Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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It’s NOT Education Reform – It’s School Sabotage

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“Language is a weapon of politicians, but language is a weapon in much of human affairs.”

-Noam Chomsky

  

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”


Maya Angelou

 

Names matter.

 

What you call something becomes an intellectual shorthand.

 

Positive or negative connotations become baked in.

 

Hence the Colorado Democratic Party’s criticism of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

 

After impassioned debate, delegates demanded DFER remove “Democrat” from their name.

 

It just makes sense. DFER is a group of hedge fund managers pushing for school privatization – a policy the Colorado Democrats vocally oppose.

 

 

In fact, one of the organization’s key founders, hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson, was quoted in the film “A Right Denied,” thusly:

“The real problem, politically, was not the Republican party, it was the Democratic party. So it dawned on us, over the course of six months or a year, that it had to be an inside job. The main obstacle to education reform was moving the Democratic party, and it had to be Democrats who did it, it had to be an inside job. So that was the thesis behind the organization. And the name – and the name was critical – we get a lot of flack for the name. You know, “Why are you Democrats for education reform? That’s very exclusionary. I mean, certainly there are Republicans in favor of education reform.” And we said, “We agree.” In fact, our natural allies, in many cases, are Republicans on this crusade, but the problem is not Republicans. We don’t need to convert the Republican party to our point of view…”

 

So by a 2/3 vote, the Colorado Democrats passed a motion saying in part:

 

“We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private, or run by private corporations, or segregated again through lobbying and campaign efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the Party’s name, I.e., “Democrat” in their name.”

 

To which I say “Hurrah!”

 

DFER definitely is a misnomer.

 

However, which is more inaccurate – the term “Democrat” or the word “Reform”?

 

Members of the nefarious school privatization propaganda squad are, in fact, Democrats.

 

They have registered as voting members of that political party.

 

However, they certainly aren’t progressives.

 

They don’t adhere to the traditional views normally associated with the party.

 

So the Colorado Dems motion is a positive move toward taking back what it means to be a Democrat. And in that spirit, it should be celebrated and emulated by every state and national party association.

 

The Democrats have always been a big tent party with lots of different ideas being accepted under that umbrella. But putting corporate profits over student needs does not belong there.

 

My point is that the larger verbal slight of hand isn’t with the organization’s party affiliation. It’s with the term “Reform,” itself.

 

 

DFER is not alone in calling what they advocate “Education Reform.”

 

My question is this – is what they’re proposing really reform at all?

 

And if so, what kind of reform is it? Who does it benefit? And what does it conceal?

 

The word “Reform” has positive associations. It’s always seen as a good.

 

We always want to be reforming something – turning it from bad to good. Or at very least improving it.

 

And when it comes to education, this is even more urgent.

 

No one really wants to be against education REFORM. The only reason to oppose it would be if you thought the way we teach was perfect. Then we would need no reform at all. But this is nearly impossible. Human society does not allow perfection because it is created by human beings, who are, in themselves, far from perfect.

 

However, the term “Education Reform” does not mean just any kind of change to improve teaching.

 

It has come to mean a very specific list of changes and policies.

 

It has come to mean standardization, privatization and profitization.

 

It means increasing the number, frequency and power of standardized assessments to drive curriculum and teaching – More high stakes tests, more teaching to the test, more evaluating teachers based on student test scores, more school closures based on low test scores.

 

It means reducing democratic local control of schools, reducing transparency of how public tax dollars are spent while increasing control by appointed boards, and increasing the autonomy of such boards at the expense of accountability to the community actually paying for their work.

 

It means transforming money that was put aside to educate children into potential profit for those in control. It means the freedom to reduce student services to save money that can then be pocketed by private individuals running the school.

 

If the goal of education is to teach students, “Education Reform” is not about reforming practices for their benefit. It is not, then, reform.

 

If the goal is to increase profits for private businesses and corporations, then it truly is reform. It will increase their market share and throw off any extraneous concerns about kids and the efficacy of teaching.

 

However, this is not the goal of education.

 

Education is not for the benefit of business. It is not corporate welfare.

 

Education is essentially about providing positive opportunities for students. It is about providing them with the best learning environment, about hiring the best teachers and empowering them with the skills, pay, protections and autonomy to do their jobs. It’s about providing adequate resources – books, computers, libraries, nurses, tutors, etc. – to learn. It’s about keeping kids safe and secure, well-nourished, and healthy.

 

In short, it’s about everything bogus “Education Reform” either perverts or ignores.

 

Calling the things advocated by groups like DFER “Education Reform” is pure propaganda.

