Mask-to-Mask Instruction May Be More Problematic Than Distance Learning

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People talk about the upcoming school year as if we have a choice between in-person classes or distance learning.

 

We don’t.

 

The fact is there will be NO face-to-face learning this year.

 

Neither in our school buildings or on-line.

 

No matter which path we choose, we will be teaching behind a mask or behind a computer screen.

 

There is no middle ground here – nor should there be.

 

Even if schools try to execute some hybrid model where kids only attend classes in-person two or three days a week and go on-line for the remainder of the time, when they are in the school building everyone will be wearing masks.

 

And that’s as it should be.

 

When in a public place during a global pandemic like that of COVID-19, we need to wear face masks to reduce the spread of the disease.

 

But let’s not pretend this has no side effects.

 

Social distancing, limited mobility, plexiglass barriers, cleanliness protocols – all will have an impact on academics.

 

So if we reopen physical school buildings, we will not be returning to the kind of face-to-face instruction students enjoyed as recently as January and February.

 

It will be a completely new dynamic that may present as many difficulties – if not maybe more – than learning on-line.

 

That’s something people would do well to understand before deciding which course is best.

 

Mask-to-mask learning will not be face-to-face learning.

 

Social distancing may rob the physical classroom of almost all of its benefits over distance learning.

 

Again, I’m not suggesting we do without PPE or safety measures. But let’s be honest about how these measures will alter academics.

 
First, let’s look at masks.

 

Admit it. It is hard to be heard in a mask.

 

Imagine trying to get a message across to a classroom of middle school children with a piece of fabric hiding half of your face, obscuring your expressions and garbling your words.

 

I’m not saying it’s insurmountable, but it’s not indistinguishable from classroom teaching at the beginning of last school year, either.

 

It generates distance, just as it’s supposed to do. But teaching requires connection, understanding and relationship building.

 

Many of my students come into my class with trust issues. They’ve been let down by adults and authority figures. They aren’t about to put in their best work for just anyone. They have to know the teacher can be trusted and cares about them as individual people.

 

How are you supposed to generate trust when students can only see your eyes?

 

Moreover, masks are a permanent symbol of the danger we’re all in just being together. Every time we look at each other we’ll be reminded of risk, threat and our own vulnerability.

 

These do not make for good teaching. On Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of 
Needs, only physiological necessities like food and water take precedence. Without a sense of safety, it is difficult to impossible for students to achieve their full potentials.

 

Unfortunately, facial coverings aren’t the only problem. Consider physical proximity.

 

As a teacher, I rarely sit when students are in the room.

 

During a 40 minute class, I probably lap the space as many times going from desk to desk observing students progress, answering questions, reading work, making suggestions, etc. This will be much more difficult with the threat of Coronavirus in the room.

 

How can I closely observe my students from a minimum of 6 feet away?

 

I would suspect this will be even more profound with kids with special needs. Just because they’re in the classroom with the teacher does not mean the teacher will be able to serve them as well as under normal circumstances. This is bound to lead to increased frustration and acting out.

 

The most common diagnosis my middle school students have is ADHD. The most common adaptation I’m told to make to help them overcome this is to repeatedly prompt them back on task. And you don’t want to do this in a way that will draw attention to the issue. I often walk up to students and ask questions privately, or point to something on their papers.

 

This will not be easy when trying to avoid their physical space. Any verbal queues would be loud enough to be heard by the rest of the class.

 
Nor does this allow for students to work together on group projects. They can’t push their desks together and work on assignments cooperatively in the physical classroom. In fact, in the time of COVID, these kinds of projects may actually be better served on-line.

 

Finally, imagine the difficulty of getting children to comply with social distancing mandates.

 

If we can’t get adults to wear masks, how can we expect to get their kids to do it?

 

Moreover, children are mischievous. Some may try to purposefully cough on their classmates just to get a reaction. Others could intentionally take off their masks to annoy classmates. As every teacher knows, some kids will do anything for attention. Even negative attention.

 

In-person teaching could easily degenerate into a game of trying to get kids to obey the rules with little to no actual instruction going on.

 

Are administrators and school boards really prepared to suspend students for endangering their classmates? Are parents willing to accept such punishments?

 

And let’s not forget the elephant in the room.

 

What do we do when safety measures fail?

 

When a student gets sick, do we quarantine for two weeks all the other students who came into contact with him? When a teacher gets sick, who teaches her classes while she is in isolation? And do we keep her students home, too?

 

Before we can reopen schools to in-person instruction, there are a host of problems we have to solve.

 

We have to figure out how to get kids to and from school without crowding them together on buses. We have to arrange classes and move students safely from point A to point B within the building. We have to figure out how to safely feed them – since no one can wear a mask while they eat. We have to figure out how to adequately ventilate buildings that were in need of repair for decades prior to the crisis.

 

One has to wonder – is it worth it?

