Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

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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Charter Schools Exploit Children of Color

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Go to most impoverished black neighborhoods and you’re bound to find three things in abundance.

 

 

Liquor stores, payday lenders and charter schools.

 

 

It is no accident.

 

 

In the inner city, the underemployed compete for a shortage of minimum wage jobs, healthcare is minimal, public transportation inadequate and the schools are underfunded and short staffed.

 

 

But that doesn’t mean money isn’t being made.

 

 

In capitalist America, we make sure to turn a profit off of everything – including our peculiar institutions of racial inequality.

 

 

Businesses are on every corner, but they aren’t set up for the convenience of those living there.

 

 

Ethnic isolation – whether caused by poverty, legal coercion, safety in numbers or white flight – often puts the segregated at a disadvantage. It creates a quarantined economy set up for profiteers and carpetbaggers to get rich off the misery of the poor.

 

 

The system is set up to wring as much blood as it can from people forced to live as stones.

 

 

Families struggle to survive in a community where they are exploited by grasping landlords and greedy grocers. And the system is kept in check by law enforcement officers who are either disposed to turn the other way or so overzealous as to shoot first and ask questions later.

 

 

As W.E.B. DuBois described it nearly a century ago, “Murder sat on our doorstep, police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.”

 

 

The economy is glutted with enterprises offering cheap promises of relief but which actually reinforce the status quo.

 

Predominantly black, low-income neighborhoods are eight times more likely to have carry-out liquor stores than white or racially integrated neighborhoods, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

 

Yet in higher income black neighborhoods in the same cities, you don’t find these same liquor stores.

 

They are established in the poorest neighborhoods to offer cheap, temporary respite from the trauma of living in poverty. Yet they increase the likelihood of alcoholism, addiction and violence.

 

The same goes for payday lenders.

 

These are basically legal loan sharks who offer ready cash at exorbitant interest rates.  Typically these payday loans are meant to last the length between paychecks – approximately two weeks. However, they come with extremely high interest rates. For instance, the average $375 loan ends up costing $520 (139%) in interest.

 

These businesses aren’t located in the suburbs or wealthy parts of town. You find them typically in the inner cities and poor black neighborhoods. They promise temporary help with one-time purchases and unexpected expenses, but in truth most are used to pay for necessities like rent or food.

 

They end up trapping users in a debt spiral where they have to take out payday loans to pay off previous payday loans. This is mostly because these loans are made based on the lender’s ability to collect, not the borrower’s ability to repay while meeting other financial obligations.

 

And these are just two of the most common features of this predatory economy – capitalist enterprises designed to enrich businesses for exploiting consumers beyond their ability to cope.

 

Others include high priced but limited stock grocery markets, fast food restaurants, gun stores, inner city rental properties and charter schools.

 

That last one may seem out of place.

 

Most descriptions of urban neighborhoods neglect to mention charter schools, but in the last few decades they have become an increasingly common part of the landscape. And this is no wonder. They fit the same pattern of exploitation as the other establishments mentioned above.

 

 

Think about it: (1) charter schools disproportionately locate in poor black communities, (2) offer the promise of relief from inequality but end up recreating or worsening the same unjust circumstances and (3) they are often owned by rich white folks from outside the neighborhood who profit off the venture.

 

1) LOCATION

 

Who attends charter schools and where are they located?

 

The charter sector represents only a tiny fraction of students attending public school.

 

Of the 50.4 million students in the public school system in 2015, only about 3.2 million students were enrolled in roughly 7,000 privately-operated charter schools across the country.

 

To put that in context, that means just a little more than 6% of all public school students are enrolled in charter schools.

 

According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 26% of all charter school students are black (832,000) compared with 33% of Hispanics (1,056,000) and 32% of whites (1,024,000).

 

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Source: NCES

 

This doesn’t come close to a majority for any racial group. Consider the fact that authentic public schools enroll approximately:

 

•7 million black students (14% of the total)

 

•12 million Hispanic students (24% of the total)

 

•24 million white students (48% of the total)

 

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NOTE: These figures include charter school students. To get the totals of authentic public school students (above) I subtracted the charter students out. SOURCE: NCES

 

 

More students of all ethnicities attend authentic public schools than charter schools – by orders of magnitude. However, those that are enrolled at charter schools are not distributed evenly. Charter schools do educate a disproportionate percentage of students of color – especially among Hispanic students.

