Are Teachers Allowed to Think for Themselves?

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As a public school teacher, I am often told what to do and how to do it.

 

Go teach this class.

 

Report to lunch duty at this time.

 

Monitor this student’s progress in this way, that student’s progress in another way, differentiate the following, document this medical condition, write up this behavior, check for that kind of hall pass, post and teach these academic standards, etc., etc., etc.

 

Some of these directives I agree with and others I do not. But that is treated as an irrelevance because the one thing I’m never told to do is to think for myself.  The one thing that seems to be expressly forbidden – is that I think for myself.

 

 

 

In fact, it’s such a glaring omission, I often wonder if it’s actually prohibited or so obviously necessary that it goes without saying.

 

 

 

Am I expected to think or just follow directions?

 

 

 

Does society want me to be a fully conscious co-conspirator of student curiosity or a mindless drone forcing kids to follow a predetermined path to work-a-day conformity?

 

Most days, it feels like the later.

 

Every last detail of my job is micromanaged and made “foolproof” to the degree that one wonders if the powers that be really consider teachers to be fools in need of proofing.

 

Teaching may be the only profession where you are required to get an advanced degree including a rigorous internship only to be treated like you have no idea what you’re doing.

 

And the pay is entirely uncompetitive considering how much you had to do to qualify for the position and how much you’re responsible for doing once you get hired.

 

It makes me wonder – why did I take all those courses on the history of education if I was never supposed to have the autonomy to apply them? Why did I have to learn about specific pedagogies if I was never to have the opportunity to create my own curriculum? Why was I instructed how to assess student learning if I was never meant to trust my own judgment and rely instead solely on prepackaged, canned standardized tests?

 

And now after 16 years in the classroom, I’m routinely told by my principal to use student testing data to drive my instruction. And, moreover, to document how I am doing so in writing.

 

But what if I don’t trust the student testing data in the first place?

 

What if – in my professional opinion – I don’t agree that the state should have purchased this standardized assessment from some corporate subsidiary? What if I don’t think it does a good job evaluating a child’s aptitude as a prediction of subsequent achievement on the next test? What if I don’t think the test provides valuable data for actual, authentic learning? What if I want to do more than just improve test scores from one standardized assessment to another? What if I want to actually teach something that will affect students’ whole lives? What if I want to empower them to think for themselves? What if my goals are higher for them than the expectations thrown on me as shackles on an educator’s waist, hands and feet?

 

Because it seems to me that there is a bit of a mixed message here.

 

On the one hand, teachers are given so many directives there’s no room for thought. On the other, teachers can’t do their jobs without it.

 

So what exactly do they want from me?

 

The principal can’t educate classes from his desk in the administrative office. The school board director can’t do it from his seat in council chambers. Lawmakers can’t do it from Washington, DC, or the state capital. Only the teacher can do it from her place in the classroom, itself.

 

You have to see, know and interact with your students to be able to tell what their needs are. No standardized test can tell you that – it requires human interaction, knowledge and – dare I say it – discernment.

 

You need to gauge student interest, background knowledge, life skills, special needs, psychology and motivation. And you need to design a curriculum that will work for these particular students at this particular time and place.

 

That can’t be done at a distance through any top-down directive. It must be accomplished in the moment using skill, empiricism and experience.

 

The fact that so many lawmakers, pundits, and administrators don’t know this, itself, has a devastating impact on the education kids actually receive.

 

Instead of helping teachers do their jobs, policymakers are accomplishing just the opposite. They are standing in the way and stopping us from getting things done.

 

We’re given impossible tasks and then impeded from doing them. At least get out of the way and leave us to it.

 

It’s ironic. The act of removing teacher autonomy results in dampening our effectiveness.

 

So as many of these same bureaucrats complain about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers,” it is these very same complaints and the efforts taken in their name that result in ineffectiveness.

