Linda Darling-Hammond vs. Linda-Darling Hammond – How a Once Great Educator Got Lost Among the Corporate Stooges

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Linda Darling-Hammond is one of my education heroes.

 

Perhaps that’s why her recent article in the Washington Post hurts so much.

 

In it, she and her think tank buddies slam education advocates Diane Ravitch and Carrol Burris for worrying about who governs schools – as if governance had nothing to do with quality education for children.

 

I’d expect something like that from Bill Gates.

 

Or Campbell Brown.

 

Or Peter Cunningham.

 

But not Hammond!

 

She’s not a know-nothing privatization flunky. She’s not a billionaire who thinks hording a bunch of money makes him an authority on every kind of human endeavor.

 

She’s a bona fide expert on teacher preparation and equity.

 

She founded the Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University, where she is professor emeritus.

 

And she was the head of Barrack Obama’s education policy working group in 2008 when he was running for President.

 

In fact, she was the reasons many educators thought Obama was going to be a breath of fresh air for our schools and students. Everyone thought she was a lock for Education Secretary should Hope and Change win the day. But when he won, he threw her aside for people like Arne Duncan and John King who favored school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

These days she spends most of her time as founder and president of the California-based Learning Policy Institute.

 

It’s a “nonprofit” think tank whose self-described mission is “to conduct independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.”

 

The Learning Policy Institute published a report called “The Tapestry of American Public Education: How Can We Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing for All?

 

The report basically conflates all types of choice within the public school system.

 

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to have policy analysts admit that there ARE alternatives within the public school system above and beyond charter and voucher schools.

 

On the other, it’s frustrating that they can’t see any fundamental differences between those that are publicly managed and those outsourced to private equity boards and appointed corporate officers.

 

Hammond and her colleagues Peter Cookson, Bob Rothman and Patrick Shields talk about magnet and theme schools.

 

They talk about open enrollment schools – where districts in 25 states allow students who live outside their borders to apply.

 

They talk about math and science academies, schools focusing on careers in health sciences and the arts, schools centered on community service and social justice, international schools focused on global issues and world languages, and schools designed for new English language learners.

 

They talk about schools organized around pedagogical models like Montessori, Waldorf and International Baccalaureate programs.

 

And these are all options within the public school system, itself.

 

In fact, the report notes that the overwhelming majority of parents – three quarters – select their neighborhood public school as their first choice.

 

However, Hammond and co. refuse to draw any distinction between these fully public schools and charter schools.

 

Unlike the other educational institutions mentioned above, charter schools are publicly funded but privately run.

 

They take our tax dollars and give them to private equity managers and corporate appointees to make all the decisions.

 

Though Hammond admits this model often runs into problems, she refuses to dismiss it based on the few instances where it seems to be working.

 

Despite concerns from education advocates, fiscal watchdogs and civil rights warrior across the country, Hammond and co. just can’t get up the nerve to take a stand.

 

The NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on all new charter schools in the country. Journey for Justice has requested a focus on community schools over privatization. But Hammond – a once great advocate for equity – can’t get up the moral courage to stand with these real agents of school reform.

 

She stands with the corporate school reformers – the agents of privatization and profit.

 

“School choice is a means that can lead to different ends depending on how it is designed and managed…” write Hammond and her colleagues.

 

In other words, if charters result in greater quality and access for all students, they are preferable to traditional public schools.

 

However, she admits that charters usually fail, that many provide worse academic outcomes than traditional public schools serving similar students.

 

She notes that 33% of all charters opened in 2000 were closed 10 years later. Moreover, by year 13, that number jumped to 40%. When it comes to stability, charter schools are often much worse than traditional public schools.

 

And virtual charter schools – most of which are for-profit – are even worse. They “…have strong negative effects on achievement almost everywhere and graduate fewer than half as many of their students as public schools generally.”

 

However, after noting these negatives, Hammond and co. go on to provide wiggle room for privatization. They discuss how state governments can do better making sure charter schools don’t go off the rails. They can provide more transparency and accountability. They can outlaw for-profit charters and put caps on the number of charters allowed in given districts and states, set rules on staffing and curriculum – all the kinds of measures already required at traditional public schools.

 

But the crux of their objection is here:

 

“In a recent commentary in this column, authors Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris erroneously asserted that our report aims to promote unbridled alternatives to publicly funded and publicly operated school districts. Quite the opposite is true.”

 

In other words, they continue to lump privatized schools like charters in with fully public schools.

 

They refuse to make the essential distinction between how a school is governed and what it does. So long as it is funded with public tax dollars, it is a public school.

 

That’s like refusing to admit there is any difference in the manner in which states are governed. Both democracies and tyrannies are funded by the people living in those societies. It does not then follow that both types of government are essentially the same.

 

But they go on:

 

“The report aims to help states and districts consider how to manage the broad tapestry of choices available in public schools in ways that create quality schools with equitable access and integrative outcomes.”

