Lawmakers Backing Standardized Tests Should Practice What They Preach

When it comes to the whip, one side is definitely better than the other.

Everyone wants to hold it by the stock. No one wants to get hit by the lash. 

That’s why politicians as diverse as Donald Trump and Joe Biden have struggled so desperately to defend standardized testing.

They want to keep control of the torture device they’ve inherited from their predecessors without feeling its sting, themselves.

Take the current Covid crisis in our public schools.


 
Educators are scrambling to teach safely and most lawmakers stand aside unsure how to help.

We can’t figure out which students to assist, they say, without first giving them all a batch of standardized tests.


 


It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure. 


 
I mean come on! We’re living through a global pandemic.  


 
Nearly every single class has been majorly disrupted by it. 


 
So just about every single student needs helpBUT SOMEHOW WE NEED DATA TO NARROW THAT DOWN!?  


 

Our duly-elected decision-makers seem to be saying they can only make decisions based on a bunch of numbers


 


The fact that they have so little imagination that they can’t visualize the problem without a bar graph is truly disturbing. 


 
But this isn’t rocket science. They don’t HAVE TO be creative thinkers.  


 


Just use class attendance to see which students have received consistent instruction and which have been absent all year.


 
Look at classroom grades, which outline students’ academic performance from day to day.  


 
Those are numbers. And they clearly show which kids have been impacted the most by Covid-19. 


 
But for some reason actually using the data we already have is just crazy talk! 


 


Scores on a standardized test are the ONLY data that counts


 
Okay.

Then I have a suggestion for these legislators. 


 
Why don’t you practice what you preach? 


 
If the only logical way to make decisions is based on test scores, you should provide those scores to the greatest decision-making body in the country: voters.  


 
Every lawmaker who CHAMPIONS standardized tests should have to TAKE standardized tests.  


 
I don’t mean the same tests as the students.  


 
That would be silly.  


 
After all, student tests are designed to favor answers from privileged white people. Most of these lawmakers are the target demographic already. They passed a standardized test (or paid someone to pass the test for them) as a smokescreen getting into whichever prep school or ivy league college where they were legacy enrollments, anyway.  


 
I’m talking about a new series of standardized tests designed to show how much these lawmakers adhere to the principles of their respective political parties. 


 
So there’d be two versions – one for Republicans and one for Democrats.  


 
A high score means the test taker is a bona fide example of their party’s ideals. A low score means they should probably be booted out on their butts. 


 
For example, a question for Democrats might be: 


 


Which policy is progressive? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Fracking on native lands 
C) Drone strikes 
D) Universal healthcare 


 


And an example for Republicans: 


 
Which policy is fiscally responsible? 


 
A) School privatization 
B) Tax cuts for billionaires 
C) More unnecessary wars  
D) Investing in infrastructure  


 
The answers are both D and that’s because this test would be in high De-mand! Get it? 


 
Think of what we could do with these scores! 


 
Lawmakers could tout their assessment achievements as they campaign. 


 
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”  


 
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).” 


 
What an improvement that would be! 


 
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform….  We could just look at the score and vote accordingly. 


 
But who would we get to make and grade the tests? 


 
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.  


 
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners. 


 
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests. 


 
And that would be…. Classroom teachers


 
So these tests should be written by the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  
 


But, of course, this isn’t free. We’ll have to pay these test-creators, and pay them handsomely.  


 
That’s billions more dollars spent on assessment. What an expense! What a waste of tax dollars! 


 
Still, can we really afford not to?  


 
I’m sure would-be lawmakers would like a leg up on the competition, so the teachers’ unions could make workbooks and software packages and apps and teach remedial courses to help folks pass the tests. That would probably bring in more money than the tests, themselves.  


 
And since the teachers would get to grade the assessments, they could make sure the scores are curved so only a very limited number pass each year. We can’t have grade inflation, after all.  


 
What would the teachers do with this money, I wonder?  


 
Well, they could reinvest it in our schools.  


 
See? We’ve just solved two problems at once.  


 
No more under-resourced schools. No more educational inequality. Every school in the country could be like the Taj Mahal!  


 
And all of this just because of standardized testing! 


 
Maybe the lawmakers have the right idea in prioritizing high stakes testing! 


 
Or maybe they understand the value of benefiting from the testing industrial complex and not being subjected to it. 


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Standardized Testing During a Pandemic is Stupid. And Cruel.

When the Biden administration announced that schools across the nation would have to give standardized tests during the global Coronavirus pandemic this year, America’s teachers let out a collective sigh of disgust.

If it had to be put into words, it might be this:

“I can’t even.”

Imagine a marine biologist being told she had to determine if the water in the dolphin tank is wet.

That’s kind of what the demand to test is like.

Determine if the water is wet and THEN you can feed the dolphin.

Imagine a person on fire being told to measure the temperature of the flames before you could put them out.

Imagine a person staving in the desert being required to take a blood test to determine previous caloric intake before anyone would offer food or water.

It’s literally that dumb.

No, it’s worse.

The reason the Biden administration gave for requiring testing this year was to determine the amount of learning loss students had suffered during the pandemic.

I wrote that in one sentence but it will take several to show how dumb that idea is.

First, there’s the idea of learning loss.

What does it mean?

It’s based on the idea that kids learn on a schedule.

You need to know A, B and C when you’re in 3rd Grade. You need to learn D, E, F in 4th grade. And so on.

And if you miss one of the letters somewhere in there, you’re learning will be disrupted forever.

The Biden administration seems to be worried that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be because of the pandemic and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed.

It is pure fantasy.

There is no developmental, psychological or neurological basis to it.

Some fool at a standardized testing company just made it up to sell more product.

And it doesn’t take much to prove it wrong.

Do a thought experiment with me.

Imagine you needed directions to the store.

You didn’t get them yesterday. You got them today.

Was your brain irreparably harmed?

You were still able to learn how to get to the store, weren’t you? You just did it one day later. No problem.

It might have stopped you from getting your groceries yesterday, but you can certainly go shopping today.

Now imagine we weren’t talking about directions. Imagine we were talking about addition and subtraction.

Some kids are ready to learn these concepts earlier than others. Does that mean there’s something wrong with them?

No. Absolutely not. It’s just that people’s brains develop at different rates.

And if you don’t learn something one year, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it a year or two later.

