Kiss My Assessment – A High Stakes Testing Poem

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Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.

 

 

Little Laquan, Empty belly

Reading passages by Maichiavelli

Does he know what the author thinks

Last night did he get forty winks

Drive-by shooting in his neighborhood

Answer questions that he should

Interrogated by the cops

Took away and locked his pops

Now he sits slumped in school

Testing, testing, it’s a rule

Will he – this time – make the grade

A debt to society he has paid

 

 

For being poor and his black skin

Success and riches, let me in!

But not unless you answer right

Like wealthy kids whose hue is white

Not two plus two or three and four

Context implied when you ask for

European culture and white society

If you know it, you’re in propriety

If not, take a longer road

Hurdles to jump and words to decode

 

 

But do not label the test unfair

Rich folks will blast you with hot air

Testing makes them bundles of billions

Leaching off of us civilians

Test prep, grading and remediation

Never mind that it keeps you in your station

Need new books, here’s Common Core

So big corporations can make some more

Money off your starving schools

The funding is drying up in pools

 

 

As politicians vote to gut

So they can give bankers another tax cut

Hotels and yachts and Maltese vacations

Touring havens in other nations

To hide their money and avoid paying

Anything to keep preying

On little kids and their moms

So long as they aren’t forced to pay alms

 

 

No nurses, no librarians, no psychologists

Nothing to feed a tummy or an esophagus

No fancy buildings, no small class sizes

Nothing to match the suburban enterprises

Fewer resources, fewer tutors,

Crumbling classrooms, archaic computers

Just give them tests as charity

And pretend it means populace parity

When he fails, we’ll blame Laquan

Fire his teacher and make her move on

 

 

Close his school and open a charter

And then his services we can barter

To turn his funding into profit

Democracy melts like warm chocolate

Private boards get public voice

Deciding who to enroll and calling it choice

Spending tax money behind closed doors

Filling classrooms with Americorps

Instructors who never earned a degree

But cheap trumps any pedigree

For teachers to teach the darkest of humans

As long as they don’t form any pesky unions

Reformers they’re called, really just hypocrites

Wolves with sheep skin in their identity kits

 

 

They might refuse to come out of the closet

But don’t burn this humble prophet

Who tells you the truth about high stakes tests

About the school system and the unholy mess

We’ve made for kids so hedge funders

Can bark and rave and push for blunders

To make money off of kids misery

And a better world – not for you, not for me.

Am I obsessed and distressed by oppressive divestment?

Oh who cares? Kiss my assessment!

 

 

Double, Double, test and trouble;

Standards stern so fill in that bubble.


NOTE: I wrote this poem during and after proctoring this year’s PSSA test for my 7th grade students. Can’t imagine where the inspiration came from! I’ll just say that the opposite of standardized testing has always seemed to be poetry. I hope you enjoyed my verses.  It was either that or spit curses!


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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Don’t Let School Lockdown Drills Become the New Normal

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I got an interesting phone call the other day from my daughter’s elementary school.

 

The counselor warned me that my little one’s class would conduct a lockdown drill – the first the kids had ever experienced.

 

With everything in the news about school shootings and the gun debate, the superintendent and principals thought they should prepare for the worst, even though they doubted anything like that would actually happen here.

 

The counselor just wanted me to be aware what was happening and to prepare my daughter for it so she wouldn’t be scared.

 

I thanked her for the call, and went in the other room to speak to my 9-year-old sweetie.

 

She was hunkered on the floor drawing pictures of her toys.

 

Mario and Luigi were chasing a purple Yoshi. Captain America was playing soccer with Wonder Woman. That kind of thing.

 

I opened my mouth — and my throat closed up.

 

I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.

 

What would I say? —-Hey, Honeybunches. You’re going to have a lockdown drill at school tomorrow. Your class is going to prepare in case a gunman breaks in and tries to murder you.

 

She was staring at me now, Mario’s hat half colored in.

 

So I put on my teacher’s cap and explained everything that would happen, but not why.

 

She was completely unfazed.

 

“That’s all? Can I go back to coloring now?” she asked.

 

I nodded.

 

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but I wondered how she’d react. This was a girl who in kindergarten had cried at the violence of a fire alarm.

 

So the next day came and went – no mention from her about what had happened at school.

 

She wasn’t traumatized. She was her usual self – frustrated at her homework, bargaining for a snack, writing an autobiography of her soccer career that would start next fall when she signs up.