 

Why? Do black and brown families seek them out or is it just the opposite – charters seek out melanin abundant children.

 

 

Approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities, according to 2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s comparable with only 25% of authentic public schools.

 

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So like liquor stores and payday lenders, charter schools are disproportionately located in highly segregated, urban communities often with a majority black and Hispanic population. And since they are businesses (unlike their authentic public school counterparts), they literally target this demographic because it fits their profit model.

 

These are the people they think they can sell on the charter model. And they often do.

 

 

2) EXPLOITATION

 

How do charter schools disadvantage the students enrolled there?

 

Like other vulture capitalist enterprises, they exploit the students they purport to serve by convincing people of color to accept fewer services than they already get at authentic public schools.

 

Authentic public schools invariably are run by school directors elected from the community who have to make all possible decisions in public and present their records for review.

 

Charter schools are permitted to run without elected school boards. Decisions are often made by appointed bureaucrats behind closed doors. They are not required to hold public meetings or present school documents as public records. Parents have no way of having their voices heard except that they can take it or leave it.

 

Authentic public schools have to use all their funding for the benefit of the students.

 

Charter schools can cut student services and pocket the savings. This is true regardless of whether they are designated for-profit or non-profit. It’s just a matter of which loopholes you have to go through. In both circumstances there are ways for the business people running charter schools to make financial gains at the expense of the community and its children. And the result is larger class sizes, narrower curriculum, fewer field trips and extra-curricular activities – but also larger salaries and perks for administrators and investors.

 

Authentic public schools have to accept all students who live within their boundaries.

 

Charter schools are not required to accept all students who live in their coverage areas or even all who apply for enrollment. They can and often do cherry pick the easiest students to educate. The can dissuade special needs students or students with less stable families from applying by forgoing special services and/or requiring prerequisites like costly uniforms and parental voluntarism. Or they can simply choose whomever they wish from the applicant pool and claim the decision was based on a lottery that never needs to be audited for fairness.

 

Despite a lack of adequate funding and an abundance of high needs students, authentic public schools provide the best academic outcomes possible given their limitations.

 

 

Despite having every advantage, charter schools get the same or worse academic outcomes as authentic public schools.

 

Charters market themselves as providing a superior education, but this is not supported by the facts.

 

Nearly every study conducted on the matter has found that charter schools do NOT outperform authentic public schools. In fact, many charters get much worse results – especially cyber charter schools.

 

Moreover, according to the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), authentic public school students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades outperform charter school students in math, reading and science. 
In addition, no other high performing nation even has charter schools.

 

But that’s just academics. There are even clearer economic indications of how charter schools squander the tax dollars that fund them while authentic public schools are more stable and provide better value for the money.

 

Authentic public schools don’t have nearly the same amount or degree of financial scandals because they are required to be much more transparent and their budgets are subject to frequent audits. By contrast, in many cases charter schools take public tax dollars and provide literally nothing in return.

 

According to a 2015 report by Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, dozens of charter schools that have accepted federal funding closed without even opening in the first place! The federal government has spent $3.7 billion to boost the charter sector only to have these “ghost schools” pop up and spirit away our tax dollars.

 

This includes:

 

•In 2011 and 2012, the federal government gave $3.7 million in taxpayer dollars to 25 Michigan “ghost” schools that never even opened to students.

 

 

•In California, more than $4.7 million in federal taxpayer money was handed out to create charter schools that subsequently closed within a few years.

 

•In Ohio, out of the 88 schools created by planning and implementation grants under the federal “Charter School Program” (CSP) for state education agencies between 2008 and 2013, at least 15 closed within a few years; a further seven schools never even opened. These charters received more than $4 million in federal taxpayer dollars.

 

 

 

There is even more evidence that charter schools are not nearly as stable as authentic public schools.

 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in ten charter schools have closed over a three year period. That’s more than 765 charter schools that have been shuttered between 2014-15 and 2016-17.

 

This leaves thousands of families scrambling to find an education for their children.

 

Such scandals simply do not happen at authentic public schools.

 

So charter schools provide fewer services, worse results, and a greater chance of closure or wasting limited funding without even opening at all – not a good return on investment for students of color.