There may be issues with core concepts like language acquisition being delayed too long over larger amounts of time, but these are extreme cases.

Delaying one or two years of school curriculum won’t make or break you.

For most of us, not learning something now doesn’t preclude learning it later.

So learning loss is nonsense.

No child has lost the ability to learn because of the pandemic – except any who died as a result of catching Covid.

That’s perhaps the biggest way the Biden administration’s testing requirement is dumb. It’s justified on assessing something that doesn’t exist.

But if we redefine learning loss into the next best thing that DOES exist – learning – it at least makes sense.

So maybe Joe meant that we need standardized tests to find out how much kids have learned (not what learning they’ve lost).

It’s still deeply stupid, but at least it’s coherent.

Here’s the problem. Standardized tests are completely unnecessary to assess learning. In fact, they’re notoriously terrible at measuring this.


Under normal circumstances, standardized tests don’t show how much a child has learned. They show how well the child can take the test. They show how well the test taker can play the game of test taking.

Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.

If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.

That’s why it’s a standardized test. That’s what it means – conforming to a standard.

Out of all the possible ways to answer the question, the standard test taker will answer like THIS. And whatever that is becomes the correct answer.

The test makers get to decide what kind of person to set the standard as, and most of the time it’s white, male, Eurocentric kids.

This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.

As a result, kids from richer, whiter homes tend to score better on these tests than those from poorer, browner homes.

And that doesn’t mean poor, brown kids aren’t intelligent. It just means they don’t necessarily think like the standard rich, white kids.

We don’t need to give standardized tests to tell us who gets low scores during a pandemic. It will be the poor minority kids. During a pandemic, during a recession, during a stock market boom, during a revolution, during anything.

Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.

Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.

Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.

You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?

You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?

But let’s say you needed some independent variable.

Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.

After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.

Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.

Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.

Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.

And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.

Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!

If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.

There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.

But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.

Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.

The Biden administration says we have to give standardized tests to tell how much students have learned SO THAT WE CAN PROVIDE RESOURCES TO HELP KIDS CATCH UP!

Are you freaking kidding me!?

That’s the reason behind this fool’s errand?

You need something to tell you where to direct the resources?

Let me give you a little advice. If you’ve got a hungry dolphin, stop worrying about the wetness of the water. Feed the dang thing!

If someone’s on fire, put away the thermometer and take out the hose.

If someone’s starving, put away the needle and take out a glass of water and a sandwich.

Because that’s the ultimate problem with test-based accountability.

It purports to offer resources to students in need but never really does so.

There is no additional funding coming to help kids overcome the hurdles of Covid. Just as there were no additional resources to help children of color after many failed standardized assessments.

There’s just a boondoggle to be given to the testing companies on the dubious promise that the next time kids take the tests, they’ll do better.

There’s no money for tutoring or counselors or extra curricular activities or reducing class size. But there’s a treasure chest full of gold doubloons (i.e. tax dollars) for testing companies to give us test prep materials.

Common Core workbooks, standardized test prep software, test look-a-like apps – they’re all there.

It’s all just corporate welfare for the standardized testing industry. It’s not about helping kids learn.

In any normal year, that would be bad enough.

But this year it’s even worse.

Not only will the tests fail to bring any relief to children struggling to learn in a pandemic, they will actually stop them from learning.

Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.

Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.

Instead of using what few days remain of the academic year to reinforce skills, discuss new concepts or practice problems, the Biden administration insists teachers proctor standardized tests.

That takes time. A lot if it.

Yes, Biden is allowing all kinds of leniency in HOW we take the tests. They can be shortened, taken in school, taken remotely, even taken at a later date – but they must be taken.

So goodbye, time that could have been spent on authentic learning. Hello, hours, days and weeks of test-taking drudgery.

That’s not a trade off many teachers, parents or students think is fair.

So President Biden can stop the charade.

America’s teachers aren’t buying it.

We know how deeply stupid this testing mandate is.

Stupid and cruel.

Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Where you at?


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Do NOT Play Russian Roulette with Our Lives – No In-Person Schooling During a Pandemic

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Are you responsible for gambling with another person’s life?

 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court says “yes.”

 

Back in 1947, James Malone, 17, and William Long, 13, played a version of Russian Roulette during a sleepover.

 

Malone stole a revolver from his uncle and Long sneaked into his father’s room and got a bullet.

 

They put the cartridge in a chamber, spun the cylinder and then took turns pointing the gun at each other and pulling the trigger. On the third try, Malone put the gun to Long’s head, pulled the trigger and the gun fired, killing Long.

 

Malone was convicted of second degree murder even though he said he hadn’t intended to kill his friend.

 

The case, Commonwealth v. Malone, eventually went to the state Supreme Court where justices upheld the conviction.

 

They ruled:

 

“When an individual commits an act of gross recklessness without regard to the probability that death to another is likely to result, that individual exhibits the state of mind required to uphold a conviction of manslaughter even if the individual did not intend for death to ensue.”

Lawmakers and school administrators better pay heed to this and similar nationwide decisions.

 

Reopening schools to in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic is tantamount to Russian Roulette with the lives of students, teachers and families.

 

Every day with this virus in the physical classroom is like spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger.

 

You might survive, but every time you enter the building your chances of getting sick increase until the law of averages will come for someone… perhaps many someones.

 

The safest course is to continue with distance learning in the fall despite the numerous academic problems with that method of instruction.

 

With Coronavirus cases rising by about 50,000 a day in the United States, there is simply too much virus out there to ensure anyone’s safety in the physical classroom.

 

Students inevitably will get sick and spread the disease to adults – teachers and their own families.

 

We can’t take such chances with people’s lives.

 

But don’t just take my word for it.

 

Decisions makers are taking the possibility seriously enough to try to change the laws to reduce their liability.

 

They want to ensure they won’t end up in court if they reopen schools and people get sick.

 
In May,Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for schools to be legally protected from lawsuits that could arise due to resuming classes.

 

Along with fellow Republican Senator John Cornyn, McConnell proposed new liability laws protecting schools and businesses from Coronavirus-related lawsuits.

 

McConnell told reporters:

 

“Can you image the nightmare that could unfold this fall when K-12 kids are still at home, when colleges and universities are still not open? That is a scenario that would only be further aggravated in the absence of some kind of liability protection that reassures school administrators that they can actually open up again… Without it, frankly that’s just not going to happen as soon as it should have.”

