve on most standardized assessments: Advanced, Proficient, Basic and Below Basic. The first two are considered passing and the last two are failing.

 

 

However, this doesn’t line up with the five general grades most public schools give in core subjects:

 

 

A – Excellent

B – Very good

C – Average

D – Poor

F – Failing

 

 

A-D is usually considered passing. Only F is failing.

 

 

So you might expect them to line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A and B

Proficient – C

Basic – D

Below Basic – F

 

 

However, that’s not how they line up on NAEP. According to Diane Ravitch, who served on the National Assessment Governing Board, the federal agency that supervises NAEP, they line up like this:

 

 

Advanced – A+

Proficient – A

Basic – B and C

Below Basic – D and F

 

 

This is important, because saying someone scored a proficient on the NAEP doesn’t mean they’re just okay at it. It means they’re excellent but have room to improve.

 

 

The problem is that when developers of Common Core tests set their benchmarks, they used almost the same ones as the NAEP. Yet the NAEP benchmarks were never meant to be the same as grade level ones. Confounding the two puts mere passing out of reach for most students.

 

And that’s not just out of reach for most American students. It’s out of reach for international students!

 

In short, American students are doing B work on their Common Core tests and failing with a Basic. Yet in other countries, this would be passing with room to spare.

 

Moreover, when you hear that only one third of American students are Proficient or above, that means only one third are doing A or A+ work on their Common Core tests. That’s actually rather impressive!

 

According to the study:

 

“National judgments about student proficiency and many state Common 
Core judgments about “career and college readiness” are defective and misleading… 
According to NAEP officials, Proficient does not mean grade level performance. The misuse of the term confuses the public. The effects of this misuse are reflected in most Common Core assessments…

 

NAEP’s term “Proficient” does not even mean proficient. “Students who may be proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.”

 

The report even cites other independent analysts that have come to similar conclusions such as the U.S. General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Brookings Institution.

 

In short:

 

“Advocates who push for school improvement on the grounds of questionable benchmarks are not strengthening education and advancing American interests, but undermining public schools and weakening the United States.”

 

Some specifics.

 

 

The study was conducted by comparing performance of foreign students on international tests of reading, mathematics, and science with the NAEP and American Common Core tests.

 

 

Very few foreign students were able to score high enough to meet what is considered proficiency on the NAEP and Common Core tests.

 

 

 

In fact, in 4th grade reading, not a single nation was able to meet the benchmark.

 

 

In 8th grade math, only three nations (Singapore, South Korea and Japan) had 50 percent or more students who could meet the criterion.

 

 

In 8th grade science, only one nation (Singapore) had 50 percent or more students meeting the benchmark.

 

 

But wait.

 

 

Even though the benchmarks are unfair and few nations children could meet them, the percentage of U.S. children who did meet them was higher than most other nations.

 

 

Take 4th grade reading.

 

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No one had 50% or more of its kids scoring a proficient or advanced. But 31% of U.S. kids actually met the benchmark, putting us fifth behind only Singapore, the Russian Federation, Finland, and England.

 

 

Only 31% of our kids could do it, but only four other nations out of 40 could do better.

 

 

That’s kind of impressive. Yet judging our scores in abstraction solely on this unrealistic proficiency standard, we’re failures. The whole process hides how well our kids actually do.

 

 

Bottom line, Common Core benchmarks are too high and paint an unfair picture of our education system, according to the study:

 

 

“When citizens read that “only one-third” or “less than half” of the students in their local schools are proficient in mathematics, science, or reading, they can rest assured that the same judgments can be applied to students throughout most of the world…

 

Globally, in just about every nation where it is possible to compare student performance with our national benchmarks, the vast majority of students cannot demonstrate their competence because the bars are set unreasonably high.”

 

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At very least, this invalidates the scores of the NAEP and every Common Core test yet given in this country. It demands we set new benchmarks that are in line with grade level performance.

 

At most, it casts doubt on the entire process of high stakes standardized testing.

 

It demonstrates how the data can be manipulated to show whatever testing corporations or other interested parties want.

 

Standardized testing is a gun, and we have been demanding schools shoot themselves in the foot with it.

 

Instead of trying to hold our schools to impossible standards, we should be holding our lawmakers to standards of common decency. We should concentrate on equitable funding, reintegration, and supporting our public school system and public school teachers. Not enriching private testing corporations so they’ll paint a misleading picture of student performance to justify pro-privatization schemes.

 

When will our policymakers rise to meet the benchmarks of honesty, empathy and caring about the well-being of children?

 

In the final analysis, that may be bar they are simply incapable of reaching.

Will the U.S. Follow New Zealand’s Lead and Repeal National Academic Standards?

 

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Kiwis don’t like corporations telling them what to do.

