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.


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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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When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.