Pennsylvania Proposes Smaller Tests, Same High Stakes

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It’s not the size of the tests, it’s how you use them.

 

And that’s kind of the problem with Gov. Tom Wolf’s new proposal for Pennsylvania public schools.

 

Wolf wants to reduce the amount of time students are taking standardized tests, but he seems to have little problem using those tests to hold schools accountable for all kinds of things that are beyond their control.

 

The proposal released today applies only to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests – those taken by students in grades 3-8. Keystone Exams taken by high school students are unaffected.

 

It would cut one of three reading sections and one of three math sections – two total. Wolf also wants to cut some questions from one of the science sections.

 

Such a move is estimated to eliminate 48 minutes from the math test, 45 minutes from the reading test and 22 minutes from the science test. However, judging from my own students, these times vary considerably depending on the individual taking the tests. I’ve had 8th grade students finish a PSSA section in as little as 5 minutes or as much as two hours.

 

Most schools give either a section a day or two in one day. Therefore, this proposal probably translates to 1 to 2 fewer days testing in most districts.

 

Um. Thanks?

 

Look I don’t want to seem ungrateful here, but these suggested modifications are little more than fiddling around the edges of a massive problem.

 

Yes, it will be helpful to reduce testing times, but this does very little to address the fundamental problems with test-based accountability in the Commonwealth.

 

At best, this proposal will allow students to spend two more days a year learning. Assuming most districts don’t use that extra time for test prep, that IS a good thing.

 

But tacitly committing students throughout the state to taking these tests almost guarantees that test prep is exactly how these additional days will be used.

 

The problem with standardized testing isn’t just the number of raw days it takes students to complete the tests. It is how the tests deform the entire year-long curriculum. Students don’t just learn anymore. They learn what’s on the test – and anything else is purely optional.

 

Regardless of the size of the assessments, they are still being used to sort and judge students, teachers and schools. Shortening their length does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness of the evaluations. Rich white kids still tend to have high scores and poor minority kids still tend to have low ones.

 

At best, they reveal structural funding disparities between poor and wealthy districts. At worst, the cultural bias inherent in the questions favor those from dominant, privileged ethnicities while punishing those who don’t fit the standard.

 

That’s what “standardized test” means after all – defining normal and punishing those who don’t fit the definition. Most questions don’t assess universals like the value of 2 and 2. They evaluate cultural and social norms required to understand the questions and easily find an answer that another “normal” student would choose. (Don’t believe me? Watch “Black Jeopardy” on Saturday Night Live.)

 

This is true whether the test takes one day or 100 days.

 

We should not be using standardized testing to meet federal accountability standards. Period.

 

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) contains provisions to circumvent them. States are supposed to be given leeway about testing. They may even be able to replace them with projects or other non-standardized assessments. THAT’S what Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education should be exploring – not half measures.

 

To be fair, the state Department of Education is attempting reform based on the ESSA. This year, the department introduced Future Ready PA, a new way of using test scores and other measures to assess school success. To its credit, The Index does place additional emphasis on academic growth, evaluation of school climate, attendance, graduation rates, etc. However, for my money it still gives far too much importance to standardized testing and test prep.

 

Like reducing the size of the PSSAs, it’s a positive step but won’t do much to get us to our destination.

 

Neither measure will have much impact on the day-to-day operations of our public schools. Districts will still be pressured to emphasize test prep, test taking strategies, approaches to answering multiple choice questions, etc. Meanwhile, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity will still be pushed to the side.

 

Moreover, since schools and teachers will be assessed as successful or not based largely on these test scores, districts will be under tremendous pressure to give countless practice tests throughout the year to gauge how well students are prepared for the PSSAs. The state will still be providing and encouraging the optional Classroom Diagnostics Tools (CDT) tests be taken several times in reading and math throughout the year. Trimming off two days from the PSSA will affect that not at all.

 

In addition, today’s proposal only applies to the PSSA. While that assessment is important, the Keystone Exams given to high school students are even more so. According to existing state law, passing the Keystones in Algebra I, Literature and Biology are required in order to qualify for a diploma. However, that condition has yet to go live. So far the legislature has continuously pushed back the date when passing scores become graduation requirements. The Governor and Department of Education should be proposing the elimination of this prerequisite before anything else. Other than education funding and perhaps charter school accountability, it is the most important education issue before Commonwealth lawmakers today.

 

Don’t get me wrong. The Democratic Governor is somewhat hamstrung by the Republican-controlled legislature. Partisan politics has stopped lawmakers from accepting Wolf’s more progressive education measures.

