Who’s More Valuable – a Union Busting Lawyer or a Union Worker?

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There he was standing in front of me in line.

 

New gray pinstriped suit. Silk red Armani tie. White button down shirt so bleached it hurt my eyes.

 

We were waiting to board our plane to take us to Houston. Me, a public school teacher. Him, a union busting lawyer.

 

I was on my way to an education and civil rights summit. He was going to an annual lawyers conference, one of many he attends each year.

 

I got all this information not from talking to the guy. He was jovial enough but he just couldn’t contain his backstory to a single audience. He was in the mood to talk to anybody and everybody as we waited for the stewardess to tell us it was okay to board.

 

He spent most of his time talking with two representatives of the natural gas industry who had visited my home of Pittsburgh to invest in our rich deposits of Marcellus shale – and incidentally poison our environment. He also joked with another lawyer further up in line and already tipsy.

 

I listened to him yuk it up about exclusive golf courses, wine country and the presidential election (he’s a Trump supporter) and felt a warm dislike spread through my chest.

 

I looked at my faded t-shirt and jeans and wondered how it was that this guy gets so much for what he does and I get so little. Oh I get all the intangibles, but he gets… well… the money, pride and prestige.

 

There he was asking the gas guys about a good steak place for lunch in Houston. I love steak. I’d like to eat a nice, juicy steak. But I can’t afford it.

 

I’m only able to make this trip because I took the least expensive flight (coach, by the way – guess where he was sitting) and I was sharing a hotel room with a college professor who had saved up enough discretionary funds to cover the room.

 

While the attorney was dining on steak, I’d be lucky to store up a muffin or two from the hotel’s complimentary breakfast.

 

Yet there he was telling the whole world his story unafraid that someone would take offense.

 

Well, I do take offense, buddy.

 

You make your living finding ways to make it harder for me to make mine. You spend your whole day looking for legal loopholes and documented precedents to take away protections at my job, cut my pay and make me work longer hours without overtime. You eat at expensive restaurants and wear Italian leather shoes while people like me live paycheck-to-paycheck. You are nothing but a parasite.

 

Yet no one else seemed to take offense at his braggadocio. Only me. The natural gas guys clapped him on the back and congratulated him on the delicious rib eye in his future.

 

It makes me wonder why unions are so often made to seem the villain and guys like this are seen as good ol’ boys at best and merely innocuous at worst.

 

I teach young children how to read and write. I open their minds to the world around them and show them how to think critically. I raise up the weak and give succor to the needy.

 

What value does he add to society? Seriously! How does he make the world one bit better than the way he found it?

 

Yes, I am a union employee and proud of it. I collectively bargain for a fair wage. I band together with my colleagues for a middle class income so I can afford to be a teacher. I demand professionalism and autonomy so I can do the job. I seek fair treatment so I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder in case a school board member would rather give my job to one of his cousins. And if you’re going to fire me, I ask for due process – proof of wrongdoing.

 

Somehow in the eyes of the public this makes me a monster.

 

But this guy gives you nothing. He provides no return on your investment except that he stifles me.

 

He makes it harder if not impossible for me to stay in the profession. He works so I can’t support my family. He endeavors for me to be paid the minimum wage so I won’t be able to come home and help my daughter with her homework but instead will have to move on to my second or third job. He argues that I should not be considered a professional and should not be treated like an intelligent person with an advanced degree but should be a factory widget who does as he’s told. He tries to make anxiety my normal state. And he seeks to ensure I can be fired at will with no proof, no reason, just an employers whim.

 

If he achieves his ends, my students will not have a productive atmosphere in which to learn. When you weaken teachers, you weaken students. We all say to put the kids first, but you can’t do that when you put teachers last.

 

He does all this and still has the gall to boast of it aloud in public. All while I stay silent, seethe and silently rave.

 

So we got on our plane, and when we landed in Texas went our separate ways.

 

I spent the weekend fighting for children and families. He partied with his partners. As a taxpayer, you pay a lot of money for his services. I’m a bargain, a steal. You get next to nothing from him. I open the gates for the next generation.

 

And somehow I’m the bad guy.

Fighting for Public Schools Means Fighting Against Systemic Racism – United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit

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What do you do when you hold a civil rights summit and none of the big names show up?

That’s what happened last weekend when United Opt Out (UOO) held its Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas.

We invited everybody.

We invited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We invited the National Council of La Raza “The People,” the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Urban League and several others.

None came.

But instead we were host to many of these organizations individual members.
Just how many people came to the Lone Star State for the summit? Thousands? Hundreds?

More like dozens.

Not only did the major civil rights groups neglect to send their leadership, but the bulk of our nation’s education activists also stayed away.

United Opt Out had just gone through a major reorganization on philosophical grounds. Only three of its long-time board members remain – Denisha Jones, Ruth Rodriguez and Ceresta Smith. They have since been joined by five new directors – Gus Morales, Zakary Rodriguez, Erika Strauss Chavarria, Deborah Anderson and Steven Singer (me).

The directors that left the group did so for various reasons, but some of them split along ideological lines. Some thought United Opt Out shouldn’t work with labor leaders or civil rights groups that weren’t perfectly aligned with all of UOO’s goals. So they left. Those who stayed are committed to working with almost anyone to push forward the cause, piece-by-piece if necessary.

As a result, this organization that had been growing by leaps and bounds, finds itself starting afresh. While last year’s conference in Philadelphia drew progressive luminaries like Chris Hedges, Jill Stein and Bill Ayers, this year’s gathering was more low key.