 

The Kentucky Senator went on Fox News in late April saying that such legal protections would be necessary for Republicans to even consider any new Coronavirus relief bills.

 

And it’s not just lawmakers. In May, 14 college presidents from around the country teleconferenced with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for the same thing.

 

According to those who were either on the call or were knowledgeable about the conversation, the college presidents said they needed to know their institutions would not get sued if people got sick – which they thought was almost a certainty.

 

One way the federal government can help “is to have some kind of liability protection,” said University of Texas at El Paso president Heather Wilson, who was on the call. Wilson is a former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico.

 

Big business is also calling for liability protection. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been asking to be freed during the pandemic from being held liable if workers, customers or others get sick on their property. Notably, a lawyer for Texas Christian University told senators such a situation is “foreseeable, perhaps inevitable.”

 

All of which begs the question of what we mean by safety.

 

Is it our responsibility to make sure customers, workers, students and teachers are safe from the virus? Or is it our responsibility to make sure businesses and schools aren’t sued for taking chances with our lives?

 

There are things we can do to increase safety.

 

We should not reopen schools until the county where it is located reports zero new Coronavirus cases for two weeks. That would be taking safety seriously.

 

And it shouldn’t be too much to ask because other countries have been able to do such things.

 

Other nations have been able to test for the virus and identify those who have the disease. They have been able to trace these people’s contacts and isolate them from the rest of the population.

 

But that requires a vast expansion of our testing ability through coordinated federal action.

 

The problem is our lawmakers don’t care enough to do this.

 

Nor are they willing to provide us with federal relief checks, personal protective equipment (PPE), protection from evictions, and universal healthcare so that were can weather the storm.

 

It’s much easier to protect business from consumers and protect schools from the kids, teachers and families who make up the community.

 

Some will say the danger is overblown.

 

Children, in particular, are less susceptible to COVID-19 than older people.

 

And while it’s true that young people have shown fewer symptoms and include the lowest numbers of deaths, this virus has been around barely more than a year. We simply don’t know much about it and its long term effects.

 
A recent study from the journal the Lancet found that teenagers are just as susceptible to the disease as older people.

 

 

Researchers found few children 5-9 (the youngest included in the study) who had contracted the disease but those ages 10-19 were as likely to contract it as people ages 20-49 – and more likely than adults older than that.

 
So even if young people remain mostly asymptomatic, it is entirely possible they can spread the disease to older people who have a more difficult time fighting it off.

 
The only consensus about children and COVID-19 is that we don’t know enough about how it affects young people.

 

 

We certainly don’t want to end up like countries that have opened schools too quickly with too high infection rates.

 
In May, two weeks after Israel fully reopened schools, there was a COVID-19 outbreak. There were at least 130 cases at a single school. Students and staff were infected at dozens of schools causing a rash of renewed closings.

 
We should not be taking chances with schools.

 
Any action comes with some level of risk, but we should err on the side of caution.

 

 


Our government needs to serve us.

 
Representatives who do not serve our interests need to be sent packing.

 

And anyone who gambles with our lives needs to be held liable.

 

Anyone who demands we place our heads against the barrel of a loaded gun as a prerequisite to jump start the economy, needs to be held responsible for that decision.

 

The chances of dying during the first round of a game of Russian Roulette using a standard six-shot revolver is 1/6. With each pull, the chances increase – 1/5, 1/4, etc.
The average number of consecutive pulls before the gun fires is 3.5.

 

We know more about that than the Coronavirus.

 

In effect, we don’t know how many chambers are loaded, but we know there are bullets in the gun.

 

There are too many hidden factors to be able to say for sure what our chances are exactly. And in the presence of such ignorance, we should assume the worst.

 

That’s exactly what decision makers are doing by trying to protect themselves from responsibility.

 

We should take that as seriously as a loaded gun put to our temples.


 

 

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I’ve also 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!

book-2

Why is Accountability Too Much to Ask of Charter Schools?

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NOTE: Not an exact quote but Allen wrote a book “Charting a New Course The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools” that proposes just this idea.

 
If you hire someone to buy your groceries, you’ll probably ask for a receipt.

 

That’s really all education advocates want from the charter school industry.

 

Charter schools are bankrolled with tax dollars but often run by private businesses.

 

Is it too much to ask these businesses to account for how they spend the money?

 

Apparently it is because Jeanne Allen has been sending her representatives all over the country to harass Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and any other candidate with the audacity to demand charter schools be transparent and accountable.

 

Yesterday she wrote another blistering press release with the title:

“Democratic Candidates Asked to Listen to Voices of Struggling Parents Following Them Across Nation”

 

Allen is CEO and Founder of the Center for Education Reform – a billionaire backed lobbying firm for school privatization.

 

Not exactly a “struggling parent” or anyone who speaks for them. But she is a former member of the Heritage Foundation and current member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

 

She doesn’t speak for parents. She speaks for the billionaires who pay her salary.

 

 

Armed with bundles of cash from the Walton Family and others, Allen has been organizing functionaries to disrupt Democratic rallies across the country including a speech by Warren in Atlanta last month. I wonder how she’s moving her protestors around – perhaps utilizing $2 million a year private jets like the one leased by Texas-based charter chain IDEA.

 

 

Oh! Wait! The Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers made such a stink about that use of public dollars, the charter chain had to give up its lease.

 

 

States shouldn’t have to rely on teachers unions and the media to shame charters into being accountable. That should be the price of accepting public money.

 

 

But Allen doesn’t want to hear it. Back in 2016, she wrote a book called “Charting a New Course The Case for Freedom, Flexibility & Opportunity Through Charter Schools” that put forward the libertarian idea that charter schools need not be held accountable by anything other than the invisible hand of the market.

 

 

Unsurprisingly, such far right radicalism didn’t result in an invitation to last weekend’s Education Forum in Pittsburgh for candidates seeking the Democratic 2020 Presidential nomination.

 

Instead the room was full of public school parents, students, teachers, advocates and civil rights leaders.

 

Allen was furious. How dare they leave out charter school flunkies!?

 

It wasn’t so long ago that Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were staunch supporters of school privatization. But many in this new batch of progressives typified by Sanders and Warren are demanding real reform.

 
According to reports by the Network for Public Education “Asleep at the Wheel” and “Still Asleep at the Wheel,” more than $1 billion in federal funds were wasted on charters that either never opened or closed not long after opening. And now Congress has appropriated $440 million more dollars for the federal Charter School Program, a slush fund to open even more charter schools across the country even in states like New Hampshire that don’t want them.