 

Though Wolf has gotten Republicans to increase education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars during his term, K-12 schools still receive less than they did before the previous GOP governor’s administration. Moreover, there have been absolutely zero inflationary increases to keep up with the rising cost of doing business. Pennsylvania schools receive less funding – whether you adjust for inflation or not – than they should, and that has a real world impact on our public schools. Moreover, how that money has been allocated by the legislature still – even with our new better funding formula in place – benefits wealthy districts more than poor ones.

 

If you want to talk about accountability, that’s where the majority of the issue belongs.

 

And primarily it’s out of Wolf’s hands. One can understand why he is proposing changes where he can and trying to do whatever good is possible given the political climate.

 

Shortening the PSSA tests would benefit our students. It is a step in a positive direction.

 

However, it is far from solving our many education problems.

 

The biggest roadblock to authentic school reform is a legislature that refuses to do anything but the absolute minimum for our neediest students.

Pennsylvania: No School Property Tax for the Rich, Poor Still Pay

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Eliminating property tax to fund public schools sounds like a great idea!

Until you read the fine print.

Because what Pennsylvania legislators are proposing won’t actually eliminate property taxes – unless you’re rich.

And it won’t ensure students get the funding they need.

And it will limit school boards’ local control.

But it will benefit the rich and big corporations, which is really the only reason we’re talking about it – AGAIN.

Let me break it down for you.

First, the bill being shopped around is called the Property Tax Independence Act or SB 76. It would get rid of all property taxes used to fund public schools and replace them with increases in sales and income taxes.

Somehow these increases would need to generate an additional $12 billion a year in revenue so that we can keep funding our schools at the present level. That’s some tax increase – and guess who’s going to pay the bulk of it – YOU.

Guess who’s not going to pay much of it – the huge corporations who used to pay property taxes on all those commercial, industrial, oil and gas properties.

This is a huge giveaway to big business, and it’s a substantial hike for regular Commonwealth citizens like you and me.

But that’s not all!

If you live in a poor school district, you’ll still have to pay property taxes. That’s right – if your district is in debt, you’ll still get a property tax bill to pay it off.

Considering that the state cut almost $1 billion a year in school funding for the past 6 years and that most districts have had to go into debt, increase taxes or both, you’re probably not going to see your property taxes go away anytime soon.

They might go down up to 40%. Or they might not go down at all. AND you still have to pay higher sales and income taxes.

But here’s the best part.

Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of being the national leader in unfair school funding.

We spend 33% more money on our rich students than on our poor ones. That’s the greatest disparity in the entire country!

And that’s saying something in a nation where spending more on wealthy kids is the norm.

However, this new bill won’t do anything to change that. In fact, it will lock-in that disparity.

Rich districts that today spend $23,000 per student will still spend $23,000, and poor districts that today spend $8,000 per student will still spend $8,000. But instead of your tax dollars going to the kids in your community, they’ll go to the state to be distributed everywhere. This means folks living in poor neighborhoods will probably be paying higher taxes so that they can fund the wealthiest kids. Likewise, rich parents will probably pay less while the difference is made up from taxes collected from the poor.

Call me crazy, but that just isn’t fair.
Finally, it takes away a lot of the local control from your local school board.

At present, if your local district has needs, your board can meet them by raising taxes. But under this bill, the only entity that can do that is the legislature.

I know, I know – your taxes are already too high. But the issue is who is more suited to making that decision – Harrisburg or your own community?

This bill is nothing new. Legislators have been trying to sneak it through for years.

Back in 2015 it passed the House but was defeated in the Senate when the Lt. Governor cast the deciding ballot against it. In 2013, it almost passed as an amendment to another bill, but the nonpartisan Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office ruined it by projecting a $1 billion shortfall within four years if it were passed.

However, the makeup of the Senate has changed. Now we have two new members who campaigned promising to pass this legislation, so it might actually squeak through.

The bill is being shopped around by state Sen. David Argall (R-Schuylkill/Berks) who authored it along with the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations.

This group claims to be a simple citizens organization made up of 87 nonpartisan tax-conscious advocacy groups. But a quick look at the names of these organizations includes multiple uses of terms like “patriot,” and “freedom,” and “liberty,” and “conservative,” and “tea party.”

Nonpartisan, my butt!

Moreover, the stated goal of the group is just to pass this legislation.

That’s not a group of concerned citizens. It’s almost a PAC!

The organization has even endorsed candidates – some of them noted progressive Democrats like state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-West Chester) and James Brewster (D-McKeesport), who both voted for the legislation in 2015.

To make it even more complex, the authors of the bill have a point. Property taxes are a terrible way to fund schools. They ensure that some districts will be better funded than others based on the local wealth of the community.

However, this bill does nothing to fix the inherent problems for children or poor and middle class communities. It compounds them.