 

We must stop doing that.

 

Even if we use the term to criticize the practice, we’re helping them do their work.

 

It’s just like the term “School Choice.”

 

Despite the name, the reality has nothing to do with providing alternatives to parents and students. It really means school privatization.

 

It’s about tricking parents and students into allowing businesses to swipe the money put aside to educate children while reducing services.

 

In short, it’s about increasing choices for charter and voucher school operators – not parents or students.

 

In that way, it is a more limited version of faux “Education Reform.”

 

So I propose we stop using these signifiers.

 

Henceforth, “Education Reform” shall be Education Sabotage – because that’s really what it is.

 

It is about deliberately obstructing goods and services that otherwise would help kids learn and repurposing them for corporate benefit.

 

Likewise, I propose we stop using the term “School choice.” Instead, call it what it is – School Privatization.

 

Anyone who uses the older terms is either misguided or an enemy of authentic education.

 

Perhaps this seems petty.

 

They’re only words, after all. What does it matter?

 

It matters a lot.

 

As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:

 

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

 

We cannot effectively fight the forces of segregation, standardization and privatization if we have to constantly define our terms.

 

We have to take back the meaning of our language, first. We have to stifle the unconscious propaganda that happens every time someone innocently uses these terms in ways that smuggle in positive connotations to corporatist ends.

 

To take back our schools, we must first take back our language.

 

To stop the sabotage, we must first stop repeating their lies.


 

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Would Democrats Really Do Better Than Betsy DeVos on Education?

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Everybody hates Betsy DeVos.

 

 

As Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, she’s ignorant, unqualified and insincere.

 

 

But would the Democrats really do much better if they had control of the Executive Branch?

 

 

The Center for American Progress (CAP), a left leaning think tank, wants you to believe that they would.

 

 

The organization founded by John Podesta and deeply tied to both the Clinton and Obama administrations has come out with a list of seven policy goals if Democrats take back the House and/or Senate in the midterm elections this November.

 

 

On the face of it, many of these goals are smart and worthy ends to pursue.

 

 

But this is the Center for American Progress, after all! These are the same people who pushed charter schools down our throats, the same people who never met a standardized test they didn’t love, the same people who think Teach for America temps are just as good – if not better – than fully licensed, fully trained teachers with 4 or 5 year education degrees.

 

 

Frankly, I don’t trust a thing they say.

 

 

The last two Democratic administrations pushed almost the same education policies as the last three Republican ones. They often use different rhetoric and pretend to dislike policies that BOTH parties have championed for decades.

 

 

So when an organization with a history like CAP offers school policy proposals – even if they’re innocuous on the surface – a closer look often reveals something disturbing hiding just under the skin.

 

 

In any case, it’s worth taking a look at this new report to examine what’s helpful in these think tank proposals and in what ways they might hide dangers for students, teachers, parents and society.

 

 

 

THE BAD

 

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CAP proposes we:

 

  1. Provide a tutor for all students who are below grade level:

 

 

This includes both academic and emotional support. And it sounds great! Imagine what struggling students could do with more one-on-one help!

 

However, according to the report, CAP’s major problem with previous tutoring initiatives like those provided under the No Child Left Behind Act was that they weren’t “high-quality.” Moreover, “tutoring could grow at the local level, helped along by things like an AmeriCorps expansion.”

 

Oh great! “high-quality” is often used by think tanks as a euphemism for standardized testing. And AmeriCorp has helped push more Teach for America temps into positions that should be held by teaching professionals.

 

I would love for struggling students to have extra help, but this sounds too much like sending Teach for America to give poor and minority students test prep and skill drills for hours and hours after school.

 

2) Go to a 9-to-5 school day:

 

 

Child psychologists have been suggesting we start school later in the day for at least a decade to better suit growing bodies and brains. Students would be able to get more sleep and come to school more rested and ready to learn. It would also help parents if students didn’t get out of school up to two hours before most adults are home.

 

 

In addition, CAP is cognizant that this would have to be a local decision – it couldn’t be handed down at the federal level. They suggest encouraging the move with more Title I funding and other sweeteners.

 

 

However, this ignores the fact that U.S. kids already spend more time in class than their international peers. Few countries make their children suffer through an 8-hour day. In Finland, for example, where kids start later and are released earlier than U.S. children, students get a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of class work.

 

 

This suggestion, coming as it does from test-obsessed partisans, could be just another way to try to increase the amount of work piled on students in order to raise test scores. I advise caution.