 

With so many challenges involved with reopening school buildings, might it not be better to just continue distance learning initiatives?

 

As we’ve seen, the push for in-person schooling isn’t justified by academic concerns.

 

Though under normal circumstances face-to-face learning is worlds better than on-line learning, that is not what we’ll be doing if we reopen schools this year.

 

In truth, the pressure to reopen schools during this crisis comes more from political and economic considerations than pedagogical ones.

 

Lawmakers and policymakers don’t want to put forward the funding necessary to reduce the risks. Teachers fear they’ll be laid off if they speak out against unsafe working conditions. Parents fear they won’t be able to return to their own jobs if they have to stay home to take care of their children.

 

These issues can all be solved by good government. Our lawmakers need to follow the lead of nearly every other country that has lowered infection rates. We need federal relief checks so people can pay their bills without having to risk their lives working through a pandemic. We need personal protective equipment (PPE), protection from evictions, and universal healthcare so that we can weather the storm.

 

It is not the job of schools and teachers to fix these problems. We can’t. We can only further enable bad leadership.

 

But putting aside political and economic issues, there is an obvious best course of action.

 

Under these circumstances, continuing distance learning is the best choice from the standpoint of both safety AND academics.

 

In any other year, having a teacher physically present in the classroom with a cohort of students is worlds better than Brady Bunch style ZOOM meetings or assignments posted on-line.

 

But this isn’t any other year. It’s 2020 and Coronavirus cases have topped 3 million in the United States. There were nearly 60,000 new cases just yesterday.

 

You don’t close schools when there are only thousands of cases and then reopen them when there are millions.

 

One thing to recommend on-line learning at the present time is that we know it can be done. We already tried it last school year. There were certainly major problems but we have a good idea what they are and can make changes to at least attempt to solve them.

 

We can do a better job ensuring all students have access to computers, devices and the Internet. We can make expectations clear and achievable and increase project based assignments. We can habituate participation, increase interactivity and offer multiple chances to do the work.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Distance learning will never be as effective as face-to-face instruction.

 

But we will not have face-to-face instruction this year. It will be mask-to-mask or screen-to-screen.

 

That cannot be emphasized enough.

 

None of the possible solutions does a perfect job overcoming the problems.

 

There are not enough adequate virus screenings to tell who has the disease. Nor can we screen those who have it and keep them quarantined from the rest. Nor do we have adequate PPE to reduce infection. Nor does any vaccine appear to be forthcoming.

 

With the exception of the last point, many other developed countries have done much better with these things and so are in a better position to reopen schools.

 

But we have to face facts. The United States is not in the same position. In fact, we’ve made wearing a mask a political statement instead of what it is – a public health concern.

 

Until we solve these issues, there will be no perfect solution for schools. We just have to choose the best of several imperfect options.

 

In my opinion, the only way forward is distance learning.

 

To do otherwise is like trying to figure out how to live in a burning building instead of putting out the fire.

 

The only sane option is to get to a relatively safe place first.

 

I hope we can do that for our children, families and communities.

 

I hope that the death cult of capitalism doesn’t require teachers to jump on the pyre of economic growth.

 

We all deserve better.


 

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

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

 

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

 

GOOD NEWS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That’s really good news in such uncertain times.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

BAD NEWS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Unfortunately, this money is not being allocated by need.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

THE COMING STORM

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

 

But the worst is yet to come.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The state legislature can’t fix the problem alone.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Societies only work when everyone pulls their weight.

 

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

 

We are all being tested here.

 

Will Pennsylvania pass or fail?


 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

In short, the virus succeeded where policy did not.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The question remains: why did the department do it?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

WHY TESTS WERE CANCELLED

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

 

DeVos said in a statement:

 

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

 

How did we get here?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CORPORATIONS FIRST

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

TESTING SECRECY

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

THE PSSAS

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But some of it is deeply disturbing.

 

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

 

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

 

In addition, they are told NOT to:

 

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

 

-take notes about the test to share with others.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

DO NOT:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CORPORATE VULNERABILITY

 

 

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

 

The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.

 

THAT’S why the tests were cancelled this year.

 

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

 

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

 

THE DYSTOPIAN TESTING FUTURE

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

The idea is often called a learning ecosystem.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

It’s school without the school or teachers.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

This is where the testing industry is going.

 

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

 

In the short term, this is good news.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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


 

 

 

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The Internet is NOT the Best Place for Kids to Learn After the Coronavirus Pandemic

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If the Coronavirus quarantine has taught educators one thing, it’s this.

 

Online learning is not better than in-person schooling.

 

After all these years of corporations throwing apps at us and well-meaning administrators providing us with devices and philanthrocapitalists pumping billions of dollars into ed tech first academic schemes, we can all see now that the emperor has no clothes.