Ironically, Gov. Wolf proposed a compromise solution two years ago with his first budget. He suggested reducing residential property taxes by $3.8 billion, targeting the biggest cuts for the neediest taxpayers and neediest schools. Moreover, he proposed increasing funding to the most impoverished districts so they could catch up to the well-funded ones.

But Republicans, who control both houses, refused to even consider it.

So here we go again. We have another Trojan Horse proposal. A good idea has been twisted and bastardized so that it serves the wealthy and private enterprise while doing irreparable harm to children and the poor. And even though it is an example of far right ideology, it has received bipartisan support.

Gov. Wolf is set to propose his new budget sometime this month. Sen. Argall is expected to reintroduce SB 76 during the subsequent budget negotiations.

It is a piece of zombie legislation that no matter how fetid and rotten just refuses to die. But this time, it just might bite us.

PA Legislature Plans Taking Away Teachers’ Sick Days

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Dear Pennsylvania legislators:

So now you want to take away teachers’ sick days.

Sabbatical, sick days, bereavement leaves – the Senate Education Committee voted 7-5 to strip them from the law and make teachers bargain for them with their districts.

So the next time I get sick, you don’t want to guarantee I can take the day off. If my mother dies, you don’t want to protect my right to attend her funeral.

The full legislature still has to vote on it, but that’s pretty cold.

Which brings me to my first question: Why do you hate public school teachers so much?

Seriously. What did teachers ever do to you? Did we give you a bad grade when you were kids? Did we give you detention? What did we ever do to earn such animosity?

You obviously must have something personal against teachers.

It’s understandable. Even though the majority of Pennsylvanians voted for Democrats, most of you are Republicans. You have gerrymandered the state so that you artificially have the majority, and as such you must espouse the most radical positions possible. Otherwise, you’ll be primaried by someone even farther right – a Tea Partier, a plutocrat, an anarcho-capitalist, a fascist.

We see the same thing playing out nationally. Hello, Donald Trump!

So it’s no surprise that after stripping public schools of almost $1 billion every year for the past five years, after tens of thousands of teachers have been laid off, after you’ve given away millions of dollars to private corporations to run fly-by-night charter schools or through tax credits to religious schools – well, it’s no surprise that you feel the need to continue the war on teachers.

It’s paying off for you big time.

Not so much for our school children. They have had to deal with increases in class size, narrowing of the curriculum, reductions in extra-curriculars, cuts in tutoring – just about every deprivation imaginable.

I wonder – do you realize that every attack against teachers is also an attack against students? Making sick teachers come to school won’t improve kids’ educations. Forcing educators to choose between work or seeing their loved ones off to their final resting places won’t boost test scores. Do you understand that or do you just not care?

Follow-up, if I may: do you realize that most public school teachers are women? Does that factor in at all? Which do you hate more, the gender of most teachers or the fact that we are unionized?

Oh, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, don’t think we’ve forgotten you. We know you requested this mess, Senate Bill 229. Instead of standing with your teachers to fight for fair, equitable, sustainable funding, you’ve decided to ask the legislature if you can stiff teachers to make ends meet. We’re there for your kids everyday, and this is how you thank us. That’s gratitude.

It’s what we get for being one of the last workforces to be unionized. We have the temerity to demand fair treatment. You can’t just do whatever you like with us, you have to actually sit down with us at the bargaining table and talk.

Legislators, we know it’s something that infuriates your base. No, I don’t mean the people who vote for you. I mean your real base – the corporations, millionaires and billionaires who pay your real salaries – the unlimited and shadowy campaign contributions that, let’s be honest, are really nothing less than legal bribes.

We shouldn’t be surprised that you have prioritized taking away legal protections for teachers’ sick days. It is quite in line with what you want to do to the profession. You no longer want highly qualified teachers making a middle class income who then can stay in our schools for their entire careers. You want lightly trained temps who use teaching as a stepping stone to a job that pays enough to live.

After all, if we afford teachers the status of professionals, they might actually be able to jump all the other hurdles we’ve put in front of them and educate the poor.

That would be terrible.

Despite all the standardized testing, Common Core, value-added measures, budget cuts, and constant propaganda about “failing schools,” they might actually teach these kids to think. That’s the last thing you want.

A thinking public might see how much you’re screwing them over. They might actually rise up and fight. They might refuse to accept the status quo that you are so desperately trying to protect.

That’s your real endgame. And though it makes me sick, I suppose I will no longer be able to take off.

I’ll just spend the day, coughing and wheezing with the children.

Yours,

Steven Singer

The Gadfly on the Wall

A Brief Lesson in Pennsylvania Budget Math: a VLOG

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WATCH THE VLOG BELOW:

Welcome to my first (and possibly last) VLOG or Video Log. If you haven’t already, please click on the video above, grab some popcorn and enjoy A Brief Lesson in Pennsylvania Budget Math.