 

Most tellingly, the authors admonish us to, “Focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” (Emphasis mine).

 

The way a school is governed is not FOR ADULTS. It is FOR CHILDREN. That is how we do all the other things Hammond and co. suggest.

 

“Work to ensure equity and access for all.”

 

That doesn’t just happen. You have to MAKE it happen through laws and regulations. That’s called governance.

 

“Create transparency at every stage about outcomes, opportunities and resources.”

 

That’s governance. That’s bureaucracy. It’s hierarchy. It’s one system overlooking another system with a series of checks and balances.

 

“Build a system of schools that meets all students’ needs.”

 

Again, that doesn’t just happen. We have to write rules and systems to make it happen.

 

Allowing private individuals to make decisions on behalf of private organizations for their own benefit is not going to achieve any of these goals.

 

And even in the few cases where charter schools don’t give all the decisions to unelected boards or voluntarily agree to transparency, the charter laws still allow them to do this. They could change at any time.

 

It’s like building a school on a cliff. It may be fine today, but one day it will inevitably fall.

 

I wrote about this in detail in my article “The Best Charter School Cannot Hold a Candle to the Worst Public School.”

 

It’s sad that Hammond refuses to understand this.

 

I say “refuse” because there’s no way she doesn’t get it. This is a conscious – perhaps political – decision on her part.

 

Consider how it stacks up against some of the most salient points she written previously.

 

For instance:

 

“A democratic education means that we educate people in a way that ensures they can think independently, that they can use information, knowledge, and technology, among other things, to draw their own conclusions.”

 

Now that’s a Linda Darling-Hammond who knows the manner in which something (a state) is governed matters. It’s not just funding. It’s democratic principles – principles that are absent at privatized schools.

 

“Bureaucratic solutions to problems of practice will always fail because effective teaching is not routine, students are not passive, and questions of practice are not simple, predictable, or standardized. Consequently, instructional decisions cannot be formulated on high then packaged and handed down to teachers.”

 

This Linda Darling-Hammond is a fighter for teacher autonomy – a practice you’ll find increasingly constrained at privatized schools. In fact, charter schools are infamous for scripted education, endless test prep and everything Hammond used to rail against.

 

“In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”

 

I wonder what this Linda Darling-Hammond would say to the present variety. Privatized schools are most often test prep factories. They do none of what Hammond used to advocate for. But today she’s emphatically arguing for exactly the kind of school she used to criticize.

 

“If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.”

 

Isn’t this how they routinely teach at charter schools? Memorize this. Practice it only in relation to how it will appear on the standardized test. And somehow real life, authentic learning will follow.

 

“Students learn as much for a teacher as from a teacher.”

 

Too true, Linda Darling-Hammond. How much learning do you think there is at privatized schools with much higher turnover rates, schools that transform teachers into glorified Walmart greeters? How many interpersonal relationships at privatized institutions replacing teachers with iPads?

 

“Life doesn’t come with four choices.”

 

Yes, but the schools today’s Linda Darling-Hammond are advocating for will boil learning down to just that – A,B,C or D.

 

“We can’t fire our way to Finland.”

 

Yet today’s Linda Darling-Hammond is fighting for schools that work teachers to the bone for less pay and benefits and then fire them at the slightest pretense.

 

In short, I’m sick of this new Linda Darling-Hammond. And I miss the old Linda Darling-Hammond.

 

Perhaps she’s learned a political lesson from the Obama administration.

 

If she wants a place at the neoliberal table, it’s not enough to actually know stuff and have the respect of the people in her profession.

 

She needs to support the corporate policies of the day. She needs to give the moneymen what they want – and that’s school privatization.

 

This new approach allows her to have her cake and eat it, too.

 

She can criticize all the evils of actual charter schools while pretending that there is some middle ground that allows both the monied interests and the students to BOTH get what they want.

 

It’s shrewd political gamesmanship perhaps.

 

But it’s bad for children, parents and teachers.


 

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

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Grit is Sh!t – It’s Just an Excuse to do Nothing for Struggling Students

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Let’s say you’re out in public and you see a crying child alone in the street.

 

What would you do?

 

Would you run up to her and help? Or would you just shrug, mutter some derisive comment about the brat and walk on?

 

Our public school policymakers want us to do the later. In fact, they have a whole pedagogical justification for ignoring the needs of children.

 

It’s called “academic tenacity,” a “growth mindset” or “grit.”

 

And it goes something like this:

 

That child isn’t learning? If she just worked harder, she would.

 

It’s the political equivalent of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” applied to the classroom.

 

And it’s super helpful for politicians reluctant to allocate tax dollars to actually help kids succeed.

 

The idea and the euphemisms used to describe it were coined by Carol Dweck as early as 1999. It was subsequently popularized by seventh-grade math teacher and psychologist Angela Duckworth.

 

In the early 2000s, Duckworth realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating successful students from those who struggled. There was also the tendency to overcome adversity or not.

