Artificially Intelligent Chatbots Will Not Replace Teachers

Education pundits are a lot like the guy in the “Distracted Boyfriend”meme.

They’re walking with teachers but looking around at the first thing possible to replace them.

This weekend it’s AI chatbots.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with Siri from Apple or Alexa from Amazon, you’ve interacted with a chatbot.

Bill Gates already invested more than $240 million in personalized learning and called it the future of education.

And many on social media were ready to second his claim when ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by artificial intelligence company OpenAI, responded in seemingly creative ways to users on-line.

It answered users requests to rewrite the 90s hit song, “Baby Got Back,” in the style of “The Canterbury Tales.” It wrote a letter to remove a bad account from a credit report (rather than using a credit repair lawyer). It explained nuclear fusion in a limerick.

It even wrote a 5-paragraph essay on the novel “Wuthering Heights” for the AP English exam.

Josh Ong, the Twitter user who asked for the Emily Bronte essay, wrote, “Teachers are in so much trouble with AI.”

But are they? Really?

Teachers do a lot more than provide right answers. They ask the right questions.

They get students to think and find the answers on their own.

They get to know students on a personal level and develop lessons individually suited to each child’s learning style.

That MIGHT involve explaining a math concept as a limerick or rewriting a 90’s rap song in Middle English, but only if that’s what students need to help them learn.

It’s interpersonal relationships that guide the journey and even the most sophisticated chatbot can’t do that yet and probably never will have that capacity.

ChatGPT’s responses are entertaining because we know we’re not communicating with a human being. But that’s exactly what you need to encourage the most complex learning.

Human interaction is an essential part of good teaching. You can’t do that with something that is not, in itself, human – something that cannot form relationships but can only mimic what it thinks good communication and good relationships sound like.

Even when it comes to providing right answers, chatbots have an extremely high error rate. People extolling these AI’s virtues are overlooking how often they get things wrong.

Anyone who has used Siri or Alexa knows that – sometimes they reply to your questions with non sequiturs or a bunch of random words that don’t even make sense.

ChatGPT is no different.

As more people used it, ChatGPT’s answers became so erratic that Stack Overflow – a Q&A platform for coders and programmers – temporarily banned users from sharing information from ChatGPT, noting that it’s “substantially harmful to the site and to users who are asking or looking for correct answers.”

The answers it provides are not thought out responses. They are approximations – good approximations – of what it calculates would be a correct answer if asked of a human being.

The chatbot is operating “without a contextual understanding of the language,” said Lian Jye Su, a research director at market research firm ABI Research.

“It is very easy for the model to give plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers,” she said. “It guessed when it was supposed to clarify and sometimes responded to harmful instructions or exhibited biased behavior. It also lacks regional and country-specific understanding.”

Which brings up another major problem with chatbots. They learn to mimic users, including racist and prejudicial assumptions, language and biases.

For example, Microsoft Corp.’s AI bot ‘Tay’ was taken down in 2016 after Twitter users taught it to say racist, sexist and offensive remarks. Another developed by Meta Platforms Inc. had similar problems just this year. 

Great! Just what we need! Racist Chatbots!

This kind of technology is not new, and has historically been used with mixed success at best.

ChatGPT may have received increased media coverage because its parent company, OpenAI, was co-founded by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world.

Eager for any headline that didn’t center on his disastrous takeover of Twitter, Musk endorsed the new AI even though he left the company in 2018 after disagreements over its direction.

However, AI and even chatbots have been used in some classrooms successfully.

Professor Ashok Goel secretly used a chatbot called Jill Watson as an assistant teacher of online courses at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The AI answered routine questions from students, while professors concentrated on more complicated issues. At the end of the course, when Goel revealed that Jill Watson was a chatbot, many students expressed surprise and said they had thought she was a real person.

This appears to be the primary use of a chatbot in education.

“Students have a lot of the same questions over and over again. They’re looking for the answers to easy administrative questions, and they have similar questions regarding their subjects each year. Chatbots help to get rid of some of the noise. Students are able to get to answers as quickly as possible and move on,” said Erik Bøylestad Nilsen from BI Norwegian Business School.

However, even in such instances, chatbots are expensive as yet to install, run and maintain, and (as with most EdTech) they almost always collect student data that is often sold to businesses.

Much better to rely on teachers.

You remember us? Warm blooded, fallible, human teachers.

The best innovation is still people.


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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!

 

Posting Learning Objectives in the Classroom is Still a Dumb Idea

One of the worst problems in education is that we never let bad ideas die.

There’s always some know-nothing hack from another field who pokes his nose into the profession and makes pronouncements like he’s an expert.

And since he’s so successful at X (usually something in technology or business) we take these pronouncements like they’re holy writ.

This is why we never get rid of standardized testing, charter schools, evaluating teachers on student test scores, and a hundred other practices that have demonstrably failed over-and-over again.

However, perhaps the most annoying of these zombie practices is the demand for teachers to post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom.

This is beyond stupid and a waste of time.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying teachers should go into the classroom with no idea of what they hope their students will learn everyday.

But the idea that we have so much control over our students that we can tell them with pinpoint accuracy exactly what knowledge and/or skills will be implanted in their skulls on any given day is so reductively stupid as to be laughable.

