The Welcome Back Letter I’d Love to Give My Students – But Can’t

high-school-teacher-gives-student-a-high-five-893988494-5a72007bba61770037b681bf

 
I’m a very lucky guy.

 

I get to teach language arts in an amazing urban middle school in Western Pennsylvania.

 

I have reasonable autonomy, opportunities to collaborate with my co-workers and strong union protections.

 

Even so, I know there are a lot of teachers out there who don’t have those things.

 

Yet even after counting all my blessings, I still can’t do whatever I want. I can’t even do everything that my years of academic training and experience tells me would be best for my students.

 

Every year I’m told that my worth as a professional is mainly defined by student test scores – that I should use those scores to drive my entire class, that my major goal should be increasing the scores and my every waking moment should be spent examining past scores.

 
Every year I have to watch out for this data metric and do that much more work because my district has lost even more funding to the vampire charter school in our neighborhood. Or lawmakers have compromised away another several hours of my time to do meaningless paperwork – time that I either have to take away from my students or my family.

 

I see all this and I just want to scream.

 

I want to tell everyone what’s happening so that they can help stop the madness.

 

And I do scream into the whirl of cyberspace on my blog.

 

But I can’t do the same in my district. I can’t tell those right in front of me – my school board, my administrators, the parents or students.

 

Doing so would put everything I do have in jeopardy.

 

I know this because it already has.

 

Every year on the first day of school, I give my students a welcome letter.

 
This is the kind of letter I’d love to give them – but don’t dare:

 


Dear Students,

 

In a matter of weeks you will be invited back to school and I wanted to let you in on a little secret.

 

We missed you.

 

That’s right. Your teachers missed the heck out of you over the summer.

 

Don’t get me wrong. We enjoyed our time at home with our own children, time on vacation, time spent continuing to refine our craft, and/or time spent working another job. (Hey! Those extra pencils, papers, books and supplies aren’t going to buy themselves! Right?)

 

Here’s another little secret – your teachers come to school every day not because we have to, but because we want to.

 

We literally could do anything else with our lives but we’ve devoted our time to you.

 

Why? Because we love you.

 

I know that’s mushy talk, but it’s true.

 

Another secret: We know you’re nervous about your first day back. But – heck – so are we!

 

Don’t forget you’re young. We’re old!

 

We know you’re wondering who your teachers will be this year, what they’ll require you to do, which friends will be in your classes, who will sit with you at lunch…

 

We wonder if we’re still going to be able to do all the things we need to do to help you learn? Are we going to be able to provide a safe, secure environment for you? Will we be able to keep you engaged, and excited to learn? Will we be able to actually teach everything you want and need to know?

 

This is going to be a challenging year for all of us.

 

But that’s a good thing.

 

We’re in this together.

 

That’s kind of an important point.

 

You see, we know you’ll probably be asked to take high stakes standardized tests. Just know that it’s not us who’s asking. It’s the state and federal government. Lawmakers seem to think that your answers on multiple choice tests are very, very important.

 

Another secret: they aren’t.

 

We don’t care how you score on these tests. Not really. We don’t even care if you take them at all – and if your parents decide not to have you sit through this garbage, we will honor their wishes, because they are the ultimate authority on you – their children.

 

We know that standardized tests don’t assess how much you learn. The tests your teachers make do that – the work that you do in class every day shows it better than any canned corporate exam.

 

We know those scores don’t define who you are. We see you every day. We see your creativity, your intelligence, your fire, your verve, your passion.

 

We want to stoke that fire and help you become the people you always wanted to be.

 

And none of that can be shown on a standardized test.

 

THAT’S our job – not to turn you into great test takers but into the kind of people you most want to be.

 

Oh. By the way, please thank your parents for us.

 

Thank them for ignoring the hype about the flashy charter school that hedge fund managers opened on the hill – the school sucking up our funding, cutting services for students and making its investors very rich.

 

Thank them for declining the shiny school voucher to Pastor Dan’s Creationism, Anti-vaxxor, Climate Denial Academy. Thank them for passing up the tax rebate to Ivy Laurel Prep – where the rich white kids go.

 
Thank them for trusting us with the most precious things in their lives – you.

 

You really mean a lot to all of us.

 

So rest up and try to have fun for the remainder of your summer. We’ll do the same.

 

And before you know it, we’ll be back together in class expanding minds, expressing hearts and having a great time!

 

Love you all!

 

Your Teachers


 
That’s the kind of welcome back letter I would love to give my students – but can’t.

 

 

It was partially inspired by a REAL welcome back letter given by a New York Superintendent.

 
Around this time last year, he gave it to 11 principals and about 600 teachers in the
Patchogue-Medford School District before someone posted it online and it went viral.

 

His audience was teachers, but his message was the same:

 

Aug. 14, 2018

 

Dear….