 

3) Pay teachers more

 

 

I’m certainly not against this one. CAP notes that teachers only take home about 60 percent of the salaries that employees with similar levels of education earn. They suggest a base salary of $50,000 – up from the current average of $38,000 for incoming educators.

 

 

“More-experienced educators with a track record of success should make at least $100,000,” the report suggests (emphasis mine). And THAT’S where I start to feel queasy. What exactly do they mean “track record of success”? Well, this is CAP, so that probably means teachers whose students score well on standardized tests.

 

 

So I’m guessing it’s a back door merit pay policy. In other words, they want to offer more money to teachers who clobber their students with the test prep club so they’ll magically score Advanced on high stakes tests. This is yet another attempt to bribe educators to narrow the curriculum, avoid collaboration and sideline students who don’t traditionally score well on these kinds of assessments – the poor and minorities.

 

 

I want a raise, believe me. I DESERVE a raise! But not if you’re going to make me sign a Faustian bargain first.

 

 

 

THE GOOD

 

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CAP proposes we:

 

4) Offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, no matter what their parents income:

 

We have this at both my daughter’s school and the district where I teach in western Pennsylvania. It is a tremendous success. Making it a nationwide initiative is an excellent idea.

 

 

It’s hard to argue with this, even if the main justification is that better nutrition will lead to better academic outcomes (read: test scores). Plus this removes the stigma of a free meal because all students receive it, and once initiated it would be harder to take away.

 

5) Provide more opportunity for students going to college to get technical workplace experience:

 

 

Students should be able to get real world experience to help them decide if certain careers are for them. I’m struggling to see a downside.

 

6) Hire more social workers, counselors and school psychologists:

 

 

Heck to the yeah. I see no downside there.

 

 7) Initiate a national infrastructure program to fix crumbling school facilities:

 

It’s about time! Schools in impoverished neighborhoods are falling apart. We need to bring them up to the same level as those in the upper middle class and wealthy communities. Obviously, we’ll need to audit these programs and make sure money isn’t being wasted or embezzled, but this is a worthy goal well past due.

 

 

AND THE OTHER SHOE DROPS

 

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And that’s it.

 

 

Not a bad list, over all.

 

 

I do have some reservations as noted above. However, many of these proposals would be really positive…

 

 

…until the other shoe drops.

 

 

Queue Lisette Partelow, CAP’s director of K-12 Strategic Initiatives and the lead author of the report. Pay careful attention to her remarks about the report in Education Week.

 

 

The think tank doesn’t expect these policies to be introduced or enacted anytime soon, she says. And even if they were, Partelow understands they would probably go under significant legislative changes before becoming law.

 

“We’re really excited about this as a counter balance, as an answer to the ideas we’re seeing put forward by [U.S. Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration,” Partelow says.

 

So THAT’S their game!

 

CAP is playing the long con here. They are putting forward a bunch of puppy dog and teddy bear proposals to contrast with Trump and DeVos.

 

These aren’t policies as much as they are advertisements for the Democratic party. It’s the equivalent of saying, “We promise we’ll do good things like THESE if you elect Democrats – despite the fact that we mainly focused on standardization and privatization when we were in power.”

 

Look. Maybe I’m being too cynical.

 

Maybe the Democrats really, really are going to do a better job this time, cross their hearts and hope to die, if we give them just one more chance.

 

But words aren’t nearly enough.

 

I like many of these policy suggestions. But I just don’t trust the Democrats.

 

The brand has been tainted for me by the Clinton and Obama administrations – by leadership from the same people who are making these suggestions.

 

In short – I’ll believe it when I see it.

 

Perhaps the greatest lesson organizations like CAP have taught is not to trust organizations like CAP and the faux progressives they’re selling.

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For more, Read CAP’s Full report: 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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Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education

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I hate to be blunt here, but economists need to shut the heck up.

 

 

Never has there been a group more concerned about the value of everything that was more incapable of determining anything’s true worth.

 

 

They boil everything down to numbers and data and never realize that the essence has evaporated away.

 

 

I’m sorry but every human interaction isn’t reducible to a monetary transaction. Every relationship isn’t an equation.

 

 

Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.

 

 

Take education.

 

 

Economists love to pontificate on every aspect of the student experience – what’s most effective – what kinds of schools, which methods of assessment, teaching, curriculum, technology, etc. Seen through that lens, every tiny aspect of schooling becomes a cost analysis.

 

 

And, stupid us, we listen to them as if they had some monopoly on truth.

 

 

But what do you expect from a society that worships wealth? Just as money is our god, the economists are our clergy.

 

 

How else can you explain something as monumentally stupid as Bryan Caplan’s article published in the LA Times “What Students Know That Experts Don’t: School is All About Signaling, Not Skill-Building”?