 

Hey, Angela. Darwin called. He wants his Theory of Natural Selection back.

 

You know Survival of the Fittest was never meant to be prescriptive. As human beings, we’re supposed to be better than mere animals that typically leave the pack’s sick and injured behind to get eaten by predators.

 

But whatever.

 

The term “grit,” is defined as a “passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” according to Frontiers in Psychology. And it’s become one of the buzziest of buzzwords in academia.

 

So much so, that as you’re reading this, standardized test manufacturers are working to develop an assessment to find it in students.

 

The agencies that administer the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are close to including character assessments as a measure of student performance.

 

Oh goody!

 

They foresee a brave new world where multiple-choice tests will determine not just the entire scope of human knowledge but character as well!

 

But what no one wants to admit is that grit is… well… shit.

 

It’s just an excuse for a society that refuses to help those most in need.

 

In our world, there are haves and have-nots. But if we stop there, we ignore how and why this situation came to be.

 

Who places kids into segregated schools? WE DO.

 

Who allocates funding based largely on parental income? US.

 

We set kids up to succeed or fail before they even enter the school system with an economy that rewards the already rich and punishes generational poverty.

 

Yet when anyone suggests offering help to even the playing field – to make things more fair – a plethora of policy wonks wag their fingers and say, “No way! They did it to themselves.”

 

It’s typical “blame the victim” pathology to say that some kids get all the love, time and resources they need while others can do without — they just need more “grit” and a “growth mindset.”

 

Life’s tough. Get over it.

 

That’s easy for YOU to say! Because it’s the have’s who make the rules, it’s the people at the top who are telling the people at the bottom they’re to blame for their own suffering.

 

So you forget all the ways society has helped you and yours. YOU deserve all the credit for your successes.

 

But for those people over there, let’s forget all the ways society has refused to help and instead blame THEM for not overcoming the obstacles (we put) in their path.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying effort counts for nothing. But it’s part of a complicated matrix of nature and nurture.

 

Our environments shape us, but we have some control over what we do with what we’re given.

 

Yet as a society, we can’t simply ignore our responsibilities toward others and throw it all on the individual.

 

Good teachers know how to get the best out of their students. We know that most kids – if given a safe, encouraging environment – can succeed.

 

The key often is to scaffold that success. Give them something to do that they can actually master. Then give them something slightly more challenging.

 

You teach them that they have the ability to succeed and success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – and not the opposite.

 

However, the teacher – and even the school, itself – can only do so much.

 

As a society, we need to change the environment in which these kids grow up.

 

We need to fully fund our public schools to meet the needs of all students. That means more funding, services and opportunities for the underserved than for those who already have the best of everything and don’t need to rely as heavily on the school system for support.

 

We need wraparound services, counseling, tutoring, after school programs, community schools, jobs programs, continuing education for adults and other services to help heal the trauma of growing up poor in America.

 

But leaving it all to this magical thing called “grit” is just ignoring our responsibilities to our fellow human beings.

 

When you see someone suffering, you need to help them – not comfort yourself with excuses for ignoring them.


 

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

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The World Mourns for Jews After Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Shooting. What About Other Targets of Hate?

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When a white supremacist killed 11 people and wounded 6 others at a Pittsburgh synagogue last weekend, the world took notice.

 

Lights dimmed at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State building.

 

Candlelight vigils were held nationwide – including in Boston, Houston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles.

 

A host of international leaders from the Pope to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage, sadness and solidarity.

 

I’ll admit that as a native Pittsburgher and person of Jewish descent, it touched me deeply.

 

For a moment, it seemed like the whole world had stopped spinning and from every corner of the globe people were with us in our tragedy.

 

But at the same time, it was troubling.

 

After all, there were at least two other major hate crimes in the U.S. perpetrated within 72 hours of the shooting.

 

In Kentucky, a white man shot and killed two African-Americans at a Kroger grocery store following a failed attempt to break into a black church.

 

Only two days later, a deranged man who had railed against Democrats and minorities with hate-filled messages online was arrested for allegedly sending mail bombs to people who’d been criticized by President Donald Trump.

 

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Where were the candlelight vigils for those atrocities?

 

Where were the international landmarks going dark?

 

Where was the worldwide condemnation?

 

In the wake of Pittsburgh’s tragedy, these other violent acts have been almost forgotten.

 

Yet they’re all symptoms of the same disease – hate and bigotry.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

What happened in Pittsburgh was terrible.

 

The Anti-Defamation League estimates that the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue may be the most deadly attack on Jews on American Soil in our history.

 

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But me and mine do not have a monopoly on sorrow.

 

We suffer, but we are not the only ones hurting.

 

This all happened not far from my home.

 

I’ll admit that I am having a really hard time dealing with it.

 

I am not sleeping well.

 

I find myself zoning out in the middle of everyday activities.

 

And I feel this constant anxiety like part of me is expecting to hear a gunshot ringing down the hall at any time.