 

When schools nationwide are closed to stop the spread of a global pandemic and learning is restricted to whatever teachers can cobble together on sites like Google Classroom and ZOOM, we can all see the Imperial scepter blowing in the wind.

 

The problem is that this is only clear to parents, students and teachers.

 

The people who get to make ed policy decisions are as blind as ever – as witnessed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tone deaf insistence that his state reimagine schools with the help of billionaire school saboteur Bill Gates.

 

But the rest of us – you know, those grounded in reality – can see the problems with remote learning staring us in the face.

 

Most importantly, the Internet is not a conducive environment for learning.

 

I don’t mean that learning can’t take place there.

 

You could learn in a fox hole while being shelled by enemy forces. But if your content extends to something more complex than “Duck” or other survival tactics, this may not be the best place to learn it. After all, environment plays a key role in knowledge acquisition.

 

Moreover, different people learn things better in different circumstances. And, contrary to our current education policies that view children as stakeholders or consumers, they are in fact people.

 

There are some children who learn better online than in a brick and mortar classroom. But these kids are few and far between.

 

In general, the younger the child (both physically and psychologically), the more important it is that he or she be given the opportunity to learn in an actual classroom.

 

Why?

 

It really comes down to who controls the environment.

 

In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.

 

In a virtual environment, the space is defined to a small degree by the teacher, but it is mostly determined by the ed tech provider and the open world of the Internet.

 

In short, teachers have much more control over physical classrooms and can remove distractions.

 

Online, educators have very little control over this.

 

LINE OF SIGHT

 
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.

 

I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.

 

Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.

 

When teaching online, I’ve had students texting on cell phones, playing video games on computers, having side conversations with friends in their bedrooms, playing with pets – and trying to hide this with the way they display themselves on camera.

 

I’ve had kids mysteriously turn off the camera or point it away from their faces until I ask them to switch it back on or swivel it back to themselves.

 

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

 
When I first started teaching online a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal seemed to be the mute button.

 

If several kids weren’t hearing me because of side chatter, I could simply mute everyone and fill the blessed silence with instruction.

 

However, I soon discovered that this is deceptive.

 

Just because you don’t hear the students, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Some kids use the online chat stream to continue side chatter. Others forgo that entirely for text and Facebook messaging.

 

What’s worse, it’s often hard for the teacher to even know whether anything she said is actually being heard.

 

TOO MUCH CHOICE

 
One of the great strengths of online learning is that it gives students an incredible amount of choice. But that is also its greatest weakness.

 

I can give assignments through a file sharing site like Google Classroom and let students complete it at their own pace.

 

The problem is that kids (especially young kids) need their pace monitored.

 

You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.

 

In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.

 

However, online it is completely up to them when to do an assignment. They are responsible for their own time management – and that’s a skill we, as educators, struggle to teach them.

 

As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.

 

Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.

 

HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE

 

 

Then there’s the question of… well… questions.

 

In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.

 

The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.

 

In my physical classroom, since all students are working on an assignment together in that same time and space, I can go from desk to desk and see how they’re progressing.

 

If they’re getting something wrong, I can correct it in real time. I can give suggestions and encouragement even before the work is done.

 

Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.

 

This presents a problem. Do I explain the error and ask him to to do the work all over again? Or do I explain the error but accept the work for what it is?

 

I’ll admit, I usually do the later.

 

STUDENTS M.I.A.

 

 

Which brings me to mysterious absences.

 

I don’t mean kids who don’t show up to video conferences – though there are many of those.

 

I mean kids who for all intents and purposes appear to be there in ZOOM and then suddenly disappear never to return that day.

 

They could have a device or Internet issue. And if this happens every once in a while, it’s understandable. But what about kids who do this all the time?

 

If your iPad isn’t charged one day, I guess things happen. But if it isn’t charged everyday, that’s a problem. Your problem – one you need to solve.

 

I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.

 

Once again, we’re putting this responsibility on students and families. In the days before distance learning, we could question whether that was fair. In the Coronavirus dystopia, we have little choice but to do it.

 

However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.

 

In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.

 

Some students are gone for the majority of the meeting. In a world where video conferences are few and far between, is it so much to ask that you use the restroom BEFORE going to ZOOM?

 

INVADERS

 
But let’s not forget unwanted guests.

 

These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.

 

Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.

 

Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.

 

Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.

 

There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.

 

On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.

 

So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.

 

It’s maddening!

 

ASSESSMENTS AND CHEATING

 
Now let’s talk tests.

 

I don’t like tests. I think they can too easily become cruel games of “guess what the testmaker was thinking.”

 

But they are a necessary evil to judge what information students have learned. Moreover, a creative teacher can design them to reduce the regurgitation of facts and increase critical analysis backed by facts.

 

In a physical classroom, teachers can monitor students during test taking. Online, they can’t. So there’s always a question of cheating.

 

Every scrap of information in human history is available somewhere online. If students try hard enough, they can find the answer to any question with a deft Google search.