 

Once again… this letter is too let you know I DO NOT CARE what your state growth score is. Let me be clear… I DO NOT CARE. It does not define you. You are more than a score. I’m hoping you know by now that the children and parents you serve appreciate your talents and the ability to make a difference in their lives. Keep your head up and your eye on what is most important… your students and your teaching craft.

 

The Patchogue-Medford School District fully supports you as an educator, regardless of what this meaningless, invalid and inhumane score states. You have my permission to throw it out, or use it for any creative ways you may think of. I have a feeling divergent thinking will be at an all-time high at Pat-Med. Let me know if you need anything and it is my sincere hope you have an outstanding year.

 

With Warmest Regards,

 

Michael J. Hynes, Ed. D.
Superintendent of Schools

 

image

38014006_10156079233558860_7115622694678167552_n

 
Cheers to Superintendent Hynes!

 

If only every teacher, administrator and school board member could be that brave and honest!

 
Here’s another letter given to year six students at Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire, England, along with their results from a recent standardized exam:

 

“Please find enclosed your end of KS2 test results. We are very proud of you as you demonstrated huge amounts of commitment and tried your very best during this tricky week.

 

However, we are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you- the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do.

 

They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day.

 

They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school.

 

They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends.

 

They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.

 

So enjoy your results and be very proud of these but remember there are many ways of being smart.”

 

BskDhaPIYAAMdpd

 

Here’s another one to parents from a principal in Singapore:

 

“The exams of your child are to start soon. I know you are all really anxious for your child to do well.

 

But, please do remember, amongst the students who will be sitting for the exams there is an artist, who doesn’t need to understand Math… There is an entrepreneur, who doesn’t care about History or English literature…There is a musician, whose Chemistry marks won’t matter…There’s an athlete…whose physical fitness is more important than Physics… If your child does get top marks, that’s great! But if he or she doesn’t…please don’t take away their self-confidence and dignity from them. Tell them it’s OK, its just an exam! They are cut out for much bigger things in life. Tell them, no matter what they score…you love them and will not judge them.

 

Please do this, and when you do… watch your children conquer the world. One exam or low mark won’t take away…their dreams and talent. And please, do not think that doctors and engineers…are the only happy people in the world.”

PrincipalsLetterToParents

 
If teachers and principals were allowed to speak freely, I bet there’d be a lot more of these kinds of letters.

 

School should not be centered on testing and test scores. It should be centered on students.


 

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!

book-2

Top 7 Ways Technology Stifles Student Learning in My Classroom

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 9.25.31 PM

 
As a middle school teacher, I have real concerns about the ways technology is used in the classroom and the effects it’s having on students.

 

That does not make me a technophobe.

 

The fact that you are reading this article on a blog – a regularly updated Website containing personal writings or a weBLOG – should prove that point.

 

I use technology in my everyday life and in many ways find it indispensable.

 

However, that does not mean I embrace all uses of technology just as criticizing some forms does not mean I think we should get rid of them all.

 

But after 17 years of teaching, I have legitimate concerns about what all this technology is doing to our students and our schools.

 

I have seen technologies come and go. Some – like a computerized grade book – have been extremely helpful, and I would not want to have to do my job without them.

 

Others have fallen by the wayside, been discontinued or proven a waste of time or even worse – they’ve become impediments rather than assistants to student learning.

 

In general, I think we have become too reliant on technology in schools. We’ve welcomed and incorporated it without testing it, or even reflecting upon whether it promises to offer better pathways toward student comprehension and discovery or whether it merely offers flash and novelty devoid of substance. And perhaps even more frightening, we have not investigated the ways in which using these technologies actually puts student privacy and intellectual growth at risk.
So, without further ado, here are the top 7 ways technology stifles student learning in my classroom:

 

1) It Stops Kids from Reading

 

I’m a language arts teacher. I want my students to read.

 

I could simply assign readings and hope students do them, but that’s not practical in today’s fast-paced world. When kids are bombarded by untold promises of instant gratification, a ream of paper bordered by cardboard doesn’t hold much of a claim on their attentions.

 

So like many teachers, I bring reading into the classroom, itself. I usually set aside class time every other day for students to read self-selected books for about 15 minutes. Students have access to the school library and a classroom library filled with books usually popular with kids their age or popular with my previous students. They can pick something from outside these boundaries, but if they haven’t already done so, I have them covered.

 

In the days before every student had an iPad, this worked fairly well. Students often had books with them they wanted to read or would quickly select one from my collection and give it a try.

 

Sometimes when there was down time in class, when they had finished assignments or tests early, they would even pick up their self-selected books and read a little.

 

What a different world it was!

 

Now that every student has an omnipresent technological device, this has become increasingly impossible. I still set aside 15 minutes, but students often waste the time looking for an eBook on-line and end up reading just the first chapter or two since they’re free. Others read nothing but the digital equivalent of magazine articles or look up disparate facts. And still others try to hide that they’re not reading at all but playing video games or watching YouTube videos.