But it was far from somber. In fact, the board’s vision was vindicated in the most amazing way during the summit.

As Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner discussed the importance of reframing school policy to include students basic humanity, Gus looked up from his phone and announced, “The NAACP just ratified its moratorium on charter schools!”

We all stopped what we were doing and went to our phones and computers for verification. Denisha found it first and read the resolution in full.

We cheered, laughed and hugged each other.

This was exactly the kind of change we’ve been talking about! In fact, Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair of the California and Hawaiian NAACP chapter, had originally been scheduled at the summit as a keynote speaker. When the resolution that he had been instrumental in crafting came up for a vote at the national NAACP meeting, he understandably had to cancel with us. Clearly he was needed elsewhere.

And now one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country has taken a strong stance on charter schools. Not only does the NAACP oppose charters as a solution to inequities experienced by children of color, they’ve now gone beyond mere ideology. They’re calling for action – no new charter schools.

It is a tremendous victory for parents, children and teachers everywhere. And a much needed win for civil rights and education activists. The civil rights community (including the Black Lives Matter movement) is starting to acknowledge that Brown vs. Board is right – we cannot have “separate but equal” school systems because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal.

Let me be clear – UOO did not achieve this triumph alone. It took many people, some of whom probably have never heard of us. However, activists supporting our movement such as Julian were strongly involved.

And if we had listened to the naysayers who proposed only working with perfectly like-minded groups, this might never have happened.

As a national organization, the NAACP still supports standardized testing as necessary to hold schools accountable for teaching all students. But this was not always the case.

In October of 2014, there were 11 civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) who wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reduce standardized testing.

Then in January of 2015, a full 19 Civil Rights organizations including the NAACP wrote to Congress asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

What changed in those three months?

All of these organizations accept huge donations from the corporate education reform industry including some of the richest people in the world like Bill Gates. While none of us were present at these decision making sessions, it seems clear that fear of losing their funding may have forced them to make hard compromises.

Should we then as education activists wipe our hands of them? Should we refuse to work with them on some issues because we disagree on others?

United Opt Out says no. We’ll work with almost anyone where we can, when we can. And the results were on display with the NAACP resolution calling for a charter school moratorium.

Perhaps now that we’ve found that common ground on school privatization, we can do the same with standardized testing. Perhaps we can help educate them about the history of this practice, how it was a product of the eugenics movement and has always been used to support white supremacy and keep people of color and the poor in their place.

If we can make that argument, think of the potential. Perhaps leadership at these big civil rights groups would be less willing to compromise if they understood that standardized testing was used to justify mass sterilizations of American citizens and it was greatly admired by the Nazis. Perhaps if they understood that our modern standardized assessments are little better and create a racial proficiency gap by their very design – maybe then threats from rich white philanthropists won’t seem as important. Perhaps if they understood that schools can best be held accountable by reference to the adequacy of the funding they receive and a detailed accounting of what they do with it, these organizations might be less inclined to rely on multiple choice testing.

In fact, this is why we were there together in Houston in the first place. We wanted to make our case to these same civil rights organizations.

They may not have sent their leaders, but their members were already here. And we spent the time working together to find ways to make our case.

It was really quite amazing.

Audrey Amerin-Breadsley, professor and author of the blog Vamboolzed, gave us an incredibly accessible and informative keynote on value-added measures (VAM), the practice of using students test scores as a way to evaluate their teachers. For instance, did you know this common practice was originally based on a model for the cattle industry? It’s junk science and has little relation to education, teachers and students. All it does is pit students and teachers against each other creating a culture of fear where educators can be unfairly fired at any time – not the best environment for learning. Yet ignorant, lazy and/or corrupt bureaucrats still champion it across the country as a solution to improving schools.

Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) and an instructor at Columbia University, explained in minute detail how corporate education reform relies on bad statistics and is bad business. He explained how academics blinded by economics and unencumbered by any real-life experience of public schools came up with this scheme, which has been disproven by the facts again-and-again. Not only do the highest achieving countries such as Finland go a different route, but those that follow this market driven model find student achievement suffering. In short, our current education policies are really faith-based initiatives, a faith in the invisible hand of the market, and an ignorance of reality.

But perhaps most heartening was the series of talks given by the locals. Houston Federation of Teachers is one of the few labor unions to pass a resolution supporting parents rights to opt their children out of standardized testing. In fact, teachers and parents even run a free Opt Out Academy for children not taking the tests so that their education continues while their peers suffer through these useless assessments. We got to meet parent zero, the first parent to refuse testing in the district. We heard the community’s painstaking process of spreading the movement one family at a time. This was in effect an opt out cookbook, a how-to for anyone wishing to bring this social justice action to their own neighborhoods.

It was a weekend to give anyone hope.

We were small but we were powerful. Given a few years to rebuild, UOO could well be much stronger than we once were. Meanwhile parents across the country continue to refuse these tests for their children at an exponential rate.

There are many struggles ahead. But we have made real progress toward our goal of providing an excellent education for all children.

No longer can our governments be allowed to keep discriminating against them based on the color of their skin, their parents bank accounts and other factors. We’re standing for all students, because we don’t see them as consumers or data points. We see them as children, as human beings. And we stand together to protect and preserve that shared humanity.

What better way to spend a weekend?

You Can’t Be Anti-Opt Out and Pro-Democracy

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Our lawmakers have a problem.