 

However, to be honest I don’t think I’ve had too much trouble with this as yet. My students either don’t care enough to cheat, cannot figure out how to do so effectively or have too much self respect.

 

Or maybe I just haven’t caught them.

 

In the physical classroom, I had several students try to pass off others work – essays or poems – as their own. But I haven’t assigned anything so ambitious through distance learning yet.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
Perhaps that’s why it drives me nuts when policymakers and media types make statements about what an overwhelming success this has all been.

 

Teachers and districts have tried their best. Students and families are giving their all. But this experiment does not demonstrate why we should all embrace distance learning once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

 

It shows why we MUST return to the brick and mortar classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

Reimagining school will not require more ed tech.

 

It may require much less.

 

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

 

We need smaller classes, equitable funding, desegregation, social justice, wide curriculum, and an end to high stakes testing, school privatization, science denial and anti-intellectualism.

 

But more than anything, we need policymakers who are willing to listen to and include the people on the ground when making decisions that affect us all.


 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So I moved on.

 

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

 

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

 

“Melanie?” I say.

 

No response.

 

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

 

Nothing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I had to let her sleep.

 

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

 

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

 

“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.

 

“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”

 

“Ted, you forget something?”

 

“Wha?”

 

“Ted, your shirt?”

 

He looks down at his naked torso.

 

“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So I narrowed it all down to essentials.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But there is real life-long learning taking place.

 

It’s my most successful group.

 

My 7th graders are a different story.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

That kind of thing happens all the time.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Stay safe and stay optimistic.

 

But let’s not stay cyber.


 

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

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Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

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

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They say history repeats itself.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

There-in lies a tale.

 

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

 

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

 

Wait. Educate at a distance? In 1918?

 

Yep.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

PITTSBURGH

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

City officials were at least partly to blame.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

NEW YORK CITY

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

CHICAGO

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SMALLER TOWNS

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

LAKELAND, FLORIDA

 

And then there’s Lakeland, Florida.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


 

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

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The Coronavirus Could Be A Big Moneymaker for EdTech Companies

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There is a special place in Hell for people who cash in on tragedy.

 

But that place is reserved for the super rich – and that’s all that matters in Donald Trump’s America.

 

Federal officials are urging schools to prepare for possible disruptions due to the coronavirus – a disease that originated in China last month and has affected more than 77,000 people worldwide (of which more than 2,600 have died).

 

Only 14 people have been infected in the U.S., and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) writes on its Website that the “immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low” for the average American – especially those who have not traveled recently to Wuhan, the surrounding Hubei Province or elsewhere in mainland China.

 

However, this is certainly scary news for anyone – especially parents, teachers and students.

 

In fact, federal officials singled out schools at a press conference on Tuesday about possible responses to the disease if it gets worse on these shores.

 

Nancy Messonnier, a director at the CDC, said:

 

“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask about plans for teleschool.”

 

To which every teacher in America responded, “Teleschool!?”

 

So we’re worried about this disease which is somewhat more deadly than the fluNOT primarily because of the risk to students’ health or lives; NOT because of the risk of it going undiagnosed due to the disincentive of rising healthcare costs; NOT because we’re woefully unprepared due to Trump firing the entire U.S. pandemic response team two years ago and then not replacing them!

 

No! We’re concerned mostly because KIDS MIGHT MISS SCHOOL!!!!

 
But, hey, no worries because the Trump administration figures this new and unpredictable disease which typically causes symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath can be circumvented with… cyber school?

 
Limit kids exposure by letting them stay at home and do their lessons on the computer.

 

And if they have an online management system where teachers give virtual assignments and kids turn them in through the cloud, even better!

 

Thank you, education technology firms! You have saved American education. Again.

 

What a pile of crap!

 

Let’s get one thing clear. This suggestion has nothing to do with student well being. It is a blatant attempt to turn a potential pandemic into a cash cow.

 

 

EdTech already is a multi-billion dollar industry. If we successfully tie navigation of disasters with this sector, profits could potentially climb through the roof!

 

As it stands now, technology companies are lined up outside our schools pretending to provide the best the 21st Century has to offer to solve every school issue from excessive tardiness to lack of motivation to academic decline.

 

And now they’re offering the cure to the coronavirus – or at least the cure to any pedagogical delay that might result from school closures – either precautionary or due to an outbreak.

 

First of all, if schools close because of this disease, students will be scared. They aren’t going to be able to focus on academics.

 

Kids would need love and understanding – not more homework.

 

Second, not all kids have Internet access at home. Many of our most underprivileged children need to go to a public place like a library to get online. So if we require students to submit assignments this way during a closure, we’re forcing them to increase their chances of infection at a public place or get behind in their work. Not exactly fair.

 

Third, the kind of lessons you can provide through “teleschool” are subpar at best.