Anyone who still thinks teachers can post A on the wall and A is what will be accomplished has no business in the teaching profession.

Because, Brother, you don’t understand how teaching works!

So let’s begin with the reasons why this idea is still attractive.

First, we want to let students know what they’ll be experiencing in class on a day-by-day basis.

It’s a reasonable request to a degree. How many times have students walked into the classroom and the first thing that comes out of their mouths are, “What are we doing today?”

However, experienced classroom teachers know that this isn’t the real question. Most of the time when a student asks this they aren’t interested in what we are doing. They’re interested in what we AREN’T doing.

They want to know if we’re writing an essay, or if we’re reading a text or something that they specifically don’t feel like doing that day.

I hear this question most often in my last period classes because the students are exhausted from a full day of academics. They want to know if I’m going to tire them further or if there might be a chance at a breather here and there.

The second reason this practice is attractive is for principals.

Today’s principal is a frightening thing. After decades of educational malpractice at colleges and universities in creating new school administrators, principals no longer understand what their job truly is.

They think it’s to be a toady to the Superintendent or higher level administrators. They think they have to demonstrate their performance to their bosses with whatever data is available at every turn. (This is also what they expect teachers to do for them.)

This is why they tend to turn everything into something less important but quantifiable.

So demanding teachers to post learning objectives in their classrooms every day is something concrete and tangible that can be checked on and checked off on a clipboard. They can say to their bosses, “Look at what a good principal I am! My teachers post their learning objectives everyday!”

When I think of how principals used to manage their buildings and create an environment conducive for learning – for teachers to best impact their students – it makes me want to cry.

I miss real principals.

In any case, we can see why this demand is attractive.

However, it’s also really, really dumb.


Here’s why.

First, you have to understand how teaching works.

It’s not behavioralism. It’s not the 1920s anymore.

Students will be able to… WRONG! Students will have the OPPORTUNITY to, they will be ENCOURAGED to, their ENVIRONMENT will be altered to make it most conducive to…

You can’t rob them of agency. And if you think you can, you’re a fool.

No teacher – no matter how skilled or experienced – acts on her students like Gandalf or Dumbledore. Teaching is not magic and students are not passive objects.

You can’t say “Learn how to use nouns!” And WOOSH students can distinguish nouns from pronouns with pinpoint accuracy. You can’t put hands on a student’s head and say “Reading Comprehension!” And suddenly they pick up a book and start reading Shakespeare with absolute fidelity.

Yes, you can post these things on the wall. But what good does it do?

Students may see it and think to themselves, “So that’s what the teacher is trying to get me to know!” But how does that help?

When I took piano lessons, my teacher never told me the lesson was on the chromatic scale. She just gave me a few pieces to practice and helped me over the parts where I was stumbling.

Moreover, even if she had told me that, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Because I didn’t know what the chromatic scale was!

So much of education is skill based. We learn HOW to do something. We don’t spend much time on WHAT it is or any theories of how it all comes together. And even if we did, that would come at the end, not the beginning.

This is one of the major reasons why I resent the very notion of posting my learning objectives in the classroom. It ruins the surprise!

Teaching is an art at least as much as it is a science. We aren’t programing our kids like you would a computer.

When I teach my students how to write a single paragraph essay, for example, I have them write three drafts – a prewriting, a first draft (heavily scaffolded with a planner) and a final copy.

They often complain that this is a lot of writing and want to know why I’m making them do all this when they feel they could probably skip one or two steps and still come to almost as good of a final project.

I ask them to trust me. I tell them this is the best way, and that they’ll understand later. And since I’ve spent so much time creating a relationship of give-and-take, of trust, they often just get on with the work.

What I’m really doing with all these drafts is getting the format of the single paragraph essay embedded in their minds. They’re memorizing it without even knowing it.

Moreover, writing multiple drafts is good practice when you get to more complicated and longer essays. It forces you to re-evaluate what you wrote previously and it encourages you to improve it before you are finished.

Finally, it instills a process into your mind. You start to feel like this is the right way to do something and you resist taking the easier road because the way you were taught has lead to success in the past (and it will probably serve you well in the future as things get more complex).

Do you really think I should stop and explain all that to my students before we begin? Do you think it would help?

Absolutely not! Children (like tech entrepreneurs and business tycoons) often think they know everything when they really know nothing. If you explain everything to them at the beginning, they can get contrary and refuse to do all you ask to demonstrate they know better. This often leads to dead ends and reteaching – if possible.

These are things teachers like me have learned after decades in the classroom. So when a new administrator starts spouting the shallow dictums they were taught in a corporate dominated college course, it’s beyond frustrating.

Education is the one field where experience is considered a detriment. Classroom teachers are all fools. We must control educators top down with administrators full of ideology and little to no actual practical knowledge.

Teachers have far too much to do already without kowtowing to a worthless mandate to post their learning objectives in the classroom.

That, along with writing formal lesson plans, endless faculty meetings and thrown together professional development, compound to make a teacher’s workload unmanageable.

With so many experienced teachers running for the door these days, wouldn’t it be better to stop and listen to them once in a while?

Maybe it might help encourage some of them to stay in the profession?

Maybe that might actually help student learning?

Huh? Maybe?