 

Even under the best of circumstances, the act of reading on a device is different than reading a printed page.

 

The act of reading traditional books is slower, closer and more linear. It’s the way teachers really want kids to read and which will most increase comprehension.

 

Reading on a screen is a product of social media. We scroll or scan through, seeking specific information and clicking on hyperlinks.

 

The old style of reading was transformative, absorbing and a much deeper and richer experience. The newer style is more superficial, mechanical and extrinsic. (And, Yes, I’m aware of which style of reading you’re engaged in now!)

 

To be fair, some students actually prefer reading eBooks on devices and may even experience the richness of the original style. But they are few and far between. Usually students use the devices to escape from the deeper kind of reading because they’ve never really done it before and don’t understand what it really is. And when they have this choice, they may never find out.

 

2) It’s a Distraction

 

As a teacher, I want my students to be able to focus on one thing at a time. There are situations and assignments that call for multitasking, but usually we need students to be able to look at text closely, examine an argument, identify figurative language or write creatively, etc. They can’t do that if they’re constantly checking their devices.

 

We have to admit that iPads, laptops, social media, etc. are addictive. If given the chance, many teenagers will spend hours there. Heck, many adults will, too. It’s common for students to rush through assignments to get back to watching videos about the latest on-line gaming trend Fortnite, or listen to music with earbuds, or others such things.

 

Technology is usually associated in their minds with entertainment, not education. I’m not saying that technologies don’t have their place. If you want to look up information quickly, devices are great. But the most common words I tell my students on any given day are “Apples up.” In others words, turn your iPads face down and focus on the lesson at hand.

 

3) It’s Unhealthy

 

For most students, technology is not a novelty. It is something with which they already have a lot of experience. Many studies find that kids between the ages of 13-18 spend up to 18 hours a day in front of a screen.

 

Why are we adding to that in the classroom?

 

Children need face-to-face interactions. They need to learn social skills, how to communicate with people, not screen avatars. They need time outdoors, time to get up and move around and interact with the world. Heck! They need unstructured time where they actually experience boredom and have to find ways to cope.

 

We’re robbing them of these skills by giving in to the electronic nanny. And it’s creating children who are less able to survive without that technological crutch.

 

As technology has become more widespread in my classes, I’ve noticed attention spans decreasing. So has self control, mindfulness and an ability for critical thinking.

 

4) It Costs Too Much

 

Public schools are already grossly underfunded. We have to pick and choose the most effective tools to help kids learn. Technology is often very expensive and takes away valuable money and resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

 

And the way these technologies are marketed is often reminiscent of the drug trade. The first uses are free. But if you want to expand, it will cost.

 

Even those that don’t demand briefcasefulls of cash often recoup their costs by collecting and selling student data.

 

In the school system, we are privy to an enormous amount of information about the children in our care – information that we are tasked with keeping safe. Ed tech software and technologies also routinely collect data on students. But they are not as constrained or legally responsible for it in the way schools and teachers are.

 

Some of the data technologies collect is indeed necessary for whatever task they perform – tabulating which questions students get correct and incorrect, etc. However, much of it is unnecessary for those tasks – information about student preferences or marketing information.

 
We have no guarantee that this data is secure. The FBI has warned schools, parents and students of information breaches at these ed tech companies. And the contracts these companies have with schools and/or users are shady at best. They don’t guarantee your data will be secure, don’t accept liability and even when they do, they routinely warn that their policies can change at any time without warning – especially if they go bankrupt.

 

These are costs too expensive to pay.

 

5) It Has Never Been Proven to Help Kids Learn

Educational technologies’ claims about student learning outcomes are based on faith not facts. There are few (if any) long-term, large scale, peer reviewed studies showing that most technologies are effective educational tools.

 
This is partially because they’re too new to have been around long enough to be adequately tested. Moreover, the field is flooded with “studies” payed for by the same companies or organizations being studied – which is like having McDonald’s tell you the McRib is nutritious. Some small-scale peer reviewed studies have been done, but the results have been inconclusive.

 

We are literally unleashing these devices and software applications on children without knowing their full effects.

 

Ed tech is a market-based solution to an academic problem. It is the triumph of big business over pedagogy.

 

Our children deserve better than this.

 

6) It Perpetuates Bad Pedagogy and Assessment

Ed tech is almost always organized around standardized testing. It takes the multiple choice test as the ultimate form of assessment and arranges itself around that paradigm.

 

Software basically teaches to the test. It shows users the kinds of questions that will be asked, how to solve them and then gauges their success by giving them test-based questions.

 

It’s ironic because the marketing departments of these corporations usually sell this junk as “personalized learning,” “individualized learning,” or “competency” or “proficiency based education.” They want you to think that the program is tailor made to the user when it’s actually just a prepackaged mess. If you can’t answer a question of type A, you don’t get to move on to a question of type B. That’s all.