Our state budget impasse continues to grow. The Republican-controlled legislature refuses to replace the almost $1 billion in annual education funding lawmakers removed 4 years ago. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf refuses to accept a spending plan that shortchanges our school children.

This is my attempt to bring clarity to the situation so ANYONE could understand what was at stake and maybe see through some of the half truths and misdirections surrounding the issue. After all, who better than a public school teacher to explain to Republicans why they need to fund our schools?

Basically, the whole video can be summarized in this graph from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center:

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For more information, please check out these other fine Gadfly on the Wall Blog articles:


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Dear Gov. Wolf – 10 Ways to Help Pennsylvania’s Schools

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Dear Gov. Tom Wolf:

It’s so nice to hear your name. Wolf. Wolf. Wolf.

I could write it all day. It’s so much better than Corbett.

As one of millions who voted for you, campaigned for you and even posted a yard sign for you – I want to offer my most cordial congratulations and welcome to office.

I know it may take a few weeks to get used to the new job. Heck! It could take a month just cleaning out all the skeletons left by your predecessor. It’s no coincidence that most of them are child sized.

Your forerunner treated public education like his own private piggy bank. He slashed education budgets with glee blaming it on federal stimulus dollars, Gov. Rendell or anyone but himself. Moreover, he trashed a newly created funding formula designed to ensure needy districts received adequate support. He stopped partially reimbursing poverty-stricken districts for the extra costs of having charter schools drain their coffers. And for a candidate who campaigned on limited government, he dramatically expanded the state role in education policy.

In short, it was a disaster. As a public school teacher, those were the four longest years of my life. I dearly hope we can expect better from you. One could easily make the case that you owe your position as governor to your stance against all these policies and the expectation that you would reverse course.

So let me offer some help. This is what I’d like to see you do as governor. I know it won’t be easy. I know you’ll probably have to compromise to work with a Republican legislature that enabled all these disasters to take place.

But you play a vital role – to set the agenda. And I fully expect you to do that for the children of Pennsylvania.

These are the top 10 ways to Help Pennsylvania’s schools:

1) Reverse Course in York

Talk about an American tragedy! York City Schools is a victim of your predecessor’s Draconian budget cuts. But instead of actually helping the district recover from years of underfunding, it was further hobbled by ideologues and profiteers.

First, Pennsylvania underfunds the already impoverished York Schools. Then when the district can’t cope with the lack of support, it’s labeled a “failure” and forced into a ridiculous recovery program. How does this make sense: tighten your belt, try a few targeted reforms and if that doesn’t work, give control of the district to a for-profit charter operator with a record of failure!?

And when the duly-elected school board has second thoughts, the state snatches control away from them and sends the school into receivership so this ridiculous privatization scheme can be instituted unmolested by Democracy!?

No. You need to listen to the taxpayers. Give control of the district back to the school board. Give the so-called Chief Recovery Officer his walking papers, throw his “Recovery Plan” into the trash and properly fund the district. No charters. Just common sense reform.

2) Return All Schools to Local Control

Public schools should be exactly that – public. Their actions should be governed by the community – not the state. Within certain Constitutionally mandated limits, the state has no business deciding what schools should be doing. The state’s main job is to ensure schools have what they need to function.

Yet Pennsylvania is running a handful of districts. Philadelphia Schools have been under control of the School Recovery Commission and appointed CEO for almost two decades with no improvement. Likewise, Duquesne and Chester Upland districts have struggled through receivership with nothing to show for it but misery and lack of services.

That’s why these schools were taken over in the first place. New leadership was never the problem. It was lack of funds.

Restore all Pennsylvania districts to the taxpayers and democratically elected school boards. Fund properly and stand back. Watch them flourish.

3) Increase the Education Budget

You campaigned on it. It’s time to do it. Bring funding back to pre-Corbett levels. In fact, increase it to reflect the increased costs of services. And bring back the charter school reimbursement.

A small increase will not be enough. Our schools have suffered through too much neglect. We need to lower class sizes and restore arts and music, extra-curricular activities, school nurses, librarians – everything we lost under your forerunner.

Critics will say this is throwing money at the problem. The rest of us call it an investment. We need to put more money toward educating children than locking up high school dropouts. We need to put all the strength and power of the Commonwealth into ensuring the next generation will have a better chance at succeeding than the current one.

That takes money. It takes taxes – especially on the wealthy and corporations that have had a tax holiday for the past four years. It’s time to pay up.

4) Institute a Fair Funding Formula

This is another of your campaign promises. Even your predecessor eventually came around to supporting it – after he trashed the one that had already been in place.