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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!

 

What Democratic Midterm Victories Mean for Pennsylvania’s Schools

We can breathe a sigh of relief.

Fascism was defeated at the polls.

Christian nationalism, snake oil salesmen and angertainment all fell to the power of the ballot at this week’s midterm election in Pennsylvania.

Democrat Josh Shapiro beat far right Republican Doug Mastriano for Governor.

John Fetterman beat reality TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz for Senator.

And a host of local grassroots progressives triumphed from Summer Lee becoming the first black woman ever elected from our state to the House to Lindsay Williams retaining her seat in the state legislature. Even Austin Davis (my state representative) will become the first black Lt. Governor in the Commonwealth.

And most surprising, the state house may have even flipped to Democratic control after decades in Republican hands. (There are still a few races that are too close to call.)

All-in-all, it was a good night. Especially in an election cycle where Republicans had every advantage. The President’s party usually loses seats during the midterms, and just last week it seemed that Joe Biden would be no exception. However, now that the dust has cleared, the losses seem to be minimal to nonexistent.

So what does it all mean for our state’s schools and the future of our kids’ educations?

First, we can expect far fewer insane policy proposals and those that are put forward will have next to zero chance of passing.

No more worries about our already meager education funding being cut in half.

No more fears of Florida’s regressive “Don’t Say Gay” law restricting free speech coming to the Keystone state.

The Critical Race Theory panic (A.K.A. – teaching actual history) will fade to just another wing nut conspiracy theory thrown to the Republican base to generate support instead of an actual policy proposal to restrict academic freedom.

I suspect a lot of the baseless hysteria Republicans had been shouting from the rafters will decrease as pollsters show them how ineffective it was in getting votes that weren’t already staunchly GOP.

For the first time in years, Republicans may have to push toward the center instead of constantly to the lunatic fringe. Otherwise, they’ll continue to lose.

Second, we may actually see some positive education policies make their way through the state legislature.

Shapiro has promised to increase education funding. That and the still pending court decision on a lawsuit against the state demanding adequate funding may be enough to turn the funding faucet on a few cranks. With Democrats holding an increasing share of seats, all it takes is a few moderate Republicans (are they out there?) to join them to get things done.

However, it isn’t all wine and roses.

During the general election, Shapiro came out in favor of some school voucher programs. This puts him to the right of our current Governor Tom Wolf. So we can look forward to our new Governor supporting an increase for tax credit scholarships and other de facto voucher plans that will drain public education coffers just as we’re working to increase them.

It is also anyone’s guess whether a pro-voucher Governor would support charter school reform – something we desperately need and that Wolf championed during his tenure.

And though both Wolf and Shapiro criticized standardized testing, it would take a mightily informed and courageous state politician to go up against the economic powerhouse of the testing industry.

In short, the election mostly means we don’t have to worry about as many flaming meteorites crashing down on our schools.

Things might even get better here and there – especially with additional funding.

However, we will have to monitor our representatives as if they were little kids sulking by the cookie jar. They will almost definitely try to sneak in some garbage legislation to hurt our students and enrich their corporate buddies.

When we look at the national situation, it appears much the same. Even with Fetterman going to the Senate, it’s unclear whether Democrats will have control of either legislative body. Even if they do, the majority will be razor thin.

A robust Democratic Party determined to enact progressive legislation could make much of such a situation, but as we’ve seen in the past, that is not the case with the current leadership.

The most we can realistically hope for is that they put a stop to insane GOP legislation.

The question is whether we can build on such Democratic gains at both the state and national level. Usually that doesn’t happen. But it will have to be the goal moving forward.

Stopping the worst is a worthy aim but it cannot be everything. We must continue to push our representatives to make actual progress and fix the slow and steady drip of fascism, corporatism and Christian nationalism that has dominated our politics for far too long.

So let us celebrate a worthy election cycle while we prepare for all the political battles still to come.

A sigh of relief, a renewed fighting stance and back into the fray.


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

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

 

Standardized Test Scores are Incompatible with Your School’s Equity Plan  

 
 
The primary goal of public education is to teach all children fairly.  


 
But since its inception, the system has never been set up to actually accomplish this.  


 
So these days you hear a lot of talk about fixing the problem – of how we can ensure students of color and other historically underserved children get the same high-quality education racially and economically privileged kids always have received.


 
This almost always concludes with two types of plan.  


 
First, there is the serious venture made up of things like increasing spending to meet student need, wraparound services, early intervention, reducing class size, redistributive justice and cultural competence – a plan that looks the reality in the face and makes bold attempts to come to terms with it. 


 
Then there is the cheap knockoff proposition – a buzzword-laden scheme where someone is trying to convince you their half hearted proposal is actually a solution to the very real problem of educational inequality. 


 
 
And the number one thing you can use to tell the difference between the two is this – standardized test scores


 
 
The first plan that is centered around actually fixing disparities makes no mention of test scores – or at least relegates them to obstacles. The second is built all around them – as an essential component of the overall scheme. 


 
 
This is because the second feel-good-accomplish-nothing plan is essentially performative.  


 
 
Therefore, it is constructed around standardized test scores as a metric of success.  