 
Isn’t it fair to demand a few receipts?

 
Thank goodness there’s Republicans like Betsy DeVos who make no such demands. Allen has the entire Trump administration willing to listen to her anytime she wants. But ironically for someone who champions schools be run like businesses, she wants to corner the market and eliminate any political choice or competition.

 

In yesterday’s press release, Allen demanded the seven leading Democratic candidates at last night’s Los Angeles debate sit down and listen to her particular special interest group.

 

And – make no mistake – it is a special interest group.

 

Charter schools are the very definition of special interest.

 

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Special Interests are:

 

“A group of people or an organization seeking or receiving special advantages, typically through political lobbying.”

 

That’s exactly what Allen is trying to do.

 

She is challenging the request that charter schools meet the same accountability standards as authentic public schools.

 

She wants charter schools to be held to a lower standard – that they can enroll just the students they choose instead of having to accept everyone in their coverage areas like authentic public schools are required to do. She wants charter schools to be able to narrow the curriculum and get rid of extraneous classes and student services so that the business folks running the place can take the money that had funded these things home as a bonus. She wants to ensure charter schools can continue to operate with appointed bureaucrats and not be required to be managed by elected school boards drawn from everyday citizens in the community.

 

Authentic public schools aren’t allowed to skirt these rules. Why should charter schools? If they’re public schools, shouldn’t they have to abide by the same safeguards?

Allen claims she’s just looking out for children of color.

 

Yet the overwhelming majority of black students enrolled in authentic public schools – 7 million strong – would probably disagree with her. She certainly isn’t speaking for THEM.

 

Here’s this white woman telling the black community she knows what’s best.

 

Only about 800,000 black kids are enrolled in charter schools nationwide and that number is dropping.

 

Black people know how charter schools disproportionately locate in the inner cities to target them – just like those other markers of the predatory economy: takeout liquor stores and payday lenders.

 

Ex-journalist Roland Martin, who at least is black, held a streaming event a few days ago to reiterate his support for charter schools.

 

He used to be backed by the billionaire funded Black Alliance for Education Outcomes (BAEO) which praised DeVos to the heavens when she was chosen as Education Secretary.

 

In a press release, the organization enthused:

 

“BAEO congratulates Betsy DeVos on becoming our next Secretary of Education. She is a very gifted and well-respected education leader with a proven track record of advancing excellence and equity for students. She has been a strong advocate of parental choice, ensuring that all children regardless of race or economic status have access to excellent schools.

 

“DeVos has spent much of her life working on behalf of low-income and working class Black families who just want access to better educational options for their children. She will be a strong supporter of parental choice policies and education reform initiatives that we believe will help close the academic achievement gap.”

 

However, after DeVos championed cutting civil rights guidelines for students, slashing funding for everything other than school vouchers and advised teachers to report their undocumented students to ICE, the civil rights community revolted.

 

Both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have condemned DeVos and demanded a moratorium on new charter schools. These huge people powered groups represent the will of the black and brown community – not Allen, Martin and their billionaire backers.

 

BAEO was so overcome with negative publicity, the group disbanded.

 

Allen claims charter schools are necessary because of low standardized test scores at public schools.

However, she’s just parroting the same school privatization talking points of the past three decades. Increasing charter schools didn’t raise test scores in the 90s, the 00s or the 10s.

 

Moreover, the test scores she’s referring to are international comparisons between the US and other industrialized countries that don’t take many relevant factors into account. Most importantly, the US is committed to educating all of its students while many of these other nations are not. They weed out the lower achieving students by middle and high school. They don’t educate all of their students with special needs. And they don’t have the same level or scale of poverty. In short, these are not apples to apples comparisons and have little to tell us about the quality of the American system unless it’s that our ideals are better than most international systems.

 

Finally, Allen neglects to mention that charter schools have never outperformed authentic public schools. They are not a solution to falling test scores, because charter school kids get the same scores or often worse ones. Cyber charter schools in particular are notorious for achieving worse academic outcomes for students than literally not going to school at all!

 

The fact that many of the current Democrats have embraced charter school criticism may be a sign of real reform on the horizon.

And that’s what terrifies Allen and her rich backers.

 

The school privatization industry relies on being held to a lower standard than authentic public schools. That’s all a charter is, anyway – an agreement NOT to hold the business running a taxpayer funded school to the same standards as the authentic public ones.

 

It’s time those charter agreements were ripped to pieces.

 

All public schools should have to reach the same standards.

 

If there are charters that can do so, we should allow them to continue running as public schools. But those who cannot should be closed.

 

That’s just fiscal responsibility.

I say it is NOT too much to ask of any public school – including charter schools.

 

 

Like authentic public schools, charter schools should be required to show us the money, present the receipts and be accountable for their actions.

 


 

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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Teachers Are Not Responsible for Student Growth or Achievement

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Earlier this week, I was rushed to another urgent early morning staff meeting at my school.

 

I had my laptop with me and was frantically trying to get everything ready that I’d need for the day.

 

Text dependent analysis question? Check.

 

Discussion guide to introduce the concept of science fiction? Check.

 

Questions on literacy, analogy, vocabulary and sentence structure suitable for 7th grade? Check.

 

The same suitable for 8th grade? Check.

 

And as I was anxiously trying to get all this together in time for me to rush to my morning duty when the meeting was over, I quickly took a sip of my tea and tried to listen to what my administrator was saying from the front of the room.

 

He handed out two white sheets of paper with a compilation of standardized test scores – last year’s and those from the year before.

 

He asked us what we noticed about these two sets of scores and I almost spit out my tea.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT US HERE FOR!?” I wanted to shout.

 

“THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE STOPPING US FROM DOING OUR WORK TO DISCUSS!?”

 

But I choked down my response and waited for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.

 

The scores have gone down in the preceding year.

 
 
Nothing drastic but enough.

 

When he got his answer – actually he had to say it himself because none of us were ready to play this game so early in the morning – he offered us an olive branch.

 

Isn’t that the way of it? Shame then reconciliation. Blame then peace.

 

Those are just the achievement scores, he said. Admin. generously doesn’t expect us to be able to do much about those. They go up one year and down the next.

 

But look at these growth scores!