This summer they doubled down on one of the most anti-democratic mandates in the federal repertoire yet they claim they did so to protect states rights.

Here’s the problem.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of public school parents across the country opt their children out of standardized testing.

But Congress voted to keep mandating that 95% of students take the tests.

It all happened with the much celebrated bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

While lawmakers made changes here and there to let the states decide various education issues, they kept the mandate that students participate in annual testing.

They didn’t leave that to the states. Whether they were Republican or Democrat, almost all lawmakers thought it was just fine for the federal government to force our children to take standardized tests at least every year in 3-8th grades and once in high school.

If any school district, has more than 5% of students that don’t take the tests – for whatever reason – the federal government can deny that district funding.

Think about that for a moment.

Our lawmakers are supposedly acting in our interests. They’re our representatives. We’re their constituents. They get their power to pass laws because of our consent as the governed. Yet in this instance they chose to put their own judgement ahead of ours.

They could have made an exception for parents refusing the tests on behalf of their children. They just didn’t see the need to do so.

Why? Because they were worried about minority students.

It’s a laughable claim in so many ways.

It goes something like this – without standardized testing, we’ll have no way of knowing if public schools are educating students of color.

Let’s say for a moment that this were true. In that case, we can expect no parent of color would ever refuse standardized testing for his/her child.

First, this is demonstrably untrue. Black and brown parents may not be the most numerous in the opt out movement, but they do take part in it.

Second, in the majority of cases where white parents refuse testing, that would have no bearing on whether testing helps or hurts students of color. If the point is the data testing gives us on black kids, what white kids do on the test is irrelevant.

Third, even if opting out hurt students of color, one would assume that it is the parents prerogative whether they want to take part. If a black parent doesn’t want her black son to take a multiple choice exam, she should have the right to waive that exam and the responsibility would be on her head.

So there is absolutely no reason why lawmakers should have overstepped their bounds in this way and blocked all parents rights about what the schools do to their children.

It is a clear case of governmental overreach. And there are plenty of parents just waiting to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court for the ultimate Constitutional test.

However, that probably won’t happen for the same reason it never happened through the 15 years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which also contained the annual testing rule.

The federal government has never withheld tax dollars based on students not taking standardized tests. officials at the U.S. Department of Education have made threats, but they have never devolved into action.

The bottom line is this: they know how Unconstitutional this mandate is, and they aren’t itching to have it tested in the highest court in the land.

It would open a whole can of worms about standardized testing. What is the federal government allowed to do and not allowed to do about education policy?

The ESSA is an attempt to reduce the federal role, but keeping the annual testing mandate was either a grievous mistake or the last vestiges of federal hubris.

But let’s return to the reasoning behind it – so-called civil rights fears.

Various groups including the NAACP asked for it to be included to protect minority students. Annual testing is the only way, they claimed, to make sure schools are teaching students of color.

It’s nonsense.

There are plenty of ways to determine if schools are meeting the needs of minority students – especially since most students of color go to segregated schools.

Even after Brown v. Board, we have schools that cater to black kids and schools that cater to white kids. We have schools for poor kids and rich kids.

It is obvious which schools get the most resources. Why isn’t that part of this “accountability” scheme? We can audit districts to see how much is spent per pupil on poor black kids vs rich white kids. We can determine which groups go to schools with larger class sizes, which groups have more access to tutoring and social services, which groups have expanded or narrowed curriculums, which groups have access to robust extra-curricular activities, which groups have the most highly trained and experienced teachers, etc.

In fact, THAT would tell us much more about how these two groups are being served by our public schools than standardized test scores. We’ve known for almost a century that these test scores are more highly correlated with parental income than academic knowledge. They’re culturally biased, subjectively scored and poorly put together. But they support a multibillion dollar industry. If we allow a back door for all that money to dry up, it will hurt lawmakers REAL constituents – big business.

So why were civil rights groups asking the testing mandate be kept in the bill? Because the testing industry is comprised of big donors.

Only a few months before passage of the ESSA, many of these same civil rights groups had signed declarations against standardized testing. Then suddenly they saw the light as their biggest donors threatened to drop out.

Make no mistake. Standardized testing doesn’t help poor minority children. It does them real harm. But the testing industry wrapped themselves up in this convenient excuse to give lawmakers a reason to stomp all over parental rights.

The conflict wasn’t between civil rights and parental rights. It was between parental rights and corporate rights. And our lawmakers sided with the corporations.

Let me be clear: legislators cannot be against opt out and in favor of individual rights.

The two are intimately connected.

Our schools have no business telling parents how to raise their kids. But our parents DO have a right to do the opposite. In fact, that’s how the system is supposed to work.

We, parents and citizens, control our schools – not you, our representatives. The principal can’t say you haven’t a right to opt out your kid. He’s just your representative. So is the teacher.

Everyone who works in the school is there to do what you want them to do for your child. Yes, they are well trained and have a world of knowledge and experience that we should draw on. And in most cases, they’re being forced to confront us by lawmakers who are tying their hands and directing them to do the dirty work.

We have common cause. We need to stand with our teachers and principals, our school boards and education professors. We need to stand together against lawmakers who think they know better.

In short, we don’t need lawmakers consent to opt out. They need our consent to stop us.

They get their power from us. They work for us.

And it’s time they get to work and rescind the annual testing mandate.