 

 

Especially when it comes to educating their children.

 

 

That’s why this week, New Zealand’s Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced that schools in the pacific island nation would no longer need to use the national academic standards mandated by the government for the last decade.

 

 

“I don’t think anyone will be surprised that we are ditching a failed experiment,” he said.

 

“We want teachers focused on less testing and more teaching because that’s the way we’re going to improve students’ progress.”

 

I pause at this point for American readers to catch their breath.

 

Yes, a national government just reversed course on standardized, canned, one-size-fits-all academic standards for all students in its public schools.

 

Yes, they had spent millions of dollars to create, roll out and enforce the standards.

 

But now they see the results have been less than expected and they’re changing their collective minds.

 

Shocking, I know.

 

If only we still did things like that in THIS country.

 

But wait, there’s more.

 

Why exactly did New Zealand turn against its national standards?

 

Did parents hate them?

 

Yes.

 

Did kids hate them?

 

Yes.

 

Did teachers hate them?

 

Yes.

 

All things that could be said of our own Common Core. But was there more to it?

 

Yes.

 

In short, New Zealand’s national standards weren’t helping kids learn. In fact, they appeared to have the exact opposite effect.

 

New Zealand children’s performance on international tests dropped significantly since the standards were introduced in 2010.

 

And publication of these results showing 10-year-old’s reading achievement taking a nosedive since the standards adoption ignited an already smoldering public outcry.

 

New Zealand’s average score on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) had been steady for 15 years, but fell dramatically at the end of 2015. In short, New Zealand went from 23rd to 33rd out of 50 countries.

 

Funny.

 

The US has had a strikingly similar result on the same test with the same age children since the mandate to use the Common Core.

 

The PIRLS is an assessment given to fourth-graders in schools around the world every five years. In 2016, the average score for US students dropped from fifth in the world in 2011 to 13th. And the drop wasn’t merely perfunctory. It was “statistically significant” according to test organizers.

 

The biggest drop was for the lowest-performing students, what the organizers considered a sign that we’re providing much greater support for economically advantaged children than for underprivileged ones.

 

Why is this important?

 

Because Common Core was introduced across the nation in 2010-11. These fourth grade students were the first to be educated using the Core since Kindergarten, and far from creating a boost in achievement, it opened a chasm.

 

Reading scores went down just as they consistently have done time-and-time-again since we started using the standards.

 

Scores go down on state tests. National tests. International tests.

 

Meanwhile the test makers and their proxies keep telling us the problem is that the standards are simply more rigorous and it just will take time for our children to get up to speed. Meanwhile their publishing and software subsidiaries sell us hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new text books, new computer programs, new devices, new apps, new “specialists” and consultants offering professional developments, etc.

 

Choo! Choo! The gravy train is rolling. We can’t let something like international test scores derail the money train!

 

Keep in mind, this is the same international test and the same age group of children that caused a revolution in New Zealand.

 

Will our response be the same?

 

Probably not.

 

New Zealand’s authentic reform resulted from a political change. The National Party was replaced by the Labour Party, and repealing national academic standards was part of their platform.

 

It marked a sharp divide between the philosophies of both groups.

 

The National Party wanted more testing, more data, more standardization, more holding funding hostage to test scores – just like both Republicans and Democrats in the US.

 

However, the New Zealand Labour Party ran on significant reductions to standardized education, substantial cuts to standardized testing, repealing national standards and considerable investment in students, schools and teachers.

 

We in the US simply have no political equivalent.

 

There is no political party – right, left or centrist – that puts the needs of children, parents, teachers and working people at the center of its platform.

 

Both the left and right take billions of dollars in campaign contributions from the testing and privatization industries and thus support policies that serve the interest of their donors over their constituents.

 

There is a tremendous political opportunity here for one party to change course and support a winning strategy.

 

Republicans tried it in 2016 by lambasting Common Core and then quietly forgetting they could do a thing about it at the state level every day since.

 

Including today.

 

Admittedly their education policy is incoherent since they support every standardization and privatization initiative on record so long as a black President didn’t touch it. And even then their opposition melts away when they have the power to do something about it but no one’s looking because the President is too busy playing nuclear chicken with North Korea on Twitter.

 

Imagine if politicians promised to fix something and then had the courage to actually do it!

 

It worked in New Zealand.

 

It’s worked in many places all over the world.

 

Why can’t it work here?

 

PA High Court Says, “Yes, Schools CAN Sue State Over Unfair Funding, After All!”

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It’s back on!

Two years ago a group of plucky Pennsylvania public schools took the state legislature to court because the body wasn’t allocating funding to all districts fairly – some got too much, many got too little.