 

This can be an effective method for increasing test scores – if students aren’t so tuned out by the experience that they don’t engage with what they’re being presented – which is what I often find with my students when I’ve been forced to subject them to this nonsense.

 

However, learning how to take a multiple choice test on reading is not the same as learning how to read and understand. It is not the same as interacting with, comprehending and forming an opinion about that reading.

 

This is not the best way to teach just as having students fill out endless worksheets is not, nor is even having a flesh-and-blood teacher do endless test prep.

 

It is brainwashing – teaching kids to think like the designers of a test when we should be teaching them how to think for themselves and like themselves.

 

7) It Undermines Public Schools and Teachers

 

Ed tech companies are not philanthropies. They are in this business to turn a profit. And the best way to do that is to displace and disrupt the public education system.

 

There is an entire testing and school privatization industrial complex out there trying to prove that traditional public schools are bad and need replaced with business solutions.

 

These aren’t just charter schools or private and parochial schools cashing in on vouchers siphoning tax money away from children and into their private pockets. These are ed tech companies, too.

 

The ultimate goal is to get rid of the very concept of school, itself, and to replace it with on-line cyber schooling that can be accessed anywhere without the need for any living, breathing teachers in the mix. Or at best, they want to reduce the teacher to a mere facilitator. It is the device and the software that teach. It is only the human being’s job to make sure the student is engaging with the technology.

 

This is not in the best interest of students. It is in the best interests of companies and corporations.

 

When we give away our responsibilities, our autonomy, and our humanity to these businesses, we are selling out our children.

 

I’m not saying that all technology is bad or even that it should never be used in the classroom.

 

But we must approach it with caution and intelligence. We should always know why we’re using it, what end we expect it to have and fully comprehend the consequences.

 

Otherwise our children will be left to pay for our own shortsightedness.


 

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!

ebook-2 (1)

eBackpack Bankruptcy May Put Student & Teacher Data in Peril

kelly-sikkema-266805-660x400@2x

 
Teachers put their assignments into an on-line data base.

 

Students access them on their computers, iPads or other devices and then submit their work via the Internet.

 

What could go wrong?

 

Plenty. Especially when the company that provides this service goes bankrupt.

 

And that’s exactly what’s happened with Texas-based educational technology company eBackpack.

 

All those teacher assignments and student works are still there in computer servers somewhere. And now that eBackpack has filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, all of it has become assets the company could decide to sell off to pay its debts.

 
The company explicitly reserves the right to do so according to its own Privacy Statement:

 

“The information we collect is used to improve the content of our Web pages and the quality of our service, and is not shared with or sold to other organizations for commercial purposes, except to provide products or services you’ve requested, when we have your permission, or under the following circumstances:

 

-We transfer information about you if eBackpack or part of it is acquired by or merged with another company. In this event, eBackpack will notify you before information about you is transferred and becomes subject to a different privacy policy.” [Emphasis mine]

 

Well that’s comforting. I wonder how a company that will no longer exist will have staff to notify former customers about what’s happening to the mountains of data we put in its hands.

 

Even under the best of circumstances, who will it notify? Teachers? Students? Parents? Or just the administrators or school boards who managed the over all accounts for individual districts?

 

eBackpack’s Terms of Service Agreement contains several red flags that someone should have noticed before students’ privacy was jeopardized:

 
“-eBackpack may assign its rights and obligations under these Terms to a third party without your consent.

 

“-You agree to use the Service at your own risk, without any liability whatsoever to eBackpack.

 

-1.1. Your use of the Service is at your sole risk. The Service is provided on an “as is,” “as available” and “with all faults” basis. The Service is owned and copyrighted by eBackpack and offered through a subscription, not sold, to you.

 

-10.1. eBackpack reserves the right at any time and from time to time to modify or discontinue, temporarily or permanently, the Service (or any part thereof) with or without notice.

 

-By submitting Content to eBackpack, you grant eBackpack a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free right to copy, display, modify, transmit, make derivative works of, and distribute your Content for the purpose of providing or developing the Service.

 

-14.2. You consent to eBackpack’s use and/or references to your name, directly or indirectly, in eBackpack’s marketing and training materials. You consent to eBackpack’s use of your communication with eBackpack for marketing and training materials. You may not use eBackpack’s name or trademark without eBackpack’s prior written consent.”

 
It’s not like schools weren’t warned.

 
Less than a year ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) issued a strong statement cautioning consumers that edtech companies put student data at risk.

 

 

The bureau advised parents, teachers and administrators to take several steps to safeguard children’s privacy. The organization also pushed for the federal government to revise privacy laws to better protect kids from this industry.

 

In addition, commonsense.org – a nonprofit studying education issues – conducted a three-year review of 100 edtech companies. It concluded that 74% of these businesses hold the right to transfer any personal information they collect if the company is acquired, merged, or files for bankruptcy.