 

If we trusted teachers to do their jobs, they would be empowered to accomplish more. And I don’t mean blind trust. I don’t mean closing our eyes and letting teachers do whatever they want unimpeded, unadvised and unappraised. I mean letting teachers do the work in the full light of day with observation by trained professionals that know the same pedagogy, history and psychology we do – trained administrators who are or were recently teachers, themselves.

 

That would be both accountable and effective instead of the present situation, which is neither.

 

Moreover, it might incentivize policymakers to realize teachers can’t do everything themselves. Hold us accountable for what we do – not what you’d like us to do but over which we have no control.

 

After all, home life has a greater impact on students than anything that happens in class. And helping students to self-actualize into mature, productive members of society requires we equip them with the ability to work things out independently.

 

However, that does not seem to be the goal.

 

We don’t want free thinking students just as we don’t want free thinking teachers.

 

We don’t want a school system that produces independent thinkers. We want it to simply recreate the status quo. We want the lower classes to stay put. We want social mobility and new ideas to be tightly controlled and kept only within certain boundaries.

 

And that is why our school system keeps teachers so tightly constrained – because we want status quo students.

 

Educators have always been the enemy of standardization, privatization and conformity. We are on the side of liberty, emancipation and release.

 

Which side are you on?

 


 

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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The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

You take a test to determine what you’ve learned and that will in turn predict what you will be able to learn in the future.

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

We don’t measure babies’ leg muscles to predict whether they’re ready to walk. We let them do what they do, possibly with some encouragement and positive models of locomotion, and they do it.

 

There are cognitive and developmental benchmarks we look for, and if children don’t hit them, we provide help. But no further prediction is necessary – certainly not based on artificial markers put together by corporate interests.

 

In most situations, predictions are superfluous. We just assume that everyone can learn if they so desire – unless something happens to make us think otherwise. And whether someone actually learns something is demonstrated by doing the thing, itself.

 

The only time we link prediction and assessment so closely is when the consequences of failure are irreversible – like when you’re going solo skydiving for the first time. If you jump out of an airplane and don’t know how to pull the ripcord to get your parachute to work, you probably won’t get a second chance to try again.

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

The world of standardized testing is very different. The high stakes nature of the assessments are what ramp out the consequences and thus the severity.

 

Testing looks at learning like two points on a map and sets up a gate between points A and B.

 

In order to cross, you have to determine if you’ve passed through the previous gate. And only then can you be allowed to progress on to point C.

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

First, you don’t need a test to determine which point you’re at. If Point B is the ability to add, you can simply add. If it’s the ability to write a complete sentence, you can simply write a sentence.

 

There is no need to fill out a formal multiple-choice assessment that – depending on the complexity of the task being considered – is completely inadequate to capture the subtleties involved. The task, itself, is enough.

 

Imagine if you were testing whether someone had learned how to drink a glass of water. You could just give them a cup filled with H2O and see if they can gulp it down. Or you could have them sharpen their number 2 pencil and answer questions about how their throat works, their digestive and excretory systems and the chemical composition of agua – all answers predetermined to A, B, C or D.

 

Observation of a skill, we are told, is not enough to determine success because it relies on the judgment of an observer. A standardized test replaces the observer with an impersonal, distant testing corporation which then assesses only predetermined markers and makes decisions devoid of any situational context.

 

This is done to remove observational bias but it doesn’t avoid bias altogether. In setting up the markers and deciding which elements of the task are to be assessed (or in fact can be assessed in such a distant manner), the testing corporation is inserting its own biases into the process. In fact, in any assessment conducted by human beings, this would be inevitable. So going through this maze of perceived objectivity is really just a matter of subterfuge meant to disguise the biases of the corporation.

 

Second, assessing people in this way is extremely unnatural because very few fields of knowledge can be divided and subdivided into two or more discrete points.

 

When writing a complex sentence, for example, you need to know not just spelling and grammar but logic, handwriting, subject matter, colloquialisms, literary devices, and a plethora of other cultural and linguistic artifacts.

 

Moreover, there is not always a natural progression from Point A to B to C. Sometimes A jumps directly to C. Sometimes B leads directly to A. Sometimes A leads to Z.