 
Planners think: We’re going to do A, B and C to make our schools more equitable. And how will we know we’re doing it right? We’ll use our standardized test scores! 


 
That’s not accuracy. It’s ostentation. These scores don’t demonstrate anything at all about equity. True, they purport to show readily apparent increases or decreases in academics.  


 
However, even this is an illusion.  


 
A rise or fall in test scores is not, in fact, based on authentic academic success but merely success at taking standardized tests designed for very different purposes.  


 
And anyone who understands the history of these types of assessments and how they still work will know that this mirage is built at the cost of genuine equity.  


 
In fact, the inequalities plaguing our public school system are due in large part to our national insistence that standardized test scores be the ultimate measure of success.  


 
So constructing your plan to fix this problem around one of its root causes is like claiming you can fix a sinking ship by drilling more holes in its hull.  


 
At best, it’s naive. At worst, it’s self-defeating and disingenuous.  


 
 
The problem centers around the difference between standardized tests and assessments created by classroom teachers. 


 
 
Both types of assessment are supposed to measure what students have learned. But not all learning is equal


   
For example, a beginning chef needs to know how to use the stove, have good knife skills and how to chop an onion. But if you give her a standardized test, it instead might focus on how to make foie gras – something that would only come in handy at a high end French restaurant.


   
That’s not as important in your everyday life, but the tests make it important by focusing on it.  


   
The fact of the matter is that standardized tests do NOT necessarily focus on the most important aspects of a given task. They focus on obscurities – things that most students don’t know.  


   
This is implicit in the design of these exams and is very different from the kinds of tests designed by classroom teachers.  


   
When a teacher makes a test for her students, she’s focused on the individuals in her classes. She asks primarily about the most essential aspects of the subject and in such a way that her students will best understand. There may be a few obscure questions, but the focus is on whether the test takers have learned the material or not.  


   
When psychometricians design a standardized test, on the other hand, they aren’t centered on the student. They aren’t trying to find out if the test taker knows the most important facts or has the most essential skills in each field. Instead, there is a tendency to eliminate the most important test questions so that the test – not the student – will be better equipped to make comparisons between students based on a small set of questions. After all, a standardize test isn’t designed for a few classes – it is one size fits all.  


   
New questions are field tested. They are placed randomly on an active test but don’t count toward the final score. Test takers aren’t told which questions they’ll be graded on and which are just practice questions being tried out on students for the first time. So students presumably give their best effort to both types. Then when the test is scored, the results of the field test questions determine if they’ll be used again as graded questions on a subsequent test.  


   
According to W. James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, standardized test makers take pains to spread out the scores. Questions answered correctly by too many students – regardless of their importance or quality – are often left off the test.  


   
If 40 to 60 percent of test takers answer the question correctly, it might make it onto the test. But questions that are answered correctly by 80 percent or more of test takers are usually jettisoned.  


   
He writes:  

   “As a consequence of the quest for score variance in a standardized achievement test, items on which students perform well are often excluded. However, items on which students perform well often cover the content that, because of its importance, teachers stress. Thus, the better the job that teachers do in teaching important knowledge and/or skills, the less likely it is that there will be items on a standardized achievement test measuring such knowledge and/or skills.”  


   
Think about what this means.  


   
We are engaged in a system of assessment that isn’t concerned with learning so much as weeding people out. It’s not about who knows what, but about which questions to ask that will achieve the predetermined bell curve.  


 
This is important when it comes to equity.  


 
 
If we are guided in large part by standardized test scores, we aren’t guided by authentic learning. We’re guided by a false picture of learning. Therefore, the most effective way – perhaps the only practical way – of raising test scores is to teach directly to a specific test. And not only the test, but the specific version of the test being given that year.

So if we do somehow manage to raise test scores, we haven’t improved academics at all but a mere semblance of it. And thus the equity we might celebrate in such a situation would be just as false. 


 
You got a good score on the MAP test. Hurrah! But that doesn’t mean you know anything of real value except how to take this particular MAP test which, itself, will change after the next round of questions are field tested.


 
 
 
This has huge implications for the quality of education being provided at our schools. Since most administrators have drunk deep of the testing Kool-Aid, they now force teachers to educate in just this manner – to use test scores to drive instruction. So since the tests doesn’t focus on the most essential parts of Reading, Writing, Math, and Science, neither does much of our instruction. 

And if we insist on evaluating the equity of our schools on these test scores, we will only make things that much worse. 


   
We end up chasing the psychometricians. We try to guess which aspects of a subject they think most students don’t know and then we teach our students that to the exclusion of more important information. And since what students don’t know changes, we end up having to change our instructional focus every few years based on the few bread crumbs surreptitiously left for us by the state and the testing corporations.  


   
That is not a good way to teach someone anything. It’s like teaching your child how to ride a bike based on what the neighbor kid doesn’t know.  


   
It’s an endless game of catch up that only benefits the testing industry because they cash in at every level. They get paid to give the tests, to grade the tests and when students fail, they get paid to sell us this year’s remediation material before kids take the test again, and – you guessed it – the testing companies get another check!  


   
It’s a dangerous feedback loop, a cycle that promotes artificially prized snippets of knowledge over constructive wholes. 


 
And let’s not forget where these tests come from


 
They were created in the 1910s and 20s by eugenicists to prove the supremacy of white Europeans over other racial and ethnic groups.  