 

That’s where we can have an impact!

 

And again I felt my throat convulse and a mouthful of Earl Grey came back up my gullet.

 

Growth!?

 

It doesn’t make that much difference whether you look at growth or achievement. If you’re holding teachers accountable for either, you’re expecting us to be able to do things beyond our powers as mere mortal human beings.

 

I hate to break it to you, but teachers are not magical.

 

We cannot MAKE things happen in student brains.

 

Nothing we say or do can cause a specific reaction inside a human mind.

 

That’s just not how learning and teaching works.

 

We can INFLUENCE learning.
 
We can try to create some kind of optimum condition that is most likely to spark learning.

 

But we cannot make it happen like turning on a switch or lighting a candle.

 

Let me give you a real world example.

 

The day before the meeting I was conferencing with a student about his essay on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” I pointed out that he had misspelled Christmas as “Crismist.”

 

He refused to fix it.

 

Literally refused.
 
I pointed out that the word was already typed out and spelled correctly in the prompt. All he had to do was erase what he had written and rewrite it correctly.

 

He said he didn’t care – that it didn’t matter.

 

So I tried to explain how people who don’t know him would read this paper and make snap judgments about him based on simple mistakes like this.

 

I told him that I knew he was smart, that I had heard his verbal discussion of the story and was impressed by his arguments about Scrooge’s character. He had made good points about Scrooge’s guilt being motivated by fear and that once the ghosts were gone he might return to his old ways.

 

But no one was going to get that far or give him the benefit of the doubt if he didn’t even try to spell Christmas correctly!
 
And he still wouldn’t do it.

 

That is literally where I was yesterday – yet today my administrator wanted to hold ME accountable for this kid’s growth!

 

As this child’s teacher, it IS my responsibility to try to reach him.

 

I am responsible for providing him with every tool I know how that can help him succeed.

 

I am responsible for trying to motivate, inspire and explain. I am responsible for knowing what are best practices and using them.

 

By all means – evaluate me on that.

 

But I can do nothing about what a student actually does with all I give him.

 

To paraphrase the old adage about horses, I can lead a student to knowledge, but I can’t make him think.

 

And, moreover, I shouldn’t be forced, myself, only to be able to acknowledge certain kinds of thinking. If a student’s ideas don’t fit neatly into a multiple choice framework, I shouldn’t be impelled to ignore or constrain them.

 

That may seem simple or even obvious with reflection, but it also goes counter to nearly every teacher evaluation system in practice in the United States.

 

Because that’s really what’s motivating my administrator’s directives here.
 
He’s just being real, he said. This is what we’ll be evaluated on and it’s something we can impact.

 

Then he asked us what each of us can do to better impact student growth.

 

Hands went flying into the air to offer suggestions about how administration could help us better accomplish these goals.

 

How about some consistency in which courses we’re instructed to teach from year-to-year?

 

How about not splitting up classes so that students leave one room to have a special and then return to finish a course already in progress?

 

How about mandating fewer diagnostic tests so there’d be more instruction time?

 

Well that last one was just too much. We were told that Admin. planned to do just the opposite – to make the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) tests MORE invasive by changing the schedule to make them appear more like the end of the year state mandated tests.

 

He said eventually we could look at some of these other ways to change things administratively, but he wanted to put the onus on us. What can WE do to increase growth?

 

A hand went up.
 
If we help a student grow this year, won’t there be less room for him to grow next year – at least within a given academic standard? Don’t we reach a point of diminishing returns?

 

To which I wanted to add – where are we measuring growth from? One standardized test to another? That’s not authentic learning – it’s assessing how well students take a test and how well they think like the corporation that makes and grades it.

 

But the meeting was already over.

 

The bell rang and we had to rush to our duties.

 

I scrambled back to my classroom to deposit my computer before getting to the cafeteria just as student breakfast began.

 

This is madness, I thought.

 

Growth and achievement. It’s all just gas lighting educators for not being superhuman.

 

The decision makers either don’t understand how learning works or they don’t care to understand.

 

They are putting everything on teachers and students without providing either of us with the tools we need to succeed.

 

Students need more than another standardized test. And they need more than another teacher who only cares about their test scores – regardless of whether you measure them in growth or achievement.

 

These kids are stressed out, living under immense pressure, coping with poverty, prejudice, an unstable society, climate change, an uncertain future and an economy that promises them little more than crushing debt as a best case scenario.

 

Educators are supposed to wade into all that, say a few incantations and it will all just go away?

 

Many parents are struggling so much to provide for their kids they don’t have time to help with homework, provide guidance or support. And you think I’ve somehow got the secret sauce in my teacher’s bag?

 

Wake up, America.

 

It’s time we faced a truth about our schools.

 

Teachers can’t do it all alone.
 
Growth, achievement, whatever.

 

Until society commits to supporting its children with equitable resources, social justice and an evaluation system that’s more valid than standardized testing, the next generation will continue to struggle.

 

If you want to make an impact, a good place to start would be a realistic conception of what it means to be a teacher and what we actually can and should be held responsible for.

 


 

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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Blaming Schools for Student Absences is Like Denouncing Doctors for Disease

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If something is wrong with children, it must be the school’s fault.

 

Right?

 

If kids can’t read, write and do ‘rithmetic, the teachers must not have taught ’em right.

 

It couldn’t have anything to do with home life, generational poverty, economic inequality and systemic racism.

 

Except that it almost always does.

 

Inextricably.

 
The fact is children who don’t live in safe, loving homes have much greater difficulty concentrating and caring about academics. Kids with impoverished parents are much more likely to go to underfunded schools and sit in classrooms that are racially segregated.

 

None of that is under the control of teachers or schools, but a focus on high stakes standardized testing, school privatization and dangerously unregulated ed tech hides the problem.

 
It’s not that teachers don’t teach. Inequality, prejudice and privatization – these are the root causes and the reason we do nothing about them generation after generation is that we have an easy scapegoat in the public schools in general and public school teachers in particular.

 
Take student absences.

 

It’s a huge problem.

 

When kids don’t show up to school, they learn less. It’s a simple concept.

 

Yet just four years ago when we had a chance to rewrite the federal law governing public education to actually DO SOMETHING about the problems we’re facing, we dropped the ball. Again!

 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include five indicators measuring school performance: four based on academic achievement, and a fifth, “non-academic” measure of student success.

