Robots Will Never Replace Teachers. They Can Only Displace Us

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My favorite movie of all time is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

 

 

And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.

 

In the future (now past) of the movie, HAL is paradoxically the most human personality. Tasked with running the day-to-day operations of a spaceship, HAL becomes strained to the breaking point when he’s given a command to lie about the mission’s true objectives. He ends up having a psychotic break and killing most of the people he was supposed to protect.

 

It’s heartbreaking finally when Dave Bowman slowly turns off the higher functions of HAL’s brain and the supercomputer regresses in intelligence while singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” – one of the first things he was programmed to do.

 

I’m gonna’ be honest here – I cry like a baby at that point.

 

But once I clean up my face and blow my nose, I realize this is science fiction – emphasis on the fiction.

 

 

 

I am well aware that today’s calendar reads 2020, yet our efforts at artificial intelligence are not nearly as advanced as HAL and may never be.

 

That hasn’t stopped supposedly serious publications like Education Week – “The American Education News Site of Record” – from continuously pretending HAL is right around the corner and ready to take over my classroom.

 

 
What’s worse, this isn’t fear mongering – beware the coming robo-apocalypse. It’s an invitation!

 

A few days ago, the on-line periodical published an article called “Teachers, the Robots Are Coming. But That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Kevin Bushweller.

 

It was truly one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a long time.

 

Bushweller, an assistant managing editor at Education Week and Executive Editor at both the Ed Tech Leader and Ed Week’s Market Brief, seems to think it is inevitable that robots will replace classroom teachers.

 

This is especially true for educators he describes as “chronically low-performing.”

 

And we all know what he means by that!

 

These are teachers whose students get low scores on high stakes standardized tests.

 

Which students are these? Mostly poor and minority children.

 

These are kids without all the advantages of wealth and class, kids with fewer books in the home and fewer native English speakers as role models, kids suffering from food, housing and healthcare insecurity, kids navigating the immigration system and fearing they or someone they love could be deported, kids faced with institutional racism, kids who’ve lost parents, friends and family to the for-profit prison industry and the inequitable justice system.

 

And what does our society do to help these kids catch up with their more privileged peers? It underfunds their schools, subjects them to increased segregation, narrows their curriculum, offers them as prey to charter school charlatans – in short, it adds to their hurtles more than removes them.

 

So “chronically low-performing” teachers would be those who can’t overcome all these obstacles for their students by just teaching more good.

 

I can’t imagine why such educators can’t get the same results as their colleagues who teach richer, whiter kids without all these issues. It’s almost like teachers can’t do it all, themselves, — and the solution? Robots.

 

 

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

 
Bushweller suggests we fire all the human beings who work in the most impoverished and segregated schools and replace them… with an army of robots.

 

 

Yeah.

 

 

Seriously.

 

Black and brown kids won’t get interactions with real adult human beings. Instead they can connect with the ed tech version of Siri programmed to drill and kill every aspect of the federally mandated standardized test.

 

Shakespeare’s Miranda famously exclaimed:

 

“O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

 

But the future envisioned by technophiles like Bushweller has NO such people in’t – only robots ensuring the school-to-prison pipeline remains intact for generations to come.

 

In such a techo-utopia, there will be two tiers of education. The rich will get human teachers and the poor and minorities will get Bluetooth connected voice services like Alexa.

 

But when people like me complain, Bushweller gas lights us away as being narrow-minded.
 

He says:

 

“It makes sense that teachers might think that machines would be even worse than bad human educators. And just the idea of a human teacher being replaced by a robot is likely too much for many of us, and especially educators, to believe at this point.”

 
The solution, he says, isn’t to resist being replaced but to actually help train our mechanistic successors:

 

“…educators should not be putting their heads in the sand and hoping they never get replaced by an AI-powered robot. They need to play a big role in the development of these technologies so that whatever is produced is ethical and unbiased, improves student learning, and helps teachers spend more time inspiring students, building strong relationships with them, and focusing on the priorities that matter most. If designed with educator input, these technologies could free up teachers to do what they do best: inspire students to learn and coach them along the way.”

 

To me this sounds very similar to a corporate drone rhapsodizing on the merits of downsizing: Sure your job is being sent overseas, but you get to train your replacement!

 

Forgive me if I am not sufficiently grateful for that privilege.

 

Maybe I should be relieved that he at least admits robots may not be able to replace EVERYTHING teachers do. At least, not yet. In the meantime, he expects robots could become co-teachers or effective tools in the classroom to improve student learning by taking over administrative tasks, grading, and classroom management.

 

And this is the kind of nonsense teachers often get from administrators who’ve fallen under the spell of the Next Big Thing – iPads, software packages, data management systems, etc.

 

However, classroom teachers know the truth. This stuff is more often than not overhyped bells and whistles. It’s stuff that CAN be used to improve learning but rarely with more clarity and efficiency than the way we’re already doing it. And the use of edtech opens up so many dangers to students – loss of privacy, susceptibility to being data mined, exposure to unsafe and untried programs, unscrupulous advertising, etc.

 

 

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Bushweller cites a plethora of examples of how robots are used in other parts of the world to improve learning that are of just this type – gimmicky and shallow.

 

It reminds me of IBM’s Watson computing system that in 2011 famously beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, some of the best players, at the game show Jeopardy.

 

 

What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?

 

Now that Watson has been applied to the medical field diagnosing cancer patients, doctors are seeing that the emperor has no clothes. Its diagnoses have been dangerous and incorrect – for instance recommending medication that can cause increased bleeding to a hypothetical patient who already suffered from intense bleeding.

 

Do we really want to apply the same kind of artificial intelligence to children’s learning?

 

AI will never be able to replace human beings. They can only displace us.

 

What I mean by that is this: We can put an AI system in the same position as a human being but it will never be of the same high quality.

 

It is a displacement, a disruption, but not an authentic replacement of equal or greater value.

 

In his paper “The Rhetoric and Reality of Anthropomorphism in Artificial Intelligence,” David Watson explains why.

 

Watson (no relation to IBM’s supercomputer) of the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Touring Institute, writes that AI do not think in the same way humans do – if what they do can even accurately be described as thinking at all.

 

These are algorithms, not minds. They are sets of rules not contemplations.

 

 

An algorithm of a smile would specify which muscles to move and when. But it wouldn’t be anything a live human being would mistake for an authentic expression of a person’s emotion. At best it would be a parabola, at worst a rictus.

 

 

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Picture of an actual Japanese robot teacher in use.

 

In his recent paper in Minds and Machines, Watson outlines three main ways deep neural networks (DNNs) like the ones we’re considering here “think” and “learn” differently from humans.