 

I waited a week and then asked her about what had happened.

 

In the most matter of fact voice, she told me how her third grade class had stood away from the door, clustered in one corner of the room holding books.

 

“Why books?” I asked, thinking that maybe the drill had gone on too long so they had something to read.

 

She said they were to throw at a bad guy if he sneaked into the room.

 

I imagined a gunman in my daughter’s classroom trying to spray the children with bullets only to be met by a hail of tossed books – Dr. Seuss vs. Smith & Wesson.

 

Then I envisioned her teacher pulling out a revolver and returning fire through the swarm of terrified elementary school bodies darting back and forth.

 

The shock must have shown on my face.

 

“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said. “No one broke in.”

 

As usual, children do better with this stuff than adults.

 

But the reason why is exceedingly troubling.

 

They are still forming their concept of normality.

 

When I went to school, we never had lockdown drills. We had monthly fire drills and the occasional severe weather drill. But we never prepared for crazed murderers and terrorists. That just wasn’t in our routine or even our conception of what a school should do.

 

Yet it is now routine for my daughter. It is typical for most children these days.

 

As a teacher in a neighboring district, I had to preside over my own first lockdown drill with my 7th graders a few weeks earlier.

 

We clustered in a corner on the floor – the door locked, the lights off.

 

My class of rambunctious teens who rarely seem able to do anything without a constant stream of words was nearly silent.

 

The worst part was how I felt trying to downplay what we were doing.

 

Nothing to see here, kids. Just an ordinary day pretending to hide in a corner so a killer would pass us by.

 

And now after the drill, I keep my classroom door locked at all times.

 

It’s a huge inconvenience having to stop what you’re doing and physically open the door anytime someone wants to come in. But it’s what we have to do to bolster our sense of security.

 

It’s our new normal.

 

And I don’t like it.

 

It just seems to me like another way my generation has failed our children.

 

We’ve always known our gun laws are insane. We knew there should be SOME sensible regulations on who can buy a gun and where and why. We knew there was no good reason to allow civilians to own automatic weapons.

 

But we did nothing.

 

Okay, a few of us spoke up now and again. It did no good. Our lawmakers just waited out our outrage and kept pocketing the money from the NRA and the gun lobby.

 

And now we’ve accepted that school shootings are just another part of getting an education.

 

It’s just something else to prepare for – like a grease fire in the cafeteria or a flooded gymnasium.

 

I’m sorry, but this is not normal.

 

I refuse to let this be just another possible disaster we feel compelled to add to our list of Might Happens.

 

Thankfully, protestors are still out there demanding action from our politicians. Thankfully, demonstrations and town halls are still in the works like the April 20th National School Walkout.

 

But our leaders still think they can wait us out. And these lockdown drills feel too much like an admission that they’re right.

 

What sense of urgency do we have if we’ve already incorporated shootings into the calendar?

 

I’ll accept that these drills are necessary. But I won’t accept them as permanent.

 

These are temporary measures at best.

 

However, that’s something that must be made explicit. Lockdown drills cannot become a tradition, common, conventional.

 

It shouldn’t be – “Time for the occasional lockdown drill.”

 

It should be – “Look what our cowardly politicians are forcing us to do because they haven’t enough spine to stand up to the NRA!”

 

We mustn’t lose our sense of outrage over this cultural shift. Because if we do, the necessary political change will not come.

 

We need sensible gun regulations – not another B.S. duck and cover exercise to engender a false sense of security and pop our civic resolve.

 

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

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Respecting Student Free Speech Was Hard for Adults During Today’s School Walkout

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The kids are all right. It’s the adults you have to watch.

 

The walkout planned nationwide to protest gun violence today on the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting came to my western Pennsylvania school – and we weren’t ready for it.

 

In fact, up until today no one had mentioned a thing about it.

 

I had asked teachers if they wanted to do something and was told it was up to the students to lead.

 

I had asked the high school student council if they were interested in participating, but there wasn’t much of a response.

 

Then this morning in the middle school where I teach, there was an impromptu two minute meeting where we were told some kids might walk out and that we should just let them go.

 

Their right to free speech would be respected and there wouldn’t be any penalty for participating.

 

However, as a teacher, I was instructed not to bring up the subject, not to allow discussion and only to attend if all of my students decided to go.