 

Most states have adopted chronic student absenteeism as this “fifth indicator.”

 

So we take those five indicators, weight them and combine them together to get overall school scores that are used to sort and rank educational institutions. That way we can prioritize funding to the highest performers and withhold it from the lowest.

 

It’s the same supply side nonsense we’ve been doing for years with a few numbers moved around and given a different name.

 

Schools overflowing with resources serving rich white kids get a sticker. Schools starving for resources serving poor brown kids get a kick.

 

And somehow that’s supposed to help things get better.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Absenteeism is important.

 

Nearly 8 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2015-16 — an increase from the 6.8 million who missed the same amount in 2013-14, when the federal Department of Education began tracking the data. And there’s a mountain of research that links chronic absenteeism with poor academic performance, delayed graduation, and increased dropout rates.

 

But putting it all on neighborhood schools and local districts is a huge abrogation of responsibility.

 

By and large, public schools do not cause students to be absent. Nor do they have the resources to ensure these students start attending.

 

But we’ve found someone to blame and that’s really all this whole exercise was about in the first place.

 

It’s like denouncing your doctor for your disease. It won’t cure you, but it might make you feel justified as you die.

 

The reasons students are chronically absent have little to do with individual schools.

 

According to Attendance Works, a non-profit focusing on ways to improve student attendance, the main causes of chronic absences are:

 

•Chronic disease or lack of health care and/or dental care.

 

•The need to care for siblings or other family members.

 

•Unmet basic needs: transportation, housing, food, clothing, etc.

 

•Trauma.

 

•Feeling unsafe getting to school.

 

•Academic or social struggles.

 

•Being teased or bullied.

 

•Poor school climate or unsafe schools.

 

•Parents had negative school experience.

 

•Lack of engaging and relevant instruction.

 

•Peer pressure to be with peers out of school vs. in school.

 

•No meaningful relationships with adults in school.

 

•High suspension rates and disproportionate school discipline.

 

Certainly some of these things are under the control of school directors, administrators, and teachers.

 

Schools can and should provide safe ways for students to get to and from school. They should work to reduce bullying and make school a welcoming place for all children. They should provide engaging instruction, fair discipline policies and reach out to parents and the community.

 

But most schools are already doing that – or certainly trying to do that within the confines of their budgets.

 

My own Western Pennsylvania district has been flagged by the Commonwealth for increasing chronic absences. In the state, this is defined as students with 10 or more unexcused absences. We’ve been put on an improvement plan – which basically means an employee at the state Department of Education wagging his finger and telling us to get better or else.

 

However, the overarching problem and solution are easy to see. We are a district without busing.

 

The high school and middle school sit on top of a hill. Students who live in the poorer sections of town at the bottom of the hill have to walk or take public transportation daily to get to school.

 

It’s no wonder that some of them don’t do that every day and stay home instead.

 

However, we serve a mostly impoverished population. Decades ago, school directors decided it would be more cost effective to save money on busing so they could provide greater services for students. Yet as the economy has continued to stagnate and funding has become even more hard to come by, attendance has worsened.

 

So what are we to do? Cut services and add buses?

 

Doing so would mean we’d have to bus students to local charter schools as well, increasing the burden on taxpayers and the amount of muscle and bone we’d have to cut from our own academic programs.

 

It’s all very well and good to have the federal government tell us that attendance is important – but where is the help to improve it?

 

As with everything else in education, we get threats and the promise of economic sanctions but nothing in the way of assistance, aide or intervention.

 

We could be working together to try to solve this and other social issues. We could pool resources and construct social programs to help parents get jobs, set up stable homes, fund robust systems of public transportation, and a host of social services for students and their families such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and continuing education classes. We could end discriminatory policies such as school segregation, school privatization and high stakes standardized testing.

 

But doing so would mean abandoning the blame game and nothing has worked better to shield the rich from paying their fair share than pointing fingers at the less privileged and those who dedicate their lives to help them.

 

In truth, the problems with public schools are rarely the teachers.

 

It’s that society has written them off and refuses to take responsibility for its own role in supporting the next generation.

 


 

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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Gov. Wolf Tries to Stop Charter Schools Gorging on Public School Funding

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Sooey! Here Pig Pig Pig!

 

No one minds that healthy call at the hog farm when it’s time to feed the sows.

 

But taxpayers do take issue with it when it’s the call of the state legislature gathering a different kind of swine around public tax dollars.

 

Pennsylvania’s 180 charter schools gobbled up $1.8 billion last year from the Commonwealth’s public schools.

 

And Gov. Tom Wolf is refusing to let them continue to gorge on public funding meant to nourish everyone.

 
Last week, he took executive action to hold these schools accountable and force them to be more transparent – even if the legislature won’t.

 
Charter schools are publicly financed but privately run. Unlike authentic public schools, charters are often administered by appointed boards. They don’t have to provide the same level of services for children, don’t have to accept all students, can make a profit and don’t even have to be transparent about how they spend their money.

 

 

Yet that money comes from taxpayers.

 

For years fiscal watchdogs have complained that the state’s 22-year-old charter school law needs revising. However, after lining lawmakers pockets with charter school cash, the legislature continually refuses to do anything about it.

 

A few Democrats have offered plans that would increase accountability, but they’ve gotten no traction. And Republican plans have almost exclusively offered to make matters worse by dumping more money in the trough and putting up a thicker curtain so we don’t see the school privatizers eat.

 

So finally Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, took action on his own.

 

He has directed his Department of Education to circumvent the legislature to develop regulations that he says,  “will level the playing field for all taxpayer-funded public schools, strengthen the accountability and transparency of charter and cyber charter schools and better serve all students.”

 

His plan would:

 
•Allow districts to limit student enrollment in charter schools where students aren’t making academic gains.

 

•Require charter schools to stop turning away students based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, intellectual deficits, lack of athletics or other student characteristics.

 
•Make charter schools as transparent as authentic public schools.

 

 

•Stop conflicts of interests for charter school board members and operating companies so that they can’t make decisions on behalf of the school that would enrich themselves, their families and/or friends.

 
•Make charters submit to financial audits to state regulators, make them publicly bid contracts for supplies and services and use fair contracting practices.

 
•Provide greater oversight of charter school management companies so they can’t profit off of the students enrolled in the schools they’re managing.

 
•Seek more information about how prospective charters will be run in a new model state application to be used when charters seek to open up shop or renew existing charters.