 

The authors wrote that there is “a widespread lack of transparency, as well as inconsistent privacy and security practices” in how student information is collected, used, and disclosed.

 

 

Why would any company want such student data?

 

It helps market products and, itself, can be a very marketable product.

 

For instance, imagine how much more effective the hiring process would be if businesses had access to applicants school attendance records. Imagine if businesses had an applicant’s entire academic record.

 

Employers could buy vast amounts of data and use algorithms to sort through it looking for red flags without fully comprehending what was being compiled. Imagine an applicant being turned down for a job because of low middle school attendance but not being able to explain that this was due to a legitimate illness.

 

There are reasons we protect people’s privacy. You shouldn’t have to explain your score on a 3rd grade spelling test the rest of your life or have the need for special education services become a liability on your credit record.

 

Yet all of these things are possible when student data is up for grabs as it may be in this instance.

 
This is personal to me.

 

My district uses eBackpack.

 

Yet it was for these exact reasons that I never jumped on the bandwagon with my own students in my classroom.

 

I experimented somewhat with the platform, myself, to see what it offered and to weigh whether the advantages canceled out the disadvantages.

 

If I had decided to move forward, I would have asked parent permission first, but in the end, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk – and boy am I glad!

 

Yet having interacted with the platform at all, I received the following email from the company yesterday:

 

“Dear User,

 

We regret to inform you that this 2018-2019 school year is the last year eBackpack will be operating.  We will not be accepting any renewals going forward and we will not be providing any services past July 31, 2019. All services will be terminated on that date. Please download and save to your own devices any data prior to July 31, 2019. Once the services for eBackpack are turned off, your files and data will no longer be accessible, and we will not have staff available to respond to any customer inquiries. We appreciate your support over the past years and we will truly miss working with you all!

 
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to send an email to edison@ebackpack.com or billing@ebackpck.com.
Again, we appreciate your time with us and all of your support.

 
Thank you,
 eBackpack Team”

 

I haven’t tried to contact the company, but I’m seeing on Reddit that others have been unable to do so.

 

One customer wrote:

 

“We use eBackpack and we are unable to pay our bill as no one answers their number or responds to emails. A quick Google search shows recent bankruptcy procedure. Anyone know anything? Am I the only one still using them?”

 

EBACKPACK, LLC did in fact file a chapter 7 bankruptcy case on Feb 8, according to docket information on-line.

 
Chapter 7 is sometimes called straight bankruptcy or liquidation bankruptcy. In general, the court appoints a trustee to oversee the case, take the company’s assets, sell them and distribute the money to the creditors who file claims. However, the trustee doesn’t take every last bit of company property. Owners are allowed to keep enough  “exempt” property to get a “fresh start.”

 

 

This is big business. Venture capitalists have invested more than $1.8 billion in the edtech industry in 2015, alone.

 
At this time, it is still unclear exactly how many students and teachers have been put at risk.

 

I can’t find information anywhere about how many student or teacher accounts are in jeopardy or how many districts used the platform.

 
Hopefully this will be a wakeup call that the edtech industry needs to be more closely monitored and regulated.

 
We cannot continue to put convenience and profit ahead of student and teacher safety.

 


 

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!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Student Test Scores May Play a Smaller Role in Future PA Teacher Evaluations

Group Of Elementary Age Children In Art Class With Teacher

 

Pennsylvania lawmakers may have finally realized that treating teachers like crap isn’t a good way to improve public schools.

 

Across the country it’s getting harder to fill teaching positions with qualified educators. And that’s because of the way we treat the people who volunteer to educate the next generation.

 

You can’t raise expectations while taking away resources, union protections, and fair ways to evaluate their work.

 

And to his credit, state Sen. Ryan Aument seems to have finally seen the light.

 

In 2012, the Republican from Lancaster County was one of the leading proponents of the Commonwealth’s new teacher evaluation system which drastically increased the amount student test scores are used to assess educators.

 

But now Aument and other Republicans are proposing new legislation to cut back on these same measures.

 

Under the current system, only 50 percent of state teachers annual evaluations come from observations of what they actually do in the classroom. The rest comes from student test scores and other factors that are out of their control.

 

The proposed legislation would increase teacher observations to 70 percent of their evaluations and try to account for student poverty – in addition to student test scores – in the remaining 30 percent.

 

If passed, the new evaluation system would begin in the 2021-22 school year.

 

Screen Shot 2019-07-19 at 12.17.23 AM
Source: PSEA

The proposed legislation – Senate Bill 751passed in the Senate by a vote of 38-11.

 

However, the identical House Bill 1607 proposed by Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford County) was not considered in time before the legislative session ended. It is expected to come up for a vote in the fall.

 

J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, said that the governor generally supports the proposal. It has also been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).

 

Each year teachers are judged either Distinguished, Proficient, Needs Improvement or Failing. The first two are passing scores. The last two are not and require teachers to be more closely monitored, more frequently evaluated, complete a performance improvement plan and if improvements are not made, they can be fired.