 

 

In it, Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, theorizes why schooling is pointless and thus education spending is a waste of money.

 

It would be far better in Caplan’s view to use that money to buy things like… oh… his new book “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

 

His argument goes something like this: the only value of an education is getting a job after graduation.

 

Businesses only care about school because they think it signifies whether prospective employees will be good or bad at their jobs. And students don’t care about learning – they only care about appearing to have learned something to lure prospective employers. Once you’re hired, if you don’t have the skills, employers have an incentive to give you on the job training. Getting an education is just about getting a foot in the door. It’s all just a charade.

 

Therefore, we should cut education funding and put kids to work in high school where they can learn how to do the jobs they’ll need to survive.

 

No wonder economics is sometimes called “The Dismal Science.” Can you imagine having such a dim view of the world where THAT load of crap makes sense?

 

We’re all just worker drones and education is the human equivalent of a mating dance or brilliant plumage – but instead of attracting the opposite sex, we’re attracting a new boss.

 

Bleh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

 

This is what comes of listening to economists on a subject they know nothing about.

 

I’m a public school teacher. I am engaged in the act of learning on a daily basis. And let me tell you something – it’s not about merely signifying.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts. My students aren’t simply working to appear literate. They’re actually attempting to express themselves in words and language. Likewise, my students aren’t just working to appear as if they can comprehend written language. They’re actually trying to read and understand what the author is saying.

 

But that’s only the half of it.

 

Education isn’t even just the accumulation of skills. Students aren’t hard drives and we’re not simply downloading information and subroutines into their impressionable brains.

 

Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.

 

Education isn’t a transaction – it’s a transformation.

 

When my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, they become fundamentally different people. They gain deep understandings about what it means to be human, celebrating social differences and respecting human dignity.

 

When my students write poetry, short fiction and essays, they aren’t merely communicating. They’re compelled to think, to have an informed opinion, to become conscious citizens and fellow people.

 

They get grades – sure – but what we’re doing is about so much more than A-E, advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.

 

When the year is over, they KNOW they can read and understand complex novels, plays, essays and poems. The maelstrom of emotions swirling round in their heads has an outlet, can be shared, examined and changed.

 

Caplan is selling all of that short because he sees no value in it. He argues from the lowest common denominator – no, he argues from the lowest actions of the lowest common denominator to extrapolate a world where everything is neatly quantifiable.

 

It’s not hard to imagine why an economist would be seduced by such a vision. He’s turned the multi-color world into black and white hues that best suit his profession.

 

In a way, I can’t blame him for that. For a carpenter, I’m sure most problems look like a hammer and a nail. For a surgeon, everything looks like a scalpel and sutures.

 

But shame on us for letting one field’s myopia dominate the conversation.

 

No one seems all that interested in my economic theories about how to maximize gross domestic product. And why would they? I’m not an economist.

 

However, it’s just as absurd to privilege the ramblings of economists on education. They are just as ignorant – perhaps more so.

 

It is a symptom of our sick society.

 

We turn everything into numbers and pretend they can capture the reality around us.

 

This works great for measuring angles or determining the speed of a rocket. But it is laughably unequipped to measure interior states and statements of real human value.

 

That’s why standardized tests are inadequate.

 

It’s why value added teacher evaluations are absurd. It’s why Common Core is poppycock.

 

Use the right tool for the right job.

 

If you want to measure production and consumption or the transfer of wealth, call an economist.

 

If you want to understand education, call a teacher.

Two Theories Why Facebook Keeps Blocking Me When I Write About School Privatization

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Facebook blocked me.

 

Again.

 

What did I do?

 

Did I post Russian-sponsored propaganda?

 

Nyet.

 

Did I post Nazi or racist memes?

 

Nein.

 

Did I post fraudulent or debunked accounts of factual events?

 

No.

 

So what did I do?

 

I had an opinion.

 

I took that opinion and wrote about it. I backed it up with facts, analogies, literary references and examples from my own experience as a classroom teacher in public school.

 

I took all that, wrote it up in a blog called “The False Paradise of School Privatization,” and posted it on Facebook.

 

It was the same kind of thing I do several times a week.

 

Write a blog. Post it on various Facebook pages and on Twitter.

 

And wait to see if anyone reads it.

 

But this time – BOOM!

 

I hadn’t even posted it to a handful of pages before the cyber arm of Mike Zuckerberg’s robo-security came down on me.

 

The same thing happened in October when I wrote an article called “School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Less.”