 

This is the automated checkout counter of school. It is the robocall customer service of education.

 

Most children need real live human beings to achieve their best. That’s why you just can’t give a kid a math book and – Voilà – they know how to reduce fractions!

 

Sure, they can try to muddle through a computer program or do virtual work and submit it online. But how is that really different from the bad old days when the most checked out educators would disseminate a worksheet to the class and then hide behind a newspaper at their desks?

 

This is the kind of curriculum we used to criticize teachers for and that very few modern day educators could get away with in our modern public school system – UNLESS they do it behind a computer and/or software package.

 

This is not being “future ready” or “innovative.” It is the worst practices of the past repackaged so a bunch of suits at the corporate offices can cash in.

 

Finally, it opens students up to severe privacy concerns. In 2018 the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) warned that EdTech solutions like these often put student security at risk.

 

Much of this software asks for and saves student inputs which can be compromised or actively sold to third parties.

 
These are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”

 
Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. It could even be sold to unscrupulous corporations or exploited by other children to bully and harass classmates.

 

And, in fact, such things have happened.

 
While it may be frustrating to makeup missed schools days, doing so doesn’t have the same risks and – eventually – provides kids with the same quality of education that they miss.

 
It just doesn’t offer opportunities for corporations to make big bucks.

 

Advocates claim online tools like Class Dojo and Apple Classroom provide unique opportunities that have never been available before for such teleschooling.

 

However, we’ve always been able to do this stuff – just not so easily on a computer.

 

Schools have always been able to send workbooks home with students full of drill and kill assignments. They just rarely did so because we all knew the quality of such workbooks was mediocre at best.

 

Compared with a flesh-and-blood teacher and the interpersonal interactions of school, this was poor return on the community’s investment in their children.

 

Teleschooling is pretty much the same thing just with flashier bells and whistles.

 

It’s no wonder that this is the kind of solution we get from an administration that thinks Betsy Devos should head the Department of Education.

 

Why would we trust the same people who can’t figure out how to contain the coronavirus to solve its impact on education?

 

 

Sadly in an age when the human genome has been successfully mapped and bio-weapons are a real tool at the disposal of unscrupulous governments, one can only be skeptical of a mysterious new virus that suddenly shows up in a country like China experiencing massive pro-democracy protests. That’s one way to get disaffected citizens off the streets.

 

And now the same disease has come to our shores on the eve of the 2020 Presidential election. You’ll forgive me for admiring what could be the most effective means of  voter suppression in modern politics!

 

This may be an unlikely scenario – especially given the degree of secrecy and competence it would require – but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the powerful will stop at nothing to keep their power.

 

Beyond mere financial gain, some may hope that teleschooling in the wake of predictable disasters could dumb down our children’s education just enough to deprive them of that lesson, themselves.

 

The best way to stop skepticism is to undercut the education of the next generation.

 


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

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The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

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I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

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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Charter Schools Cherry Pick Students & Call it Choice – PART 2: The “EVERYONE’S DOING IT!” Excuse

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“Got school choice?” asks a charter school supporter.

 

But who exactly is she addressing – families or charter school operators?

 

Because it is the later group who is offered choice by school privatization – not parents, families or students.

 
Billionaire investors and charter school managers answer, “Heck yeah – we’ve got school choice! We get to choose to take your tax dollars but not your child!”

 

As we’ve seen in Part 1 of this article, charter schools unequivocally cherry pick the children who get to enroll there.

 

These institutions are funded by tax dollars but privately managed – and the private interests who run them get to decide how to spend that money with little oversight or strings attached. As businesses, they can increase their bottom line by letting in only the easiest kids to teach.

 

This is not opinion. It is fact.

 

Admittedly, every single charter school in the country is not guilty of this crime. Yet the charter concept explicitly allows such unscrupulous behavior, and it is widespread.

 

It’s like permitting a bank to work on the honor system – the safe being unlocked, people could just walk in and make withdrawals and deposits on their own. Not everyone would cheat, but that doesn’t make this a good way to safeguard your finances.

 

And that’s the situation at charter schools. Operators can pick and choose which students to enroll – so many do.

 

Charter school supporters usually respond to this critique in one of two ways. They either deny it happens or admit the truth while deflecting its importance.

 

In Part 1, we saw how the denial (or the “I Didn’t Do It” Excuse”) flies in the face of facts.

 

In this article, we will be examining those who relent that charter school do, in fact, cherry pick students but claim there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

In particular, we will look at their claim that charter schools are doing nothing different than what authentic public schools do.

 

In sum, they’re claiming that “Everyone’s doing it!”

 

In truth, everyone is NOT doing it. School privatizers are doing it while the rest of us aren’t allowed to do it and actually try to equitably educate all the children in our neighborhoods.

 

THE “EVERYONE’S DOING IT!” EXCUSE

Some charter school apologists admit this much.