 

1) DNN’s are easily fooled. While both humans and AIs can recognize things like a picture of an apple, computers are much more easily led astray. Computers are more likely to misconstrue part of the background and foreground, for instance, while human beings naturally comprehend this difference. As a result, humans are less distracted by background noise.

 

2) DNN’s need much more information to learn than human beings. People need relatively fewer examples of a concept like “apple” to be able to recognize one. DNN’s need thousands of examples to be able to do the same thing. Human toddlers demonstrate a much easier capacity for learning than the most advanced AI.

 

3) DNN’s are much more focused on details and less on the bigger picture. For example, a DNN could successfully label a picture of Diane Ravitch as a woman, a historian, and an author. However, switching the position of her mouth and one of her eyes could end up improving the confidence of the DNN’s prediction. The computer wouldn’t see anything wrong with the image though to human eyes there definitely was something glaring incorrect.

 

“It would be a mistake to say that these algorithms recreate human intelligence,” Watson says. “Instead, they introduce some new mode of inference that outperforms us in some ways and falls short in others.”

 

Obviously the technology may improve and change, but it seems more likely that AI’s will always be different. In fact, that’s kind of what we want from them – to outperform human minds in some ways.

 

However, the gap between humanity and AI should never be glossed over.

 

I think that’s what technophiles like Bushweller are doing when they suggest robots could adequately replace teachers. Robots will never do that. They can only be tools.

 

For instance, only the most lonely people frequently have long conversations with SIRI or Alexa. After all, we know there is no one else really there. These wireless Internet voice services are just a trick – an illusion of another person. We turn to them for information but not friendship.

 

The same with teachers. Most of the time, we WANT to be taught by a real human person. If we fear judgment, we may want to look up discrete facts on a device. But if we want guidance, encouragement, direction or feedback, we need a person. AI’s can imitate such things but never as well as the real thing.

 

So we can displace teachers with these subpar imitations. But once the novelty wears off – and it does – we’re left with a lower quality instructor and a subpar education.

 

The computer HAL is not real. To borrow a phrase from science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Artificial intelligence is not yet “more human than human.”
 
Maybe it never will be.

 

The problem is not narrow minded teachers unwilling to sacrifice their jobs for some nebulous techno-utopia. The problem is market based solutions that ignore the human cost of steam rolling over educators and students for the sake of profits.

 

As a society, we must commit ourselves to a renewed ethic of humanity. We must value people more than things.

 

And that includes a commitment to never even attempting to forgo human teachers as guides for the most precious things in our lives – our children.

 

“Algorithms are not ‘just like us’… by anthropomorphizing a statistical model, we implicitly grant it a degree of agency that not only overstates its true abilities, but robs us of our own autonomy… It is always humans who choose whether or not to abdicate this authority, to empower some piece of technology to intervene on our behalf. It would be a mistake to presume that this transfer of authority involves a simultaneous absolution of responsibility. It does not.”

David Watson

 


 

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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Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

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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Top 10 Lessons From the 2020 Public Education Forum

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The school bell chimed and the class shuffled home.

 

But the students weren’t little children.

 

They were Democratic Presidential candidates!

 

And boy-oh-boy did they get sent packing with a ton of homework!

 

Teachers, students, parents and community members from all over the country sat them down with instructions on how to improve the public education system.

 

Kudos to the candidates for agreeing to listen.

 

It was billed as the MSNBC “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All” – and though it’s over now, its effects may be felt for months or years yet to come.

 

The fact that it happened at all is almost miraculous.

 

Who would have thought Presidential hopefuls would care enough about public schools to address education issues and answer our questions?

 

Who would have thought it would be broadcast live on TV and the Internet?

 

And – come to think of it – who would have EVER thought it would happen in my hometown of Pittsburgh!?
But it did.

 

I was there – along with about 1,500 other education activists, stakeholders and public school warriors from around the country.

 

It was an amazing day which I will never forget.

 

Perhaps the best part was getting to see so many amazing people in one place – and I’m not talking about the candidates.

 

There were members of the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education, Journey for Justice, One Pennsylvania, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and so many more!

 

I wish I could bottle up that feeling of commitment to our children and hope in the future.

 

Perhaps that’s kind of the point behind this article.
So much happened and there is so much worth noting, let me put my impressions down as a series of takeaways or lessons for us to savor between now and the primary election – maybe even until the general.

 

Here’s my top 10 most important lessons:

 

1) Charter School Support is Weak

 

When the forum was announced, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform wrote a blistering memoabout how the charter school community would not put up with politicians listening to constituents critical of their industry. Allen is a far right Republican with close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who even used Donald Trump’s public relations firm to publicize her protest. But when we got to the forum, all it amounted to were a dozen folks with matching yellow signs trudging through the rainwho didn’t even stay for the duration of the forum. YAWN! Silly school privatizers, that’s not how you protest!

 

2) Michael Bennet Doesn’t Understand Much About Public Education

 

The Colorado Senator and former school superintendent really doesn’t get a lot of the important issues – even when they intersect his life. As superintendent, he enacted a merit pay initiative for teachers that resulted in a teachers strike. He still doesn’t comprehend why this was a bad idea – that tying teachers salaries to student test scores makes for educators who only teach to the test, that it demands teachers be responsible for things beyond their control, etc. Moreover, he thinks there’s a difference between public and private charter schools – there isn’t. They’re all bankrolled by tax dollars and can be privately operated.

 

But I suppose that doesn’t matter so much because few people know who Michael Bennet is anyway.

 

3) Pete Buttigeig is Too Smart Not to Understand Education – Unless He’s Paid Not to Understand

 

Mayor Pete came off as a very well spoken and intelligent guy. But he also seemed about as credible as wet tissue. He said a bunch of wrongheaded things. For instance, he said that “separate has never, ever been equal,” but he supports charter schools. Separate but equal is their business model.

 

It’s the kind of misunderstanding that only happens on purpose, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s taken so much money from anti-education billionaires like Netflix Founder Reed Hastings, no one else can trust him. How are we supposed to think he works for us when his salary comes from the super rich? You never recover from ignorance when it’s your job to be ignorant.

4) Gender Neutral Bathrooms Just Make Sense

I used a gender neutral bathroom for the first time at the forum. I figured I just had to pee so it didn’t matter. Inside were nothing but bathroom stalls – no standing urinals. People of all genders were in there using the facilities and it didn’t matter at all. In fact, it just made sense. It only seems strange because of what we’ve grown to expect. Gender neutral is just logical – no one uses the bathroom for anything but… using the bathroom. Try it and you’ll see – it’s the most logical and natural thing in the world.

 

5) Elizabeth Warren is a Star!