 

If approved, the new bill would shorten the window when teachers are penalized for bad evaluations.

 

Under the current system, teachers who get two “Needs Improvement” ratings in 10 years can be sacked. The new bill shortens that period to four years. This incentivizes improvement and doesn’t hold a bad evaluation over a teacher’s head for a decade.

 

Moreover, the current law only allows principals to judge a very small percentage of their staff as Distinguished – the top of the scale. The proposed law puts no cap on this allowing them to give more honest and accurate evaluations.

 

Finally, there’s the issue of Student Learning Outcomes or SLOs. These are cumbersome and time consuming evaluations teachers are currently required to create and submit to their administrators for approval before conducting complicated performance measures of their classes that must be reviewed a second time by administrators as part of the annual evaluation.

 

I can’t find anywhere in either bill that spells out that these SLOs would be discontinued, but that does appear to be the case. There is no mention of them whatsoever in the new proposals where in the current law they make up 20% of the total evaluation.

 

The only thing I see that’s even close to the SLO is the requirement under Section 1138.7. Overall performance rating. Part II:

 

“A classroom teacher shall provide documented input to an evaluator on the development of teacher-specific data measures and annual results of data. The documented input shall be included with documentation of the classroom teacher’s overall annual rating.”

 

However, I don’t think this is the same thing.

 

Despite bipartisan support, there are important groups calling for caution on the proposal.

 

Teachers in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh districts – the areas of the state with the highest percentage of impoverished students – say that they weren’t consulted on the bill and have not had time to fully consider it. Both groups belong to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

 

They worry that the poverty index included in the bill may not accurately account for  economic disparities and whether the proposal really reduces the influence of standardized testing on teacher evaluations. After all, test scores are part of the teacher specific evaluation which under the proposal would go from 15-20 percent of educator’s evaluations. It may be the elimination of the SLOs which rely on student performance that ultimately reduce student outcomes from the evaluation while slightly increasing standardized test scores.

 

In any case, educators and advocates should scour the proposed legislation in the summer months to ensure that legislators know the full impact of what they’ll be asked to vote on as early as September.

 

The proposal may have been initiated in part to deal with the nationwide plague of teachers walking off the job due to unfair legislative practices and the demonization of educators. Since 1996, the number of undergraduate education majors has declined by 55 percent. And, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the number of newly issued instructional teaching certificates in the Commonwealth has dropped by 71 percent since 2009. The state used to issue more than 14,000 new teachers licenses  annually. In 2016-17, the state only gave out 4,412.

 

Perhaps offering educators more equitable evaluations may help stem the tide – otherwise we’ll soon find our classrooms filled with students that no one is willing to teach.

 

Another reason behind the new proposal may be a reaction to previous bad legislation in Harrisburg.

 

It seems to be an attempt to numb some of the sting from a 2017 bill that ended seniority-based teacher layoffs in the Commonwealth and instead tied those decisions to these teacher evaluations.

 

Now teachers who receive Unsatisfactory evaluations – even if that only means they need improvement – are the first to go. It allows administrators to stack the deck against teachers they don’t like, teachers at the top of the pay scale or who advocate for policies different than those favored by the bosses.

 

Frankly, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

 

That bill was passed mostly by the Republican majority and though Wolf could have vetoed it, he chose to let it become law without his signature.

 

As bad as it is, it set a fire under legislators to at least create a better system for teacher evaluation which they seem to have actually taken seriously.

 

One concern lawmakers have with the current system is that it tends to penalize the best teachers and buoy the worst ones.

 

The best teachers get their evaluations dragged down if they work in low performing districts just as struggling teachers get theirs pushed up if they work in high performing ones.

 

It’s hoped that judging teachers more on what they actually do and trying to account for the poverty level of the students they teach will avoid this trap.

 

In truth, it’s unfair to judge teachers on student test scores at all. Mountains of research have concluded that such so-called Value-Added Measures (VAM) are inaccurate and discriminatory.

 

Relying on these measures even to a lessor degree opens the state and individual districts up to legal challenges as has happened in other states.

 

But at least this new suggestion improves over the present system in many ways.

 

We’ll have to see if Philadelphia and Pittsburgh teachers end up endorsing the plan and whether the House finally passes the measure and Wolf signs it.

 

Stay tuned.

 


 

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!

book-2

Will This Be On The Test?

Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 12.30.13 AM

 

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

 

Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.

 

But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:

 

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

 

Seriously?

 

Will this be on the test?

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It will just be.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The answer is yes.

 

Everything is on the test.

 

But you’re asking the wrong question.

 
That’s what I really want to say.

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

 

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

 

“Yes.

 

It will.”

 


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And everything, everything will be on it.

 

I know right, so pay attention.”


 

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

book-4

The Last Day of School

thumbnail_IMG_8831

On the last day of school this year, my 8th grade students gave me one of the greatest salutes a teacher can get.