 

When the alleged shooter entered the sanctuary armed to the teeth and shouted “All Jews must die!” before carrying out his plan, he included me in his declaration.

 

All Jews.

 

That’s me.

 

That’s my daughter. My parents. My family.

 

It means something to me that so many people have come together to repudiate this crime.

 

The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and other U.S. based Muslim groups donated more than $200,000 for funeral expenses. An Iranian refugee (who hadn’t even been to the three rivers) started a GoFundMe that brought in $1 million for the victims and their families.

 

You can’t go anywhere in Pittsburgh without a memorial, a moment of silence, a shared statement of solidarity and love.

 

At the symphony, musicians read two statements from the stage against hate before playing a Hebrew melody with string quartet.

 

At my school – I’m a teacher – the union decided to collect money for the victims.

 

 

I saw a barge floating down one of the rivers that had the message “Stronger Than Hate” on the side next to the modified Steelers logo where the top star had been replaced by a Star of David.

 

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I even saw a similar message on a Wendy’s sign: “PittsburghStrong/ Stronger/ Than Hate”.

 

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The community has come together in a way I’ve never seen before.

 

 

But I can’t help wondering why.

 

 

Even after Richard Baumhammers went on a racially motivated killing spree in 2000 murdering five people including two Jews, the response wasn’t this overwhelming.

 

 

Perhaps it’s just that this latest shooting is the final straw.

 

Perhaps it is the moment when our nation finally pulls together and says that enough is enough – We won’t tolerate this kind of hate and violence.

 

I hope that’s it.

 

However, in the shadows of my mind I wonder if it might not be a reflection of the same beast that struck us last weekend.

 

Could it be that we’re willing to put up with violence against brown people, but only draw the line when those targeted have lighter skin?

 

I guess my point – if I have one – is this: Thank you, But.

 

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s Jews, thank you for having our back.

 

If we’re going to survive this, we’re going to need your continued support and solidarity.

 

But it’s not just us.

 

Hate crimes have jumped from about 70 incidents a year in the 1990s to more than 300 a year since 2001. And after Trump was elected, 900 bias-related incidents were reported against minorities within the first 10 days.

 

Our country was built on the genocide of over 110 million indigenous Americans and the enslavement of 30 million Africans.

 

The idea of concentration camps didn’t originate with the Nazis. Hitler got the idea from U.S. treatment of Native Americans.

 

Racism didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement. It just changed shape and is hidden in the way we practice health care, education, and policing all the way to mass incarceration.

 

 

The shock and solidarity in the wake of the synagogue shooting is appreciated, but it’s not enough to mourn only when 11 Jews are murdered in cold blood.

 

It’s not enough to take a stand against anti-Semitism.

 

We need to join together to fight all of it.

 

We need to be unified against school segregation, police brutality, xenophobia and prejudice in all of its forms.

 

The white supremacist who killed my friends and neighbors targeted us because he thought we were helping brown-skinned immigrants into the country.

 

We can’t just stand for the helpers. We need to stand for those in need of that help.

 

It just won’t work any other way.

 

We can’t just be against violence to light skinned minorities. We have to empathize and protect our brown skinned brothers and sisters, too. We have to love and cherish our LGBTQ neighbors, as well.

 

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We have to realize that our freedom, our safety, our very lives depend not just on what rights we have – but on what rights we give to all.

 

That is the only way any of us will ever feel safe again.

 

Through love and solidarity for every. Single. Human. Being.

 

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

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Pennsylvania’s Keystone Exam – the Monster We Refuse to Let Die

 

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Let’s say there was a monster loose in Pennsylvania and you caught it.

 

Its days of wandering loose causing chaos and destruction were over.

 

But what would you do with such a beast now?

 

Would you kill it outright? Stop it from ever hurting anyone ever again?

 

Or would you simply neutralize it – place it perhaps in the center of a labyrinth, continue feeding it, and in fact create a whole religion based on worshipping it?

 

In the keystone state, we have just such a creature, and we’re going with the second option – the maze, nourishment and a cult.

 

The monster is, of course, the Keystone Exams. And like the Minotaur of ancient myth, we’re building a bureaucratic prison in which to house it.

 

Sure, we’ve spent billions of dollars on these unnecessary, badly written and biased graduation assessments.

 

And, heck, it would just make more sense to stop doing something that isn’t working, wastes money and causes legitimate problems for students.

 

But this is Pennsylvania! We’re not going to admit we made a mistake. Better to bury it under red tape and pretend like this is what we meant all along. Nothing to see here, folks. Nothing to see…

 

When lawmakers originally came up with this plan… correction: when testing companies bribed federal lawmakers to force state lawmakers to enact this cockamamey plan – it was supposed to function as a graduation requirement.

 

Pass these tests or no diploma for you.

 

However, somehow Harrisburg politicians couldn’t get up the nerve to actually bar tens of thousands of worthy students from graduating when they had already proven they deserved it by passing 12 years of grade school.