 

I had hoped that that first time was just a fluke or that by now I had since sufficiently proven myself to be a human being and not some nefarious bot.

 

But no such luck.

 

After posting my latest article a few times on Monday, I got this message:

 

“ACTION BLOCKED

 

You have been temporarily blocked from performing this action.”

 

And I got a choice of clicking on:

 

“This is a mistake”

 

Or

 

“OK”

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So I clicked on “This is a mistake,” and got the following:

 

“Thanks for letting us know.”

 

My only choice was to click “OK.”

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At some point I got a message telling me that I was blocked until Dec. 11 – a full week from my offense.

 

And now I have limited use of the social media platform.

 

I can still see posts.

 

I can like posts.

 

For some reason, I can even post and comment on my own page. But I can’t comment or post on other pages without getting the same error message.

 

At least I can’t do it consistently.

 

I’ve experimented and found that sometimes I can share posts to different pages. Sometimes I can’t.

 

It’s a bizarre, wonky system.

 

And it gets in the way of my work as an education blogger.

 

Facebook has more than 1.5 billion accounts. That includes more than 80% of all Americans.

 

Sharing my blog on the site gets me more readers than anywhere else.

 

Twitter is great and certainly more free. But when you push out a tweet, no one sees it unless they’re looking at their feed at that exact moment. Unless it gets retweeted – or you’re a famous unhinged former reality TV star turned President, then people seek out your own personal brand of nuclear-apocalypse-threatening madness.

 

So why does this keep happening to me?

 

I have two theories.

 

1) I am being purposefully censored by Facebook.

 

2) Facebook algorithms are targeting me because of how I post.

 

Let’s look at the first theory.

 

 

Could someone be actively censoring me?

 

Yes.

 

The proposal has a certain plausibility because the powers that be at Facebook undoubtedly disagree with what I have to say.

 

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, is a huge supporter of edtech, standardized testing and school privatization. He’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to make public schools rely more heavily on high stakes tests, evaluating teachers on their students’ scores and pushing Personalized Education software packages on public schools. And when that doesn’t pan out, he’s even backed his own charter schools to do the same.

 

But that’s not all.

 

Since early January of this year, he’s had Campbell Brown on the job as the arbiter of truth for his on-line platform.

 

That’s right.

 

Brown, a school privatization lobbyist and former NBC and CNN personality, heads Facebook’s News Partnership Team.

 

The newly created position was part of Zuckerberg’s attempt to limit fake news on his social media platform while prioritizing information in the mainstream media.

 

What exactly is fake news? Whatever Campbell Brown says it is.

 

This is quite a lot of power to give one person, especially someone who has a reputation for partisanship.

 

Brown, after all, co-founded a charter school propaganda network called The 74, funded – unsurprisingly – by Betsy DeVos, Republican mega-donor and current Secretary of Education.

 

After leaving the anchor’s desk, Brown has had a second career helping corporations destroy public schools and public school teachers.

 

And she does. Not. Like. Me.

 

Let’s just say we’ve gotten into a few Twitter skirmishes.

 

When she became the face of a New York lawsuit attacking teacher tenure in 2014, she received a tidal wave of public backlash. So she went on the Colbert Report to complain about how those fighting for workplace protections for themselves and their students were “silencing the debate” on how best to reform public education.

 

I responded with a blog called “Shhh! Who’s Silencing the Debate on Real Education Reform” claiming that Brown was actually doing the very thing she claimed to be decrying in shutting out teachers’ voices and rights.

 

She responded by cherry picking her rudest critics and tweeting “Sorry Steve but sadly this is not what I characterize as debate,” as if I had had anything to do with these comments.

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As if any movement should be judged by its most extreme elements.

 

As if attacking someone’s job, someone’s kids and their future was fine so long as you did so with a smile and a polite comeback.

 

I don’t condone personal attacks, but I certainly understand them. In any case, Brown used the extreme fringes of her critics to condemn us all and conveniently refused to engage us – even those who had been unceasingly polite.

 

That lawsuit eventually failed, but Brown somehow landed on her feet.

 

Now she’s the one who gets to choose truth and falsity on Facebook.

 

Could she be actively working against people like me?

 

Yes.

 

Could she be directing Facebook’s programmers to select against posts that are negative to her pet projects?

 

Yes.

 

But there’s no way to know if she’s actually doing it.

 

Which brings me to my second theory.

 

Perhaps mindless Facebook algorithms are targeting me because of how I post.

 

I do, after all, try to post my articles on as many pages as I can.

 

They’re mostly pages focused on education and education policy with a few political and anti-racism sites thrown in, too.