 

They reenacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poets Society.”

 

You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization.

 

That’s what my students did for me. And I almost didn’t even notice it at first.

 

The whole thing went down like this.

 
The bell rang and an announcement was made telling us that the day was done.

 
I was immediately rushed by a crowd of children turning in final projects, shaking my hand, saying goodbye.

 
In fact, I was so occupied with the students right in front of me that I didn’t notice what was happening with the ones just behind them.

 
I heard someone say in a ringing voice, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

 
I looked up and there they were.

 
About a dozen students were standing on their desks, looking down at me with big goofy grins.

 

Some had their hands on their hearts. One had raised his fist in the air. I think someone in the back was even making jazz hands. But they were each standing up there with the same look on their faces – a mixture of independence, humor and gratitude.

 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this happened. Some of them had threatened months ago to make just such a demonstration.

 
We had watched the movie together back in April at the introduction of our poetry unit. I guess it was my way of trying to show them that poetry could make a deep impact on people. But I certainly hadn’t wanted them to put themselves at risk by standing on the furniture.

 

In fact, I had specifically cautioned them NOT to do this exact thing because someone might fall off their desk and hurt themselves.

 

But on the last day of school after the last bell has rung and my tenure as their teacher has expired – well, things are different then.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That is really one of the nicest things students have ever done for me.”

 

Then I took out my phone and asked if I could snap a few pictures, because who’d ever believe me if I didn’t? They didn’t mind.

 

thumbnail_IMG_8835thumbnail_IMG_8830thumbnail_IMG_8832

 

When I was done, they hopped down one at a time, many of them rushing forward to give me a hug.

 

This class will always be a special one in my heart.

 

We’ve come a long way together.

 

For most of them, I was their language arts teacher for two years. When they first came in the classroom they were just babies. Now they are going off to high school.

 

Unless you’re a parent, you wouldn’t believe how much kids can grow and change in just a few short years. And the middle school years are some of the most extreme. The line between child and adult fades into nothingness.

 

I’ve had a handful of children who were enrolled in my classes for multiple years before, but I’d never had so many. In some ways, we were more like a family than a classroom.

 

I had been there when parents got sick, left, died. I knew them all so well – who would ask questions just to stall, who never got enough sleep and why (often Fortnite), which ones had athletic aspirations, which were incredible artists, etc. Some had come out of the closet to me and their classmates but not at home.

 

Many of us went on a school field trip to Washington, DC, together. We’d toured the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. When I was invited to do a TED talk, they tracked it down on YouTube. They even found my Twitter account and made merciless fun of my profile picture. And when I actually had my book published on education issues last year, a bunch of my kids even came out to hear me talk about it at local book stores.

 

It’s hard to explain the depth of the relationship.

 

At the end of the year, I always give my students a survey to gauge how they think I did as their teacher. It’s not graded, and they can even turn it in anonymously.

 

The results are almost always positive, but this year, I got responses like never before:

 

“I love you, Mr. Singer. Thanks for a great 2 years. I will terribly miss you.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8849

“I’ve never been bored here. You are the first teacher that made me want to go to their class and has been one of my favorites.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8847

“He stayed cool as a cucumber and was never angry… Basically the greatest teacher I’ve had all year.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8846

 He was “fair to all students.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8845

“He was more inclusive to many different groups.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8844

“He made sure I didn’t fool around. He let me hand in my work late. He was always very kind and he cares about us. He shows us that he cares about how we feel. He made sure everything was fair.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8843

“He breaks things down A LOT better than other teachers. He’s a very nice person. I like the way he teaches.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8842

 

“Mr. Singer did well to motivate us and help us to succeed and get a better grade.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8841

 

“He explained things better than other teachers.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8840

“He helped me mentally and physically to be ready for the PSSAs. Also he gave us good books to read and not bad ones such as “The Outsiders,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also you taught me a lot these past 2 years to be ready for high school.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8839

 

“To be absolutely honest, I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He actually has done more than the rest of my teachers.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8838

 

“Well he encouraged me to succeed more in his class and in life as well. He also taught me that the meaning of life is not how you take it but where you go with it. I’m thankful that he taught me more than the history my actual history teacher taught me. He also told me the truth of our history. He talked about the parts no one else would talk about.”

 

thumbnail_IMG_8837

 

I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that.

 

As these now former students reluctantly walked away in ones or twos, a few stayed behind.

 

I did a lot of reassuring that 9th grade would be great and that I’d probably be right here if they needed me.

 

I overheard one girl say to another that a certain teacher was good but not “Mr. Singer good.” I thanked her and she blushed because I wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

There were tears. Some of them shed by me.

 

But when the last student left, I remained at my desk surrounded by a hum of fluorescent lights and ear numbing silence.

 

There is no emptiness like that of a space that has just been filled – a space that cries out for more.