 

So after kicking the can down the road for more than 6 years, they came up with this solution. Make it a graduation requirement, but include a whole truckload of other options that could count instead.

 

In short, we’re creating endless corridors of paperwork, placing the tests in the center and going on with our day.

 

The good news: if students can make it through the labyrinth, they never need to take or pass the Keystone Exams!

 

The bad news: we’re still paying millions of dollars to support these tests and we’re still forcing our teachers to make all instruction about them.

 

And that’s what we in the Commonwealth call a “victory.”

 

Yippee!

 

The bill to circumvent the Keystone Exams by providing multiple means of getting a diploma was passed by the state house and senate. Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign it into law this week.

 

If he does, students will still be given the Keystone Exams (unless opted out) and could demonstrate they’re worthy of a diploma by passing them. But students will have many additional ways to prove they’re worthy of a cap and gown, such as:

 

  • Show proficiency on the SAT, PSAT or ACT;
  • Pass an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam;
  • Complete a dual-enrollment program;
  • Complete an apprenticeship program;
  • Get accepted to an accredited four-year nonprofit institution of higher education;
  • Complete a service-learning project;
  • Secure a letter of full-time employment;
  • Achieve an acceptable score on a WorkKeys assessment, an exam administered by the ACT which assesses workplace skills including math, reading comprehension and applied technology.

 

To sweeten the pot even further, this won’t even go into effect until the 2021-22 school year.

 

So in four years, high school seniors will be racing to submit their letters of college admission, or letters of employment or SAT scores or whatever to prove they actually deserve that diploma.

 

But that will not be the end of it.

 

Just because victims thrown into the labyrinth have an easy path to avoiding the monster doesn’t mean the monster won’t affect them.

 

Teaching evaluations are still based on test scores. Schools evaluations are still based on test scores.

 

This continues the tremendous state pressure for local districts to make instruction all about testing.

 

Kids don’t have to pass the test, but their everyday classroom experiences will still be largely determined by these test.

 

Heck, many districts will probably “voluntarily” decide to make passing the test a graduation requirement just to force their students to take them seriously.

 

So anyone who’s out celebrating that the Keystone Exams are dead is premature.

 

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, at least, understands this.

 

“Remember, the Keystones have been delayed and the graduation requirement associated with them has been stopped, but they will still be required in Pennsylvania schools for federal accountability,” he said in statement.

 

“Meanwhile, we know they are expensive, redundant and unnecessary and I will continue to work to end them once and for all.”

 

Dinniman, a Democrat, is minority chair of the Senate Education Committee.

 

It’s a problem all too typical in the state.

 

Most lawmakers are too timid to take any type of real stand. They’d rather support some half-measure so they can claim to be in favor of either or both sides of an argument.

 

For instance, consider the time it takes to finish the tests.

 

Parents, teachers and students have complained about how these assessments waste academic time that could be better used to teach the necessary skills needed to pass.

 

So Gov. Wolf cut the Keystone Exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test by a total of almost 2 hours a year.

 

However, at the same time, his administration suggests students take a series of additional pretests that are supposed to predict success on the PSSA or Keystone Exams – tests such as the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) assessment.

 

If schools follow the state’s instructions and give students this exam in reading, math and science 3 to 5 times a year, that’s an additional 50-90 minutes per test. That comes to 22.5 hours of additional testing!

 

So 22.5 hours minus 2 hours equals… NOT A REDUCATION IN TESTING!

 

But it gives lawmakers plausible deniability.

 

They can claim to be cutting testing while actually suggesting we increase it.

 

And we see the same sort of thing here.

 

Lawmakers can claim to be reducing the power of the Keystone Exams while still enshrining it as the driving force behind all instruction in the state.

 

What we need are leaders and not politicians.

 

We need people willing to take a stand and do what’s right even if that puts them at odds with the moneyed special interests.

 

That takes more than polls and market analysis.

 

It takes moral courage.

 

But there’s no test for that.


 

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

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Five Reasons to Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund

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You can’t raise taxes without a plan of how to spend the money.

 

But that’s exactly what voters in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, are being asked to approve this Nov. 6.

 

Come election day, all voters in Allegheny County will be confronted with what’s been called the Children’s Fund, a referendum asking for a voluntary 5% property tax hike that allegedly would go to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids.

 

But there are no details about who will provide these services, who will be responsible for the money, exactly what else the money might be used for or almost anything substantive about it.

 

It’s just a check with “For Kids” scrawled in the Memo and everything else left blank.

 

The plan is highly controversial drawing criticism from across the Mon Valley including school directors, education advocates and even progressive groups like the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN).

 

Here are the top five reasons you should vote NO on the referendum:

 

1) It Raises Taxes Without Stipulating Where the Money Goes

 

Here’s what we do know.

 

The Children’s Fund would be financed by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value, beginning Jan. 1.

 

That’s expected to generate roughly $18 million a year that would begin to be distributed in 2020.

 

If approved, it would change the county Home Rule Charter to establish the fund as part of county government. It would create a new office under the supervision of the county manager.