How Far We Have Come Fighting Against the Testocracy: Network for Public Education Conference Ramblings

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Kelly Ann Braun said it best.

 

“Do you remember three years ago when I said this would all be over in 6 months?”

 

And we all laughed. Me the loudest, because back then I had thought the same darn thing.

 

Corporate education reform is on its last legs. Once we tell people about the terrible mistakes of standardized testing and Common Core, it will all be over in an election cycle or two.

 

Kelly, that incredibly dedicated member of the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) from Ohio, hadn’t been the only one.

 

It seemed so reasonable back then. Once it became common knowledge, our leaders couldn’t keep perpetuating policies that harm our children, we thought.

 

No one would actually continue to stomp on the futures of our little kids once we’d pointed out that that was what they were actually doing! Right?

 

Now the Network for Public Education is having its third annual conference – this one in troubled Raleigh, North Carolina. And far from being on its last legs, the testocracy is mightier than ever with a new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, rebranding and refreshing its same horrific disdain for the young.

 

But that’s not really news, is it?

 

The powerful have always tried to find ways to keep the poor and minorities under heel. It’s a struggle as old as civilization, itself.

 

What’s new is us.

 

Yes, us – the ragtag band of rebels and revolutionaries who gather together every year to celebrate our victories, lament our losses and plan for the future.

 

This is a real community – stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced. During the year we all have our separate support systems, be they Badass Teachers, United Opt Out, our teachers unions, our communities or – for many of us – some unique combination.

 

But once a year we all come together from our separate corners of the country (and in some cases beyond) to commune, to gather strength from each other so we can carry on the fight.

 

I cannot express to you the power and the glory I got this morning listening to Chicago parent activist Rousemary Vega talking about the pain of losing her children’s community school. This is still a raw wound for her, gushing blood. One moment she was heartbreaking sorrow; the next she was frightening strength and determination.

 

She told us how to learn from her example, how to put up a fight, how to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to ever do this again. And when she was done and I had dried the tears that she had somehow cried with my eyes, I found that I had a tiny Rousemary inside my heart. I will never forget her story. I hope I can call on even a fraction of her strength.

 

Later I sat in on a conference about Competency Based Education. Two of the founders of United Opt Out, Denisha Jones and Morna Mcdermott, gave the best presentation on the topic I have yet heard.

 

This is the future of standardized testing. It goes something like this: you don’t want a big high stakes test at the end of the school year? Okay. How about we sit your kids in front of a computer all day, everyday, and they can take endless high stakes mini-tests?

 

Morna would keep apologizing that what she was saying sounded too far-fetched to be true, but then she’d prove its veracity. Subsequently, Denisha explained how proponents of this new educational scheme had slipped this all under our noses by redefining and co-opting language we all thought we knew. You want “individualized” education? Fine! Kids can sit by themselves as individuals and take these standardized test snippets – in perpetuity.

 

I left them with a much clearer understanding of how this was happening and exactly what kind of push back is necessary.

 

Perhaps most inspiring so far though was the keynote address by the Rev. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP and organizer of Moral Mondays. He put the whole fight in perspective.

 

History, philosophy, economics, religion all mixed together into a picture that would have been grim if he hadn’t made it so beautiful. Our children are being harmed by the standardization and privatization of public education. The ones hurt the most are those who are poor and minorities, but that doesn’t make them any less “our” children.

 

This fight can’t just be about your school and your child. We have to love and care about all children and all schools. Only then can we really have a public school system worthy of the next generation.

 

Finally, the moment came when I couldn’t just sit in the audience and passively take all this in. I was actually on the program – I was part of a bloggers panel!

 

It was called “Blogging and Other Tools to Educate, Persuade and Mobilize Targeted Audiences.” It featured the amazing talents of Julian Vasquez Heilig, Susan DeFresne, Dora Taylor, Anthony Cody, Jonathan Pelto and – somehow – me!

 

It was the first time I had presented anything at one of these conferences. Sure I’m in front of my students every day, but this was a room full of adults, many with PhDs or more, who really know what they are talking about.

 

I had agonized over what I was going to say, wrote out a few remarks and then was told by fellow BAT and activist Gus Morales that I shouldn’t read it. I should just go with the moment. That’s what he says he did during his TWO TED Talks!

 

I practiced. I tried it his way, but I just couldn’t make it work. So when my time came, I compromised. I talked off the cuff when I could and then returned to the script when I couldn’t.

 

It seemed to work. I got laughs. I got applause. It looks like no one noticed how utterly terrified I was. (Sh! Our secret.)

 

And so another year’s worth of inspiration has ended – all stuffed into that first day.

 

We’re a different group than we were last year. We’re more somber, perhaps. Maybe a bit more seasoned, more knowledgeable.

 

There’s a sadness that society hasn’t joined us to crush those who would harm our children. But there’s also a renewed commitment to the struggle. A feeling of our place in history.

 

We hear the marching feet of those who came before. We see their pale upturned faces, their sad smiles. And somewhere in the distance that may be the sound of our own children marching in our footsteps continuing this same fight.

 

We will have victories. We may end high stakes testing. We may abolish Common Core. But we may never see the promised land.

 

One day perhaps our children will get there. And the only thing we have to propel them to that place is our love and activism.

 

At the Network for Public Education, you begin to realize these are really the same thing.

 

 

 

High Stakes Testing Holds The Most Powerful the Least Accountable

 High Stakes Testing Does Not Hold Schools Accountable. It Ensures That Those Most Responsible Escape Accountability

 

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People should be accountable for their actions.