We need to make sure schools get the money they need to operate. This means the state has to provide more funding to cash-strapped schools than rich ones. After all, wealthy districts can rely more on local taxes. Poor districts cannot.

Start by re-instituting the funding formula the legislature created in 2008.

5) Halt Charter School Expansion

Speaking of money, it makes no sense to have two separate educational systems. It’s unnecessary and wasteful. We don’t need traditional public schools AND charters.

It’s all about performance. Traditional public schools often do much better or as well as charters – especially cyber charters.

So put a moratorium on new charter schools. Then make the ones we have transparent and accountable. You know? Like we already do for public schools!

No more holding board meetings in private, keeping budgets secret and discouraging difficult students from enrolling. Otherwise, the potential for malfeasance is huge – especially at those organized for-profit.

Direct the state Department of Education to investigate all existent charter schools to determine which are exemplary and which substandard. Close the bad, keep the good.

We simply can’t afford letting profiteers suckle on Pennsylvania’s school budgets.

6) Divest from Common Core. Return to PA Standards

Technically Pennsylvania never adopted Common Core State Standards. It just plagiarized them. We pretend our wonderful PA Core Standards are something new and innovative. They’re not. They’re just Common Core with Pennsylvania in the name.

What a waste of time and money! We don’t need the state telling districts what to do. There’s nothing wrong with benchmarks – suggested goals to which districts can aim. But unfunded mandates? No, thank you.

The Pennsylvania Standards that preceded PA Core were closer to the benchmark ideal. They were a guide – not a high-stakes mandated gun-to-your-head de facto curriculum.

Every teacher knows you don’t help children by simply changing the bar. But you do help textbook publishers by making them uniform. You create a market.

It’s time to do what’s best for children, not corporations. Throw out Common Core. Return to PA State Standards.

7) Cut Back on Standardized Testing

Everyone is sick of standardized tests. Teachers are sick of them. The kids and parents are sick of them. Even politicians are sick of them.

It’s time to do something about it.

Pennsylvania’s standardized test system is a joke. We took our own Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSAs) – flawed as they were – and threw them away in favor of copying the horrific PARCC tests. The PSSAs weren’t exactly fair, nor did they accurately evaluate student learning. But at least they held reasonable goals.

The new state tests are so much like the PARCC, they expect students to be far above what is developmentally appropriate. Kids just aren’t ready for certain concepts until they’re older. These new tests ignore everything we know about how the growing mind works in favor of a scheme to fail more kids and sell more remedial textbooks.

We need to scrap these new tests and – in fact – dramatically reduce the number of standardized tests we give. In a perfect world, we’d give only one standardized test in high school and call it a day. Let kids in elementary and middle school learn their basic skills without the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

Moreover, don’t attach high-stakes to any test. That corrupts the score. Use it as a tool. It’s a way of checking the oil on a school’s educational engine. But you don’t throw a temper tantrum and blame the car when it’s low on oil. You add more oil. (See increase school funding.)

8) Abolish VAM Teacher Evaluations. Let Districts Design Their Own Evaluations.

When experts like those in the American Statistical Association are complaining that you’re using statistics incorrectly, you need to listen. Value-Added Measures are a horrible way to evaluate teachers. You simply can’t use student test scores to judge the effectiveness of teachers. It’s like measuring the size of the potholes on your work route to determine if you’re a good driver.

Moreover, the evaluation system now in place is a gothic, baroque mess. It’s cumbersome, takes way too much time from teachers and administrators and ultimately doesn’t provide a fair evaluation.

Let each school district come up with its own evaluation system. Yes, this probably means going back to relying on principals to actually observe their own teachers in their own ways.

Critics will complain this system is flawed because too many teachers get positive evaluations. So what? Most principals, parents and students are well satisfied with the quality of the teachers in their districts. Who are these corporate bureaucrats to tell them they’re wrong?

9) Appoint a Teacher as Secretary of Education

The state should have a limited role in setting education policy. You’d think your predecessor would agree seeing how he downsized the state Department of Education. But those employees he did keep – especially at the highest levels – had little to no education background.

In the rare case when an educator was hired, that background was almost completely in management positions – hardly any time in the classroom.

The Secretary of Education and the majority of staff running the Department of Education should be teachers – not CEOs, political advocacy nuts with an agenda – not even principals, superintendents, or academics. They should have real world experience doing the job recently. No more corporate shills. If you want the state to do what’s right for children, you need to employ their best advocates, people who know what’s needed and how to achieve it – teachers.

10) Kick Out TFA

Speaking of teachers – that’s who should be running our classrooms – Not lightly trained temps who have no intention of staying in the field.

It is a sad joke that our politicians have valued Teach for America recruits equally or more than educators. Teachers graduate from intensive education programs at our best colleges. TFA recruits go through a few weeks of training.