 

My classroom is like that. And so is my heart.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I need this summer break to recover.

 

But I also need the end of August, when a new group of students will come rushing through those doors.

 

Here’s looking forward to the first day of school.

 


 

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!

book-1

Classroom Teachers are the Real Scholastic Experts – Not Education Journalists

Screen Shot 2019-05-06 at 4.29.19 PM

 

When you want an expert on health, you go to a doctor.

 

When you want an expert on law, you go to a lawyer.

 

So why is it that when the news media wants an expert on education they go to… themselves!?

 

That’s right. Education journalists are talking up a storm about schools and learning.

 

You’ll find them writing policy briefs, editorials and news articles. You’ll find them being interviewed about topics like class size, funding and standardized tests.

 

But they aren’t primary sources. They are distinctly secondary.

 

So why don’t we go right to the source and ask those most in the know – classroom teachers!?

 

According to a Media Matters analysis of education coverage on weeknight cable news programs in 2014, only 9 percent of guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News were educators.

 

This data is a bit out of date, but I couldn’t find a more recent analysis. Moreover, it seems pretty much consistent with what I, myself, have seen in the media.

 

Take Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas,” a comedy journalism program on HBO. The second season focuses entirely on education issues. Though Cynac interviews numerous people in the first episode (the only one I saw), he put together a panel of experts to talk about the issues that he would presumably return to throughout the season. Unfortunately, only two of these experts were classroom teachers.

 

There were more students (3), policy writers (3) and education journalists (3). There were just as many college professors (2), civil rights leaders (2), and politicians (2). Plus there was one historian (Diane Ravitch).

 

I’m not saying Cynac shouldn’t have talked to these other people. From what I’ve seen, his show is a pretty good faith attempt to talk about the issues, but in under representing classroom teachers, we’re left with a false consensus. It’s like having one climate denier debate one scientist. They aren’t equal and should not be equally represented.

 

And that’s as good as it gets!

 

Turn to most discussions of education or scholastic policy in the news and the discourse is bound to be dominated by people who are not now and have never been responsible for a class full of K-12 students.

 

Allowing journalists who cover education to rebrand themselves as “experts” is just not good enough.

 

Take it from me. Before I became a classroom teacher, I was a newspaperman, myself. Yet it’s only now that I know all that I didn’t know then.

 

If anyone values good, fact-based reporting, it’s me. But let’s not confuse an investigator with a practitioner. They both have important jobs. We just need to be clear about which job is being practiced when.

 

Reporters are not experts on the issues they cover. Certainly they know more than the average person or some political flunkey simply towing the party line. But someone who merely observes the work is not as knowledgeable as someone who does it and has done it for decades, someone with an advanced degree, dedication and a vocation in it.

 

Moreover, there is a chasm between education reporting and the schools, themselves, that is not present between journalists and most fields of endeavor. In the halls of academia, even the most fair-minded outsiders often are barred from direct observation of the very thing they’re trying to describe. We rarely let reporters in to our nation’s classrooms to see what’s happening for themselves. All they can do most of the time is uncritically report back what they’ve been told.

 

It’s almost as if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never got to attended campaign rallies. How could their ideas about these subjects be of the same value as the practitioners in these fields!?

 

It couldn’t.

 

Think about it. Journalists are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators usually keeps the school doors closed to them.

 

In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters often have great difficulty just disclosing the opinions of those most knowledgeable about what is going on.

 

At best, our nation’s education reporters are like aliens from another galaxy trying to write about human behavior without actually having seen it. It’s like a bad science fiction movie where some alien with plastic ears asks, “What is this thing you call love?”

 

Sorry. These are not experts. And if we pretend that they are, we are being incredibly dishonest.

 

Some of this obfuscation is by design.

 

Education reporting is incredibly biased in favor of market-based solutions to academic problems.

 

Why? The corporations that own the shrinking number of newspapers, news stations and media outlets are increasingly the same huge conglomerates making money off of these same policies. The line between news and advertising has faded into invisibility in too many places.

 

Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks.

 

Even when they don’t put editorial pressure on journalists to write what the company wants, they hire like-minded people from the get go.

 

Too many education journalists aren’t out for the truth. They’re out to promote the corporate line.

 

This is why it’s so important to center any education discussion on classroom teachers. They are the only people with the knowledge and experience to tell us what’s really going on.

 

And – surprise! – it’s not the same narrative you’re getting from corporate news.

 

Schools are being defunded and dismantled by the testing and privatization industry. Corporate special interests are allowed to feed off our schools like vultures off road kill. And all the while, it is our children who suffer the results.

 

High stakes standardized testing must end. Charter and voucher schools must end. Parasitic education technologies must be controlled, made accountable and in many cases barred from our schools altogether.

 

But that’s a truth you can only find by talking to the real experts – classroom teachers.

 

Until we prize their voices above all others, we will never know the whole truth.

 


 

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!

book-1