A lower court threw the challenge out saying it wasn’t the court’s job to tell the legislature how to legislate. But now the state Supreme Court has overturned that lower court decision.

In effect, justices are sayingHell, yes, that is the court’s job! That’s why it’s called a system of checks and balances, Baby!

Or something like that.

Before going any further, there are a few pertinent facts you have to understand about the Commonwealth.

1) No other state in the country has a bigger gap between what it spends on rich vs. poor students than Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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2) The Pennsylvania legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The state used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays only 35% of the costs, leaving local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

 

3) The state has only had a funding formula specifically legislating how to allocate money to its more than 500 districts for two years. Two years! For more than 15 years previous, the legislature just handed out money willy nilly based on political backroom deals that favored already rich districts and hurt the most impoverished ones.

4) The new funding formula still is not fair. Though it does take into account the poverty of a district, it doesn’t account for the years of systematic disinvestment the district suffered through previously. That’s like giving new sneakers to a racer who hasn’t been able to get out of the starting gate while others are already halfway to the finish line.

5) The legislature STILL hasn’t healed almost $1 billion in education cuts made under previous Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Instead, under current Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, it has reluctantly increased funding a bit at a time but failed to bring spending up to what it was four years ago. And even once the cuts are healed, spending will be behind inflationary and cost of business increases. Meanwhile the Republican controlled legislature plays games approving the state budget separately from allocating money to the programs – including schools – that it already approved!

 

6) Pennsylvania is one of seven states with a Constitution that specifically requires the state provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education. Some of these other states – like New Jersey – have used similar Constitutional requirements to force their legislatures to increase state funding to public schools.

So there you are.

Pennsylvania’s legislature is an absolute mess.

Hopelessly gerrymandered, controlled by the radical right, and opposed by a Democratic party nearly as beholden to big donors as their GOP counterparts and desperate for any area of bipartisanship so as to be able to claim they got anything done other than stop Republicans from burning the whole place to the ground.

That’s why today’s 5-2 Supreme Court ruling is a breath of fresh air.

It’s like someone finally called Mom and Dad to tell our bratty lawmakers to get back to work.

The case will now go back to Commonwealth Court.

Supreme Court Justice David Wecht wrote that the courts do have a responsibility to check the power of the legislature – both in regard to the requirements of the state Constitution and that poorer districts are being discriminated against.

“It remains for (the) petitioners to substantiate and elucidate the classification at issue and to establish the nature of the right to education, if any, to determine what standard of review the lower court must employ to evaluate their challenge,” Wecht wrote. “But (the) petitioners are entitled to do so.”

This may be a Herculean task for those suing the state. And it seems unlikely that Commonwealth Court will hear their arguments favorably.

Justices rarely have the courage to challenge other branches, and the history of Pennsylvania’s courts shows multiple times when the courts have simply refused to assert such power.

This is what happened back in the 1990s when the Philadelphia School District sued the state over the same issue – unfair funding.

Time and again, poor districts have asked for help from the courts when the legislature refused to do its job. And time and again the courts have refused.

But at least this ruling gets things moving again. It’s like a dose of Kaopectate for a constipated political system.

Another possible bit of good news comes from Common Core and high stakes standardized testing. Yes, that crap!

When Philadelphia sued the state, the courts refused to rule in the schools favor because it had no way of proving the state was hurting the quality of education students were receiving there through lack of funding. But that was before Pennsylvania adopted its new Common Core look-a-like standards, PA Core, and initiated aligned tests including the souped up Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone Exams.

Ironically, the same “accountability” measures used to “demonstrate” poor schools are failing could be used to prove the common sense notion that unfairly funding schools leads to poor academic results.

In any case, far right demagogues like House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, are already whining that the Supreme Court is legislating from the bench. However, as a defendant in the case, and one of the most partisan hacks in Harrisburg, that’s exactly what the Koch Brothers probably told him to say.

Unfortunately, Gov. Wolf seems to kinda agree with him. Though he has yet to make a statement about today’s ruling, he was against the suit when it was originally brought up in 2015. Though he supports increasing education funding and has consistently pushed for it with every budget proposal, he is leery of the courts butting in.

Sadly, his strategy of incremental education budget increases has been failing. Or, to be fair, it’s succeeding at such a slow rate that it would take decades for it to catch up.

The fact of the matter is that it is patently unfair for rich districts to spend $10,000 to $20,000 on each student, while poorer districts can barely pull together $5,000-$6,000.

In addition, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Moreover, it is no accident that the group being privileged here is made up mostly of white students and those being underprivileged are mostly students of color.

The time is here when Pennsylvanians have to decide where they stand. Are they for a state that offers all children an equal start or do they prefer one where poor brown kids suffer so rich white ones can get ahead?

Today, the matter is in the court’s hands.