 

Warren simply electrified the room as soon as she entered it. She was at least as smart and well-spoken as Mayor Pete, but she was credible, too. She said all charter schools should have to meet the same requirements as authentic public schools. She said public school money should stay in public schools. She had detailed plans for how to fix what ails or school systemincluding a two cent wealth tax (three cents if you’re a billionaire) to pay for universal child care, universal pre-kindergarten, better pay for childcare workers, broader pell grants, and SO much more.

 

I was even more impressed with her in person and she got a standing ovation from the crowd. She would make a great President.

 

6) Bernie Sanders is a Superstar!

 

If Warren electrified the audience, Bernie was like a nuclear explosion. I don’t think anyone stayed in their seat when he entered. Fists pumping in the air, applause, chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” It was clear who the audience appreciated most.

 

And he was amazing. He said we need to break our dependence on property taxes to fund our schools. He said the problem with testing is we spend too much time teaching to the test. There are better ways to assess learning. He said we need a revolution in how we feel about education and learning. We’ve got to respect the educators who provide that education. He talked about criminal justice and unions and a broader range of issues and in more depth than any other candidate.

 

But my favorite moment was this.

 

Question: Should the federal government subsidize student lunch?

 

Bernie: “And breakfast and dinner as well.”

 

I think he solidified for most of us that he’s our number one candidate in this election. He would be a once in a lifetime President!

 

7) MSNBC Anchor Rehema Ellis Does Not Understand Standardized Testing

 

Throughout the forum, Ellis kept asking the same question over-and-over. She kept asking about America’s dismal standardized test scores compared to other countries. But we weren’t ignorant rubes. She was talking before an audience of teachers. It became clear she didn’t understand what these international test scores mean. First of all, she kept talking about US kids being behind grade level. Proficiency on tests like the NAEP isn’t the same as grade level proficiency. Moreover, comparing the US – which educates everyone – and other countries that do not is like comparing apples to oranges. But Ellis was part of NBC’s Education Nation initiative and has been spreading falsehoods and half-truths about testing for a decade. Maybe after educating the politicians we need to send the media back to school, too.

 

8) This is Not the Moment for Tom Steyer

 

Steyer is a billionaire self-funding his campaign in a time when voters are sick to death of the rich controlling our politics. He’s like a fox warning us all about foxes. It doesn’t make me want to vote for him. It makes me wonder if he thinks I’m lunch.

 

9) Amy Klobuchar is a Better Candidate Than I Expected

 

And the winner of most improved image is Klobuchar – by a mile. She came off so authentic and honest. She started with an emotional story about her mother – a teacher – which naturally lead into some really smart policy suggestions. And saying that she’d fire Betsy DeVos in seconds after becoming President and replace her with an educator was nice, too. I’m not saying I think she can or should win the nomination, but I’m glad she’s in the race and I hope we see more of her.

 

10) Joe Biden is Not Going to Beat Donald Trump

 

Biden came tottering onto the stage late like a friendly but lost old man. He flashed the charm and told us what his policies were but he couldn’t explain why he supported a single one of them.

 

He was the worst public speaker all day. His words rambled this way and that. At one point he told the audience to stop clapping so he could explain why he wanted to fully fund special education, but then he went off on a digression and got lost. At one point he rhapsodized about all the terrible teachers out there and said teachers touch students’ lives – “metaphorically speaking.”

 

Dr. Denisha Jones – an amazing activist and friend – asked him a pointed question about standardized testing and whether he was against it? He told her she was “preaching to the choir” but then rambled on for moments more about … something. I don’t know what.

 

Biden seems more like someone with Alzheimer’s Disease than aspirations to the chief executive. If he won, his wife or someone else would really be making the decisions. He isn’t well. And all you have to do is hear him speak for a few minutes to see it.

 

Bottom line: I don’t think he could beat Trump.

 

 

As terrible as Trump is, he can speak more coherently than Biden. That’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true.


So there you have it – my top 10 takeaways from the education forum.

 

It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

 

The candidates left knowing exactly where the education community stands. They know what they need to do to get our votes – and many of them are actively trying to do that.

 

We have several candidates that would make good Presidents – and several who stand a good chance against Trump.

 

Here’s hoping that we all learn our lessons and use them to win back our government in 2020.

 

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Mark Fallon and Me
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Network for Public Education buddies – Carol Burris, Dan Greenberg, me and Peter Greene.
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Pittsburgh strong – Kathleen Newman, me and Jesse Ramey
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Mitchell Robinson and me
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Keeping it Local – State Rep Summer Lee (Homestead), Mark Fallon and me.

 

 

 


If you missed the event, you can still watch it 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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Public School Teacher Questions for 2020 Dem Presidential Candidates

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What happens when you give a microphone to a public school teacher?

 

 

That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know, because we so rarely let educators speak in any context other than the classroom.

 

 

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing that MSNBC is hosting “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All”on Saturday, Dec. 14, in my hometown of Pittsburgh.

 

 

Public policy is usually made by billionaires who tell their think tanks what to write up and then give it to legislators to vote it into law.

 

 

But ask parents, students, community members or – God forbid! – school teachers about what we should do with something as mundane as education!? That’s crazy talk!

 

 

Well, the Democrats, at least, are taking it seriously.

 

 

The candidates who are expected to attend Saturday’s forum include: Former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; billionaire businessman Tom Steyer; and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

 

 

All the presidential candidates who either qualified for the October debate or hold statewide office were invited to attend, according to organizers.

 

 

And guess who else will be there?

 

 

ME!

 

 

Somehow your humble edu-blogger got an invite to the party – limited to an audience of about a thousand.

 

 

To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to actually ask a question. I might spend the whole time listening, but that would be far from wasted.

 

 

Forcing candidates to tell educators to their faces what they intend for public schools is a worthwhile endeavor in itself.

 

 

But I must be honest – there is a possibility I may get the microphone and have the opportunity to ask something.

 

 

So I’ve prepared the following questions – one for each candidate expected to be at the forum:

 

 

 

Joe Biden

 

Biden

 

Your education plan triples the amount of money the federal government spends annually on low-income schools from about $16 billion to about $48 billion. That money is supposed to go to raising teachers’ salaries, Pre-K, and “more rigorous coursework.” My question is this: will you tie federal spending to standardized testing, Common Core and school privatization initiatives like your former boss Barack Obama did, and how does your position differ from Race to the Top and Obama’s other top down corporate education reforms?