 

That’s a hard position to be in.

 

It’s like being put in a metaphorical straight jacket.

 

But I tried.

 

When my 7th grade kids came in, they were all a buzz about something and I couldn’t really ask why.

 

The suspense was broken with a sledge hammer during second period when one of my most rambunctious students asked if he could use the restroom at 10 am. That was over an hour away.

 

I told him he couldn’t reserve an appointment for a bathroom break but he could go now if he wanted.

 

Then he explained himself. At 10 am he was walking out.

 

The room exploded.

 

They had heard about the nationwide walkout at 10 – the time of the Parkland shooting. They knew kids all across the land were leaving class for 17 minutes – 60 seconds for each life lost in the shooting.

 

But that was pretty much it.

 

They didn’t know what it was that kids were protesting. They didn’t know why they were protesting. They just knew it was something being done and they wanted to do it.

 

It was at this point I took off my metaphorical straight jacket.

 

I couldn’t simply suppress the talk and try to move on with the lesson – on propaganda, wouldn’t you believe!

 

We talked about the limits of gun laws – how some people wanted background checks for people wishing to purchase guns. We talked about regulating guns for people with severe mental illnesses, criminal backgrounds or suspected terrorists. We talked about how there used to be a ban on assault weapons sales and how that was the gun of choice for school shooters.

 

We even talked about what students might do once they walked out of the building.

 

They couldn’t just mill around for all that time.

 

Since we were in the middle of a unit on poetry, someone suggested reading poems about guns and gun violence.

 

Students quickly went on-line and found a site stocked with student-written poetry on the issue – many by students who had survived school shootings.

 

I admit I should have checked the site better – but we had literally minutes before the walkout was scheduled to take place.

 

Some of the poems contained inappropriate language and swear words. But they were generally well written and honest. And the kids liked them.

 

I let them print a few that they wanted to read aloud at the demonstration.

 

They were actually huddled around their desks reading poetry and practicing.

 

They were really excited about the prospect of standing up and being counted – of letting the world know how they felt.

 

One student even wrote her own poem.

 

She said I could publish it anonymously, so here it is:

 

“Pop! Pop! Pop!

 

Everyone crying, calling their parents, saying their last goodbyes.

 

Screams echo throughout the building.

Blood painting the white tiles.

Bodies laying limp on the ground

Screams of pain

Bullets piercing our skin.

 

Yelling and sobbing increase.

We are escorted out.

 

‘Is this what you wanted?’”

 

 

I barely had time to read it before the time came.

 

Students stood up and were confused by the lack of an announcement.

 

But this was not a sanctioned school event. If they took part, they were on their own.

 

It was my smallest class and several kids were already absent.

 

They all left and were immediately met by the principal and security. To their credit, the adults didn’t stop them, but they told them not to put their coats on until they were outside and to otherwise quiet down.

 

I made sure to emphasize that anyone who wanted was welcome to stay in class. But no one did.

 

After the last child left, I grabbed my coat and followed.

 

When I got to the front of the building I was surprised by the lack of high school students. There were only a handful. But there were maybe 50 middle school kids.

 

When the principal saw all my students had decided to participate, he asked me to stay in the lobby. He said it wasn’t necessary for me to attend.

 

That was hard.

 

I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be insubordinate, either.

 

My students were expecting me to be there. They were expecting me to help guide them.

 

So I stood in the doorway and watched.

 

Students did as I feared; they pretty much milled around.

 

A few of my students held their poems in hand and read them quietly together but there were no leaders, no organization.

 

After about 5 minutes, the adults pounced.

 

The resource officer criticized them since their safety was more at risk outside the building than in class. Administrators chastised the collective group for having no plan, for only wishing to get out of class, for not knowing why they were there and for not doing anything together to recognize the tragedy or the issue. They said that if the students had really wanted to show respect to those killed in Florida they would have a moment of silence.

 

The kids immediately got quiet, but you can’t have a 17-minute moment of silence. Not in middle school.

 

I saw some of my kids wanting to read their poems aloud but too afraid to call the group’s attention to themselves.

 

And then it was over.

 

The whole thing had taken about 10 minutes.

 

Administration herded the kids back into the building early and back through the metal detectors.

 

I can’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity.

 

I get it, being an administrator is tough. A situation like today is hard to stomach. Kids taking matters into their own hands and holding a demonstration!?