 
While these original tests are no longer in circulation, the assumptions behind them are an essential part of our modern day standardized tests. 
 


The very method of question selection in today’s tests builds economic and racial bias into the very fabric of the enterprise.  


   
According to Prof. Martin Shapiro of Emory University, when test makers select questions with the greatest gaps between high and low scorers, they are selecting against minorities. Think about it – if they pick questions based on the majority getting it right, which minority got it wrong? In many cases, it’s a racial or ethnic minority. In fact, this may explain why white students historically do better on standardized tests than black and Hispanic students.  


   
This process may factor non-school learning and social background into the questions. They are based on the experiences of white middle-to-upper class children.  


   
So when we continually push for higher test scores, not only are we ultimately dumbing down the quality of education in our schools, but we’re also explicitly lobbying for greater economic and racial bias in our curriculum trickling down from our assessments.  


   
As Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist” puts it:  


   
“Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”  


 
This is incompatible with any enterprise aimed at increasing equity.  


 
You are engaged in a never-ending cycle of teaching to the test at the expense of authentic learning. You’re engaged in making minorities think like their privileged peers – of overcoming who they are just to be accepted into a game.

 
 
This is not education. It is assimilation, and it will always put the assimilated at a disadvantage to the majority – those they are being forced to imitate.  


 
Equity and standardized testing do not go together.  


 
 
They CANNOT go together. They are anathema.  


 
Those who suggest otherwise are either well-meaning fools or duplicitous malefactors.  


 
There is a multi-billion dollar standardized testing industry dependent on keeping us testing our kids.  


 
But we can no longer continue feeding that beast and pretending that we can somehow provide equity to our underserved children, too.  


 
We have to choose – equity or testing.  Fairness or unrestrained capitalism.


 
Do not believe anyone who tells you to support a plan built on both. 

It does not exist.


 

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!

 

The Teacher Exodus Continues Whether You Care or Not

Remember when federal, state and local governments actually seemed poised to do something about the great teacher exodus plaguing our schools?

With an influx of money earmarked to help schools recover from the pandemic, many expected pay raises and bonuses to keep experienced teachers in the classroom.

Ha! That didn’t happen!

Not in most places.

In fact, the very idea seems ludicrous now – and this was being discussed like it was a foregone conclusion just a few months ago at the beginning of the summer.

So what happened?

We found a cheaper way.

Just cut requirements to become a teacher.

Get more college students to enter the field even if they’re bound to run away screaming after a few years in.

It doesn’t matter – as long as we can keep them coming.

The young and dumb.

Or the old and out of options.

Entice retired teachers to come back and sub. Remove hurdles for anyone from a non-teaching field to step in and become a teacher – even military veterans because there’s so much overlap between battlefield experience and second grade reading.

And in the meantime, more and more classroom teachers with decades of experience under their belts are throwing up their hands and leaving.

Stop and think for a moment.

This is fundamentally absurd.

If you have a hole in your pocket and you keep losing your keys, wallet and other vital things from out of your pants, the first thing you do is sew up the hole! You don’t keep putting more things in your pocket!

But that’s only true if you’re actually interested in solving the problem.

Maybe you prefer the status quo. Maybe you even like it or see it as an opportunity to change your wardrobe entirely.

It’s a simple matter of cost.

The educators who have been in the classroom the longest are also the highest paid. So if we just let them go, we can save some money for other things.

Of course the problem of getting excellent teachers in the classroom is only compounded by such thinking. You don’t get more seasoned teachers by letting them leave and putting increasing pressure on those who stay.

And make no mistake – experienced teachers are incredibly valuable. That’s not to say new teachers don’t have their own positive aspects, but the profession’s expert practitioners are its heart and soul.

Think about it.

Like any other profession, the longer you practice it, the better you usually get. For example, no one going under heart surgery would willingly choose a surgeon who had never operated before over a seasoned veteran who has done this successfully multiple times.

But we don’t value the work teachers do nearly as much as we do surgeons. Or lawyers. Or almost anything else that requires a comparable level of education.

That’s really the core issue.

We don’t care about quality teaching. In fact, in many cases we actively don’t want it to occur.

Republicans are literally running a political platform on weakening teachers, schools and education because they need the poorly educated to make up their voting base.

When Trump was President, he actually praised the badly educated because they supported him more than any other demographic.

And even those who aren’t actively against education are more concerned with privatizing the public system for profit. They like it when public education fails because it gives them an excuse to push for more charter schools, more school vouchers, more cyber schools – anything where they can siphon away tax dollars earmarked for education into their own private pocketbooks (and no holes in there even to pay their own taxes)!

So the teacher exodus isn’t being fixed on purpose.

It is a political and economic plot against increasing the average intelligence and knowledge of voters, stealing government funding for personal gain and refusing to increase the quality of a government sponsored service.

In the meantime, more teachers are leaving every day.

A February 2022 report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said the numbers of public school teachers had gone from approximately 10.6 million in January 2020 to 10 million — a net loss of around 600,000 teachers.

In August, the national Education Association (NEA) sounded the alarm that an additional 300,000 educators had left since the report was issued. And it’s only getting worse. An NEA union poll found that 55% of educators were considering leaving education earlier than they had originally planned.