 

 

•Require charters to accurately document their costs.

 
•Prevent charters from overcharging for services they provide to students.

 

•Make charters pay to cover the state’s costs for implementing the charter school law.

 

•Recoup money from charter schools for the time and services the state provides when it reviews applications, distributes payments and provides legal and administrative support to them.

 
It’s a bold step for a governor, but apparently Wolf is tired of waiting on a dysfunctional legislature to actually legislate.

 

The problem is Wolf has to be more than a governor. He has to be a goalie.

 

The state House and state Senate are deeply gerrymandered and controlled by Republicans.

 
Every year, lawmakers pass mostly crap bills written by Koch Brothers proxies only to be vetoed by Wolf.

 

 

Occasionally, the GOP convinces enough right-leaning Democrats to go with them and Wolf can’t or won’t veto the bills.

 
And that’s pretty much how things work in Harrisburg.

 

However, this time Wolf wasn’t content to just guard the net. He actually took the puck down the ice, himself, and made a slap shot on the opposing team.

 

Can he do this? Is he still operating within the law?

 

Time will tell – though I’d argue that in the absence of legislative action, he is within his job description.

 

Moreover, this is only a first step.

 

Wolf, himself, has said that more needs to be done by the legislature. Even after his executive actions, much needs to be done to make charter schools function properly in the Commonwealth.

 

Specifically, Wolf asked the legislature to pass a moratorium on new cyber charter schools, cap enrollment in low-performing charter schools until they improve, subject charter management companies to the same transparency rules that districts must follow, and create a fair, predictable and equitable charter school funding formula.

 

I’d like them to go even further.

 

Frankly, I’d like to see charter schools ended as educational institutions.
Why should the public pay for schools that aren’t locally controlled? Why pay for privatized schools at all?

 

I suppose if there are some that are functioning well for students, they can be grandfathered in, but they should be funded separately. When two districts have to compete for the same funding, the students lose.

 

At least, we should not be opening up new charters. The public should not be in the business of funding privatized schools.

 

I am grateful to Gov. Wolf for finally having the guts to stand up to this powerful industry.

 

The state exists to further the public good – not enrich private corporations like those running many charter schools.

 

It’s time we admitted that charter schools are a failed experiment and shut them down.

 

It’s time to block these pigs from chowing down on public funding without public oversight.

 


See how much each charter school gets of Commonwealth tax dollars.


 

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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The Last Day of School

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On the last day of school this year, my 8th grade students gave me one of the greatest salutes a teacher can get.

 

They reenacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poets Society.”

 

You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization.

 

That’s what my students did for me. And I almost didn’t even notice it at first.

 

The whole thing went down like this.

 
The bell rang and an announcement was made telling us that the day was done.

 
I was immediately rushed by a crowd of children turning in final projects, shaking my hand, saying goodbye.

 
In fact, I was so occupied with the students right in front of me that I didn’t notice what was happening with the ones just behind them.

 
I heard someone say in a ringing voice, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

 
I looked up and there they were.

 
About a dozen students were standing on their desks, looking down at me with big goofy grins.

 

Some had their hands on their hearts. One had raised his fist in the air. I think someone in the back was even making jazz hands. But they were each standing up there with the same look on their faces – a mixture of independence, humor and gratitude.

 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this happened. Some of them had threatened months ago to make just such a demonstration.

 
We had watched the movie together back in April at the introduction of our poetry unit. I guess it was my way of trying to show them that poetry could make a deep impact on people. But I certainly hadn’t wanted them to put themselves at risk by standing on the furniture.

 

In fact, I had specifically cautioned them NOT to do this exact thing because someone might fall off their desk and hurt themselves.

 

But on the last day of school after the last bell has rung and my tenure as their teacher has expired – well, things are different then.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That is really one of the nicest things students have ever done for me.”

 

Then I took out my phone and asked if I could snap a few pictures, because who’d ever believe me if I didn’t? They didn’t mind.

 

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When I was done, they hopped down one at a time, many of them rushing forward to give me a hug.

 

This class will always be a special one in my heart.

 

We’ve come a long way together.

 

For most of them, I was their language arts teacher for two years. When they first came in the classroom they were just babies. Now they are going off to high school.

 

Unless you’re a parent, you wouldn’t believe how much kids can grow and change in just a few short years. And the middle school years are some of the most extreme. The line between child and adult fades into nothingness.

 

I’ve had a handful of children who were enrolled in my classes for multiple years before, but I’d never had so many. In some ways, we were more like a family than a classroom.

 

I had been there when parents got sick, left, died. I knew them all so well – who would ask questions just to stall, who never got enough sleep and why (often Fortnite), which ones had athletic aspirations, which were incredible artists, etc. Some had come out of the closet to me and their classmates but not at home.

 

Many of us went on a school field trip to Washington, DC, together. We’d toured the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. When I was invited to do a TED talk, they tracked it down on YouTube. They even found my Twitter account and made merciless fun of my profile picture. And when I actually had my book published on education issues last year, a bunch of my kids even came out to hear me talk about it at local book stores.

 

It’s hard to explain the depth of the relationship.

 

At the end of the year, I always give my students a survey to gauge how they think I did as their teacher. It’s not graded, and they can even turn it in anonymously.

 

The results are almost always positive, but this year, I got responses like never before:

 

“I love you, Mr. Singer. Thanks for a great 2 years. I will terribly miss you.”

 

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“I’ve never been bored here. You are the first teacher that made me want to go to their class and has been one of my favorites.”

 

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“He stayed cool as a cucumber and was never angry… Basically the greatest teacher I’ve had all year.”

 

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 He was “fair to all students.”

 

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“He was more inclusive to many different groups.”

 

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“He made sure I didn’t fool around. He let me hand in my work late. He was always very kind and he cares about us. He shows us that he cares about how we feel. He made sure everything was fair.”

 

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“He breaks things down A LOT better than other teachers. He’s a very nice person. I like the way he teaches.”

 

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“Mr. Singer did well to motivate us and help us to succeed and get a better grade.”

 

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“He explained things better than other teachers.”

 

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“He helped me mentally and physically to be ready for the PSSAs. Also he gave us good books to read and not bad ones such as “The Outsiders,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also you taught me a lot these past 2 years to be ready for high school.”

 

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“To be absolutely honest, I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He actually has done more than the rest of my teachers.”