 

We, adults, don’t like that. We like our children to be seen and not heard.

 

We want them to do only things that will show us in a better light. We don’t like them taking action to fix problems that we couldn’t be bothered to fix, ourselves.

 

But what right do we have to curate their demonstration?

 

If they wanted to mill around for 17 minutes, we should have let them.

 

Better yet, we could have helped them organize themselves and express what many of them truly were thinking and feeling.

 

If I had been allowed out of the building, I could have called the assembly to order and had my kids read their poems.

 

But doing so would have been exceedingly dangerous for me, personally.

 

I can’t actively defy my boss in that way. It just didn’t seem worth it.

 

If we had had warning that this might happen and planned better how to handle it, that also might have been an improvement.

 

Imagine if the school had sanctioned it. We could have held an assembly or sent a letter home.

 

The teachers could have been encouraged to plan something with their students.

 

Obviously if the students wanted to go in another direction, they should have been allowed to do so.

 

But these are middle school kids. They don’t know how to organize. They barely know how to effectively express themselves.

 

Regardless of how we, adults, feel about the issue, isn’t it our responsibility to help our student self actualize?

 

Isn’t it our responsibility to help them achieve their goals?

 

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just a crazy hippie.

 

Maybe I’m some radical anarchist.

 

But I’m proud of my students for taking a stand.

 

It was unorganized and a mess.

 

Yet they stood up and did something we, the adults, really weren’t that keen on them doing.

 

Their message was a muddle.

 

But they had something to say.

 

They just haven’t figure out how to say it yet.

Wake Up, America! You Have a School Shooting Problem!

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There have been 11 school shootings so far this year.

 

And January isn’t even over yet.

 

That makes about 50 for the academic year – roughly one a week.

 

Some involve no injuries. Some are suicide attempts. And some, like the latest in Kentucky, involve an active shooter hunting and killing children.

 

While gun violence is a problem throughout the country, it is especially virulent at educational institutions.

 

According to an FBI study that looked at incidents from 2000-2013, nearly one quarter of all U.S. shootings took place at schools. And they’re on the rise.

 

Yet this latest incident barely raised an eyebrow in the collective consciousness.

 

Hardly anyone even attempted to offer a solution.

 

The reason?

 

Since Sandy Hook, we’ve effectively given up.

 

In December of 2012 a gunman walked in to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 children and six adults, and we did nothing.

 

We stood by after the murder of elementary kids and couldn’t get up the collective energy to do one damn thing to stop things like this from happening again.

 

No new regulations.

 

No assault weapons ban.

 

No gun buyback programs.

 

NOTHING.

 

In fact, the only thing we did do was actually weaken gun laws to INCREASE the likelihood of more kindergarten kids dying by shot and shell.

 

In this country we have created a false dichotomy – it’s either children or guns — and we’ve chosen GUNS!

 

We’re told to buy bullet-proof backpacks, arm school teachers, and have gun wielding police patrol the buildings, but don’t do anything about the firearms, themselves.

 

America has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns in the world.

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It’s no wonder, then, that our citizens are so much more likely to die at end of a barrel.

 

Since Sandy Hook, there have been more than 1,500 mass shootings (including those done at locations other than schools).

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According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been at least 1,518 mass shootings, with at least 1,715 people killed and 6,089 wounded as of October 2017.

 

The database defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people (not counting the shooter) were shot regardless of whether those wounds were fatal or not. And since some shootings go unreported, it’s likely only giving us the bare minimum.

 

But that’s just mass death and destruction.

 

The overwhelming majority of gun deaths are smaller scale – police brutality, domestic violence, suicides, accidents, etc. America’s total annual firearm deaths came to more than 33,000 in 2014.

 

This is patently absurd.

 

Other countries don’t have the same level of gun violence as we do, even per capita.

 

There are certain facts that we refuse to accept.

 

States with more guns have more gun deaths.

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Countries with more guns likewise have more gun deaths.

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Meanwhile, states with tighter gun regulations have fewer gun-related deaths.

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Countries with more rigorous gun control likewise have fewer gun related deaths.

(Don’t believe me? See Florida’s “The Geography of Gun Deaths,” and a 2016 review of 130 studies in 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews.)

 

 

Yet we’re told that gun control is useless because new laws will just be pieces of paper that criminals will ignore. However, by the same logic, why have any laws at all?