 

Maybe I’m posting too quickly.

 

I might be triggering one of Zuckerberg’s bots to think I’m a bot, too, spamming up the works with advertising.

 

However, there’s a few problems with this theory.

 

Let’s say it’s true.

 

Why would that, alone, be reason to block me?

 

I’m not posting advertisements. I’m not asking for money. My blog doesn’t sell adds other than those WordPress puts on there, itself, so I can keep the page for free.

 

If an algorithm is stopping me because it thinks I’m unfairly selling something, it’s the result of some badly written code, indeed.

 

When programmers write code, that’s not impartial. It betrays their values. It betrays certain decisions about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

 

For instance, I keep getting advertisements from Facebook asking me to pay money to the social media network so that they’ll post my articles on other people’s site for me.

 

I get reminders like “Boost this post for $3 to reach up to 580 people.”

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Oh, really?

 

So I’m blocked because I posted my own writing to sites that have accepted me as a member and whose membership includes many I consider friends and colleagues. But for a fee, Facebook will post that same article to various sites filled with people I’d consider to be complete strangers.

 

Somehow that doesn’t “violate community standards” – the reason they said they blocked me in October.

 

This is very telling.

 

It seems to indicate that there is nothing wrong with what I’m doing, per se. It’s just that Facebook wants to encourage me to let them do it for me – so they can monetize my account.

 

They’re stopping me from doing this on my own, because they think I’m a sucker who should pay them for the right to communicate with others.

 

And that’s a very real possibility.

 

These blockages may not be political. They may be a simple marketing strategy.

 

So what can I do about it?

 

Well, first I need to wait a week until my account is unfrozen and I get back all the features Facebook users usually enjoy.

 

Then I can try to go back to the way things were posting my articles at all my favorite virtual watering holes.

 

Only slowly.

 

Much more slowly.

 

I figure if I only post once every five minutes or so, I can have my article at all the places that seem to like having them in about the course of an evening.

 

But I have a life, damn it!

 

I can’t spend the twilight hours posting and waiting and posting and waiting.

 

I guess another alternative is to rely on friends to post for me.

 

Spread the love.

 

Have others circulate my articles far and wide.

 

And that’s a great strategy. It’s very hard for Facebook to do anything about it.

 

But it requires me to impose on others. I don’t like doing it.

 

My readers, friends and supporters have lives, too.

 

They have more important things to do than post my writing all over the Internet.

 

So where does that leave me?

 

I’m not sure.

 

If I continue as I have, I’m bound to be blocked and thrown in Facebook Jail again.

 

Even if I don’t, I’m at the mercy of the wealthy elites who control the network.

 

And if the FCC does away with Net Neutrality, as they’re threatening to do in a matter of days, it may not even matter.

 

Regardless of where I post on Facebook, my blog site will probably be slow to the point of molasses and maybe even shut down entirely.

 

This is the brave new world of the plutocracy unrestrained.

 

This is American fascism triumphant.

 

I am only a single point of the resistance.

 

My voice is only as powerful as those who share it.


 

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

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Teacher Seniority – the Seat Belts of the Education Profession

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You wouldn’t travel a long distance in your car without strapping on a seatbelt.

So why do you think teachers should spend 30 plus years in the classroom without seniority?

Everywhere you look, billionaires are paying millionaires in government to pass laws to cut taxes, slash funding and find cheaper ways to run public schools for pleb kids like yours and mine. And that often means finding ways to weaken protections for teachers, fire those with the most experience and replace them with glorified WalMart greeters.

“Hello. Welcome to SchoolMart. Please plug into your iPad and begin today’s lesson.”

This is class warfare cloaked as a coupon. It’s sabotage described as savings.

And the only way they get away with it is because reasonable people buy the steaming load of manure they’re selling.

MYTH: Seniority with Tenure means a Job for Life

Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of teachers out of work.

Tell that to all the optimistic go getters who prance out of college ready to change the world as teachers and fizzle out during the first five years.

Tell it to the handful of truly terrible teachers who for reasons only they can explain stay in a job they hate through countless interventions and retrainings until the principal has no choice but to give them their walking papers.

Oh, yes. Teachers DO get fired. I’ve seen it with my own eyes numerous times. And in each case, they truly deserved it.

(Any “bad teachers” still on the job mean there’s a worse administrator somewhere neglecting to do his or her duty.)

So what does “Seniority” and “Tenure” even mean for teachers?

Basically, it means two things:

(1) If you want to fire a teacher, you have to prove he or she deserves it. That’s Tenure.