 

Knowledge, skills and human cognition are far too complex a web to ever hope to be captured by such a reductive enterprise. But by insisting that we make this complexity fit into such a small box, we end up depriving people of the right to move on. We say predictive models show they aren’t ready to move forward and so we bury them in remediation. Or we deny them access to important opportunities like advanced classes, electives, field trips, extracurricular clubs or even post-secondary education.

 

Third, this emphasis on knowledge as discrete bits of information or skills (often called standards) leads to bad teaching.

 

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

 

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

 

A focus on standardized testing or even trying to educate in a system where these tests are attached to high stakes, results in an increase in item teaching. We often call it teaching to the test.

 

I’m not saying that item teaching is always bad. But curriculum teaching is to be much preferred. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

 

So when we find students who have made dramatic improvements on standardized tests, we often don’t find equal improvements in their over all knowledge or ability.

 

Test scores are often a false positive. They show students have mastered the art of taking the test but not necessarily the knowledge or skills it was meant to assess.

 

They are more like trained circus animals who can jump through flaming hoops but would be lost in the wild.

 

That’s why certain computer modeled artificial intelligences are able to pass standardized tests but would fail preschool.

 

These reflections have troubling implications for our system of standardized testing.

 

The false curtain of objectivity we’ve set up in our assessments may also be hiding from us what authentic learning is taking place and it may even hinder such learning from taking place at all.

 

Any sane society would halt such a system with these drawbacks. It would stop, regroup and devise a better alternative.

 

To continue with such a pedagogical framework truly would be the most absurd thing of all!


 

 

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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Inside Bill Gates’ Hubris: Propaganda to Make America Neoliberal Again

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Once upon a time, the world was run by rich men.

 

And all was good.

 

But then the world was conquered by other rich men.

 

And that is something the first group of rich men could not allow.

 

That is the reason behind Netflix’s new film “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.”

 

The three-part documentary goes live on Sept. 20. But the film’s aims are clear from the trailer.

 

It’s a vanity project about Bill Gates, the second richest man in the world.
By examining his mind and motivations, director and executive producer Davis Guggenheim will show us how Gates deserves his billionaire status and that we should allow him to use his philanthrocapitalist ventures to rule the world.

 

After all, shouldn’t the best and richest among us make all the decisions?

 

It’s a cry for oligarchy in an age of idiocracy, a love letter to neoliberalism in a time of neofascism.

 

The pity is that Donald Trump and the “Make America Great Again” crowd have goose stepped all over their new world order.

 

But instead of showing the world why we need to return to democratic principles, strengthen the common good and empower the people to govern themselves, some would rather continue the same plutocracy just with a different set of plutocrats at the wheel.

 

In the days of Obama, the Bushes and Clinton, it wasn’t membership in the same political party that defined the ruling class. It was holding the same ideology.

 

It’s not that neoliberals were so much wiser, ethical or empathetic than Trump. They just kept their greed a secret or tried to make it seem a virtue. They told better lies and didn’t incite as much violence on our shores, and they were better at manipulating markets to make themselves richer while keeping the rest of us relatively poorer.

 

The MAGA insurgents are also rich men, but their greed is transparent. They lie and no one expects them to tell the truth. They can freely dismantle the social safety net because they stoke our prejudices and keep us fighting over race, gender and abortion so much we forget they’re robbing us blind. And when the market crashes, they don’t have to care because they’ve stolen everything of value and can weather the economic depression that will destroy the nation.

 

Neofacism is certainly worse – but it’s only a difference of degree, not of kind.

 

It’s no wonder then that the neoliberals want to make us nostalgic for their brand of simmering destruction instead of Trump’s rapid boil disasters.

 

And Gates is the perfect poster child for old style neoliberalism.

 

He’s the former CEO of Microsoft and – together with his wife – the founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In the trailer, Gates confides that his deepest fear is that one day his brain will “stop working.”

 

Gates is a “multiprocessor” says his wife Melinda. “He will be reading something else but then processing at the same time. It’s chaos!”