 

Congress should just pack it in, the courts should close up and the army should just all go home. Criminals will do what they please – there’s nothing we can do about it.

 

 

This kind of thinking is the triumph of business over sense.

 

The gun industry is making billions of dollars off this cycle of gun violence: mass shooting, fear of regulation, increase in sales. Repeat ad infinitum.

 

We may never be able to stop all gun violence, but we can take steps to make it more unlikely. We can at least make it more difficult for people to die by firearm.

 

And this doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all guns.

 

 

It just means sensible regulations.

 

 

According to the Pew Research Center, when you ask people about specific firearm regulations, the majority is in favor of most of them – both Republicans and Democrats.

 

We don’t want the mentally ill to be able to buy guns. We don’t want suspected terrorists to be able to purchase guns. We don’t want convicted criminals to be able to buy guns. We want mandatory background checks for private sales at gun shows.

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Yet our lawmakers stand by helpless whenever these tragedies occur because they are at the mercy of their donors.

 

The gun industry owns too many lawmakers.

 

Our continued gun violence problem is a symptom of our flagging democracy.

 

In a Republic like ours, our representatives are supposed to enact our will in the halls of power. Yet they don’t actually represent us. They represent business and the wealthy.

 

Until we regain control of our government, we will always be at the mercy of the dollar and the gun.

 

Our children will remain merely the most innocent victims of our heartless and unfair politics.

 

Gun violence is not an everyday occurrence at our schools. In fact, children are actually safer there than anywhere else. But everything is relative. Going to class to learn you’re ABC’s shouldn’t bring with it even a moderate chance of fiery death!

 

But that’s 2018 America. We live in a culture of death.

 

You need no further proof of that than the weekly report of which school got struck by the lightning of gun violence. Which children were mowed down by the consequences of an out of control plutocracy today?

 

Bang. Bang. Democracy is dead.

When You Mistreat Teachers, Beware the Unintended Lessons for Students

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We’ve all seen the shocking video from Vermillion Parish in Louisiana this week where a teacher is tackled to the ground and arrested because she asked a question to the school board.

 

 

 

It’s a gross abuse of power that brings up many issues:

 

  • Public servants responding to the public with violence.

 

  • Elected representatives refusing to hear from their constituents and – in fact – taking action to silence them.

 

  • Leaders who are supposed to oversee children’s educations unconcerned with the lesson local kids will be taking home from the actions of adults who are supposed to set a better example.

 

The case is simple.

 

The eight-member board had been deadlocked 4-4 on whether or not to give Superintendent Jerome Puyau a raise. Then one of the members died. Instead of his wife filling in until a new election could be held, board president Anthony Fontana , who was in favor of the raise, appointed a like-minded replacement and tried to force a vote.

 

So Deyshia Hargrave, a district teacher and parent, asked why the superintendent should get a raise while the teachers haven’t had one in several years.

 

It was a reasonable question, asked at the proper time, in a respectful tone, when comments were directed specifically at her.

 

However, Reggie Hilts, the Abbeville city marshal who also serves as a school resource officer, told her she was being disruptive and asked her to leave – which she did. When she got out in the hall, he forced her to the ground, put her in handcuffs and pushed her out of the building.

 

It was completely unjustified, a horrific violation of Hargrave’s rights and goes counter to the very purpose of public school.

 

Local control is the great strength of our education system.

 

It is the idea that district wide decisions about our children’s learning should be made by duly-elected members of the community in the full light of day. Except where doing so would violate an individual’s personal rights, all school documents are public. They are voted on in public. And they are subject to question and comment by the public.

 

If the taxpayers – the people who foot the bill for the majority of the district costs – don’t approve of what their representatives are doing, they can take steps to replace them.

 

These are the very foundation of public schooling and one of the major reasons the public school system is superior to charter or voucher schools, which typically do not have them. Even when privatized systems retain the vestiges of democratic rule, they are optional and can be stripped away at the whim of the businesses and/or corporations that run them.

 

Vermillion Parish School Board would do well to remember this.

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The actions taken by City Marshall Hilts were either done at the behest of the board or certainly without any public dissent among the members.

 

They stomped on Hargrave’s First Amendment rights and ignored their responsibility to the community they serve.

 

If my description of how a public school is supposed to work sounds like a lecture, that’s intentional. These representatives could do with a lesson in how democracy works.