 

They see the mountain of evidence that cherry picking exists at their schools and concede the point.

 

However, they claim that this is a practice at authentic public schools as well. After all, public schools expel students for all sorts of reasons and even have special magnet schools that enroll only certain students.

 

MAGNET SCHOOLS

 

One of the most frequent criticisms of authentic public schools is that they don’t give students and families enough choice. But that’s exactly what magnet schools are – institutions WITHIN the district that cater to individual choice and needs.

 

Magnet schools came into existence in the late 1960slong before the first charter school law was passed in 1991. They were a method of encouraging voluntary desegregation by attracting diverse groups to enroll around specific academic specialties.

 

Magnet schools are organized around a theme. This could be STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or fine and performing arts. As such, they cater to students with an interest and ability in that theme. This is not true of most charter schools, which have no particular theme or specialty.

 

The goal in magnet schools is to attract so many applicants that the school can select a racially diverse student body. However, this is exactly the opposite of what we find at charter schools where racial integration is extremely rare. As we’ve seen, many charter schools have students of one-race or ethnicity. Charters increase – not decrease – segregation wherever they are located.

 

 

Moreover, though a particular magnet school DOES allow only certain students enrollment, the public district does not. The district accepts everyone at SOME school within its boundaries. By comparison, charter schools are usually just one building and even when they are chains of schools owned and operated by the same people, they generally make no effort to accept all who apply.

 

There are many other differences between charter schools and magnet schools not the least of which is who runs them. Charters are often managed by appointed bureaucrats. Magnet schools are still run by the elected school board of the district. As such, they are still subject to all the rules and regulations of authentic public school districts. As we’ve seen, this is not true of charters.

 

In addition, many charter schools are run for-profit. Even those not directly labeled as such often contract with a for-profit management company thereby avoiding the negative connotations of the name while still indulging in the money-making practices. However, no authentic public schools do this. None. That removes the motivation for selective enrollment. Authentic public schools would get no financial benefit from doing so – in fact just the opposite.

 
One similarity about the two types of school, at least superficially, is enrollment. At both magnets and charters, admission is often determined by the use of a lottery system, due to high demand for limited seats.

 

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 2.6 million students were enrolled in magnet schools nationwide, compared with more than 2.8 million in charters across 43 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

 

Does this mean that BOTH charter and magnet schools cherry pick students?

 
No, because of the most distinguishing feature between charters and authentic public schools: transparency.

 

When a charter school conducts a lottery, it does so behind closed doors. There is no one watching over its shoulder to make sure it is doing so fairly. And as we’ve seen those charter school lotteries result in student bodies that could not come from chance.

 

However, magnets are fully authentic public schools, which means that everything has to happen out in the open and in the light of day. Not only that but all nonsensitive public school documents are a matter of public record. Anyone can see that these lotteries are being conducted fairly, and the results of these lotteries produce much more equitable student distributions than we find at charter schools.

 

Magnet schools are like first class restaurants where the health inspector comes in and writes a glowing report of the kitchens. Charter schools are shady dives where the health inspector is not allowed where the food is prepared – ever.

 

Where would you take your family for dinner?

 

DISCIPLINE AND EXPULSIONS

 

Putting aside the issue of magnet schools, some critics of authentic public schools claim that they still engage in selective enrollment through discipline and expulsion policies.

 

But there are big differences in the ways both types of school engage in disciplinary actions.

 

Charter schools are known for excessive discipline policies that encourage difficult children to go elsewhere. They also kick out kids with behavior problems.

 

Do authentic public schools do the same?

 

Yes and no.

 

It has been documented that all school types suspend and expel black students at a higher rate than white students. However, the most draconian discipline policies – such as those designated zero tolerance – are to be found at charter schools.

 

Authentic public schools are restrained by state and federal law in this regard coupled with increased transparency. There’s less they’re legally allowed to do and a greater chance they’d get caught if they tried to do it anyway.

 

However, the biggest difference is one of motivation.

 

Think about it.

 

Charter schools only gain by getting rid of difficult children. It costs them less money to educate more well-behaved students and increases academic outcomes that they can use as marketing materials to entice greater enrollment.

 

Authentic public school districts lose out when students go elsewhere because they still are responsible for those students.

 

Authentic public school districts must ensure that all children living in their communities get a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This is true whether a child attends the district or not.

 

If a child goes to a neighborhood charter school, the public school district has to pay that charter school to educate him or her. If the child has such special needs that make it necessary for him or her to attend a school outside of the district that specializes in ways to meet those needs, the district is responsible for paying. And in this case the cost will almost definitely be greater than the district receives in tax revenue – by orders of magnitude.

 

It costs authentic public school districts much more money to expel or outsource services for a child than to keep him or her in the district. Public schools are encouraged to find ways to meet student needs WITHIN the district and to send them elsewhere only as a last resort.