 

Gates “thrives on complexity,” Melinda says. “He makes a framework in his mind, then he starts slotting in the information. If something doesn’t line up, he gets really frustrated.”

 

“It’s scary,” says Melinda. “But when Bill stills himself, he can pull ideas together that other people can’t see.”

 

Thus we gain a picture of a brilliant man striding over a world populated by intellectual inferiors. How foolish we would be to question his authority!

 

And since his intelligence has enabled him to hoard more money than almost anyone else in the world, why shouldn’t we let him use this economic power to change it for our benefit?

 

It’s truly one of the most patronizing, paternal and insulting pieces of propaganda I’ve ever seen in my life. And that includes Guggenheim’s previous movies.

 

Guggenheim is, after all, the man behind the most notorious propaganda film of modern times, “Waiting for Superman.” Back in 2010, he popularized the school privatization of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He made charter schools cool until Betsy DeVos came along and made them uncool again.

 
Though I can’t imagine what could possibly be cool about for-profit schools run by appointed bureaucrats that can discriminate against students in enrollment, skimp on special education services and cut academic programs for students while pocketing the savings! All while gobbling up funding for the public schools that try to educate everyone!

 
More recently, he tried to pull the same sleight of hand for education technology firms in 2013 with the film “Teach,” but by then no one was really paying attention to him.

 

 

And for all that time his ventures have been backed by the richest neoliberals out there – Netflix CEO Reed Hasgtings, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, eBay founder Jeff Skoll, and Salman Khan of Khan Academy.

 

 

Sure these folks are usually identified as Democrats, but their philosophy is completely in line with The Walton Family Foundation, Charles Koch, Walden Media (run by creationist Philip Anschutz), and lobbying groups such as the Lumina Foundation, the New American Foundation, and others.

 

Oh! And let’s not forget Bill Gates, himself, who has bankrolled a number of Guggenheim’s projects including “Waiting for Superman.”

 

It’s no wonder Guggenheim is making a fawning tribute to Gates. He owes the man!

 

It’s time to pay back his sugar daddy with what he does best – agitprop public relations.

 

Yes, Gates is a very intelligent person.

 

But he is also a very stupid one.

 

When it comes to computers, few people can beat him. But like so many overprivileged people, he takes excellence in one area to mean excellence in all areas.

 

And that’s just not how things work.

 

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates famously bragged that he was the wisest person in Athens – not because he knew so much more than everyone else but because he was the only person who knew that he didn’t know anything.

 

Gates could have learned something from that humility, because it’s the trait he is most lacking.

 

Take public education.

 

No one has had a greater negative impact on public schools than Gates. With his so-called philanthropic contributions, he has steered the course of education policy away from research-based pedagogy to a business-minded approach favored by corporate raiders.

 
He didn’t come up with Common Core State Standards, but he did bankroll them. He bribed the state and federal government to force their schools to adopt the same or similar academic standards for all students. Not good standards. Not standards developed by classroom teachers, psychologists or experts. But standards created by the standardized testing industry.

 

 

The result has been more high stakes standardized tests, narrowing the curriculum, shrinking education budgets for the poor and minorities, and an increase in developmentally inappropriate approaches to education. Nearly every parent with a school age child will tell you horror stories of attempting to do homework with their children and having to relearn basic math and English skills just to untwist the needlessly complex knot that children are expected to unsnarl in order to grasp the bare basics of academia.

 

 

Gates poured billions of dollars into that failed initiative, spent hundreds of millions of dollars for development and promotion and influenced trillions of taxpayer dollars to be flushed down the drain on it. All to no avail.

 

But it’s not his only education policy failure.

 

Gates now admits that the approximate $2 billion he spent pushing us to break up large high schools into smaller schools was a bust.

 
Then he spent $100 million on inBloom, a corporation he financed that would quietly steal student data and sell it to the corporate world. However, that blew up when parents found out and demanded their children be protected.