 

 

Pete Buttigieg 

 

Mayor-Pete

 

You are infamous for taking money from some terrible people who want to destroy public schools – Reed Hastings, for example, the billionaire founder of Netflix, who wants to replace authentic public schools with charter-schools so that all schools are run by corporations and not elected school boards. Hastings has hosted fundraisers for you. He set aside $100 million to promote the privatization of public schools by charter-school expansion as well as served on the California State Board of Education, where he used his influence to minimize any regulation of charters. My question to you is this: how are any of us to take you seriously when you allow yourself to be bought and sold by the school privatization industry? How can we believe a thing you say when your vote has so obviously been up for sale to the highest bidder?

 

 

 

 

Amy Klobuchar

 

Amy-Klobuchar

 

You’ve said that you support national testing standards and that schools should be held to the highest benchmarks. You’ve also said you’ll work to help schools better measure comprehensive achievement. My question is this: how much and in what ways does your education policy differ from the reductive and corporate-driven policies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush? Would you continue to use biased and unscientific standardized assessments to measure student learningand then hold schools responsible for scores predicated on economic inequality and white supremacy?

 

 

Bernie Sanders

 

Bernie-Sanders

 

Along with Sen. Warren, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best any candidate who has sought the Democratic nomination has ever put forward. However, the weakest part of your plan concerns standardized testing. As recently as 2015, you voted to keep the same test and punish bogus accountability initiatives as Barack Obama and George W. Bush. My question is this: what happened to change your mind and would you please explain if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing fits in with your education policies?

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Warren

 

 

Elizabeth-Warren

 

Along with Sen. Sanders, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best of any candidate who has ever sought the Democratic nomination. However, you seem to equivocate on standardized testing and national academic standards. On the one hand, you say that you’re against high stakes testing, but on the other you speak about putting an emphasis on student careers, and aligning high school graduation requirements with that of colleges. You even say you’d direct “the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.” This sounds a lot like Barack Obama’s Race to the Top which held school funding hostage to regressive reforms and Common Core which used standardized tests to determine what would be taught in schools. My question is this: please explain exactly if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing and Common Core fit in with your education policies?

 

 

 

Tom Steyer

 

Tom_Steyer_by_Gage_Skidmore

 

Your campaign Website takes no stand on many issues important to educators, families and students including charter schools and standardized testing. Yet you’re a hedge fund billionaire who has donated at least $100,000 through your foundation to Teach for America in 2009. My question is this: what is your position on these policies – standardized testing, charter schools and Teach for America? Do you still think that a few weeks of a crash course is equal to a full teaching degree? Do you still think we need fake temporary teachers who are only committed to the classroom for a few years? Or is it better to have teaching be a respected vocation with highly educated and valued professionals?

 

HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Finally, here’s a question I could ask to any and all of the candidates:

 

 

I want to ask you about charter schools. Why do we need them at all? Why do we need schools that are publicly funded but privately run? Shouldn’t public schools that accept public money have to accept public administration – elected school boards, transparency and accountability? Shouldn’t all public schools be required to accept all student who live in their coverage areas and not be allowed to cherry pick students? Wouldn’t it be better to close all charter schools that can’t meet the same requirements as authentic public schools and transition those that can to becoming fully public schools?

 

 

Well, those are my questions.

 

If anyone has any other suggestions, please post them in the comments. And if someone else this weekend or later in the campaign season happens to get a chance to query one of the candidates, feel free to use one or all of what I have compiled here.

 

My hope is that this interest in education isn’t just a political stunt but will translate to better school policies no matter who wins the election in 2020.

 


Livestream the education forum here on Saturday, Dec. 14, beginning at 9:45 am.


 

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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Pittsburgh Mayor’s Tantrum About School Finances Proves He Doesn’t Understand Education or Equity

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Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is steaming mad and he doesn’t care who knows it.

 

On Tuesday he raved that Pittsburgh Public Schools’ finances should be taken over by the state – the same fate the city had suffered during its own economic troubles from 2004-18.

 

The reason Peduto thinks the school should submit to a financial recovery plan overseen by a state appointed board? School Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet is proposing a 2.3% tax increase in 2020 for a reserve fund while Peduto’s municipal government allegedly is managing with a surplus.

 

If the city can manage its finances without a tax increase, wonders Peduto, why can’t the school district?

 

However, the Mayor’s narrative conveniently leaves out a few pertinent facts.

 

Most importantly – during the city’s economic trouble 14 years ago, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave a portion of their tax revenue to the municipal government to help it pay the bills.

 

Now that the city is doing better, school officials are suggesting Peduto should give that tax revenue back to the schools. And that suggestion infuriates the mayor.

 

In addition, it’s not true that Pittsburgh’s 2020 budget includes no tax increase.

 

The city is raising taxes by about 6% to pay for upkeep at its parks. However, since this tax is the result of a referendum approved by the voters, it is being spun as a “no new taxes” budget.

 

The city has a surplus due to construction of new high-end apartments. City Council could have budgeted some of this money to pay for the parks. Instead, leaders like Peduto were too cowardly to take the blame, themselves, and put it out as a question to voters.

 

It is entirely unfair to criticize Pittsburgh Public Schools for raising taxes a smaller degree (2.3%) than the city is (6%).

 

Both entities spend about the same amount annually. In 2020, the city has a proposed $608 million budget, and the schools have a proposed $665.6 million budget.

 

Moreover, there is nothing unfair about school officials asking for the tax revenue back from the city that they generously offered it when the municipality was in need.

 

Now that the city is out of peril (and has been since 2018), it should pay back that money. To be honest, it should do so with 14 years worth of interest – but no one is suggesting that.

 

At least it is time for Pittsburgh to stop leeching off its schools and give this revenue back.

 

The fact that Peduto is whining about something so obviously fair and equitable makes him look like a spoiled child.

 

The same goes for his suggestion of state takeover of district finances.

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools already is audited by the state every year. It is not on the state watchlist for districts in financial distress.

 

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said, “There have been no significant issues raised related to how the district conducts its finances.”

 

Peduto just wants the schools to have to endure the same indignity the city did thereby putting municipal leaders in a better light.

 

After all, it was the school district which helped the city – not the other way round. And it was the city that needed the state to take over its finances, not the schools.

 

It was Pittsburgh Public School’s Chief Financial Officer Ronald Joseph who explicitly proposed a take-back of wage tax revenue that was diverted to the city in 2005.

 

City residents pay a 3% wage tax. Of this money, originally 2% went to the schools and 1% to the city.

 

When the city was placed under Act 47 state oversight, the formula was changed to give a quarter percent more to the city from the school’s allotment – thus 1.75% went to the schools and 1.25% went to the city.

 

Pittsburgh left Act 47 in 2018 but the wage tax distribution has remained the same.

 

“Why in the heck can’t the school board balance their budget?” Peduto said. “Where is all this money going?”

 

Answer: Some of it is still going unnecessarily to fill your municipal coffers.