It is ridiculous and insulting to accept TFA as a substitute for well-trained staff – especially at our poorest schools. As governor, you should push for a moratorium on any new TFA recruits at our public schools. Every student matters. Every student deserves a real teacher.

In closing, thank you for your time. I hope you will consider enacting these reforms. You would be doing what’s truly in the best interests of the citizens, parents, teachers and children of the Commonwealth.

But be warned. We have had enough of politicians who come into office on a promise and a smile but don’t back it up with real action. We gave you our overwhelming support in the last election. Now it’s up to you to keep it.

Yours,

Steven Singer


This article appeared in its entirety on the Badass Teachers Association blog, and a shortened version was published in the York Daily Record. I also did a radio interview on the Rick Smith Show where I went over all 10 points. 

Top 10 Education Blog Posts (By Me) You Should Be Reading Right Now!

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Chill the champagne, call the babysitter and get out those funky illuminated 2015 party glasses! It’s New Year’s!

What a year it’s been!

Good ol’ 2014 was a rough one in many ways. National news was bloodier and more violent than usual.

But in response, social activism was on the rise. People were taking to the streets to protest in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights movement. Corporate Education Reform was on the wane. National teachers unions were calling for the resignation of Arne Duncan, our U.S. Secretary of Education. Pennsylvania lost its worst governor in my lifetime – Tom Corbett. And they’re making a new Star Wars movie!

But perhaps most important of all, Gadflyonthewallblog was born!

I never thought I’d be a teacher-blogger. But here I am.

I used to just read the amazing work of people like Jessie Ramey, Peter Green, Jersey Jazzman, Anthony Cody, Diane Ravich and so many more.

They gave me ideas, made me want to speak out. I’d start posting things on Facebook. A status update here, a meme there. Until one day I starting writing something that was so long, I couldn’t fool myself anymore.

I had written a blog post. There was nothing for it, then, but to start a blog.

I promised myself if I took that step I would publish at least once a week as long as people were reading what I wrote.

At first, I’d get 50-100 page views. That quickly turned to 1,000 – 2,000 and then sometimes much more.

Now, more than 40,000 hits later, with 5,785 followers, I’m flattered beyond words that people seem to like what I’ve been writing. I hope I’m helping add to the conversation about education, social justice and anything else I write about.

To celebrate my half year as a blogger – I started all this in July – I’ve compiled a Top 10 List of my posts.

I hate to use data to rank my students, but I found it very helpful here in selecting which articles to include.

Like all data, it has its limitations. For instance, many of these articles were reblogged or published in many different venues – the Washington Post, LA Progressive, Diane Ravich’s blog, Public School Shakedown, the Badass Teachers Association blog, etc. Since I don’t have access to their statistics, I couldn’t include them in my calculations. As a result, a post may be lower on my list but it actually received more views overall if you include everywhere it was published. I suspect this is true in some cases but can’t prove it.

What I ended up with – in ascending order – are the most viewed posts on my blog site.

I hope you’ll find something interesting you haven’t read before or perhaps an old favorite to read again. Or maybe you can just share this list with a friend to let them know how totally super awesome my blog is!

Anyway, here we go – the Top 10 Posts of 2014 from Gadflyonthewallblog:


10) LIFE OR DEATH PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Published: Aug. 2312184861-standard
Views: 1,022

Description: Before the first day with students, my school had an active shooter drill. This is how it went down.

Fun Fact: This piece was chosen for a Freshly Pressed award by WordPress.com. It has the most likes (145) and the most comments (31) of any article I have published so far.


9) FIGHT CORPORATE EDUCATION REFORM AND MEME IT

Published: Oct. 19 20-beach-sea-photography
Views: 1,053

Description: Just a bunch of education memes I made – most of them before I started the blog.

Fun Fact: This was meant to be a toss off – somewhere for me to keep track of my memes. It was unexpectedly popular and many of these memes keep popping up in unexpected places to this day.


8) TOXIC TESTING MY KINDERGARTEN TOT – OR DADDY DON’T PLAY THAT

Published: Dec. 15  76754238
Views: 1,071

Description: It’s a surreal experience for a teacher to attend a parent-teacher night for the first time as a parent. From a daddy’s eyes, there’s no choice but to question the value of standardized testing in Kindergarten.

Fun Fact: This was so personal it was very hard to write. I didn’t think anyone would care. I was wrong. It’s been published widely beyond my blog.


7) TRACKING, TESTING AND THE MYTH OF MERITOCRACY

Published: Sept. 7  sad student
Views: 1,316

Description: When one of my students earned outstanding grades in my class last year but was denied a place in this year’s advanced class because of low standardized test scores, I took action.