 

If you make a mess, you should have to clean it up. If you decide how things run, you should be responsible if it fails.

 

So why do we allow those most responsible for our public school system to escape from accountability? Why do we instead blame everything on teachers and students?

 

Public school policy at the federal, state and local level has been dominated by high stakes testing for the last 15 years. It has not improved educational outcomes for students. In fact, just the opposite. But we are doing NOTHING to change it.

 

It’s called test and punish. We give students standardized tests and if enough of them fail over time, we close their schools and/or fire their teachers. We force them to move to a new school or a charter school where they continue to struggle without a single additional resource to help them succeed.

 

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) installed most of these policies in 2001. This year we revised the federal law that governs K-12 schools into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It does little more than continue these same policies while rearranging the deck chairs on our sinking system.

 

Kids aren’t failing because they’re lazy or dumb. Their teachers aren’t shirking their duties. Instead we have a nationwide epidemic of child poverty. And the effects of that lifestyle make it extremely hard to achieve academically. Kids aren’t focused on book learning when they’re physically and emotionally exhausted, experiencing post-traumatic stress and undernourished.

 

Why has nothing been done to help them?

 

The answer is accountability.

 

Not real accountability. Not holding people accountable for things under their control. Not going up to the people and institutions that actually cause the errors and malfeasance. Instead we push all the blame onto teachers and students and call that “Accountability.”

 

Make no mistake. When politicians and policymakers talk about “accountability” this is what they mean – scapegoating educators and children for things well beyond their control.

 

An education system is made up of a complex interplay of several interconnected factors that include parents, the community, the economy, culture, media, and local, state and federal governments. Students and teachers are only two such factors.

 

High stakes testing ensures that ONLY teachers and students are held accountable. They are responsible for the entire education system but have control of very little of it.

 

For instance, do students and teachers decide how much funding their schools get? No.

 

Do students and teachers decide which education policies are enacted? No.

 

So why are they being held responsible for these things?

 

When schools without adequate funding can’t provide the necessary resources for students to succeed, we pretend like it’s the teachers and students fault. When academic policies handed down by non-educators fail to help kids learn, we pretend like it’s the students and teachers fault.

It’s not.

 

 

As New York University Education Professor Pedro Noguera said:

 

“We’ve designed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable. The governors are not accountable, the state legislature is not accountable… You can’t hold kids and teachers accountable and not hold the people in control in the first place.”

 

 

It’s not a difficult concept – we test the kids and punish the teachers if they fail. And since the focus is firmly on only those two factors, all others become invisible. No one’s holding lawmakers accountable for providing equitable funding. No one’s holding policymakers and think tanks accountable for forcing inadequate and untested Common Core academic standards down our throats. No one’s holding billionaire philanthropists accountable for using our schools as their private playgrounds for whatever social engineering scheme they thought up in the Jacuzzi. No one’s holding privately run charter schools accountable for – just about anything – instead of letting them operate behind a curtain of deniability and unending profit.

 

 

This would be impossible without standardized testing. It frames the question. It defines the debate. It assumes that only teachers and students are relevant. Therefore, it ensures that none of the obscured factors will have to do anything to help the system improve. And so it ensures that our education system will fail many of our students – especially those most in need.

 

This is the irony of modern education policy. The apparatus that allegedly ensures accountability makes that very thing impossible.

 

That’s how the system is designed. And policymakers are terrified you’ll notice. So they have developed a scapegoat for their own failures – the public school teacher.

 

Students may score badly – and they’ll have to pay for that when their school is closed or charterized as a result – but it is the teachers who are the true enemy. After all, if teachers did a better job, pundits claim, students wouldn’t fail.

 

The idea goes like this:

 

Children won’t learn unless we force teachers to educate them.

 

Teachers don’t get into that profession because they care about children. They just want an easy job with summers off where they don’t have much to do but collect huge salaries.

 

This is the great lie, the diversion, smoke and mirrors to get you to stop paying attention to lawmakers, policy wonks, environmental and other factors. Instead look only to those lazy/evil teachers and their satanic labor unions.

 

THAT’S why they say we need standardized testing!

 

If we remove the testing, they say, no one will be responsible for making sure kids learn. After all, why would teachers teach unless we threaten their jobs first?

 

As if teachers can heroically control all the factors involved in student learning. (Spoiler alert: they can’t.) As if teachers get into their profession because they don’t want to practice it. (Spoiler alert: teachers become teachers because they want to teach!) As if earning a middle class income for providing a valuable societal resource were unreasonable. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t.) As if due process meant you can’t be fired for cause. (Spoiler alert: unionized teachers are fired for cause every day.) As if teachers were paid for summers off. (Spoiler alert: they aren’t though some have their salaries earned during 9 months paid out over 12.)

 

If we really wanted to improve public education, we’d look at ALL the factors involved. We’d throw back the assumptions that have mired us in this quagmire.

 

And the first assumption that has to go is that standardized testing is a valuable assessment tool.

 

Standardized tests are terrible assessments. We’ve known that for almost a century. Invariably they narrow the curriculum. They suck up countless hours of class time that could be better spent. They measure more the circumstances kids live in than any academic ability. They’re culturally, racially and economically biased.

 

But we keep giving them with no end in sight – not because they make teachers do a better job, but because they give cover to those actually responsible for harming our children’s education.