(2) When public school districts downsize, they can’t just lay off people based on their salaries. That’s Seniority.

If you think about it, both of these are good things.

It is not a good work environment for teachers or students when educators can be fired without cause at the whim of incoming administration or radical, newly-elected school board members. Teaching is one of the most political professions we have. Tenure shields educators from the winds of partisanship. It allows them to grade children fairly whose parents have connections on the school board, it allows them to speak honestly and openly about school policy, and it empowers them to act in the best interests of their students – all things that otherwise could jeopardize their jobs.

Likewise, seniority stops the budget butchers from making experience and stability a liability.

It stops number crunchers from saying:

Hey, Mrs. Wilson has been here for 25 years. She’s got a shelf full of teaching awards. Parents and students love her. But she’s at the top of the salary scale so she’s gotta’ go.

I know what you’re going to say: Aren’t there younger teachers who are also outstanding?

Yes. There are.

However, if you put all the best teachers in one group, most of them will be more experienced.

It just makes sense. You get better at something – anything – the more you do it. This could be baking pies, building houses or teaching children how to read and write.

So why don’t we keep the best teachers and get rid of those who aren’t up to their level?

Because determining who’s the best is subjective. And if you let the moneymen decide – POOF! – suddenly the teachers who make the most money will disappear and only the cheapest ones will be left.

Couldn’t you base it on something more universal like student test scores?

Yes, you could, but student test scores are a terrible way to evaluate teachers. If you wanted to get rid of the highest paid employees, all you’d have to do is give them the most struggling students. Suddenly, their students have the worst test scores, and they’re packing up their stuff in little cardboard boxes.

Almost any stat can be gamed.

The only one that is solidly unbiased? Seniority.

You’ve either been here 15 years or you haven’t. There’s not much anyone can do to change that fact.

That’s why it prevents the kind of creative accounting you see from penny pinching number crunchers.

Along with Tenure, Seniority is a safety net. Pure and simple. It helps keep the most qualified teachers in the room with kids. Period.

But look. It’s not perfect.

Neither are seat belts.

If you’re in a car crash on a bridge where it’s necessary to get out of your vehicle quickly before it plunges into the water below, it’s possible your seat belt may make it more difficult to reach safety. This is rather rare, and it doesn’t stop most people from buckling up.

I’ve known excellent teachers who were furloughed while less creative ones were kept on. It does happen.

But if we got rid of seniority, it would happen way more often.

That’s the bottom line.

Instead of finding more leeway to fire more teachers, we should be finding ways to increase school funding – especially at the most under-resourced schools – which, by the way, are the ones where lawmakers most want to eliminate seniority. We should be looking for ways to make downsizing unnecessary. We should be investing in our children and our future.

We’ll never improve the quality of the public school system by firing our way to the bottom. That’s like trying to lose weight by hacking at yourself with a straight razor. It just won’t work.

We need to commit to public schools. We need to commit to public school students. And the best way to do that is to support the teachers who devote their lives showing up every day to help them learn.

I Am Not A Hero Teacher

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I’m sorry.

 

I am not a hero teacher.

 

I am not stronger than a locomotive.

 

I cannot jump tall ignorance in a single bound.

 

I am not faster than a tax-cutting zealot.

 

Up in the air – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, but it’s certainly not a teacher because we can’t fly.

 

I am not bullet proof.

 

If a gunman storms the building and shoots me, I will be wounded and may die.

 

Giving me a gun doesn’t help, either, because I am not a marksman.

 

I am just a man.

 

I cannot stand in front of a class of thirty and give them each my undivided attention. Not all at once.

 

When students ask a question, I need time to answer it.

 

When students hand in a paper, I need time to grade it.

 

During the workday, I need time to plan my lessons. I need time to call parents. I need time to read all the individual education plans, fill out all the weekly monitoring forms, finish all the administrative paperwork.

 

At the end of a long day, I get tired and need rest.

 

At the end of a long week, I need time to spend with my family.

 

At the end of a long year, I need time to myself – to get a summer job, to take continuing education courses, to plan for next year, to heal.

 

I need a middle class income – not because I’m trying to get rich, but because I’m human. I need food and shelter. I have a family for whom I need to provide. If you can’t give me that, I’ll need to move on.

 

Sorry, but it’s true.

 

I’ll tell you one thing I don’t need. I don’t need the state, federal or local government telling me how to do my job. When I plan my lessons, I need the freedom to teach children in the way that seems most effective to me – the professional in the room.