 

 

He also quietly admits that the $80 million he spent pushing for teachers to be evaluated on student test scores was a mistake. However, state, federal and local governments often still insist on enacting it despite all the evidence against it. Teachers have literally committed suicide over these unfair evaluations, but it hasn’t stopped Gates from continuing to experiment on the rest of humanity with his money.

 

 

And he’s still at it.

 

His new plan has been to spend $1.7 billion over five years to develop new curriculums and networks of schools, use data to drive continuous improvement, and give out grants to high needs schools to do whatever he says.

 

There’s nothing wrong with someone wanting to help improve public schools. But the best way to do that is to listen to the people most knowledgeable and invested and then give them the tools they need to succeed.

 

But Gates doesn’t play that way. He reads up on a subject and then comes up with his own harebrained schemes.

 

“It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade,” he said during a speech at Harvard in 2014.

 

Lots of people know, Bill. Teachers, students, parents, psychologists, professors. You just won’t listen to us.

 

You just insist the rest of us listen to you despite the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

 

You’re rich and you think that makes you better than us.

 

And Guggenheim’s documentary purports to support this position by reference to Gates’ incredible brain.

He is a smart guy. No one would really contradict it.

 

He was a National Merit Scholar who scored a 1590 out of 1600 on his SATs. But he also comes from a very privileged upbringing.

 

He didn’t grow up on the mean streets of urban America while attending a neighborhood public school. He went to an elite preparatory school since he was 13.

 

At Harvard he wasn’t a polymath. He excelled in subjects he cared about, but neglected others that weren’t immediately interesting. According to a college friend:

 

“Gates was a typical freshman in many ways, thrown off pace by the new requirements and a higher level of competition. He skipped classes, spent days on end in the computer lab working on his own projects, played poker all night, and slept in a bed without sheets when he did go
 to bed. Other students recall that he often went without sleep for 18 to 36 hours.”

 

Gates was no genius. He earned good grades in the subjects he liked and significantly less so in classes he didn’t. Nor was his heart in his studies. Gates joined few college activities unless someone dragged him off to a party.

 

School was of little interest to him. He dropped out of Harvard before getting a degree to start his computer software company.

 

Imagine how privileged you have to be to feel empowered to do that!

 

Nothing much was at stake for him at school so he could do whatever he liked with little to no real life consequences.

 

You want to decode Bill’s brain? Look at his family’s wealth. Look at his upbringing. Look at his medical records.

 

But the moral of the story of Bill Gates is not that rich elites should rule the world.

 

It is that everyone – EVERYONE – should practice humility and not deign to think they have all the answers.

 

It is a paean to the need for collaboration to solve problems, the need to listen to all voices and decide the best course together.

 

And more than anything it is a desperate cry for democracy and social goods – not to defeat Trump through Gates’ example – but to lead to real human flourishing by smashing through the fallacies supporting Trump and Gates together.

 

 

 


 

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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Will This Be On The Test?

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As a public school teacher, I’m confronted with an awful lot of urgent questions.

 

Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.

 

But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:

 

“Mr. Singer, will this be on the test?”

 

Seriously?

 

Will this be on the test?

 

In 8th grade Language Arts, we’re discussing the relative merits of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment – or the history behind the Nazi invasion of Holland – or the origin of Dill Harris’ obsession with Boo Radley — and this little kid wants to know if any of it is going to be on the test!?

 

What in the almighty universe does he think we’re doing here!?

 

 

I pause, take a deep breath and reflect.
After all, it could be worse. The kiddo could have interrupted the flow just to ask to go to the bathroom.

 

So I try to put a positive spin on the inquiry.

 

It does give me some important information about this student. It tells me that he is really concerned about doing well in my class.

 

The kids that don’t care about that, the ones who are more preoccupied with survival or fear or malnutrition or a thousand other adult cares foisted too early on childish shoulders – those are the ones I really worry about.

 

But this kid isn’t like that at all. He just wants to know the rules.

 

On the other hand, it also tells me that he really doesn’t care about what we’re talking about.