 

There is such a thing as accountability without standardized tests. It is possible to examine all the factors involved and make changes accordingly.

 

We can, for instance, make sure all schools receive the same basic services. We can make sure all classrooms are equipped with up-to-date books, materials, desks, etc. We can make sure no schools go without heat, have crumbling infrastructure and/or suffer from infestation of vermin, mold and filth. We can make sure all children have access to healthy food. We can make sure no children are drinking water poisoned with lead.

 

We can look at parental involvement. An overwhelming amount of research shows this is vital to academic success, but in our poorest neighborhoods parents are often the least involved in their children’s schooling. Why is that? Many of them are working three or more minimum wage jobs just to feed and clothe their children. There’s little time to help with homework when you’re working the night shift. So countermeasures such as raising the minimum wage and increasing the frequency, access and training for well-paying jobs would actually improve education as well as the economy.

 

We can look at school climate. What are the rates of suspensions and expulsions? What are the root causes? How can we improve student discipline without being overly punitive? How can we increase student engagement? How do we improve student attendance and graduation rates?

 

We can update our broken system of student assessment. This may come as a surprise to our policymakers, but there are many ways to assess student learning that have nothing to do with standardized tests. For example, we can institute performance or portfolio-based assessments. Instead of evaluating students based on a snapshot of their performance on a given day or week, we can base it on a grading period or even an entire school year. Assessments can include projects, individual and group presentations, reports and papers and portfolios of work collected over time. You don’t have to be an education expert to realize these would be better measurements of academic achievement than multiple choice tests – BUT IT HELPS! And we can do this without resorting to stealth assessments like competency based education.

 

Does this mean that teachers should escape accountability? Absolutely not. But we can ensure they’re evaluated fairly. Don’t judge them based on factors beyond their control. Judge them based on what they actually do. As the old adage goes, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Evaluate teachers on whether they’ve brought their little ponies to water. Did they engage in best practices? Are they engaged in professional development? How do they treat their students? Are they grading fairly? In almost every profession, workers are evaluated based on observation from their superiors. Teaching should be no different.

 

It’s shocking that no one on the national stage is talking about this. Pundits and policymakers shake their heads at standardized test scores, they point their fingers and cry crocodile tears for the children. But hardly anyone is doing a thing to make positive change.

 

Our schools have been transformed into factories. We’ve let them become resegregated based on race and wealth. We’ve let the rich schools get Cadillac funding while the poor ones struggle to survive on the leftovers. We’ve let non-educators set the standards and curriculum. We’ve let the testing industry co-opt and bribe our lawmakers and social institutions. We’ve opened the door wide for privitizers to steal as much of the shrinking funding pie as possible and funnel it into their own bank accounts without producing any quality for the students they’re supposed to be serving.

 

In short, we’ve let those responsible for setting our public schools aflame get away scot-free!

 

They’re laughing all the way to the bank. And the tool that lets them get away with it is standardized testing.

 

Throw back the curtain and show them for what they truly are.

 

Fight back. Refuse the tests for your children. Join the Badass Teachers Association, United Opt Out and the Network for Public Education. Write your legislators. Write to the newspapers. Take to the streets. Make some noise.

 

Hold them accountable.

Dr. Jill Stein is the Best 2016 Presidential Candidate, But Can She Win?

 

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In 2008, I shook Barack Obama’s hand.

 

Yesterday Dr. Jill Stein gave me a hug.

 

Eight years ago, I was so inspired by Obama’s campaign speech in my hometown of Pittsburgh that I rushed forward along with the crowd to grab his hand. It was soft but firm with a tinge of moisturizer. Now I look at his incredibly regressive education policies and feel the need to scrub my palm.

 

This weekend in Philadelphia, I was at the United Opt Out Conference and saw Stein sitting in the audience.

 

I walked past the Green Party Presidential candidate the first time thinking I must be mistaken. Then her name tag removed all doubt.

 

“You’re Jill Stein!” I stuttered.

 

She smiled warmly, stood up and said, “You’re Steven Singer!”

 

I want to believe she knew who I was, but I was wearing a name tag, too.

 

We talked for a moment about what most of us were here for – education policy. She reaffirmed that she wanted to end all high stakes testing and school privatization.

 

Think of it – a presidential candidate speaking in specifics. Not “We test too much.” Not “Some charter schools are bad.” But I want to end these two perverse school policies!

 

And to top it all off, before she hurried off to tidy up as the time approached for her campaign speech, she game me a warm, tight hug.

 

Compare that to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

 

As part of the Badass Teachers Association, we reached out to all the Democratic and Republican candidates on these exact same issues. The Republicans ignored us entirely, but both Democrats gave us phone calls by campaign aides.

 

Even then, the Democratic response was far from convivial. It mostly came down to something like “Education is important.” Well, duh.

 

In Sanders’ case, we had to conduct an impromptu sit-in at the Senator’s Washington office before anyone would talk to us about policy. And Hillary only started to speak in measured tones about public schools after our national teachers unions voted to endorse her – well, the leaders of those unions voted. No one ever really asked us, rank-and-file.

 

Moreover, when Sanders voted for the horrible Murphy Amendment of what became the Every Child Succeeds Act, several teachers including myself wrote him an open letter asking him to explain his apparent support for a Test and Punish education provision. One of his aides sent us a replysome nonsense about accountability.

 

And Jill Stein just gave me a hug.

The difference is huge!