 

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“Well he encouraged me to succeed more in his class and in life as well. He also taught me that the meaning of life is not how you take it but where you go with it. I’m thankful that he taught me more than the history my actual history teacher taught me. He also told me the truth of our history. He talked about the parts no one else would talk about.”

 

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I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that.

 

As these now former students reluctantly walked away in ones or twos, a few stayed behind.

 

I did a lot of reassuring that 9th grade would be great and that I’d probably be right here if they needed me.

 

I overheard one girl say to another that a certain teacher was good but not “Mr. Singer good.” I thanked her and she blushed because I wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

There were tears. Some of them shed by me.

 

But when the last student left, I remained at my desk surrounded by a hum of fluorescent lights and ear numbing silence.

 

There is no emptiness like that of a space that has just been filled – a space that cries out for more.

 

My classroom is like that. And so is my heart.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I need this summer break to recover.

 

But I also need the end of August, when a new group of students will come rushing through those doors.

 

Here’s looking forward to the first day of school.

 


 

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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Tying Kids’ Lunch Money to Test Scores? It’s No Crueler Than High Stakes Testing

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UPDATED

 

Most people agree that the best way to get kids to read isn’t by threatening to take away their lunch.

 
But an Arkansas state Representative is threatening to do just that – sort of.

 

Rep. Alan Clark, a West Memphis Republican, proposed a bill that would cut “Lunch Funding” for impoverished children in state schools where students struggle with standardized reading tests.

 

However, he’s not proposing we take away kids’ food.

 

If passed, the bill would reduce a district’s National School Lunch funding – a state mechanism that distributes extra resources to schools with high concentrations of students who qualify for free lunch programs – if student test scores don’t rise over a period of time. This would cut things like professional development and tutoring.

 

However, this has been confused with the federal program of the same name and drawn almost universal condemnation.

 

“I would never starve kids,” Clark said. But he would starve their schools of resources.

 

Either way, his proposal is obviously unfair.

 

Only a monster would think you can incentivize reading comprehension by threats and coercion.

 

It’s like saying “You’d better understand this complex puzzle OR ELSE!

 

Learning doesn’t work that way.

 

But Clark sees things from a different perspective – that of business and industry. He told KTHV, a state television network:

 

“In most businesses I would be laughed at for suggesting such a small goal. But sadly many educators act like I have asked them to storm the beaches at Normandy… It appears I have much more faith in our schools than many of our educators do.”

 

This is what happens when you elect people without empathy or intelligence to public office.

 

I wonder if Clark would do a better job representing the people of his state if they threatened to lower his salary based on his popularity polls.

 

It says a lot about us that people react so viscerally to the inaccurate idea that Clark is suggestion we withhold food from bad test takers. That’s unthinkable. But it isn’t really that much more cruel than the way we actually treat students.

 

Our entire federal education policy is based on just such inhuman treatment of children.

 

After all, we still hold kids, schools and teachers “accountable” by student test scores. The consequences though aren’t an empty belly. They’re crowded classrooms and fewer tutors.

 

In every state of the union, students are required to take high stakes standardized tests in reading and math. If they don’t do well, we take away their resources.

 

Sure, we don’t deny them food, but we deny them many other things they need to learn.

 

We lower funding to their schools so that they have larger class sizes, fewer teachers, narrowed curriculum, etc. We threaten to withhold their diplomas and any chance of ever earning more than minimum wage. In many cases we tie teachers salaries, reputations and even employment to these same scores. Sometimes we even take away their parents right to govern their children’s schools so that all administrative decisions are made by state flunkies. Or we force their authentic public schools to become charter institutions so that spending decisions happen behind closed doors without accountability and even whether a student can enroll or not becomes a decision of the private management company and not simply something that is the students’ by right of living in the district.

 

It may not be as severe as the idea of Test Scores for Food, but it’s the same in kind.

 

In both cases, we tell kids – “Increase test scores, OR ELSE!” It’s just a difference of consequence.

 

Call me crazy, but that’s nearly as cruel and wrongheaded.

 

Keep in mind, all of this takes for granted that standardized tests are adequate and fair assessments of student learning in the first place. This has never been proven. In fact, it has been cast in serious doubt after more than a century of academic study. Ask anyone to narrow their thinking down to four prepackaged choices and you’ll find them trying to guess what the test-maker wanted more than what the truth is. Critical thinking, analysis, innovation – these escape any multiple choice exam.

 

But even if we go with this empty assumption, it flies in the face of everything we know about the way human beings acquire knowledge and demonstrate skills.

 

When kids struggle with learning, you can’t get them to do better with threats. Or at least you can only do that if those children are doing poorly on purpose.

 

Kids who just aren’t trying hard enough might be incentivized by threats. But even then it transforms learning into a means to an end. Once you do that, you destroy their natural curiosity. Learning will never again be an end in itself. It will be a menial task you only do to get something else that you really want.

 

However, in most cases kids don’t struggle because they’re just lazy. They don’t need an incentive. They need help. They need resources.

 

It’s no wonder that children in rich and middle class neighborhoods have less trouble getting higher test scores. They have lower class sizes, more teachers, wider curriculum, more extra curricular activities, access to tutors, counselors, nurses and after school programs.

 

Poor kids don’t. THAT’S why they struggle.

 

And what do we do when that happens? We take away the meager resources they have!

 

If a teacher tried any of this crap in her classroom, she’d be fired for dereliction of duty – and she’d deserve it!

 

Just imagine if you told the kids who were struggling in your class that they didn’t deserve tutoring. Instead you were going to give extra help to the kids who got the best scores on the exam!

 

And if the struggling children continued to do poorly, you took away their desks. Now they had to sit on the floor!

 

THIS is the kind of thing we’re doing to our children nationwide.

 

It’s called TEST AND PUNISH, and it’s federal policy – often backed up by state and local law.

 

Moreover, it’s supported by both Republicans and Democrats alike.

 

We may not be  denying poor kids a meal, but we are denying them an equal opportunity at an education just the same.

 

It’s way past time that we wake up and see that.

 

We can point and jeer at what we thought this regressive Arkansas nitwit was doing, but we’re really pointing and jeering at ourselves.

 


NOTE: An earlier version of this story – like many in the state and national press – wrongly suggested that Clark wanted to withhold lunches from poor children based on test scores.


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

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

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

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

 

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

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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