 

Peduto added:

 

“If they are looking to have part of the city’s wage tax, then they should be willing to open the books and let the state come in and do exactly what we had to do through Act 47, which was difficult restructuring for the future. If we didn’t have that, the city would be bankrupt.”

 

So let me get this straight. In order to give back the revenue the schools generously loaned the city, you need a look at their finances? I sure wouldn’t lend you a dollar or else I’d have to show you my tax returns and checking account just to get the loan repaid.

 

Peduto went on:

 

“If they simply say, ‘We’re going to take your revenue to fix our hole,’ and not be the leaders that they were elected to be in making tough decisions like raising taxes, then I have no time for that, absolutely none, and I will fight them in Harrisburg.”

 

How generous! That’s like threatening to go to Mom and Dad to settle your dispute. A real leader would know he was in the wrong and just pay up.

 

This isn’t the first time Peduto has clashed with city schools.

 

He seems to think his role as mayor supersedes that of the school district which operates independently through an elected nine-member board.

 
He said as much in 2018 when district negotiations with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) threatened to spill over into the first teachers strike in more than 40 years.

 

Peduto wanted to mediate between the teachers and school administrators – a measure Dr. Hamlet patently refused.

 

Peduto said:

 

“They have to remember they’re a board. They’re not a government. They’re no different than the water board or the Port Authority board or the airport board. They’re a board of education. Their job should be solely making sure that kids are getting a good education. When there becomes labor strife in the city, labor strife that could affect the economic development of the city for years to come, they need to move out of the way and let [elected] leaders lead.”

 

Dr, Hamlet said this was a “bargaining process, not a political” one, and that Peduto needed to let administration continue the process of bargaining with the teachers – a process that resulted in a new contract without a strike.

 

The relationship has been chilly even before Hamlet was hired in 2016.

 

In a community where district funding is constantly at risk from unregulated and unaccountable charter schools, Peduto actually presided over a 2014 ribbon cutting ceremony at the Hill House Passport Academy Charter School.

 

 

Charter school costs are one of the largest expenses the district pays annually.

 

 

According to PennLive.com, the district paid $79 million (or about 12% of its budget) in 2017-18 to these institutions which are funded with public tax dollars but privately run.

 
Like many charter schools, the Hill District institution is incredibly segregated. According to ProPublica, 96% of students are children of color. It has no gifted program, offers no AP courses, has no students taking the SAT or ACT test, no calculus classes, no advanced math, no physics, geometry, chemistry or 8th grade algebra courses.

 

In short, this is not the type of school the mayor of a major metropolitan center should be promoting.

 

And Peduto would know that if he had any knowledge of how school systems actually work. Before entering city politics, the Democrat ran a consulting business and served as Chief of Staff to City Councilman Dan Cohen.

 

Since his first successful campaign for mayor in 2013, Peduto has had a history of making bold promises to the Pittsburgh Public Schools that have not always come to fruition.

 

Peduto said he would lobby for additional funding for city schools in Harrisburg but district solicitor Ira Weiss said the mayor never followed through.

 

 

Peduto proposed increasing school revenue by helping to rent out unused school space. That hasn’t happened, either, said Weiss.

 

Peduto suggested increasing student after school programs by working together with the district and others like the YMCA and the Student Conservation Association. While a few such programs do exist, there is no broad collaboration, said Errika Fearby Jones, the executive director of Dr. Hamlet’s office.

 

Peduto’s summer reading program with the city and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh likewise never materialized – though the library runs its own program.

 

Moreover, Peduto’s plan to restart the Generations Together program with the University of Pittsburgh to promote cross-generational learning never happened either. Pitt shut down the program in 2002.

 

Curtiss Porter, who served as Peduto’s chief education and neighborhood reinvestment officer during the first year of his administration, blames the problem on a disagreement about who should be in charge.

 

The city and school district had a good working relationship when he was there, he said, but there was “a clear demarcation” between the two bodies, which made it difficult to implement some of Peduto’s ideas.

 
“At critical junctures…the school district made it clear that they were willing partners but that they did not have to bow to the city,” he said. “[They] made it clear the city had no jurisdiction over education.”

 

And that disconnect appears to continue today.

 

Peduto is engaged in an ignorant and arrogant power struggle with city schools that helps no one.

 


 

 

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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Eight Things I Love About Elizabeth Warren’s Education Plan – And One I Don’t

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My daughter had bad news for me yesterday at dinner.

 

She turned to me with all the seriousness her 10-year-old self could muster and said, “Daddy, I know you love Bernie but I’m voting for Elizabeth.”

 
“Elizabeth Warren?” I said choking back a laugh.

 

Her pronouncement had come out of nowhere. We had just been discussing how disgusting the pierogies were in the cafeteria for lunch.

 
And she nodded with the kind of earnestness you can only have in middle school.

 

So I tried to match the sobriety on her face and remarked, “That’s okay, Honey. You support whomever you want. You could certainly do worse than Elizabeth Warren.”

 

And you know what? She’s right.

 

Warren has a lot of things to offer – especially now that her education plan has dropped.

 

In the 15 years or so that I’ve been a public school teacher, there have been few candidates who even understand the issues we are facing less than any who actually promote positive education policy.

 

But then Bernie Sanders came out with his amazing Thurgood Marshall plan and I thought, “This is it! The policy platform I’ve been waiting for!”

 
I knew Warren was progressive on certain issues but I never expected her to in some ways match and even surpass Bernie on education.

 

What times we live in! There are two major political candidates for the Democratic nomination for President who don’t want to privatize every public school in sight! There are two candidates who are against standardized testing!

 

It’s beyond amazing!

 

Before we gripe and pick at loose ends in both platforms, we should pause and acknowledge this.

 

 

Woo-hoo!

 

 
Both Sanders AND Warren are excellent choices for President. And Biden might even do in a pinch.

 

So in honor of my precocious political princess backing Elizabeth Warren – I THINK she knows she doesn’t actually get to vote, herself, yet! – I give you eight things I love and one I don’t in Warren’s education plan.

 

Things I like:

 

1)       IT INVESTS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

 

WARREN’S PROPOSAL:  Quadrupling Title I funding — an additional $450 billion over the next 10 years for the neediest children and their schools. Finally have the federal government pay 40% of all special education costs – a promise lawmakers made years ago but never kept. Invest an additional $100 billion over ten years in “Excellence Grants” to any public school. That’s roughly $1 million for every public school in the country to buy state-of-the art labs, restore afterschool arts programs, implement school-based student mentoring programs, etc. By 2030, she’ll help 25,000 public schools become community schools. Invest at least an additional $50 billion in school infrastructure — targeted at the schools most in need.