 

 

3) OWNERSHIP

 

And who owns and operates these charter schools?

 

There has been very little research on this topic.

 

The most detailed information I could find comes from the charter school industry, itself, specifically the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the public charter school movement.”

 

According to the NAPCS, about one-third of charter schools in 2016-17 were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools. This includes KIPP, Success Academy, Green Dot Charter Schools, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Charter Schools.

 

The remainder (57%) are owned by what they call freestanding charter schools – which just means organizations that run only one school.

 

These institutions can be run by a wide range of groups including religious organizations and local business organizations such as chambers of commerce or economic development authorities.

 

While it’s true that community groups also sometimes run charter schools, they are invariably funded by huge foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, or the Walton Family Fund – all of whom profit off the industry.

 

Are these community groups authentic representations of an abiding belief in the power of school privatization to achieve equity or are they mere fronts for the big money behind them? Even when individuals approach the matter with an open mind, is it fair to say they’ve independently reached a decision when there is a huge paycheck from a prestigious name behind one option and nothing but logic and history behind the other? Billionaires are literally paying you to favor solutions that help their bottom line. Is it any wonder some folks can’t see past all that green?

 

Even with a lack of good data, it seems clear that the overwhelming majority of the industry is owned, operated and/or supported by rich white people from outside of the black and Hispanic community.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

Charter schools are not a grassroots response to the problems of educating the urban poor.

 

They are not an authentic expression of what the majority of people of color want for their children.

 

They are a kind of “false consciousness,” an extension of the segregation economy exploiting black and brown children.

 

They are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods because operators think they can sell their educational model to people of color fed up with the inequality of their neighborhoods.

 

Yet they provide fewer services at greater cost to black communities – they convince impoverished minorities to give up the few educational guarantees they already have in favor of a worse situation. And the result is a continuation or worsening of the status quo while enriching vulture capitalists.

 

It’s a scam, a flimflam ripoff, a bamboozling hoax.

 

Like the liquor stores and payday lenders that dot the inner city landscape, charter schools are yet another way to exploit black people for the crime of putting their faith once again in capitalism to break their chains.

 

The only truly effective way to achieve equity is with collective action against white supremacy.

 

We need to tear down the systems of inequality that privilege some at the expense of others – and doing that requires a robust system of public education for all.

 

It is not only a prerequisite for social justice but it is one of the central facets of the fight, itself.

 

You can’t use capitalism – a system that relies on inequality – as a method to assure equity.

 

Justice requires fairness. And the road to fairness can only be discerned by enlightenment.

 

Education is both the path and the goal.

 

It’s passed time we stop exploiting those who wish to walk that path by convincing them to go another way.

 


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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Charter Schools Will Always Waste Money Because They Duplicate Services

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You can’t save money buying more of what you already have.

 

Constructing two fire departments serving the same community will never be as cheap as having one.

 

Empowering two police departments to patrol the same neighborhoods will never be as economical as one.

 

Building two roads parallel to each other that go to exactly the same places will never be as cost effective as one.

 

This isn’t exactly rocket science. In fact, it’s an axiom of efficiency and sound financial planning. It’s more practical and productive to create one robust service instead of two redundant ones.

 

However, when it comes to education, a lot of so-called fiscal conservatives will try to convince us that we should erect two separate school systems – a public one and a privatized one.

 

The duplicate may be a voucher system where we use public tax dollars to fund private and parochial schools. It may be charter schools where public money is used to finance systems run by private organizations. Or it may be some combination of the two.

 

But no matter what they’re suggesting, it’s a duplication of services.

 

And it’s a huge waste of money.

 

Consider the case of my home state of Pennsylvania.

 

Charter schools cost Commonwealth taxpayers more than $1.8 billion a year and take more than 25 percent of the state’s basic education funding – yet they only enroll about 6 percent of students.

 

Just imagine – 94% of Pennsylvania students lose out on opportunities because we’re allowing so much money to be siphoned off for a small fraction of students.

 

The Keystone state only has 179 charter schools enrolling 135,100 students – the sixth highest charter enrollment in the country. Of those, about a fourth are online cyber charters.

 

Is it fair to Ma and Pa Taxpayer that they are forced to bear the extra burden of reproducing these services for a handful of students?