 

Our actions have consequences and those consequences only become more consequential when we become public servants. The board, the superintendent and certainly Hilts may very well have opened themselves up to legal action.

 

But beyond putting themselves in danger from having to pay punitive damages to Hargrave – that I hope they pay out of the superintendent’s bloated salary – they have betrayed a dangerous attitude toward the very concept of self-rule.

 

Whether they meant to or not, they have given the children of Vermillion Parish a lesson in government and community values.

 

Make no mistake. The children are watching. They get the TV news and status updates on Facebook and Twitter. They have access to YouTube. Doubtless, they have seen this video countless times. They have probably played it over and over again.

 

They saw their teacher brutally manhandled by a supposed law enforcement officer. And they heard the deafening silence from the school board about it.

 

They know now that this kind of behavior is deemed acceptable in Vermillion Parish. Beware the kind of behavior adults can expect from children who are given such a disgraceful example!

 

Moreover, these children are well aware of the matter in dispute.

 

The board is fighting to give the superintendent a $38,000 raise. Yet they refuse to give another penny to teachers – all while class sizes have jumped from 21 to 29 students, according to Hargrave.

 

That is not what leaders do who care about the well-being of students. It is a result of backroom deals and the good ol’ boys network.

 

 

The lesson is that hard work doesn’t matter. The only thing you should worry about is making a deal no matter whom it hurts. Just look out for numero uno.

 

After all, the board could give the teachers something – some token of appreciation to show that they value their continued commitment to the children of the community. But they don’t. Yet they fight tooth and nail to do so for one individual who has in no way proven himself indispensable.

 

It is the teachers who come in every day and give their all to help students learn. Not a superintendent who demands they jump through an increasingly complex set of irrelevant hoops.

 

But there’s always money for the person at the top. Never anything for the people who do the real work.

 

Critics complain that teachers don’t deserve a raise because they already earn more money than the majority of the people who live in the community. (An argument which – by the way – would also apply to the superintendent.)

 

But even beyond basic logic, it’s a bogus line of reasoning!

 

Doctors attend patients in poor communities. They still earn high salaries – maybe not as high as they would serving the wealthy, but they have to be able to survive, to pay back the loans they took out to go through medical school, etc. So do lawyers, accountants and specialists of all kinds. That’s just capitalism. If you want someone to provide a good or service, you have to pay them a competitive wage. Otherwise, they’ll move on to greener pastures.

 

The kids see you pinching pennies. They know what that means – you don’t think they’re worth the investment.

 

The lessons of Vermillion Parish go far beyond Louisiana.

 

Anytime people mistreat teachers, they’re really mistreating the children those educators serve.

 

An attack on teachers is an attack on students.

 

When Hilt wrestled a woman half his size to the ground and placed her under arrest for the crime of exercising her rights, he put the entire community in jail.

 

When the board directed him to act – or at very least neglected to stop him – they made themselves culpable in the crime.

 

It is something we have been guilty of in nearly every state of the union. We have neglected our children, abused our teachers and injured the democratic principles on which our country was founded.

 

Class dismissed.

 

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

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Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

Test-Based Accountability – Smokescreen for Cowardly Politicians and Unscrupulous Corporations

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There is no single education policy more harmful than test-based accountability.

 

The idea goes like this: We need to make sure public schools actually teach children, and the best way to do that is with high stakes standardized testing.

 

It starts from the assumption that the problems with our school system are all service-based. Individual schools or districts are not providing quality services. Teachers and administrators are either screwing up or don’t care enough to do the job.

 

But this is untrue. In reality, most of our problems are resource-based. From the get-go, schools and districts get inequitable resources with which to work.

 

This is not a guess. This is not a theory. It is demonstrable. It has been demonstrated. It is a fact.

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

However, any lack of intention or ability on the part of schools to actually teach is, in fact, pure conjecture. It is a presumption, an excuse by those responsible for allocating resources (i.e. lawmakers) from doing their jobs.

 

Any time you hear senators or representatives at the state or federal level talking about test-based accountability, they are ignoring their own duties to properly provide for our public school children and pushing everything onto the schools, themselves.

 

That is the foundation of the concept. It’s hard to imagine more unstable ground from which to base national education policy.

 

But it gets worse.

 

With our eyes closed and this assumption swallowed like a poison pill, we are asked to accept further toxic premises.