A Citizens’ Advisory Commission would “review and advise” the work of the new office, according to the proposed charter amendment.

 

However, County Council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald would have to do the work of actually creating all this stuff. They’d have to pass an ordinance establishing how this all works, what powers the advisory commission has, etc. They would have to determine whether the money goes to existing programs or new ones. They’d have to set up audits of the money every five years, conduct a study to recommend goals and a focus for how the funding is spent.

 

That’s an awful lot left undecided.

 

It makes no sense for voters to hand over the money BEFORE we figure all this other stuff out.

 

It’s not at all how good government works.

 

You’re supposed to define a problem or need and then come up with a plan to meet that need. You prepare a budget that justifies raising taxes and then you vote on it.

 

This is exactly the opposite. We’re getting the money before the plan of how to spend it.

 

That’s a recipe for fraud and financial mismanagement.

 

 

2) It’s Unclear Who Would Be In Charge of the Money

 

Who would be accountable for this money?

 

We know who gets to decide this – County Council and the Chief Executive. But we don’t know who they will pick or what powers they’ll delegate to these people. Nor do we know what kind of oversight there will be or what kind of regulations will exist for how it can be spent.

 

This is a blind statement of trust.

 

It’s like saying – “Here’s $18 million. Go buy us something nice.”

 

What if they mismanage the money? And what would that even mean for money with so few strings attached? And how would we know? How transparent would this process be?

 

It’s kind of hard to approve such a plan with so many variables up in the air.

 

3) The Campaign was Not Grass Roots

 

To hear supporters talk, you’d think this was a bottom up crusade created by, organized by and conducted by everyday citizens from our communities.

 

It wasn’t.

 

Sure, volunteers for the Children’s Fund went door-to-door to collect more than 40,000 signatures from voters last summer.

 

But they weren’t all volunteers.

 

 

Financial documents show that the whole initiative has been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

 

 

According to the Children’s Fund’s own campaign finance report, as of June there were three nonprofit corporations who donated $427,000 to the campaign: the Human Services Center of Turtle Creek gave $160,000, Pressley Ridge Foundation gave $150,000, and Allies for Children gave a donation of $45,000 and another for $72,000.

 

That’s like McDonalds spending a hundred thousand dollars to fix up the school cafeterias so it could land a multi-million dollar annual contract!

 

It’s a huge conflict of interest.

 

At very least, it’s purposefully misleading.

 

Many of those “volunteers” gathering signatures weren’t working for free. They were part of the $100,000 spent by the campaign to hire Vote Goal Organizing for paid signature collectors.

 

That doesn’t look like charity. It looks like philanthrocapitalism – when corporations try to disguise grabs for power and profit as philanthropy.

 

Corporations – even so-called nonprofit corporations – rarely do things out of sheer goodness. They’re acting in the best interest of the company.

 

I see no reason to think this “Children’s Fund” is any different.

 

4) It Works Around Instead of With Local Government

 

Though almost everyone agrees with the stated goals of the Children’s Fund, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

 

 

Two Pittsburgh Public School directors went on record in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about a lack of communication.

 

“First and foremost, we have not had any conversations with the organizers of the referendum,” board president Regina Holley said. “There are lots of ifs and whats that have not been answered.”

 

Kevin Carter, another city school director added, “In my role as a school board member, they didn’t talk to us about this at all.”

 

“When you leave your largest school district in the region out of this conversation, are you doing this around children?” he asked, citing that the district serves 25,000 students daily.

 

This has been a common thread among officials. No one wants to say they’re against collecting money that’s ostensibly for the benefit of children, but it’s hard to manage the money if you’re not part of the process.

 

And it’s not just protocol. Many are worried that this lack of communication may be emblematic of how the fund will be run. If organizers aren’t willing to work with local governments to get the job done, how will they know what each community needs? How will they meet those needs? Is that even what the fund will really be about?

 

Richard Livingston, Clairton school board president, noted concern that the money collected might not be spent evenly throughout the county. For all he knows, it could just be spent in the city or in select areas.

 

Indeed, this is not the best way to start any endeavor funded by all, for the benefit of all children.

 

 

5) It’s Redundant

 

While it’s true that the county could use more funding to meet the needs of students, numerous organizations already exist that attempt to provide these services.

 

 

There are a plethora of Pre-K, after school tutoring and meal services in the Mon Valley. In fact, much of this is done at the county’s various neighborhood schools.

 

If organizers were only concerned with meeting these needs, why form an office within county government that would have an appointed advisory commission? Why not just increase the funding at the local schools and/or organizations already doing this work?

 

In fact, this is exactly the reason the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network is against the initiative.

 

According to the organization’s statement:

 

 

“At PIIN, we believe that the faith community is a sacred partner with our public schools, and we have long been supportive of both the community schools model and increasing state funding to provide an excellent, high-quality education to every child in our region. We believe in funding for early childhood learning, after school programs, and nutritious meals. However, we cannot support a ballot initiative that creates an unnecessary entity, with an unknown advisory board, and an unclear process for directing our tax dollars.