 

And make no mistake. This is one of the leading causes of property tax increases in the state.

 

The ideology of some results in a direct hit to everyone’s pocketbooks.

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), “Charter school tuition is one of the largest areas of mandated cost growth for school districts.”

 

The report found that state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

Part of this is due to a blind, deaf and dumb state legislature that no longer does anything to help alleviate these costs to local school districts. Neighborhood schools can only try to compensate by cutting services for students where it can and raising property taxes where it can’t make ends meet.

 

More than one third of school superintendents surveyed by PASBO report a worsening financial picture in their districts—and they put the blame on charter schools.

 

“With the state providing no state support for mandatory charter school tuition costs,” the study says, “the increases in this single budget item have the potential to decimate school district budgets.”

 

Part of this is the extremely unfair way the state determines how much money to give charter schools.

 

The legislature has constructed a funding formula that gives every advantage to charter schools while short changing authentic public schools at every turn.

 

For instance, as Jeff Bryant puts it in his article “The Charter School ‘Dumpster Fire’ in Pennsylvania Provides an Important Lesson for 2020 Democratic Candidates”:

 

 

“Charter school tuition charged to Pennsylvania public schools is calculated as if charters had to provide the same services public schools have to provide, such as transportation—they don’t. Also, the tuition bill public schools pay to charters is calculated as if every student cost the same to educate—they don’t.

 

 

Instead, the state requires authentic public schools to pay charters way more than authentic public schools get to educate the children in their care – and state law even allows charter operators to pocket the savings as profit.

 

But this just pours lighter fluid on Bryant’s already raging “dumpster fire.”

 

Even if Pennsylvania was entirely equitable in how it allocated funding between these two types of school, it would still be wasting our tax dollars because it would still be engaged in duplication of services.

 

There is simply no good reason to do this. At least, not if providing the best education to students is our goal.

 

There are few places in the entire country – if any – where charter schools are able to accommodate all students. They cater to nitch markets where operators expect they can turn a profit. There are essentially no communities with a charter school and no authentic public school but many where you find just the opposite.

 

Moreover, the quality of education provided at charter schools does not live up to the hype of its advertising.

 

Except in extremely rare circumstances, charter schools have never been shown to provide better outcomes than authentic public schools. Almost every study conducted – even those funded by the school privatization industry – show that these two types of schools produce similar results or in many cases that authentic public schools are much better.

 

And this despite the fact that such studies are already stacked in charter schools favor because unlike authentic public schools, charter schools often have selective enrollment. A school that gets to cherrypick the best and brightest students has an incredible advantage over those that can’t – yet even with such an uneven starting point charter schools rarely show large academic gains.

 

For instance, a recent study of charter school students in Pennsylvania conducted by the school privatization friendly Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter students do about the same on reading exams but score worse in math than students in authentic public schools. The study also found major disparities between charter schools – with cyber charters performing especially poorly.

 

However, this study’s methodology has been called into question suggesting that even its meager praise of charter schools may be exaggerated. Yet the overall results are in-line  with previous research that also found charter schools in the state generally  produce students who aren’t as prepared as authentic public school students.

 

Pennsylvania passed its charter school law in 1997.

 

It’s way passed time for lawmakers in this state and beyond to acknowledge that was a mistake.

 

We cannot continue to force voters to pay for a supply-side ideology that not only has been disproven through decades of data but that many do not share.

 

That is why we have charter and voucher schools – a prejudice against authentic public education and desire to allow businesses to cash in on education dollars.

 

The duplication of services has nothing to do with helping students learn.

 

It’s about creating a slush fund for unscrupulous corporations and hangers on to get easy cash.

 

No true fiscal conservative can support charter schools.

 

Just as no one who values children can continue to justify this economic double vision.

 


 

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

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Don’t Worry About Grade Inflation. Worry About Grading Fairly.

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Hard work should be rewarded.

 

If you earn an A in a given class, you should get an A on your report card.

 

And this is true no matter how many of your classmates work just as hard as you do.

 

If everyone in class gives it their best shot, they should all get A’s. It is not the teacher’s job to split hairs and sort kids into arbitrary categories in order to preserve a monetary myth about grades’ value based on a model of scarcity.