 

Oh, this student cares about getting a good grade, to be judged proficient and to move on to the next task in a series of Herculean labors. But does he care about the tasks or does he just want to end the labor?

 

He sees school like a tiger sees a circus – a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a juicy hunk of meat as a reward at the end of the day.
For him, our class contains no magic, no mystery – it’s just a pure extrinsic transaction.

 

I tell you X and then you spit it back up again. Then I’m supposed to give you a gold star and send you on your way to do things that really matter.

 

And I suppose it bothers me this much because it’s a way of looking at things that ignores the larger context of education.

 

If we must see things as either assignments or tests, as either work toward a goal or a reward for working toward a goal – well, then isn’t everything in life a test, really?

 

After all, every action has its own rewards and significance.

 

Looked at from that vantage point, one can feel almost sorry for these sorts of students. Because in a matter of minutes the bell will ring and they will leave the classroom to encounter this awesome experience we call life.

 

It’s a collection of majesty and the mundane that will be unfiltered through bell schedules and note taking, homework and assignments.

 

It will just be.

 

And no matter what it consists of these children will be tried, tested and judged for it.

 

Some of it will be tests of skill. They’ll encounter certain obstacles that they’ll have to overcome.

 

Can they express themselves in writing? Can they compose an email, a text, a Facebook post that gets across what they’re really trying to say?

 

Presumably, they’ll want to apply for a job someday. That requires typing a cover letter, a resume, and being able to speak intelligently during an interview.

 

But even beyond these professional skills, they’ll come into contact with other human beings. And what they say and how they interact will be at least partially determined by what they’ve learned both in and out of the classroom.

 

People will judge them based on what kind of person they think they are – is this someone knowledgeable about the world, do they have good judgement, can they think logically and solve a problem, do they have enough background knowledge about the world to be able to make meaning and if they don’t know something (as inevitably everyone must) do they know where to find the answers they seek?

 

When they come into social contact with others, will they have digested enough knowledge and experience to form interesting, empathetic characters and thus will they be able to experience deep relationships?

 

Will they be victims of their own ignorance, able to be pushed around and tricked by any passing intellect or will they be the masters of their own inner space, impervious to easy manipulation?

 

Will they be at the mercy of history and politics or will they be the captains of consciousness and context molding educated opinions about justice, ethics and statecraft?

 

Because for these students all of that, all of their lives really, is an assessment in a way. And the grades aren’t A, B, C, D or F. There is no Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic. It is not graded on a curve.

 

It’s a test that’s timed in the minutes they breath and in each pump their hearts push blood throughout their bodies.

 

This exam will assess everything they do, everything they think, everything that’s done to them and every action they do or think in response.

 

This is an evaluation with the highest stakes. They will not get to take it again. And if they fail, their grade will be final.

 

But what they don’t seem to realize is that no matter how they score, the result will be the same as it is for everyone who’s ever been born – it will be terminal.

 

Because each of these students, and only these students, as they grow and mature will have the power to determine ultimately what that score will be.

 

We are all judged and evaluated, but it is our own judgements that we have to live with – and this passive acceptance of being tested and this petty goal of grade grubbing your life away, it denies your individual agency, your freedom of thought.

 

So, you ask if this will be on the test?

 

The answer is yes.

 

Everything is on the test.

 

But you’re asking the wrong question.

 
That’s what I really want to say.

 
That’s what I want to shout at a world that sees learning as nothing but a means to a job and education as nothing but the fitting of cogs to a greasy machine.

 

Yet invariably, when the question comes I usually narrow it all down to just this simple answer.

 

“Yes.

 

It will.”

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the author and YouTube personality John Green. It was partially inspired by a speech he gave to introduce his video about The Agricultural Revolution:

 

“Will this be on the test?
The test will measure whether you’re an informed, engaged, productive citizen of the world.

 

It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and in dorm rooms and in places of worship.

 

You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football and while scrolling through your twitter feed.

 

The test will test your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.

 

The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when taken together make your life, yours.

 

And everything, everything will be on it.

 

I know right, so pay attention.”


 

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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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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