Fun Fact: This piece really angered people on Facebook for the injustice this student faced. I received a plethora of comments and messages from others who had gone through similar situations.


6) A MOMENT OF SILENCE FOR MICHAEL BROWN

Published: Nov. 26  140824-michael-brown-4p_98a645e4e00131864161045b0edd09e7
Views: 2,052

Description: My students were so depressed by the Grand Jury decision not to hold a trial for the police officer who killed Michael Brown, I had to address it in class.

Fun Fact: I received more hate mail for this article than any other. It was widely published – even in the Washington Post. I had to stop reading the comments after a while. Many thanks to those who don’t want my head for doing this.


5) THE REAL AMERICAN EDUCATION CRISIS

Published: Aug. 3  Arne Duncan
Views: 2,131

Description: I got so sick of hearing corporate education reformers go on TV and talk about our failing schools. Yes, they’re failing because of education policies that don’t work that we refuse to replace.

Fun Fact: This was something of a slow burn. At first, it didn’t receive much attention, but I was surprised to see that views continue to trickle in daily.


4) MERRY CHRISTMAS. WE’RE STEALING YOUR SCHOOLS

Published: Dec. 27  feb5a53244c611e48eca12313d21419c
Views: 2,949

Description: My continuing coverage and outrage at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s overreach to steal York City Schools away from taxpayers and give it to a failed charter school operator.

Fun Fact: My most recent post, widely published. I have been one of very few writers sounding the alarm for months. Finally, the nation seems to be paying attention.


3) THE BEST EVIDENCE AGAINST COMMON CORE

Published: Oct.4  Classroom-Management2
Views: 3,121

Description: Common Core is nonsense. To see that all you have to do is step in a classroom. Unfortunately that’s one thing the authors of CCSS have never done.

Fun Fact: I knew I had a winner from the second I posted this. It took off like a rocket. It has also been widely published and debated – one of the most popular pieces on the Badass Teachers Association blog. This is the only article I know of to inspire another blogger to write a complete piece attempting to debunk it.


2) CHECK YOUR WALLET – YOU TOO CAN BE AN EXPERT ON TEACHER TENURE

Published: Oct. 24  0714_wallet-open-money_485x340
Views: 6,070

Description: When Time Magazine promoted tech millionaires’ plan to improve education by attacking teachers, I exploded in fury. The result is this angry diatribe taking them to task point-by-point.

Fun Fact: Hugely, popular, widely published and almost universally praised by teachers and teachers groups. This lead to my involvement helping craft a response to the Time article published in the magazine along with my fellows at the Badass Teachers Association.


1) THE FINAL STRAW: CANCEL OUR LABOR CONTRACTS, WE CANCEL YOUR TESTS

Published: Oct. 11  the-straw-that-broke-the-ca1-300x273
Views: 10,910

Description: When Pennsylvania cancelled its contract with Philadelphia teachers, I saw the writing on the wall. If they can do that, teachers need to stop giving them the ammunition. They need to refuse to proctor the standardized tests being used to unjustly label our schools failures and justify the elimination of our collective bargaining rights.

Fun Fact: This is easily my most popular article yet. For a few weeks I was something of a folk hero. I saw my words memed by others and this piece appeared almost everywhere. Originally, I had debated publishing it at all thinking, “Who am I to tell teachers what they should do?” But my advice turned out to really hit a nerve. Teachers are dying to opt out of standardized testing. All it will take is one spark. One tiny spark.


Merry Christmas. We’re Stealing Your Schools.

feb5a53244c611e48eca12313d21419c

Merry Christmas. We’re stealing your schools.

That’s the message from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to York City School residents Friday.

Gimme’ that local control!

A judge ruled the district is now under direction of its Chief Recovery Officer David Meckley instead of its duly elected school board.

Why?

Meckley wanted the board to approve a plan to convert all district schools into charters run by Florida-based operator Charter Schools USA. This would make York the only all charter district in the entire state.

The agreement was made in secret by Meckley and details weren’t forthcoming before the board was asked to make a decision.

The board just couldn’t make up its mind fast enough. Members tabled it – they might even have refused it if given enough time to think!

So now Meckley will just make the conversion, himself. Dictatorship is so much easier than Democracy!

What else?

The school board reached an agreement with the teachers union that was simply too fair. How dare school directors agree to pay educators a fair wage when the recovery plan clearly indicated slave wages! Sure, district finances had improved, but… UNIONS!

The district could spend some of its $3 million surplus on teachers or engage in a possible $120 million contract with Charter Schools USA. Fiscal responsibility, people!

The district went back and rescinded its controversial teachers contract when the state initiated a petition to take over the district, but it was too late. School directors were acting like they were actually in control. We can’t have that. It might give people the idea that they are in charge! Hilarious!

How’d we get here?