 

Those who demand otherwise are under the spell of one of the oldest myths in academia – grade inflation.

 

It goes like this: You can’t give all your students excellent marks! That would devalue what it means to get an A!

 

To which I reply: Bullshit.

 

Almost every plane that leaves an airport lands safely. Does that devalue what it means to travel? When you arrive at your destination, are you upset that everyone else has arrived safely or would you feel better if some of the planes crashed?

 

According to the American Journal of Public Health, 93% of New York City restaurants earn an “A” from the health department. Does that shake your faith in the food service industry? Would you feel better if more restaurants were unsanitary? Would your food digest more efficiently if there were more people going home with stomach pain and food poisoning?

 

Of course not! In fact, these stats actually reassure us about both industries. We’re glad air travel and eating out is so safe. Why would we feel any different about academia?

 

The idea of grade inflation is a simple imposition of the concept of economic value onto learning. It has no meaning in the field of academics, psychology or ethics. It is just some fools who worship money imaging that the whole world works the same way – and if it doesn’t, it should.

 

It’s nothing new.

 

Conservatives have been whining about grade inflation for at least a century. It’s not that the quality of teachers has declined and they’re letting all their students pass without doing the work. It’s that certain types of curmudgeons want to justify their own intelligence by denying others the same privilege.

 

It’s the “I’ve Got Mine” philosophy.

 

We see the same thing with Baby Boomers who grew up in the counter culture and pushed for progressive values in their youth. Once they got everything they wanted for themselves, they became conservatives in their old age and worked to deny the same things for subsequent generations.

 

It’s the very definition of Age scoffing at Youth – a pathology that goes back at least to Hesiod if not further. (Golden age of man, my foot!)

 

Moreover, there is no authentic way to prove grade inflation is actually happening. Grades are a subjective measure of student learning. They are human beings’ attempt to gauge an invisible mental process. At best they are frail approximations of a complex neural process that is not even bounded temporally or causally. If a student doesn’t know something now, they may come to know it later even without further academic stimulus. Moreover, isolating the stimulus that produced the learning is also nearly impossible.

 

The important thing is not grade inflation. It is ensuring that grades are given fairly.

 

If students work hard, they should be rewarded.

 

I am very upfront with my students about this. And doing so seems to have a positive and motivating effect on them.

 

This year, I had students who told me they had never read a book from cover-to-cover before my class. I’ve had students look at their report cards in shock saying they’ve never received such high marks in Language Arts before. And doing so makes them want to try all the harder next year to repeat the results.

 

They leave me excited about learning. They feel empowered and ready to give academics their all. Because the greatest lesson a teacher can instill is that the student is capable of learning.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t just hand out these grades. Students have to earn them. They have to demonstrate that they have actually learned something.

 

Everyone rarely measures up to the challenge. But that’s not the point. Everyone COULD. There is nothing in my design that prohibits that outcome. I don’t start with the assumption that I’ll only have 3 A’s, 4 B’s, 10 C’s, etc.

 

In fact, it is THAT scarcity model that dumbs down academics. If I grade on a curve like that, I have to give out a certain number of high marks regardless of achievement. I’m committed to giving out those 3 A’s regardless of whether that trio of students deserve it or not. However, in my abundance model, I give exactly the number of A’s that are deserved. If that’s zero, no one gets an A. If that’s everyone, then everyone gets an A. It all depends on what students actually deserve, not some preconceived notion about how the world works.

 

To do this, I give very few tests. I just don’t find them to be very helpful assessments.

 

A test is a snapshot of student learning. It has its place, but the information it gives you is very limited.

 

 

Most of my grades are based on projects, homework, essays, class discussion, creative writing, journaling, poetry, etc. Give me a string of data points from which I can extrapolate a fair grade – not just one high stakes data point.

 

This may work to some degree because of the subject I teach. Language arts is an exceptionally subjective subject, after all. It may be more challenging to do this in math or science. However, it is certainly attainable because it is not really that hard to determine whether students have given you their best work.

 

Good teaching practices lend themselves to good assessment.

 

You get to know your students. You watch them work. You help them when they struggle. By the time they hand in their final product, you barely need to read it. You know exactly what it says because you were there for its construction.