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

We are being asked to question the trustworthiness of teachers. Instead, we are pushed to trust corporations – corporations that manufacture standardized tests.

 

I have no idea why anyone would think that big business is inherently moral or ethical. The history of the world demonstrates this lie. Nor do I understand why anyone would start from the proposition that teachers are inherently untrustworthy. Like any other group of human beings, educators include individuals that are more or less honest, but the profession is not motivated by a creed that specifically prescribes lying if it maximizes profit.

 

Business is.

 

Test manufacturers are motivated by profit. They will do that which maximizes the corporate bottom line. And student failure does just that.

 

Most of these companies don’t just manufacturer tests. They also provide the books, workbooks, software and other materials schools use to get students ready to take the tests. They produce the remediation materials for students who fail the tests. And they provide and grade the tests in the first place.

 

When students fail their tests, it means more money for the corporation. More money to give and grade the retests. More money to provide additional remediation materials. And it justifies the need for tests to begin with.

 

Is it any wonder then that so many kids fail? That’s what’s profitable.

 

There was a time when classroom teachers were not so motivated.

 

They were not paid based on how many of their students passed the test. Their evaluations were not based on student test scores. Their effectiveness used to be judged based on what they actually did in the classroom. If they could demonstrate to their administrators that they were actually making good faith efforts to teach kids, they were considered effective. If not, they were ineffective. It was a system that was both empirical and fair – and one to which we should return.

 

In fact, it was so fair that it demonstrated the partisanship of the corporations. Laws were changed to bring teacher motivation more in line with those of big business. Their evaluations became based on student test scores. Their salaries were increasingly tied to student success on these tests. And when some teachers inevitably felt the pressure to cheat on the tests, they were scapegoated and fired. There is no mechanism available to even determine if testing corporations cheat less than penalties for it.

 

After all, what is cheating for a testing corporation when they determine the cut score for passing and failing?

 

Yet this is a major premise behind test-based accountability – the untrustworthiness of teachers compared to the dependable, credibility of corporations.

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

Time-after-time, standardized test scores show a striking correspondence: poor and minority students often do badly while middle class and wealthy white students do well.

 

Why is that?

 

Well, it could mean, as we’ve already mentioned, that poor and minority students aren’t receiving the proper resources. Or it could mean that teachers are neglecting these children.

 

There is a mountain of evidenceundisputed evidence – to support the former. There is nothing to support the later.

 

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual teachers out there who may be doing a bad job educating poor and minority children. There certainly are some. But there is no evidence of a systemic conspiracy by teachers to educate the rich white kids and ignore all others. However, there IS an unquestionable, proven system of disinvestment in these exact same kids by lawmakers.

 

If we used standardized tests to shine a light on the funding inequalities of the system, perhaps they would be doing some good. But this is not how we interpret the data.

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

Standardized testing is not new. It is a practice with a past that is entirely uncomplimentary.

 

These kinds of assessments are poor indicators of understanding complex processes. Answering multiple choice questions is not the best way to determine comprehension.

 

Moreover, this process is tainted by the eugenicist movement from which it originates. Standardized testing is a product of the belief that some races are better than others. It is a product of white supremacy. It was designed by racist psychologists who used it to justify the social structure of past generations and roundly praised and emulated by literal Nazis.

 

It is therefore not surprising that test scores show privileged white kids as superior to underprivileged students of color. That is how the system was designed.

 

Why any educated person would unquestionably accept these scores as valid assessments of student learning is beyond me.

 

Yet these are the assumptions and premises upon which the house of test-based accountability is built.

 

It is a smokescreen to protect politicians from having to provide adequate, equitable, sustainable resources for all children. It likewise protects unscrupulous business people so they can continue to cash in on the school system without providing any real value for students.

 

We must no longer allow policymakers to hide behind this blatant and immoral lie.

 

Not only should voters refrain from re-electing any lawmakers whose constituents children are receiving inequitable school resources, they should not be eligible for re-election.

 

Not only should corporations not be trusted more than teachers, they should be barred from determining success or failure while also profiting off of that same failure.

 

In short, we need to stop worshipping at the altar of test-based accountability.

 

Schools can and should be held accountable. But it cannot be done with standardized tests.

 

Moreover, we must stop ignoring the role of policymakers and business in this system. They must also be responsible. We are allowing them to get away with murder.

 

It’s time to wake up and make them answer for what they’ve done to our nation’s children.