In my own district, there are several teachers who have taken leaves of absence or are sick and had to be temporarily replaced with long term subs. We’re located in western Pennsylvania south of Pittsburgh, just across the river from a plethora of colleges and universities with teacher prep programs. Yet it was pretty difficult to find anyone to fill these positions or serve as day-to-day subs.

There is so much we could be doing to encourage seasoned teachers to stay in the classroom beyond increased pay.

You could cut all unnecessary tasks like formal lesson plans, stop holding staff meetings unless an urgent need presents itself, refrain from new and unproven initiatives, and/or cut duties where possible to increase teacher planning time

And that’s before we even get to the lack of respect, gas lighting, scapegoating, and micromanaging teachers go through on a daily basis.

What we have here is a crisis that cuts to the very heart of America’s identity as a nation.

What do we want to be? A capitalist experiment in school privatization whose only regulation is the free hand of the market? Or a nation supported by a secure system of education that took us to the moon and made us the greatest global superpower the world has ever known?

What do we want to be? A nation of dullards who can be easily manipulated by any passing ideologue? Or a country of critical thinkers who can accept new evidence and make rational decisions based on facts?

There is a cost to becoming a great nation and not just emblazoning the idea on a hat.

That cost is education. It is paying, supporting and respecting veteran teachers.

Are we still willing to pay it?


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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!

Will We Even Try to Keep Students and Teachers Safe from Gun Violence? Or Just Keep Preparing for the Worst?

“Teachers, we are operating on a lockdown. Please keep your doors locked until we tell you it has been lifted.”

Before me a sea of wide eyes and scared faces.

I slowly walked toward the door continuing the lesson I had been giving before the announcement. The door was already shut and secured but I nonchalantly turned the extra deadbolt.

“Click!” it sounded like a gunshot across the suddenly silent room.

I continued talking while making my way back to the blackboard pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

That’s just life in the classroom these days.

According to Eduction Week, there have been 38 school shootings in the US this year resulting in injuries or deaths. That’s up from 34 last year and the highest it’s been since the media source began tracking such things in 2018.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were only 10 such shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.

That comes to a total of 130 school shootings in the last five years.

“Mr. Singer, can I go to the bathroom?” DeVon asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re still under lockdown. I’ll write you a pass as soon as it’s lifted.”

It seems like nowhere is safe.

Three of this year’s shootings were in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The first was on January 19 at Pittsburgh’s Oliver Citywide Academy, a special education school.

A 15-year-old boy waiting in a van to go home was shot and killed after at least one person opened fire outside the school.


The second was on April 5 at Erie High School. A 16-year-old student was shot and injured at the school.

The third was on Sept 27 at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.

A 14-year-old student was killed and four others wounded (ages 17, 15, 14, and 14) in a shooting near the high school athletic field after a football scrimmage.

“Mr. Singer, what’s happening?” Olivia asked.

I turned to her confused at first then I realized what she meant.

“The lockdown? Let me check my laptop. No…. Nothing. I really don’t know, Honey. But I’m sure whatever it is, it will be over soon. Why don’t you get back to the assignment?”

“Okay.”

Such violence isn’t limited to schools.

On Sept 24 three people were shot in Kennywood Park, a popular amusement park in West Mifflin.


Two years ago in September a 15-year-old boy was killed and another was wounded in a shooting at the Haunted Hills Hayride in North Versailles.

In 2020 a man was shot and killed at Monroeville Mall. In 2015, a 17-year-old entered the men’s department on the lower level of Macy’s department store in the evening and shot his intended target and two bystanders, leaving two with critical injuries.

Is there anywhere safe anymore?

You can’t go to the mall. You can’t go on a haunted hayride. You can’t go to an amusement park.

I had students who were hiding in the mall during the 2015 shooting. My daughter wasn’t involved in any shootings but she went to Kennywood this summer.

Where does it stop?

Why are we doing so little?

A few weeks ago my school had another active shooter training for teachers while the students, thankfully, had a day off.

Every few years we do this. Teachers huddle in classrooms and try to react to a shooting scenario. We either barricade ourselves in our classrooms or try to find an escape route. We help train police and local medical personnel.

At this years training, teachers were given a talk by a law enforcement “expert” who regaled us with his time working as a Blackwater mercenary in Afghanistan. He told us how difficult it was to make decisions under fire but that sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.

“Some of you teachers have kids in wheelchairs in your classrooms. You think you’re going to get your whole class out of the building and to safety!? You have to ask yourself, how are you going to get that kid in the wheelchair out? What are you going to do if a child flips out or is too scared to move? I know it’s not nice to think about, but sometimes you have to make decisions that will save the most people – not necessarily everyone.”

It made me want to vomit. But he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

I like to believe I’d pick the child up out of his wheelchair, throw him over my shoulder and carry him to safety. I hope I could calm down a child having a panic attack and whisk her out of the building.

But could I really? Alone?

We do everything we can to prepare ourselves in case something like this happens – but as a society we do nothing – NOTHING – to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

Where’s increased gun regulations to make sure these weapons aren’t getting into the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable?

Where are bans on assault weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and war?

Where is increased liability for those recklessly selling firearms?