 

Even a child who attacked classmates in school with a weapon and ended up in jail would be the district’s responsibility. The district would still have to pay to educate that child at an alternative sight – probably in the prison system.

 

Authentic public schools are even responsible for homeless students and undocumented children.

 

This is all in the best interests of the child and represents an inclusive ideal of education you won’t find in many other countries.

 

But it’s not present in charter schools.

 

Charter schools are there to make a buck. If administrators don’t see how to do that with a given child, it makes economic sense to get rid of that child.

 

Not so at your local, neighborhood authentic public school.

 

CONCLUSIONS

So we’ve seen that charter schools really do cherry pick which students to enroll.

 


It’s all about the Benjamins.

 

Families with the easiest kids to educate are encouraged to enroll and all others are dissuaded away. Charters pick and choose between applicants often relying on test scores and academic records. And they kick out or otherwise encourage difficult students to find an education elsewhere – usually the local neighborhood authentic public school.

 

Moreover, these practices are radically different than what you find at authentic public schools.

 

It’s true that public districts sometimes include magnet schools organized around a theme that use lotteries to determine which kids get enrolled there. However, the standards of transparency are so much higher at public schools and the results so much more equitable that any charge of unfairness is much harder to support.

 

In addition, it’s true that public schools also discipline and sometimes expel students. But the discipline policies at public schools are never as extreme as the zero tolerance policies you’ll find at many charter schools.

 

Finally, expelling a difficult student is all gain for a charter school and all cost at authentic public districts. No matter which school a student attends, the district where that child resides is still responsible for FAPE, and the cost of educating that child outside the district is nearly always greater than inside the district.

 

These are just some of the reasons why the charter school experiment should end.

 

No reform in the world can make equity out of schools that are by definition “separate but equal.”

 

Schools paid for with tax dollars need to be accountable and transparent. And the only way to do that is to rip up every bogus charter contract in the country and make them all abide by the same rules and regulations that ensure every child gets the high quality education he or she deserves.

 

In other words, reverse the privatization. Public-ize them all.

 

 


 

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Charter School Lotteries – Why Most Families Don’t Even Apply

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Who gets to enroll in your school?

 

This question is at the heart of the charter school debate.

 

While traditional public schools have to accept any student who meets residency requirements, charter schools can be entirely more selective.

 

They don’t have to take just any student. They can pick and choose based on pretty much whatever criteria they want.

 

Despite the fact that charters are publicly funded and privately run, transparency requirements are so low in most states that regulators aren’t even allowed to check up on their enrollment practices.

 

It’s a situation rife with the potential for fraud and abuse with America’s most vulnerable students often being victimized and huge corporations raking in record profits.

 

Critics say that charter schools routinely accept only the easiest students to educate. They take those with the best academic records, without disciplinary problems or special education needs. This allows them to spend less money to run their schools and claim all their students are doing well because of artificially inflated test scores.
But when critics level such charges against the charter school industry, the most common reply is an appeal to charter school lotteries.

 

When these privatized schools get more applications than they have seats, they often resort to a lottery to determine which students get to enroll.

 

The infamous propaganda movie “Waiting for Superman” had a much quoted scene where poor children held onto their lottery tickets as they hoped and prayed to be saved from a “failing public school.”

 

Advocates claim this is what makes charters fair: Students get in by pure chance.

 

But it’s not true.

 

More often than not, whenever enrollment data is available, it shows that charter administrators are, in fact, selective.

 

Take BASIS School Inc., a charter chain with 18 schools in Arizona, three in Texas and one in Washington D.C. The chain’s schools in Tucson and Scottsdale are highly ranked on Newsweek’s “America’s Most Challenging High Schools” list, and on the Best High Schools list of U.S. News & World Report.

 

However, their enrollment figures show them to be out-and-out cherry pickers.

 

They typically over-enroll Asian-American students and under enroll Latinos. They also enroll a much lower proportion of special education students than the state average and – shockingly – have zero English Language Learners.

 

Despite corporate accolades, this is not a successful model of public education. It is prejudicial, exclusionary and entirely the goal of for-profit educational institutions everywhere.

 

But besides outright corruption from charter administrators, there are other factors that suppress the neediest students from even applying to charter schools.

 

In short, they don’t want to go to these types of schools. They can’t afford losing the services and amenities they would typically receive at traditional public schools. They can’t afford the extra out-of-pocket costs charters demand.

 

Frankly, many charter schools are set up for middle class or wealthier students. Even if accepted, the poor would get fewer services and be forced to pay more than they could afford.

 

1) They Can’t Afford Uniforms

 

Many charter schools require students to wear uniforms. Most traditional public schools do not. Therefore, even though your local charter school is funded by tax dollars, it can be a hefty financial burden to attend.

 

How much more does it cost? That depends. Each charter school has different requirements.