 

For me, this doesn’t mean I have no students who fail. Almost every year I have a few who don’t achieve. This is usually because of attendance issues, lack of sleep, lack of nutrition, home issues or simple laziness.

 

I only have control over what happens in the classroom, after all. I can call home and try to work with parents, but if those parents are – themselves – absent, unavailable or unwilling to work with me, there’s little I can do.

 

And before you start on about standardized testing and the utopia of “objectivity” it can bring, let me tell you about one such student I had who was not even trying in my class.

 

He never turned in homework, never tried his best on assignments, rarely attended and sleepwalked through the year. However, he knew his only chance was the state mandated reading test – so for three days he was present and awake. The resulting test score was the only reason he moved on to the next grade.

 

Was he smart? Yes. Did he deserve to go on to the next grade not having learned the important lessons of his classmates? No. But your so-called “objective” measure valued three days of effort over 180.

 

The problem is that we are in love with certain academic myths.

 

MYTH 1: Grading must be objective.

 

WRONG! Grading will never be objective because it is done by subjective humans. These standardized tests you’re so in love with are deeply biased on economic and racial lines. Whether you pass or fail is determined by a cut score and a grading curve that changes from year-to-year making them essentially useless for comparisons and as valid assessments. They’re just a tool for big business to make money off the academic process.

 

MYTH 2: Learning is Economics.

 

WRONG! Grades are not money. They don’t function in any way like currency or capital. They aren’t something to be bought and sold. They are an approximate indication of academic success. Treating them as a commodity only degrades their value and the value of students and learning, itself.

 

Treating grades economically actually represses the desire to learn, dispels curiosity and eliminates the intrinsic value of education.

 

So go ahead – inflate the “value” of your grades.

 

Give A’s to every student who deserves it.

 

That’s how you promote learning and fairly assess it.


 

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Gamification – The Hottest New Trend to Monetize Education

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When I was a kid, Super Mario Bros. was my jam.

 

After school, I couldn’t wait to take on the role of plucky plumber Mario or his brother Luigi. I’d jump on a few turtle shells, bounce over a bottomless pit and smash just the right secret brick to get my flashing star power up and wipe the floor with endless levels of Koopa Troopas.

 

But through it all, I never really learned anything.

 

With the possible exception of a few Italian stereotypes, the only knowledge I gained was where the warp zones were, which blocks to hit and the muscle memory necessary to defeat the next bad guy.

 

However, now-a-days that’s all changed.

 

Someone in marketing and accounting has decided that the same techniques I used to save Princess Toadstool would make an exceptional method of pedagogy.

 

They call it gamification, the process of making academic lessons, courses and objectives look more like video games.

 

Sure, the process has applications in the business world and advertising, but its biggest market has been education.

 

In fact, the Gamification industry is worth $2 billion worldwide and some estimate it to jump to $22 billion by 2022.

 

Want to teach grammar? Welcome to the good ship Verb sailing on the seas of Nouns and Pronouns. Interjections, A-hoy!

 

Wish your students knew fractions? Let them blast away the wrong numbers so only the correct numerator matches with the correct denominator.

 

That kind of thing.

 

It’s incredibly popular in some circles.

 

Advocates claim it increases student engagement and enthusiasm, provides instant feedback and the opportunity for social interactions.

 

Critics say it reduces students’ attention spans, narrows the curriculum and replaces human interaction with canned interfaces.

 

But when something is bringing in this kind of cash for big business, it’s kind of beside the point whether it works or not.

 

It’s the latest form of snake oil out of the cobra factory, and your teacher may be forced to pour it into your children’s brains.

 

That’s just Education 2018. Under the old model, the hucksters would have to approach each teacher one-at-a-time and convince them to try the shinny new toy in the box. But when you remove teacher autonomy, that frees all the used car salesmen to go right to the one person in your district – often the technology coordinator or academic coach – who controls the purse strings and convince him or her to buy what they’re selling.

 

In short, I’m not a fan.

 

In fact, I think gamification is one of the dumbest fads to hit public schools since standardized testing.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

Games can have limited use in the classroom.

 

My students love reviewing already mastered material in teams or competing against each other individually.

 

But there’s a big difference between playing Jeopardy or Kahoot with soon-to-be-tested material and plopping kids on an app or software package that pretends to teach them the concept.