Where is anything we could be doing to make our schools, malls and places of entertainment safer?

“Mr. Singer, I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“You can’t hold it just a little longer, DeVon?”

“No,” he said hoping from foot to foot.

“Number 1 or number 2?”

He giggled and held up one finger.

I reluctantly pointed to the trash can.

“Take it over there to the corner. I’ll stand in front of you so…”

“Attention teachers! The lockdown has now been lifted. You may continue as normal.”

I sighed, unlocked the door and wrote DeVon a bathroom pass.

We never did find out what triggered the lockdown. One time it was a gunshot in the surrounding neighborhood. Another time it was an unauthorized adult seeking access to the building.

It could be much worse. And it will happen again.

The chances of it being a school shooter are low.

The chances of myself or my students being hurt or killed is even lower.

But it’s still too high.

Living under the constant shadow of this threat is creating a trauma that we’ve given up trying to solve and just call normal.

It is unacceptable.

We need to do more.

Not just on the days when one of these tragedies strike – but every day.

It is not safe for students and teachers – it will NEVER be completely safe, but it can be safer.

That’s the point – how safe can we make it?

And why aren’t we doing anything to reach that goal other than preparing for the worst?


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Top Five Republican Nightmare Fantasies About Public Schools

Republicans are fighting against a version of public education that does not exist.

Critical race theory, pornographic school books, and other bogeymen haunt their platforms without any evidence that this stuff is a reality.

Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee for Governor of Pennsylvania, actually promises to ban pole dancing in public schools.

Pole dancing!

“On day one, the sexualization of our kids, pole dancing, and all this other crap that’s going on will be forbidden in our schools,” he says.

Mr. Mastriano, I hate to tell you this, but the only school in the commonwealth where there was anything like what you describe was one of those charter schools you love so much. The Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School in Philadelphia used to run an illegal nightclub in the cafeteria after dark.

But at authentic public schools with things like regulations and school boards – no. That just doesn’t happen here.

Maybe if your plan to waste taxpayer dollars on universal school vouchers goes through you’ll get your wish.

But reality has never stopped the state Senator from complaining about a list of fictional public education woes.

On Twitter he routinely makes statements like this from August:

“Democrats are pushing woke ideology, racism, and sexuality on children in the classroom. As your governor, I will ban this on day one…”

Yikes. This is like promising to ban sorcery in school – another thing we don’t teach.

This isn’t the Republican Party I remember when I was growing up.

Instead of personal autonomy and free trade, today’s GOP solemnly swears to eliminate a series of racially and sexually motivated phantasms that are like shadows under a child’s bed. I suppose it’s easier to get rid of something that’s never existed than to fix the real problems we actually have.

But let’s be honest – for some folks this kind of unhinged messaging works.

Perhaps if we examine the most common claims against public schools, maybe we can see through the mist and electioneering to the very real fears the GOP is using in a desperate attempt to manipulate voters to their side.

So here are the top 5 Republican nightmare fantasies about public schools:

1) Teaching boys to hate themselves

“I believe that white men are the most persecuted identity in America.”

Georgia Congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene actually said this – out loud – in an interview.

And the GOP attention-seeker is not alone.

Many Republicans claim anti-male discrimination is wide spread. Men are blamed for so many things in our society they’re forced to turn to porn and video games because they have no other options, Green claimed.

And women have become “… too weak and pathetic to take care of themselves. They want a great big giant government to take care of them. It’s such a hypocrisy. They claim they want the future to be female, but they aren’t capable of taking care of themself.”

How did we get here? Public schools that teach sexual politics.

But, Marjorie, the following ARE facts:

-The US is one of only eight countries in the world that does not provide any form of paid maternity leave by federal law.  

-Women earn 83 cents for every dollar a man makes.

-Despite being almost 60% of the population, women hold only 26% of the seats in Congress.

Should we teach such facts in school?

Contrary to Republican opinion, teaching about the many ways women are unfairly treated in the US does not turn men into victims or make women helpless.

Male students are not responsible for a world created by past generations but they ARE responsible for picking a side and doing something about it as they become adult members of society.

In a country where a GOP-controlled Supreme Court has usurped women’s bodily autonomy by overturning Roe v. Wade and men still have untold economic advantages, redefining men as victims and education as infantalizing is, itself, a fantasy.

2) Teaching kids to be gay

Republicans literally think public school teachers are turning kids gay.

That’s the impetus behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill and several copycat bits of legislation the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is pumping out across the country.

They insist that even mentioning LGBTQ people exist is grooming children into a sexuality they wouldn’t otherwise have.

First, believing this shows massive ignorance.

No one can really be coerced into a sexuality they didn’t already possess. As you grow and mature, you have sexual preferences. It’s not really a matter of nurture – it’s nature. People are born this way.

Second, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that there are other ways to express your sexuality is not going to make people ignore their innate inclinations. The idea seems to be that if kids never find out there are other options, they’ll simply be satisfied with heterosexuality – how they’re told to think and feel.

And finally, it is extremely unfair to LGBTQ people. We already live in a culture that celebrates cis hetero-normativity. Trying to erase everyone else causes real harm and trauma to both people who are different and to those who are not but never get to fully understand the entire spectrum of humanity.