 

This is why we are urging our membership to reject the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Initiative at the polls this November.”

 

 

 

Another related organization, Great Public Schools-Pittsburgh, also released a statement with “several specific concerns” about the potential fund. These include how the money would be distributed, which organizations would benefit from it, and questions about its redundancy.

 

Several pre-K programs already exist but are not fully funded, the organization noted. Why don’t we just fund them?

 

The group is a coalition of the Education Rights Network, One Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, and the Service Employees International Union.

 

The group’s statement noted concerns but fell short of urging an outright NO vote.

 


The bottom line is that many people are concerned about inadequate funding for children’s programs.

 

But this “Children’s Fund” is not a solution to that problem.

 

This is the creation of another bureaucracy that can take our tax dollars and do almost whatever it wants with them.

 

There is no guarantee it will help kids.

 

In fact, it looks a lot more like a power and money grab by corporate interests, many of whom would prefer to privatize our school system.

 

This November, when you go to the polls, do the right thing for our kids.

 

Vote NO on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund.

 

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Want to Make a Difference? Canvass for Local Candidates You Believe In

 

 

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Knock! Knock! Knock!

 

I stood there on the porch staring at my own knuckles in disbelief.

 

My 9-year-old daughter was looking up at me with a look like “What did you just do?”

 

But there was no time to say anything.

 

The door was opening.

 

An older gentleman stood in the entryway looking like he had just been stirred from sleep.

 

“Hello! Is this…” I began and Pam, who was standing next to me filled in the name.

 

“Yes,” he grumbled.

 

I introduced the three of us and told the man that we were canvassing his neighborhood for two local candidates running for state legislature.

 

And then I stopped because I wasn’t sure what to say next.

 

Luckily Pam jumped in and told him what our candidates stood for – education, healthcare and working families.

 

“Are these Democrats?” he groused. “I’m done with them. After what they did to that judge, I’m done.”

 

“You mean Kavanaugh?” I said.

 

He nodded.

 

My mouth opened to say something but what do you say?

 

Brett Kavanaugh was accused by multiple women of sexual assault but was saved from a thorough FBI investigation by his buddy, Donald Trump. He cried, whined and spouted partisan conspiracy theories yet still was confirmed to a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Really, what was this guy’s problem? Did he think we shouldn’t investigate Supreme Court Justices when credible accusers hurl accusation of abuse? Did he think Kavanaugh’s chief accuser – Dr. Christine Blasey Ford – made the whole thing up so that she could have her reputation forever tied to an attempted rape and her family displaced from their home and forced into hiding because of constant death threats? Did he think we should give privileged white guys lifetime judicial appointments based on what? Political affiliation? Skin tone?

 

 

Pam tried to bring up a few other topics – about how Republicans in our state of Pennsylvania are actively working to cut this man’s healthcare, calling this man’s generation “the greediest generation” and other topics.

 

But it did no good. Fox News had gotten there first.

 

So we handed him our campaign literature, thanked him and went on our way.

 

Sometimes that’s the best you can do.

 

And it’s not nothing.

 

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If you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming you’re a lot like me.

 

You see the madness of our modern age and wonder what the heck went wrong?

 

A reality TV show clown is President of the United States of America. And all over this country, the conservative clown car is spitting out candidates for major office.

 

Even here in the keystone state, we have Scott Wagner running for Governor on the leftover promises of our previous GOP Governorslashing education funding, firing teachers and lower taxes for the wealthy.

 

Meanwhile, the world is falling apart. The U.N. just released a major report finding that we have about a dozen years to make significant changes to our energy consumption or else global climate change will be irreversible. Yet our leaders complain there’s nothing they can do!

 

It’s enough to make one lose hope in the future.

 

As a father and a public school teacher, I can’t afford that despair.

 

There needs to be at least the slimmest glimmer of the possibility of a new day.

 

And I’m here to tell you, friends, it’s out there.

 

It starts with you.

 

If you want real progressive change, you have to go out there and make it – one day at a time.

 

We can turn back the tide of self-destruction. We can beat back the politics of bread and circuses. We can take back this country and build a better future.

 

But it will take more than one day.

 

It will take all of us, doing incremental good, every day we can.

 

So my suggestion is to make a commitment to voting this Nov. 6.

 

I know our electoral system is a mess. I know many people are being purged from the rolls and our districts are gerrymandered and the entire system is set up against us.

 

But if all of us try to vote, we can still win.

 

Find a candidate you can support and go out there and campaign for him or her.

 

I know there are a lot of phonies running for office. There are an awful lot of fake progressives who will talk nicely to your face and then sell you out to corporations and the wealthy at their first opportunity.

 

Just know that they’re not all like that.

 

Find yourself someone you can trust – probably someone new to the game coming on the scene to change things.