 

I also don’t need some bureaucrat telling me how to assess my students. I don’t need some standardized test to tell me what kids have learned, if they can read or write. I’ve spent an average of 80 minutes a day with these children for five days a week. If I can’t tell, I don’t deserve to be in the classroom.

 

And I don’t need my principal or superintendent setting my colleagues and me against each other. We’re not competing to see who can do a better job. We should be collaborating to make sure everyone succeeds.

 

What do I need? My union, for one.

 

I need my right to collective bargaining. I need the power to gather with my colleagues and co-workers so we can create the best possible work environment for myself and my students. I need due process, tenure, so I can’t be fired at the whim of the school board or administrators without having them prove my inequities.

 

I need my work to be evaluated fairly. Judge me on what I do – not on what my students do with what I’ve given them.

 

And when it comes to the racial proficiency gap, don’t look to me to exert some kind of supernatural teacher magic. I am not a white savior who can make school segregation, racism and prejudice disappear. I try to treat every student fairly, but my actions can’t undo a system that’s set up to privilege some and disadvantage others.

 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re expecting a superhero, I’m bound to disappoint.

 

And that DOES seem to be what many of you expect us to be.

 

Seven years ago, Davis Guggenheim characterized the public schools as if we were Waiting for Superman.

 

Things are so screwed up, he alleged back then, that we need someone with superpowers to swoop in and fix it all.

 

But there is no superman. There’s just Clark Kent.

 

That’s me – a bespectacled shlub who shows up everyday in the naive hope that he can make a difference.

 

According to landmark research by Dan Goldhaber and James Coleman, only about 9 percent of student achievement is attributable to teachers.

 

That’s right – 9 percent.

 

If you add in everything in the entire school environment – class size, curriculum, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning (books, computers, science labs, etc.), all that only accounts for 20 percent.

 

There’s another 20 percent they can’t explain. But the largest variable by far is out of school factors. This means parents, home life, health, poverty, nutrition, geographic location, stress, etc. Researchers estimate those count for 60 percent of student success.

 

Yet we somehow expect teachers (9%) to do it all.

 

I’m sorry, America. I can’t.

 

More than half of all public school students live in poverty. No matter how hard I try, I cannot solve that all by myself.

 

I try to teach children how to read though many are hungry and traumatized by their home lives.

 

I try to teach children how to write though many haven’t slept the night before, haven’t taken their ADD medication and – to be honest – many haven’t even shown up to school yet.

 

I most certainly try to get them to pass culturally biased, developmentally inappropriate standardized tests without sucking away every bit of creativity from the classroom.

 

But much of this is beyond my control.

 

I can’t help that the federal, state and local government are cutting school funding. I can’t help that my impoverished district has few school supplies, the students enter the building without them because their parents are too poor to buy them. But I can – and do – spend out of my own pocket to make sure all of my students have pencil, paper, whatever they need.

 

I can’t help that officials at every step of the way want me to narrow my teaching to only things that will appear on the yearly standardized test, that they want me to present it as a multiple choice look-a-like item, that they want me to teach by pointing at a Common Core standard as if that held any meaning in a child’s life. But I can make the lesson as creative as possible and offer kids a chance to engage with the material in a way that connects to their real lives, desires and interests.

 

I can’t help that kids don’t read like they used to and instead experience the bulk of text on the Internet, Facebook or Twitter. I can’t help that most of their real world writing experience is limited to thumbing social media updates, comments on YouTube videos or communicating through a string of colorful emojis. But I can try to offer them meaningful journal topics that make them think and offer them the chance to share their thoughts in a public forum with their peers.

 

There’s nothing super about any of it.

 

But it’s the kind of things teachers do everyday without anyone noticing. It’s the kind of thing that rarely gets noted on an evaluation, rarely earns you a Thank You card or even an apple to put on your desk.

 

However, when the day is done, students often are reluctant to leave. They cluster about in the hall or linger in the classroom asking questions, voicing concerns, just relieved that there’s someone there they can talk to.

 

And that’s reason enough for me to stay.

 

The odds are stacked against me. Help isn’t coming from any corner of our society. But sometimes despite all of that, I’m actually able to get things done.

 

Everyday it seems I help students understand something they never knew before. I’ve become accustomed to that look of wonder, the aha moment. And I helped it happen!

 

I get to see students grow. I get to nurture that growth. I get to be there for young ones who have nobody else.

 

It’s a wonderful feeling.

 

I know I’m making a difference.

 

So, yes, I’m no superman.

 

I have no special powers, no superhuman abilities. I can’t fix all of our social problems all by myself.

 

But I help to make the future.

 

That’s why I do what I do.

 

Thank you for letting me do it.