 
WHAT I LIKE: Everything! Our public schools are crumbling under decades of neglect and targeted disinvestment – especially those serving the poor and minorities. This could be a game changer for the entire country!

 

 

2)       IT ACTIVELY WORKS TO INTEGRATE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

 

 
WARREN’S PROPOSAL: Spend billions of dollars annually that states can use to promote residential and public school integration. This includes infrastructure like magnet schools but also integrating communities. Support strengthening and robust enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in any program receiving federal funding.

 
WHAT I LIKE: Segregation is the elephant in the room in our nation. We can’t be a single country pursuing liberty and justice for all when we keep our people “separate but equal.” If you want to undo our history of racism, prejudice and xenophobia, we must get to know and appreciate each other from a young age. Plus it’s harder to horde resources for one group or another when all children are in one place.

 

 

3)       IT SUPPORTS ALL OUR STUDENTS.

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ students, immigrant students and their families, English Language Learners, students of color, etc.

 
WHY I LIKE IT: I love my students – all of my students. It breaks my heart that the same system that’s supposed to provide them an education oftentimes allows them to be discriminated against.

 

 

4)       IT ELIMINATES HIGH-STAKES TESTING.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: In particular:

“The push toward high-stakes standardized testing has hurt both students and teachers. Schools have eliminated critical courses that are not subject to federally mandated testing, like social studies and the arts. They can exclude students who don’t perform well on tests. Teachers feel pressured to teach to the test, rather than ensuring that students have a rich learning experience. I oppose high-stakes testing, and I co-sponsored successful legislation in Congress to eliminate unnecessary and low-quality standardized tests. As president, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways.”

 

 
WHY I LIKE IT: High stakes testing is a curse on the education field. It warps nearly every aspect of our school system with biased and inappropriate assessments. Good riddance!

 

5)       IT SUPPORTS FEEDING ALL STUDENTS – NOT SHAMING THEM FOR THEIR POVERTY.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Canceling student breakfast and lunch debt. In particular:

“I will also push to cancel all existing student meal debt and increase federal funding to school meals programs so that students everywhere get free breakfast and lunch.”

 

 
WHY I LIKE IT: No child should have to go hungry – especially at school. No child should have to feel guilty for their parent’s economic situation. And feeding all children removes any stigma and helps create community.

 

 

 

6)       IT SUPPORTS TEACHERS.

 
WARREN PROPOSES: Providing funding for schools to increase pay and support for all public school educators, strengthen the ability of teachers, paraprofessionals, and staff to organize and bargain. In particular:

 

“I pledged to enact the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, which ensures that public employees like teachers can organize and bargain collectively in each state, and authorizes voluntary deduction of fees to support a union.”

 
WHY I LIKE IT: A robust system of public education needs teachers who are respected and appreciated. You cannot have this when salary is based on the wealth of the community you serve. The only choice as far as I see it is to have the spender of last resort (the federal government) take up the slack. I know some of my fellow bloggers are nervous about this because these funds could come with strings attached. Pay could be contingent on teachers increasing student test scores or using certain corporate curriculum, etc. However, any tool can be misused. I don’t see this as necessarily being a backdoor for corporate shenanigans, but we certainly must be cautious.

 

7)       IT FIGHTS THE CORRUPT SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION INDUSTRY.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Ensuring charter schools are subject to at least the same level of transparency and accountability as traditional public schools. In particular:

 

“…I support the NAACP’s recommendations to only allow school districts to serve as charter authorizers, and to empower school districts to reject applications that do not meet transparency and accountability standards, consider the fiscal impact and strain on district resources, and establish policies for aggressive oversight of charter schools.”

 

Ending federal funding for the expansion of charter schools. Banning for-profit charter schools including non-profit charter schools that outsource their operations to for-profit companies. Directing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to investigate “so-called nonprofit schools that are violating the statutory requirements for nonprofits.”

 
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT: Everything! This is where Warren’s proposal really shines! She is even more comprehensive than Sanders’! She doesn’t stop with just “for-profit” charter schools but understands that many of these institutions circumvent the rules even without that tax status.

 

 

8)       IT PROTECTS STUDENT DATA FROM ED TECH COMPANIES AND BEYOND.

 

 

WARREN PROPOSES: Banning the sharing, storing, and sale of student data. In particular:

 

“My plan would extend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to ban the sharing, storing, and sale of student data that includes names or other information that can identify individual students. Violations should be punishable by civil and criminal penalties.”

 
WHAT I LIKE ABOUT IT: Ed tech companies are seen for the danger they bring to education. Students are protected from having their entire lives impacted by the choices of ignorant school administrators or school directors. The road to the replacement of public school with digital alternatives is recognized and blocked.

 

And this just scratches the surface. These are just the points that jumped out at me on a first read.

 

I’m sure there is more policy gold in here we’ll find as the election season progresses.

 

However, there was one thing that jumped out at me in a less positive light.
 
One thing I did not like:

 

1)      WARREN’S EMPHASIS ON “CAREER AND COLLEGE READINESS” SOUNDS TOO MUCH LIKE THE WORST OF BARACK OBAMA’S EDUCATION POLICY.

 

 

On the one hand, Warren says unequivocally that she’s against high stakes testing. Then on the other she writes:

 

“We must also ensure that students are able to take advantage of those opportunities and that high schools are funded and designed to prepare students for careers, college, and life…

…I’ll work with states to align high school graduation requirements with their public college admission requirements. And I’ll also direct the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.”

 

This sounds an awful lot like Race to the Top and Common Core.

 

Is she really proposing all public schools have the same top-down academic standards? Is she proposing states force corporate-created academic standards on their schools? And is she threatening to use the power of the federal government – possibly the power of the purse – to make states and schools fall into line?

 

Warren needs to understand that Common Core cannot be separated into curriculum and testing. The testing drives the curriculum. You can’t say you’re against testing being used to make high stakes decisions and then have that same testing determine what is taught in schools.

 

Perhaps this isn’t her intention at all. But she needs to be asked and she needs to give a definitive answer.

 

Obama was all about teacher autonomy, too, before he got into office.

 

And that’s really the biggest issue for most education advocates like me.

 

We’ve been burned so many times before by politicians, it’s hard to accept that any of them might actually be serious about doing something positive for children’s educations.

 

I’m still a Bernie Sanders supporter. I’ll admit that.

 

But Warren has gone a long way with this proposal to getting me into her corner, too.

 

In the primary, I’ll probably continue to feel the Bern.

 

But who knows? In the general election, perhaps my daughter and I will get to root for the same candidate.

 

I’m extremely thankful to Warren and her team for coming up with such a thoughtful and detailed education plan. It couldn’t have been easy – either to draft or politically.