 

In the Pittsburgh area I found Lindsey Williams.

 

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Lindsey Williams and Me

 

She’s an amazing lady with real conviction running for State Senate in the 38th District – that’s most of Northern Allegheny County from Franklin Park eastward, as well as Highland Park and sections of East Liberty in Pittsburgh.

 

Her number one priority is the same as mine – education.

 

That should come as no surprise from a candidate who’s also the communications director for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

 

But Williams actually lives her values.

 

Before coming to Pittsburgh, she was fired for union organizing at the National Whistleblowers Center. Ironically, she was working there to tell the story of people who were retaliated against for reporting waste, fraud, and abuse, and found herself a target for attempting to organize a staff union. She eventually won the resulting case with the National Labor Relations Board.

 

When her campaign literature says she “won’t back down” fighting for working families. That’s what it means.

 

And her priorities – education, healthcare and labor – aren’t pie in the sky promises. She has a fiscally responsible plan to support them by creating a severance tax on natural-gas drilling and closing a loophole that allows businesses headquartered in other states to avoid state taxes. She wants to keep taxes low for homeowners while making sure the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.

 

Perhaps that’s why a conservative dark money organization aligned with her Republican challenger, Jeremy Shaffer, has created knockoff campaign signs that look just like Williams with the word “Socialist” emblazoned on them.

 

It’s a desperation tactic.

 

Shaffer is down in the polls. The district – once a Republican stronghold – went to Hillary Clinton in the last election.

 

Even Shaffer, a Ross Township supervisor, is a throwback – he’s a far right extremist who primaried incumbent state Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler) in May.

 

And his platform is nothing but tax cuts for the rich and school privatization for the rest of us. In effect, he’s a mini-Trump come to bring the circus to town.

 

So not only is Williams a candidate I can believe in, her race really matters to the overall state picture. If the Democrats only pick up her seat in November and don’t lose any others, we’ll crush the GOP’s veto-proof majority!

 

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But I didn’t come out this weekend just for Williams.

 

I also was there to canvass for Betsy Monroe, a Fox Chapel medical professional at Highmark running for State House in the same North Hills area.

 

She was inspired to get into politics after Trump’s election and the subsequent 2017 Women’s March.

 

She noticed that state Rep. Hal English (R-Hampton) had run unopposed in the last two elections, so she decided to run against him, herself.

 

Monroe was particularly angered by English’s vote to criminalize abortions after 20 weeks for all women in the Commonwealth. (The bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf back before the GOP had a veto proof majority.) She thought it was unfair for lawmakers to decide what adult women can do with their own bodies.

 

However, there was one other woman I was there to support – my own daughter.

 

For someone in elementary school, she is incredibly interested in politics. I caught her on Saturday literally writing political stump speeches for her stuffed animals. Let me tell you, Eeyore the donkey from the Hundred Acre Wood has some mighty progressive views on women’s rights!

 

I wanted my little one to see real women in politics, fighting to make a difference.

 
The news is always so grim. I wanted her to see that there are people out there fighting for the good.

 

And you know what? It helped me, too.

 

At this point I need to pause and give a huge “Thank You” to two people – Pamela Harbin and Jodi Hirsch.

 

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Me and Pamela Harbin

 

Jodi is an amazing organizer who put together the event in the first place.

 

I wanted to get more involved in the election and Jodi knew exactly how I could do that and which candidates I’d be most interested in.

 

Pam is a local activist I’ve known for years. I fought with her side-by-side against the statewide education budget cuts, charter schools, standardized testing and a host of Corporations Gone Wild shenanigans.

 

I was new to this whole canvassing thing, so she agreed to go with my daughter and me to show us the ropes.

 

I couldn’t have done it without her.

 

Thankfully, not every door we knocked on went like the grumpy gentlemen described above.

 

Frankly, most people weren’t home or didn’t answer the door.

 

Some people – especially young folks – proudly responded that they don’t vote or have no idea what’s going on.

 

Others were energized by what was happening and were looking forward to going to the polls and being heard.

 

“You know I’ll be there!” said one gentleman. “I’m straight Dem. Right on down the line. I’ve had enough of this Trump crap.”

 

But more people than I’d expected took pride in their nonpartisanship.

 

They wouldn’t commit to anything – just took our literature, heard us out and said they’d decide at the polls.

 

I always wondered what an undecided voter looked like. I saw a lot of them this weekend.

 

But that’s why we were there – to help nudge the uncommitted.

 

Hopefully on Nov. 6 they’ll think of Pam, my daughter and me.

 

Maybe even the Fox News fan who thought Kavanaugh got a raw deal will have his resolved softened.

 

Maybe he’ll think of my daughter’s chubby cheeks and innocent eyes as he considers voting for people who’d gladly steal her future for the prospect of more tax cuts for the rich.

 

Then again, maybe not. But who knows?

 

We tried.

 


If you live in Pennsylvania and want to get involved, click HERE.


 

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

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Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

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If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

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

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