Simple.

Back in 2012, Gov. Tom Corbett decided to slash public school budgets by $1 billion. Most of this came from the poorest schools since they relied more on state funding to keep operations going.

For York Schools that was an $8.4 million cut – over 15% of the district’s budget. To cope, the district cut the arts, student services, increased class sizes, etc. So it was labeled a “failure” simply because it couldn’t survive the funding cuts deemed necessary by the state.

Enter Meckley.

The state declared York City School District in “moderate financial recovery” in 2012 and appointed Meckley to create a financial recovery plan. That plan, adopted in summer 2013, laid out a path for internal reform but called for city schools to be turned into charters, run by an outside operator, if internal reform didn’t work out.

What’s that have to do with Friday’s ruling?

Plenty.

York County Judge Stephen Linebaugh tried to preserve the veneer of Democracy by defining the issue as narrowly as possible. He said it didn’t matter what the state would do once it had control of the district. He could only rule against a state takeover if it could be proven to be “arbitrary, capricious and wholly irrelevant to restoring the district to financial stability.”

In other words, if the district was in financial recovery and it agreed to a recovery plan (as it did), the only issue was whether it was following that plan – not whether the plan was any good or not, and not if the district had a right to refine that plan.

So apparently it is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania to beat someone up and demand a week’s worth of their lunch money – and if they don’t pay, you can sue them in court for welching on a contract!

Judge Linebaugh’s decision is expected to be appealed. This would cause an automatic stay to be put in place. But the state department of education would almost definitely try to have that stay lifted. So that issue will ultimately be up to the courts again.

Is the recovery plan any good?

Of course not!

If you’re problem is you don’t have enough funding, how do you improve that by giving over control of your district to someone whose goal is to make it turn a profit!?

They’ll reduce spending on services for children and increase administrative costs while earmarking a large portion of taxpayer money to boost the bottom line. That’s what for-profit charter operators do! It’s no secret!

Charter Schools USA – the operator waiting to take over York – is no exception.

A Florida League of Women Voters report found that a charter school operated by the company in the Sunshine State spent almost as much on fees and leases to itself and an affiliated company as it did on classroom instruction in 2011.

Another Charter Schools USA school in Indiana came under fire for keeping more than $6 million of “misappropriated” Indiana state funds for 1,800 students who never enrolled in its schools, according to an Indiana Public Media report.

CEO of Charter Schools USA Jonathan Hage has made himself filthy rich by doing the same thing to district-after-district throughout the country.

He even brags about it!

Take for instance his yacht. Yes, I said yacht. He brazenly named it “‘Fishin’ 4 Schools” after where he gets his cash.

To pay for it, he found a new revenue stream that’s just this side of legal. Charter Schools USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. “It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year, Hage says. … The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the nonprofit founding boards that oversee the schools.” Over a three-year period, the company made closer to $200 million.

So if you believe Meckley – the guy tasked with writing a recovery plan for York City Schools – bettering the district’s financial predicament means giving it to a company engaging in the same kinds of risky monetary practices that crashed our economy not even a decade ago. Run up debt, then sell it to others tax free! That’s not exactly a prescription for sound fiscal management.

Wait a minute. This takeover is being orchestrated by the Corbett administration. Isn’t he a lame duck? Won’t he be out of office in a few weeks? What about incoming Gov. Tom Wolf? Is there anything he can do about it?

Good questions.

Wolf has come out against turning York into an all-charter district. He even asked the Corbett administration to hold off until the governor elect takes office on Jan. 20.

While no comment was made to the press from Corbett, actions speak louder than words. Once again, he could give a crap about what’s best for schools.

Wolf has yet to comment on the takeover, himself, but his spokesman Jeff Sheridan had this to say:

“Gov.-elect Wolf knows that schools across Pennsylvania have been starved for resources over the last four years and our children are being put at a disadvantage. As a result, districts like York have been forced to the brink of financial collapse. Gov.-elect Wolf will make education his top priority by working to restore funding cuts and providing adequate resources so school districts can deliver on the promise of a high-quality public education for all Pennsylvanians.”

It’s unclear at this time exactly what Wolf will be able to do once he takes office if the takeover is complete.

Hopefully, the matter can stay tied up in the courts for a few weeks. Then Wolf may be able to direct the state to drop the matter and take a more logical course.

Cynics often say there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to educational matters. And history has done a lot to justify that position.

Gov. Wolf may have a chance to demonstrate exactly what that ideological difference is – if it exists at all – in coming weeks.

Right now, it’s all up to the speed and fairness of our courts.

In the meantime, Christmas cards in York, Pennsylvania, should contain the following resolution:

Goodnight and good luck.


This article has also been published in the LA Progressive and Badass Teachers Association Blog.