 

When activists were holding this conference centering on the movement to Opt Out of Standardized testing, Sanders and Clinton didn’t even send campaign literature. Stein came in person and even gave a keynote address!

 

Don’t get me wrong. Hillary is far preferable to any Republican candidate seeking the office. I just wish her Presidential bid wasn’t funded by the very people we’re fighting against.

 

I love Bernie, too. I’ve even got the t-shirt to prove it. I just wish he loved us as much by throwing out a few more specifics. The general thrust of his campaign seems tailor-made to support test resistance and a fight against corporate education reform, but he rarely connects the dots with anything that we could hold him accountable for saying.

 

And then you have Stein, perhaps the most human politician I’ve ever met.

 

One look at her platform and it’s obvious she’s the best candidate for President in 2016. But is she electable?

 

Think about that for a moment.

 

What does it say about our country?

 

Design an excellent platform that benefits the most people, organize a movement to get your message out there, draw on the experience of experts in various fields… and you’re an incredible long shot to win the office.

 

The media says the same thing about Sanders as he speaks to overcapacity crowds and struggles against party politics seemingly written to hobble any populist campaign like his.

 

Yet Stein has no giant crowds. She has no adoring fans, no comedian on Saturday Night Live giving her friendly jibes.

 

She’s almost completely ignored by the media. Yet her actual policies make even a progressive like Sanders look like… well… Hillary Clinton!

 

For instance, Sanders wants to make college free to everyone. Stein wants to do that, too, AND erase all existing student debt.

 

Sanders is (kind of) against for-profit charter schools but has been vaguely supportive of Test and Punish school accountability practices. Stein is unequivocally against all forms of school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

Sanders wants single-payer healthcare paid for by raising taxes (but net savings over all). Stein wants single-payer healthcare paid for by cutting our bloated military budget with no raise in taxes.

 

In fact, while Sanders is against unnecessary military action and an increase in military spending, he is in favor of keeping the $1 trillion military budget mostly intact. Stein wants to cut it by 50%, stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, stop giving weapons to Israel, freeze terrorist-funder’s bank accounts, end the War on Terror and engage in a policy of peace.

 

Moreover, Stein wants the savings from slashing our biggest federal expenditure to be used to fund a New Green Deal, creating full employment and a living wage all while transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2030!

 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but all of Stein’s policies sound rather sane and measured. Yet she is the one the media labels a radical and out-of-touch – if they talk about her at all.

 

It’s a testament to how perverted our politics have become: Sanity looks like the exact opposite. Logic and intelligence are revolutionary concepts.

 

And only the activists and intellectuals seem to know this is happening.

 

When Stein was done speaking, someone asked her the inevitable question about Ralph Nader. Wouldn’t casting a ballot for her just divide the Democratic vote and give the race to the Republicans as it did in 2000?

 

Her response was a bit evasive – the only time, in fact, where she seemed a bit uncomfortable.

 

She said that Nader wasn’t a member of the Green Party, where she is. She is engaged in building the party and the movement even beyond 2016.

 

On the one hand, it sounded like she was suggesting that even if she loses, it will bring real progressive issues into the limelight. However, this is not what happened when Nader lost as a third party candidate against Bush and Gore.

 

On the other hand, she stressed that she actually could win. About 43 million people are trapped by student debt, which she wants to unilaterally eliminate, she said. That’s a large enough chunk of the population that if they all voted for her, she would win.

 

It’s time for a Hail Mary moment, she said. We have to take a chance to vote for the best policies and not continue to compromise by supporting the lesser evil. Concession is the road to what we have now – continued oligarchy and global hegemony.

 

We need a functioning world for our children. If we don’t do something about Climate Change, the Earth may not be habitable in as little as five decades.

 

It’s now or never, she said.

 

I offer all this not as an endorsement of Stein. Nor of Sanders or Clinton (though seriously stay away from the Republicans, they’re freaking crazy).

 

I offer this only as food for thought.

 

Stein is offering us the best platform, bar none. But can we afford to vote for her? Can we afford not to?

How Radical Must We Be To Get the Schools Our Children Deserve? United Opt Out Musings

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There was a point during Chris Hedges keynote address today when I could barely catch my breath.

 

My chest was heaving, tears were leaking from my eyes and I wasn’t sure I would be able to stop.

 

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist had his audience enraptured at the United Opt Out Conference in Philadelphia Saturday morning.

 

I’ve read Chris before. We’ve all read Chris before. But I had never seen or heard him speak.

 

It was kind of like hearing a good sermon by a pastor who felt every word he said. And that really was it – Chris FELT every word.

 

When I’ve read Hedges’ articles on Truthdig, I’ve found myself getting angry. He stirs me up. He disturbs me, makes me feel uncomfortable. And when I heard him speak today I was surprised that he seemed to be reacting the same way to his own words.

 

When he talked about teaching teenage prisoners, he was emotionally invested in the story he was telling. When he criticized American neoliberal policies, he was just as angry as his audience.

 

The only difference was that his sorrow and rage somehow became transformed in his throat into something akin to poetry.

 

He turned the struggle of the oppressed into something beautiful. He transformed the hurt in my chest into something profound. He mutated my disturbance into a sense of actions-to-be.

 

I won’t repeat the words he said. I’d never be able to reproduce them with anything resembling his eloquence. But I will remark on one of his closing remarks because it hit me like a splash of cold water.

 

Rebellion, he said, is not about changing the world. It’s about changing yourself.