There’s a world of difference between a 10-minute detour and an entire curriculum structured around game theory.

 

The biggest problem seems to be this.

 

Games are not intrinsically valuable.

 

They are good or bad based on the amount of fun they provide the user.

 

Be honest. No one really cares if Link puts together the Tri-force. No one is losing any sleep over rampaging Metroids on the loose. No one is putting out an Amber Alert the next time Princess Peach is inevitably kidnapped by Bowser. The only thing that matters is if meeting these objectives and countering these fictional bad guys is fun and exciting.

 

However, the same is not true for the ends of education.

 

People care whether you can read and write. You may lose sleep over being unable to add, subtract, multiple and divide. Co-workers will be alerted if you don’t comprehend the basics of science and history.

 

And the higher the skill we’re aiming for, the greater the degree of importance.

 

Gamification divorces these two ends. It turns education from an intrinsic activity into an extrinsic one.

 

This is a big deal.

 

Students shouldn’t struggle through a reading passage so they’ll get a score or a badge. They should actually care about what they’re reading.

 

My students and I just finished reading Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and they loved it.

 

After the first few chapters, they weren’t reading for a grade or to please me, their teacher. They truly wanted to know what would happen next. And to fully understand that, they had to exercise and refine their reading skills.

 

Look at it like this.

 

When I was playing Super Mario Bros., I often took a few warp zones to the last board so I could beat Bowser quickly and win the game. But that means I skipped over most of the first seven boards.

 

This didn’t matter because the only reason to play was to win. But if those first boards had included something important to the experience, skipping them would have greatly diminished my experience.

 

Gamification reduces learning until its meaningless. Why would anyone want to know something unless it carried with it a video game like reward?

 

And that’s merely the worst part.

 

In practice, most of the applications and software being pushed on kids to increase enthusiasm and motivation aren’t really very much fun at all. After a few times through, there isn’t much reason to plow through exposition heavy content with little to do. This material doesn’t connect to students’ lives, it doesn’t foster authentic competition, it doesn’t stoke their sense of wonder – it’s just a boring set of hoops to jump through to satisfy the instructor.

 

Admittedly, it does provide instant feedback, but that doesn’t matter if students don’t care about the matter at hand.

 

Social interactions are possible here but rarely have I seen this opportunity explored. A good group project will get students more engaged socially than messaging back and forth about the software challenge du jour.

 

Education can be so much more than this.

 

Students are being robbed of authentic interactions, authentic instruction and authentic learning.

 

Not all things should be turned into a game.

 

Gamification is another example of trying too hard to market something to people who won’t actually be using it in the hopes that they won’t notice it doesn’t actually work that well.

 

The consumer isn’t the gamer – it’s the administrator who buys the program. And the people best suited to assess the program’s success – teachers and students – aren’t even part of the equation.

 

It’s about monetization, not education.

 

Mario may grab a bunch of coins on his way to save the princess, but it is the corporations who are getting rich off this sad fad.

 

All that glitters is not gold, just as all that is new and technological is not cutting edge.

 

 

Can we stop letting big business drive the field and let education be determined by educators?

 

 

Otherwise, it will be game over for an entire generation of kids duped into accepting crap for curriculum.

Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Take education.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But that’s only the half of it.

 

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

 

Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It is a symptom of our sick society.

 

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

 

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

 

That’s why standardized tests are inadequate.

 

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

 

Use the right tool for the right job.

 

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

 

If you want to understand education, call a teacher.

Study Suggests Bringing “No Excuses” Discipline Policies from Charter to Public Schools

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The teacher begins class by taking out her Glock.

 

She casually walks to the front of the room and shoots a misbehaving student in the head.

 

All the others immediately begin working on their assignment.

 

It sounds like something from a horror movie. But it’s actually not all that far away from what real researchers at the Brookings Institution and Princeton University are suggesting we do.

 

Sarah Cohodes has written a new report called “Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap” that praises “No Excuses” discipline policies at urban charter schools and suggests they be more widely implemented at traditional public schools serving the poor and students of color.

 

I wish I were kidding.

 

Let’s return to the hyperbolic situation with which I began this article.

 

The noise of a gunshot brings the principal racing to the classroom.

 

She notices the slumped bleeding body of the shot child and walks up to the teacher ready to physically disarm and arrest her. But then she notices all the rows of neatly placed desks and the children diligently doing their work.