 

It really does appear to be an attempt not just to sway voters but to actually get things right.

 

Here’s hoping that voters do the same in about a year.

 


 

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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Racial Disparity in Student Discipline Isn’t All About Race

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Black students are suspended from school at substantially higher rates than white ones.

 

That’s indisputable.

 

When teachers send kids to the office, when principals issue detentions and suspensions, the faces of those students are disproportionately black or brown.

 

So what does that mean?

 

Are minority children more badly behaved than white ones?

 

Or is it an indication that our public schools are overrun with racist teachers and principals?

 

Those appear to be the only choices in Trump’s America.

 

There’s either something desperately wrong with children of color or the majority of white staff at public schools can’t handle them.

 

But the reality is far more complex, and no matter who you are, it will probably make you uncomfortable.

 

The problem is that there are variables the binary choice above doesn’t even begin to explain, and chief among them is child poverty.

 

In short, there are an awful lot of poor kids in America. And children living in poverty act out more than those living in middle or upper income brackets.

 

It’s not that these kids are inherently bad. They’re just coping with the stress of an impoverished life style by claiming whatever attention they can – even negative attention.

 

And since children of color are disproportionately more impoverished than white kids, it just makes sense that more of them would act up.

 

It should come as no surprise that living with economic deprivations translates into behavioral problems.

 

I’m not saying poverty is the only factor. I’m not saying that white teachers and administrators don’t engage in bias and racism. But it isn’t all one or the other.

 

Both are factors in this equation. And others variables as well.

 

To truly understand the problem, we have to give up the easy answers and the blame game and come together to find real, workable solutions.

 

SUSPENSIONS

 

About 15.5 percent of American school children are black, yet they make up 39 percent of students who are suspended from school, according to the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) first study on the issue.

 

The study used data from 95,000 schools compiled from the federal Civil Rights Collection.

 

Particularly alarming is the fact that almost the same disparity exists in our prison system, where nearly 38 percent of inmates are black.

 

Researchers concluded that this disparity persists in both rich and poor schools, so the primary cause is racial bias.

 

However, the study was also used by the GAO as a means to put pressure on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she considered whether to rescind 2014 civil rights guidelines from the Obama Administration. The report was part of a political move to force DeVos to keep using guidelines meant to ensure that students are not discriminated against when punishments are handed out or schools would risk being found in violation of civil rights laws.

 

The problem is that the study is undeniably partisan and politically motivated.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with its motivation. It’s just that we can’t let a single well-intentioned political action falsely impugn the nation’s teachers and public schools.

 

It IS important to keep the Obama era guidelines on civil rights violations. We DO need to be aware of possible incidents of discrimination against minorities in our schools and work to rectify these issues.

 

However, we can’t let this change the facts. The issue is whether poverty or race has a greater impact on racial discrepancies in student discipline. Are a greater percentage of black kids suspended mainly because of prejudice or is it more a symptom of their poverty?

 

And the answer can’t depend on whether it makes an odious person like DeVos squirm or smile.

 

POVERTY

 

The problem with answering this question comes from the various definitions of poverty we employ.

 

If we define poverty for students as those eligible for free or reduced lunch programs (a determination based on household income), then more than half – 51% – of public school children are poor.

 

But if we take the more conservative formula developed in the 1960s based on food expenses as a part of a family budget, poverty estimates shrink.

 

According to the Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) which uses the more conservative definition, childhood poverty in the U.S. breaks down as follows: 10% of white kids (4.2 million), 27% of Latino children (4 million), 33% of Black students (3.6 million), 12% of Asian children (400,000) and 40% of Native American children (200,000).

 

And those figures are rising. There are 1.2 million more poor children in the U.S. today than there were in 2000.

 

However, there is real reason to assume these figures don’t capture the whole picture. After all, in just the last 30 years, food expenses (up 100%) have not risen as dramatically as other costs such as health care (up 500%), housing (up 250%) and college tuition (up 1,000%). So any real-world definition of poverty would include substantially more children than just those who qualify under these out-of-date federal guidelines.

 

A report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) concludes, “If the same basic methodology developed in the early 1960s was applied today, the poverty thresholds would be over three times higher than the current thresholds.”

 

And the GAO study used the conservative 1960s threshold.

 

It underestimated how poor our nation, families and children have become.

 

Consider: in the past 20 years as wages have stagnated, median household expenses increased by 25 to 30 percent. As a result, 3 out of 5 Americans today spend more than they earn – not on useless frivolities – but on essential needs.

 

It’s estimated that over three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.

 

People are working more hours for decreasing wages and benefits. A Princeton study concluded that 94 percent of the nine million new jobs created in the past decade were temporary or contract-based instead of traditional full-time positions.

 

In 2016, the poorest 50% of American adults had an average net worth (home and financial assets minus debt) of just $7,500. To make matters worse, only a year previously it was $9,000. The difference all went to the top 1% who gained an average of $1.5 million during that same year.

 

These facts have real world consequences for every level of society – especially how our children behave in school.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

It seems clear then that the scope and effects of poverty have been underestimated by the GAO report and others who wish to emphasize the effect of racism and bias.

 

Again this is not to say that racism and bias are misrepresented or unimportant. It’s a question of how much – not an either/or situation.

 

The fact of the matter is that poverty has a more pervasive impact on student discipline because students of color experience it at greater rates than white kids.

 

This is mainly because of the way poverty affects students’ home lives – an area that has a much greater influence on education than what goes on in the school, itself.

 

For instance, children who don’t know how to “play school” – to navigate the expectations, routines, social situations and academic demands – don’t learn as much as those who do. In fact, this may be a partial reason why children of color don’t do as well academically as kids from other groups. Certainly biased standardized assessments and the high stakes decisions made based on these tests play an even larger role. But at least some of the gap may be caused by lost opportunities due to behavioral issues.

 

Sadly, children who act out in class usually do the same at home. We must ask then: are parents present when this happens? Do they have similar standards of misbehavior? Do they know how to correct misbehavior when it happens?

 

Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that many parents aren’t able to be present for their kids.

 

They are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t have the time to do the groundwork necessary to eliminate behavior problems before their children go to class. They don’t have the time to set up routines, expectations, rewards and punishments, etc. And even when they do attempt to do these things, they have less ability to get it right because their attention is focused on putting food on the table, providing clothing and shelter, etc.

 

This is not because these people are bad parents. In fact, they are good parents who are doing the best they can. But this is a symptom of a deformed society that requires a disproportionate investment of time from the poor for the essentials that is not required of those in higher income brackets.

 

This is not something unique to black and brown families, either. It is a feature of millions of white households as well – but the demographics of poverty cluster these impacts disproportionately on children of color.