 

When you stand up for what is right, you become a better person – whether you achieve your goal or not. In a sense, it doesn’t matter if we destroy the testocracy. But in trying, we transmute ourselves into something better.

 

I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d like to think so.

 

I don’t know if we will ever destroy the system of Test and Punish, but I know I can try. I know I can put myself on the line and damn the consequences.

 

All weekend at the United Opt Out Conference we’ve been talking about rebellion and revolution. There’s no weak tea here in the City of Brotherly Love. No half measures. We’ve been discussing tearing the system down piece-by-piece.

 

A timid voice speaks up in the back of mind, “Do we really need to do all that? Do we really need revolution just to keep our public schools and make them into something worthy of our children?”

 

I think I’ve been trying to answer that question for a while now. Maybe a lot of us have.

 

In a rational country, our demands wouldn’t be so radical.

 

We want public schools centered on the good of all, not the profit of some. We want educationally valid curricula for our children. We want some control over the school system – both as parents and teachers.

 

Is that so much to ask? Is that such a lunatic request?

 

And as I listened to Hedges and Dr. Antonia Darder, Dave Green, Jonathan Pelto, Dr. Denisha Jones, Ceresta Smith, Yohuru Williams, Aixa Rodriguez and many, many others, I heard another timid voice begin to answer the first.

 

“Yes.”

 

The system of standardization and privatization of public education confronts students of color and impoverished students head on. They are in the front lines. Yet few people outside of activists seem willing to admit it.

 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this conference has been its ability to put issues of human rights at the center of the argument. That’s the essential concept. We’re not just talking about bad education policies. We’re not just talking about schemes for billionaires to make more money. We’re talking about the systematic oppression of a group of people and the widespread complacency and complicity of the majority of the populace.

 

How do you combat such a monster without being revolutionary? How do you fight for your child without being a rebel?

 

More has happened at this conference than I can adequately put into words. I’ve met so many incredible people. Some of them I knew, some I had met before, some had only been names I had seen on my computer screen.

 

I will leave here Sunday feeling refreshed and energized, ready for the battles ahead.

 

Am I a radical?

 

Am I becoming a better person?

 

I don’t know.

 

But I will keep fighting.

 

Because I love my daughter, I love my students and I love all children everywhere.


 

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NOTE: This article was given a shout out on Diane Ravitch’s and Jonathan Pelto’s blogs.

 

United Opt Out Conference Highlights Dual Role of Technology in Education

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Technology is the most powerful weapon we have against corporate education reform.

 

It is also our greatest foe.

 

Such were the remarks of Dr. Stephen Krashen at the United Opt Out Conference on Friday.

 

The linguist, educational researcher and activist gave the opening keynote address to hundreds of people who traveled to Philadelphia for the conference.

 

Krashen, who is known for his work on second language acquisition and bilingual education, has been a strong critic of the test and punish policies of the Barack Obama administration.

 

He warned the assembly of parents, students, teachers, professors and activists about the dangers of Competency Based Education (CBE), the next big thing in the movement to dumb down public schools.

 

CBE is touted as a way to reduce high stakes standardized testing by allowing students to work at their own pace while on various computer programs. However, Krashen sees this is an increase in testing.

 

In effect, it’s testing everyday. The computer programs used in CBE are little more than the same kinds of questions you’d see on a standardized test. An emphasis on CBE would replace a robust school curriculum with never-ending test preparation and multiple-choice assessment.

 

In the hands of a classroom teacher, technology can be an excellent tool to help kids learn. However, top-down policies like CBE only take away educators’ autonomy and turn them into mere facilitators of prepackaged materials of dubious quality.

 

He noted that the National Governors Association – an organization promoting CBE and Common Core State Standards – admits that there is no research supporting this new policy. But they’re suggesting we do it anyway. In fact, provisions to increase CBE are embedded in the new federal education law – the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

He sees this as a massive boondoggle to swipe the $600 billion we spend on technology in schools. After all, CBE will require increasingly newer computers at every school that will need to be constantly replaced as they become obsolete.

 

Krashen quoted Gerald Bracey: “There’s a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things we shouldn’t be doing at all.”

 

There is light at the end of the tunnel though.

 

The same technology that is being used to pervert the education system can be used to help save it.

 

Krashen advised activists to use the power of social media to spread the word about CBE and other Trojan Horse reforms – policies that look like they’re helping children while actually hurting them.

 

“The Internet is our underground,” he said, “Facebook and Twitter are our weapons.”

 

Though policymakers and journalists rarely listen to experts like classroom teachers, the Internet allows us to spread our message. We don’t need anyone’s permission to speak up. We are all free to do so and should do it more often.

 

I know many people are scared to speak up, he said, but we can all educate ourselves about what’s happening and then share it and retweet it. We need to do more of this. We need to reach a critical mass. We need to show the world the truth and that it can’t be ignored and buried under the dominant media and political narrative being sold to the public as if it were truth.

 

These policies, while dangerous in and of themselves, also overshadow the real needs of our school children – namely devastating, generational poverty.

 

When Congress passes No Child Left Unfed, No Child Without Healthcare, and No Child Left Homeless, then when can talk about No Child Left Behind and Every Child Succeeds, he said.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about this issue, claiming that solving poverty would in turn solve any problems with education.

 

Krashen’s keynote was an exciting beginning to a conference that promises to be eye-opening, exciting and energizing to the community of people fighting to take back our schools from the oligarchy.


 

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