 

She glances down at a paper here and there and notices that the children are getting most of their work correct.

 

So she turns to the teacher and says, “Carry on, Ms. C. You seem to have everything under control here.”

 

That’s perhaps the most immediate concern brought by Cohodes research – it proposes to evaluate a discipline model based solely on its academic results and completely ignores other aspects of the student experience. For instance, how does the model affect students’ social and emotional development? Is it harmful to students’ curiosity, self-motivation and psychological well-being?

 

Pardon me, but these are important issues.

 

I don’t care if my fictional teacher’s shoot first discipline policy gets students to do exceptional classwork. My daughter will not be enrolled in that class – nor do I expect anyone would want their child to learn in such an environment regardless of how well it maximized test scores.

 

Let me be clear. This is hyperbole, but with a point.

 

“No Excuses” discipline policies don’t result in any gunshot wounds or deaths (to my knowledge), but they do create environments that are not conducive to the flourishing of children.

 

 

For instance, at a New Orleans charter school, students were punished for not standing straight, not sitting up straight, for putting their heads down, for closing their eyes for too long, for not tracking speakers correctly with their eyes! Between classes students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape. And they had strict dress codes.

 

This is not school. It is prison.

 

And it’s unsurprising that these sorts of discipline policies are found at urban charter schools like the KIPP network serving mostly poor and minority students.

 

Cohodes champions them because – in her view – they get results.

 

I say that she is missing the point.

 

Her view of what is important in school is far too narrow.

 

Moreover, it’s based on a misconception of what constitutes academic success.

 

Cohodes concludes “No Excuses” policies work solely because schools with such policies tend to have students who get higher test scores.

 

This is to make a few assumptions.

 

First, it assumes that the number of students weeded out by such discipline policies isn’t significant enough to wipe out the apparent increase in scores. The punishment for breaking the rules at these schools is often detention, suspension or expulsion. Every child who is enrolled at the beginning of the year isn’t there by testing time. How do we know that the school hasn’t lost so many students who couldn’t obey the rules that they wipe out any gains in testing?

 

Second, she is assuming standardized testing provide accurate assessments of knowledge and skills. This is far from an accepted premise. These tests have repeatedly been shown to be both economically and racially biased. Cohodes is assuming that since the students scoring better on the assessments are still poor and predominantly black, what they’re being tested on is fair.

 

Standardized tests are poor assessments. Multiple choice exams do not possess the flexibility to allow for creativity and depth of knowledge. They simply expect a “standard” student to think a certain way and reward dissimilar students for conforming to that standard.

 

“No Excuses” charter schools may be better at getting different children to act and think alike, but that is not necessarily an endorsement.

 

Cohodes concludes that these gains in test scores are ultimately beneficial because they will lead to success at college. However, numerous studies have shown that charter school students end up dropping out of college at higher rates than traditional public school students. They simply haven’t learned how to motivate themselves to learn without the rigid, military structures of the charter school environment. One can imagine similar outcomes for charter students (successful charter students) who immediately enter the workforce.

 

None of these considerations make it into Cohodes research.

 

She jumps from the brilliant standardized success of “No Excuses” charter schools to the need to include these policies in traditional public schools.

 

Cohodes worries that the charter school sector can never fully compete with traditional public schools, so we need to make traditional public schools more like charter schools.

 

However, I cannot imagine many parents would jump at the chance to have their children treated like prison inmates for the chance of higher test scores.

 

Unlike charter schools, public schools have school boards. They have to make their decisions in public and are accountable to voters who can come to the public meeting, protest and even run for a seat on the board themselves.

 

In short, this is a terrible idea.

 

It is somewhat staggering that a grown adult could look exclusively at the data and come to such a conclusion without considering what it means for flesh-and-blood students.

 

Not only that, but we’re talking about predominantly black and brown students. Is it somehow more acceptable because we’re talking about turning schools serving darker skinned students into Guantanamo Bay? Would it be as acceptable for rosy cheeked affluent white kids?

 

This is what happens when you let economists set public policy.

 

It is essential that we include parents, teachers, psychologist and even students in the processes. Otherwise, we’ll continue to get heartless number crunching offered as sincere solutions to our problems.