 

For instance, in the New Orleans Parents’ Guide, the cost for a single uniform is estimated at more than $70. That’s at least $350 for a week’s worth of clothes. However, many estimates I’ve seen have been much higher.

 

Many charters require students to wear blazers – something a traditional public school student wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. These are pretty expensive items. They can cost anywhere from $80-$250 each.

 

Moreover, some charters, like most in the KIPP network, require everyday items like socks and shirts to contain an embroidered school logo. That’s at least an additional $10-15 per item.

 

For impoverished parents who routinely shop at local thrift stores or the Salvation Army, charter school uniforms can put them out of reach.

 

To be fair, about 19% of traditional public schools also require uniforms. However, they are typically much less expensive. In fact, they rarely amount to more than requiring clothing to be of a wide variety of colors and/or styles.

 

And if parents can’t afford the extra cost, traditional districts are required to either forgo the requirement or help parents meet it. They cannot deny children an education based on their parents inability to buy uniforms. Charter schools, on the other hand, can.

 

2) They Need Special Education Programs

 

 

Charter schools are rarely – if ever – known for their special education programs. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, are renowned for meeting the needs of diverse students with various abilities. If your child has special needs, going to a charter school simply may not be an option.

 

One reason for this is the basic structure of each type of institution. Traditional public schools are usually much bigger than charter schools. As a result, they can pool their resources to better meet special students needs.

 

At charter schools nationally, disabled students represent only about 7-8% of all students enrolled. At traditional public schools, they average a little more than 11%, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of Department of Education data. So traditional public schools already have the staff, infrastructure and experience to help these children. Moreover, it would be cost prohibitive for charters to add them, especially when they’re designed specifically to make a profit.

 

Perhaps more troubling is this: charter schools rarely identify students as having special needs. Students who would get extra help and services in a traditional public school setting, do without in charter schools. In fact, parents who feel their children’s needs aren’t being met at charters, often disenroll them and place them back in their traditional public school for the extra help.

 

Parents with students who have learning disabilities or extra needs simply can’t afford letting their children languish in a privatized school setting that may well ignore their child’s individual needs.

 

3) They Need Free/Reduced Breakfast and Lunches

 

Though the state and federal government pay for free or reduced breakfast or lunch programs, charter schools often don’t offer them. Traditional public schools do. It’s that simple. If you’re having trouble feeding your children, sending them to a charter school can mean letting them go hungry.

 

Take Arizona. Statewide, more than 47% of all students receive free or reduced-priced lunch. However, charter schools in the BASIS network have none.  This doesn’t mean none of their students qualify. Clearly some of them do. The BASIS chain has chosen not to participate.

 

Why? Perhaps it’s to keep away students who have greater needs.

 

If so, it’s working.

 

Even when charters don’t actively weed out hard to teach students, they can set things up to make them less likely to apply.

 

4) They Need Busing To-And-From School

 

Often students don’t live within walking distance of their school. Traditional public schools routinely provide busing. Charter schools often do not. If you can drive your child to-and-from school, this is not an issue. If you’re poor and don’t have your own means of transportation, this is an added burden.

 

And if you think this is only a feature of the most fly-by-night charters, think again. The BASIS network – again, which includes some of the highest rated charters in the country – does not provide busing.

 

Traditional public schools are often at the heart of the community. They spring up around community centers, parks, and social gathering places. Charter schools are more often located at new or repurposed sites that can be miles away from the people they serve.

 

When the traditional public school offers a free ride to-and-from school, it can be an insurmountable burden to go to a charter where you have to find another way to get there. Parents who are working multiple jobs and/or the night shift may find it impossible to take their kids to the local charter. But perhaps this is exactly why charters aren’t offering busing in the first place. They don’t want these children.

 

5) They Don’t Have Time and/or Money For Extra Charter Demands

 

Charter schools demand an awful lot from parents. Traditional public schools do not. While children often benefit from involved parents, that’s not always possible. It’s unfair to require parental involvement as a prerequisite of enrollment.

 

Many charter schools require parents to volunteer at the school for so many hours a week. They often require “suggested” donations for extra services and for parents to buy books, supplies, or to pay an additional fee for extra curricular activities that would be provided for free at traditional public schools.

 

The BASIS network, for instance, requests that families contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. Families are also required to pay a $300 security deposit, purchase books, and pay for activities that would be free if the student attended a public school.

 

This is simply out of reach for the most disadvantaged students. Their parents are out of work or working multiple jobs to support them. They can’t volunteer at the school when they have to serve a shift at WalMart. They can’t afford the additional costs.

 

So, yes, charters often select against the poorest and neediest students when deciding whom to enroll.

 

However, even when they conduct fair lotteries to determine enrollment, they often set things up to discourage the neediest families from even applying in the first place.

 


NOTE: Special thanks to Priscilla Sanstead on this article.