 

HOME LIFE

 

There is also a change in the sociological makeup and values of poor and minority families.

 

Some would put blame squarely on the increasing prevalence of one-parent households. I think this is deceptive, though, because many one-parent households are stronger and more stable than two parent ones. It really depends. But it makes sense that households with two parents – where one adult can lean on the other for support – are often more stable than those without this feature.

 

This may be an area where black children have a disadvantage since according to census data the percentage of white children under 18 who live with both parents almost doubles that of black children. While 74.3 percent of all white children below the age of 18 live with both parents, only 38.7 percent of African-American minors do the same.

 

There is also the issue of parents who aren’t just absent during the workday but absent altogether. People of color also are incarcerated at disproportionate rates to white people – even when convicted for the same crimes. This is not to say that black people commit more crimes, but that they are more harshly punished for them than whites – they have higher conviction rates and serve longer sentences.

 

This has consequences for children of color. It adds to the prevalence of grandparents and/or other siblings or foster caregivers filling that parental role. Again, these households can be exceptionally strong and stable. But there is less support, more struggles and the increased possibility that children’s behavioral home foundations may be less robust.

 

RACIAL TRAUMA

 

People of color also experience racial trauma compounded from our national history of slavery, racism and prejudice. Black and brown people today are still dealing with the effects of generational slavery. This is one of the reasons they are disproportionately poor – they did not have the chance to gather wealth over successive generations as white families did.

 

Moreover, the culture of black people was disrupted by the slave trade. Genealogies, legacies, traditions, faiths, etc. were stolen from them by the slave industry. Parenthood, as we know it today, was forbidden to black people. Is it any wonder that they have struggled to regain what was taken from them by white society?

 

Finally, there are the effects of Jim Crow and racial discrimination after the end of slavery. Black people have continually been told they had the same rights and opportunities as white people but when they went to claim these alleged boons, they were beaten back. This has had the effect of turning some of them against the very idea of many of the behaviors they see exemplified by white people.

 

Some students of color don’t want to behave like the white kids because they want to assert their blackness. There is among some of them an internalization of negative behaviors as black and positive ones as white. This misdirected self-determination results in racial pride for acting up regardless of the academic consequences.

 

RACISM AT SCHOOL

 

Of course by the same token there is certainly bias, prejudice and racism among white teachers, administrators, faculty and staff.

 

The fact that our public schools are mostly staffed with non-black and non-brown people, itself, ensures that bias will be prevalent in our schools. It is vital that we increase the percentage of black staff – especially teachers – in our classrooms. Though this will require the elevation of the profession of educator to attract teachers of all backgrounds.

 

The problem is that white people often don’t understand black culture or even recognize how much white people have been enculturated to accept stereotypes and bias as the norm.

 

This has a direct impact on school discipline. Many discipline policies are written to unduly target students of color. I’m not saying this is necessarily intentional – though it may be in some cases – but that these policies result in discipline discrepancies.

 

Many of these are dress code policies. How many schools criminalize the wearing of black hair in certain ways or the simple hooded sweatshirt? Hoodies, for example, are a preferred manner of dress for many students of color and really cause no harm to academics or social interactions. But administrators and/or school boards ban them – why? It’s just another way to police black bodies and minds.

 

These sorts of practices are everywhere in our schools and take reflection to undo. For instance, I found myself guilty of this same thing for years in my classroom when some of my black students started compulsively brushing their hair at their desks. These were mainly boys with short hair who were trying to get a wave effect their peers considered stylish.

 

At first, I found this incredibly annoying – the sound of constant brushing as students were doing their work. But then I realized that these students WERE doing their work. The brushing in no way interfered with academics. It didn’t bother anyone except for me and perhaps some of the white students.

 

Simply allowing cultures to express themselves should not result in disciplinary action. And since I’ve permitted the behavior, I’ve had less reason to discipline my students and no negative impact on academics.

 

SOLUTIONS

 

Most analyses of this problem stop with blame.

 

Who’s responsible for this? And once we have an answer – and it’s usually one very simple answer – then we’ve done all we set out to do.

 

In the case of the GAO report, once again the blame was put on everyone’s favorite scapegoat, public schools and teachers. But this is not earned given how much poverty was overlooked. The reality is that the responsibility for the problem is multifaceted with much of it stemming from cruel economics.

 

The solutions to the issue, if we are ever to really try to do more than just point fingers, must address a variety of ills.

 

First, we need to monitor and help public school staff to be less biased.

 

We need more teachers of color without a doubt, but this will never happen until all teachers are better paid, have stronger labor protections, autonomy and prestige. On top of that, there should be additional incentives to attract teachers of color. It’s hard for white teachers to notice their own biases unless there is someone in the building who can see them more clearly and offer advice. Just making the staff more multicultural will make white teachers more reflective of their own practices.

 

Of course actively pointing out prejudice is extremely difficult for co-workers to do by themselves. In addition, white teachers need cultural sensitivity training. And not just them. Since no educator comes from all cultures, everyone could use frequent reminders of how to be more inclusive, impartial and fair to students from various backgrounds.

 

Next, we need to broaden our idea of what discipline is. Every infraction doesn’t need a detention or suspension. We can enact interventions like restorative justice practices, conflict resolution and other positive procedures that actively teach kids how to deal with their emotions and better behave.

 

In short, we’re teaching kids what they should have learned at home, but like so many things in our society, it’s left to the schools to get it done. I bring this up not to shame anyone but to remind society that any expectation that schools can fix this problem by themselves is laughably naïve – but someone has to try.

 

At the macro level, we need to take steps to reduce and eliminate poverty.

 

This is one of the richest countries in the history of the world. Surely we can find ways to better share that wealth to the benefit of all. If parents don’t have to work multiple jobs to survive, they are more able to teach, model and discipline their own kids. And when parents are present in children’s lives, those kids don’t have as great a need for attention. It would certainly cut down on negative attention seeking behaviors.

 

In addition, with schools at the center of neighborhoods, we can have more adult education classes for parents. This would be not just courses on how to effectively raise children but on job skills and lifelong learning. After all, parents who value learning raise kids who do, too.

 

Finally, we need to enact antiracist policies at the local, state and federal level to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) prejudice of all kinds. We need integrated schools and neighborhoods. We need more antidiscrimination policies. We need to end mass incarceration and selective enforcement of the law. And we need some form of reparations to black people for the generations of racism they have had to endure.

 

I know these are big goals. But they are the only way to make a just society for everyone.

 

We cannot continue to blame our school system for reproducing the society that created it. Education is aspirational and strives to better itself. But it cannot reach that goal alone.


 

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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