Teachers are not making kids gay, but they are telling kids that gay people are real. We are trying to stop bullying and homophobia. And let’s be honest – that’s really what Republicans are objecting to here.

They want it to be okay to hate gay people.

Sorry. Not in public school.

3) Teaching kids to be trans

This is where the backlash against using appropriate pronouns and recognizing trans people is coming from.

As much as Republicans hate gay people, they absolutely despise and fear the trans community.

Once again they conflate acknowledging the existence of the other with coercing students to become the other. Just knowing that trans is an authentic way human beings can live is seen as a threat. But if this kind of knowledge makes you trans, you almost certainly were trans already.

It hurts no one to call another person by the pronouns they would prefer you use. That’s just respect – treating others like you would want to be treated.

It hurts no one to see the world as bigger than just one way of living. This is reality, after all. And that’s what Republicans are rebelling against.

Far from teachers coercing students to become trans, the GOP wants us to bully children not to be. They want to constrain difference, punish and hide it.

This cannot be the mission of public schools. At its best, it is for everyone and must respect each child on their own terms.

It’s not easy. Recognizing such differences can be messy and challenging, but that’s life. Deal with it.

4) Teaching kids to hate white people

This is one of the most common complaints of Republicans everywhere.

Thy say public schools are woke. Public school teachers talk about racism and prejudice. They teach what was, what is and encourage kids to act to dismantle systems of injustice against people of color that persist.

Yeah. We do that.

I make no apologies.

It’s not Critical Race Theory (which is a legal framework) nor do we teach anyone to hate white people. But we do teach what whiteness has done and continues to do.

It’s called history and current events.

White kids today are not responsible for slavery, Jim Crow or a host of evils perpetrated throughout our collective past. But that doesn’t remove their responsibility to do something about it today.

Republicans, though, try to flip the script and call this teaching, itself, racism. That’s absurd! It is not racist to show kids injustice.

For example:

-Median household income for Black people, at $43,862, is 37 precent less than that of white people, at $69,823.

-Census data shows Black couples are more than twice as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage or a home improvement loan, which leads to just 59 percent of the median home equity white households have, and just 13 percent of Black wealth.

-A Black child born today can expect to live four years less than a white one.

-Black people have been more than twice as likely as white people to experience threats or uses of force during police encounters, and three times more likely to be jailed if arrested.

These facts matter.

They shouldn’t make children hate white people, but they may encourage them to hate white supremacy.

And that’s what Republicans are really against.

5) Teaching kids to be sexually active

This may be the strangest fantasy the GOP is trying to spread about public school.

They say we’re making kids engage in sexual activity. Which is strange because according to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer US children are choosing to engage in sexual activity.

An estimated 55% of male and female teens have had sexual intercourse by age 18, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

However, these percentages have declined since 1988 when 51% of female and 60% of male teens had engaged in sexual activity.

If public schools are teaching kids to bump uglies, we’re doing a bad job.

Are kids more sexualized today than in the past? Probably. But that’s a result of the culture. When you sell teenagers shorts with the word “juicy” on the butt, don’t complain about public schools.

Some schools offer sex education classes, but they are focused on health and wellness. There is no encouragement to have sex. In fact, many such classes are still teaching abstinence only instead of safe contraception.

The idea that public schools are teaching sex is just dog whistle politics. It is Republicans trying to scare parents that public schools are instilling values they don’t share. It is blaming public schools for social ills that the schools didn’t cause and don’t control.

Looked at calmly and rationally, all of these fantasies are just scare tactics to get the gullible to react emotionally on election day.

They want to terrify responsive voters into giving GOP candidates the power to stop a host of things that never really existed. They want an excuse for doing nothing to solve the actual problems of the day.

There’s a reason they spend so much time railing against woke education – they want to ensure America remains asleep.

A fitful sleep – tossing and turning in various Republican nightmares.


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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!

Classroom Grades Show Learning Better than Standardized Test Scores

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

William Bruce Cameron

This summer my family suffered a tremendous blow.

My grandmother, Ce Ce, died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stumbled. I stammered.

I really had no way of judging such a thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we valued them MORE?

The world would be a very different place.

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

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

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

How is that possible?

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

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

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

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

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

Why the disparity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me back to my little cousins.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Just CLICK HERE.

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!

The MAP Test – Selling Schools Unnecessary Junk at Student Expense

School districts are easy targets for grifters.

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

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

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

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

As luck would have it, they did.

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

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

Three staples in, it was irreparably jammed.

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

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

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

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

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

But think of the money wasted here!

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

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

And they don’t even work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heck no!

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

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

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

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

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

How is that useful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can imagine how much they’ll love that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State test – you can opt out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look at my steadily increasing class sizes and wonder.

My district doesn’t need the MAP test.

We need a test of basic decency for decision makers.


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

Teachers are fleeing the profession in droves.

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

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

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

Why is this surprising?

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

What is that agenda?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, she’s already getting things wrong.

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

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

But what’s actually in the plan?

A lot of vague generalizations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

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

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

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

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

Talk about anemic language!

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

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

Under focus two, the plan calls for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are described as:

“high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators” and

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

But “high quality” by whose definition?

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

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

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

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

So where does that leave us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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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!